I’ve just taken part in an endurance event that involved about 40 hours of being awake and I only ran 16 miles. And I have LOVED every single second of it.
This weekend I did my first big girl bit of volunteering with the legends that are Centurion on the SDW100. I’ve wanted to give some time to these guys for ages, but last year’s test pilot outings and stupid running schedule, coupled with bouts of abject misery and pity parties meant it was a no go for me. I also decided this year that my aim for 2020 was to do the Centurion 100 Grand Slam - great timing when I have just moved away from a fairly lucrative career path in London to live in the sticks with £4.20 to my name. So I’m going to work to get those places and turns out it’s the best thing I could possibly do.
I’ve volunteered and marshalled before – I’ve done it for White Star and Rat Race and I’ve loved it, but this my friends, this was something else. This experience has made me love ultra-running and the community around it more than I ever thought possible. This experience has made me a better ultra-runner without even running a step.
I’d offered to crew and pace my pal Rosanna for SDW100 already. It was her first go at an organised 100 miler and, as I did it last year, I was happy to help. I love Rosanna, and I wanted to see her cross that line. In my head, I thought I could easily fit in volunteering around crewing and pacing and, having roped him indoors into the pacing bit too, we could split it up. He was going to do the 54-84 mile bit and I was going to do the death march 84-100 mile bit. That gave me time for sleeps. That also meant we would have to do the volunteering early – you need to do at least 8 hours to guarantee a place at the following years event.
I’ll admit I have been a bit scared of Centurion. They are such a slick operation, and they seem to come with a ready-made family around them. It’s like you’re at a party, acting like a dick, and Centurion walk in, like the guys from Grease, and everyone is scared because they are SO cool and confident. They don’t make a lot of noise, they just sit there looking cool and doing stuff right. You really want to be friends with them, but you’re not sure how. That makes sense right?! In reality, they are extraordinarily personable as a team, welcoming, professional and totally lacking in stress. If at any point James or Nici was stressed, I did not see it.
Saturday morning saw us up at 3.50am, after 5 hours sleep in a rain lashed field just outside Winchester. It had literally hammered it down all night, and I had slept in a tent from Morrisons that resembled a Sainsburys Bag for Life. I was on registration that morning, which was actually really good fun. I’m not sure the runners found my hilarious japes fun, but I did, mainly because I was tired. I felt like I got to know loads of them just by handing them their numbers. It was really exciting to see them filter in through the tent. First timers, packing and repacking their bags, nervously making sure every single thing was in place, old hands quietly contemplating who else was in the running to win, grand slam winners, grand slam contenders, people I knew, people I knew of, people I had fan-girled over, people that I didn’t know. The abiding memory was the feeling in that tent. It was a feeling of shared excitement. It’s easy in this world we inhabit as runners to be blasé, and to not to see what an amazing achievement running 100 miles non-stop is. But it IS an amazing achievement , and NOT everyone does it. In fact very, very few people do it. Many of these people in the tent had given up huge parts of their life to train for this, and today was the day they faced it down. And all they had was each other and their crews, and that was and is amazing. They didn’t know it, but they were about to make some of the best friends they had ever made out there on the South Downs Way. They would go through hell together, and come out the other side. They would support and champion strangers. They would be pulled up by people they had never met. That in itself makes endurance running at this level beautiful and amazing.
At 6am the runners were off. I watched them running off up the hill, with massive amounts of FOMO. If I was a dog, I would be one of those dogs that whimpers when it’s owner walks out the room, except I would it at runners when I’m not running. After helping pack up the registration tent and packing the car, we drove to our aid station – CP3 at Harting Downs about 27 miles into the race. We got there at about 8am and started set up around 8.30. First runners weren’t due in for a few hours, but it was shitty weather and we had to get the tents up and food sorted. The aid station crew was made up of people that I had never met before, but we were pretty much instantly pals. There was no ego and no agenda, just a bunch of really nice people, who had never met each other working together as a team to get the station ready. When else does that happen? Not a fucking lot these days.
First runners came through and were just charming and lovely. They are just monsters, those guys and gals, but every one of them had a hello and a thank you for everyone working there. Sam, one of our new pals, had a cow bell that he rang as every person left the station. Every person. From the front runners to the last guys. Everyone treated the same, everyone going through their own personal hell at some point. Everyone looked after. Everyone cared for and talked to - cheered on to achieve their own epic.
The runners came through in waves – sometimes the tent was totally full, sometimes empty. The rain meant people stayed there for a while at times - fuck knows why – I did think at some points we might just be carried off the top of Harting Downs by the wind. The tent leaked, the sandwiches got wet, we laughed and made some more. We all got soaked trying to hold the gazebo down, there was a mini hurricane, food flew everywhere, we all laughed and made some more. More people came through, some looking strong, some looking defiant, some looking fucking terrible. Every person was greeted and looked after by a member of the team. Every runner said thank you. We made special sandwiches for the vegans and saved GF cake for the GF people. We encouraged and pushed forward, we gave cuddles and patched up small wounds. We tried to talk people out of DNFing at our checkpoint and, I think in the end, we only had two drop. We worked hard and we witnessed greatness.
