Photo Credit: Jon Lavis- Arriving at Puttenham, Mile 6. Early Days!
From mile 15 of the North Downs Way 50 on Saturday, I had Robbie Britton’s tag line from his review of Transvulcania the previous weekend stuck in my head “Well, that didn’t quite go to plan…”.
But Robbie finished and I intended to as well.
Prior to the race I had two plans in my head. The first was to run hard from the start and cling on at a pace towards the top end of comfortable as long as I could. This, for someone of my ability, is suicide in an ultramarathon- especially when the mercury was topping out at upwards of 75 degrees on some parts of the course.
The second was that if I started to feel rubbish, which was pretty much inevitable, to use the rest of the race as a training exercise for the big boys version in August, the North Downs Way 100 miler.
However, with the heat and early pace I started to feel beyond rubbish and contemplated dropping at the 24 mile aid station, at Box Hill.
I had these two plans in place for a reason. The fast goal was based on the fact that this race didn’t really matter as much as it had in previous years. It wasn’t a Western States qualifier and so if it took me over 11 hours I hadn’t lost anything if I completely blew up. I was also over exuberant following my PB at the South Downs 50 a few weeks back in 8:47. This gave me a lot of confidence but confidence can lead to arrogance and arrogance to complacency. I had forgotten how deceptively tough the North Downs Way 50 is. It is brutal and unforgiving.
The reason behind the second plan, was I was intrigued to see what sort of time I would finish in, without feeling like I was overly exerting myself. Of course the race would hurt, but by not overly exerting I mean getting to aid stations hungry instead of feeling sick, being able to jog and not crawl when I decided and most importantly, finishing the race feeling like I had the ability continue further rather than be completely broken.
In three months’ time, Knockholt Pound will be the halfway point. I have never got here before with anything left at all and if I couldn’t run fast today, I wanted to finish knowing I had life left in the legs and brain.
I arrived early to register and met a number of people I had been chatting with prior to the race including Martin Bamford who ended up running an excellent 11:11 for his debut at this distance. I also caught up with the usual suspects, Chris Mills, Eddie Sutton, Drew Sheffield, James Elson, Nici Griffin, Stuart March and Sam Robson who were all keeping the slick Centurion machine well oiled. I also had a chance to chat to Simon Edwards and Liz Grec who I am working with next weekend as we crew Sam Robson to victory in the GUCR…
As we walked down to the start I heard the dulcet tones of Nikki Mills telling me I looked resplendent in my shiny new Buff race kit. Or words to that effect. Or possibly not. She also informed me she was pretty confident I would drop at some stage today. I really appreciated these two confidence boosting messages.
As the gun went off and we started, I immediately felt pretty good (as you would expect with 0.2 miles run) and decided to up the pace. I was probably in 10th place at this point and realised very quickly I was going off way too fast, but as I planned I decided to try and sustain it. I had read recently about how often people hold back in ultras and consequently have no idea how good they can be. I had nothing to lose so I stayed with it.
After 3 miles or so I knew this was absolutely stupid, so I slowed down and found a pace that worked for me and tried to get into a rhythm. I started being passed a lot but I have got over this now, when at first it used to bother me.
I arrived at the first checkpoint in about 30th place I gather and stopped to get some of the sand out of my shoes. With it having been a very warm few days in the build up to the race, the typically hard packed paths at this time of year were sandy like they would be in late summer. In parts it felt like running on the sand dunes back in Devon and I wanted to make sure I minimised blisters as much as I could. I had a brief chat to Dennis ‘The Machine’ Cartwright, filled my bottles, had a bit of food and headed on.
As Dennis pointed out, there wasn’t much point in emptying my shoes between here and St Marthas at the 12 mile point as it is sand all the way, but it helped a little and only cost me a minute or so.
I remember picking the pace up here again and also coughing a bit, as I am still at the tail end of a cold. Again, this was another sign to slow down which I duly (stupidly) ignored. I think I knew already this was going to be a rough day and almost wanted to feel like shit so I could get used to running feeling awful, which will be so important at the 100 when this is inevitable.
