North Downs Way 100- Race Report 2014

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Yep. Back again.

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one. Several people have said they are looking forward to me writing this and I hope they aren’t disappointed as my memory of parts of this race is already blurred. I suppose running non-stop for 28 hours and 36 minutes, losing some parts of the race is inevitable.

The quick version- I finished. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t enjoyable but it was oh so worth it. I have dreamed of finishing a 100 mile race since 2011 and I was genuinely worried I just wasn’t capable, but I have completed one of the toughest ones in the UK with some of the most appalling weather so whilst I am broken as I write this, I know I will have extremely fond memories of what an achievement it was in the next few weeks and months.

I really set myself up for this one and laid out four reasons why I had to finish what I started last year. I put a huge amount of pressure on myself which certainly helped drive me through the low patches but also gave me no margin for error. I had to get this one right.

Overall, I cannot emphasise enough how much I did not run this race alone. I may have been the one who ran it, but you can’t run a 100 alone.

My folks came up on Friday morning and took care of the kids for the weekend, whilst Solange and I made our way to Farnham to register the night before and get an early night. Knowing the kids were at home and waiting for me to bring them the buckle on Sunday was a big deal for me and I knew they would have a great weekend with Mum and Dad.

Having Solange with me the night before and there at times on the day and waiting at the finish was also huge. I tend to do these races alone but she wanted to be there as a volunteer and it was so good to know she would be there at the end, whatever time I made it. I also knew she would run the kitchen at the half way aid station like a Field Marshall and I wasn’t disappointed…

After a pretty rubbish nights sleep, which I have grown begrudgingly accustomed to before a big race, I was up at 4am to get myself ready, have breakfast and mentally prepare myself for the day. We got to the start around 5:30am just in time for the race briefing as I didn’t fancy hanging around any earlier and having nervous chats. I just wanted to be alone and then start, which ended up being a theme for the day. It was not a social run for me and I was the least chatty I have ever been at a race to date.

Soon after we started I noticed a rubbing pain between my big toe and second toe and stopped to remove the tape I had used on the big toe. This was a mistake to have even taped them in the first place. Everyone knows it is stupid to do something new on race day, but I had seen the state of Jez’s feet post Western States and didn’t fancy losing any toenails myself, so opted to tape at least the big ones. But this meant the tape was rubbing on the second toe and I had a small blister between the toes on each foot. It was annoying now, but would become a real problem later. With hindsight, I should have just used bodyglide or Vaseline as normal and I wouldn’t have had any issues.

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Around Mile 13. Photo: Dave Stephenson.

I told Chris Mills, who was set to pace me from mile 50 or 60, that I should get to halfway in around 11 hours. Having run the first half four times now I know it very well and know my splits even going conservatively. Nothing of any significance happened in the first 50 and I got to halfway in exactly 11:05, bang on target. My whole focus to halfway was to keep it steady, not push whatsoever and if at any point it felt like I was exerting, to walk and start again at a slower pace. Essentially, I wanted to let my body carry me to halfway and be as fresh as possible. I spent minimal time in any of the aid stations, aside from Caterham where I was chatting to (the lovely) Gemma Bragg and (not so lovely) Bryan Webster. I think he called me some mean words and made me leave quickly which was a good thing, but only after I had the jelly and ice cream, which in previous runs I have felt too sick to even try. This was a good sign and tasted amazing. I tried to run the whole of the first half on ‘real food’ and would then rely on gels and shot bloks the second half when I couldn’t face proper food anymore. It was pretty warm, but no big deal and I found I was mostly favouring the savoury food like mini scotch eggs, peanuts and sausage rolls.

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Harnessing the angry man. Reigate Hill, Mile 31. Photo: Dave Stephenson.

As I came into halfway I got a big cheer from the people outside the village hall waiting for their runners and then headed inside to get ready for the unknown. This is where I have always finished and where I dropped last year. Having heard I was coming, Solange wouldn’t even let me in the front door in case I sat down and dropped, but I insisted I was absolutely fine and ready for a lot of food and a change of clothes. Having read lots of other blogs from last year, I knew it was sensible to take fifteen minutes here to have a bowl of pasta, soup and tea before changing my t-shirt and Buff so I was fresh and dry for the next part. I sat down and chatted to a few people, the first time I had really wanted to talk all day and before I knew it I was on the road again. I saw Pat Hall at this point who had sadly dropped, but he kindly offered to take my spare shoes to the 82 mile check point so I could change shoes in the early hours if needs be. I wasn’t ready to yet but might be later so this was a real saving grace- thanks, Pat.

