How did I get here?
Sunday 22 April 2012. London. I’m lining up for my first ever marathon. Aiming for a finish time of around 4h45m, I remind myself not to get swept away by the atmosphere and go out too quickly. I promptly run comfortably but too quickly for the first 10 miles and blow up spectacularly. The last 10 miles was a run/walk, with more of the latter, and I go on to finish in just over 5h16m. Dammit! A guaranteed PB as it’s my first marathon but not the time I wanted. Despite this, I’m still buzzing. I just ran a marathon. Yes, me!
Fast forward 3 years and I’ve run 3 more marathons (trail not road), 3 x 50 mile ultra marathons and a 24 hour trail race (80 miles) and I’m lining up at a sports ground in Winchester, waiting to start my first 100 mile ultra marathon, the South Downs Way 100. After my first 50 miler, the North Downs Way 50 in 2013, I said that I’d never run a 100 mile race. Then promptly changed my mind within a few weeks. After training and building towards this (both physically and mentally) for the last 18 months I’m nervous and excited, yet strangely calmer than on that Sunday morning in April 2012. I put this down in no small part to the prospect of the cheery welcome and support which I know awaits each and every runner at the aid stations on the course. Volunteers, I salute you all.
Doing it my way
When I decided to take on the SDW100 I was then faced with the crew/no crew and pacers/no pacers dilemma. I had an early offer of crew but couldn’t think of anyone I knew well enough to pace me apart from Phil (@BigPhil137) and as he was running the race too that was a problem. In the end, I decided that I would rather run the race without a crew or pacers, relying upon the aid stations and my own iron will to get me through to the finish. I had run pretty much all of my first North Downs Way 50 on my own, in the company of nothing but my own thoughts and the sounds of the countryside (except the bit by the M25), and figured that I’d be able to do the same at SDW100 as long as I had my iPod if needed.
Training for the race I had focused on quality rather than quantity. In contrast to my previous 50 mile race training plans, which featured back to back long runs every weekend, I chose to do one long run every weekend and generally limited these to 20 miles. In fact, from January to June 2015 the longest runs I did were a 21 mile training run in January and the 52 mile Malvern Hills Ultra run in May. One of the reasons for stopping back to back long runs was the impact it was having upon my home life, with the early starts disturbing my wife and son and double run weekends limiting our time together.
During the week, my training plan involved 4 runs, generally all on road (at least until the lighter evenings of April and May made the trails too hard to resist). Until the end of March I trained by heart rate as this had served me so well in the lead up to NDW50 in 2013. This involved lots of slow, easy running. I also did a few interval sessions in the first few weeks. One run each week was a hill repeat session, one I grew to love and look forward to and the one session that I am convinced made the most difference to my readiness for SDW100. Less than 1/3 mile from my house is a road which is a steady incline around 1/4 mile long. I ran up and down this road up to 12 times in a session, sometimes fast on the ups and recovering on the downs and at other times running steady up and down. It’s surprising how much a run like that can test you mentally as well as physically, although I became very adept at getting into the zone on these runs. From April to June I pretty much abandoned the heart rate monitor (after frustration with HR readings despite buying a new heart rate strap) and ran by feel or with an eye on pace, staying at a slow to moderate pace for the majority of my training runs.
The night before
I was relieved that Simon (@funkysimmm) suggested that I, Phil and Beth (@bfp2030) go up with him to Winchester to register and get our kit check done on the Friday evening. That proved a valuable opportunity to say hi to the irrepressible and irreplaceable Centurion Running organiser and cheerleader extraordinaire Nici Griffin (@LondonNici72) and runners such as Matt (@UltraBevo), Luke (@Ashton378), Darren (@dazzer6666), Cath (a fellow first timer I’d got to know through the facebook group I’d set up for first time 100 mile runners doing SDW100) and Ashley (@iRunSalt). Just before we left I saw Bryan (@UltraDHC) and Dan (@UltraRunnerDan), two of the guys I first got to know in the ultra running community and who have been a source of inspiration, advice and abuse/banter ever since. After I got home I had some dinner, spoke to my parents and promptly spent a couple of hours packing and re-packing my race vest and having to do some emergency sewing to fix a small tear in the mesh pocket at the back. The relaxing evening and early night I had planned didn’t happen and I ended up getting a disturbed and restless night’s sleep, probably managing about 4 hours. Thankfully, I’d been sensible and got a good night’s sleep every night that week so still felt okay the next morning.
