NDW50 Wk 26: The North Downs Way 50, 13th May 2017

51 miles, 11:21:02, 13:21 min/mile, 5,600 ft elevation gain

Nine months after I entered on a bit of a whim, six months after I started training & we are finally here. Race Day.

I am nervous, so nervous. I have butterflies in my tummy. I am scared. I repeat to myself a phrase a friend said to me. It becomes my race mantra.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

MY body will achieve what MY mind believes.

As I was running, & to occupy my mind at times it needed distracting, I was wondering how to write my race review, trying to compose & remember sentences in my mind (failed on that one, I can’t remember a single word!). How to make it interesting, how to avoid it being ‘just another race review of the NDW50’.

But, I’m not writing this for anyone else. If somebody reads it, great, but this whole blog has been for *me*, a diary of *my* adventure. I’m not a writer as such, I’ve been writing over the past six months for myself, to record my journey, my memories & as something I can look back on in weeks, months & years to come. The story of my first ultra.

So, this is my race. This is my North Downs Way 50.

Nervous, I arrived far too early, passed kit check, collected my race number & ate breakfast. Watching, looking, observing. I saw both Myles & Mark, the two other Striders running. Bumped into various people from Twitter & said hello to Stuart, the photographer (obvs!).

Pre-race briefing © Stuart Marsh Photography

Race briefing, stomach turning somersaults. I don’t remember much of what was said. We walked to the start line. A quick selfie & we started.

The first few miles busy & congested. My plan at this stage was simple, slow & steady, if it felt slow, go slower, aiming for an average pace of 11 min/mile up to the first check point 6.8 miles in.

The early miles flew by. I was trying to take in all in, remember the route, the people, how I was feeling but in the excitement it all seems a bit of a blur. I was consciously holding back, I wanted to go faster but was paying attention to all the pre-race advise I’d been given by experienced ultra runners.

Three miles in I cracked open the race picnic & chomped down on peanut butter & jam sandwich number one of the day. This would become my fuel of choice throughout the race, I probably ate about 20 PB&J sandwiches over the 50 miles. In my inexperience I think I pretty much got my fuelling spot on, basically eating, whether I wanted to or not, every two miles. I never once felt low on energy.

Through the small village at Putterham before arriving at check point one a little ahead of schedule. I was feeling good. I knew it was early, I knew I shouldn’t get carried away but I was running well, pacing well & had enjoyed the first seven miles. I topped up my Tailwind & carried on running.

There was quite a group of us running together at this stage, we’d chat, someone would pull away, ease of, catch up, it was all quite fluid. I chatted with Myles from Striders, Chris who I’d met on Twitter, a lady who was doing all EIGHT of Centurian’s races this year & numerous other people whose faces & running stories I remember but names I forget.

Running miles with Myles!

Woodland trails, fields & roads, the route vaguely familiar from my recce run a few months earlier.

At the crossing of the River Wey just outside Guildford was the Bacon Barge, two guys who voluntarily set up an unofficial ‘bacon’ aid station every year, this year dressed as sumo wrestlers. A little bit of online banter pre-race hadn’t resulted in any facon for us vegetarians but there were some very welcome potato wedges & a lifting of spirits as we all smiled & laughed as we ran through.

I enjoyed the next section through Chantry Wood. I think undulating woodland trails are my favourite!

Running up to the Church at the top of St Martha’s Hill we hit 12.5 miles. A quarter of the way through. It felt as if the miles were flying by.

The view at the top is spectacular. I am going to be writing that phrase a lot, one, because there were a lot of hills & two, because they all had spectacular views at the top! I paused, took a quick photo & carried on. I almost wish I’d paused a little longer to really take it in.

People may wonder why I took so many photos. It’s what I do. I was told to enjoy the race. To me that is stopping, taking in the views & capturing the experience on ‘film’. I want those visual reminders, I want those photos to look back on & remember that time I ran 50 miles. I look at photos & I’m reminded of the feelings & emotions that I had as I was taking them. I remember the people I was with, the conversations I was having, the sights, sounds & smells. To me, a photograph is a powerful memory.

There was a steep decent, I flew! One of those moments I ignored my pacing plan & just let gravity take me down the hill jumping tree roots & branches as I ran. I was smiling, happy & loving it!

A few more miles took us to the second checkpoint. I arrived 15 minutes ahead of my schedule. In my inexperience at this stage I didn’t know whether that was a good or bad thing. My bag was starting to rub my back so I stopped to put some vaseline on it. Topped up my Tailwind again, used my mandatory cup for the first time & tried some coke (not really a fan). Ate what felt like half a watermelon (so good) & filled a bag with some more PB&J sandwiches for the journey – it was nearly ten miles till the next check point.

