SDW100 2022: Race Report

aka the one that was Fucking Glorious

Some you win, some you lose. OK so clearly I was nowhere near actually winning this one, but what I mean is that when it comes to 100s, some are a struggle, some are a proper shitshow, most are a mix of everything, but this one was 97% glorious. Bizarre. Unheard of. Amazing.

Some background. In the 12 months past, I’d run:

North Downs Way 100. August 2021. Torrential rain for the morning, so a bit of a mudbath from there on in, but a respectable 22:55 finish, which considering the conditions I was pretty pleased with. I enjoyed most of the day/night, up to the infamous Detling section which was even re horrific with the added factor of having to grab on the brambles to avoid slipping on the massively overgrown jungle section. And t

Robin Hood 100. Sept 2021. (the aforementioned shitshow). 5 weeks after NDW, went out a bit too fast on almost no sleep from the night before and the wheels fell right the fuck off. Fell over. Stung by a wasp. Dehydrated in the middle of the day. Feeling sorry for myself. Death march last 20 miles. Finished in 22:53, which on the face of looks OK, but the 2nd half was a real struggle. Only 2 mins faster than the 3 miles longer and very much hillier NDW, and far more annoyingly, 1 bastard single minute longer than when I did this race in 2019. I should have been much faster, and more to the point, I didn’t enjoy much of this race. It’s a great event, but it wasn’t my day. I’ll be back at this race for sure to make it right in a year or 2.

Thames Path 100. May 2022. Huge hopes a few weeks out from this. First of 4 races for the Centurion Grand Slam. I finally had all 4 events lined up, so hugely looking forward to the series of races and the massive buckle come October. The training block of 1000 miles in 1000 days had worked and I was seeing some of the best training runs. Looking forward to besting my time of 19:33 from last year, which felt very doable. And then… fucking Covid. 3 weeks out from race day. Shit. I felt grim for around a week, with lingering fatigue after, but nowhere near as severe as many others, so I can’t moan too much. I’d tested negative about 9 days from race day, so it was up in the air as to whether I’d start or not, but a couple of shorter runs felt OK, so I thought I’d give it a go. Too late to refund either race place or accommodation by this point too. Ended up with a DNF at Reading, 60 miles in. First 20 miles or so were fine, but from then on I knew I still wasn’t right, it wasn’t getting any better, and wasn’t going to. I was worried about delaying recovery more by continuing through the night, so I pulled the plug. First DNF since 2016 which really pissed me off, especially as I sat in my hotel room at 11pm, watching the live tracking when I should have still been out on the course. But looking back it was the right decision. An early end to the Grand Slam though. Nevermind. Fuck it. Move on.

So since then I’d not trained much, so I knew that a lot of that fantastic training block had gone down the pan, but with some very adjusted expectations, I was reasonably confident of a finish at SDW, but not the 21 hour-ish finish that I’d have had my sights set on before that pesky virus.

Goals for the day:

  • A Goal – best case scenario with the planets aligned and the wind behind me: 22 hours
  • B Goal – an acceptable outcome: 24 hours
  • C Goal – a reasonable outcome if the day’s not gone to plan: a finish within 30 hour cut off. Even 29:59 would be better than another DNF.
  • BUT overarching goal is to be sensible and enjoy as much of it as I can.

I’d arrived in Winchester by train on Friday afternoon. With the platform full of nervous looking people with tags on their backpacks it was easy to spot fellow runners and I met Ralph who was staying in the hotel across the road from me and we walked together through Winchester. After checking in I set out to have a quick walk, met King Alfred and had a quick meal (vegan burger & chips) from the local Spoons (lazy option!), it was a very early night. Taxi was booked for 03:45, so I got my head down for 19:30. Sleep wasn’t great, it never is before these things, but acceptable.

Race morning. I’d woken many times throughout the night, and at about 02:50 I gave up trying to sleep and got the kettle on. Coffee and a porridge pot, standard hotel race breakfast. Outside I met David and Keiran who had had arranged to share the taxi. The cabbie was punctual but humourless. Perhaps he was just confused by all these weirdos in Winchester at this time of the morning.

It was still dark when we arrived at Registration, as it opened. I’d booked the cab a little earlier than it needed to be to allow for any probs with it not showing up (as has happened at NDW in the past). The registration process was smooth, other than the toilet queue. For the first time, Centurion had designated certain Portaloos as male and female, so there was an enormous queue for the man, while ladies walked straight in with several portaloos sitting empty. Anyway, as night turned to day I queued and by the time I’d ‘completed the mission’, it was daylight and time for race briefing, then on the dot of 5am…. we’re off.

The first part of SDW100 is a couple of loops through the Matterley estate before heading out on the SDW proper. This was a little different from when I’d last done the race in 2019, a little longer, I guess James Elson the RD got sick of people talking about it being short. As we ran round the top of the natural amphitheatre of Matterley Bowl, the sun was rising above the horizon, it was a staggeringly beautiful start to the day

3.7 miles on the watch when we hit the SDW, by this time the pack had thinned, with the leaders going off at a brave/crazy pace. A mile or 2 in, I met up with Chris, who I’d met whilst volunteering at SDW50 a couple of months back. We got chatting, keeping a steady pace and before we knew it, CP1 at Beacon Hill.

It got warm early on, so we kept the pace conservative. Early on I knew we were more on pace for a c24 hour finish than my A goal of 22, but that was fine. the real aim for the day was to finish feeling OK. So the idea of taking the first half steady, then seeing what was left for the second half was OK with me.

A few impressions struck me as we made our way from Beacon Hill to QECP, to Harting, to Cocking and onwards.

Huge swathes of the course felt unfamiliar, I’d forgotten so much of the course from 2019. I’ve run the back half a couple of times in the SDW50, so I’m reasonably familiar with that, but the first 50 is a bit of an unknown.

It was also much hillier than remembered/expected. I’d had it in my head that the 2nd half was tougher, but actually looking at the numbers, just over half the ascent is in the front half, and the trail tends to be flintier earlier, with more easy grassy stretches later.

I was wearing my fairly new Altra Mont Blancs. Tested on a couple of 20ish mile runs so far, Chris also had the same, (as I think did Darryl who I meter later on. Popular shoes for this kind of event clearly). And funnily enough we’d both noticed that it was a little awkward to get them tightened right, feet were sliding a little on some of the descents, so needed to stop for a quick shoe adjustment, somewhere just after QECP I think.

Chris and I had picked up a couple of others, and for a while we ran in a group of 4 with Mark, who’d met at TP100 just before I dropped, and Ollie who was running his first 100. The chat was good and the miles ticked by pretty easily. Mark was regaling with us with tales of some truly epic adventures including Thames Ring and Monarch’s Way.

Another impression that struck me was that I was so much more enjoying the variety of SDW compared with the relative monotony of the Thames Path. Having hills and changes of view made the trail so much more enjoyable than endless towpath. There was far more a feeling a proper journey, a quest, an adventure. And it was still a beautiful day, barely a cloud, but getting a little warm. Massive thanks to the crew of another runner that we kept on seeing a crew points throughout the day, who had a spray gun to cool us all down, thank you! A brilliant example of how crews tend to look after, encourage and support all runners, not just their own.

At some point along here: a wheat field laid out on gentle downhill incline before me, rippling in wind, under a clear blue sky, with the hills in the distance.

After Cocking, Mark and Ollie had split off, and I continued with Chris. We walked a lot here as it was the heat of the middle of the day, not as bad as the infernal hellfire of NDW2020, only low 20s, but still enough to get sunburned, dehydrated and fuck the rest of your race if you didn’t adjust to the conditions. So we ran any downhills, but mainly walked the rest, aiming to conserve energy for later. I was eating and drinking to plan, a salt tab every now and then, and getting some factor 50 on. So slower than planned, but everything else going well, and I wasn’t at all bothered about a slower pace at this stage.

The Houghton CP at 46ish miles took forever to arrive, and we’d both ran out of fluids a couple of miles earlier, so it was nice to have a stop here, replenish and grab some bits of fruit. By this point we’re about 9 hours in, so around 14:00. The climb up out of Amberley was the biggest of the day so far, and in the heat of the afternoon we took it slow, and it was a bit of a slog, but knowing that by the time we’d hit the next CP, it would be well over halfway, helped push us on up the hill.

Eventually topping out and hitting the ridge which would continue for a few miles before dropping down to Washington and the main halfway CP, I bade farewell to Chris as I wanted to push on a little, and he wanted to hang back. Soon my watch beeped for mile 50 at 10 hours 20 mins. This was slower than when I’d done this in 2019 as my first hundred, and much slower than my usual half time split, but again, I wasn’t bothered at all. Normally I’d be griping a little at being behind track, as now even a sub 24 was looking questionable, but I was far more pleased with the fact that I was going into the half way point feeling stronger and less tired than ever before on a 100 miler in general, and more specifically I was so much better than I’d been at TP100. I wasn’t going to count my chickens yet, but it was certainly feeling like the fucking Covid had properly backed the fuck off and wasn’t going to ruin my day this time round. On the approach to Washington I was chatting with Darryl, who I’d see on and off for the rest of the journey.

I hit the Washington CP at 11 hours 2 mins, aiming to be out in 10 mins. Over the years I’ve got better at not hanging around at CPs too much as they can suck time from your race. Key to this, is having what you need, no more, no less, in your drop bag. Don’t pack everything ‘just in case’ you won’t need it. Enough to top up drinks/snacks and a few extras. But before drop bag faffing, I needed to take a dump as I didn’t fancy a wild poo later on, and here I queued for at least 5 mins, but spent some of this time splashing my face with cold water from the sink. Load lightened, I went to switch out a few items from drop bag and made sure I had headtorches which were now mandatory kit on leaving this CP. I generally don’t bother changing socks or shoes, or tops unless they’re inappropriate for the conditions ahead eg you need something warmer. Changing a sweaty top for a clean one, or same with socks, will feel great for a minute, then the benefit is lost, and you’ve taken time for no real purpose. It’s also best not to see your feet, if it doesn’t hurt, no need to look, best not to know. I’d left some warmer gear for night time in my next bag for Housedean which was 22 miles and a few hours away, so I was hoping not having them here wasn’t a mistake.

It took me 20 mins in the end to get done at the CP, and after the climb back out of Washington, meeting the SDW again near Chanctonbury Ring, I was feeling good and almost clocked a sub 10 minute mile, steady on there! Now I was on more familiar ground, having run the course from here as part of the SDW50 a couple of time. The stretch to Botolphs was fairly uneventful and I made decent time here. The day was cooling, still warm but less so than a few hours back, and still a stunning day, with the Downs looking more beautiful than ever. Fucking glorious. This is what it’s all about. I was pleasantly tired by now, enough to dim my thoughts, and to just focus on moving forward and looking around to enjoy the day.

From Botolphs the climb up to Truleigh Hill was taken steadily, last time I’d done on SDW50 I’d ran up here at a fair pace – not today! I still wasn’t interested in pushing anything, the steady approach was working well, as I was 100k in now, and still feeling relatively good. This was a bit of a milestone, as it was past the point where I’d DNF’d at TP1000 last month. At a car park near the top, I had a surprise visit from an old school friend who was out for a cycle on the Downs, it was great to see him and it broke up the miles, so I really appreciated the effort made to find me en route.

