Hello, old friend.
When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.
As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.
I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.
This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.
My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.
And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.
My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.
I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.
Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.
This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.
By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.
Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.
As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…
Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?
And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.
My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.
The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.
The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.
The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.
That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.
It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.
As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.
What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.
You just have to believe that you can.