Saturday 15 August 2020

2020 Centurion North Downs Way 100 (NDW100) - Calippos, babybels, and a badger

 This is the race I shouldn't have been racing. I signed up to it in October 2019 and then got into UTMB in December for 2020.  I didn't quite get round to cancelling my place and then the world started to get a bit strange.... With UTMB cancelled I wasn't expecting to race this either but James Elson found a way to make it work...

I made my way over to Farnham the night before by train. It was nicely quiet and when I got of the train I saw Janette Cross and we made our way over to the Mercure. Nice easy check in and settled in for a lovely evening of snooker with a side of beer and crisps followed by an early night. I had a room which overlooked the bar and beer garden which would normally have been a disaster but it was filled with ultra runners eating pizza - I didn't think Calvin Hemmings was going to be too rowdy... (Edit: And of course he wasn't - he had the same race so was in bed early) I had stayed here back in 2016 when a 1am fire alarm disrupted my sleep and fortunately there wasn't a repeat.

The hotel offered me breakfast which I took them up on. It arrive at 4am and comprised of crunchy nut cornflakes, yoghurt, and OJ. The milk was much better than the UHT carton options in the room. I didn't fancy the vegetable panini though. I showered and got myself ready before heading over to the leisure centre just after 5am.

It was a strange registration with Nici sat behind a table and a couple of large bags you might bulk order gravel in to take our drop bags onwards. A few jokes and hellos and it was a steady walk over to the start. I was aiming for a 5:45am start but I go to the NDW trail head and there were only a few people standing around getting their photos taken so headed towards the start. I had my temperature checked by Rus T in full PPE and joked that I hoped it was high so I didn't have to race. I walked up to the start and said hi to Marco and then I was off. Very surreal.

People aiming for 21-25 hours were requested to start between 530-600 and I set off at 5:29:55 so slapped wrist for me... I had run a 25:31 in 2016 midway through the GS and I am quite a bit better than then so was hopeful of at least a sub 25, if not sub 24

The excellent race briefing was done online. It still managed to tick most of the usual boxes including not to show James if your watch shows more than 100 miles! A few extra social distancing points were added.

It was still quite dark as sunrise was 538 and it was still relatively cool. I was pleased to have an early start time so I could get a few miles in before it got to hot. It was already about 20c at 6am and the sun had barely risen. I was cruising along at 10/11 minute miles. It was fairly flat so I force myself to take a walk break to keep the pace down. First 5 miles was 53 minutes which was ideal.

Before long, I was past the bacon boat mooring and on towards the crew location of Shalford park - not that I had crew. I had burned through my litre of water and tailwind already and hit the emergency canned coffee. It was nice to see some familiar faces crewing including Dimi who took this photo. 

Only a couple of miles until the first aid station - it was a double stretch as understandably the first CP had been dropped due to fears of excessive queues. I had eyed up a clandestine water bottle filling at St Martha's church but couldn't see the tap so pushed on. 13 miles down, 90 to go...

CP1 - 14 miles - 2:37:45 - 97th place (55th / 107th for the section of those that finished)

Eventually after just over 14 miles I could refuel. I went to burst into the CP but was told to wait until there was a table free. This gave me time to hand sanitise a get my bottles ready. I couldn't find my cup which wasn't ideal as I had planned a cup of coke to quickly catch up with hydration. I ended up with 500ml of tailwind and 500ml of straight coke plus some soreen and cookies. A couple of people were waiting as I left so I had timed it well.

The heat was starting to build as we were approaching Box Hill. I had been aiming for 4:05 here but was more like 4:20 and the aid station was a bit earlier this year. I had been just overtaken by a group of 6 on the approach towards the aid station which was annoying as it meant I would have to wait. Two of the group took a walking break so I caught back up a position by running it into the aid station...

CP2 - 24 miles - 4:21:00 - 73rd place (37th / 107th)

Very short wait of no more than a minute before I got my fill of coke, with tailwind and water for the bottles. Food was a babybel and gel. I had been getting through a gel or so an hour to keep the calories coming in. I find I actually do quite well in the heat as it I can drink a lot more because I'm sweating so much out. However this was starting to get ridiculous....

We had a diversion off the main Box Hill trail which was a great plan. The alternative trail took in the first bit of the main trail which was packed with a little detour to the right. The heat had really picked up now so I took my time. I had been watching my heart rate and it was pushing up towards 150+ and didn't want to destroy my race before it had started.

