The South Downs Way 100

How do you condense the story of 100 miles into just a few hundred words? You don’t. Mix a G&T, this is a long one.

A few weeks later & I’m still not sure if I have the right words to accurately tell my SDW100 story. I sit here, trying to think of the words I need, not just to paint the picture of the physical journey from start line to finish line, but also the words to describe the emotional journey because this adventure was as much about the mental challenge of completing 100 miles as it was the physical.

I feel a slight numbness, an emptiness. You know that feeling you get post-holiday, when life returns to normality & it all seems rather flat, that. The thing I have been striving towards, working towards, putting hours of training into over the past six months has gone & I feel lost. Aimless. It’s a strange feeling to have about a race as there was no more meaning to it than it simply being a personal challenge, was I capable & could I do it.

I was & I did, but not in the way I wanted. 

Perhaps that explains some of my emptiness?

I look back with a tiny flicker of disappointment as it wasn’t quite the race I wanted, the race I planned & prepared so diligently for. I had this image in my head of how I wanted the hundred miles to pan out & the end result looks nothing like it did in my mind.

Sometimes the idea you have in your head of how you want something to be is so vivid, so detailed & so thought through that when the reality is something different it’s hard to let go of the dream. Ridiculous really, I mean, I’d never run 100 miles before, how on earth was I supposed to know what it would be like? How can you plan for going into the unknown?

Perhaps I need to just pause for a moment & remind myself that I JUST COMPLETED 100 MILES! No matter how I made it to that finish line, I did, and I should never, ever, be disappointed with that.

One hundred miles.

My feet just carried me one hundred miles.

One hundred freaking miles.

WTAF.

Beginning

© Stuart March

It’s 5:45am, Saturday morning & I am standing alongside 375 other runners in the Matterley Bowl on the outskirts on Winchester. It’s dull & grey with a dampness in the air. A light drizzle swirls around our heads in the breeze. Most of us are wrapped up tightly in our waterproofs as we wait for the race to start. I have butterflies in my stomach, proper fluttering & dancing butterflies turning somersaults. I am nervous, so nervous. I don’t know why, it’s only jogging with a large group of friends & I like jogging.

This race has been my running focus for the past six months. I have put every ounce of energy I have into training & preparing for it. (I talk about my training in my last post) I knew that if I had any chance of completing 100 miles I had to give the distance the respect it deserved. I would not, and could not, go into this under-trained or unprepared. After months & months of work, finally it is race day.

My nerves for are for the unexpected, the unplanned & the uncertainty.

The South Downs Way (SDW) actually starts in the centre of Winchester on a tiny bridge by the Winchester City Mill. It would be impossible to squeeze 375+ runners plus all the crew into the space by the trail head so instead the race starts at the Matterley Bowl, a 50 acre site on the outskirts of Winchester originally used by Eisenhower to rally troops before the D-Day landings in WW2.

As the clock clicks closer to 6am we gather under the blue arch for the pre-race briefing. James, the RD, asks how many are doing their first 100. I raise my hand, as do many others. I look around, silent nods of understanding pass between us, I’m not the only nervous one. The countdown starts, 10, 9, 8…. and we’re off.

The first few miles of the race wind round Matterley Estate. I look ahead & watch the slow line of brightly clad runners snaking it’s way along the narrow paths. It’s crowed & congested. This is a good thing as it stops me enthusiastically racing off with my usual reckless abandonment. After a mile we pass the start area again to cheers of support & encouragement. I settle into an easy jog alongside Dan & Spencer. The plan is to start slowly, keep my heart rate low & to slow down some more.

I am determined to avoid my usual kamikaze approach to races & am aiming to run in heart rate zone one as much as possible, to walk all the hills & walk anytime my heart rate dips above zone one. I’ve practiced & practiced & practiced this on my long runs & it seems to work.

The early miles are easy & conversational as I chat to those around me. Most of our group dissipated at the start but Dan, Spencer & I stick together. We bump into Bob who I’d met at the NDW50 the previous year, a quick word with fellow Strider Debra & we start chatting with a guy called Tim.

Just before the four mile mark we turn onto the SDW proper. I recognise the path from my one & only run on this section on an unseasonably hot day in February that saw me make a start on 2019’s tan!

The rain that has been incessant since the previous day stops, waterproof’s are discarded & the early miles start to fly by. I tuck into my first snack after about five miles. Fuelling is going to be critical over the next 95 miles. So often when I’ve volunteered at these races I’ve seen runners suffer & struggle because they’ve not got their nutrition right; too much, too little, not the right thing or not being able to keep food down. I’ve struggled with eating on all of my previous ultra’s, at last years NDW I ran the final 30 miles on little more than watermelon & half a banana. I’m determined to get it right today. My aim is around 200 calories an hour made up as much as possible from real food.

Leading the boys up Old Winchester Hill! © Stuart March

All of a sudden we hit Check Point (CP) 1, we’re at 10 miles already. I waste no time, top up my water & tailwind, grab a bit of fruit & a sandwich, a quick hello with Sam who is volunteering & I am on my way. 10% done, I feel good, I feel happy, I’m enjoying myself & I know just around the corner is the first of many views across the Sussex countryside!

