The reality of taking part in a 100mile event is, trust me, very different to what I think the common perception is. I’ll try and explain...
Sarah (my trusty one woman support crew) and myself arrived at our posh thatched cottage hotel just outside Winchester on the Friday night, and after a nice fish n' chips tea, we set both our alarms for 4am the following morning. I barely slept, but I didn’t think this really mattered in the big scheme of things, I’d slept well in the run up, and the cricked neck I had a few days previously had cleared up nicely, I could actually move my head!! So things were looking up... literally!!
The race start was at 6am, and the latest race check-in was 5:30am, so I thought this was plenty of time to get up, shower, get my kit sorted, tape my feet, bodyglide all the sensitive bits etc. Somewhere down the line, time slipped away, and we left to get breakfast and coffee at the 24hr Asda which, we were told, was just up the road.....4 and half miles later we got there, bought what we needed plus some last minute supplies. As it turned out the 4.5 miles we had travelled was in the opposite direction to the start, we were now 8.5 miles away from where we needed to be, no idea where we were, with no postcode for the venue, and only 15minutes to get there... (this sounds very unorganised, and I suppose it was, but the venue actually had no postcode!). The next 15minutes were the most stressful of the whole weekend, and involved a bacon sandwich being thrown out of the car window, spilt coffee, shouting, moods, and a chance spotting of a centurion flag by Sarah!!
The South Downs Way 100, is one of 4x 100 mile races that Centurion Running organise, if you take on all 4 in the same year, this is called the grand slam, (that’s for another year maybe). But this one runs from Winchester to Eastbourne and follows (as the name suggests) the South Downs Way. I had done the Thames Path 100 a couple of years ago, and to be honest that probably went as well as any 100mile race could go. It was snowing on the startline, there was masses of mud, a lot the course was flooded & rerouted to a series of out n backs, but essentially flat, I finished this in 22hrs & 35mins. So I set myself the Plan A target of 20hrs for the SDW100, with a Plan B being a sub 24hr finish, which gets you the special 100miles in a day belt buckle!
So the flag was spotted, we sped into the sportsground. I blindly signed the waiver, picked up my race number (104), then went through the compulsory kit check, which I thankfully passed, as there was now no time to adjust or correct anything! Map, compass, waterproof jacket, silverblanket etc, all the standard kit. Amusingly the guy doing the kit check told me someone had turned up with a North Downs Way map... at least I wasn’t that unorganised. Then there was just enough time to join the toilet queue, listen to the race briefing whilst in the portaloo, a start line selfie, mash the emergency telephone numbers into my £4 Asda mobile phone (that’s another story) and bang, off we went.
It was a hell of a whirlwind start, and quite frankly I was glad to be under way, as I had had no time to get nervous or think about what I was doing. I remember the first few miles being very quiet, with no one talking......normally it’s all quite jovial and chatty, I put this down to being very early and people still being either nervous or sleepy. I must have spoken to someone as I remember asking if I missed anything important in the race briefing... “follow the acorns, orange spray painted arrows and the red & white tape”. That’s all I needed.
The first CP was at Beacon Hill Beeches, and I have to be honest I remember nothing, maybe I was either nervous or sleepy!? This was at roughly 10miles, so it must have been quite uneventful. The second CP at 22.6miles was at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, I was looking forward to this for two reasons: it was the first crew access point, so I would see Sarah and get refuelled and stocked up; it was also the start point of the Trailwalker (which also followed the SDW) that I had done years ago. So, in theory after this point the next 100km would all be familiar, I remembered the park and it brought back happy memories. Coming into CP2, the time on my pace sheet said 3hrs 40mins, I looked at my watch... 3:41. "Well that’s pretty damn good" I thought. All the time, throughout that first 22.6miles I had this niggling tired feeling and was hoping it would just go as I got going. I think I mentioned to Sarah I felt tired. The actual pitstop was a bit of a mix up as Sarah had grabbed the wrong bag from the car and the car was
parked miles away from where the CP was. But this was no problem as the CP had all I needed to refuel and refill my bottles.
So now it was approaching 10am and I was already dripping in sweat. It was a very humid if not sunny day, I was warm, very warm. I was taking gels, one every hour and half, plus real food at the CPs... The gels were really not working for me, and I decided quite early on to stop taking them and eat more food or whatever I could. Cocktail sausages, water melon, grapes, pineapple, lots of flat coke, flapjacks anything that my stomach said 'yes' to.
