This winter and spring I have been trying to reach the qualifying distance for the 24h running world championships. My personal best is 218,5 km from Bislett in 2017, set when I was having a really bad day. The qualifying distance is 220km. On a good day it should be doable, right?
How do you train for 24 hours of non stop running on an athletics track? The reason I was wondering about this is that my A-races for 2019 are all 24 hour races. I have run such races before, but have used my 100 mile training and races to prepare for them, with mixed results. (218,5 km in 2017, and a DNF after 18 hours and 100 miles in 2018) This time I want to do as well as I possibly can, and therefore cancelled other planned races to focus 100 % on reaching my goal of 220 km in 24 hours. But how?
Klokka 10.30 i formiddag, når jeg satt på bussen ut til Sola, ble det plutselig helt mørkt ute, og regnet begynte å hølje ned. Jeg hadde egentlig gledet meg til å starte årets sesong med å løpe Solastranden halvmaraton for 7. gang, men nå begynte jeg å lure på om ikke en treningsøkt på tredemølla hadde vært å foretrekke.
In October whenever someone asked me how my training was going my answer was that I was not doing any training. If asked what races I have got planned for 2019, my answer was… That’s right; no plans for 2019 yet.
At first this was just how it should be. I had penciled in a break from running after the A100 to rest properly after this year’s races, recharge my batteries and decide on next year’s goals.
I had a suspicion this race would be tough, having had only three weeks to recover after my collapse at the Tooting Bec 24 hour race. I expected I would have to walk most of it and probably settle for a much slower time than usual. Tough it was, though not in the way I had anticipated.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine had a rant on his blog about people referring to ultra running as madness. He argued that what is truly mad is to be inactive, with the plethora of health problems this produces. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. However, if insanity really is repeating the same action over and over again, but expecting a different outcome (it isn’t), as Einstein allegedly said (he probably didn’t), then maybe my approach to running 24 hour races can be defined as insane. Les videre →
The fact that it was on the North Downs Way 100 I earned my very first finisher buckle means that this race will always hold a special place in my heart. I was therefore delighted when I recovered from the the Western States 100 in June a lot quicker than expected and could take part in this years edition, which was three weeks ago on August 4th.
Sara, my sister, usually comes with me to my 100 mile races, and paces me in the last 20-30 miles. However this year she has been a magnet for bugs and viruses which has interrupted her training, and I sensed that she was a little reluctant with regards to pacing duties. I therefore posted in the Centurion Community facebook group, asking if there was anyone who wasn’t racing themselves who would be interested in pacing. The response was overwhelming, I thought I would have to have some sort of try outs or auditions to select one. In the end I decided to use pacers for the whole of the second half of the race, something I have never done before. Rafal Tkaczyk was to run with me from Knockholt Pound after 50 miles, then Stephen Mitchell was to take over from Ranscombe Farm Reserve at mile 70, and finally I would meet up with Ian Hammett at Detling for the final 20 miles. I already knew all these guys, and was confident both that I would have a good time running with them, and that they could push me to do my very best. In fact, I wanted to try to set a new female course record of 18.00 hours.
When the race was a about a week away I suddenly realized that both the UK and Norway was in the midst of a heat wave. Having worked all summer I had not really noticed. I just had to hope that a few last minute sauna sessions would get me ready for the heat, and cross my fingers that the effects of the heat training before the WSER still lingered. This also meant that the goal I had set would maybe prove to be unrealistic, however I had a goal B,C and D.
As usual when I’m racing abroad I travelled over a couple of days before, leaving me a buffer in case of delays, and allowing me to focus on relaxing and fuelling. Fuelling turned out to be even easier than usual in Farnham as our favourite hang out from last year, Krema, had added a vegan marzipan and cherry cake to their menu, and just a few doors away there is now a fully vegan cafe, Okomoko.
Since Sara had less to do during the race than usual I had asked her to help me with my pre-race prep. We went through my nutrition plan for the race Friday morning, which relied heavily on vegan cake at various aid stations, baked by the lovely volunteers. After the half way mark I would fuel mainly with smoothies brought to me by my pacers, which I had double checked was within the rules. I would send out soya strawberry milk and chocolate pudding in the drop bags, and miso soup and mint cakes in case of stomach issues. Energy bars and similar were thrown out, as I usually don’t eat them any way.
