It’s not supposed to be easy, but should it be this fucking hard? It was dark, somewhere around 11pm on a Saturday night, still hot, clammy. I was retching by the side of the M2. A sign on the fence separating me from the Medway estuary advised me the Samaritans were able to help, and just as my Garmin reminded me that I still had 32 miles to go, I thought I might need to take up their offer…
Rewind. It’s Friday, the day before race start. I’m in the Premier Inn at Farnham, just a few minutes walk from where the race will begin the following morning. Temperatures have been in the mid 30s, and the forecast for tomorrow, whilst slightly cooler, is still way hotter than you’d like for running over 100 miles along the North Downs Way, 103 miles from Farnham, Surrey to Ashford, Kent. All week I’d been fairly obsessively checking the forecast, and when it seemed pretty certain the race would be mid-heatwave, I’d ordered a few new bits of kit to try to mitigate the furnace like conditions on the day. A Sahara cap, with neck protection. White arm sleeves. A white vest. If I looked like an utter twat, at least I’d be slightly less toasty, so that was OK with me.
Race prep had gone well, I’d trained well throughout the year so far, I’d already ran 100 miles twice before (SDW100 and Robin Hood 100 in 2019) and I felt that I was in better condition this year than I was last year, and so I was fairly confident I’d be able to run sub 24 hours on that course in normal weather. But I was pretty scared about what effect the heat was to have on the race… Spoiler alert – it had a massive effect for me and countless others. It was a beast.
100 miles is a long way, and there’s a lot of time for things to go wrong in the best conditions. On a hot day, everything that can go wrong, is more likely to. Blisters, chafing, dehydration, stomach/GI issues, nutrition, sunburn and exhaustion are all potential show-stoppers, and are exponentially more probable in the heat. So it was a nervous evening, unsure of what lay ahead the following day. After an early dinner in the Beefeater next door (vegan burger & fries) I had a cool bath, and got into bed around 8pm, knowing that the night before a race is usually far from the best night’s sleep.
HOLY FUCK IT’S 06:15 and I need to to have started by 07:00!! How did this happen I scream to myself as I look at my watch in disbelief and ask my wife why she didn’t wake me. Hang on. She’s not here. I’m on my own. I’m dreaming. Thank fuck for that. And so on, a fairly fitful night, but more sleeping than waking, and my actual real life alarm goes off at 04:00. Coffee and porridge in hotel room (the standard ultra brekkie) and then a stroll down to the Leisure Centre for a bag drop, then a few mins walk to the start line.
It’s worth noting here that the race start is very far from normal. This is the first Centurion event to actually happen in 2020, everything so far has been cancelled or postponed due to Covid, and some changes have had to be made to allow this to ahead safely for runners, volunteers and civilians. Gone is the mass start, with a time trial approach instead, so you rock up at the starting area between 05:00-07:00, self-seeding with the aim that the faster runners go earlier, with the slower runners nearer to 07:00 which ensure that we’re all spread out on the course right from mile 0. This worked well and there was no bunching on the early part of the course as there often is at these things, but the start line experience was a little less celebratory than normal, but I’ll take that over not having an event for sure. I’d planned on starting at 06:00, but I was there and ready about 10 mins before, so off I went, after having my temperature taken to mitigate Covid risk.
Start to Newlands Corner (0-14.5 miles) The early miles ticked by pretty uneventfully, it was already warmish, and I was eating and drinking well, and keeping a steady pace, chatting to a number of runners as we went. This was the easiest part of the course, with steady terrain and a slight incline after Guildford up towards St Martha’s hill, but 99% runnable. After 2.5 hours I reached the first checkpoint, Newlands Corner. The aid station experience was a little changed also, with runners needing to sanitise on entry and exit of every checkpoint, and also required to fill your own flasks and help yourself to single serving food, so the checkpoints weren’t the normal smorgasbord or party experience, but again it was far preferable to not having the event, and the volunteers were all as encouraging and supportive as ever. The extra safety procedures added little time, and ensured that the race could happen.
