North Downs Way 100: Not getting away with it this time

The 2017 NDW100 was my third 100 mile race. It was my A race of 2017. It was also the first 100 miler that I failed to finish.


My debut at this distance, the 2015 South Downs Way 100, went well. I trained well and finished it with almost 2 hours to spare. I ran my second 100 miler in 2016, the Autumn 100. After an injury affected build up I managed to finish that too, sailing a little closer to the cut offs but crossing the line with almost 1 hour to spare. I decided after the A100 to abandon any notion of completing the Centurion Grand Slam of 4 x 100 mile races in 2017 and focus on a good performance at the NDW100. This gave me almost 10 months to train and prepare for the race. Surely I would be able to produce a performance I’d be proud of with that amount of time to train? 

I don’t race often each year and my only plans before the NDW100 were to do the Arun River Marathon in May (I struggled but it’s an absolutely beautiful route and highly recommended) and a self supported run of 50 miles or so (I ran the West Sussex Literary Trail at the end of April and it was an amazing experience). Our annual Easter break to Tenerife included a lot of technical hill running and gave me renewed confidence. I attended Ronnie Staton’s Train Like A Champion workshop for runners in April and learned a lot about prefab and building a stronger running body. All of this was designed to support my plans for a good race in August. 

So what happened?

Training experiment 

I’m a planner. I’m very organised in my professional life and generally in my training. For all of my races up to the end of 2016 I had initially downloaded template plans then written my own. This had worked well until I tried to plan training for both the London Marathon and the North Downs Way 50 in 2016. I injured myself in the marathon and as unable to start NDW50, leading to a frustrating and tentative period of rebuilding ahead of A100. I decided to take the pressure off in 2017 and experiment by training without a specific plan, making it up as I went along every week. 

    My running after a 4 week break post-A100 (far too long a break in hindsight but one I took as a precaution due to my injury affected year and because I felt like a break) was once again based on heart rate training, Maffetone Method style(ish) from November until May. Pretty much all of my runs were at an easy pace, very slow initially and then a little faster as my fitness improved. I did run some of my long runs without focusing on heart rate and going by effort instead, finding that my heart rate was generally at or just above target in these cases anyway. I was focusing on time rather than distance in my training and running back to back long runs most weekends rather than one very long run (typically 3-4.5 hours/16-20 miles on Saturday and 2-2.5 hours/10-12 miles on Sunday), which seemed to work well. My weekly training mileage was typically 30-40 miles. 

    Problem #1 – inconsistent training

    While I was getting the long runs in I was not managing to get regular weekday runs in, sometimes only doing 3 runs a week with 2 of these being weekend long runs. I trusted myself too much and needed the discipline of a training plan and scheduled runs to tick off, even if I swapped some of the sessions or made minor adjustments depending upon how I felt and how my training and fitness was progressing. 

    Problem #2 – diet and racing weight

    It’s no coincidence that my best ultra marathon performance to date, my first race above marathon distance at the 2013 North Downs Way 50, was achieved when I was in the good physical shape and several pounds lighter. To be at racing weight I need to lose around a stone, something I failed to do in 2017 as I let my appetite for all things sweet get the better of me and wasn’t disciplined enough. 

    Pre-race events 


    The last few months have been very challenging. 

    I was served notice of redundancy in May. This was unsettling, even though I’ve been looking for a new challenge for a while, and I have yet to secure another job after leaving in early July. 

    A good friend from running and #MIBUltraTeam leader, Mark Thornberry, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in May. 

    My Dad was admitted to hospital with an infection in mid-June and sadly Dad passed away at the end of June. It took me a while to process this, and I’m still coming to terms with my Dad’s passing. 

    Running and training resumed eventually and gave me comfort.  When my Dad died I questioned whether I could or should run the NDW100 and I had a few weepy training runs discussing the issue with my Dad. Before long my commitment to running the race was even greater than before. It seemed appropriate to face it head on and use the race as an opportunity to prove to myself once again that I can overcome difficulties and as an expression of my gratitude for all my Dad did for me and the way he managed his deteriorating health due to lung disease over the last few years with few complaints. This race would be for my Dad. 

