Home » The South Downs Way 50 Review – Steep Ascents & Slippery Descents

The South Downs Way 50 Review – Steep Ascents & Slippery Descents

The Centurion South Downs Way 50 mile ultra race was a rescheduled Covid event, originally planned for April, postponed until 25th October 2020. I hadn’t intended on doing the race, as I was prepped for Race to the Stones in July. However, that event was cancelled until 2021, and there was some late availability for the 50, so I decided to put my 100km training to some good use.

My fitness tends to drop off over the summer months, coinciding with summer holidays, a few drinks and taking it easy.  This year, looking back at my training runs during the summer, I only ran once over 15 miles – a 27 mile wind assisted run from Brighton to Eastbourne along the coast.  With this long run in the bag, I was fairly confident I could get through the South Downs Way 50, I just had no idea how I was going to fair later on in the race.  As it turned out, it was one of the best races I’ve had.

The South Downs Way 50 Route

The South Downs Way 50 (SDW50) is a 50 Mile Centurion Event that starts in Hill Barn Recreation Ground, next to Worthing College.  The race heads up on to the Downs, before hitting the South Downs Way at Chanctonbury Ring.  From here the route follows the South Downs Way, finishing with a lap of the Eastbourne Sports Park running track in Eastbourne. 

It’s a stunning part of the world, with views to the sea on one side, and views across the Weald up to the North Downs on a clear day, on the other.  It crosses just North of Brighton, where I run regularly, so I was familiar with large parts of the early sections of the route.

Whilst much of the race is on top of the Downs, for those who know the South Downs well, will know its hilly, with over 5700 feet (1750m) of elevation in the race, as the path takes you down into the many valleys and back up to the top of the Downs. 

Underfoot it’s a combination of chalk, stone and grass on well trodden paths, with 85% trail, and 15% road.

Where does the Centurion South Downs Way 50 Start?

The race starts in Hill Barn Recreation Ground next to Worthing College.

Unfortunately due to the COVID restrictions there was to be no mass start.

I really enjoy the mass starts at the ultra events.  The countdown, the excitement building, the camaraderie, the nerves, the visits to the toilets, the pre-run rituals, the smells, the gear checks, shoe tightening/loosening, last minute fuelling, and then it’s time, and you’re off…

On this occasion, the organisers staggered the start, based on predicted finish times.  I shared a taxi to the start with two girls who were also running it, and aimed for a 6.30 start time.  After some nervous chat in the taxi, we arrived just after 6 to a pitch black, largely empty car park.  I hadn’t planned on running with the girls, but after dropping my bag off at the school and walking up to the start line, I lost them in the dark. It was not the last time I would get lost that day.  I walked over to the starter, and I was off, on my own, running into the darkness, without so much as a countdown.

Since it was late October, it was pretty chilly with rain in the air, and more predicted.  I started with my jacket and extra layer on.

Starting off in the dark

The first 8 miles follow narrow chalky paths up onto the top of the Downs, and for the first half an hour it was dark.  It was my first real experience of running with a head-torch, and it was not an unpleasant one. 

It was the start of the race, I was feeling pretty good, and there was something otherworldly about running in the dark, with only the head torch to light the way.  

However, I was being super cautious, walking the steeper parts to conserve energy and watching every step to ensure I didn’t stumble on a loose rock.  Fortunately everything went smoothly, and I reached the top and the South Downs Way at Chanctonbury Ring, just as it was getting light.

How long does the South Downs Way 50 Take?

Since I hadn’t specifically prepared for the event, I wasn’t particularly bothered about finish times, but had it in my mind that I’d like to run under 10 hours, which seemed like a reasonable time for the event.  With that in mind, aside from wanting to conserve energy as much as I could on the steeper hills, I was pretty relaxed about timing and my pace and was just aiming to run  comfortably.  

Looking at my splits now, I probably ran the early parts too quickly, which is not uncommon for Novice Ultra Runners (a category I’d definitely include myself in), and something I am prone to paying for later on in races.

With the rolling starts, and lower numbers of starters than in previous years, the field was immediately split.  If I did catch another runner, or vice versa, it tended to be because one of us was faster, so subsequently I spent the majority of the race running alone.

Aid Station 1, Mandatory Kit and the Rain

There were 6 aid stations along the route with some Covid precautions on the number of runners at each table and limited supplies, to ensure everything came packaged.

Copyright @Centurion Events

Just before the first station at Botolphs, with very little warning the heavens opened.   I was just about to run over the River Adur, but was able to duck under a tree and put on my jacket!  With my hood up, and rain teeming down, I was pretty snug, and moved on across the Adur to the first aid station.

