I started writing this post on Saturday evening, lying in bed drinking pink gin in a tin & eating crisps (don’t judge, I had just run 50 miles…!). Those words were very different to the words I write here. Sometimes a few days of reflection are needed to rationalise thoughts, feelings & emotions. I write for myself, no one else, & as much to remember my adventures as anything else. So here goes my South Downs Way 50 story, mark II…
Just as the race was about to start I had a text from my Dad, I glanced down at my phone, it read “Run well, run swiftly but remember to take in the view”. I smiled, put my phone back in my pocket & turned my focus back to the pre-race briefing.
This race had been my focus & my goal for the past 18 weeks. I was standing here ready to give it my everything. I’d had a solid block of dedicated training, I’d worked hard. I felt strong, ready & was going into the race with a quiet confidence.
In 2017 I ran the North Downs Way 50. I’d entered it in the summer of 2016 on a whim. I was injured. I ran on roads when I wasn’t injured. I didn’t own trail shoes, a race vest or to be perfectly honest really know where the North Downs were. I wanted a running challenge, a goal, a focus & something to cheer myself up. My one aim for race day was to finish, to simply see if I could run 50 miles.
I bought trail shoes, a race vest, a map, a compass (admittedly I still don’t know how to use it) & I started exploring
I could & I did.
NDW50 in 11 hours 21 minutes.
Whilst training for & running the NDW50, something happened.
This city girl fell in love with trails, with exploring, with mud, hills, rivers & running long. My road shoes became neglected. My feet almost permanently muddy & my legs tanned. I embraced off road adventures growing in confidence & ability. My navigation improved, I got better at climbing hills & running at speed down the other side, travelling though mud & across uneven ground & I no longer let a herd of cows in my path scare me. I carried on exploring the North Downs Way & by November 2017 had made it to Wye, almost 100 miles along the trail.
One day last summer, on another whim, I jumped on a train to Southease with a map, a bottle of water & a bag snacks & I discovered the South Downs Way. I ran from Southease to Eastbourne, finishing with a paddle in the sea.
I’d entered the South Downs Way 50 the morning the race opened, knowing I wanted a challenge for 2018. If NDW50 2017 was my ‘can I do it’ race, SDW50 2018 was going to be my ‘what can I do’ race.
I’m very much a goal orientated person. I like having a focus & something to work towards. In life, with work & in running. SDW50 was my 2018 running goal & I put absolutely everything I had into training for it.
My aim. 50 miles in under ten hours.
I’m going to give a little spoiler here, I did it. I more than did it to be honest. I did it in 9 hours 36 minutes. I didn’t just hit my goal I absolutely smashed it.
The story isn’t quite that simple though.
With a result like that I really want to be writing about how much I LOVED the South Downs Way 50. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my result but to be honest there is not so much love for the process of getting there on the day. Simply put, that was the hardest thing I have ever, ever done.
I do kind of wonder if my focus on the end result took away some of the enjoyment of the day. I started with an aggressive, and perhaps controversial, strategy. I was going out hard & I was going to keep going hard for as far & as long as I could. I would get up the hills any way possible, run the flats & throw myself down the other side. I’ve discovered I’m strong on the descent & I wanted to use that to my advantage.
Back to race day. Whereas at the NDW50, with the exception of one club mate, I’d pretty much been alone at the start, sitting, waiting, watching, today I stood at the start chatting with a group of people I’d met through the ever amazing online running community. Some I’d met in person prior to the race & shared a beer with. Some I’d run with during year. Some I was meeting for the first time that morning but having people around me made such a huge difference to how I felt. I was nervous, I always am, but chatting & laughing with others calmed those nerves. I was relaxed, happy & ready.
The early miles were great, I felt good. A slow start as nearly 400 runners navigated the narrow paths & early hills as we made our way up to the SDW. The race started on the outskirts of Worthing, ran a few miles on local paths until it reached the South Downs Way & then carried along the National Trail (“follow the acorns…”) until turning off four miles from the end & finishing on the outskirts of Eastbourne. Initially I was a bit annoyed with myself for starting towards the back, not because I wanted to be a front runner, but because I knew what my race plan was & I just wanted to get going!
Those first few miles ticked on by. Miles 8-11 run at sub-9 minutes mile pace. To put that into perspective my (flat) marathon PB pace is 8:50 but I wasn’t worried. I knew this was fast but I also knew this was my plan & at this stage I had to run it with confidence.