To the start
Having registered the night before all we had to do was turn up, listen to the race briefing and start running. Arriving around 5:20am for a 6:00am start, Phil, Simon and I had the chance to meet up with other running friends before we set off. I got chatting to Jon (@JonFielden) and Natasha (@natasha_fielden), Martin (@MartinBushell1), Gary (@ultrareluctant), Russ Bestley, Louise (@abradypus), Dan, Bryan and others I can’t remember I’m sure (if I spoke with you, thanks for listening!).
Before long we were being called together for the race briefing, delivered as ever by the Race Director James Elson (@jameselsons), and then we were off. One lap of the sports field at Chilcomb Sports Ground in Winchester was the order of the day this time, with most of the runners around me seeming to heed the advice not to go off too fast. I was running very steady and trying to get into an early rhythm, not easy when the field thinned out to single file at the corner and exit from the field. On the way out I saw James and instinctively ran over to him, reached out my hand and shook his. He knew what I was thinking and promptly sent me on my way with a handshake and a “Good luck Graham” message. James, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I honestly cannot recommend Centurion Running events highly enough. Personal, friendly and each and every runner’s journey matters to them.
The bit I didn’t know
I had managed to recce all of the course apart from the first 14 miles or so, from the start to Exton. As we headed out onto the South Downs Way for the first time I felt calm and was running steady, sticking with my plan to power walk the ups, run the downs and jog the flat parts of the route. I had no idea of my pace as I had decided not to wear my trusty Garmin and wore my Casio sports watch as I had at the Malvern Hills Ultra in April. I found that I ran a much more relaxed race without obsessing about my pace and running by feel and this was working for me now too. On a few occasions in the early miles I backed off the pace a little , conscious that I did not want to blow up later in the race and endure a death march to the finish. Little did I know what awaited me then.
Anyhow, I was anticipating getting to the first aid station, Beacon Hill Beeches which is 10 miles in, at around or just after the 2 hour mark. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the first of many (very, very welcome) Centurion Running flags about 5 minutes before the 2 hours was up. After getting a lovely greeting from Natasha I promptly topped up my water bottles, grabbed some food and put it in the sandwich bag I was carrying and got out of the aid station. Boom! My quickest aid station stop of the race, done. From here on in I would end up spending too long at the aid stations but I’m okay with that. They served their purpose and kept me positive.
Onward a few more miles of pleasantly undulating trail and I then arrived at the village of Exton. From here on in I had recced the route so hopefully I’d be able to recall most of it now. You’d think, wouldn’t you? Then again, I have been known to get lost going to the bathroom at home so the occasional trail run where I am “temporarily misplaced” is no surprise. It would be a few hours until I’d find myself in that position though.
Exton to Queen Elizabeth Country Park
Now I was recognising the trail. The last time I ran this part it was a muddy bog (November 2014) so it was a bit of a surprise to find a very stony trail heading out of Exton. A taste of things to come. Here I got chatting to another runner (Ian I think) who had attempted the SDW100 in 2013 but DNFd and was back to finish the job. After a few minutes we caught up with Cath and as Ian ran on I spent much of the next few miles running with Cath talking about how we ended up here and our plans for the race (finishing, essentially!). I was (strangely) enjoying hiking up the hills and noticed how I was leaving other runners behind on the uphills when I powered up Old Winchester Hill.
Over the next hours I would see and pass the same faces many times only for them to catch me up or pass me later. This didn’t bother me as I had decided before the race that I was not going to be drawn into competing with other runners. My goal was simply to finish and in the best shape possible and focusing on running my own race was more likely to get me there. I watched a few runners jogging up the hills in these early miles (and some doing do later on as well) and found myself thinking “I could do that too! I ran the hills more and more in training over the last few months.” I also knew that running the hills would, for me, be suicidal so continued with my run/jog/walk pattern.
Before too long I passed the Sustainability Centre and started the long, steady climb up to (near) the top of Butser Hill. Now, I have run up , down and around Butser Hill a few times now and it is one of my absolute favourite places to run so when I came to the part where I got to run down it I had to hold myself back. It’s prime “aeroplane” territory but I held that back for later. Having run down and into QECP I took a moment to have a civilised wee in the toilet facilities before heading to the aid station for water top ups, my first of many drinks of Coke for the race and some food. “Doggy bag” in hand I headed off up the new SDW route through the woods towards Buriton, discovering a new wonder food on the way: Mars bar and jelly babies in the same mouthful. Sounds revolting but is (or at least was at the time) absolutely amazing.
