The weekend is done. I’m sat in a chair (as I can’t move about much) pondering a lot of thoughts. One is what to do with a belt buckle (is it too show-off to actually use it? Do I want people staring at my junk?) the other is mixed feelings of having finished.
It was a great experience and I’ve swung wildly from “I am never doing this again even if I don’t finish” through “If I get sub 24 I won’t have to do this again” and now breaking out into “I wonder how much further or faster I could go if I did it again….” Then I sneeze and nearly pass out from the pain….
After dropping kids off to in-laws the wife and I headed down to Winchester. With no pacers she was fulfilling the unenviable task of crewing me for 100 miles from moods likely to range from jubilation to “I hate the sky, I hate that tree, even the footpath is a miserable devil, kill me now”.
Usual Friday traffic wasn’t too bad. Kit check and registration done I handed over my two drop boxes. The event allows you a reasonable shoe-box sized bag at 54 and 76.6 miles. Head torches don’t have to be carried until 54 miles onwards so in they went along with a spare top and a cheap charity vest for underneath that I could bin at the next stop. From my timings I expected to get to 76.6 stop at Housedean around 10pm. Figured this would be the point the temperature properly dropped so packed long sleeved hooded top and a further base layer. Both boxes I stuck in an iced coffee for some caffeine boost.
Tasks done it was just a matter of dinner (massive burger and beer) with Steve, Jen and Andy and then a final food stop at Tesco for breakfast before bed.
Up at 4:30 to dress. Ultra running is glamorous getting up at a stupid hour to force down food (egg end bacon buttie from Tesco as too early for hotel breakfast), slather yourself liberally in sun cream and vaseline before pulling on unattractive Lycra leisure wear you just pray isn’t going to rub you raw over the next day of running. Mild panic when waiting in reception I realise I’ve left race bib back in the room and have to wake the sleeping wife to let me retrieve it. Then we’re in car and off to the start.
After usual cheesy photos and loo stops it’s time for a safety briefing and the start klaxon. Less than a mile covered and I’m sweating like a drug mule at the border. It’s not hot yet but something is not right. Try to stay calm and put it down to nerves, not dwelling on the fact I was tired from a 1.5 mile fun run with the daughter the day before which could well mean I have a bug or something. Wisely I back off and let Jen go, and run with Steve for a while. Consciously walking all the inclines and holding back on the flat I start to feel better.
Somewhere between loo stops I lose touch with Steve so I’m on my own now for the next 95 miles although in a group of runners all going the same steady pace. There’s a moment of panic in Exton when a competitor runs back towards our group swearing we’ve gone off course. Despite visible route markings ahead and several runners having completed the event before he will not be convinced and runs off into the distance never to be seen again. Possibly he’s been eaten by whatever creature killed the fox two fields back.
First aid stop at Beacon Hill comes up at 9.8 miles. Having read a few blogs advising there is a big gap between two of the early aid stations I’ve packed a backup empty bottle to carry a bit extra. I’m sure it’s a few more to go from here so I grab a handful of fruit from the table and blast through as bottles nearly full. Sadly I’m wrong about the aid stations. This is the big gap. Nearly a half marathon between stops means I’m down to the last few drops by the time I hit Queen Elizabeth County Park after 3h47 (a mere minute behind my schedule) and hit the aid station coke supply hard.
Volunteers are just packing up the local parkrun and cheers us on as I wander past with a sandwich bag full of fruit from the aid station. I’ve resolved to never eat at the stations so just fill a bag and go. Centurion aid stations are kitted out like a child’s birthday party. Normally I’d barge the birthday boy out the way for the last sausage roll and would leave the fruit as a last resort, but as with the SDW50 it’s now all I fancy and I march up the hill into the woods wolfing down strawberries, pineapples, grapes and water melon. Pretty sure by now if I bottle my pee I could sell it as Lilt.
Still making a conscious effort to walk all the hills I feel strong. Coming up to marathon distance and there doesn’t feel to have been any real hills yet despite the impressive course profile. Only one long run down Butser hill really gives the impression of how far we’d climbed. 20 miles in 3h45, 25 miles in 4h23. Not daft enough to try and multiply that time by four as I’m going to slow a lot over the night section. 33.3 miles passes at 6h01 and I start some cheesy windswept videos on Facebook to force me to keep pace steady and help recall events. Comments and encouragement are great and help keep me walking slowly where needed.
