North Downs Way 100: The Race of my Life

My stomach turns in nervous anticipation as I see the sign ‘this way to the finish’. Turning into the stadium grounds I hear the excited buzz of the finish area. I hold myself back for a moment & take a deep breath. A few quiet words as I compose myself.

I’ve done it.

Through the gates & onto the track. Helen waving & cheering me on. As my feet hit the cushioned surface I don’t even think as I instinctively start to run faster. Along the back straight I move into lane one. Rounding the final corner, the finish gantry a mere 100 meters away. I break into a sprint as my smile widens. I’m trying to take it all in, to savour the moment. After 103+ miles, I am not simply running, but I am sprinting for that finish.

I cross the line, eyes closed in complete & utter exhilaration.

I had three goals for the North Downs Way; to enjoy it, to finish strong & run with a smile. I gave that race my everything. I cross the line knowing that I have just run the race of my life.

At this moment in time, there is no better feeling.

© Stuart March

I started planning for the NDW100 within days of last year’s SDW100. You know the one, the one that I finished & said never, ever, ever again… No one believed me. I didn’t even believe myself. But as race day drew nearer, NDW100 became more than simply putting the demons of the South Downs behind me. It became about survival.

For more than 16 weeks the North Downs Way has been my focus, my goal, the drive that has kept me going. 

You see, 2020 isn’t a normal year. 

On the 23rd March, as the government announced a nationwide lockdown to try & combat the coronavirus, my life outside of running stopped. Within weeks I lost nearly a years worth of work. When you specialise in photographing people & the directive is to avoid people… work is going to be impacted. I had shoot after shoot postponed & I felt myself sliding deep into a hole. Life as I knew it was collapsing around me & I simply didn’t know what to do.

I kept telling myself that it could be worse. That I was fit & healthy. My family was fit & healthy & it was only work. But it wasn’t only work. It was who I was. It was my identity. I’d spent six years building up my two businesses & I could see them slipping out of my grasp & into the Covid abyss. Without them, what could I do, what did I have?

I had running. As everything else crumbled around me, running was my constant. It was always there. I dreaded tougher restrictions on our movements like in other European countries. Thankfully that day never came & throughout the pandemic, we were allowed to exercise, once a day, from our homes.

So I ran, and ran, and ran some more. I ran to escape. To take my mind off of worries & questions that had no answers.

I fixed my mind onto NDW100 & put everything I had into it. I admit I became obsessed. But you see, when I was running, thinking about running or planning runs, I forgot about everything else. I forgot about what was going in the world around me. I forgot about the terror of the news reports. I forgot that I had no work. That I had earned no money since March. I forgot that my businesses may not survive, that the husband’s business may not survive & that life as I knew it had disappeared.

When I ran, I forgot how it felt to see all my dreams slipping away.

So I ran, and ran, and ran some more. I ran for the calmness, the silence, the solitude.

I knew as I stood on the socially-distanced start line early that August morning that I was in the shape of my life. Fitter, faster & stronger than I had ever been. But more than anything, I stood on that line so very, very thankful that the race that had kept me going through the past four months was actually happening.

And for that, all thanks need to go to the Centurion Running team.

The start was like the start of no other race but was an indication of how much work Centurion had put into making this race happen.

I walk up to the start of the trail with Dan, who is running, and Helen (for future reference, Helen number one) who is there to see us off. I’m race-ready. Our bibs were posted to us & the race-briefing was done via video a few days earlier. There is nothing more we need to do. None of the usual race-morning chaos, rush or panic. Simply arrive & run.

We pause by the iconic trailhead sign to have our photos taken by superstar race photographer Stu. Helen snaps one for me for the ‘Gram. Our temperatures are taken & we’re waved on.

No fanfare, no ceremony. We jog across the starting mat, I wave goodbye to Helen & our 30-hour countdown starts.

To allow for social distancing, there is a two-hour starting window from 5 am to 7 am with the request being for faster runners to start earlier, slower runners later. With a rough time goal of 24 hours, I start a little before 6 am.

The staggered start takes away some of the early race pressure. I have none of the usual pre-race nerves, I feel as if I am out for an early morning run with a friend. And I quite like that. 

Yes, I miss the camaraderie of starting with a large group. Of catching up with friends. The excited buzz of anticipation & the atmosphere of the start line. But I also liked starting at my own pace. I liked not getting drawn into other people’s races, trying to keep up with the person in front & being swept along faster than planned in the eagerness to get going. 

I start slow & steady & bang on target.

For the first half of the race, my sole aim is to keep my heart rate low. Run the flats & the downs, walk the hills & walk whenever my heart rate goes into zone 2. I’d trained like this & so have a good idea of what my average pace should be if executed properly. My only concern is that with the forecasted temperature I may not be able to keep my HR as low as I want.

The cool of the early morning

Dan & I settle into a comfortable & easy jog. Sometimes chatting, sometimes silent. In the cool of the early morning the first ten miles speed by. It’s effortless running. The trails are wide, well-marked & easy underfoot. The legs fresh & keen to get going. I may not have run this part of the trail since the NDW50 in 2018 but my feet seem to instinctively remember the way.

The forecasted sunshine hides its brightness behind the cover of clouds, making the early miles slightly more pleasant than expected. But its heat & humidity soon make their presence known. By the top of the first significant climb to St Maratha’s Church, I am drenched in sweat. I look as if I took a swim across the River Wey back in Guildford.

