North Downs Way 50 – 2017

The lead up to this race wasn’t exactly perfect. Having gone 100% injury free in 2016, which included a number of marathons and a top ten finish to a half marathon, I was looking forward to my training build plan for this race only to fall foul of the cold weather, and ended up spending most of February and half of March laid up. I therefore had ten weeks to train up.

I spent a good few weekends testing the terrain and reccying the route, which I must say is beautiful: stunning views across the Surrey hills, and a number of monuments and places of interest on the way too. I finished off my training plan with my first 3 Forts marathon two weeks previous to the big event, with a sub 5 hour finish.  3 Forts gave me the confidence to believe that I could go the distance.

The race starts in Farnham, Surrey at a school near to the railway station. The Centurion team and their band of willing volunteers do a very good job of ensuring you have your mandatory kit with you, so don’t go thinking mandatory means anything other than that. They’ve disqualified people for not having it. James did his usual succinct and amusing race briefing, and then sent us on our way to the race start.

It was a short walk from race HQ to the start, inauspiciously set on the side of the A31 Farnham by-pass.  A few moments of quiet contemplation, and then we were off. The first few miles are very much an indication of what to expect later, but with a distinct lack of elevation change!  I wanted to ensure I didn’t go off too fast, and had started fairly near the back of the race group – a standard practice for me. In addition Darren, my partner in crime and more experienced ultra runner, also kept me in check. We did the whole race together.

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The race is essentially split into two (rough) halves. Halfway is at the top of Box Hill. The first half contains a lot of views like the one above and below:IMG_1361

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The second half contains a lot more climbing, so we were keen not to over-cook the first half with nothing left available in the second.

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Puttenham aid station. Photo by Stuart March Photography (http://www.stuartmarchphotography.co.uk)

We reached Guildford in good time, and were met with a wonderful view of the ‘unofficial’ bacon sarny barge of Allan Rumbles. The barge is well known in Centurion Running folklore, and was a welcome chance to refuel. I felt privileged to have been served! However, I wasn’t sure if they dressed like this every year!

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The route so far had been pretty kind, and it was about to get a little ‘interesting’.  The first of a few tougher climbs was around the corner- Martha’s Hill. I’d been there a few times, but only to start races, not run through. We walked it well, and were met with the wonderful views at the top.

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The photos don’t really do the views justice!

Quarter distance done. We carried on through woods, and enjoyed a quick stop at Newlands Corner aid station. Take on water, eat as much as you can in 2 minutes. Mainly fruit and chocolate!

The next section was pretty quick, as it floated nicely through the top of the downs, through woods to the top of Denbies wine estate. From the top, it’s a wonderful two-mile stretch of down-hill looping through the grounds. I couldn’t help myself from letting my legs do what they wanted through there.

At the bottom you navigate the A24 by way of an under-pass, to rejoin the NDW at the stepping stones crossing the river Mole.

I must admit to being a little trepidatious about these stepping stones. I had concerns that I would be so shot at this point that I’d struggle not to fall in. I needn’t have worried. There’s an aid station just before, so again we filled up on goodies, and waited our turn to cross. Yes, it’s a public footpath, and we had to wait a few minutes while “hobble-de-hoys” coming the other way made their way across. To be fair, I’m guessing they’d been waiting on their side for a while, letting runners across!

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Stuart, the event’s official photographer was on hand to capture the event! It doesn’t look like I was walking across gingerly does it?!?

Immediately after the crossing you have a short time to gather your thoughts before you start the next challenge: Box Hill.

It’s half a mile of steps – average 20% incline. No way to run it, at all. But the views at the top were immense!

The next few miles were spent running through woods, along the side of roads, getting us to the next hill tester – Reigate Hill. From memory of reccying it, I remembered it going on for much longer than it actually did! The views from the top again are stunning, and there are a few monuments around here – Reigate Fort, The Inglis Memorial, B17 plane crash site, pill boxes… and then the Reigate Hill National Trust car park. This was an official aid station, but also had a cafe nearby. During reccying we had a very welcome cup of tea there, so we did the same today. Tea is my saviour in races like this, and I ordered the biggest cup they had. Very good value – £1.50 for a half pint of tea!

From Reigate Hill we went downhill and then through Gatton Park school, mildly regretting I’d bought the larger cup of tea(!). Out the other side of the school and we were then running through Reigate Hill Golf Club, and over the M25 and A23 at Merstham.

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St Katherine’s Church, Merstham at a quarter past three! Clock was on time!

