Years ago, I read a comment on an ultrarunning forum that stuck with me ever since. It claimed, controversially, that one shouldn’t call oneself an ultrarunner until one has run a 100+ mile race.
That’s tosh, of course: I considered these sorts of elitist inventions pure supercilious drivel, born of a lust for superiority. An ultra is any distance longer than 26.1, and an ultrarunner is one who runs an ultra. Running 100 miles is no precondition to being an ultrarunner.
Nonetheless, that comment niggled at my inner being ever after, because I reasoned there could be an underlying truth to it: 100+ mile races might involve unique challenges that rarely surface over lesser distances. Indeed, when I ran a relatively flat ‘virtual’ 100 miler last year (virtuals don’t count), I had a far more torrid time of it than I’d experienced in any of my 100km races. Should I really think of myself as an ultrarunner, if the real ultrarunning tribulations only emerge over the course of 100 miles?
And so, despite my being crystal clear that there was absolutely no link whatsoever between the 100 mile distance and the term ‘ultrarunner’, I’d never really allowed myself to use the term ultrarunner… not yet anyway, not until I’d finished a real 100 miler, and could comment on the matter with greater authority.
My double-standard could hardly have been more conspicuous. I needed to resolve it, once and for all.
I woke at the ungodly hour of 3am and, following my usual pre-race procedure, got straight onto the toilet for an early evacuation. Nothing happened. Racking my groggy brain for an explanation, I remembered I’d been the night before, and cursed myself for breaking with my standard routine, just prior to my first real 100.
I headed into the kitchenette to whip up a steaming pot of porridge. This Airbnb had an electric hob, which took longer to heat up than the induction plates I was used to. I don’t know if it was the extended cooking time, the worn non-stick pot, or just my dozy inattention; but somehow I wound up with half-burnt clumps of oats, which bore far more resemblance to a bowel movement than my earlier attempt in the bathroom.
I stared at the appalling product of my culinary efforts like a dog owner might bewail Fido’s little deposit on their newly laid beige carpet. Nonetheless, I reflected that this unappetising chewy fodder would be the last hot food available to me for 36 hours or so, so I’d better make the most of it.
The bowls provided by the Airbnb were quite miniature, so it took a good few trips to the big pot to empty its contents. Oats, water, banana – that was me fuelled.
I filled my water bottles, then considered double-checking the kit I’d packed the day before. I glanced at my watch. No time – I was very late. In fact, hold on – would I even make the starting line before the 6am deadline? I brushed aside further procrastination; I really had to get a move on.
Heading out the door with my fully laden race vest and two drop bags, I whisked a pair of sunglasses off of the table. I didn’t think I’d use them, but this act seemed to go some way to making up for the lack of opportunity to double-check my mandatory kit. Whether any kit-checkers would see it that way was another matter. Once in my car, I crossed my fingers that there’d be no delays en route to Matterley Bowl, otherwise… well, otherwise I’d be back here within the hour having another stab at cooking an edible breakfast. However, I had no need to fear; the roads were indeed clear, just as one would expect early on a Saturday morning.
Following the dirt track into Matterley Estate, I pulled over to make way for a long line of runners setting off up this single track path. The dust plumes left by cars exiting the venue (presumably crew heading off to the first crew point) engulfed these poor souls. I pondered whether my late arrival might assist me here – I was so late that I doubted many crew cars remained on site.
I parked up, donned my shoes, grabbed my race vest and drop bags, and headed toward the start line. I couldn’t recall from the online race briefing the order in which to do things, and settled on heading to registration to get my race number. Wrong call; race director James stopped me in my tracks and asked me to offload my drop bags first, so I did, and then picked up my race number from the registration tent.
It was then I realised I’d made a slight mistake. I’d intended to use the toilets, and get myself ready: set my phone to power saving mode, sync my Garmin with the GPS satellites, rearrange my race vest, and so on – but instead I found myself being ushered onwards through the one-way registration/starting funnel, toward the starting line.
Given all the Covid-19 protocols in place, going against the flow just didn’t feel right, so I sucked it up and accepted that I’d missed my opportunity for a pre-race toilet. I cursed myself once more as I fumbled with my electric devices, whilst a volunteer taped a tracker to my race vest. Glancing at my watch, I realised there were only 10 minutes until the end of the starting window. I needed to get going, anyway.
