It has been very different this time, but considering it was 5 years ago since we were last here, in exactly the same place,it is all strangely familiar.
Last time we came as a group, Greg, Tim, John and myself and this time I am on my own with my family. Last time Savannah was not even three years old and now she is as old as Joshua was then. Last time it was my first 100 mile race I was preparing for, and now I have 6 under my belt, despite having a bit of a hiccup with number four (the fateful Leadville 2010!) and which delayed my participation in subsequent races.
Chamonix is exactly as we all remember it, even the children, were hugely excited to be going back to the Chalet with the outside hot tub, and the streets and location of the race start and bib distribution has also not changed.
A few things have changed though. At registration today, we had to present a great deal more compulsory equipment than previously, including waterproof leggings and gloves, as well as two working torches (which I had taken to doing anyway) and other compulsory layers which are clearly designed for the potential bad weather in the mountains.
Registration was a fairly straightforward, albeit lengthy, affair and I emerged from the exit of the Sports Centre with a bright yellow tee-shirt and all my kit ready to go.
The weather in the area over the last few days has been changeable to say the least. It really bucketed down on Tuesday from all reports, and I felt sorry for the guys running the long distance self-sufficiency PTL. The rain has held off since we arrived though, and the forecast temperatures have been creeping up and the probability of precipitation shrinking down. Hopefully we haven’t swapped thunderstorms and arctic conditions for sweltering desert heat, although given a choice I think I’d prefer the latter, but either extreme can have a significant impact on ability over the 100 mile distance.
The week in Chamonix comprises a number of different North Face organised races nowadays, 5 in total, covering different distances and different courses and catering for different levels of technical preference, and they have been spaced out from the start of the PTL (300km, 28,000m ascent – Chamonix start) on Monday 25th, through the TDS (119km, 7,250m ascent – Cormayeur start) and then the new OCC race (53km, 3,300m ascent – Orsières start). These three races with their varying distances were clearly designed to be finishing today when the town was full of racers signing up for the remaining two races, and we responded accordingly with support for the runners arriving as we scoured the town for waterproof gloves!
The final two races the CCC (101km, 6,100m ascent – Courmayeur start) and the UTMB (168km, 9,600m ascent – Chamonix start) commence tomorrow at 9:00am and 5:30pm respectively.
At this stage I am subject to the usual preface nerves and so was hugely envious of the guys coming in who had already completed their races and who could sit back, relax and enjoy a beer.
That, hopefully, will be me on Sunday afternoon / evening.
I knew I had not done enough preparation for it, but thought I’d give it a go anyway, with the proviso that I would bail if things got “too tough”
Define tough, for a 100 mile ultramarathon?
Before I launch into the tough guy clichés and superlatives which abound around some of these events (e.g. “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone” or Rule 1 – “No whining” and, of course, the near apocryphal Marathon des Sables inclusion of a “corpse repatriation fee“) let me just say this event was NOT one of those. Indeed, the organisers pitched it as giving
“… runners new to the 100 mile distance, the opportunity of completing 100 miles on foot where significant elevation changes and difficult navigation are removed as major obstacles.“
I’ve been so distracted over the last 7 months with the modules of the course I’ve been studying in Astronomy and Cosmology, that I’ve barely had time to do anything else. My days have been a succession of waking up, studying in the confined space of a commuter train to London, working, running at lunchtime, more working, studying and reading on the way home, helping with the children until bedtime, then dinner and more studying.
Having handed my last Astronomy module paper in on Monday, I’m now free for a few months though – until October as I’ve signed up for another couple of courses…. 😉
I must thank Liz for all her support over the last 7 months, as I could not have managed it without her provision of food, water, beer and sustenance in general at appropriate times. Thanks ML 😀
My year to date has been fairly consistent, despite the UK weather, I have managed to get out 4-5 times a week, including a nice gentle long run on a Sunday.
However, up until a few weeks back, I did not really have any races booked in for 2014. Those of you that know me will realise this is quite an unusual situation for me, and was starting to become the source of heightened internal anxiety, due to the associated lack of focus and meandering training which it engenders.
Still, nothing is certain in life except change (and death and taxes, of course), so it was only a matter of time before I made some arrangements. The speed with which everything happened surprised even me though.
Sitting in our hotel at Twin Lakes, in my semi-exhausted state, looking back out at Hope Pass, the frenetic activity of less than 24 hours ago seemed very surreal.
The dichotomy between the two days was stark; the crews, auto-homes, gazeboes covering tables of gels, wraps, sandwiches, crisps, pretzels and other runner nutrition or hastily laid out on the car trunks, lining the gravel drive from the exit of the trail to the main road were all gone. The village of Twin Lakes had once again returned to a sleepy hamlet on the Independence Pass road to Aspen.
24 hours beforehand, the historic village had been host to one of the main aid stations of the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Now in its 31st year, the race is an out and back jaunt through Lake County, Colorado, from the old mining town of Leadville, west around Turquoise Lake and up Sugarloaf Pass, before continuing back down the other side of the pass and turning south through the Leadville Fish Hatchery to pick up the forest trails through to the lowest point of the course at Twin Lakes and then immediately ascending 3,400ft over the highest point of the course in the form of the imposing Hope Pass before turning briefly west again to the ‘ghost’ town of Winfield and the halfway 50 mile point, and then turning round and going back through the whole thing in reverse.
24 hours beforehand my life had also been very different. Much less relaxing and my passage through the aid station at twin lakes had been much less sedate than today’s calm outlook might suggest.
I had reached the 40 mile point in a shade under 7½ hours, just before midday on Saturday morning having started the race at 4:00am.
The start was exactly as I remember from 3 years ago; dark and emotional, with almost 1000 excited runners toeing the line, the occasional waft of deep-heat and the inevitable huge queues for the ‘restrooms’. I tried not to shine my head-torch in Liz’s face after we moved away from the illuminated area to the side of the exit pen, in front of the start line. We said goodbye to each other and I promised to see her in a couple of hours at the first aid point, 13 miles away.
The figures of the clock counted down ominously towards their zero point, although strangely I was not as nervous as I have been on some previous races. Perhaps experience was starting to tell, or perhaps it was the 2:30am wake up call or the altitude numbing my senses.
Carl Cleveland, who we had met in the hotel the previous day, seemed more anxious than me; he needn’t have worried, having paced a colleague for 90 miles at Badwater recently, my perception was that he certainly had the right credentials, but then this was his fourth attempt at the race. As he said, he was giving it a lot of respect. We spoke briefly as we watched the countdown and listened to the announcer motivating the assembled crowd and then, to the sound of a real gunshot in the air, we were off down the first of the dusty roads.
I seem to remember heading off marginally faster last time, but with 100 miles to go, I didn’t have an issue with settling into a rhythm. Even so, I pushed on as much as I could on the initially wide downhill roads until I found myself maintaining a fairly consistent pace with my fellow runners; a good strategy, I felt, given the narrow track I knew we were shortly to encounter. The first easy 3-4 miles of the course was over far too quickly though and I was surprised at how soon nearly 1000 starters had thinned out, although I had to wait a couple of times for my opportunity to enter the trail at a couple of bottlenecks and when we hit a short but tricky ascent up a boulder trail, I noted that this wouldn’t be much fun on the way back.
We were soon finding our way round the tree-line of Turquoise Lake, skirting the shore of the beauty spot in single file, the water sometimes appearing perilously close from the dark to our left. There were many campers and other temporary residents of the area to keep us company though, wrapped up in thermals, sleeping bags and puffa jackets as protection against the single figure temperatures at the high altitude, but enthusiastically cheering the runners on even though it can only have been 5am; one small group were even helpfully holding out reams of toilet tissue, reassuring the competitors they would be grateful for the impromptu supplies later on.
The trail around the lake was relatively tricky, with the roots of the trees providing a challenge in the dark, although with so many head torches up ahead and behind it was relatively easy to maintain a moderate pace. Indeed, I felt I could’ve gone marginally faster through the tunnels of trees, but also had vivid memories of stumbling on my previous occasion around this point. One runner just ahead of me took a heavy fall and two other concerned runners and myself stopped briefly too assist. As we got back underway and started to emerge from the first forest, I thanked God I had survived this far without my usual tumbles.
There was a brief section of tarmac, lined again with eager spectators and crews watching intently for their runners in the pre-dawn light, before the main checkpoint which was chaotic as the crews jostled to set up their stalls to service their runner’s needs.
I ran through the cheering crowds after the chip on my wrist had obligingly beeped, indicating my official arrival at the first aid station / check point and then I heard Liz shouting for me, seconds before I saw her and I ran on for my first break.
