North Downs Way 100 – Redemption Time

Redemption just means you just make a change in your life and you try to do right, versus what you were doing, which was wrong.

– Ice T

In August 2017 I made a right royal cock up in my first attempt at running the North Downs Way 100. Yes, my Dad had passed away after a short illness only a few weeks prior to the race and that had a big impact upon me. However, ultimately I failed to finish due to inconsistent and unfocused training. I was the architect of my own downfall and didn’t deserve to finish. Despite my disappointment at my first DNF I quickly committed to going back to redeem myself and get that buckle:

So I lined up at the start of the North Downs Way 100 in Farnham at 6am on Saturday 3 August 2019. This time I was properly prepared, having training consistently for the last 20 months and already completed 2 x 100 mile races in 2019 as my Grand Slam attempt continued. Having had the foresight to book her super crewing and “motivational” skills 2 years in advance I was going to be well looked after along the way by Karen Webber. Having enjoyed pacing me at TP100, Tracey Watson had signed up for more of my stimulating night time conversation and would be joining me from Otford to Bluebell Hill before handing over to another very experienced ultra runner and fellow Ultra Bandit, Pete Hammond. Oh, and I would have someone special joining me for the whole 103 miles.

Dad was with me along the way ♥️

Pre-race

I drove to Farnham on the Friday night, registered, said a quick hello to fellow Grand Slam wannabe Sharon Dickson and giant of the scene Paul Pickford, then drove home for an early(ish) night. Nathan Hill once again deserves hero status for getting up at 4am to give me a lift to the start, just as he did at SDW100. Having transferred my gear to Karen’s car and secured a pre-race hug I headed into the leisure centre for James Elson’s pre-race briefing. By the way, my GPS watch showed 103.9 miles at the finish James… 😉 So excited was I to get going that I completely forgot to grab my GPS tracker from Chris Mills, who spotted me and sorted it.On the way to the start I had a quick chat with Richard Shlovogt and Stephen Cousins, fresh from their respective 100 mile finishes at the 1066 ultramarathon in July, and Rob Cowlin walked with me sharing welcome encouraging words. Once at the start, waiting for the air horn telling is to get moving, I felt strangely calm. I was ready. This text message from the one and only Mark Thornberry on race morning was just the tonic:

Farnham to Box Hill

Having paced the first 2 races in the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam well I was hoping for more of the same here and ran at what felt like an easy pace without worrying about looking at my watch to check. From the outset I adopted a similar strategy to the SDW100, walking most of the hills with purpose and only running a few of them to conserve energy. I knew what awaited us in the next section, so ran steadily with the aim of reaching Box Hill (24 miles) in around 5 hours. It was warm and humid and I was drinking lots as well as soaking my running cap and buffs at regular intervals to cool down. My left achilles and heel, which have been giving me a bit of grief since TP100, were grumbling so I was taking care not to push too hard in case this aggravated them further or worse.

Strolling into the aid station at Newlands Corner [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

I reached Box Hill in 5 1/2 hours, greeted by yet more volunteers who couldn’t do enough to help (as is always the case at Centurion Running races). I was inside the cut off by 1 1/2 hours. Rob Cowlin was on hand to offer encouragement once more, recalling that he’d reached the same stage later than me when he went on to finish the race in 2016. These little nuggets of advice, guidance and encouragement make such a difference along the way.

Box Hill to Knockholt

After a queue to cross the stepping stones the climb up to the too of Box Hill began. It’s at this point in the race that runners become familiar with wooden steps built into the hillside…. and later in the race they’ll be cursing them as they keep appearing! Stuart March, photographer extraordinaire and welcome giver of high fives, greeted me at the top of the steps before I then saw Karen again, accompanied by a couple of Old Codgers no doubt fresh from drinking an Ovaltine despite the warmth and humidity of the day. They did, however, dispense some sage advice.

