Monday 14 May 2012

Report on the South Downs Way 100: Self Supported

I blogged about this journey a couple of times in the lead up to it. I was probably the most excited I've been all year to get out and run.

On Saturday morning after our TRA AGM in Swindon, I scooped up Neil Bryant from the station and drove down to Eastbourne. Neil and I didn't know each other particularly well, in fact we'd only properly met once - at our NDW100 last year where he finished 2nd - but as he remarked during the course of the run, what an amazing community the ultra running one is that we could just hook up and tackle an experience like this together. Neil was looking to 'trailblaze' the SDW in it's entirety, checking in at little dibber boxes which record your time and journey at roughly 10 mile intervals along the trail. He had previously run the first 88 miles of it in his first attempt and was back to finish it in one go. 

We managed to park within 10 yards of the trail head which was ideal and after about 5 minutes of getting our gear together, we were off on our journey to Winchester.

The idea was to run the trail self-supported. Now I don't want any 'purists' coming down on us for using that turn of phrase! We weren't being picky and minimalist, it's just that we were pretty happy going about things at our own pace, without any time pressures at all. When you haven't got a crew, an ETA or any onward journey plans, you can totally switch off from everything and just enjoy running for runnings sake. As it turned out we relied almost entirely on what we had in our packs from the start, with the exception of pit stops at Alfriston, Pyecombe and a farm near Exton. 

The first section of the SDW runs across the 7 sisters up to Alfriston. Having never run together before there was always a chance that we were going to struggle to find that magic 100 mile pace - where you hold enough in the tank to be able to run the same speed all the way through, but without being too slow over the initial sections where you feel great. Neil is a phenomenally talented runner having probably his best season ever and I was well aware that if anything, I would be slowing him down rather than the other way around. That being said I was hopeful that I could stay within about 10% of Neil's pace and therefore that we wouldn't have any major issues sticking together. 

As we got going through Seven Sisters park, the hills and hours just seemed to fly by. The sun was out and it was warm but not too hot and the views, as always, were just stunning. 

White Horse above Littlington

We made great time right from the off and reached Alfriston at mile 12ish pretty quickly. Knowing that the next chance to get any supplemental food would be Pyecombe 20 miles further on at best, I scooped up a mars bar and ate it on the move. Neil, on the other hand, was running his own little nutritional experiment which I got a great deal of enjoyment from witnessing. My pack contained 30 gels. Neils contained bags of nuts, cheese, chorizo and olives. He was making a go of running 100 miles on protein alone. Our two strategies could not have possibly been any different but it seemed to make no odds at all.

We departed Alfriston and made our way up to the radio masts overlooking Newhaven to the South and the Weald to the north, the hills bustling with paragliders making the most of the weather. We dropped down the other side into Southease at mile 19ish, re-stocked our water and pushed straight on to Housedean Farm (mile 25ish) and the next tap. In that regard, I can't think of a better trail to have a go at running self-supported than the SDW. I wasn't 100% sure on all the tap locations and distances, but I was fairly sure on them and honestly, there are enough out there not to worry about anything else. I would guess you can get access to water every 6 - 11 miles on average and we did pretty much just that, never stopping for more than a minute to fill up and re-pack the bags before pressing on.

The running was just incredible. I wanted to get out there and connect with the trail. That sounds a bit strange but I did want to make it more of a journey than one dictated around pace, splits, positions and schedules. I think we both got that in spades over the course of the run. 

After Housedean there is a gradual climb up to the ridge connecting to Ditchling Beacon and we ran the whole trail. I think we'd both found our stride and were making really good progress. Nothing super quick, just steady progress and a nice conversational pace, probably about 5mph without fail. We hiked the steeper grades but otherwise seemed to run uninhibited the rest of the trail.

After Ditchling I hit a little bit of a low patch energy wise and my hamstrings began to talk to me but I knew that was just a dip in calories and salt. As we dropped down in to Pyecombe at mile 32ish, we made the decision to leg it across the A23 to the M&S in the service station down the road. This is where our team work came in. I knew where all the taps were and could navigate without maps the first 65 miles of the trail and Neil had the experience of his previous SDW trailblaze run behind him. He knew that the garage would be the last point we could get our hands on anything, probably until morning or even the end of the run so the extra half a mile or so and flirting with the traffic well worth it. We stood in the garage for about 20 minutes as I ate a bowl of pasta with three packets of salt mixed in & Neil ate 8 chicken kebab skewers and bought some scotch eggs. The only thing we had in common diets wise at this stage is that we both bought a load of cheese and devoured that too. 

Out of Pyecombe we climbed up and over the hill down to Saddlescombe Farm, re-filled with water and then climbed up to Devils Dyke at mile 36. The sun began to set at this point and it was incredible to watch it die out from yellow to brilliant orange to red and then fade away to leave us in total darkness. 

Sun goes down over Ditchling Beacon

We couldn't believe it but not only did we not have a good moon to light the way, we had NO moon. It later appeared at about 3am absolutely HUGE directly behind us and bright orange. It was one of the weirder moments of the run....