My plan was to pack all my bags Friday afternoon, before we went to eat and register. This should allow me to relax for an hour or two before getting to bed early. You would think I would be fairly efficient at this stuff by now, but fast forward to ten o’clock at night, and my bed was covered with stuff, sweat was pouring down my back, I couldn’t remember what was going in which drop bag, and I was panicking as I couldn’t find various items – because I had already packed them. I had brought two race vests with me, but ended up buying a brand new one at registration, after discovering that one was too small for all the gear, and that the other was simply worn out, so I was packing for the third time.
I was still feeling stressed out when I went to bed, worried about oversleeping and missing the start, and, as it had been the hottest day of the year our non-air conditioned hotel room was like an oven. The heat didn’t seem to interfere with Sara’s sleep though, which annoyed me. As it turned out I needn’t have worried about oversleeping as I did not sleep at all.
Standing on the start line a few minutes before 6 am I felt surprisingly good. Race director James Elson did a very short briefing, warning about the heat and urging us to take it easy and conserve energy for the second half of the course. My plan was to push the pace a little in the first few hours, while the temperature was still relatively comfortable, slow down in the middle of the day, and then increase the speed again as the temperature dropped. However, I did make one concession to the heat by walking every single hill from the start, I have previously run up the hills in the first 10 miles.
I often run past the first aid station in a 100 mile race, but when arriving at Puttenham at 6,8 miles I already needed to top up my water bottles. I surveyed the foods on offer, but as it was only fruit and non vegan items I decided to continue with gels and dates I had brought with me until the next one.
St Martha’s church at 12,5 miles is one of the highlights for me. It’s the first big climb, but you also get nice runnable downhill section, which, untypically for the NDW, has no steps, stiles, or gates to negotiate halfway down. At the top of the hill I also met a cheerleader with pompoms, just like back in 2015, and she confirmed she was the same one. Thank you for cheering!
Just after St Martha’s was another climb, fantastic views, and then, after literally crawling through a huge thicket of bramble bushes, me and another runner arrived hot, bloodied and dishevelled at aid station 2, Newlands Corner at mile 14,7. The first thing I did was to head for a bucket with ice water and sponges and make sure my clothes were soaked through. We had really worked for the goodies on offer, so I decided to dig in. I had some coke, watermelon and banana, and then grabbed a peanut butter and jam sandwich to go.
The next section seemed to go on for ever. I was convinced that Box Hill and the next aid station was around mile 20, just after running through a vineyard, but the trail just kept going and going. That’s because Box Hill is located at mile 25. People familiar with the North Downs Way might find my eagerness to get to Box Hill strange, as it marks the start of maybe the toughest part of the course with two of the steepest and longest climbs in quick succession, as well as the infamous Box Hill steps. But it has also got the best views, and just before you start climbing there are the stepping stones across the river.The main reason I was keen to get there, however, was that I had been so conscientious with my fuelling that I had nearly run out of everything, and I knew that there would be vegan brownies at that aid station. I had two pieces, some coke, topped up my bottles, pocketed a gel, and over the river and up the steps I went. Sadly, I arrived at the stepping stones before Stuart March, the race photographer, so despite running the NDW100 three times now there still isn’t a photo of me on these stones.
I was prepared for the the pace to drop between Box Hill and Reigate, however, I have never struggled as much here as I did this year. I didn’t cramp, there was no burning in my calves or quads, no aching in my hamstrings or glutes, it was just as if I became drained of energy every time I had to climb a hill. Indeed, the climbs felt even tougher than those in the WSER! Arriving at the Reigate Hill aid station I was hot and probably red faced, so again I headed straight for the bucket with ice water and sponges before hitting the buffet. Ian, who was going to pace me later, was aid station captain here. (He was also going to help out at the finish after pacing me, so he had a very busy weekend.) He had at my request made avocado wraps. Due to the heat I just wanted watermelon and coke, but since Ian had slaved away in the kitchen for me I felt obliged to have a few pieces. Besides, real food should decrease the risk of stomach problems. The wraps didn’t go down very easily, but I hoped that was just because my mouth and throat was a little dry.
