You can read the full race report here.
You Ran How Far?!
“That’s insane!” The usual, and to be honest, pretty fair response that most people offer when they learn of the fact that I recently completed a 100 mile race – well, actually 103 miles if we’re going to be specific and truth be told those extra three miles really did feel significant at the time. The race in question was the 2019 Centurion North Downs Way 100 and takes athletes from the start line in the affluent market town of Farnham, Surrey along the North Downs Way, a national trail that traverses the stunning countryside of the Surrey hills before hooking a right and heading south into the garden county of Kent, ultimately crossing the finish line in the town of Ashford.
Why Run So Far?
I’d entered this race for a number of reasons some eight months or so prior, with the primary ones being that a) I wanted to do a race in the UK, especially given that I was long overdue a visit back home to see the family, and b) it just looked like a thoroughly picturesque route and a very well organised and run event. The fact it was 103 miles, or 168km, in length seemed like more of a technicality at the time, although the full magnitude of that fact soon became apparent once I was actually taking part. The longest race I had, up to that point, competed in was a 50-miler, or 80km, trail ultra in Whistler, Canada back in Autumn of 2018, so whilst I felt motivated to seek a new challenge I was also acutely mindful of just how big a step-up this was going to be. I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions that I didn’t fully respect, and indeed fear, the distance I was contemplating trying to complete: I was well aware of the magnitude of the challenge and was very mindful of the distinct possibility that I might, even after all of my training and preparation, still not make it to the finish line. My earlier attempt to run 101km at the 2018 Eiger race saw me admit defeat and call it a day at the halfway point so the prospect of going more than twice my previous distance record was a hugely intimidating, but also weirdly exciting, prospect. The biggest concern wasn’t whether I would be physically fit enough – I felt that with all of the endurance training I had done over the years I should, even if not necessarily very fast, be able to make it to the finish line – but rather the mental aspect of such a big undertaking. I had no idea whether or not I had the strength of mind to be able to push through extreme fatigue, doubt, physical pain and the calls to “just quit” that I knew for a fact can and do populate an endurance athlete’s thoughts when the going really gets tough. Could I stand up to such temptation and silence the doubts in my own mind? I really didn’t know until I tried.
One of the main challenges of training for such a long running event when based in Dubai and working a busy, full-time professional job – one that can be equal parts physically and mentally draining – is the fact that I just don’t have the kind of time to devote to super long run sessions as I would like and even if I did this part of the world becomes pretty hostile during the hotter, summer months. Whilst it is feasible to get outside and put in entire day efforts over the winter months, being done with outside training by 8am during the summer is imperative. It just gets way too hot and humid for long sessions to be anything other than dangerous and there are only so many nocturnal run sessions that anyone can commit to before going a little batty, especially when it can still be 35 degrees Celsius and feel like a steam room even in the absence of the sun! With the race scheduled to take place on the first weekend of August, most of the big training efforts needed to take place during these hot, humid months, with the longest continuous run I was able to do being in the region of 5.5 hours, a mere fraction of the time I was expecting to be out on course during the actual event. As such, I knew going into the North Downs Way 100 that there was a large amount of ‘see what happens on the day’ governing how things panned out, not something that is all too comforting for someone who prefers to be very planned and prepared in most pursuits.
Control What You Can & Accept What You Cannot
All I could do was focus on preparing and fine tuning what I did have control over. This included my choice of kit for the day and nutrition, the latter having always been a bit of an Achilles heel. Having tried out a couple of different hydration packs/ run vests I ultimately invested in the somewhat pricey but very well designed Salomon Advanced Skin 5. This vest looks and feels very minimal but therein lies it’s genius: it hugs the body like a second skin, completely eliminating much of the independent jiggling, shifting and, ultimately, rubbing that other packs seemed to lead to. Over 30km these sorts of issues are minor annoyances but when stretched out over 168km any erroneous movement could lead to some serious chafing and discomfort, definitely to be avoided where possible. Whilst I had always been a hydration bladder user I ultimately opted to rely on the Salomon soft flasks for the race, with each carrying up to 500mls of fluid and so meeting the race minimum requirement for a minimum carry of 1L. As it turned out this was more than adequate, with well-supplied aid stations on average every 15km and a very favourable set of race day conditions meaning that I very rarely arrived with empty flasks anyway. The advantage of not carrying a bladder was that it neatly freed up the vest’s back capacity for carrying my essential kit and meant that filling up on liquids was as easy as simply handing my flasks to the volunteers on the stations. Combined with the extension ‘straws’ that I purchased just before race day, I was able to keep my fluid intake adequate without any hassle on the day.
