If you are an aspiring ultra runner, want some insight into this race or just intrigued about why we do this keep reading as this is my story about my first 100 mile race.
This race was my main target for 2018. I signed up pretty much as soon as registration opened on the Centurion Running site. I’ve been running for about 15 years so got a few races under my belt. Started with 10k’s, moved to marathons but quickly found trail running was for me. You know by surfing the net there’s loads of info and videos to learn and get inspiration from – 100 miles became the obvious target but what I’ve personally experienced getting there almost overshadows the main event.
The race starts from Farnham Surrey and ends up in Ashford Kent following the acorn symbol ‘The North Downs Way’. It is an ancient route followed by Pilgrims going back 600-450 BC – well trodden. First thing to know is the race covers 102 miles ish (104.1 miles recorded on my suunto) – mentally I like this as I’ve done some races which fall short of the quoted distance – a smidge disappointing – NDW 100 gives you the full shaabang.
A quick overview of my training – I’ve got a base of running (20-30 mile weeks) but after a 38 mile ultra race in April 2017 I picked up an IT band / hamstring injury -which has been with me ever since. October 2017 I ran / walked ‘Lakes in Day 50’ and completed ‘Coastal Race Dorset 50’ in Dec 2017 (chasing those ITRA points). For 2018 I started from fresh again after resting over Christmas slowly building my mileage from 12 miles a week – I wanted to get to 60 miles / week consistently but fitting in this around life and recovery from races this became achievable.
So I picked what I thought was important – strength / mobility / injury free / rest / race experience / mental confidence – the latter being the most important I was to learn. For 2018 I completed the SDW50 (9h 20) but what really helped was my epic Salomon Maxi Race in Lake Annecy, France – I was on my feet for 29 hours over 70 miles with 7300m of vertical gain.
Because of my injury my wife suggested Pilates. This was one of the best decisions I made – core strength, hip mobility and flexibility all add up to good form and technique. Not saying I have good form but the repetitiveness of running you have to have an inner core strength. I get on my mat 2 times a week for a session if I can.
Its difficult to say what worked best but it all adds up to the day you toe the line. The best insight I can give is don’t over-train, be patient – sure follow a plan but remember some days you don’t have to complete that run just because. Also these plans aren’t made for a 44 yr old.
Prep for the race– So I ran this with no crew or pacer and it meant I had to concentrate and prepare well. Massive factor for any long race – check the weather – it was going to be hot hot hot during the day standard for this summer – what about the night??
It kicked off at 6am which if you know the ultra world is actually quite acceptable. If you can get there the night before – get kit checked, collect your bib number and deposit your drop bags – it settles your nerves, gets things started and you just turn up and run. Your allowed 3 drop bags – 1 at Knockholt 50, 1 at Delting 80 and the end. I’m lucky for this race as I live near so I dropped off the night before.
Drop bag 1 (used 10 ltr dry sack) – gels for next section 1/hour, toilet roll, wet wipes, clean socks, biltong, mini poppadoms, contact lenses + eye drops, salt tabs, anti chafe cream, clean top, watch / phone charger, tech short sleeved top.
Drop bag 2 – gels for next section (1 per hour), toilet roll, wet wipes, clean socks, biltong, mini poppadoms, contact lenses, salt tabs, spare light battery, tech short sleeved top.
Drop bag 3 – recovery drink + shaker, towel, shower gel, toilet roll, wet wipes, t-shirt, tracky bottoms, flip flops, money, sunglasses, cap – could have done with a mat to lie on and pillow while waiting for my pick up- serious!
This is totally a personal preference but I decided not to change my shoes or even have the option. Maybe if I could afford 2 pairs the same style this may become an option in the future but for me your body gets used to the problem areas during a race and you get used to dealing with them – why confuse and introduce potentially more.
Anyway the key is preparation and I cannot stress how important it is to limit as much worry and stress on the day and during – start making a list 3 weeks before – a tip is to set up a notes file, say on your phone, as ideas come and go. Write them down and review from time to time.
