There’s Only One ‘F’ In Cuckfield

This race had called out to me for the last couple of years. I had read about it, thought about it and dreamt about it. All that was left was for me to run it. The whole package is almost irresistible to anyone with an interest in ultramarathons. This race combines running history with a raw physical challenge in a way that no other event can hope to. For many ultrarunners I know this race represents the very best that the sport has to offer. There may be tougher races out there, and there are certainly longer courses, but a rare combination of virtues continues to ensure that the London to Brighton Road Race remains, for my money at least, as the premier ultra distance event in the world. I had no choice. I had to run this race at least once.

          On race morning I was woken by the alarm on my mobile phone at 4:59am. Thirty seconds later my watch alarm went off. A minute after that, my wake up call from the hotel reception came through. It wasn’t a morning to be late. As is usual for me all my race gear was laid out on the chair in my hotel room and all I had to do was dress, eat and leave. The ‘Breakfast of Champions’ consisted of shortcake biscuits water and a banana that morning. My plan was to leave the hotel in Westminster at 6:00am. Registration was at the London Nautical School in Stamford Street, which I reckoned was about a ten-minute taxi ride from the hotel. The race was due to start at 7:00am. On the advice of the hotel porter I started walking towards registration and watched for a taxi to hail. By the time I reached the Houses of Parliament I was still walking, late and in a panic. I eventually got a taxi on Westminster Bridge. Registration was a blur of race numbers and baggage tags. Within a few minutes I was back on the streets again and running towards the race start, which was about a mile away in the shadow of Big Ben. Even for someone like myself, with a decidedly tenuous grasp of what might constitute normality, it was clear that this wasn’t ideal preparation for a long race.  What could I do? I arrived at the start with about four minutes to spare.

          While I knew that the race absolutely had to start on time, the assembled group of runners appeared mostly unconcerned as the fateful hour approached. This race famously starts on the first stroke of seven o’clock as announced by Big Ben. We had been warned against being fooled by the preliminary chimes but rather to start on the ‘B’ of the first ‘Bong’. As these preliminary chimes rang out the runners moved casually out onto the road and seconds later we were on our way.

          On the advice of a good friend I had noted where defending women’s champion Vicky Skelton was running. She was one of the few runners I recognised and I had been told that she normally ran a well-paced race that would most likely see her finish in a little over the seven hours. If everything went perfectly for me I was hoping to finish in just less than seven hours but I realised from the start that this was being optimistic.  Over the course of the next fifty-four miles there was going to be a lot of room for the unexpected. The early miles were quite relaxed. Superb stewarding allowed runners to glide easily through the early Sunday morning traffic. As distance markers would only appear every five miles it was going to be tricky to judge pace with any accuracy. I tried to relax and glide. I thanked as many stewards as I could and soaked up the experience. I spoke briefly to another runner but for some reason I wasn’t really in the mood to chat. I just wanted to drift along and look around myself. Streets of shops and offices came and went as we moved, ever so gently, towards Brighton and the coast.

          At the five-mile aid station my ‘pacer’ Vicky was about a hundred yards ahead and she appeared to be moving along effortlessly. We passed this point in a little over thirty-eight minutes, which works out at about 7:49 per mile and all was well with the world. Although London was starting to get up to full speed the traffic didn’t seem too bad. Some of the time I ran on the road and more often I ran on the pavement. Keeping clear of the cars, bikes and busses gave me something other than the miles ahead to think about. Somewhere around Brixton I passed by Vicky. Without being aware of it she had eased my nerves through the first six or seven miles of the race and I shall be forever grateful. It takes a long time to move out of London on foot and we seemed to pass one commercial center after another. The suburbs of Streatham Hill, Norbury and Thornton Heath came and went. The stewarding was still impressive. Each major junction had at least one yellow-bibbed race steward looking after our interests. 

