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50 miles of The South Downs Way - from somewhere near Worthing back to Eastbourne.
As many of you know Alan Bennet, John Fielden, Susie Casebourne and myself all undertook this challenge on 13/04/13. For all of us this represented a new benchmark of achievement.
This is how it unfolded for me....
I love the bit in any event when there is no more time left for faff. The point when any more FAFFING would mean you miss the event. You know what I mean... Do I need 4 gels or shall I take 17; wet weather shoes / dry weather shoes; Will I need a T shirt, base layer, and vest; how many buffs, hats gloves do I really need; how much loo roll do I take and how do I keep it dry?; shall I wear leggings or calf guards and shorts; if I do that should I take what i'm not wearing.... DOH!
Open the bag and throw it all in because its 6am and its time to leave and the weather forecast can't be trusted. You will get what you get, need what you need and use only what you take.
Reality kicks in when you find yourself among a large group of like- minded people. Some of whom have looks of nervousness and bewilderment, possibly even fear, in their eyes. And then the rest.. seasoned ultra- runners, with minimalist shoes, minimal kit, kit that looks like it grew on them - it fits so well. An aire of excitement and anticipation but also oozing confidence.
Race registration is a slightly different affair as the marshals get you to sign the 'its not our fault if you die waver' and then proceed to check you have the compulsory safety kit in your back pack that the rules state you need to carry throughout the duration of the event. Things like the ability to carry 1 litre of water, a course map and compass, a head torch and back up light source, a spare thermal base layer, thermal hat and gloves, waterproof and windproof jacket, foil thermal blanket. Will we really need this stuff- seems a bit OTT?! Oh nearly forgot the Fully charged mobile phone - not for face booking and picture taking but for The Race Day Medics number and the Race Directors Emergency number....gulp L
Then there was race briefing. The course was dry until this week. There is standing water and large stretches of mud. It is nice now but the weather is going to get worse all day. It is a tough course and you are likely to get very wet and it will be very cold. The field will spread out and you are likely to be alone on the trail at times. Why am I doing this again??
So the run starts, and I love the start to Ultra events many of them are an anti-climax in themselves depending what you may be anticipating or use to from other events. No mass thrash of a swim wave start in a tri event. No thundering sprint of a 10k. Not even a steady jog to find a rhythm a la marathonesque. For some breaking stride in to a march would be an overstatement. Understandably so... the Elite will fly round in something like 7 hours many will take between 9 and 11 hours and the mortals among us will do well to finish before the 13 hour cut off. However you look at it, it's a long day ahead :-) Personally I like to get my moneys worth, haha.
And soon after the start it all starts to unfold before your eyes, the seasoned adventurers with knowing eyes watch on as newbies repeat all the usual mistakes that they have moved on from. And in so doing move away from the starting mass. Perpetual movement and the ability to do on the move becomes an important theme for the day. Doing everything on the move seems a way to becoming more efficient.
The standing around pre-start, the changing weather conditions, new kit, untried kit, all adds to the amusing scenes of the first few miles. Have you ever been in a tri race where the bike course is traversed by cattle grids - then you know where I am going. Lots of kit strewn over the floor some being recovered and some being abandoned.
The Ultra equivalent to this is stuff attached outside back packs, bum packs, fanny packs, chest packs, mule packs, camel packs, arm packs, pack packs - falls off. Bottles fall off, gels drop on the floor, zips left undone leak treasures and pleasures, gloves come off, hats get dropped. And now we are finally moving most of us have too many of the wrong type of layers on. So we stop to take layers off and take a pack off and stow a layer, only to get to the top of the first hill and find it too windy and exposed, and need another layer, but not the layer I just took off because its not raining....yet.