Before I knew it, it was Devil’s Dyke and the CP at Saddlescombe, it rolls round fast as it’s only about 5 miles inbetween. At Saddlescombe I saw Ollie from earlier on the day, he’d been suffering with some stomach issues but was struggling on. I had a cup of black tea here to take for the walk up the hill out of the CP. In fact I had tea at virtually every CP from here onwards. If it’s good enough for Damian Hall… Drinking my tea as I left the CP, I reflected on the fact that I was now two thirds of the way through, out of the middle section, into the final section. I’m always glad to be out of the middle phase as that’s the one that often caused me trouble. I think it was around here that I saw Mark again as well, we seemed to keep pretty close to each other for most of the day and night

It was in the 10mile stretch between Saddlescombe and Housedean that day turned towards night. It was a beautiful time of the evening. It had cooed now and I was positively looking forward to the night stage. I love running in the dark, and was looking forward to being able to go through the night hopefully stronger than I ever have done before.

I always forget about that nasty little hill just before the CP and it always gets me. Into the Housedean CP and I saw Sy who I’d met volunteering at SDW50 in April, it was great to hear how well she’d got on at NDW50 recently as she filled my drinks and got my bag. Every single volunteer all day and night was super helpful and enthusiastic, so huge thanks to all involved.

From my dropbag here, as well as Tailwind and snacks (gels at this stage) I had a thin hoodie that I shoved in pack, unsure if I’d need it, but thought it wise to take it. I changed here into a slightly warmer T shirt than the thin vest I’d had on all day, and picked up a pair of arm sleeves. These are a great piece of kit, give a little extra warmth and you can roll up or down as need, they even have a bit that you can use as a kind of glove if necessary. Somehow I spent 20 mins here without really knowing how. It felt like a quick chat and dealing with my bag, but must have been a few longer chats!

By the time I left it was definitely headtorch time, and another big climb after the CP, but its went by pretty quick, and then its a case of another few miles along the ridge before dropping down for Southease. Once on the ridge I was pretty consistent and I managed a few 10 and 11 minute miles here. Not bad for me at 80 miles and around 18 hours deep in the race. I realised here that I was picking up a lot of the time that I’d lost in the afternoon, though there was still a way to go, and enough miles left to not get too excited. But I was quietly confident by this stage, I was still doing OK on food and drink, with a caffeine pill here and there, and more than anything, still enjoying being out on the hill on a beautiful evening. The descent down to Southease came quickly, and a few of uus all ran into Southease together. At the CP I had a chat with Lesley, who I’d manned this very checkpoint with last year, ate an orange, and a few other bits, and got another tea for the walk up the beast of hill up to Firle Beacon. This has been my nemesis in the past as it goes on for ever and ever and ever. It’s still a beast of a hill, but I was better prepared to deal with it.

Walking up towards Firle, I look back behind me. It’s very dark by now, around 23:30, but this is one of my favourite views of the SDW, a long spread-out string of dots of light at various points across the valley. Many many points of light. Some are alone, some in pairs, some small groups. All part of this journey from Winchester, moving across the Downs throughout the night. It’s beautiful to see and really emphasises the aspect of the journey, and of the community. I take a minute to look back and admire it, wondering if any of those points of light are looking at this point of light up on the hill. It’s a real moment that sums up what this ridiculous sport is all about.

I move on. There’s a patch up here where it suddenly gets a bit misty and spooky. I love it. It’s magical. It doesn’t last long, then it’s down into Alfriston and I’m now counting down miles in single figures. I hit the Alfriston CP in a a few mins under 20 hours and it hits me that my 22 hour goal is actually right back in the picture now. Yes there’s a couple of climbs yet, 1 big, the other big enough, and a nasty gnarly descent after Jevington, but all doable in 2 hours. But I do want to stop at the CP, they have plenty of fruit here so I wolf down chunks of pineapple and a few strawberries whilst waiting for my tea.

Leaving the CP I team up with Darryl again, and we chat as we start to make our way up the big climb, knowing that this is the last big climb we face, and that we’re all but certain to get a finish, and a time that we can proud of. We catch a few others on the way up, and for a short time there a small group of us. I stop for a wee at the top and can’t quite catch up afterwards, it’s at this point that I start to feel it, and my pace does slow along this stretch. I’m still able to get a quick jog in at points, but it’s more walking than running now. Which is fine, as I’m still quite happy, not the ‘fuck it all I’m never doing this again’ death march that so often appears in the final stages of these things.

A bit of a trot down into Jevington, but the ground here is a little tricky at this stage, so it’s not quick. I go straight by the CP, no need to stop at this stage, only 4 miles to go. The climb out of Jevington is nowhere as big as the previous one, out of Alfriston, but it always feels a monster as it’s the last hill of the race and it seems to grow and goes on for longer than it has any right to, …and then, and then, you’re at the top, at the trig point, you can see Eastbourne laid out down below, just one descent between you and the town. But the Gully of Doom, as it’s affectionately known, is a nasty fucker of a descent. A rooty, gnarly, stony, uneven bitch of a mile. With a fallen tree that is just a bit too low to go under, and just a bit too high to go over. I curse this tree as I stare at it. Anyway, it’s all in the game so just get on with it.

I nearly slip a few times, and I take this stretch slow, probably too slow to get in under 22 hours, but I’m not that bothered about a minute or 2. More bothered about a twisted ankle or a bashed hip. I get it done, and then it’s through the gate and onto the road for the final 2 mile approach to the Track of Dreams.

I put my headphone on here, having not even touched them for the previous 21 hours and 40 minutes, but now I want a little boost. I have a playlist set up called ‘FinalHours’ for these exact moments. The one that comes on first is Final Frontier by Underground Resistance. That’ll do. Then it’s acid house classic Promised Land by Joe Smooth. It does the trick. Nearing the hospital. Less than a mile to go. I run the final stretch to the sounds of Acid Eiffel by Laurent Garnier, a deep atmospheric but driving track. One of my all time favourite techno tunes, and often the last tune of the night in a club environment too. A tune that used to be the end of a marathon DJ set at the End in London is now the closing moments for an ultramarathon, how times change, but the emotions are the same.

As the tune throbs and builds, I round the corner and see glimmers of light in the sky. I turn off through the carpark of the sports centre, then turn right onto the track to the sheers and encouragement of assorted volunteers, staff, runners and crew. The final lap of the track is an excellent to chance to reflect on and celebrate the race you’ve just run. It’s usually a pretty emotional experience and today is no different. I manage an almost sprint for the final 100 metres and get home in 22:04:46.

I recover with cup of tea, and a vegan hot dog from Nick Sheffield, swapping battle stories and congratulations with a few other finishers. Before long I see Mark cross the line and I have a chat with him, he’s off to do a 200 mile race in the Welsh mountains the following week. Of all the stories I hear at the finish line, perhaps my favourite is from James, who I believe broke his arm around mile 60 and finished the race in a sling, around 4 mins quicker than me. That’s commitment to getting a finish.

On reflection, I’m very happy with the way the race went. I enjoyed the vast majority of it, felt strong until very near the end of the race. A good result considering the month or so leading up to it, and I’d spent time with some great people out on course, so a fantastic day overall. And I’d laid to rest the spectre of the TP100 DNF, regaining confidence that I can do these things. A perfect day on the Downs.

Massive thanks to all involved in the event in any way: Centurion staff, volunteers, runners, crew, pacers and supporters.

Thames Path 100 – A Race Report

8 May 2021

For the uninitiated, the Centurion Thames Path 100 is a 100 mile footrace along the Thames, from Richmond in London, to Oxford. The route follows the Thames for the vast majority of the course, with a few minor diversions away from the river. This also means it’s flat, very flat. Not entirely flat, as the bridges have some elevation, and there is one short, hilly section around 68 miles. But other than that: flat. Which is a novelty in ultra world, and one that presents a different challenge. Don’t be lulled here into a false sense of security, thinking it’s easy because it’s flat. Repeat after me “there’s no such thing as an easy hundred” Faster than an average hilly course, yes, but the flatness creates extra challenges, I was crying out at some points for a Southease, or a Detling-esque section to provide some variation, more of this later…

Pre-race stuff: Training had been good. I’d taken part in the virtual Spine in Jan, and the Centurion virtual Double Slam in Feb-Mar, so my Jan-Apr mileage was averaging a little under 300 miles per month, making it the most consistent high volume training block I’ve ever done. I’d upped my estimate of what I was capable of doing at TP100, I was looking for a sub-20 finish here, which would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, but now seemed within reach, with the tantalising possibility of a sub-19 if the planets aligned and the wind was behind me. This was my first attempt at TP100, but I knew a bit about it, having chatted to runners at other events, and read up on plenty of online race reports to get a feel for what I was in for.

I’d had to change accommodation/travel plans a little way out from race weekend. Original plan was to stay in Richmond Travelodge the night before, then get a hotel in Oxford afterwards. Unfortunately hotels were still closed to leisure travel (pesky Covid) but self-contained accommodation was a goer, so I booked an AirBnB in Oxford for Friday to Monday. I chose a place just a few minutes walk from the finishing area to make the post-race experience as easy as possible, and also easy to get back to collect drop bags the following morning.

This just left the question of how to get from Oxford to the start line on the Saturday morning. My original plan was to get the train, but it would have meant getting the first train out of oxford at 03:55, with 2 changes and a bus replacement for part of the journey. Fuck that. Now I’m no train snob, I’m more than happy to travel by train, but this wasn’t going to work, I needed a lower hassle way to get to Richmond, so I booked a taxi. The taxi wasn’t cheap, but it was about £35 more than the train (plus cab to station in the morning) would have cost, so when I worked out that for £35 I was buying myself an easy morning with 2 hours extra in bed, it was clear that it was money well spent.

Friday evening I arrived at the AirBnB and settled in, then took a walk to the Queens College Recreation ground, so that I’d know exactly the route to get back after the race. Seeing the finishing field got the excitement going for the race weekend ahead. I had an early dinner of vegan burritos and Kettle Chips (classy), and got into bed for 8pm, knowing the night before an ultra is rarely the best of sleeps. I had a fairly typical pre-race dream where I found myself at a checkpoint working out timings, and that I was right on the cusp of the cut-off.

After a fairly fitful night, the alarm went off at 04:00. Plenty of time for breakfast and final kit check. Breakfast was a porridge pot, coffee and a banana. The taxi arrived bang on the dot of 05:30 (I can totally recommend Blackberry Cars for a long distance cab journey) and we were off. I was so grateful to be sat inside a warm, comfy Merc rather than going by train and hanging about on wet windy platforms for connections…

A note about the weather. All week I’d been obsessively checking the weather, as is standard practise for race week. The race briefing issued via Youtube on Wed had referred to some pretty extreme rain and wind. James Elson reassuringly told us that the forecast may improve, before adding “It may also get worse” Fuck. Running all day and night in the pissing rain and howling wind is no fun at all, so it was with relief, that the forecast gradually improved throughout the week. Not much though, but rather than torrential rain all day, it was now only due to rain in the morning, with the wind also over 40mph for only a few hours later, rather than all day.

Traffic was light, so we made it to Richmond Town Hall in an hour, 30 mins earlier than planned, and before the 07:00 start time. It was a rolling start, due to Covid regs, with runners starting from 07:00 through to 09:30. I’d planned on a 07:30 start, but I wasn’t going to wait around in the rain for an hour, so decided to go as soon as I was able to.

At the town hall, it was a pretty efficient system for dropping drop and finish line bags and collecting the trackers that are a new feature for 2021. Then a short wait outside until it was time to go.

I was about the tenth runner to leave, just after 07:00. It’s still a little weird to not have the usual buzz of the start line, but I don’t mind a rolling start at all. It’s less stress on race morning as you’re not aiming for a set time, and there’s no crowding or bunching in the early miles. You can go at your own pace, rather than carried along/held up by those around you.

It was raining pretty hard, so waterproof jacket and gloves were on, but the temperature was good. Early miles along the river passed uneventfully, on target pace pretty effortlessly. I had to consciously slow myself a few times, reminding myself there was a long way to go.

