Most runners, even those that have run a few marathons, are unlikely to have heard of Centurion Events. My first encounter was when I crewed for my daughter Cat at the SDW50 in 2014; at that stage I had run my first 3 marathons where I naturally found the last 10k difficult and confidently stated, “never” (which my close friend Dan always reminds me about). The same year I watched all of NDW100 runners pass through the Caterham aid station, just 2 miles from my home, and in 2015 I crewed for my daughter as she successfully ran the same race which further enhanced my resolve never to run a Centurion Event. Less than a week after that I was annoyed to only be able to get on to the waitlist for the 2016 NDW50. Nici quickly assured me that I was very near the top of the list so my chances of getting in were very good.
I did realise that I had chosen the most demanding of the 50s, but living so close to the NDW I had started to become familiar with the section from Box Hill and decided that I would prefer to tackle a route where I knew exactly what to expect, and of course there would be the option to drop at Caterham and walk home!
Wind forward 8 months and just under 12 hours before the start I was in Farnham with Susie Chan and Shaun Marsden, having cheekily invited myself to spend the night at there place. Although Susie had decided not to race she drove Shaun and me the mile or so to St Polycarp’s where I immediately felt like an impostor to even be in the same room as so many amazing runners, never mind having the nerve to run with them. Although I am comfortable running 4 hour marathons, I have only run greater than that distance a couple of times; The Winter Tanners 30 miles being the furthest, 16 months ago. My three marathons in 5 weeks in February/March disrupted the training I had been doing in the Winter over the Downs, and when I resumed for 3 consecutive up-to-marathon-distance runs over the first half of the course my legs were telling me they needed some recovery time, so I listened to them and did very little running during the 3 weeks prior to this race.
Unsurprising, my number one aim was just to finish inside the 13 hour cut-off. To this end I was tempted to run with Ian Lang, who I had never met but we connected on Facebook because of our other common passion, Leicester City. Ian seems to be an expert on pacing his Centurion Events so that he stays just ahead of the cut-off at each aid station, and finishes with minutes to spare. This had tempted me, but as I was unsure how the last 5 miles would go I wanted to have more than 15 minutes to spare, so I decided to just run at a pace that felt comfortable.
My concern in the week before the run was trail or road shoes (my 67 year old knees thank me for the extra cushioning provided by road shoes). I ran the first half of the course 3 weeks ago in road shoes after there had been weeks of dry weather and the non-road sections were as hard as any road so I then decided that is what I would use. However, the heavy rain during the week before put doubts into my mind. Knowing the 2nd half of the course well I understood how slippery the mud and chalk could be, and that the fields could easily be very sticky. The dilemma really got to me and I had a terrible night’s sleep on Thursday, but on Friday morning immediately decided to go with the road shoes and give the trail ones to my crew and change at the top of Box Hill if the conditions before there made me think they would be necessary. They weren’t and I comfortably ran the whole course in my Asics.
Nutrition/hydration also concerned me. I really suffered during a couple of my long runs when it was difficult to carry enough fluids. On one I had planned, and desperately needed, a large cup of coffee at the Reigate aid station site, but the café had closed just minutes before I arrived. There was no way I would have completed the run to Caterham if a friendly couple hadn’t given me most of one of their very large cups. I regularly swapped empty water bottles for full ones with my crew; my son and daughter, Ed and Cat, who were doing it the hard way on bikes. Whilst Ed had a serious ‘dentist’s bike’, so would disappear off at the crew stations rather than just waiting for me for some extra mileage, Cat was on a single speed bike and I really do think she had to work harder to get up the hills than I did.
Being gluten intolerant (not just a lifestyle choice), I couldn’t accept the gift from the famed bacon barge and solid food wasn’t just a matter of grabbing a sandwich or wrap at each aid station. I made up five gluten free fruit-bread and strawberry jam sandwiches, cut each into quarters and stacked vertically, wrapped each slice separately so they fitted into the front packet of my pack. I ate one quarter each 4k and picked up a new slice at each crew stop. It seemed to work fine, but I never want to see another one of those sandwiches for a long time. I downed coke at each aid station and although I was carrying a plastic bag with crushed crisps did eat more at the aid stations. The requested cup of coffee was waiting for me at Reigate; I don’t usually drink coffee but am convinced there is nothing works better for me, and I even had sugar added, which I NEVER have in hot drinks.