It wasn’t… Running downhill just after the aid station I could feel my stomach convulsing, however I decided I would not give in easily, so I ended up having what I would call a minipuke. I didn’t even stop running, I just turned my head to avoid splashing my shoes and regurgitated one of the wraps and some watermelon into the bushes. I have never started vomiting that early in a race before. After the WSER I had concluded that eating too little in the second quarter was to blame. This time this was definitely not the cause as I had eaten like a champion in an effort to avoid another pukefest. Luckily, most of what I had just eaten seemed to stay down, I did not feel unwell or nauseous, and I managed to eat and keep down a gel about 10 minutes later. Maybe I had eaten too much at Reigate, combined with running fast downhill just after?
I had left Reigate, at mile 32, at almost exactly 5 hours of race time. If I could cover the next 18 miles in three hours I would arrive at the halfway point after 8 hours, just a few minutes behind my original schedule. It thought it would be doable as the worst climbs were now over and done with, and as I had covered 6,3-6,5 miles per hour in the first 3 hours of the race. However, whenever I looked at my watch it told me that I was running slower than I thought I was. It was now noticeably hotter, both because it was later in the day, and because the trail now was going along or across open fields, and therefore there was much less tree cover and shade than before. I kept an eye on my heart rate, but I needn’t have worried, it seemed as if I didn’t have the energy to run fast enough for it to get very high.
Arriving at the Botley Hill aid station at mile 42 I felt hot and low in energy, but otherwise ok. I had some watermelon and coke, and was delighted to discover vegan brownies that I hadn’t known would be there. A lot of the volunteers had posted about their cakemaking in the Centurion Community group on facebook, but I hadn’t seen any posts about this aid station. It was very nice brownies too, made with grated squash, which makes cakes extra moist and easy to gobble up during ultra races. (Just a little tip in case you need to bake cakes for ultra races in the future). I was having a lovely post cake chat with Cat Simpson when suddenly my stomach decided to try to turn itself inside out. Luckily I realized what was happening about two seconds before and thus avoided splashing Cat’s shoes. This time it was no minipuke, it was a proper purging of all stomach contents. The brownie was still in a square piece when it came back up again (TMI?).
While continuing towards Knockholt Pound after some watered out coke I was fantasising about there being a huge paddling pool there. I was envisioning myself and other runners wallowing in it while the volunteers served us cold drinks. Getting to Knockholt seemed to take forever, an the GPS on my watch was playing tricks on me. The aid station was supposed to be at exactly 50 miles, but at 49 miles I was still in the middle of a field with no sign of houses or village halls. This was also the situation at mile 50 and 51. I was 10 minutes behind schedule, then 20, then 30, then 40, before finally I saw the Centurion flags and Rafa waiting for me.Afterwards I have realized that actually I was just a few minutes behind my splits from last year, and more or less exactly matching Debbie Martin-Consani’s half way split from when she set the course record in 2016. However, as Debbie had run the last half very fast, my opinion was that to break her record I needed to be considerably faster in the first half than she was, to allow for the usual slowing own in the second half.
Going inside the aid station I was wondering about what to eat. My original plan had been to have several slices of ginger cake, and maybe a coffee. However, since Botley Hill I had only managed a few sips of energy drink, and didn’t feel like anything solid. I had a popsicle, some coke, a carton of soya strawberry milk, got the volunteers to stuff my bra and buff with ice cubes, and changed socks and reapplied sun screen while I pondered what to eat. I decided to go with a semi liquid strategy – chocolate pudding. Rafa didn’t approve and kept handing me slices of cake as he wanted me to eat something solid, and I finally gave in. It was delicious, with proper frosting on it too.
I felt like my brain was working really slowly, it took me forever to get my stuff out of the drop bag and decide what to eat and drink. Rafa was impatient and kept saying we needed to get going. One of the tasks I had given my pacers was to make sure I didn’t waste time at aid stations, so he was doing exactly what I had asked, and he was right. While I was faffing about Ingrid Lid, another Norwegian, and Laura Swanton, who was 3rd last year, and who has podium finishes from both the Thames Path and South Downs Way this year, arrived, so the whole women’s top three was sitting side by side. I had had a hunch that Laura wasn’t far behind as I kept meeting her boyfriend Jean at every crew access point.
