Centurion South Downs Way 50 Mile Race – A Race Report of Sorts

The Boyf ran the SDW50 last weekend….50 miles on a hot sunny day….here’s how it went in his own words!

image - Bib 88 and SDW50 medalFor the TL:DR Crew:

I ran the South Downs Way 50 Mile point-to-point Trail Race at the weekend (8th April 2017) organised by the fantastic Centurion Running crew. I started in Worthing, ran up to the South Downs Way and followed it all the way to Eastbourne. I set myself a challenging time of 9hours and sneaked in with almost 3 minutes to spare. As I crossed the finish line at Eastbourne athletics track in the light of the setting sun, I tried my hardest not to vomit over the legendary Mimi Anderson as she congratulated me and placed my medal around my neck – my sprint finish for the last 3km was a little harder on my system than I expected. In terms of my Centurion 50 Mile Grand slam attempt, that’s South Downs Way done and dusted, with the small matter of North Downs Way, Chiltern Wonderland and Wendover Woods left to complete in 2017. Back in 5 weeks. If you’re that way inclined, go sign up for a Centurion Race. They’re ace.

For the Technical Manual Reading Crew:

I had my first taste of Centurion Running events last year when I entered the inaugural Wendover Woods 50mile race, which involved 5x10mile laps of Wendover Woods, all on a damp and foggy November day. After finishing that particular race, and having such a good time doing it, I thought I should attempt the 50 Grand Slam in 2017 – this involves successfully completing all four Centurion 50mile races within the race cut-offs. The first race of the 50 Grand Slam calendar is the point-to-point South Downs Way 50 (this race) and finds the unsuspecting runner hot-footing it from Worthing to an athletics track 50miles away in Eastbourne. Sounds simple enough…

image - SDW50 route

The one thing you can guarantee when running any part of the South Downs Way, there will be lumps. There are some chalky lumps, grassy lumps, impressive lumps, some not-so-impressive lumps, some rounded lumps, some pointy lumps, and then there are some lumps that have been to that special clinic in the USA to be “enhanced”. As you can see from the course elevation profile I’ve provided, this particular course has been vacationing in the USA for some time, and paid for the full “glamour model” enhancement package.

image - SDW50 Elevation and Aid/Crew Points

It may not look too intimidating on paper, but it is when you’re up close to it. I tried to come up with a suitable running plan to get me to the end without collapsing, and it was difficult to hit on a decent pace figure – mostly because there was no easy way to factor the lumpy bits. Anyway, now you’ve seen the course and the nice numbers to the left (metres of elevation), you can see why the race has a finish-line cut-off of 13hours dead. It’s tough. Cross the finish line one second after 13hrs? That will be a DNF then. Along the course there are several strategically placed Centurion Aid stations, each featuring smiling volunteers offering a free ‘eat-as-much-as-you-like’ buffet. There are also designated crewing points where your loved ones can refuel you from the boot of their car, and they can witness first hand your physical and mental demolition at the hands of the course (and the sun). I’ve attached each aid station/crewing point to the plot so you can see that these stops are perfectly placed. They are also a very welcome sight. The other thing that Centurion do very well is clearly mark the course with reflective tape and spray large orange arrows on the ground to indicate turns and deviations. I need these indicators, as I find it easy to get lost in a supermarket carpark.

image - Tailwind and water bottlesGetting Setup at Race Start HQ

Okay, the business end of the day. When I got to the race start point in Worthing there was a thick fog hanging over the place. This would be perfect to run in. I wandered into the café, had my running pack checked for mandatory kit and grabbed my race number. Two Fat Ladies – 88! As it was still quite early, I grabbed an hours kip in the car, woke up and set about getting my race nutrition organised. Traditionally, this would mean unpacking crisps, cakes, cookies, M&Ms, Oreos, more crisps, jellies, Gels and cheese rolls. However, I don’t need to do that anymore, as I’m one of those grubby Tailwind users. You can spot us exchanging little bags of white powder at race starts or locker rooms, and mixing it with water in dimly lit carparks in the early hours of the morning. For this race, I calculated that I’d need 5litres of water to cover my hydration needs over 50miles. I set up 10x500ml water bottles on the parcel shelf of the car and dissolved a Tailwind stick pack into each.

