South Downs Way 100 2021: The one where I prove I can

I’ve been pondering over this blog for days, weeks, not really knowing what words to write. Mainly because I’m a typically reserved Brit who doesn’t like to shout about their own successes. But there really is no other way of writing about this race. Because you know what, I did good on the South Downs Way. 

In fact, I did bloody good.

©Stuart March

It’s early Sunday morning, 99 miles into the race. I turn into Eastbourne Sports Park & Nikki & Martin are waiting for me. I want them to join Rel & I for the final lap of the track. It’s my race, but I know that really, it’s a team effort. They have looked after me superbly all day & I want them by my side for the finish.

As my feet hit the athletics track Martin turns to me & with a firm look in his eyes tells me to run as fast as I possibly can.

We round the first corner, the three of them ushering me into the inside lane, pushing me on, telling me to run faster. Faster. I protest. I’m running so fast, I feel sick but the finish line is in sight & I know that I have hit my goal.

They won’t let me slow down. Down the back straight, faster, faster, pushing me on as we round the final bend. There are shouts, words I now can’t remember, as they tell me to go, go, go.

I kick & sprint the final 20, 30, 40, 50 metres. Strava tells me I was clocking 6:12 min/mile pace. At the end of 100 miles. I run under the Centurion banner, cross the line & stop. Eyes closed a huge smile.

I’ve done it. 

I knew as I crossed the line that I’d hit my sub-24 hours goal but Nikki & Martin knew something I didn’t.


At five o’clock the previous morning I had crossed the start line a hundred miles back in Winchester. I stood there in the middle of the Matterley Bowl completely fearless. Two years ago in the same field, my stomach had been in knots, petrified about my first attempt at the distance. Today, I was calm. I knew what to expect. I knew what I was doing & I knew that I was going to hit my goal.

At the start with Spencer, Andy, Jon & Yvette.

Does that make me sound overconfident & cocky with not even a mile run? Maybe. But if I have learnt anything from ultra running, it is that mental strength is as important as physical strength. In the week leading up to the race, I’ve worked hard on maintaining a positive mindset. As I stand there, my mind is strong.

Whilst training has not been perfect, it has gone well enough to give me confidence that I am capable of a sub-24 hour finish. 

Two weeks earlier as my final long training run, I ran the Extreme Energy Devil’s Lite 50km on the South Downs. On the day I had to let go of my ego. That race was all about nailing my 100-mile strategy, NOT racing a 50km. I ran to heart rate, keeping it below 140. Ran the flats & downs, hiked the hills. Fulled every 45 minutes. Paced to perfection, I had enough energy to run up the final few hills & finished with gas still in the tank. Finishing 4th lady & 1st FV40 was an added bonus as I entered a two-week taper feeling strong AF.

I did a few things differently during taper this time around. I cut out the booze. I don’t drink a lot but I do enjoy a glass of wine or a G&T. In the four weeks leading up to the race, I had two drinks & as much as I hate to admit it, I felt better for it. I started taking daily liquid iron supplements to help my energy levels. I switched heavy strength training for mobility work & tried to sleep more (difficult for an insomniac, thanks to sleep aids for the assistance!).

I kept my runs short & flat but added tempo blocks at pace to fine-tune & sharpen. I did everything I could to prepare for the race & I stood on the start line confident that there was nothing more I could have done.

Similar to last summers North Downs Way 100 this race has been somewhat a saving grace for me. Giving me something to focus on & work towards when life around me was crumbling. I never imagined after finishing the North Downs Way that Covid would throw another curveball at us. Another lockdown, another period of uncertainty.

There were times early on in 2021 when I simply wasn’t coping. As a photographer who photographs people, I couldn’t work. I had survived the first lockdown & was just beginning to rebuild my business when the second & third lockdowns were thrown at us. I had a near-full shoot diary for January & in the space of 24 hours lost a month’s worth of work. Lockdown dragged on & on. It was harder this time around. It was winter, cold, wet, raining & miserable. I had no significant work for nearly four months, it felt like hope was slipping away & running once again became my sanctuary. My escape.

I ran.

I thought about running.

I dreamed about running.

I read about running.

I talked about running.

Because when I was running or thinking or dreaming or reading or talking about running, I couldn’t think about anything else. I forgot that I had no work, no income & at times it felt like no hope. When running up hills, I couldn’t worry about whether my business would survive. I pounded out my frustrations, fears & worries on the trails & pavements of South London.

Running once again saved me & I am thankful to Centurion Running for once again giving me something to look forward to, something to hope for & focus on at a time when it was very much needed.