Running towards Newlands Corner & CP1

Just before 15 miles & we arrive at the first Check Point (CP) at Newlands Corner. We’re guided in by a volunteer in PPE. Asked to sanitise our hands & wait in a socially distanced line until a space becomes available. It’s a couple of minutes & then I’m directed to a table. I fill my own bottles. One water, one Tailwind. Peruse the snack selection & grab some banana & a cake bar. Sanitise again. I’m off & the next runner in line is directed into the CP.

Check Points are the area that Centurion has had to work hardest on to make them Covid- compliant. Usually, we all crowd in two, three, four, five runners at a time. We jostle for a place at the table, laughing & joking we pass each other snacks. A volunteer would grab our bottles & fill them for us. The food would be in bowls; crisps, biscuits, cut fruit. Sandwiches, homemade cakes, dried fruit & nuts. Dip your hand in, help yourself. You get over the hygiene aspect of it after your first ultra.

Obviously, with Covid, this had to change. A funnel directs runners into the CP where there are three separate mini-CP tables. One runner at a table at a time. You fill your own bottles. The snacks are all pre-packaged. Crisps are left in their bags. The cakes are wrapped shop-bought affairs rather than the lovingly homemade flapjacks & brownies of old. Biscuits, chocolate, dried fruit & nuts are in individual packets. Bananas & satsumas in their own skins are the only fruit. No sandwiches, no watermelon, no pastries, grapes, or cold boiled potatoes.

Volunteers are hands-off, masks on. They’re there simply to guide, direct, instruct, refill the water canisters & replenish the snack table. It’s different, it’s not what we are used to but with the current conditions, I cannot fault a single thing. With every challenge & every restriction thrown at them, Centurion has found a way to make it work. 

Dan & I say goodbye & I’m flying solo as I leave Newlands Corner. I feel really good but I am well aware that I’m only 15 miles into the race.

The section from Newlands to Box Hill is made up of relatively wide, flat, runnable woodland trails. Nothing too complicated or too technical. It’s a chance to get your head down & get some solid miles in the bag. And this is exactly what I do. Trucking along by myself. The occasional few words with other runners as they pass me or I pass them. 

My heart rate starts to creep up with the temperature, it’s about 5 bpm higher than I would expect in normal conditions & a little higher than I would ideally like at this point in the race. But these are not normal conditions, the temperature is already fast approaching 30 & it’s only mid-morning.

As the miles tick by I find I don’t have to think about what I am doing too much, which I like. The trail is familiar enough that I only have to glance at the markings every now & again to know I’m on route. The underfoot conditions are good. I start to deliberately keep myself away from other runners, pulling back a couple of times when someone falls into step alongside me. Nothing against anyone else, but at this moment in time I am liking the serenity of my own company & my own thoughts & I don’t want to share my trail with anyone else.

In my own little world, I start to pick up a little speed over some slight descents, my feet dancing over the exposed roots on the now uneven woodland paths. This is my kind of running. I like trails like this. I smile. 

I’m happy. 

I’m content.

Soon I’m running across Ranmore Common, crews lined up to my left. They shout, clap & cheer as if I am on the finishing straight about to win the race. I smile again. I love this feeling. I love this atmosphere, this makes it feel like a real race again. 

I’ve never had a crew myself & wonder whether perhaps I might regret that today. Crews – usually friends or family – are there to give additional support throughout the race. There are eight or nine spots along the course where they can meet their runner with food, drink, kit, or on days like today, bags of ice! Sometimes it feels like those with crews have an unfair advantage as they get extra support. But also, it’s so easy to waste time with a crew. I see many runners at crew points sitting down, shoes off, feet up taking a break. Does this rest benefit or hinder?

As I ponder the pros & cons of crews I catch sight of Jamie & Jaco in the distance so run on to catch up with them. I ran with them a few weeks earlier when we’d still been anxiously waiting to hear if the race would go ahead. A few words & then I leave them to it, they’re a bit faster than I am & trying to keep up with them is causing my watch to beep frantically at me in alarm… I’d set it to alert me if my HR tipped into zone three & Jaco & Jamie pace is zone three!

As I say goodbye to them I spot Dai. Despite living a mile from each other, we’ve not run together since the equally hot Serpent Trail 100km in 2018. During that race I swore that I would never, ever run in temperatures over 30 again. Yes, well… We catch-up as we coast easily down the hill through Denbies Vineyard & into CP2 at the bottom of Box Hill.

The race route around Box Hill takes a little detour off of the North Downs Way & onto some local paths. What could have scuppered the whole race was saved by Centurion’s quick thinking & a long-standing relationship with the National Trust. The NT has banned all commercial activities from their sites due to an increase in visitor numbers during the pandemic, and this includes races. Centurion came to an agreement with them that we would use the bridge rather than the crowded stepping stones to cross the River Mole & instead of going up the steps to the top of Box Hill & past Solomons Memorial, we would cut round the edge on some of the less crowded trails. It added no distance & no elevation to our race & you could even argue it was an easier path than 280+ steps up & the winding woodland trail along the top. It was also great not having to battle hoards of small children & summer holiday crowds on the accent!

Even with the detour, (paths I know from the Box Hill Fell race) I’m in my playground here. Box Hill through to Botley Hill is my part of the North Downs Way, I know it like I know the back of my hand. I’ve run it time & time again in every season & in every weather. 

These are the paths that taught me about trail running. The paths of my first trail race, the paths of my first solo venture on the North Downs. The paths of my first ultra. The paths where I found my love of trails.

Today though, I’m struggling. It’s 30 degrees & not even midday. A constant up & down, up & down on dry, narrow rutted paths. You need to be constantly alert, constantly watching your footing. Glancing up to take in the view risks a trip on an exposed root.

