Thursday, 11 June 2015

The South Downs Way Relay - Fuelled by FAT

The South Downs Way Relay is a great event. Starting at 6 in the morning sixty teams of 6 runners from all over the south east race their way from Eastbourne to Winchester as fast as they can, with a baton in their hand and a mini-bus trying to keep up between checkpoints at out of the way farms and on windy hill-tops. 

The key to success in this event is knowing the route for each of your 3 legs. A simple mistake can lose vital minutes or ruin the day for a team of 6 runners and their driver. And you need both speed and endurance.

My club Arena 80 have a good record in the relay, particularly in the Vets and B team categories; the  B team typically cover the 96 miles in about 12 and a half  hours and I have some nice medals from the occasions I have been 3rd and 2nd with the Bs and 1st with the Vets.

I have been wondering for a long time how the day might change as a result of using the low carb high fat diet. Food choices can be difficult, as you need to refuel but there is not much time between legs to digest and recover. Lots of energy drink is drunk and gel packets and banana skins litter the checkpoints and vans.  I recall being exhausted, bloated and sore before my final legs and the fear of cramps, injury and team failure was high. After my recent successes on the diet I hoped that things might be rather different this year.
Medal winning team from 2008
For the last two years I have missed out due to injury; last year it was right at the last minute and we were lucky to get a late substitute. And so this year I decided not to volunteer as I didn’t want to let the guys down again; rather I would offer myself as that last-minute substitute if I were needed.

It turns out that I was fit. And with a week to go I got the call-up for the B team. I was elated. Luckily I know the whole route of the SDW having cycled it a few times and run much of it; a quick check of the map and I confirmed that I knew all of the 3 legs that I had been given.

Normally these days I don’t consider food when running. But it would be a long day and so as well as my normal egg and bacon breakfast I prepared a tuna, egg and veg salad, some nuts, canned mackerel and a small bottle of my new energy drink, Olive Oil; and a couple of bottles of water of course.

The day started well with the whole team fit and exited. It was cold the start on Beachy Head with a strong south-westerly wind that would be blowing in our faces all day long, but as Simon headed off along the Seven Sisters and Dorian made his way up to Bo Peep Hill we soon got warmed up by the stop-start driving, jumping in and out of the van and the excitment of change-overs, navigation, questions & answers and near misses on country lanes.

Leg 4
Leg 4
In order to prevent congestion the teams start of in waves 30 minutes apart and we were in the second-last wave with several of the fast A teams starting with us or behind us. My first leg was 7.5 miles from Itford Farm to the A27. I am normally nervous and thirsty at the start of my first leg and it takes a while to get into racing. 

This year was different, I felt relaxed and ready and I quickly settled into a fast pace. There was a quick Hailsham runner 2 minutes ahead of me and I fancied catching him. The wind was hard work at times but the long uphill on ‘The Yellow Brick Road’ went well, apart from the fact that I was not catching the guy in front. No hurry though, there is plenty of time for things to change and so I just stuck to my planned rhythm  and the time flew by. There is a long downhill at 6 miles and I took it at pace, accidentally breaking my Strava mile PB in the process; and before I knew it the leg was over and I was back in the van. Not very tired, not very sore and crucially, not thirsty despite it being a warm day.

Dorian decending to the river Adur on leg 7
  Dorian descending to the River Adur

My legs (4,11 and 18) were more spaced out than I am used to and this allowed me to relax a little. I was confident about maintaining a high pace for all 3 legs having placed 3rd vet in a challenging half marathon at Petworth the previous Saturday. 

The rest of the team we all running well and I spend a couple of hours supporting as we passed by my local hills at Ditchling and Clayton and headed westwards. I decided to be the team photographer for the day although somehow I forget to take a picture of the steam roller that pulled out on us and held us up for 5 minutes in Storington!

The Vets are catching up!
The Vets are catching up!

Over the next few legs our Vets and A teams started to catch us up and they would appear in their vans at the changeovers sooner and sooner after us before the point when their runners appeared. 

At two changeovers all three teams arrived within a couple of minutes of each other and it looked like Arena 80 had taken over the place. I scoffed half of my tuna and egg mix because I knew I would need it later, not because I felt hungry. The water had been frozen over-night and was lovely in small sips as it melted.

