Ever since I picked up Born to Run, and then other ultra running books since then, I have been absolutely fascinated with the idea that people could run distances of 100 miles or more. So much so that when I first read about it, I always knew in the back of my mind that I would one day try one myself. Last weekend saw me attempt my first 100 miler with my good friend Jason who I ran with at last years London to Brighton. Taking on 100 miles wasn’t going to be easy and at the same time I really didn’t have much of a clue about how to train or tackle the distance. I’ve read books, blogs and websites … and had endless conversations with runners trying to gain as much insight into the distance as possible. I’ve listened to Talk Ultra for a while now and been inspired by stories of elite and non elite runners who attempt and complete these runs. All of these ingredients got me into the shape I needed to be in to take on the South Downs Way 100 (SDW100).
This will be my longest post race write up so feel free to read it in chunks, or just skip past to the sections you want to read about. Feel free to contact me via email if you have any questions about training for your first 100 miler as I’d be happy to share in more detail about my experiences and what I’ve learned. Always happy to share information. So, I’ll start at the training bit and what I did to prepare for the SDW100….
Training for the 100 miler
For quite a few years now I’ve been running pretty much every day, like a loon, with the odd miserable day off for whatever reason. It meant going into this 100 miler that I was already picking up off of a high weekly mileage total. What I knew I had to do differently to simply running loads was to up the distance more on my weekend long runs, and also include a mid week double day or longer run, and also include some longer back to back runs where I’d do one day after the other with a long run. Fortunately a lot of this I already do each week so it was a case of just tweaking a few things here and there. Basically, I’m already a pretty serious running junkie.
I began my real training for this almost immediately after entering. It sat at the back of my mind every day and so my focus was pretty much there all the time. I had plenty of time to train and the running all really just gradually became focused towards the race. I slowed down a bit and became less focused on my 5k – 10k times. Letting go of the speed I had built up over the years was hard. Letting go of racing parkruns was even harder but I knew I had to do that in order to avoid getting another stress fracture. For me, it is always the speed running and long running that brings on injury. I made it important in my mind to not fall into that trap again. I still maintained some pace and did the occasional tempo runs but really did control the pace better. I tended to always do my long runs quicker than I ever intended to race, even when going over hilly terrain but I reckon that just prepares you better. Not racing, but a bit quicker than plodding. That still keeps a slight risk of injury but I knew what kind of pace to run at without caning it. It keeps a good confidence level in the head as well which is important for me.
I had a family holiday in Australia booked in March/April which was very close to when I should have been training to my peak. Fortunately most of my bag was packed with running gear and I used the cooler part of the early mornings in Freemantle, Australia to train. I found a few hills there and worked on those as much as I could. I kept up the 10k – 35km runs as best I could but definitely eased off the pace. I managed to enter The Bibra Lake Half Marathon while over there which I turned into my biggest run of about 21 miles. I ran to the event, then did the event itself and then ran home. Managed 20th place too on what was a hot morning so that was good. It was all about running where I could on holiday and another thing I took advantage of was night running as I found a group in Australia that did evening trail runs (just short ones). It was a great way to get used to running some technical stuff in the dark, while at the same time crapping myself about snakes and spiders – much to aussie amusement. Unfortunately I never got to join the group for their weekly ‘Pint and Parmy’
After getting back home I had about 6 – 8 weeks of training left, and was capable of marathon distance to 50k. Here’s a funny one though – after landing back at Gatwick on Friday night I made my way to the London marathon on the Sunday morning feeling all confident I’d smash it easily. Boy was a wrong. The jet lag, lack of sleep and travel took its toll and I ended up with my worst ever official marathon time. I was cramping by mile 18 in both legs and arms. Whose body was this?! Completely freaked out by the experience I went home on a train with my tail between my legs. Still, I got to experience the London Marathon and realized that it’s not really the run for me. Give me trails any day! After that I picked up the distance more and more, and did plenty of non stop hill challenge runs, aiming to run up and down a hill for up to 2500ft at a time. One of those a week, plus some longer hill runs got me to where I needed to be.
