North Downs Way 100 2016

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Apparently when I was about 4 years old I wanted to be a midwife. I have no recollection of this; I have many vivid memories of early childhood but my ambitions to help bring more humans into the world is both at odds with my temperament and completely missing from my memory bank. Still, Wendimum insists it was true, inspired to some extent by the arrival of my little sister. What I do remember, quite clearly, is realising my limited capacity for human compassion when a few years later Leyla, Dad and I were watching a film on TV with a scene where a man driving with his dog in a beautiful classic car go off the edge of a cliff. My sister cried for “the poor man!” I only had sympathy for the dog and my dad shed actual tears for the wasteful loss of an original MG Roadster. Welcome to our family.

Things I definitely have wanted to be include Jayne Torvill (I was the absolute nuts at ice skating until we moved to a country that couldn’t power a household freezer let alone a rink), a crime scene investigator, Rainbow Brite, a soldier, a jazz singer, a comedian, and the skateboarding kid from The Crow. Then half a year before my 30th birthday I discovered that I wanted to be an ultrarunner, and that was that. I wanted to run the Western States 100 miler, and I’d work up to it while on the way to my hundredth marathon. I’d just keep running as many ultras as I could by way of training and eventually either have my name pulled from the hat or beg them until they got bored of me. Around 1am on Sunday 7th August 2016, I gave up on that ambition. I admitted to myself that hundred milers were probably not for me, and it felt kind of liberating.

Never say never and all – if I die without ever finishing a hundred miler I will die with regrets – but as pacer Katherine and I trudged through the woods to Holly Hill, barely scraping inside the cut off, I actually stopped wanting to finish the race. My desire to curl up in a foetal position, to stop the nausea pounding through my head, massively outweighed the pride I knew I’d feel if I got to the end or the frustration if I didn’t. Déjà vu – same point that I quit last year, same issues with eating and hydration, same relentless sun beating down all day. Spoiler alert – I surrendered.

I didn’t start off so negatively – in fact, despite my lack of training and poor lead up I was actually pretty confident about the race, much more so than last year. Not being able to think about it turned out to be the perfect antidote to my usual pre-race nerves. I had been working on a big freelance job as well as my main full time job since May, and to say it went badly was an understatement; averaging 3 hours sleep a night I ended up in A&E with a chest infection and nearly had a nervous breakdown. A few weeks out I emailed Cat to say that I didn’t think I should do the race – I couldn’t run at all, I was exhausted, gasping for breath like a 60-a-day smoker and the scant few hours I did sleep were punctuated by anxiety dreams. The only thing that persuaded me not to throw the towel in was her faith in me (and her refusing to let me pull out). And besides, the 6th August was ages away yet. Sort of.

The Friday before was due to be a big day for Andy and me: the day we moved into our first house. It was meant to be the smoothest transaction possible, given that we had no chain and the owner wanted to be out by the 30th of July. Utilities were arranged, van men booked, belongings packed up, goldfish in a Tupperware – we were all systems go. Then Monday of that week our solicitors told us not to get too excited about completion happening that quickly, perhaps a 60% chance of success. Tuesday we were downgraded to almost certainly not, Wednesday was unpack your bags, you’re never moving house again. But don’t worry, the 6th August looked like a safer bet. Balls.

As our optimism about moving before Christmas/doomsday drained away faster than England’s hopes in a major football tournament I had to put all thoughts of the race out of my mind. Certainly I hadn’t had optimal training opportunities for it, and nothing to suggest that the blood sugar issues that knocked me out last time were any better – I wanted to be there anyway though, if only to crew for Cat and generally offer cake and abuse. Friday 30th came with no possibility of moving within the month, and since we’d booked the day off anyway I called up Cat and arranged to go for a trot around Richmond Park to cheer up. It was so good to catch up with her after being AWOL from the Chasers for the last two months that it was almost as a side note that I casually said I’d be free on the 6th now – immediately the words left my mouth she put the call out on the Chasers Facebook page, and within two days I had 8 offers to pace and crew and a hotel room by the start. No turning back now.

