West Sussex Literary Trail self supported run

Or as it should be known this time of year, The Bluebell Trail. I have never seen so many bluebells. There were so many alongside the trail in the first 15 miles or so it was truly magical. Like a bluebell carpet through the woods as far as we could see in several places. Just beautiful.

Background

Before I get into the details, some background to this run.  Last year I set a new marathon PB at the London marathon but thereafter had a frustrating year with injury, somehow managing to get myself to the finish of the Autumn 100 in October off the back of far from ideal training and running mileage.  This year I have focused on rebuilding my aerobic base using heart rate based training for several months up to now and running for fun, seeing what happens in races rather than going for specific time goals.

With this in mind, I decided in late 2016 that I would withdraw my registration for the Thames Path 100 on 29-30 April as I knew I wouldn’t be ready to run 100 miles yet and the thought of running that far on flat riverside paths doesn’t really appeal. I prefer running hilly routes, with natural walking breaks and a bit more variation in scenery to be honest, which is why I’m still signed up for the North Downs Way 100 in August (although I’m still apprehensive about this). I have wanted to do a self supported run for a while but never got around to planning it and originally decided to run around the Isle of Wight following the Coastal Path. However, after lots of research and thinking I decided to leave this for next year, feeling that a 70 mile run might take too much out of me at this stage. I looked for alternatives online and found out about the West Sussex Literary Trail (WSLT), a 55 mile trail running from Horsham to Chichester. Perfect. I could drive the 7 miles to Chichester, get the train to Horsham, then run back and drive home. All in the same day. Or so I thought, at least…

The WSLT was created in 2007 and as you can see from the route profile above the biggest hills are “enjoyed” in the last half marathon or so of the trail. The WSLT joins up with the Downs Link, South Downs Way, Monarch’s Way and the New Lipchis Way along the route and I saw this as too good an opportunity to miss, giving me the chance to enjoy some new trails and see parts of West Sussex that I have driven through but had not yet explored on foot, especially the valley in Duncton.  There is some information about the trail online, with photos of the route sufficient to further enthuse me, but this is fairly limited. However, I did find the notes from a walker who had completed the trail over several days useful, particularly in light of the fact that my navigation skills aren’t great. I also invested in the other two Ordnance Survey maps that cover the WSLT.

I kept my plans quiet, confiding in a couple of running friends, until three days before the date of the run. I wanted to challenge myself and push my limits by having to find my way back, keep moving and carry all I needed with me. I estimated that I would be able to complete the run in 15 hours or less, having made allowances for additional time needed map reading and stopping along the way for water top ups and some food. Matt Bevan, who lives in Horsham, had agreed to run the first few miles with me and I was looking forward to catching up and some company as I embarked on this adventure. I then posted about my run on Facebook – I find that making my plans public makes me more likely to achieve my goal as I feel publicly accountable. I was astounded when less  than five minutes later Chris Brisley asked if I wanted company for the whole run. I quickly accepted, knowing that Chris would be great company and reassured by the fact that he had hiked from London to Land’s End in 2015 and had better navigational skills than me! This turned out to be a very good decision as there was lots of map and compass reading using a combination of Chris’ electronic hand held GPS map device and my three paper maps along the way.

Getting started – Horsham to the Downs Link

I met up with Matt and Chris at Horsham train station and we decided to join the trail a mile or so to the West rather than head down into the town centre and the official start (the Shelley Fountain which marks this is no longer there) and then back up in the direction of the station, so after a quick look at my paper OS map Matt led us off towards where the trail joins the golf course. We walked to warm up, chatting about running, fitness, nutrition, personal training, exploring new trails in your local area, and more. Once we reached the golf course we started to run and son found ourselves going through Bailing Hill Deer Farm, with over a dozen deer gathered in the corner of one of the enclosures to our right and in the one we went through. What a lovely start to the day.

After leaving the deer park we headed across open fields and into the first of many woodland trails with bluebells galore. It truly was amazing how many bluebells we saw over the next few hours and I soon realised that I could not have picked a better time of year or day for this running adventure. The weather was perfect for running as it was dry, the sun was out and it was about 10 degrees Celsius.

