South Downs Way Completion – Full Report

The long read: a blow by blow report of Roger Burlinson’s non-stop South Downs Way Sport Walk, in his own words.

By Roger Burlinson

I first started thinking about walking the South Downs way non-stop when I was training for Race to the Stones. It would have been April/May 2017, when I started to focus on longer training sessions and moved from my home trails in the New Forest to the South Downs, to get more hills and build tougher sessions.

IMG_1452
An early training session on the South Downs in 2017

In 2016, I’d got heavily into the whole ultra scene, as I tweaked and refined my approach to Sport Walking and races like Western States, Hard Rock and UTMB mesmerised me. The South Downs Way, at 100 miles, is the same distance as most of the big name ultras, so it didn’t seem like an illogical thing to try at all, it was all just a question of whether I was capable.

Jump back to 2017, skip forward a few months and I’d successfully completed Race to the Stones (100km) in a time that was much better than I’d expected and, most importantly, I felt good at the end. This gave me immense confidence that, with the right training and preparation, I too could step up to the 100 mile distance.

2017 Race to the Stones by SussexSportPhotography.com with Pic2Go 1:15:45 AM
Crossing the finish line at Race to the Stones in 2017

Originally, I had planned to walk the route in 2018 but my work was really busy and I wasn’t able to string together the right amount of training early season. Looking back, I think it was a good thing I wasn’t in a position to try in 2018, as I’m not sure I would have been ready, even with the right training. The walking I did do in the summer of 2018, paired with a good run of efforts that winter and early spring of 2019, had me in a much better place to proceed, so the challenge was on.

Little To Eastbourne
See the difference in height? That’s the start ramp!

With all the prep done and two years of planning, re-planning and re-re-planning complete, Aleksandra (my wife) and I arrived at Beachy Head at lunch time on Friday 5th July 2019. We met Richard and Joanne, the core members of my support crew, I got changed and ready and then we all set off to walk down to the start, using this as a warm up. We arrived at the start just after 1pm, so we agreed that I’d go at quarter past. I’m not sure if I was nervous. I was definitely excited by what lay ahead and I was also relieved finally to be getting on with it after so much training and such a long time planning for it.

We took some obligatory photos and agreed a method for verifying the start time, with Joanne filming a video clip of me leaving then pointing the camera at her watch to show the time. Of course my watch would also record the actual start time but you can’t be too careful! Photos and videos taken of the departure would also have a date and time stamp, so I was pretty confident we had the whole time verification thing licked.

Me at start 1
Roger preparing to leave Eastbourne.   Photo: Richard Iles

Stage One – Eastbourne to Exceat
Then, after a countdown from Richard, I was off! I felt quite proud of how steadily I went up the steep start ramp – not my normal or natural response to a steep climb! I knew I had to and I also knew I had to take the whole first stretch over Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters easy. The trouble was that while I was keeping my pace well within the limits I’d set for that section and while I was feeling very comfortable, the relentless climbing and descending threw me off completely in terms of feeling in control of my effort and pace.

I felt both too fast and too slow at the same time and this basically resulted in me just feeling a bit rubbish if I’m honest. I felt too fast because the steep ramps kept my heart rate raised and this felt like I was working harder than I actually was. I felt too slow because that same terrain necessarily meant I was moving more slowly than I would have liked and time seemed to be ticking on.

Beachy Head profile 1
Trying to keep it steady on the opening coastal stretch.   Photo: Richard Iles

I wouldn’t say it was a mistake to go east to west (It was a carefully considered choice, for a number of reasons) but I would say that this tough start is definitely a factor going this way and it’s hard to predict in advance the exact impact it’ll have on your whole walk. Normally you’d want to go out easy and then build effort as the challenge goes on. Going east to west inevitably means going harder than you’d want to go that early on, regardless of your pace.

National Trails
The classic view back along the Seven Sisters

Stage Two – Exceat to Southease
Once I reached Exceat, I felt a bit relieved. Now I could move inland and get into a rhythm on the ridge top. I met my crew at the road crossing there and got some new fluids for the next 20k. It was on this next section across to Alfriston that I rather curiously managed to acquire a Strava KOM for a short climb, so I guess the relief I felt at putting the Seven Sisters section behind me had an impact.

