“One hundred miles??? You ran a hundred miles? How do you even DO that?” is the way my son’s school teacher reacted when I told her I’d run the South Downs Way 100 over the weekend. She didn’t ask, I just told her because I’m a runner and that’s what we do. We love it don’t we? You know, that look on someone’s face when you explain you’ve just completed your 10th marathon or you’ve run London in under 3 hours or you’ve done over 100 parkruns. You love it and you know you do. I often wonder how people look at Steve Edwards when he tells them he’s run over 700 marathons. How do you even comprehend that?
Running 100 Miles
Running the South Downs Way 100 wasn’t something I had even considered until last year. I have been running marathons for four years now and ultras for two. My first ultra was the Longman 54k in September 2014. It was essentially an out and back course along the Brighton/Ditchling Beacon section of the South Downs Way. This was to be an entirely different prospect, covering the same section of course and more than another 100km to boot. Having run the Grim Reaper 70 mile ultra last July I guess we felt the next step up should be a one hundred miler. The South Downs Way seemed the obvious choice. Centurion are a well respected race organiser, we already know much of the route and it is, to all intents and purposes, our local 100 miler.
With so many other races demanding our attention this year, I hadn’t even thought about running 100 miles until a week or two before the race. When I did start to think about it, I started to get quite scared. I wasn’t scared of the Transvulcania Ultra. I was just really excited. I don’t recall being particularly scared about the Grim Reaper 70, because of its lap nature I knew I’d be back at the tent every 10 miles. But thinking about running 100 miles was really beginning to send chills down my spine. Thirty miles more than Richard and I have ever attempted before. A point to point race over exposed terrain up 12000ft of elevation. This was a race not to be taken lightly.
Kit Packing Fail
I thought I was being particularly meticulous in my preparation in the final few days before the race. I had all the mandatory kit ready and packed. I had a full change of clothing for half way and a full change of clothing for the end including a warm coat. I had all the race nutrition I expected to use, my camera batteries were fully charged and I had prepared a drop bag for the aid station at 70ish miles. Vaseline, gloves, buff, plasters, paracetamol, iPhone cable, Garmin charging cable and USB battery packs. I had three different bags of stuff for three different locations in the race.
Saturday 3:30am duly arrived and the alarm sounded. Coffee, toast and jam for breakfast. Jay from Sussex Trail Events rolled up in his taxi at 4, with another guy called Steve, and we were on our way to Winchester after picking up Danny and Richard. It was light when we arrived at Chilcomb Sports Ground and we set about the process of kit check and registration. This is where my meticulous planning began to unravel. At kit check I was informed that my waterproof and windproof Montane jacket did not meet the requirements because the seams are not taped. They were quite right. I had never realised this before and had just assumed that the replacement I was sent for my damaged Montane Minimus Smock had the same spec. I never checked to see if the seams were taped. Furthermore, I had been allowed to run the SDW 50 with this jacket. Luckily I was able to hire one, so that problem was quickly resolved.
Filming the SDW 100
I spent the remainder of the build-up filming. I had made one resolution, however. Today, the race was more important than filming. I was going to concentrate on running and staying alive rather than making a great film. I promised myself I would only get the camera out every 10 miles or so. Race Director James Elson, who is no mean runner himself having won his own Autumn 100 race last year, gave the race briefing. This involved the usual cow warnings, but mainly focussed on getting people to look out for each other and help each other through. The South Downs Way 100 is a long race and for most of the route you are a good distance from any main roads or built up areas. So your main source of aid would likely come from a fellow runner.
My Salomon S-Lab 5 race vest has been my one and only vest for 2 years now and I see no reason to change. It’s comfortable, it holds a decent amount without being overly big. In fact I think it forces you to not take too much and consider what you will really need. It doesn’t take long to fill it up with food, drinks, plasters, phone, batteries, gloves, jacket, head torch, space blanket etc. However, today for the first time (never try anything new on race day….especially a 100 miler), I decided to ditch the hydration bladder and try the two Salomon soft flasks in the front pockets. I have noted in many races how all the top ultra runners use front bottles rather than the rear hydration bladder. So I thought I’d give it a go.
