SDW100 2022: Race Report

aka the one that was Fucking Glorious

Some you win, some you lose. OK so clearly I was nowhere near actually winning this one, but what I mean is that when it comes to 100s, some are a struggle, some are a proper shitshow, most are a mix of everything, but this one was 97% glorious. Bizarre. Unheard of. Amazing.

Some background. In the 12 months past, I’d run:

North Downs Way 100. August 2021. Torrential rain for the morning, so a bit of a mudbath from there on in, but a respectable 22:55 finish, which considering the conditions I was pretty pleased with. I enjoyed most of the day/night, up to the infamous Detling section which was even re horrific with the added factor of having to grab on the brambles to avoid slipping on the massively overgrown jungle section. And t

Robin Hood 100. Sept 2021. (the aforementioned shitshow). 5 weeks after NDW, went out a bit too fast on almost no sleep from the night before and the wheels fell right the fuck off. Fell over. Stung by a wasp. Dehydrated in the middle of the day. Feeling sorry for myself. Death march last 20 miles. Finished in 22:53, which on the face of looks OK, but the 2nd half was a real struggle. Only 2 mins faster than the 3 miles longer and very much hillier NDW, and far more annoyingly, 1 bastard single minute longer than when I did this race in 2019. I should have been much faster, and more to the point, I didn’t enjoy much of this race. It’s a great event, but it wasn’t my day. I’ll be back at this race for sure to make it right in a year or 2.

Thames Path 100. May 2022. Huge hopes a few weeks out from this. First of 4 races for the Centurion Grand Slam. I finally had all 4 events lined up, so hugely looking forward to the series of races and the massive buckle come October. The training block of 1000 miles in 1000 days had worked and I was seeing some of the best training runs. Looking forward to besting my time of 19:33 from last year, which felt very doable. And then… fucking Covid. 3 weeks out from race day. Shit. I felt grim for around a week, with lingering fatigue after, but nowhere near as severe as many others, so I can’t moan too much. I’d tested negative about 9 days from race day, so it was up in the air as to whether I’d start or not, but a couple of shorter runs felt OK, so I thought I’d give it a go. Too late to refund either race place or accommodation by this point too. Ended up with a DNF at Reading, 60 miles in. First 20 miles or so were fine, but from then on I knew I still wasn’t right, it wasn’t getting any better, and wasn’t going to. I was worried about delaying recovery more by continuing through the night, so I pulled the plug. First DNF since 2016 which really pissed me off, especially as I sat in my hotel room at 11pm, watching the live tracking when I should have still been out on the course. But looking back it was the right decision. An early end to the Grand Slam though. Nevermind. Fuck it. Move on.

So since then I’d not trained much, so I knew that a lot of that fantastic training block had gone down the pan, but with some very adjusted expectations, I was reasonably confident of a finish at SDW, but not the 21 hour-ish finish that I’d have had my sights set on before that pesky virus.

Goals for the day:

  • A Goal – best case scenario with the planets aligned and the wind behind me: 22 hours
  • B Goal – an acceptable outcome: 24 hours
  • C Goal – a reasonable outcome if the day’s not gone to plan: a finish within 30 hour cut off. Even 29:59 would be better than another DNF.
  • BUT overarching goal is to be sensible and enjoy as much of it as I can.

I’d arrived in Winchester by train on Friday afternoon. With the platform full of nervous looking people with tags on their backpacks it was easy to spot fellow runners and I met Ralph who was staying in the hotel across the road from me and we walked together through Winchester. After checking in I set out to have a quick walk, met King Alfred and had a quick meal (vegan burger & chips) from the local Spoons (lazy option!), it was a very early night. Taxi was booked for 03:45, so I got my head down for 19:30. Sleep wasn’t great, it never is before these things, but acceptable.

Race morning. I’d woken many times throughout the night, and at about 02:50 I gave up trying to sleep and got the kettle on. Coffee and a porridge pot, standard hotel race breakfast. Outside I met David and Keiran who had had arranged to share the taxi. The cabbie was punctual but humourless. Perhaps he was just confused by all these weirdos in Winchester at this time of the morning.

It was still dark when we arrived at Registration, as it opened. I’d booked the cab a little earlier than it needed to be to allow for any probs with it not showing up (as has happened at NDW in the past). The registration process was smooth, other than the toilet queue. For the first time, Centurion had designated certain Portaloos as male and female, so there was an enormous queue for the man, while ladies walked straight in with several portaloos sitting empty. Anyway, as night turned to day I queued and by the time I’d ‘completed the mission’, it was daylight and time for race briefing, then on the dot of 5am…. we’re off.

