This was 100 mile race number 3 in the last 4 months. This year’s NDW had it all, fantastic views, technical trails, roads, stepping stones, fields, hills, flats, sunshine, rain, thunder, high points, low points, old friends, new friends, facebook friends who became real life friends, lots of sweat, blood, 3 extra miles (the NDW100 is actually 102,9 miles long), and, as usual, quite a lot of vomit.
As usual when racing away from home I arrived of days before. I have learnt from past mistakes that it is always a good idea to have a buffer in case of delays, or in case you need to go panic shopping for mandatory kit or essential running gear that you have left at home. I was a little concerned that I had managed to do this again when I showed up to the airport bus wearing different shoes on my right and left foot, but fortunately had been more alert when packing the night before, therefore I only needed a couple of energy bars and spare batteries for the head torch. This left plenty of time for shopping merely for pleasure, fuelling up, and relaxing. The running shop in Farnham town centre looks crap from the outside but has a fantastic selection and very knowledgeable staff, and it’s always easy to get rid of some hard earned cash in Sweaty Betty.
The night before the race we (my sister Sara had as usual come along as my crew/pacer) had a little Vegan Runners meet up in the Pizza Express with Sarah Cameron, who we met in France two years ago in connection with a vertical kilometer race, and who was tipped for the podium in the race preview (as was I), Flavien, who got me into running 100 milers when he «tricked» me into signing up for the Thames Path 100 in 2014, Goska, who was running her first 100 miler, and her crew which included Jana, who I have been friends with on Facebook for several years but had never met before. We had a great time talking about races, shoes and food, but since we all had a very early start we could not stay long.
Both the SDW and the NDW races starts at 6 am – too early for my liking, but unlike with the SDW it’s possible to get accommodation in walking distance from the race registration and start. I had also registered the night before in order to save time the following morning, but of course I still had gotten far too little sleep having woken up an 2.45 in a state of panic, convinced I had overslept. Luckily there was no danger of getting too cold, even before 6 am the day was hot and very humid. I was sweating even as race director James was counting down the seconds.
Before I had considered maybe going for the course record, as I had about an hour and a half to make up to Sally Ford’s aggregate grand slam time from 2015. However, realising that course record holder Debbie Martin-Consani is one of the world’s best 24 hour runners, and reminding myself that my primary gold is to finish the grand slam and average under 20 hours I had printed a schedule for 19 hours (climbers.net). Sarah, who has done well in tough races in France but was new to the 100 mile distance, had decided to go for 22 hours, as had my running buddy Svein and fellow Norwegian Odd, both debuting at 100 miles as well . Before the start Sarah insisted I should stand towards the front of the field while she herself stood somewhere in the middle, and kept saying there was no way she would keep up with me. Well, not many miles after the start she popped up beside me, and Svein and Odd were also hot on my heels. We ran with a couple of other runners, including fellow grand slammer Nick Marriage and a runner who said his goal was to finish in 17,5 hours. It might seem strange that we were running comfortably together despite having such different goals, but this is quite typical of 100 milers. The pace at the beginning of the race is almost irrelevant, it’s all about who is strongest in the second half and who runs into the least amount of problems (or deals with them the best).
The pace was comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed, and as we chatted and exchanged stories from other races you would think we were out for a nice relaxing morning run, not competing against each other in a 100 mile race. After about an hour of running we met Goska’s crew, who were going from crew point to crew point and determined to be the loudest of them all. We were already having a good time, but their cheering raised our spirits even more. «Sadly», I was running to fast for them to keep up with me later in the day, so I only met them twice. The second time Jana were literally chasing after me with a plate of satsumas. At several points on the course later in the day I would hear birds chirping and think it was Jana & co with their whistles, and it made me smile and speed up a little each time.
Coming to the first check point I chose to run straight past as I had plenty of fluids and foods. Sarah stopped, but when I and 4-5 other runners went slightly off course due to a misplaced marker after the second aid station (it seems that someone had had «fun» during the night by moving markers), she caught up with us again as we removed the marker and backtracked. We shared a few more miles together, but then I pulled away again and the last time I saw Sarah during the race was when we were waving to each other as we were running on either side of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.
