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How to take on a 200 Mile Winter race - Sabrina Pace-Humphreys

We are sharing this blog mid Christmas 2023 a couple of weeks after the inaugural Centurion Winter Downs 200 (miles that is x).

The lead up to this event was highly emotional - the race itself was so emotional that it has taken us all of these few weeks to gather up the thoughts and it's so big that we are splitting it into two blogs (sharing next the monster thoughts of the crew that played such a wonderful part in this adventure). As always we hope that this Camino blog will give you the inspiration to take on your own challenges + the tools to be able to do it x

2023 had already been a quite extraordinary year for Sabrina - Epic Podcast series, a major TV advert, awarding winning Run Festival direction as Co-Founder of our beloved Black to the Trails - not to mention the wild ride as a contestant on the Survivors series......

Our story starts with Survivor.

When Sabrina dropped on us that ‘I’m going to be away for an unidentifiable period of time and when I am back we will need to get the fitness back for some big new projects’ we were grinning from ear-to-ear. That turned out to be the TV series Survivor and on the return we first heard about the 200 miler.

Run Coaching is always multidimensional.

You can ‘focus on the running’ but if you have major things going on (like being unwell and returning from filming a major TV series and all the things that constantly fly around your head with these) then doing one-dimensional runs doesn’t often cut it.

With Sabrina we have loved just how open she has been to ‘feel good stuff’ - dialling deep into what ‘is working’, what ‘is enough’, what is it that makes you want to do more - it is from this ‘build up’ strategy that we were able to get Sabrina on the verge of this latest epic ultramarathon.

We interviewed Sabrina when she was on the sofa recovering from the race and we are truly grateful to Sabs for being able to capture and share her thoughts on this truly epic adventure with you.

Over to Sabrina x

What motivated you to take on a winter ultra marathon, and how did you mentally and physically prepare for the event?

I was supposed to run the South Downs Way 100, and due to being a survivor, I had to pull out of that. Once I returned from Survivor, I felt I needed a significant running goal to stay consistent with my training and help manage my mental health as the TV show aired. Also, these challenges remind me of who I am, what I do, and how I test my body daily. So I wanted to choose an ultra marathon that I hadn't done before, on trails that weren't my regular go-to trails. I also liked that this race was 2 weeks before Christmas, so the Winter Downs 200 seemed the perfect choice!

I physically prepared for the event by being coached by Paula at Camino Ultra. However, although I am a coach and can coach myself, it's essential for me to be accountable and use the experience of other coaches. So, that's why I worked with Paula regarding the physical preparation. When we picked up the coaching again after Survivor, It was tricky.

I suffered from Achilles tendinitis throughout July, August, September, and early October, significantly impacting training. However, we added a lot of spin bike sessions, which helped keep my cardio at a decent level so that I could go back to running when the time was right.  I knew I hadn't lost too much cardio fitness and I knew myself to be mentally strong over that time so I felt confident that I would manage the race on training that I’d done.

I've completed some incredibly tough ultramarathons, such as the Marathon de Sable and The Summer Spine Race. I knew that in winter in the UK, there would be a lot of different conditions that I would have to deal with. Hence, I just kept reminding myself that, you know, you can control the controllable, and make sure you have the right kit and nutrition and that you’ve practised those in training, but you can't control the weather conditions and the conditions underfoot and how your body will respond to that on the day!

The mental aspect of an ultra marathon is often as demanding as the physical. How did you maintain focus and motivation over such a long distance, especially in challenging winter conditions?

One of my key strategies was constantly reminding myself, especially when times felt tough, that this was my decision.

No one forces us to be out there.

We have control over stepping forward or stopping, and I reminded myself of that at all times; I'm very privileged to be able to take time off of work to take myself away from my life and do this as a hobby, so therefore, when things became what seemed like unmanageable I would remind myself. This is your choice. You get to decide.

I remind myself that I know the pain is temporary, but the beauty remains and why I say that is because when you're in pain, when you're consumed by it, it's all you can think of.

It feels like it will never end, but it always ends in an ultramarathon. It might take weeks, but it always dissipates, and it's vital not to let it consume you; that's how I continue to move forward in the sense that this is my choice. It's my decision to be here. I know my body and mind, and I know that I have more to give, which has kept me pushing forward. Plus, I've done a lot of ultramarathons now, so my race strategy in the sense of being very conservative in terms of the first half of the race because I wanted to have a bit more left in the tank for the latter stages served me well.

Were there any unexpected surprises or moments that stood out to you during the (Winter Downs 200) race, either positive or challenging, that you hadn't anticipated beforehand?

The negative that stands out for me is that I knew that the Vanguard Way, so around about 20 miles into the race, you turn right and you go onto the Vanguard Way, and you're on it until the start of the South Downs Way in Alfriston. I knew that it would be wet underfoot. It was a bog fest, it was a mud fest, it was wading across flooded fields! I was not 100% prepared for how challenging those conditions would be and how much it would slow my pace.

Trudging through bottomless mud really takes it out of you. That section of the race triggered a lot of wear on my body: tendon shin pain, ankle pain, and probably worst of all, blisters.