After I passed through Alfriston I came to the first long steady climb of the route and it was a chance to settle into a good pace, work fairly hard but not to go ‘full gas’. I love climbs like this, where you’re always in control but can press on strongly.

Little Rog above Alfriston
Feeling good at the top of the climb out of Alfriston

I’d remembered this stretch from a training session that took me all the way to Eastbourne and back from Firle Beacon (I didn’t enjoy that session because of doing the ‘Sisters twice) and passing the start and end point from that day was really nice, as it completed what I felt was the worst section for me personally. From there it was just a question of passing the radio mast at Beddingham Hill and then dropping down to the first checkpoint at Southease.

The whole challenge would roughly be divided into 20km segments, to allow for fresh supplies of drink and food. I’d also then consume some additional food and drink at each checkpoint. Going long like this is as much an eating and drinking challenge as it is a walking one but I had a strong hydration and refuelling strategy, so it was an aspect I was very much at ease with.

I’d take with me on each stage two soft flasks with either Tailwind (a liquid fuel I’ve used since 2017) or Precision Hydration (specially formulated electrolyte replacement drink). Both would ensure I was getting enough sodium to restore any losses from sweat (PH more so than Tailwind) and I’d alternate so I could also eat solid food, as much for variety as for any specific nutritional benefit. It can be difficult eating solid food on the go but I’d recently discovered Chia Charge bars, which were probably the nicest and easiest to digest trail bars I’d used and so they completed my ‘trail supplies’.

“About the Ditchling Beacon checkpoint… there’s some bad news and some good news…”

Southease bridge crossing
Crossing Southease bridge with the descent in the background.   Photo: Richard Iles

As I crossed the bridge at Southease Richard greeted me with an update. “about the Ditchling Beacon checkpoint… there’s some bad news and some good news”. Turns out there was a cycle hill climb at Ditchling Beacon, which was a scheduled meet point for us to top up fluids to get me to Pyecombe and the road up was closed. So Richard and Joanne were planning to stop at the next car park and run back to bring me some drinks. You see, that’s why having an ace support crew is vital for something like this – they keep tabs on everything and revise the plan so you don’t have to. The briefing given, I got on with stuffing my face…

 

If I’m honest, I probably took a bit more time than I needed overall at checkpoints but it was nice to chat a little while scoffing some food and I also felt a responsibility to my crew (who’d given up their time to help me), to spend a few moments with them and to enjoy it. You don’t always save time by being precision drilled in checkpoints, you need to invest a little in spontaneous human contact and if someone tells a funny story while you munch on a banana, so be it. If you have an enjoyable meet up, you’ll leave feeling great and this will translate into improved performance out on the trail. I certainly didn’t waste time though and everything that needed to happen did happen smoothly and at a good pace, they just weren’t Red Bull pit stops!

Stage Three – Southease to Pyecombe
From Southease, after the nasty little ramp up Mill Hill I faced the first mental test – the long straight section on a concrete farm road up to Iford Hill. This offered no challenge in terms of climbing, it was more that mental challenge when the road is laid out in front of you and it’s dead straight, so you can see your destination far off in the distance and it seems to take forever to arrive.

Little Love Supreme
Looking across to the Caburn and the Love Supreme Festival next-door

Pretty soon though, at the top, the trail turned sharply and once again I was on those wonderful open downland tracks, with views across to Lewes and The Caburn, a honeypot for local paracenders. A text exchange with taunts of “Pimms O’Clock” from friends who were at the Love Supreme Festival down below me, snapped me back into the moment.

I remember checking my distance at the top of the descent down to Housedean Farm a little further on and, realising I was a little off the pace for a 24 hour completion (don’t ask, it was a stupid thought), I was glad to hit the descent and to let myself go on what was a nice long steepish downhill.

At the bottom, by the bridge over the A27, Richard, Joanne and Aleksandra were waiting. This wasn’t a food stop but what we called a ‘meet and greet’ and the primary reason for this one was so I could say goodnight to Aleksandra, who was heading back to Portsmouth for some sleep before re-joining the team early the next morning. I did pick up my head torch incase I needed it before Pyecombe, as Richard had suggested in response to the Ditchling situation. I also stood them down from running back to Ditchling as I didn’t feel I was going to need additional fluids.

