Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Other Side - North Downs Way 100

This weekend was the third event in the Centurion Running grand slam of 100 mile races for the year - The North Downs Way 100. This event was the first race organised by James Elson and team last year (to much appraise) and so this event marked a nice anniversary for what has quickly become one of the premier ultrarunning race series in this country. After a year of running ultras, I thought that it was about time that I gave something back to the community, so contacted James to see about helping out over the weekend in whatever way that I could.

As a handy coincidence, my friend Dan Park was using this event as his first 100 miler, so this gave me the opportunity to help him out as well, acting as a sneaky crew if necessary, and more importantly getting him home to his wife and newborn son in one piece. We drove down to the start at Farnham on Friday afternoon, where I would be helping out with the registration process. James immediately got me to work, bashing out flags outside the car park, selling maps to under-prepared runners (does nobody read the instructions?!), arranging drop bags, talking bollocks to anybody that would listen, and even those that wouldn't, etc. Neil Bryant - winner of this year's Viking Way and Hardmoors 110 (I really want that sword...) - was also helping out, and it was really good to finally meet him in person. Neil is off to run across Europe in a couple of days, and hopefully his nasty ankle injury from UTSW will not affect his 64 day run. His physio has given him up to 20 days - I think he needs a second opinion!

After chewing the fat with James, Neil and the various runners trickling through the registration process, Dan and I disappeared off to chew the fat at the Brewer's Fayre next to the Travel Lodge we were staying at. Fully carbed up (why the hell I was carb loading I have no idea?) we went to bed, safe in the knowledge that we had a personal guarantee from Lenny Henry that we would have a great night's sleep.

Less than 4 hours later, we were up. I jumped out of bed and got going, making Dan some breakfast, getting things sorted, then doing the shopping for the first Aid Station in Puttenham. I had been moaning to James the previous evening that I wouldn't get a run in this weekend, so he very kindly offered to let me head off to mark a section of the course (about mile 70 to the Aid Station at Detling, mile 82). I dropped Dan off at the start, grabbed all of my route marking bits and pieces and headed off to the first checkpoint at Puttenham (mile 6.8).

The beautiful North Downs Way - not shown; massive frigging hills!
This was my first stop for the day, and my first opportunity to meet Henk van der Beek, the race director of the Caeser's Camp 100 mile run, who would be running the aid station. Henk and I disagree somewhat in how an aid station should work; I think we should offer aid and support to runners, whilst he thinks we should call them dickheads and kick them straight out! We ended up compromising by supplying them with what they needed, and then calling them dickheads and kicking them out!

There was a good group of us at Puttenham, and the weather was absolutely fantastic; a great way to spend the morning! I had found it a little confusing when driving into the aid station so decided to head down to the corner to put a few more markers up to make it idiot proof, when a few runners came past (including Drew Sheffield who was right up at the sharp end, but unfortunately had to pull out at mile 50) and let me know that some hilarious person had moved some of the markers and it was making some runners go off course (including Richie Cunningham who unfortunately lost the lead due to it). I ran back down the route, seeing lots of familiar faces along the way including Allan Rumbles who was on his way to three for three in the Grand Slam. I got to the offending section and corrected the markings, then went into full on Search and Rescue mode to make sure there were no runners still on the wrong course. I ran up a large hill through a track that eventually split into two pretty inhospitable trails that were quite clearly the wrong way. Frankly, if anybody had gone this way and not turned back, they deserved to get lost!

After the 100 mile runners went through, we waited for the 50 mile runners who would be stopping at Knockholt Pound. By this point we were like a well oiled machine, and had the whole thing down to a fine art. As the last runners went through, we cleared up and I moved onto my next assignment. Annoyingly, due to my little excursion, I missed Dan coming through but I heard that he was getting on well and feeling very happy with his current pace. Excellent!

