South Downs Way Relay 2018
by Paul Mealling on 04 June, 2018 in Inspiration & Adventure
(All photos by Paul unless otherwise credited)
The South Downs Way Relay is by far one of the most special running events I have taken part in, my first time being last year. There's something about it that transcends racing. It has plenty of adventure and excitement, but it even goes beyond that - an introductory paragraph can't do it justice. In short the event involves teams of 6 runners completing the 100 miles of the South Downs Way from Eastbourne to Winchester. Around 60 teams from the region are invited based on performance and the course is split into 18 official legs of varying distances. The South Downs Way, for those who don't know, is one of England's finest National Trails and follows the ridge of the South Downs - a chain of chalk hills that are now part of the South Downs National Park. The trail includes around 4,150m (13,620ft) of climb and descent. Part of the challenge is getting the rest of the team, in a mini-bus, from change-over to change-over in time for the batton to be passed to the next runner.
This year the Hailsham Harriers, the club with whom I run, were fortunate to have had 3 teams invited to the event: The Men's 'A' Team - in which I ran, The Ladies' Team and the Vets' Team. With that cursory background, here's my journal of the day from inside the men's team.
A foggy Beachy Head start
It may have been the 2nd of June but a cold sea fog was hanging over the cliffs and severely reducing the visibility. In an effort to avoid any runners losing their way and plunging over a 600ft sheer cliff the race was neutralised for the first half of leg 1. Runners were to jog together until a half-way check-point, which was not a bad idea although there were still cliffs enough for runners to fall off after that point if they were not careful enough.
Teams are started in batches every half hour from 6am in order to avoid congestion and to try and have all teams finish at a similar time of day in Winchester. Like last year we had the extra motivation of having the ladies' team, and this year the vets' too, starting ahead of us by half an hour: the chase was on! Especially given that last year we were unable to catch up with our ladies' team. Yes, they were reminding us. And so those two teams drove off in their mini-buses into the fog, in pursuit of their runners and to meet them at the first change-over.
Once we were underway and had arrived at the leg 1-2 change-over to wait for Tom, our leg-1 runner to arrive, we hear the first story of the day from one of the Marshalls. One of the earlier teams leaving at 6am saw their leg-2 runner off and drove on to the next change-over to wait for him. However, about 40 minutes after setting off the runner re-passed where he started having become lost in the fog in Friston Forest and inadvertently run a huge circle. Not a good start to the day for that team. (They later descibed themselves as the unluckiest team in the world having had a runner break a leg on the event last year. I'll pop the sign-up link here when I find it.)
We, however, have better luck. Tom finishes leg 1 in second place of the 7am starters and hands over to Graham Purdye for leg 2. Graham ran leg 2 last year so won't get lost. Tom was happy to concede first place for his group upon finding out at a later change-over that the runner who beat him was "a 29 min 10k PB guy". Fair enough.
With Graham under way on leg 2 we get Tom into the mini-bus and drive on through the Cuckmere Valley and then up to the leg 2-3 change-over on the ridge at Bo-Peep. Leg 2 is a beautiful leg though it does have its complexities and many places you could go wrong if you're not familiar with it. A great team will always recce their legs before the race and here we also have the knowledge of these local legs which helps in the fog.. which is still hanging around despite the prediction of sun and heat.
Leg 3 continues along the ridge until finally dropping down to Southease in the Ouse Valley, which connects the Sussex County town of Lewes with the English Channel at the port town of Newhaven. As we arrive here there are signs that the fog is lifting and there is a new light in the air along with the beginnings of warmth and humidity. Andy Ruffel, "Ruffs", our driver and Lee Ashworth our co-pilot have stopwatches and splits going for each leg. We know we have a little time here. At least just enough for a use of the facilities. As Graham and I discuss, these are the last facilities all the way until the start of leg 15. Best use them. It's not long after that Big Si is arriving. He's put in a great run on this leg and he's spotted coming down the side of the hill. As they say he's tall and hard to miss which helps us get Matt in position.
Leg 4 is a long one with a very decent climb near the start. One of those climbs that seems to go on. Despite Matt being a fast runner we have plenty of time to get ourselves to the start of leg 5 where for the first time we get to spend a little time with our other two Hailsham teams.
Leg 5 was my first leg of the day. It starts at the bridge where the SDW crosses the A27 and goes mostly uphill to finish at the Ditchling Beacon car-park. Although I'd not raced this leg before I was familiar with it and we had done a group recce run where our leg 5 and 6 runners had run legs 5 and 6 back-to-back and taken advantage of a car dropped off at the far end. Waiting at the hand-over for Matt to finish leg 4 I really do start to feel a little nervous. Will my performance be there? Will there be any problems on my run? I think the nervous feeling is common to many runners and by all accounts included Lisa who was also waiting for her team's leg 4 runner to come in. Since the Vet's team had started 30mins before us, she had the added problem of not wanting to be caught by me up the hill as we had gradually been closing the gap. When Matt arrived I think Lisa had a good 10 minutes on me. After a tough effort on leg 5, and having finished it without catching Lisa, I get back in our mini-bus just as joyous shouts come from our Vet's team leaving the car-park... "Ha! You didn't catch me". No, I didn't.. maybe next year..
Part of the art of running a good SDW relay is the recovery process you undergo between legs. Let's just say it's not athletically optimal as you have to do most of it in a minibus. The added pressure this year, like last, was the heat. By half way through leg 5 the foggy cloud had well and truly cleared and I was climbing in a very heavy oppressive heat. So, as soon as my leg had finished the recovery began, but not for Martin who's turn it was on leg 6. He had the goal of trying to beat my time on leg 6 from last year.