Even with my limited experience of ultras I was well aware that hills are meant to be walked, however I wasn’t sure what comprised a hill and whether, at the beginning the rule was strictly adhered to. I knew there was a nasty incline on the road near the start and some uphill trail sections before Puttenham. I needed not have worried though; the sight of everyone walking as both of these sections came into view brought a smile to my face. (I suspect the leaders would have breezed up them and without walking.)
I am in awe of people who seem to have a photographic memory of a race, being able to remember every twist and turn and minor detail. Actually because of the spectacular nature of the course I probably remembered more of this race than most others I have run. I dislike the section from Newland’s Corner to Ranmore Common; it seems to go on forever and there is almost no variation in scenery. Also, during training runs I had convinced myself it actually had a slightly uphill gradient; of course it hasn’t and although I still dislike the section I found it easy to run. I had calculated my estimated times at the aid and crew stations, but something had gone radically wrong between 7 and 21 miles and I was way inside my estimates so my crew hadn’t arrived at Shalford or Newland’s, but they did make an unexpected and very welcomed visit to St Martha’s. After that I was within a couple of minutes at every place, except the end; it wasn’t down to targeted pacing, as I said earlier I was just running what felt comfortable.
The stepping stones before Box Hill terrified me. Every other time I have been here they have been flooded so I had to take the bridge. I decided I wanted a photo and stupidly had my phone in my hand as I crossed. I’m sure we have all been in the situation of being aware that if we dropped the phone it was gone forever; this caused me to make sure I had both feet firmly on a stone before moving onto the next one, no skipping. Sorry to the runner behind in the red top, I must have held you up.
None of the hills came as a surprise, but immediately I took my first few steps up at Box Hill the inside top of my right thigh cramped. It was here I met Steve Navesey who straightway gave me an s-cap. This, and keeping my leg straight for a minute or so, quickly overcame the problem but it did reoccur a few more times whenever I needed to lift the leg higher than it had been doing.
As I walked up Botley Hill (which actually is the highest point on the North Downs) I was greeted by Myles, a runner from my local parkrun, who had actually been following me on the live results, calculated when he expected me to be there and came along to lend his support. Seeing him was totally unexpected, and having him to chat to as I plodded up to the aid station was a great distraction. Thank you, Myles, I was genuinely touched to see you there.
I knew that the section immediately following was incredibly gnarly, and with tired legs extreme care was needed, yet a few 100m along the track I tripped. In that second or so between realising I was going to fall and hitting the ground the possible consequences flashed before my eyes, previous falls here had curtailed my running for a few weeks and it was easy to imagine an injury that would mean a DNF. Fortunately my head took enough of the impact to mean my arms and legs were ok, and of course the steps that soon followed caused the thigh cramps again.
With about 4 miles to go I was joined by the extremely experienced Tracey Watson, who had completed the TP100 just two weeks earlier and was in for the double grand slam. She turned out to be just the person I needed over the final section. Most of it is eminently runnable yet it would have been too easy to just accept that I was going to finish and walk a lot. She bullied and cursed me, demanding that I “get a jiggle on”. We passed through a herd of cows together; they seem to have positioned themselves to be as imposing as possible, although they had the whole field to choose from they occupied about 1% of it, directly on the trail. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us.
The adrenaline must have kicked in as we entered the last field and I was certain I would get inside my 12 hour ‘impossible’ time, even before we spotted the finishing line in the distance, and we continued to run away from it; the legs were on automatic and were not complaining in the slightest. That changed with a vengeance after I had sat down in the village hall, and again the idea of 100 became NEVER. Thank you for keeping me going to the end, Tracy.
It was great to see my whole family waiting at the finish, and of course the one that has knowledge of running this actual route was the most pleased.
The impossible weekend continued the next day when I could drive over 100 miles north so that on Monday the impossibilities of the previous few weekends could be celebrated in Leicester when I was again on my feet for over 11 hours to witness the team I had watched for almost 60 years make an impossible dream come true for more than a quarter of a million people.
Thanks to all volunteers, I may not have said much as I passed through your aid station, but your encouragement and enthusiasm did keep me going. Centurion Event are awesome, and I do expect to be back running with you in the near future