My first introduction to ultra marathons took place in the spring of 2015. I was riding my mountain bike over the Surrey Hills, when I encountered a Centurion Running event. I researched the event, which turned out to be North Downs Way 50. I made a snap decision to enter the race for the following year. Friends Jamie and Richard agreed to run it with me, so this is where my love of trail running all began – Read about my first 50 miler experience in 2016 here
In 2017 Jamie and I decided to do the Downs 50 Double, which is the North Downs Way and South Downs Way 50 milers which I reviewed here
By now we were hooked, not only on the trail running scene, but the great community that surrounds it. Jamie and I volunteered on the 2017 North Downs Way 100 and secured places in the 2018 race, which we completed for our 1st 100-mile event, despite the high temperatures on the day.
The Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam involves completing all 4 of their 50-mile (81km) events in a single calendar year.
The events are South Downs Way 50 (April), North Downs Way 50 (May), Chiltern Wonderland 50 (September) and Wendover Woods 50 (November).
If you complete the 50 GRAND SLAM you get a HUGE commentative medal and a much sought-after 50 GRAND SLAM T-shirt.
Decision made, and wanting one of those big gongs, Jamie and I signed up for all the 2018 50-mile events.
With the SDW50, NDW50 and CW50 events all successfully completed, along with NDW100, we were well on track to complete the 50 Grand Slam in 2018.
Then my mental health took a dramatic and sudden downturn, probably due to spending too much time on the trails listening to Jamies endless drivel.
On the day of WW50, I found myself in a secure mental health hospital, and a 2-year battle with severe depression began. This wasn’t made any easier, when I was later diagnosed with stage 2 prostate cancer.
But as I always say, “all excuses are lies“, and I eventually got back on my feet, with tremendous support from my wife, and I was up and running again. If you’re interested in the journey back to full health, you can read about it here.
Part of the motivation to return to running was to complete what I had started in 2018. So, in 2021 I signed up to all 4 of the Centurion 50 mile events again.
Having not run for 2 years, and with an alarming amount of weight gain, I literally started from scratch again. In March 2021 I undertook a 5 week Couch to 5K programme, then joined my local gym, and started working hard on my strength and fitness levels.
I later booked, and took part in, a Centurion guided run around the Wendover Woods course. I also attended their excellent Ultra Running workshop.
To help keep committed, I setup a JustGiving page to help raise money for Prostate Cancer UK, who not only had provided me excellent support through my diagnosis and treatment but had allocated me a charity place in the 2022 London Marathon.
Rather than just raise money for the London Marathon, I included the 4 Grand Slam events, along with 10 other races. 15 races, 450 miles, target £4500. Should keep me busy.
Race#1 SDW50 9th April 2022
The SDW50 follows the South Downs Way national trail. The race starts at Worthing and finishes on a track in Eastbourne. Great sea views are visible for most of its length, on rolling, but sparsely vegetated downland terrain.
With the longest of my training runs a mere 12 miles, I had limited aspirations for the race. My focus was only on finishing within the 13-hour cut off. Friends Jamie, Gary and Hedley were also running the event.
Leaving the accommodation arrangements to Jamie was, not unexpectedly, a complete disaster. The pub he booked was without doubt the worse place I have ever stayed in (having backpacked around Australia in my yoof, this is saying something!). Our run-down rooms were above the bar and when the rock band stopped playing around 23:30, they put on a rave until about 1am. Thats when the pub brawls started. So, none of us had a lot of sleep that night.
I had previously completed two SDW50 runs comfortably under 10 hours, but it had been a long time since my last ultra, so realistically was looking for a time around 11hrs. The guys were all looking at around 8hrs, so I was definitely running this one on my own.
I had a simple nutrition strategy of Maurten gels and Maurten drink, coupled with anti-acids and salt sticks. The ultra workshop has stressed the importance of aid station management. I planned a maximum of 2-3 minutes in each.
