Saturday, 10 June 2017

One Foot in Front of the Other

Centurion South Downs Way 100 – 10th July 2017

The Start Line at Chilcomb near Winchester
Somewhere – sadly I cannot recall where – I read some advice to novice Ultra Runners from an old hand.  The advice was as follows: When things are going really badly, when your body is failing and your mind is telling you to give up (and everyone has that at some point in a 100-miler), just put one foot in front of the other.  Then repeat, and repeat again, and again… Keep going forwards, towards your destination; it really does not matter how slowly.  If you can just keep moving onwards, eventually (although it might take some time) things will start to get better.

This was the mantra that got me to the finish of the SDW100 – my first 100-miler – from a situation where my first ever DNF looked a certainty.

Andy and James leading the way down into the Meon Valley

My problems started disturbingly early in the race.  After only about an hour and a half of running, my legs were feeling very heavy and my body lethargic.  I couldn’t pin it on anything specific,
but I knew that I was struggling to keep up with the pace being set by James, Andy and Frank – my teammates for the event.  Being very low in energy has happened to me in the past on some training runs, but never in a race when the adrenalin is flowing.  I began to hope that James, Andy and Frank were leading us out too quickly and was contemplating asking them to rein it in a little, but when we arrived at the first aid station at Beacon Hill bang on our target schedule (that target being a sub-24 hour finish) the sad truth dawned on me – the problem was me, not them.

Suffering badly on arrival at the QECP
There is a long gap between Beacon Hill and the next aid station at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP) – over 20km or nearly 13 miles, the longest gap of the whole route – and it did not go well for me.  Having had something to eat at Beacon Hill, I started to develop stomach cramps and desperately needed the toilet.  Further, the tight left hamstring that had been bothering me in the week leading up to the race was now nagging away, and I was starting to feel referred pain in my ITB, groin and glute.  Not only was I struggling to stay with my teammates, I was struggling to run at all.  It was totally dispiriting to see them blast away down Butser Hill into QECP, and the look on their faces whilst they waited at the bottom for me to catch up confirmed what I already knew.  We were only 4 hours into the race and I was in deep trouble.

Our stop at QECP was longer than we had planned because it took me a while to find a toilet. Sarah and Sally-Anne – our wonderful support crew for the day – were waiting for us, and Sarah was very concerned at my state.  Not knowing whether to encourage, sympathise, or just give me a bloody talking to, she decided the best course was to just fill my water bottles, force some food inside me, and shoo me off with the promise that they would see us at Cocking.

My hope that the toilet stop would sort me out was dashed when, at the top of the next climb, the tightness in my left leg turned into sharp pains when we started running again, and both quads cramped up.  This was just getting silly, and I was now holding back the others and jeopardising their race.  I slapped James, Andy and Frank on their backs, wished them good luck and told them to leave me.  That they did not argue with my decision says much about how I must have appeared to them.  As we discussed it the following day, they would certainly have worked hard on me to continue if we had (say) 20 or 25 miles to go, but we had only traveled 25 miles and had 75 more to go.  My problems occurring so early on made the decision an easy one, for them and me.

As I watched them jog off, I started walking.  One foot in front of the other.  My plan was to walk to Cocking, meet Sarah and drop out there.  I was totally fed up: all that training, all that preparation – the SDW100 had been my main focus since the end of the ski season – and now all for nothing. What a total waste of time.  It made me really angry.

As I walked I started to analyse my situation.  Was there any way I could salvage something from this disaster?  What if I were to just keep walking?  I might start feeling better at some point?  What if I were to go on Washington – the “half way” point at around 54 miles – that would at least be some sort of achievement?  I tried a little jog – no good, the pains returned immediately – but walking was pain-free.  Yes, I thought I would be able to walk to Washington, but how much of an achievement would that really be?  Not that much, was my conclusion, and I felt angry again.