QECP to Cocking
As its relatively local to me – I can run almost exclusively trail from my front door and get to QECP and Harting Down in around 10 miles – I have run this stretch several times. I love the route through QECP, the hard trail and road section from there to Harting Down not so much. Then there’s the really steep and chalky climb which follows. However, having got over that hill there’s a lovely stretch of countryside heading through woods and then rolling hills down into Cocking. I really enjoyed this part of the run, although it was getting even more humid by now. I was surprised to see my running buddy Phil so soon after QECP. He was struggling now, having been sick a couple of times already and struggling with stomach issues. Phil had been struck down by a bug the weekend before the race and hoped he had got over it. I walked with him for a while and encouraged him to keep moving and try to take on some Coke as well as keep drinking water. Beth also appeared and recounted the struggle she had experienced at QECP with the most horrific cramp but she was soon on her way (and going on to finish in a superb time, just over 25 hours). After arriving at Cocking I took a few minutes to apply some sun cream as the sun was well and truly out by now and it was getting quite hot. The last thing I wanted was to get sunburnt or risk sunstroke ending my race so decided to invest the time dealing with this now. I also ate the first of several water melon slices here. That stuff is amazing during races.
Cocking to Bignor Hill
I had forgotten just how long the climb is out of Cocking and was soon reminded of this. However, I soon got my head down and started grinding out the miles with a power hike. At this point I was grateful to the runners just ahead of me who kept breaking into a run as soon as the climb started to level off, encouraging me to break into a run as well. In previous ultras I have found myself struggling around 35-40 miles and this was no exception but by staying focused and remembering to take in my surroundings I kept moving forward. [Photo: Stuart March]
Bignor Hill to Washington
A tale of two halves this bit. Struggling a little for the first few miles by the time I got to Kithurst Hill and saw the motivational messages (which I thought were great) and saw Rajiv (@rattyrunner) I had been running strongly for a while. Checking my watch upon arrival at the 50 mile mark I saw that I had run this in 11h44m, a 9 minute PB for the 50 mile distance. This was particularly pleasing as I had been consciously taking it easy(ish) to the half way mark with an eye on the remaining 50 miles. On the way from here to Washington I continued to run strongly and as I took the SDW detour into the village I noticed Ash up ahead and powered on, catching up with him around a mile from the village hall and aid station. We walked and ran and chatted and then saw Elvis (AKA Kenny Ling) and Ewan (@ultra_ewan) directing us down the hill to the aid station. I was still fairly lucid at this time so thankfully didn’t think I was hallucinating and realised I was just seeing aid station volunteers having fun and giving us runners a giggle. Thanks fellas.
Checking in and checking out the chafing at Washington
Time for the first drop bag, but first some pasta and bolognese. After over 12 hours of snacking this was a welcome hot meal. I took the opportunity to catch up with Dan as well as Ash at Washington and was also pleased to see Martin “It’s My Birthday” Bushell before he headed off on his way to a 26 hour finish. After a quick splash of water on my face followed by a toilet stop I took a moment to address the undercarriage chafing which had started to make its presence felt a few miles earlier, soon realising that I really should have treated this sooner. Oh dear. It was going to be a case of grin and bear it and keep topping up the Vaseline for the next 46 miles. Oh well, live and learn. At least I has got my foot care right this time after my disaster at Endure 24 last June! Dealing with the odd stone in the shoes quickly, reapplying Vaseline to all of my toes at Harting Down and now Washington had worked and my feet were in good shape. I had a fresh pair of socks to change into but decided against it, which turned out to be a good call. Head torch collected and some top ups of food and water obtained, I set off on the next stretch with Ash.
Washington to Botolphs
Into the second half of the race. Not that I allowed myself to think about that as I left Washington, turning left at Elvis and heading back down the hill. The only way to get through ultra marathons, in my experience, is to break the race distance down into smaller runs from aid station to aid station. So I had 7 miles to run now, starting with a fairly long climb in the company of Ash (who scores bonus points for being genuinely taken aback that at 44 years of age I’m older than I look) from Washington up to Chanctonbury Ring. Upon cresting the hill I turned to Ash expecting him to join me on a little run downhill. He told me to run on if I felt like it and that was the last I saw off him. Such is the runner’s lot during ultra marathons. You’ve got to press on when you feel good, the other runners know this and will do the same.
The next section, from here to Botolphs, was my favourite of the entire race. Almost entirely downhill, this stretch is runnable, mainly on grass rather than the now dreaded South Downs chalk paths. The latter part of this section runs past pig farms and involves a sustained downhill run which I did not blast down but ran with a smile and it was great to maintain some momentum for a few miles. I was soon at the aid station and being treated wonderfully by the volunteers. It was the same at every aid station. Brilliant support. Head torch out and in the pocket ready to go on soon (it was after 9pm now), another t-shirt and my arm sleeves on, then waterproof jacket after a suggestion from one of the volunteers, who had noticed me shivering. As I left the aid station I hoped that this wouldn’t last as I didn’t want to get pulled from the race for hypothermia, especially in June! Thankfully, once on the move again I soon warmed up.
