South Downs Way 100, The Diary of a DNF – Ultra 6 of 12

Now a few weeks have passed and I have had time to assses my failure I finally feel able to right down my review of my first Did Not Finish.

The South Downs Way 100 was where my whole year started and how the 12 ultra’s in 12 months came about. In short it was THE race of 2016. In a fit of over confidence having completed the Lakeland 50 last year I thought why not try a 100 miles, I mean how hard can it be right? When entries for the Centurion Running  SDW100 opened shortly after I signed on the dotted line.

And then freaked out.

I’m not bad at convincing myself to go out to run a few miles but doing 20+ miles alone on Sunday morning has never been one of my strength’s so I took the decision to do a few ultra’s in the lead up to my first attempt at 100 miles and a few soon morphed in to 12 in 12 challenge.

The year has been a mixed bag with a good start, but a few niggling injuries & changing circumstances have made consistency elusive again. After the North Downs Way 50 in May went far better than I’d anticipated as race day approached I was confident that I was capable of finishing it and I felt I had the capacity to finish well, so much so I had decided to pace for a sub 24 hour time. My strategy was to complete the first 25 miles in 5 hours , then maintain 4 miles an hour for 50 miles before allowing my pace to fall to 3 miles an hour. Sounds easy right?

I’d met a few twitter folk before the start (@IraRainey, @firman_77_ & @emlynfluff) and having arrived very early I passed the time shooting the breeze with these and several other entrants but as always it didn’t seem long before the race briefing was being shouted over our heads and we lined up at the start line to begin my first 100 mile footrace.

So I set of around the field and out onto the South Downs Way proper at a good pace so that with stops I would maintain the splits I needed for my target, it was grey and drizzly when we set of but even at 6am it was humid and the moisture in the air wasn’t doing much to cool us. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable from very early on, with my calves feeling tight from just 10 miles or so, but this is part of distance running so I plodded through it expecting to get my lift later on.

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The first 20 miles passed fairly quickly and uneventfully, early on I chatted to a couple other runners and it was always great to see Stuart’s smiling face popping out of a bush to take a photo but mostly I just dug in & focused on maintaining the pace I needed to hit my target. Gav passed, telling me he was in trouble with a bad leg (but still managed to pull some distance on me).  I had completed a recce of this section back in November but I didn’t recognise most of it and it was only once we reached Winchester Hill and the area I’d run several time that’s I started to remember the route.

I caught Gav for the last time at around 19 miles and he was obviously in a lot of discomfort, I walked with him for a bit but as I was feeling alright I pressed on, arriving at Butser Hill just a few minutes behind my target stopping briefly to say hello to Roger (@irunoffroad) just below the summit then plummeting down the steep (and fun) descent to Queen Elizabeth Country Park and CP2. I topped up my bottles here and grabbed some fruit and a selection of savouries to munch on, I stayed in the cooling shade for a few minutes before heading out for the steep ascent through the woods.

This stretch isn’t particularly inspiring with lots of country roads and old tracks and as the heat & humidity continued to rise I was glad I could lower my pace to 12 min miles to maintain 4 miles an hour. I was passed by a lot of runners on this stretch, psychologically a bad side effect of the strategy and it seemed to take a long time to reach the next CP where due to increasing pain in my left calf I took some paracetamol. I was dragged out of the CP by another runner who had been stalking me since QECP and we continued together for a while. When the paracetamol kicked in relieving the pain a little I got a second wind so pushed on behind a guy who had just passed, I followed him through a couple gates and downhill along a great road under cover of woods. But when he pulled up a while later I realised I hadn’t seen any markers for a while & I’d made the schoolboy error of following him blindly… off course. Backtracking up the hill again for ¼ of a mile I felt my shoulders dropping and from feeling good just a few minutes before I became irritable and frustrated. I became annoyed by everything, why it wouldn’t rain enough to cool us, the rattle in my bag, the lost 10 minutes, my inability to be sure of accurate distance and of course the heat.

The route went along the beautiful Harting Downs following the roller coaster chalk hills past the Devils Jumps before finally dropping down the long fast descent to Cocking CP 36 miles. I was still on for a sub 24hr finish at this point but I already knew that in the heat I wasn’t going to be able to maintain the pace required, the brutality of it proven by a guy arriving shortly after literally throwing his number at the marshal saying he’d had enough and pulling out. After a good rest, refuel and pouring of cold water on head & wrists I set off again. But things were about to get really difficult.

My pace was dropping as quickly as the temperature and humidity was rising, I was having a tough time and after running down a long descent at around 38 miles I started to feel really dizzy and nauseous. I had to stop to heave at the side of the trail, a couple runners checked if I was OK, but I was surprised how many just passed without so much as an ‘alright?’ something I was to become used to during the day.  I struggled on having to stop a couple times, sometimes to heave others to sit to allow the dizziness to pass.

I arrived at the Bignor Hill CP feeling mighty sorry for myself & I was already questioning if I could continue, I was here for around 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to hold fluid down but every sip I took returned within a few seconds. I eventually dragged myself out and up the long scorching hill that followed, I will be eternally grateful for the marshal who followed me up and talked (possibly just making sure I was compos mentis) as I crawled to the top. I carried on like this, essentially just death marching the 3 miles to the Kithurst Hill CP where I wobbled in telling them that I thought my race was over.  There were only about 10 entrants behind me, the cut-off was a scant 2 hours off and as my average pace was getting slower and slower it was catching me swiftly. I repeated my attempt to take on fluid & food at this CP, bringing it all back up the second I left, after being badgered out again. I continued the horrible progress for around 4 miles along the undulating ridgeline until finally descending off the ridge along the alternate route to Washington.

I was met the my Nat (@NatashElsdon) who was supposed to be pacing me for the final stretch and as I managed a run into the CP the first thing I said was ‘I think I’m done’. It had taken me close to 7 hours to cover the 19 miles from Cocking and I had been unable to hold any fluid or food down in most of this time so I’d made the decision that if I couldn’t stomach anything here then I would stop. I tried several options all returning almost immediately and I had nothing left in the tank.

After more than an hour agonising over the decision and changing my mind more than once I made the call to quit.

I handed over my race number.

I had failed.

I was very kindly given a lift home by Michelle (@MichLR_) who was marshalling in Washington & Nat collected my bag from the finish and I went home to sleep and rehydrate. Annoyingly even before I got home I was feeling better and the next day I started second guessing my decision, but it couldn’t be changed even if it was incorrect so I needed to learn from it. I’m pretty sure I got heat or sun stroke, which is easily avoidable. I just need to look after myself more carefully. And I also learned that I need to have a better drop bag with a variety of stuff that I might want to eat ready for me … and spare shoes that actually fit. It was a shame I didn’t get further into the ‘unknown’ distance as I could have learnt far more from this but I am taking what I can from it.

I’m still very disappointed and I haven’t fully got over it, with my next race in 2 short weeks I’m hoping that an improvement on last year will be what is needed to get me back on track for the remainder of the year and the challenge.

As for the South Downs Way 100, I have unfinished business with it and despite other big races in 2017 I will be back to try again.

I will get my revenge on this race.

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