Only a couple of years back I had never heard of an Ultra and would think that only those dedicated enough, or crazy enough, to be able to run a serious long distance all day. Then you try one and realise that running far is possible. You begin to dream and seek out the challenge of conquering those impossible distances.
So there I stood at the start of the Centurion South Downs Way Ultra. 100 miles to test my physical ability and mental strength. The South Downs stretches from Winchester in Hampshire across a constant rolling countryside to Eastbourne in Sussex. The terrain is hilly with over 4000m vertical, differing from grass to mud, chalk to stones, battering your feet every step of the way. An engaging environment of stunning vistas and, most importantly, superb aid stations filled with a welcoming atmosphere and encouraging people.
I started slow with no intention of pushing the pace at any point so I had to laugh when I saw Stuart Mills, true to his philosophy, going out hard and fast well ahead of anyone else. The rest of us gradually slotted in at our own paces and worked our way over to Cheesefoot Head where the hustle and bustle of 250 runners quietened to individuals and small groupings. I ran with Rachel here and chatted about our running experiences. I was especially glad to talk to someone who had run a 100 before and gain any insights that would give me the confidence to finish my race.
The section all the way to Queen Elizabeth CP you felt you were 'in' The Downs, running tracks and trail and occasionally topping out The Downs at Beacon Hill (1st CP pitstop), Old Winchester Hill and finally Butser Hill. It was during this stage that I met Gary and with similar pace and race attitudes we clicked. Unbeknownst to us at that time, we would then spend the next 90 odd miles together, pushing and encouraging each other on.
QECP CP had a fine spread and importantly we were a quarter way home. Breaking down the race like this certainly helped our mindset. At each aid station the focus was where was the next one....7 miles....ok, that's circa 1.5 hrs to go then. Also, we broke down the distances, we're a quarter though, a third, halfway, two thirds, a quarter to go, four fifths and done. One helpful fella had us counting down the mileage as well. So at mile 31 we only had 69 miles to go so we were in the 60's, etc. We constantly manipulated the figures in a positive way ensuring nothing felt too big. We also kept an eye on Gary's timing from 2 years ago when he ran well until blowing his ankle with 20ish miles to go and slowed down significantly to finish 10min within the cutoff in final placing. At each CP we arrived at a better time and knew we were moving well. We would have plenty of time if we had to walk it in.
Hiking out of QECP having covered 23 miles in 4hrs30 I felt fresh. Well the legs felt fresh, it was a sweltering day and the sweat just clung to us! I haven't done many Ultras where my legs didn't already feel heavy after 20 miles so it was pleasing to feel this way. My training was maxed out with low mileage. Maybe you don't have to pound the weekly miles, just ensure you keep your motor going, which for me included lots of dog walking. Since running a 50 mile and a 50km event in May I have hardly run so a plentiful taper seems to have got me ready. I am hoping this knowledge will encourage me in future races and I will feel less apprehensive and unprepared at the start. Especially if I up my training.
This next section was 'on' The Downs seamless ridge line and had breathtaking views keeping our minds occupied on the outside and not on what was going on inside the body. The long descent into Cocking CP thoroughly tiring out the thigh muscles. Another quickish pitstop and the obligatory climb out. Although we were moving at a pretty decent pace any thoughts of a sub 24hr race were knocked on the head around this point. We settled in to enjoy this day and to finish.
My memory of the next section is blurry but the hills kept coming. We also had a few welcome rain showers to cool things down before it became humid again. We managed to pick up the pace on the downs and flats falling into a nice rhythm we soon hit the halfway point in 11 hours. We pushed on hard to Washington and a long needed break.
How getting some hot food, a change of socks and a cup of tea takes over half an hour I will never know and, what's more, I felt rushed at the end. I decided that taping my feet was not working and was actually detrimental, the taping causing my skin to soften and therefore blister and bruise quite easily. 'Trench foot' was another issue I was having due to my feet sweating continually and being wet after running through a few puddles. In hindsight, I believe that wearing thick (winter) socks were the main cause. I thought thicker socks equaled more comfort. Wrong! Luckily I had been carrying a thin pair of socks which I duly changed into and kept on for the remaining 46 miles. My feet, although getting somewhat sorer, never got completely unmanageable. My main problem from here was randomly kicking the camouflaged jagged flint rock, putting an end to many of my toenails. In fact, all bar one will be gone. Ironically, the only toenail I would like to see the back of (in-growing) is the only healthy one left. I'll have to try and knock this one off on my next run.
