Animo!

The Torn dera Val D’Aran by UTMB, aka the ‘VDA’. This was the first edition of this event that has been franchised under the prestigious UTMB banner. The VDA being one of a handful of events as part of the weekend. A 162km (100 mile) circular route around the mountainous Val D’Aran region in the Pyrenees.

Our journey began back in the summer of 2020 when the first edition was postponed to 2021 and they reopened registrations. Paul was the mastermind once more and it took very little to persuade myself and Darryl to sign up too. Later on Paul C also signed up, but 2020 wasn’t finished with us just yet…. I’m not sure how many flights were cancelled, how much additional money we spent nor how many times the travel rules and restrictions changed in the weeks leading up to the race, but I do know it led to many, many sleepless nights spent stressing over deliveries, tests and forms. Paul C had to drop out the week before and I was left guessing until I woke up just 5 hours before the flight was due to take off. Until this point I still hadn’t received the negative test that was now required to enter Spain and I was prepared to go to the airport and hope for the best with numerous, less than ideal, alternative travel plans. For those who know me well, you know this isn’t how I like to roll. I like to deal with greater certainty. I thrive in a process and I struggle when I can’t control aspects of that process.

The Elevation profile for the VDA

Arriving at the airport with all my barcodes and forms, I already felt like a winner. Now, with a little over 30 hours to go to the race start, I could finally start thinking about the race itself… I wasn’t alone though. We went as threesome and we planned to run together. We are all now experienced ultra runners. We know each other well. We also knew and recognised that we are getting into some big league running with this event. 100 miles. 10,600 m of elevation. The Spanish mountains. It was an ultra that would push each of us beyond our comfort zone and redefine our boundaries once more.

It’s been a while since I’d run fuelled by a little fear. I think it is a good thing. It’s needed. We arrived not knowing how we’d cope. We were realistic that it will take us very close to the 48 hour cut off mark. We were accepting that it is going to hurt a lot and hurt in new ways we’d not yet experienced. But, mentally we were focused. We broadly knew what we’d face and why we were there and that, together we were stronger. Together we stood a chance of getting to the finish line.

Lining up on the start line along the main street in Viehla, the pre race jitters kicked in a little. This wasn’t like any other race in the last two years. This was a mass start, just shy of 1,000 runners bunching together at 18:00 trying to remain in the shade as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ (The song adopted as the UTMB signature theme) blasted out of the speakers. The MC was gearing up the crowd and initiating a final countdown. It’s hard not to feel special in a moment like this. Before we knew it the countdown was over and we were shuffling along through the town, about to begin the first of many climbs.

I cannot recount two whole days of trail running. It would take me longer to write that much never mind that I’m sure none of us have the time to read a two day long recap. I do broadly remember the sections though, the feelings and emotions and I can stitch together the adventure with what I can remember…

The first 20km or so was an absolute delightful. For the first few hours we had the sun with us, as we took in some beautiful climbs between Pomarola and Geles which presented us with incredible views and a mesmerising sunset behind the mountains from Montpius. All along this section we were like children playing. We had complete freedom. We were so pleased to be where we wanted to be, to be in the moment that we were laughing and joking non stop. We didn’t contain it to ourselves either but extended it to others, whether they liked it or not. Every time a runner went passed us, we made ‘fast car’ noises. Vrroooom. Every single time. It went down like a led balloon except for one guy who stopped in a fit of laughter and offered a fist bump. We liked him. We never saw him again though.

Bottleneck

Somewhere along the first climb there was a point where we all came to an abrupt stop. Runners waiting impatiently as the wide fire track converged to a single track path. We were at a physical standstill for a good five minutes. Those behind us would have waited longer. Oddly, after this, the etiquette improved and runners no longer tried to squeeze past each other and gain places along the narrow tracks.

As darkness settled in, we arrived at an aid station (Geles) which was manic. Runners were everywhere, grabbing what food and drink they could, layering up, shuffling through. There were chocolate spread sandwiches available which we snapped up and ate as we too started adding layers. Now the Sun’s heat had been replaced with the chilling mountain wind, a few moments break was enough for us to get very cold very quickly.

The next section saw us run towards the French border and soon after Antiga de Lin we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge deep in the night and began one of the biggest climbs of the course. The darkness here was our friend as it hid from our view the absolute monster of a climb. It was exhausting. The darkness masked the beauty but illuminated the ‘snake’ or runners by their head torches lighting up the trail. Every turn we took exposed more of the snake. It appeared to reach to the stars. One thing was clear, it was going to be a while to climb to the summit of Cap dera Picada (2400m).

Suspension bridge

The snake of runners was like a continuous train. Each runner was a carriage being dragged along by the momentum. Pulled from the front and pushed from the back. One would step to the side of the trail to break. The train would form up and fill the gap. Other times as runners re-entered the train it would adjust to accommodate them. It was an ongoing process. Every time I raised my gaze from the floor I’d see runners stepping aside or re-joining the train. We did it ourselves too, many times. At one point we stepped aside and sat down. We turned off our head torches and just sat there in the darkness. Above us was the Milky Way was visible, crystal clear. A beautiful sight worth stopping and taking in!

Eventually the trail became rockier as we approached the top. Above us runner silhouettes were all along the ridgeline, lit up by the Moon behind them. The Moon reflecting the Sun’s light and guiding us, showing us the way to go. Along the top the trails continued to undulate. The first of our collective low points hit us somewhere here during the night as Paul pulled up and vomited pretty severely. After this there was no stopping him and we struggled to hold pace and keep up with him. He’d struggled for a few hours during the night and was now emerging from his inner battle with the breaking of the new day.

We arrived at another aid station (Coth de Baretja) located on a long down hill section. We took some hot broth to warm us up and sat outside the tent in the chill. Already vans were collecting runners who were dropping out. The climb had claimed some victims. We were about 45km in at this point. We knew the next time we’d stop would be at the 55km mark. So off we went, heading into the day break as the morning Sun started to break through the darkness of the night before. Experiencing a day break on a trail run is an amazing and powerful experience. The energy it brings is difficult to describe. Your tiredness gives way with a freshness that only the Sun’s rays can provide. We were moving freely again and soon found ourselves approaching the aid station in the school at Bossost.

This was a significant milestone. The 55km mark. It sounds insignificant but, besides being the first of three aid stations with hot food and about a third of the race, it meant we’d now covered over 4,000m of elevation gain. Over 55km that is quite a lumpy run! The rest of the 6,000m was more spread out with a lot more downhill to cover. Before the race we’d aimed to get to this point without being completely broken. If we could do that, we knew we stood a good chance of getting through to the end. As we sat there, gathering our thoughts, we were hustled by a volunteer telling us that we had an hour until the cut off at 08:45. We knew this and weren’t bothered. We knew we were capable of completing the race and were currently way ahead of schedule with a projected finish around 40 hours. But, suddenly, we felt a little on edge. We were now aware of how tight these cut offs actually were. It felt crazy that with so much time in the bank we were being hurried at just the fifth aid station and first thing in the morning. It was now very apparent to us that a lot of runners would not be making this cut off!

After Bossost came Canejan and from there Sant Joan de Toran. Both of these were fairly short sections and didn’t include too much climbing. One of them was a 6km stretch and I remember thinking it was one of the hardest 6km I’d ever done. There was an initial part that ran along side some industrial factories and then the paths took us through some forest sections along a cycle/adventure track next to the main road. I remember signs for UTMB all long here. Then we began to climb, crossing over a dam and a massive waterfall. Each section had maybe 400m of climbing, but it felt like so much more. I was tired!