I also did an epic run with Jason and another good friend of mine where we did the final 52 miles of the course, from Amberley to Eastbourne. So important for races of this length. I cannot stress it enough that running the route if you can is really great for confidence. As it so happened the race was so well marked anyhow that it didn’t make much difference, but it certainly helped. I trained with my new fuel which is in the next section – Tailwind. Important to test all the equipment and fuel out before hand. In fact, test it out a few times and ensure you are comfortable and have easy access to everything you need on the run.
Nutrition Plan – Tailwind
Fueling your body in these events is a make or break thing. Get it right and you’ll suffer less – or even have a completely enjoyable run. Get it wrong and you can end up having a really bad experience. Like many runners, I know this from personal experience when I ran my first 100k in 2016. I went into it with no real concrete plan being my first extremely long run and I suffered horrendously with the worst nausea I have ever felt. Fuel is only one element of an ultra race but such an important one.
I knew from my own research that fuel is so very complicated and so very different day to day. I never felt comfortable simply taking sarnies, salt caps, and various electrolyte drinks because there is never really any exact enough guidance (or not that I easily found) about just how much to take in. The information out there is endless and so different. Then I came across Tailwind Nutrition. A drink made over in the US which provides you with EXACTLY what your body wants, in a form that it easy to measure and take in and even digest. It was developed over a few years and you can read about it here if you want more information. I emailed Tailwind with my nutrition concerns for my first 100 miler and was surprised when they emailed me back really quickly with a full detailed explanation putting my fears to rest. It was simple though – drink Tailwind from the word go and stick to it. One bottle an hour (Salomon 500ml soft flasks). That is it. Seriously. I had to test this of course and I did for a couple of long runs. One of those was nearly 37 miles over the South Downs and I can honestly say I felt the best I ever had done over that distance. Not hungry a bit. Drinking the bottle an hour also ensured I got the right amount of liquid.
I am so over the moon with the product, as are a lot of other runners I hear talking about it. I know now that sticking to that plan will definitely help get me to the finish lines of races in the future. Try this stuff first if you plan to give it a go, and you will be pleasantly surprised. It comes in large bottles that you can scoop out from, and also in sachets which work out to 1 sachet per bottle. This is the easiest method. I packed 24 of these sachets over the course in various drop bags ensuring that I always had 2 full bottles when leaving the aid stations. If I got to an aid station and had half a bottle left I just tipped it out and made sure I left with two full bottles always. I was never short of the drink and always on it. It paid off in the end.
Tailwind support recommended to me that at if during the run I ‘felt’ like eating I could – no problem. I’ve ever really felt like eating over such distances but nearing 54 miles into the SDW100 I actually had the thoughts to eat a bit. I nibbled on a small bit of pasta and that was it. My stomach was fine with it too. After eating a tiny bit and leaving the aid station I just made sure I had a 10 – 15 minute rest from the Tailwind before beginning to get back to the slow sipping. That’s just following some more advice the Tailwind support team gave me. They said to only eat if you fancy it. Simples. Just remember to not overdo the calories as Tailwind is providing you with everything you need. If you top up with too much, you may end up with issues so just be concious about what else you have.
Another thing to bare in mind when drinking Tailwind I’ve found is races that claim to serve it at their aid stations. One sachet per Salomon bottle mixes you a fairly good tasty portion of it. During the SDW100 I decided early on to try the pre-mixed one that they were offering at all stations as it would mean that I’d not have to worry about getting my sachets of Tailwind from my drop bags and carrying it with me etc. Fortunately I tried their pre-mix at an aid station that was relatively close by to the next one because it tasted like water. It only had a slight berry flavour to it. Yuk! With everything Tailwind support had told me, that wasn’t going to do the slightest bit of good for me. From then on end I stuck to my own sachets and didn’t suffer too much for it. Some races aid stations may end up running short of it so they probably need
to stretch it out a bit. I don’t know?