My point here is this - I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I don’t think that being super fast or winning a million trophies is the thing that makes you a great runner. I think it’s being able to support and inspire your fellow runners and fit into a community that makes you a brilliant runner. Watching these people coming through, all fighting their own battles, was hugely inspiring. Being able to offer advice from personal experience (‘eat a salty potato, have jaffa gerkin sarnie’) or just making people laugh when they felt low, was a privilege. Being part of their journey was a privilege. So many people from so many countries and so many walks of life, all together, achieving something which I have no doubt every one of them once thought was impossible was an amazing thing. Watching the struggle, watching the camaraderie of people who had never met before supporting each other. It’s was so very special to witness.
We stayed at Harting Downs until 2pm, when the last runners came through. My heart broke a little when one guy missed the cut off by 2 mins. He took it well. It wasn’t his day. He was about 70 and had run a ton of amazing ultras, including Western States. I hoped that I would still be running at that age. I hoped I would be as graceful in defeat.
We packed up and shipped out – the team working incredibly well to get everything done in record time. We said our farewells, and Julius and I set off in search of some food and somewhere to have a nap in the car. Rosanna was doing well – her feet were wet and her knees playing up, but we thought she would reach the 54 mile mark at about 7pm, so we had 4 hours to play with. We drove to the Washington checkpoint via the pub for a pint and some food. Poor Julius never did manage to get that nap in, and we headed up to the checkpoint for 7 with Rosanna’s bags and some hot chips we had left over from dinner.
She came in all smiles. We filled bottles and got some food down her. She wasn’t dealing with her feet at all but I let that pass – I wish I hadn’t. She didn’t have a plan – she just wanted to finish the thing. We got pizza and chips in her, and I chatted to some of the people that I’d met at registration. I’d started to feel a bit tired, but you can’t say that when you’re crew – it doesn’t go down well when someone has just run 54 miles and you haven’t. I saw Rosanna and Julius off, and headed to the car to move on to Southease – where I would later pick up Rosanna at 84 miles.
I estimated she would be there between 1 and 3am, so parked the car at the side of the road, sorted bags and kit and managed to get about 3 hours broken sleep between trucks thundering past and me having weird dreams about Julius being a baby with a massive head.
At 3am I headed to the checkpoint. There were runners sitting with their heads in their hands, some of them being sick. This was the start of the death march – the 16 miles to the finish. I handed out some crisps to people who were really struggling and helped people fill up water. I chatted to some runners and crew and encouraged them on – they could walk it in from here I told them. they were just walking home. There were 3 major hills on the last part of the route and the battle was a mental one. But some of them were just too broken to continue and again, that broke my heart.
Eventually I saw Rosanna and Julius walking towards me. Rosanna’s sister had arrived with her dog Ped. Seeing Ped really buoyed Rosanna. Dogs are so brilliant. I got her to sit down and eat, filled bottles, swapped out bags so I could carry some nutrition for her. Realised I hadn’t eaten myself, I felt pretty rubbish. I got some crisps and biscuits in me and a strong coffee, and then we were off, marching into the sunrise. It was 4.10am and I had been awake for over 24 hours with a broken 3 hours sleep.
Rosanna seemed in good spirits. Yes, she wanted it to be over, but she is strong as an Ox and stubborn with it. It was a beautiful morning. I tried to take Rosanna’s mind off her knees with chat about the sunrise and lambs. I tried to encourage the more broken runners we passed along the way. We were in this last bit together, but 16 miles had never seemed so long.
Rosanna knew the route well, having done it a number of times on her bike. Her tiredness showed as she kept repeating the route we were about to take, over and over. I just listened and opened gates and trotted next to her. When the pain got too much, I let her hum to herself – she warned me this would happen. At aid stations, I filled her bottle and ran to catch up with her. We were doing 16-18 min miles. Progress was slow. I wanted it to be over as much as she did – I was fucking knackered!
1.5 miles from the end we hit the road section, and it was here Rosanna started to break. She knew she was close, she knew she could do it, but she was in so much pain. The road was worse than the trails on her knees and feet. I marched just in front of her, standing on road crossings to stop cars turning so she didn’t have to stop. It was about 8.45 am and we had one mile left to go. I didn’t talk, just set a marching pace and shouted out how far away we were at intervals “0.9 miles…0.7 miles”. As we turned the corner to the athletics track where she was to finish, I could see her crumbling. I told her not to break down and to focus. She had to get around the track, Her sister and Ped were there, walking her in, and Julius joined us for a lap around the track. She crossed the line in 27 hours and 10 mins. She broke down in tears. She had done it. It was over. I was extraordinarily proud of her. She had given it everything.
The finish line was full of broken and happy people. People that had achieved something completely incredible. It made me want to cry. People shared battle stories and admired their buckles. People laughed and joked with others who, before that weekend, they had never met. These people were now firm friends who had shared something that other people just wouldn’t understand. This is humans working as they should work. This is stripped back to basics stuff. This is living.
There is no social hierarchy in endurance running. Nobody cares how much you earn, what car you drive or what you do. All people care about is helping others to achieve something spectacular and also achieving something for themselves by accepting help and support.
Centurion have something very special going on with their community. They are faultless in their organisation and support. They are welcoming and not cliquey. They are non judgmental and treat every single person the same. The last person in gets the same cheers as the first. I want to thank James and Nici for allowing me to have this experience. An endurance test with not much running involved, yes. But also a life affirming weekend spent watching normal people achieve extraordinary things simply through the support of their fellow man. Every ultra-runner can learn from them and their tribe.
For more information about Centurion and to volunteer at one of their races click here.