The first of many (20ish?) river crossings came about 5 miles in, just before Hampton Court. The path was quiet, with runners already spread out, a few dog walkers, and several groups of rowers on the river. It wasn’t busy, but was odd to be running a long ultra in a built up area. This also meant it was harder to find an appropriate spot when the first loo stop was needed. Number 1 only, so it wasn’t long before a suitable bush cropped up.

I’d prepared a sheet with split times for a 19 and 21 hour finish, and was comfortably inside the 19 hour splits when I got to the first CP at 10 miles, having averaged a little under 9 mins per mile for the first stretch. The aim was to stick to the 19 hours splits for as long as it felt comfortable, and back off if I needed to. A quick stop at the CP to refill drinks and grab a malt loaf bar. This was the only CP I had to wait at, whilst the runner in front fumbled with his bottles, but this was only a minute or so, so not a problem. (Always loosen the lids of your soft flasks before arriving at the CP, they’re a fucker when you have sanitiser all over your hands. Same for adding in your drinks powder. Do this before the CP, so all you’re doing while you’re there is adding the fluid, not faffing about)

From Walton, the next CP was Wraysbury, at around 22.5 miles. I kept a similar pace for this section. I put my headphones on shortly after leaving Walton CP and kept them on for the vast majority of the rest of the race, which is unusual for me, but as the field is so spread out, you can be alone for hours at a time. Not something that bothers me, as long as I can have some music along the way. Miles 14/15ish were through Shepperton, which was the most sparsely marked section of the course, and I was very grateful to have the GPX on my watch. I’d have got worried about being lost otherwise. I hadn’t expected to need to think much about navigation on this race, but there were many points throughout where the Thames Path takes a weird little turn into an alley, through a churchyard, a housing estate, or bizarrely through some odd deserted car park on the edge of (I think) Staines. Don’t take nav for granted on this one, have your wits about you, or you can easily end up on the wrong side of the river having missed a bridge, or an alley.

I think it was just after Shepperton that there were some seriously large houses on the opposite banks, there’s clearly some big money in this area. For a minute I was jealous of the massive houses on the river bank with the nice gardens and the flash cars. But then I thought about how privileged I am to be able to do these races, not just in a wanky gratitude way (but yeah that too) but also that these are not cheap endeavours. The race place for me was a freebie from volunteering last year, but the whole weekend still cost more than many people would be able to afford on a weekend, so by any measure, I am indeed privileged.

I had to stop a couple times along here somewhere as my race number was nearly falling off. The pins had ripped through to the edge of the number and it was flapping loose, I think the heavy rain was making it soggy and more prone to tearing. This was an annoyance, as at this rate there’d be nothing left of the number to pin on to my shorts. Fortunately after a few times, the number held. Around this time, a few hours in, the rain thankfully calmed down.

The next section (Wraysbury 22.5 to Dorney 31) is a bit of a blank, nothing much stands out other than a few bits. Passing Windsor Castle. And … um, that’s it. Oh maybe it was along here that there was a group of girls swimming on the river. They were screaming from the cold as they jumped in. I told them they were lunatics. They asked what I was doing, and called me the same.

I remember passing the marathon mark at just over 4 hours, and thinking back to the first occasion I ran a sub-4 marathon, which was a monumental effort at the time. But on this day I realised that other than stopping briefly at CPs and a couple of trail wees, I’d been running since Richmond. Usually in an ultra there are hills to force a change of pace, but there was none of that here, so I decided that I’d better start taking a walk break every now and again, just to give the leg muscles a bit of variety. Better to start taking walk breaks before you actually need to, was my thinking.

The Dorney CP was just before you get to Dorney Lake of Olympic 2012 fame. I skipped past this CP, and could see that there was some kind of an event on at Dorney Lake. Triathlon maybe. Weirdos.

30 miles in is always a funny (as in strange) point of a hundred miler for me. You’ve run far enough that you’re starting to feel it, and there’s still fucking loads of miles to go. It’s way too far away to even think about the finish, it’s just a case of moving on forwards. I usually break a hundred into thirds. First third: don’t do anything daft. Middle third: Just keep going. Final third: now you can think about the finish, don’t be a wimp. And now I was bout in the middle section, just keep going, keep it steady.

Another 8 miles or so to Cookham, the next CP, which was just a quick stop for drinks again, I was carrying just about the right amount of food to get me to my drop bag at Henley. I’d been eating well so far, around 250 calories per hour, and I’d been pretty good at remembering what to eat and when. I find it gets harder to keep on top of this the further into the race you get, but all was good so far.

After Cookham, the course went through Bourne End. I used to know someone from Bourne End, he claimed it was close to Henley. Liar, it was fucking ages to get to Henley. Bourne End was actually closer to Slough, but that doesn’t sound so good does it. So I slowed a bit from here. I’d typically been doing 09:xx miles, after about mile 40 this edged over 10 mins per mile, still on my sub-19 hours splits, but losing a bit of the cushion I’d built. Not anything to worry about, remembering that sub-20 was really the aim here.

There was one of those weird bits through alleys in Marlow, then back on the river path. There was a CP at Hurley at 45 miles, but I skipped this one. So I found myself approaching the 50 mile mark, feeling better at 50% of the way through a hundred miler than I have done before, and also in the weird position where I was about to best my 50 mile PB by a few minutes. I very hoped that this wasn’t a reckless position to be in, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be setting a PB in the first half of a race, but I was feeling OK, not overly exerted, so I wasn’t too fussed about it. I was actually feeling very positive at this stage, still feeling strong at the half way mark, having managed the effort levels well so far, and doing well on eating and drinking (or in runner speak: nutrition and hydration).

I passed the 50 mile point in 08:07:19. 3 mins faster than my 50 mile PB, which being SDW50 is actually about 49 miles, so a good effort so far. I then took a while to walk, mainly as the approach to Henley-on-Thames is heading South, and at this stage that was right into a strong headwind, so it seemed pointless expending the extra effort for very little extra speed. There was about 2 miles of this, and it was the first stage it felt like hard going, I’m pretty sure this was down to the headwind, rather than the preceding 50 miles!

With just over 52 miles on the clock, the Henley CP arrived. This was the first of 2 drop bag locations, the second being at Goring 20 miles down the road. As I came into the CP, Chris Mills, who looks after the timing and tracking systems, asked to check my tracker as it had apparently been pinging some very odd locations. Tracker checked, I moved on to the CP, and before I’d even arrived, they had my drop bag out and waiting on a chair for me, I guess this is the advantage of having trackers, the CP staff can see who’s on the way in. I changed into my trail shoes (Altra Olympus 4), having been wearing road shoes (Altra Paradigm 5) so far, knowing that the further you get towards Oxford, the more traily it gets. Road shoes had done me fine so far, but fucking hell was I glad of trail shoes in some of the later stages. I also changed from a T shirt to a long sleeve T, which felt lovely and fresh for all of about 5 minutes, and dumped my baseball cap and shades here, I wasn’t going to need these, so no point in carrying them.

From here it was 20 miles to Goring, where drop bag 2 was, so it was a relatively short stretch, and I didn’t need to take too much with me to keep me going to Goring which I expected would take around 4 hours, due to slowing in pace, and the ‘hilliest’ section of the course.

Until this point I’d mainly been eating bars and gels. Bars were a mix of Clif, Nakd, Nine and Soreen. All tried and tested ultra food, but can get a little dull. So I’d packed myself a couple of treats for drop bag 1. A peanut butter and jam wrap, and an avocado and houmous cob (or roll, if you’re not from the Midlands). The avo and houmous cob was inspired by Damian Hall, who used this for food on his record breaking Pennine Way run in summer 2020. If it’s good enough for him… And I figured that the mix of protein, fat and carbs, and an entirely different taste from anything else I’d had in the day, would be an appetising combination. And it was, I ate the whole thing whilst walking out of the CP. (The PBJ wrap though, stayed in my pack until Oxford).

A note on checkpoints. One of my aims for the day was spend less time at checkpoints. On all 3 previous hundred milers, my stoppage time comes to around 100 minutes on each of them, with only a few minutes variation, so I wanted to reduce this, as in theory it’s an easy way to shave time off the finish time. I’ve stopped for 20-30 mins at the halfway point, or other major checkpoints on other races, and was keen to spend a max of 10 mins at any given CP today, which I achieved, and I was out of Henley in 10 mins.

Leaving Henley, I was walking and eating for the first half a mile, then picked up the pace again, about 10:30-11:00 per mile from here to Reading, so slowing but still respectable, and still just about on splits for sub-19, but not feeling too precious if this started to slip.

The Reading CP arrived around mile 59, which seemed pretty quick after Henley, I had a quick stop here to refill drinks as it was another 9 miles to Pangbourne. I could probably have got by without stopping here, it was an indoor checkpoint, and was one of the slower ‘quick’ stops as I needed to put on shoe covers and follow a one way system around the building.

I’d read stories online of the Reading section being potentially unpleasant due to drunk civilians. But I predicted that I’d be fine due to 1) time of day: better to pass through here around 18:00 when it was light and before pub closing time 2) weather: less likely for people to be out than on a bright sunny evening 3) Covid: pubs not fully open yet. And it was fine, there were group out but no one giving any hassle, in fact they all virtually ignored the procession of slightly weary looking runners making their way along the riverside path.

A certain section looked familiar to me, and I couldn’t place it, then it twigged. It was the edge of the Rivermead site, home to Reading festival which I attended in 1998 and 2001, and the Womad Festival (1994 and 1995). I remembered lazing here on a sunny morning after the night before at Womad one year. We’d snuck in having fashioned some festival wristbands out of pink bin liners and chewing gum wrappers. Festival security was little more lax in the mid-90s! I recalled that the trees somehow appeared slug like in my ‘refreshed’ state that morning. Funny, I’d not thought of that morning with the mollusc trees for about 25 years. That recollection kept me amused as I ticked away the miles.

It was just after Reading that I chatted to Ally from Aberdeenshire, who was getting over raging with himself for missing a turn and adding on about 4 extra miles. Still, he was doing well as he’d started after me, and run further than me, after a few mins chatting, he went on ahead, and I made a mental note to really pay attention to navigation, I remember adding on 2 miles at NDW100 and I didn’t need to do that again.

A set of steps over a railway bridge, and another of those weird little diversions through a housing estate for a mile or so, then it was back on the river path, and I entered the final third (distance wise anyway) of the race. It felt good to be entering the next phase, knowing that the vast majority of the miles and the hours were behind me. Plenty of time left, and barring any catastrophic incidents, a finish, and a sub-20, was looking like it was on the cards.

I skipped through Pangbourne CP, about 68 miles, then came the hilliest section of the day. This would be nothing to write home about if it was on NDW, but here it stood out so much compared with the rest of the course, and it was a nice change to have some ups and some downs. There was a particularly enjoyable downhill stretch through some trees before heading into Goring for the next CP, which came only about 4 miles after the last one, so it really felt like I was making quick progress here. In reality, pace was slowing a little, but I was still averaging somewhere around 11:00 a mile, so good progress, and bang on track for the 19 hour finish, but definitely starting to feel the miles in my legs now, so I fully expected the sub-19 to start slipping away, but I was OK with that.

Goring was the location of the second drop bag. I picked out a gilet as I didn’t want to get caught in the cold. Some years it can get extremely cold along the final stretch of the course overnight, but today had been fairly mild, so I wasn’t expecting it to get too bad, but the wind was getting up occasionally, so I decided to take the gilet in case anyway. Here I was starting to lose track of food intake, and forgetting (or couldn’t be bothered) to eat. I had another avo and houmous cob in my drop bag, but looked at it and left it in the bag, this was a mistake, I should have forced it down. I lost a few mins here too with excessive faffing with drop bag. I’d certainly kept the contents of the bag less than on previous races, but there was still stuff in here that wasn’t really necessary, so I can still get better at this.