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Halfway there. Distance wise, not time…

As I left the village hall I said to Solange and Nikki Mills (new best mates) that 100 yards down the road, this would be the furthest I have ever run. And I was ready for it.

And…into the unknown. I knew it was 10 miles to the next checkpoint but that the terrain would gradually get more difficult with tired legs and brain as well as genuinely being seriously tough going between miles 65 and 85. I told Chris I didn’t need pacing yet but would see him at mile 60 and someone kindly offered him a lift there. I estimated this would take me two hours at best but more like three, realistically so he was prepared for that and I wasn’t rushing. I was well up on the cut off’s at this point and wanted to keep a steady jogging pace until I could jog no more. I genuinely thought the time I had “banked” on the first half would pay huge dividends, but it didn’t quite work out like that.

This 10 mile section felt like it went on forever. Much of it was through built up areas and the pavement really started to hurt on my feet and legs compared with the trail. That said, at least it wasn’t cambered and it was pleasant to jog without having to watch my every step for a rut or rock or tree root. I jogged well here I feel and went past a few people looking like they were suffering. One of these was David Ickringill, who I am delighted to say also finished and gutted out the second half. For much of the first half, David was running with Paul Haynes but Paul had now headed forwards at his own pace but David was upbeat and plodding along.

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Logging a few miles before the lovely Kat Ganly dropped me and was 2nd female! Photo: Dave Stephenson.

Later, rather than sooner, I got to Wrotham and was greeted by the lovely Mimi Anderson and Chris, all set to pace me. It was now 42.6 miles to go and my head started to really want to focus on this distance as a whole and not the aid stations along the way as I wanted it to. The distance left was an ultra in itself and I was already tired and sore. I was so thankful to now have Chris to get me to the finish but also felt for him that he had a pretty shitty night ahead of him with Bobby Cheerful, here. I warned him of this beforehand and he pretty much said what I needed him to; “Get the fuck up, we are getting this done”.

It was only five miles to the next checkpoint, but I have no idea what happened in this section. I literally cannot remember a thing. I know we got lost at one point and I know it got dark and put our headtorches on, but aside from that I cannot remember zip. All I know is I was mixing up jogging with walking and at some point we ended up at mile 65 which is Holly Hill. I can’t tell you what the terrain was like or anything, although I guess we must have climbed a hill or two! Not a clue.

I was looking like shit at this aid station and the team there, led by Richard Goulder, got me sat down and some tea into me. I was downing tea all night and it really hit the spot. I didn’t fancy any food but knew I must eat to keep going so gagged down a cheese sandwich and some fruit, followed by a gel or two. Chris said I could have three minutes in the chair and then we were to be off. That was reasonable. It was pitch black here and the aid station was set up with Christmas lights and the team in various outfits from santa himself to elves. It really didn’t help my delirious state of mind.

On we plodded- 11 miles now to mile 76.2 and again I have little memory of this, aside from needing Vaseline for the unmentionables and getting some from a lovely crew waiting for their runner. We knew that the tail end of Hurricane Bertha was set to hit around 1am so Chris was trying to push me to get as many “quick” miles (15 min miles…) under my belt as possible before the inevitable deluge. And I think we ran this section quite well. I know we stopped a few times and I was a tad sore, but nothing outrageous yet and we just kept grinding out the miles.

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The selfless, yet relentless, Mills’sssss.

I’ve checked with Chris since, as I have no idea if my brain recalls correctly, but I’m glad he told me I didn’t really whinge (if his blog says I did, ignore that- you remember the cow and bull incident). I had no right to whinge as this was my choice to run, but in order to keep him informed I was honest whenever he asked me how I felt. Overall, it was only three things- chafing on the unmentionables, the lower part of my shins and between my toes where the bloody tape had done its worst. All of these could be managed and Chris did my thinking for me. He got me Vaseline when I needed it (but refused to apply it, the wimp), freeze spray for my shins and had the first aiders bandage my feet later in the run so I could finish. Up to this point he had plastered my feet himself, about three times I think, and let me know they truly stank. At least that helped keep him awake as well.

Just before Bluebell Hill, at 76.2 miles, the rain started to really come down. We got our jackets on and hoods up and prepared for a long trudge to the finish, but were still well inside of the cut offs. Here I was really starting to feel the pain but I also knew if I got through the next five miles to the Detling Aid Station that come hell or high water (both, incidentally) I would finish. But I was probably bugging Chris as I kept asking if we were ok for time. I kept trying to do calculations and he repeatedly told me to shut up and run and he would do the thinking.