Feeling miserable approaching the Cocking aid station
I passed through the next aid station at Harting Downs, refilled with water, ate something, and carried on towards Cocking.  Much as I was fed up, I had to admit it was a gorgeous day and the views from the downs were amazing.  One foot in front of the other.

My walking pace was good – a consistent average of 10 minutes per km – and I started doing the sums.  It was 43km from Harting to Washington, that’s just over seven hours.  But hold on, if Harting was just over 40km into route, then there remained about 120km to the finish, which at 10 minutes per km would take me 20 hours.  Given I had now been going for around 6 hours, that implied a finish in 26 hours, well within the 30-hour cutoff.  I doubled checked the sums in my head. They were right: the sub-24 hour target was gone – forget it! – however it was feasible for me to walk to the finish within the cutoff time.  That would allow me to get a finisher’s buckle, regain some self-respect, and actually get something positive out of this whole mess.  All I had to do was keep walking – one foot in front of the other – for 20 hours – simple!  No, utter madness!  It was an completely stupid idea, but what other choice did I have?  How would I live with the disappointment of a DNF, and bear James, Andy, Sarah and Sally-Anne being so “nice” about my failure?  No, there was no alternative.  I was reasonably confident I could do it physically, the key would be to manage the mental side – it was going to be a horribly long and lonely day, night, and another morning.

Up to Linch Down just before Cocking

Sarah was greatly relieved to see me at the Cocking aid station.  She told me I was looking much better and actually making reasonable time.  I received an update on the rest of the team – James and Andy were still looking strong, although sadly Frank was struggling to get any food down, with pineapple being the only thing he could eat.  Sarah and Sally-Anne had also been doing the maths and told me that I had plenty of time if I wanted to carry on.  We had chat about it, I confirmed that I did want to carry on, and she promised to see me at the next aid station. They were brilliant at getting me sausage rolls and pineapple (once it had been mentioned I had a sudden urge for it!), and they were great in nagging me to get more electrolytes down.  It was massively energising to get their practical and moral support, and their encouragement to keep going, and I left Cocking in a much more positive mood.

Descending to the A285 (Petworth to Chichester road) with Bignor Hill in the distance

I saw Sarah and Sally-Anne at the Bignor Hill aid station and Sarah met me again at Kithurst Hill.  She told me that Frank had had to pull out as by now he could not even keep water down, and on such a warm day there was no way he could continue. Sally-Anne had kindly given him a lift home.

I was discovering that I am actually a pretty decent walker.  I continued to average 9 minutes per km on the flat and 10 minutes uphill.  Whilst runners passed me on the descents and flat, I found myself overtaking some of those same runners as I powered up the hills.  As they passed, most runners asked me if I was OK – it was clearly unusual to see someone walking downhill at such an early stage in the race.  Occasionally a runner would stop as they passed, fall into step with me and have a chat for a couple of minutes, before wishing each other well, they would resume their jog.  Such selflessness is one of the best features of ultra-marathons, and it gave me an enormous boost.  If any of you are reading this – thank you!

I walked down into Washington with a runner who had passed me some hours ago but whom I had now caught.  He was struggling quite badly, and seemed intent on dropping out at the aid station.  It turned out he had been a last minute entry and injury had meant he had only done 6 weeks training.  He summed it up nicely: "You can’t blag a 100-miler. You can get away with insufficient training on a 50-miler, but you can’t blag a 100”.

Chanctonbury Ring at the top of the climb out of Washington
I was surprised and delighted to see Sarah waiting for me at the Washington aid station, as she was supposed to have headed home ages ago.  It was by now 6.30pm, I realised that she had wasted her whole day following me around the South Downs, and that acted to reinforce my decision that I had to get something positive out of it all.  I had a prolonged stop as she got me some tea and some hot food whilst I stretched, changed shirt and socks from the drop bag, and reapplied a liberal coating of Gurney Goo to all the sensitive parts.

