While everyone who towed the start line of the 2020 Beachy Head Marathon had to work incredibly hard to reach the finish, I think most would concede that the biggest achievers of the day were the organisers and volunteers.
With so many events postponed or cancelled outright, here was a small window of opportunity just a few weeks ahead of a second lockdown to put on a race and celebrate the marathon’s 40th anniversary in style.
To be clear, they didn’t just deliver one COVID-secure run – they actually managed three, splitting out the 10k and half marathon variants into standalone events across two weekends.
Impressive and hugely appreciated, because I for one had not been able to take part in a proper race since the Stafford Half Marathon way back in March.
Beachy Head was also supposed to be our annual Buzzer meet up in place of the Snowdonia Marathon, which has now changed to ballot entry and therefore limits the number of us who could realistically attend.
Uncertainty around coronavirus restrictions and a plea from the organisers for spectators to stay away meant most of the group felt it best to withdraw, leaving just me, my brother and Maxine to fly the Buzzer flag.
We certainly missed you all, but in the end it was probably for the best. Even meeting socially would have been problematic because of tight controls on household mixing and the wretched rule of six.
I had enough problems getting into a pub by myself on Saturday afternoon for a celebratory post-race pint!
We’ll get our chance to reunite and run together, hopefully in the not too distant future.
As for me, the excitement of knowing the marathon was going ahead was temporarily soured when I had a major ‘oh s**t’ moment the evening before we were due to travel.
The online hotel booking I’d made several months ago cancelled itself because my payment card had expired. Classic case of ‘computer says no’ and the system, unable to collect the outstanding balance, automatically ditched our two rooms.
Partly my fault for not checking my emails, but equally why the hotel didn’t bother to intervene and phone me is rather baffling.
Anyway, one sleepless night later and I eventually managed to get hold of the owner. Fortunately the rooms were still free and we could travel down to Eastbourne as planned.
At least the event organisers had a better handle on things. The main COVID-related changes they imposed were to replace the mass start with waves spread over an hour.
No race village, no bag drop, reduced number of aid stations, a few single file / no overtaking sections on the course and no medal presentations at the finish. Masks or face coverings required in the pens and everyone had to stay socially distanced as much as possible.
All of this I could comfortably live with, including the need to be more self-sufficient for water and nutrition as I usually wear a hydration vest on longer distance runs anyway.
In fairness, the wave start arguably worked better because if you’ve ever seen race day footage from Beachy Head (or ran it before) you’ll know how easily the first hill and a number of bridge crossings and gates on the course can become bottlenecks.
What I also liked was how you kept seeing other runners from your start pen out on the course. We’d all estimated our finishing times so in theory should be running at a similar pace. In my wave it worked perfectly and people I’d been chatting to in the queue were still around me up to the final aid station at mile 23.
Ah yes, company. Other runners. Absent from the vast majority of my running this year, well over a thousand miles to date. I’m happy enough as a solo runner and can lose myself in music and podcasts for anything up to full marathon distance.
However this was wonderful. Maybe it was the fact we’d missed racing so much, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a chatty, upbeat and supportive pack of runners.
And while the sun didn’t shine that weekend at Beachy Head, replaced by drizzle and a punishing 40mph wind, the running community most definitely did. A welcome return, albeit a brief one now that lockdown restrictions have frustratingly returned.
I have to say, that was my main objective for this event – to enjoy it and savour the experience of racing again. I did have a goal-time in mind, which was, allowing for the 4,000+ ft of elevation and the off-road nature of the course, around five hours.
The lack of congestion resulting from the wave start made the opening miles very pleasurable and wonderfully scenic, but with that space came the temptation to go off too fast and expend too much energy in running the first few hills.
I quickly realised that Beachy Head is, as one of our fellow Buzzers neatly puts it, very ‘uppy downy’ and duly backed off the pace for fear of repeating the catastrophic blow-up from my last attempt at a trail marathon in the Forest of Dean two years ago.
The mantra became run when you can, walk when you have to and stay properly fuelled. Added to that, I also made a point of fully stopping at each aid station to refuel and stretch… and tuck into the fabled sausage rolls at mile 16 that are one of Beachy Head’s hallmarks!
There is a lot of variety in surfaces to contend with on this course as well. Grass, gravel, chalk, mud, leaves, tarmac and at one point rocks set almost like cobblestones that were both sharp and slippy.
You have steps to climb and styles to traverse. Many of the trails also have adverse camber, which is punishing on the ankles and a test for tired legs.
