South Downs Way again!

Ultrarunning is a beautiful sport. Obsession, passion…? Call it what you will, but I will always argue that it is beautiful. I could list off a few reasons to back this up, but the reason I started a post with it is because of my recent adventure on the South Downs Way. At the end of my post from my initial attempt on the SDW, I asked if anyone was interested in joining me for one of these trips, as I know there are many people who are capable of it, but will probably never experience it out of the race situation. James Elson responded that he’d love to do the SDW in one hit. This was perfect as I obviously had to return to complete the task and James knows the SDW pretty well as he has spent a fair amount of time there. He also is the RD of Centurion Running who are one of the most professional race organisers in the country with the SDW 100 being on their portfolio. Although James was familiar with a great deal of the trail, he had never ran it in one go, so it would be a new experience for the both of us.
So why beautiful? Well, it’s just that we had only ever met very briefly at the North Downs Way 100 last year. Me as competitor and he as RD. We didn’t really speak but he seemed like a really nice guy. When he contacted me, I didn’t even consider that this wouldn’t work. I knew that he was strong enough. All I was concerned about was whether we could find a date to squeeze it in. Thankfully this was a fairly simple task and that was that. It was only once it was all set up that I considered the fact that we barely knew each other. We were going to run, just the two of us, all through the night for around 24 hours with no escape from each other through the ups and the downs, physically and mentally. This is why I say beautiful. I was positively excited by the prospect. I couldn’t wait to have someone with me who I would certainly get to know fairly well, through the incredible experiences that would unfold before us. This would be a new experience for me too!
My time surrounding this were as follows: Two weeks before I would race the Fellsman, followed the week after by the Endurancelife festival. The week after I would be in the Lakes helping Alpine Oasis with their Keswick running holiday. The week after this I had no plan, then the following week was the Hardmoors110. This is a 110 miler that follows the whole of the Cleveland Way. This is a real busy schedule for me and felt like any more would be too much and would open me up for injuries and not enough rest time. Needless to say if you are familiar with my rest discipline, you will probably have guessed that between each of the weekends I would be focusing intently on doing nothing. James was doing the Highland Fling five weeks before and Comrades in South Africa three weeks later so he also was pretty stacked.
James was in Swindon for the Trail Runners Association AGM the night before so I caught a train to Swindon in the morning where James was waiting for me in the car park. The drive down was pretty straight forward and was good for us to get to know each other. I was determined to really try and survive on a minimal carbohydrate diet for a 100 miler, so had bought lots of cheese, chorizo, nuts and Udo’s oil capsules. I had some carbs stashed in the bottom of my bag in case things didn’t work out, but this was strictly emergency only. I found it hard in the race situation to keep off the carbs as every cp table was loaded with sugary carbs that would tempt me and ruin my experiment. There would be no temptation here.
The weather was stunning on the way down to the end of the SDW in Eastbourne and we were both getting excited to be getting started on our venture. The forecast was dry for the period we’d be running which would be fantastic if true. There had been a tremendous amount of rain in the last few weeks so I was fully expecting for it to be a bit of a mud-fest underfoot. We soon arrived in Eastbourne and made our way to the end of the trail. We looked around for place to park and noticed that there were spaces at the very end of the trail. A car pulled out and we were in. metres from the first post with the Trailblaze dibber on it. The car could also stay there overnight for free! Excellent! We sorted ourselves out and within 10 minutes we were at the finger post, me with the dibber in one hand. I pushed it in till I heard the beep that signified the beginning of our adventure. I quickly started my Suunto before pocketing the dibber and we immediately begun walking up the steep initial climb.
It was a truly beautiful day, and I was expecting the wind to hit us once we crested the hill but there was just a cooling breeze! I recalled to James the fact that last time I did this it was almost totally pitch black at this point yet here I was a couple of months later and it was before 1400. There were 6-7 hours left of light. We will be travelling much faster than when I was solo for a few reasons. We pretty much knew exactly where we were going between us, it was light, plus being evenly matched speed wise I was expecting us to motivate and keep momentum going. We hadn’t brought a map as so would not be spending time constantly keeping an eye on our progress.