Rafa and I left Knockholt before Ingrid and Laura, so I was still in the lead. Rafa kept looking over his shoulder, urging me to run every time I wanted to take a walking break and to keep drinking the 50/50 coke and water mixture I had put in one of my bottles. He was also very conscientious about closing gates, which I suspect was more due to a desire to delay Ingrid and Laura than a concern for any livestock escaping from the fields. After about 5 miles we were caught by another runner, and I wasn’t very surprised to see that it was Ingrid. I had suspected she would be strong in the second half as she had a very strong finish at Bislett 24 hours last year. I had also heard her say that she wasn’t bothered by the heat, which by now was 30+ degrees, as it had been really hot all summer where she lived. Rafa kept pushing the pace, keen on keeping the gap between me and Ingrid as small as possible. He was obviously more bothered about being caught than I was. I think I had given up on my A goal by then and moved on to goal B, which for me was a sub 20 finish. My pacers had probably also realized that a course record was out of reach, but I think their B goal was different from mine, their B goal was winning.
Rafa’s pushing worked, we arrived at the Wrotham aid station at mile 60 just 30 seconds after Ingrid. After Knockholt we had developed a routine where Rafa at regular intervals would exclaim «drink!», «electrolytes!» or «gel!». At first I resisted, as he started about 10 minute after Knockholt and I thought I had taken onboard enough fluids and calories to last a while, but then I started to take a sip of energy drink or pop an s-cap or a gel whenever I was told. However, I had not eaten anything solid since Knockholt, so Rafa insisted that I should have something from the buffet. I reluctantly picked up a wrap with strawberry jam, but as I had a premonition it would not go down well I went outside the cricket club house, where the aid station was, to eat it. My premonition was spot on, the wrap came back up immediately. As I was bent over double on the steps I heard a voice that I recognized ask me if I wanted someone to wet my buff and and put it on my neck. It was one of the volunteers from the aid station at Reading during this year’s Thames Path, where I spent a long time battling with stomach issues before dropping just a few miles later, so she knew exactly what to do. I decided it was time to implement a fluids only strategy, so I asked Rafa for the bottle of smoothie he was carrying and managed to drink most of it. Before we left the aid station I had a couple of the volunteers pour water over me to cool me down.
The smoothie stayed down, and once we got going again I was running quite well for several miles at a time. We also chatted more and more, covering topics like races past and present, our pets and their unique personalities, favourite smoothie flavours (Rafa had obviously done his homework, this was on the list of suggested topics that I had sent out a couple of days before), and how many times I had had a wee that day and why it was good I had to have a wee really often. For the record, that last topic was brought up by me, it wasn’t Rafa who insisted on knowing. I also insisted on giving these stats to Stephen and Ian when they were running with me.
It was really nice to have someone to chat with as I had been running on my own for most of the day. It therefore had nothing to do with being sick of Rafa’s company when I some time later started wondering out loud where Stephen was. We were going to meet him at the crew access point at Ranscombe Farm Reserve after 70,2 miles, our watches said we had covered more than 20 miles since leaving Knockholt, and we had long since passed a sign welcoming us to Ranscombe Farm Reserve. We were also 1,5 hours behind my original schedule. Rafa was worried that we had missed each other, but I remembered that crew access point was just off a major road, and we had definitely not missed that. It turned out that either our watches or the Centurion website showed the wrong mileage, because we finally found Stephen and lots of crews in a parking lot. Stephen had ice cold water, watermelon and a strong smoothie game. I emptied my bottles and refilled them with some of the water, poured the rest of it over my head, rejected the watermelon, and chose a smoothie with coconut milk and soya protein. Before leaving Rafa I asked him to message Ian and ask him to buy me some ice cold drinks and have them ready for me at Detling. Anything but coke, as I was sick of that flavour by then.
Upon hearing that I had been vomiting and was now starting to feel nauseous Stephen stuffed his pockets with peppermint candy and allowed me to walk for a couple of minutes. The first few miles we shared are probably the least scenic along the route, following major roads, then the gigantic Medway Bridge, and then roads again until Nashenden Farm. I struggled a little with navigation here last year, but this year I remembered where to turn off. One of the reasons why I wanted to use pacers was to make sure I didn’t get lost, but either Centurion used more marking tape than usual this year, or I actually remembered the course this time. I now even know which hill Phil Bradburn is referring to when he talks about the nasty hill starting near a petrol station, and I know why I haven’t remembered it before. It’s not that nasty Phil, it is actually quite small and forgettable. Stephen also had impressive recall of the trail from recceing and running it a couple of years ago. Even if I hadn’t remembered anything or if there had been markers missing I’m sure he would have gotten me to Detling without a single bonus meter.
