It would be wrong to say I know nothing about what it’s like to DNF in a race. Last year I took on my first and only full distance triathlon, the Bastion at Hever Castle. I couldn’t finish, partly because I had two punctures on the bike section and missed the cut off as a result, but mainly because I wasn’t good enough. If I’d been stronger and faster on the bike I might have been able to fix the technical issues and get on with the race. I’m not a very experienced Triathlete and my disappointment at not finishing was tempered by that understanding.
Running is different. I’m ok at running. I’ve run numerous marathons and ultras. I’ve even won a 70 mile race. I have completed the SDW 100 before and the arguably more challenging Arc of Attrition 100. I should know what I’m doing. I should know the challenge I’m going to be facing, both mentally and physically. The only running race I’ve ever DNF’d was at Brighton and Hove parkrun in about 2013, when I tried to come back from injury before I should have. I got 200 metres and knew my leg wasn’t right, so I stopped.
I woke promptly at 3am. Porridge and coffee consumed, car loaded, Victoria and I departed for Winchester collecting running buddy Richard on the way. There was no way I could go back to sleep in the car as I had planned. We were all excited, all looking forward to the day ahead. I was confident. Get the job done, home for breakfast on Sunday morning, another one in the bag. Running 100 miles is easy. Chilcomb was a little chilly but we knew it would warm up. If you’re not familiar, the South Downs Way 100 starts at the Hampshire County Council Sports Ground in Chilcomb, very near Winchester.
It doesn’t take long to realise that the ultra running community is really quite small. You arrive at events and every other person is someone you know, someone you have chatted with on Facebook, someone you have run with at some point, someone you have spent the day volunteering with at an aid station. Some people you get to know very well, some you see occasionally to chat to and others you recognise but haven’t spoken to in any depth. We forget sometimes that, as a percentage of the population, there are very few people who run marathons and even fewer who run 100 miles for fun. We are part of a fascinating collection of individuals who regularly push ourselves beyond our limits, for a multitude of different personal reasons.
Once round the sports field and then out onto the South Downs Way proper, all the way to Eastbourne. The South Downs Way 100 covers the entire path, save for the final few miles when it takes the SDW bridal path from Alfriston and then drops down off the path to the finish at the Eastbourne Sports Park track. Richard and I started together. Last year we decided to attempt a sub 20 hour finish with the fall back of a sub 24. We definitely wanted the One Day buckle. We eventually finished that race together in 23:12. Richard dragged me the first 60 miles and I dragged him the last 20. This year, we planned to stay together again, and we still wanted to at least start at sub 20 hour pace.
The first 22 miles went as planned. The highlight of the first section is Butser Hill and running down to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park visitors centre. Beautiful wide open downland with views stretching for miles over the trees. I was hydrating with water and fuelling with Red Bull and my meal replacement powder, Huel, supplied by my wife at the crew stops. The next one of which was at Harting Down at around 28 miles. What a stunning view there is from here too. I could have sat down with the many others gathered there and enjoyed that scene for hours. By now I was beginning to feel the pace a little.
Since completing my second Transvulcania Ultra last in May I have had a mild niggle in my right knee. Nothing to stop me running but just a little uncomfortable at times. I’ve managed Guernsey Ultra and Dorchester Marathon with no issues since, but I could certainly feel it as Richard and I reached 30 miles. I was also suffering from cramp in my left leg and my stomach was not as settled as it usually is these days. It was a very warm day, but not as hot as last year, not as hot as Transvulcania and not as hot as Guernsey three weeks before. Still, there were already a number of runners dropping out due, in part, to the heat. By the time we arrived at Cocking, 35 miles in, I needed to collapse on the ground for a few minutes. I threw water over my legs and neck and tried to snap out of the low I had got myself into. Beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery, lots of friendly people around and food and drink being offered to me at every opportunity. How could I not be having the best time?! I mustered some self-belief and soldiered on. The cramp in my left leg had eased and the niggle in my right knee was no more than a dull ache. My stomach issues were clearing and I didn’t feel too bad. However, Richard had now forged ahead and when I met up with Victoria at 47 miles, in Amberley, she gave me a good talking to. “You need to snap out of this” she said. “Richard says it’s in your head”. That shook me up. “I am over the worst” I replied.