Quite a few came past me on the climb - I had a chat with Ivor and fellow BBRer Mike B. They were making better pace so left them to crack on with their races. I bumped into Tony Trundley and had a chat heading toward Reigate. It was good to catch up and your support definitely helped me move through this a bit quicker. Up next was Colley Hill. It is a real steep pitch some switch backs. 

This took me over 8 minutes for just over a quarter mile. Proper slow plodding but realistically only cost me a minute or two at most compared with some of those that came past me. I saved a bit of energy for the approach to the CP. I strategically pushed on past people on the flat after the top of the hill so I could avoid queues and knew I would probably have to wait a bit when I got there.

There was a minimal wait of a few seconds and the volunteers were setting up a third table to speed things up. I met StuH who I had previously only spoken to on fetch and the wonderful Donna Richards who made me a lovely tea (or possibly coffee) at the end of the 2015 A100 when I was freezing. I think Marco might have been here too. Speaking of freezing, this aid station has little bags of ice which were wonderful and I stuffed one under my calippo sleeves. The runners I had overtaken just caught me up as I left.

Not have a crew is normally not an issue but with the very high temperatures, I would like to have been able to get regular ice. However my secret plan came about here. The cafe at the National Trust car park was open and I bought 3 calippos, a tory fanta (lemon san peligrino) and a fentiman's ginger beer. I drank the drinks and stuffed the calippos down my cooling sleeves. They had be of some use up to now but were absolutely amazing. This kept me cool all the way through Merstham and I had them long enough to show off my calippo technique to Grand Slam legend John Melbourne (photo John Melbourne)


I gave away one of my calippos to a lucky runner and had the other two. The combination of this and the drinks had helped me stay cool for a solid hour. I had planned a trip to the Merstham garage but didn't need it. I was a solid 35 miles in but a bit of pace at just under 7 hours. It was getting savagely hot. 

This was quite warm. We had to climb it...

Matt - we crossed paths much of the day. He was a fellow cooling sleeves wearer.

The next section is my home stretch which is both a good thing and bad thing. It meant I knew to push along the road section towards War Coppice Road as it is a chance to make up some time on the smooth shady road. I had found the heat ok - it was pushing 30c now but had mostly been either cloud cover or under trees.

I bumped into Hedley who reckoned I was in the top 40 but it was hard to tell with the staggered start. My best finish at a Centurion event was 51st at the SDW100 in 2018 so that would be a surprise.

Caterham checkpoint had the lovely Lou to greet me. We had a socially distance air hug and I grabbed another babybel to go with my standard 500ml water, 500ml tailwind, and a cups of coke.

Stuart March photo - this makes me almost look like a runner...

A couple of miles later, it was the "Dave steps" - normally I would be giving out drinks and Percy pigs but I was too busy running today. I also knew this would be the hottest section of the entire race. It is a South facing escarpment so there would be no hiding from the sun. The clouds had cleared and it was strong sunshine.

To make matters worse, it is a chalk field section which reflects the sun so you get cooked from both sides. A hog roast with tailwind and coke marinade accompanied by a babybel sauce...

Strava booked this as being 97f / 36c. This was a genuine temperature reading rather than the Marathon Des Sables "Temperatures in excess of 50c!" bollox. It is amazing they record these temperatures in April despite the hottest ever temperature recorded in Morocco being 49c in July. It was on Strava so it happened...

I slowed my speed right down and was in excess of 15 minute miles. I pushed along for the last bit to get to the shade of Botley Hill. I was in danger of over heating so took it very easy on the climb to regroup. Apparently I looked "a bit too comfortable".

Average pace going up the hill was 27 minutes a mile. I took 11 minutes to go less than half a mile but this was in the shade and I had recovered quite a bit from the previous 3 miles during this section. I had been overtaken by a couple of people but I was running (in the loosest sense) my own race. This was my second slowest time over this section - the slowest being when I had to drag my moaning kids up the last part of a walk - even that was only 40 seconds slower...

CP5 - 43 miles - 9:01:31 - 52nd place (34th / 107)

Graham Carter photo

I had made it here but my hopes of a sub 24 hour finish were all but gone. I had planned to get to Knockholt in about about 10 hours and I was 7 miles away in over 9 hours. However I was still in the race and had a cup or two of warm Pepsi and refilled my bottles. I had a nice chat with GC and was on my. 

