Race Report: South Downs Way 100
100 miles, 12,700 feet of elevation, 305 starters, 223 finishers, 15,000 calories burnt. 26hrs 58min on feet.
Training had gone well, very well in fact. Following my own 4-month build, peak and taper training plan I was good to go. Kit was packed, checked, re-packed, re-checked. I still managed to leave my favourite baselayer at home! Travelling down to Winchester with Liz on the Friday evening I felt a healthy level of nerves and excitement but remained focused on getting through the kit check and number collection rituals. Centurion’s slick registration process saw me arrive at Chilcomb Sports Ground (basically a field just east of the M3 and Winchester) at around 7pm and sat in the local The Black Boy pub with a pint by just after half past. I was so focused on the job in hand that I barely noticed fellow club runner and great friend Shaun Good (and Alfie the cockerpoo) had rocked up at the start, set up camp and subsequently supported me through the night on my ‘adventure’. A quick pint and bowl of chips for those last few carbs and I was heading back to the travelodge for some kip. Laid out the kit, number attached to shorts, racevest organised and set about a few hours sleep. I generally sleep quite well before my bigger races and I put this down to the hours of planning and preparation that goes into them beforehand. I was relaxed, quietly confident but respectful at the size of the task in hand. It was all going so well.
The 4.15 alarm allowed me time for my standard porridge pot, banana, beetroot shot combo. A fairly grim mix but routine now so I’m not changing. After a 10 minute drive to the start, Shaun and Alfie met us bright and early following a wrestling match with his pop-up tent (shame they don’t do pop-down versions 🙂). The air was filled with nervous tension. It seems that even for these seasoned ultra-runners I was lining up with, the sense of what’s to come is really tangible. I was happy in my blissful ignorance. A quick coffee, couple of start-line photos and I was good to go. Dare I say excited and surprisingly relaxed. I always say to people how much I enjoy training for a purpose. My purpose had arrived and there is no way I was going to let the 100 miles and thousands of feet of hill-climbing ahead of me diminish my enjoyment of the big one. I exchanged pleasantries with a few strangers and also someone we recognised from last year’s SVP100. Small world.
On with the run and it was a comical stop/start lap of the sports ground (field) and out onto the South Downs Way proper. A photographer popped up beside a hedge so I made sure my gait and posture were all present and correct. So staged and so the resultant photo proved. My race strategy was to run checkpoint (CP) to checkpoint. I set myself 2 targets. One was to go sub-24 and the other to get to the finish inside the 30-hour cut-off.
Just a few miles in and I recognised a small teddy bear mascot on someone’s backpack. I took a punt “Dom!” I hailed. The bear’s owner turned around and gave me a “who the fuck are you?” Kind of look. For the record, Dom was a guy who was active on one of the facebook SDW100 groups, the previous night he had put up a post about his mascot being ready and oddly I recognised it, didn’t have a clue who he was mind. We exchanged some pleasantries and a few miles together. He was a seasoned marathon runner from Manchester. I gave him some stick about being a ‘Manc’ but acknowledged he should kill these hills coming from up north. I left him for a while as he was feeling a touch nauseous. Dom would be one of many people I met on this journey, all with their own story to tell. A guy from Durban wearing a comrades T-shirt, obviously I told him about the three FRR amigos over there that very weekend. I bumped into Mel who was also doing her first 100 and also did SVP100 last year when I did, she was another I had to pass (temporarily I might add) as she stopped due to sickness. I was starting to fret that it was my turn for the dreaded gut-bomb next 🤢.
The checkpoints came and went, the first one, Beacon Hill Beeches, was 10 miles away. As it was still quite cool I was able to grab minimal food and just refill my water bottle and move on quickly. Settling into a rhythm I reached the next CP 13 miles away so a good section to get stuck into some miles. CP2, Queen Elizabeth Park was the first where the crew were able to meet me, 23 miles in. I was 1 minute under my projected sub-24 pace time. Bang on! I felt good, stuffed my face as I knew it was a slow hike, 2 ½ hours’ worth to follow, so food had time to settle.
