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North Downs Way 100

“Are marathons not good enough for you anymore?”

This was the typical response when asked about my plans for the weekend after I’d explained that I was taking part in the North Downs Way 100 (NDW100) – a 103 mile trail run from Farnham, along the Surrey Hills to Ashford in Kent. This question was usually followed by a look of astonishment accompanied with comments like “you’re mad” and “surely that can’t be good for you.” All perfectly natural responses when you consider the sheer absurdity of running further than the distance between Birmingham to Liverpool non stop without any sleep!

Explaining the appeal of a non stop 100 mile run can be tough to articulate, particularly to the most avid of sceptics.

5 years ago, when I began my love affair with this oh so simple yet beautiful of pastimes, running has been all consuming – from my first half marathon, which felt like a ridiculously long distance, to finally breaking the 3hour marathon barrier earlier this year – running has brought me joy in some otherwise challenging times in my personal life. So the thought of being able to spend the entire day running through the beautiful British countryside was quite simply a no brainer…

So with that decided, the next step was to figure out how to prepare for the damn thing.

Trawling through much of the content online, the good news it seemed, was that I didn’t need to run hundred miles in training in one go – indeed a long run of around 50–60 miles would suffice, 56 of which I would already have under my belt if everything went to plan at Comrades which fortunately it did (see previous blog). It almost felt like I was destined for the 2019 edition of the NDW100!

With training covered, the next step was to devise a strategy for how I would actually go about running over 100miles, aside from putting one foot in front of the other approx 160,000 times. This is where I recalled listening to recent a podcast featuring the ultra runner Suzie Chan who had done a few of these things in her time and clearly knew her onions. She advised that the overarching recipe for success boils down to two things: your stomach and your head: you’ve got to get your nutrition right, and you’ve got to want it. I like eating food and I’d definitely like to be part of the exclusive 100mile club so I’ve got these things covered too – perfect!

Suzie also encourages you to consider expectations in terms of finish time, of which anything less than a day and you’re deserving of serious kudos. I like the sound of 100 miles in 24hours – it has a certain ring to it; target set. This would mean if I could maintain a pace of just over 4mph or 15mins miles, I’d be in business. How hard can this be? I was soon to find out…

Saturday 3rd August 2019 arrives earlier than usual to the sound of a 4am alarm.

It only felt like a half an hour ago that I’d finally managed to nod off, anxious but excited for what the day may have in store. In a tired, disorientated haze, we slowly rise but it’s not long before the adrenaline starts to kick in and we’re en route to the start line having devoured my usual pre run breakfast of porridge, banana and half a tub of peanut butter.

It was a fairly standard, overcast but otherwise warm summer morning at 5am in Farnham leisure centre – the only major difference was the the 300 runners congregated inside the main hall, busying themselves with their final race preparations. Alongside family, friends and supporters were muttering their last words of encouragement between slurps of tea. The unmistakable smell of deep heat in the air gave the impression that some serious business would be taking place today.

Getting the coffees in and calming my pre race nerves was my wife who knew full well she was about to forego her entire Saturday morning, afternoon, evening and sleep that night (not to mention the hours of shut eye she’d already sacrificed the night before to get me here on time). Certainly not the first time that our weekends have been spent around the country (or further afield) indulging my pastime and to say that I’m in the red in this regard would be putting it lightly given that most of our holidays are centred around a destination race trip!

Also lining up to receive his race number, was fellow Jersey resident and runner, James Manners of Marathon De Sable fame (amongst many other impressive running feats). Luckily for me, James had already negotiated 3 of these 100miler thingys, all well within 24hours and therefore when I realised James would be lining up too, my race strategy was pretty straightforward – stick with James and do exactly what he says!

James is well known in Jersey for being a damn fine runner who has completed many madcap challenges such as running the local marathon dressed in full Star Wars stormtrooper attire – quite some feat in itself made even more remarkable by his finish time of 3hrs30! To stay with this guy I would need to be at the top of my game!

We started the race at a nice relaxed pace,

making sure we did not expend valuable energy that would undoubtedly be required later. Walking up hills when you’ve got energy to burn is tough but we remained disciplined and held ourselves back for the challenges ahead to settle within a pace that kept us amongst the top 30 runners. At mile 10, it was lovely to see some familiar faces supporting us at Shalford Green with the family out in full force. 

