Connor Murphy and Luke Kennard – 23h 4m 11s on the 24th of June 2023. Long term ambition for Connor and Luke finally comes to fruition!
In their own words
Short summary for those not wanting to read on.
The South Downs Way (SDW) double is a relatively simple task, that is incredibly challenging, both physically and mentally. I’m sure if you’re reading this, you already know that. You are required to ride both directions on the SDW in under 24 hours, climb over 22,00ft and open nearly 200 gates. Myself (Connor Murphy) and Luke Kennard had spoken on numerous occasions about attempting this ride, but for one reason or another it hadn’t happened, this was the day that years of riding and pub chat finally came to fruition. We had not far off ideal conditions, hot, but a very light wind. It was time to get the job done.
On the 24th June 2023 we successful completed this challenge in 23 hours and 4 minutes. Read on for more detail on the suffering that we encountered. Finally getting our names in the book.
The rest of this read will be relatively long, but hopefully it depicts our escapade, we do have 24 hours to talk about. Perhaps a very worthwhile read for anyone wanting to attempt this in the future.
Why did we want to put ourselves through it?
We’d been inspired for years by the likes of the attempts by the record holders and such like and with plenty of pub and riding chat, thought we’d have a go. During covid, we did Winchester and back followed by Eastbourne and back the next weekend, after that it was really on. Given that we’ve spent 1000s of hours riding over the downs since we started riding, doing the double was always going to be special to us. It is also worth mentioning that Luke is soon to be a Father, around 2 months after our attempt. This was a real driving factor, we knew if we didn’t do it now, it could well be never. Not to mention, getting our names on in the infamous hall of fame has to be special right.
We both had quite differing approaches to our training. We’d agreed that we’d both do our own thing and come together on the day. Being a coach, my approach was much more structured. I aimed to get plenty of consistent and structured training in. Whilst making sure I had 4-5 8-10 hour rides in the legs. I also like the rule for events like this, that you need to have banked event duration in hours for a few weeks, this meant making sure I’d hit 20 hours/week a couple of times. I used these long rides to recce most of the SDW, the only part I hadn’t recced was the final 15 miles to Winchester, this ended up being a bad move (I’ll come on to this later). There was plenty of other bits here and there, like heat acclimation, weight training and some running that all were added in to arrive in the best shape. Once my training was finished, I felt confident I’d complete it.
Luke’s training was less structed, but involved plenty of steady miles, mostly an hour or so each way to work everyday. His justification was that he wanted to arrive on the day as fresh as possible mentally. Whilst he didn’t have the same kind of structure, he still banked plenty of commuting miles, with a couple of long rides in the legs. Training and riding the trails over and over can become boring and repetitive, so for him, this was the much better approach. I however needed to know certain boxes were ticked to bank some confidence. The other thing for Luke that made a big difference was focusing on dropping a couple of kilos, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, but he dropped nearly 7kgs for this ride. Given the elevation we’d have to ride, this was huge. It goes to show, no one plan will work for everyone. In the end, we both arrived on race day ready to go.
Our initial plan logistically
It is generally accepted that the Eastbourne end is the harder end, given this, we’d decided to start at the bottom of Beeding hill, ride out to Eastbourne first. Then turn around, back to Beeding, out to Winchester and then home. We’d set on a start time of 2am. This would mean a couple of hours in the dark initially and then in theory, we’d be back to Beeding just as it was getting dark. Not quite what happened, but best laid plans and all that! Our target was to try and go under 20 hours total. As we were riding as a pair, this meant we were fully supported. So, we had Megan (my girlfriend) out in the car following us along. We’d planned to do the Eastbourne leg in 8 hours, then stop for a short feed around every 3 hours after that.
There’s not a huge amount to report regarding the Eastbourne leg. We set off as planned and started tapping out the long climbs. We were like a well-oiled machine with the gates, opening and closing them as quickly as possible. Daylight was very much welcomed at around 430am, always nice to see the sun rise. I stopped to take a quick picture and quicky got told off for stopping! Luke set the pace early on and we just kept rolling along nicely. We got to Eastbourne in around 3 hours 40, bang on schedule. I had a tiny off coming back up the climb from Eastbourne, falling in a bush, much to Luke’s delight. We made it back to Beeding just after 10am, ready for a re-fuel and a push on.
