The sun was out, and it was an unseasonably warm day in May 2015 as I went for a spin on the mountain bike, up to Chaldon and over to the Caterham viewpoint. I sat on one of the benches and nibbled on an old Clif bar I found in my backpack. It tasted a lot better than the stale water, that had been in the camel pack for at last 2 weeks.
I noticed a lot of activity at the top corner of this local ‘Beauty Spot’. A large white tent had been erected and lots of people were milling about. Curiosity got the better of me, so I pushed my bike up to see what was happening. My initial thoughts was it was some sort of kids birthday party. Food was laid out on tables, bottles of coke, crisps, jelly babies, even ice cream. Chairs were all around the tent. I saw a flag with the word CENTURION on it. No kids though, just lots of people with beards, buffs and fancy trainers.
Then all of a sudden it erupted into clapping and cheering, as two runners came trotting up the hill towards the tent. I could see the numbers on their shorts, and from their dress and packs, this was no ordinary race. I asked one of the guys with CENTURION t-shirts on, what was going on?
“Its the North Downs Way 50 today”.
Ok, I thought. Being local I know of the North Downs Way, but still didn’t get what he was referring to.
“50 what” I asked?
“50 miles race from Farnham to Knockholt” was his reply.
My Nan had lived near Farnham all her life. That was 45 minutes drive away (at speed) around the M25, down the A3 and over the A31 Hogs Back.
“They’ve run all the way from Farnham, when did they leave last night ?” Was my response
“No 8am this morning, this is the 38 mile mark“.
He was ‘aving a Turkish Bath!
I sat in awe for about 30 minutes, as I saw more runners approaching the tent.
As the numbers started to thin out, I made my way home and the first thing I did was check out the Centurion website. Yep, there it was, the NDW50. I forwarded the link to some of the members of the work running club, stating I’d just watched part of this crazy race. I had never run anything beyond a marathon, but something about this particular event sparked my interest. I knew a lot of the areas the run would pass through. I wanted a new challenge. But 50 miles was not possible, was it?
On Monday, my work instant messenger bleeped the minute I logged in. It was Jamie, “I’m in, lets do it”. I opened the IM chat line up to the rest of the guys I regularly run with. Lets just say none shared Jamie’s enthusiasm! They couldn’t swear on the company chat system, but it was a resounding
“50 miles, F*** Off !”
Now Jamie is a good runner, and is known for his enthusiasm, but also for having no sense of direction and only rudimentary knowledge of the term “pacing”. Part of me really wanted to do this challenge, but I thought we needed some extra help.
Time to rope in Richard, the only guy I know, who had run Ultra marathons before. He had completed 100 Mile and 24 hour events. I was so surprised at how little convincing he needed, he said he’d do the event with us, and help plan the training – sorted!
So our little NDW50 team was born. I assumed the role as Project Manager – I need a plan defined for everything. Jamie would provide the enthusiasm and drive, and the experienced Ultra Runner Richard was appointed Team Coach. Richard’s main tasks were to provide the brains and strategy, as well to be the voice of reason and tell Jamie when to slow down – a rather repetitive task as it turned out.
By August 2015, all three of us were registered. I brought a copy of the Harvey’s NDW map and marked all the Aid station stops on it. I drove out to a few of the stops, just to visualise them, and orientate which way the course followed. I then downloaed the GPX file of the course from Centurion and loaded that on my ViewRanger app on my iPhone, (that was to prove so helpful).
After this my next task was to buy a ton of literature on the subject of Ultra Running. I already had Eat and Run so I re-read that. I bought a number of other books, anything with the word “Ultra” in the title basically, and started to get to grips with the basics. Back to Back Runs, Bonking, DNF, DNS, Recce Runs, Race Vests, food and nutrition strategies, what to do if confronted by a grizzly bear on the trail, etc etc.
Initially we planned a few short runs on NDW to start things off. Living fairly close to the course had its advantages. Richard and Jamie would drive to my house, and I’d have the routes worked out in advance. By end of November, we had run the sections out and back from Caterham to Botley and then Botley to Knockholt . We took lots of wrong turns, even on the well sign posted trail. Each time, out came ViewRanger, and quite easily got us back on track.
Jamie and I were also training for the Barcelona marathon in March, so we started to combine road and trail running most weekends. I soon realised how much more I enjoyed being on the trail compared to the tarmac.
Our first longer training run was in late January. This was from Stepping Stones to Woldingham and then back to my house. It was snowing and the trail was very slippery. The stepping stones were underwater so we had to use the bridge. Even so, we completed a 24 mile run, with only a few face plants – no real damage done, and I really felt I was getting into the groove of this type of running.
Barcelona marathon came and went (the post run drinks are another story), but was so pleased to knock 20 mins off my previous marathon PB – I am sure the trail running helped in this respect.
At this stage, we had completed half the course, I just needed to work out the logistics of getting us all to Farnham and running the remaining sections of the course. Luckily, Richards wife Karen agreed she would drive us to Farnham in early April. We met at Reigate Hill, where I left my car and Karen drove us to Farnham station. As luck would have it, I had also recently discovered my old work colleague Neil had just completed the SDW50 in just over 8 1/2 hours. I wanted to get him on board for his advice, he lived not far from Farnham, so was able to run part of the route with us. We all arrived at Farnham station, and after a bit of confusion finding the trail start, we were off.
Here’s where things went a little Pete Tong for me. Three weeks earlier, I had bought some new trail shoes, Salomon Speedcross 3. I had done some shorter runs in them, so I thought I would use these for the 32 miles recce from Farnham to Reigate. At St Martha’s Church I started to realise the error of my ways, (coach had warned me)! I announced I was suffering from a bad blister on my little toe, so found a seat outside the church, and exposed my foot to the elements and other walkers. Jamie and Richard recoiled in horror. It didn’t look good.
“You have to burst that!” Neil said
“What with?” was my reply.
No one had anything sharp, so in the end Neil used his lady like finger nails to pinch the beast into giving up its fluid, (ooh er Misses!). Grim as it may sound, it felt so much better. Richard provided a plaster and off we trotted. I then started feeling a pain at the front of my hip. This got progressively worse as we went on. Neil left us at Newlands Corner. At this point I also began to realised that one litre of fluid is not sufficient for 32 mile of trail running, but we continued on to Reigate Hill more than a little dehydrated!
32 miles completed, the furthest Jamie and I had ever run. More importantly, we had now run the entire route of the NDW50. This ticked off a major milestone on the project plan. We rewarded ourselves with the best fruit smoothie I’d ever tasted, from the coffee shop in the car park. I was in a bit of state if truth be known, as I hobbled back to my car. The soles of my feet were throbbing and blistered, as the new shoes felt as if they had no padding.
The next day the pain in my hip was worse. Panic set in. I was starting to think the worse. I asked John, a member of my local running club for some advice, and he pointed in me the direction of a Just Holistic Osteopath, who had treated many of the club members. Anna diagnosed inflamed hip flexor. Good news, she thought with only three weeks to go, it was fixable and provided me a list of stretches to do, to solve the issue. She advised I dramatically reduce my running, and saved myself for race day – advice I obviously ignored, didn’t she realise I HAD TO TRAIN!
So with all the logistics of race day sorted, the trusty old Brooks Cascadia’s restored as race shoes, a list of weird stretches to do and more blister plasters than a Boots superstore, were we ready?
Click here for PART II Race Day