The cliff tops were very busy with people out enjoying the weather, and the views were just incredible all around. We soon passed the house converted from a lighthouse, and before I knew it we were dropping down to Birling Gap. We were nearly two minutes quicker than before at the dibbing in point. We didn’t stop and kept going up the slope that takes you back up to the cliff top. The next section was along the rolling hills of the Seven Sisters. This was tough but a fun section to run. All was good and we were chatting loads getting to know each other better with each footfall. Soon we turned inland and soon crossed the road where the next dibber was. We were now over 4 minutes quicker. We both were feeling good and seemed to be hitting our stride nicely. It just so happened that we both seemed to be a pretty even match. This could make for a swift day! The stiff little climb up to the woodlands got me sweating reminding me to drink, which in turn reminded me to eat something. I pulled out my bag of cheese and had a handful before washing it down with some water.
It was nice to be in the woods. We always kept moving and would do so until forced to slow through tiredness. As mentioned before, if we were evenly matched then we could operate well as a team, but if this didn’t work, or if one of us sustained an injury or had an exceptional low point thing could really slow down and become tough. One advantage of moving alone is there is only yourself to go wrong. No frustration at anyone else, just yourself. So far so good. I learnt that the South Downs Way held a place in James’ heart. This was his favourite running spot. I personally prefer something more dramatic and craggy, but today the South Downs way really living up to James’ high expectations, with beautiful views for incredible distances every step of the way. The beauty was inspiring.
Next up after a load of woodland singletrack running was the village of Alfriston, the location of the next dibber. We were now over 17 minutes faster. Last time I stopped here to text lou. My legs were feeling pretty good, and my blister that still hadn’t healed from the Fellsman 3 weeks earlier was not a problem. We pressed on. It was such a contrast to be running this in the daylight. I was really enjoying it. A massive plus, was not having to use the maps and just run. It felt so liberating. The longer we ran, the more I guessed that we would tire and the more chance we would discover whether we would work well together or not. We were starting to pack some decent mileage in now and we were both doing just great as a team. The weather was just perfect and we seemed to be getting on really well. Occasionally I would get a flash back of the contrasting conditions in the weather. The wind was a real irritant last time, whereas now there was just the slight cooling breeze, even when up on the high points.
We next dropped down to Southease. I dibbed and we continued. We were barely stopping. We were going to axe off so much of my solo time. This was a super lean, fat stripped version of what I had done previously. I was loving the fact that it was a completely different type of run. A new adventure! As we approached the church, James took us directly to one of the water taps along the trail so we could top up our supplies. I was sweating fairly heavily so downed a lot of water and then topped up my two bottles, adding some Elete water for the all important electrolytes. As James wrestled with his bladder trying to get it back into his pack, I grazed on some chorizo I had chopped into small cubes. I had already been picking on the nuts and was wondering whether I had enough food for the duration. It was ok though as I certainly had enough to keep me going till we arrived at the 24 hour garage again where I could stock up on more supplies if necessary.
The great thing about running a trail for the second time is just how much quicker it seems to pass by. After leaving the church fully stocked, we headed up again and were staying on the high ground again for a while. We next descended to the railway line and the A27. The trail runs parallel with it for a short distance before you cross over the A27 and next thing you know, we are at the next dibber at Housedean farm. There is another tap here. I hadn’t drank enough since the last one so, force some down and top up again. Things are still going pretty damn well. We are now over an hour faster than before! Incredible stuff. The power of two! We headed upwards again. Last time, I texted James here to meet me at Ditchling Beacon to give me some supplies, but I had messed the days up. We would be together this time at Ditchling Beacon! I was still finding the whole thing rather odd because of the fact that it was still light, whereas last time I was still in the dark. I was curious to see at what point on the course we would need our lights. It was beginning to look as though it was going to be pretty close to the point that I removed my light last time.
