Friday 20th July 2018 I arrived at the finish line of the North Downs Way. Technically it’s not quite the finish line as although I have run Farnham to Dover in several stages, I still have to run the 33ish mile Canterbury loop. So it’s not quite the end.
But neither is this blog post the end of my journey.
In a few short days, my NDW story is going to take on another exciting twist as I stand on the start line of Centurion Running’s NDW100 race. 100 miles along the North Downs Way from Farnham in Surrey to Ashford in Kent.
With training complete & the focus very much on race day plans, it seems appropriate to reflect on my North Downs Way story so far.
Three years ago in February 2017, I stood at the trailhead to the North Downs Way in Farnham about to embark on a journey. On a cold, muddy winter’s day, my plan was to run about 20 miles along the trail. I had a map. I had a bag full of water & snacks. I had butterflies in my tummy.
I smile now at my nervousness. All I was doing was going for a run but in my mind, this wasn’t just any run, this was a BIG run.
And I was scared.
It was the first time I was heading off alone to explore a place I didn’t know. The first time I was relying on signposts & maps to get me to where I wanted to be. I’d left my comfort zone back in Croydon, I was trying something new & I didn’t know if I was capable of doing it.
I’d taken my first steps on the NDW seven months earlier when on a bit of a whim (you’ll see this is the start of a theme) I’d entered the North Downs Way Half Marathon organised by Hermes Running. All I knew was that the race was on ‘trails’. I’d had a few tentative off-road runs earlier that summer, but I didn’t own trail shoes. And to be honest, I didn’t actually know what the North Downs was, or even where they were, I just thought the race looked ‘fun’.
Sometimes the innocence of not knowing will take you somewhere magical & that day in July 2016 was the start of my journey along the North Downs Way.
But this isn’t simply a story about running the North Downs Way from the start in Farnham to the finish in Dover, it’s also an ongoing story about my journey as a runner & as a person.
Back to the half marathon. The race started, I shot off with the enthusiasm of someone who is used to running on flat roads. Since returning from long-term injury at the beginning of that year I’d been running well. I had a cocky confidence that was to become my downfall & I ran into the unknown like I’d never run before.
Uphills, downhills, along muddy tracks. I didn’t know that is was a good idea to take it easy on the hills so I tried running them (I don’t think I’ve ever tried running up Colley Hill since!). I staggered, stumbled, I somehow stayed upright. With a mile to go, I had 4th lady in sight. I sprinted faster than I’d ever sprinted before overtaking her not far from the finish line. I came in with a massive grin on my face having just had the best run of my life.
I also finished injured. I’d started with a niggle, I’d pushed too hard. I didn’t run again for the next three months.
That was the summer of 2016.
I nearly broke that summer. My first business was taking off & I was so busy I didn’t know which way to turn. I went ten weeks without taking a day off, tears of tiredness & frustration were a near-daily occurrence & injury had taken away my coping mechanism. I couldn’t lace up my trainers & head out for a few miles to pound away the stress.
When I run, I am free. My worries & stresses abandoned. I can think, reflect, plan & prepare.
Cycling & swimming, whilst keeping me fit, weren’t the same. I didn’t get that rush of adrenaline, the sense of freedom, or the same euphoria. I spent hours lamenting my misfortune, berating myself for pushing too hard & breaking. I felt physically broken & also mentally broken.
The enforced break gave me the chance for reflection. I realised how much, in a relatively short space of time, I had grown not only to relish & rely on running but how much I was enjoying the simplicity of exploring new places.
I’d experienced some kind of magic out on the North Downs that July day & I wanted more of it. The roads of South Norwood & Croydon no longer held any appeal. I wasn’t missing trotting around the same Croydon road routes time & time again. I wasn’t missing 400m reps, trying to hit an arbitrary time in the mile time trial or even the Wednesday night club run.
I’d caught a fleeting glimpse of it & craved the adventure of the trails. The challenge, the freedom, the silence & the solitude.
Whilst I couldn’t ‘run’, I thought about running, I dreamt about running & one of the few things that kept me going during the dark moments of that summer was planning; planning for my return to running.
I hadn’t run for six weeks when one Saturday morning in August, on a whim, I entered the North Downs Way 50 in May 2017. I’ve told this story many a time. I decided I wanted a challenge, I wanted to do something different, I wanted to push myself, I wanted to see what I could do.
I was flipping scared though. From the moment I’d clicked the enter button, I started to doubt.
Doubt if I was capable.
Doubt if I was able.
Doubt if I could do it.
I told no one.
If I didn’t tell anyone what I was planning, I wouldn’t need to explain myself to anyone when I failed. Because that was my default mindset, failure. Perhaps that’s a good indication of my state of mind that summer.
September 2016 I was able to ease back into running.
I bought trail shoes, a race vest & a map of the North Downs. I googled, searched, read blogs, books, magazines & absorbed any information I could. I entered a couple of trail races, one of which went up Box Hill. I did some cross country. I drove to the viewpoint at Reigate & ran 6 miles one way along the NDW & 6 miles back. I didn’t get lost. A week later I did the same but ran 6 miles the other way & 6 miles back. I still didn’t get lost.
