North Downs Way 50 and how I redeemed myself

This is going to be a relatively short report as it comes so late after the event, but I wanted to say a couple of things about the my run on the North Downs Way 50 last May. Spoiler alert: it was my best 50 miler to date, for many reasons. But as usual let’s start by talking about the days leading to the event.

After the performance on the SDW50 (I wrote about it here), I was really upset. I had trained very well for what I wanted to be my main race of the first half of year and I felt I was going to enjoy it and do well. The fever that caught me the days before the event ruined everything. Luckily training is never wasted so I decided to just wait a month longer to check if my training plan worked: the NDW50 was going to be even more important. I had to keep the level of fitness.

The week after the SDW50 I took it relatively easy, no speed training and just 60k in the whole week. It was Easter holidays so we went to Italy and I had a nice run with Davide on the Giro Dantesco, nice trails and no wild boars this time. During the Easter week-end I also went to reclaim the CR on Salita Bergeggi that was stolen from me for just a handful of seconds. It is mine again by more than a minute, so I should be ok until next year at least!

Then I had two strong weeks of 105 and 110 km each with solid SSR sessions (like this one) during the week and longer runs during the week-end. Nothing super long, but both week-ends I went to the NDW, once with super tired legs and still managed a solid 25k run and the next week-end 32k on the NDW with two new friends and a dog.

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Action selfie

Then I had one 73k easy week to start the tapering and finally race week arrived: 10k a couple of times but the rest was doing nothing and sleeping as much as possible. I also had the excitement of changing job that week.

On race day I woke up very early as usual and the classic pre-race routine of toilet – breakfast – toilet went perfectly well. I got the Race HQ early enough to find a nice parking spot outside the school at Farnham. I had enough time for a chat with various friends and then after the race briefing we walked to the start.

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Race Briefing

Unfortunately some of us got delayed at the train crossing and by the time we decided to take the overpass we got to the start too late. The race had started at least a minute before we got there.

Note to self: listen to the race briefing from the back of the room, near the exit, so you can leave as soon as it’s done and not get stuck.

The first couple of kilometers were then a bit frantic as I did not want to be so behind everyone else, but then I made myself take it easy as the day was going to be long and I had enough time to make up for that lost minute.

I settled on a nice easy pace. Some flat or downhill bit at just under 5 min/km, some slower bits around 6:30 if I was walking uphill.

I basically walked everything that was making my heart go over 140 bmp. The plan was to be consistent all day, no crazy rush in the first half and no death march at the end.

At the first aid station in Puttenham (at around 11k) I did not stop as I still had a full bottle of water and kept going at that sustainable pace. At around 20k we arrived at the St Martha hill which I had visited 2 weeks earlier. I remember in 2015 in my total ultra-ignorance I ran up all the way. This time I walked it easy and bombed down on the other side. So far so good. Very warm day but I was feeling great.

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At the top of St Martha’s hill

A bit of up and down on big grassy hills and I reached the second aid station (23k) at Newlands Corner. I stopped very briefly for a bottle fill up and some water melon. This time I was not going to get anything else, no coke, no solid food. I had all my gels and Tailwind to drink, I wanted to avoid stomach issues this time.

The next part of the trail is probably the one I ran the most in training. I find the flat woodland there a bit boring except the final part before Ranmore. I like the single track bits there, full of roots and speedy downhill. There was a very fast race going the other way round so we had to stops once in a while and let the other runners go by.

From the 35th kilometer or so until Box Hill there is a lot of tarmac and a lot of downhill that usually kills my legs. I was not looking forward to that bit even if I enjoyed bombing down it in January’s race. Luckily I started chatting with another runner, very friendly Kevin, and the time went faster and even the under-pass before Box Hill was gone before realising it (I usually hate it).

I was looking forward to Box Hill. Psychologically it feels like you are halfway through the race (even if it is around 40k out of 82k) and with the excuse of the long steps section I was looking forward to eating a bit more and take it easy.

Instead it was the worst part of the whole race. I felt really dizzy going up, even walking easy I could not eat anything and felt so tired when I got to the top that I could hardly start running again.

It took around 5k of slow running to feel better but by then my stomach was went a bit strange. This time I solved the issue straight away, I jumped behind a bush and the rest is history. I felt much better and got to one of the hardest climb (Reigate) feeling strong. Walked to the top and run the rest of the way to the 50k mark where the Reigate Hill aid station is. More water and watermelon and off I went.