Gear I ran in – Hoka One One Mafate Speed 2, Stance socks, Ronhill shorts, Inov 8 short sleeved top (needed thinner), Ultimate Direction 6 ltr vest, 2 x 500 ml soft flask + 1 extra, gu gels 1/hour, nuun tablets, salt sticks + mandatory kits, Salomon bob hat, duck billed Patagonia hat, phone + head phones, laminate card with aid station target times.
There are 13 aid stations along the way so the plan was to rely on them for solid food – I take some clean ziplock bags to fill up at the station with solid food and eat on the go – well that was the plan. I know the aid stations would be good. Get onto Facebook and join the community – you’ll learn loads of insight there and see what the effort the volunteers are making for the race.
The race started at 6am. At this point you just want to get going – usual race nerves – this was my first 100 miler and my plan was to complete it in under 24 hours and get the one day buckle – thats an overall pace of 14:12 min / mile – factor in aid stations and past performances – aim to get the first 50 in 10 hours leaving 14 hours to complete – aid station to aid station – simples!
You hear loads of advice on pace – ‘the race starts at 50 miles’, ‘the race starts at 70’, ‘go slow and save your energy’, ‘walk and run combo’, ‘walk up hills’, ‘don’t overdo descents’, ‘get out of aid stations quick’ – well listen to it all as pretty much its true. The Race Director James gave some good advice at the start – ‘if your the type who will struggle in the heat then go real easy 30-50 as it will pay dividends later on’ – he an experienced runner so take heed.
I started out at a 10min/mile pace for the first section to Box Hill – this for me is a real slow jog so hard to keep to but persevered as I knew a long way to go – looking at my stats I kept this up to about Box Hill 24 miles mark. On the way to the stepping stones there a few climbs and stunning views – I was in good spirits (if I’m taking pics all good) – a few niggles but I know they disappear over a long run and other issues take over. There were clouds in the sky giving some coolness – even thought we may get away with a cooler day. One thing I remember was topping St Martha’s Hill, music was playing with lady with red poms poms dancing – can’t be hallucinating already surely? It was the first time I smiled – on your own not knowing anyone it dawned on me what I was about to do. But that cheered me up – thank you – this set the benchmark for the support throughout the race – I was not to be disappointed.
So the next stage for me was Knockholt half way point where the race really starts but getting there was a little tricky. For sure I walked the Box Hill Steps but temps were rising and there a few quick steep inclines – I’ve recced this part so I know the hills – my focus was stay hydrated and keep eating solids at each station before the nausea sets in. Got to Reigate Hill and needed cold water and ice. One of the volunteers let me dunk my head in an ice bucket – so refreshing. He almost drowned me as he pushed my head right under.
Now I bought a Salomon Bob Hat a few months back – why as never sure of the design? I met the main man Francois D’Haene at my Annecy race and he said its great for keeping cool and storing ice – the aid station chap must had read my mind – he shoved a load on ice in it, plonked it on my head and sent me on my way – what can I say! Awesome support!
The next section to Caterham was hard – we started hitting tarmac a few times which was sapping. Not sure exactly when but looking back this is where I started complaining – about the 35 mile mark my legs were very sore – leg muscles went solid – no cramps as again I always mix electrolytes with my hydration.
I finally hit Caterham Hill aid station and was greeted with an ice pop. Perfect – one thing I see is lot of runners sitting down and take this as an opportunity to rest – for me its a bad idea as your legs seize and its hard to get going again. I was offered another ice pop which I took with me. You could see a the heat was starting to take its toll.
At this stage of the race you start to get know fellow runners, some pass by then you pass etc – the bond and community spirit begins – every race I’ve run has always been social and you need to off load, chat, get advice or just be friendly. Just before and after Caterham 2 runners were teamed up and moving well – perhaps too well as at finish I met up and one dropped out around 70 miles – I kept with them for a bit but eased off after a while.
