Wednesday, 15 August 2012

North Downs Way 100 Race report

The start of the North Downs Way 100 (Mile 0)

DNFs are like buses... You don't see one coming and then two come along at once! And this is the painful reality of what I have had to endure over the past 6 weeks with a DNF in the SDW100 (83 miles), hotly followed by another in the NDW100 (90 miles!) this past weekend. However the key difference with the NDW is that I never gave up and pushed all the way to the end (the end being the 90 mile aid station where I missed the cut off). This is despite being in far far worst state physically than I was in the SDW. In fact the contrast was so great physically and in pace that I will never know what possessed me to pull from the SDW when I was doing so well. In contrast I was not doing well in the NDW in the latter stages yet persisted as every ultra-runner should when it matters most (this is what we sign up for after all isn't it!?).

But anyway that was the prologue which rather gave the ending away I know however I'm gonna skip back through the race from start to finish so that no one reading this makes the same mistakes I did out there so here goes: Pre-race training: (and mistake no.1) is that you really must train for a 100 miler. Sounds daft and obvious but its true. I didn't and hell did I pay for it. I wasn't trying to be a super hero or thinking I was invinsible or anything. I simply decided that I would test the limits of the ElliptiGO as a cross-training device and use this exclusively in the 6 week lead up to the race between the SDW and NDW. Part of this was recover time anyway. This is not to say that the GO isn't great though or let me down. It is awesome and a fantastic cross trainer that definitely boosts fitness and performance (just not on its own). It can't replace running or the training effects that the body gets when running. There was one simple reason why the NDW trashed my body and thats because it wasn't use to the 'impact' of running after such a long break. The GO is zero impact so whilst it strengthens muscles and boosts lung/heart strength through high intensity exercise it doesn't teach the muscles or body to adapt or cope with the impact you experience when running (nothing can!) This is why at 40 miles and 9 hrs into the race my quads were already trashed from the impact on the ups and downs. So in future its back to what worked for me so well in 2011 which is to mix up the running and ElliptiGO sessions. Together they are stronger than either one in isolation.So to race day and I was feeling ready for it. I was full of confidence and targetting a sub 24hr finish again as I always have and will, but failing that I simply wanted to finish at all costs (or so I thought). I wasn't going to go out hard like I did in the same race last year (finished 7th overall in 22:51). I held back this time and happily watched what felt like the entire field pass me in the early stages. These early stages include the infamous Box Hill which was the scene of recent dissapointment for TeamGB cycling and Cav! I love it though and enjoyed the challenge of climbing the 200 odd steps to the top (but then the climbing actually continues some more after them!!). The views at the top were awesome.

Top of Box Hill (26 miles in)

As it turned out I was positioned exactly mid pack in the first half of the race and I wasn't as far back as I thought. However I knew that I was still having to work harder than expected even to maintain a very conservative 11 mpm pace. However there was worst to come. In fact the pace that I thought I had been running and maintaining over the first 30 miles to Reigate Hill wasn't 11mpm like I had calculated in my mind but a minute per mile slower.

Reigate Hill @ 31 miles in
I had made up a pace band for the race which I always do. This had splits for each aid station for 10/12/14 mpm pace. However sweat washed off some numbers and for some reason I started reading off the 12 mpm splits thinking they were 11. To the point where I was convinced that I could keep this pace going and actually PB the course. Haha how wrong was I on that one. So anyway I eventually worked out that I was infact going much slower than I had thought but quickly put this to the back of my mind and carried on moving forward abet still at a slow(ing) pace.

Enjoying some melon at Botley Hill (43 miles in)

I could feel the effort I was putting in wasn't something that I could sustain (even with the Melon!) and knew that I would be walking in the latter stages of the race. I accepted this early on I think which probably helped prepare me for the inevitable. I reached the half way aid station to the cheers of my mum and dad in 11:30hrs. 2.5hrs slower than 2011! Ouch. That is a huge difference and has highlighted to me just how good a run I had last year (better than I had thought at the time).

Halfway at Knockholt Pound (50 miles in)

I filled up with pasta, hot dogs, chocolate milk, and tea and prepared my mind for the next 50 miles to come which were quite clearly going to take a lot longer than it had taken me to cover the first 50. Just as I was leaving so were 3 other runners and I quickly joined them as I was already thinking about the night stage and not wanting to particularly run alone. John, Dan (john's pacer) and Russell were great company over the following stages and hours and made the time and distance go much faster than it would have otherwise. We were all in similar shape so the pace we settled into suited everyone, and I was so relieved I found a group that I could keep up with as I was not moving particularly well.