At 35 miles the course hits Cocking and I’m met by the lovely wife who helps me refuel and is rewarded with some sweaty tops as I ditch both base layer and tee and carry on with just the tee. I’m told Jen is running great but taken a tumble already, but done nothing to slow her. With 6h21 gone I’m dropping off schedule by around 20 minutes. Schedule was planned for 23hrs to give some comfort of going sub24. I’ve used a third of the safety margin up with a third of the race. I reassure myself I can fade less than expected and avoid the awkward fact I fade HORRIBLY in every race of every distance.
Fortunately, my mind is taken off the issue of timing when I next stop for a wee. Despite proven shorts and lots of Vaseline, adjustment of the man equipment for a wee demonstrates something is not right and I’m having some undercarriage rubbing. Nice. With a crew stop at Amberley coming up I message the wife to bring Vaseline. Lots and lots of Vaseline. Even adopting a slightly waddle stride to save the knackers keeps my pace too high and I beat the car to the crew station and waddle onto the next one. 47.4 miles down.
Next checkpoint is at 50.1 and crew aren’t allowed. Bag full of fruit and more Tailwind and I push on. Sadly I get the ‘natural’ flavour which still haunts me from the SDW50. It’s bordering on undrinkable so I top up with Coke to take the edge off. Aid stations are seldom further than 8-9 miles apart and I’m getting through nearly two litres of fluids between each to fight the sun. I’m avoiding dehydration but increasing frequency of painful wee stops. If I must DNF this thing due to boys’ bits issues I may struggle to see the funny side.
On the plus side this is now the furthest I’ve ever run. 50 has been my max so every step is a new distance personal best. It also means I need to run another 50 miles. Another 50 bloody miles….. I’ve been running for 9h25 so still a decent buffer for sub 24hrs. Running the first half 35 minutes slower than the SDW50 means I’m physically in such a better place if I ignore the fact I may be rubbing myself away and end up lacking any appendage like an action man figure.
Chantry Post at 51.2miles is my salvation. I’m pleased to see the wife but even more pleased to see a big tub of Vaseline. Issue sorted I run onwards to Washington and the major aid station and drop bag. It’s odd to run into a village hall hundreds of miles from home and be greeted by two MK locals doing the time keeping but great to see the friendly faces of Sheila and Russell. Food is looking unappealing. Even the fruit is less enticing but I force some down.
After a wet wipe down it’s on with a dry base layer and my Bad Boy Running top. Some of the other podcast listeners were due to be running or volunteering so hoping some support will keep me going further on and there’s a prospect of some company from a local listener Russell who’s willing to give up some of his Saturday to run with a stranger along the South Downs based purely on liking the same podcast. I could be an axe murderer. He could be an axe murderer. Maybe being chased by an axe wielding murderer would get me going. Or maybe I’d lay down and pray for the sweet release of death.
Head torches packed away I bin drop box and set off again after a kiss from the wife. The climb out of Washington is a drag and the aid station has robbed some oomph from my legs that the Espresso is trying to add back. Although only 22 minutes behind schedule hitting the aid station I’m further behind leaving it, even with what felt like a quick change.
Then my salvation arrives in the form of a “F*ck You Buddy” (the traditional Bad Boy Running greeting for some reason) and Russell pops up ahead. We share a manly hug during which he manages to avoid reeling at my likely sweaty stank. Company really helps and although I’m less than chatty we seem to cruise along at a decent pace, at times managing sections at speeds that have eluded me in later stages of badly judged marathons.
Sadly at Botolphs he has to bid me a farewell as he leaves to enjoy the rest of the weekend with someone who smells less like a hobo. He’s given me back some more float in my schedule and got me well onto the section of the route I know from the SDW50 so I’m on known course from here on. It does make me regret not sorting more pacers but it was always a toss-up between manning it out on my own and having someone hold my hand.
61 miles passes in 12hrs dead, only 10 minutes behind schedule.
At the top of the climb from Botolphs (which goes on for seemingly miles) is a youth hostel. I’d clocked it on the SDW50 so this time I’ve got cash in hand as it comes into view and bump into another runner inside as we debate which ice cream will get us going through the evening. You don’t get opportunities like this on a marathon. He goes for Magnum, I’m more of a Callipo man. It’s easier to hike without having to bite around a stick, praying you finish it before it melts and falls off. Your race would likely end right there, knelt on the floor, digging in the dirt for the vanilla goodness, beseeching your respective god(s) for the cruellest of punishment.