It wasn’t long before we were negotiating the ascent up Boxhill and ticking the first of what would be almost 4 full marathons under our belt, in a quicker than expected 4hours. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to maintain this pace, we decided to make hay while the sun shined so to speak (and shine brightly that day it would) and gradually we were able to move slowly up the field. The early freshness and psychological boost of passing other runners encouraged this pace to continue along with frequent calculations of how quickly we might be able to get around. I quickly learnt that to extrapolate too far ahead in a 100 mile race is foolhardy and when our complacency resulted in us missing a vital turning and going off track down a steep hill (and back up again) all our hard work to overtake our fellow competitors was in vein. The next hour was spent trying not to let our heads drop whilst running much faster than was sensible at this early stage of a 100 mile race to make up for the places we’d lost!

Despite our navigational error, we arrived at the half-way point in just over 9hours to be greeted by my wife and our two man pacing team; Jason “Bingo” Bingham and Si Bernard. After a change of clothes and carb loading on a bowls of steaming pasta we were on our way; a lean, mean, quadrumvirate of running machines (or so I liked to think!).

The next 10 miles took us through various Kent connabations

– Otford being the most memorable mainly due to the number of establishments with enticing beer gardens and that unmistakable pub whoft oozing into the Kent twilight. The thought of sipping on a cold pint of lager in the early evening sunshine was oh so tempting and I’ll readily admit to thoughts of jacking it all in at this point. Besides, we’d already run 60miles and nobody would blame us. Come on Bryan focus on the task at hand (or feet so to speak). All pre race advice was centred around getting the head straight on how much you must actually want it. I definitely wanted a cold pint of lager at this point but it would have to wait.

Another downside of having run all day was that we could not keep up with the ongoings in the first Ashes Test match – luckily the pacing team were on hand to update on Australian wickets (which sadly there were too few that day). Unsurprisingly on a 24 hour event, you have plenty of time alone in your head and one of my many musings was the many similarities between running 100 miles and accumulating a century in cricket – for most runners and batsmen, it’s a long drawn out process sometimes having to bat/run all day. Providing you don’t get bowled for a duck/make it to the start line in one piece, you start out a bit nervously, gradually accumulate runs/miles and if you make it to a half century, your celebrations are moderated by the thought of being only half way to the ultimate goal. You must focus on the next ball/mile, stay in the moment and not get bowled by that googly/well disguised rock sticking out of the trail to send the wickets/you tumbling. Moving into the nervous 90s every run/mile is a struggle and it’s a fight not to be sent back to the pavillon; you’re so close yet so far, it could all go horribly wrong still – the previous day the English batsman Rory Best had spent almost 45mins in the 90s before completing his maiden test century – if the same fate befell us later in the day, I’d take that!

Another strategy often recommended is to break the race down into chunks – it’s said that if you start with the mindset you’ve got 100 miles to run, you’re doomed from the outset. Instead, our focus was only on the next aid station and although it was easy for the head to wander to the finish line, the energy used to bring the mind back to the present was well spent. We also made a big fuss of celebrating the milestones; however big or small. These ranged from a fist bump after the first 10 miles, getting out of the “hurty 30s” to passing the 56mile distance of Comrades, my previous longest run! As we moved into the 70s, 80s and 90s our celebrations took on more of a musical theme as Jason selected tunes on his iPhone from each of these decades to break the long spells of running in silence.“Disco Fever” by the Tramps and “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash were my personal favourites. I definitely recall a bit of Oasis at one point too.

Moving into the last quarter of the race,

we were to lose one of the famous foursome to the not wholly unreasonable demands of his wife and 3 young children. Having run two different 10 mile stints, at mile 82, Si wished us well as he departed for home. It was the mark of the man that he was willing to sacrifice his Saturday for our arbitrary running endeavours and as keen as he was to see us through to the end, I was glad he would only be up until half past silly o’clock as no doubt the kids would have little sympathy for his previous day’s exertions early on Sunday morning.

Not long after waving goodbye to Si, my pre race fears of getting my nutrition wrong came to fruition as I started to encounter issues with my stomach. Having not had much movement in that department all day and having taken on board significant amount of food at most aid stations (peanut butter wraps being my go to), within a space of a few hours I was finding myself significantly lighter! Fuelling up as best I could, the stretch until the next aid station was 9 miles of hilly and fairly technical trail in full torchlight. I reached my lowest point in the race during this time and not wishing to hold the team up, I was close to insisting that the guys continue on without me. The two tumbles I took on the trail didn’t lighten my mood but I managed to hold it together and as we neared the aid station at 91miles James extolled the virtues of Pepsi for its energy boosting nutritional content – keeping to my original strategy of doing exactly what he said, I took his advice and as we hit the trails again for our last long stretch of running, I felt like a transformed man, albeit with furry teeth!

