Written by Debra Bourne - https://runningape.wordpress.com/
The 2020 edition of Centurion’s Autumn 100 was a very special race for me: 23 hours and 8 minutes of special. All my training over the past year paid off with my first sub-24-hour 100 mile race, earning me my first ‘100 miles – one day’ buckle.
In normal years this is the fourth and final race in the Centurion 100-mile Grand Slam (although this year the South Downs Way 100 is still to come). While the other three races – Thames Path 100, SDW 100 and North Downs Way 100 – are point-to-point along their respective National Trails, the A100 is a series of four 25-mile out-and-backs from Goring in Oxfordshire, with the first and fourth legs being on the Thames Path, while legs two and three use the Ridgeway.
[Running trace for the A100]
The format means that runners can access their drop bags at 25, 50 and 75 miles. James Elson (the Race Director) in the briefing video had asked us to keep these as small as possible, and certainly no more than 50 litres, but that had to be balanced against bringing food I knew I would eat, plus some I might want, changes of footwear and adequate clothing options. I knew I probably wouldn’t use all the clobber I took (although I did eat most of the food), but it was good to have the choice.
As with CW50, we drove most of the way on Friday evening, staying overnight at the Travelodge in the M4 (this time without road closure worries). In the morning we were on our way by 6.30, after a bit of a wait for the windscreen to clear after a cold night. We arrived in Goring and I made use of the carpark toilets, avoiding any queue at race HQ or the Streatley start, then my husband Aidan carried my bag most of the way to the village hall before leaving me, with a kiss, as we had been requested not to bring anyone with us. I dropped off the drop bag, said hi to Nici, picked up and attached my tracker, then set off walking down the road to Streatley, setting my Garmin to ‘run’ and loading Leg 1 in as a course. I was using four courses, one for each leg, after discovering the miserly 50-waypoint limit on the Garmin 935. Many thanks to Chris Mills for chopping the course up for me after James posted the final version of the GPX. After the problems I’d had during NDW100 with the watch stopping recording the run when I hooked it up an external power source, this time I started off with the charger attached.
My coach, Neil Bryant, had suggested I run easy on the first leg and practice my eating and drinking breaks, get into a rhythm. About half a mile in there was a narrow humpbacked bridge, where we had to mask up and cross one at a time, guided by a lovely and very polite volunteer. I felt cold walking to the start at Streatley and for the first 5 or 10 minutes of running, but soon warmed up. From then on I used hat and gloves on and off to regulate temperature. It would have been easy to run faster than was sensible, given the flat route, and decent underfoot conditions. I didn’t stop at Wallingford, just said hi and got a great greeting from Anna Troup. Then onwards to the turn-around point at Little Wittenham, where I filled water bottles and took a satsuma and piece of banana. Keep on running, walking to eat and drink, getting practiced at juggling food and the powerbank which I was carrying in my left hand. Back through Wallingford, again without stopping, but Anna was very encouraging at a point where I was feeling quite low – I felt like I’d been pacing sensibly based on perceived effort, despite which my legs felt tired, which I hadn’t expected only about 20 miles into the race on flat terrain. Anna reminded me to enjoy the run!
[Along by the Thames]
The best aspect was the out-and-back nature of the course, which meant that I got to see all the other runners, the faster ones returning while I was still heading out, and the slower ones heading out while I was on the return journey. Some nice wildlife moments – watching swans take off from the river, and seeing Red Kites soaring overhead. It was great to see familiar faces such as Gareth Allen, Ollie Dawson and Rob Cowlin, as well as a load of others who are becoming familiar on the Centurion races. I did find the route a little boring, without the variety of a route such as the North Downs, but it was pleasant running and pleasant enough surroundings. After about 20 miles my laces started to press into the tendons on the tops of my feet. I stopped once and loosened them, but they started to hurt again in the last mile or so – it was definitely time to change shoes.
Back at Goring I experienced the fantastic Centurion organisation, with my drop bag pulled out and placed on a chair (those were at 2m distance from one another) while I sanitised my hands and filled my water bottles. I reported a lost glove – one of my really nice Inov8 ones, that had been a present – and hoped someone else would bring it in (although I did have a spare pair in my backpack). I sat down, changed shoes as fast as possible, and swapped my depleted bags of food (mixed vegan sweets, raisin-cranberry mix, salted snack pretzel sticks and boiled salted new potatoes) for full bags. I also took one of my hot cross buns to eat and a satsuma. Nothing else needed so I sanitised my hands – holding the bun and satsuma in a piece of kitchen towel kindly provided by a volunteer – and left, loading the course for leg 2 as I set off.
[Woodland path along the Ridgeway]
Leg 2 heads along the Ridgeway north then eastwards to Swyncombe and back. Initially the path lay alongside the river, on the opposite bank to the Thames Path, so the terrain was, not surprisingly, similar to that of the first leg. Past South Stoke on the little diversion off the Ridgeway that James had warned about, and into North Stoke, not really needing the aid station. Then over a road and into Grim’s Ditch. Here a volunteer in orange high-viz jacket warned us that the path was narrow and we should take extra care and give way to others. I rather enjoyed this section, roots and all; it was interesting to run it west to east for a change. I was meeting returning faster runners sooner this time and could only marvel at their speed as I stepped aside to let them pass. Another opportunity to say hi to people I knew as well. Gareth Allen seemed to be doing pretty well and looked much happier than when I’d seen him during NDW100.
[Heading into Grim’s Ditch]
Onwards, up and over some rolling hills. A large field, then another, dipping down then climbing up again towards woodland. At the far side I spotted Stuart March and stopped gazing at red kites for a few seconds while my photo was taken and we exchanged greetings, before I disappeared on the path through the trees. Onwards. Up the lane (I recognised this bit from going wrong on my CW50 recce) past St Botolph’s Church and into the aid station. Reach into my pocket for my mask… no mask. I realised I must have dropped it, so pulled a buff on instead. Sanitise, fill waters, take a bit of fruit, sanitise, thank the volunteers and head off back down the lane. By now some light showers had started, but they were not enough bother for me to put my coat on. Through the woodland, which anyway gave shelter from the rain. As I emerged and drew breath to say hi to Stuart as I passed, I spotted my face mask, which another runner had carefully placed on a gate post for me, and happily retrieved it.
[Across the fields]
Across the two fields, running the inclines as well as the downhills because it had started raining again and I wanted to get back under sheltering trees. Another orange-coated volunteer as we plunged back down Grim’s Ditch, then over the lane and through North Stoke again before following the diversion to South Stoke, then back down the river. I passed Rob Cowlin again somewhere along here and worried as he was in road shoes and struggling on ground that was getting more slippery. The rain started again. Grey clouds stretching to the horizon suggested that this would be more than a shower, so I sheltered under a tree, dug my waterproof coat out of the backpack and donned it. Right decision, as the rain accompanied us all the way back to Goring. I was running mostly by myself, but there were a number of runners that I played ‘leapfrog’ with for shorter or longer periods throughout the race, depending on our personal running speeds, walking breaks, times spent at checkpoints and so on. Some I had met during other Centurion races, but with the minimal interactions under COVID-19 restrictions I was finding it hard to pin names and faces together.
Back down the alley, mask on and into the hall – where, to my delight, my glove was waiting for me! Fantastic. I had planned to change socks at this point but given the worsening weather I didn’t see the point – the ones I was wearing were not rubbing or anything and whatever I was wearing would get wet and muddy in the next hours, so it would be better to keep these on and change for a hopefully dry leg 4. Now stationary as I replenished my food supplies, I was starting to feel cold. It would get dark sometime during leg 3 and the temperature was likely to fall. What to wear? I pulled a long-sleeved running shirt on over the NDW50 shirt with my number pinned to it (I considered swapping the shirt, but then I would have needed to move the number), and pulled my waterproof trousers on as well as the jacket. They would protect me from windchill and from worry of getting soaked and cold if the rain got heavier, while leaving my long running tights dry in case I needed them for leg 4. With 50 miles done, I felt confident that my watch battery would last the rest of the time, so I left the charger and lead.
Out of the hall and off up the road, heading west on the Ridgeway. It felt strange to be running this section in the light, unlike either of my Ridgeway 86 runs. In a little while the rain eased and I was soon overheating, so I stopped for long enough to take the waterproof trousers off. A couple more miles and I was getting too hot again so took the jacket off – but before I could tie it round my waist the rain returned, so I put it back on – this time to stay on. This section was mainly wide chalk and flint paths, not too slippery yet, although I worried that might change with the rain. I was very aware on every down slope that I would meet it again as an incline later, but cheered myself on the uphills by thinking about returning down them. East Isley Downs was a lovely oasis of cheer, with little chemical lights edging the paths in and out, and volunteers making sure that people left in the correct direction outwards or inwards. I should have stopped there long enough to get my head torches out, but didn’t, because I wanted to clear the way for incoming runners.
As the light faded, and with the rain having paused, I get a couple of nice sunset pictures.
[Sunset on the Ridgeway]
[Sunset on the Ridgeway]
Onwards, running where I could, walking when the footing seemed too treacherous or I was hunting for the best rut or ridge to run along. The last stretch before the turn-around point I bumped into Ollie Dawson and we ran together for a bit. He reassured me that I was well in time for my sub-24 goal. Finally into the aid station, buff on as I couldn’t find my face mask (again), fill water bottles, take a banana and set off again, taking cheer from the thought that the wind would now be behind me rather than into my face, and the muddiest section was first, so I could look forward to better footing later. Ollie had stopped to drink some coffee, which he said would help his upset stomach.
The rain had cleared and at one point I glanced up then stopped, turned out the headtorch and simply stood for a few seconds gazing at the wonderfully bright stars with no city light clutter to dim them. Back through East Isley Down aid station, then continuing back to Goring. I alternated running and walking, depending on the terrain and on how hot I was feeling, slowing when necessary to cool down. I felt I could probably run more and faster if I took a layer off, but I calculated that in the time it would take me to peel something off and stow it I would get too cold, so I just pushed my sleeves up my arms. At about 11pm, feeling a bit sleepy, I took a caffeine tablet and a little while later felt more alert. I didn’t spot Rob Cowlin on this section and realised he must have dropped, sadly. I was alone for long stretches, which I don’t mind, with other torches periodically approaching and passing, and sometimes seeing other patches of light down the trail and moving in the same direction as me, visible then hidden, depending on curves in the path. There was one very surreal moment when for a few seconds I saw what looked like balloons or something caught up in a tree ahead – then I realised it was a steep section of path and my torch was reflecting from a runner ahead of and above me.
