South Downs Way (SDW50) 50 Mile Race Report 2014

I thought I would start this report with some interesting (to me, anyway…) statistics based on the three 50 milers I have run with Centurion over the last 18 months.

Race

Time

Date

Finisher Ranking

Improvement

%age Placing

No of Finishers

NDW50

11:41

Aug 2012

63rd

n/a

78%

80

NDW50

10:12

May 2013

69th

1 hour 30 mins

50%

138

SDW50

08:47

Apr 2014

80th

1 hour 25 mins

26.5%

301

Every 50 mile race I have done to date includes a big improvement in time. I haven’t listed the Brecon Beacons Ultra here, but this was 9:30 in November over a slightly less distance, but tougher terrain.

The reason I wanted to start with this table, is I could not believe how fast everyone started racing on Saturday. I was probably about halfway down the field of just over 300 by the time we were five or so miles into the race- and I felt I was going way too fast for that stage of the race. Was I getting worse or was everyone else getting better or was it just because it was the biggest field I have raced a 50 in to date?

I knew this was set to be a highly competitive field at the front of the race but I also was aware it was a first ultra for a lot of people and remembering from my first 50 miler I knew how easy it was to get caught up in the excitement and run too fast too early, so I tried to hold myself back despite dropping place after place after place all the way to the first aid station.

There is a real sense of community about Centurion races and I have made some really good friends since getting into the sport. I arrived at the start to register at about 8am having had a really good sleep the night before in a guest house in Worthing. I had been tempted to drive to the start, but my parents and Solange had pushed me to stay nearby and this was definitely a good call. I feel asleep about 9pm on Friday night and woke around 3am, mentally ready to start but managed to drift in and out of sleep until 6am, which was probably my best night’s sleep before an ultra to date.

As I walked up to register I bumped into Dan Park, who I hadn’t seen since the Brecon Beacons and we had a good catch up. He was with Sam Robson but I didn’t get a chance to say hello as he was gassing away to someone else. At kit check I got a hug from Nici Griffin and Emily Canvin and before I knew it I was pinning on my race number- the registration process, as swift and efficient as always.

Fortunately, the weather was perfect and whilst we had 45 minutes until the start, it was pleasant to hang around and chat with just a hoody over my running gear before leaving this and my finish line bag with Al Black and the team to take to Eastbourne.

After a brief chat with James Adams (he’s got a book out, you know) and James Elson (RD) we were ushered through to the starting chute. I lined up with Chris Mills and Simon Edwards, as we all had a goal of sub 10 hours. I also properly met Stuart Blofeld for the first time who I have huge respect for after he finished both Western States and UTMB last summer- two of my bucket list races. Stuart was using this as his comeback race and wasn’t racing at the front (for a change), but still managed to finish in just a shade over 8 hours without seemingly breaking a sweat. The bastard.

Before the race I had used the fantastic website, climbers.net to work out some splits. These were based on a “dream” finish of 8 hours and 40 minutes. I knew this would be a tall order/ virtually impossible but a finish within an hour of this I would have been delighted with, so felt it best to be optimistic on the splits. My goal was always to run as hard as I could for the SDW50 and NDW50 in preparation for my build up to three 100 mile races within three months later this year, so why not push the splits?

As the field slowly spread out I found myself running in step with Chris Mills to check point 1, at 11.2 miles in. My splits were based on hitting this in 1 hour 40 minutes and I was delighted to arrive in 1:43 and feeling pretty good. The pace still felt quite punchy and it was good to have a big hill straight after the aid station to walk up and get my heart rate down. I didn’t have an aid station strategy as such, but thought I would simply grab what I fancied at each one. This started off with three cups of coke, melon, grapes and some peanuts. Sounds like an awful mix, but it worked for me.

At the top of this climb I lost Chris as I stopped to take my shoes off and get some sand out of my socks as I felt a few hot spots. Two minutes stopping now could prevent a few hours of pain and suffering later in the day, so it was a no-brainer to get this done. Even in this time I probably lost another 15 places but on the plus side Simon Edwards then came through and we ran together for the next few miles chatting away and getting our heads down for the first slogging part of the day. I always find I hit a low point at around 14 and 35 miles. 14 because you start to feel early tiredness and are all too aware of how much time you have left to run, and 35 because you are exhausted but the end is still not in site for a few hours yet. It’s no-mans land.

