(All Pictures Courtesy of Stuart March)
This 5th edition of the South Downs Way 100 dawned relatively cool and overcast belying what would become much more difficult conditions through the latter part of the first day. 260 runners toed the line including lots of great competition at the front of both the mens and womens fields. Past champions included in the men’s field, Neil Kirby - 2016 SDW50 and NDW50 champion and Duncan Oakes - 2015 NDW100 Champion. In the ladies field Debs Martin-Consani - past TP100 Champion and GB International and Jess Gray - 2015 NDW50 and 2016 SDW50 Champ.
The pace out of the gate this year was more reserved than normal as a group of runners ran tightly together through the first two checkpoints. Ewan Dunlop made it through QECP mile 22 in 3 hours flat, with a group behind including Neil Kirby, All Watson (2nd NDW100 2015), Jason Lewis, Duncan Oakes and Pip Blackburn (2nd SDW50 2015). The strength in depth of the early front runners made the race an exciting prospect. It was notable however even at this early stage that times were considerably behind Mark Perkins' 2014 CR splits.
Throughout the day, the heat and humidity rose and exceeded the expected forecast. Runners who held something back and managed their race during the harder going were rewarded later, whilst those who pushed hard came unstuck and suffered through the middle portion of the race. At Washington mile 54, Ewan Dunlop held on to his lead, coming through in 7:40 elapsed, with Neil Kirby 5 minutes back and third placed Ian Hammett in 7:49. All three looked strong.
The profile of the last half of the race contains the bigger climbs and descents and it is on that ground that we’ve learned this year Neil Kirby is so strong. He played a cool tactical race as he stayed close behind a hard charging Ian now in second by the windmills at mile 70, Ewan maintaining a slender lead. By Southease mile 83, Ewan had slipped back 12 minutes as Neil continued to keep Ian in sight, now our race leader. Over the longer descents, Neil was able to turn up the pace and finally put Ian behind him as he kicked for the finish. Coming off of the trig point with 2.7 miles to go we wondered how close the two would be, but in the end Neil ran out a relatively comfortable winner in 15:30:44. His debut 100, his third Centurion win of 2016, he has proved time and again that he can dig very deep indeed and run a tactical race to boot. Neil has the NDW100 coming up. Another exciting race in prospect there for sure with Ed Catmur reigning CR holder also on the start list.
Ian Hammett crossed in second place in a time of 15:46:55 for a superb debut 100, Ally Watson eventually picking Ewan off for 3rd in 16:28:35.
The ladies race lived up to the headline billing. Jess Gray went out hard and put significant time ahead of our Team Runner and GB International Debbie Martin-Consani. Jess was up by 7 minutes at QECP mile 22 and as much as 13 minutes by Cocking at mile 35. By Washington, that lead was back to 9 minutes, but with Jess taking a short stop in the aid station, Debbie exited straight away and took the lead for the first time. The two ran close together until Botolphs just before the 100km mark, at which point Jess called it a day. That left Debbie with a big lead but in her trademark fashion it was the overall positions that were now within her grasp. She made her way steadily through the field showing the class athlete she is, rising all the way to 9th at Mile 70, 7th at Mile 84 eventually finishing 6th overall in our second fastest ever female time on this course, 17:12:41. So much can be learned by so many from the level of race management and patience that Debbie brings to the longer events.
The rest of the ladies race behind Debs was fascinating to watch. Sarah Sawyer, Kit-Yi Greene, Maryann Devally and Cat Simpson all featured in the top 5 for most of the day. At Washington, Cat in 5th was 17 minutes back of 3rd placed Maryann, but over the second part of the race, she made superb progress and eventually ran home in second with a time of 19:08:03. Maryann came home in third having suffered in the latter stages but through gritted teeth pulled off a super 19:33:05.
The night time brought some mist to the ridge making navigation difficult in places for some, but 111 runners made it in under the 24hr limit for their 100 Miles - One Day buckles. Later, a total of 203 came home inside the 30 hour cut off, an almost identical finish count and rate to 2015.
We had some poignant moments at the finish too. Every finish is special, but some come with added meaning. Shelley Kyte and Mark Potter lost their baby exactly a year before to the day and finished in her honour, running both the NDW50 and then the SDW100 together.
Vassos Alexander from Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show seemed to enjoy the day as much as anyone and could not express enough thanks for the volunteer effort over the course of the day. He ran a superb first 100 miler finishing under the 20 hour mark alongside one of the stalwarts of our/ UK ultra events, Sam Robson. Sam, after a rollercoaster ride at this race in past years, made it around the track for the first time since his 2nd place in 2012, our inaugural event. Here is a link to Vassos' words on the event during the Monday Breakfast Show.
This race saw our highest ever number of volunteers out on course, a massive 138 of them tending to runners at a ratio of one for every two runners. As always, these events would not be possible without that army behind the scenes. It is a staggering amount of man hours that are required to get a point to point 100 to happen safely and successfully. Nothing can be achieved without them.
With 8 weeks to go until the NDW100, the first half of this season has been action packed and better than ever. We hope that will continue through the NDW100, A100 and our two new events for this year, the Chiltern Wonderland and Wendover Woods 50s.