Nothing New on Race Day
Race nutrition was also going to be a change from the norm. Honestly, it’s the golden rule of running. Never. Try. Anything. New. On. Race. Day. I’ve never used Mountain Fuel before. It’s similar to Tailwind in that it’s supposed to provide you with everything you need i.e electrolytes and carbohydrates for the duration of your run. I have grown rather sick of Tailwind. It’s ok for the first 30 miles of a run but after that it starts leaving a taste in my mouth and I can’t stomach it any more. So I thought I’d try Mountain Fuel, which I have read a little about. I filled one soft flask with water and the other with Mountain Fuel. I had another sachet in my backpack, another with my drop bag at mile 54 and a final sachet with the drop bag around mile 70. I definitely planned to eat real food as well though.
At 6am sharp we were off. Once round the sports field and then off to find the South Downs Way. We were less than a mile in when Richard and I were caught by Vassos Alexander. Vassos is a regular on Chris Evans BBC Radio Two Breakfast Show and was running his first 100 mile race. I managed to chat to him briefly on camera before he was off. We never saw him again for the rest of the race. He’s clearly a decent runner with a marathon PB of 2:55. Richard and I settled in to our race. We had decided to start out at 20 hour pace and see what happened. The first aid station was at 10 miles and we got there in plenty of time, running alongside Wendy Shaw who has a 100 mile best time of 19:40.
Top Notch Aid Stations
Next up was the Queen Elizabeth Country Park at 22 miles. Bounding down Butser Hill was one of the most enjoyable early parts of the South Downs Way 100. Centurion aid stations are beautifully well stocked. All manner of fruit, crisps, biscuits, wraps, sweets, chocolate, sandwiches, nuts and even tomatoes were on offer. This varied from station to station. The earlier aid stations supplied cold drinks only, juice, Coke, water. But later in the day there was also tea, coffee and hot soup. By midday at Cocking aid station it was really beginning to heat up. We were 35 miles in. Our friend Paul Coe was there to meet us. Richard and I were still running together and Richard had promised that he wouldn’t run off and leave me. I didn’t believe him. I took my shirt off and doused myself in water to try and cool down and to feel a little fresher.
By now we had started to fall behind the 20 hour plan and we were trying to re-evaluate what we wanted to do. We decided not to worry too much about time and concentrate on finishing. However, finishing in under 24 hours was certainly a target. We were well inside the time for that though so we could relax somewhat. Heading towards Worthing through the hottest part of the day was the worst part of the race for me. I really began to flag and I could feel Richard starting to edge away from me. I knew that if he went I wouldn’t even try to keep up. Just before Kithurst Hill aid station Richard did get away. I honestly thought he’d gone and I sent a text to my wife to say I was now on my own. However, when I got to the aid station, Richard was there, waiting for me.
I Want My Costa Latte!!!
I had a little rant at Kithurst Hill. Prior to the race I thought I had agreed with my wife that she would get a take away Costa Coffee for me to drink at the Washington aid station. Annoyingly during the text conversation we had she told me she hadn’t got me a Costa and would I like a latte from the pub. “No, I wouldn’t like a latte from the pub!!!! I wanted a Costa!! I was really looking forward to my Costa latte!!! Aaaarrrgghhh!” Well, you know what it’s like. You’re in the middle of a 100 mile race and you’re a bit stressed! Probably not my finest moment, but I’m man enough to cope with these little setbacks! It was only four miles to Washington where we met Victoria, Tanya and the children and where we would stop for the longest amount of time. Victoria said I looked like an old man when I staggered in a couple of hundred metres behind Richard.
I had a complete change of clothing and I am so glad I did because the clothes I had on were soaking wet and, knowing what I know now, I’m glad I didn’t have to wear wet clothes overnight. I had various drinks to down including Huel, which is a very tasty meal replacement drink I am using at the moment. It tastes a bit oaty, like drinking porridge or soft muesli. I like it a lot. I had my latte from the pub, which was actually perfectly acceptable! I also drank a fruit smoothie and some plain old milk. Richard had a big bowl of pasta. All the food looked lovely, but by now I just couldn’t face eating any food at all. Also the Mountain Fuel had become sickly too. So Scott took both flasks, threw the remainder of Mountain Fuel away and filled them with water. Scott is friend from Worthing Harriers who was at Washington waiting to pace his mate Tom, who was a little further back. After about 20 minutes at Washington I finally felt able to get on with the race. Had Richard not been waiting for me he would have left a good while before I imagine.