The next checkpoint was at 16.6 miles and here I caught up again with Emily Canvin who was helping out with a fantastic team of volunteers. She commented that her course record from last year was about to be “demolished” and the leaders had reached this point in about an hour and a half, which was ridiculous. My splits had me down to get here at 11:45am and it was 11:48am on my watch- so far, so good.

Before Chris had shot off into the distance as I tended to my feet earlier on, he had given me some valuable knowledge which helped a lot as I didn’t know the course. This was that after each aid station there was typically a big hill so it was a good time to grab food and walk whilst eating rather than staying in the aid station. Thanks to this I think I probably spent no more than two minutes in each aid station and this kept my legs moving and my core warm. It is amazing how quick you cool down on a spring day, when only moments before you are pouring sweat whilst running.

The first big landmark for me during this race was always set to be aid station three at Housedean which was at a shade over the marathon mark. This was exactly 10 miles from Emily’s aid station and I knew this section would feel like a slog. I was now into i-pod territory as the field continued to spread out.

These are the ‘nothing miles’. It was far too early in the day to focus on my splits aside from being vaguely pleased I was there or thereabouts, but more about plodding out the mileage and keeping on top of my form. Once or twice I was very conscious I was starting to hunch on the hills and quickly straightened my posture. To counter the monotony of a big gap between aid, the views were stunning and I forced myself to appreciate that this was what I dreamt of during the dark and miserable winter months. Yes, at times it was tough, but I needed to stay positive and just enjoy a day away from bills and telephones and mortgages and real life.

Whilst continuously rolling, the course was overall a lot easier up until this point than the North Downs Way. However, I knew from experience how tough that course gets in certain places so I took nothing for granted and just maintained a steady pace as much as possible. Now it had thinned out, it was good to run at my own pace as opposed to too fast at the beginning.

My splits were based on getting to Housedean in 4 hours and 15 minutes. At exactly this time I spotted the Centurion flag marking this aid station fluttering in the wind below me at the bottom of a steep hill that led to a large shed. It took a few minutes to descend this and I arrived in 4:24, just nine minutes off my “dream” pace.

I could now take stock and feel I completed the first marathon in good time. Yes, I had just under another marathon left to run and had no idea of the terrain ahead of me, but nothing was (yet) screaming at me. My back felt fine even with a good load of mandatory kit, legs were absolutely fine and I couldn’t feel any blisters. It was time to stock up quickly at the aid station and get back on the trail ASAP.

It was just under seven miles to the next aid station and this was all I focussed on, as opposed to how far left or how many hours I had left to run. I have learnt to break ultras down into manageable chunks as opposed to the whole thing, which can just be overwhelming. Often my head would drift back to the full distance left to run, but I quickly tried to change my train of thought and just focus on the next few miles.

I ran the next few miles with a guy called Paul Heath, who told me this was his first ultra. I told him he was doing great and whilst he was having some low patches as well I told him these would pass and it “never always gets worse”. This is the key thing I have learned in this sport, and funnily enough was chatting to Traviss Wilcox after the race about the same thing. It can seem like when it gets rough it will be a gradual decline from here on it, but that is not the case. Second, third, fourth and fifth winds happen and soon after we started chatting climbing a big hill we started to jog together and were soon laughing and chatting like two old mates.

I knew I was losing pace from my splits, but I wasn’t that bothered. It was still too early to push and I was still well on for a sub 10 hour finish.

As we approached Southease at mile 33.3 I spotted a guy who passed me fast earlier on and was puking into the hedge, but seemed focussed on carrying on. I didn’t see him again, but hope he finished OK.

I then spotted Chris Mills, which I was a bit worried about. I knew my pace wasn’t quick that last section, as my splits said to hit 33.3 in 5 hours 25 minutes and I was now 25 mins down on this now, arriving in 5 hours 50 minutes.

I hadn’t expected to catch Chris so wanted to make sure he was OK. He was having a rough time and complained his hamstrings were on fire. My good patch was also fading so after a bit of banter at the aid station with Nikki, Chris’ wife, we shuffled out both swearing like troopers. We now had just over 16 miles left to run and four hours to do it in to make sure we went sub 10 hours. This was do-able and we decided to work together for a bit to keep us positive.