It took a while for my Garmin to sync with the GPS satellites, whilst I stood around at the starting line looking like a spare. I was, however, using the opportunity to mentally itemise everything I’d missed the opportunity to prepare. It wasn’t an ideal situation. As soon as my Garmin beeped to signify a satellite fix, I started the activity and set off over the line. It was 5:52; 22 minutes later than planned, but I was safely underway.
The first 5k or so wasn’t included on the GPX file we’d been given, as this section followed a path around the private Matterley Estate. It was well marked and marshalled, and essentially did a couple of loops – one lower, one upper – around the natural bowl, and then took a meandering route back to the dirt track to exit the Estate.
I used the first loop to sort out my phone, and as I passed the starting line again, was tempted to quickly scoot over to the portaloos; but it would have involved a slight deviation from the route, and it just didn’t seem appropriate, somehow. So, again, I relented, and proceeded to use the second loop to sort out my race vest. After the first few km, I felt relatively settled – but still needed the toilet.
As expected, the dirt track was quieter than before, and I was relatively untroubled by cars as I ascended the incline toward the boundary of Matterley Estate. As I passed the entrance sign, it felt like the real starting line: the South Downs Way adventure had begun.
There was a short road section until the start of the SDW proper, where, back on trail, I began to feel more at home. I’d overtaken lots of people during the initial section, and this afforded me the opportunity to put some distance between myself and those behind, and steal a moment for a Jimmy Riddle in the bushes just behind the trail. Now I’d ticked everything off of my list: I was ready for the day ahead, and could settle into my running.
The weather was perfect throughout the morning. The forecast had been for one of the hottest days of the year, so to be faced with only modestly warm and cloudy conditions felt extremely fortunate. I repeatedly commented as such to runners as I passed them (a frequent occurrence, seen as I had started near the rear of the pack, and – as it was emerging – wasn’t one of the slowest).
I observed, in these early stages, that the terrain was unexpectedly flat. I recall expressing some disappointment at this, and wishing for some hills to add visual interest. As I would soon discover, I needn’t have expended any effort whatsoever worrying about this – the South Downs Way is, after all, not renowned for being pancake flat.
Ambling over these pleasant uplands, I found myself thinking about the sections of the route I’d recognise: I was familiar with Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP, checkpoint 2), where I had run a Maverick race some years prior. And from 100k onwards, I expected to overlap sections of the South Coast Challenge route I ran in 2019.
As I replayed memories from those runs, something about my immediate surroundings evoked a strong sense of déjà vu. Had I been here before? I thought I must be imagining things (after all, many hills look alike); but then I spotted the Old Winchester Hill information board. Of course, I’d run this section previously in the Winter Cross Ultra. I’d completely forgotten about that.
The realisation that I was familiar with at least the next few kilometres gave me a mental boost, and I grinned at how easy it was running the path today compared to Winter Cross 2019. The ground was hard and springy, nothing at all like the mud-fest it was during that December race. However, my appreciation of the familiarity proved short-lived. I realised I didn’t want to be running on terrain with which I was familiar. After all, where was the adventure in that?
So, it was with a bizarrely conflicted mindset that I catapulted myself down the long hill to Meon Springs, with which I had fond memories, and filled up with water at the only public tap I was aware of (excepting the aid stations).
For better or worse, the route shortly broke away from the Winter Cross Ultra route, and threw me back into uncharted territory, where I could once again bound along quite happily, without the foggiest idea where on earth I was. That was, until I recognised the entrance to QECP.
The early aid stations were a bit of a challenge due to the restrictive Covid protocols still in force. The one person per table rule made for a painfully slow throughput of runners, and as a result, significant queues built up. I think the QECP queue was around 5-10 minutes for example (it was probably shorter, but it sure seems like forever when you’re stationary, drumming your fingers, in the middle of a race).
There were all the usual rules regarding hand sanitisation and masks, and the food was presented in small individually bagged portions. The amount of plastic waste was somewhat vexing to me. For instance, I lamented at having to pick up a handful of individually sealed packets just to get the equivalent of a banana, each of which was a little fiddly to open to boot. Didn’t bananas naturally come pre-packaged in protective, water-resistant, bright yellow jackets? I reflected it must have taken the volunteers an age to package it all like this. Whilst I found all these protocols frustrating, the volunteers were doing an amazing job catering for us all within the confines of the framework, going out of their way trying to maximise runner throughput, get our water topped up, maintain a ready supply of food packages onto the aid station tables, and water to the water vats. Without the ability to see our facial expressions, I wondered whether it might have felt like a thankless task, and really hoped they felt like they were getting something out of the experience too.