There’s a bit of a steep climb up from Housedean farm and at some point I managed to have an altercation with something sharp and pointy – a bramble or wild rambling rose of some sort – because as I dropped down into a small wood I was rather alarmed to see blood pouring out of my heel. OK, maybe not pouring out but my heel was very bloody and very dusty and dirty. I needed to clean it up, as I certainly didn’t want to take a chance on that wound getting worse or picking up some kind of infection from a dirty cut. So, my one and only first aid session commenced.

Cleansed and repacked and after climbing gently for what seemed like ages, I topped out again at Black Cap and headed west along Plumpton Plain. As Ditchling Beacon grew nearer, I could see the finish line for the hill climb and just make out feint cries of “alley, allez”. At the Ditchling road crossing I found numerous cyclists who’d turned out to watch the race and a couple of exhausted souls who’d just finished their runs. As a bit of a cycling fan and cyclist myself, this was an interesting encounter but I was well disciplined and just got through the finish line blockages as quickly as I could.

Little Ditchling
Ditchling Beacon & the hill climb, backlit by the fading sun

By this point light was fading but the sun was still just up. I’d felt OK for this whole stretch from Eastbourne although a couple of niggles I’d had in my legs the week before the attempt were still showing themselves and I was just a little concerned whether they would get worse or, perhaps, get better the further in I went. Certainly, the setting sun as I moved ever closer to the descent down to Pyecombe was a real tonic and I was feeling great in terms of my spirit, even if my legs had been and remained rather sore from the start.

When I caught a glimpse of the Clayton Windmills and realised the trail was now dropping me down to the main evening stop at Pyecombe, my spirits lifted further and then the sun started doing what it does best! As I turned to move onto the golf course path, the view I was presented with was just fabulous. How could this walk possibly get any better I asked myself. And then I arrived in Pyecombe to see that Richard and Joanne had already brewed up my pot noodle and I got my answer!

Little Pyecombe sunset
Not bad is it! The path down to Pyecombe with the route ahead in the background

You might be forgiven for thinking a highly structured attempt like this would be all high tech nutrition and, to a point, you’d be right. What I was consuming on the trail was certainly high tech and formulated specifically for ultra endurance efforts but checkpoints are different and should be different. Checkpoints should be where you just stuff any old calories into you but calories you fancy, to counter the rather efficient flavours of your trail nutrition and hydration.  

When you’re walking hard you want flavours you can get down easily without really noticing. You need drinks that are gently fruity but not too tangy or tart because that can be troublesome. You need calorific hard food that is soft and easy to eat but which doesn’t weigh heavily on your stomach. 

Getting your trail food right requires practice, experimentation and testing in training. Getting your checkpoint nosh right is simply about choosing the things that are going to fill those little calorie gaps and put a smile on your face. I chose new potatoes with butter (cold and congealed but lovely), finger sausage rolls because they’re tasty and soft, pizza because it’s pizza, bananas because they’re bananas, crisps – more for the savoury flavour hit than the salt and banana malt loaf. I’d alternate quaffing flat coke (Pepsi actually) with Precision Hydration 1000 at checkpoints, depending on where my mood was and this smorgasbord grazing approach worked really well.

At Pyecombe though, I’d ordered a little something from the a la carte menu – chicken and mushroom King Pot Noodle and hot coffee and boy did it taste great! It is interesting how foods taste when you’re in different situations. At this time, after quite a few hours on the trail, the Pot Noodle was just what I needed. It was good to have something hot as well, before heading back out onto the trail for the night section. It set me up just right.

I did a bit of a kit change on my top half but other than that I stayed exactly as I was. I had taken options for a change of shorts, socks and shoes both for the night and for day two but I’m a believer in the old ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra, so I only fixed the weak links.

Another nice element to the dinner stop (I was only there about 10-15 minutes in all) was the arrival of Steve, a friend from my old canoe club, who’d agreed to travel the night section and meet me at strategic places to give me a little company. Richard and Joanne had nailed dinner and continued to have everything I needed ready and waiting for me and this filled me with such confidence, so with the addition of Steve to the crew, I was ready to face Devil’s Dyke in the dark!

Stage Four – Pyecombe to Washington (night)
Leaving Pyecombe, I got a few texts from an old buddy I used to work with in Mountain Biking and this gave me a huge lift to start off this night section. Again, it’s interesting the impact these simple little things can have, not just on your mood but your actual performance when you’re taking on a challenge.