At aid station 2 at Newlands Corner, Simon Edwards flew past me and commented on how I must have slowed a lot after the start I had. I think I mumbled something in reply but I was already a little fuzzy, even in these early stages.
The climb to Newlands Corner- Mile 13. Photo Credit: Jon Lavis
It was warming up and I was running with two 500ml handheld soft flasks by Salomon, secured to my hands by the Hydro Set race glove. These were absolutely excellent all the way around and meant I had no bouncing in my pack and it felt as light as a feather. I had also packed an extra 250ml ‘emergency’ soft flask for this next section and the one after, which both take around two hours each. However, about a mile out of Newlands Corner I realised I had forgotten to fill the small one and so had just 1 litre of water for the next 12 miles.
It was here I started to really think about dropping. I was being passed by loads of people and just didn’t feel like anything was clicking today. There was nothing wrong as such, I was just being bone idle and trying to justify not finishing. I was mentally writing this blog post as to why I stopped at Box Hill and how I was OK with it.
Pathetic mental weakness. I gave myself a talking to and carried on, but the thoughts remained. It was here I met the first of my three race ‘saviours’. The three people who got me to finish this race.
Christian Maleedy ran alongside me and we said hello. He mentioned he had run the 100 last August and finished just 13 minutes inside the cut off in 29:47. I thought this was exceptional to run such a calculated race and said I only wish I could execute so well in August. I explained how today was going badly after a fast start, where Christian proceeded to encourage me and use today as experience for August. No one except for me would care about my finish time and to make the most of a no-pressure race. Up until this point, I had forgotten about my second plan and was still in ‘race for the best time’ mindset. Hearing this from Christian took all the pressure off my shoulders and it really was a moment of clarity. I immediately put a time goal out of my head, slowed down and looked up at the beauty all around me, which I had largely ignored up until that point, having my own little pity party.
As I slowed to take on a gel, Christian moved off and I didn’t see him again, but I know he finished 8 minutes ahead of me- a great, calculated and steady run once again from him.
Just before Box Hill, circa Mile 23. Photo Credit: Jon Lavis
A little later, shortly before the descent through Denbies Vineyard, I met a guy called Paul Hartshorn, my second race saviour. We got chatting and he is the most laid back bloke ever. He couldn’t care less what his time was, he was just on a day out in the sun in one of the most stunning parts of the UK. I explained to him my new goals and he was completely on board, telling me I had no-one to impress but myself. Today was all about confidence building.
We ran together down to the Box Hill aid station where he planned a ten minute break ‘for lunch’, whilst I took a little longer than usual, but was out in five minutes. I ate well and took my time having made the decision that 500 yards before the aid station to slow to a walk, get my heart rate down, douse myself with my remaining water (not much!) and be in a mental space to arrive hungry and ready to eat before the monstrous next seven miles, that never ever gets easier. I did this at every aid station after and it made such a difference to take on board proper food, as opposed to just fruit or gels begrudgingly.
It was very cool to see course record holder, Ed Catmur amongst the group of amazing volunteers. It never ceases to amaze me how great the volunteers are and I know from being on their side of the table how much hard work it is, so really appreciate every single one of them.
I met my third race saviour in the next section and without her, I would for sure have become a Did Not Finish (DNF) statistic, even at my drastically slowed pace. Once again, my fuddled head had forgotten my third water flask and so I left to climb Box Hill with just a litre of water. Normally over 7 miles this would be more than enough, but today was getting hot and I was already dehydrated having run almost a marathon up until this point. Despite drinking loads of coke and water at the aid station, by the time I had gotten up Box Hill I had almost drunk one of my 500 ml flasks, meaning I had just 500ml for the next six very hilly miles. I knew from experience this would take at least another hour and a half and I simply didn’t have enough. I spotted an ice cream van, but had no cash on me so had to put it out of my mind and continue on.
