The Serpent Trail 100km, Beautiful & Brutal

The one that taught me just how strong I can be when I put my mind to it & believe in myself.

The Serpent Trail is a 64 mile long path that runs through heathland, greensand & woodland from Haslemere to Petersfield & quite possibly is the most beautiful trail I have ever had the privilege to run on. I thought the name was because the the trail looks like a snake on the map, no, it’s because it passes through the native habitat of all three British species of snake (adder, grass & smooth in case you were wondering). Just to curb any early curiosity, I did not see any snakes during the run, for which I am most disappointed.

This was never an ‘A’ race, it slipped into my diary almost unnoticed & crept up upon me with snake like speed. I’d entered on a whim. Piggy backing on the training for SDW50 & NDW50 I wanted to see if I could go ‘that little bit further’. I’d also had such a horrible run at the NDW50 in May, this race was partly an attempt to put that day behind me.

At 6am, 61 runners gathered just off of the High Street In Haslemere for the countdown & race start. It was already warm. I’d been in just shorts & a vest since arriving at race HQ in Petersfield at 4:30am (registration was at the finish line, we were bussed to the start, a mere 11 miles away in a straight line!).

I was determined to avoid my usual kamikaze  approach to race starts & was quite happy trotting along in the middle of the pack. I had a plan, I was starting slow & steady, I was sticking to it. In the first mile I bumped into Dai, recognising him from photos on friends Instagram feeds (he has a very distinctive beard that made him easily identifiable) & we got chatting. Turns out he lives round the corner from me!

Three miles in, & after continuous climbing since the start, we reach Blackdown, the highest point on the South Downs. At this stage in the race it doesn’t feel much of a climb but as we run through the trees the vista opens up for the first time & we can see for miles. I run along, a stupid big grin plastered all over my face, not even 7am & here I am on top of the world!

Top of the world! Backdown, the highest point of the South Downs.

A mile or so later was the only time in the race when I went wrong & I’m kicking myself. Dai & I were chatting & slightly distracted, three other runners mere steps behind us. We missed a sign & I wasn’t looking at the navigation on my watch. My gut instinct told me we’d gone wrong about a quarter of a mile before we turned back. I need to learn to trust my instinct. An early lesson learnt, that was my only error the whole race, the navigation tools on my Fenix 3 proving invaluable. With the exception of the first five miles (which they had warned us about) the race was well marked but there were a number of points when the signs were, lets say, a little ambiguous. The gpx file on the Garmin was pretty much spot on & I know some runners who didn’t have this back-up went wrong numerous times.

© Marcus Dodridge

I was helped during the first half of the race by being on vaguely familiar ground having run it with Rachel just three weeks earlier. Rachel, the Serpent Trail being her local playground, was running the 50km race later in the day & had offered to show me around. We ran a great 28 miles & whilst I wouldn’t have been able to guide or direct, the familiarity was reassuring.

9.5 miles in & Check Point 1. I didn’t need much at this point, I ate some watermelon, topped up my water, drank a couple of cups of squash & was in & out in no more than a minute. I had a rough plan for the day, I had a finish time in mind that I thought I was capable of & had worked out target paces for each section, I was allowing myself a couple of minutes at each CP & ten minutes at the two with drop bags. I left CP1 feeling good & about 15 minutes ahead of my (very) rough target.

About 12 miles in I told Dai I needed to pull back & encouraged him to go on. Although we both had similar end goals I knew that he was naturally a much faster runner than I was & I was beginning to feel myself getting pulled along at his pace. It was one of those tough calls to make because I was enjoying the company & was feeling pretty good but I knew I needed to be conservative. Looking back I’m proud of myself for being sensible, all too often I get carried along, enthusiastic in the early miles only to suffer later. Dai ran on (only to reappear behind me four miles later as he’d got ‘a little bit lost…!’). 

I plugged my headphones in, preparing myself for the solidarity of the remaining 50 miles & settled into a steady period of 11/12 minute miles. I was in my zone, enjoying running. Whilst the route was challenging & my legs were beginning to develop that familiar mid-run ache, I was feeling comfortable & strong. We wound through woodland trails, across fields of tall, yellowing, grass & battled through ginormous green ferns hiding the pathways. Left, then right, up, then down, constantly changing, constantly varied.

There’s a trail in there somewhere…

20 miles soon appeared, another CP & our first drop bag. 9:40am, one third of the way through & already so hot. A quick reapplication of suncream, a drink, some fruit & grabbing my next round of PB & jam sandwiches from my bag I headed off.

One of my failings at NDW50 was the inability to eat, or rather my inability to force myself to eat. I knew I needed to make amends today so one of my goals was to eat every few miles regardless. I’d already had my first four sandwiches, I had another four to see me to my next drop bag. I topped these up with fruit & biscuits at the CP’s & by drinking Tailwind. I probably still didn’t eat quite enough over the course of the 100km, but it was a huge improvement on my last couple of races.

