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Race Report : 2024 South Downs Way Relay

The South Downs Way Relay – 100 miles of hilly, chalky running from Beachy Head to Winchester, split into 18 stages with a team of 6 runners, each running 3 stages all jammed into one day. Got all that? Well, take a deep breath… because this year’s race was EPIC!

That was the scale of the challenge facing this year’s Ranelagh Harrier’s team as Suzy Whatmough, Cecily Day, Lizzie Broughton, James Riley, Joe Killip and Ed Perry crammed into a car (driven brilliantly by James Ritchie) at 6am on Saturday 1 June, to make their 8am start time down on the South Coast.

This event has been running for 30+ years, with Ranelagh teams competing from 2005 until 2010. In the last two years, we’ve had a singular Ranelagh (Men’s) entry, finishing a credible 5th and 3rd respectively. An event closely guarded by the race organisers; it is invite only and legend goes should you break any of their long list of rules, you run the risk of not being invited back!

Despite numerous requests, our request for a second team entry was not granted. Not deterred, we switched our entry to a mixed team (3 men & 3 women) and set our sights on trying to win the mixed team competition. We knew we’d be up against stiff competition with the other 10 mixed teams (out of the 53 teams entered). Last year’s mixed team winners Winchester Running Club predicted the same finish time as us, and a mixed team from Lewes entered a very punchy pre-race prediction – nearly an hour quicker than ours.

The race has a staggered start to help with congestion later in the day, so the slower teams start first, after which similarly paced groups of 4-10 teams are set off at 30 minute intervals with the hope that they will all finish more or less together 100 miles later. The three fastest mixed teams all set off in one wave with 4 other teams for company, so we knew that we’d be in for a day-long battle!

James Riley took the first leg, followed by Ed Perry, Cecily Day and Joe Killip taking the team to the end of Stage 4. We’d enjoyed a solid start but by the end of Stage 4 we found ourselves in 3rd place, trailing Winchester by about 10 mins, and Lewes by about 8. We knew though that the event is ultimately a test of durability, as each runner had to run 3 times in the day; and that one thing our team had a strength was durability.

Stage 5 is pretty much a full uphill climb to Ditchling Beacon, and there was no-one better for that job than our Suzy Whatmough. By the time she appeared on the horizon at the top of the Beacon, weaving her way between grazing cows, she had not only caught and passed the Lewes runner, she had also closed the gap to under 2 mins to Winchester. It was a spectacular run and the race was well and truly on!

Lizzie Broughton took on Stage 6 and handed back to Ed Perry for Stage 7. By the time he handed back to James Riley for Stage 8, we’d consolidated our 2nd position, trailing Winchester by approximately 4 minutes and leading Lewes by another 4 minutes. James handed over to Cecily for Stage 9 and suddenly we were half way through the day.

One of the really fun things about the event is the race against time to get the rest of the team in the car to the end of each leg before our runner gets there. Some of the stages are pretty tight time turn-arounds especially as the traffic gets busier in the middle of the day. Superstar driver James Ritchie handled it all with consummate ease, including going the extra mile in anticipation of a lack of signal and bringing a hand drawn map for one particularly tricky drive.

The emerging theme of the in-car post-stage feedback/discussion was that the hills were brutal, and the crosswind even more so, but ultimately the sun was out, and we were still hunting down Winchester; that gap fluctuating from between 4 to 8 mins.

Lizzie ran hard on Stage 10, handing over to Joe for Stage 11, before Suzy once again hauled back some much valued time; pulling us to within 2 minutes off the lead after 12 stages. We were now two thirds of the way through the race, and it was clear that who ran which stage from here on in would make a big difference to the outcome of the race. Everyone had 1 leg left to run, but our legs were really starting to feel it!

After a shortened recovery time, James took on the only stage officially classed as a fell race, handing over to Cecily for Stage 14. Having recce-ed the stage, Cecily was prepared and absolutely flew over it, ending up only 11 SECONDS outside the Strava course record for that stage, and limiting any time lost to a fast Winchester man.

Lizzie again put in a massive shift on Stage 15 to limit our losses to another Winchester man. With 3 stages to go, the gap was out to 9 minutes but crucially we had Suzy, Ed and Joe still to run, up against 3 Winchester women. Which strategy would pay off?

Stage 16 features an evil uphill finish with your team at the top watching you toil up every step of the way. And as Suzy came into sight, it was clear that she’d massively slashed the gap with her efforts, bringing it down to around 4 minutes. 2 more stages to go.

Now Stage 17 has a bit of a reputation; it’s the longest at 8.5 miles, and features a barely runnable hill in the middle of it. At the risk of drawing the short straw, Ed Perry stepped up to take on that challenge. He emerged bramble-scarred, but 4 minutes FASTER than our best time from the past 2 years. Despite this amazing effort, Winchester had slightly grown the gap; it now stood at around 5 minutes with just 5.5 miles left.

As Joe took on the baton, it was clear that it was all going to come down to wire. Could he reel in the final Winchester woman, despite her head start? Or was it too tall an order?

Everyone bundled into the car and drove expectantly to the finish, immensely satisfied with a day-long battle despite the fact that had come down to this final leg. While we waited to see who would emerge from the gap in the fence first, rumours were swirling. The Winchester team had stopped off half way to cheer their runner on and on arriving at the finish, gave reports that Joe had already caught her. We scarcely dared to believe them until we saw for ourselves, far across the playing fields, a blue vest emerging towards the finish!

It was Joe, absolutely crushing the last leg, hauling in the Winchester runner, and crossing the line 3 minutes ahead. After chasing them all day, we’d finally managed to overtake them on the very last leg! What a day for the club, and what an immense and consistent effort from everyone in the team to keep going. Literally every second of individual effort added up over the course of 11 hours to an incredibly tight margin of victory!

All that remained was to confirm the official result, which the organisers did along with their traditional chiding for very few rules broken. Although we await the offical full timed results, we suspect that our time of 11:16:43 was a mixed team course record.

Massive thanks to Rick Jenner, even though he couldn’t be with us on the day, for managing and coordinating and once again to James Ritchie for sterling work planning and driving. Congratulations to the members of our winning team; James Riley, Ed Perry, Cecily Day, Joe Killip, Suzy Whatmough and Lizzie Broughton.

We’re hopeful that we’ll get more than one team for next year, so watch this space – WE HAVE A TITLE TO DEFEND!

Race report by Ed Perry
Images by Ed Perry, Cecily Day & Sarah Witt (Winchester Running Club)


june, 2024

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Surrey cross country league standings

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Ladies Div 17/15league table
Men Div 18/9league table
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Men Div U15/U1716/18league table