Monday, 8 August 2016

North Downs Way 100 - glowworms, dormice and the bacon barge

The Centurion North Downs Way races are how I discovered ultrarunning. I was out on the North Downs Way near home carrying my daughter in a backpack way back in 2011 when I saw markers for "Centurion running". I looked it up on the internet when I got home and was shocked to see it was a series of running with trail marathon, 50 mile and 100 mile running races. Running an off road marathon seemed quite tough and I thought I might give the trail marathon a go one day as I had run a few half marathons and was working my way up through the triathlon distances.

5 years later and my daughter is now 7 and I also have a 5 year old son, I have finished an ironman triathlon, the Vanguard way trail marathon, North Downs Way 50 , ( and 4 Centurion 100 mile finishes. However the final box to be ticked is the NDW100 which back in 2011 was the most famous, arduous 100 miles race that I had heard of (also the only race I had heard of back in 2011).

The North Downs Way is a relatively modern creation based on the ancient Pilgrims' Way with a few extra parts where tarmac now covers the Pilgrims' Way. The Centurion route goes via Wye rather than on towards Canterbury cathedral. The Western end is very well travelled with heavy footfall but the Eastern bits rather less so. As the name suggests it is on the North Downs which has lots of ups as well as downs... Enough of a preamble - time for the race report.

The weekend started with a pint and half of lager at Waterloo before getting the train. I was catching up with a friend who had a new baby and thought a beer would help me be relaxed before the race and get a good night's sleep. I went straight to race HQ to register to save time in the morning. I caught up with Graham Carter and picked up my number. James Elson was about to have an argument with a portaloo operator (being an RD is not all glamour) and all was well with the world. I picked up a sandwich from the Sainsbury's opposite my hotel and was all set for sleep by 9.30.

My wake up call came before I knew it. I had ordered a wake up call at 5am just in case and there was an incredibly loud alarm. It was the hotel fire alarm and it was only 12.30am. I threw on some clothes and made my way to the lobby of the hotel when the alarm stopped. I got back into bed and struggled to get back to sleep. Not helped by a noisy cow (the drunk woman variety) who was in the beer garden outside the hotel. I got some sleep but it wasn't ideal.

I was up at 5am and checked my watch was fully charged but turns out it had switched itself on and had gone flat in my bag. I left the room as late as possible to get maximum charge. I was walking to the start and everyone was walking the other way. Luckily I had pre-registered so I just dropped of my drop bags and dashed over to the start with a few minutes to spare. Not an ideal start to say the least.

The race started and 6 on the dot with steady miles to start with especially as there loads of bottlenecks for gates and stiles. I wasn't too bothered about a fast start as it was a hot day and I was more worried about finishing than time. The first few miles went quickly and I met a Chicagoan Raiders fan and caught up with Frank who I had ran some of the SDW with. A quick AS1 and onto towards the 10 miles mark. There was a nice surprise in the form of Allan Rumbles and the "bacon barge". This is normally only there for the NDW50 but he made a special trip for today. He runs an unofficial aid station which only serves bacon butties. This was a great shout as the salt and protein of the bacon, sugar in the sauce combined with low GI white bread has to be the perfect ultrarunner's fuel.

It was a beautiful morning with great views from St Martha's hill with some good miles under way before the heat of the day built up. AS2 was a swift affair with some pineapple and strawberries to go with the usual jelly babies. From the NDW50 I remembered the fast road descent through Denbies toward Box Hill so hammered down it to make up some time. I had forgotten the random gates along the route which a fellow runner helped me work out. Turns out it was Janette who I have shared NDW chat online with. AS3 Box Hill came and went quickly with a Leila Cheese Scone for the picnic up Box Hill. My sub 24 plan needed me to get here in 4:05 and I was there for 4:15 implying I was on 25 hour pace.

Unfortunately I got the low battery warning on my watch so had to put it on to charge. Luckily it can keep recording while charging and I had packed a charger. Janette soon caught up with me and we had a quick chat. She was way quicker than me on Box Hill and powered on to 4th place and a stunning sub 24 time.