Time In: 06:08:24 (13.5 miles – 2hrs 8mins)
MayQueen to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 10 miles Leadville – Stage 2
This early in the race I did not need much in the way of food or drink – I had hardly touched my water bottle (with Lucozade in it) so after a brief chat and relinquishing possession of my headlamp, I was on my way again.
This was the first real ‘hill’ but there was a twisting, turning switch back of a forest trail before the main route up to near the top of Sugarloaf mountain. I don’t remember thinking this would be particularly difficult in the dark but this section, amongst others, was to prove my undoing later on in the race.
Nevertheless, although we were still in shadow, the sun was definitely on its way into the world, and after a final steep rise, we hit the Hagerman trail to take us to the top of the pass. The road was relatively good, by which I mean not too steep or uneven, but covered with dust, gravel and the occasional rutting requiring most runners to oscillate from side to side to stick with the ‘easy’ route.
There were quite a few photographers on the race as a whole, their presence generally heralded several metres beforehand by a flag or sign flapping some way down the trail, indicating a smile would shortly be required!
I did not take that long to negotiate to the top of the pass and with the sun now fully up, although hidden behind some ominous looking clouds, I took advantage of the long downhill through the ‘power line’ area; a straight down stretch to the road following the electricity distribution for the area downhill.
The gradient and rutting on the section was variable and although I managed well with the majority of it, I caught a protrusion at one point and slammed down awkwardly onto my right knee and rolled onto my left hip, to produce my now familiar bloody mess of gravel rash. After a moment to catch my breath, dust myself off and recompose the little self-dignity I had remaining before being caught by the runners approaching from behind, I then started moving stiffly again but was again thankful the mess seemed superficial in nature.
After a slightly more steady descent than I had anticipated, I reached the road for the start of the main Tarmac section. The Leadville Fish Hatchery was not used this year as the aid station had been positioned marginally further on in order, presumably, to improve access for crews, but on turning the corner the traffic was horrendous and as I turned into the checkpoint, I wondered if Liz had made it through.
Luckily she had and, after some more frantic shouting, I spotted her in the crowd.
Time In: 08:07:52 (23.5 miles – 4hrs 8mins)
Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to Half Pipe – 5.6 miles Leadville – Stage 3
I was glad of a couple of cups of coke at this stage as the heat had begun to rise and I changed from my long sleeve top to a short-sleeve ‘tee’. The race hadn’t really started yet though, so after another brief stop, we said goodbye and made our arrangements to meet at Pipeline; the impromptu stop just before the no-crew access Half-Pipe aid station.
This section, only about 4 miles, was predominantly on road as I travelled due east past the queues of cars waiting to get into the aid station I had just left, before turning south along a road parallel to the main county road Liz and I had used so many times over the last few days, to get from Twin Lakes to Leadville. The southbound road was mostly clear of traffic and I took the opportunity to run at a steady pace, passing a few others, before turning off-road and up a trail before emerging at the Pipeline row of cars. The heat on the tarmac was starting to rise, so I was glad to reach the shade of the woods as I once again entered the treeline at the base of the mountains, although knew this also indicated I would be going gradually uphill for the next few miles prior to the last 3-4 mile descent into Twin Lakes.
I smiled as I reached Pipeline as this was practically the last point I had seen on my return journey 3 years ago, where we had stopped and I had laid in the back of our car distraught but then tried in vain to carry on in the dark, with 26 miles ahead of me.
Unlike previously, on my present journey I had managed to stay in text contact with Liz most of the time, which at this point was essential to see if she had managed to extract herself from the traffic madness of the Outward Bound Aid Station; She apparently had been a bit cheeky about getting out and was now waiting for me. Nevertheless, there was some confusion as neither of us actually realised this wasn’t the official checkpoint, but I eventually found her and we chatted for a couple of moments while she thoughtfully offered me loads of stuff, none of which I really fancied. I was on my way in a flash and promised to see her again in a couple of hours.
The route was now a pleasant meander through the trees on the dusty trails and although the heat was still increasing, the spruce, pine and birch woodland afforded some protection and since we were off the roads and far from any transport induced haze, the route was most enjoyable. Several times there were fantastic vistas as I came into a clearing and the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains once again came into view. I was starting to remember one of the reasons why I spend early mornings training and invest so many of my lunchtimes during the week in preparation – this is, after all, what it’s all about and I was cognisant of this throughout the entire race.
It was not long before I came across the Half Pipe Aid Station and even though barely a third of the race was behind me, I was already slipping into a routine of quaffing as much coke as I could and trying to force down a few crisps for salt, sandwiches for carbs and protein and grabbing a banana for the road. I had made the first 29 miles in 5½ hours which I was more than happy with, but was under no illusions that the real race had yet to begin with Hope Pass, which was starting to loom ever larger in my vision, an imposing barrier ahead of me before I even reached the halfway point to turn back and do the whole thing again – the majority of which would be in the dark. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the task at hand, but repeated steps, no matter how small, will always get you to your destination.
Time In: 09:32:56 (29.1 miles – 5hrs 33mins)
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes – 10.4 miles Leadville – Stage 4
This final section before Twin Lakes is basically a brief foray up into the edge of the Half-Moon trail, which is an eponymously shaped valley between the bases of Mount Massive to the north-west and Mount Elbert slightly to the south which, at 14,433ft is the highest peak in the area. The ‘up’ section is around 6.5 miles and the down section, a steep but fast descent for around 3 miles. I was not too concerned about the disparity of the effort at this stage, and was looking forward to the longer ‘down’ section on the return match in a few hours time.
The route continued to be a dusty trail, but it mattered little since, by this stage, there were only a handful of runners around me and there was little dust being kicked up.
Suddenly, I happened upon Nick Greene, a fellow Brit who I had spotted at the briefing in Leadville the previous day wearing a 2013 SDW100 finishers t-shirt! Small world 😉 He had managed around 18 hours on that occasion, but was clearly pacing himself at this stage as we parted company during the next running section, briefly making me wonder if I was overcooking things a touch – only time would tell.
I enjoyed the beautiful route as we were creeping up on midday, as it seemingly passed by all too quickly with the memories of each section coming flooding back at every turn; I rounded a corner to a vista section, where the trail followed round the contour of the bowl of a significant crease in the landscape, the blue sky and the green trees continuing with the trail on the opposite side providing a counterpoint to the void in-between. There were also several tributary streams flowing down the side of the mountains perpendicular to the trail which we had to navigate, some of which had simple stepping stones as assistance, but others with large purpose-built structures to allow their crossing – The sound of the water as I approached from a distance was always tempting and a couple of times, I took a few seconds and dunked my hat in the cool mountain water to cool off.
It was not long before I came across another photographer and I could’ve hugged him when he confirmed the downhill section was just ahead. The Mount Elbert ‘mini’ aid station (mini, merely because it was supplying only water) was shortly before this, and the huge tanks of water, impressively brought up into the wilderness, were fittingly plastered with ‘Camelbak’ marketing.
The ‘downhill’ section was a little further than I had been led to believe (photographers will do anything to get people to smile, it seems) but it was fun to get into a rhythm with a bit of speed again and I was soon back at Twin Lakes, and down a final technical section with a steep and loose dirt slope delivering me to the front entrance of the fire station, which the food and checkpoint staff had taken over for the day.
Liz was waiting for me as usual as we had been in text contact recently as I updated her on my progress, and her me. The phone network was infinitely better than it had been 3 years ago, when we had had to buy cheap temporary phones on another network in order to stay in contact. I always have difficulty doing other things while I’m running (cue the jokes about males and multitasking) – I find eating and running difficult enough and texting on a phone and running even more so, especially when it is an alien, unfamiliar handset, so at least this time life was marginally easier. We were also lucky that we were staying in Twin Lakes, for the simple fact that we were effectively ‘residents’ and consequently had a reserved parking space at the front of the Inn, otherwise a long walk, jog, or wait for a shuttle bus (promised, but not actually arranged, apparently) would have been in order.
Time In: 11:26:39 (39.5 miles – 7hrs 26mins)
Twin Lakes to Hope Pass Aid – 5 miles Leadville – Stage 5
I sat down for the first time, drank coke and tried again to force down sandwiches, with little success though. We chatted for a bit and I kept taking more liquid on but perhaps the thought of the now imminent ascent of Hope Pass was causing me more of an issue than I would care to mention; looming large, both physically and mentally ahead of me, I had stopped for 15-20 minutes before I realised it. We walked our way to the road, and I stopped once more to empty my shoes of stones, seemingly procrastinating to the last, but eventually I was on my way.
The support of the crowds through Twin Lakes, as with the entire course, was stupendous – the crews expectant for their own runners, but still providing a most welcome boost to all of the others they saw.
There is a flat section from the village to the river crossing, all of this at the lowest point of the course at 9,200ft, prior to moving onto the hard ascent to reach the highest point of the course, at 12,600ft, over a mere 3-4 miles.
