South Downs Way 100 Race Report

I went into this race promising myself it would be my last 100 miler. James, a good friend and five-time hundred mile finisher, can vouch for this too. He was also adamant about kicking the long distance stuff. He’s already toying with the North Downs Way 100 in August and I’ve got my eye on Thames Path 100 next year.

The last time I ran 100 miles (at the NDW100 last year) it was everything I expected running a hundred miles to be. Sore legs and a death march at the end. That. Poor fuelling and a dodgy stomach. That too. I came out happy but stubbornly wanting another crack at finishing in under 24 hours. I was terrified about taking on the distance again – did anyone mention that it’s basically four back-to-back marathons? Best not think about that during the first 10 miles (as you inevitably end up doing).

For the sake of my crew, I went in with a solid pace plan this time, so they knew where I’d be needing them and when. I had rough splits for a sub-24 hour race committed to memory, and printed and stuffed in my race vest (which got covered in mushed banana then fell out fairly early on). I also had the timings for a sub-22 hour finish, which secretly I hoped I’d get closer to.

Start (Winchester) to Queen Elizabeth Country Park (22.6 miles): 59th place and 6th female

James and I set out together, completing a lap of the field fairly slowly and getting stuck behind the bottleneck of runners waiting to enter the trail. We went for an ‘ultra-shuffle’ up the first of the hills to make up some ground. Did I mention we were retiring from 100 mile races? We chatted about this a fair bit. I was conscious that by running hills so early on we looked a bit keen, but I’m a believer in banking miles before my legs feel too trashed.

I found this photo online of us running in perfect unison (we’re even in the same shoes – Pearl Izumi EM N2 trail, which I’m a big fan of*); I prefer running solo in races but his company was exactly what I needed to distract from the nerves and muggy conditions. For me, the perfect race partner is someone that knows when to chat and when to shut up, and having run long stretches of the Atacama Crossing with James he is one of my favourite running companions.

Cat and James

Photo credit: Jon Lavis

At some point during this stretch we ran with someone who’d completed the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles from Birmingham to London, for anyone not au fait with the ultra scene) and recounted how he’d hallucinated at the end and stopped to drink beers with some Rastafarians a few miles before the finish line. This race seems to have made it on to my bucket list.

My fuelling plan was to have a baby food in a squeezy pouch every hour (fruit flavours, not your lamb casserole sort) and I got under way with this. I ate a cheese sandwich at the first aid station ten miles in and was keen for my stomach not to end up feeling as bad as it had done on the NDW100, when all I could take on for the last 50-ish miles (and 15 hours) was Frijj chocolate milk (as a choc milk obsessive this is not as good as it sounds). The week before the race I assembled a selection of all the food under the sun that I might want to eat – jaffa cakes, mars bars, snickers, flapjacks. I barely touched any of it and survived solely on baby food, a few jaffa cakes, a single mars bar and lots of fruit (watermelon, strawberries, cherries) from the aid stations. With hindsight it doesn’t sound like a lot but it kept me going. My stomach was rock solid (until I arrived home at 3:30am and threw up all over my parents’ front steps).

QECP to Washington (54 miles): 35th place and 6th female

I saw Team Simpson, my crew of Dad (Ultra Dad Simpson!) and Jon (my husband) at QECP. I had a small strop when Jon handed me three gels when I wanted three baby foods. My fault for ambiguious instructions; I’d considered mixing up the two but had no desire for gels by this stage. James and I ran for a short stretch with some guys who recognised me from NDW100 as ‘the person who’d attempted to roll down a hill at around the 60 mile mark to save my sore quads.’ At around 45 miles my left knee started grumbling and I felt less sociable, so pushed on. I saw my crew, had some coffee, James caught up, then all of a sudden we’d reached the half way point, half an hour ahead of schedule. Nine hours to do 50 miles and I must confess, this was when I started wondering if sub-20 hours wasn’t out of the question.

Ditchling beacon SDW pic

Photo credit: Stuart March

Washington to Clayton Windmills (69.9 miles): 20th place and 3rd female

One of my rules of the day was ‘no stopping at aid/crew stations’, so Washington (54 miles) was an in-out affair. I’d lost far too much time at the NDW100 faffing around and had spent nearly 30 minutes at the halfway point. This time around, I saw this as valuable time not to be wasted. Sorry, crew, that meant I didn’t stop and chat much, but I think it was worth it.

People say that 100 milers don’t start until the 50 mile point (or the 80 mile point, depending on who you talk to), and I felt fairly fresh at this stage. Big relief, as I’d had a few dramas the week before, such as a chesty cough and falling over in thin air and bruising my right hip, which made walking painful. On arriving at Bolotphs, the 61 mile point, I was told I was in 5th lady position. I had one of the famous espresso energy balls and pushed up a big hill. I ran with the very lovely Sarah Sawyer for a few miles, who was still smiling from ear to ear and looking strong. I must confess though, I was passing other runners by this stage and feeling great mentally for it. I know it’s not kind, but I’ll reference first lady Debs (Martin Consani) and all-round hero of mine, who said it first: it really gives me a huge boost to be passing people at this stage of the race, especially if they look a little wrecked.

Pacer and little superstar Steph

Clayton Windmills to Southease (84 miles): 19th place and 3rd female

My friend Steph stepped in to pace at Ditchling Beacon. I’d been running mostly alone for several hours by this stage and was quite liking my own company so possibly a little scratchy and not appreciative of the huge commitment on her part. Steph was a little ray of sunshine that, with hindsight, helped the ten mile stretch to Southease pass in a heartbeat. I didn’t even grumble about having to cross the bridge over the railway line or the sight of the huge hill snaking out of the aid station at Southease.

Southease to Eastbourne (100 miles) 18th place and 2nd female

Jon told me there was another female within my sights and we passed her on the hill out of the checkpoint. Having recently been on ‘the other side’ of a race at roughly this stage when I marshalled at Thames Path 100 mile 85, I’d seen some sights that would put you off ultra running forever. But my legs and head were still feeling strong at this late stage. I’d set out with the mantra, ‘if it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, then fecking run!’, and this worked a treat during the final push to Eastbourne, as did the possibility of finishing with a number starting with an 18 (albeit a very slim one). The recce-ing paid off and we didn’t accidentally take the turn-off at mile 97 to Exceat for the Seven Sisters. The famous trig point came into view and we funnelled ourselves down the flint path for the final couple of miles to the finish.

It was a huge relief to see the running track and familiar blue inflatable Centurion finish arch. I expected the emotional, break-down-sobbing-on-my-Dad’s-shoulder finish I’d had at the NDW100, but the tears didn’t come – I felt elated but slightly in shock, almost like I was having an out of body experience. Nineteen hours and eight minutes on the clock and second lady. I waited around excitedly afterwards to see my name on Nici’s famous results whiteboard, to help things sink in. Maybe on another day I’d have beaten 19 hours, but I’ll take a five and a half hour PB. And a chance to do it again next year.

Photo credit – Stuart March

THANK YOU amazing Centurion staff, volunteers, and my crew, Team Simpson. Centurion race report and more photos here.

*Pearl Izumi EM N2 trail shoes – I was sent these to review, something I’m generally hesitant to do, but have to say I’ve loved everything about them and they performed brilliantly on race day.