When Jen (my best friend from primary school, whom I didn't see from when I was 11, till last year when we met up again after reconnecting through the Fetcheveryone running website) first mentioned wanting to set up a 100+ mile ultra along the entire hilly length of the South Downs Way, I thought she was a bit mad. Then I began running a bit more and really started looking forward to the event. That is, until last Tuesday when I felt really not-very-well and should, in retrospect, probably have taken time off work, but I didn't and so still felt pretty rough on Saturday morning. I almost didn't go to the race, but I usually go along with that saying about regretting the things you didn't do more than the things you did, so I took the train down to Eastbourne and headed to the Bandstand on the prom where the registration was set up.There were plenty of Fetchies around (both running and supporting) though only actually 33 starters in total. I had kept getting out of breath just sitting down at work on Friday, so with a heavy cold still very present on Saturday, I was not expecting much of myself in terms of getting a fast time or even completing the distance. The South Downs Way is a 102 mile trail between Eastbourne and Winchester and we began the race at 10am with a mile along the seafront, before getting onto the trail. A mile in pouring rain and a brisk headwind.
But at least the first few miles took my mind off feeling dodgy. There was the not insignificant matter of the steep climbs over Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters, whilst concentrating on not falling off the slippy coastal path or getting blown over by the battering headwind. I really can't exaggerate the amount of wind - there were walkers out on the cliff tops enjoying doing that thing where you can lean into the wind at a seemingly impossible angle. I suspect there would have been great views if the rain and fog would allow them to be seen. I managed to get hit in the face by my map case a few times before I found an appropriate way to carry the map (appropriate in that it didn't hit me and was handy for navigating, but not so good in that it has resulted in my right shoulder not allowing my arm to move properly now - I was having to gimpily support it with the other arm while writing on the top third of the whiteboard at college today). I ran with Tony for a bit along this section, chatting away as I usually do, then was on my own for a long time (a field of only 33 gets pretty spread out) until well past half way.
After heading inland, the wind continued but the rain eased off and I just enjoyed the fact that I seemed to be able to run without my lungs complaining too much. It was 19 miles to the first checkpoint and I hadn't seen this part of the route before: always nice to explore somewhere new. It's a good trail and mostly well signposted. The checkpoint set the tone for all that were to come - full of smiling, helpful volunteers, mostly Fetchies, keen to tend to our every need. I never demand much - I refill the Camelbak bladder (adding a couple of Nuun electrolyte tablets) and grab a banana or something - but it's good to see that there is loads of food on offer along with the friendly support.
It was 15 miles to the next CP, along a section of trail that I had run in both the Downlands ultra and the Brighton trail marathon. It was reassuring to know the route and not have to rely on the map so much. This part goes over Ditchling Beacon (familiar to fans of the London to Brighton Bike ride) and past a pair of cute windmills, called Jack and Jill. While walking up one of the many steep hills I took the opportunity to call Jim and let him know that I was enjoying a pleasant day out and confident that I'd finish, albeit most likely at sometime in the late afternoon of the following day.
The following 15 miles to CP3 were on unfamiliar territory. I had to keep a close eye on the navigation (whilst the signposting is quite good along the trail, not every turn is marked so you have to know exactly where you are on the map to avoid easy lostness). There was one small section I remembered, having walked along it in howling wind and rain while looking for lost Duke of Edinburgh students back in July. This time it was dry, with golden near-dusk lighting and the wind was not too strong. Soon after that stretch I turned for a welcome downhill to the CP, where Noel had made some vegan jam sandwiches just for me. Fantastic!
