Well, I have to be honest - I had almost forgotten what the finish line of a Centurion race looked like. I seem to have a habit of DNFing these particular races, despite the fact that they are some of my favourite races to run in the UK. Previously this has been due to injuries or not wanting to ruin myself for other A races for the year. This year, I decided to have a crack at the 100 mile Grand Slam (Thames Path, South Downs Way, North Downs Way and Autumn 100) to polish them all off in one go, but as you may have noticed that didn't quite go to plan. Dysentery on the TP100 (Sophie Ellis Bextor's follow up hit) and a sense of humour failure on the SDW100 quickly buggered up any chances of that Grand Slam buckle.
There wasn't much I could do about the TP100, but I sacked the SDW100 with only 8 miles to go. I could have walked in for a sub 24 hour finish, but I was just taking things too seriously and trying too hard for a PB. I got so annoyed with how whingey I was being, especially given how hard everybody else was working out there (not just phoning in their attempts like me), that I decided to pull out until I got my head back on straight.
So I hit the NDW start line with two aims in mind - to have fun and to reach the Centurion Running finishing arch in Wye. Well, I say hit the start line, but I actually managed to miss the start due to an urgent call of nature that I figured would be best taken care of sooner rather than later. I wasn't too bothered though, as I was in no hurry - a very different approach for me. I was chatting to Dan Park and Bryan Webster (who were both on race 3 of the Grand Slam) when I heard the horn go, and said good luck before heading off through the field.
I skipped past a lot of the field over the next few miles, being careful not to undo this whole plan by sprinting past everybody. I bumped into Richard Felton from Profeet, who helped me out before Spartathlon last year with my plantar fasciitis. It was great to catch up for a bit, and the chatting made us keep things comfortable. After a few miles together, I headed off to push a little up the field. I didn't realise, but my wife was actually a little concerned following along at home, as my position further back in the field made her worry that something might be wrong!
As it happens, I really wasn't too far back from most of the front runners. Ed Catmur (the current course record holder) was out ahead in record pace. Craig Holgate had set out ahead of everybody else to run the first 50 miles at some ridiculous pace to check the markings out, and I think Ed may actually have been trying to race him! Sometimes this works for him, sometimes it doesn't, but you have to truly admire his grit and determination whichever way it goes.
The weather had been very kind to us, with a similar day to that seen at the SDW100. There had been some heavy rain the night before, but now the skies were clear and the path was nicely softened without becoming muddy. I would go so far as to say that the weather was perfect running weather, although as it turned out it was maybe a little on the warm side. As the sun rose, so did the temperature and it was pretty clear that it was making it tough going. If nothing else, it meant more drinking which was filling my stomach faster.
Unlike the SDW which is characterised by wide open spaces, the NDW is much more secluded with much of the route stretching through woods and forests. In addition, unlike the SDW where almost the entire route consists of runnable rolling hills, the NDW is very much punctuated by sharp climbs. In some ways, this is actually preferable to me as it means that there is rarely any question of whether or not you should walk up the hill, whereas on the SDW100 I often felt like I was wimping out by walking up the relatively gentle inclines.
The first big climb comes at Box hill, after about 25 miles, and is quickly followed by Reigate hill for a nice double hitter. The Box hill checkpoint actually comes into site directly across a busy road after a fun downhill run, but runners need to head off along the road to cut underneath through the underpass so it's a bit of a tease. I remember this bit very vividly from running the Pilgrim's Challenge a few years ago, where I cut across the road and got penalised for it. In my defence I had been told by the RD Neil that the GPS route was "perfect" and it was following this that took me over the road. This time however I knew the score, and runners had been advised that running across the road (which was a bloody deathtrap this morning anyway) was a DQ offence. Russ was there anyway to point people in the right direction.
The last section had been quite long, so I was pretty thirsty by the time I got there. I got topped up, drank a lot of juice, and headed out with a handful of fruit. I was trying to be relatively healthy today and was going for fruit over chocolate and sweets, and had a plan to avoid Coke entirely to see if that helped my stomach. I wasn't suffering any stomach issues yet which was good, although the heat meant that I was pouring a lot of water in there so I was conscious of avoiding getting too bloated. But ultimately this plan seemed to work and, other than later in the race when the hot food became available, I survived on gels, fruit and water.
Oh and squash. Well for the first few sections anyway. I started out with one bottle of electrolytes and one of water, and gradually diluted the electrolytes down until I managed to fill up with squash at one of the earlier checkpoints. This was a nice combination, alternating between refreshing water and sweet squash. But not a single bloody checkpoint had squash after that. Normally I'm not particularly bothered about what I get at checkpoints - I'll take what I can get - but I started to get a real hankering for squash in the heat of the sun, and I'll be damned if I just couldn't get any! So my one complaint/suggestion for future Centurion Running races - more squash!