Hitting Devils Dyke climb and the route is coming back to me, recalling running this section with Jen before we split up. With confidence I pick up the pace a little and hit the pub at the top of the hill at 13h15. Then I realise there wasn’t a pub on the 50. I’m lost. Bugger. Calls to the good wife (who is on the course unlike me) and I get back on route, losing about 5 minutes due to an unwanted extra half mile.
Saddlescombe Farm comes up at the devilish 66.6 miles (or more like 67 if you’re a f*ck nugget who gets lost and just runs to the nearest pub). Food still not appealing but a small shot of rice pudding seems to sit well and I figure nothing but fruit for 100 miles is likely to lead to a bum explosion of epic proportions. Never had an issue with toilet troubles before but never run 67 miles before either.
Ditchling beacon comes up at 72 miles. There was an ice cream van here on the 50. Today there is none as it’s gone 8pm. Instead there is another appearance of the wife with a McDonalds and a slushy drink. For the first time in my life I decline the McDonalds (had I declined a bit more often in the last 30 years I might not need to run 100 miles today), grab the drink and kiss and set off to Housedean Farm and the second drop box only around 7 minutes behind schedule.
The wood section just before Housedean is getting dark as the light starts to fade. Headtorch is still in bag. I want to push on and I think I can get through it without tripping on any roots. I’m right and I fail to trip over a single root. Instead I trip on the descent down into Housedean Farm and teeter on the point of face planting for what feels like a lifetime before legs finally get enough pace to overtake my massive head and get me back vertical.
As the aid stop I still can’t face food, so drink more coke, force down pineapple and strip off. Knackered base layer in bin, long sleeved hooded top on and Bad Boy top back over. Headtorch on, DAB radio on and I’m ready to see the night through. Encouraged by a fellow runner I briefly sit for a minute to drink more coke. My first time sat since I started running 76.6miles and over 16 hours ago. It was tempting to stay. Beware the chair. I get up and go.
The climb after Housedean is a slow plod up the hill and I’m back to my old man shuffle to keep some pace going. It’s predicted 16:30 min/miles for this section which is starting to look optimistic. It’s dark. I’ve got nearly a marathon left and not eaten much since lunch. They say an ultra is run in your head and the doubts hit with nightfall. They were right and my head is not in it right now. I just need to finish this stupid thing and go home. Nearly eight hours left to break 24 hours, and 14 before the cut off I could pretty much walk it in. 30 minute miles would see my finish before the cut-off but it all seems a bit pointless and I’d rather be in the pub with a beer.
A few mental games (I don’t HAVE to run across the hills at night, I GET to run across the countryside on a clear, warm evening enjoying nature) see me through. Luckily a few runners catch me and we meet another lost on the top of the hill. With a combination of my route experience from the SDW50 (and that’s only got me lost once so far….) and a GPS file on someone’s watch we determine the route and push on. There seems oddly little marking for a Centurion event and a few miles later we possibly find the reason. Two kids on dirt bikes are hammering around the hills, no lights, no crash helmets and probably no licence either.
We run on as a group for a while but differing paces mean we split and I end up running ahead with a lady called Kathleen. We run well along the ‘yellow brick road’, the concrete road between the oil seed rape fields. It’s hard on knees but good not to have to judge every step and look for flints and ankle snapping pot holes. Sadly the pace means we fly past the turning for the South Downs Way and down the hill into a field of cows. By chance we end up waking a dozing calf who runs in alarm down the road ahead of us. The mother begins to follow us concerned what we’re doing with her offspring and we’re trapped between calf and mum wondering how much a cow kick hurts. Headtorches off we manage to sneak past and continue our off-route excursion until we hit the road near Iford, three villages away from Southease where we should be. In a second master stroke we then run towards Swanborough, the wrong way again, before realising the mistake and finally heading back to Southease and the railway crossing we should be at. We reach the aid station having enjoyed over two miles of calf chasing, car dodging fun. When you’ve been on your feet 18 hours and covered 86 miles it’s a mental challenge not to hail a passing cab and go home. 100 miles is a long way to run. 102 seems a lot further.
