Monday, 29 June 2015

South Downs Way 100 - Grandslam Part 2.

So I survived the Thames Path 100. It's important to open up with this statement as I was worried after that race that my ankle was in bits. It's becoming very apparent that to complete the Grandslam there is a lot of self management required. The body needs to hold up as well as the mind. With this vehemently at the forefront if my mind I attended physio and got an exercise progranme for my ankle and had massage sessions to sort out my ankles. The issues appeared to flow all the way up into my hamstrings so I'm glad I appear to have got this addressed. I have followed instruction and increased my stretching and foam rolling. I feel this has paid of well. My legs feel less stiff and the ankles more stable. I'd put the effort in. I had not done any long runs between Thames Path 100 and South Downs Way 100, but it's only a 6 week window and I was keen to make recovery the priority.

Of all four races this year the South Downs Way was the one I was looking forward to. I love the route and everything about it.byte fact it finishes only 5 minutes away from the in laws is an added bonus. With the knowledge that I am comfortable with the route my excitement and anticipation escalated to an all time high. Never before have I been so excited and so on edge for a race day to arrive. The other runners and crews all seemed to be feeling the same sense of anticipation and the swell of excitement could be felt across social media. My Twitter feedback and Facebook all consumed by talks of kit, weather, pace plans, weather, nutrition, weather and then as it all settled down a few more conversations about the weather.

This year I had a host of friends running the route. My running family seems to be growing faster than the Brady Bunch and to this end it was probably inevitable that I would in some capacity know a chunk of the runners. This just made the build up all the more exciting and l knew from past experiences this was going to be like a travelling festival from checkpoint to checkpoint. With several friends running their first 100 miler in one way or another this weekend was going to be a big adventure full of joy, heartache and maybe a tiny bit of swearing.

The plan for the weekend was to stay in a local holiday in just down the road from the start line. Bryan Webster (@UltraDHC) and I were sharing a twin room and had planned to meet in Eastbourne and get the train to the start. A plan that would work well and keep the weekend relatively stress free. This plan was made even simpler when the wonderful Bev Navesey started offering her wonderful assistance. It was a true example of what is so wonderful about this community. Bev basically offered to pick Bryan and myself up from our hotel room on race morning. Fantastic no walking or taxi required. Then she offered to pick us up from train station and take us to registration and then to our hotel and then do the morning collection for registration... even better. Then she realised we were getting the train from Eastbourne and suggested we shorten out journey and she would pick us up from Lewes. Honestly the woman is a bloody legend. She had just single handedly catered to every remaining need Bryan and I had. The only thing left for her to do would be to offer to run the 100 miles. Bev fell very silent at this point... guess you can’t have it all.

So it was all sorted. Bryan and I met in Eastbourne and with my children waving us goodbye at the train station (Finley had wanted to see us get on “Thomas”) we were off to Lewes. Both of us were excited for the upcoming race, but equally disappointed in ourselves that we hadn’t bought an extra Subway. We arrived to Lewes and waited for Bev and Steve to arrive. We loaded all our kit and drove back to Bev and Steve’s. Steve had forgotten his running shoes, a piece of kit he seemed to think would be essential for the weekend. We passed the time to Winchester with general chatter and learning lots of hidden gems about Paul Navesey. Take it from me people don’t piss the boy off he could kill Chuck Norris. Bryan was slightly fearful that his twitter banter may now lead to a premature death. Apart from this though the journey was easy and before we really knew it we were at out hotel. Bev dropped us off to settle in and was to return later to ensure we were ready for an evening check in. I really am grateful when I can arrive for a race early and relax. The stress of having to rush around is not conducive to a positive start to a race. We were able to ensure kit bags were packed and race kit laid out. Then we watched some trash on TV. These including the quiz show “The Chase.” Bryan observantly pointed out that the Quiz Pro looked like a “fat James Adams.” So after broadcasting this to twitter we were off to check in.

