Thursday, 21 May 2015

2015 North Downs Way 50 ultra-marathon race report

I'm running the North Downs Way 100 in August and needed a suitable recce of the route. I figured once I'd started the 100 and got half way, it would only be a matter of then holding on and hobbling to the end. So the North Downs Way 50, which runs the start of the 100, sounded like a perfect option to familiarise myself with the route and get in a decent long run before the big day.

The route

For some reason I had expected the route to be similar to the South Downs Way 50, with its rolling hills and vistas stretching to the horizon. And whilst the North Downs has some of that, it also has a lot of covered forest track. There was also more road than I was expecting too.

North Downs Way 50 Garmin elevation profile
The route was easy to follow and Centurion did a good job of marking the way with ticket tape and little arrow signs. If the South Downs was straight lines, the North Downs was a wiggle, which kept things interesting.

The route starts in Farnham, goes via Box Hill and ends in Knockholt Pound 51.2 ish miles away. I didn't think I knew the route, but as I ran the course I realised I'd biked, walked and run around different parts. I've certainly run the Box Hill steps more than a few times in the Trionium half-marathon Midsummer Munro and their marathon Picnic events (brutally good fun). This inside knowledge will certainly help for the NDW 100.

Box Hill stepping stones (note: sausage roll in  right hand
and kidnapped jelly baby in the left) 
No trail run can be without hills and the route had plenty of them. Box Hill steps being the most extreme, but there's still plenty to get stuck into elsewhere. Whilst the start is relatively sedate, it was the latter half that seemed flatter. Perhaps, that as the pace was dipping, up-hill running was an opportunity to use different muscles?

The training

I really tried this time. I really did. I wanted to be fit, I wanted to be lean and I wanted to do well. Alas, a significant change at work led me to have to lay waste to that plan and instead to replace it with late nights, stress and take-aways. I'm grateful for my ability to soldier on, but Justin said it best (and he's said it before too), that "how good would you be if you'd trained?" Maybe by the time the NDW 100 comes around things will have changed? Pah!

The highs

The start was really nice. Lots of people out for a little walkies to the start line. It was a nice way to start and kept things relaxed. I said goodbye to Ruth and the pooch at the start line and set-off. No particular game-plan, but to see how things went and adjust from there.

As I said above, the route was a little more technical than expected. Not tricky technical, but lots of lefts and rights and opportunities to miss markers. It seemed more like a run around the streets from my childhood. Spending the day ducking between houses and shooting between the small walkways behind streets. It was a lot of fun and encouraged speed from me. It also helped that there were other 'kids' around me and that kept my competitive edge turned on. If someone had slapped my back and said "Tag" I would have been transported back to 12 year old me and would have chased after the person in front *slap* "No tags back, nur nur".

It's silly perhaps, but I am a bit of a kid when I'm out there. I'm not racing, so why not have some fun? Specifically, fun for me on a run is speed, hills and challenges. I ran all the hills before Box Hill (my mental time-to-slow-down check-point) and I didn't walk a step. It made me happy and kept me optimistic. It's the similar feeling I get when I complete mini-challenges. For example, I challenged myself that I wouldn't drop below 05:30 kmph pace for a stretch of trail or that I needed to over-take 2 people on the hill. There was one where I needed to take no more than 100 steps on a section (I confess I reduced the size of the section to ensure that I won. Goodness Sean. I know, I know). The most fun was where I needed to match the steps of the person in front of me to try and learn their technique.

Felt like a big kid on a run
Maybe that's how all the time flew by? I don't recall getting to the 10 or 20 mile mark or the 30 or 40.

I do remember the check-points though. Filled with happy smiling people who were keen to help me along the route. "Any bottles that need filling?", "Is there anything I can get you?", "You OK? You're a little red". I thought it cool too that I recognised so many people. I didn't know their names, I'm terribly poor at names and better with faces, but I gave them a beaming smile and a big thank you as recompense for them taking the time to help their fellow runners. I hope to volunteer one day too.