At Goring, final replenishment of food from my drop bag and final hot-cross bun to eat, as well as changing headtorch batteries – the one in the main torch was still fine, but it made more sense to change it than not. I didn’t feel any need for hot food, so didn’t bother making up the instant noodles I’d brought. It was set to be a clear night and cold, according to the volunteers. I deposited the waterproof trousers into my drop bag and set off again. I was well prepared in case it was much colder by the river: I had a lightweight windproof and my arm warmers, in case I felt the need for another layer on my top half, and light Montane windproof trousers in case the legs got too cold, as well as thicker gloves, a beanie and a buff in the backpack. In the end I used none of these. Leg 4 set on the watch, plus other runners going the same way, supplemented the Centurion markings – not that the Centurion markings were lacking, just that I was tired.
Down to the river, along a little way. I spotted something on the path and stopped. It was a buff, evidently recently dropped, as it hadn’t been trampled, and almost certainly from an A100 runner, so I picked it up and stuffed it into the back of one of the vest pockets. Along a bit further then uphill and a section through undulating woodland, which I really hadn’t expected. However, that, for me, was the highlight of the section. The remainder was almost dead flat and most of it was rather dull. Despite Ollie telling me I had plenty of time for sub-24 I was worried about not making it. My legs were not really stiff or sore, but keeping them running, rather than walking, was getting more and more difficult. I started setting myself goals: 100 running strides with each leg then I could walk for 50 strides. Repeat. If I didn’t reach the 100, then I tried to make the following walking break shorter. As an added complication, my guts started telling me that a visit to the toilet would be a good idea. This ‘suggestion’ became more insistent and I had to walk, along a road, through a churchyard. I was NOT going to squat in a churchyard. By now I had lost track of whereabouts the intermediate aid stations would be, so when I spotted a lit-up building with people moving about inside it didn’t immediately occur to me that this was the checkpoint. I I had already decided to knock on the door and hope someone (a) answered and (b) let me use a toilet when I saw the Centurion arrows directing me there and realised with relief that this was the aid station. I shuffled to the door: ‘please tell me there’s a toilet!” ‘Yes’ came the welcome reply. It was up the stairs. That was okay, I could manage that. I fished in my pocket, couldn’t find my mask, so took a single-use mask from the pack by the door, sanitised my hands and hurried upstairs. Soon, somewhat relieved (pun intended!), I took a bit of banana from the aid tables, thanked all the volunteers and continued.
Across a couple of fields, past some dark cattle, their eyes brightly reflecting my headtorch, along by the river. Through a bit of woodland then suddenly, it seemed, into a built-up area, up a road, going a little past a junction but slowing and checking and turning back, my watch buzzing at me just as a couple of other runners whistled to alert me that I had missed the turning. A bit further along roads. I was sure I had already gone about eight miles, and Ollie had warned me that the checkpoint was six miles after the ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign. Where was that sign? After what seemed an age, I spotted it. Another six miles out. My heart sank. Nothing to be done except keep moving. Walk, run, walk, run. I was too warm when I ran, too cold once I dropped to a walk, so I seemed to be constantly taking my gloves off and putting them on again as well as pushing my sleeves up and pulling them down. I thought of removing a layer but was worried that I would get too chilled if I did. One interesting bit where I passed a huge gathering of roosting swans and geese, and a couple of lit-up bridges, but otherwise, being dark, not a lot of interest. About 2.30 or 3 am I took another caffeine tablet.
By this time I had ‘ultramarathon brain’ sufficiently that I couldn’t manage the calculations for how much longer it would be to the turn-around point, nor how much longer I had if I was to finish under 24 hours. A couple of times other runners passed me and I tried to tag on behind them, but always broke into a walk after 100 paces or so. I asked a returning runner how far… ‘about another mile or two’. Surely not? It was indeed nearly a further two miles. I spent a good mile expecting to see it round every corner, but finally, finally there it was!
Water, a banana (I think) and off again, definitely happier to be heading back. So much of running ultras is a mental game. I had been depressed by the elusive Reading checkpoint, but now I could tell myself there were only 12 and a half miles to go, and surely I could make that sub-24.
Despite feeling mentally better I still couldn’t maintain a run, so I went on run-walking and reminding myself to eat and drink. Back past the roosting waterfowl, back past the bridges. When the leg 4 trace said that I had about 8 miles to go, I dug my phone out and called my wonderful husband. ‘I’ve got somewhere between two and two and a half hours to go. Probably two and a half’. ‘Okay, I’ll send you a text when I reach the car park.’ Onward, back onto the road section, past the cows, Pangbourne Meadow, always giving a ‘well done’ to runners still on that outward leg. Another brief stop at the part-way checkpoint. Now less than 4 miles to go! My stomach was feeling a bit uncomfortable, but much less so than on NDW100, and I could still run in short but frequent bursts, walking at a good pace in between.
Up the road, striding into the incline, looking forward to the trail through the woods and the descent on the other side. I stepped aside for some runners who were catching me up, but they soon slowed and I caught them again. The front runner was pacing one of the others, aiming to get him finished in sub-24, and the other guy had the same aim. I said I was also trying for that. ‘Come on, girl!’ the pacer called, so I joined them, and after a few minutes found that I was generally managing to keep up with the pacer better than the other runners were doing, although none of the three of us could keep running for long before dropping back to a walk. Finally we were down back by the river. Nearly there now. A couple more turns, then onto the road. A final effort, running alongside the wall encircling the green, then over the timing mat. Finished! I pressed the button on my Garmin and walked down the alley, pulling my buff over my face, towards the Garden Room.
I knew that I had come in under 24 hours, but not how much under until I looked at my watch (and discovered it still running, so I pressed stop more firmly!) – it said 23:08. No way! What a fantastic result for my 90th ultra! I had to wait a little until this could be verified from the Centurion system, before I was allowed to pick up one of the coveted ‘100 miles – one day’ buckles and pose, grinning, for my finish line photos. I was given my T-shirt and offered tea and chilli. Veggie chili was available, and I felt bad for refusing it, but I didn’t think it was wise on an unhappy stomach.
My phone chimed, but when I looked I didn’t seem to have a text, so I accepted the offer of a tea and a sit down inside the hall. Various runners were draped over the carefully spaced chairs. I accepted my drop bag for the last time, and placed the shirt and buckle into it so I couldn’t lose them. A few minutes of chat with Nici and volunteers, then just as someone presented me with my tea I saw the text from Aidan and replied. A couple more minutes and some sips of tea, then I levered myself out of the chair, hauled my drop bag onto my shoulder, thanked everyone one last time and headed out.
[Finished! Earned my first “100 miles – One Day buckle”]
Afterword & thanks
It has been ten months since I contacted Centurion Coaching and Neil Bryant started setting my running schedule, making my training more focused. Having spent the past three years running lots of marathons and ultras, and qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, I had wanted to see if I could get faster. My stated goals had been a marathon under 3:40 (maybe even under 3:30), Comrades under 10 hours and a 100-miler at sub-24 hours. The COVID-19 outbreak meant no Comrades, and with most of my other ultras postponed and squeezed into the last 5 months of the year, no way of fitting in an attempt at a fast marathon. That left the sub-24 goal. Massive PBs at 5K and 10K over the summer in virtual challenges (including the England Athletics 5K virtual championships) had shown that my training was improving my speed at those shorter distances, but I wasn’t sure how this would translate into ultra-distance performance.
I had coped better than most with the heat during NDW100, as shown by my 4th woman, 1st FV50, 22nd overall placing, which had been fantastic, but I hadn’t gone under 24 hours – although I tried to remind myself that only 17 runners HAD gone sub-24 in the race. This time my placing wasn’t quite as good – 1st FV50 again, but 6th woman and 77th overall, but I was delighted with my finish time of 23:08:38 – which set a new FV50 record for the course by more than 27 minutes.
Now I have beaten the 24 hours once, I know I can do it again and I’m sure I will. Lots to learn still, as it was mental/neurological fatigue rather than tired muscles that slowed me down in the last 25 miles, and I need to improve my nutrition to keep my stomach happier.
I have lots of people to thank. First, my wonderful husband for his support throughout my training, as well as getting up at 5am two mornings in a row to drop me off and pick me up again, and walking back to the village hall with the tracker when I realised, sitting in the car park, that it was still on my backpack.
Many thanks of course to James, Nici and the whole of the Centurion crew. It takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes plus the efforts of dozens of volunteers for a race like this to go ahead, and the organisation was spot-on. Thank you to Anna Troup, for reminding me to enjoy the race, thank you to the other runners who returned my glove and left my mask on the post, thanks to all the runners and volunteers who gave me encouragement during the race. The sense of community in ultrarunning is wonderful.
Special thanks to Neil Bryant, whose coaching has led me to find an extra gear and reach this goal. I also owe thanks to Chris Morton from my club, Striders of Croydon, whose speed sessions over the last year, and encouragement with the 5K and 10K virtual races, have really helped me to push harder and get more out of my speed work.
Written by Simon Dicks - https://www.focusedrunning.co.uk/
It was the night before an early start to Gallivare, Northern Sweden. This being my third multi-stage race you may think I was calm and ready for bed, however, I was still anxiously packing and repacking my race bag, checking the mandatory kit over and over again, constantly questioning myself whether I could live without an extra pair of socks, a spare mid-layer top and lots of additional calories. So many questions racing through my mind.
I was checking each item, weighing it and working out how to lose the grams. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weight of my bag before but my mindset had changed. In previous races I’d been running to complete; in this race I would be running to compete.
The journey to Gallivare involved two planes, a train and a final bus to the Mountain Centre where the event truly started. Once there we took our seats and listened to Kris King, Race Director for Beyond The Ultimate events. As the brief went on you could feel the tension, and the fear, rising in the room. The trepidation of what this terrain could do to us, as for me, with each moment, I got more excited for the challenge that lay ahead.
From the moment the race brief finished time seemed to speed up. The room exploded into a hive of activity with medics checking runners for every item on the mandatory list. Simply put: if you don’t have an item you’re not running. I knew my pack was complete with all the required items but there is always something about this moment in epic races - you’re not 100% sure about your bag until the medics sign your kit form, which they did, and I could then focus on eating (something I am not big on).
Food is unique to each runner and only recently have I felt comfortable with myself and the amount I eat during races. I am on the minimal side and trying to eat a 1000-calorie dinner wasn’t easy. It probably took me over an hour to finish and I only felt relaxed when it was done. I was eating 1000 calories based on what I’d heard from past runners so, with the fear of running out of energy, I didn’t want to be caught short.
My race food per day was as follows:
1000 Calorie Expedition food pouch for breakfast & another for dinner
2 x Chia Charge Bars
1 x 20g block of cheddar cheese
1 x Clif Shot Bloks - Cherry
1 x Homemade Chocolate Cookie
1 x 33 Fuel Recovery Drink
1 x Kenco 3-in-1 Coffee sachet
1 x Cadbury Hot Chocolate sachet
Nunn Electrolytes - one per CP (CheckPoint) and at the end of the stage
On the longest day I would have extra cheese and Chia Charge bars. After that day, however, and all the other days I had food left over. I also struggled to eat 1000 calories at breakfast. If I were to change something it would be to have a 500 calorie breakfast with an additional desert meal. Please don’t think my food plan will necessarily work for you. Every individual is different so you really must experiment and find what suits your body … it’s taken me four years and I’m still learning.
