On Sunday I rocked up in a playing field just outside the seaside town of Worthing for a 27 mile trail race that I’d definitely signed up for on a whim. I have a strange habit of doing this it seems and I’ve just realised I’ve done it again for another race at the end of this month. Madness.
Anyhoo, this was the Three Forts Challenge organised by the local rotary clubs to raise funds for local charities. I remember being drawn to the event because the route included a tiny part of the only section of the South Downs Way trail I’d run, back in August from Amberley to Worthing. The marathon distance – actually a little over 27 miles – takes in the Cissbury Ring, Devil’s Dyke and the Chanctonbury Ring with almost 3500ft of climbing, and so it was a perfect training run for my A race in June. That’s what I told myself anyway.
After an early start, a taxi ride, two train journeys and a mile and a bit walk from Worthing station, I arrived at Hill Barn recreational ground – aka some local playing fields – feeling a little bit overwhelmed. I’d just traveled for three hours to a race I knew very little about and I felt somewhat under prepared. I’d expected it to be pretty chilly and rain was forecast for later in the day, so I took shelter from the wind in the female changing area – a small white pop up tent – and tried to focus. There was just under an hour to go before the race start at 10am. I went to the loo (10 portaloos for about 500 runners? plus spectators), sat down and ate my Tribe bar (their new salted chocolate flavour was pretty good), got my kit on and warmed up my glutes with exercises using my stretchy band. Ladies came and went and I chatted with all of them – some first timers, others who had run and placed well in previous years – getting tips and calming my nerves. Just before the start I dropped my bag off and spotted fellow FRC runners Alex and Carolyn, with youngest recruit Oscar, lining up, so we got a “before” shot and with the ringing of a loud bell by the town crier we were set off. Up hill, onto the Downs.
The marathon route took us North towards the Cissbury Ring, but not quite to the top, as we were directed East towards Coombes and Botolphs and finally riverside to cross the River Adur. This was the first seven or so miles, with a few steady climbs, already two aid stations, and some blustery winds to battle. After the bridge across the river we were on the out-and-back-stretch, so I knew every climb would be a descent and vice versa on the return journey.
On the hills everyone (no exception) slowed to a walk and as the path was narrow the runners formed a train, dots in the distance steadily climbing to the top. The worse section of the race for me came around mile 9 with a stretch of road, a small country road between local farms to be fair, but tarmac underfoot all the same, with a headwind forcing us again into a line as we tried to seek shelter and save energy. The light at the end of the tunnel came at the aid station at Truleigh Hill, where I grabbed half a banana and a handful of jelly babies and was glad that the road turned back into a rough, chalky trail. From there we were heading to the turnaround point at Devils Dyke and with about a mile or so to go runners coming in the opposite direction started to fly past us. I saw Alex, looking good in about 10th place and we high-fived, giving me a boost and a tinge of club spirit to continue running strong. There were crowds at Devils Dyke as well as another well-stocked aid station and I decided to stop to take on water, orange squash and some more banana. Heading back in the opposite direction, knowing that we were heading homewards even though we hadn’t reached halfway, gave me an almost second wind and fresh legs as now the actual wind was almost behind us, pushing us on. Just as I had predicted I remembered the slogs of the uphill climbs that I now enjoyed running down freely, passing those more cautious, or more sensible considering we still had a long way to go!
We got back down to river level after passing the half way mark and I saw Carolyn again, cheering with little Oscar, which gave me another boost alongside a second handful of jelly babies. We climbed through the little village of Botolphs and were back on the trails, this time with the added distraction of runners racing in a different race – the 3 day Devils Dyke Challenge – going the opposite way, which at first was confusing but then just added to the comradery of the event with each runner swapping hellos and well dones as they passed one another. I was looking forward to reaching mile 20, initally to see how I felt and if the dreaded wall was about to hit, but also knowing that I had that distance and most of the climbing behind me with just a short way and an exciting descent to go. Just after mile 20 I recognised a group of trees we’d named the Lion’s Head on our previous run (!) and knowing I was running on already treaded soil grounded me, I’d run this section before and I could do it again. I also caught up with a fellow runner who I’d been to-ing and fro-ing with since halfway and had shared the walk from Worthing station with earlier that day. We settled into an easy conversation and the next few miles simply flew by, so much so that before we knew it the last climb to the Cissbury Ring was just ahead of us and after that the two mile descent to the finish.
From what felt like nowhere, when I reached the top of that final climb, my legs felt spritely and fresh and I overtook at least six men on the last descent into the finish, one of whom even had the cheek to speed up as I tried to pass him, run alongside me for a few metres then slowed, shouting ‘just wanted to push you a little’ as I ran away from him. To my utter surprise and complete joy, I heard people cheering my name as I ran into the final bend of the race and, double checking I didn’t have Amy written on my vest, realised that it was Stephanie and Andy, who’d come along to support and look after me post-race. I raced those last miles like I didn’t have a marathon in my legs and was shocked to come in ahead of my personal target time with 4:20:47 and 9th lady.
A memorable day out on the beautiful South Downs. A great, well organised race – well marked, fully stocked aid stations (although next year please add something savoury to the menu – salted peanuts or crisps would have gone down a treat) and friendly volunteers. I know a race is good when it attracts the type of runners I love to meet out on the trails – warm, welcoming, laid back and just out to enjoy the day ahead, whatever challenges it may bring – and my faith in this strong community of trail-loving junkies is restored.