In all honesty, this was the only run I had scheduled in my calendar for 2017 that I didn’t want to do. I have run the 50 mile version more times than I can remember and having started the 100 twice, I had finished this race once before, and I knew it was a toughy.
I had entered as my back up plan if I failed to complete the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in less than 26 hours, which is the standard set as a Western States qualifying time. The NDW100 is also a WS qualifier and any finish time counts, as long as it is under the 30 hour cut-off. Whilst 25 miles longer than Lavaredo, it is a much, much easier course and was a logical back up. Logic also dictated that my finish time at the 75 mile Lavaredo should be around the same as the NDW100, but logic also tends to go out of the window at this distance. No matter how many 100 milers people had completed when stood on the start line, none of us had completed 100 miles yet that day. And that was all that mattered.
Having completed Lavaredo 5 weeks before, in just over 27 hours I knew I would need to run to keep my Western States cumulative ticket count growing. If I qualified this year, I would have 16 tickets- qualification standard for 5 years cumulatively.
Since I started ultras back in 2012, I have finished every single race I have entered…aside from the 100 mile distance.
100’s are a whole different ballgame and as I stood on the start line at 6am last Saturday, I was conscious this was my 9th 100 mile start line and I had only reached the finish of 4 so far. Was I about to make it 5 for 9, or was the trail about to take me 4 for 9? We had 30 hours to find out.
Anyone who knows me knows that Lavaredo beat me up pretty bad. A combination of heat, altitude, extreme climbs and descents, combined with numerous water crossings left my feet a real mess. For three weeks after I couldn’t face running. But, on the flip side I knew I had some good fitness going on, I knew the NDW trail like the back of my hand and most importantly, I knew that 100’s are a mind game, as much as a physical one. I didn’t have long to prepare physically, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t arrive mentally focused and prepared for a long slog, but a long slog that resulted in a finish.
This race also came virtually a year to the day since I got some very important good news and marked an anniversary of my first year working for myself. Having just launched my own sportswear company too, as well as running my consulting business, I had a lot to feel proud of and I wanted to celebrate with doing what I do best, running long in beautiful places. It also helped knowing my wife and kids would be meeting me at halfway and that kept me focused in the first half.
As is typical for August, the day wasn’t hugely warm but it was humid. I was sweating heavily from early on and knew I needed to keep the fluids up. Knowing the first half so well, I had set myself a personal cut off of 5 hours to the 25 mile mark and 12 hours to the halfway point, leaving me 18 hours in the bank for the final 50 miles. That sounds like enough time to walk the second half, let alone run it, but believe me if you have run this trail you will know that that is nowhere near enough and you have to push constantly and run wherever possible in order to finish under 30 hours here.
The first 50 was uneventful aside from a decent thunderstorm which lasted an hour or so. Runners all around me were stopping to put on waterproofs, but my logic was that if this was before the night-leg I would have done exactly the same, but I was about 14 miles from halfway where I would be changing tops anyway, I had been dousing myself with water until this point to keep cool, so the rain was actually really welcome relief. The air temperature cooled off a bit and by not putting a jacket on it forced me to keep up a decent clip. This worked perfectly and I felt really fresh following that storm as the humidity had been building for hours. The trail became very slippy though and you could spot those who had started in road shoes a mile off. I felt for them, but it is a trail race and we knew rain was forecast, so they had made their own bed.
I arrived in Knockholt Pound at 11:45 to be greeted by my awesome kids running and screaming towards me for a huge hug. Until they realized I was soaked and both said ‘yuk’ and backed off.
We got inside the checkpoint where I changed my shirt and swapped items from my dropbag for the night leg. Solange force fed me, but my appetite was good so I threw down a bowl of pasta and took some watermelon and sweets with me so I could eat and walk for the next mile to get my legs warmed up again. I asked the kids three times what they did today, apparently, and was told repeatedly ‘Dad- we just told you that’. I was pretty tired already!
Back out the door to cuddles and kisses, I marched towards Wrotham with renewed purpose ready to deliver the kids their fifth 100 mile buckle. My legs and feet were complaining from Lavaredo, but I am experienced enough to know now that the pain at mile 50 is no worse than the pain at mile 75 or 95. This is where the brain takes over and if you let it talk you down here, you are done. But if you control it, you will win.
