Centurion Running’s South Downs Way 100 mile race was my first 100 mile event in 2016 and now three years later I was back taking part in the 2nd 100 mile race of the 2019 grand slam…. It had only been five weeks since the Thames Path 100, and although training had gone well and I felt in great shape, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I had asked a lot of my body at TP100 and I wasn’t sure what it had taken out of me both physically and mentally. Running 100 miles is never easy and I knew this was going to be a real test of my fitness.
Saying that, I couldn’t quite remember ever being so relaxed prior to a race. I travelled to Winchester two days before to ensure I settled into the hotel and slept well. This seemed to be the cause of much interest as several people enquired why I would travel so early…. My answer would be ‘why wouldn’t I?!’
Registering the night before gave me a great opportunity to say hi to fellow competitors and friends alike, and then I was able to share a relaxed dinner with Victoria and James (who was running his first 100 miler) before grabbing an early night. Unlike the TP100, the SDW100 starts at 6am, so it was up early and off to the start in less than appealing weather. It had been tipping it down all day on Friday and this had continued through the night and into Saturday morning. Thankfully it took pity on us and stopped just prior to race start.
The nerves had suddenly hit me about 45 minutes before the start of the race and I just wanted to get going. I was eager to start running and get out on one of my favourite trails. I had a couple of goals for the race…
1.) Beat my time from 2016 (15:46)
2.) Complete the race without using my head torch.
I knew that if I achieved these then I would be in the mix at the sharp end of the race and also the grand slam dream would still be alive.
There were familiar faces everywhere I looked, Ingid Lid gave me a wave, Fabio Rizzo came and gave me a tap on the butt, Jon Ellis said hi (although I didn’t recognise him to start with), I gave Michelle Maxwell a hug, Sarah Morwood popped up smiling broadly, and John Melbourne and I stood next to each other fidgeting about. An outstanding field of runners had come together to race over this great course and it promised to be an exciting day.
With a new start this year around the Matterley Bowl, we saw spectators a couple of times in the first 3 miles before heading out onto the South Downs Way itself.
The main protagonists led from the front as Jon Ellis, Marcus Scotney, Paul Maskell, Geoff Cheshire and another runner quickly formed a lead group. I hung back, settling into my rhythm and trying to not go off too fast.
The early miles of a long ultra are usually the most enjoyable for me as I find myself chatting to runners around me before the field spreads out and the inevitable isolation begins, however I was on my own very early on with no one to chat too. The lead group had disappeared into the distance and it wasn’t until Fabio joined me at around 9 miles that I finally had some company. It was great to catch up with my buddy and fellow Spartathlete from 2017 and it helped pass a few miles.
The first aid station came and went and then it wasn’t long before we were heading down Butser Hill towards QECP where I knew that Mark and Victoria would be waiting for me. Mark was crewing for the whole day, but this would be the only time I would see Victoria as she was crewing/pacing for our friend James. I didn’t stop for long, just grabbing my handheld bottle and giving them both a hug.
As I left the aid station I realised that QECP Parkrun hadn’t started yet so I shouted to Fabio that maybe we should jump in and give it a go. Then I remembered I didn’t have my barcode and you know what they say at Parkrun about not having your barcode!!! Deciding to give it a miss, I headed up the climb out of QECP feeling strong. I ran the whole thing pulling away from Fabio and then I spied Jon Ellis and one other runner in the distance which buoyed me to keep working hard in the hope of catching them soon.
The 10k between QECP and Harting down is really runnable and part of the route that I really enjoy. I hoped that Mum and Dad would be at Harting Down waiting for me. That obviously depended on if they’d had time to finish a hearty breakfast (as dad put it) at the harvester before travelling to watch. Thankfully they were there, and I think I surprised them when I emerged round the corner of the trail, as they were busy chatting with the aid station crew!