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6th August. We’re shuffling about in the main hall of St Polycarp’s School again, half past five on the Saturday morning. We’re taking advantage of the loos (actual toilets, luxury), rearranging our race vests, scanning the room for familiar faces. We’re writing inspirational messages on our arms in marker pen. Cat’s say “zebra” – zebras being famously chill animals – and “CYP” for “choose your perspective”. Mine are less philosophical – my right arm bears the legend SALT! and the left hand EAT! because I need reminding of both of those things constantly. We’re both hoping to become centurions by the end of the day. As we march towards the starting line a few yards on from the monument, we’re both yawning.

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And that’s how it starts, very little fanfare. I stick with Cat for less than half a mile before letting her streak off ahead of me, reasoning that there’ll be plenty of people to chat to. My strategy is clear: manage energy. Eat early, eat little, eat often; take it easy to begin with, use the first few miles as a warm up and don’t bother running any of the hills. I set myself the target of eating around 100 calories (half a sausage roll, a gel, a handful of nuts) every half hour and taking a Saltstick capsule every hour on the hour, which is nice and easy to remember. In theory.

Being so familiar with the route now the first aid station came and went without my really being aware of it, and I started to warm up nicely. The temperature was high but not unbearable, and the lovely thing about the North Downs is that so much of it is sheltered you don’t tend to suffer too much exposure. Or at least, not before 9am you don’t. So I kept on track with my plan to drip feed myself, already feeling my stomach muscles tighten up after last night’s feast turned my waistline into something Friar Tuck would have been proud of. I judged by time rather than distance, partly because I knew my pace would vary so much in the course of the day and partly because I knew I’d need food before I got hungry, and time is a much more consistent way of measuring that.

By the time I got to Guildford I was starting to feel a rumble in my belly and the half hour interval coming up, and right on cue the bacon boat came to my rescue – a group of supporters on a narrowboat on the River Wey, moored against the trail where it leads to the bridge, offering a huge pile of cold bacon sandwiches prepared with a choice of either red sauce or brown sauce. As someone who usually likes their bacon scorching hot and burned almost to a crisp, I seriously cannot describe how good that thing tasted – I considered turning around and going back for more and the extra miles would absolutely have been worth it. It ticked the boxes for food, salt and sense of humour and I purred through the next few miles.

Three hundred runners stretch out surprisingly quickly – especially over 103 miles – and I found myself either alone or running with people not much in the mood for talking. I weaved through the familiar narrow tracks between Guildford and Dorking in my own little world, and really only looked up as we passed through the Denbies estate, the rows of vines unfurling beneath us seemingly for miles. It’s one of my favourite stretches of the North Downs – there’s just something about being on a road high up above the vineyard, a steep drop to your right like the edge of a cliff, perfectly angled to catch the warmth of the sun, that makes me feel more like I’m in the middle of the Meditteranean than Surrey. And if I could design a gradient that’s perfectly pitched for a enjoyable downhill freewheel going one way and a good climbable incline the other, it would be that hill.

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I crossed the A24 via the subway and turned back into the woods to the 24 mile aid station just before Box Hill, pausing for some amazing homemade cake and a stretch. Despite its reputation Box Hill is probably my second favourite part of the Downs – I’d much rather a good beefy climb you can really dig your heels into than a deceptive shallow incline you feel like you should run sapping your energy – and it’s also a good psychological break in the route. Once you’re past that, you’re past the worst of the climbing until night falls at least. The next point for me to look forward to would be the Reigate Hill checkpoint seven miles on, not least because my pacer for the last twenty miles, Lorraine, was volunteering there giving me a good excuse to power through the climb as quickly as possible.

By this time the sun was really starting to beat down. I was concentrating on my half hourly intake of salt sticks and food- wait, is that right? No, it’s just food every half hour and saltstick every hour, unless the food itself was salty. Come on Jaz – only a marathon in and already getting confused. Hold on, I must be more than a marathon by now. My watch was insisting on 25 miles but I’d definitely come more than a mile since the last aid station. Ah, I know what’s happened – I’ve got it on a less accurate setting so that it’ll last long enough to get me to the end, and it’s losing a few yards on every mile. I would have to check it at each aid station where I knew what the official distance was and remember to add on however many miles it was telling me if I wanted to know how far I’d come. Right, another bit of mental recalibration to do. I’m sure this’ll end well.