I drove over to Bluebell Hill, some 60 miles away, for my next task of marking a section of the course that had been missed. Luckily I had brought my running gear "just in case", so tooled up and made my way to the last marked section of the course. Marking the course was good fun. I had a massive role of fluorescent tape strapped to my arm, a pocket full of glow sticks, and a bunch of "Centurion Running" arrows to make the course as idiot proof as humanly possible. It felt like I was putting way too many markers up to be honest, but I was enjoying myself and it would be better to have too many than not enough. The section was further than I thought, and I arrived in Dretling about 3 hours later very warm, and very short of water. I knew that I would get back to the car much quicker as I would not have to worry about the markings, but I had almost no water to last me. Luckily I was able to harass a bemused guy who stocked me up with beautifully cold water from the fridge. Bliss!

I made it back to the car about an hour quicker than the outward trip thanks to a speedy pace and some excellent trail marking (if I do say so myself...). James, Neil and the gang were setting up the aid station as I got there, and I arrived to James' dad shouting "is that Bradley Wiggins?" I swear, that man has ruined sideburns for me...

A quick baby wipe "shower" and I was off again, over to the aid station at Wrotham (mile 60). Unfortunately I had missed the first few runners to come through, but arrived in plenty of time for the bulk of the runners. Henk was here, as was Dick Kearn (of Grand Union Canal Race fame) and wife Jan. I also met up with Chris Mercer, a marathon runner who was helping out and trying to decide if ultrarunning is something he would want to do. I told him that yes, it is! He's already looking into Hardmoors 30, so hopefully he'll have a great race and you'll see him at the NDW100 next year!

My system for route marking. I looked like a morris dancer by the end of it.
I spent the next few hours running around filling water bottles, making cheese and ham wraps, resupplying jelly babies, etc. It was great fun to be the other side of the aid station, and it was really satisfying helping the runners get sorted and continue their journeys. Most people looked surprisingly fresh when they reached us, despite what sounds like incredibly tough underfoot conditions. Allan came through and was not having a great time of it. It sounds like the course, whilst having less vertical ascent than the SDW100 (9,930 ft vs. 12,700 ft), was much harder. Now I really want to see for myself... I sent Allan off with some encouraging words and a firm pat on the shoulder - then quickly realised my mistake! The poor guy had shown me how much trouble he was having with that shoulder and the amount of strapping that he had put on, and I just went and slapped him a good 'un. Oh well, at least it took his mind off of his legs!

We had a few people coming through the checkpoint missing some equipment, including Annie Garcia who had not been able to find her drop bag at Knockholt, and Matt Duffy who's crew had somehow managed to lose his bag! Luckily I had plenty of spare kit with me so was able to help out with head torches, electrolyte tablets, and warm clothes. I think I just about got it all back again at the end!

Generally we had no bad incidents. There were a large number of dropouts (over half of all runners had dropped by the end, probably not helped by the heat of the day). However, one runner arrived complaining about problems with his lower back and sides and was thinking about pulling out. This immediately rose alarm bells to me, and I suspected that he might be suffering from rhabdomyolysis. Chatting to him and his wife, it seemed that this was indeed the case, so I made sure that he was aware of how serious it could be. He didn't want to wait for the medic as he wanted to go home, but he promised me that he would go to the hospital for a checkup the next day. Hopefully it is only a mild case and he won't have any permanent kidney problems due to this. I saw him the following morning at the race end and he was feeling a little better, although was still showing signs of myoglobin in his urine.

As the time went on, and we started to get to the latter pack of runners, my thoughts started to turn to Dan. His time through the halfway point at Knockholt Pound was just under 2 hours below the cutoff, so I was expecting him to come through our checkpoint at a similar sort of time. However, we began to hear tales that there was a group of runners who had run into navigational difficulties and may not make the cutoff at midnight. Keeping track of who was still out on the course was a little difficult. It appeared that we were missing 21 runners, whilst only about 6 were actually still out there (the rest had pulled out at previous checkpoints but that hadn't filtered through to us).

Team Wrotham - From left to right: unknown but very lovely crew lady, Dick, Chris, Marley the dog (named before the book apparently), Henk, and Jan.
We heard from the sweepers that they had caught up to a group of 3 runners, which I found out included Dan. It sounded like they had unfortunately gone off course, but were now back on track and safe about 4 miles from the aid station. 2 ladies appeared at the checkpoint at about 5 minutes past midnight, again having taken a wrong turn in the dark. They were very upset to find that their race was over, and it was very upsetting to have to be the one to tell them. Part of me wanted to let them continue, but unfortunately this would just have compounded the problem further down the line so we had to say no.