I knew there was a small hamlet of houses on the edge of Betchworth we would come to before the climb to Reigate Hill and I made a plan to look for people out in their gardens and see if someone would be kind enough to fill my bottles. As I walked past every house I saw windows open but no one outside. I didn’t want to knock as felt that would be rude and must happen all the time on this trail, so just kept my eyes peeled for someone to make eye contact with and smile to. I had almost given up hope as I got to the last house before the road crossing where a woman was in her garden and cheering on runners. Before I could even say anything, she shouted to me the magic words; “Are you OK, do you need any water or food?”. It was like meeting an Angel. One of the first things I will be doing this week is finding the house on streetview and sending her a card. She literally saved my race.
Onwards I went and eventually topped out at Reigate Hill, mile 31 in around six hours I think. Considering I didn’t feel like I was running hard at all now, I was quite chuffed with this. I genuinely wanted to finish slowly so I know I can tell myself in August to keep slowing down and I will have plenty of time up on the cut-offs. Based on these six hours to date, I decided to really slow now and just enjoy the last 19 miles in some great company.
Coming into Reigate Hill: Mile 31. Photo Credit: Jon Lavis
Caterham was up next at 38 miles and these seven miles felt easy at a nice gentle jog and walk. I always forget how fiddly this section is and it took a while but was very pleasant in the sun and stunning views all around. Some of the houses I really noticed for the first time this year too- It could be re-named the North Pound Way…
At Caterham, I overheard one of the volunteers saying to another that they had expected me about an hour ago and wondered if I was OK. I wondered if this was assumption based on my Buff gear or if they had predicted arrival times based on other races, but put it out of my mind. It was nice to know I was on plan in my own head, even if not publicly. This was now all about making amends in August and qualifying for the Western States lottery again.
It was just five miles to Botley Hill now and then the seven mile home straight. I made a decision to jog to Botley Hill, nice and slow and then decide whether to walk or jog the last seven miles. At Botley Hill I realised I was there in nine hours, only half an hour slower than last year when I was really trying for my sub 11 hour time and finished in 10:12.
How on earth I was only half an hour slower in this heat and really feeling like I wasn’t pushing I had no idea, but I was just really enjoying this fascinating side of things. I was probably only 1 minute per mile slower overall than last year for the last 20 miles, but I felt so much better for it. I suppose whilst that 1 minute felt so easy, if I had flipped it on its head and tried to run 1 minute faster than last year that would have been impossible, so just a small change in pace can make a world of difference without really affecting time too much. A massive lesson for August.
I was now really plodding and didn’t even look at the watch. If my time finished with a 10 or an 11, I really didn’t mind and was finally enjoying this run. For most of the last few miles I was completely alone, but did go back and forth with two lads from Manchester for a bit. One had a blue Ultimate Direction race vest on and one a red one, so I dubbed them City and Utd. Once again we went back and forth here and I also chatted to a guy who I guess from the results is Lee Morgan who was running his first ultra. We strolled most of the last three miles and then, once we saw the Centurion finishing arch, broke into a gentle jog.
Unemotional for once, I finished in 10 hours and 34 minutes dead. I was pretty tired but very satisfied with how the day went and how sensible I was for the last 35 miles thanks to Christian, Paul and the Angel of Betchworth.
I had a bit of a chat with Chris Mills, Dennis Cartwright, Robbie Britton, Richard Ashton, Jon Fielding and Paul Navesey at the end and then caught the shuttle bus back to the start, on which I quickly passed out.
Back in Farnham, it turned out Paul Hartshorn was in the same hotel as me so we showered and met for dinner. So many great people who touched my race that day and to think it’s not even been two years since my first ultra and I have made so many good friends.
And done. Another ultra completed and I am filled with sensible confidence, not arrogance for the most important race of my life in August. I want this so bad after I dropped last year and I WILL make the Western States lottery again after I finish it. It will unquestionably be the hardest race of my life so far, but none of us do this because it is easy.
A final thanks to Buff for believing in me. It is an honour to be sponsored and not something I take lightly at all. The next race in their kit will only be a 6k. But it’s a 6k starting in a place called Squaw Valley that takes place the day before Western States, up the mountain to Escarpment. Saying I am excited is like saying Australia is quite big.