This weekend marked my "official" return to ultra running after my DNF at the Thames Path 100 miler in March. Since coming off my bike a week before the race, then running over 70 miles on what would later turn out to be a pretty dodgy ankle, I have been desperately attempting to recover and avoid missing any further races (already failing to make the Viking Way and a Bob Graham Round attempt with Chris Baynham-Hughes). Some aggressive electro-accupuncture from my physio Chelsea Harding and slowly building up my training seemed to be working well. A top 10 finish at the Northants Shires and Spires 35 mile ultra, 3rd place at the Willingham 7.7 mile Fun Run, and a first place finish at a random 5 Km Fun Run in Swavesy that I joined by accident after spotting it on my cycle ride home suggested that things were on the mend. But the big question was; could my ankle withstand a full 100 miler?
This time last year I ran my second ultra - the South Downs Way 100 mile race, running along the beautiful SDW between Eastbourne and Winchester. This was somewhat of a passion project for the race director Jen Jackson, who organised the first event in 2010 with about 35 runners. The 2011 event would be her last event, but she decided to hand over the reigns to someone who could do the route justice. Step in James Elson from Centurion Running, who had wanted to organise an event on the SDW National Trail but had not wanted to step on Jen's toes. He took over the race (with a few tweaks including changing the direction to take advantage of the westerly winds) and added it to his set of 100 mile races (Jen took part in the inaugural rebirth of the race and you can read her report here). Last year I came 5th in a time of 22:10:00, so I was really looking forward to seeing how much difference I had made in the last year.
Despite only having a month or so to really build my training back up, I was feeling strong. Chelsea seemed much happier to let me run this race than she had been at the Thames Path. I was therefore a little peeved to wake up on the Wednesday before the race with a fever coming on and... let's just say "stomach problems". I was a bit worried that I was coming down with something, but a day of drinking water and dioralyte to stay hydrated seemed to keep things in check. So when race weekend finally came around, I was feeling happy. There was no excuse this time!
I had been kindly offered a lift by Gary Barnes, an extremely experienced ultrarunner with 5 Grand Union Canal finishes under his belt. I was introduced to Team Gary (Archie, Mark and Kev) who would be crewing for Gary along the route, and we made our way to Winchester. We registered at Chilcomb Sports Ground in Winchester where I dropped off my two drop bags, and then made our way over to the Travelodge where the 5 of us would be staying. We made the decision to eat at the Little Chef restaurant right next door, which in hind sight was a very poor decision. The entire place looked depressingly run-down (shocking, I know!), and despite there only being about 6 tables taken up there was a "45 minutes to an hour wait". Given that everything is microwaved, I have no idea what was taking so long. I was so worried about the state of the food that we saw being distributed by the (and I use the term loosely) "waitress", that I made the drastic decision to order the vegetarian option. I figured it would be less likely to kill me from food poisoning.
|Totally worth the hour-long wait...|
|Team Gary "enjoying" dinner (Left to Right: Kev, Gary, Mark, Archie)|
Just in time, I got myself to the line. We counted down from 10 and were on our way! The race started with a lap and a half around the field (both to spread the field out before we headed onto the single track of the SDW, and to make the distance up to exactly 100 miles). By the time we made it out onto the field proper the rain had already stopped, and the day was looking like it was going to be a fantastic day for running!
|"How the heck does this thing fold..." C/O Centurion Running|
Things were looking good as I arrived at the first aid station at Beacon Hill in second place behind Martin Bacon who had taken off like a shot from the off! Last year, I spent far too long at aid stations chatting away so this year I was making sure to just grab what I needed and go (always being sure to thank the lovely people at the aid stations of course!). There was a small group of us running at roughly similar paces as we approached Exton, but an unfortunate misreading of the signs led to Wouter Hemelinck and myself taking the alternative route around Exton, rather than the route straight through. By the time we noticed, we were at the bottom of the hill and, not relishing the thought of running back up again we carried on until we rejoined the main route, bumping into Gemma Carter and others as we did. That unfortunately cost us maybe a couple of miles as well as a couple of positions, but it was very early days yet so I put it out of my mind and focused on the race still to go.
As it happens, I had "accidentally" recced this section of the race a couple of weeks ago when visiting my parents in Horndean. I had left for a "quick run" along the Monarch's Way trail, found myself intersecting the SDW, decided to run along it, and finally resurfaced 6 hours later. Team Gary were all set up and waiting for their man, and cheered me through as I grabbed a refill and went off on my way (although they were a little confused as to why they hadn't seen me at Exton). Last year I got a little lost running through Queen Elizabeth Country Park at night as signs for the SDW suddenly disappear, but running in the daylight and with the fantastic route markings there were no issues at all.
I caught up with Cliff Canavan-King who had come second the year before in 19:59 and was one of the favourites for this year. Unfortunately he was suffering from a problem with his left leg and was planning on pulling out at Cocking where he could get a lift. We ran together through a very runnable section through Harting Downs and finally down into the aid station at Cocking. Here I found Dick Kearn, of Grand Union Canal fame, manning the aid station. Dick was the last face that I saw before bailing out on the Thames Path, so it was nice to know that the same thing wasn't going to happen this time. I also found out that I apparently have famous side-burns... I said my goodbyes to Cliff and headed off on the next stage.