Another key kit decision was to go with my trusty Salomon Speedcross 4 trail shoes, which had served me very well on the rocky trails of the UAE, the mountain tracks of Georgia and the mixed terrain of Whistler. Realising that my current pair were perhaps getting on a tad and certainly not wanting to be in the avoidable position of having them fail during the actual race, I managed to track down another pair to purchase in the UK and so had them ready to use during the race. As it turned out I did in fact opt to swap into them at the halfway point after my older pair felt like they were starting to pinch. One of the lessons I learnt from this race was certainly to value the reassuring presence of spares – even if they don’t get used, simply knowing that you have spares of any key kit items goes a long way to allaying some of the anxieties that can accompany such a long race. What better to pair with my Salomons than the good old, trusty blister-preventing wonders that are Injinji socks. I swear that they are probably one of the THE most life-changing inventions for any trail, and certainly ultra, runner there is. Whilst I did develop a little blister on my right foot – from the pinching of my shoes incidentally – the remaining pedal surface area on both feet remained sanctified. Not a single blister was to be found on any toe, which after that kind of crazy distance covered is amazing! I am, and have long been, a devoted convert to the Church of Injinji. In fact, you could say I have become like many, a vocal missionary for the brand. Knowing that some – actually, quite a lot as it turned out – of the trail was overgrown and that nettles and thorns were likely to feature, I invested in a couple of pairs of longer, trail socks in preference to my usual ankle variety, with this proving to be a smart move. Whilst my legs were trashed by the end of the race in terms of being just utterly fatigued, I avoided anything in the way of even mild cuts, scratches or even stings, which actually surprised me. Either I lost feeling in my distal limbs towards the end of the race or the socks actually protected me well from the worst of any vegetative assault.
When it came to my choice for what to wear in terms of shorts or T-shirt on the day this became an easy decision: my somewhat recently discovered Lululemon running shorts and T-shirts, the former being delightfully lightweight yet durable and comfortable and the latter being superbly wicking, in no way chafe-prone and with the very agreeable quality of avoiding any unpleasant odours developing, which isn’t always the case with other shirts I’ve run in. The shorts I used lasted the entire duration of the race whilst I swapped out both my shoes, socks and T-shirt at the halfway, or 80km station, at Knockholt.
In terms of nutrition, much as Injinji socks were a welcome revelation, so too was Tailwind when I first came across it. Having relied very much on gels back in my triathlon days, I found that being able to combine tolerable nutrition and fluid intake through the use of Tailwind was much more agreeable to my system and it was this that served the bulk of my fuelling needs throughout the race, supplemented along the way with a mixed assortment of jelly sweets, cookies, savoury snacks, such as mini sausage rolls and jam sandwiches, some wonderful, delicious pasta at the halfway point, and, in the latter stages, the Godsend that was hot, sweet tea! How the latter kept me going! Remarkably, I had just one, very brief episode of feeling nauseous throughout the entire race, after I’d stuck my head down for 30 mins of rest at the 120km mark, with this thankfully passing once I’d warmed up and taken in some sweet tea. I never actually succumbed to physical illness, unlike a number of other runners who I witnessed chucking up during the run. For that I was very grateful and feel that whilst there is always room for improvement I did, on the whole, manage to get my nutrition fairly correct on the day.
