South Coast Challenge

After I finished the London 2 Cambridge event last year, hobbling through the streets as I made my way to the hotel, I told myself it was my first and last 100km walk. Sure, it was an amazing experience, by far the most taxing of all the fitness challenges I’d ever undertaken. I remember vividly wandering through the night, rain relentlessly pouring down as my walking had turned into a meagre shuffle. I recall thinking at around 75km that I’d give up then and there and get a taxi to my hotel. To hell with the medal. I didn’t care about telling my friends and family that I gave up. 100km was just too far to walk.

I finished it though. With the motivation of some fellow walkers and about ten Snickers bars, I managed to get to the end. It felt great as well. A medal that marked a real achievement in my various fitness challenges, one of the few I look back on with a sense of pride.

The vow I made to myself didn’t last long though. Over a few months those memories of pain and doubt were outweighed by the excitement of taking on a harder challenge. In my head I looked back on the London 2 Cambridge with a fondness. I ignored the fact that I spent two days hobbling around like some badly animated Jim Henson puppet, and wiped clear from my mind the horror of taking off my socks for the first time. Now I wanted to do it all over again. Only this time I wanted something even tougher.

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I looked through the list of events that Ultra Challenge were hosting throughout the year and spotted one I hadn’t seen before: the South Coast Challenge. As someone who loves the south coast I was immediately drawn to the idea. A 100km walk taking participants from Eastbourne, across the South Downs to Brighton then back out to Arundel. It looked perfect. I’d never been to the South Downs before and heard that it was an amazing place to walk. Not only that, but I’d get to spend the night at the seaside before and end up at Arundel castle, somewhere else I’d always wanted to visit.

I did kind of guess that, based on the fact the route went over the South Downs, this was going to be a bit harder that the London 2 Cambridge event. Having never actually been to the South Downs I did however underestimate it quite a bit, but I’ll come to that later. One advantage of having previously done a similar challenge was the fact that I could prepare my kit a bit better. Last year I was massively pathetic when it came to gear. I had an old laptop rucksack that wasn’t waterproof, used a pathetic head torch for 15km because I’d forgotten to put batteries in my good one, brought one small water bottle and only had two pairs of socks. This time I would be ready. I had a fancy new pair of walking boots, some walking poles, a proper bag, loads of socks, spare t-shirts, two water bottles, sun cream, sports sunglasses, Nurofen for muscle pain, three battery chargers, a hat and a shed load of audiobooks. Like seriously, about 70 hours worth of the things. I was sorted. This was going to be easy. (There’s a detailed list of kit and audiobooks below. In case you were interested).

If you’re going to spend 25 hours painfully walking up and down hills, you may as well have a nice night beforehand. So the fact that the challenge started in Eastbourne was a major plus point in signing up to the event. As I stepped of the train mid-afternoon, the sun shining rather pleasantly, I headed down to the beach for a wander, grabbed some fish and chips and sat on the pebbles. Lovely stuff. It was like being on holiday, albeit a holiday that was going to become a little bit less relaxing.

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I woke up at about 5.30am in order to get to the race village before my wave started at 7.20am. I carefully packed my rucksack up so I could access the things I needed frequently from different compartments, downed some water, had a shower and set off.

The race village was pretty busy. People pottering about excitedly with their families, attaching race bibs, playing with their shoes and reading the race route map supplied by the Action Challenge crew. I picked up my stuff and headed over to the refreshment table. Once again I made the error of become too excited at plates covered in Jaffa Cakes and proceeded to eat them like a 7-year-old at a birthday party. Probably had about 15 by the time the announcer called for the 7.20am wave to start. I instantly regretted it. Jaffa Cakes though. You can’t really turn them down.

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As I stood in the start enclosure I opened up the route brochure. Sweet Gods! I pronounced loudly in my head as I saw the elevation map. What the hell was this? Seven climbs, each over 100m elevation. A man next to me noticed my alarm, “hope you’ve done your hill training,” he said. I nodded and smiled. The most hill training I’d done was a slight incline on the way from the Clapham Junction Asda to my flat. Good job I’d eaten all those Jaffa Cakes.