I felt like I moved pretty well to Wrotham and it was just turning to dusk as I got here. Tania from Runderwear was running this aid station and grabbed me my headlamp from my pack, got me a coffee and a sandwich and kicked me out the door. 40 miles to go.
The next five miles I was completely alone, which is just how I like to be in the long races. I prefer not chatting and staying focused, with quiet music on and night falling. I love nightrunning these days and find it so peaceful so made good progress as night fell and the woods came alive with the sound of owls and bats swooping all around me, feeling totally alone. It was my favourite part of the race for sure.
Having been a very muggy day, I had religiously been drinking 500ml of tailwind an hour, followed by a bottle of water and a third bottle for the longer stretches. I had been peeing and felt fine, but as I got close to mile 65 at Holly Hill, I felt the first signs of nausea. Spit built up in my mouth and I knew it was time for a system re-set. The body dictates what will happen and you just have to roll with it. Up and out everything came and over the next mile I was sick about four or five times, but felt so much better. I knew I just needed to take it steady and keep the calories coming back in slowly and gently. Again, with experience there was no panic, this was just part and parcel of running 100 milers and happens to so many people I know.
The North Downs Way is a really odd trail and I found myself taking in so much more than I had done on previous runs here. The thing I find most odd is the route takes you past what must be some of the most expensive houses in the country, but they are all down mud and gravel dirtroads. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the privacy the owners crave, but these are multi-million pound houses and I found myself thinking a lot about silly things like yes, fine if you own a 4×4 but they must have cleaners and those roads must be lethal in the winter in a normal car. This probably isn’t making anyone reading this want to run 100 milers if they haven’t before, but those who have will know the funny thoughts a wandering mind can have!
From Holly Hill I had a 10 mile slog to Bluebell Hill at mile 76 and it was at that point I had set myself my personal finish line. If I made it to BH in good time, I knew I would finish. I crossed the Medway Bridge and this was a big milestone and it was now under 30 miles to go.
The climb to the long track that leads to Bluebell Hill seemed to pass quickly and my legs still felt great on the climbs, having worked so hard on climbing in the spring in preparation for the Dolomites. The track then seems to take an age before it hits the village and there was one house where a monster of a dog was barking at me. As I got closer I could see it lunging at the wall to try and get over. This certainly put a spring in my step and my shuffle turned into probably my fastest mile of the course!
At Bluebell Hill I sat down for only the second time during the race and ate a couple of sandwiches and packed a load of fruit and sweets into a little freezer bag I carried with me. I had a coffee and looked out at the horizon where the storm had cleared into a beautiful evening. It was stunning and I once again appreciated having the health, ability and determination to be able to do these things. I mustn’t take them for granted, even when wondering what on earth I am doing at times.
Cracking on, it was 6.5 miles to Detling, the final indoor aid station and a chance for hot food before the final 18 miles to the finish. Sorry, 21 miles. Its trail racing so it’s never an exact distance, but we all knew there was an extra 3 miles and this would equate to an hour so I was carefully factoring that into my maths. I don’t run with a GPS but run by feel, so was carefully monitoring my split times between each aid station and find this is a great way of keeping the mind occupied as you plod out the miles.
Again, this was fairly uneventful, plodding along knowing that the five miles after Detling are tough, but then it is 15 fairly flat runnable miles to the finish.
At Detling I downed some soup and was ready to leave in under four minutes. There was no point resting now, I could sleep all I wanted in a few hours and I had a job to do. I had just over seven hours to cover the remaining 21 miles and for the first time I realized that this was by no means in the bag. Yes, I was functioning well enough to finish, but I had to keep up a real decent pace to do it. 3 miles an hour sounds like an absolute joke, but after 82 miles on the legs and a huge amount of climbing, descending, slipping and getting through a very overgrown trail, 3 miles an hour is then quite a lot to ask.
