South Downs Way 100 by David Warren

First off, apologies if my race blogs seem a bit self indulgent and pity seeking. They’re not meant to be. I like to write these for bigger events, as a record of my experience, good & bad, for reference and for something to look back on. A bit of running nostalgia for when I’m no longer able or willing to do these types of things. To also remind me to think very hard before entering such silly events again, especially after the aches, pains and funny walk have been long forgotten. I’ll try to keep this fairly balanced, as ultimately, it’s easy in the early days following an event, to focus mainly on the mistakes and adversity. Especially when they feature heavily in the event, as was the case here.

First off. Why this distance & race? I’ll admit that having done a few 100k races, I always considered 100 miles to be too far. I’m probably not cut out for these longer endurance distances and the stress on your body cannot be good for you. However, being mindful that I’m not getting any younger and some close runner friends have completed this distance, it’s something I’ve not been able to get past. To complete 100miles. Just for the sake of doing it. To ‘put it to bed’ and to know that I’d ticked that box. After all, it’s often considered ‘the’ distance for an ultra runner to complete. And I appreciate that lots of runners have done this distance many times and even further. Sometimes much further. But that’s not for me. I’m content to draw the line at 100 miles. As for this particular race, I’d heard great things about Centurion Running and know of a good number of runners that have done this event as their first 100. And to top it off, the South Downs Way reminds me of my younger years in Portsmouth and family trips out to QECP and Butser Hill. Nothing mountainous, but rolling hills.

In terms of preparation, things had gone relatively to plan. Not that I tend to have much of a plan, but this was slightly more focused than most of my training. Some longer runs, London Marathon, a night run on Imber and some back to backs. A lot with Mark, my running companion on this particular adventure. Thankfully, I’ve had no real injuries to contend with, just the usual niggles.

Race day came around quicker than expected and after a late night finalising food and kit, standard procrastination, I eventually settled for about 3-4 hours of light sleep before the 2.30am alarm. Peter turned up to collect us in his Bongo van, after very generously volunteering to be our chauffeur and crew man for the event. As well as being a superstar for offering his services, after not being able to race this event himself, Peter is also a seasoned ultra guru and all round top bloke. Great to have on your team. The drive down to Winchester was a blur with some banter, plenty of anxiousness and a lot of tiredness. Once registered, trackers strapped to our packs, potions applied, last minute kit checks, etc, etc, it was time for the race brief and then the 6am off.

After several laps around and through the natural bowl setting of the race village, and a few rounds of slightly premature clapping and encouragement by the spectators, we headed off to join the South Downs Way. The start of our 100(ish) mile challenge. Whilst the first 10 miles should have been fairly uneventful and ideally a bit slower, perhaps a lot slower, the good ol runners tummy issues took hold early on. I put this down to the early start and a bit of stress, but by the second check point at QECP, at around mile 22, I’d already had several unpleasant evacuation stops (the most savoury way to describe events) and I was starting to feel very sick. From there in, things went downhill for me. I felt completely washed out and my energy was rapidly wavering. It was only when looking through some pics Mark took, that I remembered stopping at a medics car to seek some help. The diarrhoea tablets they offered didn’t really do much, especially considering the loss of fluids I’d already suffered.

From around 30 miles onwards I couldn’t stomach anything, a horrible situation to be in, given the need for hydration and fuel. I felt more and more sick and had to be chaperoned through some of the toughest miles I’ve endured in a long time, through to the next aid station at around 36 miles. At times struggling to string a sentence together. I just wanted to curl up on the side of the path, as I felt I had nothing, and I’m so grateful for being pushed on, quite literally at times, to get through this very low point. As you do, you just think about all of the potential scenarios & outcomes, and I was certain that this was the end of my race, if I could just get back to Peter and his van. It was during this period that I was given much encouragement and offers of support by runners passing. One in particular chose to stay with me and Mark through to the next aid station, recalling his similar experience two years prior, where he DNF’d. I really hope he completed it on this, his second attempt. Support & community, something you come across routinely within the off-road and ultra scene.

One of the mistakes I made was looking to complete this first attempt at an 100mile ultra within a specific time. After all, there was a generous 30hr cut-off. But dragging this out would also impact the others in our team and would eat into the next day, so expectations were settled at a time of around 24hours, which seemed easily achievable. There was also the most significant issue, aside from the distance, the heat, something I’d not focused enough on preparing for. Perhaps as the original forecast was for drizzle and thunderstorms. In turned out to be an almost cloudless day with temps suggested to be up around 30C on the often exposed chalk Downs. Even through the night it remained in the late teens, with constant humidity and little breeze. Whilst I enjoy a sunny run, and had a few weeks to train in higher temps, this wasn’t the best combination with my hydration issues.