During this section of the trail we ran through woods, savouring the aroma of the wild garlic which was flourishing there, and across fields and along country roads. It was delightful. We also made the first of several wrong turns as we departed from the trail and then found our way back through a combination of paper map reading, satellite maps and using a compass. Chris kindly spent the next couple of hours helping me to learn and practice using a compass with a map, a skill I had been well and truly lacking up to this point. Upon reaching the Downs Link we promptly headed in the wrong direction towards the North Downs Way for a mile or so before realising our error and heading back towards Itchingfield. Still, it gave us more time to chat with Matt before he left us to head home, having discovered a new trail to run on in his local area as, like most people I’ve mentioned it to and the few walkers and runners we asked when we were off track on the Downs Link, he had never heard of the WSTL before. Strava segment victories await you Matt!

Tiredness level: 3/10 – “This is awesome!”

Matt leaves us – The Downs Link to Nutborne Common 

Checking the time and distance covered so far it became clear to me that my 15 hours goal may have been  a a little optimistic. Stopping to navigate and the fact that not all of the WSLT was clearly marked with the trail discs on posts along the way coupled with the fact that the hilliest part of the route was in the final third and we expected our pace to slow then as darkness set in.  Thankfully Chris no longer had to catch a train back to London from Chichester as he had booked a hotel so there was no time pressure. This wasn’t a race so there were no cut offs to stop us finishing it and we were on an adventure, so I stopped worrying about what time we might reach the end and focused on enjoying the experience.

The next couple of miles involved regular map reading stops, giving Chris ample chance to test my newly acquired compass and map reading skills. We were glad of the opportunity to break into a run for a sustained period as we ran past yet more bluebells, the imposing Muntham House School and into Barns Green, passing fields with llamas, ponies and sheep along the way as well as a country house alongside the trail with both the US and British flags flying outside, a Pontiac  Firebird in the drive, strange face sculptures (red and white  a plastic heads, kind of Easter Island-lite) in the back garden and huge carved chairs in the house visible through floor to ceiling windows. Further down the trail we saw a large number of bullocks who took an interest in us, thankfully from behind a gate in the field they were in on the other side of the trail to us. Chris gave me a lesson in cow and bullock behaviour and encouraged them to come over and say hello. I’m still keen to avoid them all and Chris agreed that if we had to go through their field it would have been wise to find an alternative route!

Then we got to woods where the mud was dried up but the trail was so rutted we were reduced to a walk for fear of turning an ankle before reaching the utterly glorious setting of the Nyetimber vineyard in Nutbourne. Running through here in glorious sunshine as the temperature rose was one of the highlights for me. Running low on water and having just enough to last until we topped up in the first country pub of the day was less fun.

Tiredness level: 4/10 – “Why don’t more people do this?”

Hotting up now – Nutborne Common to Amberley

It was really getting warm now and I found myself wondering how I’ll cope with the heat at NDW100 in August. “Do I really want to put myself through that? Can I run 100 miles when it’s hotter than this if I’m feeling it today?” Then I remembered that I won’t need to carry as much weight in a race with aid stations and drop bags and felt better. Maybe I can get that buckle to add to my South Downs Way 100 and Autumn 100 finishes?

The next part of the route saw us head past another golf club and through Parham airfield. There was a fair bit of running along  country roads in this section and neither of us particularly enjoyed that. “Bring on the twisty, turny woodland trails please!” Another pub stop to top up water was followed by a long run/walk through Parham Park (about 1.5 miles along a road through the park) and the impressive Parham House. Here we caught our first sight of the majestic hills of the South Downs Way and stopped briefly to admire the view and wonder just how much the house was worth. Although there was no sign of deer we saw a lone fox cub bounding through the grass before heading back to its home. Cute. Leaving Parham Park we headed towards Amberley and looked on in awe at the long expanse of hill to our left (Amberley Mount, part of the South Downs Way) and rolling countryside (Amberley Wild Brooks) and the River Arun to our right. Simply stunning views here. 

After topping up our water in the local pub – and having another discussion about where we were going to and had come from, swiftly followed by disbelief that we were running as they thought we were cycling it – we headed down the hill to the village store and took the opportunity to take off our packs, get some real food on board (a cheese and tomato sandwich accompanied by a cold can of Coke in my case) and take a much needed break. It was good to eat something normal after eating snacks all day. There are only so many nut variations you can take for hour after hour. Oh how I missed the aid station buffets during this run! By this stage we had covered almost half of the total distance and I was feeling it. The longest run I had done since the Autumn 100 in October was 23 miles a couple of months ago so my legs were feeling it. I was remembering how it feels to run an ultra marathon…..