I was selected for a random kit check at Goring too. Since there’s no main registration due to the Covid rules, there’s no pre-race kit check, so a certain number of runners passing each checkpoint are randomly checked. The volunteer was so apologetic as he asked me, but it was fine, I’ve had to do the same whilst volunteering, and it really takes no extra time. So after showing my gloves, base layer and something else that I can’t remember, I headed out from Goring, having spent about 10 mins again the CP.

A mile or two out of Goring, and I had one of those real highs as I ran through the field and the daylight was fading. I was looking forward to nightfall as it would provide a little variety, and it was a sign of forward progress. An acid techno banger from the 90s (Pump panel – Ego Acid) was on the playlist at this time, and I felt like a total machine, which I made the most of, knowing these things never last. Amazed at the power I felt 74 miles into the race, I had a rush, of the kind not felt since a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Enjoy the highs, ride out the lows, as neither of them last for long. Solid advice for life as well as ultras.

The course took me under a railway bridge, and then into what was the muddiest, slippiest, slidiest bit I’d come across so far. I stopped here to get my headtorch out of my pack, it didn’t need to go on yet, but it wasn’t going to be long. I was quite impressed at having got to nearly 80 miles before nightfall. Here though, as well as the mud, was a section that was midgey as fuck. Millions of the little beasts swarming and getting in my face. Nowhere near as bad as the highland midge that I’ve encountered a few times on camping missions north of the wall, but still annoying.

So swatting away midges, and slipping a little on the mud, it got dark enough to need the head torch, and before I knew it, I was at the Wallingford CP, mile 78. A quick coffee here (I had some Nescafe Oat Latte sticks with me) and grabbed a couple of gels, and off I went, knowing that the next stretch to Clifton Hampden was often described as a real tough slog.

From race reports I’d read, it was a long long way though never-ending fields to Clifton Hampden. It did feel long, much longer than the advertised 7.5 miles (it’s nearer 8.5) but wasn’t so bad, I was still moving quite well here, averaging around 11:30 per mile. Not fast at all, but respectable for me at this stage in the game. And whilst my legs were tired, they didn’t feel much more so than they did at mile 30 about a million years ago. There were a few river crossings here, some across weirs, where you could really feel the power of the water as it rushed below, and the wind felt strong on these too.

Through the field, at times the trail wasn’t easy to make out from the rest of the field, and there was a lot (I mean a LOT) of cow shit, many many gates to get through, which seemed to get progressively harder to work out how to open them, though I’m fairly certain that was due to my decreasing brain power, rather than then increasing complexity of the gates, and one field with fucking massive giant (well they seemed big at the time) cows. After what seemed like forever, but in reality was about an hour and 3 quarters from Wallingford, I reached the Clifton Hampden CP.

The CP wasn’t in the usual location of the village hall, as this had been turned into a vaccination centre, so it was in the meadow nearer to the trail. I mentioned to the volunteer that I’d been manning this CP last year, and felt bad for her being outside in the wind today, she told me she’d dropped from the race here last year, and I remember the conversations I’d had with her that night to try to get her back out the door and back on the trail. Which she did, but then came back after a while, but I remember thinking how courageous she was to even have a go at it. I had another oat milk latte here, and then carried on.

And suddenly, just like that, everything was so much harder…

From Wallingford to Clifton Hampden, I was doing about 11:30 per mile. The next stretch to Abingdon I was averaging about 14:00, mainly walking, with a few short jogs every now and again. I think the stop at the CP broke my rhythm. It wasn’t like I was suddenly feeling more tired, I just had a new default mode, and that was walking rather than a slow run. And I couldn’t be arsed to change it. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just walk it in from here. On reflection, it’s pretty clear to me that that this was a ‘low mood, need food’ type situation, but I couldn’t see it for the mental fog, so I just kept on traipsing along. The state of the trail certainly didn’t help, it was getting muddier and slippier. Woe betide anyone who was still in road shoes.

Looking back, all I had to do was to shovel in some food. I’d not had loads since Goring, a few gels only, so I’m fairly certain that if I’d have been on top of my food intake, I’d have been feeling better, and therefore more motivated to move faster. I decided to get in some quick calories and had another gel, a caffeine pill, and forced myself to up the pace a little. This did get me out of my slump a bit, and it wasn’t too long before reaching the penultimate CP at Abingdon, mile 92. 2 cups of Coke and I was out of there. I don’t think I was getting any faster, but I was definitely feeling a little better, helped by knowing that I was now counting down the miles in single digits.

I motivated myself to have a little jog every now again again, even if by now I was unable to sustain it for very long. I’d count to hundred then walk for a bit. I reasoned that by doing this I’d shave a little time, and now the main driver wasn’t finishing in a certain time, it was just about finishing sooner for the sake of being done and able to stop. Survival rather than glory. During these last 10-15 miles, I was thinking to myself that I’d have rather had a Southease style beast of a hill, or a Detling-esque shitshow of steps to at least provide some variation. But then again, I’m sure I’d have moaned to myself about that too…

By now the trail was often more puddle than trail, more slip than solid, and whilst I cursed it out loud many a time, it did at least provide something to focus on. And gradually the final CP at Lower Radley (95.5) came into view.

2 cups of Coke guzzled here, and then onto the final stretch. 4.5 miles to go. I was almost 18 and a half hours in, so the sub-19 was out of reach, no way I was going to romp home in 8 minute miles at this late stage in the game, but I was all but guaranteed a sub-20.

A couple of miles from the end, the trail changed from muddy track to riverside path, and I managed a run on and off for the final 2 miles. I’d been out for a walk along the final bit of the course on the Friday evening, which now seemed like a different lifetime, so I knew that once the boathouses came into view on the opposite bank, it was only a few hundred meters to the turn off the path into the finishing area.

And sure enough, eventually the lights of the finishing field, and the hallowed ‘turn left for the finish’ sign appeared, and then, and then…

Done. Over the line in 19:33:02.

The look on my face in the finish photo says it all, it had been a bit of a fucking battle over those last few hours.

I didn’t hang about at the finish, accommodation was 5 mins walk away, so after a quick chat and a thank you to the volunteers, I was off. It was a strange experience being showered and in bed within 30 mins of finishing a race.

Post race reflections: I was very pleased with the result, 3.5 hours off my previous 100 mile PB, and a 50 mile PB along the way too. And more than the time, my aim had been to manage my effort, and keep on top of food. A mixed result here. Up until about 88 miles I was doing fine, after that it was a beast. Food intake from mile 70 was lacking, and I think this was the cause of the problem later on, so this is a definite area to focus on for next time. It’s the best I’ve done on food in a 100, but still clearly some room for improvement.

Another aim was to keep stoppage time down, looking for a significant reduction from the usual 100 mins. My stats from my Garmin show that I took 30 mins off this, so that’s a good result, and I can still do more on this front by keeping stuff in my pack and drop bags to a minimum.

So all in all, good progress, the closest I’ve got to getting it right on a 100 miler, with some learning points for next time. I reckon that with a few improvements a sub-19 on this course is definitely on. And in the shorter term: 3 months to NDW100…

Kit. Shoes: Paradigm 5 until Henley, then Olympus 4. Injinji socks, with plenty of SNB applied beforehand meant I avoided any blisters. Ronhill Twin short, only minor chafage but nothing too bad. Pack was UD Mountain Vest 4, I’ve used this for 3 100s and it’s always done fine. Watch was Garmin Fenix 6X Pro, which I’d bought a few weeks before. At the end of the race, with HRM, GPS and nav on since the start, it was at 53% battery. I’d have had to charge the Fenix 5X halfway, so very happy with the 6X Pro.

My 2020 Race Season Review

(well, that didn’t go quite as planned, did it?)

In January 2020, the race calendar for the year ahead was looking great. The 50 Slam of Centurion events, with a few others thrown in. A good number of races, spread over a good number of months.

I was looking forward to running some events I’d not done before, and returning to a few, to see how I could improve on what I’d done before…

  • April SDW50
  • May NDW50
  • June SDW100
  • Aug NDW100
  • Sept CW50
  • Oct Beachy Head Marathon
  • Nov WW50
  • (plus volunteering duties at TP100 in May, A100 in Oct, aiming to secure entries for a Grand Slam attempt in 2021)

Of course looking back to January, almost seems like a different world now, as if there’s a massive wall that suddenly appeared in March and prevents us from clearing looking back to how life looked and felt beforehand.

In the end, I managed to run 3 races (4 including a virtual WW50) and volunteer at 2, from a total of 9 planned… and I’ve got to be very grateful for even getting that done.

Early February (I think, hard to remember exactly) the distant rumblings from the Far East started to get closer to home. Then in March the televised addresses to the nation began, and within just a few days we’d gone from being told that the elderly should avoid going on cruises, to pubs closing, to schools closing, and then to a full lockdown. The pace of change was staggering. At work every day we had to re-assess what we were doing. March was the longest month ever.

SDW50 was planned for early April. Just towards the end of the training block, about 3 weeks out from race day if I remember correctly, an email dropped into my inbox from Centurion to say that the race had been postponed due to the Covid situation. SDW50 was moved back to October from April, NDW50 to July from May, and SDW100 to October from June also. This meant that SDW100 was now just a week before WW50. Seeing as the main objective for the year had been then 50 slam, I cancelled by SDW100 place as I didn’t want to be running a 50 just 7 days after a 100.

Time rumbled on slowly as the nation washed its hands to the tune of happy birthday (twice) clapped on a Thursday (a novelty at first, less so after a few weeks), did Joe Wicks workouts (for a bit), juggled home schooling with working at home (neither particularly successfully), and took our daily government approved exercise.

Every cloud though… Due to having to travel less for work, I found more time to run. I actually lost a little weight in lockdown, and in April I ran PBs in training for everything from 5k to marathon. I surprised myself by taking nearly 20 mins off my time in a lone lockdown marathon, and setting a new PB of 03:26. I’d trained so well in the spring that smashing my marathon felt fairly effortless, and on finishing I’d still got plenty left in the tank, leaving me with the feeling I could have shaved a few more minutes.

Before long, NDW50 moved back again, to November as it became clear that a July race wasn’t going to happen, so training continued well, and in June I set my PB for my 30 mile long run, at 04:12, over an hour quicker than I was doing it a year ago on the same loop around Sherwood Forest.

And then… NDW100 actually happened in Aug as Covid restrictions were loosened, we were encouraged to eat out to help out, and the country seemed to be getting to near normal. It was the first large ultra to take place since March, and you can read all about here if you’re interested. It certainly didn’t go to plan due to the small matter of a bitch of a heatwave, causing dehydration and the inability to eat for about about 60 miles, but I got it done, finishing in just over 25 hours in race with a 45% completion rate. Tough, and the slowest 100 mile finish time for me so far, but a result of which I am very proud. I managed to raise £700 for Alzheimers Society along the way too.

CW50 was next up, what would normally the 3rd race of the 50s, but this year was the first. I was gunning for a 50 mile PB, and felt pretty confident of getting it done in less than 9 hours, which would represent a 30 minute improvement on my current PB. I’d not done this race before, so when I arrived at Goring on race morning I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than the usual Centurion experience of supportive volunteers, efficient organisation and thorough course marking.

I enjoyed this race, the course is a good mix of all kinds of trail: fields, forest and tracks, with some good hills. Standout sections for me were Stonor Park, Grim’s Ditch and the windmill hill. Some weird bits involved running through someone’s garden and across (right across!) a golf course. The day was warm for mid Sept, and I certainly started to notice the heat and flag in the last 10 miles, but I got back to Goring in 08:55, so a solid start to the 50 slam.