I had felt great up until this point and was positive about the remaining miles. I felt strong and was moving well, until at about 50km (31 miles) one of my pre race niggles reared it’s ugly head. Two weeks prior to the race I had tripped on a tree root during a trail run and jarred my right hip badly. This caused my SI joint to seize up and cause a few issues in my right leg. My wonderful physio Kate had worked on me in an attempt to rectify the issue and I had also been stretching constantly in an effort to ensure I was ok and I thought the issue had been solved. However as I was heading towards Cocking I felt it seize up again and my quad started to pull where it was being loaded far more that it should have been. I paused a couple of times to stretch and then gritted my teeth and carried on.
Ironically this happened just before I caught and passed Marcus Scotney, who told me his ITB had gone. I remember using that as motivation as I had no intention of DNF’ing. However when I reached the aid station I laid on the floor trying to stretch my hip. Mark assisted me and at my request jabbed his thumbs deep my TFL and Glut causing me to yelp in pain. It was a small price to pay though as it did release my hip, well for a few miles anyway.
Little did I know that I was now up into third place. I hadn’t passed Jon Ellis so I thought he had put in a big effort and was chasing the leaders, so I just assumed I was in fourth. I arrived at Bignor Hill aid station and was welcomed by a fellow Fetchie who congratulated me on winning the member of the month award for May… I am so sorry but I don’t know who it was, but it was so nice and really lifted my spirits… James Elson was also there to confirm that Marcus had dropped.
I needed some food but unfortunately the guys didn’t have any plain jam sandwiches (my fuel at TP100) that I could tuck into as they had mixed Peanut butter with them all (this seemed to be a theme at this race) and I can’t stand Peanut butter.
Centurion Volunteers you are all absolutely awesome, but please can you make some plain jam sandwiches/wraps for those of use who aren’t fond of peanut butter!! Many Thanks 🙂
I was now heading for Amberley, and safely negotiated the descent on which I took a tumble in 2016 (I still have the scars). Mum was waving enthusiastically as I trotted up the hill towards her. It was great to see both her and Dad regularly throughout the day, as they then popped up at Chantry Post and Washington as well. Fabio’s crew asked me if he was still going as Mark refilled my bottles. I was sure that he was as he had been running well, but I hadn’t seen him for a while.
After the climb I noticed that fellow slammer John Melbourne had crept up behind me, he looked to be running really well and was once again giving a master class in pacing. I managed to keep him behind me through Kithurst Hill and all the way to Washington, even managing to pull away on the downhill section.
The rest of my crew awaited at Washington and it was great to see them. Mark had done a fantastic job for the first 54 miles on his own, and now he had Kirsty, Oli and Chris to help him. Kirsty and Oli had crewed me at TP100 as well, so knew the drill and Chris is a friend who had been very keen to help out if he could. I ran in needing the loo which cost me a minute or two, but my friend Michelle who was volunteering had given Chris a bag of food for me (including pork pie! She must have forgotten I’m vegetarian), before I grabbed a cup of coke and headed out of the door.
Chris was first up on the pacing duties and he would accompany me to Clayton Windmills. Sadly for Chris this was my darkest patch of the whole race. As expected John caught me on the climb out of Washington, but we stayed close together. I knew that he was stronger on the climbs; however I felt I could match him on the flat and downhill sections, which meant for the next few miles we yo-yoed back and forth, before I pulled away as we approached Botolphs. 62 miles in and we were racing again, which just emphasises what great athletes are at these events.
According to James Elson the leaders were 15 minutes ahead and within reach, however leaving Botolphs I hit my lowest point of the whole race… John once again caught me at the top of Truleigh Hill and then just gradually pulled away from me.
