A long run on the North Downs Way

25 May 2016, 15:44

Marathon training has been short and sharp this year thanks to my several-month-long illness this winter, but now I’m finally feeling back on track and back to full strength, and the training plan from Coach Babs is reaching its crescendo. Last week my plan called for a 3hr run that would mimic conditions for my upcoming Transylvanian Bear Race. I could just run around the Thames again, or pop down to Richmond Park and run around that for a while, but my recent travels to Istanbul gave me an itch to explore a bit closer to home.

My first thought was to go to the South Downs Way, but then I remembered the North Downs Way is both closer and mostly in woodland, and would be even better. The North Downs Way is one of the long distance trails that England excels at: 153 miles of well-marked trails running roughly East to West south of London in Surrey and Kent.

Start of the NDW run
Selfie when I started my run…

This ticked all my boxes: trail, hilly, and unfamiliar! It’s marked well enough with signs, but not so well that I didn’t have to think, and it gave me a great “dress rehearsal” to test out my trail shoes, backpack (with CamelBak bladder inside), and homemade flax gels. But most important of all was the mental training – namely, practising walking when the terrain demands it rather than just forging my way ahead up steep hills, rocky descents, and gullied narrow paths that I really shouldn’t be wasting my energy on.

I had a rough look at distances on a map before I started and reckoned that Guildford would be a good starting point. But it’s also a little hike between the train station and the NDW itself, and not signposted from the station or town centre at all! Thankfully, I anticipated this and printed out the instructions for the beginning of a Guildford walk in book 2 of the Time Out Book of Country Walks. I honestly think I would’ve struggled to find the trail on my own if I didn’t have these (or a good map!) to follow. Since I was checking the directions every few seconds, I didn’t start running (and my GPS tracker) til I reached the North Downs Way proper.

Trail heaven

I’d forgotten from my weekend trail runs in Hampstead Heath in years past how much better I respond to running on soft surfaces! It’s been a while, but it was obvious to me during the brief paved section near Denbies how much kinder the trails and grass were to my feet and joints than the hard pavements. Thankfully 95% of the NDW (or at least the portion I covered) is trail, varying in width from bridleways and logging trails down to a few overgrown portions requiring nimble feet to avoid nettle stings from both sides.

One main advantage of the North Downs Way over the South Downs Way IMHO is that the North is almost entirely in woodland. I love running in the woods, but it’s also preferable on sunny or windy days, as you’ve got a lot more shelter from the elements.

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on



Video of the solitude…

Buuuuuuuut, the downside is that the entire NDW route is hilly. Like, really hilly! Box Hill has the reputation for being one of the biggest, steepest hills in the South East, and the road up it is absolutely covered in cyclists at the weekend. The pedestrian route is less crowded, but also has steps cut in to the trail that are so steep you could practically climb up with your hands. I’d run up these steps before at the start of the Three Molehills race a few years ago, but my legs were fresh then instead of having run for over two hours already so they were a bit of a surprise!

Box Hill steps

If you’re thinking of hiking or running the NDW on your own, I’d highly recommend bringing along a good map, either a printed Ordinance Survey (OS) map or a digital one like the RouteBuddy offline trailhead map I used – well worth the fiver I paid! On the left is the general map my running app gives me (about the same info as Apple or Google Maps) – it’s fine for cities, but I was running blind in the woods – compare that to the map in Route Buddy on the right! (The NDW path is marked by a series of red dots.)

Map comparison

Even though there are signposts everywhere for the NDW, there were still several points where I wasn’t entirely sure which way to go, and also it was useful for checking my progress – like a big “You Are Here!” on an OS map. And also it worked in those places where I had no mobile signal, too.

Sometimes with these long runs, you can build up the scale of it in your head so much that you get overly focused on the amount of running ahead of you and forget to enjoy the experience. But with this run, I thoroughly enjoyed the woodland solitude. I thought I’d want some music or podcasts after a few hours, but as it turns out, saying hello to dog walkers, watching where I was going, and listening to the birds and my internal monologue kept me occupied enough for the entire run without bothering to get my headphones out.

North Downs Way selfie after 3hrs
Selfie taken after over 3hrs of running!

When I originally looked at the map to plan this run, I thought I’d run from Guildford to Redhill, but with all the little twists and turns, by the time I got to Reigate I was already over the 30km and 3 hour mark so I grabbed two bottles of water at the concession stand (the only one along the way!! Take note and bring more water than I did!) and walked the 2km down the hill(!!) to Reigate station, where I grabbed a direct train back to London.

Elevation of NDW run
Elevation profile of the run, with Box Hill approximately in the middle

I haven’t harped on about it much here, but I’m actually doing a bit of fundraising in conjunction with the Transylvanian Bear Race. The official charity of the race is The European Nature Trust (TENT), a small charity who work with local schools to educate children in Romania about the importance of preserving the forests I’ll be running 49km through in (eep!) 10 days.

I even recorded a little video on the trail to tell you about it!

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on


If you’d like to donate a bit of spare cash to TENT, I (and the bears and wolves*) would really appreciate it!

* not the vampires though, those guys are jerks.

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