Knowing what you can make do with is Vital- big learning. Less is more but where is the balance. And the less FAFFING and FIDDLING you do while making these adjustments means less energy wasted. Standing still when you don't need to or have to is a big no-no. Get use to shedding and replacing layers on the move. Work out how to stash stuff securely and so that it doesn't annoy the crap out of you for the next 40 miles of not needing it. Oh yeah that long strap that should be cut off because all it does is flap in the wind and whip your face gets flipping annoying :-O
If any of you have been scuba-diving, you will know how important a Buddy Check is before you go in the water. I'm thinking I will adopt such a procedure as standard issue for my future Ultras. For those of you who don't know scuba diving alone is a big no-no for obvious safety reasons. But before entering the water divers perform vital kit checks to make sure everything is working properly, securely attatched etc before jumping in and loosing expensive weight belts or finding out that air supplies are not switched on at the tank, or air hoses aren't connected. Had Susie and I done this we both would have saved on FAFF time.
Having confidently told Susie how to operate her drinking bladder I was surprised to hear she couldn't drink from it - a quick stop and pack removal revealed that her drinking hose was not attached to the bottom of her bladder, quickly rectified but needless FAFFING. Now here is another lesson learned make the most of any down time. If your buddy needs to stop - use the time to pre-empt or sort anything for yourself. So why several miles later on did I have the same issue. An act of devious espionage is a distinct possibility as whilst we were FAFFING Alan, John and Mark all merrily cruised past us.
OK so no one in their right mind would attempt to run 50 miles with a brand new pack would they? If they did they don't deserve any sympathy! So here is where I rationalise that decision and take from it what you will. I need a pack for SDW100 as what I have is not suitable and may not last the course. SDW50 is after all a training run and at some point all new kit gets tested. Perfect testing situation. I want no sympathy and only tell the story so you can laugh at my dis-comfort and learn from my learning :-)
After 5 miles or so I was aware of something digging in my back. It took me probably 20 miles to work out what, and 41 miles to resolve the issue. At first I rearranged the content of my pack believing a torch or compass to be the culprit. It transpired to be the outlet from the bladder but I wasn't to realise this for some time. By the time I did - some damage was already done. I ran through several checkpoints re-filling my additional drinking bottle before thinking to empty the bladder and remove it from its place and store it in a different position as I actually didn't need it. How dense can one person be? That's 40 miles of carrying 1.5 litres of water (nearly 4lbs of extra weight) for 9 hours...DOH Not to mention the discomfort and wasted time FAFFING whilst identifying and resolving the issue.
Stuff like that can have a huge compound effect. The more time mentally you spend FAFFING and FIDDLING you are not focussing on enjoyment and achievement and you are certainly feeding a negative thought process. Having said that small breaks for the right reasons at the right times can give you an immense lift and recover you from a dark place or arrest the slide toward that place.
It was with great pleasure that Susie and I were served hot chicken soup by Tanya, Henry and Daisy on the course after about 20 miles. How little did we realise that the 20 miles between then and our next hot drinks would be so defining. A structured support team would be vital in future events to satisfy all the idiosyncracies and diva- like requests we may make in a 100 mile event.
Whilst the first 26 miles or so run with Susie were enjoyable miles of company and conversation I was deteriorating at a rate which concerned me. My legs were still feeling used from my previous weeks 30 mile outing and I was more than aware that some of the inclines we had merrily been jogging up were the type I should be walking in order to preserve some strength for later in the day. I was putting myself in deficit partly through poor course management and partly through failing to keep fuelling at an appropriate rate.
A decision to walk the next steady haul was right for me. Susie and I parted company. The weather had already closed in and to become cold was a bad thing. Susie having run a controlled front half was now free to run away from the weather and towards home, she had been running well with in herself all morning.
The walk and chance to re-fuel took me out of deficit and soon I was able to move freely again. More importantly it allowed me to move at my pace guilt free.
Reflection allows me to consider key moments and decisions that shaped the event outcome. By mile 33 and the Southease checkpoint, I was soaked through and cold but ok as long as I kept moving. I chose not to put on dry layers at this point as the aid station was exposed and the thought of stripping wet kit off and on again in an open sided tent really didn't appeal. On reflection - probably a bad decision.