Botolphs to Clayton Windmills
The light was starting to fade now and I managed to get up to the top of Truleigh Hill before switching on my head torch. I was able to push on and continue to run/walk this section, which I also found enjoyable with a fairly long downhill to Pyecombe Golf course and a sustained but gradual ascent to the “rave station” at Clayton Windmills. Here I saw Andrew (@ABaillie64) who I’d run this aid station with in 2014 along with Phil, Darren, Dan and Bryan. I was delighted to arrive there just before midnight and 3 hours before the cut-off, leaving me with 12 hours to complete the last 31 miles. Surely I could do that, needing to average less than 3 miles per hours (20 minute miles) to do so?
I asked after Darren as I knew that Andrew was due to pace him to the finish from here. Andrew informed me that Darren had been struggling with injury since QECP but had managed to get to Claytin Windmills before deciding that today was not his day and droping from the race. I was also informed that Phil had dropped out at mile 42. I was (and still am) genuinly gutted for them both as I know they have e been building up to this race for the last year. Darren has been training like a man possessed and Phil has run so well despite being affected by a back injury for the first few months of the year. I’m sure they’ll both be back and get their buckle sooner rather than later.
Grabbing hold of my drop bag, passed to me by Andrew, I sat in a chair and rooted around for the rice pudding I had packed. It was delicious, supplementing the usual aid station fare and I topped up on some salted potatoes (amazing), home made fudge and pineapple while I drank a cup of tea to warm up. It was at this point I contemplated opening the secret note that my 11 year old son Andrew had given me “To read when things get tough” as I knew the next stretch was a long, sustained climb across the downs before dropping down into Housedean Farm. However, I thought it better to open it when/if I was struggling in the latter stages of the race.
I grabbed a few more bars and the 2 small bottles of Irn Bru (which proved to be wonderful stuff at this stage in the race) from my drop bag, left the rest untouched and marched on towards the next aid station. Now things started to get tricky.
Clayton Windmills to Housedean Farm
By now it was pitch black up on the South Downs. I knew that what followed next was a long climb out of Clayton Windmills to Ditchling Beacon. The last time I ran this section it was a warm afternoon and I managed to blag a free ice lolly from Edward the ice cream van man. This time it was dark and I was really having to concentrate to make sure I stayed on the right route and didn’t trip over my own feet or a stray blade of grass (well, I had been going for over 18 hours by now and was a little tired). I made the decision to walk the whole of this and the night section. I was still moving forward with some pace and purpose so it wasn’t too bad. This seemed a wise move when faced with an expanse of grass on the way to Devil’s Dyke where the South Downs Way route was only visible by a slightly more trampled green path.
On the way from Ditchling Beacon to the turning by Black Cap which leads on towards Housedean Farm my stomach started to complain. Before I had travelled much further there was a sudden pain and I had to disappear off the trail to attend to business. In the dark, in the bushes. Our sport is so glamorous. Thankfully, this turned out to be a false alarm and I was soon making my way back down the trail, down through the fields and along the trail into the woods on the approach to Housedean Farm. It’s a steep climb that on but I powered up it and really enjoyed it, even with 75 miles already in my legs. My head torch was working well but I became paranoid that the batteries might run out before dawn (which they did) so when I arrived at the aid station I made sure to get my spare head torch out and ready to use. Another cup of tea and some biscuits and wraps and I was on my way.
Housedean Farm to Southease
I had run the last section of the course, from Housedean Farm to Eastbourne, twice before so knew that 4 big climbs awaited me. Tackling the first of these in the dark was another thing entirely. Up and up and up I went, past the resting but still staring cows (an eerie experience in the dark), and this stretch seemed to go on for an age. Then I took a wrong turn and left the South Downs Way, heading down a chalky, rocky trail towards Rodmell. Thankfully, I didn’t go too far down the track before I stopped, not having seen any markers since making the turn. I didn’t recognise the trail and so got my map out (bless you, mandatory kit) and despite having an appalling sense of direction and similarly poor map reading skills I saw my error, trudging back up the hill grateful that I’d not bounded down it and gone much further. Returning to the correct route I soon saw other runners and their head torches and settled back into a steady hike. It would be light again by the time I reached the next aid station at Southease. I can honestly say that the last few miles into Southease seemed to take forever and I was really struggling now.
