At the end of August I completed another Action Challenge Ultra Challenge: the South Coast Challenge between Eastbourne and Arundel. This was another 100km walk and my second this year.
I was actually quite nervous going in as I really hadn’t done any training like I had for London2Cambridge or London2Brighton. In all honesty I was a bit complacent since my last walk and the Challenge was upon me before I knew it. However I survived (obviously) and I fared a lot better than I expected.
I travelled down to Eastbourne on the Friday to register. I saw a few people on the train with conspicuous backpacks – clearly I wasn’t the only one heading down for the challenge – but I consciously avoided the main group as I didn’t want to hear anxiety-inducing stories of everyone else’s training!
I ended up sitting next to a wonderful young woman called Fiona who was also doing the challenge. This being her second time doing a physical challenge, she was raising money for Whoopsadaisy, a Brighton-based charity who help children with physical needs, such as those caused by Cerebral Palsy, to improve their independence through creative and social workshops with a Conductive Education approach. It was great to have someone to chat to and by the time we reached Eastbourne I was feeling a lot better about the challenge ahead.
We waited at the station for her friend Claire to arrive and then the three of us stopped off at Boots the chemist to get some last minute supplies (suncream and insect repellent!). This was Claire’s first such challenge so she was excited and nervous but – as we soon discovered – she was more than up to the challenge. By a lucky coincidence we discovered we were all booked to start at 07:40am the next morning. We said our “good lucks” and goodbyes as I headed off to register and they headed off to find their hotel.
It turned out my hotel was on the way to the registration point – exactly 2km away actually as the route markers were right outside! – so I dropped off my bags and walked to the marquee in the local park to register. I saw a little bit of Eastbourne on the way and what I saw I fell in love with. It doesn’t have the confusing size or bustle of Brighton and I saw lots of pretty little huts and family-oriented activities on the seafront.
My hotel was basic but comfortable and right on the front. Traffic was right outside the window but with the curtains drawn you could imagine it was the rise and fall of waves from the beach. I had dinner in a nearby pub where I had some liquid courage and then headed back to my room to do final preparation for the morning and get an early night.
I was up at 05:30 and by 06:30 was walking back towards the starting line. You could argue I did 4km just going there and back but who’s counting? 😉
Despite being early, once i’d prepared my feet – fresh socks and talcum powder – I only had time to wolf down a couple of sausages and half a coffee before we were being called into the starting pen. I bumped into Fiona and Claire on the way in and we did the warm up exercises together.
It was soon time to go and we headed out together, although when we reached the first main hill I ended up leaving them behind – unintentionally, honest! – and walked up to Beachy Head and over the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs by myself, occasionally chatting to others en route.
Going in I was mostly worried about the hills as London2Brighton had been particularly bad for these. However I found they weren’t all as steep, or if they were the ground was, at this point, more grass than gravel which is easier underfoot. I was careful coming down off the cliffs though and walked in a silly crablike zig-zag to avoid pushing my toes into the front of my boots (trust me, after 30hrs of walking it hurts!). Reaching 21km I was feeling confident I could do this.
The toughest part of the challenge was the gloriously hot sunny weather we were having. There was no shade on the hills and in the valleys between hills very little wind. I had suncream and a hat on, but still the heat sapped my energy. I had to just plod along, one foot in front of the other. I bumped into Fiona and Claire again later in the morning – I forget the exact point – and we welcomed the opportunity to get some cool ice lollys from a nearby ice cream van.
We ended up being separated again – I think they overtook me this time – and we wouldn’t see each other again until the middle of the night. By the time I reached the small water stop at 43km, walking in the constant heat, combined with forgetting to bring a lunch for the 21km stop, was starting to take its toll. All the major rest stops are well provisioned by Action Challenge with snacks and drinks, but meals are only served at the halfway and three quarters rest stops. I had some oranges though that perked me up and after I managed to heave my aching body off the grass verge I headed off again.
The route of the challenge starts on the coast but turns inland over the South Downs National Park towards Lewes before heading back out to Brighton and then inland again on the way to Arundel. Reaching Brighton as we approached the 54km rest stop was a welcome sight as i’d missed being by the sea, however the walk to the rest stop here was excruciatingly far, stretching the length of the sea front, and involved side stepping all the evening’s revellers step by painful step.
After the main meal at Brighton, I headed out into the night. Head torches are compulsory at this point, as is going out in groups. In my group a couple said they tried to do each kilometre in 11 minutes and keeping pace with them kept me on the move. Eventually I overtook them and by the 68km rest stop I was too tired to talk.
Before long I overtook several other groups, eventually finding myself out in the wilderness by myself, although I knew people would be only minutes behind and in front. At this point I kept myself occupied by belting out my repertoire of Kith & Kids choir songs at the top of my lungs as well as dad’s party piece, American Pie by Don MacLean. The lyrics may not have been entirely accurate or in tune but I was too tired to care.
Shortly after I ran out of songs to murder, I crossed paths with Fiona and Claire again: Anyone would think I was stalking them! They’d stopped for some TLC at a little First Aid stand and we continued together for the rest of the challenge. This, I feel, really made the difference for me. Although I enjoy entering these challenges as an individual for the freedom this provides, just the physical company of another person, even when you’re too tired to talk, is a great motivator. Given that I was such rubbish company, i’m glad they put up with me!
Our individual pace by this point was quite similar and I really couldn’t see myself charging ahead anyway. We made good time during the night though and come morning we had breakfast at the 80km rest stop. We were more chatty again by morning and I was very happy to have the company for the final stretch. I especially loved hearing about Fiona and Claire’s respective families and I really owe them both a debt for keeping my spirits up for so long.
We stopped very briefly at the 91km rest stop as we were all three keen to just get the challenge over with by this point. When we could see Arundel Castle up on a nearby hill we knew we were on the home stretch and when we finally started to see walkers coming towards us we knew it wasn’t much further. The finish was emotional as Fiona and Claire’s kids raced out to meet them and I could see how relieved and proud they both were to have finished. For me, it was another emotional rollercoaster of a challenge and i’m pleased at how well I performed, especially given my final time which was a massive improvement over my previous challenges.
I think last year’s London2Cambridge was my most painful challenge, and London2Brighton tougher still for all the treacherous hills and styles, however the South Coast challenge was no mean feat. Looking at the timing website, of the 860 attempting the full 100km walk – i.e. excluding runners and those doing shorter sections or a 2-day event which takes the total to just over 1500 people – there were 592 finishers and 268 withdrawals, with the largest group of those (141) at 54km. I finished 464th in a time of 28hrs 15mins 20secs in comparison to 30hrs 49mins 03secs for London2Brighton, and 31hrs 53mins 22secs for London2Cambridge.
I’m taking a break for the rest of the year as my feet are bruised and battered and still have some healing to do, even though the blisters have gone down, but I know it won’t be too long before i’m hitting the road again. Already i’m looking back with rose tinted glasses and have been swapping some challenge ideas with friends.
Do you fancy doing a physical challenge?