We get the call to say the overnight accommodation is ready. Reindeer skins are down so it’s time to go. Setting off through the cold night we find our home for the night are tepees in the snow. There are six of us to a tepee. We dive in to escape the cold, scrambling about to get our expensive sleeping bags down and inside them as quick as possible. I made sure I changed into my night gear before we left the Mountain Centre.
It was an interesting night’s sleep … anxious, excited, cold, do I really need to go out for the bathroom? … this all adds to the experience.
RACE DAY 1 - 31 Miles (Strava)
Back to the Mountain Centre we go, walking briskly to keep warm. My focus is on eating and feeling content that my pack is exactly as I want it to be. The centre is busy with kit all over tables, some people talking, some completely engrossed. I was more on the quiet side today; I felt calm; my mind felt relaxed; I was ready to run. In the final moments before leaving the centre I had a discussion with Simon Wilson and his son Sacha over whether to wear a mid-layer top. Having never experienced such cold weather in the UK it was an unknown for us, so I had cautiously put on a base-, mid- and outer-layer. After ten minutes of debate we all decided that two layers was the way to go, so off came the mid-layer and in the bag it went. This was to be one of the best decisions I made during the entire week, the two layers were just right for my body temperature and effort level.
Stepping out in the two-layer system I could feel the cold. Next to me was good friend Craig Williams who, with a military background, mentioned it’s best to start cold, let your body warm up and then adjust layers if needed. This made complete sense and with my mind set on running as much of the course as possible I felt happy.
Knowing that there would be times of walking, mainly on the hard uphill’s, I would take this as a march, giving my running muscles a rest whilst moving forward making good progress. This also allows me time to eat more comfortably, think about what is coming next and prepare for the next section.
As Kris does the countdown I am focused. I have a plan. I’ll move at my own pace; at my effort level; sticking to my movement strategy whether that be on ice or snow. We start running on a frozen road, the sun is shining, the scene is beautiful, this is why I do these races for moments like this.
The first checkpoint (CP1) is 10km which we reach comfortably. I have a very small lead over Aodh from Ireland as we hit the first of the frozen lakes, which is where the first decision has to be made - snow shoes or not? I persist without them across the lake to the first climb, but here it’s very clear that snow shoes are needed so on they go. I’d practiced taking them on/off many times so this was a quick change but, nonetheless, frustrating to stop. Having gained a minute on Aodh, I’m hoping he’s doing the same! At this time I also make the decision to use the poles, strictly for the uphill only, as I want my hands free for downhill running. In haste I don’t put my hands through the Leki gloves, I hold my poles directly, this caused the gloves to come off of the pole clip a few times, running back to meet Aodh who had kindly picked them up. Not something to be repeated, although happy to see Aodh in snow shoes as well.
After locking my pole gloves in my bag I set off up the climb, only treating myself to the view behind me once at the top. It is truly spectacular. Having never led a race before this is a whole new feeling - the only similar feeling I have had was on day four of the Jungle Ultra when I ran into second place. I now told myself that no-one would be taking this away from me, so I kept moving forward on undulating ice and snow, keeping within my chosen effort level which I hoped would keep me in front.
I find myself moving nicely, feeling happy and absolutely loving it. I have music on and I’m really in a trance, in the zone. I move through CP2 quickly continuing on the same type of ground. , I switch in and out of snow shoes a few times, only to switch back into them again quickly, so I decide they’ll be staying on for the rest of the day and most of the week. I feel a hot spot on my heel, thinking the snow shoes may be causing rubbing, I decide to assess it at CP3. There isn’t anything going on. I have a good chat then off I go. I was there for 10 minutes and Aodh had come into view. At this point my race head kicked in and I would no longer be having good chats at the CPs!
CP4 is the final stop before camp, at the bottom of a climb before a fantastic descent into woodland. I love this hill: the downhill is amazing; you can see for miles; it’s so much fun moving quickly knowing the camp at Aktse isn’t far away. I see the cabins and I know I’m close, I’m buzzing for my first ever stage win in an Ultra. I see the Yeti flags and adrenaline kicks in … I run past the finish line but no-one is there. What an anticlimax for me. I shout hello and up pops a local Sami on top of a roof clearing snow. He logs my time and a medic tells me I’m early :-)
The cabins are amazing, warm and cosy. Now it’s recovery time and preparation for day 2, Aodh comes in second and Alex third, lovely guys I would get to know well over the week.
RACE DAY 2 -27 Miles (Strava)
After a relatively good night’s sleep we are woken by Kris and it’s time to get ready for day 2. I make the decision to wear the Leki gloves from the off to prevent me from having to run backward to meet Aodh again! It had snowed overnight so the ground is soft, meaning snow shoes from the off, something I got used to and in the end I forgot they were even on.
We group at the start for the countdown, again with Lee and Craig at the front, soon to be joined by Aodh. I don’t feel any pressure about the day ahead. Yes I was surprised by my performance on day 1 but there are 3 racing days left and I’m not thinking about the win, purely let’s do the same today and see what happens.
As we set off I am joined by Aodh. He takes a nice video of us running across the lake, then we enter woodland prior to a final lake before the 700m, 6KM accent up Mount Kabla. As I cross the lake before the climb I have a few minutes on Aodh and Alex, I could see them in the distance, but I’m also starting to lose some feeling in my hands. The temperature difference between lake and woods must be 10 degrees or more as I continue across, not wanting to stop to lose time or for the guys to see me stop, I keep pushing on to the woods whilst continuing to lose the feeling in my hands. My biggest mistake of the race was having my down gloves packed away in my bag. To this day I can’t remember why I did this, maybe a slip of preparation concentration. Once I make it to the woods it’s an operation to get the gloves, which is a frightening moment as the cold comes so quickly, affecting me badly as I fumble about and get them on. My fingers are painful and not easy to move but, once the gloves are on, I feel happy to push on, with a look over my shoulder I can’t see anyone and off I go.
They say experience is what you get when you do something wrong, so I put my small but painful mistake down to experience and remind myself how important it is to anticipate potential problems and plan for how I’m going to deal with them when they occur during the race.
Now I’m climbing steadily in sheltered woods towards CP2 which is before the main climb to Kabla. A very quick stop to replace frozen water bottles and I am straight off with no chatting like yesterday. As I work my way up I can see the guys behind me. I check my watch and tried to figure out the margin I have. I think at this point it’s about 10 minutes. The climb is one of those climbs that just keeps giving … when you think you’re at the top you have more to do, so when I finally reach the top I look back over what I’ve run, and again it’s spectacular.
CP3 is before the big decent down to Arrenjarka. Getting to CP3 is a mixture of running and power hiking as it’s up, down, up, down, constantly. When the CP comes into view I pick up speed and execute a quick pit stop to refill with warm water. I’m conscious that I ‘m in the lead so I don’t hang around except for a quick chat with Kris, who is on Facebook ‘live’, before going down hill to camp.
The snow is treacherous if you step off the marked course, and even on the marked course you can find yourself deep in waist high snow. That’s what I discovered on the way down. Smiling to myself I get back up and move on. I keep looking over my shoulder for Aodh and Alex as I haven’t seen them since coming down Kabla. Knowing they could be close behind me is one of the things that keeps me pushing on. Again the run to camp is down through woodland, frozen lakes and finally more woodland and, of course, more frozen lakes. This part of the course is brilliant: happy free legs and the stage finish not too far away. The mind, body and soul are happy and when I can see cabins I know I’m home. This is when the body releases extra energy to push you on, and I’m happy to see Will who guided me in. A 2nd stage win, is incredible and surprising. I’m slowly starting to believe I can do this.
The big downer for the day was hearing that my very good friend Lee Haswell had to withdraw from the event due to suspected and later confirmed broken ribs. I met him in the main centre and had a cuddle and relaxed for a moment. It’s never a nice feeling to see a mate injured and out of the race, but we’re stronger in the long run when this happens.
RACE DAY 3 - 26.2 Miles (Strava)
Marathon day on the frozen lakes. We’re the last cabin to be woken which leaves us with very little time to get ready. Another lesson learned here - take control of the alarm!
A frantic 45 minutes commences, trying to eat, pack and make sure I’m set for the day is a right stress and not something I want to happen again. I hardly eat anything and don’t want to miss the race start, so this isn’t a great start to day 3, a fast day. It feels more like a race day today as we are out of the snow shoes and my feet are running free. My thinking is the same as the previous two days: keep to my effort level; see what happens. Gathering at the start line it’s very cold, down gloves are on and once more I am totally focused on the day ahead.
This is a great day of running, non-stop, no walking, but very challenging. Starting without snow shoes feels great and I set off across a frozen lake before entering woodland. As soon as we are off the lake the soft snow hits and the feet sink instantly into the snow, sometimes inches, sometimes a foot or two. I don’t immediately change into the snow shoes as the bulk of the day is on a long frozen lake so, with this on my mind and sensing Aodh behind me, I’m not keen to stop and put them on. Then it gets to a point where I’m waist-deep in snow and getting very frustrated with the inability to move, so it’s definitely time for snow shoes. I make the change quickly and instantly know it was the right thing to do. Now I’m moving quicker and with less effort.
After the first woods with the snow shoes on I cross a few lakes and hit CP1 very quickly. I don’t stop. The medics call out lots of questions and I say yes to all, moving swiftly on, hunting CP2 down. This would be the start of the long lake section of 20K. Aodh, and what looks like Dariusz rather than Alex, are only minutes behind me. If I can just keep ahead as each CP goes by the overall win would be getting closer. I’m really in race mode now.
Between CP1 and CP2 it’s either frozen lake or woods. I pass a small settlement with waves and claps, which makes me suspect CP2 is close, and means a fast change out of the snow shoes to make my way across the lake.
Upon reaching CP2 the snow is very soft. I shout at the CP from meters away asking if I should take the snow shoes off. The Sami says yes so off they come. I had prepared myself for this quick change and putting them quickly in my bag, change made, fresh water on-boarded, I move on, checking over my shoulder and there are Aodh and Dariusz, minutes behind. This next section is where nothing changes: you are moving forward but it seems at such a slow pace; you look behind and you see runners; it’s impossible to get a feel for the distance or time difference; the only thing to do is keep moving and fast. My effort level has increased during this stage and I‘m not letting up as I close on CP3 … with 10K to go I just have to keep moving. I can feel myself getting fatigued, slowing down, and looking back I can sense that I’m being hunted down. With that in mind I dig in, kept my cadence up and eventually see the island where the stage finishes. Leaving the main track of the frozen lake, the soft snow stops me in my tracks. 100 meters to go and they hit you with this! I’m cursing. Charlotte, an amazing medic and supporter, is cheering and clapping like mad. I make it to the finish line and fall to the ground. A good day’s racing!
