The South Downs Way 100 – Just a Day

I love peanut M&Ms. There’s something about the combination of peanut and chocolate that makes them my favourite chocolate-based snack. They never let me down. And I was counting on them here. I was trudging up the bottom of the big hill after Washington aid station at mile 54.  I had been in a very bad place before I got to Washington. I had spent a bit of time there to get myself sorted out. It had helped. I was starting to feel better.

I had left a bag of peanut M&Ms in my drop bag for just this situation. I’d never encountered a situation that they hadn’t made better. I plodded up the hill and opened the bag. This would be the point that my race turned round and I felt good again. I put one in my mouth.

It was disgusting. I tried a second one. And a third one. They were horrible. There was nobody near me so I spat them out onto the trail. All the hard work I had done at Washington getting myself sorted evaporated in an instant. I was moving very quickly back to that bad place again. I know it was only a peanut M&M but I had been counting on them. My brain hadn’t been playing ball for a while now and stupid little things were having a disproportionate impact.

This wasn’t good at all. I was now out of the trees and onto the main trail. I put my iPod on (actually it was Natasha’s iPod as mine had died).  I turned it on. The first song that came on was ‘Perfect Day’ (the theme from Legally Blonde – the pinkest, girliest, fluffiest film ever – rather than the Lou Reed version!). I looked around me. I could see for miles in all directions – beautiful countryside on one side and all the way to the sea on the other. It was stunning. I stopped and drank it all in. I smiled. The blackness and negativity that had been plaguing me lifted. I was back.

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This was the third time I had been involved with the SDW100. I’d volunteered in 2012, where Natasha and I ran Southease aid station.  I’d paced Alan, a very good friend, in 2014 from Washington to an inspiring, hard-fought finish.  Now it was my turn to run it.

I was on a total high after my result at SDW50, which was one of those rare days when the running gods were truly with me every step of the way.  I was keen to get back to training for the SDW100 and deferred my place at London so I had more time to focus on it. The slight problem was that I injured my groin in the run up to SDW100. It took the most excruciating amount of pain (cunningly disguised as a massage) which was inflicted on me by Simon Lamb to sort it out. If Simon had slipped during that massage I would now be singing in the Vienna boys’ choir rather than running the SDW100. Thankfully he didn’t.

I was still a bit nervous as we got near the race and my groin was the subject of more conversations with people than a man’s groin decently should be. Oh well. One of the joys of running long distances and hanging out with other people who do the same thing is that our filters are rather less than most people. Which is probably a good thing.

The SDW100 was my second hundred. The W100 last year was my first (I finished in a bit over 26 hours). On that occasion I had pacers from mile 50 to the finish. At the SDW100 I had decided to do it without crew or pacers, although I knew a decent amount of people running or helping at aid stations.

Race day dawned and after a lovely night’s sleep (yes, I am that person who can sleep before a race, even when getting up at an ungodly hour) I got my stuff together and headed for the start with Natasha, whose volunteering stint for the day started at aid station 1 and ended at the finish nearly 30 hours later. Now that’s hardcore! After the usual kit check, registration and catching up with people, we were away.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Pretty much the only thing I remember about the first 22 miles to QECP (aid station 2) is Butster Hill. I had heard beforehand from various people that this is a belter of a downhill. They weren’t lying. I was feeling really good at this stage. I got to the top of the hill and could see an amazing descent below me, tempting me. And then my iPod decided to play ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17. I had no choice.

I can only apologise to the runners I belted past on that downhill, aeroplaning madly and singing ‘Temptation’ at the top of my voice. I can only apologise to my quads as well, as I suspect that probably didn’t help them out too much in preparation for the struggles ahead. It was still damn good fun though.

I cantered into QECP (checkpoint 2), secure in the knowledge that there was a toilet there. There was, although there was a queue. All I can say is that it was well worth the wait…

At some stage over the next few miles my head really started to go. My left knee (which I have had problems with before and caused me to walk the last 30 miles of the W100 last year) was feeling niggly and it was worrying me. The day was turning out to be hotter than expected. An impressive blister was developing on the ball of my left foot (mostly due to the sharpness of the chalky, flinty trails) and I was generally becoming dispirited and a bit whingey. This reached its zenith at Kithurst Hill (mile 50) where I had a good moan at Gary Dalton. Thankfully, he pretty much ignored me.