I had considered taking my shoes off to keep them dry but on reflection had decided against it. My previous strategy was blister management based, and since I’d not had any problems with this for some time, I decided the time saving was of higher priority. There was significantly less water in the pools and ponds obstructing the route this time anyway, and even the river seemed a lot lower and calmer, barely reaching up to the top of my ankles. Even so, the chill in the water had a marvellously reviving effect, and I wished I could have stayed there for longer, but noted this as something to look forward to on the return trip!
The route up Hope Pass began in earnest now, marked by the entry to the tree line, but unlike a couple of hours ago we weren’t following a contour, we were crossing the tightly packed lines at a far more acute angle and nearly going straight up.
There is no respite on the way up Hope Pass; no minor flats, very little in the way of zig-zagging switchback and certainly no undulations except for up and more up, until you reach the top. No; there are only the sound of the streams coming down in the opposite direction which the trail occasionally gets close to, and the promise of a final corner where you realise the trees are thinning, the worst is behind you and the aid station is imminent.
It was just prior to my arrival at the aid station (well, about 40-50 minutes as it happens) that the front-runners started coming through – one of those peculiarities of out and back races, albeit initially a welcome relief from the uphill slog and a moment to reflect and marvel on the capabilities of those in the ‘elite’ bracket – Michael Aish (#107) was first down the hill, at just after 1:00pm (9hrs in) followed by Ian Sharman (#1010) hot on his heels, then another 5 minutes later Nick Clark (#268) bounded past. These three were in a class of their own though as Scott Jurek (#594) was at least 35 minutes behind Clark.
The ‘Hopeless Crew’ (as they are very affectionately known) provided the most enthusiastic support of the day, running (downhill) to greet the oncoming competitors, to grab their water bottles and save them precious moments in the (highly unlikely) event that they chose not to stop! The Llamas who have hauled the fare for the runners uphill, on the previous day, were spread out resting, having earned a well deserved break, prior to their journey back down after the return cut-off later in the day.
Time In: 14:00:39 (44.5 miles – 10hrs)
Hope Pass Aid to Winfield – 5.5 miles Leadville – Stage 6
On the way out, there is still another ½ mile to the top of Hope Pass. Even so, the feeling of reaching that aid-station was as good as reaching the top, but I still chose not to stop for any length of time here, conscious of the longer ‘rest’ I had had at Twin Lakes some hours ago.
The extra ½ mile consists of a series of rough switch-back channels, hewn out of the side of the mountains by successive footsteps, the man-made erosion uneven and irregular in the gravelly surface. The front-running competitors were starting to come thick and fast by this point and out of courtesy my fellow compatriots and I, on our slow, uphill, outward journey, all stepped to the side when the faster, returning, downhill runners went by.
Upon finally reaching the top of the pass, which is a ‘saddle’ in nature, going down to the north (Twin Lakes) and south (Winfield) but ascending further to the peaks of Quail Mountain and Hope Mountain to the east and west respectively, I felt had to stop briefly to enjoy the view and took a couple of pictures, before then starting my way back down to Winfield.
Just after this point, early in my descent I was following another runner, gaining on him rapidly, and had to slow at the same time as one of the front-runners was coming uphill, and a photographer was sitting at the side of the trail. The sudden eccentric contraction of my calf muscles as I tried to slow after so long extending it on the uphill portion, was clearly too much and my left calf instantly cramped and I stopped at the side of the trail and tried to stretch it out. The photographer, fearing a worse scenario, came over and helped me, kindly massaging the back of my left calf as I stretched it – over an above the call of duty for him, but typical of the generosity of spirit which is engendered in these races.
The contrast between the slow effort of the uphill and the almost frenetic bounding and caution required for my foot placements was a joy, Suddenly, I was no longer struggling to breath, but more in danger of suffering from exposure due to an inability to raise my core temperature, such was the lack of effort required to progress downhill. There were still people coming uphill, and I was surprised that their progress seemed to be as slow as mine had been some moments earlier. The ‘traffic’ down this side of the mountain was nevertheless frustrating and the courtesy given by the uphill runners on the north side of the mountain, didn’t seem to be equally as forthcoming on the narrow trail down the south side.
In relative terms, I quickly made it down to the trailhead, but turned west onto the new Colorado Trail prior to reaching the Winfield road, another departure from the route I was ‘familiar’ with from before. The advantage of this was purportedly to allow runners to take in more trail, reduce issues with dust and fume inhalation from the vehicles sharing the same road on the route to Winfield. The trail was rough and narrow though, and far more undulating than I would’ve liked at this stage – the Winfield road had been dusty before, but wide and after the narrow trail up and down Mount Hope, had afforded the opportunity to pass others and get up a little speed and rhythm even if only for a couple of miles. So, with the promise of the halfway point at Winfield so tantalisingly close, it was frustrating to have to negotiate such a narrow trail stopping and moving aside for more of the front runners who were already heading back.
Despite my frustrations of course, I eventually reached the point where the trail turned sharply south and downhill towards the noise of the assembled masses in Winfield; the normally quiet area in the wilderness of the Rockies, serving a few hikers and bikers as a launch point for their adventures, was today a bustling metropolis, with expectant crews and, for the first time in the race, pacers ready to pounce on their runners and service their every need on the way back to Leadville.
After the steep downhill trail, I found myself at the road, with the turning in sight within a few hundred metres. There were few cars and I had noticed that the cell reception had been non-existent since the top of Hope Pass; not entirely unexpected, but the sudden drop-off had taken me by surprise and I had thus been unable to contact Liz to keep her informed of my progress.
As I turned down the service road to the site, there were cars, competitors, crew, supporters, pacers and organisers, all jostling for position on the narrow path. The dust was the least of it for that short 100 metres to the checkpoint area. Liz was dutifully waiting and immediately smiled – I was looking much better than at the same point 3 years ago.
Winfield was like the triage area of a M.A.S.H. camp. Total chaos with crew and pacers looking for their runners, runners looking for their crew, organisers shepherding everyone through the right areas and funnelling them into the weigh-in and half-way medical check area.
My weight had reduced about 15lbs which was a touch worrying, but the medical staff just suggested I drink and eat a little more, especially after I confirmed I had had my previous weight taken with heavy shorts and jacket. After the revaluations in Tim Noakes book ‘Waterlogged’ everyone is a lot more relaxed about hydration than even a couple of years ago.
I passed through the marquee and met up with Liz again and as all the chairs were occupied, I grabbed a coke, downed it, grabbed another along with some noodle soup, and went to sit down in the shade of a van outside.
My plans for a quick turn-around at Winfield were rapidly vanishing into thin air as I sat, semi-catatonic, on the floor, staring at my soup and sipping. I might have looked better than last time, but I certainly wasn’t feeling a great deal better – other than a significant lack of pain in my left hip, of course, for which I was thankful. Liz chatted away, asking me various questions about feelings and needs, and timings for the return journey, as I explained about the narrow trail and passing other competitors. Her journey had been even more fraught than mine, due to her perception she was losing time in the queues into Winfield, and the complete disarray in the organisation of the cars (given the road was not being used by competitors now), she had actually parked up and run the final 5km or so to the aid station.
Having finished my soup, and several more cokes, I laid down; just for a second, but was immediately reprimanded and sufficiently chastised to force me to raise myself to a vertical inclination again and start to walk through the crowds to the exit, and back to the trailhead road (after negotiating some ridiculous traffic). Liz was obviously going the same way back to the car, so we continued to chat for a bit, for the few hundred metres to the entrance to the rise which would take me back up to the Colorado Trail. We said our goodbyes and I was gone again up into the wilderness.
The route back up was steep but short, and I had the promise of a marginally downhill section back along the trail to look forward to. There were still people coming down the trail towards me, but I don’t remember seeing any of the other competitors I had made contact with before the race during this section even though I was looking out for them.
The turn southwards to take me up Hope Pass for the second part of our prearranged ‘away’ fixture seemed to come all too soon and I started my way back up in earnest, remembering that this had seemed the harder part of the journey before as well for any number of reasons I could name; the way up this side is slightly shorter, but correspondingly steeper, albeit with more switchbacks. The tree-line is also lower and as a consequence competitors can see exactly how much further it is to reach the top, long before they actually reach it.
I remember stopping to ‘rest’ through pure fatigue several times on the way back up last time and this time was similar, although I think I stopped less and passed more others. It’s difficult to tell exactly. Either way, the feeling of reaching the top for the second time that day was priceless. The Sun was not yet set, but certainly wiping its feet on the doormat of night-time ready to leave our presence but as a result the top was not quite in shadow and I took that as another good sign that I was on schedule for my target of sub-25:00 hours; my optimistic 21:00 hours had long since disappeared into oblivion. I marvelled at the view once again from the top, but largely carried straight on.
