Monday, 2 September 2013

NDW100 2013 Race Review



NDW100 2013 Race Review

It has been well documented now that I failed to finish this race back in 2012. Many people have been very polite about the reasons I didn’t finish. The truth , simply put, is that I didn’t train hard enough and I was too fat. My 2012 race was ok through the first 50 but then took a massive downward spiral and the wheels fell of when I got lost at around the 55 mile mark. I always wondered how I would have got on had I not had a navigational error. Would I have finished? Would I have been able to tackle the second half of the race? Having now completed the 2013 race (oops that’s the ending given away) I can categorically say…..No….. There is hand on heart absolutely no way that I would have reached the finish line of this race in 2012. This race is tough and by far the toughest race I have run. In my humble opinion this race has many stings in its tale and is by far and away significantly harder than South Downs Way 100.

So many people were aware that I was going for the completion of the Downs Doubles. It had never initially been my intention to complete a double. I just wanted to finish this race after failing to do so last year. I had trained hard and utilised experience from South Downs Way some 8 weeks ago. I was confident that my body was fit (much fitter than last year) and that I would be pushing it all I could to get to the very end. The only real plan that I had evolved would be to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reached the line or I was tapped out.  I had not done much training since the adventures of the South Downs Way100. I was anticipating that the speed and strength work would be enough to keep me strong and ready for the race.

The Friday before the race arrived and in the usual fashion I was at HQ with Sam Robson. I had left my wife looking after a teething baby and was grateful to her that being away on the Friday would ensure an uninterrupted nights sleep.  At Race HQ I entered into a study conducted by some very smart people who understand it all way more than I do. In short it involved 5 measurements/tests that would then be redone at the end of the race. The aim is to explore the effects of endurance events on the human body. I will likely receive a breakdown of my results and the meaning of it all some time in February. I am genuinely intrigued to see what these results show about how my body responds to the demands of an ultra.

So I was registered for the race and the tests completed. Sam, myself and 5 others went for a meal before bed. It was a lovely social affair with people I had never met before, albeit with exception of a few social media conversations with James Adams. Whilst we were ordering James Adams was goaded into the burger challenge. The lure of the finishers t-shirt proved too great. Sadly the task was beyond James’ reach and today was not to be his day. He was reflective and able to recognise that there is always another eating challenge.

After much hilarity the runners all retired to their rooms. Sam and I went back to the Premiere Inn where we were offered the key to our room. We were duly notified that it was a “double, is that ok?” In the modern era the lady behind the desk didn’t want to assume this was a mistake. Personally I put these assumptions down to Sam’s sideburns. With the matter resolved and the twin room provided I set about ensuring that my bag and drop bags were ready for the race. I was a little concerned that I appeared to be carrying a lot less this time round than during South Downs Way 100, but the truth is that most of the items were unused during South Downs Way 100. With this in mind I saw no point in carrying excessive weight unduly.

With all my items packed and ready to go I set about getting a good night’s sleep before the race. I have not suffered the reported pre-race lack of sleep and generally when my head hits the pillow I am done for the night. Thankfully this was the case and I was woken by my alarm telling me that it 4:15am. At race HQ around 5:30am James Elson gave his usual speech and all the runners looked ready and raring to go. I was able to say hello to a few them before heading down to the start of the North Downs Way 100. It is such a great feeling to be part of this running community all of whom are in some way addicted to the buzz of running ultra marathons. The centurion running events always seem to generate a massive vibe and you end up feeling part of some big running festival. During the 5 minute walk to the start you could feel the positive energy for this race and all the runners chatting and sharing war stories. We all made it to Farnham and were ready to go once the clock struck 6am.

As 6am approached I realised that I felt very different this year. Some of this may be down to having already covered 100 miles on foot. I was confident that today would be fine and that I would make it to the end of the race. I knew in my mind that I was not going to let anything stop me. Now of course the reality is that over this distance anything can happen and there is not always anything you can do to prevent a DNF. With this said I was happy to crawl if it meant I would finish this race.

