With 5 miles to go I thought I’d blown it.
I had a goal time in my mind for the South Downs Way 50 but at the bottom of the final hill I just couldn’t see how I was going to do it. I was tired, my knees were in agony, my stomach was churning with every faltering movement. Every step was a painful effort & I still had what seemed like a mountain to climb.
I knew I had to keep moving, I hadn’t come this far to not, at the very least, get to the finish line. In my head I began to let go of Goal A & make peace with Goal B. I was desperately trying to pull myself out of the dark hole my mind was dragging me into. Where had I gone wrong? What could I have done differently to be flying up this hill rather than near crawling, hands on knees, wincing in pain?
25 miles earlier I was having the running time of my life, a party for one at Ditching Beacon down into Housedean, across the river & into Southease. I’d slipped my headphones in for the first time at a Centurion race & was happily trundling along singing to the tunes in my ears (apologies to anyone who might have had the misfortune to overhear my dulcet tones). I felt GOOD. I was happy. I was doing what I loved & I was smiling. I ran into Southease Check point (CP) at 33 miles & loudly declared to anyone who would listen that I felt 1000 times better than I had at the same point in the race 12 months ago.
I’d some what surprisingly gone through half-way 20 minutes ahead of target. Psychologically this gave me a massive boost, it was almost as if a switch was flicked in my mind. I went from uncertainty to confidence in a matter of moments & it showed. My head lifted, my step quickened, my smile grew bigger. I knew that those 20 minutes gave me a relatively comfortable cushion for the inevitable fade in the tough latter miles. Or so I thought.
Back at the bottom of that final hill, hidden deep in those final miles I was wishing for a larger, squishier, more comfortable cushion, whilst at the same time berating myself for having gone off too quick. If only I’d slowed at the start I’d have more energy for the finish.
Every single time.
45 miles ago at the recreation ground in Worthing I stood among the crowd of nearly 400 runners listening, but not listening (sorry James), to the pre-race briefing. No matter how hard I try to focus on it my mind won’t stay still, all I could think about at that point was the upcoming journey.
My preparation for this race could not have gone any better. Whilst I had followed a loose training plan, for the first time I trained intuitively & responded more to how I felt than what was written in the squares of my plan. I abandoned sessions when I realised mid-way though I was too tired to complete them properly. I took a week off when I was ill rather than pushing through & came back stronger running my fastest ever 10km only a few days later. When my calf was tight I swapped a run for cross training but also, on the days that I felt good, I added on a few extra miles, did a couple of extra hill reps & swapped a swim for a run because it was a beautiful day & I didn’t want to be indoors when the sun was shining. I rested when I was tired & capitalised when I was bounding with energy.
Knowing that in all previous ultras I’d crashed & burned at marathon distance I deliberately ran longer in training than I had done previously, 28, 29, 30, 31 miles. I took myself to the wall & climbed over, hoping that on race day I would hit the magical 26.2 miles & be able to go past that psychological barrier with confidence.
I ran the XNRG Amersham 50km as a training run, knocked 30 minutes off my time from the previous year & finished second lady – my first ever ‘podium’ placing. Two weeks later I knocked 68 seconds off my 5km PB running a 21:34, a time that I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be capable of. I wasn’t training for speed, I can’t actually remember the last time I went to track or did any kind of speed work. I was training for strength & the two come hand in hand. The stronger I am, the faster I am, the faster I am, the stronger I am.
I’m not a naturally fast runner. On club runs I will often look on with envy at some of the ladies who run effortlessly at the pace I want to be running, laughing & chatting whilst I am putting in 110% effort & struggling to breathe. I may not be naturally fast but when I have a goal, a dream, I will work my backside off to achieve it.
Standing on that start line in Worthing I knew I was in the best shape of my life, stronger, fitter, faster than I’ve ever been & that today, with pretty good running conditions to boot, was the best chance I was ever going to have of hitting my lofty & ambitious 50 mile goal.
And yes, I did have a goal for the race. A secret goal. When people asked me, I smiled & said it would be nice if I could beat last years time. I was lying. My goal was way bigger than that.
