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London to Brighton

Joe Quinn January 2006

It’s 6.50 am on Sunday 6th October and I’m standing beneath Big Ben looking for evidence that there is a toilet nearby as I await the start of the 2002 London to Brighton Road Race. I’ve changed my view that 7.00am is a good time to start a race because to get to the start line on time my day has started at 5.00am to allow for breakfast (a bowl of Fruit and Fibre, a cup of tea and a half bottle of Lucozade Sport, the rest to be consumed during the journey) and the 12 mile drive to central London (Thank You, Helen) – a surprising amount of traffic about given the ungodly hour – to register, change into running gear and get to the start. Hence the frantic search for the toilet! I’m in the underpass at Westminster Underground station heading for Exit 6 where it says the toilets are when I meet two fellow sufferers – you can always tell by the colour of their faces – who console me with the words “Toilets are closed”! I revert to Plan B, up the stairs round the corner into the alleyway opposite the most famous building in London (the world?) where I add a little contribution to the Thames seaward flow.
Avoiding arrest I answer the call to move into the road and on the first stroke of 7.00am from Big Ben the assembled field of some 137 men and women set off on the 55 mile run to Brighton. It’s not yet very bright but cool and relatively calm with only a slight wind, thankfully from behind. I slot in at the rear of the field to ensure I don’t go off too fast and get into conversation with Rod from Edinburgh. Unfortunately there are 3 shapely young ladies ahead and it takes us almost 4 miles to overtake them! Shortly after Rod stops to walk up Brixton Hill and I carry on alone now but with a group of 5/6 in sight some way ahead. We’re on the footpath which is OK but traffic is light in this area and the junctions are well marshalled. I’m listening to Radio 2 on my headphones, radio securely tucked in my bumbag along with 2 half bananas (they won’t fit uncut) and several metres of toilet roll – well it’s a long way to go! There are water stations every 5 miles but I have a bottle with isotonic fluid held firmly in my gloved hand – it was a bit nippy early on and I didn’t want anything freezing up and dropping off. Five miles in 46.50 and feeling good but I’ve noticed a slight soreness just at the bottom of my left shinbone where it joins the foot – nothing to worry about says the Voice in my head. (The first of Smart Ass’s off the mark musings.)

I am much nearer to the group in front as I go through the first checkpoint at 10 miles in 1.33.12 and treat myself to half a banana. I close on the group of 6 including one woman who appears to be making the pace and join them for a while to eavesdrop on the banter and generally suss out how they’re going. I’m running in the bike lane now and the group starts to break up so I have another half banana as my support car goes past for the first time. The route turns right off the main road to climb Farthing Down, an area of common land which gives great views of the surrounding countryside from the top but more importantly, of my wife and support crew, consisting of two daughters, Karen and Paula, sister in law Mary and one of her daughters, my niece, the aforementioned Helen, just beyond the 15 mile mark, reached in 2.22.26 (49.13). I stop briefly to refill my water bottle and procure another half banana and then go to the nearby conveniently located convenience, not quite as impressive as Big Ben but serviceable nonetheless. When I come out all the group has passed and is out of sight but it’s of no concern as the idea is to finish in my own time, inside the target time of 9 hours 50 minutes.

The sun is up now – it’s 9.30am after all – and conditions are ideal. I go through checkpoint 2 at 20 miles in 3.13.06 and I’m feeling good, courtesy of another half banana, and tell my family to go and have some lunch but they say it’s too early and any way they’ve just had some sandwiches. At 25 miles (4.00.43) I have caught one or two of the former “group”, well strung out now and my support car has been joined by another with my niece Ursula and her two children Alfie, the baby, and George who is 3 years old but is big time into quadraphonic cheering. I get some water and my family tell me they are going for lunch in the nearby Carvery but offer me another banana as compensation! I give Paula my cap to look after and depart with a cheery “Only 30 more to go”.
10 metres further on I suddenly realise what I had just said – 30 MORE!! – and head suitably examined and found wanting, I quickly start thinking just about the next five.