The queue at QECP eventually cleared, and I was able to top up my water and pick up some food. I filled all three of the 0.5l water bottles I was carrying, since the longest segment between aid stations – 21k – lay ahead, and it was both hilly, and projected to be hot. Exiting the QECP checkpoint, I was met with a long trudge up a hill, which presented a good opportunity to get some nutrition down. I got talking to a chap about the hill, who reassured me that the hills got a lot worse as the race progressed.
I quite enjoyed these early sections. I was running fairly well, and taking the hills nicely – pushing a little, but not too much. I was passing lots of people, and making good time. I struck up numerous conversations en-route, taking moments to run alongside people and discuss aspects of the route, previous races, towns, work – anything really. These conversations helped to break up the route, but I made sure not to allow any chat continue for too long: I needed to keep moving toward the front of the pack.
The hills were becoming more numerous, and the views on the crests more picturesque. These were the rolling hills and picture-perfect landscapes that the Downs are known for. Unusually for me, I rarely stopped to take photos: I told myself that today I was here to run, not to document. I made sure I pushed hard on the downhills, leaning into them and leveraging gravity to make up places. I wanted to move much further toward the front of the pack by sunset: I wanted the nighttime section to feel isolated. That’s part of what makes the 100 mile distance special, I reflected.
It was getting hot now: the sun was out in full force, and we were beginning to bake out here. There was no shade whatsoever. I had 1.5l of water with me, and so was quite comfortable with hydration levels between aid stations, but I could see that the heat was getting to some of the other participants. Runners were getting dowsed by their crew at aid stations, some were flagging, and some were turning shades of red that are normally reserved for a particular type of root vegetable. However, at this point, I was feeling fine, and continued to make good progress. Only my hill climbs were suffering, where I dialled back my effort level and conserved my energy.
As I was hiking up a hill, I spotted Stephen Cousins running past. I called out his name, and he popped over and hiked with me for a bit as we talked. Not a particular fan of hot conditions, he mentioned he’d struggled a little earlier, but looked to be in pretty good shape at that point. I thanked him for the chat and bid him well, as he pulled away from me and continued his run uphill.
When I crested, I felt distinctly dissatisfied with myself that I’d hiked the up, while Stephen had run. Sure, he was a veteran of the distance and I a novice; but perhaps I should be following his lead and pushing on through the ascents? We were around halfway at that point, with a lot of terrain still to cover, and therefore a lot of time to be lost through an overly conservative race strategy. I tried to make up for my leisureliness on the down, even toying with the idea of catching up with him, but that wasn’t to be. Regardless, that encounter had put a bit of fire in my belly: was I holding back too much? Should I be pushing harder? I didn’t have the experience to answer my questions, but I resolved to make a little more of an effort, and ensured I maintained a faster pace as I drew into Washington.
Pulling into the halfway CP, I picked up my drop bag, and headed inside the aid station. First off, I put my Garmin on charge, and then changed my socks, transferred my headtorches to my pack, surrendered my sunglasses (which I had hardly used – I knew I wouldn’t), checked my phone battery (it was fine), and changed into a long sleeve top. After all, it’d be getting dark soon.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. I knew full well that sunset was still a few hours off, that there was a lot of hot & sunny running remaining. So why did I put on a long sleeve top at this stage? Frankly, I’m not sure. It was what I’d planned to do, and I think I just resolved to follow through on my plan, regardless of the fact that I was running well ahead of my projected time. Whatever the reason, it was a mistake.
I departed Washington after about 15 minutes, which on reflection was probably too long. And I probably shouldn’t have sat down whilst I sorted myself out. I was feeling quite lethargic as I left, and mostly walked/jogged out of Washington village so as to allow my muscles to reawaken. I was still charging my watch; it was up to 76%, which I decided was sufficient.
I rocked the charging cable as I prepared to remove it, and Garmin unexpectedly responded by switched to a fullscreen charging display. That was odd. I yanked out the cable, and Garmin switched back to the home screen, showing just the watch face. Shit. Garmin had ended my activity.
At this moment, I realised I’d hit a turning point. I rely so heavily on metrics from my watch. Having these reset was a situation I had never anticipated, and definitely didn’t want to face. I was gutted, and stood staring blankly at the bloody thing, which was just lying on my wrist, innocently ticking up the seconds, as if nothing of consequence had happened.