Tiredness level: 6/10 – “How far do we have left to run now?”

Cows and hills – Amberley to Duncton

After our food stop we decided to walk for a while to minimise the stress on our digestive system and headed off down the hill towards Amberley train station and the Houghton Bridge, stopping briefly to chat with another runner heading up the hill who had just run from Littlehampton along the River Arun as he recced the route of the Arun River Marathon. Strangely enough, this is my next race and I’m really looking forward to it as my first experience of a Sussex Trail Events race as a runner, having volunteered at the Downs Link Ultra in October 2016. Upon reaching Houghton Bridge we started to run again, heading along the river bank and around the cows who had decided to chill out and chew the cud by the river. Our legs were really feeling it now but we decided we might as well run (albeit slowly) and chip away at the miles to come. Reaching a barrier across the trail it dawned upon us that we were, err, on the wrong side of the river and had deviated (again) from the WSLT. Whoops. We had no option but to retrace our steps to the bridge, about 1/2 mile away, back past the cows who had by now decided to block the stile. Thankfully Chris is calmer around the bovine bullies and led the way as we edged our way through the motley crew and through a gate to the bridge. Phew!

Tiredness level: 8/10 – “Why am I doing this? I could have taken the train from Amberley. Too late now! I don’t know if I can run ultras anymore. Maybe I’ll stick to a sensible distance like half marathons.”  

Back on the correct side of the River Arun we headed North along the riverbank before heading West towards Bury then Bignor and Sutton, where I had a much needed ice cold Coke at the White Horse pub. We rested here for 15 minutes or so and put on another layer of clothing as the temperature had started to drop.

Tiredness level: 6/10 – “I feel much better now. That Coke did the trick. Perhaps I can run this bit? “

Leaving the pub we headed North along a narrow trail with nettles either side. Not being a wearer of calf sleeves sometimes has its disadvantages and there was much muttering under my breath along the lines of “Ooh, these pesky nettles!!”). Before long we passed Duncton Mill, then turning off the road and up a steeppath which snaked around and to the top of Duncton Hanger, walking alongside and at times almost underneath some huge trees which were holding on to the edge by just a few roots. Finally able to go downhill we broke into a run and soon emerged alongside a huge field of rape seed at Duncton Down. We ran past this and headed downhill.

[Photo credit: @chrisbrisley]

Tiredness level: 8/10 – “Everywhere looks a lot closer on the map than it is in reality. That last section seemed to take forever. Thank goodness for a bit of downhill running. Hmmm. We’re on our way to join the South Downs Way so the uphill climbs will only get longer. Oh joy.” 

Are we at the South Downs Way yet? – Duncton to Singleton

When we reached the bottom of the hill we realised that we had missed a turn coming out of Duncton Hanger and would need to go back up the hill to rejoin the WSLT and follow this through Duncton Quarry and the chalk pits. Checking the map we decided that rather than head back uphill we would run West along the A285 and join the SDW at Littleton Farm, heading up Littleton Down to rejoin the WSLT where it officially meets up with the SDW at Stinkingspit Bottom (you couldn’t make it up). Once we turned off the road we began the long climb up to Graffham Down and once again marvelled/moaned at the rolling hills of the South Downs Way, Chris really suffering with his stomach by now but absolutely storming it marching up the hill. Upon reaching Graffham Down we stopped to put on our headtorches as the last of the daylight faded and then broke into a slow run along the Downs by headtorches, watching out footing on the rocky, chalky path as we went. Less than a mile later we turned South and ran along the trail between Eastdean Wood and Forest Hanger. Both Chris and I loved this section, following the light through the woods and dodging tree roots and running along twisting woodland trails after the hard chalk of the South Downs Way. 

On the way to Chalton we somehow lost the trail when it seemed to disappear while we were running on it and ended up clambering through a barbed wire fence and walking across a field of tall grass with lots of uneven ground before stumbling  a across the WSLT again. Running across this field towards the lights in the distance I noticed a pair of eyes in the darkness ahead and called out “Look Chris. There ate deer in the field. Wow.” A few seconds later there was an almighty rumble and I caught sight of a single cow at the back of the pack as they stampeded in front of us and stopped ahead and to the right. After a very quick discussion we agreed to keep running and get the heck out of that field before they decided to take a closer look…..