Back out on the course and over halfway with some 12 hours to break the 'in a day' race. We dreamed for a bit that we could do it and energetically pushed on up the hills and kept to running the downs and flats. The stunning area around Steyning and beyond helped, with the setting sun and clear views over to the English channel. Things improved with the appearance of Jake, a friend, who came out to help pace and check everything was going alright. It was a much needed impetus and we all flew down the Devils Dyke ....where the devil tested me out....I lost attention briefly and I let one of my poles drop out of my grasp which then levered onto a rock and jabbed me 'o' so close to my nether-regions with enough force to break the pole. Shock kept me moving and soon after relief that I had been extremely lucky keeping myself in one piece and being able to stay in the run. This is where I was starting to find out the mental side of things and concentration in these last sections were paramount so as not to put an end to your days work.
Jake left us before the Windmills. He was a much needed distraction and kinda proves that pacers have their place in long runs to help keep momentum going. Running through the flying bats we made the CP just as it got dark. 70 miles down in 16 hours. My worst moments were about to hit me. In hindsight maybe I shouldn't of run so hard with Jake. Maybe instead of running and loving it I should have remembered to keep drinking and eating regularly, maybe I shouldn't have rested too long at the CP. One of these or all of these factors led to me feeling quite down coming out of the CP.
It got cold so I put my baselayer on only to get too hot and have to make another stop to take off my t-shirt, wasting time sure does infuriate me. Another time killer was the constant peeing. We were drinking plenty and had a good dose of caffeine in us so no sooner had I put it away than it seemed that I needed to go again. All night!
I was also starting to feel sick now. How do you solve nausea quickly? I'm not sure you do. My nutritional plan was to eat as much as I could at the CPs and take a variety of cereal bars in-between these. The CPs were stacked with a multitude of snacks, wraps and fruit. (For me the only things missing were Ritz crackers - something I got into on the Weald Challenge - and hot soup at the latter CPs would have gone down well. In fact I was wishing for soup at several CPs but I made do with a hot cuppa!). The hot day ruined my appetite and by now I was on a real low. Not being able to stomach anything made for a really trying period for an hour or two. I took the GU gels on offer, something I have never really used, and these certainly picked me up and got me out of my dip and on to the finish.
One of the highlights of the night section was seeing head torches stretching over the horizon in all directions. Best seen around the natural horseshoe bowl near Kingston with lines of lights strewn all over. Jake made another appearance here. Hooked on the 'ultra' feeling he had come out to enjoy a midnight run with us. The only problem was after our decent into Southease the running was done. The next few miles went up and up, slowing us right down and unfortunately putting any last pipe dreams of winning a one day buckle out of reach for this year. Still, the finish line was tantalisingly close and the main goal was just that - to finish. Jake left at the top and told us that only 2 more big hills left.
The one out of Alfiston was a soul destroyer. The day was dawning and the hill was never-ending. Over stones that felt like boulders and a slope that felt Alpine. The invigorating new day didn't really materialise as it was dull and overcast.
One final hill out of Jevington. A false summit later and we were met by a dedicated Centurion (Drew, I think) who cheerily congratulated us and sent us on our final descent down into Eastbourne. A tricky one, filled with danger for those lacking the strength for one final mental and physical period of concentration. Unable to use my legs anymore to brake I hurtled down pleading that my broken pole didn't disintegrate further and with it me in a heap. The slope finally flattened and from the wilderness of the Downs we entered modern civilisation.
We shuffled our way to the finish, ever slower and lost in our own happy thoughts that we had done it. Entering the stadium we picked up the pace to finish in a canter run. Handshakes and hugs. Smiles and medals.....and that big release of Endorphins.
Finishing a 100 mile race, something I thought impossible, was now achieved and sure does feel good.
100 Miles in 24hrs42.
None of this would of been possible without the first class organisation of the Centurion Team and their dedicated and superb volunteers. My race will be remembered not just for finishing my first 100miler but the run itself, the aid stations and the people we met on the South Downs Way.
Personal notes for my next long races.
Food and snacks in the first half then Gu gels and whatever you can stomach from half way+
Salt tablet (elete) every hour.
Poles - a pain to carry and I stabbed Gary a few times, I nearly tripped over them countless times and could have stopped my race but overall they were good to have.
Taping heels, no hot spots.
3B = no chaffing - applied only once where it matters.
Thinking that taping would save my toes from blisters -- wrong. Never again. Lube up.
Wearing winter socks on a hot day - go thin and buy a decent wicking pair.
When feeling good and fast remember to carry on eating and drinking otherwise it catches up on you.
No need for pro plus and red bull in drop bags. You can get by on tea and gels.