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North Downs Way - Anna's Second Place

Anna is currently in hospital having an(other) Op - before she went in she shared this awesome race report from her epic North Downs Way 100 Miler. A race that she took on only a few weeks after one of her other operations. Huge mental challenges on top of some of the bigger 100 mile terrains that exist out there. Add on top that Anna was leading the race for a considerable period of time.

Anna has been with Camino since the beginning and she never ceases to amaze us. This is just one chapter of Anna's running opus - there are many more incredible chapters to come. Enjoy this chapter x

"North Downs Way 100… what a day! I went into that race feeling ‘ok’ with my most consistent training block since last September, but had been a bit on the edge of feeling ill all week with my throat and lungs just feeling tight and also a significantly upset stomach for several days beforehand - not ideal for a hilly hundred miler where both lung capacity and energy requirement are significant! I was quite nervous that one of these symptoms was actually real and I might deteriorate during the day but tried to put that out of my mind telling myself I’d had enough bad luck this year - it must all be in my head - it had to be. It was all the worst kind of taper demons that creep up on me making me doubt I was capable…I’m sure I’m not the only one who has them!

I never feel fantastic starting a race so early in the morning but managed to set off on a decent pace with two buddies - Julius from BBRC and Sam a Camino buddy who I’d got to know on the New River run in February. I was feeling my lungs though - they just didn’t feel big enough so I started to get a bit worried and although we weren’t running fast it started to feel like too much effort. We ran together for 10 or so miles with me still feeling a bit concerned about my lungs and the pace we were doing but then we all started to do our own thing a bit more and soon I was on my own and could slow it down a bit. I managed to be ahead of my own rough schedule early on so missed Jen my ‘early’ crew at the first two crew points which meant I was at risk of running out of water – I hadn’t filled up at CP1 as I’d thought I’d see her soon after. Luckily it wasn’t yet that warm so I hadn’t drunk a lot so I managed to eek it out to Newlands Corner just before 15 miles. I had no idea where I was in the placings and wasn’t paying any attention to my watch other than a cursory glance now and again. I was determined to run to feel as this race was nothing like previous races I’d done in terms of terrain so there was literally no point having a rigid plan.

I finally saw Jen at Denbies Hillside which was just the most beautiful spot in glorious sunshine. It was quite warm by now and as well as some lovely refreshing melon she presented me with a vegan sausage roll and a calippo which I guzzled. It was so nice to see the crews all chatting and getting to know each other and just enjoying being out on a lovely day in the countryside. It just reminded me what a lovely community we have :-) I didn’t stick around long though and walked off slurping my calippo happily. So far, so good. I caught up with Sam again as he came out of CP3 so we tackled the first big climb at Box Hill together. It was a diversion to the normal route as the steps are still being refurbished which I had thought at the time was a disadvantage as I thought the steps would be easier. In hindsight (60 million steps later) it was much better as a normal hill! It was steep and felt hard but I’d done it before in a recce and knew it wouldn’t go on forever so I just dug my poles in and tried to power on and despite them slipping a fair bit on the chalk - it really helped me to find a rhythm. I’d invested in a quiver for my poles after practising with them on a recce as due to the fiddly positioning of the pole holders on my UD pack, I’d discovered it stopped me accessing my food pockets – I knew this would be a disaster in the race. The quiver was working out much better and had the bonus of making me feel like Robin Hood! Sam was very kindly waiting for me at various points but after we reached the top we ended up going at different paces again so I soon lost him. I was now on my own with no obvious runners to tag along with so I switched on an audiobook which sometimes helps me on long, lonely runs to pass the time and just kept running, winding my way through the woods and up Reigate Hill to the next CP.