The course was designed that out of every CP was a climb, some longer than others. The idea being that you can grab what you want, food and drink, fly through, and eat on the go while you walk the ups. I can remember the section between QECP CP and Harting Downs CP was quite easy and only 5miles and shaded in woods, so I made the most of this bit. I saw Sarah at Harting Downs, refilled my bottles, had some more water melon and felt it was a quick successful stop and wanted to push on the next 8miles to Cocking (snigger), and have a proper stop and change there. I think it was on this section that I bumped into a chap called Neil, we seemed to be going a similar pace, so we stuck together for a while and chatted. It turned out his wife was the hula hoop lady in Britains Got Talent, and he was out running to get away from it all (well this is what he joked anyway). You do really meet a mixed bunch of people on these events... as you’ll find out later!
Cocking was at 35miles, and I wouldn’t normally change so early, but being absolutely dripping, I decided a fresh t-shirt was needed. Another successful stop was made, and I left feeling quite fresh, but still tired. I had refilled my bottles had some more food and nice sit on the boot of the car. Setting off on this section was going to be tough, just for the fact the next time i’d have a proper stop was at Washington at 54miles gulp!! There was two, "no crew access" CPs between Cocking and Washington, at Bignor Hil & Kithurst Hill. Almost 20miles to slog it out. It was time to treat every CP as a mini finish and not think about the rest of the day. Both Bignor Hil & Kithurst Hill are a bit of a blur, but I know I definitely hit these CPs as I surprsingly, with my track record of bad nav, didn’t get lost once. I was struggling with stomaching food, I was drinking litres of fluid......water, squash, coke, isotonic, anything wet really. But food... I didn’t know what I wanted and I’m pretty sure that at one of these checkpoints I rolled into, I said “I don’t know what I want” and then left.
I remember texting Sarah on one of the big climbs, saying I was feeling really tired and I needed a sit down as it was too hot. I had my first real low point. There is no sugar coating it - I felt like shit. I didn’t sit down, I carried on walking slowly. In fact a lot more walking than I would have liked, I had realised I had to reassess the days goal... 20hrs was long gone, so maybe just a PB, or just a sub 24hr finish.... actually just finish. And is that a blister coming....!?
Washington couldn’t come quick enough, and by the time I got there I was so relieved to see it that it instantly put me in a good mood. We were all greeted by a marshall dressed as Elvis, pointing us down a small hill, in a quite impressive “Suspicious Minds” Elvis impression, which was totally lost on the runner in front who said “which way?”. I said thanks and that I got it, which he replied just come back up this hill after you stop.... “Seriously!?” I thought!? Every little up n' down counted and this was one that seemed pointless. This was the famous Washington CP, 54miles & over halfway, and was inside, with loos, a massive spread of food and drink, warm pasta being served and chairs!! (Looking back on it now, having seen photos, it was all decked out in stars 'n' stripes and an American theme, and obviously this explained Elvis. But at the time I didn’t make the Washington link!?! Doh! My bonus points for getting the Elvis direction point, have since been deducted by totally missing the whole theme of this CP!). Sarah was waiting for me outside and led me inside, she had bought me loads of goodies, fruit, jellies etc. I managed to eat a fair bit here including some warm pasta, I had a good 15min stop, and a nice sit down too.
This was the point where we had to carry our head torches plus a reserve light source, so I made sure I packed this in my race vest before setting off again. My weapons of choice on this race were my industrial sized fenix, which was probably used by the chinese military as I bought it off a dodgy ebay link. It could burn holes in tarmac, but was very bright and just what I needed for the dark SDW that night. I also took a small handheld light for backup. It seemed strange, as it was still the middle of the day and very light, but rules are rules. I soaked a buff in cold water and then headed off again. The last thing I did I was tell Sarah about the chap who I was running with and who his wife was, she was suitably impressed with my brush with stardom.
