South Downs Way 50 | 5 April 2014

The pain in my legs has almost gone. My memories of last Saturday are strangely patchy. And I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about having run 50 miles in a day. Well, I say run, but more of that later.

Six and a half weeks ago I had nothing in my race calendar except the Edinburgh marathon at the end of May. But having enjoyed Country to Capital so much and seeing that the wait list for the South Downs Way 50 had reopened, I thought I'd see if I could get on it. Within minutes of applying I had an email saying I was in the race. Yikes. I duly informed Coach Britton and got a revised training plan. In the following weeks, I got a 10k PB, a 20-mile PB and felt pretty good. I did a few hills sessions but most of my training had been on flat roads.

When Seanie got into the race even later than me and with considerably less training but probably a better base fitness, it made sense for us to run together, at least to start with. Based on my C2C time, I posited a target time of 9 hours. A bit ambitious but better to aim high, was my feeling.

Me, Seanie, and Seanie's number sporran

Me, Seanie, and Seanie's number sporran

 

Worthing to Botolphs (0 - 11.2 miles)

We got to the start in plenty of time and I felt surprisingly calm. I think doing races regularly really helps me with 'big' races so I was looking forward to a day of running. I'd also seen a few familiar faces and spoke with Cat Simpson, just as I had at C2C. She seemed a lot more relaxed this time and it later showed, not only in her finishing time (8h33m) but also the fact she said after that she found it easier than C2C. I also saw pre-race favourite Paul Navesey jogging around looking ridiculously sprightly. I'm always looking at other people's running form these days and funnily enough his is a bit good. Anyway, that was the last I saw of him as he was almost finished by the time I reached halfway.

Bang on 9am, the race got under way and we all trotted off out of the field and up the road towards the hills. Robbie had advised me to take it easy in the first few miles up and I didn't need telling twice. This was going to be a long day and I'm still not much good at pacing myself over a mile, let alone 50 so I plodded along, trusting in my training. Even before we reached the first check point, there were some very long hills. Robbie has described them as runnable but many around me were walking them and Sean and I ran parts of some of them, feeling that we could always walk later when we were really tired.

The result of this though was that by Botolphs we were already behind schedule by about 10 minutes and concluded that the target time was now out of the question.

Before it all started getting hard

Before it all started getting hard

Botolphs to Saddlescombe Farm (11.2 - 16.6 miles)

I can't remember much about this section except that I wasn't feeling at all good. The sore throat I'd noticed the night before hadn't got any better and my head was starting to feel fuzzy. I was making sure I ate, hydrated, took an S-cap every hour, but nothing was helping. Whether it was the hills or something else I don't know but there was just nothing in my legs. I recalled Geoff Roes in Unbreakable saying the same thing and he improved later in the race but there was something else worrying me more.

There's a saying in ultra running: it never always gets worse. I initially struggled with the grammar of the phrase but now I understand it to mean that just because my things are going badly, it doesn't mean they won't improve. The length of the races means that, like the terrain of this very course, there are many ups and downs. But the fact that I'd now convinced myself I had the beginnings of a cold, led me to believe that constant running and getting progressively weaker probably would mean things would get worse. The only things keeping me going were Seanie's chipper attitude and the aid stations.

I'd heard and read a lot about how amazingly well organised Centurion races are and also how good their volunteers and aid stations were. But they surpassed even my high expectations. Breaking the race down into the distance between checkpoints is how I get through long races anyway but seeing the happy helpers was enough to bring a smile to my face every time. I also discovered a hitherto unknown desire for cherry tomatoes. While my own 'Snickers' sandwiches were like sawdust in my mouth, these little balls of juicy goodness were each a mini oasis. I can't help thinking that having recently read Scott Jurek's Eat and Run had some sort of an impact.

The South Downs

The South Downs

Saddlescombe Farm to Housedean Farm (16.6 - 26.6 miles)

If the previous five miles had been tough, this 10 was even harder. More and more relentless hills, although I'd got to the stage where I welcomed the walk break as my legs were still not interested. Then I remembered I had some painkillers and figured that might clear my head. Rather than stop though, I decided to have it at the halfway aid station. That gave me something to look forward to.

Just before we hit the 25-mile mark, Seanie yelped behind me and I immediately thought he'd turned his ankle. But not everyone is like me and he'd kicked a stick, leaving him with a sore toe. He made it to Housedean with me and on inspection decided it was okay to carry on. We stopped for quite a while there and left 55 minutes after my original target time. Coming in under 10 hours would now be an achievement.

