South Downs Way 100: My Race

4am and the alarm goes off in our Premier Inn room. All five of us have been asleep since 8pm as it was the only way to get the kids to sleep. I get dressed and we bundle sleeping children into the car and head off. I love an early run but this feels like a bad way to start a run so long you’re pretty sure you won’t sleep that night…

In the car park and we end up parked next to another couple of runners from the Isle of Wight. I knew them via Strava and Facebook so said hello, then headed off to start as the kids were awake and keen to see me off. I knew I’d see them again when they would inevitably overtake me later on.

Number collected and pinned on (tough job on a nervous start line with hands that have just applied sun cream), tracker attached and off I went. The first bit of the race is a double loop so a nice opportunity to get going and run past the family, although I spent most of the time grumbling at my watch for not telling me the right heart rate. I rage quit wrist based heart rate tracking and chose to run by feel; I knew this would probably be the case as I normally run with a chest strap but still risky changing something on race day.

My plan was to go out fast (relatively speaking); the forecast was for highs of 23 degrees so I wanted some distance behind me before it heated up. Really enjoyed that first bit, I was overtaking people (knowing that I would see many of them come back past later on) and feeling good. First 10 miles averaging sub 6min/km and barely stopped at the aid station (sorry Jon!), second 13 miles averaging just over 6min/km and again just stopped to fill up on tailwind. I’d planned at least 200 calories per hour, mix of liquid and solid, and so far so good.

The next few miles and I slowed a bit and had a little dip. No biggy, I always have a mini bonk around 20 miles so I’d held on better than expected and it was mainly due to some hills and the aid station being a kilometre or two further than expected. Not that I stopped for anything other than more tailwind as Sally was a mile up the hill waiting at the first crew point. I was walking but when I realised the crew point was there I started a slow jog so as not to look lazy. Can of Coke, few bits of fruit, hello to the kids and on I went. With a telling off for arriving far too early.

It wasn’t long after that Ian and Dan (fellow islanders from the start) caught up with me. Ian was looking really strong but Dan was struggling with an injury, they caught me walking up a hill where Dan could still keep up but we left him behind not long after we started running again. I ran with Ian for a while from there and we were joined by another couple of runners I didn’t know (Andy and Gavin), I’d run briefly with Gavin earlier on but left him to take a picture while I enjoyed racing off downhill. We ran together down into Cocking where I unexpectedly saw my aunt and her partner, which was a nice boost. I ran out again with Ian who had been told by his crew that Dan was struggling and planning to DNF (he recovered really well and powered past me later on, only to have to DNF later on with GI issues). We ran together for a bit from here, Ian keeping me very honest until I just couldn’t keep up any more. Andy stayed with him and I think they ended up finishing together, but by now it was hot and I was starting to struggle. I was getting cramps in my calves and groin when I was running, Gavin was kind enough to lend me a salt tablet and I increased my electrolyte intake but I would struggle with this for hours.

I think it’s about 12:30pm now, I’ve been going for 7 hours and I’m melting. The next big hill saw me walking with Vladimir, a very experienced ultra runner frustrated by a knee injury (he would DNF at Washington). I made it to Kithurst Hill more or less on time with my ambitious schedule (I was half an hour up at the first crew point) and was very happy to see the 4yo had a Calippo for me. A cup of strong electrolyte mix, bottles refilled with stronger Tailwind and a little bit of fruit again saw me on my way. By now my groin was cramping when I was walking up hill and when I ran. I’d given up any hope of a sub 24 hour finish, but was still weirdly confident of a finish. It just became about managing the heat as best I could and moving forwards until it cooled down a bit and I could recover. I’d given up trying to get rid of the cramps in the heat, but as long as I kept moving I hoped I would recover later on. I was barely eating anything but I was still taking onboard tailwind, although I’d completely lost track of how much I was pretty sure I was behind on calorie intake.