By the time I gave my number to the Reigate marshals at mile 31 my water bottles were bone dry and my watch was telling me I had gone 28.5 miles, and it took me a good few moments to do the maths. I sprinted over to the gazebo and gave Lorraine a big sweaty hug, ready to join the swarms of runners spread out over the grass like dead flies, but her smile immediately gave me a second wind. I was tempted to carry right on but forced myself to take a pause and a stretch, and to drink plenty of water before refilling and setting off. By this point eating was pretty low on the list of stuff I wanted to do but I knew I needed the calories, so I compromised on the heavy and hard to eat things by grabbing fistfuls of fruit as well. Watermelon and satsuma segments and pieces of banana, hell yes. Running is the rock and roll of the 21st Century.

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The next stop would be Caterham, the viewpoint another beautiful spot, with a trip through pretty Merstham on the way. Another 7 mile stretch that seemed to last for ages; there were a few hills thrown in which made time pass quickly but which also needed more calories than I was interested in taking on.Once I got to the aid station I took another pause to stretch, cool my feet off a bit and force down some food. I’d kept up my half hourly intake on the way but the amount I could eat each time was getting less and less and I took on more fruit to try to keep the nausea at bay. The next stop would be at 43 miles, on the back of another big climb, and this one wouldn’t be as much fun as Box Hill. Knowing it was coming up helped, but not by much.

As it turned out the climb was nothing compared with the half mile stretch before it. I remembered a little too late that Oxted Downs, where the Vanguard Way bisects the North Downs and the woods become overgrown farmland, are exposed and unforgiving, and as I tiptoed along the narrow singletrack I could feel my blood pressure pounding in my ears. It was so hot – not lovely Mediterranean warm, HOT. It can’t have been that long a track but it felt like it lasted forever. By the time I passed the gate to go back into the shade of the trees my head was already spinning. Just in time for the climb through the Titsey Plantation. I didn’t even have the energy to giggle at “Titsey”.

Remembering it from last year – and its many false endings – I patiently trudged upwards knowing that the 43 mile aid station would be at the top, and a chance to pause in the shade. Only seven relatively flat miles to the halfway point at Knockholt, which I mentally calculated as around an hour and a half of travel, meaning I’d only need to eat twice along the way. Yeah, maths. I grabbed a peanut butter and jam sandwich for the road and walked while I ate to save on time. This particular section includes the crossover from Surrey to Kent, where the terrain segues from woodland to farmland and goodbye tree coverage. It’s exactly when you want to come across knee-high vegetation you have you lift your feet over, a perfect time to need to look extra hard for fingerposts hidden in hedges, the ideal point to play “Find the Hidden Tractor Ruts With Your Ankles”. I don’t know if it’s coming across, but I hate this section. And with all this grumpiness to concentrate on, guess how many times I remembered to eat and drink?

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My maths failed me even more than my memory here – it took nearly two hours to make it to Knockholt including the diversion off the trail along Main Road. As I was whimpering about the pain in my feet every time they hit the tarmac and wishing for trails again, I found myself ambushed by the friendly grin of James, Cat’s other half, who gave me a hug and a boost and pointed down the road. “It’s just there, you’re so close now – Clare and Adam are there!” In my temper, I’d almost forgotten Clare would be pacing me between miles 50 and 60 and her flatmate Adam (ultra fanatic and adventure racer, a man who ran the MdS and called it “fun”) was waiting outside the village hall with his iPhone in his hand. I found a few scraps of energy to sprint up to the door and throw myself into Clare’s arm’s as Adam took photos – nope, not photos, a live video to Facebook. He asked met to say something and I literally couldn’t think of any words that weren’t wears. And you don’t swear in front of Clare. So I grinned.

