South Downs Way 100 2017

 

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On Old Winchester Hill. Photo by Stuart March

Centurion 100 mile grand slam race 2/4
In the week leading up to the SDW100 it felt almost absurd to be making the final preparations for another 100 miles race – it felt like the Thames Path 100 was just a few days ago. Six weeks go by really fast.

Since the TP I had recovered well, almost a little too well. I started training and running again just days after the race. When that went well I took part in a relay race two weeks post TP, running all out for 1100m, followed by 20 km of trail running the next day, followed by strength training and intervals, followed by extremely tight and painful piriformis muscles. Luckily, a few days’ rest and a lot of trigger point massage with a tennis ball took care of the tight muscles. Physically I felt ready for the SDW, however, in other ways I felt unprepared. The SDW has the most elevation of the four Centurion 100 milers, 4000m, though the NDW is considered to be tougher. Having not had a chance to recce the route I did not know exactly how the hills were distributed along the way or the gradients, but a look at the course profile suggested a quite even spread. Everyone is also saying that the SDW100 is a very runnable course, and the finishing times tend to be fast. In the end I gave up coming up with a pace plan, not knowing which sections should be slower and which could be tackled at a faster pace, and instead made a list of the distances between checkpoints and what to eat and drink between them. If you get the nutrition right the rest tends to fall into place.

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I almost have a plan…

5 am, Saturday 10 June: I am sitting in the club house in Chilcombe Sports ground, Winchester. My whole body is shaking, and my teeth are clattering in my mouth. I am getting a little bit worried that I am going to DNF the race an hour before it has even started. The 4.30 registration and 6 am start meant getting up at 3 am, and since our taxi turned up early I have been at the sports ground since just after 4 am. The combination of sleep deprivation and the chilly temperature is getting to me. Thank goodness, by the time the horn signals the start at 6 am the sun is starting to come out and no medics or race officials have deemed me unfit to start. As it turns out, 6 am is the last time this day I will complain of not being warm enough.

Almost a smile at the start

The first miles are run mostly on pleasant grassy surfaces. The first hills makes an apperance not long after the start, and soon the pattern for the day is set: run up a hill, run down a hill, repeat. On the uphills we are sheltered from the wind, cresting the tops we are rewarded with both beautiful views and a cooling headwind. The scenery is amazing, and I try to take in as much of it as possible while keeping up with the runners around me. The hills are of a caliber that I would normally walk up during an ultra, but on the SDW there are so many of them, if you walk them all you are pretty much going to walk at least 50 % of the course. My heart rate is quite high and I am thinking I should maybe walk the next hill, but everyone around me continue to run so I do too. I am convinced I am running with the mid pack runners, I was standing towards the back of the field at the start, and though I advanced quite a lot just after leaving the sports ground there are still many, many runners ahead of me. I think… At one point someone shouts at me I am number 6 or 7, but surely he means 60th or 70th? Although I have caught up with Sara Morwood, winner of Ecotrail Oslo two weeks previous and many, many Centurion races.

Photo: Stuart March

Photo: Stuart March

I chat with a runner who introduces himself as Alex (not the guy in the pictures above), who ran the SDW with a friend last year and when his friend picked up an injury they walked the last 20 or so miles, but still managed a sub 24 finish. This year he is hoping for a less eventful race and a sub-20. I tell him my sister have told me I need to break the course record (16.56 for females), otherwise we will not catch the last train from Eastbourne to Brighton, where we are staying after the race. After checking my watch we establish that I am on schedule and Alex is way ahead of his, after which he speeds up pulls away from me.

Coming in to the first aid station after 10 miles I am in the lead among the ladies, but Sarah is not far behind and comes into the aid station just as I am leaving, and we come into the check point at QECP, after about 33 miles, just seconds apart after running a couple of lovely, long, steep downhills at full speed. Going uphill from the checkpoint Sarah stops to pick up some gels that fall out of her backpack, and I pull away.