Twice their races have rescued me & as always, today’s was superbly organised despite the restrictions they had to operate under.

As day to day Covid restrictions eased going into May I began working again. Whilst it will take many months to repair the damage the lockdowns have caused, picking up my camera has helped calm my mind & ease my worries. I am going into the race in a much happier place than I was aeven a few short weeks ago.

The start © Stuart March

Back to that start line. 

It’s 5am. As night turns to day, the sun begins to peer over the horizon. A layer of mist swirls around the lowest parts of the Matterley Bowl blanketing the tents of the brave few souls who camped here the night before. With the Covid-secure staggered start, there is no fanfare or ceremony. It is simply rock-up, pin your number on, grab your tracker & run.

The first few miles wander leisurely around the Matterley Bowl. We follow the lower path, looking back over the start area. Watching the hive of activity down below me, I feel a sense of peace & serenity on the trail. A mile in we run back through race HQ to cheers & applause. They feel somewhat premature so early in the day.

Nearly four miles in we join the South Downs Way (SDW). I smile. I’m here. I feel good, the sun is shining, the views are already superb, there is a calmness in my mind & I’m looking forward to the day ahead.

On the South Downs

My race strategy is simple. For the first half, keep my heart rate (HR) below 140. I will run the flats & the downs, hike the big hills & run smaller hills as long as my HR is below 140. The second half strategy is to simply keep moving. This is how I trained. Based on my last couple of long runs, I have worked out a rough timing schedule. It sits in my pocket. It is also with my crew.

For the first time, I have a race-day crew. Nikki. Nikki & I trained together throughout the winter & the most recent lockdowns. We ran sick-inducing mile reps at silly o’clock in the morning together. We ran up & down hills late in the evening. We ran through snow, wind, rain & pain-inducing hailstorms. We drank mulled wine on a running tour of the Christmas lights & diverted a run on the North Downs to visit the Silent Pool gin distillery. We chatted incessantly on these runs. In short, she currently knows me better than anyone else. She knows my training, my fitness & my goals. There is no better person to crew me.

Three weeks earlier she ran her first Centurion race & her first 50 miles at the NDW50. She smashed it is still on her own ultra-high. Today, she has a task that may prove to be harder than running 50 miles, crewing me for 100!

Crewing is something I’ve always had mixed opinions about. Does a crewed runner have an unfair advantage over an un-crewed runner? 

Nikki is meeting me at various pre-designated points along the route with food, drink & anything else I might need. It means I don’t need to rely on aid stations. I estimated I spent about an hour in aid stations at the NDW100. With Covid protocols some of that time was spent queuing, some of it was simply me wasting time. Filling bottles, dithering about what to eat, faffing with my drop bags. Needlessly changing my t-shirt & cleaning my teeth… There is nothing wrong with any of that, but today I am on a mission & Nikki is here to help me.

But then is it ever a level playing field in racing? You could also ask does a runner with a coach have an unfair advantage over an un-coached runner? 

I’ve noticed that an increasing number of runners in the ultra world are coached. These coaches, with their experience & expertise, plan their training, telling the runners what sessions to do & when. Making each run specific to the goal race ahead.

I’m not coached. I’d love to be but after the past year, it is a luxury I simply can’t afford. I’ve done the best I can by myself. Learning from what’s worked (and what hasn’t worked) in previous training cycles, piggybacking onto some of Nikki’s sessions set by her coach & principally just running.


Ten miles in & a quick glance at my watch as I approach the first aid station. I’m not stopping but I want to know if I’m on schedule. Fuck. I’m 20 minutes ahead. A mild panic. Have I started too quick? Have I been running too fast? Will this affect me later on in the day?

I pause my thoughts for a quick mental check-in. My HR is well within range, my legs feel fine. I’ve been fuelling as planned & I feel good. I decide not to worry & to carry on as I am. I came into the race rested & fuelled, I’d slept & hydrated well. The early morning is cool. My HR is not lying to me, I know how far I can push it. I have to have the confidence to trust my training, to trust the process. I send Nikki a quick text to let her know I’m running a little ahead of schedule as I trot on past the checkpoint (CP).

Just after the CP at Beacon Hill, the trail opens up & we’re greeted by a stunning early morning view across the downs. I forget that it’s still early, not even 7am. I’ve been awake since 2:45. I politely ask a cow to move off of the path in front of me as I let my legs go & fly down the hill, stopping just in time to open the gate at the bottom. I’m strong on downhills & always take advantage of this strength.

