‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’ – that was the quote from T. S. Elliot which was written on the back of the Brighton Marathon finisher t-shirt. Collecting both my bib number and finisher t-shirt on the Saturday before the race, those words seemed to fit perfect for how I was going to approach my own Brighton Marathon race. The past 16 weeks of my marathon training had gone as well as I could have asked; I knew I had improved my speed over longer distances and I felt strong. If I ran well I truly felt I could be challenging a sub 3:40 time and a new PB, however I also knew that the marathon is an unknown beast no matter how prepped you feel. If I wanted to challenge and test myself, I needed to be prepared to take a risk.
After the scorching heat of last Spring’s London Marathon, I was pleased to wake on Sunday morning to a cool crispness in the air, with a gentle Spring sunshine appearing sporadically through the clouds. It almost appeared like perfect running conditions… almost (more on that to come!) My sister and her boyfriend had accompanied me for the weekend and were taking part in the Brighton 10k which precedes the marathon start, so I had company as I walked to the start village in Preston Park, set further into the centre of Brighton. I felt quite relaxed and the atmosphere at Preston Park seemed on a similar level; friendly and calm, which is very unlike the start of some marathons I have completed. I soon had to wave my race buddies goodbye as they took their spots in the 10k start pens – I hoped to see them out on route as they would be finished in time to assume spectating duties. As the 10k was started and I watched a stream of runners head towards the seafront, I suddenly felt quite emotional. I am not really sure why, it might have been the moment when it hit me that it was now my time, and the moment all the weeks of hard work had culminated for.
Time passed quickly and I was soon assuming my own spot in the marathon start pen. I felt calm again now, chatting to a few other runners and not letting nerves take over. It was only when they walked us to the start line and started the countdown timer that I felt some nervous energy suddenly bubble inside me; it was time to be brave.
The ‘go’ signal was given, and after I crossed the line, the course probably extended about 200m before it turned up a long gradual hill – what a start for my first impression of the Brighton Marathon! What also dawned on me very quickly in these early stages was that Brighton loves it’s marathon. Residents and supporters lined the streets throughout the race, even in parts I probably would not have expected, and it truly felt like something the entire city was on board with; I felt that passion.
After the hilly starting mile, the course then weaved down to the seafront for the first 5 miles, with a couple of other testing little hills thrown in for good measure. Entering the seafront almost adjacent to the famous Brighton Pier, the course then took a sharp left turn to begin the first long ‘out and back’ section to a place called Ovingdean. When making this turn it was instantly apparent that in the ‘out’ direction there would be a fairly strong headwind. At this point relatively earlier on in the race it felt bearable…
At 6 miles I spotted my sister and her boyfriend as planned, and their photos capture the beaming smile on my face (see image). I was running well at this point; my splits so far had been just over 8 min/mile pace. This was probably a fraction quicker than I had planned, but I felt good so kept with it. I maintained this pace until the turn point at around 9.5 miles, and then all the way back to the half way point just after the Pier. My pace pleased me as this ‘out and back section’ was also rather undulating along the cliff top, and the snake of runners in the distance had particularly emphasised each rise and fall. Despite the wind and the hills, it was a beautiful place to be running set next to the lapping sound of the sea.
After passing the half way point my quads tired a little, probably a combination of my pace and the hilly course so far. At fourteen miles the route then jutted inland slightly for another four-mile-long ‘out and back’ section. I slowed slightly here, my pace now hovering closer to 8.30 min/mile. My limbs felt a little weary, but also the ‘out and back’ nature demoralised me slightly. Seeing mile markers on the other side of the road evoked a bit of a ‘so near yet so far’ feeling. This section was also set on some gradual inclines too – in all honestly, I had underestimated the hilly challenge Brighton would present. I did not panic that my pace had dropped though, I knew I had banked a lot of time in the early stages, and just wanted to steadily keep moving. I hoped I may be able to draw on some grit to finish a few of the final miles strongly – well, that was the plan anyway!
Mother Nature can be cruel at times and from 20 miles onwards it seemed to hate us Brighton Marathoners. Miles 20-23 I had heard much about, another ‘out and back’ section with the turnaround point at a power station – let’s face it, it doesn’t sound that inspiring! The lack of inspiration did not bother me, it was the wind that now played a huge factor; it had built in momentum considerably and was now a true force to be reckoned with. It instantly sapped my tiring body, my pace heading closer to 9 min/mile. Just after 21 miles the course turned at said power station to start a long near 5 mile stretch back along the seafront, back to the Pier, and toward the finish line which was located shortly after. After all these ‘out and back’ sections it is probably hard to remember which way us runners were facing at this point – but these final 5 miles were set against that head wind again, which was now at a level I can only refer to as soul destroying. It was honestly brutal. My planned grit had to be drawn on, but not to pick up my speed, just to keep battling.