I didn’t stop at Washington but immediately about turned and went back up the hill to meet Sally again at the crew point. Again I could only stomach fruit and got extremely jealous of another runners mango. It was 4:25pm now and hopefully starting to cool down but not enough for me. At Botolphs I had my one and only sit down, just for a minute or two, I was so fed up of the sun and the seat was in a tiny bit of shade. Into Saddlescombe and they had blackcurrant squash on offer! I had a cup and it was easily the nicest thing I’d ever drunk, so I had a second cup and it tasted naff. I’d given up on food for now so more tailwind and off I went. Not far up the hill and I came across Fraser (mango man) really struggling for energy, he rallied and got up but I left him sitting down again not long later. By the time I got to Clayton Windmills, 70 miles in and 8:30pm at night I was done in. I stopped for quite awhile, had a little cry hug with Sally, changed into a dry t-shirt and finally headed out. I was pleased to see Fraser arrive not far behind me and leave before me, I would later learn that orange juice had been his saviour.

Foolishly I asked Sally how I was doing for time and she pointed out I was pretty much bang on schedule and I worked out if I maintained my cramping slow pace til the end I would just break 24 hours…

From here there was a lot of walking uphill and slow jogging down hill. It was cooling and I was slowly getting less cramp, there were some spectacular views and an amazing sunset. I was running with a few different people at this point, some as they came past me and some as I went past them. One particularly chipper chap skipped past me and when I caught them back up I realised it was Dan Lawson. I followed him for a bit and as it started to get dark I ended up running behind Alison who had her torch out already (much better prepared than me). I felt bad following her down the hills but she was pulling me along at a pace that felt faster than I’d run in hours (sub 7min/km) and I did ask if it was ok. We briefly stopped together at Housedean and headed out and walked the following hills together. I was feeling a lot better now and had shrugged the cramping horror of the day off and was feeling good. By the time I’d reached the next decent downhill I’d left Alison behind and run past a few others as well.

At Southease I was still feeling alright and walked up hill to Firle Beacon with Karen. It was gone 1am by the time I met Sally at the last crew point and I was feeling good. I’d managed to eat a little bit since I last saw her and I was feeling positive, still running pretty much bang on target time but wasn’t confident of the sub 24 hour finish. My timidness about pushing for my ambitious target time turned out to be a mistake.

From here on out I was running solo til the finish. It was dark and occasionally foggy but credit to Centurion for course markings as I didn’t feel lost once. There was 20km and two aid stations left, two decent hills but some very runnable sections too. I wasn’t fast running but I didn’t need to be, I’d done that at the start, now I just needed to keep running and I was looking good. The hill out of Alfriston felt like it went on forever but whenever it was runnable I made sure to get my ultra shuffle on. Alfriston appeared earlier than I expected so I checked with the volunteers how far it was to the end and realised my Strava was very likely to show just shy of 100 miles. Sub 24 hours was very much on.

Those last 14km or so took me just over two hours. On the way up to the trig point I tried to call or text Sally to tell her I was nearly there but my phone wasn’t working properly and my muddled brain tried to send a text via Siri (but I couldn’t get it to make sense) but didn’t think to just use Siri to call her. Wouldn’t have mattered, she was 40 mins away and I was slightly closer. I’d heard the gully down from the trig point was slippery and tough but it was fine, it’s not like I was up to powering downhill at this point so taking it easy didn’t matter much, I still ultra shuffled more than I walked.

I made a determined effort to run the last couple of kilometres on the roads to the finish, they felt like they went on forever but that’s probably because my running pace was only just under 9min/km! I knew I had sub 24 hours in the bag by now but I wanted to run it home. Last time I’d seen Sally I’d said I’d be lucky to finish around 5am… here I was running round the track at 4:24am, so I was not at all surprised to find I’d got here before my family. Sally had woken to her alarm at 3:45am as planned and rushed 3 children and her dad into the car to try and get to the finish on time but it was an impossible task. Everyone was so tired that we didn’t really mind, I can’t imagine the kids would have had the energy to run the finish with me anyway.

I finished in 23 hours 9 minutes and 3 seconds and collected my “100 miles – One Day” buckle as a reward.

P.S. Sorry but I couldn’t remember everyone’s names or really what you all looked like, names are my best guesses after looking at some of the official race photos.

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