North Downs Way 100 - August 2020
All in all, these were extremely tough conditions and I probably consider this my best running performance to date. Yes, I’ve occasionally finished higher in races and, yes, I’ve run this distance more quickly, but as we know long distance trail running is about much more than just the stats at the finish line, which rarely tell the whole story. So here are a few more details to fill out that story, which hopefully also provides a bit of insight into the new, post-lockdown racing world we find ourselves in!
For the first time in my life I experienced the strangeness of a low key wave start. We were asked to arrive in windows according to our predicted finish times, with the quicker people going off earlier than the slower ones to spread the field as much as possible. After a quick temperature test at the start line – but no kit check – I was sent on my way…all on my own. Instantly this sets the event up as being less of a ‘race’ and more of a challenge of ‘you against the course’, which for most of us, most of the time, is what ultra-distance trail events are really about – a personal test over, hopefully, some decent landscapes. I am generally a happy solitary runner and was content to progress at my own pace with my own thoughts for company for as long as it took. Of course I fell into step with other runners for short periods and had some good conversations, but I was fine with moving on when the time felt right.
The North Downs Way takes off from Farnham and leads up to the outskirts of south London before turning over the mighty Medway Bridge down into Kent. It ultimately finishes at Dover (>150 miles…!) but this race cuts it short (still 103 miles) at Ashford. The trail is woody, sandy, chalky, rocky, and in places quite overgrown and bone dry after all the recent heat. The woodland sections provided excellent coverage from the searing sun but were often quite hard going, with large protruding roots (though only one toe stub and a – saved – trip) which needed a bit of care to negotiate. There are some decent climbs – Box Hill, Reigate Hill and more – adding up to about 11,000ft elevation according to my watch. Not the Lake District, but not at all bad for southern England. And many of these climbs are steep and packed with chunky steps, which are tiring going both up and down (I was, of course, grateful for NTR training sessions on the Cromer cliffs here). Even taking the weather out of the equation, I think the course is quite a bit tougher than the South Downs Way I ran a couple of years ago. However, there were lots and lots of stunning views. And bona fide pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, in full monkish gowns and tonsures (the bald patch at the crown of the head – I had to look the word up…) – unless I hallucinated that bit?!
However, what everyone who took part in this race will remember most of all (and possibly for the rest of their lives) is the heat. My god, the heat! The morning section was ok for me – I could feel the temperatures slowly starting to rise but much of the early section is under the cover of trees which kept me, relatively, cool. I knew the afternoon was going to be an absolute furnace…and so it proved. Unfortunately the hottest part of the day coincided (for me) with the part of the course that goes through miles of open, south-facing fields in the countryside around Knockholt Pound. I knew this was likely to be the case beforehand and had planned to go easier here and then try to pick up the pace again in the evening and night. I also had planned to take on obscene amounts of fluid (water, coke and electrolytes) supplied by my excellent crew (on which, more below) and wore a slightly ridiculous broad brimmed hat. Oh, and my oldest daughter shaved my head a few days before (not a good look, but necessary). All this helped me to keep to a reasonable pace, running as much as possible, but even so the time inevitably started to slip away during those exposed afternoon hours when the temperature hit 34 degrees. Brutal is an overused word in ultra running, but I can't think of a better way to describe those hours.
And this is where the support comes in. I’d not really used crews before in races, usually choosing to take care of myself via aid stations. However, this time Lou and our girls agreed to tag along and support through the morning/early pm, with NTR’s very own Matt Harris looking after me from then on. Matt also planned to pace me over the final 21 miles, which I was very grateful for, if not a little scared at what pace he might try to push me to. But their main function was to keep me cool and hydrated throughout and not too calorie-deficient, which they did brilliantly. I drank literally litres and litres of coke, water, electrolytes and tailwind throughout the event and ate food whenever I could stomach it. Matt bought me some chips at one of the later crew points, which worked wonders. Lou and the girls fed me battenberg cake and peanut butter sandwiches whenever I saw them. At Otford (mile 54) with my energy sinking in the mid-afternoon sun, I took a longer break than planned and let myself be tended to – sock/shoe/shirt change, several bottles of water tipped over the head, morale-boosting chat, etc. And from then on, as the sun slowly dipped, I was revived and homing in on the finish.
After a stunning sunset off the west edge of the Downs it was into the night. I adore night sections in long trail races and feel like I constantly mention this fact, so won’t say much here other than there were some beautiful moments: running over the Medway Bridge as the dark was really starting to settle, back on the trails with a lovely moon and – I think – Jupiter high in the sky, bats and moths everywhere, climbing hills and seeing other headtorches in the distance, peace and solitude. Until, that is, I picked up Matt at mile 82…from then on it was a different experience, one that I was completely ready for after so many hours and miles on my own: running with a mate through the night to try to achieve a big goal. He was brilliant at keeping me moving, cajoling me up all the seemingly never-ending sharp climbs around Detling, feeding me caffeine chews whenever I went too quiet, being patient with me as I decided not to use my poles after all (meaning he had to carry them all the way for no reason…sorry Matt). Despite my fatigue we kept moving at a good enough pace and I loved these last few hours.
Despite what I said about stats at the beginning I was truly delighted to sneak in under 24 hours. This was my original goal, but I knew it was slipping away fast in the afternoon heat and the long (but necessary) stop at Otford. However, through the evening and night, progress picked up again and when Matt and I got to the final aid station with about an hour to run the last five-ish miles I started to think it might (just!) be possible again. I mentioned this to Matt, in response to which he informed me that I would regret telling him that(!) and promptly set off at pace. Well, I guess that’s why you have pacers! Coming off the Downs was obviously a descent so not too problematic, but when we hit the outskirts of Ashford with still another 2-3 miles to go my beaten up feet really started to protest. However, after a short walking break Matt went straight back into tyrant-coach mode and we hit what felt like 5k pace again (it was actually over 10 min/mile…) through the early morning streets to the stadium and track finish, crossing the line with fewer than seven minutes to go. Really very pleased. Thank you Matt for pushing me again and again - I probably swore a lot at the time, but I really appreciate it!
A great experience – and congratulations to the Race Director and everyone involved for putting on an event like this in the current extremely challenging conditions. I kept expecting this to be cancelled, right up to the final week, and the fact that it wasn’t only hints at how much work must have gone into making things as covid-secure as possible. In one way this provides an example for RDs to follow – a confidence boost that races with quite large infrastructures can still happen – but I certainly don’t think that this implies we should assume that other similar sized races will just be able to go ahead (‘well, if Centurion can do it…’). Each situation is so unique, relying on relationships with landowners, local services and willing volunteers (plus, I’m sure, a hundred other things that I’m ignorant about). Go easy on the RDs. No-one, least of all them, wants to cancel or postpone events and all are doing as much as they can to find solutions to enable their races to proceed. Hopefully we are starting to get back to conditions where events can more regularly happen, but ‘normal’ might still be a little way off.
Finally, huge thanks again to Matt, Lou and the girls, and all of you for your support and for reading this far. As ever, if you are interested in doing this (or similar) event(s) in the future, then do get in touch – I’d be more than happy to chat. And, for the first time in years, I have no race in the diary at all (for this or any other year), which feels a little strange. I don’t know when I’ll race again and am not feeling in any rush to get plans in the diary. Maybe I’ll consider some ‘non-race’ things after a decent rest. But in the meantime I’d be delighted to support NTR people on their own adventures – e.g., pacing/crewing at events or attempts at FKTs, or whatever. Again, just get in touch.