Ensuring bottles are ready to fill as you approach each aid station, having an idea what food you want, grabbing food and eating on the go, was the plan. I also followed another important tip from the workshop, to run “on feel” and not to chase any specific times or splits. I followed the plan and couldn’t believe it when I finished, feeling very comfortable in a time of 9hrs 52mins
Race#2 NDW50 19th May 2022
The NDW50 follows the North Downs Way national trail from Farnham in Surrey to Knockholt Pound in Kent. It has great views over the Surrey and Kent countryside for most its length and includes the famous Stepping Stones river crossing and Box Hill Steps. Compared to SDW50, its trails are mostly under the cover of trees, and its ascents are generally ‘sharper’.
Complacency definitely crept in as I approached the NDW50. I thought with my SDW50 time, NDW50 shouldn’t cause too many issues. I had run the event 3 times previously, generally just over the 10hr mark.
Leading up to the event, I had started to develop strange pains on the inside and tops of my left ankle, and my long term achilles tendonitis in my right heel, was back with a vengeance. The left knee always hurt, but nothing a bit of tape couldn’t sort out. To add insult to injury, I also been diagnosed with both Inguinal and umbilical hernias. I was offered surgery on both but was advised it would mean at least an 8 week recuperation period, so I decided to delay that until the end of the year.
Remember ALL excuses are lies
I was joined on the start line by fellow South London Harriers runners Aga and Donna.
I used the same race plan as SDW50, but started limping after only 3 miles, with pains in both ankles. I knew these were tendon related, and that the pain should ease. But then the temperature started to rise, and this is one thing I have never been able to control. As the mercury rose, so my pace slowed. I had the opposite reaction to the SDW50 finish, looking up in horror at the clock showing 11hrs 12mins as I crossed the line.
Race #3 Chiltern Wonderland 17th September 2022
The CW50 is single loop around the very scenic Chiltern countryside. The most notable part of the course is the steep climb to the windmill that appeared in the original 1968 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film.
NDW50 had brought me back down to the reality of 2 years out of running, coupled with an aging body. Luckily for me Richard had agreed to run CW50 with me. The ankles and hernias were still giving me grief, so there had been no long training runs on the build-up.
I had previously run CW50 in 2018, and had fond memories of the scenic trail, and was certainly not disappointed this time around. It really is a stunner of a course. It’s always easier running with someone else, and our only plan for the day was “start together, finish together“. We both just wanted to finish and enjoy the day. The weather was great and with a finish time of 10hrs 36mins I was delighted
The London Marathon and “Delhi Belly“
Immediately after CW50 I had a 2-week fishing holiday in India. I flew back on the Friday night with a nasty stomach bug. The London Marathon was taking place on the Sunday, and as I was running for charity, knew I couldn’t back out.
I was also committed to running the event in a full Darth Vader suit, complete with mask and lightsabre. Luckily the Imodium did its job, and I managed to finish without any “leakage”. I was interviewed at the end by the BBC and got my 15 minutes of fame by appearing on the news that night. Only real downside was I was forced to pull out of the planned Autumn 100, as I simply was in no fit shape to run a 100 miler.
Race#4 Wendover Woods 12th November 2022
The WW50 is a series of 5 x 10 mile loops set in Wendover Woods. At the end of each loop you arrive back at the start, where you have access to a drop bag and food/drinks station.
I approached WW50 with some trepidation. I had previously run 1 loop with Drew Sheffield, who had designed the course. Anyone who has ever meet Drew, will know what a lovely guy he is. But this course definitely showed he has a sadistic streak to his nature. The course is set in a deep wooded valley and continually rises and falls. The ascents are brutal, with over 10000ft/3050m of elevation. Looking at “mid pack” runner times from previous years, I was looking at a finish time around 12 1/2 hours.
For a mid-November day in the UK, the weather was about as good as it gets. Temperatures around 14C and no rain forecast. Headtorches would be required in the woods from about 15:00. I was running this one solo again, which I wasn’t relishing, but halfway into the first lap I caught up with friend and fellow Run Talk Run leader Ben Grey
Ben was also completing the 50 GRAND SLAM this year, so we both had the motivation to get the job done. We finished the 1st lap together in just over 2 hours, and both seemed in a good place. We then finished the 2nd lap and still had plenty to chat about, so decided to keep the partnership in place.
