Centurion events have got one hell of a reputation within the Ultra Running community, but to date I hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in one myself. A combination of poor planning and working weekends meant I hadn’t signed up before they inevitably sold out…
In a fit of over enthusiasm and confidence I had registered for the South Downs Way 100 after I’d completed the Lakeland 50 last year, but this meant I needed to finish a 50 mile race in less than 15 hours to qualify, so I also signed up for the North Downs Way 50 to this end. This formed the start of the plans to complete 12 ultra’s in 12 months and the NDW50 became the 5th on the list.
In the weeks leading up to the race I was fairly relaxed, knowing I was running it in company, was capable of completed the distance on tougher terrain and that I had trained far more effectively this year helped put my mind at ease but on Friday night I did not sleep well as the usual doubts started to creep in.
An early start & I rode my motorbike up to the start where I unloaded and changed at the school before parking round the corner. I met Tony, my companion for the day and fairly regular race partner who was completing his first 50 and bumped into both Kev (@KevJKeenan) & Justin @JustinBateman) before I saw Mike Julien (@TailwindUK) who had very kindly agreed to bring some sachets of Tailwind for me, finally allowing me to stop flapping about and get sorted for the day ahead.
After the obligatory race briefing from James we made the short walk round the corner to the trail head where the race was due to start. We ended up near the back of the procession of runner so couldn’t see the start line but we still heard the air horn to signal that we were underway and it didn’t take long for us to make good progress down the trail.
We ran for about half a mile on trail and some roads queuing through a number of kissing gates before I recognised the trail from where Pilgrims Challenge had joined the NDW. It then follows the same mixed trails on undulating terrain for 33 miles.
We made decent progress reaching Puttenham feeling good, I had a strategy for the day and was pushing the pace a little harder than I normally would at the start of a 50 miler knowing that it gets far more difficult from the midway point so wanted plenty of time in hand for the hills. We soon passed under the A3 and headed past Guilford dropping down to the river to be greeted by the now legendary ‘Bacon Boat’ as expected, but the Stormtrooper most definitely wasn’t expected. Heading off across the river & playing fields, bacon sandwich in hand the procession of runners must have looked an odd sight as they passed the few supporters beyond.
Still feeling good we continued pushing on through the next stretch to St Martha’s which seemed to take far longer than last time I ran this way. Kev caught up with us here so we had a chat about the benefits of a mild twitter addiction, which passed the time before we finally reached the sandy ascent to the Church. Rounding the corner we were treated to stunning views and Matt Buck (@RunningBucky) who has had the hard job of coaching me this year. After a quick hello and saying how good I was feeling we set of on the long descent down the other side, where the first of only two issues came on immediately as I started to get cramping in my right calf. Running through the pain we made it to the CP at Newland’s Corner about 15miles in.
We were well looked after as I topped up my bottle and tried to stretch out my calf but as I did I identified the second issue of the day realising my left knee was tight and it hurt to bend, I was now a little worried that with Brighton Marathon & Gozo 55k in the last 4 week s I’d been overdoing it. We set of again fairly quickly but I was very aware of the pains I had and for the next few miles I struggled, focusing heavily on these issues, after a further 3 miles and Tony comfortably pressing on dragging me forward and regularly dropping me I took some painkillers and continued to plod on uncomfortably. I disliked this long flat section the previous times I’ve run it but in the changed perception from longer race we seemed to cover the distance far quicker and reached the more enjoyable undulating section through the woods and open hillside past the pill boxes just in time for the painkillers to kick in.I was soon running more freely again and as we reached Ranmore Common, found I was able to keep up and even pass Tony again and starting the long steady descent through the vineyards to the A24 I was feeling strong. We despatched the annoying detour under the subway, but it didn’t annoy me as much knowing it was coming and turning into the Box Hill Car Park saw the much needed CP ahead of us. We had planned to sit down here for a few minutes & topping up my bottles and grabbing a couple slices of watermelon and coke gave us time to briefly rest.
I had warned Tony several times about the Box Hill steps and cautioned him again before we set off but we had the stepping stones to despatch first. Hopping over them, forgetting to smile for the camera we made our way up the hill to the steps. Again, knowing what was coming and remembering how many there were meant I pushed on and got up reasonably easily, Tony on the other hand cracked a bit as he made his way up. I reached the top, but it was a few minutes before Tony reached the top, rewarded with the same views I had been treated with while waiting.We then continued on the path past the view point on the top and loads of supporters before taking the surprise ascent just after, I dropped Tony again and waiting after he took ages to appear. When he finally did he told me he’d gone the wrong way. Considering how well the route was marked I have no idea how he managed this, but I made sure I kept a closer eye on him afterwards! We had reached the 25 mile point in a shade over 5 hours and felt pretty good too. The next section is brutal with lots of steep descents followed by quad burning ascents as we zig-zag across country but the tracks are great, I love this 8 miles stretch going the other way but in this direction it seems to be far more uphill than down and progress can be hard. I was still feeling remarkably fresh as we reached the steep climb up track towards Reigate Hill but this took a lot out of me and the ridge was a slow plod as we headed towards aid station 4.
