Beachy Head & Seven Sisters marathon AKA Hell on Earth!

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
If by Kipling is one of my most favoured poems that I always think of when times are tough and I feel that I cannot continue. It was the poem that came to mind as I was out completing the Beachy Head marathon last weekend.

Beachy Head has a reputation of being one of the hardest marathons you could ever complete. It is 26.2 miles that is a gruelling off road marathon with a total ascent of 3500ft. The race starts on Dukes Drive and climbs 300ft straight up the first hill and includes the Seven Sisters on the return trip back to Eastbourne.

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The elevation map.

This event was something us as a club decided would be a good challenge and challenge is the right way to describe this.

The marathon set off at 9am it was a dry mild Saturday and the first part was a steep ascent up that only the hardened could run.
I was at the back of the crowd with some of the group but most peeled off from myself and my friend as we made our way up the incline, trying to find our feet with rabbit holes, stones and other peoples feet as hazards. The Beachy Head, start was hard but, gets harder, then becomes very hard, before becoming extremely hard indeed almost unbearable.
The steep slope at the start takes you out of Eastbourne and into the South Downs Way and climbs and climbs and climbs almost continuously to the summit of Willingdon Hill. We had made good progress through the first few miles, I had enjoyed the lone piper and thought of my Scottish ancestors but, my trail shoes started to give me cause for concern, I was feeling them rub my feet a bit too much and I worried about how this could end up. The shoes then were not my only concern as the uneven inclines and descents meant I was worried about going over. One of the worse parts was a chalk flinty path going down steeply. The flint made it slippery and although the descent would have made the running part easier and faster the rocks and how slippery it was made it almost impossible to get any running speed up through fear of turning an ankle. So we cautiously descended and did not take notice of the view around us.
As we were at the back, it was tough. At times there were no runners to follow, signage was sparse and at one point a marshal had left his post (after the checkpoint at mile 16.6) and as a result we had travelled half a mile in the wrong direction only to be told by a driver we were going the wrong way and rather crossly we made our way back to where we turned off only to have the marshal arrive back to his post and dismiss our concerns. At this point my lenses had come out and my foot had been strapped up at the checkpoint and it was fingers crossed it was going to hold out and I was still able to see. The checkpoints we had come across had run out of food with the exception of the first checkpoint by now we were tired.
Up a number of steps and then up some more we could see the sweepers not far behind. We stopped for a photo with the white horse in the background before continuing.
Getting slightly lost due to the lack of signage we asked walkers and cyclists on route making sure we were still going the right way. We were!
We approached a decent where a sparkling river was in the valley below, a silver strip in an emerald green field, it was so pretty and the flat path running alongside looked inviting, we thought we were heading that way until to our left we saw a sign showing us a path that went upwards again. This was the start of the Seven Sisters otherwise knows as the” Seven Gates of Hell”.

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Part of the Seven Sisters (not the worst one)

The Sisters were short but steep, so steep, in fact on the first one I became very scared and decided after screaming into the wind “I can’t do this” I would crawl up using hands and feet clinging to grass, my friend with her longer legs just in front. We reached the top and we both looked at each other and cried, for a moment before looking at the descent and then getting down it hand in hand, I became very tired, survival mode set in. I gritted my teeth and dug in. By this point we were at mile 20 and giving up was not on the agenda. We overtook some people and left the sweepers further behind.
Some girl scouts helped us onto the right path, in fact one helped me get from a ledge onto the path, my legs were sore.
The Seven Sisters continued, maybe not as horrific as the first one, maybe at this point we knew what to expect, as I approached the top of each one I looked for the lighthouse, hoping I could see it nearer each time.
My friends husband came to meet us at what I think was shortly after Birling Gap and the last official check point, we did not stop at this check point, there was little point, there would be no food or hot drinks. I walked ahead of the couple, giving them time together, I thought they needed it. I pressed on with them a few meters behind I was struggling and the ground was uneven, I could not see rabbit holes because of no lenses and dusk was approaching. I turned my ankle and swore, still not giving up I continued. I was exhausted, lack of food, and water due to the check points running out, my concentration was all over the place.
I quickly asked my mates husband if everyone got back ok, if my husband was ok. I was concerned about hubby being injured more so than me getting injured. I was told of one club member with a head injury and I and my friend cried again, running should not be like this, it should be fun! I reminded my mate not to waste energy crying and remember the list we had made earlier of the things we loved. Cats, bird song, holidays, laughter were on the list and we drew on that now.
I made my way up Beachy Head, feet on fire, I could feel the blisters in my shoes, my knee was painful I was worried I had damaged it. All I could see was grass around me. Until a clearing and the pier and the lights of Eastbourne in the distance.
The steep ascent at the start of the race was all that was between us and the finish line, easy huh? NO! Gravity is a wonderful thing but not if you cannot see your footing, when you are in tears because the end is in sight, when you are embarrassed because your wonderful husband and friends are at the bottom screaming their heads off. Clinging onto my friends husbands hand with my left hand and a marshal with my right we tentatively got down, sobbing now. I had never done something so crazy and difficult in my life. Very tired, happy it was over we crossed the finish line and sat down for the timing chip to be cut off our shoes. The marshal there informed us there were no medals, they had run out. We bawled our eyes out again, I said I hoped he was joking, he said he was not!

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Us approaching the finish line (good job its dark)

The walk back to the hotel was the slowest and longest 2 miles of my life.

 

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My husbands medal (will await mine!)

Postscript.
We discovered:
1-That the marshals at the finish line were giving out medals to dogs hence why they had run out so early.
2-We also were not last and that was something to be grateful for.
3-We had also completed a marathon on a tough course.
4-My husband said he was proud of me for completing a “brutal course”.
5-That fish and chips plus a southern comfort and a good chat with mates was the perfect antidote to a marathon.
The day after update:
1-The coach ride back was a quiet affair most were very happy with their achievement, one dropped out and one injury but fortunately all was ok.
2-My knee was still very sore and swollen.
Monday update:
1-Calves hurt but knee has calmed down.
2-A sense of achievement finally kicked in.
3-The results are out and confirmation that I was not last.
4-An email sent to claim my medal.
5-I will never do it again!

Two years ago I was not even thinking about running, 2016 is the year I got out there completed both things on my ‘running to do list’ a half and Beachy Head.

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