Centurion 50 Grand Slam part 3 – Chiltern Wonderland 50 (and then some)

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It’s been a while since we last caught up. Happily, this time, I’ve actually managed to finish a few races – unlike during my radio silence around this time last year. Unhappily, the reason for my radio silence this time is a little less trivial than a couple of DNFs.

Could I say that life “got in the way”? I mean, I could, but it would be a little disingenuous to life to suggest that my responsibilities are to running above all else; a little beyond my efforts to prioritise running over the everyday, at least. This time, Life earned itself a capital L: family pulled rank. So, apart from a feeble cursory mile a day to maintain my run streak (an exercise which has barely anything to do with actual running these days), my run diary has had very little to show for itself.

Meanwhile I’ve hit something of a plateau, both in running terms and in life terms. I don’t get excited about anything any more, I just feel a bit numb. Not anymore, at the moment; it can’t last, I have to remember that. So I plan things to look forward to – we’re getting married in 9 months for Christ’s sake – because I want to feel the thrill of anticipation again. Plans can be made, but I no longer believe that they will really come to pass; I convince myself something will pop up and take precedence. So I’m not afraid of anything, either. I’m not afraid of failing to meet expectations because I have none. I just don’t care about anything enough to worry about being disappointed.

If Life hadn’t pulled rank on my race calendar I would still have passed August without a race – it was a conscious decision to “rest” and also there just weren’t enough weekends, as there often aren’t. March through July saw two fifty milers, two 50ks, and a trail marathon in 30 degrees of heat. I dragged myself through those, barely, and decided that I wanted to finish the third of the Centurion fifties feeling like I actually had enough in the tank for the fourth and final race. See, now I look back on it I realise that’s an ambitious race calendar for someone who is actually fit, never mind for a training regime that consists of “I might as well be running to the tube since the buses are so unreliable”. That’s two solid junk miles right there. More than once, I’ve done it in Toms espadrilles and holding my Kanken bag over my back to stop it from bouncing. It is transport, not training.

Should I keep finding challenges in the hope of regaining that spark, flinging muck at the wall until it sticks? Or should I hold back, take aim? Deciding to run the Farnham Pilgrim Half Marathon on a day’s notice was to aim what spinning round to take a blind shot in action movies is; and weirdly, just like in action movies, it only bloody worked. Knowing I’d done no long runs, knowing I’d barely even managed to run off road a week before the Chiltern Wonderland 50, I decided I either needed to stop running altogether (i.e. break my run streak) and hope that rest would give my legs half a chance of lasting the distance, or I needed to fire things up a bit, go for broke. So I posted a message with the Chasers to find out if anyone was doing a social trail run on the North Downs, and the answer came back that yes, twelve of them were, and also picking up a medal for it. The idea of running the full marathon was just a little too far-fetched, even for an emotional nihilist, so I plumped for the half and got back to the pub in time for lunch. I ran with my club, as part of my club; I was the slowest, as usual; I danced around the course like a loon, and I had a fucking good time.

It’s a beautiful course, a circular route around the Farnham end of the NDW taking in bridlepaths and connecting trails, scooting around ponds and through golf courses (as one often does in Surrey), and generally pissballing about in the woods. And very runnable too – between the need to shake my legs out and the need to get back to the pub I pushed myself fairly hard, finishing in a not-unrespectable 2:08, and I can’t say I really busted a lung either. There’s definitely no speed in my legs, which I know because trying to get them to turn over was like flipping tyres, but my heartrate never felt too taxed. It was just enough to fire me up for the CW50 in six days’ time. Definitely the right call not to go for the full, although every time I saw a 100 Marathon Club shirt FOMO gripped me like a fever.

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The following week I kept up my daily run streak with the minimum mile a day, as I had been pretty much doing for weeks. The difference, I noted, was that where that mile usually ran between 9:30 and 10 minutes, sluggish and rhythmless, the miles in the week after Farnham suddenly threw up a couple of 8:15s and felt more joyful, more like a workout than I had had for a while. It helped being back on office hours rather than event hours too, so those runs occasionally happened at lunchtime instead of at the end of a strenuous working day on legs worn to a stump. Had the gamble paid off?

Come race morning, although there was still a dull ache gnawing at my muscles, there was something even more dangerous – a flicker of anticipation. I was more nervous at the start of this race than I think I’ve been for any other race ever, for the most part because finishing it meant keeping my hopes for the grand slam alive and that comes above all else this year, but I think partly because – for the first time in a long while – I actually cared about the result. The thirteen hour final cutoff limit (proportionally split across the checkpoints) would be hovering over me all day, but I would be focusing instead on two other times: eleven and twelve hour timings which I had worked out and written on my checkpoint plan. One would be a measure that I’m doing well (and more importantly, perhaps too well) and the other would be the more realistic boundary. If I’m too far ahead of the first one I know I’m beasting myself; if I slip behind the second I’ll have no hope when my legs finally give in and I have to hike. Those numbers would guide me through the day like a virtual pacer.

