Now that I am able to concentrate on anything for more than 30 seconds (more explanation will follow) here is the report of my first Ultra Marathon, the North Downs Way 50 mile.
To try to write about 11+ hours of activity would probably lead to a wall of text and the reader falling asleep, so I will try to keep the text down and break things up with the numerous photos that were captured on the day.
An early start:
After a reasonable nights sleep I woke up at 05:15, having gotten my kit ready the night before it was just a case of having some breakfast and a quick shower. Breakfast consisted of 4 of my home-made flapjacks (recipe will feature in a post following this one) and water.
Gareth, who was my support crew for the day, picked me up at 05:45 to head down to Farnham for the start, the key memory of this journey was Gareth pointing out that it is a long drive and I am going to be running back. Race HQ was at St Polycarps Primary School where I collected my race number, and the race director gave a briefing on the race route, “don’t cross the A24 or you will be disqualified!”
Gareth and I had established a plan for where we would meet as well as what supplies I would need throughout. The race organisers had set up 6 aid stations between Farnham and Knockholt Pound, 2 of which crew were allowed access to, so the plan was that I would meet Gareth at various points throughout the course to resupply, meaning that minimal time would be needed at the official aid stations. Another key advantage of this was that all the sports nutrition I would be using throughout had been tried and tested beforehand.
Farnham to Puttenham – Aid Station 1: 6.8 miles/6.8 miles overall
It was a short walk to the start of the North Downs Way and there was about 15 minutes of waiting around for 07:30, the race start time. It was during this wait that I was really aware of the lack of nerves, comparing it to the Trail Marathon Wales where my nerves were all over the place, here I was remarkably calm. Standing there I had no doubt that I would finish, be it under the 13 and a half hour cut off or not, I was going to finish.
The anticipation was starting to build and following a 10 second countdown the wait was over and we were off. I was in the middle of the pack and I was distinctly aware of the pace, having to really focus on keeping it steady. Throughout all my reading on the subject of Ultra’s I had come across numerous bits of advice and one was ringing in my head “start slow, then go slower”. Not allowing the pack to dictate my pace I slowed down and let people past, it wasn’t a race against anyone else, the challenge was to complete the course and to do this I would stick to my race plan as best I could, a 12hr 15min finish time.
The first 6.8 miles from Farnham to Puttenham was wonderfully flat and the route pretty straight forward. For the most part I had other runners around me, but eventually all our differing race plans meant the field was spreading out.
The Puttenham aid station stop was brief, I grabbed a cup of water and a couple of small cupcakes and was off again.
Puttenham to St Marthas Hill – Aid Station 2: 5.7 miles/12.5 miles overall
So far so good, I was plodding along under my planned pace of 13:30/mi and feeling good. It was getting warmer and this part of the route was pretty exposed, but I wasn’t overly concerned as I knew the latter parts of the Way were under tree cover.
This part of the course was pretty uneventful, I just kept monitoring my pace, keeping an eye on the route ahead and ‘feeling’ out for any hotspots on my feet.
Hitting aid station 2 about 2 hours 18 minutes into the race I met up with Gareth, who after getting a couple of photos commented on how hard this crewing malarkey was.
First order of things to do was get my hydration bladder full, I had already pre-prepared bottles of electrolytes the night before so leaving my pack on Gareth poured it into the pack (In hindsight this was a mistake, see why later on). I filled my bottle with a 4-1 Carb-Protein mix, grabbed some more gels and was off again, I would be seeing Gareth again at the top of Box Hill.
St Marthas Hill to Box Hill – Aid Station 3: 11.5 miles/24 miles overall
Now starting to get into the swing of things properly it was time for the longest stretch between aid stations, 11.5 miles overall. The Way was starting to get a few more hills, which meant the views were only getting better.
As you can see from the photo above the views were stunning and these really helped keep me motivated, the sand however not so much. Along the route there was increasing sections were the path was sandy and this just sapped the strength from the legs, not to mention getting into my shoes.
With only a couple of clouds in the sky the sun was starting to beat down and I was increasing the amount I was drinking. I was feeling good and enjoying myself, I was well on my own by now so I had my music going in one ear and was singing to myself (god help anyone who witnessed that). Things were progressing well, then I hit a snag which fortunately did not impact me as significantly as it could have.
About three miles from the Box Hill aid station my hydration pack ran out of fluid, it seemed that filling it up on my back had resulted in the bladder only appearing full when the reality was that it must have only been about half full. This was a mistake that could have cost me dearly if it wasn’t for the bottle I was carrying and while the 4-1 mix wasn’t ideal to drink on its own, it got me to the Box Hill aid station where I could grab a quick glug of water.
Box Hill to Reigate Hill – Aid Station 4: 7 miles/31 miles overall
I didn’t spend too much time at this station as I was meeting Gareth at the top, crossing the stepping-stones with due care it was time to climb up to the summit (anyone who has been to Box Hill will know what a pleasant stroll up that is!!)
