The South Downs Way 100 had long been on my list. Since I started running ultras in 2012 and even before that I had a long-standing fascination and affinity with the South Downs. Having lived in Eastbourne for 5 years and in Sussex all my life before that the Downs were never far away. They became my playground and my training ground. They were my escape and my solitude when I needed it. Many a long hour spent running, cycling and exploring meant that I knew much of the route intimately. I had even ridden the full length of the South Downs Way on a mountain bike a couple of years previously so when I decided it was time to have a crack at my first 100 mile race this was the obvious choice. Why? To conquer the Downs once and for all? Maybe. To immerse myself in them and reminisce, visiting many a familiar place, enjoying the scenery and the peace? Definitely!
Centurion Running organise the South Downs Way 100 as part of their series of 50 and 100 mile races. It is held in June and the course follows virtually the entire length of the South Downs Way, 100 miles from Chilcomb Sports Ground near Winchester all the way to Eastbourne. With almost 4,000m of climb along the way it is never going to be easy but the prevailing winds being from the west should help a little in theory.
Having completed ten ultra-distance events over the last couple of years, ranging from 35 to 75 miles this would be my eleventh and longest ultra. I felt it was time to take on the ultimate distance which had been intriguing me for a while. I always try to learn something from each ultra I run so I felt prepared but also conscious that this was a full marathon longer than any race I had done before so there was definitely an element of the unknown. Over the last few months I have been asked time and time again ‘how do you train for a 100 mile race?’ I’m not sure there is a correct answer to that question. I think the longer the race you are training for the more of a mental game it becomes so as long as you have plenty of hills and plenty of miles in your legs it’s less about the physical preparation and more about convincing yourself you are ready. I have done two ultras already this year (40 miles and 61 miles) so that provided good training to build on.
|My fabulous support crew|
I discovered that this race allowed support crews and pacers, neither of which I had used before. Given the extra distance and the scale of the challenge I decided that I would recruit both if possible. This turned out to be a great decision. Earlier in the year I was chatting to my friend Spencer during a Sunday club run and he offered to help. I knew that he was a very experienced runner, having entered ultras himself and I also knew that he has a ‘no nonsense’ attitude which I felt would be really helpful in this situation. You’re hired! Pacers were allowed from mile 54 onwards and there was one obvious choice. Another ultra running friend Veritie was training for her first 100 mile race later in the year and this could be beneficial for both of us if we buddied up. We decided that the best place for Veritie to join would be at mile 65 so she could run the last 35 miles with me.
It might sound obvious but 100 miles is a long way! In a point to point race like this the start and finish are a very long way apart. The logistics of who needed to be where and when involved me driving to the finish in Eastbourne and then getting a train to Winchester where Spencer would meet me on the Friday afternoon. Once we had met up we headed over to the start to get the registration and kit check done. Then it was time to relax and get a good meal inside me so we found a good country pub and chatted about race strategy, process, nutrition, timing, my preference for dilution of electrolytes, default offerings at each checkpoint and plenty of other things as they occurred to us.
Around 8pm we headed back to the start and I decided an early night was in order. We had already put the tent up and to my embarrassment I discovered that rather than two single air beds I had packed one double! Spencer was concerned that I should save my energy for race day(!) so he decided to leave me to it in the tent and sleep in the car. The heavens opened for a couple of hours but there were none of the thunderstorms which had been predicted.
My alarm woke me at 4.30am and I soon made the effort to get up and dressed. A bowl of muesli, cereal bar and a couple of bananas and I was ready for the off. Around 350 of us were entered in the event and the start line consisted of roughly equal numbers of people who were running their first hundred and those who had done at least five! It was overcast and a little damp from the overnight rain. 6am soon arrived and the klaxon signalled the start of an epic journey. Infinite possibility is how this moment is described by Lizzie Hawker in her book and I can relate to that. Anything can happen in a long race. Night follows day, the sun will set and will rise again regardless of what I do. Nevertheless, while running this sort of event I feel closer to nature and somehow more in tune with the world around me in a way that everyday life doesn’t provide.
The first lap of the field completed and it’s onto the South Downs Way itself. Let’s do this!
Having never run this distance before I didn’t quite know what pace to set off at so set myself a few scenarios and paces to aim for. A few miles under my belt and the excitement of the pre-race and start wore off a little. I hadn’t managed to go to the toilet before the race but now 8 miles in I needed to go! Typical! Not far to the first checkpoint at 9.6 miles I thought. Much to my disappointment there were no facilities there and knowing there was no way I’d make it to the second checkpoint at 22 miles without a bowel movement I picked a suitably quiet area of woodland off the trail and did the necessary. Damp leaves were all I could find to clean myself up. Not the most pleasant experience but I felt ten times better for it. You gotta do what you gotta do!
Some ten miles later approaching the top of Butser Hill I did a double take on a figure standing at the top. It’s not is it? It is! Another of my crazy friends Simon had driven down to surprise me and provide some moral support for a little while. ‘You’ve driven a long way just to shout abuse at me’ I shouted as I approached him. ‘Don’t worry. It’s worth it!’ he replied.
Soon the checkpoint at Queen Elizabeth Country Park appeared and Spencer was there waiting for me. ‘Wet wipes and a refill of electrolyte please!’ I was through the 22 mile mark in less than 4 hours. Am I going too fast with nearly 80 miles to go? Probably but I felt good and was running based on feel. Who knows what will happen later? Go with the flow.