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Just one of the climbs, enjoying it

Apart from a couple of km on the road this is my favourite part of the race, especially the last wooden bit (Old Park Wood) before Caterham’s aid station at around 61k. It went relatively fast even if my pace was much much slower than the first half of the race. But I was running everything (except the hard climbs) and that is what made me very confident.

At Caterham I had to sit down a bit at the aid station as again I was feeling super weak. I probably spent 2 minutes there longer than I wanted, but I felt I was at the limit, I could not push too much. This is where in 2015 everything went wrong and I suffered the rest of the race. This time I was not feeling super, but I was moving, always. The legs were in pain, but my head was in a good place. And I think this sums up the whole day pretty well. The body was in pain, but my mind was set to do well and made my legs go, just go all the time. And the more I realised I was going and going and the more I felt good.

I started doing the math and while 8:30 hour (my dream scenario), was an impossible task I was happily going for around 9 hours which was much better than the 10 hours of 2015. After a bit I even realised that I could make it in under 9 hours and that was a pretty good boost too.

The climb to the last aid station at Botley Hill (69k) was endless but the end was in sight. I had a quick cup of tea there, preparing for the last push.

The final 13k were the most painful. I remembered from 2 years ago how hard the final fields were, but even if I was prepared it felt like they were going on forever.

Finally after a million fields the finish line was in sight and for the last 2k I just gave it all I had. I even ran the last mile at around 4 min/km pace. I was so happy to see the end and even happier to have made it in 8:51, one hour and 9 minutes faster than two years ago. Training definitely had an impact, but I believe most of this PB performance is due to experience. Running your fifth 50 miler is definitely different than running your first.

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It had been a nice sunny day all day. I had a long time to wait for the bus back to the car so I quickly changed and then collapsed on the grass for hours. I probably drank 8 cups of tea and then had the mother of all hiccups, but I was the happiest man on the planet.

As always the Centurion people and volunteers put together a wonderful day for us runners and everything was fantastically organised. Everyone at the aid stations and at the finish was so friendly and helpful. Thanks! I cannot wait to run the next one in September. Now I only need to survive my first 100k race!

North Downs Way Marathon

Last Sunday I went back to the North Downs Way to run the NDW Marathon. The first edition of this race organised by Hermes Running, the same people that organised the Thames Meander I ran in March. I loved the NDW when I first ran on it during the NDW50 and I was keen to get back there.

The day started with pouring rain but by the time I was at the Reigate Golf Club (where the race HQ was) the sun was out and it looked like it had no intention of raining again.
I had to park quite far away from the starting line, but that gave me the chance to get to know a couple of other guys including one I ran the first kms with, which is one of the reasons I like going to races.

After a bit of pre-race briefing by race director David Ross with his cool Western States buckle we were off. Some people in front just disappeared straight away. I had no intention of letting the excitement make me run too fast and I decided to stick to a 5 min/k on flat, run fast downhill and do whatever possible uphill.

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I was feeling quite good. The sun was shining, the woods were thick and the paths were perfectly dry. I did not even feel the first uphill bit. After around 5k we were at the first big downhill, Reigate Hill. I remember doing it uphill during the NDW50 and it was as steep as I remembered it. I decided to go down fast. A lot of small steps and boom I was at the bottom pretty fast feeling like a hero.
I started overtaking some people. I remember hat part as being the bit I liked the most during the NDW50 but doing it the other way round I did not remember it much. I was going to do it again on the way back so I was curious to see if I was going to get some flash back from May.

At the 10th km there was another climb and on top of that I should have gone right and kept at the top of the hill until the famous Box Hill steps. Instead I took the wrong turn and went straight down. I thought I was going fast and instead I was overtaken by two guys (not taking part in the race) that were going at least twice as fast. Amazing speed. My eyes were watering, I could not go faster than that, I was scared of tripping and these two guys went down like missiles. I later discovered they were @TheGingerKenyan and @kendall_danny. At the bottom I found myself with the first lady and we both realised we were in the wrong place. The two guys told us how to get back to the Box Hill steps and off we went. I don’t think we lost much time, but we had to do an extra climb to find ourselves back on Box Hill.

150719213406_HThe downhill on the steps was fun, but my legs were starting to complain a bit. I was happy when I got to the stepping stones.