The Challenge – Part 1

The first part of the walk was, as you’d expect, relatively easy. A few kilometers along the Eastbourne promenade as friendly passers-by offered words of encouragement. At that time of the morning the sun was only just appearing and the temperature was pretty damn nice. I stuck on my first audiobook, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a book I’d wanted to read ever since Kevin Bacon mentioned it in Footloose, but never quite got around to.

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After about 5km the joyous coastal walk turned into the first climb, about the same time the sun started to pick up. We headed up onto the cliffs and spent the next couple of hours on an undulating path which led us past Beachy Head. By this point it was getting pretty damn warm and the first realistation of the challenge started to set in. I remember the 20km point at the London 2 Cambridge last year and thinking that the whole thing was going to be easy. Now my legs were already aching and I was sweating a fair bit. How the hell was I going to do another 80km of this? The only solace was a rest stop at 11km where a ridiculous amount of food was laid out on the various tables. The man stood behind insisted I have another apple pastry. I obliged. Twice.

By 19km things started to ease up. We headed down from the cliffs to a low path which led us towards the distant hills. By this point I’d given up on Slaughterhouse-Five due to the fact James Franco’s droning voice was difficult to concentrate on and I kept drifting away from the story. Next I moved onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall, a title which deserves a Pulitzer regardless of what he’d decided to write inside.

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The flat path didn’t last long though and another few kilometres saw us hit the South Downs pretty heavily. By now it was hot. Seriously hot. My t-shirt was drenched in sweat as we slowly clambered up a 3km incline. Not even a quarter of the way and it was already becoming really painful. Luckily the struggle was offset by the views surrounding the South Downs Way. Take it from someone who’s never been up there before, the scenery that surround the path is amazing. Rolling countryside that continues for miles into the distance in every direction. The one plus point of walking up something that’s really, really high.

The next 25km were hard. We descended the first peak, headed to the refreshment stop and started on the next. By now the scenery, although still beautiful, was struggling to offset the effort. The sun gave no respite for hours as I dreamed about the halfway point in Brighton at 55km. A rest stop where there would be hot food. Delicious, amazing hot food.

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At around 12 hours of walking you start to put things into perspective. Your legs are aching and you can feel your feet warning you about things that you don’t want to think about. The fact that you have at least another 12 hours to go becomes worryingly prescient and you start to count every kilometre. And when you’re walking, kilometres aren’t covered quickly.

Descending into Brighton marked a turn. The sunlight was beginning to relent and the sudden introduction of other humans meant that things became easier mentally. It was like being back to normality. Bars were full of drinkers enjoying the evening sun, kids played on the beach and I had to navigate the busy streets that led the way to the halfway stop. I suddenly thought how nice it would have been to take the 50km distance over the full 100km. I could be sat in a pub very soon, drinking.

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By the time I turned up at the rest stop it was getting dark. I’d mentally worked out exactly what I was going to do when I got there, partly to keep me going but also to make sure I didn’t waste any time. I took my shoes and socks off, parked my kit and filled a plate with pasta, sausages, some sort of pasty thing, bread and pizza. I wasn’t actually that hungry, but I remembered losing my appetite on the London to Cambridge event and not eating much. As a result I felt awful for the later stages of the challenge, to the point where I had a stomach ache and started feeling sick. This year I was better prepared.

Once I’d eaten as much as I could I headed over to the medical tent. I stuck on a few blister plasters, covered my feet in talcum powder, poured a load in my socks and shoes and applied a healthy dose of Vaseline to my inner thighs. While I waited for everything to dry out I had a cup of coffee and downed a couple of Nurofens. After half an hour I felt great. It was time to take on the next half.

Part 2 – Night

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At about 8.30pm I was all set to go. I changed the batteries in my head torch, filled up my water bottles and stood in the starting pen waiting for the next night group to set off (for safety reasons you can’t walk alone at night). By now it was total darkness. Which is a completely different experience when you’re walking a long way. In the day you can see far into the distance. Yeah, you have the scenery, but you also have the ability to see the magnitude of what you’re about to do. You can see for miles, and in a 100k event, you’re going to have to walk a lot further than what you can see.

