Race Day – Finally
100 miles – that’s a bloody long way.
I’ve read quite a few running books but Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run is the one that lit the blue touch paper for completing a 100. I don’t put myself anywhere near the category of elite ultrarunner but nonetheless I was inspired by the whole story. So now, around 3 years after I first read it, I find myself waking up in the very early hours of Saturday 8th June 2019 for the biggest running challenge of my life. Preparation, as previously documented, had gone well so nothing left to do but get up, shower, breakfast and get dressed in my first set of running gear for the day. An 0600 start with an 0530 race briefing meant leaving the house around 4:45 a.m.
Breakfast fuelling for something like this isn’t the same as for a marathon. Slow release energy from something like porridge, good as it is, won’t last the race. So cornflakes, a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich were the order of the day for me. As with so many things at these longer distances I’ve found that what works, works.
My son drove me to the start at Matterley Bowl near Winchester. Having picked my number up the previous afternoon and already deposited my drop bags and finish bag I had nothing to do but wait around in the registration tent until we were called to the start for the briefing. I met up with most of the twitter group (Ally, Phil, Spencer, Kerry, Nikki, Stuart and Dan) before the start.
I must confess that standing there I did feel a strong sense of imposter syndrome. A lot of seasoned ultra-runners at the start, many who had previously completed a 100 miles. Despite that though I wasn’t feeling panicked, life was going to be so very, very simple for the next day and a bit – start running, keep going forward until you get to the finish, stop.
Off we go
On the dot of 6 a.m. we set off around Matterley Bowl and through the estate before joining up, after around 3.5 miles, with the South Downs Way. The weather was just about perfect for running, a bit cooler than normal for the time of year and overcast. There was a bit of drizzle early on but that soon stopped. The first 11 miles is fairly steady with not much in the way of real hills. It’s only when you get to Old Winchester Hill you start to get a taste of what is to come as this is a good two and a half mile climb.
The first aid station at Beacon Hill Beeches is about 10 miles in and I reached this in just under 2 hours. I made sure to stop to eat a cheese sandwich and grab some other food here. I’d already got through 500ml of Tailwind so got that refilled as well. Fuel early, fuel often was something I was careful to adhere to.
Lest we forget
Before we move on further with the race I’d like to share something I know about the start that was especially meaningful on the day.
75 years ago, almost to the day we set off, Matterley Bowl contained thousands of American and other troops who were billeted there ahead of D-Day. General Eisenhower addressed them in what is a natural amphitheatre.
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.
The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
A very large number wouldn’t have even made it off the beach or out of France. A pretty humbling thought and one to keep in mind when things are getting a bit tough on the trail.
Farewell Plans A and B
Even as early as the first checkpoint I realised plan A (sub 24 hours) was not going to happen. I’d set myself 4 targets – sub 24, sub 26, sub 28 and just finish. My pace and effort level were steady all the way to the 2nd checkpoint at Queen Elizabeth Country Park (what a joy to run down Butser Hill rather than up it!) but there was no way that sub 24 was a possibility and sub 26 was barely hanging on by a thread. But this was all okay and if anything it gave me an early acceptance of how the race would progress.
The mental part of this sort of distance is not to be underestimated, a theme to which I’ll return later. You cannot allow yourself to be too low or too high and you have to have confidence that what you are doing is the right thing. I was happy with my progress and how I felt, so ditching the first two targets wasn’t a bad thing to do.
We’re going to need a bigger boat
I’d taken off my waterproof early in the race as I was getting too warm. By the time I was 26 miles in, somewhere near Buriton, the day was getting warm and a little muggy, especially in the woody areas. But then we got an instant cool down as it started to rain. Not just ordinary rain, proper let’s consider building an Ark rain.
I was lucky to be in a wooded section so took cover under an oak, put my Salomon waterproof on and carried on. I saw some people taking cover in farm buildings but to my mind this is wasting time. Sometimes you get wet – you dry out quick enough and who knows how long the rain will last. I needed to make the most of every minute so no way was I stopping.
Speaking of the weather thankfully the wind was a South-Westerly. Not only during that rain shower, which was coming in horizontally, but also throughout the whole of Saturday. Had that wind been in the other direction I’m not sure I’d have made it as far as I did. Whilst not directly at your back the whole the time a constant headwind to battle would have sapped an awful lot of energy.
Washington – Drop Bag One
Before access to your first drop bag there’s a halfway aid station at Kithurst Hill. 50 miles ticked over on my watch a few seconds under 12 hours and this was a huge boost. Not only was it my fastest ever 50 miles and my first time doing that distance in under 12, but crucially it meant I had 18 hours for the last 50 which would be achievable at an average of 20 minute mile pace. Things were starting to hurt by now, mainly the bottom of my feet which were taking a pounding from the chalk and flint trail, so having that buffer was very welcome psychological boost.
