Written by Phil Bradburn - https://untrainingultrarunner.com
The training went well in the run up to North Downs 100 (aside from a terrible week or so which I put down to training while in Spain during 30+ celcius heat and ridiculously high humidity. I turn into a big baby in those conditions.
With two of the four 100 mile grandslam races already in the bag, this race was all about surviving but getting it done as well as I could. You don’t get much time to recover in between these races which feel like they come at you like snowballs between the end of April and October.
The week before I sorted my kit and made what I thought was a reasonable fist of a perfect kit placement photo (but which Sarah Sawyer gave me only 8.5/10 for!)
The day before
Susie saw me off at the Station. I find it best usually to get a one – way train ticket to the start, and have Susie follow the next day to crew and or pace me.
I headed down to Farnham – the start of the race the night before. Staying in the Premier Inn which is just 15-20 minutes walk away along a small stream to the start. Perfect location as it is also near the Railway Station.
I was meeting up with Tim Lambert – who I was sharing a room with. We had both been saved by “The Dan Park” for our accommodation (for the third time I will add in my case – because I have not somehow got in the habit of booking my own hotel room. Silly boy!)
I registered and did my kit check – bumping into some friends along the way – including plenty of folks I know from twitter and facebook. I am so awful with names but I do know faces – and I find it hard to match them up all the time.
In fact, since I am useless with friends names who I already have met many times, then I am going to apologise now for all errors and omissions!
I had a lovely capuccino (and don’t spare the choccie sprinkles!) made by the ladies in the van which I supped while I was chilling out in the sunshine. Best cappucino ever – FACT! Tim did a quick turnaround and we were soon heading back to the hotel and the Beefeater next door for a burger and chips.
Back at the hotel we did some kit packing and repacking, and some general faffing around including setting a billion alarms.
(thanks Zoe and Vanessa for early morning phone calls – Zoe – I didn’t want to mention at the time but I was on the loo! – and Vanessa – I was so dozy I didn’t recognise your voice at all!). So first mission of the day accomplished. Up and out of bed by 4am.
We had all our stuff ready. I did some last minute recharging of watches and after a coffee, a selection of breakfast pastries (from Sainsburys about a half mile away the night before) and a 1 litre bottle of lovely frizzante lucozade we headed off to the race start for the briefing. I bet the hotel staff were puzzled by the heap of card keys left on their desk at 5am on a saturday morning once or twice a year!
Soon at the HQ, there was enough time to grab some extra safety pins for numbers and tags and then James was doing his usual briefing. Warning anyone not to mention that the race was 103 miles when it was advertised as “a hundred” etc. He has these briefings off to a fine art. Various hands went up when asked if anyone was doing the Grandslam (I raised my hand and looked around but I swear I couldn’t see 34 other people!), people raising their hands for their first 100. (MENTALIST!!!! Who chooses NDW100 for their first?!) and then soon we were all heading off (via the loo for me for a quick poo!).
Anyway… off we went down the road to get to the trail head at the start. On the way I bumped into Rachel Hessom – and found amazingly this is the ONLY 100 that she had not done yet so she was a NDW100 virgin! Rachel is great fun – and we’ve shared a few miles on these in the past. At the trail head I chatted briefly with Paul Thompson and others before settling in around half way back so I wasn’t either going to get trampled or that I wouldn’t be encouraged to go out too hard.
Soon we were off.
Part 1 – Start to Box Hill Stepping Stones
The start of it is wooded trail. I felt I made totally the right shoe choice – Pearl Izumi N3 Road. Perfect. Some grip and lovely and cushioned too. I was loving it. Cracking on down the trail and feeling pretty comfortable. (my strava stats at the end showed that I was going out a little bit fast really….!)
At around 3 miles in Stephen Turner a.k.a. “#GateWanker” ran past. He always runs past at this point and usually opens a gate and them slams it behind him for a laugh :-p haha I also leapfrogged with Paul Thompson a little bit over the first few miles. He was running superbly well.
I didn’t bother to stop at Puttenham aid station around 7 miles in, I just ran straight through – briefly bumping into Steve Turner again (my turn to shout #GateWanker). Everything was going swimmingly. My watch vibrated each mile – always a surprise because the miles just seemed to be flying by! I swapped places a few times with Lee Scott and Paul Thompson and of course Stephen Turner flew past me once again!
