In a parallel universe I would be here in April 2021 having run some other 16 official events (in 7 different countries and 12 of which being ultras)… These are the ‘Ones that got away‘ and sadly it is not the case. Those are not the times we live in now. It transpires that we live in a reality to the future we chased not that long ago. Time and Space were warped drastically by science and politics. The running calendars and plans were ripped up and rewritten over and over again. Then, Saturday 17th April 2021 came around and flashed a glimpse of the new future, and for the first time in a long time I ran in an organised event again…
On this day there were many, many running events taking place across the UK. Runners flocking back to their natural habitat of chasing metal souvenirs. Due to further clashes, I could have been at a number of these events myself, but instead I was running towards the ‘Centre of The Universe’ (CoTU) for what would be my first event of 2021.
CoTU was (is!) an original and unique concept from the masterminds of ‘DazNBone’ who are the faces behind the Camino Ultra running event Company. Whilst Race Directors continue to adapt and tweak their processes and protocols to make a “COVID secure” environment for their events to be permitted and granted approval to take place, DazNBone went one step further… They took away some of the more familiar but troublesome aspects of planning a mass participation running event in a COVID-secure way – they removed the start, not just the mass start but the actual start and along with it the defined route and Aid Stations. Bam. Have that!
I absolutely loved this. Not as simple as it sounds, and a bold move I’m sure many thought. The concept was that all participants would choose their own start line and devise their own route to the finish line, the “Centre of The Universe”. Whilst this wouldn’t appeal to all runners (many like the security of a well marked route and plenty of support along the way), to those more accustomed and experienced with ultra running it was like music to our ears. Personally I couldn’t give two shits about ‘event villages’ and ‘mass starts’. I’m done with that. I love the finish line feels and hanging around at an event village after I’ve completed my race to absorb all the post-achievement vibes and atmosphere, but, getting to a start line hours ahead of the event and hanging around waiting for it to start then jostling for space with hundreds of other runners, naaa. That can stay in the Pre-COVID world as far as I’m concerned!
Admittedly I am over simplifying things. There was a little more to the event than I suggest and it by no means insinuates that it removes all the work and hassle for them, far from it! So first off, the finish of the CoTU was in Hackney, London. This is the aim, the target for all runners to reach. The chosen start lines however must have been outside a 30km radius from this point. There was a time limit too of 9 hours. Within this period runners needed to get from their chosen start to the CoTU and cover a minimum of 50km (they could do more if they desired!).
You weren’t alone either, Camino provided all runners with a tracker to ensure safety and accountability throughout the run. Big Brother was watching! They also replaced the Aid Stations by supplying all participants with a box of fuel (Not the kind you’ll find from BP!) before the event. So each runner had their own mobile aid station they could carry with them to support and get them to the CoTU.
Without running an organised event for nearly 5 months (after consecutively running in at least one marathon/ultra a month for nearly 3 years!) I was eager to go. I went straight onto the route planners and chose a location I wanted to start from (Caterham) which was easy to get too (for me!) and would provide as much trail and scenic running as I could squeeze into the 50km. I also started roping people in to join me. Paul was, as always, signing up before I’d even finished describing it. Come the weekend there was a group of 5 of others who would run all or part of the route with us. Plus a dog, Nick’s new best mate – Bruce.
The route I plotted was very much a route of two (almost) halves. 30km of trails from Caterham to Beckenham and the final 20km along sealed roads, parks and paths tracing the riversides up to Greenwich before following the canal paths to Hackney. In my mind I knew it would be enjoyable to begin with before becoming a slog into London. The narrow canal paths I expected to be busy with Lockdown easing having begun and decent weather predicted for the weekend.
This is exactly how it turned out. Sort of. Some alarm clock malfunctions meant we were two support runners short at the start as Paul, Nick, Sophie, Bruce and I set off in the crisp and frosty morning from Caterham station. Now, whilst this was where our adventure began, it wasn’t our official ‘start’. You see Caterham train station lies just inside a 30km radius from the CoTU, so it wasn’t until about 2km later and a planned ‘U’ shaped detour on the trails that our race actually began…
It was cold, but, with a backpack full of bacon baps and the joys of running in a group again we merrily trotted on. We had no time goals and planned to just enjoy the adventure for what it was. Throughout the first few km I was rearranging where Reka and Carl would meet us. Reka would join Yvette and run with us from Beckenham and Carl was going to get South of Croydon and meet us in the middle of nowhere by tracing the route backwards until we met. I’m so glad they both worked on alternatives as it would have been so easy to turn around and say “next time”…
Those first 20km or so went by so quickly as we enjoyed the tranquillity of the open fields, rolling hills and lush green countryside pretty much all to ourselves. As we started descending from Biggin Hill we found Carl (or he found us?) and we carried on to one of our planned ‘stops’ along the way, a donut shack near Addington that sprung up during the lockdown of 2020 and seems to be incredibly popular with cyclists, hikers and runners alike. We chowed down on some fresh, warm donuts as Nick treated Bruce to a sausage. The fuel of ultra runners!