At check in it was the start of a weekend of catching up with friends and absorbing the race atmosphere. So many excited faces all coming of the back of a taper and carb load made for an excitable atmosphere. Chatting to Mark, Phil, Tony, Gary, and several others it was great to be part of the gathering momentum towards a start. The registration was as seem less as ever, although Bryan did prick himself on a safety pin from within the pot (Health and safety report Nici?). A quick hello with Graham Carter (@GrahamCarterGC) and it was clear he was like a little boy at Christmas who had just heard bells and assumed Santa was on the roof. He looked ready and I had every confidence that Graham would be making it to Eastbourne. So with registration done Bryan manage to blag us a lift from Stew in what can only be described as a bloody fast car. It saved Bev one journey and we were very grateful to our smooth transition from destination to destination. After some food at the massively over price hotel restaurant and a chat with Bryan and Mark it was time for bed. The day had gone to plan and after a foam roll session (physio’s advice) and a final kit check it was time for bed. Bryan and I had succeeded in being in bed before 10pm and I was awake about 5 minutes before the 4:30am alarm. The other 7 alarms were not needed and it was race day. All the excitement and preparation had built to this day. The recovery from TP100 and the training before all of it was now focused on part 2 of the Grandslam. It would soon be time to run to Eastbourne and keep myself in this Grandslam challenge. I had taped my ankles, but it was an unknown how my Achilles would hold up.  The only way to find out would be to start running.

At the start I had the opportunity to catch up with some more runners, including Sam Robson (@stupid_drummer) and Fi McNellis. Fi is basically a bubbly ball of enthusiastic joy. Seeing her lifted the spirits and a brief catch up with Nici and James and I was feeling ready. Sam looked determined in the morning and I felt confident he may just be on for a good race. My mind switched from other people’s races and I lined up at the start with Ashley (@irunsalt), Graham Carter and Bryan Webster. The briefing was given and we were off. All with our own game plans and feeling ready. A lap of the sports field was the traditional start to this race. As we made our way round the morning dew was glistening and everybody could be seen to be holding themselves back like excitable puppies. As we exited the field it was time for a final goodbye to many people who I would not see until the following day in Eastbourne. Exiting the field I felt like we were leaving through the entrance to a secret garden. For the next 30 hours the South Downs somehow belonged to us and every moment and memory would forever be etched into the landscape, somehow rendering us all in some small part immortal.

I love this race and the environment generated within it. Somehow such races encapsulate everything that is good about the human spirit. We run for hours on end to be greeted by people equally happy in their space and mind to be topping up water bottles and catering to every runner like a VIP. I have served on both sides of the table and I can assure you that both are enjoyable and go for the soul.

During the first leg I was instantly into a rhythm and feeling good about myself and the day that lay ahead. It was relatively cool with a nice bit of cloud over and all was seeming right with the world. I was using Race Drone for the day (separate review to follow). This would use my phone’s GPS and plot my position on a map every 15 minutes. This gave Zoe the assurances that she required to know that I was alive and progressing from checkpoint to checkpoint. Not needing to phone anybody to provide updates meant I could focus on my race and nothing more than that. During the first leg I ran for a bit with Bryan Webster and Ashley Hurd. I was comfortable with the pace, but figured it was certainly a matter of time before Bryan would disappear into the distant. Everyone was hitting their stride and the field was beginning to spread out. I had set myself the weekend game plan of jogging the flats, running the downhills and walking the uphills. If there was a downhill I would run the entire stretch of it, but would hike the uphills. This way there would be regular breaks, but a constant focus on making effective progress.

After about 7 or 8 miles Bryan and Ashley disappeared off into the distant. I knew that Bryan would do this but had not anticipated Ashley steaming off. I think he runs about my pace and so it was a surprise, but this was his race to run and I had my own agenda that was not going to be swayed by that of others. Pretty much from this point in I would spend the rest of the day interacting with various people and a core group of people who I would leapfrog all the way to Eastbourne. The day was beginning to heat up. In my head I had figured given it was mid-morning the day would not get much hotter. Of course this was the distortion of having been awake since 4:30am. In reality it was only about 7:30am and the heat that was soon to set upon us could not have been envisaged. The humidity was soon to take a vice like grip on the competitors and for much play a significant factor in curtailing their race prematurely. Anyway for now I plodded on in bliss and ignorance.

