If we were to have a bucket list of races, the South Downs Way 50 would be on it. It’s on our own turf, it’s a Centurion event and the original ultra runners in our club put this race on the map.
The build up has been a lot of back to back runs of around 2 hours and a sequence of marathons on consecutive weekends. I have to say that both Nick and I were in a pretty good place (apart from the odd wobble).
The race takes you from the Hill Barn Rec in Worthing to join the South Downs Way around Chanctonbury Ring and then over to Eastbourne along the SDW, with a little tour in Eastbourne to find the finish.
There are many hills between the start and the finish. 5700 feet of climb to be precise.
Race day came round and the sun came out to play. Not as strong as for the Brighton Marathon on the following day, but strong enough to cause problems (I’m burnt on the back of my legs, but luckily nowhere else).
The first section of the race up to Chanctonbury takes in Cissbury Ring with 2 long climbs and a lovely long downhill section. I started eating right from the off. Nuts, dried fruit, Nakd bars and Tailwind. I walked the big climbs and made the most of gravity when it was on our side. I am finding it a little disappointing that the steep, rutted chalk path up to Cissbury Ring has been repaired and made much easier to climb.
After Chanctonbury, it is almost all downhill to the first aid station at Botolph’s after 11.2 miles. As with all Centurion aid stations, they are full laden with everything that you could wish for and this year they included Tailwind as well.
After Botolph’s comes Truleigh Hill. It’s horrid. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s steep and pretty long and then when you get to what you think is the top, it climbs less sharply for about another mile.
After the Youth Hostel at the top of Truleigh Hill, there is a quick descent into the valley before the climb back up to Devil’s Dyke, where there were a lot of supporters.
I love Devil’s Dyke. It’s where I first took my folks out when they visited me after my move to Brighton. Being from the flat lands of Lincolnshire, it felt so novel to have these hills on the doorstep, and the thrill of being next to the South Downs has never worn off.
My Mum has just got her first smart phone (I’m not sure she knows how to use it), so I’m making the most of being able to send her pictures. I indulged myself in this selfie and sent it off to her.
After Devil’s Dyke, there is a lovely descent into Saddlescombe Farm for aid station #2 at 16.6 miles.
Jon Lavis was out on course taking amazing photographs as usual and managed to catch me trying to get a peanut butter wrap down me. This thing stuck to the inside of my mouth for the next 10 minutes. Peanut butter with jam next time. Rookie error.
So, from Saddlescombe Farm, you climb Newtimber Hill, descend into Pyecombe and then climb through the golf course towards the Jack and Jill windmills, where there were lots of amazing supporters.
I was now on home turf. You can see the big yew tree in our front garden from the section between the windmills and Ditchling Beacon. I know this section to the end very well. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
It was around this point that I started to notice the heat more. It was early afternoon, so no surprise really.
There are a few ups and downs between the windmills (namely Ditchling Deacon, which is the highest point on the SDW) and the right turn at Black Cap.
Then it’s downhill all the way……………………to the next climb. And that next climb is a killer. It’s not long, but it’s very steep through the woods before the 3rd aid station at Housedean Farm at 26.6 miles.
This is just over half way through and the heat was starting to hurt. I had planned to have my finishing time start with a ’10’ and I got to half way in exactly 5 hours. I had time in hand and I was going to need it. After the Housedean Farm aid station there is a long climb. It’s long walk. It’s hard not to get frustrated by it, but there’s no chance of running it and it’s all part of the process.
The next real landmark is the Yellow Brick Road. It’s neither yellow or brick, but it’s lovely. It’s a long downhill towards the next aid station at Southease at 33.9 miles.
At the end of the Yellow Brick Road there is a very steep downhill (not good for achy knees) and a horrible dusty track before the aid station.
Southease aid station is great. Well manned, lots of supporters. I even had Philippe apply new sun block for me.
This is the calm before the storm though. For me, this is the toughest part of the course. Recently friends have described this as the graveyard on the South Downs Way 100 and I can see why. For me, it’s not just the length and extent of the climb. It is long and steep in places. The issue is that it keeps going up to Firle Beacon and then, after you descend into Bo Peep you have to climb back out again. This section seems to go on for ages. I think it probably did though to be honest. Lots of walking.
As you can see from this photo taken by Jon, I wasn’t alone in walking out of Bo Peep.
This was a bit of a low point, and Jon managed to catch my mood perfectly.
From here until the end, I’m a lot happier. It is 11 miles. There are 2 huge hills and a tricky descent, but it is the home stretch.
