The following is a tale of a long run. It contains open discussion of bodily functions and comes with parental advisory for explicit language.
This tale will follow the classic Hollywood format of a 3-act structure. This is applied in nearly all movies and use these devices to tell the story.
It’s a classic way of story telling that is employed to play on your emotions and hopefully deliver a good feeling at the end.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
THE SET UP
Its 4.55am; I am at the start line of the longest/biggest race of my running career so far. I say career but I am no professional. An enthusiastic amateur if you will. My race number is pinned to my shorts, tracker attached to the pack, I’ve said hi and bye to my friends, I amble up to the start mat. Shall I wait until 5 on the dot? no let’s just get this started.
The South Downs Way 100 is a race I have thought about since Christmas 2018, where at a party I asked good friend Dai if he would graciously agree to pace me if I entered for 2020. I had agreed to volunteer in 2019 for a place in 2020. Now here I am in 2021 about to take on 100 miles in one go and it feels alright. I am not pumped but I am ready.
At 4.57am my adventure starts.
The sun is rising and the few KMs around the Matterly Bowl estate are pleasant, I pass a couple of runners, a couple of runners pass me. Easing into a race like this is a hard thing to do, I just remember the mantra from coach Mags. Eat, drink and run easier than you think you should. The plan is to take a gel on the half hour and some real food on the hour, sip on the Tailwind and drink plenty of water.
Soon I am on the SDW for real. This first part is quite rural. Yes, it’s all in the countryside but what I mean, is it feels more like your standard farm land of fields and stiles. I see a runner get a bit too close to a cow, who isn’t really impressed! Don’t play with the wildlife kids! The hills are gentle and lightly rolling. Spirits are high all round, I have a little chat with Ally as she breezes past me looking super comfortable and then before I know it, I hit Beacon Hill Beaches CP. Top up my water and fill up the spare as its about 20km to the next stop and its definitely warming up now. The climbs are getting a little punchier but nothing too crazy really. Food is going down; water is being drunk. I hit CP2 at Queen Elizabeth Country Park pretty much bang on predicted time from my pacing chart. I am kind of relived to get that section done. It’s not the most exciting but also, I’ve only run it once in training. The rest of the course I know much better through multiple recces.
At this CP, as I am having my water refilled, I run into a friend of Ally’s who I met the previous night in the hotel lobby. He is having a bit of a nightmare as one of his only two bottles had split. I offer him my back up as I know my crew have a spare and I would be seeing them in a bit and should be fine for the next 20km. He is worried about me and my race, but I am more worried about him. It’s definitely getting hotter and its only 9.30am. I grab some banana and head off. Feeling good but I know there is a long way to go, time to focus on the here and now, although I do glance at the predicted ETA on my Garmin. I think it’s says 1am, I chuckle to myself and then tell myself I am not going to look at that again.
It’s not long to the CP at South Harting, where I make sure I grab some more fruit and top up the water. On the climb up to Harting Downs, I catch up with a guy called Stewart who I had been chatting with earlier. Lovely guy, who’s running with a mate although they don’t seem to chat much lol! We have been leap frogging each other a fair bit. Reaching the top, we see a bunch of parasailers taking off. It seems very cool but also quite scary. I remark that I wouldn’t really want to drag the gear all the way back up the hill again after we see one poor fellow doing this.
The legs are still ticking over, a touch slower as it’s getting punchier but I pass the bushes where I did a little poo on a recce and smirk to myself. It’s funny how you remember these things. I send a message to the crew to get my back up bottle ready with water, I will need this on the next section 100%. I am very much looking forward to seeing them. It’s getting warmer (did I mention how warm its getting, lol) and my water bottle is almost empty, as is my Tailwind one!
I run into Cocking CP/Crew stop excited to see Lou and Elisa. They are excited to see me also. Lou loves cocking, not sure why? We hug and get to sorting bottles out. I am now 56km-ish in and ready for lunch but first watermelon! I eat quite a bit and it tastes lush! Before I know it though I am ushering myself/being forced out of the area and up the hill with a cheese sandwich in my hand.
I unwrap the sandwich and take a bite, yuck. It’s like sawdust in my mouth. So dry and horrible. I reach for my water bottle to get some liquid in but nothing is coming out. That’s weird, it’s not the lockable one, that’s in the back of my bag. Oh wait, it has the fucking seal on it as it’s brand fucking new! In my brain I say OH FUCK, FUCK, FUCK and try to get the wrapper off whilst trying to open a gate and hold onto this pointless sandwich.
We are now in the land of the gates! The land of the gates is approximately 100km long btw.
