The second of 4, probably one of the toughest days I’ve had since timing out at Thames Path 100 but I’d go out and do it all over again in a heartbeat. It is on days such as these that you find reserves of strength you really didn’t think you had and achieve purely because you want that thing so badly that failure is simply not an option.
On arriving in Aldershot where I stayed overnight on Friday I bumped into other runners and was immediately offered a lift to the start in the morning By Chris Farnhill, typical of the kind of people you meet along the dusty trails on an ultra marathon, always looking out for others and going out of their way to help. I met up with Chris in the bar shortly after and we chewed the fat for a while before we realised we had both been on the same aid station at CW50 last year and hadn’t recognised each other.
There was a new race HQ for 2019 and I have to say it was a superb addition to this year’s event, lots of space to sort yourself out and relax before the off which came round in a blink of an eye. James finished his race brief where he simply told everyone that if we came to him afterwards telling him we had more than 50 miles on our Garmin he didn’t care, (something that always makes me laugh) and we were away to the start line just 5 minutes walk down the road. The challenge is finishing no matter what the distance is whether it is over or under the advertised mileage so you need to factor that into your pacing plan if you are likely to be near the back like me.
The first hill that really tests you on NDW is St Martha’s Hill, at 10.5 miles in you climb for around 450ft over 2 miles of ascent, the elevation drops off again before another gradual climb of around 200ft into Newlands Corner to the second aid station and that is pretty much how the day progressed for the better part of 10 hours. It was shortly after Newlands Corner that my race fell apart, up until then I was feeling really strong and comparing my times against 2017 I was only a few minutes behind schedule and I was really confident I could run a quicker second half from Boxhill onward as I knew I should be stronger on the hills this time round however my legs had other ideas. For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on the strength in my legs just went at around 16 miles, my heart was in it but my legs just wouldn’t respond to anything quicker than a slow trot. I knew I was well hydrated and well fuelled so what the hell was happening I could not fathom. In the end all I could put it down to was that 6 weeks between SDW50 and NDW50 just wasn’t enough recovery time for my legs, ah well shit happens and you just got to get on with it.
Having support along the way is an absolute privilege and I am very lucky to have that in abundance when I run these events from my family and fellow running club members from 26.2 Road Runners Club and I was not disappointed despite there being a big club event on in the form of the Green Belt Relay. It all started as I was honked and shouted at by 3 nut jobs (aka Josie, Carol and Jackie) who were just driving by as I exited the Denbies Wine Estate. Up until 3 years ago these 3 lovely ladies hadn’t ever run, they enrolled on my Couch to 5K course in 2016 and along with a number of others who came out to support have never looked back and as a result they are always there cheering me on, they are ace!
The hills on the NDW are quite brutal in places and the steps at Boxhill are no exception, there are, I believe 275 steps from the stepping stones to the top of Boxhill, they felt like 500 but it was here I got a huge lift, waiting for me at the top of those steps was Andrea Bennett, another of the 26.2 RRC Ultra fraternity (which seems to be growing every year) If I thought I was going to get any sympathy from her I would have been sadly mistaken, all I got was “Where the hell have you been, I’ve been waiting for you” and to be fair I had said something similar to her last year when she got to Boxhill so I couldn’t complain. Further along by the view point there was a group of supporters waiting for me to cheer me through and it was so good to see them, especially Greg another Ultra and training partner and his better half Sarah who follows us everywhere to support. Nice also to see Graeme and John and a little further and I was ambushed by those same 3 nut jobs hiding behind a tree who had earlier been abusing me form the car.
They walked a short distance with me complaining I walked to fast and then left me to go on my merry way trying to shake off the first cramps brought on by those bloody steps. I left them with strict instructions to give Chris Farnhill some stick as I knew he wasn’t far behind me and sure enough less than 2 minutes later I could hear them cheering him through as well.