Just before the 30 miles mark I catch up again with the woman competitor I last saw near 15 miles and we encourage each other (verbally) as I reach the checkpoint in 4.50.36. I am feeling good but that little niggle just above my left foot (good title for a film that) is more noticeable now and the Voice says I don’t think it will go away. (While no one loves a Smart Ass he’s later proved right.)
So it’s onwards steadily as I pass more runners and reach 35 miles in 5.43.16. The legs are beginning to feel the distance and I walk some of the steeper hills which helps and I’m happy with my progress. My support team, fatter now and sporting designer gravy stains, and enthusiastically led by George, has started to attract wider attention as they cheer all the runners. Even the marshals reckon that N. Ireland must be closed to-day as everyone’s over here. After running what seems like 7 miles after 35 I still haven’t reached 40 mile checkpoint - but perhaps it’s just tiredness. After consuming a cereal bar I duly get there (6.37.03) and I stop for drinks and encouragement, liberally provided by George who now wants to join me on the run! You can take my place I think, but I start running again instead. I am now up to 78th from 100th at five miles and I think I can make it.

A few miles up the road a marshal shouts “you have 3 hours to run a half marathon” (before the cut-off) and the Voice says that’s easy. (Smart Ass was wrong this time – it wasn’t!) It’s getting hotter and the hills are frequent and long so I walk some more but think if I can get to 45 miles the rest is in single figures and the Voice says you can practically walk that – (Smart Ass was wrong about that too!) I reach the feeding station at 45 miles in 7.35.03 – it has taken me exactly 58 minutes for the last 5 miles, the slowest yet. I have a long cool drink of water but reject offers to sample the sandwiches, biscuits, fruit and flavoured drinks which weigh down the table. I re-fill my bottle with isotonic fluid, take another bottle of water from my daughter Karen and walk slowly off. Most of the water I pour over my head and down my legs but I’m still walking.

Shortly afterwards the lady from 15 and 30 miles comes past as I walk along – the throb in my left leg is now like Hank Marvin on speed but as another runner goes past I get going again. Through a small village (Hassocks I think) and I meet a slow moving car, Registration number ending with the letters FKD and I think “Me, too mate”. Shortly we are diverted off the main road into narrow country lanes where support cars cannot go and I notice with dismay my water’s running out (I’m running out of water) and the sun’s beating down and it’s very humid but I’m closing on another runner and eventually overtake him – he must have stopped. I know I’m hitting the wall and I can see a huge barrier towering ahead as far as the eye can see with no way round it – Ditchling Beacon!!

I look down – my feet are moving – that’s good. Is it back and forwards or up and down? It’s up and down – that’s bad, I’m running on the spot! My mouth is dry but there’s not even a puddle in sight. I reach the bottom of Ditchling and down my last swig of water as the man there says there is a water station at the top! I feel nauseous and tired and according to my headphones Arsenal are completely dominating Sunderland but they offer me no relief so I switch off and threaten to throw bumbag, radio, surviving, but inedible, half banana into the ravine to my left but decide I need the support of the belt to keep me upright, so I do nothing. I think I’ve been overtaken by a tree or am I sliding back? Yes, it is that steep, rising 150 metres in less than a mile and they don’t provide ropes. Passing cars threaten to push me over the kerb (no footpath) and I say “Please, put me out of my misery”. They don’t. The man had said the water’s at the top – is that the carrot to make us go up? Another runner, last seen by me 10 miles back walks past as I decide when I get to the top I’ll jump in the car and say take me home – then I think if I look like I feel they’ll throw me in the car without question and head for the knacker’s yard anyway– but then I reason I’m within 5 miles of the finish as the Voice says you could walk the rest and still be on time. (Smart Ass got it wrong again – it was actually six and a half and I couldn’t have made it in time, walking, but he won this argument for a while.)

Yet another runner goes past, full of the joys of Spring and says “Wait till you see the view from the top, you’ll be able to see all the way back to London”. I murder him, mentally for now, but note his number for later. I meet a supporter coming down – he has a water bottle in his hand – Thank You God – but he’s looking for another competitor. I don’t think I can mug him so I resort to begging and he puts some fluid in my bottle which I devour in one gulp - but I can see the top now.