    Being the gent and all round top bloke that he is Mark Thornberry promptly offered to pace me from Detling to the finish, an offer I happily accepted. I had the pleasure of running 23 miles around the Surrey Hills and along parts of the North Downs Way with Mark in mid-July, promptly tripping over some tree roots on the NDW less than half a mile from the end, landing heavily on my right shoulder and then side of my head. 

    This was almost a carbon copy of the fall I had on the Ridgeway during the A100 and, as then, a visit to the NHS walk-in centre confirmed that I hadn’t broken anything. This time though I had heavy bruising to my right shoulder and was advised to rest from running for a week. Therefore, exactly a week later I ran a flat 8 mile trail route with a friend to test my shoulder. On both that and the 9 mile trail run with my NDW100 pack and kit 3 days later my shoulder was sore and uncomfortable but manageable. I decided not to run any more in the week before race day to allow my shoulder to heal as much as possible. I stopped taking ibuprofen and paracetamol two days before the rac even though the shoulder was still uncomfortable. I was definitely going to run the race.  My sole aim was to finish before the 30 hour cut off.

    Registration and race morning

    As I live fairly close to the race start in Farnham I decided to drive up to register and get my race kit checked on the Friday night. It was good to catch up with volunteers Nikki Yeo (local cheerleader, recent convert to ultra marathons and a good runner), David Harvey (fresh from running Western States 100 and the Lakeland 100 in the last 2 months, respect), Phil Bradburn (Grand Slammer in waiting with questionable taste in running socks), Louise Ayling (Grand Slammer and ever reliable aid station captain), Nici Griffin (race organiser and hugger extraordinaire), and James Elson (Race Director and all round good guy). I was back home before 8pm so had plenty of time to rest/panic before race morning.

    My good friend and running buddy Phil Hall picked me up just before 4:30am to drive me to Farnham. It was great catching up and chatting running plans on the way. Thanks for the pep talk Phil. As we arrived at race registration I had the opportunity to chat with Matt Bevan (all round top bloke, runner and personal trainer who loves the South Downs Way) and Ian Lang (another Grand Slammer in waiting). Begore long it was time for the traditional pre-race briefing from James Elson. Little did I know how useful his comments about what to do if you are lost would prove to be in the later stages of my race…

    Heading down to the start where the North Downs Way begins I caught up briefly with Stuart March (photographer extraordinaire who always had a smile and a high five for the runners), Tracey Watson (double Grand Slammer and going for another this year, a total machine and so humble to boot), and Tim Lambert (Rockstar runner and indoor plant expert). A few words with Phil before the race hooter and then we were off. I was on my way to get that buckle.

    Farnham to Puttenham

    Remembering how I’d paced myself really well at SDW100, I set off at a steady pace which felt consistent with the easy running pace of my long training runs. I was wearing my Suunto Ambit 3 Run, set at 100 hour battery level, but didn’t look at my pace. In fact, I realised after 20 minutes of running that instead of starting it when we set off I had pressed the wrong Burton send switched displays. Oh well. Adding 20 minutes to my time would give me something to do and concentrate on as the race progressed. 

    Having run the NDW50 twice before I remembered the first 50 miles, recognising sections of the route as I made my way forward. It also helps that Centurion races are very well marked. I was soon arriving at the first aid station in Puttenham, greeted by a beaming smile and encouragement from Nikki. A quick top up of water and a few snacks in a freezer bag and I was on my way, having decided to make a concerted effort to minimise time spent in aid stations in this race (yes, we all say it every time but one day I’ll get it right).

    Puttenham to Newlands Corner

    The next stretch to Newland Corner was uneventful, with more steady and controlled running, remembering to drink  a when thirsty and trying to stay on top of nutrition by eating little and often. The day was warming up by now and although not as hot as last year’s race day it was humid. It was a joy yet again to see Stuart March snapping away, always guaranteeing that as a runner you’ll break into a smile and do done running for the camera!

