From start of the Grand Slam, the North Downs Way was always the one which I was dreading the most. I had run ten miles along it last year, just after the SDW100, I was still tired and shouldn’t have really pushed myself like that; I cracked my head on a branch, fell over scraping myself everywhere and generally struggled up the hills. My memories were of overgrown trail and trip hazards, not great for someone who falls over a lot.
So it was with trepidation that I stood on the start line on a baking hot day in August. I had spent the previous Monday being violently sick due to a bug passed on from Child #2 and had spent the week sleeping and trying to force food and water down. That start line was an anxious place but at least I had had lots of sleep as Laura’s ‘glass half full’ boyfriend tried to reassure me.
James, the RD rightly pointed out that it was due to be a hot day, take it steady and remember it’s a long way. I thought that was pretty good advise and, still feeling a bit wobbly from the puking earlier in the week, was keen to keep that in mind. I was clearly in the minority as the front pack legged it off when the gun went off leaving me feeling a bit dazed and confused in their dust, Laura had the decency to run a little bit with me but my plans were to run with a guy who I had shared bits of the previous two races with as he always set such a sensible pace but I didn’t see him for more than a few seconds as he hammered off down the trail. Bloody hell! I settled in with a couple of great guys setting a solid pace and worked thought some of the wobbly-ness in my legs. My husband (who had spent the previous day throwing up but still managed to pull his sorry arse out of bed to crew me) pointed out that I needed to pick up the pace so I stretched my legs and gave it a go.
The first third of the course was hot but under the shade of a lot of trees through some beautiful forests. I grew up daughter of an extremely useful orienteer so my childhood memories are of running through forests with a map in my hand. So I love forest running and the woodland trails of the NDW did not disappoint. Yes, there were a few cheeky hills and steps but the comfort of the forest made those worth the effort. The biggest worry at this stage was the ever present hamstring tendonopathy. I was hoping that a week of sleeping a resting would have put my hamstring in a good place but it was the most painful it’s been in a race this year which had me worried. After my trip to Switzerland with Lizzy Hawker I had put some poles into my crew kit not thinking that I would ever consider using poles in the U.K. Long Suffering Husband saw what was going on and I found him at a crew point holding my poles asking if that’s what I needed. They were a lifesaver, suddenly I could get my right leg up hills without contorting my whole body (and the compensation injuries which follow) and I felt that the race was do’able.
The middle third was tough but it also covered the 10 miles which I knew. No more tree cover, just open fields and way, way too much tarmac. The trail bits were amazing, the tarmac was torture. Between 50-60 miles I had the cover of two wonderful pacers: Evie and Grant, my editor and her husband and I cant tell you how good it was to see them. I thought that Tailwind was good at hydrating but it wasn’t covering the huge amount I was losing through the heat but two bottles of squash were gulped pretty quickly at the top of a nasty hill which cleared my head and gave me the kick I needed.
Once I was through that I felt ok, I just knew that I needed to shuffle forwards wherever I could, I needed to make sure I minimised my walking where I could. Yes, I had a ‘lost 5 minutes’, what’s a 100miler without one, but after a good out-loud burst of expletives, I pushed on. By this stage I realised that my chilled out start was paying off, I have become accustomed to being over taken as I smash in but this time I realised that I was passing plenty of people who looked far worse than I did and it was quite heartening as I knew exactly how they felt after the hardships of SDW.
One maaaaaaaaassive Hill then into the final 20 and Sarah, my complete lifesaver pacer. Sarah is a strong and experienced runner, she knew where to push me and where to let me be, most importantly she kept me moving forward. Two more brutal hills were made easier with her there encouraging and checking on me. It was at this point I became conscious of Elmer who dropped behind us, not because he was suffering but I think he just enjoyed the company and shared navigation, eventually he cruised past us bouncing up all the hills (how the hell was he running so well at that point).
The leg into the last CP was the longest 7.5 miles of my life, the hills had really taken it out of me, but fruit pastilles and a bit of a chat with Elmer and it was the last four into the finish. The last three of SDW went on forever, but these miles didn’t, actually they flew past and I couldn’t believe how fast the track appeared. Around the track and in over the line, always an emotional moment but made that much more emotional sharing it with Sarah and Long Suffering Husband (kids were fast asleep by this stage).
My Support Crew
I have always loved the SDW, it is one of my favourite parts of England but now I’ve discovered the NDW and there is no going back. This is a tough course of that there is no doubt but the beauty of the NDW brings this race up to the top of my favourite race list. The forests of the start, the corn fields, the long sweeping downhills which allowed me some recovery (as opposed to the SDW where the downhills are steep and jarring) and the tricky little over grown trails. I now wish that I had taken the time to get my phone out and captured some of these moments as pictures. All these elements came together to make an interesting and exciting course; a trail course for trail runners.
This was combined with the ever brilliant organisation of a Centurion event. The passion with which people follow Centurion events always translates into fantastic CP’s and I never manage to express just how grateful I am. The ice shoved into a buff around my wrist, the ice pop, the guy who nodded when I told him I couldn’t eat who then produced a plate with one crisp, one nut and one piece of fruit which I duly ate. Such care, such compassion and such concern about every single runner, there are no adequate words to reflect much we all appreciate it. As ever, there were celebrations for the guys and girls at the front and as many congratulations and cheers for the guys and girls at the back; reflecting the enormity of the achievement of everyone in the pack.
I think that there are 34 if us left in the Grand Slam. It’s good to be part of something and I now can’t wait for the last one; I’m well adapted, I have no real expectations if myself and I’m grateful to be running despite a winter if uncontrollable chronic pain. Most importantly, I’ve met some fabulous people and now feel like a true member of this eccentric group called ultra runners.