Adventure on the South Downs Way

Last year when I discovered that I was to become an ambassador for Endurancelife, I had the opportunity to enter the X-Man. The X-Man is a long distance (Ironman) triathlon. Before you ask, there is a reason I have gone to the dark side. This event is a little different. It’s all off-road! The 2.4 mile swim is in the sea at Eastbourne, the 112 mile mountain bike is along the South Downs Way and the 26 mile run is along the Clarendon Way. To make things a little more exciting, the swim is in the evening, forcing you to do the mountain bike through the night. Now I’ve done a fair bit of cycling in my previous life and a fair bit of mountain biking, but not the combination of, night, off-road and the distance, so this will be new ground for me. Between my cycling life and my ultrarunning life I did a few triathlons including an Ironman, so feel fairly comfortable with it all, though I know that it will be a tough night in the saddle. When Lou one day asked if I thought she could do the X-Man. I answered that as long as she put in the time, was

structured and stuck to the schedule, didn’t injure and above all wanted to do it, then I saw no reason why not. She entered.

Part of her plan for training and for confidence was to spend some time on the South Downs Way so it wouldn’t be a big surprise on the day (night!). We planned in a day and I of course thought that seeing as it is a Trailblaze course, it would be silly to not run it. So, the plan was for me to run from the start in Eastbourne on Friday evening, run through the night and for Lou to meet me 12 hours later in the morning on her mountain bike and hopefully ride with me till hopefully the end in Winchester. This was a totally new concept for the both of us so we had no idea how it would pan out. I had never stepped foot on the SDW, so didn’t know how easy it was to follow. Previous runs like this have taught me that an incredible amount of time accumulates while stopping and checking maps to make sure you’re on the right path. Weather of course affects things a lot. Also, we had no idea how us riding/running together would work. If the weather was cold then Lou could get cold going my speed so may have to go ahead by herself. We were going to have to take this as a step-by-step, pedal-by-pedal day. Should be fun!

Time was pretty tight if I was to start on the Friday night and if we weren’t going to take any time off of work. We left work early after working the time up during the week, got changed into our kit at work and caught the train into Temple Meads where we had a 20 minute wait before the next leg to Southampton. It was really busy as normal for a Friday as everyone escaped the clutches of work and got as far away as possible. As the train pulled up, we looked for the sign that signified that bikes were stored there and headed towards it. The train was stupidly busy, but we had reserved seats. As we got to the door the station staff told us that we’d have to leave the bike behind as there was just no room for people let alone bikes! He wasn’t going to change his mind. We had about 4 minutes to work out what the hell to do! I had to get to the start that night whereas Lou just needed to get to the B&B she had booked up. There were trains every hour, so she could take her chance on the next one. I boarded and sadly left her behind. Damn, this isn’t going to well! Thankfully in an hour, I heard that Lou had got on the next train. All was coming back together.

My trains were all really busy but were all on time so I arrived just as it was getting dark in Eastbourne at 1810. I walked out of the station and dumped my bag on the floor while I found my gloves, cap, torch and map, before hoisting my weighty bag on to my back and tightening it up to minimise it bouncing around too much. I then begun running towards the seafront, turning right and following the road for around 3.5km to the first sign with the first Trailblaze box on it. I dibbed in before turning and following the sign which pointed directly up a steep grass hill. It was short, but it sure warmed me up. Once I was on top, I was suddenly alone. Behind was the ugly glow from the town but ahead was darkness. I could still see just about so left the light off. I could see from the map that I had a fair way along the rolling coastline before turning inland. I was feeling the thrill of being alone already. It felt so desolate out here even though I knew there was a road nearby. Maybe it was having the sea just to my left over the edge of the cliff, maybe it was the difficulty I was having following the path, which kept disappearing due to the grass being so short I kept thinking I was on a golf course. I felt good and pushed on and soon enough I had arrived at the first cp at Birling Gap. I dibbed in and ran on, taking a quick swig of my Lucozade. It was pretty exposed up there and the wind was blowing into my face with a lot of force. Fortunately it wasn’t too cold, but due to the strength of the wind I was feeling it in my hands as usual. After a lot of this, my eyes were feeling pretty sore and dry, so I kept rubbing them trying to moisten them up again. I was now looking forward to turning inland to escape the wind a little.

