It’s 0700 on Sunday 30th April and my alarm has just gone off. Must be time for the Three Forts Challenge.
Those of you who regularly read my blog will already know, I was a bit nervous about this marathon. The Three Forts Challenge has the tagline of “the tough one”, and this is for good reason. With over 1000m of elevation over the marathon distance, this was going to be very hilly. Run amongst the beautiful South Downs, whilst being tough this marathon also had the added bonus of having a cut off time of 6 hours. Bearing in mind it takes me 5 hours to run a totally flat marathon, I was very concerned I would not make it through the course within the 6 hour time window.
Now the best advice is to always prepare your gear the night before a race and I would strongly recommend that anybody follow this advice. In my case though, I never ever do, so was scrambling around trying to find all the gear I wanted to take with me. Having eventually located it all and scoffed down a bowl of porridge, I bid a fond adieu to my wife and kids and headed off to Worthing, where the race would start.
Arriving at the race car park I was faced with the usual group of fellow runners. All whippet thin, with legs like gnarled tree trunks, my nerves were getting worse not better. I found a space on the grass to sit down and started to organise my race pack.
I was trying something new for this race. Having had a recommendation from an old golfing buddy turned ultra-runner, I was trying out Tailwind. You simply add a sachet of tailwind to your water bottle and there is no need to take on any additional food or electrolytes on your run. No gels, no sandwiches (a personal favourite of mine), no jelly babies. Nothing. Having used it on one training run with great success, I was keen to see what it could do during a long race.
Having sorted out my pack, I started upon my pre-race warm up routine when Bushy and Marie showed up. I knew they were coming to support me and it was great to see them. Both were very encouraging and said they had ultimate faith in me getting through the race before the 6 hour cut off. There were going to drive around the course and meet me at various points. It was brilliant to have some support along. Especially brilliant that it was Bushy, who was at my side for the vast majority of my Ironman race and without him I would never have finished it. Shame he was just at the sidelines rather than running with me, but he is joining me later in my 13 in 12 journey for the Midnight Man Marathon, so will look forward to running with him then.
After a few pre-race photos, it was time for the off. With the local town crier announcing the start of the race, we were away. I started a the back (as is my custom), and received hearty cheers from the crowd as we made our way out of the playing field and immediately started to climb up a wide dirt track. The first climb of the race took us to Cissbury Ring, one of the three Iron Age forts the Three Forts Challenge is named for. I felt my usual nerves at the start of the race, but quickly calmed down and concentrated on not tripping over as we made our way up single track alongside Hill Barn and Worthing golf courses. I have played both golf courses, and couldn’t help but think that perhaps I would be better with my 5 iron than my running shoes. Too late though, the race was on.
As the route continued to climb it opened out a bit, allowing the pack to spread out. Due to the undulating nature of the route, you could often see way into the distance and I was impressed to see runners already way ahead of me, despite being going only about 20 minutes. Just before the 5k mark we found ourselves on the top of the first hill next to Cissbury Ring. There is no fort there, just a circle of trees where the fort used to be, but it was cool to think of an ancient fort being there and I found my mind tracking back to what it must of been like 100’s of years ago. No road, no power lines, no fences. Just rolling hillside and probably a lot more trees.
Turning away from Cissbury, we were treated to a beautiful view of Lancing College, with its gothic architecture. I have always loved how Lancing College looks, but had never seen it from this vantage point.
The course then made its way down into the valley of the River Adur. This was the first point that Bushy and Marie were going to meet up with me and I knew it was at the 7 mile marker. To be on track for finishing in less than 6 hours, I would need to be at this point no more than 1hr 30 mins from race start. Amazingly, as I jogged towards the aide station after the river crossing, I was only at 1hr 5 mins of race time. 25 minutes ahead of schedule.
Emptying a package of Tailwind into my water bottle and filling it up from the aide station, I exchanged a few words with Bushy and Marie about how good I was feeling and how much I was enjoying the race and then I was off. Bushy kindly pointed out to me “the hill is that way”, gesturing towards the next challenge, the climb up to Devils Dyke.
I genuinely felt great at this point. I was consuming 500ml of water with Tailwind in it per hour and was bang on this schedule. I had died not to look at my heart rate whilst running this race and just run “on feel”. This is something that Tufty (triathlon coach who I owe a lot of my Ironman success to) had encouraged me to do on occasion. Don’t be slave to the gadgets, just run based on feel. If you feel good, keep going. If it gets tough, slow down a bit. Just keep going. I had been following this mantra and the race was unfolding nicely. That being said it was a long way to go still. The Three Forts Challenge is actually 1 mile longer than a normal marathon (27.2 miles rather than 26.2) so at the 7 mile marker I was only 1/4 distance into the race.
Making my way across a main road I was then on a steep single track towards Devils Dyke. Walking up this single track, it flattened out a bit into a field which then turned into a road. This road was fairly steep and most people around me were walking up it. I fell into step; however I felt good, so almost immediately decided to run. Starting running, I was overtaking a few people. This hill was relentless, going on and on and on and on, but I kept running and kept on overtaking others. I really was feeling strong. Far stronger than I expected to. I kept on sipping at my Tailwind and just kept on running. We then reached an undulating section, where I was confronted with a runner coming the other way. This was the race leader, who had already reached Devils Dyke (the race turning point) and was on his way back. I made mental note that this was after 1hr 40 minutes of running. I wanted to see what time it would be when I was at the same race point on the way back.