I’ve heard a few people describe Beachy Head as an ultra in all but distance and having now tackled it I see what they mean.
It was about seven miles in that I got my first proper taste of the difficult weather conditions. We reached the top of another big climb, rounded a corner and smacked into a ferocious headwind.
Chatty runners fell silent and we all started getting used to that ringing, whistling sound in our ears that would persist for hours to come. And flapping race numbers. Oh the noise of flapping paper! How it stayed fixed to my shirt for the duration remains a mystery.
I reached half distance in just under 2:25, feeling pretty fresh but equally a bit edgy that I’d need to run almost even splits to make five hours. With more elevation in the second half thanks to the Seven Sisters, that was going to be a big ask.
At least the stretch ahead was pretty runnable, either flat or downhill all the way to the next aid station. In a field, some spectators had set up a portable speaker and We Will Rock You was blasting forth. Well, what would you do?
Arms up, clap hands in time to that iconic chorus and thank them for their support. It gave me a nice lift at a point where energy levels were starting to dip.
The biggest physical challenge of the day for me was the stretch from mile 17 to 23. The two sets of steps left me drained, the uphills of each of the Sisters were a crawl and the swirling wind meant even the downhills offered little respite.
It just left you so unstable, pushing you forward when you didn’t want it to and hitting you in the face when you changed direction. Still, at least the views were impressive! And the heavy rain that was forecast stayed away, arriving much later in the evening long after I’d finished.
We had plenty of supportive marshals out there, offering welcome words of encouragement and friendly smiles.
Just a tip though Beachy Head – how about printing names on numbers like they do for Snowdonia, Great Run and many other events? I thought I was in the military when people kept shouting out ‘looking strong, 642, don’t stop now’!
By mile 22 I was feeling pretty low. The Sisters were done but had taken their toll, so I forced another gel down and used the next aid station to refill my water and take a few minutes rest.
Five hours was highly unlikely now, I think I had about 30 minutes to complete nearly four miles and there was still one big climb remaining.
The stop helped so I could at least run-walk the next two miles and I certainly wasn’t the only person struggling. I had to laugh though when I got well and truly rumbled by a marshal who clocked me go instantly from a head-down trudge to a purposeful, energetic running stride because there was an official photographer ahead.
“I saw that,” he said with a wry smile. Joking, of course. Mind you, the photo came out well…
With the final hill completed, I was promised by a spectator that it was all downhill from here. Willing it to be true, I picked up the pace and made a determined push for home.
All downhill was perhaps an exaggeration, but it was very runnable nevertheless. Life came back into my legs, I chased down a few runners ahead of me and clocked an 8:33 final mile just before the steep descent to the finish line.
For all the low points traversing the Sisters and the pain of those horrible uphill steps, this was a truly exhilarating finish.
To hear people cheer and clap you home, rather than the mere soulless beep of a Garmin at the end of yet another solo run… My goodness, it just made me realise how much I’ve missed the proper race day experience.
The time was 5:18 in the end and I’m pleased enough with that, particularly when I later discovered I was placed just inside the first half of the field.
Conditions were tough, the course even tougher. And being more relaxed about finishing times is all part of my gradual progression from road to trail, marathon to ultra. Judge your performance by effort, not just the watch.
I am also pleased to have finished without sickness or a crash. My recovery was swift and I even managed a four miler on the seafront the following morning to keep me loose ahead of the long drive back to the Midlands.
I said Beachy was tough and with this in mind it draws obvious comparisons with Snowdonia, not least because they usually take place on the same day.
To be honest, I thought they would be similar but I actually think Beachy Head is more challenging. For a start, it has greater elevation, but more than that Snowdonia is, by and large, a very runnable marathon.
All but three or four miles are on roads, the hills are brutal but condensed into three main climbs and even then if you’re strong enough and your technique is good, you can run them.
Beachy Head is very stop/start. You struggle to get a rhythm going because the surface or elevation keeps changing from mile to mile. My best time at Snowdonia is nearly 40 minutes quicker and I genuinely don’t think I put less effort in this weekend.
Which do I prefer? My heart will always say Snowdonia because of two brilliant Buzzer weekends where the socialising was as enjoyable as the running, plus my first visit coincided with a difficult time in my life where I needed to escape and do something to feel good about myself.
But Beachy Head comes highly recommended and if you’re more accustomed to road running, it will give you a very different perspective on completing 26.2.
One for the bucket list, I’d say. And they give you a ginormous pasty at the finish along with your medal. What’s not to love?
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