I imagined a tiny leprechaun leaning against the gizzards of the watch, snickering at the results of its meddlesome misdeed.
I reacquired a satellite fix, started a new activity, and started to trudge slowly up the next hill, contemplating how I could join two activities together for reporting to Strava. Then, I wondered whether I could simply restart the previous activity. In haste, I stopped and discarded my new activity, located the original activity, and tried to find a restart option. Of course, there was none. Despondently, I acknowledged I’d wasted even more time, and totally lost the second recording – a small portion of the route. I started a third activity, reloaded the map, and continued – thoroughly pissed off both with Garmin, and now with myself.
My sour mood continued unabated. I wasn’t sure how long the activity I’d discarded was. I knew it wasn’t very far, almost certainly less than a km, but I couldn’t remember exactly how far the first activity had been either. I reasoned that I must have started this third activity around the 86km mark. However, the GPS route was far shorter than 161km, even accounting for the 5k or so off-route at Matterley… how long was the full route, precisely? Was it actually 161k, or a bit shorter? How far exactly had I travelled at the point of starting this third activity? How far remained? How much elevation remained? These were questions I proceeded to grapple with endlessly for at least the next 10km.
I’d like to say these pointless mental meanderings were just a harmless distraction from the hardships of the journey, but they weren’t. The questions revolving in my mind, and the ridiculous desire to calculate a precise remaining distance (which was inherently unknowable), was consuming the mental energy that I needed to focus on my running. I knew my cadence and gait were suffering. And as my frustrations compounded, I realised a further problem was developing: I was getting hotter.
The uncomfortable truth was, after a day of shrugging off the conditions that had afflicted so many of the other runners, the heat was finally getting to me too. The warmer, tighter fitting, long-sleeve top I had prematurely donned; the frustration from the Garmin fiasco, and the cumulative effect of the best part of a day’s sun and near-sunburn (I don’t use suncream, and was probably starting to look a little beetroot myself), was starting to take its toll. I was overheating.
Botolphs CP distracted me briefly, but there was no shade there. I wasted no time and headed back out; back into the glorious landscape, but equally, back to my physical hell of heat, and my mental prison of statistical projections and Garmin frustrations.
The long climb up Truleigh Hill proved my biggest challenge of the race. The numbers spinning in my head were thrust to one side: I was simply too hot. I didn’t know whether I was dehydrated, or over hydrated. I didn’t know if I needed more food, more salt, less salt, or whether that was all utterly irrelevant. The only thing I was sure of was that I needed shade.
I allowed myself 30 seconds to pause in some shade beside a bush, but I knew this wasn’t much of a strategy, so pressed back on. I dived back into shade for another 30 seconds approaching a youth hostel, and again pressed on. Passing the youth hostel, a kind family was out supporting runners and offering sweets, and the husband remarked that an outside tap was available. I jumped at the opportunity, forced half a litre down my throat, and refilled my bottles.
Realising I was in a shady little courtyard with benches and tables, I resolved to spend a few minutes here to cool down. I probably spent a good 5 minutes sitting down here at the hostel, watching runners come and go, refilling at the tap and dowsing themselves with water. Why didn’t I also dowse myself with water? I don’t know; it’s not something I typically do, and I can be a really stubborn sod at times. Maybe it was 10 minutes I spent perched on the wooden picnic bench… it didn’t seem to matter; my body was overheating, and I needed the break in the shade.
When I set back off into the sun, my body temperature seemed to leap straight back to where it was before I stopped. Part of me reproached myself for taking a break; just push on, I told myself, in the typical British stiff-upper-lip way. Being stationary doesn’t get you anywhere. Nothing improves until you finish.
But, deeper down, a part of me acknowledged that, whilst still really struggling in the heat, I was nonetheless in better shape than I was before the youth hostel; and with absolutely no shade visible on the path ahead, I think I appreciated just how necessary that stop had been. If that kid hadn’t been standing there so enthusiastically offering sweets, I wouldn’t have registered the supporters; if I hadn’t so lethargically registered the supporters, I don’t think the gentleman would have thought to point out the existence of the tap; if the gentleman hadn’t pointed out the tap, I doubt I would have noticed the existence of the shady rest stop; and if I hadn’t taken a break there, I might have been stuffed. The butterfly effect can be awesome at times.
I forced myself to start running again. Why was I putting myself through this torment, I asked myself. Why indeed? What was the point of this ridiculous endeavour? I searched for an answer. Whilst this race definitely counted among my ‘A’ races for the year, I wasn’t particularly wedded to the SDW per se. And, yes, I wanted to run a proper hundred, but did I really need to push so hard? Did the time matter, so long as I made the cutoffs? None of this helped with motivation.
