Keeping the Dream Alive

I knew this race was going to be the toughest of the year but I could not believe it when James Elson, the Centurion race director, mentioned it was going to be sunny and hot all day, without the promised rain later – I knew right then, this was going to be a battle with many casualties.

I relied upon my 8 previous 100 mile finishes to keep my nerves under control, and remembered my 2 DNF 100 miles, hoping today was not going to be the day my completion ratio went in the wrong direction.

Even so, by the time I got to 20 miles I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew, and by 30 miles I was ready to throw in the towel, hang up my ultra-boots and thinking of taking up a less physically demanding lifestyle.

Luckily, though, nothing came to mind.

So I plodded on, sent the now common text of self-pitying whinging to Liz asking her to meet me at halfway where we would then take stock and review life.

Still. I am getting rather ahead of myself.

The North Downs Way 100 was the third of my 100 mile races during 2015 from the four which constitute the ‘Grand Slam 2015 100s’. The races in the series are

  • Thames Path 100
  • South Downs Way 100 (still pending write up….)
  • North Downs Way 100 (this race)
  • Autumn 100 (mid-October)

The NDW goes through Guildford on its way to Kent and is literally on our doorstep, with the first 20 miles being one of my regular running routes from its start at Farnham through to Ranmore Common. However, I have not done the 100 mile race before and was looking forward to it. I had hoped to get to recce the latter part of the course, but moving house had also put paid to that plan. Interestingly, the full NDW National Trail continues for another 20 odd miles all the way from Wye to Dover, where it then loops back to Canterbury before picking up the trail again just before Wye. Luckily, we were about cut the full route short by a merciful 50 miles.

My preparations prior to the event were not quite so fortuitous.

Having finally moved house a scant fortnight before, after eight fraught months of uncertainty, planning applications and legal wrangles with solicitors on all sides, (and let me tell you, ultramarathons are simple compared to the process of moving your abode) it was a miracle that I was able to find any of my gear, chargers, gels, hats, buffs, tops, base layers and general paraphenalia, the packing of which I have now got down to a fine art in my 12L OMM backpack. Nevertheless, my original thoughts of registering on Friday evening were quickly out the window and a 4:15am Saturday morning alarm was set.

One woefully short night’s sleep later, Liz and I were on the road to Farnham, along a misty Hog’s Back which at that time in the morning thankfully provided no impediment to our short journey from Guildford.

Waiting to start
Waiting to start

Liz dropped me off outside the school and we said a brief goodbye. I think she has learned that a combination of nerves and concentration drives me into an even quieter state of mind than normal – if that is at all possible 😉

Although only 10 minutes to the briefing, I had plenty of time to register, get my kit checked and sign waivers, etc, as the queues had already disappeared. I was fastening my race number on, as James began to give his speech.

After that it was a short walk from the school to the narrow trail entrance which was nominally the start of the North Downs – at least for today.

Start: Farnham – 10:00am, Saturday 8th August

The efficiency of the Centurion staff and crew is, I think, becoming legendary, and everything started smoothly within seconds of arriving at the ‘trail-head’.

The route after the first half mile or so had, ironically, been diverted away from the trail, due to maintenance work and the organisers suggested this would add no more than 0.5 mile to the total distance (and not to complain at the end when your Garmin was over-reading). Strangely, even though I had never covered the bridleway we were going along, I knew exactly where it came out and took as much advantage as I could of the wide track and road, knowing we would we hit a short but steep uphill road after popping back onto the official track, before darting back into the narrow confines of the forest borne route once again.

Misty Morning
Misty Morning

354 had applied to run the race but only 218 had finally toed the line at the start, so this was an average race by Centurion standards, and I was not held up more that a minute or so on the initial narrow part of the course heading down through The Sands, where the dominant enterprise seems to be the golf course, then skirting past the village of Seale before heading up towards Puttenham. The trail was a mixture of rooted pine trees, open fields, some agricultural with maize growing, and also the occasional up and down exposed chalk gully, some more treacherous than others. This was to be the model terrain for the day.

It was on one of these gullies that I passed a group of runners and heard my fellow Guildford grand-slammer, Stefan Klincewicz. We had a quick chat about moving house and pacing, and then I wished him luck for the rest of the race and carried on.

It is quite strange covering a part of a course that normally takes up what would be a good and complete long run for a Sunday morning, knowing that it amounted to the merest proportion of my journey today. I nevertheless enjoyed the run through the quiet village and the views of the misty sunrise which gave little hint of the scorching temperatures to come later in the day.

I was expecting the first checkpoint to be in the car park for the Puttenham golf course, and was marginally disappointed when I could’t see it, but they had set up no more than 200m later in a clearing at the top of a rise where I saw the first of the chirpy volunteers.

Aid 1: Puttenham – 7.1 miles, 1:08:41

I took the briefest of stops at the first aid station for a quick coke, which was more for the caffeine than the liquid, as I was already starting to fall asleep from a restless night and early start; not a good place to be with the best part of 24 hours exertion ahead of me.

I settled back into enjoying the strange feeling of running the route with which I was so familiar, thinking how much our dog, Adastra, would enjoy at least part of this run, although alas, no dogs allowed.