My family provide encouragement and refreshments while the marshal deflates me again saying it’s a mile and a half to the 50 mile mark – I mean I’ve already done 10 since I passed 45! I still feel queasy but continue walking and am joined by my wife and two daughters who carry the water bottles (why not me?) but luckily are behind and can’t see my face. Other runners shuffle past – they appear to be flying compared to my walk and I know I have to get running again. Out of the blue I think “God, I hate bananas!”

And then I see George – he’s standing with head and shoulders through the sun-roof, like a desert tank commander, and he’s outdoing the Hampden Roar as he shames me into starting to run – NOBODY stops when George is around - he still wants to run too (you can take my place I think) but is promised he can join me when I get to the run-in. My upset stomach is easing and I try to blot out the ache in my left leg (luckily it’s only sore half the time, when my left foot touches the ground) and wonder of wonders I’m running again. I can see the 50mile checkpoint ahead and I go through in 8.56.05 – it has taken me 1 hour 21 minutes to cover 5 miles! Damn you Ditchling – I walk a small incline till the road levels out and then call for one final effort.

I pick up a comfortable rhythm and I’m starting to feel good again and I overtake a runner who passed me a mile back – I’m back in business, now where’s the finish? My support team is up ahead, starting to look tired now after a long day. My wife is standing talking on the phone and I ask if it’s for me – She says “Yes, it’s Donna” (my eldest daughter phoning from home) so I speak to her as I run and tell her I’m going to do it! My wife runs alongside, concerned in case I drop - the phone.

I can see the sea on the horizon but the road sweeps upwards over what MUST be the last hill and I run until I come up behind a fellow runner, walking, and I don’t have the energy to go round her so we walk together to the top of the hill – then with Brighton in view it’s the final, final effort. The next marshal says it’s “only 4k (2.5 miles) to go” which I found strange as I reckoned I had already ran 3 of the last 4, but we’re going well now, in spite of the downhill effects on the quads – another marshal says “about a mile to go” and I’m running as well as at the start and feeling good. Another marshal says “1 mile to go”?? but I don’t care, I can see the church which is beyond the finish line and I let three younger (under 40) runners go past to give me a clear run in. No-one is going to ruin my finishing photo!!

George, his work done, is asleep as those 3 magic words are called out “80 metres to go” – yes I know it’s four but you try counting after 54 miles. I see the line, I have a smile wider than Brighton front and I’m punching the air – I hug my support team, have a medal draped around my neck, hug my team again, check my watch – 10 minutes inside the cut-off - I’m ecstatic, I can’t believe I’ve done it, I speak to my other daughter Sheena on the phone from home and Donna calls again too.
Tony Bl… calls – No he didn’t actually but who cares – I’ve done it, well No actually WE’VE done it – I couldn’t have made it without the support team and my inspiration George – Thank You All!!!

PS. Sponsorship raised for Ulster Cancer Foundation on the back of this “madness” amounted to £3044.

Footnote and background:
This race first took place in 1951 and has become one of the classic ultra marathon races in the world. Its numbers have remained small but this contributes to its unique and friendly atmosphere in which runners spend most of the journey on their own, trying to beat the time limit of 9 hours 50 minutes. There is of course great support from the marshals who identify runners from their number in the race programme and greet them on first name terms as they pass.

I decided to take part this year (2002) to realise a long time ambition and because, strangely enough, I wasn’t getting any younger. The coincidence of it being my 55th year and the race distance being 55 miles seemed too pointed to ignore. I then had to convince my wife and family that I hadn’t taken leave of my senses and was physically up to it. Success in the latter but failure in the former! Personally, in spite of prolonged training over the previous 6 months and years of running marathons I too, as the owner of the feet on which the whole enterprise depended, was apprehensive about reaching the finish line. The furthest I had ever ran at one go before was 40 miles, twice in training, after which I was, to use the technical term, knackered, so didn’t know how I would face up to another 15. The report above records the happy outcome.

I subsequently dedicated the money raised to the memory of my brother-in-law and best friend, Jim McKinney, who always supported my efforts and who, to my great sorrow, contracted and died from an acute form of Leukaemia just 3 weeks after I completed the race.