My thoughts settled back onto my stretch goal of sub-24h: what if I could run sub-24h? Wouldn’t that be worth it? I mentally pictured the ‘one day’ buckle. Yes, I decided – that probably would be worth it. And with that, I realised I had a concrete objective, and a concrete motivator that I could picture. It might not have been the most compelling, meaningful or consequential reason to forge on; arguably, it was but a shallow material goal, but I immediately squashed those conceptions. I had a mental image of a reason to continue, however hollow it may be, and that was worth its weight in gold. I worked hard to build up its significance in my mind, and surprisingly found it gave me the mental focus I sorely needed.
I could see the sun dipping ever lower in the sky. As my body cast an ever longer shadow (which I was tracking like a hawk), the temperature became fractionally more bearable. I could sense the onset of sunset. I could taste it; smell it, feel it. I was practically itching for it. The anticipation was becoming palpable.
As my shadow outgrew my body, I could feel everything starting to whir back into gear. My body was cooling, and I was beginning to function once more.
It was as though my muscles had been waiting for this moment, conserving their energy, ready to unleash onto the final one-and-a-half marathon effort. I was starting to become confident in my ability to finish the race with a strong performance. This was not going to become a rerun of the 28+h One Community 100 miler of yesteryear that I had feared; my body was back in form, and I was determined, focused, and meant business.
My mind was focussing clearly on the sub-24h objective, though I still had some doubts as to whether I could really achieve it, given the slow pace I’d maintained during my period of overheating, and the fallout from the Garmin fiasco. I wasn’t certain of any of my statistics, given the reset metrics. However, I found I’d ceased caring about the specifics of what I’d already run, or exactly what remained. Sod all that. My mind was now firmly where it should have been all along: focussing on the present, on what I could affect at that precise moment.
And this was how I began to push forth with vigour. I pushed on all the hills until the very end. I started overtaking again. There were exclamations of surprise from some of those I passed, some of whom commented that they hadn’t seen anyone assaulting the hills for quite some time. One of the crew stops halfway up a hill gave me a raucous cheer as I ran past. However, I found I wasn’t interested in any of the externalities; the real race was within. I felt strong and focused, and that alone felt good. My own performance fed back into myself like a virtuous cycle, further spurring me on.
After Housedean, things became a little surreal: for a lengthy period, the grassy hills were peppered with what one can only describe as utterly disgusting excrement, as if it had originated from poor animals with the most terrible bowel problems. I got talking to the runner alongside me about this; neither of us were sure which sort of animal it all came from, and it took some care and attention on both our parts to avoid stepping in whatever on earth it was. This definitely wasn’t the time to lose one’s footing or stumble over a rock.
Emerging from Southease CP, the picture looked rosy: one ‘long’ (12k) to Alfriston, then just two ‘shorts’ (7k) to Jevington and Eastbourne remained. I knew I could really open up the taps now.
I began to realise that I was definitely in good time for sub-24h. I wasn’t sure how good, exactly, since I wasn’t entirely sure how far or what elevation remained. By this time, I was basing remaining distance on the sum of distances remaining between CPs as reported in the race literature, which seemed to be the most accurate data I had. This appeared to give me a buffer of a couple of hours or so. So long as I didn’t injure myself, I clearly had sub-24 in the bag.
The question now was how far beneath 24 could I run? I was in unchartered territory; I realised I knew absolutely nothing about what constituted a ‘good’ 100m time. All I knew was that I felt I was running well, and I was going to finish strongly.
Pulling into Alfriston CP, I took a few moments to grab some nibbles. I got chatting to volunteer Marie, and on mentioning I ate a WFPB diet, she produced some vegan sausage rolls. Whilst not exactly wholefood, I appreciatively wolfed one down; something other than fruit was such a welcome change. We then got chatting about vegan trail food, in what was a thoroughly engaging conversation, and one of those that could easily have run on and on. So I reluctantly drew things to a close after a few minutes, and forced myself back out into the night.
The terrain had become quite interesting. It was dark with limited visibility from the headtorch, but I could tell these were the rolling hills one associates with the area. Atop one, I took a moment to lie down and briefly appreciate the location: the night air, the stars, the faint outline of the land beneath, and a smattering of lonely headlights on the horizon. It was an invigorating mindful moment.
