South Downs Way Relay 2019
by Paul Mealling on 04 July, 2019 in Inspiration & Adventure
(All photos by Paul unless otherwise credited)
The South Downs Way Relay has become one of the highlights of my running year. 48 teams from the South Downs region were running this year in this invite-only event. This was the third time I ran it and the excitement hasn't lessened. It's always interesting to see how our Harriers' teams will be made up - there can be changes, sometimes at the last minute, due to injury or illness. Sadly this year the Vets team had to be pulled at the last minute for this reason, but Martin who was going to run with them was kindly offered a place on the Men's A team by Giles who pulled out to let Martin run. And so with one day to go we had our team sorted and were ready for the start.
Unlike last year we had a very sunny start on Beachy Head. Groups of runners are started every half hour and the Hailsham Ladies had their runner go off half an hour before our group. That meant that like in previous years the chase was on...
Matt did a brilliant run on his first leg of the day and was still in the lead when we saw him through at the Birling Gap car park. A solid 7 as he would say. He finished the leg in second place of the 7:30am group and passed the baton to Paul Henderson who was running in a tasteful baseball cap with a light pink mohawk on the top. Leg 2 starts with a steep hill only to instantly go down again and then undulates its way to the Cuckmere river which it follows before starting the long climb up the hills the other side to Bopeep.
The leg 1-2 changeover is especially nice because it is marshalled by Hailsham Harriers, and so you see many friendly faces, have a nice chat and get lots of encouragement before leaving. Part of the fun of the day is hearing how the run went for the runner who's just arrived in, and making your way in the minibus to the next official leg change-over point.
The leg 2-3 changeover allows for a moderate wait for your runner to come in. It also has spectacular views to the north and south. I'm already getting some calories and fluids in, in preparation for my leg 6 run later in the morning. It's also important to keep moving and stretching at all opportunities - sitting in a minibus is not conducive to running three hard and hilly races in a day!
The leg 2-3 changeover also lets us know how far we are behing the girls. I start my stopwatch to time the gap between our baton changeovers. I didn't write it down so I can't remember now but we were starting to close the gap... "Dan we will catch you!"
Dan was already goading us as they drove off - "You won't catch us" - and joking that some of our runners were starting to look a little tired or injured. Rachel, the girls team co-pilot would have run this year but was sadly injured following a great performance in the London Marathon. It wasn't certain straight away if she would be able to run or not and so she pushed on and reviewed leg 10 on her mountain bike... which was the unfortunate cause of the second injury which you see in the photo above. Hopefully she'll run next year.
Simon Haddon is now out on leg 4 and we get in the minibus to go to the start of leg 5, which is where the South Downs Way crosses the A27. Martin is next up to run. Matt and I enjoy a chat about injury rehab while in the minibus and agree that rehab should be about regaining full athletic function (even or especially if you never had it) and not just about getting pain free. "You have to get the body working properly!"
You don't get much warning of when your runner will arrive at the end of leg 4 so we are on a constant look-out for Simon. I ran leg 5 last year and I know what Martin has in store. Mind you, he has also run the route so it won't be a surprise. It starts with a real kick of a hill and then a steep descent through some woods before starting a gradual and very long climb up to the ridge and the finish at Ditchling Beacon. I think this is a very tough leg because you can never really get your full stride going.
As soon as Sarah is underway, Simon starts the stopwatch to time the gap between our change-overs. I won't know what the gap is until the end of leg 6 as I'm busy getting prepared to run and looking for Martin to arrive in the distance. I'm going to work as hard as possible to close the gap more but Sarah isn't a slow runner so it will not be easy to take much time off. The heat of the day was really picking up by this point but once you have the baton in your hand you find extra energy from somewhere.
Leg 6 goes from Ditchling Beacon to Saddlescombe. The first part is undulating and then descends gradually to Pyecombe. At this point there is a short ascent through the village followed by a big climb up and over the hill to Saddlescombe. I really suffered up that hill with the heat of the sun. Just what you need when your legs and chest are already burning. You know that everyone else will have the same heat so you don't give in to it. As I came round some of the final bends I saw Pete and Claire cheering on. Great that they had travelled on from the previous change-over point. It always makes such a difference to run with support! Talking of which, no-one had brought water down to the finish so I walked up the hill parched. We found it quite funny. Paul Henderson was now out running leg 7. I had hoped to go under half an hour this year on leg 6 but the heat of the final hill didn't allow me - or maybe I just need to be fitter. I finished in 30m22s which gave me a "solid 7 out of 10" from Matt and saw me miss the fastest time of the day by 4 seconds.
