North Downs Way 100 by Lydia Thomson

Lydia Thomson – 3rd Female, 38th Overall finishing the North Downs Way 100

Let’s get this out of the way first: the weather was not ideal. It rained from dawn until gone midnight. The only solution to this was a good sense of humour. This isn’t about who can run the fastest, it’s about who can laugh the most heartily at their soggy pants.

Okay, onwards.

My priority was to finish the race. My hope was to go under 24 hours. I roughly needed to do 10k every hour and a half. I knew I would go faster than that for the first 50k or so, which would be time banked for the back half of the race. I would make my own contingency for when the trail got sloppy, the vertical ascents were nature’s own slip ‘n’ slide, and the night crept into my soul. As darkness falls and fatigue creeps, there are strange shapes in those woods. 

My God, it was beautiful. In May of this year, I had a shocker of a time failing to run the Thames Path 100 – that flat terrain couldn’t have been further from my comfort zone. But here, with vertiginous climbs, rolling, technical single track and sprawling fields, I was home. In the latter stages there are some uninspiring sections on single carriageways, but then you reach a McDonald’s on a roundabout where a woman asks you, “Are you runner-Barbie?” and you are confused back into joy.

I craved the uphills where others swore at them. When I realised I was easily picking people off on the ascents, I reassessed my goals. About 20 miles in, a woman at an aid station told me I was the 4th woman to come through. I smirked and said, “I’ll work my way up.” I don’t know where that came from. The words just fell out of my mouth. But a fire had been lit. Shortly before that aid station I’d seen legendary ultra runner and sheRACES founder Sophie Power running in the opposite direction. This might have been the kindling I needed.

But hey. 100 miles is a long time. Generally, you don’t turn the screw in any meaningful way until the end, unless you want to blow up. You’ve just got to hold strong.

The women’s race was really exciting. The top 5 women were close, but with Charlotte Fisher in 1st leading from gun to tape. The aid station at mile 71 – Detling – was probably where the race took shape for the rest of us. I changed clothes completely because I was soaked through and knew that I’d be able to do my best work if I felt fresh. There were about three other women in the toilets. I think we all clocked each other and got out of that aid station pretty sharply. I was monosyllabic with a volunteer who wanted to chat, and ate my cheesy beans on the move.

The woman who ultimately came 2nd – Rachel Gillings – ran an astonishingly smart race. It looks like she hung back until Detling, then put the hammer down. I left that aid station in 3rd and she overtook me when I went the wrong way shortly after leaving. But looking at the splits, that wouldn’t have made a difference. I had a colossally tough time in the mud but she bossed through it.

Cat Hicks who came 4th also paced her race really well. Her, Rachel and I didn’t overtake Megan Davies, who had been in 2nd place for the majority of the race, until mile 94. She was walking up a short incline and I knew I just had to run up it, overtake her (saying “well done!”), and keep turning the screw for the last 10k.

This is what is so fascinating to me about pacing 100 miles. You don’t know when you’re going to blow up, fade, peak or thrive. You can hazard a guess, you can use previous experience to a certain extent, but so much depends on the conditions, the terrain, how your fuelling goes, other people in the race and what’s going on in your life. 

Miles 82 – 92 were probably my lowest point. I employed ultra runner Devon Yanko’s mantra – “Tomorrow is Sunday.” I thought about my sofa a lot. I gazed up at the stars and the moon in wonder. Then the sky started to hue into blue – the sun was coming up. I thought this experience would make me feel hungover, but actually it did what everyone says it does – it gave me a new lease of life. The sooner I got to the end, the sooner I would be on my sofa. (I haven’t had one since 2021, hence the novelty.)

I needed to get pragmatic. Walking was too easy, and I wasn’t here to take the easy way out. I didn’t know how close the next woman was behind me (very close, actually), nor indeed how far ahead the next woman was (again, very close.) I decided to run for 4 minutes, walk for 1, and do this until I felt better. I only did it for about half an hour, but it got me through a chunk of the 10k I was currently running in. I was still within my target of 10k every 90 minutes. This fact made me feel better – I had clawed myself back. I could run continuously again. 

At the last aid station – aptly named “Dunn Street” – a volunteer met me on the road and asked if I was running straight through. Yes. Yes I was. “You’re moving really well. Almost there now.” 

The sun coming up over the next field was one of the most beautiful sights of the past 23 hours. Given the context, I would categorise it as one of the most beautiful sights of my life. I could see men further up ahead running gently between the crops. We were all so close to the end now.

I was absolutely caning it for the last 10k. Strava would tell you I was hovering around 6-6:30 minutes per kilometre, but it felt like my 10k pace. I was wheezing. I wanted to just empty the tank and see if I could catch the next woman. I had absolutely no idea where I was in the rankings, so I knew this could be my only chance to podium. But I was also rinsing it just for myself. This was my first 100 mile race, something that had been an impossible dream for a long time. 

The run through Ashford to the finish line went on forever, and I had to dial back my enthusiastic pace. I walked with a group of men for a bit and we dithered in the middle of the road, laughing. One of them pointed out the peaks of the tents at the finish line and I kicked into my final sprint. I turned into the Julie Rose Stadium, saw the track and saw the finish arch. I cried to see it. My previous experience of Centurion races had only been a DNS and a DNF, so getting under that arch was an epic feat in itself. 

300m. 200m. 100m. Finish. 23:06.19.

I don’t actually understand how I did this. Any of it. Not the distance, the execution, the sub 24 hours, not the podium. I don’t know how. I know in very practical terms, but not in any real way. It’s a very simple thing to do, but it is not easy.

After my Thames Path 100 experience, I’d been thinking a lot about Freidrich Nietszche. (Go with me on this.) One of the biggest stumbling blocks during that race was the pointlessness of it all. People often find Nietzsche to be depressing, but actually, his writing is incredibly life-affirming: he sees the meaninglessness of life as a liberating thing. This is something I had somehow forgotten. His oft quoted “God is dead” is not a void of negativity, it’s an opportunity. 

…I promise I’m not going to make this race report an in-depth philosophical analysis, mainly because I can’t remember a lot of it from my English Lit dissertation, but I do remember that Nietzsche’s writing on the Will to Power is about using that meaninglessness to create meaning; to be a better version of yourself every day, das übermensch – “the superman”. Running is the epitome of that. During the race, when my brain tilted towards pointlessness, I actively tilted it back this way; here I was, creating meaning with each step, being a better version of myself than I was the day before.

I will leave you with this, my favourite quote from Martin Heidegger’s writings on Nietzsche:

“Life lives in that it bodies forth.”

100 miles. One day. A day in the life. 

I will also leave you with this astonishing film. Completing this race was significant because it means I can enter the Western States 100 lottery, and start what will likely be a decade long process to get in. But it starts here.