After I manage to get the wrapper off the bottle and drink some water and stuff the sawdustwich in my pocket I get on with hiking up the annoying road hill. My head has gone a bit though. Something is different, I feel different. I am moving ok but what’s that I feel? Oh yeah, I remember that feeling. I start to retch a bit then bring myself to a stop and full on throw up on the side of the trail. It’s not pleasant! Emptying all the good stuff you have put into your body to fuel yourself is really frickin’ crappy, let alone when it’s blood red from the watermelon! When I finish, I look around and recognise this place. Yeah, I know I am on the SDW between cocking and Amberly, not that dumb! No, I remember this exact place. Oh wait, yeah, it’s where I threw up on the recce run about 5 weeks earlier! What are the frickin’ chances of that? I do have to laugh/cry. Gotta keep moving though. I clean myself up, drink some water and move away from the scene of the crime.
My head is down though, brain foggy. I feel awful, I am scared of eating but know I have to and about 15-30mins later the nausea receded a little and I manage a gel. I am getting through the water though. It’s even warmer now. We are into early afternoon, and I have my first dark thought about quitting. Its fleeting but it happened, and it feels weird as I have never had this before but just then a person runs up next to me and stops to chat as I am hiking. He recognises me from the Centurion group on Facebook. I dropped my NDW50 blog in there for peeps to read at some point. He read it and signed up, then had an awesome race a few weeks ago. I love this. If I can inspire just one person to do something like so many have inspired me then that’s cool. Sorry I can’t remember your name but my brain is fuzzy about this section. He left me after a couple of KMs to run back to Cocking and then home. Sorry I was a little grumpy mate!
The heat was still killing me and I was getting through my water too quickly. I tried to eat a bit of waffle but only manged 1/3 before it almost came back up. I made a decision. I was going to have a rest at the next aid/crew point. This wasn’t part of the plan but screw it, I sent a message to the crew. My pace had slowed and I def needed a quick reset.
At the top of a hill, I have no idea which one, there was a lovely man who was giving out water to runners. I gladly took some as I was almost empty and definitely would need it to get me to the CP.
A little bit of walk/running and many more gates later, I could see the Amberly valley below and in the distance with a train coming into the station. Again, for a fleeting moment I thought about quitting. I thought about just running onto a train and going home but then as quick as it was there, it was gone. Make it to the crew was the mantra, just make it to the crew!
Stumbling into Houghton Farm at 74 KM it felt great to see the squad. Dai had joined the girls and Ben (Yvette’s crew) was also around. The team immediately went to work on cooling me down. I sat in the chair, was doused with water, and given #twathat 2 and ordered to wear it until sunset! You don’t mess with these people. I wasn’t a happy man though and they could see that. Asking what had happened. I told them about the bottle (total diva moment), the sandwich and the puking. They tried to get me to eat, I refused/was unwilling. I think I chilled here for about 15-20mins, it was much needed.
The plan was for Dai to start pacing me from Washington aid station, the next one about 14km away but you could have a pacer in about 5km or so at a crew point (halfway). When this was suggested, I gladly said yes. I was ready for some company. It was time to go though, and I had the big ass climb out of Amberly to get done. Adios Houghton.
The climb was what it was. I have been up that hill so many times in recces and on a couple of Maverick races too. One foot in front of another. I managed a gel before the climb. My stomach was still a bit all over the place though. Then a little miracle happened. The bonus crew stop featured a lovely surprise and hug from Rach, who I haven’t seen in ages! She brough Calipos, which initially I was hesitant about, which is confusing as they are the best for runs in the heat (yes Sarah, they are). I blame my ultra-brain at halfway, sorry Rach! This stop also brought the joy of having Elisa pace me into Washington Aid station. I am not sure if it was the Calipo or the company or both, but my spirits lifted a bit. Running became a little easier. Elisa distracted me with house renovation chat, which I love having gone through this a few years ago. I even got another gel down me. Then before I knew it, we were at Washington. Thankyou Elisa, for that time, it was really special.
In my plan, I imagined spending 20-30 minutes here. Eating some hot food, changing socks, shoes and tee shirt. Covid rules meant they couldn’t prepare the usual pasta here and only runners were allowed in the building. I managed to get a volunteer to help me rehydrate the camping pasta I had in my crew bag, while I used the facilities. A major bonus so far is that the other end had held up, if you know what I mean.
I sat down, started eating, while the crew sorted me out. I developed a blister on my left foot somehow. Poor Lou stepped in to tape it up. She hates feet, so I don’t think there is enough money in the world that can repay that debt!
