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South Downs Way 100

By David Speake

27th June 2014

Race Report Ultra-Marathon Centurion South Downs Way 100 14th June 2014 – by David Speake

"Why……….Why do a race of 100 miles?" I've been asked quite a few times. Why would anyone want to? The inspiration for the attempt goes back 12 months or so. Firstly I'd had a taste of ultra-marathons (any race over 26.2 miles) and had enjoyed the adventures of a 10 hour or more foot race, the company along the way and the training that's involved with long hours on foot with other ultra-runners. This was something I enjoyed doing and would continue at for now. You just never know what might happen. Then the idea of stepping up the distance even further and attempting a 100 mile race was birthed when I closely followed and supported some of our club runners doing the Ultra Trail South West 100 (UTSW100) in 2013. To me they were heroes, inspirational and particularly the ones that pushed beyond themselves to get as far as their bodies would get them. I wanted that. Could I achieve a 100 mile finish within a time cut off? I decided to do the Endurance LifeUTSW100 race next year but the rumours of the race not going ahead in 2014 were growing.

So which 100 mile ultra-marathon should I attempt? The answer came when I raced the Lakeland 50 mile race also called Ultra Trail Lake District (UTLD) in 2013. This was an absolutely fantastic experience. I did the 50 mile version and the braver attempted the 100 mile version. See Doug Alsop's race report for it on the website. The wet conditions through the night made this very tough ultra a whole lot harder. The finishers got their hands on a 100 mile T shirt and medal and I coveted the prize and the kudos. UTLD100 maybe the race I should go for. Waiting in the back of the hall in Coniston for the closing awards ceremony of the race to start I got chatting to 2 guys about maybe attempting UTLD100 next year as my first ever 100 miler. Both were in agreement that maybe an "easier" 100 should be attempted first and their suggestion was the South Downs Way 100 (SDW100) in June 2014 as the dropout rate for UTLD100 is so high. The first person I knew from UTLD internet you tube fame as John Kynaston who had filmed and documented tricky parts of the UTLD100 course for others to study and recce the terrain from the comfort of their home PC or laptop. The other was an unknown athlete to me who was full of chat and interesting advice. When the winner of the UTLD100 was announced, this unknown athlete sitting next to me got up and hobbled to the front to collect his award. Oh my. I didn't know he was Stuart Mills. This was the guy that just won and completed the 100 miles in 22 hours 17 minutes. Our very own Duncan Oakes was 17th in 27 hours. It was from here that the chosen 100 would be SDW100 put on by race organisers Centurion Running. Duncan signed up to doing it too.

My preparation leading up to completing my first 100 mile was by running 40+ mile runs every 2 or 3 weeks from about February with the company of Dave Rowe and occasionally Dunc. Our runs consisted mostly of road running and convenience stops where we could get water at strategic points. I think Dave chose roads as opposed to trail as he was training for the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) and there was little undulating trail involved in the GUCR. My training was done on the back of a season of Ultra running so I was already happy at 40 mile runs. By April the training became 50 mile runs and on 1 weekend I managed a back to back session of 50 miles on the Saturday and then 20 more miles on the Sunday. It is amazing how the body adapts to increased mileage followed by rest. It does become easier and more manageable. With this confidence I went to Winchester with the family on the Friday, the day before the race, and pitched the tent to get an early night ready to be up for the 5:30 race brief.

The night brought a storm and I slept only a little but felt okay. I'd been early to bed all week trying to be rested as much as possible, knowing I wouldn't get to sleep again for over 24 hours once the race began. The rain stopped as the 239 runners that started the race gathered for the 5:30am race brief at the start line. The mood of the competitors seemed positive to me because you could hear laughter and jokes amongst the packed group. Photos were taken and encouragement and well wishes were passed around as the sun came out. James Elson, the Centurion Running race director, warned of another race taking place on the South Downs and not to get confused with other signs. Extra mileage on an ultra can bring frustration, lower morale and waste time and waste energy. At 6:00am we were off which started as a lap around the field. The favourite, Stuart Mills, sprinted off right from the gun. I expected him to win just as he won the UTLD100 and he had left everybody behind within a minute. I got straight into my ultra-pace of nice and easy running and quick walking up the hills. I favoured a back pack with bottles on the front so I could monitor how much I was drinking and the convenience to fill up as opposed to a bladder that can be slower to sort out in a check point. Also in the back pack were the items required from the kit list and a spare layer. Food was not needed as the check points, I hoped, would supply that requirement.