After QECP the surface changed from soft grass to more gravel roads and grass mixed with flint. For uphills it doesn’t matter much, but it is much harder on the feet on the flat(ish) sections, and makes me slow down a little on the downhills, as I worry that a fall would more or less surgically remove all the skin on my legs. I can feel blisters forming on my feet but decide to ignore them, and soon they pop and stops bothering me. Then new blisters form, I ignore them, they pop, etc. Still, I fare better than other runners. Afterwards I hear of runners who had to pull out before halfway due to wearing shoes with too little cushioning and their feet getting beaten up. As usual I am wearing New Balance WT980, and very happy with my choice.

I catch up with Alex again, and we establish a pattern where I catch him and pull away on the uphills and vice versa on the flats and downhills. I also meet RD James Elson, who is putting up more marker tape, and tell him the heat is starting to get to me. It is supposed to be 20 ° C, but when in sunlight and sheltered from the wind it feels closer to 30°. I have opted for compression shorts, calf sleeves, mainly for protection against stinging nettles, and a t-shirt instead of the loose sleeveless tops I normally favour in order to prevent armpit chafing. Around midday the calf sleeves starts to feel like leg warmers, and I start to feel that bleeding from my armpits would be a small price to pay for being slightly less hot.

The aid stations are fantastic as usual. For the first half of the race I do not spend much time at them, only grabbing a piece of fruit, a gel to go, and topping up my bottles. I have brought with me satchets of Torq Energy, my favourite electrolyte drink, despite being slightly worried that this will cost me a little bit of time at the aid stations. I needn’t have worried, the volunteers grab both satchets and bottles and mix and refill with great efficiency. While waiting to get my bottles back at Bignor Hill I grab a some pieces of light yellow fruit flesh. When I put it into my mouth and start chewing I am in for a surprise – who on earth thought it would be a good idea to feed us raw swedes at the aid stations? I chew some more – it turns out to be really unripe mango.

Probably near the top of Kithurst Hill, at approximately 50 miles.

Between Bignor Hill and Kithurst Hill I catch Alex a couple of times again. He is starting to cramp, and I can feel a twinge or two myself in my hamstrings and adductors. I have been taking S-caps at more or less regular intervals and cross my fingers that they will do their ususal magic. Coming up a long steep hill my calves are burning and my hamstrings and glutes ache. They have been aching since mile 10, but at a pain level that is managable. I stop to admire the view and take a selfie before continuing. I am thinking that if I had been more familiar with the course I would have trained somewhat differently this winter. I have had quite a few simulated rolling hills treadmill workouts, running at various inclines for 45-60 minutes at a time. Outdoors I have avoided the most hilly routes, as too many hills have tended to irritate the hamstring and glute insertions the last couple of seasons.  Now I think that the type of hills I have been running have been appropriate to the SDW when it comes to surface underfoot and gradient, I should just have run each hill multiple times before continuing on to the next. A regular 2-3 hour long hilly sessions on a treadmill, using the rolling hills program, would also have been useful. On the other hand, had I done that would I have ended up overinjured instead of underprepared? (My mantra, which I make every athlete I coach learn by heart, is «better undertrained than overinjured».)

At the Kithurst Hill aid station at 50 miles Alex decides to throw in the towel when every muscle in his legs start to cramp at the same time. I continue on to Washington at 54 miles, looking forward to having a proper break, the traditional pasta, and indoor toilets. As usual when the weather is warm I have been struggling to follow my nutrition plan, and for the last 20 miles I have only been drinking Torque and eating fruit at the aid stations. I really need that plateful of pasta.

At Washington I am delighted to discover that vegan pasta now seem to be the default with Centurion. I give the bowl of pasta a chair of its own while I drink some cola and retrieve my head lamp and more gels from my drop bag. I am planning on a quick stop, no change of shoes or clothing, but I do think it’s worth sitting down for a few minutes to eat as much pasta as possible, providing me with energy for the last half of the course. Then Sarah enters the aid station, and she does not even sit down, just picks up a few sandwiches and storms off again. I rush to get ready to go again, and only as I am speed walking behind Sarah back up the hill to the trails I realise that I forgot to use the toilet, and only ate two mouthfuls of the pasta. I don’t have the energy to keep up with Sarah, and she pulls away.