That was it really. Apart from a few pickings of pineapple pieces and cheese for the hilly walks out of the stations, Tailwind was it!
The Equipment Routine
I had the following stuff from the start line:
Ultimate Direction pack – Anton Kuprika model (Anton Kuprika – the coolest ultra running dude ever!)
Two Salomon soft flasks (500ish ml) – hard bottles just bruise me!
10 sachets of non caffeinated Tailwind (2 ready to drink, 8 in pack)
Bumbag with phone and usb charge cable, and watch charge cable. Provided real easy access to cables. Doesn’t bounce around at 100m pace.
Cap to keep the sun off my head.
Seamed Jacket (Mandatory)
Base Layer (Mandatory)
Safety blanket (Mandatory)
Then at half way I did the following and also picked up these items from my drop bag:
6 sachets of Tailwind (+ 2 in bottles ready to go)
Primary and secondary head torch (and batteries!)
New socks (Ahhhhh….what a feeling!)
New shoes (just another pair of Hokas)
Changed into a long sleeve top for the night.
Baby wipes – I cleaned myself with about 20 baby wipes. Refreshing.
Ate a few pieces of pasta simply because I felt like it – done!
Then at mile 75 I did the following and grabbed these from my last drop bag:
6 sachets of Tailwind (+ 2 in bottles ready to go)
Drank half a cup of Coke
Watched and heard a lot of people throw up – hope they made it through ok.
That was it for equipment. I wore shorts the whole way and weirdly enough kept a neck buff on for the whole race, although not sure why. Perhaps it helped keep the wind off a bit at night and the sun off my neck during the day.
My SDW100 Race Report
I entered the SDW100 last year after a conversation with a friend Del who I know through junior parkrun. I had been considering entering it for a while and he assured me over a parkrun one day that it was the one to do as my first. Since then people have been saying that it is quite a tough one for the first, but hey ho. I think it was that very Sunday night that I entered and ended up talking Jason, my ultra running partner in crime into entering as well. For those who don’t know, The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath and bridleway running along the South Downs in southern England. It is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales. The trail runs for 160km (100 mi) from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, with about 4,150 m (13,620 ft) of ascent and descent. Perfect for an ultra race yep?
Fast forward months of training and Jason and I found ourselves at registration on the 9th June 2017 at Chilcombe Sports ground in Winchester. Jason had booked a hotel for us just down the road which was convenient for the morning of the race. Kit checks are done before you can register to ensure you have the compulsory items required to run. You can only then get a token to get your race number and proceed to hand in your two drop bags. After a few initial issues with running numbers which Centurion sorted out pretty quick, I had my number – lucky 279. Jason and I then dropped off our two small drop bags destined for Washington at roughly mile 54 and House Dean Farm which was about 75 miles into the race. There was time to meet a few other runners and bump into familiar faces from people met at previous runs. Then it was back to the hotel for a final drink and some well needed rest. We got a lift from a group of friendly runners who had all just registered too as taxis were charging a fortune to get over there from Winchester. We both chilled out in bed to The Last Leg on tv. Good way to end the day. A very chilled evening indeed.
After a comfortable, but also terrible night sleep for me, we were both awake at about 4:15am. Some person upstairs from us had been banging around the room like an elephant. Typical! I did all the usual morning routine stuff including eating one of those ready to consume oat pots and drinking a hotel room coffee (bleh!). Then it was down to the hotel lobby where we again met up with a few other runners who we joined taxi rides with – thanks to them for helping us out there. Jason has a caffeine radar in his head as he managed to find and sneak in another coffee being offered by the hotel for the runners who were leaving really early. Chilcombe sports ground was busy with bodies. Families, friends, support crews, runners and race organisers everywhere. You can feel that pre-race feeling – excitement, nerves and last minute chatterings about kit. Toilets are always so popular at these things. I queued for a while and then just didn’t bother in the end. Everyone was doing their own thing but the atmosphere was quite alive. I handed in my overnight bag which the Centurion team take to Eastbourne. Before long we were getting the race briefing and we were off for a lap around the sports ground before breaking off onto the South Downs.