I wanted sub-9 hours & a top ten (female) finish. To put into perspective & show the enormity of what I was aiming for, in 2018 I ran 9:36 & finished 21st lady. Was I being cocky? Maybe. But I sure as hell was going to give it a go.
The starting gun went. (Actually, was there a gun, a horn or just a 3, 2, 1 go…? I can’t remember). We were off.
Do not go out too fast.
Do not go our too fast.
Do not go out too fast.
The first few miles I ran alongside Chris. We’d ‘met’ on Twitter two years earlier & in person at the NDW50 in 2017. He found me in a near crumpled heap on the last South Downs hill 12 months ago & to all intents & purposes dragged me to the finish line. This year his goal was the same as mine (well not the top ten female finish, obvs).
Mile 1, not too bad.
Mile 2, there’s a hill to climb, Chris & I went our separate ways.
Mile 3, damn, marathon pace.
Mile 4, f**k, faster than marathon pace… Slow the f**k down girl.
I started too fast.
It’s hard to slow freshly tapered legs that are eager to run.
I gave myself a few miles grace. My plan was to run to heart rate & it always takes 4-5 miles for me to get into my groove & for it to regulate. My aim was to keep it below 150. I’d successfully run the Amersham 50km with this strategy & saw no reason to change a winning formula.
After a few miles I’m in my running rhythm. Run the flats & the downs, hike the ups. Legs are feeling sweet. Eat every 4-5 miles. The conditions are good, the temperature near perfect. I chat briefly to Rachel, a fellow Strider, & her partner Ben. They too are aiming for sub-9 hours. I have a moment of doubt, Rachel is a 3:08 marathoner, my PB is 3:53. I wonder about hanging onto their tails but sensibly decide that I have to run my own race, at my own pace. Also, I needed a wee & when I came out from behind the bush they’d disappeared off into the distance so the decision was made!
11 miles in & a hi-five from Stu the photographer, I knew the first check point was just around the corner. Whilst I’d remembered this (pro tip: always remember where the food is), I’d forgotten about the bastard of a hill that is immediately after the check point. I ran in full of enthusiasm, within moments of leaving that enthusiasm has dwindled & my run had slowed to a march. A 600ft climb in 2 miles. That was about one tenth of the total course elevation.
A little aside here…
There’s a road near where I live called Cypress Road. I call it Cypress Hill, after the band. It’s 0.17 miles bottom to top & 95ft elevation gain (I measured). I called my Strava segment ‘Insane in the Brain’ after the Cypress Hill song, because to run up & down it you must be ‘insane in the brain’.
Puts hand in air.
I’ve run up & down Cypress Hill 67 times so far this year. Most of them whilst carrying 2kg bags of dried rice in my rucksack. And it showed. I felt SO much stronger on the hills than I did 12 months ago. I was able to run/jog more of them & those that I couldn’t run my ‘hike’ was faster, stronger & easier.
Maybe not so insane in the brain after all.
Along the ridge at the top of the hill, completely exposed & with no shelter, it was windy. This was the section I was least familiar with. Head down, plod on, try not to get blown off the hill. Down to CP2. All the check points are at bottoms of hills. I was still feeling strong, happy & content. I filled my bottles, grabbed a couple of PB & jam sandwiches & marched on up the next hill. It goes without saying that if all the check points are at bottoms of hills they all have big climbs just after!
In the climb up to Ditching Beacon the first few doubts start flirting with my positive vibes. The hills are tough & relentless & I think back with longing to the ease of the first few miles. Because the only stat I am monitoring is my heart rate, I, by choice at this point, do not know where I am time wise. My mile splits have been popping up, the last few miles have been slower than target pace. My mind starts playing games, I think I’m dropping behind target. I could just look but I am determined to trust my heart rate strategy & not to be a slave to the Garmin. I know how my head works. I know the minute I switch my watch screen I will become obsessed with pace & all aspirations of running to effort will be discarded.
