Thursday 10 April 2014

South Downs Way 50 Race Report

I hadn't planned any races between the Spine in January and the Grand Union Canal in May because I half expected to still be in traction. However, when I inexplicably managed to survive without going the wrong way and running off a cliff, I decided to take up one of the last few places in the Centurion Running South Downs Way 50. This was a chance to get a longer run in before the GUCR, and also was a good way to recce the last half of the SDW100 in June. But more importantly, Centurion events are also one hell of a party.

After spending 2 hours driving the half hour trip back home after work (grr), I had to head straight out to brave the wonders of the M25 on a Friday night. I made it to Worthing just in time to pick up Bryan Webster and Dan Park from the station and order food from the pub before they closed. We met up with Sue Albiston, her daughter Becky and everyone's ultra-mum Nici Griffin who were patiently waiting for our arrival. After eating and talking b*llocks for a while, we headed off for a surprisingly good night's sleep at the Travelodge. Well, I had a good night's sleep anyway. But then I had a double bed to myself, not a teeny tiny single bed in the corner of the room like the other two. God bless shotgun rules.

We turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed at the start line to be greeted by the usual slick Centurion machine. Nici had recently joined the crew and had brought along her trademark panache for efficiency, and despite everybody's best efforts kit check and registration went without a hitch. It was great to see so many friendly faces, and I spent the whole time before the start chatting away to anyone who would listen (surprisingly I wasn't left talking to myself). It always amazes me how close it's possible to get to people that you only actually see about 4 times a year!

And they're off! And I'm already chicked... Photo courtesy of Pete Aylward of
I wasn't sure what to expect from the race really. I'm not really back at full fitness, but the last couple of months have actually been pretty good running-wise. I felt good with no real niggles to complain about (first time in a while) and was really looking forward to getting going. I had a 7.5 hour finish in mind (secretly hoping for 7 hours, but that was probably pushing it). But I really wasn't expecting to be troubling the front runners who I knew would be shooting for somewhere closer to 6 hours (nutters). After a few words from Race Director James Elson, we were off. Race favourites Paul Navesy, Richard Ashton and Mark Perkins went off like a shot, and I joined on to the chase pack. We were going at a fair old lick, and it soon became clear that I had completely overestimated my current abilities. It felt "okay", but probably not okay for 50 miles, so I backed off the gas slightly.

It was a beautiful day, which really surprised me as Paul Ali had turned up with his dreaded lucky hat (bringer of rain). The forecast warned of a band of rain slowly approaching us from the West, acting as a pretty good incentive to run faster. However, after only a few miles in my stomach started to feel... unpleasant. Not ideal. I came into the first checkpoint at Botolphs desperate for the loo, but since it was just a pop up table at the side of the A283 I was shit out of luck (pun very much intended). Paul Rowlinson (who will forever be my saviour from the Piece of String race a couple of years ago) offered the use of the neighbouring field, but I'm a bit precious about such "outdoor pursuits" and preferred to wait and hope for a public convenience.

"What's got two thumbs and couldn't give a crap (even though he really wanted to)? This guy!" Photo courtesy of Paul Rowlinson
Big mistake. With 5 miles to go until the next checkpoint at Saddlescombe's Farm, it quickly became clear that running was not conducive to sphincteral integrity. Too much information? You may want to skip the next bit then...

I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to break my cherry and just do as the Pope does, and proceeded to look for a good spot. I honestly couldn't have picked a worse time; for the next few miles, the entire area was completely wide open for miles around, with nary a tree to hide my shame. Who would have thunk it on the South Downs?! I was haemorrhaging places, but that was the least of my concerns. Eventually I found a little thicket off the track, and headed off for an, ahem, "papal visit". I was caught a little short as I didn't have any tissue with me and didn't fancy using a handful of twigs, so had to improvise and use my spare buff. Bollocks. I liked that buff.

I came into Saddlescombe's Farm much later than expected to find Nici and James "Did You Know He Has A Book Out" Adams wondering where I had been. I just shrugged and asked where the nearest loo was. I took a bit of time to sort myself out, then headed into the aid station to try and refuel a bit. As I headed out, I bumped into Paul Ali, who had also entered at the last minute. We ended up running together for much of the rest of the race, and it was great to catch up. Along the way, I ran past Bryan, who was a little surprised to see me behind him. He had been struggling a little, but managed to push past it and finished in a great time of about 9 hours.

We also bumped into Paul Radford, who had done a similar thing to me and set out at the pace that he thought he could do, and not the one he actually could do. Of course he had a much better excuse than me, having had serious knee surgery recently following an injury at the Spine in January. I was just unfit. He joined Paul and me and the three of us stuck together until Jevington. I actually started to feel much better and we picked up the pace a lot compared to the first half of the race. Generally my legs were feeling good, but I was definitely feeling the hills and breathing harder than I would have liked. I really need to do some hill work!

