27 Oct 2012. It’s my birthday and to celebrate, I’ve elected to do something I’ll never forget. I’m standing at the start line of what’s claimed to be one of the *toughest trail marathons in the country – Beachy Head. I’ve trained for this since January and I’ve managed to arrive at the start line uninjured and fit to run (although my last post explains how things nearly unravelled just a couple of weeks earlier.)
At sea level in Eastbourne, the start, it’s a few degrees above freezing and there’s a steady northerly wind. Up there on the South Downs, there’s a windchill of around minus four centigrade – those who haven’t dressed for this are in for a shock. The wind will hit gale force in gusts very soon. Later, it’ll touch a steady gale, gusting stronger.
We’re off. The best club runners launch at full tilt up the starting hill, which looks about 1:1 gradient in places. The rest of us either jog or walk. And for the entire race, the same tactics remain: the best run all but the very steepest gradients, and the masses run the flats and downhills and as many of the shallowest gradients as we can manage.
The sun is brilliant and as we rise up to the top of the first ridge, we can see for miles. This degree of clarity is exceptional, and I’d run the whole marathon all over again just to be able to have unencumbered horizons like this.
I’ve never run a marathon until today – only a flat half – and I know that for me, it’s a mind game. I’m wearing a Garmin, but I deliberately don’t look at the miles I’ve put behind me and I even manage to avoid seeing the mile markers at checkpoints. I just run the mile I’m in.
This strategy works so well for me that I’m not entirely sure how far I’ve come until I overhear someone saying we around mile 18. I stop here at a checkpoint serving mini sausage rolls- not appealing to me, although others seem to love them – as well as the chopped-up mars bars we’ve had available at the major checkpoints so far. I eat 2/3 of a mars bar and down 3 cups of tea, each with 5 spoons of sugar, and a mug of tomato soup.
It’s fantastic to see my supporter, Alberto, standing at the top of a ludicrous flight of steps we’ve just climbed, his camera in hand. He’s been waiting there since the first runners came through – a long time ago now. I’m concerned that if I stop for longer than the time it takes to exchange a few words, I’ll seize up, but I’m delighted that my friend is there to breathe in the raw essence of the experience.
I’m starting to hurt shortly after this. It’s a combination of muscle cramp in my right leg, from not taking onboard enough electrolytes, and pain in my ankles and the soles of my feet. I think they’re just pulverised from miles upon miles of hard trails, some of which have loose flints lying on the surface, and others, pieces of chalk. I can’t be sure, but in places close to the start of the run, it looks as if the recent very heavy rain has washed away the topsoil, leaving harder lumps of chalk behind.
I don’t know where I am when the sun goes in and a rough squall comes in from nowhere, with sleety, horizontal rain. The cramp in my leg is so bad that I have to walk for fifteen minutes before I can shake it off.
The sun does come back again, but the wind stays challenging and strengthens even further. Running along the Seven Sisters, I spot a freshly dead kestrel, its neck broken by a larger bird of prey. I want to take a closer look at this strange symbol and consider the story behind it: it would be a good excuse to stop, after all. But I know that if I do slow or stop now, I’ll find it impossible to shift gears again.
My last few miles are into a shocking headwind. The lightest runners can only make progress with huge effort. Many are walking, but here, my mass is an advantage and I can still run the flats and downhills.
It isn’t easy to finish the race, far from it. My strategy is to pretend I have to rescue my child from somewhere another five miles on, and I find the strength to do it.
Oddly, it’s not at the finish line that I feel overwhelmed with joy, but at the crest of the hill that runs down towards it. It’s a transient feeling, perhaps a minute of euphoria.
But do I mind the medal going round my neck now? Do I mind my laces being undone and the timing chip being taken out?
Of course not. This feels good.
And I’ve achieved my three conservative objectives. I finished the race. I enjoyed it, and I didn’t get injured. Next year I can get more ambitious if I want to.
And when my kit’s all washed and my limbs are rested and I replay the race over and over in my mind, I’m happy. I’ll be back again next year, that’s for sure.
Thanks to Dave Wise of Trek and Run for filming and posting this video. He and his team also wrote their own acccount of the race, here.
*’One of the toughest trail marathons in the country…’ The figures speak for themselves. Right up to the last minute, people were posting on forums and Facebook, desperate to get places for this event. But 400 people out of a field of 1,700 – almost 25% – either didn’t start of did not finish.