As per usual there was a long climb out of Washington, this went on for about 2-2.5miles, it seemed endless and I actualy got bored of walking. I can’t remember at which point I heard, but I had just found out, via text from Sarah, I was to have company to pace me for a few sections before night time. Little Dave was someone I had actually never met, but I knew through a running facebook group. He turned out to be an absolute star. Him and his wife, also Sarah, were local and gave up their time to come and help me... the running community is amazing! He had run the race before, so gave me advice and pointers, and Sarah had crewed for Dave too, so did the same for Sarah. It worked out brilliantly and for a while I didn’t need to think about navigation or anything really... Dave took care of it. Every gate was opened and every turn was pointed out. But first of all I had to get to Devil’s Dyke, which was at 65.7 miles. Botolophs CP came first at 61.2miles ... This section for me was, I think, the lowest point of the race. Everything hurt, I was tired, I was fed up, I started to wonder why I was doing this, I wasn’t any good at it anyway, I was walking too much, the voices were winning.
I strangely recogonised this bit from the Trailwalker as we had gone wrong on a recee run very close to this point... at least it was familiar, but it was hilly familiar, familiar for all the wrong reasons. I sat down at Botolphs at rock bottom, even the camp chair was rubbish, so I got up and started walking. Maybe, if the the chair had been more comfy, this is where the race would have ended.
I was still sweating loads and soooo tired, but remembered Sarah was meeting me at the next CP with Dave, I didn’t want to look like a wasted, drained loser, so I kicked my own my arse and pushed on. It wasn’t long before I saw a figure in the distance running towards me... In purple (the colour of DDMT, the facebook running group). Sure enough the stranger was Dave!
We greeted and introduced ourselves. I was very aware that Dave was doing the Dragons Back in a weeks time. The Dragons Back was a whole different level of race, which put what I was doing into perspective... an easy point to point, well marked undulating footrace. Google Dragons Back...
So I was looking forward to talking to him about it, especially as I know other people doing it (our very own Geoff Roynon and a friend called Guy from DDMT). So I was also aware he shouldn’t be doing too much running... not that I was at all!! Not long after that we got to Devils Dyke where Dave had run from and the Sarahs were waiting. We had a little stop, I felt good. No sign of the darkness that I had just dragged myself through to get to that point, which was good, but I was still conscious of apologising to Dave lots about being moody and moany and meeting me at me at my worst.
We spent some good time out on the trail, doing a mixture of slow run and quick walk. I was becoming increasingly aware that my feet were becoming sore, after ironically saying to Sarah at the last CP that they were fine. This was my achilles heel, and even more ironically my achilles heel which I had had lots of problems with in the past was just fine!!! I strapped on my head torch at the CP at Clayton Windmills (Jack and Jill) at about 70miles, it must have been about 10pm ish and we didn’t quite need the light yet, but it was best to get it on and comfortable in the light as it was so damn heavy and cumbersome. I then said thanks & goodbye to Dave and Sarah at the next CP at Ditchling Beacon at 72miles.
I sensed Sarah was quite nervous about me being on my own now and going out into the dark, which it was pretty much now. However I was fine and looking forward to it. I seem to cope with night sections quite well, as it’s a lot cooler (some would say freezing, but I say cool) and it’s something different to the last 70miles I had covered. I changed again, into a warm, dry base layer and a bright tshirt, packed my hat and gloves, which seemed weird as I’d been so bloody hot all day. Readjusted my head torch, which had taken me ages to get comfortable in the first place, and then set off again.
There’s something quite edgy about running at night on the trail, with no street lights or noises, it kinda heightens all your senses and you have to concentrate, I like this. The luminous tape markers Centurion have used catch the beam of of your head torch from quite a distance and can show you the way. There’s usually a few head torches in the distance in front or behind and this can help, but occasionally you find yourself totally alone and no clues in which direction you should be heading, like now.............at which point I step in the biggest wettest cowpat you can imagine, nice! I pan my head torch up across the trail and there’s a lot of big big cowpats, it’s a minefield. Then the thought occurs to me, giant cowpats means.......Giant cows...! I pan my head torch left and right across the fields and sure enough, cows arses pointing at me from all sides... stealth cows, so quiet!!
Before I started I had set my GPS watch to the longest battery life so it would last for the duration of the race, but then this has an impact on the GPS reading back intermitently. This had the knock on effect of my watch being 4 or 5miles out on distance, and not really being able to use this to gauge anything. It also affects your pace reading, so when I was walking my pace was 7min miling, and when I was running I was 21min miling...!?! So I couldn’t use this as any gauge of effort either. The only constant I could use now was, actual time and time on course. Which would come in handy later on...