I gave up on my pace soon after mile 22, it didn’t matter what my watch screen told me, I could not go any faster if I tried. I could sense the weather had hit everyone with the same crushing force, no one was overtaking me, it was not like I had overdone it, we were all just struggling to get to the line. A spectator tried to lift our spirits saying she wished she could turn the wind off – there was nothing anyone could do though except try and keep going. I read a newspaper report from the elite female winner after the race, she described the same feelings and sensations in this final stretch of the course, and this reassured me further that it was indeed brutal.
With less than 3 miles to go, everything hurt, and I won’t lie, I hated it. 'Why do I do this to myself?' I questioned. A few miles back I thought I may just be able to hold onto a 3:39 finish, but with each energy sapping step, the seconds ticked away. My pace was very slow now and all I wanted was the race to be over! I was in a pain cave and was only awoken from my almost slumped running posture, which I guess was my body’s natural reaction to try and shelter from the wind, when my sister and her boyfriend shouted my name. My smile was more like a grimace now, and even their cheers could not lift my pace for a finish push. With one mile to go I had nothing else left to give – I mean nothing. As the finish arch loomed on the horizon and I entered the final few hundred metres, I could feel a natural urge inside me to push for the finish, however my legs just could not do it. They were gone. Crossing the finish line felt like relief, and I glanced through tired eyes at my watch to read 3:43 something, before the true feeling of exhaustion hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Stood at the finish I honestly had no energy to even move; I have never felt so spent at the end of a marathon. Stranded helplessly, a St Johns medic scooped me up and eased me to collect my medal, before lying me on the concrete with my feet raised in the air against a steel barrier. I closed my eyes and just lie there literally feeling a mixture of pain and fatigue pulsing through my limbs. I could have happily lay there forever if it was not for that flipping wind again. My clothes were wet from sweat and the occasional amount of water I had tipped over my head, and the wind in those final miles had not only drained me, but also chilled me. I was now shivering. I somehow stood up and tried to walk. My legs were a state, my quads painful and my left leg appeared to have become a plank of wood, seemingly unable to bend or move naturally. I dragged myself for what felt like forever to meet my sister and her boyfriend who were waiting on the beach. God knows what I looked like to them!
My sister guided me toward a deckchair, which I literally fell into, and I managed to remove my wet clothing and put some warmer layers on. This seemed to bring me round a little from my post marathon delirium and I was able to ask the ultimate question – what was my actual time?! 3:43:38 my sister replied. My reaction was honestly relief. At times on the final stretch I had wanted to give up and to finish felt like an achievement. To finish in my second quickest marathon time to date, and another sub 3:45 time which would qualify me for London Marathon ‘Good For Age’, felt almost unbelievable. I was sore, sunburnt and stuck in a deckchair on Brighton Beach – but I was happy.
I wanted to test myself at the Brighton Marathon and I definitely did that. Altogether the race was probably the toughest combination of course and weather I have faced; even though the London Marathon was hot last year, the route was still kinder on the limbs. Mentally I think you have to be quite strong to cope with the number of ‘out and back’ sections too – they are not always the easiest routes to run on. I was open about my goal of trying to go sub 3:40 and I am not disappointed I did not make it. I gave absolutely everything I could to try for it, my body at the end told me that and I know it in myself; the pieces of the marathon jigsaw just did not all quite fit together on the day. I am proud – I would have not been able to produce that performance in these circumstances a few months ago and that in itself shows progress. Do I have a quicker time in me in the future – I think so, and I will keep taking those risks to see how far I can truly go.
I want to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to those who have supported my training again this time. This may have been my 9th marathon (how has that even happened?!) but it certainly does not mean I do not welcome or need that extra little bit of encouragement, those wise words and reminders, the people stood on the roadside cheering my name, friends who understand this 26.2 mile addiction I seem to have, and people around who I know are looking out for me. The journey continues and I hope to keep sharing it with you.
Alice's Adventures In Running Land
Read about my adventures in running land...