The leg 7-8 changeover is a little away from the field you park in. I was still doing my best to recover so didn't see the baton change from Paul Henderson on leg 7 to Graham on leg 8.
We seem to be gradually catching up with the girls. However, Dan is maintaining that we won't catch them, plus that "it looks like some some of your guys are having problems. You know, looking tired, limping a bit, not up to it". He also reminds us that two years ago we got within a minute of the girls at the end of leg 6 but failed to catch them between there and Winchester. Graham did a good run on leg 8, which is somewhat longer leg, and took a few more minutes from the girls. Simon is running leg 9 and trying to take time out of Lisa who's running leg 9 for the girls team.
By the time you get to the 8-9 changeover it really feels like you're on the adventure of the South Downs Way. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's that for the first 6 legs you feel somewhat on home turf. These are areas you run or cycle in frequently enough. But out at leg 8 and onwards you're in less familiar territory. It also becomes incredibly beautiful once you get towards leg 10 and stays that way to the finish. Some of my favourite views are around legs 11 to 13 and I enjoyed some great times in that area.
No sooner have we left Simon running leg 9 we pass a minibus at the side of the road with people waving us down. They are clearly runners. Having your minubus break down on you when you're on the South Downs Relay is really not a nice thought. You could be truly stuffed and certainly you'd be likely to lose time even if you could sort the problem out. We stop to help. "Can you take one of us to the next change-over?" It's the Brighton Girls. It's quickly decided that we need to take two of them and the rest stay behind frantically trying to arrange assistance and a new minibus. Once they are in we realise that our girls team are in close competition with them for first place in the ladies category.
The drive up to the end of leg 9 involves the infamous Springhead Hill lane which is very narrow and lacks sufficient passing places. After a stand-off with another minibus Alan manages to get us safely to the top of the hill.
This change-over is nice because we get a few minutes to chat with the girls and see how things have been going. It's also another nice opportunity to get the legs moving. Mine are feeling quite stiff and that's after running just one leg. At all times you feel like you are both recovering from your last run and preparing for your next.
As soon as Lisa handed over to Karen we got the stopwatch going again. The time gaps have been gradually decreasing throughout the day so we know roughly when to expect Simon to appear in the distance. However, he doesn't. At first we wonder if it might just be the heat. Then we start thinking something has gone wrong. Alan and I wander up the track a bit. Then we start imagining worst case scenarios. Maybe he's injured and can't move? Someone broke a leg on the relay a couple of years back. The terrain really can be nasty in places. Then finally the relief to see Simon appear. It turns out he went slightly wrong and had to back-track and we are just very glad to see that he is not injured. He's only 6 minutes behind where we expected him to be so the race to catch the girls is still on. It's been known for people on the relays to get lost enough to turn a 10km leg into a half marathon. All it takes is just one turn to be missed. And it's especially easy when you are in the zone. In fact, this was one of the big challenges in trying to find last minute replacements for the Vets Team. Not only did you need someone who could run a 1h30m half marathon but you also needed someone who knew the way.
So, Simon arrived and handed over to Matt who had leg 10. Leg 10 is a relatively short leg with a steep descent into the Arun Valley where the South Downs Way crosses the River Arun at Amberley. The last part of the run is across the flat floodplain to finish on Houghton Lane.
The photo above is exactly what happens on the South Downs Relay. You give it your all and each runner arrives ready to collapse while the next runner heads out feeling relatively fresh and full of determination to run well for the team.
I ran leg 11 the last two years and can tell you that the heat of the day really can make it difficult. You run it as the sun is getting high in the sky and the heat reflects back off the white chalk on the climbs. To make matters worse there is barely any shade. While Martin was running we took what felt like a rather circuitous route to the end of leg 11 but we made it well in time for Graham to get ready for the change-over. Martin did a great run on leg 11 and noted the exact same problem of the heat, especially on the middle climb. I'm starting to get slightly nervous about leg 13 which is fast approaching. After Graham set out on leg 12 we head off to the start of leg 13. As we arrive I think back to a number of days earlier when Martin and I drove out at 5am to meet Alissa for an out-and-back training run on leg 13. That was tough enough and we were not racing it. We pull into the field that is used as the minibus park for this leg and pull up alongside the girls' team minibus. Dan has his window open and I get out announcing to him "That's it. I've had enough. We're catching you on the next one." We both know I'm joking however as they are starting leg 13 with roughly a 10 minute lead on us.
