Monday, 15 August 2011

NDW100 (2011) race report

This past Saturday saw me take part in a new 100 mile ultra race in the UK called the North Downs Way 100 (NDW100). I think the UK ultra calendar could certainly do with more 100 mile events and I will say at the outset here that this one should be at the top of anybodies list if you are looking for a real challenge, on an amazing trail, with great organisation and superb volunteers all there to make your day one to remember.
So down to the race. The format was simple. 100 miles out and back along the North Downs Way. The field was made up of both the 50 mile runners going out only and finishing at Knockholt Pound, and those of us who were also making the return leg. Unlike the Lakeland 100 where the 50/100 runners start separately, we all lined up together for this one and were set off on our way at exactly 6am. I said farewell to my dad who made the short drive from our hotel on the M3 to Farnham where we started (I would be seeing my dad again at 76 miles where he would pace me to the finish!)

The first section of this course would characterise what we could expect for the rest of the 100 miles - technical single track trail, gravel farm paths, fields, country roads, short sharp climbs, and some longer gradual as well as steep ones too! The weather was perfect... a cool morning with some dampness in the air and quite refreshing. I wore my injinji compression socks, lycra 1/2 length shorts, and a simple technical t shirt. Two handheld water bottles and a waist pack with all the mandatory equipment, plus waterproof and some energy bars. Super light was the key!

My approach for the race was to go out steady and get some miles under my belt around 10mpm pace. Without the garmin I just estimated my pace as best I could. I felt relaxed and just went with it. It become apparent however that when striking up conversation with other runners the vast majority were 'just' doing the 50 miles and expressed some surprise and encouragement at my pace. I wasn't unduly concerned though and did my own thing.

The memorable moment of the first section was when myself and the people infront of me suddenly heard a shout from behind 'YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY'. I looked curiously behind sure that we were on the right path and we were climbing up at the time. But sure enough after tracking back down about 200 yrds we had missed a small marker post pointing left for the NDW. You had to be very eagled eyed not to miss it! Unfortunately there were those further ahead of us who didn't hear the shouts and would have taken them a while longer to realise their mistake.

The first checkpoint at 6.6 miles was a brief affair. I didn't need to refill my handheld water bottles or grab any food so ran straight through. I was feeling good and carried on to the next CP at what felt like a similar pace (certainly the same effort!) And this continued for much of the first 24 miles down into Box Hill and along Denbys vineyard. Box Hill was the 3rd checkpoint which I reached in a total time of 4:11 and average pace of 10.30 minute miling. Box Hill was also the first drop bag point too which meant that I could tuck into some food and secret supplies which I was hoping would fuel me through the miles ahead. This is where I made my one big mistake in simply not packing enough variety. At the aid stations they had plenty of snack food such as mars bars, jelly babies, nuts, crisps, cookies etc but nothing substantial - nothing that would really fuel you well for 100 miles. I had a meal replacement shake that packs in the calories and reasonable amount of carbs and protein and grabbed a pork pie which I ate on the way up the 280 steps that ascends the steepest part of box hill. The combination of climbing and eating was not ideal but at this stage I just needed calories however difficult it was to eat.
Ascending is definitely my strong point and the tactic I tend to use to good effect especially on the steep climbs (which there were plenty of on this trail) is the power hike. Pumping both the arms and legs with real purpose can see you up a hill far fastest and easier than many attempting to run up. One guy even commented at on one climb between CP2 & 3 that I kept getting him on the climbs whilst he would pass me back on the flats and then on the next climb I would pass again.

Leg four was an eight mile section with lots of ascent and descent but hardly ever flat. This made the going slower than the previous sections. But this was also due of course to the miles in the legs. I could look forward to seeing my family at CP4 which was 31.8miles in and it was really good to get there with my folks, wife and son and daughter all present. But such moments are very brief. No time for a good chat open a cup of tea - although if the aid station had offered it I probably would have taken it! I refilled my bottles with what was on offer - GU electrolyte brew, took some nuts and an energy gel for later and went on my way. The next section was 11 miles and I was starting to heat up too now as we approached midday.