In an ideal world we would all get to arrive at the location of our races at least a week in advance, providing time to settle, scope out and run some of the course itself and, just generally, gradually ease into the race frame of mind. A less than ideal lead up would be to come off a taxing week of night shifts, a flight home and a tiring, but obviously wonderful, day of entertaining nieces and a nephew. Still, we work with what we got and at least my mum, dad and I were able to get into Farnham a good day and a half before race day, meaning that I had time to register smoothly and sort out my kit in advance, including the two drop bags that we were permitted in this race. It also allowed time to catch up with some friends – a welcome distraction from the pre-race nerves that I was definitely feeling – and my sister, her other half and their youngest, with my sister cracking me up when it transpired that she thought they’d come down to watch me take part in a short triathlon and not the full-day beast that is a 100 mile ultra! This certainly amused everyone present and meant that far from getting to ‘support me’ on the day, I didn’t actually see them again after we grabbed dinner together on the Friday evening.
One of the key things I spent time doing the day before the race was to meticulously portion up my supply of Tailwind for the race, divvying it up into individually labelled plastic baggies of white powder. The visuals on this were, I confess, dubious, and if anyone who lacked knowledge of what I was preparing for had looked through the window they could have been forgiven for thinking I was getting down to some Walter White shenanigans. In the end much of this was unnecessary as the race, being sponsored by, among others, Tailwind, actually provided the stuff at the aid stations, although I’m glad I took some with me as I suspect what was on offer was actually more dilute than I was used to. A lot of what I had in my drop bags didn’t actually get used in the end but, once again, as with having spare bits of kit, it is reassuring having the option of certain things and to not use them than to wish they were present.
One thing that is never really easy to do before a big race is adequately rest – I don’t think anyone manages to hit the sweet spot in this regard, and this includes getting a decent amount of sleep. There is just too much in the way of nervous energy at play, both from worrying that you might not wake up in time to being concerned that you could be forgetting some important piece of kit or race-essential knowledge, right through to just, well, being excitedly anxious. And so it was that I retired to bed at a pretty late hour, having reminded myself at the last minute of exactly how to activate the ‘route’ function on my Garmin and ensuring that both my GoPro and the aforementioned GPS were charged up and ready to go. I guess I must have gotten some sleep because before I knew it, race day had arrived!
Race Day – well, a little longer than a day!
Well, this was it! The culmination of 8 months of training and preparation was to come down to this one day. Was I up to the challenge? Only one way to find out…
Mum and dad were superb support the entire duration of the race and whilst it was never my initial intention for them to crew me – they are 70 years old, after all – that is exactly what ended up happening. They’re legends and they were ultimately instrumental in me making it to the finish line, for which I am extremely grateful. They rose at 4.30am alongside me, walked down to the start with all of the nervous athletes and were on hand at key stages of the race to keep me motivated, supplied and focused on the end goal.
The forecast for the day looked to be about as perfect as anyone could have asked for, with a general layer of cloud, interspersed with sunny spells, a welcome change from the stifling heat of the year before and certainly preferable to relentless rain, that would have made the going muddy and slippery and the general mood sombre. As such, I felt in good spirits as I lined up by the sign for the North Downs Way for the first of the few official photo ops of the day before shuffling into the crowd of a little over 300 runners, some looking way more anxious than me, at the start. Without too much in the way of fanfare we were off and thus began the 168km of UK countryside that stood between me and that finish line in Ashford, Kent.
My somewhat hastily scribbled together race ‘plan’ had split it into the distances between each aid station, a welcome way to ‘chunk’ the race and tackle it as a series of shorter sections. This was way easier to contemplate mentally compared to the feeling of overwhelming dread that came with pondering the true scale of what it means to traverse nearly 170km! I was, however, way off the mark with my projected times and pacing, which would soon become apparent. Whilst I was able to stick to my plan for the initial 40-or-so kilometres, I should have realised that sustaining such a fast pace over the entire duration of the race, especially given some of the beastly climbs that it included, was just pure fantasy. My initial projected finish time was about 18 hours, which would have seen me cross the line in Ashford at about 10.30pm that night, although I had always said that my goal for the race was 24 hours or less, which given my prediction seemed very achievable. As I say, I was on target for this in the initial third of the race and was sitting in the top 50 by the 50km mark.
