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Race report: North Downs 30k

June 23, 2013


Part of the North Downs course

‘Run as if you had stolen something’ the sign read. My legs were burning, I could feel the heat of new-forming blisters on my feet, the headwind was whipping through the field and – to top it all – it was another bloody hill. If the rozzers had arrived on the scene, I wouldn’t have put up a fight.

At some point, the North Downs 30k had felt like a good idea. Robbie at work had been looking for races longer than a half-marathon to make his weekend long runs more interesting, so having stumbled on this unusual distance on the Runner’s World website, I sent the link in his direction. ‘Sounds good except for the location and hills!’ He replied, ruling it out.

But it did sound good. Nice scenery, trails, and I was keen to get a few more hills into my training. And, coming days after my birthday, it could be my treat (albeit an entirely masochistic treat)  to myself.

Weeks rolled past. I didn’t run much more than a half-marathon in training, and while I ran a few trails, they were largely the pancake flat trails around the River Cherwell in Oxford. With the race suddenly looming large on the horizon, I took to the hills of North London for a Biggest Loser-style last-chance training. A hilly 22.5 miles informed me that this was going to hurt, but it would largely be fine.

Fast-forward a week, and there’s a group of about 500 runners gathered at the start line being blasted by wind and spitting rain that’s threatening to turn into something more substantial. It’s chilly. It’s hard to fully accept that this is late June, but given the task at hand, I’m glad it’s not scorching. Given the whole drinking/drowning experience at the Southend Half-marathon a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to treat this like a real trail race and take my Camelbak with me.

After dangling the promise of £200 for anyone breaking the course record for men or women, we’re off. The race starts with a loop round a sports centre’s pristine cricket pitch, which is fast and soft underfoot, and lets the pack spread out. We skirt a golf course, and then it’s through a single-file track through a corn field with the Thames in the distance behind us and the looming wooded hills of the North Downs in front of us. Within 5k, this is already one of the prettiest races I’ve run in recent years.

Then the uphills start. I’ve been a bit over-exuberant in the initial slightly-downhill-with-a-tailwind section and slow, which loses me a few places. But then today was only ever about scenery and feeling strong, so as we ascend I knock it back and settle in, although even settling in feels pretty hard going.

It’s not all uphill, though. There are thunderous downhill sections, which involve following the pull of gravity while avoiding the carefully spray-can marked exposed roots, ramshackle steps, or pot-holed terrain. And then there’s the gates and stiles, which hide in waiting behind corners and occasionally at the bottom of a steep hill, and which must either be vaulted, dodged or opened and shut in true countryside-code style.

And the type of trail varies wildly, from a soft forest floor, to uneven long-grass, to hard-packed stones and rocks, to sections on quiet country roads. With the exception of the roads, it was becoming difficult to maintain a rhythm as I was constantly having to think about how to tackle an incline of descent, dodging low-hanging branches and at least trying not to stumble on the uneven ground.

By the 12k mark I was beginning to wonder how I was going to make it through. But as I passed the halfway point, something either in my mind or my legs (or both) switched and I was able to run much more comfortably and maintain a steadier effort level. I became more tactical in my running, choosing moments for strategic walking (if you’re running slowly up a steep hill, are you sure you wouldn’t be moving equally fast walking and be moving faster overall if you didn’t have to recover from effectively flogging yourself to death?).

We hit a stretch of road and I was able to open up my stride a bit, enjoy the regular rhythm of an even surface, and relish the fact that when you measure a course in kilometres, the distance markers pass that much quicker.

But on passing the 22k marker, I was ready for the hills to stop. I’d just crested slogan hill, and it felt like we should be heading downhill, back towards the river now. To be fair, there were some downhill stretches, but they tended to come between winding and sometimes sharp inclines that could go on for 20 metres or 200 metrese. Each time a distance marker passed, I’d work out how long there was before I could collapse in a small aching heap.

At 5k I thought ‘Just a Parkrun to go.’ But it would be a hell of a Parkrun – all hills and dirt tracks and no one would ever get a PB on that course.

At 3k the finish was tantalisingly close. Scenery was looking familiar, but I wasn’t yet on the final approach.

At 2k I was back in the wheat field and what had once been uphill was now downhill. Hurrah! Until what had once been downhill became uphill. Boo.

At 1k the finish was stupidly close. I was virtually there. Except the wind was so strong I might have been tempted to swap it for a couple more hills. I caught up with a guy who had adopted a run-walk strategy, but who ran with me for the final stretch. We passed comments about the wind, the hills and how our legs had completely abandoned us, but still managed a bit of a jostle for the line when – praise be – the finish line just appeared around a corner.

Timing chip removed, tshirt, goodie bag, medal, water, banana and orange quarter claimed, I just wanted to sit down and recover. That was until I spotted a sight possible more welcome than the finish line itself. Fluttering in the wind, pinned to the side of a thoroughly anchored gazebo, the sign read: ‘Free tea, coffee and cake for all runners.’

And what a spread it was! Someone on the organising committee clearly does catering very well. After some deliberation, I settled on a hearty slice of seed-and-dried-fruit flapjack and a cup of sugary tea. It’s hard to think of anything I could have needed more, other than perhaps a bath or a stretcher.

I’d finished in 2:21:35 in 25th place. The course record hadn’t gone, but then I think it’s fair to say the conditions weren’t ideal for it.

Despite the pain involved (to be honest, I knew what I was signing up for), the North Downs 30k has got to be one of the best-organised races I’ve run. Despite the remote nature of most of the course, and the distance it spans, it was extremely well marshalled and well marked. (There were spray paint markings, signage and ribbons of red-and-white tape tied to branches the whole way round, which must have taken a lot of effort to put out.) The marshals were friendly, encouraging and willing to tell a few much-appreciated lies (‘You’re looking strong,’ ‘Nearly there now,’ being some of the notable ones). I’d heartily recommend it as a race, but maybe make sure you include a good bit of hill running in your training beforehand.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 12:19 pm

    Excellent blog, and it sounds like a brilliant race. I might have a look at that next year 🙂 Well done and thanks for sharing.

    • June 24, 2013 1:53 pm

      Thanks Naomi. It’s a great run, and while my legs are leaden today I’m definitely thinking of giving it another go next year. Scenic and friendly – well recommended.

  2. Matt Parmenter permalink
    June 24, 2013 5:17 pm

    Hi Lewis

    I’m course director for the north downs run and just wanted to say what a cracking review this is of our race, makes me feel very proud to be involved with reviews like this!

    I’ve also posted a link on the north downs run page, which i also run and people are loving it, I’ve just friend requested you aswell

    Also my friend who runs a local running magazine has asked if he can have this for the north downs issue of the mag?

    Thank you again


    • June 24, 2013 5:36 pm

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your comment – and thanks for putting on such a great (and challenging) race!

      I saw So Let’s Get Running’s comment on Facebook about using the review in his next edition, and I’m more than happy for him to do so. I’d be grateful if he could include a link to think website (and ecstatic if there was a spare copy of the edition he could send me). My contact details are on the ‘Contact’ page of this site if he wants to get in touch.

      Thanks again for the race, and hopefully I’ll be a bit better prepared for the hills next year!


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