Arriving at the first check point everything felt good. The only issue was that my Rock Tape had come loose on the sides of my legs. No bother as the support element was around my ankles. I figured it was probably human error that had led to the tape coming loose, but regardless it needed dealing with. A quick enquiry with the Aid Station revealed there were no scissors there, but they did have a massive knife. So picture the scene… I am passed a large knife and crouch over a small mound of turf and proceed to rip through the loose tape with the knife. To anyone coming round the bend it probably looked like I was setting about early amputation of my lower limbs. I can assure this was not the case and I felt really good. Natasha Fielden (aid station extraordinaire) suggested I was “very Bear Gryhlls.” Now flattery will get you everywhere, but at present I am very aware my physique means I probably looked more like Ray Mears. So bounding out of the aid station, knife safely returned to its owners, and on a mission I was munching my first of many picnics. Watermelon at this point in the day was bloody amazing and went down an absolute treat. Other foods were less easy, but I knew it was important to get as many calories in as I could.

With the day heating up and some good running already in the legs I was feeling positive and it seemed very quickly it was time to descend off the downs and into the second checkpoint, QECP, and the mark of 22 miles into the race. I had stopped a little before this to rearrange my bag and ensure that I had access to my music. It was a happy moment when I realised I had sorted the settings so I could use the earphones to pause the music. It meant I would not have to keep reaching into my bag when I didn’t want to listen to music, or conversely when I wanted to turn it on for a 5 minute blast. My bag was performing well and I was much happier having condensed my kit into the more streamlined 5lt Slab, instead of my usual 12lt. It was lighter and sat higher up on my back. All in all I was very happy and had very little to complain about. So with this in mind I let the legs do all the work and with the grip of gravity we plummeted in unbridled fashion down the hill and into QECP. We passed a wealth of walkers. It was more like a sea of walkers cascading up the hill. I can only liken it to some scene out of Lord of the Rings where the Armies are marching as Frodo weaves discreetly between them. Our group of some 260 runners were dwarfed by this army of hikers, but hey we were faster and looked like we were having more fun. So after the sprint down the hill it was a short jaunt through woodland and down into the checkpoint where I was greeted by Natasha Fielden. No you have not scanned back to the top of the article. Natasha was tasked with jumping from checkpoint to checkpoint. She filled my soft flasks and after a quick chat I grabbed my second picnic and marched out of the aid station stuffing my face. The heat of the day had risen at this point and the humidity, more concerning, did not appear as if it was going to have a cap on it today. We were in for a sweltering one and may be something that simply had to be endured.

The next Aid Station would see the runners pass through the marathon distance. It was a good feeling and I was feeling like I had taken little energy out of my legs and so far was holding on to my game plan. Runner’s amnesia sets in a little here and detail to the next aid station is a little blurred. I know that the running was good and I was feeling strong. Passing through this checkpoint with minimal fuss was key and on I marched to Cocking. I ran with a few runners on this stretch and it is possibly one of my favourite stretches of the trail. There were some excellent running conditions with well-maintained trails and for a large part it was downhill. This meant with my game plan in mind I spent the majority of the last three miles, approaching the checkpoint, running and running well. I chatted to a lady who was also attempting the Grandslam (how many of us nutters are out there?) and had gone a little over 24hrs at Thames Path and was pushing for 24 hours today. I was right on the cusp of the 24hour timescales, but felt it could be achievable, if the conditions stayed as they were. The catch to this being that it was now bloody hot. Come on light rain, cloud cover… something, but no! Beaming sunshine and a ramped up humidity with a high pollen count. Oh well these things are set to try us. So running up through the field I passed the support crews who were basking in the sunshine. They did not seem to share my desire for some light rain. The Aid station was welcome and I felt a strong need to start drinking my Pepsi/water combination in my soft flask. I doused my cap in water and scoffed some melon and pineapple (food of the running gods today.) Marching out of the Aid Station I ate some mini scotch eggs and reached the first part of a long drawn out climb. I stopped at the gate and did some proper stretching. I loosened out my hamstring, calves, glutes and quads. It felt great and really gave some increased mobility back to my legs. I quickly caught up with some runners who had passed me whilst I was stretching. One gentleman thought about dropping, but was on form now having let his mate run on at a faster pace. He seemed much happier now he was following the important mantra of “run your own race.” I am delighted that I would see him intermittently throughout the race and in Eastbourne. I had told him that my aim was to get to Clayton Windmills as for me this symbolised the point of the race where it felt like I was running home and on familiar soil.