Me and Clare NDW100 capture

I’d been keeping my eye on the “Toilet – y/n” column of my tracker each time I came up to an aid station expecting to need it constantly, but there just wasn’t anything there. In hindsight this should have been a warning that dehydration was already setting in but at the time my logic functions just weren’t doing what they were meant to; I mean, not laughing at rude place names should have been a warning sign in itself. So by the time I got to the Village Hall at Knockholt we were talking more syrup than juice. Adam allowed me a loo stop (although he had to send Clare in to check on me), found me some plain pasta (it took me three goes to explain that I wanted just pasta, no sauce), then told me to get going as soon as possible. I haggled myself a 25 minute break, planning to leave at 7pm, on the assumption that would be plenty of time to change and swap my drop bag over. At two minutes to, I still didn’t have my shoes back on and I’d forced down less than a handful of pasta. Valiantly lying through my teeth I insisted that I’d been eating every half hour and I was fine to get going. Lovely Lady Clare, the properest lady I know, had the good grace to humour my blatant lies and agree to a walk/trot for the first mile until we warmed up.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that there wasn’t enough in the tank for running, so we walked and gossiped. Physically I was falling apart but mentally Clare was a massive boost to me, happy to chat and gently remind me to eat every half hour as instructed. We worked out that I could walk and still make it in time so that would be my strategy until I found the strength in my legs to run again. Clare is one of those people who doesn’t have the vocabulary for negative sentiments and even when I moaned and complained like a petulant child she responded with patience and kindness. The ten miles to Wrotham would easily take three hours at this rate but Katherine would be waiting to take over, and Andy had promised to visit me there too so there was good reason to get there as soon as possible. I chewed on a pack of Doritos for a good hour (there is almost nothing on earth that would stop me eating Doritos) and Clare gave me an apple from her pack which I eked out for another hour, just about keeping my calorie deficit within manageable levels.Then, as if timed with the fall of dusk, I bonked hard in the final mile and a half to the checkpoint. Whatever I had been subsisting on up to that point ran out, and my stomach turned. I knew I needed to eat but I couldn’t face the thought of vomiting; knowing I had had the opportunity to avoid this feeling and been too afraid to take it made me feel even worse. There followed a mile and a half of me whingeing, sobbing, bitching about the road never ending, generally behaving like a toddler. Poor Clare.

The thing that frightened me most after the thought of vomiting was the thought of Andy seeing me in a state. Let’s be clear; Andy does not agree with me doing hundred milers. To be fair, his experience of them consists of rescuing me from deepest darkest Kent in the middle of the night because I’m too shredded even to speak properly, and I know he gets worried when he sees me looking like shite. We had originally agreed that he shouldn’t come at all because of the likelihood of me looking like crap and needing to get on with it regardless, but at the last moment I bottled it and asked him to pop by at an early checkpoint so I’d get the chance to see him while I was still fresh. He had plans during the day so opted to come to Wrotham instead, and double up as a lift home for Clare at the end of her stint. So he saw exactly what I didn’t want him to – me in a mess.

I was bundled into a chair when I got to Wrotham with Clare, Andy, Adam and Katherine all on hand to give me stuff. Adam, experienced in ultra running and knowing exactly how to break through a bonk, was buzzing around to keep me alert and forcing me to drink coffee. The combination of different voices and instructions only served to confuse me more, and I knew I wasn’t far from having to throw the towel in. The three runners were all keen to gee me up and get me to the next station before I was allowed to make a decision, but all I could see what Andy’s concerned face out of the corner of my eye. I avoided looking at him, pretended I wasn’t aware of his stare, but I knew whatever he was looking at wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice how much my body temperature had fallen until I nearly dropped the cup of coffee in my right hand because it was shaking so much, so I put my extra layer on and tried to deflect probing questions from a medic who had come over to check on me. With now four voices telling me to man up and get on with it versus Andy’s one telling me I should quit, I forced myself out of the chair and back onto the trail with Katherine, reasoning at least that it would be quieter on the road, But I knew I was already spent. I quietly asked Andy to come to the next CP at Holly Hill in case I couldn’t get any further. That pretty much made the decision for me.

Having got moving again I did feel less cold and less grumpy, but still couldn’t get any food into my mouth. I probably couldn’t have planned my company better though – compared with Clare, Katherine’s approach was much more pragmatism and much less patience, and it’s exactly what I needed to keep going. I didn’t have the energy to lift my legs for running but we marched and chatted, and found ourselves in philosophical mood – I think at one point I was trying to define happiness, I can’t remember why. Something to do with Doritos probably. For her part she convinced me that we would be eaten by badgers or kidnapped by crazy people preying on vulnerable runners, both of which seemed pretty feasbile at the time.