Arriving at Relgate Hill (31.8m)

Leaving Relgate Hill running alongside Lili my daughter :-)

With 32 miles in the legs things were only really just beginning. Although I did allow the time to reflect on my race so far and think how well it had gone so far. I was very happy with my pacing and didn't feel that I had pushed too hard to get where I was. But with 70ish miles still ahead of me now was not the time to start congratulating oneself. And sure enough the next section was a tough one but this really was to be expected. Nothing beyond this point was going to be easy and so you just kinda roll with it.

On the whole the NDW waymarkers are very good and the race director had also added to these where felt necessary to avoid doubt, as well as tie red and white tape along the entire trail every 1/4 mile or so. You would think then that it wouldn't be possible to go wrong or get off track, however there is always the occassional stile or turn where you are never quite 100% sure. And on this section I had to make a few 'adjustments' to where I was heading to ensure I was on the correct path. Hardly anytime lost though and always better to be safe than sorry.

The miles wore on as did the continuous climbing and descending. It's all relative of course and I realise that with 11,000ft of climb over this 100 mile route it's far from the hillest hundreds out there but by the same token it never felt flat. The climb up to Botley Hill at 43 miles was another power hike with arms and legs used to good effect. The handhelds also give the arms a good swing to them which helps to propel one up. Upon reaching the top and the aid station I was really after something new to eat, but it was the same stuff on offer and nothing to fuel the fires. This meant that I was basically surviving on what I had packed myself which was 3 types of energy bar and some powerbar sweets plus the pork pie at Box Hill and Slim Fast shakes. Not great. Where was the pizza, where was the creamed rice or the pasta soup. How I longed for some proper food.

No time to feel sorry for myself though as I wasn't even halfway yet. I can't remember much of the next section apart from a long road section past the biggest houses you've ever seen plus the many fields that one had to cross and run alongside. They seemed to go on forever especially the last section. I longed to get to the half way mark and hopefully eat something proper.
The encouragement and applause as you entered the half way checkpoint was great.of course for the 100 or so 50 milers this was their finish but I couldn't get drawn into that thinking. One me it was just another checkpoint. I got some hot tea which was good. And the promise of soup sounded good too but without wanting to sound like an old wingebag it was chicken cuppa soup with out an ounce of chicken in it... just water and powder. I drunk half, had another meal
Replacement shake, a banana from my bag and was off.

And from there it was as I have just described but in reverse. What I didn't say earlier was that because this is an out and back course I had the chance to see who the leaders were and work out your own position. Amazingly I left the half way mark in 5th place which gave me a nice boost mentally. My time at the half way point was 9:40 which equated to an average pace of 11.30mpm.

So to the 'back' section and small matter of another 50 miles to cover. I'm not gonna try and cover this in any detail as there isn't really much to say up to when I got to Box Hill to meet my dad. Suffice to say that things got tougher and slower but no less enjoyable. Enjoyable from the poignant of view that I was enjoying the challenge and the journey that I was on. Enjoyable that I was still on my feet and moving forward. Enjoyable that I was simply able to take this on and hopefully learn something or even a lot from the whole experience.

The whole eating issue continued and hit a climax at the Relgate Hill CP at the 68.5 mile mark. The previous section was 11 miles and I arrived at Relgate Hill wearly and in need of something to eat and drink. Iron bru was on offer so had a few cups of that, and a jam sandwich, a few cookies and then some ham too. What a feast accept my stomach didn't agree and promptly ejected it's entire contents out again. Despite this I actually felt much much better for it. The aid station crew were great and made sure I was ok before I set off on my way to Box Hill.
The light was now fading fast and in the woods it got dark very quickly so I had to get the head lamp out and navigate using a sole beam of light across the next tough 8 mile section with many steps, descents and tree roots to contend with. But you roll with it and get on with the job at hand. It was slow and steady progress as I simply didn't want to fall and damage myself. The climb up box hill was enormous and went on forever but like anything it was soon behind me as I contemplated the steep 280 steps back down the other side. There was a terrific firework display one at the same time too and loud music if the background all of which made for quite an uplifting moment especially as I was about to pick up my dad who was pacing me to the finish.
And so to the final marathon (about 25 miles to be exact). I refuelled first with two more shakes, and a ham and cheese wrap and we were off. I was so glad to have my dad there to share this with and help me along. No sooner had we started however and my petzl head lamp which was in my box hill drop bag and I had just put on decided to fail on me. New batteries but a loose connection so I had to wear my back up head lamp (part of the mandatory kit list - Thank you James (race director)). This was slighty annoying as my proper lamp would illuminate far more ahead and now had to take up room in my waist pack but it is light so not too much of a burden. So with my tesco's 10 quid head lamp we set off on our merry way. Watching dad's pace next to me made me realise how slow I was going relatively speaking. My effort levels were still there but the pace wasn't. However this really didn't matter and we just focused on eating up the remaining miles. The section after Box Hill was the longest of the entire course and it felt like it too, but we would rather this than it be the other way around. Once this was out the way the it was just a matter of a short hilly half marathon to go with one aid station spliting up the distance further.