Thirty miles… Forty miles… I ran with various people for a while and chatted, then we drifted away at our own pace. This continued for some time then I caught up with a guy I had met on a previous ultra – John, who I know has completed a number of 100 mile runs in the past. He was struggling. No energy, legs heavy. We chatted for a bit then I carried on. Important to run your own race and not become tied up in someone else’s story! From memory this section from 30 to 50 miles seems to drag on. Long trails through wooded sections, endless fields and little else of interest. As the day had drawn on the sun made an appearance and it was hot, really hot and I asked Spencer for iced water as I neared the next checkpoint. As I ran round the corner in Amberley village there he was with a sports bottle full of iced water, the ice blagged from a nearby pub. Amazing! I downed the whole bottle and took on board refills of other items. My backpack was full of treats and Spencer kept loading me up with Twix bars and Pepperamis. Usually my favourite on a long run, for some reason I couldn’t face them! Soon after, John passed me at speed. ‘I’m sugared up’ he said. ‘Feeling great. Can’t stop.’ With that he was gone and I later found out that he finished four hours ahead of me. Amazing performance and shows quite how much I slowed down later!
Finally, I got to the next major checkpoint at 54 miles, a village hall in Washington. It was about 6pm and I stopped for ten minutes to sit down and take on board a bowl of pasta. I’m just about on 24 hour pace but nutrition is becoming a concern and it’s still warm. I still have a LONG way to go.
Another eleven miles to Devil’s Dyke and I knew Veritie would be there waiting to join me for the remainder of the run. This spurred me on and I set the 65 mile mark as my next mini goal to aim for. I got to Devil’s Dyke around 9pm and it was great to stop and chat with my crew. I went for a change of socks and noticed a huge blister on the side of my right big toe. Oh well, I hadn’t even felt it so Spencer dried my feet, gave me a foot rub and put a Compeed plaster on it. Heaven! Then we’re off again.
The next few miles seemed to pass quickly as I chatted to Veritie, recounting my experiences of the day so far. The pace had definitely slowed though and as night fell it dawned on me that there were still over thirty miles to go and my energy levels are falling away with the setting sun. Dig deep. I’m going to do this!
Time seemed to slow down and pass really slowly. I was low on energy but struggling to take any calories on board. What is going on? This isn’t like me. The uphill sections were a very slow walk and I could just about break into a slow jog on the level. It had got cold and I shivered as we left Clayton Windmills checkpoint. It took a long time to warm up and stop my teeth chattering. Not far to Ditchling Beacon. Keep going. Keep going. We got there around midnight and Spencer was there with a tasty Chicken Burger. Just what I needed! Just need to keep going now. Any thoughts of a sub-24 hour finish were out of the window and I knew that there was still a death march ahead as the long night hours slowly drifted by. I was struggling and Veritie was trying hard to keep me moving at a sensible pace. I stopped a few times on flimsy excuses. A tiny stone in my shoe. I need another quick wee. This broke up the relentless march and the miles slowly ticked by. I needed to get to the relative comfort of the next checkpoint but I knew it was a long way off at mile 84 and it seemed to take forever for the 12 miles to pass. Finally at 3.30am we reached Southease and I told Spencer I needed a 15 minute micro-nap. I’ve never needed one before despite plenty of experience running through the night but I was certain it would help. Spencer needed some convincing. Worried that if I sat down and closed my eyes that would be the start of the end, I persuaded him that I knew what I was doing and got into the warmth of the car. He woke me up after 15 minutes and we got ready to leave again. I had spent nearly an hour at the checkpoint in all and the dim dawn was starting to break. I felt raring to go. That micro-nap had sorted me out. I felt like I’d slept for hours and powered up the next climb – alive again! Mile 65 to 84 had been horrendous. It had never entered my mind to quit but I was glad to get through the night and make it to the sunrise. I know from experience that the rising sun brings both a rise in spirits and energy levels. I am going to make it!
|My 10 mile split times – all going well until 70 miles!|
The last section is the stretch I knew best and we passed more familiar trails and places I recognised as the dawn light slowly gave way to harsh daylight. It was cloudy but the clouds parted now and again and it was starting to warm up. Must finish before it gets too hot I thought to myself. We made it to the point at which the race route departs from the South Downs Way proper and a helpful marshal who had spent the whole night in a small tent pointing people in the right direction made sure we picked the correct path off the Downs. It would be disastrous to go wrong at mile 98.
Two miles to go – a fairly technical descent led us to a quiet residential street and it was then just a case of one foot in front of the other on the roads and pavements of Eastbourne, heading for the Sports Ground where the finish arch awaited. Spencer and Veritie had been in contact and I had been assured I would get across the line in under 28 hours if I got on with it. I was also told that my family were there waiting for me at the finish line. Armed with these facts we upped the pace and pulled off a couple of 10 minute miles (which is a damned sight harder than it sounds with 98 miles in your legs!). Rounding the corner and entering the Sports Ground was an amazing feeling. I met my daughters and we ran the lap of the track together hand-in-hand. I was feeling emotional as I crossed the line and couldn’t believe I had really made it. The finish line which I visualised time and time again was right in front of me. 100 miles in 27 hours 58 minutes. What an experience! A bacon sandwich and a cup of tea were almost as welcome as the finisher’s T shirt and buckle which I was given at the finish.
Some time after the race I have had a chance to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well. I went off too fast. This is as clear as day now but at the time I didn’t know what too fast was on a 100 mile race. Nutrition also went a little wrong for me this time and I will need to work harder on finding a bigger variety of items that I can fall back on if I can’t face my usual ultra food. The things that went well were the support I received and I’m so grateful to Spencer, Veritie and all my other supporters. Spencer had posted udpates on Facebook as the race progressed and the messages of support had come from far and wide. People were genuinely interested in how I was doing and willing me on. To know this is real time was a massive boost and I’m so humbled that people were watching my tracking blip on a little map and following my progress through the day and night.
Three more ultras entered this year and then let’s just say I’ve got a few big ideas for next year! I won’t even bother saying ‘Never Again’ any more because I know deep down that it isn’t true! I’ll be back again I’m sure.