I try to keep to a slow jog in the flatter shaded areas to keep myself moving. A few runners pass me. A few doubts flirt across my mind. I’m not sure I’d appreciated quite how much the heat would affect me. Climbing up the vicious & never-ending Colley Hill I am once again drenched in sweat & running low on water. I drink 1.5 litres in the seven miles between Box Hill & Reigate Hill CPs & even that doesn’t quench my thirst.

Coming out of the Reigate CP I take a little detour to the cafe, first to WASH MY HANDS. (OMG so, good!). And second to buy Callippos. Plural. Two Callippos. One for each hand. Their ice-cold goodness gets me down the next hill & well into Merstham with a renewed enthusiasm & vigour.

Hotter than the Sahara

The hill out of Merstham is hotter than the Sahara. The dry ground is baked solid & with the now full sun blazing down on my back, climbing it is not an enjoyable experience. I debate a little lie-down at the top but my stubbornness makes do with a 20-second pause in the breeze & pushes me on. My memories from here into Caterham are vague. I think I’m almost operating in survival mode with everything bar the essentials shutting down. Maybe because I know this path so well I run on autopilot?

38 miles & the Caterham CP. I have a quick glance at my watch & see that I am bang on target, almost to the second, for the dreamy sub-24 hour finish. I know though, that the next section is going to be harder than the preceding. Not because it’s technical, hillier or tougher but because it’s very hot & there are long stretches with no shade (I ran out of superlatives to describe the temperature a long time ago. Very hot is just going to have to do). I know I will be walking most of the way to the next CP simply to conserve energy. I know that by doing so I am saying goodbye to that time goal.

I am completely at peace with this decision. Because I know that if I chase a time, I will struggle even more in the latter stages & if I struggle I won’t enjoy the race & I definitely won’t be smiling. Finishing with a smile is far more important to me than any arbitrary time.

I queue for several minutes chatting to Lou Fraser & Sharon Dickson as I wait for my turn in the CP.

I reflect for a moment on the volunteers. Having been that side of the table myself on several occasions, the joy of volunteering is helping the runners. This new way of doing things is a very hands-off approach. I ask Lou how she’s finding it & she says it’s tough. Her natural reaction is to help & she can’t. She’s also a hugger & isn’t able to touch the runners. 

This sentiment was repeated time & time again by volunteers at all the check-points. They wanted to do MORE for us, not less. It pained them to see runners struggling & to not be able to help, whether than be filling a tired runner’s bottles or helping a limping runner deal with blisters.

But this is simply the Centurion Army way. The races would not happen without the volunteers, Many of whom, especially at the latter check-points, are giving up whole days & nights of their time to support us runners. And what a job they did under difficult conditions. Every CP was superbly organised, fully stocked & every volunteer cheery, supportive & encouraging – even those wearing PPE in 30+ degree temperatures for hours on end. They deserve a buckle for that to be honest.

After a three or four-minute wait, it’s my turn. I’m beginning to struggle with solid food, it’s just too damn hot to eat. I chew & chew & chew but the food is getting stuck in my mouth & I can’t seem to swallow it. I mix a stronger Tailwind in the hope that some liquid calories will see me through until the temperatures cool down. Grabbing another banana I shout my thanks, wave goodbye to the volunteers & trot off into the woods.

Although the whole trail is familiar to my feet, the next couple of miles are my home turf. During Lockdown when we were only allowed to exercise from home, I would run to this section of the trail. From home. And then run back again. I needed my North Downs fix. The North Downs are where I find my quietness & solitude. Just a few miles along the familiar paths in the middle of a run was enough to ease my mind, calm my soul & make my heart happy. I could run these paths leading out of Caterham with my eyes closed. I know every twist, every turn, every lump, every bump. I know when to slow & when to pick up the pace. When to watch for uneven ground & when to look up & take in the view.

© Stuart March

A few hundred metres along the trail I spy Stu, I jog slowly past smiling for his camera & stop for a few words. I miss his high-fives! Thinking I’m settling in for a tough & solitary few miles I pop my headphones in & put on some music to try & take my mind off of the “very hot” heat. 

Crossing the A22 footbridge I look up & see familiar figures, Hannah & Adam, OMG! I squeal in excitement! What an AMAZING surprise! Last year I’d surprised Hannah by popping up mid-way through her first ultra on the South Downs & today she’s done the same to me – only she’s got ICE COLD BOTTLES OF WATER. Absolute babe 😍

I want to stop & chat but I also want to keep going. I trot on a huge grin across my face. The headphones go back in as I jog, relishing a small piece of shade alongside the vineyard in Godstone. I cross the road at Gangers Hill & see another familiar face, Martin one of my pacers from the SDW100 last year. I chat with him for a few minutes.

Another runner turns to me & asks how I know everyone on the North Downs? I look at him quizzically & he says, “you’re chatting to everyone you pass!” I try to explain that this is my local section of the trail, that I live only a few miles away, that if I really wanted to I could run home from here… 

But in reality, it’s my amazing Striders of Croydon club mates who’ve taken time out of their days to come & cheer Me, Debra & Tad on (two other Striders running). It’s a good job that I was no longer running alongside this guy when I bumped into Rachel & her frozen bottles of squash a mile latter, Nikki & her ice cubes a few miles after that or Myles who was sat in the middle of a field just before Knockholt. Oh, and I didn’t even mention Peter back in Merstham…

My running club mates rock!

Seeing them all along the trail gave me such a massive boost & it happily coincided with the really difficult few miles in the heat of the afternoon. Stopping for a minute or two here & there gave me a much needed mental break from the running (though at this point in the race there is no way I can justifiably call what I was doing ‘running’).