There are generally three parts to a long race like this: the initial third, which is usually pretty fun as you tend to feel energised, get into a good rhythm and are not yet fatigued; the second third, which is usually the one that really sucks; and then the end, which whilst usually being uncomfortable is okay because, well, it’s the end so what’s a little more suffering when you’re so close to the finish line? The middle section is the really tough part as the move from “yay, this is awesome” to “hmm, this is starting to hurt/suck” becomes established. Whilst everything I read seemed to suggest that Box Hill, at the 40km mark, was the ‘monster climb’ of the day, in hindsight it felt pedestrian in comparison to later climbs, including Botley Hill, which was relentless and much of the repeat step-climbing interval hell that featured in the Kent section of the race overnight. It therefore felt as though the toughest sections of the route lined up with the middle third of the race, when a perfect storm of aching muscles, lack of enthusiasm for hill climbing and a constant battle to keep calories and fluid topped up occurred.
One of my very late and somewhat impulse purchases pre-race was a pair of Black Diamond carbon-fibre, collapsible trekking poles, of the type I’d seen some runners use on the Eiger. I’d been in two minds over whether to take poles with me at all, sceptical of whether or not the climbs really could be worthy of them; the last thing I wanted to do was carry anything that wasn’t strictly necessary. Whilst I have a pair of poles already, they lack the distinct advantages of being both super-lightweight and compact, both features that I would come to value at this distance. When I did eventually break them out of their binding on my pack I was very grateful to have them along, especially as I made extensive use of them in the final third of the race when my right leg, specifically my knee, decided to protest vigorously about the mileage being asked of it. There were downhill sections, especially, where without poles I’d have found it very challenging indeed to descend them. They will absolutely accompany me now on any future races where a gradient features such was their utility.
Whilst tired I also felt a wave of pride wash over me as I came into the halfway point at the Knockholt village hall, keeping up a decent pace and run technique as I entered the village before seeing mum and dad waiting for me, a very welcome sight indeed. My initial plan was to spend just 30 minutes at this station, enough time to eat some proper food, change my T-shirt, socks and shoes and charge up the Garmin, before cracking on again. However, I opted ultimately to take an hour’s break and in hindsight was glad for it as by the time I did gather up my effects to push on I was feeling significantly revitalised as I headed into the second, much tougher half of the race. Realising that I was able to hand off my drop bag to my parents a new plan was hatched whereby mum and dad would meet me at a couple more of the aid stations, including Detling, where our second drop bag was waiting. This meant that were I by some miracle able to finish in under 24 hours we would not be obliged to hang around Ashford until the drop bags were returned and could instead return to Farnham for some much needed R&R. This did, however, mean that mum and dad were signing up to stay awake until pretty late into the night and would ultimately have to catch some Z’s in the car at Ashford whilst I ran towards it overnight. Not part of my original plan for them but they were happy to play their part and, again, were really instrumental in getting me to that finish line.
Shortly after exiting the Wrotham Cricket Club aid station, with the light just starting to fade, I hit a personal milestone as my GPS clocked in at 100km! After failing to complete the full 101km of the Eiger in 2018 hitting the 100 mark was quite emotional as it felt as though I’d somehow exorcised a few of the demons from that race. I had proven to myself that I was capable of doing that sort of mileage, which really helped reinforce the determination that I was going to make it all the way in this race regardless.
Mindful of preserving battery power for as long as possible, I ran for as long as I was able without the light from my head torch, ultimately being forced to illuminate the dense woodland path in front of me, albeit keeping the lamp on as low an intensity as was possible whilst still being able to navigate safely. Although it was initially a little creepy to be running solo through dense woodland with just a headlamp to light the way, and imagining something or someone jumping out at me from the shadows – doing so would have been a monumentally dick move on anyone’s part – I soon settled into a decent pace and actually found the night-running quite calming as it really boiled down to there being zero distraction. The only thing to focus on was the path directly in front of me, whilst remaining vigilant for the course markers. These were, thankfully, numerous and combined with the extremely accurate course tracking that was active on my Garmin going off course was never really a concern.
