London to Brighton (original route): 3 October 1999
LONDON TO BRIGHTON – THE HARD WAY!
(AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TALE OF AN ULTRA MARATHON RUN by Nick Slade)
MY RUNNING HISTORY
I first became interested in running as a Sport when I was only a few years old. I quickly found I had a talent for longer races – ie 10 times round the playground (probably about a mile). However my progress in running was rudely interrupted by a serious Kidney problem when I was nearly 7 years old, and I was not allowed to run very far at all for a while. I started training for shorter distances in my teens , and was fairly respectable at the 100 and 200m by the time I went to college.
At college, my dreams of being a distance runner were awakened when I was asked to run with a friend at the local Half Marathon – quite a step up in distance, and with only a month to train up for it. Being the crazy guy I am , I accepted the challenge and finished in a respectable 1:56.
I improved a lot at college , thanks to some very good coaching and encouragement, and on when on eventually to join my present club (and Best) – ‘Serpentine Running Club’ of London.
I continued to gain experience, and even a couple of trophies, and then decided to run my first Marathon – A painful experience in the end , but the support I got that day I will always remember. My time – a pedestrian 4:09 – second last in the whole race!
It was about this time that I took up Coaching – at the ripe old age of 23. What made it more bizarre, was that some of the group were up to 3 times my age! Hills were my coaching speciality, and over the years I came up with quite a few variations in training routines – including a Christmas Pass the Parcel and a Shrove Tuesday Pancake race.
By the time I reached 30 , I had amassed quite a good running and coaching Portfolio, 10 marathons, and umpteen other smaller races (including the very occasional sprint – though this has taken a back seat for some time.) . I now felt it was time for a new challenge – an Ultra Marathon – the London to Brighton was such a race , and on my doorstep too.
PREPARATION FOR THE RACE
Once you have decided to take on such a challenge, you immediately start to encounter all kinds of obstacles you have to negotiate. The London to Brighton has strict qualification procedure – with only those who are most likely to finish being allowed to run. You must have run a Marathon in the previous year in less than 4 hours, or one of the other designated qualification races within an applicable time. In early November 1998 , I ran the Harrow Marathon in a comfortable 3:51 , thus achieving the standard .
The next problem I had to negotiate was the training schedule – asking around the normal routine involved up to 70 miles of running a week or more! With a busy lifestyle, and two kids , this was going to be impossible, so I used my experience to date , to form a much easier to achieve schedule.
Instead of the standard once a week long run (20 miles plus), the norm for all long distance runners , I decided to make it once a month – either a marathon, or equivalent. The fear of the Marathon soon faded as it became routine, and the body was also having time to recover between long runs. Once a week I ran at least 12 miles to maintain stamina, and also ran a couple of 10km runs every week (normally from work to home or during lunchtime). In addition to this I was still doing my Tuesday Night Hill Sessions . The total mileage was not high , (from 30 up to 45 miles per week) , certainly nowhere near the recommended, but it was manageable on a long-term basis. I walked a lot too, 20-25 miles a week which I used as extra training – this was easy to add to my weekly load as I often walk some of the way to work anyway – time on the feet is very important , as many ‘in the know’ have said.
To compensate for the low mileage (which was causing concern to a few running colleagues) , I developed a plan to make every mile count. When I went out for a run, I pictured in my mind that it was not just a 12 mile run, but the last 12 miles of a marathon, or an ultra even. I got so good at this that I often experienced tiredness at the beginning of a run when I should have been fresh. In my experience, it is the last part of a race that is the part which everyone remembers. It is also the time when you experience the most discomfort (obvious?). The proportion of the race you experience problems like these are similar to all distances i.e. the last 6 miles of a marathon, the last 3 of a half – even the last km of a 5km race. My theory is that if you become familiar with the last part of a race , the rest will take care of itself.
Well the test of this theory came at the London Marathon, and guess what, I was mentally strong enough on the last 6 miles – (thanks to mentally rehearsing them beforehand) that I was able to maintain my pace right to the end without any problems – achieving a 22 minute personal best in the process.
I was convinced that my routine was working and continued it though until a week before the race when I decided it was time to rest before the big day . Just a couple of short (3 mile) runs in the last week to keep the body in tune , and plenty of high energy pasta,rice,bread and potato meals, and I was ready for the off.