It was after 8pm and starting to get dark, so headtorch out for the next section. A nice short one at only 7 miles. And it never seems as odd as I think it will, being out in the middle of nowhere, alone in the dark, trotting along trying not to fall over badly or get lost. There were quite a few times where I had to stop and make sure I was on the right route: I was as it turned out - not a single detour off route for the whole 103 miles - but it was definitely worth checking. Being lost isn't much fun at the best of times. There were plenty of good wildlife noises (I recognised the hooting of owls, but there was a lot of other strange squawking and squealing that I couldn't put a name to). The eyes of the sheep and cows glowed yellow. I suppose it was almost spooky. But I don't really do spooky. At this stage there was a clear sky and no streetlights to be seen - so the stars were amazing. And a really clear Milky Way on display along with a shiny bright Jupiter. Brilliant. CP4 was in the garden of a pub in Amberley. It was great to see Jen here, along with the other helpers. I felt proud of how good a race director she is and she was pleased that I was currently in the lead of the women's race (I assumed the whole way that I would be overtaken soon, as there was a very good standard of runners taking part). There was the choice of clambering over a wall, or walking right round to reach the drop bags, food and drinks. I clambered. Some people stopped here for a long time, taking in a hot meal and having a sit down. I thought stopping would not be wise as it would make starting again harder, so I just had a quick coffee, restocked my food supplies (salted nuts, bombay mix, muesli bars, caffeinated gels) and headed on my way.
The trail briefly followed a river (very close to one of the D of E campsites, though it looked completely different in the dark), then went up a long hill. Near the top, I got to a fork that could have been the one I needed to turn left at, though I thought I shouldn't quite be there yet. While pondering this, I saw a couple of lights approaching. They could only really be other competitors, so I waited a bit for them to catch up to see if they agreed about my routefinding. They knew this section and confirmed that it was the next fork we'd turn at. I stuck with Graham and Euan to CP5. It made a change to have someone to talk to (other than myself). We soon came to part of the South Downs Marathon route so I felt I knew the way again for a while. It does look very different without the sunshine though. The path here is chalky and was alternately slippery and sticky. At a slippery part I managed to slip and fall. It made my right hip flexor twinge and I landed with a thud on my left side. Not too painful, though I have some great bruising on my left hip and scratches on the calf. The right leg was more of a problem - I could still run fine, but it wouldn't lift properly, which would be fine if there were no stiles (more on that later...).
I parted company with the boys after CP5, but that meant that without the chatting, I began to feel very sleepy. It was a huge struggle to stay awake from about 3am to half past 4 or so when I arrived at CP6 in Queen Elizabeth park (where the South Downs marathon finishes). I experimented with different methods of avoiding drifting into slumber, none very successful. Singing along to the iPod wasn't good as I was too tired to make noises even approaching being tuneful. I tried waving my arms about a bit, but the shoulder was very sore and it didn't help much anyway. The sugar rush from some jelly beans was the best I could do. I was very much looking forward to sunrise, but that was a couple of hours away at least.
After CP6 the extreme difficulty of navigation kept me alert. I was going up a grassy hill with no marked track. There were signposts about halfway up and at the top, which would probably be quite useful on a clear day. But it was foggy. The light from my headtorch reflected off the fog. I tried all the settings on both torches, but about 2 metres visiblity was the best I could achieve. I tried switching the light off, thinking there may be a little residual light in the sky. Nope: no moonlight and just inky dark pitch blackness. So, torch back on, I was relying on my map and compass and going by feel as I knew it had to be uphill. I proceeded quite slowly and felt almost euphoric on seeing each of the signposts with their little acorn symbols, indicating I was still on the right route. Progress was slow, even on a good downhill section (where the track was rough and I was being careful not to fall), until dawn gradually brought the much needed light. It was very nice to finally arrive at CP7 with only 12 miles to go and a beautiful sunny day beginning.
What was not so nice was that the next section involved steep hills with over half a dozen stiles. One very angry right leg complained loudly at me. I tried to placate it with ibuprofen which reduced it to more of a whinge. This section was only 5 miles and the time zipped by. The 'running' was pretty slow, but still happening on the downhills at least and even on some of the flat bits. The final section was 7 miles. The home stretch. No steep hills, but some definite undulations. I had an eye on the time now. The 24 hour 100 was clearly never going to happen this time, but I was certainly looking at sub-25 and maybe even sub 24 and a half. So I kept pushing right through to Winchester.
Where I arrived with a time of 24:24:10. First lady and 8th place overall. Got to be happy with that. Jen presented me with the trophy and we were both delighted. A really enjoyable event and hats off to all who made it so. Huge thanks to Jen and all the Fetchies and other volunteers who made it special. The inaugural South Downs Way Race rocked - one of the best ultras in the UK.