The North Downs Way 50, mk II. How not to run 50 miles.

In a grump mid-race I decided I wasn’t going to write about the North Downs Way 50 this year. It wasn’t going to plan, I saw no reason to remember it or to prolong the suffering. On reflection my run writing has always been about preserving my memories & there are definitely things from this race I want to remember, so here we go…

I’m sitting here a few days later, wearing the t-shirt, the massive shiny medal in front of me, looking at the happy, smiley, official race photos telling myself it was a good day, it wasn’t that bad, was it?

No, really, it was.

How do I start?

The pessimistic mind looks on this race as a failure. In short, I crashed, I burnt, I missed all my targets, I hated almost every one of the 689 minutes out on the North Downs, the trail I call my happy place. I had a bad day, a bad race, there were black moments & long periods when I didn’t think I would finish.

The optimist in me says it wasn’t a failure. I did finish & I don’t think something can be classed as a failure if you learn from it. And I’ve learnt. Oh, I’ve learnt! I made mistakes & I hold my hands up high to them.

Things weren’t right from the start, perhaps from before the start.

I wasn’t prepared for this race. Yes I had done the training. An awful lot of training. I had my kit, I had tested everything, I knew what I was wearing & carrying & I even had a race day plan. But there was one element I hadn’t prepared & it cost me dearly. I hadn’t prepared my mind. I mentally was not ready for this race. And I knew it.

From my very first step into ultra running, experienced endurance runners have told me that the ultra game is as much about mental strength as it is physical strength. I learnt that in small part at last years NDW50 when my mind carried my legs for the last 20 miles. I learnt this the hard way on Saturday.

Sitting over coffee with the (non-running) husband the day before the race he asked me how I was feeling & I said then I didn’t feel ready. Travelling to Farnham on Friday afternoon & hearing the excited chatter of two other runners on the train, I got caught up in their enthusiasm but I wasn’t there. It’s hard to explain, but it didn’t feel real, I couldn’t visualise the race like I usually do & I just didn’t actually feel like running. I said all the right words, I claimed to be excited, ready & eager to get going but there was no feeling behind the words. The thought of 50 miles the next day felt like an effort, it simply didn’t seem possible.

On the morning of the race, it was hard to not get caught up in the excitement & adrenaline at the start line. I really do love Centurion Races, they are seamlessly organised & fantastic events. Being my third race as a runner, plus two as a volunteer, it was lovely to see so many friends & familiar faces at the start & out on route, running, volunteering & supporting.

I thought back to the previous year when I walked into the same school hall as a complete beginner (not that I am now an expert by any means) knowing only a handful of people, my fellow Striders & a couple of names from twitter. Today I was surrounded by people I knew, it really does feel like a mini Centurion family!

At the trail head © Stuart Marsh

8am, the race started, I was there, I was doing it. I went through the motions & eased into the first few miles chatting to those around me. The first mile ticked over, the second, third, I felt ok. At the back of my mind I wondered if I had set off a little quickly. My second mistake.

Those early, busy, miles before the field spreads out are always good fun. Surrounded by others there’s chat, laughter & the air of anticipation. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I knew the route, I knew what was coming up. By running, I was doing EXACTLY what I loved. It was going to be a great day…

On the way to Puttenham

So what happened?

I didn’t dramatically fall over, I didn’t run into a tree or trip over my own feet. Simply, the race didn’t gel, different parts of the puzzle didn’t fit together. I wonder if I’d been mentally prepared for it whether I could have overcome one missing part, but when your head’s not in the game one ill-fitting part soon becomes two, then three.

I wasn’t mentally prepared, I started slightly too quick, I got my fuelling wrong.

Last year I started eating three miles in & kept on eating every couple of miles from then on. I nailed my fuelling never once running out of energy. Saturday, three miles came & went & I didn’t eat. I told myself I’d had an extra banana at breakfast, that I was ok. That was a mistake. It was six miles before I had my first peanut butter & jam sandwich & then I only ate half of it. Food became an issue for the rest of the race, I just did not want to eat.

And then there’s the accidental. About five miles in I slightly turned my ankle. I have a weak spot on my right side from a sprain a few years ago. I thought nothing of it at the time but it would come back to haunt me later on. I carried on, running, chatting, taking photos, enjoying the sunshine. We hit the first check point just past the village of Puttenham. I drank some water, didn’t eat, smiled for Stuart’s camera, all was good.

Stealing the limelight… © Stuart Marsh

By 10 miles my legs were feeling heavy. That wasn’t right. Ten miles is a short, ‘easy’ run. The first fleeting dark thought of how the f**k am I going to do another 40 miles crossed my mind. I ate a sandwich. Peanut butter always cheers me up.

Into Guildford & across the River Wey, we passed the famous ‘Bacon Barge’ this year with vegan options, (although tbh samosa’s mid-race did not appeal). Running through Chantry Wood I lost Chris, the last of the group I’d started with, Dan having already pulled ahead three or four miles earlier & Paul dropped back. I was now flying solo.

