South Africa and final SDW50 Prep

The South Downs Way 50 mile ultramarathon is less than one week away (April 5th) and  the training has gone pretty well.  To ensure I have speed in my legs come race day, I recently competed a 25km (15.5 miles) trail race in South Africa. The race was the longest of the three distances being held that morning, all of which were set in the trails around the Western Cape’s Elgin Valley. The route took us along single tracks surrounded by mountains, through bright green forests with tight switchbacks and over wooden footbridges crossing rivers and lakes. It was a good training opportunity, so I went out pretty hard from the outset and managed to finish within the top 10.



I didn’t initially do much of my winter training on the South Downs Way, the endless pitter patter of H20 (rain) really put me off the drive down. Thankfully, living in Reigate means that I have the Surrey Hills on my doorstep, and so I’ve been able to tick off a good amount of my training miles on trails anyway.  Now that the rain has finally eased off, I’ve been able to recce the majority of the race route over a few mornings. The South Downs Way is a National Park and an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a chalky trail that frequently leads you up to high ground with panoramic views of Sussex:


GEAR: I’m going with the New Balance Leadville MT1210 trail shoes as they’re pretty light, have good grip and a 8mm heel-to-toe drop that seems to suit me.  I’ll use UltrAspire race vests once again as they weigh next to nothing, don’t bounce and have loads of storage options. I’ve taken a few rocky tumbles with the Suunto Ambit GPS watch strapped around my wrist and can report that the thing is freaking bulletproof. The only new gear I may use is a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters (it’s just the brand name, they’re honestly a unisex product), they’re a simple and effective way of keeping debris out of shoes.


NUTRITION: For gels I’m sticking with GU and GU Roctane, one every 4 or 5 miles seems to work well. The new Salted Caramel flavour is honestly dessert like delicious!  From mile 10 onwards I’ll begin to eat things like salted boiled potatoes, pretzels, strawberries and peanut butter & banana sandwiches.  For hydration, I’ll have plain water in my pack at all times to keep the stomach happy with the sugar levels, and will alternate between a Nuun electrolyte solution and the citrus flavour High 5 Energy Source. Competing in ultramarathons teaches you a lot about nutrition, you basically learn what foods make you go and what foods make you stop.  Here’s some of the nutrition that I incorporated into my diet during the weeks of training, which seemed to help:

  • Spirulina:  A green algae that, according to numerous studies, improves endurance. (I blend 1 x tsp with a banana, greek yogurt, almond milk, peanut or almond butter and a handful of oats)
  • Coconut water:  I’ve literally been gulping box upon box of VitaCoco coconut water with pineapple juice, it’s delicious, great for staying hydrated and naturally has a good amount of potassium. I’m addicted to the stuff
  • Beetroot juice:  Beetroot is naturally very high in nitrates, which basically helps you use oxygen more efficiently.
  • Chia seeds:  They can hold 10 x their weight in water and so are great for hydration, they also have a good amount of omega 3 & 6. (I have Chia pudding with banana and honey as a pre race/long training run breakfast).

A BIZARRE, INSPIRING AND MOSTLY TRUE STORY: A strange thing happened to me whilst on holiday in South Africa, that on reflection, has inspired me. Whilst standing in a gigantic slow moving queue for the ‘rotating lift’ which takes you to the top of Table Mountain, I was greatly enjoying listening to a charming old American man in a cap. It was a very hot day and he was quite frankly sweating profusely, we all were. An hour passed and everyone was getting a little bit impatient with the ongoing wait, when he turned to me (ignoring my fiancee completely) and said “don’t worry you’ll get there…”, he then pushed the peak of his cap back with a forefinger, revealing a weathered forehead, before finishing the sentence with the strikingly gruff words “…step by step“. I turned to my fiancee with a pair of excited wide eyes, and mouthed his words to her before turning back to face him. BUT unbelievebly he had vanished, VANISHED into thin air in a jam packed queue! How?! My fiancee seemed to think that she saw him move to the other faster moving queue and then into the lift, and she stated with a stern expression that she wasn’t interested in discussing it any further. I don’t know who/what he was or where the heck he vanished to, but I have a sneaky suspicion that he was there to inspire me ahead of my upcoming challenges. If I’m struggling during the race at any point, I’ll think of that magical, sweaty old man and repeat his wonderful words…”step by step“.

RACE PLAN: I’m now focusing on a finishing time rather than a finishing position, due to the fact that the race is stacked with very accomplished ultrarunners. Some of the athletes competing have completed 50-mile trail ultras under the 7 hour mark! The Centurion Running pre-race preview predicts that the current course record is more than likely to disappear. I plan to run the flatter portions of the course at a pace of 8.30 minutes per mile, and am roughly aiming for an 8 hour finishing time, but I’ll need to dig pretty deep to make that happen as the course has around 4800ft of climbing.

My plan is to not stop for the food and drink available at the aid stations, instead I’ll meet my crew at 4 accessible points along the trail (roughly every 10 miles) for a freshly stocked race pack, in return they’ll receive a sweaty high-5 (or high-10 if the moods suits).

PODCASTS:  For anyone interested, here are some of the most interesting and inspiring ultrarunning related podcasts that I’ve come across:

There are a number of good ultrarunning documentaries out there, but the best in my opinion is the downloadable independent film ‘Unbreakable: The Western States 100’.  After the backstories of the 4 key undefeated competitors are told, the film switches back and forth between the unique history of the legendary event, told by the charismatic Gordy Ainsleigh, and the 2011 race as it unfolds. It’s edge of your seat stuff!–dsh–PreSale/Detail   (

So, one week of tapering remains, with a mid week sports massage to freshen up the legs, before it’s time to toe the line in Worthing, get comfortable with being uncomfortable and start moving forward.

Push yourself again and again. Don’t give an inch until the buzzer sounds” – Larry Bird

One comment

  1. Aled Rowlands · · Reply

    Great blog G. Wishing you well on Saturday. Looking forward to being part of your backup team.

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