I had a little wash and fresh before setting off again, now with Dai pacing me for the next 25km or so. I was feeling ok.
It soon all changed again though, as on the first main climb I promptly threw all my pasta up. This set me back in a little bit of a spiral to be honest. The feeling of being sick then having to keep on moving isn’t nice. I think it was around 5pm but I had no concept of this at the time, the heat was obviously still getting to me and it was a long way to the next CP (no crew) at Boltophs. Dai was super cool though, he let me be in my misery a bit but kept checking in on my moans and groans. I think I had a gel at some point on this section but maybe not. Sipping on Tailwind was ok but clearly not enough to get me through to the end. We trucked along though. I think it was in this section that I said to him, “you know what, I am going to finish this, I have no idea what the time will be, but I will finish” he said some encouraging words about being miles ahead of cut off etc, but I didn’t really understand it all. Yes I felt sick, but was still moving forward, still getting up and down the hills. We got to Boltophs CP in good spirits though. I sat down for a couple of mins and ate some banana. The strategy for a while had been walk mostly and run a bit when I could but clearly I wasn’t fuelling well enough and I think the crew were worried.
The next section is one of the worst. A long tedious climb up to the YHA Truliegh Hill. It starts on trail then goes on a road of tedium. My stomach was a bit in knots though and I had informed Dai that I would be stopping to use the toilets here to help with this issue. It worked a treat, plus there is a tap there, so I drenched my cap and buff to cool me down again. I think I must have had 10 gallons of water thrown over me in this race. There was also a lovely family there cheering the runners on and the kids were offering sweets. I kindly said no, I can’t eat them when running. At some point on this climb, I passed the 100Km marker. This was big milestone, something tangible, well over halfway now. Next, we had to get to Devils Dyke to see the girls.
Somewhere along this next section Dai got me to eat easy peeler slices and a bit more banana. This was helping. Eating was helping , who’d have thunk it! Lol. I was cutting back on the gels and switching to food but I needed some more.
Just before we saw the girls, we witnessed a dude doing a casual trail shit literally right next to it. That was a bit grim. Then we saw Lenny (less grim), who was taking photos for the race. I did some fake running; Dai wouldn’t let me stop, sorry Lenny, nice to see you though. We were soon at the dyke, being welcomed to the sound of some S-club 7 and dancing. Bottles were refilled, I had some squash but still didn’t eat anything. I could tell they were still worried and I promised I would find something at the next aid station (Saddlescombe), which was just 1KM or so away. Crew were not allowed there. I was feeling good as we ran into this aid station. And the spread didn’t disappoint. I had a cup of jelly with fruit, followed by some yummy soup. Wrong order probably, but it perked me up even more. I took a few mins to chill and eat this yummy stuff. Somehow Dai got given an easter egg, most bizarre! Also he stashed a load more items for the next section.
2 more hills until we’d get to the windmills crew stop and Lou would tag in. Dai got me on some more fruit during this part, but it was still a struggle. He messaged ahead so the crew would have the chair and a warmer tee shirt ready for me as the sun was starting to go down and the temp would drop. Well that’s what I hoped.
It at this point I would like to point out, one of the major benefits of having a pacer on the SDW is they are your gate bitch. This route has many, many, many gates. The job of your energetic pacer is to run ahead and open the gates for you, so that you don’t have to come to an uncomfortable stop, then attempt to restart your legs again. Dai did this very professionally, so much so that he in fact got into a competition with another gate slave for a runner called Emma, who we had been leap frogging around for quite a bit of this long old section. I think I still prefer gates over stiles, especially when you have a gate bitch.
The Sun may provide green energy, but it sucks the life from runners, especially runners who have been training in 10c wet and wild weather for months. This evil thing was getting lower and lower as we arrived at Clayton windmills. I stopped here as planned to swap tee shirt and get my torch out ready for the night time fun. It was also time for little miss fun bags to take over the pacing for the next 27km or so. Funnily enough I wasn’t looking forward to the next section up on Ditchling beacon as it’s quite runnable. Funny, that. But something changed here. The sunset was epic, Lou started feeding me sweets to add to the fruit. The temperature dropped and the legs came to life. Running became a bit easier, the hiking, stronger. There was just something magical about being up on this part of the trail. I even found humour in things.