Dramatic evening skies approaching Steyning
As I headed out into the evening, I tried a few short jogs to test the legs, but immediately the soreness returned.  However, walking was pain free, so the key was not to get tempted into running – time didn’t matter any more, and walking was the strategy that would get me to the finish.  What remained would be a mental test.  I needed to break the task down into manageable chunks.  I calculated the time to the next aid station: 2 hours to Botolphs so I should get there at 9pm.  One foot in front of the other.  Half an hour later: only 90 minutes to go!  One foot in front of the other.  Half an hour later: brilliant, I am half way to the next aid station!  Etc, etc.  I resolved to think of absolutely nothing except the next aid station; to do anything else was just too scary.  If I could just get to the next aid station, then I could carry on.

At Botolphs I was served one of the best cups of tea ever by the wonderful volunteers, I pulled the head torch from my pack, and stopped briefly to enjoy the amazing sunset as I crossed over the River Adur.  As I climbed up Beeding Hill towards Truleigh Hill, I saw the most enormous and curiously lit hot air balloon rising up from Brighton to the south, and remember thinking it a very unusual time to go ballooning.  It was of course the moon, and I was obviously getting a little tired!

Sunset over the River Adur near Steyning just before the Botolphs aid station

The night passed with a slow monotony.  Counting down the time to the next aid station. Saddlescombe Farm — two minutes to lie down, stretch and shake out the leg muscles. Housedean Farm — another change of shirt and three quarters done. Southease – a wonderful dawn chorus, with a base counterpoint provided by the frogs in the marshes around the River Ouse, and a spectacular sunrise over the downs near Glynde.

Sunrise over the downs near Glynde after the Southease aid station
At Southease I texted James to find out how he and Andy were getting on, and was delighted to get his response that they had just that minute crossed the finish line in an amazing 22 hours 17 minutes.  They had absolutely smashed their 24-hour target, a stunning run by them both.  I was doubly pleased: not only had my slowness not impacted their chances, I was also pretty certain that I could never have matched that time – even on a good day – so perhaps it was fortuitous that they had been able to leave me so early in the race.  We exchanged messages of congratulations / encouragement, and having sorted themselves out they told me that they would wait for me at the finish — waiting 5 hours for me to turn up was more than I could have possibly expected, and it gave me a real emotional boost.

Being "encouraged" to jog the last 50 metres
I also texted Sarah to let her know I was OK.  Rather annoyingly my message from Saddlesombe the previous evening had failed to send which had given her a rather restless night.  I started allowing myself to imagine crossing the finishing line and got pretty emotional about it.

The next stage to Alfriston seemed much longer, time really dragged, and the light rain that started blowing in from the sea did not help my mood.  However, Jevington came round much more quickly, I was now on the final leg, and soon descending the horrible slippery gully down into Eastbourne.  James and Andy were there to cheer me on as I entered the sports ground, and the PA announcer and supporters bullied me into jogging the last 50 metres across the line. Over the line, as I explained to James that that was the furthest I had actually jogged since we had split up nearly 23 hours ago, I tried and failed to choke back the emotions.

The statistics
  • I finished in 27 hours 12 minutes and was ranked 171 out of 297 starters and 220 finishers.  I was 24th out of 60 starters over 50 years of age
  • James and Andy finished in a stunning 22 hours 17 minutes and ranked joint 65th
  • My GPS recorded 157.9km (98.1 miles, rather annoyingly, should I go back and finish it?) and 3,600m of vertical climb.  The equivalent distance on the flat is over 180km
  • Strava tells me that I burned over 14,000 calories

The lessons
  • Sarah has been telling me for years that I am a stubborn old man but I would never believe her.  It seems she might be right.
  • It appears I am quite good at walking, especially walking uphill – good to know.
  • The South Downs Way is extraordinarily beautiful, especially on a clear and sunny day, but also on a clear moonlit night.  It is such a privilege to be able to race over this course.
  • Centurion run an absolutely superb event – the quality of the aid stations, the helpfulness and understanding of all the volunteers, the professionalism of the logistics: top marks all round.
  • One foot in front of the other.

The Links

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