So I had told Sarah I would see her at Southease (the 84mile CP) 1:30am as I was going quite slow and that gave me a buffer... now... as it happened I had quite a good patch through House Dean farm, the CP at 76.6miles (which was familiar, as I’d stayed here for the Brighton marathon earlier in the year). I arrived ahead of schedule at 1:15am, but a jetlagged Sarah, who had only just arrived back from China and Hong Kong the previous day, was trying to get a little sleep. I arrived and she was nowhere to be seen... I had requested spare batteries and another top by text, but this was disastrous, as Sarah had just woken up, I was in pain now and very grumpy... lets just say it wasn’t the most pleasant stop... as batteries weren’t found and I was having a mini panic about my head torch being brighter than the sun and needing a small power station to keep it going. The best thing I did at this point was take a couple of ibuprofen (I had a couple of emergency codiene tablets in my pack if I really needed them. As I remember these were the only things that got me round the GUCR the previous year. Lets just say I acquired them from a friend). This reminded me, that if I’ve got to 84 miles without taking any tablets, then I can’t be that bad after all.
Then on my way out of Southease, I bumped into a friend of mine, Garfield from Islywn running club, he had been sweeping the first half of the course and was then helping out on the CP. It was nice to see a happy familiar face. As me and Sarah had just been arguing. I left feeling the ibrupofen taking the edge off my pain, the achey legs and sore feet... again I started feeling good. Later on both myself and Sarah had to apologise, as we’d both been arses, it was just bad timing.
Between Southease and the finish at Eastbourne there were only two official checkpoints left, Alfiston at 91.6miles and Jevington at 95.7miles, neither had crew access. It was going to be long slow plod to the end from here, and checking the time, it was going to be very tight to make it under 24hrs... where had all the time gone!? All that walking when I was feeling like cap, that’s where. I can remember talking to Sarah on my £4 Asda mobile phone at somepoint during the night, it was nice to have a familiar voice, and we weren’t arguing anymore. I was in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black with no headtorches in front or behind again. My head was fried by now so I can’t remember anything that we talked about, but I remember thinking I gotta have a little run now... So now started the come back!
A couple of turns in the dark in this section were a bit ropey, and although I didn’t get lost all day, there were some close shaves during the early hours. It was mainly a case of "ok, run in a straight line and hope to glance a reflective bit of tape". I hadn’t used my map or compass all day, I wasn’t going to start at this point... and quite frankly I wouldn’t have known what to do with them, especially with my head being in the shed. I performed better when I could just switch off and plod, but I couldn’t switch off, that’ll get me lost. One of the most surreal moments of the weekend was when, in the distance I could hear a zzzzttt zzztt noise and see bright blue spark light, when I got closer it was a malfunctioning electric fence, on the fence post was a SDW sign pointing straight on... but which side of the fence... the trail side of the road side...? If I made the wrong decision here, it would either be a risky fence hop or backtrack later on. I chose road, mainly as my feet were less painful on the flatter surfaces.
About half a mile down the road... another tape marker, phew I thought! I didn’t fancy a high voltage shock at 3am!! It’s not long after this that I heard the tap tap tap tap of walking poles and I met a chap called Alan for the first time. Alan, lets just say, was a quite an interesting chap to say the least, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but after various strung out conversations over the last 12miles or so, I found out it was his first 100miler, but his background was mountaineering (hence the walking poles, which splits the ultra running community, they’re a bit marmite). After already talking about the Dragons back and Dave and Geoff and how mental it was/they are and the amount of ascent they’ll be doing... I later find out he’s climbed Everest 3 times, Denali, Killy, all the big summits and travelled the world doing it, worked as a tour guide out in Nepal... aaah! It was very interesting talking to him, we discuss thoughts on Killian and fastest known times, Western States and getting into the lottery for it (which finishing the SDW100 was one of the few qualifying races in the UK). Then his work and family... which involved the words & phrases ‘Havard’, ‘Helicopter Pilot’, ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Managing director’ , ‘Mapping golf courses for TV graphics’, and none of them from me... “Yeah I play with cartoons on a computer in Blackwood”.