It all pretty much went to plan to about 45 miles. The humidity of the mid-afternoon was starting to tell. I emptied 2 litres of fluid between a 10-mile gap between checkpoints. Several people around me were feeling the pinch. At 50 miles I made the call the revert to plan B – get this thing done inside 30 hours. I immediately felt at ease. I was pleased with my clarity of thought 11 hours in. It turned out to be the best call I would make all day.
Just shy of the first bag drop CP, 54 miles in, were a group of centurion crew parked by the side of the road waiting for their runners to come by. One of them, a pretty blonde I might add 🙂, recognised me from SVP – Mels’ friend. This was the same girl Shaun Good and I followed off course at said SVP and I was quick to remind her of her crap navigation skills. By way of recompense she offered me a watermelon flavoured ice-cream from her car which I gleefully accepted. It was melting and dripping like a b*stard, but my god it was heaven! I thanked her, not forgetting to tell her that she was also a crap ice-cream seller. She saw the funny side and waved me on my way.
So to drop bag 1 CP, 54 miles in and almost 6pm. Slightly behind my 24hr pace but I had already made the call to ditch that plan so set about organising myself for the evening and night sections. I decided against grabbing the poles I had stashed in my bag, figured I’d managed this far without them. I stuck a long-sleeved baselayer in my backpack for later – it was still way too warm out there. Liz was on hand to offer me a fig roll which had now become an ongoing in-joke. She had 2 jobs. To take some photos and greet me with a hug. Fig rolls just weren’t required. My son George had turned up at this point and proved to be quite the adept crew member. He passed my massage stick and went off to get my pasta, Shaun grabbed me a coffee whilst I did a full refill of my water and Tailwind, I restocked my bag with boiled potatoes, flapjack and you guessed it, fig rolls. I took a plateful of food and sat outside with the guys for a bit whilst I wolfed my food down. Cracking checkpoint and really good to see everyone. Mel came through around the same time but left sharpish – I was still eating. At one point Liz gave me a knowing look I think asking if I was okay, “fucking long way aint it?!” I exclaimed. “Yes, it is”. I smiled wryly to myself – I was past halfway but as so many far more experienced ultra-runners had mentioned, my race had only just begun. I wouldn’t see my crew again until four in the morning.
On departing Washington, up the same incline we had to descend to get to it, I met Dom coming the other way. Poor bastard looked broken. I gave him a big Top Gun style handshake and a gee up, “come on Dom, hang in there, you’ve got this!”. I never saw him again after this but on checking the results and chatting the following day on facebook, he made it inside the cut-off. He was ready to pull out at 54 miles and ended up doing 100 – legend right there.
A long uphill hike ensued. Plenty of time to get set for the night shift and let food settle. Botolph’s came and went. Damn, left my ipod in my drop bag. I didn’t dwell on it. A swift checkpoint and then a really good section before dusk that was one of the only non-hilly sections, just gently undulating and I was able to clock some (relatively) quick miles. Dusk was fast approaching and a slight chill crept in on the ridge. Still mild enough for short-sleeves. After Devil’s Dyke CP I spent a few miles with a young bloke who was arranging to meet up with his pacer, a mate from back home (Brighton). I left him at the crew point and bumped into him again at the very next CP – Saddlescombe Farm. His friend had been with him for 1 mile and insisted on needing a coffee. Very amusing. This was a memorable CP. It was around midnight, spirits were high. The ladies running it had set up fairy lights and were really proactive in helping to fill coffee cups and so on. They had made lovely peanut butter and jam wraps. Exactly two thirds of the way in, further than I’d ever run before and things were going almost too well. Following the tea lights up the exit hill set up by the ladies, I was on my way in good spirits. The first signs of fatigue and wheels coming loose were literally only a few miles away.
