They say the key to a good story is a good opening line. That wasn’t it…
I can’t say the preparation to my second ultra race was filled with a meticulous training plan, coupled with sensible dietary preparations, as there’s not that much you can do in less than 24 hours.
The opportunity to do the race arose, so I took it after much encouragement from friends from running club. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t finish. No big deal considering the lack of training. So I got together all the things I needed for the morning and had an early night. Well, early-ish. a couple of drinks to wish a friend happy birthday, then bed.
We arrived at the Shoreham sea scouts’ hut with plenty of time. We, meaning running buddy and this morning’s chauffeur Darren, and Stephanie from club. Darren is a seasoned ultra-runner, and after a previous year filled with injury was using this race as a springboard to better things this year. Stephanie had won her place at our club ballot, and was also planning other ultra races this year.
The event was the Dark Star Marathon, which was put on by Sussex Trail Events. They’re new to event management – only a couple of years young, but you wouldn’t know it. Very well organised, and very encouraging to all runners, and keen to ensure the event is completed with limited impact on the environment as possible. Dropping litter is instant disqualification, for example.
This year’s race forecast was cold and relatively calm, with the route hugging the river Adur on one side to Henfield,up to Partridge Green (home of Dark Star brewery, hence the name of the race), and on to West Grinstead by way of the Downslink Ultra before coming back down, crossing over the river and returning on the opposite bank.
My breakfast consisted of a cup of tea 20 minutes before the start of the race. Not unusual for me. A lot of my training runs on a Sunday morning normally involve running on empty. A couple of photos with the rest of the runners from our club (all pics on this blog courtesy of Jon Lavis!), followed by a listen to Jay the race director with some final instructions, and then we were out into the cold of the morning, and the race.
Apart from the first half a mile or so where we ran behind the rope tackle buildings in Shoreham, we spent a good 60% of our time running on mud. Luckily the cold weather that greeted us in the morning meant that at least on the way up it was frozen mud and quite holding, although a little ‘sharp’ on the feet in places.
The first aid station was a welcome sight, with hot cross buns, water, bananas… real food! I greedily scoffed a bun whilst chatting with the crew. While I wasn’t exactly hungry or thirsty, I knew to take on sustenance sooner rather than later. And then off again. Darren by this time had pulled ahead by quite a distance, and we would only see him again at the turn around point. This left Steph and I to soldier on. I made sure I looked around and enjoyed the scenery and the company, partly to keep my mind off running.
Although I’ve run the Downs Link many times, it seemingly wasn’t enough to remind me how far I had to go before we got to our next aid station at Partridge Green at 11 miles. Just before we reached it, the lead runner passed us on his way back – us with 10 miles done, him with 10 miles left! Go Paul Sargent, one of our club members! Again I made sure to fill up at the aid station. Conscious of previous cramp issues in other races, i elected to go for some salty crisps to help prevent a recurrence. And then again we were off heading our way up to West Grinstead.
The turnaround point at West Grinstead also featured the best aid station in four counties that day. I know this as it was manned by our very own running club. It was quite a spread, which included home-made flapjacks, crisps, buns of many descriptions, and tea! There is nothing so good as a cup of tea mid-race. Superb! Steve Roberts, the aid station ‘manager’ and ultra runner too, had the nous to bring some salt, which I sprinkled liberally on to one of my pieces of flapjack. Stay away cramp!
I won’t bore you with the details back, suffice to say the pace slowed as we turned into the wind, and coupled with a rise in the temperature meant the going underfoot got steadily stickier.
The great thing about races like these is the camaraderie in the pack. Everyone was very friendly, and happy to chat whilst running.
We were again grateful to see the aid station just north of Bramber, and Steph went on ahead while I hoovered up more of the food. It would be a shame to let it go to waste…
We got to Bramber and met Karen from club, who was offering additional support for Steph to reach the end. Karen was extremely supportive, her boundless energy seeming to rub off on us.
Slowly but surely the meanderings of the river brought us closer and closer to Lancing College, its large chapel a landmark seen for many miles up-river reminding us of the distance left to run. We passed it eventually and carried on under the A27 viaduct to reach the final struggle of concrete slabbed stretch by the side of Shoreham airport. After running all that way this was a major struggle.
The reason was that these slabs are not laid flat, they’re always ever so slightly (and some not so slightly) sloping, with most of them seemingly at a camber that threatened to kick off my calf cramps. Luckily I survived the minor obstacle course, and was able to finish with a flourish, in just under 6 hours. A few of the club had stuck around to see the last of their team home, and it was great to see them at the end, as always.
The post race vegetarian chilli and pitta bread was gratefully received, along with the cup of tea offered gratis by the organisers.
The organisers also provided a swag bag containing a Dark Star water bottle (nice colour scheme – will go well with the bike!), and a bottle of their finest ale. Additionally, there was a 33shake natural energy gel. Something to use on the next race perhaps…
postscript – the race place I was given was from a fine man, whose wife sadly died on the day of the race after a battle with cancer. I dedicate this blog to Philippe and to the memory of Sheila.