South Downs Way 2017 100 mile Ultra Race - Race Report

by Mark Aston


Its taken a while to write this blog.  Wasn’t quite sure what to say – many have written how the SDW100 is beautiful etc, what would make this post any different.  So I thought, three questions on my experience of the South Downs Way and my first hundred:

1.    What is it like to run your first hundred?
2.    What sort of training will get you there?
3.    Is the Centurion race a good one to choose as your first hundred?

If you are only reading this for information on the race jump straight down to three – its why I’ve split the questions.  The whole report is a little long, but I thought I would try something a little different.

What is it like to run your first hundred?

I have to admit, I was very worried.  I’d never done more than fifty-ish miles before.  How the heck can you prepare for something you’ve never done before.  Letting the wife know I’ll be a little late home for tea because I’m putting in a hundred miler on the way home from work isn’t really possible.

That’s what makes the sport!  It is always a journey into the unknown.  I recently watched ‘The Race that likes to eat its young’, a film on the Berkley Marathon.  That was all about the unknown.  Remembering that is important.

Back to the question:
The short answer to the question is Great!  It was all the positives I’d heard.  Tough, but very very rewarding.  I’m not religious, but it is fulfilling, being out on the trails all that time.

I had also heard all the scare stories about digging into the dark side, but to be honest I never really found that.  There were times it was hard, but that’s kind of, the point.

What sort of training will get you there?

I’m the sort of ‘Kitchen Sink’ person.  If you like to go light, and take a chance, my comments won’t be too useful to you.  People on mountains in jeans wind me up.  On a day out with the kids I have….well lets say I’m prepared for anything.

I started running about 3 years ago.  One year of trail marathons, one year of fifties, and this year was the hundred.  I was told that I was more ready than most, but I didn’t believe them.  So here is what my training involved:

i)    about 35 to 45 miles per week (about 150 to 175 miles in a month)
ii)    squats, and gym work at least once a week
iii)    a long run of at least two hours – sometimes up to four, and quite hilly
iv)    the long run was without eating – to train for when I couldn’t eat anymore
v)    three or four races a year at the distances mentioned above
vi)    I use a HR monitor – 70-75% is race pace, anything over is a hard session.

I put that up to try and show it is realistic for those without young kids (I couldn’t dedicate the time if I had very young kids).  I started small, two years back and built up to it.

Again to show I’m not a brilliant runner….

    My fast runs are at about eight to nine minute mile.
    My average pace on trail is 12 to 13 minute mile
    I get nauseous very easily and have trouble eating while racing
    If I am up after 9:30PM I get very tired

What I did do was Recce the entire route – so I knew where to go without stressing

One thing that really helped was volunteering to sweep for a couple of ultras.  The forty miles on my feet at slow walking pace was hard first time.  I usually run and this was new.  Also being at the back, and when people DNF, you have to catch up the next back marker.  That is hard, it means upping the speed after 30+ miles.

I also did a couple of training runs over 30 miles to practice eating, which I don’t normally do.

I know each person is different, and needs to prepare in their own way.  But I thought I’d put that up for those thinking of doing a hundred to have something to think about.  Kilian Jornet’s training plan is of no use to me.  I find it hard to find realistic stories about normal people.

One final thing.  I have a session with a Personal Trainer every two months who advises on my training.  Gives me a specific plan.  Also gives confidence over all the usual things that happen.  My achilles hurt like hell when I upped the mileage.  I have been sick on numerous races.  I had a twinge in my ham.  None of these were serious, but at the time I thought I wasn’t capable.  My trainer gave me the confidence to push through these things.  For the sake of twenty five quid every two months I think it was worth it.

Is the Centurion race a good one to choose as your first hundred?

Yes – its great, and for me was perfect.

Recces

To be truly prepared for my first hundred I needed to recce the entire route.  This is relatively easy.  I did it in three sessions.  
  
    Park in Eastbourne – catch the train to Hassock and run back – about 30 miles
    Park in Pyecombe – catch the train from Hassocks to Petersfield – about 50 miles
    Park near Queen Elizabeth Park – catch train to Winchester – about 25 miles

The second one was part of my final training, about 6 weeks before the race.

This really helped on the day, and for a first hundred the ease of recceing the route was a big thing.

Crewing

I really didn’t fancy the trip back on the coach at the end of the race, so my wife, reluctantly ‘volunteered’ to Crew for me.  I rented a van, which with an air bed in the back, I hoped she could sleep whilst waiting for me, making things easier for her. 

The SDW race has fourteen check points.  This was part of the attraction, but also with crew support there can be more points for a breather.  After the first 2 check points there was never really more than 6 or 7 miles between either a checkpoint or crew point.  This really helps with the mental attitude.  Especially later in the race.

One thing I will say about having a crew is that it doesn’t do much for my macho image.

I saw my wife at Check Point 2, and I had taken it easy till then, so that was just nice.

I next saw her at mile 35.  This was getting close to the limit of how far I had run before.  I had worked hard to get to this point still feeling OK.  I thought I was doing well until I entered the field with the Check Point and the van with my wife.  I just started to cry, and loads of my pent-up emotions came blurting out. 

Again at mile 51 the relief at seeing her was really uplifting.

At mile 84, Southease Aid Station, was the first time I felt I really wanted to sit down and take some weight off my feet.  Once I sat down it was hard to stand up again.  Knowing my wife was waiting at the top of Firle Beacon, just a couple of miles away, made all the difference at getting up and moving on.

As I say though, a word of warning if you have an ego.  Seeing my wife on entering the sports ground in Eastbourne ….I don’t think a blubbering mess quite captures what I was but you get the picture, it was amazing to give her a hug then….
So for first timers, the ability of having a crew really helps.  I didn’t see my wife for more than a few minutes at a time, yet…I have tried to explain to her the huge difference that support made to me finishing, I hope she understands.

