Written by Steve Navesey - https://navs1962.wordpress.com

Courtesy of Centurion Running

(Courtesy of Centurion Running)

Here we are again. That time of year where for the past three years my race season has started. The South Downs way 50 (SDW50) is a 50 mile point-to-point race starting in Worthing and finishing in Eastbourne, taking in 5700 feet of climb with a 13 hour cut-off. Which appears in the calendar just as the clocks go forwards, the days are getting longer, the temperature is rising. In other words, just as I’m interested in going out running. Which is bad because it means that I haven’t been as  interested in running as I should have been up ’til now. After spending 16 of my adult years being frequently cold and wet for a living, I don’t get excited about doing it for fun. So throughout the winter months my wife battles bravely to get me out the door to train. While I think of ever more inventive excuses not to. I’d joined local running club, Haywards Heath Harriers, to help combat that side of my character. And it has been helping. They are a great bunch who give me someone to look forwards to running with during the week, but it’s something I should have done much earlier.

That said, this is probably my favourite event of the year. I love the South Downs, love being up on them. In my defence, over use injury late in the year did put a bit of a spanner in the works just as the weather got to it’s most miserable towards the end of October, which dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Some niggles had made training running up to the event a bit hit and miss as well.

Despite my Victor Meldrew approach to winter training, I always look forwards to the SDW50. After a 10:08 finish in 2014 I had a target to beat. I had been aiming for sub 9:30 to build from last year. But after the lacklustre winter I would settle for just equalling last year’s effort. I had to finish in daylight though as Chris and Nikki Mills were down and staying with us. I had a date at the pub after the race, so I couldn’t afford to hang about. More importantly I couldn’t give Chris an open goal for piss taking. Chris, having run it himself last year was volunteering this year and carrying out course marking. To give some insight into the popularity of Centurion events and the strength of the brand; there is a waiting list for volunteers to help out! Centurion mark the course the day before and then send a sweeper behind the last runner to clear up. After that those of us who live and train in the area tend to keep an eye out for any odd bits that were missed, especially on the stage that is cleared after dark. Anyway, whilst Chris was out on the course in Friday, I was resting hard.

8:30am Saturday and I was in and registered at Hill Barn recreational ground in Worthing. Nikki was already there playing shopkeeper as Centurion had brought their shop to the event. Which was doing a roaring trade by all accounts as people discovered that what they thought was suitable for mandatory kit actually wasn’t. A quick word on kit here. An ultramarathon takes place over many hours. In that time weather can change, things can go wrong out on the course, you may be out after dark and the organisers have a duty of care to make sure runners are equipped to look after themselves out on the trail. So there is a mandatory kit list in the rules that is strictly adhered to along with guides as to what is acceptable. The clue is in the word ‘mandatory’. The bottom line though, is that we have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Having been through kit check it was into the runners pen under the start gantry for the race briefing and the standard wait for the starting hooter. Race director James Elson, who is also a friend, spotted me on the way across and gave me a greeting over the tannoy. Complimenting me on my choice of clothing. As it was a cool and windy day I’d opted to over equip to the staggering tune of 70 grams and don a Salomon lightweight wind proof jacket. A surprisingly effective piece of kit. Something James sells so I have a sneaking suspicion there was something mercantile in James greeting.

2014 SDW50 Start (photo - Centurion Running)

2014 SDW50 Start (photo – Centurion Running)

9:00 and the hooter sounded, sending 320 runners streaming across Hill Barn and heading for the bridle path leading up to the Downs. This is a long uphill drag to join the Downs at Chanctonbury ring. Due to the recent rains the path was slippery but in pretty good condition. We settled into a steady jog and formed a brightly coloured conga line, hemmed in by the hedges and fences bounding the path.

As the field breaks out onto the wider area reaching the Downs it begins to spread out and people start to work on their pacing out to the first aid station situated at Botolphs on the A283 road 11.2 miles in. I was running well at around 10 minute mile pace. But already there was some stiffness in my quads and hams. I should be able to cruise fairly comfortably out to about 20 miles, so the negative impact to training was already making itself known. I tried to relax and run comfortably. Remembering to eat a half chia flapjack bar about 5 miles in to keep my nutrition up. Eating before I need to, because by the time I need to it’s already too late.

Through Botolphs, a quick stop to top up water, grab a handful of nuts and head on up to Truliegh Hill. The early miles ticking off but the pain in my thighs not going away. What wasn’t helping was the bitter North East wind blowing in that was providing varying degrees of head wind as the trail twisted along. After hiking the steeper part of the hill I jogged over the crest and followed the rolling trail over to Devils Dyke and the fast run down to Saddlescomb Farm to complete the 5 and a half mile section.