The views are once of the reasons I love the South Downs. I’m pleased that as the morning progresses the weather seems to be improving, the rain has stopped, the sun is making an appearance & there’s a tiny hint of blue sky above us. Before every race my Dad messages me & says “Run well, run strong, but don’t forget to pause & take in the view”. I always hear his words bouncing around in my head as I run, reminding me to take in my surroundings.

The first view! Spencer & I © Dan Thompson

The South Downs is continuously up & down, up & down following an ancient chalk ridge. The race has over 12,000 ft of elevation over the 100 miles so it’s not just the distance we have to contend with but also the climbs. But we all know I love a hill! Much of it is open with little shelter or shade. The occasional wooded section often providing a welcome change of scenery & terrain.

21 miles in we’re at the top of Buster Hill, the highest point on the South Downs, looking over to the woodland of Queen Elizabeth Country Park, we’re not far off CP2. It’s just Dan, Tim & I now, we lost Spencer five or six miles back. I was fully expecting to be running the first half of this race solo but discover that I’m enjoying having company. We make a decision to run together for as long as we are able & I’m pleased about this. Ultras run by yourself can become very solitary & lonely affairs.

Buster Hill © Stuart March

I remember Buster Hill from my training runs, a long grassy decent, very runnable & for a girl who likes her downhills, fun! A wave to, and hi-five with, Stu the photographer mid-way down & then for the first time I let myself go a little, let gravity take effect & start to fly. Arms out to the side, zooming down the hill, wind in my hair, sun on my face, I’m in my element! My fastest mile of the whole race, still a very conservative 9:59 though, and I reach the bottom with a grin on my face! I’m enjoying this!

Buster Hill © Stuart March

We cross into the shaded woodland of the QECP. I hear my name being called. Standing ahead of me are James & Annabel from my running club, Striders of Croydon. They had come down here for some parkrun tourism, seen the Centurion banners, realised it was the race I was doing so hung around for a while afterwards. A very happy & unexpected coincidence. I think people underestimate how much of a boost simply seeing friendly faces & a few brief words of encouragement can give during a long race.

Another quick turn-around in the CP, topping up bottles, filling a bag with sandwiches for the journey, a couple of cups of squash & we’re off again. 

QECP is one of the few forests along the SDW. The softer woodland trails hidden under the canopy of trees make a nice change underfoot from the open chalky paths & trails we had been running on. The climb out of the CP is steep as we dodge a few mountain bikes wizzing along the MTB trails.

Dan & I celebrating 25 miles on the road out of QECP, 25% of the race done!

Storm

I run into CP3 at Harting Down with a smile on my face. 27 miles, that’s more than a quarter of the way through. I feel good, I feel happy & I am already anticipating the views that I know are hiding just over the top of the hill in front of me. I fill my bottles again, drink some squash & grab a few more sandwiches whilst I wait for Dan & Tim to get what they need.

This is one of those moments I pause, I stop, I look. What’s a few minutes over 100 miles to take in the view?

In front of me spreads a panorama of the Sussex countryside. Petersfield to the left, Midhurst to the right. Somewhere between the two snakes the Serpent Trail, the scene of last summer’s 100km. There are the dark, foreboding clouds of a rain storm beating down on the hills opposite. A patch of blue sky to our right. The wind is picking up, we watch the trees dancing in it’s breeze, the storm clouds racing through the sky. Someone jokes, hoping that they aren’t coming towards us, as we ride the crest of the next hill & begin our decent down. We reach the bottom the same time as the storm unleashes a torrent of water onto us.

The storm clouds roll in

Within 30 seconds the waterproof is out of my new Salomon race vest, no time to take my bag off my back so the jacket goes on over the top, I pull my hood up & hunker down trying to find a little respite from the already battering wind & rain. Turning up the next hill the wind beats the rain at full pelt into our faces. I curse. My top half is nice & dry under my jacket & I once again appreciate the investment in quality waterproof kit, my bottom half however is soaked through within seconds.

As the sky darkens so does my mood. I feel myself dropping into a predictable low. The weather changed so quickly, five minutes ago I was cheerfully munching on biscuits whilst sharing the gorgeous views on instagram. Now I’m huddled up almost double battling agains the wind & rain to climb the hill. I pull away from Dan & Tim. Company is great, but sometimes you just need to put your head down & move forward, this is one of those times.

With over 70 miles still to go I hope & pray that this is just an unexpected blip in the weather as I bemoan the inaccuracy of this morning’s forecast, this was not supposed to happen!

Still solo, I reach the top of the hill, a solitary tree stands on the horizon I recognise where I am from my run a few weeks earlier. I pause & wait for Dan & Tim, relishing the thought of, and perhaps now needing, some company again. The rain begins to ease. We run on in a comfortable silence. After a low period, I appreciate having the guys nearby again so that I’m not alone.

Running down Beacon Hill I’m aware of a slight niggle in my right knee, the exact same place it hurt during April’s SDW50. Then I put it down to hammering the downhills, today I have been consciously sedate in my descents. After years of issues in my early days of running I so rarely get problems with my knees anymore. I’m quickly frustrated knowing that if if hangs around for too long it will start to hinder me. I’m only 30 miles in & I’m trying not to think how far I still have to go. Dan’s knees are also playing up so we have a little grumble together & push on. Up the next hill, a moment to take in the view before turning into another small wood. The rain briefly beats down again, this time the trees offer us a little shelter.

