It’s been a long way. Over 4000 miles… 4,002 in fact. And 2.5 years, well almost… 6 days short.
Not that either of those facts really matter, but they have brought comfort and reassurance. To go from zero mileage logged on my Runkeeper app to the day I stood at the start line of my first 100 mile race – the North Downs Way 100. What a journey it has been. Some of it blogged about on here, most of it not.
I signed up for this race last year as soon as entries opened. Many have asked why, runners and non-runners alike. Why so much, so soon, especially when I’ve been carrying niggling injuries for most of that time. But why not…
We only get one life… and for the most part, we fill it with the things we choose. Every one of us. Our choices create our life and thus our memories and our legacy… because what we do is who we are, which leads to the experiences in the world we have created. We each have the opportunity to lead by example, to inspire and to demonstrate what is possible… that sounds rather altruistic reading it back, and I am far from that, but if we take it to a smaller level, think about how you feel when you’re having a bad day and someone opens a door for you, smiles at you, helps you… it’s pretty much the same thing really… walking our talk. I take the view that most people can do what I do… if they choose too… and how wonderful life can be, if we but look at all the possibilities we have to experience it… and choose to act on them.
Last year I completed the three main challenges I set out to achieve… to run the London Marathon (my second marathon and the first race I have trained for properly) non-stop and to go from zero to double stage runner in only 18 months with Racing the Planet’s roving race in Madagascar and 15 days after hitting that finish line, to be on the start line of the Grand to Grand Ultra stage race in the USA – 515 km in total. What an absolute amazing experience and one that can never be replicated. It’s still unbelievable to me that I’m the only person in the world to have done those two races together, unless or until RTP hold another one in Madagascar.
So for 2015 I wanted to do another three main challenges. The first was Marathon des Sables, that iconic race across lots of sand which petrifies most people after they’ve signed up and reduces them to weighing every single little thing in their lives… and yes, jelly babies are worth their weight in gold, and you will keep a stack of ziplock bags in your kitchen drawer forever after. Plenty already written about that race on this blog for anyone who’s interested.
The second was 8 marathons in 8 days at the Great Barrow Challenge: they have 10 marathons (or ultras) in 10 days as a yearly event and as I had a wedding to attend, could commit to only 8 of them. I figured it would be good training for a 100 miler, but as it was only 5 weeks before said 100 miler and only 10 weeks after MdS which I hadn’t fully recovered from, every day brought new issues to be resolved: from a dodgy hip flexor that locked up after Day 1 so I started Day 2 literally dragging my leg, to almost going to the local hospital by the end of Day 6 because I thought I had ripped my diaphragm or had a hernia. Plus the ever complaining Achilles… but you know runners… they’ll wait to see how they feel the next morning and hit the start line if they can… 214 miles in total, the majority of it run (I thought Suffolk was flat… there where hills… not North Downs Way type hills thank God, but hilly nonetheless)… with Day 8 being the fastest of the lot and only 25 minutes slower than my PB. New friends made, a fantastic time enjoyed… and a hell of a lot of inspiring people there… from runners who have run 100, 200, 600+ marathons and at all ages, to others who were told they would never run again due to illness and those who were competing in between cancer treatments. If you’ve never heard of the event before, go take a look at it here… oh and it’s not marked… you get printed instructions each day, unless you’re lucky enough to download the course onto your garmin. If you have a garmin that works and is not a 310xt which has a mind of it’s own, that is! So 2 out of 2 challenges achieved, which gave me more confidence for what was looming.
Challenge number 3
My first 100 miler and the North Downs Way 100.
There comes a time when you have to step outside of the comfort zone if you really want to challenge yourself. Now, everything I’d done to date truly had challenged me, but for all that they have been hard, I had considered the practicalities in a very logical manner. Comfortable cut-offs, what I’ve achieved to date, opinions of my coach and sports therapist… logging the training miles… managing the achilles and the knock-on effects of it’s temper tantrums… it’s all been “do-able”. Until now. Not only is 100 miles a bloody long way… but I chose a hilly one to start with. And I don’t do hills. My training has focused on building my endurance for the ever increasing distance and speed to meet the cut-offs (especially a 45 miler at the beginning of the year). On paper, 30 hours for 100 miles seems generous, even if you take into account time for aid stations. The realisation of how tough those hills could be, struck when I had the bright idea to trot along and do the North Downs Marathon on 19 July as a recce of some of the route. My quads have not been felt so trashed for a long time, and that was from only 13 miles along the out and back course! One of the lovely volunteers there also said I’d chosen the hardest one to start with from Centurion Running’s selection, and let’s not forget it’s a qualifier for the Western States. I wondered what I had let myself in for… maybe I should have waited and started with the Thames Path 100 next year with it’s lovely path along the canal, much flatter although not without its own challenges… but a challenge is a challenge… and this was what I had signed up for!