A while later whilst heading in to Reigate Hill I got talking to Emma Burton, she was asking me how far we were from Reigate Hill and despite having run this section many times I kept on thinking it was much closer than it actually was and couldn’t focus my mind on where we actually were. “Down this hill and then it goes up” I kept saying after every hill, “Not far now I kept telling her” I knew that I was getting really tired and being a lazy bugger I also knew if I didn’t pick my feet up and stop dragging them like I often do I would be arse over tit before I even got there. The paths along this stretch are really overgrown, narrow and gnarly in places and it took all my concentration to focus on the path ahead. I hadn’t realised until Emma informed me there was a line of runners following me through which she likened to a game of Simon says. If I ran, they ran, if I walked, they walked, I felt like mother duck with all her ducklings waddling behind. So I got them all safely to Reigate Hill where it was again everyone for themselves as we negotiated another steep incline up to the run in to the next checkpoint.
Having got the top of Reigate Hill and heading into the aid station I was accosted once again from club members waiting for me to come through, seems I had quite a fan club out but I can’t help but feel guilty that they come all that way to cheer me on and all I do is bowl on through, say “Hi, thanks for coming” and then I’m gone.
I arrived at Reigate 50 minutes inside of cut off and knew from that point I was only going to get slower so now the mental arithmetic started. If I run xxx in yyy I can make it in zzz, however although I knew from experience the course was long by around ½ a mile I didn’t know how much extra the diversion at the Boxhill Stepping stones had added, shit how is that going to affect my times. So I added another half mile just to be sure and then another for good measure.
I was greeted at Caterham by my better half Sam, my son Michael and his girlfriend Mir who had just arrived, I didn’t hang about long but they popped up a while later at the top of Gangers Hill. I was hoping Sam had the can of coke she had brought for me in her bag, bugger computer said “No” but never underestimate the kindness of strangers. A lady who was also stood there materialised a can from her bag and said “here have this one” my god I could have kissed her, a few gulps later and I was away feeling a little more energised.
It was some time after that fellow slammer Helen Pratt who I had been playing leap frog with most of the day started to ask me how much further we had to go. She, as the rest of us towards the back was struggling, she certainly had the legs on me when it came to running but was walking at a much slower pace than me which meant we didn’t stray too far from one another as we both pushed along with our run walk strategy. There was a point towards the end she thought we only had 2 miles or so to go when in fact we still had over 3 miles just to get to 50, all I could do was reassure her that we were moving at around 4 miles per hour and if we kept that up we’d finished with some time to spare although if I am honest I wasn’t entirely sure I believed that myself, time to dig deep again. And so as each mile passed I checked my watch at every bleep hoping I had managed to tick another one off in or around the 15 minute mark. Then I heard it, was that music, cheering, it had to be the finish, I knew I was close, I knew I could walk it in and still beat cut off but I couldn’t allow myself to do that I just wasn’t sure, my mind was swimming with uncertainty. In the gloom I entered the woods confident it was less than 2 miles to go, and then I saw it, the finish gantry taunting me from the other side of the field like a mirage in the desert. I could see the runners ahead of me disappearing into the lane, I could sense Rob Cowlin chasing me down working hard for his finish. Then at the bottom of the lane I was met by Mark Ronaldson another fellow club runner and his son Matthew who accompanied me along the road, I was turned left and the finish beckoned when Matthew’s brother James appeared from behind a parked car to help me run the final few meters, and I was done, quite literally done.
All I needed to see now was the others behind me finish before the clock struck 13 and sure enough one by one they all came, all except one who missed cut off by mere seconds, so heart breaking to see that happen but hats off for getting it done anyway. I was made up that Chris, who I had started the weekend with having a beer in Aldershot and who was pretty much walking from Caterham crossed with less than 4 minutes to spare. Also Steven Rooke who I passed at around 48 miles as he hobbled his way home, like all those around me pushed their exhausted bodies to the limit to earn that coveted bling.
And so another Centurion finish, the slam is still on and I had to dig really deep to make it happen. James Elson will always say at his race brief that for some of us it just won’t be our day, there were times I actually thought that might apply to me on the day but my stubbornness and the thought of my Zoe watching over me willing me on got me through to fight another day, but I don’t want another day like that in a hurry.
I cannot thank all of my supporters on the course enough and Mark, Nicola, the boys, Richard, Katherine, Michael & Mir and of course my long suffering partner in crime Sam for being there at the finish. Thanks also to the Centurion staff and volunteers and fellow runners for getting me through the day, the camaraderie is second to none and I look forward to sharing the trails with you all again in September at the next instalment of the 50 Slam at Chiltern Wonderland.