On 26th April Challenge Sophie, Alex Ledger, and I set off on our first Ultra marathon, to run London to Brighton through the stunning English trails of the Wandle River, the North Downs Way, Sussex Trail, and finally the South Downs Way. We ran 62 miles over 16 hours, on an incredible adventure that showed us some of the beautiful English countryside, pushed our minds to the limits and tested our bodies beyond what any of us we had tried before.
People often ask me what crazy challenge my wife is off on next. I am always very proud of her achievements but there is often a pang of jealousy. I have felt that I’ve missed out on sharing these adventures with her and what she goes through on them.
We share a huge amount; we’ve climbed Mont Blanc together, climbed North Face routes in the Alps, and tackled intimidating and difficult climbs in the testing ground that is Scottish Winter climbing.
Even so, I have felt that I have been missing out on another side to her challenges; the challenges that are in the more classic A to B sense like her epic bike rides.
I wanted to be a part of a Challenge Sophie’s adventure
I’ve never really been into cycling, this has made finding suitable challenges to share with Sophie a little difficult. More recently, we have both been running a lot more and Sophie has been on a mission to prove to herself that she is able to become a runner, that she is able to call herself a runner, and that she might actually enjoy running
An epic running challenge would do just that. Having cycled the classic London to Brighton route a number of times, in a moment of madness, Sophie suggested we try running it.
And so running London to Brighton was born.
Researching running London to Brighton
Ultra distance running has become very popular; The Lakeland 100, Royal Parks Ultra, and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, to name but a few. Another popular route is London to Brighton and by following the public footpaths and a short amount of road, it is possible to clock up 100km (or 62 miles) of running in a pretty straight line. This challenge has adopted by a number of charities running (excuse the pun!) organised challenges between these two cities.
In our research into the route we would take, we faced two options – the more direct, mostly road based route that would come in at 54 miles, or the more scenic trail route totalling 62 miles. With our aim being to just complete the journey, we started planning for the shortest route but quickly realised that running for that length of time on concrete, with cars screaming by, and with the monotony of a main road, it was not the better option.
It was pretty easy to find a number of charity routes online, all of which started from the bottom of Richmond park then set off heading out of London but it was thanks to Matt Buck who share a full Ordnance Survey mapped route with us. As our team were all based in Fulham, South West London, we wanted to find a route that started from there – we really didn’t fancy adding 7 miles to the route just to get to square one.
The charity routes all started quite far West in Richmond then South East over towards Croydon, by us starting in Fulham, we discovered the Wandle River, an estuary of the River Thames that starts in Wandsworth and takes the fall line, straight down to Croydon. This would be the perfect start, easy route finding to get us out of London.
From Croydon, we could join back on the charity routes and take the wonderful country paths all the way to the coast.
What could go wrong?
The route finding on the Wandle wasn’t quite so straightforward without a continual footpath the whole way but we were rescued by Google Maps and, by the time we hit Croydon, we were keeping good time and now we were on the tried and test charity route.
As we were approaching the M25 and 21 mile mark, a horrible realisation dawned on me. Up until then we had kept the shorter, 54 mile road route distance in our mind ticking off quarter- and third- way marks. While we were crossing the footbridge I was doing the maths – 100km divided by 1.6 was 62.5 miles, not the 54 we had been talking about.
I had made a mistake. An 8 mile mistake.
Doing the maths several times more, I finally resigned myself to the truth and plucked up the courage to tell the others.
— Sean Conway (@Conway_Sean) April 26, 2014
They took it well. They didn’t talk to me for an hour after that.
Once we got over the slight distance hiccup, good humour returned and we carried on, enjoying the incredible adventure we were on together.
This was what an adventure was about; friends, having fun, laughing, smiling, and going off into the unknown sure of one thing only:
We started together and we’ll finish together, no matter what.
That camaraderie really got me through the run. We gave each other the space to run their own run but we were also all their together for support when needed.
The gear needed for running London to Brighton
Getting the gear right was going to be the difference between enjoying the run or suffering the whole way. It wasn’t just the shoes and clothing but also the right backpack too – we were doing the run completely unsupported and had no idea what shops would be on the way and so needed to be prepared for anything.
We were lucky enough to be supported by Brooks Running who provided the running shoes and all clothing needed. The early start and the long duration meant that we were sure we would need to get our layering right – we didn’t want to be stopping constantly to be adding and removing layers but likewise, we did not want to suffer by getting it wrong.
With a little trial and error over the training runs before, I managed to get my layering system down pretty much perfectly:
Shoes: I opted for the Brooks Ghost, a very lightweight and minimalist road running shoe. Though the route was going to have a lot of trail, there was also going to be roads to run and I was keen to give these shoes a run for their money.
Socks: I had Elite Cushioned running socks by Nike. These were incredibly comfortable with lots of padding where needed while lightweight too. They worked perfectly though if I did it again in the wet conditions we had, I would probably take a few extra pairs to change into during the day.
Legs: I was most worried about my legs; did I want to wear leggings just for the morning? Would I overheat? It was very cold when we set off at 4.30am and leggings were definitely necessary. I settled on 2XU compression shorts, Brooks Running Infiniti leggings and, as no man should run just in leggings, Brooks Running Essential Shorts.
Top: Once again, a difficult one but easier in the sense that taking a top layer off is significantly easier than bottoms.
Another consideration is nipples.
