There is a psychology study by Nobel prize winner Dr Daniel Kahneman.
He found that given the choice, subjects would choose more time in pain over less, but only if the extra time in pain was slightly less painful than the original pain.
Clearly he has never been stood in the dark at the bottom of Ditchling Beacon about to take two and half hours to travel 10k. But we’ll get to that in a bit…
The final part of our London2Brighton picks up at Wivelsfield with a silent sense of being close to the end but maybe I should’ve seen the signs that it wasn’t going to plain sailing.
Perhaps I had been a bit too positive about how close we were to the end. Or how the road to the end only has a couple of climbs aside from the obvious but nothing to worry about. As the sun began to drop, so did our energy levels and Del’s temperature. He started out first, keen to keep warm.
Toby and me pottered around waiting for Ian. I started chatting to the volunteer at the front gate and once again felt amazed by the effort that the whole Action Challenge team put in to allow me to muck around for a day. He had been up since 5am and wouldn’t sleep again properly until the following evening.
The three remaining aces struck out on the road as golden hour swung fully into light. These are the moments that I think of when people ask, “why do you run?” or more specifically, “why do you run stupid distances?”
5K then 6K.
That was what we had left to go. Basically nothing. A couple of parkruns. 5K then 6K.
One of my very early, almost joke goals had been to get to the finish line in time for the Champions League final but this had passed, even with the delays in Paris.
As we continued along the road for a couple of miles, the route took a sharpish turn to the left. In the failing light I could see a guy walking a couple of hundred metres in front of us. We were near the village of Plumpton Green so I could’ve been someone on the way from the pub, they had an odd gait.
With my failing voice sounding like I’d had 60 Malboro Red, I shouted out to him. “Mate. MAAAATE. Are you going to Brighton? BRIGHTON?? It’s that way. THAT WAY. LEFT!!”
He turned around and ran up to us, saying in a soft scouse accent, “cheers mate, I was watching the game on my phone!” I wonder where he might have ended up if we hadn’t found him.
From there, the running gods were chucking in the usual fun stuff to torment us. A bridge over railway lines, a different racecourse (how many does one place need) and then, just as it got really dark…a warm and welcoming gym hall with friendly volunteers, chairs and cups. of. tea.
I’ve never had a cup of tea on an ultra in my life but it was heavenly. Combined with a Kit Kat (I dropped my Nestle boycott in a moment of weakness), it cured the palate fatigue an absolute treat.
Feeling super pleased with myself, I looked around to see how everyone was getting on. Turns out, not so good.
Other people were talking about calling cabs. Or just sat down with a glazed look in their eyes. We needed to get going, to just death march it out but it was difficult to leave the light and go back out into the dark.
So here we were. Ditchling Beacon. Looming blacker than the night above us. During the day, it is ominous and dominating from miles around but in the darkness, it wasn’t revealing its height to those unfamiliar.
It begins with a narrow path, with bushes climbing above you on each side, bright in the closeness of the headtorch. It twists, and turns with no end in sight, just a lot of large black slugs on the floor and a random, impressively chirpy volunteer pointing the way.
As the trees and bushes recede, the path widens and becomes rockier, with bits of it crumbling away to create tripping hazards for fatigued legs and edges designed to catch any remaining undamaged toes.
We slowly got to the top, finding others struggling on the way up. Even without the light, the view from the top was poetic, the last remnants of light in the sky fading above a glowing vale of orange light from the villages of Sussex.
I’d told the others that from here, it was a long downhill then another uphill to the finish. But it was much worse than I remembered. The downhill was correct, so Ian, Toby and me put in some “quick” yards to catch back up to Del who was luckily still wearing the brightest of bright pink tshirts.
It was a bit exhilarating to get so close that we could see the lights of Brighton and hear the sounds of the road that we would cross just after the final aid station. In between us and that was a 200ft climb that felt like it went up and on forever. It all slowed to a crawl. A cruel forgotten thorn between two bigger thorns.
And the aid station once we got there? An unmanned water station up another hill. Rage.
So much so that Del and Ian had gone ahead. Leaving Toby and me to catch up.
We crossed the A27 next to the Amex Stadium but just before midnight, nobody was around and no lights were on. Instead we had yet another climb, the third highest peak, to get to the finish line.
Looking at the maps now, it’s a laughable distance that would’ve taken us no time at all 15 hours earlier and in daylight. This time it was just on the path and cars whizzing up and down the Falmer Road as we approached midnight, taunting us with their speed as we trudged upwards at a pace snails would be ashamed of.
As if to prove a point and continue our trials, our next challenge was crossing that very same road for the final stretch.
It wasn’t happiness, more relief when we saw the penultimate km marker. It was a walk now. Nothing more. No sense in doing more so close. Even if we did have the energy, it would’ve made no difference to time or feeling when we finished.
A last, cruel twist? The finish is uphill. Around the final couple of furlongs of Brighton Racecourse, with dewy long grass, and a floodlit finish line that still wouldn’t get any closer. What was getting closer were the yells and screams coming from in front of the lights, hidden in the glare. I’d recognise that crescendo of final straight sound anywhere.
We walked in the darkness as long as possible, getting to the edge of the astroturf welcoming mat before breaking into a slowly yet quickening trot, then canter, then gallop, roared home by our family lining the track.
16 hours, 54 minutes and 16 seconds.
Tears at the finish line. A plastic cup of Cava. A waddle to collect my clothes. A free veggie burger and chips with family. A warm jacket. A lift to our AirBnB and bed.
Already the feelings at the end were masking the miles that had gone before. I’d shared the experience with three great people, cheered on by plenty more, some who I knew, and a lot that I didn’t. We had travelled a distance with our own power that most people would only ever do in a car or on a train. We had overcome.
This blog feels light on actual description and heavy on feeling. And that’s what I will take away from this race more than anything.
Turns out that the Nobel prize winner was right. Despite the bad stomach, aching legs and never-ending hills just outside Brighton, I’m already looking at my next, longer painful experience.
If you’ve got this far, we’ll done 🙌🏼 Collectively, we raised over £1600 for Breast Cancer Now in memory of Jackie. There is still time to donate if you have any spare cash (maybe don’t fill up the tank today) https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/aces4