At this point we were on the Three Forts Marathon course from last weekend and it was definitely still a little more churned up than elsewhere. It was also strange being back on the same trail just 6 days later for such a different sort of run. We finally succumbed to the dark just after Botolphs at mile 38ish and switched our headlamps on, restricted to that all too familiar bubble of light for the next 7 or so hours. 

We made our way to Washington (mile 46), over to Amberley (mile 52) and up to Bignor Hill (mile 58) all completely uneventfully and at a really good clip. We hadn't slowed down at all so our 2 hour first 10 miles had quickly become not much more than a 12.5 hour 100km which was great. By this stage my stomach was all over the place and I had to stop 3 times in quick succession for pit stops, but Neil just walked on down the trail, I caught him up again and we carried on running. It was like we'd run long distance as a team 1000 times before. At around 2am we could hear a free party going on in the woods not too far away, ran through a field of waist high bright yellow rape crop and saw a heard of deer running across the top of Harting Downs - all of which were pretty surreal moments. As we came through Harting Downs and the light started to come up I asked Neil what the giant obelisk on the side of the hill directly across from us was all about. Pretty sure it was just a small hallucination but a pretty good one nonetheless.

Neil in the fields

As the sun came up we were met with clouds of freezing fog but only in the lower reaches of the trail. We'd run along the ridge above and to the side of it and then drop down into the patches that were covered in it where the temperature was a good few degrees cooler. 

Low Lying Clouds coming through Harting Downs

From Harting Downs I knew it was about a marathon to go and we were still moving really well, no enforced walking breaks at any unnecessary points (ie. where it wasn't at least quite a long or steep climb, relatively!) and no stops for anything at all. My energy reserves were low though at this stage as I'd been rationing my gels unnecessarily tightly and I did hope that as we came in to QEC Park with around 22 miles to go, that we'd find the cafe open. At 5:40am we cruised down towards the visitor centre and saw the first other people anywhere for the last 50 or so miles and they were cooking bacon and egg sandwiches on a barbeque. I couldn't believe it. We wandered over and asked them if they would sell us something and to my disappointment they said we'd have to wait a half an hour to see what was left from when the rambling club had come through and taken their share. No way we were doing that, so instead we ran on to the visitor centre and sat down for 5 minutes where we had a scotch egg each. The stuff of dreams.

Scotch Egg at Mile 80

The sun was really coming up as we crested Butser Hill with around 20 miles to go and it was finally time to shed lights and jackets and get the job done. We pushed on to Exton and ran almost everything, I knew though that I was marginally slower than Neil would have been on his own at some points at this stage. For 80 miles in to a run, I felt good, just that little bit less quick than Neil but it didn't really seem to make any difference. We both just got on with the job at hand and cracked on to Exton. Just before the village, we came upon a farm selling tea, coffee and brownies at about 7am for some fishermen - it's amazing what you can find out on the trail - so we went in and treated ourselves. Neil got some fresh milk which seemed to make him pretty happy and I got some sugar which made me equally so. 

As we came in to Exton we were met by a good friend of mine, Paul Bennett, who'd got up early to meet us at QECP. We'd blown our estimated times so far out of the water by this stage, however, that he met us 10 miles closer to home than he'd intended. He about turned, we made it through the last trailblaze dibber point and climbed a steep pitch up out of Exton to the final 10 mile section of trail. 

With the sun up, Paul's company and some energy inside, I think we both felt tired but happy that the job was done and we reveled in the last section. We ran a good deal of it but were less fussy about how steep a hill had to be to warrant hiking. That being said we didn't let up too much and we crested the final hill overlooking Winchester at around 11am or 21 hours after we'd started. 

Running Down into Winchester

The final few miles

Scaring some horses at mile 98

We wound our way down and across the M3 and in to Winchester town centre where the trail peters out and found King Alfreds Statue where we stood around trying to locate the final trailblaze dibber point but alas it had been torn off of the waymark post. That was it, our journey was over.

At the statue in the centre of Winchester

All in all Neils Suunto ambit came up with around 3855m of climbing for the 100ish miles in a total time of 21 hours 27 minutes - all in one clean push. I'm pretty proud of that and particularly in how well we handled everything.

Blessed with brilliant sunshine, a cold but not frigid night, great company and good footing for the most part this was an experience I will never forget in almost perfect conditions. I would thoroughly recommend 'journey' type runs like this to anybody willing to give it a go. I think I knew deep down that I was ready to tackle 100 or so miles of trail without any specific reason to do so, but I wouldn't have been ready to do that a couple of years ago. Packing for the run took no time at all, it was just basics really but in poor weather and with less access to water, I'd have needed more. 

I can see myself doing this kind of thing more often, perhaps with the intention of doing one trail in it's entirety each year. 

So after 3 ultras in three weeks it's two weeks of downtime until we fly to South Africa for Comrades. I can't wait to get stuck in to something so completely different from this weekend. I guess that's what this crazy but incredible sport is all about.

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