I’ve now run in three of Centurion Running’s events and benefitted from their excellent organisation and enthusiastic volunteers. I decided it was really time I did a bit more than just say ‘thank you’ and hit the ‘like’ button on Facebook. So when Nici Griffin put the call out for volunteers for the North Downs Way 100 mile race with the added bonus for a full day’s work, a 2015 race entry. The cake was suitably iced, I was in, like a rat up a drain pipe. The NDW100 is a 100 mile continuous point to point trail race along the North Downs Way from Farnham in Surrey to Wye in Kent, to be completed in 30 hours. Having never marshalled more than a road crossing during a ‘tab’ in the army, I had no idea what to expect.
Just prior to race day the e-mail arrived to assign me to aid station 1 at Puttenham as a grunt. Responsible for feeding and watering the runners and not assigned any thinking duties. So far so good, I’m in my comfort zone. Closely followed by e-mail number two assigning me to aid station 8 at Wrotham; the 60 mile point. As what!? Check point manager? Err, Nici. You do know my brain is used primarily to keep my ears apart and has few other responsibilities beyond that? Do I fess up or do I ignore the problem and hope it goes away? Manfully, I chose the latter option.
I had to be at Puttenham Cricket Club by 6:00 am on the Saturday morning to help set up the checkpoint. As I fight a losing battle with the alarm every morning the concept of getting up at daft o’clock to drive the hour or so to site was as alien as it gets. I decided to drive up the night before and camp there. A google earth recce assured me it would be a pleasant place to irritate the wildlife with snoring and other assorted night time noises. So I loaded the car up with goodies, sleeping maggot and bivvi bag on Friday night and drove up. Did I say drove? I meant surfed. To say it was raining would be a gross understatement. It also put paid to any ideas of setting up the bivvi bag as I’d have got soaked, so I dropped the back seats of the car and crashed out.
Race day and Matt Toy rolled up just as I was finishing breakfast. Chris Forster, Karl and Fiona Gordon followed a few minutes later, introductions all round and then a short wait while we stood in a confused group wondering what to do next. We needn’t have worried as the Centurion Running machine was in motion and a white box van bearing Charlie Johnson bounced along the track with the aid station stores on board. We were treated to the well-oiled machine that is Centurion which saw the checkpoint set up under Charlie’s guidance in minutes. The volunteers now clad in the coveted black Centurion Crew tee shirts and ready for the pack of 180 runners that had been unleashed from the start of the North Downs Way trail in Farnham at 6:00am.
Puttenham is the first aid station along the route and is just 6.8 miles into the race. The leaders often barely pause to ensure they have been registered by the marshals before continuing. The remainder of the field generally just top up any water requirements. Consequently there are only light snacks, gels and fluids available. Also, everyone is still in a big bunch. So getting the numbers down to record the runners is a frantic task and takes two people. Getting everyone who needs it topped up and on their way as quickly as possible is equally frantic. Understandably the runners don’t want any delay at this point, they just want to get the early miles under their belts. As most of those volunteering have been on the other side of the equation we know just how frustrating delays can be when you have a set pit stop strategy. So we got to work with equal urgency. Charlie and Chris logging the mass of runners through, Karl and I filling a stream of bottles and bladders while the owners were being catered for by Fiona and Matt to ensure they had fuel for the next stage. A very nice touch was when runner 106; Stephen Mitchell stopped and dropped off a thank you card at the aid station.
I’d like to say that I paid attention to what Charlie was doing so that I was better prepared for my role at Wrotham later in the day. But that would be a lie. The two hours that the checkpoint was open passed in a blur of lycra clad runners and myriad water bottles. Interspersed with impromptu showers from the waterlogged trees over our heads each time a breeze blew through. All the runners were through before the 8:00 am cut off and we quickly tore down the checkpoint, said goodbyes and headed off to our next locations. With the exception of Chris who had stepped up at the last minute to fill a gap and was only manning the first one. I’ve since heard that being so impressed with what he saw he has subsequently signed up for one of the 2015 events.
Sat Nav set and I hit the road for Wrotham in Kent. The M25 was strangely unclogged. I assume the dodgem drivers get up later on a Saturday. I was in Wrotham by 9:30, the aid station opened at 13:30. For once I wasn’t late on parade. So I took the opportunity to head into the village and stock up on food, before settling down in the car with my kindle, a flask of coffee and the aforementioned food. Taking the opportunity for a quick kip as the aid station is open until midnight here.
Just before the appointed hour Matt Bran arrived. Mutual cheerful grins at the sight of the black crew shirts confirmed to us that we were in the right place. Or at least mutually wrong. Having travelled the M25 later but stuck in a jam Matt confirmed to me that on a Saturday the dodgem drivers do indeed have a lie in. Fellow crew members Lucy Hine and Andy Ashlee pitched up in short order closely followed by Centurion’s Nici Griffin. Accompanied by big Al and about 200 litres of water, a small lagoon of coke and more dodgy banter than you can shake a stick at. We knew it was serious when race director James Elson arrived accompanied by the ever cheerful Edwina Sutton. Eddie no doubt extra cheerful at the prospect of pinching jelly babies from the check point. But she’s not very subtle and got caught. Not that she showed any shame for this heinous act. We were visited by Stuart Mills who was out and about on the course. Stuart is often seen around these events and he stopped by for a chat with us. Resplendent in his Torq sponsored running gear. Which got him a bit of a ribbing from the Centurion stalwarts.
