South Downs Way 100 2018 – So hard and yet so rewarding!

Michelle Maxwell Marathon, Nutrition, Psychology, Racing, Running, Ultra Marathon

Words by our lovely athlete Victoria Henderson

Are you insane? This is the response I got when people found out I was planning to run the South Downs Way 100. To be honest, if they’d asked me again 40 miles in, I would have said yes!

…And yet I did it. I kept going, and I got to the finish line – 25 hours and 1 minute after I started and 100 miles further down the trail. I’m hopeless with details after these kinds of events – there was lots of running, lots of hills, quite a bit of walking, the odd moment of despair, lots of smiling and 12 checkpoints – but I can’t remember what order all this happened in!

What I do remember? In fact my overwhelming feeling when I think about this race is kindness. The kindness of friends, of my long suffering and always supportive family, of other runners always ready with a smile and supportive word, and most amazingly of all, kindness from total strangers – volunteers, other runners crews, and random people out enjoying the south downs over the weekend. It really was a special privilege to exist in a bubble of positivity and generosity for 25 hours – and let’s face it, a grubby sweaty runner who’s been out for 25 hours wouldn’t always expect an entirely positive response, let alone a hug from someone who isn’t related to them.

I registered for the race on Friday evening and took the children with me so they could do the kids race. They were all really interested in what was going on and proud of the labels they’d made for my drop bags and loved running their own race – and winning a buff each, which they were quick to point out was more than I managed to win! My 5 year old had laid out her race kit the night be-fore and spent the whole evening trying to convince me to buy her an ultimate direction race vest from the centurion shop – clearly an ultra runner in the making. In retrospect I should have bought her a new race vest (maybe even asked for a contribution!), and then ‘borrowed’ it from her on occasion. Those UD vests looked really nice but sadly I think there are definitely more miles in my Salomon one yet.

Race day was an early start and I was incredibly grateful to my friend Hannah who said she’d take me to the start. There was lots of nervous energy at the start, and that feeling of ‘wtf am I doing here?!’, but we eventually set off round the field, and after a final wave at Hannah, I was off along the South Downs Way. The first 22 miles are home turf for me and I know the route really well so trotted along trying to think about my pace and enjoying the early morning running. There are a couple of hills in this section but I knew what to expect and it was still a really pleasant temperature and a lovely morning so no dramas.

I ran into the checkpoint at QE country park and refilled my bottles and for some reason was really thrown by hearing a volunteer say to another that there were only about 60 more runners to come through. I’m always happy to run my own race, was running exactly the pace I had planned to, and certainly had no notion that I’d be anywhere near the front of this race so I’m not sure why this comment affected me so much…but it did. All part of the fun of ultra running, but a bit early to let the brain get control of things!

The next 20 or so miles are a bit hazy – running, a few hills, it got quite a lot hotter, and I was already struggling to find things I wanted to eat. I knew this was going to be a battle, and it’s rather ironic because eating certainly isn’t something I ever usually have a problem with, but I was a bit alarmed that I already felt sick and couldn’t face eating much. Fruit was good, but I knew I wasn’t going to fuel another 70 miles on grapes and pineapple, so I was still going with my Veloforte bars which I’d cut up into manageable pieces, and not much else.

At 40 miles I came into a checkpoint which had no fruit left and at this point my brain temporarily checked out of the race. I picked up a piece of cheese sandwich and ran out of the checkpoint with it – and was still holding it 7 miles later having not been able to convince myself to eat any of it!

This was the lowest point of my race, made worse by the catastrophising devil on my shoulder whispering that if I felt this bad now, how on earth was I going to run another 60 miles. I haven’t dropped out of a race yet but I came pretty close to calling Stu and asking him to pick me up at Washington at 54 miles.

Luckily, I’m generally a fairly strong-willed person (I prefer this to stubborn, which is exactly what Stu would tell you I am if you asked!), so I pressed on and made it to Washington where my first drop box was. The volunteers were amazing (as they were everywhere along the course) and I got given a bowl of pasta, which I managed to eat, a cup of tea, and forced down a revolting, but full of calories, bottle of ‘breakfast drink’ (why anyone would normally choose to drink this stuff is beyond me, but it said it was high protein, had calories in it and was marginally more palatable than any of the sports recovery drinks, so down it went!). I changed my soaking sports bra and top, left my feet alone because they felt fine and picked up my head torches and charging pack for my watch and phone. At this point I also put on a pair of ‘calf guards’. I’ve never worn these before when running so it could have been a terrible idea, but they felt fine so I decided to give it a go!