The toughest part of the first half is Box Hill to Reigate. There are two tough climbs and some uneven ground so I just accepted it would be slow and got on with it. AS4 was there pretty soon and I went to the cafe for a bottle of sprite and a cola pop. It was probably 20 years since I last had one and really hit the spot on such a hot day. I went through the aid station and caught up with Graham again - I'm looking forward to seeing you on the other side of the table at the A100. I was drinking the sprite and saw the label proclaiming that it was 30% less sugar. This was most disappointing but at least it was cold.

I know the next part quite well so it was great to be on familiar ground. There was a speed gun in Gatton school and the person in front of me clocked 3mph so I put on a sprint and got clocked at 6mph. I thought it was more like 7mph. Miles 31 - 40 are relatively good running and mainly in the woods.Caterham at Mile 38 was passed through quickly with more fruit, water and jelly babies

Mile 40 and Ganger's hill is about a mile from my house and where I first saw the Centurion signs. Full circle 5 years later. Sadly the signs pointed me down a very familiar set of steps. I had spent a lovely afternoon spectating here last year so it was nice to be on the other side.

The NDW crosses into the Eastern hemisphere here and things heated up as the paths running through chalky corn fields throw up a lot of heat. Fortunately I was onto the Botley hill climb which is in the shade. I ran this section with Mark Farthing who I had just edged out on the finish of the SDW but I was to finish a long way behind him today. Botley Hill AS6 is the highest point on the entire trail so there was more descending than climbing to go now. I was pushing along here with formula 1 style water bottle filling from the volunteers, Steph "the legs" was there to marshal people down the hill. I knew there was a nice downhill to start the leg before heading uphill so I had grabbed some cherry tomatoes for the inevitable walking break.

Having done the NDW50 and also ran it several times, I know this section can drag a bit. However it was not too bad today and the new route to the checkpoint meant a bit less running through fields. I was expecting it to be a bit over 50 miles based on the NDW50 so it was great when the aid station arrived closer to 50 than 51 on my watch. I got to halfway 10:18 which was about 20 minutes off sub 24 pace but not bad given my NDW50 time in 2014 was 9:58 and I could barely walk to my lift let after the NDW50 alone run another 53 miles.

I met up with my pacer Owen and Dan at the halfway point. Owen was going to keep me company for the second half and be my running Butler. I had a change of top and socks, some lovely pasta and a cup of tea. It is a bit strange to have tea on such a hot day but I associate tea with the second half of a Centurion race so was looking forward to it -  I even turned down the offer an ice lolly for it. I had meant to say hi to Helena who was volunteering here but I was in my own bubble and was too focused on getting everything I need done here. I think Ed Catmur who won the race last year was volunteering which shows how special this event is. I left as runner was asking for an alarm to be set so he could have a nap. Not in my race plan by everyone does things differently.

It was great to have Owen with me as he is a fellow runner (nearly broke 20 hours at the TP100) and is my lunchtime running buddy. It helped me to regroup and get going again. The next 26.2 miles would only have two aid stations so this would be a key section. I can't remember too much notable from miles 50-66 and Wrotham at mile 60 came and went with more water, tomatoes and jelly babies. I fueled up at mile 65.6 Holly Hill. I had my target to get here before needing a headtorch and I made it comfortably. It was around about mile 67 when I was in some woods when I put it on. The next "highlight" would be the M2 crossing of the Medway. A lot of people complain about it but it was actually quite nice to have some easy miles not worrying about footing and the river was cooling things done nicely.

The trail heads up Bluebell Hill which is mile 76. This was a lovely part of the run as the stars were out. Owen spotted a dormouse which was very cute and some glowworms which would have been quite trippy if hadn't said they what they were. My blog is named after a blog post written a couple of years back when the tail of Hurricane Bertha came through and battered the runners at this point. It was quite cool to actually be here at last. There were a few runners suffering and getting medical attention. I made it through here quickly as the next stop was Detling and indoors with drop bags. There were some glow sticks marking the exit which was a nice touch.

The next 6 miles went pretty slowly without any real reason and I found it difficult to get a good pace on. There was a bridge to Detling AS which I had driven past many times on the way to Whitstable but it seemed quite harsh to have to get over it at this point in the race. Detling had hot food which was Chicken soup with a side of pineapple and tea. There were a lot of people sat around being a bit miserable and beaten up. Many of the runners looked like they had been sat there quite a while and were at risk of DNF if they sat there too long. I got going pretty quickly as I feared I might seize up.