Now it’s time to recover and get ready for day 4. Dariusz finished 2nd, with Aodh in 3rd. This result puts me 42 minutes ahead overall, which is nothing with a long stage to come, but I now feel like I have the opportunity to do something that I would never have imagined possible. I am starting to believe there is a chance to win with just one big day to go!
Race Day 4 - 41 Miles (Strava)
It’s an early start to a long day. We wake to multiple alarms after not wanting a repeat of the previous day. Dariusz is out of the door fast. After getting to know each other and hearing stories, Dariusz is a good 100-mile runner, so him literally running out of the door gets us all thinking he is on for it. My plan for the day is to maintain my effort level, not to blow up and loose the hard fought minutes I had acquired. The 10 minutes wasted on Day 1 could come back to haunt me. We line up at the start and it’s Alex not Dariusz who flies out of the blocks!
Right from the off Alex takes off. I think for a moment ‘Let’s have some of this”, then I tell myself to not get sucked into in a battle. Alex has 1 hour 39 minutes to make up over the day and I know I just need to keep moving at the pace which has served me so well so far. It’s actually nice being the chaser not the chased. At each CP I ask how long ago Alex had left, which allows me to keep focused and not to lose my head with the fact he’s surging ahead with that great spare set of legs he got known for.
Today is mainly flat, with either frozen lakes or woodland, all stunning. It makes me feel privileged to be running in such a place. My memory of this day will be that it was just one foot after the other, ticking off CPs until they eventually got closer and closer to the finish line. At the final CP, the Sami give some basic instructions that we aren’t far from the finish. At this stage of the event and this time of day, I feel like it’s great news, but … either I miss a turning (which I don’t) or his idea of not far is completely subjective, and from the perspective of my legs it is far!
I’m now heading up the trail in search of the finish knowing Alex is approximately ten minutes ahead. I’m feeling happy, but this last stretch goes on forever. It’s so interesting how your brain can keep your body going along quite comfortably, then new information makes your brain think differently and ultimately affects your effort level when the finish is not as close as your brain thinks. With the increased effort level my brain is telling my legs to stop and walk. I don’t. I’ve battled too hard and too long to allow this happen, and I wonder now if the Sami had not given me the information, how different this last stretch may have been.
The last stretch concludes on a frozen lake with large, uneven and impossible-to-run-on ice cracks. Not exactly what is needed at this moment, but it doesn’t matter. I can see the end point in the distance and my legs are kicking on. Hearing the team shouting and clapping, I speed up, zoom under the underpass, then up the hill to the centre and into the Arctic circle, Supermanning onto the ice. This was a special moment for me. Alex had finished 12 minutes ahead; a great day’s running by him, indeed.
Now it’s time to relax once more in the Centre. It feels surreal as I’ve won the race but there’s still one day to go. The fifth day would be a day to run with new and old friends.
RACE DAY 5 - 9 Miles (Strava)
We start off with a group photo: all battered, sore muscles, tendons, blisters, the normal for a multi-stage, but it’s easy to forget that and there are plenty of smiles as we move onto the start line for the final time. It’s a sad moment as this really has been an amazing experience, but it’s going to come to an end.
Aodh, Alex, Dariusz and myself talk about running this stage together which we do. It’s a great end to the week. We soon catch up with my Jungle Ultra mates, Lee and Craig, who had sped off at the start. Dariusz decides to walk the last few kilometres so the three of us run the remainder of the course to the finish, one of my best moments from the race, sharing a good emotional chat with amazing human beings.
Finishing is fantastic. I’ve done something I hadn’t thought possible. Was it the focused and dedicated training that had allowed this to happen? My mind? Or even both? Whatever it was, it had all come together and opened up my world to discovering what more I can do with my body. I’m already beginning to research what my next event could be in the ultra trail scene.
Beyond The Ultimate (BTU)
Everyone who takes part in an Ultra event is there for their own reasons. They are on their own running journey and just putting themselves out there on the start line is amazing. If you are reading this and thinking about signing up to this event or any of the BTU events I simply can’t recommend them enough. The team at BTU is like a family when you’re out there, and once you do one you’ll be hooked. (ICE ULTRA ENTRY)
I caught up with Will from BTU a few months after the event for an Everything Endurance Podcast.
I will be launching Focused Running in 2021, my coaching business for runners. Focused Running was born on the long bus ride back from Jokkmokk. Sat next to me was Lee Haswell who gave me the confidence that I could do something with my passion and experience. Learning to run efficiently is what made the difference at the Ice Ultra. That process wasn’t just one thing - it was a combination of both physical and mental changes that made the difference.
If you’re interested in improving your running, whether it’s to complete a long-distance race or even to compete for a podium finish, then please do register your interest in being coached.
Written by Ilsuk Han
It was shaping up to be the worst of times. And we didn’t know it yet, but it was to get bleaker still. It was still relatively early into this new decade, and on 5 March Paris Marathon announced its postponement due to Covid-19. Just a few days earlier on 1 March Tokyo Marathon did run but as a very much stripped-down affair for elite athletes only.
But that was Tokyo, half-way across the world and a whole lot closer to Wuhan, where this coronavirus reportedly spread from, and World Health Organisation had yet to declare the disease a pandemic. Surely Paris Marathon had overreacted? Alas – subsequent weeks saw similar announcements from Boston Marathon and London Marathon, both rescheduled to Autumn and, in the case of Boston, subsequently cancelled. Sign of the times, sure, but I had stopped running big city marathons some years ago, so just sympathised with friends who had been affected, shrugged, and carried on.
And then, on 15 March, an email from Centurion Running which impacted me more directly – postponement of the season-opener South Downs Way 50 from April to October, and North Downs Way 50 from May to July (subsequently moved again to November). They weren’t the only Centurion races to be affected – the Track 100 got cancelled and Thames Path 100 was moved from May to September, but I wasn’t entered in those. I was however entered into both SDW50 and NDW50 and South Downs Way 100, which would also eventually get pushed back from June to November.
Source: Chris Mills/Centurion Running
And just like that, I – and indeed, all other runners – went from looking forward to a decently busy and challenging race schedule to…nothing. Nothing but weeks and months of being laid off, furloughed, or working from home, with a daily allowance of outdoor exercise if lucky and news updates of ICU cases and deaths that punctuated the lockdown, both here in the UK and globally. There remained the faintest glimmer of hope that we might have actual races come the end of Summer and into Autumn, but at this point no one seemed to have any clarity or certainty beyond what was next on Netflix.
And then it got me. I certainly didn’t see it coming, at least to me. In the span of two weeks, from secretly hoping that SDW50 might just get postponed since I was less than adequately trained, I went from someone who hadn’t been running because of a misplaced “mojo” to someone who struggled to even make it out of the bed, never mind go out for a daily dose of exercise.
You see, in between doing all the things that I did to occupy myself with instead of running, I had caught what was later confirmed to be the virus. In the week prior to that day waking up and thinking that I felt rubbish, I had dined out with friends, gone to the cinema twice, been to a live gig, had a social run with 20 others and beers after (the only kind of running I did in the last year), and been to the pub twice. Promiscuous, I know, but “social distancing” had yet to make it into the popular vernacular.
What followed for most of April was lockdown in every sense of the word. Not only the one that was government mandated, but also one imposed on my body and mind by the coronavirus. While I didn’t have the cough or shortness of breath, I did lose smell and taste and was generally void of any energy. Even after more than two weeks of bed rest, an outing to the local store for supplies left me drenched in sweat and exhausted.
My first attempt at a run on 9 April, exactly three weeks since initial onset of malaise, was a pitiful shuffle, one where the 4.7 miles out the door and a lap of Battersea Park which normally takes about 45 minutes took almost one hour as I struggled to sustain a jog for more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. I did go out for two more runs that week, a 6 miler and a “long” one of 7.8 miles, encouraged by the fact that I didn’t seem to be relapsing and stubbornly determined to make full use of my allotted time outside.
A life-affirming post-recovery run
I totalled 18.5 miles in that post-Covid Week 1. Now, ironically, that is actually more than I had been averaging since I completed Autumn 100 in October the previous year, such was the lack of mojo in the ensuing “dark” months. But now, with a newfound appreciation for the freedom of movement and simply gratitude for having what little health I had left, I was determined to, well, just get out as often as I could manage and keep moving in a bid for post-Covid recovery.
The following week I accumulated 36 miles over five runs, and the same in the week after that, including a run over 10 miles. I guessed that over that period I went from 60% to maybe about 85% of full fitness. Not quite there yet but most definitely moving in right direction, seemingly with every run. There was no doubt in my mind I was one of the lucky ones.
It was in the following week, 1 May, that after days of teasing us into the lead-up, Centurion announced details of the One Community Virtual Event, which was to take place in the week of 25 to 31 May. Entrants had from midnight to midnight over the week to complete a challenge distance of their choice, from 5km to 100 miles, with a buckle award to 100-mile finishers and wooden medal for the rest. As per Centurion tradition, runners had the option to forgo the swag and plant a tree instead.
He ain’t heavy but….
It was just what I – and as it turned out, 1000s of others in the running community needed right there and then. It was an event which brought with it the kind of challenge and focus that was too absent to many of us who had all, in some way or another, lost too much in those uncertain and restless days of forced lockdown. Whether intentionally or accidentally, but crucially unavoidably, Centurion had found not only the right chord, but probably the only chord that could have been struck at that time. And boy did it reverberate. Centurion RD James Elson sums up the event as it impacted on the community as a whole much better than I can in his event report so I’ll just stick to what I did, and what it meant to me personally.
The challenge was a timely opportunity to plot my way back to post-Covid recovery. It was also a chance to revel in my newfound joy for running. It was a chance to do some training for once for whatever races may or may not happen later in the year. But a challenge it most definitely was, since I had decided to go for the 100 miles and I had never, in the decade that I had been calling myself a “runner” had a 100-mile training week.
Centurion thoughtfully organised a podcast featuring Robbie Britton alongside James in the lead up to the event week, and that proved valuable in coming up with a strategy. Doing the 100 miles in one hit was implicitly discouraged – not that I’d contemplate it for a second anyway. But incorporating a double session day or two seemed sound advice, as was the one to start the week with a long run to bank the miles and maybe thereby allow the luxury of a rest day later in the week.
My One Community 100-mile Week
Monday 25 May: 26.1 miles on the familiar and local trails of Thames Path, Richmond Park, and Wimbledon Common. Good to bank some decent miles but only 26% done!
