John Bateson, North Downs Way – 100 miles in 1 day

Short version: My first attempt at 100 miles, just squeezed in under 24 hours. Very pleased.
Fittingly long version: Last year this event was an out and back, this year a point to point. I didn’t try it last year, and I’m fairly sure the best part of the route is the first 50, however I really like going from A to B. Just look at it on a map:

All of my non-running friends, and some runners I know, find it hard to believe you can run so slowly;  one hundred miles in 24 hours is, after all, about four miles an hour – that’s walking pace…
This lovely race starts where the North Downs Way begins, and follows it for the first hundred miles or so – the route itself carries on for another fifty-odd miles. It covers some of the finest landscape the south has to offer, rising and falling as it goes. Even if you don’t want to run it all, walking, running or jogging sections is highly recommended.
Oddly for a long race, the start was convenient for me, only half an hour from my home. That was good because my wife had to get up at five on a Saturday to get me to the start – any further away and I might have been out of luck.
I wasn’t expecting much from the run, given the couple of light injuries I’ve sustained this year, and the fact I’ve only raced once. Training had been going fine, but on the short side for this kind of race. My longest week was forty miles, and the longest single run round about thirty. I’ve done 100km runs before, but not for over four years. So I dispensed with a stopwatch (I carried a watch, but only to mark off the hours), didn’t spend time studying the course, didn’t print off the checkpoint times for the silver buckle (under 24 hours). I just set off running, steadily, and tried to feel my way into it.
Being a local, the first part of the course I knew, and I enjoyed being in the unusual position of helping fellow runners navigate. One thing about ultras, there’s plenty of talking – we don’t need to save our breath for putting in a five minute mile to crush the opposition. As it happens, I was knocking out slightly too fast 9 and a half minute miles, but I felt fine, so went with it. I happily walked the hills, even though I knew some of them were, under normal circumstances, easy runs – a little over ten miles in we went up to St Martha’s Chapel outside Guildford, which is where I used to run with the dogs when we lived very close by. But I walked – only 10% of the way there.
Though I was trying to concentrate on the moment, and putting one foot in front of the other (about one hundred and sixty thousand times!), I’m no Zen monk, so I had to have mental mark offs. The big one was fifty miles – from there it’s like the downhill stretch. I realise the stupidity of this, of course, but it kind of works for me. I learned from other runners that the received wisdom is if you make it over mile 80 (I think it was a checkpoint at mile 84 or so), you’ll finish, and if you make it through to the dawn, you’ll make it. I met a couple of exceptions to this, but they’d had a rough time.
Back at the race (not really a race for me – the winner went under 18 hours….), I was in luck; it was turning out to be a hot day. They say it takes about three weeks to acclimatise to the heat, and clearly not many of us had been able to get used to it, given the summer we’ve had. However, I feel confident in the heat, and I’ve always performed well, so long as I keep drinking.
At box hill (mile 24) I was feeling good, and started striding off from the little group I’d been with – this is where the steps began; there were to be many, many steps up and down between here and Kent, and it formed a major topic of debate amongst runners post-event – but I bounded up them, or at least kept moving. Then I got lost. It was one of those moments of mental frailty, where the route goes up, but another route goes flat, so you convince yourself that the flat section is the right route… Am I the only one? So I had to reverse – only cost me about 15 minutes, but it was a bit disheartening.  On the plus side, it made me a bit paranoid about double checking the path, and probably saved me hours later.
And so I settled into the long day – run slowly, drink, eat a horrible gel, aid station, fill-up, run slowly, drink, eat a horrible gel, aid station. And so on. I had an underlying worry because I’d skipped breakfast (overslept, believe it or not), and the aid stations weren’t fantastically well stocked with vegan foods. I have to commend the aid stations for having some vegan alternatives, and being really helpful when I explained what I needed – fruit, nuts, gels. At one point I took a tiny triangle of peanut butter sandwich and spent a full half hour eating it. I’d also stashed home-made foods in drop bags, but even these were proving really difficult to eat. But the aid stations kept our spirits up – I even had a conversation with a volunteer about Scott Jurek (vegan ultrarunning legend)’s new book; a couple of runners also mentioned it in positive terms – I think there’s a convert or two lurking out there!
One of the nice things about this set up is that the aid station volunteers are doing it for love and a little thank you in the shape of a free entry – so most are runners themselves. This probably explains the really thoughtful spreads laid out at the stations – watermelon being a surprisingly fantastic thing after a lot of running.
I quite enjoy running alone, but on these days help is often needed. David joined me at some point during the day, and helped me enormously for a long period of time. Eventually he did decide to press on and in the end finished half an hour or more ahead, which is a good number of places.
The night wasn’t at all unpleasant, though I did worry a bit about going wrong, and the batteries went on both my main torch and the back up. This proved a problem at a pivotal moment…
Even though I’d told myself I’d be happy just to finish (and pick up the four points for the UTMB, incidentally), it became clear to me at so
me point that a sub-24 finish was on and so I duly started taking to myself. Nothing too Tom Peters, just a little bit of ‘it’s there for the taking if you want it’ kind of thing. There was a period, roughly when David decided to press on, that it was touch and go. So I called up my reserves, put on my music player and went into my run one song, walk one song routine. It seemed to work, even though I nearly didn’t get away from one aid station where one guy threatened to impound the player if it contained any Bon Jovi.
By the last check point I was cruising to one day finish, when I was hit by my pre-dawn torch failure and missed the turn off (basically over a stile about thirty metres from the aid station). Instead I ran down the hill into the village and got totally lost – tired, confused… Eventually I made it back to the station with 45 minutes to go and was told that it was taking people about 55 minutes. I was deflated and almost defeated, but sometimes you just need someone to tell you what to do, and thankfully one chap at the station told me it could be done (“it’s only a bit over three miles”) and jogged with me to the point I got lost to be sure I was on track. I ran all the way, an achievement of which I’m very proud, and made it with 10 minutes to go. Final time 23 hours 50 minutes 16 seconds, 26th place.
Can’t wait for the next one!
The full, painful detail of my run-walk is here:
I can’t find any pictures of me anywhere, which is a shame because I was proudly sporting my VRUK vest throughout. Plant Strong.