I met up with fellow Striders Dean and Sam who hadn’t done the race before, and Colin who had. Colin’s wife Elisabet had also signed up last year but her plans have gone into overdrive recently so she was not racing. Registration was very easy and only a few minutes walk from the train station and it was there we bumped into Mark, who was also from our local area and runs with Southend Flyers. We had a pretty chilled out evening fuelling up for the task ahead and everyone seemed relaxed. I tried to get some sleep, which wasn’t very successful due to the heat and amount of food consumed (no, it’s not greedy, it’s fuelling 😉 ). Not the best start and the alarm call at 0415 seemed way too early. Get up, get ready and get to the race briefing which was absolutely full. The nerves started. Everyone there looked like a “proper” “serious” runner. I felt totally out of my depth: only a couple of years running, I’m not fast, I don’t do hills… the guys gave me verbal kick and Colin reminded me that it was just a long picnic through the countryside… food… that will work 🙂
We walked to the start line, just down the road… 0600 hours… we were off… just a long picnic… Mark said he didn’t want to go off too quick so would stay with me to the first checkpoint to hold himself back… we trotted along at an easy pace and I was very very conscious I needed to hold back to my own pace and not try to keep up with others as they streamed past, we had all day and half of the next… my idea for running as long as possible to bank time for later seemed sound. The scenery was like something out a film… misty low lying fog covering the fields, the sun climbing through to give an ethereal air, the crunch of footsteps over gravel and trail, houses not yet waking, birds calling across the fields… it felt as if the first aid station and accompanying photographer appeared very quickly… just over an hour… some climbing, some downhills and then I recognised part of the course from the marathon… Mark had run the half marathon route the same day that I had done the full, so got to see the bit he’d missed here… onwards and through part of the Denbies Wine Estate with a lot of downhills, no tourist carts this time… I remembered the trashed quads and prayed that if that kicked in because of this race, it wouldn’t hit until after I’d finished! From there it was on to the infamous Box Hill… we reached Aid Station 3 in just under 5 hours, which was what I had hoped for. Mark decided to stay with me to the halfway point and then when my first pacer met me, would go off and put in some faster miles.
Next up was the lovely Stepping Stones which looked so peaceful and cool… by now the sun had risen a lot more and the temperature had increased accordingly which made for an added “tough” factor and I’ve heard reports that it was between 28 and 30 degrees: it felt hotter in parts (the car thermometer the next day going home showed 36 degrees outside)… time to take the hat off and swirl it in the water! It was rather tempting to stop and have a dip but given that I knew what was coming, and how slow I’d be, it wouldn’t have been a wise move. We started the climb. Lots of steps. And more steps. And more. Lots of walkers around, looking at you as if you’re completely mad when you answer their question of how long with “only about 75 miles left”. Finish one climb… little jog, little downhill bit… another climb… Stop, breathe, climb, stop, breathe climb. You wouldn’t want to fall down these. Amazing how quickly your energy trickles away… and yet when you reach the top and trot along to where the trees give way to open space, and that vista just opens up… the scenery is simply superb and it feels like you are on top of the world.
