I've followed his plans to create some epic races - firstly through the charity Christmas Headtorch marathons and Cluedo with Mark Thornberry - to fully fledged competitive race events like the Raven and Copthorne. I had volunteered at a somewhat chilly checkpoint last year at the Copthorne and came back this year as a runner.
The Copthorne weekend is based around Mickleham village hall with a 10 mile loop enabling 4 race distances of 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. I had entered the 100 mile event as part of a field of 22 - there were 103 runners across the 4 distances. We all set off en-masse at 8am on Saturday morning after a quick kit check where my origami canary passed alongside a few basic bits of ultra kit. Having a canary is non-negotiable entry requirement which is a nod to the miners background on the original Headtorch group.
There were a lot of familiar faces at the start - I think I recognised at least 20 from other races. I started next to running royalty in James Elson, John Melbourne, and Drew Sheffield as we headed towards the first climb. The first climb is fairly mild with a decent gradient and the major landmark of a pair of abandoned stolen cars on right. I'm amazed someone managed to get one car, let alone two here down the trail.
Just behind Drew, and just ahead of John Melbourne - early days though
All the good photos are by Lenny Martin - he was out there all day and took some amazing photos.
The hill flattens off onto Michleham gallops which are one of my favourite parts of the course. It is a nice grassy carpet-like section (although slightly uphill) and the field had spread out considerably by this point already. I was probably nearer the back than the front but I was planning to take things easy.
Next up is Kamikaze hill - a very steep pitch covered in leaves and roots. The advice was to run on the right as there were more trees to grab onto. There is a road crossing at the bottom of it so best to keep things in control. I made up a few spots as it was much grippier than it looked. The trail was in great condition given the time of year.
Quads like Derek Henry after my year training for Western States and UTMB
The first half of the course gradually gains height with the occasional step drop until the first set of steps in the Headley Heath part of the course. Despite being fairly flat, it can be tricky in places with some awkward muddy dips before opening up on the heath part through the gorse bushes which is my favourite stretch.
There were some belted Galloway cows which had turned out to watch
I did this climb 11 times due to the deviation on lap 6
After about 5 miles, it takes a left turn and joins a residential road and it is tarmac all the way to the halfway-ish checkpoint at Box Hill village hall. This is a big upgrade for volunteers and runners with access to toilets for runners, and a much warmer environment for the volunteers. A compulsory lap of the hall carpark and it was onto the second half.
The route joins up with the North Downs Way for a bit before taking the 2020 NDW 100 detour but in the opposite direction before merging back on Box Hill. This was a section to make up time with a smooth surface and gentle gradient. I took a couple of stops to take photos to document the glorious morning.
The original plan was to have a loop going over the ramblers bridge and back across the stepping stones but the river was too high so it was both ways over the bridge. The main climb of the route is the 148m vert of Box Hill. It is pretty much all steps which made it easier for me but might not be everyone's taste. The route peels off at the Box Hill viewpoint across Donkey Green for a lovely section through the wood to Broadwood's Tower.
There is a final sting in the tail of a short section of steps down towards the final road crossing at Whitehill Car Park with less than a mile to go. The last climb is ominously called Satan's staircase. It is about 500m of mainly steps but only about half of Box Hill. From there it is a descent to the finish with a section called "Goodnight sweetheart" before a right turn through the church yard and an alley before hitting the short road to the checkpoint. And that was lap 1 done.
I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of lap time but had aimed for 2h30 to build up a buffer on the 3h12 average I would need to complete the race. I was back in just 2:06 so already had built up an hour on the average pace needed. It didn't feel too fast so that was a good sign. I topped up my water bottles, grabbed some crisps, and a gel and set off for lap 2.
I was running with Paul Reader quite a bit and there was a lot of Western States chat. He was due to fly out to California to watch the draw with his 128 tickets (about a 70% chance of getting in - update he was drawn 9th on the waiting list so pretty much in) as part of a trip to the West Coast. He was a bit quicker on the climbs but I made it up on the flats and downs so we spent most of the first 3 laps in touching distance.
