Roger Burlinson completed the full 100 mile South Downs Way non-stop solo in 27 hours and 56 minutes.
Roger will be writing a full report about the walk early next week, after keeping a low profile this week to recover. In the meantime, here’s the full press release about the challenge:
SOLO NON-STOP SPORT WALK COMPLETION OF THE SOUTH DOWNS WAY – 27:56
Sport Walk’s founder, Roger Burlinson, has successfully completed the full 100 miles of the South Downs Way, walking solo non-stop in a time of 27 hours and 56 minutes.
The east to west attempt took place on Friday 5th July, with Roger starting in Eastbourne at 13:15pm and arriving at the City Mill in Winchester on the afternoon of Saturday 6th at 17:11pm. Roger’s average pace for the walk was 9:28/km (moving speed), with a total elevation gain of over 4,000m.
For the first half, Roger was on target to achieve his goal of a sub 26 hour time and still by 130km he was within reach, although dropping off that target pace a little. It was the stretch from Queen Elisabeth Country Park near Petersfield to Winchester though, where things turned decisively for the worse and Roger had to refocus solely on finishing, as the heat rose and fatigue and sleep depravation took hold.
Butser Hill, the highest climb on the route, came straight out of Queen Elisabeth Country Park and while this is Roger’s normal training ground and he knew exactly what to expect, the effort still hit him hard, coming as it did at this late stage in the walk. Two other steep climbs depleted him further and on the second climb up Beacon Hill just north of Exton, which is a short steep ascent, he had to stop and sit under a tree in the shade for a short time with his wife Aleksandra, saying that he just wanted to lie down and close his eyes for a few minutes, a clear sign that he was close to exhaustion.
Once over Beacon Hill, the route to Winchester is relatively benign but by this point, maintaining what Roger would consider to be a reasonable pace was tough. In addition to overall fatigue, he was suffering from pain in his left lower shin and intermittent niggles from a previous hamstring injury seemed to be returning with increasing frequency.
Once the 26 hour goal was out of reach, the drive to finish within his ‘plan b’ time of 28 hours was strong enough to keep Roger going until the descent down into Winchester, when the realisation that he really could finish it within this time gave him a second breeze, if not a second wind! He was met by his support crew at the bridge over the M3 and they all walked in to the finish together.
The challenge was simply to complete the full South Downs Way walkers’ route in the shortest time possible. It was a non-stop challenge, so there were no time outs for rest – this was all about the total elapsed time from Eastbourne to Winchester. While Sport Walk is using Roger’s walk to kick start a promotional push to build participation and grow understanding of what Sport Walking is and what it can offer, this walk was fundamentally Roger’s own personal challenge and a desire to move up to the 100 mile distance.
Roger walked solo but had support, with a team of four providing a mixture of nutritional and moral support along the route. The core team of Richard and Joanne Iles, formerly of Race New Forest (triathlon organisers), managed the challenge overall and all Roger’s nutritional and hydration needs, as well as providing formal independent verification of his time. Roger’s wife – Aleksandra, herself a club level athlete, provided additional day time support, while Steve Willis, a friend from Roger’s old racing canoe club (Southampton Canoe Club) kept him company at key points during the night.
Going east to west, Roger had to tackle the Beachy Head and Seven Sisters segment within the first 12km, a tough way to get going with no opportunity to settle into an easy rhythm. Luckily, the weather conditions that afternoon were about as good as they could be, with light cloud cover and a cooling breeze.
Once the trail moved north onto the main downs ridge, Roger managed to cover ground well and reached his evening meal stop at Pyecombe (53km), north of Brighton, in the last throws of an amazing sunset. Here he had some hot food, changed some clothes and prepared for the night section, which would run all the way from Pyecombe, through Devil’s Dyke and over to Bignor Hill before first light.
