Sunday, 14 April 2013

Take my breath away - South Downs Way 50

Yesterday was race time once again and this time it was the culmination of weeks of training as I stood at the start of the South Downs Way 50 miler organised by Centurion running.

At the start line - note the weather!

The race took place on the South Downs Way path from Worthing, ending in Eastbourne. My preparation had gone reasonably well and the only issue I had was a sore tendon in the base of my shin which meant I took the decision to take the last week off running but I didn't think it would be massive issue as I'd put up with the pain during the last long run.

One of the hardest parts of the whole build up to the event was where to stay? As most of you reading probably know races aren't cheap and at over £60 this was actually the most expensive race I'd ever entered. I looked as staying in a cheap hotel the night before and after but that was adding another £100, so in true army style I packed the tent!

Running kit wise, I'd joked on the Runners World forum that I'd broken that golden rule of running and changed most of my kit in the last week before the event. Well actually in reality that's pretty much what I did. 

Where do I start? Top down....?After my dog decided she liked my Ron Hill hat more than me, I was on the look out for a replacement. I visited the Asics factory shop in Freeport Shopping Village Briantree and picked up a lightweight beany that despite its lack of bulkiness felt pretty warm. Little did I know it would be tested to extremes later that day.

Next I'd been also looking for a short sleeve zipped top that I could wear on top of a baselayer but vent as needed as I'd heard if could be a warm one today. In Freeport again I picked up a Dare 2 Be mountain top which ticked all the above but also could be used on its own. I'd also actually brought a similar Ron Hill top from Runners world in the week but didn't like the fit so I was happy with this.

Moving down. Shorts. When in Runners World in Chelmsford I was actually looking for some decent tights to replace the cheap ones I'd been using so far but after hearing it could be hot decided to go for new shorts. These were a pair of Ron Hill Trails but with a compression lining so were two-in-one. I was told in shop that these should keep me warm if the decent weather didn't happen.

What next? Calf Compression Guards by CompressionSport. I'd used compression socks many times and liked them but didn't like the thin design in the foot area especially when on an ultra you need as much cushioning as possible but these looked like they offered the best of both worlds and could be flexible.

Finally for new kit, the last change was Gore socks. My old socks had taken a battering and I even though you can't see it always socks wear out! They loose their cushioning and shape and really should be replaced regularly. I brought these and the Calf Guards from Wiggle online.

New kit aside I'd also traded in my old waterproof jacket for a top of the range OMM Kamlieka. This was expensive at around £150 but I shopped around and found a new one on eBay for £100 so took the plunge. As I've hinted, this actually played a huge part in the event that I couldn't have imagined. I did cheat with this and took it out for a test run pre race though.

One of the biggest decisions was footwear. This was something I wasn't going to risk (I'd done that before on a long event and ended with no heels). I know I do the out of the box tests but even I wouldn't risk this over 50 miles (well maybe....?) I opted for minimal New Balance MT110's as I'd worn these on Country to Capital 45 with no issues.

 Finally on kit, I carried the usual Inov-8 race 12 but even here I'd got my friend to modify it further by adding some kit loops to the front to store gloves, hat of arm warmers during runs and a phone pocket. I'd been looking at a replacement pack all week and nearly got a new one designed and made but after thinking more I decided to stick with what I'd got.

Back to the start. The weather was mild and actually sunny but I'd driven through some heavy rain to get there so knew it wouldn't last. This fact was confirmed in the race briefing when they said 3 hours in and it would change (they weren't far off with their estimate).

I nervously spoke to a couple of people waiting to set off including one of the guys on the Runners World Ultra forum called Peronal, nice to put a face to the name. Before I could finish saying hello we were off though.

I knew what was in store at the start as this followed the same start route as the 3 Forts Ultra so it was slow going uphill for the first 5 or so miles until we reached the South Downs Way path. Within 5 minutes people were stopping already on the hill and stripping off as the weather got warmer and we started to generate heat. I removed gloves, arm warmers and hat on the run storing them in my new loops on the pack. I decided to rough it and sweat it out and keep my wind proof on as I knew as soon as we got to the high ground the wind would kick in.