Past the church, under the M23, and we were met with this view:

 

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This was another of the hills. This one wasn’t too bad. Not too steep, and not too long, but you knew you’d done it when you’d got to the top.

We ran through some more woods (it’s a woody route!)

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Looking back to where we came

…and came to the next aid station. More refilling. My joke about booking a table with a view didn’t really go down too well… …and then Darren was pushing us out the other side of the aid station and onwards through more woods, and across the A22.

We noticed another runner join the route at this point from the wrong direction. From the speed he shot off ahead of us we wondered just how far off-course he’d gone – within half a mile he was gone, and we never saw him again.

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Typical terrain between miles 40 and 45

The next few miles were again through the woods (natch!), with the wonderful smell of wild garlic filling our nostrils.

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At Gangers Hill, we were met with more steps – down this time – for no apparent reason.

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We were met at the bottom of these stairs by amateur photographer extraordinaire and consummate crew to the stars, Jon Lavis. He gave us a few words of encouragement before we carried on.  The next few miles were spent along the edges of fields at the bottom of the escarpment. I had a concern at the back of my mind that at some point we would have to go back uphill, as I’d checked the final 6 miles and knew that it started at the top of the escarpment.

At this point we were wondering whether or not a sub 11 hour finish time was on the cards. We continued to push the pace to see if it was possible. Every time we slowed to a walk we’d give ourselves a few minutes then one or the other would say, “Come on, we can do this”, and we’d pick up the pace again.

The concern I had a few miles back didn’t go away, and was proved right – we hit Pitchfont Lane (and the highest point of the course) not having reccied this bit. It was a grind! Man, was it a grind! but we were met at the top with the final aid station. They had tea! I gratefully took a sugary cup.

So, we were 7 miles from the end at this point, and just over 9 1/2 hours in. The next couple of miles would tell us whether we were in shape for a sub 11 hour race. We reached Park Wood Golf club at Tatsfield at 10 hours. 6 miles to go? sub 11 wasn’t possible. We then took it easy. No point killing yourself if you can’t reach the goal.

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The rest of the race was spent running by the edge of fields (like the one above).

through more woods, and round the edge of fields, and we were almost there – I’d been warned that we’d see the finish line long before we got there, and it was true. Across the field, like a mirage the finish gantry was sitting across the fields looking inviting. But I knew we had to keep going to the end of the field, turn left down the lane, and into the village to reach it.  We steadied our resolve, gave ourselves a talking to, and kept moving forward. At last, we reached the road to the village, and our pace picked up. It was downhill, to the end, into the village, turn left, left again, slight incline (you notice uphills a bit more at 50 miles in!), and crossed the line.

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Official Finishers’ medal and a smile on my face. This photo is another reason to do this race. Stuart is a brilliant photographer (Photo by Stuart March Photography)

So, that was that. My first 50 miler completed. How did I feel?

Well, not as bad physically as I thought I would. I’m writing this a week on, and can remember thinking on the Monday after the race that it wasn’t the worst race I’ve done. All I had to show for it (which I didn’t I might add!) were a couple of blisters. The rest of me felt remarkably unscathed by the whole event. Having done a couple of ultras in recent years of shorter distances with less elevation, I remember feeling a lot worse after those than this one.

What have  I learnt from this experience? What can I say I did well?

  • nutrition – I ate well. I don’t mean I had organic, or were fine dined with roast pheasant etc., I mean at each aid station I ate something. Not too much, but enough to keep my stomach busy.
  • Hydration – similarly I ran with a Camelbak (actually it was Decathlon) and I took sips literally every 3-4 minutes.
  • Salt – S-Caps. Every hour on the hour, it was S-Cap o’clock. I’m certain this regime helped every bit as much as the previous two.
  • No need to worry. What happens, happens. 38 miles was the furthest race I’d done before this one, so once we’d reached 38 miles (and every mile after Darren congratulated me for achieving my longest run), I took stock of how I felt, and I knew it was in the bag.
  • There’s no such thing as the perfect race. And there’s no such thing as the perfect training plan. Go with the flow, listen to your body, and it’ll tell you if it’s not right.

And what would I recommend to people considering this race?

Do it! It’s a lovely route, full of surprises, but make sure you don’t go off too fast at the beginning, as it’ll bite you at the other end. The Centurion team look after you, and the medal, t-shirt, and official photos are all top-notch. To me, Centurion races set a standard to which all others attempt to live up to, in terms of professionalism.

I would also recommend  you reccy the route. Not necessarily all, but definitely from Box Hill to the end.

I am now seriously looking forward to doing another. Watch this space…

 

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