I also ran with Richard Stillion for some of it too. He had got a bit lost on the second lap so I had managed to catch up with him. He had raced TDS back in August so there was some UTMB chat for part of the lap too. The second lap was completed before getting lapped so that was a nice bonus. Cumulative time of 4h20 which put me a full 2 hours clear of the minimum so I was in very good shape so far.
Third lap was fairly undramatic and about 2h25 so added another 45 minutes to the buffer. I had been running with a base layer and tshirt which was generally a bit warm but was comfortable on the more exposed parts of the loop. I was lapped for the first time with Ajay flying past on his way to an 8h25 win in the 50 miler. First 50k done in 6h45 leaving 25h15 for 7 laps - less than 3mph needed for a finish now.
I ran with Paul and his usual partner in crime Matt Gaut for quite a bit.
You may have thought 3 x 10 = 30 miles is 48.3km. However the Copthorne lap is actually 16.56km making it perfect for a 3 loop 50k but it means that 10 loops of the course is 165.6km or 103 miles. Not a big difference but 3 miles is an extra hour at the end of the race.
The 4th lap was the last started in the dark - I knew it would probably be dark when I finished but I would see how far I could get. The marshals told me that all mandatory kit needed to be carried but I had my headtorches in my bag from the start. A bit of extra weight but not having them when needed would have been a disaster.
I joined up with Tom Hickman for some of this lap. We was doing his first official ultra with his previous longest run being a marathon virtual challenge. He was smashing it and looking forward to dinner in Spoons afterwards. The darkness was coming in as I made it to the Box Hill loop. I got to the view point and there were loads of cars for some reason by Donkey Green so in the interests of safety, I popped mine on. 38 miles done in daylight and it was the start of a very long night.
40 miles done in 9h25. I wasn't far off the 50k cut off of 9 hours and over 3 hours buffer had been built up. The 5th lap was done almost entirely on my own. I saw Tom on the Box Hill loop and cheered him on to his first 50 finish and shortly after finished my first 50 miles of the race in under 12.5 hours. Very happy days as this gave me nearly 20 hours to get the last 5 laps in.
Tom has the red number just behind me.
I have a 10/24 rule of thumb for 100 milers whereby you 50 mile time is 10/24 of your finish time. For a sub 24, you should aim to get to 50 miles in 10 hours. Given I was at 50 miles in 12h24, I was on track for a sub 30 hour finish. That would make the difference between a lunchtime finish and a cut off chasing sunset finish,.
My 6th lap started off as solitary trudge into the rain. The first landmark of the route is the right hand turn after 500 yards or so which is the point at which there are 10 miles left on the loop and when the first hill properly starts. Then it was gallops which was starting to get waterlogged. It was runnable on the first 3 loops but the combination of tiredness and the slippery terrain meant this would be another walking section.
By the time I got to Headley Heath, Drew had caught up with me. He was walking with me which I assumed was politeness but he said it was because he had mainly been walking the first 3.5 miles of the lap. His view was that the first 3.5 miles was the hardest of the course - I had been swayed by Box Hill being the toughest but the first part is pretty slow going with some decent climbing and energy sapping terrain.
He asked if I had about 55 miles on my watch - I had 54 or so - and then headed off into the darkness. He was pretty much the only runner I had spoken too out on the course in the about 5 hours. I then caught up with a guy who was a lap behind - he was struggling with injuries but wanted to get to 50 miles so was going fairly slowly. Then I was back on my own again.
Something felt quite strange as everything seemed to be repeating itself. No to be fair, it was my 6th loop so things were obviously going to be getting familiar but things seemed to recent. My watch had stopped counting down to the end of the lap but was dutifully tracking each turn. I reset the navigation but I was still stuck at 7 miles left of the lap despite being 57 miles in now. I should have been at the village hall by now.
Had Drew's magnificent calves caused a deviation in the time-space continuum? I was really confused but kept moving. Eventually I made it out of Headley Heath and onto the approach to Box Hill village hall. I must have got lost somewhere and I was trying to work out how much distance I had lost. I came into the car park with 58 miles on my watch. Even allowing for the 103 expected distance, I was quite a bit over where I should have been.
