I’ve learned a couple of things this weekend; sometimes you should listen to your body, fruit can actually taste nice, and golf course surrounds make comfy nap spots.
As a two-time (technically more than that, but 2 in a row) loser in the UTMB lottery with a ‘guaranteed’ place in the race in 2019, there remains only one small hurdle to putting some 3 year old demons to bed: completing the qualifying races…again.
With a few 50 milers in the bag, I’m going for the 6/5/4 points profile, with the Centurion Running South Downs Way 100 mile and the Gran Trail Courmayeur 100 km being the 6 and the 5. Having DNS’d the SDW50 due to a dodgy hip, and just about survived the Fellsman, my supercrew (Dad) and I rocked up at the start line of the SDW100 this weekend with a degree of trepidation, despite having toed the start here twice before (one finish, one DNF).
The Centurion events are always superbly well organised, and enabled by a mix of stalwarts and future competitors, often volunteering in exchange for an entry in the following year’s race. James, the RD, fresh from competing for the UK at a 24h event, presenting an ultra running podcast, and organising recent races, frankly looked baggage. I took that as a good sign that he and the team had been working hard to get everything sorted for the day.
After having my kit checked (twice – I left my flasks in the car), I foolishly came closer to the start briefing when beckoned, which meant I set off near the front of the pack as we lapped the field and headed towards the South Downs Way. It was ridiculously muggy, despite being 0600, but we cracked on towards the first CP, 9 miles distant.
Although going steadily, my legs felt strong; with regular water and tailwind interspersed with snacks of various genres, I felt I was going ok as far as CP2 at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. I’d told Dad I’d be there between 10 and 1030; at 1014, I bimbled in a few minutes after Dad arrived. In a series of actions that would probably see you arrested in a normal car park, I got stuck in with the wet wipes and cleared away a load of dried salt that was causing chafing in all kinds of bad places. Re-application of lube to the aforementioned areas, followed by half a litre of coconut water, a slice of water melon and some cherry tomatoes down the hatch and it was off in to the woods towards Eastbourne.
I hit a bad patch from then onwards, through Harting Downs, until just shy of 30 miles. I turned my phone on, and found some supportive messages from the lads at work, which cheered me up no end. People were passing me fairly regularly; when two random guys came alongside, I started running for some reason. We had a good chat for the next few miles, running comfortably towards 35 miles. Having just been discussing the awesome kind of people you meet with Neil, I looked at my watch, booted a rock and took a header on to the track. I took most of the brunt on my shoulder and pushed the fall in to an ungainly roll, without breaking anything vital. A hand up from Neil and we were off again, mustering half a smile (but not a run) for Stuart, the Centurion photographer.
Jogging down the hill towards Cocking, I started to feel both my left hip and my right shin tighten up. The hip, I had expected (Fellsman experience of hip pain migrating to become almost intolerable glute pain). The shin however was new. Something was grating every time I flexed or extended my foot. With chance for a sit down at Cocking aid station (after waking Dad up from a well-earned nap after an 0315 start), I took some food and brufen, and set off up the steep track. I continued to feel strong, running more than expected, though being passed by a few familiar faces (including, I think, ubercrampy Paul from the SDW50 last year). Through a couple of controls (including a roadside pants change and seeing more people I think I recognise from twitter) before dropping down (very gingerly) in to Washington, the notional half way point at 54 miles, accompanied by Rich and Emlyn, both of whom were aiming for first time hundred mile finishes.
I bumped in to Ally (also a tweeter) and had a wee chat, got some grub, picked up my head torches and spare batteries from Dad before slowly heading up the steep climb out of the village. For what they were worth, I passed on a few tips to Emlyn before he picked up speed up the track, next seen half a mile ahead. My head was down, my shin was throbbing and my glute was nearly putting me on the floor with every upward step. I was expecting a long night ahead. Rich drew up alongside me and I found that, for a mile or so at least, running while chatting was workable.
He soon pulled away though, and I came in to Botolphs by myself. I stuffed some more cherry tomatoes in my gob (addictive and refreshing!) before sitting down for 5 minutes of shuteye. This was rudely disrupted after 2 minutes by the guy ahead of me, who had been ‘feeling wrong’, bringing up the contents of his stomach in several liquid heaves. As bad as I felt for him, that was my cue to set off up the steep hill towards the ridge. I could only make very slow progress, and while I was still 2 hours inside the cutoffs (generous at an 18-min/mile average), I was losing time with every laboured step. I found that if I put my left foot on the path and my right on the raised verge, it was less painful.
I put my headtorch on at the top and cracked on towards the crew point at Devil’s Dyke (the site of my drop in 2015). I could see every overtaking headtorch disappear in to the distance (albeit every single one checking I was ok before doing so). I found Dad trying to keep warm, chatted while walking to the road, then dived off to a mostly thistle-free patch of grass, asking Dad to wake me in 6 minutes. I woke up refreshed, and spent a couple of minutes trying to stretch off my hip and glute to allow me to keep going. Another top up of food at the car, and it was through to Saddlescomb Farm aid station, crewed by the awesome ladies with light up devil horns. I didn’t hang around, wanting to get going, but the steep climb continued to cause havoc. It was a full ten miles through the dark to Housedean Farm, which is the (about) 25 mile to go point.
After a slightly bizarre conversation with a confident fox in a village (it was a one way conversation – I wasn’t quite hallucinating yet), I stopped for another ten minute nap in the comparative comfort of the grass verge above a golf course. Hip/shin aside, my legs and lungs were feeling strong, so I was getting increasingly frustrated by my lack of pain tolerance slowing me down. It soon became evident that even if I made the cutoff at Housedean, which was touch and go, the hilly section immediately after would write me off. I was also clear in my head that I didn’t want to drop. Still struggling with bleary eyes, I made it to Ditchling Beacon. With time against me, I rang Dad at 0310 or so to ask him to meet me at Housedean in a couple of hours, and cracked on. He rang back a few minutes later, to say that Housedean wasn’t on the road map, but if I was definitely going to drop, it would be better for me to wait at Ditchling. I briefly debated trying to prove something to myself by limping on to the CP and hoping my leg pain would ease off, but bowed to the inevitable and turned back. I saw the broom wagon pick someone else up, and a guy coming towards me through the dark. He was the sweeper, collecting all the course markings as he went. I let him know I was dropping and he set off at an unfeasibly swift pace. A minute later, a lady appeared, presumably having been overtaken while briefly off route. Having visions of her trying to find her way with no markings, I shouted as loudly as I could for the guy to stop. He waited, and I watched 2 torches disappear together to the east.
Before I had time to get cold, Dad arrived, and I hobbled to the car, fairly comfortable with the decision to stop, though with mixed feelings about my UTMB place going out of the window (possibly still retrievable). We swung past the CP to formally withdraw me, then set off back towards London as day broke. A half hour stop at the services to sleep, and we made it back in time for a shower and a morning snooze, with the standard stinging of hot water on chafed skin.
As always, the support throughout the race from both crew and aid station staff was outstanding. Centurion know what they’re doing, and do it well. I rather fear I’ll be back doing one of their events (as a runner or volunteer) before too long…
36 hours later: Dad very kindly provided me with food and drink as I lounged on the sofa starting the recovery process. The hip/glute is only painful when moving, but whatever is up with my shin and ankle is proving quite uncomfortable much of the time, due to the significant bruising. I can’t yet walk or drive. Lesson: sometimes, you probably shouldn’t try and push through the pain…