I was on an exposed hilltop, with gale force winds buffeting me, in the dark, an hour after the sun had disappeared from view, a mere 14 miles from Eastbourne, but 86 miles from Winchester where I had started the race earlier the same day, practically as the crow flies. That was where I began to wonder if I should have packed a long sleeve top.
The forecast had been for relatively good temperatures (i.e. 17-18°C – good for running), but I’d not checked the wind strength and despite the beauty of the trails up to that point, the sunset had transported me to a different world. That was nearly my downfall and although my Salomon wind-proof jacket was doing a fine job, I was still considering pulling out for fear of suffering from exposure.
Clearly this was a fatigued mind playing tricks on me though, trying everything it knew to get me to pull up. If I stopped now, I reasoned, I would have to get down to Alfriston anyway and by that time I would be back downhill, probably in a warm checkpoint and only have a cheeky 9 miles remaining. Hardly the time to give up; the thought of hauling my weary, cold and battered frame back uphill twice more after this was nonetheless not the most appealing thought.
It was a shame, as the rest of the race had been fantastic.
It had begun with another early start from our hotel in Marwell, the only one nearby which took dogs, just south east of Winchester, as the Centurion Running Petzl South Downs Way 100 race was due to start at 6am, some 9 miles north in Chilcomb Sports ground which is the opposite side of the M3 to Winchester.
I managed to get up and out of the room fairly quietly and although it was light outside I don’t think I woke anyone up as I was leaving; even Adastra was not stirred from her slumber by my stealthy exit just before 5:00am. My decision to prepare everything the night before had been a good one. At least I was leaving in the knowledge that the children would have some fun in the swimming pool before I hopefully saw them later. The race, as with most Ultra-marathons, was not ideal from a spectator perspective!
It was quite warm in the hotel so even with my jacket on, I noticed the cold walking out to my pre-booked taxi. I had plenty of time to make the pre-race briefing, but was a little unnerved when the taxi driver explained he was from Eastleigh, not Winchester, and didn’t have a clue where I wanted to go, so I explained that he should go up the M3, while fumbling for my phone, attempting to get coverage, and wasting a precious few percent of my full charge. The taxi driver proceeded to ignore me and go through Winchester town, typically taking a longer route than necessary. Then asked where to go! I was able to direct him via a fairly roundabout route and my first trauma of the day drew to a close as we pulled onto the single track road leading to the sports ground with 200 other competitors trying to make it to the 5:30 briefing as well.
James Ellison was just mustering people inside as I made it to the clubhouse where the impromptu race HQ had been set up and started the briefing shortly after. It was the usual safety briefing but interesting as he asked how many people were attempting their first 100 miler (about 50%) and how many had completed 5 or more (less that 10%). I was pleased – if I finished successfully, and I was feeling confident, this would be my 4th (out of 5)
I attached my number, 91, to my shorts while he was speaking, apologising for the seriousness of the safety briefing and reminding us about the navigational difficulties of the course (which were few, but the majority of people were likely to encounter them in the dark) and the fact we had a 14mph tailwind from the west, assisting us most of the way 🙂 woo-hoo! After he’d thanked the volunteers, of which there were a large number manning the many checkpoints, accompanied by a echoing chorus of thanks from the assembled competitors, and wished us good luck, I finally packed everything in my drop bag ready for the half way point at Washington.
I decided on a final pre-race wee stop, but the queue (even for the gents) was 5-6 deep. I held my ground, but the 6:00am start was approaching fast, the noise outside in the clubhouse was diminishing as people were leaving. I heard no countdown, but sprinted out after hastily finishing my ablutions and saw the thick line of runners snaking round the football fields, having already started the pre-arranged 1 3/4 laps of the field prior to joining the trail, to space us out for the exit but more importantly to ensure we had run the full 100 miles distance by the time we reached Eastbourne.
Chilcomb to Beacon Hill Beeches – 9.85 miles
As the front runners hit the second corner some 200 metres away, the field was already spreading out. I tried not to panic and ran after the tail markers, and by the end of the first lap of the field, I had probably passed about half of them, but the front runners were already disappearing through a gap in the hedge. I had not been able to see where the exit from the field was and as I approached it I realised why. It was little more than a missing bush in the hedge surrounding the field with a narrow and steep couple of metres down to the trail.
We turned left and were on our way along the South Downs. Next stop, Eastbourne 😯
After the frenetic start I settled down into a nice rhythm and ran steadily, chatting to the other runners about the usual topics, races done before now, training up to this point, etc. The organisers had been right about the wind and for the first of many times during the day, I was glad we were travelling with a tailwind, rather than a headwind.
