The Surrey Tops is a Long Distance Walkers Association 50 mile event organised by the Surrey Group. I have done a few LDWA events and they are well run and cheap to enter, especially if you become a member (£6 for a 30 mile event, £21 for the 50 mile Surrey Tops). The Surrey Tops has 6750ft of ascent/descent and is mainly run on footpaths and bridleways starting and finishing at Witley, south of Godalming. It is a “challenge” event, which means you have to find your own way round the course based on a written route description and features a significant amount of night navigation.
Surrey Tops is run only once every three years and that was partly why I entered. Without really meaning to, I found I had done some training for this event by running the Midnight marathon (hilly, at night) in August, the Farnham Pilgrim (hilly and on some of the same route) and the SJ 30th Anniversary run (our section was quite hilly) in September, so I thought I was in reasonable shape for this event. I had practiced with all the kit I needed to take and I was familiar with the style of route instructions. I had done a few of the LDWA 30 miles events, so this was just going to be 20 miles further. Sounds fairly simple, but there were things that went wrong that could easily have ended this run with a DNF.
I downloaded the route description, laminated it, cut out each paragraph and made a little flip-book of the route. I found this easier to stay on the right bit of the route description, than having loose pages. There were going to be well stocked check points at 8 to 12 mile intervals, so I needed to carry water and some food, as well as jacket, waterproof trousers, head torch, spare batteries, spare hand torch, fully charged mobile, a compass and a mug. I also took walking poles in case I needed to take the load off tired legs or help get an injured me to the next check point. All of this was packed into my running pack.
Kit for the day including route instructions
Start times from the village hall in Witley were 10am for walkers and 1pm for runners, with about 130 walkers and 15 runners. I started at 1pm and straight away was in last place as everyone else hared off into the distance. This was a bit of a problem, as it is nice to have someone else to follow to check your route against or catch up with you if you go wrong. After about half a mile, a chap called Anthony from Norfolk decide he couldn’t keep up with the others and dropped back to me and we ran together for a while, enjoying the autumn sunshine and the climb up to Gibbet Hill (5 miles).
First big climb of the day – Gibbet Hill
Here, I realised I hadn’t been eating or drinking, as I had been concentrating on reading the route description so much. I stopped for a break at the top of the hill and lost sight of the others. On to the Devils Punchbowl and on the descent to the north I caught up with Anthony and another man, who had already got lost twice. On to Kettlebury Hill (8 miles) and another break for me and again the others went on ahead like this was some kind of race! A couple of miles later on Elstead Common I got a bit lost at a little triangle of paths, not understanding the directions and spent about 15 minutes and half a mile figuring it out. On then to the first check point at Elstead Common (12.1 miles and 2:50).
From here it was an easy path into Elstead, now following paths I knew from the Punchbowl marathon earlier in the year, but I was soon in trouble again and lost on Puttenham Common. I think I had the route right, but couldn’t find the path from the route description, so I ended up wasting time trying to figure it out. I knew I had to find the North Downs Way and go through Puttenham Village, so the last resort was to check my map, and just head due East to get to Puttenham (phone and compass to the rescue!) I was soon back on track and now following the NDW and the route of the Farnham Pilgrim in reverse.
Easy? Nearly, but not quite. I got to the next check point at the Shippe Inn, Guildford (21 miles) at 6pm, an hour before the cut off, in time to eat a reasonable amount and top up my water bladder with squash, but I still wasn’t eating and drinking enough as I had been concentrating so much on reading the route. Being last at the checkpoint, I was all that was stopping the marshals from packing up so they were really pleased to see me. I was also followed out of the checkpoint by two more marshals who were going to sweep round the last 29 miles.
Leaving Guildford, the next challenge was St Martha’s Hill. In the woods it was starting to get dark. I was feeling pretty mentally low, tired, cold and aching and I called home debating whether I would quit. I think my wife was engrossed in a movie and a comfy sofa, so I could tell she didn’t really want to come and get me from a remote car park on St Martha’s Hill. I decided to at least get to checkpoint 3 at 31.5 miles. I got my head torch out and a bag of fruit jellies and set off again. The extra energy really lifted my spirits and I got over St Martha’s Hill (23 miles) feeling better.
St Martha’s Hill after a big mental wobble.
Approaching Newlands Corner (25 miles) I caught up with the last of the walkers, but started to get cramp in my calf. More drinking required, but also more salt. Sadly I didn’t have any salt tablets with me, and I suffered more cramps and self-doubt over the next few miles. I caught up to another walker and we got lost and re-found the route together before I pushed on. By 29 miles my cramp had eased off and I reached checkpoint 3 at Abinger Common to find 15 other people in the village Hall and a plate of beef stew and potatoes! That was quickly followed by apple pie and custard, so I was feeling much better and decided not to quit – after all there were just 18.5 miles to go.
It had been dark for a while, so there wasn’t much to see, but on the way to Holmbury Hill (34 miles) an owl flew out in front of me, beautifully quiet. In the woods I could see nothing but the trees close to me, bats flying into the beam of my torch and occasional stars through the canopy. I caught up with more walkers on Holmbury Hill, even though I was just walking myself, but didn’t stay long to enjoy the view. The woodland trails were quite eerie and quiet, with just the hoots and screeches of owls and the sound of my own footsteps. I stopped and turned off my torch to find it utterly black and silent.
Typical view for most of the night
The trek to checkpoint 4 was a long 11 miles, but I arrived 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. It was at a business park and outside, but there was tea, hot soup and some nice salty things to eat. From here there was just 7.5 miles to go, but the list of remaining instructions was huge, so it was going to be complicated. 10 minutes after I got to the checkpoint Anthony (remember him? I must have passed him in the night somewhere) arrived and we decided to tackle the last miles together.
Over two more hills (Hascombe Hill – 45 miles and Hydon’s Ball 47.5 miles) and a relatively gentle last couple of miles back to Chichester Hall in Witley, the last challenge being to take my shoes off before going inside. The hall was filled with runners and walkers recovering and having a cooked breakfast.
I finished in 15:37 in 73rd place out of 158 starters. I did 51.8 miles. Of my 13:37 time 2 hours 39 minutes was spent standing reading the route or at checkpoints. The first person home finished in 10:24; the last in 21:20 (21 hours, 20 minutes! How’s that for persistence?) The prize for all this was a printed certificate, a badge (cost £2) and a pair of very achy legs. Oh, and a nice sense of achievement for having done another challenging event.