I was struggling, my right quad and hip were seizing up meaning I kept having to pause to stretch and then walk. Then my foot and knee started hurting where I was compensating for the hip pain. Added to that despite fuelling and hydrating well I just felt like I didn’t have that extra gear that I had had at TP. Chris did his best to lift my spirits, but after pausing with my crew at Devils dyke to take on some sprite and coke, I never saw John again. I was getting frustrated as I knew that I was walking sections that I should have been running. I felt really low….. Running on one leg was taking its toll on me psychologically as much as physically
Chris did a great job to get me to Clayton Windmills where he handed over to Oli. Kirsty looked after me well and just dismissed my complaining. She gave me some fuel and then pretty much kicked me up the trail. We wouldn’t see the crew now until 84 miles so it was down to Oli and I to tough it out.
Oli was awesome pacer, he chatted away to me, was really positive and pushed me to run when he thought I was slacking…. By now the stony ground was also killing my feet, so I longed for the grassy sections of the downs for some relief. The knee pain was also getting worse, but there was no way that I was quitting. I kept telling myself that there were people in far more discomfort than me who weren’t even halfway through yet, and I just needed to get this done. I drew inspiration from my friend Sarah Morwood who was leading the ladies race.. those who have read the race report will know her story, and I was just thinking how dare I complain about being in pain… things like that really give you perspective when you think things are at their worst.
The views from the top of the downs were spectacular as it was now beautiful sunshine. I was enjoying the strong tailwind even if my legs weren’t, and we were starting to make better progress. At Housedean I treated myself to a couple of slices of cake for the climb, trying to ensure that I got the fuel in.
We managed to arrive at Southease in decent time and it was time for Mark to take over pacing duties and get me to the end. The frustration for me was that I was still running most of the climbs, and for the first time my quads weren’t trashed by the hills. It was more my hip, knee, ankle and pain in the feet that was hindering me. I think also at 84 miles I knew that 4th place was in the bag… so I relaxed and even though I was frustrated I actually enjoyed those last 16 miles a lot. Mark and I chatted away, and I only took very short walking breaks. We reached Bo Peep far quicker than Kirsty expected which was a positive, and once again Mum and Dad surprised me by making both the Firle Beacon and Bo Peep support points. What an awesome team I had supporting me.
Everyone wished me well for the last 10 miles and now it was a case of lets get to Eastbourne. I love this last stretch of the course and if you can still run it is even more enjoyable. As we reached Jevington we passed a guy who was hobbling along. I asked if he was alright and he said ‘no’, my response was ‘I know that feeling’… I didn’t realise then that it was Geoff Cheshire, the guy who had been in 3rd place. Mark did, but I didn’t believe him. I just thought it was someone else. Looking back now I think to myself why would it have been anyone else, but obviously at the time I wasn’t thinking straight. Hence I still thought I was in fourth place…
We headed up the last climb out of Jevington and then we negotiated death gully in the light which was a massive bonus before hitting the tarmac… I picked up speed here and felt that I was running strong to the finish. Mark kept checking behind me just in case, but we didn’t need to worry. Coming into the stadium is always an emotional feeling and stretching the legs round the track hearing everyone clapping was wonderful. Crossing the line I was greeted by James who told me Geoff had dropped at Jevington and hence I was third… I couldn’t believe it. Not only had I managed to run almost 30 minutes quicker than my 2016 time (which would have given me the win that year) but I had bagged a podium as well. It turns out I had just been beaten by two great ultra runners on the day who had both performed superbly.
Despite my success one of the first things I wanted to know was how John Melbourne got on… did he catch Paul Maskell. Obviously John and I are racing the Grand Slam against each other, but I truly wanted him to have picked up the victory after he pushed me so hard at TP100. I was gutted for him when James told me he had come second as I really thought this was going to be his day. He is a fine athlete and I look forward to resuming my rivalry with him at NDW100… it’s currently 1-1 buddy!!!
Before that though I have the small matter of Wendover Woods 100 to look forward too in just over 4 weeks time… bring on those 10 mile loops….
As always I would like to thank every member of the Centurion Family for putting on another great event, your support and effort makes these races truly special.
Thanks to all my crew who were absolutely fantastic, and thanks to my Mum and Dad for coming to support me in my ludicrous adventures once again. I couldn’t achieve what I do without you guys.