Typical Centurion aid station (NDW100 2014)

Typical Centurion aid station (NDW100 2014)

A minor panic when I arrived at Saddlescomb and didn’t see the aid station in it’s usual place. There was some building work going on and the station was further up the track. Sometimes prior knowledge isn’t always a good thing. Another quick top up of water, this time taking on more food at the aid station, then stepped out to climb towards Clayton and the next aid station at Housedean Farm, some 10 miles away.

Trudging up past Pyecomb golf course I noticed people I’d passed in the early stages coming back past me. I was slowing down. Which was odd because as I approached the top of Clayton Hill at a jog I thought back to the previous year and I definitely wasn’t jogging then. But despite that it was definitely feeling like hard work. It was also getting windier, colder and wetter. Then just before Ditchling Beacon I saw my wife Bev, my son Paul who held the course record after last year (6:11) and my 4 month old German Shepherd puppy Zach, out to support me. Always picks me up. A rain squall hit so I stopped to get my waterproof jacket on and have a few moments to talk to Paul.

Me, “I’m not having a good day”

Paul, “What’s up?”

“Dunno, can’t get going”. “When did you last eat?” I’d had another half of flapjack at Clayton Hill. “Eat some more before you get to Housedean! Easy running after this, try and make use of it”. With that ringing in my ears I determined to make the best of the remaining section to Housedean. Which incorporated a long steady downhill section after some nice rolling Downland, with a short, sharp climb and then a steep descent to the farm by the side of the A27 road. It is as Paul described, easy running. Only it wasn’t, my quads, hams and glutes made sure of that. I generally run these races wearing compression shorts and calf guards, I’d elected to move away from that. It was beginning to look like a bad idea.

Houseden Farm, Marathon distance covered. (photo - Nick Jones)

Houseden Farm, Marathon distance covered. (photo – Nick Jones)

Housedean Farm, 27 miles done and I’m almost half an hour behind schedule for last year’s time. To say I’m unhappy is something of an understatement. Furthermore, Victor Mound, the race leader, looks like coming in under the course record. With that in mind I left Housedean behind me and began the long grind up Kingston Hill. About a mile and a half of climb before another nice rolling section of Downland out to Southease. This is a 7 mile section which again gives some good running. But not today. I could run it but not well, though in contrast to last year I actually felt as if I was going faster as then I could barely run at all by this stage of the race, yet was half an hour further down the road. Odd.

Bev was at Southease and she was frozen, As I was constantly on the move I hadn’t noticed how cold it had become. The rain squall had passed almost immediately but I’d kept my waterproof on for comfort. She headed back to the car to get across to Alfriston while I grabbed what I needed from the aid station and left for the next stage. Southease has arguably the hardest climb of the course. It just keeps going. Not only that, I knew as the track turned back on itself halfway up I was going to get that wind in  my face. I wasn’t disappointed. But for all that it didn’t seem so bad. Maybe everything was now just hurting equally, maybe I’d been up this hill so many times it just didn’t figure. I just zoned out, listened to my iPod and before I knew it the radio masts on top to the hill were coming in to view. I quite like those radio masts. Weird I know but you can see them pretty much from Black Cap above Housedean. Each time after that when they come into view they are appreciably bigger. It’s a way of seeing that I’m making progress along the Downs. Yeah, ok, it’s weird  but I don’t care. I take part in ultras, what do you expect?

More rolling Downs, easy running, or it would be on another day. Firle Beacon and Bo Peeps passed at a jog and then it was the run down into Alfriston. Was it me or did it seem to be less bad than it had been up to now? Things were still sore but now it was more ‘uncomfortable’ than sore. Bev was in position on Kings Ridge for a wave and encouragement, I barely paused this time. Down into the village and the checkpoint. Nikki had moved from the start and was now helping at Alfriston, so I got a welcome hug for making it to 42 miles. Now it was a food change. By this time I’d consumed all the flapjack in my pack and had stayed away from sugar at the aid stations to avoid the spikes and crashes. With 8 miles to go this was no longer an issue. I wanted a spike. Jelly babies!

