It was the height of the day in SDW100 2023, and the mercury had hit 30°C. The tarmac road before me disappeared off into the horizon. This was Truleigh Hill: notoriously devoid of shade, and a prime catalyst for DNFs from heat exhaustion.
I was overheating, but I couldn’t drink. I was saving the few sips of water I had left. Why hadn’t I learnt my lesson from SDW100 2021, and refilled my water back at Botolphs in the valley? I was replaying the exact same situation, in the exact same place.
As I castigated myself for failing to learn from prior mistakes, I remembered what stood proud at the summit of this hill. YHA Truleigh. An oasis in the desert, with a shady yard, and all the water one can drink and dowse oneself with. It had saved me in 2021, and now I knew it would save me again today.
My brother and I camped beside the start line in Matterley Bowl. We weren’t the only ones, with some 40 tents and 15 campervans on site.
My brother was chopping onions, having taken charge of cooking us both a hot, fresh dinner. After the experience of crewing me at Arc (probably one of the hardest UK hundreds to crew), I was astounded he’d offered to put himself through another similar experience. Clearly a glutton for punishment.
I lounged in a chair, absentmindedly gazing out over the scorched hay fields, gnawing my way through a whole stick of cucumber. Did this beige, barren wasteland foreshadow the heat we’d face tomorrow out on the exposed Downs?
I’d been looking forward to rerunning SDW100 for two years. Part of it was simply to relive some special moments. The rolling hills by headtorch. The distant sight of the Seven Sisters. The fast descent to Whitewool farm. The track sprint finish.
I was particularly keen to redeem my 2021 performance by not getting lost for 30 minutes atop the last hill.
Ultimately, though, it was long past time I ran a decent hundred. CWC had been slow. I’d failed at Crawley track. I’d barely finished at St Ives track. My second attempt at Arc was quite underwhelming.
SDW100 is runnable enough to set a half-decent time on. I knew the route, and I was being crewed. So this was effectively my Waterloo. I couldn’t be defeated here.
I knew I would improve on my time of 21h 30m. The question was by how much, and would it be enough to satisfy me?
My ‘B’ goal was sub-20, and my ‘A’ goal was sub-18h 30m. These goals didn’t, however, account for the heat that was forecast.
We rose just before 4am to a camp that was only beginning to stir. Before long cars started pulling in, and by 5am the place was heaving. After a couple of bowls of porridge, I got talking to Robert Selway. A vet of NDW100 who had intended to run Arc this year, but who cancelled after running a track 24h in Barcelona one month prior. I subsequently discovered his 100 mile split had been 14h 33m. Had he explained that at the time, my confidence might have dipped.
As is typical with me, there was a last minute rush to get ready. James had long finished the race briefing, and was readying the claxon for the off, when I finally ducked under the tape and took my place. I got a GPS fix and loaded the course map just as the race started.
For the two loops around the Bowl’s indistinct and somewhat overgrown trails, Jacob James led us out, with Henrik Westerlin and Jose Rodriguez following as a pair. I was very happy settling into a punchy fourth position. Whilst I would need to back off the throttle in a little while, I was buying myself the breathing room to run my own race without hinderance from the pack.
The first stretch was straightforward, with easy tracks and trails, and little elevation change. Conditions were lovely; pleasantly warm & still, with patchy cloud. Under the shade of the trees, a hoard of volunteers with a life-sized medical skeleton greeted me at Beacon Hill aid station. In retrospect, I ought to have topped up my water here, as taking on just 0.75L in the 36k to QECP set me up poorly for the midday heat.
For the time being though, I was thoroughly enjoying every minute of the course: past Old Winchester Hill, down to Whitewool where there was some jostling for places, and then up to Coombe Cross. The view over to Queen Elizabeth Country Park was enticing, and the descent super fun. I met my brother for the first time here, where there was a rapid, textbook bottle switch.