Running towards Hannah just past Caterham

Back to the running. Or should I say, walking? There is no suitable vocabulary to describe the temperatures as I make my way around the fields at the bottom of Oxted Downs. The sun beats down, it’s scorching heat bouncing off the dry, chalky trail. It’s rays attacking from every angle. There is not a single scrap of shade, nowhere to hide from its relentless heat. It’s draining. I try to conserve as much energy as possible. No one is running. Occasionally someone will try to jog a few faltering steps before coming to a staggering halt.

After the race, a runner who was carrying a thermometer said he recorded 44 degrees along this section.

Let me pause for a moment & repeat that. Forty-four degrees. What the absolute fuck.

I have never before longed to reach Botley Hill. A beast of a climb on the best of days. But it’s a hill with shade & it cannot come soon enough. Across the final field, I pull out my poles in preparation. The hill is not really that steep, it doesn’t really need poles, but 40 odd miles into this race I want as much help as I can get.

I move faster up the shaded hill than I moved on the sunlit flats a few minutes earlier.

CP five. More of the same. Fill bottles. Drink a cup of coke. Look at the food. Again, nothing appeals & neither do the snacks in my bag. I grab another banana knowing I need to try & eat something.

We go again.

The woodland after Botley Hill, usually tall & lush has been felled. The traffic on the main road normally hidden by a mass of trees screams past at full speed spoiling the silence of the forest. I know this work is being done to help maintain the area, to remove diseased trees & improve the health of the living, but it does make me sad to see it looking so desolate. 

The music in my ears is keeping me entertained as I make my way from Titsey to Tatsfield. It’s slow progress but I am looking forward with some relish to the shaded downhill that’s coming up. Standing under the cover of that very shade I see Nikki, her daughter Libby & husband Ed.

Libby, who is five, recently did the Centurion One Community run & the One Up Challenge with Nikki. She ran a half-marathon & climbed Ben Nevis & now apparently has a love of hills & trails. And I absolutely love this. Centurion inspiring the next generation.

I stop for a chat & an ice lolly & they send me off with a smile & ice stuffed down my sports bra, down my sleeves & in my buff. Bliss. I trot quite happily down the hill, my chest, arms & head now nicely cool!

The fields on the outskirts of Westerham have been harvested since I was here a few short weeks ago. The bales of hay lining the fields look quintessentially English countryside. The roar of the M25 in the distance slightly spoiling the illusion. 

English countryside!

Under normal conditions, it’s fairly runnable from here through to Knockholt, the next CP & the half-way point. But as we have already established these are not normal times. I’m feeling increasing weary. I pull out my poles again, this time on flatter ground, simply to help me hike with a little more speed & purpose.

Everyone I pass, and everyone who passes me is slightly dazed, almost confused, struggling in the heat. Hardly anyone is running more than a few steps at a time. I keep crossing paths with the same people as we have surges of energy & lulls at different times. Rounding one field, I look behind me to a line of despondent, tired runners, simply trying to put one foot in front of the other.

I struggle to remember any of the miles I traveled between Botley Hill & Knockholt. Are they NDW100 memories or memories from another run? There are paths I know I must have run along, hills I must have climbed, gates I must have opened but I have absolutely no memory of them. Zero. I don’t even remember if the cows were in the big field with the nice view. I don’t even remember noticing the nice view. Was I that dazed in the afternoon heat that I wasn’t looking, wasn’t seeing?

Coming into Knockholt, the course deviates off of the NDW. It’s one of those moments when it’s good to know the route & good to know that when you leave the trail there is still about a mile to the CP. Many of those around me don’t realise this. You almost hear their sighs of relief as they head onto the road & then the slowing of their feet & sinking of their shoulders as they realise the CP isn’t immediately in front of them.

I run through the village. Throughout the whole race, I set myself little challenges to keep myself going. One of them is to run along Knockholt High Street. It’s flat, it’s smooth underfoot & it’s in the shade. I might be tired, the heat might be oppressive but it’s half-way, I’m still moving, still running when able. And more importantly, I have zero doubts. In my head, I’m at that finish line. Not a flicker of doubt in my mind.

11 hours 15 minutes. I arrive at Knockholt. Six minutes faster than my best time on the NDW50 when Knockholt is the finish line but an hour slower than I’d hoped to arrive here.

Swings & roundabouts. 

But as I’ve already let my time goal drift away I don’t dwell on this delay & focus instead on getting in & out of the CP as quickly as possible. I set myself a 15-minutes alarm on my phone as I grab the first of my two drop bags.

In my race day preparations, I had grand plans & had essentially packed an entire toiletry kit & a buffet dinner. In reality, I wipe a damp cloth over my face, change my t-shirt & splash on some deodorant. I take one bite of my lovingly prepared cheese & pickle sandwich & spit it out, drink a cup of coke, refill my bottles & leave. I felt good going into the CP but I feel quite rough leaving. Knockholt is an indoor CP & it is too hot.

I walk along the village high street sipping on a melted bottle of Tailwind – my GENIUS drop bag move – frozen bottles of drink in a cool bag, keeping the food I didn’t eat cool but also then providing ice-cold refreshments when they were needed. It was a small bottle of deliciousness, and more importantly some much-needed calories.

I see Helen (Helen number two) & Spencer, my two pacers for later in the race. They are stood outside the village pub, with Chris, who currently has a pint in his hand but later on is crewing Dan, and another Helen cheering the runners on. Seriously, too many Helens.

I stop briefly for a chat. Helen number two is meeting me in five miles to pace me. That’s my next target. Otford. 55 miles & Helen. And I know it’s pretty much downhill to Otford – Woohoo!