After crossing the A24 we ran up the asphalt road that I hated doing downhill at the NDW50, the bit through the vineyards. Doing it uphill was not too bad and after 2 more flat kms on top of the hill and through some woods we arrived at the halfway point where we turned around and started running back. I felt quite good. I was 10th (I counted the runners coming back). Stupidly I forgot that the worst part is after the 30th km and the good feelings I have at 21k do not count. Like an idiot I tried to keep my 10th place and ran a couple of kms at 4:30 but then the downhill via the vineyard really killed my legs and I started losing positions. I was happy when I arrived at the stepping stones again and I stopped for the first time at an aid station. I took some extra water and started going up the box hill steps, walking for the first time in the race.
When I arrived at the top I had lost 2 more positions and my legs were broken and still had 15km to go.

The rest of the race was just pure suffering. When I was running I was doing 6 min/km, but when the trail was uphill I had to walk and ended up doing some very slow kms. Cramps were always around the corner and I started eating salt sticks every 20 minutes, I even chewed one and almost puked, disgusting.

At the 37th km I walked up Reigate Hill. It felt like vertical, a lot harder than when I did it at the NDW50 even if I only had 37k in the legs and not 50+. At the top I could not get the legs moving and spent too much time walking and chatting with a guy on a horse. I then shuffled for a bit until I got to the last aid station, 1.6 miles before the end. I probably stopped to drink there for too long and two more runners caught up with me. As it was the end I tried to fight not to lose more positions. One guy stayed behind but the other one, a 60+ veteran, was just too strong. We did some bits at around 4:15 min/k and still as soon as there was a uphill part he was too strong for me.

I finished 22nd in 4 hours and 8 minutes.

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As always I think I should have paced myself better and saved my legs a bit more on the downhill bits. It’s quite a difficult trail, but I really enjoyed the day. I had a couple of kms where I hated myself for being there, but the rest was fantastic. The belly, for the first time in a marathon, have not given me any problem. I stuck to my gels and just water and did not get anything strange form aid station this time.

The medal at the end was also the biggest one I have ever received. Beautiful day on the trails, met some nice people, seen some nice scenery, wasted my legs a bit, all in all: a happy day.

If you are interested here is the Strava upload you can check it out here.

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North Downs Way 50

After months of training and thinking about this crazy adventure the day finally came. Saturday was race day, my first ultra marathon, the North Downs Way 50. I chose to try that particular race as it is quite close to home and I knew friends were doing it. Some people said it also was quite good for a beginner as the elevation gain is not too extreme.

The day before the race was spent (half of it as I only took half day off) preparing the pack and spent with two friends from Italy who came to run the race, Davide (@unknowndest) and the man known as “Cinghiale”. We spent the afternoon discussing their various racing experiences and I kept on asking for hints and tips. I was pretty excited/scared.
I checked for the final time the race pack and then we had an early dinner.

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I tried to go to sleep early but the excitement was too much. I slept very little and when the 4:30am alarm clock went off I was already awake. I had my usual pre-race breakfast (tea and two toasts, one with jam and one with peanut butter), spent a lot of time in the toilet (everything was going as planned), prepared the water bottles (one with just water for the race and one with salts for the pre-race snacks) and left the house. I picked up the two pros and off we went to Farnham.

As usual (for me) we arrived super early for registration. The race pack check went very quickly and we had our bib numbers. More waiting, chatting with people, more toilet breaks, a banana and energy bar, more waiting and then Emanuele (@manuontrail) finally arrived. I had been waiting to meet him for a long time. We sort of prepared this race together, from two different countries, via the power of the internet. It was time to see how ready we were. He had already run the SDW50 so at least he knew he had the distance in the legs, I did not.

We walked to the start line and had a quick briefing from race director James and then boom, we started. My race plan was to take it easy and save energy in the first half and get to Box Hill still full of energy and then see what I could do in the other half. I had run 50k in training and I knew I still had plenty of energy at the end if I did not go too fast, so I planned to run at a pace just below 6:00 min/km. In my dreams I thought I could do the whole race at that speed, slow down uphill and make up time downhill. I was dreaming of finishing it in just a bit more than 8 hours. How wrong I was!

Davide and Cinghiale disappeared in front straight away, like missiles. I ran 2k with Emanuele and then went on my own.
My confidence was shattered pretty quickly. I realised straight away that it was going to be a lot harder and that I should have done more hill training (mistake number 1). By the 20th km I was already walking uphill and I was feeling as tired as at the end of a marathon! I realised I was not saving any energy for the second half. I was already burning everything to get to it!

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While I did not stop at the first aid station I did a quick stop at the second. Took one of the gels available there and had my water bottle filled again. The gel was a caffeine one and it worked quite well. I got into a rhythm. If going up was too hard I would walk and run the rest. I really struggled and started suffering even on flats and downhill. I kept telling myself that once I was at Box Hill and half of the race was done I would feel good and as a prize I would start listening to my mp3 player. I really was looking forward to the music. It became the reason why I wanted to get to Box Hill as fast as possible. I suffered like crazy going down the private vineyards road near Guilford (I cannot remember the name) and I was telling myself “if you are struggling going downhill in the first half of the race, what are you going to do in the next 50k?”.