As I drew away, I exchanged a few pleasantries with a Parkrunner. It wasn’t long before she gently pointed out I was heading the wrong way. Capable of running uphill, chatting and simultaneously navigating for two – that’s skill!
The climb out of QECP is fairly steep, and deviates slightly from the official GPX trace. I decided to hike most of it, recognising I was dehydrated already and the day was only just beginning.
Shortly after the climb, Robert Selwyn (the 14:33 track runner, if you recall) caught up with me. We would trade places a few times over the coming miles, while briefly sharing thoughts on our respective levels of preparation, and the solitude of the course. He would eventually pull away from me on the ascent of Beacon Hill, after which I didn’t see him again.
The heat was starting to build. My nutrition strategy using Tailwind and alternating PH/Muir gels every 30 minutes was still working well, though I started to take on additional electrolytes. At Harting Downs, sited on the grassy hill just before one emerges onto the rolling hills of the South Downs Way “proper”, my brother and I performed our second textbook bottle switch.
The heat kept building, and I finally appreciated just how dehydrated I was becoming. This was my first race attempting a 100% Tailwind fluid strategy, and in all honesty it probably wasn’t helping me consume the volume of fluid I required in these conditions. Nonetheless, I was trying my hardest to balance electrolytes and fluid, which I rapidly depleted. I appreciated the clear view down into Cocking valley, where I could see the aid station, and hopefully plenty of water, awaiting me.
I took a couple of minutes at Cocking, where I downed half a litre of water then and there. In retrospect, I should have taken advantage of the ice at the aid station, dunked my hat, and so on, but my focus at the time was on hydration as opposed to cooling. That would come later.
The situation got no easier from hereon in. It seemed no matter how much I drank, I remained dehydrated. My consumption of gels diminished: I simply didn’t want non-liquid nutrition. While I could still force down a PH gel here and there, the drier Muir gels containing sodium had completely lost their appeal, to the point of seeming repulsive. To make matters worse, my Tailwind-only fluid strategy was failing – my body wanted, and frankly needed, plain water.
When I met my brother at the Bignor Hill crew stop, I was delighted to see he’d managed to acquire some ice. I downed a metric tonne of chilled water, grabbed a handful of ice cubes, stuffed them in my mouth, and put in an order for sparkling water, hoping he might be able to find some by Washington.
The story at Houghton Farm was similar, where I took on water and ice. Here, I finally abandoned my 100% Tailwind strategy, and asked my brother to empty one of my bottles and replace it with plain water. He also handed me my cooling towel, which I stuffed under my hat. This proved to be a waste of time, and I discarded it at the next opportunity at Kithurst Hill. We agreed to forego Chantry Post crew stop, and head straight to Washington.
I grappled with what to do when I arrived: whether to take some time to rehydrate as well as I possibly could, including taking on real food; or whether to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to fix myself here, and simply repeat what I’d been doing thus far by downing some water and leaving. I couldn’t decide, and flip-flopped between the two options during the descent from Barnsfarm Hill, and the crossing of the A24.
My parents had come down to greet me at Washington, sporting beaming smiles and a prompt reassurance that I didn’t need to stop and hug (likely driven by the sweating mess I was!) It was certainly nice to see them; but being so dehydrated, my focus was on recovery.
Having never reached a conclusion on which food strategy to employ, I just wound up gulping down water and grazing on fruit for a few minutes. I tried a packet of crisps, but found them devoid of taste; and knowing they were a waste of time in caloric terms, abandoned them. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was in the race, given I’d both traded and lost a few places since Cocking, but I figured I was around 10th. As I departed, I passed a runner collapsed in a chair, with his head in his hands, beside his crew who looked concerned. I could certainly sympathise, and gave him a cheer of encouragement. I also thought – “9th”.
