Last Saturday (May 25, 2013) I took part in my first 100KM race (the London to Brighton Challenge), raising money for the breast awareness charity CoppaFeel! (more on the charity later, but you can donate via my JustGiving page). Last summer I walked 100KM in the Oxfam Trailwalk and I ran in an 80KM race along the North Downs, so this was bringing the best elements of both together.
For me the event started on the Friday, driving to London with my son Will, who provided first class support throughout the event. A few meetings in town were followed by registering for the event and checking into the hotel.
Saturday started very early, Will and I left the hotel soon after 5, arriving at the start of the run, in Richmond’s Old Deer Park at about 5:30am, ready for a 6:00am start. The good news was the rain that had been with us till Friday had cleared up and we had a fine day for running (albeit with some muddy stretches, here and there).
The London to Brighton Challenge had about 320 runners and about 1000 walkers. The competitors were due to start at various times, with me in the first group at 6:00am. A few stretches, some music, motivational words from the organisers, and we were off, about five minutes late, but no harm in that.
The route ran across the park and then down along the river bank until Kingston – ensuring a really flat start to the run. I started the run with my waterproof top on, and wearing my small running rucksack (which houses a two-litre water bladder). However, as the day, and me, warmed up I soon took off my top and at one of the support stops, switched to my running bum-bag (which holds two water bottles) – I often find a rucksack causes me to overheat.
Running an ultra, even at my slow speeds, is quite different from something like a half-marathon. You have to run well inside your abilities for hours. At, say, 40KM (25 miles), you need to ensure that you are not tired, not aching, not sore, not exerting yourself – because you have many, many hours to go. In my case I reached 40 KM in about 5 hours, feeling fine. The next 40KM would take me 7 hours, and the 20 KM after that 3.5 hours. This was a bit slower than I had hoped, but 5 hours is what I ran a marathon in 5 weeks ago, and 12 hours is what I ran 80KM in last year, so I probably got the finishing time I deserved.
The run had eight support spots, at roughly 12.5 KM intervals At some of these points the support teams (for me, my son Will) could meet us – at other times I met Will a little before or after the support stops. At the race stops there was food, medical support, toilets, drinks, and loads of smiles and support.
One of the noticeable features of the stops was how relaxed the runners were. Anybody who has run a marathon or half-marathon will be familiar with the way that water stops tend to be a mad dash to collect as much water as possible in as short a time as possible. On the 100KM run, as people entered the station they slowed to a very casual walk. They looked at the drinks and food on offer, made their selections, spoke to the people providing the support, spoke to each other, savoured their food and drink, replenished their bags and set out again. Most runners spent up to 5 mins at each of the stations (barring the very fastest), which equates to at least 40 minutes at stations – because of the extra time I spent at the 56KM station, I would estimate I spent about one hour at the stations, out of my 15.5 hours.
The 56KM stop was the biggest of the stops and it was billed as the half-way point (although the more mathematical of you will have noticed that in pure distance it was just over half way). Here the 13 hour plus runners tended to have a longer stop, eating sandwiches or even a hot meal. I went for sandwiches, but I also spent fifteen minutes getting a blister on my toe popped and dressed. One of my more recent personal rules is that on long distance events (running or walking) deal with problems as soon as you are aware of them – if you have a blister, running another 12.5KM on it does not improve things. Interestingly, the medic was not allowed to suggest popping the blister, but was happy to do it when I requested. Many of us find that popping is much, much, better than just dressing.
Other than the best runners, most ultra runners walk up the big hills. We run on the flat, the downhills, and the small hills, but we walk on the big hills. However, as the hours go by, the slower folk (including me) have a changing definition of what constitutes a big hill. At 60KM a hill that I would have run up at 20KM suddenly becomes one I am happy to walk up.
Other interruptions to running are caused by very steep descents (there were very few of these on this run), very muddy stretches (I think I spent about30 minutes, in total, waddling across mud), and stiles (there were masses of stiles, perhaps 60 stiles, so I might have spent 45 minutes climbing (ever more stiffly) over stiles. One special hazard on this route was a fallen tree. This was over 60KM into the run and I was already very stiff and I think it took 2 or 3 minutes to find a way of getting over it (rolling my body onto it, across it, and off again).
The route from London to Brighton is very flat initially, until it climbs over the North Downs. From the North the North Downs are a set of not too steep hills, until the top of the Downs are reached and the North Downs Way crossed, which is the highest point of the run. The descent down the escarpment was the only, long, very steep section. After the North Downs the route goes South across the Weald, going up and down small hills, and through lots of high quality farming land (which is where most of the stiles were). At 88KM the route reaches the last checkpoint, at Plumpton. This checkpoint looks up at the intimidating face of the South Downs. At this point I switched back to my rucksack and Will pushed my walking sticks into my bag. A short jog brought me to the bottom of the first of three hill climbs and out came the sticks. Up to the South Downs Way, then, with my sticks in one hand, a jog along the top and a long descent, this was followed by a medium hill, and then another downhill jog with the sticks being carried. At Falmer the sticks got their last outing, helping me climb a long but steady hill up to the 97KM marker. At 97KM Will met me, took the sticks and carried them as we jogged and chatted together for the last 3KM.
I had started at 6am in London. I had run all day, except for walking up the hills, climbing the stiles, waddling in the mud, and the checkpoints. It was now just past 9pm and getting dark. The last 3KM were completed in a breeze, chatting to Will and running on the flat and perhaps slightly downhill route that leads to Brighton Racecourse. The final run up to the finish is spectacular, and the crowd shout like you are the first runner they have seen (about 170 have actually already finished). I finish at about 9:30, 15hour and 32 minutes after I had started – having enjoyed almost all of it.
So, how did I do? Well, 15.5 hours was slower than I had hoped for, but respectable (for me). Of the runners I finished 178th out of about 320, which is good for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I raised over £1000 for charity – more on that in a moment. Of the 15.5 hours I think I spent 45 minutes on stiles and obstacles, about 30 minutes waddling on mud, about 1 hour at the stops and checkpoints, about 90 minutes walking up hills, so about 12 hours running. If I run that sort of distance again, I will be looking for a route with fewer stiles, I will perhaps stop less at the checkpoints and meetings, I would love to avoid mud altogether, and perhaps run up slightly more of the hills.
In terms of the event, the people were brilliant, the fellow competitors were great, the route signage was the best I have ever seen. I was not a fan of some of the small paths, nor of the stiles (by comparison the North Downs run is on much wider tracks, with very few obstacles). I would certainly recommend the London2Brighton Challenge to any runner or walker who was looking to take part in a well organised 100KM event, on an iconic route.
If you have read this far, please consider making a donation to CoppaFeel! It is a great little charity doing great work. You can make a contribution via my JustGiving page.