Newlands Corner signalled what felt like the first uphill section. Swiftly dispatched and on I went. Really not much to note other than I enjoyed running through Denbies Wine Estate with vines growing on the south facing hills, and down the hill towards Box Hill via the underpass.
Box Hill Stepping Stones (24.6) to Caterham Hill (38)
I reached the aid station. Needing water (I felt a little thirsty and my wee wasn’t the light colour I expected it to be). I did the same thing on the NDW50 two years ago…. So that’s a lesson I haven’t learned! I resolved to get more liquid down me. Which I did. Literally down me
It was an absolutely lovely surprise to bump into Mark Thornberry – gentleman of the trails and an utter legend – who popped along just to support the runners. Brilliant to see you mate – and thanks for the photo too and brief chit chat.
I got my bottles filled. Spotted Ian Brazier who just came into the aid station) and off I went again. As I took my time over the stepping stones (I’m clumsy ok!) I dunked my hat in the water and soaked myself. Oh – that was lovely!
Soon it was up. Poles out and tik takked away up the hill. They were not as bad as I remember them being and I was soon slaloming past various families cajoling their children up steps almost as high as their little knees!
At the top it was clear that it was turning into a bloody hot day. I bumped into friends Neil and Nick Dawson at the top of Box Hill and had a bit of a sit down while I was rewarded with an amazing Calippo – and what would be my first of the day!!!
Thanks so much!!! Stuart March was up there with his HUGE camera and grabbed a shot of me as I jogged past – calippo in hand (orange since you ask).
The wooded section at the top was lovely – nice to be in the shade again, and I was being careful for trip hazards. The next stop was at Reigate Hill. I was soon there. Desperate again for drink – but knowing that Zoe had stashed at the aid station with her a cold bottle of Moutain Dew (that stuff is Rocket Fuel!). As I was running to the aid station, I spotted a cafe and queued to get another calippo… while I was doing that, I spotted Paul Reader – who kindly queued up for me and brought me over two calippos. God – you’re a legend mate! Thanks so much – also for the chocolate milkshake. That was lush!
Selfies with Zoe and a bottle of mountain dew later and I was off again.
More climbing and more trails. It was only a few miles and then I felt absolutely knackered. The heat was awful. It was just the other side of Reigate Golf Club and I sought the shade of a tree and had a lie down for a few minutes. I couldn’t believe I was feeling so shit this early in a 100miler.
No sooner did I get back up and the rain started. At first, I was like “Oooooh this solves every problem I have….” and then the realisation that when it turned into a deluge, the trail was turning to a muddy swampy mess. Just after running through an underpass it started to rain even heavier. I chanced it by not stopping, but then got caught in a really heavy storm on the side of a hill by the M25…. pack off, jacket on, and on my way once again. All of the rain had made the trails pretty slick – wet muddy chalk. Not great to run on! It was really sapping my energy. I phoned my wife and asked her to have my trail shoes ready for the half way point.
The rain soon subsided and this rest of the section went pretty well – I got some energy wave going so I was flying along at points until I reached the aid station at Caterham. I had my serpie cap on and I think that got me a paper bowl of slighly melted by absolutely delicious ice cream which I accessorised with some chewy toffee crisp type bites. Wow – amazing they were! On leaving I needed to have my customary call with nature….. (TMI!) I found a log and made use of it!
38 – 51 miles (Knockholt pound)
I had volunteered at Caterham on the NDW50 in 2014 and I knew that the next little bit involved a bloody steep climb up a bit of a hill. Nothing much happened at Botley – I went in grabbed a few handfuls and left just as Gary Wayman arrived.
I entered the woods across the road and after a few seconds the heavens opened. I stopped to put my jacket on and it then deluged even more. Luckily I was in the woods because otherwise I think I would have been washed away! Some other folks were trying to brave it out but the rain got heavier and heavier.
I also ran into Dave Stuart with kids who were handing out hi-fives to passing runners, and percy pigs and friends along with coke. With my bright pink calf compression sleeves on they could see me a mile off! I took the opportunity to stop for a few minutes before carrying on down some treacherous steps.