The first 20 miles of this course fell into the ‘unknown’ category, as far as I was concerned, since I had made a conscious decision not to recce this part of the course, deferring instead to the 60-ish miles straddling the halfway point. My logic was that the first 23 miles would be on fresh legs, and if I couldn’t do that without any problems I might as well pack up and go home, and the final 17 miles I would be slogging out with my heart.
There were some fantastic views after we had got away from the initial roads which seemed to be quite frequent on this early part of the course, and the undulations along the rolling hills were recognisable as a taste of things to come.
It was not long before we reached the first checkpoint and the standard was set for the day. Although it was early, there was plenty of fair on offer, from biscuits and crisps, sandwiches to wraps, coke, gels, water refills, etc. The crew manning the station were friendly and falling over themselves to help. Given that I thought I had seen hundreds of runners disappear ahead of me at the start, I was surprised to learn only 20 or 30 had actually passed through.
I had a couple of cups of coke and some peanuts as I anticipated losing some salt throughout the next few hours! I had hardly touched my water as I was still well hydrated, but grabbed a couple of gels and was on my way within a couple of minutes.
Beacon Hill Beeches to QECP – 22.6 miles
After leaving the checkpoint I ran just behind a couple of others but they suddenly darted off through a field, quoting ‘local knowledge’ and I thanked them for the routing tip which I would easily otherwise have missed. The official photographer was in the middle of this field – I would see him many times during the rest if the day, as he completed his own marathon.
The route now took us through a series of farm fields on our way to the village of Exton. It was a strange detour but we were on wonderful green rolling hills again and far away from the roads we had been using often up to now.
After passing through the village and across the main A32 there was a long section whee the route went through quiet forest trails and skirted round the edge of more farm fields before reaching a peak at a nature reserve on Old Winchester Hill, which has an Iron Age Hill fort. I became conscious at this point that after as little as 10-15 miles I had already spent a long time running on my own, but more than that; without any other runners in sight, either in front or behind. It could end up being a lonely race, but I was already glad I had recce’d the majority of the course on my own a few weeks back.
I ran on, saying hello to the people who were either enjoying the circular path around the reserve, or slightly further on, when I’d reached the road, the partners and family of other competitors, who had arranged, and were waiting, to meet at one of the many ‘non-checkpoint’ locations on the course. At this point I was congratulated by spectators who were waiting, and shown the route off the road and down a field again, but in a dog-leg initially back almost in the direction from which I’d just come.
Through a few more fields, on and off what appeared to be the proper ‘trail’ which disappeared occasionally, only to reappear several hundred metres down a lane, and through typically English hamlets, I sensed, correctly, that we were getting close to Butser Hill, the final rise before the big dip down into CP2 at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, or QECP.
The fight to the top of the hill was not as bad as I had hoped, and the smooth grass trail down to the point where the crossing under the A3 was situated, was more enjoyable than I had imagined. All in all this was a good section and now I was nearly quarter distance, with the next 60 miles being relatively familiar.
I went under the A3 bridge carrying the traffic from London to Portsmouth and then turned up into the park. I followed the Centurion Running signs up through what was now a forest trail rather than following the roadway which I knew came to the same place, and eventually after direction by the volunteers, hopped my way over a small fence and back down a few yards to the waiting tent.
I ensured they had my number recorded before I grabbed a couple of cups of coke and a handful of crisps – at 23 miles, the cramps were holding off at the moment, but I wanted to be proactive about eating as much as I could. I also needed to empty an annoying stone that was meandering around my shoe, but the organisers had chairs set up for this so another few brief moments was all I needed for this task and then I was off again.
QECP to Harting Downs – 27.2 miles
I started off on my own on the next section and as I had suspected, I was happy with my familiarity for the route, but another another effect I hadn’t anticipated was also prevalent. Last time I had run from here I was starting out and was much fresher on my feet, as a consequence is was psychologically hit by how fatigued I felt now and my consequent lack of speed. Although I was conscious of this, I still had difficulty reconciling the feeling after leaving the checkpoint and so ran very slowly to start with.
It was at this time I first met Tom Wilkinson, #150, and Hamish McLeod, #140, who were running separately, but who I chatted to for a bit, about racing, ultras and family. Tom especially felt I was helping him considerably, but he was also helping me. The pace between the three of us was very similar, and although we kept leap-frogging each other at various times during the next few hours, we predominantly carried out the next 31 miles to Washington together.