It was a wonderful moment coming off the Vanguard Way onto the South Downs Way. It was a really joyful moment. Another stand-out moment was coming out of the sustainability centre. It was sunset, I felt energised, and my pace was increasing. The views were amazing, and even though I was 155 miles to this 200-mile race, I felt great! This is the nature of an ultra that one minute you'll feel like shit, and the next, you feel top of the world, and that's kind of what I love about it.

Managing nutrition is crucial in ultra marathons. What was your fueling strategy, and did you encounter any unexpected nutrition-related challenges during the race?

I decided to initially fuel every 40 minutes with a mixture of sports nutrition bars and real food. I knew from practising that I would quickly become dissatisfied with sweet food. My body craves savoury, salty food, and again, within the ultramarathon that I've just done, the same thing happened, where very quickly, I went off sweet Sports-based food and only really wanted real food, which was savoury and salty.

I consciously decided to fuel every 40 minutes, which works well for me. It was also important to me to eat hot food at crew points. Experience dictated that things like super noodles and pot noodles worked well, but the thing that worked amazingly well this time was potted mash, potato, cheese and beans, and I managed to keep eating that food until the end. In addition to the food my crew prepared, I ate pasta and lasagna at the checkpoints, which went down well. 

(All official photos by our friend and legend Pierre Papet)

How did you handle sleep and rest breaks during the 200-miles, and did your approach to rest evolve as the race progressed?

So, my strategy for sleep and rest breaks going into the race was to meet my crew every 20 miles. At those initial crew stops, I would spend no longer than half an hour:

  • Quickly restocking on hydration and nutrition.

  • Having something to eat.

  • Changing clothing and socks or shoes as needed.

But I aimed to be as quick in and out as possible. I had decided not to stop at checkpoints because as I was a fully crewed runner, and there was no need to. The strategy worked well on day one and most of day two, but as the race progressed, I felt I wanted to stop at the checkpoints to say hello and have a cup of tea. I also had a mini reset, and it was beautiful stopping at the checkpoint because the volunteers are so friendly and want to do everything they can to help you. I would have fun and giggle, and that's part of it for me.

To have fun and have that connection out on the trail as well. As the race progressed, I relied upon my crew to work with me to adapt sleep and rest stops as needed. For the majority, I think other than one crew point where I wanted to sleep, and they wanted me to push on, I think we stuck to it. We were disciplined in adhering to the crew checklist. Getting done what we wanted to get done.

The sleep strategy evolved during the race, but I didn't get much sleep. I slept for the minimum amount of time I could and then wanted to move on. Because my feet were severely blistered, I did take extra rests to give my feet a rest rather than because I was tired.

Ultra marathons often involve a unique camaraderie among participants; what were your stand-out moments from the race?

Yeah, I think ultramarathons are about camaraderie and connection. You know, whether you're running solo or decided to run as a pair or group, a real connection can be forged. I run a decent stretch with a runner called Nick. We were at a very similar pace, and it was lovely to be with someone. We didn't talk to each other for sections. We were just there, and we were moving forward. We shared a beautiful moment where we decided to have kind of a 3 am picnic on the bench next to a stream in a little village, so we sat down, ate, and regrouped, which was really special. There were Christmas lights around us and, people sound asleep in their homes, and we were sitting there eating a really lovely picnic!

Another moment was when Sonny Peart caught up with me in Queen Elizabeth Park. I got to see my friend and see how he was doing, so it was lovely to see him and spend some time with him at the sustainability centre, where he stayed and slept. I decided to continue moving, but just seeing him and seeing that he was doing well was a real boost.

I also caught up with other women I'd met on the course: Helen, Charlotte, and Gemma. We chatted about how we were doing, coping, and what we needed to do to finish it! In a field of primarily men, we had massive respect for each other for being out there. Those moments were very special, and that's what I love about ultramarathons. I also needed to feel confident doing much of this ultra-marathon independently. I can navigate independently because I have the skills and the experience to do that. I felt confident to do that, so I wasn't scared about being alone, but when I did have the interactions, that was really energising.

Reflecting on the entire experience, what lessons or insights did you gain from completing the 200-mile race that will stay with you in future ultra-running endeavours?

Reflecting on the experience after a few days' rest, certain things will stay with me for future ultrarunning endeavours. Regarding nutrition, I have to use real food from the start because I'm just not interested in sweet food. All the savoury stuff, like the pasta and the lasagna, worked well for me. The way forward for me is to keep fueling with the things that my body craved, which reinforced real food. Another big lesson I learned is to always carry different trainer sizes because maybe if I had swapped into larger trainers earlier, my little toes would have been less affected, and I could have run faster. I will also try running in shoes with wide-toe boxes to see if that helps. I would also pre-tape my feet to avoid blisters. So, I want to understand how to better manage my feet. In terms of my race strategy, don't be a dickhead in the first half, don't be a wimp in the second in terms of being able to pick up the pace and take people, all of that was on point I think that if I could get my feet sorted better than I would, then that would reflect massively in terms of my position in the field and my ability to move forward wasn't because I didn't have the cardio fitness or athletic fitness that held me back. It has to do with the feet, so that's something I need to continue to work on.

