Saturday, 3 May 2014

South Downs Way 50


South Downs Way 50 Race Review

As with previous blogs about Centurion events I remain in awe of the passion held by all members of the Centurion team. The genuine joy they show for every runner completing their goals never ceases to amaze me. The addition of Nici Griffin to the team has not only made this service even more super efficient, but the sense of an Ultra Running Family just keeps growing. You only have to look at the Facebook activity both before and after the race. The race may now be a distant memory for most, but for those still interested, here are my thoughts.

After making arrangements with Sam Robson and Bryan Webster we had a place to stay the night before. Sam was driving down and Bryan and I were going to get the train from Eastbourne. Sam was following a Sat Nav so I knew he would be ok (well I had my fingers crossed). During our travels Bryan and I got to talking about the race. This was a sincere moment of reflection for me and something that served as a massive wake up call. I realised how lack lustre I had been in prepping for this race. I knew I was looking forward to it, but I had neither really set any plans, nor given it a great deal of thought. The banter had been growing throughout the week and I was excited to catch up with a plethora of running people.  My enjoyment of running and community would get me through this race. Can I honestly say that I was 90% or even 80% ready?...... No. Having finished this race I now need to hone my focus in on race preparation and exercise. It’s time to MTFU as I so often advise others.

During the journey to race HQ I was chatting with Bryan about training. Comparative to other runners I certainly had not really been training. I was ultimately going run this race relying on my base fitness and sheer bloody mindedness. Being determined has got me through some rough patches, both in running and life in general and I had no doubt I would cover the distance. What state I would be in when I crossed the finish line would be anybody’s guess.
The question remained how quick my race time would be. What did happen during the travels and subsequent to the race is continuing to fire up my running furnace. I am determined to get to a start line at the weight I want to be and feeling I have done everything I could.  This is not a moment for making excuses, just me wondering what I could really achieve if/when I am near peak condition. I had started this fire burning about two to three weeks prior to the race, but too late for it to impact on the SDW50. I am inspired by people like Richard Ashton who will be the first to say he was a fat f…. well lets just say he was over weight. Now he is a running machine. I started this race feeling a little like Mr Blobby (just less spotty) and next time I start a race I’d like to feel more like…. Well more like a runner.

The time on the train passed pretty quickly and Bryan and I arrived in Barnham. I had got my priorities straight and placed a bet on the winning horse for the Grand National. Of course I didn’t know this at the time, but it was a nice thing to be informed of 8 hours into the race. Sam came to collect us (yes we were also shocked that he went to the correct station J ) and we went for some food. We got to have a catch up with the lovely Nici Griffin, her words being “I’m bloody amazing”, but in all fairness to her this is absolutely true, and largely endorsed by the fact that she secured us an order of burger and chips before the kitchen closed. I don’t think I know a single person comparative to Nici. She gives so much to her running family working tirelessly so that we can all enjoy our running events. She deals with our mundane questions and no doubt our inadvertent repetition of questions with good grace and patience. When Nici needs a crew I am sure I am not the only one that would gladly line up to support her.  If she wasn’t only a few years older than me I’d call her my running mummy.

After having a rather lovely burger at the pub we all retired to our accommodation. We were staying at a rather fragrant travel lodge. I believe it is known as “Eau de le dead man farts”. Sam retired to the double bed, me a single bed and Bryan a pull out on the floor. I wasn’t worried for Bryan as the mini bed looked just the right size. I got off to sleep surprisingly quickly and with the leisurely alarm of 6:30am set I was out for the count. The morning arrived and I was awake before the alarm. Sam had been up for a while and we were all ready to get going. My kit was ready to go and I felt well rested and in a good frame of mind. Both Sam and Bryan appeared to be looking forward to the race and we were out the door fairly quickly.
My absolute A game race plan was somewhere between 9hr30min and 10hr30min. Realistically I knew I was not on my A game, but I felt pretty good, a little less like Mr Blobby, so I got myself into the head space of aiming for 10hrs, but knowing that between 10hrs and 11hrs would be an excellent run. My previous best time for similar distance is 10hrs 25min for the Beacons Ultra (46ish miles.)