January & with two club mates I got the train to Dorking, I crossed the River Mole at the Stepping Stones & climbed Box Hill.
In those early days, I had no idea how steep Box Hill was or that Colley Hill was even worse. I tip-toed over tree roots & rocky terrain, holding onto nearby branches for dear life. Scared of stumbling & falling. I tried to find a way around the mud to avoid getting my feet dirty. I hesitated on the stepping stones over the river, fearful of ending up in the water below. I cut a run short when cows stood on the path.
So that February morning as I headed to Farnham I was scared. I was far from home. I was by myself. I had no safety net, no one else to rely on. I had yet to learn about gpx files & using tech to navigate & I was worried about getting lost. I was worried that I wouldn’t manage the distance & that I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way home.
But you know what, I did it.
I made it to Dorking. I ran 21 miles & then when I ran out of steam I walked the final four. I got lost. I also got myself ‘un-lost’. I didn’t see anyone else for miles on end. I slipped over. My knee hurt. I missed signposts & had to retrace my steps. But I made it home with a massive smile on my face.
This was what I wanted.
Training continued for the NDW50 & I carried on along the trail. Gradually the further I ran, the more confident I became on the trails. I let go of the branches & started jumping over the fallen trees & exposed roots. My feet danced around patches of mud more sure of my footing, I’d jump from stone to stone across the river, splash my way through muddy puddles & a steep descent became something I’d fly down.
I tripped over tree roots. I fell in the mud. I sprinted across fields to avoid the angry looking cows. I lost my shoe in a puddle & slid on my bum down a hill.
And I survived.
Race day in May 2017 came & went. I finished the 50 miles in Knockholt & I fell even deeper in love with trail running. In a few months on the North Downs Way, I had found my home, my place, my tribe.
A month or two after the race after a particularly busy & stressful working weekend (the life of a wedding photographer in the summer months) I got up early one Monday morning, jumped on the first train to Caterham & made my way back onto the North Downs. I retraced my steps to the finish line in Knockholt & then kept going.
I was on new ground, new territory. The nerves from all those months ago in Farnham had gone. I still hadn’t embraced tech but now I wasn’t worried about getting lost.
It was gloriously sunny. I plodded along at my own pace, my feet relishing the new paths & my eyes relishing the new views. Slowly the stress & tiredness from the working weekend disappeared. Completely alone in the depth of the countryside I was able to breathe again. This is what I’d missed the previous summer. The summer that I nearly broke. Time to myself, time to relax, refresh & recharge. The trails did that.
I made it to Wrotham, 60 miles along the trail. My North Downs journey was continuing.
Over the next twelve months I wandered further along the trail. Otford to Rochester with friends, Rochester to Hollingbourne solo. Hollingbourne to Wye with another friend, Wye to Dover solo. Each run a challenge, an adventure, a learning.
And then that day in July 2018 I arrived in Dover. I felt a huge sense of achievement for having made it, of having navigated, run & traveled 125 miles by foot. However although I stood on the ‘finish line’, I knew I hadn’t quite finished.
In 2018 I had every intention of finishing the trail off, of running the Canterbury loop back to Wye. Two years later, I still haven’t made it. I keep getting distracted.
Distracted by the South Downs, the Serpent Trail, the Greensand Way, the local to me Croydon Trails. Distracted by running my way around Surrey, Sussex & into Kent. Distracted by a newfound confidence, the freedom & the excitement of new challenges.
But it all goes back to the North Downs Way.
The further along the trail I ran, the more my love of the trails grew. Trail running became a part of me. I’d found something that I could do, something I enjoyed, something that brought me joy & gave me confidence. And dare I say it without sounding conceited, something I was good at.
I went further afield. I let go of the map. Took the right-hand path instead of the left. Ran up in the hill instead of the usual down. Climbed through a maze of brambles to find out where the overgrown path led.
My journey along the NDW is not just about running. It has in many ways, become a story about myself as my travels along the trail mirror my travels in life.
As my confidence on the trails increased, so has my confidence in life. Those doubts way back at the trailhead in Farnham could so easily have been doubts about my life;
Doubting if I was capable.
Doubting if I was able.
Doubting if I could do something.
As I’ve discovered the North Downs Way I’ve discovered myself. I’ve discovered what I can do, what I am capable of & how strong I am.
I learned that sometimes I may get lost & go the wrong way but this isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes by getting lost, I find a new path & a new view that is even more beautiful than the last. At other times I need to take some time, retrace my steps & find my original path. Feeling lost in life gives me the chance to change direction, to find my own new path.
I learned that occasionally (ok, when I’m running, frequently…!) I might fall over but the important people don’t laugh, they hold out a hand & help me back up. Sometimes I fall over in life too & I need to put my stubbornness & independence to one side to ask for help in getting back up.
I learned that when something is blocking my path, cows, for example, it is possible to carry on by finding another way. Sometimes there might be things in life that are stopping me moving forward. Similarly, I may need to find another way.
I learned that some days I simply may not be able to run. Or I might start & not finish. So I get up the next day & try again.
