Race Review – South Coast Challenge (55K)

Intro

The South Coast Challenge Ultra is a one or two day event running along (you guessed it) the south coast. Day one is from Eastbourne to Brighton, and day two from Brighton to Arundel with a 23K option for those who wanted a taster. On my quest for the 100MC I decided on the first 55K costing a whopping £128 and still I had to pay for t-shirt and BAGGAGE TRANSPORT!!!!!! Yeah you read that right. They charge £5 to transport your bags to half way and a tenner to the end. So imagine there were 1000 people doing the full distance. 10 grand for driving a van for an hour. Good work if you can get it. (Joking aside, am sure that goes to charity….)

In my head this weekend was simple. Train after work Friday to Eastbourne, sea view hotel, fish and chips supper, early night, walk to race, 55K, bosh, cab from the finish to Brighton Station and home for tea and medals, Sunday to recover, watch Mr Pickles on catch-up and write this blog. Well, at times I have shit for brains.

I booked a hotel on the sea front, and yes, the room had a great view.

Actual View from Room

And yes the fish shop supper from Odyssey was exactly what I wanted.

Actual dinner

And that was when the plan started to unravel. First the race HQ was 3 miles from the seafront, where all the hotels were. So an hour walk before a 55K? My start wave? The walkers started at 6am, and runners were starting up to 2 hours later, I had a 7.40am start and they advised everyone to get there an hour before the off. So a cab it was. Well, it almost wasn’t. When I arrived at the hotel the lady at reception asked me if I was “there for the walk.” Oh, how prophetic. She then asked if I wanted a cab, I said yes but both her Go To cab companies were fully booked all morning (I wonder why?). It took phoning around for half an hour to get one for 6.45am, but she found one. And I am very thankful for that.

Race HQ

Everything about this felt like a cut price Threshold event, other than the price. Although I was loathed to pay the £5 extra for my bag I had to. I had weighed up just taking my Salomon running backpack with track pants and a long sleeve but that didn’t pan out as I had work on Friday. And so, after collecting my bib and timing bar code from the efficient registration area, I sulked over to the bag drop and paid my fiver before heading out and joining the warm up of my wave. I say joining, but I didn’t mean join in. Given the part of the route I knew about from my races in the area, not least the Beachy Head marathon, we would all be warmed up within the space of half an hour.

The Route

The start, after meandering around the backstreets of Eastbourne for a short while, would be the end of Beachy Head marathon, with the Seven Sisters testing the field with the toughest of ups and downs. Downs so steep you couldn’t run them, ups so steep you could barely walk them. And that was the start. It would be virtually all on the South Downs Way, very undulating, a few HUGE lumps, and then, at the end, the worst… After 50K and goodness knows how many hours, we would go along the Brighton beachfront, through the thousands of holiday makers, day trippers, coach parties, drunken stag and hen dos, beggers, dogs, cyclists, you name it, and then 2KM up from the water to Hove Park and the finish.

How I did

It started well, as we weaved through the back roads of Eastbourne, following the neon arrows until we started climbing up to the first trail and caught up with the walkers from the 7am start. They had come to a halt in a congested area, a narrow single person path between dense bushes. Other walkers milled about looking at the view of Eastbourne from height, taking photos.

A sign signalled that we were now joining the South Downs Way and the views, the sea on one side, farmland stretching on the other, took me back to my other races here. A trig point. I had to get a photo. We caught up with the 6.45am walkers by 10K as the sun started to bake us coming into the first CP. I decided against stopping, but surveyed the goodies on offer (sweets, and biscuits, squash, tea). People were already seeing to their feet, socks off, taping blisters. 12K into a 55 or 110K race. You need to look after your feet, and your guts on the long ones. Spewing, pooing, and blisters will stop you in your tracks.