I stuck my head into the hall to say hello to the folks in the hall. Lindley and Spencer were there and I had a quick chat and share my bonus miles with them. I also figured it was worth speaking to someone to check I wasn't going completely mad and good to see some friendly faces before heading back out into the terrible weather. I've looked at the results since and I lost about 30-40 minutes with bonus miles.
It was a fairly downbeat lap. In theory, it should have been a good one as it started with being halfway done by distance, and crossed the midpoint by time - for a 100 mile race is typically 57 miles. Lap 6 was the half marathon lap...
I got back to the village hall and had a good laugh with the volunteers about my misfortune. They picked me up with a cup of tea and an excellent pasta Bolognese. I was going with the approach of taking on a chunk of calories at the start of each lap and then topping up with a sweets or a gel and some sports drink. There was one chap who was looking like dropping out and I shared my views on the course (incurring a swear jar fine). I headed back out with him still sat there gazing into the distance.
There was a slight recalibration of my target finish time after the 4 hour lap. I had finished 6 laps in 16h21 so had just under 16 hours for 4 laps left. Barring injury, there was no reason I wouldn't finish. I set off on lap 7 just after midnight having already run 25 miles in the dark. Typically 7 hours with a headtorch on would be enough to complete an entire night section of a summer race but this was just over half of the darkness done and close to 7 hours left.
On lap 7, I watched every turn with an eye to see where I had gone wrong. About 2.5 miles in, I could see on my watch there was a rogue line coming in from the side just before I headed up the steps. About 2 miles later, there was a left turn where most of the traces had gone, but one had gone straight on. I was briefly running with a lapped runner at this point and nearly missed the turn again. He was convinced the route was straight on but it most definitely wasn't. I don't think I'm the only person to miss this turn and probably won't be the last. It is clearly signed with an arrow and repeater tape when you make the turn so it was definitely my fault.
The lap had become much harder with the change in weather. It had been raining steadily from sunset onwards and the trail was muddy and slippery. It had been pretty much perfect for the first 40 miles but sections like Kamikaze hill were very tricky. The sandy section on Headley Heath had become pretty grim and pretty much all the first third of the course was walking now. The road to the Box Hill village hall became surprisingly tricky as the fog had come in reducing visibility to a few yards, and there was standing water by the speed bumps to avoid.
There was a chance to make up some time on the North Downs Way section. It was pretty good in places but towards Box Hill, the adverse camber of the trail made for very challenging underfoot conditions. Getting to the steps of Box Hill was a relief - at night time, the steps were by far the easiest part of the course as the stable footing more than made up for the steps.
I finished up lap 7 a few seconds under 20 hours. This left 12 hours meaning I had 4 hours per lap left which was very achievable. Lap 8 would be my lap in the dark as dawn would break in about 3 hours or so. First up was my usual pit stop of pasta and tea before heading out into the darkness.
The 8th lap was a case of waiting for sunrise as that would give a big lift and also make for easier progress with the improved visibility. I figured it would be roughly halfway through the lap but the fog meant I ended up doing pretty much the entire loop with the headtorch on. It hit low battery as I made it past Broadwood's Tower and the combination of the low light of the morning and the weak beam of my headtorch saw me home. I came prepared with 4 headtorches and 2 spare batteries as it was going to be a long night. My first NAO+ battery only lasted a lap but the other did a solid 3 laps. The night section is probably twice as long as your average 100 miler night section.
On the last part of the lap, I hooked up with Paul White - we made it into Race HQ about 5 minutes before Drew came in to win the race. I had been lapped by Drew at about mile 53, Fumiaki at about 63, and Chelle at 78 but nobody had lapped me twice which was a small victory.
It was an extended break before starting lap 8 as Drew was presented with his winner's trophy and there was less urgency now as I had 8h15 for 2 laps. It wasn't going to be sub 30 but a finish was very likely now. It was time to head out with the headtorch safely stowed in the bag (I had a small emergency one in case something went wrong on lap 10)
Lap 9 onwards was a case of walking it in. The trail was treacherous in places and my required pace was only 2.5mph which is not a particularly fast walk. Having daylight helped quite a lot but it was still raining pretty heavily. The Goodnight Sweetheart section had gone from being easy to being like a slip n slide.
