Saturday 21st March saw us return to Birling Gap for the CTS Sussex Half Marathon. When I did this race last year it was the first half marathon I entered, on the recommendation of my brother who was due to run it with friends. In the end he was injured and only went to support but I did it anyway. It is not an easy course, it takes in some of the Seven Sisters (they’re a bit hilly) and climbs up past Beachy Head & the lighthouse on the way to Eastbourne and it has some crazy downhills too! I finished last year in 2:51:06 and weather permitting I wanted to beat that time this year. I knew I was stronger and faster but this is a race where the conditions can make a massive difference now matter how prepared you are.
It was dry but a bit chilly whilst we were waiting for the race to get going. I ummed and aahed about whether to put my jacket on but decided to stick with my X-Bionic Fennec and my arm sleeves. I was pretty sure I would warm up pretty rapidly once I got moving and didn’t want to have to faff around removing my pack to get a layer off. We were soon underway and not being fast I stayed in the main group and dibbed my timing stick to get a start time. Garmin & RunKeeper started I was off! I took it steady, this being my second year I knew there was a pinch point in the first kilometre once we’d climbed the gravel path to the cliff top, a kissing gate slows everyone down and I didn’t see the point in rushing. I had set 3 goals for the day, 1:40:00 if it was all perfect. 1:45:00 would be something I was happy with and if it all went wrong I still wanted to hit 1:50:00 and beat last year’s time. I definitely felt stronger on the hills of the Seven Sisters than the previous year, I comfortably ran the downs and hiked the ups without completely feeling like I would die. Then we turned right for the run across to Checkpoint 1, I had hoped to run this solidly after last year’s rabbit hole induced ankle roll but it wasn’t to be. Luckily it wasn’t an injury this year, just very strong wind! I quickly decided that I would save energy and just walk as fast as I could into the headwind as running wasn’t getting me there any quicker. I felt good, if a little frustrated and was happy to reach Checkpoint 1 in 31:55 (1:07 quicker than last year), hurrah, I was ahead of schedule. A quick top up of water and I was off again. The next point in my mind was getting to the stile over the wall, I was also determined to spot the llamas (something I had missed the year before). Llamas observed I pushed onwards, running more now as it was slightly more sheltered, and then I let myself go on the downhill to the wall. Over it quicker than last year I pushed onwards, taking the opportunity to stuff in some sports beans as I hiked an uphill section. Throughout the race I ran when I could and hiked hard when it was too steep for my legs and lungs to cope. I was managing to maintain my placing pretty well even against those jogging up rather than walking. What pleased me more is there is a killer downhill section which a lot of people struggle with, I over took 10 people in this short down, and managed to make the left turn at the bottom before crashing off the cliff! I have developed a slightly odd technique on really steep slopes where I step forward with my left foot, then bring my right foot level before planting it down (rather than bringing it through fully), it seems to work for me anyway. We turned the bend and were heading closer to Eastbourne on a slow drag uphill. I knew Checkpoint 2 was coming up but wasn’t sure exactly how far, I got there eventually though. 1:41:20, a stonking 2:27 quicker than last year. Filled up water, dropped banana section in dust, wiped off banana ends (skin was still on) and ate it anyway, grabbed jelly babies and got cracking! This next section was a nightmare for me last year, it was where dizziness and misery kicked in. This year was much better, I was still run:walking but I felt much better. No stars in front of my eyes, no panic, I knew I could do it and I was even more prepared for the evil final 5km this time around. Why evil? Well after a long drag across some cow fields you can see and here the finish, but you don’t get to take a direct route to it, oh no, it’s up a hill, down a hill round a corner, more hills, and then you are nearly there.
It was tough, my legs were tired but I finally reached the 1 Mile To Go sign, a quick watch check and I was still doing well. I managed to “sprint” the last 400m and nearly caught the 2 women in front of me, so much so I started to worry they would hold me up with dibbing my timing stick. Race done in 2:45:16! 5 minutes 54 seconds quicker than in 2014, and I reckon if it hadn’t been as windy I could have gone a bit quicker as well.
A brilliant race, although it was tough I enjoyed it and it definitely confirms that hilly trail races are much more my thing than flat road races like Lydd 20!