The route from Puttenham to Compton is along gravel trail where access to the golf course either side and houses, is required, but this soon descends through a brief forest trail before crossing underneath the A3 at Compton. After this there are several miles of undulating sandy trails, which I have used for MdS training in the past as it allows a good introduction to the strength sapping properties of sand. Strangely enough, today it didn’t seem to bother me too much, possibly because the recent rain and high humidity had firmed up the surface marginally.

As we came down into Guildford, I was pleased I was slowly catching and passing a couple of other runners, but I was also preoccupied with thoughts of running through a route so close to our house, across the river where the children play, and across the playing fields where the dogs have run about so much. As I came along the fields to the Chantries, there were plenty of supporters in the car parks and I kept an eye out for Liz and the children, just in case, but thought it would probably be too early for them.

Puttenham. Image - Stuart March Photography
Puttenham. Image – Stuart March Photography

I made my way through the residential Pilgrims Way and it seemed longer that at any time I had run it in the past, and I was glad to get back to the trail where it skirts round the Chantries hill. At this point we were back to sandy gullies and as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, there was a horse and rider up ahead of me. As I passed the rider, I said good morning and asked how she was doing. She complained there were a load of people coming up behind and her horse was nervous. I passed when she allowed, giving the horse as wide a berth as I could. I ran ahead of her, but she then directed the horse to trot, looking back and complaining there were more people coming! Luckily we were out in a clearing in the forest, but the uphill sandy trail limited my speed somewhat otherwise I would have removed myself from that situation in a flash!

Eventually, after a few moments of to-ing and fro-ing, I gained an advantage just before the trail narrowed and ducked back into the trees.

I knew the next hilly section, St Martha’s, one of the oldest Churches on the Pilgrim’s way, was likely to be testing and although not long, I decided to walk up it to conserve energy. There was a supporter at the top motivating the runners with a pom-pom dance encouraging us to make it to the top – I saw her another couple of times later on the trail.

On this occasion, I hardly noticed the church at the top, having taken many pictures here in the past at what is a surprisingly picturesque site. Still, I pressed on down the sandy trail on the eastern side knowing there was one final climb to Newlands Corner, before several miles of relative flat along the spine of the North Downs towards Reigate.

There is a small winding, narrow trail going up the hill which runs parallel with the road for no more than 200m, but on this occasion, I obviously hit the rush hour as the ramblers coming in the other direction thoughtfully moved aside for me as I trudged my way round.

A couple of us crossed the minor road at the end of the parallel section, and made our way through the long branches to halfway up the hill. Now out in the open, we traversed and rose up in the open until we made it all the way to the top, although we took the high road (below the treeline, but not the undulating direct route across) before the final steep ascent along the chalk and grass combo up to the car park at Newlands Corner.

Aid 2: Newlands Corner – 14.7 miles, 2:21:52

I was briefly confused after reaching the car park that there was no checkpoint. However, being on autopilot, I had run up too far and the gazebos were located slightly further on, towards the road crossing. I stopped for slightly longer here as the heat on the exposed route over the last few miles had increased considerably as the mist had burned off. Even so, I was off relatively quickly looking forward to a steady and largely sheltered section towards Dorking.

The competitors had already spread out considerably and even after only 15 miles, there were probably only 5-10 people stopped at the checkpoints and consequently less so in evidence out on the actual course. I enjoyed the settling into a rhythm in the peace an quiet of a sunny Saturday morning 🙂

The 3km section from Newlands is largely flat, followed by another 12km along the spine through Ranmore common, before dropping down to the A24 crossing and the Box Hill stepping stones. So, although quite a long section, this was supposedly relatively easy. The heat was beginning to pick up though, and on many of the exposed slopes we were running into a bright climbing sun which slowed me considerably.

Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)
Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)

The route of the North Downs seems to stick predominantly to the south facing side of the rise and this section was no different. A forest section gave way to a run along sloping fields with crops growing before darting briefly through an expensive residential area with wide tended verges and a middle England village feel about it.

There were many cyclists about as the time drifted on which was to be another common occurrence, at least during Saturday morning, especially as this was a brief part of the route where the Ride London cycle had taken place the previous Sunday; some cyclists were reliving their experience perhaps.

Before descending to the A24, I came across a curiously surprising sight – a vineyard on the slopes of the hill through which I was running. Acres and acres of straight parallel white grape vines, in lines down the slope were the last thing I expected, but this was ‘Denbies’ Wine Estate which turned out to be the biggest vineyard in the UK – right on our doorstep! Who knew!

As the trail circumnavigated the vineyard, it eventually took a sharp downward turn and I soon found myself at the busy A24, where we had been warned earlier to use the subway crossing. The crossing was quite a way and the back and forth route amounted to nearly another 1/2 mile, and I slowed as I drank and used another of my gels as I strolled along the road, in preparation for the anticipated climb up to Box Hill. I was glad after the hot stretch to reach the checkpoint.

Aid 3: Box Hill Stepping Stones – 24.6 miles, 4:06:22

Each aid station was manned by cheery volunteers, who were always busy and helpful with the food, runners, water and checking people in, and they helped me fill my backpack quickly. I had anticipated that I would be using a lot more liquid than on the previous two races, but I was still surprised my water bladder already needed filling at only a quarter distance. Having figured out the malfunction in the lid seal from my previous race, it was a lot easier to fill and I was more confident of not having a completely soaked backside by the end of the race.

