"But what if we don't make the cut offs?" Emily asked.
"Don't worry about that, we'll make them with time to spare." I tried to allay her fears, despite harbouring them myself.
"But it's really hilly, it's going to be very hard."
"If it were easy, everyone would do it!!" I tried to cheer her up a bit.
We were on the start line of a 55km trail ultra marathon on the Sussex Coast. This was to be our last long run before the Marathon Des Sables (MdS), but also crucial race experience and mental preparation for Emily (and me) three weeks ahead of the main event. If we managed to successfully complete the race, it would be a huge confidence boost the alternative being too awful to contemplate. The cut offs Emily referred to were time limits at each checkpoint, the most aggressive being 6hrs 15 minutes at the marathon distance. The event was split into several races - a 10km, half marathon (21km), a full marathon (42km), and the Ultra, which was to be a loop of the marathon course and then a loop of the 10km course.
We arrived at the car hire desk at 8.40pm local time, 9.40pm our time, and were both pretty tired from the busy week and travel, not to mention nerves at the upcoming weekend's agenda. We just wanted to get into our little rental car, cover the 55 miles to the B&B, and hit the sack, as the alarm would be set for 6am the following morning giving us enough time to have a light breakfast, find the race start, register and listen to the briefing ahead of the gun which was scheduled for 8.30am.
"Can I have your passport, drivers license, international drivers license, credit card, and Monaco resident's card please?" The car hire lady asked me politely. This was not going to be a 2 minute in and out job, despite pre paying for everything online.
"Now, we actually have a couple of our premium selection cars on offer today. We have a Mercedes S350 or a Jaguar F Pace."
"Sounds good." I said, thinking that maybe we were getting a free upgrade.
Ten minutes later and much paperwork I realised that she was going to charge me an extra £300 for the pleasure of the bigger car, so I turned her down and stuck to the Fiat 500 which I was actually looking forward to driving, as I was so used to big cars at home.
Once we had taken out the extra insurance (parking in a field was in the car's near future), we eventually loaded our hand luggage into the Fiat's boot (a tight squeeze!), and 45 minutes after our arrival at the hire car desk we were finally off.
We were greeted by Dave and Allison, the proprietors of the Beamseley Lodge B&B on Eastbourne Seafront, and in direct contrast to the hire car experience we were checked in, paid, and put in our order for packed breakfast (ham sandwich, banana, pastry and a cereal bar), in one and a half minutes, and we collapsed into bed after preparing our race gear. The room was a good size with a sea view and very comfortable beds.
We woke up before the alarm as ever, and looked out the window to see the view. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, both a lurid shade of brown, with huge waves indicating the presence of strong winds, and the window was drenched - although it wasn't clear whether that was spray from the wind and sea or just torrential rain. We sombrely dressed, threaded our way down the country lanes going in and out of thick fog patches. We parked in a field and headed straight to the start, beating the registration queues and giving us plenty of time to prepare, stretch, pin on our numbers and have a chat to my parents who had come down for the race. The registration process was excellent - we found our bib numbers as we queued, signed a waiver, collected our bibs and t shirts, and had chips attached to our wrists - of the sort that you have to dip into a receiver at the checkpoints. Both of us only had the pain au chocolat for breakfast preferring to save the sandwich for later. It was going to be a long day and we had plenty of supplies in our back packs (lighter than full MdS packs although still weighing in at around 4kgs).
The organisers were running late, but after a 10 minute briefing we gathered at the start, marvelling at the bloke in a vest and shorts (I had 2 jackets, a long sleeved top and a t shirt and was still cold - obviously my heat training was paying off). Finally, we set off, Em and I at the front of the 180 or so starters of the Ultra Marathon.
The start was at Birling Gap, right on the coast and in a dip between two of the rolling chalk cliffs that line that piece of the Sussex Coastline. Keeping the sea to our left, we headed directly along South Downs way along the coast and up the first of the Seven Sisters. These are a series of rolling chalk cliffs, covered in short grass and dropping off directly into the sea on our left, with deceptively steep but mercifully short climbs and descent. AS we topped the first one the pack of runners bottlenecked until we could get through the first of many kissing gates. I managed to get enough shelter from the wind and rain to take my first photo, just as the runner in front of me lost his hat to the wind. Emily laughed as he was seen heading in the wrong direction trying to catch it before it blew over the edge into the sea. I was pleased that she had cheered up a bit now that we were on our way.
The headwinds as we crested each of the Sisters were brutal, making forward progress at times almost impossible. Both Em and I were able to descend quickly at full sprint overtaking some of the less fluid descneders, and then power walk up the inclines being overtaken by the faster runners. We chatted with some of our fellow runners, not least the lady from "Trotters Independent Trail Runners" who had optimistically placed a pair of sunglasses on her forehead for later. I had left mine in the car, and wondered whether it would clear up enough to warrant them later on.