No time to rest, onward to Reigate Hill… and it was there that we saw Sam, who had a problem with his knee and had therefore decided to drop. We took a good 10 minute break here, chatting with him, checking he was ok, and refuelling with lots of goodies from yet another awesome array of food. It was a sobering few minutes to see how quickly and easily participation in a race can end! We pushed on through the next two checkpoints at Caterham and Botley Hill and as the hours passed, it seems that some points may have merged into others in my memory… there was a point where Mark jinxed himself… talking about how if he didn’t end up going to hospital this year, it would be the first time in 5 years he hadn’t made a yearly visit, immediately tripping and planting his whole body and face on the trail… I’m sorry to say I laughed, but did make sure he was ok. He got his own back when a gorgeous friendly tail wagging dog with loads of energy decided as I approached and went to stroke him, to turn from said happy friendly dog to a vicious rabid scramble of biting fury! I’ve never seen a dog change so quickly in my life and was very glad it was on a lead. The owner’s words of “he’s just excited” did not match her sheepish look as she tugged him back! Needless to say I avoided all dogs from that point on just to be on the safe side… and wondered if my rabies shot was still valid! Mark laughed at that one. I think he was also with me when we went past a house that looked as if it had some European “heavies” standing guard… it was like something out of a film… guys standing round smoking cigarettes, in the middle of nowhere. We did wonder if perhaps someone was “casing the joint” but it looked like there was a lot of activity going on around the house with lots of lights, so we assumed they were private security guards. Rather glad I wasn’t on my own at that point! I also specifically remember a happy volunteer with pom poms dancing about at the top of one of the hills… probably a later Box Hill area but it may have been Botley Hill… I remember they were bright pink or may be red… because Mark and I checked that we hadn’t been going long enough to have hallucinations yet 😀 … definitely too early in the event for that! I’m also pretty sure the Botley Hill aid station was at the top of a lovely climb, in a small car parking area just off a main road… which I had run a little bit of last year as part of the Gatliff50 course… and one of those two checkpoints (probably Caterham) also had a new race favourite… roast potatoes! Whoever brought those… thank you, thank you, thank you… a total energy boost… they tasted amazing! This was a good point in the race for me because I’d also been tracking how long I’d been going and between those two checkpoints I hit the time that I’d completed the Country2Capital race back in January. According to my Garmin (which, alas, has been known to lie to me on occasion), I was only 2.5 miles off my time, which may not mean much to most, but was a great confidence booster because it meant my overall pace was pretty much the same but for a race at over double the distance. I thought I was banking a lot of time for the end…
Anyway, onto the halfway point… Knockhoult Pound… and it was here Mark and I parted company… he to run a lot faster, and me to meet my crew and use the facilities there and basically get a bit of pampering! I must admit it was an emotional moment seeing my friends there… and the volunteers, as with every aid station, could not have been more helpful: directing you to a seat… I admit it, I sat in a Seat of Doom… plying you with hot pasta, getting you extra cheese to put on top, getting you hot drinks… checking you were ok. I decided to change a top, one of my buffs, stock up on tissues and saltsticks… and since a stinking headache by this point was thumping away, take my hairband out. Getting coherent sentences out however was a little harder. Maybe I had pushed too hard? I reckon I took about 40, maybe 45 minutes here. It was worth it.
Super Crew: Andrew, Dave, Loren & John – 72 miles down
So another new experience… my amazing crew and pacers… John ran with me to the next crew point even though he had a damaged knee himself… I felt more awake and was, I think, able to chat away quite coherently. Then a friend from Southend Flyers took over: Andrew had been at work all day, had just got back from holiday and his wife (the lovely Sam) was taking care of their move to a new home that day so he could come and run with me in the evening! He was down for around 18 miles… I think I was stilll chatting coherently most of the time by this point… and I remember coming up onto the bridge and him making me run across it when I had got to a point I just wanted to walk… and managing to hit a 9.30 minute mile for a wee while… well it felt like ages but may only have been minutes… but it cheered me up a lot. Again, it might not sound much, but I was in totally new territory: my longest race distance to date had been 100k the year before (although MdS was 91.7km for the long stage) and although it was hurting by now, wasn’t as bad as the finish of that 100k, so a definite improvement! It was at that 72 mile point that Andrew then left for the drive home, fellow Strider Dave took over, and the point I was rocking the Forrest Gump look in earnest… not the sharp tidy hair sprinting version, but the long sticking out hair from under a baseball cap, wild-eyed, look shuffling version… not sure it’s a look I should replicate again, and thankfully no photos… I double checked that the following day!
Dave had recced the route a fair bit and had even gone over and re-checked his “section” a couple of days beforehand, which was fantastic because I reckon from this point on, if I’d been on my own, not only would I have been a bit scared by all the rustling in the woods… not just the cars which looked deserted (I bet they weren’t!) but from creatures in the undergrowth… I don’t think they were the car inhabitants either… my awareness levels really dropped in the early hours of the morning and I would have got lost very easily! Instead, I was able to just put my head down and push through, although there were a few bad moments with yet more hills and some very vocal language. I know, hilly course, but the elevation profile really doesn’t do justice to just how many little rocks, steep little inclines that take your breath away and by no means least, the amount of tree roots that you will catch your feet on and stumble over… until all you feel is a bloody swollen tender pulp of a large toe nail that screams with every footstep… all other toes and soles of the feet having been tenderised and then numbed into submission many hours previously! We went through the night and into the next day… whereupon there was a scary moment… town dwellers indeed… there was a bull… it looked like a bull… it had horns which curved into spikes on each side… and it was stood sideways completely blocking our way forward. It saw us… and didn’t move. We debated the cow/bull thing, assuming it was a bull due to the huge horns that looked like they could impale you very painfully. We backtracked and looked around to find an alternative way forward… barbed wire to one side… impassable area on the other…. I was all for trying to get through the barbed wire, especially when said cow started following us… and then thankfully another competitor came round the corner! He asked us if we lived in the town or country… obviously town, oh the shame… he was so calm and just walked us through… I stayed to his right hand side, away from the horned beast… only to find as we rounded the corner that there were many more… apparently they were cows of a special breed… although he did say that one may have been a bull… so a huge thank you to that competitor… I ran as soon as I could after that bit!