After dibbing in at the Seven Sister cp I turned in land and sure enough got a little respite from the battering of the wind. I was now running on trail that was much more attractive for me. Through woodland and beside hedgerows. That’s more like it. Maybe if I had been able to see the view on the coastal section I would have enjoyed it more. It still doesn’t hold the drama of the South West Coast Path, but then again not many places do! After some fun singletrack I dropped into the village of Alfriston. I was at 20km here, so I stopped and texted Lou to tell her my distance and my location. We had agreed this beforehand so that she would have a slight idea where I would be if there was a problem. I ate a 9bar and washed it down with some more Lucozade, then carried on through the sleepy village. When I left the village, I headed up onto the exposed hills again and ran along the top for a fair few miles. I made a slight error following the wrong fence line but no real problem. I was feeling a little soreness in my quads, which seemed a bit early. This made me think that maybe I was a little behind with my drinking so I drank a big gulp as I struggled up the hill.

I had been sick for a while before TransGranCanaria a couple weeks before and had managed to get sick again between then and now. I felt fine now, but had basically had run three times in the previous four weeks. Not ideal, but when is. I was thinking that the sickness had affected my recovery from TGC and I had obviously overdone it, so maybe I was feeling the after effects of the sickness. I wasn’t racing so would just see how things went. I would be taking a solid week off after this anyway so felt ok with the plan. I soon thankfully dropped down off the hills and found a sheltered spot where I sat on the floor and re-arranged my map in the map-case. I was carrying five OS maps covering the whole of the footpath. I had marked the maps with the cp’s, and water points and highlighted the SDW for clarity. I had also cut the maps into just strips so that there was a lot less to carry. This had felt so wrong, as I have a bit of a thing for maps. I think that they are works of art, so to cut five brand new ones up was pretty difficult, but necessary. Dealing with so many maps, I have learnt, takes up a considerable amount of your time when you’re running solo like this. It’s fiddly to have to keep removing it and refolding it. Then when you go off the end of a map you have to get the new one out and put the old one away. It takes longer than you think. When you race, you generally don’t have to deal with maps much. Certainly on this scale anyway.

I stood back up with stiff legs, and slowly begun a steady trot. I passed over the pedestrian bridge over the railway line at Southease before heading back up into the hills. I was again blown around a fair bit and my hands were cold but just about manageable. I had a warmer pair of gloves in my bag but I wanted to save these in case it got worse. The forecast all week had said for a dry night and for the rain to come in around lunchtime. I was grateful to drop down again, this time to cross the A27 where there was another cp. I dibbed in and texted Lou. I had travelled 46km now. I also texted James Elson as planned as he had kindly offered to meet me at Ditchling Beacon to restock me with some gels and drink. I could survive without him, but it would certainly be great for moral if I did see a friendly face. I was straight away climbing back up onto the ridge again. It wasn’t steep so was mostly runnable. I ate and drank some more as I forged on upwards. I enjoyed this part. I think it was largely down to the fact that I wasn’t getting hit so hard by the wind. The running was fairly easy, and I was starting to feel like a decent chunk of the challenge had now been done. I could see the cars making their way up and over what must surely be the road that I would be crossing with the car-park that would contain the next cp and possibly James. I immediately saw the white Trailblaze box on my arrival at the carpark. I glanced around for a car but saw none. I should dib in first. I removed my dibber and went to push it in the hole but someone had jammed a rock in the hole. Bugger! I try to pull it out with my fingers but it was held fast. I looked around on the floor for a suitable rock then gave the rock a helpful nudge, which thankfully loosened it enough for me to pull it out. Now, would the thing still work? I pushed my dibber in the hole and smiled as I heard the hard-worked-for beep sound from it. I then moved on, slowly so as to scan the area properly for cars with my Petzl. Nothing! Never mind. He did say that If he wasn’t here then he may be a little further on at Clayton Windmills. I ran on and made sure to drink some more and eat some more. I had now prepped my head by telling myself that I wouldn’t be seeing James. No problem. I would definitely be seeing Lou in around 4-5 hours. It wasn’t far to Clayton Windmills and when I arrived I didn’t see a soul so just moved on without stopping. It later transpires that there had been a misunderstanding. James was under the impression that I would be contacting him on the Saturday night. My fault I’m sure.

