Ultra Running the North downs Way
(or 103 miles of hell in the blistering heat!)
The Ultra Marathon Runner (UMR) in the household chose a mid-August day in 33 degree heat to run an ultramarathon – I mean that’s normal behaviour for the UMR (and to be fair, although he planned like a demon, he couldn’t plan the weather!).
It’s the 8th of August and the North Downs Way 100 is the first of 8 races that the UMR is aiming to complete. He’s aiming for a Centurion double Grand Slam, of four 50 mile races and four 100 mile races all within the space of 4 months.
Will the race go ahead?
The lead up to this ultramarathon for the UMR has been stressful for so many reasons: trying to negotiate training during the coronavirus pandemic (this race should have happened back in April); completing the training but not even knowing if the races would go ahead; receiving updates from Centurion Running and working out a plan B or plan C; trying to stay safe as much as possible to negate contracting the virus; reviewing kit as the temperature gauge began to soar at the end of July and working out how to run a 100 mile race in the scorching heat. It hasn’t been easy but to be honest levels of ultranoia have been much worse in our house. I think with so much left to chance and the unknown due to the pandemic, there was only so much planning that could be achieved, the UMR just had to resign himself to going with the flow.
So fast forward to 8.16pm on the 8th August. The UMR has been running for 15 hours and a text notification pings through on my phone:
54.6 miles in to the race
At that moment I was sitting in the car at the train station car park at Otford in Kent – this was an official crew stop for those supporting runners during the race.
I was surrounded by other cars, with boots flung open, stocked with cold water, ice packs, blister plasters, deck chairs, Calipos, fresh shirts, the list was endless. Crews were either attending to their sun scorched runners, or impatiently walking up and down checking tracking devices getting ready for their runners to arrive.
The UMR had 4 miles to go before he reached me. I’d been tracking him via Garmin as he made his way over the sun baked North Downs. I left the car, and wandered out on to the main road to support the other runners and chat to some of the other crews.
I looked around, I saw someone I recognised from a London Burger Run (you run a half marathon and then go and have a burger together - the clue is in the name!).
Jon was crewing for his friend Dai and patiently sitting in a director’s chair at a bus stop waiting for his runner to arrive. It just made me think about how connected and supportive, yet small the running community really is.
Suddenly my phone is ringing, it’s the UMR. This is not normal behaviour.
“I’ve just entered Otford High Street, where are you?”
“Just past the duck pond, up by the station”
The crew instructions are that you are supposed to stay at the crew stations, but he sounded done in. He sounded parched, and hot and yes, just done in. I started walking down the High Street to meet him.
You look like you've been microwaved!
The UMRs eyes were sunk into his head, and he just looked like he had been microwaved – he just looked cooked. And to be fair he had been, for around 15 hours the sun had been beating down and gently roasting him alive.
We made our way to the car, he plonked himself in a deck chair and striped off his soaking wet shirt.
“What do you want? Food? Water? Ice? Milkshake?”
“Milkshake? You’ve got Milkshake?”
“Yep, chocolate too, it’s M&S Belgian chocolate milkshake, top of the range!”
I passed the bottle over, and it was consumed in seconds, the whole half a litre disappeared.
I passed over a bag of ice, which the UMR placed on his head. He wasn’t sunburnt but just felt like he had been fried alive all day, and to be fair he had!
Slowly he became a little more ‘with it’
“No food?” I said….
“No, just can’t face eating anything”
Now inside I was going WHAT??????? The UMR eats for England, he has perfected eating and running at the same time, not something I can do unless I want to throw up. The very fact he didn’t want food meant I knew I had to get fuel in him somehow. He wasn’t going to be able to run another 46 miles on a chocolate milkshake, even if it was Belgian chocolate!
“What about ice cold coconut water? “
“Have you got some?”
("No, I thought I would just offer it for a laugh seeing as you look half dead", I said to myself!)
“Of course, I’ve got it!”
A glass of coconut water was gulped back, and I filled one of the soft flasks on his backpack with it too, topping the other one up with ice cold water. A change of shirt, and a small bite out of a sausage roll and he was good to go.
He didn’t want to hang around to long, as he said he was getting too comfy in the chair and didn’t want to stiffen up.
The North Downs way is not flat!