Dave left at Hollingbourne and Loren took over. Only just over 15 miles to go… although according to my lying Garmin it was much less. And the plan of banking time so I could death march all of the end bit if necessary… didn’t work. 30 hours seems a lot… but you take into account how much time you spend at aid stations, even if they are not a lot, they still add up… especially a long stop at the mid way point… and possibly a good 30 minutes Detling, not sure on that one but I do remember joking with Joe there about his “tough love”, and then he kicked me out… thanks Joe, much appreciated… plus there’s the time it takes to get up the never ending amount of “hills”, I’m pretty sure my Garmin said I was on a 20 min mile pace up one steep section… so by this point it was shuffling and stumbling and walking… no tears surprisingly… until the crew point at Charing. John met us there to make sure I had everything I needed… the time was ticking by… and Loren told me just after that point that we couldn’t have another mile at “that” pace… my ego absolutely petrified at the possibility of a DNF (how the hell was this was possible after running parts at a 9.30 min mile at mile 70 I do not know – oh yes, the hills!)… I managed to go from walk to shuffle… swearing all the time that I was never going to do another 100 miler ever again. Yes, I’m sure this has happened to pretty much every runner at some stage… but I honestly meant it! There were still hilly bits so I had to walk those… I had absolutely nothing left to push up them any faster… but on the down, Loren strode ahead to force me to try and keep up… we even hit an 8:11 min mile on one downward stretch which I thought was pretty amazing, my legs were shaky when I got to the bottom… we got into a pattern for those last 7ish miles… “gotta walk”…. “ok run”… “gotta walk”… whinge… “ok run”… “keep me running”… dashed into the last checkpoint, told John to not bother going to the last crew point, just go to the end… and pushed on through the fields until eventually we reached the road… where is it? Round a corner, cross the train line, wait for traffic… dash over the road… the volunteers appearing, just round another corner, c’mon… and there it was… the inflatable finish line… bouncing away… such an amazing emotional sight… I don’t often get tears at the end of a race but I did on this one…
I’ve done it… I’ve run a 100 miler…
What an absolutely amazing emotional heartfelt incredible moment in my life…
I got my buckle… tried to breathe…
Once again the volunteers, amazing… you get your buckle, the photographer takes your photo… you’re helped into the hall and found a seat. Each arrival announced to those already there… a round of applause for every finisher as they step into the hall. The first aid person comes over to check you’re ok while another volunteer is getting you a bacon sandwich… another hands you a cup of tea. You sit and it suddenly seems very surreal… you try to take it all in…
29 hours, 01 minute, 24 seconds – 102.6 miles
So while my Garmin may have lied about distance and time (106 miles and sub 29), and my friend exaggerated a little to get me running and motivated 😉 … and while I may have said never again at the time… I’m left with memories of an amazing day and night of a new adventure, been amazed at the kindness and generosity of spirit of the Centurion Running volunteers and am actually considering doing another… a huge huge thank you to my crew, my coach and sports therapist for getting me to the start line and then the finish line… and a huge thank you to all those at Centurion Running, who have a very well deserved positive reputation for the organisation, helpfulness, kindness and volunteers of their races. I look forward to another, maybe next year 🙂
And for those who think a 100 miler is not possible… or who dream of doing one, one day, but don’t believe it could happen… remember each and every step you take builds the foundation which will get you there, if you choose to take those steps, one at a time.
And for those of who visit my blog who aren’t runners… the same principles apply to all parts of our lives. We ALL have the potential to achieve and encompass more in our lives… to challenge ourselves, to hopefully to open our minds, our beliefs and our hearts… to choose to bring more happiness, laughter, light and of course… new adventures… into our lives.
I’m off to dust my buckle again… and to ponder what new adventure to create next!
Many thanks for taking the time to read and visit here!
Michelle – A Centurion 🙂