The next stage across Firle Bostle and Firle Beacon above the Longman to Alfriston was BRUTAL. I had energy and was moving well but conditions were dire. We were running in descending mist with very poor visibility, driving rain and a relentless headwind that buffeted every step. I was now freezing and shivering. Rueing the decision not to layer up at Southease. As I passed the occasional runner I exchanged only the briefest of communication and very selfishly chose to keep kicking on without company to get the hell off that miserable hill.
Course navigation had become problematic. You could not see far enough to site way markers, tape course markings were being torn from their placing by the strong wind and floor markings were becoming obscured by standing water or obliterated by trampled footprints as the paths got chewed up.
I allowed myself to be persuaded I was heading in the wrong direction at one point by a fellow competitor. I doubted my own judgement which cost me around 25 minutes of standing around properly freezing and becoming entirely disconsolate. When we did set off in the original direction I was travelling I had been joined by 7-8 of the people I had passed along the top in the mist. Many of us were in a bad place. One lady in particular collapsed in the Alfriston aid station with hypothermia and was pulled from the event.
It has to be said that the race officials were magnificent and had it not been for their expert help that one individual would certainly have been hospitalised. As it was in the 30 - 40 minutes I spent in the aid station sorting myself out she made a resounding recovery and was disappointed not to be allowed to head back out on to the course for the last 9 miles.
Alfriston saw a complete clothe change, two dry tops, dry leggings, thermal hat and socks and gloves wrung out. Plenty to eat and 3 hot drinks were warming me from theinside - out. I was still debating whether enough was enough when John Fielden bounced in to the checkpoint with so much energy he was positively hanging off the ceiling.. or so it seemed to me in comparison to my own sorry state.
I fed off Johns' determination to finish the event and having agreed to stick together we set out for the finish line. The Jevington Checkpoint was only 4 miles away and the finish line only 5 miles from there. That became do-able. Relatively small bite size chunks, realistic targets that would each serve to raise our spirit even more so than we were doing with our relentless conversation and banter.
For the first time in 40 miles I was running without pain in my back as I had finally taken the time to lighten my back pack and remove the offending bladder. This had a massive lift on my sub-conscious state of mind. I was looking at a world through rose tinted glasses finally.
Taking time to recce the course is always advisable and the one section in particular I focussed on (in fact the only section I looked at) was the final descent from the downs along a narrow treacherous gulley that had become a gushing stream due to the amount of rainfall. Just finding the right path to come down from the Trig point at the top off Butts Brow was a job in itself. John and I cleared this point before dusk and narrowly avoided a long detour. Many behind us were not so lucky. In the dark with only minimal light from torches some chose wrong paths or were unable to find the correct path. This cost them all precious time, energy and will power and exposed them to the adverse conditions for even longer.
Search and Rescue were called out to locate one runner who reported themself lost and was finally located a little after midnight. All runners were accounted for safe and well by the end of the event.
Once finally re-united at the finish line we all swapped stories of: trips, falls, being lost, delayed, cold, miserable, euphoric, good decisions, bad decisions, indecision and many more emotions.
Whilst that was not the time for analysis or evaluation it was a good time to start reflection and to consider the implications of the day.
Ultimately we all achieved our set goal of completing the event within the cut-off time period.
How much had Sussex Ultra affected my day? Some but probably not immensely!
What do I know think about SDW100 in June? Probably too soon
Was I right to run Sussex Ultra? Undoubtedly yes
Is running 50 miles with a new back pack a bad idea? Only if you wait 40 miles to make it comfy!
Will I be able to run London Marathon on Sunday.. It looks likely!
Did I enjoy it? For 30/50 miles certainly!
There is much else left to think and say about the event but this is enough for now
Ps I have re-thought about the timing of SDW100 now J