Coming out of CP2 I started criss-crossing with a couple of guys, one of whom had fallen in the first few miles & was running with a massive cut on his head. They pull ahead, I overtake, we chat a little, running, races, all the usual before falling into a comfortable silence.

23 miles & a climb I was looking forward to, simply because I knew what was a the top. We reach the top & the guys carry on running. I turn, pause & remember what my Dad says to me before every race;

“run well, run swiftly but don’t forget to stop & take in the views”.

“run well, run swiftly but don’t forget to stop & take in the views”

Time can wait. I run trails, I climb hills for moments like this.

And I know there’s more to come.

Reluctantly I turn & start running again, relishing the ease of a gentle decline, gravity taking the weight of my legs for a few minutes. The headphones go back in & I settle back into my rhythm. Up, down, up again, down again. Almost at marathon distance. One of my current favourite songs pops up on my playlist. It makes me smile.

I look up, this is my view…

My smile widens with happiness. I pick up my pace & start singing along. I run down the small hill, up the next one, the trees are my audience. I pause for a photo. I want to capture this, photos are my memories & I want to remember this moment. I look at this photo now & I forget the toughness, the difficulties, the pain & the discomfort of the latter stages. All I remember is the joy that this moment brought.

Coming into the next CP at Upperton, although having slowed a little over the last couple of miles as the temperatures creep even higher, I still feel relatively strong. I’m very nearly at half-way.

I stay a little longer than originally planned at this CP simply refilling my bottles & making sure I have enough to drink. I have soft flasks of Tailwind & the bladder in the back of my pack for water, which is a total pain to refill mid race but today I am SO thankful that I’m carrying the extra fluid. I drink just under two litres in the ten miles between CP3 & CP4, this is after four cups of squash whilst at the CP. In the increasing heat I literally could not drink enough to quench my thirst.

I head off again & run through Tillington, the finish point of mine & Rachel’s run a few weeks earlier. I look longingly at the pub we ended at with ice cold pints of coke, knowing there is a very inviting hammock swinging in the breeze in the garden.

The temperature at this point was around 35 celsius.

My watch ticks over 31 miles. Half-way. I am 20 minutes ahead of my target but had already made the decision prior to CP3 to pull back & was readjusting my goals accordingly. And I was ok with that. Temperatures were flirting in the low 30’s, the heat was becoming near unbearable & was simply draining all energy. From a 13 hour target (which I do still think I am capable of) my goal became finish. Running when I could, walking when I needed & crawling if I must.

It was here that I knew I’d overcome my NDW50 demons. Post race I’d quite openly said my head wasn’t in it, I wasn’t mentally prepared or mentally strong enough for the 50 miles. 31 miles in today, I was physically tiring but felt mentally strong. I’d readjusted my goal & but still felt positive. Despite the challenges, I knew that I was physically AND mentally capable of finishing & that kept my confidence up.

This mental attitude made such a difference to my race. At points I reflected on how I felt at NDW50 & I honestly have no idea how I got to that finish line. I couldn’t have dealt with today’s conditions, that’s for sure.

A section of road around Petworth Park & through the town of Petworth. I could feel the heat radiating off of the pavement & then came the final big climb.

All the major elevation was in the first half of the race, the second half was advertised as ‘fast & flat’ & this hill was the last significant incline. It was brutal. There is no other word. It wasn’t that steep, about 200ft over three quarters of a mile, but 34 miles in & with the burning midday sun beating down on our backs, there was not a single scrap of shade to shelter in. I reached the top & hid behind a bush for a few moments trying to find just a small piece of respite.

The shaded area shows the elevation & the contrast between the hilly first 50 & the flatter second 50. The blue line indicates temperature. At 32 miles my Garmin recorded 95 Fahrenheit or 35 celsius.

This was now a battle. I switched the data screens on my watch off, my goal was to simply keep moving forward & I did not want to be constantly reminded of time & distance.

CP4 at Lords Piece seemed a very long way coming. I was expecting it at 39.6, my watch ticks over 41 as I run in. In that last mile before the CP I’m beginning to get anxious as I’m running our of water.

As I arrive, England have just kicked off against Sweden in the World Cup Quarter Final. Someone has a a radio on & the CP is quite busy. I log my timing chip, grab a cup of squash & find some shade. This is where we pick up our second drop bag. A volunteer pulls up a chair for me & places a cold towel that has been soaking in icy water on my shoulders. A little bit of heaven at Lords Piece CP.

I quickly reapply my suncream & my absolute genius drop bag move comes into play… I had frozen soft flasks of Tailwind & cartoons of juice, taken them out of my freezer 12 hours earlier & put them in a cool bag. 40 miles in & I have ICE COLD SLUSHIE DRINKS, bliss! The only thing that could have topped it was an orange Calippo!

