North Downs Way 100 race report: 10 lessons from my first 100 mile ultra marathon

It is now a little over 3 weeks since the 2020 North Downs Way 100 and it feels like enough time has passed for me to sit down and try to capture my thoughts about the whole experience.

I signed up for the race nearly a year ago and started training seriously about 4 months out in early April. This isn’t a “how to train for your first 100 mile ultra marathon” post (maybe that will follow….) but here’s a very quick summary of how I broke things down:

100 mile ultra marathon training plan

You’ll see that everything was looking good until early Jul when I managed to pick up a pretty painful niggle in my lower left leg. On reflection I’m almost certain I picked it up during a pretty uninspiring 30 mile long run out and back along the Basingstoke canal. I suspect that 5 hours plodding along a very flat, surprisingly hard towpath pushed my muscle over the edge.

100 mile ultra marathon training long run
Strava link

After a few weeks of self-imposed rest I went out on a very short test run and sadly nothing had got any better. Time to talk to a professional. On a recommendation I booked an appointment with the Fit Stuff Clinic in Guildford (attached to the very cool Fit Stuff Running Shop). Philippa was incredible and although we were both initially concerned it was a stress fracture it turned out I had injured my soleus muscle – most likely it was the cumulative impact of the training build up and the aforementioned long run. Philippa provided some great advice, stretches and a strength routine that worked like magic and by the time race week rolled around my leg was back to normal 🙂 Note to self – stop ignoring cross training, strength and yoga!

Soleus muscle injury ultra marathon runners
A little more information here on soleus muscle injuries in distance runners via the Sports Injury Bulletin (always seek professional medical advice)

Despite the enforced / enhanced taper I was in high spirits going into the final week and decided to reframe the last month as a great way of ensuring I reached the start line feeling fresh and not over-tired or over-trained.

At this point it would be wrong of me not to mention the impact of COVID on the race build up. Training during the pandemic with the uncertainty of whether the race would go ahead or not wasn’t particularly easy and it was hard to stay focused at times. I tried to mentally park the uncertainty and focus on what I could control (my training) which seemed to work out well, injury notwithstanding. The team over at Centurion Running did an incredible job of managing the situation. It cannot of been easy to plan for the race in the midst of the pandemic. They sent numerous detailed emails in the build up that provided reassurance that everything was under control and that they had considered all eventualities. A huge thank you to the team!

With kit packed it was time to head to Farnham to check into my hotel for a nervous nights sleep before race day. The Bishops Table hotel in Farnham was clearly the hotel of choice for lots of runners and definitely gets my vote. It was a 10 min walk to the start line and 5 mins to a Pizza Express for a pre-race meal.

The race coincided with a very hot weekend and sleeping the night before wasn’t easy. A giant fan in the room made it bearable but still not ideal – although I suspect that a large part of the reason I didn’t sleep particularly well was because of nerves rather than anything else.

The traditional ‘mass’ start was replaced by a rolling start window between 05-0700hrs with faster runners asked to start first and slower runners towards the end of the window. Personally this worked super well for me and took all the pressure off getting to the start line for a certain time. As a result the whole morning became that bit more relaxed.

At the start line at about 6am

Rather than a traditional race report where I give you a blow by blow account of the whole thing I thought I’d focus instead on some of the lessons I learnt and things I do differently. Plus, if I’m honest I’d struggle to string together a coherent chronology of the whole race.