The Start

The start of the race is in Chilcomb sports ground, and you can kit check the night before. I get really nervous before events, so having the opportunity to sort all the formalities out before the last night’s sleep was nice.  Off to the local chippy for some fish and chips.  Google rated ‘Catch’ in the centre of town, and we found that it was indeed, a really good chippy.  I’m not sure a huge bag of fish and chips is perfect race prep food, but in terms of calming the nerves with comfort food, it really did the trick.

The campsite is nice and quiet so getting to sleep for 9:30 was easy.

I got up at 4:30 so I can start eating as much as I can, banana and frusli bars.  It is the competing dilemma of nervousness making me not want to eat, against knowing I must get into a good habit from now of about 200 calories an hour.

Totally Wonderfuel were there offering some great veggie food, but I was simply too nervous to eat anything big.

The loos was a bit of a negative, I wander down and find a huge queue.
The loos was a bit of a negative, I wander down and find a huge queue.

This wasn’t good, so I decided to use the loos at Check Point 2.

This was probably one of the only negatives of the race.  I’m not sure the organiser can do anything about it.  300 people all wanting the loo at the same time – just one of those things.

The final briefing was lovely.  They ask people to raise their hands for certain questions.  There were quite a few doing a first hundred.  Not sure why, but it made me feel less lonely.  I think its because I get a bit intimidated at all these fantastically fit and athletic looking people – which I am not!  Realising I was not the only one in this situation helped a lot – it is the little things that make a big difference.

Finally, we’re off, a jog around the grounds and a squeeze onto the South Downs way proper.

As far as a first hundred is concerned, I’m not sure how the start could have been better.  The relaxing night before, the ease of getting up in the field of the start – very good.

The Route

I think this little rock off the north of Europe is amazing.  Watching Attenborough on the telly about Africa etc, we forget how amazing our island is.  I think we all treat the SSI’s and national parks as normal.  We would, we grew up with them.  In fact, because of the rich seas, the fact that our rock every few hundred thousand years sinks into the ocean makes it extremely special.

I say that because most race reports, whether in Wales, Scotland or indeed the South Downs all say the route is amazing.  That’s because our whole island is.

So sorry to say the usual – the route is amazingly beautiful, and the chance to enjoy it, letting it fill my senses, sights, sound smells, over a whole day, night, dawn, sunset was very very special and I consider myself lucky to have been able to be there.

The start of the race, goes up Cheesefoot head, after that, it is possible to get some good running in.

Going down toward Exton from Checkpoint 1 – just beautiful English country side.
Going down toward Exton from Checkpoint 1 – just beautiful English country side.

The route is great for a first hundred.  I hoped to reach the halfway point in about 12 hours, leaving me 18 hours to complete the second 50 – I thought I could do that walking.  Given what I have said about my pace – on the day, this was very achievable.  I did the first 50 in about 12 hours, and mainly walked the latter section, finishing in 27 hours.

 Chalky middle section – down to Cocking
Chalky middle section – down to CockingThe route does change subtly. The first section is rolling country side.  The middle section becomes hard trail, made of chalk and flint.  The final section is quite hilly, and grassy.

This oddly does help for first timers like me.  It is easy to get some good quick miles under the belt for the first marathon, which builds confidence.  By the time you get to the hilly section, there is a lot of walking anyway.  So it is nice to be able to walk the ups and jog/hobble the downs.

Time of Year

I think one final thing to say to first timers is the time of year. I was nervous about going non-stop for over 24 hours.   I also want to see the South Downs.  So the time of year was great – only six or seven of hours of real night.  I planned to walk this section, brought a radio play to listen to, to distract my mind away from the pain (since there is no views to do that).  That worked well.

I got to Saddlescombe farm just as it got dark.  Mile 66.6, and the check point crew wear little devil horns – great – again it’s the little things that get you through.  And I got to Southease, Mile 84 after dawn.  So only 20 miles in the dark really.

On the converse I was worried about the temperature – it can get silly this time of year.  To be honest, there is time to slow down.  Many people I spoke to complained it was really hot.  Personally, I see too many people with incorrect pacing given the conditions.  I took it very slow in the warm morning.  When it got cooler in the early evening I actually sped up!
 
Chanctonbury ring – the trees in the distance in the centre –
past Washington – over half way and still running!

Chanctonbury ring – the trees in the distance in the centre – past Washington – over half way and still running!Check Points

Finally, finally.

Yes the checkpoints were fantastic.  I really felt that a lot of effort went into them, and they were a big part of the reason I’d say this is a great event for a first timer.

As I mentioned earlier I have stomach issues.  At each check point there was lots of sarnies, lots of fruit as well as the usual sweets.

The options for veggies and vegans were great which is usually a great indicator.

I struggled with my food after mile 51, in fact more bluntly I saw my checkpoint food twice….without going into details.  So after that point I didn’t each much at all, and I think the fat burn training paid off.

That said, at each check point there was always something I managed to get down.

Washington – strawberries!
Housedean Farm (76 miles) – Vegan Peanut butter cakes, I’m not vegan so ate a mars bar cake!  I didn’t realise that was a thing.  I ate it though and it was great, and didn’t come back up!

So all in all the check point crews were amazing, and I have never seen an event with not only such a variety of food, but the care into making  foods for every need.  Simply fantastic.

Conclusion

In summary, the race is great for first timers, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Finally, sorry this write up is not usual footstep by footstep description of the race.  I just thought that there were enough of them already, so thought I would try and write something a little more helpful for first timers.  Please leave comments on what was useful/boring - I can then amend next race reports accordingly.

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