South Downs Way 100 – Crewing and pacing

I have followed the Centurion events over the past few years.  It’s always been a temptation to take part.  Nick and I went up to support at mile 60 on the North Downs Way 100 last year and I have followed the times of people I know on the very impressive live updates website.

This weekend our involvement took on a greater significance.  Nick and I were to crew and pace for first time 100 miler and Burgess Hill Runners very own Philippe Ecaille.

So, here’s the deal.  We meet him at half way (well 51 miles in if we’re going to be totally accurate) and then Nick does the 21 miles to Ditchling Beacon, then I take over for the 28 miles to the end.  We would also meet Philippe and the pacer at 7 crew stations between half way and the finish.

I have only been writing about my races.  The reason why I write is to remind me how things went, to look back fondly on achievements and also to help others when they decide if a race is suitable for them or not.

This is obviously totally different. The day (and night) (then day again) was all about Philippe and helping to get him to the finish line and to get him the sub 30 hours finishers buckle.

On the surface, the job of crewing for a runner looks easy.

  1. Get in car
  2. Drive car to checkpoint
  3. Get relevant stuff out of car
  4. Repeat

Well it soon became obvious that it’s much more than that.

First of all, you can’t miss your runner.  The implications are terrible.  The runner will miss out on what they need and the mental effect of not seeing you would be pretty bad.  So, taking this into account, we arrive at Chantry Post (51 miles) about 2 hours before Philippe arrives.  Well, you can’t be too careful can you?  We were a bit too early and he was a little slower than we’d expect.  So, what to do for 2 hours?  Cheer the runners through, talk to other crew and supporters and eat, that’s what.

The scene at mile 51 is bizarre.  It’s lovely for a start.  It’s an isolated car park and that’s it.  There is a great view west from the car park and you can see runners coming down from around a mile away.

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It’s a bizarre experience. It’s over half way. That’s a great thing. But there’s still 49 miles left. That’s not so good. Some people look ok, some are not so good. Some people can hardly muster the energy to thank you for the support. It’s not great that there’s an uphill section out of the car park, which does nothing for their sense of humour.

I can only equate the state of the runners to mile 23 of a mass participation marathon. There is a huge range of physical and mental states.  Some fine, big smiles, some forcing smiles, some talk, some don’t and some look like they’re already on the march of the dead. The difference between this and mile 23 of the Brighton Marathon, for example, is that they’ve still got 2 back to back marathons to go.

So our man arrives. He’s a bit behind schedule, but he’d suffered with the heat early on and had a few blisters. We had been pretty concerned for him, but he was happy to see us and was keen to move on.

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So, off they went towards Botolphs and I jumped into the car onto the next crewing area.  It’s 9 miles for the runners and a 15 minute driver for me.  He’s going at around 17 minute miles and he’s got to change clothes at the bag drop at Washington, so I’ve got nearly 3 hours to kill. Luckily, there’s a game of football on the radio, fellow crew to talk to, runners to cheer on and food to eat.

The view from Botolphs village back toward Chanctonbury Ring is lovely, especially at dusk.

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They arrive at 61 miles and he looks no different from 10 miles ago.  That’s good.  He’s eating well and drinking as well.  They don’t hang about and head off towards Truleigh Hill.  That’s going to be a tester.

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Next stop Devil’s Dyke. It’s only 5 more miles for the runners, but they’re tough. The sun is going down and the temperature is starting to drop.

The view back from Devil’s Dyke is fantastic and as the sun goes down we could see the head lamps of the runners winding their way towards us.  I had started to get to know some of the crews who were there and we’d actually run quite a few of the same races, so time actually flew by.

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They were out there somewhere. Each time a set of headlamps got close, each of the crews were hoping that it was their runner.

And finally mine arrived.

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It was now getting really cold and I was glad that I made the last minute decision to throw in lots of really warm clothes.

They hardly stopped at Devil’s Dyke. Straight over the road, down the hill, over Newtimber Hill, through Pyecombe, past the Jack and Jill windmills and over to Ditchling Beacon (the highest point on the South Downs Way), where I was waiting to take over the pacing duties.

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I don’t like the dark, by the way. When I was younger, my mates used to walk me home from the pub. It’s got a bit better, but I’m still not comfortable with it.  I was looking forward to getting out there and conquering this fear. Luckily, I had stopped at a petrol station on the way to make sure that everything was were it should be in the car, as it was so dark up there.

They arrived at around 1 am.  I had expected to be away from there earlier, but the schedule had changed.  So, as my time crewing came to an end, my time as pacer began.

I was a bit nervous about it.  How do I deal with it?  Will I talk too much?  I usually do.  Will I just babble on like a nervous teenager on a first date?  Well, it appears that I did, for a start at least, but there you go.  That’s no worse than pointing your head lamp into the eyes of the runners.  Oh yeah, I did that as well (but only to start with).

