About 20 years ago I went on a family weekend to Grantham. One evening we visited a local pub for a meal and on the wall hung a sketch of runners completing a local race. Under the picture was a list of some of the achievements of the winning athletes. It spoke of 100 km and 100 mile distances. This was a little pub in Lincolnshire and the people I’d never heard of. The thought of ordinary folk running that far just did not compute, but that picture had a big impact on me and is still a vivid memory.
20 years later, it’s 6 o’clock in the morning and I’m standing on the start line of the Centurion ‘South Downs Way 100’ race in a field near Winchester. Lynne and I travelled down the night before, but despite an early night and caffeine avoidance I’ve managed less than 3 hours sleep. This is new territory for me; my previous longest race being 100 km or about 62 miles. You can’t help but think how you felt at the end of your last races and whether you could have just tacked on another 40 miles. Well, not surprisingly, the answer is always ‘no’.
I’d chosen a Centurion race for my 100 mile attempt as the company has established an excellent reputation and their South Downs event was within easy striking distance of home and in an area I had passed through many times when I was a child, visiting my grandparents in Haywards Heath. I remember seeing windmills on high hills, but never getting closer than the A273. I lie. I chose a Centurion race because; whilst all the above is true, Centurion 100 mile finishers who complete within 24 hours are awarded a belt buckle inscribed with the words “100 miles – one day”. I wanted that buckle. I really wanted that buckle.
My training had gone reasonably well. I started ramping up the weekly mileage around March, but a string of lower leg issues (swollen toe joint, knee pain, shin splints and cracked heels) imposed a 3 week hiatus at the end of March. Time was now pressing and I wanted to do some running on the South Downs route but couldn’t risk a hard run close to the event. Lynne and I made a weekend dash to Sussex and I ran 30 miles, including most of the part that I would be running in darkness. I was expecting my leg issues to return with a vengeance, but no, all was well. Back to the training plan, with weekly mileage maxing out at 50 miles including one long run each week – the longest being 32 miles. I tapered from the end of May with just 8 miles in the week before the race.
It is often said that running ultras is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. I try to do as much preparation as I can to reduce my stress on race day. For this race I’ve invested in a new backpack and head torch (and spare battery pack), and put them through their paces. My checklist for the event runs to 70 items. Enough said! There is a ton of useful information on the Centurion website and Facebook page. Most help to me are the blogs from previous events, where competitors – successful and unsuccessful – have shared their experiences, warts and all.
Back to the start line. 3 things on my mind: Get to the end. Use the 14 aid stations to gauge progress. Eat and drink to the max. A countdown and we set off on a lap of the field before heading out onto the trail. I went through the first 2 aid stations and put 20 miles on the clock.
One of the most useful items I had with me was a small plastic bag. Every aid station has a huge spread of food laid out and brilliant volunteers waiting to fill your drink bottles, but with 14 stations on the route, you only need to spend 5 minutes in each and that’s over an hour gone. Food goes in my bag, and I graze on the move. As most of the aid stations are in the valleys, so there is often a big hill to walk up on the way out, which make the eating easier (but not easy). I found my appetite decreased throughout the race along with my fluid intake. I pee’d twice in the first 20 miles, then no more. This was a slight concern, but I felt ok.
So I now have a feel for how things are going. Some soreness in the legs – nothing more than you’d expect after 20 miles, but it’s the other 80 that you have you wondering. And the hills are building now, with a 140 metre climb out of the Meon valley. Over the next 20 miles I went through a pretty low patch. Everything was aching and I felt quite nauseous. I consoled myself with the thought that I should still be able to finish within the 30-hour race cut-off. For the first time in the race I lose sight of people in front. This is a big deal, as I now have to think about navigation. The course is brilliantly marked, with the National Trail signs augmented by barrier tape, painted arrows and custom signs put out by the Centurion crew. Even so, it is easy to start doubting oneself, so I got out my GPS to confirm I’m on track. It shows I’m in the middle of space nowhere near the course! Panic until I remember I had to split the route into two to get it onto the GPS and by this time I’d run off the end of the first part. I load the second part, and bingo – there we are back on track, but an early indication that my mental capacities are taking a hit.
Passing through Amberley we get our first really big hill – 190m ascent in about 3km. In the back of my mind I’m thinking about my average pace, and that a fast walk would get you through the race if you could sustain it. So I knuckle down and press on up the hill. After a while I stop and look back. No-one there – they’ve all dropped way behind. Turns out my superpower is walking fast up steep hills. Ha!
The Washington aid station is a significant milestone. 54 miles covered and an opportunity to get some kit from one of the two drop-bags you are allowed to stash on the course. Each bag is labelled with its runners’ race number. I was thinking worst case I’d have to rummage through 350 bags to find mine. As I approached the station a man came out towards me. “Hey Paul”, he says, “Here’s your bag. Seats are inside”. Mood instantly lifted! Hot food brought to my seat. Fantastic. I changed my shoes and socks and picked up my head torch and backup head torch – both mandatory kit from Washington onwards, and topped up with more food and drink. Appetite now diminishing, but grapes and particularly the water melon are going down a treat. On the fluid side, I’m grabbing cups of coke and water at each aid station, but let’s say the electrolyte mix in my water bottles is not something you’d drink through choice. And it’s back onto the trail.