We arrived at the race start in good time. The weather was pretty much perfect. My bag was packed with comfort in mind. There is a lot of mandatory kit for this race, but moving up from back pack runner to mid pack I appreciate fully the need for the kit. With all that said I wanted to make sure the pack was comfortable. I was very grateful during the kit check to not having to take everything out when Gary clearly knew what jacket I had in the bag. The words “I can see that’s been packed with purpose, I don’t want to be responsible for ruining that” were gratefully received. I was given my poker chip and over to registration I went. The poker chip was a genius idea that sped up the process although I can’t deny I was a touch disappointed that poker chips were not for a game of poker throughout the race. It was another example of the brilliance of Centurion Running that I was through registration in 5 minutes flat.  After a catch up with James Elson, Richard Ashcroft and a quick chat with Paul Navesey I was realising the start of the race was looming. I was glad to have had a chance to chat to Tim Lambert as well. He’s is a great guy who I can’t wait to go out for a proper run with. He looked super focused and aiming for an 8hr40min time. He was polite enough to say based on our times we would be seeing a lot of each other. I was less polite about myself and knew realistically this was the last I would see of him.

I got over to the start line with Bryan. We toiled with the idea of sprinting at the front of the pack. Realising that my sprint probably wouldn’t match Paul’s steady pace I settled into the middle of the pack. My only gripe at this point was the amount of runners that thought it ok to be talking over James Elson’s race briefing. This being my fourth entry into one of his events I know he keeps these briefings to important information. I could hear little to none of the briefing and hoped there was no crucial information I missed. I know the South Downs pretty well so was not too worried, but felt for anyone whose nerves may be growing and had not got to hear the briefing. If you are reading this blog and you are one of those that chatters constantly through a briefing then I appeal for silence at such times.

We moved a little further up the pack and Bryan was grumbling at the fact he had not been able to have a shit before we started. Not having had this issue I was ready to get going. The weather was perfect and it was going to be a good day. The race started and I was determined to ensure that I set off on a casual pace. I wanted to make good time but see if I could hold it steady without blowing up later in the race. I figured if I could do this then I can effectively speed up through training and use the same tactics to be faster at the finish of future races. I set off at a steady 10minutes per mile and was moving through the field. Chatting to Bryan he was pretty focused and looked comfortable. Then over my right shoulder I heard my name being called. It was the ever cheerful Paul Ali and that infamous bloody hat. We shook hands and got to run together for a bit. I knew that Paul would be way too fast for me over the course of the race. He was again polite enough to say this was “just a training run”, but I damn well knew he would be gone before long, but we got to plod along together for a little under a mile and in that time my favourite conversation of the day occurred. It was about my xbionic fennec shorts and went along the lines of;
Paul: “I’m really not sure about those shorts.”
Dan: “well I don’t know if I believe the science, but they’re bloody comfortable.”
Paul: “No I’m not sure about the design. It seems to focus upon THE area *glances at my genitals*.”
Dan: “Oh well I don’t charge for looking”
It was a most amusing moment for Paul, Bryan and I. The tension of running 50 miles was happily lifted with some cheerful laughing. Shortly after that Paul sped off to the finish in a super quick time. I like to think that his embarrassment at looking at my genitals motivated him towards finishing before me. Bryan disappeared at a similar pace, the lying Geordie was clearly not going to try and run comfortably for the whole distance. He was going to nab a great time or blow up trying. I was tempted to push on with them, but knew that the pace would be too much for me over the course of 50 miles. In the midst of the conversation I had probably taken my pace up above where it should have been. I settled into my own pace and keeping my goals as the focus of my race. Too often you can push too hard and be cursing all the way through the last third of the race. Today I wanted to enjoy the entire race and have some fun around the track at the finish. Good luck to anyone that came past me. I figured they would either crash and burn or have a bloody good race. One thing I do know is that you don’t get across the finish line of a 50 miler by luck. Ultras expose your fitness and reveal the size of your heart. I had decided that my mantra for the race would be that when feeling rough to Man the F**k Up. I would come to repeat these words to myself numerous times before the race was out.