We also caught up with a runner called Zoe and her extremely hyper pacer Dan Lawson. For those that don’t know, he’s a pretty dam good runner, who also set up Rerun Clothing to help stop all the waste in running by reselling and donating clothing to charities. We had quite a lot of fun and banter all the way to Housdean CP. With Both Dan and Lou egging Zoe and I on. It’s what we needed butit wasn’t all rosy. I moaned about a couple of short sharp hills and refused to run all the downs as well lol! We got into the CP in great spirits. Although my gut did feel a bit twisted. I think my body was now feeling the effects of the day and at times I didn’t know which end was going to protest the loudest!
I did eat some yummy minestrone soup though, which helped a little. We were 124km in, less than a marathon to go!
The next section I know the best out of the whole course. I’d even run it in the dark a few weeks before. Knowing this gave me great confidence. I left Housdean with a little spring in my step; well maybe that was metaphorical. You are pretty much on a climb again. This time I started eating the sweets Lou was dishing out. I’ve never had them on runs before but the pastilles were going down nicely. I felt stronger and stronger. My tummy still felt a little weird though and at one point I dived into the bushes to try and get a no2 out. Alas, I couldn’t even squat as my IT bands said “that’s a very bad idea Sir, you might need rescuing if you try this”. So I gave up and hoped for the best.
Running was good and we were soon (ish), up and over the railway bridge (that was annoying lol) into Southease CP. I had some watermelon here, risky yes but worth it! Lou grabbed some more sweets, then we made our way up the hill to Firle Beacon. This is a bitch of a climb as it gets quite steep but again, I wasn’t too bad heading up here. I was ready to see the crew again though. Last stop with them before the finish line. There was definitely a lot more running happening.
Rolling into the crew point I looked at my watch. I’d been keeping an eye on the overall time and distance but wasn’t sure how relative it was. The team told me I had about 19km to go at this point. It really didn’t seem that far in the grand scheme of things but had been running for 20.5hrs ish.
I had a sit down here while the crew conferred on my state. Not sure what they were saying in those whispers, but I was being distracted by Ale, who was waiting to pace Yvette to the finish and Jorge, who had walked out from Eastbourne to support. Bless them. I didn’t stay too long as I didn’t want to get cold now that we were well into the night sun. Lou tapped out and Dai tapped in. Just 19 KM’s to go now. We headed up the hill to, Bo Peep. Spirits were high. I think it was on the climb up out of Bo Peep car park that a thought popped into my head. I wondered what time I was going to finish. This was the first time I thought about it for many hours. I knew after this hill that we only had two more to go. It was like I could see the finish line now in my head. When we crested this hill, I looked at the ETA screen on my Garmin. As I had the mapping on, it will tell you when it thinks you will finish based on average pace. I was surprised, well a bit more than that, shocked actually to see it said we would finish about 4.30am well within the 24-hour period that was my A goal. I turned to Dai and said something like “I think the sub 24 is on man, Garmin thinks it, can you check on your Suunto”. He loaded up the route and it gave a similar time. I said that I wanted to be sure and there are two nasty long climbs left, so this is the plan. Last two aid stations at Alfriston and Jevington. I am not stopping, can you just pop in and fill up my bottle if I need it and grab me some sweets/ fruit please. We agreed on this. From this point it “was on like Donkey Kong”, well that was my mantra, that I repeated for the next couple of hours. The legs found a 3rd wind with the motivation of the A goal being back. We ran quite a bit of the descent into Alfriston, just slowing on a couple of steeper sections. Then before I knew it, we were on the long (4 or 5km) windy, rocky ascent. My legs felt strong though, I made it up non-stop, only kicking one stone and just moaning a little.
As we crested the hill, the faint glimmer of the sunrise appeared. There is something magical about seeing sunrise twice without sleep. Talking of sleep, I hardly felt sleepy, I had a couple of cups of coke during the night, more for the sugar as I had stopped taking gels hours ago, plus it’s a nice treat. It was weird though, I often wondered if I would be like a zombie at this point of the race, but I was so awake, so aware of everything around me and what was happening. Even my feet didn’t hurt too much, apart from the 2 blisters I now had. This was weird after how I felt earlier, I didn’t expect this.
We trotted down the descent into Jevington. There were many moans though as my quads had finally said “enough mate”! We ran through the church then right past the aid station. I didn’t need anything at all now. I felt bad as I heard good things about this one, but it was hustle time. Time to do the best I could and finish strong. Just one more climb to go. It’s another longish one (2km) but again the power hiking legs got me up in no time. Almost at the trig point.