I can’t remember at what point, but Alan hurt his knee and slowed up for a walk, but I wanted to push on feeling the sub 24hrs was slipping away. I felt bad but I went ahead and said we’ll see each other later. So we separated, only for a couple of miles, I went through a rough patch and a lot of walking, and Alan came back past me looking like a new man, and running... and then another chance meeting in the Dark saw us team up for a second time. This time it stuck and we saw the rest of the race out together. We teamed up at exactly the right time, when we both needed a bit of company & support. We hit alfriston CP at 91.6miles, which was a very nice church hall type of place in a lovely little village. I had promised Alan a couple of ibuprofen for his knee, as Sarah had texted me saying “I’m here”... I thought this meant at the Alfriston CP, but it was actually an old message for a previous CP that I hadn’t read, oops! I had to apologise to Alan which must have been a devastating blow, as I know, anything at this stage that doesn’t go your way seems like the end of the world... he said it’s fine... maybe it was just me that feels like this!
It was here I made a very funny phonecall to Sarah asking where she was... where she explained she meant the finish. It was a bad line so we were talking quite loudly, at which point all the marshalls came running to the front door of the hall where I was stood making the call and starting sssshhhing me, and explained that the residents had made complaints in the past, so they had promised in future to keep the CP quiet... Not while I was there!!
Me: “Sorry I have to talk quietly, the residents have complained about the noise”
Sarah: “Speak up, I can’t hear you!”
Me: “I have to be quiet, the residents have complained about the noise”
Sarah: “I CAN’T HEAR YOU, WHY ARE YOU TALKING SO QUIETLY?”
Me: “Bye, see you at the finish”
Alan and I left together feeling ok, only 9 miles left. We promised each other, as time was getting tight, that we would get to Jevington CP, go in and out and waste no time. It was getting light now, in my original plan I would have been finished by now, it didn’t matter... Now it was finish before 6am to get the special belt buckle!
I always think sunrise is going to be more inspirational and refreshing than it actually is, but in reality it just gets slowly lighter, the head torch comes off and that’s it... I wish I could say we had this amazing sun coming up over the hills moment, but we didn’t. It was just check the watch and roll into Jevington. Alan met his brother here who was over from Hong Kong for meetings. He had talked about a party and his family coming from all around; I stupidly asked what the party was for, and Alan said "for my first 100mile finish". "Oh of course" I said. Where’s my party? I thought. When we got to Jevington, we knew we were going to finish (my insane stubborness always states that I know I’m going to finish right from the start, but this bars any of the 100 things that could possibly go wrong along the way). The only question was, were we going to finish within 24hrs? I think we had about an hour and half from Jevington and about 4.5miles to go (which seems like a long time, but I had heard and Alan knew, having done the 50miler which covered the second half of the course, that the end had probably the steepest climbs), we both ran, and pretty much ran as much as we could to the end.
We got to the end of the customary "out of the CP" climb, and then hit the trig point, where a makeshift tent CP with a very jovial marshall was, we joked about having to go around her tent which was slap bang in the middle of the trail... Then the tricky technical descent on mashed feet and tired legs......this hurt, but I didn’t care. We were constantly checking the time and making calculations and recalcualtions, some right, some wrong, it didn’t matter, in reality we had quite a good buffer. We joked with two women we passed “exciting isn’t it, gonna be close!?”
We hit the road off the trail, this was nice for my feet, this was Eastbourne, Yesss! One last check of the watch... loads of time... the two ladies came back past us as we had a walk break, we could see the sports ground from here in the distance, we discussed that we should let the ladies have a gap to let them have their moment and not finish too close. Alan switched on his go pro video cam and started commentating on our finish, I felt like we were on telly, he asked if I wanted to say something. I said something. It was probably gibberish.
Then I saw the sports ground, then I saw Sarah, then we felt great, and we discussed a sprint finish... we didn’t, but we finished strong and ran that 400m lap of the track pretty hard, and it felt really good. 23hours and 33minutes was the time. I don’t know what we were worried about. Almost half an hour inside!!
James Elson (the Centurion race RD) shook our hands and presented us with our buckles, hugs, photos and congratulaitons all round. This is about as good as I’ve felt after a long race... what a bonus, finishing within 24hrs and feeling good too.
So I’m writing this a week later, and I’m about to go to bed. Last week I still had 6 hours of running left. I deserve a rest, I’m glad it’s not last week.... but actually... the post race blues means part of me wishes I was out there again, it’s insane... but it really is true... the pain is temporary, you soon forget that bit, the pride lasts forever (and so does a buckle), proud to have run with, and met, some hard as nails and lovely people, proud to be supported by such a star solo crew as Sarah and proud to represent Lliswerry Runners!
Until the next one.....................Western States?