James wasn’t happy, there was a problem with the course markings. Could we help out? With my feet still tingling from the Lakeland 100 two weeks previously and encased in big comfy walking shoes, the prospect of running out towards Knockholt wasn’t filling me with me with a sense of joy. But I needn’t have worried. Lucy stepped up and stated she knew the area like the back of her hand and quickly changed into a pair of running shorts and set off with marker tape. Matt volunteered, armed with his Garmin, to run out 3 miles and mark back. The leaders were heading in to the 50 mile point at Knockholt so time was short.
While Matt and Lucy went off to re-mark the course the white box van turned up. This time piloted by two lovely ladies, the two Michelles. We set to building the aid station. In what seemed like no time we had the gazebo up, the flag flying, chairs out and tables set with food, water, coke, gels and electrolyte. As we were much further into the race the aid station is much more substantial.
The girls jumped back in the van and set off for the next station while Nici took me to one side to brief me and to get the all-important timing sheet up to date. Clearly my earlier strategy of ignoring the problem hadn’t made it go away. Firstly we had to take out the non-starters. Those who had entered but not arrived at registration that morning. There are always a few but today there seemed to be an unusually high number. We put it down to the Daily Mail scaring everyone with tales of biblical weather, floods, doom and destruction. While it was in fact warm and sunny. Next, we checked the message group for those who had dropped so far along the course. This is all–important because runner safety is paramount. Before I can close the aid station we have to account for every single runner. Armed with the clipboard and the checkpoint pen I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
We were set, Lucy and Matt had come jogging back into the checkpoint, James was now a lot happier than he had been, problem solved. Nici had wracked her brains to see if there was anything she had forgotten to tell us. We were on our own and waiting for the lead runners. Lucy then produced the most important piece of checkpoint hardware. The cow bell. Eat your heart out Tour De France!
David Ross came jogging steadily into the checkpoint closely followed by Ed Catmur. Ed had a quick and stealthy pit stop and was out under David’s nose. David set off in pursuit minutes later. A 5 minute wait and third place Duncan Oakes came trotting into sight. Relaxed and cheerful he had a chat with us, did a couple of laps of the buffet, topped up his fluids and jogged on as if on a Saturday morning 6 mile recovery run and not 60 miles into a 100 mile ultra. I’d seen Duncan two weeks previously at Coniston just before the start of the Lakeland 100. While I was still feeling sorry for myself, he was racing another 100, was in third place after 60 miles and would go on to win.
By 60 miles the field is spread out and we were to get a steady stream of runners through the station. Which was to keep us constantly busy. Early on Chris Mills came running into the station. He was pacing that day. There was a problem with the marking! What? There were no markings at a road crossing nearby and tired runners were getting confused. Matt and Lucy looked bemused. Chris raced off with a roll of marker tape. I had a feeling I knew what had happened. “Someone’s been tidying up”. It happens, people occasionally think the markings are litter. More often they know what it is but find it amusing to remove race markings. Oh how we laugh at the wit of such people. Or maybe not. Not only do they attempt screw up people’s day out of some weird idea of fun but it can lead to situation that endangers runners who are tired and may be injured at that point. In my view it’s beyond stupid.
Chris trotted back into the station and I mentioned my suspicions. It was only that crossing that was affected so it looked likely. We had been joined by now by the legend that is Mimi Anderson. Who was promptly put in charge of morale. A task she excels in. Chris however was assigned cow bell duties. Which I admit he did carry out adequately. Occasionally with gusto, but mostly with his own brand of wry humour. I kept putting the clip board down at every opportunity because Lucy kept taking the piss when I wandered around looking like a lost council official searching for a health and safety conference. Which kept Messrs Brand, Ashlee and Mills amused. Children!
We began to get our first drops. 60 miles is a long way. Especially over hilly terrain. The North Downs Way is home to a series of short sharp climbs. As well as some not so short but still sharp, climbs. I began the sad job of collecting race numbers from those who were not continuing. Updating the message group for the other stations and race controllers and ensuring that they had transport. Wrotham has crew access, all those who dropped there had their own transport waiting. So we didn’t have the additional task of arranging transport to get them to the finish which is more common at other aid stations. It also makes the station very busy as crew are often asking for updates and other information to ascertain where their runners are.