Riding the home section
The next section was our home section, this was the bit that surprised me the most. I think we’d both expected to find this the best bit, given we knew the trails so well, but this was very much not the case. We’d just had a bigger than needed stop, seen our supporters and we’re feeling good. We’d not been talking a lot throughout, but we pretty much didn’t say a word over this section, we both knew exactly how we were feeling. The feeling of impending dread, that we had another 130 miles to ride, with the hardest 70 miles or so already in the legs. Our mantra was ‘just keep riding’ and that’s exactly what we did. The first wobble of the day was to come from Luke, he had some quite severe knee pain. We pretty much knew this was coming, but wasn’t sure when, it was always on the table as being a potential deal breaker. As we arrived at the next feed, Cadence, some discussions were had.
Luke nearly pulling the pin
Over the previous section Luke had been suffering from quite harsh knee pain when he needed to get the power down on the climbs. As such we’d been walking a couple of climbs and had slowed a little. When we arrived at the feed. We’d said, just keep going for as long as you can. He’d agreed he’d ride until the pain became such that he couldn’t turn the pedals. Thankfully, some pain relief etc did the trick. We left Cadence hoping the pain would subside, which is did, so onwards we went.
Not being able to eat
For me, it was about half way that the tables started to turn for me. I’d effectively stopped eating. I had quite a strict nutrition plan, but this went out the window. It’s not uncommon in these type of events to not be able to eat, but this wasn’t something I’d experienced before. I just couldn’t swallow, would be chewing and chewing, but couldn’t get it down. Whilst Luke was stoving the food down, pasties, sausage rolls, pizza etc. I could barely get one bit of food in per hour. I had planned to aim for 70g carbs per hour, but likely just about got 20g. All I could get down was liquids, i.e gels. These were making me gag, so I had hoped the wheels wouldn’t fully fall off, which they didn’t, so we kept moving. For any future events, I genuinely may consider actual baby food, or something liquidised, lesson learned.
As we neared QECP, we met with Tom Foot, who rolled with us for a few miles, thanks for coming Tom! We’d known that Luke’s Cousin, Will, was riding the SDW in the opposite direction on the same day and we wondering when we’d bump into them. As we hit the car park before QECP, we saw the group, but no Will. Luke asked where he was and it turned out he’d had a nasty crash on some loose gravel and needed to go to hospital. We’d decided that we should be okay for time, so Luke stopped and was a friendly face for his cousin, we stayed there for 20 minutes or so whilst he was stretchered off. The next feed was 5 minutes down the road, so we lost more minutes than we’d like in this section, but did the right thing nevertheless.
Many hours out to Winchester – Winchester 10-mile sign
It had felt like it was taking us all day to get out to Winchester from home. When I’d done my recces, I’d done 50 miles out and back, so roughly 15 miles short of the turn. I should have really known we had plenty of miles left, but for some reason, we thought once we hit old Winchester hill we we’re pretty close, in actual fact we weren’t. As we got to the top of this climb, there is a sign that said 10 miles to Winchester. For a moment, this broke me. Morale was low, I was hungry and tired, not to mention out of water. I had a few minutes laying down, Luke gave me a talking too and off we went, another hour to the Winchester turn. In reality, this was the only mistake I think I’d made in preparation; I rode all of the SDW in both directions, except this final 10-15 miles. My own fault really. I purposefully avoided using distance waypoints, trying to stick to a mile-to-mile approach, but again, this was silly, we needed those distance markers.