Newlands Corner to Box Hill (14.5-24) I made good progress here, still on my 24 hour splits, but knowing that I’d slow as the day grew warmer. So while you shouldn’t generally try to bank miles, this is exactly what I was doing. The descent down through Denbies vineyard was probably one of the fastest sections of the race for me, but I could see Box Hill looming ahead… I hit the (slightly earlier than usual) checkpoint, which was now just before Box Hill, after just over 4 hours. The course had been re-routed here to avoid the crowds of Box Hill, so we were spared much of the ascent up the steps (but I didn’t feel like I was missing out, as there’s plenty more steps to come later, see Detling!)
Box Hill to Reigate Hill (24-31) I’d prepared for this being one of the tougher sections due to it having the most climbing per mile of any section of the day, it didn’t feel that bad as legs were still relatively fresh, and there were plenty of shaded sections. The clouds lingered for longer than forecast, so we were spared some of the predicted heat (for now anyway…). Along the way I was chatting to a runner who was out for a training run along this part of the course, so we shared a few miles with a good conversation and no doubt that helped the time pass. It was around noon when I got to Reigate checkpoint, which was getting a little busy, so they were in the process of setting up another table to save runners from having to queue for a minute or 2.
Reigate to Caterham (31-38) By now it was red hot, so the arm sleeves went on and the neck flap was attached to my cap – full Sahara mode was engaged, and I guess it helped. I didn’t get sunburn anyway, I’m pretty pasty and tend to burn easily, so avoiding a burn was good advantage. Most of this section I was running with a chap called Dave who has run this course a few times and lives locally, so was a great source of knowledge about the route and we ran together until the Caterham checkpoint. At one point we ran right through a churchyard with a wedding in full effect, hopefully the bride and groom appreciated a couple of sweaty runners shouting congratulations to them! I was finding the climbing pretty easy, the hill training I’d been doing had paid off, and at this point I was still eating regularly, but it was definitely getting harder to stick to my pre-planned target of 200-300 calories per hour, which I’m fairly certain was an effect of the heat.
Caterham to Botley (38-43) On paper, just a 5 mile stretch, but fuck me this bit was getting tough. The heat was taking it’s toll, and we passed through what I’d heard referred to as ‘the Devil’s Cornfield’ on the south facing ridge of the Oxted Downs, with a chalky, slanting path reflecting the heat right back at you. I read online after the race that one of the runners measured a temperature in this field of 44.5C FFS This was a field so hot, that the turn into the woods, and up Botley Hill to the highest point of the course felt like a respite, as at least it was shaded. The climb to the checkpoint was tough, with a few runners really starting to struggle by this point. On arrival at the checkpoint, I was ecstatic to be offered a small baggie of ice, most of which I stuffed into my sleeves, with the remainder going into a cup of Pepsi. I took a bag of salty crisps, which took me about an hour to eat. Getting food in was becoming more and more of a problem. I’d been taking a salt pill every hour, and guzzling Pepsi, but not much more than that. I started to worry that this was going to become a problem.
Botley to Knockholt (43-50) On leaving the Botley checkpoint, around 14:30, so 8.5 hours in, I knew that the hottest part of the day was here, and there’d be about 4 hours before any significant cooling, so this stretch consisted of more walking than running, and there was less tree cover to hide in. The half way checkpoint seemed to take forever to arrive, and by now I was fixated on getting to a cold tap to cool down. When I reached Knockholt Village Hall, I dropped my pack and headed straight for the toilets and must have spent a good 5 mins at the sink splashing my head with cold water and submerging my hands in the sink. This did the trick and I went back to the main hall and collected my drop bag. At this point, I realised that the majority of food in my pack that I’d been running with, was still there. I felt like I was getting dehydrated (not been for a single wee since Farnham) and that my electrolytes were out of kilter, so I took another packet of salty crisps, with a couple of cups of icy Pepsi, and headed out again. I passed a village shop, so dashed in for a cold bottle of Fanta, and then back on course, knowing that I’d done almost half the miles, and that in a couple of hours, the worst of the heat would be behind me. At the 50 mile point of an ultra, it’s still too far from the finish to even contemplate it, so it’s still a case of running each section, and with a 10 mile gap until Wrotham, it felt like it was going to be a long section…
