27th October 2018

by Owen Delaney

I'd not yet written a race report this year. Having had some pretty ordinary experiences/results to date, I was waiting for one that deserved a write up. Beachy Head marathon duly obliged.

It was a bit of a last minute decision to enter 4 weeks ago, when James Russell persuaded me to join him. Having looked at the elevation profile, I thought it would be a good chance to get some much needed hill training in leading up to Wendover Woods 50 next month, and the Arc in Feb.

The route is also predominantly along the South Downs Way, which never fails to disappoint, so I thought what the hell and signed up.

The best race experiences tend to be when I've not set myself a target, so there's no pressure leading up to race day, and I'm feeling relaxed at the start. Hills are always a good detractor from target setting... You never really know how tough they're going to be until your clambering up them.

The Beachy Head marathon starts with an immediate 300ft climb in the first half a mile, with the grade maxing out at around 30% for the first 100ft or so. We could see it looming at us under the start arch. Yeah, this wasn't a day for goals...

Around 2000 of us set off at 9am, with a short run to the bottom of the hill, then everyone slowed with a quad busting climb up the steps.

The lung burn at the top was at Arethusa Mile levels of nastiness, and the cold air probably didn't help matters. It was apparently 3°C, with a feels like temp of -1°C. Felt more like -5°C to me... But after reaching the top of that first hill, it didn't take many miles of trundling over the rolling hills to warm up.

We followed the South Downs Way for the first few miles, gradually climbing up to the top of Willingdon Hill, at 3 miles in, and the highest point on the course at ~660ft, before descending into Jevington at 4miles.

Then it was a couple of hundred feet up Snap Hill, and down though Friston Forest to take us into Lullington Heath Nature Reserve. Then guess what, back up another hill, this time Windover, at around ~620ft and 8 miles in.

The (single?) nice thing about hills, is that you tend to be rewarded with decent views from the top. Windover Hill is where we joined the SDW again, and could see for miles. It had been a while, but I was reminded why I love running on the South Downs.

After Windover, we dropped around 600ft for the next mile and a half, before crossing a little footbridge over the River Cuckmere and into Alfriston. A proper little English village with lots of supporters lining the streets. The temptation to stop for tea and scones was high.

Next up, literally, was a 2 mile climb back up the Downs to Bo Peep Hill, at around 620ft.

11.5 miles and 1800ft in the bag, and I was feeling pretty strong at this point, having taken it relatively easy so far. There's probably a better word than "easy" to use, that was definitely not an easy 11.5 miles. But I hadn't pushed it too much, and had managed to conserve a decent amount of energy. Or so I thought anyway.

After Bo Peep Hill, we peeled off the South Downs Way, and for the next 4 miles or so, gradually descended back to sea level at Litlington, crossing a timing mat at the half way point. That was a first for me, seeing a timing mat on a trail race. In the middle of nowhere as well.

I probably got a bit carried away on this long downhill, flying along thinking to myself that I'd race the rest of the course, go for a negative split (a big rarity for me), and get to the toilet quicker (I'll spare you the details, but had been feeling that a second visit before the start would have been a good idea...)

That idea quickly hit a stumbling block (quite a few of them actually) after Litlington, where we once again joined the South Downs Way.

We climbed up the steps into Friston Forest again, back down through West Dean, back up more steps into the forest, and down again emerging at the Cuckmere Haven.

From there we climbed once more up to start of the Seven Sisters to begin the final leg along the clifftops.

It didn't look too bad to begin with, and the elevation profile wasn't too shocking for this section.

However, with 19 miles and 2600ft of climbing already behind us, it wasn't going to take much before the legs were done.

The Seven Sisters are deceptively tough, with lots of short sharp climbs, 7 to be exact, believe it or not... Then once they were done with, there was one final 500ft climb back to the top of Beachy Head, which put paid to any brief plans of a negative split. I learned my lesson there, silly boy...  

Coming back down that same hill that we began the day with, as you can probably imagine, made for a spectacular finish. Could have easily been spectacular in a more ambulancy sense, as I was on the verge of losing complete control hurtling down the steps like an idiot. Fortunately managed to cross the line in one piece, and get myself to the toilet in time...

As I crossed the finish line in 4:02:21, the announcer said:

Owen Delaney, SHAEF Shifters    ...what's SHAEF Shifters?

Perhaps we need to send a contingent back next year and show them?

Very happy with the day on all counts. A really well organised event, a glorious but challenging route, with some of the south coast's best views on offer.  

Finished the day with some the best pub food I've had in a long while at the Ship Inn.

Thanks James for persuading me to do it. And thanks for lunch!

I can see this one becoming a regular fixture for me. Cracking stuff.