I set off across the stepping stones at the bottom of Box Hill, then made the climb up the loose sandy path towards the wooden steps that would become a staple of the route. I still can't decide if I found the steps any easier than just hiking up the hill, but I made pretty good progress regardless. The heat was building, and I approached what I first thought was an air traffic controller waving planes in to land (but turned out to be a cheerleader) wondering if the heat was getting to me... She asked if I had had a dunk in the water by the stones, and I almost considered going back down as I regretted missing out. But no; onwards and upwards!
About this time, I found myself running backwards and forwards with a few other runners, and in particular with James Brouner who I started chatting with. He had pulled out the previous year from this race at about 65 miles with a busted ankle, so had a score to settle today. We ran backwards and forwards a bit, but when he came into the Botley Hill checkpoint just as I was about to head out we decided to stick it out together.
It was a nice refreshing change to run with somebody else, as I am usually a bit of a loner when it comes to running. Usually I am not in a state to converse, but the pace today was great - nice and comfortable, making good time, but enough that we could easily hold a conversation. When we came into the halfway stage at Knockholt Pound, we were hot but in great spirits. I saw Gary here, who gave me a raised eyebrow expression which I think said "why are you so late", and he very kindly pointed me towards the vats of iced water and even swabbed my brow with a cold cloth to col me down. He's a keeper!
Ordinarily I try not to take too long at aid stations, but we weren't in any hurry. I had some pasta, and even changed my socks figuring that I may as well spend a bit of time making sure that the next half was as comfortable as the first half. In hindsight it was my chilled out reaction to the aid stations that cost us the most time, but since we weren't planning on winning the thing I don't regret that. It was nice to actually take a bit of time to soak in the atmosphere and get my money's worth from the food on offer!
We set off out and up a rather unpleasant climb involving a lot of road. Whilst the SDW is a very definitive route through the rolling hills of the South Downs, the NDW is much more of a hodge podge of randomly connected trails with plenty of alternative routes to distract the unwary runner. Not that we had any navigational issues though - I don't think that we really ran anything more than we set out to do which made a nice change! Unfortunately, I started to suffer from a pretty bad stitch which was making it tough to get things moving. The heat and constant climbing were not helping, and it was feeling like we weren't making much progress. James was taking it all in his stride however, but stuck it out with me which I'm grateful for. This was the section that he had injured himself on last year, and as we reached the bottom of a pretty gnarly hill he gave a little fist pump and muttered "yes" under his breath, telling me that he had made it past the hill that had prevented his finish last year. He was in uncharted territory now!
For me however, it was becoming quite familiar. I had run the first 30 miles or so on the Pilgrim's Challenge a few years previously, but the middle section was very much new to me. However, I have run several sections towards the end when I helped out James a few years ago by crewing and marking some sections. We came into Wrotham, which was the checkpoint where I had spent most of the night a few years previously, feeling a little better and on more familiar ground now. Again, we stopped for longer than we should, but hot tea was really helping my stomach and I wanted to let the food that I was eating settle before heading off again. I was starting to eat fewer gels now, and was eating more at the aid stations to make up for it. But other than a stitch which was getting better now, everything was going really well and we were feeling happy. I was definitely enjoying the experience!
I was however starting to suffer with fatigue, as my lack of sleep the previous night began to catch up with me. We had driven to my parents house during the day on the Friday, hoping to get there in plenty of time for a chilled out evening and an early night. Unfortunately, various incidents along the way resulted in our 2.5 hour journey turning into a 6 hour journey, my daughter had an unsettled night so I didn't fall asleep until gone midnight, and then the overspill of a nearby garden party woke me up several times before my alarm went off at 4am. Not a great start, and I was feeling it.
The sun was still up, and all I wanted to do was collapse and sleep. James could tell I was struggling a bit, and when I got into the Holly Hill aid station I just had to sleep. I told him to head off, and asked the checkpoint staff to poke me in 20 minutes. I stuck my headphones in to drown out the noise, and slunk down in the chair. I'm sure that everybody thought that was it for me, but this ain't my first rodeo! I was woken as requested, and jumped straight up feeling instantly energised. It's amazing how much benefit a small cat nap can have. I set off, and quickly found my rhythm again. In fact, I was now running faster than I had for a long time, and quickly caught up to everybody that had overtaken me during my nap.