Being tired now was not a good thing. As we approached midday, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, we embarked on the next huge climb towards Tuc des Crabes (2,400m). Here we’d climb 1,500m through a valley. We started off through some lush green forests before the path opened up in the valley floor. We stopped at a river where some runners were completely submerging themselves. Paul and Darryl filled up some fresh water, I stuck with the 2 litres of Tailwind I’d prepared at the last aid station.

We met an Australian, Matt, and chatted with him as we climbed. Like the runners around us, we’d break frequent and often, sitting in the shallows of shade on the mountain paths. Often you’d stop when there was a chance as runners littered the path seeking out the shade spots. By now we were seeing familiar faces that we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the night (and would continue to do so with until the finish!). Stephen another Brit, David from Scotland and two Spanish guys who we could barely communicate with other than make fast car noises at – like the guy early on, they saw the funny side in it. We’d clearly done it to them when they’d passed us and sometime later they repaid the favour to us. It was now a running joke with them and we loved it. Every opportunity the five of us would ‘Vroooom’ each other and laugh.

The climb was exhausting. It was the midday heat. It sapped our energy. The higher we climbed though, the better the views became. After the climb came a descent into Pas Estret. By now our mood had changed dramatically. All three of us were now feeling the toils of the climb. We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. the terrain over the last 50km had been very rocky and our legs and feet were feeling the blunt of it. We were looking forward to a break at the aid station and were disappointed when we reached it. As he shuffled in, we saw four vans fill with runners who were dropping out. Inside the tent, runners were laying everywhere. It was struggle to reach the food as runners rested in the shade under the tables. The food was sparse with the aid station having run out of many things and the rest was simmering in the sun. Sandwiches were dry and stale, chocolate was melted in the trays and the water was warm. Luckily I’d been fuelling well so far and still had plenty of food on me that I’d sourced from Xmiles before the trip. Some more Stroop Waffles and some Kendal Mint Cake sorted me out as we stopped to rest. We then had to force ourselves to leave knowing we had another climb to do.

Up to the Iron Mines

We knew we had to keep going. We also knew that, after the next climb we’d be treated to the views of the old Iron Mines. We’d read about and seen glimpses of these in various YouTube videos we’d watched to recce the route from afar. When we reached them, they didn’t disappoint. First we ran through some tunnels on the edge of the mountain with the old cart tracks still in place. Through the tunnel, panoramic views of Lac de Montoliu in the valley floor greeted us. Further up the old mining structures, dilapidated and left in ruins. My mind whirled wondering all the scenarios for how they were built this high up in the mountains in such a remote area. Before descending we encountered a group of guys with a trumpet. They played a tune for each runner and cheered us all on. We loved it. We sat with them for a bit and cheered along with them. They entertained our requests and even played the UTMB theme for us when Paul emerged on the summit. This section of the route was very rocky but it was an iconic section for sure. The rocky trails back down were difficult to run on and jabbed at my feet as we covered the 1,000m decline into the next aid station.

Before long, night was closing in once more and I powered on ahead of the others knowing our drop bags at 104km were waiting for us. To my horror, when I arrived I was told we were only at 98km and the drop bags were at the next aid station. This was Montgarri, not Beret, I was mortified. Paul and Darryl asked the same when they arrived behind me. The only good news was that it was 6km to Beret and it only had 200m of incline and 40m descent to cover. We layered up again and pushed on. A quick pose for a photograph we trekked on into the forests.

We continued on and reached Beret as the night descended into darkness. We made a joint call to try and get some sleep. A micro sleep. We had a long way to go and another full night to endure. We knew there were some ‘technical’ (let’s be honest, by now we’d realised that the majority of the trail was very technical!) later on. We gave ourselves an hour at the checkpoint. Eat, freshen up and use whatever time we could to sleep. Darryl found a deckchair, Paul laid out on the floor and I placed my head on a table. None of us really caught any sleep, but I’m sure the rest and moment to close our eyes helped more than we realised.

As we headed back out, still maybe an hour ahead of the cut off times, it was howling. Since we’d stopped, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped rapidly. As we walked on, we were descending again when we were joined by Rodrigo. A Portuguese gent living in Cambridge. He’d come alone and, like us, had never experienced running through two consecutive nights without sleep of running. He asked if he could stick with us to ensure he was safe and didn’t fall asleep in the night. We obliged and acknowledged we weren’t moving that quickly anymore but he was happy to stick with us.

I was hitting a lull here and was very happy in my own little bubble just head down and plodding onwards. My feet and legs had been hurting for a long time and I was really feeling them now. The 700m descent into the villages of Unha and then Salardu were slow and painful for me and I didn’t enjoy the cobbled streets or rocky trails along the river. Each turn in the villages seemed frustratingly familiar even though we’d not be here before. In the depth of the night, Paul was sick once more. Each of us were battling in our own ways and all we could do was grind away at the terrain in front of us.

The cut offs were once again looming and were now very much at the front of our minds. We knew we’d be fine and that the cut offs would be more lenient later in the race. But, for now, we were shuffling to ensure we made it. We left Salardu about 45 mins ahead of the cut off and left with a purpose. The next aid station was at Banhs de Tredos with a cut off at 05:00. It was 12km away with a whopping 800m climb (the fifth biggest single climb of the race). We were so confident that if we made it there in time, we’d no longer have to look over our shoulders at the cut offs.

We had a quick turn around at the aid station and formed a plan to put some speed in over the next 12km. We kept it simple and simply set out to once more beat the next cut off and hopefully bank a little time along the way to attempt another sleep. So we did. We left with a brisk pace. Powering up the roads before tackling the 800m climb through the dense forest. We worked as a team. Sticking together and clearing a path up passed other runners. We took breaks to rest and fuel every 200m. Ticking them off. Hard and fast. We were up the 800m climb in what felt like no time at all.

Into the second night

At the top the hills evened out and the vast forests we were in became visibly more clear. We descended back down a little and made it to the checkpoint with plenty of time. We all went straight into a position to sleep. Paul and Rodrigo on the floor laying on cardboard boxes. Me and Darryl hunched over on chairs with our heads on the table. It was cold in the tent and so we all had emergency foil blankets draped over us. We all woke a short time later when we were shivering. A volunteer asked us if we were leaving. I acknowledged we were and rallied the others. We all seemed fine and we had plenty of time before the cut off. Now though we had more climbing to do. It was time for the ‘technical’ section and another 1,000 meters of ascent…

As we left Banhs de Tredos it was very cold and dark. The others dug out more warm layers but I opted just for the addition of my windproof smock. I figured that I’d soon warm with the exertion of the next climb. I wasn’t wrong. Almost immediately we started climbing. Here the terrain was wet and muddy and the trails that were littered with huge boulders to overcome. There was a lot of lunging movements as we climbed. It soon dawned on me that there would be no let up, it was going to be like this all the way to Colomers…

Eventually the darkness started giving way to the light of Sunday morning and the sheer beauty of our surroundings started to reveal themselves. We were 2,000m high and, glistening ahead of us, the stillness of lakes sat in wait. We could see the head torches of runners skirting the perimeter of the lakes up ahead and we followed the paths they created. The further we went, the lighter it became, the more surreal the surroundings became. Each bit of climbing brought more lakes to trek around, each more majestic than the ones before. However, the terrain was truly brutal. With 130km in our legs, I was in no place of mind to enjoy the beauty. It’s a shame. Being miserable with the demands of the course I purposely left my GoPro in my drop bag back at Beret. I had no interest in the effort of turning it on anymore. Looking back, this was my one regret. However my brain cannot undo what my eyes have seen and I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over these lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ranges on all sides.