With my head down I marched up the climbs and pressed on to the next aid station in what were now very warm conditions. So as I entered mile 42 I could see a lot of stricken bodies. Some looked like they were really going to struggle to get moving again, whilst others looked like they were about to rise to their feet and reject the Aid Station with all their might. As I had finished grabbing food I saw Ashley Hurd. He looked in a pretty bad way and as if he may be on the brink of dropping. Knowing that Ashley was one of the remaining 34 Grandslam runners I encouraged him to get moving and put some miles in his legs. As I moved along the paths I walked an uphill and Ashley came running past. He seemed to have a little mojo back, but I was concerned in this heat that he was choosing to run the hills. About 10 minutes later I saw Ashley duck into a hedge and I then did not see him for the remainder of the stretch, I did not think anything of it as I began to find my stride and opened up some good running. Shortly before entering into mile 50 I ran with a girl who I think said her name was Gemma. I can’t be sure as she talked so fast that we rattled through more topics than I think my wife and I have covered in 4 years of marriage ;) Mind you only in the world of Ultras could a lady go from chatting about nothing in particular to the frequency of her urination and need to poo. In the sunshine this conversation just made me smile. We talked about running and the support of our partners. Both of us were hoping to be into 50 miles by around 11 hours. This gave plenty of time for a finish. I eased off as we came down the descents onto the river. As we opened gates and headed towards the bridge Gemma powered on. I was happy with my pace and confident I would get to 50 miles in 11 hours.  The sunshine and glorious atmosphere had spirits high, but the heat was taking its toll on the body. Running past cars that were support crews for runners it was nice to get some cheers and as tempting as the offer of a cold beer was I continued to press on.

Coming into mile 50 there was some glorious motivational signs. I didn’t hang around at this aid station for long. Getting there in around 11 hours meant I had plenty of time to get to the finish. This was a solid objective, but the temperature was still seeming to rise despite it being 5pm. So onwards I marched to mile 54 and the promise of a hot meal.  

At the 54 mile mark there is a less than delightful diversion off of the SDW trail. I say less than delightful only because any diversion away from your end goal is undesirable. The humour and effort of aid stations crew never ceases to impress and so as I approached the aid station I was dutifully directed to turn left by none other than Elvis. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t have blue suede shoes on, but you can’t have everything. Then as sure as night follows day I saw Karen Webber sat cheering the runners in. She was in fine spirits and with the boost of a hug I asked after the new addition to the family. As a proud aunt Karen beamed from ear to ear. The conversation took place without my feet ceasing to approach the aid station. Inside I made the necessary visit to the toilets. Held up by only one cubicle functioning I took the opportunity to stretch and again this seemed to help a lot. As I was getting my stuff ready to head back out Ash and Graham arrived into the aid station. I chatted to them a bit. It seemed that Ash was struggling and a further motivational “man up” was delivered, but in truth Ash looked like his mind was lurching back towards his heavily pregnant wife at home and getting his running shoes off. Graham on the other hand looked in great form and positive spirits. He was prepping for the second half and the serious test of his ability to finish. Looking at him it was clear he was going to finish. I think you can often tell at around half way if someone is likely to finish or not. Today Graham was clearly on a mission. So after a brief discussion of the others who we knew running today, it became a list of survivors and seemingly fallen comrades, I pushed on. I advised the guys to get moving soon and that I was sure I would see them soon.

