It was the best of times (with the UKRUNCHAT crowd), it was the worst of times (not as bad as RTTK though), it was the age of wisdom (to stop at cps and eat sausage rolls and drink tea), it was the age of foolishness (running with PF and limping all the way around), it was the epoch of belief (never give up), it was the epoch of incredulity (really? Did I just do that?), it was the season of Light (amazing views), it was the season of Darkness (other than the fog that drenched us mid race), it was the spring of hope (for Comrades and Athens), it was the winter of despair (seeing Gary injured at cp3)… or something like that
I have always known about the Beachy Head Marathon, crossing the Seven Sisters in Eastbourne. And I had heard about it being one of the toughest in the UK, along with Purbeck and Snowdon. The elevation was quite notorious and I have managed to run for 4 years whilst avoiding it’s lofty peaks. Peaks where they recommend you add 40 to 50 mins to your normal marathon time to even get over.
But I guess the problem with me (one of many I hear you cry) is that I can set myself silly challenges to right wrongs that only I perceive. For example, I signed up for the Lucerne or Swiss City Marathon that was in October 2015 but, due to a place in Berlin, deferred. Lucerne is widely vaunted as being the most beautiful marathon in Europe (as opposed to the 2 Oceans, that advertises itself as the most beautiful in the world). This year I could have run it but due to a lot of reasons (namely me being cheap) I deferred for the second and final time. Game over. Auf wiedersehen, Lucerne. Now, as punishment for this dummkopfery, I wanted a race at the same time as punishment and, lo and behold, it just happened to be the same weekend as Beachy Head.
I had never been to Eastbourne. Why would I? I am not in my 80s, or in the market to see David Essex in Panto, or enjoy stewed prunes or competitive lawn bowls with the ladies, so why would I? Joking aside Eastbourne has the dubious honour of being the first town in the UK with an average age of 70.
But one of the most difficult races in the UK marathon calendar being on the same weekend as Lucerne was just too much for my sense of personal justice to take and I soon found myself booked in. And not just me, hoardes of UKRUNCHATters also appeared to have had the same mental lapse as me: Gary Wayman (of SVN fame), Jo Frazer-Wise and Jules Martin, Lee Kemp, Marco Fortmann, Ana Simmonds and the wonderful Jenni Morris to name but a few. To quote the Lord of the Rings, this was going to be a party of special magnificence.
The marathon includes 300 steps (yes! you read that right), 14 gates of various varieties, plus a whole lot of hills and goes through Jevington, Alfriston, Litlington, Friston Forest, The Shire, Hobbiton, Buckland and across the Buckleberry river to Bree, before turning down the Cuckmere (pardon my French) Valley and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down the Seven Sisters, including Birling Gap and Beachy Head itself and personally I think it is shaped like a duck. Decide for yourself.
The start, and finish, is a notorious hill that only the hardcore racers will attempt at a sprint and normal people tend to walk, realising they have another 26 miles to run after it, so why bother blowing out your knees, lungs or anything else people blow out on hills.
One thing that bothered me, not at the start, but certainly much later in the race, was the walkers. I have no problem with walkers being in a race. They start further back and you don’t see them at all. Each to their own and all that. However, when they decide to ignore the rules, that grinds my gears. It is expressly stated in the entry email that you do NOT start early, because there are no marshals on the course. But somehow, coming through mile 15 we came up to a group of slow moving walkers. There is no way they could have gotten there any other way than starting early and ignoring the rules. Cockbadgers to a man.
How I did?
I have had PF since August and the Punk Run. Well it is self-diagnosed PF really, it could be anything, but suffice to say I was limping due to an incredibly painful area on my right heel. I limped to the Race HQ on the Friday, one of the most sensible things I have ever done (getting the number early, not the limping). And I limped to the start where I met up with the crowd. I may have to get the heel seen to in the Christmas break.
My aim was to 1. punish myself for bailing twice on Lucerne, 2. register a better time than RTTK in a trail marathon and 3, work on my hills with Comrades in mind. But, after the initial start, and the walk up that hill, just as people started to run, I left Jen to go ahead and settled into my pace listening to (as it has become known) the Chester playlist.
And before I knew it, I had gone over a lot of grassland and somehow was already at cp1.
This cheered me up. I was trying out my new watch, the Con Wild recommended Suunto Ambit Vertical, which buzzed every KM and gave me realtime average pace for the current KM.
And before too long I had gone through cp2 and found myself with a snake of runners going through cow and sheep fields in a very soggy mist.
