Centurion North Downs Way 100 – DNF at Mile 50

Another weekend and another DNF on a “long” ultra. That makes three this year. The Centurion Thames Path 100 Mile, the Cotswolds Way 100k and now the Centurion North Downs Way 100 Mile.

Each had their own reasons for failure, although a recurring theme is my inability to process food when I’m running. I’ve tried gels, I’ve tried tailwind, I’ve tried hard foods but after a certain distance (normally about 40/50k), I just can’t swallow them. Baby food sometimes works but they’re too bulky to carry around the necessary calories.

And so there’s only so far I can carry myself, even if my legs are still in the fight, with no calories and no energy. As such I’m going to take a step back from the long ultras. I have one just under 50k next weekend to round off my 26 ultras in 52 weeks and then I’m refocusing on my sub-3 hour marathon attempts. I’ll be back for these distances one day – but once I’ve found a nutrition solution that works.

But on to the recap of the NDW 100. I was looking forward to this one. My race gear and pack had been prepared. I’m in the middle of moving house so had gone around re-opening all of the packing boxes to find my things.

I was travelling as light as I could, heading over to Farnham for the race registration straight after work on the Friday night. I went straight to registration from the train station and went through the efficient as always mandatory kit check at Centurion events.

There’s always a small mandatory kit list for their events to ensure everyone’s safety – waterproof with sealed seems, dry long sleeve base layer, head torch, backup light source etc. At registration they choose three of the items at random to check and, once they’ve done so, give you a poker chip. Taking that chip over to the other end of the registration hall, I swapped it for my race number and then dropped a bag for each of the mile 50 and mile 82 checkpoints. All done.

Registration at Farnham Leisure Centre

And time for dinner. I’d booked a Pizza Express in the town for a good carb-on-carb stock up. From there it was a 30 minute walk to the AirBnB I had booked. I’d got a cheap room in a shared house and the owner let me in. I sorted out my pack and went straight to bed as I’d be up at 4am to get ready and walk to the start.

I never sleep well at the best of times but this night proved worse than usual. Uncomfortable heat, loud noise from racing on the local A-road and at about 2am a mouse in the attic above me scratching and racing around. Fun times.

Looking ever so slightly wild eyed at 5am

4am came and my alarm went off. I was awake anyway, so slung on my kit and headed out the door, munching on a cream cheese bagel and a can of nitro-brew cold coffee. About 5 minutes in to the walk an American guy who was staying nearby and racing also caught up with me and we walked the remainder of the distance to the start line chatting.

I dropped off my final bag to be taken to the finish line and chatted with various people I know – Rebecca Lane who I know from work (and who currently has a decent lead in the women’s Centurion 100 Mile Grand Slam for this year), Gareth and Ollie from Phoenix Running, Rob Cowlin (who would be volunteering at Mile 22) and Gav who’s the partner of a colleague from many years ago but who I see occasionally on the running circuit.

Pre-race is always the worst time as you’re just killing time, waiting for the off. Eventually the time for the race brief arrived and then we all shuffled off along the five minute walk to the start line.

At just after 6am the whistle went and we were off. I set off at a steady pace, around a 5:35 minute km. Not breaking the bank but pulling out in the front 20% of the pack. These races spread themselves out fairly quickly and you find yourselves running in small little clumps of people.

The sun was just rising and as we came out of the woods by the start and the fields were covered in mist with the sun shining through (see the video at the bottom). There are benefits to getting up this early.

As we made our way around, I was loving it. Running alongside the corn fields as the sun rose over them was stunning, the terrain was great under foot and my legs were feeling fine (as well they should).

Sun, cornfields, running. Happy.

These bits were when I snapped the most photos, whipping my phone out without dropping off the pace. The hills were relatively gentle and the running was easy and fun.

Just before the first aid station at Puttenham (6.8 miles – 11km) Rebecca caught up with me and we ran in and then out the other side together.

We run at relatively similar paces (at least over the early stages), so we chatted for some time.

At some point between aid stations 1 and 2 I pulled away and after climbing a few hills, entered the second aid station at Newlands Corner (14.7 miles – 23.6k) alone. I grabbed a few snacks, still able to eat at this point, downed a cup of tailwind and back out I went.

A few minutes later and Rebecca called to me from behind and we joined up again.

Up and down hills and the pattern repeated itself – I’d pull ahead for a while and Rebecca would catch up.

Eventually we reached the rolling hills of Denbies Wine Estate (where I have my ultra next weekend) and we almost sprinted down the hill, arriving at the main road.

Along, through the underpass and back up the main road, before turning into the checkpoint at the bottom of Box Hill.

Rob was manning the station, filled my bottles with tailwind and coke and set me back out, cookies in hand. That would be the last food I ate, at mile 22.

Straight over the iconic stepping stones and up the incredibly steep steps all the way to the top of Box Hill. It’s impossible to say just how much of a killer those steps are. By the time I reached the top, I along with the others around me we’re staggering on but I managed to fall back into a stride.

Rebecca disappeared off and that would be the last I’d see of her during the race.

After this point I stopped taking photographs, as I wasn’t feeling it. I recorded the odd bit more which I’ve put in the video at the bottom.

But Reigate Hill was up next. I hate that hill. Everyone hates that hill. My poles came out and I forced my self up it, mile after mile.