I pressed on out of the aid station. It was a little cooler than before, but the humidity remained and it was clear that challenge was unlikely to subside right through to the finish. Oh well suck it up and get on with the job. A final farewell to the crew and a special nod to Elvis and I was back on the trail. I munched on some food and spoke to my wife. All was well at home and the children were happily getting ready of bed. They were all in Eastbourne and would be there for my finish. I love the solitude and tranquillity of mind that running long distances bring, but I also am greater empowered to do this by the support of my wife and the knowledge that the family are safe and well. Zoe reported back to me that Race Drone was working perfectly. So much so in fact that she regaled me with tales of my own race, “I notice that you keep passing two runners and then they pass you.” The app was proficiently showing her the downhills where I was storming past and the uphills where the gap was then closed. It appeared the app was creating an almost matrix like code that Zoe could interpret and consequently visualise the race. So I pressed on and confirmed I would call again around Alfriston.

With the next aid station being Botolphs I was still making positive progress. Yes I was battling the sleep demons, but otherwise I was in good shape with plenty of running to be had in my legs. Around this point I over took Steve Navesey. He was struggling a little and so had planned to ease back. Now if you have not read his blog then you may be the only person in the country that doesn’t know that Steve got no sleep the night before the race. I believe his words to me went something along the lines of “fuck you Lenny Henry… fuck your good night guarantee.” I was retold the story of Steve sending a chair across the room. So despite fatigue Steve was pressing on and maintaining forward momentum. I pressed on and at this point despite the tiredness I could run and I could adhere to my race plan. This would all change, but not quite yet. Well pretty soon after actually. I entered the Botolphs Aid station where I think I received one of the most enthused welcomes from Sarah Sawyer. Like so many I have spoken to her a bit on social media and so she knew I was running. I grabbed some food for the climb out of Botolphs and marched on. Seeing Bev Navesey walking down the hill she asked how I was. I told her I was fine and that Steve was only a few minutes behind. Now the hill out of Botolphs is the one where I had advised others in my previous blog (surviving the South Downs Way 100) to put on your jacket as the wind can get up. The humidity was so high that I elected to ignore this advice and press on. Up the top of this climb the road stretches out on concrete for an absolute age before re-joining trail. I elected to walk most of this to preserve my legs for later in the race.

The aid stations get that much closer at this point in the race and so before I knew it I was only a couple of miles away from  the aid station. At this point fatigue was hitting me. I just wanted to close my eyes and drift off and wake up in Eastbourne. I was loving the race and the adventure, but a can of red bull would have gone down a treat at this point. Plus I had elected to leave my chocolate covered coffee beans at home. This was a mistake, but I have never suffered with tiredness in this manner before and can only attribute it to the humidity. Arriving at Saddlescombe farm it looked like a graveyard of runners. The draw of the buffet appeared to have engulfed some runners and it was clear that they were not leaving under any circumstances. Less thankfully, but an equal benefit, was that my appetite had faded to nothing and I couldn’t bear the thought of eating. Then I saw it… the most amazing site I had seen for the last few hours… Watermelon and masses of it. I took about 5 pieces and marched up the hill. Knowing I was close to my drop bag it felt futile to stop for too long. The initial climb is annoying out of Saddlescombe, but the rest is pretty steady, but seems to go on forever. Eventually I could see lights off in the distance. I knew from Andrew Baille that the plan was to maintain the tradition we had set at this aid station the previous year. I was far from disappointed. The welcome I got at the top was spectacular. I was greeted with a conga line, but resisted the invitation to join in and ignoring the famous words of Gollum I followed the lights. I followed them down the hill and round the bend, in to the car park and the rave station of Clayton Windmills. Here I was welcome by Andrew and he ensured that all of my needs were catered for. I had my drop bag in my hand before I had even got to a chair. I was sorry to hear that Darren Chilcott had dropped as well. The race seemed to be stripping everything back and leaving nothing to hide behind. I took a couple of bits out of my drop bag and attempted a cup of coffee. At this point I just could not eat anything. I knew this could be bad as I had chocolate covered pretzels in my bag and couldn’t eat them. Now Nici Griffin had a pack of these bad boys off of me at Endure 24 so she knows how good they are and the level of severity not eating them must imply. I forced down some roasted potatoes with salt and pressed on.

