Written by Jonathan Strong - https://strongrunning.co.uk
My 3rd running of the SDW50. The South Downs Way 50 (miles) is a point to point course from Worthing to Eastbourne (finishing with a lap of the running track!). This year the race was on Saturday 8th April 2017. I initially ran this as a warm up for the SDW100. I had entered the SDW100 so I could qualify for WS100, I enjoyed the runnable course so much I keep coming back.
The course has 5,700 ft of elevation. However, it isn’t very technical and is mostly very runnable. A good first time 50 miler and it was Sally’s first 50 mile point to point ultra last year when we ran it together. All had gone well last year until just before half way. Her glutes had worn out and led to knee problems on the downhill. So we reversed the common ultra strategy of running the downs and flats, to running the ups and flats and walking down the hills. Last years time was a very painful 11:30:21 and took a long time for Sally to recover from.
This years plan was just to take it easy, have fun and finish in one piece. Although never spoken, I had a secret hope Sally would get in under last year’s time. The main aim though, to finish in one piece! We would run together as I was happy to take it easier and let me recover faster and get back to training for this years SDW100.
My training had been going spot on. For Sally, training had initially gone well, but some ankle pain had forced a rest period, then a lower training block, building back up to this race. Ashby 20 had been a bit of a tester for us both 3 weeks earlier, it went well for both of us.
This year the forecast looked like an almost perfect running day, dry, mild and with a light breeze.
Traveling after work Friday, we passed right by the start and they were open for registration. Whilst we planned on turning up early the next morning, we figured it would help take the pressure off both us and the volunteers at registration.
Top tip for ultra registration. Don’t bother to pack your race vest properly before you have passed kit check. Take it all in a separate bag or box all unpacked. This makes it quick and easy to check off mandatory kit.
I have a Suunto Ambit 3 peak. So I was happy to leave it in the normal 1 second GPS lock. This should last about 20 or more hours. Certainly longer than the 13 hour cut-off. I had uploaded the GPX file of the route to the watch ‘just in case’.
Apart from mandatory kit, food and water, I packed some sunscreen to reapply later on. Whilst I use all day sun cream and I’m sure it is OK without reapplying. If I can, I like to reapply on the move to try and be safe. Also due to the heat, some s-caps to help keep my stomach ok as I tend to drink a lot more than others as I am always hot. I noticed this as we lined up at the start and I was in shorts and a t-shirt. Many others had jackets and leggings on.
The course is easy to follow and even has markings for an extra bonus. So makes navigation a no brainer.
Just before the start at 9am James gives the pre-race briefing. Everyone is silent and listens. A little congested at the start as it was narrow single track for a mile or so. Not a bad thing being near the back as it lets us take it easy as you climb for the first 3 miles.
After that, it is undulating. I normally take a fairly standard approach of hiking up the hills and running the flats and downs. Now there are plenty of relatively flat sections,. There were a few sections that Sally and I had a debate about as it was slightly uphill. I suggested we ran these as it was fairly gentle incline.
I tend to run by feel or heart rate (under zone 2) at the start of an ultra. Only stopping to hike briefly if I felt it was using too much effort early on in the race where I would be trying to conserve energy for later on.
Underfoot the course was mostly very good, this year had been dry before and during the race so no mud. Wide smooth paths for the most part, a lot on grass too. We commented that last year we had been dodging puddles early on as it was much wetter. Today was probably the hottest day of the year so far.
Many people run checkpoint to checkpoint or break a race down in other ways. The first checkpoint (at Botolphs) was 11.2 miles from the start, the longest distance between checkpoints, as they came closer together in the later half. A theme was about to develop, down a big hill to reach a checkpoint, back up a big hill straight after. But meters before the first checkpoint, a bench was spotted and gave Sally a chance to fish out the optimal sized stone that found its way into her shoe. Disaster averted we could refill our bottles, grab some food, thank the volunteers and head off (up the big hill).
SDW 50 leaving CP1, photo credit Stuart March
Not long after getting most of the way up the hill we found a decent sized and well placed rock that Sally could sit on whilst she applied a compeed blister plaster as a preemptive move. I took the chance to reapply the sunscreen. A lot of supporters were at the top of the hills as we passed by the Devils Dyke pub and down the hill to the next checkpoint at Saddlescombe farm only a little over 5 miles from the last checkpoint.
This checkpoint had a familiar face I’m sure I have seen at previous events. The skeleton in the chair holding the sign to beware the chair. So true, I avoid sitting down at all cost unless I need to take a shoe off or similar task that’s pretty difficult unless on your ass.
So avoiding the chair, I put my Hydrapak Speedcup to the test. This year Centurion made a cup part of the mandatory kit in order to save on all the waste of plastic cups at checkpoints. The Hydrapak speedcup is a lightweight collapsible cup that you can fit in an easy to reach pocket or lash it on using the loop. I poured in some Pepsi, sipped on it whilst grazing on some food and grabbing a handful of more food to eat as I left the checkpoint, which was up a big hill!
Although 10 miles to the next checkpoint at Housedean Farm, this passed very quickly. I used to be fine with cows, then after an incident in the Peak District I have taken a much more cautious approach and tend to slow down, give them as much room as possible. I’m happy to say that true to form on the South Downs, the cows were all pretty chilled out. The few in front of a gate we needed to get through shifted on approach. As I got closer I could see that’s where their water trough was and felt bad that on a hot day they kept getting ‘mooved’ out the way of their water from all us runners and other users of the South Downs.