Soon I bumped into Stuart March taking more photos and he warned about the slippiness of the trail ahead (I managed to slide and stab myself in the hand with the barbed wire fence).
Soon I was closing in on the Knockholt aid station, I called ahead to Susie and she was waiting with Rob and Dom and his wife Helen at the checkpoint. I wolfed down some pasta, some lucozade and put my legs up to try and easy some of the solidness.
51 – 62 (Knockholt to Wrotham – with Dom)
Soon I was ready to go. I decided not to change my shoes because this next section would be fine (I had recced it) and I wanted to minimise any change of shoe issues! Dom was pacing me for this next section. We knocked out a few miles and then I spectacularly stubbed my toe on something in the track down the side of the farmers field. Bloody tell that hurt… and I was worried that my foot would swell up. I just carried on and got on with it. It was a combo of run walk for the first little bit because of the climb, but soon we were on a section I had recced a few weeks earlier and I knew there were some miles of fast running conditions – so that’s what I did.
We surprised my crew – and they ran out of the pub in Otford High Street (GUYS! – one job to do yeah!???! ) and then they had to run up the hill after me with some luzocade and crisps. Dom was doing a marvellous job of pacing me and I was so pleased that I had recced this section too because it allowed me to think ahead on my pace and when I could take advantage.
We powered past another runner with a handful of vaseline he was shoving down his bum crack – we exchanged knowing glances with his crew, and we headed to some frankly hideous steps. I don’t know why, but they were a pain! I got up them and eventually we peaked out at the top and we enjoyed some running through fields.
This next section is one that I had not recced but I had a rough idea from driving around the other week (albeit on the road). We eventually headed down and to a road to cross it and we turned right down a hill. I had been talking about going under a bridge I think, and we both on autopilot ran down hill… quite fast…. For about half a mile.
No red tape. No signs and we questioned our choice, turned around and ran back up. We should have turned left! There was the piece of red and white tape flapping in the breeze. Dammit!
Anyway, no harm done, it was only a few minutes, and we got back on track. Eventually we came down a few hundred feet in the right place and I put on a bit of a burst, absolutely flying along (well….. 10-11 minute miles anyway!) and on to the aid station at Wrotham at 60 miles where my wife and Rob were waiting for me.
I had a cuddle. Changed my shoes. Changed into a long sleeved merino base layer. Put my headtorch on and made sure Susie had hers too for her pacing duties. After all that, I was ready to go, and realised that I hadn’t been into the checkpoint yet! OOps…. Susie said she wouldn’t have let me do that – and of course she wouldn’t – but it was a reminder that I was getting mentally tired already. I thanked Dom and Helen and arranged to see Rob at Ranscombe (around 70 miles – with McDonalds!). Apparently my GPS tracker had stopped – my iphone battery had run out. I wasn’t having a good time with batteries today!
60 – 82 Wrotham to Detling
Off we ran. Me and Susie recced this section so knew most of the way to Holly Hill – the next checkpoint. Everything was as expected. Trosley park – easy running… a treacherous downhill chalky mess of a “path” and then good quality trail again. It was dark through the heavy tree cover. A handful of runners past me on this section. More trail and some steps at Holly Hill (which I swear on my recce were not as steep!)…. Half way up I felt a pull in my leg as I overextended my stride up a step. Agony. Susie had to give me a quick massage of my leg before I could move again.
Soon we were at the aid station. A quick coffee which we managed to spill over each other and we were off again. I knew this whole section now until Ashford. Brilliant. I knew exactly what to come. The wooded section went on forever! I was worried about missing the right turn over the stile and kept going on about it. It was significantly muddier than when I had last been through the previous weekend.
Eventually we turned and I put down some good running for a few miles. I knew that I could do that all the way to Ranscombe (bar the couple of hills up and a steep downhill). So I banged out the miles and we passed quite a few runners – and this was really my last good section of running that I did looking back. We hit Ranscombe car park and then soon Rob arrived with my McDonalds (susie had messaged ahead). 6 chicken McNuggets (YUM!), fries (lovely – but couldn’t finish) and a coffee that I poured down myself (oops!) and managed to get a few mouthfuls before I poured the rest away. I managed to forget to pack my charging cable for my Fenix 5X – I had left it in my bag that was at the end!