My plan was a simple one: Start the race at 9am and get to the finish by 6pm, all whilst consuming a litre of water every 10miles. Rather than stop at every aid station and crew point, I developed a suitable refuelling plan:

Point 1 Point 2 Distance Refuelling Strategy at Point 2
Worthing (start) Botolphs (Aid Station) 11 Miles Refill 1litre of water at aid station
Botolphs Devils Dyke (Car Boot Sale) 4.5 Miles Two new bottles of water from Crew
Devils Dyke Ditchling Beacon (Car Boot Sale) 6.5 Miles Two new bottles of water from Crew
Ditchling Beacon Southease (Aid Station) 12 Miles Refill 1litre of water at aid station
Southease Firle Beacon (Car Boot Sale) 2.5 Miles Pick up Mountain Dew and Red Bull from Crew
Firle Beacon Alfriston (Aid Station) 5 Miles Refill 1litre of water at aid station
Alfriston Eastbourne (Finish) 8.5 Miles Eat Jaffa Cakes

image - jaffa cakes and crispsThis was to be my second race where I rely solely on Tailwind for nutrition, and as such, I decided to take a leaf out of the Ultra-running training manual, which states that “bags left at the race finish should be in the form of a 5p Tesco carrier bag (other bag vendors are available) and it should contain only nutritional essentials”. So I grabbed a Tesco carrier bag and put a single bag of crisps and a half-eaten box of Jaffa cakes inside it, all ready for the finish. Now I was ready to go. But, there was a problem. Someone had switched the Sun on and the fog was burning away. It was also warming up. I had wondered if the met office prediction of 13DegC would remain true, and knowing their history of fake weather forecasts, I started to think that this could be a warm and breezy day. So, loaded up with kit and water I headed off to the start corral. The race brief covered the usual stuff – follow the red and white tape, follow the spray arrows, don’t turn right out of Alfriston as you’ll end up going over the seven sisters and don’t follow other race organisers’ signs. The final words were to look after each other out there and enjoy the race. Definitely.

Running out of Worthing

And with that said we are off and running (pun intended). As I made my way out of the field at the start, I bumped into ultra/marathon runner extraordinaire, James Bennett! Out of 400odd runners, in a huge field, I’m running in front of someone I know quite well, unbelievable. As we chatted about things to do with marathon running, nutrition, injuries, 50milers and the inevitable 100milers, it turns out that James is doing the DOUBLE Centurion Grand Slam – which involves the completion of the 50mile Grand Slam series, but also the 100 mile Grand Slam series! Kudos on that James. Maybe next year for me… Before I knew it, we were well out of Worthing and joining the SDW, and out of my dodgy left eye I noticed that we were actually above the fog base. This is a sight I’m used to seeing in the mountains, but not in the UK! And it looked amazing. James and I were chatting so much that soon we were at Botolphs aid station and James had seriously picked up the pace, so with his next burst of speed, I made my excuses about him being too quick for me and off he went. Once at Botolphs, I refilled my empty 500ml bottles and grabbed a very quick hug from the wonderful Maryanne Aitken who was volunteering at the aid station. Fully refuelled, off I went.

Ditchling Beacon Looks Different in the Daylight

Time started to pass very quickly. The sun was warm, but there was a breeze. My primary focus now was getting to Devils Dyke, seeing Kat and grabbing some fresh bottles. The climb out of Botolphs is a proper moose. It’s long and steep and even managed to spike my heart rate over 200bpm (not been there for a while). Soon I was at Devils and could spot Kat almost 1000m away as she was wearing bright, dayglow orange leggings. What I didn’t know was that she’d popped into Tesco just after I started the race and grabbed 1kg of ice and an ice bucket. When we swapped over bottles I was pleasantly surprised to find my new bottles were icy cold! Loverly. After a quick hug, and having refuelled I was off to Ditchling Beacon. I hit Saddlescombe Farm quickly after, and as it wasn’t on my stopping plan, and I didn’t need any extra hydration, I got my number checked and continued through. I missed Clayton Windmills completely, which I’m sure was there, but I didn’t see anybody. Then, before I could orientate myself, or look at the views, I ran straight into Ditchling. I spotted Kat almost immediately (those dayglow orange leggings again).  This time I was in a bit of trouble with my crew… As I picked up new bottles, crew reminded me of the plan, and informed me that I was 30mins ahead of schedule and at risk of falling into the Danger Zone of running out too quick and paying for it after 40miles. So I promised I’d slow down and take the climbs in a less energetic manner. This proved to be very good advice, as a few miles out of Ditchling Beacon, the pain started show itself in my left knee and I was having a slight abdominal issue (think side stitch, but across my upper abs). I had begun to slow down whether I liked it or not.

image - the yellow brick roadIt is not 400Yards to Southease Aid Station!

