Tuesday 23 August 2016

North Downs Way 100 race report

Top line: 1st lady, 6th overall in 18:34 (CR)
Strava stats 

THE REASON: This was a last minute entry, but not necessarily a last minute decision.  I procrastinated about this one for a few months.  My plans for the year changed somewhat when I was selected to represent for the GB team for the European 24 hour Championships in October.  I therefore had to give up my place at UTMB, as the races are too close together.  The opportunity to wear the GB vest won over an elite start at UTMB.  Not the worst position to be in, but it still wasn’t an easy decision. 

So, I “needed” another race to bridge the gap from SDW100 in June to Euros in October.  The only race that I really wanted to do was NDW100.  Only eight was after SDW100 and 11 weeks until the Euros, it was always going to be a gamble, but I had a mental list of about 10 reasons why I wanted to do it.  There was method to my madness.

The RECCE: I’d gone down to recce the second half of the NDW100 route a few weeks prior the race, before I made my final decision.  Of course I chose the two hottest days of the year, maxing out at 34 degrees, so that doubled up as good heat training.   Probably just as well I was treated to dry weather, as it was very much a stop-start run.  The course isn’t the easiest to navigate and I must have checked the map about 50 times over the two days.  I was definitely spoiled with signage on the SDW, as I only recall checking the map once over the 100 miles recce.  After that, and being the #racewanker that I am, I spent hours watching YouTube videos of the course.

So that’s how I found myself at 6am in Farnham on August 6, ready to run 104 miles on a national trail through the English countryside to Ashford in Kent. 

Farnham to Box Hill Stepping Stones

Pic by Stuart March
I was glad to get started, as the pre-race nerves were making me feel a bit nauseous.  After wriggling my way to the front the give RD James my jacket – I called it team privilege – I found myself in with the speedsters.  Other than a brief moment when (eventual) second place lady, Annabelle Stearns was in front, I lead from the start.  Not a position I’ve ever found myself in, and something I found quite unsettling.  I knew there were a few females on the start with impressive marathon times, so their easy pace was always going to quicker than my easy pace.  I knew I was within my comfort level, so wasn’t going too fast.  Maybe they were using me for pacing and were going to storm passed later in the race.  I daren’t look back.

Pic by Stuart March
What started as a nice cool morning, was soon heating up and within a few hours it was quite toasty.  I enjoyed the time exchanging conversations with a few runners, spending the majority chatting to Scott Ulatowski.  The man-child with a massive personality, I really enjoyed his company.   He’s a friend of my CR teamie Eddie who later told me she was watching the live results and said to her husband “Scott is either doing her head or she is enjoying the endless chat and it’s helping pass the miles”.   Oh how she knows my tolerance levels. Thankfully it was the latter, as we spent the majority of 50 miles within striking distance of each other. 

I had a sketchy pace/race plan, based on Sally Ford’s course record run of 19:20 last year.  I knew Sally goes off faster than me, so I used our split times from our retrospective SDW100 races as a gauge.  More race wankerage right? So my plan was to get to Box Hill checkpoint in 3:45 ish. 

Box Hill to Knockholt

So I got to Box Hill in 3:44:17, picked up some water at the aid station and pushed on as I knew I was meeting the lovely Karen Hathaway shortly after.  My GB team mate, Karen had kindly agreed to crew for me.  As the outright winner of epic races such as T184 and Thames Ring 250 – where she didn’t even bother having a nap – I thought it best not to show any weakness.

I was super excited about crossing the Box hill stepping stones.  After seeing so many photos of the famous stepping stones, it was one of my main reasons for choosing the race. No joke.  Is it weird to say I had a lump in my throat crossing over them?  Or maybe it was the fear of falling in!

Pic by James Leask: Box Hill Trig Point
There’s a cheeky climb up to the Trig point, so it was nice to have a break from running.  The NDW is notorious for lots of steps, and so it began.  But I was greeted by the first sight of Karen, so that gave me a massive boost.  I think it was love at first sight for Scott too, as going forward Karen was known as Mila Kunis.    

I had lost the ability to eat real food pretty early on.  I tried to eat a Trek bar, which took me forever.  I was really overheating and even the thought of food made me feel nauseous.  So my race fuelling was Tailwind, shotbloks and gels.

Scott and I chatted loads, pretty much covering love, life and the universe over the miles of woodland trails, open fields, villages and lots of gates.  Scott laughing at my inability to open most of them, without having a mild tantrum.  We parted briefly only at checkpoints, as he took for-like-ever!  But he caught up soon after.

We were joined by Dean for quite some time.  Dean was the chap who was hell bent on making sure I didn’t chick him on the SDW, so I’m sure he was delighted to see me.  As we started on the climb to Botley Hill, he was off.  Jesus, he can HIKE! 

Then Andrea from Venice caught up, annoyed that he’d gone off course a few times.  I shared a few miles with Andrea in Spartathlon, although I much worse for wear back then.    I did wonder why someone who kept getting lost would run about with earphones in.  Surely the logical step would be to remove them and just focus on where you were going?  That's certainly why I was saving my disco tunes for the latter stages.  My brain was way passed the ability to multi task. 