The daft thing was that I was doing really well (about 9 hours 15 minutes to halfway) but I just couldn’t see it. I was in a really negative headspace. The rational part of my brain seemed to have deserted me, leaving only the negative part left. It kept telling me that this was stupid – why was I doing this to myself? It was pointless. I was in pain and my brain was telling me it wasn’t worth it. I was going too slow it was saying. I wasn’t good enough to do this on my own. Looking back it’s surprising how black my mood became and how quickly it got there. And the worst thing is that there really was no good reason for it.  I was a bit hot, my foot hurt and my knee had a bit of a niggle. That was it.

I ploughed on, grumbling to myself. Thankfully, Washington appeared a bit sooner than I expected. I picked up my drop bag, sat down and wondered how I could bring this back.

I had the good fortune to be sat next to Ian Walker, who amused me with a story about popping one of his blisters at an LDWA event as I set about tending to mine. He was in such a good place (in stark contrast to me) and it began to rub off on me. Thank you Ian.

Blisters popped and compeeded, socks changed, contact lenses in, M&S iced and spiced bun eaten, I drank some coke, switched Natasha’s iPod for mine, grabbed a packet of peanut M&Ms and headed out for the trail. Those peanut M&Ms would complete the turnaround I thought.

Anyway, you know what happened with the peanut M&Ms, so let’s move on. I was now on home turf, having paced from this point last year and having run the SDW50 twice (and done countless training runs on the section from Housedean Farm onwards). Unfortunately my blister issues hadn’t gone away completely as my right heel was determined to join the party. Botolphs aid station, a safety pin and another compeed put a stop to that. Job done.

I was in a much better place now mentally and still moving pretty well. Saddlescombe Farm came and went. I’d love to say in a blur but it was 66 miles in so I would be exaggerating. I wasn’t moving that quickly.

Clayton Windmills was next. I could smell the ginger cake I had left in my second drop bag as soon as I left Saddlescombe. When I got there it tasted as fantastic as I had imagined it. Funny how little things like that can give you such a lift. I left the peanut M&Ms in my drop bag. I couldn’t handle that disappointment twice in one race.

The Clayton to Housedean Farm section passed pretty much without incident, except for the descent into Housedean which was murderous on my quads, which were now starting to complain quite loudly about the punishment I had inflicted on them.  Other than that, I was still feeling pretty good, all things considered. My head was still in a good place and I was still chugging along, on track for a sub-24 hour finish and that belt buckle.

Head torch on at Housedean, more coke drunk (I shudder to think how much I got through – you could probably clean a 2p piece with my pee at the end of the race) and off I went. I watched the most beautiful sunset as I plodded up the next climb. Just glorious.

It was during this next section that I realised that my quads were rapidly heading south (which wasn’t great as I was heading east) and the downhills started to become less than pleasant. The yellow brick road was probably the final nail in their coffin. By the time I got to Southease I knew that they were shot. Uphills were still good, the flat was bearable but downhills were really, really bad. Given that I still had 16 miles to go and there were some significant downhills left, it was with some trepidation that I left Southease and headed for Alfriston.

On the big climb out of Southease I did a few mental calculations. If I could make 3 miles an hour until the end I could still comfortably get that 24 hour buckle. I rang Natasha to make sure that my calculations were correct. She confirmed that they were. I told her that my quads were done and it would be a walk to the finish from here. She (politely and nicely) told me to walk quickly. There was no reason why I couldn’t power hike this in rather than walk it in. As ever, I listened to her. She is usually right.

I kept going. After a while, fog started to roll in. Visibility started to become very limited, which was a bit spooky. It was pitch dark, except for my headlamp and the odd headlamp in front or behind. Thankfully I know this section of trail very well so I wasn’t overly bothered by it. It was just like being in a Scooby Doo cartoon without the disgruntled employee dressed in a costume trying to scare passers by. And the talking dog.

The fog started to thin out and I reached the descent into Alfriston. If I had thought the descent into Housedean had been painful, it had nothing on this. I slowly inched my way down the descent and I was in Alfriston. Ninety one miles done. Nine to go.