As morning continued to dawn, we were still climbing. It made no sense. We were each in our own spaces now and I was plodding on ahead. I’d somehow wriggled myself to the front of all the runners in the area and was pretty much leading the way. I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was desperately seeking the orange marker flags amongst the grey terrain. Occasionally I’d see a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance but I could see no obvious way out of the mountains.

Bit by bit the route would reveal itself and we ended up climbing, literally rock climbing, our way out as we reached Tuc de Podo (2,700m). This was by far the most technical terrain I’d ever experienced. I can’t hide the fact I was quite scared at numerous points. I wasn’t alone feeling this way. As I reached the top, there were a few volunteers and we were scanned in. We’d been climbing for 3 hours solid. At a decent pace. Still aware there were cut offs looming at the stop after the next aid station. I sat and waited for Paul and Darryl, absorbing it the views and resetting my mind. Shortly after me the ‘fast car’ Spaniards arrived. One was fuming. I could see him berating the volunteer who scanned us in. When he saw me he joined me and found the words to communicate to me his frustrations. Basically that he thought it was dangerous. Tired runners who hadn’t slept for over 30 hours and who had already covered 130km should not be exposed to that terrain. I found myself agreeing. There were no real qualifying standards for the race nor prerequisites for having experience on this sort of terrain. Added to that, not once was any of our mandatory kit checked by the organisation (another frustration I’ll come to later…). He calmed himself down and carried on. I sat and waited.

descending with one pole

We had another 6km to the next aid station (Colomers). All down hill. But all rock and boulder fields. We were hustling. Stephen was near me and asked if I thought we would make it. I recall my response to him was “if we run”. So I kept running. Darryl and Paul were exhausted. Rodrigo seemed quite energetic. I told him to help me make the others hustle and move a little faster. I felt we needed to use the downhills to our advantage now. As we were running I had a disaster, one of my poles slipped down between to rocks and my momentum snapped it clean, breaking the lower section. Bollocks. I’d become so heavily dependent on the poles and knew I’d be using them for the rest of the route. I recalled earlier on a runner talking about carrying Gorilla tape. I said this out loud and Rodrigo responded with “it’s me”. Amazing. He patched up my pole with the tape and we continued on catching up with the others again. Sadly though it didn’t last and there was nowhere near enough tape to secure them properly. One pole it was going t to have to be then…

The downhill was tough. Darryl bonked and needed to stop and get some fuel in. As was the theme, runners we’d passed now passed us back. Back up and running I hustled us along. Looking back, I hadn’t picked up on the signs of how Darryl was suffering. I was so focused on getting us down to the aid stations. We bottomed out and with 1km to go crossed a dam at Lac de Major Colomers. Descending further we eventually arrived into the aid station we went. I was with Stephen again and he too was carefully watching the cut off times but had mistakenly thought the next cut off was here. It wasn’t though. It was Ressec in another 9km or so where the cut off was. We had time to make it for the 12:45 cut off for sure. We would make it. I was sure of it. If we made that then I was also sure we’d have no issues of finishing in the final 48 hours. I thought we’d get there by 12 and have 6 hours to finish. We made sure Darryl fuelled more here and I gave him some food from my Xmiles stash. The KMC recharge bars were particularly refreshing now. Then, in a small group with David and Matt in tow, we gathered our things and headed back out. Rodrigo had vanished before we reached the checkpoint. we assumed he was good now the night had passed.

The next climb was a bit of a shock to the system – it was an incredibly steep climb for 400m. I struggled with only having one pole and found it hard to support my body and pull myself up. The rocks were loose and we were all conscious of them moving and falling under our foot movements with runners above and below us. I reached the top and sat and waited for the others who I’d seen not far behind me on some of the switchbacks. As I sat I started dwelling on something Darryl had mentioned earlier on – We no longer had the few hour buffer we thought we did. Those early calculations we had of a 40-45 hour finish didn’t include the few attempts we made at trying to sleep during the night nor the sheer demand of a 3 hour climb through the rocky lake section. We had no spare time banked any longer. For the first time I was really concerned that there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t make it. We simply had to move faster than we were, there was no alternative.

I briefed the others when they arrived. All four of them acknowledging the situation. I took charge and led us down. Running where I wouldn’t normally run. I was powering us passed other runners. We were our own train now and we were shifting. A strange thing had happened to me. Normally in races, when I’m in pain then that is just the end of it. I endure and succumb to it. I accept the pains and hobble on. This time though, with the pressure and reality of being timed out, I somehow found a way to block it out. I described it like a switch that numbed the pain. I was able to run and ignore the pains. I was using my frustration of the event and the difficulty of the route to focus my effort into finishing. I was focused, this was going to get finished.

Darryl however was suffering. He wanted to finish, I knew that, but his anger and frustrations were only adding to his pain. He was hitting a very, very dark place. We were struggling to pull him out of it and find a way to to foucs him once more. After we had descended the next mountain, David continued on whilst I waited for the other three. They were further back than I thought and several other runners came passed before them. Darryl looked bad. They were all chatting though and carrying on what I thought was a bit of a leisurely pace. I walked ahead. I thought I’d wait for them at the next aid station, Ressec, and try again there to hustle them once they’d rested.

On the trails to Ressec, I later heard my name called out from behind. It was Paul and Matt was with him. No Darryl though. Paul said he was in a bad place and was walking slowly. Paul was feeling the urgency now too. We felt that there wasn’t much that could be done here and we continued to the aid station where we’d wait. We hoped another rest and more fuelling would do the trick so we carried on. We arrived at 12:05. 40 mins ahead of the cut off. I thought we could have got here around 11:30 but we’d dropped off the pace. It was still enough time to have a decent rest though despite meaning we no longer had 6 hours for the final two sections (a plan we’d discussed back at the last summit). At this rate it would be more like just over 5 hours. It was going to be tough now. Very achievable but we’d have to hurry ourselves along. One thing was certain was that we couldn’t make the time if we continued at the pace we had been going at over the last few kms.

We waited, expecting to see Darryl maybe 5-10 mins behind us. The clock kept ticking. We found some pizza. He still didn’t show. We were worrying now. Then, with ten mins to go, he showed up. He was exhausted and had been hallucinating. In hindsight we shouldn’t have gone so far ahead of him, we shouldn’t have left him. He was slurring his words explaining the hallucinations he’d been having. I don’t think he was fully aware of what was happening. I asked him what I could get him and he asked for water. I needed his cup, but he didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked him for it. When I eventually came back with water for him, we pushed him. He had just 5 mins remaining before the cut off and he needed to make a decision. He either dropped here, now, after 43 hours of running. Or somehow turn himself around in the minutes remaining and pushed harder than he was. Deep down, me and Paul knew the answer. But Darryl had to decide for himself. If he came, and we wanted him too, we’d stick together. But he had to be sure he could move quicker. He called it. He knew. I went outside to tell the volunteer that we would be leaving but also asked if there was a medic. If we were leaving without him we needed to know he wasn’t alone and was going to be ok.