As SDW50 approached, so did the dreaded 2nd wave of Covid, and the tier system of regional restrictions was put in place. My local area of Nottingham suddenly became the Covid hotpot of the UK, due in a large part to a big influx of students to the city’s 2 universities, and it seemed pretty inevitable we’d be moved to Tier 3, which ‘advised’ against travel out of the area. If this happened then I’d not be able to race the SDW50, sure I could go against the advice, but that would feel irresponsible to me, and not something that I was going to do. As it happened the local government held off temporarily, and SDW50 was go…

Full report for SDW50 is here, in a nutshell, I surprised myself and ran better than I’d hoped, smashing the 50 mile PB again by quite some margin to finish in 08:10. It’s not the time or the place in the results that’s the most satisfying, it’s the personal progress and the payoff of the training and planning. I’d learned from previous efforts, trained differently (mainly by adding in a weekly 2 hour session of hill repeats) and managed my effort better on the day.

Shortly after SDW50 it was announced that Notts was moving to Tier 3, so this was an abrupt end to my race season, but I took some solace in knowing that even though I wasn’t going to be able to complete the season, and the 50 slam, at least others would. But then it was only a few more days until the November ‘lockdown’ was announced and the entire season was over for everyone.

A virtual option was offered to entrants of WW50, and I decided to take it up as at least it would give me something to do, and I wanted to really test out the effect of the hill training. The criteria for the virtual event were that the course you chose had to mirror the distance and elevation of the real event, 50 miles with 10k feet of ascent and descent. Now as it happened, my regular hill training session was just over a quarter of that, so it seemed pretty simple to do that same session nearly 4 times. It’s little over a mile from my house to bottom of the hill, just under a half a mile up the hill (Winchester Street in Sherwood, Nottingham), so I worked out that somewhere around 45-48 repeats, with 3 trips back home for replenishing supplies etc would do the trick.

I could have looked for a more scenic way of doing it, rather than running up and down the same hill, on road, in suburban Nottingham nearly 50 times, but there was some perverse desire to also test out the mental aspect of the challenge: could I handle the sheer repetition of the same hill so many times, so the plan was set. It was also logistically going to be the easiest way to do it. I could set up an aid station on the dining room table and return home every 12-13ish miles to stock up on drinks and snacks and use the loo etc (no handy bushes on Winchester Street!).

I also took the opportunity to raise a little money for the mental health charity Mind as part of this challenge, and managed to get a couple of hundred quid raised. Not an earth shattering amount by any means, but if it’s enough to help Mind make a difference to just one person, then it’s more than enough for me.

03:15am on Sat 14 Nov my alarm went off and I started a few minutes before 4am. I’d planned to start early as I felt that by getting a good chunk of it done before daylight, I’d feel like I was making progress, and also by doing some of the run in dark, and some in the light, at least I’d have some variety. Repeating the same hill nearly 50 times was always going to be monotonous, so any way to introduce a little variety could only be a good thing.

As I set out, it was raining lightly, and forecast to be wet on and off throughout the day, but light winds and mild temperatures would work in my advantage. As I started the first ascent I did question whether I’d be able to face doing it so many times, but as is normal for an ultra, I put the finish out of my mind, and just focussed on each hill. Do it once, do it right, then do it again.

There were none of the usual distractions of beautiful scenery, forests, hills or valleys. None of the usual supportive chat from other runners or volunteers. No medal, t shirt, or crowd of volunteers cheering you at the end. So in many respects it was utterly pointless, other than the question of: can I do it?

I was on my own, and this was a new element to the challenge, it was in quite a large part an experiment to test myself: what could I do when all the usual niceties of an ultra were stripped away?

Due to the monotony, it’s a all a bit of a blur, but a few bits that stand out for both good and bad reasons (pretty evident which is which!), in no particular order:

  • Some stomach pain for overdoing it on the vegan tacos the night before, leading to a quicker than is sensible mile on the first visit to the home checkpoint due to a needing to outrun a turd! (I won. Just.)
  • Wife and son popping up on the route a couple times as they were out for a walk, a work colleague too.
  • Random dude in van beeping at me and asking what I was doing, then giving me fiver towards my sponsorship
  • About 35 miles in, a song I’d listened to at least few hundred times over the last 30 years came on my playlist (Play for Today by The Cure), but I couldn’t work out from the intro what it was, which served to remind me that I needed to eat more
  • About 5 miles in, realising that my right calf didn’t feel right, and wondering if this may be a showstopper, but it stayed at the same level of minor soreness throughout (until the following day, more on this later…)
  • Knowing throughout that I was always on track to meet the pretty arbitrary 10 hour target I’d set myself
  • A few funny looks from people I’d seen earlier in the day, when they realised that I was still running up and down the same goddamn hill.
  • Getting to the top that last time, listening to some great tunes (Orbital live at Glastonbury) and buzzing due to a regular intake of dark chocolate covered coffee beans.

So after 45 and a half times up and down the same hill, 50.3 miles and 10065 feet of ascent, I made it back home in 09:49:41. Job done.

On reflection, the mental aspect of it was easier than I’d thought it would be. I’d broken it up with a couple of podcasts, an hour or 2 of an Alan Partridge audiobook (inspiring to hear about the man’s harrowing struggles with Toblerone addiction, gives my petty struggles some perspective), and a varied playlist of music. The physical aspect was pretty much as expected, easy enough for the first 35 miles or so, then progressively harder, with the last couple of ascents the slowest and toughest of the day. I’d ran the uphills earlier, mixed run/walk in the middle, and by the end was walking virtually all of the ups, pretty typical for a 50 miler.

The following morning I knew something wasn’t right, and my left foot and ankle were massive and could hardly bear any weight, so a day in bed watching netflix was on the cards. It took a few days for it to return to its usual size, with plenty of regular icing. And 2 weeks on I’m still resting it, with some longer walks, but no running yet.

On reflection, Covid fucked a large apart of the racing season, as it did everything else for the year for the world. And obviously the impact on racing is miniscule compared to the wider societal and economic aspects, and racing utterly pales into insignificance compared to loss of so many lives worldwide, the effects on those who have lost loved ones, and to those struggling with the ongoing long term health impacts of long Covid.

So in a sense, running and racing really means fuck all, and yet in another sense, it’s far more than that. It’s something that we can cling onto, something that gives a small personal sense of progress and satisfaction amongst all the chaos of the year. Something that we can have some control over, when much of the world is out of control. I don’t underestimate the importance of running in keeping me relatively sane this year, and every other year for that matter. And I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain that the experience of running ultras makes me more resilient, and helps give a perspective that nothing is permanent ‘this too shall pass’ or is it the other way round, who knows?

I only got to run 3 of the planned 7 races, but each was a fantastic experience, and I’m particularly proud of NDW100, not only surviving the heat, but in persisting despite many hours nausea and being unable to eat, and getting round in a decent time all things considered. And of SDW50, a massive 50 mile PB, and a good example of a well managed effort on the day. I also appear to have won the virtual WW50, though there were only a few who took part, and it’s in no way a real win at a real event; but it’s going to be the only time I’ll ever be at the top of a Centurion leaderboard, so I’ll enjoy it anyway…

In many ways, my race season is a microcosm of the year. You could look at it either way, glass half full, or glass half empty. It’s a long way from what it looked like a million years ago at the start of 2020, but I got on with it, looked for positives rather than dwelled on negatives, and was grateful for the fact that I got through the year relatively unscathed, unlike so many others who suffered long or short term impacts to their physical or mental health, suffered financially, or lost loved ones.

SDW50 2020 Race Report

As I walked the sort distance from the car park to the seafront Travelodge the afternoon before the race, I could hardly move forwards, so strong was the wind, and it was forecast to get worse throughout the evening. Not the most encouraging of afternoons, considering the following day was to be spent mainly on the top of an exposed ridge along the latter half of the South Downs way, running from Worthing to Eastbourne for the Centurion SDW50, postponed from the usual early April slot, to the end of Oct due to Covid.

And get worse it did, the rain in the evening lashed down and huge waves crashed on the pier whilst I went for an evening walk, though it was due to stay mainly dry the following day, it was still a little disconcerting, but I was glad that at least I’d been able to make it to Worthing, as up until the day before it had seemed that extra travel restrictions due to Covid would be applied in my local area, and I’d be unable to travel to race. So a wet and windy race is better than no race at all.

I’d got big hopes (relatively speaking) for this race. I was never going to be at the top of the race, but I felt pretty certain I’d be able to smash my 50 mile PB again on this one. The SDW course is easier going that CW50, it’s less twisty and turny, smoother trail and the hills are much more runnable, so I was expecting I’d be on for somewhere around 08:30.

Race morning, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep, I arrived by taxi at Worthing College, used by now to the time trial style of 2020 racing. I started a little earlier than planned, just before 06:20 and had to have my headtorch on for the early bits. I don’t think I’ve ever started a race in the dark before.

It was blowy, but dry at the start, and as I climbed the hill out of Worthing, it started to get light. The first 9 miles passed in a flash, about half of which were spent chatting to another runner about all the usual stuff and the miles just dropped away, before I knew it I was running down by the pig farm, knowing the first checkpoint at Botolphs was coming up. having run SDW50 and SDW100 last year I had a good idea of what to expect from the course(this works both ways, maybe it’s best to not know about the hill at Southease later on..)

Skies ahead looked OK, with even a few spot of blue, but glancing behind I saw a whole different story, some extremely angry looking very dark clouds were moving from the West, so it was clear we were in for a soaking imminently. Sure enough, the rain arrived, and it was fierce with the strong winds, so the waterproof went on and by the time I got to the aid station it was in full force. I felt for the volunteers as they were all soaked, it’s often harder to volunteer than it is to run, but none of this dampened (boom!) their mood.

So bottles refilled, and a malt loaf bar in hand, I ran (yes ran) up Beeding Hill. My race plan was to run the uphills as much as I could, keeping an easy but steady pace. I knew that if I wanted to hit my time goal, the hills were the key. Run the hills until the later stages of the race, and even then try to run bits of the uphills. Be the last to start walking, and the first to start running. Shaving a minute off each hill adds up.

The rain didn’t last long, and before I knew it, I was at Devil’s Dyke and passing the next checkpoint, which was slightly earlier than usual, just under a mile before the normal location of Saddlescombe Farm, which couldn’t be used today due to National Trust not allowing event infrastructure on their land. I’d worked out a pacing plan in advance, and new that if I wanted to stay on track for just under 08:30, I should be at CP2 in 02:30, and I was just a minute out.

It was funny how quickly the course was moving on, as the last time I ran this stretch was the SDW100, at a considerably slower pace, so it was surprising just how quickly each landmark or CP popped up today. Then it was down again to Pycombe, upagain through the golf course to Clayton, down again towards Housedean. I’d forgotten about that steep little section in the woods just before Housedean. As I got to Housedean the weather had turned bad again so I was grateful for the opportunity to have some shelter in the barn while I restocked drinks and snacks, then headed back out into the rain. My pacing plan sid I should be at Housedean for 04:11, and I made it in 04:14, so still on track as my plan gave me 5 mins spare. I wasn’t tied to the pace plan, I’d have been happy to abandon it if necessary, but I was feeling fine so it was good to know that I was on track to meet my goal.

Climbing up the hill just out of Housedean was one of the hardest stretches as the wind and rain were strong at this point, I’d cooled down whilst stopping at the CP and now my hands were freezing, I made a mental note to get some better gloves! Again the rain didn’t last long, and the by the time I was back on the top of the Downs, it had passed for now, and the descent towards Southease came pretty soon. I was a few minutes behind plan now, so I made the decision to push harder in the next stage to get back on track, but remembering how hard the stage from Southease to Alfriston had been on SDW100, I knew that this may not work out.

