It was somehow already the beginning of May and I found myself heading back down to the ever too familiar trails of the North Downs Way for the Freedom Racing North Downs Ridge 50k. This race was one of the ones that was cancelled earlier in the year and one that, in some ways, contradicted my Modus Operandi for races – which is to only do events that I really want to do (despite how obvious that may sound!). It’s the route you see. I’ve run It so many times (and you’ve read me type it so many times…) and this particular section of the North Downs Way which includes my least favourite part of the trail (purely because it’s so damn runnable!). It is because of the organiser though that I signed up. This was to be my third Freedom Racing event after the Serpent Trail and the Hurtwood and I’ve enjoyed each one immensely. FR are a small, family centred events company which I’m happy to support. So, off I went.
Tom, the Race Director, had adopted the now very familiar flexible start line approach for this event. I opted for the ‘faster’ time slot and arrived for 8am with a rough 5.5 hr finish in my mind (justifying starting in this group rather than the later group).
The start was easy. I walked from Dorking station to the event HQ at Denbies Vineyard. When I arrived it was straight into a short queue for registration. Bib and dabber collected, I went to the toilet and changed quickly in the field, dropped my bag off and then walked into the starting pen. I was the only one. No queuing. I dib-dabbed in and off I trotted.
The route starts with a short stretch and climb out of the Vineyard as you join the tarmac path of the first climb to the church at Ranmore. I wouldn’t normally run this but I was fresh and eager so I plodded on upwards. Passing the few walkers as I reached the top, I continued in the gentle pace I’d settled into with my heart full of joy of another adventure underway.
I mentioned a rough 5.5 hr finish time I had in mind, but really I had no real aims for the day and a sub 6 hour finish would, as always, be a good day out for a 50k for me. As a fairly hilly route with an out and back set up I’d be happy with that. Immediately after starting out though, I devised a game to keep the brain occupied – I’d keep a count of the people I passed and the people who passed me. I’d try and remain with a positive count by the end of the race. A small challenge but one with great potential for distracting the mind throughout the run. As I’d started behind the ‘slower’ group but at the start of the ‘faster’ group, I assumed it would be a comparable count each way. I added the rule that being ‘passed’ involved people overtaking me, people running in the opposite direction as me before I turned around (at about mile 12.5) and again people I saw coming the other way on the final loop. So potentially some runners could hit my count 3 times.
It started good. The numbers were positive despite a few speedsters soaring passed (all in carbon road shoes I noted, the trails were very dry…) and it was steady progress. None of the hills here and until the sandy climb to St. Martha’s were steep enough to consider walking so I just kept plodding along. I skipped through the first aid station as it was only about 5 miles in. I had enough food and water to last a while and knew it would help avoid it becoming too busy as the first ones always do.
Those first 12 miles then wizzed by and and a few familiar smiling faces helped add a little atmosphere and buzz to the day. I was heading down the descent from at St. Martha’s to the next aid station, where we’d turn around, and my number count was going haywire. I was around 50 and suddenly struggled to keep count as I passed runners and runners came towards and passed me. I was suddenly around 20 by now.
I then almost stepped on some Goodr sunglasses and stopped to pick them up, checking with each runner coming passed if they’d dropped them. I had better luck as I announced my arrival at the aid station with a loud “anyone drop their glasses?” to which thankfully someone realised they had indeed dropped them. Chatting to the lady I completely lost count of who came and went in the aid station. So I stopped my game and pigged out on sausage rolls, flapjacks and frazzles. Delightful. Fully stocked I headed back out, jogging the climb to St Martha’s once more.
On the return leg, more familiar faces were there with big hi fives from Meg and Daisy and a fleeting hello to Frank at the top of the hill. Back down the sandy path I went. Beaming in the sunny, warm mid morning sunshine.
Running back to the next aid station and onto Denbies again was all very unmemorable. I just kept steady, holding the pace and realising that I was actually holding pace for a solid effort at a sub 5hr 50k. I don’t think I’d ever gone sub 5 before. Other than a marathon distance and 100 miles, I’ve no idea what any of my PBs actually are. But now I had a new game to play, a new way to occupy my mind for the last ten or so miles. I just needed to keep on steady and hold the pace…
I briefly stopped to refill some water at Denbies and carried on for the final loop. This section, as we’d head towards the village of Westhumble, was new to me. Straight away we were met with a long ol’ road incline which warranted a walk. No point busting a gut here. It was much longer than I expected and glancing at the watch I noted that the elevation gain ticked over 700m. I wasn’t expecting that much elevation for the day either, but it made me feel strong, given how little walking I’d done and how comfortable I felt.
