Our guest blogger Gill Bland breaks new ground along the North Downs Way. . .
Its not the NDW100 or even 50. Yet . . .
As a frequent pounder of the London streets it seemed apt that my first time of running more than marathon distance in one go would be a 30 mile river run tracking the Thames with a pack of urban running buddies. AR Collective started an annual social urban ultra from Greenwich to Chiswick last year and I was keen to test the distance whilst having the safety of the tube network should it prove all too much. However, jam packed racing diaries meant a swift change of plan and on the first weekend in August just a week before the route was taken over by Centurion’s 100 mile race a small pack of us headed out away from the safety zones 1-4 and into the Surrey and Kent countryside to run a part of the North Downs Way.
Several of the group had run TR24 and the Endure 1250 races in the previous fortnight as well as having mountain marathons and multiples ultras (including NDW 50) under their soles. I’d blithely maintained that I wanted to run the same distance and earn my ultra-shoes even if it wasn’t in an official race and it was only the day before when conversations about stomach troubles and how trail miles > road miles that I started to wonder what dangers lay beyond the 26.2.
The NDW starts in Farnham and runs all the way to Dover. Our plan was to run from Box Hill to Otford. This is apparently the more interesting part of the NDW as it is pleasantly undulating and offers a great mix of forest, field and a little road running. It would also take us to the magic 30 miles. For anyone wanting to escape the big smoke I’d highly recommend this. The trains are easy (straight out of Victoria) and the trail hops from side to side of the M25 so you’re never far from civilisation but still rarely notice how close you are.
The route from box hill begins with the iconic stepping stones and then slopes up through the woods. Here’s the first newbie observation – you don’t run all the way. Ok, maybe you do if you’re a pro but from what my experienced companions told me the key is to think long term. Hike the uphills, leave the legs loose for the downhills. After a stuttering start due to calls of nature that turned into getting lost in nature, we got going. Through the odd scenery of the National Trust’s Colley Hill with it’s cow-filled monument, past an aid station set up for a Macmillan hike event and onwards into cooler forested areas.
Obviously over a longer distance, fuelling is important. This wasn’t a speed run and it’s not great to use gels more than you have to anyway so we’d all packed things to keep us going. Snacks ranged from the very organised peanut butter bagel to pure-and-simple banana power or the more grab-and-go type protein bars and snack packs of nuts. All of the group were wearing either ultra-vests or running rucksacks (with Salomon or Inov8 dominating) so we had water with us but, newbie-observation two: if you’re not running an organised event it’s worth knowing where any water top-up points are. By the time we had happily hoofed it through fields of wild flowers into Merstham and out up through the cornfield hills along Pilgrims way towards the aptly named Hilltop lane we were getting low on liquid.
10 miles in I think all of us wondered if we’d actually make it to 30 miles. The benefit of being so close to train stations for safety’s sake is also a downside when there’s the option to call it a day. This is where the beauty of the trail and the company kicks in. When you turn a corner to see London laid out before you in the distance and you all stop in your tracks to stand there and take it in, that’s when you catch your breath and re-fuel your feet and mind as well as your stomach. You know it’s worth carrying on round the next corner and then the next because you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of vineyards through gaps in trees or rolling hills giving way to chocolate box thatched cottages. It’s hard to recall all the different sights we saw and ground we covered. 30 miles of trails just becomes a pleasant blur of lumps and bumps and grass and sky. I can only imagine what a longer race is like. I suppose you must fall into a kind of reverie, especially if you are running solo.
At 18 miles we had a personnel change – we were joined by Cassie the trail-dog and Lucy (her other owner was already with us) whilst others wisely listened to their limbs and called it a day so that old injuries could be kept at bay.
Newbie-observation three: running long is great but you’ve got to be smart. As an outsider dipping their toe into ultra-land I can see how the drive to go longer and harder grows each time. Running 50 or 100 miles is never going to be comfortable so differentiating the pain of the run with pain that means making the decision to stop and live to run another day is always going to be tricky. I know of two guys who ran NDW100 the weekend after – one finished but held it back a bit in preparation for another race and the other pulled out due to stomach issues. He’s no quitter and he may well have been able to haul himself to the end but what would be the reason? Better to take the tough decision and not have to spend weeks recovering.
The injection of Cassie’s canine energy was brilliant boost and after a few navigational challenges and lots of stick throwing we found ourself nearing Otford. Just when we thought we’d seen all the types of views and surfaces this route had to offer we emerged from a little alleyway to see fields of purple. A lavender farm.
It seemed a shame to re-enter normal life but we were soon running down roads and into Otford to find ourselves a much dreamed-of country pub to finish at. We were all quite glad for a sit down and some refreshment but no-one was broken and as we inhaled our dinner there was discussion of runs the next day and future races. There wasn’t that mental fog that you get at the end of a long training session on the road where you’ve had to talk yourself through the miles.
I sort of wish I had some amazing thing to tell you about what happens when you go beyond 26.2 for the first time but I don’t. It’s just running and more of it. I don’t know if you can get the adrenaline hit from an Ultra that you can get from a 10k or even a marathon but you can gather memories with each step in a completely different way.
Thanks to the gang for letting me tag along, for all their knowledge and organisational skills and for giving up a Saturday. I think I’d be confident enough to do the route on my own now. Excitingly but sadly in some ways I’ve got Berlin Marathon coming up soon so it’s back to the tarmac for now but I feel I might need to revisit the NDW in the not too distant future.