The first part of SDW100 is a couple of loops through the Matterley estate before heading out on the SDW proper. This was a little different from when I’d last done the race in 2019, a little longer, I guess James Elson the RD got sick of people talking about it being short. As we ran round the top of the natural amphitheatre of Matterley Bowl, the sun was rising above the horizon, it was a staggeringly beautiful start to the day

3.7 miles on the watch when we hit the SDW, by this time the pack had thinned, with the leaders going off at a brave/crazy pace. A mile or 2 in, I met up with Chris, who I’d met whilst volunteering at SDW50 a couple of months back. We got chatting, keeping a steady pace and before we knew it, CP1 at Beacon Hill.

It got warm early on, so we kept the pace conservative. Early on I knew we were more on pace for a c24 hour finish than my A goal of 22, but that was fine. the real aim for the day was to finish feeling OK. So the idea of taking the first half steady, then seeing what was left for the second half was OK with me.

A few impressions struck me as we made our way from Beacon Hill to QECP, to Harting, to Cocking and onwards.

Huge swathes of the course felt unfamiliar, I’d forgotten so much of the course from 2019. I’ve run the back half a couple of times in the SDW50, so I’m reasonably familiar with that, but the first 50 is a bit of an unknown.

It was also much hillier than remembered/expected. I’d had it in my head that the 2nd half was tougher, but actually looking at the numbers, just over half the ascent is in the front half, and the trail tends to be flintier earlier, with more easy grassy stretches later.

I was wearing my fairly new Altra Mont Blancs. Tested on a couple of 20ish mile runs so far, Chris also had the same, (as I think did Darryl who I meter later on. Popular shoes for this kind of event clearly). And funnily enough we’d both noticed that it was a little awkward to get them tightened right, feet were sliding a little on some of the descents, so needed to stop for a quick shoe adjustment, somewhere just after QECP I think.

Chris and I had picked up a couple of others, and for a while we ran in a group of 4 with Mark, who’d met at TP100 just before I dropped, and Ollie who was running his first 100. The chat was good and the miles ticked by pretty easily. Mark was regaling with us with tales of some truly epic adventures including Thames Ring and Monarch’s Way.

Another impression that struck me was that I was so much more enjoying the variety of SDW compared with the relative monotony of the Thames Path. Having hills and changes of view made the trail so much more enjoyable than endless towpath. There was far more a feeling a proper journey, a quest, an adventure. And it was still a beautiful day, barely a cloud, but getting a little warm. Massive thanks to the crew of another runner that we kept on seeing a crew points throughout the day, who had a spray gun to cool us all down, thank you! A brilliant example of how crews tend to look after, encourage and support all runners, not just their own.

At some point along here: a wheat field laid out on gentle downhill incline before me, rippling in wind, under a clear blue sky, with the hills in the distance.

After Cocking, Mark and Ollie had split off, and I continued with Chris. We walked a lot here as it was the heat of the middle of the day, not as bad as the infernal hellfire of NDW2020, only low 20s, but still enough to get sunburned, dehydrated and fuck the rest of your race if you didn’t adjust to the conditions. So we ran any downhills, but mainly walked the rest, aiming to conserve energy for later. I was eating and drinking to plan, a salt tab every now and then, and getting some factor 50 on. So slower than planned, but everything else going well, and I wasn’t at all bothered about a slower pace at this stage.

The Houghton CP at 46ish miles took forever to arrive, and we’d both ran out of fluids a couple of miles earlier, so it was nice to have a stop here, replenish and grab some bits of fruit. By this point we’re about 9 hours in, so around 14:00. The climb up out of Amberley was the biggest of the day so far, and in the heat of the afternoon we took it slow, and it was a bit of a slog, but knowing that by the time we’d hit the next CP, it would be well over halfway, helped push us on up the hill.

Eventually topping out and hitting the ridge which would continue for a few miles before dropping down to Washington and the main halfway CP, I bade farewell to Chris as I wanted to push on a little, and he wanted to hang back. Soon my watch beeped for mile 50 at 10 hours 20 mins. This was slower than when I’d done this in 2019 as my first hundred, and much slower than my usual half time split, but again, I wasn’t bothered at all. Normally I’d be griping a little at being behind track, as now even a sub 24 was looking questionable, but I was far more pleased with the fact that I was going into the half way point feeling stronger and less tired than ever before on a 100 miler in general, and more specifically I was so much better than I’d been at TP100. I wasn’t going to count my chickens yet, but it was certainly feeling like the fucking Covid had properly backed the fuck off and wasn’t going to ruin my day this time round. On the approach to Washington I was chatting with Darryl, who I’d see on and off for the rest of the journey.