Little Devil's Dyke
Devil’s Dyke in the day time. The strong white trail to the left is the SDW path

Feeling good, it didn’t seem to take long at all to reach Devil’s Dyke. This was the first dark section that wasn’t on open hillside but actually it wasn’t that bad at all really. I got used to the dark and being alone on the trail quite quickly and rationalised the whole thing rather easily: There was no point worrying about anything or anyone out there in the dark. They couldn’t do anything worse to me than I was already doing to myself!

At the road crossing at Shoreham Road, I picked up my iPod and this is when the night section took on a whole different feel. I revisited a playlist of some old funk classics that had served me so well in the evening at Race to the Stones and I got that same pick up this time. You wouldn’t think that Jazz Funk would be the best motivational music for a sporting challenge but it was the feel good factor of happy tunes and intoxicating beats that didn’t so much spur me on, as just massively lift my spirits.

I found myself singing out loud, the noise cancelling ear buds making that a very weird sensation and I’m sure anyone who may have been hiding in the bushes would have themselves been scared off by this haunting and rather flat wailing as it approached! I also found myself sort of dancing along in places too, just waving my arms about in the air in jubilation at Beggar & Co or George Duke. Really quite strange behaviour I admit but it really did make all those hours alone on the trail much more enjoyable.

“There was no point worrying about anything or anyone out there in the dark. They couldn’t do anything worse to me than I was already doing to myself!”

As I reached Chanctonbury Ring, just west of Washington, I saw a light flickering in the distance. I hadn’t seen any walkers or riders so far that night but I did know that mountain bikers and gravel riders do make night time excursions on the downs, so I assumed that’s what it was. But mysteriously, while the light was moving around, it wasn’t getting any closer. I became curious and then, as it seemed to appear and disappear and still not get any closer, I became ever more alert.

Maybe there were some people ahead messing around or up to no good? Chanctonbury Ring has signs of people gathering and using it at night. Maybe they were up here getting stoned, maybe they were doggers, maybe they were devil worshipers, maybe aliens – my mind rapidly processing all the potential scenarios and how I should handle them as I got ever closer to the light.

I was going to have to interact with this thing, whatever or whoever it was – our paths were about to cross. I readied for possible contact, whatever that would bring, hand poised to draw a pole from my vest, like a Samurai drawing his sword!

“Alright Rog…..”

It was Steve. He’d walked all the way up the long climb from Washington to meet me and walk a while. I was chuffed.  Turns out Steve was loving being out on the downs in the dark as much as I was, with the views of the lights down in Worthing and the wonderful flashing red light show from the Brighton Wind Farm array. We walked together along the hill ridge then descended down the steep track to the Washington car park to meet Richard and Joanne and another text book support stop.

Stage Five – Washington to Littleton Farm (night)
The next section from Washington to the A29 above Arundel passed without much distraction. Just more singing, more dancing and quite a few wildlife encounters. I saw two badgers, a hedgehog, bats, deer and a Barn Owl that flew ahead of me along the trail for a few hundred metres. As I had my music in, I couldn’t hear anything on the trail and I think that’s probably the best approach, as more often than not you hear more than you see and what you hear is what puts you on edge (unless it’s lights that don’t move). 

With my head torch turned down quite a lot (so I had good visibility of the trail surface but not so much light as to render all the shadows as complete black), I had a really nice focussed view of the path ahead and I was also able to enjoy the few sights around me that I could make out, all with blissful ignorance of what may have been rustling in the trees just metres from me.

Little Night Rog
The night phase was one of the highlights of the whole walk

As I approached the base of Bignor Hill, I saw Steve again, although he was so far from the car park, I did just hold off shouting out until I was sure, just in case it was someone else! We walked together again and climbed the nasty ramp up the base of Bignor Hill, which is seriously off camber and really rutted, so it’s an all round unpleasant stretch. As we turned sharp right though and the trail opened up above the tree line, we had to stop. The dawn had begun and the horizon was glowing that wonderful shade of tangerine.

Once we’d taken a few pics we cracked on. I guess I could have done with saving time but you’re only ever in that situation once and I think you need to savour the moment! After I left Steve at Bignor car park, there was enough light to switch off the head torch and by the time I reached Richard and Joanne at the Littleton Farm crossing, it was a beautiful early morning.