Time to Throw Up
Richard’s wife, Tanya, joined us to run a few miles up to Chanctonbury Ring. She was, apparently, worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. Ha!! We ran quite solidly for a few miles until Tanya peeled off to run home. The minute she left us we walked for ages!! I’m not sure if it was just me or both of us had felt the pace out of Washington. We eventually got going again and made it to Botolphs aid station at 61 miles, where we met our friends Zoe and Jake who were volunteering. I sat down for a few minutes but Zoe was quick to kick us both out and on our way. It was cooling down by now and we walked most of the way up Beeding Hill. Richard started to run at the top and up to Truleigh Hill, so I followed. I think if Richard had not been there to pull me along I may have walked more than I did. By now we were putting in some good sustained efforts of running and walking up the inclines. The second half of the SDW100 is definitely more difficult than the first. We have run it before when we did the South Downs Way 50.
We got to Devils Dyke feeling pretty good. Then, just before the next aid station I asked Richard to get my camera out of my backpack and he drew out an empty selfie stick. I thought I’d lost the camera and had to trudge back up the hill to see if I could find it. Luckily I decided to have a little feel around in the pack and found it sitting there. Thankfully, that saved a fruitless half hour searching aimlessly on the ground!! Just past Devils Dyke is Saddlescombe Farm aid station at 66.6 miles and, in keeping with the number of the beast theme the volunteers were wearing little devil horns. As with almost all the aid stations there is a big climb out of Saddlescombe Farm and I was feeling rather queasy. At the top of the hill I threw up for a good couple of minutes. It was marvellous and I felt a whole heap better.
Less than a Marathon to go
By the time we reached the Clayton Windmills (Jack and Jill) at 69 miles there was a beautiful sunset. A runner was sat at the aid station wrapped in his foil blanket having dropped from the race. He wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. It was here that I had my drop box of essential stuff. Gloves, buff, Mountain Fuel sachet. I didn’t need any of it. Actually that’s not true, I took a battery charging block out and swapped it with the partially drained one in my backpack. I don’t know of any GPS sports watches which would last the entire 100 miles of the South Downs Way. So I had to charge the watch half way through the run. Luckily my Fenix 3 HR is able to charge and keep an activity running in the background. I remember being very frustrated when my Gamin 920XT gave up the ghost at just over 100km in to the Grim Reaper race, with 15km to go.
The next two aid stations are significant points in the South Downs Way 100. Housedean Farm signifies the ‘less than a marathon to go’ point. This is a psychologically important place to be. If you’re running 100 miles, chances are you’ve run a few marathons in your time. It’s a distance that is well established and understood in the mind of an ultra runner. We can do this. That said, we still had a good sit down and I for one had no intention of trying to run up the next hill! Crossing the A27 bridge there is a very long climb from Housedean and then a good 6 mile run on the top of the Downs to get to Southease.
Now was the time to put head torches on as the sun finally set behind us. We ran well over the downs and made good progress in to Southease. This was probably our best stretch of running since the beginning of the race. At this point we were still on to finish in about 22 hours. We crossed the railway bridge and ran in to Southease at 84 miles around midnight. Southease is significant because it feels like you are now nearer to Eastbourne than Brighton. Just three big climbs to go and you’re there.
Long Drag to Alfriston
I hadn’t eaten anything since Washington and I actually felt much better for it. I was hungry but milk, coffee and tea was enough. The section between Southease and Alfriston was to be the most testing of the run. Navigation became a real issue. It was dark, obviously, but in addition to that the sea mist had rolled in and visibility was reduced to a few metres. It was all we could do to keep our eyes on the narrow brown pathway ahead. It would have been so easy to lose the line and go completely off track. Happily I had loaded the SDW100 GPX file on to my watch so in the event that we did wander away from the line my watch would have beeped at me. Then, about three miles before getting to Alfriston, Richard’s head torch began playing up. He decided to swap it for his back up and then couldn’t find the back up. We ended up walking for about two miles because Richard couldn’t run without light. It was simply to risky and there was no way we were going to pull out because Richard had twisted his ankle trying to run in the dark.
