Yesterday was my final marathon of the year (I think) - the Beachy Head Marathon. It is a tough fell race across the South Downs around Eastbourne in East Sussex and takes in the Seven Sisters, a group of hills including Beachy Head the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. You can see the course profile here where you will see just how hilly it is!
The weather had been quite variable this week and the Downs can be tough work on a cold, wet and windy day. However, we were blessed and although it was overcast at the start, the wind was light and later in the day the sun shone and the views from the cliff tops were spectacular.
There were loads of forumites from Runner's World there that I saw at the start or en-route; including Snowwy, Plodding Hippo, Tracey, DianaD, TS, Birdypie, Pit Stop Crew, Lurker, Bobbis, Mrs Pig, Mike Frog and Womble. There were also 5 more doing the course twice Caz, Smithy, M1, Hairier Half & Paddy (the mad fools completed it too and in an amazing time!).
Here we have Ruth (Plodding Hippo who you may recognise from some of my other marathons as she does loads of them!) & Diana with pit Stop Crew in the background sporting his Pirate top which is worn by a group of Triathletes/Ironmen from the forum.
There was a jazz band to entertain us whilst we waited to start. The position they chose to set up in was not the most pleasant as they were right next to the portaloos (and believe me they get very, very smelly!).
Another cluster of forumites from right to left; Snowwy (who I met for the first time whilst walking to the start area), Diana, Tracey (whose husband Bernard was cycling around the course taking photos and shouting encouragement to everyone), Ruth & Birdypie (whose head is just poking out at the back!).
The start area with the first hill in the background. It's hard to describe just how tough that hill is and you really have to scramble up it. Trouble is, you have to come back down it right at the end and I am not good at coming down hills as I'm always scared of losing my footing and rolling down to the bottom (which apparently has happened to other runners in the past). The little figures you can make out up on the ridge are some of the walkers who start earlier then the mass of runners and joggers. Normally I object when people refer to me as a 'jogger' as it is often used as a derogatory term but in this event it signifies a runner who expects to complete the course in more than 5 hours. Last year I managed 6:04 and I expected I'd be slower this year.
At 9am a maroon (a firework that makes a loud bang) flashed into the sky signifying the start and we were off up that hill. I started near the back as usual and it was amazing to watch the elite front-runners nimbly scaling that hill like mountain goats. Around me and immediately in front of me everyone walked.
At the top of the hill I started running, although not quickly as we were still climbing, albeit a gentler gradient. Just after the first mile a piper was playing the bagpipes. It's such an evocative sight and sound up there on a hilltop and I couldn't resist taking a shot of him. The shape of the tree in the background gives an indication of how windy it gets up there.
This path sums up what many of them were like - rutted tracks with grass inbetween and lots of loose flints underfoot (they really hurt sometimes and you have to be very careful not to turn an ankle. Sometimes the tracks were just flint and chalk which were very dusty, sometimes the route was across grassland, grazed by sheep or cattle. So the scene was set, lots of ups, lots of downs with some flat (NOT!) ridges inbetween. Around mile 7 we were running down a flinty path that was cut into the hillside and along the top of the ridge were lots of cows just walking along slowly on a track. A couple of runners in front of me went up onto the ridge and as I was stumblling a bit on the path I decided to go up onto the ridge too.
What happened next was surreal and had the runners behind laughing their heads off. I gave a shout to move the cows on whereupon the 3 cows up on the track in front of us started to run. They were joined by others from the field who ran alongside, joining in the fun. If they started to slow down I just shouted again and they picked up the pace. Then the track ended and veered down to the path whereupon the 3 leading cows left it and went back to their field but the remaining cow hadn't had enough so she lead me onto the track.........and then we ran alongside eachother. It was just for a few hundred yards and then we came to another junction and she stopped whereupon I raised my arms in the air and declared myself the winner! It was then I realised that there was a photographer standing in the middle of the path with his tripod and camera and he'd been taking photos of the whole proceedings. I had hoped that perhaps he was the husband of a forumite and would send me some photos as I'd love to have seen it. It turns out that it was a photographer from AntBliss who did catch some of it on film but sadly I'm not in any of them.
The fields up on the Downs have mostly been planted with winter wheat and so there wasn't much to see but I snapped this plantation of trees as it made me smile. Someone had obviously had fun planting the saplings out into this pattern and it looked really effective. Soon after this Mike phoned me to see how I was getting on. It was lovely to hear his voice and I felt strong and confident.
This spinney really stood out against the barren landscape and you can see the white chalk clearly. It's a tough terrain to farm.
This white horse chalk figure was carved in about 1925. The act of carving horses such as this one near Harting is known as Leucippotomy - now there's a word that roles off the tongue!