And so, after 150km, the 3 became 2. Paul went to the toilet and I became emotional as I waited. It hit me hard. I was shaking and trying to hide it when a volunteer started talking to me and encouraging me to finish strong. I wanted it so much. But I didn’t want it this way. I wanted us all there. Darryl and Paul C too who was stuck back in London. Darryl had worked so hard. 150km! It was cruel. Paul pulled me back together and we set off. We now had a new mission. Two sections. 15km or so. 5 hours. That’s all that stood in our way. The first section was to be a 700m climb and a 300m descent. The last section a 400m climb and a 1200m descent. Not an ordinary 15km to overcome! This was not going to be an easy way to end a race…

We set off with a renewed focus, straight away we were passing people. We were moving with a (relatively) ferocious pace now and were completely comfortable with it. We passed people who left the aid station a long time before us. We acknowledged them. Those we’d been chatting to along the way asked after Darryl. Each time it made the goal more important. We had to finish now.

The first climb I kind of enjoyed. It felt like the most forgiving of the many we’d done over the past two days. A long looping fire track, long gradual single track switch backs through lush forests then a slightly steeper section climbing through the grassy mountain summit. At the top we rested on the crown. Staring at the descent down. 2km to drop 300m. At our pace maybe 30 mins. We’d absolutely annihilated this section. We ran the steep grassy descent and into the final aid station. We completed the section in 1hr 30. We’d planned for 3 hours for this and 2 hours for the last section. We knew now with certainty that we’d finish. The impact this had mentally was incredible. The relief and pressure dissipated and drained out of us. There was nothing but smiles at the finial aid station. Runners looking at each other knowingly, acknowledging the job was done. However, as the pressure drained so too did my ability to block out pain. As quickly as the power ‘switched on’ the same switch now flicked off. I was a spent force. There was no way to turn it back on.

The next climb was unforgiving. It was more direct and steep. I had to stop very frequently to sit down and breathe. Eventually we reached the top and began to descend. An huge descent to drop and a nasty way to finish off an already destroyed body. I felt everything. Every blister. Every stone. Every blade of grass. I walked. I only ran when gravity forced me to move faster than I could handle. David was with us now and as vocal about his pains as I was. We supported each other. Paul was far more spritely and high off the knowledge of the pending finish. He was on the phone arranging a live stream video of the finish for his fiancé and family. How he never tripped on the sharp downhills I do not know.

The trails gave way to the cobbled roads of Viehla. We’d ran this very section when we started the journey two days earlier. A few people were out clapping and cheering. One group had a shower hose spraying water into the street. We took turns performing for them and basking in the refreshing chill of the water. A few streets later we turned one last time and were now on the main road, the home stretch.

Darryl was there getting the ice creams in. We’d joked about this for days. A joke stemming back to when me and Darryl finished the TDS – we saw an ice-cream shop as we approached the finish line. We went to get one but we’re put off by the size of the queue waiting. So we said we’d finish here with an ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream man was rather slow and lacked the purpose we did. Darryl told him we’d be back and we told Darryl to run with us. The three of us reached that line together. We rang the bell. We rang the damn bell. It was over.

I know one thing for certain, running together we were stronger. We may have set off together and not quite finished together, but if it wasn’t for Darryl and Paul I wouldn’t have made it. We each supported the others, dragged us through our dark moments and made this adventure memorable for what it was. We did it together and the achievement is a shared one. He may not have physically rang his own bell at the end, but if Darryl didn’t make the hardest decision of the weekend, me and Paul may never have rung ours. I can’t thank these guys enough!


After Thoughts

Running is a bit of a conundrum. It isn’t easy. There is always physical and mental suffering involved. You achieve what you set out to, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles. Sometimes though you question whether it’s worth it. I’ll look back on this experience one day and maybe the thoughts will be different. But right now I can’t say I enjoyed that. It was tough. Far tougher than I expected and I expected it to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I think there is a very good chance that this will will actually be the toughest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve no desires to be in that ‘place’ again. I don’t really like the 100 mile distance. It’s a beast to conquer. This race is very though. Looking at the stats, the first finisher came in at 24 hours. The top runner took an entire day, that is 4 hours longer than UTMB! 50% of the participants did not finish. Nearly 500 runners set out and never made it back to the finish line. That tells you all you really need to now… it’s tough.

Throughout the run we moaned about the cut offs. We felt they were very tight and unforgiving. In hindsight though… we finished in the ‘golden hour’ so, arguably, the cut offs are perfectly good. If we’d been an hour later for any checkpoint, we wouldn’t have finished on time. On the flip side, without arrogance, I’m not a cut off runner. I’m always comfortably mid pack. So the entry level of the race is something to consider if you are thinking about signing up!

Overall, I also felt that the event didn’t carry the prestige of the UTMB name. The organisers acknowledge they have a lot to improve and that should be commended. But, the feeling out on the course was one of anger and frustration. The grumbles about the dangerous sections and cut off timings were common. Despite the language barriers, people were sharing these feelings. For me, two things stood out that fall well short of expectation for a UTMB branded event. Firstly the lack of mandatory kit check and secondly the aid stations.

Let’s start with the mandatory kit… there’s a big list, and rightly so. When playing in the mountains you need to be prepared. We were blessed with great weather for two days. However, the night we finished a thunder and lightning storm hit the region. It was an incredible storm that came on in no time. When we went to collect our bibs, that is all we did. Despite bringing everything, no one checked or asked for anything. They simply took our runners insurance, gave us the bib and that was it. I even asked if they wanted to see my kit and they said ‘no, tomorrow’. Tomorrow they never did neither, nor the next day. That’s right. Not once did anyone ask any of us for any single item of kit. At one of the early aid stations during the first night I did spot what looked like a table set up with paper lists of kit items. No one stopped us nor asked as we walked passed. The table was empty there was no reason not to ask at least one of us…

Given the severity of the consequences and the recent examples of when things go badly, I’m shocked that there was not a single item of kit checked over the two days. I thought this was very poor from the organisers.

Secondly, the aid stations. There were plenty and there was plenty of food. But… for a 48 hour race, there were some issues. There was a lack of variety and questionable quality controls. Most aid stations we arrived at presented us with discoloured fruit and dry bread that had been out in the sun for so long. Many food stations had trays where the food items, like chocolate, had melted and none of them offered any hot drinks other than some very cheap and bland broth. The exception to this was the pizza at Ressec. This felt completely out of place though and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reactionary rather than planned. Either way though it was very much appreciated. Most concerning though was the quantity. We were arriving into checkpoints that were running out of food. That should never be the case. Especially not with the early pace we were keeping! Thankfully I had so much of my own food from Xmiles that this wasn’t really a problem for me. This was meant to be supplementary though, and not my main source!

In the days after the event there was another twist in the saga as, after travelling home we each felt rather unwell. Soon after we discovered a Facebook group where over 500 runners have identified as having come down with the same symptoms of illness. The organisation are investigating the cause, but it has left a rather sore feeling for many of the participants!

I’m a Centurion now

There is never a perfect night before a race. The real rest is the few nights leading up to it. Despite all our best efforts and intentions, there are just too many factors beyond our control and too many thoughts racing through our excited minds the night before a race. You have to deal with what you’ve got. My less than perfect night before the Centurion Running NDW100 started well, checking into the Bishops Table hotel with ease as my hosts efficiently navigated the COVID restrictions imposed on usual operations. After check in, to my delight, I found I was in the room opposite Gif. Great for a quick chat and to wish each other well for the adventure ahead. Then I tried to sleep…

Hello Gif!