The route out of QECP thankfully skirted round the edge of the main hill but the tended gravel trails were forested and were again frequented by dog-walkers, although the Mountain Bikers seemed absent for some reason today. The exit to the park was fairly obvious as the gravel turned to chalk and we headed downhill to one of the minor parking areas at the park periphery.
My mind soon settled down into the familiarity of the route as I passed through the farmland and buildings I recognised from a few weeks back from a strange metal outbuilding with large brick ‘pattern’ corrugations to a sharp turning in the road before another dog-leg back uphill again, before finally getting to a winding forest section which ran parallel to a road we had just crossed, which was some way below. I knew this section was a short distance from the next checkpoint which had actually came up very quickly, as it was less than 5 miles or so from QECP.
The three or so crew were again very friendly and welcoming and had, to their credit, set up the station under a gazebo, but down on the main trail rather than further up in the car park which I had been expecting; every little helps!
Harting Downs to Cocking – 35.1 miles
Tom was the first to leave the aid station, while I was getting my water-bladder filled for the first time, and I was the last, hanging around way to much while grabbing gels, half bananas, Pringles and coke, until I felt ready to leave, or rather compelled not to stay any longer.
The next section was fairly straightforward but I kept reminding myself it was also an easy section so not to get carried away. It had its ups and downs but nothing really to speak of – the disadvantage of going west to east is that the route gets hillier towards the end; still, at this stage I was far more pleased with the tailwind, which at times was ‘highly’ beneficial, certainly preferable to heading into the wind AND going uphill 😉
I caught Hamish up and chatted with him for a bit and we both caught Tom up after a couple of kilometres. The scenery sped past as we chatted, sometimes leaving each other on the uphills or downhills or even flats through the forests and fields of the Sussex countryside.
We made it to Cocking, after a couple of great long gradual downhills and after crossing the main road we were directed into the field where the checkpoint crew, and partners and families were waiting – this being one of only 3 checkpoints where they could attend.
I set to with my routine of drinking a couple of cups of coke, grabbing crisps and other savouries and, with a couple of gels and a half banana for the road, I had a chat with some other guys who had arrived and then was on my way. I realised I was spending longer than others at the checkpoints, but was not unduly concerned about it; maybe I should’ve been, as I was losing places each time we stopped.
Cocking to Bignor Hill – 41.7 miles
The next hill from Cocking was the concreted pathway, incongruously smooth for some while, and a number of the 3-4 others I was with at the time commented on it as we made our way up. The clouds and sun were intermittent but it was not cold and the wind was still mostly in the right direction although I felt it might be backing a bit to include a southerly component and wandered if this would be irritating later when we turned south.
The relatively flat section continued past the Iron Age burial mounds and through the forests but before we got to the next downhill and road crossing, I started to get cramps; not badly but enough for me to have to stop and stretch out. I had memories of the Thames Trot where I had cramps on and off from halfway (25 miles) to nearly the end. With such a distance to go in this race though, that would not be good! After stretching and running very slowly, things seemed to improve and once I’d warmed up again things were manageable.
After my initial scare with cramps, I spent the next few miles reeling in the people who had strolled past me, while I was stretching on the flat trail. In general, I was able to move faster than most of them, and having had a ‘rest’ felt that I needed to try to claw back some time. The straight flat route through the shaded woods and open fields, sometimes chalky trail, often gravel and grass, continued without much remiss until I started going downhill again and recognised a farm and road I had crossed and run confidently up previously. No such joy today. I caught a couple of confused runners as they approached a sharp left bend in the road and signalled to them that the route continued round that way and back up the hill, except that today the surface seemed exceptionally awkward and we all walked up the deeply ridged track before breaking into a jog at the top again.
I continued to take on gels, every 30-45 minutes, in an attempt to stave off the cramps which appeared to be behaving themselves at this point, but seemed to creep back every time is stopped and there was a checkpoint coming up. The organisers had plenty of GU gels at each of the aid stations, Espresso Love, Vanilla, Chocolate Orange and some purple thing of which I forget the name! They were all hitting the mark, although incredibly sticky – each time I started one, I ripped off the top and sucked as much as I could out of the packet, while squeezing and rolling, as you would a metal tube of toothpaste, but there always seemed to be a bit left that would go everywhere, and I would spend the next 10 minutes cleaning and preening myself while running along – I must remember the wet wipes and a serviette next time 🙂
The crew at Bignor Hill were a welcome sight.