Some might think this night time stage would be an uneasy and testing stretch but Roger found it to be a hugely uplifting period. Being up high on the downs gave him a 360 degree view of the lowlands either side of the ridge, despite a dull crescent moon and he had numerous wildlife encounters, from Badgers and Hedgehogs to Bats and even a Barn Owl flying ahead of him along the trail. Perhaps the strangest sight though were deer, who appeared alien like in the wheat fields, their long necks and pronounced head shape silhouetted with large bright orange eyes glowing in the reflection of Roger’s head torch.
At Bignor Hill (92km) north of Arundel, the light began to return and after the Littleton Down checkpoint, Roger moved onto what he considers “his patch” – the western part of the South Downs Way where he normally trains. There was a glorious sun rise and conditions once again seemed perfect, with warm sunlight bathing the trail. Once over the long but relatively steady climb up to Cocking Down (105km), Roger refocussed on what he knew would be the toughest section – from Harting Down to Beacon Hill.
Roger’s distance limit before this attempt had been 100km and he passed that mark shortly after Littleton Down, just 18 minutes off his 100km best time, with another 60km still to go – completely un-charted territory for him.
Harting Down (115km) came and went and, despite being sore, he was still in good spirits and feeling OK. Then came the stretch over to Buriton and the eastern flank of Queen Elisabeth Country Park, which also passed with relative ease, as Roger was distracted by an off road cycle sportive and an opportunity to interact with fellow trail users.
After the breakfast checkpoint in Queen Elisabeth Country Park (115km), Roger faced Butser Hill and its steep relentless climb. While it isn’t extremely long, it is steep enough that if you attack it too hard it will bite you! Roger has trained on this hill many times and so he kept his pace very slow and very steady but the effort still took a lot out of him, given that he was already by this point fatigued.
It was after the Butser summit that the realisation of the level of his fatigue began to sink in and Roger had to adapt his thinking – to be more open to posting a slower time – as to try and maintain a pace that would enable him to achieve his primary time goal of 26 hours could well prove too much and mean that he might not be able to finish at all.
After the technical descent into Meon Springs, Roger’s legs were also starting to burn and the downhills were becoming as tough as the climbs. Descending is normally one of Roger’s strengths and he likes nothing more than flying down a technical trail, coming as close as you can get to running, while still keeping one foot on the ground at all times (one of the few rules of Sport Walking).
At the top of the climb up from Meon Springs (136km) to Old Winchester Hill, Roger sat down briefly to consume some additional fluids and realised that this was the first time he’d sat down since Eastbourne, nearly 140km ago, perhaps not a good thing. At the Exton checkpoint (141km), Roger decided to take a little time out, to sit some more and to use a hand roller on his legs, to try and give himself a little extra preparation for the very steep ramp up to Beacon Hill.
It was nearing the top of Beacon Hill (145km) though that Roger reached (ironically) his lowest point, needing to sit briefly under a tree to allow his heart rate to drop and to reset his head to finish the climb. At the top he took another brief break to take on further fluids from one of the support cars and then he set off on the final 16km stretch to Winchester.
All he could do now was simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other and try to keep a good walking form and short quick steps, to minimise effort and maintain as much speed as he could. Reaching Cheesefoot Head (156km), above Winchester, he began to feel more positive and also was able to handle more effort but the pain in his legs was now the key factor preventing him from pushing on harder to the end, so despite feeling good, he was unable to inject much more pace over the final 5-6km.
Suffering a sudden onset of knee pain on the final ramp down to the fields at Chilcomb, just before the bridge crossing the M3, he needed to troubleshoot quickly to find a solution. Walking down the hill backwards worked well but cut his pace in half. After experimenting with different leg positions though, he managed to relieve the pain by landing his right foot on its toes and was able then to push on once more.
Roger’s support crew were waiting at the end of the field and they all crossed the motorway bridge and walked down into Winchester together, Richard going ahead to secure a safe road crossing at the two points where Saturday shopping traffic could have cost Roger more time.
Once into the gardens next to Winchester Cathedral, Roger finally managed to block out all the pain and just enjoy the last few hundred metres of the walk. By this point all thoughts of time had gone, the only thought was to complete the challenge.