I ended up on the same train as King of Centurion Ilsuk Han, who is usually either running or volunteering their races but rarely misses them, and a gaggle of other runners who all seemed to know the route from Goring Station to the race HQ in the village hall. Ilsuk also helpfully pointed out that the train I (and most other competitors) had planned to get home wouldn’t actually be running, thanks to some last minute engineering works at Reading; someone mentioned two rail replacement buses to Maidenhead and I zoned right out. I didn’t have the energy to worry about how I was going to hobble home after folding my cramped legs into a bus seat for three hours; I just had to think about getting back to Goring in the first place.

Nonetheless Ilsuk represented, as he always does, a good omen. We met on my first attempt at the North Downs 100 and later discovered that we had friends in common through Fulham RC, and it seems that every time I run an ultra these days he’s there. He’s such a warm, friendly and knowledgeable man I can never help but be comforted to see him. He buzzed around the village hall introducing first timers to regular faces, gathering lone runners wandering around aimlessly and making sure everyone had a friend at the start line; and he does this every time. A real unsung hero of the ultrarunning community, he is a true representative of the spirit of our sport, not to mention a shit hot runner in his own right. Even so, he privately admitted that he was just as anxious as the rest of us, and when we lined up at the start he didn’t go off with the frontrunners, choosing instead to stay with the midpackers and the newbies. Whether that was an act of kindness or just his way of dealing with nerves I don’t know, but I for one started the race with excitement just outweighing fear, and set the tone for the rest of the run.

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The route takes in one long loop around the Thames Path, the Chiltern Hills, the Ridgeway and explores the unmatchable countryside of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Ridgeway is definitely up there for my favourite ever trail route and the added treat of the Thames made this race a big star on my calendar. The first ten miles to checkpoint one at Tokers Green flew by, partly because of the stunning views but also thanks to a runner named James I got chatting to, only to discover that we’d run much of this area together once already on the Druids Challenge two years ago (a race I’m gutted not to be running this year). Feeling much less leg-heavy than I have been recently we went hell for leather on every single downhill, of which there were plenty thanks to the undulating but runnable elevation. I could easily have passed on the snack table, but I knew that I needed to lay the foundations now for sustainable energy levels later, and crammed my pockets with chocolate chip cookies.

Downhills we were bossing together, but James was obviously fitter than me on the uphills and eventually he pulled away; it wasn’t worth overstretching myself to keep up with him at this stage with forty miles still to go, so I just pootled along at the steady pace I’d been maintaining so far. Predictably, I was way ahead of my eleven hour pace already – in fact we passed the checkpoint in 1:49, ranked 138 and 139 out of what would end up as 187 official finishers. In fact, if I’d sustained that pace I’d have been on for just over a nine hour finish – yeah, no. If I didn’t take the decision to dial back now my body would do it for me later, in much more dramatic fashion.

Before long I was caught up my a chap called Steve and we began running together. I don’t remember exactly what I said now, but I do remember hearing him chatting away to another runner behind me and as usual bigmouth struck again; I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation. It set the tone for the next forty miles – we spent the whole rest of the race together talking about everything under the sun. Steve was an ex-squaddie, ex-paratrooper, self-made businessman with a penchant for bloody silly races, and between Tokers Green and Bix he recounted the tale of his four attempts at the Lakeland 100: two successful, two not, considering a fifth go to settle the score once and for all. I’m telling you, that man knows the Lakeland 100 yard by yard, so if anyone’s planning to run it you need to look him up. As one would expect from a military man, his meticulous preparation included a week spent in the Lakes recceing every inch of the route in daylight and dusk. I really didn’t need the iPod.

We left Bix aid station together by which point I’d actually gained two places and he, having paced the first section somewhat more conservatively than me, was up nearly twenty. We were coming up against much more meaty hills than we had done so far, and even had to pause the conversation for power-hiking every now and again. But the course was just so stunning. For totally different reasons, I still can’t quite decide between this and the South Downs Way for a favourite so far – certainly the SDW50 was a better experience and the fastest finish so far, but if you want fairytale woodland and runnable rolling terrain I think Wessex might just edge out Sussex. Ask me again in a week.

