This time last year, I was writing about what went wrong, why I stopped outside an aid station on the outskirts of Brighton and handed my race number to the amazing Centurion volunteers before lying down in the back of my mum’s car and being driven back to Southampton.
12 months and 1400 training miles later, I was back at the beginning of the SDW to right those wrongs.
New shoes (Hoka One One Speed Instinct 2 in black and kumquat) were the only change I’d made to my kit since 2017. Everything else was the same, except one special ingredient: motivation.
You never underestimate running 100 miles, but if you haven’t committed completely to the battle that is ahead of you, the war is already over.
This time, I was still chasing a sub 24 hour buckle but I would be death marching to the end, no matter what happened. Through my training, as well as visualising my celebratory sprint finish, I was thinking through how I would overcome any obstacles.
I pictured breaking a leg and using a stick to hobble to the line. I imagined falling on my already injured hand and carrying it to the finish like Kilian at Hardrock. If I was to feel sick, I would be sick and carry right on.
Start as you mean to go on
My long-time ultra buddy Andy and I headed around the sports field at Chilcomb and out onto the South Downs Way in cool, cloudy conditions.
Compared to the early heat of last year, it was already a relief but as we continued, the chill was replaced with humidity, and things began to get warm and thundery. Or at least we wished the thunder would come. Instead the closeness hung on to every step, leaving me wiping my brow almost constantly, with my eyes stinging as a reminder if I left it too late.
Checkpoints one and two passed in a flash of our speedy water refills, stuffed mouthfuls of fruit and chocolate.
I wasn’t checking times or splits but I knew we were doing OK and even better, we’d formed a cool little group with Alistair from Jersey and Ian who had flown over from New York.
This is the biggest difference between ultras and any other sport. Yes, you want to complete the race and probably want to do so in particular time but you’re out there for up to 30 hours, running at a mainly comfortable pace and finding out why on earth the person next to you thought it was a good idea to run nearly four marathons.
After 40 miles though, small talk can run out as well. Especially when I claimed there was a flat section coming up which turned out to be a lot further away and a lot shorter than remembered. Combined with the midday sun and somehow still increasing humidity, we were all desperate to see halfway. A dousing in a water trough helped but we were all still struggling. Bring on halfway.
Game of two halves
One thing I learnt from my first attempt at 100 miles was that time at aid stations, is time wasted.
Into Washington, pick up drop bag, get stuff out and get out. My crew were on top form, helping me get changed and get going again. My uncle, my cousin and her husband also turned up which was a cool surprise.
Andy was taking on extra salt with a miso soup but I was anxious to get going, not least because it was even hotter in the hall than outside. Alistair was a little way behind by that point so I told Andy to make sure he left when Ali arrived. Unfortunately it was the last time I saw either of them.
Ian, his pacer and I headed up and out of yet another ludicrous climb out of an aid station. It makes complete logical sense to eat and traipse up hill but there is also a real lull after the happiness of reaching another milestone.
A couple of miles down the road, something was beginning to niggle my right foot. I’ve read and listened to enough advice over the years to know that you need to treat a hotspot before it becomes a blister so I waved my companions on and sat down on the grass to look at my feet. Unsurprisingly, they were a bit of a mess but I could definitely see the beginning of a blister so reached for the Compeed before finding out that I hadn’t packed any and had to make do with a strip of pink Rock tape which is usually used for strapping knees.
Socks and shoes back on, I tore off (relatively it was a nine minute mile) after them. It seemed like no matter how much I pushed on the downhills, I never seemed to get any closer so eventually I plugged in my headphones, and tried to settle into a normal pace.
This is the first time in eight ultras that I had resorted to music despite having an “ultra happy” playlist on Spotify. And what a magical time to break out some Bowie, Queen, Elton, Clapton and…Lady Gaga (don’t judge).
The sun was setting behind me as I trotted along Ditchling Beacon, a haze dropping over the poppies and farmland which stretched as far as I could see. Even the bright lights of Brighton were hidden behind looming shadows of hills to come but I was in a happy place and dropping down to Housedean with my head torch on, the last check point with a drop bag.
