Tuesday, 13 November 2012

NDW 100 Review

North Downs Way 100 Review

It seemed like a good idea when I made the decision to enter the North Downs Way 100. I have researched the terrain and elevation and was mentally prepared for the challenge that awaited me. Training, however, did not go to plan. There were too many lay ins and not enough long runs. The arrival of my son on 22nd June had limited the available time to train and seriously depleted my energy levels. With that said I probably had not done enough training prior to his arrival.

I made a decision hat I was still going to attempt the 100 mile course with the genuine aim of finishing. I felt it was within my capacity even if it was no more than driven by my stubborn nature and determination. Everyone has said that the mental battle is 90% of the challenge and I was confident that I had this element sewn up. There can be no doubt that I had deluded myself slightly about my fitness. Don't get me wrong I was certainly in a position where I could comfortably trot for 25 miles, but 4 times this distance remained highly questionable.
The Friday before the race I was fully stocked with all the items I needed for the race. The car was packed. I was still debating the shoe option. I have a pair of Brooks Pure Grit's anda pair of Innov8 319's. I have never run further than 15 miles in the Brooks, whereas I have run a 47mile ultra in the Innov8's. I later decided to go with what I know and planned for wearing the 319's. I drove round to my best friend, Sam Robson's house. He would be crewing at this race and so we drove down together. The plan was that Sam would then drive us home after the race.
The journey to the start was eventful, with an accident on the M25 we took an hour longer to get to Farnham. Nevertheless it was beautiful weather and with the climate control on the car we were comfortable at least.
We drove to Farnham, and the race start, where we met James Elson. I have liaised with James Elson via twitter and Facebook. It was lovely to talk to James and even though he was under the gun to get everything sorted his enthusiasm and excitement for the event was clear for everybody to see.

James had a stack of crates to unload from vehicles. My offer to assist was meant with a very polite "no you're alright just relax and save your energy." It's an interesting fact, which, I attribute to James' race direction that I felt relaxed all weekend.

Soon after 6pm everyone was arriving to leave drop bags. Given Sam was crewing it meant me sticking about for a bit. I didn't mind as I had the opportunity to chat with Neil Bryant. Neil is a complete inspiration. He has recently finished the trans europe 64 day run. An utterly astounding achievement. What an incredible year he has had. A genuinely nice guy and brilliant runner.

Whilst sitting around I was amazed to see so many people arriving without mandatory kit and more so the fact that they were surprised. I was pretty sure I had read three or four emails from James about mandatory kit. Despite excellent levels of communication in the build James remained polite and patient with each and every runner.

Sam and I eventually left the registration area to go and get some food. Back at the Premiere Inn we went to the restaurant and ordered some food. We then decided to order dessert and after a wait of over 45min for our dessert both came to the conclusion we were full. Trudging over to Tesco for last minute supplies I began to contemplate what lay ahead tomorrow. I had only really run the first 25miles before and after that it was unknown territory. The weather was set to be blistering hot and this would be less than ideal. I sweat way more than the average man in cool conditions.

Tomorrow's weather meant I was going to have to be extra vigilant on my hydration and salt levels.
Returning to the Premiere Inn I was reassured by my Lenny Henry guarantee of a good night sleep. Sam and I set our alarms for a joyous 4:30am and went to sleep. It felt like no sooner than I had gone to sleep than the alarm was going off. It was 4:30am on Saturday 11th August, that meant it was race day. No longer was the lack of preparation an issue and having only run 25 miles of the course was no longer a concern. It all now came down to the fact that today I was going to attempt to run 100 miles, 53 miles further than I have ever run before.

After a pot of porridge I headed over to the start and collected my race number. A quick hello again to Neil Bryant and I was making my last minute checks to ensure I was ready for the race. Sam had departed to undertake marshalling duties and lay markers on a 15mile stretch of the course. James gave a speech to everyone about the importance of keeping safe and a further reminder that today was going to be hot and for everyone to keep safe. James also assured us that there was markings up around the course and that at night this tape would reflect off head torches. My only criticism, if indeed it really is a criticism, is that the tape did not really reflect off the head torch. At about 5:50am we headed down to the start line. So many people all gathered together to undertake the challenge was inspiring. I felt for the first time that it did not matter how far anyone got, the fact that they were brave enough to toe the the line was good enough for me. James counted everyone down and at 6am, on 11th August 2012, the North Downs Way 100 began.

The race began relatively uneventful. I was cautious not to set out too fast and burn out before 10miles. Finding my rhythm I ran past the army group. They were attempting to run the 100miles in kit and carrying a 30lb pack. I thought to myself that I would be amazed if they made it. Everything felt really good and the pace was following the plan I had created in my head. It was very quickly heating up and it was obvious the day was going to evolve into a scorcher. About 4 miles in I nearly made a wrong turn. I followed a runner who turned left. Thankfully my Garmin beeped and told me I was off course. I was able to stop several other runners also running off course. Turns out in the momentum the less experienced runners (me included) can tend to follow others like sheep. I engaged in some banta with a chap by the name of Anthony Scarborough (the gentleman who turned left when we should have turned right) the banta turned into general conversation and before we new it we had passed through the first check point and were well on our way to the second. I had been a bit disappointed not to see Sam Robson at the first checkpoint. I guessed he must be out marking the part of the course that James had mentioned the night before. Not to worry I figured I'd seem him at mile 60.

