I originally booked this race in August 2019 and after two cancellations due to Covid, one of which just 6 days before the race in November last year, I was excited to finally toe the start line! Training for the event in November had actually gone perfectly and I felt like I was in the best possible shape for it…it was pretty much the opposite for this rescheduled event.
I picked up a knee injury in April that had me out for 10 days and I honestly just had a bit of a lack of motivation to put in the big miles after that. I did eventually get round to doing three weekends of 30 mile runs which I think saved me!
Why the South Downs Way?
In 2008, myself and my mate Rob Kendall first Mountain Biked this route at the age of 19. It took us 16 hours and we only just made the train in Eastbourne to get home. For both of us it was our first experience of anything like this and we were completely wrecked.
Fast forward to 2019, and I ran the South Downs Way 100 for the first time. I placed 13th in 17 hours 43 minutes, I was happy with how I’d done but wanted that top 10 finish. The route also links a lot of my stomping grounds since moving to the south coast 15 years ago making it even more meaningful.
With my imperfect training I was definitely feeling nervous, so with a week to go seeing a super hot day in the forecast really didn’t help! I sought out two of my very experienced ultra running mates and was advised to get two things: XMiles hooked me up with some Saltstick salt tablets and I ordered a hat designed to carry ice in the top of it. These two bits of kit and a plan to stay patient, eat early & hydrate well gave just a tiny bit of confidence that it wasn’t going to be a complete disaster.
With my 3.20 am alarm I was, understandably, in a tent next to the van where my crew (wife Lizzie & 2 year old daughter Raffi) cosily slept at Matterley Bowl, the start of the SDW100. Luckily Raffi is too young to feel the full weight of responsibility that crew for these kind of events feel, but Lizzie assures me she was awake well before my alarm after an unsettled night of ‘I mustn’t forgets’! I ate my weetabix, drank a Maurten 320 (again supplied by XMiles), put on lots of chafe ease & factor 50 suncream and walked over to the start. With Covid protocols still in place the start was spread out from 4.30am to 6am. Faster runners starting earlier, slower runners starting later to split the field as much as possible at the aid stations.
I started just a few minutes after 4.30 but as you’ll come to realise later, start time played a big part in my position through the day. As I set off I took advantage of the cooler early morning air and ran comfortable but fairly fast 8-9 minute miles. I really enjoyed those early miles, watching the sunrise and breathing in the crisp early morning air. My plan, at least to start with, was to drink at least every half hour and eat something substantial every hour. The first hour rolled by and second breakfast was a Honey Stinger Honey Waffle, third breakfast a ham, hummus & tomato wrap at 6.30am.
I reached the second aid station at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, mile 22, in 3 hours 6 minutes. I was told I was 3rd in real time but was actually 6th overall due to runners starting after me and running the first miles faster. I filled up my water bottle and cracked on. It was a great feeling being back at a race after all this time and having people cheer as I ran past in QECP.
I happened to check my watch at the first marathon…3 hours 45 minutes. Had I started too fast? Only time would tell but I still felt great. The day was certainly warming up now so it was a welcome sight to see Lizzie & Raffi at Harting Down, mile 27. I grabbed a cold coke, tried out the ice in the hat thing and refilled my water bottles. It worked a treat, for the next 3 or 4 miles my head was cool and I had a trickle of cold water running down my neck. I got more ice from Lizzie at mile 35 at Cocking aid station where local friends (and Stance Europe socks supplier) also joined to support. Thanks Myles & Hannah! At 5 hours 9 minutes I was in 6th at this point, still 3rd on the road.
The next 15 miles were definitely some of the toughest. It felt exceptionally hot now and I knew it would remain so for many hours to come. My plan was to ease off and take my time at this point and I did just that. With a slower pace I was able to make sure I kept eating but I’d lost that flow that I had earlier, I always think around the 40 mile mark is the worst. I was tired from running 40 miles and all too aware that I had 60 to go. I tried to just focus on the next crew or aid station and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I did have a few people overtake me in these miles and I had to have a real word with myself not to chase them “just stick to the plan”.
More ice from Lizzie & Raffi at Houghton Farm, mile 45 and onto a big climb out of Amberley. The only good thing about steep hills like this one was over taking mountain bikers. I picked up my pacer Harry Lauste at Chantry Post, mile 51, after again taking time to get ice in my hat and chuck buckets of cold water over me. On a hot day like this I really can’t stress enough how good it was have crew. It was a big boost to have Harry join me, much of his job just being distraction from the still enormous task ahead.
I reached Washington aid station in 8 hours 38 minutes. I had now moved down to 9th place, fortunately that was the lowest position I would reach all day, not that I knew it. Another water refill, I ate some Hüma recovery smoothie (easy to swallow) and on we went. The next 15 miles or so is a bit of a blur. I was definitely suffering and not moving particularly fast. I ran in every bit of shade I could and Harry reminded me to drink & eat often. We just ticked off miles and got on with it, I still had in my head that I might speed up as it got cooler later in the day but that still felt a long way off.
Something I was pleased about was that my quads were still good at this point. I’d taken a gamble in wearing the world’s most slippery shoes the Nike 4%. Fortunately, they were working out well on the hard dry trails and I was actually enjoying the short road sections with these shoes on, something that had never been the case in the past!