I saw Jen at Merstham again - 33 miles - and she almost gave away how I was doing but I stopped her as I just didn’t want to know. I felt like I had been doing ok, but didn’t want the pressure. I was then able to carry on plodding away happily ignoring my pace and doing my own thing. When I got to Caterham however (38 miles) I saw another lady just leaving the CP and was greeted by Lou from BBR who was really lovely but greeted me with a happy ‘2nd lady!’ and some friendly abuse about letting the club down by doing too well. Oh no - Game changer… I didn’t do anything drastically different but I also didn’t hang around that long and got going again, my eyes now fixed firmly ahead. And then I saw her - Linn, getting closer and closer. What was happening?! I overtook around 40 miles, we exchanged a few words and then I kept going, hiking up the hill ahead of her. I had the entirely surreal experience of Steve Ashworth circling me with a camera filming me for quite a long time as I trekked up Botley Hill, my poles click clacking on the hard chalk, and me trying to look focussed and like a ‘serious’ athlete! After a quick CP snack at the top I was off again. Having never led in a race like this I was finding it a really strange experience and the way people greeted me seemed - different? I already felt the pressure and I’d had the lead for approximately 2 miles! I was such an imposter! I cracked on with my inner-Dory mentality keeping me on track ‘just keep running, just keep running!’ The hills now all start to blend into one in my memory but there was at least one more decent climb before the descent into Knockholt Pound at 50 miles where it was nice to be greeted by the friendly faces of Chris (Mills? The tracking guy!) and Keith from BBR. A short chat and a rushed bowl of pasta later and I was en route to Otford where I COULD NOT WAIT to see my sister Claire and the wonderful Jess who would be joining me as my first pacer. I also had Rich McDowell come out to meet me on the way in to the village so had a quick debrief and pep talk from him to spur me on. Claire had brought my requested boiled potatoes and rice pudding which had been my absolute top food items from SDW so after stuffing some potatoes down and hydrating with some watermelon Jess and I were on our way. It was so great to have her there with me chatting away and the miles were passing much faster than on my own. We maintained a decent pace with me trying to focus on ‘run where you can, walk where you have to’ and with a fair amount of cajoling from Jess it didn’t seem long before we were approaching Wrotham at 60 miles where I was looking forward to seeing Alex (Exhale) and Kris who were volunteering. I wasn’t expecting to see Claire as we’d planned this as a good point for her to go to Ashford to pick up Amanda who would be pacing me to the end - but there she was! Without Amanda… I got a little concerned but obviously the sensible people had come up with a plan without me and there wasn’t anything I needed to worry about! It was great to see the guys and I even got a refreshing iced coffee to gulp down and could soak my buff under the cold tap in the lovely cricket pavilion that was their aid station – very civilised!

I was pretty pleased with how I managed the heat in general. Coming off the back of a life time of really struggling running in higher temperatures (which was confirmed to me by my dramatic exit from MdS in October!) I had not found it too bad at SDW when lots of people had complained about it. Although I could feel it was also hot on the NDW I wasn’t feeling too bad with it. On this occasion I’d also had the time to do 3 decent recces of 4-5 hours each which had all been on very hot days so maybe I’d finally started to acclimatise? During the race I just kept up drinking as much as I could and although I stuck to water/squash rather than electrolyte drinks (after my initial two bottles which were maurten/mountain fuel) I was taking a couple of salt tablets every few hours. I occasionally dunked my wrist buff and/or visor in a bucket of water and I’d worn my sleeves for most of the hottest part of the day, which meant I had the cooling effect of my own sweat to help maintain body temperature. When I started to feel nauseous (which could have happened on a cold day too in this kind of race) I downed a couple of rennie to settle the acid. I was ok with the heat - incredible!

Not long after Wrotham Jess and I found ourselves running a long a quiet country lane when I happened to look up to the field next to the road and was horrified to see a pink Centurion marker billowing there on the other side of the hedge. We were supposed to be in the field! 100km into a 100 miler and funnily enough I didn’t fancy backtracking for even 100m let alone further so Jess kindly ran back to try and find where we missed the entrance to the field and I plodded back in the same direction. Unfortunately we couldn’t see any obvious point where we’d missed the turn and given it was exactly parallel to the road (therefore we hadn’t cut any distance) I decided I’d rather scramble over the barbed wire fence than keep going backwards - so we did. Jess was obviously a bit concerned in my slightly clumsy state I might have an accident but she helped my haul myself over and we were back on track. Very shortly after I found I had an incredibly sharp stone in my shoe which I had to take off immediately as I couldn’t even put my foot down on it. Once I’d removed the shoe and was pathetically trying to locate the stone which seemed to be stuck there Jess whipped it off me to efficiently diagnose a thorn through the entire sole that had gone right up into the shoe itself. No wonder that hurt… offending spike removed and we were off again. The incident-free run was short lived though as while running through a section of the path with overhanging brambles and thistles we heard a loud ripping sound that stopped us both in our tracks. While Jess was panicking I’d ripped my shorts to pieces, I looked down to see half of my bib forlornly lying on the ground. I’d got it caught on some overhanging branch and it had completely torn in two. Luckily the safety pins were still dangling from my shorts so I did a botch job to re-attach it (it had the medic’s number on it!) and again, we set off.

The remainder of the section with Jess was relatively uneventful. She kept dragging me on faster that I would probably have chosen to go if left to my own devices (therefore fulfilling her main requirement!) whilst simultaneously managing comms with my support crew – absolute hero. I kept asking for updates on how Linn was doing and was getting relatively reassuring responses as the lead seemed to grow to about 15 mins – it wasn’t enough though and I still felt incredibly stressed with nearly every walk break having to be judged on whether ‘other people’ would be running that section. Still I could only do what I could do and we finally made it through Holly Hill at 65.6 and then down to the River Medway and over the bridge. That bridge went on forever! Jess – ‘just run to the end of the bridge and then you can walk, the crew point is just beyond’. Me ‘this bridge is NEVER ending!!’ Luckily it did end – eventually - and rightly enough Claire and Amanda were not far beyond. This had been the point – 72 miles – at which Jess was supposed to leave me and Amanda was meant to be starting at 76 and I had very confidently told them both this plan was fine and I could definitely manage those 4 miles alone, but I was stiff and tired and starting to feel quite low so was very glad Jess agreed to stay on with me for that section! We ploughed on as it started to turn to dusk and just at the point where we’d turned into a pretty dark path and stopped to extract our head torches, we turned a corner and there was the aid station and Claire and Amanda were waiting ready! I gulped down the most beautiful cup of tea in the world and a rice pudding before saying good bye and thank you to Jess and then Amanda and I were off into the rapidly decreasing daylight.

