North Downs Way 100

Route

It was a strange feeling lining up at the start line as one of the ‘least’ experienced runners out there.

To most of my friends these days, I am now known as ‘Dan the runner’. I am forever being told by people that they have seen me out running while they were driving past; that they tried to get my attention, but I was just off in my own little world. If you were to ask the average friend of mine to describe me, they would probably go with “Oh yeah, Dan. Short guy, looks like a hobbit, always running…” Something like that anyway; or something a lot more insulting.

So here I was at another start line, 6am in the town of Farnham in Surrey; the finish line 100 miles away in the village of Wye in Kent and I was surrounded by people that had all done this sort of thing before, if not this very race before.

It was clear right from the start that I didn’t really know what I was doing. So much so, that on registration, I had to have the term ‘sealed seams’ explained to me on waterproof jackets. Apparently the waterproof jacket I got from the pound shop didn’t quite cut it for the list of mandatory equipment needed for the race. So the race almost started by me being told I couldn’t race. In the end I was kindly loaned a jacket from the race organiser with the agreement of buying it should I need it.

I always marvel at the people and the kit they have with them to these events at the start. The sight of people in fancy looking ultra-running packs, running poles and expensive looking trainers all served to make me feel woefully ill-prepared. In fact the loaned jacket was about 3 times more expensive than anything else I had with me for this race. I had to laugh when one of the runners affectionately called me a ‘Jonny come lately runner’; swanning up in my £20 trail shoes and my permanent expression of dazed bewilderment on my face.

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“Sure I know what I’m doing”

As we set off up the trail in tentative fashion, all my instincts told me to leg it past people and get to the front of the field. My common sense however, in a rare victory, told me to follow the pack for a few miles.

The opening miles were slow and steady, however I did make the decision to not walk up too many hills just yet. I’d save that luxury for after the first 10 miles or so. This strategy had me moving quickly up the field. In fact, by the first checkpoint at around 8 miles, I felt like I could keep this up all day! Which was lucky really, as I was actually required to keep this up all day…. And night, as it happened.

I didn’t actually stop until the 2nd checkpoint, and I don’t think I sat down until the 3rd. I remember reading some advice on running your first 100, to “BEWARE THE CHAIR”. Basically, when you sit down, you are more susceptible to thoughts of giving up, so try not to put yourself in positions where these thoughts may thrive. I quickly concluded that this didn’t apply to me; I was having fun out there, but I liked the comfort of a sit down every once in a while.

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Perfect morning for it!

By mile 30, I’d got into a routine of treating each checkpoint as a mini race within a race. These checkpoints, or aid stations were situated between 5 and 10 miles apart and I used them to ignore that festering thought of 100 mile total.

Ultra-running is all about peaks and troughs. One minute you can be running along feeling strong, and striding past other runners looking completely worse for wear, then an hour down the line, feeling slumped, tired and lethargic, that same runner you passed so effortlessly earlier will come bounding past with a seemingly ineffable energy. Frustrating, depressing, but you just have to remember that that’s how energy levels work. Everyone metabolises their food at different rates; there is just no way that the cheese sandwich you ate at mile 32 will provide you energy at the same time as the runner in front. The key is just be patient, and don’t get despondent.

Miles 30 to 40 I was absolutely flying! There was a nice spell of downhill to enjoy and the weather, the company, the volunteers and the trail were all exceptional. I genuinely forgot I was racing for a time here.

Miles 40 to 50 were a different story. My legs felt like they were made of lead; the nettle stings and bramble scratches were all culminating as a pain on top of the muscle fatigue and I had a hard time removing my main concentration away from the blood running down my arm from the latest bramble patch, and the blister slowly forming on the ball of my left foot. I had a change of socks waiting for me at mile 50, which would be a rare treat, so at least I had that going for me.

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I arrived at ‘Knockholt Pound’, the half way checkpoint at nearly 3:30pm; exhausted, but content with myself that I was slightly ahead of my required schedule for getting in that exclusive ‘1 day club’ for those runners who complete the 100 miles inside 24 hours. In fact, if conditions stay as they are, and my energy levels remain, I was on track for a very fast time!

The aid stations were definitely one of this race’s best features. It was a scorching day and we had ice-cream at one of the checkpoints, and here at 50 miles, I was offered a coffee to have with a buffet of available power foods.