There was only supposed to be water at Bignor, so the other supplies they had on were doubly welcome and the difference between this and the other checkpoints was negligible
Bignor Hill to Kithurst Hill – 50.1 miles
Bignor Hill was pretty much at the top of a hill, unlike most of the checkpoints which clearly, and understandably, were catering for ease of access for the crew. The competitors had to run up and down the hills as part of the competition, but there was no necessity for the volunteer crew to be subjected to such challenges.
The South Downs continued its way west, and I think it was about this point that I caught up with Tom again. We were soon travelling downhill and he was obviously suffering a bit so I tried to explain the route to him – “down this hill, round the corner and across the river, and its only another 10k to Washington”. I’m not sure whether my motivation techniques were working or not, but he was managing to keep up with me and an Aussie, Andrew Tolley who was looking strong, but also running at a similar pace.
Many of the people I spoke to during the day were doing this race specifically to get ‘points’ for the UTMB, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, for which 7 points (last year) were required to qualify for the lottery such is the popularity of the race nowadays. The SDW100 awards the successful competitors 4 points upon completion. When I mentioned to people I had completed the UTMB in 2009, many seemed in awe, but I was also surprised at the number of other people I met who had also completed it.
We continued down the trail towards Houghton and Amberley and then crossed the River Arun. I pointed out the ‘Washington – 6 miles’ sign to the others, as I remembered how motivating it had been when I saw it myself a few weeks back. With the next checkpoint, and the halfway point, only a couple of miles away, we were now nearly counting down after the midpoint on the miles to the finish. I chose not to tell them this was the lowest point of the course and it was all uphill from here 😉
After the river crossing, we ran our way to the road, and along to the next hill and all walked together up to the next ridge where there was a fairly open and exposed easterly section to the next checkpoint.
I had obviously got confused, with the last checkpoint being so well stocked with food and was consequently doubly surprised by the fair on offer as I turned the corner into the car park. We all stopped only briefly, grabbing gels, coke and crisps, with the prize of hot food at Washington being the focus at the next checkpoint in only 4 more miles.
Kithurst Hill to Washington – 54 miles
The short hop to Washington started with a gradual climb and then undulated through a deep trench-like path, with hedgerows either side for a couple of km, before reaching and crossing another car park.
Tom and I were both suffering at this stage, Tom with general aches in his legs and me with cramps, but we buoyed each other up and ran as much as we could and eventually made it to a fork in the route where we took a slightly more northerly route on the now open and exposed grassland. We were looking for a turning ‘north’ to Washington – the alternative route down to the village, as opposed to a ‘crossing a busy road’ route we had been warned about at the briefing nearly 9 hours earlier.
I stopped to stretch my cramps out, but Tom needed to continue and so got to the signpost ahead of me. There was a crew member there to point out the direction runners should take, and he confirmed it was now only a mile to the checkpoint, and all downhill.
Tom was having trouble with the downhills so I caught him again and we ran down the trail, and through the first signs of habitation to the checkpoint, before crossing the bridge over the busy A24 and then turning left down towards the village school and playing fields, where the checkpoint was located.
There were plenty of supporters on the way down the hill encouraging us, but I was most surprised when I saw my children running towards me and Liz smiling and taking photos! They were a most welcome sight 🙂
I grabbed the usual coke and a few bits and pieces, but took the opportunity here to have some hot food – pasta and mince with cheese – and then went and sat outside with Liz and the children. I briefly saw Hamish, who had met his partner here and he confirmed he was doing well, but unfortunately, having met my family, I lost touch with Tom, which was a shame as we had been pretty evenly paced and would have helped each other to the end.
The meeting point are all too infrequent and the stops by their very nature, too short for competitor’s crew to really enjoy, as there is so much to do in such a short space of time – Ultra-running is not the ideal spectator sport! Perhaps I’ll look at one of those 24 hour lap events.
I started to get ready and after another coke and a few crisps, for me and the children, I was saying goodbye and on my way back up school lane to rejoin the trail. The children ran after me for one more hug and then I was gone.
Washington to Botolphs – 61.2 miles
I had already anticipated that the route back up to the trail proper would be a tough one and so had already reconciled the fact I would be walking (and clambering at times) for the next 30 minutes or so.
As I crossed the field where I had photographed the sleeping horses previously (they were over in a nearby corral today) I tried to get my legs moving again after the ‘midpoint’ break – never an easy, but always necessary task.