Focusing on the positives, an unexpected extra visit by the wife, and I’m only 12 minutes behind schedule despite the diversion. It’s just gone midnight and we have 16 miles to cover in 6 hours for the 24hr buckle or 10 hours for the cutoff. Also receiving a further “F*ck you buddy” from Dotty, one of the aid station volunteers helped take the edge off. More coke in bottles and Kathleen and I ambled off up over Southease each pushing the pace or falling back at times but broadly together. Passing the car parks at Firle Bostal and Bo Beep it’s hard not to be envious of the support crews wrapped up in the warm catching an hours kip before their runners come through.
Somewhere before Alfriston Kathleen falls back with some other runners that are behind and I power march onwards. Years of running marathons too hard and having to tough out the last few miles has prepared me for this. I’m not rubbish at pacing, I was just practising for a race I never thought I’d be stupid enough to enter. At the checkpoint I pop my head in the door, get number checked and push on. This is all familiar and if I stop I may not want to start. I’m also managing to gain back more time and pretty much on schedule. I’d planned 18min30 pace for this section which although hard on the hills I can beat on the flats and only have 8 miles left with two final climbs.
The climb up to the hill overlooking the Old Man of Wilmington is basically evil. The surface is hard work, being uneven, rutted and lined in loose flints. It loops back on itself with several false summits. Fortunately, in the dark you can’t see these so having resolved myself to nearly two miles of trudging climb it didn’t feel as awful as I expected. The descent down into Jevington for the final checkpoint was mentally tougher as I was passed by a few runners. Any places I’d gained on the climbs or flat were lost on the descents as my legs crashed heavily down and negated any benefit of gravity enjoyed by the others with working legs. Despite this I was making time back well and at checkpoint was not just back on but ahead of schedule. Running the later stages of a race better than expected is a first for me and a shocking situation.
On the final climb of the course I rang the wife to wake her as knew I needed to see a friendly face at the finish line. Then it was set in for the slog in the dark. Comedy entertainment was provided by a husband and wife team that passed me. He’d run it before but had promised this would be his last year and she was eagerly seeking witnesses to this fact “See you told him you wouldn’t run again”. Then lost a couple more spaces to runners with cheat sticks. Don’t know how much they helped them but they seemed to glide past me. I pondered on the hill whether I should get poles next time. I seem to be considering a next time. When did this happen?
Finally I reached the Trig point overlooking Eastbourne. It’s literally all downhill from here. I could nearly kiss the marshal when I see him. 2 miles left and all I need to do is descend the valley of death down to the town and run on some nice smooth pavement. The valley is worse than I remembered from last time. Previously I might had jogged it. This time my legs are so heavy I can’t even walk it and take a painfully slow stepped down approach, relieved with each successful step like granny leaving the pub after too many ports. I get passed. A lot. I lose count. Not sure how many are still in the race but seems like the bulk of them are passing me in the penultimate mile.
After what feels like hours of hobbling slowly down a path there’s a short road section before the overgrown alleyway path. Any bit of exposed skin not already stung, burnt or scratched is given one last chance here before hitting Willingdon Road. Having got lost here on the 50 I’m keen to keep on route and set off for the final flat mile back. Pretty sure I’m on schedule. My brain is foggy and I couldn’t swear if I’m about to break 24 or 23 hours. The sun is only just poking up so it’s probably about 4:30am. Maybe.
I feel like walking. I walk. It feels good. I could walk the rest of the way. I’ve done it. I could walk it in and savour it. But if I get passed again I might throw myself under a bus. I’m far more suited to road than trail at this stage of the race, so push on. Pass the hospital (don’t cut through, instant DQ the rules say), around the corner. I’m closing in on two runners ahead so just focus on them and in the slowest race in history of sports I pass them at a rate that would need time lapse photography to discern any sense of pace.
Rounding the corner of the car park before the stadium I’m greeted not just by the wife (who receives, I am confident to say, the sweatiest hug ever bestowed on a wife) but by Jen and Andy, along with her two pacers Julie and Dennis who have all hung around well after Jen finished (2.5hrs ago) to witness my shambolic running finish. Not wanting them to wait any further than needed I pick up my feet and in a messy puddle of sweat, tears and snot lap the track for a 22hr22min finish.
Marathon 97 is done. It’s a bloody hard way to get another notch and I still can’t believe it. My legs did their best to remind me for the next few hours in bed where they simply ached in whatever position I tried to lay.
Kit used –
- Calf guards for dodgy calf and dodgy undergrowth
- Ronhill trail fuel shorts
- Umpteen tops and buffs
- Adidas Energy Cloud (£35 quid for cushioned shoes in Sports Direct, worked a treat)
- Salomon race vest