Stephen kept giving me mints to keep my energy up. They took quite a long time to dissolve, so after a while I started turning down his offers of more mints as I started to feel like a hamster, and because I wanted to try and eat something at Bluebell Hill aid station. Upon arriving there I sat down on the grass and admired the view while Stephen tried to find me something to eat. I rejected most of the things on offer, but I heard the words «iced coffee» my ears pricked up. They only had regular milk, but offered to make me a cold black coffee with sugar in it. I had some fruit along with the coffee, and then I vomited violently in the bushes just as Jean arrived. He probably told Laura that I was really sick, because she later said she didn’t understand how I could continue to run as fast as I did when being unwell.
I did run well – when I did run. My legs felt good, and I felt just as tired and hot if I took a walking break as I did when I was running, so there really was no point in walking. I just forgot this every time I walked up a hill or stopped at an aid station, so it was always a mental battle to get back to running again.
It was nearing sunset and getting dark, especially when the trail went through wooded sections. Coming to the last downhill leading down to Detling it was almost completely dark, but I didn’t bother with my headtorch, I just went flying past Stephen and ran down it as fast as I could. The ground was quite uneven and rocky, and I was crossing my fingers I wouldn’t stumble. Behind me Stephen was struggling to keep up, and I felt a bit bad as he had several ankle injuries last year and was worried about twisting his ankle again. However, he managed to hang on and we were both unharmed when we arrived Detling.
Inside Detling village hall someone had located the switch to the disco ball and put on some music, but all i wanted to do was lie down on the floor for a few minutes. Despite running well just moments before it was as if someone flipped a switch when I stopped, and I suddenly had no energy again. I was not the only one feeling crap, Norbert Mihalik, last year’s male winner was sitting on a chair and declared that he would not go on.
After a few minutes I started to feel ready to leave. Since I had spent hours fantasising about cold non-coke drinks, and sent Ian out to get them for me, I felt I should at least drink one of them. So I had a ginger ale, and then promptly vomited it back up again on the pavement outside.
The hill after Detling was just as bad, if not worse, as I remembered it. Last year I got dizzy spells climbing it, this year I had to stop several times to catch my breath. Several times I was tricked into believing that we were done with the climbing as we came to a short downhill section, only for the trail to suddenly go uphill again. The downhill bits were also tricky as there not only were steps to negotiate in the dark, but steps that were completely hidden by shrubs and low hanging branches. Finally both the uphills and steps were done with, and we ran through a field full of cows with big horns. They might have been bulls – it was dark. Poor beasts, it must have been so annoying for them when 200 runners went past them in the middle of the night shining their headtorches into their eyes.
In one of the fields after Detling Ian was telling me to turn right and remarking that it was easy to run the wrong way here just as we saw a headtorch in front of us. It was Ingrid who had missed the turn. For a couple of minutes we ran together as a trio, then Ian suggested we drop back and let Ingrid pull away instead of us navigating and setting the pace for her. I suggested a smoothie break which lead to a vomit break shortly after, as I gulped down too much at once. When we got going again a very powerful headtorch suddenly appeared behind us. Laura? It turned out to be Mihalik, who hadn’t dropped out after all. We arrived at the Lenham aid station together, exactly one minute after Ingrid. Mihalik was feeling rough again, so Ian gave him a pep talk while I was eating melon and drinking coke.
Just after leaving the aid station Ian discovered he had left his bottle, so he told me to go ahead while he ran back to retrieve it. I vomited in the bushes instead. A little later I had to vomit again, and this time the liquid coming up was bright red. Some s-caps that I had taken around halfway also reappeared, still completely intact. Ian asked, a bit hopeful, if the red stuff could be watermelon, but we both could see it wasn’t.