Still 15 minutes ahead of schedule Myles & I left the second check point together. Up until this point they’d been group of about ten of us running pretty much together but it wasn’t long after this that we all began to separate, conscious of our individual race goals & plans. I pulled away from Myles about 16 miles in & then didn’t see him again until the finish.

I ran most of the rest of the race alone. In some ways this bothered me, there were times when I couldn’t see another runner, other times when I’d be running in a silent companionship alongside someone until one of us pulled away or dropped back. Some conversations. A lot of silence. 18 or so miles in & my legs were beginning to ache. Not hurt, just ache, but I was still feeling strong. Still smiling.

I kept shovelling in PB&J sandwiches & soon was at Denbies Vineyard. This was the start of the section I knew well. I love the decent through Denbies. After a few photos & knowing what was to come in a  few miles I allowed myself a mile of speed as I cruised down the hill. Mile 24 I did my one & only sub-10 minute mile!

The familiar views across the vineyards

I made it to the Box Hill check point in 04:36:26, still 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I’d been told that if you get to Box Hill in under five hours, you’ve got enough time to finish within cut-off. I was now pleased that I was a little ahead of target. Knowing I had just over eight hours to cover the second half psychologically had a huge impact on me. I knew I’d finish. Even if I had to walk some of it as I left Box Hill I felt strong & I knew I would get to that finish line. That gave me a huge mental boost right when I needed it.

© Stuart Marsh Photography

Papping the race photographer!

I filled up with water, more Tailwind, PB&J sandwiches & some amazing banana & chocolate cake & headed off for what I thought would be the toughest section of the whole run. I crossed the stepping stones, pausing to smile for Stuart the race photographer, had a few quick words of encouragement from him on the other side & started on the steps up to the top of Box Hill. I was prepared, I knew they were coming, it doesn’t make them any easier!


It began to rain a little, a light drizzle. It didn’t last long & barely cooled me down. Not long after Box Hill my knee started hurting. It always does at some point & I was pleased it had lasted over 25 miles. Looking back I think this was the longest I have run without any knee pain for, well, as long as I can remember. At Thames Meander Marathon in March it started hurting six miles in, at Brighton in April at about 14. I knew I could run it off but it did make for a fairly uncomfortable couple of miles along some quite uneven & technical trails.

It was also here that my Garmin clicked over 26.2 miles. I had now officially run further than I had ever run before. What ever happened for the rest of the race I had a new distance PB!

At the base of the next hill section I was running in a spread out group of about five other runners. As we turned a corner to be greeted by six or seven cows standing in front of the gate we needed to go through I was very glad I wasn’t alone! I was brave. I walked on through. I even tried to take a selfie with one but she seemed more interested in the sandwiches that were in my bag than in posing with me!

I had a tricky mile here. It almost felt as if I was loosing focus. I stumbled a number of times along a particularly uneven & rutted track, at one point almost falling into a fence, another going over on my ankle. There was no lasting damage but I was getting frustrated with myself. I swore a few times. Repeating my race mantra to myself, ‘The body achieves what the mind believes’ I paused, took a few photos & refocused. A minor blip but things were beginning to get tougher.

Reigate Fort, reward for the big climb!

The next significant milestone was the climb to the top of Reigate Hill. It’s a beast. But like Box Hill I knew it was coming, I didn’t let it bother me, I walked, as I had on all the hills right from the start & before I knew it I was at the top & on the fairly flat section along to Reigate Viewpoint, where I knew the next check point was & the friendly face of Amy who was volunteering. I’d met Amy on the head torch run on Wimbledon Common back in December & we’d stayed in touch on Twitter & Instagram. By now my legs were really sore. It was tough. My head wanted to run, my feet wanted to walk. I was trying to stop my mind focusing on the 19 miles still left & instead focus on the fact that I had already run over 30 miles. I was more than 3/5 of the way through!

This aid station came at exactly the right moment. The highlight though was not food & drink but getting to wash my hands! Covered in sticky drinks, the juice from watermelon, jam, peanut butter & who knows what else after six & a half hours of running they were feeling pretty gross. Water & soap felt pretty damn good!

From here on in my mind took over. The body achieves what the mind believes.

My feet & legs were done with running, they hurt. My mind though wasn’t giving up. Up to this point I’d walked the hills but pretty much run most of the rest of it. I now adopted a run/walk approach. And I was fine with that. I’ve always had a bit of a thing about run/walking. I feel as if by walking I’m cheating myself but one of the things that this ultra training has taught me is that walking is ok. I ran when I could, I walked when I needed.

From Reigate right through to the next check point at Caterham I was alone, bar about 250 metres in Merstham. But I knew this section well, I focused on my race & on getting to the next check point. At Caterham there was only 12 miles to go & that was practically the end.