We cracked on for the final 10km of trails and weaved our way through to Beckenham where Reka and Yvette were waiting at our next planned stop – A Sainsburys where we could refill our water. Here the memories were tested as individuals tried to remember when was the last time they’d seen each other. Safe to say for most of us it had been a very long time!! Sophie left us here and the now group of 6 (plus Bruce) cracked on. Nick hadn’t intended to run from here but felt good and Bruce was eager to keep going (a quick call to his owner confirmed he was good to lead the way).
And so the second part of the adventure began. The route from Beckenham to Greenwich was something I’d only recently discovered was possible via public paths, walking routes and cycle tracks. Essentially the cycle route 21 – the Waterlink Way – connects Beckenham to Greenwich via a series of parks and green spaces which avoids many km of otherwise horrifically busy main roads. It surprised me how nice it was the first time I ran this route back in January.
With the route being incredibly flat from Beckenham onwards, it wasn’t long before we arrived in Greenwich where, no surprise, it was very, very busy. With the population regaining its freedom and the sun starting to shine longer and brighter, people were inevitably out enjoying themselves. The Greenwich foot tunnel, which is a novelty the first few times you go through it, was so busy it was like a blocked drain. We weaved our way through as quickly as we could before tracing the river round to Limehouse. This was where I hit my low point. I’ve run the Limehouse section too many times. I don’t think this part of the Thames path is particularly enjoyable nor interesting. Some decent views for sure, but you can get good views of London from so many places. From here, we’d follow the canal path via Poplar to Hackney. This was what I referred to as the “10km of shit stuff”, it too is far from interesting and somewhere I’ve run more than enough times to enjoy anymore. It’s very narrow in places and is a pain to navigate when there are groups of walkers, buggies and prams and cyclists all jostling for space.
I was slowing down as quickly as the kms ticking by. With a few km to go I kept reminding myself that this was excellent training. 30km of pleasurable trails followed by a long run on hard packed surfaces would be good mental and physical conditioning for the adventures to come.
Eventually we reached Hackney. Noticeable not only for the sheer chaos of the area with people everywhere drinking and ‘partying’ with the now unfamiliar sounds of enjoyment all around, but also because of the big landmarks like the City Stadium, the Helter Skelter whatsit and the massive ‘Here East’ sign which marked our CoTU destination. As we approached the finish line a small group began cheering and clapping, the familiar smiles of ‘DazNBone’ beaming at us and the group filtered off leaving me and Paul to enter the finishers area and cross that first finish line of 2021… We are back baby!! We are back!
I can’t thank my friends enough for this weekend. Its a recurring theme from my running life and adventures. I’ve met so many incredible people and many stick around and comeback for more and more adventures with me. I’m so grateful for these friendships. That friends give up their time to support you is an amazing feeling and I really am appreciative to Sophie, Nick, Carl, Reka and Yvette for sharing it with us and getting us to the finish line. Huge ‘kudos’ to Nick and Bruce for completing the whole ultra with us too! It goes without saying that Paul is a top fella and this is a small adventure compared to the many we’ve already shared and have planned to share in the future together. It’s no surprise he is at the top of my list when an idea creeps into my head. I’m always certain he’ll agree and help me realise that dream before the idea finds a way to escape my clutches!
Of course there is then’ DazNBone’. David and Darren. I met these fellas briefly during the carnage of the NDW100 last year and there has been nothing but encouragement and support from them ever since. A remarkable pair who have such an upbeat and positive outlook on life and approach to running. It was great to cross one of their finish lines and I’m excited to make may way to that finish line in Hackney again later in the year (only coming from the North this time!) for their Lea Valley Ultra (go sign up and join me!!). Huge thanks to Gigi for the awesome finish line photos too! Go check out his photos on Instagram – @gigigiannella_photo / @everyday.runner
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!