The next section is Detling to Hollingbourne. If you are reading this with the intention of doing the race, I wouldn't bother reading this section - it is a bit dull and you might as well skip onto the bit where I finish. People will moan about it but it really isn't that hard. If you got to 82 miles, the race in the bag.

So about those miles 82 - 91... The Strava CR for mile 82-86 is over 10m/miles and that was set on a run where the rest is all sub 7s and not after 82 miles. The 4.5 miles after Detling took me 1:35 of graft with every flavour of steps possible. Super steep ones, overgrown handrails,  randomly spaced ones, all sorts. There were nettles and brambles to battle through, branches at head height to duck under and lots of random obstacles. I was half expecting a Triffid or two. The path wasn't clear and there is only so much tape the markers can put up so it added to the slow going in the dark.  And at the end of that, section there was still 4 miles to the next aid station. There were some cool trails cut into the corn fields here I think. We had a brief game of chicken with a combine harvester but there was only going to be one winner and it wasn't us.

The Lenham aid station was a basic tent on the side of the road which is probably for the best. Indoor aid stations are fantastic but can suck up time and makes it hard to get going again. They had a "zero drop policy" but were struggling with the guy who had fallen asleep next to me. These guys were really great keeping everyone fuelled and motivated even through it must have been about 4am.

The trail flattens out towards the end and we got a bit of momentum. Peter Lemon who had been with us from about halfway was starting to worry about making his train. This helped us to push the pace but he eventually dropped us has superior stamina helped him power on. I got to the last aid station and Owen went in and got me a cup of team while I had a chat with the marshals (pacers are a wonderful thing). 98.4 miles down, only 4.5 miles to go... 24 hours had been and gone but this race still needed finishing.

We bumped into a guy Ronan who was out for a Sunday morning run. It turned out he done the NDW100 before and wanted to see what the new finish was like. He was brilliant and kept us company for the last two miles through Ashford. It was like having a police escort at the Spartathlon (or at least how I imagine it would be like). He also told me that I wouldn't have to do a full lap of the track which was a relief. We caught a couple of runners on the last bit but there was no repeat of the photobombing of the SDW. I think we made the runner in front speed up which he will thank me for later...

And then there was the stadium and famous blue banner and I had finished in 25:31:39 or just under 5 years depending on when you start the clock.

This was a brilliant event with so many people to thank for getting me there.  A lot of people will have helped me but thanks in particular to Alex, Alicia, Allan, Amanda, Amy, Andrea, Andrew, Ashley, Brigitte, Caroline, Cat and Catriona, (not to be confused) Charlotte, Christine, Corinne, Dave and David, Debbie, Duncan, Edward, Elizabeth, Emma, Ercole, Gloria, Goska, Graham, Gwen, Helena, Hidetoshi, Ian, the two chaps called James and one called Jamie, Jeremy, Jerry, Jo and the trio of John’s, Jonathan, Julia, Kamila, Karen’s G & S, Keith, Kiernan, Kris, Lee, the ever-present Leila, Liz, Lorraine, Louise, Lynn and the two Mark’s, Martyn, Maryanne, Matthew, Mel, Michiyo, Natasha, Nick, Oliver and the three Paul’s, Pete and the two Peter’s, Phil, Philippe, Richard, Rob, Rosie, Russ, Scott, Sean, Stephanie, Stephen and the two Steve’s, Sue and Susan, Tracey and Zoe.

In particular thanks to Louise Ayling for giving a few of us a lift to the station when the taxi company weren't picking up the phone and we were about to resort to walking. It is amazing how someone can run for over 100 miles but getting 1.2 miles to the station seems an impossible task.

The super fast train whizzed me back to King's Cross and then I lost all the time by taking about half an hour to walk to the tube with the longest connection ever. Eventually I made it home just in time to follow the finishers over the line on Facebook while sat having Katsu Curry for breakfast or whatever meal it is after having been awake for 32 hours.

I now have run all 4 Centurion 100 mile events in the space of 12 months but there is now the small matter of doing the A100 again to have all 4 in the same year...


  1. Huge congrats! I'm not going to live this down am I!

    1. Thanks! The description was definitely given for you was spot on so I think you are stuck with it for now