Graham was now underway running leg 7. We meanwhile drive on and park in a sheep field near the end of leg 7 which, like many other fields along the route, is kindly allowed for the SDW relay to use on the day. The only issue here is that this field is a moderate walk away from the end of leg 7 and this year we weren't efficient enough getting ourselves there which meant Graham had been waiting for about 3 minutes before Simon turned up to start leg 8. Lessons for next year!
Chatting with the Girls at the 8-9 change-over a plan is formed: The lane up to the next change-over (9-10) is very narrow and difficult for minibuses to navigate. (So much so that one year two minibuses became wedged stuck as they tried to pass each other. Sadly it was our teams. Needless to say that delay didn't help anyone.) Furthermore, leg 10 is quite short which means you have extra time pressure to get back down the narrow lane and on to leg 11 for your leg 11 runner to start. So somehow a plan came about that the Girls would take Tom to the start of 10, and we would take their leg 11 runner, Annette, to the start of 11. We would then pick up Alissa who would run their leg 10 and would swap runners back at the the start of leg 12. Confused? Somehow it all worked out.
Matt leaves to run leg 9, and Tom who went with the Girls subsequently runs leg 10. We drive on to leg 11 with Annette in the back when Lee's phone goes and it's Becci. Becci (pictured above in the #39) is known to be slightly (very very) competitive. She is also the partner of our co-pilot Lee. After a short moment we hear Lee, with a perfectly dead-pan flat voice, announce "Annette? What about Annette. No? ... ... Ah, sorry, the signal is going... ... Bye!"
Leg 11 was my second leg of the day. And was it hot. Just like last year where I also ran leg 11. At least this year I had that experience in my memory and I also had my previous year's time of 41:11 to try and beat. The Girls were still ahead of us and I was also working hard to try and shorten their lead. Because we had been running well and had started relatively early there weren't the usual other teams infront of us to work to catch. The SDW way was remarkably calm with the busy part of the event following along behind. It definitely gave the sense of being chased. I finished the leg in 40:01 (according to my timing) and in need of an ice-bath that we didn't have. Simon was out running leg 12 while I continued my efforts to cool down and rehydrate. The mini-bus journey from here to the start of 13 is really beautiful. The villages nestled at the foot of the Downs could not look better than this with the blue sky and the cottage gardens in bloom. And we have to drive past pub gardens without stopping...
The leg 13-14 change-over is a beautiful spot in good weather. The views are fabulous and the soft grass provides a welcome surface to stretch on while waiting for Martin (and Wendy of our ladies' team) to arrive. As of the start of leg 13 we still hadn't caught our ladies team and it was looking unlikely it would happen until leg 15 or 16. Then all of a sudden, shouts of "Martin is coming!" We've caught them! But only just as Wendy arrives a few seconds later.
Leg 14 finishes at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park and we arrive there with plenty of time to use the facilities which Graham mentioned back at end of leg 3. They are a welcome refresher, especially for washing the salt and sunscreen off my face. Graham is running leg 15. He has the big climb of Butser Hill to do which will take him to the highest point of the South Downs Way at a height of 271m (889ft). We wonder whether we can maintain the lead on the Girls because Rachel who is running leg 15 has proven herself to be very fast earlier in the day. We do. Graham arrives to hand-over to me for leg 16 and I set-off once again with my time of last year to beat. The first third of this leg involves a fast down-hill section in a gulley in the shade of trees. It's technical running due to the ruts, tree roots and steep sides, but at least it's cooler. Running fast down here pushes foot placement to the limits of not falling. The heat was still in full force however when I got to the lane in the valley, and I was reminding myself that this suffering is a small price to pay for being out here running. The leg finishes with a steep climb followed by a short section on the flat. Martin was holding the gate open for me at the top and noted afterwards that I sounded like I was "suffering more than you usually do". However, it paid off. I ran faster than last year with a time of 24:58 which was to be the 2nd fastest time of the day on that leg with the fastest at 24:43.
Leg 17 is a long one, this year being run by Tom. There's a spot along leg 17 where you can park up and watch your runner go by. After Tom had passed through we waited for Alissa to pass for the Girls.
Martin ran leg 18 well despite starting to feel somewhat unwell towards the end which was also the case for Sarah on the Girls' team. It's not surprising - the event is ultra tough in the heat and the recovery between legs is not great quality. I'm glad I wasn't on the last leg! The final results were great all round. The Men's team finished in 12:17:26, the Ladies in 13:00:28, and the Vets in 13:50:05. The overall positions were 11th overall for the Men, 25th overall for the Ladies and a fabulous 2nd in the Ladies' category. The Vets finished in 41st overall and 5th in the Vets' category. Great performances all round!!
Everyone involved in the day always says it's one of, if not the best, running days of the year. The day flies by despite being a long day with an early start and late finish. So many people do so much to make it possible for each team to run. Many thanks to Andy (our driver) and Lee (our co-pilot) for getting us there and back, and to Martin the Men's team captain for putting our team together. Now we can look forward to next year and seeing if we can do even better than this year!
The Men's team legs were run as follows, with times taken from the official results.
Leg 1: Tom, 49:22
Leg 2: Graham, 44:38
Leg 3: Simon, 32:34
Leg 4: Matt, 52:32
Leg 5: Paul, 36:24
Leg 6: Martin, 33:42
Leg 7: Graham, 42:48
Leg 8: Simon, 53:20
Leg 9: Matt, 31:40
Leg 10: Tom, 25:17
Leg 11: Paul, 39:51
Leg 12: Simon, 43:49
Leg 13: Martin, 49:09
Leg 14: Matt, 40:16
Leg 15: Graham, 32:22
Leg 16: Paul, 24:58
Leg 17: Tom, 01:05:08
Leg 18: Martin, 39:36