It doesn’t matter how many marathons you run, no 26.2 finish line comes for free. Each race has its own unique set of challenges and circumstances. You have to earn every medal. My marathon No. 26, running with the 2XU Recovery team, at the Brighton Marathon had the toughest final six miles I think I’ve ever faced during a marathon. But it wasn’t supposed to be like that.
With just 20 days to go until the Centurion Running Thames 100 mile ultra, Brighton was supposed to be a steady, training run at an easy pace. I was running with a friend, Luke, doing his first marathon and so the plan was to run 8:30 min/miles at least to half way and see how we felt from there. Bearing in mind I can quite comfortably clock 7:30 min/miles this should have been ‘easy’ for me. And for the first 18 miles it was.
But when we made this plan we had no idea that the weather would spring the UK’s hottest day of the year so far on us. The night before the race, the BBC Weather assured us it would be 15/16 degrees at most but as we stood on the start line with the sun searing into the back of our neck even at 9:15am, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. I had a suspicion that this might not be such an easy day at the office.
More warning signs came in the early miles. My body often grumbles a bit during the first three miles of any run as it grapples with the reality that we’re ‘doing this again’. But in Brighton even at a slow pace, well before mile six, I was having to dig deeper than I wanted. I ignored the early struggles and got my head down and cracked on. Thankfully as we weaved around some of Brighton’s back streets and spilled out onto the seafront for the first of our beach-hugging miles, I started to feel much better.
Despite the fact that in recent years the course for Brighton has been altered to cut out some of the bigger hills, there are still some steady climbs in the first 13 miles as you head along the seafront, past the Brighton Marina and out of town. We were both running well despite the rise and climbing these inclines gave me confidence that we could kick on and make the most of the down on the way back.
Mile 20 to 23 were some of the worst I’ve ever encountered in a marathon, running away from Brighton’s buzzing seafront into a desolate industrial wasteland with no shade, no support and apparently, according to my body, no energy left.
One thing you need to know about the Brighton course is that there are a lot of mini out-and-back sections where you get to glance over at the other side of the road and see the mile markers you’ll be hitting later in the race. One that caught my eye on this long stretch was the 12 mile flag. Initially that was where I thought Luke and I might move up a gear.
But as we hit the turn and made our way back towards 12, I could sense Luke was having the first of many battles to come. The sea breeze that had kept the worst of the sun at bay had vanished and now there was little to shield us from the bakey and the burny. Despite that, we were still moving well and reached halfway in a really respectable 1:51, pretty much bang on our race plan. From here we still had every chance of hitting 3:45, a time that Luke would have been really happy with on his first outing.
But this was also the point we should have been kicking it up a notch. Having bagged a ‘conservative’ first half, now was time to tick 10 or 20 seconds per mile off the race pace. But despite running decent sections of downhill, the surge never came. Instead the opposite started to happen. First we slowed to 8:45 and then the 9:00s. I could tell that somewhere a few miles the Struggle Button had been pressed for Luke.
At mile 13 or 14 as we ran along the sea front, a procession of Quadrophenia scooters and zig-zagging Minis, hooted heir way down the other side of the course giving us a temporary distraction from the slow-cooking we were being treated to.
Maybe it was the sun, maybe it’s Brighton’s effusive character but the support was about the best I’ve ever seen – and that includes London, New York and Chicago. It wasn’t that there were more people, but everyone watching the Brighton Marathon seemed to be a lot more pumped and vocal. It was like running past 100s of mini street parties with sound systems playing and cheers practically non-stop.
But even these crowds couldn’t offset the heat. Fourteen, fifteen and sixteen were our slowest miles yet and I knew that the fierce sun had set fire to the race plan. From here on Luke’s race was going to be about getting to the finish line, all targets and times were now irrelevant.
Brighton Marathon: ‘The race starts at Mile 20’
By the time we hit 18, I was struggling to stay back with him. Despite the heat, having run the first three quarters of the race conservatively I was feeling pretty good. I was convinced I’d saved enough to turn up the pace for the final eight miles and enjoy passing people all the way home. I was very wrong. Two miles later I was on my arse and walking. All it took to tip me over the edge was a couple of miles at 7:30 min/miles.
And it was at this point, while my physiology was being most sternly tested that Brighton chose to hit me (and everyone else) squarely in the face with psychological blow. Miles 20 to 23 were some of the worst I’ve ever encountered in a marathon, running away from Brighton’s buzzing seafront into a desolate industrial wasteland with no shade, no support and apparently, according to my body, no energy left.
This hellish stretch gave me a mental battering when I most needed something to lift me up. I found myself walking sections after water stations and trying everything I could to settle my guts. But no manner of gels, drinks or swearing at my stomach could halt the nausea.
All I could hear were the words of running coach Nick Anderson who’d been offering sound advice at the 2XU recovery zone at the Brighton Marathon expo the day before. “The halfway mark in a marathon is at 20 miles. That’s when the race really starts.” It wasn’t knew advice for me, I was all too aware of this but rarely had I felt this so keenly as on those blistering streets of Brighton.
I started to look out for Luke running on the other side of the course but couldn’t see him anywhere. He must be way back, I thought to myself, at least until I got a tap on the shoulder, then a shove and he swept me up and got me running again. Here I was, the running mentor being helped to the finish by the newbie. It wasn’t how I’d envisaged it but boy was I happy with that.
For the final four miles Luke and I struggled back along the sea front, past the beach huts and beer-drinking sun bathers, in total silence. I’ve only ever witnessed such a serious piece of resolute, determined, teeth-clenched running before when my sister ran a half marathon on no training. But what Luke did in those final miles was as impressive as it gets. At one point I swear he was actually running with his chin. His jaw pointed to the finish line like he was reaching for it with all he had. For my part, it was all I could do to stick with him. I desperately wanted to stop and walk some more but there was no way I could let him beat me. So I had to match his effort.
The last mile was hell. On more than one occasion the horizon tilted in that way that means you’re not too far from a trip to the wobbly tent courtesy of the St John’s ambulance. With 400m to go the only way I could think to take my mind off the pain was to pull out my phone and video Luke’s first marathon finish. And I’m glad that I did. Because this is what I got…
That right there is the Brighton Marathon 2017 in a nutshell. Brilliant and bloody painful in equal measure and I’d definitely do it all again.