Where usually I find a running partner, for this run I went alone. It was quite refreshing. When I wanted to stop and look at the view, I did. I took lots of photos and enjoyed the moments of seeing others runners coming up behind run on by. I've oft referred to long-distance running as a roving-picnic (which I think I first heard from James Adams), but this run really was. I ran the 7 miles between one check-point to the next and then spent 10 minutes chilling out and people watch. As a day out, it can't be matched. Views. People. Food. Hills. Running. Jelly and ice cream. It's got the lot.

The beautiful North Downs Way

The lows

Being honest with myself, even though the heat was unexpected and increased my level of effort, it wasn't all that bad in hindsight. It made the run a good challenge, but shattered my inner hope of getting in around 9 hours. More fitness and better preparation may have saved that dream for me, but it's a good lesson for the NDW 100.

The funny low point was the finish. What cruel Race Director shows you the finish line and then asks for you to run around a large field before you can get to it? But once I had the medal in hand, it was simply something to laugh about, but it did sting when I popped out into that field :-)

Oh and we'll agree to forget about that little detour I took towards the end. No one needs to know.

The finish

What a jerk. "2 miles to go", he nonchalantly proffered. 2 miles my arse! In his defence, it could well have been 2 miles, or even less, but it sure didn't feel like it and whilst I tried to keep up, I didn't want to. I wanted to walk, to relax, to enjoy the moment. To eat a flump that I carried for the last 49.5 miles. Having an internal heart-to-heart moment, I wanted the run to not be ending around the corner. I remembered back to the Ridgeway Challenge, where 50 miles was still a 50k ultra and then some from the finish line. I remembered the peace, the nature and the utter expanse I felt hobbling through the night, and I wanted it again. I'm not sure what that means to me or for me, but I felt it and that feeling has stayed with me since. Hopefully the 100 will beat such nonsense out of me!

Also, 83rd out of 232 isn't bad. Top third-ish.

Thank you

I have to say thank you to my Wife for putting up with my silly hobby and for transporting me around. I couldn't do it without her (well that's a complete lie, I'd just get a taxi or something, but there's some level of sentiment and mushy emotion had by having her help me).

Hawaiian themed check-point,
of which I was completely oblivious too!
A thank you to Justin Bateman for reminding me (this was all in my head) to have my S!Caps every 45 minutes. Having run with Justin in the Ridgeway Challenge last year and seeing him remain rock steady because of his effort to keep eating, drinking and popping the pills, I did the same and it worked just as well. Of course, I forgot the eating and drinking bit, but 1 out of 3 which isn't bad, right? Great guy and a great running coach I hear too (corrected 'hear' from 'here' just for him).

A huge thank you to all of the support crew from Centurion. They're jolly, helpful and full of chat. It's quite clear that they're all interested in helping me achieve my goal and they're knowledgeable keen runners too. Really couldn't have done it without them all.

And a final thank you to Ilsuk Han for the extra mi... support.

What did I learn?

Waiting to start
I learn this on every long run: don't go out too fast. But yet, for every run I do. I love it. I love the pace, I love the hard running the sense of progression and running with others of a similar ilk. But every time, without fail, I suffer past the half way mark. I use up all of my energy, I forget to eat enough and then the inevitable decline into hobbling ensues.

I also learned:
  • Running with water bottles banging into your ribs isn't fun - I'll need to move the pack lower down my back and use a bladder next time too for such hot days
  • Remembering when I had my last S!Cap was quite hard when I'm so hot - I managed it, but I wasn't 100% sure whether I'd waited 45 mins, an hour or longer
  • Jelly and ice cream is worth stopping for
  • Taking photos of the route is worth the effort to stop for a minute and take it all in
  • Running with Apple ear-buds is laughable as I had to run holding them in, but I did appreciate the beat of the music for the short time I used them
  • Taking a pain killer and an ibuprofen takes the edge of weary muscles, but keeps me from injury
  • I need to work out how tight my shoes should be. They're fine for the first 25 miles, but start becoming uncomfortable after that. I also end up with bruised feet - I should take myself off to a decent trainer shop and seek their advice
  • If I can run 50 miles, I can run 100 miles
  • Check all clothes-drawers for the right shorts. I had to wear un-matched shorts and t-shirt. Euugghh
If you're looking to run a 50 or a 100, I would whole-heartedly recommend the Centurion Running events. They run two 50's and four 100's. The routes, the culture and the community that surrounds their events is second to none.