There’s something equally terrifying stepping into a known unknown which is how I felt through the whole process of training for and racing the Centurion South Downs Way 50 miler.
It seemed like the perfect step up – I had ran a 65km race as part of the UTWT in Cape Town and wanted to up the game so this added 10 miles to the distance but the added bonus was it was home trails. I spend nearly every weekend I am at home in Hampshire running parts of the South Downs way (admittedly mostly on the wrong end for this particular race) so thought it would almost be rude to not give the SDW 50 a go.
I spent months preparing for the race, building mileage and time out on the trail, practising nutrition and working on strategies to mentally and physically tackle something that felt like a huge challenge. Now I know to most people this may seem like a long way to run but to many ultra runners, a 50 miler is the norm. An average distance for an ultra and a stepping stone to hundos and beyond. For me, it was a scary step into a realm where, in my head, anything could happen. In the weeks and months leading up to the race I couldn’t comprehend going this far or if I were to, surely I couldn’t run it, like properly run it– surely you have to walk some?! On many long runs I would have a sudden pang of panic followed by a tiny melt down driven by lack of confidence in my ability but really all of that was those naughty little gremlins that creep in to a tired (mid to end of a long run) brain and infiltrate the positivity and fun you were having 5 miles ago. More than anything, this mental control is probably the area that I trained to gain more than my physical self before this race. Having said this, it didn’t stop the whirl of anxiety that I can’t seem to stop in the few days prior to race day and the crippling silence I get on race day. Come race day, it’s almost like all sense of self is muted and to control the desire to not even get to the start line I have to just follow a quiet process to keep it together. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be there and deep down I’m just raring to go. There’s a huge misconception that if you’re a fast runner you have your shit together, you know what you’re doing, how to execute a race and that you’re in control. For some, this may be true but for me this is not the case. On paper, I have all my ducks in a row but in reality I feel like I’m winging it…even on the start line I quickly put on a base layer because I didn’t know what kit to actually wear (thank God I copy-catted everyone!). Don’t get me wrong, I had loads of advise from Robbie Britton (my coach) but until I’ve put it in to practise it’s just a theory. Now I’ve tested said theories, I know they’re all gold and my armour is ready for next time!
Standing on the start line, I realised actually just how ready I was too run 50 miles and the excitement finally took over from the nerves. I just wanted to get going. I was like a little whippet in the traps ready to chase that bunny.
We were off and out of Worthing you have a steady climb for the first few miles and keeping coach Robbie’s words in my head I kept the first half an hour feeling super easy – it barely felt like we were going up hill when I trotted away from the group I started with. By mile 3 or 4 I was running solo, enjoying the familiarity of the rolling hills and trails keeping the effort easy with the constant reminder in my brain “there is a LONG way to go…” but I felt good and kept myself in check regularly eating and drinking knowing that the moment those energy levels dropped, both body and mind start to wilt…The first half of the race I’d practised once or twice, something I have never really done so this became a test of “do I like the element of surprise or do I like the familiarity?”. The answer is, I like knowing what to expect…it makes running a race much easier because you know how long a climb is or how long a more difficult or exposed section will last. All the fun of being a trail ultra race rookie. It was great trotting along, plenty of words of encouragement and high 5’s and seeing the sights that were so familiar – I spent most of the first fifth of the race waiting to see the pig farm. Always a pick up seeing those little piglets.
The first check point at about 16 miles was where I got some company in the form of Ben Osbourne – I’d seen him up in the distance and had slowly reeled him in when I finally caught up with him on the climb out of Botolphs aid station. Ordinarily, I don’t actually like company running because my style is to switch the pace up and down to play to strengths and weaknesses so often it can feel a bit onerous but this ended up working out perfectly. I stuck with Ben for the entirety of the race more or less, at times I’d dash off for a bit but he’d reel me back in and it’d be good company and catch up for a little longer – in the end he was my target to get to the finish line so thank you Ben, it was wonderful to share the trails with you.
