The North Downs Way 100 is an ultramarathon which begins in Farnham in Surrey and finishes in Wye in Kent. Organised by Centurion Running, and held in August, it is one of a growing number of 100-mile footraces held in the UK every year. In 2015, 218 people toed the line and 137 finished. It took the winner just over 18 hours and the final finisher just under 30 hours to complete the 102.6-mile course.
Those are the facts. What they don't or can't convey is what it means to travel that distance, on foot, in that timeframe. Every person has their own background, reason for running, reason for keeping going, story to tell. Here’s an insight into four of the people who finished; Cat Simpson (finish time 25h34m), Richard Felton (22h34m), Ilsuk Han (23h30m) and Rebecca Shuttleworth (27h58m). (I invited them all round to my house for cake and ice cream - and then sprung an impromptu interview on them.)
Why did you choose to run NDW100?
Cat: Because I wanted a hard race.
Rich: Partly because I wanted my first 100 to be with Centurion, and partly because it's a regular training route for me.
Ilsuk: After the first one [Thames Path 100 in May], I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn't a fluke!
Bex: I wanted one that was marked because I would have got lost otherwise. I had no idea the North Downs Way was going to be so hard and probably wouldn't have done it had I known!
When did it start to hurt?
Cat: Physically about 30 miles. Mentally, about 85 miles. That's when I really wanted to stop.
Rich: I was having some hip pain after 10k. That cleared at Box Hill [24 miles], then the real pain began at Knockholt Pound, around halfway.
Ilsuk - you thought you'd pulled a muscle at the back of your knee in the days leading up to it? How was that?
Ilsuk: Yeah, I think that was actually a mosquito bite! In the race, everything started to hurt a lot going up Bluebell Hill, so around 70 miles.
Bex: I'm not joking, the first mile. My ankles really hurt, possibly as I was wearing trail shoes I'd barely worn and they didn't seem to support my ankles. At 50 miles, I swapped my trainers and they were fine. I started walking around 65 miles and it all hurt until I started running again at 80 miles. So the lesson is clearly, don't walk!
What did you most enjoy eating or drinking?
Cat: Chocolate milk went down really well, as did flapjacks.
Rich: Fruit was the best. Bit of a confession though. My crew bought themselves a McDonald's, there was chicken sandwich and I just smashed it. Inhaled it in about 6 seconds.
Ilsuk: Same for me, fruit. Watermelon, melon, kiwi fruit, grapes. And then the pasta at Detling [82 miles].
Bex: Same. Fruit all day. I tried to avoid wheat and gluten to minimise stomach issues but that didn't really work. Also had some cocktail sausages. For the first 30 miles I was taking Tailwind which is a powder of salts and sugars but it was sickeningly sweet and I felt like I need some solid food too. Boiled potatoes were incredible too.
What was the lowest point of the race for you?
Cat: I had a little cry in the last 4 miles when I saw my Dad. In the last 10 miles I really wanted to run but I just didn't have anything left, physically or mentally.
Rich: Quite early, maybe Box Hill. I'd had that hip pain, then the other side started cramping and the thought of another 75 miles put me in a rut. I just kept thinking about it getting worse but actually it got better. So it was really early because I put myself in that hole needlessly.
Ilsuk: Bluebell Hill [70 miles] to Detling was tough for me. I love that bit because in training I'd run down really quick but on the day I was out of energy, loads of people were passing me, I could feel the sub-24 slipping away.
Bex: In the darkest hours of the morning, around 3 or 4 o'clock. Partly because I know that time of day is a depressing time for people and because I knew that, I allowed it to become an issue for me. I wasn't talking and my pacer was amazing - he just let me get on with it as he realised I was going through hell. Then as the sun started rising I started enjoying it again.
What most helped get you to the finish?
Cat: Having pacers really helped, and my Dad and Jon [Cat's husband]. Also, I've had a pretty shit year of injury and a DNF [did not finish] so I really wanted to finish this one.
Rich: Crew and pacers, definitely. Without crew I might have dropped early, saved the legs and maybe done the Autumn 100. When I mentioned that to my crew, that wasn't acceptable to them so I carried on. I looked forward to seeing my crew and that cheered me up.
Ilsuk: I didn't have crew or pacers but I know quite a few of the volunteers. They said they'd be at the finish and I promised I'd see them there so that's one way of forcing yourself to get there. Also because my first ultra went so wrong when I had to walk 50 miles, I knew I was going to finish this one, it was just a question of whether I'd go sub-24.
Bex: Pacers and crew were absolutely amazing. Also, drugs. My accidental overdose of ibuprofen left me feeling amazing - I wouldn't recommend it though. I'd also told people I was doing the race, so I couldn't then go home and tell them I hadn't finished. The shame! And if I finished then I didn't have to do another one, which I would have felt like I did if I hadn't.
Any funny or positive moments?
Cat: At around 60 miles there was a steep downhill and my quads were really sore so I said to Susie [Chan, pacing Cat] that I was going to lie down and roll down it. I only managed a couple of rolls though. Both Susie and Gemma [Bragg, also pacing Cat] kept tripping over which isn't really funny but kind of amused me as usually I'm the one who stacks it.
Rich: I had a few laughs with volunteers but probably the sunflower field was the most memorable. There are certain moments where no matter how much you're hurting the scenery is amazing and you think, "this is part of the reason I'm here".
Ilsuk: There was an unofficial aid station in a 10-mile stretch after halfway that came at the perfect time. Also, there was a girl with a cowbell who kept popping up which was really cool.
Bex: The girl ahead of me was running backwards down a hill and we were laughing but she said, "Honestly, try it, it's amazing!" And it was good because you're using different muscles but not really practical.
How did you feel at the finish?
Cat: Relief, tiredness. I was pretty emotional and had a little cry!
Rich: Very relieved more than anything but also excited to share the moment with crew and Centurion friends.
Ilsuk: Satisfied, fulfilled, relieved. I had a big smile.
Bex: Total elation. I cried. I sprinted to the finish with my Mum who had come to meet me just down the road.
What would you have done differently, if anything?
Cat: Just figure out eating a bit better but I think that's always the way. You never really eat as much as you should. I'd like to have recced the whole route, partly because I just love running down there. I also wanted to make sure I didn't get lost but it was really well marked and even more so at night with the reflective tape.
Rich: I probably would have pushed on harder further from the end. You don't really know what you've got left but I could have started my push for home before the last checkpoint, 4 miles out. I also made but forgot my sweet potato mash with salt.
Ilsuk: I would have eaten more than fruit. The times I crashed was because I'd been relying on fruit.
Bex: I would have trained more. I should have tried the shoes a bit more too. But the [Injinji] socks were brilliant in preventing blisters.
Next big race?
Cat: I was doing a 100k in Patagonia but they just emailed me to say it's now a 50k due to a lack of planning permission. [Since this interview, Cat ran and subsequently won this race.] I've also got Lavaredo lined up for next year.
Rich: The only thing on my calendar is Wings For Life. There's 20 family members doing it for charity so it's a family day out.
Ilsuk: South Downs Way 50, next April.
Bex: I promised myself I would never, ever run again at mile 80. By mile 90, I was trying to convince my pacer to do Manchester marathon with me next year. So I'm doing that as I want a PB. I'm also going to enter UTMB. I'll have to train a lot for that though!