The South Downs Way 50 – A Plan Comes Together

I’ve never been much of a runner. I’ve done a few races over the years but there are very few that went particularly well. Consistency was always the problem. I’d enter a race and start my training in a blaze of motivation. Stuff would then get in the way. The running would tail off. I’d make excuses. I’d manage most of my long runs at the weekend but the midweek runs would be at best sporadic. I would get round the race but that’s about it. Then I would do it again. And again. And again. With similar results.

Something changed with the Winter 100 last year. It was my first hundred. Training went a bit better. Still not great, but better. I figured I couldn’t blag a hundred so I had best do a bit of training. The midweek runs were still few and far between but the weekend long runs weren’t too bad. Amazingly, I started to improve a bit. Who would have thought?

With the Winter 100 out of the way, it was time to push on. I had a place in the SDW50 as I volunteered in 2014. I decided that this time it would be different. I would put the work in and see what happened. I started working with a coach. I didn’t really gel with my first coach so I changed coaches and felt far more comfortable. I now had accountability. For the first time ever, I did speedwork. Lots of it. My mileage increased. I ran regularly – usually six times a week. I started running in my lunch breaks at work. Apart from a couple of weeks before Christmas when I got ill, I actually ran consistently for the first time in my life. My training topped out at just over 80 miles in a week and I was regularly running 50+ mile weeks. For me, this was huge. I worked bloody hard and could see the benefits. I had never done anything like this before.

In the run up to the race I tried to mentally prepare for it in the same way I had physically prepared for it. I thought about the times I believed I was capable of running and how that would work out into splits for the checkpoints. I went through the course in my mind – which bits I should push and where I needed to save energy. I figured I needed to line up a bit further forward than usual at the start as well. I wanted to leave no stone left unturned.

Race day arrived and I felt ready. I knew the course extremely well. I had run the SDW50 in 2013 in 10 hours 35 minutes – my first fifty. I was in far better shape now. I just needed to trust the training I had done.

I stood at the start line and the horn went – we were off. The plan was to go out fairly hard and just keep going. I was a bit nervous about my fuelling strategy (gels throughout every half hour or so with the odd bit of extra stuff at aid stations) but I had a pack of wet wipes with me if it didn’t work out so well. Thankfully I wouldn’t need them.

The first few miles passed pretty quickly and I felt comfortable. I hardly ever run with music when I am on trails but for some reason today I fancied listening to some tunes. I put my iPod on and the first song that came on was Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. This was going to be a good day.

I hit the South Downs Way proper. I love the section around Chanctonbury Ring (which always sounds like a runner’s ailment to me!) and pushed pretty hard around here. Botolphs and CP1 arrived surprisingly quickly and I felt great.

I don’t remember much about the next 15 miles to Housedean Farm. I was running on my own for most of it as the field spread out. The views from the trail were as beautiful as ever, even if it was a bit overcast. I just kept chugging along, making sure that I kept the pace at a decent level.

When I arrived at Housedean Farm it felt like I was nearly there (even though I still had 24 miles to go). I’ve run from there to Eastbourne so many times so I knew exactly what to expect. I must also be one of the few people who actually enjoys running down the yellow brick road. I think it’s because the views you get up there are spectacular, with the coast appearing in the distance.

Next stop Southease and everything was still going well. My quads were starting to complain a bit but that wasn’t really surprising. I had been asking rather a lot of them on the descents and they had been keeping their part of the bargain so far. The hill out of Southease was as unpleasant as ever and I finally arrived at the top of it into a fairly impressive headwind which persisted all the way to Alfriston.

I found that whole section pretty hard. The headwind certainly didn’t help and my quads were really starting to hurt. The iPod was still on shuffle and was coming up with some pretty unusual combinations. Slipknot into Carly Rae Jepson was a personal highlight.

The descent into Alfriston finally tipped my quads over the edge and they started complaining bitterly from that point until the end. In true Jens Voigt style I just told them to shut up. Two big uphills and two big downhills and we would be in Eastbourne. They (and I) just had to shut up, keep going and keep pushing. We did.

I went through Jevington in a blur of lemon drizzle cake and I was onto the last big hill, which always seems to go on forever. It didn’t disappoint. I finally reached the top and headed into the gulley of doom. The bottom section was as evil as ever and I inched down it like Bambi after a hard night out with Thumper on the Jagerbombs.

Finally, the gulley was behind me – waiting for its next unsuspecting victim. My shoes hit tarmac and I could not have been happier. I looked at my watch and knew that if I kept pushing then I was on for a time I would be very proud of.

The iPod very kindly treated me to I Am The Resurrection by the Stone Roses soon after that and that took me virtually to the hospital roundabout. I looked at my watch again. Crikey. This has gone well.

I hit the track, which I still swear is far longer than 400 metres. I could see the finish line. Round the back straight and keep going to the finish. Natasha (my wife) was doing the finish line timings so I ran through the finish and hugged her like I was never going to let go.

Eight hours, fifteen minutes and six seconds. I had just run fifty miles across the South Downs in eight hours, fifteen minutes and six seconds. Two hours and twenty minutes quicker than two years before. I was so happy. I had worked really hard for this and was absolutely delighted that it had all paid off. It made everything worth it.

I got my medal, picked up my drop bag, had a shower and wandered back to the finish where Natasha was still helping. She was there for the duration and it was great to catch up and cheer everyone else as they finished. My stomach was feeling unusual after all the gels I had got through, my quads felt like they had been battered by a pair of sledgehammer-wielding monkeys and I had a blister the size of a satsuma (OK – slight exaggeration) on my big toe. And I felt great.

Thank you to everyone at Centurion for (as ever) organising such a fabulous race. Thank you to all the volunteers who were as fabulous as they always are at Centurion events. The support is incredible from start to finish. Thank you to all my friends for the support both on the course and at the end. Thank you to James Elson for being a superb coach and making me realise that I was capable of doing it. Finally, thank you to Natasha for supporting me, kicking me up the arse when I needed it and for always being there. I really couldn’t have done it without you.

Thanks to Stuart March, Jon Lavis and Nick Jones for the photos of me.

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