Although there are runners all around me at this early stage of the race, I am essentially running solo. I exchange a few words as we pass each other by & I see Windsor Andy 100m or so in front but I am quite content running by myself. 

This is my time, my headspace, my thoughts. I am enjoying myself. I am happy.

I’m thinking ahead to what is to come. I know the second half of the race well. I’ve run it time & time again, most recently at the SDW50 in April. The first half I am less familiar with. I’d hoped to get a few recces in ahead of race day, but, well, Covid… I quickly realise that this wasn’t necessary as I remember far more than I thought I did.

Old Winchester Hill © Stuart March

Climbing up to the top of Butser Hill I cross paths with Krysia. Krysia & I have been ‘Instagram friends’ for years but have never met in person. We said a brief hello in the toilet queue at 4:45 this morning & I am pleased we meet properly on the trail. We chat a bit, she pulls ahead, I catch up, I pull ahead, she catches up… I find myself searching for her white hat in front of me or looking over my shoulder to see if she is behind me. This goes on for at least the next 30 miles as we cross paths.

Krysia coming out of Cocking later in the race.

At the top of Butser Hill, I look down on Queen Elizabeth Country Park, knowing that Nikki & my first crew stop is at the bottom. Once again I fly down the hill with reckless abandonment, a huge grin on my face. I like this!

I cause Nikki a mild panic as I am way ahead of target. We almost miss each other. She tells me I’m 40 minutes early as she pours me a cup of coke & hands me a banana. I grab a gel, shout my thank yous, goodbyes & still feeling really good I trot on. As tempting as it is to stop & chat, (and believe me, Nikki & I can chat!), I want to keep moving.

I hike the hill out of QECP. Grateful for the shade of the trees. The sun is beginning to feel quite warm & the shelter is welcome. I finish the banana & gel. 

Gels are something new to me. Previously I have been very anti-gel, or any synthetic sports nutrition for that matter. I think because my early experiences with sweet & sickly gels were not good. They made my tummy hurt. Over the last few months, I have started using the occasional GU gel with positive results & so they have become part of my fuelling strategy for this race.

I have an alarm on my watch set to beep every 45 minutes to remind me to eat. So far, I have religiously eaten at every beep. In the first 23 miles, I’ve gone through three peanut butter & jam wraps, several biscuits, a banana & a gel. In my pocket, I’ve now got cold potatoes & mini cheeses!

Eating is something I struggle with on long ultras. I really, really like food & it frustrates me that after about 40 miles I struggle to eat anything substantial. I see other runners tucking into a pizza or a big bowl of pasta & I feel as if I am missing out on delicious treats. I don’t know if it is physical or psychological. I just cannot get solid food down.

I’ve been working really hard on fuelling in this training block & am hoping that I may finally have cracked it. Because it only affects me in the latter miles, distances I don’t hit in training, only time will tell.

Just past QECP, my watch clicks over 25 miles. 25%. A quarter of the way.

I feel AMAZING. I am not exaggerating. That gel had something magic in it. I have to pull myself back & stop myself running up hills. I am literally bouncing along full of energy. Marathon distance in 4 hours 30. I would be pleased with that time for a stand-alone trail marathon. Never mind the first of four consecutive marathons. I wonder yet again if I’ve started too fast but my HR is still well within range & once again I decide to continue as I am.

The morning on familiar paths passes me by. Looking back, I remember very little, or rather it’s not that I don’t remember, it’s just that very little stands out. My sole focus is on moving, I rarely stop, I rarely speak. My mind is calm & empty of distraction. The only focus is putting one foot in front of the other.

I see Nikki at Hartling Downs. She has bumped into Chris, aka ‘Box Hill Dude’, my SDW50 saviour. In 2019 he got my sub-9 hour finish back on track when I had all but given up hope. He pulled me up the final two hills & sent me on my way to an 8:50 finish time. Today he is crewing another runner. We exchange a few words as I drink more coke & Nikki covers me liberally with suncream. 28 miles in & she’s already doing my thinking for me.

Crew stop!

I eagerly run on as I know what’s to come around the next corner. A slight incline, a gate & the trail opens up to a stunning view across the South Downs. I remember my Dad’s words to me; “run well, run strong but don’t forget to pause & take in the view”. I do just that. Jogging can wait for a few moments because this view right here is exactly why I run trails. I pause absorbing the glory of it, watching the sunlight dance on the fields of purple far below me.

