NDW100 – A Journey never to be forgotten
Addiction sounds like a dirty word these days, conjuring up images of delinquents sat in a dingy crack den, so it’s time to come clean (no pun intended) I am an addict. Not of the crack pipe but a much better, higher high than ingested substances can provide, I’m talking of course about the endorphins and satisfaction we get from running. When we are not running, we crave a run, just a five minute stretch around the block; maybe just sit watching the common wealth games wearing our trainers as its taper time. Whatever the reason/ excuse, we need a fix; there is no other way to describe it.
Ok, now I am out about my addiction which started in January 2012, I can get around to describing what has to be one of the most memorable few days of my life, after a little more preamble… My dad was proper old school, never showed any emotion and set the bar higher than I could ever reach to gain his approval. Maybe finally I have done something physically challenging enough that he might have given me that single hug I sought all my life. My mum on the other hand would have thought I was the greatest, simply for running my first ever race the Brighton Half Marathon in February 2012 and absolutely forbade me from doing something as stupid as running a 100 miles..
The NDW100 was to be my second ultra, following on from a ‘just inside the cut-off’ 13:08 finish in the 2014 NDW50 which served as my qualifier for the NDW100. The training and build up to the NDW50 was poor due to many reasons not least of which were a three week trip to Disneyland not too long before race day! My hopes were high, but modestly placed that I had more to give this challenging 100 mile course across the beautiful North Downs. Why do we want to run a 100 miles in the first place? This is a question I and probably thousands of others would like an answer to, but without knowing why, my life would never be complete if I had never tried the distance. I blame Geoff Roes/ Anton Krupika/ Kilian Jornet and Hal Koerner for my obsession with the 100 mile distance. So I’m not only an addict, but a freak who is obsessed with running a 100 miles, my fantastic wife Shelley knows there is no stash of money anywhere, so quite why she puts up with me remains a mystery. Back to the point, yes a 100 mile obsession started by the movie “Unbreakable: The Western States 100”, quite simply if you haven’t seen this movie, give it a try, you will not be disappointed.
The idea of Shelley being my crew for the race was sold like a credit default swap, packaged up with a week-long trip to the UK staying in a nice hotel complete with a pool and all the extras. The in-laws need little encouragement to see our children, Harvey nine and Jemima five so agreed in a jiffy to come down and help out with child care and a crew stop at halfway. The team was taking shape, pacing came from Scott my old running partner who responded to my initial email far more eager than anticipated. Ideally I was hoping he would jump in at mile 50, but on reflection his decision to wait until mile 70 (72) was perfect.
After a couple of months of hard training and eating a bloody good diet I felt ready to give the North Downs my best shot. Living in Ibiza training over the summer has been tough, very tough in a summer without a single drop of rain for many months and morning temperatures over 30oC. Even being out of the door for 05:30 long runs in the hills mean there is no escape from the unforgiving mid-morning rays of the Balearic sunshine. Late night head torch runs are a battle with stifling humidity.
Training done and we are on the plane at 05:00 to land in a miserable, grey and very wet Gatwick at 06:10 on Wednesday pre-race. The next few days were blissfully spent with Shelley and the children, my final piece of work a 10k on the hotel treadmill and it felt good. On the eve of race day the journey from Farnborough to Farnham to register and collect bib number was wet, very wet, to the extent that by 10pm I was hoping to receive a race cancelled message from the race organisers.
My race plan had been to aim for a 12 hour first 50 miles, having gone over it a zillion times in my mind where to get 68 minutes from? I knew for sure I was stronger on hills and would gain time there and the latter seven miles would be much quicker. I was hopeful of getting halfway near to 12 hours. The plan was to go real slow and steady in the first 50, but the weather forecast scared me half to death and I wanted to bank enough time that I wouldn’t be fleeing from CP to CP in the nick of time in the anticipated mud.
Shelley had set her phone alarm as backup to mine not going off for any reason but failed to realise her phone was on Ibiza time so we were up and buzzing an hour ahead of schedule at 03:15. It’s fair to say nerves were an issue, I had not been this nervous since my first acting performance at Junior school when I was sick onstage! The morning turned out to be a gift from above, I actually looked skywards (not the only time this day) and said thank you. At Farnham school hall Shelley was in awe at the sight of so many ‘nutters’ as she now calls us, she got a real spine tingling buzz from the energy in the room listening to James ‘ race briefing. What did he say about the stretch of woods after mile 60, “it might not be obvious”, “oh f*ck I was going to get lost for sure!!” Navigation and a total lack of any kind of sense of direction is my Achilles heel. Walking to the trail head the weather was picture postcard material, freshness in the air from the heavy rain and lovely sunshine to warm the soul. Today I was going to start near the back and not get caught up in a frantic 9min mile pace at the start!