Allan Rumbles in traditional post-Ovaltine seated position and Mark Thornberry wondering what I’m doing with my right hand

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

The section between Box Hill and Reigate Hill is, to me, the toughest of the race (or at least that’s what I thought until I got to the Detling section…. more on that later). I lost lots of time here in 2017 when I bimbled along worried about tripping over tree roots, having done just that in spectacular fashion a month before the race when I totally stacked it and heavily bruised my right shoulder in the process.

Determined to minimise time lost I set about running as much of this 7 mile stretch as I could. And swearing at Colley Hill as I climbed the endless climb there (with much grumbling from my achilles) before a more gradual climb up to Reigate Hill and the aid station where the fabled Calippos can be bought from the café and enjoyed. I failed to spot Karen and the Calippo she had lined up for me, buying one after a quick splash of water on face in the toilets.

Calippo for GC, iced coffee for Karen at Reigate Hill aid station [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

Not only did I get a telling off from Karen for buying a Calippo when she had one ready for me (both happily consumed in the minutes to follow) but also a reminder to “Get a shift on” because I had lost time during that section and was now only 1h15m ahead of the cut offs. Brendan Turner delivered on his promise to have some mini pork pies waiting for me at the aid station (top mid ultra nutrition that) and I was soon on my way to Caterham, greeted there by Julian Desai for the third or fourth time today. That guy has a time machine I’m convinced of it!

Then, the steps that Dave Stuart has made his own. Sadly I was a tad too slow to take advantage of Mr Stuart’s annual improvised aid station halfway down. I was instead greeted by Karen, who soon wished she hadn’t when I reached for the anti chafing cream and liberally applied it to protect my increasingly hot and bothered undercarriage before I caught fire. I was a gentleman and turned my back to her to do so!

Looking up the steps that I would come down at around the 40 mile mark – and that’s only about half of them!

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

After the steps is a lovely stretch of undulating single track trail which is quite fun to run along and offers fantastic views of … the traffic on the M25 running parallel. Soon after I reached more steps (there’s a theme here, isn’t there?!) heading down before the long climb up to the 43 mile aid station at Botley Hill. I was feeling tired but resolute and bearing the top of the climb I heard music playing and was then greeted by the big smiles of Tracey Watson (volunteering here before pacing me later) and Nikki Yeo. Apparently I didn’t look good at all and perked up once I reached the aid station, had some hugs and indulging in the Toffifee that Tracey had saved especially for me! Then the boiled eggs I’d requested were consumed, one there with the most amazing spinach I’ve ever eaten (skilfully and cheerfully held for me by Nikki Mills) and one on my travels. I left the aid station with a goodbye wave for Pete Watson, a Rocky style shout and re-energised. Top aid station reset that.

Being force fed Toffifee by Tracey, looking like I’ve just stepped out of Julian Desai’s time machine straight from a 1990s rave [Photo credit: Nikki Yeo]

Running down the trail, skipping over the tree roots with boiled egg in hand, I felt great. Only 7(ish) miles to halfway and a chance to regroup again at Knockholt. I kept running during this section, with a small number of short walking breaks, and arrived at Knockholt 2 hours before the cut off. I was maintaining a good buffer against the cut offs, giving me some wriggle room later if the wheels well and truly came off. I would spend around 20 minutes here, ticking into a small plate of pasta (courtesy of the ever present Rob Cowlin), a rice pudding and one of my much anticipated M&S Iced n Spiced buns… which had fared worse than me over the first 13 hours of the day!

Pasta scoffing at Knockholt – my face sums up the feeling upon seeing the state of my Iced n Spiced buns!

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

They’d seen better days but I still scoffed one down! [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

For perspective, in 2017 I arrived with 45 minutes to go until the cut off and left less than 20 minutes ahead of the cut off. I was keen to avoid the pressure of sailing so close to the aid station cut offs that I experienced then, arriving at the 60 mile aid station Wrotham with 10 minutes to spare. This time around I set off from Knockholt with a 1 hour 40 minute buffer on the cut off and determined to keep it for the miles to come.