6am came and the race started. I set about my plan of running to feel and the time just being simply a measuring device to tell me how close to the cut offs I was. It was set to be pretty good running conditions but the weather was humid and this made it all feel very warm. I began to get into my rythmn early on and it all felt great. It was nice to be running freely and steadily.  Holding the map in hand gave me confidence and I was able to push on and churn out the miles. I felt pretty good through the first few miles my legs seemed to be on auto pilot and were happy holding out a consistent pace. Coming through the first checkpoint it was great to seem James Elson present. He knows how much this race means to me after the fate of 2012 and knew that I was on a mission to finish this time round. I plodded on through the checkpoint with a brief chat with James Adams who nearly missed the food at the aid station. James Adams appeared to have a good pace in his legs and disappeared into the distance. I felt like I could go faster and the cushioning from my hokas appeared to be doing my ankle the world of good. Despite these feelings I was cautious not to press hard and blow before the finish. Today was not about a sub24 or any other glory. Today /tomorrow the glory would be in crossing the finish line.

It was steadily turning into a sweltering day and approaching St Martha’s it seemed clear that the humidity would probably catch a few people out. I was chugging through fluids quicker than I liked, but was definitely only drinking to first. Upon reaching the church at St Martha’s I paused for a moment to enjoy the view and pressed on down the hills. It was relatively good running ground all the way to box hill, but I knew that this was where the real race starts. Everyone who knows this trail knows of box hill. If you believe the Olympics this is THE hill. If you run the NDW100 you will know that comparatively to later climbs box hill is a steady incline. Anyway I was focused and feeling really good. I made it to near the box hill check point in about 4 hours 30mins and some two hours quicker than the previous year. I was therefore up on my virtual partner but felt in much better shape. I gave the wife a quick call to tell her the body was working and I was feeling confident with no signs of any aches and pains from the South Downs Way 100. As I was ending the call I heard a voice shouting “you’re supposed to be running.” Sadly this was my friend Sam Robson. He had pulled from the race with a knee injury that he had anticipated may end his race early. Still that puts me 2-0 for 100 milers against him ;-) Sam was near the front when he pulled and to be honest if you have a knee injury pulling before Box Hill is just smart running (in my opinion.) I can’t imagine plodding on to the next checkpoint after Reigate hill only to pull out.

After a brief exchange or words with Sam I pressed on to Box Hill checkpoint where I saw Lee Briggs. I had recced part of this route with him back in February. Lee is busy training for his own 100 miler challenges and it was great to seek him out on the course. He reminded me that he would see me at the 92 mile checkpoint. How easily those words roll off the tongue when you are not the one putting one foot in front of the other. Last year drop bags were at Box Hill, but not this year and to be honest they were not missed. The checkpoint buffet was so great that I munched on some food and pressed on. Over the stepping stones I went and there she was in all her glory. I climbed and climbed up Box Hill and before I knew it I was at the top. I remember clearly thinking that it did not seem as steep as before. I knew that my perspective on hills would change later on, but for now I was pleased that all my efforts in the gym and running the trails had paid off. I pressed on through Reigate Hill knowing that this would be a trudge and would be where the miles and checkpoints started to blend in my retrospective mindset. It was great to see Graham Carter during this portion of the race. He offered up some much needed Haribo, a smile and a hug. It’s always great to see him out on the trails as it is clear that we share the same passion for running. Graham was enjoying the front runners pace as much as the determination of the middle pack. I hope to run an event some time soon that Graham is entered into so as to share the experience. As I crested the hill to the aid station I was just happy to be done with that section. It is a horrible section of climbing, although as I would later discover is one of the most runnable sections of the course. Thank god I did not know this at the time. Truth be told the ascent is not remotely technical, but it just seems to be constant. The climb is quite a sharp gradient and it seems to just take its toll on the legs. It becomes the first real point where I could potentially feel fatigued. With this section done I knew I could enjoy some running for a bit without too many issues of hills.