Having lost contact with my impromptu running buddy, Tom, at the last checkpoint, I was back to running on my own again, although I was quite happy with this for a while.
The landscape levelled out a bit and I commenced my running again, passing the ring of trees making a ‘hill fort’ atop Chanctonbury Hill, and again slowly passing the town of Steyning to the north. The trail took a brief southerly turn before hitting a brief section of flat road on the crest of the ridge, before finally starting a gradually increasing descent into the now familiar chalk trail and tree line wooded area twisting and turning down to a road and passing through a small farm hamlet with some rather large and expensive looking houses. I turned off the road as the signs for the SDW directed, dutifully following the black and white tape the organisers had attached at every possible navigation point, however minor, and then crossed over the River Adur, which runs further south to join the sea at Shoreham.
The next checkpoint was a few hundred metres past this in a lay-by by the side of the main A283 road. I think I was more surprised and happier to see this checkpoint than any of those previously – and as I had somehow made my way back down to sea level (I must’ve missed that descent) and could see the size of the the next hill to climb, I was in no hurry to leave the comfort of this checkpoint.
I refilled my water and added some GU hypertonic tablets to it as well – I thought this would help with my cramps which had been threatening to come back on and off ever since before Washington.
Botolphs to Saddlescombe Farm – 66.6 miles
Eventually, of course, I could stay no longer at the checkpoint and so took my leave and made my way across the busy road before starting up the next hill which, as I think I may have already mentioned. was a big one.
On the way up the hill, I passed a runner who had stopped with his pacer and was emptying his trainer of stones as he was sitting down in what appeared a rather exhausted manner, so I asked if he was ok as I passed and the group signified all was fine and they were on their way shortly after. I carried on up the trail, with magnificent late afternoon views over the rolling English countryside my prize to behold.
As I came to the next ‘gate’ in the trail, the pacer I had seen earlier ran ahead and opened it for all of us; top man!
I realised at this stage that my friend may have had more than one companion pacing him, when the ‘gate-opener’ asked to run with me for a bit. No problem for me, although I was cramping badly again so explained to him I was not much of a challenge at this stage 😉
We chatted for a bit, as we joined a slightly uphill and open road section at the top of which were the two radio towers I had followed on my Garmin previously. My trusty GPS had not been needed a great deal today, even though it had been dutifully tracking my progress in my pocket and, save for a change of batteries a short while ago, had been very reliable. My impromptu pacer was local to the area and was very familiar with the route, although he had never done the 100 miler himself, and today he was only running as far as Lewes.
My friend, whose name was Kevin Bush, #127, was running with a number of different pacers, but at present he was being paced by his daughter and we chatted as I caught up with them, and he jokingly said that his house was about 200 yards from the next road we reached and it was going to be tough for him not to take a left turn and go home!
I lost them all after Devil’s Dyke where I think a further pacer change occurred! I carried on regardless 🙂
On my own again, I plodded through the heathland and then down the chalky trails to another road crossing and was again surprised to see a Centurion crew member at the road, and she helped me across the busy road (did I really look that exhausted?) and showed me the way into the next checkpoint. Another great welcome at what the crew jokingly described as Satan’s stop (66.6 miles) perhaps not a joke that would’ve gone down to well later for the competitors reaching the stop in the dark of night, but in any case the hot pasta soup went down really well!
Saddlescombe Farm to Clayton Windmills – 69.8 miles
I took my leave after I noticed that several competitors had come and gone and I was still standing and enjoying my soup!
From the farm, there was another brief climb back to open heathland on one side with fenced off farm fields on the slightly higher, right-hand or southern side of my journey. I managed to start to run a bit more after the rest and salty-soup of the checkpoint, but my pace had diminished somewhat and although I still had 19 hours and a PB for the distance in my sights, I couldn’t help feeling it was slipping away.
As the next checkpoint was only 3 miles or so, I managed to find my way along quite well, and down to the busy A23 road crossing, which involved a tortuous switchback over a bridge, then through the village of Pyecombe and then, after crossing another (thankfully less busy) road, back up through the village golf course. My many pacer friend had caught back up at the last checkpoint and was running with someone else at this point, but his friend had continued to run ahead of me and open gates and point the direction for the route one numerous occasions.
At the conclusion of the tended greens and fairways of the golf course, there was a left turn, which I remember taking previously. About 300m after this there was another set of markers pointing the way to the windmills, which I had not followed previously. I noted the route was a few hundred metres downhill to the next checkpoint, but cheerily greeted the photographer, who had also been out all day completing his own marathon, before turning into the aid station.