After the undulating section there was more climbing across fields where I managed to keep on running and quickly found myself at the turn around point, where once again, Bushy and Marie were waiting. They both commented about how good I looked. I must admit I felt great. No need to get anything from the aide station (due to the Tailwind) so I had a quick cup of water from a very friendly race marshall, bid Bushy and Marie farewell and was back off the way I had come.
I knew that Bushy and Marie would make their way back to the River Adur aide station to see me again, so I decided to try and beat them back. Other than the undulating big, it was almost entirely downhill and I wanted to try and run hard down this section. Making my way back towards the downhill, I noted the point where I had seen the first placed runner and I was 40 minutes behind him. “Not bad”, I thought to myself, though tis was less than halfway. Reaching the downhill I picked up my run pace and flew down the hill, again overtaking many fellow runners.
Picking my way down the final section of single track, my quads were on fire from running downhill for so long, but as I got to the aide station I was very happy to see I had beaten Bushy and Marie there. They had probably been for a coffee and a bacon sandwich in that period of time, so there was no real victory, but I had been quicker than they expected me to be which I was pleased about.
At this point in the race the route does not follow the same route we had run out, and diverts off into unknown territory. Finding yet more rolling hills, I once again was overtaking people on the uphill. Approaching 3 hours of running, I still felt great and was beyond the half way point. I decided to give Cat a ring at this point just to say hello and let her know I was getting on OK. I phoned her at the 26km point. I had been running for 3 hours at this point and had 18km to go. It was great to chat with her and she was delighted to hear that I was getting on well. After a quick chat, it was back on with the running.
Climbing again, at around the 28km mark my hip flexors started to really hurt me. This is common on my long runs and I knew I just had to keep going and it would hopefully pass. There were very few runners around me at this point. The race had really spread out and I seemed to be mostly on my own as I wound my way uphill, past a pig farm and onto yet more rolling Sussex hills. The route of the race is simply beautiful. I am lucky enough to have been brought up and lived the majority of my life close to the South Downs. Despite this, I am consistently overwhelmed by their beauty, and today was no different.
During this point in the race I was reflecting back to some chats I had had with other runners earlier on. People had noticed my Chestnut Tree House vest and asked me if I was fundraising for them. I mention my 13 in 12 challenge, which was met by all who had asked me with equal praise and admiration. To all of you who may be reading this who chatted with me about my fundraising, it was great to get your support out on the course and lovely to meet you.
The race climbed on and on up to Chanctonbury, the final of the three Iron Age forts and the highest point I the race. Reaching this was a great milestone and forcing myself to keep going had meant that I had pushed through my hip flexor pain and was once again feeling strong. I had kept up the regiment of Tailwind (one sachet in 500ml of water per hour) and I must admit that it seemed to be working an absolute charm. Having reached the top of Chanctonbury, it was downhill for a while, then we had to climb once again up to Cissbury Ring before dropping back dow to the finish.
At the 4 hour mark it had started to rain a bit. I didn’t mind. The fresh rain had that amazing smell that you get when it first starts raining. It wasn’t raining hard and I was enjoying the run so it took nothing away from the experience. Reaching the low point before the climb back to Cissbury, I was making my way along a farm side track where I saw Bushy and Marie huddling under an umbrella. This was totally unexpected as I thought I would see them again at the the finish. I stopped for a quick chat. As you can see from the photo, I look a bit the worse for wear, though I felt great. Hip Flexors were playing up a bit, but otherwise I was in very good spirits.
Saying goodbye to Bushy and Marie for the final time before the finish, I knew that I had only 8km to go. Once final climb and then it was mostly downhill to the finish. The climb up to Cissbury was steep and as usual I was walking it. It started to level off a bit and I started to run. My legs felt good. I was passing other runners again. This never happens to me, and especially not after being on my feet for over 4 hours. “This Tailwind really is magic stuff”, I was thinking to myself as I rounded the back of Cissbury and knew I had about 4-5km to go.
Unbelievably, I decided to run hard for this final stretch. My body felt willing and I had a chance of coming in at around the 5 hour mark which would be brilliant.
Running through the final undulating sections I eventually found myself on the single track past the golf courses towards the finish. Due to being within 2km of home, there were other runners around me who were also pushing themselves. I kicked hard and managed to pull away from them. All of them. I was flying as I went down the final hill, turned into the playing fields and crossed the line.
5hours and 5 minutes according to my watch. Far beyond my wildest expectations and also only 3 minutes off a marathon PB (set on a totally flat Brighton Marathon course). Hang on a minute. The Three Forts Challenge is 1 mile longer than a normal marathon. Looking back at the data from my running watch, I was through the marathon distance in 4hrs 55 minutes. So that is officially a marathon personal best on a super hilly course. I will take that any day of the week.
Finding Bushy and Marie straight after the race, I was simply delighted with my run. I loved every second of the Three Forts Challenge. The Tailwind I used for nutrition was excellent. The course was superb, all the marshals and volunteers were outstanding. My fellow competitors were friendly and supportive. All in all a brilliant event in simply stunning surroundings. I will definitely be running this one again.
One final thought from me before I sign off this blog post. For the first time ever, the first time in my life, I finally feel like a proper runner. I was able to enjoy and entire race. I got my nutrition right, my hydration right, my gear right and as a result I loved every second of this race. It may seem strange to some, but I had never thought of myself as a decent runner before this race.
There may be a bit more at play than this, and I am indebted to a college at work and his NLP (Neuro-Lingustic Programming) skills, but I will leave this for another blog post.
So I will sign off here. One very happy runner.