In SDW100 2019 this had been by far my worst stretch of the whole race, it took me over 2.5 hours to cover this and felt like much longer. As it happened, today I covered it less than half of that time. The hill out of Southease is the biggest on the course, and it feels like it goes forever, as just when you get to what you think is the top, you see that you actually need to keep on climbing. By now I was definitely walking more than running the ups, but I still managed a few bursts of running as I knew that there was a very real possibility this was the last race I was going to do this year, so I was determined to give it my best and leave nothing behind. The weather was reasonably kind on this stretch, and considering the rain over the last day or 2, the trail wasn’t too slippy or muddy.

And then the descent to Alfriston, and I was still moving well, and arrived at the village hall at 06:46, and by now I felt pretty confident I’d be able to get to Eastbourne in well under 1 hour 45 mins. A quick visit to the CP, and a fistful of dark chocolate covered coffee beans, and the climb began again. The climb out of Alfriston is not quite as big as Southease, but still considerable, and it was getting tough now, I still managed a quick jog uphill now and again, but it was mainly a hike up this one, but a decent run at the top, which for me is one of most most scenic parts of the whole course, with beautiful views, and down into Jevington.

I went straight by the CP at Jevington with no need to stop for anything, more coffee beans and up the last hill. This one is half as big as the last 2, but always feels hard at the end of a race and it’s good to hit the trig point, seeing Eastbourne lying below.

But don’t count your chickens yet, as the descent to Eastbourne is a nasty, slippy, uneven horrible bit of trail, commonly known as the Gully of Doom. I’d rather go straight down the steep bit to Bedes School that the Beachy Head Marathon Course uses. A slip of attention in the Gully of Doom could still be a big problem, so I took it steady and after what seemed like an age, I hit the streets of Eastbourne with about 1.5 miles to go. I’d not looked at my watch for a while now, so I’d lost track of time and where I was compared to my plan, as I’d been in survival mode since the climb from Alfriston, so I was a little shocked, and very pleased to see it was still under 8 hours.

The last few bits through the streets of Eastbourne are not very exciting, a far cry from the beauty of the Downs, but it’s not long until you get to the sports park, and I reached the finish in 08:10:47, better than I could have hoped for.

(Stuart March Photography

I was very happy with my finish time, and placing 24th out of 278, but more than that, happy with the fact that I’d learned from previous experience on this course, and had trained well since the same race in April 2019. I’d taken 80 mins off my time from last year, and the race had gone pretty much to plan, with a relatively strong finish. Looking back, had I know how close I’d be to a sub 8 hour finish, I’m sure I could have pushed a little harder, but then again, that’s what next time is for…

NDW100 2020 – A Race Report

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.

(photo from Stuart March Photography)

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 ghostly sign in the woods

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.

(photo from Stuart March Photography)

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.

Robin Hood 100 – a Race Report

OK, so I ran this race about 10 months ago (Sept 2019), so the race report is just a tad overdue, but I want to put something out there as this is such a great race, that deserves to better known, and if this helps just one person push the ‘enter now’ button, I’ll be happy…

Some background to the race: As the astute reader may have gathered, this is in proper Robin Hood country, a race mainly around Sherwood Forest. I’m partial to this race as it’s virtually the only ultra within an hour or 2 of my house, and it takes in some beautiful forest trails.

It’s put on by Hobo Pace, which is the brainchild of RD Ronnie Staton. You may have heard of Ronnie from his running CV which includes some super long stuff such as Race Across Scotland (215 miles), Lon Las Cymru (250), and Mark Cockbain’s sufferfest The Hill. Or you may have seen Ronnie’s story in Runners World, he was very lucky to survive a stroke on Christmas Eve a couple of years back, and his approach to recovery is inspiring to say the least.

The race started back in 2016 (I think) and has grown year on year, to a starting field of over 100 runners in 2019. It’s held in mid September, so usually very favourable running conditions. I’ve been privileged to volunteer at this race a few times, so it was about time I saw it from a runner’s point of view, and it didn’t disappoint.

RH100 is certainly more on the grassroots end of the scale than most, which gives it a real charm and a friendly feel. The race starts and ends in South Wheatley Village Hall, a few miles outside of Retford. You run about 20 miles through farmland and then along a canal towpath, then do 2 loops of a 30 mile trail around the forest (for most runners this will mean one day time loop, and one in the dark), then back along the towpath (which seems at least twice as long on the return journey). Along the way are a number of well stocked checkpoints, usually every 5-7 miles, with 10 miles being the longest gap. At the largest checkpoint at the start of the forest loop, you have access to a drop bag, so you pass this 3 times at approx 24, 54 and 84 miles. The looped course and drop bag access, along with the relatively easy terrain, make this an ideal first time 100. As it happens, it was my second 100, but I’d recommend this for a first 100 attempt for sure. There are no qualifying criteria, and there are usually places available until close to the date of the race, so it’s pretty accessible in that respect.

Pre-race, I was ready, and having trained regularly on the forest loop that makes up approx 60% of the course, I (thought that I) knew pretty much what to expect from the course. The canal section proved harder than I expected on the way back, and don’t even get me started on the Field of Doom (more of which later). Training had gone well, with my 100 mile cherry popped on the SDW a few months before with a 23:51 finish, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how I could learn from my first 100 and put those lessons into practice to improve my time. Lessons from SDW100 1) Eat more. I really flagged in the nighttime stretch 2) Be quicker through checkpoints 3) Get though the later stages in a better frame of mind, at SDW the section from Southease (84) to Alfriston (91) was a bit of a death march, I could have picked up the pace but mentally got stuck in a rut, so I wanted to avoid this happening again.

Race morning: I arrived at the village hall early, aiming to get a parking spot outside the hall, rather than in the overflow carparks across the road. The point of this was to make the end of the race easier, I had a sleeping bag and mat in the back of the car, I wanted to be able to flop straightaway after the finish if I felt the need to. Parking spot gained and number collected, I sat in the car, ate my breakfast and rested my mind and body before the start.

The first mile of the race was 4 loops of the playing field right outside the village hall. A week or so before the race, Ronnie had told us that he’d had to re-route a small section of the course as part of the woods had been closed to the public (due to illegal motorbike racing in Manton Pit Woods). Ronnie being the considerate RD that he is, didn’t want anyone to lose out on miles due to the diversion, so we made up the shortfall by running round the field 4 times, before setting off on the course proper through the fields on the way to the canal.

It was a bright fresh morning as we made our way through the farmland tracks of north Notts. A small hill early on, and some rutted paths, but pretty steady, chatting to a few runners to ease the ‘oh holy shit I’m going to be running all day and all night’ nerves, and we ticked off a few miles until… The Field of Doom. A ploughed field full of very uneven rock hard sods that was very hard to get an even footing on. The field was only a couple of hundred metres across, but the main topic of conversation as we crossed the field and for a while after was whether that field formed part of the return route, which differed slightly from the outward journey. It was tricky to cross without turning an ankle on fresh legs and with sound mind in the early stages. On tired jelly legs, with a shredded mind after being out all day and all night, we all feared it might be end of the us.

Other than the Field of Doom, it was all pretty uneventful through the farmland, and along the canal, we ticked off a couple of aid stations, I barely stopped as I had plenty of supplies, only to apply some SNB to a point on my foot that was rubbing due to wearing thinner socks than usual. Ultra Error #1: Never try anything new on race day. This includes sock/shoe combos. And a quick diversion into the loos at Asda as we passed through the town of Retford at about mile 12 (top tip if you need a quick loo break before you get to the shelter of the forest).

At somewhere around mile 20 we turned off the canal, skirted an industrial estate, visited the Manton Pit Wood aid station, and then headed up a short but fairly steep hill into Manton Pit Woods, which was the start of the forest section. Personally, I totally love running round in the woods, so a race that was mainly in the forest was a big draw for me. A few more miles and then you hit the Forest Loop aid station and I quickly changed into some thicker socks, and grabbed a few items from my drop bag, then headed out again. I’d set up a few medium sized ziploc bags to grab at each pass of this checkpoint. I’d anticipated what I need to pick up, and all bags were clearly labelled with the number of each section, so I knew exactly which bag to take at each point to help cut down on time rifling through a drop bag.

Top tip for drop bags: Use a number of smaller bags in your main drop bag to keep different types of items and therefore make things easier to find. The aim here is to cut down on time spent faffing about at the aid station, and reduce any frustration when you’re trying to find your stuff later on when you’re a little frazzled. I used different coloured dry bags. One for spare clothing, one for night gear, one for tech etc etc. Another top tip – make sure your drop bag is well labelled so it’s easy to find. I’d used a large A5 sized clear pencil case super-glued to the bag, with a card inside to write my name and race number, with a Hawaiian style plastic garland attached to the bag. Might look daft, but it’s very easy to spot my bag among all the others, saving me a little time and hassle.

Now I was on familiar territory, the 30 mile forest loop that is my regular training run. The first section of the loop, to the A614 checkpoint, takes you through Clumber Park, a long stretch along Lime Tree Avenue, which does seem to go on for a while, then through Hardwick village and up a small hill through a field and you;re at the A614 checkpoint. A few miles from there along smooth forest trails until the Hazel Gap checkpoint, then you head off the 10 mile smaller Hazel Gap loop, which is the longest you have between aid stations. This part of the course may be my favourite part, some beautiful forest trails, and then past the Major Oak, and looping back round to the Hazel Gap checkpoint again. After that there’s a short road section, maybe 1.5 miles on road through the village of Norton, then you’re back on trail again, passing through the Welbeck estate, some field by the village of Holbeck, then up a hill and down into Creswell Crags.

Creswell Crags is the site of a number of caves, which were inhabited in the last Ice Age, and in whcih can be found some of the oldest examples of cave art. But my mind was very far from pre-historic art as I approached this section of the course. Since the Hazel Gap aid station, I’d been lusting after an ice cold drink, the day had been heating up, and my mind was 110% focused on a cool icy bottle of orangey fizzy bliss. I’d been dreaming, hoping for, wishing for, oh go then: FANTA-sizing about a bottle of Fanta from the cafe at Cresswell Crags, which I knew closed at 5:30pm. As I passed Hazel Gap I’d been doing the mental calculations of whether I’d get there in time, and it was touch and go to say the least. I’d got a little bit obsessed about this, and found myself sprinting like a fucking maniac down the hill before the turn into Creswell Crags, and along the lakeside path through the gorge. Now a sprint at circa mile 48 of a 100 mile ultra might appear like a bad idea (and maybe it was, and also maybe ‘sprint’ is loose definition) but as far as I was concerned I was hell for leather to make it to the cafe before it shut. With just a minute to spare, I ran into the visitor centre and panting, explained that my life depended on Fanta being available, and scored myself 2 icy cold bottles. It was worth it, the best tasting drink I’ve ever had. I guzzled one and saved the other in my pack for later.

A mile or 2 after the Crags aid station, there’s another hill up through the woods, which is probably the biggest climb of the course, but nothing really compared to most trail races, and few miles of lovely forest paths and you’re back at the Forest Loop checkpoint. Here I stopped for 15 mins, had a sit down in a chair lent to me by by a crew who were waiting for their runner to come through, changed into a long sleeved top and picked up my gear for the night stretch, had a pot pasta and a coffee, and off I went for Loop 2.