Leg 11

I am usually stiff and sore from the first leg. Not this year. I felt bouncy and strong and definitely ready for a hard run. The 5.5 miles west from the River Arun starts with a long uphill, I bounced up this. There is a mile or so over rough flinty paths and then another short and sharp hill. Still feeling great I was shocked to be caught by a chap from Burgess Hill Runners who I thought we had already overtaken.  He had forgotten about the second hill and couldn’t pull away from me on it but come the top he was away. OK so he was perhaps 20 years younger than me and looked as tough as old boots but my pride was hurt and I held on as close as I could, breaking my mile PB again on the hill down to the checkpoint. It turned out that the chap was an A team runner and I ought to be pleased to have kept him in sight. Very tired at the end but my recovery was quick; an hour later I was feeling good again with a tin of mackerel and a bottle of olive oil working their magic inside me. 

 Hywel and Julian running strong on legs 9 and 12

I am usually one of the first in the team to finish my 3 legs and I celebrate by cracking open a cold beer to the annoyance of those who still have hours to go before running again and are starting to feel pretty tired after such a long day out.  This year the roles were reversed and there was a strong vote for a pub stop from the early finishers.

We had no idea how we were doing compared to the other B teams. Stubbington Green B had left us on leg 1 and the few teams we had passed had been veterans or ladies. A ladies team with pink shorts were refusing to be caught, so we assumed that we must be well down the B field.  There was added pressure with the real possibility of being timed out at the cut-off at the start of leg 16. Our late statrt meant that it would be a close call. In bad weather this cut-off is strictly enforced but this time the weather was fine, if a little windy still, and despite being 10 minutes late we were let through.

Simon at the finish of the gruelling leg 13.

There are some cruel legs in the latter stages of the race. Leg 13 over Linch Hill, Treyford Hill, Pen Hill, Beacon Hill and Harting Hill is a killer, and the 9-mile leg 17 is hard on its own, never mind at 7pm in the evening when you have already run 10 miles and been awake since 5 in the morning.

Gareth had been fretting all day about the route for leg 17 and we were worried. He had maps and a phone with him just in case but there was a long, nervous wait before he appeared at a road crossing at the 7-mile point; he was flying along and reminding us why he clocked just over 3 hours at the Brighton marathon this year. We only just  got to the checkpoint in time for me to get my shirt on and run.

Gareth hands over the batton at the end of leg 17

Leg 18
I had the coveted leg 18. Not only the glory leg but also a fast 5.5 mile cruise with only about 100 meters of ascent and a long downhill to the finish. 

We had finally started catching other teams on legs 16 and 17 and there were a couple of teams only a few minutes ahead of me as I started the final leg.  It was 8pm and I ought to have been feeling dreadful having been up for 15 hours, but I was bubbling with energy and I set off at a strong pace with a Brighton Phoenix runner in sight ahead of me. After 2 minutes I started to feel a stich coming on. This could spell disaster so I slowed down for a few minutes and luckily it went away as fast it had come - I slowly increased the pace again. I caught the chap ahead and pressed on up the only real hill which leads up to Cheesefoot Head where the team always cheer on the last runner at the crossing of the A272.

The top of the hill came earlier than I expected and as I approached the road I saw a runner from Liss Runners about 400 meters ahead. I sped up again and for the last 2 miles I raced as hard as I could. I ought to have been knackered but I ran the final 2 miles, albeit mostly downhill, in about 12 minutes. I had the finishing field to myself, apart from about the 300 people at the finish line, and it would have been inappropriate not  to sprint to the line. You never know, a few seconds might still make a difference. 

We finished in 12 hours 40 minutes 13 seconds. A bit slower than normal but really rather good when you consider that strong headwind.

A quick change and a cold beer and we started to wonder where we had come. We were all rather downbeat about our chances and so it was a grand surprise to find that we had come second out of the 14 B teams.  This made the long journey home very pleasant indeed. Another fine medal for the shelf.

I can honestly say that I am amazed by the difference in how I felt and how I ran. I am not getting any younger but my energy levels were even and consistently high. I ate the food but only drank about 1 litre of water all day, with no hint of dehydration. My average speed of 8.2 miles per hour was faster than on any of the 4 previous occasions, despite that headwind and despite running 18.5 miles rather than my normal 15.  And the next day I felt alright, when I would normally have been a wreck. 

I think I might be onto something here!

Thanks to my team-mates Julian, Dorian, Gareth, Hywel and Simon and to our ever jovial driver Michael.  

I’ll see you next year.

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