For anyone who knows this part of the North Downs Way at Otford, what comes next is a massive ascent. The path wends its way between houses and just keeps on rising up, then when you think you have reached the top you find that you are just at a little clearing with a small bench (if you look back the views are amazing but I am sure the UMR would have had his head down, just getting it done!) , the path veers off to the right a little and just keeps on climbing. It’s one of those hills that just keeps giving.
The UMR had his cheat sticks at the ready, we had a quick sweaty hug (yuk!) and I said see you at the next crew stop.
Having had several issues with tech on the day ( I will get on to this later) it was great to be able to track the UMR on a part of the North Downs way that I love.
By now I had made my way to Wrotham Cricket club, which was the next official stop at the 60 mile point. I could see him creeping ever closer on Garmin’s live track. It was dark by now and some of the other crews were so well prepared.
Due to COVID, Centurion had to change the food that they would normally give at the aid stations, there was no hot food, so the food available was fruit, or biscuits in single packets to avoid contamination. People had camping stoves out, they were cooking up pasta, and sleeping bags were rolled out, and it felt a little like a festival atmosphere.
Standing by the recreation ground waiting for the UMR to arrive I saw runners lying flat out, baked to a crisp, and even though it was now pitch black the heat hadn’t lifted much. It was humid and for a couple of runners it was just too much. I could hear tears and retching from the trees, an ultramarathon runners’ race was over.
My head was racing with so many thoughts. How is he? Why didn’t I make him eat some food? Was he running on empty?
However I didn't have to wait too much longer, I could soon I make out the familiar gait of the UMR, his head torch bobbing about and blinding me as he ran up close.
Well done Marks & Spencers!
I have to say, hats off to whatever M&S put in that chocolate milkshake, but the UMR was a totally different person.
Chatty, looking like he had a new pair of fresh legs the UMR zoomed into the Wrotham Cricket Pavilion to check in for this official aid station and then was soon back in a deck chair taking swigs of more chocolate milkshake with the boot wide open with a selection of delicacies.
For those of you that don’t know the UMR, he is an eating machine, as some of the other blogs allude to, so we had planned the food I was going to have on offer:
· Hula Hoops (for the salt)
· Naked bars (for the sugar)
· Sausage rolls (just because he likes them!)
· Peanut butter sandwiches (good carbs and energy)
This all stayed in the cool box, the only thing the UMR wanted was liquid, so it was just as well I had brought flasks of tomato soup!
Now I hate the stuff. I mean really hate the stuff; I can’t stomach it. Heating it up to put it in the flask, I had to dip a spoon in to see if it was the right temperature, and even the slightest taste of it that made me pull a face like I had eaten a wasp, but to the UMR it is was pure nectar. So, after a couple of cups full of tomato soup, I stuffed a couple of energy bars in his running backpack ("I know you don’t want food now, but you might half way up a hill!"). He wanted to leave before he got too comfy in the chair again.
“Is there another crew stop after this?” he said
“Yes, but I hadn’t planned to be there, so I have no idea where it is. Do you want me to be there?”
“If you can” was the reply – which I knew was UMR speak for Yes Please. It’s only about 6 miles away he said.
“OK, I’ll text you when I get there I said”, and he was off with his new headtorch on, illuminating the Pilgrims Way.
Now all I had to do was work out how to get to the next stop.
Unexpected crew stop!
The crew instructions were a little vague “Around 100 metres after the turn off from Wouldham Road, there is a layby on the right hand side of Nashenden Farm Lane, heading south” but I punched the postcode into Google maps and soon found myself in pitch black country lanes heading towards the Medway river. It was a little scary navigating to be honest, and I’m not going to lie, I did have to do a couple of U-turns, but as soon as I turned into Nashenden Lane, I knew I was in the right spot, as there might have been a layby, but the lane was just nose to tail cars… all crew members waiting for their ultra marathon runner to pitch up for refreshments.
So, in the pitch black, I sent a text at 22.47pm saying “I’m here”. With a little time on my hands, I started to look at the crew instructions, and realised we had made a mistake.
The last crew stop had been at Wrotham and was at 60 miles. The UMR said that this stop was just 6 miles away, but it wasn’t - this crew stop was at 72. 3 miles. This meant I had a bit of a wait of my hands.
To validate the mistake, I get a text from the UMR at 23.03pm saying “I’m at Holly Hill aid station.” He was over 7 miles away, and I needed to stay awake!
