South Downs Way 50 – Race Report

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Picture borrowed from Centurion Running

This race forms the second half of the SDW100 I’ll be attempting in June so was a combination of training, getting marathon number 95 ticked off, and learning the route so when tackling it tired, in the dark and with 50 miles in the legs it would be less likely to go wrong.

The race HQ was at Worthing college which the SatNav got us most of the way to it before abandoning us in a tiny lane.

The first few miles are congested which helps to hold pace back.  I had a broad plan of 4 hours and 5 hours for each half to match intended 100 mile pace.  A few miles in and I’m keeping pace with Jen and trotting along.  The hills all seem quite gentle so far and most of the course is runnable.  Glad of sticking to road shoes as the course is chalky soil baked rock hard by the sun and less giving than tarmac.

The first two or three miles have gone in a blur but I’m already noticing sweat beading and dropping from my cap.  It is hot, so I keep drinking to get ahead of the fluid loss.  Some sections we’re almost running too fast due to the easy nature of the trail.  To the right is clear skies as far as can be seen, to the left the thick fog seen on the drive down is clinging to the low-lying ground but the course is well above.  At times the course seems so remote from civilisation you can barely see a building.

Proof I was (briefly) ahead of Jen

Later a marshal lets Jen know she’s 6th lady and could make some places.  The red mist descends but she tries to at least look like she’s ignoring it.  It’s a losing battle.  Coming into the first aid station at Botolphs we’ve covered 11 miles and gaining on the 5th lady.  Climbing the steep hill out the aid station I’m choking on an ill-chosen sausage roll as she power hikes into the distance with finish position in mind.  I’m just hoping I don’t die from inability to eat a party sized pork product and thinking what a rubbish way to DNF the race it would be.

Running can be a mind opening experience and upon reaching a road crossing at Saddlescombe I learn a string of new expletives as a cyclist hammering down the hill deems the car merging from the car park not to have given him enough room and lets rip with a 100 decibel tirade, questioning the parentage of the driver and strongly advising him to check his prescription at the opticians.

The Saddlescombe aid station comes soon after at 17 miles. My mental gymnastics reminds me this is over a third of the way.  The helpful marshalls fill my water bottles and I wrestle with the stupid collapsing cup (mandatory gear to avoid wasteful cups) to get cola into my mouth.  Next race I’m getting a bigger cup.  Fearful of another near death savoury food incident I’m drawn towards the fruit and I stride back out the aid station loaded down with watermelon, pineapple, oranges and grapes like an extra from a Lilt commercial.

After some more fields we cross the main A23 road and a petrol station hovers fleetingly within reach. Ever noticed how BP always have the aircon turned nice and low?  That would feel so good about now.  Putting it to the back of my mind I see a large group of hikers up ahead, so widely spread they’re blocking the entire road through the village, swinging their walking poles without a care in the world.  It’s going to be hard to pass on the road but getting stuck behind these through any tight sections of the path would be an issue, best get some speed up and politely weave through before the path narrows.

I’m feeling quite smug as just after passing them the path narrows to a barely shoulder width footway between thick bushes besides the road. Once again my experience has come into play and I won’t get stuck behind…. horses.  Where the hell did they come from?  Massive lumps and their horsey bums barely scrape between the undergrowth.  Over a hundred miles of the South Downs Way and I come across two horses on the narrowest section.  I don’t have many feelings either way with horses, it’s just unfortunate one of the biggest creatures in the UK has the mental capacity of a slow-witted mouse and is prone to bolting if something really scary like a carrier bag stuck in a tree makes a sudden movement.

horse-bucking
A horse being stupid

Other runners catch up behind me, all unsure what the acceptable approach is. The road is close (so close I debate leaping through the thick bushes and chancing the traffic) which means the riders and horses can’t hear us.  Should we shout and risk two horseshoe imprints to the chest?  I’ve played Buckaroo as a kid so I have experience in this and I don’t fancy retrieving the gas lamp and frying pan from between the traffic.  Fortunately the riders pull over to let some oncoming cyclists pass.  The cyclists see our sweaty visages and also elect to pull to the side so a slow procession of stinking runners can mutter a quiet “thankyou” to the horses as we squeeze by, whilst praying they don’t shatter our shins 30 miles from the end of the race.

