The Petzl South Downs Way 100 race is one of the biggest events organised by the Centurion Running team.
The race starts in Winchester and ends in Eastbourne running over the entire 100 miles of the SDW.
I’m not sure what I’m going to write after 3 months from crossing the finish line in Easbourne in the middle of the night?
Some memories come back as I type.
I remember how it was uncertain if I was going to run this race, actually I had decided not to.
A few days earlier my daughter was brought to hospital for a nasty infection in her arm and was still on the drip. There is nothing more important than my family. The race could wait!
But then it all happened. Everything unexpectedly came together.
As I was in the hospital, Dan, a good friend, texted me. He wasn’t going to run the SDW100 and could give me his room in Winchester, for the night before the race. Soon after, the doctor told us that my daughter could go home before time as her body was reacting well to the antibiotic.
My wife looked at me and immediately understood what was going through my head.
I got back home to Lewes late on Friday afternoon and quickly ran around the house throwing in a bag everything I needed for running the next day.
I kissed my wife and my kids and ran to get a late train to Winchester.
I arrived at the inn/pub in Winchester around 10pm, I had a pint and made my way up to the room hoping to get a minimum of sleep.
The alarm rang at 4am giving me just enough time to walk to the start line, a half hour walk which lead me to the beginning of the South Downs Way. I collect my number and dropped my bags; including a small drop bag I prepared for the halfway checkpoint, which had some of my favorite bars, a clean t-shirt and socks, and my headlamps.
Here memories start blurring off… I remember it being good weather, one of those sunny yet crispy cold English mornings.
After the countdown everyone started rushing around the small starting field and then eastbound down the South Downs Way, destination Eastbourne 100 miles later.
I was feeling good.
I trained for this race from the beginning of the year.
I already ran the SDW100 in 2014, I managed to run up to mile 76 before having to pull out due to my leg not being able to extend anymore. I remember how even walking felt like something impossible. DNF. But now I knew better, I knew never to make the decision to pull out of a race at a checkpoint. You run out of the checkpoint, then you run a little more, then you suffer and run a little more, and if that doesn’t work you run to the next checkpoint…
This year I built up my running though a training plan and some cross training. I didn’t put in loads of miles but my plan covered tempo runs, back 2 backs, track structured sessions and some aerobic long runs. I also managed to run several marathons and a couple ultras in the months before the SDW100, which built up my confidence.
I also knew that my friend Rick was going to run the last 30 miles with me. At the start line this didn’t feel so relevant as I felt strong. I knew I could make it on my own!
I was going to bring home a buckle.
The trail kept rolling and I remember beautiful hills and views, flowers, horses, and talking to other runners on the way… everything was close to perfect!
It didn’t feel long before getting close to the half point. Just before Washington I recognised Derry jogging down the hills in the opposite direction. Derry came from London just to see people run through the half point, crazy things only ultrarunner do. He turned around and ran a few minutes next to me, we chatted about how the first runner had blown up and this year’s finishing time was not going to be even close to last year’s record set by Mark.
Only after I said goodbye to Derry I realised how much I enjoyed talking to him, how comforting it felt being with someone you know.
That quick encounter had an unexpected recharging effect.
I remember walking into Washington’s check point and changing t-shirt. It felt good to put on something clean. I did sit down but made a point in not getting sucked in the aid station and left as soon as possible.
My legs were now definitely tired but my mind was still strong.
This is where I started understanding how important it was to know Rick was going to pace me for the last 30 miles.
The second part of the SDW100 is the same course of the SDW50, which I had run a few months before. I know the route. I now knew where I was, and the closer we got to Lewes the more everything was familiar: I recognized the hills, the trails, I knew after which turn the trail would change, I knew beforehand where I could run and where I had to walk.
All of a sudden I was finally running next to Rick.
He was waiting at our meeting point. First he asked me how things were going; then he talked to me for the following hours mostly distracting me from the pain, which was starting to set in.
It was getting dark when we reached Housedean Farm.
Rick brought a homemade squash soup his wife Hilary made; half of it spilled a few miles before exploding in his backpack, he let me have all that was left.
It was divine.
Housedean Farm is where I pulled out the year before.
Running out of this check point felt a bit like a jump in the unknown. We were now running through the night with our lights on.
We reached Southease. This meant less than 20 miles to go. From here it was just a “long run”. I know this last stretch by heart. In 2014 I marked this part of the trail for the SDW50.
Fog came down above Firle and I was glad that I was wearing 2 lights, one on the head and one on the waist, which vastly improves seeing in such conditions.
Although it was difficult to see in the distance I noticed a strangely familiar figure on the ridge, holding one of the gates open. I high-fived John, one of my running mates who to my surprise was out, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, just to see me shuffle through.
This encounter once again put a smile on my face and gave me extra warmth.
But pain was creeping as well.
My knee was now really hurting and I was feeling cold and shivering. I put an extra layer on and clenched my teeth. The thought of pulling out was now bouncing endlessly in my head. No, I wasn’t going to pull out… but finding even the slightest reasons to continue running was now really hard. I’m so pleased Rick was there to help me shake these thoughts away.
Rick managed to encourage me to keep going and keep putting one foot in front of the other in a sort of shuffle that was now far from any kind of running.
I’m still trying to forget the last miles through Eastbourne before approaching the finish track, running on asphalt felt like a torture after nearly 100 miles. This part was definitely not fun.
On the other hand, running on the track for that final lap while staring at the finish line made every pain disappear; it brought energy back, I could finally run again (no… my pace was actually still ridiculous).
I crossed the finish, I was smiling!
There are a few things I’ve learned this time round, other than the importance of knowing that you’ll finish no matter what:
- I now truly understand the importance of having a pacer. Having someone running with you has both physical and psychological effects. I’m not sure why they are called “pacers” in endurance races; in my case there was no need for a pacer… I couldn’t run even if I wanted to… if anything I could do a sort of sluggish jog. Through the last miles of the run your pacer becomes not only a friend but also a personal comedian, butler, assistant, mother, coach… It’s incredible the amount of feelings that run through your stomach when you exert your body to the limits.
- I already knew that aid station suck you in like black holes, that’s why I make a point of spending there the least time possible and of never sitting down. But I didn’t expect to spend 15 minutes trying to open my own drop bag… funny what 50 miles of running can do to your hands. Having a crew, like a Formula 1 car, would be better.
- Food wise I’ve been lucky because of all the great things volunteers bring to the aid stations, including a delicious big fat frittata that brought me back to life. I now know to also bring some salt caps with me. Although I only eat “real” stuff and I pay attention to also choose include salty foods, my body was in need of salt at halfway and a couple salt caps did the trick.
- It is so important to see friendly faces, it’s wonderful how their words can stay with you for a long time and keep you company.
- Having some sort of schedule is reassuring, it gives you confidence and mostly it helps you to not go out too quickly (which I always do anyhow). I had my time plan written down on a paper, which of course I left at the pub! But you also should always have a goal.
I had 3 main goals, which in order of importance were:
1 – Finish
2 – Sub 24 hours
3 – Sub 20 hours
I didn’t make the 3rd one as my knee blew up, but still I finished in 20h 51m, close enough for me. I was overly joyous of making the other 2!
Lastly I remember hearing at a workshop about the importance of having some personal mantras to fill your head when the going gets tough.
The ones that worked for me were things like:
“Never, ever, ever give up!”
“The story of why you came last is always better than the one of why you DNFd!”
“In every run you always feel better when you finish than when you are running!”
Obviously each one will have his own, things that can motivate you beyond what is common sense. These words stick in your mind and can literally drag you out from misery more than any rational reasoning.