    After seeing Lindley Chambers (guru of UK trail running) for the first time – I’d see him again on arriving at Newland Corner – it was a pleasant surprise to bump into Matt Buck (Dragon’s Back race finisher and master of the back to front running cap look) on a run with some of his clients. The hills were staying up get longer at this stage, although running downhill was great fun. The stretch down from St Martha’s Hill reminded me of the running terrain around the Devil’s Punchbowl in Hindhead. Beautiful scenery. I began to catch myself thinking about how far I still  had to run  to get to the finish and emotional it would be crossing the line in Ashford, quickly focusing on Gary Robbins’ race mantra “Don’t think, just do” as I sought to avoid using excessive mental and emotional energy and draining my reserves so early in the race. It also helped distract me from the discomfort I was experiencing with my bruised shoulder on and off.

    [Motivational card in race vest]

    At this stage I started to feel some running on the little toe of my right foot so I sat down to attend to it as soon as I arrived at the aid station. While a volunteer refilled my water bottles – yet again that Centurion volunteers were a ray of sunshine and support through the the race, so thank you all – I removed my Injinji socks and put some more Lanacane on my feet. Thankfully there were no signs of a blister.

    Newlands Corner to Box Hill

    Problem #3 – being over cautious and losing valuable time

    I had run part of this and all of the next stretch with Mark on our circular route in July and during my recce run from Ranmore Common to Reigate Hill and back in June. Remembering to take a few moments to look at the scenery around on the hilltops as I entered from yet another wooded section, I started to tire during this section. I love woodland trails but after taking a tumble on my run with Mark I was running cautiously in these sections, wary of tripping up again and ending my race.  Goodness knows what anyone would have thought had the seen me having a full on Basil Fawlty moment as I recognised tree roots which I had tripped over previously and exchanged some choice words and shakes of the fist as I ran (carefully) past…

    [Inspiration for my tree root rant]

    Before long I was heading along Ranmore Common towards the lovely descent  a through the Debbie’s vineyard, stopping briefly to ask someone’s  a crew for a water top up as I had almost run out and knew there was another 2-3 miles to go until the next aid station. Thank you mystery crew man. Thereafter I carried a third soft flask of water with me as the sun shone and the temperature increased. 

    I expected to arrive at the 24 mile aid station, at the foot of Box Hill, between 11:00 and 11:30am. I got there bang on 11:30, with 90 minutes to spare until the cut off. Mark was waiting there with a smile and a pork pie (which was an absolute treat), having greeted all of the runners coming through before me. Stopping again to sort my feet out – still no signs of a blister, more lubrication applied) I the grabbed my first drink of Coke of the day, water top ups and some food to eat on the hike up to the top of Box Hill. 

    box hill ndw100 (2)

    [Photo credit: Mark Thornberry]

    Box Hill to Reigate Hill

    Once across the stepping stones the steps beckoned. Many, many steps. Bloody steps. Head down, pork pie and munchies consumed, I was soon at the top and soaking in the views. This section is the list gnarly I’d run on the NDW to date and I knew that my progress to Reigate Hill would be slow after my recce run reminder. I relaxed, tried to run wherever possible and hiked the climbs with purpose. I didn’t dawdle but was very cautious in the twisty, narrow, rooty sections. 

    The onset of a thunderstorm and a downpour of rain on my way up Colley Hill and Reigate Hill didn’t dampen my spirits – I’d been looking forward to a Calippo at the hut on Reigate Hill all morning so I duly bought one! 

    reigate hill zoe

    [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

    By the time I reached the aid station at Reigate Hill I was only just over an hour inside the cut off. My safety buffer was reducing and it made me nervous. Thankfully Zoe Norman (smiler and fellow Reigate Hill volunteer in 2016) was waiting for me with a smile, a hug and an M&S Iced and Spiced bun – the food of gods on an ultra marathon. Thank you again Zoe. A quick chat, foot check and lube, and food and drink top ups and I was off down the hill. Not running, eating a Calippo and a bun.

    Reigate Hill to Caterham

    The trail was now slippery after the heavy rain, which has stopped as I left the aid station. From here onwards the trails and fields were slippery underfoot, making the narrow sections with brambles one side and barbed wire on the other tricky to negotiate. I trod carefully and lost more valuable time. No complaints here though – the conditions were the same for all of the runners. During this section my brother Greg texted to ask me how it was going. I told him that I could feel my energy levels were low and my shoulder has been troubling me and quite uncomfortable for a fair few miles. This was a low point in my race but an encouraging text back from my brother lifted my spirits.