Annoyingly the path down to Alfriston seemed to go on for ever until Richard suddenly had a brainwave and remembered where his back up head torch was. Finally we were back up running again. We made it in to Alfriston still under 24 hour pace. The aid station here is inside the old chapel centre. I foolishly decided that it might be a good idea to have some hot soup. Two minutes later I was throwing up in to the bin with a very kind volunteer rubbing my back in consolation. Again, I felt much better after this and we left Alfriston at around 2:45am and began the most gruelling climb of the entire South Downs Way 100. It took us 45 minutes to walk the two miles back up from sea level to a height of about 200 metres. Once at the top it’s almost an immediate run back down to the final aid station in Jevington. Richard didn’t want to stop here but I wanted one final cup of milk. It was literally a 2 minute stop before the final climb.
South Downs Way 100
We were looking forward to a nice sunrise, but the sea mist put paid to that. Regardless, it was nice to see daylight as we made our way up that final climb. Both of us were really tired but Richard was probably more done in at this point. He dragged me to the half way point and I think I dragged him to the finish. We walked the final climb and then ran almost the entire 3 miles to the finish. From the top of the Downs there’s a fairly steep, technical descent which eventually pops out near Ratton School in Eastbourne. Along Park Lane, right on to Kings Drive, past Park College and the hospital and then round the back of the hospital. We passed a few runners on the way in but one guy held on to the back of us as we reached Eastbourne Sports Park.
My wife and children were there to cheer us in. As we rounded the track we were forced in to a sprint finish by Dave Stuart coming up behind. He passed us with 20 metres to go! It was all good fun though and Richard and I crossed the line of the South Downs Way 100 in 23 hours 12 minutes and 11 seconds. Not the sub 20 hours we had naively thought we could achieve, but under 24, which meant we received the prized ‘One Day’ Centurion buckle. I spent an inordinately long time in the shower, mostly blowing snots out of my nose and coughing up phlegm. When I finally emerged, my poor pre-race preparation came back to haunt me again. I had neglected to pack any underwear and I had no towel with which to dry myself. Pathetic. Thankfully a very kind fellow runner lent me his towel and I was able to endure a commando car journey back home.
Shortly after we had finished apparently the heavens opened and the runners coming in from then on got completely soaked in their final few miles. Massive congratulations to Shelley Harris and Mark Potter running their first 100 miler and finishing in 28 hours whilst raising money for Cold Cots in memory of their daughter Rosie. Read their story and donate here.
Vassos Alexander came 24th overall in 19:46. The race was won by Neil Kirby in 15:30…..darn fast but nowhere near the course record. First lady was Debbie Martin-Consani, 6th overall in 17:12. Her race report is here. Wendy Shaw with whom we ran the first 15 miles or so, finished in 21:20. You can read Dave Stuart’s blog about his South Downs Way 100 adventure here and Fraser McCoull, who came in in 23:28 has also written a race report here. Another well done goes to Mark Johnson who has done a good few 100 milers and to Di Roy and Patrick who we were in sight of for most of the first half, but who made great time over the second half to finish in 21:49.
Listen, I can’t say that I enjoyed this race as much as Transvulcania. There’s something about running on trails you know well that perhaps makes them slightly less exciting. Immediately after finishing and for a couple of days afterwards Richard and I were convinced we would probably not do the South Downs Way 100 again. However, the classic runners u-turn occurred within a week and we are both of the opinion that we probably will do it again. I would certainly like to try the North Downs Way 100 too though. Huge thanks has to go to all the volunteers who manned aid stations in to the dead of night. The things they must have to put up with. Dirty, smelly sweaty runners, with stinking feet and blisters. Not to mention the sick. My goodness I was so sick at Alfriston after that soup!!
Sub 20 Hours Next Time?
My video states that Richard and I finished in 90th and 91st place, but the results have been amended since and we are now officially in 92nd and 93rd position out of 204 finishers. The last of which was Simon Parffett who completed the course just before the 30 hour cut off in 29 hours 55 minutes. 56 runners did not finish for one reason or another. We are very pleased to have completed our first 100. I am very grateful to Richard for sticking with me when he could have gone off at half way. I think we’re both glad that we stuck it out together. There will be more 100 milers and who knows, we may just find ourselves on the start line of the South Downs Way 100 again next year.
The photos in the gallery below were taken by the ever present Stuart March. Thanks to him for some lovely shots. If you have enjoyed my South Downs Way 100 race report and video, please do share it with your chums. Ta.