          At race registration many runners had handed in bottles of sports drink and other supplies like fruit and energy bars. Each bottle was individually labeled with the name of the runner, their race number and the mile-point at which it was to be kept. The refreshment stations were placed at five-mile intervals along the road. These drinks were then transported ahead to the appropriate place on the course to await their owners. To the outside of each of my own bottles I had taped an energy gel and I also carried some electrolyte replacement capsules with me in a waterproof container. My plan was to drink the entire contents of each drinks bottle along with the energy gel and to supplement that with an electrolyte capsule every hour. In broad terms this plan worked out perfectly. In the later stages of the race I passed on the gels twice but I don’t think I suffered in any way because of it. The only other hitch came towards the end of the race when I realised that the electrolyte capsules had shaken themselves apart in the bottle. I think the lesson here is to use a smaller container the next time. I passed through the second drinks station at the ten-mile mark in Croydon with a little over an hour and fifteen minutes on the clock. My pace had dipped under 7:30 per mile but I still felt very relaxed.

          Even in these early stages it seemed a long way between distance markers and, as I’ve said, this made it difficult to judge pace with confidence. Five miles is quite a long way between reality checks. The day was heating up and for the first time I could feel myself starting to sweat. Occasionally I checked my stride slightly and consciously tried to slow the pace. Slowing from 7:30 or 7:40 minutes per mile pace felt a little awkward but I knew I needed to be conservative. We passed through South Croydon, Purley and Coulsdon before reaching the fifteen-mile marker just before Farthing Down. There was a good sharp uphill stretch at this point, which came as quite a surprise top me. I had been prepared for a hilly finish to this race but hadn’t previously contemplated too much climbing in the middle miles. Boy was I was in for a shock. This first climb was but a gentle introduction to a series of long challenging inclines that continued in almost unbroken sequence until the finish in Brighton.

          Having crossed Farthing Down we descended once again through a twisting series of small country roads. From time to time the course would wind in amongst houses and activity and then pass through into greener pastures again. As I look back my memories of this part of the course wash into one another and sometimes it’s hard to recall the exact order of events. I can see from the race map that we moved on through Redhill and Salfords and approached the ‘marathon’ point somewhere close to the Horley Roundabout.  Although the marathon point wasn’t marked on the road I reckon I passed it with about 3:18:00 on the clock. I was still a little ahead of schedule but couldn’t see much profit in slowing. There was still a lot of ground to cover and I was keen to keep going.

          My first real sign of difficulty came at around the marathon mark or perhaps even slightly before then. Unusually for me I was having trouble with my quad’s and running downhill, even gently, was getting very uncomfortable. Obviously this was a concern with thirty miles still to travel. There wasn’t a lot I could do apart from trying to run cautiously on the downhill stretches. The field was very strung-out by this point and, although I’d occasionally see another runner, long periods would pass where I ran on my own.  Having passed through Pound Hill and Balcombe at thirty and thirty-five miles respectively, I felt I was at last making progress. By this point I had been on the road for nearly four and a half hours and fatigue was starting to kick in. I was starting to realise that this race was going to more of a waiting game than anything else. It was going to be a case of just keeping-on, and on, and on, and on. My five-mile splits had been consistently in the 37:00 to 39:00 range and if I could just take whatever the course was going to throw at me, and not stop running, there was a chance I could make it to the finish line in respectable shape. We left Balcombe behind and headed on towards Cuckfield.

          I had never even heard of Cuckfield before race day but I will forever remember the tortuous, grinding, two-mile hill that leads up into that admittedly very pleasant village. The route wound and twisted along forested roads following a steady incline that seemed never-ending. Even though I shortened my stride to meet the rising ground I still passed another runner roughly half way up. Afterwards he told me that he had vomited several times during the climb such was the shock to his system that this obstacle provided after nearly forty miles on the road. It was with great relief then that I eventually emerged into the village itself. Another runner later remarked that, “Thank God there’s only one ‘effing Cuckfield.” Personally, I couldn’t have agreed more.

          Although Cuckfield was behind me the remaining fourteen miles or so of the course was far from level. As we left the village I could spot the last great barrier along the road to Brighton. In the distance a huge ridge of land arose sharply on the horizon in a sweeping line. If you were going to the seaside you were going up and over. Before meeting this monster in the distance, which is called Ditchling Beacon, there was roughly ten more miles of plod to get through. I could feel my pace slowing although I thought hadn’t tired drastically. I felt sure that the fall-off in pace was more to do with the hills than real tiredness. As the road descended out of the village it only served to exaggerate the scale of the rising ground far ahead. The road wound on towards Burgess Hill and Hassocks where I picked up my second last drink. At the last two stations I had chosen to have watered-down Red Bull in place of sports drink. This concoction normally doesn’t agree with me but when watered down it looses some of that sickly sweet aftertaste that many people find disagreeable. I was running reasonable freely now along a blessedly flat section between Keymer and the last great climb at Ditchling.