Soon I was back on trails and it was delightful to experience a few miles of new trails to explore. The whole loop was deceivingly uphill which I tried to hold my pace on. By the time I’d completed the loop and was heading back down the road section I saw that I’d done another 100m of elevation gain. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Crossing back over the NDW it was now down into Denbies for the final straight through some of the vineyard and across the finish line. Dib dab done. I stopped the watch and I was a few mins under 5 hours. Tidy. I’ll have some of that.
I dropped the timing chip off. Collected my bag and checked the train times. With one in 20 mins I knew I had time for a quick change of clothes and a fast hike to the station. I stopped to get a picture next to the Freedom Racing trailer and a rapid chat with Tom the RD, thanking him for another excellent adventure before I trundled off.
Another day, another race. Another sense of achievement. Job done.
It is the 24th October 2020. I’m running the Beachy Head Marathon along England’s South East coast starting and finishing in Eastbourne. As I am running, I’m also reflecting on my trail-running journey as, back on the 30th December 2017, this is the route I ran when I tagged along for my first social/group run. In some ways, this is where my journey began.
It was after the Never Stop London Christmas party when Jana told me that her and some friends would be going for a group run after Christmas and that I should join. So I did. I joined them on the way down to Eastbourne and, little did I know back then, we ran the Beachy Head Marathon route. The intention was to do the whole thing, all 26 miles of it. But, as we reached Exceat, after 20 miles, with it then becoming very dark, we decided to skip the last few miles along the Seven Sisters and jumped on a bus back to Eastbourne and then home.
That day was a baptism for me on the trails. Whilst I had completed 3 trail runs in 2017, all were at events. This was my first social run, the first time being unsupported without checkpoints and it ended up being the beginning of something special (I didn’t realise this at the time). I remember it was tough. I had the essential kit but I was probably not quite prepared for the day and the elements ahead. I remember early on I slid in the mud and landed side-on in a muddy puddle. I recall the open hillside tracks with the rain and the wind battering our faces – we couldn’t hear each other talking and ran a lot of it in apparent silence. It was the first time I’d met many of those I ran with that day and it was the first of many, many, runs with them and the mighty Gwyn (Susana’s dog). On the bus back to Eastbourne Susana gave us all a medal she’d made. I’m fortunate to call many of them friends now. I loved it all. Now, almost 3 years later, I was back on the Beachy Head route, for the Beachy Head Marathon in its 40th year. My trail running journey continues!
I knew a few people running the route that day. I didn’t expect to see any of them with the social distancing restrictions put in place. To my surprise though, just a few minutes in I ran into Megan who I travelled Borneo with. We caught up as we ran probably about half of the route together. It was great to see here again and especially nice after seeing some of the others from Borneo a few weeks earlier.
Rather than the usual ramblings of how the run went, instead I’ve summarised what the Beachy Head Marathon is and what you can expect if you decide to take on this fantastic event (which you should!)….
What is the Beachy Head Marathon?
It is a trail marathon which means it follows a mostly off road route. It has been taking place every year since 1981 and is a very popular event attracting runners from all over the UK.
The marathon is a strange sort of loop shape (kinda looks like an animal of some sort), starting and finishing on the edge of Eastbourne. Mostly it follows the South Downs Way as you first run towards the village of Jevington, and then continue on through and past Alfriston. When you reach the lookout point at Bo Beep Carpark, you begin to track back towards Eastbourne passing through Litlington and down to the coast via Westdean and Exceat. Once you leave Exceat you follow the undulating coastal trails of the Seven Sisters all the way to the Birling Gap and finally up to ‘Beachy Head’ and back to where it all began.
What to expect.
Firstly the start. It is uphill. If you’ve ever been to Eastbourne and the end of the South Downs Way, you’ll know. The cliffs drop off and the Downs very quickly become the seafront. This is where Beachy Head starts. Immediately after crossing the line you begin the first of many, many climbs. There is no shame in walking the start!
There are plenty of long and open hillside trails with endless views from the South Downs. With plenty of climbs along the route you’ll reach some spectacular view points of the rolling hills. These are mostly unobstructed and you see the hills fall away and rise again in the distance.