    I was, however, getting increasingly anxious about missing the cut offs now. Wherever running looked a possibility I ran. I pushed on. I continued to hike the hills with purpose. I made the most of the road sections on the way to Caterham, once more in the rain, and I kept pushing and moving forward. I wasn’t giving in without a fight and reached the aid station at Caterham with over an hour to spare to the cut off. At least I was consistent!

    Once again checking my feet I discovered a blister on the big toe of my left foot. It hadn’t yet burst but after taking advice fun the volunteers one of them cleaned it then drained it and covered it with one of my Compeed plasters and some zinc oxide tape to keep it in place. That’d do for now. It did the job for the rest of my race, do thank you volunteers. However, this cost me time and I left the aid station in the company of fellow back of the pack runners Emma Lewis and Ali Amanat and with only 60 minutes to the cut off. 

    Caterham to Botley Hill

    The rain had stopped by the time I left Caterham and it wouldn’t rain again. Progress continued to be slow, with lots of narrow single track trails and those bloody “Dave Stuart” steps to go down near Oxted. I was so far back in the race that I missed the great man himself (another Grand Slammer). I ran through the fields and hiked as quickly as I could up Botley Hill to the next aid station. I was pushing as I looked at the time to the Botley Hill cut off reducing. 

    By the time I reached it I had 40 minutes to spare so I grabbed a boiled egg with salt (genius), jelly with rice pudding, and fruit to eat and some egg sandwiches, banana bread, fruit and sweets to eat on the way. I left with about 35 minutes to the cut off.

    Botley Hill to Knockholt (50 mile aid station)

    I kept pushing now. As I got closer to Knockholt and the half way point I passed a couple of runners who were walking and talked of being timed out at the next aid station. No bloody way was I getting timed out. I managed to run most of this section, bar the uphills and a few short walking breaks, and got to the aid station with 45 minutes to the cut off (like I said, consistent!). 

    It was great to see Kiernan Easton (the whistling runner), Alma Botes (saviour of many a race with her hot food) and Ilsuk Han (multiple 100 mile finisher and such a consistently paced runner who hunts people down but in a nicee way). 

    Hot food consumed ✔️ Rice pudding consumed ✔️ Running top, buff and cap changed ✔️ Chafing addressed and socks changed ✔️ Jelly snakes from drop bag added to doggy bag (wish I’d taken the lot rather than half the bag, they were ace) ✔️ Banter with Kiernan ✔️ Irn Bru taken from drop bag to drink on the run ✔️ Out with 25 minutes to spare ✔️

    Now I’d like to have left earlier but I really needed to address that chafing before it got unmanageable and sort my feet. I still had a chance. I was going to carry on and keep pushing. 

    Knockholt to Wrotham

    After spotting Ira Rainey (Mr Green Man Ultra) on way out of the aid station and exchabging greetings I walked out of the village and up to rejoin the North Downs Way and head to Wrotham. I had 3 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 10 mile stretch. It was going to be dark soon and I hadn’t recced any of this part of the route. This was going to be close.

    It started really well when I failed to spot a huge horizontal tree branch and promptly ran head first into it. Doh! 

    Dazed but not confused I stopped by the gate at the top of the hill to get my head torch out of my pack and ready to use later as the light was starting to fade. I also turned my cap around so I looked like a skater dude (or pratt, take your choice) and would be able to see where I was running properly. There was a lovely downhill stretch then, less wonderful with 50 miles in your legs than 10, but a welcome release nonetheless. 