Just before Housedean Farm checkpoint we spotted a couple of guys up ahead walking down hill, I commented this was a bit odd. Sally pointed out that was her last year, fair point. As we approached it became clear one was feeling the effect of the heat or something and was clearing things out with being sick. Not an unusual thing to see on an ultra, or in town on a Friday night. In both cases I’m sure we have all been there and done that. I’d have stopped but it seemed his friend had it under control and they weren’t far from the checkpoint. At the bottom of the hill you go along to a wood and what is probably one of steepest climbs on the course. It’s pretty short and you are soon out of the wood and down the last hill before the farm. It was this downhill last year that Sally had really struggled and was forced to adopt the walk down hill strategy. This year, thankfully, all was well.
The checkpoint at the farm was in a barn, the shade was most welcome at this point and we could see a few others taking some respite from the sun. On the way out (up a hill), we saw the chap we had passed earlier who had been sick, volunteers were attending to him and all seemed well for his pal who was going to keep going. Looking at the watch we were about on the same pace as last year.
By now runners were spreading out and no doubt the front of the field were finishing. We had less than a marathon to go, less than we had already done. At this point I still like to count up the miles until around 40 when I can start counting back down, less than 10 miles seems like a manageable number. Less than 26.22 still seems like a long way. We played some yo-yo with other runners as we passed each other a few times depending on our respective highs and lows. Thinking I recognised one lady from another event I asked if it that was the case. It wasn’t, but she explained this was the start of the grand slam for her as she had signed up for all 8 Centurion races this year, 4 x 50 milers and 4 x 100 milers. And those weren’t the only races on her calendar this year. That would blow the mind of most non-runners, most runners who don’t do Ultras and it’s still pretty high and the ‘nuts’ level of crazy for ultra runners. Finishing that is certainly going to be an achievement to brag about for some time. I sheepishly explained I was only doing one more, the SDW100 this year too and would see her there.
By now Sally had needed a wee for several hours, always on the look out for a suitable bush to hide her modesty. Unfortunately, we knew too well that the South Downs is generally a very open landscape, made worse by it being the middle of a sunny Saturday and everyman and his dog were out, coming from both directions too. I managed to find a suitable spot for myself to have a sympathy wee, it was still pretty open and so Sally had to hold it for a bit longer. We discussed the merits of a shewee, some sort of plastic funnel from what I understand that turns a lady into a man. I’m not sure after using one I’d like to then carry it round the rest of the way covered in my own piss. I have on several occasion been in a race and had a girl just squat down on the path right in front of me. Whilst I appreciate your situation ladies, at least move off to the side of the path so I don’t have to run through a puddle of your wee.
We slowed down a little on a hill to let a group of runners pass us and make some space. There was a chap not very far back though, but this was the best gap between runners we had had for a while. We turned a corner to go down a hill and saw a little mound off to the side that Sally calculated should allow her enough privacy and time before the chap behind caught us up. I started walking down the hill whilst she nipped off to the side of the path. Whilst the mound covered her from the chap behind, she had to be quick before he caught her up. As I walked down the hill I also realised it allowed her no cover from the front, which was now unfortunate as the group we let pass us earlier, were now nearing the bottom of the hill and turning back up it to take photographs. I suspect when they later post them on Facebook and someone spots a girl squatting in the distance there will be much amusement!
The heat is starting to get to us and as we catch back up to that group and head up the final hill before the checkpoint, everyone is talking about how hot it is, especially out of the breeze we had enjoyed along the tops of the hills. One last down hill and over the railway at Southease (where it turns out there was probably a toilet in the Youth Hostel next door). Leaving this checkpoint, yes you guessed it, up a hill. Rather than straight up the steep bit, the path winds around and then up the hill, a much more gentle and pleasant climb, although one that seemed to go on past the trig point at the top.
Alfreton is a fab location for a checkpoint and is indoors. As I enter I spot a familiar face on the other side of the buffet table. Graham had been helping out at the King Offa’s Dyke Ultra last year. A quick chat to see if we will bump into each other again in September, and we establish we will both be at the Lakeland too, Graham at the 100 and myself at the 50. We thank everyone and head off on what feels a bit like the final straight. Just pay attention as you leave that you follow the marked route back onto the South Downs Way, which of course, is up hill.
On the way to the final checkpoint at Jevington we realise we are likely to finish around the same time as last year. We thought we had been doing much better than last year as Sally was in one piece still. We agree to push on as much as possible with no need to stop for anything at Jevington as it is only about 4 miles from the finish. I suggest I run on ahead to grab a cup of coke for Sally and she should keep going and I would catch her up. After over 10 hours of running my sub 8 minute mile pace to catch up Sally felt like a sprint. As it was just after a checkpoint, there was a hill, which I caught her up on. Last year at this point we had been trying to get up the hill and back down the other side to the road before it got dark and before we needed to get out our head torches. Once at the final summit, the descent is a narrow track down to the road. This can be slippery and tricky in places, I’m not the quickest at descending and so take it easy until we hit the road.
From there, only around 2 miles left of mostly flat tarmac. We pick up the pace as we try and finish quicker than last year. We round the last corner to see the running track just as the light starts to fade. We keep picking up the pace as we hit the track and finish in 11:08:02, 22 mins and 13 seconds quicker than last year, and in one piece. We take a bow to let Mimi Anderson pop those huge medals around our necks. And pose for a photo by Stuart March who had been out on course all day long before heading back for the finish line photos. Always great to see Stuart at Centurion events taking pictures. He offers great support and the price of the quality photographs are in my opinion very reasonable and offer good value for money to capture the memories of the event.
SDW 2017 finish 11:08:02, photo credit Stuart March
We had some food, a shower and then headed back on the bus to the start, where we had left the van in the morning.
Thanks to everyone who made it a great day out. My next ultra is likely to be the Apocalypse 50 on the 20th April 2017, another warm up race before the SDW 100 this year. Sally is likely to be running the 12 Labours of Hercules in July.
Massive medal, SDW50 medal and finishers t-shirt