I carried on running and chatting to runners along the way. The first part of the race is a little bit of a blur aside from the fact that I could not wait to get on top of the downs. I knew from the 100 miler in 2013 that the aid stations tend to be in the valleys with a descent in and an ascent out. I love the South Downs for the fact that they are rolling and it always seems you get back what you put in. As I ran into the first aid station it was pretty chaotic, but present was the ever cheerful Dawn. To be fair I heard her before I saw her. I grabbed some peanuts and a cup of coke. Dawn told me that Bryan was only a couple of minutes ahead of me. She did this with a smile on her face and I was not sure this was entirely true. Dawn is a terrible liar and Brian is an antagonist son of….. well he’s Northern. I trudged on up the hill knowing that once I got to the top that there was a decent period of relatively straight and flat road. It dropped into a couple of descents, but nothing overly challenging. I was focusing on getting to marathon distance in good nick. I was picking back up the rhythm after leaving the aid station. A few occasions I walked more than I would like to, and so I would MTFU! Whilst trying to be steady,  I also wanted to make sure I kept a relatively quick time. Up on the downs I was really enjoying myself. The camaraderie amongst the runners was exceptional and after a little bit of swapping places on the hills I felt like I had known them all for years. I knew a large number of people by their twitter names and after a minute or two of running together people were saying “oh you’re @UltrarunnerDan.” A surreal world that we live in where I knew a large portion of the runners before I had ever met them and in some cases had already had conversations with them. It always makes me laugh though that when identifying people through twitter handles people are compelled to pronounce the @ . I felt I was running amongst friends. These friends were from across the world and even …  Cambridge, just up the road from my home. I was delighted to discover he finished the race after being in a bad way with his knee. His spirits were high for his first 50 and I hope he is planning to do it all over again. Get in touch if you ever fancy arranging a training run.

I was having a great day the sun was shining, although interspersed with zero visibility and i was moving at a good pace and hit 25 miles in a little over 5 hours. I called the wife to see how she was and to confirm that I was on schedule. I knew I would not be finishing in 10 hours. I felt comfortable at the pace I was running, but knew if I pressed on I would suffer for the next week. Today’s race was not about that. I told the wife that I was on course more likely for somewhere between 10hrs30min and 11hrs30min. I ended the call confirming that I would let her know when I got near to Jevington. After I hung up I was mentally focusing on the next target that lay ahead and what I wanted to achieve from the race.  I lifted my feet and began to run again. I was chasing a group of runners that I had been chatting with. It was a fun afternoon. I have lived around the Downs as a child and so have gotten pretty good at knowing what the weather is doing. I advised a couple of runners that it would be chucking it down soon. I was incredibly happy to see that they were pleased to take on board the advice. Shortly after the mists rolled in and the wind was blowing. Zero visibility and a sky full of water didn’t dampen our spirits (pun intended… again.) The day pretty much continued to play out with visibility going from clear to non-existent.

I got to the just over marathon point feeling good. The aid station had run out of coke and no gels to be seen. Thankfully someone rocked up with a few litres of pepsi. Never have two men looked so beautiful and alluring. I could have happily drunk a whole bottle at this point. I later learned from Nici Griffin that any branded coke would have been bought independently by the crew. I cannot thank people enough for this. Coke/Pepsi is essential to me at an aid station so thank you to everyone. It’s another fantastic endorsement of how brilliant people are when they choose to crew. Before I left the 26ish mile aid station there was a sense of people thinking about dropping, others keen to get on and those looking to reassure those seeking to drop. I was proud to be able to offer some motivation to someone  (didn’t get his name) who was looking dreadful. He had clearly not been taking in enough fuel and his body looked like he was running on empty. I don’t know how long he stayed at the aid station, but I had to get going. Walking out of the aid station and up the hill I plodded on. I was joined by another friend from twitter (@Ultraboy) and a few others. We ran along with spirits high and enjoying each others company. I ran on for a bit as I hit a good spell, but then they would catch up. At somewhere around mile 30 the young man looking like he might drop at 26 caught up with me. He was looking like a different man and back on the top of his game. He and I ran together for a mile or so. We got to plummet down a steep downhill before commencing to run along a concrete stretch from hell. I love the down hills and chucking myself down them like I am about to fall of the face of the earth is always too much fun to resist. Stopping at the bottom is less glamorous, but could not be any camper than @ultraboy’s impression of Bruce Forsyth. Once we hit the tarmac the guy who had looked like he might be dying was the one pressing on. Ultras are a wonderful thing you never know what will happen, but stick at it long enough and persistence is rewarded. No wonder it has been described as Relentless Forward Progress. His persistency was paying off and he was gone and out of my sight. I continued my plod along the route and holding steady at 12min30(ish) per mile. It really was a lovely day to be running. The next aid stations were tough. Well they were tough for me as for the remainder of the race, with the exception of Jevington there was no coke. A couple of times I wandered along the downs wishing someone would appear with a bottle of coke. No bugger did though and so like everything else today I had to MTFU and get on with it. There were a ton of cyclists on the downs and one passed my little running group telling us there was an ice cream van ahead (bloody liar!!!! Never trust a cyclist) and he promised to buy us a cornetto (he didn’t!!!) Putting the disappointment of no ice cream to the back of mind I carried on running.