Having got through a potted history of our running careers, the conversation turned to politics, economics, history, sociology, the EU referendum result (obviously) – and two people with more diametrically opposing views you would be hard pushed to find. The fascinating thing for me was that, although our positions were poles apart, our values tended to align. We spoke as two people who felt equally let down by the parties they supported, who sought the same reassurances from two different approaches, who feared the same threats and chose different weapons to combat them. It sounds like a mad thing to say but as much as I was enjoying the run I really enjoyed our discussion – we had, I like to think, a good honest respectful debate, a sharing of perspectives, a chance to find commonality, and ultimately the biggest thing we had in common was a love for endurance tests and the courage to be humbled. I rather think that if the referendum had been debated over the trails there would have been a lot less mudslinging. There you go, that’s my future campaign slogan: Less mudslinging, more mud.

Having put the thorny issue of politics to bed we reached the Ibstone School aid station just before twenty six miles and spent a few minutes to refresh and reload. I was already struggling to get calories in but I force fed myself cookies and cola, and I had been steadily working on a bottle of Tailwind all day as well. All the aid stations so far offered Tailwind as well so I knew when I finished my bottle I’d be able to refill, and would more than likely be relying on it for the end of the race. Slightly stiffer than before, and having lost a handful of places, we carried on our way. By this time I was still within my eleven hour pace but by a smaller margin than before, and a margin that was shrinking by the mile. Still though, plenty in hand for a finish. As long as it didn’t all go wrong.

Steve had planned to meet his wife around mile thirty with a mysterious and hitherto untested smoothie concoction which would save or slay him. Oats, oat milk, fresh fruit, protein mix and chia seeds – it sounded bloody amazing. But having never tested it in anger before he had no idea if it would give him the boost he’d need for the last twenty miles or if he’d be in the bushes for the rest of the race. Only one way to find out.

He made a brief stop to pick up the drink while I carried on, making use of the momentum I had now that the pain in my feet had passed and simply become numbness. Pain? Ah. It wasn’t until this point that I realised I’d been running through pain for about ten miles already, such was the quality of the company and the distraction. Well, this would get interesting – pain doesn’t often feature for me, and it certainly doesn’t stop me as often as fitness, low blood sugar and temper tantrums do. When he caught up again I asked him about his war stories – the military ones rather than the running ones – and he obliged with some hilarious, some frankly terrifying and a fair few eye opening accounts of the life of a non-commissioned officer. Having heard that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone capable of finishing multiple 100-milers in the Lakes; the mental strength required to withstand the rigours of ultra-running being bread and butter to someone who has survived para-training.

At least I lasted longer than my watch…

We had slipped a few more places by the time we reached Swyncombe, and I really started to feel the distance by this point – a quick stretch on the cool grass and a moment taken to put on my waterproof jacket both turned out to be excellent decisions as the rain we’d been promised all day finally made an appearance. I had slipped past my eleven hour pace by this point, but still well within the cutoffs and about to hit Grims Ditch, one of my favourite trails ever. Another lady caught up with us at this point and started swapping 100 miler stories with Steve, which was a fascinating exchange to say the least – there really is no point in spending time with this amazing group of people if you can’t take the time to learn from them. I shut my trap (at least until the conversation turned to cars, which I couldn’t resist bowling into) and listened to them like I was listening to a podcast.

The final aid station would be at the other end of Grims Ditch and just over nine miles from the end. A long old stretch to finish on, but it did mean the last intermediate cutoff to worry about was cleared and we passed it with over three hours to go. A slow walk would have made it, but I really didn’t want to cut it that fine. Sadly, I wasn’t entirely in charge of that decision – my legs were screaming and I was doing my level best to tune them out. I succumbed to the chair, just for a few moments, and stared mournfully at the empty Tailwind barrel wondering why I hadn’t filled my bottle up earlier. Luckily the volunteers there had made up a batch of the best white bread butter and cheese sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and with some effort I chewed my way through a couple of them and washed them down with Coke. It was a bit awkward to swallow, and I noticed then just how dehydrated I’d become despite the inclement temperature. Next race I’m sticking a signpost at thirty miles saying “EAT NOW DAMMIT, YOU’LL THANK ME LATER”. As it turned out Steve’s smoothie had been an unqualified success, so much so that I’m tempted to try it myself on my next long run. Liquid calories that don’t taste too sweet are surely the way ahead.

We left the aid station still optimistic, and at the very fringes of daylight, a little bit smug about the fact that we hadn’t had to use our headtorches yet. Within a couple of miles however dusk fell – plummeted really, as it does in the woods – and I was cursing myself for not fishing out the torch when we stopped at the aid station. Talking was becoming increasingly difficult to me as one by one my various functions closed down. There’s almost no chance I’d have finished the race if it wasn’t for Steve; not only had he very kindly offered me a lift to Gatwick Airport on his way home, where I’d have a fighting chance of getting a train since the Reading line was down, but his tireless storytelling and patience dragged me through the deepening gloom. To say we were hiking now would be flattering the pace we kept up, but he insisted on staying with me instead of pushing on and getting the job done. I decided that I couldn’t reward his kindness with whinging so I kept my negative thoughts to myself and kept moving forward, mutely. You can’t complain about pain in front of a soldier.

