Endurance Skating

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Race Report: South Downs Way 100

To cut a short story even shorter, I ran, jogged, hiked, and crawled a heck of a long way across the South Downs national trail this past weekend, had a lot of fun, and felt great for a lot of it. However, eventually I ran into those physical limit that we all know exist, and my body wasn’t quite up to the task of completing such an epic undertaking, falling some 16 miles short of the end goal. And so, with a first meaning DNF on my running resume I can now unofficially call myself a proper ultra-runner.

If you want the slightly longer version, it goes something like this..

 

Pre-race & Registration

The starting point of the SDW100 is at Winchester, a lovely town that I would thoroughly recommend visiting for the quintessential slice of Middle England.

But upon arriving, it isn’t the postcard-perfect market square that captures attention of the aspiring ultra runner.. rather, it’s the MASSIVE HILLS that sit on horizon. Mocking you, daring you to launch your foolhardy full frontal assault. Yes, those are the hills that mark the start of the South Downs Way and must be conquered over the course of 30hrs or less if one is to stand a chance of reaching Eastbourne; 100 miles and 13,000 vertical ft away. Of course, I hadn’t trained on anything like that sort of terrain, and of course it was way too late to do anything about, an I had never run futher than 51 miles before, so tomorrow promised to one of the more interesting days in the life and times of Mr Van Dieu.

The SDW100 is run by Centurion Running, and I couldn’t commend them enough on their organisation and friendliness. I would have no hesitation recommending any of their events based on my experience of this race. That said, the only slightly negative thing I would say was that the very start point of the race should definitely be signposted much better – it starts on a field behind a hedge at the very start of the South Downs trail, but it’s very easy to walk right past it without knowing, and continue up the trail for a while before you start asking questions if you have missed it or not. At least that’s what happened to me, so it’s just a well that I made the effort to register on the evening before the race. There is mandatory kit that every competitor must carry throughout the race, and this is enforced with a kit check at registration. At minimum this adds 5-6lb of gear that all runners must carry. Registration done, back into town for a 1-man curry before hitting the sack early in preparation for an early rise next morning.

 

Race Day

 I arrived at the start point around half an hor before the 6am start, and I have to confess that I was absolutely bricking it. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one. 100 miles is a long way, kemosabe. Still, I had a loose race plan that I thought would at least give me a fighting chance of getting to the finish line.

It goes without saying that you can’t start these things too slowly, and so as the race got underway I imagined ,myself running with the mayor as everyone ran off ahead; looking around 200 meters after the start, I was placed DLF (Dead Fucking Last). Yep, things could only improve from here. But – aha – I was right to start slowly, because there was a pinch point just another hundred meters ahead where everyone had to stop and queue anyway. And then another. See? I know what I’m doing….

The first marathon ticked by in just over 4 and a half hours, I think, and it felt ridiculously easy! I knew that we hadn’t really hit the big hills yet and that the sections ahead would be tougher, but still, progress was great at this point. Despite being able to move faster, I kept asking myself if I would be happy to be moving this well at mile 90, and of course the answer was a resounding “YES!”, and so my job was just to reign it in and stay right where I was.

Most of the time when I’m training & running I have my headphones in and listen to a podcast or audiobook of some description. However, today I was finding that more more of a distraction; my brain was already buzzing and didn’t need any more stimulation, and so I just ran without any audio and was all the better for it. The course travels over some of the most picturesque countryside in the South of England, and it was more than enough just to be there, taking in the sights and enjoying being out of the city.

The miles ticked by, as they tend to do on days like this. I walked the worst of the uphills, ran the flats, and tried to control my descents on the downhills so that my quads didn’t get hammered too badly. Everyone around me was doing this same – this is pretty standard practice for ultras.

Mile 54 – Washington

The checkpoint at mile 54 is called Washington, and I had this point in mind as the real start of the race. I eventually reached it somewhere between 11-12hrs into the day. It was the first dropbag point, and traditionally where runners have a bit of a longer rest. I spent about 15 minutes there, having not spent more than 5 minutes at any of the previous checkpoints. I was feeling pretty good – sure, my legs knew that they had already covered a lot of miles by then, but I still had decent energy and a lot more running in my legs yet. Importantly, I was mentally in a great place. 54 miles is further than I have ever run before, and to get to that point is a great feeling in itself.

Crew

Just a couple of miles after Washington was a the first crew point where I met up with my support crew: Nati, Lou & Dave who were providing cheerleader support at various points along the way, and also Kai & Adam who were so enthusiastic to be my pacers. I had previously wanted to do this with as little support as possible, but looking back now I can’t emphasize how helpful it is to have crew who are willing to provide encouragement and pace for you.

Adam took first shift pacing. We gently tackled the section from mile 55 – 66. At this point I had a few GI issues going on. I suppose it was inevitable at some point, and it slowed our progress by a small amount, but this was probably no bad thing. Progress was still more than acceptable, and running along the top of the South Downs we were treated to some glorious vistas as the shadows lengthened across the landscape.

