Emi Dixon - South Downs Way 100
Someone once told me that the hardest part of a race is the hours, weeks, months of training that you log before you even get to the start.
If that’s true then I feel like I should be credited with almost completing South Downs Way 100 twice already, because I trained for it fully for both dates in 2020 before they were postponed. This was going to be my first 100 miler, and the furthest I’ve ever run by 40k, but with three full training blocks and almost 18 months of work behind me I felt about as physically prepared as I was ever going to be. The real challenge for me would be nutrition, as this is something that I constantly struggle with and regularly screw up. As such my primary focus going into the race was simply to try and nail the fuelling early on.
I’m a hot weather runner so I was probably one of the only starters who was relieved when the early forecast looked like it was going to be 25ºC+ in the middle of the day. Most of my racing experience is in the desert so I’m very confident in heat and my preference is always for liquid-based nutrition.
I start hydrating 2-3 days before a hot race, making a conscious effort to drink more (around 5-6 litres). I planned to start the race just before 5am, which meant getting up at 3.30am. I spent a good few years doing all my running and racing pre-5am, so this is a routine I’ve got down. I ate my last big meal at 5pm, slept early, then ate as much as I could in the car on the way to the start… cold oats, a banana, a plain, dry bagel (not a nutritional decision, I have the palate of a toddler), half of a Chia Charge, more water and a red bull as I can’t manage coffee at that time. If it’s going to be super warm I would also start taking electrolytes before the race, but I actually found the first few hours of the SDW freezing cold. The race was a time trial format which suits me well as you can just jump out of the car and go without worrying about what anyone else is doing.
I had decided to use a crew for the race, though Centurion events are notoriously well organised and with 12 aid stations on the course you could quite easily run the whole 100 miles with no crew. I really dislike organising and I think if someone had told me before I entered a 100 miler quite how much of the race prep involved planning, not running, I may have avoided it. I run for the joy of being outside not to make spreadsheets detailing a breakdown of predicted splits between Maurten top-ups. But so as not to leave anything to chance, and to give my crew some guidance, I had spent a depressing amount of a sunny Saturday filling out a table detailing where I wanted to see them and what I would likely need each time. On reflection, doing this made the race experience itself that much more enjoyable as I only needed to focus on running.
My plan for the first 50 miles was to go as easy as possible, and drink and eat as much as possible. So, whilst keeping my heart rate low, walking on climbs, I was getting through 1-2 litres of water per hour, including one Maurten 320, and was topping that up with around 3 gels per hour. I like to mix my gels up, and XMiles had kindly sent me a huge variety of Huma, Huma+, Maurten, Manuka Sport, KMC, and PowerGel which I worked through along with some real food. Initially this pacing plan felt absurdly slow and I spent much of the first hour being overtaken by what felt like every runner in the race, which was mentally unsettling. I did have a few moments where I fully doubted the process. It’s so hard to convince your brain that running slow early on will help you get to the finish quicker. However, once I finally won this internal debate and settled into the slower pace, I really enjoyed the leisurely first 50 miles. I chatted to other runners, ate a lot of food, worked on my tan and occasionally got a hug from my crew… generally just having a great day out!
At the marathon mark, my first crew point, I had told my eager crew that I specifically wanted an M&S avocado wrap. Unaware that this was a secret test of their crewing commitment, they produced the wrap and I managed to eat the whole thing on the long Beacons Hill climb. I felt that given that I was running into unknown territory after 110k, every bit of nutrition that I managed to get in this early on was a big bonus for later in the race when I didn’t how I was going to feel.
The temperatures started to rise mid-morning and a few runners began dropping back. As a precaution in the heat I had been taking a mixture of GU Roctane tablets and Unived salt sticks every 1-2 hours. I don’t ever have problems with salt but, given the amount of water I was knocking back, I felt it was important to keep making sure I was topping up electrolytes, lest I do a Damian Hall and dip into hyponatremia. Around this time I finally started overtaking the people who had come past me in the earlier miles, honestly very surprised that my restrained pacing had paid off.
The first half of the race was very enjoyable and I managed my nutrition well, arguably drinking too much if anything. When I got to Kithurst and picked up my first pacer, Frankie, I was still feeling good and the temperature was creeping up to the levels where I am most comfortable. At around 25-27 degrees I find I reach a perfect equilibrium of being thirsty enough to drink a lot of fluid but not too hot to run comfortably. My crew had also frozen the Maurten 320 into 500ml Salomon soft flasks which made it ridiculously easy to drink, like a colourless Slush Puppie. I can’t recommend doing this more; there is nothing worse than lukewarm carb drink when you are already on the edge of nausea. At Kithurst, Rach, a fellow Salomon ambassador, handed me my first ever race Calippo. The Calippo was a game-changer in the heat and when I next saw my crew I demanded that they source more.
After the first comfortable 50 miles, my goal then became to get to my next pacer, James, at 70 miles without any sickness or low points. I managed this quite easily, and once we got to 111k and the official ‘furthest I’ve ever ran’ marker, I felt confident to let James push the pace a little. It felt like we flew over the final two hills, almost hitting my marathon pace over a couple of KM’s on the way to the trig, which is the final point on the trail before descent into Eastbourne and the finish. Normally my performance begins to drop off towards the end of a race, but my early pacing and conscious effort to sustain the eating and drinking seemed to pay off. As I got to the later stages of the race I was getting through less gels and focussing more on real food that my crew had with them, whilst still drinking about a litre of Maurten 320 or water per hour. Unsure what I would fancy after 80 miles, I had bought a veritable buffet for crew to present me with at each stop, my favourites on the day being watermelon, boiled potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, flapjack, bananas, Chia Charge, coke. I also came to rely quite heavily on caffeine and the only low point I had at around mile 85 seemed due to exhaustion. I managed to snap out of it pretty swiftly with a GU caffeine gel. I never felt sick during the race which I think was due to carefully managing nutrition early on and having enough variety that my crew never ran out of options to shove in my mouth. I definitely felt the benefits of having a nagging crew and pacers to keep me on top of the eating and drinking when I started to get tired. I also take GU BCAA capsules during races to ward off any sickness.
I finished in 19:07 and second woman, which I’m super happy with for my first 100 miler!
More than that I’m delighted that I managed to avoid any serious low points, and finish the race feeling strong and without any sickness. It’s strange to reflect on a race and realise that I wouldn’t change anything about it; The problem with having everything go to plan is that it’s a lot harder to picture how you will significantly improve on your performance the next time you race… but it’s probably a bit premature to worry about that while I’ve still got the blisters from this one. I had an amazing day on the trails and this was a really encouraging positive lesson in fuelling and pacing that I hope I can take with me to CCC in August!
Massive thanks to Centurion for putting on another fantastic, super well organised and safe event, and to XMiles for the nutritional support. I also couldn’t have done this race without the overly-enthusiastic and very committed support of my pacers and crew, Phoebe, Frankie, Tom and James. They did such a great job I’ve already got them on a retainer, this time with the Calippos ready.