After ten minutes or so the rain eases off, the sun comes out & dries us off. The waterproof’s are pulled off & stuffed back in bags, the sunglasses go on as we’re back out in the open, the now wet, chalky paths sometimes slippy under foot.

35 miles, Cocking CP & a far too brief hello to Paula. Paula & I started chatting on Instagram sometime last year & this is another of those little moments that make me smile; someone you’ve never met before in person taking the time to come & support, encourage you & cheer you on. Again I spend only a few minutes at the CP before we carry on. 

Paula

18 miles later & we’re on the climb out of Amberley our knees & Tim’s ankle are still unhappy. Pausing for a photo of the view all three of us have adopted a bit more of a run/walk approach. Running the flats, hiking the ups, run/walking the downs. There’s an unspoken agreement that one of us will say when it’s time to run again after a walk section. We pick a tree or a landmark in the distance & agree that’s where we’re running too. My body is starting to struggle a little but my mind is still strong & determined.

Be still my heart

Half

Just before Kithurst Hill, CP6, my watch beeps. 50 miles. Half-way. 50%. 10 hours 30 minutes. I am on the home stretch.

50 miles, 50% with Tim & Dan

Is that too quick? Have I gone out too fast? Will I suffer later? That’s some 2 hours 40 slower than I ran the SDW50 in April but 50 minutes quicker than I ran my first 50 miler. It’s forever a guessing game, too fast & you may suffer later, too slow & you may run out of time. I may hurt already, a lot, but I am still on the whole feeling ok & enjoying myself. Surely this must be a good sign? I joke & calm myself with the knowledge that I have 19 & a half hours to cover the second 50 miles & still finish within cut-offs. That’s 23 minute miles which I can easily do.

Can’t I?

I’m now counting down the miles & the minutes till 54 miles & CP7 at Washington. Drop bags, hot food & meeting my first pacer.

It’s another horrible decent into Washington, uneven, rocky chalk that’s tough on sore knees before a short section through the village & past the picturesque church. Dan & I run into the CP, Tim just ahead of us, and I see Martin ready & waiting.

As soon as I decided I was going to do a 100 I knew I wanted to use pacers for the second half. They’re not pacers like the elites use in a marathon, they’re not to keep me at a certain min/mile pace but more to keep me company & keep me actually moving. For the Centurion 100’s you’re allowed pacers from half-way onwards. I’d paced Dan for the final 20 miles at the NDW100 last year & seeing how tough those final miles were on him I knew that I would need someone alongside me to push me & keep me going.

I‘m lucky enough to have two pacers, both from Striders, Martin from mile 54 to 70 & then Rachel from mile 70 to the end. Simply, and I am going to say this here, I could not have done this without them, without their support & encouragement. Without their uplifting words & complete faith in me. I may have doubted but they never once did.

Washington is considered the half-way CP. You can have a hot meal, a hot drink, you collect your first drop bag, there’s toilets & a washroom & it’s a good time to get yourself ready for the night time miles. Having volunteered at this CP last year I had seen how easy it was for runners to waste time. They’re tired, they sit down, have something to eat, a drink, slowly change socks, t-shirts, have a chat & before they know it 30 minutes have passed & standing up & getting going again is a struggle.

I was intentionally strict with myself, I didn’t want to be one of those runners who became too comfortable in their chair, cup of tea in hand, hot meal in front of them. I knew what I had to do.

Me, Martin & my drop bag! © Jon Zlncke

I put my watch on to charge & ask Martin to fill my bottles for me. I use the toilets & wash my hands for the first time since leaving the hotel in Winchester 12 hours earlier. This was the thing I was most excited about, washing the sweat, jam, coke, peanut butter, tailwind, dust & dirt off of my hands was the BEST feeling EVER! I change my t-shirt & bra, a liberal spray of deodorant, throw a couple of wet wipes over my face & arms & clean my teeth which feels like heaven after the amount of sugar I’ve consumed. I wash my hands again, simply because I can. Ready.

I discard all the things I didn’t need back into my drop bag, put my warm top in my pack & make sure I have my head torches which are mandatory kit from Washington onwards. A volunteer brings me a small bowl of pasta with tomato sauce which I eat whilst sitting on the floor & then I am done & ready to go. I say goodbye to Dan & Tim. In & out, 16-ish minutes.

Nemesis

I have someone new to talk to, or talk at, as I start to tell Martin all about the preceding 54 miles on the hill out of Washington. I’ve always been a fairly solitary racer, I may run with someone for a couple of miles in a race, or chat to people I’m running alongside for a minute or two, but for the majority of my races it’s me, myself & I. I’ve always liked that but having now experienced a race with company I’m not sure I want to go back. In many ways it made the race more enjoyable. I’m doing this momentous thing & I’m sharing the experience with other people, Spencer, Dan, Tim & a few others in the first half of the race, Martin & Rachel in the second half. 

Martin

Would it have been as enjoyable by myself? I don’t think it would have been.

Would I have been able to do it alone? I’m not sure I could.