The minutes spent rehydrating in the shade at Washington had perked me up considerably. While it wasn’t the gastronomic reset capable of reigniting my 2-gels-per-hour fuelling strategy, it was at least enough to settle me back into a solid, consistent pace. I was keeping the water and Tailwind combination flowing; and managing 5:40 minute kilometres, I figured that was good enough.
My plan was to run through Botolphs, and continue the 8kms on to Devil’s Dyke, where I’d replenish fluids. And that would’ve been fine, had it not been for the fact that the thermometer was stuck on 30C, and I was ascending the infinity hill to Truleigh. Finally making it to the taps at the youth hostel was a relief, where I conducted my own version of the Songkran water festival. I left with bulging bottles, dripping a trail of water that evaporated almost as soon as it landed.
Back in 2021, from this point, I could see the shadows lengthening, and the sun setting. I knew that the temperature would soon drop, and with every step the going would become easier. The same could not be said of today. I was almost 2 hours ahead of my 2021 time, so the sun wouldn’t be setting anytime soon. All I could do was try my best to enjoy the picturesque views from the Downs, knuckle down, get my head down & run down to the Devil’s Dyke itself.
That said, following my re-hydration at Truleigh, I soon felt considerably more perky, and began to enjoy the hills once more. My parents manned the Devil’s Dyke crew stop, which they had a devil of a time locating. Then it was straight through Saddlescombe (pausing briefly as a volunteer tempted me with vegan goodies). Over the top of West Hill, I could see the bright white forms of the famous Jack & Jill windmills marking 70 miles.
At the Windmills crew stop, I replenished my supplies of electrolytes & tipped a bottle of water over my head. At Housedean barn I grabbed a few pieces of fruit. I was in autopilot, a man with a job to do.
While crossing the A27, I reflected that I’d definitely been wearing my headtorch at this point in 2021. There was certainly no need for that this year. Instead, under the blue skies, I could really appreciate the lay of the land as I’d been unable to before. From hereon in, it was all curvaceous grassy hills, sheep and cows, some of whom decided to position themselves so as to block the course signage. How rude!
The sun was gradually setting, the air was cooling, and the remainder of the race was a mere formality. I wasn’t sure of my place, or where anyone else was relative to me. I was simply focused on maintaining a good pace to achieve a decent time. If I could take another place, that would be a bonus.
I ran straight past Southease, and then my brother crewed me in the darkness at Firle Beacon and Bo Peep. That was the last time I’d see him until the finish. It was also the last of the gentle hills.
Not wanting to waste any time, I ran straight through Alfriston to start the penultimate climb. And goodness, had I forgotten what a long climb it is! I wasted mental energy worrying whether to take the high path or the low path. Halfway up, I was starting to feel quite broken, and it became a desperate slog to the summit. When the trail did finally start descending, however, the race to my mind was as good as over. I could only make up time from here on in.
Unable to tolerate my concentrated Tailwind, I briefly stopped at Jevington to get a water topup. This set me up well for the final climb, which I attacked with vigour. This year, atop the hill, I had no trouble locating the descent. Nobody had vandalised the route signage, and regardless, I’d fully committed this section of the route to memory, combining Youtube videos and Google Maps imagery to form a complete mental picture of the route. There was even a volunteer manning the trig point, pointing toward the oversized Centurion signage: to the finish!
The final descent is known for being a bit sketchy, and indeed it is. I slipped and banged my foot midway down, but so close to the finish the sharp pain was an irrelevance. Many people lament the road section through Eastbourne, but for me that’s a lovely way to close out the race. A stretch of fast, flat tarmac, where you can lay down some speed and make up a little time. The track finish is right up my street too, where I launched into sub-3:30/km pace to close out the race.
I comfortably achieved my ‘A’ goal, smashed my 100 mile PB by over 3 hours, and placed a solid 5th. It felt like a job well done.
Except I know I could have run it faster.
Next time. Next time…
A huge thanks to my brother for another superb crewing job. And cooking, and camping, and driving to and from… what an absolute legend!