Far from the Daily Mail weather bringing doom to us all it was the warmth of the day coupled with the humidity that was causing problems. Much of the route is forested which cuts a lot of the breeze out. I ran the 50 mile race in May and it was the same then. A fairly easy first 24 miles which can lead runners into setting off too fast, then Box Hill at mile 24. Followed by a series of hills up and down the North Downs escarpment. It kicked my arse for me then and these guys had added another 10 miles today to get to us. In very similar conditions. It was taking its toll. We were running out of electrolytes. Message out and the previous aid station that was now closing had some left. As the truck came past heading along the course they made a detour and resupplied us, just as we had run out.
Chris’s runner had arrived at the check point and he set off to pace, handing the cow bell over to Mimi.
It was beginning to get dark, there was still a steady trickle of runners to keep me busy with admin. I could hear Lucy, Matt and Andy buzzing around the runners behind me without pause. Filling bottles, replenishing food stocks and ready fluids in cups. Encouraging, reassuring and making sure that runners were ok for the next stage. “How far to the next CP?” “5.6 miles, you’ve broken the back of it, looking good. Well done, you’re doing great!” We’d been going over 7 hours by now and no one had taken a breather due to the constant ‘trade’.
Matt came over and asked about the glo-sticks. Good idea, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind marking from the road junction back and he set off. Returning with the news that we had indeed got people ‘tidying up’. He’d found runners going the wrong way as markers had been moved. Thankfully it must have just happened as this was the only incident we had in the night. But it reinforced our earlier suspicions. He’d quickly re-directed the runners and dealt with the marker. Returning to find a glo-stick he’d just put out was already missing. Again, he dealt with that. Though it seems that the tiny minds that had done this clearly weren’t getting enough gratification or mayhem, got bored and wandered off as we didn’t have any further issues. Either that or it was past their bed time.
We had a potential problem. Lucy attracted my attention, a runner was slumped in a chair and looked in a bad way. He was surrounded by his crew and I went over to see how he was. Absolutely knackered was the prognosis. I asked him a few questions which irritated him until I told him I wanted him to finish but I wanted him to be safe. “Are you a volunteer?” “Yes”. At which point he relaxed, realised I wasn’t just some busybody and answered me. He wasn’t going anywhere fast so I decided to monitor him and see how he fared. After a while his pacer came over to start filling bottles and told me his runner was perking up a bit after some rest but still not ready to go anywhere. I wasn’t convinced as he still looked wrecked and was preparing to step in. I was gutted, I’ve pulled out of races and been pulled out of races it’s the worst feeling. Yet just two weeks ago I’d been seeing double, gutting my way up the side of a fell in the dark, 80 miles in, feeling more dead than alive and no one had stopped me. I really didn’t want to be the guy to pull this runner. But that said, I couldn’t let him continue if I wasn’t sure he was safe to. Ultimately I was going to have to make a judgement call.
He hadn’t made a move for about half an hour or so, looks like he’s going to drop. Wrong. With a sigh he pulled himself to his feet. I went over to check him out. Preparing to deliver the bad news. He had indeed perked up, some. He was still clearly very tired but he was lucid and very determined. The lights were on and there was someone home. His pacer was his father, we had a chat. As he was lucid, moving under his own steam, albeit very slowly and was accompanied I was not going to pull him. But I was going to alert the race control as to his condition which still wasn’t good, so that aid stations would know to look out for him. I got the message out and watched him make his way slowly down the road. He was in good hands, I was comfortable with my decision.
Mimi had gone, her runner Fiona had turned up, tired but very determined. After a short stop to refuel and top Fiona up the two ladies headed off into the night. I had a feeling not much was going to stop them.
It was beginning to quieten down and we were starting to check through the numbers to see how many were still out on the course. Not many. The gaps between the head torches appearing were getting longer, the cut off at midnight approaching. We had time to chat and stretch. See how much of the buffet was left for a snack. The crew teasing me because the cocktail sausages had all gone. Me retorting that I was proud of my abstinence. Given my usual habit of murdering a packet of cocktail sausages in seconds. I’d only pinched 3 in the whole time I was there. Which suddenly occurred to me was the thick end of 12 hours. We were all stretching having been on our feet for the whole of our time on station. But then the runners had been on the move since 6:00 am.
James and Charlie arrived shortly before midnight. We were down to a single runner on the course who had not been through or wasn’t otherwise accounted for. As the clock ticked over we tore the station down and waited. He had timed out so we simply had to wait for him and then arrange transport unless he had his own. A call came through to James, the runner had dropped and was with his crew. He was definitely off the course and definitely being transported by his own crew. Our day was over.
Goodbyes all round, profuse thanks from James and we headed our separate ways. As I drove across Kent the long anticipated rain swept over. I was thankful it had held off so long and that the majority of the runners on the course would be getting near the end when it reached them. My phone was still chirping alerts as to the progress of the race.
An hour and a half after leaving Wrotham I was home. Had the car unloaded and was scrolling through the messages from the race. When he arrived at the aid station just prior to us tearing down James had told me that they were looking out for my tired but determined runner. But as I scrolled through I saw that unfortunately tiredness had finally overcome determination and he had dropped. I’m sure he’ll be back though. People like that just don’t quit.