Southease to Jevington
16 miles to go! I was still thinking aid station to aid station though and after taking two and a half hours to cover the previous 7.5 miles I was not looking forward to death marching it in from here. A few Jaffa cakes perked me up and I was on my way on the next climb. Before too long I had Dan within sight and soon caught up with him. It was good to see him and I’ve never had the opportunity to spend any time with him in a race before. We kept each other company over the next few miles, with Dan pressing on and leaving me behind on the downhills and me clawing it back on the uphills. I was really struggling now and both Dan and I had confessed to finding it tough keeping our eyes open. I remember thinking at one point how easy and pleasant it would be to lie down on the grass and close my eyes, particularly as the sun was out and it was warming up again now. I have to thank Dan for encouraging me at this point and breaking into a run from time to time, a move which I followed albeit at a slower pace and for shorter spells. It was at this point that I could have talked myself up with any one of the mantras I has prepared. Yet I chose to keep reminding myself what Bryan has said on Twitter several days before the race: DBAF. And it worked a treat. I had highlighted that in pen a few times in preparation and anticipation of a low point like this. Little did I know how sustained this would be. Still, keep moving forward.
I had yet to open my son’s surprise note but by the time I got to Alfriston I couldn’t resist having a quick peak. How amazing is this? I had to put it away before I started to cry. Thank you Andrew x
Still struggling to eat much apart from cake and biscuits I cracked on and thanked the volunteers at Alfriston. Then another long, long climb. These were getting a bit much now but I kept moving and Dan kept me positive. A quite enjoyable downhill into Jevington, although I didn’t make the most of it as my quads were complaining quite loudly by now, led to the final aid station before the finish. Nobody drops at Jevington! And they didn’t either. Good work team.
Jevington to Eastbourne
The home stretch. 4 miles to the finish. Just the matter of one final, long, long climb up to the trig point to go. This seemed to go on for so much longer than the last time I ran it (with Jon and Phil in March). It felt bloody marvellous when I reached the top though and at Dan’s insistence I posed for a photo. Good man Dan. I absolutely love this photo. [Photo: Dan Park]
After exchanging a bit of banter with Chris Mills we were soon descending the gulley of doom, watching our steps and going slowly and carefully to avoid turning an ankle at this late stage in the race. Still struggling to break into a run we walked the last strength to the footpath around the hospital, intent on ensuring we could run the last 400m. How far is the turn off for the sports ground? It seemed to go on for an age. I see a pattern emerging here….
The end is in sight
As we ran through the car park by the race track Dan told me “It’s all yours Graham. Enjoy it!” as he headed off to meet his wife Zoe and run the track with his two lovely children. I could hear someone shouting “It’s Graham!” and the cheers that followed as I headed onto the track and broke into a fairly decent pace. I cannot begin to describe the feeling but this photograph does a great job of showing it. I didn’t need the Rocky soundtrack on my iPod (which stayed in my pack all race, untouched), I was living it at that moment.
After a few words from Nici (what is said on the track stays on the track) which raised my happiness a further notch I made my way towards the finishing arch, soaking up the cheers and applause from those waiting there. Thank you all so much. I felt like a king. In keeping with this, I promptly broke into a roar and a load shout of
“Come on!” as I headed towards the finish line. Crossing the finish line was one of the most emotional and the most exhilirating moment of moment of my life so far. I had just run 100 miles. Yes, me! I had done it in 28 hours 20 minutes, comfortably within the 30 hour cut off and I was delighted. Russ handed me my buckle, which was a lovely moment as I turned to Russ for advice before my first ultra and he’s been encouraging me ever since.
Big thanks to race photographer Stuart March for humouring me and taking another couple of shots. They turned our better than I could have hoped. That’s what it feels like to run 100 miles for the first time right there. You are a genius Stuart.
I had done it. I had run 100 miles. It felt awesome. I may have cried a bit, especially when I called my wife Beth and tried to get out the words “I did it!!” and she promptly told me how proud she was of me. Then I called my Mum and she started crying too. Emotional stuff this long distance running.
It was great to see Fiona McNelis, Martin, Stewart and Natasha at the finish. I recall being asked how I felt. I can’t remember what I said but do know that I was feeling absolutely incredible. I remember thanking James Elson (who was full of praise for my achievement and genuinely delighted to share in my and every every other runner’s journey) and Drew Sheffield before I left to catch the train home (thanks again for the lift to the train station Zoe).
Thanks to everyone who has played a part in my journey to achieving this goal. I ran 100 miles!! It’s still sinking in now, 5 days later.
The question now is: If I can run 100 miles, what else can i do?
Who knows? Maybe I can even run a sub-5 hour marathon?!