Centurion Events are very well known for their excellent events in the UK, attracting a slightly more experienced ultra running crowd, rather than lots of first timers.  The events usually have limited entry numbers so fill up fast, with many selling out hours after they go on sale.  They also have a Mandatory Kit list.  In normal circumstances, every runner has their bag checked before they start the race, and can be stopped during the race to.  On this occasion we were told we could be stopped and checked at an aid station to check we had the requisite kit.

The Mandatory Kit List might seem like overkill to some people, but it’s there to protect the safety of the runners.  You only need to read about the terrible events in China, to know that things sadly can go very wrong very quickly.  Whilst the South Downs isn’t the mountains, I was very grateful that I’d bought a new Ultimate Direction jacket to meet the Waterproof Jacket requirement.  At 15,000mm waterproof the jacket should be virtually impenetrable, and so it proved.  With a hood, and pouches for my hands to fit in, even though it was pouring I was warm inside my cocoon!

Meeting the Support Crew at the Jack & Jill Windmills

At this point everything was going well; the rain had abated and I reached Devils Dyke (15 miles) ahead of my planned time.  A few of my fellow Rogue Runners were there to cheer me on,  and I was lifted by the knowledge I’d see Liberty and the kids (aka The Crew!) in a couple of miles.

In fact, things were going so well that I arrived at the Mill Lane meeting point by the Jack and Jill Windmills before they did… I was probably a little unkind with my greeting when they turned up 5minutes later, but it really was great to see them.  I changed my shirt and socks, had a bagel and stuffed some fuel in my bag.  

I’m always conscious that I don’t want to stick around too long at rest stops.  Time stood still is time I could be walking or running, and in my head it counts double.  Even though I know I’m not a contender, it’s a race, and I can’t help my competitive nature willing me to get on.  

So I said my goodbyes rejuvenated by their support and the food.  20miles in, 30 to go… what could go wrong?

Ditchling Beacon and The Hill of Doom

The next section I had to dig deep… whilst it was great to see them, I knew I wouldn’t see them again for another 14 miles, I was beginning to tire and so focused on the next fuel stop at Housedean Farm past Ditchling Beacon at 27miles.

Being familiar with the route can be an advantage, but it’s sometimes worse to know what’s coming, particularly if it’s a monster hill… or the Hill of Doom! 10 years earlier The Hill of Doom had been my nemesis when I had ridden the South Downs Way with some friends. 

We were woefully underprepared. With no mountain bike, I’d bought a second hand town bike the week before, which had little in the way of brakes and no tread… and as road cyclists we massively underestimated the time it takes to climb hills off road.  In fact, after pushing our ramshackle collection of bikes it was getting so late on the first day, we came off the Downs to a road running parallel to it,  to try to get some miles in.  With no lights, we ended up leaving our bikes behind a pub for the night and took a taxi to the Youth Hostel.  On the second day, battered, bruised and shattered, I remember the Hill of Doom well… and it was that Hill, that Nemesis I knew was coming, and it played on my mind.

The Hill of Doom also happens to come at the worst time.  It is just after the aid station at Housedean Farm, when you’ve already run a marathon, and you’ve just started to countdown the miles to the finish.  The hill climbs out of the valley in a horseshoe to the top of the Downs.  It’s long and steep, sapping energy even when you’re walking and seems to go on forever.  Even when you reach the top, the next mile or two has a shallow incline that makes it difficult to find any rythym.

The reward at the top is the view, with Brighton on one side, Lewes on the other, and with a South Westerly wind, I could see the rain coming in from over my shoulder across the sea.

Relief to Meet the Crew – Warm Pasta & Tea!

It was such a relief to see the Crew at the car park at the top.  

I’d slowed right down over the last 10 miles, so they’d been waiting for hours, watching the top of the hill to see when I’d come over it.  It was also windy and they must have been freezing.  

The kids met me in the field and ran with me to the car where Liberty greeted me with hot Tea and pasta.  It was absolute heaven.  For a minute or two I sat in the boot of the car eating and drinking, and was warm and cosy.  After replenishing my fuel stocks, I was out of the car, said my goodbyes and was onto the home stretch.  I wouldn’t see my Crew again, but with 20 miles to go, I was pretty confident I’d be able to finish in the daylight and find my way home.

As I left the car park, I looked over my right shoulder and could see the grey clouds closing in.  I put my jacket back on, lifted my hood and plugged myself into a podcast to try to take my mind off the remaining miles.