I knew that the next lot of running was on trails often running in close proximity to the roads. The little wooded areas were very picturesque and I found my mind drifting to nothing in particularly. I regularly turned my music off to just listen to the trail and take in my surroundings. It is true to say that we often miss so much around us on our daily commutes. Globalisation and the every shrinking world is great in so many respects, but it also at times seems to distance us further from what is closest to us. Yes this was profound thinking for over 30 miles in to a race. It was offset by my imagination going into over drive and the wooded areas often serving, in my mind, as my own middle earth. With thoughts of being chased by Uruk Hai I kept on running. With random thoughts coming and going it was a positive indication that I was relaxed and enjoying my running. If I am not lost in the moment there is often little rhythm and my brain diverts to other things I “should” be doing. So all the random crap my imagination was throwing out allowed me to press on with a smile on my face. Jelly and ice cream was looming fast at mile 38 and a potential level of abuse from Bryan if I came in with anything but a smile.

Running in to mile 38 I was feeling full of running. It was hot, but nothing in my body was screaming at me. I had no cramps like I had at SDW100 and no sense of sickness. Everything was working and I was delighted to chomp down some jelly and ice cream. It tasted so good. I chatted briefly to Bryan, Graham and Kevin. It was great to see friends out on the trail. I am grateful to Kevin for pointing out how well coordinated my clothing was and questioning if I had a stylist. I can assure you that this was by accident as my day to day wardrobe will evidence. So with more farewells and a see you later to Bryan (Bryan was pacing from mile 60 for a friend) off back down the trail I went.

Running in and out of checkpoints is such a pleasurable thing. Everyone is so happy to see you arrive and then happier to see you leave (story of my life.) At Centurion Running events it seems to go that little further. Everything runs so smoothly and every aid stations was feeling like a mini power up. If NDW100 was a Mario game the aid stations would be the mushrooms. Running out of checkpoints I felt 8ft tall and ready to sprint. It didn’t always last long but was nice to know I could still carry on feeling like that. The pace dropped a little for the next 12 miles largely due to the need to relieve my bowels and never finding a good place to go. This made for some uncomfortable running, but pressing was what this whole day was about and press on I did.

Running on through Botley and into Knockholt the day was going well. I was keeping up on my calories and was having a good day. I was chatting to runners without deviating from my own race plan. As I entered Knockholt the hills and terrain were beginning to have an impact. I knew that I was well under the cut offs and had plenty of time in the bank for later in the race. With this in mind I took my time to get my drop bag and munch down some calories and a bottle of Mountain Dew (that stuff is like magic fuel on race day.) I was grateful to the attentive crew who asked me 6/7 times if I wanted hot food. My gratitude was in full force as it was not until the 6/7th time that I said yes. The food was good and my body was ready for the second half. I spent  5-10 minutes stretching and when it came time to go I was feeling particularly ready and confident to press on. Some of this may have been down to the sheer joy of access to a clean toilet, but either way I was feeling relatively fresh and my 25 minutes in the aid station was definitely the best 25 minutes I utilised in the race.
Now anyone who has attempted to run 100 miles knows that it is far from simply a case of being half way there. Running 50 miles with 50 miles already in the legs is a whole other board game. The trails deteriorate over the second half. I had recced the first 30 or so miles of the second half and whilst it is not technical under foot there are a lot of tree roots, over grown sections and of course hills. Reaching the mile 60 checkpoint was a really great feeling. It meant I was further than last year and I was feeling good and in control of my race. So far I had run through fields, towns, vineyards and many wooded areas and the race was not even two thirds done. This is what makes ultra running such a spectacular experience. At the aid station I saw Anthony who last year I had run with early on. We ran out of the checkpoint, where I left Bryan waiting for his friend, and agreed to run together. I made it clear that I was running my pace and if we stayed together then great but that I had to run my own race. With this all laid on the line we ran and ran well. There were walking breaks but in general things were pretty good. We tackled steps and climbs along with the descents. Rocky roads and compact trails were beginning to take their toll and the legs were getting tired. At the time I was cursing the climbs and querying the enjoyment of the event. The truth is this is just the cycnical voice in my head. It’s the same one that tells me to eat the whole bag of haribo and to pick cake over apple. When the true voice in my head speaks up I love these races and I love the challenge. Everything was so well marked for the entire race that I had not really needed to look at the map.