Katherine couldn’t really understand why anyone would want to put themselves through a 100 miler, which sort of made me wonder why I had. Until that morning, I just wanted to be able to say I’d finished one; before that I’d wanted to do a qualifier to get into Western States one day. But Western States was a long way away even if I could finish this first – I was meant to be buying a house, not spending all my money on a trip halfway around the world – and so far my experience of 100 milers wasn’t even what Cat would call fun type 2; if your only reason for doing something is to be able to say you’ve done it, it’s very eas to lose the motivation to continue. Instead, it was making me confront a fear I have avoided confronting for fifteen years, and rather than deal with it properly I’d looked for diversions and tricks to get around the issue. Fitness wasn’t an issue really, even though I was a good half a stone heavier than I’d like to have been. Hydration probably had a bigger part to play than I’d like to admit but even that is fixable. I was generally injury-free; and I’d got through much worse pain than this before, and I’ve still yet to experience blisters or black toenails when running. Basically I’d been trying to conquer my fear of being sick by undertaking a huge challenge, one guaranteed side effect of which was being sick. Back to the drawing board on both of those, I think.

As we passed through Trosley County Park a runner and his pacer overtook us blithely ambling along, and said something to Katherine about getting me to Holly Hill before 1am. I’d stopped looking at my aid station tracker a long way back, and it turned out that we’d been going so slowly we were in danger of missing the cutoff for it, something which made sense when I realised they were the last runners I’d seen for hours. Even if we ran we’d be cutting it fine, and the final ascent to the CP would be a hands and knees scramble. I knew the game was up then, although to be fair the cutoff time was just the final nail in a very secure coffin. Unlike last year I wasn’t upset about pulling out, I wasn’t looking for excuses or blame, I just knew I’d had enough. When we finally made it to Holly Hill the lights were going off, the gazebo about to be packed away, and the marshals ready for bed. And there was Nelly and Andy.

There wasn’t any point in deflecting from the truth: I made a conscious decision that I would rather fail to finish than throw up, and followed it through. Until I could resolve that there wouldn’t be much point in trying to do 100 miles again. Andy concurred by forbidding me ever to try one again and we set about maing arrangements for Katherine to get back to her car and for third and fourth pacers Sydnee and Lorraine to get to theirs. I felt awful for making them come all the way to the middle of nowhere for no reason, but they were incredibly graceful about it – if there was ever a mark of just how awesome Chaser support can be that was it. We had to drive them to the 80 mile checkpoint at Detling, and by pure coincidence bumped into Cat there – she was going strong, still looking as fresh as when she’d started and downing a Thermos of tomato soup before James paced her to the end. Her resilience and her pure nails toughness made me realise I was so far away from being ready for the challenge that I stopped comparing myself to the other runners. This is a race that deserves the utmost respect, and to give it anything less is flirting with danger.

It’s an odd thing to do, endurance sport. There comes a point where the sport itself is a bit irrelevant and the endurance part becomes the real sport.In the last few weeks I’ve thought a lot about why I do it, and the fact remains that I love the challenge of endurance and I still find peace in running long distances. I have somewhat regretted my statement never to try another hundred, thinking perhaps that I should go for something in cooler season instead. Andy remains steadfast in his refusal to let me do another 100 though, so I suppose I have a much bigger challenge on my hands just in getting to the starting line. Either way, there’s no chance of me attempting this again without being 100% certain of my fitness and confident in my preparation – and most importantly, without confronting the big, vomity elephant in the room.

Talking to Alex, another 100 miler veteran, put into perspective just how silly a thing it is to be afraid of. “The thing is Jaz, it happens to everyone in a 1oo mile race. You just have to get on with it because you need to eat.” He’s right – being sick isn’t significant in the context of a race. Pulling out to avoid nausea is like pulling out because you’re afraid of getting a blister, or because you don’t like the taste of electrolyte drinks. Unavoidable and fundamentally unimportant parts of the ultrarunning experience.

At least, that’s what I have to convince myself if I’m ever going to get further than 66 miles. If I’m going to do it, I have to make the decision not to be afraid and there’s nothing more to it than that. That’s 100 milers in a nutshell, isn’t it?

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