Photo from the South Downs. In the foreground rolling downs below a bright blue sky. In the background you can just make out Belle Toute lighthouse and the sea beyond it.

CTS Sussex 2014 Race Report

This was a stunner.

Less than a week after our sunny blast through the New Forest sunshine like a spring rabbit it was back to the biting winds and slate skies of winter and back on the coastal trail for the latest instalment of the Endurancelife Coastal Trail SeriesCTS Sussex 10k. This was also day 14 of my running streak which as I was to find out was going to make my legs the emptiest I can remember feeling on a run. With this, the deceptive undulation of the scenic South Downs and the fact that this ’10k’ actually comes in 2.5k longer I managed to add on nearly 30 minutes to my 10k time between races finishing with a new personal worst a full four minutes behind Dory. The scenery was pretty spectacular though and once I realised I didn’t have anything in the tank and before I hit the fierce headwind and steep ascent of Beachy Head as the 10k mark arrived I relaxed into the run and managed to run the middle section at least with a huge smile on my face at the utter wild beauty of it all.

This was another quick journey for us though with a slightly earlier start as we diverted to Gatwick for our coffee stop and to put my Mum on her plane back home after a week hanging out with us. Again our road trip was full of empty roads and superb tunes as we wound our way through Sussex to the coast arriving at Race HQ at Birling Gap. Endurancelife CTS are growing in popularity all the time and this was another well attended race but our shiny new National Trust membership ensured close parking to the event for free.

We watched the eve popular Half (always the biggest field) set off as we wandered to complete registration, negotiate the portaloos and head back to the car to dump our kit and decide how many layers to keep on as the rain and wind lashed around. As we lined up for the start the clouds parted and although the wind was a constant companion the rain abated and we ran under a pristine blue sky with drifting white clouds. This made it slightly warmer and once on the move as we headed out towards the the Seven Sisters and up our first cliff two things became obvious to me.

1. My legs didn’t really fancy running up a cliff.
2. I was waaaaaaaaaaay too hot.

There was a brief pause at the top of the cliff as we waited to take our turn through a gate and we emerged onto the iconic clifftops. From here it was a rapid series of steep ascents and descents. Walking up and then running like a little mountain goat as fast as possible down the other side.

Furious brown waves hitting a shingle beach below the Seven Sisters a series of chalk cliffs heading into the distance.
Waves pound the Seven Sisters

Fortunately we didn’t have to do all seven and by the top of the third I’d decided two things:

1. I was going to be able to ‘race’ so was going to enjoy the stunning views and run as easily as possibly.
2. I was going to stop and sort out my kit so I wasn’t overheating but had enough to keep the wind chill at bay.

I watched Dory scamper off into the distance not to see her again until the finish line and started again more slowly with a giddy smile on my face. The next section was the biggest hill on the outward loop but it wasn’t as steep as the early cliffs. These long but gradual hills really suit my power endurance so I was able to find a steady pace to plod up here. We then had to negotiate a series of cow fields watching out for mud, gates and the bemused cows before the downs started to fall away before our feet opening up fantastic views across Birling Gap towards Belle Tout lighthouse. The route is a figure of eight centering on Birling Gap so already I could see faster runners ascending the cliff on the other side making for the lighthouse.

South downs in the foreground.  In the middle there are cars parked at Birling Gap then the downs rise again.  there are runners on a distant trail and in the background sunlight glistens on the sea and Belle Tout lighthouse can be seen in the distance on a chalk cliff.
Runners stream up the trail towards Belle Tout lighthouse from Birling Gap

All too soon that was me and once more with my legs shredded I decided to walk. It was then a pleasant run across the top before I turning back. Or so I thought. Actually it wasn’t it was a another series of rapid fire undulations before continuing on past the 10k marker up the steep ascent to Beachy Head. By now I was windswept and weary and this felt a long way up but it was impossible not to feel inspired by such an iconic section of coast. Fortunately the turnaround point was at the top and it felt great to hit the checkpoint and know that there was only a 2k sprint downhill to the line to go. Except the down was almost entirely negated by t he force of the fierce headwind that we turned into. At some points I could hardly make forward progress. It was at this stage with jelly legs, wind whipped and gasping that the race photographer popped up – I’m sure that;s not going to be one for the mantlepiece.

Finally ducking out of the wind it was the final downhill and I even managed a final spurt. The finish is hidden in a small copse so you are almost upon it before you see it but you can hear the noise of the supportive crowd as you approach the trees. This makes it a a lovely intimate finish. One minute you are exhausted the next minute you are flopping of the finish line to pick up your Clif Bar and medal. The fourth from the series for me so far. Whilst CTS Gower was almost unremittingly awful for me due to the combination of illness and boggy terrain this was actually my slowest time. I still had a great time and I’m glad that whilst my streak is proving harder than expected it’s going to feature some fantastic runs.

Due to the cold we didn’t hang around. I knew I desperately needed some warm, comforting food inside me to fill my cold and empty places so we heading to the National Trust cafe to the treat of locally caught fish, chips and peas. Somewhat revived we briefly headed out into Birling Gap and out onto the scaffolding erected out beyond the damaged cliffs. There was further evidence of the pounding storms in every direction and the constant and the constant pounding of the waves slowly eating away at the soft chalk. This coast may be iconically British but it changes every season and who knows how long it will remain. It was a privilege to run here and take in the fierce beauty of it. Already the end cottage in the row of former coastguard cottages has been condemned and is being demolished and removed from its precarious perch before it finally teeters over the edge. Before long the ferocious howl of the wind had defeated us too and we headed back to the sanctuary of the car and then home.

Chalk cliffs at Birling Gap showing coastal erosion.  to the right white capped waves drive against the beach.  To the left are coastguard cottages falling off the cliff.  The end cottage is being demolished before it collapses.
Coastal erosion at Birling Gap

The CTS Series never fails to disappoint. The races are good value well organised and always in spectacular venues. Just don’t tell everyone the only thing that may cause these events to disappoint is their growing popularity means they are less relaxed and intimate than they used to be. Our first time at Sussex and hopefully not the last …. maybe the Half next time, it can’t be that hard to continue all the way over Beachy Head can it?

Distance: 12.5k
Terrain: Grass and Track
Time: 1:26:59

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