I arrived at Bluebell Hill just after James, and found him just about to start a cup of tea. I think he was a bit surprised to see me, but hopefully it was a nice surprise! I also found Mark Perkins here waiting for me, who had agreed to pace me for the final marathon. Mark is incredibly fast, and recently attempted to run 100 miles in a 12 hour track race. That is world class stuff, and he was so close it was unbearable! He'll definitely crack it next time. He recently ran an amazing race at the Grand Union Canal, where he beat the previous course record by several hours (although was unbelievably not the winner in the end), but this had left his body slightly broken. This was going to be his first run back in a while, but as I pointed out - we weren't planning on pushing him too hard!
The three of us set off in fantastic spirits, and really enjoyed the next few sections. The three of us all have children, so that was a main focus of conversation, along with aspects of training, upcoming races and the usual fair. We were actually going a pretty good lick, and it was only the time spent at the aid stations that slowed us down (my fault - I was hungry). But since we weren't in any hurry I didn't care too much about that.
I was still feeling pretty tired, and the fatigue was starting to creep back in again as the adrenaline that was fuelling me began to wear off. We came into Lenham at mile 90, and I managed to actually fall asleep mid ham sandwich to the amusement of everybody there. But after another little cat nap, I was back on form again and just hoping that it would carry me through to the end. Next time I should really run faster so that I can get to bed earlier...
As the miles flew by, we eventually arrived at Dunn Street at mile 98. There were about 5 miles left to the finish, but we were assured that all of the hills were done (heh heh, Dunn) now and it was a pretty easy ride to the end. After eating so much food that I got comments from the other runners, we headed out for the final push.
And we really were pushing now, alternating running at a pretty good pace (well, y'know, pretty good for 95 miles into a race) with short walking breaks to stop us from burning out. We managed to pick up more runners along the way, and ended up in a little train of runners, dragging ourselves to Wye with the finish line in sight. When we were a few miles out, James announced that he wasn't feeling great and was going to slow down, so told us to head off. But there was no way that we weren't going to cross the line together after the day that we had had.
Sub-24 hours was pretty much guaranteed barring some catastrophe (famous last words...), but we could just make out the sun starting to peak over the hills. The race was now on to get into Wye before the sun rose. We plodded on, and soon made our way into the town. It was a fairly low key finish as we came through the finish line in 22:41:01, but I was perfectly happy with the lack of ceremony. We snapped a couple of quick finish line photos (It's been a while!), and wondered into the hall to get our true prize - a bacon sandwich! Totally worth it.
The race had been won by Ed Catmur in 18:02:00, and we found him lamenting how on earth he was going to fit another Centurion trophy on his book case at home (#fastguyproblems). He had struggled a lot out there and lost the huge lead that he built up in the early stages of the race, with second place Ally Watson only 9 minutes behind in 18:11:15. Third was Jeremy Isaac in 18:56:54. The women's race was won once again by Sally Ford in 19:20:40 for 6th overall, making her currently 3 for 3 in wins in the 100 mile grand slam. If she wins at the Autumn 100, she will have a clean sweep! Second was Maryann Devally in 21:17:56, and third was Mari Mauland in 21:24:37.
I was disappointed to see Dan in the hall, as this could only mean that he had had to pull out of the race. He had turned his ankle on one of the descents and was struggling to keep up with cutoffs, so had pulled out to avoid damaging himself further. He seemed in relatively good spirits considering the situation, and was pretty Zen about it despite this meaning the end of his Grand Slam goal for the year. The important thing was that he was not seriously hurt, and seemed to bounce back quite quickly in the weeks after. Bryan was still out there, and managed to finish putting him in for a shot for the Grand Slam with only one more race to go.
So all in all not my fastest 100 miler by a long shot, but I enjoyed it and that's the main thing. I was a bit worried that I was losing my love for the long runs, but I had a blast out there, and running with James and Mark was a lot of fun and made the miles fly by. My main issues this race were tiredness, which seems to be a general issue in my day to day life (I can barely make it through an episode of Great British Bakeoff without falling asleep - I'm so old), and a stitch which might be related to the amount I was drinking due to the heat. But otherwise I was pretty happy, and finished with nothing to show for my efforts; I was running after a 2 year old with no issues the following day.
I'm a bit late posting this report - I actually wrote it ages ago but have only just realised I never hit publish - and we're now only a few weeks away from the Autumn 100. I'm going to predict now that it will be another slower race, as I haven't really been doing any hard training recently with one thing after another taking precedence. I need to shift a bit of holiday weight after a trip away to Menorca with my family, followed by several alcohol fuelled conferences with work (scientists sure know how to partay!), but it should be a fun day out as ever. Then I will be having a crack at Mark Cockbain's suffer-fest The Hill in December, hoping to hit that in a good fit state and have a crack at the course record. But we'll see. The important thing is that the issues on the SDW seem to have just been a blip, and now I can get back to just running and switching off my stupid brain!