The last couple of miles back to Goring were profoundly dark, and our torches were doing bugger all to cut through the blackness. We had been joined by one of Steve’s friends and a couple of other runners by this point, all moving in single file along the single track, all just looking for the streetlights and the end. When it finally arrived my feet and legs were burning – just half a mile of pavement to go, and it felt like walking fifty miles of hot coals. Unable to restrain myself any more I started audibly whimpering, choking down tears just to get to the end. We decided to cross the line together as a group of three – when it finally came it turned out to be the side door to the hall and we had to file in one at a time, but we were reunited on the other side. Twelve and a half hours, and we were done. I was dizzy, slurring, in agony, but relieved.

Ilsuk was still in the village hall doing the rounds, despite having finish a couple of hours earlier, while I forced down some coffee and tried to sit. While we recovered we saw the last few finishers stumble including two guys who finished just inside the cutoff and at least two that, heartbreakingly, didn’t. To struggle that far knowing that you wouldn’t even get the medal is a special kind of tough. I came to enough to force down a sausage in a roll – it took a good half hour to do so – and settled into the warm of the car, suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. And then, horror. I still had Wendover Woods to do to complete the grand slam, and that was so hard the cutoff was two hours longer. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Thanks to Steve’s hospitality I was home within a couple of hours and out the next day for my one mile hobble around the block to shake out my legs and keep up my streak. But come Monday morning – a heavy day at work which started with me carrying my own staging around because my crew had been accidentally cancelled – the hobble became something much worse. Somehow, despite my legs taking the brunt of the battery, I had actually pulled muscles all across my chest and ribcage and breathing became a serious issue. Like, I could talk or breathe but not do both issue. All day on my feet with a trailer shoot I hoped I would just shake it out, but by the time I got home I knew for certain there was no chance of me running. Pain in general has never stopped me before, but chest pains, that’ll do it. The streak, and my heart, were broken.

So I relinquished it in the hope that I might still save another, much longer lasting streak – I’ve run every Ealing Half Marathon since it started in 2012 and I have no intention of giving that up so easily. My one day off turned into two days, and having booked off the Wednesday as lieu time I finally got a chance to catch up on some rest (and a load of Air Crash Investigation). When Sunday came around I felt, though not entirely in shape for a road half marathon, like I had a chance of not embarrassing myself, and like I had at least enough breath to finish. Proudly wearing my QPR shirt I settled in in front of the 1:50 pacers, hoping to stay in front of them but prepared to let them go. I resolved to enjoy the atmosphere, return every high five and every shout of “YOU RRRRSSS!”, smile all the way round, remember that I do this for fun. And bloody hell, it was.

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I actually managed to keep the pace up for a good ten miles before my body refused to respond to the command to push harder. It was painful, but I could run through it – i just couldn’t turn my legs over any faster. The real turning point however came just after mile eleven; just as I tried to give another burst of energy, my chest cramped up like an imploding star. I could barely breathe. I kept running, but I let my pace ease up until the cramp passed. That’s it – you don’t dick around with chest pains. The pacers finally overtook me and I let myself glide to the end, saving my last bit of energy for a leap over the line – there wasn’t even enough to sprint. As I landed, almost knocking over guest commentator Susie Chan in the process, I smiled. I had done it in 1:51 and change, and only five minutes out from my all time PB (a time set with at least half a stone less weight).

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Embarrassing as my CW50 time was, I have to concede that it’s a lot better than I deserve having invested so little time in running recently. This shouldn’t be about pity or excuses or self-flagellation, but equally I want to recognise that a little anticipation goes a long way. Either I’ve become complacent or I’ve stopped caring altogether; either way I must be able to do something about it. Perhaps right now running can’t take priority over everything else; it could still take priority over 90% of everything else. Perhaps I’m not fit enough to enjoy a fifty mile trail race at the moment; I have two months to change that. And if I don’t, I’ll have thrown away all the hard work that brought me this far. Perhaps I underestimate what I can do, setting myself unwieldy and contradictory targets, because I don’t want to admit there’s such a thing as an unattainable target.

Perhaps I’ve forgotten this is meant to be fun.

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North Downs Way 50 – Centurion Grand Slam part 2

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For someone who values the sociable nature of ultrarunning and never fails to make friends on the trails, there’s something very appealing about staying on my own the night before a race. I often stay in a random little pub or B&B if I can, find the nearest Italian restaurant/supplier of obscene quantities of carbs and red wine, tuck myself away in a corner with a book and just be. I love it. It’s worth being apart from my fish and my budgies and my Andy and our castle, much as I hate to leave them, for the meditative solitude of the pointless traveller. Bonus points if there’s no signal or wi-fi.

