North Downs Way 50

I lifted a sticky red hand from my head. Blood ran down my face and into my eyes. “No, no, no”, I uttered out loud. This could be the end of my race. Moments earlier I’d (not quite) ducked under a low hanging branch and left my hat and a small slice of my head behind.

Still moving forward, I removed my prized Suunto buff from my wrist and held it to the gash on my head. Passers by on the trail looked at me with deep concern. A few gasped as I approached them. This was not looking good.

A minute later, though, the bleeding was less dramatic. I was shaken but not in pain and my mind filled with a renewed hope. If it stopped bleeding, I could still stick to the plan. All I had to do was run the remaining 25 miles to Knockholt! The adrenaline kicked in and I pushed on.

The day had started so well. I’d met a neighbour at registration and enjoyed a calm build up chatting to him and enjoying my first taste of the renowned Centurion family.

We walked to the start line and set off. My plan was to: (a) try to finish within 9 hours; and (b) get closer to 8 hours 30 if all was going well. I ignored the front runners and settled into a comfortable pace. After the disappointment of not making the South Downs Way 50 due to illness and knowing I was running towards home, I was totally focused.

The first 20 odd miles of the race were very runnable and there was a real temptation to blast it out. Aware of the hills that were to come in the second half of the race, I maintained a sensible pace for me but still hit the stepping stones at Box Hill in 15th place. I was wondering if I’d already over cooked it but reassured myself that everything still felt comfortable. I crossed the stream and started the slog up the steps at Box Hill. I was over 20 minutes up on my target time at this point of the race but generally sticking to my plan of focusing on my race and not chasing anyone else.

After the incident with the now legendary low hanging branch (it took out at least two other runners during the race), I pushed on to Reigate Hill. My nutrition strategy revolved around Longhaul Endurance sweet potato pouches, Clif Shotblocks and plenty of water mixed with Precision Hydration 500. It was hot and I’d set off with an empty third soft flask in case I needed it. By this point I did and the Coke at the aid stations was a very welcome addition.

Leaving Reigate felt like a big moment. I was leaving behind some of my family and friends who had travelled to cheer me on as I passed through and was entering some familiar trails that I’d been out to recce. I knew there were some big climbs and descents ahead and my quads in particular were already starting to suffer.

As it was, apart from a few bouts of cramp along the way, I was able to keep moving at a decent pace through the second half of the race despite increasing pain in my quads as I ran. My mind now totally focused on the finish line, the miles passed by in a blur. After the painful steps down from Oxted Downs, the next hurdle was the brutal slog up Botley Hill to the final aid station. A brief stop and I cracked on to the finish.

The runner in front of me was always in site but I didn’t now have the legs to chase him down and fair play to him for not letting his own pace drop in those final miles as the sun got stronger and the shade disappeared.

Coming around the corner and finishing was a huge moment. I smashed my target time (finishing in 8 hours 10 minutes) and took 11th place and, most importantly, felt like my race plan had really come together on the day.

Things I learnt:

1. I am able to manage my pre race nerves far better by channelling them into creating a clear race strategy. Knowledge of the course (from the odd recce) and a determination that I will make the finish also really help so it’s important for me to choose a race that I really want to do. Nerves are good, though. They force me to focus.

2. I deal better with real food as a nutrition staple with some gels or blocks to supplement (rather than dominate).

3. Having a realistic race strategy and focusing on that rather than chasing other runners is key for me. Others can set off at an unsustainable pace or may just be able to sustain a faster pace than me. I can’t know which at the start but know I’ll find out at the finish. Until then, I prefer to focus on running my own race.

4. My legs need strengthening. My quads in particular really struggled in the last 15 miles. That could be technique to work on with Shane Benzie or some strength work (most likely a combination of the two).

5. I need to watch out for low hanging branches!

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