NDW50 didn’t really fit into my race calendar for 2018, coming just 6 weeks after Crawley 24 hours and a week before Global Limits Bhutan; however I always like to run one Centurion race a year as you’ll struggle to find better races in the UK; they’re always great days out, and you can guarantee there’ll be lots of friends out running, supporting or volunteering.
Whilst I’m thinking of Bhutan more as an ‘active holiday’/big training week, rather than a full-on race, it’s still running 125 miles in the mountains at altitude, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going into it with tired legs as it’s not every day you get to run in Bhutan. So I’d agreed with Ian to run NDW50 at a 90% training effort and finish with plenty left in my legs for Bhutan. Because of this, I had no race plan for NDW50 apart from a vague ‘meet Tom at various crew points to give me fresh bottles of Mountain Fuel’, and no target finish time. I was so laid back about the whole thing that I hadn’t even planned a race outfit or done the all-important kit shot photo!
And then the race preview came out which said I was the favourite. Which made me feel a little bit sick. I knew I wasn’t in top hilly 50 mile shape (all my training up until April this year had been geared to Crawley and I’d literally just had a 3 week crash course in getting some hills back in my legs) and I didn’t want to get involved in a hard fought race and trash my legs before Bhutan. So I started stressing that everyone was going to be expecting me to win now and I was going to put in an underpar performance.
And then on race morning I saw this on my Twitter feed.
And I realised it was only me putting pressure on myself. I love running, that’s why I train as I do, and races are just the icing on the cake. Today was never meant to be about a position or time and was just meant to be an enjoyable day of running on the North Downs.
So I decided I was going to put my music on, ignore what was going on around me, and just pretend I was on a hard training run on the North Downs. The only difference would be that Stuart March would keep popping up taking photos and lovely people in black Centurion tees would be cheering me on and offering to fill my water bottles every few miles! I figured as long as I finished with a big smile on my face and plenty left in my legs then it would have been a good day out.
Knockholt – Caterham
Tom and I had recce-ed the course over a few easy runs over winter to get a bit of course familiarity and I knew that the first 24 miles to Box Hill are fast and predominantly flat, so I wanted to take these early miles really easy and remember it was very much a race of two halves. As soon as I set off it was one of those perfect running days where everything felt right in the (running) world. I’d not tapered at all for the race, and when you do that, there’s always the worry that you might start running and be hit with the awful realisation that you’re going to be running the next 50 miles on tired legs! But my legs felt great, the sun was shining, the trails were in perfect condition…it was only early days but it felt like it was going to be a good day out on the North Downs.
And then at about mile 8, a few of us came to Centurion tape sending us one way and a Centurion card telling us to go another way (we think someone had tampered with the signs) so although my instinct from what I remembered of my recce told me to go straight on, I’m renowned for having no navigational instinct, so I followed the Centurion tape instead with a group of runners. After about half a mile we came to a junction and as there was no tape, we realised we should have gone straight on and retraced our steps. It only added about a mile or so but I knew I’d lost a bit of time, and if I’d had my racing head on I’d have been kicking myself for not following my instincts, but I reminded myself that, as I had no target finish time, then an extra 10 minutes or so made no difference to my race, so I skipped on off in my merry little world….nothing was going to spoil my day today!
I ran past the infamous ‘bacon boat’, expertly manned by the legends that are Allan Rumbles and Mark Thornberry and headed to Caterham, which was going to be the first point I’d meet Tom. We’d planned a slick crew point routine which consisted of swapping my Mountain Fuel bottles with new ones/giving me a cup of lemonade to drink/throwing some cold water over me to cool me down. Because of my detour, I had no idea where I was in the race, so was surprised when Tom said I was second lady, only a few seconds behind first.
Caterham – Box Hill
The section from Caterham to Box Hill always feels like 10 miles of pure downhill running. It’s not, but there’s lots of fast runnable downs. One thing I noticed throughout the whole race was that my uphills, which are normally my strong point, I was weaker on (pretty much to be expected after months of flat running and only the last 3 weeks getting back in the hills), whereas I was stronger on the downhills. Whilst there’s nothing what I’d describe as technical on the North Downs, you have to keep your wits about your feet and I was definitely less of a fairy than I used to be on some of the trickier descents.
The miles felt like they were flying by, although it was getting pretty warm, but ironically the one thing I dislike about the North Downs compared to the South Downs is all the tree cover (give me wide open spaces when I run!), yet this was actually the thing I was appreciating the most in the race, and the regular wooded sections were keeping me cool. I had another quick crew stop with Tom, then descended through Denbies and arrived at Box Hill in 3:44 and first lady, but most importantly feeling like I hadn’t had to go into second gear which would hopefully mean a strong second half.