Knockholt to Wrotham (50-60, allegedly) Hot as a badger’s arse. Little tree cover. Getting fucking hard now. I put my headphones on and listened to some tunes as I needed to give myself a lift. I passed through the village of Otford, which I’m sure is a lovely place, but it was like a fiery furnace and it felt like the tarmac was radiating the heat back up. Highlight of Otford were 1) 2 actual real life monks, I assume they were following the Pilgrims Way. and 2) the Angels of Otford. The Angels materialised half way up a fucking mean set of steps up out of Otford village, back up on to the Downs. From through their back garden gate, a family had been waiting for passing runners, with a bucket and a hose, and offering to cool us as we ascended the steps. I took full advantage of this, filling my cap with cold water, and having my arms and legs sprayed. This was amazing and really helped pick me up for a while. Not just the actual physical cooling effect of the fresh water, but the thought that people are actively helping us out on such a tough day. Absolute Angels. So now my faith in humanity and ultra running was restored, I was ready to fuck it all up again…
A couple of miles past Otford, I was on autopilot, a bit of running, a bit of walking as it was still hot as balls, but I managed to overtake someone who’d been in front of me for a while. Then a few minutes after overtaking it dawned on me SHIT, no course markers seen for ages. My Garmin would normally beep an ‘off course’ alert, but I’d got it charging and didn’t see the alerts, so it was only on opening up a GPX viewer on my phone that I realised I was off course, and had been so for a about mile. For most of that time I’d made the ultra rookie error of following someone, assuming they knew where they were going. Totally my mistake, I should always pay attention to course markings whether I’m close behind someone or on my own. But when brain is a little baked from the heat, it’s easy enough to lose track of these things. Cursing myself for adding 2 miles to a course that’s already 103 miles long, I backtracked and found the other runner who was also off course, and we located the missed turn, and back on the right course. This was a lack of concentration, not a failure in the course marking.
Anyway, back on the right trail now, and I could hear the distant roaring of the M20, meaning that Wrotham wasn’t too far away, but it felt like it took an age. Just before the checkpoint I was surprised to see Julius, who I manned Detling CP with last year, sat in a chair. Surprised as I knew he was running, he told me that he’d had to drop earlier due to heatstroke, and that many others had too. It was only at this point that it dawned on me how many were not going to reach Ashford, and how crushed many would be by this outcome. Julius though seemed pretty at peace with what had happened and gave me some encouraging words as I moved off towards the checkpoint. I arrived at Wrotham CP around 19:30, More Pepsi and ice, then up and over the M20, and back out…
Wrotham to Holly Hill (60-66) At least the sun was getting lower and the temperature was cooling, but by now the damage was done. I was dehydrated, lacking in food and probably electrolytes too. But buoyed a little by the thought of heading into the cooler night, I headed up the gradual climb to Vigo and Trosley Country Park. I’d reccied this section while staying in the area for work earlier in the year, so this was one of the few sections of the course I knew, and I’d enjoyed the woods at Trosley, so was looking forward to this. But, my recce had only taken me so far, so I didn’t know about a really nasty uneven downhill section leaving the park, but once that was done we had some more wooded sections and field. Then it was time to put the headtorch on, this brought it home to me that was well behind where I’d wanted to be. When planning splits, I’d estimated I’d be at the Medway crossing before needing my headtorch, but it wasn’t to be today… The only highlight of this section was that I finally had to pee! I made it to the CP, but wasn’t in the best of states here, all I really remember was very nearly throwing up in the CP.
Holly Hill to Bluebell Hill (66-76) For me, this was the toughest part of the race by a long way. It had been a long time since I’d been able to stomach food, the last thing I’d been able to eat was about half a Kendal Mint Cake bar way back before Wrotham, and now even drinking was difficult. It took almost 3 hours to get to Bluebell Hill, and it felt like at least double that. I’ve done enough ultras to know that you’re always going to have a shit patch, and that it will usually pass, so I kept telling myself ‘it doesn’t always get worse’. The saving grace of this stretch was that it was getting generally cooler, (although some part of the woods were still very humid). I knew in theory what needed to happen (1) stabilise electrolytes. 2) settle stomach 3) keep dripping in fluid, then 4) get some food in.) And I knew that this might take a while, but at least I had plenty of time. By now I could walk it in and still make cut off at Ashford, though I very much fucking hoped that walking the last 40 miles wouldn’t be necessary. For now though, it was mainly walking, as any running made me very queasy. I was never actually sick, but had been feeling on the edge of it for hours by now. Medway bridge was my low point. I’d gagged taking a salt tab, and was retching by the side of the bridge, at this exact moment my watch decided that now was good time to let me know I had 32 more miles to go. It was at this point that not finishing felt like a real option. It was never enough to make me want to make the decision, but it now seemed like something that might happen. I drew on previous experience, I drew on the supportive messages I’d been getting throughout the race, and I drew on the people who’d donated to my sponsorship page and had helped me raise money for Alzheimers Society. I felt like I’d be letting all these people down if I didn’t finish, so it helped spur me on and keep moving (slowly) forward.
