All together now – the South Downs Way in one swallow!

100 miles/161 km  12,700’/4000 m ascent

SDW walking route

Here’s a post that is neither route description nor reflective musing. What follows is more of a diary entry. Last Saturday and Sunday I ran, jogged, walked and at times hobbled and swore the length of the South Downs Way. I took part in Centurion Running’s SDW Race. What follows is a sort of rambling memory account of the event, so if you’ve got any specific questions about food, kit, shoes, training or whatever just ask.

This was the second time I have taken part in this race. The first was to celebrate my fiftieth birthday; this time I’m fifty five. It starts from Chilcomb sports ground at 6.00am and having been taxied there by the friends I’d stayed with in Winchester the night before (many thanks Rod  and Dee), I was soon lining up with the rest of the three hundred and sixtyish entrants who’d made it to the start line. And then we were off.

At first it’s all lighthearted fun and games; lots of jokes, chit chat and swapping of stories goes on. The weather was lovely, the hills not too big and we were feeling fit; what’s not to like? Having been through the first aid station on Beacon Hill (9.8 miles) and then across the gorgeous Meon Valley, I got to Old Winchester Hill, just past the car park (14.5 miles) at 8.43am and missed Phil and Jude (the advanced guard of my support crew) in the van who were meant to meet me there. The rendezvous was set for 8.52am  (according to my optimistic and for some reason very precise schedule). I was early.

The next planned meet up was at the Sustainability Centre (18 miles); there they were with smiling faces, drinks, food and a cheery hello. I think I took some flat Coke and was quickly on my way. Next up was the gentle climb to Butser Hill  and the long less gentle down hill into the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. This was aid station 2 at 22.5 miles, so I got my number recorded, had my drink’s bottle topped up, said hello to Phil and Jude (and got a mini pork pie from them) then it was off and up through the woods.

By now it was getting properly warm, so the woodland shade was really welcome. By the time I got to the next aid station at Harting Down (27.2 miles) it was hot and I was very pleased to gulp down what was on offer drinks wise and fill up my bottle. It was also good to walk up the path away from the checkpoint chatting to Jude and Phil and enjoying what has to be one of the best views from the South Downs away to the north.

Bygone Harting

(Eva Evans Looking down from Harting Hill on the South Downs Way  – 30 June 1928)

The next leg of my journey would take me to Cocking. And I wasn’t looking forward to it. I have run it several times, in both directions and I have never enjoyed it. I won’t say it was great, but apart from the heat, it wasn’t too bad. So I duly arrived at Cocking (35.1 miles) to by met by Phil, Jude and the Friendee Bongo (which is what the van is called). Fed, watered and sent on my way I stopped briefly at one of the few taps on the route and stuck my head under it; being drenched with cold water felt pretty damn good.

It was the last time I felt ‘pretty damn good’ until I got to Littleton Farm (40.1 miles). This wasn’t an aid station, but one of the extra meet up points I had given myself (they were based on the handovers for the South Downs Way Relay). I think the more regular contact with familiar faces did me the world of good. At the very least it helped to curtail the internal sweary dialogue – ‘why the fuck am I doing this…what is the fucking point’ – and I got to be lied to along the lines of ‘you’re looking good’!

An advantage of extra meet ups was having some very short stages. After Littleton Farm it was only 1.6 miles to the next official aid station on Bignor Hill (41.7 miles), then a further hop and a skip to Houghton Lane (45.1 miles) and the unoffical Friendee Bongo.

By this stage there was still some chit chat and story swapping going on between participants, but it had dwindled significantly from the previous levels. So we crossed the Arun and headed up toward Kithurst Hill. It was at the bottom of this climb that I encountered the first big group of ‘fans’; not fans of mine, but family and friends of those taking part. Picnic chairs and tables were out, car boots laden with food and drink were open, loved ones were cheered, clapped and kissed and small children were high fived. It was bloody marvelous.

After all that it was a long old drag up to the aid station at Kithurst Hill (50.1 miles), but we were now into the second half of the SDW…if only just. We were also heading toward Washington, toward hot food and drink and nearly all of the rest of my support crew. At 54 miles I came down the road to the village hall to be greeted by Phil, Jude, Luke and Sam…and best of all my partner Isabel, all of them beaming in the beautiful June sunshine (that really is how I remember it). I gave Isabel a kiss, but held back from a hug (it really wouldn’t have been a nice thing to do), and went into the hall for a quick mug of tea and some pasta, tomato sauce and cheese. It was 4.40pm. I was dead on schedule although I hadn’t looked at my watch since Old Winchester Hill. And it was the first time I had sat down since the start.