On I went, feeling like I’d turned a corner. I had. I ran well to reach Washington at 54 miles. It’s where most people stop for a while to refuel, rest and change. There were a good few people out supporting us. Richard had been there for around 30 minutes and had eaten a bowl of pasta. I couldn’t face food and wanted to get going quite quickly. So, I had a quick drink and changed my top. My club mate Tom had come to run with me for 10 miles or so. The three of us left together but Richard once again moved ahead in the early miles. He was running strong and I didn’t want to hold him back. We ran fairly well to Botolphs aid station at 61 miles before the long climb up Beeding Hill and Truleigh Hill forced me to walk for a long period. Tom offered words of encouragement as I began to flag again. I couldn’t keep myself cool and my stomach had started playing up again.
When I eventually reached the Youth Hostel at the top of the climb, I took advantage of the outdoor tap to cover myself in cold water. No sooner had I cooled off, than I promptly threw up. I had been wanting to be sick for some time and I was very glad that it finally happened. I noticed that it was all Red Bull and I decided not to have any more for the rest of the race. From the Youth Hostel, there are three sharp climbs to Devil’s Dyke at 65 miles. I noticed that my knee was beginning to hurt more during these climbs and although my stomach had now settled a little, my knee was bcoming more of an issue! Richard was waiting for me with Victoria and my youngest son, Ellis at the crew stop at Devil’s Dyke. I had another lie down and some orange juice before we headed off again.
The plan from here was that Richard and I would stay together for the night section. The problem with this plan was that I knew Richard was running really well and I was not. I didn’t want to hold him up. We started running down the hill to Saddlescombe Farm and I could feel my knee really hurting. Psychologically, I began to give up. It was all too much and I didn’t want to have to deal with it anymore. We got to the aid station at Saddlescombe Farm. We wouldn’t normally have stopped here, having only just had a crew stop, but I suggested we sit down and think about the situation. I had reached the lowest point I’ve ever reached in an endurance event. Lower than the moment I nearly quit in the Beachy Head Marathon in 2014. Lower than at the point where I knew I wouldn’t make the cut off in the Bastion Triathlon and lower than at 75 miles into the Arc of Attrition when I had no choice but to drag myself to St. Ives.
I told Richard I wanted to quit. “I just don’t want to do it anymore” I said. He did his best to convince me to carry on and at one point, I got out of the chair as if I was going to go with him. But when I stood up, I felt terrible and I looked at him and told him to go. I knew he was beginning to worry about the time. We had been sitting there for 20 minutes. I told him the only reason I would go on would be to keep him company and I just didn’t have it in me. I felt so defeated and useless. He finally left on his own. In a way, I actually relaxed at this point. I suppose once Richard had gone, the pressure was off. I had some more to drink, rested my head and after chatting with the volunteer staff and some other runners I was finally convinced to give it a go.
Literally, at the moment I was about to head off, my wife appeared from around the corner saying she had heard from Richard that I was quitting and she’d come to get me. “Is this what you really want?” she asked. I was immediately flung into a state of indecision again! This time though, my 6 year old son came to the rescue. He looked me right in the eyes, gesticulated with his hands and said, “Daddy, don’t focus on the pain. Focus on the job you need to do”. It brought a tear to my eye and I ventured with new confidence up the hill, passing another runner coming in the opposite direction who had decided to call it a day.
From this point on I knew I would finish. My stomach felt ok. The cramp was gone and the knee was holding up. I hobbled down the hill to the bridge over the A23, hiked up past the golf course and on towards Ditching Beacon. I ran from the top to meet my wife again and I finally felt like things were going to be ok. From the crew point at Ditchling Beacon it was head torches on for the stretch to Housedean Farm. I was 16 hours into the South Downs Way 100 and I had 8 hours to do the final 30 miles, if I was to get the One Day buckle. I knew it would be tight so I decided to run as fast as I could, whilst I could, to get some miles under my belt.