It took forever to cross the Medway bridge, and a moped sped past me, scaring the shit out of me! Finally across the other side, this felt like a landmark. Before the race I’d broken it up into 3 stages. Farnham to Caterham, Caterham to Medway, and then Medway to Finish, so whilst I was by no means on the final stretch, I was at least still in the game, and in the final third of the race. A long gradual walk up to Bluebell Hill, still feeling very sick and unable to run much at all, let alone eat, I finally got there and I’d been craving a cup of tea. 5 minutes in the chair, and 2 cups of tea later and I felt totally reborn. Julius was here again, waiting for his partner Allie (also a veteran of Detling aid station 2019) and just before I left, she and her pacer arrived. We had a quick chat and then I sent off towards Detling…
Bluebell Hill to Detling (76-82) Amazed at how much better I was feeling, this was one of the better stretches of the race. I managed to eat half a clif bar over the course of about 45 mins, and get some water in, with a caffeine pill too. I ran more than I walked, and even the climb up through Boxley woods didn’t feel too hard. Total proof that you can go from feeling shite and ready to drop, to back on form within a heartbeat. Ultras are a strange beast.
A slightly spooky section up through the woods, and then mainly flat skirting some fields, and then the descent into Detling, which I reached around 01:00, or just over 19 hours in. The volunteers outside Detling Village Hall commented on how strong I was looking as I ran down the steps from the crossing into the village hall. One of them told me that today had been total carnage, with almost 100 runners dropping so far, and an expected finish rate below 50%. To put that into perspective, the NDW100 finish rate is usually 65-70%. And accordingly, the CP was very quiet. Last year at Detling we had a Hawaiian party with disco lights and tunes all night, this year it was very subdued due to less runners making it this far, and the Covid measures, which suited me as I wanted to get back out again while I was feeling good. I took a packet of crisps from my drop bag, and probably should have left loads more stuff behind to lighten my pack, but I was still very optimistically carrying loads of food (which spoiler alert – I wouldn’t touch). I ate about half the crisps walking through the village and climbing back up onto the hills, and then… the dreaded Detling section made itself known.
Detling to Lenham (82-91) If you’ve done this race, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re reading this to prepare for running it, then you may want to skip a few lines… After the climb out of Detling, there’s about 4 miles of utter total shit. Nasty ups and downs. Fucking loads of steps, most of which are too big for their own good. The most unkempt, unloved section of the entire trail. Slanty paths. Bits of trail so overgrown you have to duck to avoid the brambles. It made me think just how different the NDW is from SDW. SDW is loved, groomed. Much of NDW is like the dark evil twin. I even laughed out loud as another set of steps came into view. It was here that I met up with Dave from earlier again and we moaned together for a few miles, I was glad of the company. It started getting windy and rainy here too. At first this was a nice novelty when compared with the earlier infernal conditions, but then it got the point where I had to dig out my waterproof. There was a real feeling that NDW was just fucking with me now. And then, a sign: BEWARE THE BULL. Great. Now a fucking killing machine potentially loose somewhere that I wont be able to see until I’m dead. Cheers NDW. Thanks a fucking bunch.