The note that Rob Cowlin left for me at Knockholt, on the back of a band of Runner Podcast beer mat – thanks again Rob

Zoe Norman and Liam Gibson’s half way note – they know I love a bit of Goggins philosophy!

Knockholt to Bluebell Hill – Tracey Time!

I felt good after the stop off at Knockholt and pushed on all the way to Otford, where I knew Tracey would be waiting to pace me for the next 20 miles. Tracey soon appeared, running down the road towards me with the biggest grin. She was so happy to be spending her Saturday night into Sunday morning running with me. Go figure!

Meeting up with pacer number 1, Tracey Watson, at Otford [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

Following on from her efforts at the Thames Path 100 in May, Tracey promptly set about informing me that I’d hate her by the end of our time together but that was okay because she was going to make damn sure that I got that buckle! Tracey, you were brilliant (again).

“Have a little drink for me Graham”

“Graham, have a bite to eat”

“Watch that tree root”

“I love the North Downs Way”

The last one was too much though Tracey…. 🙄🤔😲😉

We ran where we could (“running” being anything faster than a walk by this stage in the race), I was complimented on my ability to hike with purpose and crack out 15/16 minute miles doing this, and we did not get lost at all! I inwardly smiled when we passed the gate on the way out of Trosley Country Park that marked the end that of my race 2 years ago. I got to Wrotham with plenty of time to spare and after a quick turnaround I said farewell to Andy Law and we marched on. At Holly Hill aid station David Barker gave me a home made peanut butter cookie that his son had made – I should have taken two as they were 👌!

During Tracey’s stint as pacer we overtook about a dozen other runners excluding those we passed by as we zoomed in and out of aid stations. Oh, and I tripped on a stone and nearly stacked it at one point and sat in a load of nettles rather than retrace my steps a mere 50 feet (ultra rationale!). Arriving at Bluebell Hill aid station, having passed Sharon Dickson a few miles earlier (I was so relieved to see her finish later as she was in a dark place, literally and figuratively, when we encountered her on the trail). Thank you Tracey.

Bluebell Hill to Ashford

Pacer number 2, Pete Hammond, took over from Tracey at Bluebell Hill. Last year Pete posted in the Ultra Bandits Facebook group that he wasn’t planning any big races in 2019 so was available for pacing duties at the Centurion Running 100 milers. Given his track record (including completing the 250 mile Thames Ring 250) and his demeanor when I’ve met him at previous races I jumped at the chance and Pete agreed to pace me at the North Downs Way 100 and the Autumn 100. Top man Pete!

Pete’s intention was to get me to Detling aid station (mile 82) with a good buffer against the cut offs having been maintained and he set about the task quietly, efficiently and with good humour. We ran. We walked. We hiked with purpose. We ran downhill. We trudged uphill and up step after step after step on the stretch before Detling. And I knew there were more steps to come thereafter….. We passed three runners in the space of a couple of minutes who are lying on a bench, sitting on a bench with head in hands, and sitting on the grass respectively. One of these would run past us a few minutes later looking like a man possessed … I guess inspiration come from many different places on the trail.

Detling aid station came and went in a blur. Allie Bailey was running a Bad Boy Running aid station with a Hawaiian party theme and I got the most FYBs of the weekend on arrival. Thanks to Corinne Rodgers for picking a selection of food for me to takeaway while I drank coke and skilled it on the floor. Sorry I missed you Julius Naim. I said farewell to Karen, who we would not see until the finish in Ashford. I promised her I’d get there by my own steam and we were off. Karen handed note from Zoe and Liam to Pete and I asked to see it as we walked on. It was awesome! More Goggins inspiration to get it done. I was getting it done. No doubt.

Zoe, Liam and Goggins’ note at Detling

I knew that there were a final few hilly miles, with more steps, ahead but that soon enough we’d be enjoying relatively flat miles from Lenham to Ashford, 12 miles or so. As the sun rose and the head torches were put away we once again began to enjoy the views, if not the seemingly endless steps. The renowned steps down just outside of Detling were over before too long, and thankfully not overgrown, and the remaining steps up, and up, and up were “enjoyed” in the knowledge that THERE ARE NO MORE BLOODY STEPS AFTER THESE!!

