Monday 11 July 2011

South Downs Way Race - July 2011

This weekend, I ran the South Downs Way race - what a fantastic day! I originally grew up in Portsmouth, and often here hear tales of the fantastic scenery of the South Downs Way from my Dad who runs the sections close to his home. The South Downs Way is (I believe) the longest National Trust trail in the country, and stretches for about 103 miles from Eastbourne on the South Coast, heading inland to Winchester. The race, organised by Jen Jackson, had it's inaugural outing last year, and when I heard that this year's race was just around the corner I signed up!

It's only been 3 months since my last big run, but I felt that I had been back on form recently so I figured I would go for it. The beauty of this race as well is that it is about as well sign-posted as any trail there is, so the chances of getting lost along the way were reduced! My only real plan for this race was that I wanted to beat 24 hours. I came up with a "perfect race" scenario, looking at 10 mins/mile for the first third of the race, 11 mins/mile for the second third, and 12 mins/mile for the final third, with 15 minutes at each checkpoint to get me in at 4:30am the following day. The big unknown here was how the hills would affect me - I knew it was hilly, but had no frame of reference for how hilly. I also wasn't sure how self-sufficient the race was so I picked up a front pack to store some extra food. Plus this has the added benefit of making it easy to get to equipment without having to take the bag off. As it happens, the race was really well catered for, with outstanding food choices available at each of the 7 checkpoints along the way. I ended up carrying way too much stuff, but at least I know for next time! I also finally decided on a pair of trail shoes, picking up a pair of Salomon Speedcross 2 shoes, after umming and awing between these and the Inov8 Roclite 285s.

I drove down to my parents on the Friday night, then dragged my poor Dad out of bed at 5:30am on the Saturday to drive me over to Eastbourne. We turned up at the bandstand on the seafront and got chatting to some of the other runners. Everybody was really friendly, and lots of them had run the previous year and had some good advice for some of the sections. The weather during the week has been pretty variable, so I was a little worried about what was going to happen, but when we arrived the conditions seemed to be pretty perfect. The sun was out, but there was some cloud cover. We queued up at the start line, although everybody was hanging back not wanting to be the first through the line! I bit the bullet and went forward with the rest of the crowd, and at 9am on the dot we set off.

The first section went along the promenade, then cut through up onto the cliffs and headed over Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters (of which there are actually about 11...). Being a Cambridge based runner, finding hills for training is not the easiest! But despite this I coped well with the hills, and the general undulating nature of the course. I ended up running with a small group of runners; Javed, Bob and Drew. We worked very well as a team, running in formation to block the wind (of which there was a LOT) for each other. The first section was about 19 hours miles, and I came in pretty much bang on my "perfect race time". We had lost a lot of time due to lots of steep hills and some insanely strong head winds, which means that we must have been flying on the downhills! I came into the checkpoint at Southease where I grabbed some supplies from my drop-bag, including a can of Pepsi - magical elixir for this kind of running! After a quick refill, I was off, slightly ahead of time.

The small group had broken off by this point, so I set out running alone. I had my iPod with me, and began listening to the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - the final book in the Millenium trilogy which I have been listening too on my long runs for a while now. This section was a relatively uneventful 15 miles, although it was great to get an opportunity to see some of the amazing sites of the South Downs. You can see for miles when you reach the top. The wind was showing no signs of dropping unfortunately, and the hills were likely to be an ever present feature for the rest of the run, but I was doing well at dealing with them and was running all but the worst of them. I came into Pyecombe again at about my ideal time, so was feeling pretty good, but at the same time worried about whether or not I was pushing too hard too early.

The spacing of the checkpoints was pretty well arranged, with the first couple quite far apart, and the last few a little closer together. Unfortunately, due to the warm weather I was getting through water at a faster rate than intended. On my way to the next checkpoint in Washington, another 15 miles, I had to ration my water for the last few miles. Not good when all you've got going through your head is "ooh, a nice cool can of Pepsi would go down an absolute treat right about now!" (by the way, I am not sponsored by Pepsi...).

The next checkpoint in Amberley was a relatively short jaunt of about 7 miles or so. Once again, I was making pretty good time, coming in only slightly behind my "perfect race time", and well within the time for a sub-24 hour finish. The pack had separated out by this time. There seemed to be a three-way race for the top position, with Mark Collinson, Cliff Canavan-Kinc and Nicola Golunska all taking it in turns to get into the checkpoints first. I was in the second group, sitting in about 8th position at this stage, with a group of about 5 or 6 of us consistently sharing food and drinks at the checkpoints together.