I hit the Washington CP at 11 hours 2 mins, aiming to be out in 10 mins. Over the years I’ve got better at not hanging around at CPs too much as they can suck time from your race. Key to this, is having what you need, no more, no less, in your drop bag. Don’t pack everything ‘just in case’ you won’t need it. Enough to top up drinks/snacks and a few extras. But before drop bag faffing, I needed to take a dump as I didn’t fancy a wild poo later on, and here I queued for at least 5 mins, but spent some of this time splashing my face with cold water from the sink. Load lightened, I went to switch out a few items from drop bag and made sure I had headtorches which were now mandatory kit on leaving this CP. I generally don’t bother changing socks or shoes, or tops unless they’re inappropriate for the conditions ahead eg you need something warmer. Changing a sweaty top for a clean one, or same with socks, will feel great for a minute, then the benefit is lost, and you’ve taken time for no real purpose. It’s also best not to see your feet, if it doesn’t hurt, no need to look, best not to know. I’d left some warmer gear for night time in my next bag for Housedean which was 22 miles and a few hours away, so I was hoping not having them here wasn’t a mistake.

It took me 20 mins in the end to get done at the CP, and after the climb back out of Washington, meeting the SDW again near Chanctonbury Ring, I was feeling good and almost clocked a sub 10 minute mile, steady on there! Now I was on more familiar ground, having run the course from here as part of the SDW50 a couple of time. The stretch to Botolphs was fairly uneventful and I made decent time here. The day was cooling, still warm but less so than a few hours back, and still a stunning day, with the Downs looking more beautiful than ever. Fucking glorious. This is what it’s all about. I was pleasantly tired by now, enough to dim my thoughts, and to just focus on moving forward and looking around to enjoy the day.

From Botolphs the climb up to Truleigh Hill was taken steadily, last time I’d done on SDW50 I’d ran up here at a fair pace – not today! I still wasn’t interested in pushing anything, the steady approach was working well, as I was 100k in now, and still feeling relatively good. This was a bit of a milestone, as it was past the point where I’d DNF’d at TP1000 last month. At a car park near the top, I had a surprise visit from an old school friend who was out for a cycle on the Downs, it was great to see him and it broke up the miles, so I really appreciated the effort made to find me en route.

Before I knew it, it was Devil’s Dyke and the CP at Saddlescombe, it rolls round fast as it’s only about 5 miles inbetween. At Saddlescombe I saw Ollie from earlier on the day, he’d been suffering with some stomach issues but was struggling on. I had a cup of black tea here to take for the walk up the hill out of the CP. In fact I had tea at virtually every CP from here onwards. If it’s good enough for Damian Hall… Drinking my tea as I left the CP, I reflected on the fact that I was now two thirds of the way through, out of the middle section, into the final section. I’m always glad to be out of the middle phase as that’s the one that often caused me trouble. I think it was around here that I saw Mark again as well, we seemed to keep pretty close to each other for most of the day and night

It was in the 10mile stretch between Saddlescombe and Housedean that day turned towards night. It was a beautiful time of the evening. It had cooed now and I was positively looking forward to the night stage. I love running in the dark, and was looking forward to being able to go through the night hopefully stronger than I ever have done before.

I always forget about that nasty little hill just before the CP and it always gets me. Into the Housedean CP and I saw Sy who I’d met volunteering at SDW50 in April, it was great to hear how well she’d got on at NDW50 recently as she filled my drinks and got my bag. Every single volunteer all day and night was super helpful and enthusiastic, so huge thanks to all involved.

From my dropbag here, as well as Tailwind and snacks (gels at this stage) I had a thin hoodie that I shoved in pack, unsure if I’d need it, but thought it wise to take it. I changed here into a slightly warmer T shirt than the thin vest I’d had on all day, and picked up a pair of arm sleeves. These are a great piece of kit, give a little extra warmth and you can roll up or down as need, they even have a bit that you can use as a kind of glove if necessary. Somehow I spent 20 mins here without really knowing how. It felt like a quick chat and dealing with my bag, but must have been a few longer chats!

By the time I left it was definitely headtorch time, and another big climb after the CP, but its went by pretty quick, and then its a case of another few miles along the ridge before dropping down for Southease. Once on the ridge I was pretty consistent and I managed a few 10 and 11 minute miles here. Not bad for me at 80 miles and around 18 hours deep in the race. I realised here that I was picking up a lot of the time that I’d lost in the afternoon, though there was still a way to go, and enough miles left to not get too excited. But I was quietly confident by this stage, I was still doing OK on food and drink, with a caffeine pill here and there, and more than anything, still enjoying being out on the hill on a beautiful evening. The descent down to Southease came quickly, and a few of uus all ran into Southease together. At the CP I had a chat with Lesley, who I’d manned this very checkpoint with last year, ate an orange, and a few other bits, and got another tea for the walk up the beast of hill up to Firle Beacon. This has been my nemesis in the past as it goes on for ever and ever and ever. It’s still a beast of a hill, but I was better prepared to deal with it.

