The South Downs Way 50 kicked off our 2016 season and heralded the opening event in the inaugural 50 mile Grand Slam. This 4th edition of the race appeared, on paper, to have a competitive ladies field and a wide open men’s equivalent. The story for the day ran largely to that script, alongside the largest field we’ve ever had at a race.
At 0900 on Saturday 9th April, 378 runners departed Worthing with the intention of reaching Eastbourne in under 13 hours. Torrential rain and high winds had greeted the majority of arrivals to registration, but just as the race got underway, things cleared up and we were treated to a dry if grey start.
The early pace in this event is often frenetic, with runners jostling position on the narrow trail to Cissbury Ring. Once up to Chanctonbury around mile 4, they meet the South Downs Way for the first time and enjoy one of the fatest sections of the course, all the way down to Botolphs. On arrival there at mile 11, Rob (Wyclef) Forbes had a huge lead already and looked set to run a similar race to Victor Mound in 2015, a time trial against himself to the finish. The same picture played out at Saddlescombe Farm after the climb over Devil’s Dyke, but shortly afterwards Rob took a wrong turning and found his way on to a bridleway that he thought to be wrong. Back tracking he then repeated his mistake having spied a walker in the distance. Returning for a second time to the turn, he then found Neil Kirby running the route and continuining on the correct path, so promptly fell in behind. At Housedean, the two emerged with around 3hrs31 on the clock, Rob with a beaming smile despite his double nav error. Through Southease (34) and Alfriston (41) the two remained within yards of each other, before on the climb out of Alfriston over the Long Man, Neil finally dropped the hammer and put a few minutes on Rob. He held on to his lead for the remainder coming in to the finish with 6:35 on the clock. Rob finished a scant 5 minutes back in 2nd. A great race through the latter stages. Third place went to Charlie Haywood in 6:56, who at just 20 years old has a very bright future ahead of him.
The ladies race was a closer call in the early stages as pre-race favourite Jess Gray ran through CP1 in a narrow lead over Sarah Sawyer, with a number of other ladies hot on their heels. Leanne Rive, Kit-Yi Greene and Amelia Watts all came through in close succession. At Housedean Farm, just after the marathon mark, Jess had grown that lead to a commanding 20 minutes, headed through in 3:55 with Sarah Sawyer in 2nd - 4:15 elapsed. Right behind Sarah, Kit-Yi and Leanne emerged almost together, trading places leaving the check point with Amelia Watts a couple of minutes back. At Southease (34), Jess’s lead remained the same whilst Amelia had moved into second, with Leanne just behind in third, and the positions stayed that way on to the finish. Jess’s finish time of 7:40 was good for a 25 minute margin of victory, with Amelia home in 8:05 and Leanne in 8:09.
The runners were treated to some sunshine up on the downs and a following wind throughout the day, which acted to cancel out some of the slower conditions brought on by the mud on the course. There were a large number of drops throughout the day however as the distance and sticky ground caused many to slow, in the end 341 made the finish. The excitement of last years finish - Maxine Lock making it in with just 11 seconds to spare - was matched not by the close proximity of the cut off but by the energy expended by Ian Lang and Nel Knapp as they hit the track. Both had 15 minutes to spare so well inside the 13 hour time limit, but they raced flat out to the final bend when Ian managed to pip Nel to the penultimate finisher place. It was our most exciting track finish of the day, saving the best until last.
The South Downs Way 50 has grown and we’re incredibly grateful to the National Park, the National Trust and the various landowners for allowing us to stage what is such a special race route. The field has grown steadily since the outset, but will grow no further for the time being. Some of the logsitics were improved this year with the help of our race sponsors La Sportiva, Julbo, Petzl and Gu Energy.
Nothing would be possible, however, without the 63 volunteers and we had out on the course making the race happen. A huge thanks to them.
The races now come thick and fast with the TP100, NDW50 and SDW100 all within the next 9 weeks. The TP100 is up next on April 30th and we have some extremely exciting prospects in the Men’s and Women’s fields. It might be time for some long standing course records to tumble….