June 11th 2016, 5:45am and I was stood in a field on the outskirts of Winchester ready to tackle my biggest challenge to date. 10 months ago I had signed up for Centurion Running's South Downs Way 100 and now here I was listening to the race briefing about signage, cows, getting lost, helping my fellow runners, oh and the small matter of running 100 miles to Eastbourne over some of the toughest hilliest terrain in England.
Preparation had gone well, and despite a few of the usual niggles that come with high mileage training I felt like I was as ready as I could be, however the prospect of running further than I ever had before was still daunting. There was no time to reconsider though as the Race Director counted down and we were off, completing a parade lap of the field before joining the South Downs Way for the rest of the day. Once again lots of people went tearing off, sprinting to get round the field like we were running 1 mile rather than 100. Obviously the adrenaline had kicked in because at this pace almost the top 50 were on course record pace... ludicrous. Within a 1km though everyone seemed to remember what lay ahead and as we hit the first incline of the day it was like the pause button had been pressed as 95% of the field slowed to gentle walk and I immediately made up about 40 places as I gently jogged up the short hill.
This split the field up somewhat and I settled into a nice rhythm as per my race strategy and began to tick the miles and the hills off. The scenery was beautiful and as I hadn't reccy'd the 1st 15 miles it was all new to me. The first aid station came and went at 10 miles, and I found myself running with a guy called John who was going for the grand slam. He was running all four of the centurion 100 mile events this year, having already completed the Thames Path 100 in a respectable 18hrs. We chatted for a while before I slowly pulled away from him as we headed towards the 1st checkpoint at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Those of you who are familiar with the area will know Butser Hill, the highest point on the SDW, which sits just to the right of the A3 as you travel south from Bedford. We came bounding down Butser Hill, trying not to lose our legs from under us and attempting to minimise the damage to the quads from a steep descent so early in the race. At this point (22 miles) I was feeling good and came into the checkpoint at 3:04:12 averaging around 8:15 min/miles bang on schedule.
A good friend of mine was waiting to cheer me on, and my brother who was travelling from Hereford with my two nephews to cheer me on was also making an attempt to see me.. Unfortunately I went through the checkpoint 2 minutes before he arrived and after 10 minutes of him hanging around he realised that he had missed me and made a beeline for the next aid station at Harting Down which was 5 miles away. This was where my Mum, Dad and Claire were going to be with my fuel and hydration stock to refill my pack.
Leaving QECP I caught a couple of people as I strode up the steep hill, and then it was a nice undulating run with only small steep inclines until Harting Down. I was now on familiar territory as during my preparation I had reccy'd the last 85 miles of the course (although not all at once!). I still felt that I was running strong, but was pleased to see the family at 27.2 miles and switch my water/electrolyte supplies and then with a quick wave to everybody (my brother/nephews had caught up now) I was off into the wilderness again.
The views from the Downs even at this early stage were breathtaking and thankfully even though there was some light drizzle the cloud cover was high and the visibility was good. I tried my best to soak in the environment and enjoy the occasion, using it as a welcome distraction as I ticked the miles off. I knew 35 miles was the next aid station and my next port of call seeing the family at a small place called Cocking. Although the field was spread I had now moved into 5th place, with 3rd and 4th only just in front of me. They seemed to be having a right ding dong of a race even at this early stage as one would pull ahead and then the other would overtake and vice-versa. This was entertaining to watch and even though they both seemed faster than me on the downhill stretches I would close the gap on the uphills.... yes I know I'm strange but I like the hills.
As with many of the Checkpoints, Cocking was in a Valley so there was a lovely long downhill, however you knew that there was a big uphill coming. So my strategy of running into the aid station, switching drinks bottles for cold ones from my support team, grabbing fuel and then taking a few bits from the delicacies that were on offer at the station then walking out and striding up the hill as fast as I could was working well. At this early stage we didn't have the smoothness of pit stop that Mercedes do.. we were more like the Skoda of Formula one, but this sharpened up as the day went along. We were now over a third of the way through the race and I was feeling good, my pace was right on schedule, legs felt good and I was sitting pretty in 5th place overall. What could go wrong.....
Well... as many of you know from previous race reports I often like to take a tumble on an Ultra just to keep things exciting. This time was to be my most spectacular and potentially damaging. Coming down a steep chalk, rocky descent as I avoided two walkers my right foot caught the top of a stone and despite my best efforts I couldn't prevent the inevitable... a face first plunge forwards and 10m slide down a less than comfy hillside. I knew I had done some damage, my right big toe was agony, and I was bleeding from several cuts and grazes... covered with chalk and cursing my luck I jumped up and got on with it hoping the pain would subside. I still had 62 miles+ to go and my day wasn't ending like this.
