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North Downs Way 100

Ian Saunders
August 5th, 2017 · 13 min read

Race information

  • What? North Downs Way 100
  • When? August 5th, 2017
  • How far? 103 miles
  • Where? South of London, UK
  • Website: Centurion Running
  • Results: Results
  • Strava activity: Strava
  • Finish time: 23:40:59 (37th place)

Background

Sam and I had been foolishly working our way up the minimum requirements to run a 100 mile race. Marathon, 46 miles, 82 miles and now finally - The North Day Way 100 (miles)!

To start, let’s get excuses out the way. Two weeks after the ONER I ran a 35 km marathon training run with a friend, Martin. My body finished the run under duress and retaliated by gifting a tweaked right knee - the net-effect was no running for the next 6 weeks, bummer.

Future self: Even if you feel recovered, gradually increase the distance

Unfortunately, I had a 100 mile race coming up! Right then, Plan B: Get in a decent amount of cross-training whilst the legs recover. The ONER had been a brutal slog, and I hoped the NDW100 could be a little less painful - I decided to focus on the following training areas:

  1. Need to work on speed
  2. Quads - they get hammered by the hills
  3. Continue work on nutrition

For quads, I began cycling around Surrey every Sunday. Box Hill, a classic cycling route in Surrey, was one of the sections we would be running! Perhaps it would be easier on foot than on a bike?

After 6 weeks of no-running, an initial tentative 10 km with Sam ended up being a horrendous stop-start jog of pain and self-loathing - we had some work to do.

As part of my recovery plan, I started doing a bunch of fartleks, Yasso 800s and park runs. I was able to lower my 5 km PB by a minute or so, after a tentative start the speed training was on-track!

Post the 35 km debacle, I chose not to run greater than cough 25 km, so let’s hope the solid base and all the cycling would be enough, quality over quantity?

Planning

Planning went pretty much the same way as the ONER:

  1. Create a big spreadsheet with time predictions
  2. Break race up into four marathons
  3. Break the marathons in check-point pacings

One tricky decision was what finish time to aim for. I was keen to punt for 24 hours and Sam was more tentative. As a compromise we settled for 2 pace charts. One for a sub-24 hour finish and one for a 28-hour finish. The 28-hour pace chart was effectively +1min/km slower than the one for 24 hours.

Our marathon pacing for 24-hour was:

  • Marathon 1: 4.5 hours
  • Marathon 2: 6 hours
  • Marathon 3: 6 hours
  • Marathon 4: 7.5 hours
  • sleep.

24 hours FTW 24 hours FTW

The Route! The Route!

Pre-start

We ventured down to Franham on Friday afternoon and headed over to check-in. The Centurion team ran a slick yet welcoming operation. Kit-check was fair and we were off to the races - in about 12 hours!

We headed into town for supplies and dinner. We over carboloaded, spaghetti with a table pizza, in retrospect this was too much food and not enough time to digest - ahem.

Table pizza :O Table pizza :O

After packing drop-bags and run kit we were in bed by around 8pm, with a 4am wake-up call. To add to sleep challenges, there was a wedding party in our hotel - I thankfully fell asleep with ease. Sam on the other hand tossed and turned not sleeping until much later.

Where did all this stuff come from? Where did all this stuff come from?

Arriving for the pre-race briefing the room was full of expectant runners! We put our hands up when they called out for virgin 100 milers, a few nerves ran through my feet. Strolling down to the start we were ready to get (north) down to running!

Running friends! Running friends!

Start to CP3 (0 to 39.5kms)

Aid stations: Farnham, Puttenham, Newlands Corner, Box Hill Stepping Stones

As per our 24-hour timings, the first 4 check-points had pretty aggressive pacing, roughly a 4:30 marathon. Perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad until you remember there are three more marathons to follow. As the countdown hit zero everyone began a staccato run down a 2-person wide path. The group stayed bunched up and we spent a bit of time getting past various fences. The pace increased as the group spread out, I was grateful for the perfect weather for the start of a long day. I mentioned to Sam that we were on pace for 24-hours and we cracked on.