I arrived at the Box Hill’s aid station (24 miles) in 3:49 minutes. If I think about it now it was not too bad, but at the time I felt so tired it seemed like it took me ages.
Fortunately the friendliness of the volunteers at the aid station helped a lot. They gave me more water and words of encouragement. I started eating different things from what was available. I really appreciated the peanut butter sandwich and loved the water melon. I left pretty quickly but very happy.
The day was amazing, blue sky, sunny but not too hot. Plenty of people around cheering us, beautiful vistas from the hill tops, amazing single tracks in the woods. It was a perfect introduction to ultra running.

I was halfway through. I felt tired, but happy. The river crossing on the stones and the water melon gave me a boost. I walked up the Box Hill steps thinking that they were not that hard and then started running again with an extra spring.
I took out my mp3 player and all excited I told myself it was time to kick some asses. Mistake number 2: check the batteries work! Disaster, I had no music. I had to carry an mp3 player for no reason and I was not going to have any help from the music. I soon got over it and started running well. That was the best part of the race for me. I felt good. I ran quite fast where I could and walked pretty well uphill. I overtook a lot of people. Someone coming the other way told me I was in the top 50 and that gave me an extra boost. Even the killer Reigate Hill did not discourage me and I arrived at the next aid station (50k) quite comfortably. Unfortunately there was no water melon, ever again. I was definitely slower than my dream plan but not too bad. The GPS was playing tricks so aid stations arrived earlier than I expected, which was a bonus. I had more fruit from the station, some crisps and filled the bottle with an energy drink.

Then the real trouble started. I had been very good at eating a gel every half hour, drinking a lot, a salt stick every hour and so on, but I probably did a mess at the aid stations. The more I got tired the more I started eating random stuff and drinking coke (mistake number 3), which is something I never do even in a normal situation as I get terrible hiccups. So I started having nausea and belly cramps and really struggled running. I alternated a quarter km walk with 1 km run, but I was getting slower and slower and when I realised I still had hours, probably more than 4, to go I had a real low patch. There were some bits on the road that seemed endless, I remember a very bad bid in the middle of a golf course and then between houses. It seemed infinite. I would have lost the path at some point if a lady with a pram had not shouted me where I had to go. I was spent. The legs were hurting, but the real problem was the belly.

At the Caterham’s aid station (61k) I did the biggest mistake, I had ice cream. Disaster. The belly problems got worse and finally I had to stop and hide behind a bush and … But then I felt a lot better and when I got to the last aid station I started thinking about the end. I was going to make it! The nice volunteers made me a hot tea and it went down so well I was almost in tears with happiness.

The next 12/13k went a bit blurry. I kept on running where I could and walking were I could not, including downhill, which had become a pain. A guy in front of me was even more in pain and did the downhill steps backwards. The GPS was unreliable so I could not know if I was almost there or not. A 2k difference at that point seemed a lot.
Then there was an endless stream of potato fields. They never ended! Luckily it was all flat and as it was almost the end I started smiling inside. I went into machine mode. I was talking to myself loudly, counting the step, 1 to 10 and then again 1 to 10. I became louder but I kept running. I overtook people (that probably thought I was crazy), but I kept going. The legs where almost to the point of explosion (funnily I never had any cramp, which was my most feared scenario), the knees wanted to come off, but the belly was under control.

At some point I entered another potato field and saw the finish balloon at the other end. I could hear people screaming, but the path was not taking me there. Painfully there was still one mile to run around the field and then in the village of Knotholt. CR-NWD50-2015-725But finally I saw it in front of me and people started cheering, I saw my super fast friends there waiting for me (they had finished in 3rd position together, heroes), shouting, I had to resist the temptation to cry. I was so happy when I crossed the line. An indescribable feeling, 10 hours and 1 minute.

If you put together all the happiness I felt at the finish lines in my 40+ half marathons and marathons you do not get even close to what I felt Saturday.

It had been an amazing day. Amazing people, weather, location, pain, happiness, self discovery etc. I sat on the grass, in the sun, with my medal and everything was perfect.

resultsWhile waiting for Emanuele I had a sausage sandwich and a recovery drink and felt like new. I checked my phone and found many many messages from friends and family that had been following me on the live website. It was very nice to know people had been thinking about me all day.