Running along the dual carriageway is one of the most boring bits of the course (there are some equally boring and longer stretches on road around the Holly Hill aid station), but you are rewarded with one of the main highlights just after -the stepping stones across the river. This is again followed by one of the tougher sections – about 400 steps going up the hill, and then another steep climb up Reigate Hill just after. I had prepared for this by running up the Florli steps in Lysefjorden, with 4444 steps they’re the world’s longest wooden steps, and I went up them three times in a day about a month ago. However, those steps are fairly evenly spaced, and you can get into a nice steady rhythm. The steps up the hills on the North Downs Way are uneven, twisting and turning, stopping for a bit and then reappearing. I assured Svein, who was still keeping up with me, that these were the worst climbs of the day, after Knockholt the course would be much easier. I should probably apologise to him about that – I was clearly so traumatised after finishing the NDW in 2015 that my brain chose to protect me by repressing most memories from the second half.
The forecast a few days out had said that it was gong to stay dry during the race. During the race briefing James told us showers were now forecast in the middle of the day, and assured us that was a good thing as it would help us cool down. About half an hour before I arrived at Knockholt the rain started. Even though I stopped to put on my waterproof I was still drenched to the skin when I arrived at the half way point, but I was undeniably cooled down.
I had sent out a pair of shoes in my drop bag, mostly because the shoes I was planning to use showed signs of wear and tear and I was afraid that they would not last the full distance. My shoes and feet were fine halfway, but it was bliss to put on dry socks and shoes. I deliberated a little bit about whether to put on ankle or knee high socks as I had put both in the drop bag. I had started with bare legs to maximise heat loss, but had thought I might want some protection against the bramble bushes and stinging nettles which completely covered the trail in places. My legs were full of scratches and cuts, but putting on compression socks just seemed like too much hard work. This was probably a bad decision, anyone reading this who are planning to run this race: knee socks or calf sleeves are strongly recommended.
As I was rummaging through my drop bag for my food, head torch, and spare batteries Svein entered and sat down next to mee. This was his first Centurion race and he seemed almost a little shocked (in a good way) at being surrounded by volunteers who did everything for him. One of them was Özgur, who also looked after me at the SDW when I was feeling really poorly at Housedean Farm. He was just as sweet and helpful this time, and I think (I hope) I remembered to thank him properly for his assistance at the SDW.
When I left Knockholt Svein was sitting there barefoot, popping some nasty blisters with a safety pin I had donated. Imagine my surprise then when after forty minutes or so of running, there he was in front of me, waiting for me at a gate! He was following his gps, I was following the markers, his route was obviously quicker.
At the next checkpoint at Wrotham I picked up some free underwear and dropped Svein. That was the last I saw of him during the race, but it was really nice to have shared almost 60 miles with a friend.
All my clothes were still wet after Knockholt, and I was regretting not having put a spare top in my drop bag, however when the sun came out again and I was soon dry and comfortable again. I was running in a brand new top, which was a bit of a gamble. The aforementioned Flavien has a website selling lots of really cool running tops, and he gave me a Vegan Runners top the night before the race. (I tried to pay for it, but he would not have it.) The temptation to run the race in it was too great to resist, luckily it turned out to be really comfortable. It wicked away sweat efficiently, dried quickly after the rain, and I had no issues with chafing anywhere. Maybe it was just as well that I had not bothered to change tops, around Wrotham it started to rain again, and this time it was a downpour of biblical proportions, accompanied by thunder and lightning.
The heavy downpour made the ground muddy and slippery, and the cows in the fields started to congregate under the trees around the edges of the fields, which meant that they were blocking the path in several places. I chose to walk around them in order not to stress them too much, and also because there were calves and cows together, and I have heard stories about people being attacked by cows protecting their calves. As I was doing this Dan Masters came running straight through the herd, he is either braver than me or has not heard the stories about the Killer Cows. That was the last I saw of him. However for most of the way between Wrotham at mile 60 and Bluebell Hill at mile 76 I had company from Ian Hammet and his pacer (or rather pacers, since he seemed to change at each crew access point). Maybe it was the company, maybe it was because there were quite a lot of road sections here which made it easier, but I felt really strong here and was pleased to see that I covered more miles per hour than I had in a while. My company seems to have made an impression on Ian and his pacer too (read his race report here) mostly because I told them about the nickname one runner on the Thames path had used for his pacer: Gate Bitch.