The start felt comfortable all around the field. There were no sprinters around darting off into the distance and everyone looked to be pacing themselves well. Very different to say a 5k or 10 miler event where people fire off like their being chased by a pack of dogs. Pace felt easy and we took it in our stride and just bobbed along nicely (‘bobbing’ became the word of the day). Along the route I got to meet a Strava connection Alan which was great. He looked in good form and was making his way up the field. I didn’t see him again. Before too long we were at the first aid station. I emptied out my remaining Tailwind out of both bottles and refilled them with two new sachets. This was to be my routine (without fail) at each station so I always leave with two full bottles to keep sipping on.
I had no food there and it was literally only a few minutes before we were off again. QE came quite quickly after passing through some of the gorgeous sites around Winchester Hill. QE was fantastic and the atmosphere was really good. I think a few parkrunners and obviously friends and family were there. I saw a good running friends Mark and Sally, and then heard my mum and brothers voice. They had also driven up to say hi. I am sure they then said “See you half way”, but I may have been wrong – I’ll get to that later. Managed to get photo with Mark finally as we always forget out running selfies. I then had my first real ‘fail’. I decided that because Centurion were dishing out Tailwind at the aid stations that I’d try and use their one. That would mean that I could potentially save on the space used up in my backpack. So at QE I topped up on their ready mix stuff. Then we were off.
As soon as we got running and I sipped on the drink it tasted just like water, with only a slight hint of flavour! Blegh! I recall one of the volunteers saying that they were running out of it already. It must have been stretched a bit and diluted way too much. Tailwind themselves recommended to me that a full sachet is good for one soft flask. This stuff was nowhere even near that. Fortunately the next aid station was only a few miles away and so I just removed what I had and started again from my own stash. The next miles were a stretch that we know very well – QE to Cocking. I saw a running friend Stuart on his bike during these miles which was fantastic. He stopped ahead to get a photo of us and chatted for a while until we got to the aid station. I was delighted to see my pregnant sister and my brother in-law at Cocking too. My sister even ran up the field with me to the stopping point which was hilarious as her belly was like a bouncy ball. It is really incredible just how uplifting seeing people is. They said we were looking so well compared to a lot of people who had come through before us. Clearly those people were running faster than we were but it was a hot day and the heat was really starting to play a big part. I wasn’t feeling my best at Cocking, but not bad enough to show it in my face. The heat was playing a factor. Before long we said our goodbyes and we were off.
One thing to take note of is always remember your gear at the stations. I forgot my hat on a chair at the aid station. I had to run back down the hill and into the station to collect it! What a right pain. More elevation on my trace yep?
Loads of good chat and meeting other runners happened along the rest of the way to Washington. There was a scary incident at about mile 40 when I thought I had lost one of my soft flasks. I looked down and one of my pouches was empty! I turned back and asked a few runners if they’d seen one on the floor but no-one had. About a mile later Jason asked me to check my other pocket and low and behold there it was! I had managed to squash it down on top of the other one. What a relief that was as it could have been a big game changer. Amazing how forgetful you start getting when you are tired. Just before Washington we came across Enwezor on his bike as he was out for a ride on the Downs. He followed us into Washington aid station. Jason had started to experience energy issues and not feeling the love at all. When we pulled into Washington he had to sit down and really take some time to feel better. It was very unlike Jason as he is normally the one feeling good and raring to go. While he was having his battle I had a few things to do myself.
Enwezor was a great help then as he got Jason some drink and helped get him on the path to wellness again. I cleaned myself with baby wipes, with no top on while chatting to a runner next to me. An odd experience as I mentioned to her that I hoped she didn’t mind. She commented that as ultra runners you get used to these sorts of things. Too true – it’s completely normal. I cleaned my feet, arms, neck, face … everywhere and it felt good. Goodbye salt stains! I then just felt like some pasta which is odd for me. I never ever feel like eating on ultras, hence the Tailwind but I endulged a bit. Tailwind support had told me that if I eat and drink anything else, to just lay off the Tailwind a little bit to ensure I don’t overfeed the body. The way I managed that was I decided to not sip any Tailwind for 20 minutes after leaving the aid station. After that – business as usual and the sipping began again.