I crossed the A23 & was about to turn down Rickshaw Road, a really boring road section that’s monotonous & I don’t like, when I heard a frantic beeping of a car horn. I turned, & Claire, who I know from Twitter & who I’ve met at a couple of races & parkrun, just happened to be driving down the A23 as I crossed it. It was SO good to see her (she probably doesn’t realise how good!) & such a random coincidence. I stopped for a brief chat before heading off with a smile on my face. At the other end of Rickshaw Road, just before we turn off & back onto trails  was Karim, a Strider who I only know a little, with a bag of veggie Percy Pigs! He’d come out to see & support Myles & I & I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

Looking up, looking down Mersham Hill

Mersham Hill. I was going to reward myself with another PB&J sandwich at the top. Whoop whoop! I’d been charging my Garmin since Reigate, I decided/hoped 40% battery would get me to the end (very nearly, not quite). I don’t remember a lot about this section, my focus was purely on moving forwards.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

I was going to finish. I could do it.

Caterham Viewpoint. The sun was shining. It was glorious. The obligatory photo. I’ve lost track of how many photos I’ve taken of this view. So many, but each one different & each one with a different story to tell. More Tailwind, more watermelon (still so good) & more sandwiches, although at this point I really was not wanting to eat. I knew how important it was, so I made myself.

I set off again with another girl, Claire. She’d run the previous year & finished in 12 hours 50 something minutes. We pretty much kept each other in sight for the next six or so miles, chatting occasionally. Company came at the right time.

40 miles in I phoned the husband to tell him I hurt! I had ten miles to go. The bluebells that were so beautiful just two weeks earlier were dying off, but the wild garlic still grew in abundance, the woods still beautiful in the now late afternoon sun. The views continued to be spectacular, the slightly moody skies of the morning miles now replaced by vivid blue & white fluffy clouds. No matter how much I hurt, this made it all worthwhile.

The last hill up to the last check point. 43ish miles. Claire & I chatted & walked. I stocked up on enough to see me to the end, pausing to say hello to Keith, a Strider who was volunteering, before heading off with a couple of others on the home straight. 10k to go. That’s an easy morning run. I felt ready & able. My body was sore but my mind was still strong.

Woodland, fields, blue skies. A road section that Martin & I flew down a couple of weeks ago, today, not quite so fast. The wonderful yellow of the rapeseed fields. I’d been waiting miles for this splash of colour, not remembering how far along they were. I stopped, looked admired, smiled & photographed. 47 miles. Three to go. A parkrun to go.

Cows, more cows. Now alone I had no choice but to walk through them.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

Fields, more fields. Dry, hard & rutted, it’s not easy to run.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

My Garmin beeps for 50 miles. We’d been told in the race briefing that the race was ‘roughly’ 50 miles. I am not at the finish.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

Another field. I look over, I can see the finish gantry. I know it’s a mile away & that I have to run round the field.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

I run. My Garmin battery dies. Leaving the field the last section is road. I walk. I breathe. I am nearly there. I want to make sure I can run the finish straight.

Into Knockholt Pound. The village sign where I stopped on my recce run two weeks earlier.

The body achieves what the mind believes.

I turn left. 100 meters to go. I run. I smile. I finish. I am an ultra runner.

The body achieved what the mind believed.

Smiling across the finish line © Stuart Marsh Photography

Is this the end of my story or the beginning of a new one?

I’m writing this 48 hours later. I’ve had my post-race massage, my legs feel great though I have promised them at least a week of complete rest. They did me proud.

I need some time to reflect, not just on the race it’s self but on the last six months. Whilst training for this ultra I have learnt so much, not just about running. But this adventure was never just about running.

I learnt about mental strength. I learnt that I can do it. A mind that often doubts & wonders if it is good enough believed I could do it, and I did.

I ran 50 miles.

Week Twenty Six: 61 miles in total with 6,000 ft elevation gain.

Featured image © Stuart March Photography

4 thoughts on “NDW50 Wk 26: The North Downs Way 50, 13th May 2017

  1. Andy says:

    Really enjoyed the post. Congratulations on the finish (I know there are some big hills on that route!). I have my first ultra in June. Just wondering how you charged your garmin on the go (I’d like to do the same as it won’t last the distance!)

    • photogirlruns says:

      Hi Andy! Thanks for your reading my post! I used a portable USB battery charger like I use to charge my phone on the go. Not all Garmin’s will do it, my own 220 stops & looses your data if you try but I borrowed a friend’s 610 which will charge whilst you run & continue recording. Good luck with your ultra in June!

  2. Chris says:

    A great read, thanks for spending the time writing it.
    I really enjoy reading about people’s experiences of running an Ultra, your post really gets across the highs and lows and sense of adventure of it all. All those little random conversations and people you cross paths with on the way.
    I’ve run a couple of Ultras – but only spread over 2 days! (Race to the Stones and Race to the Tower). Blogs like this are good inspiration to tackle one in a day!

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