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Centurion Running North Downs Way 50: Race Report

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!”

First problem of the day, fixing my race number to my shorts

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.

Had to get a phot of this, it was 08:10 and already getting warm. The temptation to dive under those water jets was strong

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.

Who’s that in the distance
Coming into Aid Station 2

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.

A lovely view, not so lovely sand

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.

Another beautiful view
Self portrait

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.

The Olympic Rings
Happy that the steps of Box Hill were over and done with

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.

Food glorious food
Peanut butter sandwich + dry mouth = not good!

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.

Trying to strap the Garmin to my arm, my ability to concentrate diminishing
Even small tasks such as clipping up my Salomon was proving difficult

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 my nutrition from Gareth for the last time

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.

Coming into the finish line, sore but happy

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.

And Finally:

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)

Now officially an Ultra Runner

Quick update, North Downs Way 50 all done

Just a quick update, I will do a full race report with all the photos tomorrow or Monday.

My immediate feeling after the run are this; extremely happy and absolutely shattered. My time for the run was 11:20:36 and it clocked in at just under 52 miles as I went wrong a couple of times. I am not going to type anymore as constructing sentences is too much hard work for my brain.

Me with my Centurion Running finishers medal.


Race Review: Pen Y Fan Race 2012

My previous post was a brief preview on the Pen Y Fan race and what it entailed, now its done and dusted how did it go and what are my thoughts?

Race Day

Arriving at the race start the weather was appearing to be in our favour and although there was a substantial amount of low cloud the rain was holding off. Heading over to the registration tent we queued for our race numbers, collecting mine (176) it was also reconfirmed that due to the variable weather conditions all runners were required to carry the mandatory kit; full windproof body cover, compass, whistle and map all in a rucksack or bumbag. Having sold my Inov8 bumbag and not wanting to use my Salomon S-Lab because it’s not waterproof I opted to use my OMM Ultra 15 which might be a bit large size wise but I had taken out the foam padding and compressed it right down.

With the 11am start looming I was contemplating my objectives for the race. Last year I completed the run in 1:05:38 which considering it was my first proper fell race wasn’t too bad, but given the record time of 00:30:00 not a winning time and in I finished second to last in 2011. Given how the weather had been I was preparing myself to being slower, remembering how punishing the climb was and how difficult the descent would be.

Trying not to dwell on the prospect of finishing worse than last time I waited for the race briefing to be completed and for the starter to kick things off. At 11:05 we were off and immediately the lead runners were off at a pace I can only dream about. I on the other hand was plodding along, Gareth had a good start and was a head of me and increasing his lead. I fell into the pack and ran until the climb started getting steeper and fast walking was the more efficient method of progressing. Eventually crossing the stile the real climb began and the sweat was pouring off me. Gareth had now opened even more gap and I was moving as quickly as I could but keeping pace with those in front of me, with some conciliation taken from the fact that I wasn’t last and had a few people behind me.

I am not going to lie, I found the whole uphill section hard going, despite all the running I have been doing the relentless uphill just took the strength of my legs. The year before in preparation we had been on the treadmill with 10kg in a backpack and the incline ramped up, this year I had done none of that and it was showing. I hit the summit in 00:43:06, 16 seconds slower than last year.

Already I was slower and I still had the descent to come, which I had already anticipated being slower than last year. Running towards the cairn and following the marshalls instructions to drop to the left I hit the downhill. As you will be able to see from the hill profile at the bottom of the post this descent is steep. With no path to speak of it’s just trying to find a route down on the grass as quickly and safely as possible. I can’t recall how many times I slipped over onto my bum, each time thinking to myself  “don’t break your ankle!”. One guy decided that trying to descend on his feet was too much and slid about 50 meters on his bum, overtaking about 4 people as he went. He got up find and carried on, but this is not a technique I was going to adopt.

I continued down, aware that I needed to make up time on the climb but knowing there was only so much I could do. Not being a seasoned fell runner I simply didn’t have the experience or the bravery to go any faster than I did. Eventually it leveled out and it was then a case of navigating through the boggy grass back onto the route we took up. Continuing down I was finally able to break out some speed (you will see on the pacing chart) and actually did some running!! It was here that I managed to re-take some of my lost places on the descent and passed about 3 people on the final sprint finish.

Surprisingly I had finished the race in 01:01:55, about 3 minutes 30 seconds quicker which I was utterly surprised at. The descent had been done in about 18 minutes which rather than the 22 minutes the year before.

As you can see, its a lot of up and a very very steep down!
A birds eye view of the route
A chart detailing my speed vs elevation, you can see that its pretty slow until the point the descent levels out and I feel more secure in my footing.

