Sunday 14 May 2017

Race Report: Centurion Running North Downs Way 50

The second of the four 50-mile races from Centurion Running, and the second I needed to complete to stay on track for the grand slam - this year's big challenge. I haven't had the best preparation - a debilitating cold for a week, then starting a new job, and then being away for a few days with said new job sharing plenty of wine with my amazing new colleagues, not getting enough sleep, and eating all the wrong things.

Assembled in a Farnham school for pre-race briefing

But there I was anyway, on the start line, tired, heavy, but determined! As with all Centurion races it started bang on time, 8am on the dot. I'd already been up a while, having got up at 4:30 to get the train to race start Farnham to register.

The acorn symbols are your friend, follow them and you can't go wrong

This is a race of two halves, the first from Farnham to Box Hill, with more rolling hills and runnable trails; the second from Box Hill to Knockholt Pound with much more challenging ascents and more technical downs with plenty of tree roots to watch out for.

Obligatory tourist shots in front of the official start point of the North Downs Way

The course is almost entirely on the North Downs Way, starting right at the beginning in Farnham, and only deviating for the last half mile to get to the village hall in Knockwood Pound. I'd run the course before, last year when Mrs and I covered the full length over six days so I knew what I was in store for.

All lined up ready for the off, I like to start near the back :)

Turns out it was a race of two halves for me too - the first half was lovely. I settled in to a nice steady pace, barely pausing at the first couple of checkpoints, just to get my presence logged and water topped up - not to mention a nice surprise when a jam sandwich turned out to be a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Yum.

An early hill, first uphill hiking of the day

The trouble started towards the end of the first half - a bit of an ache in my right knee. In a long race the aches always come and go, but this one was stubborn. After the (roughly) half way aid station at the stepping stones I found the climb up the 100+ big steps to the peak of Box Hill hard going.

Unofficial aid station known as The Bacon Boat - free bacon sarnie from a couple of inflatable sumo!

It's a fairly technical section next, with short sharp ups and downs, plenty of roots, and dozens of groups of 8-10 kids with their houses on their backs out camping on some expedition or other. I noticed that I'd stopped running so much, and wasn't taking advantage of the down hills. Knee aching a bit more. I was still jogging, but had slowed considerably.

Beautiful bluebell season

There's a little section at Merstham where the North Downs Way passes through a graveyard in a church, with some short sharp steps. Two of the steps led to a sudden sharp and exceptionally painful stabbing feeling into the knee - I couldn't help but yelp with the pain. That was it - any more of those and I'm stopping - no race is worth picking up a real injury!

The view behind me from the famous Box Hill summit, looking down towards Dorking

Unfortunately this hit my confidence. Since the 50km mark, around the Reigate hill checkpoint, I'd been concerned about possibly needing to hike the rest of the way - I was not enamoured with the thought of hiking for 30km. However, I was still doing some jogging, and making progress - after the pain at Merstham, with still 25km to go, I was quite unhappy.

I couldn't stop though, I wasn't after a PB or record breaking performance, I just needed to finish - and if I didn't, the grand slam was off.

So I carried on, trying to cover the ground as best I could. The hills were very slow and hard now, and the flats not much better. I started working out the average pace I'd need to hit to finish within the 13 hour race cut-off, but unfortunately didn't know what the overall race distance was - they're never exactly the distance on the tin, and usually a little bit further.

The very definition of point-to-point

Trying to keep to at least 5-6km/h (10 to 12.5 minutes per km) I shuffled, scuffed, and dragged myself forward. Counting down the kilometres I knew it was going to be close. Finally across a field I saw the finish area, but the course spirals round it, so not home yet. I checked my watch, just 20 minutes left - I'd been going for over twelve and a half hours!

There were still a few runners around me, but they didn't seem to be as broken as I was - they all overtook me in the last mile as I forced myself to keep going - it was going to be close. Finally down a gentle and painful hill into Knockholt Pound village I saw Mrs waiting for me - just a few hundred metres to go!

Blue - pace, plummets after 40km; grey - altitude, 1,915m (6,283feet) over 50 miles

Running (well, "running") up the side of the village hall, and under the inflatable finish line I'd got there. 5 hour of running, 8 hours of determined forward shuffling, and I'd made it with just seven minutes to spare! I was the second to last person to finish, a bit of a change from my PB at the South Downs Way 50, two hours faster just a few weeks ago - but it doesn't matter. I was overjoyed to finish within the time, to pick up the side-plate sized medal, and still be in the running for the grand slam.

Second to last in 12:52:56 - and I've never been so happy to finish!

Thanks to Louise for giving me a lift back to Wimbledon, and to Mrs for being wonderful and supportive, and bringing me extra warm socks and cold beer, and helping me out at the end while I sat shattered and emotional on a chair.

Significant bling - two down, two to go...

Nine weeks to my next ultra, the XNRG Chiltern Challenge 50km (which I ran last year), and a whole 18 weeks to prepare for the next in the grand slam series, the Chiltern Wonderland 50 on September 16th. I need to arrive there better prepared and lighter - I can't handle a repeat of today's experience!

Best sausage baguette ever

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