Centurion Running’s Petzl South Downs Way 100 – Race ReportMatt Bisco recently smashed his own PB on the South Downs Way 100 mile ultra. He tells us about easing through the journey, the importance of being whimsical and what makes ultras so magical.
On a fresh and bright June morning, just under two hundred runners congregated at the Chilcomb Sports Ground, Winchester for the start of the SDW100. Centurion Running are emerging as one of the keystone ultra providers in the UK, now regularly attracting an international field with their year-wide menu of 50 mile and 100 mile races (we’ll leave the ‘Piece of String Fun Run’ for another time). Their growing success comes of little rprise given the quality and detail integral to their events; from pre-race course notes and navigation videos, vibrant and regular aid stations, and the integrity of the organisers themselves. Owner James Elson clearly loves his 100 milers and with an impressive CV of iconic runs to his name, he motivates a fantastic team of volunteers who are clear on what makes these niche events work.
The race briefing was the perfect balance of paramount runner safety along with instilling in us a sense of adventure and setting the scene for the possibility of a record breaking day. Indeed, as we prepared for the start, there were murmurings going around the clusters of nervy runners about the vulnerability of the current course record (17h04m), due in part to near-perfect race conditions: “a tail wind blowing you all the way to Eastbourne”. If they hadn’t deeply considered it already, by now each runner had a clear vision of quite what was ahead of them. But beyond those who would soon be vying for the podium, the race briefing made it clear that the excitement and anticipation was for everyone; a collective goal to have a great day out.
The importance of being whimsical
The funny thing about considering to run 100 miles is that, in part, you have to be quite whimsical about it. If you thought about it too clinically, you’d never find yourself on the start line. That light-hearted approach feels like a very anglo-centric mindset. As one runner standing near me commented at the end of the briefing, “So this isn’t the Chilcomb 10k then…?” Laugh it off and everything will turn out alright.
Twenty minutes allowed us all time to stroll out of the clubhouse door and gather between the flags for a prompt 6am start. So meticulous is the approach to CR events that while we were waiting, we were shown the markers for the 1½ laps of the sports field we had to run before we were permitted to exit through a narrow gap in the hedge and start on our linear journey along one of the oldest ridgeway routes in Britain. “I ran 99.9 miles” just doesn’t cut it.
With a ten second countdown, plenty of time for the adrenaline to surge and bubbles of nausea to form, the gun sounded and the legs involuntarily began to move. Time for some banter up at the front and for runners to settle in to their own space. It felt bizarre running that first lap, a bit like some kind of ceremony, or a sports day, or as I imagine the first day at Crufts. Spectators and support crews were almost silent as we passed by on our loop, prancing like poodles in their ergonomic backpacks and compression pants (to show they were of course also runners, not just supporters). All was quiet aside from the swishing of the grass and some swashing water bladders bouncing around as people adjusted themselves for the long journey ahead. Wished well on our way, we popped through the hedge and hit the road for the first mile, destination Eastbourne. “99 green bottles, hanging on the wall…”
You’ll struggle to complete a hundred miles if your mind is on the finish. And so it was that I began looking around, trying to take in the place and get a sense of stepping gently along the journey. The sun was up and the sky was clear. Early hills on the course highlighted individual approaches to the race. I love my hills but I know that running them in the first ten miles will inevitably end in tears by eighty, no matter how fresh and excited the legs feel. I planned a sensible first fifty and then to assess the situation from there. With this in mind, I decided to run the first half without a watch, basing effort just on feel and a sense of my environment. This worked really well for me as I had no means to try and ‘manage’ every step. After all, it’s just a run right? Nothing more than a fun day out. A game.
As we ran along the early trails, I noted how busy it felt. My blurred memory of the only previous 100 I’ve done (NDW100, 2012) recalled a much lonelier affair. Perhaps it was the draw of a rare prize pot that had brought this competitive bunch, crowding the trail in front of me. Or perhaps the loneliness was simply due further on in to the run. This was the beginning of a long day, after all. Either way, there were some huddles of runners pacing each other out over the first twenty or so miles. With a few minor course wanderings and everyone familiarising themselves with the National Trust Trail markings and ticker tape, it seemed like we were at the first aid station in no time at all.
Greeted by James and our first tribe of supreme volunteers, I grabbed some banana, a scotch egg, a biscuit… and another scotch egg, then quickly again skipped on my way. I had committed to spending as little time as possible standing still during this race. Even five minutes at every stop would equate to an additional hour or so on the overall time – this seemed like easy money and, once I’d got to grips with prepping my handheld water bottles before hitting the aid station, this tactic continued successfully right through.
For the SDW100 I had been talking with a friend about her pacing strategy for the second stage of the run. We run really well together and I like the idea of a team approach to something like this. Of course though, the demands on this partnership are great and cannot be entered into without proper care and thought, not least because of the logistics involved. In the end we decided to save this for another time. It’s difficult to say how the race would have panned out if this had come off, but I’m still intrigued by what a partnership can achieve.
A crew is more than just about the biscuits
After 22 miles we saw the first aid station with crew access and the atmosphere here was great. Individuals who had arranged crew support were warmly greeted and mine was no less welcoming. Last time round I had run this completely solo and the familiar face made a huge impact on lifting the spirits. In a way, throughout the race, it just gave me something extra to look forward to. As the day rolled on, these lifts became ever-more integral to my motivation. That said, Centurion Running stock their aid stations to the max, primarily so that it is accessible to runners who don’t bring a crew with them. This meant that most of my eating was done here and most of the food we’d carefully packed in to the boot of the crew car was left untouched. I learned that having a crew became about much more than the biscuits. It is one heck of an undertaking for the traditional ‘supporter’ and I will be ever indebted for this commitment on which I drew.