We marched the flats, walked the ups and jogged the downs and were still churning out 15 minute miles. 4 miles an hour at this stage on this terrain was pretty good going and Chris set the tempo for me to fall in line behind. By now I was so reliant on Chris that I really needed him near me. I was completely lost and there was no way I could have followed the trail markings without him. This was my first night time section of a race and it was strange to just be following the little beam of my torch and have no bearings for what was coming next. I was also becoming increasingly less chatty, so when Chris shouted out things like “Step!” or “Branch!” as he moved ahead of me I could no longer even muster a “thanks, mate” but just a “yep”.

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I can’t tell you what this photo did for my spirits at halfway. Monty and Luena with my Mum.

At night, runners often bunch together as well. Probably mainly for security of navigation but also maybe some inner sense that being alone in the woods in a howling gale isn’t a good thing. Having become increasingly grumpy, I really struggled with other runners joining us and getting inbetween me and Chris. With hindsight this was pathetic, but at the time he was literally what felt like my lifeline and I had to see him to know I was OK. I think he understood this and whilst we didn’t try and shake off other runners, he did push them to the front or the rear so I could follow him. It was just a very raw experience, I don’t know how else to express it.

We came down off a very steep hill eventually to be greeted by a headtorch who’s owner told us we had 1.5 miles to Detling aid station. Chris was unbelievable with navigation and distance monitoring so this threw him and me as he had just told me it was less than a few hundred yards. Tiny in the real world, but this distance discrepancy was really messing with my head and I almost started crying. By this point I was like a toddler in the car, every mile asking “are we nearly there yet?”. How Chris kept his cool and didn’t deck me, I have no idea. Fortunately, Chris was right and the torch was wrong, we were at Detling. It was 3:30am and I knew I would now finish, with 8.5 hours to run just over 22 miles. Even in my state, I could do that.

This was the last indoor aid station and I was told in no uncertain terms to eat two bowls of pasta before we left. This I did, as another amazing volunteer removed my socks and tended to my feet with Vaseline. I threw the socks away at this point, got a fresh pair on but opted for the same shoes as before- my North Face Ultra Guides. I was going to change to the Hoka’s that Pat had kindly dropped off, but I knew they were crap in the mud and rain, so kept with the Guides, as they are just an excellent shoe.

From here we entered hell. This section I had a read about and thought I trained on a few weeks ago. However, it turns out I had trained on the section before this in the other direction which we had just ran (which was bad enough), so I was completely unprepared. James Elson, the RD, was at the Detling aid station and he told us just to hike this and not panic, after these five miles it was relatively easy terrain so to save my legs for the end. We budgeted two hours for these five miles and only just did it in that time. I am not going to talk about this section because if you have run it you will know and if you haven’t, you will never enter the NDW100. It was sickening.

But as the torture ended and the rain wiped away my tears, the sun started to rise at 5:30am. I had 17 ish miles to run and had six and a half hours. Here we go, this is going to happen. But I was really cold now and soaked through. My waterproof is a good one, but no waterproof can hold of the storm we had that night. I was also wet inside from sweating which was fine when jogging but when we walked I was shivering. Chris got me his waterproof trousers (I will never do a 100 miler again and not carry some of these) and gloves and I felt like a new man. He kept up the pace, we removed our torches and I trudged behind. Sometimes we would run up to a mile before I needed to stop for a walk break, but other times it must have been 200 yards. It must have been so hard for Chris, but like me running with Sam at the end of the GUCR, I knew it was indirectly rewarding at the end.

Around this time, Chris told me one of the female leaders had dropped at the 98 mile aid station. This really got to me and I became very worried about being pulled from the race myself as I was so confused by now. But he said that wouldn’t happen and just to keep moving and warm- the sunshine would do the rest.

Eventually we got to Lenham and I sat down to be greeted by the lovely Jacqui Byrne who got me tea and food and gave me some much needed words of encouragement. Never once did dropping enter my mind, but I was honest and said I felt like shit but was going to finish. As we got up to leave, my blister became agony again and so I quickly hopped in the first aiders ambulance to get my feet looked at. I wanted to finish strong and I could do it with the pain I had but much quicker if dealt with. The ambulance was so warm and cozy…I could so easily have dropped, but Chris kept looking at me and was ready to punch me in the face (as requested) if needs be. The first aider was amazing. He got both my shoes and socks off and bandaged my feet fully so I couldn’t feel a thing through my shoes. It was like running on fresh feet and so as I hobbled back into the cold, Chris and I made good time on to the final check point at mile 98.