And then my 25 mile split pops up. This time, as well as glancing at the mile time I do steal a quick glance at the elapsed time. 4:08. Four oh bloody eight! That’s a whopping 22 minutes ahead of target. And we’re going downhill… Weeeeeeeee…. I cannot tell you what that did to my mind, to my mood & to my smile. I flew down the hill into CP3 at Housedean Farm, was tempted momentary by the beer on offer by the Bad Boy Running Crew but opted for the far more sensible tailwind instead. The headphones go in, let the party on what was my favourite section start!
So after telling the volunteers how great I feel, I come out of CP4 at Southease & start the next big climb. This is the part I could run with my eyes closed. In fact I almost had to one day last autumn when the mist was so thick I could only see about 50 feet in front of me. I know the mile out of Southease has 450+ ft of elevation gain. I’ve measured. I know I won’t be running any of it so happily eat my snacks & sing along to a favourite song as I climb.
I get near to the top, I say near, this is one of those hills that goes on for ever & EVER & I’m beginning to feel a little weird. I run along the ridge but my stomach, never usually an issue, is unsettled & churning. Having heard many-a story of stomach issues curtailing an ultra I start worrying. I have to slow to a walk for a while. Sod’s law this is one of the most open & exposed parts of the trail & there are no bushes to hide in should I need to, (disclaimer, thankfully I don’t).
I remember this section from Southease 12 months ago. Between CP4 & 5 I pulled out of all upcoming races, declared I’d never race again AND gave up running all together in the space of seven miles. I remember the pain I felt then & reflect that although I am uncomfortable, my stomach is churning, my legs ache & my knees are becoming increasing sore I am in a much better state than I was a year ago. Both physically & mentally.
I say that, the long decent into Alfriston & CP5 is torturous & I begin to waver. This is a mile I usually enjoy. I’m strong on the decent & have no inhibitions on letting go & zooming down a good hill with a reckless abandonment, allowing gravity to take me from top to bottom as fast as I can. Only today I can’t. My stomach doesn’t feel safe & my knees, now very sore, won’t let me. Every downhill step on the hard uneven ground jars them & I wince. I lament my shoe choice, the trails have been so hard & dry I wished I had worn cushioned road shoes rather than light trails.
I roll into the Alfriston check point just after mile 41 to be greeted by Nikki & Jane. Jane & I met for dinner before the race last year & Nikki & I are doing the same race later this year. They fill my bottles, pour me drinks & do all the wonderful things the volunteers do for runners throughout the race. As I’m drinking some coke Chris runs in. I’m kind of pleased. I’m at the stage where I need some company. We leave together, both feeling a little despondent, sure we’re off target & knowing we’ve got the hardest part to come.
Just outside Alfriston the trail forks in two. When I run here by myself I always take the right hand fork down to the Seven Sisters. The sisters have become my haven. I run to them them when I need some peace, some calmness & some time to think & reflect. Today however we take the left hand path, the one that leads up & down another hill to Jevvington. Chris & I stay in close proximity until the just before that final CP when I tell him to go on. He’s looking strong & I don’t want to be the reason he misses his sub-9 goal.
So I’m back at the bottom of that final hill. I pause, look up, I can’t see the top. I’m tired, I hurt, I just can’t see how I am going to do it. Every step is a painful effort & there is this insurmountable mountain to climb.
As I made peace with Goal B I knew that whatever happened I wasn’t giving up. Having not been able to stomach any solid food, bar some fruit, for 3+ hours I brought out the emergency Mars Bar for a last boost of energy, took one bite & started the climb.
Cypress Hill was for this moment.
Every hill session I’d done in training I would get to the end, go back to the bottom & add on another two reps especially for this. I’d run up Cypress Hill two more times on tired legs, bags of rice on my back, visualising a successful climb from Jevvington to the final trig.
Half way up I was over taken by another women who looked strong, confident & WAS RUNNING as opposed to my hiking. Don’t get me wrong, I was hiking strongly whilst saying a quiet thank you to Cypress Hill, but she WAS RUNNING! Having not seen another female in 20 odd miles, she was the second lady to over take me in the last few. The dream felt as if it was floating further & further away.