All three of them were also local to Kent and knew the towns and villages we were running through and some of the trail. This was a real bonus navigationally because whilst the NDW is well marked with the National Trail Acorn finger posts it is very easy to miss one in the dark when your head is down and ploughing on through. Russell's local knowledge especially saved us on two distinct occassions and almost certainly saved us walking (which we were doing a lot by this point as it approached midnight) many extra miles which would have been extremely hard to take.

Me, Russell, John and Dan.... thanks guys!
The fact remained however that every mile was painfully slow and whilst we slowly racked up the miles so did the time as hours would past by one by one by one. Its at this point that you start doing the maths based on your predicted avg pace and what distance you have left to cover to work out time left on the course and predicted finish times. Sub 24hrs was long gone, but we were all confident of finishing in nearer 26hrs as we continued on our way along the North Downs Way racking up close to 65-70 miles by this point.

By now my pace was the worst in the group and I was just hanging on to Dan, John and Russell. But they never left me too far behind and didnt make me feel like I was holding them up. This is the camaradie you often find in ultra running which is so nice.
Dan the pacer left us after 20 or so miles and so John, Russell and I continued on our way with them still out in front and me clinging on. This pattern continued all the way to the 76 mile aid station where surprisingly Russell dropped due to a very painful ankle and knee which he did well to cover up as He was still moving faster than me. I had the decision there are then to carry on or drop. I made a right meal out of this and sat there for a good while nursing my aching limbs in a comfy camping chair sipping hot tea and contemplating whether to continue. John had already gone ahead with some other runner as was faster than me. So in the end I latched on to another group and set off into the deep dark night. I didn't stick with them very long as I shuffled along trying to immitate a runner but failing badly. Even my walk was laboured by this point as the sole of my right heel was painful with each step. However I simply continued one foot in front of the other. This was all I could do.
Those 6 miles to the 82 mile aid station took forever for me and I was a broken man when I arrived at the warm cricket club pavillion just as dawn was breaking. All I wanted to do was stop, lie down and sleep. And this is what I did taking up a comfy spot on the bench sofa.

The bench sofa in question and what killed my race! (82 miles in)

Mistake no.2! Never lie down! EVER. The will to continue was draining away from me but I composed myself drunk lots of tea got my drop bag and changed my t-shirt and socks. Had a choco mik and was going to go when I got a call from my mate Glyn who was also out of the course. I knew he was behind me and it turned out he reckoned about 2 miles from the aid station I was at. So I agreed to wait for him so we could run the remaining sections together. But when I agreed to this I wasn't quite aware of the cut-offs and how close we were getting to them. I waited and waited and when Glyn eventually appeared who then needed some convincing to continue at all I had been at this aid station for an hour. This was time that I simply could not afford to lose and it turned out to be the fatal error in my race. Glyn and I left the 82 mile aid station at 6am only 25 minutes ahead of the cut off. The next 8 mile section was extremely tough with very narrow single track and loads of steep steps up and down. It took us 3h:43m to complete this section but the 90 mile cut off was at 9am. We had missed it by 43 minutes and our race was over but we were still smiling.

Me and Glyn at 'our' finish (90 miles in and 27:43 on the clock!)

I only have myself to blame for the decisions I took out there. It was actually great to run the last section with Glyn but ultimately the time I lost cost me my race and third belt buckle. The game plan I should have had going into the race which I have been very good at sticking to in previous Ultra's is to get in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible however crap you are feeling its still best to load up with food and move on. Otherwise you can get caught up in your own self-pity. I was there to run and finish this damn race and not DNF so its so annoying post race to look back and see how much time I wasted at aid stations. In total well over 2hrs would be my estimate which I simply couldn't afford to do. I will and have learnt from this experience as I have every other which I will take into future events better and much wiser. For now though thats it for 2012 as far as ultras are concerned.
The next big race is the Snowdonia Marathon at the end of October. Once fully recovered I will only have 8 weeks to train for this but I will give it my best shot and try to better my 3:26 pb set last year on the same course. That is going to be an extremely tough ask as my base fitness is not where it was this time last year (the 7hr difference in NDW finish time is testament to this). But hey I'm forever the optimist!

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