South Downs Way 100

So, South Downs Way 100 day finally arrived.  After 6 months of basing our lives around this race (over 1,200k of training, 2 x 50 milers, 1 x 44 miler, 4 x marathons later), we were on the start line.

James starts the race briefing right on time, commenting on how the forecast poor weather hadn’t materialised and that the conditions were near perfect.  The usual questions are asked.  Who’s running their first Centurion race?  Lots of hands go up.  Who’s doing their first 100 miler?  Again, lots of hands go up.  Who’s running their 64th 100 miler?  Yes, 64.  Amazing.  And after the final message telling us to look after each other, we set off on the longest of adventures so far.

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The start of the race is lap of the park and it’s lovely to chat with the lovely Rachel Hessom, whose video from the TP100 really gave us an incite into the different stages of a 100 mile race.

Before I go any further, there was a plan.  Get to half way in 12 hours and then we have the ‘luxury’ of being able to walk the second half if need be and still get in under cut off.  More than ever before, it was important to follow the plan.  You can wing a 10k, half marathon and maybe even a marathon by setting off a bit to quickly.  That’s not going to work with 100 miles.

The first section in my plan is from Winchester to Queen Elizabeth Country Park.  A total of 22.6 miles punctuated with 1 aid station at just under 10 miles.  It sets the tone for the whole race.  Constant hills, not much flat.  Difficult to get into any rhythm and increasingly warm.  It is also beautiful.  Neither Nick nor I had running any of the first 46 miles, which made it even more lovely.

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We entered QECP with just 20 miles on the watches and it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right.  We had put the Suunto’s on the 100 hour battery setting, but this has the inevitable negative effect on accuracy.  The battery life was incredible.  Only 30% used over the duration of the race, but it only measured under 96 miles.  The result is that we got to QECP too quickly.  The pace was correct according to the watches, but we had travelled further than expected.

We took time at the aid station to sit down, eat some food, check that the feet were OK, have a chat with the crew and then set off.

The second section of my race plan was QECP to Chantry Post at 51 miles.

2 things were obvious.  We were too quick and had to slow down and it was getting hot.  The section out of QECP was wooded and really warm.  We walked the whole section and successfully got the plan back on track.  A lot of people were struggling in the heat, but we managed to deal with it, hydrating well and strangling the pace back, adapting to the watch showing the wrong distance travelled.

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The countryside was still amazing and we seemed to be going along pretty well.  The aid stations and crew points are more frequent in this section and they prove to be a great morale boost.  We took on plenty of food, water and sun block.  We were still pretty close together, which helped as well.  I always worry about Nick on races.  I want her to do well and I couldn’t bare the thought of me bringing home the buckle and her not.  As long as she was in front of me or with me, I knew everything was OK.

Nick had the word ‘Smile’ written down her arm and we promised to each other that we’d enjoy this as much as we could for as long as we could.  These 2 photos are of me leaving the Cocking aid/crew station at 35 miles.  These are not forced smiles for the camera.  I truly loved it.

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From Cocking to Chantry Post there was another 15 miles to go.  The weather was still really hot, but we were comfortable and in control.  Nick’s crew saw us for the first time before the total bitch of a hill just after Amberley, which was a timely boost as well.

Not long until half way, we’re back on familiar territory, we’re bang on schedule and we bump into Jon Lavis just before the aid station at Kithurst Hill.  He was, of course, armed with his camera.

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A quick hello at the aid station and we’re off for another mile to the crew point at Chantry Post and 51 miles.  This is a huge point for many reasons.  It’s over half way.  We’re on home turf and we have run all of the rest of the race on several occasions.  We are so on target it’s bizarre.  We had planned on arriving at 50 miles in 12 hours 1 minute.  We were a minute outside that.  We were in a very good state.  I had a couple of slight hot spots on my feet, which were tended to and strapped up before we left.  Finally, from now on we had a pacer each.  The crews had been amazing so far and now their support as pacers was going to be priceless.  This is where the race really starts.

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The next section is from Chantry Post to Ditchling Beacon.  22 miles with my pacer Stephen.  We dropped into Washington and checked into the aid station before the long slog up to Chanctonbury Ring.  This is not before we had a cup of coffee in a china cup at the aid station.  You’ve got to make the most of the luxury while you can.

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I can honestly say that I really struggled with the climb.  It was still really hot and this climb is long and tough.  It’s all part of the process though and we know that there is a huge downhill section afterwards.

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I love Chanctonbury Ring so much and I have never been so happy to see it as now.

The descent into the aid station at Botolph’s was one of my favourite parts of the race.  I was still stronger than expected.  Still running fine, although protecting my knee on the serious down hills, and having a proper chat all the way.  I met my pacer Stephen through parkrun.  I have met so many lovely people on Saturday mornings and I can honestly say that none are kinder and warmer than Stephen.  We chatted about motivations for running, why the hell you’d want to run 100 miles and why we decided to set up parkrun.