To give an idea of our type of conversation for this next leg:

Me: “Jesus, mate. Look at the size of that bloody bull. Let’s give it a wide berth”

Chris: “That’s, a cow you dickhead, look at its fucking udders”

Me: “Yeah, but it’s got massive horns, so I’m calling it a bull”

Chris: “It’s a fucking cow”

Me: “I’m not so sure. Let’s agree to disagree and call it a hermaphrodite”

Chris: “It’s a fucking cow”

Me: “OK”

The hill after Southease seemed to go on forever and we walked for at least half an hour before breaking into a jog again. I was rougher than Chris at this point and he really pushed me on. We set landmarks to jog to and then had a walk break, before jogging to the next landmark. At some point along here Paul re-joined us and then went ahead. I let Chris know I had run with him a bit and he was a really nice guy and doing his first ultra. We caught up and the three of us ran together a bit longer. We were now all focussed on getting to the penultimate aid station at mile 41.6 in one piece before the home stretch of just over 8 miles.

After a while, we all pulled out of our respective lows and started running at a good pace. We hit the aid station at 4:20pm and a quick calculation (you wouldn’t believe how hard maths is at this point in a race…) told me we had an hour and forty minutes to run the last eight miles to finish sub 9 hours. I had made up five minutes on my splits and was just 20 minutes off my 8:40 pace now. This might have been out the window but sub 9 was not by any stretch.

As soon as Chris and I realised this, we were off and flying. Somewhere in the last section we had lost Paul, but I don’t remember exactly where. Water bottles full, I knew I wouldn’t need to even stop at the last aid station, four miles away, unless something went wrong and could make a full attack for the last hour and a half.

To be honest, I can’t remember much of this section up until the final aid station at Jevington, 45.7 miles in. Chris and I ran some of it together but soon after I remember being alone. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision for either of us to drop one another. He had gone off alone earlier on and now I found myself ahead, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty as we had worked so well together the last few miles.

Whilst I don’t remember much about the scenery at this point, although I remember the sun had broken through and felt really quite warm, my mind tracked back to a video I had seen recently of Timothy Olsen at the Trans Gran Canaria, filmed at an aid station. I had read in his blogs before how he huffed and puffed like an animal during races and I had just presumed this was just a figure of speech. But in this video, he is grunting away like a man possessed and completely and utterly focussed on the task in hand. Whether subconsciously or not, I found myself doing the same on these last few hills. I was seriously focussed.

I hit Jevington with an hour to go to get in under nine hours. Five miles in an hour on this sort of terrain was not a given by any means, with 45 miles on the legs. I said hello to John Hayden (who probably regretted shaking my hand, covered in sweat and gel grease), shouted my race number to the lady with the clipboard and bombed straight down the hill without giving the aid station a second glance. I only had half a bottle of water left, but I knew I was hydrated enough and even if this ran out it was hopefully an hour or less to the finish.

All the way around there were friendly spectators and at the bottom of this hill as the road turned back to track there was a group of people outside a church who must have seen how focussed I was and gave me a massive cheer. This really helped as there was an equally massive hill to follow. I power-hiked this as hard as I could and it just went on and on and on, twisting and turning for about half an hour. Sub 9 might be out of the window.

My feet were now in agony and for some reason I thought of a quote I had read a few months ago from Rob Pinnington’s excellent Spartathlon race report. Here he said “it hurts to walk, it hurts to waddle, it hurts to run, so why not run?”. I have no idea why this came into my head as I don’t even know Rob, but it sure as hell worked and so I started to run to the top of the hill.

Drew Sheffield was at the top here, directing people down the final section of trail before we hit Eastbourne. The sun was shining and the sky was cloudless. On any other day I would have stopped to admire such a stunning view and the sea beyond the town, but I was on a mission. It was now 5:20pm and I had 40 minutes to finish to go sub 9 hours.

I asked Drew if he thought that was possible and said it had taken Paul Navesey (the winner in a disgusting 6 hours 11 minutes) 21 minutes to run from here to the finish. As long as I was going at just under half Paul’s speed I would make it. I knew how fast Paul is, so I decided to throw all caution to the wind and literally throw myself down the steep and narrow trail.