I had never been on the South Downs before and found the rolling hills from Winchester towards the east beautiful and mildly undulating. There was 12700 feet of ascent to undertake all within a 30 hour time limit. They were not as severe in ascent as the coast path of Cornwall that we're used to training on. The SDW is a way marked trail with finger posts along the route. Centurion Running did such a brilliant job of putting out extra signage when needed that the stress was taken out right away. The miles went quickly in the first half of the race. Checkpoints were 10 miles apart to start with then the distance started reducing between checkpoints as the runners got further along the route. There were some muddy early sections but they became good paths and dry fields the further I went. It was warm but there was a refreshing breeze so conditions were good I thought. My race plan of getting to 50 miles with enough time to walk the second half of the race, if needed, within the 30 hour total cut off time was going to plan. I chatted with another runner from 7Oaks tri club called Mark Evans and we had plenty in common so we ended running along together with the similar goal of finishing. He had run the 89km Comrades race in South Africa only 2 weeks previously so was a little leg tired but doing marvellously considering that. Mark was such a positive person to buddy up with and I couldn't ask for a more encouraging person to pass the time and the miles with.

The check points were under cover and contained so much choice. There were food trays on display with small bite size snacks, hot and cold drinks, gels and in some checkpoints hot meals. The strategy was to fill up with water quickly, take food as needed and a hot drink and then to walk out of the check point and eat on the move. No more than 5 minutes in a check point except when a hot meal was on offer. The Centurion Running volunteers manning the checkpoints were fantastic. They filled our bottles, tended our food needs and were very encouraging. It was at a checkpoint that I had my first very bad patch. At 66 miles, the Saddlescombe Farm check point was another welcome break except that when I stopped my body wanted to shut down. I picked a little food and walked to a chair. I thought I was about to black out. Mark assured me that this feeling would pass if I just walked out of the check point and up the hill. I trusted him and got up after only sitting for a minute and walked. The darkness dissipated by the time we got up the hill and a lesson was learnt. It did happen again at another check point at mile 77. It was like a nauseous feeling added to the sensation of beginning to black out but just by walking out of the check point and up the next hill cleared it again.

By mile 70 we were in darkness and the head torches were on. There was a lady called Sharon Bolister in front of us. She had quit the race at about mile 70 but someone convinced to carry on to the finish. She kept signalling the way with her head torch for us to follow which was so helpful and thoughtful. It turns out she had recced this part of the course at night and proved invaluable to all of us. We caught her up for a while but she pushed ahead with an impressive fast walk. Conversation really helps through the night, that and a warm drink. I got cold even having put all my layers on. I think the coldness I feel is also due to being 22hours into this endurance feat without rest. By 4 am the daylight was with us again but the wind was blowing on the tops of these rolling hills. The undulating hills got steeper and steeper the closer we got to the finish at Eastbourne. It was more uncomfortable to run after 80 miles and with so much time banked the motivation to run waned. A quick walking pace would suffice but even that slowed down. I could feel a bit of a blister on one of my little toes but having said that I wasn't suffering. We picked up a couple more ultra-runners in the final 10 miles or so including Sharon Bolister again. The other runner was called Lee Sydenham. Due to an injury sustained prior to the SDW100, he just wanted to see how far he could get. We would see each other through to the end.

As we approached the stadium, Dan Murray casually jogged past and started the lap of the Eastbourne race track that would take us under the finish barrier. As a group of 4 we jogged round the track and Mark and Sharon even sprinted the last 300 metres. My family were there to see me finish. It was just after 9am Sunday morning and 27hours 10mins after we started. I had just finished a footrace from Winchester to Eastbourne along the South Downs Way. Mimi Anderson of Ultra-Running fame was at the finish and presented me with a Centurion Running belt buckle inscribed "100 mile finisher". It was a wonderful moment but actually the best high came to me after about 50 miles when I knew I would finish within the time limit even if I was forced to a walking pace. It was so important for me to finish. It was a deep satisfaction of fulfilment and the banishment of failure. At the end it was so lovely to be congratulated by family and then by Duncan and Pat Munn. Duncan had come 4th, beating the famous Stuart Mills into 5thin a time of 16hours26mins and he got back in daylight in time to watch the England game on TV. I got a hot meal immediately after finishing then a much needed shower. The feet looked a bit sore but that went away after a day. The feeling of success would last for weeks, maybe months….years. First place went to Mark Perkins in a time of 14hours03mins which is now the course record and could be the UK record too. He is a local boy to the South Downs but a relative newbie to Ultra Marathons. First lady was Sarah Morwood in a time of 17hours36mins. She is a member of Mud Crew and has started to make first place a habit for 100 miles. 179 of the 239 runners that started the SDW100 finished within the 30 hour cut off which is a 75% finish rate. That's a pretty high finish rate when compared to other 100 mile ultra-marathons. As I write this I am considering what my future 100 mile ultra-marathons will be. I reckon the UTLD100 has to be on my bucket list. But why………..why……….Why attempt to complete a race of 100 miles?" ……..it's the deep satisfaction, the pride, the awe that it inspires in others, the life changing accomplishment, being stripped down and seeing what you're made of, testing resilience, regaining perspective, exploring mental and physical abilities, becoming grounded on what ‘s important, ultimate escapism, adventuring, exploration.

I achieved this amazing feat and am just another regular runner who dared to try and risk failure.