Finding freedom and soul through running

RUNNING helps Stephen Crossley connect to the earth, so the South Downs Way 100 was a challenge he was not prepared to give up.

That was despite a near family tragedy and pleas from his nearest and dearest to pull out of the race.

“My cousin, an Ironman competitor, had recently collapsed with a heart attack on the running track and was clinically dead, but saved by his iron lady wife and a defibrillator,” he explained.

“I was asked by family not to compete, which, although I understood the concern, was not an option.”

Stephen, who created the Sportsmanship First life skills programme, based at Birdham Fruit Farm, Martins Lane, Birdham, was one of 204 competitors to finish the 100-mile hilly course of the Centurion South Downs Way, including a 400-metre sprint finish around a running track, in one day.

“The start was like a surreal theatre of alternative athletes, quietly contemplating the 100 miles and 12,700ft overall of climbing,” he said.

“Many had a look of ‘dare me’. Some ultra runners can blast 50 miles and just about pay for it later but I had to curtail this pleasure because over 100 miles, pace is key to the race.”

On his shirt, he had ‘Francois Pelet’s 1966 – 2011’ and ‘ARDRES Mai 23 1940’.

“Francois was a dear friend who started voluntary organisations, Chichester Community Fencing Club and Sportsmanship First, where he utterly epitomised sportsmanship,” explained Stephen.

“Francois investigated why my grandfather is buried with 14 other soldiers in a French graveyard. His enquiry resulted in the mayor of Ardres introducing myself and Francois to a person who had helped bury my grandfather and two witnesses of the battle between the 15 English and German force.

“Last year, the people of Ardres honoured the 15 English soldiers with a ceremony and monument. On behalf of the English families, I wanted to recognise the highly dignified respect that the French people had shown in recognising these and other soldiers.”

He was backed by a ‘dream team’ crew, including, for the first 50 miles, Alastair Kennaugh, former chairman of the Royal Navy triathlon team.

It is not the first time the pair have run together, as Alastair supported Stephen on his first Centurion 50-mile ultra-marathon on the South Downs Way. Despite hypothermia, Stephen achieved 19th place overall and was the first male aged over 50 to finish.

“I wondered who else had someone of Alastair’s pedigree in support. As a former commander, he has superb organisational skills, combined with an appreciation of what it takes to compete, since he is a serial medal winner.”

The 100-mile trail race took Stephen along the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne. The race started at Chilcomb Sports Ground, just east of Winchester, where runners made one complete circuit of the sports fields before exiting directly on to the South Downs Way trail.

It crossed a huge range of terrain types and was very rough in places, with a lot of loose stones and rocks.

Stephen finished in 51st place, with a time of 21 hours 36 minutes.

Stephen said: “I reckon I lost a half a stone, drank ten litres, munched on 40 gels and the celebration balloons were my feet for three days after.

“As I said to a very expensive fast car salesman once after a test drive, it was good, but, in trainers.

“I connect to the earth and run like wind over scenery to die for, no restrictions, that’s a freedom. And then I find soul.

“Priceless.”

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