After DNF-ing at the Thames Path 100 mile run last year due to a knee injury, I immediately decided I would try again this year. I also knew that I wanted my first 100 miler to be with Centurion Running, their professionalism and wonderful volunteers meant that despite dropping half way I had a very positive experience at the TP. After analysing what went wrong in my preparations for the TP, I decided that the North Downs Way 100 would give me a greater chance of success. I could use the spring and summer bank holidays to go for long training runs, and I could sign up for lots of ultras in May and June and use them as my long runs, instead of having to go for 8-hour long runs in the middle of winter.
Despite having spent two the last two years training for a 100 miler, I felt unprepared in the days leading up to the race. Due to living in Norway, I had only had one recce run on the actual course, and despite living in Norway, where it’s dark all winter, I had trained very little at running and navigating in the dark. My mileage also felt unimpressive, but on the other hand, I was also worried that all the pre-summer races and the extra fitness classes at work in the last few weeks had pushed me into overtraining territory. The day before the race I realised that I had failed to provide my pacer with a map, and, despite knowing it would be a hot day, I had managed to pack three pairs of long tights and no shorts. Oh well, at least that gave me an excuse to purchase yet another Skins garment.
The NDW has a very early start, so race day morning I was glad there had been the opportunity to register and go through the kit check the night before. All I had to do on race day was get up at 4 am (I hope I made enough noise to wake the people in the next room – they woke me up at 2 am), eat breakfast, put on my running gear, and get a taxi to the start. Useful tip: If you are doing the NDW in the future, make sure you book a room at one of the hotels in the town centre. Getting a taxi for 5 am from Farnham House Hotel proved both difficult and expensive.
In the briefing we were warned that it would be a hot and humid day, but when we set off at 6 am it was still rather quite cool. Should I take advantage of the lower temperatures and go faster than planned, putting as many miles behind me as possible before the heat took effect? Alternatively, should I stick to my schedule for a 22-hour finish, which I had printed and stuck in the front pocket of my pack? In the end, my GPS watch accidentally tricked me to do the former. I had set my watch (Suunto Ambit2 if you are wondering) at the least accurate GPS setting to make sure the battery would last all the way to the finish, and it took me quite a few miles to realise that it was underestimating both the mileage and pace, as it has tended to do the opposite previously. After comparing my numbers with those of the guys around me, it turned out I was going at an 8 min/mile pace, while my watch was claiming a 10.30 pace, and the schedule said 9 min miles. I decided to go by feel rather than by being a slave to my watch, and it seemed to work. At St Martha’s Church, after 12.5 miles, I was bang on schedule, despite a half-mile diversion at the very beginning of the course (which meant that the actual total distance, excluding navigational errors, was 103 miles). To the very enthusiastic cheerleader I encountered on the ascent to the church: Thank you for the cheering and the compliments. I loved your cute outfit and pom poms!
As I passed the various checkpoints I gradually eased further and further ahead of my schedule, but as long as the running felt effortless I did not worry. The thought of having some time to spare also meant I was less stressed about the navigation, though the course was so well marked with tape, paint and signs in the first 50 miles that there was little to be stressed about. I only went off course for about 5 minutes after Merstham, when I missed a sign on the opposite side of a busy road. I was also surprised at how familiar the first 30 miles of the course seemed, considering I had only run there once before, when the trail was covered with snow. Actually, as I approached half way, I thought a huge hill on my left looked really familiar, and realised that here the North Downs Way met up with the Vanguard Way, where I ran a marathon in 2013. Therefore, I had actually done two recces!
The winter recce was useful in other aspects too, e.g. if I got tired I would remind myself how muddy and slippery it had been in January and how exhausting it was to run then. Now the surface was dry and hard, and though the pace was higher, the intensity was much lower. Comparing the present sensations and feelings with previous ultra races proved useful throughout the race as a way of making sure my head was in the right place. Hot? Well, it was nowhere near as hot as the St Lary Sky Marathon this June, in which one had to deal with extreme elevation as well as the heat. Feeling slightly nauseous and struggling to eat? Well, I ran 100 km on a practically empty stomach (due to vomiting) in the Isle of Wight Challenge last year…
As I approached the 50-mile checkpoint at Knockholt Pound I felt quite good, but my feet were longing for the New Balance Fresh Foam trail shoes I had sent there in my drop bag. I had chosen to start in my Saucony Peregrines, but these would probably have been a better choice if the trail had been muddier and softer. After 50 miles on hard packed dirt and sundried clay with sharp rocks embedded, the metatarsal areas of my feet were really aching. While I was changing socks and shoes, and silently cursing my decision to put fiddly toe socks in my drop bag, a quick review revealed no major issues, just a few blue nails that had been blue since my last race.