Wind and rain. With little shelter from the elements and an October event date, expect plenty of rain leading up to and during the event. Running along the open hill tops and next to the coast means it is very likely you’ll encounter some high winds. This year we had a slight deviation on the route due to the forecast gale force winds.
The rain inevitably leads to mud. Plenty of mud. The trails will become caked in mud. If getting your trainers dirty isn’t your thing, then don’t sign up. Trail shoes are a wise choice if you want to stand some chance of remaining on your feet throughout.
With a number of road crossings, big participant numbers and the multiple aid stations along the route, you can expect to encounter a lot of volunteers and marshals who are all fantastic and encouraging. It isn’t supported in the way road events are, but you won’t be missing the whoops and cheers as there is plenty of encouragement and support available along the way.
Speaking of aid stations, besides the usual water, sweets and chocolates, the Beachy Head Marathon provides an extra delight along the route with sausage rolls available approximately halfway round. By Lord is it a good one! Vegan options are available if that is your thing.
Steps. Whilst most of the climbing is done along trail paths, at two points you will climb a hill by using the large steps built into the hillside. In particular, the last climb before you reach Exceat, where the steps will torment your tired legs. As you descend back down into Exceat you are rewarded for your efforts with wonderful views of the meandering Cuckmere River as it meets the English Channel.
With legs still aching from the fast downhills and the steps to Exceat, it’s not over quite yet as you reach the Seven Sisters for the last 6 miles of the course. Here you run along the undulating cliff top trails as you make your way to the Birling Gap. If your legs weren’t hurting by now, then the last climb out of the Birling Gap back to Eastbourne might just be runnable!
Remember that big climb the race started with? That is your final challenge as you must now attempt to run down it without falling under the steepness of the path and the momentum you build as you descend. Try not to fall because there will be photographers waiting to capture your stumble in all its glory,
Throughout the course there are photographers doing a wonderful job of capturing the highs and lows of the event. With your head down concentrating on the trails, it’s likely the photographers will see you before you see them!
Once you finish, besides the standard medal and water for all finishers, you also get another local delight with a pasty (meat or vegan) for all the finishers. You won’t be needing a pub meal after this one!
If you can manage it, and your legs still work, you can enjoy a leisurely hobble along the seafront and into Eastbourne. A perfect way to finish the adventure!
In short, it is a good one. Whether you’re a first time marathoner, first time trail runner or seasoned addict, get the Beachy Head Marathon on your to do list and have some fun!
Another weekend, another adventure with Maverick Race, this time down on the South West coast in Dorset. I was in two minds about this one. I wanted to do it, I was greedy for the trails and another Ultra, but I was hesitant as I have a few more events in October, November and December and am still feeling the aches from the rest of the year’s adventures. There was only going to be one winner in this decision and I signed-up. Along with some of the usual bunch of running mates we headed down to Wareham on the Friday evening for another weekend away…
At the beginning of the event I dashed to the Adidas Terrex stand to try on some trainers. I recently bought some of the Two Ultra Parley trainers in my usual size and they were huge. A nice comfortable fit around the feet, but long, very long. There was a huge amount of space at the end of my toes. The guys at the stand were incredibly helpful and I came away with more confidence in their sizing as well as a new headband. Result, happy days.
Whilst lining up and queuing to start, Nick made a new friend. A beautiful and very calm husky with piercing eyes. We’d see his new mate again later on along the run. As we waited for Fiona to get through the registration queue we slowly made our way closer and eventually started near the back of the field of runners. There were a lot of people doing the ultra this time, or at least it felt like there were far more than what was in the Peak District a few weeks earlier.
We started off in pairs and after a short section in the forest we reformed into a small group of six – me, Nick, Maria, Jules, Charlotte and Fiona. For the rest of the morning we’d all run together chatting and joking away at every opportunity. We left the forest into a steady downhill along a road, turning left at a junction where there was a sheep-shaped sign for a farm. Shortly after this a runner ran passed in a recognisable Wild TR t-shirt and vanished into the distance. A cyclist coming the opposite way then told us to watch for wet feet. We were confused as it was a beautiful morning but soon realised what he meant when we saw the road ahead was all flooded. The group all started tiptoeing through the deep flood as I filmed and then ran straight through, splashing them and giggling like a kid. We all hoped the wet feet wouldn’t trouble us in 50km time and I immediately regretted the decision of wearing slightly thicker socks for this run!
