The South Coast Challenge by Ultra Challenge or Action Challenge events has been on my race calendar before, back in 2019 when it became one of the 14 marathons and ultras I ran that year. In that instance I ran day one, 56K of the South Downs Way from Eastbourne to Hove Park in Brighton. It was hot, it was hilly, it was slow but, as per, I got it done.
This year it was a whole different kettle of narwhals. For a start I would be booked on both days of the event, the 56K from Eastbourne to Brighton, and then second day’s 44K from Brighton to Arundel. This would change, but only after chasing Action Challenge via email, social media and playing phone tag with their staff for a week to drop it down to the single second day. And finally I would run it with my brother Jeremy.
I had run GMU the week before so this wasn’t me crying off. I was just beaten from a tough, hot and surprisingly muddy at times, Green Man. It would be my brother’s second race, following London 2017, and would act as a tester for his strategies for London 2021, that he would be running a month later. It would be a tick box exercise and he would be coming into it considering, in no particular order:
- The new race belt I got him, with space for his phone, keys, card and two 300ml water bottles
- His race nutrition of Tailwind
- His overall training nutrition of oat milk based smoothies, that he was having twice daily
- His race kit – shoes, shorts, socks, and tee.
- Time in head
- Time on feet
And, at this early stage of the blog, I would like to say most were ticked. The shoes were the only issue, but that was down to the terrain more than anything. It was baked hard chalk paths, with several hundred tonnes of loose flint on the top. It was the flint that caused his shoe issues.
And to the weekend…
With a hotel booked close to Brighton station my brother would park in Arundel at the end and join me for a night of beer and tapas before a 5.30am cab to the race HQ in Hove Park. It was where I finished in 2019 and we both queued to get our bibs, with mine being confirmed only a couple of days earlier.
And so we started in Hove Park, my brother performing some warm up exercises like a good boy before making his Tailwind. I’d bought him a new belt with two 300ml bottles for his marathon training and he was testing it out. It also held his phone, keys and he used wireless over ear headphones. There were plenty of walkers but runners too and, after a brief briefing we were out and into the town.
The walk the ups, run the downs rule was to be adhered to, and we added a new one. If both of us wanted to run we would run, if both of us wanted to walk we would walk, and if either of us wanted to walk we would walk. And, during a walk phase if one wanted to run he would ask the other and it may trigger a burst of speed. It also may not. We would just have to see.
One thing we did see, as we climbed the quiet streets on the outskirts of town, was a hiker. He was mid to late 50s and he was motoring. He was moving so fast with his poles that he would catch us on the walk leg of our run/walk before we ultimately overtook him on our run. He would feature later, and a lot. But before that…
We climbed from the town and into the Sussex countryside. There were rolling hills, and fields of livestock, but there was also a thick fog that obscured anything further than 50 feet away. We were doing well too. Chatting, sticking to our run/walk and before too long we hit the first checkpoint. It was 14K in, a third of a marathon and we were going great guns as we stopped to replenish our liquids. The guy with the poles came through, not stopping, not taking on any fuel as we, buoyed with how well we were doing, headed out into the second stage.
And it was a question of stages. My brother timed each segment whilst I timed the whole thing. The Cps were at 14K, 25K, 37K, and the finish but the gaps between were manageable. We kept going as the sun came out and the fog burned away. But what this did illuminate was the baked dry brilliant white chalk paths of the South Downs Way, and it’s painful covering of loose flint. And it was this, more than the stinging nettle hedges, and brutal climbs, and stiles, and endless sun that slowed us down, and gave us painful feet. We wore road shoes, you see, which was, given everything, the most sensible choice, but they offered precious little protection against the stones underfoot.
Regardless of the pain in our feet we made the next checkpoint. We took on food now, I had a bacon and sausage baguette and Fanta (two cans) as my brother sprayed himself liberally with Deep Heat. The sun was out now and baking everything. We applied sunblock, ensuring our hats were firmly on as the hiker came charging through yet again, not taking on any fuel for a second time.
We would pass him on the way out and onto the longest remaining stretch between CPs. It was only 12K and we saw it as the last real challenge before the final push at the end, and a segment of only 6K.
With the flint bruising our feet we took it easy, stopping to take photos of the countryside that my brother wanted. We played the overtaking game with two ladies and a Battersea Dogs Home charity walker/runner. It was relaxed. We were doing ok for time. Sure, it wasn’t anywhere near our road marathon pace, but it was never going to be. It was my brother’s first utlra, and first trail race, and only his second race. The first being the London Marathon 2017, the third would be the 2021 version.
And so we made the final checkpoint. Shoes and socks off, blister plasters applied for my brother. I didn’t have any. My Hobbit feet are well accustomed to the punishment, and my Altra Torins were well padded. The hiker came through again, and for the final time he didn’t stop and didn’t take on any water or food. It was a mistake he would come to regret as we headed out about 15 minutes later to discover that the ladies, with whom we’d played the overtaking game, standing over him at the 98K sign. They had found him semi-conscious in a hedge. He had collapsed and was now lolling around on the floor.
I dragged him into the shade as two other runners stopped. One called the emergency number on our bibs and the other used the hiker’s phone to call his son. We were in a farmer’s field in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere, as we were only a few KMs from Arundel now, but we were along a river, over several stiles and at least a mile from the nearest road. We speculated that, if he did need an ambulance, it would have to be a helicopter. As there just wasn’t any other way in.
With four runners with the man, who had taken all their isotonic drink and electrolytes, we said we would run on ahead and, if we saw someone from the race HQ, we would send them back. We didn’t though. We ran through stinging nettle edged paths, climbing double height stiles, leaping nigh constant trip hazards in the shape of snaking tree roots and then came out and onto the roads on the edge of Arundel. The GPX was wrong here, and we had a couple of unexpected KMs to go, zigzagging our way around people out enjoying the sunny Sunday afternoon before turning into the football ground and the MC saying “it’s brothers, or are they twins?” as we crossed the line with relative ease.
We changed. Grabbed complimentary cheese burgers and rehydrated. We organised a mini bus to the station to pick up my brother’s car and we were done. And, just as we left, after about ¾ of an hour in the HQ, we saw the hiker helped over the line by who we assume to be his son. And we hoped next time out he would be more sensible regarding fuelling.
I am vey proud of my brother. We came into this race with a check list for him. Did the nutrition work, the shoes, the rest of the kit, his fuelling before the race, the Tailwind usage, and his overall fitness? And he had ticks across the board. He did end up with two small blisters due to the flint. And he was wearing a second hand pair of Nike Flex road shoes, so he can’t complain about that. He did get the countryside vistas he wanted and is now planning for 4 ultras a year, maybe including a multi-day race with camping, say Race to the something… so this was an overall success, especially given I was 8th and my brother 11th overall, even though we crossed the start and finish lines together.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE SOUTH COAST CHALLENGE? I would. Well organised.
WOULD I RUN THE SOUTH COAST CHALLENGE AGAIN? If there are no other options then sure.