The cut-off for the Hope aid station on the way out is particularly strict; the organisers want to minimise the chances of people getting stuck coming back over Hope Pass, and realistically, if you haven’t made it out by 4:15pm (i.e. 12:15 elapsed time) to the 45 mile point, you would struggle to make it back over before darkness. The steady trail of people coming down the hill had slowed to a trickle by the time I was within sight of the top – indeed, some coming down had already had their chips / tags removed and were somewhat happily (knowing their race was over) making their way to meet their crew at Winfield.
After crossing the tipping point of effort, life was, for a few miles at least, going to be considerably easier than it had been for the last couple of hours. The jog down to the aid station was fast, and I stopped for no more than a minute to grab a very flat coke, in a ‘used’ cup – such was the state of their supplies when I transited.
Time In: 17:58:37 (55.5 miles – 13hrs 59mins)
Hope Pass Aid to Twin Lakes – 5 miles (60.5 miles) Leadville – Stage 8
The way down from here was a pleasant run down the hill, although I was conscious I was unable to reach the same speed and rhythm as I had previously – I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the last 3 years to analyse the minutiae of my original exploits in Leadville and have come to the conclusion that pounding fast downhill for the best part of an hour played a significant part in my injury; it was at Twin Lakes it really started to ‘smart’!
This time though all was fine, and although slightly conservative in my approach I made it down without breaking anything, without stumbling, and managing still to pass a few people. Admittedly, a few others sped past me as well, but I was not concerned at this stage, still believing 40 miles in 10 hours was eminently doable.
The slightly more gradual descent was most enjoyable; although there were still sections where I had to remain conscious of the tree routes, the rutting from repeated erosion of downhill streams and weathering on the side of the hill, along with gravel, pebbles, exposed stone and rocks leading to a somewhat uneven terrain on occasions, but on the whole it was only marginal and I was down quite quickly.
I reached the flat section before the river which, after travelling downhill for such a long period was suddenly a flat come uphill struggle, but I made it to the river crossing while there was still plenty of light, even though the Sun was now setting behind the Rockies. The crossing was again like an oasis in the desert; cool and welcoming and I waded through as much as I could, taking in the additional ponds and puddles in the trail, filled with the most clear, refreshing water you would ever see, even on a muddy trail after the passage of a few hundred sweaty runners.
The photographers were still out in force, having changed the orientation of their shots and taking as much advantage of the remaining daylight as possible – many of the earlier and later camera bearers were aided with significant flash equipment on the side of the trail but others, presumably, preferred to be more mobile and take advantage of the more natural light during the day.
The route back into Twin Lakes was lined with hundreds of people cheering for all the competitors and I made my way proudly through the cheers of “Good job!” and “Looking good runner!” – it is amazing how much motivation such simple words from complete strangers can impart when you have been running for over 15 hours.
Liz was waiting for me again, outside our hotel and we walked together back up to the Fire Station, and I once more sat, while being plied with coke and this time also a steak sandwich and fries! – she had picked it up on the recommendation of our chef from the Twin Lakes Inn, Matt. I always struggle to eat solid food while on the run; it always seems to get stuck in my gullet, not to put to fine a point on it – lack of saliva lubrication, or something, but I’m sure that’s enough detail for the moment. Whatever the cause, today was no different and although this was exactly what I felt that I fancied, I still struggled to force it down without several gallons of coke and tea.
Since I had been through the river crossing only recently, I needed to change my socks for the final part of my journey. This was something we had planned, so not a problem, although my trainers were wetter than I had anticipated and it is amazing how much difficulty this imposed. This was only compounded by the fact that I was starting to stiffen up and bending down to even reach my feet, let alone remove my shoes and injinji socks was a struggle to say the least; I began to understand the advantage of some crews having multiple helpers and loungers with tables around to temporarily hold food and drink in the frenetic activity of the aid station stop. I simply didn’t have enough hands to eat, drink, change socks, shoes, and reapply foot cream at the same time.
In the end Liz did a fantastic job, but I had stopped again for longer than I had hoped – probably 15-20 minutes and I was conscious that my ‘contingency’ was starting to run out.
I started back out of Twin Lakes with my head torch at the ready. It was not yet dark, but it was certainly well into twilight and I would not be making the next checkpoint without needing it.
From the low point of the course, the exit from Twin Lakes is about 2-3 miles of uphill, not massive in ultra terms, only about 1000ft of ascent, but slow through the trees and actually greater similarity to Sugarloaf than most people would imagine. I had been anticipating this but now with the dark appearing as well I found myself unable to go as fast as I wanted. Note to self, practice uphills with gnarly tree routes and uneven trails in the dark before trying this again! 😉
The promise of a steady downhill spurred me on though and I made my way slowly back up the course, power walking most of this and running where I could to pass a few people and keep my average up.
I didn’t stop at all at the Mt Elbert mini-stop, having filled up at twin lakes and since night had fallen upon me and my fellow runners, the air was already cooling and I was consequently in need of far less liquid.
The terrain always looks different in the night compared to daylight and I may as well have been on a totally different course, rather than retracing my steps – the night-time has its own attractions though. The stillness of the evening, combined with the thinning out of the runners, led to a very memorable time. Except for the fact I was not here to remember, I was here to race. I was feeling good during this stage and caught and passed many others – although given that the majority had pacers, I only gained half the equivalent number of places!
The moon was in its second quarter, not quite full and also quite low down so was not providing much assistance to me, but was still like an old friend, turning up occasionally, casting a beam of surprisingly bright light and a silvery shadow through the tall pines.
I soon made it through to the Half Pipe aid station, looking along my journey for the display of fireflies over the pond I had stumbled on previously, and smiling at the section where I had looked in vain for an impromptu ‘crutch’ from the forest branches to help me along; this time I was feeling so much stronger and finishing was never in doubt. My time was slipping away though.
Time In: 21:56:59 (70.9 miles – 17hrs 57mins)
Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 5.6 miles Leadville – Stage 10
I did my usual coke grabbing exercise as I entered the aid station tent, but immediately realised I was actually starting to feel rather cooler than I had for most of the day. Standing in the vicinity of the heater in the aid station brought home just how cold it was becoming outside. I tried again to force down some crisps and pretzels, but as usual they got stuck in my mouth like quick drying cement and I gave up on this as a bad idea. I thought a cup of sweet coffee would be rather more palatable, and even though the Nescafé blend was not a barista latte, I drank it anyway and moved off at my earlier pace to meet Liz at Pipeline.
Whether it was the cold or simply the previous 70 odd miles I had already covered, my legs were starting to slow down at this point, in so much as I was struggling to maintain a pace of better than 7min/km so although the Pipeline Aid point was only 3-4 km, it still took me a further 25-30 minutes to reach it with my slow, baby steps.
The noise and lights of the crews were evident long before the lines of cars parked along the narrow strip of land which, being the last point the cars can reach before Twin Lakes, has traditionally turned into an impromptu aid station.
The next problem I had was to find Liz! She had sent a message saying she was at the far end where she had been earlier, but in the dark, with so many cars, crew members, lights and torches shining in my face, I could easily have missed her, and did not relish the thought of running back up the other end of the parking lot to try to find her. I was therefore relieved when I heard her voice and saw her exactly where she had promised and I had expected her.
Time was moving on but she had brought me some hot sweet tea in a flask which I drank with relish! She had also got some sort of cold cappuccino, frappé, latte milkshake thing and that didn’t last long either. We briefly studied our timings and realised I was going to have to push things harder now, but after so much caffeine, I was on my way in a flash 🙂
The exit from Pipeline was a sharp right turn before a straight trail following a barbed wire fence on the left. I know it was there because I remember it from earlier when the bright sunlight was shining down on me. Now though, it was suddenly difficult to see but for my head-torch occasionally picking out the posts and rusting wire with the sparkling dust I was kicking up along the dry trail, in suspension in the black air.
I had already planned a strategy for this section, trialling it first off-road before moving onto several kilometres of Tarmac – my aim on this ‘easy’ stretch was to do a run-walk strategy to maintain a sub-7 minute pace (unimpressive, but all that my stiff legs could manage by this stage). The reasons behind this were many; firstly, I needed to maintain a good pace to get to the next aid station to give me a chance of meeting my goal for the race. Secondly, the next few kilometres were as flat and fast as you can get in a trail race and finally it was dark and along such a mundane stretch of road on my own, I needed some means to break the monotony.