A couple of miles later I bumped into a guy on his phone trying to contact a friend. I checked he was okay, he insisted he was and explained that his friend was picking up some sandwiches from the local BP garage, oddly he also said he was sick of eating sandwiches all day at the CPs. I figured he was losing the plot. His friend got hold of him and said he would run up the hill and meet him. This was all very odd – there were loads of different hill options from the garage we could see down below, not to mention a dual carriage way to cross. I was keen to get out of this situation – I wasn’t going to let someone else’s balls-up take me off track. I told him to tell his mate to meet him at the garage. He said he would so I went on my way. Somewhat relieved. I spent a short while around here reading some messages many of my running friends and family had posted on social media, what made me really smile was how some of the wives had managed to turn it into the feel sorry for Liz (my wife) show! 🙂
I was one small hill from the next CP and somehow took my eye off the ball. Almost 22 hours in and for the first time I lost my concentration. I was on my own entering a wooded section. The reflective tape hanging from random branches that my headtorch had guided my way for the previous 4 hours became a conundrum. There was tape up the slope and down to the left. Shit! Where had I gone wrong?! I decided to go up – no more tape. Damn! I went back down the hill to my start point. Think! Think! OK, check the map on my watch. Shit! The woodland had screwed the GPS signal. My tracker showed I had been walking in circles and went off route a mile back. The twat with the sandwiches maybe? OK must be up the slope further? NO, no. OK I went down to the left and out of the woods. Checked my tracker. I was back on course, phew! But then I saw headtorches coming towards me. I never gave it a second thought. Judging by their numbers they were running the same event as me. “You OK?” One guy asked “yeah, why?” “where you going?” “fucking Eastbourne I hope!” Was my response. “You’re going the wrong way”, “I can’t be, I’ve just come from the woods!” Was my reply. He was like “whatever you think” and carried on. I still couldn’t fathom that I was going in the WRONG direction. I latched back onto the other runner and he did enough to convince me he knew what he was talking about, “this is the third time I’ve done it”. Right, I’m following you then mate. Back through the woods, I knew the next CP was close by. Physically I was good, mentally I was having a, moment. The guy I was with was in a bit of trouble, ironically, I said I’d see him through to the next CP where he could gather himself. Later he was taken back to the finish in the sweeper bus.
On reaching the CP, Housedean Farm, I was greeted by a barn full of tractors, an eerie atmosphere and the paramedic in full swing. He was tending to a young lady drifting in and out of consciousness. He sent for back up, she was off to hospital. Another guy was on a deckchair in the corner wrapped in large blanket shivering away, hyperthermia? Game over for him. I took myself out of the way. I had to gather myself and I was in a scene from Holby City. I did some stretches on a tractor wheel and set about sorting my gear out. I put a baselayer on and spent 20-minutes figuring out how to fill my water bottle. I grabbed a coffee and had now somehow lost my headtorch. Jesus. Work brain, WORK! The checkpoint crew had picked up my torch 10 minutes ago. I took a seat for a while just to chill a little. The guy next to me started to have a fit. Great. I was now looking after a casualty. Once he came round I made it my business to get going. I felt a bit more with it and headed off. I latched onto a couple of club runners. I only had a couple more hours of darkness to contend with and spent it in the company of a couple of lovely people. Nicky, the female runner had been pacing Matt who struggling with a calf injury. She would run ahead and open the gates – bonus! This meant we didn’t have to break stride. 80 miles in this was good. I had loads of banter with both of them and the section to the next CP went quickly.
At Southease CP Nicky and Matt kept going as I stopped for a chat with Liz, George and Shaun. The 3 legends had come to greet me at 4 in the morning. A great lift and despite the 3 big climbs remaining, barring disasters I knew it was in the bag. Another quick coffee, a going-over with the massage stick, a hug and a photo from the wife and water refill and I was away. Buoyed by the sunrise the final 15 miles went without a hitch. I deliberately took my time. Enjoyed the moment.
The final tricky descent into Eastbourne gave me time to plot my ‘victory’ lap, a 400m circuit of the running track at Eastbourne athletics ground. I was keen to have the track to myself so managed a short sprint to get past two slow-moving runners up ahead. Once again, my loyal supporters were at the entrance to cheer me round in a time just shy of 27 hours. Obligatory photos and buckle presentation followed. A quick shower and I made for the hot dog stand. Mission complete. Mel was trackside having finished over an hour ahead of me. She was fast asleep!
My overriding thoughts? With the right plan and mental application, I would say most club runners could complete a 100-mile challenge. I’m not talented by any stretch but I do play to my strengths. These things hurt before you’re halfway in. If you’re prepared for that, play the percentage game by controlling as many elements that you can, then I’d say you’re in with a shout. The wheels might come off next time, but for now I’ll enjoy the result and start planning my next adventure. Massive thanks to Liz, George, Shaun and Alfie who backed me almost as much as I backed myself.