For the majority of the race I’m with other runners. The group keeps changing as people move ahead or behind. We have brief conversations and there are a few I bump into several times. One is from Northern Ireland. He’s collecting UTMB points. UTMB is the Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc, and one of the entry requirements is to collect 9 points from a maximum of 3 qualifying races in a 12-month period. The SDW100 gets you 4 points. For comparison the Stour Valley Path 100k gets you 2.
Now we’re approaching the Botolphs aid station at mile 61. Miles 60-80 can be the hardest in a 100 mile event; enough miles to hurt badly but not far enough for the end to be in sight. For me, Botolphs also marked the start of my recce run from earlier in the year. This was a major psychological boost, as knew what was ahead for the next 30 miles. I hadn’t foreseen the massive difference this would make to my confidence. And it was still very light – on the part of the route I’d thought I could be running in the dark. So now I’m looking at my watch, checking the remaining distance and doing a few sums. And I’m starting to think 24 hours is not out of the question, but try to suppress that thought.
At the start of the race, the hills were a welcome diversion. An opportunity to walk for a while, eat some food and give your running muscles a rest. The downhills were a joy and a chance to boost your average speed. Then the hills got steeper and longer and not so much fun. Then the downhills got to work on your quads and became worse than the flat. And then it got dark – and the wind increased – and a fog blew in from the sea. By mile 80 many of us were walking most of the time. The only positive is that I’ve got the upper hand in the battle with my legs. They’ve accepted that I’m going on despite the pain, so they’ll keep working and just make me pay tomorrow. In the fog with the head torch I have a fuzzy view out to about 10 ft, with dim patches of light from runners in the distance ahead. The miles go by slowly – I’m watching them clock up on my GPS, 0.1 mile at a time.
I’m now craving tea and water melon, so it’s some of each at every stop. The penultimate aid station is Alfriston at mile 91, and that was as far as I had come on my recce. Beyond is new territory for me and two more enormous hills before the finish. I attempt to leave Alfriston with another group, but turn the wrong way at the exit and I’m on my own. 9 miles to go. Thoughts of a 24 hr finish creep back. Before the race I’d used the online race pace/splits calculator to give me an indication of my progress. Basically you move a slider to your predicted race time and it shows you your estimated time at every aid station, based on the times of competitors in the race in 2012. But what estimate to choose? My thinking was: I want to aim for 24 hours, but it would be unhelpful to know I was off the 24 hr pace, so I’ll go for 22 hours. That way, it’s not so bad if I slip behind at some stage. I sneaked a look at the predicted time for Alfriston. Hmm – I’m inside the time and that was for a 22 hr finish. A good sign, but I had one major fear. I did not want to end up with a few miles to go and just enough time to make it. That would be more stress than I could take and I’d probably do myself some serious damage racing the clock. So I started running more. Run some. Walk some. Keep watching the route on the GPS.
A special mention for that hill out of Alfriston – <unprintable>
Into Jevington. The final aid station. “No one quits at Jevington”. Just 5 miles left. A cup of tea and I’m out again making another wrong turn at the exit. Quickly fixed and I’m heading for another hill up onto the downs then the long drop into Eastbourne for the finish. My superpower kicks in again on the hill and I pull ahead of my group. I can see their torches way below me as I reach the top.
Detailed instructions had been issued for the final leg. We were to head for a trig point, from which Centurion marshalls would direct us to the correct path into Eastbourne. I knew all this. Hey, I’d followed the path on Google Earth. I’d even watched the YouTube video showing the details. So why did I not look for the course markings and head off blindly following my GPS with the old route on it? I knew there were runners ahead of me, so after a while was surprised not to see them. I could see the lights of Eastbourne below me. I looked behind – just darkness. I’m on my own. Brain not working. Major panic.
After a few minutes I came to my senses and retraced my steps to the top of the hill. There were the course markings leading to the trig point, and there were the marshalls, just 150m from where I made the wrong turn. Was I pleased to see those marshalls! They pointed down the rough, steep track to the town, well-marked with tape and glow sticks, and then it was a surreal couple of miles through the streets of Eastbourne to the athletics track. One big effort to look cool on the track lap and through the finish all in a blur. I’m stood in front of a photographer, hand shaken and presented with my buckle. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, but I can tell you I had one hell of a big smile on my face.
Lynne came to pick me up. I told her I’d not be running another 100 mile race. So that’s clear. Out of my system. All done now*.
For the record, I finished in 34th place, in a time of 20 hrs 47 minutes and 16 seconds. There were 266 starters, 202 finishers and 64 did not finish. On the four occasions Centurion has run this event only one person my age or older has recorded a quicker time. His name is Kenneth Fancett and he ran 20:23:03 in 2012. Kenneth is 66 and something of an ultra-running legend. He finished one place behind me this year.
My thanks go to all the organisers, competitors and volunteers who helped make the event so memorable. I could not have wished for better support. Check out the Centurion Running Community Facebook page and feel the love! Thanks also to my wife Lynne for supporting me during training and on the day, and for tolerating my incomprehensible ‘ultra madness’.
15th June 2015
Disclaimer : This article was written under the influence of adrenaline, paracetamol and sleep deprivation, so please forgive any emotional excesses and factual inexactitudes.
* but what’s said on the finish line, stays on the finish line 🙂