Having done a recce of the gnarliest section of the NDW50 course, and buoyed somewhat by my successful sub-10 hour tilt at the South Downs Way 50 back in April, I was quietly confident going into this race. Perhaps there was a little voice at the back of my head whispering, um, you know it’s longer than SDW50? And harder going, with steeper hills and fiddly narrow tracks? And steps. Quite a lot of steps? I successfully ignored this little voice and planned on repeating my sub-10 trick.
The forecast for the day was good, maybe even too good, with sunshine and a possible 20°c in the shade. It was quite cool at the start, but not enough to require more than a short sleeve layer up top.
The first section of the race is quite runnable for the most part, with just a few inclines long or steep enough to demand walking up. I chatted to a few other runners, knowing from experience now that later I might well be running alone for long stretches. I felt pretty good at this stage, even wondering about possibly going too quick. I needn’t have worried, I was ahead of plan at Puttenham (11.2km, 1:07:29, minimal snackage, Ally on duty), but only by about 6 minutes.
Still going well in the 2nd section, I steamed up the hill to St Martha’s Church, click clacking away with my poles, overtaking Spencer, who had overtaken me earlier on having seemingly binned his “don’t go off too fast” plan. I didn’t see him again till much later on. I was feeling great, running quite well, hiking fast when needed.
I got to Newlands Corner (23.7km, 2:23:16, jelly babies!), about 15 minutes ahead of plan. I grazed at the usual children’s birthday party spread for which Centurion are justly renowned, topped up fluids and continued on. I was pleased to hear one of the volunteers say that I was the first Wave 2 runner through. What? I’m winning Wave 2! Absolute scenes. Still feeling quite OK, I wondered idly when I might chase down my first Wave 1 runner. Oh the hubris…
By now I was in territory I had previously recced. From memory the next section was more or less flat and very runnable, topped off by a long, shallow descent through Denbies vineyard and on into the next aid station. My main problem was that the Denbies downhill didn’t come as quickly as I thought it would, causing a little bit of mental “are we nearly there yet”, the day’s first, but I’m afraid not last, sign of whining. Having finally reached the vineyard, I enjoyed cruising down the hill, just letting gravity take the strain but without pegging down it and mashing my quads.
I got to Westhumble (38.6km, 4:04:49, mango, fig rolls & Kerry on duty) a little under 14 minutes ahead of plan. Would those 14 minutes come back to haunt me later? It’s often the way with ultras that an apparent gain early on bites you on the arse later with fatigue taking its toll on pace in the latter stages. Having run it before I knew that the next section was tough, arguably the toughest on the course. By this time it was gone 12pm and warming up nicely.
I marched up Box Hill in fairly good order, reaching the half way point, but then found the rest of that section really hard, harder than expected. Partly the terrain, partly the heat, partly a poor night’s sleep, possibly partly an overly sprightly first half. Whatever, by the time I got to the approaches to Reigate Hill, I just wanted to have a lie down. As luck would have it I caught up with Helen about then, who was all smiles and relieved to be having a great time after a less than enjoyable experience at SDW50. Poor Helen, I moaned a bit in her direction but luckily for her we soon arrived at the shop near the checkpoint where I had resolved to buy not one but two calippos and a Red Bull. By the time I’d finished faffing about at the aid station, Helen was long gone. A little refreshed, I checked my timings and was properly pissed off to find that I was now more than 15 minutes over plan.
Friends, this is where it all fell apart. I had gone into the race with a clear “A” goal in which I was quite invested, but had neglected to set a “B” goal, a fallback that I would still be happy with. At this point, 15 minutes behind plan but still with 30+km to go, I considered my “A” goal to be dead and buried. I had a massive strop for the next section. My head went entirely, refusing to let my legs run at all. MOOD! I was hiking along quite fast, so it wasn’t a total wash out, but I had begun to shout at trees which had the temerity to have branches overhanging, interfering with my hat. I shook my actual fist at one branch, and unleashed a stream of creative Anglo Saxon invective at another. On I went in frowny, grumpy, Kevin the Teenager style, eventually reaching Caterham (61.2km, 7:37, marmite sarnies) where I recovered some poise.
From that point I at least tried to run some of it, but did find my running limited by steps, hills, too-narrow ruts or gates. It was difficult to find much of a rhythm. I pootled along, running a bit but mostly hiking, trying to stay on top of my hydration. I caught up with Helen again close to the final aid station at the top of Botley Hill (69.2km, 8:54, fantastic orange segments).
I don’t know what was in those oranges but I suddenly found I had a lot of running in my legs. I jogged out of the aid station, managing a few km of mostly running before once again encountering fiddly terrain and also some mild GI discomfort. In combination, this was enough to deter much in the way of running. Eventually I farted and burped my way close to the end. While I paused to take a photo of the annoyingly close finish line, Spencer ran past me for the second time. I was in enough of a funk still that it didn’t occur to me to try to catch him until he was out of sight. I did then summon a spell of relatively fast running, all the way to the finish and a well deserved sit down.
I’ve done 8 ultramarathons in the last year, but this is the first one where the mental side of things has really impacted my day. I let an arbitrary round number time goal dictate whether or not I enjoyed a large chunk of the race which is just a bit silly. Doubly so because I was actually only 6 minutes adrift at Reigate Hill, not the 15 or 20 I feared at the time. So the irony is if I hadn’t lost the plot, running more like a sane person I might still have reeled in that 6 minutes and finished inside 10 hours.
On the plus side, my hiking game remained strong throughout. I hiked most of the 2nd half of the race but still only “lost” 37 minutes against my stupid goal. I didn’t get any blisters (an ultra first), I didn’t fall over and my legs didn’t feel totally battered at the end. And two Calippos!
Overall, I enjoyed myself. It was fun to see familiar faces, runners, staff and volunteers alike, and laughs were had at the end.
Most importantly, the 50 slam is very much still on. I’m looking forward to Chiltern Wonderland as it’s local to me, but that’s in September and I have a couple of other moderately challenging races to do first.
I’ll be back in a couple of months with tales of hilly adventures in the Lake District.