A gentleman called Darryl regaled us with his 2016 NDW100 run, he was aiming for a sub-24. His strategy the previous year was to go out hard for the first 50 miles and then grind out the final 50 miles over, this had netted him a ~25 hour finish, not bad! This year he was taking the first 50 a bit easier to see if could crack - “100 Miles in 1 day” for the NDW.

In general the first 40 km was pretty flat, as per advice at the race briefing and reinforced by Darryl, we tried to resist running too fast. Arriving bang on schedule at the Box Hill aid station was great, we quickly chowed down on some food and continued.

On your marks! On your marks!

Go go go! Go go go!

CP3 to CP8 (39.5 to 96.2kms)

Aid stations: Reigate Hill, Caterham, Botley Hill, Knockholt Pound, Wrotham

After stepping across the very scenic river stones we launched ourselves up Box Hill. Having heard so much about Box Hill, and memories of the soul destroying hills during the ONER, I was pleasantly surprised with the gradient and distance - in no time and limited heart-rate elevation we were at the top enjoying the lovely views. An unexpected shout at the top and a work colleague, Aubone, was there cheering us on! A handshake, quick photo and off we shot.

Box hill steps! Box hill steps!

Top of Box Hill Top of Box Hill

As the day wore on the thermometer drifted upwards, it wasn’t a stonking hot day, but it certainly wasn’t cool. As the sun got to me in the ONER I had decided to run with a peak-cap, this was deployed to some success. Post Box Hill the average pace was set to go down, but as there were many rolling hills, pacing became a balancing act between stomping the steep hills, running the soft hills and running slightly quicker on the flats/downhill - joy! Unlike the ONER where I ended up with quad spasms after 35 km, I didn’t storm down the hills and instead ran moderately quicker to conserve the quads for later in the race, this strategy worked well - and I had no spasms at all.

As we pulled into CP 5 (Reigate Hill) Sam mentioned that he was feeling the pace/heat a bit and had slightly swollen fingers. In the ONER Sam had an upset stomach and to combat this he had opted to run with water+food only. I had stuck to my previous fueling strategy but had removed most processed sugar, which seemed to cause highs/lows and a sore stomach later in race. As we refueled at the aid station, Sam asked about his fingers. It was suggested he was low on salt/electrolytes - probably true, and given a salt tablet which he dutifully swallowed. We stocked up on water and snacks and began walking. 100m from the aid station Sam bent over and had an almighty chunder - it lasted a good minute.

First rule of running club: Don’t try anything new on race day!

Sam picked himself up and we began running again, albeit slightly slower. Sam will push himself to the limit and beyond, but you could see in his eyes he was a partly broken man. We cut the pace significantly and introduced some run-walking. Advantageously we had entered a section of the course we have recced a few weeks earlier, so we knew what was to come. I would love to say that the spring in Sam’s step came back, but sadly his day was over after 60 km.

At this point I had somewhat given up on the 24-hour attempt, the only silver lining to the slowness was that I felt pretty damn fresh. We had drifted 35 minutes off 24-hour pace, but perhaps there was still hope? Given that I knew the next 15 kms I felt confident to push the pace hard - I was also pretty certain I would be able to finish this thing in under 30 hours, so why not roll the dice a little?

We had been around 90th place at Box Hill and had been overtaken a lot, I began running hard for the next 2 aid stations, managing to restore some of the deficit. As was mentioned in a couple other race reports the skies opened up - Personally I was grateful for the fresh cool air even though the wet clay was hard to ascend in road shoes.

I would be remiss to not mention the fantastic volunteers at every aid station. I generally hate wasting time at aid stations - I race hard to gain every minute and don’t want to spend more than a few seconds standing around. The Centurion crew have this down to a tee, as I pulled into Botley Hill aid station:

  1. Hand over 2 water bottles
  2. Centurion crew fill bottles
  3. I grab snacks, sandwiches and stuff my face
  4. Crew hand back water bottles
  5. Leave aid station

I think I averaged around 40 seconds per an aid station, Formula 1 drivers eat your heart out - amazing!