I had hoped that my stomach issues would resolve and that I would get a second wind in the last 10 miles, but after vomiting blood that extra gear that I sometimes find towards the end of a race just wasn’t there. I was still running quite well, and we nearly caught Ingrid several times, but my body kept flipping the switch, shutting down energy production temporarily. I kept sipping orange squash which Ian had found for me at Lenham, and taking short walking breaks until I could muster the energy for another short burst of running. Ian was really good at positive reinforcement, telling me I was doing great, that when we were running the pace was really good. Sometimes he just reminded me to breathe, and that I now needed to keep running to keep warm as the temperature was dropping and my clothes were still wet.
When we were running we also chatted a lot, which helped me keep going for longer. I think I have nearly been persuaded me to put Spartathlon in my race calendar for next year, despite it being a hot race. We completely forgot to discuss our favourite cakes though, one of my suggestions for topics as I had deduced from Ian’s Instagram feed that he is a bit of a cake monster.
The last aid station, Dunn Street, seemed a long way away, but we finally got there. It’s situated a little way off the NDW, down a dark country lane with speed bumps. I discovered the speed bumps by tripping over one and falling flat on my face, which I had also done on the trail just before. When we got to the final road section after what seemed like very many very slow miles Ian therefore made sure he ran in front and gave a running commentary on every bump and kerb. If I had been blind I would still probably have found my way to the finish without tripping over, such was his level of detail. Just like last year this section seemed to go on forever. My watch showed several miles too much, despite the fact that I had not gotten lost once or taken a single wrong turn. Actually, according to Ian we did run on the wrong side of a fence once for a couple of meters, but I spotted it and got us back on the trail.
We didn’t catch Ingrid like we had planned, and I also wondered if my B goal was slipping away as race time had passed 19,5 hours. I asked Ian if a sub 20 still was possible. Sure, he said and speeded up a little. After 102,6 miles all that was left was 0,2 miles on the athletics track at Julie Rose Stadium in Ashford. Ian told me to run as if I was trying to set a Norwegian 200m record, and I did. Not set a record, but I did do a proper sprint to the finish as I was still worried about missing the 20 hour mark. It turned out I had a little bit of time to spare, as I crossed the line in 19 hours 48 minutes. I was 9 minutes behind Ingrid, who ensured another Centurion trophy found it’s way to Norway, and 3 minutes behind Mihalik. My overall placement was 8th, same as last year. Actually, Laura became 3rd female and 9th overall, while Ingrid was 6th overall, which meant all top 3 women were in the overall top 10. I might be wrong, but I think that is the first time that has happened in a Centurion 100 mile event.
After having my finish line photos taken by Stuart March and doing my usual post 100 mile puke in a bin bag I went to get showered. As I sat down on a bench in the changing room a couple of ants crawled out of my shorts. They had probably been there since Bluebell Hill. Stephen had said to me I shouldn’t be sitting on the grass, and he was right.
I just missed seeing Laura cross the finish line about an hour after me, as I had asked Sara to phone for a taxi to take us to our hotel, and it appeared a few minutes before her. After a few hours of sleep I was back again though, retrieving my final drop bag and catching up with Ingrid and Neil Dryland, who had finished just outside 24 hours. I had also hoped to catch Tone, another Norwegian who I had helped train and prepare for the race. I knew she had finished, and I heard rumours of massive blisters on her feet, but didn’t see her. I did get a short chat with Tim Lambert, but not the long WSER discussion we had planned, and I spoke with several who, like me, have signed up for the Arc of Attrition next year. We all agreed that proper winter weather was something to look forward to after the heat of the NDW. Ian was still going strong, having reported for finish line duties just a few minutes after pacing me to the finish. He had volunteered to help from 2 am, which had been extra motivation for pushing the pace.
Just after the race I was happy just to have finished, but a little later some disappointment at not having managed to catch Ingrid set in. However, you can’t really be unhappy with a sub 20 finish in a 100 mile race, or being 2nd female after battling stomach issues for most of the day, can you? My main motivation for returning this year was also just to enjoy the day and the course, which I did. Centurion races are always well organized, the aid stations always fantastic, and it’s so nice to see so many runners and volunteers return for race after race. The best thing about this year’s NDW100 though, was running with Rafa, Stephen and Ian. They were just so helpful, supportive and positive. I could not have had a better team. Thank you guys! And thank you Sara, for always coming with me and supporting me. When you run your first 100 miler I will be there, giving you whatever support you need.
PS! A big thanks to my sponsor, Hoka OneOne Norway, too. The Challenger ATRs were perfect for the course and conditions.