A return to racing - South Downs Way 50

By Annabelle Lancaster, Ronhill Designer

As the alarm clock went off at a unusually early (for me) 5am, I hit the snooze, knowing that I had an hour to get warmed up and stretched out, whilst grabbing breakfast and a big coffee on my way out the door. So as I rolled over, I suddenly realised what day it was. Saturday 17th April, South Downs Way 50mile race, the first real race, non virtual race, in over 14months! Eyes pinged open, energy buzzing, and bonus that it was already getting light outside. Went downstairs to my homemade lockdown attempt at a gym, slung my leg over the spin bike, a bit of Britney 90’s pop blaring out (I’m proud of it) to get everything going. Quick spin of the legs, then straight on the yoga mat to stretch out everything else. Tasteful music still blaring. Adrenaline going, it’s back upstairs to get my race day kit on, coffee machine button pressed, and a variety of fruit to stuff in my face.

Out the door, and it just hits me, what a day this already feels like, it had so much energy. I had a bit of time to reflect on the months leading up to this race, as I was sitting in the back of a taxi taking me to the start line. I’d injured myself badly on a trail run at the back end of summer last year, and couldn’t get training for this ultra until the very beginning of January. I’d also been quite unwell during summer 2020 (nothing to do with you know what). And Pandemic or no pandemic, it was a bad year personally. That behind me, when the new year rolled in I refocused, then refocused again.

It was tough starting from 0, but mentally it was refreshing. It felt like I was starting with a fresh pair of well rested and repaired legs. Completely focused on April 10th, (original date before it was changed to the 17th due to covid) it was some of the best months training I’ve ever had. Week after week hitting the goals I set for myself, but there was no pressure there, I only ever went out to enjoy the run, wanting to be out there loving every second.

One training run that I will never forget, early March, i woke up on the day knowing what I wanted to achieve, I knew the route (the same long run route I use as I’m able to add a little more distance, week after week, building up training), the weather was in incredible, the day inspiring. As I headed out, the first few km’s done, I knew I had it in me that day. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than out running. The injuries were gone, the fitness was back and better than ever. All the years of attempting ultra running and I’d finally found confidence to go out there, and smash out 60, 70, 80km training run, and feeling fabulous whilst doing it.

So when race day came around, and for the first time ever, I knew I could really run hard, it wasn’t about the distance today, it was about being able to achieve a solid effort. I’d run the SDW 50 a few years previous, I know the route well, I train on it, walk it, live close to it. There’s something about the South Downs Way that gives me this incredible feeling, this amazing, indescribable emotion.

The start line is empty, it’s a very different year. (The queue for the portaloos is still the same though, even longer due to social distancing!) A chilly pink knees 2 degrees at 7am, but not a cloud in the sky, crunchy grass, that was dazzling and bejewelled in the morning sunlight.

I picked up my tracker, stuffed a cookie in my mouth, and it was go, no waiting around at the start line, just turn up, and go! (Always time for a quick pre-race, fresh-faced, to close to the camera selfie).

The day itself was phenomenal, effortless to start off with, more prepared than ever, felt fresher than ever. It felt like it all fell into place at that moment, it was magical. The first half of the race I had that feeling I was soaring, it was the best possible feeling to have during any run, that’s one reason why I run, to experience the closest thing to flight. Just over half way, and I could feel my legs starting to fade away. I knew it was going to be a tough last 23miles, I had some steep climbs to come too, as most of the elevation gain was rather cruelly in the latter half. Experience was shouting at me, telling myself this would pass, it’s just an emotional dip and my legs will come back to me. Being an ultra runner you get these incredible highs and lows within minutes of each other, it’s an addictive drug, always chasing that high. Physically I was tired, I saw my time I was aiming for slipping away from me. The socially distance queuing at checkpoints to restock fuel and water supplies was a welcome rest, as I sat on a fence post waiting to swipe roast potatoes and spring rolls, no harm in grabbing a brownie on my way out of the aid station. Apparently I was to busy thinking about food that I’d left my water flasks at the table and a kind Marshall found himself running after me with them. Wouldn’t have got very far without water as the temperature was now hitting 19 degrees and a dry wind on the tops added to the dehydrating conditions. 

Finally at mile 47 I see a high vis vest standing at the top of the last climb, clapping and cheering me on. I crawl up to the trig point, and every hair on my weary body stands up, as i can see Eastbourne. 80,000 steps it’s taken to get me to this point, but the pain vanishes instantly. The final 3 mile decent takes us down this steep, narrow, chalky, rocky, slippy trail, wide enough for only one foot in front of the other, through the trees, jumping over roots, it’s a testing last few steps. Through a wooden gate, onto the only bit of main roads and industrial landscape, running alongside traffic, dodging busses as you weave yourself through Eastbourne’s busy roads. And that’s it, I turn a corner and can see the glow of the red carpeted athletics track, ‘bouncing’ around a 400m lap of the track, finishing under clear blue skies, and an empty stadium. I grab a medal, quick finishers photo, and you’re on your way. Within seconds of finishing I was sitting in my car in the car park of the stadium, watching some fellow athletes finishing their races, and reflecting on what just happened.