The next section is best described as awkward. There are some very runnable sections but also some absolute dross. Lots of short ups and downs plus a few cows. It was still very hot with the ground reflecting the heat. There were added cows here too...

Eventually I made it to Knockholt and had run out steam coming into town. I bumped into David Harvey who seemed to enjoy being a spectator rather than runner...

CP6 - 50 miles - 10:43:40 - 48th place (36th / 107)

This was the first indoor aid station and drop bag. Dan Park was on CP directing duties and I had a chat with him. Apparently the drop out rate had been very high which isn't surprising. I was Richard S drop here - he is a sub 20 runner on his day and today wasn't his day... I had a refill and picked up some snacks. I had a can of shandy in my hand and a cup of coke and set off on my way steadily.

I would normally change clothes but my shorts were virtually chafe free and my top was ok. I went with a combo of Runderwear and the new Rockstar shorts which was perfect - no need for emergency vaseline today...

A lot of people were spending a lot of time here but I was on my was quickly on my way with main head torch collected. I carried two small ones from the start - if my drop bag had gone missing, my race would have been over here... My 51st mile including stop was 26 minutes which is fairly efficient.

I lost quite a few places in the miles between here and Otford. The pacers had joined at 50 miles and it gave some of the other runners a boost. I had a can of shandy to work through and my snacks from the aid station so was fairly slow for miles 50-55.

I remembered from last time that there is an awful hill out of Otford. The trail turns off basically into someone's drive and straight up a wall. I had remembered it from 2016 and wasn't impressed that year. The climb to Otford mount is ridiculous. However there was a surprise this year. A little girl was spraying the runners with a hosepipe. Normally a hosepipe to the face at point blank range would be awful but this was majestic and kept me cool for quite a while. I think this part of the race felt hotter in 2016 but it might be more of a relative thing...

I traded places with a few people including Giacomo - next time we will have to get some on course gelato... 

I overtook a lady and her daughter pacer. She seemed to be struggling and overtook her quite easily. She had a second wind and overtook me a mile or so later. I used them to pull myself along toward Wrotham. I wasn't going particularly quickly but some decent patches of running kept the miles down to 15-17 minute miles. Not too bad given the heat was still pretty strong.  

I also overtook some monks on their way to Canterbury. You do see some strange sights on the trails...

CP7 - 60 miles - 13:32:08 - 35th place (23rd / 107)

The previous section had been pretty good for me it turns out. I'm not that fast over ground but make up time at aid stations. There were lots of crew in Wrotham (root-em) with runners sat in chairs being fussed over. I was in and out of the aid station fairly quickly. I had my ice and supplies from the aid station. This time I used the ice to make a cool drink. It was wonderful to have a cold Pepsi and lifted my spirits. I had gone the wrong way out of the aid station and did some bonus distance before being sent back by a crew person. Not the day for bonus miles...

This section I was largely on my own. I really enjoyed Trosley Park and it was starting to get dark I would definitely like to go there for a walk one day. I enjoyed this section and before long I was making my way up Holly Hill. This was one of my favorite aid stations. A crew member had come down the trail because the aid station was completely empty. A little while later I got there and had the place to myself. I was there early so had choice of snacks - I went for chipsticks with the usual side of babybel. The atmosphere here was much more like the usual Centurion feel without the queues or rush.

CP8 - 65.6 miles - 14:58:48 - 35th place (40th / 107 for the section)

The temperature had started to drop as I headed towards the Medway crossing. I had my headtorch on now and it was properly dark. I had really enjoyed the bridge in 2016 as it was a change to chill as it was deserted and I was in a small group. This time there was some dodgy characters on bicycles who seemed surprised at a runner appearing. The path is a shared cycleway so I was a bit cautious. Then some absolute tool came past on a noisy moped and the rude boys were out in force on the motorway. I guess this passes as entertainment in this part of Kent.

Next up was a crew stop. There were dozens of vehicles but didn't seem to be any runners. Maybe I was smashing to up and they were all behind me? There were a few people but they seemed to sat around eating with their shoes off.

The temperature picked up quite a bit coming up the side of Bluebell Hill despite being well after dark. This was a bit of a low point. I often find I hit lows around the crew points - I was running low on supplies and still had a mile or two to go. Having a crew must be nice to have a few extra snacks and cool drink refills. I think today it could potentially have been a big benefit with the limited range of food at the CPs and COVID protocols. However the ice was amazing and I think in a lot of ways, having a crew can slow you down as the temptation to sit in a chair for a while can burn a lot of clock. It is also a lot easier to drop when you have a car waiting to take you home...