The day before the NDW50 in 2017 a friend tagged me in a motivational quote on Facebook. I usually ignore these but for some reason it struck a chord.
“Your body achieves what your mind believes”.
It was my race day mantra, right from the start, “MY body achieves what MY mind believes”. When things became tough, when I didn’t want to run anymore, I kept repeating it to myself. Believe & Achieve. I will get to the finish line.
And I did.
The phrase stayed with me after the race. A life mantra.
Nervous about giving a work presentation to 30+ business professionals? Deep breath. Believe & Achieve. Done.
A difficult shoot for a new client? Believe & Achieve. Done, done & done again.
Worried about walking into a room full of people I don’t know? Believe, achieve & done so many times I no longer worry.
Leading my first club run, a group of 30+ runners following me? Believe & Achieve. Done. Now not only do I lead club runs, but I also lead the leaders who lead the club runs.
Worried about giving the briefing to 120 runners as Run Director at parkrun? Believe & Achieve. Stand up there, shout & done.
Wondering if I’m skilled enough to start another new business? Believe & Achieve. Done. The girl who doubted is now an entrepreneur running two businesses.
For someone who has always had self-doubts, I found that one phase became a simple reminder that I can.
I can do it.
I started the North Downs Way full of doubt & along it I’ve learned that I am capable.
I’ve learnt to believe in myself.
Some four years after my first ventures off-road, I am now fully immersed in trail running. I own numerous pairs of trail shoes, various different sizes of trail pack. Fully tapered waterproof jackets & even waterproof trousers.
I’ve embraced tech & when I want to run somewhere new I plot a route online & upload it to my Garmin. I know parts of the North Downs, South Downs & Surrey Hills like the back of my hand. I no longer worry about getting lost or not knowing where I am. That’s just part of the adventure.
I purposely splash through the muddy puddles, hunt for elevation & throw myself down hills with childlike reckless enthusiasm. If a cow blocks my path I go over & say hello. I’m my happiest in my shorts & Hoka’s, sunglasses on my head, mud on my legs, bimbling around the trails with a peanut butter sandwich in one hand & a camera in my other.
I started the journey very much as a solo runner, I finished it running with others. I discovered the joy of sharing the trails with friends & so many people have become a part of this story.
Martin & Myles with whom shared my first venture over the famed stepping stones. My number one running buddy Helen who over three runs ran the first 54 miles from Farnham to Otford with me. Amy, Alan & Nigel who I joined for an 18-mile adventure from Otford to Rochester. Paul who I ran with from Hollingbourne to Wye. Dan who I had the privilege of pacing from Detling to Ashford as he ran the NDW100 in 2018. My Striders club mates who I drag onto the trail at any opportunity. And there have been many others.
I recently qualified as an England Athletics run leader & I’ve become passionate about sharing my love of trails with others. Over the past couple of summers, I’ve organised & led a series of trail runs for my Striders club mates.
Me, the girl who spent years hiding in the corner hoping no one would see her is now voluntarily standing at the front where all can see.
The North Downs did that. I found my home in more ways than one.
I was called an experienced trail runner the other day (by someone who IS an experienced trail runner) & this made me smile. I still remember that girl standing at the trailhead in Farnham who hadn’t got a clue what she was doing.
So here I am.
Days away from my second 100 miler, my 10th ultra-distance race. 2020 as a year has not gone to plan. I don’t need to say much more other than ‘Coronavirus’. In a few short weeks, I lost almost a year’s worth of work. Life turned upside down & I am constantly having to remind myself that I am still capable.
In 2016, the summer I couldn’t run. I learned that running was my coping mechanism. In 2020, the year I couldn’t work, I simply needed running. It was the one constant, the one thing I could rely on & the one thing that could take me away from watching the world crumble in front of me.
I had no work, but I had time. I have given everything in training for this race. I’ve run long. And longer still. I’ve run hills. And even more hills. I’ve recced the second half of the race. I ran a section at night to prepare for the overnight miles.
I’ve studied the route, looked at the elevation, bought & practiced using poles & learnt how to tie my trainers to stop them hurting when my feet swell.
But still I wonder if I’ve done enough? Those doubts never quite fully disappear.
I’m running to complete, not compete. But I want to run well. My goal is to enjoy the race. At SDW100 last year I broke. I walked the last 30 miles. I cried my way down the final hill. Those 30 miles took the shine off of the previous 70.
On the NDW I want to run strong, to run happy & to finish with a smile. To prove to myself once again how strong I am.
I still have the final 33-mile loop to run to say I’ve fully completed all 153 miles of the North Downs Way. I’ve been planning to do it ever since 2018.
I wonder if subconsciously I don’t want to finish this journey because my own mirrored story is not yet finished?
The North Downs Way has taught me that I can. It has taught me what I am capable of. It has given me a belief in myself.
Now, let’s go & run 100 miles on the trail I call home.
The North Downs Way 100 starts in Farnham between 5am & 7am on Saturday 8th August. It finishes at any time in the next 30 hours at Ashford in Kent. I will be wearing bib number 52 & you can follow the race here.