Where two years ago there were fields of golden rapeseed, today there are vast patches of purple, I assume lavender, shimmering in the sunshine. With each step forward the view changes & I greedily soak it all in. I have to drag myself away. As I turn, I look to the sky. Two years ago angry storm clouds rolled in & soaked us with a sudden downpour. Today there is not a grey cloud in sight.

The view from Hartling Downs

Having reached the crest of the hill, I let myself go & fly down the other side. A sharp turn to the right before the next climb up. Hills are a good place for snacks & I crack open the cold potatoes that Nikki handed to me a few minutes earlier. It’s eight miles until I see her next.

I’m almost completely alone & I’m in my element. A few cyclists whizz past me in the opposite direction. Up, down, up, down. A moment of doubt flickers across my mind as I can’t see any other runners in front of me. Am I still on the right path? Looking far ahead I see red & white tape fluttering in the breeze & sigh in relief, berating myself for doubting even for a moment.

Down into Cocking, a virtual high-five with Stu March who’s snapping us on the descent. I enter the farmyard to cheers & shouts of ‘well done’ from the crews lined up on either side of the trail. There’s a lively buzz, a party-like feel. Crews waiting for their runners bask in the sunshine. Car boots open, chairs ready for weary legs & snacks laid out like a buffet at a children’s party. Nikki is there. Drinks poured. Fresh flasks of tailwind & water ready to go. She hands me a bag of snacks & best of all a surprise Callipo!

I don’t stop for long, keen to keep my momentum going. I have no idea what time of day it is, how long I have been running or where I am compared to my goal. And I don’t want to know.

All I know is the sun is high in the sky & getting hotter with each step I take. Beating down onto my back & reflecting off of the white chalk path onto my face. I seek out any small patch of shade for some respite from the intensity of its rays. A quick wild wee takes far longer than it should as I relish the coolness of the shade of the bush I squat behind. (TMI…!)

It’s hot but I remain focused on the task at hand. I count my steps as I hike every hill. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… up to 100 & then back to one.

We go again.

It’s far too easy for a hike to slow to walk & for a walk to slow to a stroll. The rhythm of counting gives me a determination to my step & I power up the hills. I lost ground on the hills at April’s SDW50 & I’m pleased today to feel strong on the ups as well as the downs.

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… 99, 100

We go again.

Up, down, up, down…

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… 99, 100

We go again.

My mind, strong so far, starts to falter. I know it’s the heat causing me to doubt. For miles, there is not a single scrap of shade. I remind myself of last summer’s NDW100. Thankful that it’s not as hot as that. Watching the long grass waving in the breeze I distract myself with the views. The rolling hills, the lush greenness of the fields, the splash of colour from the wildflowers, the blueness of the sky. A cloud flirts with the sun giving a few moments of coolness. Running down the hill I see the flutter of a Centurion flag in the distance & know I must be near Houghton Farm, the next aid station & crew point.

Nikki, ready & waiting as always hands me drinks, snacks & asks me questions I don’t remember. I say hello to Dai & Lou, Jay-Z’s (aka as Jon) crew. I ran a couple of miles with Dai at last summer’s NDW when Jon was crewing him. Today he is returning the favour. This epitomises the Centurion family & the spirit of ultra running.

The climb out of Amberley, a small village just past Houghton Farm, is the hottest moment of the day so far. The hill feels longer, higher & steeper than I remember it. A line of runners stretches out in front of me & snakes behind me, slowly trudging up, up & up. My stomach is feeling unsettled, my mind is restless. I don’t enjoy the climb. I turn & look behind me. Trying to change my mindset by looking at how far I have come as opposed to how far I have to go.

Looking back at how far I have come

The top of the hill levels out as the trail winds through a small but very welcome patch of woodland. Refocusing, I push on knowing that Nikki is only a few miles away at Chantry Post. My watch clicks over 50 miles.

50%. Half-way.

I take a rare glance at the time. 9:17. 43 minutes ahead of target. Only eight minutes slower than I ran the SDW50 in April. Then, 50 miles was the finish line. Today it is halfway.

Before the race, I decided that I wanted to run straight through Washington, the traditional ‘halfway CP at 54 miles. I knew from volunteering there in 2018 & running in 2019 that Washington is a time vacuum.

Nikki & I chose the Chantry Post at 51 miles to be my ‘halfway’.

Nikki’s instructions are to get as much food into me as possible & to make sure I have enough supplies to last me until I see her at Devil’s Dyke in 15 miles. She has warm water & a damp flannel so that I can freshen up. At 3pm it is still so damn hot I know that I will be a sweaty mess again in a matter of moments but the simple joy of having clean hands & face, even for a few minutes, cannot be beaten!

