ENDURANCE LIFE SUSSEX – HALF MARATHON – 2185 FEET ELV.
The drive to Eastbourne was ponderous. I avoided the Dartford crossing, at my peril. It would have been worth the measly £2.50 to not get stuck in traffic, which is bleeding obvious in reflection. Things were looking up when I realised there was a Leon at Cobham Services and I indulged in burger, fries, and coffee – the ultimate in pre-race prep eating. It got even better as I got closer to my destination and the rolling green landscapes of the South Downs emerged into view. There was a further blip when I actually reached Eastbourne however, as it didn’t exactly rock my world. It appeared as many British coastal resort towns do; weather beaten and tired. My hotel looked middling to poor on the outside, but thankfully inside it was clean and staffed by friendly, helpful, speedy chaps. A swift cup of tea later, and I hit the streets for supplies. The little Tesco around the corner had a security guard on staff, and the other patrons of the store had a definitive whiff of spirit about them.
I took my potted porridge, pasta, and brioche, and hit the boardwalk, so to speak. I saw a telephone box which could be rented, which I thought was bizarre. Turns out if you’ve got thirty grand laying about, you can buy it – https://www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/110398970#/?channel=COM_BUY – which seems bonkers. I think the idea is that you can run a business from it. But. Really?
Anyway, I figured I would trundle down to the start line of the race to scope out the parking/toilet situation. I did this, but when I was then there, at the beginning of the South Downs, I could hardly resist. I clambered over boulders below the cliffs, up a steep set of wooden stairs, and headed up into the Area of Outstanding Beauty with no purpose other than finding a good spot to watch the sun set. It was perhaps slightly more exertion than I had planned, but it was worth it. The pink sun plunged into the ocean horizon with a Hollywood perfection. The way back was breezy and cool, but as perfectly as the sun had set, the moon majestically arose. As pink as the sun had been, it crept up from beneath the black blanket of the sea and had all that saw it reaching for their phones to capture the moment, disappointed that you just can’t take a decent picture of the moon with your phone. You just can’t. If you could, I certainly would have, but I suppose I’ll just have to remember it like some kind of caveman.
I lingered in the bath and went to bed early. I dreamed of the race being delayed, and then of being late to it. When I woke, it was to the sound of the ocean lapping up on the shore. No. No, that’s not waves. That’s the fucking wind. It was constant, whistling against the window, telling me: this is going to be a hard day.
I ignored the warning. What good would it do? There was no not racing.
And anyway, how bad could it be? Look at how blue the sky is!
Porridge, banana, and brioche made up my breakfast. I took my car down to the start point and warmed up for a couple of kms, feeling a genuine pre-race buzz that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Maybe ever. It could have been the red bull, but I seemed to be experiencing a runner’s high before I had even started running properly. The half marathon-ers grouped together and marched up the road to the start point, just beside the sign declaring the beginning of the South Downs. Ambitiously, I positioned myself in the top 10 and set out after the countdown with the intention of running pretty much as hard as I could on the flats and the downs, and sensibly on the ups. On paper that makes a lot of sense. Maybe one day I’ll be able to execute it. As it was, it would turn out that running that hard on the flats just wasn’t a good idea. That should have become apparent to me as Beachy Head reared itself before us, spectacular and near vertical this was a climb I finished at a walk. Of course, this was where the photographer was. I turned to the racer beside me and said that we best get running. In my head I smiled, but on my face was a grimace.
Those next 3 – 4 miles were gorgeous. The ocean broiled in the wind (which was behind us at this point) and the white cliffs were resplendent in the early Spring sun. On the ups I was content to stick with those in front of me, but on the sharp downs I found my weakness. This pattern would repeat throughout the race. On the last downhill of the race I lost the two runners who I had stuck with through the majority of the race, and was overtaken twice.
The point where things got really tough was when we turned and faced the wind for the first time. It was a light rise, a gentle hill across on open field, but it was directly into the throat of the wind. When I was talking with runners after the race, the consensus was the same: the course wasn’t that tough, the hills not that gruelling, but the wind was relentless, and completely draining. After a brief respite through the halfway mark we passed through a forest section and looped back around on ourselves, beeping in at a checkpoint. I held a gate for the two runners behind me and tagged onto them. It was easier in a group. The three of us charged downhill towards the sea and it felt glorious. Then we turned into the wind again, and it was all hell again. My pack broke, as well. I spend about 10 seconds trying to fix it before giving it up and accepting it would be bouncing about on my back for the remainder. It was a minor discomfort lost to the genuine pain of running into that wind. I actually caught back up with the duo in front of me as we checked in at the second checkpoint, before losing them again completely during that final downhill capitulation.
I finished 13th, slightly unsure how to feel. Did I run well? I didn’t really have any expectations so all I wanted to do was empty the tank, give it the business. As I limped around Waitrose, looking for sustenance, I thought perhaps I had at least done that. As the week went on, and my aches lingered, it became more obvious that whatever the result, whatever the time, however that evens out as my trail racing career extends, I had definitely worked for it.