I made one mistake – I put too much Squirrels Nut Butter ‘Born to Rub’ muscle balm on my sore leg. As I lay awake, eyes closed and sweating in the hot room whilst listening to the boy racers revving their cars down the main road, my leg progressively started to burn. I ignored it for as long as I could until I felt I was on fire. I had to go back in the shower and wash it off. School boy error. My early night and planned 8 hours sleep was not going to happen. I did eventually nod off and woke at 04:00 the next day upside down on the bed and rather drowsy. I clearly had a restless night. I text my crew – Jon & Nick – to let them know I was on my way to the start and to expect me to be hitting the caffeine hard in 12+ hours time…

Walking to the bag drop at the leisure centre I realised I hadn’t sync’d the route to my watch. For some reason I couldn’t then do so. A minor inconvenience but not a problem, the route is well marked and I’d recce’d it all so wasn’t worried about not having it immediately available. At bag drop I met Jack who was doing the heavy lifting on bag duty and he sent me off to the start line a short walk away.

The North Downs Way…it begins

It was odd not registering or checking in, but that wasn’t as weird as the new rolling start line. At the North Downs Way sign we had a photo taken. Two runners were just heading off before I arrived and one joined just after me. Snapped, we were sent onwards to the trail head where the Centurion team took our temperatures and cleared us to run. No mass start. No big hoo-ha or send off. A low-key time trial-esque start over two hours to spread out the runners. It was about 05:45 in the morning and my 100 mile adventure was now underway.

It wasn’t long before I got the first ‘buzz’ of the day. A lady was standing alone on the NDW under the dawning sky cheering on the runners. As I neared her and noticed her bump I realised it was none other than Helen, a friend of Ally’s and whom was the first female at the SVP last year. This was the first time I’d met Helen and it put a smile on my tired face as I began to process what I was about to go through.

I’d set out with a plan. There was a finish time in mind. Ideally I’d beat my 27 hour finish from Tarawera, my first ‘miler’. All going well I’d push on for a sub-24hr finish. It does sound appealing and achievable, 100 miles in a single day. My plan was as simple as get passed Box Hill as quickly as I could before it gets too busy and too hot. If I could make it to Wrotham (mile 60) in under 14 hours then I’d push on for the sub 24 hr target. With a crew of Jon and Nick standing by to support me and pace me through the night I knew I was in great company.

I was happy in the morning. Fairly speedy too. I was progressing along nicely with no worries in the world. Making small talk with runners I passed or who went by me. I was a little surprised to see other runners but only naively so. I guess I imagined a rolling start to spread-out far more than it did, but the reality is different when you enter a field and see maybe five or so other runners spread out in a line over the next few hundred meters. This did make more sense, especially as we’d all set off according to our estimated finish time so would have the similar goals and pacing strategies. As I neared Guildford I did have to shout after two runners who’d misinterpreted one of the signs and taken the wrong path. Thankfully this was an area I’d run many times so I was able to call after them confidently and get them back on track.

Another change to the format of the race this year was the setup of the aid stations and the removal of the first one to prevent a build up of runners early on. Skipping the first aid station wasn’t a problem given the lower morning temperatures and freshness in our legs. So first up it was Newlands Corner, shortly after the first big climb up to St Martha-on- the-hill. This aid station was going to be a learning curve with lessons for the rest of the day. To accommodate runners safely, it was fundamentally different from aid stations runners have become comfortable with. First up there was a ‘funnel’ set up for runners to queue in safely. A volunteer stood a few meters ahead of the funnel directing runners either into the aid station if they wanted to stop or passed it if they didn’t require assistance. We were advised to wait patiently at a distance from each other and start preparing what we needed to, ready to enter. As we reached the front of the funnel we were directed to the anti-bac to sanitise our hands as we waited for the table and equipment to be sanitised by another volunteer as the last runner departed. There were three tables set up here, each in effect a mini aid station with all the necessary water, Tailwind, food and medical items. When instructed, we stepped forward to a vacant, sanitised station to serve ourselves. Another volunteer waited at the far end of the table to provide support from a safe distance if needed. Once we had served ourselves water/electrolytes and individually packaged food items, we were directed out and requested to sanitise our hands once more as we left. We were then set loose back on the trail. The volunteers, all head to toe in PPE, were fantastic.

So what lessons did I immediately learn from this new experience? Firstly, to think through my hand sanitising routine and handling of bottles. I covered my bottle lids in alcohol gel which I needed to wipe off. Secondly, queuing for a few short minutes would be the new norm. Not all runners were as quick on the update to prepare their bottles and own supplements whilst queuing and naturally it takes a little longer when at the table. Thirdly, the selection of food in pre-packed bags is very convenient and I had to fight back the temptation to grab a bit of everything. Fourthly, whole oranges (rather than slices) are firkken great. I took one to eat and one to carry to have slightly later. Finally, I was glad I was a runner and not a volunteer. Being dressed in PPE in that heat and having to fight back the urge to more directly help runners was going to be a very tough day for them, running 100 miles seemed far more appealing!

After Newlands Corner there is a fairly long and runnable stretch of woodlands. Its really lovely, but one of my least favourite sections of the North Downs Way for running. It’s just relatively flat and it seems to drag on for ever. I wasn’t looking forward to this so early into the run but thankfully I enjoyed another few little boosts. First there was a feint sound of a bell ringing, as I neared the source it turned out to be Matt Buck and his daughter cheering on the runners. Shortly afterwards I passed two more familiar faces, Leo and James, running in the opposite direction. Quick hellos, smiles and shouts of encouragement were very welcomed here.

Fields

Arriving to Box Hill the route first takes you down through Denbies Wine Estate. Its a nice long and gentle down hill on pathed roads so I took it easy beforehand and walked the road to the path entrance. With perfect timing, I heard a lady tell another runner she was going to walk for a bit and she’d catch him up. I recognised the sound of her voice, turned around and was greeted with a loud “Daiiiii!”. It was Ally behind me. Despite living very close to each other, we’d not run together since we first met during the Serpent Trail Race in 2018. We ran the rest of the way to Box Hill together and it was so good to share some time on the feet with her again after so long. It was a very speedy jaunt down Denbies too!

I was a bit more organised going into the aid station at Box Hill and managed a few jokes with the volunteers. Filling up on Tailwind once more I also picked up another two oranges and enjoyed them whilst walking to the underpass to cross the road. I said my good byes to Ally as she powered on with the intention to get as far passed Reigate Hill before it got too warm. Wise choice. She was looking very comfortable running today.

At Box Hill this year the route took a diversion. We came off the infamous Box Hill steps about half way up and detoured around the bottom of the hill before climbing further along the trails to avoid the busy tourist viewpoint. I think this was a blessing, those steps really sap your energy! It was here I first met a chap called Nigel who was a veteran of 13 Centurion 100 mile events as well as their intriguing “piece of string” race. We swapped tales and experiences as we enjoyed the climb together.

Further on my energy was quickly drained as I tackled Reigate Hill. Here I realised I was in a bit of bother. Whilst I was fine hiking the hill, when I reached the top and tried to run, my legs just told me to naff off. I’d not experienced this before – I started cramping, bad, everywhere. My calves, my quads, my hamstrings, my groin. Both legs, all parts simultaneously pulsing and tensing up. I tried to run but my legs went as straight as sticks rotating out in circles from my hips. It wasn’t going to work. I set my mind to walking to the aid station which hopefully wasn’t too far away. Up on Reigate Hill there was plenty of open space in the now midday sun. Walking was probably a good thing. I managed a smile with a photographer who sympathised with me. I went easy on myself though, I had covered about 50km in 6 hours or so which was well on schedule for my simple plan. I hobbled on to the aid station and then set off once more, briefly seeing Ally duck out from the cafe with ice cold Calippos as I munched down some prawn cocktail crisps and another two oranges, I was really enjoying the juicy oranges!