The first mile or two were a little bit stop/ start as people ahead where doing acrobatics to avoid the huge puddles stretching the width of the trail and avoiding the very overgrown brambles but this was a nice steady way to get warmed up. After a couple of miles the convoy started properly rolling and things felt good, the frequent beep of the Suunto indicating another passing mile seemed to fly by. The first aid station at the golf course was soon upon us, quick top up of water and off. It was great chatting to people along the way, a guy from Cumbria who did UTMB last year telling how vitally important it was to start slow, he was 2,200 at CP1 at UTMB and finished 1,110. I saw Tim Lambert and passed him without knowing for sure it was him, my first thoughts were that it couldn’t possibly be Tim as he did around 10:30 for NDW50 and I shouldn’t be anywhere near him. Chatted with an experienced 8 x 100 mile finisher from Sweden who said 100 mile races in his area were £10 and great fun, sounds like a plan J? Sadly I don’t think he finished. Conditions were near perfect, the rain had dampened the sandy parts of the course, which had become compacted from those in front making it nice underfoot. In places the mist created some amazing ethereal scenes from the warming sun. The one over-riding thought I could not shake was how good I felt, it didn’t seem real. A few times I took photo’s to try and slow myself down, it didn’t seem possible that I was going this good without a care in the world! Sometime after the second aid station I started chatting with Paul Haynes, we hit it off and seemed to be travelling at a similar pace. As he told me his running cv I thought I should not be running alongside such a good runner but felt great and was not going to slow down any more as we chatted the miles away easily. We saw Tim a few times and ran together for a few miles which was good, everyone was rooting for him to achieve his very public dreams and honour his promise to his good friend from the US. At Boxhill CP Tim informed Paul and I we were on for sub 11 hour 50, I was honestly shocked beyond belief it was right here I was getting concerned that implosion was going to come in spectacular style and the feel good was a barrier to inevitable meltdown. Boxhill came and went, I loved every step of that hill, the miles still ticked by with ease. At one point I said to Paul “You go on ahead I would hate to think I was slowing you down”, he replied “I was going to say the same, you are travelling the hills so well”. Probably the biggest compliment I ever received in my life!!! Botley Hill aid station was memorable as a lovely girl was hugging every runner atop the hill, great stuff from the volunteers. For the first time I felt something on my left ankle and knew immediately what it was, the aggravating tendon issue felt on my right foot during NDW50. Also I knew there was nothing on earth I could do once it started, initially it is discomfort rather than pain. We passed the dodgy cow fields without incident, Paul wisely suggesting “Let the guy up ahead run past the cows at speed see what mood they are in.”. After the cows I seem to remember we put the hammer down slightly, Paul shouted “Car behind” I squeezed into the hedge aside the road only for the in-laws and Jemima to pass on their way to the half way point with my bag of goodies and hopefully a load of moral support. It was at this time II knew some higher force was looking after me on this weekend for sure. We arrived at Knockholt knowing it was around 11 hours and sat down for feeding, today was a good day.
The halfway aid station at Knockholt is magical, lots of crews excitedly waiting for their runners, hot food and drinks being served in the kitchen, generally most people are still in decent shape. Personally I was full of beans inside the hall getting lots of calories on-board thanks to some lovely hot pasta in addition to all the usual goodies, even had time for a visit to the wc, pity I had brought no reading material.. It was around ten minutes before I emerged outside into the late afternoon sunshine and big hugs from Jemima and the in-laws, this was a special moment. Paul had met his wife at Riegate and then Knockholt when he had not expected to see her at all so he was especially buoyant as we rolled out of town together. It was at this stage I mentioned my legs felt leaden after the ten minute sit down, Paul assured me they would return. His experience was on the money again and soon we were moving nicely again along mainly residential streets, here is a big % of the roads that make up the 20% of the total. It was after a few miles of the unrelenting roads and pavements that my left ankle/ tendon started giving significantly more discomfort to the extent I was feeling it affect my gait. Several times I said to Paul, “You go ahead, I don’t want to slow you down”, each time he valiantly insisted the pace was good for him. I said it one more time and he knew I was not able to sustain what was a reasonable pace to this stage from Knockholt. Again the voice of reason said “Ok, I will get my music on, don’t spoil your race by doing too much at this stage”. I learned so much from running some really enjoyable miles with a good runner and good egg, more than books can teach us for sure. After half a mile I saw my new best mate again as my tendon ‘thing’ meant I could still travel smoothly UP the hills, I didn’t get his attention he soon left me again on the following flat section. The 60 mile aid station came up fairly quickly and I was still making time on my original plan so called Shelley to bring forward my meet with her and Scott from 01:00 to 23:00 / 23:30. It was here I saw Paul for the final time as he rolled out whilst I sagged in a chair enjoying the last of the daylight. As per every aid station the volunteers are amazing, refilling bottles, coffee/tea, nothing is too much trouble. It is only through other blogs I remembered the cow bell here, was like a film set “Runner coming” ring, clang, ring, happy times, treasured memories.