I had read previously that the real effort begins at mile 50 where the mental game starts getting tough and the physical effort required picks up quite a bit. So true. Feet were hurting, legs were hurting and I really felt like things were playing up a bit. The sun was sizzling down for a very hot sunset which made things quite uncomfortable. I kept telling the sun to *$£% off. Quite a few times actually. It didn’t. What a bastard it was. The buff I was wearing helped protect my neck a bit though which was ok. Everything was still comical at that point and the senses of humour were still there all round. Jason’s feet had been playing up after kicking and treading on various rocks through the day. His energy issues seemed to pick up quite a bit though. Then came the night running. Before long we were heading over Devils Dyke and then Ditchling which I
remember being in the dark but I can’t remember exactly where it happened strangely enough. I recall us phoning the wives at about 9pm when we were starting to see the lights of Brighton. I also remember hearing the music of a festival in the distance. It’s really weird to think people are a few miles away partying hard while we are out a few miles away having run for 16 hours.
Some of the night running memories are all mashed together but I’ll recall some of what I remember. Things were going well for me. I felt solid and felt like I could bob along quite happily. At one point somewhere before mile 70 we were running down a really narrow path which meant you had to almost put one foot in front of the other. It took a lot more concentration. I was pushing it a bit more than Jasons feet were allowing him to at that point, yet I thought we were still running within our comfortable and safe zone. I went up ahead a fair bit but hadn’t realized just how far I’d got. Things are harder to judge at night. Anyhow, we had our first and only ever real go at each other which looking back on now is
hilarious. We were like a married couple at that point. I eventually pulled it back and we joined up again, and afer some radio silence we were back on an open path and it was in the past. Interesting how things go at night when the fatigue is kicking in. For the rest of the night and morning we really stuck together and pushed on where we could.
It was hard dealing with the mileage around this time. My watch said 63 something miles and knowing you have so many miles to go causes a real sense of hardship in the mind. Still, we had run further than we ever had done (100k last year!). I was trying my best to just think about the next aid station however at that stage the next aid station was 7 miles away and that seemed forever. The one after was ten miles away and the one after that was another 7 I think. It was tough even making good of the thought of the next stop but it was better than thinking about the finish line all the way over in Eastbourne. My best aid station came at about 67 miles where we stopped at Saddlescombe Farm. It was the first time I’d
seen runners looking a bit spaced out and unwell, but the volunteers there were in top form.
A lovely group of ladies manned the station and they were incredibly happy and supportive. We were once again helped with our bottles and food and a kind volunteer even gave me a plastic bag to store some small cheese squares and two delicious arranchini balls to eat later. I didn’t want to leave this stop, but the ladies were on the ball when they did mentioned they’d be soon booting us out which they did. Jason enjoyed a coffee and some apparently ‘heavenly’ egg mayo sarnies. He described them so well that the guy next to him perked up and asked for some too.
Before long, a quick photo and we were off for the long 10 mile stretch. This was a long stretch without a stop. It went on forever. At the end of it was Housedean Farm where we picked up our final drop bag. I didn’t need much from mine apart from socks and my remaining Tailwind sachets. I remember chatting to a volunteer outside of the station and he complimented me on just how well and alert I was. Really uplifting. The aid station was great and the volunteers were legends as always but many of the runners coming in were in a bad way. I could hear at least two people puking during my stop there and a guy who Jason said didn’t know where he was.
