50 miles along the North Downs Way

Holy bajeezus, I ran* 50 miles. (* with a lot of walking). It’s been a week since the big race in the UK last weekend, and I still can’t quite believe it happened. My legs have stopped aching, my appetite has returned, and things are generally the same as they were beforehand. Except that I can now truly say that I am an ultra-runner, that I have covered 50 miles on foot, and lived to tell the tale.

We’d stayed overnight in Farnham in order to make it easier to get to the start. Unfortunately I hadn’t realised that our AirBnB was a ~35min walk away from the school where we had to meet, and of course every single taxi in the area had already been booked out. However, our wonderful AirBnB host came to the rescue and woke up at 6:30 to drop us – what an absolute legend. There I met up with Emma, Melanie and Max, friends of mine who were also running the race, had my kit checked, listened to the briefing, and then headed to the startline. We were all a bit nervous but excited, and personally, totally naïve of what was to come.

The North Downs Way 50 by Centurion Running follows the path for 50 miles from Farnham to Knockholt Pound. It’s very much a race of two halves, with a flatter, more runnable first-half, and then a whole bunch of hills in the second. There were aid stations every ~10km, as well as crew-only points along the way. I had organised to meet Sye at points every ~10miles (10.6, 21.1, 33.7), and then to see him at the end.

I started out running with Melanie, partially as a method to force myself to slow down in the first section. However, after ~6km I got a bit too excited and ran off ahead without her. It was really fun going for the first part, and I chatted to quite a few people along the way. I skipped the first aid station because I had enough supplies on me, and also passed up the ‘Bacon Boat’ located on a river at 10-ish miles (I don’t like bacon!). In my pack I had brownie bites and dates, as well as Tailwind in my water bladder, which I was drinking every ~15min, and things were ticking along nicely.

Saw Sye for the first time and didn’t stop for very long, other than to say that I thought I was probably going a bit too fast for this early in the race. With hindsight, this was 100% true, and yet at the time it felt totally comfortable and as though I was plodding along. I was walking the hills but otherwise running at ~5:30 pace, and just having a great time. I would go on to pass everyone I knew running the race by the halfway point, and loved the chance to catch up with UK friends who I hadn’t seen in a while.

I tend to hit a low point at ~28km in the marathon, and I felt it again during this race. When I met Sye at the second crew point (21.1mi) I was a little bit worse for wear, however after wiping my face and re-applying sunscreen it was time to head on. Thankfully then we got to a nice downhill section past the Denbies Wine Estate, where I was chatting to a lady named Marie, and these kilometres ticked by quickly. Marie and I had been overtaking each other up to now, as she was running all the hills, but I would then catch up again on the flats/downhills. It was good to talk and hear her story, rather than just letting myself get all competitive.

The main checkpoint for me in this race was the Box Hill Stepping Stones, because according to various calculators I’d consulted beforehand, I had figured out that to get a ~10 hour finish time, I needed to be there by 4:10. Yes – I now realise that this was totally stupid and I should not have even thought about time or anything for my first major ultra. It actually caused me quite a bit of stress in that first section, trying to get to 39km within that time frame, but when I did make it in 4:15 I felt I could finally relax. Stupid. I should have been relaxed from the beginning – but these are the things that you learn with experience, of which I had none.

After the Stepping Stones (which I had to carefully cross, whilst getting my photo taken, and trying not to fall!) you then head up Box Hill. 275 steps straight up. Immediately, I fell back. My lack of hill training in the past weeks/months started to show, and I was getting passed by so many people. When I made it to the top, I was met by Andy, an old friend from Fulham Running Club (who had also been manning the Box Hill aid station), and he gave me a big sweaty hug. Halfway – but still so far to go.

I’d walked this section of the course in preparation, and although at the time I’d thought ‘it will be so fun to run this!’ I found that I wasn’t actually running that much of it after all. I knew that I was getting close to my furthest distance ever run (51km in 2016), and mentally it meant entering unchartered territory. With Box Hill and Reigate Hill between the aid stations at 24mi and 31mi, it took around 1:45 to cover those 7miles, and everything just felt like it was taking forever.

However, it now wasn’t far until I would see Sye again, and I really needed him as a boost. I checked in and said I was close, but heard back that he was still 25-30min away from the crew point, which was longer than it would take me to get there. This was a bit devastating – I really wanted to see him, but I also didn’t want to spend 10min standing around at the side of the road waiting for him. After some umming and ahhing I sent a message saying I would just have to keep moving, and tried to mentally steel myself that I would have to get through to the end alone.

Just as I was turning into a new road though, I felt my phone buzzing in my vest. When I picked up the call from Sye, he said “did you just turn a corner?”. As it happened, he had bolted from the station and was not far behind me. Seeing him run up, with three bags in tow and a massive smile on his face meant absolutely everything to me. I stopped for 5mins to talk to him about how everything was going (not great), change my socks (brilliant), and stock up on some different food (very necessary, I was getting pretty sick of dates and brownie bites!).

At this point, Melanie came flying past. She was running super well, and eventually went on to finish in sub-10 hours, a great confidence booster ahead of her 100-mile race in a few weeks time. Originally I asked her to wait so that we could run together, but it quickly became apparent that she just needed to keep powering, and I told her to go on without me.

Things were getting tough. I was walking even the smallest of inclines, or pretty much whenever I saw that the person in front of me was walking too. By now I had passed my longest-distance ever, and it was becoming more and more difficult to keep running. It wasn’t that I was necessarily fatigued or that my legs hurts or anything, more just that the mental effort required to move my legs in a jogging motion was too great.