I had an unusual mental boost here - I caught sight of a badger in the field and it ran straight across in front of me. It was quite a small one and ran away. It made me a smile and helped on towards the CP

CP9 - 76 miles - 17:43:05 - 31st place (35th / 107)

I saw Julius here who had sadly dropped early on. I think a lot had stopped early with the severe heat. This aid station gave my blog the title. Back in 2014, during the remnants of a hurricane, this aid station took a lot of people out of the race.

Historically, this is the make or break point in races. There is still a marathon to go which is a long way if you are having a bad race. This year, a lot dropped before Knockholt which is unusual. 

The terrain gets difficult here. Not exactly Berkley hard but just awkward. Low hanging branches, fields with undefined paths. Short sharp pitches etc. I was mainly on my own here and was often overtaken on the hills. However I was taking things at my own pace and there was little to be gained by redlining a hill. I know this part will cost me a lot of time but that is the course. 

CP10 - 82 miles - 19:33:21 - 34th place (63rd / 107)

I had lost a fair chunk of time to field on the section to Detling. I had hoped to make up time overnight but for me, the sharp hills don't suit me. However I had a made it Detling and very few drop on leaving Detling so I was close to a finish. Less than a marathon to go...

Detling was very different to 2016. That year, it was absolute carnage with many people slumped around. I had got here about 10 minutes quicker that year. Both years the sub 24 hour dream was completely gone here but might still have a chance for a competitive time.

On arrival, I was asked to put a mask on. I was trying to find my buff and they offered me one. It was a reusable one which was fab. Wearing a buff is quite unpleasant in the heat and the face mask option is much better. I had unfortunately picked up a child's one and it didn't really fit over my mouth and nose at the same time so was one of those plonkers with their nose sticking out. I did point out that I wasn't intentionally being a tosser to the aid station crew and this set the tone for my stop. I was pretty much the only runner at the CP.

Apparently over 95 had dropped by this point. I then called those who dropped "lazy nobheads" and what kind over person would pay £165 and not try to get their money's worth... I thought I was . hilarious. However this was probably an attempt to distract myself from the upcoming Detling sh!tsh0w.

I sat down and grabbed a couple of things from my drop bag. I had an emergency coffee can which I had planned to use to avoid stopping at the last CP. I was sat down for only the second time of the race and got selected for a random kit check. I was asked to show my backup headtorch and emergency blanket. At UTMB, they had random checks and the blanket was also requested so I had put it so it was visible. I was switching headtorches so had my backup one in my hand.. 

I headed out into the darkness of Detling. It starts off along the road before a left hand turn marked by two pieces of tape. The fun started here... It was still really warm here - over 20c. Despite being after midnight it was not quite a comfortable temperature.

Detling threw everything at me. It has some strong winds, a rain shower, steps, brambles, steps with cow pats on them (someone claimed it was badger droppings). There was about 4-5 miles of terrible stuff and then it eased off bit still slow going. I struggled with pace and averaged 2.7 mph over this section and I was trying really quite hard... 

I had started singing on this section as I was clearly all on my own. I don't take music with on my races and could have done with some to get me through.I think I had company for some of it when lost in a field or two but was quickly dropped again on the stepped climbs.

CP11 - 90 miles - 22:35:42 - 33rd place (83rd / 107)

I had got my worst section out of the way. Rus T was working on this aid station - a long day for him having been there at the start taking temperatures. I filled up everything to the brim and grabbed some snacks including a babybel for the final half marathon. As I was about to leave the aid station, I heard the familiar voice of Allie Bailey. I must have been doing really well to have been ahead of a professional athlete - even with a head start. I also figured I could take my time making tea as it was just Allie who I was holding up...

I had just under 3 hours to get the last 13 miles done to beat my 2016 time. I had trained so hard in the last 6 months so should have beaten it easily. That time was set in the middle of the grandslam but in much cooler conditions. Sub 14 minute miles sounds easy but not after 90 miles...

My memory from 2016 was that the last 13 was really easy and flat but it was a lot hillier than I remembered. However I did manage to get the first 4 miles done in 58 minutes so was on track. My legs felt really good. I had held back most of the race - the heat was restricting me but it was the cool of the morning now so I could hopefully make some time back.

I hadn't looked at my phone all race and couldn't resist a quick peek at how I was getting on. I had 4 goals for this race.