Stage Six – Littleton Farm to Queen Elisabeth Country Park
Fresh supplies of fluids and fuel on board I set off up Littleton Down. It was a steep climb that I hadn’t walked before but I just took it easy, like I’d taken all the climbs to this point and I knew at the top that I’d be hitting the section of the way that I knew the best and that meant I’d have a better handle on what lay ahead and what I needed to do to keep on schedule.

Little Dawn Rog
Rising up to Littleton Down to meet the sun

My legs were sore and most of me hurt but I felt OK overall. About half way up the climb, the sun rose over the horizon and everything was alright in the world. Over the crest of Littleton Down, I saw that what had previously been a grassy meadow the last time I walked it, was now a wheat field and I just had to stop and take one of those ‘wheat field at sunrise’ shots on my phone.

Little Sunrise Wheat
You don’t forget moments like this

At the Cocking Down meet and greet, Steve finished his shift and headed off to go coaching at the canoe club (this after working the day before and hanging out with me through the night!). I couldn’t thank him enough for coming out – that simple human contact out on the trail at night made a huge difference. I pushed on up the long climb, which is the sort of climb I like the best. It’s steep but not so extreme as to interrupt your flow and I just got into a steady rhythm until, finally, I topped out. I used this next section to prepare myself mentally for Harting Down and Butser Hill and to try and reset my mind to focus just on getting this next phase right.

While the South Downs Way doesn’t go over the top of the first of the two Beacon Hills – the sugar loaf torture lump next to Harting Down – the steep ramp before it is a test and then there’s another short sharp ramp as the trail moves south to avoid the worst of this wonderful, brutal hill. I’ve been over this range so many times I knew this was where the difficult stuff would begin but, again, as I’ve trained here so often I was confident I knew what to do and how to handle it. That said, I was about 110k in and every climb now would chip away at what strength and energy I had left, regardless of how I handled them.

These two ramps passed without much issue, so I refocussed on the next climb, that would rise from the base of Beacon Hill’s western flank. I was feeling tired and quite sore all over but nothing that gave me concern. This was what I expected but I was happy to be on very familiar ground now as I think that can really help you manage negative feelings as you get more and more tired.

At the first road crossing on Harting Down, I spotted Richard and Joanne waiting for me and, as before, they had everything sorted. This time it was road crossing protection, as we were now in the prime commuting window for Goodwood. Harting Down is the road of choice for Lambo or Aston drivers on their way to the to the ‘Festival of Speed’, which was in full flow not far to the south, even if it’s not the most direct route.

We walked through the linking woodland trail that joins the two road hill climbs, which attract so many cyclists and drivers to Harting and it’s one of my favourite pieces of woodland trail on the whole route. A quick slurp of drink and some snacks at the car and I was off again, heading on to Buriton and the eastern side of Queen Elisabeth Country Park, my normal Saturday morning base for training. There was nothing to worry about on this stage, so I just kept going through timings in my head, thinking about how I was feeling and what that meant for the potential in the last 35k.

On the descent to the Buriton car park, Aleksandra came into view. She’d arrived at QEP early and had run out from the park to meet me and this gave me a big boost. We walked together through the park, keeping the pace steady and sane and then we arrived at the main car park for the ‘breakfast stop’. To be honest it wasn’t much of a breakfast, just more of the same but Rich had brewed some fresh coffee (which was the loveliest thing I’ve ever tasted) and we did break open a pack of what I called ‘chocolate pain’ (pain au chocolat), which seemed appropriate!

I changed my base layer to be ready for the sweating that was surely to follow but kept my top shirt the same and I also switched back to my visor from the headband I’d been wearing through the night. My feet hurt but nothing was a worry so I decided that changing socks would only open up the potential for something to feel wrong afterwards, so I stuck with things as they were. If this stop took a bit longer than the others it was probably more to do with me subconsciously putting off the inevitable fate that awaited me – Butser, the big test.

Little Butser
It doesn’t look that bad does it!

Stage Seven – Queen Elisabeth Country Park to Exton
Aleksandra walked with me to the foot of the climb then left me to it (can’t say I blame her). The climb ramps up gradually before the steep section but you have to watch your pace on the lower slopes. If you walk the first part thinking you’ll slow down when it gets tough, by the time you hit the steeper stuff you’ve already invested more than perhaps you should have, if you don’t want to suffer as it goes skyward. For me though, it was pretty academic. I knew I needed to walk slower than I would normally walk, even on a steady ascent, so I just went easier than I felt I needed to and that seemed enough.

