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Get off the couch and find your passion!

by Editor
Wednesday 30th October 2013
Tags  Beachy Head Marathon   |   Couch to 5K   |   parkrun   |   Didcot Runners   |   Liz Neighbour

Liz Neighbour discovers that you never know where your feet may take you when you put down the iron and grab your shoes!

On Saturday the 26th of October 2013 I managed to complete the Beachy Head Marathon.

In eighteen months I’d gone from being an unfit blob, puffing my way through the Couch to 5K programme in a velour tracksuit and old Dunlops, to a runner able to complete one of the most challenging courses in the country.

People who know me are astonished to say the least, due in no small part to the fact that at no stage in my sedentary life have I ever shown the slightest interest in, or talent for anything sporty. To be honest I’m still racking my brains as to the reason why one summer’s afternoon in 2012 I put my iron down, stuck those Dunlops on and headed out of the door. All I know is that for whatever reason, it was one the best decisions I have ever made.

A friend of mine had told me how she was looking to get back into running after her fourth baby. ‘There’s this brilliant app called Couch to 5K, it tells you when to run, when to walk and in eight weeks you’ll be able to run for 30 minutes.’ ‘Cool’ I said, not remotely bothered. I have said ‘cool’ to Aqua Fit, Spinning, Zumba, Body Combat and a hundred other things my friends have raved about without ever feeling the slightest temptation to join in.

However something about Couch to 5K must have lodged somewhere in my brain and a few days later a combination of curiosity, a sunny day and a new album on my playlist propelled me, rather self-consciously, out of the door, app on phone. I took my dachshund Lenny ostensibly for an outing, but also as a cover if I saw anyone I knew. Running? Nah, just walking the dog – quickly. Lenny hated it and slunk away whenever the Dunlops came out, but from that first outing I was hooked. The sun, the fresh air, the freedom and my new album all combined to make me want more – and more.

Over the Summer the Dunlops were traded in for bouncy Asics, the velour tracksuit gave way to more practical lycra and polyester, and my usual chick-lit was tossed aside for informative Runner's World and inspiring Born to Run. My final Couch to 5K session was run along a Devon beach on holiday – it was wonderful, marvellous heady stuff, but not enough. I gave in to my addiction and went on to the hard stuff – Couch to 10K.

Around this time a colleague was telling me about something called Parkrun. ‘My brother runs it with his wife, never misses a week. It’s on a Saturday and you get a discount on coffee and cake afterwards.’ Running and a coffee and cake – a no-brainer you’d think but I wasn’t sold.

Until this time I’d only run on my own, shuffling around, alone in a park. I felt quite intimidated, I mean these were runners, right? People who sported lycra in broad daylight up and down the road in front of traffic! Happy to risk being spotted by people they knew! In vests and shorts no less!

Still, again, something propelled me there and one Saturday morning I followed the trail of neon vests to a field and ran. And loved it. Again. Afterwards I met a man called Geoff, a wiry, friendly chap in his late fifties who asked me to join him and ‘some friends’ for coffee. Geoff turned out to be the mind-blowing 82 year old founder of a running club and his dodgy-looking lycra chums turned out to be some of the Didcot Runners. And the diminutive woman sitting next to me munching on a croissant turned out to be Didcot coach and ultra-runner extraordinaire, Running247’s very own Kirsty Reade.

I was in too deep by now, and, dragged down by this iniquitous gang, sank to further depths of depravity. I started something called ‘interval training’ on Thursdays. I learned what Fartlek meant. I was getting in over my head and I didn’t care who knew it as I brazenly went from park to roads. Over the winter my mileage went from 6, to 10, to 13 miles in full view. People in Wallingford would approach me saying they’d ‘seen me at Shillingford’ and still I didn’t care!

Liz Neighbour discovers that you never know where those feet may take you when you put down the iron and grab your shoes!

I then ran the Reading Half marathon and even told my closest friends about my running habit. But it still wasn’t enough. I started looking online for marathons and before I knew it I’d entered Beachy Head. It still had spaces, the date fitted around my work schedule, I’d walked the seven sisters and had friends in Eastbourne. The fact that it was rated one of the most difficult marathons in the entire country was a teensy detail I’d think about later.

Well seven months later, after finally ‘fessing up to coach Kirsty what I’d entered, many hours slogging both on and off-road training, and as much hill-training as I could get in flattish Oxfordshire, there I was with husband and bemused friend in tow on the start line. A beginner at Beachy. How did I feel? Nervous? – a little. Worried? – a tad. But I have to confess the overwhelming feeling was a Christmas morning excitement.

I’d practised mile upon mile experimenting with gels, water, Vaseline, kit until my reluctant body had caved in and accepted it.  I felt ready to give it a shot, and even though I’d never run 26 miles in a race before I knew that my training (involving over 26 miles at times, just to be sure) would be enough to get me two thirds round, with sheer determination doing the rest. And sure enough that’s exactly what happened. I got back in 6 hours 15 minutes to a relieved husband and a (very) large glass of wine.

Beachy is an unforgettable experience, end of. What other marathon begins with a rough scramble up a muddy near-vertical half-mile slope? And at the other end finds you skidding back down same slope on shattered legs to stagger to the finish? If there’s any marathon that prevents you from pushing off too fast it’s Beachy. Indeed if there’s any marathon that prevents you doing anything too fast it’s Beachy.

Expect to add at least an hour to your usual marathon time. You climb up and out of Eastbourne to spectacular views of the town and the sea before rising to incredible heights on Willingdon Hill, location of Chalk Farm, the inspiration for George Orwell’s Animal farm. From there you descend for what seems like forever through stunning woodland to the beautiful village of Jevington and the first checkpoint (water, squash and a bourbon biscuit). You then climb again, up and over Wentover Hill, through Alfriston (a good place for family to cheer you on) and on ever upwards to Borstall Hill.

Most of the biggest climbs happen in the first half when your legs are fresh, but save some for the second half. Take advantage of the extra refreshments at checkpoint 3 (half-bananas and sausage rolls no less), for part two is not without its challenges. Don’t let the the tea and cake and brass band at checkpoint 4 lull you into a false sense of security. Not long after there is the small matter of the 200 steps around mile 17 (yes 200!). Then after a beautiful descent towards the Cuckmere River there are the Seven Sisters (or Seven Bitches as they are known locally) at Mile 20! Don’t let their relatively diminutive size on the profile map fool you. They are harridans – and I’m sure they bring over a couple of step-sisters on marathon day for a laugh. But there’s nothing beyond difficult for the well-prepared, and the sublime scenery more than compensates for the difficulty of the terrain. And if you make it to Checkpoint 5 there are Mars bars folks!

Liz Neighbour discovers that you never know where those feet may take you when you put down the iron and grab your shoes!

Bewitching Beachy, with its stunning views, high level of challenge and extraordinary support from the marshalls and locals make this a marathon-must. The combination of brutal beauty and homely organisation made it feel like a family affair. If you’re looking for celebrities, crowds, razamatazz and Gatorade, then Beachy Head isn’t for you. If, however you feel cups of tea, sausage rolls, lone bagpipers on a hill and a friendly copper escorting you over the road would be enough to drag you over 26 miles then get yourself over to Beachy. It suits all abilities of marathon runner from the elite to beginners like me.

Beachy my love I’ll be back, I’m so glad you were my first, but you won’t be my last and in the meantime I’m just off to see if I can find a Couch to 100k app...

Click here for more information on the Couch to 5K programme

Click here to find out more about the Beachy Head Marathon


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