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Ultra Running for Normal People

Mike Clyne takes us through the ultra running experience as he tackles the Centurion Running’s South Downs Way 50 mile event. Here’s a full and honest write up and Mike offers some first hand tips to get the most out of your ultra! It looks like a long day! Maybe it will kick start your ultra running career?

My ultra running experience is not vast. 50km Royal Parks Ultra in 2013, Centurion Running South Downs Way 50 miles (DNF’ed – got timed out at 33.9 miles), Comrades Marathon (90km) in 2018 (https://run247.com/running-features/iconic-races/comrades-2018-mike-clyne-runs-the-ultimate-human-race and Comrades 2019 (DNF – timed out at 70km out of 90km distance https://run247.com/running-features/iconic-races/what-goes-down-should-go-up-comrades-up-year). So, four starts and two finishes. I’ve seen better odds than this with a lame pony at a horse race!

Nevertheless, with more running during lockdown than I had probably ever done, I felt good about my entry to Centurion Running’s South Downs Way 50 mile event. I’d done two thirds of it before, I was going with my friends Mark and Jack who are both very experienced and I was VERY keen to get my hands on a finisher’s medal.

Centurion Running South Downs Way 50

It was a long day

Race morning dawned chilly but beautiful clear blue skies. The start was a rolling one to keep within COVID guidelines so we picked up our tracker (a new introduction to Centurion events which would allow our supporters to see where we were) and off we went just after 8.00am.

Not being a fast runner, my main priority was finishing and keeping ahead of the cutoffs that there were at each aid station. The event had an overall cutoff of 13 hours which equates to 15m36s per mile. Sounds really easy. It wasn’t. The course starts at Worthing, heads north for a few miles (mostly uphill) before joining the South Downs Way (SDW) trail itself. Mark, Jack and I ran together for about the first 15 miles and then gradually over the next few miles we separated. Mark ran on with Jack and I rarely being more than a mile apart for the rest of the ultra running experience.

The Centurion Running Aid stations are legendary for their friendliness and being crewed mostly by runners. They look after you so well that you have to remind yourself that you can’t hang around too long otherwise your time just adds up. Any time you are moving you are getting nearer to the end, so the trick is to be in and out quickly. Problem is, the crew are so welcoming and supportive it is easy to hang around too long. There are six aid stations on the course with varying distances between them but you can make this part of your plan.

Miles 17 to 22 felt, well, just hard – it dragged along a bit and whilst I was loving the day it felt like a lot more work. And then, as can so often happen with long distance running, something clicked. It wasn’t like I was suddenly flying but I was trotting along without a care in the world.  And the views were still great.

Centurion Running South Downs Way 50
Official Photos used with kind permission of Stuart March Photography

Jack’s family saw us on the course, and it was great to have support along the way – the best bit was when they gave me a cup of tea at around 30 miles.  It tasted like pure nectar and just what I needed.

As I approached the aid station at Southease (33.9 miles in), I was able to relax a little.  Up and over the railway footbridge this was where I missed the cutoff three years before and now I was 45 minutes inside this benchmark.  Leaving the aid station I was however faced with one of the tough hills that rises around 600 feet in just over two miles.  My pace dropped and I just had to walk up the long winding hill.

Alfriston is not only a quintessentially English village, the aid station is inside a little chapel.  I now had just over eight miles remaining starting off with a(nother) 600 feet climb.  Then you drop down to the final aid station in the Old School House in Jevington.  At this point, I’d donned an extra layer as the sun was dipping and whilst I knew I was good for time, I didn’t want to hang around.  The wonderful aid station team saw me in and out of the tiny building in a couple of minutes to attack the final 4+ miles.

This is a straight up 400 feet of climbing to a trig point and that is your uphill done for the day.  I picked my way carefully down the narrow path and tried to increase the pace.  Although the race instructions showed a video of this final stretch I couldn’t remember how long was left and although I had about an hour left I didn’t want to waste the whole day.  At the bottom of the hill, you cross a road and then the South Downs Way trail is finished.  I ran along the pavement by the road I recognised in the briefing video and my pace was among the best of the day.  I was tired but not exhausted.  My legs ached but it wasn’t serious pain.  My face did ache from the smiling and the smile grew as I pushed on.  I knew I was going to make it and as I rounded the final roundabout, I realised I was going to have a lot of time to spare (relatively).  By now it was dark and the streetlights plus my headtorch gave me the illumination I needed to see ahead that the turning off the road was approaching.  As I went through the car park Mark was there having finished almost an hour before me – his trademark Cheshire Cat grin stretching from ear to ear.  My wife (Janine) was there as was Mark’s wife (Laura) together with Jack’s wife (Sharon) and daughters (Kate and Emma).  Collectively a great support team.  Onto the track for the final 400 metres and the easiest surface of the day.  I pushed on round and relished the final moments before going under the arch and stopping my watch.

12 hours 34 minutes and 32 seconds.  It was a long day.