The wind had got up on this part of the course and the sedate marquee / gazebo of the other checkpoints had been replaced by serving food out of the back of a van and gels from the back of an estate car. It mattered not, and I grabbed a couple of cokes, a banana and some more gels before making my way back out. The wind was, however, a portent of things to come.
Clayton Windmills to Housedean Farm – 76.6 miles
I joked with the photographer as I retraced my steps back uphill to rejoin the trail, asking for directions. In a state of semi-exhaustion, it is not surprising the strangest things are amusing 😉
I left with my many pacer friend whose wife was now replaced his previous partners, and we chatted away about the UTMB – I had changed my top to my UTMB tee at Washington and he also had one from 2009 when he had completed it. Ultra-running is still a small world! I felt good as we made our way up to Ditchling Beacon so ran, on passing the car park where I was hoping to see the ice cream van, but alas the lateness of the hour was not in my favour on this occasion. I thought of a few of my colleagues at work who were due to be completing the London to Brighton cycle on the Sunday, and who would be equally as glad by the time they got to this point heading south tomorrow.
The route was fairly straight and westward again now, but I was on the lookout for a southerly turn towards the crossing to the A27, where the next checkpoint was located and the final 10km before I was back into unknown territory, but I still had 2-3 miles to go before that point. My cramps had calmed sufficiently for me to get going again, so I upped my pace again to the south turn, noting that I was having to place a lot more emphasis on ensuring my foot placement was safe; after nearly 80 miles my right foot was starting to complain and I was guarding it a little. I did not think it was a stopping issue and there was no sharp pain, more just a dull ache that had increased throughout the day, but upon thinking about it, it had become more noticeable.
Ironically, this was a point where on my previous recce, I had really had enough. Today though, I was getting a second wind… or was it a third, fourth, or even fifth wind? Most likely the latter, and although I was moving faster, it was still a pitiful pace compared to normal, but I was feeling good about the fact I was moving again.
The southward downhill slope, past the point where the yellow rapeseed had been so prevalent before, did not last for long of course. I managed to trail Kevin and his pacer again (different pacer 😉 ), which was useful from the point of view of gate opening again, but as the uneven trail itself was quite narrow and rutted, foot placement required a lot of concentration. After another short westerly and a further southerly section towards a wooded copse, we were at a low point and the only way was up through the steep, gnarled roots of the copse. The sun was getting low in the sky and it was surprisingly dark going through the short wood, but after emerging it was then a short downhill to Housedean Farm.
I noted that we had passed the physiological point of ‘only’ having less than a marathon to complete at some point down this hill, as I was starting to observe my watch on regular occasions.
The refreshments of the aid station were most welcome and as I was starting to cool down a bit, I had a sweet cup of tea instead of my usual cokes. As the sun was going down fast and I was at least an hour from the next checkpoint at my current ‘slowing’ pace, I fitted my torch in preparation for the darkness before leaving.
Housedean Farm to Southease – 83.3 miles
With just under 24 miles to go on leaving the checkpoint I hit a sense of humour failure. The last section of running, albeit downhill, had taken a monumental effort and the thought of the ascent which faced me now was simply too much so I walked practically the whole distance to the top. It is quite depressing to see people you have passed reeling you back in, but then that is the game – sometimes you feel good and pass them, and sometimes vice versa. Nothing complicated. Just life. The temperature was also going down rapidly and with the wind picking up, an extra layer was called for, but having already left the checkpoint I didn’t want to stop again, so struggled to get my coat out and put it on while walking along.
The upshot of my slow pace was that I was passed by probably half a dozen people during the next couple of miles, but eventually I did make it to the top, rounding the bowl of the hill on the way up after taking a south westerly direction for a while, before resuming the easterly trail which was taking us to our destination.
This was practically the perfect point to watch the sun go down over the miles I had just completed, so I took a couple of photos to remember the end of the day.
Buoyed on by the positive influence of the environment, I managed to run some more after this, but my next issue struck as a result. My waist torch, which I had tried to fix simply could not stand up to the rigours of the trail and my repair failed before I had even had the chance to use it. I grumpily put the torch away as I walked along, and mentally thanked the organisers for insisting we carried a backup light source, rather than just spare batteries as normal.
I soon found my way through to the ‘concrete path’ downhill where I had been lucky enough to take the wonderful rapeseed flower images before. This time the flowers were looking rather more the worse for wear and I imagined they were feeling as bad as I was at the end of their own ordeal 😉
The wind was getting up considerable now and the light was fading fast with the sun having disappeared behind me some time before, and so, perhaps a little too late, I resolved to run as much as I could in the remaining light.