I’m over half-way. The sun is dropping in the sky as daytime moves towards evening & it’s cooling down (aka, it’s not 44 fucking degrees anymore). After a minor incident requiring a bush just past Knockholt, I’m feeling pretty good. The bush incident removed the queasiness I felt coming out of the village & within minutes I gain a new spring to my step. Bar a couple of small inclines & one very overgrown path, I run pretty much the whole way to Otford.

Similar to Rockshaw Road road back in Mersham – which now seems days, not just hours ago – a line of crew snakes its way along Otford High Street. Cars parked up, boots open, a selection of drinks & treats laid out, a chair ready & waiting for their tired runners. I see the one & only JayZ, who’s crewing Dai. He takes pity on me & hands me a Calippo – sorry Dai if you were one short, but that was a little bit of heaven in a cardboard tube!

Then I spot Spencer & Helen. We don’t stop for more than a few moments as Helen starts her Garmin & joins me. When I’m moving, I’m moving. Spencer waves us off saying he’ll see us at Bluebell Hill.

For those not familiar with Centurion races, you are allowed pacers from the half-way point of a 100 miler, as much to keep you company during the nighttime hours as to keep you moving at ‘pace’. As with SDW100 last year I have two, Helen & Spencer. Both of whom offered their services without me asking. Before I even start talking about the miles I ran with them, I’m going to simply say I could not have done this without them.

When I speak of the ultra community, and in particular the Centurion Running community, this is what I mean. It’s just not the same in road running. Helen has driven down from Warrick to pace me for 20+ miles through the night. Spencer from North London. Both arrived early so that they could cheer other runners on through Knockholt. Spencer spent half the day running around, giving lifts to other pacers & supporting those out on the trail. Chris came down from the Peaks to crew Dan, the third Helen from the midlands to pace Sonny. 

They weren’t alone. Many others crewed & paced simply to support their running friends. It’s not an exclusive club. You may not have a crew, as I didn’t, but I know had I needed anything & I’d asked any one of the crews I passed there would not have been a single moment of hesitation in helping me out. I would do and have done, the same. Simply, it’s not I, it’s ‘us’ out on those trails.

I don’t run trails for the bling, for the glory, or for the kudos. I run for this. The friendship, the support & the community. This race wasn’t really about me or my successes. It was all about the success of the whole Centurion Running Community.

Helen’s first task is to get me up the hill out of Otford. All 350+ ft of it. I pause for a few minutes at the bottom to eat my Calippo. At that moment in time, the ice lolly is more important than jogging. Poles in hand we hike up the hill, chatting as we go. After many solitary miles, I’m relishing some company. Partway up it changes from concrete path to woodland trail. After a good few road miles through Otford, and whilst I at the time I enjoyed the easy running surface of the tarmac, it’s nice to get back onto a proper trail again. Even if it is steeper than Everest.

The view

Again I remember very little of the miles from Otford. I really do worry that the heat made my brain all fuzzy. We pause at the top of Kemsing Downs to take in the view, Helen’s first glimpse of the splendour of the North Downs. In a way, I feel as if I am showing off something special. We jog, talk, walk, jog some more. 

Dropping down the other side of the hill Allie Bailey comes steaming past me with her pacer looking strong. I then pass another lady who tells me her quads have given up. I reflect that this is probably the only time in the race so far that I have been surrounded by women. Three female runners, three female pacers. Up until this point I’d been very conscious that the majority of the runners I saw were male. With the staggered start, I had no idea what percentage of the field was female & therefore no idea how I was performing in comparison.

Dropping down the hill towards Wrotham

There’s a gorgeous golden glow to the evening light over the fields coming into Wrotham. I don’t take a photo, I know my iPhone won’t do it justice but it does make a pretty boring section of the trail a lot more interesting. I actually took very few photos during the race. During the hottest part of the day, it became an unnecessary movement that required too much of an effort.

In & out of another CP at Wrotham. My memories are still somewhat vague. Do I eat, do I drink? I honestly can’t remember. We cross the main road & head up & across the fields, daylight rapidly fading. Into Trosley Country Park & under the cover of the trees darkness envelopes us. The head torches go on. Woodland shadows jump out from behind the trees at us. I tell Helen I am glad I am not alone. It’s flat, it’s runnable. We trot on & for the first time in five attempts I make it through Trosley Country Park without getting lost. Race day is always a good day to do that!

Slowly, steadily, I run as much as I can. I know where I am but I have no idea of how far I’ve gone, how far I’ve got to go, or what the time is. I’ve been quite stubborn (are you seeing a theme here) throughout the whole race by not looking at my watch other than to check my heart rate. By this point, it’s become somewhat of an obsession. I don’t want the added pressure of numbers. I refuse to look & I refuse to let Helen tell me.

I meet Gia for the first time. Our paths will cross numerous times as we share the next 20 odd miles. Round the Holly Hill field & up the steep steps, crouching to avoid the overhanging tree branches. I have a dip, a lull. A wave of tiredness overcomes me. It’s a bad time to waver as I know the next few miles are going to challenge me. 

There’s nothing dramatic about them & I know it’s all in my head. I had a bad training run – in the opposite direction – a few months ago. I bit off more than I could chew, went too far on the out section & got beaten by the wind & rain on my return. My mind is playing games with me & is only remembering the negative things about the run. All it remembers is me sitting on the big metal gate across the trail just up from the Holly Hill CP, drained, out of energy & enthusiasm. Wet & windswept, not wanting to go on but knowing I had to as my car was ten miles away. At this moment in time, I seem to have forgotten all the things I love about the upcoming parts of the North Downs. I’ve forgotten all about the wildflower fields through Ranscombe & the views across the Kent countryside from Bluebell Hill.