The one advantage of the hold up is I’m now back in a group so at the next road crossing we can find a volunteer to step out into the busy traffic and take one for the team so the rest can cross.   The opportunity doesn’t seem too promising but we eventually make it across and climb up past Pyecombe Gold Club, joined by some more cyclists for company.

A further climb and we approach Ditchling Beacon Nature Reserve. The car park is packed with people out enjoying the sun or supporting the runners and we’re greeted by claps and cheers as we pass by.  The downside is I entirely miss the ice cream van parked up until past it and I spend the next few miles berating myself for packing my emergency cash in the bottom of my race vest and for not looking ahead.  The ice cream van was probably serving the best cone with a flake for miles around and I’ve got a squashed energy bar instead.

Fortunately Centurion have done well to signpost the next few miles as the South Downs Way makes a series of seemingly random turns as it zig-zags across the hills.  Pace is still broadly on track and coming up to half way in 4:04hrs.  Slightly behind the planned 4/5 split but not a lot.  The sun is relentless and I’ve all but drained my bottles.  This is the longest gap between aid stations at 10 miles and I’m certainly feeling it.  One bit of ultra advice that sticks out is to remember everything is temporary.  If you feel good, go for it as you’ll feel rubbish later.  If you feel like death then ignore it as it will pass.

Coming up to a wooded section I’m caught by another runner who warns me the next section is “F*cking stupid bit. Really stupid.  Don’t know what they were thinking”.  Not sure if he meant the event organisers or the original users of the South Downs Way but the steep climb in the woods is enough to slow progress to a painful walk, before bursting out the trees and a long downhill prior to hitting the Housedean aid station at 26.6 miles having drained every final drop of fluid on the final approach.

Whilst chugging back tiny thimbles of Pepsi the volunteers top up my bottles again. Feeling so thirsty I’m happy to have whatever flavour they offer.  Later I regret this on finding Natural Tailwind quite literally tastes like sweaty arse.  It could well be the copious sweat has got into the mouthpieces but the fruity refreshing goodness of the other flavours has been replaced with ‘builders arse crack on a summers day’.

Starting the long climb up to Castle Hill I attempt various methods of increasing forward momentum. I can’t run the slopes but walking is too slow.  Instead I perfect a sort of shuffle, reminiscent of an old man rushing for a bus but not sure of his footing enough to break into a jog.  It works and I gain and pass some runners as we approach a field of cows.  A field we now need to enter.  And they’re all up against the gate looking at us.  I love cows when there’s a sturdy fence between.  It’s entirely coincidental that I slow to allow some runners to catch me as I reach the gate and an unplanned by-product that if one of the blood crazed homicidal cows choses to attack I now have a lower chance of being the victim.  My brain serves up a helpful fact that cows are officially the deadliest animal in the UK and kill twice as many people as dogs.  They are more deadly that sharks and given we’re several hundred meters above sea level it’s even more relevant.

Fortunately they’re docile and mostly just look at us, possibly pleased to have found someone that smells worse than they do. We ponder briefly if it would be possible to ride one and whether that is explicitly against the race rules or just frowned upon.  Consensus is anyone brave enough to try it and get the beast to follow the way markings is welcome to it.

After some more weaving the footpath joins up with a hard concrete road that passes between oil seed rape fields, filling the air with a funky aroma that makes you glad not to suffer from hayfever. The road is level or downhill and a great opportunity to pick some distance off at a decent pace, making the most of the cushioning of road shoes as oppose to trail.  It continues down to South Farm before a sharp turn to run alongside an impressive collection of manure, all the better to clear your airways before a short climb to Southease rail station and the leg burning footbridge crossing of the train line.  After 33 miles of hills two simple staircases seem like torture, especially the descent.