The geographical ‘right hand turn’ at Rochester, which saw us leave the cosy confines of the trail and head onto the paved path that ran over the Medway bridge alongside the M2 motorway was a bit of a mental milestone for me as whilst there were still several hours of running ahead, it felt very much like the ‘homeward stretch.’ Unfortunately, whilst heading south the terrain didn’t quite match and there were still some meaty climbs to contend with, the one up to Bluebell Hill proving especially lengthy and relentless. It was on this stretch that a few fellow runners succumbed to nausea, stopping suddenly mid-run to vomit before plodding on. For me, however, it wasn’t nausea that was the issue but rather severe tiredness. I lost count of the number of times I felt an overwhelming urge to just curl up in the fetal position on the side of the trail and just ‘rest a while.’ I’d wondered whether or not a tactical snooze was going to be necessary on this race, especially as I had seen runners do just that at the halfway point at the Eiger the year before, and given that I was literally falling asleep on my feet my mind was made up: I would pause for a bit at Bluebell Hill, which mercifully was where mum and dad were due to meet me next.
As I folded my now aching body into the back of dad’s Ford Fiesta, I tried as best as I could to actually get some sleep, never really drifting off fully on account of being so bloody sore but feeling the relief of just having stopped for a period of time. Inevitably the alarm call came and I was encouraged back out of the car, which was when I suddenly felt a rush of cold and nausea wash over me. Steadying myself and fearful that I was about to pass out and that this might well be the point at which my race came to an end, the feeling gradually ebbed away and once I donned my base layer and collected a cup of hot sweet tea from the aid station I started to feel human again and capable of cracking on back into the night. If it hadn’t registered properly before that this was one helluva undertaking then Bluebell Hill certainly made the point obvious. This was not an event for the faint-hearted. This was very very tough indeed.
The hours between Bluebell Hill and dawn, that saw me pass through the Detling aid station, the final one where I met up with my parents, were ones marked by memories of lots of steps – so many steps – and extremely overgrown trails that at times felt more like navigating through hedges than along a marked trail. I admit that during this period of the race I spent a decent amount of time babbling to myself and on numerous occasions swore out loud as yet more steps presented themselves, the very last thing I wanted to see given how stiff and painful my right leg and knee now was. The Kent wildlife undoubtedly heard this crazy, gibbering fool proclaiming expletives into the night and sensibly opted to give me a wide berth. One thing is for sure: if there were any ‘undesireables’ out on the course looking to make mischief, although quite why anyone would choose to be out in the arse end of the countryside at 3am unless it was to run 100 miles like a madman, they didn’t cross my path, possibly as I sounded crazier than they would have been.
A New Day & The Finish In Sight
Eventually the dawn cracked and with the light now returning to the world the head torch was retired. I’d officially overcome the huge mental challenge of running through the night and although I was ridiculously tired and sore I had ample time to make it to the finish. Unless something went spectacularly wrong I was going to make it. It certainly wasn’t going to be sub-24 hours, my initial goal, but it would be within the 30 hour cutoff and at the end of the day a finish was a finish.
At the penultimate aid station the awesome volunteers, who had all been up throughout the night, did their best to keep everyones’ spirits up, pointing out that we were tantalisingly close to the end. One runner, however, chose to throw in the towel at this stage, despite being essentially home, which seemed really tragic – after all, they’d already made it so far! Still, he must have had his reasons and no amount of encouragement from the volunteers and other runners was going to sway his decision. The 11km between the penultimate and final aid stations felt like an absolute eternity and as I finally came into it, choosing not to linger long, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. There were now just 6km or so between me and that hallowed finish line and it could not come quick enough, although moving quickly was not something I felt really able to do. Not at that point anyway.
