Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Downslink Ultra - off to the seaside

"Don't fear moving slowly forward ... fear standing still."  Kathleen Harris

The 5th Downslink Ultra race would take place on Sunday 1st October.  The route starts at St Martha's Hill, near Guilford in Surrey, and after the initial hills are mainly flat bridleways and footpaths along disused railway lines to eventually finish in Shoreham by the sea.  The course is 38 miles and credited as an "ideal first Ultra", which was ideal as my last ultra of the year.  I had spotted the race in 2016 but it had filled up before I had a chance to enter.

This could be fun!

The last time I was at St Marth's Hill was part of the Pilgrim's Challenge in February and the initial decent would be quite hard due to the steepness and soft soil underfoot.  The weather was also looking to be "challenging" with the tail of a hurricane push back across the Atlantic and due to make landfall during the day.  To be fair, I have escaped really bad weather during races other than the storm during Imber in March but even so, there was not much in the way of rain.  Not that it bothers me, I've waterproof skin.

With a few days before the race, my friend Maria volunteered to crew me for the day.  This would be brilliant if I could get another room booked at short notice.  Having used FAC-OFF crews at Butcombe and Salisbury the idea was a no-brainer and the long drive back after would not be an extra endurance test on top of the race.  We travelled down on the Saturday, car loaded with enough kit in the case or most eventualities and arrived in Shoreham about 5pm.   The house and rooms were wonderful, as was the host.  We took a walk into town in search of food and passed, what I can only call, a shanty town of houseboats.  After a pasta meal, it was time to get back and carry out last checks before the early morning.

Don't get these on the Kennet & Avon!

The Airbnb host was awake and preparing breakfast prior to the alarm sounding and after a quick shower we ate well and filled up our coffee mugs before heading out the door at 6:50 to travel to the start.  The uneventful journey got us to the destination in plenty of time, but the car park was filling up quickly.  I booked in and then joined the loo queue, before returning to the car to change shoes and fit my pack.  With 15 minutes to go, we headed up the trail to the start flags.  The stunning view we had been promised was shrouded in low cloud and mist.

After a few minutes delay, we were given the race brief, then lined up behind the start flag and then we were off!    The route heads initially east and then turns south, dropping down for a mile from the top of the hill before climbing Blackheath for the next mile, looping west around Chilworth.  Mile 3 is again another downhill and, like the previous two miles, along narrow and very muddy tracks.  The next mile started with crossing the B2128, still heading west, into the south Shalford before turning south-east and dropping onto the Downslink path at 5 miles.  From 5 to 10 miles to Cranleigh set the scenery for most of the race, long straight sections of foot/cycle/bridle path with trees either side and little variation.  Parts of the course are treated surfaces and others slippery mud - not much deviation.  I met Maria briefly at 6 miles but needed no extra food or water so agreed to meet at 12/13 miles.

somewhere on the course?

At 12.7 miles we passed the remnants of Baynards Station and then after tackling a very muddy section I met up with Maria again.  I was doing okay and had plenty of water and so took a Snickers bar and continued.  I passed the half marathon point, a small town called Rudgwick, at about 2 hours 20 minutes, not special but I felt strong and there was only a marathon left to run.  Bonus!!

The route continued along the tree-lined tunnel until about 18 miles, near Horsham, where the route joins the road for about a mile before looping back and joining it again at Christ's Hospital School and then on to Southwater just after 20 miles.  I met up with Maria in a car park and topped up my water bottles, took a few more gels, took a collection of nuts & pretzels and downed some flat Coke before heading off again.

One of the many bridges crossing the track.

At 23.5 miles I passed through the old West Grinstead station before arriving at Partridge Green at 26 miles where the route joins the B2135 for a short while before joining the trail again just Stan's Bike Shack.  I had passed through the marathon distance at 4:42:40, my second fastest marathon time.  At 29.5 miles the route passed through Henfield and an excellent aid station, complete with hot roasted potatoes.  By now the weather was starting to turn wet, a light mist of rain on the wind made the going a little more interesting.  Just after 31 miles the course left the track and joined some minor roads, the tree cover now completely gone the light rain started to soak us through.

Bit damp!

The route led us through Bramber at 32 miles.  Looking in at the houses, water dripping off every inch of me, covered in mud, body screaming, I thought "it would be nice to stop".  I shook the stupid idea from my head and carried on to meet Maria at our last arranged pit-stop at 33 miles.  The final part of the race would be even more open and follow the river Adur towards the sea.  I was already wet and getting colder as the afternoon drew on, so taking my crew's advice I just put my heavy duty waterproof over what I had on and continued.  5 miles left!!

The last (uneven) mile

Putting on the coat had been an excellent call.  I was warming up and sheltered from the wind that blew down the estuary.  At 37 miles the path ran under the A27 and then across the footbridge towards Shoreham Airport.  Most of the last mile is along uneven slabs, however, having seen a few runners starting to catch up I picked up my pace a little to keep the distance between us.  I dropped down under the railway line, rounded some bushes to see a barrier and a crowd of people including Maria.  "Just round that corner" she called as I put on one last hobbling spurt, rounded the corner into the Scout Hut grounds and passed under the arch in 7:04:31 (73/140).  DONE!!

I was tired, but I had pushed myself harder than I have in other races this year.  Although 2 different trail ultra races can't be measured against each other I had gained a PB over 50k by some 20 minutes.  The course was mentally one of the hardest I've run due to the miles of "green tunnels" and being able to see the course a few miles ahead as it's so straight.

The recovery room.

I showered and we set off, both weary from battle, on the 3-hour drive back to Trowbridge, but not before stopping for pizza!!!  Massive thank you to Maria for being at the right places and making some good calls.

Kit used:  Altra Olympus cushioned trail shoes, Injinji toe socks, Dirty Girl Gaiters and Decathalon Quechua Forclaz 400 jacket and Salomon S-LAB Adv Skin3 12 Set.

Fuelling:  I fuelled on Tailwind, Torq gels, nuts, pretzels and Maria's flapjack!!

Would I do it again? I certainly enjoyed it but may leave it a year or so to return.

My Strava link

Downs Link route information

Sussex Trail Events

Wonderful AirBnB in Shoreham

Stephen Cousins great GoPro film of the race from 2015.

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