Out of CP1 and I was getting into my stride, just in time for the Seven Sisters, the lumpiest of lumps. Too steep to run up, too steep to run down until the end, one after another. They are fine at the end of the Beach Head Marathon, as you have been saved too much pain until then. Here, we got them at the start of a long day. I felt them too. I much preferred them going the other way. And said as much when I met up with Helen, Ally and Jon heading the other way on a 26 mile jaunt.  It was good to see them, always happy to, and after a chat about ice cream, dips in the sea and the Seven Sisters I felt buoyed, heading off on my way to CP2.

The route to CP2 took us along a river bank, nice and flat but the sun baked us, and the fast runners from the 7.40 and 8 starts started to catch us up. I wasn’t bothered though. I am not in competition with them. This was me against me, well, me and the elements, and the course. At the checkpoint I discovered that the fastest of the runners were actually completing a 23K and that this was it for them. I was jealous, but had a long way to go. I down a couple of cups of coke, a cup of tea with 2 mini KitKats, used the loo and was on my way.

The route gets hazy at times. There were very few stiles to climb, very few roads to cross. It was mainly trail until we got to Brighton. A bike ride was going on at the same time, and our paths crossed, with the cyclists going the opposite direction at times. There was another huge climb, and we ran the top of the hills. Another trig. And then a third, a vandalised one. That was disappointing. It should be returned to its former state.

CP3 appeared in the distance the other side of a river and a railway track. It was 5K away as we went through a field with a sign at the gate stating a bull was there. We would be running directly away from the CP for a while on a long zigzag down the hill, down a chalky path as an elderly walking party huffed and puffed their way up, along a country lane to the railway crossing where we were forced to take the concrete stairs, before running across the bridge spanning the river and entering the best of the CPs.

CP3 had it all. Grumpy teenagers scanning the timing bar codes on the way in, a cheery marshal making tea in the tent, the largest Pick and Mix outside of a Woolies in the 1970s, and a fruit platter. I filled my water bottles with squash, filled my face with melon, and sat to enjoy a cup of tea and a catch up with my peeps on Twitter, Insta and Whatsapp. It is always good to know you aren’t alone. You can be put through the wringer on these races, so knowing people care and are cheering you on is a boost. And so, after a pause, a second cuppa and updating everyone I was off, 35KM done, 20 to go. Cheers, Big Ears.

Out of the CP and up by an old church, and I soon found myself on quiet dirt roads. It was good to be on the flat after all the hills, bales of hay rolled up on the sides of the road adding to the scene, and the field had thinned. It had thinned to the point where you thought you were alone until you hit a long straight and suddenly your fellow runners appear in front of you and behind you.

Dark storm clouds rolled in from the sea. You could see them coming from miles off. They were heavy, black and pendulous (insert joke here). We were at the top of the next large hill, a straight as a die concrete path splitting fields of, from what I could tell, broken chalk. Nothing else. The wind sideswiped us the whole time and it was all you could hear. I had to take off my cap to stop it disappearing into the distance as we saw Brighton appear on the horizon, the football ground first, then the rest of the town, all the way to the sea and the i360, the revolving viewing tower. We did still have a long way to go, at least another 10K as we came to what would be the last CP.

CP4 was disappointing. After tea and squash, food and water and seats, it was a handful of water tubs and portaloos, no seats, no food, next to a busy road. I went straight through. If you were walking it, 10K is 2 hours before the half way point, and you may have wanted more. I just shrugged and waited at the road for a gap in the traffic before heading onto the last leg.

This bit we didn’t like. After a long asphalt path that ran the boundary of Brighton, we turned at the race track, where it was hot, the going was firm, and then one last climb before we said goodbye to any sort of trail and found ourselves in town. A very steep road kept on, and on, no path, but we found ourselves pelting down it before hitting the promenade and tens of thousands of people.

