The South Downs Way – Solo and Unsupported

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“Are you going away for the weekend?” is the question my boss asks me when I put in a last-minute request to take Friday off. The conversation that follows is another one of those that is met with the usual head-shaking and looks of disbelief, one of these days I really must stop telling people who don’t live and breath this lifestyle what I do at the weekends.

I’d been looking at the South Downs Way, (SDW) for a while, ever since completing my first proper 100-mile race at the North Downs Way in 2012, (I don’t count the 100 miles I did at a 24-hour event as a 100-mile finish). Now, with 3 weeks to go before the Tahoe 200, it was time for the training to reach a climax, in  marathon training you complete your longest run 3 weeks before race day so, why not follow that principle for a 200-mile race – but how far? Well 100-miles sounded like a nice round  number to me. It wasn’t really planned, but with a couple of days to go the weather looked good and it was game-on.

There were other reasons for this attempt on the SDW and the distance…

  • I hadn’t completed a 100-mile run since The Bear in September last year, I’d DNF’d Zion 100 and been timed-out at the Skyrunner v3K. There was nothing wrong with me in both races, but I just didn’t have the heart and motivation to get throughout them – they didn’t mean enough to me to push through the hard times… In order to get through Tahoe, I know I’m going to have to go to some really dark places and get myself out of them.
  • Although I travel quite minimally, there’s a lot of logistics to think about in a 200-mile race – and a surprising amount of kit. I want to be as comfortable as possible with my planned kit and nutrition, (more on this a bit later)
  • My current passion is for the “Journey Run” which I define as a long, point-to-point run. Self-supported and solo, (though I guess it could be done with other people). It’s not an organised race, there’s no medal or buckle, no aid stations or volunteers, no support crew or pacers. It’s just you and the trail… Obviously a bit of planning needs to be undertaken to make sure you’re safe and have access to water, and the SDW was ideal for this type of journey.

With little fuss I drove off to a B&B just outside Winchester on Thursday evening and checked-in. The owner asked what time I’d be up for breakfast, my reply “Oh – I’ll be well gone by that time, I’m aiming to be at Winchester train station before 6am” was met with a similar response to my co-workers a couple of days earlier… The owner of the B&B had walked the SDW over 5 days last year so she was stunned to hear I was planning to complete it in a single push of 24-30 hours.

Grade A kit

Grade A kit

Before settling down for an early night it was time to pre-tape the feet and pack the excellent Salomon S-Lab 12l backpack. Despite it being reasonably mild with warm, dry and calm conditions predicted I was packing as a dress-rehearsal for Tahoe so packed waterproofs, gloves, hat and all the other mandatory kit along with my collapsible poles strapped to the back. Packed nutrition was going to be a mix of powdered sports drinks, (Tailwind and UCAN), fig rolls and almonds which I reckoned was enough to get me through 60-70 miles where I knew there was a 24-hour garage that I could resupply at.

A few months ago, after hearing endless reviews of how good Tailwind was I imported a whole load of it from the USA at tremendous expense, (the import duties nearly doubled the costs!) So far, it’s lived up to expectations but transporting large quantities means decanting the white powder into separate individual little bags, to the casual observer this may look like several thousand pounds worth of Grade A drugs! I keep imagining what’s going to happen when I finally get stopped by the police and try to explain the contents. Imagine if I was handing one of these bags to another runner?

The alarm clock was set for 04:30 but I didn’t need it as I woke up early, excited for the adventure ahead. There had been heavy rain all evening the previous day so when I opened the curtains to see clear skies with a bright moon and the stars it was a massive relief. A quick cup of Bulletproof Coffee, (Google it) and after getting dressed and making sure I had everything I was off on the short drive to Winchester and the start of the SDW.

Gratuitous sunrise picture

Gratuitous sunrise picture

I parked at Winchester train station which is about half a mile from the start of the SDW proper at the cathedral, but had loaded up my shiny new Garmin Fenix GPS watch with the route from the train station so hit “GO” and was off just after 05:30 through the quiet streets of Winchester. Quickly I found the cathedral and then had to go on  a bit of a detour to find the SDW again as an access route was closed, however – this was easy enough and within minutes was out of the city and into the countryside and the unmistakable landscape that typifies this part of the world.

