Sunday 1st July was my birthday. I wanted to celebrate it with style: I thought, “If I’m 70 miles into a 100 mile run, in the dark, somewhere up on the South Downs – tired, footsore and possibly worse – as I see in the big day, what could be better?” So it was that sometime last autumn I got my entry in for the Centurion Running South Downs Way 100, which was to be my main project for 2012, before I’d thought of doing the London Marathon in a ‘good’ time for Excellent.
Once I’d got my London entry in, I had to abandon most of my ‘ultra’ training before 22nd April, concentrating instead on ‘normal’ endurance training and speed. I had five long ultras (85+ miles) under my belt, including one of 104 miles (the LDWA 2010 Heart of Scotland 100). I thought that, together with good general endurance fitness, the experience these events gave me would get me through 100 miles, so I wasn’t too worried.
The race follows almost all of the South Downs Way (SDW) west to east. The first 1.5 miles coming out of Winchester is omitted and it diverts from last section to finish in a different part of Eastbourne, as neither end of the national trail would make a good race start or finish venue!
The only occasions I’ve previously spent much time on the SDW have been running: as a team member in the 2007 Oxfam Trailwalker (100km) and on the LDWA 2009 Wessex 100 (which I didn’t finish). I had memories of glorious views across the Weald and ranks of wooded hills.
Two other members of my club, Chippenham Harriers were doing the race too: Ian Trussler, my regular partner in crime on many of my silly endeavours, and Dave Jones, another special needs runner. I’d persuaded them to do it ‘with me’, although actually they were going to do it together and I was hoping to complete it faster than them. ‘Sub 24’ is a good benchmark time for a ‘100’, so that was my aim, whereas Ian and Dave, who had not run 100 before, were looking for a finish without a particular time target.
Thoughts of glorious views weren’t coming to mind when I stood in Chilcomb Sports Ground, near Winchester, waiting for the start of the race at 06:00, 30th June. A stiff breeze blew light rain onto the competitors and grey clouds streamed past, with no gaps for blue sky or sun, although it felt mild.
The first part of the race was on part of the SDW I’d never been on before. We ran through various wooded or tree overhung sections, which were muddy in places, but the trail must drain well because it wasn’t that bad considering the awful summer we’d been having. The light rain turned into a heavy shower for about 15 minutes. When you just want to push on, it requires discipline to stop and put a waterproof on, but it’s usually worth bothering, as it was then.
As I often do in these events, I fell in with a couple of other runners who were going at my pace, we chatted, and the time passed quickly. I have David Pryce and Rich Fuller to thank for making that first section such a blast. We reached the first checkpoint (referred to as ‘aid stations’ in Centurion Running races), 9.85 miles from the start, in 1:35, a surprisingly quick time. We were well inside 20hr, let alone 25hr pace, although of course we anticipated slowing down a lot as the race progressed. I didn’t feel like we’d pushed ourselves that hard, so I didn’t fret over it.
I stayed with David and Rich for most of the first quarter of the race. They both seemed a little stronger than me and were just pushing my pace slightly. I knew that sooner or later they would drop me. Sometimes in these situations I’ll just tell the stronger runner to get on and leave me so I’m not cramping their style, then slow a little. In this case I dove off into the woods to use the facilities and didn’t rush to get back on the trail. I hoped my confidence in their strength was right and they would keep on ahead of me to a good finish.
The weather had picked up and the views were indeed glorious from the long escarpments, typical of the SDW, that I had been running on since Aid Station 2, 22.6 miles, at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The ‘hot food’ aid station at Washington, 54 miles was ‘only’ about a marathon away. I keep myself going, even in shorter races, by dividing the race up into ‘chunks’ in my mind, and ‘ticking each one off’ as I do it. There are 13 aid stations in total on the SDW100, Washington being number 7, so I had a few smaller chunks to do, then hot food and the satisfaction of being over half-way to look forward to.
I had a hot dog at Washington, which was great, although I’d eaten rather well at all the aid stations (I’ve never eaten so many mini pork pies), so I wasn’t desperately hungry. I was pleased that my appetite had remained strong, as running for a long time can upset the stomach or at least dull the appetite; obviously not good when you need all the calories you can get. I had a good break, chatting to Cath (my wife) on my mobile whilst sat on the side of the Washington village sports field. It took a few minutes to get my legs going properly when I set off again, but it wasn’t too bad: I’d noticed that I wasn’t having too much trouble getting going again after any of the aid stations, even after sitting, which can be deadly.
The rest of Saturday daytime slid by. By now I was running on my own quite a lot. I got rather warm in the sun on the sheltered stretches, then a little cold in the more exposed places. Although it was dry and bright, the air was fresh compared to the early morning, when I’d quickly got too hot despite the light rain and breeze. It was about as good for running as June gets.
Twilight came, and it cooled quite quickly. By the time I arrived at Aid Station 10, 69.8 miles, at Clayton Windmills (known as ‘Jack and Jill’), it was getting pretty dim. I was really pleased to have done over 2/3 of the race before dark. I had 8 1/2 hours to do ‘only’ 30 miles if I wanted to meet my 24hr target, which seemed eminently doable, barring a big mishap.
I became part of an ‘intrepid trio’ again during the night section. This time I have Ian Holdcroft and Luke Carmichael to thank for good company. I am a strong hill runner (compared to ‘club’, rather than ‘fell’ runners), which allowed us to be remarkably evenly matched overall: Ian and Luke tended to pull away from me on the level sections, but I would catch them on the climbs.