I began to push the pace a bit. Now, at 70 miles in, pushing the pace is still pretty slow, but faster than walking and I was overtaking people, so I must have been doing ok. There’s a lovely long gradual downhill for a couple of miles before Housedean Farm and I really stretched out my legs and felt good about running again. Once at the bottom of that hill there is a short sharp climb through the woods and then a steep bank to get down to the A27 road and the aid station. Another runner alongside me looked in trouble. He was cursing the hill through the woods and I reassured him that it really wasn’t a very long climb and we would soon be at the top. At that moment, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my knee. I paused briefly and gave it a rub, but when I started walking again the pain was excruciating.
I couldn’t walk. Something had happened. I hobbled the best I could to the top and decided to try a gentle jog. No chance. I could barely drag my leg behind me. The only way to stop it hurting was to lock my leg straight and do a kind of hopping dance down the bank to the farm. I got to the bottom and I knew the game was up. I had two friends volunteering at the Housedean Farm checkpoint and upon seeing Shelley I told her I was unable to continue. I’d made my decision and no one questioned it. I used Shelley’s phone to call Victoria and the minibus arrived at exactly the same time, I had no time to think. I got on the bus and that was it. I was out.
I got off the bus at Southease, where my wife was waiting as crew for Richard. We decided we would see him to the end and that, we did, stopping at Bo Peep car park between Southease and Alfriston and then seeing him across the line in Eastbourne. Richard did fantastically well. Despite my holding him up at Washington, Devil’s Dyke AND Saddlescomb Farm he still managed to come in at around 21 hours 25 minutes. Really impressive running from my good friend and long time runner partner. I admire him greatly.
Looking back, 48 hours later, I think I made the right decision. BUT, I also think I was so near the edge that, once my knee went, it was very easy to drop. It all happened so fast. I wish now that I had just taken another 30 minutes to sit down and rest the leg. Perhaps, just maybe, I could have walked the rest of the route and finished under the cut off. Perhaps. On the other hand, my knee was ruined and I risked damaging it further by carrying on. There are four big climbs out of each of the remaining checkpoints, from Housedean, then at Southease, Alfriston and Jevington. I just don’t think my knee would have taken it. But I’ll never know for sure.
So that was it. My third 100 mile race had ended in failure. My first DNF proper. What have I learned? I’ve learned not to be over-confident. I just assumed I would finish. I never questioned it. That could be a good thing, but in this case, it led to complacency and poor planning. The week before I had run the Worthing 10k, the week before that was Dorchester Marathon. The week before that was Guernsey 36 mile ultra and the week before that I had run Transvulcania, a 46 mile ultra with 4300m vertical gain. My body was tired and not adequately prepared. I have also learned that despite feeling utterly defeated, I do have the mental strength to get up and go again. I have never been closer to quitting than at 66.6 miles at Saddlescomb Farm. But, with the support of those around me, I was able to get going one more time.
If it hadn’t been for my wife and the volunteers at that checkpoint I would very likely have quit there and then. John Donne’s oft-quoted phrase, “no man is an island”, is a powerful reminder that we need each other. That sometimes we can’t do it all on our own and nor should we have to. That’s what society and family and community is for. I wasn’t strong enough today and I needed Victoria, Richard, Tom, my son Ellis, the volunteers and other runners to get me as far as I got. One guy heard me talking to my wife and said: “I’m sorry to butt in here, but you will regret it massively tomorrow if you pull out now”. In the end, I think I pulled out for the right reasons but yes, If I’d quit at 66.6 miles I would have been more annoyed and disappointed with myself than I am.
I am disappointed. I have post race blues and I am feeling a little humbled by the experience. But in the long run (….I guess, pun intended) it should make me a stronger runner. I am more in tune with who I am, what I can cope with and how to manage it, than I was a week ago. Geoff Partridge left a message on my Strava activity, with which I think it would be appropriate to end this race report. He says “the one thing you can predict about ultras – they are unpredictable”.
Finally, a few words of thanks and congratulation. As always, thanks to all the volunteers who stand for hours tending to runners. Most of you are runners anyway so you know what it’s all about but you did great. Well done to James and the Centurion team for another slick event. Big congratulations to my friend James Bennett who was leading at one point and eventually finished in 8th in under 18 hours. Zoe completed her first 100 after running the Transvulcania Marathon a few weeks ago so well done to her too. Well done to so many others it would take forever to list everyone so I will leave that to Simon Robinson and his #simonsthing!
My Strava activity for the SDW 100 2017 https://www.strava.com/activities/1030940736