Enough that is until I reached the steep part and that was the first time I felt like I wasn’t in control on a climb. Up until this point, I’d been steady and walking within myself but still walking quite strongly on the hills. This brute though was starting to hurt. It was still early in the morning but the heat was rising and the side of the hill I was on had almost no breeze.

At the gate two thirds of the way up, I took a brief tactical pause, which can often be more productive than pressing on to the top at a slower pace. Even 30 seconds can help bring your heart rate down and if you pick your spot right, that short pause can be enough to reboot you and that’s what happened for me. I took another quick pause again at the summit and then settled back into pace for the next section down to Meon Springs.

What I took from the Butser climb was that I’d probably reached my current fitness limit and that was about 130k. That’s 30k more than Race to the Stones but, more importantly, 30k short of the 100 mile / 160k distance. I needed to manage this phase carefully. I needed to try and keep my sore deteriorating body working as well as possible, I needed to manage my thought process and not slip into negative thinking, I needed to recalculate what time was viable rather than desirable and keep the show on the road. It wasn’t easy to do any of these.

The first to crack was my mind, as is always the case. Luckily, it was only a crack. Despite telling myself not to think about how far remained, I of course did. What quite quickly pulled me back was my cunning pre-prepared strategy for this exact moment. I thought of all the people who inspire me in the ultra world. For the purpose of this situation I wasn’t looking for thoughts of friends, family or other inspiring individuals. No, I needed role models to aspire to at least be on the same planet as, if not in the same room (definitely not in the same room!).

So, Nicky Spinks, Jim Walmsley, Kilian, François D’Haene, Stephanie Case (Stephanie especially as I’d read about her struggles through Tor des Géants) and more, all popped into my head right on cue and this helped. I thought of each of their tests and how they overcame them, except for François D’Haene as I’d only ever seen him trot effortlessly to success in whatever he did. Amazing athlete!

After this brief motivational hallucination, I hit the steep technical descent to Meon Springs, a trail I love, just not today. Normally I like to push hard down through the deep ruts, getting as close as I can get to running. It’s the way I like to descend mountains or any steep ground – it’s free speed. You just take the brakes off and let yourself go! Today though I was being hit from both sides – going fast down this descent hurt and keeping the brakes on hurt. There was nothing to do but just try and find a happy medium and put up with the discomfort. What I realised though was that the remaining 25k or so was going to be the biggest test I’d ever faced. 

I’d run out of reserves. Fatigue was kicking in on the climbs, leg pain was picking up the baton and taking over on the descents. Luckily, on flats everything was as normal as I could have wished for at this stage but that’s when my head would kick off. I was being attacked on all fronts. “Resist, resist” was all I could keep telling myself.

South Downs
The view back over Meon Springs to Butser Hill in the autumn of 2018

Aleksandra came down into the valley to meet me and suggested I use the tap next to the trail to soak my sun visor, a great idea that felt fantastic. We walked up the hill out of Meon Springs together and it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared, then at the top I stopped to guzzle some Pepsi and Precision Hydration and sat on the lip of the car boot and realised that was the first time I’d sat down since leaving Eastbourne. I felt quite proud and quite stupid in the same moment. I hadn’t sat down for 135km but was that dumb, should I have ‘rested’ a little more? I guess that’s a discussion that could have no definitive answer.

The next focus was Exton and from here that was a reasonably comfortable trek. The route to Old Winchester Hill, just a kilometre or so to the south, was on a false flat but that wasn’t so bad. The trail skirted round the summit of Old Winchester Hill, which is a bit of a pity because it’s a wonderful old hill fort but the drop down the side was very steep and brought on all sorts of new leg pains. By now it was getting really hot and I was using more and more fluids. I knew Richard and Joanne would be waiting at the bottom with fresh supplies though so I allowed myself just to drink what and when I needed.

Little Beacon from Old Winchester.jpg
Looking across to Beacon Hill from Old Winchester Hill earlier in the year

At the Exton road crossing Richard met me at the footbridge over the Meon river and re-soaked my sun visor in the river for me – by this time, bending down was very uncomfortable. I decided to take a short break here and to sit down again, knowing that the final steep climb – Beacon Hill (yes, they’re all over the place) was one of the steepest ramps I’d have to face. I scoffed more food and drank more coffee and electrolytes. Richard and Joanne had also updated the hydration plan, adding a Precision Hydration electrolyte tablet to each bottle of Tailwind liquid fuel (which was now almost my only energy source on the trail). “It’ll just add a little extra protection as it gets hotter” Richard declared reassuringly and I was really grateful for being able totally to leave all these sorts of decisions to them.