We separated when I developed pain across the top of my left foot at about 85 miles. My Merrell Trail Glove ‘barefoot’ shoes have a precise fit, with little ‘give’ in the uppers. This is great for ‘technical’ (uneven, rocky, steep) trails and stops me getting blisters, but they are very unforgiving if fastened too tight. My guess is that I’d fastened them just a little too tight, and they’d taken 18-19 hours to ‘let me know’, but after 85 miles maybe my foot had just had enough! I did my “No, you go on” thing, letting them go and spending 5 minutes carefully re-fitting the shoe, although there was no way the foot wasn’t going to hurt for the rest of the run. A couple of groups of runners passed me as I sorted my foot. At first the looser shoe made it worse, probably because of the blood flowing properly again.
Somewhere before Aid Station 13, 91.6 miles, at Alfriston, I bore right, following some other runners, who were 100m or so ahead of me, down what seemed to be a major track, and lost the SDW! The track seemed a little undefined, but on its eastern stretches the SDW is often a short grass swathe between longer grass, so this didn’t alarm me too much. I was getting suspicious when the group I’d followed started to mill about a hundred yards ahead of me. This group were Ivan Sadler, Hannah Shields and Nicole Brown, all of whom I’d seen and chatted to earlier. They checked the route and used a compass to confirm we were on the wrong bearing: we shouldn’t have borne right. We trotted back to where we’d turned off and so confirmed we were back on track, having added a mile or so to our 100.
I stayed with Ivan, Hannah and Nicole over the rest of the high ground. Being in their group kept my motivation and therefore speed up, so we happily rattled across the dark, lonely downs. There was a steep technical descent to get into Alfriston, which made my left foot hurt anew. However, this is the sort of stuff I really love, even after 90 miles, so I hammered down, losing the other 3 in the process.
When I got into Alfriston Aid Station I was surprised to see Ian and Luke, who made the same mistake as us, but taken longer to correct it. I hooked back up with them and we set off for the last big climb of the race, onto Wilmington Hill. We had no thoughts of running it, but just got our heads down and strode up as briskly as we could manage.
We weren’t in any sort of mood to hang about at Jevington Aid Station, a mere 4.3 miles from the end. The climb out of Jevington came as a shock: we’d been warned about the ‘Alfriston’ climb, but this one was not that much easier. However, I knew it was shorter, and the finish was only 3 miles from the top, so I ran! A slow, plodding run, but a run all the same. I enjoyed getting my teeth into it and I knew it would test Ian and Luke, whom I pulled away from. I was sure they would easily outstrip me on the flat tarmac in Eastbourne in the last mile of the race, so I thought I should make them work to beat me.
At the top of the climb, the race leaves the SDW for good and follows Willingdon Bottom into Eastbourne. It was a really technical, narrow track, right in the crease of a steep-sided ‘V’ cut into the hillside woods. I hammered down this, figuring I could open up even more of a lead.
When I finally got into Eastbourne, suddenly on a residential road, I could see no sign of Ian and Luke. I was just plodding again, knowing that this last stretch would be a real grind. Eventually I saw the other two emerge at a junction I’d come out of a minute earlier: they were, indeed reeling me in. When they caught me, they started getting all polite, suggesting they would hold back for me, but I sent them on their way: it was a race, after all.
After what seemed like a long time, I turned into the grounds of Sussex Downs College. I ran surprisingly fast (in my mind, anyway) around the half of the athletics track we had to cover to get to the finish line at the far side. I’d done it: 100 miles in 22 hours, 47 minutes, 43 seconds. I had a bit of a lump in my throat and I let the feeling of euphoria and relief wash over me.
So that was it; I just had to try to get vaguely comfortable, and possibly have a sleep, until the bus came to take us back to the start at one o’clock. The showers in the sports centre next to the track were cold, so I just rinsed the worst of the dirt off my legs and got into my sleeping bag (it was in my finish ‘drop bag’)
I slept a little, but really wasn’t very comfortable. Boredom got me up and I decided to take a (very) leisurely walk to see if I could meet Ian Trussler and Dave Jones on their way in. I did see them, but I also met another runner who’d taken a wrong turn: it looked like some locals (probably ‘youths’) had moved some of the red and white tape that marked the course. I carried on away from the finish, and sure enough found pieces of tape tied to lamp posts on the street that would lead runners back away from the finish, which I removed. Luckily the tape for the right direction was still in place, and it was a more obvious route, so the other runners I’d met hadn’t even noticed the ‘rogue’ tape.
The final runner I met out in Eastbourne was Gary Butler. He had been having severe pain in his left foot since about 80 miles. He was making tortuous progress and I thought I’d better keep him company to the finish. We were passed be the other tail-enders and he finished, last and proud, in 29:51:06.
Dave Jones finished in 28:36:30 and Ian Trussler in 28:42:42. I was surprised to discover that Rich and David, my race buddies from early on, actually finished not very far behind me: Rich had got very lost; I wasn’t sure what happened to David.
Doing ‘100’ in less than ’24’ was a ‘benchmark’ achievement for me. I came away from the SDW100 pleased with my pacing and very pleased with my eating! I think a high proportion of savoury food (especially those blessed pork pies) helped here. I’ve gained more experience and am already wondering what my next long ultra should be.