A weekend of snow and sub-zero temperatures saw road races cancelled all over the UK. But that didn’t stop this off-road marathon and relay half marathon from taking place on the trails above Lewes ending at Harvey’s Brewery…
One by one, the races due to take part over the weekend fell victim to the snow, ice and windchill and I was expecting – and truth be told, hoping – the same would happen for this off-road trail race that has only been going for the last four years. But it wasn’t cancelled and I’m so glad because this trail race, despite it’s hills and the brutal weather is now firmly on my repeat race list for next year and is definitely a destination race worth travelling for.
The route of the full marathon takes in five high points around the historic county town of Lewes – Black Cap, Kingston Ridge, Firle Beacon and Mount Caburn which command stunning views over the Weald and south to the English Channel, and passes sites association with the Bloomsbury set, including Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House in Rodmell.
An excited, if apprehensive crowd of runners greeted me as I went to Race HQ in a local school hall on the outskirts of Lewes; most runners were wrapped up as if about to head out on an Arctic expedition but with good reason, as reports were of 25 mph winds with a wind chill factor of minus 25 and with at least two thirds of the 350 runners taking on the full marathon over tough, hilly terrain, safety was of importance. What’s great about this laid-back friendly event which was set up in memory of local runner, Chris Moyle (a percentage of the race profits go to the nearby Matlet’s Hospice) is that it attracts a mixture of runners from serious club athletes set on racing to recreational runners as well as runners who take part with their dog.
After a quick race brief, a cheer for the marshals we all filed out of the school to a cold, snow covered part of the Downs and fifteen minutes after the marathon runners were set off, the rest of us were off, tracing the footprints in the snow of the runners how had been before. Fearing the windchill, I was triple layered and of course, absolutely baking as I ran up the hill to meet the South Downs Way where the first of the stunning views across the snow covered Downs greeted me. From here, it headed west along the top before dropping down hill where I soon began to pass some of the marathon runners.
Friends had told me about their horrifying training runs on the route a few weeks back when it was thick of gloopy mud and so the cold weather was actually in our favour because it had frozen most of the ground making it easier to run on. A punishing climb back up to the next ridge was rewarded with another swift downhill through the Castle Hill area on the South Downs, past a field full of baby lambs sheltering from the cold near their mothers and into one of the harshest hills on this first half of the route, Swanborough Hill, a long, snaking hill of a chalk path that winds up to the top of the ridge overlooking Lewes. No chance to catch your breath because at the top the route turned into the full force of the wind which at times threatened to push me backwards and freeze my cheeks. Ten minutes further on, an amazing group of marshals were braving the top of the ridge to man a water station, where it was so cold and windy, i threw half of it on me instead of drinking it.
With my Buff pulled up to eye level, I pushed on (after taking a quick picture which nearly saw me lose my fingers to frostbite) eager to run faster just to get off the ridge. A fast downhill via a tarmac laid road which is known as the Yellow Brick road and a turn left, taking us through a valley and out of the wind before the finish line of the first half of this relay finished at the YHA in Southease , which was packed with supporters and a brilliant place for spectators to watch and for runners to finish with a warm cafe, toilets and even a shower.
Thankfully, my relay partner, Jan, had been dropped off by a partner so while other runners had to wait for a rail replacement bus back to Lewes (thanks Southern Rail!), I was able to pop straight into a warm car and head back to the finish line at Harvey’s Brewery. And what a fantastic finish, over the cobbled stones of Lewes High Street before turning right through the arches straight into Harvey’s Brewery, where you are greeted with a free Moyleman’s glass with a token for a free beer and free food, in this case an individual, handmade hot pizza which was absolutely delicious.
This race may be small, but their organisation in terms of communication in advance of the weather, not to mention the number of marshals they had out on course, was amazing. Every part of the route is brilliantly signposted and every turn staffed by smiling volunteers, despite the freezing conditions.
I’ve finished races all over the world but I think Harvey’s Brewery with a beer and pizza even beats Lake Garda’s prosecco finish. It just needs to be a bit warmer.
This is a tough, brutal course (word from my relay partner, Jan is that she loved it but she had five miles of wind!) but it is absolutely brilliant and not to be missed. It was part of our Girls Run the World Get Together Races for 2018 and will be again for 2019, so what are you waiting for? Join us down South for this one in 2019.
- plenty of toilets for the numbers – no queues (hurrah!)
- amazing marshals
- best finish line
- incredible pizza (like, seriously impressive!)
- The windchill but actually, the weather just made this one of those ‘I’ll never forget that race when…’ kind of times…
- Those hills …although, I kind of like them