And it all started off so well. 200 runners gathered in perfect running conditions on a lovely flat field in Worthing ready to run 50 miles to Eastbourne over the South Downs National Park. Despite the beautiful weather there were a lot of nervous looks to the top of the hills which were already obscured by clouds and main topic of conversation was last night’s weather forecast. We were warned in the pre-race briefing to expect conditions to be ‘challenging’ but I am not sure anyone really knew they would be ‘challenged’ quite so much – if they had they might have gone back to huddling in the changing rooms.
After the briefing we were ready to go and my wife and I made to the starting pen. Last minute nervous jokes were exchanged as 200 runners shuffled backwards away from the start line as the countdown began – most of us determined to start off steadily. Then we were off and up the first hill.
The first two miles were a strange experience for me as this is the route our school uses for its four mile charity walk/run each year and it was on this walk 4 years ago that I realised I needed to get in better shape and from that decision started running. Here I was a few years later in the same place embarking on my first ultramarathon.
The climb was hot and we were soon all removing layers and we jogged slowly upwards. After the first mile the hill gets steep and we had our first of many walking breaks. In fact the first 5 miles or so was tough because we could never get into a rhythm as we went up and down the trails.. When we hit the South Down Way it was lovely and we could clip along nicely until we dropped into the first aid station at Botolphs at about mile 11. The volunteers there were great, as they were all the way along the course and we had fruit and nuts thrust at us as we prepared to slog up the next hill. This one was brutal but at least the weather was staying good and a nice breeze had picked up to cool us down. How lucky we thought – a cooling breeze. How cruel Mother Nature can be.
The next section was a short one – only 4 miles or so and we ran along happily chatting away but noticing the first few drops of rain and that lovely breeze getting a little gusty. Somewhere along I noticed that my shoes were starting to rub in one spot. The sock lining had ridden up slightly and was sawing into the arch of my foot. With some 35 miles to go this could be a bit annoying. I stopped at the top of a hill and adjusted the laces to hold it tighter and stop some of the movement and it helped until I could get to the aid station.
The next station was again crewed by some of the nicest people on the Gods’ green Earth and I sat briefly to get a plaster on and try to sort my shoe out. Not perfect but it was enough to keep me going. While we were there the wind picked up and blew the gazebo off its moorings. The omens were building but soon we were off again and slogging up the next hill with a small group of runners leaving at the same time – it was the last time it would really feel like we were running in a group for as we reached the top of the next hill the clouds came down to meet us and we would run most of the next 34 miles unable to see much more than 20 feet in front of ourselves. We would be running in a small grey bubble occasionally seeing a shape in the distance getting closer or hearing the eerie sound of breathing behind.
The next stretch was a long one. About 10 miles until the next aid station at just over the half-way point but it felt endless. The wind picked up and at times it was hard to even walk forwards and it started driving ice cold rain into us. It continued for the rest of the race. I have walked and ran on the South Downs for the last 4 years and have never known conditions like that. The wind was forcing our pace to a crawl and this was making us cold. What is odd though is that I had been feeling sick and crappy since about mile 16 but the worse the conditions got the better I felt. I can only assume that the slower pace meant that I could metabolize fat stores more effectively and so was feeling less of an impact from carb depletion.
After an eternity we started to drop down to the next aid station at the A27 crossing but before we could reach it, and right on the marathon point, we had to climb up a near vertical slope of what was by then a river of mud. Somehow we scrambled up and down the other side and got into the aid station. It seemed that this was the last point that many of the runners would get to and there were already people wrapped in their foil blankets waiting to be shipped to the finish line – around 40 of the 200 runners would DNF and I suspect this was entirely to do to the conditions. We hurriedly put on our dry base layers, got some food down ourselves and filled camel-baks as we chatted to the volunteers there. Again they were wonderful and making it into each aid station really became a highlight of the run. Feeling much warmer and more prepared we left the barn and crossed the A27; over half way there and feeling that bit closer to home.
The next hill was brutal and this was becoming something of a pattern. The South Downs is a ridge of chalk that stands about 200 meters above sea level (on any other day it gives you a beautiful view with the sea to the south and the weald to the north) but at some time in the past evil and malicious rivers had punched their way through. Most of these rivers have now gone to be replaced by roads and it was by these roads that the aid stations, for obvious reasons, had been placed. It meant though that after each one you had a climb back up to the top. This hill just didn’t seem to end and the thick fog meant that you couldn’t see the top so it felt even more endless. Once up there things didn’t improve as it led onto an exposed plateau that allowed every drop of rain and gust of wind to find up. The organisers, Centurion, had done an amazing job marking the route and through the fog you would find their marks that showed you were still on course and give a little lift each time, without them we really could have just ran in circles up there.
The next station was Southease and was a huge psychological boost as this meant we were on home turf. Southease to Eastbourne is where we do most of our running and each step was familiar from here until we left the national trail. The crew there were great, telling us that they knew by looking that we would make it and filling our water bladders. We left quickly and started the long run to Alfriston. Knowing the route here really helped as at least we could count off the hills and didn’t need to even look for the way markers. The cold was really starting to bite and having to run past the path home was hard but we pushed on and down to the next stop (having to jump a gate that a farmer had decided to tie shut and making us doubt we were still on course – thanks for that). Here there were hot drinks. Actual heat and warmth. And toilets. We were in heaven and it was very hard to say goodbye to all the friendly faces and get back out into the cold but after a slightly longer break and with just 8 miles to go we knew that whatever else happened we were going to complete this run.
The rest of the race felt much quicker and easier. There were still two hills and a welcome aid station at Jevington where we wrung out or clothes and feasted on vegan friendly sweets (thank you!!!) before putting on our head torches and heading into the dark. The last hill was one we walk/run most weeks and never gets easier; until today. We soared up it (in our minds) and were soon at the trig point. This is the only part of the route where we had to stop and work out where to go next. Luckily we found a small group of runners returning from the path we would have taken and together searched for the right route and down we bounded along a trail that had become a stream for a last mile or so along the roads of Eastbourne, a run around the track at the end and we were done. We got there in 11 hours 28 minutes and given the conditions were very happy with that – in fact I am still amazed we made it at all.
Luckily my stepson was there to wave us in and supply us with warm dry clothes, hot drinks and basic instructions. Without him we might still be shivering in a sports hall trying to remember what to do next.
The next two days have seen stiff legs and a sore back from carrying a pack for nearly 12 hours but I am less sore than I expected. What has been odd is the mental fatigue that makes thinking difficult (it has taken about 3 hours to write this over the course of a day and I keep finding myself just staring dumbly at the screen) and it has taken more out of me than I was expecting but in different ways. It has also had an ‘interesting’ effect on my stomach L
The SDW50 was one of the craziest things I have done but also one of the most rewarding. The organisers were great and everything ran like clockwork and I really don’t think we could have asked for more. The volunteers were awesome and made the conditions bearable with their unwavering support and positive attitude. Something tells me we will haven’t done with this run J