What advice would you give aspiring ultra runners based on your experience in the Winter Downs 200, especially regarding preparation and mental resilience?

I advise anyone seeking to do the Winter Downs 200 to do night recces.

They are imperative in understanding how mentally that impacts you because it's all very well and good doing recces during the day when mentally you have beautiful views, or you have. Even if it's not a beautiful view, you have a view and a waypoint to look at to think, well, I'm going there! It's very, very, very different. It's what made this race one of the hardest, if not the hardest, I've done when you were 16 hours of darkness. You have nothing to measure where you've been or where you're going, So I would. I will say to any athletes that I coach that night recces are imperative for finishing this race because it's where everyone started to come unstuck.

The second thing is the crew. If you will be a crewed runner, ensure you've got the right crew. I’d recommend having people in your crew who have done crewing before and understand how to take the lead. They can help to lead other crew members, a runner doesn't want to be coming in and being asked too many questions. It’s more helpful for them to have a selection of food and snacks ready so they can pick what they want rather than being asked what they want as often in the later stages of a race, you simply don’t know! You also need your crew to understand how to help you recover from the previous leg and prepare for the following leg in terms of self-care, kit, and nutrition.

No matter how much you prepare, you know you will be coming to a point where you don't know how you will keep going forward, and that's when you need to have a strong why. It needs to be more than a time goal or a medal, something that is deeply personal to you and that reflects your values as a person and will inspire you to do more than you think you can do.

How did you manage self-doubt or moments when the race seemed overwhelming, and what advice would you give to others facing similar challenges?

An essential part was the teamwork with my crew and me; the team helped me move forward. Whether that's coming to a checkpoint, they took my pack, took it off, and repacked it without even having to think about it. They ensured I had charged batteries, replacing head torch batteries until the end and checking I had everything I needed. Another critical thing is being fed, having a cup of tea and hot food waiting for you as you come in so that you get those good things as soon as possible. In addition, they are checking in on what you drank and ate since they last saw you, reminding you to drink more and keep eating. The people in my team had different skills and personalities but, in their own way, could be strict and caring with me so that I was doing what I needed to do to succeed. Having that team makes you more resilient because you know that they're looking after that for you. I can only imagine wanting to do a race like that with a crew because it's essential for me. You look forward to seeing your crew, so having a great team enhances your resilience cause you're like, how can I fail when all of this is being taken care of for me? All I've got to do is move my body forward.

Did you have a mantra or specific mindset that helped you push through difficult moments in the race?

It's like I said before. It's a choice.

No one was making me be there, no one made me commit to training, no one made me sign up. No one was making me do it; no one in my team nor those supporting me online were saying, "You have to do this; if you don't do this, then you're failing", and that, for me, was important because this is a hobby.

This is not a life-or-death choice. I have to make this is not a no it's it's a choice. It's my choice to be here, and I think constantly saying that to myself, also at least saying it to myself when things were tough, helped me to climb a little bit out of the black holes when they came.

The other thing I always used as a mantra is that the pain is temporary, but the beauty remains, and it's true. It's amusing how quickly I forget how horrendous it was, and I remember just the beautiful things of my time with my crew and out on the course. That's what allows us to keep moving forward. Knowing that this was a pain that was all-consuming whilst I was in it, but actually, as soon as I finished, the pain would start to dissipate, was essential to remember.

Reflecting on the entire experience, what lessons about personal resilience can be applied to other aspects of life?

Reflecting on it a couple of days past, I believe I can take forward what I have learned: no one expects you to be superhuman. I knew there is real strength in vulnerability, but allowing someone to help you reach a goal doesn't take anything away from that goal. It makes it sweeter because you're doing it for more than you. Also, it was another opportunity to understand that my experience over the years means I know a lot about running ultras. I know a lot about race strategy. I know a lot about moving my body forward over many miles and the imposter syndrome around looking at other runners and thinking that they somehow know it better than you do. My imposter thoughts are gradually dissipating because I did have a race strategy. I did stick to the race strategy and which was not to be a dickhead in the first half and not to be a wimp in the second. And to not burn too many matches in the first half so that I had more matches; I could try to start burning in the second half. I was able to do that. Taking that lesson into my life, I see that as not needing to be overconfident but being confident when you need it to push yourself forward. Also, if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got. It's something I've just written for LinkedIn. When I was in the last 20 miles of the race going through the forest, I said to myself, if I keep moving this pace, I'm not going to finish for hours and hours.  I needed to make the decision to change it up and move faster. I think it's a mantra for life. In life, we become stagnant; we become stuck doing what we've always done, and then we don't see what we want to happen. If you want to get something different, you've got to be willing to be comfortable with change and the uncomfortableness of doing that. That really showed itself to me in this race: You've got to be able to pivot; you've got to be able to change. You've got to be able to take the plan and rip it up if you need to to get the success you want. I knew that in those last 20 miles, so I started running because I didn't want to be there anymore! I needed to get faster and be comfortable being really uncomfortable doing that, and I was willing to do that to get the job done. That's a big lesson go forward that I will most certainly remember.

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