By now I was starting to pull back on the leaders, and was finding myself becoming stronger as the weariness of the first 35 miles wore off and my body got used to what was expected of it. I was finding it easier to hike the hills and my leg turnover on the flats and downs felt stronger. So much so that I found myself overtaking a group of mountain bikers out on the SDW (much to their surprise). Around a mile and a half from the small aid station at Bignor Hill, I came across Martin Bacon sitting by the side of the trail. He had hurt his foot quite badly, so much so that it had gone a disconcerting purple/black colour. I offered to help carry him to the next aid station where he could get some help, but he wouldn't let me spoil my chances in the race. A group of walkers who happened to be passing by offered to assist instead, and I sped on to the next station to get some help. He was taken to the hospital where they put his leg into a splint, but I saw him at the finish line later and he seemed well in spite of this. Hopefully he will recover quickly and I'll see him back on the line at some point in the future!
This unfortunate turn of events put me in third place behind Wouter and the current leader, Ryan Brown. And I was gaining. But with more than half the distance left I did not want to make the mistake of getting into a race and burning out. I kept pushing forward, power hiking the steep ascents, running the lighter ascents and flat sections, and going all out on the downhills (much better for the quads, but more risky on technical ground). I came into Washington village hall at mile 54 to find that Cliff had beaten me there (I knew that he was fast, but that is ridiculous!). Both Ryan and Wouter had apparently spent some time at the aid station, whilst I was in and out like a flash (stopping only to replace my Garmin and grab my headlight from my dropbag). This allowed me to make up some of the time that I had lost in Exton, and I in fact took off from Washington before Wouter who was in the process of strapping his feet. I was now in second place with just shy of 50 miles to go. But a lot can happen in 50 miles.
I don't remember too much of the next few sections, but pretty much everyone seemed to follow a similar pattern of; a long hike, followed by some undulating running over exposed fields, with a final speedy descent into the aid station. Whilst the uphills felt incredibly slow going, the rest of the running felt fantastic. My legs were turning over nicely, and the wonderful vistas of the South Downs in the glorious sunshine that we were now experiencing were making the whole event seem like a wonderful experience. On top of that, I was gradually gaining on Ryan. He arrived at Washington 20 minutes before me, but by the time I approached Clayton Windmills (or Jack and Jill as they are affectionately known) I found Ryan sat at the aid station struggling to find any food that he could stomach.
|The view from Jack and Jill C/O Centurion Running|
I came into Alfriston village struggling to maintain my usual cheerful demeanor. I hope that I was suitably friendly to the volunteers in the hall, but probably wasn't as jolly as I had been earlier in the day! But we were so close now that I could smell it. There was just a 4 mile jaunt into Jevington, then a final 4 miles to the finish. I was pointed towards the bridge out of Alfriston where we would find the most navigationally dangerous part of the course. We wanted the alternative route through Jevington rather than the coastal path through the Seven Sisters. Anybody going wrong at this stage would really regret it... Following the finger point to Jevington, I made my way up a hill and onto a very long ridge like section. By this point it was too dark to run safely so I pulled out my head torch to make sure that I didn't miss any markers. The ridge curved back on itself a few times, and I wondered if I would see Ryan's light off in the distance. No such luck!
I was really starting to feel the fatigue at this point. Once I got going and the legs were turning over, I was clocking out 8 or 9 minute miles. But it was taking so long to get going with all of the hill hiking, and the cold wind was not helping matters. At one point I took a quick sit down on the bank, but quickly told myself to MTFU! I pulled into Jevington village, following the (slightly eerie) glow sticks through the church yard and was directed up the steps to the village hall. Boy, could I have done without the steps up to the door! I kept things simple, gave my number, and headed straight out for the final 4 miles.
I was told that there was 1 more hill to go to the trig point at the end of the Downs, before a 2 mile downhill section straight into Eastbourne. I began the trudge up the hill which was just too steep to run but not steep enough that I didn't feel a bit of a wimp for walking. This section was a bit tough for navigation as the path through the fields in the dark was never quite clear. There were markers along the way, but in the dark they were impossible to see from a distance. I finally hit the trig point and followed James' instructions (and the handily placed spray-painted arrows on the floor) to the final downhill gully. I have to say that I expected the gulley to be more runnable. It was very narrow, and overgrown in places, making it more of a "controlled fall" than anything else.
My feet had survived pretty well up until now, but this section really chewed them up. As I came out onto the road in Eastbourne, my feet were not happy with me. I would like to say that I sprinted the final mile into the finish, but I'll be honest - I wimped out. I ran/walked my way around the streets, making my way towards the lights and sounds of the sports ground. As I came onto the track, my usual race instincts kicked in and I was able to summon all of my reserves for a final sprint finish towards the line, where James, the wonderful Mimi Anderson, and a few other volunteers were cheering me on. I came through the line in 17:23:04 feeling fantastic, especially when James handed me my first ever race buckle.
|This looks much more stupid now than it felt at the time C/O Mimi Anderson|
The men's race was won, as you might have guessed, by Ryan Brown in an amazing time of 17:04:26. I was second in 17:23:04, and Nick Weston was third with a cracking time of 18:08:03 (honourable mention to Steve Scott who came in fourth only 53 second later - it's not often you see a 100 miler coming down to a sprint finish!). All of us broke Mark Collinson's amazing record of 19:42:00 from last year (albeit that was on a longer course).
|Oh dear. Do I always look that cheesy?! No wonder people focus on the side-burns.|
Gary and Allan both got through the line with cracking sub-24 finishes (giving Allan two sub-24 hour finishes in his Grand Slam attempt). There were cheers and there were tears as people came through the line. One runner (Jack Armstrong) proposed to his girlfriend who was pacing him (she said yes!), so huge congratulations to them! And Tara Williams actually walked the entire route - and still finished in 26:37:47! All in all it was a hell of a party atmosphere at the end and all through the morning. It was another fantastically organised event from James and the crew at Centurion Running, who all worked tirelessly throughout to make our races go as flawlessly as possible. Bravo!
|My lovely new belt buckle! Now if I could only find a belt small enough to actually work...|