- Sub 24. This was out of the window 

- Beating my 2016 time (25:31)

- Beating Ken Fancett

- Finish and get 32 tickets for the Western States draw

Ken and I have done 10 Centurion races together (I also did the 2019 TP 100) and Ken had beaten me every time by between 1 and 3 hours. Ken is a living legend and despite being over 70 is one of the best runners even in absolute terms in the Centurion series.

I was 24 minutes behind him at the Lenham split but due to the staggered start, I was ahead of him on the road. I felt great and could potentially make up nearly 2 minutes a mile. My 98th mile was 11:35 which is decent running. If Ken did his in 13:35...

I made it past the last CP without stopping. Still had a bit of drink left and the emergency coffee can (250ml / 97 cal / all the caffeine). It was less than 5 miles to go now...

A 12:02 mile took me over the 100 mile mark. Just the the 2.9 bonus miles to go. Well actually a touch over that as I had got lost coming out of Wrotham and a bonus bridge crossing just after Bluebell Hill where I had misread an arrow telling me to stay on the path rather than going over the bridge. The markings were amazing and that was the only turn I missed in over 100 miles.

It is smooth road and pavement for the last 3 miles with a gentle downhill trend. I was pushing as hard as could - I had the thought of finishing ahead of Ken and seeing how much I could beat last time. I was pushing hard and running hard whenever I could see tape.

Miles 101 and 102 were 10:27 and 10:30 which is proper running - never mind after 100 miles. After an age, the track appeared. An Italian runner had somehow caught me up - I didn't think anyone would catch me. After a brief chat, it turned out he had started well after me so we weren't in any competition. Last thing I wanted was a losing repeat of the "Film my run" 2016 SDW finish... 

I was pushing hard round the track as it looked like I could sneak under the very arbitrary 25:15 mark but just missed it at 25:15:04. I was 25th finisher over the line and had the "club house" lead over Ken.  

Finish - about 100 miles - 25:15:04 - 28th place (8th! / 107)

 I had ran the last 13 miles in 2:39 which is a recognisable as a half marathon time with the last 5km done in under 32 minutes. If Ken took more than 3 hours from Lenham, I would have beaten him. Ken had started behind me but by how much...

I collected my bags and did my pressups. It was a slightly strange finish as you would expect with the COVID protocols and I had to collect my own buckle and tshirt. No handshake or hug from Nici. I collected myself and sat on the grassy bank overlooking the track waiting for people to come in.

Stuart March photo - no high five though

I had a leftover shandy from by drop bag while the runners came through. I lost a couple of spots and was down to 28th. It was fairly sparse at the finish but a few people to talk the race through with. We had a mini BBR corner with Allie coming over the line shortly after me. 

My family came to collect me which was very kind. They regretted this decision as the combination of running 100 miles and the lack of showers at the finish meant I stunk up the car like a decomposing donkey as we headed up the M20. As I was getting ready to leave, Ken was came trotting round the track. Unless he had started just before 7am, I had beaten him.

Waiting for Ken...

As he crossed the line, I waited for the results to refresh. I had beaten him by just over 6 minutes. Ken 10, Dave 1. I will take today's victory... It might not have been the sub 24 hour buckle that I have coveted but that will be a challenge for another day. Maybe not next year but I'm sure I will be back for that sub 24 hour buckle. But for today I will take my highest ever finish at a Centurion event and the strongest finish I have ever had.

 Last year, 58 people took home a sub 24 buckle but only 17 this year. The DNF rate was 55% compared with 34% last year. This is an NDW100 that will be remembered for a while and I'm proud to have finished in the way I did - even the wrong side of 24 hours... I was the 8th fastest for the final section. Nice to finish strongly rather than walking it in as I so often have.

A  huge thank you for the Centurion team and the amazing volunteers. James has carefully picked his way through the COVID situation and managed to put on a race with carefully thought out processes with a safe environment but without losing the spirit and feel of a Centurion event. There might not have been the legendary food selection or the finish line hugs and handshakes but it was a very special event none the less.


  1. What do you mean I was rowdy? I was in bed by 9pm and all I heard was noise from another room until 11pm! I was then up at 3:30 for a 5am start.

  2. And I wasn't at the bar eating pizza - I had my meal and finished it by 8:30 pm.

  3. I haven't written that well... I was more suggesting that when I saw you out of the window, it was a good because you would be in bed early for the race the next day. I didn't think you would be rowdy (and you weren't of course...)