Saturday 2 April 2011

CTS Sussex Marathon - Stage 6 of 8

The preparation for the latest Endurancelife event was pretty straightforward:  recover from the last one enough to make it to the starting line.  With only two weeks between Pembrokeshire and Sussex, I focussed on rest and rehab for the first week, rebuilding the little tweaks and tears that any race will cause.  I did a bit of light running in the second week, more for relaxation than for physical training.  My body wasn’t really in the mood to run, but we were due a sunny week and I was looking forward to some excellent scenery.

As anticipated, the morning dawned calm and hazy.  It wasn’t warm, but we were due to start at around 10 degrees and climb up to around 14 with some extra warmth if the sun broke through the mist.  Morning preparations went well, and I felt fully fuelled by the time we arrived for registration.  The only worry was that my legs felt like lead and I wanted a few more hours of sleep!  So, while I waited in the milky light for the race briefing, I found a nice patch of grass and stretched out for a cat nap.  Nic evidently found this amusing and kindly captured the moment for posterity.

Pre-race preparations

After what seemed like only a few seconds, but was probably a good few minutes of snoozing, it was time to get up and get warmed up.  My intention was to take it very easy in the first few minutes and then just take the day as it came.  I had no idea how my aching bones would cope with another day in the hills.

No need to hurry, the hills aren't going anywhere.

The course started at Birling Gap, in the middle of the “Seven Sisters.” The Seven Sisters are a series of short, steep hills on the English Channel coast, associated with the famous Beachy Head.  We headed west, taking in just over half of the Sisters on our first coastal section.  I’ve seen this iconic coastline on television many times – the stark white chalk offset by the blue sea, blue sky, and green grass.  It was invigorating to not just see it in person, but to be a part of it – to take on the challenge of the terrain and to appreciate its rugged beauty.

Looking back over Birling Gap towards Belle Tout Lighthouse

The course heading off across the Seven Sisters

The ascents were short and steep, and I hiked up most of them to conserve energy for later in the day.  The descents were built for speed – steep, generally soft under foot, and not too technical.  So, in typical fashion, I flew down the hills with arms and legs flailing and then slowed to a fast stomp once the momentum ran out on the uphill.  I was having so much fun, I even tried to get a few snaps on the way.  And, yes, I did actually exclaim “Wheeee!” on one of the more exciting drops.

This is what happens when you point the camera to the side on a fast downhill.

Steeply down followed by steeply up!

Plenty of hills to come
Only the leaders can run up all of these!

Green rolling hills just keep coming

Only a few Sisters left to go!


Finally, the chalky Sisters are behind us

By the time we turned inland at around 5k, the field was completely spread.  All of the people I chatted with as we leapfrogged our ways up and down the Sisters were strung along the countryside.  I could see pairs of runners, but there were no more large groups.  I settled into a rhythm with the expectation of 24-25 miles of solitude broken only occasionally by the short exchange of running tales while passing or being passed.

Our trip through West Dean and the surrounding hills was fairly uneventful.  I reached the first check point at 5.5 miles feeling slightly better than I had at the start, but in generally high spirits.   The sun was occasionally shining, the wind was very light, and I was running comfortably enough in spite of the little aches and pains left over from my trip to Wales.  There was even a mile of flat running between Litlington and Alfriston (well, almost a mile).

Approaching Alfriston

From Folkington, the course turned south and back towards Birling Gap.  To get back to the coast, we had to climb back over a few miles of the South Downs.  As the coast neared, the wind speed increased.  The promised stiff breeze out of the Northeast was cool, but not overly unpleasant.  I donned my windproof vest that had been tucked away for the previous eight miles.  Happily, it never got cold enough to need a hat or gloves for the first time in months.

The long climb out of Folkington

Mist burning away on the South Downs.

The highest point in the race.

At about 11 miles, I started to figure out how far I would finish behind Nic.  She was running the half, which started an hour and a half after the marathon.  It’s funny how useful I now find all those irksome math problems from school that start “if a train starts from point A at 9AM, and another train starts from point B at…”.  Anyway, I guessed that I would finish 30-45 minutes after her.  Playing with the mental math and a few different scenarios kept my brain occupied through the final stretch of woodlands – there’s not much to see when you’re surrounded by trees.  It also confirmed that unless she was having a shocker, I wouldn’t catch her, so there was no point in trying to recover that amount of time just for the fun of passing her on the line.