Well I'd decided tactically I was going to take it slow and pace myself as last time out I'd set off too quick and had to walk the last part of the race to the finish. That plan lasted 5 miles when we got to the downs as I knew we had a long stretch of down hill and decided to take advantage while I could as I might need the time in the bank later. (A decent plan as it happened)!

I wasn't flying but I was really comfortable and I especially liked the fact I'd run this part of the route (the other way) previous as mentally this was a big plus. By now the weather was overcast but still dry and I could skip down the steep technical sections just like Killian Jornet in the Western states film Unbreakable (I'd watched this about twenty times for inspiration and anyone into long distance running MUST see it).

I felt really good and switched from side to side on the steep paths with my arms stretched out like a kid pretending he was a plane ( I must have looked like a right tit thinking about it, but hey I was in the zone). Eventually I got to the first aid station and I knew the location well, Botolphs at 11.2 miles. It was a small check point based out of a gazebo but had everything you needed including gels and hydration tablets. I refilled my bottle added a Nuun tab and set off not wanting to hang around. I must say the marshals were amazing on the whole course, including here where there was a major road crossing which was controlled professionally. 

I had a few minutes to compose myself as we were straight into a steep climb which I walked apart for a small section where a photographer was camped out (well you can't walk in photos can you). At the top I started to feel tired. Not too bad but the energy of earlier had gone and my legs now felt like I had concrete blocks attached to them. It took a real effect to get going again but I knew we'd have a nice long down hill section soon as we approached Devils Dyke so pushed on. 

The sky was now dark grey and but the weather was holding off and in the back of my mind I hoped we might be lucky? On the other side of Devils Dyke there was a short down hill before getting to the next aid station at Saddlecombe 16.6 miles. I was looking forward to getting here as a friend from my running club Bob Gear was manning the checkpoint and he'd kindly said he'd hold a drop bag in case I needed anything but to be honest I was just looking forward to seeing a familiar face.

On the approach to Saddlecombe I was starting to feel better and had a little down hill "battle" with another runner as we skipped towards the aid station. Again I didn't stay long and I was soon off once again. The distance between the last aid stations was quite short at just over 5 miles but this one was bigger and was one of the sections that I didn't know too well.

It was actually bang on 10 miles to the next stop but what was to happen next would make it seem like 20! Finally the heavens gave way and it started to hammer down. I quickly stopped and changed from the wind proof into my waterproof jacket as i knew it was here for the duration. I'd got to the last CP in reasonably time but now the driving rain started to slow me down. I was lucky that it wasn't actually that cold really but the wind started to build up speed and made cold rain feel like sleet and I had to deploy the hood as the rain was actually hurting my face.

I looked at my watch and I could see myself getting slower and slower. It was an effort to even move now and I started to get passed by follow runners for the first time. The route was now completely new to me and this added to my misery. I knew eventually looking at the Suunto I couldn't be far from the next aid station but like the gods were against me they'd placed in my way just one more "mountain" to climb. After what seemed like an eternity I could see the next stop at the bottom of the hill in a farm yard barn.

The change in weather looked like it was effecting everyone as the barn was full of chairs which were occupied by runners in various states of undress looking slightly worse for wear. The marshals were once again fantastic and it was here at Housdean after 26.6 miles and 5:18 hrs I did something I'd never done in a race before....wait for it! I tired coke (the drink!) during a run. I'd read lots of people raving about it and how the caffeine and calories work well so I gave it a go. Can't remember who (think it was in Born to run) but someone once once said a Ultra marathon is a eating competition with running in between. Well I started eating early in this race at 5 miles to avoid hitting the wall like my last run out and so far so good.

I left this CP feeling really cold as I'd started to warm up inside and was now I was feeling the full effect of the elements. I was told that it was approx. 8 miles to the next stop and the hills just kept on coming! It was pointless trying to run up the hills as over this type of distance you could walk as fast as you could actually run it. Finally, I approached a marshal who said the next CP was just down the road. 