Due to it being nice weather we were seeing lots of people out walking, especially when we were near a road crossing. Sure enough, as we got closer to the car park at Ditchling Beacon, we passes more and more walkers. Again as we entered the car park, I quickly dibbed in and we moved off again. We were now 1hr 20mins up! This was around the 30 mile point and as if to prove what we both agreed on earlier, this being the distance at which things start to ache a bit, Our legs started to ache a bit. There is something a little satisfying about this. The easy bit is done, now for the serious stuff. The stuff that defines just how mentally tough you really are. I am starting to believe that the more times that you run long enough to be in this testing situation, then the better you get. It doesn’t get easier, you just understand how your mind operates in such circumstances. You learn how to trick it into thinking that continual running is fine. That the pain is not an issue.
We next were running through Pyecombe and this meant that we would next be crossing the A23 where the 24hr garage was with a M&S shop. Time to stock up. I wasn’t too sure if I’d need more, but I certainly wasn’t sure if I had enough. I found some cheese, nuts and some chicken kebabs. James got some pasta salad, and we both begun to eat in the shop. I got my windproof gilet out and James also put his windproof on. We probably spent around 20 mins with the shop break, but we both agreed that it would more beneficial than a rushed stop. We reminded ourselves that it wasn’t a race again. We left the shop, crossed the road, and begun the climb out.
Things were still going very smoothly, and soon enough I was dibbing in at Devil’s Dyke. The improvement was now a whopping 1hr 41mins. I know these time differences because I can check the results on the website, but at the time, I had no idea what the difference if any there would be. I was pretty much convinced that it was a fair bit faster, but how much I was clueless! We were back on the higher ground again now, and it was somewhere around here where James informed me that his stomach wasn’t great and it was forcing him to dive into cover for a few minutes. I would stop running at these times and start walking pulling a bag of cheese out of my pocket and eating till James had done what he had to do and had caught me back up. I would ask him if he was good to go, and he would always respond yes, so we would begin to run again. This happened a number of times, but thankfully things didn’t seem to getting any worse. He was still eating and drinking ok. Progress was still fairly rapid, but we were both tiring now. This is where our team work would shine and when one was low, the other would hopefully be ok, and would keep the momentum going. This certainly seemed to be working now.
We passed through Botolphs, Washington and Amberley, and still we continued with a decent pace. The chat had died down now to occasional comments. We were now both feeling the effects of the day and were focusing all our energies on keeping the pace at the current rate. We had been blessed with the most wonderful of sunsets and were now in the thick of the night. I couldn’t wait to see the sunrise. I felt pretty sure that we would get an equally stunning display. The next stretch was a long one where we both were feeling sleepy at different times, but we kept on moving. It is a whole different experience with someone else with you all the time. No getting spooked by noises in the woods etc. We ground our way on and the night passed us both in a blur. We started a long descent that I knew ended at the road crossing at Cocking where the next dibber was. It was here that Lou and I diverted a mile off route to find a refuge from the cold wet day. We found a lovely pub and warmed up and ate well, relaxing till we decided over an hour later to continue. James and I dibbed in, then we moved on. Still swift! This time we were over an hour and a half quicker to dib in, and seeing as we moved straight on rather than spending over an hour regrouping in the pub, we were over two and a half hours quicker than before. Quite astonishing!
The next section was fun, and I felt like the majority of the trail was behind us now. We were getting closer and closer to daylight with each stride. We were both getting waves of tiredness where the eyes try their hardest to close, no matter how much you need them, but we were both experienced enough to ride each wave through knowing it would be short lived. We were a great team! The speed we were going we should easily drop below 24hrs which would be pretty amazing considering we weren’t driving too hard.
