So the NDW 2014 is done and dusted for me with a time of 8:36. A PB for the course (3rd time completed) and 2nd lady, 12th overall (finally on the leaderboard!)
I’m not sure really how I feel about this race upon reflection. It’s an odd one, I feel I did well generally yet I am still quite disappointed in the outcome. I guess it’s all about the expectations I place on myself and my performance on the day and not really the outcome compared to others but to myself and what I feel I could do.
My recovery from the SDW 50 where I achieved 7:32, 6 weeks previous had gone really well. I took two full weeks off running as my body needed to recover from the eccentric loading of running while it healed fully and I needed to have a bit of ‘unfocused’ training time. This really worked well and after the two weeks were up I shot up to the Lake District and threw myself in to a long run double in the Lake District hills- bliss! Having never been there before this was an absolute joy and running over the LL50 route was really fun.
Back to normal training, a mixture of tempo runs, easy, long and speed and I was feel good going into my taper. My strength and conditioning coach was happy with my muscle tone and my physio had given me the all clear a few days before the race. Good to go.
I had prepared thoroughly for this race. In fact, that’s an understatement- I had prepared beyond thoroughly; plotting, planning, revising the route and making far too many lists!
I was confident in my body, confident in my prep and my plan for the day- ready for a great performance!
My plan was to go out hard and run a fast race, I know the course so well and knew where I could make good time on it. I additionally was experimenting with new ‘elite like’ tactics such as not stopping at the check points and optimising my fuelling strategy using a mixture of gels, sport beans, sport bars (and a few real foods-bananas etc). I normally just stuff my face with whatever is at the checkpoints (aka human rubbish bin) so this was a dramatic improvement! My hydration would be covered using a electrolyte mix I had with a combination of bladder and Salomon soft bottles refilled by crew at meeting points on the course.
Up early at 4:15am and out the door at 5:45am ready to drive down to the start which is now oh so familiar, in Farnham.
It’s always a treat to escape London city and get out into the countryside (‘oh look, green stuff!’) and the North Downs are a big favourite location of mine to run in.
It was really lovely as usual, seeing all the friendly and familiar faces such as Sam Robson (volunteering before his GUCR), Nici Griffiths (doesn’t need explaining who this god send is!), Eddy Sutton (on crew check, who is marvellous and was very supportive) as well as the odd face of a runner I knew.
Speaking to a few of my friends at the start, I was reassured how confident they were in me and how the ‘top position’ was in the bag easily and they were all behind me. No pressure then! I replied saying ‘thank you but you just have to see how the race pans out’ (how right I was!)
I tried to keep out of the main group of runners flapping with their crew and just sit on the side lines, watching it all go on while sipping on my electrolyte drink trying to keep a little hydrated (strangely this tasted awful/ odd but I thought nothing of it at the time). I felt pretty calm bar the odd flutter of pre race nerves.
7:30am and James runs through the race briefing as smooth as ever followed by the walk down to the race start line (5 mins down the road at the actual head of the NDW proper). It was going to be a lovely sunny day, however a hot one for running with temperatures of 20-24 for the main part of the day.
Walking down with my crew (Sam and mum-as usual!), we joked and laughed before lining up. With my intentions of going out hard and fast staying in the lead pack, I was confident in standing right at the front of the line up, slap bang in the middle of two guys who were probably a good foot and a half bigger than me! I knew with my targets in mind and previous race experience going out with the lead top 5 would be no problem and intended on sticking in behind them at lead for the first 15 miles as I have done before.
As the count down commenced, everyone’s hands on Garmins, I gave a smile back to my crew before putting my head down, focused and ready to shoot off hard.
3, 2, 1, GO! I shot off believing to tuck in behind the big boys but before I knew it half a mile down the road and I was leading the entire field! ON MY OWN…!! Stuart Mills- you will be so pleased!
I questioned had I gone off too fast but checked myself and felt completely comfortable and calm running this pace… So I did. This continued for a good 4-5miles running at the front with about a 20 metre gap, I kept checking back every 10 minutes just to check they were still there (it was a surreal experience!)
Finally about two miles out from Putterham the first check point (6.7 miles), the first two came past me and I hung in behind with two more behind me I believe. We briefly chatted as we continued along together up a few short climbs along the muddy path of the NDW.
I was sipping on my electrolyte from early on however I just couldn’t seem to really take it in and immediately had a stitch so stopped for a while.
Sticking to the plan I ran straight through the check point giving a wave to the volunteers who were so happy and encouraging. I continued on and instead ate some of my sport beans though still having trouble drinking my liquid feeling it ‘wasn’t sitting right’ in my stomach. I just kept sipping hoping the stitches would pass.
This section is rather lovely and made even lovelier by the ‘unofficial check point’ at the Guildford bridge river crossing manned by Allan Rumbles in his canal boat! He had announced of his plans to give out bacon butties to racers! Not that I was planning to stop but hoping to give him a wave yet alas he was inside still cooking!- too early for the bacon it seems!
Passing over St. Marthas Hill and up towards Newlands Corner check point I felt generally strong still holding position behind the first 4 guys.
What a party of supporters awaited runners! It was great to see so many volunteers, friends and family. I ran again straight through keeping to the plan ready to meet my crew further ahead.
As I met them I remember desperately asking for water but all they had was more electrolyte mix (my fault, my instructions!) so asking for more later on, I grabbed a banana and shot off. For some reason my appetite had completely gone but I tried to get it in.