In addition to achy feet I also had an achy knee. The pain was situated at the lateral aspect of the leg, just below the knee joint itself. It felt exactly like the injury I struggled with last year, except this time it was the right knee instead of the left. Again, I could draw on experience and remind myself that I ran 50 miles with severe knee pain on the Thames Path last year, before choosing to drop due to fear for permanent damage. I had 50 miles to go on the North Downs; I knew I was capable of getting to the finish despite pain.
After changing shoes, refilling the pockets of my pack with various foods and Torq electrolyte sachets, and downing a cola, a plate of pasta, a salt tablet, water, and a coffee, I set of again, about 40 minutes ahead of my 22-hour schedule. Throughout the day I had been told I was second lady behind Sally Ford, but as I was enjoying my coffee and nice chat with a volunteer I saw two ladies in running gear entering the aid station. I was therefore suddenly in a hurry to leave (looking at the splits afterwards I now realise those two ladies must have been pacers waiting to join their runners). I had not run very many miles before I started regretting not using the toilet before leaving Knockholt, suddenly there was a lot of liquid wanting to get out. On the other hand, it was a good thing that I actually managed to drink enough to pass water; liquid intake is usually one of my downfalls. This time I was managing to follow my nutrition plan of 200-300 Kcal and a minimum of 30g carbohydrates an hour, at least for the first half. I would eat half a Luna bar and a gel or half a packet of Clif Shot Bloks every hour (alternatively two gels, one whole packet of Shot Bloks, or one whole energy bar). In addition, I drank about a half pint of Torq energy drink an hour, and took cola, banana, watermelon and pineapple at every aid station. In the last half, I also took salt tablets when available, as the polite offers were starting to sound more like commands. Looking down on the salt stains of my tights there were no denying I had lost a lot of salt. Having added up the numbers, I’m estimating that I took in 3200 kcals and about 11 litres of fluids during the race.
After Knockholt I felt too full to eat anything for a good while. Towards the end, I started relying more and more on the aid stations instead of eating what I had brought with me. I usually fantasize about watermelon, fresh oranges and other fruit during ultras, but in this race there was no need to.
For the first 15 miles after Knockholt my knee was not too bad, and my feet felt happier after getting more cushioning. Then, as I had the CP at Holly Hill in view, it changed. As we were coming out of a wooded area the trail went downhill, and the surface became very uneven. The CP was just above the trail, and to reach it we had do to a sharp left turn and go uphill. Some movement or stress here was obviously enough to change the nature of my knee pain from a warning of a possible injury to a definite one.
The knee pain made any steps or downhill sections very painful, however on flattish sections the pain seemed to subside after a few minutes. Whether it was due to the knee pain or just general fatigue I don’t know, but for the 10-mile stretch between the aid stations at Holly Hill and Bluebell Hill I struggled. My breathing became laboured and I had to take walking breaks more and more frequently. I tried to stick to a 2-mile run, 2-minute walk rule, but must admit that the walking breaks often were a lot longer (and the running sections shorter). I think my down period here had a lot to do with the fact that after Holly Hill I had crossed over into unknown territory for my body, 66 miles was my previous longest ever distance. In a field somewhere, it suddenly occurred to me that I should let my sister/pacer know where I was and when I expected to reach the next aid stations, as she was going to join me soon. It gave me an excuse for a break, and got my phone out and texted that I was approaching Bluebell Hill and expected to be at Detling at quarter to ten in the evening. I was no longer gaining on my schedule for 22 hours but I was not losing time either.
