I had never officially run a marathon before Saturday. Having completed my first ultra in July, I was itching for another challenge to take me toward the end of the year. So when my uncle, David, suggested one of his favourites; the Beachy Head , my interest was piqued.
The Beachy Head Marathon
The marathon has been running for many years. It was formerly known as the Seven Sisters, which gives anyone who knows the area an idea of the difficulty of the run. Starting straight up a hill and managing to pack in 4600ft of ascent over 26 miles, this trail run is no personal best (PB) time bagger! In fact the marathon website states that you should expect to add 30-40 minutes onto your normal marathon time.
Despite having decided to run I kept putting off entering. Deep down there was a reluctance to have to train up for long distance once again. My partner kept mentioning it though. I think he knew better than I did that I really needed something in the calendar. Finally I clicked ‘Enter’ and just a few weeks later was standing at the start line, staring up the first climb.
I didn’t have much of an idea as to what time I could expect to get. Looking at my uncle’s Strava account I could see he runs faster than I do. I also knew he ran the race in just under four and a half hours last year, with his Border Collie, Bess. I predicted I would be around half an hour slower than him.
The marathon is also split into three categories, depending on your finish time. Those who finish in under 5 hours are classed as runners, 5-7 hour finishers are joggers and those who finish in over 7 hours are walkers. This gave me a target. I really wanted to be in the runner category. I just wasn’t sure if I could do it!
There are only around 2000 participants in the Beachy Head, which makes it pretty small and friendly. I was able to pick out David, a few people in front of me, on the start line. I was also spotted by a fellow Hash Runner, Bouncer, who came over to start the race with me. Hash Running is something I will write about another time but a quick overview is that they are a world wide running club. Their motto is ‘A drinking club with a running problem’!
And they’re off
The usual nervous smiles and jiggling/stretching on the spot were rippling through us. A short delay and then everyone was moving. Running watches were pressed, Strava’s activated and the start mat beeped as our timing chips crossed the line.
My Dad had cheerily announced the day before that the top of the first hill was not actually the top; “When you get up there it goes around the corner and then just goes on up.” My parents had, extremely kindly, come along as my support crew and did an excellent job of appearing about 5 times throughout the run to cheer me on. They were helped by my aunt, Miriam, and the local knowledge of a friend. It is such a boost to hear your name being called out around the course.
For the first few miles Bouncer and I overtook each other and I found we had the same style of downhill running; very fast, dodging around the other runners and just about staying on our feet.
I need those fast downhill’s as I am flipping slow at going up. On hills as steep as those on this marathon many, if not most, people walk uphill. Walking can actually get you up faster than running if you can perfect a good walking stride. I cannot perfect a good stride. My short legs just don’t seem to want to stretch out.
Part of me considered being a little more cautious, in order to preserve my knee. But the other part said ‘run hard while you can’.
After a while I didn’t see Bouncer any more, I later discovered he had a bad race and didn’t complete. There were plenty of people to talk to along the way though. I am happy running on my own and had been looking forward to the prospect of a few hours with my own thoughts.
Keep on running
I started to break down, in my head, where I would need to be, at what time, to come in under 5 hours. The first 6.5 miles took one hour twenty; this was too long! Thankfully at around 9 miles the ground evened out a little and by the time I passed the half marathon marker I was back on track. There was a blissful few miles of gently undulating ground but I knew that at around mile 19 we would hit the seven sisters. These are a series of chalk cliffs on the South Downs Way and everyone advised saving plenty of energy for this part of the run.
Along the route you occasionally cross through pretty villages, with tempting looking pubs! Some of these villages were closed off to spectators but the wonderful villagers made up for this by coming out to line the streets and cheer us on. Often there would be outstretched hands proffering jelly babies to sugar depleted runners. I was always grateful as I am terrible at eating on course and the odd jelly baby can make all the difference. The offerer would always be pleased when you took their sweets and I would get a little emotional at their kindness.
I have a real fear, on long runs, of running out of water and was wearing my small pack, with a litre in at the start. Most people wouldn’t dream of wearing a pack on a road marathon but for this one there was a wide variety in gear levels. Some people ran with no pack and just a small amount of nutrition. Others had fairly large packs, lightweight walking poles, spare clothes etc. Luckily there were a lot of, well manned, feed and drink stations on the route and my own water only ran out in the last couple of miles.
People around me started to cramp up and fall to the side of the course. Only for them to recover and spring past me minutes later. My legs, too, were getting tighter and I could feel the blisters forming on my toes. However, my knee was holding out and I felt good. It made me realise what a difference it would have made to my ultra marathon, earlier in the year, had my knee not hurt so much. Despite often being running high up in the mist, the scenery was stunning and really eased the pain of running.
Are we nearly there yet?
I knew I needed to hit 19.5 miles with one and a half hours to spare to be absolutely sure that I would come in on time. Made it! At 22 miles I saw my lovely group of relatives for the last time. On the video my Dad took here you can see the tiredness on my face.
My watch failed with around two miles to go. By then I was confident that I would be well within 5 hours. So confident that I had set myself a new target; to finish within 4 hrs 45mins! As I reached the top of, yet another, climb a spectator called out; “One more hill and then it is all down!”
I barely allowed myself to believe them but they were right. With 1.5 miles to go it was all downhill. Oh the relief! Of course, by this time even running downhill is painful but it really is a sweet pain. Holes were appearing in my well loved and worn Pearl Izumi trainers and I hoped they would last to the finish.
I rounded the last corner and saw the finish line at the bottom of the same brutal hill we had started up. A marshal pointed out the safest route down as a huge smile spread across my face. I had made it. I had enjoyed it. And I had done it in 4 hours 41 minutes. What an amazing day!
My uncle had crossed the finish line ten minutes before me and was waiting with a can of beer for each of us. I had sworn to myself, at the halfway point, I wouldn’t do this again. But now we stood and discussed next year’s race…can we get a few more family members running?!
I would recommend the Beachy Head to anyone. The cut off time is 9 hours so you really can go out and walk it briskly. The views and the friendliness are worth it. My legs still ache days later but the blisters are healing and I don’t think I am going to lose any toenails
Now I just need to find the next adventure!
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