It's just 400 metres separating me and the finish line.
One quarter of a mile before I can stop and rest my legs.
I remember being at school and hating track. As I started running this one, it was no different. I was trying hard, but not going very fast. My Dad was stood there taking pictures. It was like school sports day all over again.
But this time, other than him and a few spectators, I was alone on the track. And I wasn't racing 400 metres, I'd run 49.75 miles with 4800ft of vertical climb already and this was the home stretch.
The race had started 8 hours, 57 minutes and 3 seconds earlier in Worthing and in the meantime myself and the other runners had travelled along the South Downs Way to Eastbourne following the Centurion Running route.
Since late last year when I decided that a 100 miler wasn't on the cards just yet, this was to be my A race for 2014. It's always nice to have A races planned but the truth is I'm like a kid in a sweet shop when it comes to race and I picked up a few Half Marathons earlier in the year which I wanted to do well at.
With these races and other commitments taking up my time I realised early this year that I would not have the time to dedicate to a "normal" ultra training plan. Previously I've followed others plans, my bible on these matters being Bryon Powell's Relentless Forward Progress, which is a fantastic read for new and established distance runners, but I knew I needed something different this time.
I created a plan to focus on quality miles and developing my weaknesses, rather than junk miles to just confirm what I was already capable of. I knew I could run, now it was about getting faster and stronger
In previous races I had found that my legs had tired on hills and then had no pace in for the flat parts. So I had trained on running form and glute recruitment so that I was a faster runner and not relying on trashed legs. This had lead to a PB in my HM's earlier in the year and during the ultra it meant I could dig deeper on the flat parts and make up some distance.
While training I'd tried a run:walk strategy. It was OK, but I found that I got bored on the walk phase and that I wasn't running fast enough to make it efficient. So when I got the chance to run on the South Downs I did just that. Running fast recruits different muscle fibres to running slow, so by picking up my pace I was giving others a chance to rest. I had used a lot of interval training to train this system.
When I DNF'd last year at SVP 100, my whole body felt like it was shutting down, so in training I'd made my body a lot stronger. Resistance training and core strength was completed 2-3 times per week, giving me a stronger base to work from and a frame more capable of taking the punishments of running an ultramarathon and transferring strength from the upper body to the legs.
Along with the mental strength to tell myself I could run fast when I needed to, I was confident I could finish this race.
The course followed a fairly regular pattern. Uphill a long way, run along the top, down the other side and then into an aid station to reload on food and drink. Repeat this 6 more times and you get the idea.
Setting off from Worthing to Botolphs, the first stage is just over 11 miles long. The race registration procedure was as smooth as you'd expect from a company as well organised as Centurion. The entire process from entry to participation and all the stupid questions I had a long the way were handled perfectly. I would recommend and will use them again. Great guys. Leaving the start area, the race went straight into a long uphill section, chalky trails and bridleways. After a slow start I found my pace and settled into a groove while the race order naturally sorted itself out. I put some tunes on, and smiled thinking about a day or running somewhere new. I love that sense of adventure. I saw my average pace drop into the 8:30's and felt great. My plan was to run/walk but the race never flattened out at this point. It was either straight up or straight down so I stuck with my gut and cruised into aid station one, without really backing off the pace.
The next two stages were shorter, 6 miles and 10 miles each. By Aid station 3 (Housedean Farm) I felt pretty strong still, the pack had thinned now and as we'd got further into the SDW, a fog had settled on the high ground. The incline had not really calmed down, but I was running happily, knowing that the next checkpoint would give me a chance to see my Dad who had driven down with me.
It was just 6 more miles to Southease, but for me this section was tough. The route had gone well up into the hills now and I felt like we must have gone to the highest point now. We were nearly running in clouds. I had noticed that every time I got to an incline, other closed in on me. We were all walking, but I was walking slower for no apparent reason! It was frustrating to say the least, but I stuck with my plan.
Walk the ups, run the flats, get down as fast you can.
The aid station was a welcome sight although by now I was struggling with food. I was neither hungry nor tiring. But, I know the importance of fuelling properly so I made sure I ate, and took gels on board as well and made sure I was drinking and had water with me. I met my Dad, who saw I was struggling but never said a word. I think at this point I must have looked like a horror. My pace had settled at 10:06 min/miles. I was still up on my predicted pace, but I felt tired.
My Dad warned me that he had walked a bit along the trail and that it was a big incline coming up. I told him with no small amount of blasé that I had already run some big hills and I had nothing to worry about.
I was wrong.
I walked for what seemed like an eternity. Ever upwards, the trail wound around the side of a hill and up into the cloud base layer. At the top and running along the peak of the hills, the clouds sat below us, making it feel like you were running through the clouds.
On and on, with faster people going past me on this monster of a hill, I focused on happy thoughts.
I was two thirds of the way through and was nearly an hour ahead of where I'd planned.
I wasn't struggling at all, it was tough but I had no injuries or niggles and given the chance I would run.
Despite having no appetite, my nutrition and hydration was great.
The 8 mile section between Aid stations 4 and 5 was the toughest for me. It was cold and damp, the trail along the Downs went on forever and the fog was so thick you could barely see other runners. I suddenly felt very alone. This was the grind. People say that ultra running is 90% mental and this is when it counts. Enjoying running is easy. For most of us it's appositive experience, but when times get tough, this is when you need to just get your head down and push on.
The next hour become very repetitive.
Run, walk, check route, check surroundings.
Run, walk, check route, check surroundings.
Run, walk, check route, check surroundings.
When the descent started, my mood lifted, runners who had gone past me and into the fog became visible again, sun broke out and we approached a small place called Alfriston. The trail leads through the village where people were out clapping. After a long time in the wilderness, I was back near people and excitement. It wasn't just me. There were friends and families. Local supporters and volunteers cheering runners on. The sense of excitement was back and when I saw my Dad this time it was with a smile on my face and a real sense of excitement. 10 miles to go and I'd have finished!
The sun stayed out for the next climb and descent into Jevington, but faded after the final aid station and onto the last 4 mile section to the finish. It stayed grey and cool and overcast. That was fine by me.
I was running again and as I reached the stone marker for the end of the South Downs Way, a volunteer was there to show us the way. Down a steep banked, narrow track, technical and rocky with roots and trip hazards (my favourite sort of route) I picked up more and more pace. This little track spilled onto a small road, which entered a town, then a main road. 49 miles in and I'm stood with two other guys, pressing a button on a pedestrian crossing to cross the road. Quite surreal.
For the last mile, I started smiling again. I was nearly there. I was certain of a finish, a medal and a PB on distance and at a better than planned pace.
For the last half mile, I could see the finish line and wound my way around the car park and towards the finish line. I was literally brimming with joy.
The last 400 metres and I entered the running track to finish the race I'd started nearly 9 hours earlier. As I ran around I reflected on the day, the literal and mental highs and lows. I had a lump in my throat and my eyes started to burn a little as I approached the finish line.
A mixture of joy at finishing and pride in achieving that finish.
Anyone who finishes any run or race has accomplished something, and despite the medals and the t-shirts, I like to think that the best accomplishments and rewards are the internal ones.
For me, this race was about personal goals and achievement. It was about training with less time than I have previously had but training smarter to get results.
It was about finishing the race strong and smiling and this time, I did just that.