I drink copious cups of coke & squash, eat half a pot of tinned fruit & a veggie sausage roll. I’m having to mush the sausage roll up with water in my mouth to actually swallow it but I am proud that I am actually still eating. My pride did not last long…

As Nikki stuffs my pack with supplies, my stomach starts to churn. I know this feeling well from the NDW. I need a bush & I need a bush fast. The only problem is, Chantry Post is in the middle of nowhere on a section of SDW with no shelter, no shade & no bushes. I rather abruptly tell Nikki I have to go, walk out of the car park & start up the gentle slope, eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of cover.

In the heat, the body prioritises keeping key organs cool leaving no energy for digestion. I had stomach issues at last summer’s Sahara stylee NDW, it looks like I’m going to have similar issues today too. Perhaps selfishly, I take comfort that I’m not the only runner suffering.

I didn’t know it at Chantry Post, but despite all my good intentions, that veggie sausage roll was the last significant piece of solid food that I would eat during the race.

Stomach issues dealt with, for now, I feel good again & pick back up into a steady run into, and through, Washington. As bad as I feel when my stomach goes, I’ve learnt that the best thing to do is deal with it as quickly as possible because 99% of the time within a couple of minutes I will feel absolutely fine. There is no point in prolonging the suffering & no point in being embarrassed about it. Stomach issues are one of those things that will affect most ultra runners at some point.

After an initial lung-busting climb through the woods out of Washington the trail meanders gradually up to the Steyning Bowl. It’s gently undulating & very runnable. A mixture of grass paths & rocky tracks. I have energy, so I run. Pushing a little on the ups, easing off on the downs. HR well within the target range. I still don’t know the time. By the position of the sun, I guess it’s heading towards late afternoon. I could look at my watch but my stubbornness at not wanting to know how I am doing forbids me to.

This is something I am quite particular about when I am deep into a long race. Bar key points like half-way, I do not want to know the time, where I am compared to my target or what race position I am in. Nikki has strict instructions not to tell me. I am very aware that whilst running these kinds of distances I can only control what I am doing & the mile that I am in. Any other information is purely superfluous & adds pressure that I don’t want or need.

Along the hilltop looking down onto Steyning, I pass several other runners, some of whom look in a pretty bad state. I almost feel guilty for being so bouncy & cheerful. I’m running out of ways of saying how good I feel. I feel good just doesn’t cut it. I feel GREAT! 

I pass the iconic pig farm. Today the wind is, unfortunately, blowing in the wrong direction. Approaching Boltophs CP I clock a 9:14 minute mile. Nine fourteen. At mile 61. In a hundred mile race. My mind is blown that this is even possible. As I hit the CP I know I’ve had a bloody good section coming out of Washington. I felt amazing & made the most of it.

I also know what is to come.

Bleeding Hill. My nemesis. 

I don’t like it.

It goes on forever. 

And ever.

The bottom of Bleeding Hill

I pause at the bottom & look up. Preparing my mind for the task ahead of me. I don’t know what it is but Bleeding Hill gets me. Every single time. It starts as an uneven, rocky trail transforming halfway up into a smooth road. You’d think I’d relish the ease of a road but it’s the tarmac I dislike. It’s deceptive. The gentleness of the slope lulls you into a false sense of security. Stretching into the distance it looks runnable. It’s not. It’s tough on fresh feet, let alone legs that have 62 miles in them. 

I distract myself with music knowing that this will be a long walk. I’m okay with that. I knew from the start that I would be walking this section & my mind is at peace.

Snapped at the top of Bleeding Hill! © Stuart March

I catch up with a guy in front. I forget to ask his name but he is wearing a Bad Boy Running vest so we will call him Bad Boy Runner. We chat, as you do halfway up a hill at mile 63 of a 100-mile race; a bit about the run, how we’re feeling, our dodgy stomachs & what our goals are. He tells me I should easily get my sub-24. I’m liking his confidence.

At Truleigh Youth Hostel Bad Boy Runner buys a Calippo & a BEER…! I opt for the slightly safer option of two Calippos. One I eat & one I stuff down my top. This is HEAVEN!

Leaving the youth hostel we hit the top of the hill before our lollies have had a chance to melt & it’s time to run again. For me anyway. I bid farewell to Bad Boy Runner & with Callipos in hands & tunes in my ears I trot off down the hill. I’ve beaten my nemesis, I have ice lollies & I’m heading towards Devils Dyke & my next rendezvous with Nikki.