By the time we got to Cocking car park (ho ho ho...) 12 miles later, a couple of people had unfortunately had to drop out, leaving Tom Blaylock sitting comfortably in 4th, and Paul Bennett, Bruce Moore and myself in a three-way race for 5th, 6th and 7th. By this point it was starting to get dark, so I whacked on the head torch and prepared for the darkness to roll in. Unfortunately by this point I was starting to run into problems. I had had some rubbing on my forefoot earlier in the race, and could feel that this had gotten a lot worse, but I had resigned myself to this and was able to grin and bear it. Unfortunately I was also feeling some aching in my hip, which was making it harder to comfortably control my running, particularly on the down-hills. I was having to be more careful with my steps, with badly placed feet causing sudden pain that was not terribly pleasant. Due to this, I was starting to slip from my ideal pace, but still had a pretty good time going.

We were beginning to get to more recognisable terrain for me now, with the next checkpoint being in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, a place I have walked through many times before. Unfortunately, in the dark, it all just looked black to me! I had heard stories of people getting horribly lost here last year, so was careful to check that I was on the right track regularly. My dawdling at sign-posts led to Paul catching me up, who had run the course previously and was incredibly helpful in setting me in the right direction!

We were getting close now, only 24 miles to go. My hip was really playing up at this stage, and it was really frustrating me. Luckily, my Dad had decided to come out for a little run at 1am (as you do) and met me at the top of Butser Hill to pace me to the next checkpoint at Exton. If he had the time for the training, I have no doubt that he would have been right there on the start line with me. I blame him for my competitive and over the top tendencies! This was probably the lowest point of my race, with my hip making it so that I was having to be very careful with my footfall meaning I couldn't "just run". It was therefore fortuitous timing from my Dad, and I was able to keep the pace going despite the pain in my hip. The time that I lost due to my slightly slower going was outweighed by the time that I was saving by having somebody who knew the way (well, except for the whole detour part... :) ).

I said goodbye to my Dad at the Exton checkpoint, and finally headed out for the final section. Bruce and Paul set off before me, and I was finding it hard to get going. I normally don't like taking medication if I can help it, but decided to just go for it and knocked back a couple of Ibuprofen. Well blow me down! What a difference! I was soon back to my normal self and was running how I had run at the start of the race! I caught up with Bruce, who was still looking fresh as a daisy as if he hadn't been running for the last 20 hours, on our last big hill climb of the day. We climbed the hill together, and after helping me with a slight map issue ("Oh, we're on THAT page are we?!"), I headed on off up the trail. The last 8 miles or so felt amazing, and I was really pushing to get into Winchester as quickly as I could. I managed to catch up with Paul, who despite suffering an ITB problem earlier was looking incredibly strong and was pushing to get to his home in Winchester. The last couple of miles were all down hill, and I soared into the finish line at the Mercure Hotel in Winchester in 22 hours and 10 mins, finishing 5th overall. A nice lady who was out walking with her young boys got them all to give me a round of applause as I headed up the final straight, which was a lovely end to the race!

After I got my medal, I went upstairs to grab a quick shower. I wanted to get out of my wet clothes and into something fresh as quickly as possible. Mark had won in a time of 19:42, with Cliff coming in soon afterwards in 19:59, and Nicola coming in as first lady and third overall in 20:33. Fourth place went to Tom Blaylock in 21:51, only 19 mins ahead which definitely gives me something to aim for next time!

All in all, it was an absolutely marvelous day out! The whole event was organised incredibly well by Jen and her team, and the checkpoint staff were amazing; incredibly helpful despite my incessant demands ("Fill this up please", "Pass me a sandwich please", "No, I only eat the brown M&Ms thankyou very much", etc.). I could probably have saved a fair bit of time had I not spent so much time chatting with people at the checkpoints, but they were far too welcoming and made it hard to leave. The weather couldn't have been better, and if anything it was too nice. The wind is pretty much a constant feature on the Downs, so wasn't really unexpected. The other runners as well were all incredibly friendly, and genuinely supportive of each other. There was no sense of rivalry, and everybody was just out to have a great run. Despite having a sleep in the afternoon to recover for my drive back to Cambridge (the real challenge!), I kept up with the finishers on Facebook. Isn't technology wonderful!

I woke up the following morning feeling great - well rested, and with no real pain in the legs. My legs are definitely stiff and slow to respond, and the balls of my feet are pretty badly blistered (should probably have worn those shoes in more...) which makes walking interesting, but I felt a lot better than after my last run. It may have been because I ate less sugar so didn't have as much of a crash at the end, it may have been because I jumped straight in the shower rather than hanging around in damp clothes, or it may have been because I finished 8 hours earlier. Top tip then - run faster next time! Simple. Isn't running great?!

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