The weird thing is, however, that once I deviated away from the North Downs Way for the final 5km into Ashford and the stadium, I started jogging, then running and ultimately sprinted the final few kilometres. It always amazes me that no matter how fatigued and broken you might feel during a race, there always seems to be that reserve of energy or drive that fuels a return of form for the final stretch. Where had that form been prior to then?! I’d barely been able to break into a jog during the final several kilometres such was the discomfort I was experiencing from my right leg and yet now, all of a sudden, I was able to literally sprint. WTAF?! I put it down to just pure adrenaline and relief at being so close to the finish. It actually reminded me of the scene in the film, Forrest Gump, where he is chased as a kid and realises that his legs work and that he can, in fact, run like the wind. The look on my face, for example, as I realised the finish line was so incredibly close was almost a carbon copy of Forrest’s in this scene and I experienced a real wave of emotion as I crossed the road to enter the Ashford stadium complex, rounding the corner to see and then set foot onto the track. The finish line was now just 300m away and there was just one other runner on the track in front of me. Not wanting to crash his ‘finish line’ I initially slowed my pace so as to avoid us both crossing at the same time but as I rounded the corner with 100m to go, he slowed dramatically to fish out a camera and so I made the decision to put my foot on the gas and get past him. That final 100m felt fast as I gritted my teeth and powered on home. I had done it! I’d successfully completed my first ever 100 mile ultramarathon and could safely say that it had been the hardest thing I’d ever done so far. Whilst I was able to park the pain and sprint home, the minute I crossed that line I felt every one of those 168km rush back into my legs and promptly found myself hobbling again. Ouch, ouch and twice more ouch! Anyone who claims that such races are easy is a twat. They are not. They could never be and I wouldn’t believe anyone who claimed they were.
Having my folks there to share in the achievement of the moment was magical and with the coveted Centurion NDW 100 belt buckle and finishers T-shirt in hand I picked up my gratefully received hotdog, lowered myself onto the morning-sun-kissed grass like an arthritic geriatric and just luxuriated in the ecstasy of not moving. Bliss!
The winning time, it turned out, was a record-breaking 15.5 hours, which is just unfathomably fast. Having experienced how tough the course was the very notion of being able to sustain such a colossally rapid pace over the entire duration, especially given how overgrown and steep much of it was, still blows my mind. As far as races and race organisers go, this ranks up there as one of the best. Centurion seemed to think of everything and with the entire course so well marked out, including the genius move of making the arrows reflective – they could be easily spotted from a distance with a head torch – and such fantastically well supplied and supported aid stations, I simply have nothing but praise for them. They did a superb job and I would absolutely sign up to another of their races in the future, although I’m not sure I’m going to be ready to tackle another 100 miler for a while yet!
Post Race Recovery
Having learned the hard way in Whistler what happens when one doesn’t rest properly after an ultra I opted this time NOT to go out for an all-night clubbing session and didn’t even so much as look at my running shoes for more than 2 weeks. The statistics speak for themselves as it’s claimed that 75% of those who complete an ultra-distance race succumb to an upper respiratory infection within two weeks after their race. Having been there, done that and worn the phlegm-stained T-shirt I wanted to remain healthy. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to run convincingly for the first week even if I’d wanted to. I’d made a conscious decision not to take any pain killers either during or after this race, having naively done so before but now understand and appreciate just how potentially dangerous it can be to do so. Plus, taking them during a race does feel like doping even if it’s not so I’d rather just abstain for the sake of both my kidneys and sense of fair-play. As such, I relied on good old rest, a trip to a floatation tank (super relaxing and a bit trippy) and a sports massage (essential but oh-my-God painful), with time then doing the rest. I did, however, permit myself the indulgence of a post-race beer – lovely! At the time of writing it has been two weeks since the race and my legs, especially my right, is feeling about 95% back to normal, meaning that the pain, discomfort and thoughts of “nope, not doing this craziness again” have gradually subsided, to be replaced by creeping thoughts of “hmm, what could I possibly do next…?”
Whilst the physical discomfort post-race was something I’d have happily done without, the sudden liberation of time that would, pre-race, have been devoted to training has been something to savour. Those initial couple of weeks immediately after a big race are great as all of those fun leisure activities, like visiting the cinema, catching up with friends or simply just sitting in a cafe reading a paper or book, kind of feel officially mandated and essential. Almost like they have been prescribed by a coach and are, in essence, part of the event itself. Any feelings of guilt that might otherwise have accompanied simple sloth gives way, in those post-race moments, to the thought, “I deserve this!” It kind of makes the whole putting-yourself-through-Hell worth it and perhaps is all part of the feedback loop that keeps us endurance athletes hooked on the sporting opium that is the next event and seeking ever larger goals to pursue.
