It’s a bitterly cold Saturday morning in late October, the last day of British Summer Time. A north-westerly rips through my shivering body, providing an unwelcome distraction to my pre-race thoughts. I’m not alone. There are over two thousand participants lined up on Eastbourne seafront, all of whom are about to take on the monumental challenge of the Beachy Head Marathon. Some will run, some will run then walk, but me… I’m walking the lot.
But how did a cyclist, who gave up running over six years ago end up here? Back in March a tendinopathy crudely interrupted my riding addiction and walking became my cold turkey. I started walking Parkruns; this led to a six-miler and even a couple of ten-milers, but with the first signs of my injury dissipating the riding resumed and walking was parked.
Summer came, my riding increased and I squeezed three more centuries out of my tendinopathy before it became grouchy all over again. “Three weeks off!” was my prescription. “Mmm… three weeks… I could train for the Beachy Head Marathon in that time,” I gleefully thought to myself.
A ten-miler, a half-marathon and an eighteen-miler became my three steps to Beachy, leaving me with six days recovery from my longest walk ever, before… my longest walk ever.
Back to the start line and four slices of malt-loaf, two energy bars and six gels are stuffed into various pockets alongside a half-litre water bottle. I may have looked like the Michelin Man but the experience of riding more than thirty centuries has provided the wisdom required to fuel for a six-hour event.
I was confident and raring to go, which is more than could be said for my sports watch. This glorified step counter developed a deficiency in the GPS department; either that or it’s scared of the woods. A quality watch and subsequent re-mortgage were out of the question, so I had to rely on the Strava App on my phone which usefully calls out your progress after the completion of each mile. “Distance: twenty-six miles, time: five hours… fifty-nine minutes…” was the dream announcement I was yearning for prior to crossing the finish line later today.
It’s now only a few minutes before the start and I’m staring up at the inaugural climb of the day. The Upper Duke’s Drive climb rises, Godzilla like, into the sky – staring down at us mere mortals daring us to take it on. My pre-race research found that most people walk or even crawl up this first climb… it’s sort of a tradition here. My sub six-hour schedule doesn’t allow me to get stuck behind pedestrians, so I position myself near the front with the elite runners, hoping for a clear path to the summit.
“This is going to be tough… seriously tough,” I think to myself as I delve deep into my virtual jukebox and pull out Unleash the Misery by Evil Blizzard. The lyrics reverberate over and over in my mind, “we need to unleash the misery… so bring it on… bring it on,” stoking myself up for the long journey ahead. I’m oblivious to my surroundings until the countdown begins, “Ten…” the announcer declares, “nine… eight…” athletes and spectators join in until “one… go!” and we’re off. It’s absolute carnage as the brutality of the first climb kicks in. Even some of the faster runners are walking as only the elite few are able to summit without breaking stride. My strategy of placing myself near the front has worked as my path is only blocked on a couple of occasions.
On higher ground, runners stream passed, having either walked the first hill or started behind me. “Don’t get carried away, keep my discipline and stick to my own pace,” I keep telling myself. The last thing I want it to do is get involved in a race now, only to blow up later in the day. My phone is ready to make its first announcement. “Distance: one mile, time: thirteen minutes… thirty-nine seconds…” Strava states. “Wow!” I exclaim to myself, I was expecting to lose a lot of time to that first climb. Godzilla has failed to put any kind of dent into my schedule.
The next three miles are all over a minute inside target pace. I remind myself that I need to rein it in, but my legs won’t let me. They’re behaving like the Duracell Bunny and they just won’t slow down as I arrive at the first check point in Jevington some four minutes ahead of schedule.
The feed station is a scrum as it seems like everyone’s decided to stop here. I’m not planning to waste time at any of these today, just glide by and grab a cup of water. But that’s not possible in the throng… I manage to slip my arm between two bodies, grab a cup and push on. Only a few seconds lost. Although I’ve got minutes to spare, I know the Seven Sisters will snatch a large chunk of time back later in the day, so I’m not hanging about.
The first long climb of the day is the half-mile climb out of Jevington to the top of Snap Hill. The initial route is formed of a narrow path which causes some congestion; it’s not an exaggeration to say everyone is walking. I have to call out. “On your right,” I announce as if I’m on a sportive. My cycle speak doesn’t always work, so I have to change tact. “Passing… on your right,” I announce. This has the desired effect as people move over to let me through. I also receive encouraging comments from those I pass. “That’s awesome passing on your right,” one lady cheekily calls out.
