South Downs Way 100 – The Pacers perspective

It’s 10pm Saturday evening 13th June and I’m stood near Devils Dyke Sussex on the South Downs Way and I’m cold and tired having driven from work and I’m about to pace for Steve Navesey who is running the South Downs Way 100 organised by Centurion Running. What am I doing here I briefly thought to myself ?!

I first got to know Steve through the Lakeland 50/100 Facebook group with his interesting mutterings about the event and in particular the Lakeland 100 which I’m competing in this year. I quickly got to know him well through the cyber world and realised we didn’t live too far from each other so agreed to meet up early in 2015 for some training runs – this never happened, best laid plans etc ! Steve then posted a request for anyone to be a pacer for him on the Centurion Running page for the SDW100 – I jumped at the chance as it fitted well with my training schedule and would likely involve some night running, perfect I thought. That was until I realised it fell on what is a scheduled working weekend for me but I didn’t worry Steve too much with the details as I didn’t want him to get stressed over it. Never being one to let anyone down, I was in and just had to hope it worked out. We ran together for the first time on a section of the Lakeland 50/100 course from Ambleside to Coniston at the end of May only 2 weeks before his race. We were both on an organised recce weekend run by the Lakeland team. Steve would be doing the fun run and me the 100 and luckily we clicked in both pace and humour – this would be crucial I thought to be a pacer running with someone at the tail end of a 100 mile race !! So Monday 8th June arrives and my work schedule is published, phew not bad and it was perfect to assist Steve but I knew I was in for a tough weekend leaving home around 9am Saturday and not getting back until 8pm then needing to be on the road again at 9am Sunday Morning. Great mental training with the experience of running through the night but not one to discuss with my boss !! Roll on Sunday night was my only thought and I’ll just tough out the bit before.

Steve was using a tracking device from Open Tracking for the SDW100 which would prove invaluable to the success of our plan later in the day. I first woke just before 6am on Race Day and could see he was ready and waiting for the start Gun at Winchester and then they were off. Dot watching if you’ve not done it before is an incredibly addictive past time but for me this was more personal, I’m joining that dot later ! So up and off to work, by the time I get there and check on Steve’s location I quickly realise he’s going really well – shit at this pace I’ll miss our meet up point which was scheduled for Ditchling Beacon ruining all our plans before I’ve even started. Rules governing the race mean you can only join at certain places and only after the half way point, the latter was never in the equation but if I couldn’t get to Steve by Ditchling my effectiveness to his success would diminish significantly, I can’t let him down. The time I should have left work came and went and I was really starting to worry I’d miss our meet up point, 30 minutes later I’m on the road and praying for clear roads.

In through the door from work, It’s now 8.15pm, Steve’s at St Botolphs CP, this is going to be tight, quick shower – why ? I don’t know but I did and felt better for it, change into to my running gear, bowl of pasta down me and grab my running sack and out the door at 8.45pm. At this point I just hoped I’d packed my sack properly and had everything I needed but satisfied myself that the Centurion Guardian Angels will look after me as well as Steve so fear not – I’m off and on my way to meet Bev, Steve’s lovely wife who was his support crew for the day (now that would be an interesting blog to read haha)… The plan was for me was to drive to Alfriston get collected by Bev and then meet up with Steve at Ditchling. It was all going like clock work, collected by Bev who proceeded to describe in detail how Steve had now fallen outside his ‘A’ plan of sub 24hours and was really struggling and digging deep. This was the first of many times throughout the night I’d hear the story of no sleep and that frustration being taken out on a Premier Inn chair which travelled at speed across their room at 4am in the morning and the heat in the room similar to an MDS race not the South Downs! So what I thought was going to be a tough weekend just got mentally tougher, I now had Grumpy Draws (my own made up nick name for Steve – that’s another story) to deal with for the best parts of the night !! I refer you to my earlier comment ‘what am I doing here’? With this info me and Bev had a conversation checked the tracker and he was already at Truleigh Hill, could we make it to Devils Dyke to get Steve some company and back on track. Picture the scene – we’re travelling West along the A27 (obviously within the speed limits !) he’s travelling East along the South Downs Way. Can we do it, could we get there before he did otherwise we’d have to wait until Ditchling for me to join him, we’ve nothing to lose I told Bev, so that’s it we’re on our way. We turn off the A27 as we head up to the Dyke and I reckon Steve has less than a mile to go according to the tracker. I kid you not we park I get out of  the car put my race sack on and stand at the cross over point when what I can only describe as a scene out of Saving Private Ryan, It’s dark and slightly misty when this silhouette figure appeared out of the darkness looking like he’d been in a hell of a battle. As a copper I’ve seen some sights in my career and this standing shuffling figure who came out of the gloom had the face of some of the dead ones I’ve come across. Right so now I’ve got to pace for Mr Grumpy Draws who resembles death – boy I’m in for a fun night whilst my mates are in town at a party… and to make matters worse I’m cold and worried I’ve not got enough clothing for a slow death march, I was dressed for 10 minute miles !!!

