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The EnduranceLife Coastal Series Sussex 50k

The run up to the Comrades Marathon continues relentlessly and I've come to my senses and realised that racing the London Marathon this April is not going to help my cause.  Much as I'd love to, a 7-10 day recovery cannot be afforded. 

So, it's all about ramping up the distance, the endurance and the miles in time for the 2nd June.

I only found this race late in the day and it was already 99% full.  It's not a cheap event at £59 but does run a 10k, Half, Marathon and Ultra simultaneously and throws in a few goodies. I'd have been happier if a post-race cup of tea was one of those goodies but still..

This is one of a series of 11 Coastal races - 'challenging races in beautiful places' and takes in the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head and some surrounding scenery inland. 

As our Spring continues to disappoint at best this event was going to be a cold and wet one.

Firstly I want to big up the Cherry Tree Guest House in Eastbourne where I based myself for the night before the race.  The event starts with registration from 7am so I wasn't about to risk driving down from Windsor on the day which - a 90 mile trip.  This place was cheap at a mere £32 including breakfast - not that I had any of that - and it's spotless.  So I recommend looking it up should you find yourself heading down there.

So race day.. a wet start and battleship-grey sky with temperatures at freezing point sapped the enthusiasm for it but I wasn't about to let that get in the way.

Registration was pretty easy; the various events all have different start times to avoid a mass of people all arriving at the same time.  You get a 'dibber' thing to record your arrival at checkpoints, your number, some gels and other nutrition courtesy of a race sponsor and a race t-shirt.  I was particularly glad of the latter and despite already wearing 3 layers, was completely frozen solid so I donned it gratefully. Had a fifth layer been available I'd have happily taken that too.

There's a briefing explaining that roads are dangerous, hills are dangerous, cliffs are dangerous and other stuff you should have realised by the time you're 5.  Our man announced he'd spotted some people were wearing road shoes and were therefore basically for it. I joined in with the general mirth at the expense of these poor fools as I looked down surreptitiously at my road shoes, gleaming with their obvious road shoe multicoloured glare.

Of course I know I should be in trail shoes and I have some but they have proved to last no more than 20 miles after which they become vice-like diving boots so I decided on comfort over practicality.

Sussex 50k Ultra route - Seven Sisters
So we line up, frozen to the core, with ultra runners ahead of the marathon runners who were setting off simultaneously.  The Ultra is the marathon route followed by the 10k course which repeats some of the route but at least it's the most visually attractive parts.

We're climbing almost immediately and soon traversing the Seven Sisters which has some fantastic views out over the cliff-lined coast.  I admit I thought these would be fairly gentle rolling hills but instead they are steep-sided valleys. The road shoes proved hopeless from the off and before I'd even passed the first Sister I was bouncing off the close-cropped turf via my right bum cheek. I knew it was going to be a trying day from that point on.

The weather could have been worse in that it didn't rain after the start for the entire race despite apocalyptic forecasts.  The cold and wind however seemed determined to make up for its absence. The Easterly was all but impossible to run into whenever going uphill and the wind chill was biting though this did improve later in the day.  The terrain too wasn't letting up and the gradient is a challenge from start to finish.  There is a 5,500 foot total ascent across the 34 (by my watch so I'm sticking to it) miles and there are almost no stretches of any length of steady running. If it's not the gradient challenging you, it's the boggy underfoot conditions and with me in my Saucony Teflons there were some paths I was struggling to get enough grip even to climb at all.

There are 5 checkpoints dotted around the course, all staffed by very friendly staff who dispensed jelly babies like confetti and generally bucked you up.  Hats off to volunteers who stand around in that sort of weather. By the second checkpoint I'd gone down a second time, this one involving a spectacular one-legged skid into a large mud bath and puddle.  By the third I'd tripped over some undergrowth and faced-planted into another thoughtfully-positioned mire.  But I'm enjoying myself and just grin through it all.

In some parts of the route you're sheltered from the wind and the difference was like night and day. Almost balmy by comparison.  I often thought if only there had been sun it would have been a spectacular course throughout.

You pass through some nice villages and lovely scenery but do have to keep an eye on the way markers which are pretty discrete.  A few of us carried straight on when we should have turned down a narrow alleyway to the left at one point but fortunately were spotted by some fellow runners and shouted back otherwise that could have been a costly detour.  This is something I've noticed with Ultras - everyone tends to look out for everyone else and you spend the whole race chatting to fellow runners all of whom have different reasons for being there and different goals.  Several I spoke to were running the Comrades, several the MdS even though that is just 2 weeks away, another a single-day traverse of Hadrian's Wall.  I love hearing other people's stories and the pace and length of time you're out during an Ultra are perfect for this.

The miles ticked by - some very much slower than others thanks to the relentless wind - and eventually we hit the marathon distance and have returned to the race start. There's still 10k to go so we're sent back out to retrace many of our steps with the instruction to follow the 10k markers. I'd not seen one all day. Normally that would depress me but I felt super strong at that point and pushed on past 10k and half marathon finishers leaving the event.

As you can see from the photo above, the field was so spread out by now that I couldn't see anyone ahead of me and you soon start fretting you've missed a turn-off and are embarking on another circuit of the marathon course.  Once more over the Seven Sisters though better prepared for the drops this time and no more tumbles.  I eventually caught up with the man in front of me, Matt, training for the MdS and we spent the rest of the run chatting about running. 

The last checkpoint took an eternity to reach; back up the slopes of the Seven Sisters again fully into the wind. It seemed unnecessary to position it so far off when the race distance was only approximate in any case.  Finding it was a huge relief and we turned round at that point for the downhill run-in last 2 miles, this time with the wind on our backs.

I came in 12th in just over 6 hours. An immense amount of time. I had thought I'd be out more like 5 but hadn't budgeted for the toughness of the course.  I really enjoyed the day despite the weather and it has boosted my Comrades confidence considerably.  There is 50% more vertical ascent in this race than the Comrades so I think it was great training.

On to the next event.. the London Marathon on the 21st April.

Race Web Site

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