I’m still not sure what caused the S&D which led to dehydration. Something as simple as poor meal choices the night before (which included several days old left over rice), lack of electrolytes and possibly some heat stroke. Seeing other runners being sick throughout the event, Mark included, wasn’t uncommon, and I really struggled with my electrolyte drinks after the first 50k or so. Getting to Pete at mile 36 was a huge relief, but not until I’d suffered another set back with a small stumble causing my calf to lock up in cramp. A stint on the ground getting this stretched out meant I could finally carry on. What I do recall about this incident, aside the pain, was how the cramp seemed to distract or divert slightly from my other symptoms. I could start talking a bit more, moved a bit quicker and even managed a few laughs. Sitting down back at the Bongo, trying to find shade, Pete was straight with me. I wasn’t dropping out, I should take the time needed to get some drink and food down to see how I felt before making a rash decision. It worked, I managed to drink some water and coke, ate some sandwiches, pretzels and a yoghurt. I was starting to feel more human. Ice on my neck also worked a treat. Mark was keen to move along, so I decided to give the next section a go, using the uphill start to go steady and to see how I felt. There was no turning back, Pete was clear that he was off to the next location, around 12miles on. Tough love?

Initially I was feeling good. A fast paced walk up a long hill and I was keeping my temp down. However, as I pushed when running, or on harder hills, the stomach issues and nausea returned. Finding a balance between keeping my efforts and symptoms tolerable, whilst not ruining Mark’s race was a challenge, especially as he started to suffer fatigue and was experiencing a nerve related pain in his thigh, which worsened whilst walking. Chatting with runners as they came and went, some past us, and some slowing behind us, many were aiming to be more conservative with their efforts during the hottest daylight hours. This seemed a good plan, and then to push on in the cooler evening and night, wherever possible. Each section between aid points felt like a never ending grind as we were moving much slower than we were used to, which also meant taking on-board and carrying more water than you should ordinarily need, in an already heavy pack. As I was still struggling to take on fuel whilst moving, I also decided to make better use of the supplies at the aid stations. The supporters and volunteers were all fantastic, so cheerful even during the silly hours. Being prepared to do what they could for you, to save you a bit of energy. We kept moving and remained fairly consistent through to the point where we met our pacer at around mile 65.

Ben, aka Mr Motivator brought a new energy to our efforts, along with an infectious positivity and plenty of enthusiasm to help take our mind away from the remaining miles. At least for a while. The banter output increased and morale improved into dusk, where we were greeted by an amazing blood red half moon. It was at this point I could have sworn I had a thorn between my toes. But after taking off my shoe and socks twice to locate it, nothing was found and the sharp pain continued. It turned out to be one of many blisters that made themselves known in the latter stages of the race. Especially on the downhills. Whilst we were by no means moving fast, we were moving faster than many others. Catching the light of head torches ahead and passing runners as they were slowing or resting at stops. We agreed to minimise the faff time at aid points by avoiding sitting down, although the rice pudding and jelly at the 66.6m mark was worth the exception, along with some amazing salted potatoes. We must have passed about 30 other runners during the night and into Dawn.

The final stages included a tough couple of bigger/longer hills to climb and ascend. The final one, after passing the trig point at the summit, had a nasty and often narrow & technical gulley to ascend. Not want you need on fatigued legs and with painful feet. But we knew this led us down into Eastbourne, which gave us some motivation to pick up the pace. Eventually hitting the tarmac of civilisation, we pushed on and picked up another chap that had gotten lost on top of the hill. With the motivation of the finish line ahead and having someone else to push us along, allied with some adrenaline and my first gel, we managed to get a good pace through the deserted roads, with a two mile loop taking us to the finish, on an athletics track. Just a 400m lap of the red track to go and we felt like we were flying, pulling this poor runner around with us. It’s amazing how 8-9min/mile can feel like sub 6min/mile at this point in a race. And there it was. Our journey complete. 24hours and 7mins after we started.

Luckily and thankfully, we had a Bongo, Pete & Mark’s folks on hand to bring us home whilst we slipped in & out of consciousness during half finished sentences. Job done. What an adventure.

Of the 350 odd starters, only 55% finished, with the rest pulling out or failing to meet cut-offs. This long standing events’ highest ever DNF rate. As for Mark & I as a team. I’m not sure how we stuck it out together, but we did. It’s such a personal experience going through some dark places during the course of a race of this length/time, and this can really challenge the boundaries of teamwork. Inevitably one person’s low won’t coincide with the others, and likewise for energy, so you have to push each other along and have some patience and tolerance. Luckily Mark had both and I’m very grateful for us seeing this through together, creating some amazing memories and finally achieving the coveted distance in a footrace. And finally, as already highlighted in the report. What a crew we were fortunate enough to have with us. Both Peter and Ben went above and beyond and we’re so grateful for what they individually and collectively brought to our challenge. Superstars.