My new primary goal was to get to Southease, as here I would find several friendly faces and it would signify that 2/3 of the race would be over. As I slowed, I started to look around some more, the views were stunning and worth the race fee alone. The sun was beating down now, but the breeze was quite chilly. I took a slug from my second bottle and was hit immediately with a different taste – it was Mountain Dew!! I’d forgotten that Kat had given me the Mountain Dew at Ditchling. Exciting times. The run to Southease was long – 12miles. I stopped momentarily at Housedean to top up one of my bottles with clean water (just to palate cleanse) and ran on. Southease was almost in sight. Then the weirdest thing happened – as I was nearing Southease I passed a guy who decided to shout “not far to go. The aid station is 400yards on the left”. However, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close. The aid station was at least a mile away, and I had yet to cross the river or the railway bridge! The weird thing is that I’ve met this guy before, as he said exactly the same thing when I paced Louise Ayling on SDW100 as we were nearing Southease at 2am that morning! Weird. Finally, I reached the railway bridge at Southease and once crossed I ran into the aid station. Two thirds of the race was over. Once at the aid station, I was greeted by the smiling faces of Jon Fielden and Louise Ayling! This was a definite plus point, as I was still experiencing that troublesome abdominal and knee pain. Having a quick handshake and hug from them both, I refilled my empty bottles and ran off to experience the Southease climb… Time to go home.

Up, Up, Up to the Gate We Go!

As you can see from the elevation plot, the climb from Southease to Firle is a beast. It winds up the hill, has no shade and seems to be on a constant 60° angle putting pressure on the calves, shins and ankles. I’m sure my calves grew 2” hitting this climb. Then like that, it was over and I was on top of the hill. I passed a few radio comms towers and soon hit Firle Beacon. A quick glance at the watch informed me that I was now running later than scheduled, it was 15:45. I had 14 miles to cover and a little over 2hours to do it. At that point I said to Kat that the 9hr target had gone, and that she’d see me around 18:30. I was very glum and down, and she was slightly angry with me for worrying about times – just finish the race. I exchanged bottles again, and I put a can of red bull in my backpack for Alfriston, and set off towards Alfriston. I remember very little about the run to Alfriston, mostly due to reprimanding myself about bombing off so quickly at the start. After what seemed like an hour, I could see a town in the distance and I started to descend into Alfriston. As I approached the town, it began to get busy with traffic and I spotted arrows sprayed on the ground (as well as reflective tape). Still feeling annoyed and pretty grumpy, I passed a marshal who directed me into the Alfriston hall aid station, and who remarked on how fresh I was looking! That cheered me up. Inside the hall I refilled a bottle. Just as I was about to leave I heard a thud as my can of Redbull ejected itself from my backpack… weird. I’d completely forgotten about my can of rocket fuel, and would’ve continued without it if it hadn’t fallen out. In a daze, I opened the can and sipped from it as I hiked out of the aid station. I thanked the marshal for his help and directions, and continued on my merry way towards the Jevington. 41.6 miles done.

Go On, Follow the Exceat Sign. I Dare You. I Double Dare You MotherFudger.

I’m not clear on the time, but the sun was evening orange and beginning to dip behind the trees. I think it must’ve been around 16:45. I flicked the screen on my GPS watch to ‘Altitude’ and spotted that the climbs were almost done! I had a lump to negotiate before I hit Jevington and one final climb to home. After around 10mins the Redbull really kicked in, all my pains disappeared and I could feel myself wanting to speed up – so I did. I spotted the infamous ‘Exceat’ sign and reminded myself to continue on my current course and not to take that route! I didn’t need a run over the seven sisters right now… Once away from the town, I started to run and hit the chalky, rock hard climb out of Alfriston, which turned into a run 30secs/hike 30secs training session, just as I had practiced on my little hill at home. The views on this part of the course are STUNNING. Soon enough, the climb was done, I was over the hill (literally) and began the descent into Jevington (please return all tray tables to their upright position and fasten your seat belts). This part of the run actually had some shade, and it was most welcome. Once in Jevington proper, I was directed into Jevington village hall, but as I wasn’t stopping and I poked my head inside to inform the marshal that I wasn’t stopping. I then ran straight back out, through the church yard and back onto the SDW. I knew this was almost it. I looked at my watch. I was still behind schedule, but not as much as I was at Firle Beacon – I’d actually made up time. Cheers Redbull. Things were looking up.

A Trig Point is a Big Pointy Rock

My next worry was the troublesome trig point (big pointy rock) at the top of the climb. I’d the heard rumours, checked the route, checked google maps and read the centurion course description. All I could remember was “don’t take the wrong path at the trig point”. As I arrived at the top of the climb, I entered the field with the trig point in it. It was well marked, and there was a marshal who reminded me that I was almost home. It was now 17:32. Time was running out. I passed the trig point, spotted the centurion markings and hit the path with a million arrows pointing towards it. I’d done it. Now began the run down the hill through what is known as the “Gully of Doom”. I now know why it’s called this. It’s an old path running adjacent to the golf course, with a deep V-structure wide enough to fit one foot in at a time and is quite steep. I hopped from foot to foot to maintain my speed, got hit in the face with brambles and almost lost my footing re-joining the main path. This was tough enough at the end of a 50miler, I guess I’ll have to wait until next year to see how it feels at the end of a 100miler. It’s an annoying path, with annoying terrain, but my god was it fun to run down – even more so when jacked on a can of Redbull. Soon enough I was out and down in Eastbourne proper, and I hit real concrete! I looked at my watch, it was now 17:42. That took 10mins to negotiate, and 5mins too long. Bugger. After a little argument in my head about times not mattering, I decided that I could pick up the pace and get to the track 2.5km away in 18minutes. That could be done, if I didn’t get lost on my way, or get hit by a car crossing the road… Or eaten by a Bear. They have bears in Eastbourne you know. Vicious ones.