I drink at least another litre whilst in the CP, refill the bladder in my pack again & grab my ice-cold flask of tailwind for the journey. I was quite comfortable sitting in the shade but knew I needed to get moving. 

41 miles, two thirds done. I’m well aware that in this heat, it’s still in the 30’s, I may end up walking most of the remaining 20 miles. It’s not what I had planned but I’m ok with that, I’m eating well, I’m drinking well, I have tunes in my ears & I leave the CP feeling positive.

Some sections looked almost tropical!

As with a lot of races as they get tougher my ability to remember where we run decreases. As does my desire to take photos. I’m putting all my energy into moving, I take little notice of my surroundings, other than an awareness of the beauty, or the music in my ears.

It’s only 6 miles until the next CP, in the latter stages of the race they are a lot closer to one another. I’m beginning to have a few dark moments & am finding it tough to remain mentally strong. The volunteers as always are wonderful, full of support & encouragement but they can clearly see the toll the heat is taking on us.

I leave CP5 with Laura & we begin chatting as we walk. She’s also a Centurion & recently ran the SDW100 (mile, not km) that I volunteered at. Company comes at the right moment. We’re both finding it tough. She’s completed three 100 mile races but says this is harder than any of them. That gives me a little reassurance, it’s not just me! We run, walk, chat, run, walk, walk, chat, walk, run, walk… The chat is a good distraction from the discomfort.

My pace has dropped to 17, 18 minute miles but as my watch ticks over 51 miles & I loudly celebrate my longest ever run! I’m pleased I have someone to share the moment with & that it doesn’t come surrounded by the silence of the forrest. Whatever else happens today, I have a new distance PB!

CP6, the familiar routine, water, top up the tailwind, squash, eat & go… I have nothing to tell from the journey between CP6 & CP7. I don’t remember where I ran or what happened. Laura & I stay in comfortable companionship, sometimes chatting, sometimes in silence. Sometimes running, mainly walking.

We arrive at CP7 in Dumpford. 89.6km/55.6 miles (although I make it 56.7). This is the last fully stocked CP of the race. I’m done with eating, this may be a mistake, but gulp down a couple of cups of squash

The volunteers enthusiastically tell us it’s only 10km to go, it must be 10km because this is where the 10k race started earlier. My Garmin is a little off distance wise by this point, as often happens with races, so I try & work out what numbers I’m aiming for.

10km though.

I can do 10km.

We leave & slowly trudge along the road & I feel a bit sorry for the 10km runners, they didn’t get the beautiful trails we had earlier on. This section is, to be honest, a little boring. Country lanes, tarmac, hedges & fields either side. A jump into the hedgerow to narrowly avoid a speeding tractor provides a little excitement. A mile or so along & Laura begins to pull away. Whilst I’m in awe of having clocked my longest ever run today, despite struggling in the heat, Laura’s long-distance experience shows at this point. She goes on to finish third lady.

Country lanes

I’m trying hard not to look at my watch. I still have all data screens turned off so that I’m not obsessing over the distance, just my navigation is visible. Mile alerts pop up.

57.

58.

59 miles.

I’m doing 18, 19 minute miles & really, really struggling. It’s now 8pm & I was hoping that as the evening drew in & the air became cooler I may win back some of the energy stolen by the afternoon’s heat. I don’t. Every single step is an effort. I literally have nothing left in me. One foot in front of the other, left, right, left, right, it is all I can do. I turn off of the road & back onto trail. At least that’s something.

Hang on, who the fuck put a style 95km into a 100km race? 

I stop, stand, swear loudly & look at it. I’m not entirely sure how I am going to get over it. Gingerly I lift one foot onto the first step, the second foot follows. Onto the second step. Ok, we’re up, now we just have to get over & down. The only way I can do it is lead with my left leg & then physically lift my right leg over. My hip flexor is screaming at me. It does not like this one little bit. Neither do I hip, neither do I.

We’re over, I move forward. The sun is beginning to set in the distance. I said earlier in the day when I first abandoned my 13 hour time goal that “at least if I took longer I would get it see sunset”. 

I was joking.

Fuck, another style.

And other. Seriously, WTAF.

A guy in blue runs up behind me. He’s full of energy & slows for a chat. I’d been criss-crossing with his crew for about 20 miles or so, jealously seeing them parked up at various points along the way, a chair ready & waiting for him, a selection of drinks & snacks laid in the boot. He says he wouldn’t have been able to do it without their support, the extra water, food & rest that they provided was invaluable. I question (silently, in my head) whether crews are an unfair advantage.

He runs on. 60 miles. 61 miles. I may be tired but my brain is still functioning well enough to tell me that 100km is 62 miles, I have one mile to go. I can do one mile, we’re nearly there peeps, we’re nearly there.

