The South Downs are a special place to a lot of people. They’ve recently been classified as one of our national parks and rightly so. As you drive south in the direction of the coast anywhere between Winchester and Eastbourne, it appears as though a giant wave of land has rolled in from the sea and it never ceases to put a smile on my face.
When Jen Jackson announced in 2011 that she wanted to pass the South Downs Way Race on to someone else, I sent her a long email explaining why I hoped she might consider me as custodian for the race, not least because I love the trail so much. I was delighted that she did and we started making plans for it in July of last year. We were also delighted that Jen decided to actually run the event herself.
So, 12 months later and we had 163 people lined up ready to take on 100 miles of rolling trail.
When you’re putting on a race for the first time, it’s all about trying to visualise everything down to the finest detail to ensure the weekend goes as smoothly for possible, whether for the runners or the volunteers.
Our start location, like many things was an experiment and with a little work will be a good one. The race began at 0600 on Saturday 30th June, with runners making 1 and 2/3rds circuits of the playing fields in order to ensure that the distance met 100 miles exactly and to try to ensure there wasn’t too much bunching up through the narrow exit on to the SDW. The first part worked, the second didn’t and it was a little tight but eventually everyone was through and the important thing was that most people had a beaming smile to share with us as their own personal adventure began. First out on to the SDW was Martin Bacon and last out Tim Welch. Tim walked the two laps to give himself the maximum chance of scraping the cut offs from the very start (it’s ok he does this every race and always finishes with a handful of minutes to spare - quite incredible).
In the front truck, our role all day was to drive the head of the field and ensure that every aid station was established in good time for the first runners, that the volunteers were greeted and instructed properly and that things were clear ahead on the trail. As a result of that the first runner we saw all day was the winner crossing the line.
Following the action as reports came in from our 70 aid station volunteers was exhilarating. We heard early reports of a quick pace being set at the front, in almost ideal running conditions for June on the Downs - light rain to start but temperatures staying below 17 degrees all day (just a few degrees cooler at night) and clearing up later with a tail wind most of the way in to Eastbourne. We had switched the direction from the previous year to try to give runners the wind advantage and it looked like it had paid off.
Martin Bacon, who had previously finished on the podium at the SDW Race, raced into QECP at mile 22 in a little over 3 hours and over 15 minutes up on the competition. He was pursued by a group of very high calibre runners, some of which had made a minor detour in Exton, but which included Sam Robson, Ryan Brown, Ed Catmur and Wouter Hamelinck. In the ladies race the early pace was set by Gemma Carter who rolled in to Queen Elizabeth in 3:24 and with a 29 minute lead over second placed Claire Shelley. Quite an astonishing pace off the front from both the male and female leaders so early in the race.
As we fought traffic through the Goodwood Festival of Speed which threatened to derail our day, the group pressed on through Harting Downs just over the marathon mark and on up to Cocking at mile 35 and the second major aid station managed for us by Dick Kearn, the RD of the Grand Union Canal Race. Between Harting and Cocking, Ryan Brown had passed Martin Bacon and made his way into the aid station 9 minutes ahead and with a significant group trailing close behind. It was clear that the race was on.
As runners departed Cocking they made their way up on the SDW ridge through possibly the most remote section of trail in terms of vehicular access. The long path to Amberley is broken only by the occasional farm track. Our volunteers managed to negotiate the fairly treacherous road up to Bignor Hill at mile 41.6 to provide a water only stop for the runners coming through and it was here that Martin unfortunately had to drop from the race with a nasty ankle injury. Ryan maintained the lead and we were now on to Washington setting up the major halfway (54 mile) aid station providing hot food and drop bags to the runners coming through).
Through the rest of the pack, the pace remained high. Nobody pushed the early cut offs to the edge and there were relatively very few drop outs to this point. We were expecting not only fast times but a very high finish rate too, all round things were shaping up to be a stellar day for those hoping to cross the finish line in Eastbourne.
Ryan made Washington in 8:31 and was clearly flying. As a superb triathlete and accomplished ultrarunner it seemed that this could be his day. He was now 10 minutes clear of Wouter in 2nd, a man who has finished a huge number of the hardest 100 milers across the world, but who had been nursing an ankle issue for some time before the race. Sam Robson was a further 10 minutes back and was reported to be looking strong too. Could Sam or Wouter make up the ground? Or would Ryan keep pushing alone to the finish?