The half-way point came in 10 hours and 30 minutes, my body was feeling sore from the fast pace, on the positive side two marathons down and on-target, woohoooo! The amazing volunteers sat me down, brought over my drop bag, food and drink. I woofed down the fantastic warm pasta then changed shoes and socks. I opted to go for compression socks for the second half - partly as nettle protection, I also changed to trail shoes to avoid any more slipping during the more technical night section. The gent I sat next to mentioned that the first half had taken more out of him than expected, and had decide to slow down. Not great foreboding.

Whilst eating, I rang my sister, Tanya, who was going to pace me later and let her know my progress. Tanya also mentioned Sam had got a lift to the half-way point, but after a quick look around and not seeing him I decided to press on.


As I pulled out of the half-way point I joined up with a group of other runners and we ran together for the next 16 km section - thanks to Karl, Paul, Johnathan and the other runners who made the run that much more enjoyable - if you are ever in London feel free to drop by for a pint or two!

My mind was a bit foggy and I misread the length of this section, thinking 10 km rather than 10 miles, damn! As a result, I ran out of water with about 4 km to go - which equated to about 25 minutes at current pace, really shouldn’t have sprayed water on my neck earlier… As a rule, I struggle without a constant sip of water every few minutes, I began asking a few other runners if they had any spare, turns out they were in a similar position! Karl had a few drops to donate and I felt much better.

Shortly after this we ran past an unwell runner, we offered our assistance, Karl gave her some supplies and mentioned that it was not far until the Holly Hill check-point. As there were a large amount of runners around and she motioned for us to continue we pushed on, I’m pretty certain I saw her photo in the list of finishers, hurrah! After cresting the un-Holly Hill I refilled my water and pushed on quickly!

Feeling the heat.. Feeling the heat..

CP8 to CP11 (96.2 to 131.5kms)

Aid stations: Holly Hill, Bluebell Hill, Detling

As I pulled into aid station 8 there was a nice surprise, my crew were sauntering in at the same time! For some reason I thought I was meeting them at the following aid-station, so was very glad to see them. After the low points of the previous section and the nearly 100 kms already done, it was going to be refreshing having new legs to motivate me!

Before the race I had warned the crew that I would be in-and-out of aid stations in a minute - they were ready and rearing to go. Much to their amusement, I needed a good 5 minutes to compose myself at CP8, the pace had been pretty high and running out of water had taken a toll. I proceeded to drink 1 cup of water and 2 cups of coke and then ate half an orange, a handful of grapes, and 1 sandwich! I was FINALLY ready to go. Tanya and I waved farewell to the NDW100-Crew, and we were back on the trail.

Having run for 11ish hours at this point I was perhaps a little less chatty than Tanya expected but she did a fantastic job running with me. When she joined it was still quite warm, as the sun slowly set and we had to turn our head-torches on. This section of the course was very runnable and we kept the pace high. Apart from a run-in with a tree and Tanya taking a couple of tumbles there were no major mishaps to report. Tanya got to experience her first transition from sunshine to night-time running.


After Tanya’s stint I was joined by a very energetic Martin, fresh from his Copenhagen Marathon, he helped me ascend Bluebell Hill - unfortunately for Martin he joined me at a pretty low point of the race. Some confusion over check-points and the high-pace of the previous section had sapped some of my mental strength. I was fighting to keep the pace up and push myself, I had also been running for around 16 hours at this point, I was very quiet and inside my own world for most of the section. Everyone talks about Box Hill and Detling when discussing the NDW100, I am going to add Bluebell Hill onto that list. It’s long, annoying and not much fun. Furthermore, you know this is just a prelude to Detling. I didn’t like that hill one bit - good riddance!

As we arrived at the Bluebell Hill aid station at 11pm I was surprised to see that Sam had returned to cheer me on! After that horrendous hill it helped raise my spirits to see my usual partner in running crime. He also pointed out that I only had one marathon to go, and 7 hours to get under 24 hours. This was 30 minutes less than the pacing chart had budgeted for, and as such I was under no illusions that a 7-hour marathon, with the hardest hills still to come, was going to be touch-and-go.