Within a few miles of Washington we are onto the SDW50 route. My feet are at home on the familiar paths & I know exactly where I am going. It is very much a run/walk strategy now, even on this relatively flat & runnable (for the SDW) section, which was not my original plan & I’m disappointed about having to adopt it quite so early on in the race. My knee is still bothering me. My stomach also starts to feel a little unsettled, it’s churning brings me to a walk a number of times. Maybe pasta hadn’t been such a good idea. We pass the smelly pig farm, thankfully for once the wind is blowing the scent away from us, and head down the hill towards Botolphs & CP8.

61 miles.

Immediately after Botolphs comes Truleigh Hill. I really, really don’t like Truleigh Hill. It goes on & on & on with a nasty road section that looks flat but isn’t in the middle. I think everyone has a running nemesis & this is one of mine. Every single time I’ve run it I’ve found myself slipping into a dark place, a place of doubt & uncertainty. I’d forewarned Martin, told him how much I hated this hill & that if there was a point I’d start thinking about quitting, this was likely to be it.

© Martin Filer

We chat all the way up the hill, stopping for a selfie mid-way to send to Rachel. We’re approaching golden hour & I stop to admire the early evening sunlight filtering through the clouds. As a photographer I get excited by beautiful light & this really is beautiful light. One of my biggest wishes ahead of race day was to have weather that meant I saw sunrise & sunset & it was looking like I might be lucky. Martin starts to tell me all about his work as an accountant (tbf I did ask…!), I didn’t expect it to be numbers talk that distracted me up the hill!

Without even really noticing we reach the top. I smile, I’ve done it without a flicker of doubt crossing my mind, I’ve beaten my nemesis!

The beautiful light

Downhills are still a struggle but I am hiking the ups strongly, the miles are ticking by. I glance occasionally at the average pace & am happy to see my splits are still between 14 to 16:30 minutes per mile. I know I’m a little behind the target I had in my mind, but not by much. I keep reminding myself that the main goal is to simply finish & that anything above that is a bonus. The thing is, I’m ambitious & competitive with myself. I want to do more than just finish & I’m beginning to see my dream float away. This hurts almost as much as the physical pain does.

Climbing up Fulking Hill my Garmin beeps for 65 miles. Arms in the air I celebrate a new distance PB. Whatever happens over the remaining 35 miles, today I have run (run/walked) further than I’ve ever run before. This deserves another instagram update!

Celebrating my longest EVER run!

Just past Devil’s Dyke we start the decent into Saddlescombe Farm & CP9. As the elevation dips with the down hill so does my mood. As well as my right knee the tops of both feet are now screaming with pain on every down hill step. My eyes are heavy & I’m starting to feel tired. My two hours sleep last night now seem a very long time ago & once more I curse insomnia for stealing valuable sleeping hours from me. Under a heavy blanket of tiredness the uneven path feels even more unstable at my feet. I stumble, stubbing my toes on loose rocks & my mood drops lower & lower. I’m in a funk, a bit of a grump. 

© Martin Filer

We arrive at Saddlescombe Farm, 67 miles. The CP is in one of the barns. I feel lost. I can’t think, I don’t know what I want. I stand staring aimlessly at the table filled with food, volunteers & fellow runners buzzing around me but I feel dazed, like I’m in a world of my own. I’m hungry, I need to eat, nothing on the table appeals to me. My mind can’t focus. My stomach turns at the thought of food. There are a couple of runners sitting in chairs. One guy is in a bit of a state & is talking about dropping from the race. I can’t get like that, I can’t get to the point where dropping becomes a consideration. I must eat. Martin fills my bottles for me. A volunteer offers me some soup. Soup! That sounds nice. A small cup of warm vegetable soup hits the spot. I also manage a couple of small potatoes with salt. It’s not a lot but at this stage in the race every little bite is a victory.

Standing outside the barn I look up, the sky is a beautiful golden colour. I glance at the time & realise sunset is imminent. If we’re quick & get a move on we might catch it at the top of the next hill. That is all the incentive I need to get moving. A little food & the promise of watching the sunset lifts my mood once more, I march with purpose up the hill, thankful for the respite of an incline on my sore feet.

Near the top of West Hill I stop, turn & see the sun sinking beyond the horizon. I made it. Sunset, the close of the day. Catching sunset has made me smile once more.

Martin worshiping the sunset…

A little further on I stop running, it is just too painful & I can’t do it any more. I feel daunted at the thought of walking 31+ miles but I try to make peace with it in my mind. I’m frustrated & slightly disappointed with myself as I have the energy to run, I have the mental capacity to run, but my body simply won’t oblige. It’s not how I planned the race to go but as long as I am moving forward I try to stay happy.

Relentless forward progression. 

Jack & Jill

We turn into Pyecombe Golf Course, the paths are so familiar that even in the failing light I know exactly where I am going. We turn the corner & head towards the two windmills, Jack & Jill. This is the 70 mile crew point is where I’m meeting Rachel, my second pacer.

The gathered crowd clap & shout words of encouragement as I run towards them. This is a place for crew & pacers to meet their runners, rather than a check point. I see Rachel, ready & waiting. With a lingering golden glow in the sky, daylight has all but disappeared, along with it the warmth of the sun. The temperature is quickly dropping. It’s time to put the head torch on & put on some extra layers for the night time miles.