From Clayton Windmills things became a struggle and a battle. Now not with my legs, or my feet and in fact most of my body had running left in it. The issue became that I started suffering with acid reflux and I could not shift it. I went through a spell of not eating in order not to suffer the feeling of reflux and then I would get near the red line of my tank and so eat, but then suffer reflux for a couple of miles. This juggling act of no energy vs reflux would continue right until I reached the track in Eastbourne. Nothing I tried to eat would resolve and even the Kendall mint cake that I had collected from my drop bag was not easing the stomach. So I sucked on this for energy and minimised the reflux this way.

The sleep demons really gripped me in this stretch and I was going to need to do something to bring me out of it. I still felt like I could run on and make some progress, but now was feeling like I needed to be sick, but had nothing to expel. I supressed the feeling and pressed on, but this in turn also increased my tiredness. At one point I was sure I saw a runner alongside me, but then nothing. I don’t know if it was just mind drifting out or whether it was a hallucination, but I was grateful for the aid stations arrival. So I plonked myself in a chair, but I could not get any food in me. I requested a coffee and hoped this would help. Steve Navesey arrived about 5 minutes after and looked tired (remember had no sleep the night before… in case you didn’t already know), but he had a pacer and appeared in good spirits. I put my head in my hands and tried to just have a couple of 5 minute power naps. There was a fine balance here of staying long enough to right myself, but not so long I could not stand up. The aid station crew were great and recognised I needed to just sit and close my eyes. A few sips of coffee and yep the acid reflux rose up again. So I decided to get angry with myself. Not a kind of depressive angry, but an anger that would spark an alternative kind of stubborn bastard fire in my belly. I would use this fire to drive me to my feet, switch my mind off from the reflux and ultimately get me to the finish. Now a crew member obviously had a few concerns and escorted me to the turn and then wished me well. I knew getting out of that chair was a defining moment and I vowed not to sit down again until the finish. This little stretch has special memories as it is where I spent my first ever father’s day. It’s accounted in my 2013 SDW100 blog here.  So I pressed on and out towards Southease. At some point along this stretch Steve and his pacer passed me. With the issues I was having my aim was to finish and set myself up for part 3 of the Grandslam. The race today was not a single event for me and was one part of a much greater project. I had to remember this and press on to Southease.

The moment came in which I arrived at Southease and was politely pointed to climb over the bridge. I jokingly said to the crew “oh come on that’s just mean.” They were just about the most apologetic pair, looking horrified at asking runners with over 70 miles in their legs to climb two flights of stairs and then descend them again almost immediately. I quickly thanked them and clarified that I was joking with my previous statement. When you’re tired sometimes the radar for tone and inferences drops out and so I wanted them to be sure I held no grudge towards them. The safety element to crossing at the bridge made perfect sense. I would not want heavily fatigued runners crossing the railway track at the gate. I arrived into Southease and the same old problem of not eating. I shovelled some crisps in my mouth but could manage no more. As I was exiting the aid station Graham Carter arrived looking well and moving ok. I said I would see him in a minute and pressed on. I figured he would probably catch me and so I didn’t want either of us to be held up. I was still tired and practically asleep on my feet, but I knew this stretch like the back of my hand and was fairly confident that at this point I could run in my sleep if I needed to.

