Devil's Dyke Trail Race 2023Race Report

Last Updated: Sun 25 Jun 2023

On paper, the Midsummer Devil’s Dyke Trail Run is only 300m of climb over an 8km distance. However, the relentless hard running and the pressure of competing head-to-head can make the event feel like the club’s toughest challenge of the year.

LittleDave reports on his experience from last Wednesday’s race, and you can check out the course here.

"Did you memorise the whole route?"

An orienteering trail run in my 'back garden' with a pre-published map where the Organiser stated you would not need a compass... The potential for disaster was massive but fortunately, I know the Dyke pretty well, been adventuring there for years now.

I also spent a lot of time studying the map before the event, running the routes in my head, the familiar ground. On the drive to the event, I 'spotted' the tree checkpoint from the road, slightly away from the tree and some time spent on a high point in the car park trying to see the best line to break off the big uphill path to find the gate. It all felt a little bit like cheating. There was also an (unfounded) expectation that I was going to do OK at this run which helped build the self-imposed pressure and the title 'mountain man' was being thrown around wildly (and without proof or substantiation, although I had donned my Walshes and Fellponies running vest for a bit of fell running motivation) but I still pushed myself to the front of the mass start ready for the mad dash straight down the Dyke. Rob shouted Goooooooo and we were off, legs on full Penelope Pitstop propulsion as the decline attempted to drag me off my feet, crazy legs all around me, the joy of attempting to reach the point of being slightly out of control without losing control.

Whizz past the first control with the young guns leading the charge straight on to the first leg-burning climb out of the Dyke and over the stile on to 128 hill field. The leaders cut off the path heading for the straighter line but I resisted following as I didn't fancy jumping the temporary electric fence, the lads vaulted the fence like gazelles and I cursed my tiny little legs but the roughness of the ground over the fence seemed to curtail some of the youthful speed and my route along the path did not yield too much advantage to the lads. They dibbed the control (placed away from the tree that was guarded by a jungle of nettles) and then sped off the road heading east. My opportunity! Dibbed and I'm going west, Go West young man... In my mind this was the optimum route, one gate to negotiate and a small climb towards the end but a shorter distance. Not sure how many people follow the little eegit haring off down the road or those who chose the path of the leaders but I can feel heavy breathing on my heels. 500m along the track the upper and lower routes converged and I am delighted to reach that point and be milliseconds in front of the two leaders. I hear murmurs of approval and I'm bursting with pride, the narrow track means I'm now holding the lead position. To the road and a hard sharp turn almost back on myself up the path to the next control. Stop the race immediately! I have won! But obviously, there are still miles to go.

I dib and dash, then move slightly aside to allow the speed merchants come firing through. They are moving like a train and I'm hanging out off their slipstream. I'm feeling absolutely awful, hanging out of my hoop after less than ten minutes of running me little legs off. Milliseconds of decision-making/map checking from the front guys whereas I can just run means I can keep them in view but as we pass the next control they disappear off the stepped climb and I lose sight expecting to see them next at the finish. Along the bottom path of the Dyke is just a delight. A climb to allow me to try and maintain my position but I can feel multiple breaths of the pack hunting me from behind. It's a narrow path and the guys behind seem comfortable to sit behind me, probably waiting for the moment to storm past. I'm now enjoying this section, it's pure fun running. I normally run this section in the opposite direction so the steps, fallen trees are now all in reverse but this is some of the best single track in Sussex. Past #5 and there is now some route choice. I'd discussed this with my mentor Mike Turner in our secret pre-race briefing and he had mentioned climbing steep from this point but my plan was staying lower for longer and then taking the big track up. In my head this was the optimum route. I was hoping perhaps the leaders had gone for the other option, I'd not seen sight of them in what seemed like hours. Will the pack follow me? I don't look back in a race, the race is all in front of me, the moment you look back you are defending your position instead of attacking the race, there is no need for a rear-view mirror...

"Franco : And now my friend, the first-a rule of Italian driving. [Franco rips off his rear-view mirror and throws it out of the car] Franco : What's-a behind me is not important."

