North Downs Way 100

After the debacle of the Summer Spine I made a late entry into the North Downs Way 100 race.  Its actually 102 miles which sounds like no real difference, but I challenge you to think that way when you have done 100 miles and still have a couple to go!

This is by far the longest race I've entered in terms of it being a running focused single stage race.  The previous longest was probably the Marathon des Sables long day that came in at 52 miles and my record in a single day stands at 62 miles on the first day of my Coast to Coast attempt.  I'm not counting the Winter Spine Race as its more expeditionary in nature and the assumption that you stop for sleep at some point.  In the week leading up to the race I was profiled as one of the 6 people to watch and was labelled as a 'Wild Card', principally due to my 2.20 marathon time that seems to follow me around.  I knew that I was far from favourite, my fitness being substantially adrift of where I was a few years ago and I half suspected the distance of this race would be my undoing in any case.  Its a bit like a Usain Bolt being a favourite for a 10k race based on his sprint PB.

At the off, somewhat typically I was near the front.  We'll gloss over the bit where a sign in a field said 'horses lose' which I'm not sure was the intent of the message...  In the first couple of km I was adrift chatting to the odd runner, but the first small incline arrived and I joined an already established group of 3.  Plenty of more chatting ensued that helped the time pass and I was running well within my capability.  The first aid station came at about 6 miles which we all decided to bypass.  Heading to the next aid station one of the group dropped back, but was soon replaced by someone else and once at the aid station it was a tactical affair - get liquids asap, grab something from the table and move on.

Quite early on in the race and in the leading group of 4 - literally the only photo of me (even then partly obscured by someone else!) in the entire race!

As always with races its often the aid stations that disrupt the groups and so it was the case here.  A Norwegian runner made a move and that was the last we saw of him.  I ended up attached to another runner who happened to be focused on half marathons and we chatted away for an eternity.  I felt ok in the most part but the heat of the day (27c peak) was starting to come though and being a profuse sweater I was getting dehydrated.  After a couple more aid stations it became too much for me and at about 30 miles in I had to drop back.

It was going oh so well early on - I'm 375

As the day proceeded my dehydration was getting worse and was now starting to be compounded by the inability to take on meaningful liquid, salts or any food.  I was starting to feel nauseous although not actually in danger of being sick.  Eventually a few people passed me and at that point any competitive aspiration had well and truly worn off and I knew I was getting a combo of heat and sun stroke.  At some point I did have my first pee, it was off the charts brown.

At the half way point I was still well within the top 10 and I used the opportunity to tape up my left ankle which was in a brace to try and stop my ankle rolling like it did at the Spine.  The downside was that although I had already taped up known hot spots, new ones had developed as the distance progressed.  Part way through the taping I had the most agonising shout out in pain level cramp - down to dehydration and lack of salt replacement.  Although I was much slower in the lead up to the half way point I had always been running, although it started to become more of a shuffle.

By 60 miles or so, running whatsoever was very hit and miss; I would have occasional patches of feeling better interspersed with only having energy to walk.  By 70 miles I was crossing the Medway and I suddenly struggled to move at all.  I had nothing left in the tank and even had to sit on the parapet bridge half way across.  It was around this point where I started to get overtaken in droves, even if the heat of the day was now starting to pass as I just had nothing left to give.  I just couldn't replace the liquid I was losing and in terms of food intake, forget it.  I found a bench, took a sit down and got the poles out.  It was a slow march to the next aid station about 5 miles later where I was pretty convinced I'd have to jack it in.  AGAIN.

I came in a bit of a state and I suspect some other competitors had forewarned there was someone coming in a bit of bad way.  By now it had turned dark for about half an hour or so.  I was starting to shiver and had lost some control.  The marshals really looked after me - I explained that I just wasn't feeling great, but a sit down, some liquid and carefully chosen food (weirdly babybel seemed to go down well) and I was off again.  It was now just a case of get to the 80 mile marker where my second drop bag was waiting and compartmentalise each section to the finish.  I even managed to start a run shuffle, not at a pace fast enough to stop people overtaking me, but fast enough that I was making good progress.  I came into the second drop bag aid station in a frame of mind where I felt the finish was back on.

However, by 85 miles the wheels started the come back off.  The truth is in these types of events, once the wheels are off they stay off and there is no miracle cure.  So it proved here.  I had zero energy left, none whatsoever.  I just tried to march to the finish which was fine to a point.  At the 90 mile aid station I just topped up as best I could, but despite more babybel being available, it was no miracle cure this time.  There was 8 miles to the final aid station and then a further 4.5 miles to the finish.  At this point a coveted sub 24 hour finish was still just about plausible, but soon exited my mind as my body had so little energy.

It became light a little later and was a real grind to the final aid station and by this point I was being overtaken frequently and walking even slower.  I came into the final aid station shaking, having now lost body temperature control.  I was given a space blanket, a couple of hot drinks and some jelly babies.  At least by now my ability to consume food had returned and over the last few hours I had started to be able to pee again and had a craving hunger.  I was now on my way and just pretty much marched my way to the finish in a time of 25.42 in 66th position out of 151 finishers and about 215 starters.

Again disappointing, except this time I finished and overcame adversity in the process.  I also managed to not turn my ankle so the brace definitely worked even if it did give me some rubbing issues.  I think this sort of race tells me where my talents do and do not lie - I'm good at multiday stage racing e.g. 20 - 50 miles a day, but much beyond 60 miles and I struggle.  I dont think I'm a very good fat burner which is what this sort of race is all about, and being a profuse sweater I simply cannot get the liquids and salts in at a pace that replaces my loss, so inevitably I have issues.  This was made worse by the heat being 27c (obviously more in the direct sun) and then it becomes a suffer fest.  Its simply not enjoyable at that point, so if I do more races then I will focus on shorter ultras or those that involve several stages.  Its not about finding races that mean I can be competitive, but about having races that are more fun to be in.

As for the wider aspect of the race, I was pleasantly surprised how well organised it was, aid stations aplenty, well stocked, well supported, plenty of course markings to follow despite us following a National Trail.  As for the North Downs Way trail itself I didn't think much of it at all.  It made me realise that I'm very blessed being much closer to the Peak District, North York Dales etc.  There were sections with some great views and nice trails, but by and large it just felt like farmland, copses and hedge lines with about 20% on roads that frankly could be anywhere.  I was also surprised by the relatively few National Trail markers, using what I'd consider to be low quality paths.

The start of the North Downs Way - at the junction of two very busy roads.  Bit bizarre really.

I have no further races planned at the moment.  I am provisionally entered for the Winter Spine (3rd time lucky?!) which despite saying that long distance races are not my forte, I've realised that in reality it is more of an expedition than anything else.  I will make a final decision in the coming weeks and then decide whether to do a bit of shorter stuff or just stick to base training.


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