One big takeaway from this event was to never follow or copy the person in front – no ones the same. Its easy to walk if the runner ahead is walking – its not so easy to form a group and try to keep up – but you’ve got to let that go and yes the cliche is so true ‘run your own race’.
I know things weren’t moving so well for me now and we had Botley Hill to deal with – it was steep and nasty – trudging up this was tough – rocks and uneven ground. The key to these ultras is keeping pace – and learning to walk fast – the top pros do it well and during races I’ve seen a few runners walk off into the distance leaving me for dust. It’s a little skill I’ve practiced. During training workouts, even though you can run up a hill – stop and walk it fast – it uses different muscles and is a great stretch on the calves – to be honest at this point of the race I quite liked hills as it meant I could walk – not a good sign – I was starting to grind.
However with a piece of lemon drizzle cake and a top up of water I had 7 miles to Knockholt – nearly half way but it took some time – occasionally I do a health check – it went like this – mind ok body not ok – legs were trashed – I can only put it down to the heat – beautiful English corn fields ready to be harvested baking hot. Mind you how did I feel after a 50 mile ultra – done in right?
I caught up with another runner who was walking and for sure he may have saved my race – reminding me to slow down as its super hot and there’s a long way to go – in fact at Wrotham a lot of people were dropping out and this section and the next was one of the hottest parts of the race- body stress high, HR rate higher than normal, late afternoon heat, ground temp high – warning signs.
I entered into Knockholt just over my 10 hour schedule – once your off the trail you notice the tarmac and the toll it takes – hot and hard – sure the trails were sun baked but I like the unevenness and variety. I was also nervous as a 50 mile ultra ends here – I had to do it all over again. Great support from spectators on entry and immediately greeted (every aid station was like this) and looked after in the aid station. Water refill, drop bag and don’t stay too long. Major mistake here was I changed socks to a different style – it was like undoing a pressure cooker when I took those shoes off – should have kept the same type of socks throughout – the socks were a lighter material and anklet cut. It took me a number of miles to get over the change and dust / dirt could sneak in through the top. Anyway another learning process.
Some runners in the station were looking dazed – one guy was very dizzy – no so good – but this kind of gives you a boost as I was mentally feeling strong – hot veggie pasta and whoosh I was away. To top things I decided to celebrate with a selfie and play some Def Leppard ‘Hysteria’ on the phone – all in all good spirits – could have done with some in the mug!
I generally don’t run with music as I like to enjoy the surroundings but I needed to regroup and start moving. The next stop was Wrotham – what I noticed was, as the race went on, the spirit weakened quick and quicker after leaving each station – however this was a beautiful part of the race – evening was setting in but hours from 5-9pm were really hot and the heat never dwindled. There was a false aid station, I think was in Otford or Kemsing which totally threw me – fair play to their support but if you only knew how I felt – ‘gutted’ – thought I was already at Wrotham – the mind was starting to go as I still had miles.
Wrotham was a big area and I enjoyed seeing supporters and crews – to crew or not to crew that is the question for another day? I was out and gone but for sure I couldn’t eat any solid foods – soft flesh fruits seem doable.
So some insight I received from a very experienced runner about the next section was that he slowly lost his mind between now and Detling – bear in mind this runner top ten finished a few years back – this nagged me a little but prepared me for the worse. My cheat sheet came in handy as I knew the distance for each section. What did do my head in was my watch disaster – for some reason at the start when I pressed go it picked up some race template for NDW 100 – sure blame the user but WTF – so I had to scroll through unnecessary screens and then it started telling me to speed up / slow down – I have no idea what happened but for sure I need some training on my watch.
Annoyingly over the race it was a few miles out too – so I needed to factor this in when I was trying to get to the next station. I ran with the gpx file from the main site – its ok (no elevation on it!) but you need to follow the signs and use your watch as a back up – without it I would have made more wrong turns and was corrected back on course a number of times.
A good time to say that the race markings were excellent for a 100 mile race – it was marked all the way with plastic red / white strips and the very visible sign.