I had eaten more than ususal during the day, fuelling almost every half hour. At Knockholt I had almost nothing left of the foods I had brought with me from the start, probably for the first time ever. After Knockholt I did not always manage to eat every half hour, but I was still eating within the hour. This is usually enough to keep me going, at least if I have eaten well early in the race. However, I had been getting most of my carbohydrates and electrolytes from sweet stuff (GU, Powerbar Performance Smoothies, jelly sweets, nakd bars, Kendal mint cake, Torq energy drink, cola), so when I arrived at Bluebell Hill I stopped and asked for some savoury foods. Since I was meeting my pacer at the next aid station, Detling, I also checked if I was on schedule for my estimated arrival there. While I was sitting there the volunteers kept bringing me food, so I was surrounded by plates with crisps, tomatoes and fresh mango. I was about 10 minutes behind schedule, but I was still feeling quite strong and was confident that I could make it up on my way to Detling. I got up, ran across the grass, took a left turn into the woods, where I promptly vomited up all the food I had just eaten. This really mystified me, as there seemed to be no logical reason why I should suddenly be sick. When I got sick on the SDW in June there were plenty of reasons; going out too hard, heat stress, not eating enough, but I had avoided all these mistakes today. Despite vomiting I still managed to run quite well to Detling, where I met Sara and picked up my next drop bag.
Sara could tell me that Ian had been there and was really pleased with his pacer’s new nickname, and that I was about an hour ahead of Sarah Cameron and had been gaining steadily on the other women during the day. Maryann Devally, who I feared would be hunting me down, had not started, so I thought it safe to put on the spare top I had put in my drop bag, proclaiming running to be my super power. (Another shirt from Flavien’s website, and a birthday present from my sister.) I had some wonderful vegetable soup, swapped my Torq drink for some Tailwind in the hope that it would help with my stomach issues, and then debated whether a course record was possible with RD James. He said yes, I said no, not likely, as I was now 15 minutes behind my schedule for 19 hours and starting to struggle with stomach issues again.
When heading out to take on the last 20 miles of the course I told Sara to push the pace and make sure that I started running again as soon as possible after walking the uphills, as I found it tempting to keep walking long sections. However, the hill immediatly after Detling just seemed to suck all the energy out of me, and several times while climbing the steps I had to sit with my head between my legs for a few seconds as I was getting dizzy. Jeremy Isac, who had left Detling just after us, passed me just as I was lying down on the side of the trail, telling my pacer I what I desired most in the world was to have a nap, right here, right now. Future pacers, take note: I think what I needed here (and during the remaining 20 miles) was some tough love, someone telling me to ‘harden the f**k up’, ‘don’t be a p***y’, reminding me of my 19 hour goal, that I had time to make up on Sally in the overall grand slam results, that Sarah would hunt me down if I didn’t pull myself together, that if I could beat 19.34 in this race and the next I would have the top 5 finishing times for 100 miles by a Norwegian woman… However, in my family we are more into the passive aggressive approach, so after some silent condemnation I got up and got on with it.
When the hill flattened out and I could run again I felt much better, we passed Jeremy, and on a section with steps going downhill I had to tell Sara to get out of my way as she was going too slow. As soon as we came to an uphill and was forced to slow down the nausea and dizziness would reappear – it was almost like reverse motion sickness. I also constantly felt the need for wee breaks, but maybe that was just my body manufacturing an excuse for stopping every now and then?
Not long after Detling my Suunto suddenly ran out of battery, which has never happened before. I have since heard tales of other runners’ watches and head torches running out just after Detling as well, but in my case it might not be some weird X files stuff happening, just that I have had my watch for 3,5 years and the battery might not be charging properly anymore. This meant that I now had no idea how far it was left, which pace we were going at, or how far it was to the next aid station. It seemed to take forever to reach Lenham, and just before we got there I started vomiting again. Some flat coke made me feel better, as did the knowledge that it was less than a half marathon to go. It seemed to take forever to get to the next aid station at Dunn Street too. I was really craving some more coke, but as the aid station was a short distance from the trail and I just wanted to finish I made sure my number was taken and settled for some sips of Tailwind.