Entering Alfriston

Entering Alfriston

Out of Alfriston, over the river bridge and turn towards Wilmington Hill. The weather had changed, it was warmer. Too warm to be running in a waterproof jacket. That went back into the pack. Right, Wilmington Hill, and I have a pocket full of jelly babies so you don’t scare me. I’d also consumed my first mule gel of the race at Alfriston. Again, Wilmington hill just seemed to pass but as I crested the hill the bitter blast of North wind was there to greet me. This time I was only wearing my trail running shirt on top. Oh, that’s cold! No matter, less than two miles to Jevington and this really is easy running. The weather had cleared from dull and misty to clear and bright. The vistas opened up that make the South Downs worth being up on. So fuelled by mule gel and jelly babies I ran into my lengthening evening shadow to the last checkpoint at Jevington.

Four miles and one hill. More jelly babies and another mule gel. I made a point of grabbing a piece of Roni Cheeseman’s lemon drizzle cake too, while I was at it. Volunteers often take things to the aid stations themselves to supplement the offerings. Roni had advertised her lemon drizzle cake prior to the race. So I determined to take a few seconds to grab a piece. Also a moment to have a few words with Centurion stalwart Gary Kiernan, who had crewed Paul to last year’s win.

The last crest of the last hill. There at the trig point where the course leaves the South Downs Way and heads into Eastbourne was Chris Mills, big grin and encouragement. Also other Centurion stalwarts, Drew Sheffield and Clare Shelly. This is the point that two years ago many people were getting lost in very poor visibility after dark. So to combat that James now has this point manned. Drew cheered me a little by informing me that almost everyone was around half an hour off their times. which gave me a little lift. I decided to push for the last two miles to the finish.

Maybe it was the sugar and gels? Maybe it was the knowledge that I could suffer for two miles? Maybe I really did feel better? All I know is that I ran well down from Jevington hill past Willingdon golf club. Passing Joe Delany and Sue Albiston, who I had been trailing pretty much from Housedean. Joe shouted out “You can make sub 11″ as he and Sue graciously stepped aside on the narrow trail. He’d given me a target. Not the one I’d wanted but a target nonetheless.

Out of the woods and down Ratton Drive. Please don’t let Willingdon Road be busy! It wasn’t, result! I caught sight of Rosemary Close. Someone to chase and race. She wasn’t slowing either. I slowly caught up to her shoulder as we ran along Kings Drive but she was keeping me at bay. A clearing in the traffic allowed me to cross the road as the hospital came up and gave me a slight lead. It didn’t last and she passed me as we hit the cycle path around the hospital grounds. As the path sloped away slightly I opened my stride and began to ease back past. Now this is where prior knowledge is useful. I knew exactly where I was, more importantly exactly how far I had to go. So I began to push. Rosemary had shown no signs of letting me get away and was definitely not going to give up. Around the car park to the athletics track, open up a bit more. 400 metres to go, one lap of the track, there’s the finish gantry. I’m even hugging the inside of the track so Rosemary will have to go around me but a quick glance tells me I’ve pulled a gap, now I just want to get over the line because it’s really hurting again now. I can hear the yells of encouragement from all the supporters at the finish which really helped me keep the legs turning. And finally the relief of passing under the gantry. To be greeted by James, who has the uncanny knack of making everyone he speaks to feel important. My second hug of the day, this time for finishing, from Bev and my finisher’s medal from ultra running legend Mimi Anderson.

I’d crossed the line in 10.53. Victor had taken Pauls’ course record in an outstanding 5:53. Which goes to show the difference between the elite runners and the back of the pack. The last person home crossed the line with seconds to spare at 12:59. To a wondrous surprise as ladies winner Sarah Morwood had donated her trophy to the last lady home. Her view being that anyone who had stayed on their feet that long deserved it.

The finish line!

The finish line!

But for me it hadn’t been a good day. To miss my goal by such a margin was galling, more so because the fault lay fairly and squarely with myself and it was an achievable goal for me. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I had definitely failed to prepare. The conditioning wasn’t there because I hadn’t put in the miles when I should have. I had decided to move away from using compression kit, which turned out to be a bad move retrospectively. Now I have unfinished business and a 9:30 or better is the only way to expunge this result. It wasn’t all bad though. I’d pretty much nailed my nutrition and as a result I hadn’t suffered from cramps which have been debilitating in the past. The same with hydration, my energy levels were pretty good through the race. The Inov-8 RaceUltra 290 shoes had been, well totally forgettable, which meant throughout a 50 mile race my feet felt fine and had been planted on the trail from start to finish. The Inov-8 RaceUltra 10 pack had been equally comfortable to the point I’d forgotten about it.

So onwards to the next event. The South Downs way relay with Haywards Heath Harriers in June. Followed by the SDW50’s big brother, the SDW100. And so reader, here is my goal for the SDW100. 100 miles in 24 hours or less, watch this space. I’d best do some preparation.