That aside, the truth was I was growing tired of these hills. It was too dark to appreciate the view, the ascents were neverending, the ground uneven and frequently stony, and one had to keep one’s wits about oneself, especially on the downs, which I continued to push hard through. Whilst I felt broadly fine, I was beginning to resent this awkward terrain. It was getting cooler too, and numerous times I contemplated stopping and donning another garment. I probably should have (I daresay it’d have cheered me up), but I never did. There might have been a lingering reluctance in my mind after the heat issues earlier in the day.
Nonetheless, despite the growing fatigue and the temperature drop, I continued with the same determination I had found earlier in the race. There was a period of some 20 minutes or so where I played leapfrog with a female runner: she overtook me on the ups (which made a change), and I on the downs. I eventually pulled away, but the competition was enjoyable while it lasted.
Pushing on, I found myself among a group of 4 runners on the next climb. For some reason I became frustrated being amongst their conversation; I wanted to be alone for the final section, to soak up the special night-time solitude, toward the end of what was a significant effort. I pressed on even harder to put some distance between them and I.
At the final CP at Jevington, I considered heading straight on by, but changed my mind at the last minute and dived into the town hall aid station to chow down on an easy-peeler. I also had a brief chat with the marshal, who assured me the remaining route was dead easy: up to the top of the hill, then it’s fully signed and lit all the way to the finish. I set off with gusto, and attacked the last hill.
It was a tough climb, but at the top was an arrow pointing to the left, just as the marshal had promised. I set off down the path at pace, a sense of satisfaction spreading over me. There was no need to hold anything back now, so I was really hammering this descent. Yet, after about half a k or so, a cursory glance at my watch revealed I was totally off route according to the GPS, and I reflected that I hadn’t seen any route markings or confirmation tape since that solitary directional arrow. Confused, I paused, wondering what to do. Eventually, I retraced my steps back up the hill, to the point where the GPS deviated (just before the arrow), where I found no route signage. Nonetheless, I followed the GPS route, until it veered into impassable shrubbery. Where on earth was the darn race route?
There were an awful lot of paths up atop this hill, and I spent quite some time exploring, trying to find the right one. I stumbled upon a plaque commemorating the crash of a B-24D “Liberator” bomber from WWII, by the name of Ruth-less, in which all its 10 USAAF personnel died on impact. Caught up in reading the inscription by the light of my headtorch, I jolted back to the present: as poignant a moment as this was, I was after all in the middle of running a race. I headed back down the hill, then back up it. I was thoroughly confused, and aware time was slipping through my fingers. I scratched my head, darting around tiny trails, brushing away spider’s webs. I was all too aware that, in daylight, this hill might well have afforded a line of sight to the finish, just a few kilometres down below in Eastbourne.
I eventually spotted some headlights in the distance, descending at pace, further along from where I was. They seemed to have started from further along the hill than where I had turned left to follow the directional arrow. So I forged a path back to the main hill path, where I began to hear voices, before unexpectedly bumping into a Centurion marshal. I asked where the race route was, and he pointed me in the direction of the headlights. Frustrated, I informed the marshal of the erroneous route signage just 50m from where he was standing; which happened to match the GPS trace, which was also wrong. He sounded surprised, and assured me he’d head over to check it. I felt a little awkward after this exchange, as I’m sure I came across as thoroughly annoyed.
At that point, 3 runners emerged on the path, and I asked them whether they’d also seen the sign pointing to the left. Yes, they replied; but they had recced this section of the route previously, and upon seeing the sign had realised it was wrong, and ignored it. That revelation did little to improve my mood.
As I pressed on, sure enough, just another 50m onwards, I came across a huge arrow (some 3x larger than the normal Centurion arrows, with a luminous yellow background), along with additional signage along the lines of “to the finish”, and a morass of glow sticks. I could see what the marshal down at Jevington had been referring to – this bit was extremely well signed! But I was awfully frustrated that an incorrect route sign had cost me a good half an hour. Who had set that sign up? Had a third party interfered with it? Why had no other runners followed it as I had – they couldn’t all have recced the route, surely? At the time, it felt plain unfair.
So it was with a deteriorating mindset that I hurtled down the glowstick-ridden path to Eastbourne, through the streets, around the hospital, and into the sports park. The perceived unfairness was a sore point. Around this time, my inner ‘grumpy old man’ woke up, cottoned onto this idea of injustice, and ran with it like a dog with a bone, unhelpfully vomiting a stream of complaints into the echo chamber in my head.