I had rung Gareth before starting the climb to detail what I needed and I opted to put a fresh pair of socks on as well. The climb was expected, (horrible) but I got up there eventually. Gareth ever the motivator asked me what had taken so long, I think my response was of the 4 letter variety.
Fresh socks donned, I was off again and having done this section of the North Downs Way several times I was aware of what I was on for. The route would now be in the shade with tree cover for the most part (a good thing) and more hilly (a bad thing).
Having now done a Marathon and being only just over half way I was feeling the strain on my body, from now on it was unknown territory. So far my nutrition plan was working and I hadn’t had any stomach discomfort, my feet were sore but no blisters. My legs were feeling it and every hill was a real struggle, with every downhill a pleasure to be savoured (albeit briefly)
Reaching Reigate Hill felt like an age, but I was still under my projected race plan.
Gareth had fetched me a bottle of Coke and a Mars bar which lifted my spirits no end. My Garmin’s battery had started to run out, but I had planned for this and using a Duracel pocket charger, a Hilly Gel armband and the base unit for my Garmin 305 fashioned a booster pack that fitted to my arm and would go on to charge my Garmin for the full 11 hours.
Reigate Hill to Caterham – Aid Station 5: 7 miles/38 miles overall
Another part of the North Downs Way that I had already done previous, leaving Reigate hill 31 miles in I was now really feeling sore. I had popped a couple of Ibuprofen to try to keep the inflammation down and ease the soreness but this 7 miles was hard going. The negative feelings were washing over me and as from the photos above I was finding it hard to concentrate, getting confused very easily. I was relying more and more on my map and the tape that the Centurion running team had put out at various locations to mark the route.
I would find myself running along, coming to a junction and standing there totally confused where to go next. The caffeine from the Coke had helped somewhat but it was getting steadily worse, despite this I kept on. It was here that I went wrong on the route, missing a clearly marked sign-post for the North Downs Way and carrying on, only to have realise what I had done and run back up the hill I had just run down, adding about a mile onto my journey.
Towards the end of this stretch I started to feel better in my legs and my pace was starting to return, although the confusion was still there.
I met Gareth just before the Caterham aid station, replenished and set off again.
Caterham to Botley Hill – Aid Station 6: 5 miles/43 miles overall
Leaving the Caterham aid station I was feeling better, I had begun to pick up my average pace and was running stronger again. I would see runners in the distance and slowly close on them, my average pace being quicker than theirs. Despite me not considering it a competition against anyone, it was still a boost when I eventually passed someone.
This was a short section overall and almost passed without incident, I managed to take another wrong turning but the impact wasn’t as significant as the previous. I also passed a women who said well done and that I was looking strong (take compliments when you can get them)
Botley Hill to Kockholt Pound – Finish Line: 7 miles/50 miles overall
Once I got to Botley Hill aid station I knew I was going to do it, I was going to finish. I passed through this aid station quickly as I was going to meet Gareth a bit further up the road.
Picking up the last of my nutrition and refilling the hydration pack for the last time I set off, to the sound of Gareth telling me to do this last 6 miles in an hour and come in at 11 hours overall. I tried my best to do this, I really did but despite the mind being willing the legs were not. The challenge of the hour really fell apart when again I missed a marker and took a wrong turn, adding another half a mile on. I turned back, found my way and caught and passed the women who I had already passed not 15 minutes before.
My 50 miles actually clocked over while I was still 1.68 miles from the end, so the vision of the mile counter tripping over as I crossed the finish line wasn’t to be.
How did I feel crossing the line? I would like to say elated, full of tears, but the reality was I was so tired I just sort of stood there. My wife and kids were at the finish waiting for me and this filled me with pride, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that I was dumbstruck
My time (according to the Centurion Website) had me at 11:19:44 placing 58 out of 92. My actual distance was 51.61 miles, so possibly without the errors I could have placed a little higher but it wouldn’t have been significant. For my first ever Ultra I am very pleased with this result and it gives me something to work on.
It was a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish, an experience that I will never forget, but one that I want to repeat. I will be signing up for the 50 again next year.
A few thank yous are needed: Thanks Gareth for an excellent job of crewing, I can imagine it was a bit tedious sitting around for 12 hours and without your ‘motivational’ support it would have been a much, much tougher day.
Thanks Centurion Running for putting on such an excellent event and thanks to all the volunteers who manned the aid stations, without you there wouldn’t be a race.
Thanks to all my family and friends for the kind messages, they really helped keep me going and gave me the self belief to finish.
Lastly, the biggest thanks of all, goes to my wife for supporting me this last year, all the times I came back with a new rucksack, trainers or some other piece of kit, for tolerating me going out for 3-5 hours on a Saturday to run, and for giving me two wonderful boys who are my inspiration for trying to better myself.
Anthony (no longer a wannabe Ultra Runner)