I reached the half way point in 2:30 which is faster than I expected but I knew I'd take longer on the second leg as the Seven Sisters can really sap your strength. There were cheery marshalls to chat to, including one I'd chatted to at the Steyning Stinger earlier in the year, a jazz band playing, a lady singing and it was all very jolly. All the aid stations had mini mars bars, biscuits and either water or cordial but this one was even better with tea and hot cross buns. YUM. I stayed there a lot longer than I'd intended! There's a tough climb just after this before we headed downwards again.
I'd remembered that there were lots of steps to climb at some stage after Alfriston but I couldn't quite remember where. In reality I think I must have blocked them out of my mind because they were so awful When I came across these little darlings my heart sank. I thought there we over 200 of them but as I heaved my weary legs up these I only counted 67. Was my memory really that bad? I reached the top, breathed a sigh of relief and carried on.
Then these steps appeared to delight me. I counted 215 of them but there may have been more. Oh boy was I glad to get to the top of them!
Throughout the race there were lots of people to chat to. I kept leap-frogging Pit Stop Crew who was doing his first ever marathon - when one of us took a walk break, the other ran past . I chatted to lots of walkers along the way too. Everyone was so friendly and supportive and there was a great camaraderie amongst the participants. It's exactly the sort of event I love where the back-of-packers get as much respect as the front runners.
After the dull start first thing the sun came out and it was really warm. The views from up on the cliffs were spectacular and the sea shimmered in the light. I couldn't help stopping to look. This is a view of Cuckmere Haven a beautiful nature reserve. It was a perfect day for being on top of the Downs.
This view is from just before the start of the Seven Sisters and shows where we were heading. The white chalk cliffs are very famous and feature on most photographs of the area. They certainly look magnificent with the sun shining on them.
So here it is, the first of the Seven Sisters (aka the seven bitches!). You can tell how steep it is from the angle at which the ladies ahead are leaning. The white blobs that look like mushrooms are pieces of chalk. The next one was even steeper but the memory card in my camera was full and I hadn't got the heart to delete anything so this is the last of my photos. Somewhere around then I reached the Birling Gap and there was another aid station. Mike tried to phone me a couple of times but there was no reception on my mobile.
Time for another chat with some spectators, a drink of water and a mini mars bar. This is a popular spot for walkers and other sight-seers and there were lots of people and cars around. There is also a hotel which is a popular destination for a meal. As I headed away from there I saw a woman at the side of the road and I heard her shout "Susie?!" As I got closer I realised that it was Val (aka Tiger from Runner's World) and she was shouting to someone else - Richard (Snoop Dog). I was so excited to see them both. I had the pleasure of their company when I ran the Rottingdean Windmill 15 miler last year and they really helped me along. It was Val's birthday and they'd been for lunch in the hotel and were just watching the runners go past before heading off.
Sadly Richard had to head off to meet a business contact but Val said she'd join me for a mile or so. She just had to head back to the hotel to change so she told me to carry on and she'd catch me up (she's a much faster runner than me!). It seemed as if she'd been gone for ages and I kept looking back in case I missed her when all of a sudden she came speeding along. She said she'd been getting some strange looks and comments from people as she sped past them! I was surprised to find I'd covered 3/4 mile before she caught me up. I took a welcome walking break and we chatted and caught up with what we'd each been up to. It really made my day to see her and it was lovely to have her company. After just over another mile we started up a hill and that was her cue to head for home as her children had some special birthday plans for her.
So it was on with the remaining siblings! Part way up one I spotted a photographer and he shouted "Hi Redhead!" It was Anthony from AntBliss I don't expect I looked my best but he snapped away. Last time I'd seen him was at the Steyning Stinger marathon way back in March. Mike managed to phone me then and it really helped to hear his voice as I trudged up yet another hill.
Around now I met up with 2 army men, one of whom was carrying a 55lb back pack with the other running to support him. They were raising money for Cancer Research UK and did amazingly well. I was in awe of his stamina as he carried that heavy weight up and down the hills. I stayed with them for a short while and then Bernard, Tracey's husband sped past on his bike and told me there were only 2 more miles to go. I always find it amazing that one can find the extra energy to put on a spurt at the end but I managed it. I ran cautiously down the final hill to claim my medal then phoned Mike to let him know I'd finished. I thought my time was 6:14 which would have been 10 minutes slower than last year but when I checked my Garmin the next day it read 6:10 so I was just 6 minutes slower (I think I must have become confused in the post-race euphoria!).
So that's it. My challenge is over and I survived and managed to raise over £3500 for the Alzheimer's Research Trust Now, what shall I do next year...................