As any man who has run long distance knows, after a while, a tshirt rubbing across your chest results in sore, if not actually bleeding nipples. For me, it is bang on 15 miles, every time. What was interesting was, in my training runs, the Brooks tshirt didn’t chafe at all – it is made of a very lightweight and stretchy material that just moves with your body. I took the risk, no nipple tape, not vaseline, and a lot of hope. It worked perfectly, I had no nipple problems whatsoever. My top half layering system ended up being the Brooks Running Infiniti t-shirt with their Speed Play running jacket.
Head: We were going to sweat a lot, get rained on, and, potentially, have the sun beating down on us so headwear was a must. I’m not a fan of baseball caps but this white specimen was brilliant, keeping the worst of the rain off, soaking up my sweat and keeping the afternoon sun out of my eyes.
Bag: I regularly run to work and so was sure of my bag selection, I used the OMM Adventure Light 20 Marathon Pack which fits perfectly, moves with your body, and has enough pockets and features to make it the best running pack I’ve had the fortune of using. Seriously, these guys know what they’re doing.
Hydration: I had toyed with the idea of a Camelbak, allowing you to hydrate on the go but have never been convinced. Will it burst? Do I actually want to be constantly sipping water or would I appreciate regular little stops? I wasn’t willing to take the risk so stayed with the system I knew worked; two 500ml bottles in the side pouches for quick access, and a 1.5l Nalgene bottle in my pack to top the little ones up. All of these had Nuun tablets so we were topping up my electrolyte levels.
Electronics: I regularly use the Suunto Ambit for climbing and mountaineering, for tracking how far we’ve travelled as well as altitude and, very importantly for storm detection, barometric pressure. Handily, it also has full GPS and pace tracking so was perfect to track the run. It did amazingly but sadly ran out of juice after 15 hours so missed the last few miles – not too bad though! We also carried a couple of GoPros for a video (coming soon), and our phones for updating Twitter and taking photos. I managed to make one iPhone charge last the whole day by switching to Airplane Mode when not using the phone to conserve battery life.
What to eat while running London to Brighton
Based on rough calculations, I would be burning 800 calories per hour on the run. With an estimated time of 14 hours, that would mean I would be burning 11,200 calories. There is no way I could consume that much on the day so I just needed to limit the impact as much as possible and prepare my body for this punishment.
As most people know, long distance athletes normally carb-load before a race, I worked very hard the days before to make sure my body had absorbed as many carbohydrates as possible, aiming to eat a little and often for optimal absorption and avoiding big heavy meals that seem to have more of a psychological benefit rather than physical.
With muscles full of carbs, the next task is to get the race day nutrition down, we planned to eat little and often, and a mixture of carbs, fats and proteins. There is a lot of information out there right now on what is best for this sort of event but I think that trial and error with your own body is the only way to get it right. I’ve been experimenting with a lower carb, high fat and protein diet recently and wanted to keep the fat levels up on the run. That meant I packed away lots of chorizo, a surprisingly satisfying race snack.
I also had a good selection of Clif Bars, Pulsin bars, and Dorset Cereal oat bars before making up the rest on fun foods. This was as much a mental battle as physical and so I wanted some foods that would make me happy on the route. For me this consisted of Jelly Babies, Mini Eggs, and Flapjack.
I got through the whole day, not once feeling hungry, eating small amounts every 20-30 minutes and managed to avoid hitting the wall until mile 58. I don’t know if the wall was an energy deficit problem or psychological but it was the last 4 miles, from the outskirts of Brighton, that I found the hardest.
I’ve tried to take my post-run nutrition seriously too – though I’ve eaten more chocolate in the last week than I care to acknowledge, my replacing the lost carbs and eating balanced, fresh, and nutritious meals, have left me feeling re-energised and strong.
How to recover from running London to Brighton
I’m still struggling a little with the recovery from the run. I had an existing knee problem that was antagonised by 62 miles on the go but with a little TLC, a few deep tissue massages, a load of epsom salt baths, and some compression socks and i’m sure I’ll get there.
I’ve also had some pretty bad nights’ sleep too. After very intense challenges, I’ve often found that I struggle to sleep properly with my subconscious wreaking havoc on my dreams. For the two nights after I was waking up every few hours with cold sweats and nightmares, thankfully, that has subsided and I’m sleeping like a baby now.
I have really enjoyed taking it easy this last week but it didn’t take long for me to start getting restless and planning my next training session but you’ve got to be careful.
Your heart will have worked very hard over the 62 miles
We had our hearts beating hard for the best part of 16 hours and that really took its toll. I went kettlebells training 5 days after the run and, though I felt like I was taking it easy, was wasted afterwards and needed a little lunchtime nap to get through the day! Resting all your body is absolutely crucial and you mustn’t forget there is more to running than just your legs.
I hope over the next few weeks my stamina, endurance and strength come back better than ever.
What I thought of running London to Brighton
It was truly an incredible experience. To cover that much distance all by foot, to be on the go for that length of time, and to see the look on people’s faces when you tell them are all worthwhile reasons alone.
It is the smaller things, though, that have had the biggest impact, for me. Seeing the English countryside in all it’s springtime glory, to meet such wonderful people along the way, and for the mind-blowing, incredible support from people on Twitter have all given me a thirst for more, a taste of I am capable of, and the inspiration to find the next big challenge.
The overarching positive for me, though, has to be sharing the adventure with my wife. We spend a lot of time together; training, hanging out, planning our future; but to share this experience together was exceptional. To go through the same pain, to gain the same sense of achievement afterwards, and to know that, one day, we’ll be able to tell our grandchildren of a crazy adventure their grandmother dragged my on, I can’t wait.