Stepping Stone over the River Mole
Stepping Stones over the River Mole

So early in the race, I was still relatively fresh, but starting to feel the effects of the heat, and also anticipating the climb back up to the top of the ridge at Box Hill, so I took on a lot of fruit and coke.  The water melon and tangerine segments, followed by banana for the road, have become my staple fair on these races. I was on my way swiftly though, thanking the volunteers for all their help.

Just before the rise, the ‘stepping stones’ provide a novel, way to cross the River Mole which flows parallel to the road, along the valley, both presumably taking advantage of the natural geography of the region, and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping to take a couple of pictures. All too soon though, I had picked my way across (surprisingly gingerly I might add!) and was on the other side on my way up the hill.

Some years ago, I had done a race along the South West Coast path called the Classic Cliffs, other than starting at midnight and running in the dark with a sheer drop and almost certain death to your left for the first part of the 57 miles, the other thing I remember about it was the steps. Frequent excursions up and down steep wooden steps following the coastal contours, probably 150-200ft at a time, between the creases in the shoreline.

That memory had a reprise today as I turned a corner in the trees and emerged into a clearing and found myself staring up at a series of wooden steps, and if there had been any clouds, the top would’ve been hidden in them – almost 🙂

Steps Up Box Hill
Steps Up Box Hill

The thing with these steps is that then tend to be quite high and require quite a lot of quad, glute and hamstring effort. By the time I was at the top, I was using my hands to push down on my knees for extra support. I hoped there would not be too many more hills of that sort throughout the rest of my journey, although that thought would come to haunt me again before the end.

As I was approaching the limit of the route that I knew, I tried to settle back down into a rhythm and although the route was slightly undulating, it also had a lot of twists and turns through forests, often negotiating fallen trees and my favourite gnarly tree roots to keep an eye out for. I managed this section without any falls, trips or stumbles. The last time I had done this part of the run was winter about 18 months ago, as part of the Pilgrim’s Challenge, and the route was extraordinarily muddy and slippery. Today it was considerably easier.

This was the stretch of the route where the trail approached closer to the London orbital M25 and indeed the drone of the cars on the motorway became ever more noticeable over the next couple of hours.

I chatted to a few people as we ran at similar paces, sometimes slowing for a rest and sometimes getting a second wind and moving ahead of them as they had with me.

The trail evened out a few miles before we reached the Reigate Hill checkpoint, which was positioned just after the crest of a hill overlooking (presumably) Reigate, and I saw many other runners, walkers and bikers coming up the hill to enjoy the views across south Surrey and Sussex, which I had just taken in myself.

Aid 4: Reigate Hill – 32.3 miles, 6:03:03

Lunchtime.

I don’t remember if it was here, but the usual smell of summer barbecues, roasting meat, curries and in general burning animal flesh wafted through the air on many occasions through the day, and this was a picnic area in an English beauty spot at Saturday lunchtime on a sunny, summer’s day, so chances are it was here, tormenting me.

After a few slugs of coke, I grabbed some slices of melon, orange, apple and banana and, after ‘stuffing my face’, left the checkpoint doing my best impression of a hamster, with little more than the banana for the road.

There was still quite a bit of downhill before reaching the bottom of the next valley, or at least diverting uphill again. After a short while I found myself walking (yes, walking) through the outskirts of a village before tracing a path through a school complex (Royal Alexandra and Albert School, Gatton). I kept a lookout for the signs indicating I was on the right track and my levels of confidence that I had missed a turning on my own, were at rock bottom before I eventually spotted some red and white tape fluttering in the breeze.

Golden Cornfields
Golden Cornfields

Even though there was a lot of downhill, I was finding it difficult to run without pain. The same pain I had experienced in my previous race (SDW100) which was way too close to the pain I had felt in my hip 5 years ago in Leadville before it broke.

I was in a quandary.

Again after 30 miles into a race, the discomfort from running was increasing.

My head told me I should stop and that it would be far more sensible to live to race another day, although multiple DNF records are a difficult blemish to expunge from a runners consciousness. I had followed my head in Mont Blanc last year and, it turned out, I had bailed for no good reason.

My heart told me to carry on until it became unbearable as my challenge for the year was to complete all four races, and failure at any point would diminish the accomplishment of all of the other races – past and future. That is, unfortunately, the strategy I had taken at Leadville 2010,  and we all know where that road ended.

My surgeon had told me previously that there was “no way” this hip would ever give me any problems again and “if anything, it would be the other side” that would start to exhibit the same symptoms. So I had that small level of confidence that at least the same stress was unlikely to occur again. My issues was now knowing whether something further, simpler or different might occur.

My wife, Liz, as supportive as ever, was incredibly disappointed for me, as I spoke to her on my journey. Interestingly, either my phone, or her phone, was playing up around this point and one of us had unwittingly dialled the other, and since I had been taking pictures or something anyway, it was several minutes into our conversation before we realised the fortuitous accident.

I explained a now familiar story of frustration from the aching in my left side hip and she listened as I whinged and moaned a bit about not enjoying the challenge; why do I do this; it must be time to give up and act my age(??), as I had already cogitated the matter for quite a few miles.

I had probably 16-17 miles to cover to the halfway point and I decided it best to press on to halfway, where we would, in a repeat of the previous race, see how I felt. The prospect of walking 3-4 hours in the midday heat was not appealing.