It was only when we turned off the North Downs Way and hit the final road section to the finish at Julie Rose Stadium in Ashford that any doubts I had about whether I would manage a sub 20 finish disappeared. With about a mile left I asked Sara if she thought I could beat 19.34. She didn’t think I could, but I decided to go for it anyway, and managed to nearly sprint the final lap around the stadium. 19.35.52 was almost disappointing, but just almost. I won the women’s race, placed 8th overall, and improved my time from 2015 with almost two hours – no, I’m not allowed to be disappointed.
Nici gave me a big hug (she had told me during the registration that I needed to win as she had a bet going), and then I got another trophy, the 100 miles in one day buckle, my finisher t-shirt, and another £50 voucher for Injinji socks or UD products in the Centurion shop. (I now have £120 worth of these vochers, guess what everyone’s getting for Christmas this year!) Stuart March took my finisher photo, and after telling me to look more happy and energetic he got one he was happy with. The third time was the charm. (All photos from the finish are by Stuart March, btw.)
I did not even bother to try to eat anything immediatly after finishing. I just sat down and tried to clean up a little bit with a wet wipe. My legs were covered in mud and blood from all the scratches I had got from the branches, bushes, and roots along the trail, and cuts sustained during my numerous falls. Of course all the falls I had were on dry sections of the trail, as usual my toes just seemed to seek out every rock or root that was sticking out.
Jeremy finished just after me and joined the chat. After a while I got really cold and went inside to get changed. When I came outside again Sarah had just crossed the finish line to become 2nd female in 20.28. What a brilliant 100 mile debut! I was really gutted to have missed cheering her past the finish line.
I was shivering and starting to vomit again, and therefore decided that a hot shower and some rest back at our hotel was the best plan of action. Returning to the finish at 11 am to pick up my Detling drop bag I met Svein, who had finished in just over 22 hours (22.08). In addition to his blisters he had also developed a problem with his hip at around mile 60, if this had not happened I am convinced he would have finished in well under 20 hours. Odd was also sitting there with an ice pack on his knee, a little broken, but not beaten. Knee pain had forced him to walk the last 60 km, but he still got to the finish before the cut off and got his buckle. As I was chatting to Odd and Svein Goska entered the stadium and crossed the finish, so I got to meet up with her and her brilliant crew once more. I also got to cheer the last runner over the finish line, and was as usual amazed at the runners who battle it out against the looming threat of the cut offs and spend well over a day out on the course. To be honest, I think I would have dropped out if it had been me in that position.
During the last few miles of the race I declared to Sara that the NDW no longer is my favourite 100 mile course, the Thames Path is. A few days later I am ready to revise this statement. Yes, I think I enjoy running the Thames Path more, as you can do just that – run. However, I still think the NDW is the most beautiful, and it will always have a special place in my heart as it was the first 100 miler I finished. This year’s race seems to have been a toughie, with very high drop out rates (36 %, with only 147 of 229 starters finishing) and the lowest ever percentage of runners to break the 24 hour barrier.
Just a few words about the Grand Slam as I round off: I got to the finish, so I am still in the Centurion 100 mile grand slam for 2017, which is an achievement in itself as the field has thinned out quite a lot since the first race. Before the NDW I was in 3rd overall, however, Nick Marriage has done brilliantly in the last two races to climb up to 2nd overall, pushing me down into 4th. I still have a chance at an overall podium position, and as James has pointed out in the official race report, I also have a shot at the overall grand slam record for females too. In order to beat this I need to finish in 16.45 or better in the least race. This can be doable if all the stars align and my stomach behaves, as it is quite close to my Thames Path finishing time, and the A100 usually generates even faster times. Maybe I should team up with Dan Masters, who needs a 16.34 finish to beat John Stocker’s overall grand slam record?
Whether a 16.45 finish (or better) is achievable will probably be easier to predict when the next race is nearer. About 4 days out from the NDW it feels like the recovery process is well on the way. I am already sick of resting and planning to go for a run later today. Stavanger Marathon is at the end of the month, an event I thought was out of the question after having run three 100 mile races so close together, but now I think I will probably enter the half for some speed training. Also planned is the inaugural Pulpit Rock Marathon in September, which takes place the same week as they are filming Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise on the Pulpit Rock plateau. Maybe all the runners can get a cameo in the film?
To all the other grand slammers, Centurion staff and volunteers: I loved being with you on the North Downs Way 2017, and can’t wait to see you again!