Having started three ultras from beautiful Farnham I’m well-acquainted with its charms, and so apparently were many of the other North Downs Way 50 competitors. So when I finally got my arse into gear to book my pre-race accommodation, obviously all the nearby hotels were full or obscenely expensive. Fair enough. Good opportunity to get even further away for some peace and quiet and grumpy time, where the options were plentiful and much cheaper, even including the cab to Farnham. I ended up with a B&B in nearby Ash, The Lion Brewery, which turned out to be a pub and music venue as well, and almost literally the only thing in Ash Parish apart from cottages. Doom Bar on tap, copper pans on the walls, fried egg sandwich waiting for me at 6:15 the next morning. Yep, this’ll do.

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The route for the Centurion North Downs 50 is the first half of the 100 mile version, starting at the head of the trail in Farnham and following it as far as Knockholt; having attempted that twice before I was pretty confident about my knowledge of the route. Probably a little too confident – let’s be honest, any amount of confidence before an ultra is too much confidence. As with the 100, we started at St Polycarps School for the race briefing and registration, in a hall that smelled of floor varnish and sugar paper; I felt like I was nine years old again. Just like nine year olds we walked in a crocodile formation down to the start, comparing packed lunches and buzzing with excitement.

As usual, I had pretty good company for the run. A lot of familiar faces from previous Centurion races, almost half the field prospective grand slammers. And a little bit of glamour thrown in – the perennially sunny Susie Chan was running with broadcaster and keen long distance runner Sophie Raworth, taking on the distance for the first time. Sydnee Watlow (half Chaser and half Fulham Runner) and her clubmate Henri were also running in what would be their first 50 mile race, as well as Lovely Sam (stalwart of XNRG races) aiming for an improvement on last year’s eight and a half hours. Sam started at the business end of the pack, obviously, but I ran with Sydnee and Henri at a steady ten minute mile pace for as long as I could hang on – at least while we had the runnable and friendly North West Surrey terrain.

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I hadn’t seen much of Sydnee since last August when she volunteered to pace me in the later stages of the 100, but since I quit at mile 66 we never got the chance for a good old gossip. We more than made up for it over the first three hours, enjoying a sociable pace and the perfect running conditions: dry but not hot, overcast but not muggy, bright but not blistering. Henri stayed just a few paces ahead of us all the way like a bodyguard. The first checkpoint at Puttenham around mile 7 passed in the blink of an eye, and shortly afterwards Sydnee’s dad popped up at the bottom of St Martha’s for a check in and a bit of gratuitous photo taking. What else are parents for, eh?

Before long we reached the River Wye at Guildford and the legendary bacon butty barge, manned (obviously) by two chaps in inflatable sumo suits. Never mind not being able to eat on the run – these cold bacon butties saved my life last August and there was no way we could pass without grabbing some, even if it meant walking briefly while we digested them. Sydnee even suggested that we take photos of ourselves with the butties… just as I was retrieving the plastic wrap from halfway down my throat, having inhaled mine. Ahem. I mean as food tourism opportunities go this is up there with wagyu beef and caviar, but I’ve either got time to eat or Instagram, not both. I did manage to get a snap of the barge as we marched away with our swag though. Maybe I could just go back for one more…

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Newlands Corner was the next station; by this point Sydnee had had a couple of impromptu comfort breaks where I’d preferred to hold off for the relative luxury of the café facilities so I took a few minutes to refresh before taking off again. It turned out there was another Chaser, Alice, who was also tackling her first 50 miler that day and we bumped into each other (almost literally) in the ladies, happy to see even more friendly faces. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that I was running with three people new to the distance but there was an air of caution, or perhaps patience, and so instead of my usual MO of smash and grab I took my time filling up water bottles, getting fruit and cookies (now I know that’s the only thing I can keep down during a race). Actually I might have been dawdling a little too much; when I was done Sydnee and Henri were raring to go to avoid seizing up so off we took.

Almost immediately, a leaden feeling settled into my legs. It didn’t feel like cramp or muscles getting cold – this was a very definite “are we done yet” feeling. Ah. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to break any records since once again (load up the broken record) I was in between two insanely busy periods of work and running on fumes to begin with, but 16 miles isn’t quite where I’d expected to flag. Alice had stayed back at the aid station for a few moments and Sydnee and Henri were on a roll so I let them go and trotted on for a bit on my own; a blessing in disguise as it also gave my stomach time to settle. The pointless traveller was on another pilgrimage to nowhere.