After the puddle and some fields, we began a series of small and gentle climbs through the wide open space, surrounded by panoramic views with the morning sun shining down on us. It was far hotter than I expected as we climbed in the calm of the morning. We caught up with some of the dogs including Nick’s new buddy and carried onwards. At each opportunity I said a prolonged thank you to all the volunteers and marshals, it brought a smile to all our faces and I soon started to memorise the speech as I repeated it to each and every marshal we encountered.
The first outpost was then in our sights at the start of one of the more prominent climbs on the course. A group of people from a Tri-club were out supporting a team mate who was near us and we absorbed all their support as if it was intended for us. I stopped for water at the outpost as the others carried on and I caught them up towards the top of the climb as we approached a field full of cows on the top of the climb. The cows were standing their ground in the middle of the path and winning the battle against the runners who’d all deviate around them. 1-0 to the cows. From here we descended and I whizzed passed the others and momentarily took us the wrong way. Thankfully only by a few meters!
After crossing a busy road we climbed once more before reaching the second outpost where Ben was volunteering and keeping us going. A belly full of prawn cocktail crisps and we set back off for the next section of about 12km along the coast until the next outpost. We ran down through the village and started making our way towards the coastline.
As we hit the coast we started to walk the many short sharp climbs, running in between as we switched our gaze from the medieval ruins to the dramatic coastline and the calm sea with the sun glistening off the surface. There was very little wind and it was becoming a beautiful day. After the initial set of steps to climb we had a treat of a very steep down hill that immediately looped back up in an equally steep stepped climb. The steps were frustratingly deep and at a slight slant which made it difficult to maintain any real momentum without falling. We joked with and were cheered on by the many walkers out enjoying the climb too.
After more single track coastal trails we could see in the distance the cliffs dropped away and further ahead the dots of runners tracking inland along a long twisting gravel track and further on again even more distant runners looping back to the coast along what looked like a very, very steep climb. It felt like a long time before we reached it ourselves and indeed it was steep, with lots of steps. Nick pulled out the garlic bread (left over from the previous night’s meal) and started chomping away as we climbed. Big lunges once more taking us up the deep steps eroded into the hillside path.
The route was very undulating for the next five miles or so with very steep climbs broken up with lots of single tracks along the cliff edge. Many walkers and hikers kindly stepped aside to let us pass as they cheered us on.
A short while later, with lots of runners ahead and also behind us, we ran down towards an open public space in a cove where there was a public toilet with a tap. We were all gasping and mostly out of water and took turns filling our bottles and wetting our heads. We knew it was only a matter of meters until the third outpost would be seen, but we needed the refreshment. Many runners joined in and queued behind us.
We continued on through the carpark and there it was, the outpost. Jake was there taking pictures as we arrived and Spenny cheered us in and immediately set to work filling our bottles including doubling up with the jugs and doing two runners at once. Top man. We weren’t as efficient though and hung around yapping. It was here, about 30km in, that we split as a group. We’d never set out to run the whole thing together and were sort of in pairs by now, so Charlotte and Maria headed off and a little while after Nick and I followed as Fiona and Jules finished up at the outpost.
With a banana in his shorts (whey hey!) Nick ran on and I followed. After running through some fields and army land we began to climb the second largest climb of the day. This was another long, wide and twisty path, a welcome break from the sharp steps of the previous climbs.
Up top the white cliffs in the distance presented a stunning view as we ran down towards them. I recognised the next climb from the section of the route from the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series ultra I did in 2018 (in far far worse conditions, this was a gloriously crisp and sunny autumn day compared to the overcast stormy day back in 2018). As we ran down to the cove of Pondfeld we could see the girls ahead of us on the final climb. We set up after them with Nick stopping to talk to two gentlemen hiking their way down. I carried on. The climb was the steepest and covered maybe just shy of 200m in total. The ground here was full of divots and make shift steps eroded into the hillside. Up top we looped back along the open hill. I waited and waved Nick over as he rounded the top.
We ran on and Jake appeared once more on the trail and waved us over to get some epic photos along the top of the hill. We followed the straight paths now for maybe 5 miles or so with a slight incline over the distance that helped break the run up with a few short walks. We stopped to take a picture of the Grange Arch and also stopped when we saw Jay directing runners across a road with the tunes blasting out. After the road section we stopped yet again at the final outpost where a generous runner gave Nick some of her Tailwind when he couldn’t locate his own in his pack.
We continued on the straight trails, running through fields and wide open spaces with more photo opportunities along the way. With maybe 6 miles to go, we could, for the first time sense the end of the run and were looking forward to the finish line delights. A nice gentle run down through the fields was a welcome break for the feet and quads compared to the rest of the steep descents and quad busters faced before it.