Arriving at Botley Hill aid station was fever pitch excitement.  I got to meet Cat Simpson is actual real life.  We’re Strava/Facebook/Twitter/Intragram friends – which is obviously a real thing - and although we’ve chatted, had never met in person.  Even when she was second female at the SDW, our paths still didn’t cross.

I didn’t need anything, so pushed on.  To be joined by Matibini Matibini.  I don’t think I could tire from saying his name, it’s just too cool.  After chatting through our running history, I figured out that Matibini was the guy who sat on my heels for the last eight miles of the C2C race in January.  Literally on my heels.  I only saw his face briefly when I passed what looked like a broken man walking, only to have him breathing down my neck for the remainder of race.  My biggest fear was that he was going to use me as a pacer again. For 60 miles!  I had to keep telling myself to calm the f*ck down. 

Then we went off course.  We got to a junction and followed the road to the left.    Running on, with Matibini a split second behind, I saw Paul Radford ahead with a map out talking to a driver.   On approach Paul said we had gone wrong as it wasn’t the route of the SDW50.  I checked the map on my phone and saw he was right.

Backtracking, which may have been half a mile or so, and picking up a few runners who had followed us we saw that someone had taking the race tape off the tree.  Scott was tying it back on, joking that I shouldn’t have left him.

The next 5/6 miles to Knockholt were tough.  It was ok in the shaded wooded sections, but out in the fields we were getting fried by the midday sun.  It was by far the lowest point of the race for me and was dying on my ass!  I kept reminding myself that Lakeland 2014 and Spartathlon were way hotter, and they turned out alright.  I knew I had to get through the next few hours and all would be ok.  And I prayed that Karen had managed to get the ice I asked for. 

I ran into Knockholt with Scott, and that’s where we parted.  Mainly because he was spending more time at aid stations that I was.  Although it could be that he’d had enough of my purple face.  My plan was to get to this 50 mile CP in 8:30.  Considering that was rough guess as I’d never run on the course and got a bit lost, I was pretty happy with 8:33.  Especially after a tough 10 miles.

Knockholt to Delting

There was no ice but a big bucket of cold water, which I soaked myself with.  I picked up some supplies from Karen and headed off – in the great comfort that I knew the route from here.  Mentally I could relax and get into the race.

The toughest part of the heat was out on exposed fields and running through towns.  Five miles on through Otford, I just felt lifeless.  I stopped in a cafĂ© to ask for some ice.  Although there were very few words exchanged and looks of mild disgust, the owner gave me three blocks of ice.  I put them in an arm warmer and tied it around my neck.  It was a little bit of heaven.

A little bit of spark was returning.  Passing through many fields and opening many gates, I was gaining on Lawrence Eccles.  Another Spartahlon runner from last year.  Lawrence always just looks so happy and we chatted briefly before I passed.  Through the wheat fields and onto the dry and hot trail to the next aid station in Wrotham.

Arriving at Wrotham, I couldn’t see Karen.  I stopped for a bit and filled up my bottles, hoping she would appear from a car.  A jogged on for a bit and still couldn’t see her.  Before the next road crossing I stopped to call her to hear her in a major panic because she’d gone to find me ice, got lost and ended up doing shuttle drives along the motorway.  Not the biggest drama, because I had loads in my pack and the next aid station was only five miles away.  But Karen is a real worrier and I knew she’d be beating herself up about it.  We agreed to meet at the next crew point at Ranscombe Farm at 70 miles.

Following the road and trail for few miles, I then hiked up the hill towards Vigo struggling to consume a GU gel - it's like trying to swallow a tennis ball - but felt the benefit instantly.  See Karen had done me a favour, as I would have carried the gels – boking at the idea of actually taking them – the whole way.

Through Trosley Country Park I felt really good and had some spring back in my step.  I caught up and ran with Norbert Mihalik for a few miles.  We didn’t really chat, and that was fine.  We hiked up to Holly hill together and arrived at the aid station together, but I only picked up and gel and left quickly.  Hoping to take advantage of the new found lease of life.  

There’s a lot of wooded areas over the next five miles, I remember checking the map loads during my recce.  Although it was well marked with CR race tape from trees, I was really cautious. 

Even though it was after 5pm, it was still quite warm.  I tried to stay positive and remind myself it would cool down soon.  And I would see Karen soon.   The course over to Medway Bridge seemed to take longer than I remember, but I was soon greeted by Colin Barnes who told me crew point was just down the hill. 

Even though it was 6pm, I was so relieved that Karen found ice.  I later discovered she had gone begging in a local pub for it.  I stuffed it into the arm warmer I was using round my neck.  Elisabet Barnes, last year’s MdS winner and queen of the desert was there and must have thought I was a right softie.  Hardly a heat wave by her standards.  Scott’s crew were there too, who had been great and so supportive all day.