In the fading dusk, I could just make out the post with a small inscription on it marking the prime meridian, the transition from western to eastern hemisphere, or 0° longitude, and today there were no cows to avoid at the bottom of the hill before the farm drive leading to the road to Southease. I ran, slowly, all the way to the next gate up to the trail, but was barely breaking 10 minutes / mile and as I disappeared into the trees sheltering the road down to the village, I had to turn my torch on.
The checkpoint was easy to spot on the green with the illumination inside it and the sweet tea was again most welcome. I was not really getting through any gels at this stage so I didn’t need any replacements, but I grabbed a few handfuls of Pringles and a biscuit or two.
Southease to Alfriston – 91.6 miles
At this stage I only had 17 miles to go, but I didn’t really feel that anything was really going to help my tired legs to move any faster and my right foot / ankle had a serious case of what I assumed was tendonitis.
As I left the checkpoint I switched my head-torch on at the instruction of the crew who were checking everyone, and this being the only light I had left after the demise of my beloved waist torch.
After running down to the river and then crossing the railway bridge (the steps up were not half as tough as the steps down!), I followed the route over the road and was on my own again, in the dark, navigating a course I had not recce’d previously, and the wind was getting stronger with every footstep I took up onto the exposed hillside. At least the rain was holding off, but it had become a lot cloudier since the sunset, or at least it seemed that way; it was probably my “I’ve been out here for nearly 16 hours” mind starting to play tricks on me.
The route up the first hill was a slow turning one, first due south and then, after ensuring the left-hand trail marker to Alfriston was taken, as opposed to Seaford many miles away (think lightly inscribed stone, easily missable in the dark, although in fairness to the Centurion crew, they had plenty of glow-sticks and luminous paint marking the way) the route proceeded northward further up to the ridge of the downs once again.
There was little to see, except the narrow pool of light in front of me, where I tried to pick out the sometimes non-existent trail, occasionally picking out the eyes of confused sheep resting in my path, or behind a fence that I was aware I was following. I did see a large radio mast which was making some interesting noises in the howling wind, but I chose not to look up and inspect it too closely as by this time I had my hood tightly pulled around my face.
I one point I saw some fireworks illuminating the sky over the coast to the south, probably at Seaford, possibly at Eastbourne itself – it was impossible to judge the distance and I had no other reference points as I could not see the town, or even its lights reflected with any certainty on the clouds above.
For what seemed like an eternity I walked on, with the wind from my right side, seeming to get into every crevice in my ‘wind-proof’ jacket; clearly there is a limit with these things and although it was doing a sterling job, the buffeting I was getting was not pleasant. I tried to keep warm with my arms folded across my front and this helped a little, but I was having serious thoughts about whether I should continue if my journey was going to be like this for the next 14 miles.
I was caught by a couple of Irish guys about this point, Gary Dalton, #138, and his pacer. His was suffering as well, but they provided my with good company for a few miles and I provided them with the assurance of a GPS and being on the right track. They were also being affected by the wind and the cold, and were glad when we eventually started descending again through the shelter of a wooded patch of track, signalling the way down into Alfriston.
By this time we had been joined by my Australian friend from earlier, Andrew Tolley, and his pacer and we all found our way down through the forest trail together, passing a memorable patch of wild garlic, but all of us over the moon that we were now off the exposed hilltops and down into the peaceful tree lined area surrounding the village.
We were in Alfriston almost before we knew it, and the checkpoint was easy to find, even though hidden away.
Even at midnight, the volunteer crew were incredibly cheery and helped with water and warm tea and we were all quickly revived, warmed and ready for the off, although Gary seemed to be suffering and as he was not intending to run any more was becoming depressed at the amount of time he believed it would still take him to finish.
We gave him some words of encouragement, but then Andrew, his pacer and myself left for the final slog.
Alfriston to Jevington – 95.7 miles
We were showed the way by one of the crew, to ensure we did not take a wrong turn and end up on the path to the Seven Sisters and beachy head which would not have been fun on a night like this!
We made our way up the next hill, through a secluded tree-lined track similar to our recent descent; I was hoping this would be our penultimate ascent, although ironically uphills were less of a problem for me than downhills by this stage. The route, had we been able to see much of it, appeared to be settling down into the usual and by now well known format of traversing the ridge before plummeting back down into the slightest of civilisation and we only had 4 miles or so to the final checkpoint before the finish, so I anticipated the up and down would rapid.