Tuesday 26 May: 12.1 miles on North Downs Way from Newlands Corner to Seale. I love the NDW and the route ends at a friend’s house for a BBQ, so great way to get to 38%.
Wednesday 27 May: A double session day, with 10.6 miles along the Royal Parks in Westminster in the morning and 6 miles on the local Thames Path loop in the evening. Much to reflect on during my runs today. An NHS letter received in the morning confirmed presence of Covid-19 antibodies in the blood plasma that I had donated two weeks prior. As great as the One Community event is, and as fun as the week is, it was a sobering reminder of why such a virtual event was necessitated in the first place. Stay alert, stay grateful. Over halfway at 54%.
Thursday 28 May: A rest day ahead of a big one the next day but still nervous about having to cover almost 50 miles over 3 days. Still at 54%.
Friday 29 May: 30 miles along the southern half of Capital Ring from Woolrich to Wimbledon. I had always wanted to explore Capital Ring and this was as good an occasion as any. Sunny and a bit too warm, as it had been the whole week. 84% done and beginning to believe that the goal is achievable.
Saturday 30 May: 28 laps of a local block for 8 miles total. There were some in the community who were doing laps (of whatever) to achieve their goals so I decided to throw some into my mix. I admit it was a bit of lap envy which prompted this but shoot me if I ever mention laps again. 92% done.
Sunday 31 May: 9 miles on Thames Path from Richmond to Hammersmith with Philip who is amongst the few who I can spend long time with on the trail, as we discovered during our 2019 Grand Slam attempts. Perhaps it’s because he also likes a beer or two after a run and so we celebrated reaching our goals with some beer. 101 miles!
Celebratory beers at the “finish”
All in all, it was a great week and one I’ll never forget. It was uplifting from a personal perspective in terms of individual achievement but to do so as a member of a vibrant and supportive community is very special indeed. I rediscovered my love for running and long solo runs in particular. There is always the risk once the world returns to “normal” that finding the time and energy may prove again difficult, but for now thanks to Centurion One Community I can keep moving towards my 100% fitness with the sun on my face.
It sounds cliché, but the one lasting takeaway from this whole experience is to never take anything for granted. Not your freedom, not your health, not your loved ones, or a supportive community. In that sense, I feel we managed to turn what was potentially the worst of times into the best of times, even if only for a fleeting week or so.
Indeed, the entire event was an abject lesson in how to make the most of a bad situation, to look ahead to what can be gained rather than dwelling on what’s been lost. As in ultrarunning, so in life.
Written by Debra Bourne - http://runningape.wordpress.
I spent 2018 and 2019 running lots of marathons and ultras (mostly ultras) to finish qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, which I achieved at the end of November 2019. I decided that my next goal would be to run ultras faster, with specific aims for 2020 of a marathon PB (getting my time down to 3:40 or even 3:30); a sub-10-hour Comrades Marathon (iconic 56-mile hilly road ultra in South Africa) and sub-24h-hour at a 100-miler.
In summer 2019 I started attending my club’s speed sessions occasionally, and from November regularly, as well as starting strength training twice a week. Beginning in December I invested in online coaching, choosing Centurion coaching as I thought that, as they surely coached people who were aiming for the Centurion Grand Slam (four 100-mile races during the year), they would be better able than most to cope with my multiple race goals. My coach, Neil Bryant, had been setting me to doing more speed work and runs such as tempo runs and progression runs (increasing speed gradually during the run), as well as making sure that my easy runs really were at an easy pace that wouldn’t impact on the harder sessions, and encouraging me to cross-train at least once a week.
With the whole COVID-19 situation, races were postponed or cancelled right, left and centre. Comrades didn’t happen. Other races such as NDW50 and Wendover Woods Night 50K were postponed. Although I ran a number of 50K virtual events in the course of training, I was running them as training runs, on tired legs. Running 5-mile, 5K and 10K virtual races organised by Chris Morton from my running club, I had some proof that my speed at those distances had improved – I reduced my 5K to 21:20 (from my previous best of 22:24 set in 2012) and my 10K to 44:26 (from 45:30, also set in 2012). However, NDW100 would be my first chance to see how the training had impacted the ultras that were my real goal.
The NDW100 2020 edition was one of the first races to be held in the UK in an in-person rather than virtual format since the COVID-19 lockdown started in April. We were all pleased it was going ahead. Various adaptations had been needed to allow the race to happen, including a couple of course diversions – although James Elson assured us those would not affect the overall distance (103 miles). Gathering for the race briefing evidently wasn’t possible, so that was pre-recorded and linked in the final pre-race email. I got distracted with downloading the revised .gpx and only remembered to watch the briefing at 5 am on race morning while getting dressed and eating breakfast.
Rather than a mass start, runners could set off from the trailhead at any time from 5am to 7am. We were asked to set off earlier if we expected to be faster and later if we expected to be slower, to reduce overtaking and hopefully, by increasing ‘spread’ along the course, reduce bottlenecks at the aid stations. I intended to set off about 6 am, but ran a bit behind schedule – with the nice result that I met up with my Comrades-running friend Amanda. After dropping off our drop bags (to go to the Knockholt Pound aid station at 50 miles and to Detling at 83 miles) with PPE-wearing volunteers, and a last trip to the toilets, we headed towards the start. Amanda went to pick up her tracker from the table, which was useful as I would probably have forgotten about mine entirely otherwise, wasting money and disappointing family and friends who wanted to follow my progress. Trackers taped to backpack shoulder straps (we had to do that ourselves, due to COVID-19), temperature checked by another volunteer in PPE, and just before 6.30 am we were off.
It’s often been said that 90% of running an ultra is the mental side, rather than the physical. One aspect of that is that setting out to run 100 miles (or 103 in this case) is a big task. It’s easier mentally if you chop that down into smaller segments. In the COVID-19 circumstances I was breaking this race down into four large sections based on where I would replenish my food: Box Hill (well, a little before: the crew point at 22 miles), Knockholt Pound at 50 miles, where my first drop bag would be, and Detling (82 miles) holding my second drop-bag. Besides that, I chopped it into sections between aid stations, where I would get water and maybe a bit of additional food.
NDW trailhead at Farnham, and overlooking Denbies vineyard*
The first section is really very runnable, and I reminded myself to take it easy, as there was a long way to go, although I also decided it made sense not to hold back -too- much while the temperature was still reasonable: only in the mid-70s to low-80s Fahrenheit. Despite running easy I found myself passing other runners almost from the outset (probably due to my slightly late start), and settled into a nice rhythm, walking the uphill sections and allowing myself to run – but not push – on the downhills. The aid station at Puttenham golf course wasn’t active for this year, so it was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Newlands Corner. I’d decided to hand-carry a 500mL soft bottle in addition to the two bottles on the front of my pack, as I didn’t want to risk running out of water.
To absolutely minimise COVID-19 transmission risks at aid stations, each station had been split into three mini-stations (two later on the course), with water and Tailwind options, Pepsi, and some food in small plastic bags. When I arrived at the aid station there was a short queue. After sanitising my hands with gel I had to wait about three minutes before other runners finished and I could step forward to fill my water bottles. The food supply was pretty minimal compared to the usual amazing Centurion spread – half bananas, satsumas, bags of sweets, crisps, nuts/raisins and individual cheeses (Baby Bel or similar). As I am now to all intents and purposes vegan, I was basically carrying all my own food, because I couldn’t rely on things like the sweets being eatable. I quickly refilled two water bottles, chose a satsuma and stepped away from the table so the next runner could come forward. Off to the side I stuffed the water bottles back into their pockets, peeled the satsuma, then sanitised my hands again (holding the satsuma in my teeth!) and set off. It was barely 9am and already hot enough that I could feel the sweat rolling down my face.
My preferred electrolyte additive is Elete – a concentrated salt solution without any flavouring or sweeteners. Often I put it in the water (how it's meant to be used!) but on this occasion I had decided to simply drink it neat at intervals, squeezing out a number of drops onto my tongue, swallowing then chasing with water. It worked fine except for the time I tipped my head back too far and got the concentrate on the back of my throat and going down the wrong way. That hurt, as well as setting me coughing, and my throat felt raw for the next hour or more, and still felt raw the next several times I ate satsumas at the aid stations.
The second aid station would be just before Box Hill at 25 miles. I had arranged for my husband to meet me at the 22-mile crew point at Steers Field, so I was able to replenish my food supplies there to last me to Knockholt Pound, and I put some more sunscreen on my shoulders, neck, nose and ear tips. So far it had been reasonably cloudy, but the sun was starting to break through and the temperature was rising – my Garmin recorded temperatures reaching 93.2 °F during the afternoon, and another runner reported a reading of 44.5 °C – well over 100 °F – in one of the unshaded areas.
At the temperature rose I kept my effort level and heart rate down, running easy and power hiking the hills. To my surprise I was passing other runners on the uphill sections as well as while running. Going through Denbies I overtook Rob Cowlin, who I know from many SVN races, and it was great to see him – one of the worst things about the lockdown for me has been not seeing everyone at races.
The aid station was a little earlier on the course than usual, at a cricket club just after leaving Denbies, rather than in the Box Hill Stepping Stones’ car park. The queue here was five or six minutes. Some runners were taking ages dithering over the food options. Back out onto the road, down to the underpass, through and back up to the Box Hill Stepping Stones car park. I was feeling fine – probably because I'd been holding back compared with previous years running the NDW50. At some point I discovered my watch had stopped recording when I’d attached a powerbank – despite having worked fine doing that on a recce. Irritating.
Due to pressure of visitors at the stepping stones and at the Box Hill viewpoint, we were diverted off the usual trail twice: first over the bridge rather than the stepping stones, then again half way up the usual steps, on a lower level route for some time before a more gradual climb that seemed to go on forever. Having recced this section a couple of times this year, as well as having raced the NDW50 previously, it seemed very strange to be taking a different path. The route had been well marked, but it was comforting to re-emerge onto the NDW and be back on the familiar paths.
The stepping stones that we didn’t use, and the bridge that we did
From Box Hill to Caterham is the section that always seems to me to be one hill after another: lots of ups and downs with very little in the way of flatter bits. Every so often on the tops of the hills I reminded myself to look around and appreciate the views. As usual on trail runs, I was also watching and listening for birds and other wildlife, but this day seemed to be too hot even for the birds to be active. I did hear some birds of prey calling occasionally, and watched one gliding not far above the treetops.