Box Hill – Reigate Hill
I’d come up to Box Hill quite a few times last summer when I was training for the CCC and would do 12-15 miles of Box Hill reps on the other side of the hill; in contrast my lack of hill training this year was very apparent and I was very glad I was only going up once today!
I’d recce-ed the Box Hill to Caterham section with my friends Mark and Tony, and because this is their training playground, they’d pointed out things for me to remember/turnings not to miss, so I really felt I could switch off on this section and just enjoy the running. And enjoy the running I was – I was over half way yet felt like I’d barely run a few miles, my legs were loving every single step, I was managing my nutrition well so my stomach was feeling great, and I couldn’t wipe the huge smile off my face, to the point that several passer-bys asked me if I’m always this happy when I run!
I flitted between first and second position in this section, but I was determined not to get into a race. Granted if it came down to a sprint finish in Knockholt then I was prepared to go eyeballs out, but with 20+ miles to go, I stuck to my race plan and didn’t push too hard. However, I think my conservative first half had set me up well, because just before Reigate Hill, I started pulling away, gradually extending my lead at the front to the finish.
I knew Tom was going to be at Reigate Hill; what I wasn’t expecting was what felt like every single running friend I know from Kent and Surrey to also be there, so it felt like the best arrival into an aid station ever.
Reigate Hill – Botley
With 20 miles to go, I still felt like I was running strongly, and from Reigate Hill to the finish, nobody overtook me, so I knew I was moving pretty consistently. I was in 28th overall at Box Hill and finished in 22nd overall so was creeping up the leaderboard in the right direction.
I knew if I wanted to keep moving well to the end, I needed to keep on top of my nutrition, as previously in races I’ve struggled to eat solid food from quite early on, so this time I consciously took solid food out the mix, and my total food consumption was 5 x 500ml bottles of Mountain Fuel, 3 x Longhaul pouches, 2 x 32GI chews, 3 x GU gels and 4 cups of lemonade. This combination worked perfectly for me – I had no stomach issues and had lots of energy right up until the end. I had one final crew stop with Tom, then soon after I ran past the ‘Dave Stuart pop-up mini aid station’ where his children gave me the most adorable welcome and high fives. Then it was up the slog of a hill to Botley, but as this was undercover and shaded, it passed relatively quickly, where I had a ‘speed hug’ with Graham Carter. Because I had Tom crewing for me, I rarely needed to use aid stations, so I think my total time in aid stations was less than 90 seconds – aid station efficiency is something I pride myself on, don’t ever ask me to pace you if you can’t get in and out of aid stations quickly!
Botley – The Finish
Once you get to Botley, in theory you’ve broken the back of the race as there’s little climbing in this final section. However it’s not as easy as it sounds on paper, and it does feel like you’re running through endless rutted field after rutted field. This was the final section I’d recce-ed only 4 weeks ago so was fresh in my head, but I swear the number of fields I had to run through had increased since then! I knew the finish line was within touching distance though and I was still running strongly, and I started to think maybe just maybe I was actually going to win this thing.
I was wearing Hoka Speed Instinct 2s which were perfect for the NDW, and whilst the terrain can be unforgiving at times, my feet came away completely unscathed apart from a couple of bruised toenails from kicking tree roots. The only thing I’d change with my kit was that I’d wear calf guards/compression socks, as whilst I got a nice sun tan, my legs got ripped and stung to bits!
The Centurion finish line gantry teases you from the other side of the field, but first you’ve got to hit the road and run through Knockholt. I turned into the field, grinning from ear to ear, and could see the best welcoming party cheering me to the finish.
I crossed the line in 8:44:23, 1st lady/22nd overall out of 251 starters. As running days go, it was pretty much as perfect as it could get. I felt strong and controlled throughout, and there were no tough sections, either physically or mentally. More importantly though, I just loved how much I enjoyed the whole day and how happy I felt….if anyone ever asks you if you can run the entire 50 miles from Farnham to Knockholt with a constant big smile on your face, then I can confirm you can!
Thank you to everyone at Centurion and the volunteers for doing what you do so I can do what I love doing and run long distances with a big smile on my face.
Thank you to Ian Sharman for the superb coaching and three first place trophies now in my last three ultras. This winning streak will definitely come to an end in Bhutan though, as I will simply be enjoying running in an amazing place, and will even be breaking my hardfast ‘rule’ of no taking photos when racing!
Thanks to all the friends for their amazing support along the course.
And special thank you to Tom for his excellent crewing and for always being there to support me and my running – I promise I won’t be too bossy when I’m pacing you at the SDW100!