The look on Steve’s face and a hand shake turned my night around, this bloke was battling and no words needed saying we were a team from that very moment and I never had any other thoughts of why I was there from that moment on. (In my head I thought, shit we need some luck to carry this one home but don’t worry mate I’m here now, we’re going back onto the battlefield and we’re going to nail it, trust me I’m here for you and you’re not ducking out) that all felt a bit wet so I just said ‘you’re looking good how’s your feet’ ? (a lying copper – oops sorry !! hehe)

So that’s how I came to be stood cold & tired on Devil’s Dyke. First leg was a nice gentle downhill but the flints sticking out from the path were probably more like upright shards of glass digging into your feet for someone who had already covered 60 miles. Steve was to trip over these shards and flints many times during the course of the night instantly followed by a severe case of Tourettes which only added to my amusement. Sorry Steve !!! We caught up with a group of 3 ladies and also passed a couple of guys and made short work of my first section to Clayton and mostly chatted about how his day had gone – did I mention he hadn’t had much sleep ? yep well so did he, many times but right or wrong I couldn’t stop laughing about it. Steve was tired on the approach to Clayton and was close to falling asleep whilst upright so we decided to dib into Clayton and for him to grab a 5 minute nap which should be enough to dig him out of that situation. This was a buzzing CP with light sticks illuminating the approach and a Christmas tree not to mention a lit up volunteer or had hallucinations kicked in for me after just a few miles?  The CP staff were brilliant but it was very cold with a biting wind so this plan wasn’t going to work as despite me having warmed up I hadn’t done 65 miles at this point which would have made it worse. The options were get Steve to move to a chair in the shelter or crack on. Well getting up from 1 chair was bad enough but to do it twice wasn’t going to happen so Let’s go and have a rethink on sleep and perhaps sort it at Housedean near Lewes, another 7.5 miles up the trail.

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Steve at Clayton CP

A lot of this section was spent with me pacing just ahead and Steve hanging on to my  heels. A bit of Green Cross Code help was needed to get him across the road at the top of Ditchling Beacon and then onto my favourite section of the South Downs, grassy track under foot and nicely undulating. We made great progress along here and passed a few more runners. I wasn’t being competitive but in my head I was starting to think right let’s just keep the pace nice and steady and if we pass people great but we’re not letting anyone pass us now with the exception at a CP because the time we stop is because we need to so don’t worry about what others are doing. Steve’s ‘A’ plan had now changed to finishing not sub 24 hours so let’s not mess that up.

We’re now at Housedean CP a major milestone in my view after a really strong section and I was fully immersed in the event now and keeping things positively buoyant by having some mini goals, most I shared with Steve but my competitive one I kept to myself until I was to leave him later on. Grumpy Draws kept on changing his mind about what he wanted to do so he was unceremoniously placed in a chair and told to have 5 mins downtime, I really enjoyed the CP’s, Centurion put on a great buffet and the staff are just amazing and so positive so a quick bit of banter with them, a few cheeky bits of cake for me and sorting Steve’s water bottle and food out and that’s it – your time is up and we’re off again. There were some really sorry souls hanging on to the race with their finger tips by the look of it lurking at this CP so it really wasn’t a great place to hang around for too long. The dreaded climb up Kingston Hill which haunted me as a Scout many years ago when I used to race a competition called the Downsman was next and this had been a topic of conversation for the last 2 sections. It’s a bit of a drag but not too steep. We absolutely nailed it and Steve was in a purple patch, we passed 3 more people on the climb up alone. Tactful as ever I did remind him of the Ultra quote – ‘if you start to feel good in an Ultra don’t worry it won’t last long’ maybe not the best thing to say but my point was more let’s make the most of this. We were running well and the Yellow brick Road (a drag of a concrete road to Mill lane Rodmell) came and went, another drag which wasn’t a drag. The boys on fire and more people we passed. I was loving the race and really felt positive about everything and my competitive plan was going well.