I was being super conscious of salts and hydration after the fiasco that was the South Downs 50 five weeks before – not that I needed to be so vigilant since it wasn’t anywhere near as hot or exposed, but it paid off. Besides the bacon butty I’d also crammed the Lion Brewery’s fried egg sandwich down about half an hour before the race start which in turn was chasing half a packet of peanut cookies, so I was slightly uncomfortable but in no immediate danger of bonking. Look at that, a lesson learned. It also meant that I could more confidently rely on the aid station food and carry as little as possible, another huge improvement on the last two attempts at this course when every extra gram seems to have double gravity on the hill climbs.

Alice caught up with me somewhere around Ranmore Common and we ran together for a little while – perfect timing really, I was starting to feel sociable again and missed the company that had made those first few miles fly. She was a fascinating person to talk to and not as new to the club as I had originally assumed, just to trail running; I was reminded of just how many Chasers there are marauding around the south west of London that I haven’t got to know yet. A couple of years ago we had a solid little group of social trail runners but that generation – myself very much included – either seemed to have moved away or moved on. I can’t tell you how important those people were in shaping my athletic career, such as it is, but more crucially in helping me build my confidence. These last few months I’d cut myself off from the club, pleading a busy work schedule for not being at training but also avoiding contact on Facebook because I felt like I just couldn’t keep up; the idea of logging in just to see how much fun everyone was having depressed me, and knowing what a shitty attitude that was made me feel even worse. I love sharing my friends’ achievements; it’s not competition that made me feel inadequate, more my lack of involvement. Enough selfish moping; it was time for me to pay it forward and start being more involved in the club again. The more that newcomers like Alice are given the support to take on a challenge of this magnitude with such grace as she did, the stronger our sport becomes and the further away those unbreakable boundaries are pushed. Before long she was also too fast for my lumpy legs and took off into the distance, on the way to smashing her first 50 miler with a sub-11 hour finish.

Everyone tackling the North Downs for the first time speaks of Box Hill with fear; I had actually been looking forward to it all day. Familiarity helps, knowing that once you’ve got past it there aren’t all that many lungbusters to go helps, warming up to it by freewheeling down past the Denbies vineyards definitely helps, and the hug from Lorraine – into whom I nearly crashed at the bottom of the Denbies estate, as I launched myself into her arms with a war cry – was like having rockets strapped to my arse. The Stepping Stones aid station is positioned at the foot of Box Hill so that runners can grab a boost of energy before the climb; it’s also a good opportunity to use a new set of muscles and refresh the calves and ankles that have been taking a pounding on the road leading downhill from the vineyard. My stomach was surprisingly fine, I’d been getting through a good amount of water and a sip or two of Tailwind, and I was letting my mind wander free as I ran alone, giving the grey matter a bit of exercise too. But my legs were far from happy. They weren’t particularly stiff, nor in pain apart from a slight niggle in my right IT band exacerbated by the relentless camber. They were just dog tired. I wasn’t worried about the hill since all I had to do was grind it out, but I was worried about what would come after it. Namely, another marathon over undulating terrain with little opportunity to get into a rhythm. This was going to be a slog.

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A couple of young families out for a hike – by which I mean two three-year-olds and a granddad with a babe in arms – overtook me on the climb up the Box Hill steps, but even if I’d had the motivation to speed up there was nothing in the tank. I took my time and enjoyed the perfect weather conditions – by now there was gorgeous late spring sunshine making the leaves above us glow. At the second incline after the peak I realised I would need some help, especially with Reigate Hill on the way as well, and kept an eye out for a good sturdy stick. There were lots of fallen trees and hundreds of willowy switches or stumpy branches, but nothing that would quite do the job. It would need to be long enough to be able to lean on, strong enough to take my weight and light enough not to be a burden. As I scanned the side of the track looking for this perfect stick two runners passed me wielding proper collapsible walking poles, as if to taunt me. I’ve resisted trying walking poles partly because simplicity is important to me when I’m running – after all, I like this sport specifically because it needs minimal kit – and partly because I’ve nearly lost an eye to them before, and I don’t want to cause a nuisance. But the more I run, or rather the older I get, the more I see the advantages to using them. I watched the two runners pass me with ease, advancing up the hill as if it had an escalator.

Just as I dropped my gaze back to the floor in despair I spotted something that looked like it might be perfect, if only it wasn’t part of a tree. I nudged it with my foot, then began to unearth it. My perfect stick was stuck in a bit of mulch but otherwise totally loose, and exactly what I was looking for. It even had a little notch from an old branch at exactly the right height for holding it, as if designed to take the crook of my thumb. If I’d hand carved the thing I could hardly have improved it. Stick in my right hand, I dug into the ground on every fourth step and immediately felt the benefit in my quads. This was much easier. By the time I was at the top my stick had my eternal gratitude and a name. Meet Woody.