I had lay in the car for 15 minutes or so and when I got up and walked out of the car park I was shivering quick badly. Susie was really surprised – I don’t think she had seen me like that. Obviously with the darkness, and the time of the day and that I had stopped for a short spell had brought my temperature down and I had to get my jacket on and get moving swiftly to generate some body heat.
Soon we were across Medway bridge – I ran and didn’t stop! – and then under the motorway bridge and along Nashenden Farm Road. We saw Rob again – we didn’t need anything – and then headed up a bloody hill! Another one. I walked quite a lot of this section to Bluebell Hill aid station – I didn’t have much in the way of go left…. And we got to the aid station, I had a quick coffee and immediately got moving again.
After seemingly ages we ended up just past the petrol station and climbing the most hideous bit. In training (and I run around here all the time) this hill is really not that bad and I have run up it! That wasn’t happening tonight and I stumbled up slowly using my poles. Miles and miles this seemingly went on for before we topped out and got a few bits of running done. I struggled this whole section. I also had to change my Petzl NAO+ battery. It ran out. That surprised me because I had run on the same settings from 8:30 – 5:00 am with in on Thames Path and also had similar experience on SDW100. Maybe I didn’t charge it up fully….
I got passed by alot of runners. I was falling asleep shuffling along and I was getting messages into my head about stopping. ARGH! No…. I had to have a few sit down breaks and Susie did her best to get me moving along. I was slow. I was not enjoying this bit. Eventually, and despite everything we soon hit the downhill that signalled that Detling was close. Over the bridge and I could see my mate and next pacer Andy Cairns waiting for me with Rob. I had to have a sleep – and must have had 15-20 minutes in the aid station. I saw Tim Lambert there and was a bit surprised. I couldn’t compute why we were both there at the same time for some reason. Stupid brain!
82 – 91 – Detling to Lenham
Anyway, off I went with Andy and he got it absolutely right. He knew I wasn’t running much and he knew this whole section too – having trained on it with me and run NDW100 too. Frankly hideous sections – including Detling (but you know….. It was nowhere near as bad as other bits in hindsight). Andy encouraged me to trot along a bit when I could and he reminded me that when the sun comes up I would get energy. He reminded me to eat (lesson – I need to take more snacks) and gave me warnings about my footing.
Eventually we started to head downhill and I got some running in for the first time in hours. This whole section took forever. We headed down into Hollingbourne, saw Susie and Rob and headed off again. I had a couple of mini pork pies which I couldn’t seem to swallow. I forced it down with water and wondered why they just tasted of pastry (Susie later told me that is what they were like for her too – and that they were gross!).
Next aid station was Lenham around 91 miles. I knew that Rob Cowlin – the legend – would be there. Interspersed walking and jogging – and eventually the aid station appeared on the crest of a small hill. Slick aid station pit stop. A quick coffee – Thanks Spencer and Rob – and off I went – I shouted “Andy – come on catch me up….” more for my own amusement It was around 7 miles or so to the next aid station so I wanted to get moving.
From this point I knew I would finish. The sun was up. I was running where I could. Walking at a reasonable pace. I felt brighter. We eventually got to Dunn Street aid station, called my number and decided to crack on to the finish at Ashford. Only 4.5 miles left.
98.5 – 103 miles – Dunn Street to Ashford Julie Rose Stadium
I actually ran and ran and ran. I hadn’t eaten since some chocolate at Lenham but the need to finish was greater. I ran and ran and ran some more. I power hiked the hills. I felt the heat rising already – the sun was out – and ran everything I could.
I knew the end was close.
I was going to finish this absolute super bitch of a race.
We hit the tarmac. Some roads. Then pavement. I couldn’t remember exactly the route but I knew if I kept running the finish would soon arrive. I passed quite a few people – at quite some pace – (my stats say 9:28 mins / mile for mile 102!)
And eventually I could see the rise in the road before the stadium. I hiked the rise…. And then ran. I turned into the stadium, spotted the turn onto the track and bounded onto it.
I could see there was a chap in front and a runner and possibly a pacer coming up to the first corner. I wanted to finish. I overtook the first guy.