Eventually I spotted the trig point at the top of the hill. I knew from that point on I was on the home stretch. A handful of meters away from the summit my watch beeped 47 miles. I glanced at the elapsed time & saw I had 30 minutes to run the last three miles to hit my target. On a normal day 10 minute miles are easy like Sunday morning, today I wasn’t so sure.
I disregarded my heart rate, switched my watch screen onto pace & through gritted teeth started to run as hard as I could, stumbling down the last rocky decent my knees screaming at me with every jarring step. I had to pause two, three times, take a deep breath & refocus my mind for the next step. I was cursing. I wanted to hop, skip, jump & fly down like I usually do. I love technical downhills, you know, the ones where you have to watch your feet & jump over rocks, tree roots, branches & uneven ground skipping from side to side as you fly with speed unable to stop until the trail levels out. Today I was tip-toeing, stopping, starting & stumbling in frustration. I eventually made it to the bottom, convinced I was slower than I had been on the accent.
Onto the final section & for once I was happy to see flat tarmac, the last few miles winding around the roads on the outskirts of Eastbourne.
Head down, this was it. Breathe in, breathe out, ignore the pain, just run.
I run the last mile faster than the first.
Entering the sports stadium to claps & cheers from the Centurion crew, for that final 400m around the track my smile reappears.
I’m grinning. I hadn’t blown it, I WAS going to do it.
I cross the finish line.
49.1 miles*, 8:50:31, 6,300ft of elevation gain, 10th lady, average heart rate 142bpm. See my Strava stats here
Stuart captured my finish line joy perfectly & Chris, who finished six minutes ahead of me, videoed me crossing the line. From thinking I’d blown it an hour earlier to realising I’d done it with time to spare you can just hear my disbelieving ‘oh my god’ at the end! I’m still smiling now, three days later.
Laura, who I ran with at last summers Serpent Trail 100km hands me my medal & Stu gives me a hug of congratulations. A volunteer hands me my bag & someone else offers me a cup of tea & something to eat. I’m reminded what a brilliant community Centurion is. From the RD who cheered me by name as I ran into the sports stadium for my victory lap, to every single volunteer who gave up their time to look after us at the check points throughout the day. The crews of other runners who cheered as I ran past them out on the course, to the other runners, those I know as friends & those I met on the trails, there is something very special about the Centurion family & I’m proud to be a part of it.
I can’t shout loud enough about Centurion races, I’ve now run four, volunteered at three & paced at one. They are brilliantly, well organised races, run by runners FOR runners. No airs, no graces, no pampering of elites or so-called influencers & whether you’re first over the line or last, everyone’s victory is celebrated.
And for my end? I think it’s often sadly frowned upon to sing your own praises & shout about your own achievements, but I’m sorry, I am going to.
I worked harder for this than I have ever worked for anything & for someone who often lacks in confidence & doubts her abilities I am bloody proud of myself & what I have achieved. Two years ago I would NEVER have thought I was capable of a run like this. I would never have contemplated running a 21:34 5km, of podium-ing at a 50km or running sub-9 & finishing in the top ten of a 50 miler. I’ve pushed, challenged & tested myself over the last four months of training. I’ve grown in confidence & self-belief & moved so far outside of my comfort zone, I don’t know where that comfort zone is anymore.
Sometimes you simply don’t know what you are capable of until you try, you may fail, but you may also fly. On the South Downs I flew & by doing so I proved something to myself.
I proved that I can.
So am I going to rest now?
Hell no! Summer is on it’s way & there’s lots more adventures to be had. I’ll give my body the immediate rest it needs & then I’ll be back out on those trails!
*An aside, many trail races & ultras are not an exact distance. The SDW50 measures short at 49.1 miles, the NDW50 long at 51 miles. After running mile 49 in 9:15 I know I could have done that final 0.9 miles in 9:29 to still bring me in under 9 hours. In my mind this is important, I feel as if I can justifiably say I ran a sub-9 hour 50 miles. If I’d crept in a few seconds under the nine, that claim would have felt slightly disingenuous to me.