North Downs Way 100

Hills, thrills & leggyaches

My running this year has been a rather stop/start affair and I’ve failed to establish any sort of momentum. I put this down to an unconscious arrogance that the basic rules of training and injury avoidance somehow do not apply to me anymore. Having achieved so much in 2015, I thought I could carry this form through without bothering to maintain a consistent base of conditioning. I realized that was a big mistake when I picked up a series of minor/annoying injuries as a result of going too hard or long without building up or stretching properly.

It was against this backdrop of barely maintaining the weekly running mileage of the average Octogenarian, that I mused on the possibility of entering the NDW 100. Common sense would dictate that running a hilly 100 mile ultramarathon with little training is a very stupid thing to do but – coloured by the previous point – I believed that I had a sufficient “pedigree” as to at least make it to the finish. After all, I had nothing riding on it and the worse that could happen would be to burn out somewhere on the North Downs and have to get a taxi home. (Featured image credit: DimitryB)


The course (left to right)

Farnham to Box Hill (24 miles)

The race started at 6 am sharp about 100 metres from my friend Miles’ house in Farnham. We were both taking part so we prepared our kit and tactics together with a hearty barbecue and a reckless glass of wine the night before. Suitably refreshed, we ambled down to the school hall for the race briefing before walking en masse to the official start of the NDW just next to the A31. The first few miles were quite clogged up as the 200 odd runners funneled through the stiles and gates of the single-file path.

Fresh as daisies (Miles & I near Newlands Corner)

Both Miles and I were taking it really easy at this early stage despite our different objectives for the race. It was his first 100 miler and his overriding aim was to complete it by very carefully managing his pace. Very wise. On the other hand, I was making it up as I went along and did not really have a clear plan other than to (hopefully) secure a 100 mile personal best. In good spirits, we reached the outskirts of Guildford at about 8 am where some guys on a canal boat were handing out bacon sarnies. What a bonus! Soon after this, I decided that I would try and attack the course – I felt good and I had nothing to lose so the two amigos parted company somewhere between Newlands Corner and Ranmore Common. This long, flat stretch all the way to the Dorking is peppered with abandoned WW2 gun turrets since the North Downs would have been the capital’s last line of defence from the northward invasion that thankfully never came. Not long after I contemplated this, the unmistakable sound and shape of a Spitfire flew overhead on the same eastward bearing. In a delusion of grandeur, I decided to interpret this as a portent of victory and duly upped my pace.

Inspiration. (Credit: Joe)

By late morning it was getting hot and I was drinking about a litre of water an hour. Parked just along from St Barnabas Church on Ranmore Common, some kind souls in a Kombi van were spraying each runner that passed with an improvised cross between a hosepipe and a shower head that ejected a marvelously cooling spray. Thereafter the course took a sharp right and we started the gradual descent to into Westhumble through England’s largest vineyard: the Denbies Wine Estate. Beside one of the absurdly awkward gates on the way down, I decided to stop and stretch for a couple of minutes. During an ultra, your range of leg movement invariably reduces from a normal, say, 45° at the start to a pathetic 20-25° shuffle at the end. Tip: by occasionally stopping and doing some dynamic stretching you can considerably delay the onset of this decrepitude.

While smugly congratulating myself on these cunning tactics, a passing runner asked me if I was ok and I said “Fine thanks – just stretching” to which she bizarrely replied: “You should try giving birth”. Lost for words I simply blurted out “I might just do that!” as if it were just some really tough adventure race that I could obviously complete but just hadn’t got around to signing up for. With a quick look of condescending disapproval, she pranced off down the hill and we did not see each other again until I saw her at the halfway point in Knockholt nursing an injured ankle. I asked her “Is everything ok?” and she said “No – I’ve got to pull out”. I toyed with saying “You should try finishing an ultramarathon” but decided not to. Why? Because I’m bigger than that.

Box Hill to Knockholt Pound (26 miles)

After a quick refuel, I crossed the Stepping Stones over the River Mole and clambered up to the top of Box Hill, along to Reigate Hill and over the M25 before settling into a healthy clip. Picking off the runners one by one, I started to get a bit too big for my boots and the inevitable cock-up swiftly ensued. On approaching a fork in the path, I could see a fellow competitor scratching his head about which way to go. Having handrailed the lower slope of a ridgeline for some miles, we were presented with a choice of a) continue along on the same contour following the sign which says “North Downs Way” or b) go straight up a steep slope. Easy! I recommended B and managed to convince two other people to follow me. But how so? At 200-300m intervals along the whole course, the organisers had placed red & white ticker tape just to reassure us that we were going in the right direction. The path up the slope was marked by ticker tape so it had to be the right way, right? Wrong. After following these markers for 2 miles we happened upon an apologetic race marshal for a completely different event. Oops. It seemed that this other race had chosen the exact same ticker tape so we turned around and traced our way back in a very grumpy silence.

Wrong turn

This detour was a mental blow. By the time I rejoined the correct route, I could see that I’d lost the 20 or so places that I had gained since Reigate Hill so there was only one thing for it: hard rock classics, on full volume. I don’t take decisions like that lightly but I needed an uplift and the nuclear option never fails to deliver. Within a couple of hours, I’d regained the places that I’d lost and the halfway point at Knockholt village hall was coming into sight. So far, so good.

Knockholt Pound to the Medway Viaducts (23 miles)

After refueling and refreshing my kit, the roll I was on continued until sunset and well into the night. As usual in the dark stretches of an ultra, I joined up with a few other people who were more or less on the same pace. The pooling of our grey matter made for better navigation decisions and the combined light of our headtorches improved visibility. At one point near Cuxton while crossing a large field on a compass bearing (owing to the lack of a visible path), we had the added entertainment of dodging a pair of combine harvesters.

You could hear the low hum of M2 traffic and the occasional roar of a train on the Medway bridge long before seeing it. At nearly 1km in length, it’s an impressive sight to behold and made a change from the pitch black woodland of the past few hours.

Over the Medway (Credit: Matt)

Medway Viaducts to Ashford (31 miles)

After crossing the bridge under a luxurious glow of streetlamps, there was a slog of a climb up to the next checkpoint on Blue Bell Hill and the promise of refreshment. Upon arrival I decided for the first time to slump, take a rest and gather my strength. In so doing, I made the mistake of taking off my outer layers in order to cool down. Exposed as we were on top of a hill in a brisk wind, it took about 5 minutes for a mild hypothermia to set in and a spasm of uncontrollable shivers to spill every sip of tea that I tried to take. After re-clothing myself and convincing the race marshals that I was fit to continue; I tottered off on my way but was not altogether mentally “with it” and kept stopping every 50 metres to check if my bag was still on my back.

The haze gradually cleared and it was around this time that my lower body started to generally give up. No longer able to quick march let alone jog, my movement had deteriorated to a painful shuffle by the time we reached the last major checkpoint at Detling. Having done so little conditioning work before this race, it should not have been much of a surprise. However, with my cardiovascular system in good shape it was frustrating to have to walk the last 10 miles into Ashford and the finish line at the Julie Rose Athletics Stadium. Anyway, I managed to get a 100 mile Personal Best by about 1 hour with a time of 28 hours and 36 minutes. A big hats off to race  Centurion Running who organised the event flawlessly. Lastly, congratulations to Miles Mather who successfully completed his first 100 miler with trademark determination. I look forward to running (not shuffling) this race again in the future 🙂

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