I allowed myself the opportunity to walk to recover, but only after I had ensured my pace for the kilometre I was running was within my target on my Garmin; up it shot as I walked and down it crept as I ran. I played the game to get the best time I could during those few brief kilometres and, during the late, dark hours of Saturday night along the still and lonely roads on the outskirts of Leadville, with only the occasional passing SUV or truck for company, I soon found I turned the corner and saw the lights of the Outward Bound aid station. I continued my distraction for a while longer but eagerly entered the aid station, again passing the warmth of a fire, but a bonfire this time. I had made it in good time and Liz was happy.
Time In: 23:23:04 (76.5 miles – 19hrs 23mins)
Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to MayQueen – 10 miles Leadville – Stage 11
I sat down after grabbing a coke and a sandwich, fairly pleased with myself, but the euphoria of reaching the second to last aid station (excluding the finish, of course!) quickly drifted away into the cool mountain air, helped in no small way by Liz’s valid insistence that I had to get moving, the realisation I still had 23.5 miles, or the best part of a marathon to do with Sugarloaf Mountain in the way.
23.5 miles. 5.5 hours? Doable, I thought.
Perhaps this is where the confusion and thought diminishing effect of fatigue and exhaustion were starting to play a part, nevertheless I was off and out relatively quickly and ready to tackle the mountain, leaving Liz and the heat of the bonfire behind.
I smiled again as I passed the entrance to the Leadville Fish Hatchery; this was where the aid station used to be located, and was the point at which I had had my runners wristband unceremoniously cut off and my chip removed three years ago with my next stop to be Leadville by car. From here on in, I was in new territory.
The road down to the start of the climb was longer than I imagined and I tramped my way as quickly as I could back along the Tarmac passing a group of people along the way. They were discussing meeting with their crew later on from their big pickup and the lights of the vehicle were brightly illuminating the dark road ahead. Their crew vehicle passed me a couple of times waiting for their runners, on the way to the trailhead, from which point we were all on our own.
The climb up Sugarloaf Mountain started out hard, the soft sandy soil giving way to hard compacted chalk and dry mud, with evidence of past rivulets eroding deep channels in the straight slope up, following the power lines down into the valley. It started out hard and remained hard for the next couple of hours.
I occasionally looked back across the valley, with the lights of the cars appearing to move at an incongruously sedate pace from my vantage point halfway up the hill, but actually scurrying from checkpoint to checkpoint and above, the clear night sky was emerging as my eyes became more accustomed to the dark in the light-pollution free, high-altitude area. Generally my focus was in the opposite direction though, uphill, uphill and more uphill.
On the way out I had covered the route up Sugarloaf predominantly in the early dawn light, and the way down when fresh, in the early morning as the Sun was making its presence known. Hope Pass I had covered in both directions in the light later in the day, so now I was essentially covering my first (and only) major hill in the dark.
I knew I could cover it, but it just didn’t stop going up.
“Well this sucks”, I thought to myself and I lost my sense of humour about halfway up the second ‘rise’.
I analysed the contour of this ascent afterwards and although difficult to see on the map, or even the race profile, I realised there were four distinct sections signified by repeated ascents and plateaus. Not knowing this part of the course had broken my spirit. Each time I reached what I thought could be the top I found there was more slow, slogging and because of the trees and the darkness it was impossible to tell otherwise. How different this section had been on the way out on fresh feet, coming downhill, in the early morning light. That now seemed like an eternity ago.
With each step I realised that I was using up the precious time I would need to get round the final half marathon section from May Queen into Leadville, but I still had the hope that I could find my way down the hill in a good time to allow me to meet my goal for the last stage.
The infrequent sightings of headlamps threading their way through the forest up ahead eventually stopped as they disappeared over the rise and to the left around the contour of the hill before finally starting a slow descent, initially through the trees with the now familiar gnarly roots, but then eventually onto a section of service road where so many hours, and miles, beforehand I had had my picture taken.
I ran (shuffle-jogged) as much as I could on this section, knowing it might be my last opportunity to make up some time for quite a while, but before I knew it I was heading off back down the narrow twisting trail, with the sound of the May Queen aid station still distant down the hill.
It was taking me far longer than I had hoped, although given the terrain and my state of fatigue, I should’ve allowed a little more slack in my estimates.
The final couple of miles down into the last checkpoint was very frustrating for me, counterpointed by the last few hundred metres after popping back out onto the trail road again. I ran as fast as I could into the aid station to Liz waiting there.
The look on her face was one of ‘concern’.
Time In: 02:29:45 (86.5 miles – 22hrs 30mins)
Mayqueen to Leadville Finish – 13.5 miles Leadville – Stage 12
The aid station was a lot quieter than it had been earlier in the previous day – I had seamlessly transitioned from Saturday to Sunday on my way up Powerline a couple of hours ago – but there were still the odd pockets of frenetic activity.
Not that I noticed them.
After 86.5 miles, I had 2.5 hours to do the best part of a half marathon; ordinarily not an issue at all, but in the dark, with tired legs, fatigued mind and the majority of it through some pretty tricky terrain. All these factors were conspiring against me but I needed to give it a shot anyway.
Liz wanted to get me out as fast as possible, but the aid station crew asked several times if I needed anything. I grabbed my usual fare and some banana to keep me going, said my final farewells and was off running again into the night.
On my own.
I ran down the Tarmac to the edge of the forest where it heads towards the western end of Turquoise Lake once more. I knew this would be the last smooth surface I would encounter for at least the next 5 miles, so I made the most of it.
I ran into the trees and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity.
The soft dusty route was not too bad to start with and I was ever hopeful that there would be a slight downhill gradient, at least to the shoreline, but it was undulating at best and the narrow uneven surface with jagged rocks and my new best friends the gnarly tree roots were doing their best to slow me down; and succeeding.
I reached the shoreline of the lake without too much ceremony, but I was struggling to reconcile the effort required to constantly recover and save myself from stumbling with my current levels of fatigue and the minimal gain in speed I was making, so I started a fast walk along an essentially flat course.
This did not sit well with my desire to push as hard as I could to reach my goal, but each time I started running, I tripped, stumbled or fell. The majority of the time I managed to catch myself, but my levels of frustration with my seeming incompetence were increasing with every jitter.
The beauty of the moment, while moving slowly around the edge of the lake, watching glimpses of lights from both crew and runners on the opposite shoreline, with the clear, star speckled skies above the mountain I had come down only a few hours previously was not lost on me though. There are some magical times in races, as in life, and, despite my frustration, this was one of them.
I passed through the open areas where there had been local supporters so many hours previously, but now there was nobody.
I made my way across a car park, which I struggled to remember from nearly a day before, but without the crew, vehicles, supporters and in the dark, it was an alien world; halfway across I questioned the route I was taking, but eventually spotted a familiar glow stick, so continued my lonely trek towards Leadville.
The eastern edge of the lake was a long time coming, but eventually I left the shoreline again for a short section, continuing in the same forest theme, before being ejected onto the road, and crossing it, away from the lake and now diving down the worst possible technical trail you could imagine. The straight drop along a boulder track could not have been more than a half mile down; in the distance and turning onto the road junction, I could see a couple of head torches bobbing away, but it was purgatory nonetheless. The combination of soft earth, large boulders and deep rutting proving impossible to negotiate at times; I was imagining that the front runners would have bounded down this point with a spring in their step, doing their best mountain goat impressions.
Reaching the roadway which was a short section east to the railway line, was a relief and strolling along the wide expanse of dirt track was suddenly like walking in slippers. There were few others around at this point; the competitor and his pacer I had glimpsed earlier were up ahead, but no one behind.
I concentrated on catching the two ahead which I managed by the time we reached the southerly turn down the final trail section parallel with the railway; in fact, I caught them primarily because they were going straight on at that point and ‘helped’ their navigation by shouting after them before they disappeared into a world of pain after 25 hours on the road.
It was here, that there was a sudden increase in the number of competitors around me. I noticed another couple of people up ahead and there was also another runner and pacer pair coming up ‘fast’ behind me – they jogged past me a few moments later, looking as fresh as daisies, chatting away, leaving me standing in relative terms. I resolved not to let anyone else pass me and to make my way as fast as possible to the finish, which by my reckoning was still at least 3 miles distant.
The significance of the passing of the 25 hour threshold at this point was not unexpected, but still a depressing thought after everything I had accomplished up to now.
My legs had long since given up the ability to run and from now I had also lost the will to run. The realisation I was unlikely to make the 25-hour cut-off was a low point, but I would struggle to say exactly when it occurred – perhaps going up Powerline, maybe coming down from Sugarloaf through the forests into May Queen, probably going around Turquoise Lake when I continued stumbling in my vain attempts to increase my speed and believe I could cover a mere half-marathon in 2½ hours. There was always hope, however small, but this time it was not to be and the inexorable march of time once again won the day.