From Reigate was a struggle. I think I’ve mentally blocked it all out. There was a lot of walking and not too much running. Suffering with early signs of heat exhaustion already, I was slipping into some dark thoughts. I just couldn’t get the legs to fire up again. The cramping was persistent. I had a lot of salted food in crisps, salted cashews, pretzels and Tailwind and I hoped at some point it would all kick in. I made it to Mersham and the welcome sight of the wonderful ladies who I volunteered with the year before. They gave me some ice in a little packet which I put under my cap and sent me on my way. Next stop, Caterham.

Just after Mersham is a long road used as a crew point location. It was amazing to see so many supporters here. One familiar face I spotted was David Bone of the famous duo DaznBone. He was out there crewing Daz who wasn’t far behind me. Again such a boost to receive a warm smile and encouragement from someone I’d not met in person before. Shortly after seeing Bone I had another boost when I was thinking how much I’d enjoy a cold tap. Almost exactly as this thought crossed my mind a lady running towards me clapped me on and shouted back “there is a cold tap at the end of the church yard”. Fucking yes!!! Unbelievable luck. I was like a hawk seeking it out before practically having a shower in the graveyard. It was bliss. The good points continued briefly as I then passed Ale who’d cycled down to wait on the trails and say hello. Thanks Ale!!

As I carried on to Caterham, those good feelings soon evaporated and it was back to a now familiar story of struggle. I’ve very little recollection other than climbing in what looked like a desolate field and having to take a moment on a log before nature came calling and then further on meeting Ian and chatting away as we walked. We shared stories from our adventures and the day so far as well as comparing the aches and pains we were feeling. We came to the same realisation that one reason we might have been struggling in the heat more than we anticipated is the possible concentration of Tailwind at the aid station. I know from my volunteering the year before that it is difficult to mix such a large quantity and also ensure enough for all runners. Ian and I came to the conclusion though that the concentration was weaker than what we are used to. I made two decisions here to attempt to get my race back on track, firstly, I’d switch to using the Tailwind I’d brought (I guess I anticipated this problem a little) and secondly I accepted I needed to rest for a few mins every now and then. With the new aid station set ups you are very much ‘in and out’ and I think the little rest I’d normally have chilling and talking to runners and volunteers was missing. I decided I’d find some shade at Caterham and sit down for a bit. I also made a third decision – that I’d “DNS” my next race in Bulgaria which was just two weeks away. If I was struggling with the Surrey Hills now, I’d really struggle with a tired body in the Rhodope mountain range. I had to accept my fitness level is far from optimal for what I want to accomplish and, with the rest of my friends having already making the decision not to go, it wouldn’t be the same experience I’d originality signed up for. It was decided. I’d be sensible this time.

I did just as I promised at Caterham, saying farewell to Ian as he wisely warned me not to sit for too long, I sat on a bench perfectly in the shade with a view looking back across the NDW. As I ate more oranges and pretzels a local runner joined me and sat at the end of the bench. We had a delightful chat as he praised us all for our achievements. He was an older gentleman who lived locally and took up running during lockdown. Despite living close by he’d never been on the North Downs before and now every weekend he ran an out and back 25km route. This was the bench he used to escape the sun on the hot days. I thanked him for the conversation and moment on his bench and wished him well. It was a great moment to speak so easily with a stranger on the trails.

After Caterham I momentarily had a bit of a jog on again, the legs cooperated for a while at least. There was another crew spot and as I ran down the forest trails I heard a voice call out “there he is”, looking up I once more saw Bone. I felt like he was here supporting just me. It was great. His beaming smile transferred energy to me, which was much needed as I’d left Caterham completely forgetting about this section to Botley Hill. Annoyingly I thought I was now heading to the half way mark, but I wasn’t, not yet. I was ready for a longer break and some fizzy coke (I always hold off hitting the coke until at least halfway). Botley Hill was a bitch in the heat. The climb was slow and awkward.

The Botley Hill aid station was fairly busy. Maybe somewhere between 5-10 runners arriving at the same time. A real test for the volunteers. They did a great job providing us clear instructions and helping ensure turnaround was efficiently managed. I grabbed a banana and some more crisps to go with my now customary two oranges. I don’t like bananas but I was still cramping badly so was willing to do anything I could to try and calm it down. I found a log and sat down and probably spent about ten minutes trying to chew the banana. I forced it down. I had to. You need to during endurance events. “Can’t eat” and “Don’t want to eat” aren’t acceptable. You need to do everything you can to ensure your body has the fuel to keep going. No excuses.

Finally Sunset

We were now passing through loads of fields which I recognised from the recces I’d done. It was amazing to see them at a different stage of growth. Some fields which were golden were now lush green crops ready for harvest. Others were down to the dry soil after already being recently harvested. I found it fascinating. I arrived in one and could see runners ahead walking up the next side of the field. I knew here we weren’t far from Knockholt (I took a wrong turn here on a recce so remember it well) and I started power walking. We chatted away with the usual “how you feeling?” ice breaker leading to a general consensus that we all felt absolutely fucked and couldn’t run. None of us could recall the last stretch of consistent running we’d done. Oddly, this made me feel a little better. I wasn’t alone in finding this tough! Out of the field we saw the signpost indicating 1 mile to Knockholt Village. I walked on. An older gentleman soon ran passed me proclaiming “Half a mile to go”. I tagged on behind him and ran it all. The furthest I’d run for hours. I thanked him as we reached the village.

By now it must be clear that I was dinning out on the generous support of familiar faces and strangers alike. That was my energy source this day. Whilst the soaring summer temperatures took my physical energy, it couldn’t beat my mental strength which was being topped up constantly, something I hadn’t planned for. Knockholt saw a massive refill of energy in the familiar shape of Paul Christian. What he was doing all the way out here in Knockholt I did not know. It was great to see him and I’m so grateful for him being there. I was a little out of it, fantasising of the shade of the village hall and some coke, so kind of ignored him as I rushed in the aid station. As too I stared in a daze at another chap, Andy, who called out and said hello to me. Sorry Andy!

Captured by PC!

Coming back out of the aid station I felt rested. I knew Otford was the next stopping point and I’d agreed a few hours earlier to meet up with Jon and Nick for the first time here instead of later on at Wrotham. In the dark moments of the earlier heat Jon had sensed I was struggling and proposed a new crew plan. Spot on Jon, I can’t thank you enough for making that decision! Leaving Knockholt, Paul walked with me. We chatted away and he gave me some tips following his successful completion of the route last year. We passed Hezel who was getting ready to Pace Giffy and powered on back to the NDW. Fresh with Paul’s energy I started running again. My legs were working. It was starting to cool down. My mind was clearing and I was able to focus on the section at hand, putting the bigger picture to one side for a bit. For so long I’d been thinking of the end goal. Thoughts like “I’ve over two marathons still to go”, “how can I walk 50 miles”, “The cut offs are actually going to be tight today” etc. were poisoning my mind, dragging me down and making it difficult to focus. Now thought I was breaking through them. Positivity was setting me straight. Otford here I come…

There was plenty more running during this section although some serious cramping also hindered me in the still blistering hot evening. At one point as I shuffled passed some runners my legs went completely. I don’t know who panicked more, me or them as they checked in if I was ok as I abruptly came to a stop and wobbled to the side of the trail. All good I assured them. Clearly it wasn’t. The one good thing for my legs though was that they were no longer the primary source of my pains. Nope. My feet had now taken the lead in the pain stakes. Whilst the cooling temperatures and food might help the cramps diminish, nothing was going to happen to make my feet feel better than they did now, and they didn’t feel good. Hot spots and blisters were forming. 12 plus hours of feet slapping the baked Earth was starting to be felt.