As I always do, I reached the top of the incline bracing myself for Bastard Reigate Hill directly afterwards, and finding more single track winding for miles through the glade. I don’t know why but every time I somehow forget that there’s a three mile stretch between Box and Reigate and so what is meant to be a lovely runnable little section is spent worrying about the hands and knees crawl coming up, conserving energy for it instead of making up time. When we’re out on a social run or training it’s one of my favourite bits. When I’m racing through it – this would be the fifth time I’d covered it in a race – it is my Achilles heel. The irony is that bracing yourself for three miles is slightly more exhausting than just running. As I grumbled my way through the wood a couple of ladies drew level with me, admired Woody, my white sleeves and my wild hair, and told me I looked like Gandalf. In retrospect I missed a damn good opportunity to shout YOU SHALL NOT PASS but that might have been taking it a bit too far.

Part of my obsession with Bastard Reigate Hill is that no-one ever talks about it but is a proper bona fide bastard of a hill. I mean, it’s cruel and relentless and twisty and really fucking steep, and it has a convex profile so you can’t see the top until you’re actually on it. I’m not exaggerating here. As soon as we started the race I just wanted that bit to be over and done with, so naturally, it took a lifetime and a half to get there. But once we were there, the climb itself seemed to pass in only a minute or two. Was this what I’d been bitching about for miles? Either my memory was trolling me again or Woody was making a massive difference – Jesus, I really need to give walking poles more of a chance. I even had time and energy to appreciate the carpet of bluebells that seemed to personify the North Downs in spring. Once at the top it’s a short trot to the next aid station, and I knew this one would offer another toilet stop and a cracking view as well as the usual treats. Just like that, my legs started to come back to me.

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Meanwhile though my watch was having another tantrum – usually so reliable, for some reason the signal between Denbies and Merstham seems to be just a bit too sketchy to sustain accurate measurement and it read at least a mile and a half behind where I knew we were. Oh well, back to the good old fashioned mental arithmetic method. After making sure my number had been registered at the checkpoint I took my time to have a good old stretch and cool down on the grass, as well as stock up on watermelon and cookies and go to the loo; needing the loo twice in one race is definitely unprecedented for me, so despite my lethargy my hydration was obviously still on track. When I finally got going though I knew that there wasn’t anything left in the tank and consigned myself to a nineteen mile death march to the finish. My crap maths told me that even a walking pace would get me to the finish within the cutoffs as long as I didn’t dawdle and the occasional trot would afford the me luxury of pausing at checkpoints, so that would be my tactic from now on. Andy got his usual whinging phonecall while I hobbled off down the track and I gritted my teeth for the finish.

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We weren’t finished yet though, not by a long way. The familiar scoreboard of the Merstham Cricket Club popped up shortly afterwards to mark 33 miles in followed by a beautiful little church and a good mile of flat runnable tarmac on the way. Not for me though – every few paces I tried to run became agonising shuffles that eventually devolved to a walk again. I couldn’t run up hills, I couldn’t run on the flat, I couldn’t go fast downhill because my thighs were shredded. I just had to accept the suffering and trust the maths, and hope to quell the panic that was rising. The Caterham aid station at mile 38 (or mile 36 according to my Suunto) was a welcome opportunity to sit and stretch again, admiring yet more stunning views over the valley and get my nerves under control. The next stop would be mile 43, the other side of a long exposed stretch across Oxted Downs and a bitch of a climb up Botley Hill both of which have knocked me for six in the past. I was struggling just to keep moving forward by this point – if I could only get past the aid station the only cutoff I’d be chasing would be the finish time and I could pretty much hike the rest after then.

If I’ve learned anything running ultras it’s that suffering is temporary but failure is permanent. And this had become a suffer-fest like I’ve never experienced. Woody and I had gritted our teeth through the last agonisingly slow five miles, and finding a smiley face at the top of Botley Hill tipped me over the edge – for the first time in a long time I burst into tears. The lovely volunteer who was registering runners’ numbers was kind enough to ask me if I needed sympathy or just a minute to get over it, and even this little gesture, the last opportunity for me to regain my dignity, sent me into floods of tears again. I looked back down the hill I’d just climbed, to remind myself that I’d done it now – another milestone passed. The amazing food offerings – including homemade rocky road – tantalised my mind but turned my stomach. There wouldn’t be enough in the tank for me to run the last 7 miles but I could walk it in two hours and be within the cutoffs, and the calories I had on board would just about last that far. All I had to do was keep moving.

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Once we passed across the border from Surrey to Kent the landscape changed from woodland to jungle, and the terrain from hills to ruts and vicious cambers. The well tilled farmland creates ankle threatening channels wide enough for half a foot, like running through a half pipe, and the other foot is forced to land on the raised ground beside it. I persisted with a lopsided little hobble as long as I could but my left hip started to scream and I was forced back to a hike. This meant the farmlands seemed to go on forever – even more foreverer than they do when I run them. The race had become an exercise in extreme patience. I would get to the end in time now even if I crawled, but the key would be continuing to move – any amount of moving would be faster than stopping. Every now and again I forgot that I wasn’t aiming for 11 hours any more, did my mental calculations, had a bit of a panic, then remembered I was aiming for 13 now. Oddly enough the same thing happened to me at the South Downs Way 50, except then I had the excuse of a bonk. Now I was just knucking fackered.

