Gone with the Wind! – by Mary Connolly.
Two years ago I was gutted to be dropping Daniel off at the start of my favourite marathon before driving off to run a parkrun, due to recovering from injury. At the time Daniel was knocking up the marathon numbers and slowly building a lead towards the 100 marathon club. He kept saying all it takes is an injury and I would catch him right back up. Although I hate to say it, he was right, as this year he dropped me and Chris Foxall off before heading off to walk-run Seaford Beach parkrun with his still-grumbling Achilles.
Since Daniel got me my first entry to Beachy Head in 2014 (with the promise that my first marathon would be a flat marathon along the seafront, in road shoes) it has been my favourite marathon and is now my birthday present each year. It is a tough trail route that winds through some stunning countryside and the ever-unpredictable English weather means you never really know what you’re going to face when there. We have had reasonable weather with soaking, sticky conditions underfoot, constant drizzle and mist, meaning on the higher ground you couldn’t see the runner ahead, freezing bright conditions where the sky was azure blue and it never got above 3 degrees with a wicked wind and this year it was gale force winds thundering in off the sea and a backdrop of slate grey sky for the last 8 miles.
The route had to be altered slightly this year as a few lakes had popped up en route and trail shoes were advised as the course was muddy. My trail shoes hadn’t truly recovered from sloshing about at the Heffalump Puffalot in Ashdown Forest 2 weeks previously, there was more mud inside than outside, but at least they were now dry, having discharged what seemed like litres of brown sticky goo from the previous marathon.
Race HQ is at Bede’s School in Eastbourne which allows runners to get a good look at the first climb which looks vertical when viewed from the start line. It sets the tone for the race (although this is actually one of the easier hills in my opinion). Runners, if they are lucky, may get a sneak peak of the sausage rolls and iced buns being packed up to travel to the mile 16 checkpoint, which may take their mind off the first hill, although no doubt most runners check what they are signing up for, unlike Daniel, so the brooding first climb is not a complete shock…
The race started promptly at 9am and the majority of runners could watch the super-fasties sprint away effortlessly, knowing that they would be back at HQ in around 3 hours. The bulk of us ran from the start line to the foot of the hill (maybe 10 yards?) and then plodded and cursed our way up the initial hill, past the bagpipes and up, and up some more, and then kept on going up. There are downhill sections but it always feels to me that generally the hills go up, not down. This was reinforced the year we climbed into the clouds. Apparently though, hills are good for us…
The route involves a few (very well-marshalled) road crossings and apart from the odd little stretch of tarmac at around 10 and 16 miles, the rest is chalk, grass, mud, farm/forest tracks and it’s all very scenic – when you can see the views. It’s challenging in places, especially on the chalky, stoney, muddy downhills but then I have been practising those at White Star events.
Daniel made it very clear on Friday that he would spend the time after parkrun in the National Trust café at Birling Gap, eating cream teas so I wasn’t expecting any support until then. It was a lovely surprise to have a shout out and cheer from Wendy, Julie and Grahame in Alfriston a welcome boost before the stinking great hill towards the clouds!
The marshals are always encouraging (and they must have been really cold stood in the vicious wind today) and the aid stations get better and better as you tick away the miles. There is always a good band at mile 16, just before you climb up (again) away from the aid station, once you’ve grabbed your sausage roll and/or iced bun.
There are a few loo stops on the way, although at the very exposed checkpoint at 12 ish miles the 2 portaloos had blown over (onto the doors so I hope no runners were inside…). The forest sections were sheltered (the compromise being the climbing and the 2 dreaded staircases) but the rest of the route was battered by the wind.
I got my lemonade lolly at the Seven Sisters Country Park – which today was more of a lake – before starting the last few miles over the steep ups and downs of the sisters, which seem to mysteriously increase in number each year. I find the lolly is a great way to start this section as you climb up high before dropping right back to sea level and then back up high again. Having a lolly of course forces you to walk…
The wind here was blowing fiercely and whipping spray up from the sea which is quite a way below. Sadly the poor visibility meant you couldn’t see the offshore wind farm, which I always think looks lovely.
Across this stretch you can see the Belle Tout lighthouse, literally for miles. It also feels like it never gets any nearer, until you suddenly realise that the lighthouse has vanished. It took me a while to realise that as you pass Birling Gap you go round the back of the lighthouse, a way beneath it so you have to look up to see it as you finally pass it.
Birling Gap provides a welcome stop at around 22 miles and a great aid station with cake and coffee. Daniel was there to cheer me on for the last stretch.
From Birling Gap it was another 3 ish miles of mainly climbing up before reaching the Beachy Head pub. This marks the turning point as the last mile starts here and it IS all downhill from there; the only really tricky bit being the staircase.
They make a point of welcoming in runners by name before handing out medals and once the timing chip had been cut from my trainer (a bit of a challenge as I used both the cable ties and the red ties in case it was really sticky underfoot) I headed to the canteen to collect my jacket potato, rice pudding and coffee, which taste amazing after 26 tough miles.
Bag collected, we headed back to the hotel. It’s still my all-time favourite marathon (and I have a fair few to compare it too now), it is still the highlight of my running year and it marks the 55th completed marathon for me so maybe I will catch back up with Daniel.