The Road to the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc: Petzl SDW 100 Mile Run
I don’t think of myself as an especially emotional person. I love a show tune, and Barry Manilow gets me every time. You’ll find me screaming at the TV when Manchester City are playing. But generally I’m on an even keel. So why then when I crossed the line at the end of the 100-mile South Downs Way ultra-marathon last weekend did I burst into tears and sob uncontrollably for a full 10 minutes?
Well, this was the first time in my brief ultra-marathon-running career that I had ever attempted a continuous 100-mile race. I’d done 150 miles in the Marathon des Sables, but that was spread over six days and I camped overnight. I’d done 100 miles over three days, again with camping. And I’d done a straight 64 miles.
To step up to 100 miles – a vital stage in my preparations for the UTMB in August – was a huge moment for me. There were times on the run when I wondered if I would get inside the cut-off of 30 hours. The toll on my body was extreme. I’d had to run through the night. The whole experience was scary, exhilarating and overwhelming. So when I crossed the line, three hours inside the cut-off, still just about alive, barely able to believe what I had done, a lot of emotion came pouring out.
The drama unfolded on the South Downs Way (SDW), which runs for 100 miles from Eastbourne to Winchester. The route is characterised by rolling chalk downs, dry valleys, steep scarp slopes and extensive views – all of which I’m sure are pretty stunning if taken at a leisurely pace over a few days. But last Saturday at 6am, 190 of us set off on the annual Petzl SDW 100 to cover this distance – taking in 4,000 meters of elevation non-stop. The event was faultlessly organised by Centurion Running Events.
The race is designed for runners by runners and I think that is in part what makes it so special. James Elson, one of the organisers, has run hundreds of races himself, winning numerous ultras (anything over a standard marathon distance); the passion and love he has for the sport is obvious. There were 15 fully-stocked aid stations along the route, manned by friendly and hugely enthusiastic volunteers, ensuring runners of varying ability and ages (from 22 to 66) have the best chance of reaching Eastbourne.
Having spent the previous week making kit and nutrition choices, which can make or break a race of this distance, and worrying about all the what ifs, I was keen to get going. The SDW100 started with two laps of a field before heading out onto the SDW proper. This school sports day-type start ensured the distance was exact and gave us the opportunity to space out a bit as the hard, chalky trail is quite narrow here. The only piece of advice I had in my head as the gun went off was something a friend had told me – if at any point during the race you start to feel good, don’t panic, it will pass. For the 20 per cent of the race spent feeling good or at least okay, it proved to be insightful.
With that 30-hour cut-off time and a target time for me of 28, I knew that I had to maintain a steady pace if I was to reach the south coast on Sunday morning. I knew there’d be no sleep till Eastbourne. I felt pretty spent at the end of my 64 mile run – along the Norfolk coastline last October, so the thought of another 36 miles on top hung over me. I was actually excited about going into the unknown and knew that a lot of that was in the mind and not the legs.
The scenery and atmosphere were great and it needed to be to keep you going. The relatively small number of runners over that sort of distance soon get spread out and often you’re running on your own, hoping you don’t get lost and trying to stick to the route markers. For me, I had to break down the run from aid station to aid station and had a time schedule worked out as to when I should reach the next checkpoint. The aid stations, brilliantly manned and with a choice of water, Coke, tea, biscuits, sausage rolls, sandwiches etc, can be a black hole for time and there’s a need, not a desire, to press on if you’re to keep on schedule.
Washington was the 54-mile aid station/checkpoint. I had two friends meeting me there and that gave me a massive boost. I took a bit of a mental and physical breather here, changing kit, tending to blisters and eating some more substantial food than the energy gels I was becoming sick of. Getting the nutrition right is a key part of ultras, and the temptation is to stop eating because your stomach shuts down. That’s dangerous because it’s like expecting a car to run on an empty fuel tank.
It was getting on for 7pm when I left Washington and I had been on the go for 13 hours. The sun would soon be setting. It was an incredibly windy day and at night, along exposed sections of the Downs, I knew it would be cold. I dressed for warmth. Running is sweaty business and it’s essential you have the right technical gear to wick away the sweat and maintain your core body temperature. So on the layers went.
The night stage merged into one really, broken up by a surreal moment running through a field of about 40 cows, all sitting down either side of the path in the dead of night. Some awake chewing the cud, eyes reflected rather eerily in my head torch, others fast asleep. I hoped they wouldn’t suddenly wake up and round on me. I knew I had to keep MOOving. By this stage I was rather delirious and tired and battling to concentrate.
By time I went over Ditchling Beacon, a familiar cycling landmark for me, I knew that I was nearing the south coast and a little later I started to hear the dawn chorus of birds, signalling that it would soon be getting light. What a morale booster!
The last 20 miles or so passed surprisingly well. My focus was just on breaking down the hours until I could cross the finish line and make it all stop. Just after 9am – 27 hours and four minutes after I started – I ran onto the athletic track where the race finished and crossed the line to the cheers of some volunteers and runners who had already finished. I have never felt so emotional at the end of a race, perhaps because it was the hardest and longest race I’ve ever done.
I am very much at the ‘fun runner’ end of the scale. The winning time by elite runner Robbie Britton was 15 hours, 43 minutes and Aussie Jean Beaumont won the woman’s race in an equally outstanding time of 16 hours and 56 minutes. I bet they didn’t get their money’s worth at the aid station buffets though. A total of 141 finishers crossed the line, all shattered and elated.
Almost a week on, you only remember the good bits and the runner’s mind manages to erase all the lows, the pain and the whys. And I look forward to the same distance and two-and-a-half times the elevation in August’s North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. Although it’s very tempting to think “never again”.
Twitter: @NorsemouseTagged in: 100 mile run, Centurion Running, James Elson, SDW, SDW100, South Downs Way, ultra trail du mont blanc, UTMB
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