The plan was to walk all the way from here. I had to get my head round that to start with. It was going to be pushing 10 hours, but the most important thing was that sub 30 hour medal.  That’s all that mattered now.

So off we went.  Nick had a 30 minute drive and we were going to take around 4 hours to get to Southease, which was the next crew station.

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I have to say that I really loved this. There is an amazing sense of liberation of being out in the countryside in the middle of the night with next to no-one around.  We went through fields of sheep and cows who were fast asleep. Well, they were until we woke them up (the mixture of my voice and shining headlamps into their faces saw to that).

It’s a bizarre feeling running or walking in the dark.  Even though we know the area well, the hills felt less steep in the dark and it was also really easy to get disorientated.

Navigation was really easy.  There was only one section where we were concerned.  We hadn’t seen any of the reassuring haz tape for a while and the half a dozen of us who were all close to each other had a bit of a moment.  It was a worry for me and I’d only done 10 miles.  Getting lost and having to retrace your steps at 80 miles + would be a disaster.

I offered to run off and check for the next sign that we were on the right course to save the runners legs.  We were fine.  Phew.  I think that the runners around us thought I was mental.  I was holding the gate open for all of them then running back to the front of the group to be with Philippe.  Only when I mentioned that I wasn’t actually in the race did the penny drop.

The sun started to come up.  Well, actually, the first sign of the new day was the call of the skylarks.  They were up well before sunrise.  They were quite amazing.

We didn’t get the sunrise I was hoping for, as it was cloudy, but slowly and surely it got brighter.  I could feel Philippe’s mood improve with the arrival of the sun, which was great. This, along with the sound of the sky larks drowning out Philippe’s periodic soggy farts, made the world a better place.

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At this stage Philippe was really struggling with the downhills.  We were much quicker up the hills, but were still on track for sub-30 with 20 minute miles.

Before the next aid station at Southease there was a really steep descent.  It was about half a mile, but our speed dropped dramatically as Philippe painfully made his way down the hill, mainly zig zagging so that he wasn’t heading vertically downwards.

Seeing Southease was great. This is the view as you approach the aid station. We know that hill well. It’s a bastard.

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The aid station is bizarre.  There’s runners asleep on deck chairs.  I can’t imagine falling asleep on a run, whatever the distance.  I don’t know if these people got out of this aid station, but they all looked pretty content to be unconscious.  Talking of unconsciousness, Nick had managed to get a couple of hours sleep and was up and ready for us, full of enthusiasm, which is exactly what we needed.

It’s more or less a 200m climb up to Firle Beacon. It’s tough, but at 84 miles, it’s amazingly tough.

I let Philippe go before me and I stayed to have a few minutes with Nick before I left.  He was nearly at the top of the really steep bit when I caught him.  I was so impressed.  I had never doubted that he’d get to the end, but this proved it beyond all doubt.  He was powering up those hills.

So we go past Firle Beacon and onto Bo Peep.  Nick was at both locations with a smile and some encouragement.

Philippe was looking strong, although in a bit of pain.  I must admit that I was starting to hurt a bit.  I’d been walking for over 7 hours and my back was starting to feel it.

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Bo Peep is the last time we’ll see Nick before the end.  Her crewing duties are over.

We head through Alfriston and Jevington. They are 2 beautiful villages and I haven’t run around that area before.  It’s all new territory for me.  And what wonderful territory it is.

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It’s really hilly, but he’s loving going up the hills, so we’re making great progress.

But then there’s the sting in the tail (well the first of 2 stings in the tail).

Firstly you have to come off the South Downs Way. This comes in the form of a thin chalk path which is steep enough to be uncomfortable on an afternoon walk.  To put this at mile 98 is just cruel.  We got to the bottom. My athlete winced all the way down. It has to be said that he didn’t moan though. To be fair, he hardly moaned at all. Not sure I would have been the same.

So, sting number 2.  You have to get to the running track where the finish is, which is via a mile and a half lap of the Eastbourne ring road.  They’ve got a make the distance up to 100 miles and I guess that the fact that we were walking made it seem longer.

So there we are, we enter the track.  Nick’s there waiting for us and we do the lap of honor together.

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He got home well under the 30 hour mark and our job as crew, pacers and support was done.

I’ve only known Philippe for around 18 months, but had grown to have lots of respect for him.  The way that he tackled the SDW100 and the heavy training schedule through some tough times is a mark of how strong he is.  Top work man.  Total respect.

There’s one more question that I’ve been asking myself for the past 12 months or so.  Will I do a 100 mile race?  At the moment, the answer is ‘no’.  However, I would love to do a Centurion race.  These people a brilliant.  So it’s either the SDW50 or NDW50 for me at some stage.

In short, crewing and pacing on this type of event is brilliant.  It’s not easy at all.  I’m broken today.  Totally shatter and really aching.  I can’t imagine how the runners are.

Take care folks.  Next for me, the Dorset Invader Marathon.

Much love, Neil.

 

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