Despite my tumble I had closed the gap on 3rd/4th place now and as I caught up to them, I was asked how I was feeling to which I replied 'great until that tumble back there' displaying my war wounds for him to see. 'Ouch' he replied, 'there's an aid station ahead, you need to get some first aid for those cuts'...
This gave me the best opportunity ever to use an immortal quote from Jesse Ventura in the Predator movie, as I replied using accent and all 'I aint got time to bleed' and then I jogged on chuckling to myself, thinking I must tell Steve (Horton) that when I see him later. It's not often you get the chance to quote from a favourite film during a race.
Despite the joviality I was in a bit of pain, but I ploughed on. Bignor Hill (42 miles) came and went and I did let the volunteers provide me with a sterile wipe or two as I downed a cup of flat coke and grabbed some watermelon and banana to be getting on with. Then I headed off for Amberley, home of the famous chalk pits and the next chance I had to see my crew. There were now the three of us running together, chatting about how fast the front two had gone off, and talking about how our pace was doing. One guy called Jack started getting dizzy spells and it turned out he wasn't taking in any electrolytes, which was ultimately to be his downfall at this pace on a hot day, however I said to him at Amberly he could have some high 5 zero tablets from my crew, but this was always going to be too late and even though he had some he withdrew after 54 miles.
Our pit stops were now much smoother and at the top of Amberly hill, Claire switched my bottles and my nephew Luke helping whilst filming me on his video camera like I was famous and he was a member of the paparazzi!! I showed Claire and my Mum my bruises and grazes and I received little sympathy... rightly I think they were telling me to man up and get on with it!! 53 miles to go... Usually in these long events my dark patch comes around 50 miles but I knew that from Washington at 54 miles my pacing team were joining me. In Centurion running 100 mile events you can have one pacer on foot from halfway to accompany you, open gates, chat to you and generally just keep you motivated. I had a superb team of 3 lined up!! Andy Palombella was the lead out, followed by Steve Horton, back to Andy, then to Gill Fullen and then back to Steve for the final 13.4 miles. I can't thank them enough for what they did for me and it was such a boost to see them. Gill was waiting for me up the road about 800m from the aid station and checkpoint and I could of cried when I saw her.... We jogged into the station said our hello's, I grabbed two small hummus wraps and then left with Andy... 54 miles were done, I was in 3rd place and now I had a good mate to run with.
I told Andy that there was big hill coming up.. to which he positively replied.. 'dont worry bout that.. I'll get you up it'. I said 'we'll be walking it mate'... then when we got to it he realised what lay in store and agreed with me that 'it was a sensible suggestion to walk'. We powered to the top of the hill, with Andy taking action shots of me before I got too tired.. then we reached the summit and the views took our breath away (that may have been the hill). We settled into a nice pace with Andy chatting away to me and me doing my best to answer. It was great though to have a familiar face running with me for the next 12 miles or so. We somehow managed to average 8:30 min/mile at this point even though we had covered a serious distance and I was still feeling good. When I say I was feeling good... the legs were aching and starting to complain, but I still felt strong. We had a little cheer as I passed the 100km mark, and then much to our surprise we saw two runners in the distance... It couldn't be couldn't it?... we gradually closed the gap and low and behold it was the 2nd place guy. We caught up to him just before the aid station at Botolphs which is just inland from Shoreham by sea and grabbed a bit of food from the station before a big notorious climb up Truleigh Hill towards Devils Dyke. This is a 2 mile climb.
The aid station had some glorious Lemon Drizzle cake and some Rocket Fuel chocolate balls.. laden with caffiene. Both Andy and I had one of those and then set about striding up the hill. Once we got to Devils Dyke the family would be waiting and Steve would be taking over for a 6.4 mile stint up to Ditchling Beacon.. notorious from the London to Brighton cycle ride. We maintained that 2nd place but couldn't pull away from the chap behind us but it had been a successful leg. The hills were getting tougher though. Andy handed me over to Steve and he pulled me along metaphorically speaking (no touching was allowed) the majority of the climb had been completed though and despite a stop off at Clayton Windmills to check in, we were full steam ahead for Ditchling Beacon.
One of the beauties of this event is you can see where you are going and what lays ahead. This also means that you can see runners in the distance and low and behold Steve and I spotted the lead runner about 800m ahead. We steadily began to close the gap on him and his pacer as he seemed to be struggling. As we began a climb out of Saddlescombe Farm past the golf course it was evident that we were gaining fast and the leader sent his pacer back to 'chat to us'... he wanted to find out how I was doing and who I was... Steve chuckled as this guy tried to play mind games with me.. telling me it 'would get hard in 5 mins' to which i replied ' well i'll watch you and your mate struggle then won't i?!' He then left us to it to go and report back to his friend. We came into the aid station at 69.8 miles in 2nd place and left in 1st place... I was now in the lead and when the guy who had been chasing me went past the previous leader we think his will was broken and he just went backwards..