Between here and the next cp at Queen Elizabeth Park we began to see some daylight forcing it’s way up into the sky. Later on in the night we had been treated to the most incredibly beautiful orange moon. It was large and full and was providing plenty of light throughout the night. I was actually getting quite excited about the sunrise. I was sure it would be equally special. Before the sun had appeared on the horizon, we were running through freezing fog on the low sections. I wasn’t to bothered about this because as soon as we climbed to higher ground we would leave it behind in the valley. Then the sun begun creating the most amazing array of colours that would change every second. As we crested a hill, I stopped to take a picture of the beauty unfolding before us.
Headtorches off! We were running through some nice bits of woodland now with weary bodies. Then we begun the downhill that we both knew led to the next cp at QE park. Around halfway down we saw a load of people out walking on a path parallel to us. It was around 0530! A few minutes later we got a whiff of barbecue. Hallucinatory smells? Do they exist? We could both smell it, before rounding a corner and seeing two people turning meat on a half barrel barbecue! My god what a sight and smell! We must have some of that meat! James went straight up to them and offered them money for a burger or a hot dog. They apologised and turned us down as they were all paid for by the walkers that we had just seen. They had the right amount for everyone and nothing else. We left dreaming about barbecued meat. When we got to the visitor centre at the bottom, we sat at one of the picnic tables and I gave James one of my scotch eggs I had bought from the shop hours ago. It wasn’t quite hot barbecue food, but it was ok. We left dibbing in at the cp on our way.
We walked briskly up the hill that warmed us up again and brought us out of the fog and into the golden sunshine. It wasn’t too far to Exton now where my last attempt ended. This was rather exciting! A friend of James’, Paul Bennett, who lives in Winchester was going to leave home and follow the trail till he met us, and then run back with us for company and support. We both knew that we were nearing the end now and were fading a little. The sun was warming up too which wasn’t helping matters. Overall though things were good, and as we passed Old Winchester Fort, I was eager to see how the section that was so hideously muddy and had clogged up Lou’s bike so badly was. At first it seemed ok, but the lower down the hill we got, the worse it got. Then it just turned into a muddy hell again. This time I climbed over the fence into the lush untouched grass so that I could bypass the worst of it. Shortly after this section we bumped into the incredibly bouncy and speedy Paul. Ok, maybe it was because we were so tired and his freshness exaggerated our sluggishness, but either way, watching him run was incredible to me. I knew that I run like that when I’m fresh, but I found it difficult to remember how good it must feel. It seemed like it was from a past life.
It was great having Paul with us as he kept us going and gave us an injection of life as he chatted and informed us of what lay ahead on the trail. Being his homeland he was an excellent guide to take us to the end of this most excellent journey. We begun a short, not steep climb, that nonetheless had us walking, when Paul told us that from the top we would be looking over Winchester. Sure enough, when we reached the top, there it was. Not far now. Finally we dropped into Winchester. We saw the final post that should have held the final dibbing point, but it had been vandalised so I made a note of the time of completion and we continued into the centre of town. After stocking up with some recovery munchies, I said goodbye to James and Paul and begun my train journey home.

Suunto download for the day

It has taken me ages to get this report finished, but that has given me lots of time to reflect on the adventure. It was a fantastic day that I am really glad to have shared with James. James and I worked together faultlessly throughout the day which is what I suspected beforehand even though we barely knew each other. Our time of 21:20 shows just how effective a team can be compared to going it alone. They are still very different things though. I love to race, I love to do my solo sessions, and now I love to run as a duo. They all add to the experience.
Now I must get this posted and then begin my report for the Hardmoors 110 race I took part in last weekend. Blog backlog again!
Happy running people.

3 thoughts on “South Downs Way again!

  1. Great report Neil. I cycled through that field of rape with two front panniers on my bike – very difficult. My 1st attempt on a MTB was curtailed by my sons ability so we only managed 1/2 of the SDW. Will have to do the whole thing solo before the X-Man.

  2. Hugely inspirational blog – makes me want to try and push the distance on my runs. I live in Brighton and run and train on the South Downs A LOT. I’ve never however thought of trying to cover the whole thing in one sitting; looks like I have a new challenge for next year! Would love to see some of your other photos of your downs run, please do publish!

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