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Running The South Downs Way 100

Do you have a 100-miler on your bucket list? For some, earning that buckle is the pinnacle of ultra-running achievements. Ben O'Connell had been working his way up to the 100-mile distance over a couple of years and decided to tackle the South Downs Way 100 in 2023.
 
We asked him to share his experience of training for this mega distance along with the race day itself.
 

"Going into the South Downs Way 100, I’d been trail and ultra running for two years, completing eight ultras in this time including three 50 milers and the rest 50 to 60k races. I chose the South Downs Way 100 specifically as firstly I live in Brighton, so it felt very much like a race on home trails and I could recce most of the route with the 80 mile point being a couple of miles from my home. I’d also walked the entirety of the South Downs Way in my teens back in 2009 with a group of friends. This time round I’d be swapping the cold baked beans from a tin for energy chews, the beers for electrolyte drinks and the sleeping at campsites for not sleeping (hopefully) at aid stations.

The camping expedition in 2009 had taken us a total of seven days so I liked the challenge of completing the 100 mile trail but in a much shorter time period (below 30 hours to meet the race cut off).

Training went well overall. It wasn’t perfect but then in a training block of this length (5 months for me), it never will be. I made the decision to DNS my first race of the year, a trail marathon, due to a chest infection but looking back this was definitely the right decision given the negative knock-on effect it could have had on training for my A race of the year – the 100 miler. I established pretty consistent mileage, did some cross training with weekly swims in the sea, put much more of a focus on strength training than in previous training blocks and I got in some decent elevation and practiced hiking hills and hiking fast as I knew I’d be doing a good bit of this come race day!

It really helped to be able to train on the terrain the race would be on, having the race route on my doorstep and running the exposed, rolling and sometimes chalky paths of the South Downs.

I also trained my stomach on long runs getting used to taking on food whilst running and carefully planned for (there were some spreadsheets) the different elements of the 100 mile puzzle; pacing, how I was going to get through aid stations quickly, looking after my feet (taping, lubricant, shoe/sock combos), mental strategies for dealing with lows to name but a few. I quickly realised that a big part of running the 100 mile distance would be good admin; listening to your body, quickly reacting to issues as they arose on race day so they didn’t snowball and become bigger problems but also trying to think ahead where possible so issues like chafing, dehydration or blisters didn’t arise in the first place.

The biggest thing I was dreading on race day was the heat. And sure enough, come race day in June it was the hottest day of the year so far with temperatures of up to 30 degrees! Anticipating this, I had a few strategies in place to keep cool. I wore a desert hat which I did feel a bit silly with at the start and probably looked like I thought I was doing a desert marathon but it did the job. My crew, who were absolutely legendary on the day, had a box filled with ice that I wrapped in a bandana so the ice could sit on the back of my neck and keep me cool. 

The daytime part of the race was tough, but the trails and views from the peaks of the Downs were stunning. We’d set off at 6am but as the heat of the day grew closer it became more difficult to put one foot in front of the other and faintness and feelings of sickness crept in. I had a low point around mile 45 where I wondered if today was going to be my day but after chilling for a bit, getting an ice pop in (thanks Centurion volunteers) and having support from my crew and pacers I was feeling much better as the evening drew in. This was one of the things that surprised me, I felt better at mile 70 than I did at mile 45. This can happen and is something I’ll remember in future 100’s when I have a bit of a dip. 

Although I was feeling much better mentally at mile 70 than earlier in the race, my legs were starting to fatigue and so I picked up my trusty Harrier Helvellyn Carbon Z Poles from my crew and used these for the last 30 miles of the race. They’re super lightweight and easy to fold out and put away which is vital for the later stages of a long race when your mind is starting to go a bit fuzzy. 

After 12,000ft of climbing, some scorching weather and a long day (and night) out on the trails I was happy to get to Eastbourne Sports Park where the race finishes with a lap of the 400m track. I can safely say that I’ve never been so pleased to see a running track. I finished in 22 hours 35 mins. It was an amazing experience, full of highs and lows. 

It’s now been long enough for me to be able to romanticise the event in my mind (something as ultra runners I think we’re quite good at doing) and I haven’t ruled out doing another 100. Probably next year."


2 comments


  • Billy Finney

    Inspiration one day it will be me


  • Emily Krombas

    Amazing! Thank you for sharing your experience. It is inspiring and motivational. Maybe I could run a 100 miler?


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