Poor Amanda really did draw the short straw with this one. Not only was she inheriting an incredibly tired and grumpy Anna, she was basically setting off to run (or mainly hike) 27 miles in complete darkness on a hilly and rutted track. She did a sterling job. I had been warning her for days that pretty much as soon as she joined me we’d have the last ‘monster’ climb of the race. It had been true – sort of – when I recce’d it it was definitely the single worst hill in the last 40km. But that was on fresh legs and it turned out however hideous that climb through the woods was, there was much worse to come. We trekked up the very steep woodland trail on a combination of loose dirt and uneven steps, with me hauling myself up with my poles but managing to keep moving. Once we reached the top, there was long section of forest trails on undulating terrain at which point I kept hearing loud rustling in the trees. I joked about it being the ‘North Downs Bears’ but Amanda quickly pointed out that it was probably just squirrels – but it did seem too loud to be squirrels! Not long after this the mystery was resolved as the first of multiple ‘kamikaze’ badgers raced across the path in front of Amanda! We continued to hear and see the noisy things for quite a long time, not quite sure why they so urgently needed to be on the other side of the path! I did start to wonder whether a badger attack was a valid excuse to stop running?!

It wasn’t too long, even at the slow pace, before we reached Detling aid station where Claire was waiting. We didn’t stick around too long but long enough for me to use the indoor toilet (!) and glug down some more tea and snacks. One of the volunteers ‘helpfully’ told me that I would be fine to make 24 hours and I had a minor panic since I was currently on for sub 21 – what was I missing?! It turns out it was a complete lack of understanding of the horrors that awaited me in the terrain of the next 20 miles! We set off out of the village and back onto the trail, which I had done before, but in blazing sunshine on a Sunday afternoon with relatively fresh legs. This was an entirely different world. The paths from this point onwards were either incredibly steep steps (up and down) or else uneven, rutted, rooted paths which were impossible to see clearly even with a bright head torch. I was losing so much time and after a while I was literally having to plant both poles and heave myself up the individual steps one at a time. It was soul destroying! We also got the disturbing news that Linn hadn’t stopped at Detling. How?! I had been stressing for at least a week about the fact Detling was the last point crew were allowed and I’d have 20 miles still to do after that with no support and no rice pudding!! How had she been confident enough to not even use that crew point when the next CP was 9 miles further ahead?! I think if I’m honest that is where I lost the race mentally. We kept going but it felt slower and slower and I was in a world of pain. Every time I tried to get a jog on I’d land awkwardly on an invisible dip in the path or kick a rock and lose confidence and resort to walking. I kept a decent pace on with the hiking using my poles to maintain some kind of rhythm but it was slow going. Finally, quite a few miles after Lenham CP at 91 miles I looked behind me and saw a single headtorch approaching. I hadn’t been overtaken by anyone for hours and I just knew it was Linn. She seemed to be marking me as she didn’t overtake straight away but hung back and then finally she levelled with us and then drew ahead. There was no way I had anything left in me to fight for another 10km so it was over. In some way it was a relief as the pressure was gone and I just had to get myself to the finish and hold onto 2nd. We jog/hiked the last mile or two off the trail and then continued down the country lanes in towards Ashford. Amanda had to deal with one final strop from me as I couldn’t see clearly which was the entrance to the stadium and then once she had found it and reassured me, we were running in to the track and the finish line was in sight. As with any race I mustered enough energy to run in onto the track (ah that beautiful flat and springy track - heaven!) to make the three quarter lap before crossing the line and stopping. Done.

There were a lot of emotions going through me at that point and being a hugely self-critical person I obviously started berating myself for losing the lead so close to the end, but I’ve now had some sleep and gained some perspective! I wasn’t going into this on peak form (despite the recent good block) I was going in with possibly 12 decent weeks of training since September and a lot of hurdles to overcome in between. I am not an experienced rough trail runner or hill runner or night time runner so finishing 2nd, only 13 minutes behind the winner and ahead of a whole lot of other people is a big achievement for me. I am very happy with that, but also have no desire to do this one again any time soon! I’m looking forward to tackling a slightly less taxing course next time so the countdown is now on to A100.

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