With a hug I say goodbye to Martin & thank him profoundly as he heads towards Hassocks & a train back to Croydon. Rachel & I start up the next hill. I tell her I’m unlikely to be running at all & that it’s going to be a very, very long walk home. I’m frustrated that my body won’t allow me to run, it really is too painful, but my mind is still strong, I still have energy & at the moment I tell myself that I am still happy to be simply moving.

I’m not sure I can describe the pain in my lower legs & feet. It was intense & all consuming. I look back & wonder was it really that impossible to run? Could I have tried a bit harder, was the pain really that bad? I wonder now was I being a bit of a wimp? A wuss? Did I give up too easily & was there anything I could have done to get running again?

The first few miles with Rachel, despite walking, go quickly as we catch up & I tell her all about the first 70 miles. A few miles in I have another little low point. These moments creep up on me unannounced every now & again when all of a sudden I realise the magnitude of what I am doing & I become fixated on how how much I hurt, how tired I am, how cold I am (I am now wearing my waterproof as well as my warm top in an effort to keep warm) & how far I still have to go, rather than celebrating how far I have already come.

I remember quite a few miles back, I think coming up the hill out of Amberley, stopping, turning around & telling Dan & Tim to do the same. One of the things I love about the openness of the South Downs is that if you do that, you can look back & see how far you’ve already come, rather than looking forward at how far you have to go.

The view looking back from Amberley earlier in the day

Over Ditching Beacon, Rachel leaves me be for a while, I need the quietness & the solitude to focus my mind. I know that if I keep moving, keep focusing on one foot in front of the other, this moment will pass. Rather than thinking of the finish line, I try to focus on the next CP, Housedean Farm, just a few short miles away.

I’ve not eaten much over the last few hours. I’d been forcing myself to have a little bit here & there, a biscuit, half a sandwich, a couple of mouthfuls of soup at Sadlescombe Farm, a sachet of baby food at Clayton Windmills when the thought of solid food made me queasy. I knew I was way off my target of 200 calories an hour & was probably flagging due to not eating enough. I force down another sachet of coconut rice baby food, easy to swallow, easy to digest. It does the trick, pretty soon I feel a little jump in my energy levels & I’m regaling tales of my last run on this section five weeks earlier when I got caught in a torrential rain storm, got absolutely soaked right down to my underwear & ended up travelling home underwear-less as I hadn’t thought to pack any spare with the change of clothes in my dry bag! 

TMI. There’s something about the pain & discomfort of long distance running & over-sharing!

The evening sun

Cheese

I can almost see the CP. There’s a lovely runnable down hill into Housedean but I still don’t feel up to running. The Centurion flags flapping in the wind at the entrance to the farmyard are a very welcoming sight. The barn is full, light & lively. I see Tracey who I first met volunteering at TP100 in 2017, she is volunteering again. Rachel gets my drop bag, I find a chair & gratefully sit down.

I grab my spare long-sleeve base layer out of my drop bag, an after thought when packing that I am now very thankful for. I strip down to my bra (after 76+ miles, as well as over sharing, all inhibitions generally go & I don’t give two thoughts about stripping off in the middle of the CP, to be honest, I doubt anyone even noticed!)

I know I need to eat but am still struggling with the thought of food. In my drop bag I have a cup-a-soup that I had been fantasising about for the past three or so miles, something hot & salty. I make this up & for some reason grab a cheese sandwich.

Oh My God! The cheese sandwich is the FOOD OF THE GODS!

I am not a fan of cheese, I always actively avoid cheese sandwiches at CPs, sliced white bread, cheap mild cheddar, thickly spread margarine, it just seemed wrong to me to eat this mid-run. But dunking it into my tomato soup it quite literally becomes the best food I have EVER eaten! I grab another, and another suddenly feeling & feeding my hunger.

Conscious of time & that I don’t want to become too comfortable sitting down I walk away from the cheese sandwiches, Rachel make’s me a strong, sugary coffee, we say goodbye & thank you to the volunteers & head on our way.

Most the things in my drop bags were superfluous & came home with me untouched & unused, the two invaluable items were somewhat of a luxury; a proper travel mug rather than the flimsy thing used as mandatory kit (I used a Stojo mug) & some posh coffee filter bags. I like my coffee. A lot. But I am a coffee snob & I won’t drink instant. Having a proper, strong, sugary coffee, in a proper mug that wouldn’t spill on me, on the walk up the hill after Housedean Farm was HEAVEN!

Having eaten well, drunk, rested for a few minutes & had a good dose of caffeine I was feeling rejuvenated & reenergised. I still wasn’t running but I felt as if I was marching with a bit more motivation. I’m still strong on the hills & like I had on the SDW50 I say a silent prayer of thanks to the hundreds of hill reps I had done over the past six months that make the climbs, even in these later painful stages, feel so much more manageable.

Looking back I would say that the section between Housedean Farm & Southease was my best period of the latter miles. Don’t get me wrong, I was slow, walking & it hurt like hell, but my mind was good & I was feeling mentally strong. I knew this section, I was happy to just keep plodding along. I was possibly slightly euphoric with over tiredness as I talked non-stop for a good few miles. I absolutely have no idea what about & I’m not sure Rachel got many words in, but it meant the miles sped by (relatively speaking…). The pro’s of putting three sugars in your coffee when you usually have none!