The use of crews by most runners provided a significant advantage, he bemoaned, saving runners the need to queue at CPs. The use of pacers saved yet more time, he went on, as they could hold open gates, handle logistics and route-finding, carry supplies, and more besides. My grumpy old man concluded that it was like the revolutionary Nike running shoes for road races: those using these shoes obtain such an advantage that the only way for other runners to compete is to use the same shoes. Similarly, in crew-permitted 100m races, he ranted, the only way to compete is to have crew and pacers. My inner grumpy old man was having a field day, and was probably about to start proclaiming that we should all be running barefoot and fuelling ourselves with potato peelings.
As you can see, following the hilltop confusion, I’d wound myself up into a tangle of negative thoughts & emotions. This was almost certainly the product of fatigue resulting from 21.5 hours of uninterrupted running, rather than any real gripes about the odd wayward arrow (out of literally hundreds over the course – the scale of the effort involved in route marking a 100 miler is staggering), or whether crew or pacers were permitted. Like many of the runners, I could have recced the route if I so chose; it was my personal decision not to do so, and one I remain happy with. Similarly, I could have enlisted the help of some of my fellow runners to crew if I’d wanted (some had very kindly volunteered in the weeks leading up to the race); it had been my own choice to run it alone, and I remain happy with this decision too.
Maintaining a calm and collected mental state through all the trials and tribulations of 100 miles can be tough, and therein lies the real challenge. Difficult moments like that are problematic at the time, but useful in the longer term. I will learn from it and improve, and ultimately emerge a stronger, more resilient runner because of it – and hopefully come across as less grumpy to any altruistic marshals voluntarily standing atop a hill in the dark directing tired runners at 3am on a Sunday morning!
Drawing into the sports centre grounds, and seeing its illuminated running track laid before me, a broad smile broke out over my face, and I could stay frustrated no longer; I shed all that negativity in a flash, and soaked in the atmosphere. This was one of those truly special moments.
The track was immaculate, quiet, eerie under its spotlights, and strangely enticing. It reminded me of an old oak tree: unassuming, irreproachable, uninvolved. When had it been born, and for how long would it live? It may have only been a rubberised surface laid out in a 400 metre loop, but at that point I felt humbled by its very existence. If I hadn’t deposited my cap at Washington, I would most likely have doffed it.
When I stepped onto its outer lane, I hadn’t yet settled on how to approach my final lap to the finish line. Should I casually jog it, run it, or sprint it? A hand-written note on a whiteboard to my left encouraged us to sprint, and sprinting to a strong finish was exactly what I felt like doing.
Looking ahead, I could see one runner a half-lap ahead, who appeared to be jogging with some difficulty. From a distance, he looked spent. Would it be rude to sprint, and pass him? This wasn’t a mass start race, so I wouldn’t be stealing his place. But nonetheless, perhaps metaphorically pipping someone at the post could be perceived as impolite.
In the end, I resolved that I’d run quite a long way to get here, and regardless of who was on the track or what they thought of it, if I wanted to sprint to the finish, I would . So I did. Much to my surprise, the legs ticked over like clockwork: my gait seemed perfect, and I felt as though I could have happily kept running loops of that track for ages. I almost caught up with the runner with about 50m to go, when a Centurion marshal called out to warn him of the impending danger.
To my complete surprise, he responded instantaneously by breaking out into a proper sprint himself. I was elated: whoever my anonymous compatriot was, I wanted us both to finish in a manner we’d be proud of. So, I dug in too, and we pushed each other to the max over the last 50m. I never quite managed to catch him, and that was perfect: we both finished with beaming smiles, overjoyed to complete sub-24 with such strong form at the finish.
After medal and t-shirt collection, and photos, I was given a vegan hot dog… and that was it: it was over. The adrenaline subsided, and I just spent some time overlooking the track, watching runners finish. It all felt quite surreal: shouldn’t I be pushing on? How far was it to the next aid station?
After a while, I headed into the sports centre to find somewhere quiet to unwind. With nothing to do for 8 hours or so until the coach back to Matterley Estate, and not being permitted to sleep on site, I found a spot to lay down, and tried to occupy my attention with a film on my phone. I chose an old favourite, which I found oddly dissatisfying: despite having seen it many times, I reflected that it hadn’t aged as well as I recalled. I drifted in and out of consciousness through the film, finding the forced viewing at this strange hour a bizarre experience, whilst periodically reflecting that most of the race participants were still out there, struggling in darkness along the South Downs Way. I felt as though I should still be out there with them, rather than lying awkwardly on a slatted bench, half-watching a trite action movie that was so radically disconnected from the real world outside.