54ish miles in, it was somewhere around 6:30pm as I set out again. I felt strong and was on pace to finish somewhere around 22-23 hours, which is what I’d been aiming for. I took stock of how the race was going so far, and what I’d need to consider for the night section as before long it would be getting dark. So far – everything had gone pretty much to plan, I’d been eating and drinking well. The only minor mishap was that somewhere along the way I’d dropped a small baggie containing my supply of caffeine and salt pills. The salt pills weren’t missed as I’d been drinking an electrolyte drink (Active Root) and eating salty food when passing through checkpoints. Had it been a hot day, it may have been different, but the midlands in mid-September is unlikely to be a scorcher. I regretted not having a spare stash of caffeine pills though. But I did have a number of coffee bags. Top Tip: coffee bags are a perfect late-stage-of-the-race treat. Aid station coffee is invariably the very cheapest form of instant, so to have a nice cup of coffee is one of those little treats that can make a difference.

As I passed through Hardwick Village for the second time, the sun was going down so I put on my headtorch, A LEDLenser Neo 10, which is bright enough and the battery will last me all night. On both 100s I’ve done so far, the start of the night stretch has been one of the most exciting times, there’s some perverse joy in knowing that you’re going to be running through the night, and will still be running the next time you see the sun. The night stretch at SDW was the hardest section by a long way, but I still embraced it as it’s a very rare situation, that most right-thinking people are never going to find themselves in. I was feeling fresher today today though than at SDW, and I had the added confidence that comes with knowing I’d done it before.

Approaching Hazel Gap, as I ran through the by now pitch black forest I heard howls from the nearby kennels, looking up in the sky and seeing the moon was full, I hoped they were from the kennels…

The night section through the woods was steady and uneventful, no werewolf attacks, but there was plenty of noise from the animals and birds of the woods, and I really enjoyed hearing all of this as I ran through. I rarely use headphones in races, and I’m really glad I didn’t while running through the dark forest on this race. It was a pretty special experience, one of the reasons why I do this kind of thing. It’s a very bizarre way to spend a Saturday night, but it made absolute perfect sense to me. One moment that stands out in particular was a field not long before the Crags aid station, as I ran through the field the moonlight was bright enough to light the way, and for a time I turned off my headtorch and I was even able to see shadows cast by the silvery moonlight. You don’t get that on a usual Saturday night. Another one of those perfect moments to illustrate the bizarre joy of running 100 miles.

Before I knew it, I was back at the Forest Loop checkpoint again. Another sit down and some noodles. Top Tip: a toothbrush and paste in your drop bag is always a good idea, a quick brush will make you feel much better. The checkpoint was much less busy than the previous 2 times I’d passed through. It was around 1:15am and by now the runners were spread out across many many miles of the course. A year back I’d spent many hours through the night manning this checkpoint, so it was strange to be on the other side.

Side note – if you’ve never volunteered at a race – do. Not only is a great way of supporting these events, which would simply not be able to happen without willing volunteers, but its also valuable experience if you’re preparing to run an ultra. You’ll learn so much from seeing runners come through, get a sense of what can go wrong, how to help make things go right, and it’s a lot of fun. It can also be extremely rewarding if you talk someone into carrying on, when they were about to quit.

As I left this checkpoint for the final time, and headed back out, I knew for certain that I’d finish, I had plenty of time to get back, even if I had to walk the whole thing. There was still almost 20 miles to go, but I was feeling OK (as OK as you can feel at this stage in the race) and I still has some running left in my legs. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I now it would be done, and as long as I could keep a reasonable pace, running some and walking some, I’d be well inside 24 hours, maybe nearer to 22 which was my goal time.

But – I’d underestimated how long that canal stretch really was. It felt so much harder on the way back, and by now I was struggling to get food in, all I could really manage was sweets as I passed the aid stations, but Haribo at least kept some energy coming in, with a quick coffee at each one too. This is where I wished I’d not lost my caffeine pills, as a couple of them would have perked me up along the way and I’d rather have been drinking sports drink than coffee, but I kept moving, slower than before, but still moving forwards knowing that the vast majority of the miles were already in the bank.

By mile 90 I was definitely starting to flag, but this was about 13 miles later than at SDW, so that did make me feel better, knowing that the death march section was going to be less than I’d got through before. “I know I feel shit, but at least I have to tolerate this for less time than I have done before, therefore I know I can get through it”

There was a mile that seemed to last forever, I checked my watch thinking I must have done at least half a mile since I last checked it, but no, it was only 0.2 of a mile. A text message from my wife about 3:30am who’d been watching my progress via LiveTrack “Nearly there?” 12 miles to go might feel ‘nearly there’ compared with the 92 miles my watch was showing I’d done already, (perhaps we didn’t need that extra mile at the start?) but it still feels like a hell of a long way in the middle of the night.

I was finding the canal path to be very much harder going that it had been on the way out, it seemed more uneven, much closer to the water, and a couple of times I worried I’d fall in, but looking back I think that was just my tired legs and shattered brain playing up. I listened to a podcast featuring an interview from John Kelly about running the Barkley to put into perspective that a few more hours along the canal and through some farms were not really that big a deal, having something to listen to did seem to take mind off things and help the miles pass, so I’ll remember this for another time.

Gradually the miles fell away and I passed the final aid station, just after my watch battery had died. Back on the farm tracks, and by this time it was light again. There was none of the uplifting sense of joy that came with daybreak on the South Downs, this morning was grey and overcast, but it was still extremely satisfying to know that the night had passed, and the the end was just a few miles away now. The rutted farm tracks were 100 times more rutted, and a little piece of me died as I entered that fucking field again, which was an absolute monster to cross now. But I reminded myself that we don’t do these things because they’re easy, which is a thought I often come back to when things get hard, and got on with it. After what seemed like 4 hours, but was probably less than 5 minutes, I’d got to the bottom of the field, and I was only a couple of miles from the finish. It’s funny how your sense of time and distance can get completely warped when you’re so tired.

A couple more miles of farm track later, and I was running back into the village hall, with a finish time of 22:52, which I was happy with. Having been welcomed in to the hall by the volunteers, given my medal and shirt, and offered soup, which I declined as by now my guts were seriously rebelling against me, I found a chair and had a chat with a few other finishers, then went back to my car, sent a few text messages to let family know I’d finished, and it was my watch that had died rather than me, then had a lie down in the back of my car. I didn’t feel like I was sleeping, but before I knew it, over an hour had passed and I did feel refreshed. The van with the drop bags arrived back, and I was feeling OK, so I did the hour drive home. I’d promised myself that I would only drive back when I was 100% sure that it was safe to do so, I was prepared to sleep at the village hall for longer if necessary. It was a real luxury to be at home just a few hours after finishing a race, rather than in a Travelodge half way across the country.

Post race – my legs felt good, better than after SDW100, but for a week or so I had that feeling of deep fatigue, I know what ‘bone tired’ means now. So a week of rest and plenty of food.

Reflections: All in all I was pretty happy with how things went, pacing strategy was good and I was pleased with my finish time. I should have forced down more food in the night section, which would have helped the returned stretch along the canal, but after running for so long I tend to forget to eat later on, I need to get better at this. The race organisation was great, and the volunteers were super helpful. There’s no such thing as an easy 100, but this is at the easier end of the scale, so if you’re thinking about dipping your toe into the world of 100 milers, this is a great start. And for the more experienced runners, it’s an excellent chance to smash that PB.

Gear: Shoes were Altra Paradigm road shoes. I’d ran the forest section a couple of weeks before the race, so I knew that road shoes would be OK, and welcomed the extra cushioning of the Paradigms. If it had rained much the week before, I’d have worn Lone Peaks, as sections of the forest can get slippy and muddy. Socks: Injinji toe socks, no blister or lost toenails, so that’s a result. Pack: I wore a UD Mountain vest 4, which has plenty of space for the mandatory kit and more. Clothes: Montane C2SK shorts, the most comfortable shorts I’ve ever had. A Nike vest for the daytime, long sleeved Montane Dart top for the night. Torch was LEDLenser Neo10, with an Alpkit Gamma for back up, which I didn’t need as the Lenser lasted all night long.

If you made it to the end of this report, then you certainly have the stamina to run a 100 miles, so get yourself on the Hobo Pace website and sign up!

It’s on!! NDW100

After long months of lockdown and numerous race cancellations, it appears that the North Downs 100 is actually going to happen in just a few short weeks. The organisers Centurion have done an excellent job in keeping everyone updated (showing themselves to be better organised and better communicators than the UK government), and with a few adjustments to the usual race day routine, the race looks like it’ll be on.

To mitigate Covid infection risk, there’ll be no on-the-day registration or mass start. Instead runners will have a rolling start between 5 and 7am, with race packs being posted out in advance. Aid stations will look a little different, but generally it’s going to be very much the same race as we all signed up for the best part of year ago, well before the world went crazy.

If you’re not familiar with the NDW100, t’s a 103ish mile trail race from Farnham in Surrey, to Ashford in Kent, taking in around 3000m of ascent along the way. The total ascent is less than South Downs Way, but don’t let that lull you into any false sense of security. NDW is considered to be the toughest of the Centurion bunch (barring the infrequent WW100, which is a whole different kettle of fish). The hills on NDW (though generally smaller than SDW) are shorter, sharper, and nastier. This trail is not the smooth rolling hills of SDW, and is a different, tougher beast. The race is in August, so the chance of a hot day is stronger, still not a given in in the English summer, but a warm day could easily add at least a couple of hours to my finish time.

This will be the hardest 100 I’ve attempted to date, having only done 2 before. With both the SDW100 and the Robin Hood 100 I had a good idea of what to expect for most of the race, having run the SDW50 before, and being very familiar with the RH100 route as its where I train most weeks. I’ve reccied a few sections of the NDW, so I know the horror of the hill that starts the infamous Detling stretch, and having volunteered at the Detling aid station before, I’ve seen the 1000 yard stare of the people who make it that far.

In my favour, I’m better trained than ever before. I actually lost a little weight throughout lockdown, and have been fairly consistently hitting 240+ miles per month. I recently smashed PBs from everything to 5k to 50k in training in the last few months, and have been doing weekly hill sessions, so I’m going to give a sub 24 hour finish a good shot. Now this may be incredibly naive of me, I know that 2 sub 24s so far are absolutely no guarantee of a third, especially on this course, and if it’s a warm day I’m going to have to adjust my plans from the off. But maybe, just maybe, it can be done…

Wendover Woods 50 – Race Report

Gnarking Around – a gentle climb

Race Report

A Saturday morning in mid-November. It’s barely above freezing. Rain has been falling persistently for the last few days. The course is a hilly 10 mile loop through Wendover Woods, just outside Aylesbury. We run this loop 5 times, with a 15 hour cut off.

This is a 50 mile ultra-marathon, put on by the fantastic Centurion Running crew, who lay on the best organised events I’ve ever seen. But this is not ordinary ultra, it’s hilly, muddy and the hills are enough to reduce you to a blubbering wreck by loop 4. As we’re in UK winter, a large chunk of the race for us mere mortals is run in the dark, making the ascents, descents, and rooty wooded paths even more treacherous. This is not a race for the faint hearted.

But’s it’s a hell of fun race. So here’s a race report. It’s a long one, maybe as long as the race. I think I need to work on my editing skills.

In the lead up to this, I’d run a few 50s and a couple of 100s so far this year, but nothing with the amount of climbing and descending that’s involved here (somewhere around 3300 meters in 50 miles), not mountainous by any means, but more than I’ve done before. So I whilst I was comfortable with the distance, I was more than little wary about how brutal these hills could be. A couple of months out from the race, and having spoken to some WW50 veterans whilst volunteering at NDW100, I realised that I’d better get my arse in gear and do some proper hill training.