Sure enough a few minutes later the rain came down, and this time it was slamming my back and the back of my hood.  Fortunately, my upper body was dry and even though the wind and temperature had dropped I felt pretty comfortable and warm inside my jacket.

Taking the wrong turn at Rodmell

Up until this point I’d been reasonably familiar with the route, and it was easy enough to follow the South Downs Way signposts, which also had Centurion race markers to keep you on track.

With my headphones in, my hood up, and looking down I took a left and followed the track down the hill into Rodmell village.  It wasn’t until I reached the main road that I started to realise I might have gone wrong.  Ordinarily, at each junction there’s clear signposting, but here there was nothing.  I decided to turn right along the road towards Southease and got a few minutes along when I had to turn back.  It was devastating… I realised I must have missed a turn, but I couldn’t think where, so the only option was to retrace my steps.  

Taking the wrong turn!

I was so angry at myself for not paying attention… knowing that every step back until I reached the road was one that could have been avoided.  I cursed myself all the way back up to the top of the hill.   There was nobody else to blame. I hadn’t seen the sign at the top and had turned left instead of right.  Later on in the race I caught up with some runners who had spotted my mistake and had shouted after me, but I had my earphones in and hadn’t heard them.  Lesson learnt.

I was furious, but there was nothing I could do.  I just bottled the anger and carried on.

Steep Ascents & A Slippery Descent

With each race I find it’s best to focus on the next aid station, and in this case there were three more to go, and rather kindly the organisers had them closer together towards the end.

After refuelling at Southease at 34 miles it was a very long and slow steady walk up the winding chalk path to Firle Beacon, followed by a slow and gentle run into the next aid station at Alfriston at 41 miles.  After Alfriston, it was back up to the top of the Downs past the Long Man of Wilmington, along the top and then back down into Jevington, the final stop.  In fact, in Jevington, I had that ‘I don’t know what I want to eat’ feeling, mixed with the excitement that there was really only one ‘small’ hill left, so I decided to just carry on and get some food at the end. 

After the final climb to the top of Trig Point I had my first distant glimpse of Eastbourne which was a huge huge relief.  

Whenever I see the final destination in an ultra race it’s a massive psychological lift.  It could still be 10 miles away, but I know I’m going to do it, and I know it’s almost done!

The final descent into Eastbourne was the most precarious of the whole race.  It followed a narrow winding chalky path that with the rain was slippery and incredibly dangerous.  With tired legs, tired minds, and runners bunched together people were slipping and falling all over the place.  I took it easy, not rushing, saving some energy for the final few miles.

Through Eastbourne to the Running Track

The race had now left the South Downs Way, so all signposting was Centurion, so having made my big mistake, I was so cautious that I didn’t want to take the wrong turn.  Two guys ran past me, with their push for home speed spurt, and even though I couldn’t keep up with them, I could follow them, which made me more comfortable I was on the right track.

Trouble was, although there were signposts, and I could see the guys ahead, there was no way of knowing how far there was to go.  My garmin gps watch was now next to useless for distance.

As I was starting to despair that the route was taking in the whole of Eastbourne, I rounded a corner and saw a competitor walking towards me, clapping me on.  I was guessing he’d finished some time ago, so I now knew I was almost there.  And there it was the Eastbourne Sports Park… lit up in the disappearing late Autumn light, the track is the final cruel twist to the SDW50!  

 I’m not a track runner, and it’s a long time since I’ve run around a 400m running track, but I can safely say it was the slowest lap I’ve ever done, but although it was slow, it was certainly sweet.  I came round the final corner and crossed the finish.  

I was done.  It had been a tough race, but a good’un.

Timing & Results

In terms of time I completed the course in 9 hours 38 minutes, finishing 98th overall.  Considering the conditions, the unplanned detour and the limited long distance training runs I’d put in I was pretty happy with the result overall. 

SDW50 – My Event Score

CriteriaMy ScoreMy Thoughts
The Route8/10 Stunning scenery in the beautiful South Downs
Aid Stations6/10Great volunteers, good selection on offer, just limited by Covid restrictions
Terrain9/1085% trail, great paths aside from the slippery final descent, 
Organisation10/10Centurion are a quality outfit.  Super professional & well organised in difficult circumstances. The detour was probably my fault!
Runability7/10Walkable hills with plenty of time to fuel. 
Fun Factor7/10Enjoyed the trails, enjoyed the hills, weirdly I also enjoyed the rain on my back and the helping hand of the wind pushing me along.  

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