Hanging Wood...
Hanging Wood…

By the time I had traversed a golf course and reached the outskirts of Merstham, my route diverted from anything I was now familiar with and nipped across the M25 which was now to remain less than a mile to our south until just after the halfway point. I spoke to an Irish lady whose partner was crewing her and had arranged to meet her at many of the checkpoints. The traffic on the M25 clockwise (heading west at this point) was backed up and slow moving for several miles, and she was concerned he was not going to be able to get to her in time. She ran off as we approached the bridge across the M25, saying something about trying to spot his car 😉 So, of course my mind then whiled away the hours trying work out the improbability of her spotting him in a traffic queue on Britain’s busiest motorway in the 10-15 seconds it took to cross the bridge.

After the crossing, we did a sharp ascent to the top of the rise again and followed a track called (not for the first time) Pilgrim’s Lane. The track went through a farmyard and surrounding miscellaneous building and outhouses, before disappearing once more into a wooded area, but it was fairly level most of the way and I reached the next checkpoint on Gravelly Hill sooner than I had expected..

Aid 5: Caterham – 38 miles, 7:47:38

The aid station was located at the east end of a clearing in the forest and the staff had done their best to utilise as much shelter from the trees as possible. The inexorable motion of the Sun was taking its toll though and the flimsy gazebos were little protection against the heat now convecting up the side of the south facing slope.

Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill
Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill

I still had what felt like a long slog of 12 miles to go to the halfway point and I didn’t relish the thought of much of the same type of terrain as I had experienced for the last few hours, especially in this heat. The terrain also caused another problem – gravel in my shoes. I had not fitted any ‘gaiters’ to my shoes, to stop trail detritus finding its way to my feet, so I don’t suppose I should have expected any less. It did mean occasionally after a rough trail, I needed to ’empty’ the sticks and stones, which I did at this checkpoint in the comfort of a chair. It was bliss to sit down, if only for a moment. The biggest problem, however, is always getting up again afterwards 😡

My water was still okay, even though I had been drinking constantly, so I ate a few pieces of iced melon and drank some coke, both of which were most welcome in the heat and, after thanking the volunteers, I was on my way once again and although it seemed like I had spent a good while at this aid station, in reality it was only about 5 or 6 minutes.

The trail from Gravelly Hill veered away from the road down through the ominously named Hanging Wood, which was still and close inside and lived up to its eerie name. I was quickly through and emerged at another bridge across a busy road (A22) before picking up another road called Quarry Road which made me smile as we had moved into our new house in Quarry Street, about two weeks before.

For a couple of miles I travelled past more expensive houses, tucked away in the woods, which meandered up and down, left and right, the road snaking an uncertain path through the trees, before eventually turning to the right back along a trail. After another couple of miles, the route diverted south again and I noticed the exposed white chalk excavations, which presumably gave Quarry Road its name.

English Harvest
English harvest, from a trail on the edge

I considered that the main difference between this and my previous race through another national park, along the South Downs Way, in June. This course was far less consistent, that is, it was far more variable and had far more enclosed forest sections with twisting and turning, undulations in the tracks. The terrain was largely similar, with a variety of loose gravel, compacted earth and roads through small villages to negotiate, but this route had a lot more of the aforementioned ‘steps’ and much of the trail also ran through untended field edges, giving a distinct impression the path was an afterthought at the sudden demise of crops, where spring sowing tractors had been unable to extend their reach.

Less than a mile after one of these fields where the hay was being harvested and the stalks baled into giant cylinders throughout, the trail turned again to an uphill forest section, where I again saw the enthusiastic lady with her pom-poms shouting and encouraging the runners on their way up the hill! One of the other runners asked if she was going to be on every hill for the next 60 miles 🙂 She smiled politely and declined an answer.

At the top, the final checkpoint before halfway was a welcome reprieve.

Aid 6: Botley Hill – 43 miles, 9:07:23

The volunteers at Botley hill had a lot more shelter from the mid-afternoon heat and it was noticeably cooler here to stop, than at the previous checkpoint. Even so, I spent only a scant three minutes filling my face with the usual offerings. The iced water melon REALLY was good.

The route continued through woods, fields and edges of fields before picking up another road through a residential area.

There were quite a few cars parked along this road and many crew / supporters were waiting for their runners to come through. There was one very enthusiastic Aussie lady with a cow-bell encouraging the competitors and I smiled at her and her group as I passed. I saw them many more times throughout the day.

Solitary Journey. Image - Stuart March Photography
Solitary Journey. Image – Stuart March Photography

As I made my way along, a policeman in his car slowed and drove alongside me. Although I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, my adrenaline levels rose ever so slightly, and I wondered if the local neighbourhood watch had reported me for emptying the grit from my shoes onto the kerbside. I was relieved when he asked me what the race was about, and when I explained, he laughed and stated he could probably just about manage 100 miles, in his car, provided he was given the opportunity to stop for lunch 🙂

Throughout races of such a huge length of time (rather than necessarily distance) one does tend to have many ups and downs. These often bear no correlation to the difficulty of the trail, how fatigued the runner is or how hungry. I had a low point myself earlier on, which correlated with the ache in my hip which was progressively getting worse as I continued, but after continual testing, I now found I was able to run more steadily along the gentle trails and so progressed as fast as I could towards the mid-way checkpoint.

Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy

I stopped at a right turning in the trail in order to unload the small but highly irritating stones which were gravitating towards the soles of my feet, but continued quickly on my way as trail turned to lane and lane changed back to trail before I eventually hit the promisingly named ‘Main Road’ with signposts to Knockholt village and from there it was what seemed a very long half mile to the checkpoint.

Aid 7: Knockholt Pound – 50 miles, 10:31:12

It is always such a boost to see my family at the checkpoints, especially for the first time in a race. They were all waiting dutifully for me to come in, and helped me with the usual quick hits of fruit and coke, before I sat down and had some proper food – pasta and chilli.

Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy

The village hall at Knockholt Pound was like a sauna with all the sweaty bodies and heat from the weather, so I sat outside in a hallway, but this was almost as steamy. Liz took my top, which I had changed for a fresh one, and damped it in cold water, and hanging this round my shoulders while I ate my pasta was ‘exhilarating’, to say the least! Savannah was a star fetching me additional cokes and fruit while I changed my socks and contemplated my next steps.

Halfway into a race is a huge psychological milestone, but I was unsure if my recent bought of speed was a swan song or a new lease of life. Either way, it was a tough decision to put my shoes back on, stand up and walk back out the door.

I said goodbye to the others, who had migrated outside to look after the dogs, and walking back round through the checkpoint ‘entrance’ had to explain I had already been checked in, so as not to confuse the volunteers ticking runners off.

The route through the village continued briefly, before dipping back south to the NDW trail, which we had been diverted away from a mile or so before the checkpoint, and from there it continued in a similar fashion to previously, through field and woods. Suddenly, after running down through a couple of clear trails at the edge of open fields, I was surprised to find myself running parallel right next to the M25 Motorway (which was no longer suffering its earlier congestion) and after the calm of village life, that was a bit of an assault on my senses. Luckily, after no more than 500m the route headed south-east and over the motorway which continued on its north-easterly circuit of the capital.

A couple of other runners and myself now took a tortuous route on the local roads and trails through another village, on another road known as West and East Pilgrims Way, which were spliced onto either side of the High Street at Otford. It was about here that I heard Liz and the children in the car as they made their way past me. They were unable to stop though, as I later found out, the car was running on fumes and they were off to get fuel.

The route settled down after crossing the railway line at the east end of Otford, and the town abruptly died out in favour of a steep uphill forest trail, but on a positive point is was was as straight as an arrow for a good kilometre.

The joy of a little consistency was unfortunately short lived and we were soon back to running across and around fields of corn, through woods and down the odd lane.

Having left the M25 to its orbital journey, the source of road noise was replaced by the M26 which we were now running parallel with although admittedly it was at least a mile down the slope of the downs, which we were continuing to traverse, along, up and down.

As I emerged from a wooded area I saw a village off in the distance and hoped that this was Wrotham, where my sister and her husband had run a restaurant in the past. The route picked up the Pilgrims Way on the way into the village (I think there was a nomenclaturistic theme emerging here) and as I turned a final curve towards playing fields, I saw the Centurion flags in the early evening light and then spotted my children running towards me.

Aid 8: Wrotham – 60 miles, 13:22:16

It was great to see my family again and a huge boost with around 40 miles to go.  It had taken me some time to reach this checkpoint and the proverbial wheels were starting to fall of some of their wagons, through hunger and tiredness, but I was glad they had a park with swings in which to play as they waited, so at least boredom was not added into the mix. My pace was slow though; much slower than I had hoped to this stage and even a sub-24 hour 100 was in jeopardy, and I knew I would have to move it to get in under that particular wire.

The children again helped with cokes and fruit for me (and I helped to get them some chocolate chip cookies). We discussed the next stop which, for crew accessibility, was at Bluebell hill and as it was already nearly 7:30pm, I did not expect to see them again in the dark of the evening.

I ran off after saying goodbye to everyone, and they ran after me again (unofficial pacers!) so after one final hug, I disappeared down a trail which led to a bridge across the M20 motorway!

More cornfields....!
More cornfields….!

Thankfully the route now settled down on its way up the hill towards Vigo Village, the rise being only a couple of hundred feet and then a nice forest plateau for a while, followed by a similar open section at the edge of a field after descending couple of hundred feet again. There were two or three runners both ahead of and behind me, although as we were now into the pacer permissible stage of the race, it was difficult to tell whether they were two individual runners chatting, or a runner and pacer – I generally assumed they were the latter, as the telltale signs were there; one was generally smiling and chatty, running ahead to open gates, straining to hold back like Usain Bolt at a parent’s sports day, while the other was moving more like Mr Bean, having rode across America on a horse with no saddle, trying to force down an inch of squashed banana without vomiting and caked in dried, salty sweat accumulated over the last 14 hours.

After a small rise it was only a quarter of a mile to the aid station at the top of Holly Hill.

Aid 9: Holly Hill – 65.6 miles, 14:31:14

I only stopped for a few minutes, having only come about 5 miles since a long stop at Merstham. The Sun was pretty much down by the time I reached Holly Hill, and even though it was still light, I got my torch out to hold ready for the impending onset of the night after the twilight as I left the aid station. I also put my Garmin on charge in my backpack – it normally lasts for about 18-20 hours, but had already beeped at me to indicate low charge, and since I was not expecting to take 34 hours, I thought it best to charge it now to get me to the end.

Probably not the best idea, for a couple of reasons.

