One of my goals for 2017 has been to finish walking the length of the North Downs Way, a journey I started back in the autumn of 2015 – and I can’t quite believe it was so long ago, it feels like no time at all!
So I thought I’d make the most of my longest run in ultra marathon training to make my way a little bit further down the path, getting in good trail experience, an easy-to-follow (relatively!) route and practice at some hills.
Last time I was on the North Downs Way I had ended up running to Dunton Green, a station just south of the trail. This time I decided to get the train to Otford, which was a bit closer. I almost missed the train due to fussing over which snacks to buy at WH Smiths then settled into an easy 30 minute journey from Victoria station.
Leaving the station, I was immediately in another world from central London, a tiny little village and here I had my first logistical failure as I couldn’t for the life of me work out which way I had to go to find the North Downs Way. After turning in circles with my phone held out in front of me for several minutes I decisively set off… In the wrong direction.
No matter, I figured it out and soon enough was on the right way (note to others – leave the station, get onto the main road, then turn right!). I took the next right onto Pilgrims Way (with hindsight, that should have been a good clue!) and then quickly turned left to start walking steeply uphill up a narrow passageway between houses. It went on seemingly forever until I came out onto the crest of the North Downs and began running through fields of bluebells.
It was all just blissful. After that initial climb the path was undulating rather than anything else and the surroundings were gorgeous. After a few miles I came out onto Cotman’s Ash Lane and missed the turning again – the North Downs Way quickly turns right, through a gate by the side of a farm but I missed this and ran too far along the road. While the NDW is generally well-signposted where it falls short is in alerting you as to when you need to turn off a road.
I was soon back on route, checking a combination of Google maps, the North Downs Way website, and the North Downs Way blog which is incredibly detailed. I ran through Summeryards Wood and glorious open fields, with the path laid out for miles in front of me.
I felt as if the first ten miles went on forever – I couldn’t believe I had only run ten miles, even though my overall pace was absolutely fine. It all went really slowly up until the half way mark, which came as I ran down an open field and then had to climb steeply back up into another field. As I slowed to a walk, I started to get a bit stressed about the fact I was only half way and then decided to change my mindset – the whole reason for running an ultra marathon was because I wanted to spend whole days out in the countryside running. Now that was exactly what I was doing! It was strange, as soon as I thought that, my mindset changed and I no longer worried about how much farther I had left to go or how long it would take me, I just began enjoying myself.
I came to Wrotham and crossed over the M20 motorway, following the NDW down a small, tree-lined lane with fields to either side. The path occasionally took me across the fields, with small steep climbs, and then back down to the road to avoid houses and their private gardens. I came to Hognore Farm and the road ended, the path leading up the hill into Trosley Park. I had seen only a few solitary groups of runners up until this point but Trosley Park was full of families out enjoying the warm day so I dodged between cycling kids and crying babies in prams – a nice diversion but I was pleased to reach the far end of the country park and quiet once again.
However, I then had to climb steeply up a flight of steps – not what you want to see after running over 10 miles with a long way left to go! At the top of the steps I came out onto Holly Hill and took a turn north before descending steeply downhill and running through a beautiful yellow field into the town of Upper Bush where I was hoping to find a pub or shop so I could fill up with water. No such luck – Upper Bush was a pretty but tiny hamlet with just a few houses.
I ran on to Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve and came out onto a road by Medway bridge. Traffic roared across the M2, the river sparkled in the distance, well below me, and I could see the fields on the other side that I knew I’d soon be running through. I had no idea how to get onto the bridge however and seemed to have lost sight of the NDW signposts. A few moments passed and I then worked it out (thank god for 3g and gps) and set off running towards the bridge – crossing the road, turning left along a footpath, coming to a roundabout at which I went straight, and then hitting the NDW signs again and turning right to curve back on myself into the bridge. There is a bike and footpath that runs along it so you are slightly sheltered from the cars but there is no denying that it was noisy and a bit of a change from the quiet woodlands I had been running through!
When I came to the end of the bridge I took a slight detour left to a coop just a few minutes walk from the trail to buy a bottle of water. I emptied it into my camelbak and continued – it was a good thing I made the stop there as I didn’t come across any other shops for the rest of the way! I ran under the bridge and then took a left along Nashenden Farm Lane.
I ran along this quiet road for quite some way until it ended and I turned to the right, up a narrow track between some houses, through a gate, and into a steep climb up the side of a field. I climbed up and then ran along the top of the field with stunning views of the river in the distance. The footpath ran along the side of the fields, then widened into a track and then into a road.
By this point I had run over 20 miles and any attempt to run up the gradual incline caused a shooting pain in my right hip. I accepted that running wasn’t fun and slowed to a walk uphill, making sure to slowly trot along as soon as it flattened out. I managed to overtake a few people on horses even with my slow walk so at least there was that! And after the aptly name Bluebell Hill picnic site I had over a mile of downhill which I was pleased to discover I could still run and enjoy! It was down a gorgeous narrow track with little bits that opened up to more green vistas.
The North Downs Way wasn’t done with me yet – at 23.5 miles I was faced with yet another series of steps – a half a mile climb steeply uphill. I cracked open the bag of Walkers crisps I had brought with me and tucked in as I climbed the steps! Finally, the path flattened and I knew I was nearing the end. It wiggled a bit between running along the side of a green field and in the woods beside the field and finally came out onto a quiet country road. The NDW continued through the beautiful rape field in front of me, but I turned right and made my way to Lidsing Road, and then steeply downhill towards Maidenhead, passing the marathon mark as I ran through Boxley, nicely downhill!
I wasn’t done yet, and there was a little sting in the tail by way of another climb at 26.5 miles but finally I was running downhill towards the station. I had decided to try to find somewhere to grab a bite to eat so ran slightly past the station towards the main shopping street. I stopped and checked my phone for the train times – only to discover there was a train leaving back to London in 3 minutes. Cue a last sprint finish, dashing to the station, over the bridge (all pain gone as I tried to make my train!!) and onto the platform. I had made it!!
28.4 miles – a brilliant day out that actually just got better as I eased into the long run, stopped worrying about the time, and accepted that going uphill was sore. I was so pleased with the energy I had left, and how I was still happy to run downhill and on the flats, it was a fantastic training run that left me with a lot of positivity for the big race… now in just two days time!!!