This stop was a small gazebo again and the marshals were saying that even the front runners were slow today not that made me feel any better. What I didn't realise was that the weather had been mild so far and I was about to witness how decent kit can make the difference between a result and a drop. 

As I left this aid station at 33.3 miles I was starting to get pain in my ankle that I'd had pre race but also now in my hips, knee.... In fact it would be quicker to list the places that didn't hurt. I decided to again do something I'd not done during a race previously and took pain killers. I wouldn't normally dream of it and I can handle most discomfort but I'd still had hours left on course so decided to give it a go. I'd experienced during army training people taking lots of anti inflammatory tabs during events but I'd read recently that these can leave you kidneys vulnerable as your body is at a low point so I just stuck to paracetamol.

It was again another 8 plus miles cross country to probably the most important check point at 41.6 miles at Afriston. I started to feel pain in my feet now like my shoes were full of stones. I was starting to think I should have changed socks at the last aid station as it was getting quite bad but I then realised what it probably was. When I first used my shoes, I'd ran a really muddy trail race where I'd had to wade through a large amount of water. The shoes drained the water well but what had also happen was they'd acted like a filter leaving a large amount of silt inside which eventually formed hard lumps of dirt inside.

I decided it hold out to the next CP and see how the feet felt then. I was a couple of miles outside of Afriston and the driving wind and rain was actually unbelievable. I'd run on the downs plenty of times but I'd never seen anything like this especially in April, not only could you only see a few feet in front of you due to the mist but even on the down hill sections it was impossible at times to run when the wind was blowing straight at you and for every step forward you'd take three sideways!

As we approached the town I again recognised the route and knew it was a long down hill section all the way. It was then where I witnessed the most random point in the race. I was coming up to a large metal gate and I could see two runners standing next to it. I stopped to see what they were doing and it seemed the marked course just stopped? I looked at the gate and it looked like it had been tied shut. I turned around behind me to see about a dozen guys now standing by the gate wondering what to do next? I knew from Beachy Head Marathon that the path continued straight down and even my GPS was confirming this so I climbed the barbed wire fence and carried on followed by the rest of the field, eventually we started to see markers again and guessed a local must have been at work (a very nice lady at the finish later said the rope simply lifted off to open the gate, men hey!)

As I said previously the next CP was probably the most important as it meant there was under 10 miles to the finish and apart from any unseen issues a finish was well on the cards. I'd managed to at least stabilise the pace now and felt reasonable as I walked into the CP. After I clocked in I took the opportunity to have a warm drink and looked around. It was quite a sorry site, the sides of the large room were lined with runners wrapped in their space blankets being looked after by medics or marshals. Most of them were shaking uncontrollably and I recognised symptoms of the obvious, they were the lucky ones though as they'd made it to an aid station. God knows what would happen if it happened on course.

Again even though the hospitality was awesome, I bid my farewells and walked off brew in hand! I knew I had a serious section of up hill just around the corner that would go on for sometime and got ready to experience the best mother nature could throw at me. Once again I took comfort in the fact I was wearing the right kit for this type of situation as I felt like I was being blasted with a jet wash in a tornado.

I took a look at the watch and I looked set for the 11 hour finish I'd predicted despite the conditions. I got to the last CP leaving ok in 09:47 hrs and I had just under an hour and 10 minutes to cover the last 4 miles and I knew the last 2 were seriously down hill. The weather seemed to ease off a little as I approached Eastbourne and as I negotiated the last technical chalk down hill I was happy that I'd also got to the finish in day light so no need for the head torch (just).

I knew that the stadium was just around the corner but it still wasn't time for a sprint finish as its easy to burn out too soon so I paced it until I could see the lights of the athletics track and all that was left was to run the last 400m around the track itself and pass through the finish line 10:44:09.

Well done to Centurion Running and every marshal for putting on an exceptional event. It was also nice to meet more people from the ultra running community especially Peronel and Sh@zza off Runners World, see you soon!


  1. I did this too on Saturday - "being blasted with a jet wash in a tornado" sums it up perfectly.

    Good write up, and well done - everyone worked for their medals that day.

  2. Well done on finishing.... I take my hat off to anyone that even experienced any of that day