I soon passed through Pycombe and then Addlescombe before passing Devils Dyke. I could see, eerily shining through the low cloud ahead, three bright red lights. I checked my map and could see three radio masts atop Truleigh Hill a little way ahead. The ups were getting tougher now, not because of the gradient but due to my tiredness. The downs were still fairly speedy, but my quads were pretty stiff, though still plenty of life in them. After more steady descent just before I crossed the A283 I sat on the dark, quiet road and did some map rearranging, ate some food and drank some more Lucozade. I then turned on my phone (battery was very low due to train drama the day before) and texted Lou. I was just about to hit 60km. As I stood my legs were really feeling the strain now, but I forced myself to lunge forward to kick start my running.

Motivation to keep moving at any speed can be very difficult when you are alone and not in a race situation. ‘Why bother’ often goes through my mind. ‘there’s no rush’. I often will speak to my legs at these moments and tell them to keep going. I apologise for the relentless abuse, before reminding myself that it is merely pain I’m feeling. I had to cross a footbridge over the A283 before following it parallel for a short while. As I was running I could see ahead the lights of an all-night garage with a Marks and Spencer shop. Would it be open? I could do with some proper food. Something warm would be amazing. Would they even have warm food at this hour? I was about to continue, then changed my mind telling myself it wasn’t a race and the moral boost of something warm would be incredible. I carefully made my way back across the main road and headed towards the lights. It was 0200hrs and thankfully fully open. I staggered in appreciating the warmth as soon as I entered and looked around slightly dazed. Now to make a decision! Warm food, that’s what I wanted. I scanned the shop and found the small supply of hot food. I chose a baguette with salami, cheese and tomato sauce and asked for it to be heated up. Whilst it was spinning around in the microwave, I remembered that I should stock up with some more Lucozade so picked up a couple more bottles. I paid up, put the bag back on my back before sliding the new bottles into the pockets on the front of the shoulder straps. I forced myself to leave the comfortable environment of the shop and re-enter the blustery night with a hot baguette in my hand. As I crossed the road again, I started climbing again and happy that the baguette had cooled down enough to not burn my mouth, I begun eating it as though it was the finest baguette ever constructed. It tasted great and it was amazing to be eating something warm and savoury. Sadly it didn’t last too long but I certainly felt a little boost mentally after ‘treating’ myself. The running now was pretty good. It was rolling a little but nothing too bad. I was getting closer to daylight, It wouldn’t be long till the welcome glow of daybreak would first show.

I suddenly felt a wave of tiredness come over me. I was finding it incredibly difficult to keep my eyes open and stay upright. I was stumbling down the trail like a drunk. I kept going for a little while before realising that it was just to overpowering for me to deal with so I decided to just sit down in the middle of the path and just wait for it to pass. Thankfully within five minutes of sitting in a sorry heap, I realised that I could keep my eyes open a little easier, so eased myself back up and continued running. I soon hit the 80km point in my run, so sat in the path and re-arranged my maps and texted Lou. I would be near to her now. I looked at the map and guessed that I must be a little way past Washington, though don’t remember passing through it. I could see that there was a split in the path with the other way bypassing Washington. I guessed that I must have taken this way. It was now light and my headtorch had been turned off a while ago. I looked at my phone and saw that there was a missed call from Lou. I rang her back and tried to describe my location and realised that I wasn’t too sure where on the South Downs Way I was, though I was utterly convinced that I was yet to reach Amberley which is where Lou had stayed so told her to start riding back along the trail and we should meet. After a good 20-30 minutes of running I saw her riding towards me with a grin on her face. It was so good to see her. I felt emotional as I often do in these long days. Lou feeds me a sandwich, which the Bed and Breakfast had kindly given her for the day.