Upon reaching the Washington aid station at around 7 p.m. I was surprised by the numbers in the hall. I had been on my own pretty much for 40 miles other than at aid stations so it was good to see there were plenty of people still going around my pace. The marshals, who look after you everywhere, got my drop bag, sorted out my bottles and brought me some pasta.
I opened the note from my daughter that I’d promised not to read until half way. A little rain damaged but it made me laugh.
Glad of the complete change of kit, including shoes, it was into the Gents to strip down and change. I’ve not been in a toilet where so many people were applying Vaseline and other lubricant so liberally and openly! Needs must in such circumstances and worth it to avoid chafing later. A quick once over on the state of my feet revealed nothing too bad, just a small blister on the back of one heel. More body glide, socks and shoes on and then time to depart,
I probably spent around 20-30 minutes longer than I should have at Washington (around 50 minutes in total) but I needed the break to eat, refresh myself and prepare for the overnight. It didn’t feel that long and I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, it just took a long time to get anything done being as tired as I was after 50 miles. Just shows how easy it is to let time slip away at aid stations.
I spent a fair amount of time in the 70’s and early 80’s in West Sussex, particularly the Steyning area. This is where my Mum and Dad were born and grew up. A lot of journeys there to visit grandparents in my childhood. All the way from Kithurst Hill, past Storrington, through Washington and then up past Steyning, Bramber and Upper Beeding was very familiar to me.
Somewhere in the picture on the left is the farm where Dad lived when he met my Mum who was working in the Blue Circle Cement factory which used to be visible in the picture on the right. Both these were taken on the descent down into Botolphs aid station (61 miles) at about 9.30 p.m.
Coming out of Botolphs someone was walking down the hill that I had chatted to earlier in the race. He was heading back to the aid station as he had stomach issues. I asked if he had any imodium instants (something I consider an essential piece of kit). He didn’t and declined the offer of one. Although only 4 miles to the next aid station it was clear that he’d given up in his mind. It might have been worth a try but if mentally you’ve given up it’s too late. I made sure he was okay to get back there and carried on.
Into the night
Just before the Saddlescombe Farm (66 miles) aid station the headtorch needed to be switched on. A strong coffee with sugar was the order of the day as this would be the start of a long night-time slog. I met someone else here who had to quit through injury. Also put on my spare long sleeved top, then tee and then another long sleeved top for the cooler night section.
The next aid station at Housedean is another 10 miles away and I knew the majority of those would be in darkness. Looking at the time I had left I made the decision to hike most of the night-time as I figured with around 4 and a half hours of darkness I could hike those 10 and still have enough time left to run the remaining 24. Had I taken part in the SDW50 earlier in the year (family circumstances prevented it) I would have known what was coming up and I might have made a different choice. But I didn’t so I made my decision and stuck with it.
Martin Jarvis for company
Music would have been the wrong choice for night-time hiking, I needed something to keep my spirits up. Plugging in my headphones for the first time I listened to the audiobook version of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett, narrated by Martin Jarvis (natch). A tale about the dark lord and the coming of the apocalypse is just what you need to keep you company during the hours of darkness.
This night-time section seemed to last forever. Just after Ditchling Beacon is a gravelly path that was far from being the worst surface I had run on but it irritated me greatly. My feet were hurting and this path went straight on with absolutely no variation for what, when I look at it now, was only a mile and a half at most but at the time seemed so long. It was level too, in hindsight I should have been running here, but I had made my choice so I hiked. But oh was it boring.
Then a change to a path that run down the side of a field, but then this went on forever! I think I saw a snowman’s head by the side of the field and I cannot verify if this was actually there or not. Quite likely a hallucinatory moment.
I’d seen no other runner for absolutely ages. Barely a human being for four solid hours. I knew I was on track but it was one of my lowest points of the race.
It’s always darkest before the dawn
Load of rubbish, it gets quite light – although mentally perhaps quite true if you happen to running an ultra.
I ran (run at this point being a relative term in regards of pace) into the aid station at Southease around 0610 on Sunday morning. My feet were hurting a lot now so I popped a couple of paracetamol and grabbed a quick coffee. As this was where drop bag two was I dumped a load of kit I no longer needed and some tailwind sachets I knew I wouldn’t use. As I left I asked how long until cut-off and I was genuinely shocked to be told “You’ve got ages, at least 40 minutes”.
From having a good solid margin the night-time walk had whittled that away so I now only had 40 minutes. Okay I’m 84 miles in, only 16 to go and I have 5 and half hours to cover that, why just 40 minutes left (later, this became obvious). I couldn’t get this close, run this far only to be timed out because I walked too much in the night.