The first Gremlins struck leaving this CP, a single piece of tape made me unsure of the direction, I spent ten minutes wrestling the map and trying to figure if I went across the road or to the right before a group of runners said I should go right! The decline in spirits seemed to be working in unison with the fading daylight. Another mile down the road and another decision to make, straight on or turn right again, asking a woman who pulled in a mini up outside a quant cottage “Which way for North Down Way?”, she didn’t know but beckoned me into the ‘cottage’ which turned out to be a strange little pub! A local guy whose ear bore dozens of studs pointed me straight on “They all went that way he pointed”, phew. But the drama wasn’t over, a guy with a voice box in his neck chased after me hollering as much as a voice box will allow “No, no, no, this way” and he lead me down the right turn and pointed to a sign on a pole, an orange star labelled “DC”. “That’s not our sign, it must be the other way” I told him, and started back where ear ring man had pointed me. The other guy grabbed my arm and jogged with me down the road insisting this was the correct route, and lo and behold red tape. I shook the guys hand heartily, he had probably saved me many miles and a lot of pain, earing man meanwhile had tried to stitch me up. This was the first proper alone stretch, into the woods in the pitch black, only the rounded beam of my secondary head torch showing me the way. It was magical, like something we dream about all our lives, that totally at peace feeling, the sounds of the darkened woods felt as normal as my own heartbeat. I trudged and walked through the woods enjoying every minute whilst being aware of potentially ending up in here until dawn should I take a wrong turn, James’ warning popping into my head now again.. Another head torch caught me up at great speed “You pass me, I’m walking it out of the woods.” he seemed to want the company through the woods, strength in numbers etc. We moved on together in total silence, our head torch beams re-enacting scenes from star wars. Up to now my stomach had been 100%, a strange sickness feeling started at the latter stages of the woods and I became intensely aware of the very circular beam of the torch which seemed to be making me dizzy and sick. Holly Hill came and was a great explosion of fairy lights and crazy volunteers, my frazzled brain by this time didn’t make the connection between Holly and Christmas. My equally frazzled sense of humour cracking a poor joke about me slowing down so much it was now Christmas. I heard mention of dogging so I gave my thanks and left hurriedly, I had no energy for that sort of stuff!
In my mind the meeting with Shelley, Harvey and my pacer Scott was going to be at mile 70, on a road over the motorway, a location chosen for the street lighting. My watch told me I was at 70 miles and no road in sight, a few drops of rain had me unleashing my jacket for its maiden usage. The next couple of miles seemed long, and this was my first of many experiences of thinking I had done more miles than I had, it hurts like hell mentally. Eventually reaching the road over the motorway and no sign of my crew, a frantic phone call and some jogging from both parties and we were unified at mile 72.3! My feet were trashed by now, Shelley did a great job trying to repair them but it was too late, they were mincemeat. Addizero’s and holed socks were swapped for Leaadville 2010’s and new socks, a hot coffee was enjoyed and in all used at least half an hour where it should have been five minutes. This was a learning experience, my first 100 and Shelley’s first go at crewing, we both need some refining! Shelley was in shock at the sight of the many runners hobbling like crippled aliens over the road, she said “None of you look sane, I’m saying that honestly, I just don’t get it.”. Harvey seemed down in spirits seeing me in this now broken state but I knew the buckle was coming home bar an accident, I didn’t realise yet how misplaced my confidence was. Without yet realising it, my condition had taken a plunge from Holy Hill, I didn’t realise 99% of the next 30 miles would be painfully walked. Headtorch was changed for the Petzl daddy torch at this stage and no more head torch dizziness were encountered all night. Scott was in high spirits as we jogged/ shuffled a mile or two but I cried enough, I knew this was going to be a long slog from here, walking was a good few octaves less on the pain scale, I couldn’t handle the pain of running a whole lot more. The rain for the next few miles was relentless, yet my new Marmot dealt with the downpour with ease, it actually felt like I was cocooned safely inside a protective wrapper. The mind is weird when tired and frazzled but I could live with the safe cocoon feeling for now. Somewhere along this stretch we passed a guy who had given up the struggle in his own mind. We tried hard to convince him to walk it into the next aid station with us and re-group, we dropped our pace but as we did the guy dropped his pace. I felt a duty to get the guy to the aid station with us but my efforts seemed futile so we marched into Bluebell Hill where I told the volunteers of the guy that would be following us in and his likelihood of dropping. The guys took a mental note but told me there would be a whole lot more over the night. Shelley had wanted to see me at this aid station but sleep had taken hold whilst Harvey was snoring for England, we had a brief kiss before setting off down a long, dark, very steep and slippery slope which was no coincidence that I cannot remember much of this next stretch after descending the hill into hell. We were sort of lost in some woods until a guy with gps device said I think we go left. We marched up and down a lot of steps and trudged mercilessly on into the wet night. The saving grace of the wooded sections was the canopy slowing down the driving rain, it was very wet rather than very wet with a real sting. By now I was suffering pain at a level unknown previously, legs, ankles, feet, Jesus my feet were trashed. Scott was doing his best to keep me entertained and aware of my surroundings but I had just switched off from reality for a while.
