I’m not quite sure how I got roped into another marathon this year, having only done my first ever 26.2 miler in April. I think it was the social aspect of this particular one – Beachy Head – entering as a team, enjoying a leisurely pace and stopping at pubs for refreshments. Well it wasn’t quite that peachy, but it was the BEST race* I have ever done, albeit the most challenging. Beachy Head is indeed one of the toughest off-road marathons in the UK with some 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Some entrants walk the entire distance so I figured it would be ok if I ended up walking most of it too (but am pleased to report I didn’t take the full allocation of 9 hours!).
Training-wise I did do a lot of hill reps at an ungodly hour with a headtorch, but I think they really helped. My furthest long run was about 17 miles including undulating Homewood parkrun and also a 13 mile adventure from Boxhill to Reigate Hill (that left me wishing there was a Beachy Head half marathon option, as 13 hilly miles had felt very hard. Eek.)
I think we – SRG and friends of SRG – all felt a little unprepared apart from maybe Steve who had completed it twice already, and Gary who had run a fantastic marathon time recently. The rest of us were feeling about 5 or 6 out of 10 in terms of confidence levels! I must admit I felt excited though, as this would be a very
daunting different experience to my other races and the scenery looked terrific.
Still, we rocked up on 28th October on a chilly but clear morning in Eastbourne and saw THIS HILL at the start line:
I had seen photos of it before but in real life it was hard hitting. It was practically vertical but not to worry, “everyone walks that bit” I was told. Presumably the guy who wins this race doesn’t walk it though- yikes.
So the countdown began and we sort of jogged across the start line and a little bit up the hill before we succumbed to walking and passed a bagpipe player. It was quite bizarre but finally we reached level ground and could pick up the pace a little. I decided not to bother looking at my watch for at least an hour and hopefully by then we would have completed 10K. The terrain was a mix of grass, mud, chalk, gravel, trail and pathways, something which kept your mind occupied – I didn’t want to stack it in front of so many people! We ran through villages where locals were really supportive and I heard lots of “Go Shepperton!” which was fab! I tried to run up the gentler hills, and all of the flat/downhill. Inevitably there was a fair amount of walking but the views were stunning and a good reason to slow down and take it all in! Rolling hills, ponies, cattle, sheep, and a steady stream of runners snaking through the South Downs with the wind ruffling the grass. That was pretty awesome.
Around halfway I was feeling really good as it was only 2 hours 10 mins in and I thought I might be on for a 4 hour 30 finish time – at this stage I was blissfully unaware of the Seven Sisters cliffs looming at the 20 mile mark! I texted my mum an update and wonky selfie (#AthletesUnfiltered and all that). Paul and Mark suddenly appeared and we stuck together for most of the second half. There was a bit of a mental slump when I realised we were actually about 2km short of halfway, and my finish time would be longer than I thought. Anyway, time wasn’t really important and I tried to forget that the balls of my feet were starting to feel sore. The aid stations were a welcome break (including one with a folk band) serving tea, cake, jelly babies, chocolate, squash, water and even doggy snacks for the four-legged marathoners. A couple of runners were dancing to the band… the whole vibe was very relaxed and sociable.
During the second half we encountered the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ flight of wooden steps (and the bagpiper appeared again), lots of stiles to climb and gates to hold open – this was the countryside after all! I hoped we would be near 30km by 3 hours and we weren’t too far off that target. With 12km to go I felt high as a kite, I was sure I would not be a DNF and the time looked good. We saw Andrea, Neil and Helen as we stopped for jelly babies and a drink and Neil said it was only 5 miles to go. I texted my friend Karen in excitement… 4 hours done and less than 10k left! My legs weren’t really aching but my glutes were certainly feeling it.
HOWEVER the final part hit me fairly hard! The hills got steeper and I had less energy to push up them. The Seven Sisters were upon us! I may be exaggerating but these hills felt like climbing walls. I even found it hard to pick up the pace along the flat, and the downhill was more a case of stumbling, with my toes being squashed into the front of my trail shoes. The breathtaking views made it easier to bear though – sparkling sea, white chalk cliffs and green and pleasant land forever. The weather was extremely favourable which of course made all the difference.
The encouragement from walkers/locals was fantastic, they seemed to know how many miles we had to go and were very jolly (I didn’t feel quite so jolly!). By this stage I was going quiet, feeling less optimistic, and Mark was updating me on the distance every mile by way of encouragement. Paul had run ahead as he found it easier than the stop/start approach – I wish I had had the energy to do the same! We met a fellow runner who was at least 70 years old and another lady who had run it 14 times, which spurred me on. At last, someone said it was all downhill after the pub (which looked like an age away), but they were right, it was downhill and I let gravity do its thing, knowing the finish would soon appear.
Remember the vertical hill at the start? We were now running back down it (OMG, but luckily no bagpipes) and the finish was in sight! As soon as I hit the final flat I sprinted for my life, I could hear screams from SRG supporters (Kelly!!) and crossed the line in 4:55:39. I was ecstatic and almost swayed over trying to remove my timing chip so a nice marshal did it for me instead. I got my medal and found my friends just metres from the finish – I couldn’t believe I had run another marathon and actually enjoyed most of it!
The post-run experience was great, with baggage collection right by the finish, barely any queues for hot food/drink and toilets, and a couple of pubs within stumbling distance. That post-marathon pint never tasted so good!
We all finished and all did ourselves proud. The final verdict? I think I’m hooked on Beachy Head. We (runners and supporters) voted this event about 9 out of 10. Personally I’d give it a 10. After Brighton Marathon I wasn’t sure if I would run another one but this time it was different. Within minutes of crossing the finish line, I was sure I’d be entering again. A combination of stunning scenery, mix of terrain, lovely volunteers and ambience – I’d really recommend it. To paraphrase Dan, it’s a Goldilocks event – not too big, not too small.
Thanks to all SRG runners and supporters – I wouldn’t have done this madness without you 🙂
Beachy Head – it’s been emotional! See you next year (please arrange the same weather).
*You know parkrun will always be my #1 event (and it’s not a race)!