10 lessons from my first 100 mile ultra marathon

  • Crew is king – there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have made it round without the amazing support from my crew – Barbara, Andy and Giles. From the moment I sent out the speculative email asking if they were keen through to dropping me back in Farnham after the race they were incredible. Long distance running may be an individual sport but it’s a team effort. Despite having not seen Giles in over a year (and having never met Andy before!) they worked like a well oiled machine to get me round. From loading me up with ice during the early and very hot stages of the day through to putting up with my sense of humor failures at 3am they were there every step of the way. Some people prefer to race alone and good on them, for me I think I’ll be sticking with a crew and pacers going forward.
  • Get in and out of aid stations – combining official aid stations and crew stations there were 22 spots along the route where I could stop, refuel and recover. My plan was to get through them as quickly as possible and for the most part I stuck with this. Even 5 mins at each one added up to nearly 2hrs of additional time in the race. Towards the end of the race we were in routine and my pacer would phone ahead to make sure the crew had everything ready, we’d pull in, I’d plonk myself in a chair, change socks, replen water and food, and then get back out again. Not quite a Formula 1 pit stop but pretty close. Getting out of the aid stations fast has the added benefit of making it much harder to drop out of the race 🙂
North Downs Way 100 mile ultra marathon
  • SMALL MISTAKES CAN HAVE A BIG IMPACT – about a third of the way into the race I opted to only fill up two of my water bottles and not the 3rd spare I was carrying. Given it was +35°C this was a dumb mistake and one that meant I spent about an hour during the hottest part of the day without water. Luckily I was able to push through but it definitely made life much harder than it should have been.
  • STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES – it was hard to take in much after it got dark and when it got light the following morning I was in survival mode just slogging it out to the finish line but I have a small regret that I didn’t take a moment or two to pause during the day time, when the route was passing through the most beautiful bits of the countryside and look around. I tend to focus on the mechanics of the race more than the environment but next time I’ll definitely find a moment to enjoy the scenery every now and then.
North Downs Way 100 mile ultra marathon
  • EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED – luckily I very rarely get blisters and hadn’t suffered with any during training but about 3/4 of the way into the race I felt one suddenly develop (as if one layer of skin had just slid out of place!). Fortunately I had blister tape in race vest and with my crew so I was able to tend to it and get my feet taped up and keep going.
  • SEGMENTATION IS KEY – it’s a cliche but true that you have to break up a larger race into chunks that are mentally manageable. For me during the NDW100 this was crucial. I knew I was meeting my crew at mile 20 so that was a great first block. After that it was 30 miles until the halfway point when I could pick up a pacer and then it was aid station to aid station until the finish line. Thinking about running 100 miles is too much for my brain to manage but breaking it down into smaller chunks and being militant about not thinking beyond the next goal is the way to get through it.
North Downs Way 100 mile ultra marathon
  • LOGISTICS MATTER – my enforced rest in the run up to the race gave me an opportunity to get really detailed on the logistics side of things. My crew most likely got bored of the update emails from me and super geeky spreadsheets. All the prep work meant that I could focus on the race itself and not worry too much about what was going on around me. That said, the best laid plan will go wrong and adaptation is always going to be needed. Logistically this meant my crew dealing with one of their cars refusing to start about 2/3 of the way into the race. Despite hours of trying to jump start it there was no way it was coming back to life so they adapted and we all made it through.
  • PLAN FOR THE FINISH – it is so easy to get wrapped up in the preparation for the race and the race itself that it’s easy to forget about the finish. Everyone will be tired at the end and having a plan that outlines what will happen in the minutes and hours after the race is over is important. How are people getting home, what are you eating etc – answer all those questions ahead of time so they become one less thing to worry about.
North Downs Way 100 mile ultra marathon aid station
  • DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE RECOVERY – having done plenty of marathons and shorter ultras I was sure that recovery would take a couple of days after the NDW100. I was more than a little wrong. It took nearly 2 weeks before I felt human again. In the immediate aftermath I was just straight up tired but once that passed I felt nauseous for nearly a week and just not myself. I was also dealing with a left leg that felt numb and tingling (still no idea why!) and the aftermath of a few good blisters. At the last minute I took a few days off work after the race and thank goodness I did.
  • RACE SELECTION – with my first 100 miler done I’m starting to think bigger and further afield but I’m very pleased with my decision to pick a local race put on by an experience team to start with. Baring one minor (self-inflicted!) navigation error the route was super easy to follow, the aid stations were well stocked and never ran out of supplies which was impressive given how hot it was. There will be time for bigger adventures (I’m currently watching The World’s Toughest Race……) but to start off Centurion were great!

North Downs Way 100 ultra marathon finish
Finish line 26:47:41 – 50th place
North Downs Way 100 ultra marathon finish
A battered race number that I can’t quite bring myself to throw away

So that’s it. It feels slightly odd to be finishing this up as it marks the end of the post race period (although I’m sure I’ll continue to bore people with stories if they’ll let me!). I’m trying to take it slow and resist the urge to jump into another race. That said, I’ll hopefully be volunteering at the SDW 100 in a few months so maybe that’s one to look at next year. And also I may have started looking at this……

Grand Union Canal Race – 145 miles

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