Andy said I couldn’t overtake the other two on the final straight.
I said “I know…… I’m not a total CNUT, but I will overtake on the final corner before the final 100metres! Watch!”
With that I powered on….. Drawing on all my reserves I rounded the final corner, passed the runners, head down, sprinting for the line. I swear I was getting faster and faster on the track. Eventually over the line! (my stats say the track section was 7:13 minute / mile average!)
OMG I finished. I couldn’t believe it!
28 hours 23 minutes 33 second. 107th / 239 runners who started the race. Only 147 runners finished. Superbitch of a race indeed! Next up Autumn 100 in October.
The race really didn’t go my way. But then when does anything that lasts about a day. It is impossible for 100% of everything to go right.
Fatigue – I felt heavily fatigued between Bluebell Hill and Hollingbourne. So much so that I was throwing time away and I really didn’t give a shit about it at the time. I had convinced I would be timed out in the last 20 miles.
Food and drink – I still didn’t get this right. I don’t eat enough. I MUST take more snacks. What definitely worked though was the pasta at half way, and mango I took with me and the lucozade drinks. Yum yum!
How I dealt with the heat and then the rain – I don’t like heat so don’t train in it. I don’t know if that makes any difference, but I was totally bushwhacked by Reigate Golf Course (around 35 miles) and then the rain turned the trail into a slippy chalky mess which was a nightmare in my road shoes (I should have changed earlier).
So there you go. By far the toughest race I have ever done in my life (I don’t want to over play it – it is more due to me never having tackled anything more brutal – to be clear – NDW is nothing in comparison to the really tough stuff like the Spine / GUCR etc)
What helped me push through?
- Grandslam. If that was a stand alone race I wonder I would have gutted it out. It is almost like a double or nothing…… I had two of the four races in the bag already and I didn’t want to throw that away.
- Susie saying to me in one of my low moments – “Do you want to continue?” – which just made me MTFU and get on with it.
- My amazing crew and pacers who had taken time out of their lives to come and help me and be there with me for a day.
- A message from Sarah Sawyer before the race that reminded me that if that race didn’t go my way, then I was well capable of gutting it out to the end.
- Bloodymindedness. I had done the training. I trained like a demon. The day just didn’t go to plan. I just had to get on with it. I chose to enter it. I must finish.
On this occasion, the NDW took everything I had. It felt pretty bleak at times and I am so grateful to all of the volunteers along the route, the other runners that I shared conversation with, and most of all to my wonderful wife Susie, and my other pacers Andy and Dom – and crew driver meister – Rob Small. Wow. You guys Rock!
I have renamed North Downs Way – “SuperBitch”. To be clear…. If I ever ever say that I am doing this race again burn my credit cards and then burn me and bury me in a ditch!
Thanks to ….
Rob Small for driving all over the North Downs dealing with my diva demands for McDonalds and other food.
Dominic Bowen for pacing from 50-60something miles. It was a blast!
Susan Bradburn my amazing wife who did about 22 miles with me and gave me repeated instructions to MTFU.
Andy Cairns who did such an amazing job to kick my ass from 82 to the end and get me moving again when I thought my running was over for the weekend.
Paul Reader for being a legend and queuing for two calippo for me at Reigate Hill. It was amazing to see you pal and was good to catch up briefly – thanks also for milkshake.
Zoe Norman for giving me hope at Reigate Hill on a hot day with a cold bottle of mountain dew and Percy pigs and sweaty hugs (my sweat!)
Stuart March for numerous hi-fives and I imagine amazing photos as usual!
Dave Stuart and kids for Percy pigs and coke at mile 40ish.
Rob Cowlin for a man hug at Lenham 91 aid station and Spencer Milbery for the coffee.
Sarah Sawyer for a pre race message which I kept recalling in the darkest parts of the race.
Mark Thornberry for being a cheer leader at Box Hill stepping stones.
Mimi Anderson for great training advice as usual
And everyone else who I have been stupid enough to forget. Including those friendly faces Neil and Nick Dawson at the top of Box Hill who bought me a calippo and had a chat!!!!
And everyone at Born to Run facebook group and friends who followed my progress and gave me encouraging messages.