Tuesday, 16 June 2015

South Downs Way 100 Race Report in Brief

So it's three days after the Centurion South Downs Way 100. Rather than bore you with a full blow-by-blow account of this one, I've kept it to a simple bullet-point list of major events.

  • The race began on a surprisingly warm and muggy morning at 0600. I saw several familiar faces on the start line, including Jonathan Wilkes (whom I met last year at the Cotswold Century), Roz Glover (somehow running this race just a couple of weeks after the monumental GUCR run) and Chris Mills (who was helping out). This was my third Hundred, and my strategy was not to go out too fast. In an ideal world, I'd decided, I'd stick to an average pace of 6:30/km for as long as possible. So I was very much in the middle of the pack as we left the starting field and headed out onto the Way
  • The first miles went pretty much to plan - indeed, I went slightly faster than I'd intended as far as CP2. The landscape rolled beneath a miserably grey, close sky. The trail was busy. I kept leapfrogging Paul Reader from the start all the way to after checkpoint 3 at Harting Downs. The fact we have similar paces bodes well, as I've promised to pace him later this year at the Autumn 100
  • The first half of the course was physically easier than the second. As the elevation profile shows, the first half rolls more gently, typically dropping and rising 50-70m at a time; the second half is a savage roller coaster, dropping and rising around 200m at a time. But despite the nastier hills being at the end, I think the race went in the right direction as there was a lovely tailwind from the West for most of the day
  • The weather forecasts had been full of lies! I literally checked four weather forecasts the day before the race and they all said it would be overcast throughout the day - to the extent I left my sunglasses at home to save weight. Well, naturally the sun rose to this challenge. It broke through the clouds later in the morning and baked us for the remainder of the day. 
  • As a result, I got pretty badly dehydrated. On the descent after Bignor Hill (CP5), I popped into a bush to have a pee and three miserable drops of HP sauce were all that emerged. With hindsight, it was frightening how insidious this process was - at no point did I feel unusually thirsty and I'd certainly been drinking as much water as I felt I needed... but the tank was dry. I started forcing myself to swallow as much water as I could stomach and took two salt tablets every hour from then until sunset. I started peeing properly again about 3 hours later. This is definitely something to stay ahead of in the future when the weather is hot. 
  • Just over half way, I was waved down to the Washington aid station by Elvis (thank you very much!) and grabbed my first drop bag, trying to stay there as short a time as possible. I quaffed two rice puddings and a big can of Red Bull (raaarrr!). Jon Fielden came in looking hot and unhappy. He had some bad blisters and was feeling the strain. I tried to remind him he was actually making good time and then got out again before that chair became too comfortable. I was still feeling pretty good at this point. 
  • From Washington there's a big climb up to Chactonbury Ring, from where there's an even bigger descent to Botolphs. Part-way down this hill, I crossed a road where I found one runner standing bare-chested with another runner shivering beside him, despite being wrapped in his own clothes, a foil blanket and the other runner's shirt. Exhaustion had got to this guy, and he was suffering miserably as he waited to be picked up. "Do you have a spare layer?" asked the bare-chested runner. I offered the long-sleeve shirt and foil blanket I was carrying. Thankfully they just wanted the blanket. The spare shirt I was carrying was from the Cotswold Century: I had to run 102 miles to get that shirt so I'd have been sorry to lose it ;)
  • Accompanied by a nice guy in a green shirt, whose name I didn't catch, I passed through Botolphs checkpoint still feeling good. Sarah Sawyer and the rest of the crew cheerfully sent us on our way up the long slow climb from Botolphs to the Youth Hostel that sits high on the hill above. 
    • (A quick aside: The name 'Botolph' sounded familiar. I later checked and, sure enough, the Centurion Winter 100 race also goes past a St Botolph's Church in Swyncombe. And a quick bit of Wikipedia research reveals that St Botoph is the patron saint of travellers. Interesting coincidences! Should we ever need a patron saint of ultrarunning, I know who I'll nominate)
  • At the top of the climb from Botolphs, the worst thing that has ever happened to anybody happened to me. As I climbed the tarmac road, alternately running and walking short stretches, I started to feel the terrible downward force of a massive poo wanting urgently to escape. This was the nightmare scenario that had been on the cards ever since I could produce nothing in my hotel that morning. The path rolled up and down along the edge of the escarpment and, as the waves of hill rolled by, so did the waves of peristaltic misery I was experiencing. I was wrestling the poo as best I could, but the poo had the weight advantage. Eventually I could stand it no longer and managed to find a sufficiently dense bush in which I could relieve myself. Long story short... when a poo is as massive as that one, it can form quite a tall, dense cone after it hits the ground. Indeed, it can stand so tall and proud that a squatting runner's fingers can accidentally plough a furrow right through the vile bum-mousse when they are going in to wipe with the toilet paper :( If you happened to be running on that stretch and heard a shrub shouting "Oh fuck, noooo!" then no, you weren't hallucinating. 
    • (If I later shook your hand, don't worry - I spent about 30 minutes scrubbing the skin off my knuckles at the Saddlescombe checkpoint)
  • The second drop bag was at Clayton Windmills. More rice pud and Red Bull. Still feeling pretty okay at this point. I even managed to run a bit of the climb back onto the ridge
  • Through Housedean Farm and up to the long stretch which included the Yellow Brick Road. At the end of this concrete track I conceded defeat and put my headtorch on for the final drop into Southease. Just outside here I ran into a cyclist, who turned out to be Nick Balding - with whom I ran a big chunk of the Winter 100 last year. "You should have asked me to pace you" he said. Yes, I probably should! 
  • I knew from studying the route that, from Housedean, the route basically consisted of four more big climbs. The thing I'd failed to realise is that one of the stretches - the second of the four, from Southease CP to Alfriston CP - is also relatively long at 12.2 km. As I left Southease I started to feel properly tired for the first time. The climb back onto the ridge was painful, but I managed to keep a rhythm going by swinging my arms forcefully and didn't need to pause at all on the ascent. But as I climbed, a dense mist rolled in. This meant visibility by lamplight was reduced to just a few metres. This might not have been so bad, but on this stage of the route, the normally impeccable Centurion route marking was pretty sparse. Just as we most needed reassurance we were on track in the dark, there was very little of it. In many places, the route was visible only as patch of slightly shorter grass amongst a sea of slightly longer grass. It would have been very easy to get off route here. This slowed me down on the long ridge walk and, critically, gave my morale a blow as I was constantly worrying about going in the wrong direction. The stretch across the top here, past Firle Beacon, seemed to last forever. 
  • I dropped into Alfriston, where the checkpoint was in a lovely village hall. I was feeling such a mixture of emotions at this point. The end was so close I could almost taste it! But at the same time, the deep bone-weariness was setting in. I'd long since started to struggle with food, and could only manage a couple of cups of Coke in the checkpoint. Markus Flick came in, also looking shattered. He, I and another runner left at the same time. But I lost them just outside the village when my headlamp battery died and I had to change it by touch.
  • Through fields of sinister cows, I slogged up the long, rocky track to the penultimate hill. I was really slow and struggling by now. My legs were like lead. Oddly, I lost the ability to run on the flat. I could still manage to run (ridiculously slowly!) when facing downhill, but my legs were just too heavy on the flat. 
  • Stumbling down a slope, I emerged almost before I realised it onto the road at Jevington. In the hall here, I was welcomed by Mark Craig and Sarah Barker. Mark and I helped run the mile 95 checkpoint on the Thames Path 100 a few weeks earlier so I knew I'd be booted out of there in good time
  • The last climb was the worst of all. My climbing muscles had really had enough at this point. At one stage, so deeply weary of dragging myself up the endless rocky slope, I sat on a stile for a minute, turned off my headlamp and just enjoyed the darkness and silence. I could have spent forever there
  • And so began the final 3 miles. I somehow managed to start running again on the long tricky track down from the final trig point, and once I hit a residential street I was able to use the downhill slope to crack off a surprisingly good pace. This dropped me to the main road, where I power-hiked along the deserted street, past a petrol station and towards the hospital. I joined the longest footpath in the world, which seemed to go on forever as it looped around the edge of the hospital grounds. I caught sight of two runners ahead of me (I later realised it was one runner and a pacer, but for some reason didn't think of this at the time). 
  • Finally - eventually - the path dropped us across from the sports centre where, in Western States style, the route finishes with a 400 m loop of a running track. I entered the track about 150 m behind the other runners and, somehow, using reserves I didn't think I had, managed to crack off a sprint finish to catch them. The supporting cheers of Fiona McNelis rang across the track - "Go on, Ian!" - as I pumped my arms and legs to an unthinkable pace. I reckon I could have overtaken the other two runners a few metres from the finish line with an all-out effort, but decided that would be the action of a heel given we were hardly fighting for a top-10 slot. The pacer (whom I thought was a contestant) stopped to take a photo just before crossing the line. I shouted "Don't stop now you idiot!", as I couldn't bare to think how he'd feel if I overtook him literally on the finish line 
  • And so I fell through the inflated arch 20:36:00 after starting. I'd gone into the race feeling I could crack 20 hours, but given how hilly and hot the course was, I'm happy with that. It's still 1:48 faster than my previous 100-mile personal best, after all! Next stop: Leadville