Having stood up again I was now joined by Sam as the first of my ‘pacers’ – they are allowed from Washington onward and for me are more by way of company rather than people to press me on – we duly headed up to Chanctonbury Ring. Once the top was achieved, we looked out over the channel to the distant offshore windfarm just discernible in the hazy blue.

Chanctonbury Ring

(Looking north from Chanctonbury Ring – I have no idea what is on fire in this photo!)

Jude, Phil and Luke were set to meet us at the next aid station just east of the Adur. They actually met us just west of the Adur, which threw me a little but subsequently did provide me with the shortest stage of the race…significantly less than a mile. Phil took over pacing duties. We were quickly through the aid station at Botolphs (61.2 miles) and heading up Truleigh Hill. I think I should point out that from the get go almost all the up hills were being walked. Truleigh Hill is quite a long walk even if you’ve got your head down and are hiking with gusto; which is how I saw myself. It was a mile or so after passing the radio masts on the summit that Phil said casting a backward glance might be worth it. It was. I wish I had a photo of the Downs bathed in the soft yellow sunlight of a summer’s evening; it was absolutely stunning.

I am also sorry that I didn’t see Jude, Sam, Luke and Jackie (Phil’s partner) until I was nearly on top of them at Devils Dyke. My only excuse is that there were quite a few people about and I was quite tired. From the Dyke it was down into the aid station at Saddlescombe Farm (66.6 miles) where Luke took over pacing and we strode out towards Ditchling Beacon. We did have to go up and over West Hill first but that done, it was just down to Pyecombe Church and then a little bit of up and on to the Beacon.

Ditchling Beacon (71.4 miles) is where we met up with the final member of my support crew, Iseult (Jude’s partner); and with her taking over pacing duties we headed out to Housedean Farm. I put on my favourite hand me down cycling jacket,  got a head torch out of my bum bag and stuck it in a pocket. A quick word on bum bags; as far as I could see I was the only person using one, everybody else seemed to have gone with the hydration vest/back pack option. Indeed much earlier in the day a couple of people had commented on the ‘old school’ character of my choice. I’m sort of proud of this.

Ditchling Beacon looking east

(Looking out from Ditchling Beacon toward Firle Beacon)

By now I was working hard to keep to my plan of running/jogging anything downhill, jogging as much of the flat as possible and keeping the uphill walking brisk. The stage Iseult and I did had some great grassy down hilling in it and I loved it. Which is all to the good as I can’t even remember doing it last time out!

We arrived at Housedean Farm (76.6 miles) without having to put our head torches on, which I counted as a definite result. After I had quickly drunk and topped up my liquid and food supplies (including some extra gels) Phil took over. The next objective was Southease YHA, but first we had to get up onto the ridge and go across the tops of Kingston and Swanborough Hills. After these two hills there is an incongruous concrete farm track right on the top of the Downs as you head off towards Rodmell. It is very hard under foot and much longer than I remember even if it is gradually downhill. It was not fun and it got boring.

The next very steep descent after Rodmell  – starting near Kiri Te Kanawa’s front gate actually – was even less fun. However, from there it was mainly good going and either modestly downhill or flat all the way to Southease Station.  Here the race organisers made us walk over the railway bridge rather than the level crossing. This was a bastard thing to do. At Southease YHA aid station (84 miles), I had a delicious mug of tea and a rather less delicious ‘coffee flavoured’ (ha ha) caffeinated gel.

Caffeinated to the gills and now with Luke at my side, I was up Itford in a shot and according to Luke actually running uphill at one point as we headed for the car park above the Firle Estate (that’s the country estate sort of estate, not the council one). At the car park Luke left me brielfy to wake the sleeping beauties in the Friendee Bongo and get them en route to Alfriston. Back together we stomped along, mostly in silence (my reservoir of chit chat having long dried up and it being the middle of the night), first to the beacon, then Bo Peep and finally the long long downhill into Alfriston. All the way a yellowing full moon shone out from a cloudless sky, its sparkling reflection lighting up the surface of the Chanel. Downhills, especially ones with sharp flints and uneven surfaces were now really hard work; my legs were very tired and I knew I had a blister developing on the ball of my left foot.

