I’d never run 20 miles before and hadn’t really planned on subjecting myself to that kind of sufferfest; the 5 mile-ish Cross Country races were gruelling enough. But last October I started hearing about an event that was mentioned in such revered tones that I had to take a look. At this stage entries had already sold out (another good sign of a quality event) but I was assured that places would become available and sure enough in January I was offered a spot by Jon Gubb who had decided it didn’t fit with his shorter ‘sprint’ focused 2017 targets. Simultaneously, I had plenty of people offering encouragement to take the entry and become a ‘proper’ Sandhurst Jogger. I was in.
Driving down early on the Sunday morning with Jim Laidlaw and Richard Boese the weather was awful with murky conditions and intermittent downpours; portents of an epic day ahead. But by the time we landed in Seaton the sea views were clearing enough to see some of the climbs that lay ahead to the West of town over the clifftops and into the distance. SJ club members gathered for a photo op before joining the massing throng of over 1500 eager runners on the Esplanade to hear the Town Crier’s annual runners rev up.
I’d been offered lot’s of advice (tie your shoes up tight, keep moving in the bog, take the line on the left to name but some) which is one of the great benefits of being part of the club and I followed a few SJ teammates for a sensibly paced start before swinging left and hitting the melee of the pebble beach. I’ve used the phrase “two steps forward, one step back” many times but have never really experienced it in real life but that was exactly what running along the beach felt like as the pebbles shifted below my feet.
Back onto the road, around the boat yard and back along the Esplanade the pace picked up before climbing Castle Hill and Beer Road as we exited Seaton. It was tricky to judge the pace here and I was already regretting wearing the extra base layer with the morning chill soon evaporating. The presence of plenty of runners in fancy dress including a fully lycra-clad Ironman reassured me that the pace wasn’t too hot although the fast descent into Beer meant the first 5km were covered in just over 23 minutes.
Into the Beer Head Caravan Park (what a great name, I’m coming back for my summer holidays!) I made my first bad call of the day taking a marshmallow from the marshal on the gate, this may not seem like such a big deal but it took the entire site to chew and digest and as a result I was mid-gurn when Nicki Watson offered the first ‘Go on Sandhurst’ shout out of the day. As we exited the caravan park the ridge above provided an impressive spectacle of the hundreds of runners ahead.
I really enjoyed the next section across the clifftops but it was on the slippery downhill to Branscombe beach and the following off-camber grassy knoll that I knew it was going to be a fantastic day. I’d picked up too much speed on the downhill and had to use allsorts of innovative braking techniques to make it around the corner at the bottom, the relief mixed with the bizarre experience of running at strange angles on the cambered grass had me laughing like a drunk. The beach’s ice bath water feature briefly sobered me up but there was much banter and camaraderie to keep me smiling.
Away from the coast the course blurs into a relentless series of hills up narrow roads and even narrower and steeper paths, punctuated only by friendly marshals positioned every few hundred metres offering irrefusable jelly babies and advice on the tricky nature of the next section to come. The marshals were fantastic; caring, supportive, encouraging, sometimes a little too frugal with the truth (I know the top of the hill isn’t really just around that corner) but without them the event wouldn’t have the same level of warmth and enjoyment.
After the big grassy natural amphitheatre the course swung east and felt like it was heading for home and soon after I reached the halfway point passing the 10 mile marker in about 1hr 20 but well aware that all the challenging ‘highlights’ were still to come. I found the next section through the Enchanted Woods tricky with chocolate coloured puddles obscuring the ankle turning dangers within. By this stage I was passing stricken runners clutching hamstrings who were a long way from home and a very jovial marshal who used to live in Camberley who, excited to see a Sandhurst Jogger informed me I was in 37th position which was a huge surprise.
The next part was a two way section of the course and we saw the runner who was in 2nd coming up the return leg. Impressively he was over 2km ahead and it would turn out that those kilometres included the river and the bog. The descent into the valley of the bogs was tricky and I could feel my calves tightening so eased up to reduce the impact. I nearly took a tumble on the steep cambered left hander before the river and then dropping into the river itself I did fall. The first step was fine but as I took a second the water was deeper and I stumbled over up to my waist. Thankfully the marshals further along had great advice to avoid the deeper sections and the bogs were straightforward; I followed the ‘just keep moving’ advice and benefited from a clear run and relatively unchurned mud.
Both calves were now tightening up and every downhill step sent volts of pain shooting up my legs but amazingly uphill I felt fine which was handy considering the relentless number of climbs as the course headed back to Branscombe. I was still picking people off and was thoroughly enjoying the on course entertainment including the ‘Tibetan zone’, the feast laid on by the N1 Triathlon club although I was so overwhelmed by the food options I almost ran straight through without taking anything (I am disappointed to have missed the bacon sandwiches they were serving later so might have to go back for one of those next year) and the huge cheering crowd as you ran through the Fountain Head Pub’s beer garden.
Back onto Branscombe Beach where the big crowd was very vocal in their support and with the sea views and drummers it was a spectacular sight. A short detour back through the ice bath water feature and then it was straight along the beach towards home. I took the low line where the sections of pebbles were shorter but it was still heavy going and it was a relief to reach The Stairway to Heaven, the snaking path that would quickly ascend over eighty metres to the clifftops. My climbing legs were still working and I passed six broken runners on the steep path as well as some lunatic dressed as a multi-coloured vicar who was offering sage advice and a hip flask of whiskey (or who knows what!).
Over the top and back to the caravan park you could see Seaton around the bay but the descent into Beer was hard on my calves and a group of four of us passed the cheering crowds outside the Anchor pub in Beer together. So close to the finish and a possible top thirty finish I tried to get my race head on and work out how to drop these rivals. My legs still felt good on the uphills so I tackled the stairs up to the coastal path two at a time and heard a sigh of surrender from the runner behind. Now I just had to keep it together, one more descent, another climb, a few more runners caught and onto the amazing finish past the Seaton Labyrinth, back down Castle Hill and onto the Esplanade where the SJ Cheering Squad had set up just before the finish to cheer our runners home.
What an epic day out! I finished in 2 hours 41 minutes for 23rd place overall which was a real surprise. Turns out 20 miles is a long way! Thanks to all the members for the advice and support along the way.