Sunday 11th March 2018

by Rodney McCulloch

Stretching out some 2,158 metres (1.34 miles) into the Thames Estuary, Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. First built in 1830, the pier is a Grade II listed building, and over the last two centuries it has seen much change, and many ups and downs. On Sunday 11th March 2018, a new piece of history was made – the first ever Southend Pier Marathon – 11 laps out and back along the length of the pier. It was the first Marathon to take place entirely on a pier above the sea, and I was lucky enough to be one of the 91 finishers to enjoy this unique and truly memorable experience!

The Southend Pier Marathon was put on by Sussex Trail Events – a great bunch of people who organise many different trail events around Sussex, ranging from 10k up to 138 miles! Last year they ventured into new territory, as they successfully hosted the first ever Multi-Storey Car Park Marathon, in Worthing (why hasn’t it been done before?!) - so for 2018 they were looking for another mad cap marathon challenge for runners to take on – which is how they came up with a marathon entirely on a pier!

The initial 100 places for the Southend Pier Marathon sold out within a few hours, and I thought I had missed my chance… but a couple of weeks before the event I heard that a few entries had become available, and I snapped up the last one going! I’ve always been attracted by races that are completely different from the ‘big city’ norm on tarmac. A future bucket list one is doing a marathon on a 400m track, but that’s for another day!

Entering a marathon just two weeks before with lack of training isn’t the best idea (to put it mildly!), but I wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to do this event – I just knew I needed to be sensible with my pacing to reflect the lack of mileage done in 2018 and to savour the atmosphere and unique nature of the event!

Race weekend had arrived; I took the train down to Southend-on-Sea on Saturday afternoon, about an hour out from central London. As soon as I checked in to where I was staying, I wanted to check out the Pier from the seafront for a recce. It was a daunting but also an epic sight to see just how far it stretched out to sea, with the Kent skyline clearly visible in the distance across the Thames estuary. It was good to have another local runner - Ian Cunningham, doing the event too, so we caught up for the obligatory pre-race pizza at Pizza Express, before collecting our numbers from the race organisers at the hotel overlooking the Pier.

The early morning forecast for the race was grim, with spells of heavy rain and wind throughout. But as we assembled on the start line for the race briefing (which was brief – “run up and down the pier 11 times, collect a wristband after each lap, keep the sea to your left and right”), the rain had cleared through – although the strong southerly wind would remain a factor throughout.

At 9:50am our adventure into the unknown began – 11 laps out and back along the 2k Pier – there was now only one way I was getting off this pier now: once I had completed 26.2 miles! I had no idea what running on wooden planks would feel like, but after a lap or two I had got used to it, and the surface wasn’t too unforgiving on the feet or slippery, so I settled down into a steady rhythm around 7:50-8 min miling pace, with a small group for company in the first few laps.

The laps really helped to break down the effort and to not think too far ahead – I just focused on the lap I was on, taking in the sea views, waving to the passengers on the parallel train as it passed by. We got a wristband from the race director after each lap when we returned to the start of the pier, and there was a well-stocked aid station there too!

By the end of lap 4 I was starting to feel warm in my wind jacket as the wooden planks had dried and the sun came out, so I stopped briefly to take off the jacket, gobbled down a few jelly babies and cookies from the aid station and continued on my way. At this stage the runners had spread out a bit more, I was enjoying the solitude of it, the 360 degree views and the sound of the waves and the wind.

I reached halfway in around 1:43, which was pretty much spot on what I was looking for, and having completed 6 outs and 5 backs of the Pier I still felt reasonably good at around 7:50 min miling, and began counting down the laps to go rather than counting how many I had completed.

What made this marathon more special was the feeling of support between runners, we were all in it together and there was that shared respect of the challenge, seeing runners coming the other way and encouraging them and vice versa, very different from an A to B course. Although the downside of the laps was turning around at each end of the pier every 10 minutes or so, and seeing the full 2 kilometres of Pier stretched out in front of you… sheer mental torment on tiring legs, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way, I was relishing it. For those local to Bushy Park, imagine Chestnut Avenue x2 and that gives you some idea of the length!

Laps 7 and 8 were a hard grind, too early to start thinking about the finish in increasingly tiring body and mind, but the pace remained consistent at just under 8 minute miling. The wind was definitely picking up from more of an easterly direction, and it felt colder than when we set off a couple of hours earlier! At this stage any brief shelter from the wind on sections of the Pier was very welcome, I was getting used to which planks to run on by this stage too, all the minor features of the Pier were becoming very familiar by now!

As planned I stopped briefly at the end of lap 8 for some more refuelling – more jelly babies and some other bites as well as taking on liquid for the final 3 laps – I was definitely in countdown mode by this stage, just 3 outs and 3 backs to go. For the first time I had noticed just how far the tide had gone out since we set off, that put the time we were out on the Pier into some perspective!

In final few kilometres, I could definitely feel my legs getting heavier and the lack of training showing its hand, but the pace was still ok, just drifting outside 8 minute miling for the first time – at this stage the support from Ian C and the other runners really helped, as well as the local spectators walking the pier who wondered what on earth we were doing!

Turning for home at the end of the Pier for the final time was a wonderful feeling; to enjoy the view of the coastline one last time, every step getting closer to the finish. I wanted to have a sprint finish, but the legs were neither willing nor able, however I was delighted to finish in 3:28:57 – officially my slowest Marathon by a minute, but by far my most enjoyable and the best I’ve felt throughout the whole distance. I was very pleased to have achieved sub 3:30 off of hardly any training in February thanks to snow and flu, and a positive split of less than 2 minutes shows I pitched the pacing effort about right on the day.

Once I’d finished it really hit me just how cold it had become with the easterly wind, I think the adrenaline during the race helped to limit the feeling of it… so once I’d got the obligatory photo with medal (with obligatory comical hair), I put on another 4 layers on and waited for Ian to finish. Ian finished inside his sub 4 target; his training had also been up and down before the marathon so he was very pleased with his race too. The refuelling and thawing out process began with fish and chips (which never tasted so good), before heading home for more refuelling.

A huge thanks have to go to the Sussex Trail Events team for putting on such a fun and unique event with a great atmosphere among the runners, it was a great success. It was an experience I will always remember regardless of how many marathons I end up doing in the future… but I’ll be happy if I don’t see a pier for a while! It looks like this race could become a very popular annual event from now on, so what are you are waiting for?!