Everything hurt now, quite badly, and I asked them about taking some Ibuprofen, as I’d read about the risks of using it in ultras. Joanne quickly chipped in with the info I needed – Ibuprofen can block electrolyte replenishment, as Richard had found out to his cost during his triathlon racing career. Richard conceded that if I was still in pain and struggling at the final checkpoint just 5k from home, I could take some but not before. If I’d been left to my own devices and didn’t have some knowledge of Ibuprofen, I probably would have taken some much earlier on and then I too might have suffered debilitating muscle cramps just like Richard and failed to finish. Always listen to your crew, no matter what!

Exton bridge crossing
Doing my best to look in control arriving at Exton.   Photo: Richard Iles

Stage Eight – Exton to Winchester
So, the final challenge – Beacon Hill (Exton). I set off refreshed and fuelled with new drinks and made my way steadily across the fields to the base of the climb. This was another ramp I’d been up so many times and it’s not that long but it is savage and steep. Again, I set off steadily but when the steep stuff kicked in I really started to struggle. Feeling good setting off from Exton was just an illusion.

“I just want to lie down and close my eyes”

There were a few gates and stiles which meant I could segment the climb gate by gate. I was already suffering badly when I saw Aleksandra emerge from just behind the gate to the final stretch and I think I must have been a rather pathetic sight. “I need to sit down” I said and then repeated just in case she hadn’t heard! “in the shade, I need to sit in the shade”. So we sat in the shade. “I just want to lie down and close my eyes” I said and I meant it sincerely. Aleksandra didn’t try to motivate me to continue she just sat with me until after a few minutes I snapped out of it and we carried on.

Now if it feels like I’m dragging this latter phase out a bit, that’s because it was tortuously slow going. My pace had dropped significantly but I still had the motivation to carry on and to try to finish within my plan b time of 28 hours. I had about five goals actually, one being just to finish, so to be feeling so bad and yet still to be on track for plan b was good, so I told myself that and pressed on for Cheesefoot Head, the final checkpoint.

It seems this Beacon Hill encounter had worried Aleksandra somewhat and when she, Richard and Joanne reached Cheesefoot Head, she shared her concerns with them and they suggested she walk out to meet me with some pepsi, like a mobile nectar bar heading out to meet a poor exhausted butterfly! We met just east of the tank driving centre at Matterley Farm and there she was, a shimmering mirage carrying a large bottle of pepsi. “I’m alive, I’m alive!”

“If you keep your pace up you can still get 28” she said. That was enough, new focus came to me and we pushed on up to the road where Richard and Joanne were waiting with fresh flasks. I could feel myself getting just a little confident, so I nipped it in the bud and pressed on, trying my best to stay focussed on just doing what I needed to do. As I rounded the bend to see Winchester waiting for me below, I dumped the pep talk and started to believe.

But, as in all these types of endeavours, there’s always one last thing waiting for you, one last test and for me it was my right knee. Dropping down the short steep road descent to Chilcomb my knee started to scream and, knowing what this might do to my ability to keep my pace up, I was listening. I tried walking bow legged, I tried walking knock kneed, no change. I turned round and walked backwards and that was an instant cure but it cut my speed in half. I needed to think quick but nothing was coming. Then, by chance, I landed my right foot on its toes and got some relief from it, so that was it, that was my plan – walk normally but land my right foot on my toes!

Don’t worry, it’s nearly over!

M3 bridge crossing
Every time I drove passed this bridge I thought of this moment.   Photo: Richard Iles

All the guys were waiting for me at the bridge crossing the M3 and we sped (if you can call it that) onwards down to the city centre. We got lucky at the first road crossing and pressed on through the outlying roads around the Cathedral grounds, cursing all the time that we were being led in circles and effectively had double backed on ourselves. “why couldn’t they just let us turn right and go straight to the finish?” I declared. “Maybe it’s to make up the mileage for cyclists” Richard suggested. Some sections of the route divide with options for cycling and walking so maybe there was a mileage deficit for cyclists and he had a point.

