The Centurion South Downs Way 100 (SDW100)

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The Centurion South Downs Way 100 (SDW100)

I like to think I'm half decent at road running but in the last few years I've gravitated to the trails and, more recently, the mountains where what road 'skills' I have vanish like Pringles.  Every recent race has been an education.

I used to be obsessed with times and searching for the flattest half marathon or marathon course, but such ephemera have pretty much gone (I'm still planning on one last go in Berlin this year) and now it's all about the bucket list.  I'm a very black and white person and my views on obsessively chasing the PB have suddenly switched sides like a drunk in the bar, suddenly arguing the positives of artificial turf. I'm telling everyone who'll listen to get out on the trails.  I'm not pushing people to try 100 miles just yet though.

SDW100 route map
I stayed in the Winchester Travelodge with Ste, Paul and Alan and after a ropey pizza the night before and a fitful night's sleep we stood outside in the drizzle waiting for the taxi we'd booked, unaware someone else in the race had only gone and bloody nicked it!  This isn't chucking out time after foam night at Roxy's.  You don't nick someone's 100-mile taxi!!

I got some of the same pre-start dawning realisation about the enormity of the whole thing that punched me in the nuts at last year's TP100.  Ste, who stands no nonsense, stood no nonsense and quashed it.  But enormous it certainly is - the entire South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne.

As I idly wonder which direction Eastbourne is and just before the start, Centurion guy reels off a few stats and asks 'how many are running their first 100?'. What seemed like half the field of 300 raised their hands to a collective 'you're in for it' ooh from the rest.

The gun goes and we head off for a lap of the field and out onto the Downs with Ste's last nugget ringing in my ears - 'treat it like it's a 24-hour race'.

I've only tried a 100 once before; the TP100 last year on the Thames Path where - to cut through the bullshit - I was weak and dropped halfway.  I knew I had to finish this one otherwise I doubt I'd have considered another for several years. 

Top of my bucket list is Western States, along with everybody else, and it takes some effort to tick it off.  You have to both qualify and get lucky in the ballot (unless you are supremely talented) and because everybody wants to run it, chances in the draw are slim.  But, your draw tickets in future years increase exponentially, assuming you keep qualifying.  So, not finishing this race means Western gets shoved into the long, ungroomed trail.

I won't give a blow-by-blow account of the miles because a) that would be crashingly boring and b) I can't actually remember all that much detail about the race! 

30 miles into the South Downs Way 100 (SDW100)
I deliberately kept the pace down - I'd gone off too fast at the TP100 - and decided to walk the significant ups in lieu of a strict run-walk plan.  The first few of the 14 CPs are widely spaced apart; the second is already 22 miles into the race. 

I find I'm going pretty well - certainly far better than last time out when I hated everything by the second CP - trotting down Butser Hill and into Queen Elizabeth Country Park. But to my annoyance I just cannot get the perpetual mental maths - how far I've gone, how many miles left, what pace, what time can I finish etc. - out of my head. It was a constant obsession, over and over again. I really hoped to just enjoy the ride for as long as possible but just couldn't shake this and dissociate.

There are plenty of gradients and it strikes me that before Transvulcania they would have seemed significant. Nothing seems so after that.  It's obvious a lot of training is actually all in the mind, isn't it?  One race, no matter how tough, can't actually provide any serious physical adaption.

I fell in with Pip and Janette for long stretches.  Pip gave me a small polythene bag he had spare for loading up with food at CPs and browsing through the stuff after you've left.  A fantastic idea!  Especially handy as some of the food - like the sausage rolls - was so dry they took several miles and several litres of water to mash into something that could finally be swallowed. It also helped me eat more than I otherwise would have.  I was conscious later on that I was probably burning an average of 7-800 calories travelling between CPs, yet only replacing less than half that when I got there.  That's only sustainable up to a point.

south dows way views (SDW100)
While on the subject of CP, the volunteers were of course all so astoundingly far beyond the call that they really make the race.  Everyone is looked after and, later on especially, waited on hand and foot.  They also make everyone in the race feel special and I'm sure they're directly responsible for keeping a lot of people going who would have otherwise dropped.

I was still going well past Cocking at 40 miles. I was busy telling myself just that and thinking I could carry on all day when disaster struck and I tripped on god knows what and did that running-bent-double-trying-not-to-fall-over thing before gravity won and I went sprawling.  It really shook me up and twisted the small of my back as I landed awkwardly.  Plus, most painful of all, burst the polythene bag!  Fortunately I got away with superficial cuts and grazes and carried on though in a much blacker mood - another lesson of the long run - stay sharp and remember mood can change literally within paces!