Thankfully the bull never showed, potentially worn out after terrorising and/or maiming earlier runners, and then the trail flattened out. From here on in, all the way to Ashford, it’s pretty much a gradual downhill. And we hit the milestone of ‘only a half marathon to go’ which in itself is a pretty weird situation to be in in the middle of the night, but hey, that’s ultras for you. Then it wasn’t long until we hit the Lenham checkpoint. I stopped for a cup of tea, while Dave pressed on…
Lenham to Dunn Street (91-98) I remember little of this stretch. The trail had opened up and was pretty easy going, gradual downhill with nothing really of note. Along here somewhere dawn started to break, still feeling a little stormy, and I’m pretty certain I saw a distant lighting strike far away. Gradually it got lighter, with actual rays bursting out from behind the clouds, it felt pretty triumphant to know that the end was nearing, and the night was beaten. Not long before the final checkpoint, my watch ticked over to show 100 miles had been done, in just a shade under 24 hours. Not the sub 24 finish I’d originally had my sights set on, but pretty sweet all the same.
Dunn Street to Ashford (98-103) A quick stop at Dunn Street for a Pepsi, then onto what was actually the final stretch. I was feeling good and running a fair chunk of the time. It felt good to turn off the NDW for the last few miles as it was proof of nearly being done. At points throughout the night, the remaining mileage seemed insurmountable, intangible, but now it really was just a handful of miles, and they dropped away seemingly effortlessly. I put my headphones on for a final boost, and before I knew it I was running (yes properly running) to the soundtrack of thumping techno through the outskirts of Ashford, overtaking a couple of runners on the way. The last couple of miles were sub 10 minute miles, which is pretty far from Jim Walmsley standards, but felt to me like I was flying. The track came into view and all my emotions came out. I’m usually pretty reserved, but it all came out in that last 400 meters. Despite the heat, the hills, and the fucking steps, I’d made it. Despite messing up my hydration and nutrition, I’d made it. I’d proved to myself that I can keep going, and that that I can finish. It wasn’t pretty, but I’d done it.
Ashford. 105.88 miles, 25 hours and 5 minutes from Farnham.
After collecting buckle and t shirt, I saw RD James and blurted out ‘James that was fucking awful!’ Hopefully he got that I was referring to the conditions, and not dissing his faultless race organisation! Massive respect to the whole Centurion crew, from staff, to volunteers, to runners and anyone crewing on the day. It was a hard day out, evidenced by the final 45% finishing rate. But for Centurion to even get a race started in 2020 is a huge achievement, and as usual, it was impeccably done. Well done James, Nici and crew.
The usual finish line celebrations were a little subdued understandably, no high fives, no hugging, but that was fine. There was grass space just on the edge of the track for finished runners to decompress and swap battle stories for a while, which is exactly what I did until my parents (who’d got up at the crack of dawn to come and collect me) arrived with plenty of drinks and snacks, and drove me all the way back to Farnham. (Thank you so much)
Reflections: I’m writing this on Tuesday evening, having spent a couple of days mainly sleeping and eating. It’s hard to process an event like this, and it’s only in writing this that a lot of it has come back to mind and I’m able to reflect on the totality of the race.
I can’t say that everything went to plan, I don’t think it ever does when running an ultra, but I’m more proud of that finish than any other race I’ve done so far. Conditions were tough, the heat was a killer and was no doubt the main factor for many of the 130 or so who didn’t make it. NDW100 is a tough course on the best of days, let alone 2020…
Kit: Shoes: Altra Olympus 3.5, very comfortable, very cushioned. I could have got away with road shoes as the course was so dry, but as I had a pair of cushioned trail shoes, I went with them. Socks: Injinji mid-weight trail. Same pair from the start, I felt no need to change socks or inspect my feet, and only got 2 small blisters. Shorts: Montane 2SK, not even a hint of chafage in the nether regions! Top: Raidlight performance tank, this was bought race week when I knew it was going to be hot and wanted some light coloured kit. It was great, very comfortable, I’ll never know if the light colour made a difference. The vest has a few pockets on the back, which were great for storing half eaten bags of McCoys and gel wrappers etc. Cap: Raidlight Sahara. I was very grateful of the neck flap in late afternoon, and I’m certain that this helped cool me and avoid a burned neck. Pack: UD Mountain Vest 4. Love this vest, roomy and comfortable. But I carried way too much stuff with me, loads of food I never touched and spare drinks powder, so I need to work on being efficient with what I carry next time.