Centurion Running South Downs Way 50
Official Photos used with kind permission of Stuart March Photography

Sunshine, hills, and smiles

Strava later told me I’d ‘only’ done 49.26 miles.  My running friends obviously have ribbed me that my ’50 miler’ should be investigated under the Trades Descriptions Act but my medal says 50 miles and my results say 50 miles so I’ll stick with that.  The Centurion team at the finish were as ever, welcoming and congratulated me.  I posed for pictures taken by Stuart March Photography (http://www.stuartmarchphotography.co.uk/) and was really glad that I did – I’ve already bought them and you can see three of them on this article.  Having DNFed three years before it felt pretty good.  Just a few minutes behind me, Jack powered towards the track for his final lap.  He’d only run 15 times since the start of the year and was two weeks away from his 60th birthday – the man has an engine and determination to be marvelled at!

The three of us posed for pictures and then headed home.  The main question was “What’s next?”.  Watch this space.

The Aftermath

I received a lot of very supportive and kind messages via Twitter (https://twitter.com/IronmanMike) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mike7oaks/) together with texts from family and friends.  It was the second furthest I’d ever run so I was very pleased to have finished.

You will see from the photos that I am a ‘fuller figured’ runner.  I’m 54 years old and whilst I’ve got a lot of miles under my belt in training this year, I’m no superstar athlete.  And this prompts me to encourage anyone to give such ultra running events a go.  I’ve done a number of marathons and some Ironmans but my conclusion is the same.  It is just about putting yourself on the start line and giving it a go.  What’s the worst that can happen?  I’ve DNFed before and whilst I would rather it hadn’t happened; it is by no means the end of the world.  There are many many people out there who can advise you on training and racing, but for what it’s worth, here are my top tips.

  1. Just do it.  Enter the race without fearing a DNF.
  2. You aren’t too old to do it.  In this race, out of 333 finishers, 11 people were under 30 and more than 100 people were 50 or over.
  3. Plan your race.  Read the instructions.  Watch the video.  Then read the instructions again.  You need to have the mandatory kit.  Don’t leave it until two days before.
  4. Train with your ultra running kit.  I did several runs wearing my backpack with the full kit inside I would have on the day.
  5. Think about nutrition.  I’ve concluded that ultrarunning is basically a food fest with some running and walking in between.  You just need to get calories inside of you.  This is the hardest thing to train for as you can’t replicate the feeling of ‘I can’t eat’ in training unless you are running for a long time.
  6. Keep some treats in your backpack.  Whatever works for you.  Mine used to be mini cheddar biscuits but when a volunteer made me a PBJ sandwich I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Ideally eat whatever they have but if there is a little something to reward yourself for getting to a point on the course then do it.
  7. Don’t hang around at the aid stations – however friendly they are.  There were six aid stations and I reckon I was through each one in under 4/5 minutes.  That’s still half an hour and if you don’t have a lot of spare time as I don’t you can’t waste it.  Get your bottles refilled quickly, grab some food, and go. Eat and drink on the run (or walk).
  8. Keep moving.  Every step you take is getting you nearer to the finish.  Yes, it is a cliché, but it is true.  You must keep moving.  Eat and drink on the move.
  9. Walk the hills, run the flats, really work the downs.  If you can train on hills, then do it and learn to run downhill being as light on your feet as you can.
  10. There will be pain.  There will be tiredness.  There will be moments where you question yourself.  There may be times when you whinge and whine to yourself.  Prepare yourself for all of these and when they come along, deal with it.
  11. Enjoy it.  Put simply, there is no reason to whinge or whine out loud.  No-one wants to hear it.  You chose to enter. There will be many people who wish they could do what you are doing.  So in my book, “I’m really tired and not enjoying this, my feet hurt, I can’t wait for the finish, I thought the aid station would have squash / grapes / melon cut into small chunks blah blah” is a complete no-no.  Acceptable responses to enquiries as to how are you doing could include “Yep, it’s a bit tough” (said with a rueful smile) or “Isn’t this an amazing course” (looking over the horizon) or “Bit of a bad patch but it’ll pass soon” (said in a quiet voice).  A bit of understatement is key here!
  12. Support your fellow ultra running racers.  Say hello.  If they look like they are struggling, ask if they want to run with you for 100 yards.  Offer them a gel.
  13. Never ever ever EVER drop any litter on the course (or frankly anywhere).  Banana skins and orange peel will degrade but will take months to do so and don’t look nice.  Carry all rubbish with you to the next aid station.
  14. ALWAYS thank the volunteers.  Never moan if they don’t have your preferred drink / food etc.  They are spending many hours to look after you and everyone else.
  15. Appreciate the course.  On this race, we had exceptional conditions that meant the views went on as far as the eye could see but if it would have been raining there would have been a different beauty.  Just think of the people who won’t get to experience what you have done.
  16. Look after your supporters who may have driven you to the start, supported you along the way and driven you home – by the way, I would recommend NOT driving after such an event!
  17. After the event, have a quick recap to yourself.  What kit worked and what kit didn’t.  Do you need to adjust the straps on the backpack or borrow different bottles from a friend?  Do it while it is fresh in your mind.
  18. Plan the next event.
  19. Speak to someone who may be encouraged by your ultra running to give it a go for the first time.  Support them.  Offer the advice you can.
  20. Look to volunteer at an event – whether it is an ultra or your local parkrun.

Enjoy your running. I know I do.

Centurion Running organise amazing races from 50km to 100 miles as well as virtual challenges – see https://www.centurionrunning.com/.  You can earn race places by volunteering.  Their website is full of useful information.

They also have a store, selling great kit https://www.centurionultrarunningstore.com/.

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