I pressed on up Southease feeling like some kind of conquering hero ascending Everest. In reality of probably looked more like a drunken hedgehog climbing a curb. Like with so many ultras though if you keep putting one foot in front of the other the end fast approaches. So half way up the climb out of Southease I was awestruck (not for the first or by far the last time) by the beauty of the downs. Looking out across the route and the magnitude of the task achieved so far. Many people would already be finished and several were still behind me and yet I didn’t mind where I was. The reality remained that in that moment the view was mine and mine alone. I drank in the atmosphere and pressed on. It had become a pattern now that I would continuously swap places with Shawn Timmons and of course at this point Graham was striding up the mountain like the BFG. He had a massive grin on his face and despite the fatigue of 84 miles he was clearly loving it. We got to the top of the climb together and there was something poetic about the fact that one of the first times I ran with Graham was this last stretch through to Eastbourne. Being the gentleman that he is I was instructed to press on. I had running in my legs, but I wanted to be asleep and my stomach was still reminding me that the reflux had not gone. Sucking on Kendal mint cake was now like sucking on pebbles and there was little solution, but to suck it up and press on. So press on I did and I pulled away from Graham. I had the intention of opening up my legs and seeing if I could at least kick on a bit and draw a course PB from the race. I had a lightning bolt moment though and asked myself “why?” What would I really achieve by pressing on? The 24 hour target had now gone. I reflected on this and yes my first aim was sub 24, but I knew at this point in my training I wanted it the same way I want a lap dance from Cheryl Cole…. Never going to happen. So now my race was about the Grandslam and with running still in my legs I wanted an injury free race and fast recovery time. That was the initial thoughts for slowing and taking it steady. I am not sure what the passage of time was for this thought process, but then I glanced over my shoulder and about 400 metres back was Graham still plodding on and hanging on to my pace. I eased off a little and ran with Graham having his company to enjoy a few miles woke me up and made things that bit easier. We chatted about the race and the reasons we run. Both of us share a common love of running and of this route. We pressed on and occasionally stopped/stretched/complained and anything else we needed to do.

Time passed quickly with Graham and pretty soon we were running in to the next aid station. I picked up the pace a little and told Graham to hang with me. He duly obliged and we pressed on into Alfriston. I lost Graham on the descent down the rubble ground, but I was confident he would be catching me again on the ascent. This course layout meant that for the flats we could stick together. So for the first time in about 30 miles I gunned it down the descent. It was exhilarating and I felt great. Knowing the course meant I knew exactly where I was going and the run was care free. I had a little flashback to 2013 when my wife met me at this point and ground out the last 9 miles. The gesture has always stuck with me as that finish catapulted me into my love of ultra running. Here I was now still moving well, but not concerned with time. There was plenty in the bank and so no issues like with Thames Path 100. Short of disasters this should be 2 of 4 races completed. Somehow Alfriston always gets me to feeling like its nearly over. I think it is the dip into the single mileage. I was pondering my love of running and the joy of the freedom, the isolation and the solitude and yet one of the things I was loving most about today was running with friends and knowing others were waiting for me to arrive into aid stations. This race today had the freedom, but also the camaraderie as well.

I entered the village chicane that is Alfriston and dropped into the Aid station. I didn’t stay long as I knew the next climb was just mean. So I used the facilities and had a quick catch up with Graham and then pressed on. Graham was going to have a quick look at a letter from his son, make himself comfortable and press on. I told him not to be too long and to catch me up. There was no doubt that he would do this. So on I went and quickly the climb arrived. So with thoughts of my family I found myself saying one of my little boy’s favourite sayings “let's do this thing.” And up I marched. Sure enough I toiled with the hill and about three quarters up I turned to see the BFG churning up the mountain. We were side by side when we reached the top and pressed on to Jevington. We spoke about race plans and Graham’s slight state of shock that he was almost a finisher of a 100 mile race. I love the stretch between Alfriston and Jevington as it always seems to be over quite quickly and sure enough Graham and I ran down the hill and into the aid station. It was wonderful to be greeted by Sarah and David Barker. The Aid Station was awash with a plethora of treats and goodies. I felt like Charlie with the golden ticket, but alas my stomach was still not happy so I declined, except for the watermelon. I bloody love you water melon. The big hug from Sarah and the upbeat encouragement from David made this one of my favourite aid stations of the day. It is no mean feat to keep such an aid station fully stocked after a large part of the field has passed through. Again I pressed on whilst Graham used the facilities. I gave Zoe a quick call and told her always fine and that I would be there soon. I plodded on to the Jevington climb. Now Graham was obviously motivated and was with me for the start of the climb. We ground the son of a bitch out together. Having Graham there reminded me what I can actually do and so I hung onto his pace right to the top. I made him pause for a picture at the top. This spot is still one of my favourite photographs from any race. It shows how far you have come and at the top of the last climb symbolises the beginning of the end. I wanted to ensure that Graham savoured this experience as much as I was. For a while I had been running in black and white and now things were resuming in colour. We ran on past the trig point and a quick chat with Chris Mills and we were ready to get this thing done.