For the final pitstop, it was now a breakfast menu. I had a lovely slice of toast and jam with the compulsory tea - I also had a cup of coffee for a final boost. There were now only 4 people left on the course. There were 3 finishers so all that was left was Sinead just ahead, Paul & me, plus Alison who was a fair bit back and would have some work to hit the final cut off.
The lap of honour was kind of fun with each part ticked off in turn. The abandoned car, the gallops (which were now repopulated with dog walkers), sliding down Kamikaze hill, a final lap of Headley Heath, ... And then my watch ticked over to 100 miles just before I made the turning I missed 16 hours earlier. I popped into the hall to thank the volunteers for hanging out there in case we needed them. It is weird but having it there makes the lap much easier knowing you have a place to stop if you need it.
This left 2h30 for less than 5 miles so it was a stroll to the finish. One last climb of Box Hill, a traverse of Donkey Green, past Broadwood's tower, down the steps to Whitehill car park, a final climb of Satan's staircase and then the run into the finish. I had done the last 2 laps with Paul and he was safely finishing now with gravity on his side so I pushed on as I had a bit of running in my legs still as the previous 8 hours had been mainly trying to safely walk it in rather than chasing time. I had managed not to fall the entire race which was a minor miracle.
I put in a token sprint finish to cross the line in 31:18 with 42 minutes to spare on cut-off. 5th place out of 23 starters. Paul crossed the line a few minutes later and Alison was the final finisher with less than 5 minutes to spare. Unbelievably, this was Paul's first ever 100 mile race having only started running in 2019.
Mr T supervised my post-race tea and stroopwafel
As a running challenge, the 100 mile version is up with there with some of the hardest that are out there. There have been 12 finishers out of 46 attempts (26% completion rate) which compares with about 50% for Lakeland 100, and the Arc of Attrition which are regarded as two of England's toughest 100 mile races.
The looped nature of the course makes it mentally much tougher as it is easy to just call it a day if things aren't going to plan. It also feels a bit pointless compared with a massive loop like UTMB or point to point like the South Downs Way. You also know exactly what you have to do (and do multiple times). By dropping out, you aren't missing out on seeing things so that makes it harder to keep going.
There is more elevation than the Lakeland 100 but with 8 hours less to do it in. The Lakeland 100 terrain is much tougher compared with a dry Copthorne loop but when it gets moist, it is a different matter as the wet leaves and mud combine with tricky cambers to make it challenging. I used hiking poles Lakeland 100 but didn't here. I don't think the climbs justify it, and it is mainly running so I felt they would get in the way. However I probably could have benefited from them when on the last lap or two.
I also suspect that if the Copthorne 100 was in June, it would see a much higher finisher rate but being in November it has 15 hours of darkness and up to 50 miles done in the dark. The small field means you are often battling away on your own. All of this adds up to a great challenge and will should grow in popularity - especially now Wendover Woods has moved to July from its traditional November spot.
The race has amazing volunteers and hospitality. Also thanks to Leaonardmartin.photo for some great action shots - all the photos of me are taken by him. The central race HQ means that resources can be focused on one hall with great hot food and drinks provided through the night even with only a handful of runners still out there. The nature of the event also draws in crew members to help out non-crewed runners. A shout out to Drew's mum, and Team Imamura San who I'm sure were wearing crew t-shirts by the end. And thanks of course to Allan for putting on the race. Once the rush of the first lap was done, it was personal service every lap for the whole 30+ hours.
This is a race that should be on the bucket list of British 100 mile runners. It is a big step up in difficulty from Centurion 100 milers and you need to have pretty decent mental strength as well as physical ability to get round in the 32 hours. My slowest Centurion 100 was the NDW100 in 25:30 so this is maybe another 6 hours on top of that (and another 9 Box Hills). And it is currently one of the rarest medals out there and quite a few DNF scalps...