I went through a bit of a low spell in the latter miles. I was not in pain or particularly tired, but something was just not clicking and it was all I could do to motivate my body to run. At this time I was struggling to keep pace with some of the runners I had held with most of the day. The finish would be coming and we were holding on to the hope of a sub 11hour finish but we knew it would be close. Now was the time to be pressing the pace when we could or that time would drift away. Arriving into the Southease checkpoint I was not feeling too bad. The concrete had been tiring, but now it was time to refuel. I could have cried again when I realized that they had no coke. Bugger all that could be done about it so I a grabbed a little bit of fuel and pressed on. I didn’t feel like eating and realized that I should have packed more than just gels in my bag. My own stupid fault, but never mind another lesson learnt for next time. Coming out of Southease there was a bloody hill. I knew this hill was coming and last time it arrived I was in a far worse state (largely because last time for me it was mile 70 odd of the 100miler the year before.) So pressing on up the hill it felt like it went on forever. @Ultraboy appeared and we pressed on engaging in banter, but still determined that sub 11hrs was an achievable task. I knew that Alfriston was still to come, but sod it I would just have to get up there and pretend I enjoy it. As we ran on the day felt a little surreal. So many people talking to me and pleased to be given some insight into what lay ahead. They all seemed shocked I had run the 100 miler and called me mad. Yes I am the mad one because running 50 bloody miles is considered perfectly normal by the majority of the population. Running on the downs the weather was a little drizzly but nothing that posed a problem. My run walk strategy was taking good effect and all in all I was happy with the way the race was playing out. I wish my memory was better though as I meant to take loads of photographs during the race and I ended up taking one solitary photograph.

There is a great stretch of downhill coming into Alfriston. I took off, but with some caution as I knew the climbs that were coming. As I hit the pavement down came @Ultraboy. He apologized for over taking me and pressed on. To be fair he didn’t have to apologise as it gave me a laugh. He has a skill of looking like he is auditioning for the Village people when he runs downhill. He was looking in good form despite having fallen over earlier in the day. As we arrived into the checkpoint everybody was bloody amazing, but NO bloody coke. The front pack must have been seriously greedy bastards. I hope their sugar come down hit them hard ;) Forcing myself to knock back a cup of team and a bit of food I was feeling ok. @Ultraboy asked me how I was doing and reminded me we were on course for 11hours if we got out of this checkpoint sharpish. He ruffled my hair in an act of encouragement and then apologized for messing my hair up. Looking back this is bloody funny, 42 miles into a race, windswept, covered in the salt from my own sweat, probably covered in my own spit and there he is apologizing for messing up my hair. Bloody good job I don’t have a sponsorship deal with Loreal. Anyway coming back out of the aid station it started to rain. Fortunately I had my waterproof on already and so I pressed on. A few runners were stopping to put on their jackets, but I knew I had to press on. I hit the incline knowing it was going to be tough. About two thirds of the way up I felt my ankle going. I knew it was not yet knackered and I needed to ease of it to stop it being a walk to the finish. I trudged slowly up the hill. Once at the top I was feeling a hell of a lot better and ready to push on. My ankle was sore, but definitely ok so I began to press on. The end was approaching but felt like miles away. I called my wife and prepared her for the reality of a 11hr30min finish. My watch was set to 60s recording so I knew the mileage was slightly out. What happened next was strange and brilliant. I don’t know whether I fell into a trance or what, but I went from being what I thought was about 30 mins away from the Jevington checkpoint to being at the checkpoint. Looking at my watch I had only phoned my wife 10 minutes ago. As I came into the checkpoint I chose to go in and grabbed some food. I had plenty of water but thought I would grabbed some energy and maybe I would be able to at least get across the line in 11hrs 20min. Well in that instant my whole race changed. The heavens parted, the sun came out, everything got brighter……… The Aid station had COKE. Whoever bought coke for this aid station has my eternal gratitude. The flapjack was awesome and really lifted my spirits. The crew encouraged me to get back out and prompted that if I pressed on I could still make sub 11hours. I was sure he was just motivating me and that goal was gone, but push on I did.