Down the ‘yellow brick road’ & through another farm, I know I’m close to the next CP at the youth hostel in Southease. I pause for a moment as I hear the sound of bird song, the dawn chorus, morning is on it’s way. Suddenly the train line is upon us, up & over the bridge. Even in the dead of night to cross the tracks is an instant DQ. I nearly hug the volunteer who tells me the CP has a PROPER TOILET! There are only so many wild wee’s you can do before you really want to just sit on a normal toilet & not have to worry about squatting on a bramble, sitting on a stinging nettle, weeing on your shoes in the dark or flashing a fellow runner because the extra couple of metres to hide behind a tree feels like a few meters too far.

Even better than a proper toilet is SOAP & WATER (can you tell that when I’m REALLY excited about things I use capital letters!). It really is the little things that are getting me excited now. To wash my hands for the first time since Washington, some 30 miles & 10 hours ago, feels like complete bliss!

After inhaling the whole plate of cheese sandwiches at the CP (nothing else interests me now I’ve discovered the deliciousness of a cheese sandwich) we are on our way again.

84 miles. 16 to go. The end is in sight.

Morning

My very first run on the South Downs in August 2017, just after I’d signed up SDW50 2018, was from Southese to Eastbourne. I didn’t know the trail & I had yet to learn about gpx files & using tech to navigate. I got the train to Southease & simply followed the SDW signs to Eastbourne. For this reason this part of the trail will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the section I’ve run the most often, the section I know the best. I’ve run it in all weathers, from glorious sunshine to thick mist with 20 metres visibility.

Southease to Eastbourne (via the Seven Sisters rather than Jevington) is one of my happy places. It’s the run I will do when I need to escape, when I need some time alone, some time to think, some time to just be. Starting with a climb to the top of the world along the chalk ridge, finishing with a paddle in the sea. This route has everything I love about trail running & whilst I’m running, life & it’s problems pauses. The path from Southease calms my soul & eases my mind.

Rachel & I start the climb out of Southease. It’s another of the never ending hills of the SDW that just go on & on. And on. But it’s manageable. It’s big, it’s long but it’s not too steep. As we climb we notice a tiny slither of light on the horizon. I stop & turn to look behind me again. I am greeted with a beautiful sight that becomes one of my favourite memories from the race. 

I see the hill behind us leading down into Southease covered with tens of tiny little lights, bobbing around in the darkness. The head torches of my fellow runners. I may have Rachel here with me but this is a poignant reminder that in the darkness of the night I’m not alone. As I am struggling, wondering how I am going to make it to the finish, there are many others out here with me running their own journeys & battling towards the coveted buckle. A photo doesn’t do it justice but this is about the memory, not the image.

The sky brightens with almost every step, the light turning pinkish in colour. I’m excited to see sunrise & it’s an incentive to keep climbing, to get higher up the hill for a better view. I’m struggling to comprehend that it’s only a few hours ago that I was watching the sun set with Martin & that I’M STILL GOING! There is something very magical about seeing sunrise, about watching life & colour come into the world at the start of a new day, today it feels extra special.

Good morning!

Struggle

I am now counting down the miles. In some ways I am wishing them away as they become slower & slower, harder & harder, more & more painful. I know I’ve got some tricky sections coming up & I become fixated on them, rather than living in the moment, living for the mile I am in, I start worrying about the miles to come.

Rachel reads me another message from one of my Striders team mates. She has a whole pile of words of support & encouragement that people have sent her & reads me one whenever she senses I am dipping into a low point. Without fail they make me smile through the pain. (I’ve included them at the bottom of this blog as a reminder to myself of everyone’s kind words).

I can’t remember where it started getting really bad (really bad, is of course all relative). Somewhere between Southease & Alfriston, maybe just after. Looking back, I remember at some point stumbling. I don’t remember where, when or how & at the time I didn’t really think anything about it. But somewhere around the 90 mile mark I’m aware of an intensifying pain in my lower right leg/ankle & my walk is becoming less walk more shuffle as I struggle to put weight on it.

Whilst it has been tough for many, many miles, the decent into Alfriston, 91 miles in, is the point where I start having serious doubts as to whether I can do this. I usually fly down this hill in sub-8 minutes. Today is takes me 23. Every downhill step hurts, it is rough, uneven & the angle is unkind on my leg. I am stopping every few metres to recompose myself & I find my eyes drooping with exhaustion, I’m struggling to keep them open. Occasionally I find myself swaying as a wave of intense tiredness hits. Rachel has the patience of a saint, stopping with me, allowing me all the space & time I need.

Alfriston, CP12, 92 miles in. Toilet, wash hands, sit down, jam sandwiches (no cheese here), coke, coffee & go. I’m in a daze. 8 miles to go. We’re into single figures countdown but it seems impossibly far.

Top of the hill out of Alfriston

I’m looking forward to the hill coming out of Alfriston as going up is easier than going down. A couple of hundred feet up, Keith Simpson, with his daughter Cat pacing him, comes storming past me looking strong AF & not like a 70+ year old who had just run 90+ miles. Keith is also a Strider (in name only, he hasn’t been on a club run for many years) & I often bump into him at Centurion races or out on the North Downs Way. If you want someone to look up to, someone to inspire you, Keith is your man. Never mind running 100 miles at age 70, I just hope to still be running!