The Ultra Runners were making their way down the lane, so I got out of the car to get some fresh air, and wish them good luck. For those that didn’t have crew at this stop, I offered water, or hula hoops (seeing that the picnic that I had laid on for the eating machine was just sitting in the car, it seemed a shame for it to go to waste.)
Some runners looked in good spirits, others were flagging, some were running. others walking – you could hear the clickity clack of their poles on the tarmac.
After 50 miles the runners were allowed to have pacers to accompany them, so some were picking up their pacers at the point – there was a bit of lunging going on, and the odd heel flick as fresh legs limbered up for their pacing duties.
Am I at Detling yet?
A poor French runner came past asking if this was an official aid station, was he at Detling? A guy who had run the race before was wearing a NDW finisher t-shirt and was trying to show him the map printed on the back and that he wasn’t far. He seemed quite down that he wasn’t at Detling and, but no one wanted to actually utter the words “you’ve got another 10 miles to go before you reach the Detling aid station”
I sent an update out on social media around 11.20pm, just letting everyone know that the UMR was doing well and just settled down to wait for him, but the humid air got to me so I got out of the car again, only to be attacked by mosquitoes. I shot back in the car and whiled away a good ten minutes trying to track down the insect in the car – all I could hear was the incessant zzzzzzzzzzzz, and I was too slow, it nibbled at me several times, but the scratching made a few more minutes disappear.
An hour later at twenty past midnight Jamie called me.
“I don’t think I’m far, but I am in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black, I can’t make out a thing”
I’d been tracking him and thought he was less than 500m from me – but I was wrong!
The problem with Garmin Live track is that it tells you where the runner is, but not in relation to where you think you are! (back to bad use of tech again!)
Am I there yet?
I thought I was on the north side of the Medway bridge, so was gaily telling Jamie that soon he would drop down on to a track (which he did), and would then drop on to a main road (which he did) - but then he said right Ok, and now I’m going over the Medway bridge.
“What? No, you can’t be? That means we have missed each other.”
“But I’m following the official route signs, and you are at an official crew stop, so we can’t have missed each other.”
“But I think we have I said. I am sure I am north of the river and you are heading south”
There was no reply –all I could hear was silent disappointment. I felt awful.
“Right leave it with me, I will go to Google Maps, work out where I am, then look at Live Tracker, and work out where you are and call you back.”
“Shall I keep going over the bridge?”
“If that’s the official route, then yes!”
See tech works if the person controlling it uses it properly!
A quick check on google maps showed that I was in fact south of the Medway bridge, not North, and that Jamie was right on track.
I called him back and said, “I’ll see you soon, you really aren’t far away, honest!”
I ran to the top of the lane, glad to be away from the mosquitos that were plaguing me, and very soon I could see the head torch bobbing down the road (he has a very recognisable bob!).
We jogged back to the car, and I flung open the boot, asking which wondrous nutritious delight he would like this time around.
Still not really wanting to stomach actual food, the choice was more tomato soup. Yet again I refreshed the UMR’s his soft flasks with a mix of coconut water and ice cold water and then he was good to go. Knowing he wouldn’t eat them I stuffed a couple of Naked bars in a pocket in his vest. It made me feel better that if he felt hungry (and normally the UMR always feels hungry!) then he would have something to eat.
After a quick sweaty hug, we said our goodbyes. This was the last time I would see him until the finish line.
After 76.2 miles the UMR was heading out to Bluebell Hill car park where he would be picking up his pacer Simon for the last 27 miles.
It was now 1.15am on Sunday morning. I needed to get home, get some sleep and head back out to Ashford for the finish. I punched my postcode into Google Maps, 50 minutes to get home…. But hold on… the A2 is closed…. Follow these directions for the quickest route!
The directions involved navigating twisting country roads to make it out to the M20, rather than hit the M2 which was directly above my head!
I was gutted. I was hoping for an easy ride home, I was tired, but then I thought about the UMR, heading off into the dark. I thought his voiced had cracked a bit when we said goodbye. Stop being selfish I said to myself and headed out on roads that I never wish to see again – even in daylight.
I’d been tracking the UMR throughout the whole race on the Centurion website. At Otford he was in 198th place, at Wrotham that had jumped to 148th place. He was so paranoid about missing the cut offs at the aid stations that he was pushing hard when his body was already depleted and knackered. I was going home to a comfy bed and he was not - get a grip Heather, and stop whinging!