The picturesque village of Otford soon came round after a few less than enjoyable kms along some busy main roads. I was looking everywhere for Jon and Nick (having not read the exact location of this crew zone) and eventually found them up near the station. I aggressively waved them across the road, indicating there was no way I was crossing it (later realising they were on the correct side I needed to be on! oops, sorry lads). They sat me down and gave me Calippos. Hell yes. This is what I needed. Jon made sure I didn’t stay for too long, knowing that I’d a planned rest stop in another 6 miles when I reached Wrotham. So eventually he kicked me out of the chair and made me get moving. Top work right there, he knew what he was doing. I would have happily sat there through the night. He also let me know that he and Nick had agreed a new change to out pacing plan. He’d join me from Wrotham rather than 12 miles later. I wasn’t immediately sure what this meant for the rest of the night, but I was very grateful as I was ready for the company now.

Heaven in the form of a Calippo and chair

Getting to Wrotham was a sweaty mess. There is a lovely climb out of Otford that instantly gets the heart pumping. Along the way families offered ice pops from over their garden fences, unknown to them most runners had just been gorging on Calippos at the crew point. As I progressed through this section, the sun’s rays diminished almost in perfect synchrony as I arrived into Wrotham just as I would have needed to start using my torch. Jon and Nick waved me down and the pit stop began. Propped up in a camping chair, with the Champions League showing on a tablet, I sent Nick off to prepare a Pot Noodle and began my routine. First up, stripping off and having a dry shower. Jon and Nick laughed as I seemed to enjoy this so much, washing my hair, torso and body. Thankfully the feet weren’t looking too mangled at this stage but I took the precautions of adding some padding and tapping the hot spots I could feel. We struggled to get the socks back on and Jon rightly pointed out it was time for me to get new ones (I’ve plenty in a box!) as they were stiff from the amount of dirt and washing they’ve been through. Eventually we won the battle. Shoes changed, fresh kit on, warm food consumed and bag repacked, it was over way to quickly and after a good half hour plus Jon was dragging me out of the chair and forcing me to leave once more. Good man.

The memories go hazy here. I had to question timings and locations after the race with Jon and Nick as I was clearly confused on the order of my recollections. Apparently next up was Holly Hill. I distinctly remember sitting next to a runner in the dark only for Jon to later point out it was a skeleton dressed in running gear. I also had a spot check on my kit here and recall joking with the volunteer. In my mind though this all felt much later in the race, but no, it was still Saturday evening!

I think my memory is hazy due to Jon, in a good way. Now I had company I was focusing less. Jon was expertly ensuring I was on course and keeping me occupied with conversation and pushing me to run when the opportunity presented itself. If the ground wasn’t lumpy, wasn’t inclined and wasn’t endless pathed road, I was good to go. With him leading the way, setting the pace, I was able to keep my head down and focus on where I was placing my feet to minimise the pain. Thankfully the taping saw me good for the first few miles. I do recall one section in the dark we passed some runners concerned that they’d missed a turn as they hadn’t seen tape or signs for a while but we were confident and led the way.

Not my picture – It was dark when I arrived here

After Holly Hill there was a a fairly long down hill section. The space opens up and we could see head torches in the distance as well as the silhouette of the Kentish country side and Bluebell Hill. I knew from my recces we’d soon cross along the M2 over the River Medway where we’d then meet Nick once more. In the darkness though I was disorientated and moaned a bit as the lights of the M2 seemed so far away. I couldn’t figure out our direction and sighed as we crossed a bridge and I realised it wasn’t yet the M2. We caught up with Nigel along this point and fast hiked the rest of the way together into Nashendarn Farm Lane, looking for Nick. I was looking forward to this stop. Besides being a little over a marathon to the finish (which was a significant milestone in my head as I’d now really be able to start counting down and am always confident in walking a marathon in a long race) it was also our planned ‘treat’ stop. Nick had spent the last few hours waiting in a Mcdonalds. Here he was waiting for us with a delivery burger and fries. It tasted so good.

Calories loaded up, we were back out, hiking the climb to Bluebell Hill. I remember this from the recce too. I’ts a long gradual climb over a couple of kms until you reach the top. The terrain is fairly varied but mostly stony gravel paths which aren’t exactly fun after 75 miles of running. Up top though was another surprise and boost as Paul Christian was waiting at the aid station to say hello once more. What a gent, I don’t know exactly what time it was but it was probably around midnight and he was even further away from home now too. We all had a moment chatting as Nick arrived too before Jon got me back on my feet and onward to Detling. Running down from Bluebell Hill I had a bit of a spring in my step and with the midnight breeze it was the first time in about 20 hours that I wasn’t overheating. Which was good, because there was another fine climb at Westfield Woods soon to come which would make me sweat again. The climb was slow as I awkwardly lunged up the deep steps and loose dirt track. Up top we were once again exposed to the elements, briefly interchanging open fields with single track paths through overgrown foliage. The now familiar process of Jon leading the way, me head down trudging along behind him.

The legend that is PC!
Always sitting down

There were prolonged moments of silence. Jon noticed me go quiet, he knew, he’s been through it himself. I was head down focusing. I wasn’t alone in my thoughts though. There was a centurion there too, he was running slightly ahead of me through the woods. He was huge, too big to fit on the path. A bulking mass of metal smashing through the foliage with his gladius. I felt like he was tormenting me, teasing me even. He couldn’t speak, he lumbered on aggressively and I could hear the sound of his armour chinking. A sound which drove right through me. Head down and focus I kept thinking. He’s not my enemy, only I am. I convinced myself he was here to guide me through the night, I chose to use him, to follow him and accept the thrashing sound of metal in the night. He left me as we emerged from Boxley Wood when a few other speedy runners galloped passed on the downhill as I relied purely on gravity to keep me moving forward.

We emerged onto Detling Road with just the bridge crossing left to cover before the next planned long stop at Detling where another Pot Noodle was on the cards. Crossing over the road an Irish accent directed down into the aid station before doing a double take and proclaiming “it’s you guys”. The instantly recognisable accent of Paul Martin! He escorted me in as Jon went in search of Nick who was sleeping in his car. Slacker. Paul saw to our needs, joking away as more runners arrived and slumped into chairs around us. Nigel arrived and I offered him a Pot Noodle, the smell of noodles in the air must have been great as, before we knew it, Paul was running around gathering all the Pot Noodles he could to serve everyone. What a top bloke. He updated us on the now significant drop out rate and gave us motivation and energy to get back out there. Jon and Nick swapped duties here and Nick led me out to begin the last 20 miles, immediately turning the wrong way, thankfully only for a few metres though.

Pacer duty switch. Thanks Jon!

From Detling the route provides another sadistic treat for tired legs which is the infamous Detling steps. After a short climb and winding path around some fields, you descend down very narrow, very steep and very over grown steps. About 50 of them I think. They were slippery with dew and cow shit. I must have moaned a bit here and I wouldn’t have been alone in doing so! The section to the next crew stop was undulating providing plenty of opportunity to hike the small climbs and run the short downhills. Nick continued the pacing theme with a good grasp of the terrain and when to push me on and encourage. Finishing with a downhill flourish we emerged into Hollingbourne which was one of the last minute additional crew points added to the race. I was glad of this addition. Mentally I’d now split the final 30km or so into 6-7km sections between aid stations and crew points. It was much more manageable. Jon met us at the Dirty Habbit pub with more food and water and a quick sit down to rest the now completely battered legs. Morning was slowly breaking and the darkness of night was giving away to the greyness of an overcast morning sky.