After what seemed like nine of the Seven Sisters, we mercifully turned inland, using a cut in the chalk from a river. I got chatting to a chap for whom this was his second ultra, and he was clearly already struggling after the 8km or so of hills. He was a skydiver, and knew a good friend of mine from years back Brian Vacher. Mounting another hill and Em and I chatted to another couple who were wearing full MdS packs, so we chatted a bit to them about thoughts for the race in three weeks time as we went up and down a few hills, crossing farm fields with sheep. Checkpoint (CP) One in a beautiful little village came and went, and we dibbed out chip into the machine proffered by a red coated volunteer, and availed ourselves of some water. Then we were climbing through trees, before emerging above the treeline and into the wind and thick fog. But still in good spirits as we followed the contours of the hills, down to the left, up to the right, and as we crossed the feet of the Long Man of Wilmington looming large above us on the right, three deer ran across our path at high speed. Our skydiver buddy was really struggling as the off camber path played havoc with some of his old injuries, real or imagined.
Not long after the Long Man, the marathon runners started to overtake us. They had set off about 30 minutes after us, and the front runners were veritably sprinting ahead, almost as if they were doing the 10km. A trickle of runners gave way to a stream, most of them giving Em and I a nod and a word or two of encouragement. We did the same. One chap stated proudly that this was his second of seven marathons he was undertaking in seven weeks. I didn't want to burst his bubble by stating that we would be undertaking seven marathons in seven days across the Sahara Desert in three weeks time.
Emily loves a Mint Go Bar, and had promised herself one at 20km. At 19km I reached into her pack and grabbed one, and then held it in front of her face like a carrot to usher her along the wooded path to CP2 and more water. This elicited much laughter from our fellow runners including Skydiver who had managed to stay with us, despite struggling. We passed some kids orienteering as we pulled into CP2, beating the first time cut off with time to spare. More water on board, chips scanned, and we exited CP2 in a couple of minutes. Skydiver announced to the volunteers that his race was over and he asked for a lift back to the start. A group of what looked like orienteers - 8 or 10 of them, all in their 20's and having a great time - were standing by the track holding maps and giving everyone a huge cheer and morale boost as they left the CP. Emily got a particularly loud cheer, the youngest participant by some margin. We saw them multiple times during the race, and they always gave Emily an especially loud cheer. Not long after we saw a marathoner doing the race with his dog, a short haired beige male about the size of a sheep dog, but with pointy ears.
The next 10km or so passed in a bit of a blur. As much as we could we power hiked up the ups, sprinted down the downs, and jog /walked the flats, jogging when we could and injecting 30 second to 1 minute walking breaks for recovery. The scenery would have been spectacular had it not been for the fog and wind although the rain stopped for the rest of the day. We merged with the 10km course, joining forces in a field of massive Aberdeen Angus cows and some sheep, and three of the 10km runners were having a blast, bantering with each other and laughing and joking. We chatted with them for a while, they fascinated by our impending MdS and in awe of Emily doing the Ultra. They warned us that the 10km was more like 12.5km. The next descent was a few hundred metres of beautiful parkland, so Emily and I left the 10km'ers behind and used gravity to inject a little pace.
The marathoner with his dog passed us as we passed a little round bothy - what looked like an inland lighthouse in someone's back garden. They also had what looked like a castle. The dog was called Zen and looked like he was having a great time, tail up and running with his dad. The runner was periodically giving him water but he looked like he could have carried on forever.
All of a sudden the trees disappeared and the wind took over. It threatened at times to take our legs away, as we headed back down to the coast along a ridge with a very strong right to left wind. The short scrubby trees had grown sideways due to the prevailing breeze. Fortunately when we hit the coast we had the wind at our backs to help us back to the starting area, before ascending up the other side to the lighthouse. I had one eye on the clock for the whole race, but I had noticed that Em was slowing down a little as we hit 30km or so, and I tried to chivvy her along - we had to reach the 42km mark in 6 hours 15 or we risked being timed out.
"Keep your head up Em, you're doing great. But we still need to hustle along."
"I know Dad but I'm tired! I'm trying!" She snapped back.
"Listen Em I know you're tired but we still have to get round the course in the time allowed, so I'm just trying to chivvy you along. What do you want me to do?" Clearly we were both getting tired, and tempers were close to fraying.
Em showed some considerable mental strength and picked up her pace a little. We passed the lighthouse threading through the army of weekend hikers, dog walkers, families enjoying a bracing walk along the cliffs, and of course hundreds of our fellow runners doing any one of the 10km, half or full marathon or Ultra Marathon. We passed Beachy Head, the famous draw for suicides, with a bench covered in fresh flowers which was very sombre. As we descended a particularly steep section of the cliffs with Eastbourne in the distance, the sun all too briefly came out. Blink and you would have missed it though. I looked back at Em and she was hustling, but clearly hurting, not far from tears as fatigue and worry about the cut offs dominated her mind.