After the aid station at Alfriston Old Chapel Centre (91.6 miles) I knew there were only two more long climbs to go. Having said a big thank you to Luke, I joined up once again with Sam for the last two stages and we headed up Windover Hill. We both agreed that Windover Hill was long and that it was a lot lot longer than when we have careered down it in the early stages of the Beachy Head marathon in years gone by. Eventually at the top we turned right and headed off to the ‘home of Bannofee pie’ in Jevington…I’m not making this stuff up, it really is.

Hungry Monk plaque.png

(Genuine proof of the pudding can be found here)

It was on this section that Sam proved the character and depth of his friendship. Quite suddenly on the top of an open Down in the dark but with the full moon still beaming out, I had an involuntary call of nature. So I squatted down and got on with it; it was that sort of call. Sam’s only response was to go on a discreet distance ahead, avert his gaze and when I was finished make a comment along the lines of ‘better out than in’. It certainly was.

Descending into Jevington was hard work but we were soon at the church where my number was recorded. The aid station at Jevington (95.7 miles) is up a steep flight of brick steps; that’s the bad news. The good news is you don’t have to stop there! I sent Sam in to pick up another gel and fill up my water bottle, as I now shuffling, headed on downhill toward the SDW left turn up onto Bourne Hill.

Sam soon caught up and some time later we were at the trig point where the race route leaves the SDW. A very nice marshal pointed out below us the floodlit Eastbourne athletics track where the race finishes; it looked invitingly, enticingly close. However, the path down from the trig point into Eastbourne must be without question, the worst path into the town that exists; by turns slippery, overgrown, deeply rutted and ridiculously cambered, it had me genuinely swearing in disgust. I might even go and see if I can find a better way in; that’s how much I didn’t like it.

Finally we got to the end of it only to make our single navigational error of the whole journey by missing a sign onto a path on our right. Fortunately this made very little difference as we picked up the route again soon enough. Some when in all of this, I said to Sam that I felt confident I would make my tentative target of sub 24 hours as it was still dark and I knew that dawn was around 4am. He replied that ‘yes I was fairly safe’, or something similar, and added ‘did I know what the time actually was’. For the third time since starting out I looked at my watch. It was 3.13am and I was quietly astonished and elated. I think I actually said ‘no wonder I’m so bloody tired!’

14566717_228026144291335_5675238084057235456_n

(A floodlit Eastbourne Athletics Track – not a bad place to finish!)

About a half hour later, having walked, shuffled and jogged the deserted early morning streets of Eastbourne, I was at the end of it all, at the finish, on the running track. Accompanied by Sam I hope I even managed a bit of proper running over the last 400 metres.  My finishing time was 21 hours 42 mins and 6 seconds; 47th out of 220 finishers, 5th male 50-59 year old out of 31 finishers…and 1 hour 50 minutes faster than I had been five years before.

Top tips:

  1. Do a lot of long training runs/walks; regular 20 milers, marathons, 30 milers, long days out on your feet.
  2. Do hills, do them again and then do some more.
  3. Always walk quickly, especially up hill.
  4. Get through checkpoints quickly; eat, drink, go.
  5. Have a wonderful group of people supporting you. Thank you all very very much: Isabel for ferrying pacers but much more importantly for being my partner – Jude for driving and driving and driving, Phil for keeping Jude company and pacing – Sam for pacing, pubbing and training – Luke for pacing and for being up for it at such short notice – Iseult for pacing – Rod and Dee for pre-race hospitality and ferrying to the start  – Ian (who unfortunately could not there on the day) for training, scheduling and pubbing. As far as I’m concerned you’re all stars and I certainly couldn’t have done it without you.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “All together now – the South Downs Way in one swallow!”

  1. Congratulations – it was a truly epic feat and an unbelievable time! Being part of the support crew was a real privilege and it was great to see all your hard work and those long miles of training pay off. One thing you left out of your account was when you said “remind me never to do this again”, so consider this a permanent reminder…

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  2. I’m very proud of your achievement and actually enjoyed it as you looked so happy at the halfway point ( unlike last time)- Still think you’re mad but the training certainly paid off! xx

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  3. Brilliant Raymond. I don’t normally read blogs because they are usually bollocks but this was very entertaining. To this day I still remember your face as you scuttled towards the handover on the SDW relay …..you’re the only person I know who has eyes that swear! Well done mate

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