During my first attempt at the 50 Mile Challenge back in July, I got chatting to a few of the other runners (as I often do) and asked them the question I like to ask all runners: what’s your favourite race?
Independently and without prompt, they all said Beachy Head.
So, assuming they weren’t on some sort of commission or a wind up (and after checking that it was listed on the 100 Marathon Club website as a viable race), I signed myself right up. Hills? Love ’em. Mud? The more the better. Beautiful scenery? That’ll do nicely, thanks.
My nomadic childhood has left me with a sketchy understanding of British geography, so it took me a few checks of Google maps to be sure that Beachy Head was in Eastbourne and not Devon as I’d originally thought, and that it was indeed the right place to look for hotels for the night before. A quick scout around teh interwebs came up with the Alexandra Hotel right on the seafront, one of the many charming converted townhouses just a mile’s walk from the start line. Not glamorous or chic, but friendly and clean and adorably chintzy. The landlady was a bit horrified that I would be leaving too early for breakfast in the morning and actually offered to run out and buy me cornflakes, bless her. Yeah, I thought, this’ll do fine.
I laid out my race kit on the chair, and nipped round the corner for a pre-race pasta meal. Not a minute’s walk away I found a family run Italian restaurant – and by family run I mean I’m pretty sure I was sitting in their living room – and gorged myself on delicious spicy seafood linguine, garlic bread and olives, Sauvignon Blanc and tiramisu. What they must have thought of the greasy looking woman who turned up for dinner at 9 o’clock at night, alone and in jogging bottoms, and wolfed down a meal that would make Mr Creosote look like Twiggy I daren’t speculate.
It was amazing though. God, I love good food. I don’t like to think of food and exercise as two parts of a punishment/reward cycle because there’s no version of that which is good for one’s mental health, but I have noticed an undeniable link between trail runners and foodies, and between enjoying a hearty meal when you know you’re going on a long run compared with when you aren’t. The more I try different foods in preparation for and during long runs, the more I’ve discovered that gels and energy bars just don’t hit the spot like proper food does. Of course, it’s impossible to carry a four course meal with you for every marathon – unless you’re Dean Karnazes and you run while eating a family size pizza rolled up like a burrito – and the fact remains that you need the requisite calories, minerals and proteins to keep you going in as portable a form as possible. I’m just saying that as long as I’m not an elite runner nobody is going to make me feel guilty about a pre race tiramisu and wine.
I have hit on something that ticks all the boxes though, and that is a recipe for a ginger and honey cake which I bastardised by adding dried fruits and salted nuts to, as a quick boost energy cake. I’m no Mary Berry but even I couldn’t get it wrong, this thing is so easy to make (insert your own piece of cake joke here). With my additions it slices up into 12 easy-to-carry loaf slices worth about 345 kcal each, is moist enough to chew even when I’m dehydrated and tastes delicious. I brought two slices with me, one for breakfast and one for mid race as needed.
The next morning I was up before the sun and out of the hotel while the sky was still inky black. The walk to the start line took just over twenty minutes, mostly due to me stopping to take photos and take in the scenery, and by the time I reached the school where we were to register and start from morning had very much broken. I picked up my race number, a good 90 minutes before we were due to start, and waited for a good moment to drop my bag.
Being situated in a school, the facilities for the start and finish area are luxurious in comparison to most races. There are clean, warm changing rooms given over to the runners for the day, plenty of loos (not that that made the queues any less frenzied than normal) and joy of joys, a canteen serving free tea, coffee and squash. Somewhere comfortable to wait and free coffee? It’s like the business class lounge of trail races. It’s almost cheating.
I suppose I ought to clear something up here: I’ve been referring to it as a trail race, but that’s not how it advertises itself. It’s run almost entirely on trails around the South Downs, and with 1000m of elevation in total it’s no walk in the park. But it also doesn’t really feature on trail calendars in particular. When you ask past participants about it, they either say it’s the best race ever or it’s the hardest race ever (not that the two are mutually exclusive) which makes me think that you have to be switched onto a certain mindset to enjoy it. Which is to say, if you turn up expecting a marathon version of parkrun you’re going to have a very tough day. If you turn up expecting a trail race, you’ll be wondering where the rest of the mud is. The most concise description I can think of is that it’s a hill race, and I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is that is exactly what I had expected it to be.
Lining up at the start, the first thing you see in front of you is a steep vertical climb, the ground already churned up by the long distance walkers who complete the same course but start an hour earlier. Photos do not do it justice. This is the beginning and the end of the race, and it’s the very embodiment of the course. I stared up at it, awestruck, when the chap standing next to me said “That’s quite a hill, isn’t it?”
We got chatting and it turned out this was his first marathon of the year, and only his second ever, his first being London a couple of years ago. We were expecting similar finish times but very much aiming just to finish, bearing in mind the course profile. Paul was wearing a cap with a photo of his baby boy on the front, his inspiration for running, and with another one on the way his training regime was limited to one run a week, which is remarkable. It made me feel very lucky to be able to fit five runs a week around my hectic, but comparatively free schedule.
The first couple of miles are all pretty much uphill, and based on distance and gradient I had judged them to be like running up the road I live on twice. In reality, where I’m usually cursing and grumbling by the time I reach the summit at home the narrow path and foot traffic forced us to go much more slowly, and I was at the top before I even realised it. In fact, almost every ascent became a walk up/sprint down affair. It’s almost as if the course wanted me to do Phoebe running and aeroplane arms.