    Problem #4 – lack of knowledge of the whole route

    I was soon at the road and checked my Harvey’s map of the NDW for the first time to avoid heading the wrong way. There was tape marking the way but as the light faded it became more difficult to see tape ahead and I wanted to be sure I was going the right way. I was, which is strange feeling for this, let’s say, inconsistent navigator.  Anyway, I managed to stay on the NDW – once again checking the route when I found a Centurion arrow pointing obebway but the NDW another (pesky kids messing about with the signs) – and soon had my head torch on. Now this was both a blessing (I couldn’t see the hill climbs and more bloody steps that awaited) and a curse (I couldn’t see you hill climbs and more bloody steps that awaited) for me as struggled to calculate how fast I had to run the flat and runnable sections and saw my safety margin on the cut off for Wrotham aid station eroding as I marched on.

    With hindsight, I really shouldn’t have hiked the whole stretch through Otford. It dragged on for ages and was a runnable incline. The next climb was up yet more steps at Otford Mount. I need more steps in my life to be ready for this race next time!

    More slippery fields eventually led to a long, steady incline to Wrotham and the aid starion. I could see lights in the distance and as the time ticked away I ran this uphill stretch with renewed determination. I dug in and continued running where I would normally have stopped for a breather, desperate to about missing the cut off and not wanting to look back later and wish I had kept running for another few minutes if I did miss the cut off. 

    [This is how I felt as the cut off began getting closer]

    I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the aid station, running up to the hut and grabbing some food and water top ups. I was out with 10 minutes to spare but forgot to ask for some pants. Bugger. I was wearing my Runderwear (which I love) and was hoping I wouldn’t be too late to get a free pair from the Runderwear crew, completely forgetting to ask in my haste to depart. Anyway, the volunteers bid me farewell and good luck.

    Wrotham to Holly Hill (well, almost)

    Now things got very tricky.  I had 1 hour 35 minutes to run 5.7 miles.  This would be a struggle and I knew that I would have to run at a faster average pace than I had managed in the last 10 mile section, a mere 16.5 minutes per mile. I couldn’t afford to walk too much given the hill climbs still to come.  I wasn’t giving to though and would keep going. Don’t think, just do.

    Then I made my first call to James Elson. I got confused about which turning to take at the roundabout. I was moving more slowly in the darkness (despite my head torch and a full moon, go figure) and could feel my energy levels dropping but pushed on.

    Dropping down from a field and trough a gate I completely missed the tape on the gate a few yards ahead and trotted along the road, getting confused when I could not see the NDW marked at the next junction. Retracing my steps after again reviewing my map I soon spotted the tape and went through the gate snd in towards Trosley Country Park. Idiot. Time was flipping away and fatigue was clearly affecting my concentration.

    As I entered the park I came to the realisation that unless I ran as hard as I could on a good day (and I was almost 65 miles in) then I wouldn’t make the 1:15am cut off at Holly Hill aid station. I walked through the park (maybe I should have kept running) until I reached the green gate. I left the park with 10 minutes until the cut off. I had about a mile to go toHolly Hill. Maybe I could do it? 

    Then I couldn’t find the way to go. I got confused. I could see some red tape but where was the next bit? I just couldn’t work out which way to go next, despite looking at the map several times. Which was the right way? The NDW marker post sent me back downhill but that meant heading away from the direction I needed to go to get to Holly Hill. Surely they couldn’t be right? Right then I knew without a doubt that my race was over.

    I rang James Elson again (sorry James, I promise I don’t have you on speed dial now) and explained that I was going to miss the 66 mile cut off and was a bit lost. After a bit more exploring I called James again and he kindly arranged for two of the Holly Hill volunteers to come to meet me at the exit from the park and give me a lift to the sweeper bus. By now the sweeper has been through and all their had been removed so I was even more disoriented.

    I texted Mark Thornberry to let him know that I wouldn’t make it to Detling and to thank him again for offering to pace me. I do wish that I’d had the opportunity to “enjoy” (after 82 miles) the final miles with  Mark. Thsbk you, my friend.

    As I waited at the green gate for the volunteers I took a few moments to reflect and posted this update on Facebook, summing up my feelings at that moment:


    The aftermath 

    After getting to the finish at Ashford via the sweeper bus around 6am on Sunday I caught up with Stuart March and Nici Griffin once more, ate a delicious and much needed sausage in a bun and has a coffee. I spoke with a couple of other runners who’s finished the race in under 24 hours – total respect on that course – and got changed before sharing a taxi to Ashford International station with Sarah Cameron (2nd place lady and very modest up  a boot) and the ever persistent Cat (who also DNFd) to catch my train home.