This is what I carried with me all the way.  I looked at it a lot and it pushed me along.  It symbolises the journey that I have been on to make my mental health a happier place.  If I can beat 100 miles, I can beat anything.

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So, Botolph’s comes round, the sun is going down, Truleigh Hill is looming and I get a lovely big hug from Sarah at the aid station.  Then Tom makes me the best cup of coffee ever.  A lift from the Sawyer family is just what we need before the slog over to Devil’s Dyke.

I can’t believe that I was still running up the section to the youth hostel before Devil’s Dyke.  It just felt right and I was quicker jogging up hill while protecting my knee on the way down.

The head torches go on and we’re soon as the crew point at the Dyke, where several of our club had gathered.  Thank you so much.  Another huge boost.

We didn’t stick around there for too long.  Just enough time for some food and to clean my teeth (washing your mouth out with orange juice is not a good idea by the way).

The last part of this section is Newtimber Hill and the climb past the golf course to Ditchling Beacon, the highest part of the South Downs Way.  The aid station at Saddlescombe was great.  At 66.6 miles, they all had devil horns on.  Great food, advice and some serious encouragement.

The last 5 miles over to the Beacon was not as bad as I thought.  Still running certain sections and ready to tackle the night time slog.

There was still time to have a picture in front of one of my favourite trees.  The dew pond near the Beacon must be one of the most photographed parts of the SDW and even though you can hardly see the tree or the pond, I know they’re there.

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So, that’s 72 miles gone.  Time is not a pressure now.  As long as nothing falls off, I’ll get home under cut off even if I walk the rest of the way.  We leave Stephen at Ditchling and Steve and I head off into the dark.  Steve was just what I needed.  It was the early hours of the morning, I wanted to go to sleep, my body was starting to hurt and Steve’s boundless enthusiasm just picked me up a treat.

We just kept going.  Yes, there was a good bit of walking, but we were running a lot as well and cut off was never a consideration.

After the wonderful aid station at Housedean the hills after the A27 crossing seemed to fly by.  The sky larks started to sing and the sunrise came round.

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The last 2 miles into the Southease aid/crew station are tough, with a steep down hill, which my knee greeted with a groan of pain.

And there it was, well worth going through the night to be greeted by this sunrise.

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After a quick sit down, some food and a hot drink, we headed up Firle Beacon and soon ticked off Bo Peep before heading down into Alfriston, where the aid station is in a lovely old church in the middle of the village.

There were 2 climbs left, which held little fear at this stage.  It was the down hills that concerned me.  My knee had finally decided that was it.  We went up the hill out of Alfriston with Nick and her pacer Karen, but they lost us on the descent into Jevington, as I protected the knee.  They waited to climb out of Jevington with us, but again went away on the descent into Eastbourne.

I swear that if he could have, Steve would have cleared every tree root, twig and leaf out of the way through the ‘gully of death’ down into Eastbourne.

Nick walked around that last section to the finish and I ran to catch her up.  On seeing the track for the last 300 metres, fittingly she went in front with her pacers and brought our family home.

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Of all of the photos from the weekend, these are the ones that fill me with the most joy.  This lady went from couch to 100 miles in 5 years.  If ever there was a #thisgirlcan here it is.  Proud doesn’t even start to cover it.

It was then my turn.  Doing the last lap with these 2 finished it off perfectly for me.

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And that was it.  The ‘a’ target was 28 hours 30 mins and the ‘b’ target was cut off (30 hours).  To get both of us home in 27 hours 20 minutes is well beyond our wildest dreams.

We are a 2 buckle house.  I had hoped, but wasn’t expecting both of us to get there.

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A few thank you’s are in order.

To James and the Centurion crew and volunteers, words can’t describe how good you are.  The aid stations were not only so well stocked, the volunteers were incredibly attentive, friendly and above all knowledgeable.  It seemed that there was always at several Centurion veterans there to help, advise and kick you out of the aid station if you hung around for too long.

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To our crew/pacers and friends who were out on the course with us, you don’t know how much you helped.  Our crew could not have been better.  We shared something that will be ours forever.

To our fellows runners, you are amazing.  To the front runners, what the hell?   Those times are just ridiculous and you don’t get the credit you deserve.  To the slower guys, you are pushing the boundaries of what is achievable.  Thank you for your encouragement and company.

Finally, my inspirations.  Jan and Steve sowed that seeds of this around 4 or 5 years ago with their Centurion and L2B exploits.  Philippe taught us huge amounts over the past 2 years by inviting us to pace and crew for him.  If you are thinking about stepping up in distance to 100 miles, I would suggest pacing, crewing, seeking advice from people how have been there, read blogs, volunteering and surrounding yourself with positive people.

In the 5 days since we have finished, we have gone from ‘there’s no way we will do anther 100 miler’ to ‘which one is the next one then?’.

The Centurion t-shirt collection is growing.  It would be a pity to leave it there, wouldn’t it?

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Whatever happens, we are finally Centurions.  And these buckles mean the world.

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Take care and see you soon.

Neil x

#poweredbyplants

 

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