Tales of Trails, Part I: NDW & SDW

This is a guest post courtesy of Alice. Stay tuned for part two, where Alice takes on the circumference of the Isle of Wight solo.

Before I start, let me say that I do own more than one set of running kit! It just so happens for these adventures I donned the same trusty ‘Big Half’ top and bright pink cycling shorts. Also, a big thank you to Lizzie and Natascha who joined me along the way and made the adventures happen.

Said trusty running kit on the North Downs Way…taking in the stunning view!

For me, 2020 was meant to be the year of the London marathon and ultras; I had my usual eclectic mix of events lined up. After last year’s dabble into the world of Triathlon, I decided to keep 2020 simple with just running. However, as I’m sure many of you can relate, Covid-19 entered our lives, lockdown was enforced and eventually all events were cancelled.

Running kept me going through lockdown; I genuinely don’t think I would have coped had we endured a lockdown such as those imposed in Spain where even outdoors exercise was banned. I loved seeing the surge in running participation and the shops being stripped of sports kit as the nation took up running – how fantastic that in a time when there were so many negatives, so many people turned to running. That all these individuals started to reap the benefits that we all, as members of London City Runners, share together? I’m hoping there are a few new runners reading this and I hope to meet you on a run soon!

As restrictions started to lift, I felt that I’d seen far too much of the Thames path, from the Woolwich foot-tunnel all the way down to Richmond. I’d covered hundreds of miles and worn through a few pairs of trainers, and I needed something new.

So, for the end of July/August I lined up a few adventures which took a City Runner out to the trails, and I thought I’d share the highs and lows. I could have posted a few pictures of me smiling at the end of each run on Instagram with a few overenthusiastic hashtags, but that wouldn’t be the whole, honest, story. 

Adventure 1: The North Downs Way (NWD) (35km from Merstham to Guildford)

This was meant to be 50km on the South Downs Way to Eastbourne…but the weather had other ideas! Forecast of torrential rain from 2pm on the Saturday meant a quick change of plans on the Friday evening. Lizzie and Natascha planned a slightly shorted route with a closer-to-home start point which meant we could set off earlier. The weather wasn’t going to stop us completely.

Stepping stones near Box Hill

The route took us from Merstham station, a short 30min train ride from London Bridge, and pretty much straight away you pick up the NDW. You’re soon running across open fields, followed by tunnels of leafy trees with a variety of pretty flowers in the hedgerows. The fresh air fills your lungs instantly and even the low clouds and water dripping from the trees couldn’t dampen our smiles!

The sign-posting along the NDW is brilliant, there were very few instances where we were unsure as to which footpath to take. On these occasions Lizzie had the brilliant Ordinance-Survey Maps app which had the route downloaded and very accurately told us which of three footpaths to take. 

Why not have a mid-run photo shoot at Box Hill?

The NDW is hilly with the section between Merstham to Box Hill including some steep ups and downs, but one of the joys of trail running is that you just walk… On the road I almost feel a pressure to keep running no matter how tired I am, but with trail running I’ve always felt you can react to the terrain more. Walking down steep hills also helps protect the knees!

Box Hill was the half-way point and bought us back down below the clouds which meant we did get to enjoy some views. The second half to Guildford was less hilly and enable some good spells of steady pace running. We made it into Guildford perfectly timed to be settled inside a pub with fish and chips ordered just as the heavens opened… Guildford is then a short train ride back to London Waterloo, so there’s no excuse to not hear about more City runners getting out to the North Downs.

View from St. Martha’s Hill

Adventure 2: The South Downs Way (SDW) (50km from Hassocks to Eastbourne)

Our second attempt for the SDW route to the coast and perfectly timed to be 30miles for my 30th Birthday! The first hill immediately bought doubts of whether this route was going to be ‘fun’ as a birthday celebration as my calves burned walking up Ditchling’s Beacon. I’ve cycled up this hill a few times on my way to Brighton and can confirm running/jogging/walking is definitely worse!

From the outset it was decided that hills would be walked, there were 5 hills along the route. We would walk up the hills and use this time to take on food/gels to keep the energy levels topped up, then flats/downhills could be run. 

Though Natascha had to hop on a train due to an injury early on, the first 15miles went well otherwise, with Lizzie protecting me from a field of cows, a kind gentleman topping up our water and perfect weather conditions. At the halfway point, Southease train station, there is a YHA with a lovely café so we stopped for some fruitcake, flapjack, cold drinks and loo stop. After a 20min break we set off for the second half. This again started with a long steep hill, so we walked, allowing our snacks to settle…but black clouds began to roll in. 

Just at the top of the hill, a huge rumble of thunder came in and the rain began, we quickly got our waterproofs out and with our heads down carried on running into the driving rain. Lizzie, it turns out is not a fan of thunder and lightning, and when you’re on the top of the Downs and are the tallest objects around, thoughts enter your head. It also turns out I’m not particularly reassuring to be around in these instances with comments like ‘Don’t worry, I’m taller than you, the lightening will strike me first’ or ‘Well, we have to keep running to get off the downs, so might as well keep going’. Practical points though, no!?

Five miles later the rain stopped, clouds cleared, and we were treated to panoramic views of the South Downs with the glistening sea on the horizon. On the path down off the hill we were on, I slipped slightly on the clay exclaiming ‘It’s slippery,’ after which we then heard the crash of 3 mountain bikers behind us having the same revelation, but unfortunately as the first hit the ground all were then wiped out. These mountain-bikers then became companions along the way for the final ten miles as we switched positions with their faster pace but poorer map reading and tyre punctures. 

Again, the sign posting along the SDW is excellent with very little requirement, if any, for the ordinance survey maps app. Lizzie was impressed with my ability to spot footpath signs, I’ve only got my parents to thank for that with a childhood being dragged around on many country walks!

Celebrating the finish with a dip in the sea

The final 2 miles is a gentle downhill into Eastbourne with the sea beckoning you in the whole way. We ran all the way to the sea and I managed a paddle, was a bit nippy for a full dip! Then it was time for the train home and fish and chips.

Again, with trains direct from London to both Hassocks and Eastbourne this is an accessible route that is easy to follow on your own and with Southease station at mile 15 it can easily be broken into two 15 mile routes.

Part two about Alice’s ultramarathon adventure on the Isle of Wight to follow!

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