Both had reflective material on which you know if you do a night race is very obvious. But you still have to keep your wits about you. A couple of times I went wrong as the next strip to see was on the ground in a field but hey what else can they hang it too? Hats off to the organisers for this – but I do recommend a gps watch as a guide.
So out out Wrotham and some road work to do – you could see other runners suffering from hydration and that made me drink more – unfortunately the nausea started to set in – it became harder to eat anything.
I started to pick up a few runners at a similar pace and enjoyed the chat. We went trough some nice woodland sections but do not be fooled things were deteriorating and I needed to dig in and keep some pace. By now I’m counting the miles and each mile is getting longer – 2 aid stations to Delting – Holly Hill and Bluebell Hill – the sun started to set and temps were reducing – I’d made to through the heat – these are small triumphs – make them that.
While writing this blog I have little recollection of Holly Hill Aid station – there were some nice sections but with this race always some gradient. I run at night a lot so wasn’t phased by losing light – in fact I was in my comfort zone. I have a petzl nano set on low which is more than ample to see and saves the battery. Once thing which keeps me intrigued is seeing the insects scurrying on the ground – black beetles, spiders…you have to watch your footing as the last thing you need is a fall.
At some point I ran with a couple of runners and I was like jeez this guy looks fresh – he even turned round and sent a dog on its way – I realised he was a pacer!! So things are not what they seem – be careful.
I’m about at the 70 mile mark – your legs are acid filled and you are programmed to repetition – climbing over styles, bending down to avoid over shrubs or narrow uneven paths though stingers and brambles. Basically if you came up and pushed me over I’d just fall. That’s where I was now – the pain was in – I could still run but increasingly stopped to walk. One bizarre thing happened a couple of times – when I yawned I cramped in my neck -it was horrible and really painful – what was going on!
There was what seemed a lot of road to and over the Medway and that was mind numbing. You had to run over the bridge which was a major traffic route – cars flew past – all safe but really not what I needed.
When I finally hit Bluebell Hill I was spent – and this one the worst / best moments of my race – this is why I love these events – you’ve run and met fellow runners – all in similar states – you enter a station (remember to turn your light off Adam) and your totally looked after. They got me to sit down as I wanted to take my trainer off and get a stone out but I couldn’t bend down – I didn’t want to as I know I couldn’t stand up again and I’d get cramp – but I took their advice – I sat down and yes I cramped in the left calf – they helped me take my shoes off – and asked if I’d eaten anything in the last few hours? No I hadn’t – they insisted I tried – and then I was offered a cup of hot tea. This so hit the spot and helped me eat some crisps, nuts and some satsuma. As your working yourself out other runners come in – I’ve only experienced this in this race – you chat, try and joke but looking back although I was doing this on my I felt part of a group, a team and community and knew now we could all complete this. We were all running a 100 miler.
Ticking in my brain was the under 24 hours mark – it had been my goal before I set out and I would be disappointed not to get the NDW 100 one day buckle. – and one runner told me ‘its not a gimme!’ this ate me up a bit as time surged – ahead or behind of schedule – I was getting behind.
Rumour had it that when you get to Delting your nearly there – to get there was a long 6 miles up, down, road, steps and tunnels. Not much to say but hit Delting where I had a drop bag – didn’t need it – didn’t open it – just could not muster the energy – while sitting I spotted a pot of ambrosia rice – asked if I wanted anything I said ‘yes one of those’ – ‘sorry’ was the reply, ‘ that was someones’ – at this point negatives are really negative – I couldn’t stomach anything and I had 24 miles left – less than a marathon, a sarcastic ‘yeh’ popped into my head. And then the kindest lady gave me a pot of rice! She’d overheard my conversation went out and got some from her stash – another moment of kindness I’ll never forget – I felt a bit guilty though as I could only finish half – washed down with a cup of tea 2 sugars I was out. No idea which way to go, I was soon chaperoned off to the right by a clapping supporter.