Thankfully today, my stubbornness is stronger than my mind & sees me step over that gate in defiance but I still falter. I still dread the upcoming miles to Cuxton. Your head can be a funny place at times.

The dark of the night

We slowly make our way through the woodland & across the arid fields. I tell Helen all about the upcoming delights of the Medway Bridge. I also tell her that I am going to run across the whole thing. This might be a slightly ambitious statement to make when in the middle of Ranscombe Nature Reserve I close my eyes & lean on my poles, desperate for sleep.

I try to eat & force down a couple of bites of banana malt loaf. The sugar hurt my teeth. Looking back I am so annoyed with myself about the eating situation. Why can’t I just get food down me? I’m ok until about 50km but every single time over that distance I’ve struggled, even more so if it’s hot. I don’t want to eat & the thought of food turns my stomach. I try to eat, I chew & chew & chew but I can’t swallow. I sometimes wonder if it is more of a phycological barrier rather than physical. Every race I go into I’m determined that it will be different & every single time it ends up being an issue.

I manage a couple more bites of the malt loaf & wonder how much of my current lull is simply down to running on empty? I’ve literally used up all of my fuel.

We cross over the motorway & wind our way around the pathway to the start of Medway Bridge. A small group of guys, maybe five or six, runners with their pacers overtake us. They are running. Remembering my declaration to Helen a few miles back this is the incentive I need to break into a jog. My legs start moving again. The first few metres stiff & faltering then they remember what they need to do & I get into a running rhythm.

The bridge is long, tedious & boring. To our right is the M2, six lanes of traffic screaming past at 70mph. To our left the dark depths of the River Medway. It’s a kilometre north to south. It takes us eight minutes to cross.

One of the guys has drifted away from the pack & we fall into step with him & start chatting. It proves a welcome distraction. The group in front slow to a walk. I overtake the overtakers & carry on running. I’m getting into a groove & running starts to feel comfortable & good. Perhaps the sugary malt loaf is working some magic!

We reach the end of the bridge with a cheer. Helen persuades me to carry on running. So I do. Across the road, round the corner, past another line of crewing cars on Nashenden Farm Lane, boots up, chairs at the ready. I carry on running. A good mile & a half of running before hitting the bottom of the next climb. My mood elevated, mindset changed. I’ve forgotten the low of Holly Hill & Cuxton. I’m ready for Bluebell Hill.

Or so I thought.

We start the climb. The first section around the field is wide open. Kent spread out below us. We pause & look back towards the lit-up bridge, marveling at how we just crossed it. I can see all the way past it. The dark shapes of Ranscombe leading into Cuxton, across to Holly Hilly & beyond. We’ve come a long way.

The trail moves from open field to enclosed woodland. The tree coverage hiding the night sky from view feels like a blanket being thrown on top of us, trapping the day’s heat at ground level. It’s around midnight & still so humid. My body temperature rises with the climb, my heart rate increasing alongside it. I took the chest monitor off a few hours ago as it was beginning to chaff. But I know by feel that I am hotter & my heart rate higher than either should be. 

And still, we climb.

Up, and up, and up. I don’t remember this hill dragging on this much. I am exhausted. My eyes are struggling to stay open. So, so tired. I need to sit down. I see a concrete block on the side of the path. I lean on it. Stubbornness scolds me for being so weak. On I move. Up, and up, and up. Slower, and slower, and slower. I’m feeling very nauseous. And tired. So tired.

I sit down where I am. Right in the middle of the path. I’m not sure Helen knows what to do. I’m convinced I’m done. I want to lie down & sleep. My stomach churns. The familiar feeling. I jump up, I need a bush… There are no bushes, just brambles. I fight my way through a few, scratching my legs as I try to be at least a little discrete. For the second time, I leave my guts on the NDW.

Just like outside Knockholt the nausea instantly lifts. My doubts clear & I’m ready to go. I fight my way back out of the brambles, pick up my poles & carry on up the hill towards the next CP.

Spencer is standing, ready & waiting, in the road a couple of hundred metres before Bluebell Hill CP. The three of us walk/jog/stumble in together. I sanitise my hands. Bypassing the tables. I drop my poles to the floor, take off my bag & slip into the comfortable hug of a chair. Barring, the middle of the path, this is the first time I’ve sat down since getting out of my car in Farnham some 20 hours earlier.

I overcame my nausea & tiredness demons of a mile earlier but doubts still linger in my mind. I sit there in my quietness wondering if I really can do it. Am I strong enough, capable enough? Those last few miles took a lot out of me & I question if I have any more to give. I’m not really aware of what is going on around me.

I force down a sachet of baby food & piece of cake. I have no idea what type or flavour of either. My conscious mind might be wondering if I can go on but I’m filling bottles & making myself eat. This must mean that subconsciously I know I am carrying on.

After five minutes Spencer tells me it’s time to get up & go. I put my pack back on. Pick up my poles & move. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Helen. I hope I did.

I also don’t remember the view from Bluebell Hill & this saddens me. Before one of my early races, my Dad told me to “run well, but don’t forget to pause & take in the view”. It’s a phrase I have taken into every race since as a reminder to enjoy the experience. When I look back & realise I have no memory of looking out from Bluebell Hill I am sad. Even in the darkest of the night, the view would have been something special.

Ultrarunning is a funny thing. Going into Bluebell Hill I was in pieces, barely moving, doubting whether I had it in me to finish. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the CP, I break into a jog. I feel a thousand times better. I have energy, a renewed enthusiasm & a little bit of bounce!

Was it a five-minute sit-down? The cake? The baby food or just a subconscious shift in my mindset that after 76 miles I only have one option & that is to keep going? 