For some obscure reason, I had it in my mind, even after looking at the aid station list and checking, that the next checkpoint was 72 odd miles, that is, only 5-6 miles from leaving Holly hill. That wouldn’t have been a major problem, but also for some reason it no longer beeps laps when it is on charge (I have it set to indicate every kilometre).

So, imagine the scene. Suddenly, it was getting dark, I had no idea how far I had gone, and no idea why, after 6 miles, the aid station was not materialising. Not a good situation to be in – especially when you think you are close and you tell you wife, I’ll probably be another 30 minutes and an hour later you’re still not at the checkpoint 😯

Nevertheless, the route was actually quite pleasant as the sun was going down, both before and after the checkpoint, and I enjoyed the play of light in the trees and the changing colour of the sky. There was a long section through a forest with a well tended trail for around 3-4 km immediately after the checkpoint where I eventually had to succumb to the use of my head torch, although for quite some while I switched it off when going through clearings where the remaining daylight was sufficient to see the trail. Eventually though, even this was not possible.

I spoke to a chap, Ilsuk Han #25, who was running and walking at a similar pace to me. We talked about other races, running and how he was doing. He seemed stronger and more comfortable than me at that stage, but I largely kept up with him, as we both ‘tagged’ on to a group of others running with a pacer.

Twilight Sunflowers - Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)
Twilight Sunflowers – Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)

This was a really nice part of the race, where I’d settled into a rhythm as the terrain was now marginally more consistent, I was having a second wind and thankfully the heat from the day had disappeared. It was also about this time that we went through a field of sunflowers which made the most amazing sight, but the light was not really good enough (by the time I got there!) to take a picture, so thanks to those others who provided a few on Facebook!

For almost an hour the route had been undulating, but slowly descending, and as the little group of us, made our way along, sometimes dispersing, sometimes travelling together, we eventually hit the highly urban area on the outskirts of Chatham. As we picked through the roads, underpasses and bridges, I retrieved my now charged watch from my pack, so at least I now had an idea of how far I had come. Unfortunately, my expectation about where the next checkpoint was located, was still incorrect and I constantly thought it was imminent.

Having crossed over the M2 motorway, which I considered a major bridge, we turned south and made our way across the longer and more impressive viaduct across the Medway river, along the pavement by the side of the motorway, by the end of which we had added at least another mile to our journey. The motorway over the river was well lit, so I turned off my head torch to save batteries, and the smooth man-made surface afforded the opportunity to get into a nice ‘pace’ (relatively speaking) and so I caught a few others during this section. Once on the other side of the viaduct, we crossed under the motorway again – I grumpily noted there was not a pathway on the western side of the bridge, hence the need to cross over and back again, probably adding an unnecessary 200m to our journey 😉

For another 1/2 mile we ran parallel with the main road, with me checking around every corner for signs of the next checkpoint. My hopes were continually dashed and eventually we turned away from the noise of the road and started a long haul uphill, covering an ascent of 500ft in a couple of miles. I passed quite a few people as I hiked uphill, continually hoping that each light I saw in the distance was an indication of an imminent aid station. My estimated text to Liz of 30 minutes to the next checkpoint had been followed by apologies of confusion as to what was happening with my Garmin and my mind! I also passed a guy who was rather worse off and I chatted to him as I passed, but he was adamant he didn’t need anything and was just plodding slowing along in order to pull out at the next checkpoint. As I turned round every so often to check on him, the line of head torches up the hill confirmed for me that everyone was checking he was okay.

After a couple of miles, the rise diminished a little and going was a little easier. The trail was dusty though, and I was more than a little surprised when a couple of cars came up from behind. I assumed they were crew vehicles heading for the aid station, but thought otherwise when the second driver showed extreme irritation with the fact that another runner and myself did not get out of the way instantly, speeding up as soon as he had the opportunity and kicking up clouds of dust into our head torches, which stuck to my salty skin and made it difficult to breath for several minutes afterwards. Thanks very much!

Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy
Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy

Eventually, 45 minutes after leaving the road and starting up the hill, I saw lights and people congregating, giving me a good indication that the checkpoint was just ahead. The 6 miles I was expecting had turned into a long tortuous 11 miles and had been one of the toughest mental sections of the day. On the upside, as I ran down the side of the grass verge to the Centurion flags illuminated in the dark, I had 4-5 miles less to go than I had expected and, significantly, I suddenly realised this was under one marathon distance, but more importantly, my family were still waiting for me.

Aid 10: Bluebell Hill – 76.2 miles, 17:00:12

After my miscalculation error, I had not expected them to still be here as it was 11:00pm. Bless them – they had been spotting satellites and shooting stars in the crystal clear sky and playing with the dogs, but they were very tired. I stayed here for over 25 minutes, longer than I should have and went through an ‘I-don’t-feel-like-going-back-out’ moment as I emptied my shoes, drank hot tea and put on my base layer, although regretted than once I was underway again as it was still relatively warm. The children were stars again, getting me everything I needed 🙂

After the struggle of standing up, I made my way off, with a nice long downhill section easing my legs back into some semblance of function after being stationary for so long. The downhill consisted of a narrow channel, reminiscent of the final downhill into Eastbourne on the SDW100 (where there was only 3km to go, I dreamt!), and I had to watch my foot placement in the uneven and rutted surface.

