Fast forward 10 months and I was stood on the start line of the South Downs Way 100 miler. The days before the race had been those English summer days you dream of - perfect for paddling pools, picnics and barbecues; not so ideal for running, especially for someone who struggles in the heat. But my rain dances worked - there were huge storms the night before the race and then the rain gradually eased as we got closer to 6am and the start.
|At the start|
I'd decided to split the race into four as I thought this would help psychologically. I'd treat each section as a separate race - I'd make some sort of significant change between sections and use this to refocus and start again. The first section was the 23 miles to Queen Elizabeth Country Park where there was a significant feed station and I'd see Brett for the first time. This section was just about taking it easy and getting into the swing of things. Then I'd plug in my MP3 player for the next section - QECP through to the "halfway" point in Washington where I'd see my whole support crew and my brother, Barney, would start pacing me. I'd probably change my top layer of kit at that point to put on something warm and dry for the night section. I'd also stop listening to music and focus on chatting to Barney / catching up. The final quarter was "the big unknown" - mile 77 onwards. I'd swap pacers (with Brett taking over) and would probably put my music back in again.
Section 1 went well. The main issue was mud. Last time I'd run this section was during all the flooding back in February - it had been really hard going that day but I'd expected it to have all dried out. The rain the night before probably hadn't helped. The mud at this point is clay based so it was really sticky and slippery and it was impossible to keep my feet dry - not ideal so early on! Luckily I was carrying a spare pair of socks and so Brett helped me change them at QECP. After that the course was much drier. I left the QECP checkpoint at 10.30 so was on planned pace.
My stomach started to feel slightly uncomfortable as I headed up onto Harting Down so I decided to have an Immodium - unfortunately this was probably a bit too late and I should probably have taken a preemptive one at the start. I had to pop into the bushes at several points which started to slow me down.
Anyhow section 2 went pretty much to plan. I kept chipping away at a good solid pace, helped by listening to music. Brett and my parents popped up to cheer me on at several points which was great - I'd been worried about how I'd feel on this section given it was already ultra territory but I still had over half the race to go. I hit 50 miles in 11 hours so was really pleased with that.
|Running into Washington feed station - 54 miles|
|Washington - changing socks and eating pasta|
It was lovely having company and catching up on the week. Barney hadn't run on the course before and he was really impressed especially as we were treated to a cracking sunset. We were now into the section which I knew well - I'd run it during the SDW50 and had also been out to recce it another 3/4 times as I'd wanted to make sure I knew the section I'd be doing in the dark really well. I didn't want to risk getting lost but also knew it would help psychologically to know where I was going. I'd also done the earlier bits of the course once and had been pleased at how well I'd remembered them. It had helped me feel so much more confident going into the race, knowing exactly what was coming up and being able to run through the various sections in my mind. I'd definitely want to do the same again if I were to do another big ultra, especially one with a night section.
I kept up my detours into the bushes throughout the third leg. I was drinking straight coke by now as I was struggling to swallow solid food. I pretty much stopped eating the bars I was carrying and focused on drinking between feed stations and then eating what I could at the feed stations - a couple of potatoes, plain macaroni, jelly babies. I definitely wasn't getting enough down me though. In future I think I'd try some shot blocks as they're high in calories but I could basically have just sucked on them.
My pace gradually slowed during this section. To an extent this was probably due to it getting dark - though I don't generally find that has a huge impact and my LED Lenser head torch was great. I think it was mostly cos of build up in fatigue and lack of energy. That said I was still running the flats and downhills and feeling positive. But when we came into Housedean feed station (77 miles) it was just after midnight so I knew I'd slowed down and also that a sub-24 hour finish was now highly unlikely.
Housedean was where Barney stepped aside and Brett joined me. Brett definitely drew the short straw! I changed my top / sports bra so that I'd be dry for this last colder section. And I also put my windproof jacket in my rucksack. In retrospect I should have put in a merino base layer just in case. And should probably have changed from shorts to leggings. I had some more of my mum's pasta at this point and a cup of strong black tea.
The next section was when the wheels started to fall off. The course was very exposed and I started to get cold. I was still running bits and bobs but progress had definitely slowed - my muscles would ache from the impact of running. We decided that I'd put on my windproof jacket at Southease and also plug in my MP3 again. Stopping to do both of these things (even if it was only for about 5 mins) meant I got very cold (shivering, teeth chattering) and my leg muscles completely seized up. It was really hard getting going again as my legs just didn't want to function.
The last 15 miles weren't pretty. We walked rather than ran and there were times when the walking pace was painfully slow - notably the long climb out of Alfriston. I got very cold and put on all the clothes I had to keep even vaguely warm. I learnt not to stop moving at the feed stations. I'd keep marching on the spot just to prevent my legs from seizing. The route diversion after Alfriston was cruel as it involved getting over three stiles! Otherwise the SDW route is great as it involves gates rather than stiles and so no awkward muscle movements. The feed station crew at Jevington were great - the feed station is in a church hall at the top of some steps. They took my bottle to refill so that I could just stay in the road and keep moving.
|Mile 96 - digging deep!|
|Doing my "victory lap" - Eastbourne Sports Park|
I'd also like to say a huge thanks to my support crew (my parents - Jane Miller and Gordon Miller) and my pacers (Barney Miller and Brett Keartland). Also to Brett for making so many of the recce runs possible by being my own personal South Downs Way taxi driver.