We pulled into CP3 at 34km and change, and Em did not stop for water, just shuffled straight through. I asked about the cut offs and we had reached this particular one in plenty of time. I filled up my back pack's bladder to bursting with water to make sure I had plenty for Em in case she ran out. Because it was so full I couldn't actually get it in my back pack, so I had to empty it out of our free t shirts, some spare trail mix for Em, the compulsory medical kit, some food for me, and so on. I placed the stuff on the floor, and next think I know there is a huge Labrador sniffing around trying to snaffle some of the bars and trail mix, with two women screaming "MAISIE, STOP, COME HERE!" a few yards away. I quickly shoved everything back in hoping I hadn't forgotten anything before the Lab could make off with anything. I caught up with Em and relayed the story, seeing her go from fighting back tears to laughing in a heart beat was very moving.
Shuffling ever forwards we followed the course looping around farm fields before we headed back to the finish of the course, with the cut off dominating our thoughts and what little conversation we had.
"But Dad what if we don't make the cut off?"
"We will, and even if we don't I'll argue that we were so close that they have to let us go."
Six hours came and went, and I started to worry that they wouldn't take the 15 minutes delay at the start into account, and we would be timed out as we passed the finish line to embark on the 10km course. We hustled and shuffled sprinting through the woods as we finally reached 42km, and as luck would have it Em's cheerleaders were there to cheer us on. Instead of turning right to the finish, we could see it so tantalisingly close, we turned left onto the 10km course, but there was noone there to even check our chips or time us out! We had reached 42km in 6 hours and 9 minutes - we had six minutes to spare. It was almost like we had finished already! The next cut off was
at the finish and was 9 hours - we had over 2 hours 45 minutes to finish the 10km. The sense of relief was palpable. We had done it!
Back up the Seven Sisters, but turning right way before the original Ultra course, then the farm land with Aberdeen Angus herd, sheep and this time a shepherd with crook and two lovely collies. We started chatting to another runner, Margaret from Vancouver who coincidentally was staying in the Beamsley Lodge B&B as well. Down the rolling park land descent, slower this time around. Past the beacon/lighthouse/castle. Through the woods. Onto the windswept ridge. Down to the coast. Turn left. Up to the lighthouse. And then mercifully turning left before the horrendous descent to Eastbourne near Beachy Head.
Margaret was a veteran of many ultras, having won a few 100km races in her 30's. She was an elementary school principle from BC, Canada, and was fabulous at taking our minds off the job at hand. The 10km route proved more like 13km according to my Garmin, but it didn't matter as everyone's mood was cheered by the fact that we were easily going to beat the cut off. Margaret did comment at one point that she had missed the 42km by 15 minutes and was hoping to be pulled from the race, but noone had been there to do so much to her disappointment! We chatted about previous races, the impending England Ireland rugby showdown in Ireland, and whether she could fit in the back of the Fiat to hitch a lift back to the B&B.
The last CP two miles before the finish and the volunteer scanned our chips but also took our numbers in preparation for closing the course - a nanosecond of panic when I asked him if he were timing us out, but he assuaged my fears and sent us on our way. One mile to go and we entered the woods. Having promised Emily earlier in the race that I would let her cross the line before me, she sprinted away from me with a pace that would had me questioning what was in her water cup at the last CP, there was no way I could keep up with her anyway. We crossed the line a few seconds apart, with Margaret a few seconds after, got our medals, a free Cliff protein bar and some water. My mum and dad had made their way to the finish to see us and share in our moment.
It was a proud moment for me to cross the finish line of Em's first ever marathon and Ultra Marathon all in one go. I was also pleased to have finished the race myself seven months after a six hour heart op! The shared experience will be something we can treasure forever.
We had finished in 8 hours and 18 minutes which seems like an awfully long time, but here are some statistics for the race which show how tough and incomparable it is to "normal" 10km's or marathons:
The winner of the 10km took 57 minutes (versus around 30 minutes for a road race), whereas last 10km finisher took 2 hours and 17 minutes - longer than it took Em and I to run the 10km "lap" after we had run the marathon "lap"
The winner of the half marathon took 1 hr 30 minutes versus the World Record time of 58 minutes for a road half marathon
The winner of the marathon took 3hrs 31 minutes to finish, versus just over 2hrs for the world record for a road marathon; the last marathon finisher on the day took 7hrs 39 minutes - over an hour slower than our "lap"
The winner of the ultra took 4hrs 51. Em was 135th, I was 136th out of around 180 starters and 145 finishers. The last finisher crossed the line in 8hrs 40 minutes.
We zipped back to the B&B for a shower, the rest of our packed breakfast and a very disappointing second half in Dublin to see England lose the game but still win the championship. And then for a special treat - an English curry with my parents, washed down with a couple of Cobra beers.
Mission accomplished. Next stop the Sahara Desert.