 

Housedean to Southease (26.6 - 33.9 miles)

A couple of mini scotch eggs, some more cherry tomatoes and a little stretch (as well as a Nurofen) seemed to get me back on track and after a mile or so I felt good to enough to push on and even run some hills. This section flew by (at least in relative terms) and we cruised into Southease for more snacks and water.

A marathon done, time for lunch

A marathon done, time for lunch

Southease to Alfriston (33.9 - 41.6 miles)

Sean still seemed to be struggling a little bit and we agreed that I should go ahead and he would keep up as best he could. Even though he's as easygoing a running buddy as you could wish for, I enjoyed having some alone time, as that's how I do the vast majority of my running. In between the clouds there was the odd splash of sunshine on faraway yellow fields of rapeseed. (I managed to to resist the urge to shout "Rape!" every time I saw one, although I might have spoilt that somewhat with this revelation). 

Feeling better enabled me to enjoy the scenery for the first time and as tough as the rolling hills of the South Downs are, it is a spectacular place. I was going along pretty well when suddenly I saw a boy walking towards me. It was my nephew Aelfie who high-fived (well, low-fived) me and then got the same from my niece Aela shortly afterwards. They had both run a mile in Brighton earlier in the day, got a medal and were exhausted. So I still had some catching up to do. Then, at the next gate, were my sister Lou, and my Mum and Dad. I stopped for a photo and was really pleased to see them. I felt a bit bad for not staying longer to chat but on the other hand, I was feeling good for the first time and wanted to make the most of it.

Aelfie, me, Aela and Stanlie at Firle

Aelfie, me, Aela and Stanlie at Firle

Alfriston to Jevington (41.6 - 45.7 miles)

Alfriston aid station was in a church and after a water refill and more eggs and tomatoes, we set off but my purple patch had gone and Seanie went ahead. It was only four miles to the final check point though so I figured he wouldn't get too far ahead. There were some more very steep hills and everyone was walking. Maybe it's my long legs but I was overtaking people with ease, even a guy with poles, which I assumed would have helped more. I tried to run some sections but I soon had to revert to walking. It was frustrating if unsurprising at this stage so I just concentrated on keeping moving, and tried not to think about my lack of hill training.

I found myself alone in a single-track wooded area, was enjoying the shelter from the wind and a change of scenery when Aelfie appeared in front of to me again, this time with an iPad, apparently making a video. It was all a bit surreal. He ran ahead of me down the hill and I did my best to keep up with his 10-year-old legs but couldn't. (Just to be clear, he is 10. He hasn't only got legs that are 10 years old - all of him is 10.) Anyway, it was fun to have Aelfie to lead me for a few hundred yards and by the church in Jevington saw Lou again before catching up with Sean in the final aid station. We were in and out in a few minutes and set off for the final push.

 

Jevington to Eastbourne (45.7 - 50 miles)

By now, both Seanie and I were setting a new distance PB with every step and I think we both wanted to get done as soon as possible. He was feeling better than he had all day and wanted to really push for the finish. I was tiring and said I'd go as fast as I could but he should go ahead if he fancied it. I honestly wouldn't have minded if he'd gone but was equally happy that he stayed with me - having started together, it would have been a shame not to finish that way.

Getting into the outskirts of Eastbourne, we crossed a road where a race marshall told us there was just over a mile to go. Whether he was wrong or simply that every 20 yards felt like 100 by then I don't know, but that was the longest mile I've ever run. Finally, finally, we saw the Centurion banner, then the car park, and then the athletics track.

We saw my girlfriend Cate and Sean's wife Ruth shouting us in and then it was just one lap of the track to the finish. I needed a few deep breaths before I could start the sprint finish Seanie was pushing for but then I found a bit extra and gave it everything for the last 100 metres. I'm still not sure whether it's a good thing I'm able to do this or whether it means I haven't pushed myself hard enough throughout the rest of the race.

The clock stopped on us at around 9 hours and 48 minutes, which I think means we made up some time on the second half. So that's pleasing. Still, I can't help feeling a bit disappointed to have gone so much slower than my target, and to have walked so much. Having said that, a year ago I hadn't ever run a marathon so realistically, it's probably not such a bad result for my first 50. 

Celebrity author James Adams presents me with my medal

What I learnt

  • Bladders are hopeless for quick turnarounds. Bottles next time.
  • I need to do more hill training.
  • Centurion and everyone involved in their races - from runners to race directors - are awesome.
  • I have a new favourite t-shirt.

Many thanks to Cate, Lou, Aela, Aelfie, Mum, Dad, Ruth, and Seanie for the support, photos and videos.