The final trail of the race was about a mile in a southerly direction before turning onto a dusty easterly road. that so many hours before had kicked up mounds of sparkling dirt into the head-torches of 800 runners. The way was easy and smooth now but gradually uphill; a last couple of miles of torment that Ken Chlouber had devised for the route back into Leadville – with little choice, I suspect, for most routes into the highest incorporated city in the continental USA are going to be uphill.
The sky was slowly changing once again, with the veil of the stars being imperceptibly withdrawn; only the brightest in the dawn sky to the east in the direction I was heading, soon remained visible, the constellations of Pegasus, Andromeda, Perseus and Cassiopeia disappearing from view and no longer guiding me home.
The long slow drag uphill eventually came to an end and the tarmac took over at the outskirts of the City. It was strange to be on a road again after so long and I had to remember that the trucks, pick-ups and SUVs, on their lookout for their runners, technically had right of way. At that time in the morning there were few about though.
I passed Lake County School and turned my final corner onto West 6th Street at the aquatic centre where the briefing had been a couple of days before and I could now, in the distance, see the finish.
There was much evidence of partying through the night in the form of discarded bottles, cans, spent barbecues and unoccupied deck-chairs, presumably to welcome in the early finishers, and I suspect this recommenced later in the day up to the 30 hour mark, but at present there seemed to be an early morning lull in proceedings. Nevertheless the dozen or so people I did see were all still full of congratulation and joy on my behalf at the approaching conclusion of my challenge.
I seem to remember the final few hundred metres were uphill, but in reality it did not really matter; after everything I had been through over the previous 26 hours it was nothing. The sky was getting light now, even if the sun was still behind the mountains to the east of Leadville and I was ready to get that medal.
I ran the final stretch, suddenly finding a previously hidden battery of energy in my legs to propel me along the red carpet and across the finish line, with the announcer suddenly excitedly realising I was another ‘out-of-state’ competitor finishing.
Liz was waiting for me and we could do nothing but embrace without words.
Time In: 06:06:55 (100 miles – 26hrs 6mins)
Liz had had her own marathon throughout the last 30 hours as well. Supporting me on her own to the 11 checkpoints had not afforded her the opportunity to rest at all; the traffic (about which many people subsequently complained), had been awful and her journey each time had left her little time to prepare, let alone rest. At Twin Lakes she had managed to get through and park outside our Hotel on both occasions but only by virtue of the fact we were staying there, and many others had not been so lucky; the stories of runners actually getting to checkpoints faster than their crews, or missing pacers, had been prolific – even so, she had not had the opportunity to grab sleep, fearing she would not be around to meet and help me.
By the end then, both of us were exhausted; both physically and mentally, after the ups and downs of the day.
As a result, I found it difficult to describe how I felt at that point, in the moments after crossing the finishing line. I had completed the Leadville ‘Race Across The Sky’, the race I had dreamed of and visualised finishing for over three years, my 5th 100 mile ultra-marathon, in my 3rd fastest time, 156th Place overall (out of 944 starters and 497 finishers), 40th in my age group (of which I am approaching the ‘upper end’!), but I had set such high expectations for my finish, I was convinced I could get that sub-25 hour buckle – indeed, I still believe I can – and perhaps it was just the fatigue, but I was disappointed and only after several hours, if not days, could I look at the buckle I got and feel proud of what I had achieved.
There is always that nagging feeling I could have done better though – what is that? A psychological flaw, or just an inherent desire to always improve? Is that an ultra-running thing or just me? (Answers on a postcard please…) Either way, I have a strong feeling I will be venturing back to Leadville at some point in the (near) future 🙂
In the days afterwards, we mulled over the race and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Twin Lakes, very appreciative of the staff in the Twin Lakes Inn, Mary, Andy and Sue, who had made us feel such a part of their family, and Matt the chef, who cooked us some magnificent ‘recovery’ food after the event. The owners Liz and James also went out of their way to assist in any way they could and we would definitely stay there again if (when) we go back to Leadville in the future.
On our final night in Twin Lakes we had dinner at the Inn, and were lucky enough to be introduced by the staff there to Ken Chlouber and Merilee Mauqin, who co-founded the Leadville 100 trail race some 31 years ago. It was great to meet them – two people who in the simplest terms, co-founded and promoted a world class race to put their community ‘on the map’ when it was in the throes of an economic downturn.
Their vision of the race as a tough ultra-marathon and a perfect metaphor for life has been encapsulated in their phrase “You’re better than you think you are; You can do more than you think you can.” and embodies the spirit of the residents of Leadville and their desire to rebuild their lives. In many ways the story has come full circle with the reopening of the Climax molybdenum mine in 2012. Perhaps the end of the race is in sight for the Leadville community as well, but if life for the City on a hill starts to return to ‘normal’ they have given the world a fantastic event and experience which will become both their, and the town’s, legacy to the world.
Typically, we were beginning to enjoy our stay, come to terms with the altitude, the jet-lag of the initial outward journey and the exhaustion of the challenge just in time to make our move back to Blighty, and my challenge for 2013 was over.
So, I’ve not been in a writing mood for some time. I think that it took me longer to recover from the South Downs run than I anticipated, and I’ve had a huge amount on at work as well, in addition to persuing another few lines of interest in my life, which I’ll talk about in the future.
Still, excuses aside, I’ve had another race to prepare for and, as Frank Sinatra would say, now the time is near.
My final adventure for 2013 is the Leadville 100 trail run, the fabled Race Across the Sky, so named because of the altitude at which the race is run in the mountains of Colorado, USA, i.e. around the 10,000ft mark. This is the race which was covered extensively in the bestselling book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, a book which acquired almost cult status amongst runners some years ago. The race has a personal connection for me though, because as my regular readers will know it was at Leadville 3 years ago that I had to pull up at 75 miles, experience my first ultra DNF failure, and walk away with a ‘sore’ hip which was later diagnosed as a broken neck of femur (actually, I recall crawling away with the assistance of Liz and our good friend Mike who was helping us at the time).
The route is fairly unchanged from 3 years ago, with only a few modifications having been carried out in the entire 31 years of the race, so I am looking forward to covering it again – my memories of that day and the course have come flooding back, even if I considered that they had been consigned to some back room of my mind in the intervening period, this was such a significant event in my, and Liz’s life, that my recollection upon our return is as fresh as it could possibly be.
To cut a long story short, my physical recovery is over and I am back here in Colorado now with Liz, and it is as if we only left yesterday, the place seems so familiar, we have slotted straight back into relaxation and preparation mode, travelling the streets of Leadville ready for Saturday at 4am when the race starts. I am anticipating that finishing this race should complete my psychological recovery, filling the void left by my DNF and those 25 missing miles which I was unable to carry out on my return journey from the halfway point at Winfield back to Leadville. Ironically, I had already negotiated the difficult part of the course, the 3,400ft climb up Hope Pass to 12,600ft which has to be ascended at both 45 miles and then 55 miles on the return leg, but it had clearly taken it’s toll on my body, and I had to leave ‘buckleless’.
So, here I sit, in Twin Lakes, a few hundred feet from where the 40 mile aid station will be located on Saturday, and from the vantage point of our hotel in the village, I can see Hope Pass, perhaps tormenting me, playing a game with my mind, twisting it every way it can to throw off my preparation. My will to complete this race, in under 25 hours to get the ‘coveted’ gold and silver buckle, is far bigger than any mountain can throw at me though! Strong words maybe, but in the end it was not my will that was broken last time, only my leg 🙂
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.
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 been resting most of this week, mainly through having a lot of work on (deputising for most of the IT senior management team at the Bank who have all picked various times in the last two weeks to be off, will have that effect!) – Still, every cloud has a silver lining, etc., etc….
I am going through the usual pre-race nerves at the moment! Doubt over my training, elation over what promises to be a great race, concern over my physical state, confidence that I have been here before and succeeded, trepidation that I have been here before and failed, excitement that I will within 48 hours have finished another major adventure – the usual bag of emotions.
There are many checkpoints on the race and there should be ample opportunity to track my progress if you are interested with the LIVE link here – as with all event the updates will rely on the volunteers uploading from mobile phone unfriendly locations, so the updates may be patchy – nevertheless, I am hoping to be at Washington (54 miles) by 2:00-3:00pm.
The forecast is not particularly good – relatively overcast, with intermittent rain, but will probably not be too bad for running, provided the chalk trails do not become too slippery – not brilliant for sightseeing though 😉
The spring bank holiday in the UK is traditionally the point at which weather turns from bad to worse in preparation for an awful summer – even so, it is always good to take advantage of a long weekend.
I had been watching the forecast for some days though, and it had actually been improving and as a result, Liz had very generously asked me if I needed to do another training run down along the South Downs in my preparation for the Petzl SDW100 race in mid-June. The timing was perfect; I had 30 miles from last week to ‘continue’, it would be my final long run before tapering and it was a long weekend so I was in no hurry to get back to work on Monday. The weather improving was a bonus, but undoubtedly made things easier for both me, and the family, as they would be able to look for a beach just 5-10 miles south of my route.