We soon left the field and along another gravel path towards Chalton, where we left the WSLT to go to the last pub and water stop at the Fox Goes Free. This ended up being a fairly long stop as Chris tried to stop shivering and settle his stomach. I don’t mind admitting that at one point while we were here, after checking the comments in response to my Facebook updates throughout the day and thinking about how far we had come and how close we were to finishing, I got a bit emotional and reminded myself to get this thing done.

Tiredness level: 8/10 – “Are we there yet? How much more of this hard chalk do we have to run on?”

Almost there – Singleton to Chichester

The biggest hills had been saved for this part of the route, which was nice. Chris was trying to warm up as we left Chalton at a run and we soon passed through Singleton and past the church and Manor Farm. By this point we were walking with  a purpose and our running had come to an end. Chris was holding on and determined to finish despite continuing to suffer with his stomach and unable to eat. I was glad that it was dark as I knew how long and steep the climb is up to Goodwood race course and then to the top of St Roche’s Hill and The Trundle, an Iron Age hill fort with panoramic views of Chichester and the surrounding area (not that we could see anything except the street lights and lit up buildings as it was midnight by now), so the darkness meant that we could focus on one step at a time without seeing the climbs before us. 

After descendng the hill from The Trundle we should have taken a looping route heading West then South towards Lavant to stay on the WSLT route but as it was much later than planned and we were both knackered I spotted another note direct route South we could take and we agreed to do so. As we headed down Chalkpit Lane we soon wondered if we had made the right decision as the ground was rock hard, uneven and we had to switch from one side to another to avoid the gulleys and the risk of turning an ankle on tired legs. The shortcut also seemed to go on and on and on but eventually we were on our way through Lavant, took another wrong turn and managed to get back on track by crossing a ford, which was bone dry thankfully, on the way to the outskirts of Chichester and another long walk through Summersdale before reaching Chichester city centre and the Ship Hotel where Chris and his girlfriend Oksana were staying. A handshake from Chris and hug from Oksana later I walked a further 3 minutes on to Chichester Cathedral and the official end of the trail. It was just after 1am. We had done it. 51 miles by GPS watch, 53 miles by Chris’ GPS satellite map device. Far enough either way. A good training run and substantial time on feet as I head towards NDW100.

Chris was soon warming up in a hot bath in his hotel and reflecting upon our adventure while I had the opportunity to cool down by walking the mile back to my car before driving home, showering and collapsing into bed. I was really hungry but exhaustion won the battle there, at least until I had a bout of restless legs syndrome familiar to ultra runners as they try to sleep after races.

Tiredness level: 9/10 – “Ouch. I hope my legs work in the morning.”

Sense of satisfaction: 10/10 – “Yes! Yes! Yes! I bloody well did it!”

Running kit used

Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 12 set (2014) pack – I managed to get lots into this:

  • 2 x 500ml soft flasks + 1 x 500 ml handheld Ultimate Direction bottle
  • Spare buff + t-shirt + arm sleeves + long sleeved base layer + Inov8 waterproof jacket
  • OS maps x 3
  • Compass + first aid kit + Lanacane anti-chafing gel + wipes + toilet paper (thankfully not required)
  • Mobile phone in waterproof case
  • Wallet and keys
  • Nutrition in the form of snack size chocolate peanut bars, peanut bars, nut and seed pockets, raisins, and peanut M&Ms

Positives from the run:

  • no stomach issues 
  • learned how to use a compass with a map
  • proved to myself I can do a self supported run
  • lots of time on feet in preparation for the North Downs Way 100

     Room for improvement:

    • navigation
    • more hill work needed to get ready for the North Downs Way 100

      Final thoughts:

      Thanks to Matt and Chris for joining me on this journey and making it such an epic adventure. 

      I have the confidence to embark upon some more self supported runs now and already have some ideas and will be looking to share the experience with others once again.

      Trail running is awesome. I absolutely love this sport and community.

      England is beautiful. There is so much amazing, picturesque, varied countryside to explore and I am so glad I decided to take on this challenge. 

      There’s a market for an all night kebab can on the route from Chichester Cathedral to Bishop Luffa school for runners who have just completed the West Sussex Literary Trail. A missed opportunity I tell you as I’d have eaten it all – and I don’t even like kebabs!!

      North Downs Way 100 is on 😀

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