Monday 27 May 2013

Race Report: The North Downs Way 50

Getting ready for the off
I set myself a goal of finishing a 50 mile ultra marathon in the middle of 2012......last weekend I'm pleased to report that I've managed to tick this one off my list.  

My race of choice was the North Downs Way 50 by Centurion Running.  I can't really remember why I picked it, other than it was on the doorstep of where we used to live but my entry was confirmed in September last year and the training started in earnest at the start of Winter.

The race begins in Farnham at the western end of the North Downs, traveling past Puttenham and Guildford following the North Downs Way National Trail. The course then continues on to Ranmore Common before the steepest climb of the race up to the top of Box Hill. The trail then drops down the other side and back up to Reigate Hill, on through Merstham to Oxted and a further 8 miles to Knockholt Pound and the finish line.

Arriving at a nearby hotel, the night before, on Friday 17th May, I had a wonderful surprise in the form of Mr Ian Austin.  A very good friend of mine, whom I've not seen very much lately and I was blown away that he'd come down to see me set off across the North Downs Way.  My plan for the Friday evening changed somewhat and we ended up sitting in the local boozer (sparkling water only) and catching up on life.  

After a restless nights sleep, we left the hotel for the start line around 7am.  The registration process was simple enough and after a mandatory kit check and a short briefing from James (the RD), we soon headed down to the start line. 

Leading up to this point my head had been filled with negative thoughts questioning my capabilities; can I really make it 50 miles? what happens if I fail? what if I get injured? what will people think of me if I fail? etc.  I knew that my head was going to be constantly telling me this during the race, I hadn't quite expected it beforehand.

With a short sharp toot of the hooter the race was off to a start. I soon found myself running too quickly, caught up in the moment and running with people who were far fitter than I was.  I kept telling myself to slow down and I walked the uphill sections from the start, as did almost everybody around me.  The social aspect of running took over and I began chatting to those people around me.  I can't tell you who or what we discussed really but the time flew by and we were soon though the first aid station at mile 6.  

Leaving St Marthas @ mile 12.5
The next aid station was 6 miles further along the trail and that was soon upon me. I was feeling good, the weather was holding out and there was no sign of the hills that I'd heard about before the race.  Awaiting for me at the top of the hill by the aid station was Mr Austin, we exchanged pleasantries but I didn't really stop to chat (sorry).  He did take a quite a nice photo of me running off down the hill, although I didn't discover this until much later of course.

Things were about to change as my next stint would take me to mile 24 and the base of Box Hill.  Ian had told me Nikki would be at this aid station, although I didn't think this could be the case and I was convinced Ian had confused Box Hill and Botley Hill (the aid station Nikki was working at).  Anyway, this stint was more of a mental challenge; my head kept telling me I should quit and looking back now mile 15 to mile 20 were the hardest part of the entire 50 miles!

Approaching the Box Hill aid station I was pleasantly surprised to bump in to a lad (Ed Trump - nice to see ya fella) I went to school with.  It always amazes me how small this world is, although when you've been to as many schools as I have, I really shouldn't be.  We had a very brief chat before I continued under the dual carriage way and in to the aid station where Nikki was after all waiting for me.  I had just made it in time to see her before she had to leave for Botley Hill.  I filled my water bladder and grabbed a couple peanut butter sandwiches (which I later regretted) and set off over the stepping stones and up the hill.

Arriving @ Reigate Hill (Mile 31)
I had no idea how difficult the next 6 miles were going to be. If I had, I probably would have reconsidered quitting.  The steps up Box Hill were tough but nothing in comparison to Reigate Hill, a relentless climb at the end of this stretch.  Ian will tell you I looked pretty awful arriving at mile 31, the Reigate Hill aid station, to the extent he didn't know what to say or do.  He must have been telling the truth (which is unusual for him) as he told me he put away his camera after snapping just one picture of me arriving, I looked that bad!

I spent no more than 4 or 5 minutes with Ian, catching my breath, filling up my bladder and stretching out my legs.  My hamstrings were paying the price of pushing my fat ass up those hills.  This was to continue for the rest of the day and I had to keep stopping and stretching to stop them from tightening up.