Karl, my adopted NDW running buddy, was chilling out in one of the aid station chairs. We mumbled a few words of good luck and both set off at roughly the same time. Helen was joining me for the next 20 km before handing over to my final pacer. Immediately after setting off I felt very chilled and opted to put my running jacket on - this turned out to be a great idea as the clear skies caused the weather to be quite frigid.

Helen was unlucky for 2 reasons:

  1. Not 5 minutes out of the CP and we both walked into a very deep puddle and got rather wet shoes, argh!
  2. The Hills.

Box Hill may be more famous, but the hills in Detling are unrelenting. False horizons and steep steps chipped away at our confidence. As with the ONER the downhills and uphills are not easily runnable, just too steep and slippery for anyone to seriously tackle with speed at 1am. So we ground it out, running where we could, stomping where we had to.

Etched in my memory is a section where Helen and I emerged from a steep incline, the path opened up and we surged ahead, enjoying 20 minutes of pure fast pace running. Race experiences like this remind me of how surreal and beautiful ultra-distance trail running can be.

As we pulled into Detling Village Hall I felt great, we had managed to keep the pace about right - the whole team was there to see how Helen and I were doing. I ate a bowl of much needed soup and drank Dr. Pepper, thanks again to the Centurion team for brining food over to my table! A few of the runners I had been chatting to earlier were sitting down and munching on some soup too, I had a brief chat with them and decided that there was no time like the present - Helen and I were off!

What can I say about the next section? The hills got steeper and my shins began to hurt on the downhills.

As we got into Hollingbourne crew station, the highs of the previous aid station were gone. My legs ached, my mind felt broken and I felt spent. I sat in the back of the car, sipped on a drink and talked to the team about what needed to be done. We needed to complete 35 km in five and a half hours. After 131 kms it had come to this. For a brief moment I gave up on the dream - let’s just grind out the finish - 24, 25, 26 hours - who cares?

I had intended to do a video with Martin, Helen and Dan but we were so focused it slipped my mind. Next time, I promise!

CP11 to FIN (131.5 to 166kms)

Aid stations: Lenham, Dunn Street, Ashford

Dan, my last pacer, and I pulled out of the crew point and hit the first of a few demoralizing hills. I tried my best to run but I just couldn’t get moving. We surged, only to be met by another steep incline. Dan glanced down at his phone, the crew had been tracking our progress and relayed that we were way off pace - 24 hours was blown.

As if by magic, my mind clicked into place - I told Dan, get in-front and run. You set the pace and I will follow. Boy did we run! I felt great, we dropped into a pace of around 6 to 5.30 minutes a km. Dan kept the motivation up, and my brain going by calling out pacing in miles, 10 minute miles, I never do miles! We could do this…

We managed to catch up with a number of runners, which provided an extra little bit of motivation to keep the pace going - can’t overtake someone and then let them re-overtake you, right?! Not only did we run the flats and downs but we also pushed up the hills. Dan kept calling off the pace and the distance as we reeled in the finish. Apart from having to re-trace a minor 100m detour we didn’t deviate from the path. Though I ran with Dan for 5 hours, I struggle to recall any particular part of the run apart from the constant push - so forgive the lightness of this section.

As I pulled into Ashford and did a lap of the stadium emotion swept over me. The day had not gone according to plan but we had made it. Sam, Tanya, Martin and Helen cheered as Dan and I crossed the finish line in 23 hours and 40 minutes!


Team Finish Team Finish

Done Done

Aftermath

After a week most of the aches and pains subsided, though a lingering shin splint took some time to go away, which is weird as I never have shin splints.

My feet were super super swollen this time - I think I must have over-tightened the trail shoe.

Remember to loosen shoes as the race goes on.

Two weeks on, I am able to run again and need to kick into gear for York Marathon which is on the 8th of October. Followed by re-running the Brecon Beacons Ultra in November.

Thanks to my amazing pacing team and the fantastic Centurion team for a memorable race.

Quarter pint and the couch never felt so comfy Quarter pint and the couch never felt so comfy

Normal foot Normal foot

Post Race Trotter Post Race Trotter

Strava (some bits missing)

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