The first section is just a slight incline through the closely packed shrubs/hedgerow and I keep pushing. I can feel the breath of my pursuer on the back of my ears, perhaps I should let them take point for a while, let them work and I'll sit on their tail but I want to push. I know the path is about to steepen and it's my opportunity to give off the illusion of strength and hopefully drop them off my tail and give me enough of a gap to break the invisible magnetic line that is keeping them on my tail. I refuse to resort to the psychological tactics of racing; this is a friendly club run but I'm happy to attempt some physical tricks. We clear the vegetation and cover and the beauty and splendour of the entire hill reveals itself. This is the time to push hard, break that invisible chain. To my surprise I also see the two leaders on the hill. They are walking. This is my opportunity, this drives me to keep running, if you could call my slow shuffle a run. Pump the arms, the arms are attached to the body that is attached to the legs, biophysical science surely means if the arms keep moving the legs must keep moving. I've told this lie to so many people I've trained that I actually sort of believe it is true! The breathing behind me appears to have disappeared, hopefully because I've opened a gap, broken the invisible thread. I also appear to be gaining on Tommy, this is driving me on. Sure, we'll reach the top and he will scamper off effortlessly but if I can just catch him momentarily it will feel like a gold medal moment.

There is a crowd at the top of the climb shouting out encouragement. Their shouts and the fantasy of possibly catching Tommy are driving me. I'm sure now that Liam has climbed too high and is on the path but not what I consider the optimum line to reach the lower gate, vital seconds in my bag. Tommy is laying the hammer down again and picked up pace, I'm now hanging in rather than chasing him down (or rather up). He turns by the crowd heading for the lower gate. I've now used Tommy to landmark my exit point, I can cut across on a small animal trod (the trod is small, the animal was probably a sheep, which I guess is small compared to a cow but not a small animal). The trod is taking me over rougher ground but it's direct. The photographer has to change position to capture my smug smile as I chug along my trod to the gate and the next control. We are now back on to runners’ terrain. My perceived potential strong part of the course is now all behind and below me. Now to concentrate on running as straight as possible without allowing the pursuing pack to come galloping past me with their big runners’ legs and outrageous long stride lengths. I need to maintain enough momentum to keep the front two in sight and use them to lead me straight on to the next couple of controls. They will spy the exact location of control from their advantage point of height and position and I can adjust my approach to run optimum line. Cheating or sensible? I see Liam turn sharply up ahead and that landmarks my next control and I run straight on to the fence corner. Next control route follows a path but then requires to cut off across rougher ground. The two lead guys are taking slightly different lines, I'm somewhere between the two.

The race up front is now getting almost as exciting as my own run. The lads are battling and jostling, swapping the lead and creating a thrilling spectator experience for me... as well as leading me straight to the controls. We are slightly off line for #8. Dib and follow the fence for a few metres before heading east. The next control is on a fence bend that will be hard to determine from this approach. Keep left of the enclosure and we should be on line but fortunately the flag can be seen from about 300m. Run hard, my expectation that the chasing pack will soon be on and past me has not happened yet but we are now on the running section, simple fence following navigation, all my advantages are slowly disappearing. Through the gate, that is opened and held by some walkers enjoying the SDW, which gives me precious seconds of advantage and I shout out a thank you. "Are you in a race?" Success! I must look like a racer... Along the fence towards the control but I can't see the flag. Is it the water tank, the gate, the fence? My map is hanging redundant in my hand but fortunately folded carefully enough that I can locate my control, about the same time I see the flag. Turn north, road is out of bounds but why would anyone want to run on the road. I'm following a small trod to avoid the rougher ground but the brambles have grown out and I'm ripping my legs with brambles. I decide to opt for the rougher but less blood-spilling line and head to the next control. Dib and then follow the foot of the embankment knowing there is a small path that leads up to the trig point and avoids the rough path along the top.

The next control is the only one I've been worrying about. I've collected controls from here before and got confused over the two embankments but that experience means I know to ignore the first path and climb the second embankment (the map makes it look like one continuous embankment) to drop off and see the beautiful flag and control. Dibbed, now the final 300m to get to the finish. I'm no sprinter, I don't have a sprint finish but I know I've put my all out in to the race and I just need to keep that effort going now. Over the stile and it's the last little climb, ignore the path going up, it's not the optimum line, head over the rough ground. I see the seat and people but where is the finish control. I still can't see it. Eventually I pick it out through my blurred exhausted vision and I dib. I am delighted. 45 minutes of running as hard as I could. Red lining and loving it.

Thanks to everyone at Southdowns Orienteers, Rob for organising, the timing team, the supporters, the other runners. What a night!


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