As for my next event or athletic goal, I’m really not sure at the moment. I am still enjoying basking in the post-race glow and have been tinkering around with editing a video of the experience. Whilst a few ideas have flitted into and back out of my mind I am not looking to rush into anything and am happy to just let my return to running occur organically. Who knows what’s next? That’s part of the fun, right?
FINAL FINISH TIME = 26:42:35
MOVING TIME = 24:39:08
POSITION = 95th (out of 188 finishers)
HUGE thanks to the following awesome people:
- Trace Rogers – once again, Trace’s incredible coaching skills have helped guide me to achieve something that I had previously considered impossible. She is not only a top coach but a lovely person who I am blessed to be able to call a friend. GroWings, the team who I occasionally train with, are a wonderful group of characters based in Dubai and the sense of team spirit that Trace fosters in her athletes is inspirational.
- Michael Brown – ultra-running, especially the training, can be a mighty lonely affair. It makes a huge difference to have a fellow nutcase on board to share some of the tedium with. Michael has been that nutter as he recently completed his first ever ultra, a 58km monster run up and down Mount Etna, an actual erupting volcano! It is amazing how many wide-ranging topics of conversation one can tackle over the course of regular five hour training runs through endless tracts of sand. I like to think we pushed each other towards our own, individual finish lines.
- Mum & Dad – my biggest supporters, they have accompanied me to all of my big races over the past few years and 2019 was no exception. Even though there was never any initial plan to crew me over the 103 miles of the North Downs Way that is precisely what they ended up doing, essentially pulling an all-nighter to be on hand to offer support exactly when I needed it the most. Having my folks there at the finish line to share in the emotion of what felt like a monumental achievement was the best part of the whole experience and I can’t thank them enough. Love you both!
Full Race Report (PDF):
Back in the Race
Celebrate Good Times
The Price of No Rest
A short run down from my B&B and along the lakefront gave me the first opportunity to try out the trekking poles I had purchased specifically for the race and it was immediately clear how much of a help they are when climbing a slope. With climbing being the theme, my drive onward took me winding up and around stunning passes as I entered the Alps proper, the lakes that flank Interlaken, my base for the race, coming into view and taking my breath away with their startling azure blue color. Just when you thought the view couldn’t get any more beautiful a corner would be rounded and there would present itself yet another vista of pure natural splendour that a landscape painter could spend a lifetime simply in one tiny corner of this land and never be bored. From Interlaken the might of the Jungfrau and Monch peaks come into view as one looks up the valley toward Lauterbrunnen, a place I know as a famous base-jumping spot. Perhaps it stems from the fact I hail from one of the flatter parts of the UK, specifically Norfolk, where we joke that one can get altitude sickness from driving over a speedbump, but I find the mountains utterly captivating and is, I am sure, one of the reasons I feel drawn towards events that compel me to engage with them. Tahoe was stunning but I daresay that the Bernese Oberland may well pip it to the post as far as sheer natural splendour goes, and that says a huge amount.
I had initially planned to base myself in Grindelwald itself, the mountain village that was both the start and finish of the Eiger 101 and other race distances, but due to a combination of simple tardiness in looking and an inevitable hike in prices I found myself being forced to look further down the mountain to Interlaken, the main jumping off point for visitors to the area and a bustling town with all the modern amenities that one comes to expect. My hotel was a basic affair, ultimately serving it’s purpose simply as a place to rest my head, and sure beat the other option I (briefly) considered: camping.