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Steve reaching the top of Southese Hill with the radio masts ahead on our way to Firle Beacon

The original plan meant that I estimated I should be done around 3am, perfect, a few hours kip and back to work which is nothing I’m not used to….. We’re now at Southese CP and it’s 4.30am !! oh well. The conversation flowed and all my worries about the night hadn’t come true, in fact I was having a cracking time and loving the event. In and out of the CP within 2 minutes, quick water bottle fill another ham wrap for Sir and cake for me and we’re off. It was now light so we ditched the head torches and with the sun threatening to pop out our waterproofs too which was refreshing. Next stop Southese Hill on the way to Firle which had been another topic of conversation for a while but we settled back into me taking the lead and Steve hanging on to my heels and we nailed it again. Another hill I dreaded as a Scout although back in those days the zig zag path didn’t exist and it was straight up from the road !! Up at the radio masts and my journey was coming to an end, I was tired at this point but at no point felt I had any justification in complaining, I was with someone who had completed 85 miles so my gripes were pathetic. I love the early mornings and the birdsong and just being up there on the Downs at that time of day was magnificent, it was just a beautiful place to be and so peaceful – I won’t repeat what Steve thought about them but if he had an automatic weapon at that point I think there would have been a few less birds and a lot less song…

Coming along to Bo Peep we passed another runner who was clearly struggling, for some reason we always ask ‘are you alright, how’s it going? like we do at Doctors surgeries, what do you think muppet ? I’m at a Doctors because I wanted to tell them how great I’m feeling !! Well I suppose in this world it’s a gesture, an acknowledgment of what they are going through and a silent pat on the shoulder of support. We then caught up with a lady and Steve was chatting to her too much and slowing so I didn’t announce my intentions but we were off, we’ve got a race to finish mate and I’ve got to get back to go to work. She tagged on too which was great, it must get really lonely on your own so a welcome boost with company is enough to spur you in to running again so now I’m pacing for 2. Join in guys the more the merrier this is awesome, I’ve been awake for over 24 hours and I feel ok. I started reflecting on my own race coming up in July and was picturing where I would be at this time on the Lakeland course and hoped I felt this good but doubt in reality that I would.

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Great views from Bo Peep approximately 05.30am

We arrive at Alfriston, my final destination. The staff were amazing and made up a large ham wrap especially for Steve on request who was more like himself at this point and did look good and not the deathly image I had been greeted with when I started. Espresso coffee chewy sweet balls, I was in heaven and could have scoffed the lot but knew I’d be in trouble with Nici Griffin one of the Centurion organisers and a friend. Whilst pace runners are catered for as well as the runners, nabbing all the food really isn’t on so I disciplined myself to 2. Next year I plan to do this race so don’t worry, I’ll be back for more than 2, they better be there as I’m running 91 miles to get them !! I knew Steve would finish comfortably without me now albeit probably a little slower but just a few minutes here to make sure he was sorted and I cleared him from the CP and sent him on his way. I was actually sad to leave him and gutted I couldn’t finish the job and watch him cross the finish line, we had become a great team over the course of 8.5 hours. We shook hands and again with that no need for words look off he trotted. Go and finish it off and get that medal, it was at this point I told him of my competitive plan and whatever he did he was not to let anyone pass him to the finish, 8 miles to go and hopefully this was enough to keep him focused. My work was done, I’d covered 26.1 miles and needed to get back shower and go to work. Steve had amazingly made up 24 places over this distance.

This was my first experience of being a pacer and I was really worried beforehand about whether I would be able to deliver what Steve needed and wanted, too fast, too slow etc but I went into this with the right attitude which I think is important if you ever contemplate doing it. This is not your race, you have to be totally selfless and tolerant. You can’t start having negative thoughts or being grumpy yourself because your runner is going too slow or keeps changing his mind or swears at you, it’s what you’re there for. When you run yourself you are in control of everything you chose to say or do but being a pacer is a really tough balancing act I found between being positive, empathetic but strong enough to get them through the dark times by pushing that little bit more. Setting little mini goals was a great way to get you and your runner to focus on the Now not the whole job ahead and this is something I will be using in my attempt to complete the Lakeland 100 starting on July 24th…

I had one of the most satisfying runs ever, I’d covered marathon distance over night but this wasn’t for or about me, it was for my mate Grumpy and only on the second time we’d met. We will now be friends for life I’m sure. If ever you have the opportunity to Pace, do it and you’ll never regret it. Steve Thank you and well done on your personal challenge and magnificent achievement… Sorry I can’t pace for you next year as I’ll be running it myself to get more of those Espresso balls..

See you on the Trails, have fun

Mike

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2 thoughts on “South Downs Way 100 – The Pacers perspective

  1. Pingback: Montane Lakeland 50 – I’m just doing the 50 | navs1962

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