Walking up towards Firle, I look back behind me. It’s very dark by now, around 23:30, but this is one of my favourite views of the SDW, a long spread-out string of dots of light at various points across the valley. Many many points of light. Some are alone, some in pairs, some small groups. All part of this journey from Winchester, moving across the Downs throughout the night. It’s beautiful to see and really emphasises the aspect of the journey, and of the community. I take a minute to look back and admire it, wondering if any of those points of light are looking at this point of light up on the hill. It’s a real moment that sums up what this ridiculous sport is all about.

I move on. There’s a patch up here where it suddenly gets a bit misty and spooky. I love it. It’s magical. It doesn’t last long, then it’s down into Alfriston and I’m now counting down miles in single figures. I hit the Alfriston CP in a a few mins under 20 hours and it hits me that my 22 hour goal is actually right back in the picture now. Yes there’s a couple of climbs yet, 1 big, the other big enough, and a nasty gnarly descent after Jevington, but all doable in 2 hours. But I do want to stop at the CP, they have plenty of fruit here so I wolf down chunks of pineapple and a few strawberries whilst waiting for my tea.

Leaving the CP I team up with Darryl again, and we chat as we start to make our way up the big climb, knowing that this is the last big climb we face, and that we’re all but certain to get a finish, and a time that we can proud of. We catch a few others on the way up, and for a short time there a small group of us. I stop for a wee at the top and can’t quite catch up afterwards, it’s at this point that I start to feel it, and my pace does slow along this stretch. I’m still able to get a quick jog in at points, but it’s more walking than running now. Which is fine, as I’m still quite happy, not the ‘fuck it all I’m never doing this again’ death march that so often appears in the final stages of these things.

A bit of a trot down into Jevington, but the ground here is a little tricky at this stage, so it’s not quick. I go straight by the CP, no need to stop at this stage, only 4 miles to go. The climb out of Jevington is nowhere as big as the previous one, out of Alfriston, but it always feels a monster as it’s the last hill of the race and it seems to grow and goes on for longer than it has any right to, …and then, and then, you’re at the top, at the trig point, you can see Eastbourne laid out down below, just one descent between you and the town. But the Gully of Doom, as it’s affectionately known, is a nasty fucker of a descent. A rooty, gnarly, stony, uneven bitch of a mile. With a fallen tree that is just a bit too low to go under, and just a bit too high to go over. I curse this tree as I stare at it. Anyway, it’s all in the game so just get on with it.

I nearly slip a few times, and I take this stretch slow, probably too slow to get in under 22 hours, but I’m not that bothered about a minute or 2. More bothered about a twisted ankle or a bashed hip. I get it done, and then it’s through the gate and onto the road for the final 2 mile approach to the Track of Dreams.

I put my headphone on here, having not even touched them for the previous 21 hours and 40 minutes, but now I want a little boost. I have a playlist set up called ‘FinalHours’ for these exact moments. The one that comes on first is Final Frontier by Underground Resistance. That’ll do. Then it’s acid house classic Promised Land by Joe Smooth. It does the trick. Nearing the hospital. Less than a mile to go. I run the final stretch to the sounds of Acid Eiffel by Laurent Garnier, a deep atmospheric but driving track. One of my all time favourite techno tunes, and often the last tune of the night in a club environment too. A tune that used to be the end of a marathon DJ set at the End in London is now the closing moments for an ultramarathon, how times change, but the emotions are the same.

As the tune throbs and builds, I round the corner and see glimmers of light in the sky. I turn off through the carpark of the sports centre, then turn right onto the track to the sheers and encouragement of assorted volunteers, staff, runners and crew. The final lap of the track is an excellent to chance to reflect on and celebrate the race you’ve just run. It’s usually a pretty emotional experience and today is no different. I manage an almost sprint for the final 100 metres and get home in 22:04:46.

I recover with cup of tea, and a vegan hot dog from Nick Sheffield, swapping battle stories and congratulations with a few other finishers. Before long I see Mark cross the line and I have a chat with him, he’s off to do a 200 mile race in the Welsh mountains the following week. Of all the stories I hear at the finish line, perhaps my favourite is from James, who I believe broke his arm around mile 60 and finished the race in a sling, around 4 mins quicker than me. That’s commitment to getting a finish.

On reflection, I’m very happy with the way the race went. I enjoyed the vast majority of it, felt strong until very near the end of the race. A good result considering the month or so leading up to it, and I’d spent time with some great people out on course, so a fantastic day overall. And I’d laid to rest the spectre of the TP100 DNF, regaining confidence that I can do these things. A perfect day on the Downs.

Massive thanks to all involved in the event in any way: Centurion staff, volunteers, runners, crew, pacers and supporters.

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