With adrenaline spiking and my backpack having just split with the zip coming off, but having been cobbled back together using the bungees by awesome volunteer Dave Brock, I was off and out the door. Everyone talks about Detling and I remember how much it hurt in 2014, but after Lavaredo it was just a little hill with some fiddly ups and downs on the steps. Nothing to panic about, but one to grind through as painfully slowly as it would take. I started looking at my watch incessantly and really concerned that I would miss the finish and have to find another Western States qualifier later in the autumn and abroad, as this was the last UK qualifier of the year. I couldn’t afford to do that. I had to get this done.
The sun rose as I descended the final downhill to the 15 miles of rolling track and it was the most incredible sunrise. The mist was in the valley and the sky was such a bright blue already. I again realized how lucky I am that I get to experience these things.
From here on in, it was full panic stations. I had four miles to reach the Lenham aid station and from there another 12 to the finish line. I ran and overtook more runners than I could remember. Some were limping and realized their day was done and wouldn’t make it home in time, others were trying to run but couldn’t sustain a pace and it was hard to witness. I said hello to everyone but had to remain focused on my race and unless someone was injured and needed my help, I wasn’t stopping. Thankfully no one was.
Finally, I hit Lenham with two other guys who were on the same mission as me. The three of us were not going down without a fight and it was at this point I realized how fast I had run the last section. The volunteers calmed our nerves and told us we had well over 5 hours to do the last 12 miles and whilst it still wasn’t guaranteed, bar a major mishap, I would finish in time.
I told myself to keep up the momentum for the next 8 miles to the final aid station at Dunn Street, which was mile 98 ish and then I could walk the last 4.5 miles if I wanted. Suddenly a runner came up very fast behind me and I thought it was maybe a morning jogger but then I heard my name being called. It was Christian Maleedy and never has a friendly face been a more welcome sight.
We had bumped into each other earlier the night before at mile 60 where he was waiting to pace his friend Amy, but she had sadly dropped out injured. Christian had then run through the night alone as a training run for UTMB in a few weeks and had kept an eye out for me so he could offer to pace me home. I was so happy to see him as I had entered this without a crew or pacer, but knew he would dictate a pace for now that I could follow to ensure I got home in plenty of time.
It was an awesome few hours and he was as smiley and happy as always, even having run 40+ miles himself overnight. He led the pace and I could let my brain switch off. We ran the flats and the downs and walked even the slightest incline and every step inched closer to Ashford.
As we got to Dunn Street he went in to get me a cup of tea and I carried on marching to keep the momentum up. We then sat in the shade, as the day had gotten pretty warm already, put some suncream on and prepared for the final four miles. I was almost there!
Now I knew it was doable, my pace dropped considerably and as we entered the outskirts of Ashford, runners started to stream past me. I really didn’t care and cheered them all on, including Phil Bradburn who I had stayed with the night before in Farnham (no wait, the night before the night before…man these races throw time around). Then Paolo Valente ran past me and we high-fived. This made me realise my time and progress wasn’t bad at all, as he is a way better runner than me.
The track took an age to come around and poor Christian had to encourage me along as I could literally feel the adrenaline sapping from my body and my eyes wanting to close, but then there were some floodlights. We saw the flags. We heard the cheers. I was here.
Christian left me at the gates and I ran the track alone. I thought about my finish all night and how I would scream or shout as I crossed the line, but as always I got a little self conscious at the cheers and attention and pottered over the line, mumbling “knackered” and had a hugs and high fives with Nici, Nikki, Drew, Chris and Stuart. Some of my favourite people in the world.
I had a quick photo and headed straight for the showers. Done.
28 hours and 36 minutes. 118th place of 249 starters. All I could have hoped for and more.
All year my distances have been building from Cotswold Way 50k in February, The Green Man 45 mile in March, North Downs Way 50 mile in May, Lavaredo 75 mile in June and now the NDW100 in August. Its been exactly what I needed. I haven’t exactly set any of my PB’s on fire, but I have shown myself to be strong and capable again and I can fly to Chamonix in a couple of weeks for the 55k OCC, knowing this will be a fun day out to end an awesome, awesome season.
To everyone who made this possible- thank you. The volunteers, the other crews, my family. It’s a tough, sometimes stupid sport, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.