Descending this narrow pathway we made the decision to walk. Hitting the bottom I asked Graham if he was bothered about his time and he confirmed he wasn’t and with that we agreed to take a stroll in the Sunday afternoon. I liken it to the coffee after a good meal. We were savouring everything that had gone before in order to ensure we could really soak up the achievements at the end. Passing one gentleman, I now know as Tim Vincent, it was clear he was in a lot of pain and holding himself up on walking poles. His determination though was exemplary and many could take note of this. There was no way he would be quitting and this inspiration will stay with me for races to come. The fact so many others were later talking about his run shows how it is not just the front runners who can influence the masses.

Graham and I were now able to enjoy the warming day. There was no pressure to our finish time and we caught up with another runner and enjoyed the stroll, knowing that most drivers passing would have no clue that these bunch of runners looking knackered had run from Winchester. As we crossed the road I advised Graham to savour the moment. This I think is one of the few times I have been more excited about someone else’s finish than my own. So we were only about 50 metres from turning into the Athletics track car park. I was about to see my family and run the track. I spurred Graham on and told him there was no way anyone else was seeing us walking and so we started to run, turning to Graham that was it we shared a smile knowing we had experienced something special over the last 16 miles and I told him not to stop running until he crossed that bloody finish line. We entered the track through the gates. I stopped for my kids but not before shouting “you got this Graham go and get that finish.” Graham pressed on and this moment was all his, the joy of which you can see in his finish line photographs. For me races these days take on a different message. I want to inspire my children and generate memories for them that they can do the impossible. So different from my 2013 race were I opened the taps and sprinted for the end. I stopped took my daughter in my arms and my little boys hand (after a massive hug of course) and he said “we do some running daddy?” I looked him straight in the eyes, smiled and said “come on then son.” We were off jogging the track, the moment just placing icing on the cake. Finley said “we are catching him daddy” referring to any gentleman in front of us. I didn’t think he would appreciate being out run by a three year old and so grasping Finley’s hand we carried on. I looked up to see Graham approaching the final bend I cried out “go get it Graham” and hearing the cheers as he crossed the line will stay with me for ever. Now my moment round the track did not last long enough and so we approached the final straight. I looked at Finley and said “on your marks”, he duly got in the ready position, “get set”, he raised his bum, “GO” and he started running with all his might. There would be a Park sprint special this year, but it wouldn’t be mine. We crossed the line in 28hrs 40 something, but to be honest that was irrelevant. I got to run a special race with special friends and create a memory with my wife and children that will last a life time. My small regret was not getting a photograph of Graham and I together at the end, but once that adrenalin has gone you have to sit down. Special thanks to James, Nici and the Centurion family, to support crews and Aid stations, all who cheered, supported and spent more hours on the course than most runners. You all made this race experience the special experience that it was.

So after crossing the line there were hugs with family. Finley was presented with the buckle and told me “don’t worry daddy we can share it”. Several hugs with other familiar people including Nici, Natasha and Fi exuded the warmth of this running family. This was broken quickly by firm instructions from Nici that I had to bloody finish the Grandslam now. I caught up with James Elson and Drew Sheffield who were also very complimentary about my finish and prospects of completing the Grandslam. This goal is so important to me and I will  happily see you all on the North Downs Way, but over the course of this race (pun intended) it became about so much more. My running is about freedom, a chance for time alone, for peace and quiet, to reflect, but what was apparent when all is said and done… Give me the Freedom to run and I will always run home.

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