My usual training routes are either along the river Trent (flat) and Beeston Canal (flat) or around Sherwood Forest (mainly flat) so I was severely lacking some hills, and struggled to find a decent off-road hill, without driving all the way out the Peak District. So I made do with a mundane but steepish street that run from one North Nottingham suburb up to another. It’s about half a mile from top to bottom, with about 200 feet of climbing, so isn’t as big as I’d like, but that was remedied by doing a 10x repeat session. Far from the most exciting training session, but I’d mitigate the repetition by listening to podcasts about people doing really really very hard things (Moab 240, Barkley etc) to put a mere 50 miler through some UK woods in perspective. Adding this into the training mix, and being fairly consistent with 40-50 miles per week was enough to get me ready for this race. Everyone’s different, some will do far more miles than this, some will do less, but this seems to work for me.

I had no real expectations of how long WW50 was going to take me, I expected at least a couple of hours longer than a ‘normal’ 50 that I’ve done such as SDW, Ox50, Green Man (not a 50 I know, but it’s the same ballpark). So I went in to the race with an ‘A’ goal of under 12 hours, ‘B’ goal of under 13, but also I’d have been happy enough with a 14:59:59 finish.

Leading up to the race, pretty much the whole of the the UK had been under torrential rain for a week, so there were 2 concerns here. Number 1 was how slippy the course would be, actually the woods drain well, so the vast majority of the course was mud free as the day of the race was dry. The parking field however, was a real concern for runners and organisers, with fears of people having to be towed out, but again on the day it turned out fine, but it did add a little to the pre-race nerves

Night before: I stayed at at the Aylesbury Travelodge, which was effectively free as I used a voucher I’d been given as compensation for the night after SDW50 when the fire alarm in the Worthing Travelodge had gone off several times throughout the night). Thankfully there were no alarm related issues this time. This was around 15 mins drive from the race, which was fine, I was very conscious of not having to drive too far after the race. Don’t take any risks with driving too far after a race, this can (and has in the not too distant past in the UK) end in disaster.

Race morning: Knowing the parking field may be tricky, I planned to get there early before too many other cars had been through it, so I arrived as registration opened at 7am. Registration was fine (other than me forgetting to put my buff in my pack). A word of warning: Centurion are (rightly) very hot on checking you have the mandatory kit, this is for the safety of runners, and while you may not think you need your emergency base layer or space blanket, there are good reasons for including these on the kit list and enforcing this, as we’ll see later…

With time to kill before race start, I sat in the car eating the most amazing porridge from the food/coffee van. A word on this van: the 2 ladies working in the van not only serve extremely tasty porridge and other snack and drinks, but were as cheery (maybe even more so) at 10pm as they were at 7am. Legends. The pumpkin porridge was a magical concoction of spices, syrups and pecan nuts.

At the start/finish area there’s a marquee including a pop up store in case of any last minute kit requirements, and space to leave your drop bag. As it’s a looped course you can access your bag every 10 miles, and you can also leave more stuff in your car in case you need it, as the parking area is right next to the marquee. My drop bag included the usual stuff, spare clothing, cold weather kit, spare head torch and a variety of gels, flapjacks, bags of Tailwind and Active Root, as well as the holy grail of ultra racing nutrition, Snickers.

Race briefing from RD James was brief and to the point. Main themes were look after each other, keep your mandatory kit on you at all times, don’t faff about excessively at checkpoints, and be careful of the cold.

And then it began. We were led down to the start, a few hundred meters from the marquee, and off we went, on the dot of 09:30.

I was glad to get moving, mainly because it was fucking freezing, and my feet were already numb.

So, the loop… It’s a twisty turny thing, with 10 miles of trails squeezed into an area of forest just a couple of miles across. But it’s so well marked, it’s easy to find your way round

Despite the horror stories I’d heard before, I was very surprised how runnable much of the loop is. The majority is nice gentle trail, with a short sharp hill thrown in every mile or 2, and a couple of longer climbs. Don’t be put off by the hills though, they’re tough but none of them last long, and virtually all are followed by a nice runnable downhill section.

The race starts by passing the Wendover Woods visitor centre and the famous Gruffalo, with a gentle down hill, then a short up into the woods proper. The first few miles were a little congested, which is to be expected, but it never felt overcrowded. By the time we reached the first ‘landmark’ descent, it had thinned out.

A note on the climbs/descents: Each major hill is named, this helps you to form the loop in your mind and also makes it easier to describe where you are in case of any problems. The first notable one is Powerline Descent, a steep but short slippy, slidey drop out of the woods and into an open field, under a powerline. This seemed more treacherous on the first loop, on subsequent loops you get to know how to take the best line down and the safest footing.

After Powerline, you quickly get in sight of Hale Lane aid station, but then turn away from it and head up another hill (Hell’s Road I think this one is called) as it’s not time to visit the checkpoint yet, there’s a couple of miles to go. Up Hell’s Road, (pretty slippy at the top) and then down again, and then comes another up, the most significant so far, the Go Ape climb. At the top of this, you arrive with your chest about to burst, amongst families enjoying a day out at the Go Ape attraction who seem confused by these nutters running around the woods.

And then again it’s down, a nice long downhill, then through a section where the tree roots seem to be actively trying to grab your ankles and pull you down, and then down again to Hale Lane.

The checkpoint is at approx 5.5 miles, and as with all ultra checkpoints, is a joy to arrive at. Centurion checkpoints are always very well stocked, and I was especially happy to grab a fistful of cheese and marmite sandwiches. Volunteers are always happy to help and will offer to refill bottles and tell you what food’s on offer. They are the absolute lifeblood of these events, and I take my hat off to them for standing out in the cold for so long to help us.

Cheesy marmitey sandwiches in hand, I left the checkpoint for a long but gradual ascent (which seemed to get longer and less gradual on each subsequent loop). At the top you then get to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. From the name of this, I’d expected it to be a lung-busting grind of a climb, but it’s actually a very runnable gentle down, and was my fastest mile of the day.

Then, the Snake, another climb, followed by the Hill Fort loop, and a another lovely long runnable section. Just as you get lulled into a false sense of security “What hills, it’s not that bad after all” at around 9 miles in, comes Gnarking Around. The most (in)famous climb of the loop. It’s not that high, 40 meters maybe, but it’s steep as a motherfucker, and was a more than a bit slippy. It’s steep enough to make you grab on to some of the trees and roots on the way up, but after a few minute of “what the fuck” you’re up and over the top, then another nice downhill before you get to the last climb “Railing in the Years.” Not as steep as Gnarking, and with a railing that’s a little too low to be really useful. Another little climb through the woods at the top, and then you’re in sight of the marquee, a quarter mile or so around the edge of the field, and then over a stile, and you’re back home.

Repeat 4 more times and you’re done. Easy.

First time through the marquee, I barely stopped. First loop was done in 02:04, a little faster than I’d planned, but nothing to cause me to worry, I knew I’d slow significantly on future laps (and I did).

Loop 2 was a little slower, and felt easier as I now had an idea of the course in my head, and on each lap, and seemed to pass pretty quickly, in about 02:18.

Loop 3 felt harder. I’d set myself a target of finishing Loop 3 without a headtorch, no real reason for this, it just seemed like a reasonable milestone to hit. Towards the end of Loop 3 I started to feel it for the first time that day. That feeling you get when ‘oh shit there’s still a long way to go’. 28 miles in, with 22 to go, and it’s only going to be harder in the dark. I’ve practised in previous races to try to take my mind off the finish, and enjoy the now, a useful trick I heard on some podcast (no idea which one) is a saying ‘always there, not nearly there’. I interpret this as, forget about the finish, the finish is not the goal, the here and now is the goal, this is what you’ve trained for and paid for. Don’t get all hung up about the finish as the holy grail, the process to get there is what’s important. So with a bit of talking myself round, and shoving more food in my face, I got on with it.

It was starting to get dark by this point, but I didn’t want to give in and put my headtorch on, so I picked my way through the twilight woods. On getting half way up Railing the the Years, I came across a runner slumped against a tree, shivering and looking in a pretty bad way. Another runner and I got his emergency base layer from his pack, got him into this, wrapped him up in a tin foil blanket and fed him. He admitted he was getting confused, and slurring his words. I tried calling the medic, but couldn’t get through. At this point, an off-duty marshal who was out for a quick run came down the hill, we agreed that he’d wait with the runner, while I’d run up to the marquee which was only a few minutes away to summon help. This really highlights the need for the mandatory kit. If it’s barely above freezing, you’re warm enough while moving, but if you stop you can get dangerously cold very quickly. Up at the top, I found Centurion staff and they got some help heading down to him.

Loop 3 done in about 02:29, I grabbed another layer from my drop bag, stopped in the marquee for a cup of tea and a Snickers, got my headtorch on and it was back out into the dark.

It’s amazing how different the course seemed in the dark. I love running through forests in the dark, hearing the noise of the woods and going into my own little bubble as the world shrinks to the size of the beam from your light. It’s as if nothing else exists, and I like that. The course was exceptionally well marked with reflective signs, so I never had a problem staying on course. I felt better on Loop 4, having had more food and a hot drink. One of the things about ultras is that in most races, you’ll have at least one low point, maybe more, especially in 100s, but they never last long. Stick with it and you’ll get through it. It’s bizarre how quickly you can go from ‘fuck it, ultras are ridiculous, why am I doing this, I’m done with ultras’ to ‘woohoo I fucking love ultras, let me sign up for loads more’

Loop 4 was the slowest yet, due to getting tired and being a little more cautious in the dark to not slip or trip. I got it done in about 02:53. Another cup of tea and a Snickers in the marquee and it was on to the final loop.

I set out on Loop 5 now having a good knowledge of the course, knowing I had over 5 hours to complete the race before cut off, so at this point I was pretty comfortable in the knowledge that I’d finish the race, bar any disasters (which is always a remote, but real possibility). I’d been eating well through out the day, and my mood on Loop 5 was up, certainly well up from the mid-point doldrums of Loop 3. Each climb seemed like a victory, knowing I’d not have to do it again. I ticked off each section as I went, knowing by now the order in which they came. Powerline, Hell’s Road, Go Ape, Broken Dreams, Snake, then onto Gnarking and Railing and then the final corner (with stile which seemed to have grown) and through the finish in a total time of 12:37:56.

After being handed a medal and t shirt, and a quick chat with a couple of the runners I’d shared miles with throughout the day, I grabbed a coffee and sat in the car to rest and keep warm before the short drive back to the hotel.

Support on the day from the Centurion crew, the volunteers, the supporters who stood out in the freezing woods all day, and the (slightly bemused) general public was outstanding. Without exception, every single other runner that I spoke to throughout the day, including the superfast leaders who lapped me at some point on Loop 3, was cheery and supportive. At these events, no one is better than anyone, whatever you do in the supposedly ‘real world’ matters not, you really are in it all together, each man or woman against the course, and ready and willing to help each other out.

If you’re the kind of lunatic whose idea of fun is running up and down evil hills in the woods in winter, only to get back the same place you started, then Wendover Woods is the race for you. It’s not easy, it’s not supposed to be. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun…

Running what?

A moment of clarity.

I’ve had a few of those. The latest one was when I understood that I’ve morphed from a recreational runner, into a massive, full blown, beyond hope, running wanker. No longer is a quick jog by the river sufficient, no, I’m deep into this shit now. I own more pairs of shoes than my wife. I have 4 (fucking 4?) waterproof running jackets. Mileage is tracked via Garmin. I’ve taken to running multiple races per year, touring the Travelodges of the land. I listen to running podcasts, I read running blogs. And actually I find these really useful, and I which there were more race reports etc out there, so I thought I’d add to this in the hope that 1 or 2 other obsessives, or maybe the ultra-curious, out there may find it useful.

So this is a place for race reports, gear reviews, and vague musings about running. I’m sure virtually no one will read it. But if even just a handful of people find something of use here, that may help them prep for a race they’re planning, enter one that they’re considering, or get out the door for just one mile, then it’s just fine with me

More ramblings to follow soon….