Through Holly Hill I was well aware that this had a tough climb and yet as we tackled it I felt it was not too bad. There were little climbs in between that drained the legs, but it was definitely a phase of the race where I was tuned into my surroundings and plugging away.  The stretch to Bluebell Hill was tough and felt like it was going on forever. It is undoubtedly a phase that seems longer due to running in the dark. A few times I thought maybe someone was just joking and the next checkpoint would be Detling. Running and plugging away saw the emergence of checkpoint 10. Running up out of the darkness I arrived to the smiling face and a sweaty hug with Nici. I’m sure Nici will be grateful to me for clarifying my sweat no hers. Nici’s enjoyment of saying my number in a heavy Irish accent was suitably amusing. We chatted for a little bit and the mug shot below was taken by Nici.

After a suitable calorie load up I was ready to go. At this point in the race I think I may have drunk my bodyweight in pepsi. The sugar and the calories were needed and after I had fuelled up I was back on the trail heading towards Detling. To me and this race Detling felt like the home straight. If a home straight included many bends, several climbs and some 20 miles then yes the “Home Straight.”  To arrive at Detling somehow meant that I would finish. It was an incredibly important location for me to recognise and celebrate. Coming in to Detling I was very tired. I was not struggling but all I wanted to do was let my eyes shut and have a snooze. I glugged down some caffeine and was very grateful to have access to a drop bag. I took a few minutes at Detling. I was well inside the cut off and just needed to refresh myself. After I had sat down I was greeted by Paul Avon. We have chatted several times over twitter and it was great to meet him in person. Paul was there to do anything for us whilst in the aid station. Paul looked like he was having a great time and epitomised the attitude of all the crew throughout the entire race. As I was prepping to leave the Detling station with Anthony i was sad to see Matt Dunn and a couple of other runners not looking too good. Paul warned me that the next 5/6 miles are pretty crap, but that after that it was fairly good running all the way to the finish.

I soon realised that Paul was spot on with his view of the next few miles. Anthony and I ran down the dreaded steps and back up them. I had bypassed these steps in training. Ironic really that the steps were the easy part of the next few miles. The hills and steps were killers during this stretch. My legs were tired and I had to muster all the strength that I could to drive myself up the steps of this dreaded section, they were steep and relentless. It is very easy to see why this section broke so many runners and ended so many ambitions of that finishers buckle. At this point I was incredibly grateful  for failing to finish last year. The failure drove me on during the period of fatigue and got me through the other side.

As the route began to level off I was feeling better and the sun was slowly but surely emerging. In these races I am always surprised by how little I notice the dark and yet how rejuvenated I am by the sunrise. There was too be no joyful sunrise as with the SDW100 as I was trudging along a road shielded by trees. Running down the road I was nearing the 92 mile checkpoint. In the distance I could see Lee Briggs. It was great to see him and better to hear that the next checkpoint was close. Lee ran in with Anthony and I. It seemed like a life time ago that I had seen Lee at mile 24. I was grateful to Lee for the warm coffee and food. I should mention my gratitude for all other crews as I have learnt to become increasingly fussier at aid stations. Warm coffee is great but hot coffee is a disaster. Crew’s never flinched at my request for a “smidge of cold water” and were happy to make the perfect bespoke coffee. Watch out Starbucks! Lee and I had a brief chat and banter and after some kind words from Lee I was feeling motivated and ready to smash out the last 10miles. I left the aid station running and saw James Elson arrive in a minibus. I caught his eye as I was running away and heard him shout “Get it done Dan.” James’ compassion for all the runners individual stories and missions never ceases to amaze me. I felt inspired and on a runners high.

