The Centurion Running SDW100 is a trail race along the 100 mile length of the South Downs Way national trail from Winchester to Eastbourne.
I’ve only run this distance once before (the NDW100 in 2012) and although I finished it with a reasonable 23:27 time it left me broken, and I’d hobbled the last 18 miles to the finish.
My training since that race has been far more consistent. Not only have I logged more training miles, but they have been better quality. I’ve achieved PB’s at shorter races already this year (5k, 5 miles and 10k), so I knew I was fitter and faster. I’ve run a couple of marathons and the excellent Weald Challenge 50k just a few weeks earlier, and had strong finishes at both. So I lined up on the start line feeling nervous, but confident. I had an A goal of sub 20hrs, a plan B of sub 24 and plan C ‘finish’.
I didn’t have a detailed plan, but my wife had offered to crew for me, and a couple of other friends were also going to join later to pace me, so I’d worked out a couple of schedules to give them an idea of when to expect me. Fortunately my wife also has an app that can track my phone’s location (great in a race, but perhaps not so good on a lads night out), so would be able to stay a few miles ahead of me, meeting me at various points.
Since starting running ultras, I’ve developed a habit of making a huge wall chart of photocopied maps before long races. This gives me an opportunity to study the route, but more importantly, my two children can see the route, and use the app to track my progress on race day if they’re not actually watching.
I’d stayed in Winchester the night before, so got up at 4, had a quick breakfast and took a taxi to the Chilcombe sports ground for 5 am. After registration, kit check, and chatting to a few familiar faces, we had a short briefing from James Elson (race director) and then at 6am we were off. The 240 runners had a loop of the playing fields to spread us out a bit before getting on the path, and while I didn’t sprint off the line, I did make sure I got into a reasonable position so I could run well and not get held up.
There had been rain the night before, and during registration, but it had stopped before the race start. However after only a few miles the aim of keeping my feet dry had gone as I splashed through ankle deep puddles that completely covered the path.
I knew it would be hot, so I’d decided to run with the bladder in my race vest rather than just the bottles, as I thought I’d need the extra capacity. This did mean that I had to spend a little extra time at checkpoint 1, taking my pack off, but the volunteers were very helpful and soon had me on my way again. It was now getting quite warm, and very humid, so i decided to take it easy on the next couple of hills.
I arrived at cp 2 feeling good, refilled my water flasks and set off with 4 other runners. The route is simple: follow the finger posts. To make it idiot proof the Centurion team marks all the junctions with tape and arrows. We still went the wrong way. It’s compulsory to carry a map and compass, so after a few stops to work out where we were, we found our way back, but had lost about 20 minutes and probably run an extra mile or more.
To keep my mind off the overall distance I’d broken the race up into sections. My first major target was to get to Hill Barn Farm near Cocking. I’d volunteered at the aid station here last year and then run the next 25 miles as the sweeper, so would be on familiar territory. More importantly I knew my support crew would be waiting there. Sure enough, as I ran into the field, I saw Sarah parking the car, so with barely a pause to say ‘good morning’ I shouted at Sarah for a clean top and swapped it for the sweaty one I’d worn for the first 35 miles. The humidity meant it was soaked and I could already feel some chaffing on my back.
I grabbed a handful of food and walked up the steep hill, but the next few miles were along the ridge line on a great path, so easy running, and knowing the route made it feel so much better. There are official aid stations every 8 miles or so, but also a few other places where the trail crosses a road, and Sarah was parked up at many of these, making sure I had everything I needed.
There was a very heavy rain shower at one point just before the half way mark, but it was a welcome relief as it helped me cool down, and reduced the humidity a lot. In fact the weather for the second half of the race was perfect. I tried to get in and out of the Washington Aid station as quick as possible. The offer of hot food was very welcome, but I decided not to, and just grabbed my head torches from my drop bag, used the toilet, and was off.
My next major target was to get to Pyecombe (68 miles), as my amazing crew chief had arranged a team of pacers to run with me from there until the finish. However all the mud from earlier, and the rain meant my feet had been damp for hours, and I could feel a blister forming.