Lessons learned

  • Shuffle forward a few steps before wiping your bum
  • Seriously: shuffle forward
  • Shoe and sock nirvana has been achieved! I wore Drymax Lite Trail socks and New Balance Leadville shoes and had zero feet problems through the entire race. Afterwards, the soles of my feet didn't even have the 'hammered' feeling they normally get after an ultra. This is my winning combo from now on
  • The last 15 miles were slow, and in my tired state, travelling slowly was awful because it preyed on the mind. Travelling a poxy hundred metres could take well over a minute, and even four miles between checkpoints felt like an eternity. What I need next time is to be able to slow down less in the final stages. I believe marathoners say that every minute running too fast in the first half of a race adds two minutes to the second half. I think next time I need to look at going out even slower, so that I'm still normal, and not battling, in the later stages. On balance, it should be quicker overall. Go slow to go fast!
    • The science of this: according to Tim Noakes's book, the maximum effort possible over the timecourse of a Hundred is around 50% of your short-distance maximum effort. Based on my recent 5k time, the best possible time I could do with my current state of training on a flat Hundred would be something a little under 18 hours. Given the SDW's hills, I should have assumed, say, 20 hours and budgeted accordingly: (20 hours × 60 minutes) / 161 km = 7.45 mins/km (12 mins/mile). I should probably have gone out at something like this from the start. The difficulty, of course, is (a) allowing yourself to go so slow at the start and, (b) maintaining a certain average speed on such a hilly course when the uphills, downhills and flats will all be very different. But the science suggests that, if I could maintain such an average, this would work and leave me still functioning in the later stages. In this race, even though I went out a bit faster than this plan would suggest, I did hold back quite a bit in the early stages. And sure enough, it paid off as I climbed steadily from 80th place to 30th place over the course of the race. Perhaps even better pacing would have seen me climb from, say, 100th to 20th?
  • As ever, the final word has to go to the Centurion volunteers, who were amazing (even you, Emily, who lied about Southease having jetpacks!). I've done some stints behind the aid station tables myself this year, and so know that in many ways it's more fun and more satisfying than running the races, but still... the care and compassion of these people is something to behold. Thank you all. 

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