Fuelled by yet more coke and now some lemon drizzle cake (thank you Roni!) I headed out of the aid station, across the bridge and into a field. I just had to cross this field and I was onto the big climb out of Alfriston and even closer to the finish.

And then I saw them. Eyes. Lots of them. Leering at me through the darkness. I stopped. I looked around. Staring back at me was the face of pure evil. A cow. Oh shit. Lots of cows. All over the field but, more importantly, on the trail.

Now I’ve got some previous with cows. I’m generally a live and let live kind of person but me and cows just don’t get on for some reason. I’ve been charged by the bloody things in several countries on various occasions now so I am fairly wary around them. I thought back to last year when Alan and I were attacked twice by the evil creatures. Please don’t let it happen again here. Not now. Not when I am so close. I don’t even have Alan to use as a decoy.

The cows were sitting down so I figured I had a chance. I didn’t care how knackered my quads were. I needed them now. I couldn’t do this without them. I started to psych myself up, ready to run through the herd of cows towards the gate and freedom.

Then the cows started to stand up. They reminded me of Dracula rising from the coffin with a thirst for blood. And I had no garlic in my drop bag – only a small bar of kinder chocolate and an apple crumble flavoured gel. There was only one thing for it – I put my head down and ran. Through the herd of rising cows and towards the gate.

I made it to the gate. Thankfully it opened first time and I was through it. I looked behind me. A field full of cows stood there, staring at me malevolently. I flicked the Vs at them and headed up the hill.

I was still moving well on the uphills so I made short work of the climb. The descent down into Jevington was another matter but I grumbled and winced my way down it. After a cake and coke stop at Jevington I was off again and on the home straight (well the last four miles anyway).

A refill at Jevington

A refill at Jevington

Up the final climb, past the trig point and down the gulley of doom. If I thought the last couple of descents had been painful they had nothing on this. I slowly descended the gulley, quads screaming for mercy, until I finally arrived in the suburbs of Eastbourne. I was nearly there.

Off I walked through the dark streets of Eastbourne, heading for the finish. I got to Kings Drive (the long road leading to the hospital). I had been thinking about my race on my walk through Eastbourne. I was proud of it. It had been very hard but I had done well. I had given everything and I could smell the 24 hour buckle now.

But had I really given everything? I was still walking. I had started the race running and I wanted to finish it running. I wanted to leave everything out on the course. I started running. It didn’t go very well. I stopped. I started again. This was better. It wasn’t quick but it was just about running.

I ran along Kings Drive. It seemed much longer than I remembered. I looked at my watch. If I could keep this up then I could finish in under 22 hours. Under 22 hours!! I kept running.

I reached the hospital and turned left on the path towards the sports ground and the track. I was absolutely determined now that I would leave nothing out there. I thought about how far I had come to get to this point and I started to speed up. The path went on forever. I kept running. I still don’t know how.

I got to the end of the path. I saw the sports ground. I saw the track. I ran through the gates and was now on the track. I saw Natasha at the finish. I kept running. I went round the back straight. And finally, twenty one hours and fifty four minutes after I started at Winchester, I crossed the finish line.

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Natasha holding me up at the finish

Shattered doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt at that point. I was done in. But I was also elated. I had done it! I had travelled a hundred miles in less than one day. I had earned that belt buckle. I had achieved what I set out to do and had an amazing time while doing it. I had wrestled with a few demons along the way but somehow I had overcome them and got to the finish in a time I was very proud of. I had done it.

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The belt buckle

Finally, a few thank yous

  • Thank you to all the volunteers. The race could not happen without you. You filled my water bottles, fed me cake, poured me coke and kept me going. You are all, without exception, awesome.
  • Thank you to Alan and Teresa Bennett. We are fortunate to have you as friends. I thought about last year’s SDW100 on several occasions while I was out there and it inspired me and made me chuckle. You are both fabulous.
  • Thank you to everyone I know who I saw out on the course and at the finish, whether running or helping. Seeing friendly faces and having a chat with people at different stages made a huge difference.
  • Thank you to James, Nici and all the Centurion team.  You organise superb races and you really care about the runners.  And it shows.
  • Thank you to James Elson. You are a superb coach and I would not have finished this race in this time without your help, support and guidance.
  • Thank you to Natasha. You put up with a lot and I couldn’t have done this without you. You were with me every step of the way, in spirit if not in person.

 

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