Roger finished and touched the railing outside City Mill (161km official/162km on Roger’s watch), the official start and finish point of the South Downs Way in Winchester at 17:11pm and was quickly told by his crew that he had managed to finish in under 28 hours. The relief was immense and Roger was finally able to relax after more than 33 hours without sleep.
How & why he did it
After the first 12km over the Seven Sisters, the walk was broken roughly up into 20km segments, to ensure fluids could be replenished before they ran out. The exact length of each segment was governed by suitable road access to allow the support crew to meet up with Roger, meaning some stages were shorter and others slightly longer. There were also intermediate ‘meet and greet’ points where the support crew would connect with Roger as he passed by. This being a solo challenge, the absence of others on the trail meant that this simple act of contact was invaluable.
There were nine main checkpoints in all, where Roger would refuel and pick up fresh supplies: Exceat, Southease, Pyecombe, Washington, Littleton Down (A285 crossing), Harting Down (top up for stretch to Queen Elisabeth CP), Queen Elisabeth Country Park, Exton and Cheesefoot Head.
Roger carried two 600ml soft flasks of fluids with him at all times and roughly every 20km, he would pick up fresh fluids and some food to consume on the trail, as well as consuming additional fluids and food at each of these main checkpoints. Typically, he’d eat new potatoes, mini sausage rolls, bananas, pizza and crisps at checkpoints, washed down with ‘Precision Hydration’ electrolyte drink. While on the trail he’d alternate between ‘Tailwind’ liquid fuel and Precision Hydration electrolytes with high energy ‘Chia Charge’ bars. Towards the end, because of the heat, his flasks were filled both with Tailwind for calories and Precision Hydration for electrolyte (particularly sodium) replenishment, to maximise protection against hyponatremia (blood dilution from inadequate electrolyte intake).
Roger uses ultra and mountain running equipment for all his Sport Walking, an approach he’s refined with every challenge since 2016. The goal of minimising weight is especially important when going fast for 100km or longer and what might be thought of as ’normal’ walking attire simply doesn’t fit the needs of a Sport Walker in this sort of environment.
On his feet, Roger wears La Sportiva ‘Akasha’ ultra marathon mountain running shoes that give firm support but good cushioning to protect his feet. He wears Compressport calf guards and Kalenji compression running shorts to support his leg muscles and carries all the essentials he needs in a Raidlight ‘Responsiv’ 10 litre ultra running vest (if he’s going self supported or in the mountains he uses a 20L vest). Roger also carries and uses Leki Micro Trail Pro carbon running poles for steep climbs and for the latter miles on ultra walks, to give additional support when fatigue takes over.
For time keeping and challenge logging, Roger uses a Suunto Ambit watch and for this challenge took a Goal Zero Flip 10 charger to recharge it along the way, allowing for the most precise (and battery intensive) satellite settings to be used. He also had the OS Maps app on his phone with all the route segments plotted, to help with any navigational issues that might have occurred at night. Being able instantly to confirm your location and determine direction on the map in the dark is invaluable when the clock is running.
Walking the South Downs Way non-stop has been a goal of Roger’s for two years and he’s trained and prepared specifically for this attempt for over six months. The purpose of the attempt was two fold: to achieve a personal ambition and also to show what’s possible with Sport Walking, in order to promote the activity and encourage more people to take it up. Many people already Sport Walk when they take on a charity walking challenge, they just perhaps don’t realise it or think of it like that and Roger’s aim is to build a vibrant community of Sport Walkers, taking on challenges and pursuing trail walking as a sporting endeavour, in much the same way as the trail and ultra running community has grown so strongly in recent years.
This South Downs Way completion is the starting point of a major push by Sport Walk, to explain what Sport Walking offers and to build awareness and participation. New video content is being produced and we’ll personally be reaching out to the media, walking groups and whole host of other bodies in order to increase participation.