Conscious of my pace plan I politely said to Anthony that I was working to a plan and if he at any time wanted to run off then he was more than welcome to. Anthony seemed to be enjoying my walk run pace and wanted to see how this changed his own perception of running. Before I knew it we had been going over 8hours and had agreed that we were going to run all the way to the end together. There was something very surreal about turning to a relative stranger and casually observing that you have been running for 8 hours. Put into context this meant about another 20 hours to complete the race. The time passed surprisingly rapidly and although I was not sticking to my original run for 25 walk for 5 minutes approach, we had devised a pretty good routine.

It was an absolutely sweltering day and the mile 24 mark and the unavoidable Box Hill was a less than pleasant experience (I am assuming this blog is being read before the watershed.) lots of comments had been made about Box Hill and I knew it was going to be tough but it seemed to go on forever. I believe made worse by the fact it was steps rather than a slope. This for me meant a significant alteration in leg movement. By the top I was knackered. The sight of the Olympic rings was undeniably inspiring, but yes still knackered. The distance between the checkpoint that started box hill and the checkpoint that preceded it was the hardest that I faced and felt like it was a solid incline the whole way. If you run this race in the future do not underestimate this section.
The North Downs Way is a truly spectacular place to run. The scenery is varied, vivid and inspirational. I was feeling good that I had conquered the major inclines of this run. About 8hours in I was going strong and starting to believe that just maybe I could contemplate finishing this 100mile race. So the race continued as did my game plan of running where I could and then ensuring that my walking stayed under 14min per mile. At about mile 34 my unending buddy, Anthony, had to stop to have some blisters on his feet treated. This is a great point to give Massive shout out to the support crew who were brilliant in their banter, moral and physical support. Anthony and I had already decided that we would stick together and it would have been suicidal to continue without him having his blisters treated.
The race continued and remained pretty uneventful through the next few miles. We got to the half way point feeling really good. At this stage we were on for about a 28hour finish and bang on the time I had told James Elson I'd like to finish in. I was having a really good day and was surprised by how well things were going. The miles were ticking off and it was beginning to cool down again.

Unfortunately the race did not continue in the theme of the first 50 odd miles. I had initially worked out the time cut offs and knew that we were well on track to be in and out of the 60 mile checkpoint. The pace was good and I was glancing down at the Garmin thinking that the checkpoint should have been just around the corner. After about 5mins or so it was clear that something was not right. In attempting to rectify the error I thought that we were back on track. It later turned out that we had got ourselves back on track, but in the wrong direction. The agony hit at the moment that we were running back down some stairs as other runners came running up. I won't repeat what I said at this point, but safe to say I was less than happy.
At the point that I realised I had gone wrong I was mentally done. I knew that there was no way that we could make the cut off and I just wanted to be done. A finishing point could not come quick enough. All the extra hills had done my legs in and at this point it was not fun. I was mentally dragging myself along by my finger nails. I was swearing never to do another Ultra and to hang up my trainers. The sweeper crew inevitably reached us and pointed out if I picked my pace up I might just make the cut off. I commented that I had promised my wife that I would not do anything silly and with a young baby at home I needed to be sensible. There was no challenge to this statement, other than to assist us in getting to a point where we could call it a day.
We eventually got to a point where we could be picked up by the mini bus. I must pay tribute at this point to the sweeper crew. I had read the report from sweeper crew of the SDW100 and was saddened to see they took such a torrent of abuse. This sweeper crew gave us nothing but support and good company. They encouraged us to press on and when they knew this was not an option supported us in retiring safely. A big thumbs up and thanks again to the support crew.
By the time that the minibus had collected us and transported us to mile 60 and I had met up with Sam I was over the "NEVER RUN AN ULTRA AGAIN!" feeling. I was proud that I had not made the wrong call and tried to press on.
After a quick trip to McDonalds we headed to the finish line to cheer runners in. Watching runners cross the line I was already back in love with running and planning my next ultra. The truth is you cannot fail to be anything but inspired watching so many people achieve their goals.
James Elson really does put on an excellent race. I had heard great things about his events and experienced this one first hand. James clearly has a passion for 100milers and his love of the sport shines through in these events. I will definitely be back to crack this event in 2013.
James' passion was epitomised in his own desire to greet everyone across the line. I got the sense that the last person across the line received the same level of jubilation as the winner. This is a credit to James and to the ultra community. I know that crossing that line in 2013 James will remember my pain from 2012 and savour that moment perhaps almost as much as I will. I also sense the same applies to anyone who runs one of his races.

I'd like to finally credit the race with the point that no matter how tired or fed up I got during the race I always felt safe and supported. This is a true testament to a set up that saw a 50 miler and 100 miler being managed simultaneously.
The truth is that as I have had time to reflect on this race I am actually glad I failed to finish the race. It firstly shows how tough such an event is, but also I know that I had not trained enough to deserve a finish. Where running is concerned I don't want to be given something that I don't deserve and I wouldn't have deserved that buckle. I am training harder than ever and I won't make the same mistake twice. I can't wait to finish this race in 2013.
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