To be honest, the middle of the race feels like a blur. I made sure I ate and drank, didn’t think about how far I’d run or how far was to come and focused in on little targets like the next aid, the next time I’d see Dan or each 5/10 mile increment tick by. It was good to have Ben for occasional company but I did what I usually do and ran to my own pace and smiled away enjoying how good it felt to feel strong and prepared. After spending a few years in a bad place health-wise it was incredible to feel robust and capable and I kept thinking about how lucky I was to get a chance to put myself to a test physically and mentally. The second half of the course holds bigger climbs which I ran and power hiked – I even developed new techniques for these, keeping Robbie’s words “if you’re going to hike, do it with purpose” I pushed with my arms to power up the hills and when that got boring I found a method that involved stooping down very low and quickly moving in a squatted forward-facing crab position. The squatted crab (probably) looks bizarre but luckily no one saw, I have no shame and I can keep this beauty of a technique for future races in those down moments where you need some self-entertainment. As if there isn’t enough to keep you stimulated in a 50 mile trail run…
The last big mile stone in my head was seeing Dan at 40 miles. I counted down to that from when I’d passed marathon distance, not just because I wanted to see his face but because he had my Maurten bottle which I had actually wanted 10 miles earlier. Again, it was all about adapting. The last time I’d seen him, he wasn’t allowed to give me aid so I held out, relied on my stash of GU’s and tried Tailwind at the next aid station so it turned out to be an unexpected win because Tailwind is goooood. Anyway, as I rolled in to the 40 mile(ish) mark that reassurance of seeing Dan was incredible and the cheers I got going through the car park were so uplifting. I knew I was moving well, I had plenty in my tank and if I held it together I was in a good place. The next target was that trig point in Eastbourne. GO GO GO.
Before the race, once again some gems of wisdom from coach Robbie firmly sat in my brain was “when you see that trig in Eastbourne its time to step it up and get home” (or something like that) so the moment that came in to view this rush of amazement, disbelief and excitement flooded in and I knew it was time to find that finish line. Even at that point, I was told that if I chipped on, the course record would be mine but I didn’t want to count my chickens. My sole focus was finishing strong. Foot on the gas, keeping control and shifting to the finish.
I tell you something, that road that accounts for the last mile or two felt like it lasted forever and ever and once my feet hit the track for that final lap to the finish a rush of memories of past track sessions flooded back as well as the image of me collapsing before the line. Luckily, I stayed upright and that feeling crossing the line was pure elation. I couldn’t believe I had run that far. I had felt so strong and in control and not only that but I was first girl over the line, in course record time and later it was transpire that I was the first woman to run a sub-7 hour 50 miler in any Centurion race. What?! Pre-race Julia would have thought this unimaginable.
The entire race from start to finish was beautifully organised and every single member of the Centurion team was so friendly and encouraging. I’ve never been looked after like that post-race at any event it was truly wonderful. Not only were they totally in control but they were all so caring of every single runner. From the huge cheers through every aid station to being looked after with cups of tea and hot food at the end, each individual Centurion volunteer was a massive asset to that race and gave it the heart beat that makes Centurion a special community. I now understand exactly why Centurion has such a cult following because they totally deserve it for well executed, beautifully planned and super supportive race atmospheres. Thank you for sharing all of that and I certainly want to come back to play again!
I learned so much from this race. How to pace, stay sensible, eat and drink, be encouraged by others, how to work with others to boost them through and also to be very nice to Dan when you see him because you are genuinely happy to see his face! (Cape Town was a learning curve on that one).
Most of all what I learned was the power of mental strength and that if you keep those gremlins at bay and focus on being sensible it will pay off. That you need to run your own race and play to your own strengths, don’t get caught up by the watch and to expect tough times. That my forever racing technique of smiling still works (YES!)
I’ve only been running long trails for 11 months and already I’ve learned so much. I am lucky to have such a great coach, he knows what it’s like to run hard in races and so many scenarios you may face that he prepared me well. Hard work pays off and I cannot wait to get back on the trails for the next challenge. These new adventures are pretty exciting.