Not completely sure where I was going, I followed Google Maps, and a lorry who I presumied was heading to the M20 too.
The lorry slowed down several times so I could overtake, but I decided I was quite happy following someone, just pootling along at 25 miles an hour and letting someone else do the hard work on the roads.
Getting home at 2am, I realised I hadn’t eaten all day, so ate a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich that had been nicely baked in the back of the car (think hard, yet soggy, toasted but not, and you will get the gist!) and sunk into bed, setting the alarm for 6am.
The Finish line is in sight!
At 5.55am the UMR text me:
“13ish miles to go, Think may finish 8.45 to 9am”
I made a pot of coffee, had a quick shower, and headed out the door to the Julie Rose Stadium in Ashford.
At 8.12am I got a text (not said in a Love Island way!) – “less than 4 miles to go”
I was at the finish line, patiently waiting for those four miles to pass by super quick.
Live track had the UMR and Simon zooming along, and I now know that as the UMR was in sniffing distance of the finish line he had picked up the pace running 7 minutes miles with 100 mile in his legs! His last 3 miles would have been an amazing Parkrun time. Mental!
Ran out of juice!
Then tragedy - the Garmin live link stopped at 102.7 miles, the battery on his Garmin had died, so now I just had to stand in the stadium and wait.
I chatted to some other supporters, one of them a lovely South African lady who explained that she was telling her husband when he got over the finish line that he is never doing this again. It was his first 100 mile race, she said, but my anxiety levels have been through the roof, I am never going through this again!
I socially distancing myself from Jon, the London Burger man as I nicknamed him, and realised that he was crewing for Dai, who I had met through my running club Backpackers. He was following several other runners, and we all cheered them over the line.
It made me realise how social media has helped to make the running community in the UK really small. There was do 6 degrees of separation here – just follow on camaraderie.
Here come the boys!
Suddenly I could hear the UMR & Simon. They came running towards me looking mighty fresh as my video proves!
Then, he did something I wasn’t expecting. The finish line is on a proper athletics track, so he had 400m to go to the finish line - he left Simon his pacer for dead, opened up his stride and went for a sprint finish!
Finishing the North Downs Way 100
Only the UMR could end a gruelling, baking 103 mile race on s sprint finish.
Coming in at time of 27 hours and 17 minutes, he was well within the cut off time of 30 hours, and finished in 54th place.
No sooner was he over the finish line, having had his photo taken with Simon, UMR was back to his normal self. He had a large sausage bap in his hand and was tearing away at it like a Neanderthal who hadn’t eaten for a month.
Due to social distancing rules and the COVID restrictions it was a shame that we couldn’t hang around and hear everyone’s stories, so after a quick cup of coffee we all headed back to the car to go and pick up Simon’s car which was nestled in a car park Bluebell Hill. Driving up the M20 to Bluebell Hill was going to take 25 minutes and as we sped closer, the enormity of the distance that the UMR and Simon had just run in the dead of night was made more evident. The hills, more hills, and yes, more hills!
Then suddenly I hear the words ‘Bloody Strava’, ‘Bloody Garmin’ the race hasn’t uploaded to Strava yet. The UMR was already on his mobile phone trying to analyse the data.
“Umm… have you thought about how much data has to upload? It was a 103 mile race - Have you charged your watch yet?”
The UMR looked dumbstruck – “The watch died at 102 miles; it wouldn’t have lost the race would it?”
“No, its fine it will be there “
“So why isn’t it showing?”
“So, as well as driving you home, I have to give you a Garmin tutorial at the same time?”
“Ok, press the middle left hand button and hold it in, now scroll to history, and you will find the run.”
“Phew it’s there. But how do I get it to Strava? People need to see this!”
“I can’t drive and do this at the same time, you will just have to wait. You need to pair your phone again”
“I need to what?”
“Pair your phone again, as the battery died it needs to connect to the phone again …… let’s just wait until we drop Simon off and then I can do it.”
The UMR agreed, but a sneaky sideways glance proved that his patience was being tested! I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head but wondered is Simon was secretly sniggering!
Simon’s car was soon in sight. I thanked him for keeping the UMR on track, and then paired the Garmin and the phone.
The data hit Strava, and it was like giving a dummy to a baby. The UMR was silent all the way home, not asleep, but studying the pace, the distances, the mile times and reliving a brutal 27 hours and 17 minutes.
PS - anyone for a melted Babybell?!