I felt like I was running on empty so polished off a couple sausage rolls and avoided the far too comfortable looking deck chairs basking in the sun outside. Leaving the CP we enjoyed the mile long descent that follows before meandering along the roads past the school and out to the golf course which marked the end of my knowledge of the route.
Turning left instead of right where I went before the North Downs Way skirts the edge of Merstham and crosses the M25 before reaching the picturesque St Katherine’s Church then soon crossing the M23 leaving that behind by heading uphill across fields. This stretch featured a fair bit of road but also included some spectacular views from the tops.
Finally heading into CP5 At Caterham I saw Ben (@runaaargh)and he came out to run in with me, he handed me the rice pudding I’d put on special order and topped up my Tailwind again with caffeine now to give me a boost in the final stages. We stayed here for a fair time giving our legs a rest and getting some food inside us before hobbling off again.
We only had 5 miles to the final aid station but it was to be the start of the end before we reached the CP.
The route weaved in and out of woodland, with some really pretty spots as we passed glades full of wild garlic and bluebells and I really enjoyed plodding along the single track chatting to various runners as we met.We passed a group of supporters in what appeared to be a random section who really lifted our spirits before we arrived at the final big climb of the day up Botley Hill, at the bottom a guy was sat checking the race list then saying your name as encouragement and as I started to ascend a girl headed down, peered at me then ran away up hill. Then I realised it was Emma (@emmah1506) waiting a bit further up and it was her daughter who’d been looking out for me. After berating them for waiting on a hill we walked up together, in reality the chat as we climbed took my mind off it and it was despatched quite easily and I got to the final CP in good spirits. After getting a pep talk from the guy in a cow hat at the CP I grabbed some water and waited for Tony. And waited. And waited.
At the bottom of Botley Hill he hadn’t been far behind so I walked back to the gate and saw him plodding up towards me, obviously in some discomfort. I shouted support trying to will him on to the top. At this point I was still feeling great, I wanted to crack on and push to the end as a sub 11hr finish was still achievable but seeing how much pain Tony was in this was reassessed. We grabbed some pineapple and after Tony sat down to rest before we made our way across the road.
The final section featured more undulations but was mostly across and around fields, Tony was really struggling. I pushed him as hard as possible but he was pretty much done, a couple of the final miles dropped into the 20mins but he kept moving forward and the distance slowly but surely reduced. I kept checking with him to make sure he was ok, sharing my caffeine with him hoping to lift his spirits a little. I was estimating how far we had trying to count it down for Tony, and eventually arrived at a signpost showing Knockholt Pound 1 ¼ miles away so we knew we only had that fair to go. Passing a marshal she advised we only had to head round the next field to the road before we finish, we could then hear the supporters cheering and as we went through the kissing gate caught sight of the finish line, tantalisingly close but yet so far away.
Heading up and away from the finish we circumnavigated the biggest field in the world before we finally arrived at the final style and turned left downhill along the road where we ran a bit again. Walking up round the corner to save Tony’s legs so he could run over the line we turned into the grounds and ran to the line together finishing in under 12 hours which was always the main aim.
After receiving our medals and posing for some finish line photos we went inside for the best cup of tea and hot-dog in the world. Ever. Then I was bundled into the arriving shuttle bus for the LONG journey back to Farnham during which I had a great chat with Garfield and the end of the race day.
I had an incredible time, the marshals in Centurion events have an almost mythical status and they lived up to this reputation, helping in any way they could and providing humour and encouragement at every stop. With a Stormtrooper in attendance the legend of the Bacon Boat surpassed my expectations and although it repeated on me for miles I am glad I had it and became a part of that legend. The support along the route was amazing, from those I knew (Matt, Emma & Ben) to those I’ve tweeted (Susie, Marina & Rhianon) and those I don’t know at all (lady with pompoms, man getting our names from the entry list, random group in the woods, all the crews) they were all so enthusiastic and full of energy they really helped keep me happy along the route. The route is brilliant, tough for long stretches but featuring fabulous views throughout and some fantastic trails to run on, particularly towards the latter stages and it is incredibly well marked throughout. Additionally we were treated to almost perfect weather on the day which was most definitely the icing on the cake.
I felt really strong for most of it and it’s filled me with confidence for the upcoming South Downs Way 100 in 4 weeks. We finished in 11.40 but with a 50k personal best I could have come in a lot quicker, showing that despite some issues with training over the last couple months I have been making solid improvements which bodes well for the big challenges coming up over the next 2 months.