We took the bus back to Farnham (wonderful organisation by Centurion by the way) and we had a fish and chip dinner. I could not eat much due to a killer hiccup that had finally got hold of me. I did not even sleep much during the night, too much adrenaline and hiccups.

We spent the next day in the pub, in front of beers and a Sunday Roast reminiscing the events of the day before. Then it was time to say good bye and I finally felt very tired. By 9.30pm I was sleeping in bad.

If you are interested, the official results are here. My Strava of the race is here (but my watch lost 2km somewhere).

Thanks to everyone who helped during the day. You made it special.

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101%

Here we are. A few days before the big race. The one that changed my life’s routine for the last 9 months. The one I started this blog for. The North Downs Way 50. Soon I will know if I have what it takes to run an ultramarathon. I will find out if I trained enough to run 50 miles. I though about this blog posts for months and now I am not sure what I should write.

It has definitely been an amazing journey. Last year I was racing a half marathon a month. A couple of races were a bit longer, 16 miles, but not much more. Then I decided to try something new. To test myself and I became addicted to the whole ultra and trails running idea.  I went from running less than 40k a week to running 120k.

I did it scientifically. I read books. I listened to old and new friends who knew better. I think I did well. I never got seriously injured. I almost improved my diet too. I definitely feel stronger. I feel ready, physically at least. Is my head ready? I will find out Saturday.

Since last summer I have been running 6 times a week all of the weeks except a couple, either because I was not home or I was not well, but I did stick to my training plans virtually all the time. I am proud of the effort I put in.

But this journey did not just start last summer. I think this is the culmination of a longer journey. I have started running roughly seven years ago, when my dad passed away. The idea was to try and do something to keep my head from thinking too much. I needed something to fight that horrible time. It did not work. Running gives you too much time to think. You spend too much time alone and you cannot run away from such a loss. Even seven years later the pain is still there, with the same strength.

What did change was the fact that I realised running was fun. After the first weeks where I could not run more than 2k I started improving and a new world opened up and I got addicted.

I think I needed it. You can have a fantastic family (like I do), a career you are happy with (like I do most of the time :)), but you need an addiction in your life. You need something that is all yours. Something that keeps your mind busy when you need it busy. You need a passion and I believe passions should be almost unhealthy, otherwise they are not a passion.

When I was young I had two passions. Video games and skateboarding. Video games are so important in my life that I made a career out of them so that’s a passion I feed daily. Skateboarding was all my life for ten years. Everything else was less important (as my school results can attest). I was skating every day. I was good at it. I had people giving me free stuff. I won some contests (small ones) and could not think of anything else. I was not the only one. All my friends had burning passions. Some were skating like crazy like me. Some were into music and we knew all the most obscure bands, we played rough music, we went to gigs. I learnt from my friends that passions are worth feeding. All my friends are still crazy about something. Someone runs more than me, others snowboard like pros, others were into art and keep on creating. I don’t know if I was lucky or what, but my friends and my family always made it possible to do things 101%.

I always wanted adventures and I think that, slowly, running has become my way to go for adventures, even short ones in the park behind my house. It slowly became my passion and something I wanted to do with 101% effort. That’s why I think it is not surprising that I finally got to the point of preparing for an ultra. I always knew one day I wanted to jump from half to full marathon. I did that in 4 months and now it is time to go for an ultra. A bit quick maybe, but passions make us crazy.

Whatever the result of  the race on Saturday I will be happy. I had the chance to make new friends. I broke my records. I made myself more disciplined. I feel better as a person as a whole. Some people might think I am silly and that there are more important things in life. Yes there are, a lot of them actually, but running is not making me lose sight of what’s important. On the contrary it gives clarity and purpose.

I’d like to thank all the people that supported me in this journey. All the people that gave me hints and all the people that have asked me questions. I hope my daughters will not think that they have a crazy dad, but will hopefully see that cultivating a passion is good. That doing things 101% is how things should be done. And you do not need to win to be happy. You do not need to run a marathon sub 2:30 to be a runner. You can be happy for your career even if you are not a CEO. What counts at the end of the day is that you have put in your effort and a bit more, if you do that something good will come.

Ok maybe I am over-thinking this. This post might be too much. It is just a run after all, but for me it’s been a long journey and it is just the beginning!

This week I have been mostly resting with only 2 short runs, so no usual post this time. The next post will be my race report. If you want to follow it in real time you can check out this page on Saturday.

I hope I have not bored you too much. See you out there, giving your 101%.