This was quite odd, as the race had been touted as being one of the UKs most scenic, and we could barely see 50 yards in front of us. Not to miss out that the mist moistened the air and the Oakley cap I was wearing clearly had no wicking properties whatsoever, and so droplets were dripping from the peak constantly, to a point when I did the wankerish thing of turning it around like a Merikan! (Something that will no doubt become apparent when you see the race photos)
And then a downpoint for me, and one of very few. I saw a few tumblers, or rather the bloody aftermath of a few tumbles. But it was at cp3 that I caught sight of Gary injured and being attended to by a medic. He had turned his ankle at mile 3 and had tried to carry on to a point where sense prevailed and he had to stop. It is sad to see when you don’t even know the runner, but I have seen Gary in many races and he’s a good lad. Fingers crossed the DNF will allow him to keep running this year, as keeping on going would have caused more problems.
Before I got to the endless cliffs, before I got to the hundreds of steps, after the misty fields my strategy was pretty simple. I was going to keep running, enjoy the tunes, pace myself with those around me and keep on trucking. A lady who runs pretty much the same pace as me and actually paced me before at either Bacchus or RTTK appeared and with her unitentional help I ticked off the distance to the next checkpoint, the best one.
Jo had mentioned the sausage rolls but, to be honest, I had forgotten all about them. I no longer use gels to race, or my camelbak bladder. Instead I have a small bottle that I fill at each cp whilst drinking a cup or two of water or squash. Fuel-wise I have Mint Creams (like individually wrapped Kendal Mint cake) and fun sized Mars. That is all I take, other than some salt tablets in case I need it. But this cp was the mutt’s nuts, the bee’s knees, the wasp’s elbows. Not only sausage rolls (no veggie ones, sorry Jen), but also hot cross buns (not toasted, sorry Jen), and tea, and coffee, and tomato soup? That last one was a little bit of a mistake. I partook and it really gave me bad acid reflux for the rest of the race. You know, when all your belches taste like tomato soup from then on?
The steps, and there are two sets, the first much easier than the second. Do not be deceived. The first set of steps will hurt, but they have nothing on the second set. Although the second set has the added bonus of, once you reach the summit, Sir Edmund, you climb over a flagstone wall whilst greeted by a friendly, smiling marshal, and you finally see the sea at 20 miles in.
And this was where the best and the worst of the race came out. After a slow, long climb we were out and onto the coast. And this part got to me. It was the up and down. I ran the downs, as soon as I felt gravity taking me and then slowly made my way up to the inclines. It is a simple plan, one even I can stick to. But the Seven Sisters are not numbered. Would they be east to west, or west to east? Regardless, should I have counted the first up? I could see them undulating into the distance and focused on that as runners became walkers and mingled with slow moving Japanese tourists too oblivious to move out the way.
And after a turn inland I could see the pier. I knew it was the final stretch and so limped at speed down the last few grassy paths until I hit the crazy hill one last time. Although this time, I would be running down it, in sort of a Serpentine (as in serpent, not the Serpies) stylie, rather than plodding up it slowly.
The finish line in sight, I couldn’t help but look for my running partners, creating my normal “looking for where I parked the car” look as I crossed the line and collected the medal.
It is small, but it is bespoke. I am a little disappointed in it to be frank. But I really liked the race, and the small, disappointing medal will remind me of a great weekend in Eastbourne.
Obligatory Race Photos
Are on the way, I am waiting for the superb Sussex Sport Photography to process my order, but as a taster…
This was a tough marathon. I really liked the varying terrain and surfaces. Hills, steps, road, paths, woodland, fields, chalk paths, grass. I actually enjoyed Eastbourne. Beers at the Buccaneer, and the Pilot Inn, good food, good company. It all added up. What would I have them do differently? The bag drop was a bit of a clusterfuck, and was so poorly run that the race start was delayed by 10 mins. You had to queue in single file at the school to get to a set of stairs, that took you down and into the sports hall, and then had to write your name and number on a bag and dump it under the letter your surname starts with. I didn’t like the walkers heading off much earlier. I would have preferred more frequent mile markers rather than at the checkpoints. But the rest of the event was superb.
Would I recommend the Beachy Head Marathon? Yes
Would I recommend doing with PF? No
Would I do it again? Oddly, and I would say no for Manchester, Copenhagen or King, I would say yes. I would run it again, but not for a couple of years.
And now to sew the new marathon patch on the kit bag.
NEXT UP: THE ATHENS MARATHON