I was a little upset as I got the feeling that they were blaming us for the fact that they had gotten lost. The markings are supposed to make navigation easier, but a map is required kit and it is really up to the individual runner to navigate the course. Realistically there are very few races that are marked as well as the Centurion ones. Don't get me wrong, I've had my own navigational problems in the past. But I never blamed anybody but myself (plus that race had no markings at all). But at mile 60 in the middle of the night when you have just been told that it is all over, you could be forgiven for being a bit upset.

Worryingly, there was one runner that was still unaccounted for. I later found that he had been running with Dan and was convinced that he was going the right way (he wasn't). Dick went off in his minibus to search for him and eventually found him, and was also able to pick the other runners up as well. They made it to the aid station at about 1am, a little upset but safe and sound. Unfortunately for them, their race was over, but Dan seemed to be very upbeat about things. He took it as a learning experience and has taken a lot away from his race. Roll on next year for take 2!

Henk had a real thing for that tent. Don't get me wrong, it was a lovely tent, but still...
With everybody accounted for, we broke down the aid station and began the exodus to the end at Wye. We rolled into Wye to find that we had unfortunately missed the top 3 runners. The race was won by Manuel Lago in a fantastic time of 17:50:56 (especially good considering he apparently took a rather large diversion at one point). Second through the line was Justin Montague (who I first met at the Pilgrims Challenge) in 18:48:02, shortly followed by Ed Catmur in 18:50:47. The women's race was won by Alice Hector in 20:10:39 (fourth place overall). Second place went to Helen Smith in 25:16:31, and third place was Prisca Vis in 27:29:17.

Dan went off to have a lie down and recuperate while I helped in whatever way I could (helping with the timings, making tea, etc.). There was a large lull in runners coming through the line after the 24 hour cutoff, as many runners were aiming for the more substantial 30 hour cut off. I used this as an excuse for a sneaky kip (I had been up since 4am the previous day after all), and managed to get my head down for an hour. I headed back to the line to continue cheering the finishers, and it was as always amazing to be present to watch people complete their hard fought journeys. James was inspiring, refusing to get any rest as he wanted to make sure that he was there to greet every runner who came through the line. He made me feel like a bit of a wimp for my power nap...

As the 30 hour cutoff loomed, there were a few runners left out on the course fighting to make it to the end before midday. James makes it very clear that he wants everybody to finish, and especially doesn't want to time people out only a short distance from the finish. By this point I was on timing duty, so was all prepared for some constructive time-keeping. James went off along the trail to try and meet them and help pace them through the line, particularly Leila Rose one of his coaching clients. The last runners came through the line with 15 minutes to spare; plenty of time! There were cheers, and there were tears. There were even some beers, which I thought was a fantastic (if rather dangerous) idea.
Aw bless. He's all tuckered out! Photo c/o Neil Bryant
With the last runners finished, it was time for us to think about hitting the old dusty road. We said our goodbyes and headed on back home. It was a fantastic weekend as always, and it was a lot of fun to be on the other side of things for once. But now it's time to focus on my own race. In 2 weeks I make my way over to Chamonix ready to run the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, one of the toughest foot races in the world (31,000 ft of ascent over 100 miles). I'm feeling good at the moment and I'm really looking forward to seeing how I cope when put up against whatever Mother Nature has to throw at me. Bring it on!


  1. Nice one Sam. Giving back is always good karma! I did a sweeper give back a month ago on a local 24km trail race (hottest day of the year in Northern Italy) and am hoping it will give me good karma for the TDS race in Chamonix next week (I did the UTMB last year). After my race I will be crewing on the UTMB for a lady friend who is one of the top Italian female runners (Katia Fori - she was 7th female last year). I' ll look out for you and give you a shout when I see the sideburns come through :-) .

  2. Thanks Martin, best of luck with TDS! Hopefully see you in Chamonix. If you see the sideburns, please do say hi!


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