I guess its about 1am and I’ve been going for 19 hours – 24 miles to go and wanted the 24 hours goal – Lenham was my next stop and I remember there being a lot of steps – I guess Box Hill is iconic but I’m sure this part of the course there were loads more steps, steeper inclines and more steps – I managed to walk sideways down to ease the pain in the quads – also a lot of narrower paths with roots, stingers and brambles – you don’t care just get through them – in fact I remember thinking I’m not getting stung which was a bit weird.
Getting to Lenham was tiring and the hardest part of the race – I was stressing about having to walk but I just couldn’t run – when you got started another hill arrived so I walked it. ‘Had to save something for the end’ – this was a sub conscious thought for sure. I had less 3 hours to go and I was walking – under 24 it’s slipping away – at this point I can’t really work out time and pace – I’m going with instinct and stupidity. so I asked – ‘under 24 hours?’ the answer I got was ‘if you run some of it’ – so I shuffled out – I put some music on but that made feel sicker, tried a gel but I pulled it out I felt sick – all in all doomed. But I did get them to fill one of my bottle with half coke / half water mix – small sips may have made some difference as I kept moving.
Then I heard a bird chirp. Now that means dawn – this gave me a lift for sure as then you notice the light change – things start to change – a refresh I guess with new surroundings – I know today was a going to be warm and sunny so it was going to be good day – about a mile before Dunn Street I tried to run for more than 50 metres and get the legs moving – flush them out – it hurt but something was there. As I entered Dunn Street I knew I couldn’t stop – they didn’t want me to stop – they took my number I was on my way.
So I’ve read about how the body finds extra stamina when its beat – how pro runners are on the ground puking but seem to recover – so why not me? And these stories gave me the motivation to run the last 4.5 miles – sub 10 min miles – I know it doesn’t sound fast but it sure felt it.
I remember this part so well – a field or 2, through a churchyard onto tarmac – it was well signed but I knew I had to concentrate – one wrong turn and my time could be scuppered. As I got into town and on pavements I was nearly there but there was still a way to go – every turn I hoped to see a sign or entrance but no just another road to run down. I gave a fellow runner some support as I passed him as he was walking (I’m glad he made it sub 24 as he had a bad ankle) – finally I saw the stadium signs and the Centurion flag!
It’s 6am and yes not many people are about so finishing these events can be an anti climax if you like some support and kudos – you enter the stadium and the first thing I felt underfoot was the bounce of the track – luxury. I smiled and was buzzing. Should I slow or should I run – I ran for sure as I didn’t know f I’d made it sub 24 my watch said I was in but you never know – so better safe than sorry – plenty of time to recover after. As you come in people were clapping and cheering – awesome feeling – over the line and greeted by the Centurion Team with my one day buckle. This epic race was complete.
I was lucky enough to have my wife come and pick me up (negotiated on the course the day before) – she arrived around 1030am which gave me plenty of downtime to get my bag, shower, drink cups of tea and eat a free hotdogs for the finishers. Although hot the weather was good to us – I could only imagine what it would be like with rain. There was plenty of room to chill and cheer on all the runners coming in.
Overall an awesome event, well organised with plenty of support for the lone runner with no crew or pacer. So even better with I guess. Thank you to the Centurion Team, all the supporters and runners I met on the way. I won’t run now for 2 weeks as have no planned events for 2018 – ensure a good recovery ready to rebuild for the next challenge.
3 days on update and recovery from this one has been tough – I had a cold before I started and by the afternoon after the race had lost my voice – my feet are trashed which bad blisters under the toe nails (there’s a book about foot care which I’m going to read). I took Monday off work. Short tempered and pretty impatient which I’m disappointed with myself about. Legs are ok but have had 2 nights of poor sleep because of throbbing feet and twitchy legs. Felt a bit flu like today (Wednesday) but more positive thoughts and catching up on sleep – tomorrow I have a meeting in Bedford so will have to wear shoes and sit behind the wheel for 5 hours – should be interesting.
‘I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself
A small bird will fall frozen
Dead from a bough
Without ever having felt
Sorry for itself’