Everyone who’s been on the SDW will wax lyrically about the terrain, there’s something just so “British” about it, for me – it typifies everything that is England, endless rolling landscapes of farmland. Cornfields and grassy hills as far as the eye can see, it’s not mountainous, and the hills are nothing to write home about but there’s something about it – anyway, I promise not to keep going on about it – there’ll be a few gratuitous scenery photos but if you want a cornfield-by-cornfield gush-fest go and look elsewhere – as they say “here be dragons”

Pirates in Winchester!

Pirates in Winchester!

The first few miles slipped by comfortably as I left the urban sprawl of Winchester behind and after a few miles I passed through what looked like a festival site. This offered an unexpected bonus of rows and rows of portaloos which unfortunately I didn’t need to use  just yet. It had obviously been a massive event as I passed through what looked like theme “areas”. There was a burnt-out pirate ship, what looked like a stock-car racing area and some random scaffolding. I have yet to find out what the event was – but I’m just glad it was all over as navigating around/through it could have been a bit of a nightmare, imagine trying to run through the middle of Glastonbury?

The sun was out and the day was warming-up nicely, I had my watch set to beep every 30 minutes to remind me to eat and drink and the miles started ticking by. I didn’t really have any time goals – the pressure was off, it wasn’t a race and there were no cut-offs. I was going to take it really easy, walk up all the hills and enjoy the experience right from the start and I was soon up to 11-ish miles and the first SDW100 checkpoint at Beacon Hill Beeches.

One of the great things about doing a solo attempt on the SDW is that there are already a number of organised races along the route. There’s relays, mountain bike events and the Centurion SDW50 and 100 races. Having done the North Downs Way 100 with Centurion I knew that their checkpoint location would be well thought-out so had broken the race down to match these CPs. Generally at each CP there would be somewhere I could refill water, although access to additional food would be limited to a single opportunity at around the 74 mile point.

Easy Going Trail - yeah, whatever

Easy Going Trail – yeah, whatever

There were a few annoying diversions which took me on roads in the first 20-miles due to disputes with landowners though it was well marked with the National Trust acorn symbol the whole way. I particularly liked the “Easy Going Trail” sign, (see photo) and spent the next few miles doing Fonz style “Aaaay” impressions with both thumbs-up. Aside from one section in the middle of the night, navigating across a golf course I don’t really think I went too far astray at all which is absolutely amazing for me. With it being a Friday, the trail was also pretty quiet – I met a few hikers who I stopped to have a chat with, and there was also the occasional mountain biker. Everyone was courteous and polite and open for a quick chat about the route, I helped a few people out with their maps along the way and let them know where they could get more water if needed.

For nutrition I was using a mixture of powders and real food and aiming for around 200-300 calories / hour which I maintained throughout. I kept one of my 500ml water bottles full of Tailwind, (200 calories) and the other full with water to allow me to mix-up hydration. Despite it being warm, these days I find my water needs are quite minimal and don’t really need more that 250ml / hour, so a litre will last me up to 4 hours – but I played it safe and made sure I was topped-up at every possibility.

Shaking big sticks at the SDW

Shaking big sticks at the SDW

Slowly, but surely the miles slipped by with more cornfields and rolling hills than you can shake a stick at, and I did shake my sticks, (or poles) at them quite a few times over the course of the run. I didn’t really need the poles as there’s nothing really hilly on the SDW but there is a technique in using them, and as it’s part of my Tahoe kit I wanted to take them and get used to using and carrying them – they kind of become another part of you after a while and definitely help on uphills.

Another of the great things, (for me) about the SDW is that although it feels remote, actually you’re probably never far from civilisation but you just can’t see it! For this reason, quitting or “calling it a day” and taking the easy option really isn’t a option. For most of the route, the only way I was going to be able to drop out was to call the emergency services or to go and knock on someone’s door in one of the tiny villages the SDW pass through. I found that once that’s taken away, you don’t even think about it i.e. it’s NOT an option – it makes things so much easier to deal with mentally.

SDW Water Tap

SDW water tap

At strategic points along the SDW are drinking water taps, the National Trust publish a leaflet showing the locations of all these taps and other places you can get access to water. Over the 100-mile length of the trail there must be a water point every 6-7 miles, it’s a fantastic idea and makes it really accessible for long distance walkers, runners and bikers. You can always carry enough food with you for 100 miles but carrying that much water is an issue – problem solved, well done SDW.