At the Lenham aid station we once again crossed paths with Andrew Baillie, who I’d seen several times throughout the race as he was crewing before pacing a friend. It was good to catch up and he later told me that I seemed to get chirpier and look better as the race progressed. Go figure! Leaving Lenham we headed towards Dunn Street, the final aid station about 4 1/2 miles from the finish. The miles were being chalked up and I kept moving, sometimes needing a longer waking break between running but always moving forward. I’d given up on being able to keep the chafing under control hours ago and when we passed a young guy waking like John Wayne as we headed into the second field after Dunn Street I reassured him that his suffering would soon be over and to keep going (he got the biggest cheer of the weekend when he crossed the finish line about an hour after I did, still walking like that the whole way around the track!).

After we had passed through the church grounds and away from the North Downs Way for the final push to the finish we saw Rob Cowlin once more. I think he’d been using Julian’s time machine too! He hiked part me, high fived me and have me more encouragement as he headed up to Dunn Street to meet his runner.

By now I’d decided to walk it in. I’d been delighted that I still had running in my legs for the last few miles of TP100 and SDW100 and looking back I had it in me to run the last few miles here. However, I just didn’t feel like it and had worked out that as I was moving at a decent walking pace I would still finish in less than 29 hours, comfortably within the 30 hour cut off and a time that I would have taken with pleasure before the race. So we did just that. We walked, we talked and I thought about the finish. I was going to to this. I really was. Brilliant!!

The finish

Just before entering stadium I changed into my Team Super Bob t-shirt in tribute to my Dad. Cresting the last hill (the railway bridge!) and turning the corner we could see the entrance to the stadium. Karen was standing by the gate into the stadium holding a can of John Smith’s aloft with a big smile. I’d brought some with me to drink in tribute to my Dad (it was one of his favourite beers) after crossing the finish line. I smiled, told her to keep it for the finish, went through the gate and headed to the track. Around the track I went, running again with Pete on my shoulder telling me I’d done it. I smiled. I smiled. I ran. I turned the final bend and headed toward the finish line. Pete peeled away. Karen was stood on the other side of the finish line calling to me with a big smile on her face. “Come here you!” I raise my arms aloft and shouted “Come on!” as I crossed the line. Karen gave me a very big and lingering hug. It was lovely. It summed up the pride, relief, and joy I felt and of those who have supported me on my two year journey to get this monkey off my back and finally get that #BuckleForBob. Zoe then handed me that buckle and gave me another hug. I had done it. I had done it!

28 hours 34 minutes 59 seconds

103.9 miles

1 buckle

Stuart March captured the money brilliantly, as ever:

Finish line joy unbounded [Photo credit: Stuart March]

Two thirds of the amazing team who helped me on my quest for this buckle at the second attempt, Pete and Karen – Tracey was at home blubbing with happiness if she was true to her word while pacing [Photo credit: Stuart March]

I was true to my word and toasted my Dad with a John Smith’s, once I’d had a shower and was still celebrating when I heard that Sharon had finished. She’d made it with 15 minutes to spare. That made me happier than when I crossed the line – Sharon, you’re a true warrior.

With Zoe celebrating Sharon’s finish – brilliant stuff [Photo credit: Stuart March]

More hugs followed from Nici Griffin, Lou Fraser and others I should remember but can’t (sorry). It was all a really pleasant blur.

Now for the Autumn 100. The final part of the Grand Slam attempt and journey. The Grand Slam is still on.

That makes me very, very happy!!

Dad and #BuckleForBob are united ♥️

Final reflection:

Gaiters are lifesavers. Thanks to Simon Welch for lending me his Salomon gaiters which kept my feet protected. No change of socks needed. No blisters. Top result.

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