We unknowingly passed along the ridge above the ‘Old Man’, a chalk figure cut into the hillside just south of the village of Wilmington, and then almost before I realised, we hit another forest patch and were snaking our way down to the next checkpoint. Admittedly the route down took longer than I anticipated it would, but again being back in the seclusion of the trees was eerily quiet after the constant buffeting and white noise from the wind when exposed.
On our way down, the three of us were passed by several groups youngsters, some of whom gave the impression they were on a guided trek along the downs, and some of whom seemed to have just fallen out of a pub in Eastbourne and were trying to find their way home to Alfriston! We pointed them in the direction of the Petzl markers and glow-sticks and wished them luck with their journey 😀
When we made it down to Jevington, we hit a snag; we hit the ‘main road’ and were out the other side of the village before we had found the checkpoint! We searched for 5 minutes or so, but none of us particularly felt like retracing our steps and my Garmin, which did have the checkpoints marked in it, chose that exact moment to run out of battery (typical!), so we all agreed the organisers were unlikely to penalise us for not reporting in and, in our defence, we had a number of GPS traces to prove our route – it is strange what you think of after 19 hours of low blood sugar levels 🙂
Jevington to Eastbourne – 100 miles
We made our way sheepishly up the trail out of the village and according to my watch, which was under-reading, we still had over 5 miles to go.
So imagine my surprise and joy when, barely at the top of the first hill, certainly less than a miles from Jevington, there was the final navigation point we had been looking for, the trig point indicating the final detour from the South Downs way; we were now leaving the trail which had been our companion since the first kilometre, nearly 20 hours earlier.
The route downhill, the final route downhill, passed a golf course and was described as a ‘semi-circular channel’. This was true, but the surface was uneven, and although Andrew mentioned about running for 1 minute and walking for 1 or something similar, the exposed roots and stones were too much of a risk going downhill so we managed as best we could.
The downhills were painful and whether it was because of this or it was actually longer than I had anticipated, it seemed to take forever to get to the outskirts of habitation on the periphery of Eastbourne, and the final smooth section of Tarmac where we could contemplate a modicum of ‘speed’ once more.
We all ran intervals and my trusty Garmin held us in good stead once more as we navigated the last couple of kilometres through the urban trail. We turned onto a main road, at the end of which there was the final hairpin and it was along this point that Andrew and his colleague left me. The pain in my shin was too great to run anymore and although I tried a couple of times before the end, it was a painful exercise and with memories of Leadville, I didn’t want to push my body too far past the limits which I had clearly surpassed some miles ago. Again!
The last kilometre was torture. Not because of the pain, but because I could hear another runner behind me approaching and there was nothing I could do to keep the place which I knew I was going to lose. Susie Casebourne, #126, and her pacer wished me luck as they jogged past me, but in the end arrived less than 3 minutes ahead of me.
The last few hundred metres was lonely but inevitable.
In the dark and quiet of the streets of Eastbourne at 2:00 in the morning, I rounded the final corner and was in sight of the Sports Stadium. I managed to run through the open gates and was directed, with some degree of sadism I hasten to add, to complete a loop of the track, which I assumed would be anti-clockwise but subsequently questioned my logic most of the way round, wondering if I should be going the other way; it did not help that I was expecting a giant inflatable Centurion Running ‘End-point’ which was absent but, as I said previously, it is strange what goes through your head after 20 straight hours 😉 By the end of the loop I had figured the wind was a touch too strong for inflatable structures and was happy that I was as compos mentis as anyone else who has run 100 miles.
My ‘100 Miles – One Day’ buckle awaited me next to the sports hall as I slowed for the final time, and I accepted my SDW100 tee-shirt.
This was my full route for the day.
The seat inside, out of the wind with a freshly cooked hot-dog, was just the best, although I was in danger of burning my mouth on the food as I was so hungry – hunger is the best chef!
Mimi Anderson was helping out with the volunteer crew and helped me make up my Goodness Shakes, which seems to be becoming a bit of an after race ritual for me.
By the time I had settled down though, I had been sitting down for far too long but I arranged a taxi and was soon at our hotel a couple of miles away on the seafront and after negotiating the night porter’s locking mechanism, I found my way up to our room and was back with my family.
My gorgeous wife had bought me everything under the sun that she thought I might need and I tucked into some chilli-fire Doritos before a quick shower.
I slept well that night.