Mile 66 was the 2nd main crew point, where Kai took over pacing duties from Adam, and the plan was to run this section together to mile 72 at Ditchling Beacon. During this part of the race we moved into dusk and then nightfall, so it was time to dig out the head-torches and self-illuminate, which was another of those exciting little rites-of-passage.

As we crossed the higher grounds of the South Downs, we had a spectacular sight of the full moon rising as we ran toward it – a simply awe-inspiring moment!

I was mentally prepared for the last 3rd of the race to be tough as hell, but I have to say that as each mile ticked by that wasn’t really what I was experiencing, and I was still feeling pretty good and mentally positive. We met with Adam again at mile 72 at Ditchling Beacon, where I was also able to have a few gulps of hot Minestrone soup that the guys had brought – let me tell you, this is the magical elixir of ultra-running – don’t try an ultra without it!

By now I was daring to entertain thoughts of not just finishing, but of doing so in sub-24hrs, which would have been more than I had dared to dream of when I set out. I was doing mental calculations in my head and by the time the last marathon was in spitting distance I calculated that I still had almost 7hrs to complete it to achieve the 24hr finish, which I figured should have been achievable.

¾ Distance… The Wheels Come Off

They say that when it goes south in an ultra it usually does so quickly and unexpectedly, and I suppose I got to experience this first hand in spectacular style, as somewhere around mile 75, on one of the long, long descents that characterised the trail at this section, I felt my right calf tightening up drastically. I know my body well enough to know an ache from a twinge from a genuine muscular problem, and almost straight away I knew that this was more serious that just the turn of this part of my body to put in its complaint.

Immediately I had to readjust my expectations and the goal now was just to finish. I still had ample time that I could just walk in slowly and still finish well within the 30hr cutoff – if I wanted.

However, as we limped into the next checkpoint at mile 76 I knew the state of my body wasn’t good. The calf pain had quickly spread into my knee as well, making it treacherous to tackle anything but the gentlest of downhills. I called Nati to give her an update on my condition and sat down for a 15 minute rest and refuel.

Talking to the volunteers and other runners, apparently the most gruesome parts of the course were mostly behind us, and the terrain was said to be more forgiving from this point. I made the decision to at least continue from this checkpoint and see how much further I could get. I owed it to myself and my crew that much at least. But any ideas of running were quickly thrown out of the window, and it would strictly be a walk-only affair from here on.

As we made painfully slow progress over the next section it was clear that things were not really improving. The easiest parts to manage where the climbs! But on the flats and downhills I was fearing the worst for my knee. The absolute worst part of this section was the steep descent off one particular hill where, to get to the bottom, I literally had to crawl on all fours.. backwards, like a demented sheep. It must have been a pitiful sight. I think this is where I finally conceded and knew that the jig was up. “Run if you can, walk if you must, crawl if you have to..” goes the saying. However, I’m gonna counter that  and say that sometimes it’s unwise to take stuff too literally, especially when you have the thick end of a marathon still to go.

As well as my knee problems, my energy levels had also dropped significantly, and I was finding it hard to keep mental focus. Of course, you’re going to feel tired with 70+ miles in your legs, but I have to wonder if this was also linked to the problems I was having in my knee – it was as if my brain was colluding with my knee to  limit my energy output and encourage me to stop, as if to say “You’ve had your fun, but that’s enough, son. Stop now before we do any permanent damage.” The link between body and brain is profound, and to deny it is an exercise in futility.

 

DNF at mile 84

We hobbled onto the Southease checkpoint at mile 84, where I was delighted that the full crew were waiting to see me, having arrived there many hours earlier had to the best of my knowledge had been metaphorically twiddling their thumbs waiting for me.. Needless to say that I was running short of humour at this point, and internally I had made the decision to drop out by then. My reasoning was:

  • My knee wasn’t getting any better. Running until you’re knackered is fine; running and risking permanent damage is not. I’m a bit crazy but I’m not reckless.
  • I could probably finish by gritting my teeth and hobbling on for another 16 miles, but at this point I’m an outright danger to myself
  • If I have to crawl down the hills, it’s probably time to call it a day

I gave it another 30 minute nap to see if anything would change, but alas no. And so at that point, almost 20hrs after I had set off, I unpinned and handed over my race number and my race was done and dusted.

I’m at peace with the decision within myself, but if nothing else I would dearly have liked to have finished for my support crew. But sometime we just have to accept that our bodies may not quite be up to the loftier tasks we set for them, even if you do everything right andthe mind is willing. It doesn’t mean that it won’t be more able next time, especially if we take on board the lessons from this experience to come back a little stronger and a little wiser.

I can’t deny that a 100 mile buckle would have been a nice thing to have to show for my efforts, but, as expected, I did learn some intangible lessons on this adventure, and that was always the point in doing it. I would love to try again at some point, and there are certainly no shortage of 100 mile races to jump into when I feel the time is right to do so, but I think that this concludes this particular chapter in my running adventures.

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This entry was posted on June 15, 2017 by in Race Report, Running and tagged , , , .

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