It wasn’t the most motivating stop and so we shifted out of there as quickly as we could. Coming up was what we called The Ring of Doom in one of our training runs. It’s about a two mile long climb that starts steep and ends a bit flatter. It circles up infront of you and then peels down into Southease. Fortunately as it was dark you couldn’t quite see what you had to run up so that made it better for me. People with poles were over taking us quite a bit at this stage when walking the hills. We’d then over take them when we were running on the flats and downs. This pattern continued for the duration of the run pretty much. Man I am shit at walking up hills. I had no idea just how slow I am, even when I am putting in the effort. This is something I plan to work on over the coming year (could that be because I am planning the next one …. hmmm?).
Almost there now. At Southease we knew Colin was waiting for us. My good friend and neighbour had driven all the way to Eastbourne, got a train back to Southease with his tent and camped there over night. We rang him coming into Southease and he was ready to go when we got there. Hugs all around and then I had the biggest shock ever. It was 2:30am and I saw my mother, brother and sister in law all there cheering us on! Absolutely incredible that was!!! I couldn’t believe it. I had tried to look for them at Washington but assumed they’d gone home. The last place I expected to see them was there. They had waited for 5 hours! It was so nice to see them but I also felt terrible that they were all the way there and still had to drive home. We did the normal routine and spent a few minutes there chatting. Then we were off. This was it. 16 miles left to go. It was great having Colin with us on what must have been for him a really really slow jog/hill walk. Conversation flowed and we had a good few laughs together.
I had my worst bout of running asleep where I couldn’t actually keep awake during those 16 miles. Nothing I could do would wake me up. I was literally dreaming in bits and pieces while trying to keep in a straight line. This happened a couple of times earlier on, but between Jevington and Alfriston it happened for about an hour and a half. The final few aid stations were very welcomed and it was really quiet in there. We saw people who we had been running alongside for ages come in and out. Some went ahead and others came into the stations. Again the volunteers were absolutely fantastic. A toilet stop at the final aid station was very welcomed by my stomach, even though I hadn’t really eaten much over the day.
Heading down from the top of Eastbourne was amazing. We took in the view and grabbed a quick photo of a sign that was just so encouraging. Knowing that the sports track was just a couple of miles or so away was amazing. We made our way down carefully after finding the path that had initially confused us on our training run. On to the paths and roads in Eastbourne, past the hospital – we were running a bit and walking for 20 seconds on and off. Colin peeled off as we entered the stadium to a roar of cheers and clapping which made it feel like the Olympic marathon for us. That 400 meters was the best ever and when we crossed that line there was such an feeling of relief for me that it’s hard to describe. Overwhelming it was. Hugs all around and congratulations everywhere.
Someone handed us the medal which I will always cherish. The end of such a long journey is just so enjoyable. I helped myself to a hotdog with loads of brown sauce and Colin bought me a coffee too. The aches and pains were then really apparent once I had been sat down for a while. I could hardly touch the legs without feeling the buised sensation. Calves were just the same. In fact, I have bruising all over the place. All worth it though. We didn’t know at that point that the adventure wasn’t over as later on we found out Colins car had broken down in Eastbourne …. I won’t go into that detail but there’s a great photo below of the fantastic towman getting the car on
the back of a truck. I felt so bad for Colin and he felt bad for us having to wait. All part of the adventure! 😉
I cannot say enough good things about Centurion and their race organisation. Absolutely superb. The best I’ve ever experienced. The volunteers were all highly motivated people who really knew what they were doing. They cared about our well being the whole way around and just couldn’t do enough for us. Thank you to everyone who helped out. Thanks to the supporters who came out to see us and people watching online who were posting words of encouragement all day.
Thanks to Colin for running with us for that last 16 miles. It really did make such a great difference. Thanks for the lift too – we got to ride in a cool tow truck! Thank you to my mum, brother and sister in law who braved the early hours of the morning allthe way over in Eastbourne! Kiki, Lee, Stuart, Enwezor, Mark and Sally – it was great seeing you all on the route. Thanks to everyone who helped make this possible and most importantly above all, and I’ve written this before – my wonderful wife Sheena and kids Ella and Joel who put up with all those super early morning runs!