On a recent recce it had been raining and chilly as I ran over Colley Hill, and as I ran the same trail through this day’s heat and sun I couldn’t help think about the contrast and wishing for a bit of that coolness. Through Gatton Park and past the Millenium Stones. Through the Reigate Hill checkpoint, with only a short queue. Across the golf course, then the cricket ground – where I passed a runner with a GoPro and thought nothing more of it until a few days later someone told me they had spotted me on a YouTube video**. Through St Katherine’s Church, pausing a moment to fill one of my water bottles with lovely cool water, and into Merstham, where along the road section suddenly I heard ‘Debra! Go Debra!’ and there was Peter Johnson, a Striders of Croydon clubmate, being really encouraging and saying how strong I looked – which was nice to hear, as I felt like I was melting. A local was spraying runners with a hosepipe as they passed (if wanted) and I closed my eyes and went right through for a good soaking. A runner ahead of me almost missed the left turn off the road, but I called ‘stop!’ and two crew on the pavement waiting for their runner pointed and called out as well, and he stopped abruptly and made the turn. “Nearly missed that!” he said as I passed him a few seconds later. “It’s easy to miss,” I replied – “I did on a recent recce.” Through the underpass then diagonally up across the fields, power hiking in the sun.
Running happy, near Newland’s Corner and Caterham (Stuart March Photography)
At the Caterham viewpoint it was lovely to see my friend Jo Quantrill (from South London Harriers), and we chatted while I waited in the queue for the aid station, also with Donna, one of the volunteers who I knew.
By now I was into very familiar territory, and knew that in the hot conditions some of the most testing miles lay directly ahead: not in terms of terrain, but simply because much of the next section would be fully exposed to the sun, running along the sides of fields rather than through woodland. I enjoyed the woodland while it lasted, and managed to call out a “left” just as another runner was about to miss a turning.
Reigate Hill view and Gatton Millenium Stones
So far my legs felt fine, my heart and breathing were fine, I was drinking and eating without any problems. I had my home-made energy balls, boiled new potatoes (with a little bag of salt to dip them in), lentil crisps, mini pretzels covered in salt crystals, mixed raisins and cranberries, and a bag of mixed vegan sweets. The important thing was to keep moving steadily, not pushing too hard in the heat, and walking the uphills to save my legs for later. I passed the point where I had fallen in the NDW50 last year, this time not tripping on the bit of flint sticking up through the path. Last bit of woodland, down the steps and out into the sunshine. It was hot, but I had expected that. Onwards – down, along past the quarry, a short sharp hill, and along again, passing the steep hill where the Vanguard Way joins the NDW for a little while, knowing that it’s now only a few fields until the Titsey Plantation and Botley Hill.
A pleasant surprise while trotting along the fields, as I realised that the person walking towards me was familiar – another clubmate, Rel Lindley, who had come out to encourage us on our way. That was a great boost and gave me something to think about other than the heat. Past the Greenwich Meridian sign, along one more field then finally a break from the sun, swinging onto the wide uphill track through the Titsey Plantation and up to the Botley Hill aid station.
When running the NDW50, by this point my legs have always been tired, so it was satisfying to note, as a sign that both my training and my pacing were paying off, that I could power-hike up the hill at a good clip, passing people along the way. At the top, however, the aid station was packed, with about six runners before me in the queue and people sitting all around on chairs and tree trunks. I took advantage of the enforced break to put some more suntan lotion on my shoulders, neck, nose and ears, and had a chat with Ollie Dawson – who I had last seen while recceing the Farnham to Dorking section of the NDW a few months before – about other runners we both knew out on the course. Finally I reached the front of the queue, refilled my bottles, took a satsuma and headed on towards Knockholt Pound. Shortly I passed Gareth Allen (who has been doing absolutely crazy virtual races during lockdown, to while away the disruption to his “12 x 100-milers in 12 months” challenge), who said he was really suffering in the heat. Then I saw yet another clubmate, Myles, sitting under a tree and calling out encouragement – another boost.
Towards Titsey – me (courtesy of Rel Lindley); the Greenwich Meridian Line plaque
Along Chestnut Avenue, thankfully wooded, before Westerham Hill, and about halfway I saw Nikki, with her husband and daughter. They offered me a Calippo, apologising for the fact that it was half melted. I didn’t mind – it was cold and delicious. As a bonus, Nikki poured a load of ice into my hat, which felt wonderful, and passed on the news that she had seen clubmates Ally and Tad already, but not Keith Simpson, who, being in the V70 category and a bit slower as a result, had probably set off later. I trotted off down the lane, sucking on the slushy Calippo and redistributing some of the ice down the front and back of my vest. It was horrifying how quickly the ice melted, but it was great while it lasted.
Cross the road, across more fields, up the steep hill and I knew we were only a few miles out from Knockholt Pound. This was where I usually alerted my husband that I was on my way and could he come to see me finish (if running NDW50) or pick me up (from a long recce run). On this occasion I called him to please meet me at Otford (the next crew point), as I could feel a spot on my back where my heart rate monitor strap was starting to rub quite badly and I wanted to tape it up.
A mile or so before the village, we had a second diversion from the NDW, which unfortunately meant running on road for a while rather than the usual fields and woodland, and was unfamiliar. I was relieved to spot the village hall (aid station). One of the volunteers at the front of the hall was Louise Ayling, and it was lovely to see a familiar face (and no queue). I’d volunteered here in the past, and my memory was of the space packed with people. On this occasion there were far fewer runners in the hall, with chairs spread out around the walls and further chairs outside, but there was another familiar face, as clubmate Ally was there. I got my drop bag and sat down to change my shoes and socks. Ally and I chatted a little while we got ourselves sorted – she was having some digestive problems, finding it hard to swallow anything, so was surviving mostly on Tailwind.
It was so hot that even changing my socks and shoes took longer than it should have. Thankfully the volunteers were able to provide some wipes so I could clean my feet of dust and larger bits of road grime before putting on the fresh socks, which felt really nice. I also ate one of my pre-prepared sandwiches, stuffed my next lot of trail food into the side pockets and my head torches into the main pocket of my pack, and of course refilled my water bottles. The volunteers also provided a bowl of ice, so I set off again with ice under my cap, melting and cooling me down – heavenly!
Past where I’d seen wild orchids growing on a recce, down the hill, across the road and onwards towards Otford. I felt a bit bad as I realised I’d taken ages at the aid station and my husband would be waiting for me. Thankfully we had agreed to meet at a bench on a tiny patch of green, after the station, so he would be in the shade and no doubt reading. I finally arrived, and Aidan applied strips of kinesiology tape to protect my back. A kiss and I was off again, up the steep hill and the endless steps, then continuing on the route that was reasonably familiar after two recce runs.
Elephants on the way to Otford; lovely poppies on a field edge
At one point a reminder that we were on the Pilgrim’s Way: two men, one in old-fashioned monk’s garb and leaning heavily on a long staff, walking along the footpath. Into the Wrotham aid station and out again. Passing through some woodland I realised the light was beginning to go, so I paused and dug out my headtorches – my new LEDLenser neo 10R on my cap, and my old Silva Ninox 3 round my waist. A right turn down the lane and into Trosley Country Park. Partway through the park I switched on the main torch, which lit up the route fantastically, but gave a disconcerting dark patch seemingly just under my eyes. I switched the other light on and that area lit up. The combination of the two lights worked really well. The path through Trosley seemed to last forever and I hadn’t seen any of Centurion’s marking for ages, so I was very glad to have recced and know that there was no way I could have left the route. Finally to the end, with a sharp right turn and down a recently-resurfaced path, with another runner remarking as I passed that I was being sensible while he was being stubborn, not turning his light on until the next checkpoint.
The NDW turns north here, as it has to go to the Medway crossing. Heading towards Holly Hill, I noticed a crumpled empty soft bottle that had evidently fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I picked it up. At Holly Hill aid station (where I also briefly saw Ally), I asked if I could leave it with them, as I didn’t really want to carry it the rest of the way, and they agreed that I could. This was also a crew point, so as I left the aid station and turned back onto the trail I called out to the nearest crews: ‘Pass it along the line – if anyone’s runner has lost a soft bottle, I found it and I’ve left it here.” Immediately one of the crew members replied, “An Ultimate Direction one?” As I frowned, trying to remember what those looked like, he added “grey with a red top?” “Yes!”. “Thank you!” and he headed towards the aid station.
At some point I fished a boiled potato out to eat and it smelled slightly 'off' so I didn't eat the last two in the bag - nor the ones that I had intended to eat that were in the next drop bag. Sadly that removed a good source of both fuel and 'real' food for my stomach, and I didn't really have anything as a replacement – my sandwiches just didn't look appetising.
There’s a little section of the NDW just before the Medway Crossing that I’m very familiar with. The NDW crosses Ranscombe Farm and Nature Reserve, where I have spent many hours running in Saxons, Vikings and Normans events, sometimes in ideal conditions and sometimes in atrocious mud, but always in great company with fantastic camaraderie. It was comforting, therefore, to think of this section as ‘running towards Ranscombe’. Reaching the farm was lovely; this bit I knew so well (although I was used to running it in the other direction) and I remembered the amazing flowers I had seen there during my recce runs. The Medway crossing itself I was not looking forward to, after two very hot crossings on my recces, but at least this late I didn’t have the sun beating down on me, and there was considerably less traffic whizzing past on the other side of the tall fence.
Ranscombe Nature Reserve, with beautiful summer flowers
Onwards towards Bluebell Hill, and a couple of miles before the aid station I spotted another soft bottle on the ground, so I picked it up (nearly full, this time, a very long, very thin bottle), and carried it with me to Bluebell Hill aid station, where I left it and hoped they would transport it to the end for possible reclamation by its owner.
Milestone 79 miles from Farnham, and stones to sidle round into a field
Next stop, Detling. Here I reclaimed my second drop-bag, ate a bit of the instant noodles that I had made up in the morning, and switched out my food bags for fresh ones. I’d also noticed on turning off my Ninox torch that the battery indicator light was orange, so I fished out spare batteries and changed those before heading off again (the main torch was still fine). There was a runner there who was totally unfamiliar with the trail. Those of us who knew it told him that the next section was gnarly to Hollingbourne, but it was only a few miles – and after that it was much easier all the way to the end.
Having remembered the next few miles as truly horrible, they didn’t feel too bad, even in the dark (having good torches really helped), and Centurion’s route markings were plentiful. At one point I glanced at my watch and discovered a blank screen. Despite the earlier recharge, the battery had run out – frustrating! I fished out the powerbank and connected it, gave it a minute then switched the watch on and got the course started again. It was another several minutes before I realised I hadn’t actually pressed the start button yet so it wasn’t recording my time etc. Steps down, steps up, ducking under branches and stepping over roots. I was moving more quickly than I had expected on this section, and even in the dark it was sufficiently familiar from my recce that I always knew I was on the correct route (and in the little section where the course took us slightly off the NDW, straight across a field rather than up and round the edges, I recognised that as well). I even passed a couple of other runners. Concentrating on my footing and balance, I didn’t eat much during this section, which was almost certainly a mistake. When I was on one of the easier bits crossing a field and rummaged around in the running vest pockets, I couldn’t find my bag of sweets, which was a real blow, as I had been relying on them for energy. I also felt guilty for having littered the trail by dropping them somewhere along the route. I tried to eat an energy ball instead, but for some reason found it unappetising and had problems forcing myself to chew and swallow it, and I didn’t try the raisins and cranberries – no idea why not. The wind had picked up and actually felt cool along the tops; I enjoyed the feeling of almost being cold. I'd worried that the LEDLenser would feel heavy, but it didn't – although my head was beginning to itch from having the hat on (and now the head torch on top) for so long.