The journey from Alfriston to Jevington feels almost dream like in my mind. I can see the path, the steep hill, the cow blocking my way. I feel the heat of the morning sun on my back, the need to take my jacket off & put my sunglasses back on. I can see the view, the Exmoor ponies that I have never noticed before, I remember describing the route into Jevington in minute detail numerous times to Rachel, as if talking about it would make it come quicker. But this whole part of the journey doesn’t seem real. I’m simply moving.

Trig

I want that final hill, I want to get to the trig point at the top. 96 miles, I can smell the finish & I know that there is nothing that’s going to stop me now, I can crawl if I need. And crawl I nearly do. I overtake a couple of people on the up, I feel ok. Rachel comments on my increase in speed & strength. Going up is fine but what goes up has to come down.

I reach the trig point with delight. The marshals directing the runners off of the SDW laugh as I instagram the moment. Those who know, know. I know this will be my last post until I cross that finish line.

From here is is less than three miles to the finish. This is the real home stretch & it’s all downhill. Back in April it was here that I knew my sub-9 hour 50 mile dream was still possible if I put my foot down, so put my foot down I did to make it in 8:51. Except today, a day that I can barely put any weight on my right foot the ‘Gully of Doom’ down to the roads of Eastbourne doesn’t fill me with a single drop of joy & I can’t put my foot down. At all.

It’s a steep, narrow, rocky & rutted descent. I really should have photographed it as words just do not do it justice but by now I am so over photos, I just want to finish. I need to concentrate, to think as I descend, looking ahead at every step. I love technical downhills like this, I love throwing myself down, letting gravity & my feet take me to the bottom. On a good day, when I haven’t already run (aka walked) 97 miles I reckon I could do the mile from the trig to the road at the bottom in 7 or so minutes.

Today it takes me 38.

38 whole fucking minutes to go one single downhill mile.

Every step has me wincing in pain, no matter where on the path I put my foot it hurts. I stop, swear in annoyance. I shuffle another metre or two as fellow runner after fellow runner stumble past me, some running but many also walking. Mid-way down I can’t hold them in any longer & the tears start to fall in pain & in frustration. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. This is not the glorious finish I had dreamt about. I sob quietly to myself, my sunglasses, not really needed under the cover of the trees, hide my eyes as the tears streak down my cheeks.

But I continue to move forward. One tiny step at a time. There’s nothing else I can do.

Relentless forward progression.

Rachel leaves me be, I think she senses I need to be alone.

My body has deserted me, the only thing I have left is my mind. I glance at the tattoos on my wrists one last time; 

“Believe”

“Achieve”

Your body achieves what your mind believes.

Through my tears I know that I am going to finish, I know that I have that buckle.

It’s rare that I’m actually happy to see tarmac but I hit the road at the bottom of the gully with a smile of relief. A flat, smooth surface. No more rocks, roots, or hills to navigate my tired & sore feet around. The finish line dot is now visible on the map on my watch, so, so close but still so far. I marginally increase my pace & manage a 27 minute mile for the next mile!

99 miles.

One mile to go.

End

I turn into the sports park, the tears have dried up & my smile grows wider & wider with every step. Everyone I pass claps & congratulates me. I start to feel like a hero. Onto the track, the Centurion crew cheering me on. Rachel peels off & I start my lap, my final 400 metres. I had visions of running around the track, perhaps even a sprint finish. I hobble a bit faster, 200 metres to go & my watch ticks over 100 miles. 100 metres to go. The final bend, I see that line, I pick my feet up.

© Stuart March

27 hours, 34 minutes, 35 seconds since the starting gun went off in Winchester & I jog the final 10 metres to cross the finish line in Eastbourne.

100 miles. I had only gone & bloody done it!

I push the disappointment of the past 30 odd miles away & am handed my buckle. Hugs from Rachel, Stu the photographer & Spencer, who had unfortunately had to drop at 74 miles. I pose for my finishers photos with a ridiculously big grin on my face, I don’t believe I’ve actually done it.

I’ve just completed 100 miles!

© Stuart March

See my 100 miles on Strava (and see quite how slow I was towards the end…!)

Reflect

I started off my saying I look back with a flicker of disappointment, and yes I do.

I did have a time in mind that I wanted to run, and I finished far outside that time, but more than time I wanted to run strong, I wanted to feel good. I wanted to power up the hills & run down the other side. I didn’t want to walk the final 35 miles. I didn’t want to hurt so much I cried, I didn’t want to take nearly four hours to cover the last ten miles.

I know the disappointment is purely mine, no one else’s, because I had set expectations of myself and I didn’t live up to those expectations. Were they unrealistic expectations? No, based on my training I don’t think they were. And that too disappointments me. I put my heart into training for this, I couldn’t have done any more, but yet despite that I couldn’t perform on race day & I’m disappointed.

I try to counterbalance my disappointment with pride. I am proud that I finished, proud that I was able to suck it up & get it done when the going got tough. I’m proud of my mental strength that never failed me even when my body did. I’m proud that I pushed myself, that I challenged myself to even try something that seemed almost impossible. I’m proud that I’m no longer hiding in my comfort zone. 

I am proud of my buckle & the journey to get it.