One mile down through Friston Forest is swiftly followed by two miles up to Windover Hill and the site of The Long Man of Wilmington. Although I can’t see him from my lofty position, I know that he’s somewhere on the hillside below, watching over the South Downs. He’s the largest human hill figure in Britain, some two hundred feet taller than me. He stands proud, with a stave in each hand, which presumably aided his passage during an early attempt at this marathon route.
It’s a long descent down to Alfriston, the path is a mixture of damp chalk and loose stones, so I prioritise staying upright over the clock as I tentatively manoeuvre between grippier sections for traction. My thoughts are interrupted by a French accent. “Hey Dave,” Philippe, my mountain climbing buddy calls out as he draws level and slows down for a brief chat. We converse momentarily, exchanging plans for the day and then it’s “Au revoir,” as he moves ahead. A few miles later I manage to out-climb the climber as, unbeknown to me, I pass Philippe on the way out of Alfristion, but I don’t see him… and won’t see him again until we’re back in Eastbourne.
We’re on the longest climb of the day, it’s a full two miles to Bo-Peep Bostal and over six hundred feet nearer the sky. I’m looking forward to meeting my supporters, wife Theresa and good friend Anita, at the summit. The trouble is, I gave them a schedule to be there at eleven forty-five and at the pace I’m going I’ll be there at eleven thirty. There’s only one thing to do in these circumstances. “Hey Siri,” is my announcement “Text Theresa… gonna be early, far too early.” I haven’t made myself clear and Siri sends a garbled message, something about an early photo. I decide to call instead and ask Theresa to go straight to our next rendezvous.
Shortly after thirteen miles, a timing checkpoint signifies the half-way point of this mega-mile extravaganza. The digital scoreboard displays two hours and thirty-nine minutes, signifying an arrival in Eastbourne some forty minutes ahead of target. The expression about counting chickens springs to mind, so I dismiss any thoughts of arriving back at the finish line with a full complement of hatched eggs.
I’m close to High and Over, the hilltop between Alfriston and Seaford. I call ahead, with Siri’s assistance, and find that Theresa and Anita have arrived okay. I’m looking forward so much to seeing them that it motivates me to keep the pace up. Just before the road crossing, I get sight of my smiley support crew for the first time today, giving me a massive boost. I give them both a hug; it’s brief as I don’t want to lose momentum, but it’s enough. “See you at Cuckmere Haven,” I announce, knowing that they’ll have time to drive three miles before I can walk the same distance.
Ten miles to go and time for my caffeine fix. We cyclists are addicted to this stimulant; it’s our way of masking the inevitable pain of riding mile after mile, hour after hour. There’s no time to stop at the nearby Litlington Tea Rooms, so I delve into my pockets until I find a double-expresso gel. My teeth swiftly rip it open and squeeze the gloopy liquid down my throat. It takes a while to digest, but once it’s down I know my consciousness will forget the pain of the last three hours. Which is just as well, as lying between me and the Seven Sisters are a trio of ridiculously steep climbs.
The first two, Steepie out of Litlington and the Charleston Steps are tough, but in reality they only act as a precursor to the Steps of Pain. These are an almost endless set of wooden retainer steps rising skywards from the village of Westdean, delivering you to the edge of the Seven Sisters Country Park. The initial brutal gradient of twenty percent combines with uneven gaps between the steps, adding a degree of difficulty to the climb and breaking any momentum you may have brought into it. A hand rail to the left emphasises its steepness, but a narrow path to the right catches by eye and beckons me to take it on. I grit my teeth, take a deep breath and Unleash the Misery. Tree routes attempt to slow me down but inadvertently aid my ascent as I use them to gain traction, my arms are swinging like pendulums and I’m leaning so far forward my pumping fists are almost scraping the ground. The steps narrow towards the top as my path disappears, I am forced back onto the steps and my “On your right!” routine returns. It works as I reach the summit inside ninety seconds… a post-race Strava check places me some five seconds faster than race winner Andy Coley-Maud.
I’m on a high as adrenaline is coursing through my veins, momentum is everything now and I find myself climbing up and over a wall rather than join an orderly queue formed at an adjacent gate. Maybe it’s a bit reckless as I feel my already tight muscles pull some more, but I just about get away with it and am rewarded with my first glimpse of Cuckmere Haven. The view is absolutely stunning as the Cuckmere River meanders out to the glimmering English Channel. The descent down to road is steep, so my gaze is diverted back to my feet as I remind myself to stay upright.
