Monday 10 April 2017

Race report: Centurion Running South Downs Way 50

The first 50 mile race of the season seems to have come around very quickly. The South Downs Way 50 is the first of the eight races Centurion Running are staging in 2017. They organise four 50 mile races (South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Chiltern Wonderland, and Wendover Woods), and four 100 mile races (Thames Path, North Downs Way, South Downs Way, and the Autumn 100). 

I've signed up for the Grand Slam of 50 mile races which is achieved if you complete all four 50 mile events, therefore the primary objective of the day was to get to the end within the thirteen hour cut-off. The second objective was to still be running at the end - historically my legs have broken down a bit in the last ten miles or so of ultra distance events and I've had to march my way to the finish. Third objective, set a new 50 mile personal best time and tick off another distance in my year of PB attempts. The target was the 11:38:31 time I'd set last year in the Chiltern Wonderland 50.

The route is point to point, and runs from Worthing to Eastbourne

Thanks to Southern Rail and another of their apparently never ending series of strikes, the trains on race day were set to be even more unreliable than usual. I opted to minimise the risk and splash out on hotels for the nights before and after the race.

Registrations were available the night before - this is a good move as it can get a bit busy and stressful on race morning with upwards of 300 people trying to register at once. I strolled up to Worthing College, Race HQ, and registered on Friday evening. It was nice and relaxed, I'm a big fan of pre-event registration.

Race HQ in Worthing College, the start was in a field over the road

Race start was 9am, plenty of time for a light hotel breakfast of bacon, egg, tomato, and a couple of cups of coffee. For anything up to a marathon I wouldn't eat before hand, but when I'm going to be out all day I prefer to have something to start the day. There were a couple of other runners down in the breakfast area, one offered us all a lift up to the start which was very kind and saved me a 40 minute stroll.

Assembling behind the starting inflatable before race briefing

After the customary short briefing from James, and a show of hands of who was taking on the 50 mile grand slam (and a couple of nutters who are attempting all eight races!) it was time to set off. I'm always impressed at the number of runners who choose a Centurion race for their first ultra - their reputation for well run, inclusive, and friendly events is well deserved.

Pre-race selfie

We set off bang on time. Spirits were high, everyone was smiling, the sun was shining already - it looked like a perfect day for a run in the countryside.

Given that the primary objective of the day was simply to get to the end, there was no need for early heroics. I trotted off at my own pace and soon fell in with a group of a dozen or so who were leapfrogging each other as we covered the early miles.

James Elson giving the race briefing

In order to get a new PB I needed to average around 8:30/km. I had configured a display on my watch to show me the time the last kilometre took, and the average time per kilometre. Sometimes, just knowing how far you've been running or how far you've gone can be quite a negative influence. It means you're continually trying to do mental arithmetic to see if you're on pace or not. I wanted to remove some of that stress.

The first half of the race passed by very comfortably. I'd set off a bit too fast (don't we always?), but not to the extent that I'd regret it later. As always the aid stations were staffed by friendly and supportive volunteers, and the choice of food and drink was excellent.

The weather was absolutely perfect. Bright and clear, warm but not too hot, and with a slight breeze to help sweat evaporate rather than get you all wet and drippy. Maybe, it was a little too perfect - as we ran through midday and into early afternoon my arms and legs started tingling a little from the sun. The problem with a point to point race is that the sun is always on the same side - and the problem with the South Downs is that there's very little shade. We were being lightly cooked in a surprisingly strong early April sun.

One of the early runnable inclines

I passed through 40km, around half way, in just a couple of seconds short of five hours. I expected a positive split (meaning the first half of the race is run faster than the second half) so I knew I'd take longer than ten hours overall, but it was looking good for a reasonable time - and I was in no danger of failing to meet the cut-off.

After the half way point I was on familiar ground - I'd run this half in training a fortnight ago, and it shares shares a 10 mile stretch with the Moyleman marathon which was also just a few weeks ago. Sure, there was still 25 miles to go, but I could visualise most of it and I knew there would be no nasty surprises.

Passing through the aid station at Southsea Youth Hostel, 50km in, I was happy to see Louise who topped up my water and chatted for a moment or two. I'm not a big fan of talking to people whilst racing, I prefer my own company, but it's nice to see a familiar face at the aid stations to exchange a few words with. Thanks Louise!

The yellow brick road

The second half of the route is very exposed, you climb from the aid station to the top of the South Downs, and follow the ridge for a good few miles. There's nowhere to hide from the sun, and the combination of growing sunburn and relentless chilling breeze was becoming a bit uncomfortable - however I was still running on the flats and downhills so progress was good.

As the afternoon drew on and the sun started to sink a little lower in the sky the temperature dropped a few degrees. The aid stations are closer together in the final third of the race and started to feel like they were coming round more frequently. It was nice to meet fellow parkrun tourist Kiernan Easton at the last aid station, we've been Facebook friends for a while but hadn't managed to meet face to face before.

It's not a run on the South Downs without a picture of the Whitehawk Hill transmission station

The final section was quite hard going, there's a steep climb up from Jevington and a few people were finding it very hard going and had dropped to a slow walk. I tried to keep my pace up and climb with determination - but it was challenging for sure.

I'd been leapfrogging one particular runner all afternoon, and as he came past me with about 5km to go, As he passed he said "there's an outside chance we might just finish under eleven hours!". I had done well not thinking about aiming for a time, but with just 5km to go I was clearly going to get to the end, so I let myself take a look at the elapsed time. I'd been going for about 10:35, and I knew there were just a few kilometres left. He was right, maybe I could break 11 hours - that would be amazing!

A typical view - nowhere to hide from the sun

The final steep downhill into Eastbourne is tricky - it's narrow, a bit slippery, and there are lots of roots. I was taking it very easy - tired legs are easy to trip on if you're not careful. Once I'd got to the bottom I resolved to run, as best I could, to the end and try and get in under 11 hours.

I summoned everything I had left in the tank, this was a race now! I was thankful for my recent training run on this part of the circuit - knowing where you're going and exactly how far there is left is so helpful in these situations. I ran non stop for the last few kilometres, overtaking a couple of walkers along the way. It looked like I might just do it. There's a cycle track running from a main road to the athletics ground which is the finish - I'm sure it's twice as long as it was a fortnight ago!

The last couple of miles on the flat and a lap of the athletics track

Clearly some other runners had the same idea as me - I lost a couple of places along this stretch, but I couldn't go any faster! I rounded the final corner with about three and a half minutes to spare by my reckoning - but there was a lap of the running track to run yet! Mrs was here to greet me - she'd been on a business trip in the US and had come straight from the airport. She ran with me round that final lap of the track - I pushed with every ounce I had left and crossed the line tired, relieved, and very happy.

Official finishing pic from Stuart March Photography

My official time was 10:58:12 - I'd dipped under 11 hours by almost two minutes, and had knocked an entirely satisfactory 40 minutes and 19 seconds off my previous best - with a new 10k PB last week that makes two PBs in six days! What was particularly pleasing was that my legs had held up enough so I was still able to run properly at the end - this is a huge confidence boost as it's been a real problem in the past.

I was 275th out of 364 finishers, which I'm very happy with - 76% down the field as compared to 83% (132nd out of 159 finishers) at Chiltern Wonderland and 70% (100th out of 142 finishers) at Wendover Woods.

Ridiculously enormous medals this year and a t-shirt featuring new coloured arms

What a wonderful day - amazing organisation, a great result, and a fantastic start to the grand slam. Just five weeks to North Downs Way 50 - bring it on!

1 comment:

  1. Finished in one piece looking forward to the next with a PB to boot. An excellent start to your season :-)