I don’t care what it was. I feel good & I push on. Through the woodland, along the road, down the steps. Spencer isn’t interested in a little detour to look at the historical Kits Coty monument. I keep running, across one road, through the tunnel under another road, round the 24-hour garage that I had earmarked for emergency Callippo purchases (not required). I keep going until the next climb.

It’s a steep one through the woods. But we keep on moving. One foot in front of the other. Eyes on the path watching for exposed roots & low branches in the dark of the night. I’m moving well again. Power in my legs, confidence in my step.

At the top, I take a moment to bring my heart rate & body temperature down. I realised after my little mid-trail sit-down that there’s been a pattern to my bouts of nausea. They’ve all happened after I’ve become really hot or after a significant climb. I pause to see if I can try & avoid another spell of unease. It may be the early hours of the morning but the temperature is still in the 20s. I’m in shorts & a t-shirt & never once do I get cold.

I feel my focus changing. I’ve ridden the waves of doubt & I now know I’m going to do this. I’m going to finish & I’m determined to finish as strongly as I can. I run on. I’m actually running. I want to run. Not fast but I’m running most of the flats & the easy downs. I walk some of the more rocky & technical descents. This late in the race I’m not so sure of my footing & hesitate to fly down them with my usual reckless abandonment.

Into Detling CP. Sanitise, put on my mask & grab my second drop bag. I ignore all the toiletries. They don’t even get a second glance. My frozen bottles are still icy cold, Spencer fills my race bottles from these. I don’t want to eat my drop bag buffet again. But I grab my three emergency sachets of baby food, thankful that I threw them in at the last minute.

I don’t think I even looked at the food on the tables other than to grab more banana. I wonder if it is possible to OD on bananas but decide that I’ll worry about too much potassium later.

Toilet, wash hands & go. Zero faffing. I am on a mission.

82 miles. 21 to go.

By this point at last years SDW100 my race was all but over. I may have finished but I didn’t finish strong & I definitely was not smiling. I walked the last 35 miles. The final ten took over four hours & mile 97 took me 38 minutes with tears streaming down my cheeks. I think about those miles often throughout today’s race. They are an incentive to keep going, to keep pushing, to prove to myself that I can do it & I can do it better.

This time, I am heading into the final 21 miles with confidence. I have no fear of what’s to come, not even the upcoming Detling steps. A four-mile stretch that brings dread into the hearts of even the strongest of runners. I know they are there. I know they will be challenging. I am ready for them.





It’s a rollercoaster of a ride along the narrow winding singletrack.






It’s relentless, it’s never-ending. I’m enjoying it more than I expected. Up again, down again. A pause at the top to take in the view. The blanket of darkness across the countryside extending for miles around us. The moment there is a few metres of flat I break into a jog. Relentless forward progression. We cross paths with Gia again. Spencer asks him how far he’ll be running on Monday. I believe I swear. As a run-streaker Gia doesn’t let 100 miles stop him & will run on Monday as usual. I wonder if I will even be able to move on Monday.

Another lady hangs onto our tails for a few miles. She pushes my competitive nature. At the top of one climb, I turn to Spencer & tell him I’ve got a new goal. I don’t want to be overtaken by any other female. I want to finish in front of the lady currently just behind us. There’s a new fire in my belly. A new determination. So often I’m overtaken time & time again in the latter stages of races. That isn’t going to happen today.

And just like that, Detling is done & we are running down the hill & into Hollingbourne. An additional crew point added into this year’s race to help with the Covid restrictions. I run past JayZ waiting in his car for Dai who can’t be too far behind me. I wave & shout out I that can’t stop as I have to run. Jon tells me later that this made him smile!

90-ish miles. The big climbs, the tough miles are behind us. Whilst those who say Hollingbourne to the end is flat are definitely lying, the upcoming hills are more like little lumps than mountains. 

There’s a glimmer of light in the sky, dawn is breaking. There is something magical about running right through the night. Of seeing one day end & another begin. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have dramatic sunsets or sunrises. I was deep in the woods of Trosley Country Park as the sun said goodbye last night & this morning the cloud cover hides its awakening.

From the narrow, rocky single track of Detling, we are now on wide, gravelly paths. Much easier underfoot. The climbs are gentle, the gradual descents a chance to take the foot of the gas & pick up a little natural speed. We pass the Lenham Cross war memorial to our left before heading into the penultimate CP at Lenham. I sit for two minutes. I think I ate something. Probably banana. Sitting proves to be a mistake as my legs quickly seize up. Standing & moving proves to be a little tricky & it takes me a few minutes to get going again. It hurts more to walk than run. So I ease into a run.

Throughout the whole race, I’ve not looked at time, pace, placings or position. I just don’t want to know. To me, time equals pressure & I don’t want pressure. I simply want to run & do the best I can. Just after Lenham, Spencer doesn’t listen to my protestations & starts reading me some stats from the live timings. 

He tells me that I’m currently 7th lady & 60th overall. That I’ve been gradually moving up the field from 126th at Newlands Corner to 79th at Botley Hill to 60th at Detling.

A tactical move. Him not me.

To hear that I am doing quite well is the push I need. There’s a sparkle in my eye, a spring in my step & a smile on my face. I am doing this! I subconsciously pick up the pace as I feel the draw of the finish line. Spencer looks at his watch & tells me that 90 odd miles into the race we are clocking 10-minute mile pace. 

I feel great. No, scrap that, I feel AMAZING! I keep on running. Running, running, running… I feel good enough to run some of the smaller hills. Gentle inclines that I was walking up in the first ten miles I’m running up in the last ten.