The foot of the descent brings you to the busy A259 where marshals hold the competitors back to let the traffic flow. This pause gives me time to locate my smiley support crew, a quick look to my right and they’ve just arrived, proving the old adage that it is indeed quicker to walk. “Have we got time for a coffee?” Theresa calls out as I’m crossing the road. I turn back and defiantly call out “Noooo! Go straight to Birling Gap… get one there if you have time!”
Across the road you enter the Seven Sisters Country Park and there’s a completely flat cinder path which runs alongside the snaking river, taking you to the foot of the first sister. But this marathon has a reputation to uphold, so it sends you up and over a long drag before delivering you back down to the path. The route relents briefly and allows you onto the path, but it lasts less than a minute as its ends at the foot of Haven Brow, the first of the septuplets. She stands defiant, the mighty protector of her siblings. She’s almost a mile long and rises from the sea to over two hundred and seventy feet. I’m in awe of her majesty, but I refuse to succumb and power up her colossal slope.
I’m too tired for sums, but the latest Strava announcement provides some easy maths. “Distance: twenty miles, time: three hours… fifty-eight minutes…” the audio cue states. Having walked last week’s eighteen miler in a similar time, I knew I was a full two miles ahead.
Sisters two, three, four and five may be shorter but they deliver some hefty blows. I’m starting to reel, but Evil Blizzard make a comeback. “Unleash the misery… so bring it on… bring it on,” I sing to myself as my bravado returns and sees me through these mini-battles. The clear blue sky and the calm blue sea act as a stunning backdrop but are in a complete contradiction to the pain being dished out by these sadistic sisters. There’s been a lot of pre-race talk of a crack that’s formed near the cliff’s edge, but the only cracking I can see is that of people crawling up the gradients. The downhills don’t provide much relief either as the sheer steepness is painful on taut leg muscles. Gravity is having its say as well, trying to force me to run but causing me to stub my toe and I almost tumble in my efforts to resist.
I’ve dodged blows from the first five siblings but the penultimate sister, Bailey’s Hill, delivers a knockout punch almost stopping me in my tracks. I’m left with no option but to retaliate with my secret weapon, so I rummage in my pockets one more time and pull out my last remaining caffeine gel. I’ve had so many gels today, I’m not sure I can stomach another. The gloopy liquid has to go down one way or another. I gag but quickly follow it with a gulp of water; the caffeine stays down and starts to do its job.
Before you can say double-expresso the last sadistic sister is behind me and replaced by the smiley sisters as Theresa and Anita are waiting for me on the path to Birling Gap. “Blimey, that was a tough section,” I announce as I enjoy another round of well-earned hugs. “But, I’ll be well inside six hours,” I gleefully add as I begin the final push… the two-and-a-half-mile march passed Belle Tout Lighthouse and then up to Beachy Head.
“Distance: twenty-three miles, time: four hours… thirty-eight minutes,” Strava provides a further announcement. “So, three miles to go,” I think to myself, “Worst case scenario is fifteen minutes a mile, mmm, that’ll be five-twenty-three… What!” I exclaim. I redo the maths; it comes out at the same figure. It begins to dawn on me what I am about to achieve and spurs me on as I continue the long push up the last climb of the day.
Beachy Head summit signifies an end to the climbing-fest, it’s now less than a mile to go and it’s all downhill. I’m on top of the world as I take in the stunningly clear view of Eastbourne below. Runners stream passed me on this fast-downhill section, but it’s of no consequence, I’ve overtaken so many runners today and I’m now some forty minutes ahead of schedule.
I recalled the TV programme Who Wants to be a Millionaire where a contestant knowing the answer to the million-pound question used his phone a friend to call his father announcing that he was just about to become a millionaire. I had so much time in hand, I felt like a millionaire. I stopped at the foot of the last descent for one last embrace with my crew before proceeding over the finish line… arms aloft as If I had won that million pounds.
There’s no money in the world that can buy what I’m feeling at the moment… I’ve just walked one of the UK’s toughest marathons in five hours and seventeen minutes. I’m still in a state of disbelief as I watch runner after runner cross the line behind me, my legs are in agony but my head is buzzing with euphoria.
At this moment in time, life is definitely beachy!