Elaine was crewing me from Washington (54 miles in) and I had a drop bag there so that was an extended stay as kit was swapped over and I tried a meat pasta combo that didn't really sit too well.  I, by contrast, sat far too well and this is one of the things I must work on. Getting in and out of CPs quickly.

mid race south downs way 100 (SDW100)
By Saddlescombe Farm at 66 miles (best food prize goes to here!) I was starting to waver and fortunately at that point Ste and Paul turned up and I got a pep talk.  I wasn't about to drop there realistically - it's only 3.3 miles to the next CP - but I was getting cold and struggling to regulate my body temperature.  Hot drinks didn't seem to be having much effect but I think this was simply stopping moving for too long in the much cooler evening air.  Once I restarted I was quickly overheating again tackling the hill out of the aid station.  And of course, it's fair enough to be tired after running 100km!

The checkpoint at Clayton Windmills was where I had to start digging deeper.  It was dark by the time we arrived and the aid station was some way out and back off the trail.  As it was a drop bag location I'd assumed it was going to be indoors which I was looking forward to but it was just tents.  How these little, insignificant things start to rattle you after being out so long on your feet.

70 miles done - as far as I'd ever gone in one go before - and still 30 more to cover.  I'd had my (quite minor) wobble and barring injury I was going to complete this.  30 is still lots but I decided below 20 and it would feel like the home straight.

A lot of it is now a routemarch with the hiking poles handy for stability though to my delight I am still able to run.  I don't remember much about the miles to Housedean Farm at 76 miles other than they seemed like lots.  There were very few runners in sight from there and until daybreak and I was paranoid about going off the trail.  I managed to keep just behind someone the whole way into Southease and shamelessly let him navigate past half-tracks, sleeping cows and our headtorches reflected back in a ghostly green from the eyes of sheep.  We took a wrong turn just before Southease, which I fixed having retrieved my map so I feel like I paid him back!

I knew the stretch to Alfriston was the last real effort. There would be just 8 miles left afterwards and, being midsummer, the sun would be up from 4am though it had never got totally dark, the lights of the coastal towns maintaining an orange glow on the horizon.   My right hip flexor was moaning and I decided not to risk more damage than necessary and maintain a fast walk rather than trying to run.

Conversation with runners turns from 'how are you going?' to 'how has it gone for you?' as the sun rises and we close in on Eastbourne.  A fella who'd run the grand slam (all four Centurion 100 races in a year) a couple of times tells me the Western States isn't as hard as the SDW!  Music to my ears but I'm not convinced about that! 

It feels like the home straight, especially when I ditch head torch, beanie and gloves with my long suffering crew, Elaine, at about 90 miles.  

Two more checkpoints; two more long stops with a cuppa, two more creaking legs to get going again, but we're in single figures now.  Then one last climb up the chalk path to the trig point where we leave the South Downs Way and drop down into Eastbourne.  It was so welcome to see the volunteer at the trig. It really felt like it was over then.  The descent is pretty grim - narrow and plenty of loose stuff on the trail to trip you so I decided to take it very slowly down into town.  

South Downs Way 100 finsh line (SDW100)

The last few miles last forever with the less attractive parts of the town to navigate as you head for the athletics track and the last victory lap.  I kept asking passers by where the track was - 'not far!' - and pausing for  a stretch but eventually, down a cycle path, it came into view.   It was over!  I walked the lap of Mondo savouring the moment and as I crossed the line I have to admit I had some trouble holding it together - so hard had it been.

south downs way 100 finish line Andrew Cooney (SDW100)
I am so proud of this finish. I'd taken 26 hours and 47 minutes - longer than I'd hoped and obviously more than the 100 miles in a day buckle allowed but it didn't matter as I tucked into the most amazing bacon sandwich, fetched by yet more amazing volunteers.

South Downs Way 100 Buckle (SDW100)
I don't know if I can say I enjoyed it.  It was some experience and as the days have passed, memories have become softer and I'm sure I'll have another go.  I'll probably have to in any case to keep my Western States hopes alive.  Recovery has been fairly quick.  I felt like I had an infection on the Sunday night - my resting pulse was at 60 instead of 40 and I was still struggling to maintain temperature, needing a hot water bottle.  As with Transvulcania I was nauseous for most of the following day though not as badly this time.  The legs took such a hammering that I was climbing the stairs on my knees, hauling myself up with my hands on the bannisters.  A week later and I'm feeling pretty much back to normal!

I still look at the map in disbelief at the distance we covered on foot.

Race Web Site
Movescount Trace - incredibly, my Ambit 2S recorded the whole thing and used less than half its battery!

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