At night you can’t see anything aside from the road in front of you and lights twinkling in the distance. In some ways it’s easier, you just plod along waiting for the kilometre signs to appear. It can be boring, but mentally it’s like being on a treadmill; you just look down and zone out.

Whether it was the fact that temperature had dropped or the lack of perspective on distance and elevation, I actually found the second half a lot easier. For the next few hours I made my way up to the top of the next hill, chatting away to the group I’d joined. It was nice. The effect of tiredness is similar to drinking, people seem more relaxed and open to witter on. We were all in the same mindset and a level of group thinking meant that we were all looking out for each other. I remembered the same thing happening the previous year, to be honest I don’t actually think I’d have even finished if it wasn’t for the group I was with during the London 2 Cambridge route.

Rolling countryside that continues for miles into the distance in every direction. The one plus point of walking up something that’s really, really high.

The hills seemed easier as well. Perhaps due to the fact we couldn’t see them, or maybe because our legs had given up letting us know they were in pain. Either way it seemed like things were going well. I actually started to enjoy myself.

By the time we reached 80km we’d covered to high climbs and stepped into the breakfast rest stop. The sight of a buffet full of English breakfast fills me with joy on any occasion, but after covering 80km of the South Downs I practically cried. I picked up a plate and covered it in as much as I could. Sure, we only have 20km to go, but I remembered the last time that I skipped the breakfast because I felt rough. That meant I was running on empty for the best part of four hours. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I shovelled a load in and went back for more.

Now it was the final slog. The group I was with were having a few issues with blisters and there was some discussion on whether they were going to continue. I on the other hand felt really good. Normally I’m all for team camaraderie, but I knew that if I kept stopping I’d lose the momentum I had. I knew my feet were aching as a result of blisters and my back was also sore from me pulling my rucksack on and off constantly, however I was managing it okay. The only time it really hurt was if I stopped, then I’d need a few minutes to get used to the pain again. So I pushed on.

The base I had for the last 20k was by far my fastest across the day. I was desperate to get to the finish while I could. Memories of the previous year kept flooding back of a slow ambling pace intersected by lots of rest stops. I didn’t want that to happen again. I ploughed forwards as fast as I could, counting down the kilometre markers as I did.

It went quickly. After a couple of hours, I hit the final rest stop. The marshal looked at me and said “You look fresh. You probably shouldn’t stop here for too long.” I knew she was right. I quickly grabbed some more water and set off again. I was at 92km now, I just had to keep going.

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For the purposes of drama, I’d like to say the last few kilometres were hard. But that would be a lie. Whether it was sheer delight at nearing the finish, or that I just got lucky, I felt great. Even when it came to a final steep climb though Arundel park I kept my pace until finally I ended up at the finish. Two rather nice ladies greeted me at the end with cheers, a medal and a bottle of something sparkling. After that I headed into the tent to grab breakfast. And let me tell you, a breakfast at the end of a 25 hour walk is one hell of a breakfast.

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Summary

I’m going to lay this on the line here. I love the Ultra Challenge events. They’re well planned, perfectly marshalled, they pick amazing routes and everyone who works in the team seems to be ridiculously helpful and nice. Add to that the enormous stocks of prepared food and drink, the excellent medical assistance and the faultless route marking across the whole course, and you’re looking at a really damn impressive series of events.

The other nice thing about walking events (yeah I know some people do run it), is that there’s a lot more camaraderie. When you’re walking you have time to talk, and everyone doing it is really friendly. I don’t think one person walked passed me without looking over and asking how I was doing (I did it to them as well). People in groups look like they’re signed up together, but when you speak to them you find out that they only met that day. I walked with a really nice bunch of guys that were hardened walkers, but instead of powering through to the finish they spent the last half of the event helping some of their group make it to the end. When the people struggling told them to go ahead theY just looked back and said “absolutely not, we’re a team now. We’ll finish this together.”

And those views. There’s something about earning a view off the back of your own effort that makes the scenery seem oh so much sweeter. Like you’ve just been rewarded with a treat for hard work.

And if you want to see how I did. Here’s a handy chart.