The dark finale
In my bag I had…a pair of socks, a tubular bandage and two gels. Ridiculous planning which could’ve come back to haunt me if it wasn’t for my crew and the amazing aid station staff throughout.
By now I was roughly 20 minutes up on my planned “A” timing schedule and still feeling good. Somewhere earlier on the trail I’d spoken to another runner who said the climb out of that aid station was the worst and he wasn’t lying. It just kept going, and as the trail turned left or right, it went higher and higher again.
I could see its silhouette against the sea of yellow lights below but the summit just wouldn’t come. And when it did, the green path turned into an infinite concrete strip heading straight back down. I realised that actually, no matter what I saw, it was the opposite of what I wanted.
So close and yet so far. Just 16 miles to go but it couldn’t come quick enough.
After Southease, I climbed up to Firle Beacon and then on to Bo Peep. If the names sound made up, that’s probably because both me and my crew were ready for bed despite three hours to go. It was 2am and we all desperately needed to sleep.
The fact that on a random hill at 2am, three of my nearest and dearest were camped out waiting to give me sweets and Red Bull is something I really don’t take for granted. It made all the difference.
Last year I was at my cousin’s wedding in Alfriston and did a recce of the descent into the village but it looks very different in the dead of night with achy legs and tired eyes. That day I had a Billy Elliott moment with Hall & Oates on a sunny day in September. This time it was Nickelback guiding me into the church hall with the pews and guests replaced by trestle tables and bowls of fruit and biscuits. I was also very appreciative of the massive tub of vaseline that saved my final miles being painful ones (will spare you the details).
Yet another hill, up there with the worst, wound round to right and onto a plateau but still no sign of the final aid station and the finish. I was also serving as a torch for the Irish dude next to me whose headlamp could barely light his hand in front of his face.
Like all SDW aid stations, Jevington was at the bottom of a hill which means a) you have to go down to get to it and b) you’re going to have to climb straight back up.
My feet were sore and three times I almost tripped or fell into a hedge such was the shuffle through the woods but I was still moving forward.
And by now, the morning light had arrived and with it, a red crescent moon and beautiful, if not slightly shrill birdsong. Out came the headphones, off came the torch and I just tried to take it all in.
Somebody overtook me but I didn’t care. I knew that I would make it under 24 hours.
After Jevington, the infamous trig point I was so scared about missing or going wrong was well policed by two chilly looking volunteers. They pointed me to a v-shaped gully which seemed to go on for ever, like the death throes of a wounded monster trying one last time to take me down.
I’ve never been so happy to see a cul-de-sac as I was at the end of that path before it then turned back into an overgrown alley. Ahead a runner was really struggling so I called out “nearly there” before seeing I’d finally caught up with Ian.
He’d also miscalculated the time so suddenly he realised was on for sub-24 even if it was going to be a painful couple of miles. I left him and “bolted” for home before seeing that I still had to head down the main road, cross over, go past the hospital, turn left at the roundabout, follow the path, turn left and then turn right. Would this course never end??
Of course it did.
As I turned in, I could hear the 2nd shift of my crew. The last 400 takes you achingly close to the finish line before turning right to complete a lap of an athletics track. A combination of happiness, achievement and determination for a sprint finish meant that I finished in 22:49:42 with a Ronaldo-esque jumping pirouette over the line (that’s what it looked like in my head).
Clearly I am happy but I’m not sure whether it is relief more than anything. Now I need to work out what happens next in this adventure…Chamonix or Squaw Valley anyone?
That’s all folks
It sounds weird but I don’t really know how I feel about the race at the moment. My head is more of a muddle than my legs and it will take some time to process everything and get my thoughts in order.
All I do know is that I want to thank everyone that has either helped me with my running or put up with me talking/writing about it. On the day my crew of Deb, Chris, Jake, Toby and Victoria were amazing (with a special shout out to Amy and her PB&J sarnies). Thanks to Dave, George and Will for turning out twice and trying another time.
Thanks to all the Centurion running volunteers and organisers for just being amazing, no matter what time of day or night, or the decreasing level of humour in my requests.
I also wanted to say a huge thank you to the people that either messaged me directly or left social media posts. I didn’t check my phone much but when I did they pushed me further and made me take those extra steps.