South Downs Way 100 (2018)
Photos by Stuart March Photography

The SDW100 is a one hundred mile race organised by Centurion, which traverses the entire South Downs Way in an eastwards direction from Winchester to Eastbourne. Its rather stunning course takes in woodland paths, rivers, open trail, pasture fields (yep, you get up close and personal with the cows), pretty villages, farms…and around 12,000 feet in an upwards direction (admittedly not Peak District territory, but living and training in Norfolk the elevation was always going to give me some things to think about). There are frequently incredible views, inland and towards the coast, and the time of year (June) brings its own particular floral beauty with poppies, foxgloves, elderflower and other colourful early summer delights much in evidence. And also, of course, some good old summer heat. Whilst the day didn’t ever reach the heights it threatened early on, there were points in the afternoon, particularly in the valleys, where the air weighed pretty heavily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was my first hundred and it was a truly extraordinary experience. I finished in 23:01, which I was delighted with. I won’t recount it blow for blow, but the following are some of the things that have stayed with me a few days later:

 

  1. Everyone says it, but it’s true: the volunteers and organisation of the race are simply fantastic - from the kit check at registration to having my finish line photo taken, everyone and everything was absolutely faultless. At Housedean (mile 76), thanks to some miraculous communication channel, my drop bag was handed to me almost before I’d stopped running. Saddlecomb (mile 66) was so welcoming that I probably stayed a little longer than I should have…

  2. The South Downs are stunning. I knew this already, having lived in this part of the world previously and having run a standard marathon on a section of the trail a couple of years back. However…however…some of the views were unbelievably beautiful and you can’t be reminded  too many times about such things. A true joy to run through.

  3. Centurion courses are really well marked. Really well marked. I had a Harvey’s map in my backpack and the OS one on my phone and didn’t look at either for the duration. Admittedly I did go slightly off course at one point, but that was mainly to do with me adjusting (or not) to the dark, and I was able to right myself fairly quickly once I realised. Otherwise, I found no issues with following the route.

  4. Tailwind is amazing…until it isn’t. It got me through the first half of the race but then my stomach turned and I couldn’t face another drop, so switched to the surprisingly effective coke for the remainder (surprising since I don’t really like it and never drink it in day to day life). I guess the lesson is that whatever you’re eating and drinking, you’re going to get pretty fed up with it over the course of lots of long, hard miles. It’s important to have access to a variety of flavours and textures.

  5. I was looking forward to passing Chanctonbury Ring, said by the writer Robert MacFarlane to be one of the most haunted places of the Downs, local folklore being ‘rife with examples of it as a portal to the otherworld.’ How exciting - or terrifying, depending on my state of mind at mile 57. Half expecting some kind of supernatural experience or strange atmospheric phenomena, what did I find when I got there? A family casually having a picnic. Hardcore. 

  6. If you want to keep your GPS watch going through some seriously long hours you will most likely need some kind of portable battery pack. If so, it’s extremely important to ensure that this is both bulky and really, really heavy. What an idiot.I’m not sure what I was thinking of when I bought it - certainly not anything to do with running any distance carrying it, let alone doing so over 100 miles. Still, it kept me drinking water frequently since that was the only realistic way of shifting some of the weight on my back. Must do better next time.

  7. Cows are big, chunky, muscular creatures, especially up close. They could do some serious damage and one was definitely getting a bit too interested in me as I tried to discretely pass through her territory. (You pass through fields of cows several times along the way.)

  8. Who’d have thought that a simple bowl of cheese and tomato pasta could bring such heightened gourmet pleasure? After a low patch in the 40s I arrived at Washington (mile 54) in need of something different and revitalising. This was it and could well have been a race-saving intervention. I asked for (and got) seconds. Not sure I’ve tasted something so good in years. Yes I took my time here - something I had been keen to avoid when planning the race - but it was really worth it. The next 15 miles or so were some of the best of my race and ultimately got me to a place where I knew I would finish, barring breaking a leg or something.

  9. With these longer runs, your day will go up, come down, go up again, and so on. Just because you hit a bad patch does not mean a terminal decline to a long drawn out finish or even a DNF. At mile 22, flying down the long hill to Queen Elizabeth Country Park, I actually said out loud (to myself) that I wanted this to last forever. Oh dear. At mile 49 I was sinking and desperate for someone to magically convert the race to a 50 miler. At mile 65 I was running along the ridge, making new friends and hitting the sort of pace I had at the start of the race - basically in love with the world and my body for enabling me to do such things. At mile 96 my legs had pretty much handed their resignations in, my mind had gone, and I had to subject my hiking poles to levels of abuse they weren’t really designed for. But I got through and at the finish…well, there are no real words, so here’s a picture:

11) According to my watch I did around 185,000 steps and burned 15,000 calories. But where was the hunger on Sunday? I was hoping to eat four breakfasts at the B&B, but in the event barely managed a sausage and a bit of toast. Things picked up a bit over the rest of the day, but it was hardly the medieval-banquet-proportions that I’d been anticipating. I needn’t have worried: the appetite has returned with a vengeance over the last 24 hours…

12) I have now completed races at what I would imagine are the four most popular ultra distances - 50k, 50 miles, 100k & 100 miles. There is definitely a correlation between length and transformative potential, and running the hundred miles was simply a superlative experience. However, on balance could my favourite distance actually be the 50 mile? Right now, I think so. (But when I’m fully recovered?)

13) The human body is incredible and we can all do much more than we usually think. That said, in order to complete something like this you have to move beyond ‘usual’ thinking. If you can get your mind to truly commit to finishing then, barring injury, your body will find a way. That’s not to say it will be easy - far from it - but there are huge lessons learned about resilience, commitment, overcoming mental lows over the course of this kind of thing that can be used in all other areas of life. It was not really so long ago that I completed my first half marathon and can remember being incredulous at the idea of doubling that distance when someone suggested I take on a full one. Well, whatever next? 200 miles? Seriously?? Actually, for now I think I’ll take a bit of time out from events and relentless training schedules and - after a little rest - just have some fun with my running over the summer. Might even do my first park run!

All images and text © Pascal Fallas, 2016-20