After the little break I seemed to perk up, and the pace suddenly went down to 9 min/mile again, numbers I had not seen for a long time. However, the euphoria only lasted until Bluebell Hill, after which it became necessary to switch on my headlamp. Again, the ground was studded with sharp rocks, making me slow down to avoid falling, my knee had stiffened up while refuelling, and then my legs went on strike. I told my body “time to run”. Nothing happened. “Come on, run!” Nope. “Legs, start running!”. Still nothing. Then I was passed by another runner, Peter, suddenly my body responded again, and I managed to stalk Peter all the way to Detling.
After receiving my message about my estimated arrival times Sara had texted back “Shit! Better get a move on!”, but she had managed to be at Detling on time. We hugged, and she passed on messages from friends following the live updates, surprisingly many. I had the usual cola and fruit,and some coffee again, but turned down the offer of more pasta. By now, my stomach was feeling constantly full, and it was hard to eat.
After Detling the real challenge started. Until then it had all been sunshine, gorgeous views, sunflowers, bunnies and fox cubs. About 0.0001 of a mile after the aid station Sara’s head lamp broke, i.e. just as she was putting it on, and after an unsuccessful battery change I ended up having to give her my emergency light. Then we had to stop on the first hill, as I was feeling nauseous. A lot of walking ensued. Due to poor marking and my watch underestimating the distance by 2-3 miles, it took on the nature of a treasure hunt, where the goal was to find the aid stations hidden in the woods. In the first half of the course at all crossroads tape, paint, signs or all of the above showed the way. In the section that most runners would come along in the dark there were usually no markings at all at these points, you just had to guess at the direction and hope you found a piece of reflective tape up the road. However, after getting lost for 20-30 minutes just after Lenham we had learnt our lesson, and proceeded with extreme caution every time the markings disappeared. We were saved more than once by the appearance of crews in cars waiting for runners behind us, pointing us in the right direction. At the last aid station at Dunn Street, the lady who had been in third place, Maryann, was just leaving as we arrived, meaning that she must have passed me while we were lost. The volunteers told me to hurry up, I could catch her and hold on to second place, but my knee was so painful I couldn’t run fast enough. I didn’t care either. I was going to finish my first 100-mile race, everything else was a bonus. I admit to looking over my shoulder quite a lot at this stage. Had I seen a headlamp approaching I probably would have found an extra gear. Maybe I did not care whether I got second or third, but I definitely did not want to be pushed off the podium so near the finish line.
In the last two miles we must have crossed every single field around Wye, and I was getting quite dejected. Thankfully Sara had been familiarising herself with Wye earlier in the day, so she knew exactly where we were and how far we had left, managing to lift my mood. Then a man in a Hi-Viz vest appeared, meaning the end was near, in fact, just round the back of the community centre. Did I sprint to the line? I don’t have the foggiest, but I did get a “100 miles in a day” buckle and third place amongst the ladies, 14th overall, and my time ended up being 21 hours and 24 minutes. I was quite surprised to end up so high in the overall ranking. I was told several times during the day there were not many ahead, but I assumed that meant I was in the top 30 or so. I was actually in the top 10 for most of the day, and I beat awesome runners like Sam Robson, whose blog I have been following for a while.
I managed a big grin in my finisher photo, and then there was a finish line kit check. Big thumbs up to Centurion for doing a finish line kit check of those on the podium, one of my pet peeves in ultra running are the runners (and organisers) who neglect the compulsory kit list. Big thumbs up for Centurion for the whole event, as expected it was brilliantly organized. All aid stations were well stocked with delicious foods, and the volunteers were really caring and encouraging. Even though the navigation issues really stressed me at the time this is part of running a 100-mile race, and were soon forgotten when I had crossed the finish line.
As usual after a long, tough race, I swore I would never run this distance again. Normally it only takes a day or so to forget all the bad stuff, then you can’t wait to sign up for next year’s event, but nearly a week later I’m still unsure of my feelings towards 100-mile races. The day after, or rather later the same day, my right leg was more or less completely paralysed and just turning in bed a challenge. Now my knee is relatively comfortable at rest, but any movement is still very painful. However, I also have many great memories from the race, confirming my belief that the longer you run, the more you experience. If I don’t sign up for another 100 miler with Centurion I will definitely run their 50-mile races, maybe even go for the 50 mile grand slam. So, au revoir Centurion.