Sprint Once Round the Track and Don’t Throw up Over Superstars at the Finish

image - the Boyf checking his time at the SDW50 finishAt this point, I popped one ear of my ipod in (safety first and all that). I needed some inspirational music. For this I selected a suitably appropriate track from my metal collection – “Lawnmower Deth, You’ve got no legs” – A classic, and started to run. Properly run. Well, as much as I could after doing 48 miles. I followed all of the centurion markings and kept spotting little wavy red and white banners in the distance. I was on the right route. I checked my watch, it was now 17:50. 10 Minutes to save my race. I then came to an arrow that turned left and pointed toward a road crossing. The road was busy (Eastbourne on a Saturday evening) and I pressed the cross button. I waited an age. The light stayed green… The light stayed green… The light stayed green… Come on! Then I spotted a large gap in the traffic and remembering my green cross code I sprinted across. No problem. I needed to get a wriggle on now. The track was 1km away and I had 8minutes left. I turned a corner and crossed another road and found myself on a nice surfaced cycle way – time to speed up. So I did. My legs started to really move and people I passed started to wish me luck. One person even asked me if I’d really just run 50miles – not yet was my reply! I was now at full tilt, but I had a problem. I’d obviously started my sprint a bit too early, and I was now feeling quite sick. I kept on going whilst trying to keep the retching to a minimum. Then I saw the athletics track! Loads of runners who had finished their races were walking in my direction, all of them wished me luck. I saw James Bennett, who I had run with earlier in the day with his medal, he wished me luck and I felt another gear become available. I sprinted up the hill at full parkrun pace (thanks again Redbull) and into the finish area. I heard a couple of voices, one telling me to sprint and one telling me to go faster – so I tried. There was no one else on the track, it was completely empty. I checked the watch, it was 17:56. All I had to do was negotiate 400m of athletics track in 4 minutes or less. Then I felt the first stirring of nasty stuff in my throat. Two retches later and I had to slow my sprint. 200m to go. I rounded the last corner to hear people shouting and clapping. Always nice. And did a final watch check. 17:57. I crossed the line and was met with a big hug from Louise and a pat on the back from Mimi Anderson. Wow. At that point Mimi asked if I would like my medal, and as I bent my neck, I felt very sick indeed. I couldn’t throw up over a superstar could I? Luckily enough, I didn’t, but it was very close. A final hug from Kat and a few race photographer photos and it was all done. SDW50 completed. 50 Grand Slam event #1 done. I felt pretty good too. Kat joked about me running back to Worthing… Yeah, not this year love.

My Critical Analysis

Okay. I’m a Neek, or Gerd. Yeah, I’m a Gerd. I like stats and my Garmin Fenix 3HR gives me loads of stats. These are displayed below in all their glory for people to pick holes in, criticise or laugh at. I don’t mind. Having this kind of information shows me straight away that I screwed up. Those 10 little RED dots between Worthing and Botolphs tell the whole story – I went out too fast with 12 miles in the ‘Crazy Pace’ zone. That punished me later in the race by filling my body with all those lovely toxins and by-products that the athletics experts warn us punters about. However, somehow I manged to pull it back from the brink of a DNF (Duke Nukem Forever). It looks like the climbs actually helped me get my pace back and by the time Kat had warned me of my over-pacing, I’d actually managed to regain control of my race. The best part for me is the little red and yellow dots running into Eastbourne – I got my short little legs to move quite fast, and they were completely buggered at the time. The graphical analysis also tells me that the climbs were hard (to be expected, this is a lumpy course), but also the descents were quite hard too. The key thing for me is having this information available when I tackle this course again as part of the South Downs Way 100 next year, as this particular 50mile will be done in the dark, on head torch, in the mist, on legs that already have 50miles in them. This data will be quite handy.  So, I screwed up but managed to pull it back, and for that I’m off to enjoy my weight in pizza and beer. If you’re after a great race with top notch organisers on a challenging course, then this is for you. Or, if you want a walk in the English Countryside, with some superb views, just pop along to the SDW. Just watch out for knackered runners everywhere. And bears. Watch out for bears. The Sussex Bear is known for its ferocity…

image - SDW50 pace analysis

So there we have it! The Boyf done good….50 miles in 8:57:08!  I am so pleased for him, although obviously it all came down to my uber-crew skills and not his hard work!

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