At Birling Gap, I ran into (almost literally) the back half of the 10k as they started their race.  There was a small pinch point where we were going in opposite directions.  Thanks to those courteous 10k participants who let a fairly ragged and confused looking runner through! 

Next came the climb up to Belle Tout lighthouse, which had been shifted away from the eroding cliffs edge a few years ago.  This was a nice, gentle reminder that the remaining Sisters were still here and still steep.  On the way down from the lighthouse, the course turned directly into the ever-increasing breeze.  The remaining coastline became a trial against the wind, the hills, and general fatigue.

It was a long, slow climb up Beachy Head!

Beachy Head itself was a long, slow drag followed by a 1:2 descent.  I normally avoid leaning back on a downhill, but to lean forward wouldhave resulted in a very long and uncomfortable series of somersaults.  I ran / hopped my way down, barely in control.  By the time the gradient eased to a 1:3, I was still going too fast to open into a normal running stride.  It was easily the steepest descent I had ever successfully navigated, and was exhilarating.  It was also slightly exhausting, and I returned to a jog for the next mile or so while I recovered.  I was moving along easily enough, and sent Nic a message to say I’d finish somewhere between five hours and 5:15.

It wasn’t long before I left the coast again at Eastbourne, heading back up into the Downs.  For a while, the wind was again from behind and the sun gently shone.  The course led across the hills towards Birling Gap for a little over a mile.  Then we turned south towards the coast, and then again east back towards Eastbourne.  This little inland loop existed to make up the mileage, but the open downland provided some pleasant surroundings. 

There weren’t any flat sections, just up and down, into and out of the wind.  At 20 miles, I started to feel light-headed.  I realized that I was fast-approaching The Wall.  I had planned to take my final gel at around 21 miles anyway, so I downed it with plenty of water and slowed to an easy walk for about 5 minutes to give my body a chance to process some of the sugars floating around my bloodstream.  The south-bound segment started with a nice steady downhill, so I eased back into a run while I had gravity on my side.  I started to feel better, and was able to keep a reasonable pace until the turn back into the wind at 23 miles.  The wind pushed me to a slow trudge, and then a long, exposed drag broke me.  I dropped back to a walk and sent Nic an update that I was going to be an extra half hour, given how things were going. 

My experience of these races has led me to plan for a 28 mile run, regardless of the official distance.  At Pembrokeshire, I felt like rubbish for the last four miles, always thinking that it wasn’t too far to the finish, so I might as well just push on.  In the end, I lost quite a lot of time in those four miles, and finished completely wiped out.  With that in mind, I opened my “emergency” pack for the reserve gel and took it.  Gels normally take about 15 minutes to have an effect.  At the pace I was moving, that would give me some benefit at 24 miles.  With luck, I would also be moving from the simple sugars of the previous gel to making use of the complex sugars at about the same time – a double boost.

Just before the 24-mile checkpoint, Nic sent me back a message to say that she’d finished the half, and the final 5k was basically flat.  So, as I climbed to the checkpoint and watched the paragliders launching themselves off the cliffs, I held out hope that I was nearly over the worst.  The marshals confirmed that only a little over 3 miles remained (only 27 miles this time!), and I started to feel human again.  We headed down towards the road, and I saw the earlier treacherous drop from the top of Beach Head off to my left.  At that point, I realised that we would not re-climb that monstrosity, and cracked a grin.  Obviously, the sugars were also starting to work, because my improved mood coincided with improved pace.

The course carried on along the lower portions of the cliffs, and my legs started to feel strong.  I eased down the last steady hill at a good run, texting Nic as I picked my way among the gorse, to let her know I was running again and would finish soon.  The bad patch well and truly behind me, I pushed the pace for the last two miles, knowing I would have three weeks to recover.  With the stiff wind now at my back, plenty of gentle downhill, and refuelled legs, the finish came quickly. 

Speeding to the finish!

Looking back, those last two miles were two of the three fastest of my race.  The tailwind made an enormous difference.  And, with the help of a little sugar and water, I managed to recover the 5:30-5:45 I’d anticipated when everything was falling apart and finish in under five hours.  Mentally, the race was as difficult as any I’ve done.  It was made a little easier by also being one of the most scenic courses I’ve experienced for any distance.  And completing it in a good time gives me confidence that I might just manage the stupidly hard Exmoor (5/5 on the difficulty scale) in a sub-6 time.  Bring on the recovery, and bring on the next race!

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