I overtake several other runners. Each time I overtake someone that fire in my belly is lit a little brighter. Spencer points out runners in the distance & goads me into catching them as a hint of golden colour starts creeping in behind the morning clouds.

Headtorches off. Sunglasses on.

Dunn Street. The final CP. Spencer fills my bottles for me. I rest on my poles eating a flapjack not wanting to sit down. In all honesty, I don’t want to stop at all. I’m on a roll, I want to keep going. Stopping makes my legs stop working.

I take a moment as we leave the CP. Deep breath. Five miles to go. The finish line is pulling me in. I ease back into a jog as we cross a field, the movement back in my legs. Three weeks ago the crops waved gently in the evening breeze. Today the field is dry & barren. The crops harvested. The ground bare.

My watch clicks over 100 miles. 

(For those who aren’t regular trail runners, races are very rarely exact distances. SDW50 is 49 miles, NDW50 is 51. NDW100 is 103+. You run less, you run extra, you just get on with it & you never, ever show your Garmin to RD James at the end of the race & tell him the course was short/long!).

Still, I run.

Running across the final field of the race

One final field. Then the big yellow arrow directing us off of the North Downs Way & onto local roads through Ashford. The finish a mere three miles away.

Still, I run.

My feet remember the roads from three weeks ago. I walk an incline, the road levels out & I ease back into a jog. I pass another runner. I know I’m close. I exclaim time & time again that I can’t believe I’m actually running as my feet pick up the pace.

I’m actually getting faster. Spencer tells me I’m running 10-minute mile pace again. 

After 100 miles I’m running 10-minute mile pace. WTAF.

My Garmin beeps a miles split. I glance down wanting to see what it is for the first time in the race. 10:12. A 10:12 minute mile. I think back to last years SDW100 race when my final three miles took me 90 minutes. 90 whole minutes. And one of those miles was downhill.

We’re running through Ashford now. Along quiet residential roads. Past a pub. A school. Maybe a mile to go. I feel a lump in my throat & I begin to choke up. I fear for a moment that I am going to start crying again. At mile 97 of the SDW, it was pain & frustration that saw me cry. Any tears here would be tears of happiness as I realise the enormity of what I have done. 

This is no one else’s dream except mine. No one else’s race except mine. And as I run into that last mile I know I have just run the absolute race of my life. 

My goal was to run strong & I am finishing feeling strong AF.

There’s still one more person in front of me… The last road, the last turning, Spencer spurs me into it & I overtake one more runner. We shout cheerful greetings at one another but I don’t look back. I am flying. 

The Centurion sign.

’This way to the finish’. 

I can hear it. 

I can see it. 

And I’m in that stadium.

On that track.

Finish line feels © Stuart Marsh

Time to Reflect

The North Downs Way 100 (+3) miles

26 hours 45 minutes

6th lady

48th overall

At half-way, 73rd overall, 8th lady.

At Detling, mile 82, 60th overall, 7th lady. I gained 12 places in the last 25 miles.

And I ran the final 5km in 34:26. Only one other woman has run this Strava segment faster than I did on Sunday morning.

My race splits

It’s nearly two weeks post-race & I am still flying high with a huge smile.

I’ll put my hands up & say that I went into this dreaming of a sub-24 hour finish time. My training had been spot on & everything that I did indicated that this was well within my capabilities. I ended up finishing nearly three hours slower than this. Am I disappointed? No. Not at all. 

I very quickly let the 24-hour dream drift away as with the race day conditions, NDW100 2020 was not the year to push for a fast 100 miles. I have zero regrets. If I’d chased an arbitrary number, I wouldn’t have finished. To put the conditions into a little perspective, the winning female time was 21:42. This is more than three hours slower than the women’s course record. Only 17 runners achieved sub-24 compared to over 50 in 2019. And 54% of those who started the race did not finish. I was not exaggerating the effect of the heat.

If I didn’t hit my goal time, why am I calling this the race of my life?

More important to me than my finishing time was to enjoy the race, to run strongly & to finish with a smile. As with any race I had my low points. I’ve talked about them. I had a good start, a shaky middle & a bloody amazing finish. 

That finish means more to me that sub-24 hours. I usually fall down late in the race, struggle & stagger to the end. Here, strength & determination pushed me through the lows, especially that moment sitting down in the middle of the trail wanting to quit, and took me to the finish in style.

I climbed 12 places in the last quarter of the race. Running a large portion of those final miles. I ran the last five practically non-stop, including a 34 minute final 5km, and sprinted around the track at the finish. My mind can hardly comprehend this & I can’t capture that feeling in words.

At the end of 100 miles, I felt stronger than I have EVER felt. I felt invincible. I felt able to achieve anything. The smile was guaranteed.

It’s the race of my life because it proved to me just what I am capable of when I put my mind to it & believe in myself. I trained hard, I worked hard, I put everything into this race. On the day it all came together I ran better than I could ever have hoped.

Me, finishing 6th lady in a 100 mile race? Beyond my wildest dreams.

I now have a fire in my belly. I’ve felt what it feels like to have a successful race & I know I have more in me. That sub-24 hour, when the time is right, will be mine. 

So yes, I am running another 100 miles.

© Stuart Marsh

3 thoughts on “North Downs Way 100: The Race of my Life

  1. Sam Staggers On says:

    Great blog Ally, and wise decision to chase the sub-24 some other non scorching day! Reading your post made me almost want to do NDW100 again until I read about the Detling steps again! Well done again!!

  2. cavershamjj says:

    Epic run and an epic post, I really enjoyed reading your account. I have my first ultra next year, injuries permitting, and if I have half your grit and determination I think ill do OK. Well done on your time and that last 5k is really something else. Brill.

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