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The Ultra Challenge events are hosted throughout the year at various locations. You can choose distance varying from about 25km to 100km on differing elevation levels. To see the full list, head over to the website here. If you want to read more about the South Coast Challenge, here are the details.

Kit

We test a fair bit of kit at The Allrounder, but to test stuff properly you really need something tough to push things to the limit. If your wearing bad shoes or carrying a really crap bag at 92kms of walking, you’re going to know about it. So we thought we’d chuck in a few items to see if they were up to it.

Nike Bandit Sunglasses

£87.99

I have no idea how I’d have gotten through the first half of the event without a pair of sunglasses. These beasts from Nike are specifically designed for sports and fitness, so worked pretty damn well. They feel both comfortable and yet snug enough to make you think they aren’t going to fall off. They also incorporate various ventilation initiatives into the frames, which isn’t something I’ve ever thought about before, but seemed to do the job. Look pretty cool as well.

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Trespass Tennant Walking Boots

£64.99 (reduced from £119.99)

I took a massive risk with these boots. My pair only turned up in the post the day before, and my initial thought was to leave them and take an older pair that I’d worn in. I decided to take the gamble, which luckily paid off. This is the first time I’d worn proper walking boots and they seemed really comfortable all the way up to the end. When you’re doing 100km and you finish with no major foot issues, that’s a big tick in the box.

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Eurohike Expedition Anti-Shock Walking Pole

£7 each (reduced from £10)

Last year I walked with a fair few people who were using poles. At the time I thought they were a bit of a hiking symbol of membership, like a badge or some sort of daft hat. I decided to get some this year and I soon realised that they were far more than an aesthetic tool. Although it took me a bit of time to get used to them, by the end I’d found a nice rhythm. Which was really nice in the later stages as I became more tired. Poles apparently protect your lower back, hips, knees and legs from pressure, which is probably important when you’re walking for 25 hours.

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Finisterre Last long Original Sock

£12

I had these floating about for a while and dug them out of the drawer a couple of days before the event. As socks go, they seemed pretty damn comfortable and didn’t make my feet too hot. The main selling point for walkers is that they’re anti-bacterial though. Which is definitely a useful function for long distances.

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The North Face Borealis Classic 29 Litre Backpack

£60 (reduced from £75)

I’ve used this backpack for work for a while, never used it for a long distance endurance event though. It was pretty much perfect for the challenge. Multiple compartments meant that I could plan my items based on the likelihood of my using them, two pockets for my water bottles at the sides that also held my walking poles with a handy clip, secure chest and waist straps and some nice padding on the back. At 29 litres it’s a good size for that distance as well.

 

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Audiobooks

One of the underlying joys of spending 25 hours solidly walking is that you can make your way through a fair few books. That is assuming that you’re the kind of person that would rather listen to audiobooks than actually talk to people (I am). So I’d been compiling a selection on Audible before the event to keep me occupied. Bring a good battery pack with you as well, even with flight mode on, 25 hours is far beyond most handsets.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Total Recall – Jeez this autobiography is good. The man has a ridiculously interesting story, and not only for people into fitness or action films. I was pretty much zoned out listening to this for the first half and I didn’t get bored once. One annoying thing is that Arnie reads the first chapter, but then some American bloke takes over after that. Still, an amazing audiobook.

Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut – I only listened to this for about an hour, largely because James Franco’s slow meandering voice tends to sap your energy. Which is not what you need for a 100k walk. Will give it another go when I’m lying on a beach somewhere.

Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths – Bernard Evslin – I love mythology. Seriously, I was obsessed at school. This audiobook is a collection of short stories explaining various parts of Greek Mythology. Perfect to dip in and out of whenever you fancy it. It’s also a nice combination of fiction and learning, so you’re kind of doing something productive at the same time, especially surrounding Greek etymology.

Toast on Toast: Cautionary tales and candid advice – Steven Toast – I saved this until last a pick me up for the final couple of hours. Perfect choice. If you’ve seen Toast of London, the chances are you’re a fan. This spoof memoir is a ridiculous series of anecdotes written by Steven Toast about his life as an actor. Really, really good.

Picture Credits: Nike, Trespass, Eurohike, Finisterre, The North Face