Coming out onto the beacon there were 28 miles to go and Steve was handing me back to Andy for another 12 miles. I heard my nephew shout 'he's in the lead.. I can't believe it!!' and this spurred me on... he also shouted 'he's going to win, c'mon uncle Ian win this!!'. I could only think 'I'll try my best little man'. Then Andy and I were off across the hillside cheered on by everyone with a nice downhill to look forward too... in hindsight though this is what probably was my downfall as the next 5 miles really took it out of my legs, the quads were screaming going down the hill and due to my earlier fall the more tired I got the more tentative I became. Reaching Housedean Farm aid station I grabbed an amazing piece of chocolate brownie and some more flat coke to revive me and then we crossed the A27 and headed up the next big hill. The view was amazing again however we were both distracted by a 'sinister' looking cow that Andy pointed out hiding in the long grass just peering out at us and in his words 'was waiting to pounce'.. unfortunately the hill was to steep for us to attempt to run away from him.....
We made slow progress to the top but now a big gap had opened up between us front two and anyone else. The guy in second was still about 50m behind and biding his time. We reached the top and then broke into a run knowing we had a good gentle downhill run on concrete to the next stop at Southease Railway station. Unfortunately we couldn't catch the train and did have to use a footbridge to cross the track which the legs didn't appreciate. Andy kept me motivated though and we still put in some fast miles. With 16 miles to go Gill Fullen took over for a short stint as even though she was carrying an injury she was desperate to help me out.. what a true champion she is. We made our way up Firle Beacon, and she kept me going, keeping me positive and pushing me to keep moving. Once we got to the top I knew that we only had 3 hills to go and 13.4 miles. Whenever you got tired you could just look at the views and they would lift the spirits and all my pacing team loved it... I was so pleased to be able to share it with them.
As we reached the top I pointed out Firle Beacon Car Park to Gill, to which she responded with 'already??' and then she handed me back to Steve and it was his job to get to me the finish. We saw my crew one last time at the top of Bo Peep (89 miles) they restocked me and gave me well wishes and I knew the next time I saw them would be for the last lap round Eastbourne athletics stadium. The legs were screaming, the body was tired, but the mind was strong and I kept plodding on with the moto 'relentless forward motion' in my head.
Unfortunately at 90 miles the chap behind me (Neil Kirby) made his move. He went past me and then on the downhill stretch into Alfrsiton he pulled away. My legs just wouldn't let me keep the speed going to match him and he opened up gap of 2 minutes by the time we reached the village and the aid station. he also didn't stop at the aid station, but I needed some coke and some fuel. We thought that we could catch him on the 2 mile climb out of Alfriston but he seemed to have found a new lease of life and he went storming up the hill. Steve and I did our best to narrow the gap, but my body wasn't having it. We strode up the Hill reaching the top and knowing there was only one hill left to go.
The descent down into Jevington really tested the pain threshold although Steve ran ahead to warn me of any trip hazards I just couldn't get any speed up. We went into the aid station for more coke and I tripped up the step, thankfully being caught by one of the marshalls. The legs were tired, but there was only 1 climb and 3.5 miles to go... c'mon Ian you can do this. It's tough when you realise that the win is out of your reach but I desperately wanted 2nd place and Steve was going to make sure I got there. We ploughed up the hill at a fast walk.. with Steve commenting ' it was nice for them to save the best for last'.
We made the top and there were two marshalls in a tent awaiting the night time arrivals... The sun was setting but we could see Eastbourne and the Athletics stadium. The Marshall's said it's all down hill from here to which i replied ' that's not the best' I actually wanted up hill. It hurt the legs less. Steve and I made our way carefully through the forest and down the hillside.. he used his headtorch to light the way in the dusk and we safely negotiated a tricky section until we reached flat terra-firma... It was now a flat 2km to the finish... what could go wrong.
We stretched the legs as best we could and were making good progress which was almost broken by a urban fox that leapt out of a hedge no more than a foot in front of us with it's dinner in it's mouth. Steve almost leapt into my arms... not what you want at 99 miles... and the fox dropped it's food. Thank goodness we didn't trip over it!! Thankfully that was the last little hiccup and we followed the road round, were Gill was waiting to jog with us into the stadium. Wanting to look strong coming into the stadium we put in a burst and there it was... what a relief... entering the stadium I knew 2nd place was mine and I knew that everyone could join me for the final lap. Gill, Steve, Andy, Claire, My Brother, and Luke my nephew all joined me as we looped round.. all holding hands and crossing the finish line in a triumphant 15:46:55... 2nd place and the 5th fastest time ever... exhausted, euphoric and emotional, hugs were exchanged and I was given my 100 miles in a day belt buckle which i shall cherish forever...
However its the chance to share this occasion with Claire, my Family and my friends that made this the most special day in my running career to date. It was a wonderful journey for us all.....