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Several people ask me what I eat when I’m on the run. In training, I tend to eat nothing. In races, I find myself drawn to fruits and chocolate mostly. There was an array of melons, pineapple and various sweet tooth options available at all the stations, and with my energy levels waning here, I found it wise to eat as much as I could here at 50 miles. I think there are no two runners alike in what they go for at each station; it’s like a weird, pregnancy-like craving in that you know exactly what you need the instant you look at it.

My energy picked up again by about mile 55, and was fairly plain sailing and routine all the way up to mile 70. A couple of navigational hiccups crept in, as my attention to the otherwise, very well-marked course started to slip here and there. My extreme thanks to the man I met, who was a pacer for another runner, who pointed me in the right direction after I lethargically drifted almost a mile off course at one point.

At about 9pm, it started to go dark, which adds a new layer of difficulty and nerves to the run. All of a sudden, you get really quite worried when you don’t see one of the celestial pieces of red and white tape for several minutes. Negative thoughts flood your brain, as you convince yourself you’ve gone the wrong way.

This is where the other runners come in. In a race of this nature, all the runners help each other. It may be a race, and there may be a fair bit of competitiveness flying around, but we’re now all this together and ALWAYS help each other out with navigation and encouragement wherever necessary.

I found myself running/walking with a guy called Rob around here, who actually turns out is a bit of a ridiculous human being; having done a couple of races in the days prior to this, and had a 50k or something planned for the next day as well. Also he was doing all this for the NSPCC and running in a kilt; I couldn’t help but notice this either.

At around 1am, I found myself running alone once again. Running through big, open fields with minimal visibility and markers that were all very impossible to see in the distance; the universe at this time, decided that now would be a very good time to open the heavens and rain. And when I say rain, it rained properly!

As I mentioned earlier, I had that jacket loaned out to me in my bag for just this situation. Unfortunately, within the first 7 seconds of rain, the damage had already been done, and I accepted that putting a jacket on now would be a lot like locking the stable door after the horse had bolted. Luckily, my energy was good at this point (85 miles, ish), so I deduced that I just needed to keep moving to stay warm.

By about 2am, I had caught up with a small band of runners and we stuck together for light and navigational reasons. The conditions had got so tough to run in now; there was actually a slight danger that we wouldn’t make the 24 hour target time that looked so comfortable earlier. Also, the rain, and the constant wading through deep puddles is not exactly conducive to good running. The skin under my feet was now starting to blister quite badly now and the miles were being ticked off mostly at a walking pace now.

The final checkpoint arrived at gone 4am after what felt like an eternity, but we just had another 4.2 miles to go. Surely only a navigational error could prevent us comfortably strolling in well under 24 hours now..

At 5am there was a navigational error. In our band of runners, we traversed a cornfield to the next marker we could make out. Then there was a choice of three roads and none of us could see the net marker; there was a decent chance it had blown away in the wind and rain or something, but it held us up just long enough for a few alarm bells to ring.

This seemed like such  along time ago now.

This seemed like such along time ago now.

After an agonising spell of scouting each direction in search of markers, and phone calls to the race HQ, asking for their advice, we eventually committed to taking the most central option, and to our eternal relief, the next marker appeared like a vision of salvation! Then after all that drama in the dark, the universe once again decided to show its sense of humour by making it light again; almost the very instant we figured out what we were doing.

The final mile took us through thick mud, damp grass and a field of nettles in which I got stung another 3 or 4 thousand times, but the truth was I didn’t care; I looked at my watch; it sad 5:25am. We’d made it in time. Inside 24 hours, in what even the organisers were calling ‘race from hell’.

We ceremoniously crossed the line and were ushered a few at a time for our picture taken with our prestigious ‘100 miles, 1 day’ buckle. I was then led inside and immediately given a bacon sandwich, which I would describe as the least enjoyable bacon sandwich I’ve ever eaten. As it was in my hand, I just wanted it gone so I could get some sleep. I think my brain had finally caught up with my body and now demanded I got some sleep on the hard floor.

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It’s really strange the feeling at the end; the medics were all working really hard as people came in with various injuries and issues. I myself, valiantly attempted to stand up after about an hour of sleep, but I got dizzy and fell back down. Luckily I don’t think anyone saw. I had a couple of glucose tablets then went immediately back to sleep again.

Result

Taken from Strava.

I have to thank all the organisers and the volunteers for the amazing job they did on this event; my first of many (hopefully) 100 milers, and an incredibly positive experience. I woke up feeling a lot of muscle soreness in my legs, which made walking a slow affair, but basically I was unbroken and with a new distance PB to my name. I might even make a decent runner one day at this rate.

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