I now feel a surge of motivation as we make our way along together. Lou’s bike has got a pannier rack attached to the seatpost which, although doesn’t weigh a lot, will certainly be felt on the uphills. Who will be faster I wandered? After a few miles together I feel pretty tired, but like I am going ok. Lou seems ok to be going my speed. We chat lots and the time passes nicely. Lou commented that she had felt rain and I confirm I too had felt it. We are really exposed at this point and it is soon raining lightly but combined with the wind that is fairly strong from our front left, it feels worse. Lou rides ahead at one point to put her jacket and shoe covers on. When I catch her up, I too dig out my waterproof and zip it right up with the hood up. Lou feeds me some more before continuing. The rain is heavier now and the trail is getting pretty wet. No problem for me, but could make things more challenging for Lou. As we make our way over a few hills I realise that I am probably a little quicker over the hills. Lou has to put it in the easiest gears to get up the hills, and if it is too steep and she has to push things get tougher for her. Although I enjoy the challenge that is added by the elements, I would prefer the rain to cease as this is going to be hard enough. I am not alone anymore. We are a team. I am perfectly warm, except for my damn hands which are cold and wet. Can I continue this for the rest of the day safely? I felt incredibly determined and just kept gritting my teeth.

First target is to get to Cocking, which is the first Trailblaze Black band point. As we get closer to Cocking, moral has dropped a little as the rain has soaked us and Lou is feeling pretty cold. Talk turns to what to do when we arrive at Cocking. Continue or not? I pray for the rain to stop and say that we should assess things once we are there. Once we drop down to the road crossing and dib in at the Cocking cp we start discussing what our next move should be. I see that Lou is shivering and decide that we will head the half a mile off route into Cocking village to find a café or something to warm up and eat something warm and get a cup of tea. The battery on my Garmin runs out here. After a very muddy slippery half a mile down a lane parallel to the road we are in the village. It is very small but we find the local, which looks a bit too posh for our soaked, muddy bodies. We check it is ok for us to drip on their floor and are welcomed in. We sit in here and warm up, drink a pot of tea then decide to order some food while chatting about what to do next. As to be expected, the longer we are in the dry warm pub feeling more and more human the more positive our attitudes become. We eventually decide to push on individually so that Lou will get to the end quicker, and stay warmer due to expending more energy.