I carried on towards the Medway Bridge, recalling how awful it was during the real heatwave on my recce.  The footpath over the bridge runs alongside the M3 and reminded me so much of spartathlon – like being fried and gassed at the same time.  I was a huge relief to get it out of the way, as it was one of the points of the race I wasn’t looking forward to.

Then I started to have a mild panic.  Elisabet was all dressed ready to run.  Maybe she was pacing the second lady who was closing in on me.  And Elisabet is superfast! Shit. Panic.  But if there was something to worry about, Karen would have told me.  Panic controlled to just lingering in the back of my mind to stop me from slowing. 

Pic by Stuart March
Things were starting to come together by then.  Up through the fields and on to a long track, which I knew went on for quite some time.  By the time I got to Bluebell Hill aid station (77 miles), I was feeling really happy and loving it.  Slightly playing up for Stu’s camera, but I still felt a million times better than I did 20 miles before.

The run from Bluebell to Detling was a dream!  That’s the rollercoaster ride of ultra-running for you.   My legs were fine and my fuelling was ok the whole time, I just needed to cool down.  I was so happy, I was running along singing to myself. 
Pic by Stuart March

I arrived in the last major checkpoint Detling (82 miles) in 14:30, which was a little slower than I had planned – based on my recce run – but still 17 minutes up on record pace. 

Detling to Ashford

Karen confirmed I had nothing to worry about as she hadn’t seen another female runner all day and that I was gaining on the runner in front who was 15 minutes ahead.  I was safe in the knowledge that if second lady was closing in, Marco would have been on the phone telling Karen to scream at me.  Colin also told me that Elisabet was pacing Matibini.  Then I remembered he can really hang tough when he’s got someone doing the pacing for him.  Still, I wasn’t bothered.

The section from Detling to Hollingbourne is the worst on the course.  Maybe not the worst, but definitely the slowest.  There’s a fair bit of climbing, but the route is really unkempt so it’s hard to run throw overgrown bushes, trees roots, and thorny branches.   During my recce I got strange looks at the train station in Ashford, as my legs were covered in scratches and blood from that section.  Thankfully, by that point in the race, I’d already lost the feeling in my legs from nettle stings.  

During my recce run I was chased by cows (ok, they might have moved in my direction) and then came across a rare breed of white bull looking things with massive horns.   Both had calves, so did massive detours round fields and over fences to avoid them.  The situations had played on my mind in the build up to the race.  I’m terrified of cows and not ashamed to admit I lost of a bit of sleep pre-race because of it.   One of my race goals was to get there before I needed a head torch, just so I could see them in advance.  The head torch was on, but both herds were off the path.  Thank goodness!

Arriving in Hollingbourne (88 miles), I picked up two soft flasks of coke.  I was saving coke for my hang-on-in-there last sections fuelling strategy.  Once I start on coke it is hard to stomach anything else.

There’s a rolling track all the way to the end after that.  No significant climbs, but enough undulation to make your legs think otherwise.    I was trying not to think of the 15 miles ahead and just focus on one mile at a time.    I was hard to recall the route in the dark, but I remembered all the significant junctions/turns.

Karen was very excited when I got to Charing (96 miles) as I was now only three minutes behind the two guys in front, which obviously gave me a massive boost.    In my head I was sprinting, but my Garmin was telling me otherwise.

The track along to the final aid station is long and straight.  There are no significant landmarks or route changes to remind me where I was.  Arriving at Dunn Street Farm (99 miles), the aid station was a bit back from the road so I just gave me name and number, checked that I didn’t need to go in and just kept going.  There were a few head torches in the aid station, but I just assumed it was the marshals. 

Only five miles to go, I was through the fields staying alert for the right turn though St Mary’s Church.  As I turned I saw two head torches approximately at a rapid rate.  I knew then I’d passed them at the checkpoint and whoever it was, wasn’t going to be chicked.   On the road, with a few miles to go, Ry Webb and his pacer went storming passed me soon after.  I tried to stay with them – mainly for some company – but I lost the inclination (and ability) and dropped back to my own pace.  Even taking a few walking breaks, as I was all out of energy. 

Hitting Ashford, this time I took the right route to sports stadium.  Unlike my recce, when I beyond fecked with dehydration and decided to add some extra distance.  Again, I was kind of disappointed that the man and the dog from Drew’s video wasn’t there, but I was pretty happy it was going to be over.  And I’d managed to take another half hour off the record.

So, I finished first lady with a new course record of 18:34 (previous CR was 19:20) and was over the moon happy.  It was a big risk doing the race, but a risk that was worth taking. 

I couldn't have done it without Karen, who was amazing all day!  Thank you xx 

I have now completed all of the CR 100 mile races.  That was one of my reasons for doing NDW100.  Plus, I’ve also got points to reapply for UTMB.  Another reason.  But above everything, it’s just always great to be a part of Centurion races.  And such a great honour to wear the team shirt. Thanks, as always, to James, Drew, Nici and all the great marshals… now what 50 milers can I do next?

Neil Kirby                     16:46
James Poole                   17:20
John Stocker                  18:03

Debbie Martin-Consani  18:34
Annabelle Stearns           21:41
Wendy Shaw                   22:33