Then to my immense and complete relief we turned a corner and I could see the City Mill at the end of the crowded path through the gardens. We sped on or at least it felt like we sped on and then, finally, the second road crossing. Richard took control and stepped out between two stationary vehicles to shepherd me across. Luckily traffic was heavy and crawling slowly so we could create a gap to squeeze through.

I still don’t understand why you place the trail head marker on the other side of a busy road from the trail head itself. Or in this case I do understand because it’s housed on National Trust property and, as I understand it, they jointly or fully funded the marker, so why shouldn’t they have it in their grounds?

Anyway, I was all ready to stop my watch at the road if there was a hold up but I didn’t need to because Rich played lollypop lady and got me there or at least got me as close as I could get, given that the City Mill had closed ten minutes earlier and the gates were locked, with the nice marker sign out of reach!

Little Finish Verification
Joanne’s watch verified the finish time.   Photo: Joanne Iles

“SUB 28!” shouted Richard. In all honesty I’d forgotten about the time goal, I was so determined just to finish. I think I might have whimpered out a feeble “Yeaaas”, then we all took a selfie and scattered. Richard and Joanne had a BBQ to get to and I’d spotted a rather alluring ice cream van back in the Cathedral gardens that needed further investigation.

There’s no question in my mind that without Richard and Joanne’s help and expert management of my support I wouldn’t have made it. When you’re taking on a challenge and have to fire fight or deal with issues that arise naturally along the way, it chips away at your strength and resilience and this can derail you. Richard and Joanne took everything off my shoulders and all that I needed to happen just happened. Doesn’t sound like much does it but that’s what it needs to be like to work. No fanfare, nothing big, just what you need, when you need it and what you don’t need, dealt with. I did the walking but they made it all work and I can never thank them enough.

Little The Team
All for one and one for all! L to R: Richard, Joanne, Aleksandra & Roger

The car was parked back up the hill towards the trail, so Aleksandra bought me an ice cream just as I’d asked, then left me at the van to go back and fetch my ride home. I decided to sit down on the grass against the wall, fully aware that I might not be able to get up again but it was so nice I was prepared to take the risk.

I’d failed in my primary goal but I was satisfied with what I had achieved – 100 miles in under 28 hours. I’d gone east to west – thought to be harder because of prevailing winds but I’m not so sure, I think Beachy Head & Seven Sisters are more of a factor. I’d also finished in a time that’s under most 100 mile ultramarathons’ cut off requirement. There were more pros than cons but I still felt like I could have done better.

Me at start 3
If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have done a few things differently.   Photo: Richard Iles

Thankfully the reasons I dropped off the cliff with 30k to go seemed blindingly obvious to me, almost as soon as I’d finished (shame I didn’t think of them four months earlier). I’d trained strong and trained well but effectively only for 130-140km. My training session durations matched what I did for Race to the Stones, topping out at 40k per long session and my reluctance to go longer in training, partly because the sessions would take so much time, denied me valuable muscular endurance.  I should have made at least two 80k sessions during the main training block.

Setting off at lunch time, having been up since 6.30-7.00am didn’t help either. Before I even started I’d been awake for over six hours and that six hours could have proved significant if I’d risen closer to the start time. I’m not sure I would have started first thing in the morning though. I felt that the schedule worked extremely well in allowing me to take on the night time section still relatively fresh and alert. I think, perhaps I would have left at maybe 11am – 12pm but I would have stayed overnight in Eastbourne, removing that drive over on the day of the challenge. I could have then adapted my sleep the night before to rise late and then leave fresh.

The other thing that let me down was a serious lack of targeted strength training with heavy weights to build up my leg muscles. I do use strength training in my routine and believe strongly that you’re only as strong as the muscles carrying you but, while I did do some strength work in the earlier months, I didn’t carry it through enough and this meant that my legs weren’t as resilient as they could have been to that long duration stress.

But, with all the self analysis, I had to feel quite pleased with the outcome. I was under prepared and under trained (despite feeling like I’d trained more and longer than ever before) and I’d still managed to get home within my second time goal.  As I sat there trying and failing to eat my ice cream faster than it was melting, I felt quite content. You can only do what you can do and I’d done what I was able to do that day, and that’s all you can ask for.

Unfinished business?  Perhaps…

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