After the Caterham checkpoint (38mi), I decided that I just needed to walk, and probably wouldn’t run again. There was still some 20km to go, and I knew it would take forever and that yes, I wouldn’t make it to the finish within 10hours, but none of that mattered anymore. I was going to get to the end, I knew that much, but I wouldn’t be running anymore. I sent off some texts to that effect, but also followed up that I was already proud of what I had done. At 62km I had run further than I’d ever run, had been moving for longer than I’d ever moved before (beating the 7:12 finish time of my half-iron triathlon), and that even if I had to crawl to the end, I had already achieved something huge today.

And so began the death-march. Many of the friends I had overtaken in the earlier stages of the race began to overtake me, and I would simply state to them “I’m just walking now, and that’s ok”. I’m sure they were also struggling.

Once I’d been walking for ~30min though, I started thinking that maybe I could attempt a little jog again. I was at a downhill, and used gravity to pull my legs into a gentle run. I probably kept it up for a kilometre or so before we came to another uphill and more walking, but it gave me an emotional boost. When I came to a downhill after that and felt mentally up to it, I would use the terrain to break into a jog, and try and keep it up for as long as possible. I caught up again with my friend Amy, who was very pleased to see me running, but then she then disappeared up ahead when my mojo left me again.

Made it to the final checkpoint where they had ice lollies (!!!!!! – BEST THING EVER), and knew that there was less than 2 hours left in this race. YES! Ridiculously, it was only something like 7.5mi/12km, which really should not take me 2 hours to cover, but that’s all I could manage after 70km already behind me. My watch beeped low battery so I ended the activity tracking and switched over to Strava on my phone, because damnit I did not want to lose any part of this achievement. After dropping half of the ice lolly on the ground (so sad) I set off for the finish.

In these last kilometres I kept coming across people who would say things like “it’s pretty flat from here to the end!” or “this is the last hill!” – when of course neither of those things were true. I definitely got pretty negative in this last part, and although I tried to jog for a bit here and there, I rarely made it more than 2 minutes before needing to walk for another 10. Some kind person along the way had given out sour lollies which I’d shoved away, and these, along with a squeezy pouch of baby food, were food highlights. I’d switched to gels, and was still eating every 30mins. I had feared beforehand that I would have to throw up en route (I’d heard lots of stories that this happens during ultras), but thankfully my stomach held strong.

The final part of the course sees you passing through field after field after field after field. It feels like you’re never getting to the end, and I kept checking Google Maps to see if the little end-point marker had gotten any closer. For the first time too I went wrong, following a marker and turning before a hedge rather than after it. Thankfully within ~50m I realised something was wrong, and a guy coming up behind me pointed me right. Other than that little confusion, the course had been so well signposted the whole way.

And then there was an arrow drawn in orange on the floor which said ‘finish’. Finish. FINISH! I broke into a run and knew that there was no way I would be walking until I crossed that line. I messaged Sye to tell him to get ready, and then flew down the hill as fast as my tired legs would take me – with a massive grin on my face. As I passed people standing at the side of the road I yelled “I’m heading to the finish!”, because damnit I could almost not believe it myself.

There is a little hill leading up to the finish line and Sye and Melanie were standing there, clapping me on. I fist pumped the air multiple times as I crossed the line, and then doubled over in tears. I had done it. 10:52:58 and I could finally stop. I got my medal and a hug from Mimi Anderson (not that I realised who it was… oops!) and then Sye enveloped me in an embrace. Thank the lord, I didn’t have to run any more.

All I could say afterwards was ‘never again’. Now, a week later, I think I probably will run that distance again in the future, but it’s a long way off. To me that race was not satisfying. Having to walk for such a large portion of the second half, with no mental strength to run, was not a good feeling. It made me hate running, made me question why I run long distances. The finish line was great not because I felt on top of the world, but because it meant I could sit down and not move again for a while.

However, I am proud of what I did. I ran 50 miles. I finished an ultra. There is such a small percentage of people who did that, and I am one of those crazy nutters. My body held up beautifully, my stomach didn’t cause me any troubles. My results put me firmly in the middle of the pack (20/59 female, 126/234 overall), and for a 25-year-old first-timer, that’s pretty damn good. I didn’t know how it would feel to run 50 miles and so of course I can’t be surprised that it wasn’t a smooth ride from start to finish. So I am proud, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do another one any time soon.

I do want to give a big big big thank you to the race organisers, Centurion Running. The whole event was done so well, from the information given out beforehand to the marking of the course, and most importantly, the totally wonderful volunteers along the way. Every time I came into an aid station I was greeted by huge smiles and people asking me what they could do to help, from filling up my water bottles to fetching food. There was also so many options of food and drink, which was really amazing. I loved the fresh fruit, and the pineapple especially went down a treat! Everything was handled so smoothly, and it made my first ultra a breeze (minus you know, the actual running part).

And finally, to Sye. Crewing someone at an ultra is no easy feat to begin with, let alone their first one, let alone when you have to navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint via public transport. He faced so many delays etc. along the way, but never let that impact helping me. I’d also packed absolutely everything I thought I could possibly need (and then of course used basically none of it), and he carried it around all day without complaining (to me at least!). I cannot express my gratitude and love enough, what he did was truly special ❤

2 thoughts on “50 miles along the North Downs Way”

  1. Oh Julia, what an achievement …well done that girl!
    It was so good to meet you and Sye. Good luck for the future,
    regards,
    Shelagh (airbnb)

  2. A. very moving account of this extraordinary achievement Julia!
    Congratulations to our big girl with much admiration! Thank you also to Sye, he has proven to be a special person too! Xxx

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