Navigating her way through the gargantuan slopes of Snowdon with the torrential rain soaking through her ‘so called’ waterproofs and the biting winds gnawing at her limbs with every step she takes… Linn Erixon Sahlström‘s steely focus was unshakable, even when the conditions became verging on the ridiculous. Nothing was going to stand in her way. Hence why she was unable to comprehend it when she was told that the race was cancelled. Her focus wouldn’t allow that to even be a consideration.
That was Linn’s experience at the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 165, where she was dead set on a top three female finish, no matter what it took. And she was on course to achieve that as well. But alas, it was not to be. The disappointment of that had left Linn feeling empty inside. But she was hungry. Hungry to fill the void. That was where the North Downs Way 100 came in.
Providing her with an opportunity to put her endurance training to good use, the North Downs Way 100 was a chance to turn a negative into a positive, if she played her cards right.
The North Downs Way 100 is an event put on by Centurion Running, featuring a 103 mile trail route from the Surrey Hills in Farnham all the way to Ashford in Kent. The elevation gain is 10,000ft and the course is every bit as gruelling and brutal as it sounds.
Starting at the western end of the North Downs, the route heads through the scenic countryside before passing through the village of Puttenham and on to Guildford. It then continues on to Ranmore Common before hitting the steepest climb of the race, up to the top of Box Hill. It’s then down the other side to Reigate Hill and on to Merstham and Oxted. A further eight miles along is Knockholt Pound, at the 50 mile point. That’s right on the outermost perimeter of Greater London.
It then works its way through Wrotham and Holly Hill before crossing the Medway Bridge. The last 25 miles see the runners heading south east towards Dover before dropping down into Ashford for the finish at the Julie Rose Stadium.
Linn Erixon Sahlström on the start line ahead of her North Downs Way 100 adventure
Here is Linn’s gripping first-hand account of how it all went down, taken from her social media post reflecting on what happened during the race…
“The Centurion Running North Downs Way 100 (NDW100) was a last minute decision after the anti-climax of the UTS165 that left me with nothing but a good training run. I have had my eyes on the NDW100 for some time as a course that looked like it could suit me but the timing has never been right. Until now.
So with five weeks in between and only light jogging and easy weights, I toed the start line with a good feeling about the day, but unsure how much of my non specific training would hinder or help me. I was aiming to stay up in the front as far as I did not overcook and to save my energy for the last quarter and the infamous hills in the dark. My mind felt ready, after all, my mind was set for a 40 hour journey five weeks prior, so half of that and some, felt very very doable.
The first hours was spent chit chatting to some ladies, amongst them Tina Bergman who was a fellow Swede from London. Tina quickly went off meaning business and I hang around in my on comfort zone chatting the miles away with a Canadian lady who had a wealth of Ultras behind her. A few miles ticked off and I met up with Shelley (Linn’s wife) and got my fuel sorted and so it went on for the first quarter.
Linn was in the right frame of mind to go all out
The heat was coming on and I started to feel lethargic and losing the pace completely. Anna Brown, the lady who I had been yo-yoing with, then passed me on a hill looking strong. Thoughts go through your head like “are my wheels falling off now? Is this is it?” According to reports I was now in second place (the other Swede had dropped out due to an injury) but I felt too tired give a toss because it was still early days. I just knew I needed to get on to those gels to keep me going. Said and done, I started to pop those gels down and BHAM the engine was back and I felt a million buck better! I was happy being in second place at this stage, but nervous that would not last because you are always chased by someone, so I had to keep moving as swiftly as I possibly could.
In the third quarter the heat was playing a real effect on the speed, but the gels seemed to do its thing for this, and another thing as we know for the tummy. Then my back pack broke (I must have used it too much!) Luckily I was only 20 minutes from the next crew station where Shelley magically put it back together! Meanwhile I was all fizzy drinks and pizza face. Floki (Linn’s dog) gave me some encouraging kisses as well. It means so much to have support like your family and friends like this during such a long journey.
Linn was tried at first but once the gels kicked in she felt energised
The following hours was an equal balance between a slog and great running, flat lands, hills, corn fields, stunning scenery and the not so stunning – several motorway crossings. Still I was hearing reports about me being very close to the leading lady.
After the horrible M2 section where you run parallel to the motorway, fuelled by fumes and the sound of speed, running on pure adrenaline to get it over and done with, Shelley was waiting with some new clothes and fresh fuel at end of the M2 and the next crew point. This was 72 -ish miles in (120k) and this was were the race would start. I changed the tops and put on my headtorch and climbed above the noise of the motorway to the stunning scene of a sun about to set, under a harvest moon, to the sound of the machines cutting the crops. Oh I love the countryside! I felt reenergised, like someone pushed a button… This was it! The game was on! If I would have a chance to get that trophy, now would be my time to dig in.
Linn was closing in on Anna Brown who was leading the way
So I did; I ran like crazy, falling six times but getting back up, scared that I would hurt my scar because that is the knee that I always fall on. Blood everywhere on my leg, like a proper battle, but I kept pushing. My stomach was churning and the gels was making its presence way to frequent and pronounced. Oh the joy of ultra running! The last check point where I met Shelley at mile 82 for the last time before the finish, I was all race head. No time to spare to change anything, just pump me up with the last of the fuel and off I went.