Finally, I descended into Hollingbourne, where the wet ground indicated a shower that hadn’t touched me. Only 15 easy miles to go! I looked around for the aid station but couldn’t see it. There were some runner crews standing around and I asked one of them where the aid station was. She pointed down the lane and said ‘about three and a half miles that way!’ For some reason, although I knew it was 8.5 miles from Detling to the next aid station and only about 5 miles from Detling to Hollingbourne, I had it in my head there would be an aid station there. Although I still had nearly 500 mL of water left, and didn’t actually need the aid station yet, the information that I had 3.5 miles to the next checkpoint really threw me.
I started off down the lane, power walking initially to give my legs a bit of a rest. Then I checked the time, did some calculations and worked out that, despite having lost about 30 minutes to the aid station queues, and spent too long at the half-way aid station, if I could average 12 minutes per mile I might just squeak in under 24 hours. So I started to run. For at least 20 strides. Then I dropped back to a walk, frustrated. It wasn’t that my legs were obviously stiff and sore – they were not – but my glutes and my hip area in general felt completely tired and lacking in energy for running. The lane was going slightly uphill, so I waited for a downhill section and tried again. This time I maybe managed 30 strides with each leg. It was hugely frustrating. I could power hike at a reasonable pace without any problem, but my legs simply didn’t want to run. As an added problem to the glutes and hips feeling out of energy, my stomach was beginning to feel uncomfortable and on the edge of nausea when I ran, and my guts didn’t like it either! And my feet were feeling sore, despite my having changed into quite padded shoes (for me) at Knockholt Pound. By now none of the food I had left seemed appetising and I was really regretting the loss of my sweets. I nibbled on the savoury snacks, but that was all.
I continued down the lane, power hiking, trying to run whenever I hit a bit of downhill, managing 30 strides with each leg here, 50 there, while a few other runners started to pass me. Into the Lenham aid station, where I refilled my water bottles, took another satsuma and walked on. It was getting light, and my head was itching, so periodically I experimented with turning off my headtorches, and as soon as it was light enough I stopped, stowed the torches in my pack and took my hat off, giving my scalp a good scratch with both hands. Onwards, with a few more runners passing me. By now I knew the sub-24 wasn’t going to happen. At about 5am I phoned my husband, told him I’d hopefully be finishing in a couple of hours.
Along the final fields before the road into Ashford – and a lovely cedar
Onwards. Into Dunn St Farm, the final aid station, where I accidentally put Tailwind into one of my water bottles, but thankfully a volunteer told me in time that I could put water into the other one. I took another satsuma and walked on, still trying to jog for 30, 50 or occasionally 60 double-strides at a time. At one point I accidentally drank the Tailwind, which tasted awful. Across the fields, and I was glad that I had recced this bit, as I knew exactly where I was going, without constantly keeping an eye out for Centurion arrows and tape. Through the old churchyard and onto the road. Only 3.5 miles to go. They went on forever. I was glad of the Centurion signs again, so I didn’t have to use any mental energy on navigation. Walking briskly, jogging for a little, walking again, another brief jog. I forgot to even try to eat: I just wanted to finish.
Most of the road section had been downhill, and I’d forgotten the final rise before the stadium. Nothing to do except get over it, so I kept walking. My husband came into view and pointed me to the correct gate to take into the stadium. As my feet hit the track, I managed to break into a jog and kept it up for about a third of a lap, then dropped to a walk for a little while round the far bend, before persuading my legs into something resembling a run for the last of the curve and the final straight. I tried to summon a smile for the photographer as I approached the line, crossed it and stopped. Done. I had left everything I had out on the course and finished in 24:43:22.
Along the back straight of the track, and finished. (Stuart March Photography)
I collected my medal, posed for the finish-line photos, then headed off the track, accepting the T-shirt, congratulations from the volunteers and the offer of a vegan hot dog, but wanting nothing more than to sit down and hope my innards would stop feeling so uncomfortable.
Me and my NDW100 buckle, outside the Julie Rose Stadium (finish) building***. I still need to earn one of these saying "100 miles - One Day" rather than "100 miles – Finisher"!
Louise Ayling told me that I was 4th Woman and I was really pleased with that, but I’m not sure I managed to smile about it – I had left everything I had out on the course. I felt awful that I couldn’t summon up the energy to thank everyone properly, but I was feeling sick and weak and couldn’t find any posture where I was comfortable.
After trying lying down on the grassy bank, then in the car, hoping to regain enough energy to thank the volunteers properly, I finally gave up and we set off for home – where I confirmed I was 4th woman, 22nd overall – and 1st VF50!
MANY thanks to the Centurion people and all the volunteers who made this race happen – to get this held in the circumstances was amazing, and of course we couldn't do these races without the marvellous volunteers.
Retrospective musings: I’ve run something over 100 marathons and ultras now, mostly ultras, but this was only my fourth 100-mile race and I’m still learning how to tackle them. I am really happy with my performance up to Hollingbourne. I kept my effort level down, my energy remained reasonably high despite the heat, and I was passing other runners throughout. I think I paced myself well through the heat of the day, and the couple of caffeine tablets I took, one at about 11pm and the other a few hours later, seem to have worked as I didn’t get sleepy – a far cry from my first 100-miler when I discovered that it -is- possible to fall asleep while walking. My heart rate stayed easily in the low-aerobic zone throughout, as my pace was limited mainly by the heat.
The last 15 miles I’m not so happy about! In retrospect, after the potatoes smelled ‘off’ I should have made sure I ate some of my sandwiches, even if I didn’t feel like it (some other runners had packed bottles of ice into their drop bags – that would be an excellent idea for another occasion). Once I discovered I didn’t have my sweets (I found them still in the drop bag when I unpacked it, so at least I hadn’t littered the trail) I should have made myself eat more of the dried fruit and the energy balls, and maybe taken another caffeine tablet. The calves, quads and hamstrings were fine, but the glutes got very tired – suggesting that I was using them properly (which is good) but need to strengthen them more.
I enjoyed the race (well, maybe not those last miles) despite the heat. I’m delighted with my placing: 1st VF50, 4th woman and 22nd overall out of a field of 235 starters, and in a race that only 46% of the field managed to finish – the coaching and hard training have paid off. The sub-24 remains elusive, but only 17 runners managed that mark in the heat, and I have two more 100-mile races this year, so who knows!
* All photos except the ones of me and the one of the 100-mile buckle taken on recces, so all in daylight even if I passed the spot at night!
** YouTube video is at– I appear from 4:57-5:02.
*** I was too tired and feeling too grotty to go back onto the track for Aidan to take a photo with the track/Centurion finish arch in the background - and we were supposed to be staying off the track if possible (keeping numbers down)
Written by Sarah Oppermann
Sarah Oppermann, Ireland / Stage wins: 2 / Finishing Position: 5th Female 24th Overall/ Finishing Time: 39 hours 37mins 45
What and where: The Atacama Crossing (by RacingThePlanet) is a 250km, six stage self-supported race. Carrying all you need for the week on your back, the distances are daunting, but it is the terrain that really elevates the difficultly of this race! Cliché as it may be but mental preparation and kit preparation are as important as the physical training required for this race.
The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world (50 times drier than California’s Death Valley with some areas having never experienced rainfall). Originally under the sea it now comprises a plateau of 181,300 sq.km of salt basins, sand, lava flows and salt flats (more like dry frozen broccoli). Due to its strange outworldy appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for space scenes in films and its low levels of artificial light make it a world renowned destination for star gazing.
Nutrition and Training: Competitors must carry everything they need (nutrition, clothes and medication) for the week. We had to carry 35 mandatory items e.g. (toilet tissue, sleeping bag, eating utensils, headlamps etc) along with a minimum of 14,000 calories. I took about 16,000 calories which was not enough! I counted my recovery drinks and gels into my calorie intake which I may not do next time. A pre-race kit inspection and spot checks during the race ensure competitors take the kit requirements seriously. If you run out of kit/nutrition and borrow something from someone you may face a time penalty- so preparation really is key.
Perfecting the balance between taking enough food for a week with not having an unreasonably heavy bag can only be achieved with practice. I became fixated with what foods contained the highest calories, but weighed the least. I smashed noodles and Doritos into powder and weighed everything I carried (sample below). I cut the end off my toothbrush. I decided against any spare clothes and only carried the mandatory clothing items. I rented a great sleeping bag (Phantom 32) that folded up really small. I rationed my tissue paper for the week. I cut all the pieces of plastic off my contact lens cases/medicine packs. I cut off unnecessary zippers and I repackaged my food into airtight zipfoil. What would usually seem essential for a week in the desert was left behind (no insect repellant, eyedrops, topical disinfectants). I had taste tests during long runs to see how my body reacted to the freeze dried meals (Expedition Foods- will use again!). Some things worked, some things didn’t. One good experiment was using a lesser-known product on my feet to harden them (Tuffoot- typically used for horses’ hooves) which meant I was comfortable only carrying the minimum blister/bandage requirements. A big mistake was taking the back protector out of my OMM backpack (for a 400gr saving). In the end my backpack was around 9.5kg which was about the average with plenty of improvements identified for next time.
Training ranged from 70km to 120km a week, with a long road run every week and on average one long hill run a week. Every long run was done with my back pack (then about 5-6kg) which helped with slowing the pace down (essential for sustaining this type of training). The longest day of the race (80km) was prepared for by doing two 70km runs during a ten day heavy mileage cycle.
Snips of my spreadsheets below:
Stage 1: 35km- Navigation by Rock
Description of course: Through rolling hills of Rainbow Valley and along the Ancient Inca Road. Loose and soft red ground with some areas of compact gravel/stoney surfaces.
Altitude: Starts at 10,518ft- finish at 8,625ft
Most difficult stage: Last 6km through a canyon with no shelter from the blistering heat
Stage Place: 5th female
“You cant turn the wind- so turn the sail” (African Proverb)
The day before Stage one all competitors met in a local hotel for a pre-race briefing, kit check and final feed before a string of buses drove us to Camp 1. After a final meal of fresh food brought from town and some introductions we settled into our 6 man tents and I had a surprisingly easy (but freezing) sleep.