By this time, I settled in to running with Clare Mullenger (sitting 2nd female) who promptly noted that a quarter of the distance had already been covered. I’ve rarely met such a positive runner and her sparky approach made me sure she was going to run strong today. One hundred miles is a long day out and as such you spend lengthy times with a number of different people. Whether you hold the gates for each other, drift away on the hills, spur each other along or part at an aid station, these micro-friendships really make ultra running a unique social experience. Running with Clare, we pondered over the history of this path we were following and the stories it had heard. With 360degree views from up on the ridge, I realised how huge it felt; this run drifted in to insignificance compared to the time and history expressed by these hills.
The fear of the DNF
There is no faking a 100. All egos are dumped in the car park because at the end of the day, you can’t run someone else’s race. If you’re chatting for hours and then one of you has a low point, it’s never expected that the other with hang about. In fact, this is actually a really difficult thing to do. There is simply a shared understanding that everyone is in it together and as such must look out for themselves.
My first low point came between 30 and 50 miles (worryingly early!). This brought with it anxiety for the rest of the journey and, as I felt my pace slow, my body felt like it was moaning and creaking. I was writing my DNF speech on the hoof. Thankfully, on reflection these things are easier to pick apart. The great thing about being out all day is that you have time for reflection as you go along (and even a pick-me-up phone call to home). Physically I could feel my body getting painful. The first twenty-odd miles had felt great but now it was all going a bit wonky. But by giving it some time and not making rash decisions I came to find that this feeling of degradation plateaued. After a fantastic 54-mile ‘halfway’ feed station (chilli con-carne!) I began to find my rhythm again. Earlier it had become really painful descending. My right knee was shot and it slowed me to a walk going down hills – not ideal. Interrogating this, it was clearly the braking that was causing the shocks through my joints. Therefore, rather than creak down the hills, the only way around this was to open up and tear down them, lifting my cadence and just going for it. At this point my race turned around.
After sixty-ish miles I was flying. Yes, I felt fairly broken but I was running on the flats with a real sense of ground speed (the tail wind helped!). It made me realise how important the speed work is, even over these distances. As ultra runners, we can get caught in the routine of long plodding runs in training. Recently I had been ‘distracted’ by some shorter local races (dare I admit they were on the road?!) Going in to this weekend, I had held some regret about this and its effect on my race-specific preparations. In actual fact, I was using this training out there with 70 miles of running under my belt. Coming to one right-hand bend in the course, I met Toby Froschauer approaching from another path. He’d run off course and had turned back to where he’d missed the trail marker. Of course, Toby soon passed me and he continued on his way. But, as 100 miles often has it, I later found myself following his heels down a section of single track.
Our arrival at the next aid station confirmed that Toby’s error hadn’t even cost him a place. He was in 9th and me in 10th. This seemed to good to be true. Better still, the pace felt good and I was still eating well. Perhaps I was racing after all? After tapping out the next 15-20 miles together, it was clear that we were running well and driving each other on. There were moments where there was a fair distance between us and then we’d be back talking again. This section was probably my favourite part of the race. We were playing tactics by taking advantage of every flat section and, as night fell, we began turning our headtorches off when hiking up hill so as not to be seen as bait by those behind us. 91 miles was the penultimate aid station and there stood a friendly face manning the tea urn and providing the greatest mango I have ever tasted. The boosts and motivations seemed to keep on coming and as my Garmin buzzed away the final miles we were counting down to the classic running-track finish down among the sleepy lights of Eastbourne.
Broken but elated
It’s a strange feeling being totally broken but totally elated at the contemplation of how far you’ve come. As we hit outskirts of town, crew cars were passing us, loud with clapping and intimate cheers of congratulation. This is about as rowdy as it gets, and that is one of the most special things about ultra racing; so massive to endure but so wonderfully understated. Having broached the subject of sneaky finish-line sprints, we ran in together under the floodlights and quiet ripples of cheers. Finishing as we had started, with a glory lap, we eased in to the line and were congratulated by James and his volunteer team (including Mimi Anderson, UK ultra legend, presenting us with a cup of tea). We had actually secured a surprise joint 8th place finish in a time of 17hr37m. Chuffed to bits. Broken, but chuffed to bits.
When I had set out at the beginning of the day, I had it in my mind to beat my previous time of 22 hrs and 21 minutes, but knowing that no comparison could be made, a sub 24hr would get the ’100miles in 1 Day’ belt buckle I so keenly sought. In fact on the day I blew these goals out of the park thanks in no small way to the huge support of many brilliant people. Ultra running is a lonely place at times. You get hungry, have no idea how you are going to run fifty miles all over again, and it inevitably gets very dark. But you never do these things alone. The other runners taking part, the volunteers, my amazing super-fan mother and her crew car, the walkers on the trail who are out for a picnic, a bleeping phone with messages from afar; everyone plays their part in making the experience of running 100 miles something totally unique and immediately addictive. Because it seems the acute trauma of ultra running quickly blocks out all the bad bits; all the pain. It’s a bonkers adventure, spiritual to its core, and I love it.
There were some incredible performances on the day and the course record was broken by the first five finishers, including first female Jean Beaumont coming in third overall. UK Ultra Runner, Robbie Britton really stamped his mark on this race and was so humble in doing so. It was an awe-inspiring performance and by all accounts a great spectacle to watch. Ultra running seems to generally avoid the branded egos and I hope it stays that way. These events are presented with such humility and integrity that you start to feel quite protective about it. It’s clear that there is an increase in popularity and that has got to be good for the sport and those who make it their life. Centurion Running lead the way and really do wear their heart on their sleeve. I think so long as good people are looking after it, this is a great place to be.
For more about the SDW 100 - click here.