After more than a luxurious hour in the pub, we thank the landlady for her fantastic hospitality before stepping outside. Within a minute it stopped raining. Amazing! Although our plan was to separate, seeing as the rain had stopped and things looked up, we were together. Ace! After our long break I was feeling really strong so was just pounding down the path knowing full well that it wouldn’t last. There was even really good visibility now. As time drew on, the sky looked more and more as though it would be staying dry from now on. The problem of course was what had already fallen had made the trail pretty wet. Most of it was pretty good, but some areas were difficult for Lou. Spirits were much higher now though so this was all being taken in our stride. My speed for the whole thing so far was very slow, but that is not what matters on these outings. It isn’t a race, it’s a adventure into your mind. I will push hard but only because it makes me feel good. Speed is fun. Sure enough, after a while my energy levels dropped and I kept having to tell myself to keep pushing. We were now within the Queen Elizabeth Country Park woodland dropping down to the visitor centre where the next cp would be. On arrival, we decided to pop into the café and have a coffee and cake. I could get used to this! We were both pretty tired now. After probably a little too long, we continued onwards. Straight away we were on a large uphill. I leant into it and speed walked as best I could. Lou rode as much as possible but ended up pushing. Lou was showing incredible grit as she pushed her bike up the ever-steepening slope. Once we reached the top we followed a road for quite a while that was relatively flat. Once we got back on the trail the going was good. We passed the fort at Old Winchester Hill and begun a descent that wasn’t steep at all, but was incredibly torn up and muddy. The mud was the type that was especially slippery and clung to you in ever growing clumps that made running difficult and cycling nigh on impossible. I was sliding around and Lou was walking down pushing a lump of mud that was hiding a bike. It was now growing darker by the second. We finally escaped the evil mud and used a stick to prod the major lumps off so that the wheels would turn. We were now in Exton, the location of the final cp. We followed the signs and just as we were leaving town I knew that we had somehow missed the checkpoint. It was now pitch black and we had 12 miles left before we arrived in Winchester. Lou wasn’t happy to continue not knowing what the next 12 miles of trail was like. We decided to go back into Exton and work out how to get to a train station so we could get to Southampton where we had a hotel room waiting for us. The problem was, that Exton hasn’t got a lot going on. We needed to get to the train station in a nearby town but we had to get there with an exceptionally muddy bike. We hung around trying to convince taxis to come and pick us up but no one would touch us with the bike. This lasted for around an hour when a lady asked me what was the problem. I briefly explained our dilemma. She straightaway said to not worry. She will sort it out. Her fiancé came out of the pub bearing drinks and she told him what needed to be done. Within minutes we were walking 200 metres down the road where the chaps Mum lived. We hosed the bike down before putting the bike in the boot of his mum’s car. And were sped off to the next town. Wow we could not believe just how incredibly nice these people were to us. Our saviours. They dropped us at the station. The train was over an hour away so we went to a pub over the road where we ordered a massive meal each while we waited.

Eventually we got to Southampton and checked in to our hotel where I showered and passed out in incredible time. What an adventure. This time though Lou got to experience it with me, and she really enjoyed it, hardships and all. I made 88 miles of the 100 and was out for 23 hrs. I don’t have any problem with not making the end, though I will have to go and do the whole thing again which maybe happening fairly soon. What I have learnt is just how much I love these big non-race days. Not only that, but how much I want other people to experience it. It gave me a lot of joy seeing Lou really buzzing over the following days due to her experience on the South Downs Way. I want to see more people experiencing the self organised super long run. I am currently trying to organise something at the moment with another runner, which would be his first monster run that isn’t a race. Maybe I could offer my services to others as a buddy runner for big days out. Hmmm… Please leave feedback if you have any thoughts on this. Anyway. Next up is the Viking Way Ultra in a couple of weeks over the Easter weekend. Will post soon after. Happy running.

5 thoughts on “Adventure on the South Downs Way

  1. Hi Neil

    Your adventures along the South Downs Way was a great read. Pity you didn't make it to Winchester. As you say, you will have to run it all again to get to the end. With the SDW being my local Trailblaze route, it is on my to do list as well, but with being currently out in New Zealand, you have a few months to get to Winchester first!

    Thanks for the great read. I look forward to your next adventure. You definitely fit quite a few in!

    Stuart

    PS If you don't get around to completing the SDW before the end of May, give me a shout as I am back in East Sussex then and you are welcome to stay prior to your run, and if you want some company for the first 50 miles or so, just let me know.

  2. Hi Stu. Looks like I will be having another go at it soon. Thanks for your kind offer. Maybe when you do your attempt at the SDW I could join you? Would be great fun.
    Hope your enjoying your homeland.
    All the best,
    Neil.

  3. Great read. Really inspiring me to move up a gear. I managed 48 miles of the SDW on my first attempt. Will try again! Just booked up for my first proper ultra too … I blame you Neil! Hope to meet up at a race soon. Cheers, Steve.

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