The view from St Martha’s

Up towards St Martha’s Church, I paused for the obligatory photo, the view somewhat clearer than 12 months ago. I made a mental note to try & remember to take in the views, something I’d failed at on the South Downs six weeks earlier.

Those hands are in the air again! © Stuart Marsh

And then onto CP 2. I always enjoy the run up into Newlands Corner. A decent runnable section with spectacular views over the Surrey countryside. Temperatures were heating up & it was beginning to get warm; blonde hair, blue eyes, I don’t generally fair well in sunshine & heat!

CP2. I’d eaten three of my four sandwiches so picked up another four for the journey to Box Hill. Three of those sandwiches now sit in my bin at home… you can begin to see where this is heading. I drank some coke, ate some watermelon, I saw Chris & Dan leave the CP, wanting company I thought about catching up with them, but perhaps my only sensible decision of the day was that this now had to be my own race, so I let them go on.

I knew by this now that I was not in a good place. The enjoyment of the first few miles had gone, 14 miles in & this was hard. Newlands Corner down to CP3 at the bottom of Box Hill is one of the easier sections. Along sheltered woodland trails, it’s fairly flat with a good even surface underfoot. Shaded from the late morning sun it could have, & should have, been a good run. I couldn’t get into a rhythm, every step felt laboured. I was hot in the shade, the heat of the day was getting to me. My ankle was beginning to ache. I tried eating another sandwich. I stopped. I stood still. I thought I don’t want to do this. I walked. Two, three, four, five other runners past me. Eight, ten… Everyone looked so strong, they were running, why couldn’t I?

Even a selfie didn’t cheer me up!

Ranmore Common to Denbies. We were now on home ground. This is my playground. These are my trails. I knew the decent into Box Hill was an ‘easy’ run. I made myself run it, chatting to another Dan from the top to the bottom. Round & across the A24 & I was at CP3. I topped up my Tailwind. Drank some coke. I may have eaten some watermelon, I can’t remember. I looked at the food. My stomach turned. I stood aimlessly for two, three, four minutes. I knew I needed to eat, I knew I needed to move. I couldn’t do either.

I eventually started a slow walk to the stepping stones crossing the River Mole. I was filled with dread. I wasn’t even half way. I smiled again for the camera. I look happy in the photos. I’m not. A hug & words of encouragement from Stuart the photographer on other side.

© Stuart Marsh

I started up the 280+ steps to the top of Box Hill. My ankle ached. This wasn’t good. I didn’t want to do this anymore. This wasn’t fun. Those black thoughts, if I can get to the CP at Reigate I’ll stop. I reached the top of Box Hill with none of the joy that it usually brings. I took the obligatory photo but I don’t remember seeing the view. 

I know the Box Hill to Caterham section like the back of my hand. I’ve run it in every season & all conditions, seven miles of fairly technical trail, I know every turn, every climb, where the cows hang out & where all the good viewpoints are. I could run it with my eyes closed. Only today I couldn’t run it. My legs wouldn’t work, I’d jog a small section & have to stop. Descents I usually fly down, so sure of my footing, I stumbled down. Every now & again I would land awkwardly on my right foot & wince with pain. Again I stopped & stood as other runners past me, looking so sure & confident. I don’t do emotion particularly well, I was hot, bothered, fed-up & I wanted to cry.

I’ll stop at the next CP.

There’s no shame in stopping.

31 miles is still a good distance.

But I want my medal.

And my t-shirt.

Oh, and my house keys are in my bag at the finish line…

Run, walk, stumble, stop, swear & repeat. I didn’t take any photos, that tells you how bad I was feeling.

We get to Colley Hill, I’m prepared. I know it’s a bitch. I meet Carl. I’m in such a bad mood when he asks how I’m doing I tell him exactly how I am doing (sorry Carl!). I tell him I’m dropping at Reigate Hill. We talk. Running, races, the stuff runners talk about. He tells me about a friend of his who walked 50 miles of an 80 miles fell race with a dodgy knee because he wanted to finish (I may just have made up those distances, it was a very long way…). He told me not to drop, said I’d regret it if I did. Told me I had plenty of time to get to the finish, I could walk it if I needed.

At the top of Colley Hill he pushed on. I started doing the mental maths. At 4:22 I’d arrived at Box Hill in good time, 20 minute miles would get me to the finish, I could do that, couldn’t I?

I could, but actually did I want to? At this point the answer was no. I simply could not visualise doing those 20 miles. I’d just climbed the biggest hills in the race but those remaining 20 miles seemed like a insurmountable mountain. There was a deep, deep dread inside me. Just a mile to the CP, I was going to stop.

I ran, slowly, into CP 4 at Reigate. The mile of flat, even paths in the run up had been kind to my ankle, it didn’t hurt. Phil Bradburn saw me coming in. We’ve had many a conversation on social media about the virtues of an orange Calippo mid-run on a hot day, he asked if I wanted a Calippo. My face lit up. Did I want a Calippo? YES PLEASE! Phil, I owe you one, the BEST thing ever! I couldn’t possibly drop now I’d got a Calippo… That & Louise Ayling, the CP manager who I know from my Centurion volunteering stints, wouldn’t let me drop! So after some more watermelon off I trotted… I still hadn’t eaten though. I’m not sure if orange ice lollies & watermelon count as food when you’re running 50 miles.