I kept myself amused by spotting all the points that Ben & I had got lost on one of our recce runs; there’s where we got lost first…
and there is where we got REALLY lost…
And that’s where Ben dropped his jelly babies… I was actually quite thankful for those recce runs, it meant that up until check point one the route was familiar.
At the top of a hill I paused, remembering my Dad’s words to stop & take in the views. Even on a slightly cloudy day they were something, stretching for miles across the Sussex countryside. I smiled.
This is what I love about trail running.
I ran into checkpoint one smiling, feeling good. I arrived with Stephen, a club mate from Striders of Croydon. We left together, had a little chat on the hill out of Botolphs whilst munching on chunks of melon & then he left me for dust as he powered up the hill never to be seen again. He finished his first 50 in an incredible 9:11.
The miles to CP2 at Saddlescombe Farm rolled on by, chatting to various other runners, stopping for the occasional photo. I was running fairly strongly & arrived at the CP well ahead of target. I grabbed some coke, filled up my tailwind & put a couple of peanut butter & jam sandwiches in my bag for the journey. My CP strategy was to be as quick as possible, in & out. I do kinda feel as if I missed out on some good snacks though, I’d forgotten that there was going to be vegan brownies at Saddlescombe & I’ve been sad ever since that I missed them! (And on that note, because I don’t know where else to say it, thank you to all the amazing volunteers!)
I was still pushing hard & before CP3 clocked marathon distance in 4:42. I’d have been damn pleased with this time for a hilly trail marathon to be honest, never mind having another 24 miles to go. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to carry on at this pace for much longer but also knew that whilst I felt good I was going to keep going.
All of the aid stations were in the valleys. We ran down a hill to get to them & this inevitably meant there was a big climb as we left them. The climb out of CP3 at Housedean Farm seemed to go on for miles & miles. And miles. I slow jogged some of it, walked a little, had a snack, texted a friend with a progress report, looked up, saw that I STILL wasn’t at the top, jogged a little more, had a chat with a guy wearing a white hat. Woohoo a flat bit! I pushed on.
31 miles. Now officially my second longest run EVER & it was starting to get tough. The race started now. I hurt. Everywhere. My left knee was beginning to grumble so my descents became slower. 34 miles in, I arrived at CP5 in Southease feeling quite despondent & almost dazed. My love for the SDW & running in general was waning. As I ran in, Justin Bateman was on his way out. He said hello & in my confused state I think I barely acknowledged him in return. I knew I needed to eat, but was struggling. It’s unusual for me to turn down food but I really did not want anything & this worried me a little. I’d nailed fuelling on the NDW50 but knew I hadn’t got it right here. I hung around somewhat aimlessly for a couple of minutes, drank some more coke & grabbed a couple of pieces of vegan cake to take with me.
Time to dig deep. This was where I needed to start believing in myself. I can. I will. I glanced at the believe tattoo on my wrist, my visual reminder, took a moment, a deep breath & set off again. I’d ran this section from Southease just three weeks earlier for this very reason. I knew the latter stages would be tough both mentally & physically & I wanted the route to feel familiar.
Another long climb. On & on & on. I turned around, looking at the view. The top of the hill never seemed to arrive & the side wind, headwind & any direction apart from the one you wanted it to be, wind, was ferocious. I kept running, knowing that whilst I was running I was still going. Sharon Dickenson ran past me, stopping for a few words. She said she remembered me from the Caterham check point at last years NDW50 because I was so happy & smiley as I ran through. She told me I was looking strong. I wasn’t feeling strong but her words gave me the boost I needed & I pushed on.
The latter miles were so painful, I don’t have any other word. All my focus was on keeping moving that I started to miss the views, I forgot my Dad’s reminder to remember to take them in & I deeply regret this. In my darkest moment, somewhere between mile 40 & the end, I had tears in my eyes & I swore that I would never do this again. I contemplated dropping out of next months NDW50 as feeling this much pain again scared me. I debated giving up running altogether. That is how much I hurt.
This was tough. This was hard. I hurt like I’d never hurt before. I wanted to stop. I questioned my training, I felt as if it had gone SO well, I’d hit all my targets, reached all my goals. What more could I have done to make this feel easier? But then, alone on the trail, I argued with myself, if it was easy, where would the challenge be? And wasn’t this all about me challenging myself.?
A glance down. Believe.
Alfriston, Mile 42, CP6, a much needed, but brief, hug & words of encouragement from Emma & Chelsea. I would have quite happily stopped but knew I had to keep moving. Just 8 more miles to go.