As we ran on Nick became conscious of time and that, if we kept going we’d sneak in sub 7 hours. We had no times in mind for the run, but now Nick had set his target and had his sights set on a strong finish. I’ve been there myself before. Once a time gets in your mind, you begin to focus, it is hard to let it go. I was confident he’d do it, truth is though I didn’t have the same desire burning in my heart. He started to pull away from me. As we ran the final big descent down to Corfe Castle, he opened quite a gap on me. He waited at the bottom as I filmed and then ran on, entering the forests and woodlands of the last few km where we’d run through various plantations. We estimated about 5km left to go. From here just undulating trails left to cover….
Almost immediately I lost Nick again. He was running strong. I couldn’t keep up. With the twisting forest tracks I couldn’t see him ahead of me. I once caught a glimpse of him climbing a stye at the far end of a field and disappearing into the woodlands. I was sort of loving the trails as they once more brought a huge variation to the last several hours of coastal tracks and hillside paths. Upahead was a weird wooden church type structure (like a tree house almost) which I diverted and ran through, I think to the confusion of the runner behind me. As I climbed a stye into a field I once more sore Nick up ahead and tried to speed up after him.
I’d been passing loads of runners and new Nick was playing ‘Pac-Man’ hunting them down and chomping them off. I did catch up with him eventually, but more due to a bottle neck of runners on a series of very narrow wooden plank paths as we crossed some flooded riverside areas. Together again I told him to go for it. Keep going. I’d keep up if I could.
Maybe a mile to go. Ten mins under the 7 hour barrier. We were confident. We pushed on. Rounding a few small roads into a wide gravel track we saw Maria and Charlotte ahead. As we reached them Nick excitedly exclaimed we were going for sub 7. He encouraged them too and we kept running.
Shortly after our excitement and belief started to fade away. We hit 33 miles and had 6:57 showing on the watch. Something wasn’t right. It didn’t feel like we were minutes away from finishing. Up Ahead loads of runners walking a long winding sandy path. We powered on painfully and tried to maintain focus. I tried to convince Nick to walk but he was having none of it. It felt never ending. The minutes ticked by, 7 hours passed. Undefeated we knew we’d covered the distance in the time. This was just a little extra and GPS differences. We kept going.
Nick’s determination was incredible. I’ve never run like this, he was getting stronger and faster the further he ran. Unlike in the Peaks a few weeks earlier, there was no bonking, no fading, no moaning. He was buzzing and running strong in what was only his third ultra.
We came off the sandy tracks and arrived at the cross roads where we saw the sheep sign 7 hours early. Fucking hell, this was not near the finish! There was a long road and a short forest section still to cover. We ran on, powering up the hill which I once more tried. unsuccessfully, to convince Nick to walk. We passed many more runners along this section who we’d seen hours earlier including a man and his young son running the marathon. We praised them and continued, busting into the forest and finally hearing the feint cheers at the finish line.
We then ran into the field and crossed the line with cheers from those still hanging around and the one and only PC fresh off his 9th place finish! Hero. As we grabbed a beer and coffee, Charlotte and Maria arrived too. We grabbed our bags from the car, changed, said goodbye to Charlotte who began the long drive home. With warm clothes on, we headed to the finish line just in time to cheer Fiona and Jules over the line. Despite separating with 20km to go, we all finished really close to each other.
I finished off the evening by meeting up with a few of the others who I shared two amazing weeks in Borneo with earlier in the year. They’d run the 20km course and were waiting in the pub. Bliss. A perfect end to another amazing weekend.
Less than a year ago Nick ran his first ultra, just a few months after his first marathon. We ran the Hurtwood 50 together and I described the transformation he was going through and the different versions of him as a runner I’d seen that year. Two of those were:
Nick 6.0 – Nick the running addict – He wants it all. He’s signing up to all sorts. He’s pushing, he’s challenging, the change is going exponential
Nick 7.0 – Ultra Nick – … He’s running all the time.
10 months on and I think this couldn’t be more true. The change was and still is exponential. He is seeking out challenges to push himself and test his limits. His aims and desires are radical compared to 18 months ago. He is that one friend constantly coaxing me and others into long runs, into events and races. He is the yes man who is always up for the adventure and challenge. With 3 Ultras in the last year he really is Ultra Nick now. He’s running all the time….