Hitting the King Alfred statue, turn around and feed
We kept tapping along after a momentary breakdown, we added in the extra distance, choosing the ‘current route’. Which for those who don’t know is the longer version, adds about half an hour to the overall ride. Thinking, if we’re doing it, we might as well do it properly (in reality, at the time we didn’t know this, but this is what we’ll claim). We hit the turn around point in Winchester, the King Alfred statue, rolled back along to our next feed. We hit the turn around at roughly 15 hours 30 minutes. We rolled back to where Megan had stopped for our next feed for another re fuel. Luke spent his time here stuffing the pasties and redbull down. I think Luke had two sausage rolls, a Cornish pasty and 3 cheese and onion rolls. Meanwhile I tried with all my might to get in anything I could stomach. Which turned out to be effectively baby food, Pizza mashed up in my mouth with water. Needs must and all that. Off we went, starting our return journey of 65 miles. We left at pretty much 6pm, we knew then that we had exactly 8 hours to get back before the 24-hour cut off. Whilst we knew we had time, we couldn’t f### about as such.
Luke knew this and was very much the task master. Keeping the pace high (as high as we could) and ensuring that any stops we had we’re as short as possible. I was pretty much just following his wheel, whilst we were well oiled with the gates in the first third, I barely opened one for the last 50 miles. We got back to QECP around 8pm, another couple of hours in, 6 hours left on the clock. Megan met us on Buster hill. We had a short stop there and pressed on again, starting to think about the daylight now. But we were on track.
Seeing supporters at feed being a massive morale boost
We saw a few supporters on the way back, which was always a massive morale boost. I’ll mention them all because I think they deserve it. Megan, Sammy, Luke’s parents, Sammy’s mum, Tom, Ben, Chris and Semone. It has a massive impact seeing people, I guess for a couple of reasons really. Firstly, you know you’re not out there alone and secondly, you know that failure means not only do you let yourself down, but you let everyone who has supported you down to. This latter reason was never an option. We cannot thank those who supported us enough. We’d have likely failed without it. We should also mention that we have the biggest respect for those who do this solo, mentalists.
We kept tapping away over these final miles, much of what is written above is repeated. Except for two things we hadn’t planned for, going back into the dark and the temperature dropping. We had planned to be finished before it got dark, so having to turn the lights on again was a bit rubbish. Both our lights didn’t have a huge amount of charge left, but we hoped we’d have enough to see us through. Luke’s Dad dropped off another light which turned out to be incredibly useful.
The last couple of feeds ticked by and we were almost on the home straight, far too deep into the ride to even contemplate quitting. The thought of having to do this all again on another day, to complete the ride, was truly sickening. The only things I can really remember about the final section were just dreaming about wanting to be in bed, craving chicken goujons, gagging on energy gels, not wanting to risk descents and puncturing, hearing my voice and thinking ‘I’m so f#####’, and lastly Luke screaming ‘there is so much f###### climbing’.
Once we’d hit Amberly mount, we knew we pretty much had one climb left, heart attack in Washington. We plodded over there and then effectively the rest of the ride is downhill to the finish. We’d looked at the clock and knew we had 20 minutes to make it in under 23 hours, it would be close. Initially when Luke mentioned this I didn’t care about the time and neither did he. 5 minutes passed and I thought sod it, lets give it a try. Eventually, we got down past the pigs and 1am came, we tried, but not quite. Still, goal number one was always just to complete it.
Just keep riding and never quit
I think it is useful to have mantras to keep morale and progress throughout events like this. Ours were twofold;
1. Just keep riding
2. Never quit.
I guess the meaning behind those, is that no matter how bad it gets, if you keep moving forwards, even one mile at a time, you’ll get there in the end. Though they are both very similar, it is good to have a positive mantra that is actionable. ‘Just keep riding’ played over and over throughout the day. Above all else, these were our golden rules.
Eventually we got to the finish, one mile at a time we got there. Both our girlfriends were there with a ribbon, we hugged it out, took some pictures and went home to bed. In the end we were awake for around 25 hours, we finished in 23 hours and 4 minutes, so we’d done it. We’d finally done it, all the preparation was worth it, every mile was now insignificant, it was complete. The big worry was always the file corrupting, but the upload went smoothly, Garmin’s survived and it was on Strava. Evidence for years to come that we’d completed the South Downs Way double.
Massive thanks to those who came and supported us. Especially Megan driving and following us all day, this made a massive difference to our success. I hope this has been a good read and can inspire future doublers. My advice would be, prepare well and try to keep your mind in the moment, think about each mile at a time, rather than the full thing.
Onwards we go, what’s next…