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… 99, 100

We go again.

Up, down, up, down.

Overlooking Brighton, Devils Dyke has a party atmosphere. Crews & supporters lazing in the late afternoon sunshine with cool boxes of snacks & drinks. I spot Nikki & with her another familiar face, Yaz, one of my Striders club mates. I squeal with delight. With a child-free weekend, Yaz is on her own little adventure. She’s walked 17 miles along the SDW & has been hanging out with Nikki waiting for me to come past. I cannot tell you what a boost seeing her friendly smile gives me.

I have no recollection of what I eat (or don’t eat), drink or say at this crew point. I’m keen to keep on going, maximising the power of the Callipos. Also knowing that the next time I see Nikki she will have Martin, my first pacer with her.

It’s down from Devil’s Dyke. I run on. Still running. And feeling comfortable doing so. 66 miles in. Through Sadlescombe CP, still, I don’t stop. Pushing up West Hill. Towards the top, I turn & look behind me. Two years ago, I watched the sunset from this spot. Today, there are still many hours of light in the day.

West Hill

This is what the training has been for. I have worked bloody hard to be in this position. Mile 70 of a 100-mile race, still running, still feeling good. Body strong, legs full of energy. Mind stronger.

I reflect back to two years ago when everything fell apart at mile 70. Then, I’d been run-walking since before halfway & didn’t run a single step after 70 miles. By 85 miles I could barely walk. I learnt a lot from that race. Looking back I am thankful for the experience, knowing that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t gone so badly wrong in 2019.

I power hike up the rest of the hill & break into a jog as I reach the top. A 10:57 minute mile takes me to Pyecombe Golf Course. I’m slowing but still running.

Clayton Windmills. Nikki has the crewing down to a fine art now. I stand there drinking coke whilst she liberally sprays me with insect repellent. She knows my stomach is not happy & is trying to tempt me with anything & everything. I manage a few bites of banana before she hands me my poles & sends me on my way with Martin.

Martin, who like Nikki is one of my Strider of Croydon clubmates, paced me for miles 54-70 two years ago. He knows what he is in for although I don’t think he can quite believe how different the experience is today. Relishing solitude earlier in the race, now I’m glad to have company. We run, walk, talk. The gradual incline from Clayton Windmills is frustrating. It’s not steep but it’s not quite runnable now. A soon as the path flattens at Ditchling Beacon we break into a jog. Down into Housedean I don’t stop at the CP but fill my bottles at the water tap just before. One of the great things about the South Downs is the abundance of taps along the trail. I stop at several during the race rather than using the CPs.

© Martin Filer

Climbing out of Housedean, the poles come out. Do I really need them? I don’t know. Do they help on the climb? Yes. It’s back to the counting, poles in hand. This time silently in my head so that Martin doesn’t think I am completely bonkers!

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

We go again.

And again.

The sun sinks low in the sky, a burning ball of orange. The lingering pinks, reds & oranges lighting the sky long after it has disappeared. Dusk is slowly creeping in but the vast openness of the downs means head torches aren’t needed until the sky is almost completely dark. A week short of the longest day, there will be very few hours of darkness tonight.

We fill our bottles at Southease Church & dig our head torches out of our packs. It’s 10pm & I have the next hill in my sights as I reluctantly turn my light on.

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Up we go. 

Pause. The words of my Dad ringing in my ears; “don’t forget to stop & take in the view”. I turn. Look behind me. The hill I descended a few short minutes ago now sparkles with the lights of my fellow runners. It reminds me I’m not alone out here.

From the river bed at its foot to the trig at the top, the hill out of Southease is more than 500ft in just a couple of miles. This climb was my first introduction to the South Downs, now nearly four years ago. Since then I have scaled this hill time & time again, each time cursing its size whilst marvelling at the views.

Tonight, the fields below are blanketed in darkness, the towns hidden in the night. A faint golden glow lines the horizon to the west. The very last remnants of sunset. Two years ago as I walked up this hill the faint golden glow of sunrise lined the eastern horizon.

The last remnants of daytime, a crescent moon & some twinkling head torches in the distance.

A glimpse of Firle Beacon ahead of us. It looks deceptively nearer than it is.

Run, walk, run, walk. Down, up, down, up. Waiting at Firle is Nikki, Rel, my second pacer & a longed-for cup of coffee. Fighting waves of tiredness, I have been dreaming about the sweet taste of this coffee for many, many miles. Nikki hands me my flask. At my request, it has four sugars in it. I never normally sugar my coffee but this evening the caffeine & sugar combo is my rocket fuel.