Back out. Nick had me on a ‘trot’ to Lenham, the next aid station. From Hollingbourne the rest of the route is mostly gravel paths with very short, runnable (not this time!) climbs before tailing off into a mostly downhill stretch to Ashford. The theme was ‘trot trot trot’ as Nick kept pushing and encouraging me. He’d been looking forward to this and having a run himself after tracking and following me all day. From time to time he acknowledge a good stretch of prolonged running. I’d occasionally be buzzing with it too only to have the life sucked out of me when what I thought would have been a mile or two of solid running would turn out to be a few hundred metres at best. I was at that stage now where the relativity of speed and distances was completely lost on me. That point where you question your comprehension of physics and how it is possible you’ve covered only such a short distance. You recall every detail you saw, every path, tree and field. How?! How can all that exist in such a small space. Fuck you. Ok, two more miles till the next stop. There were definitely moments where my shuffling was based on pure anger and it was the only thing that kept me running until the legs gave up again another few hundred metres later. I even remember moaning at the size of the bank we had to “climb” to get into the Lenham aid station. It must have been about the size of a pavement curb at best, but it felt like the mountains of Madeira to me!

Despite the dark times, the simple pleasures Nick was enjoying was rubbing off on me, pulling me back into the light. “Trot Trot Trot” he’d say, “trot, walk, walk” I’d do. One last crew spot to go as we headed towards Charing. My mind now processing each section with elements of finality. One last crew spot. One more aid station. One more ‘path’ before Ashford…. Jon had text ahead to indicate the road was closed so he couldn’t bring the car to meet us. I told him a chair and lucazade is what I needed him to bring. As we arrived and I sat down, I asked him for water. He gave me that look and laughed “that wasn’t on the list! I’ll go get it…” Thanks Jon! Charing was another spot I was happy to stay at indefinitely. As I stood to begin again my legs were as stiff as two planks. Each rest now required a good few minutes of persuasion to get my knees to bend.

From Charing we headed along the hard gravel path to Dunn St campsite. The path was painful. There is very little enjoyable about this section. The fields surrounding it are lovely, but I’d seen enough fields. The main road wasn’t far away and the sound of morning traffic was an alien sound not heard for hours, not enjoyable. Nick dragged me onwards as once more I’d claim Space and Time were fucking with me. Every turn I anticipated the camp site ahead, every turn the camp site wasn’t there. Eventually it did appear as I was teaching Nick the Polish for ‘chicken’. I can’t remember why. I went to sit down and he went off to play with the chickens at the campsite. The volunteers were great here. Full of energy and excitement to see us. They were working the ‘graveyard’ aid station. The one open for probably the longest duration between the first and last runners, the one many runners won’t reach. They encouraged us to fill up our bags with food and goodies and they let us know there were probably about 60 runners still out there. Some ahead of us, many still behind us.

This was it now though, 5 more miles to go. A short run on the trails and through some fields before the final, dreaded road section to the stadium. I knew it, I could visualise all the road. I was ready for it, I wanted it now, the finish that is. Leaving the trails we began a trot along the road and were soon passing groups of runners. Nick playing Pac-Man, pointing ahead and claiming “we’re gonna eat them up” as he’d set the targets and nicknames for the runners we’d chase down. With maybe 5 or 6 km to go we had about 50 minutes left to get a sub 28 hour time. I told Nick I wanted it, I didn’t care about the other runners. A few minutes later I’d claim someone was catching us or that we need to get passed those ahead of us. I was inconsistent with my thoughts. Nick kept the consistency though, trot, trot, trot.

We broke out onto the main Faversham road and could see dots of runners ahead. We stepped it up. The grey morning was now breaking into a scorching hot day again and we could feel the heat beaming down on us. We got to the intersection of Ulley road with a group of maybe 6 – 8 other runners. It was on. After some jokes and good wishes we all broke into a mad dash. I remember thinking it was way too early to be “sprinting”, but we were. We powered ahead, my watch was saying we were running sub 7min/km pace. Ulley road felt like it went on forever as we pushed hard. Rounding the corner I needed to slow and walk. More runners ahead. I couldn’t do this all the way to the finish. I told Nick to let them go. The few hundred metres we’d need to cover down Canterbury road had a very slight incline which I knew would drain me if I attempted to run it. Two runners ahead, two more went passed. We let them. Up ahead we’d need to go the ‘long way’ round a roundabout, keeping to the right-hand side of the road. The two runners who overtook us cut the corner and went left, passing the other two who followed the slightly wider course. We cursed them.

Around the roundabout we walked and then began running again for the last street. I wasn’t entirely sure how far along it would be (on my recce I’d cut off along this road to run to the train station) but I did know we had three-quarters of a lap of the track still to do. It didn’t matter though, this was it, this was the end. It was almost in touching distance now. We reached the track and followed the signage directing us how to get in. Jon was there cheering and waving us in. Nick started to peel off but I told him to follow me and join for the lap of the track, this was his as much as mine now. I regret Jon also couldn’t join us on the “victory lap”. We paced around the track and began smiling as the final straight loomed. We joked about racing, but it never happened. Instead I ducked my head as I crossed the finish line. What I thought was a perfectly formed athletics-style finish but in reality was probably just me nodding forward and sleepily looking at the ground with my arms flapping like a penguin.

The finish line, despite its subdued set up this year, was great. A volunteer directed me to collect a medal and a t shirt before instructing me where to stand for a finish line photo. Post photo I was directed towards a food tent where I collected a hot dog before moving on through the bag collection and reunited with Nick and Jon for the last time. Shortly after I was butt naked in the car park, changing out of my wet clothes ready for the drive home. It was over. I’d run a 100 miles for the second time, proving to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke achievement. With a rapid last 5km covered in just under 35 minutes I finished in 27 hours and 45 minutes, sub 28 hours achieved. I was a centurion now……

As the final few hours of the race unfolded it soon became apparent the extent of the difficulties the runners faced as 55% of starters DNF’d, making it one of the highest drop out rate of any centurion 100 mile event. This made me far more accepting of my struggles during the middle of the race and understanding of how alone in I felt. Huge respect to everyone who started that day, regardless of where their race ended, they put themselves outside their comfort zone and were brave enough to attempt something special.

I can’t thank Jon and Nick enough and acknowledge how this really was a team effort. I’ve no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished within the cut-off of 30 hours without these guys. 2 hours sounds like an ample buffer, but the reality of how tight that equates to is another story. Without them I would have run a lot less between Wrotham and Ashford for sure. those spare 2 hours would have evaporated as quickly as a muddy puddle in the midday heat. It isn’t just about the running though. These two sacrificed so much for me on the weekend. they volunteered and agreed to crew me with out fuss, they gave up hours leading up to the weekend in preparation, wrote off their weekend to commit themselves to my selfish desires. They drove miles and miles, spent ages sitting around in the car and at the side of the road, pandered to my every need and inconsistent requests. Not once did they moan or flinch at my demands. they were solely focused on enhancing my experience and doing everything they could to make sure I made it on time. This weekend was a team effort for sure and one I’ll never forget. Thanks gents!