At the bottom of the hill there was a crossing via a subway under the road, before ascending back up 300-400ft to the ridge through a forest in about a quarter mile. That seemed quite hard, but was over quite quickly and was followed by a level trail all the way to the descent into Detling. For the last few miles I had started to notice a hotspot under my left foot again, and despite pulling and pushing my sock about (which had been the cause of problems in the previous race) I hoped the blister which was forming would not cause too many problems towards the end of the race.

There was another brief downhill into the village, and then a well marked route up and over a pedestrian bridge which I surprised myself by bounding up and down quite quickly. The checkpoint was immediately after the bridge and there were several crew and support staff pointing the way for weary competitors.

Aid 11: Detling – 82 miles, 18:45:47

As a result of the ease of the last section, I was feeling good as ran up the steps into the hall where the food and aid was laid out and I got more than a few quizzical looks from those already in the hall.

At this time of night, my need for coke is normally replaced by a desire for a hot drink, and sweet tea invariably hits the spot – tonight was no different. The aid station staff were incredible – so helpful and supportive, even at nearly 1:00am, they were bright and cheery and a real boost.

The lady I spoke to said there were only about three hills left before the end. I guess I shouldn’t have taken that quite as literally as she obviously intended it, as over the next 3 miles I counted about seven.

I left full of confidence and started my way up the first hill. The route was the same as it had been earlier in the day; initially through trees, but then backwards and forwards across undulating fields.

“Ooooh, this must be what she meant about the hills”, I thought to myself as I stealthily negotiated my way down the hill only a few moments after ascending the last. I increased my count.

One.

The trail was dark, and the sky was clear and I enjoyed the open sections where I could spot the constellations ahead of me – Hercules was prominent at the time.

Two.

As I zigzagged up and down the hills I could also see another couple of torches both in front of and behind me.

Three – great, that must be it.

Then there was a flight of steep wooden steps, both down and up. I had flashbacks to Box Hill earlier in the day, and to the Classic Cliffs again.

Four – Huh? Maybe that last one didn’t count as a hill…

More steps.

Five – Oh man, what is going on here?

Six – whose idea was this?

Seven – had enough now.

By the top of the seventh hill, there were one or two of us together, which, after 85 or so miles is actually quite remarkable, and we travelled on chatting together for about 30 minutes before hitting the downhill into the next village.

As we hit Hollingbourne, my companion stopped as he was meeting his girlfriend, but distracted by the departure, I then made a fatal error and missed the signs for the trail.

I travelled downhill along the village ‘main road’ which was all but deserted at 2:30am, for about 1/4 mile before I intuitively felt I had taken a wrong turn. The lack of indications, either permanent or race placed, also helped me to make the u-turn decision. As I arrived back at the junction where I suspected I had gone wrong, a crew / supporter confirmed I should take the ‘other’ route.

Annoyingly, I had wasted over 5 minutes with my detour, and although the route was now very slowly ascending along a paved road, I ran on to try to regain some time.

Moon in Taurus
Moon in Taurus

The moon was rising to the east, slightly to the left of my current heading, and it made a spectacular view with the crescent moon perfectly framing Aldebaran in Taurus, with the Pleiades watching pensively overhead. Oh for a camera, tripod and a couple of hours to spare at that moment 🙂

I think I was running with another one or two people at this stage and there were another group of runners up ahead, probably two competitors and a pacer, I thought, as they were doing a run walk strategy and the pacer was counting out their mile pace to ensure they had a chance of getting in under the 24 hour mark for the ‘special’ buckle.

I ran with them for a bit but did not like the sound of their conversation. They lacked confidence that they would be able to make the cut-off, and I suddenly started to doubt I had calculated correctly. I think the pacer was trying to gain a slight amount of contingency for his colleagues, but in reality it was having more of a negative effect on me.

As a result, I stepped up a gear and pushed to get into a bit more of a rhythm. The surface was relatively flat (i.e. ±100ft undulations), but again variable and through a largely forested area, required a fair amount of concentration to avoid mishap on the uneven ground. Undulating was actually good at this stage and I pushed up to the top of the short rises and enjoyed the respite of the downhills. At one point I was pacing for the whole group of half a dozen or so of us, and I felt strong as the kilometres ticked off slowly.

It was about 5km from Hollingbourne to the next aid station but the going was easy so I covered it steadily and hit the small station at Lenham at about 3:15am.

Aid 12: Lenham – 90.9 miles, 21:15:43

My feet were starting to suffer by this point and I was glad that there was only just over 10 miles to go, with a bit extra added on for detours and diversions (my reckoning was no more than an additional mile or so).

As I stopped I remembered to switch off my head torch, rather than blind the volunteers – at that time in the morning, I’m sure they are just as tired as the runners, but they all keep up a happy demeanour and support the competitors through the last few miles. I did the usual with a quick warm tea and fruit to keep me going. I forced down a dry scotch egg to try to get some protein onboard, along with some crisps for salt, although at this stage I was starting to think about the end and so wasn’t expecting to need much more food. I was out of this aid station within no more than 5 minutes, and as I left, the pacing group I had been with earlier pulled in.

I always estimate about 2 hours to do 10 miles on a good day,  and as I left the checkpoint I was making mental calculations about how long I had to go, both in distance and time.

I ran along a road briefly to pick up the trail lower down the hill following another few runners which I tried to catch, and later on also crossed over another road which was empty, even though the first light of dawn was now starting to obliterate the stars in the sky.

As I carried on and suddenly found myself all alone for the first time in ages.

