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Beachy Head marathon 2009

In 2009 I went to Eastbourne so I could take part in the Beachy Head Marathon. I took the family but the experience taught me that sometimes it’s best to leave the kids at home! The race is a 26 mile round trip starting in Eastbourne in East Sussex, heading up into the South Downs for a scenic meander before turning to the coast with a stretch of 6 miles over the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs and back to Eastbourne. It was my first off-road race. I set off too fast and scaled the hills till my legs burned with lactic acid. After a couple of hours like this in the rain, I was exhausted and still not at the half-way mark. Worst of all, the views of the National Park and the sea, which I’d hoped would take the edge off any discomfort, were almost entirely hidden by a fog worthy of a most clichéd Hammer Horror film. By the time I shuffled to the finish, Damon had taken the kids back to the BnB. They were soaked and worried what had happened to me. Only my mum was there. She’d taken dozens of photos, some showing runners falling down the mud-covered slope which marked the end of the race.

We liked Eastbourne enough to come back in 2013 for the annual Airshow (I blogged this in Planes!) and last week a smaller family entourage (Damon, my daughter and I) returned so I could run the marathon again. This time I had much more experience of cross-country and hillier training routes in my repertoire. But I now also have mild sciatica on the left side and on my right foot, in the base of the big toe, there’s a stiff lump which looks like an onion and is actually a bunion! In the days before the race the question that kept plaguing me was could this dilapidating body beat that of the fresh (ok, naïve) 39 year old that I was?

It did!

Much of it thanks to having plenty of energy: I’d tanked myself up the previous days with plenty of carbs – pizza for lunch, pasta for dinner, Greek yoghurt with banana for breakfast and home-baked cake for pudding and between meals! Much of it was due to good training and setting off at a sensible pace. But also because the sun came out. Runners are almost always complaining that some aspect of the weather in a race isn’t to our liking: it’s always too hot, too cold, too wet and if it’s windy you can bet it’s blowing from the wrong direction. Don’t ever give sympathy!  A sunny race now and then makes up for all others. As we were climbing one of the Seven Sisters, a runners shouted: “look behind you, not just forward!” We turned and saw the white cliffs, the grass deep with colour, the sea a soft blue and green and a warm ochre from the waves advancing to the shore stirring the shingle and sand.  I’d had my most enjoyable marathon ever and finished to cheers from Damon and Connie as well as friends from my running club who’d come to support a whole gang of us were taking part.

Connie and the Alpaca in our groovy hotel room

We didn’t rush back home but stayed for the weekend. After a dinner during which I consumed as many calories as I’d expended and more – a common indulgence amongst those who exercise known as ‘overcompensating’ – we walked to the Eastbourne pier and the arcade where Connie wanted to spend her pocket-money. But they were closing up: although it was Saturday night, it was windy and cold.  Everyone had stayed ashore. Except for an older man chatting to one of the arcade workers. When he saw Connie looking dreamily at cuddly-toy alpacas trapped inside a claw machine, he asked the worker to open the glass and handed one to her. She was speechless! The man turned out to be Abid Gulzar, the owner of the pier. He’d bought it after the fire in 2014 which destroyed the roof (this is now restored with the domed roofs painted gold which picks up the sunshine nicely). He told us he doesn’t at all miss Clapham where he lived happily for decades. He now lives in a suite at his hotel and starts the days looking out of the window at the beach and the sea.  We followed this up with a film at the Eastbourne Curzon, which has an old-style ticket machine, slender red velvet seats, a worn patterned carpet and a time travel feel to it.

The next day (still sunny), we walked along the beach at nearby Birling Gap. You may know that Beachy Head is a notorious suicide spot and dangerous too since all the chalk cliffs are eroding, their edges occasionally dropping off in chunks.  You can’t help wondering when you’re there if there aren’t easier, less terrifyingly brutal ways to die.

Marathon elevation profile with height in metres against my running time. The Seven Sisters are the little peaks two-thirds of the way.

I’m not writing this to persuade you to run Beachy Head – to do that you’d have to be self-driven!  But if you get a chance, do visit Eastbourne and walk along some of the race route, including the South Downs, the Seven Sisters and the silky ribbon of river Cuckmere where it winds to the sea. I can’t wait to go back as there’s still more to see and old favourites to revisit.

Photo credits: Sussex Photography, Gordana Johnson and (below) Connie