THE BIG DAY
I had to get up at 4:00am on the Morning, adrenaline was overflowing and I was treated to some aromatherapy the night before, to calm the nerves and allow me to sleep. I had stayed over at fellow Serpentine runners , Beate and Ron’s place as the start was too far from my own home in Harrow. Breakfast that morning consisted of a double Bacon Sandwich which is now my traditional pre-marathon breakfast (apologies to vegetarians out there) , the bread was thick however to give me some more high-energy carbohydrates. Breakfast is so important, and every seasoned runner has there own querks in this department.
Beate took me to the pre-race registration, and made sure I was all set. At pre-registration you not only have to pick up your race number , but also sign in your assigned support vehicle, in this case a couple of peddle bikes ridden by my good friends Ruth and Arthur (may I say before I get on to the story of the race itself – they were the best support crew I could have had!). You also have to make sure that any food and drinks you need on the race are placed in the appropriate box , so that they can be transported to drink stations along the route. I had made up special drink/food parcels wrapped up in my club colours of red with two yellow hoops, to aid identification during the race! (Another sad crazy querk of mine!). The parcels themselves each contained a carton of Ribena, a bar of food (mars bar or energy bar or cereal bar) plus a high energy ‘squeezy’ – this is a tube of a nasty substance that has the consistency of wallpaper paste and tastes worse! However it does work. I had arranged for one of these parcels every 5 miles, plus additional water , which I could get en-route.
Well , that was it at pre-registration, a short walk then followed (one mile) to Big Ben for the start.
THE START AND THE EARLY STAGES
The start was a bit of a rush to say the least. I arrived at Big Ben with only 2 minutes to spare, and I had not fully stripped down to my running kit. It was cold, so I had kept a few layers on – these were removed with some haste and dumped on the footpath for my support crew to sort out. I looked around and saw a few familiar faces then the chimes of Big Ben started and we all went silent. On the first ‘bong’ of seven we were off to tremendous cheers , from both supporters and runners. We all galloped across Westminster Bridge at a fair old rate, perhaps a little carried away at times. Adrenaline surging we headed south to our personal dates with destiny on the road to Brighton.
Passed the Oval we went, through Brixton and on to the first time check at the 5-mile point in Streatham. 41 minutes was a little on the fast side for my liking so I slowed the pace down to a more pedestrian 9 minutes a mile , which I kept up with ease through Croydon (10 miles) and onto Farthing Down (15 miles) . At Farthing I had my first ‘walk’ – this was part of the plan , as there was a very long steep hill up onto the North Downs. There were also plenty of bushes here for unscheduled pit stops!
THE NORTH DOWNS AND ON TO REDHILL
The small country lanes on the North Downs were a world apart from the busy London roads. At this point you really begin to fell you have got somewhere. I still felt strong and was well inside the cut off time (the cut off is based on an average of 11 minutes per mile – if you are slower than this the marshals will pull you out of the race) . My support crew were taking lots of photos , so that I could have something to remember it with, and other support crews for other runners were also cheering us along. The race with a field of only 120 or so , was rapidly thinning out – occasionally I would meet another runner and chat, but most of the time everybody was running at different paces so long conversations were impossible – by the end simple grunts of acknowledgement sufficed as runners got increasingly tired.
The road off the downs was a cruel experience – very steep downhills are not easy at the best of times , but with 20 miles in the tank , it’s all together harder. Across the M25 we went and it was still only 10 in the morning.
A flat stretch though Mersham and on to Redhill then ensued. I jokingly asked , whilst passing Redhill Station, whether there was a good train service to Brighton! I was then told that I would probably get there quicker if I continued my run. My joking was rudely interrupted by a big hill going out of the town. I had to walk this – though my excuse was ‘I’m only taking in the view!’ - This was an excuse I was to use quite often later!
HALF WAY – THEN THE SLOG!
Half way is at 27 miles , the target was to get there before mid-day , and I actually arrived there at 11:15 . This was a little quick still, so I slowed down a little to consolidate my position. The legs were getting a little tired now, so a little rest or two would not harm. ‘Resting’ basically is the technical term for ‘power walking’ . My knees could take a rest , but I was still progressing though at a more sedate pace. I made the decision (well my legs did anyway) to ‘rest’ going up any hill and to run all flat and moderate downhills – steep downhills were luckily few and far beween.