The route went past a few houses, and what appeared to be another quarry, but eventually started to take a constant slow downhill stance. It was a fairly wide trail through an arch of trees at this stage, with a nicely stable surface and the additional light from the slowly rising Sun helped with my foot placement allowing me to keep up the steady pace I had calculated. I was trying to achieve 7 minute kilometres – laughable, really, but significantly faster than the 10 minute kms I had been reduced to earlier in the day, and if I could cut 2-3 minutes off my average pace over the remaining distance, I would be ‘safe’ for the sub-24 buckle.

As I closed on where I hoped the checkpoint would be, I noted I had not seen any trail markers for some time in my solitary run through the downhill forest section and wondered if I had missed a turning. If I had, I would not have time to retrace my steps and get in in time, so carried on what I thought was the route and luckily eventually saw some crew and supporters encouraging me, and confirming the checkpoint was just ahead; I suppose it is not that strange the thoughts that go through your mind at 4am after running for nearly 24 hours straight.

Aid 13: Dunn Street – 98.4 miles, 22:52:02

I hardly stayed at this aid station for any time at all. There were only 4.5 miles to go, and I didn’t feel I needed anything to get me through that, so I grabbed a couple of bits for the road and guiltily made my way out. I guess the aid station staff are used to people getting out as fast as they can when so close to the finish, but they were just as encouraging and supportive as all the other checkpoints and I thanked them all the same.

Once I got underway, and was clear of the woods, I realised everything was getting much brighter, even though the sun was not quite risen yet, and the sky was light enough that I no longer needed my head torch, so I packed it away as I continued.

The route was largely downhill, albeit slowly, and with the time I had made up on the last couple of sections, I was now confident I could get in sub-24, but obviously wanted to do the fastest time that I could so carried on at the (relatively slow) pace I had managed to maintain before.

We ran across a couple more fields, and I enjoyed the red dawn skies illuminated by the imminent sunrise, before coming across an avenue of tended trees along a light tarmac road, before hitting the trail again with about 3km left to go.

There were a few runners around me, and one guy sped past me as if he had just started out doing a 5k! I was keen not let that happen again, so I upped my pace as much as I could in anticipation of turning the final corner.

We ran through another field, along a road through a village green, and then dipping around the back of some farm sized greenhouses, with the number of supporters walking towards and away from the finish increasing all the time, the dew in the long grass suddenly making my feet soaked, but I wasn’t worried at this stage, and carried on regardless.

As I departed the trail and headed for the railway crossing, I remembered something James mentioned at the start about using the bridge and so I went up and over the pedestrian bridge even though the railway level crossing was open and empty. I even had to find my way out through a ticket office to arrive 5 yards across the road from where I’d been two minutes earlier :laugh: I’ll put that down to a mist of 100 mile exhaustion and 24 hour sleep deprivation! On the upside, the station was ‘Wye’ and as I followed the tape markings, I knew I was close to the finish.

Shortly after I saw a Centurion crew member beckoning me towards the final turn. “Go right round to the back” he said, and I realised why as I passed several doors and rooms of competitors already inside who had completed their race, before I saw the finish line.

I smiled as I saw Liz on the other side of the finish, and I stopped only after crossing under the now familiar Centurion inflatable.

Finish: Wye – 103 miles, 23:40:13

I had done it.

Finish line euphoria
Finish line euphoria

After another scare earlier in the race, I had managed to pull another sub-24 out of the bag. The conditions had been atrocious for the competitors, as eventually only 137 of the 218 starters, roughly 63%, had finished the race, many succumbing to the hot conditions.

I relished the presentation of my buckle and thanked the staff for all their support. I also thanked Stuart, the photographer, who had been up since the early hours of the previous day, who had followed the runners across several locations, and who had also been cheerful and supportive throughout the day. My finish bag was with me almost immediately  and shortly afterwards I was in the hall with Liz, a sweet cup of tea and a hot bacon sandwich, and let me tell you, life doesn’t get any better than that! 😀

I chatted with Martin Walker #100, who came in just before me along with Ilsuk Han who I had run with earlier. Martin sat next to me on the chairs laid out and is also doing the Grand Slam, but was of the opinion he’d not be doing anything like this again after this year.

Having stopped, my feet were starting to swell and my body was starting to stiffen up. It took some time to be able to muster the concentration to bend down and pop my feet out of my trainers, without losing a layer of skin from the soles of my feet at the same time. The simple act of changing shorts, top and socks eventually took me about an hour, and I anticipated walking like John Wayne for the next few days.

Grand Slam finish still a reality
Grand Slam finish still a reality

I’d like to thank my wife for all her support throughout the race and bringing the children to the finish to see me. I would not have got as far as I did without all her love and kindness, advice and ignoring my whinging.

I’d also, again, like to thank the Centurion organisers and volunteers who were tireless in their support of the competitor’s dreams of a 100 mile finish. Congratulations to all those who achieved a first 100-mile finish on a tough course, and to all those still in the Grand Slam 2015 – see you in October!

2 thoughts on “Keeping the Dream Alive”

  1. What a great report! I read it out loud to Eliot. We’re ready to sign up for next year. 🙂 Congratulations on a wonderful finish.

    1. Thanks Liza – Glad you enjoyed the tribulations. Your sub-20 Leadville was the best though, and most impressive! Would be great to have you all over!

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