For the last five years or so, at the end of October, just as we are starting to think of clocks going backwards and winter and pagan festivals and such, I’ve stood at the bottom of an ancient chalky path and looked upwards to the sky and beyond.
The path looks fearsome to those who may not have travelled up it and are therefore unaware of what is beyond. It doesn’t help that this race also has a fearsome reputation! But as those ahead receive a secret signal (we are too far back to hear) slowly, very slowly men appear above the starting arch to make their zig zag way to the crest of the hill and over into the unknown.
Soon after, more people appear, now bunched together and scrabbling rather than running. Hands and knees, heads bobbing and movement crablike as they pick the best line up the hills. No more gazelles, bounding, or mountain sheep if you like, sure footed and strong, these are cows, gentle and slow and plodding. Heads bowed in knowledge it will be a long time and a long journey before they return, the same way to the finish line.
On my arrival this year, delayed by a supermarket lorry and a frustrating reluctance to pass at opportune moments, I parked as close as I could to the usual spot. I grappled with machines, that ate money willingly, but were reluctant to dole out the subsequent ticket. In the end resorting to text to pay.
Heading up the hill to pick up my number, a surprised friend exclaimed ‘you’re on your own’. But the solitude was not unwelcome and of course, I was not really on my own, knowing full well that many of my acquaintance were also making their way south today.
Sensing nerves and a desire to resume conversation with her other friend in her van, I carried on up to the school, to pick up my number and join the inevitable queue for the toilet.
The nerves were palpable and as conversation turned to the numerous hills we would have to conquer, I tried to fade out the conversation around me. Not quite as successfully as I would like, as many friendly faces known to me hailed me or waved or approached for a quick chat before going about their day.
On the start line, I congregated with the ladies from Denbies Vineyard. Work colleagues and friends and there partially because I had raved about the event we were we about to undertake.
Their intention was to stay together through think and thin but as we followed the gazelles and the mountain goats and finally the cows up the hillside, it was apparent from their demeanour and fervour in attacking the first hill, they would finish well before us, nearly an hour in fact.
I started with Kelly, sometimes looking around to make sure she was ok. I felt in part responsible for her, but truth be told it was nice to have a companion and we fell into a natural rhythm almost at once.
I had come to the race fatigued, but deliberately so. I wanted to complete the event on tired legs, a purgatory for the impending holiday where we would feel guilty almost at once for the lack of activity we intended to pursue. I wanted to hold off that guilt as much as I could, by squeezing in all my body could take in the week before. So, the usual routine was executed. The only exception was a text to Peter on Wednesday evening, ‘Go easy on me’, it said ‘I have a marathon on Saturday’.
Of course in the school of PT they have never heard of ‘go easy’ and so I climbed the first hill acutely aware of my previously silent adductor muscles, now making themselves plainly heard with every step.
My ‘get to’ point in a marathon is always the 16 mile point. But in this race especially so since tea and buns would be save here. And we all know I will happily sell my soul for a cup of tea in an endurance event.
The first few miles passed in chat. The weather was kind, the breeze gentle and cooling and the sun shining in the happy knowledge of an unseasonably mild month. Skylarks floated on the breeze above us, singing a lusty accompaniment to our rhythmic plodding.
What running their was tuned to scouts pace and finally a walk. And we were very happy to do so. Especially considering my feet and ankles and hips had not really recovered from Loch Ness. A finish was the only ask today and I would do everything I could to secure it. But still, I was relieved when the checkpoint came and went at 8 miles in and even more so when we struck gold in the shape of a mars bar. Things were looking promising indeed.
Up and down borstal hill and more scouts pace for quite some time. I realised I was feeling much better than I normally am and the foot and hip pain although threatening menace never really got any worse.
Finally then, tea and buns. Yay. An impending disaster of no milk was averted by the fact Peter had taken milk away from my diet some weeks go. Three months prior I would have been crying into my tea, but now, used to the taste, it served it’s purpose. It might well have been the best tea ever, but I’m sure I have said that before! Kelly nodded in agreement, having opted for the sausage roll and then picked up two buns ‘just in case’.
I was saddened to learn that my friend Laurie, hadn’t made it further than here owing to a nasty tumble (and subsequent sprain) coming into the village. His day would end in a trip to the finish via ambulance. I was more saddened that he had missed the best bit of the whole race. A trip through the ancient woods and then over the seven sisters (or bitches if you prefer – some did).
Kelly, maybe preparing for the impending climbs had eaten the ‘just in case’ buns almost on leaving despite a pretty steep incline out of the checkpoint.
Suitably imbibed, she stormed the steps leading to the estuary at the foot of the sisters. Now with only 4 miles to go until we reached Birling Gap and the promise of more tea, we pressed on.
Up and down, up and down. I later learned that Laurie has assigned names to each sister, to make her less menacing. The thought of climbing Gladys much less oppressive than the reality ahead of us. But soon we were over and hobbling down to the gap, admiring the recently build houses with panels of glass affording an enviable view over the English Channel in front of them.
Disappointed to learn all the cake and biscuits had been eaten and even the crisps offering only Roast Chicken flavour. Bleurgh! We settled for more scalding tea and a sit down (which may have been a mistake). As it was, it helped relax my ever tightening muscles and took the weight off my poor feet for a while.
Although the attempt to stand up again was slightly comedic, only once threatening to pitch myself head first back into the bank we were sat upon. Once upright we waddled off towards Beachy head and carried on an emphatic conversation with another group who felt the same way towards chicken flavour crisps as we did. ‘I bet they don’t even have chicken in them’ muttered one to her vegetarian friend. She was rewarded with a harrumph! so forceful, you could almost hear the punctuation mark.
This time the climb up to Beachy didn’t seem so bad. In fact, when we got to the top, we managed first a hobble and then a plod and once over the crest a run! Which we maintained to the lip of the initial ascent before caution resumed and we snowploughed our way down the remainder of the slope and jogged into the finish line.