It was at the start of the 3rd loop we both started to question our own sanity. The hilly sections in the last 3 miles of each loop were taking their toll, and the thought of doing another 2 loops was far from appealing. But we both had our eyes on the prize, and there was no way we were going to stop. We were hearing reports of high dropout rates, and I believe in the end, out of 270 starters, over 70 runners had ended their day early.
Ben was constantly reminding me of the need to keep the fluids and nutrition going in and was managing well on his 2 gels an hour strategy. But as we headed out into the woods for loop 4, my stomach had had more than enough of sickly gels. I was feeling increasingly nauseous and was struggling to even drink water. I have run enough endurance events to know I needed to get the calories in, but I literally couldn’t stomach anything. I nibbled on the odd marmite wrap and sipped on cups of coke, but that was it.
So, for the last 20 miles it was a ‘nil by mouth‘ strategy. Energy levels continued to dip, and I was feeling very lightheaded, but with Ben’s constant encouragement, I managed to drag myself up each of those b@stard climbs, over those toe-breaking sections of tree roots, and down steep ‘fall on your arse’ grassy hills.
Finally, we were on lap 5 ! As we completed each of the sections for the last time, we bade them a fond farewell will a string of expletives: “Go F@ck yourself Gruffalo”, “Piss off Root Canal”, “Sod-Off Snake”, etc etc.
And then the last climb out the woods, over the style for final time, and onto our rather poor impression of a sprint finish to the line.
After 13 1/2 hours we finally finished. Ben was still talking, I wasn’t, I was proper done in! Man-hugs all round, then the bit I visualised since that 1st event on the SDW back in April, getting my hands on that HUGE medal.
Mission Accomplished !
The Lessons Learnt
Nutrition for these events needs to be further refined. I still haven’t come up with a strategy that works for me. It’s a key part of endurance events, so back to the drawing board for me
If you can find like-minded people like Richard and Ben (even Jamie if thing get really bad) run with, these events are so much more achievable and enjoyable, especially in the “death march” stage of the race
Aid station management can make a huge difference to finish times. Don’t faff, get in and get out (thanking the lovely volunteers before you go)
Running poles could be of great benefit, especially on trails like Wendover. They are on my Xmas list, hint, hint.
Avoid India immediately before important races
Find an event and race organisers that understand the sport and care for their runners. Centurion Running are right up there with the best. Everyone from their staff, their volunteers and their runners are so supportive. Their events are impeccably organised, and although I was cursing those woods at the end, all their courses are amazing places to run.
The Next STEPS
To finish my 15 runs for Prostate Cancer UK, I have the Canary Trail Events Copthorne 50K end November, followed by the Valancia Marathon a week later.
In 2023 I will be “transitioning” to VM60 category (I know I don’t look old enough, but it’s true). Races in the diary so far include: –
Hundred Hills 50K, SDW50, NDW50, SDW100 and the one I am most excited about, the Laugavegar Ultra in Iceland in July.
PS Still deliberating a return to Wendover Woods, but I think enough time has passed now, to signed up again!
THE IMPORTANT MESSAGE
Men over 50, contact your GP now to arrange a simple PSA blood test to help detect signs of Prostate Cancer. Caught early its very treatable.
It could save your life !!
The Useful Links
Centurion Running – Ultra marathon organiser based in the South of England
Run Talk Run – A great charity to help people improve mental/physical health through exercise. Free weekly 5Km social runs led by great guys like Ben and I!
My JustGiving Page – Details of the 15 events, any donations gratefully received
Canary Trail Events – Specialise in trail running events in the Surrey Hills
Prostate Cancer UK – Do a fantastic job supporting men inflicted with prostate cancer and raise funds to further research in tackling the disease
Photographs mostly courtesy of Stuart March Photography