Martin hands the baton over to fellow Strider Rel & we push on. Rel saw me at my very worst two years ago when she paced me from mile 70 to the end. My body gave up on me & it was only sheer stubbornness & mental strength that got me to the finish line. I learnt a lot from that experience.

Today we run out of the crew point & away from Firle Beacon, the coffee giving me renewed vigour & a spring in my step. I have a flask of it to keep me going for the last 14 miles!

I still can’t eat any solid food but I am religiously trying to take on ‘something’ every 45 minutes. A gel, a sachet of baby food, one bite of flapjack, a banana, tiny bite by tiny bite. It’s not a lot but I am trying to do the best I can. Despite my lack of fuelling, I don’t feel devoid of energy. What little I am managing to take on, supplemented by coke & squash at the crew stops, is obviously just enough to keep me going.

I see Nikki for one final time at Bo Peep. It’s only a couple of miles from Firle Beacon but when we planned our crewing schedule I was expecting to be suffering by now & needing all the support & encouragement we could muster. Instead, I’m happily bouncing along!

Nikki has been amazing throughout. It’s been a learning curve for us both, her in how to crew, me in how to be crewed. I’m not used to letting someone else take control & letting go took me a good few miles but she has everything under control. I may not have eaten as much as I hoped, but she had me eating far more than I would if the decision had been only mine. By the second half, she was thinking for me, topping up my suncream, spraying me with insect repellent. Handing me drinks & making me take my poles despite my protests.

As brilliant as they are, not needing to rely on aid stations took a huge uncertainty out of the race. And perhaps most importantly, having Nikki saved me time. I did not stop, I did not need to wait at CPs, I didn’t waste time filling my bottles or trying to decide what to eat. Nikki did all that for me. I didn’t sit down & struggle to get up again because, on my instruction, Nikki wouldn’t let me sit down. Nikki was invaluable & she has played a huge part in the success of my race.

I go back to my earlier musings about whether crews give runners an unfair advantage. After my first crewing experience I’ll readily admit they help. Is it unfair? Possibly, but all the front runners had crews so does that level the playing field?

I suppose the same could be said about pacers. Does their company, support & encouragement during the hardest nighttime miles give a runner an advantage? Martin & Rel chivvied me along, kept me moving, focused & even opened gates for me! (Those gates can be pesky things to open after 90 miles of running, believe me!).

I may have run the 100 miles but it has been a real team effort & I can’t thank Nikki, Martin & Rel enough for the part they played. Could I have done it without them? Yes. Would I want to? No.

Back to the race.

It’s always further between Southease & Alfriston than I remember. Every single time I run this section I am convinced the turning is just around the corner… just over the next lump… just past the hedge… It never is. I am starting to walk more than I would like but my legs are protesting at any inclining of an incline. Flat fine, down, fine. Up? Legs say no.

Down into Alfriston, through the town, past another CP without stopping & over the Cuckmere River. Turn left instead of my favoured right. As much as I love running over the Seven Sisters I really don’t want to see them today.

My second nemesis is fast approaching. The hill out of Alfriston. I pause at the bottom & grab my flask. As I drink the sweet caffeinated goodness I’m mentally preparing myself for the upcoming climb.

Poles out. Deep breath. Head down.

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. We go again.

It’s the focus, the rhythm. I think of nothing else except climbing the hill in front of me. On I count. The darkness covers the views that incentivised me earlier in the day. Beyond the light of my headtorch, all I see are shapes & shadows. There is peace & tranquillity to the night. I look to the sky & in the clearness of the night notice for the first time the thousands of stars twinkling above my head.

I continue counting, climbing. One step in front of the other.

Pretty soon we’re running, slowly now, along the hilltop, the climb behind me. Another nemesis slayed. One to go. 

Several miles later we hit upon Jevington. The beast. This is what 16 reps of Box Hill was for. This is what running up & down the hill opposite my house at 5am was for. This is what the 110,00ft of elevation during training was for. I have visualised this moment, this hill, during every hill session I’ve done over the past six months.

Mile 95.

The final hill.

423 ft in one mile.

According to Strava, it takes me 18 minutes & 3 seconds to climb. Also according to Strava I have climbed this hill 8+ times. Today is my third fastest, beaten only by two 16 mile training runs. I power up with strength & determination that I didn’t know I possess. I’m strong, I’m powerful. I’m invincible. Nothing stops me until I reach the trig at the top & see the lights of Eastbourne spread out below me. I’m almost home.