This, quite categorically, was not going to happen. Whilst I didn’t run out of there like a bat out of hell I certainly shifted my arse up the next hill. Gone was the luxury of the 20 minute mile. I power hiked up Ilford Hill and then as the trail flattened out I put my running music on. This combined with adrenaline rush of potentially getting timed out meant that I managed a 12:50 mile a couple of miles later (felt a lot quicker).
By the Alfriston aid station at mile 91 I had built up the margin to over an hour. At some cost though. My feet were on fire and each ascent was met with swearing and likewise each descent. So another couple of paracetamol, fill both bottles with coke, a little food, a coffee and then out again.
The Last Hill – honestly
You leave Alfriston and straight away up Windover Hill you must go. Or Mount Doom as it felt like. This was the last one, they told me at Alfriston.
Oh I was not happy, not happy at all. It took forever to get to the top of this. It was getting warm, I was so very tired and in a lot of pain. I am sure it is a lovely walk have you not run 91 miles already. I was effing and jeffing at the hill, the surface, everything. Moaning about how stupid it was to have something this difficult near the end of such a long race.
Totally unjustified. It’s a tough race and if you can’t suck it up you have no business being there. But it did make me feel better and angrily moving forward is still moving forward.
Finally get into Jevington and I didn’t even bother going into the aid station as all I wanted was some squash and there was none. I had plenty of food and coke left from Alfriston.
The Last Hill
Leaving Jevington I could see that there was going to be one more hill.
Willingdon Hill, you came close to breaking me. Leaving Jevington and ascending the craggy, uneven canyon through the woods I felt like I was almost on my hands and knees, using my trekking poles to propel myself slowly, painfully on another step.
Then a couple, out for a bit of early morning hill training, flew past me, skipping up the trail like gazelles, barely noticing the chalky flinty razorblades that were digging both into the soles of my feet and the soul of my being.
I don’t know if I could have done another hill. I remember thinking that if there is one more, I’m not going to have the energy to finish it and get to the line in time. But there wasn’t. And even if there had been I’d have just moaned, then carried on until they pulled me off the course.
I knew, however, that at the top of this was the trig point and from there no more hill.
Except I got lost as I took a wrong turn. After nearly 98 miles I took a wrong flippin turn! How can I get this close and screw it up now.
I turned left when I should have gone straight across, following the arrows on the ground and the sign. I don’t know why I turned left. And I went down more crappy track until I noticed my watch telling me I was off course, but not by much. As you can see from the tracking above I was really close. But there were brambles and I couldn’t see the other track. I could see Eastbourne though, and the finish!
Okay, don’t panic, don’t panic. I’ll ask someone.
“Excuse me, do you know where the trig point is?”
“Err, no. What’s a trig point?”
“Big concrete stone”
“Nope, never seen it.”
“But you f*&%ing live here you idiot”
Okay I did not say this.
But I definitely thought it.
Alright, backtrack. Always go back to where you last saw an arrow. So I ran back up the hill, oh my god that hurt, back to the point where I saw the arrow.
I saw other runners. Then a few seconds later found the trig point. Such relief.
To the finish
I ran down one more horrible wooded chute and then through back alleyways before at last getting onto roads and pavements. All flat and even surface from here on in.
I’ve been to Eastbourne Sports Centre before as it’s on the Ragnar Relay route so I knew when I was near. I was not walking this final part, I ran the whole thing in from the trig point. It was quite emotional to approach the finish.
On to the track to cheering which was so appreciated and then a lap round to the finish. I had a little cry on the back straight.
The bouncy track was like so nice to finish on, like running on clouds after all that had gone before. I made a good effort for the last 200m or so and then it was done.
29 hours 20 minutes and 37 seconds.
100 miles. Yes, it’s a bloody long way.
But it’s worth it.
It’s taken me a week to write this. I had to get my head around the enormity of it all and I have been so tired all week that it would have been a mess had I done it sooner. Recovery takes a long time after such a race and I wanted to get this right.
Many people have asked would you do it again? To which the answer is I might. Maybe not this race but maybe some other. The pain fades until all that is left is the memory that this one day you achieved something quite spectacular, something of which you rightly should be proud.
And I am proud, damn proud I did this. I don’t care I took so long. I made the cut-offs, I ran the best race I could on the day, never once thought about quitting. I fuelled well and I had the mental game to see it through. I took myself deep into discomfort and endured it. I am 50 and I ran twice my age in numbers.
I deserve that buckle and the right to call myself a Centurion.
I was raising money for Salisbury Hospice by doing this run. Thus far the total is over £700. Thank you so much if you sponsored me.