After Samantha (RacingThePlanet) gave us our early morning briefing, the time went so quickly and day one started with a bang- and a lesson in adapting. I knew that something at some stage would go wrong and had been preparing myself mentally for any eventuality. However, I had not prepared for something unexpected to happen so early in the race. The first couple of kilometres were going well – the first stage is enjoyable with some rolling hills and rock plateaus. About 13km in a couple of us at the start of the second pack could not find any pink course markers for about 2km. Ama (Australia), Petra (Slovakia) and I decided to keep running forward and eventually a course steward gave us some directions to follow to the next checkpoint (a shepherd had removed the pink markings). By the time I reached the second checkpoint I was completely rattled- I don’t think I even stopped for water. I felt like we had just wasted hours of time and energy trying to find our way and I decided the only thing I could do was boot it through the blistering sun for the last third of the race. I was so disappointed coming into Camp that I didn’t even check my finishing time. I let that situation get the better of me. If I had done that I would have seen that those who finished before were a manageable time ahead. A really great lesson in controlling the controllables that day.
Stage 2: 36.9km The Slot Canyons
Description of course: Through many water crossings through slot canyons of the San Pedro River, onto the mountain ranges and the Valley of Death into the open terrain of the Salar of Atacama.
Altitude: Starts at 8,625ft- finish at 7,661ft
Most difficult stage: over 20 river crossings but the closest thing to a shower all week!
Stage Place: 7th female
Daytime in the Atacama is a dry exposed heat but the night time is really really cold. The only way to get warm in the morning is to be up as quickly as possible and head out to the fire that sparks up at around 5am. Sleepwear consists of: stance socks, hat, gloves, leggings, a lululemon longsleeve and a northface down jacket. My waterproof windbreaker serves as a pillow and my sleeping bag has a hood so I am fully covered. Breakfast each morning is some oats and dried banana in water washed down with instant nescafe. By the end of the week my plastic bowl tasted of chicken soup, oats, coffee and noodles all in one!
Stage two consists of a dirt track down to the San Pedro river which we have to cross (over 20?) times for about 10km. It’s a pretty amazing experience, requiring lots of concentration, many climbs and descents. I ran the first half of the day with Nicola (Italy), Tanja, Rafeal (Germany), Andy (UK) and Troy (Canada). I tried to keep a pretty quick pace hoping to make up for lost time from day one. After the river crossing, we run through some flat lands, up a valley and a tunnel onto the ridges of the RIO Salado. Things got very fairly hairy quickly after that- I completely overheated. By the time I ran down the
biggest dune ever to the Valley of Death I was pretty delirious. I was taking in as many electrolytes as I could to keep myself from getting heat stroke and could only watch as Corinna (Germany) and my tentmates Ben and Natalie (UK) passed me out in the last seven km. I’m not sure where I finished stage two- 7th perhaps. The last thing I remember was getting water sprayed on my face as I reached the camp.
Stage 3: 38.9km The Atacamenos Trail “the Real Atacama”
Description of course: Cross country across some low vegetation with some sandy and slate terrain with canyons and sand dunes. Some crusty hard packed crusty mud. Final climbs up sand dunes to Camp 4.
Altitude: Starts at 7,661ft- finish at 8,048ft
Most difficult stage: Final climb to camp but really a great day
Stage Place: 1st female
It is strange trying to compete when you don’t have access to your family and friends, a phone and any of the ordinary comforts we typically rely on. If you don’t eliminate self-doubt quickly your mental state can deteriorate pretty quickly. I was getting quite frustrated with how the first two stages were going and it was Petra (Slovakia) and Natalie (UK) who advised me to pace myself how I normally would for Day 3. That’s what I did and things started to turn around from there.
Stage three is basically cross country along the Atacamenos Trail through hard slate, salt flats, some vegetation, and some canyons and sand dunes thrown into the mix. Everyone said this was where we would see the “real Atacama”. There was also a road for a couple of km which I was very happy about- I ran this part with Ash (Atacama veteran) and Nicholas (Australia) who was helpfully blaring music for that whole stage!. It felt like mostly a flat terrain besides a steep (vertical) climb at the end. I forced myself to pace, ignore those around me and look to speed up at the end (how I typically run my races back home). It is difficult to do that when you don’t know what terrain is lying ahead but it is what I should have been doing all along. In the last 6/7km I made my move and looked to speed up. I remember asking Benji (one of the fantastic stewards) at the second last checkpoint who was ahead and when he said there was only one- (Deb (Australia)- fabulous runner and eventual winner) I knew I had enough in me to push and be the first woman home. It was a great day. The end of this stage is a vertical climb up a sand dune and we watched every person finish the stage as their heads popped into view.
I knew I would have to acknowledge the pain in my lower back at some point and decided now was the time to do it. I went to the medical tent which was filled with a constant stream of people. Blisters on blisters, blisters inbetween toes, blisters under nails, blisters hidden by dirt, blisters stuck to socks, shredded feet, twisted ankles. “have you seen his blister?” became as normal as saying good morning. I have never seen such ripped up feet. I learnt from the doctors that the key to blisters is to pop them both sides straight away, drain it, dress it and cover it. Cover the area well enough that your bandage becomes a second skin. Do not remove the bandage. If you ignore your blisters you start to lose more and more skin on your foot and it is game over. I had worked on my feet the months before the race so my blisters weren’t my downfall but my back was in a bad way. 10kg rubbing off my back without any back protector and it was feeling raw. Patrick the medical director strapped it up which was a great relief for the following days.
Stage 4: 46.3km The Infamous Salt Flats
Description of course: True variety! Some steep hills, loose rock on sand, through a small village, through a river valley, open salt plains and the infamous salt “flats”
Altitude: Starts at 8,048ft- finish at 7,598ft
Most difficult stage: Second half of the course- 6km of salt flats- impossible to run on, near impossible to walk on and one twisted ankle away from an early ending! Such an experience!
Stage Place: 2nd female
At our morning briefing we were warned that the salt flats are near possible to reach by vehicle so to be very careful about hydration, twisted ankles and sunburn. Salt flats is a really misleading name. There is nothing flat about the salt flats in the Atacama. They are like really sharp shards of freeze dried broccoli that don’t crumble when you step. The day started with a couple of river crossings through river Valle Jerez, some dune climbs through Tambillo Forest (following Anim!) a run through a village, some long stretches of sand plane and gravel. Then- the salt flats. I had heard from a couple of the veterans that once the salt flats finished it was flat ground through a donkey path for miles. I got through the flats and picked up the pace (it helped that I was being hunted by Chigon (South Korea), Corinna (Germany) and Marc (France)). The final 6km is a long stretch of road completely exposed in the midday sun- past a huge lagoon. All I could see was Tanja and Rafeal (Germany) ahead of me and I just chased and chased and chased. Tanja took first but it was a great moment!
I had forgotten I had 80km ahead the next day. I had completely redlined it- after about 30 minutes of crossing into camp I couldn’t eat anything and had to spend some time in the medical tent. These doctors had seen everything in four days and while they tolerated me in the tent for a while when it was clear I wasn’t going to die I knew I had to give someone else a space. The people competing in this race were absolute warriors- people were so determined to finish. Helen (Malaysia) had some form of ankle injury that required regular medical attention- she was the biggest warrior. My race buddy Ama (Australia) had a stress fracture so prominent that the doctors were taking pictures of it to show people back home.
Typical movements after a stage went something like this: Bathroom. Go to tent and try get a “good spot” for sleeping. Hand sanitize. Change out of sweaty clothes. Put slippers on. Drink recovery drinks and find some shade to lie in amongst everyone else. Cheer everyone reaching Camp and help tent mates with their bags. Eat some crackers and noodles. Do some stretching. Look at other people’s blisters (best blister of the week-).. Listen to Scottish Steve making everyone laugh. Eat freeze dried evening meal and look at everyone else’s food. Jovica (overall winner) had gazpacho in the evening, while Bill (75) (UK) only ate pot noodle for the week. Finish the evening with a treat of some sort (melted haribo or chocolate) by the fire and head to bed by 7.30 for a 5am start.
Stage 5: 80km The Long March
Description of course: Around the lake shore to cross a plateau, some hard packed red sand, up a large dune, across a plateau into the Moon Valley and up some valleys home
Altitude: Starts at 7,593ft- finish at 7,780ft
Most difficult stage: the unexpected Sand storm
Stage Place: 5th female
The positives of starting to run out of food are that backpacks get lighter. I was saving my freeze dried carbonara and Doritos for the end of this day and they did not disappoint!
80km is a long distance to run, and even more so when you are underfed, tired and the terrain is so varied. We had every type of terrain during the Long March- starting on some sort of soggy marsh which I was not expecting! Strange scorched ground that was like upturned tiles, huge (cruel) sand dunes, wide open desert and a dirt road that never seemed to end. There was even a sand storm in the middle of the day which looking back on it was pretty cool (I think I got caught in it with Patrick(USA)…..The highlight of the day was being given a big juicy orange at checkpoint three or four. It was my only piece of fresh food for the week and it was glorious. Heading out of the desert onto the road that leads to Moon Valley we had been told to stay exactly on course as we were running through a patch of landmines- no off course toilet stops allowed!
At the end of every stage, you know you are near camp when you hear the crew beating the drums. By the end of this stage I was a little delusional, paranoid and the darkness started playing tricks on my mind- I kept thinking I had gone off course and was struggling to spot the pink markers. It was the only time I needed to use my poles for extra support. I ran about 34km alone without seeing anyone except the crew at the last three checkpoints and as soon as the sun went down I was completely spooked. A park ranger in a truck drove past me in the Moon Valley and I was convinced it was following me. I kept thinking the stars in the distance were the lights of the camp. So for me, hearing the faint sound of the drums was like seeing an oasis in a desert- after nearly 14 hours I was so glad to make it home (to eat my carbonara half asleep).
People were finishing this stage at all times and well into the morning- some over 24 hours on their feet. It was really emotional seeing people come in having pushed all limits. Our camp spirit Luke (UK) even wore his survival bivvy during the night section which we laughed about for hours. After the long march we had a day to rest. By that stage I had pretty much run out of food. No 1000 calorie freeze dried meals left so I think I had a pack of noodles and some crackers and sweets.
Stage 6: 13km The Final footsteps into San Pedro
Stage Place: 1st female
Really lucky to have my family (6 supporters!) fly in to finish the last stage with me. One of my brothers acted as a pacer for me which will forever remain a treasured moment. Watching everyone cross the line was incredible- so many inspirational people from all over the world from whom I learnt so much. From the crew to the runners, everyone was always genuinely supportive and that is one of the best things about the ultra-community- even if someone is passing you- you will give them kudos. So many lessons learnt- maybe for another post. A special race and one I feel I have unfinished business with……watch this space.