Gavin caught up with me and I trotted up the remainder of the hill chatting to him. It was his first 100 mile attempt and he was having a debate with himself as to whether he was enjoying it. He’d set off with a goal of sub-20 hours in mind and was now aiming for survival. (He would eventually drop out at mile 50 after being seen to by the medic).

The checkpoint at the very top of Reigate Hill eventually came into view but I was lagging. I’d tried a couple of gels but they weren’t going down, my stomach was cramping massively, any pressure on my stomach was sending shooting pains through it (not great when your wearing a vest packed with gear) and tailwind wasn’t cutting it.

I refilled with coke, walked out and tried to munch on a cookie, failed and plodded onwards.

The next couple of hours were a blur of misery. I was losing energy rapidly, every attempt at drinking made me want to throw up and my back was in significant pain, with the slightest shift of weight from my pack causing issues.

I plugged my headphones in to try and distract myself and did a hybrid run/jog/shuffle. Eventually the Caterham checkpoint at mile 38 arrived. I don’t remember much of the journey there.

I refilled again, popped a piece of orange in my mouth as I didn’t need to chew it and at least it was something fresh and set out just as Gareth arrived. He caught up and then tried to motivate me and drag my sorry self around with him but I rapidly fell behind.

My legs were up for it but jogging was sending shooting pains through my stomach and I was walking 90% of the time.

Up, down, hills and more hills. I had to at least make it to 50 miles as that was where Naomi was meeting me. The plan had been for Naomi to then make her way to the next crew point, where my parents would meet her (having driven up from Cheltenham in the afternoon) and they would go to each crew point through the night and meet me at the finish line in the morning.

It didn’t look like that was going to happen so I asked Naomi to message my parents and tell them to hold fire on leaving.

After a long time I eventually reached the steepest hill yet. Loose rocks and rubble underfoot made it harder but I inched my way up it to the next checkpoint, situated in a car park at the top. If I stopped then I wouldn’t start moving again and I needed to make it to 50, so I refilled my bottles and headed straight back out.

It was another 7 miles to the 50 mile checkpoint. Normally that would be nothing but it felt like a marathon in its own right. I pulled out the poles and treated it like a long hike, never getting above anything more than a slow jog but for the most part just walking it in. There was still a ton of people behind me in the race but it didn’t matter how much time I had on the clock. Without energy I wasn’t going further.

Hiking in to the checkpoint at Mile 50 (Knockholt) it was liking walking on to the set of a disaster movie. Three ambulances came and went. A female runner collapsed in the toilets and cracked her head on the sink before crawling around talking about “getting back out” while the medics tried to deal with her. A Japanese runner was trying and failing to remove his shoe from an over-swollen foot. Chairs were lined with runners who had arrived hours earlier and slumped, unmoving. A lady was looking after her husband who was vomiting repeatedly into a bin liner before rolling his eyes back in his head and sliding semi-conscious down the wall.

It’s not easy running ultra marathons. It may be even harder for the spouses of those that run them. They put up with a lot. We choose this. They get dragged along.

I was a mess, but a functional mess. My legs were fine and once I’d managed to force some pasta down me I perked up a bit. Not enough to be able to carry on – there was no way I could back fill the calorie deficit and I was only able to stomach food knowing that I wouldn’t have to run on it. My back was the worse. It had been bad for a long time and I knew it was going to be a mess back there but I hadn’t checked just what had happened.

Naomi peeled up the back of my shirt. “Oh my God, what have you done?!”. Which was a difficult question to answer as I was the only one not able to see my own back.

I’ve always had an issue with how packs sit on my back (I have an oddly curved spine so things don’t sit snug and tend to move around), and it’s always caused a bit of chafing, but not like this. Two massive blisters covered the entire lower half of my back and both had broken, sticking my shirt to my back. Skin was missing and it was just as well I’d walked the last several km holding my pack away from my back because I’m not sure how much would be left if I wasn’t.

Rob Cowlin was at the checkpoint and went to fetch me some pasta to see if I could try and eat now that I’d stopped moving. Naomi meanwhile did her best to clean up my back before wrapping my torso in medical gauze.

Still, at least I was walking back out of the checkpoint, which was more than some people would be. We managed to find a taxi (just as well as it was a 2 mile walk to the station and I think I would have just refused) and then the train back to London.

And this is how it ends – with Naomi doing her best to patch me back together

Eventually arriving back home, Naomi did her usual amazing job of patching me back together, albeit from a worse state. The blisters covering my back had ruptured and I spent the next day wrapped in medical gauze trying to keep out infection.

What I really needed was a good rest and time to mentally process things. What I got was my phone alarm at 8am the next morning. My drop bags had been sent to the finish line so I had to get up, take a two hour train and then taxi to the finish line to collect my things, and then back the opposite direction. Arriving home at about 2pm I finally managed to lie down on the sofa and do nothing.

I don’t know what’s happened to the elevation chart…

I’d been chatting with Naomi and we’d both agreed it was time to step back from these and reassess what was important and what I loved about running anyway.

The most important goal for me for some time has been my sub-3 hour marathon and I’d been compromising that for some time with these long runs and the focus on ultra numbers. So one more ultra next weekend to finish off the 26 in 52 weeks (finished ultras) and then back to full on training for the sub-3.

I’ll return to these distances at some point – I’ll have to. I genuinely love ultras and love trails, but until I can find some kind of nutrition that works for me, they’re going to end the same way. Maybe in 2021 I’ll take another shot at these. In the meantime, 2020 will be the year of the sub-3.

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