With my progress based on even effort levels and Paul’s based on a steady pace, we kept finding each other at the flat stretches, he having overtaken me on the uphills and me having screamed past him on the downs. Eventually we met up again at the 12 mile checkpoint and kept pace with each other for a few miles, each urging the other on at their weaker moments. It was perfect timing, having someone else to chat to just as we came up to the flattest and most boring stretch of the course. Churlish as it is to say that, this race does spoil you for views and fun terrain. Two years ago I’d never have thought I’d be looking wistfully toward the hills hoping for more climbs to do.
Eventually I peeled away to leave Paul to his steady and sensible pace, having been strengthened by Bourbon biscuits and orange squash and the desire to throw myself into some more mud. All the checkpoints were well stocked with comforting if not entirely nourishing food, adding to the playground feel of the whole day. Bourbon biscuits and orange squash, just like mud and grazed knees, remind me of being 8 or 9. They make me feel as strong as I was when I was 8 or 9. And they contributed to my belief that the soul needs as much nourishment to finish a marathon as the body does. Other than the boring flat stretch where I was merrily chatting anyway, I don’t think there was a single yard of this course that I didn’t have enormous fun running on.
Much of the route had been either scree, grass or chalk, so my trail shoes proved themselves to be absolutely the right choice despite my fear that they would hurt my feet before 20 miles. My toes did receive a bit of a battering, especially on the downhills, but with my trusty gaiters over the top keeping out grit they were in relatively good shape. I throttled back for another climb on the way to the Seven Sisters (or as one runner I met calls them, the Seven Bitches) knowing that I would need the energy and the gumption to keep going over the trickiest part of the terrain, and watched the sheep grazing languidly beside us.
And then I started to notice a girl in front of me, similar height and build, wearing some striking tights with a tiger emblem down the side, jogging steadfastly along at a regular pace just as Paul had done. Just like Paul, I noticed that she was beating me over the uphills only for me to overtake on the downs. And then I got my competitive face on. I do love racing people who don’t know I’m racing them.
Eleni, it turned out, had been doing the same thing with me and within a few minutes we were happily chatting away and laughing, another person to help pass the trickier sections with. She turned out to be a financial journalist from Maryland, USA, now living in Hong Kong but visiting friends in the UK for a few days. She and her boyfriend – also competing but easily an hour ahead of us – had a hobby of finding random marathons and trail races whenever they were abroad and for some reason Beachy Head popped up on their radar. Proof, if further proof were needed, of the draw of this race. We shared stories about past races and the miles melted away behind us.
The Seven Sisters are by no means the hills with the highest elevation – if anything they’re among the smallest – but they are a dizzying up and down routine over three or so miles and the point at which they hit you is just when you start to run out of energy reserves. I tackled them the only way I knew how – by turning them into a game. I kept pace with Eleni slowly climbing the uphills and freefalling the downhills, but she eventually struggled after about four or five and I ploughed on. I wasn’t really aiming for a time, but I knew now that sub 5 hours was possible, and I decided to go for it.
As it turned out, the final hill was the toughest of all and not just because it came after 10 or so other hills. With the sea on my right, I knew I was heading in the right direction and roughly how many miles were left, but with only a steep incline in front of me I had no way of judging how much ground I had left to cover. I let go of my time target, and slowed down to a walk.
Although it was undeniably the toughest part of the race, I didn’t feel down or like I’d hit a wall. I was tired, certainly, and starting to feel soreness in my legs, but with the beauty of the South Downs all around me and the knowledge that I was about to finish one of the toughest marathons on the calendar I still felt mentally pretty strong. Let’s be honest, I was never likely to win this one; even a PB wasn’t on the cards. Just over 5 hours is still not a bad time for a race that goes up and down like a horse on a merry-go-round. So a few more minutes don’t count for much.
Just as my good mood started to wane I reached the crest of the hill, and there I saw it: the finish line. I freewheeled down for a short while, enjoying a quick blast of Gold Dust for a sprint finish, then realised than the descent was only getting steeper and steeper. Of course it was – how could I forget the nearly vertical climb at the start? It’s the same piece of ground, you daft woman! And with that, I let myself go completely. If my feet ever touched the ground in that last few hundred yards, it wasn’t because I had control of them. I felt like I was 8 years old again.
In fact, even after I crossed the finish line my momentum carried me forward so fast I nearly crashed into the marshals handing out medals and goody bags; I’ve never had to use emergency brakes at the end of a race before. The crowd were tirelessly cheering on all the finishers and I looked backwards to see what they all looked like. Just like me, hurtling uncontrollably, a mixture of fear and joy on everyone’s faces. What a set of photos that’ll make, I thought.
The race management is not as high tech as others I’ve done, but it’s definitely the fastest confirmation of an official time I’ve ever had – at the end of the finishers’ tunnel was a man with a laptop and what looked like a receipt printer, uploading the chip times straightaway and handing out printouts to anyone that asked for them. I don’t know what this system is called, but it’s brilliant. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before.
So that was me done: 5:03. Shortly afterwards I found Eleni, less than five minutes behind me, and we had a big squeaky girly congratulatory hug. She asked me if I was disappointed about the three minutes; normally it would grate but honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. Two weeks after getting a PB in a road 50k and three weeks before a sub four hour marathon attempt, I took away much more than a finishing time. I took away a renewed love of running just for joy, like a child playing a game with no rules. When you don’t care about the numbers, they don’t care about you.
See you again next year, Bitches.