The first foray up to Grindelwald, approximately 30 minutes drive from Interlaken, offered the first clues as to the amount of climbing that the race would involve and also the potential limitations that the altitude could pose. I had identified the potential for altitude adjustment, or lack thereof, to be a factor as soon as I had entered but without the option to physically base myself at elevation for a couple of weeks prior to the race – not an option this year – I knew that I was simply going to have to place that aspect of my performance and experience in the hands of the Gods. I could, for example, feel myself breathing a little more actively even as I drove up to Grindelwald and had the niggle of a headache starting to set in. Aside from the standard, sensible, easy-to-do measures, such as as avoiding alcohol and caffeine, both of which serve as diuretics and thus hasten the onset of dehydration, drinking more fluids and ensuring sunscreen application, there wasn’t really anything more I could do to limit the effects that being nearly 2000 metres above sea-level, which is where I had done pretty much all of my training, would possibly have. At least the views would take my mind off the altitude and as I rounded a corner to see the Eiger for the first time I beamed. There it was! The mighty north face of the famous Eiger! What a spectacular setting for any race!
REGISTRATION & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
1am showers are a bit of a new one to me but I figured that I was set to have a very lengthy, grimey day so at least starting it feeling clean and fresh would get my head in a good space. Plus, judicious application of cold water does more to wake a person than a shot of coffee could ever hope to.
One final check of the kit, food, including breakfast packed, and a confirmation of pick-up for fellow Eiger botherer, Victor, who had travelled over from London for the race and whom I had offered to provide a lift to up from Interlaken, and it was off we headed. One of the reasons that I wanted to get up to Grindelwald so early was that I was concerned that given the number of entries this year, there might be some issues finding parking close to the start on race day itself. I honestly need not have worried as we rolled into an almost deserted central car-park and so had time to wander to the start area and ask about where to place our half-way bags, before leisurely taking on some brekkie. In hindsight I might have been better off eating a little more at the start than I did but pre-race nerves do tend to curb one’s hunger. Still, I didn’t feel sick, just excited and eager to get this thing underway. One thing that is common across all sports and any big event is the need for the pre-start pilgrammage to the, ahem, facilities. One advantage of being early was that I was able to avail myself of them without suffering the ‘music festival’ atmosphere that tends to quickly develop around them. Phew!
With the race start approaching the area just behind the line started filling with people, with the deathly silence of just a few souls quietly pottering around being replaced by the anticipatory hum of excited voices and the obligatory motivational soundtrack. I guess the idea that anyone not doing the race and staying in the centre of town being permitted a restful early morning snooze was thrown out, especially when right on cue, at 4am, the race was started and a large cannon was fired! It was magical running through the village, as there were scores of supporters up and out even at that time of the morning, and as we snaked up the valley towards the start of the actual trail, I was beaming from ear to ear. I was here, finally, in the Alps taking on this mammoth challenge. What a world away from the Middle East. Victor had originally suggested that we try and stick together for as much of the race as possible, an idea that I was happy to go along with, especially given how mentally tough I know these races can get later on, and knowing that he had experience of running long in such events. In fact I had to drastically reevaluate my original projections of target times based on our morning conversation as he said he was aiming to finish in about 20 hours. Given his greater level of experience with such races I started to seriously question my original target of 18 hours, with that admittedly based purely on blog research and extrapolation. In the end even my own revised targets were way off, but more about that later.
As it turned out the weather did end up impacting the E101, with the race officials opting to pause the race for about 3 hours later in the evening, and ultimately redirecting runners such that those who had been stopped – I’d have been one of them – ended up doing 80km rather than the full 101km. Whilst it would have still been a huge achievement, knowing that one had not completed the full distance yet receiving a medal for it would not have sat well and I feel that I might have found that more frustrating than electing to pull out when I did. One thing is for sure though: I want to return and I want to tackle the 101 again. Next time I will be better prepared, will train more specifically for it and absolutely ensure that I get a chance to acclimatise to the altitude. I know that I can do the distance.
It seems that for me, big goals seem to take me two years to realise, whether it be completing my first Ironman or gaining entry onto a top MBA programme. The Eiger 101, it would appear, is no different and so perhaps it was fated that I would not make the finish line this time around, thus compelling me to return and nail it the second time around. Who knows? The thing is I may not even secure an entry for next year given how unbelievably competitive the registration is – I will simply have to be ready when 10am on the 31st October 2018 comes around and keep my fingers crossed!