The next section was literally like being stuck inside the upside down of Stranger Things, with the mind Flayer breathing down your neck. It was rooty, rocky and gnarly with an overhang of bushes or trees or whatever that makes you run hunched and feeling trapped in a tunnel like space. My pace was irritatingly slow and I had a hard time seeing my footing, blinded by the reflectiveness of the lamp in the hard packed white sand. Undoubtedly this was the hardest section, but that is what I love. That grit. The harder the better somehow. It just makes you go into full operation mode and like “BRING IT ON M-Fs, I’M READY!!” Then my watched suddenly died on me.
It was in the last quarter of the race that Linn really began to come alive
Normally it gives me a hunch so I have a chance to charge it, but I must have forgotten to do the latest update. My biggest concern was not the Strava kudos, but rather more being able to navigate my way to the finish. The route was well marked, but people have a tendency to tamper with the route markings. After some faffing around, I managed to charge my phone in order to follow the route on my backup map.
I was yo-yoing with a few guys and their pacers, exchanging a few words but most sharing miles in silence. By this point I felt less hopeful to catch the lead, but I was still living in hope. Then with 12k left, I had a look at the tracker on my phone and saw that Anna, who was in the lead, was no more than 100 meters in front of me!
Linn was going well and had managed to get within 100 metres of Anna
My adrenaline shot to the skies so I had calm myself down and start to slow down as they (she had a pacer) were walking. They were turning their heads several times to see who was behind them. I felt like a hungry hound on a hunt, closely waiting out its prey. I was making sure I stayed just out of sight of their beams as they turned their heads to see who was behind. But after a few kilometres of this hunting game I got bored. They were walking and I wanted to RUN! So I made my move, knowing that I might end up with a 10k sprint finish.
Shoulder to shoulder I approached Anna and her pacer, chatted for a bit but got very little response back so I decided to make my final move. Off I went, in what felt like a sprint – not knowing if they would would catch up with me. I literally ran for my life. Oh man was that an effort! It took everything I had. All I could see when I turned around was the distant light of runners approaching.
After catching Anna and exchanging words, Linn made a break for it
Not until I reached the street lights and finally the Julie Rose Stadium in Ashford, Kent, did I know that I had taken the Victory! The 400 meter lap to cross the finish line was slow but filled with relief! Hands up in the sky, a sigh of relief and a final push across the finish line. A few brave souls, my wife included, shouted at me from the side.
I did it, I raced the 103 miles of the toughest Centurion Running race and crossed the finish line in 21:35 as first woman and 11th overall. My time was irrelevant but the trophy was such an amazing achievement and filled me with such pride! To be one of the Centurion Running winners is like stepping into the finest room in ultra running here in the UK.“
She had indeed completed the full 103 mile course in 21 hours 35 minutes and 31 seconds and had got to the line just over 13 minutes ahead of Anna Brown in the end. Whilst that may seem like quite a lot of time, in a 100 mile ultra, it isn’t really. It was a close run contest and one that Linn had fought very hard for.
Linn holds her trophy aloft after a glorious victory that was well deserved
It had been an epic battle but Linn had played it well tactically and had got her reward when all was said and done. She has been second lady before so she knows how that feels and had sympathy for Anna. But for Linn, it was a dream race that had panned out exactly as she would have wanted. She couldn’t ask for any more than that.
Samantha Lloyd took the third female spot, coming in at 22:55:40. The battle for the overall race win had played out in a similar sort of way, with Mark Lynch coming from behind to take the title in a time of 16:52:59.
He was 10 minutes behind Peter Windross at the final checkpoint which was at 82 miles but managed to finish strongly to overturn the deficit. He finished up six minutes ahead of Peter who had to settle for the runner up spot. Charles Pearson took third place in 17:28:56.
A total of 151 runners successfully completed the course with the last of them coming in at 29:55:52. For Linn to have finished 11th overall out of all those competitors was a fantastic achievement.
Linn celebrates with her wife Shelley who was supporting her all the way
The 21:35:31 time that Linn had recorded was the 142nd fastest in the all time list for the North Downs Way 100. And it was the 13th quickest of any female in history. The more you look at the stats, the more impressive Linn’s performance begins to look.
Rightfully so, Linn is still on cloud nine about her victory and it means more to her than a top three finish at the Ultra-Trail Snowdonia would have. That’s because the Centurion races are so high profile and thus, extremely competitive. Also, the North Downs Way 100 is by far their toughest 100 miler, so to come out on top in a race like that is the ultimate satisfaction for an ultra runner.
Linn will now rest for a while before she starts to look forward to the Kullamannen 100 mile race in Sweden, which takes place in November. That will be another UTMB qualifier so she’ll be giving it everything she’s got again for that one. In the mean time, she’s hoping she’ll be able to make it to training for a few Bournemouth AC speed sessions before she laces up her trail shoes and steps over that line once again for another enthralling adventure.