After just under 11 hours of running we met Lizzie, Raffi, Mum, Dad & Harry’s fiancé Sarah at Devil’s Dyke, mile 65. I was in 7th place now and there was actually a breeze up here, the first sign that it might actually cool down in some way. Anyway, you guessed it; more ice, another coke, some of Raffi’s ice lolly and on. It's worth saying that I never spent much more than about 5 minutes at a crew or aid station but this actually amounted to around 50 minutes overall. Trial and error in ultra events has helped me to know when to take some time and when to blast on through, nevertheless I only sat down twice the whole race! We were now in line with Brighton and it felt like a good landmark to reach, I knew in my head that just driving from Winchester to Brighton was a long way so this felt good.
From around mile 70 to 80 I put in some really good miles & splits. I think I was finally starting to be a better temperature as it was now after 5pm, don’t get me wrong I was still hot but it was no longer unbearable. By the time we reached Southease, mile 84, I had actually moved up to 4th - not that I knew it at the time. However then came my final wall, I was struggling to get calories in now and the climb out of Southease was a walk. I felt pretty sick and honestly thought I was close to it being game over. We walked the end of the climb with Craig Norris, he had started 17 minutes behind me which essentially meant he was 17 minutes ahead of me! Not what you want to hear at this stage and something that I really don’t like about the absence of a mass start. It was good to chat regardless and I think the distraction was good for both us, it seemed clear to me that Craig was suffering too (he may say otherwise though!).
At the final crew point Firle Beacon, mile 86 I felt rough. Lizzie & Raffi had handed over their crewing duties so Mum, Dad and Sarah were there to take over. I sat down on a camping chair and swigged some Red Bull. I took a bite of a BLT sandwich but soon spat it out as I just couldn’t swallow anything. As I sat there Evelyn Hughes & Peter Abraham arrived and set off. Back down to 6th, this was not good, I really wanted that top 10 finish!
We set off with Harry half stepping me to keep me moving, every step was a struggle but I so wanted that top 10. If you’ve had any experience of ultras, personally, through films or podcasts, you’ll know that no matter how low you can feel it is possible to come out the other side of it feeling better again. Being able to hang onto this notion is probably the most important thing you can do. On the descent into Alfriston I started to feel alive again. 9:30 minute mile, 9:50 /mi, 8:48 /mi at miles 88, 89 & 90 respectively.
We flew past the checkpoint in Alfriston where I knew Craig had stopped. The climb out of Alfriston is a beast but with my new lease of life I was up for it. We could see Evelyn & Peter ahead so I ran the whole thing. We overtook them near the top and discovered Evelyn had started 6 minutes after me… I had to get to the finish line 6 minutes before him! At mile 94 on the descent into Jevington I hit a 7:22min/mi, how was this happening?
We skipped this aid station too and I gave it everything running up the final hill of the race. The descent into Eastbourne is probably the most technical of the race, steep, rocky and in a gully. Unlike last time I did it, I was at-least in daylight. I ran at what felt like a decent pace considering it was mile 97. At the bottom we went past a runner who I didn’t even notice. Harry spotted it though and we later found out it was Geoffrey Cheshire who had led most of the race, at points hours ahead of me. This was not to be his day. It took him 3 hours to finish the last 3 miles of the race but mega kudos for getting there. I didn’t know it at the time but this gave me my first chance of the podium since mile 26!
The last two miles are on tarmac and felt like the longest of the race. I was still moving well with a 7:59 /mi and 7:46 /mi respectively. In this race Centurion Running follow in the footsteps of the infamous Western States 100 - the finish line includes a lap of the track. WHAT A FEELING to enter that track to have friends and family cheering me to the finish. I gave it everything and was made up regardless of my result.
Now began the agonising wait for the rest of the runners, where had I come? Evelyn & Peter finished about 12 minutes after me, so at this point I was guaranteed a podium place, but where was Craig? It was going to be close!
It turned out I had put 16 minutes 35 seconds into Craig over those last 8 miles but it was 27 seconds too little. Craig finished 2nd place in 16:48:06 to my 16:48:33. Well done Craig, it was great to run with you and share our suffering.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could get THIRD PLACE in a race as competitive as this. I’m also SUPER chuffed to start & finish a 100 mile run without needing to turn on a head torch. I’ve been absolutely buzzing ever since, it’s also taking less & less time to forget the pain & suffering of these events and look to book the next one!
Massive thanks goes to my amazing crew, it is essential to have an organised plan (or someone prepared to organise a plan!) to provide much needed support. Looking one step ahead to the next crew station is definitely a good mental strategy to avoid being overcome by the massive miles. For Lizzie to follow me around all day, keeping to a tight schedule and covering many van miles with a toddler whilst 5 months pregnant is almost certainly harder than the run itself, big kudos to you Lizzie! Harry did an amazing job pacing me, keeping me positive and forcing me to eat Haribo, and a big thanks to Mum and Dad for stepping in later in the day to crew and cheer at the finish.
Big thanks also to XMiles for supplying my nutrition, I feel justified in being an ambassador now!
Finally I can’t recommend Centurion Running enough, they’ve done a fantastic job of putting on Covid secure events. It felt as close to normal as possible.