Checking my time I was completely on target (aiming for old women’s record) so was happy to see that I wasn’t feeling Ill affects. The next 9 miles are beautiful and also a relief as this section is mostly sheltered from the sun within forest making it easy to zone out and just focus on keeping a good rhythm. This section cruises through Surrey hills and overlooks all of the countryside below- stunning, especially on a day like this with clear blue skies.
Descending into Box Hill through Denbies, I suddenly became very aware of my dehydration and touching my arms, face and chest noticed how dusted in salt crystals I was! I knew I would have to stop at the Box Hill check point for water as I was starting to feel rather dizzy from the sun.
Stepping Stones CP3-24m:
Necking some cups of water I flew through the check point ready for the ascent of the half way point that is Box Hill steps.
All was going really well until half way up I felt overwhelmingly light headed and paused for a second or two to catch myself. I was really panting now and not at all with it but hey it’s a hill! It’s meant to be tough! So I just thought nothing of it and continued on.
Well, obviously something wasn’t right because a mile or so after the summit as I entered the woodlands and I suddenly felt my vision go blurry before seeing stars and everything went a bit black! I wobbled and hit a tree before falling into the bushes next me (better than the sharp decent on the other side!).
It took a good minute to work out what on earth happened and it was all rather surreal- did I just faint or not, what was that!?! I think the shock of it all encouraged me to just get up and get on moving not really sure what had happened. I think I mostly felt anger towards myself and the situation- ‘Damn it Gemma! You’re slowing down, get a move on and stop being a pathetic little girl!’ I said to myself, ironically while sobbing out loud and hyperventilating unable to breathe (I guess really quite funny to watch).
I think it was at this point another runner came past asking if I was ok. I shrugged it off saying not really and tagged on behind desperate to get to my next crew stop for some water although I was still having problems absorbing food and liquid- nothing was staying down!
I was starting to feel pretty dejected now and worried that my goals for this race may be unattainable. I was really struggling, I could hardly keep a straight line let along a good running pace and as we’ve all experienced those demon thoughts really fester when we aren’t feeling well!
Thank god! My crew and water!! I made sure to hold myself together and give a smile going through the check point and ran on past to where my Sam was waiting. Away from the public eye and I burst into tears, I cried then hyperventilated again then cried some more telling him what had happened and how I felt awful, being sick constantly and desperate to cool down yet unable to drink or eat. He was brilliant and reassured me, pulled me together and got me back on my sorry way, unfortunately only half the version of the runner before.
It was about this time I started to think about the runners behind as I was starting to feel vulnerable and slowing down. A few miles later and low and behold a lady comes up beside and slowly passes me- Annabelle Stearns. She was having a cracking day and well done to her, but at the time I just felt like I’d failed.
I had really put my heart into doing a good time and securing first lady, I really wanted to make people proud and see what I could achieve and now I was a sorry state of a runner dragging myself as best I could to the finish. I must say with the way I felt, I was terribly hard to fight the constant thought that it would be sensible and possibly a healthy decision to quit. But I just couldn’t, I couldn’t accept that.
Luckily Caterham, the next check point was only 7 miles after Reigate and before I knew it I arrived to a welcome party and lots of smiling faces. I tried to sip water and eat a slice of banana but I was having difficulty to say the least, in keeping it down and continued on. I was 4 minutes behind Annabelle but try I might, I couldn’t close in the state I was in.
The next 12 miles is all a bit of a blur as I didn’t feel well at all, I can’t remember much of it. I don’t really remember much of the last check point other than the wonderful hill that precedes it! I also have to apologise to the runner who I eventually caught up with who tried to strike up conversation, I wasn’t at all able to talk and replied with monosyllabic answers which were half mumbled. I think he caught me at a bad time, sorry whoever you are!
The last 6 miles are a little like a final home straight, though they are neither straight or near home.. It was a long hot slog.
There was a funny moment where I was snip to pass two old ladies out walking. I called ‘excuse me’ ahead but still managed to startle the old woman as she jumped and gasped. She then commented ‘ah you must be the stragglers, there were some people out looking for you last ones’. I had to chuckle, knowing I was still roughly in the top 10-15 and that there would been another 180 odd runners passing. Who knows, maybe The straggler reference was just on my appearance!
Those fields seemed to go on forever and I know that the course is a mile or so long but wow, so many fields! Finally I reached the road, I now know so well and attempted a sprint finish but honestly I had no energy and slowly crawled round the corner to the finish line (trying to hide my teary face from the delightful Claire, Drew and RD James!-sorry guys, it wasn’t pretty was it?!)
I crossed the line and fell to the floor in relief. Wow, that was a tough day at the office!
After chatting to a few faces I knew, collecting my medal and cooling down in the village hall, I bumped into Eddy and Nici and promptly burst into tears (they do give great hugs!). Needless to say I wasn’t feeling my best so after congratulating Annabelle and a few I others I retire to the car for the journey home, which ended up being spaced out with sporadic emergency stops shall we say!
I guess races don’t always go to plan do they? Even the most prepared and ‘on-form’ athletes can have bad days. I feel pretty disappointed with the result but I guess I should take credit from the fact I was able to get myself to the finish line in the state I was in.
After spending half the race being intermittently sick, unable to keep anything down and having ‘a bit of a wobble’ half way I guess I can take some things away from this but I also think there are many lessons to be learnt:
-was there something wrong with my electrolyte mix or my stomach?
-should I have prepared better for the warm weather and done more warm training (most of my runs are very early in cool temps)
-could I have saved my race better and regained hydration as well as fuel?
-was my strategy to go out hard wrong?
I now have a lot of learning to do while I look towards what is next.
However, I am now even more hungry than ever to get the break through performance, and on the back of this and the SDW I know it’s coming… Soon!