South Downs Way Relay 2023 - Mixed team report

Friday 16th February 2024

In spite of losing our captain Milan to injury and replacement captain Stuart a few weeks later we still managed to field a very strong mixed team for the 2023 SDWR. Previous Vets winner, James Hampshire, filled in for Milan and three time medalist Alex Cruttenden stepped up at very short notice to cover for Stuart. Joining them were newcomers: Danielle Simpson, Sara Burns and myself (Lachie Murray) as well as our new captain, leader and chief baker Jess Stribbling. Clearly not happy about missing out on all the fun Stuart Roberts kindly stepped into the driver's seat alongside navigator, timekeeper, cheerleader and team hairdresser Eoghan McKenna.

We were starting in the same wave as the Winchester and District AC mixed team and had predicted the second fastest finishing time (behind Winchester) - meaning that the other 13 mixed teams had already set-off before we started.

The team (minus photographer Eoghan McKenna) at Beachy Head

Kicking things off with the deceptively difficult and endlessly undulating Leg 1 was Alex Cruttenden. As we drove to the mid-leg checkpoint at Birling Gap we could see Alex right up at the front of the group and clearly feeling good as he acknowledged the cheers from the van. Alex came storming through the checkpoint at the front of the field, a little too fast for Eoghan, who had only managed to plait half of Danielle’s hair before it was time to get back in the van. 

Just one of Eoghan’s many talents

Alex was the second runner in our wave to finish Leg 1 but, most importantly, came in a few minutes ahead of our mixed-category rivals Winchester. Alex handed over to James and was cheered off by gate-holder and winner of the award for most easterly spotted Phoenix supporter, Erica Martin (thanks Erica!). James put more time into Winchester and finished within a few seconds of his previous time on Leg 2 to handover to Danielle, thankfully by this point Eoghan had managed to complete the second plait.

Danielle’s debut got off to the perfect start with a Phoenix and Strava course record time of 00:28:54 on Leg 3. The rapid time took the rest of the team by surprise at the Leg 4 changeover, not least myself as I almost got in Jess’s way whilst failing to open the first gate quick enough (sorry Jess!).

A cracking run from Jess over the long and hilly Leg 4 brought us back to the outskirts of Brighton and still leading Winchester at the Leg 5 changeover (my first leg). Leg 5 is a short steep uphill, followed by a short steep downhill, followed by a long gradual uphill all the way to Ditchling Beacon and the welcoming sound of the Phoenix marshals and supporters. I was particularly happy to see Liz Halliday and Geoff Pike, without their Wednesday track sessions over winter and spring I wouldn't have been fit enough to run this race! (thanks also to Sue, Malcolm and all the other Wednesday helpers!).

Some of the team at Ditchling Beacon

I handed over the batton to Sara to complete the first round of legs. Despite a niggling knee injury Sara navigated one of the steepest (-18% at one point!) and most technical descents of the entire race with ease.

Unfortunately, Winchester had taken a chunk of time out of us on Leg 5 and passed us mid-way through Leg 6. Sara handed over to Alex for Leg 7 and Alex to James for Leg 8 and between them they managed to catch and overtake Winchester to handover to Danielle on Leg 9, once again in the lead.

Alex looking fresh at the start of Leg 7

By this point, the sun was high in the sky and baking hot for an evil sounding Leg 9 (measured by Danielle’s Garmin as 6.66 km). This didn’t stop Danielle cruising to what would have been another club course record of 00:32:09… had Suzy Rushforth not just posted 00:28:45 for the women’s team!

Danielle handing to Jess at the start of Leg 10

Stu and Eoghan figuring out the fastest route between legs - who needs GPS?!

Danielle handed to Jess for the short, fast and predominantly downhill Leg 10 and Stuart expertly navigated us down Springhead Hill for the notoriously tight changeover at Leg 11.

Jess handed over to me at the start of Leg 11, still leading Winchester. Unfortunately, I was passed about half-way through the leg. We weren’t disheartened though and, as Alex reminded us, there was still a long way to go. Sara ran a great Leg 12 to keep us in contention and passed the baton to Alex for his third, final and arguably hardest Leg.

Mixed and A teams at Leg 13/14 changeover

At 6.25 miles long with 1200 feet of climbing, Leg 13 looks terrifying on paper, and by all accounts is even worse in real life. Alex didn’t let it phase him though and ran a strong leg to handover to James for Leg 14. James finished his set even stronger, re-taking the lead from Winchester for the second time of the day and bettering his cumulative time from last year by over two minutes! 

James flying into Queen Elizabeth Country Park for a 2 minute PB

There was no third club record for Danielle on Leg 15 but a triplet of top-ten Strava trophies accompanied another excellent time to wrap up a brilliant SDWR debut. Winchester had opted for a different ordering strategy to us, placing Danielle up against one of their strongest men on Leg 15, unfortunately they passed us again during the leg and that would turn out to be the last we saw of the black and gold vests.

I don’t envy Jess’s final leg. Leg 16 is short on paper but was the only final leg in our arrangement with an uphill finish, which must have been a stinger at the end of a long hot day of trail running. My final leg, Leg 17, in contrast, is net downhill and has a nice mile-long descent to the end. The only problem is that you have to run nearly 8 miles to get to that point, including –what felt like– one mile vertically upwards.

I handed over to Sara for the final leg and we jumped in the van in order to ensure we could reach the mid-point at the curiously named Cheesefoot Head before her. We learned that prior to D-Day General Eisenhower gave a motivational speech to US troops in a neighbouring field. I like to think that our cheering and cow bell ringing helped motivate Sara for the second half of Leg 18, not that she needed it, storming home to wrap up a great individual and team effort.

Sara crossing the A272 ahead of the final descent to the finish

Ultimately, we came in second to Winchester in a time of 12:03:37, a new club record for the mixed team and just shy of Stuart’s predicted time of 12 hours (sorry Stu). We later learned that Winchester had opted to field some of their strongest athletes in their mixed team and with an impressive finishing time of 11:39:51, it showed. Kudos to Winchester on a great race. Challenging that time was always going to be a big ask and we were all very happy with our silver medals and thankful for the opportunity to represent Phoenix. Completing the podium was Steyning AC with a time of 12:45:57.

Overall, it was a fantastic day spent with a great bunch of people and supported by a brilliant club. Thank you Phoenix!

2023 SDWR Mixed Team 2nd Place