Somebody mentioned to me during the first few miles that if you made it to Reigate Hill, you had the worst of it behind you.  Along with this information and the knowledge that there was only one more aid station before I would see Nikki @ Botley Hill, I had my motivation sorted in my head.  I jogged out of Reigate Hill determined more than ever that I would make it to the finish.

I defy anybody to run 31 miles and then try to answer a simple maths question, such as what pace do I need to maintain to run the final 19 miles within the cut off time (13.5 hours).   For the life of me I couldn't work this out and I came up with all sorts of answers.  This was frustrating me a little but it also helped pass some of the time as I worked out if I would or wouldn't make it in time.  In the end I decided to ask at the next aid station about the cut offs where I discovered 12*9 isn't 4789 and I had plenty of time in hand.  I pushed the cut offs out of my head for the rest of the day.

Yes, I'm walking dammit!
The aid station @ mile 38 was reportedly a water only station but it turns out it had the best food a runner could want at this stage of the day, ice cream!  A big thanks to the crew here, especially for this magnificent surprise. The sun was shining and I was enjoying an ice cream with a fantastic view of southern England, for a moment I forgot all about my tight hamstrings and the next 12 miles, I was in sugar heaven.   But all good things must come to an end and I left Caterham and set my sights on seeing Nikki.  

This next section was a shorter 5 mile section and I ran as much of it as I could, in the knowledge that the last mile or so included a few ups and downs, concluding in the final big hill of the day (Botley).  At the back of my mind I also knew that some other great friends of ours (Andy & Sarah) would be somewhere on the course between here and the finish line, so I was on the lookout for them as I weaved my weary body through the woodlands just on the inside of the M25, north of Oxted.

I pushed my walking pace up Botley Hill, forgetting for a few minutes that my legs were on fire.  As I rounded the final corner I could make out Andy at the top of the hill, shouting "come on The Mills".  Then Sarah, George, Nikki and Ian, all shouting and clapping.  You have no idea how great this made me feel, it's the greatest feeling in the world having a support crew cheering you on like this.  I was surprised to see George (who came up from Brighton) as well as Ian, who had told me earlier that he would be heading home mid-afternoon but it turns out he lied and had always planned on seeing this through to the end with me.

For the last 12-15 miles all I could think about was having a pint of lemonade and a pint of lager top.  I told the guys about this thought and we all agreed to head to the pub near the finish, it was motivational knowing that I could have something as simple as lemonade in 7 miles.  I refilled my bladder and took on some more electrolytes and prepared myself for the final section.

This was it, the final 7 miles, something which would easily be achievable inside an hour any other day of the week.  But as the final stretch of this race it took me almost 2 hours to cover this ground, my hamstrings were really sore/tight now and all I could think about was that I should have included more strength work in my training.  Nothing was going to stop me getting to the finish line now and I told myself I'd run the final mile.  As I cut around the final few fields I glanced at my watch which told me I had 0.3 of a mile to go.  My motivation was then dashed as I rounded a bend to see a Centurion sign informing me I had 2 km to go...aghhhh!
NDW50 Finishers medal

I walked for a bit at this point, annoyed with myself for trusting my watch would be completely accurate.  As it turns out, this sign wasn't accurate either and was not put up by Centurion, it was somebody having a bit of a joke with us, although I didn't see the funny side of it at the time.

The final 1/2 a mile took us off the North Downs Way and down the road in to Knockholt Pound village, past the pub and then up a slight incline behind the village hall to the finish line.  My support crew were there (bar Nikki who was busy working at Botley Hill) cheering me over the line with three additions (Chris, Lisa and Sophia).  

50 miles......DONE!

I can't thank all my friends enough, especially Ian, Andy, Sarah, George, Chris, Lisa & Sophia who came along to see me complete this challenge.  It was so great to have you pop up around the course and it spurred me on more than you'll ever know.  Perhaps next time one of you will join me?

The support Nikki has provided has been more than a husband deserves. Helping motivate me during 6 long months of winter training as well as wait on me hand and foot after some of those long runs when I've been sofa bound (ish).  As well as popping up on the course and looking after me during and after the NDW50, thank you so much, I love you and don't deserve you!

NDW50 Finish 11 hours 27 minutes 27 seconds