Back onto the familiar paths. Sometimes it’s good to know the route the race is taking, sometimes it isn’t. Knowing what was coming up, in my mind, every small incline was a mountain, every tree root & uneven surface an obstacle to climb. 20 miles still seemed an impossibility. But somehow I kept moving forward. I simply have no idea how. Was it here my mind took over, was it here that the stubbornness refused to be beaten?

There are no stories going into Caterham, CP5. I don’t remember getting there. My feet know the well trodden paths well, are my memories of the trail from Saturday or from other runs? Did I pass anyone? Did anyone pass me? I don’t know. All I knew was a friend was at Caterham, coincidentally the friend whose own ultra adventures had sparked that first glimmer of interest in my eyes, she’d know what to do, she’d make it all alright.

And she did, a hug, words of encouragement & reminding me of how well I’d done on the South Downs, reminding me that I can do it. She also helpfully told me that the only way I was stopping was if I was carried off in the back of the parked up ambulance…

And off I went. 12 ‘Centurion miles’ to go.

Coming into the woodland around Woldringham the bluebells, so abundant, colourful & vibrant just two short weeks ago had all but disappeared, the ground now covered in a carpet of wild garlic, it’s scent lingering in the air. I ate half a banana & was managing to keep a slow jog.

41 miles, Oxted Downs & I hear my name being called. Nikki & Sophia from Striders & Nikki’s three year old daughter Libby cheering me on. Friendly faces, smiles, conversation, a hug, a gift of an ice lolly from another runners crew (I have no idea who, but THANK YOU!) a massive boost when I needed it. Next stop, the final CP at Botley Hill & then the home stretch.

I still wasn’t happy but I now knew I would finish, it was coming up to 5pm, I had just over ten miles to go, Ten miles in four hours, 2.5 miles an hour. I could definitely do that.

Round the fields, a mile or so on the Vanguard Way & the final big climb. Botley Hill & the last CP. At the top, Martin, a fellow Strider out to support the team, waiting with a veggie pizza, sadly not even that could tempt me to eat!

After Botley Hill I didn’t see another runner for three or four miles. After being surrounded by others for so long this felt a little disconcerting. Alone I put on some music & had a little sing along. I didn’t have headphones so the local wildlife was treated to my slightly questionable musical choices. I often use music to get me through tough runs, I wonder if it would have helped if I’d had tunes in my ears in the earlier miles?

The miles ticked on by. I don’t remember them. Six to go, five, four. A parkrun… The final field. I could see the finish line. I knew it was still a mile to go. I walked that mile. I knew I’d done it, my legs just simply had no energy left in them to run.

I turned the corner, the finishing straight, my walk became a jog. I could hear cheers, my grumpy face started to smile, I crossed the finish line, the one that I didn’t think I would get to.

A bittersweet 11:29.

© Stuart Marsh

I had three goals ahead of race day; did I enjoy it? No, not in the slightest & this makes me sad. I LOVE running, I LOVE the North Downs. I hated today.

Did I beat last years time? No, I was eight minutes slower. It was my slowest 50 miler to date. But after the way the race panned out, the demons I battled, I am as proud of that 11:29 as I am my fastest time.

Did I finish with a smile? Yes, because simply getting to that finish line was a victory that deserved a smile!

There were two unavoidable elements, the rest of my struggles were a little self inflected. I struggled in the heat, I had no control over the weather & there wasn’t much I could do about turning my ankle (three days post, it’s fine by the way, as I knew from past experience it would be).

I started off by saying that I don’t think anything can be classed as a failure if you learn from it. What have I learnt?

  • 60 miles two weeks before race day, no matter how unintentional, does not a taper make & no amount of foam rolling can roll these miles away. I went into the race with tired, heavy legs. It’s little surprise that they started complaining after less than ten miles.
  • I can protest, I can say the splits aren’t too bad. I started too fast. Again. I need to remember it’s my own race, no one else’s & not to get caught up in the start line excitement.
  • With the exception of a few pieces of fruit (hardly calorific) & drinking Tailwind I didn’t eat after 20 miles. The fact that I got to the end with so little fuel is a miracle (& perhaps shows that my fasted training runs were beneficial). This is the second race I’ve had difficulty with fuelling, should I just have forced food down? Maybe. Fuelling is obviously something I need to work on.
  • And by far the biggest learning, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the race. I simply hadn’t thought about it. If your head’s not in the game, it’s impossible to play well.

Sometimes it’s just not our day. NDW50 2018 may not have been mine but however good or bad a day is the North Downs never disappoints. When I remembered to look up from watching my feet on the trails I was rewarded with some spectacular views.

North Downs, I’m not done. I’ll be back, I have some wrongs to right.

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3 thoughts on “The North Downs Way 50, mk II. How not to run 50 miles.

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