They were everywhere, Hen dos, stag dos, drunkards, families, buses of kids from Tooting, coach loads of the elderly, you name it, it was there, and it was in front of us. The cycle lane is attached to the path, and cyclists raced up and down. At one point a Hen Do tried to keep pace with us as we lowered our eyes and kept on going.  Goodness knows what they wanted. They were probably drunk. It wasn’t until we passed a green space being invaded by caravans that the crowds fell away and we could march on. One last turn at the statue of Queen Victoria and a straight climb up toward Hove Park.

Of course, nothing is ever simple. Hove Station was close but I wanted to get to Brighton as soon as I could to get home to London. I was feeling unwell though, the liquids and heat had gotten to me and I felt as if my stomach was unhappy with the situation and wanted to throw it’s toys out of the pram.  A cab would work, but where to get one? Last time I raced Boz and I discovered that outside of London Uber is not always common. At the Serpent Trail there were only 3 Uber cars in the whole map, and 2 were inactive. Would Brighton be ok? I took out my phone and checked, taking my mind off the last KM as I slipped into the park, booked a car and found enough energy to run over the line to greet two pompom waving ladies and collect the hard earned bling for my 12th marathon or above of the year.

The Bling

100MC number 43 in 47 months. It was hot, it was hilly and I earned it. Got a sew on patch too for the kit bag.

In Summary

It was as expensive as a Threshold event, maybe more so. £129 for a 55K, only half the event, and being charged for extras including (unfathomably) bag transportation, was a bit shocking. There were CPs every 12K(ish) although one was just some portaloos and some water next to a busy road. For a trail event it would have been nice to avoid the clusterfuck of Brighton beachfront by the pier. That isn’t what you need after 50K of hills. The looks we got were not of the good kind, and the hen do that tried to keep pace with us was a unique experience.

Starting with the 7 Sisters and Beachy Head killed us to a degree, at least at the Beachy Head marathon they are at the end. Hitting the walking packs that started from 6am onwards, so were there for the first 3 hours of the day killed momentum at the hills and stiles, and did slow us down at times and curtail the running. Saying that, I was probably glad of the chance of a breather.

It was good to see Ally, Helen and Jon. Always good to see a friendly face or 3. I was jealous of their route, and would much rather have had a paddle and an ice cream in Eastbourne over another 6 hours out in the elements.

In the end I was 73rd out of 453. I was about 2 hours slower than expected too. So, if I was to do it again, hopefully I’d do better.

Other than the last 5K through busy Brighton the race route was lovely. It was incredibly picturesque. SDW is beautiful, the climbs were tough but the view from the top was stunning. The CPs were spaced close enough together to not cause any issues in the head. I think the furthest gap was a hilly 12K. The CPs themselves, other than #4, were manned with cheery marshals and were well stocked. A huge Pick’n’Mix at one, fruit (melon, pineapple, oranges), cans of drink to take, tea, biscuits and cakes, bags of crisps (ended up with pickled onion flavour Space Invaders), you name it.

I didn’t have many issues with it on the day. Once you could get by the walkers you could run. There were parts where there was a bottle neck, imagine a single path through thorn bushes, where it became stop start. I do think they could have made more of an effort on CP 4. And I was not a fan of the seafront. Given we dropped down to the most crowded part of the south coast for literally 5K, and then had to climb 2K up to Hove Park away from town, it would have been easier to skip the seafront, head straight to the park and then do a lap of the outside to make up the difference.

It would be easy to say you cannot get lost. There are signs pointing the way every 20 yards. But at the start, as we ran through the streets of Eastbourne before picking up the first trail, a few people hadn’t adjusted to following them and missed a key turn. There were KM markers, although not always at the right place, but they were there. The tees you pay for, the medal is ok, the food was good and free (and hot and cold, veggie and not options available). Given the number of races that way, would I recommend it over, say, the Beachy Head Marathon? No. But I would still recommend it if you wanted to splash the cash.

Would I recommend the South Coast Challenge?   Yes.

Would I run the South Coast Challenge again?    No.

NEXT UP:

BACCHUS

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