Maybe the warm food or coffee revived me as memories from Deitling onwards are far more lucid, what a site it is that greets people entering the hall at mile 82, broken bodies everywhere, some seemingly in meditative state trying to summon the courage to go back out into the driving rain and darkness. Scott went and woke Shelley and sat with the sleeping Harvey whilst my best friend and wife of 16 years looked at me with sad eyes sat opposite me in the hall. She didn’t need to ask the question but I knew inside she was screaming at me “Why, why the f*ck are you doing this to yourself?” In equal measure I gave her my silent reply with my watery eyes “I don’t know, I just have to, you know that”. It was hard leaving this aid station, the clock said 04:20 we needed to get going, I wasn’t paying attention on the way out as the guy gave us directions, we took a right and chatted with a two times UTMB finisher who looked more broken than anyone I had seen all night. Half a mile later we knew this was the wrong way, wizened UTMB man had stopped higher up waiting for a signal that we had gone the right way before he started re-tracing steps back to the main road. Scott was full of energy and was brilliant at scouting ahead and saved me a mile at least on this occasion. Even now, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have been better continuing the wrong way from Deitling, what we encountered on the correct path was pure unadulterated nastiness, ankle deep mud, 50% gradient slopes, cambered slopes, steps, did I mentioned them. These next few miles brought out a first in me, I wanted to quit. The thought I had never had before, and always assumed I would never think this thought and there it was bold as brass, I wanted to sit down and wait for someone to get me off the course. Scott did a great job, reminding me of the potential look on Harvey’s face being told “Your daddy quit, he’s a quitter, a loser”. I responded by yelling more f*cks at trees, the trail, Scott, how on earth this made me feel better I have no idea but it did and I picked up the death march pace with gusto. We trudged on, and on and on, my watch had gone awol on distance and timing as I had stupidly paused without knowing at times. Along this stretch pacer Scott had played a trick on me, he took off his head torch and said it would not turn off and proceeded to carry it in whichever hand I was walking beside, I moved left, he swapped the torch, I dropped in behind and he put it on his head backwards. My inner demons telling me my pacer and friend was trying to make me quit. Enough, I asked Scot to put his fricking broken head torch in his pack, good it was out of sight. Five minutes later I could see it flashing through the fabric, so it was the torch all along, it wasn’t Scott. No worries, at the next aid station I would get it from the bag and drop a stone onto it’s miserable flashing head, ha see who was laughing then mr head torch. Of course by the time we reached the aid station other more interesting paranoid thoughts had occupied the vacant cavity in my head. The main one being “We are not going to make it in time”, sadly for Scott and myself, I let this thought take over, and the effect this had on my morale was dramatic.
The next few miles are a blur again, a lot of roads I think, Shelley phoned Scott had to take the call my mental faculties were not ready for phone conversations. Shelley wanted to wait outside the final aid station to check we were ok, or maybe that was Lenham, I really don’t know. From Dunn Street at mile 98 I started to believe we were going to make it in time but the pain levels were just silly by now but the death marching was on reasonable terrain until the final couple of miles across ploughed fields where I had my final tantrum and said I would not walk another step after Scott had duped me again on how far we had to go, one mile being two and a half. He tried to cheer me up by asking “Who is the bloke with the beard who started the Western States race?”, “I’m not telling you, why should I?” was my pathetic reply. Finally he managed to convince me this would be the most pathetic DNF they had ever seen, 400 yards from the finish…Eventually the fields gave way to a long stretch of nettles where I got soooo much pleasure seeing my pacer near to tears trying to get through the nettle patch. I’m saying to myself “He’s bothered about f*cking nettles is this a wind up, nettles, he’s winding me up the pussy”. I walked through and never felt a thing, my body was near to shut down and the barriers were down in my head and across the train tracks.. My buckle is waiting I thought smugly. Seeing Shelley and Harvey was a special moment in time, those final few minutes of the race are among my top ten ‘moments’ of my whole life. I received my buckle and place in the Western States ballot from Nici, gave her a bone crunching hug and cried.