A few miles after Washington I have stopped in the middle of a descent. At the top of the hill there was an arrow and marking tape, but there were two trails going down, one on each side of a fence, and now they are diverging. I see no other runners in front of me and no signs or markers. I decide to climb back up the hill to double check the signs, and therefore I end up swapping places with the lady who is in third place behind me as she is coming downhill. Actually, no longer being in the lead or chasing the lead feels like a relief. Now I can just run my own race, find a comfortable pace, enjoy the day, and maybe find some energy for a strong finish.

After the half way point the course turns towards the coast, and I am treated to the thumping bass from a music festival down on the coast and views of the sea and Brighton in the distance. At the Botolphs aid station at mile 61 I am greeted enthusiastically by volunteer Sarah Sawyer, second lady at the Thames Path this year. She has way more energy than me. Botolphs is near a road, on the other side of which a massive hill is rising. No prices for guessing where the South Downs Way trail is headed! By now I have gone from running to run/walk intervals to walking all the hills.

Coming into the next aid station at Saddlescombe farm, at 66,6 miles, I still have not managed to eat or drink anything other than Torq and fruit, and I really need to get some proper food down. Saddlescombe is lovely, they have plenty of vegan food, but they do not seem interested in having runners hanging around. When I am there it’s being run like a take away and we are told to put our choice morsels in a sandwich bag and eat them going up the next hill. How does anyone ever manage to do that? I only have enough breath to walk uphill or eat, doing both simultaneously is impossible. For the next 10 miles until the next aid station I therefore continue to drink all my calories, which makes my stomach feel full, but does not provide me with enough energy. During the long descent down to Housedean Farm (77 miles) my stomach suddenly revolts, and I start vomiting as I enter the check point. Thankfully, this time I avoid vomiting on people, and I also manage to run round the back of the tent so that the runners coming after me will not have to stand in a puddle of sick while eating.

I decide to sit down and eat the hummus sandwiches the ladies at 66,6 gave me, and not leave the aid station until I have managed to eat. There are not many other runners there. (Of course the information I got at the beginning of the course was correct, I went out way too hard and have been in the top 10 most of the day. The middle of the pack runners I was running with in the beginning was in fact the male top 5.) This means all the volunteers at Housedean rally around me. They seem concerned that I might drop, but all I want is to eat something and contact my sister Sara, who is waiting at the next aid station, from which she is going to pace me to Eastbourne, to say that I will be there later than expected. Race time is 13.45, I can walk the rest of the way to Eastbourne and still get a sub 24 finish.

When I retrieve my phone I get a message on the screen saying I need the PUC code to unlock it. While in my backpack it has switched itself on and somehow the SIM card has been locked. (When I later unlock it again I find out my phone has been very busy texting several of my contacts, tried to delete several apps, edited some photos from colour to black and white, and also added frames to the same photos.) Sharon, one of the volunteers from Centurion, lets me use her phone, but the Norwegian cell phone number is not recognised. A message is therefore sent to the Centurion crew at Southease for them to convey to Sara. As I leave Housedean one of the Centurion guys keeps me company for the first mile, I think his name was John.

At the top of the hill after Housedean I manage to run for a little while. On the other side of the hill I meet my sister, who has been told by a marshall at Southease to run towards me instead of waiting at the check point. She is saying the same as I have been telling myself – the slower pace means it’s easier to enjoy the views, and no matter the finishing time or result we will have a great evening stroll/jog on the South Downs. She takes my mind off my nausea by telling me in great detail about what she has eaten during the day, and all the deserts on the menu of a new vegan restaurant she has discovered in Brighton. At least until the next uphill, where I am bent over double, dry heaving.

Sara’s pacer duties included taking photos

Nice sunset, shame about the runner about to throw up

​Sara gives me a ginger shot to help with the nausea, but apart from that I don’t eat or drink anything. Coming into Southease at 84 miles I therefore need to sit down again, and suddenly remember that the nice guys at Housedean put a bag of crisps in my backpack. While I try to eat this and drink some flat cola I am overtaken by another female runner, and am now in fourth position.