Back onto some road. There is one CP left, a final water only stop. I see it in the distance.

I roll in & the volunteer cheerily greets me with ‘only three miles to go…”

Three?

I question him. Yes three. A few fields, a bit of road & then the finish. Definitely three.

I burst into tears & through sobs proclaim I can’t do it. I am done. One mile yes. I was mentally & physically prepared for one, but three. I can’t comprehend another three miles. A parkrun.

I’m also slightly panicking as I wasn’t expecting to be out this long I don’t have my head torch with me & darkness is rapidly descending. He tries to reassure me, tries to tell me it really isn’t that far. He’s chatty, but I know I have to get moving. As much as I declared I couldn’t do it, I knew that there was absolutely no way that I wasn’t doing it. I hadn’t come this far to fail in the final mile (or three). With a chocked sob & tears on my cheeks I stumble on up the road.

Turning off the road the trail runs through the middle of a field of golden corn. I phone the husband. He knew as soon as I spoke that I was in tears. I told him I couldn’t do it, as I carried on walking, as I carried on moving forward… He told me if I couldn’t do it to stop. I told him not to be so stupid, I’d come this far, I couldn’t stop now. I hung up.

62 miles, a 27 minute split.

My last photo of the race

Something clicked. It was only a couple of miles, I was nearly there. I pushed on, through the field, over a small bridge crossing a stream. The last golden glimmer of the sun setting in the distance, darkness enveloping me. I switched on the torch on my phone to try & light the way. Another field. Oh fuck, cows on the path. Sod it cows, you’re not getting in my way. I purposely march on, glaring a them, almost daring them to object to my presence in their field. Their eyes stare back at me, reflecting the light of my phone.

63 miles, an 18:01 split.

Road, streetlights. A brief respite from the darkness. A turning into a wood. I check, double check & triple check the sign on the gate. The gate leads into complete & utter darkness, nothingness. Just my iPhone lighting the path few metres at a time in front of me. I’m a little freaked, I can hear, but not see, water to my right, a river or stream. I move faster, signs few & far between, it’s about half a mile but thankfully there is only one path, no crossroads or choices to be made.

64 miles, a 17:22 split.

A glow stick, a gap in the trees, noise, another glow stick & there is Dai who I’d met in mile one. I can see the finish line but in my tiredness I can’t work out how to get to it. I have to ask. Could I run? I could, I did, very, very slowly.

I cross the finish line to cheers & applause.

Tom from Freedom Racing shakes my hand & gives me a medal.

The photographer snaps a photo that I’m too tired to pose for (I know right? me…!).

I don’t remember anything else.

I could do it.

I did do it.

103km, 30+ degree temperatures, 5,700 foot of elevation. 16 hours 19 minutes.

© Marcus Dodridge

Not the race I had planned or hoped for, the heat definitely put paid to that, but one that taught me just how strong I can be when I put my mind to it. It’s taught me to believe in myself. To have confidence in my abilities & that when I think I can’t do it, I probably can.

Out of 61 starters just 36 finished the race, that’s a 40% drop out rate which shows just how tough it was. The race was long & if I had paid attention I would have known that. Yes, it was billed as 100km but it ran the entire length of the 64 mile trail. I knew that. I also know that 64 miles is 103km.

Beautiful but brutal, simply finishing is an achievement & I am proud that I did.

The serpent was well & truly slayed.

***

Whilst I’ve already written about the beauty of the trail, I feel as if I need to finish with something about the race itself. The first Freedom Racing event I’ve run & I can’t rave about it enough. Over the course of the day there were four races, the 100km, a 50km, half marathon & 10km. Superbly organised throughout these are races organised by runners, for runners. You can tell that Tom & his team have a real passion for what they are doing, a genuine care for us as runners & also a love of the trails. 

£3 of our entry fee was donated to the South Downs National Park Trust & is ring-fenced for directly funding projects & conservation within the Park. I like that. As runners we take such joy from running & racing in beautiful places & I think it’s fantastic that race organisers are contributing towards their upkeep. In the weeks before the race the Freedom Racing guys were out on the trail cutting back overgrowth & looking after it, not just for our benefit but for the benefit of all trail users.

I’ve been looking up other races they do & I am very, very tempted by the Hurtwood 50km in December. Starting in Dorking & following the Greensand Way into the Surrey Hills this could be a very enjoyable way to end the year!

Gotta Insta Story it!

4 thoughts on “The Serpent Trail 100km, Beautiful & Brutal

  1. whisperingmickey says:

    This is such a great blog Ally. You have really captured it well. It sounds like such an amazing yet brutal experience. You did so well to finish it, especially those last three miles. I am in total awe of what you achieved and I think you’re a superhero. Well done!

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