Things always get difficult in long runs and I was waiting for the crash, by 40 miles my legs were feeling tired but – hey, what do you expect? There comes a point in these long runs that you get tired, but you accept the pain and know it’s not going to get, (much) worse. It’s almost a relief to get to this stage as this is where the run starts…

50 miles passes in around 11 hours and everything is still smooth and going to plan until I wave at a young lady running in the other direction with her dog, trip and wipe-out on the hard chalky trail – ouch! I’ve bruised and grazed my hand and my knee has a nice new scar on it, (I always fall on my right had hand left knee) it’s painful for a minute or-two but I walk it off and fall back into the jog soon enough. There’s a nice trail of blood down my left leg – excellent, I wear my trail wounds with pride.

Then 60 miles arrives and the light starts fading, although physically I’m still fine if there was an easy way out here I might have been tempted. I might have been telling myself that I’ve had a fantastic day, 60 miles is a great distance and quit while you’re ahead after all, Tahoe IS only 3 weeks away – are you trying to do too much? But alas, there’s no easy option and so it’s out with the head torch and onwards into the night!

Gratuitous sunset picture

Gratuitous sunset picture

And so, into the night I run… At 70 miles at around 10pm I pass through another little village and around the back of a noisy pub – I think that I might have missed a water tap here but still have quite a bit in my bottles so don’t really care. On the way out of the village there’s a basket of home-grown apples outside the drive of a house with a cardboard sign saying “help yourself” so I do. The apple tastes delicious, the sharp, acid tang making a welcome change to the sweetness of a lot of the food I’ve eaten over the last 16 hours-or-so.

Soon after I spy the 24-hour garage and divert off-trail to stock up on supplies for the final push. A bottle of water, can of coke, two hobnob flapjacks and a ham and cheese sandwich are added to my Visa card, as I’m stuffing my backpack with the food a local joker looks at my poles and asks “where’s your skis mate?” – once I’ve explained where I’ve come from, and where I’m going to – like my co-workers and the owner of the B&B he shakes his head and I’m beginning to wonder if they are right and I am wrong?

Just a marathon to go… I’m still feeling great which is unusual this far into a race, at Zion I was 74-miles in after 19.5 hours and I was wrecked, stumbling around like a drunk and hallucinating like a 60’s acid freak. But not tonight – it’s all good, I haven’t even had a pro-plus yet, the can of coke seems to have worked its magic and the hit of sugar and caffeine has perked me up no end. Undoubtably there’s less running going on through the dark, mainly because the trail is quite rocky and difficult to run on – after a couple of minor tweaks to my ankle I decide the safer option is probably to walk the dodgy bits.

But as they say, all good things come to an end and – with the end, (almost) in sight my world comes crashing down and the low hits me. One minutes I’m happily jogging across open, cliff-top moorland and the next BANG, I’m all over the shop – I’m that drunken, 60’s acid freak once again! It’s so sudden it stops me in my tracks, there’s some lights in the distance that seem to be dancing in front of my eyes, almost like I can touch them. But I know how to get through this, I slow down, take 200mg of caffeine, drink some water and eat a flapjack. It takes about half an hour of slow, relentless forward progress and eventually the combination of the sunrise, caffeine, food and water starts to work it’s magic and I’m back on top of the world!

Gratuitous sunrise picture II

Gratuitous sunrise picture II

90 miles and I’m done with running now, but still enjoying it. Often in these long runs I get towards the end and don’t want it to be over… It’s been such an emotional journey that I don’t want to let go, it happened at The Bear too, those final 8 or 9 miles, walking down into the finish were some of my favourite memories – all the tough physical work is done and the release of being able to relax a bit and enjoy the scenery for what it is rather than a challenge to conquer is a welcome relief.

Eastbourne takes a while to come into view and when it does the SDW takes me the long way around on a scenic tour of the Severn Sisters Country Park. I keep seeing side trails which promise to take me into the town centre but I’ve come this far and want to finish the trail at the end. Eventually it descends to the promenade and winds it’s way into the town where there’s a RAF event being held so it’s full of people in uniform directing traffic and pedestrians.