As we leave Southease the sun is setting. We wait until we are at the top of the hill after the aid station before we turn on our headlamps (there is a pattern emerging here – virtually every aid station is at the bottom of a hill). We are careful to check the signs to avoid ending up in Seaford, and I am very glad Centurion has not decided to send us down to the coast and over the Seven Sisters on the way to Eastbourne. I continue to alternate running and walking, and now manage two bites of a Nakd bar in addition to drinking. It tastes pretty good, the problem is that my mouth is so dry any food turns into a huge doughy lump that is near impossible to swallow. Earlier I had used a couple of Powerbar Performance Smoothies, now I regret not bringing more of them. They weight more and have less calories than regular gels, but are easy to eat as you can squirt them almost directly into your oesophagus.

At Alfriston at mile 91 I spend 15 minutes eating three salty crackers and drinking more flat cola in an attempt to settle my stomach, only to vomit everything up again in an alley after leaving the aid station. The 15 minutes is not a complete waste of time as I have a very nice chat with the volunteers, until I am more or less kicked out and told I should hurry up and get to the finish. (From photos posted on Facebook later it seems that my procrastination was interrupting an epic night of selfie taking.) At the final aid station, Jevington, I decline to go inside, thinking it will just be a waste of time to try to eat. With only four miles to go it looks as if I will manage a sub-20 finish.

I have heard stories about runners getting lost up by the trig point above Jevington, taking the wrong path and ending up at Birling Gap instead of Eastbourne. Centurion has promised to mark this section well. What we find when we get there is reflective tape dangling from every bush and tree, glow sticks, massive arrows on the ground, and two guys with high viz  clothing an torches pointing us in the right direction. We take a few seconds to admire Eastbourne by night, and the view of the sports ground where the finish is, before descending down the gulley. The path is overgrown with lots of stinging nettles at exactly the right height to sting the unprotected, sunburnt skin on my thighs.

Centurion has a video of last couple of miles from the trig point to the sports ground on their web site, and my impression was that it was only a short dash through a residential area and down a tarmac track. Running through the residential area I have been out for just over 19 hours. I speed up, but the finish is further away than I thought and I have to slow down again. I tell my pacer my new goal is to finish in a time faster than 19.34, if I can manage this I will have the three fastest 100 mile times by a Norwegian female, beating Hilde Ackenhausen’s time from the Thames Path last year (my own two finishing times from the TP are the two fastest by a Norwegian female for this distance). As we get closer to the sports ground I speculate that I might even be able to beat my own finishing time from the Thames Path last year, 19.11, but then immediatly dismiss is as unrealistic. Entering the athletics track my watch says 19.10. I am still fourth female as I cross the finish line, 16th overall, and when I stop my watch the display says 19.11.

Happy runner. Photo: Stuart March

Happy pacer. Photo: Stuart March

When my finishing time turns out to be only 20 seconds slower than my 2nd place finish at the Thames Path last year, I decide to say I equalled my second best ever 100 mile finishing time. The SDW turned out to be tougher than anticipated, but when having a bad day means finishing a 100 mile race as 4th female/16th overall in sub 20 hours I can’t really complain, especially when the competition was as fierce as in this year’s SDW100. The goal I set myself when I decided to enter the grand slam last year was a sub 20 finish in all four races. I did not dear to put this in words anywhere, thinking it might be wildly overambitious, and now suddenly a 19 hour finish is almost disappointing.

Still not feeling so great

I stay at the finish for a while, but after continuing to vomit everything I eat and drink back up again I decide to call it a night. I get a sick bag from one of the medics before getting into a taxi, just in case.

The next day my apetite is back, and I start the day with a picnic on Brighton beach. My quads are thrashed, but not any worse than following a hard leg workout with squats and lunges. The slower pace in the second half and walking up all the hills meant that my hamstrings and glutes recovered during the race, and, apart from a couple of blisters, my feet are fine. That makes it two 100 mile races in a row without injuries, yay!

Eating all the foods in Brighton after the SDW. All vegan.

Now I have two months to recover before 100 mile race 3/4, the North Downs Way. Having run the NDW in 2015 I think this is my favourite race ever, and comparing the SDW and the NDW I will say that I found the SDW much harder. If I had been familiar with the SDW course I would probably have trained differently last winter, however I am confident that what I have done, and what I plan to do training wise this summer, will mean I am well prepared for the NDW. Hopefully the south of Norway will have a heatwave in June and July so I can fine tune my hot weather nutrition strategy and race outfit too.

All you other grand slammers, vegan runners and the Centurion army – see you in August, and I am looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

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