For the last four years, on a Saturday at the end of October, as the sun rises above the horizon reflecting its light across the waters of the English Channel, I have stood at the foot of a bloody great hill and considered “what on earth I was thinking”.
The hill in question is Beachy Head, the infamous suicide beauty spot. The quaint Victorian seaside town at the foot of it is Eastbourne.
Eastbourne is a handsome and well maintained town situated fortuitously on a becoming coastline at the foot of the South Downs. It will come as no surprise that tourism is one of the largest income streams. As well as the aforementioned propensity for people to throw themselves off the top of the cliff, the area is also renown for its excellent annual marathon. It was for the latter rather than the former that I was stood neck cricked, looking sky ward for a hopeful glimpse of the top of the first hill.
This was the thirty-third running of the marathon and today would be my fourth Beachy. It is now organised by Eastbourne council under the guise of ‘visit Eastbourne’. They took over from the Long Distance Walking Association some years ago. The aid stations are plentiful and well stocked, often with real food and tea. The marshals are stalwarts, back year on year to support in what is often challenging weather and the route although challenging is absolutely stunning. Walkers as well as runners are encouraged with a generous nine hour cut off. This is a magical event that draws people back year on year.
Last year my poor husband Alan decided to run the race with me. We were treated to strong northerly winds and freezing temperatures. You can read all about that experience here.
Today, once again, high winds would be underlying story. This time, from the pre-amble to a storm named St Jude blowing in from the channel. The forecasters were predicting St Jude to be the worst storm to hit mainland Britain since the devastating storm of 1987. It prediction certainly encouraged us to get a move on.
It often pays dividends not to study the race profile before entering the event…
…or if you do, not to dwell on it. Nonetheless, ‘hills ARE friends’ and this course is full of them. Still, we’d get to see lots of countryside and sea views worth all the climbs in the world.
This year my travelling companion would be Trevor. Trevor was attempting his 66th marathon having completed number 65 at Loch Ness late last month. I stood him up there as I was so ill, so I was redeeming myself at Beachy Head. I was looking forward to his company.
We found each other just before the race start at 9am. We had enough time for a quick hug and to set our goal for the day (walk a lot!) before the crowd in front of us started to move towards the start balloon.
We clambered up the first climb alternating between the steps cut into the side of the hill and the slippery grass where the steps had eroded into mud. The ground here was wet and slightly claggy and set the trend for the day.
Although blowing down in Eastbourne, the minute we got to the top of the first climb the wind made itself very evident. It was relentless and very, very noisy. Trevor and I started our catch up as soon as our breath returned from the initial climb. But words would get whipped away as soon as they left our mouth making it very difficult to talk in places. It also made the constant stream from my nose (after my recent cold) a bit lively so I made sure I was always on Trevors ‘offside’.
The goodies from the earlier water stations last year were a bit lacking and so I was disappointed to see the only offering was again the ubiquitous digestive biscuit.
However, this year I had a plan. Hidden in the bowels of my Camelbak was a stash of goodies, so kindly given to me by the lovely Amanda at the Denbies 10 miler the week before. I fished around and struck gold in the form of a chocolate brownie. It was a dense, moist, squidgy packet of chocolatey deliciousness and far exceeded anything that could have been provided at the checkpoint. (Don’t tell Peter, he doesn’t read the blog 😉
We then started the climb over Wendover Hill. The trees lining the initial climb kept the worst of the weather away. The quiet was fantastic and opened up much more gossip opportunity. With such distraction, the miles passed frequently and I was really enjoying myself. The hills this time around didn’t feel half as challenging as the previous year. I may only have lost 17lb so far, but by golly it doesn’t half make a difference if you don’t have to lug it all over the South Downs.
Once we were up onto the horseshoe the full force of the wind made itself known. It was so strong I could feel my contact lenses fluttering in my eyes. I pulled my cap down as far as it would go and tucked my chin into my chest to protect my face as much as possible.
The wind was literally breathtaking and so cleansing. Blowing all thoughts out of my head other than ‘keep going’.
Half way along the horseshoe we came to a marshal. His job on the sheet must have looked so simple in the marshal tent earlier that morning. It probably said something like ‘Open gate for runners and direct straight on’. Simple enough I warrant. But in order to keep the gate open he had to prop himself against it at 45 degrees with his feet wedged against a rock. It looked grim. Our friend Geoff quipped “If you close the gate it might keep the draught out”. We laughed, but apparently the marshal didn’t.
The marshals at this event are superstars. Many of them are out for eight or nine hours in conditions that would test even the most saintly. Yet, they remain jolly and smiley and encouraging and ultimately, very proud of their event. And quite rightly so.
The chap stood on the bridge across the river in the next valley beamed at us and proclaimed “Welcome to Alfriston” like he’d been expecting us for dinner.
Alfriston is a beautiful, quaint little village. It also stands at the foot of the BIG climb up Borstal Hill. You know it’s big when all the people around you start commenting on the hill coming up. This one’s a bugger, not necessarily because of the size but because it lulls you into a false security with a number of false crests up to the summit.
As we turned the corner I was delighted to see Linda sat on a wall, waiting patiently in the sunshine. Linda was our lift home (her husband Geoff – the man who quipped above) was out on the course, further ahead. Linda accompanied us up the hill to admire the views and it was lovely to have her company for a while.
The next checkpoint at the top of Borstal Hill was once again devoid of goodies <sigh>, but another rummage this time revealed chocolate chip flapjack. Unctuous, syrupy, oaty goodness. It was so good I had another one (thank you so much Flapjack fairy).
The constant cambers and wet, soggy ground was starting to play havoc with my feet. I’d felt the beginning of blisters as early on as four miles in but now they were really starting to hurt. At the top of the last climb down to Checkpoint 4 (and tea, yay!) I sat down to try and re-arrange stuff in my shoes and was dismayed to see the skin already peeling away from my feet. We still had 11 miles of more ups and downs and camber left. This was really going to hurt. An angel from a group of ladies we had been passing to and fro for the last few miles came to my aid in the form of two compeed plasters. I couldn’t thank her enough. It made such a difference.
We stopped at Checkpoint 4 for lukewarm tea and buns and a tune from a local folk band before setting off up the hill behind the scout hut towards the steps at Coombe bottom.
I was still feeling pretty good when we got to Cuckmere Haven and the start of the sisters proper. We were hopeful that this year we would have the wind behind us to blow us up the hills. This was for the most part the case, although having the extra pressure forcing us down the hills on the other side was agony on my poor mashed quads.
The sisters are a focal point of the race and with a brief stop at Mile 20 for a little dance and some rubbish jokes – “What do you call an ear of corn that’s run up a hill”. “Puffed Wheat”. We clambered up and down them until we reached the last aid station at Birling Gap.
The tea was hot, the cake was fruity and our mood was tired but happy we were going to make it. Trev filched a packed of chicken flavour crisps and we munched and trudged our way around the foot of the hill until Beachy Head itself loomed up above us.
We were almost blown up and over the hill until we were at the top of the killer descent back into Eastbourne. Clasping hands with Trev and with a quick wave at the photographer we crossed the line, picked up our medals and stopped for a brief hug before saying our goodbyes and going our separate ways. Trevor, home to his lovely wife Gill. Me to the comfort and warmth of Geoff and Linda who were driving me home.
It had been a lovely day…