If I count my failed attempt at the North Downs Way 100 last August, this will be the fourth time I have lined up in Farnham to run to Knockholt Pound along 50 miles of the beautiful North Downs Way national trail.
This is where ultrarunning began for me back in August 2012 when I first started (and finished) an ultramarathon, so it is a special race for me and one I am extremely excited to be taking part in once again.
The last two years I have run this as my Western States qualifying race, but now the rules have been changed so that 50 mile races do not qualify, this means for the first time I am running this without the self-imposed pressure I have felt in the last two attempts.
Whilst this is pleasant in a way (barring the fact I have one shot to qualify later this year at the 100 mile version), I am going to be looking for a personal best on this course. By not having the 11 hour window hanging over me, it gives me chance to push myself like I did at the South Downs 50 a few weeks back without worrying if I crash and burn later in the race and have to limp home.
Having now run both the SDW50 and NDW50 courses, for me, I would categorically say that the North Downs is harder. In addition to the terrain, whilst I don’t wear a Garmin or similar measuring device I understand from those that do that the South Downs course is around two miles short and the North Downs course around two miles long. Or “bonus miles- hey, we don’t charge extra for those…” in the words of RD, James Elson.
So forgetting terrain, those three to four miles extra distance in practicality could be an extra hour out on the course. But, I also find the terrain harder too with the South Downs being rolling and the North Downs, rhythm breaking and jarring. On the flip side, I actually find the North Downs more stunning, but many would argue with me on that.
Running my 8:47 at the South Downs in zero drop shoes beat me up a little more than it should have done. Throw in two little monkeys with chicken pox since, a small chest infection myself and a lack of great training runs I don’t feel I have a chance of equalling this on a harder and longer course, even with the benefit of course knowledge. However, I am feeling pretty good and rested and will be pushing to take at least an hour off last years 10:12 and ideally have my time starting with an 8 or at least sub 9:30.
As we stand, the weather is looking pretty good for next weekend and that will play a good part in the day too, but it can quickly change on the Downs.
I am also trying to get used to running with handheld bottles as opposed to having them on my pack and I feel this has improved my form and times on training runs, but who knows. The main reason for this is so I am practiced for when I crew and hopefully pace Jez for some of Western States in six weeks. I don’t want to run carrying a pack in 100 degree heat and even with 80 odd miles on his legs, I will need to be pretty damn quick to keep up. He may decide to run without a pacer towards the end, but if he does want me to run with him on the day, I need to be prepared.
As the NDW50 was my first ultra, it has been great seeing how many people are using this as their first ever Ultra this year and I have really enjoyed chatting with people and trying to help based on my experiences over the last few years. It may not be mountainous, but I would say this is the hardest 50 in the South of England and it’s going to be another great Centurion event.