It’s amazing what a difference some calories make. From having been ready to call it a day I then had a really great 15 or so miles where everything was humming – the running felt good, the evening was stunning and I was back to loving this crazy sport. I phoned the children to say goodnight (they were with my parents) and had a chat with my 10 year old. When I said I’d been tired and had considered phoning Daddy to pick me up she was absolutely horrified and basically told me that under no circumstances should I get picked up and to ‘just put your music on and keep running’. Sometimes a bit of tough love helps to focus the mind!

I’ve run in the dark before so wasn’t worried about the night section (other than being tired and wandering off course!), but there were lots of people around anyway, and I ended up running with another girl and her pacer for a good section of the early night. We had some good miles into Housedean at mile 74 where our second drop bags were, but unfortunately, she felt awful when we got there, and after sitting down to try and eat she stood up and then fainted onto the concrete floor of the barn!

After making sure she was ok and saying goodbye to her and her pacer I set off again for a few solo peaceful miles. I was making steady progress at this point and gradually started passing more and more people who were walking more than running. Somewhere in this section I realised that I wasn’t going to get in under 24 hours but I was totally ok with that. I’d spoken to Stu and he said he’d be in Eastbourne at 7, and suddenly I really wanted him to be there at the finish line when I crossed it, so 7am was my target. I’d almost fallen over a fair few times on some of the uneven ground, but coming out of one of the checkpoints and down a dark path I totally failed to pick up my feet properly, caught my toe on a rock and went straight down on the path. Sore hands, bleeding knees, clothes and water bottles covered in dirt, but there was no one there to give any sympathy so I just had to keep going. The glamour-less world of ultra running!

There’s a great comradery in these long races, and even if you don’t have conversations, you smile and nod at the people you’ve been leapfrogging with all day. There was a man dressed all in orange (so hard to miss!) whose wife and children had been crewing for him during the day, who I ended up running with on and off for the last 25 miles or so. His wife had been lovely during the day, as in fact had all the crews – shouting support and good wishes whenever I saw them – and she was there at the finish cheering me on as well.

By the time I got to Southease aid station I knew I only had about 16 miles to go (although several of the biggest hills) and it was lovely to see the sun coming up, and to take the head torch off. When I’m tired or need to stop any negative thoughts creeping in I often count steps – to 10 or 20, or whatever works. In the tired haze of this last section, with counting to 10 feeling like the only thing keeping me moving forwards, I saw a man out for his Sunday morning run coming towards me. He congratulated me on my ‘great running’ (never have a I looked less like a great runner but the sentiment was definitely appreciated), at which point my brain said ‘thank you’ but my mouth said ‘4’! Conversation in the late stages of ultras clearly isn’t my strong point.

There’s a big climb out of the aid station at Alfriston (where I managed to eat a mint viscount!), but somehow it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d remembered it from the SDW50, and then you drop down into Jevington before the final climb to the trig point and the last 4 miles of the race. The gully down into Eastbourne is a beast and was at least twice as bad as I’d remembered it, more than making up for the earlier hill! The footpath at the bottom was a mass of huge nettles and I must have wasted a good 5 minutes along there in some kind of nettle-induced nightmare; weaving around, barely moving forward, with my arms over my head trying not to get stung. None of this really makes sense as at least 100 runners had already been through and I was wearing a long sleeved top so not really in much danger of being stung. People often tell tales of interesting hallucinations when they’re tired in ultras but I didn’t have any of that…unless the nettles were in fact all in my head! Anyway…I realised I needed some sugar fast if I was going to make the last couple of miles so I gritted my teeth, rallied my stomach, and managed to swill down half a gel and set off through the streets of Eastbourne.

I love finishing races, and the finish is one of the things I picture when I’m struggling. As I powered along the road (poetic license, it was barely more than a walk), I saw Stu standing on a corner. I had it in my head that I’d see him at the finish, and I really wanted him to be at the finish, but here he was. Not at the finish. I couldn’t articulate all that so I just nodded and grunted – didn’t want to repeat the whole number fiasco of earlier – and kept going. Luckily, he’s quite clever that husband of mine and he knew he needed to be at the finish, so he’d just cut through the hospital to see me and then nipped back to the sports ground and was there when I got to the track.

I’d pictured myself bursting into tears when I crossed the line, but I didn’t, and in fact the pictures show I had a massive smile on my face. So, there you go – running 100 miles makes you smile! 

It was awesome, in every sense of the word. So hard and yet so rewarding, and so full of people wanting to help and willing me to the finish. I couldn’t have done it without any of them. Special mentions to all my ‘Mums run the World’ friends who sent messages through the night and day while they were running at Endure 24, and to my coach Michelle, who has made me run more miles than I thought was possible in preparation for this race!