So. The dust is slowly settling, the endorphin high is waning, and I’m finally feeling ready to write about the amazing experience I had running the North Downs Way last weekend. Sitting here at my desk, three days on, I still feel like I can’t fully comprehend what I did. I mean, I DID IT! I actually ran 50 miles. But in some ways I’m still coming to terms with it.
I don’t intend this to be a blow-by-blow account of every aspect of the race – there are plenty of accounts out there to satisfy curiosity on that score. But I will record here the things that struck me most; the highs, the lows, what worked, what didn’t, and what it felt like, to me, to run 50 miles for the first time ever.
The race itself still has a strange dream-like quality to me. I remember woods full of bluebells, one patch of woodland completely carpeted in flowering wild garlic – the smell of which was incredible, ridges with spectacular views out over local towns and villages, stepping stones across a swirling river, and the steps up Box Hill… Queuing for the gates as everyone got started, but later miles and miles covered in solitude and sunshine – my favourite kind of running.
The course itself was unlike anything I’d encountered before: relentlessly undulating with a few more memorable hills thrown in for good measure. From a flatlander’s perspective, it was pretty brutal. 5500ft of elevation – probably more than I’d managed the entire year so far.
By mile 17 I wanted to cry. My legs felt heavy and fatigued, and I got sucked into thinking about the distance as a whole; how could I possibly be finding it this hard already? I was only a 1/3 of the way through, and the first half was supposed to be the easy bit. I wanted to stop. Rich was meeting me at the crewing point at 20 miles – if it had been any earlier I think I might have crumbled, but fortunately I caught the mental slide and asked myself why the hell I was dwelling on how hard it was instead of all the training I’d done, how strong I was, and what an amazing adventure I was on. By the time I got to Ranmore Common and saw Rich ready and waiting with fresh fuel, a handful of chocolate raisins, a pep-talk, and details of what was going on in front of me, I’d already started to turn it around. Five miles of gentle downhill followed, and the combination of the two altered the race for me.
The seven miles from the stepping stones to Aid Station 4, including both Box Hill and Reigate Hill, are a bit of a killer, but I strangely enjoyed it. I picked up ‘lunch’ (half a banana, a slice of watermelon, two handfuls of crisps, and a cup of flat coke) at the stepping stones, and ate on the march. I really felt like a I got my teeth into the race in this section, and far from being demoralised, I felt invigorated by the challenge (and probably the food!). I’m not going to lie – it hurt significantly – but I felt as though I’d reached a level of pain I could accept and work with. All I had to do was persuade my legs back into a trot at the top of every incline, and I’d be home and dry. And so it turned out to be.
One of the most uplifting moments of the race came at the top of Box Hill. Emerging into the sunlight at the top of the 300-odd steps, I broke back into a run to the cheers and applause from all the picnic-ers out enjoying their day. It made me feel like a hero, running through their midst, and it was such a massive lift to the spirits. The miles melted away and I kept trotting on. Usually passing people, and rarely getting passed.
Mile 40 was the second rendezvous with Rich – I was in 7th and 6th was in my sights. A fresh t-shirt and cap, another handful of raisins and a ‘hunt her down’, and it was game-face on – I was tired but feeling strong and I wanted that extra place. 10 miles to go. I hiked hard up the hill to the last aid station, gaining on her all the time, she ran out of the water stop as I ran in, and I knew that I would get her. In those last 10 miles I reeled in at least 10 other runners. The terrain was exactly like my run-commute to work and it felt familiar and achievable.
Suddenly I turned the corner and the finish gantry was there. I’d done it. I ran tall and proud across the line, posed with my medal, and promptly dissolved into tears when Rich informed me I was 5th lady due to a drop further up the field.
I did promise I’d reveal what my pre-race aims were… well, a top 5 rank… and a finish between 8 and 9 hours. 9 hours and 51 seconds was my official time, but what’s 52 seconds between friends? I think I’ll take the moral victory there. And the top five finish? In my first 50 miler, in the year when the women’s course record was smashed by nearly 40 minutes, I am hugely proud of that. I’ll definitely be back for an assault on the top 3 at some point in the future.
One of my friends asked me on Saturday evening what my legs felt like after running that distance. The answer I gave was ‘like they’ve been run over repeatedly by a car’, and still that’s the best way I can describe it. Yesterday was the worst DOMS day ever. I was back at work (no rest for the wicked) and I could barely walk. Stairs are still proving a challenge – but at least I don’t have to hold on any more. I’ve been icing my swollen left knee, taking magnesium and bicarb baths, and concentrating as much as possible on eating well and resting up. I have a visit to my physio this evening and the aches are abating, so maybe in a few days some gentle cycling will be on the cards.
I don’t feel like running at all. I left everything I had out there on Saturday, and I simply don’t have anything to give at the moment. It’ll come back, but I promised myself a couple of weeks away from running after this race, and I plan to stick to that. That doesn’t mean that I can’t start planning the next adventure, but for the moment I need the space to recover both inwardly and outwardly before I hit the trails again.
It simply wouldn’t be right to complete this post without thanking Rich for his incredible support out on the course; Nev for his company during the first section of the race and doing all the driving; and everyone who showed an interest in following our progress throughout the day. I have read and re-read all the messages of support and congratulation that appeared on my facebook wall over the weekend – every single one of them makes me feel so proud, and that really does makes a difference.