I don’t remember a lot about those 8 miles. I didn’t even take any photos. That alone says something.
Louise Ayling was waiting at the entrance to the final CP at Jevington, she told me how strong was looking, I chose not to stop, I needed to keep going. The fact that there were steps to get to the final aid station had absolutely NOTHING to do with my decision. No, nothing at all…
I started the final climb to the Jevington trig point, the point that I’d got ever so slightly (read, very) lost at a few weeks earlier. For the first time in the race I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, I was tired & lonely. I turned around & not far behind me saw Chris. I’d met Chris at the NDW50 & we’d been chatting on Twitter ever since. I stopped. I needed a friend. We walked the hill together, I told him I was struggling. I told him I didn’t think I could do it. He told me I could.
A smiling volunteer was at the trig point telling us to follow the big arrows (wish they had been there on my recce run…!). Down the steep gullies, my knee no longer allowing me to throw myself down the descents. Onto the road. Every single step hurt. My mind & my mind alone ran that final mile. My legs were heavy, my body was done. I had zero energy. This is where all the mental strength I had shoved my physical strength out of the way & took over. Mind over body. Your body achieves what your mind believes.
Chris brought me home. This last few miles he was looking fresh, strong & as if he could sprint, but he ran every step from the trig point to the stadium with me & I will be ever thankful to him for doing so. Having him a few steps in front of me kept me going, kept me running. I did not stop running. I did not walk.
I turned into the stadium, a crowd was there cheering me on. Apparently I was smiling. I looked happy. I don’t remember. I wish I could have absorbed this moment but all I could think about was that lap. That lap of the track & the finish line. A guy ran past me shouting ‘sprint finish’, I replied not a chance… But I picked up my pace. 300m. 200m. 100m. And finish.
I did it.
9 hours 36 minutes.
A medal was placed round my neck. I was given a t-shirt, a hug from Stuart as he took my finish line photo. I was somewhat disorientated but now I couldn’t stop smiling. I’d done it.
I’m sitting here crying as I write those words.
I had done it.
After all that, whilst I enjoy the result, I LOVE the result, I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ the SDW50. That was physically & mentally the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than last years NDW50. Simply because I pushed myself to my limit. I gave it my absolute everything & at the end I simply had nothing left.
I wanted to see if I could. And I can. I set myself a challenging target, which I smashed.
Would I have enjoyed the race more if I hadn’t gone out hard & pushed myself to the max?
Would I have been left wondering ‘what if?’ if I hadn’t gone out hard & pushed myself to the max?
Do I regret trying?
I can. I will. I ran 50 miles in 9 hours 36 minutes & sorry, I know as Brits we’re not supposed to say things like this, but I am flipping proud of myself for doing so.
To quote a very well know phrase “Pain is temporary, pride is for ever”.
The last part of the race for me was cheering in other runners & catching up with people I’d been chatting to on route hearing their stories & celebrating our achievements. I’m sorry I can’t remember everyones names. Out of the group I’d been with at the start, Ben finished not long after me having beaten his sub-10 hour goal, I saw Spencer’s pink socks run into the stadium & round the track to the finish arch an hour later. Mary who I’d only met as we walked to to the start line finished under a rainbow. Kate, Dan & the other Chris crossing the line together under the most incredible sunset. My fellow Strider Myles beat his 50 mile PB by 5 minutes a little while later, Keith Simpson another Strider who just six weeks ago had a hernia operation finished when his only goal had been to start & Jane, who I’d met for pre-race dinner the previous night, came in at 12:26.
After feeling so completely awful over the last few miles I needed those couple of hours of talk, chat, laughter & celebration. As time progressed, the pain & discomfort eased as I smiled & remembered the good bits of the race. As always, it’s the people you meet that make the things that seem bad, good!
Three days on I’ve been for a gentle jog. The legs feel ok, there is no pain in my left knee. I’ve not given up running & I am going to run the NDW50 in a few weeks time. This time though I’m going to remember my Dad’s words for the whole 50 miles, I will run well, I will run swiftly & I will take in the views. I will also eat cake at the aid stations, stop for a chat, smile, take 100’s of photos & enjoy the day.
I now know what I am capable of when I work hard & push myself to my limit, I know I can do it. My goal for NDW50 is to enjoy the process as well as the result. And if that means finishing in 12:59 with a massive smile on my face then job done!
“Run well, run swiftly but remember to take in the view” Dad.