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Another lady caught up with me as I trudged through the first of many cowfields; she didn’t have a GPS watch, just a normal timepiece, and asked how much further  I thought we had to go. I gave up following the mileage on my watch but was pretty sure that we’d only have three or four farms to get through and then we’d be done. She kept me company for those three or four farms, but when we got to the end of the fourth one and saw only miles and miles of farmland in front of us she realised I was not a reliable source of course information and ran on ahead. The next couple of miles, and that’s all it could have been, felt like Groundhog Day. The fields just kept coming. Did I misremember? I’m sure the last time I ran this the turnoff for Knockholt was after this gate. Problem was, they all looked the fucking same. Every new field inspired a new stream of expletives and a fresh temper tantrum, another feeble attempt to trot and another defeat.

Woody really came into his own here. He turned out to be the perfect weight for carrying while I ran as well as the perfect support pole for my death march. I started to worry about what would happen to him at the end – I would HAVE to take him home, I’d get him onto the train somehow and walk from the station instead of getting a lift in the car. He was too important to leave behind, more important than a comfortable journey home. I know it sounds silly to become attached to a bit of stick, but he’d stuck with me through more of the race than anyone else. As I worked feverishly through the logistics of getting my stick home, I realised that I had finally found the last gate out of the last field and directions to the finish line. Woody, you bloody genius.

Gripping him in my right hand I freewheeled down the road which would eventually double back to the village hall – only then did I realise the reason the last couple of miles seemed so unfamiliar is because they were. In the 100 you turn off the NDW about a mile and a half from Knockholt Pound and divert through a number of roads to enter from the west, and leave the aid station moving in the same direction. We had continued to run along the trail north of the road and gone past it before turning off to reach the finish, which presumably accounts for the extra mileage needed to make it a proper 50. It also means, however, that having run DOWNHILL to the road you then have to run back up again to get to the arch in the land behind the hall – probably a few feet of uphill, but a cruel final twist in a slog of a race. As I turned onto the road I saw Sydnee, who despite having finished over an hour earlier had waited for me to show me the way to the finish. The very last drop of effort in me spent climbing the hill to the finish arch, I managed as much of a leap over the finish line as my leaden legs would manage and fell to the floor, cuddling Woody and sobbing.

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I’d spent almost an hour planning my logistics so as to make sure Woody would come home with me; then, when Sydnee and her dad offered me a lift almost all the way I realised it would be both rude and unspeakably stupid to refuse just so I could keep my stick. I did spend a long time thinking it over though – Knockholt station is just over a mile away to walk, three trains to get me home then another mile from Mitcham, not impossible… Eventually though I had to concede that Woody was not coming home with me so I gave him a kiss and left him by the side of the finish area, hoping that he would be able to help another runner one day. Of all the emotional struggled I went through that day, parting with Woody was absolutely the worst. But, I thought on the drive home, I had a real live human being who had put her own comfort and recovery in jeopardy (again) to see me home safe. Once more Sydnee had come to my rescue, thinking nothing of it after smashing her first ever 50 miler in under 11 hours, and I couldn’t even think of the words to tell her how grateful I was. This is the spirit of trail runners and this is the thing I miss most of all when I can’t run.

It’s taken a while to recover from this race, in comparison with the South Downs – nearly a month on I still have a niggle in my right leg that probably needs medical attention, and a constant need for sleep. I’ll take that though, trade in a niggle free life just to get to the end. I still think of that day – mostly lonely, painful, and frustrating – with fondness because I finished it; if anything it means more to have gone through hell to get to the end than it would have if I’d had a textbook race and come out clean as a whistle. I’ve found a new depth that I can go to and still come back from. What a dangerous thing to know.

On reflection, and after browsing the comments on the Centurion Facebook page, I realise that I massively underestimated the race. Being familiar with it gave me confidence, but I neglected to confront just how tough a course it is; whichever way you look at it, it chewed me up and spit me out. Once again I have to admit I wasn’t fit enough for it, nor rested enough, and that’s something that needs to change before the next two in autumn. I know now what the consequences of ill preparation feel like, and that simply trading in preparation for lower expectations is not a long term strategy. I think I’d quite like to get a bit better at this running lark and not just scramble to the finish every time.

Baby steps.

Cover photo (C) Dan Milton – thank you for allowing me to use it and for not making me look like a mess…