What more is there is say than the fact that we plodded along, power hiking the uphills and shuffling down the descents. The miles were slow averaging between 14 mpm and 15.5mpm but this was the culmination of the previous 80 miles of running, plus the darkness and hilly terrain that did not let up at all. I was obviously acutely aware of what pace I needed to maintain to make certain of a sub-24 hour finish and as long as I kept moving forward things were looking very good indeed. I had written off a sub-22hr finish probably before I met up with my dad but a sub-23hr finish looked on.

Dad was a fantastic asset to have there at this time and paced it superby knowing what I was and wasn't capable of and pushing me just enough to keep me putting in the effort. Without him there's no doubt I would have trudged along a half minute to one minute a mile slower than would otherwise have been the case.

I was pasted by 3 runners in the final 50miles with two of them flying past in the last fifteen miles or so. So whilst my pace was considerable slower than in the first half of the race it hadn't reduced to the point where I was being passed by too many others. And because of this I do not think that I would change my pacing strategy were I to been given the chance again. I think setting off at the pace I did and trying to maintain this for as long as possible before the slow and steady decline was the right approach for me.

Back to race and what's more to say than after nearly 7hrs of running through the night with my dad and 22hrs, 51 minutes and 30 seconds since the start we crossed the finish line back at Farnham. What a result. 8th place overall and a very nice '100 miles 1 day' belt buckle for my troubles. Around half of the 100 mile starters dropped by half way. 34 finished in times ranging from 19:47 for the winner to just under sub 32 hours!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Although I'm not sure if I have managed to convey this enough in this race report. It's so hard to know quite what to say to describe a day of running a continuous trail. Hopefully I've conveyed just a little bit of everything that happened to me out there. But perhaps it has taken too much out of me to then be able to retell in such a short space of time after.

Anyway next up for me is the Ride Around London in September which is 125 miles including Box Hill, but this time on the ElliptiGO! Then it's the Snowdonia marathon in Late October. This is followed by the FATASS100 in late December on the shortest day of the year which is being organised by Centurion Running - the same race director behind the NDW100. Check out the website at


  1. Awesome, well done. I just love the North Downs Way and you thoroughly deserve the praise for completing it in such a terrific time, it is a tough route.

  2. Well done Stu and great report. Interested in this FATASS100 in December - can't see any info on the website yet. Do you have a link?

  3. Great job Stu, and a lovely buckle to remember the race by! Sounds like the whole event was fantastic, and a great report. Good luck for the FATASS100.

  4. well done, Stu. Looking forward to reading your reflections on this.

  5. Good job Stu. I was wondering how you got on with the SlimFast stuff. It contains a diuretic so did you find yourself needing to drink more than you normally would? You don't fancy a return to the ACC this year then? I'm still in rehab with the knee so obviously won't be there but aiming for the JCC next year; fancy it?

  6. Found out more about FatAss100. Interesting but full. And possibly out of my league! ;)

  7. Excellent result Stu - sub-24, the premium buckle, American stylie, a first for the UK. You have become a part of UK ultrarunning history if I'm not mistaken.

  8. Fantastic performance! I too look forward to your thoughts on this, especially on how the Elliptigo training affected your running fitness.

  9. Great report, Disco Stu!! Nice buckle too!! Wear it with pride, my friend!!!

    All Day!