As I left the Jevington checkpoint I got to what I know to be the last incline of the race. I powered up the hill as best I could. Going uphill is not my strong point. I cannot walk up them quickly. Next time I am going to jog/walk and see how that plays out. Less than half way up I was over taken by a group of runners who were moving at a good pace. They disappeared from sight pretty quickly. As I neared the top I turned to admire the South Downs. I love the fact that you can pretty much trace the running route back over hills that have just been run. My finishing time was not going to be great, but I had a bloody good adventure with great company. This day had not been a wasted day. With a smile on my face I pressed on to the top. Out of the mist like some Guardian of the Downs appeared Drew Sheffield. We had a quick chat and he was there pointing people in the right direction. How generous of Centurion running to send out emails and videos of where to go and then still place a crew member there to direct people. Drew pointed out that at a push I could still make the finish in under 11hrs. “yeah yeah yeah” I thought. With a glance at my watch I realized “holy shit” he is right. Suddenly I felt full of energy. My 47mile adventure was now one race and I was now involved in a mad 5km race. I figured I would go balls out, MTFU, and leaving nothing on the line. Last time I was on this part of the route (during the 100miler) I could barely walk. This time I was flying. I chucked myself down the descent. It is a narrow path of loose rubble and roots. This is my kind of playground and I was on a mission. I caught up with the group that had passed me on the climb. The runners were kind enough to move out of the way, with my second favourite conversation of the day occurring;

Runner 1: Move out of the way fast runner coming through.
Runner 2: Fast Runner?
Runner 1: Well… faster than us.

I passed them with a massive smile on my face and leapt down the hill feeling like Killian Jornet, but probably looking like Peter Kay. Before I knew it I hit the pavement and was off the Downs and it was all tarmac from here. I pushed on knowing that if I let up then sub 11hrs was not going to happen. As it is it was going to be tight… very tight. My watch was clocking me at sub 8 minutes per mile. I didn’t really know what time I was doing but just that now I really had to MTFU. No time to call the wife and tell her I would be early, just time to run. Unlike some of the runners I knew exactly how far was left to go and knew the roads well. Soon we dropped down on to the main road and I ran past my old martial art training centre. At this point I overtook another runner. I heard him shout “looking good buddy, go smash it.” The surge of adrenalin from this comment drove me on again and I pushed on. I turned on to the road and ran up towards the athletics tracks. I crossed the road and knew I was getting close. This race was nearly done and I was precariously close to 11hrs. This was going to be a great result for me regardless, but I really wanted to beat that marker.

Finally I could hear the cheers from the athletics track and as we approached the track a runner came from behind me and shouted “come on pal we are almost done.” I must apologise to this runner because at this point I was racing a 5km and no bugger was over taking me. I pushed the pace, as did he, my feet touched the track and I kicked on. I was going to run this last 400mtrs and leaving nothing to chance. The clock was ticking from 10hrs 57min to 58mins. With 250metres to go I had dropped the other runner and was chasing another down. They finished before me but it drove me on chasing them. I came round the last bend and sprinted over the line. I stopped my watch and let everything sink in that had just happened. This was a ridiculous adventure that was capped off when I looked at my watch and saw the time of 10hrs 59minutes. The 5km had got me in under 11hours. I collected my medal from James Adams who had them all safely secured in his trouser pocket. The race was done and good and bad I learnt a lot about myself today that would make me a much better runner.
Massive thanks to the Jevington Crew and to Drew Sheffield for kicking me on when I needed it most and to the runners who got out my way coming down out of Jevington.

I caught up with Bryan at the end he had absolutely smashed it and @Ultraboy who had finished not long before me. After a few chats and a hug from Nici, my wife arrived for a sweaty cuddle (I know she thinks these cuddles are amazing J ) Before I knew it that was that and I was on my way home for a shower and to finish my weekend the way it had started…… with a bloody good burger.