Dropping out of the rocky gully, off of the trail & onto the roads of Eastbourne, I glance at my watch for the first time in many hours. I have zero concept of time. It could be midnight. It could be 5am. The elapsed time reads 20:50 something. I believe the phrase I use is ‘What the Fuck’.

I look again and again. Not quite believing that I’ve read it right. How was I on the home stretch with the clock reading 20:50 something?

A wave of relief washes over me & my smile widens. I’m still a couple of miles from the finish line but I know that I’ve hit my goal. My watch beeps reminding me to eat & I confidently tell Rel that it’s 22 hours. It takes her a few minutes to convince me that 21 comes after 20. I’m in complete disbelief. My mind can’t quite comprehend this sort of time

After the beauty of the Downs, the nighttime roads of the town are somewhat soul-destroying. However, I relax, safe in the knowledge that I have finished in under 24 hours. I walk more than I should. More than I need. I take my foot off the pedal.

Finally, the familiar Centurion sign. This way to the finish. Turning left I see the stadium, its lights glowing in the darkness & break into a run again. I am here. I am home. I have done it. To cheers, I enter the stadium. Nikki & Martin join me & we start on that lap of the track.

As my feet hit the athletics track Martin turns to me & with a firm look in his eyes tells me to run as fast as I possibly can.

They know something I don’t.

💫 21 hours 18 minutes 38 seconds.

💫 A five & a half-hour 100 mile PB.

💫 4th lady by 17 seconds.

💫 1st FV40 by 17 seconds.

💫 56th out of 308 finishers.

💫 The sprint finish got me fourth place & first FV40.

© Stuart March

Reflections

I sit here three weeks post-race still in disbelief at what I achieved on the South Downs Way, I ran a time & a race that I never in my wildest dreams thought achievable. And more importantly, I ran it well.

This was my A race. The one where I wanted to prove I could do what I believed I was capable of. 

And you know what?

I think I did just that.

I felt comfortable & strong throughout. I didn’t crash, I didn’t burn. I didn’t run out of energy. I didn’t have a single moment of doubt. I knew as I crossed the start line that I would be crossing the finish line. My body was strong throughout, my mind was stronger.

It was a race experience you can only dream of.

💫 I ran a 5.5 hour PB.

💫 I beat my public goal of 24 hours by 2 hours 41 minutes.

💫 I beat my private goal (only known by crew & pacers) of 22:40 by one hour 21 minutes.

💫 I beat my private goal (only known by me) of a top 10 finish.

💫 But more importantly, I enjoyed the race & I ran pretty much the whole way with a smile!

As I reflect on my race I am proud of what I achieved, and what I achieved by myself. I am not coached, this was all me & my own hard work in training. However, I also look back & think I had more in me. 

I eased off too much in the second half. I didn’t push as hard as I could when I was still capable of doing so. I ran the majority but walked more towards the end than I needed to. I wonder if subconsciously I was expecting the wheels to come off & was holding back just in case? I have a glimmer of frustration with myself, a wonder at what more I could have achieved with just a little more confidence. I wonder if this confidence is something a coach would have been able to coax out of me?

I almost can’t believe that I am expressing a hint of disappointment after the race I ran. But I think this is also a reflection of how well I actually did. To run like that & believe that I could do more, that is how good I felt.

For many years my running has been all about experience & enjoyment. I run because I love it. It’s my time, my place, my thing. I will do two or three races a year & I thrive on a personal challenge but I’ve never been particularly concerned about times. Aiming for sub-24 – very much a time-based target – was a shift in approach for me & I feel as if I thrived on having a tangible goal.

The South Downs Way has lit a fire within me. A glimmer of wonder. With a little more focus, a little more determination, just what am I capable of achieving?

And finally

This wasn’t just a simple running challenge. I was also raising funds for a fantastic charity, Feed London.

Feed London’s vision is that no child, living in poverty, should ever go without access to fresh food & should never have to miss a meal whatever their circumstances.

The terrifying stat is that over a third of London’s children are living in poverty – that’s over 700,000 children. COVID-19 has devastated their lives – during lockdown 35% missed at least one meal per day.

Feed London supports 1000s of children & their families by providing essential food boxes & personalised family support packages.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who sponsored me.

Together, we raised a whopping £1,510. This money will enable Feed London to support 1000s of children & their families. It isn’t just food aid, every pound raised through this challenge gives a family hope.

My donation link will be open for a few more days.

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