This past weekend saw the 3rd annual North Downs Way 50 take place. Starting out in Farnham, Surrey, runners would make their way from the NDW western trailhead, to Knockholt Pound in Kent, 50 miles further east. During the past two editions of the race, runners had been treated to good weather and fast conditions, but with a slightly overcast day and cool but not cold temperatures, 2013 race day was set up for some very fast times. We couldn’t have anticipated just how fast however.
Both the mens and womens fields were full of talented athletes and the course records looked under threat from the off.
Puttenham, mile 6.7, is always a frenetic experience for the volunteers and as 152 runners came marauding through at pace, it was clear that there would be some carnage later on as a result of early efforts. In the lead pack of 4 men around a minute clear were Craig Holgate and Dan Afshar, two of the pre-race favourites, but with the leading ladies Emily Canvin and Mary Grace Spalton just a minute behind.
The first half of the race is on less rugged terrain with considerably less climbing than the second portion. On through checkpoint 2 at St. Marthas with the sandy climb up to the church, through Ranmore Common and eventually down the winding descent through Denbies Vineyard in to the Stepping Stones Car Park, Craig held a slender lead over the rest of the field and didn’t pause for breath as he began the climb up the western flank of Box Hill. His time of 3:08 through that Checkpoint (mile 24) was 13 minutes ahead of CR pace at that point and frankly he looked completely untroubled. Dan Afshar followed just 3 minutes down before a long line of runners all between 3:20 and 3:30 including both of the leading ladies looking strong and composed.
The 7 mile section between Box Hill and Reigate Hill is where the race always starts to open out. The climb up Box Hill, various sections of stair descents and ascents as well as the climb up Reigate Hill break the runners’ rhythms and can be exceptionally hard going in hot conditions. Craig was first to emerge at Reigate and with Dan fading, had pulled out a 17 minute lead over his nearest rivals, Doug Murray and Matt Winn Smith who came in together. On to Caterham Hill and as per the Thames Path 100 in 2012, aid station crews were being warned to make sure they were open ahead of schedule for Craigs anticipated arrival. Mile 38 and Craig emerged in 4:59, and a 30 minute lead. It had become a battle of Craig vs the clock, it was just a question of how far under the course record of 7:22 he would go. Meanwhile the ladies record was being put into question by an even greater margin. Emily Canvin leading through mile 38 in 5:38, a 13 minute lead over second placed Mary Grace.
Craig kept up his effort level and began to look as though he was at least trying as he ran through the final checkpoint, before making his way onto the finishing ramp with ease, eventually crossing the line in 6:47:19 to go 35 minutes under the course record. The race has around 5000ft of climb over 50.8 miles bringing Craigs average pace out at almost exactly 8 minute miling. His effort is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding we have seen in the UK this year so far. Doug Murray coming off of the back of a very strong SDW50 as well as the Marlborough Downs 33 mile the weekend before, managed to hold off Matt Winn Smith, for 2nd in 7:26, Matt coming home in 3rd in 7:45.
3 more runners broke the 8 hour barrier including multiple Centurion event veterans Nick Greene and Stu Blofeld, but most notably Emily Canvin. After winning the inaugural South Downs Way 50, Emily took home her second trophy in as many months with an astonishing 7:49 for 5th overall, wiping 20 minutes of Alice Hectors NDW100 split, our best ladies time for those 50 miles to date. Mary Grace Spalton also enjoyed a superb race coming home 2nd in 8:10 and Susan McCartney took home 3rd in 8:19:57 giving her male counterparts a lesson in pacing as she moved from 27th at Box Hill, to 12th overall at the finish. It is absolutely wonderful to see the level of female competition rising so quickly both at our own races and across the UK ultrarunning scene.
The day began with 152 starters, and 152 runners made it as far as Box Hill at mile 24. We usually experience at least a 5% drop rate before CP3 so to see every runner make it that far was fantastic. 66 runners made it to the finish inside of 10hrs and a total of 138 finished under the 13:30 cut off for a finish rate of 91%, the highest ever at one of our events and with average times around an hour faster than we’d expected across the board.
As runners began to filter in through hours 10, 11 and 12, the crowd were treated to a proposal from runner Andy Pumphrey to his loved one as he crossed the finish line. This was the second time this has happened at one of our events, so currently we’re averaging one engagement for every 2 races!
As always we were treated to a nail biting finish as the final runners Catherine Marriott, Alan Keen and Mark Griffiths remained out on course past the 13 hour mark. Catherine had only just made the cut off at Botley Hill the final CP and we knew things would be tight. Seeing headlamps bobbing along the trail behind the finishing field indicating around a half a mile to go, it was once again going to come down to a minute here or there as to whether they would make it in time. Mark arrived first, having completed the entire race in Luna Sandals. Catherine arrived next, accompanied by our sweeper Mike Sartorius who swept the entire 50 miles of the race, something that is very much more difficult than it may sound. Finally, Alan arrived just a minute later as he crested the ramp to cross the line in 13:27:42, with just 2 minutes and 18 seconds to spare.
65 volunteers gave up all day Saturday to help runners achieve their goals. We’d like to thank each and every one of them for everything they gave to get the race working safely and smoothly and as is always the case, going above and beyond in so many ways. Runners were treated to homemade goodies at various checkpoints, unwavering support and dedication and hot food and drinks at the finish after a hard day on the trails.