I apologised to a guy on a mountain bike as he had to dive for the hedge to let me past, explaining/ shouting I was on a mission. He was great and screamed at me that I was flying and to keep going.

Shortly after, the trail hit a housing estate and I knew I was now in Eastbourne. The tricky bit had been done, but I still didn’t know how far it was to the finish, having never been to Eastbourne in my life.

I must have been going at seven minute mile pace and my calves started sending some dangerous spasms up my legs but I couldn’t afford to slow down. At the same time, to be taken out by cramp at this time would have been devastating. I popped my last s-cap and gritted my teeth. I have never been focused like this in a race ever and it was so exhilarating compared with my usual shuffle to the line at this stage.

I hit a pedestrian crossing and had an agonizing wait (probably only 30 seconds) for the green man to come on, petrified I would cramp up entirely. Thankfully my legs stayed with me and I crossed and started to hear cheers in the distance.

James Elson is somewhat of a sadist. From experience, he likes to place finish lines in an area where you have to loop around to get to them. I could hear the cheers growing fainter as I powered along the road and realised we would need to turn at some point and double back to get to the stadium. The course route was spray-painted on to the pavement and eventually factored in the turn I was looking for, before another agonising bit of pavement before eventually turning into the car park with the stadium next to it.

Since 2011 I have dreamed of entering the track at Placer High School, the finish line of Western States. OK, this wasn’t Western States, but during my low points out on the course over the course of the day I had thought over and over again about hitting the track and having a strong finish.

I looked down at my watch as I ran onto the track and it said 8 hours 45 minutes. I finished two minutes later in 8:47 and was utterly spent.

This was almost three hours faster than my first 50 miler 18 months ago and I feel I ran an almost perfect race. To finish seven minutes outside of my dream time was unbelievable and I am still letting it sink in.

I was 80th out of 301 finishers and whilst my worst ranking yet, the reason I worked out the table at the beginning of this is that not only was it my best time to date, it was my best percentage placing within a Centurion race to date.

Most importantly, was my running consistency on the day. According to results I hit 33.3 miles in 10:20 minute mile pace and finished in 10:33 minute mile pace. Almost perfectly even for the whole race. Looking back to August 2012, I ran 9 minute miles for the start and crawled home in 17 minute miles.

The course conditions and weather were absolutely perfect. The path was often cracked and sun baked like it would be in August and there wasn’t a single puddle or patch of wet mud out there. Nutrition wise, I am still a long way from the perfect strategy and need to work out a way to take on more calories in the 100 milers. Fruit and coca-cola, with the odd gel and mule bar may be sufficient for a 50 mile race, but I need to improve this if I want to finish the North Downs Way 100 in August and once again qualify for the Western States lottery.

Chris Mills came in 13 minutes later in an agonizing 9 hours dead. Or, as we are calling it, 8 hours and 60 minutes. Nikki and Chris gave me a lift back to Worthing later on after we had sorted ourselves out and I am really looking forward to getting to know them better. They are true friends already.

Final thanks to Centurion and all of the incredible volunteers who gave up their day to help a bunch of idiots run across some hills. The chilli and tea at the end was the icing on the cake.

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About fromsofatoultra

In August 2011 I heard the term 'Ultramarathon' for the first time and have been obsessed ever since. I am not a race winner but hope to inspire as I have been inspired- I am by no means a natural athlete and if I can do it, anyone can. Having completed my first ultra in August 2012 I have just got started...and I am here for the journey.
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5 Responses to South Downs Way (SDW50) 50 Mile Race Report 2014

  1. lonsy says:

    So that’s why there was no coke left, thirsty bugger! Was an awesome run though, will definitely come back to Centurion.

  2. Derry says:

    Cool to read your report. I recognised you as we were running along from this blog but you looked in the zone so didn’t say hi. I was that guy who you passed puking in the bushes in Southease haha. Turns out I had some kind of infection, which was stopping me taking on enough food and drink. And I thought I was just tired from the clocks going forward! No question of not finishing though.

  3. Pingback: Daily News, Wed, Apr 9

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