          There was a moment of calm before the storm. As the sharply rising slope approached the course ran along the appropriately named Underhill Lane for about a half-mile. I had been cautioned that this Ditchling Beacon was ‘unrunable’ for all but the elite. I wasn’t really sure what this meant but I was just about to find out. As I approached a junction a race steward directed me sharply to the right and uphill, with the terse advice “Fifteen hundred meters of hill!” Over the preceding mile I had bargained with myself that I would continue to run until I ran out of steam and only then I would allow myself to walk up the remainder of the hill. I had harbored vain dreams of plodding all the way up if things had gone well. This folly was exposed within seconds of turning the corner. It’s difficult to explain just how steep Ditchling Beacon actually is but suffice it to say that I’m sure it would be ‘first gear and a prayer’ if you were driving. I walked as briskly as I could manage towards the top with my hands firmly planted on my knees. This was perhaps the one part of the course where traffic caused me problems. The road was very narrow and steep and cars were passing in both directions. After a moment or two I settled on the novel strategy of completely ignoring everyone and everybody and looking at the ground six inches in front of my toes. Surprisingly enough nothing actually hit me although I did get a few ‘friendly’ toots of the horn. Up and over Ditchling, back to running, and we were four miles from home.

          Just over the top came the final aid station just before what locals call ‘Old Boat Corner’. At the fifty-mile marker my split was 6:31:00, which was a nice round figure if nothing else. Normally I would consider the closing miles of a long race as the ‘Glory Stretch’. By this I mean that you can relax in the knowledge that the main work has been done and that in all likelihood you will finish the race. This time things were a little different. For one thing, after the near euphoria of cresting Ditchling Beacon, my spirits had dipped sharply along the relatively lonely stretch that started to wind down into Brighton town. Another difficulty was the downhill gradient itself. My quads, that had given trouble earlier, were by this stage completely shot. Each step forward was painful but even the prospect of stopping didn’t seem very attractive either. There was absolutely nothing else to do but jog as gently as I could in the direction of the beach.

          The view over the last few miles is spectacular as all of Brighton is laid out below. I was now totally focused on the finish line and making sure I got there as soon as possible. Of course there was absolutely no question of running any faster; it was just a case of not stopping until I arrived. I had been warned that there was one last sneaky climb before the end, around Hollingbury Golf Course, where the road sweeps up over a hillside before the very final descent to the finish line in the suburbs of Brighton. It was only late into these final few miles that I sank into ‘death-march-mode’. Running downhill was painful, breathing was painful and I suspect lying very still on a bed of feathers would have been painful too, if I had tried. All of the mental tricks I had used to cajole myself forwards through the preceding fifty-odd miles had long since passed their sell-by date. My right hamstring was starting to cramp and I had to shorten my stride again into a sort of choppy ‘trit-trot’ for the last half-mile or so. Eventually I was directed around a corner, along the footpath and over the finish line. It was over. I was done.

          I had crossed the line with 7:04:00 on the clock, which was good enough for tenth place overall and I was more than happy with both of those statistics. Vicky Skelton wasn’t too far behind (7:17:10) in winning the ladies race once more almost seventeen minutes clear of her nearest rival. In my wildest pre-race nightmares I had never anticipated such a hilly course but on the other hand the weather was about as benign as it possibly could have been. I’m so glad to have had a chance to take part in this event and the organisers deserve great credit for putting on the race in the face of huge administrative difficulties. Unfortunately I had to leave Brighton within a couple of hours in order to catch a flight home and so I wasn’t able to attend the presentation of prizes that evening. Before I left Brighton I spoke briefly with the winner, Johannes Oosthuizen from South Africa, who was full of praise for the event. He spoke with apparent great sincerity of his admiration for the each and every athlete that finished the race.  I also bumped into the fourth place finisher, Massimilianno Monteforte from Italy, who claimed with a completely straight face that the longest race he had previously run was 5000m. He said he was disappointed because he had started to cramp after 15 miles and only managed to finish in 6:29:04 – and some people have the cheek to say that I’m a lunatic! 

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