    Waiting for the first of 4 trains I’d be taking to get home (3 changes necessitating staying awake to get home and not end up miles away) I sat and started to scroll through the comments on my Facebook post from earlier in the morning. Reading the supportive and encouraging comments from so many friends and family was quite emotional, especially when I saw the comments from my brother and my Mum, who summed up how my Dad would have felt and what he’d be saying to me if he was here right now:

    He would have been very proud that you gave it your all. That’s what he instilled in you from a young age and you learned the lesson well. Head up son and walk tall. Xxxxx

    The tears started to flow once more as I felt a mixture of sadness, relief, disappointment and pride. Writing this blog post brought all of these emotions to the fore once again.

    I didn’t get that buckle or to raise a toast to my Dad at the finish line with his favourite beer. I will do. I will do. I will be back.

    What have I learned?

    I am stronger than I thought – I can keep running for a lot longer than I often do in races (sandbagger)

    I need to do the following:

    • Ensure there is structure to my training
    • Run more often and consistently, as I missed too many weekday sessions
    • Include more variation, including fast and tempo running sessions
    • Return to weekly hill repeat sessions, which worked so well for SDW100
    • Get more confident running on technical trails and around tree roots
    • Recce the whole of the race route where possible
    • Recce the last 40 miles of the NDW100 route ahead of my next attempt

    A DNF is a valuable learning experience and not a sign of failure – after all, it’s only jogging

    I need to try different socks – maybe going back to the Drymax ones where used for my first ultra or trying Injinji liner socks rather than the full trail ones

    Egg sandwiches are a winner after 43 miles of running

    Jelly snakes are fantastic race nutrition

    What will I do now?

    • Take a week or two off running to recharge – but not as long as after A100 as I don’t want to lose fitness 
    • Review and refresh my training – get back to writimg my own training plans and running more consistently
    • Be disciplined and complete regular strength and mobility sessions – do Ronnie Staton’s drills weekly
    • Get my tendency to overindulge and eat “all of the food” under control – cut down on sweets and desserts 

    I’m ready.

      Some recommended reading and listening for ultra marathon runners:

      Tim Lambert wrote an excellent blog post on 100 mile races and the importance of mental strength – you can read this here

      Gary Robbins is a superb runner, having completed and holding the course record for the brutal Hurt 100 (Google it!) sbd so very nearly completing the Barkley Marathons this year at the third attempt – listen to his story and approach to running here

      Forget the “I’ll be back” clichés, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an astute operator and his interview with Tim Ferriss covers topics including mental strength, training and competition – listen here

      A final note – Mark Thornberry’s GUCR fundraising run

      This meant that he missed out on running the Grand Union Canal Race, one of his main goals this year after completing the Centurion 100 mile Grand Slam in 2016. Mark went public with his news the Monday after NDW100. He’s determined not to go down without a fight though and plans to run the 145 mile length of the Grand Union Canal, from Birmingham to London, over 3 days in early September 2017 to raise much needed funds for the liver unit at Kings Hospital in London. Mark has invited his friends and family to join him for part or all of the run or provide support along the route and the response from the running community has been overwhelming. I’m proud to call him my friend and I’ll be joining Mark at some stage on his run. 

      If you enjoyed reading my race report and/or take anything away from it to help you in your own struggles, running or otherwise, the it would mean a lot to me if you would give whatever you can afford to support Mark’s fundraising efforts. You can find out more and donate by clicking here.








      9 thoughts on “North Downs Way 100: Not getting away with it this time

      1. This post had me in tears. Well done for even making to the start. I’m sure you’ll crush your next race. Hope you go for the slam one day, you definitely have the mental toughness needed for it. 🙂 Mari

        • Thank you Mari. I’ve worked on my mental strength and this race definitely proved I have more to give in that respect than I previously thought. Now to work on the physical strength and endurance.

      2. What a wonderful blog post Graham
        Thanks for the mention 🙂
        Total respect to you, hope to see you again soon xx

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