I've trained specifically for leg 13 with lots of hills and conditioning and am now getting quite nervous. The leg 12-13 change is a 2-baton change and the finish of leg 12 is somewhat hidden by a hedge so I can't see Graham arrive and I have to wait for the shout to go from the Marshall on the other side of the road. I'm getting my mind prepared for the suffering ahead. The sun is hot and hills on this leg are not kind.
My strategy on this leg is quite simple: look for runners ahead and try to catch up with them. Simple doesn't mean easy of course, as the long climb away from the road proves. There's a nice shady stretch through woods when you get to the top however which makes for a good break from the heat and a good pychological segmenting of the route. It's slightly downhill through there so you can open up the stride and try to feel some sort of flow. When it emerges from the woods on a steep section of descent you look to the left and see the two big climbs in the distance, one of which looks like a wall and is the side of Beacon Hill. Before you get there however the track twists and undulates and briefly enters some shade again. As soon as I leave that shade the big climb starts and I see that all the runners ahead are walking. It's really not surprising considering the heat and I really want to walk too. However, I remind myself that the more I am willing to suffer the more the others will have to suffer to keep up.. and so somehow I run on.
Once you reach the second summit, Beacon Hill, you go through a gate and the hill dives down away from you. It's said to be the steepest part of the South Downs Way. As I'm beginning my descent I see something at the foot of the opposite ascent which I did not expect to see, just about to be obscured by the bushes and trees that the path goes between. It's a Hailsham Harriers vest. Which means it's Alissa. Which means I have to leg it down the slope and try to catch her. Unfortunately for me as I start to close the gap she turned and noticed me approaching in the distance and really gave it some effort right to the end. I was getting closer but the closer I got the more she seemed to dig in and push. The result was intense effort and the photo below.
As I hand the baton to Paul Henderson in his pink mohawk cap I shout to him "GO CATCH HER!!!", referring to Charlie who has just set off. I proceed to collapse on the grass. What I hadn't yet mentioned was that the guys had said they would try to get an ice cream and have one waiting for me too. Matt had threatened to drop it in front of me if I hadn't tried hard enough. Tragically, there were no ice creams, and so we stopped at a petrol station to get some on our way to the end of leg 14. The most fabulous cooling experience.
Paul continued to put time into the girls on leg 14 which meant this was the first change-over where we left before them. Simon was now off on leg 15 which includes the long and soul destroying climb of Butser Hill - the highest point of the South Downs at 271m. We hope he can maintain the lead, and he does.
The Sustainability Centre is the hand-over point for leg 15-16. It's another nice moment to relax, eat and move for a while. While Simon was running we had taken a rather long accidental detour which included getting stuck behind the world's slowest driver on a narrow lane. We made it well in time however. I'm making the most of my rest and looking forward to two more legs of not running.
Leg 16 is another relatively short one but like all the legs has its challenges, such as the sharp kick of a climb at the end.
Having needed to cool myself down with an ice-cream after leg 13, I now found myself needing to warm up. The relay can really play with your body temperature regulation. You have much to contend with: bouts of intense effort, the sweat, sitting in a minibus, the lack of showers, the changing heat of the day. And it was now starting to get a little cool. Where Alan and I stood waiting to open a gate for Martin there was a chap with a tea van. A hot tea was now exactly what was needed. After that gate there's only a hundred or so metres to go for the change-over to leg 17 which Matt is running.
Leg 17 is a long one. And it's tough to run the distance hard when you've tired yourself on two legs earlier in the day. Matt seemed ready for it and was running well when we saw him pass at the half-way point of the leg where there's a convenient parking spot.
The farm at the end of leg 17 was my second incident of looking like I'd wet myself. This time was due to the toilet taps that jet over the basin if you turn them the wrong way...
I don't know where I found the energy but I managed to work hard on leg 18. I had walked the last section of this leg on a recce about a month earlier and was looking forward to passing spots I'd seen then. I think that helped. Especially that as I did that walk I imagined myself in those spots on relay day running hard and well. I was now going to pass those spots again and think back to the walk and make those visions come true.
Hailsham Harriers' leg times 2019
* = Fastest overall time of the day for that leg
** = Fastest ladies time of the day for that leg