In the ladies race Gemma had held the lead from the start and continued to do so through Washington, but from a huge early advantage, Claire Shelley had made up ground to sit 17 minutes back in second and had clearly managed her race pace very well. All in all 149 runners made it to Washington, an incredible percentage of the 163 starters.
We raced on through the remaining check points all the way in to Eastbourne where we pulled on to the athletics track at around 8pm. It was time to fly the finish line kite and back track up the trail, 2.6 miles to the point where the runners would leave the South Downs Way for good and make their descent into Eastbourne and the finish. Pete Bowles and I took turns in flagging every other lamp-post, glow-sticking and chalk painting the ground through the town and back up onto the hill and as we reached the trig point the sun was starting to set and the lights of the track were clearly visible down below. What a fine sight for the runners to be met with at mile 97.
We ran back down the hill to the track and got everything in order as we heard news first that Sam Robson had made up a huge amount of time on Ryan and actually passed him at one stage close to Jack and Jill (the windmills at mile 69) but that Ryan had regained the lead shortly after and maintained it through to Jevington. Wouter had unfortunately had to drop with the persistent injury so we were left with a two horse race for the overall win across the final 4 miles.
Just as we secured the finish line banner firmly to the ground we saw a headlamp bobbing away in the distance to appear on to the track and begin the final half loop around to the back straight finish line. It was Ryan. He had pushed on and made up a few extra minutes on Sam in that final section and crossed the line in an absolutely stellar 17:04:26. The conditions were great, but nobody can take anything away from his performance, a truly astounding time for 100 miles with a significant 12,500 feet of climbing. Sam followed 19 minutes later maintaining an excellent running stride into and around the track for a 17:23 finish, also an incredible performance in what is still very early days in his own ultrarunning career. His future is obviously extremely bright. We were treated to a thrilling finish for third overall as Nick Weston hit the track looking comfortable and relaxed only to reach the back bend to rounds of cheering and encouragement behind him, from Steve Scott’s crew. Steve had opened up quite the sprint finish and whilst catching Nick looked near impossible, Nick did manage to muster up that extra gear to kick down the back straight and ensure his podium finish was safe in 18:08, just 53 seconds up on Steve in 4th.
Around that time we had also had confirmed reports that Gemma Carter who had led since the start had been caught by Claire Shelley around the Saddlescombe Farm area (mile 66) but had leapt away again when met by her pacer Stuart Mills at Jack and Jill. Unfortunately for Gemma, she had sustained an injury which had caused her pace to suffer and she dropped at Southease with just under 17 miles to go to the finish. Claire had stayed conservative all day and was left with the energy not just to finish off the race for the win but to pick things up even further and come home super strong to boot. Following her win at the Grand Union Canal Race in 2011, Claire had sustained a bad injury a few months later and to see her round the track to run in 6th overall in 19:43 was wonderful. Second equal on the ladies podium were Nicole Brown and Hannah Shields who had both run incredibly consistent races also. They crossed the line together in 22:56 in an emotional finish - Nicole being Ryan’s wife rounded out an incredible weekend for the Brown family, taking home a first and second respectively.
Claire was our final sub 20 hour finished, 6 in total, but the onslaught of runners under the 24 hour/ one day mark began shortly after. In total 48 runners earned 100 mile - One Day Buckles, with Mark Smyth sparing just 90 seconds in his 23:58 and change. This race director was somewhat relieved at the number, having had exactly 49 One Day buckles produced....
There are so many unbelievable stories behind those finishing from the front to the back of the pack that they are too many to mention. We witnessed pairs crossing the line having run every step together (husband and wife or great friends) and those of all ages, races and running abilities making it into the track before the 30 hour cut off came down. That’s what makes ultrarunning so special.
Here’s a snippet of some of the things you may or may not know about some of the SDW100 finishers:
All in all we had 117 runners cross the line for a finish rate of 71%, way higher than we had anticipated and testament to an incredibly tough and committed group of runners.
As organisers we could not have asked for any more from runners, crews, but most of all our volunteers.
We often mention to people that it is the volunteers, not the runners, that make these events happen. There were those out on the course that gave well over 30 hours of their own time for no other reason than to help runners achieve their goal of running 100 miles. It’s impossible to thank them enough for what they gave over the weekend. Without them the sport and the community we all enjoy wouldn’t exist.
Photo credit to Wayne Pilling - Thank you Wayne!
The SDW100 will be back in 2013 and a date will be announced shortly. For now it is on to our second summer race, the NDW50/ 100 in just under 6 weeks time where the quest of our 4 Grand Slam entrants for the elusive but enormous GS finisher buckle continues....