The hills out of the aid stations are tough and the terrain presents you with trip hazards. The countryside is beautiful and for some reason, I even managed to run about 25% of the climb out of Jevington.
When you reach the top of the Jevington hill, you have to tackle the tricky descent into Eastbourne. It is around 2km down. After about a minute I could hear someone screaming in front of me. I saw a runner lying across the path. My initial thoughts were ‘oh god, I hope he’s not badly hurt.’ As I approached, I saw his feet were pointing in the same direction, which is a good sign. It was cramp. I lifted his leg, push his foot back, helped him to his feet and he was off. Phew.
The section along the streets in Eastbourne (about 2km) to the finish went by quickly. Turning the corner onto the track was amazing. There were lots of supporters. 300m to the finish and my medal was waiting for me, presented by the ultra running legend that is Mimi Anderson.
I popped inside quickly to put some more clothes on and to get a hot drink before coming out to wait for Nick.
And all of a sudden, there she was. I didn’t even have time to start my coffee. She’d been between 5 and 10 minutes behind me all the way. What an amazing performance. So so proud of her.
We got there and it was still light. Both under 11 hours. And those medals are almost big enough to eat your dinner off.
So, what happened to me? Well time-wise I did what I wanted to. I wanted it to start with a ’10’ and it did. 10 hours 43 minutes and 29 seconds to be precise. If I’m honest with myself, I wanted to be around 10 and a half hours, but there you go.
This shows big improvement on last year. I finished my first 50, the Endure 50, which was mainly flat in 10 hours 45 minutes. The Chiltern Wonderland 50, which has a similar amount of climb took me 11 hours 15 minutes, so the SDW50 was an improvement of over 30 minutes.
What did I learn?
I’m not good in the heat. Well, I knew that already, but this just proved it. I wasn’t alone. I did manage to keep most of me burn-free apart from the backs of my legs, where I didn’t think to slap the sun block.
I know now that I really have an issue with the climbs to Firle and Bo Peep. I have got to get over that. This is going to be one of the challenges for my crew and pacer on the SDW100. Get me out of Southease and over to Alfriston.
I got cramps in my calves. Not a big issue. A stretch every 10 minutes or so sorted it out, but this is the first time in ages that I’ve had cramps. I took the salt tabs as usual, along with electrolytes. Maybe it was the heat? Maybe it was a one off? At least I was able to resolve it with a simple calf stretch and when it went away it didn’t stop me from running.
I got stomach cramps. The only thing I did differently to usual was drinking fizzy coke. Maybe that was daft? No more fizzy coke. As I was struggling with eating and it was really hot, fizzy coke really did seem like a pleasant way to get energy in.
I’m going to need baby wipes for the 100. Sticky fingers between aid stations and crew points is really going to get on my nerves.
I also learnt that that wife of mine is a bloody legend (she was a non-runner 5 years ago). She’s getting better and better. She was only 7 minutes behind me at the end. Seeing her name above mine on the finish list would please quite a few people for sure and I’m coming round to that idea more and more. The thing is, I don’t care if she gets home before me on the SDW100. I just want to see her with that buckle.
Finally, there is a serious realisation that 100 miles is a long way. No shit Sherlock. Obviously it’s a long way. Tagging another 50 onto the back of this is really daunting. Both of us spoke about this on Sunday and doubts did surface over whether we’re capable of doing it. Now that a little time has passed, we have regained a bit of the positivity. The first 50 will be slower (by around 90 minutes). We will have crew with us with food and support. And finally, the only time pressure is 30 hours. That’s the only thing that matters.
There are lots of thank you’s. To James and the Centurion Team. Amazing. You set the standard that other have to try to match. The volunteers were incredible. Even at the early aid stations when lots of people arrived at the same time, you were quick, efficient and always lovely. Thank you so much.
To the supporters, you were great. So touched that so many were out on course, especially the Burgess Hill Runners who popped up all over the place.
To my fellow runners, thank you for your company. Well done to every one of you.
To Nick, thank you for being my training partner and the most important person in the world. If you ever beat me I’m never speaking to you again 🙂
To the South Downs Way, thank you for being there and being so beautiful.
The next time we will see the Centurion team is while crewing and pacing for Philippe at the TP100 in a few weeks. After that’s it’s the start line for the big one.
In the meantime, have fun and take care.
please be kind to all animals #fuelledbyplants
(photos courtesy of Jon Lavis, Centurion Running and Stuart March)