As an Event

As an event the whole thing is great, from the simplicity of signing up on the Brecon Fans website (link at the bottom of the post) to the value for money (who can argue with £4.00). Organisation is really good and the people are all very friendly. I was most pleased with the return of the beer and flapjack at the end of the race. I would say if you are looking to add a fell race to your calendar then this one is a must.

So what have I learnt?

First and foremost, I need to train on the descents. I just can’t seem to go as quickly as the other runners, I know I am not going to be as quick as the top end runners (9 minutes anyone!) but if I could shave 4-5 minutes off I would be pleased. Part of me thinks the shoe choice could play a part, but that must only a small one at that, it has to be mainly in technique and confidence.

If anyone who reads this post has any suggestions, training or technique then feel free to leave a comment as the advice will be most appreciated.

Link to Breconfans website: http://www.breconfans.org.uk/home

Picking up the speed for a sprint finish
Another shot of the sprint to the end

Pen Y Fan Race 2012

So another year passes and it is time again for the Pen Y Fan race, a short sharp event that takes you to the summit of the mountain and back down again. Spread over about a 6 km distance the climb works out at about 588 meters for the first 3.5km then the same again for the decent but over the remaining 2.5km.

I have taken the below description from the Brecon Fans website (see my links on the main page)

The race starts from the bottom of the field just beyond the last farm building (now a school bunkhouse). Please note this is about 10 minutes walk from registration, so give yourself plenty of time.

The first quarter of a mile or so is on an old cart track, or to the left of the trees through the field, then out onto a grassy slope getting steeper up to a fence and stile. After the stile, a walkers’ path keeps to the right-hand side of the valley, climbing steadily and narrowing towards the skyline. The path levels out as you reach the main scarp, passing the obelisk in memory of Tommy Jones, a small boy who got lost and met his end here. You will probably be feeling like joining him by now, but please give a cheery wave to the marshal anyway.

NB do not take a sudden left at any point from now until after the summit of Pen y Fan – there are precipitous drops.

Now the steepest part of the climb begins, about half a mile up the man-made path up to the summit of Corn Du. Another marshal will be at the summit cairn (cheery wave please) – you should keep going straight on across the summit plateau (remember… no left turns, but don’t turn right either unless you want to go to Merthyr). Then a loose scrabbly descent takes you to a large path across to Pen y Fan, climbing on a man-made path onto the large summit area. Keep eyes peeled for the rather nice sandstone ripple-bedding, and then give a lovely smile for the marshal at the summit cairn. Note in passing that the cairns on Corn Du and Pen y Fan are Bronze Age burial mounds, each having several stiffs within (possibly eminent fell runners of the day).

At the cairn, you may now turn left, in fact you must, while making a mental note that Keith Anderson descended from here to the finish in 7 minutes. Try to leave the loose eroded path as soon as you can, in order to take a straight-line grassy descent. If you get off the path within 10m of the top that’s fine, but it is quite steep. You can go further on down the path and ridge if you want, but if you go too far before turning left you run the risk of having to cross the valley where the stream turns into a ravine.

The descent is steep and a bit tussocky, with enough sharp stones to make you think twice about rolling down. Head straight down the slope, until it levels out, when you should bear a bit right across the rougher ground.

I’m not sure how to find the perfect line across here, but if you head for the right-hand end of the hills on the opposite side of the valley, you won’t go too far wrong. This bit can be marshy, with a couple of small streams to cross, but you should find yourself re-joining the outward route not far above the fence and stile. From there it’s about another half mile to the finish – many runners stay in the field to the right of the line of trees, instead of following the track.

As you can see it’s a pretty hard going event, rated as “AS” or in the words of the website “brutal but it doesn’t go on for long”. Last year I came second to last place with a time of 01:05:14 (although had I done that time the year before I would have been mid to back pack as the longest was 1:38ish). I would like to say that I am looking to improve the time over last year but given the weather we have been experiencing across the UK I can see it being longer, if it goes ahead at all!

Fingers crossed we get a bit of dry weather, if not a little bit of rain and not the deluges that have been occurring recently. The race has mandatory kit requirements so I will be packing a variety of jackets from my Salomon light jacket to my full mountain ready Berghaus Goretex Paclite jacket and waterproof trousers (god I hope these aren’t necessary). If it’s the latter I will probably need a backpack but I am not sure the Salomon S-Labs will be able to fit it so it may have to be the OMM 15litre which is a bit overkill but its all I got.

I will try and get some photos for when I write my race report, but for now below is the hill profile of the race “gulp!!”