When Dai, Krysia and I did the recce, it all went a bit wrong at the top of this hill as the gpx is a bit messed up. This time though being race day, it was marked brilliantly and there was even a Marshall up there who had put out glow sticks to lead you to the path down into Eastbourne. I have to admit, this was where I shed a quiet tear to myself. I looked at my watch and it said we would get in around 40mins under the 24-hour time! OMG, how did that happen, the shock of finishing the dream was setting. The descent was evil though, it is tight and rocky. I was glad it was dry, but you could easily injure yourself here if not careful. So, I took it easy and just let out lots of moans from my quads being dead now.
Getting onto the road was brilliant. Dai said to me, “mate, you could walk it in now and still be in under 24”. He also called Lou to tell them to wake up., I don’t think they were sleeping, but they sounded shocked that it was almost finish time. We had about 3km to go. I can’t put that feeling into words. Knowing the journey I had in the last 23 hours. The lows and highs. The laughter, the dark thoughts. I shed a few more tears.
A short while later we rounded the corner to the entrance to the track. Somehow, I saw that Krysia was in her car with family (I think), having finished an hour or more before me. They were cheering. All I could muster was a “I fucking did it” then, I was running to the track entrance and was joined by Cajsa. I then caught sight of Lou, Elisa, Ben and Jorge as I got closer to the track. Dai left me as we agreed but shouted out the now classic parting words “Fuck off Jon” a term of endearment I will never forget.
The lap of the track was very calming. I shed another couple of tears, smiled to myself, and ran across the finish line. 23hours 18mins 58 secs.
After crossing the line, I felt numb. I could barely muster a smile for the photo. I just wanted to sit down and take off my shoes. I was happy, just not the way I expected to be. Everyone was ace and giving me congrats. The crew were tired. We didn’t stay long. It started to get cold too, so we travelled back to Petts Wood.
In the following days the numbness didn’t go away. I didn’t have any sense of achievement. It was like it never happened., There was an empty hole of where the weekend was. Like something happened but nothing of note. That’s really weird for me, usually the next day and following few days I get a sense of pride and then a little post-race depression. But there was nothing. I went back to work and just trotted on through the week. This made me a little sad to be honest. Then I got some nice messages from coach Mags. We also had a lovely call where I recounted the race to her. This made me start to feel a bit more positive about it. It gave me the confidence to start writing this. Which has led to a few tears too.
100 miles is long way. No shit Sherlock. I now understand it’s a really long way though. I said to Dai and Lou while we were out pacing that I wouldn’t do a race like this again. I stand by that for a couple of reasons. I like adventures, this didn’t feel like an adventure. I knew the route so well. I executed a plan here. Which is a good thing and probably what I needed to do to get the time I did. Adventure comes from the unknown in my mind. I thought that would be the distance here, but it wasn’t. The training to get here was a lot. When I set myself a goal race like this, I do dedicate myself to the training, it’s been a long 5 and a bit months to get here and a lot of time spent out on the trails. Could I go through that again? It would have to be a pretty special race for me to want to go this distance again. I am not saying never ever but I think the 50mile/100km distance is a good fit for me.
Not to end on downer though, here are things I am proud of:
- I hydrated and ate well until vomit comet
- I paced it to my ability and conditions
- I didn’t give up
- I wasn’t a dick and saved my quads in the first half
- I didn’t fall over
- I didn’t shit myself
- I ran the race 40mins under goal time
- I ran the first half in 10hrs 17mins, that’s cool
- I gained 43 places in the last 30km
- This was my 100th run of 2021 and I did 100 miles
- I can now eat sweets on ultras
- If I feel sick, I still need to eat. I did that, even if it took some persuasion.
I ran 100 miles in under 24 hours on one of the hottest days of the year, with no heat training after feeling shocking for a good portion of it and with 2hrs of “chill time” in the mix. Wow, I am super proud of me.
Gillian and Poppy
Thank you for putting up with me. Yes, it’s all been a bit weird. I love you both
For getting me to the start line. For believing in me and being a constant in my training.
Elise, Dai and Lou (AKA the crew of dreams)
For putting up with my shit, being amazing and utter dicks too. I can’t ever thank you enough. You can be my gate bitches any day of the year.
The Centurion team
To all the staff and volunteers, you are awesome. I know it’s been so tough to get races back but, you are all honestly the best! Special shout outs to Jay, for the start and the cheers at Cocking. Then Zoe for the Brownies.
To all the people who sent me messages before, during and after the race.
I love you all. I really am so touched by them. Thank you.
Marvel like post credits thing
Why the title you’re probably wondering? It was a bad joke from the night section. Another pacer said “I’ve left it ajar” as he went through a gate. I just turned to Lou and said “it’s not a jar, it’s a gate”. Mic drop.