"Come on guys, it's this way!" Oh Paul, Paul, Paul. Did nobody ever tell you that following me is a very bad idea!  Photo courtesy of Paul Ali
Coming down the hill into the final checkpoint at Alfriston, I actually felt really good so just legged it down to the bottom. I remember the run through the churchyard being much more ethereal at the 100 miler 2 years ago, with glowsticks lighting the graves in the dark (I wasn't as fast as Robbie Britton, who finished in daylight when he did it). But now it was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining. Someone was sat outside taking numbers, so I didn't bother going inside - there was only about 5 miles to go and I was feeling good. I headed up the final climb with Paul Ali and one of his friends, Dan Gritton, knowing that once we hit the trig point at the top it was all down hill to the finish. Dan and I took off at a brisk pace, and decided that we were going to try and hoof it down the hill to see if we could get in for an 8 hour finish. I couldn't remember how far it was to the end, but thought it couldn't be more than about 2 miles. With 8 minutes to go until the 8 hour mark, we were maybe pushing our luck...

So hoof it we did, high-fiving Drew Sheffield as we ran past the trig point, then sprinting down the wooded track down to the road. We were moving pretty quickly, but I had slightly underestimated how far it was until the end. As we hit the main road, where you have to run past the sports ground and follow it around the hospital to the other side, I realised I had slightly over-cooked it and backed off slightly. Dan went on ahead, and I realised I wasn't going to catch him again. As I turned the corner into the Sports Center I caught another runner, Gareth Fish, and we both headed into the track together. "Let's see your sprint finish then" were his words to me. Game on! We hit the track together and picked up the pace for our final lap. As we turned the last bend, neck and neck, I kicked it up a gear for a final 100 meter sprint to the line and just took the "win" by about 6 seconds, finishing in a time of 8:10:28. Small victories, eh!

I was greeted by lots of friendly faces, including THE James Adams who was handing out medals and probably promoting his book (did you know he has a book out?). Paul Ali finished a few minutes later, graciously letting the runner he was with cross the line first (he's a better man than I), and Paul Radford was over a couple of minutes later. 

I caught up with Paul Navesey and Richard Ashton to find out what had happened at the pointy end. It sounds like it was a pretty close-faught thing, with Paul winning in a cracking time of 6:11:28 (44 minutes off Mark's course record), Richard coming second in 6:23:26, and Mark coming in a very close third in 6:24:41. I had said at the start that it would be awesome if the race came down to a sprint on the track, and the race for second almost did.

The women's race was equally close, with Edwina Sutton winning in a fantastic time of 7:09:21 (for 9th place overall, and 40 minutes off of the previous course record), Sarah Perkins (wife of Mark) coming second in 7:19:43, and Gemma Carter getting a well-deserved podium finish (following some annoying injuries) for third in 7:32:42.

Paul, Rich, Rich's girlfriend Nell, her friend Felicity and I went off to the pub to laugh at the fact that ultra stud Paul has no friends on Twitter, and when we got back we found that it was pissing down with rain. So Paul did bring the rain with him, but the cheeky bastard managed to finish and bugger off home before it hit!

As always, a huge thank you has to go out to all of the volunteers out on the course. The atmosphere was buzzing and everybody was really friendly attentive as usual. The passion that comes from the supporters is always a huge boost to the runners, and is always appreciated. I particularly enjoyed the themes at some of the checkpoints, like the sombreros at Southease. Arriba!

The secret to avoiding knee injuries when running is to just levitate. Keep it under your hat though. Photo courtesy of Simon Hayward
All in all, it didn't quite go to plan, but I'm actually pretty happy with that time. It wasn't as good as I was hoping because of stomach issues, but I don't think it's any kind of recurring problem that needs to be sorted - it's just one of those things (I'm still not feeling great today to be honest). I picked it up a bit in the second half, and suspect that I have a hell of a negative split. Plus I spent about half an hour, erm, let's say not running. I definitely still need to do some work on my fitness, and need to get back to working hills into my training (difficult in Cambridge), but all in all it wasn't awful. I didn't suffer any twinges or injuries, and everything else actually went really well. Plus I really enjoyed myself (well, in the second half at least), and that's the main thing. My main goal was to not embarrass myself horribly, and until writing this blog I probably managed that. Now there's about 6 weeks to go now until the GUCR, so plenty of time to build up a little more fitness, and I guess I won't have to worry too much about hills there. I'd like to be able to push for a good time, but I think a good plan will be to reign things in at the start, and hold things back for a late push in the second half. 

Is that likely to happen? Yeah right!


  1. 6:24:41 is not bad.
    All said and done, running is the best exercise.

  2. Some levitation from us both in that piccie. Sorry to hear you were feeling crook, I was rather surprised to walk past you on the climb out of the first checkpoint. Pretty quick last 3 miles into that checkpoint though -I thought you just wanted to pick up the pace, I suppose you must have been hoping for a suitable bush..
    Take it easy


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