Pepsi seeping its way through my system and with less than single figures to go until the glorious sight of the inflatable finish line arches, my mood was lifted, my niggles less noticeable, the trail flatter and more runable than it had seemed since long before the half way point. The effects of this fizzy, black liquid nectar were having the same impact on my trail buddies and as the miles ticked by, it felt like we were all aboard the Bingo express train, being dragged along by our omnipotent pacer, who only 3 days earlier had been informed that his pacing expertise was in need. It was only after the event, and not wishing to put undue pressure on 2 guys who’d just run 50miles, that Jason informed us he’d made mental calculations at half way about who had left the checkpoint before us and who he thought we were capable of reeling in! Ever the competitors, James and I were only too willing to follow his lead.

This new found momentum continued with the ever increasing sight up ahead of the torchlight of a lonely runner, toiling with the tortuous trails. As we would overtake with an acknowledgement of our fellow comrade’s efforts, this was often met with an inaudible grunt followed by an understandable drop of the head.

Our engines were really revving now, as we ticked off the final miles

- that is until we approached another runner who’s reaction as we pulled alongside, was very different to that which we’d previously encountered. Rather than let through the passing freight, he jumped on board finding a new lease of life, 96 miles deep! This took a special type of will that we could only admire and as we reached the last of the day’s 13 aid stations at mile 99, rather than filling his supplies for the last time, he continued along the trail hoping to drop us in the final stretch. Noting his strategy, we turned ourselves around with a speed the Mercedes f1 team would be proud of. Without directly communicating our plans, at this point I’d spent long enough with these boys to know there was only one thing on their minds – climbing one last place on the leaderboard.

As the trail turned into road and we were buoyed by this one last focus, our pace began to increase further. We had what amounted to just over a park run to go but it would require a final push to catch up with the courageous runner who by now must have been 3 mins further down the road. Harder and harder we pushed, before suddenly a few hundred metres in the distance there was the faint glow of a single head torch. Instinctively, we all dimmed our own lights as we approached the poor fellow. We were seriously moving now in what felt like an all our sprint and as we pulled alongside him, rather than responding with his legs this time, all he could muster was a shout of “see you at the end lads.” Magnanimous to the last. Concerned that he may still find a ninth or tenth wind even this late in the day, any thoughts of tying an errant shoelace were banished and we maintained this 4min/km pace right until the sight of the Julie Rose athletics stadium came into view.

One 400m lap of the track was all that lay between us and 100mile glory.

Turning into the home straight, accompanied by the shouts of our faithful crew and the runners already home, Jason selflessly backed off to allow James and I to cross the line together, as we had agreed between us 10 hours previously. After almost 20 hours of continuous running, 180,000 steps and 13,000 calories burned, we’d done it! 103 miles conquered!

I was welcomed over the line by my wife with the warmest of embraces and my brother in law who had given up his own Saturday night to support our efforts and to keep his sister company. This was a real team effort and as we all embraced, the enormity of what we’d achieved started to hit home.

Having never covered this type of distance before, my ambitions were to simply get around – ideally within a day.

Not in my wildest dreams had I thought it possible that we’d finish comfortably under 20hours to take joint 14th place! I know for a fact it would not have been possible on my own and certainly not without James’ great company, strength of mind and determination or Jason’s encouragement, careful pacing strategy and selflessness.

Equally, the unwavering support of Si was a massive boost when mid race spirits were flagging. It was a pleasure to share the day with such a top group of boys. A special mention is reserved for my wife who gave up her entire weekend to support this crazy pursuit. In my opinion, crewing is a much harder role than running – never ending waiting around, smelly, moody and oftentimes unappreciative runners are just some of the many challenges of this thankless role, not to mention the lack of sleep or recognition that is only reserved for the runners themselves. Medals for the support crew medal as well as the runners are long overdue in my opinion!

As the days pass since this epic ordeal the aches subside and the stomach readjusts to some wholesome food, I’ve begun to reflect on the day and am extremely proud of what we achieved as a team.

It was a pleasure to spend the day with such an awesome group of like minded guys. Running for so long together you go through the full range of emotions and share a bond that is perhaps only familiar to those who have been through such an experience. I loved every minute of the day; both the highs and the lows and whilst I’m unsure if I’ll venture back out onto the trails for another of these superb events, the experience of the day has meant the bar has been set pretty high that any future race would have an awful lot to live up to! Right, time to figure out what’s next on the list of crazy pursuits…