Southease aid station means only 16 miles to go. Fuelled by more (better tasting) Tailwind drink and with a handful of fruit I start to do the sums as we cross the A26 and begin a steady climb.  If I keep below 12 minute miles I’ll be just over 9hrs but still under my previous 50 mile time.  That sounds do-able.  The climb caries on.  And on.  One false summit after another comes and the ‘I’ll run once we reach the top’ never comes.  The willingness to run is dampened by a belly full of Pepsi that feels wobbly and bursting with gas and takes a good few minutes of uncomfortableness to pass after each aid station.

Still climbing I fall in with another runner and we chat. He’s run the race before and agrees we’re on for just over 9hr pace.  He then regales me with stories of hitting the same hill 74 miles into the SDW100 race, in the fog, at night, blindly following markers and the lights of other runners, being startled by sudden appearance of cows.  It’s equally alarming and exciting.  He’s completed the 100 in under 23 hours which is some reassurance I might manage the same in June.

Eventually the incline runs out of false summits and we can get some decent place along the gentle incline. Up ahead is a massive TV mast at Firle Beacon, towering over the countryside.  Logically this must be the top of the highest hill so we should be due a bit of downhill the other side.  If not the 9hr target is dwindling further still.  We meet another crowd of supporters at the car park and are cheered through (no ice cream van at this one).  Some are sat out catching the sun and enjoying a cold tipple from their cool boxes.  I’m sure one of them must have beer.  I really need a beer about now.

Later we pass Bo Beep car park but see neither the namesake or any sheep. The going is good with soft grass either side of the path to provide some cushioning and allow pace to quicken, clocking some decent miles off at just over 8 minutes with some other runners at similar pace.  The 9hr target is now somewhere between 11:30 and 12:00 min/mile pace.  I could maybe still do this.

At 41 miles the path changes from gently downhill to potholed steep drive and my knackered quads start to complain. Other runners fair better and skip down the road as I shudder down on heavy legs.  We’ve reached Alfriston and the next aid point is in the Church.  Once again the tables are groaning with food like a spoilt kids birthday party but I stick to fruit and tailwind.  9 miles left.  That’s the same as a Wednesday morning run if you ignore the 41 mile warmup.

This is the penultimate stop, with another at 45 mile at Jevington and then the home stretch.   If I can avoid stopping at Jevington I could save a precious few minutes.  The weather has cooled so two full bottles should see me through 9 miles easily.

Leaving the aid station I’m reminded that the first of the trickier navigation sections is coming up. I’ve watched the video on the event website and have brief notes in my bag but don’t need them as it’s clearly marked and we cross Cuckmere river before another ascent on a long rutted access track between the trees.  Time is ticking and I can’t afford to walk this so it’s time for old man shuffle up the track.  It’s not pretty and still too slow but somewhere closer to the target pace.  In a brainwave I realise I’m still carrying weight I don’t need and ditch any food into the bushes for the wildlife to enjoy the great tasting energy release of chia nibs and sunflower seed bars whilst stashing the wrappers for later disposal.  I must have dropped a whole 100g but mentally it seems good and reinforces this is the homeward stretch.

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The view from the bottom of the hill. Only idiots would chose to run along the ridge. For 50 miles.

The path climbs again towards Windover hill and the Long Man Of Wilmington, a 16th century chalk figure cut into the side of the hill.  He’s 72 metres tall and holds two walking poles, or ‘cheat sticks’ as they’re known in trail running.   Right now I could do with a borrow of his sticks or his 35 metre legs to aid the reappearance of my old man shuffle up the path.  Legs are begging me to walk but the climb disappears into the distance and I can’t afford the luxury.  There simply aren’t enough miles left to make up for any slowing down unless I fancy dropping in a pace I can’t managed on a good day.

Jevington mercifully comes into view and the course skirts the churchyard. A brief mind melt means I miss the signs and fail to understand the clear instructions of the marshal and nearly head the wrong way.   More precious seconds lost.  I really want this sub9!