I had mentally prepared myself for the stretch between 25 and 40 miles – this part I called the ‘Slog’ as it is probably the most difficult section – get through it and your close enough to the finish to get home on willpower alone (hopefully). I got ‘Passed by my team mate Jan Farmer’ at 30 miles – she looked as fresh as when she had started – and raced away up the road – I had no such aspirations to follow suit. My other two teammates were well ahead . Hillary Walker was now leading the ladies race and would later go on to win . John Jarvis was more than a couple of miles ahead and Jan herself went on to be third lady.
The ‘ultra’ part of the race was upon me now – another few miles and a few ‘rests’ later I went thought the lovely villages of Balcombe (35 miles) and Cuckfield (38 miles). It was here that I had my first, and thankfully only real injury problem.
Going through Cuckfield , after overtaking a couple of runners, I noticed that my left knee was feeling the strain. I decided to try and walk off the injury , but when I restarted my run, the knee really began to hurt. I was beginning to have doubts, and with only 16 miles to go. I had about 4 hours left in which to get to Brighton, so I did not have to go flat out, so very gingerly I slowly jogged to the Village of Ansty (40 miles) where my support crew were waiting. Apart from my legs the rest of me felt fine – the sun had warmed up considerably and I was really enjoying the day.
At Ansty , Ruth hastily bandaged up the offending knee , and I was off again – the bandage did offer some support, and it was noticeably easier. I even overtook one or two of those who passed me during my stop. The weather held good until the town of Hassocks (45 miles), when the clouds noticeably descended upon us. We were optimistic we would be lucky and avoid the worst, as it was only 9 miles to go. However in the distance the Mighty South Downs lay in wait – and with it the Ditchling Beacon Pass.
We were all (the runners that is) looking forward to the assent of Ditchling Beacon. It meant that we could all have a walk and not feel guilty about it (even Hilary walked!) . The tiny roads leading us to it were so inviting, and wonderfully scenic, that we almost forgot we were racing.
On reaching the bottom of the hill, the heavens unfortunately opened – gentle at first, but rapidly gaining in strength. The wind picked up too, making life for the cyclists very uncomfortable – probably harder for them than it was for me (I had no sympathy though!). The rains abated for a while when we got to the top, but one again resumed play (horizontal this time , with a little hail too) a short distance up the road. I was damned if this was going to stop me now though – 6 miles left and nearly 2 hours to do it in. The view at this point was amazing – and I could see the Sea at last!!
I was cold and wet and 5 miles from a shower (a warm indoor one that is!) . When the rain eventually stopped, I put on a warm change of kit (that’s what the support bikes are for!) and gloves, and tore off towards Brighton. I had a second wind and chased down the gentle slope into Brighton. Unfortunately, another uphill section 3 miles from home stopped that . Another ‘rest’ to the top of the hill (was passed by a couple of runners whom I’d passed earlier), and then the 2 mile downhill into Brighton.
I caught up with another runner a half mile from home, and followed him until I finally caught sight of the finish sign 200 metres ahead. With a final burst of energy (where it came from is anybody’s guess!) I passed that runner and entered the finishing straight. Unfortunately, a small slope from the road to the finishing straight set of a reaction in my Calf, causing it to cramp . I must have looked quite a sight , still travelling at some rate on tipi toes. Thankfully it went within a few strides, and I resumed my power finish – punching the air as I crossed the line - I had wanted to touch the finish sign but I barely got off the ground – no strength for silly things like that!
I’d finished in a very respectable 9 hours 21 minutes and 44 seconds, and now it was time to celebrate!!!!
AFTER THE FAT LADY SANG!
Well, it didn’t take long for my legs to shut up shop. Within 5 minutes of stopping , my legs stiffened and although I was still overjoyed at finishing, I was not in a position to dance about . The changing facilities and post race reception were a mile walk away, which now seemed like 10.
I eventually got home at about 10 in the evening – a tired but elated man. The following day I rested , but on the Tuesday I was fit enough to take my Hill Group Session without any real problems.
I have learnt a lot from this race, and would recommend it to others to try – though only if you have run quite a few marathons first. As I have found out – the training need not be overwhelming , and the reward is quite an experience. Can’t wait till next years race!
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