I try not to let my disappointment with the final few miles cloud my memory of the preceding ones because despite the pain late on, I enjoyed the race & I hope that enjoyment shows. Running on one of my favourite trails, though the beautiful British countryside with great company from friends old & new. How could I not have fun!

And I guess as this race didn’t go quite to plan I’m just going to have to do another… 😉

© Stuart March

To end I’m going to repeat some of the words I said at the end of my SDW50 blog, simply because they’re true.

“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 five, 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 as a side note, two & a bit weeks later I am back running, I did 13 trail miles this morning & thankfully I am not broken, none of my aches & pains were anything serious for which I am very thankful.

Finish line relief © Stuart March

After

I was in two minds about sharing my after story, it’s a little embarrassing, but one of the things I like about reading race reports from other runners is learning from them & so if my experience helps even just one person I can deal with all the embarrassment.

About 30 or so minutes after finishing I head into the changing rooms to have a shower. I’d been chatting, having ‘official’ photos taken, taking selfies & updating instagram. I sit in the changing room for a few minutes trying to muster the energy to actually shower. I stand & start moving around & as I do I start to feel really light headed & faint. I slump down onto the bench. I’m dizzy & struggling to focus. A volunteer walks in, sees me & asks me if I’m ok. I’m not.

The next thing I know the medical team are with me, I’m having my pulse, heart rate & vitals checked. My blood pressure is dangerously low. I’m wired up to a machine for an ECG. My blood pressure is taken again. I’m shivering & so cold, they wrap me in three blankets & a couple of times I drift into light headedness. I want to lie down but the medics say they need me to sit. There are three of them surrounding me. They say they may need to take me to hospital. Suddenly I’m alert. I do not want to be going to hospital. I ask someone to find Rachel for me & ask her to phone the friend I have as an emergency contact to come & get me (Laura, you saved me!). A stretcher is wheeled in. I am adamant I am not getting on it or going to hospital but my blood pressure is still very low.

I’m told I’m dehydrated. I argue. I drank a lot over the 100 miles, filing two 500ml bottles at most check points as well as drinking cups of squash & coke. I was peeing regularly (at one point it felt as if my pee per mile ratio was 1:1). I didn’t understand how I could be dehydrated. I’m made to drink a bottle of water. And another one. And another. My blood pressure begins to creep up. I’m feeling a lot more alert but still shivering uncontrollably.

90 minutes later my blood pressure is at an acceptable level & I’m given the all clear. Finally I can have that shower.

I may have been well hydrated whilst running but I stopped running & when I stoped running I stopped drinking. My body still needed fluids & still needed hydrating & as I wasn’t giving it any it went into shutdown. It’s interesting, I’ve talked to a couple of people since who have had similar, though perhaps not as extreme, experiences at the end of races. None of us, although all experienced runners, were aware of quite how important it was to carry on hydrating when you finish. It’s a mistake I won’t be making again that’s for sure.

Words

“Hi Rel, so lovely that you’re pacing Ally! Please tell her to “dig deep and find her true self, to find out what she’s made of! She who dares wins!” She is amazing! I’ve been thinking of her all day and sending lots of positive vibes and energy her way xxx big strength and power Michelle xxx”

“Hi Rel, I hope tonight goes well with Ally. She’s doing so incredibly well and I’m in awe. Let her know that so many of us are following her from home. Nikki x”

Showing Rachel my buckle © Stuart March

“Ally you are an amazing inspiration and the strongest person I know, remember all the work you’ve done to get here- now make the most of it and keep giving it your all! After today you’ll be one of the incredible brave individuals to conquer 100 miles and no one will be able to take that from you!  Marianne”

“You’re doing so brilliantly, I’m in awe of how strong and determined you are! This must be incredibly hard, but just think of all the amazing things you’ve done before. Super well done – I know you’re giving this absolutely everything! Love from Susanna”

“Hey there! It’s Caroline from the Striders ladies messenger group. I’m relatively new to the group and don’t know many people yet. However, I just wanted to pass on my encouragement to Ally for her amazing challenge today. What an inspiration for all of us to push past our perceived limitations! I am “virtual cheerleadering” in Croydon!”

“Ally, Run strong Run well. That’s what you’ve said to me in the past! An amazing quest today… you’ll be fantastic! You’ll do this! X Maria”

“Ally – we are all behind you 100% remember not all superheroes wear capes you are our very own striders ladies superhero. Keep believing in what you are achieving! You’ve got this!! Massive congratulations hugs & a large gin! will be coming you way soon. Alex xx”

You gotta Insta Story it!

6 thoughts on “The South Downs Way 100

  1. jonzincke says:

    I think this is one of the best blogs I have read. Entertaining, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking and a really exciting insight into this race. Thank you Ally x

  2. Mark Fuller says:

    A great account of your race Ally. I don’t know how you remember so much detail, really well written. I expected you to go sub 24 because your training deserved it but I have no doubt that will come in the near future.

  3. Wendy Kane says:

    Loved reading your SDW100 race account. Thanks for sharing everything, I am in awe of your achievement! I am hoping to attempt SDW100 next year, it is a running fantasy of mine. Gonna give it my best shot, reading your story has definitely helped get a true feel for it, and NO it hasn’t put me off! I still have the burning desire to try and conquer it! Thank you again xx

Leave a Reply to Mark Fuller Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s