After the church is a marshalled road crossing. It seems unnecessary given the tranquil nature of the village but after waiting for multiple cars for a gap to hobble across it’s clearly the place to be on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  More precious time lost.  Once across the aid station in a cruel twist is elevated from the road accessed by painful looking steps up and down.  With some shouts to confirm I don’t need to stop I plod off, avoiding the steps and the further delay.

There’s around 4 miles to go.   Distance is becoming critical.  Most runners say the course tends to come up a little short of 50 miles but I can’t recall how much.  49 miles I might just have it.  Closer to 50 and my failing mental capacity makes it look doubtful.  My brain redeems itself and comes up with a master plan.  I need to lighten weight further. I’m carrying over 1kg of water but weather is cooling and I only need to make it a little further than a parkrun to reach the end and bountiful rehydration.  So I empty both bottles over the next half mile.  Not by tipping them out as that would be sensible.  No, I choose to drink them.  I’ve successfully lightened my race vest by 1kg and added 1kg to my swollen belly.  Net weight change of zero.  Genius.

There’s another undulating section ahead. Surely as we finish at Eastbourne, on the coast, we must be due some more downhill soon?  As we reach Willingdon Golf Course more marshals are out to direct over a tricky peak of the hill and down an unassuming gulley path beside the course.  This is another of the trickier navigation sections so I try to mentally replay the video in my head.  Thundering down the steep gulley pace builds again but is eratic due to tree routes, narrow sections and thick and evil bushes encroaching on the path.  It would be easy to come a cropper on tired legs and have to choose between a mouthful of chalk or a face of brambles.

There’s a little over two miles to go and I’ve got 28 minutes left. I’m not sure if due to failing mental capacity or quick legs but I’m now up on where I need to be.   If I can just avoid any mistakes I’ve got this.  The path breaks out onto a suburban street, and the easily missed right turn into an alley is just where I expected it to be.  Checking over my shoulder there is no one behind.  The various runners have spread over the last few miles and I’m on my own.   Breaking out the alleyway onto Willingdon Road I nearly crash into the barrier designed to stop idiots running into the road.  Idiots like me.  This is another tricky section.  I have the description in my bag.  I could stop and check it but I’m pretty sure I’ve got this.  An arrow on the floor points left so off I go.  Pace is steady, there is very little that could stop me getting sub9, just stay on course.  I’m tired but force myself to look out for the next marker, there is no way I’m getting lost now.  Only an idiot would foul up in the last couple of miles.

Then a passing car honks. A lot.  An awful lot.  The driver leans out the window and wildly gesticulates and shouts that I’ve missed the turning.  Brain slowly registers the noise he was making as words and I turn to see two runners way behind pop out the alley, avoid crashing into the barrier, cross the road and head off up a turning I’ve missed.  They seemed in no doubt on the route and are making for home.  Two places lost and I’m now the wrong side of the road, added extra distance and obviously have the navigational ability of a wasp stuck in a window.  Without the passing car I may well have ended up in Dover.

Swearing at myself the sensible option is to gain on the runners and stay with them. After a burst of speed I manage it and grimly hold on as long as possible.  Sadly that may well be all I have left and they soon lose me but remain close enough in the distance to follow.  Rounding the hospital and skirting the car park and the athletics track is ahead.  There’s literally 400m lap to go.  With a big gap behind I feel like taking it easy but with a final spurt realise a sub 8:50 is possible and cross the line.

It’s been gruelling and hot but by running when able (if not willing), grinding away on the steep sections and shuffling up the easier climbs I’ve managed to knock 45 minutes off my previous 50 mile time.  Also managed 61st out of 393 runners which I’m more proud of when the following day Facebook pops up a 6 year old photo of fat me huffing and puffing around one of my first parkruns, likely unable to complete the 5k without a walk break.

After finding Jen (who finished way up at 4th lady at 8hrs despite a marathon PB the week before) I shuffle to the showers to contemplate how to remove trainers and calf guards when I can’t bend sufficiently to reach past my knees.

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