As usual, we didn’t leave quite as early as we planned, and after picking up Liz’s mum, who was coming along for the ride, the whole family were on the road, back to Washington (Sussex) just before 8:00am. The journey was relatively easy and I only missed the directions from Google maps a couple of times, but even so we were at our destination before 9:00.
We said our goodbyes as the children continued to watch Star Wars (I) in the back of the car, and suddenly I was on my own again, opposite some cyclists who also seemed to be preparing for their day on the downs.
I walked my way back up to the Frankland Arms, where I had finished last week and then back further up the lane to the village hall, where the checkpoint would be in a few weeks time. The ‘hill’ I had remembered from last week, was not half as intimidating as I had imagined, but after 54 miles I think that could be a different matter! We shall see 🙂
As I started my watch and my Garmin map, I looked around for the blue South Downs Way trail signs, while turning down to the main road again, smiling as I ended up a mere 100 yards from where I had just been dropped off! The first hill was yet to come and it was a corker, although I had anticipated this from the elevation profile of the course, after the dip down into Washington. I passed sleeping horses and since I was still not into the rhythm of my running took a photo of them enjoying their Sunday lie-in. I was soon at the top of the hill and then down and up the next before I knew it. I’m certain after 54 miles on race day I’ll not be quite so sprightly 😉
The day was a lot nicer than the previous week and as this was only a training run, I was giving myself the opportunity to stop and take photos. For the first time along the whole of this course (including last week) I caught sight of the sea from the top of the ridge. From Washington I had taken a route southward and I assume the city on the coast I could see was Worthing, to where Liz and the Family had headed off – they had a lot planned, in the form of breakfast, church, beaches and so on and I hoped they were having a good time. I was progressing well, after turning in an easterly direction again and descending the next hill I went through the Botolphs village, where the next checkpoint would be, followed by crossing the River Adur which flows south to the sea at Shoreham; even several miles north I was quite surprised at how wide the river was at this point and the bridge over it was correspondingly substantial. For me, the time was passing extremely quickly and I had done my first 10km in a good time and although my average pace had been lowered by the first couple of big hills, after a few ‘calmer’ sections, this was coming down nicely.
I crossed over the main Shoreham road and then was up back on the ridge in a flash, on the tarmac covered surface to the farm houses, which only finished about halfway up. I had seen a couple of radio masts from some distance away and now spotted them ‘approaching’ on my Garmin mapping, before finally seeing them for real as I emerged from the hedgerows and plateaued the rise.
As with last week, there were many other runners, cyclists, horses and walkers out enjoying the route and they were all very friendly, some even seemed to be walking the route as an organised event for charity, and I wished them good luck and well done as they passed in the opposite direction.
Something I had not seen last week was a whole float of paragliders, and it was about now that I spotted them for the first time, although they seemed to be some way off, probably three ‘undulations’ distant. I took a variety of photos of the human insects hanging motionless in the air as I approached them over the next 30 minutes and eventually peeled off from Devil’s Dyke where the South Downs took a different route from the steep ridge creating the thermals they were using for their sport.
There was then a lovely slow downhill section through trails flanked by gauze bushes where I simply enjoyed the countryside; I would not consider myself an ornithologist but I enjoyed the songs of the birds going down through this stretch to the next road crossing which was followed by a cafe and stopping off area for users of the route at Saddlescombe Farm, which would mark the 66 miles point of the race and checkpoint 9.
From Saddlescombe it was back up again to another peak on the ridge and the initial part of trail was this time quite rough and steep, for once making life quite tough albeit briefly. The slight uphill trail afterwards lasted for no more than a couple of km and was proceeded by a similarly gradual downhill to the busy A23 heading south to Brighton. A short section of Tarmac parallel to the road headed north to a bridge and although the signage was such that I had to stop briefly to check I was heading the right way, when I made it to the other side of the crossing I spotted the now familiar blue acorn pointing me off the road to a small lane through Pyecombe village (which interestingly seemed to have been split in half by the A23, with two almost distinct developments being noticeable).
From here, I had to follow yet another road north to cross to Pyecombe golf course and finally rejoin the ‘trail’. Not that at this point it was much to talk about. Not in comparison to the neatly tended green to both the left and right of the ascending rough chalk track; clearly, upkeep of the trail is not part of the landowner’s great money spinners. It mattered little though, but the distinction was clear.
When travelling from Winchester to Eastbourne, the South Downs Way predominantly follows an ESE direction, but for the last few miles, after the initial southerly turn from Washington at 54 miles, I had been travelling east with a slight northerly component for 8-9miles until I was almost at the latitude of Washington, where I had started out.
The top of this rise marked a detour to a couple of windmills, called ‘Jack and Jill’ where the next checkpoint was to be located. I say detour as I didn’t notice the turning off and so carried straight on with the regular marked trail; hopefully, in a couple of weeks time there will be additional signs to help weary runners find their way. Another long and relatively flat section ended up at Ditchling beacon, apparently one of the highest points along the trail where I enjoyed the views to the north of the North Downs, 30 miles away, and the coast, 5-6 miles to the south. On the way down the other side, there was a car park with many visitors and an ice cream van – I was sorely tempted to ‘Stop there and buy one!’ and on reflection I’m not sure why I didn’t!
The route continued its undulating passage east for another few kilometres before suddenly taking a southerly course again. It was about here, that I slowed down to a walk to take on some ‘food’, i.e. a Torq bar (trying the Rasberry and Apple flavour, which was very agreeable) and as it was after 11:00am I sucked the life out of a Gu ExpressoLove flavour gel, perfect caffeine boost. Nevertheless, I think I had got the timing a little wrong as I felt more like walking and enjoying the stroll and the glorious carpets of rapeseed I was walking through for 15-20 minutes while waiting for the carbohydrates to reach the extremities of my muscles.
The southerly course the route was now taking was to take me over the busy A27, and despite knowing that I was now travelling south, and the road runs from east to west, it was still quite disorienting to cross over it in this way.
I had seen a few cyclists following the route south, and a few families playing in some of the more accessible reaches of forest along the route, but up to this point not much in the way of visible wildlife. As I made my way further south from the A27 I passed through another gate but saw a Cock pheasant no more than 6 metres away. I got my camera out and quickly took a picture before he had a chance to disappear into the hedgerow. To my surprise he just strolled to my right.
At that point, the cyclist that was coming down the hill shouted out, “he’s vicious, he is!”, clearly indicating the pheasant was the object of his description, and continued, “he’s already attacked me once.” I found this hard to believe from such a normally skittish creature, and he certainly didn’t bother me as I passed, but sure enough as the cyclist came into the bird’s proximity as he approached the gate, the feathered assassin started to walk purposefully towards his antagonist. I shouted back something about his red top, meaning his cycling top, but this was lost in the distance that was increasing between us, and I left him musing over whether his adversary was a pheasant of the little known ‘killer red top’ variety.
There had been, and continued to be, many fields of brilliantly coloured rapeseed on most of my journey today, perhaps accentuated by the blue skies and the strange and unfamiliar yellow globe hanging in the sky which Britain has not seen much of since last September. The track took a rather tortuous route around a ‘bowl’ valley now I was south of the A27 but as I slowly circumnavigated my way up to the next peak and back onto the ridge, I saw more paragliders. These were much fewer in number and their chosen slope was not providing them with anything like the success of those back at Devil’s Dyke, probably some 10 miles behind me; I came to the conclusion they were learners, and this was the nursery slope. As I continued to ascend I had the opportunity to look back across to where I had just been and took more photos for posterity!
I enjoyed the next couple of miles which undulated along the top of the ridge again and I started to get back into a rhythm, although I had by this stage pretty much decided to stop at the next village, Southease, since I had heard from Liz that their morning had not gone quite to plan due to a number of factors, including having forgotten money and not being able to find a suitable beach on which to let Adastra, who was also with them, roam freely. Having completed nearly 30 miles I felt finishing here was a good compromise and having had a bad patch recently was more than happy to look upon the opportunity as a mutually beneficial ‘win-win’ scenario.
On the final main hill down to a farm track, I encountered some more wildlife in the form of some cows that had decided to ‘occupy’ the trail and I had to slow and ‘Yar!’ them out the way by doing my best Rawhide impression.
As I reached the bottom of the hill there were a few people with metal detectors searching the fields for treasure trove – a popular pastime, especially along the South Downs where there are so many iron age burial sites, settlements and associations. I said hello to them and then carried on and then noticed a group of families up a few hundred metres ahead with horses and carts, making their way slowly along the roadway and then turning off before reaching the main road back up to the trail.
