The Centurion South Downs Way 50 run is a race that covers half of the total extent of the famous South England trail.
The race starts just above Worthing, it quickly connects to the SDW trail and follows it’s route until it ends in Eastbourne.
It’s an undulating trail made up of big rolling hills, mainly grass or chalk, offering beautiful views that extend all the way to the coastal Sussex.
With a total of almost 6000ft of elevation gain, the course is mostly runnable and on wide packed trails, mainly exposed to the costal wind which usually blows from west to east.
I’ve run the Centurion South Downs Way 50 in 2013, it was my first ultra and one I won’t ever forget. The weather was bad. It was really bad!
It was cold, with strong wind throwing rain sideway. I remember that most of the running along the ridges was a fight trying to keep my face covered and desperately keeping going to not lose that little warmth still under all my soaked layers.
On that day it took me 10 hours and 30 minutes to get to the end.
This year I went with a plan!
My running plans are usually times at checkpoints that I feel hard to reach. Something just beyond my capability so that when I get to that checkpoint I can tell myself: “Oh no, I’m behind schedule… I’ve got to speed up!”
So before the race I went to the Climbers website where they have a pace calculator for the SDW50 that will adjust depending on your desired race time.
I set it to 8 hours and got these stats:
Once again, this was just for an overestimated guidance, my realistic goal was to complete the race in less than 9 hours.
I’ve run some of the stretches of the course throughout the year and I’m well familiar with the second part of the route, I’ve also run a couple local trail marathons along these paths (Steyning Stinger and The Moyleman) and was confident I could run (or jog) all of the 50 miles without having to walk.
I had my race kit ready the night before with a new super light waterproof Montane Minimus smock, a Nike midlayer, my 2 trustworthy Zebralights, map and compass, emergency blanket, white Halo Sport Hat (which has gone through a pink and a confetti blue washing), iphone battery case, gloves and neckband, all in the Salomon Hydro 5l vest.
On April 4th I took an early train to Worthing.
On the train I met up with Rick, a friend from the Moyleman marathon, and a few other runners. We walked together from Worthing station to where the race start.
The Centurion organisation is impressive and every year gets better.
This year they had a large hall as HQ where I was able to quickly go through mandatory kit check and collect my race number 3.
The weather forecast was for around 10 degrees, with some cold wind and chance of showers along the second half of the run. I started off in shorts and a sleeveless top with the intention of wearing an extra layer as soon as I felt cold.
I had recently sold my Inov8 Trailroc 255 as my right foot kept sliding in the shoe on downhills no matter how I tied the strings, causing the big toe to hit against the semirigid front protection. Instead I now had a pair of Trailroc 245 which are softer and have only 3mm drop. My foot stays firm in the shoe and they feel super comfortable.
At the start line I met Derry who was with a couple friends Dudley and Rob.
We all 4 set running together but I gradually pulled off with a slightly faster pace, I heard that Dudley was planning on running just a stretch of the race and Derry and Rob were going for a sub 9 hour time.
Instead I had a plan…
I was feeling confident I could run my own race and was running strong when I was greeted by Dan at aid station 1, but there was still a long way to go.
Ahead of me was Mill Hill, the first big obstacle. I managed to run up it and continue towards Devils Dike.
From here it started feeling like one of those long training runs around Lewes… it felt like home. I could finally see the top of Blackcap and the trail was so pleasantly familiar, I knew every turn and every step, I could almost run it blindfolded.
When I got to Housedean Farm aid station I knew I was roughly beyond the half race mark, I checked my time and unbelievably I was on schedule with the 8h time plan.
The weather was starting to get colder with the wind picking up on the ridges. I slipped on a long sleeve layer which also helped me with some chafing I was to feeling under my arms (for some reason the BodyGlide wasn’t doing its job).
I headed up Kingston ridge and then down the Yellow Brick Road.
I wasn’t surprised when Rick caught up with me on this descent, I was wondering why he hadn’t passed me yet. We ran for a few minutes together and before Southease he increased his pace as he was working towards a negative split.
I meet him again, or better we crossed each other with a high-5, at Southease aid station; next time I saw him was after the finish line.
I pushed up the Southease monster, the big hill that starts the ridge toward Alfriston, knowing that this was the first of 3 climbs left before the finish.
With much of my surprise everything was still proceeding to plan, time was ok and I was feeling good… thus when I got to the Alfriston aid station I asked for a warm tea?!?
I still can’t believe it I stopped for TEA!!
Luckily after a few minutes trying to sip the boiling water I regained some sanity. I thought to my self: “What the hell am I doing?!?”. I put the cup down, thanked the volunteers (I always make sure to shout a loud “Thank you!” before leaving an aid station) and started running again… but after that delirious stop my legs were truly starting to feel tired.
“2 hills to go” I thought to my self.
I was running past runners on the uphills, as I I’m rubbish at any type of power-walking, and then it was their turn to pass me on flat stretches.
But I held on.
By the time I got to Javington I was feeling a little lightheaded, I thought it could be low sugars so on the uphill I opened a bar I had with me. It tasted good but didn’t help with the lighthead. The memory of the steep descent into Eastbourne is a little faded, all I can recall was trying not to slow down and not to fall at the same time. Speaking on which time was definitely ticking: the 8 hour window was fast closing.
It was one of those “now or never” situations. I ran as fast as I could, at this point it wasn’t very fast at all, but I had to give it a try.
The race ends with half lap on a running track before the finish line. This should be a last stretch where you can sprint for the glory. It felt like an endless torture, like running in skiing boots with weights tied to my back.
I was confused, I was happy, I was tired and hungry.
I did it under 8 hours! 7:56 and 19th overall
With my medal around my neck I had a sausage and some water, followed by whatever I could find to eat. I congratulated Rick who made a great 9th place.
Then headed straight for the shower.
Before going back home I managed to say goodbye to Darry and Rob who finished shortly after me but looking much fresher, as if they had a lovely day out.
I walked to the station to catch my train.
I made it home just before my children’s bed time and was greeted like a hero regardless of my running plan, overall position or finishing time.
As always Centurion has put up an amazing show, with dedicated volunteers, a well marked course and flawless organisation!