Gratuitous before and after foot picture

Gratuitous before and after foot picture

My watch reads 103.5 miles and 26hours 57minutes elapsed which, considering my relaxed attitude seems like a good result. I disgust myself by how I smell so have to pop into the local Sainsbury to pick up wet wipes and deodorant but, despite an extensive scrub down in the toilets I think the dirt and smell is ingrained for now – oh well, my fellow commuters will have to suck-it-up on the train back to Winchester. My feet seem OK with no blisters and the taping-job has held up well despite getting a soaking a couple of times. The before and after photo comparison made me laugh, my feet look decidedly less healthy on the right!

It’s been a beautiful journey, an almost perfect run out on the trails and I couldn’t have asked for any more out of it. In the future I see this type of “Journey Run” becoming more and more important to me – while I love organised events and races, there’s just something so pure and special about being able to do this sort of thing. I’ve learnt a lot about myself during that 27 hours, I know I have the mental stamina for Tahoe now, and I’ve practiced and developed strategies that will help me through the inevitable dark times to come.

It’s all good – and an adventure I’d highly recommend to anyone… Try it, you might like it!

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8 Responses to The South Downs Way – Solo and Unsupported

  1. Pingback: Respice, Prospice | More than Mawson

  2. Angela says:

    Just caught up with this one. We had biked the route about a week or two earlier. It is just amazing countryside but you can really see the change as you move out of Surrey/Hampshire and into Sussex. Good work.

    • Guy Mawson says:

      Hey Anj 🙂 I read your SDW blog on Fetch – you went through that festival while it was going on, the aftermath was interesting to run through…
      What an amazing trail? I loved it. One of the best running experiences I’ve ever had, lots of people seem to have taken a bit of inspiration from this too.
      Hope Amsterdam goes well, have seen you later blogs – it’ll be tough but hey, it’s a marathon, it’s supposed to be 🙂 if you’re ever looking for some trails or longer challenges down here in South Wales you know where to come. I’m a member of a Facebook group called “dirty daps and muddy tracks” who you are welcome to join if you want to get into the whole trail scene.

  3. Dora P. says:

    Hi there!
    I just found this and it sounds such an incredible experience! I’m actually planning to do something like that this year and it would be great to ask you a couple of questions and some advice… do you have an email where I can send these over?
    Thank you 🙂

    • Guy Mawson says:

      Hi Dora – you can ask me any questions here on WordPress and I’ll reply in the comments…

      Cheers
      Guy

      • Dora P. says:

        Thanks a lot Guy 🙂
        So here are a few questions that I have regarding to the thing:

        -What would be the best time on the year to run that?
        -How good is the phone signal during the way, in case that I want to check google maps or call someone?
        -How much food/water you reckon is good to carry?
        -Any loo stops somewhere?
        -where do you reckon would be a good point for someone else to join…let’s say after 50km maybe
        – You mentioned you had some issues with people about not being able to cross that part even when the National Trail sign was there… Where was that?
        -Any gear advice? specific trail shoes, clothes or anything you think would be a good idea to have?
        -Any other general advice?

        Thanks again for your help 🙂

        Dora.

      • Guy Mawson says:

        Blimey – it was 2.5 years ago so to be honest, if it’s not in the blog I doubt I’d remember!
        Don’t overthink it – pick a day and do it. Take 70-80 miles worth of food and enough water for 4-5 hours and you won’t go far wrong.
        Pick up the Harvey’s Map and work out where the water taps/toilets are, it’ll also show road crossings and nearby train stations.
        I’ve no idea about phone signal, but you’re never far from civilisation.
        It’s a very tame trail, compared to Snowdonia or the Lakes. You can do it at any time of year.If you like mud, then do it when it’s been wet. If you don’t – then wait for a dry spell!
        Centurion Running do a 100-mile race on the SDW, there’s millions of blogs out there about the trail.
        Sorry I can’t be more specific – but it’s been a long time since I did it, and I’ve done a lot since then! My attitudes and approach has also probably changed since then, too much time in the mountains with dangerous animals probably.
        Like I said, don’t overthink it – just pack your bag and do it. The best adventures are spontaneous!
        Guy

      • Dora P. says:

        Thanks a lot Guy 🙂
        I’ll do some research about it and we’ll see how it goes, I’m really excited about doing this thing 🙂

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