South Downs Way 100 – Race report by Graham

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become increasingly involved and interested in the ultra community, and I’ve volunteered for Centurion Running’s SDW100 twice, meeting some fantastic people on the way. In the last of these events, I met a great bunch, who after hours of helping others persuaded me that I should have a go at trying an ultra marathon myself.

I gamely started the training and found myself enjoying it, and so I set myself the target of the Hundred Hills 50km, followed by the South Downs Way 50 mile, both of which I duly completed with a big smile on my face. With that in mind, I had a free place reserved for me in the 100-mile version (the perks of volunteering the previous year), and I thought to myself “Why not?” and decided I would continue the experience and see what my body can really do.

Roll on 10th June 2023, where myself and Claire duly found ourselves on the start line in Winchester’s Matterley Bowl, waiting to get going and suddenly feeling very nervous. The preparation involved just to get here had taken a lot of hard work so I was hoping I could do myself justice, and I promised myself I’d do everything possible to finish.  

We decided we would start together to help get us through the initial jitters, and after setting off I found I was starting to relax into the experience and enjoying it. It was going to be a very hot day, and realising this early established my game plan of going much slower early on than I had initially planned, in order to conserve energy for later. It turned out to be a wise move, as faster runners that had gone ahead early were already starting to tire, and by mile 40 almost a third of the race field had dropped out, citing overheating and sickness. I was feeling pretty good all things considered, and running with Claire for the first 50 miles helped us to take our minds on how our bodies were feeling, tired and scorched by the hot sun. We managed to sing and chat rubbish to each other most of the way which was perfect for us, perhaps less so for our fellow competitors! Lovely Gary came out earlier in the day to see us and cheer us which was so kind of him and it really lifted our spirits, as we were both starting to really struggle at this point. 

Arriving in Washington at mile 52 was a huge game changer, it was at this point we were allowed to meet with our team of pacers and crew, who had very kindly agreed to give up their weekends (and sleep!) to help us through the second half of this gruelling adventure. We had a fantastic team of Andy and Yusuf, John and Sunny as our vehicle crews, helping with nutrition, water and any kit changes we needed, with Marc, Dave, Scott, Brett and Sonia being our wonderful pacers, keeping us motivated and moving, and opening all the gates. 

After a longer stop in Washington to eat and change kit, we were on the move, and with the sun setting we were feeling a lot more comfortable and moved along at a good pace, enjoying the stunning views in the sunset, and bumping into Rob at the top of Worthing (thanks Rob!), until Devils Dyke where night fell and it was time for head torches, warmer clothes and a shift change for the pacers. At this point, I was starting to hallucinate and thought I was seeing things and becoming afraid of sheep (that had no interest in us of course), but Brett did a super job of putting me right and keeping us moving. We were having a fantastic night though, it was warm with little wind and the most beautiful moon was watching us. At mile 76 in Housedean I devoured a Pasta pot I’d had dropped there which was honestly the most delicious thing ever at the time, and this gave me the push I needed to get to Southease at mile 82 where my friends were waiting at the aid station with cups of tea and a chair – delightful. This got me up to the top of Firle where I met my crew for the last time and had a quick warm-up in a blanket and some food before I chose to continue on for the last section alone, so I could decide what pace I wanted to do based on how I felt. 

Getting through the night unscathed and seeing the sunrise gave me a new wave of optimism and it started to feel like I was really going to finish. This gave me a spurt of energy and I found myself able to run faster than I had all day. I was keen to get moving and make the most of the cooler temperatures, and I soon ticked off the remaining aid stations of Alfriston and Jevington, with the final ascent to do and then home.

I nearly took a tumble on the final descent into Eastbourne as I was by this point “sleeprunning” with my eyes fully closed at times. I had to pull myself together one last time and then did the final run to the athletics stadium, where Andy and Yusuf were waiting and I got to do my victory lap in front of the crowd, flying the LGBTQ+ progress flag, a moment of which I am incredibly proud. I crossed the line at 27:13:51 and received my finisher’s buckle and promptly collapsed. I was completely exhausted but happy.

It was an incredibly tough event, and I couldn’t have made it to the end without the incredible support from everyone in the Brighton & Hove Frontrunners, especially Claire, my incredible friend and our wonderful crew that got us through the night. Thank you all!