I entered this Endurancelife event as another training race in my build up to both Thames Path and TDS later in the year. As a ‘training‘ race there would be no taper, and I would aim to run hard, but not at 100%, as my plan is to be back out and training again only 2 days later.
There are 4 races at each of the Coastal Trail Series (CTS) events: 10k, half marathon, marathon and ultra, with staggered starts times. As a result the ultra race was scheduled to start at 8:30, so it was a rather anti-social start to the weekend, creeping out of bed and trying (and failing) not to wake the family. However when I arrived at Birling Gap it was beautiful, with the sun shining, little wind and the promise of a great morning for running.
Registration and the race briefing all went smoothly, but after looking at the complex route map I made sure to concentrate. The Ultra route was effectively the marathon course (a long figure of eight going through Birling Gap twice), followed by the 10k course (a much shorter figure of 8, but still going through the Birling Gap car park twice).
After registration we all walked down the trail to the start line, where after a very short delay we were sent on our way. I was targeting a 5:30 finish, so went off fairly slowly initially, but it was really difficult to judge pace as miles 2 and 3 were up and down the seven sisters. I’ve run the Beachy Head marathon a couple of times, so covered this stretch before, but this time was running the route in reverse, through the first CP at Litlington. However it wasn’t all familiar ground. After running out of Alfriston the route headed up on the South Downs Way, but then forked left and ran beneath the famous Longman, before cutting back on itself and up a very steep climb. We then ran on to CP2 in West Dean, where I filled up my flasks and enjoyed one of the custard creams they were offering – a good choice!
After 15 miles the field was well spread out, so I ran through Friston alone, but then saw dozens of runners heading towards me – these were all doing the half marathon. A marshall directed us all through a gate and down the hill into East Dean. There was plenty of friendly banter and encouragement, and I was really tempted to increase the pace and stick with them, but forced myself to stick to the plan. They had only run 3 miles and had 10 still to do, while I still had 19 more.
We now headed back towards the coast and down into Birling Gap before running up the path to Belle Tout lighthouse and Beachy Head. The route continued toward Eastbourne, but then dropped down what must be the steepest path I’ve ever run to the coastal path and CP3. By this point I was catching a number of other runners doing the ultra race, but also being passed by marathon and half marathon runners, so it was hard to tell who was who.
The route turned back towards Birling Gap, but although I could see the finish area, we suddenly looped round to run away from it again, before crossing the road and joining the route the 10k race was using. I was now running with a real mix of half marathon and 10k runners, who all started accelerating as we passed the ‘1 mile to go sign’. They sprinted off, while i followed behind before seeing the only ‘Ultra’ race marking on the route, directing me away from the finish and back to the start line for lap 2.
This was my favourite part of the race. I was now running alone again, and without the constant distraction of others racing passed all the time, I finally managed to reach that state where my mind seems to detach from my body. While my body gets on with the hard work of putting one foot in front of the other, up and down every hill, my mind drifts off, just keeping enough awareness to make sure i don’t get lost, or stop eating and drinking. In this state I feel I can run all day and night if need be.
I caught a passed a couple of other runner as i arrived at CP4, then shortly after found myself at the path where I had seen the half marathon runners for the first time. So down the hill to East Dean, back to Birling Gap, then back up to Beachy Head for the second time. At CP5 the marshalls had kindly walked up from their checkpoint to the junction. This meant they could make sure no-one would run passed to Eastbourne for a second time. I could turn back here for a steady downhill mile and half run into the finish.
My garmin reported 34.1miles in 5:25:25. The official results are not out yet, but the print out at the finish said 8th place.