Fortunately Sarah was at the Devils Dyke with a bag of kit, so I changed into dry socks and shoes. Actually she pulled my filthy shoes and socks off as I was struggling to reach my feet. Fortunately there were no blisters, but dry socks and shoes felt fantastic.
Three miles further on we met up again and ran together up to “Jack & Jill” the Clayton Windmills and then a few more miles to Ditchling Beacon. It was great to be running with Sarah and was a beautiful evening on the Downs. After 12 or more hours of steady running I was feeling like I was on cruise control, ticking off the miles while gazing at the view and chatting away. We met up with Rebekah who took over the pacing while Sarah sorted some other logistical miracle, involving getting our car to the finish.
It was still daylight, and there were great views down to Brighton and north to the weald. We ran along the ridge line and then down to the aid station at the A27 crossing. The Centurion aid stations are like an ‘all you can eat’ buffet with volunteers encouraging you to stay and fuel up, but also pushing you to carry on running and not spend too long resting. Runners don’t need their own support crew, but mine were fantastic. We left the aid station and seemed to fly up the next hill, but I struggled on the downhill and had to walk the steep descent. A couple of runners and their pacers ran passed us, but promptly missed the next turn and we had to shout to call them back. We then ran with them for a while and followed them into the Southease aid station (mile 82). Sarah and Claire were both there, and helped me change into a warmer long sleeve top, before Claire and I set off for the next 10 miles.
I remember when I ran the North Downs Way, I reached the Detling Aid Staion, a similar distance to Southease, at about midnight, and had basically walked in from there. This year though I was still feeling good, and it was still daylight.
We ran for a while but soon had to walk up another seemingly endless hill, as it finally started to get dark. We briefly stopped to put on head torches, then carried on. I love night runs. There is something about the way the torch beam illuminates just the path ahead. Perhaps it’s that you can’t see how big the hills are, but it does help you focus on the simple task of ruuning. Soon I started recognising the route, as we were running part of the Beachy Head marathon route, but in reverse. We ran down to Alfriston and another aid station where I finally sucumbed to temptation and sat down for a cup of tea and a ham sandwich. However with only 10 miles to the finish, Claire and the race marshalls booted me out into the night. The next half mile was hideous. A flat path by the river, but with four stiles to climb over, and I could barely lift my foot six inches off the ground. I don’t like stiles at the best of times, so these were particularly unwelcome.
However, soon we back to a more sensible hill and then a car park where Sarah and Rebekah were waiting. Only 7 miles to go, and Sarah was running the final leg with me.
We climbed up the hill to the top of the Long Man of Wilmington, and promptly took a wrong turn. I still don’t understand how, but I missed the SDW turn and ended up running down the wrong hill on the Folkington path. I spent a couple of minutes staring at the map trying to decided whether to hike back up or find another route when another runner and his pacer showed up. One of them had a GPS device with OS map, and quickly plotted a route to Jevington so we decided to followed them. First we ran down a steep technical path, squeezing passed an abandoned car, and running around a spooky farmhouse complete with drunken irate football fan shouting at us: “can’t you just watch the game like normal people!”. I’d promised Sarah this would be the fun bit…
However we finally reached the road, and ran a few hundred yards down to the last aid station at Jevington. Less than 5 miles to go, and only 1 more hill.
The finish line is not at the trail head. It’s at the sports centre near the hospital, so at the trig point at the summit, you have to ignore the SDW finger posts at take an unmarked trail down into Eastbourne. Fortunately a brave volunteer was camped out at the summit with a dozen glow sticks, directing runners down the correct path to the town, and the final 2 miles was well marked with arrows and paint on the road. When we arrived at the finish, Sarah stopped to leave me to run the final lap of the track before crossing the line, while she and the rest of the crew cheered me on.
It felt great to finish a 100 miler, running well and not just shuffling in pain, so I had a huge grin on my face as I ran to the line, for hugs from the Nici and my crew, a 100 mile buckle from Mimi Anderson, and the best bowl of spaghetti bolognese I’ve ever eaten. The better training had enabled me to run more consistently and although the walking breaks got longer, when i did run, it still felt comfortable and i could move at a steady 8:30 min/mile pace.
103 miles (I had 2 detours!)
A PB by 4hr and 23 mins
Photos by Jon Lavis, Sarah Barker and Rebekah Rand