The remainder of the race seemed to be predominantly on roads and as we ran towards the final checkpoint we were joined by Bryan and Rew. Bryan was enjoying hurling abuse also known as encouragement. We ran together into the final checkpoint. It seemed to take forever for this checkpoint to arrive. Had they moved it? Would we ever get there? Were all these questions distracting? By the time all the questions had passed and the banter was flowing it was only a matter of a few minutes before we were running into the final station. Bryan and Rew left fairly quickly. I was feeling good, but could see that Anthony was struggling. He had gone quiet and it was clear that grit and determination would get him to the finish. After 6 or 7 minutes I believe I politely told him that it was not going to hurt any less hear than on his feet to the finish and that we need to get this f*****g done. We thanked the crew and marched out of the station and broke into a jog. The last 3 miles come across fields and into the finish. I was jogging and feeling great. I looked over my should and Anthony was a little way back and the gap was growing. I could see he was in his own battle at this point and I had to embrace mine. I opened up the legs and proceeded to run at 10 min mile pace. I was running over the grass and I could see Bryan in the distance. I held to my pace and was feeling great. So close to the finish I knew my legs could fall off and I would be able to pull myself across the line by my arms. My only disappointment was I had left it too late to let my wife know what time I would be finishing and so I would be across the line before she got there. I had anticipated doing 20 minute miles by the end not 10. As I ran through the train station I tackled the steps rather than wait for the train crossing and then running down the final field I could see a gate with someone shouting “nearly there.” I decided to trust them and opened up the legs and began to sprint. I am very grateful that they were not lying to me. I got a huge reception from people on the street and those waving me to turn up the ramp and through the car park. I held my sprint to the finish. It is always such a rush to sprint the end of these races. Crossing the line was a little surreal. 

After a year of regret I had done it the race was completed and I had not let it beat me. I laid down on the grass and let the reality sink in. I clapped in some runners and about 18 minutes after me Anthony finished. It was great to see him cross the line and after his DNF last year I know just how much this finish meant to him.

The emotions of the race sunk in and it was a lovely day to be absorbing the atmosphere. I completed my tests for the intelligent guys of Cambridge University. Apparently over the course of the race I had shrunk by a centimetre.  After the tests I grabbed a bacon sandwich and nearly spat it out when I saw the winners time. Truly astounding running from the front runners. I am in utter awe and can only aspire to anything close to this pace. Soon after I was sat down my wife and son arrived to collect me. We exchanged hugs and my little boy spent 20 minutes stealing the hearts of all the ladies (that’s my boy) as he ran around inside and out. I got myself out of my running gear and into some normal clothing and I was ready for home, sleep and some food.

This race was brutal and even looking back on it now I am speechless as to how much of it blurs into one. I know that I have left out so many special moments along the way and could write a book about this race alone. Huge congrats to all the runners that took on this challenge. Commiserations to those who DNF’d but I hope you can take comfort in my finish after a DNF in 2012. There were times when part of my brain was telling me the race was not enjoyable. In truth I loved every brutal minute of it. The pain just drives me to get fitter, faster stronger and come back and take “100 miles 1 day” buckle.

So what’s next for me? I have fully decided, but I think next year I will not enter any specific 100 milers I am going to focus on strength and speed. I will enter a 24 hour loop race. I am intrigued by this idea and I will look at a few 50’s. This year will be concluded with the Beachy Head Marathon and the Brecon Beacons Ultra. 2013 has been a great year and I am pleased to end this report proudly as a Downs Double finisher.