When the film finished, I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I was starving again, and no other food was available (as much as a second vegan dog appealed, I reasoned that some variety was in order). I was out of water, so I tried the water fountain, but it was broken. I headed back outside and obtained some water from the caterers. I headed back in, took a sip, and found that it was not water but Tailwind. Not one for those sorts of sports concoctions, I poured it away.
I pottered around, heading back outside and in, surprisingly finding myself increasingly wide awake once more as morning dawned. I headed out into the morning sunlight to the front of the sports centre to cheer runners in for a while, hopeful that they would enjoy their final lap of the track as much as I had.
My thirst and hunger were getting the better of me, and so I set off on an expedition to a Co-op supermarket about a kilometre away. And an expedition it was, since I discovered I’d developed a blister on my right heel, which made for sluggish progress.
I couldn’t find anything of interest at the Co-op other than water, but stumbled across a Subway in a petrol station on my way back. Hardly wholefood; but I was starving, and so picked up a vegan sub, which I wolfed down sitting on the lawn across from the Eastbourne hospital. On the way back I cheered on some of the runners completing their final stage through Eastbourne. They were all smiling and appreciative; one so much that I felt they were encouraging me on my journey back to the track, more than I them!
Back at the sports centre, I aimlessly killed another couple of hours before the coach arrived. I should probably have spent more time at the finish line; I missed seeing in lots of amazing runners, including the 400m GB sprinter Iwan Thomas. That said, I was borderline sunburnt, and spending even longer in the blazing sun didn’t seem wise (in keeping with the route, there was precious little shade outside around the running track). Next time I’ll bring a proper sunhat!
The coach journey back took about 2.5 hours, after which I drove to Winchester to pick up a few supplies, before heading back to the Airbnb in Compton, where I showered, prepared food, and caught up on England’s endeavours in the Euros.
I joined my two Strava activities using an online service (after making such a big deal of it out on the trail, it took all of a couple of minutes to resolve), uploaded it, and spent much of the rest of the evening fielding social media. I got to bed around midnight, some 45 hours after I woke on Saturday morning.
Mentally processing the outcome of a big run like this is one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience. For me, there’s often some form of mental paradigm shift that results; but what that is, or will be, is rarely apparent at the finish line. It can take some time to develop and solidify.
As I came to understand over the coming days, the completion of this race meant I now had a reasonably successful 100 under my belt (I was happy with 21:30:54, anyway), and this blew away that niggling question of whether I should call myself an ultrarunner. Funnily enough, that simple shift – becoming comfortable with a (very amateur!) ultrarunner label – precipitated a shift in my perception of my own capabilities. Labels can be more impactful than we give credit.
So, after those years of hesitation, finally with a real hundred under my belt, what did I think – is one only an ultrarunner after 100+ miles?
My first attempt at 100 miles last year certainly felt like a big step up from the 100km distance. In fact, it was hell! But this SDW100 race was different. I’d learnt lessons, I was better prepared, I performed much better, and – frankly – I was quite confident I could have run further. In terms of difficulty, it felt like a close analogue of my 100km races back in 2019.
Let’s face it: all ultra experiences are different. Weather, elevation, route finding, terrain, fitness, health, overuse injuries, logistics, motivation, cows, aid stations, hayfever, kit, mindset, experience, support, nutrition. Horizontal distance is only one factor of many. In some races it may prove a key factor, and in others less so. Indeed, some of the dark moments in my 100 mile virtual in 2020 were comparable to some of the dark moments I’ve experienced in far shorter ultras. Whilst this running of the SDW100 contained some dark moments of its own, none were nearly as deep as my darkest point on my first 50km FVS Challenge a few years ago (I completed it, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come in a race to giving up and calling a taxi).
The most important factor in an ultra is what’s going on in one’s own head over the course of the journey. That struggle to maintain motivation, focus, and positivity, whilst adapting to variable conditions and managing the innumerable complexities of a long race, is the real challenge we face up to in ultras. And that challenge kicks in at pretty much any distance in excess of a marathon, whether it’s 50 kilometres, or a hundred whatsits. It kicks in when you run an ultra.
If you run an ultra, you’re an ultrarunner.
Simple, isn’t it?