I caught up with them just as they were crossing the road before going down into the village of Southease and took advantage of the stopped traffic and sprinted across before running down through the village past the church and village green on my right. Since I had decided to stop here, I was on the look out for a suitable hostelery or at least a shop, but no luck this time; this was clearly a one horse town and my only option was to continue running as I tried to contact Liz to find out whether she would even be able to locate the place, let along want to stop there. Unfortunately, when I checked my phone, I had already received a frantic text about getting stuck, crossing railway tracks at the station and having to phone the signalman. Confused, I tried to call and after a few frustratingly fail attempts due to patchy coverage, got through. We were unsure where we were in relation to each other, but after spotting a train passing on the track which we could both see, I continued on down the road and across the river to the Station at Southease, where the barriers were indeed down and required a phone call for vehicles to cross. As a pedestrian I looked both ways and crossed safely to my waiting family.
We quickly got on our way and followed the A27 running parallel to the Downs, further east to Alfriston to at least see the village I was aiming for in the first place, where we had a wonderful roast meal as a family at ‘The Smuggler’s Inn’.
The day had again been a great recce of the latter part of the course which I will encounter in a few weeks time. I had been lucky with the weather and I am sure that the experience of the last couple of weeks will help me no end during the actual race.
I am not normally one for doing reconnaissance of routes before races. Merely attending a race with a family of 4 takes up enough time as it is, so to visit an area prior to an event with all the associated children logistics, really doesn’t seem fair.
The South Downs is so close to where we live though, that it was too good an opportunity to miss for my race in a few weeks time.
My schedule has me this week diligently ramping up to just over 30 miles for an end of week long run in preparation for the SDW100 which covers the whole of the South Downs, in an easterly direction starting about 30 miles north of the coast at Winchester in Hampshire and taking a slight southerly path on its way to Eastbourne, right on the coast, some 100 miles later.
Liz had generously agreed to take me down to one of the 14 checkpoints, while her mother babysat for us early on a Sunday morning, and since both Guildford and checkpoint 2, Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP) are on the A3, this seemed the obvious choice as a starting point.
With 30 miles to do, my ending point was also a fairly transparent choice, as CP7 on the race course is located at Washington, about 54 miles into the run and 31 miles from QECP. Being the nominal ‘halfway point’ it would also give me the psychological advantage of knowing the majority of the first part of the race. How much of an advantage this actually provides me remains to be seen, as many people would consider that 100 mile races only really ‘start’ at 50 miles.
After being dropped off, I took advantage of the park conveniences, then started running in what I thought was the right direction, although there were so many trails and tracks signposted, it was difficult to tell. Sure enough though, the trace of my Garmin eventually subtended towards the track I had preloaded into the memory, showing the entire race course with the checkpoints as waypoints.
The way out of the park was a gradual climb of a couple of hundred feet over a few kilometres, but certainly nothing stressful, certainly not in my fresh, hasn’t-completed-the-first-twenty-miles-from-Winchester state, and this gentle undulation of the sometimes gravel paths, sometimes chalk trails, sometimes roads, repeated over the first hour. If the whole run was going to be like this, I thought, it wouldn’t be much of a problem 😉 I had passed where I recognised the next checkpoint would be at Harting Downs, at about 9km and predictably, the hills started to get bigger after this. Today though, the car park at the top of the hill was full only with ramblers, cyclists off-loading and dog walkers fitting leads.
The route over Beacon Hill looked a little scary, but thankfully the organisers had followed a route around the climb, so I followed it through the fields and pastures where the were a lot if sheep grazing. It is my experience that these animals often look up and stare quizzically when I run past. I wonder what they are thinking? Mad fool? Is the farmer after him too? Why’s he wearing all that gear? How can he still be running in last season’s Inov-8s? There were quite a few walkers on the route and all were very friendly and we acknowledged each other as we passed. One even asked if I was going the whole way and I slightly sheepishly replied, “No, only as far as Washington today!”
For the next 10km there were no roads to cross, only trails to follow, tree lined copses to pass through and forest paths to negotiate. There were very few gates to worry about either, which I was pleased about. I find it quite annoying when you are in the rhythm of running to have to keep stopping to open gates and jump over fences and styles. I acknowledged the runners and cyclists coming up the hill as I was going down into ‘Cocking’ where there was a road to cross just before where the next checkpoint would be in a month’s time, although given the effort they were putting in coming up the hill, I was not surprised to only receive a smile on many occasions. This was a strange section where the local farmers had concreted the entire roadway up the hill, presumably as a result of the erosion of the steep sloping trail. After the soft bouncy grass trails I had been experiencing for the last few miles, this seemed suddenly quite incongruous and at odds with the rest of the South Downs ethos, but they presumably have their reasons.
I let Liz know how I was getting on at about 22km as by this time she was back home and in church with the children and her mother. Although the route was pleasant and I was enjoying the solitude of it and the time soon passed. There were very few roads to worry about and even less in the way of habitation or villages, had I wanted to grab a snack or a drink. Luckily, I had planned ahead on this occasion and was trying out a few different varieties of route snack, although no trail mix this time! The Powerbar vanilla gels always seem to go down well (sadly, my favourites, the double latte variety are only available in the USA!), but the rhubarb and custard Torq gel I tried later was a very strange taste. I can’t deny it tasted like custard, but it really wasn’t what I wanted at that point in time; another one to chalk up to experience.
I was starting to get a little weary without the respite of checkpoints to look forward to, but pressed on anyway and it was at about 30km when I came down one of the few road sections, past a farmhouse to cross the main A285 road. I noticed a couple of other runners up ahead and depressingly they were slowly pulling away from me as we headed up the other side of the valley and I lost them as they turned a corner up the hill. I was then surprised when I turned the same corner to find them walking up what I considered to be a fairly minor hill, so I acknowledged them as I passed and then hoped desperately that their local knowledge of the hills wasn’t going to leave me with egg on my face as I rounded the next corner, to see the remaining slope 🙂 Luckily, I managed to head on up and their voices in the background soon faded.
By the time I had got to 35km I was heading down a serious hill, bordering on being technical due to the slope and the stony and uneven nature of the chalky trail. It was almost the doppelgänger of a particular trail down from Newland’s Corner a mere 5km from home that I again considered myself lucky to live right on the North Downs and to have been able to train for the last few months on what was turning out to be such similar terrain.
As I got to the bottom of the hill I realised this was a relatively flat valley through a village called Amberley, with the River Arun crossing its floor. I also realised, having whipped out my Garmin to check the course, that its batteries had demised. I stopped quickly and changed them and was on my way before I had been caught by a group of ramblers travelling in my direction who I had only recently passed.
The flat route along the river, soon turned up the next hill and at this point there were some strange noises coming from the valley to the right, of steam trains and through the trees I saw an old tram moving off as well. I subsequently found on the map that this was a museum, one of many sites worth visiting along the route including many Iron Age burial mounds, a Roman villa at Bignor, stone circles and the long man of Wilmington, a chalk figure cut into the hillside 9 miles north west of Eastbourne.
The weather had been kind to me for most of the run and having been forecast as rain, I had expected the worst, but unusually it had not materialised. There was a touch of spitting for my last few Kilometres but nothing to worry about.
I was now counting down the kilometres to Washington, especially since I had seen a trail sign back at the crossing of the River Arun stating that Washington was only 10km in the direction I was heading. My Garmin was a bit confusing when I set it to use the checkpoint as a ‘goto’ waypoint as the line-of-sight distance was significantly shorter than the actual distance of the trail, but soon I was heading downhill and onto the last kilometre.
I suspected that Liz would be there already, but there was no sign of her or the car when I reached the village hall, so I stopped my watch, having completed my run and walked further down the lane looking for a shop or a pub in which I could get refreshments! I found both with in a very short space of time, as I found a pub called the Frankland Arms, which had the smallest shop in Sussex as an appendage next to it. I went into the shop first, and bought a couple of apples, a coke and a pint of milk from the dear old lady manning the groceries, who I’m sure was 80 if she was a day. I went back round to the pub and noticing that I had no service on my phone and my texts were not being sent, decided to buy a pint of refreshing cold cider while I mulled over the situation. I was no more than a couple of minutes inside and left with my fermented apple juice in my hand and sat outside in the empty beer garden (unusual for 1:30pm on a late spring day in England) pondering my next move. As I looked at my phone, contemplating walking back up the hill to get coverage, I could hardly believe it when Liz drove round the corner with the family in tow, and I waved frantically to ensure they spotted me. Perfect timing.
We all stopped for a quick drink and snack and then life returned to normal as we drove back to Guildford to drop Savannah and Luke off at parties!
All in all a fantastic run and one which I have absolutely no doubt will help me during the race itself in 4 weeks time.