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The aftermath. ‘More Parmesan, Sir?”

I was telling Chris I felt drunk and he said that was probably normal. I sent him ahead as we got close to the final aid station at mile 98 as I said I didn’t want to go into it. I wanted him to bring me a tea with six sugars and several cookies. This I remember clearly. As I arrived, he gave me these and we were off with a quick thanks to the volunteers.

Just four and a half miles to go and plenty of time. I got my phone out and switched it on to call Solange and let her know I would be in within an hour and a half or so. As she answered I just lost it and couldn’t stop crying, we both knew what this finish meant to me and I was about to do it. I turned the phone off and Chris asked if the wind just affected my voice. Agh, his eyes looked a little red too. He knew what we had achieved that night.

Trudge, trudge, slip, slip, “can I sit down for a minute?”, “no you fucking cant”, trudge, trudge, slip, slip and we were in Wye. As we made our way the final few hundred yards to the finish, of all the things to happen but the railway barriers came down! I had the choice of a steep looking footbridge or wait for the barriers. My look told Chris I was waiting for the barriers but I think he took the stairs and headed off to let me finish alone. Here I met Jonathan Ho and he was as broken as me. We hugged and supported each other as made our way to finish and then out ran Simon Edwards, who is just one of the nicest blokes in the world. He told me what I had done and what it meant to other people as well as me and just set me off into tears. The three of us walked up and there was the finish and there was Solange. I lost it and just bawled. I hugged everyone there, especially Chris and Sol and got my photo and the buckle.

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There she is.

Chris was the most selfless pacer and gave up 15 hours of sleep to run with me through awful weather and my mood swings, ailments and conditions. Sol and I planned before the race to give him one of my NDW50 medals as a small gesture as he ran an ultra for nothing, for me. It was so good to give this to him at the end and thank you, mate. You made my finish happen and I am forever grateful.

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100 mile buckle. 50 mile medal. We both earned them.

As for my buckle, I don’t want to let it out of my sight, it means so much to me, but it will soon be winging its way to Louisiana for a much better purpose than me keeping it. This race wasn’t for me alone, it was everything that has happened in this last year and all the people that made it possible.

I cannot thank all of the volunteers enough, the first aiders, the supporters, the other crews. These aren’t races, they aren’t even runs. Aside from the leaders, I would call these missions. And everyone helps everyone else achieve their mission, for whatever reason carried them there in the first place.

I am really quite proud to now truly call myself a centurion and an ultrarunner. If I can do this, anyone can.

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About 38 seconds after I finished.

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About fromsofatoultra

In August 2011 I heard the term 'Ultramarathon' for the first time and have been obsessed ever since. I am not a race winner but hope to inspire as I have been inspired- I am by no means a natural athlete and if I can do it, anyone can. Having completed my first ultra in August 2012 I have just got started...and I am here for the journey.
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8 Responses to North Downs Way 100- Race Report 2014

  1. Trails and Ultras says:

    Fantastic read, well done! Makes me all nervous for my first ultra in september!

  2. Gerry Dance says:

    Great blog Tim and bloomin’ well done! Glad I saw you briefly at Caterham Aid Station. Your account of the race, the pain, the emotion, even the finishing time (I did 28hrs 40mins SDW100) could have been me in my first 100! I know exactly what you went through there although I didn’t have such diabolical weather! Once again, well done indeed! You are a Centurion!

  3. ultrun says:

    Wow! Great report Tim, digging very deep!!

  4. Pompey Paul says:

    Brilliant account of a tough day/night – I am so impressed with your mind set to keep going.

  5. gembragg says:

    well done Timbo, a great read. what a journey, you did it 🙂 absolutely fantastic- its amazing how far your mind will carry you even when your body says ‘no’. enjoy the next few weeks of reflecting on your achievement and be proud 🙂 gem x

  6. gembragg says:

    welldone Timob, a great read, absolutely fantastic, you did it 🙂 It is amazing how far the mind will carry you, even when the body says ‘no’. enjoy the next few weeks of relfecting on what you have just achieved, and be proud 🙂 gem x

  7. Sam Robson says:

    Great report Tim! Congratulations again on pushing through the tough conditions and getting to the end of your first 100. You know you can do it now, so that mental barrier has been knocked down. Hope that you’re all recovered now and looking forward to December!

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