This was my first experience of an Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series event. The Endurance Life CTS Sussex consisted of a 10k race, a half marathon, a marathon and an ultra. Richard and I obviously decided to kill ourselves and run the ultra. Around 6000ft of climbing through the Seven Sisters Country Park from Birling Gap, to the Cuckmere Valley, through Friston Forest, back to Beachy Head, to the edge of Eastbourne and back out over the Seven Sisters again. It was going to be one heck of a run.
Birling Gap, Sussex
We arrived at Birling Gap in good time on a rather cloudy, cold, dank day. Unfortunately parking was a good way from race HQ. If I had had my National Trust membership card we would have been able to use the car parks closer to HQ free of charge. As it was we had a bit of a walk to get to race registration. Having not raced the Endurance Life CTS Sussex event before Richard and I were struck by a few things. It immediately felt very corporate.
On arrival at race registration we were herded through a gangway, conveyor belt-like to various staff who did various things to us. So one looked up my name on a list and wrote my race number on my hand. The next person read the race number on my hand and gave me an envelope. The next person checked my number and attached a timing chip to my wrist. The next lady handed me a free Cliff Bar and the final staff member in the line gave me a t-shirt. Bear in mind you can’t escape any of this because you’re in a pen being syphoned through! All very organised but somewhat impersonal.
“Please Don’t Smile”
The race briefing was also a little odd. It was delivered by a chap who honestly sounded like he was nervously delivering a conference speech. He read from a list of preprepared notes, was upbeat in an Apple employee kind of way and pointed to way signs like a flight attendant. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but you get the idea. We were then informed that the race would be filmed by a drone and, to fit in with their marketing of the event as ‘tough’, could we please not smile at the camera but rather, could we grimace and look tired!! Really?
Race start was a short walk from HQ and we got there just a few seconds before the hooter sent everyone on their way. The ultra started at 8:30am with the other races following on at half hour intervals. I know this area very well as I lived in Eastbourne for over 20 years. The route also follows much of the Beachy Head Marathon route, although in the opposite direction. We started by running past the Birling Gap visitor centre and up over the undulating Seven Sisters to the Cuckmere Valley.
The route then took us inland through West Dean, Littlington and Alfriston. The first aid station was at Littlington, some 6 miles in to the run. This is where the organisation of the Endurance Life CTS Sussex seemed a little lacking. No cups, at all, for water. The table had a few crisps and jelly babies and a water dispenser, but no cups. Odd. I had my race vest on with the hydration bladder filled with a mixture of Tailwind and Coke! So I was ok for the moment and I carried on.
Next came some of the most stunning scenery and the steepest ascent. It was such a shame that the weather was urrrgh, because in the sunshine, this would have looked even more amazing. We ran right past the Long Man of Wilmington. Why doesn’t the Beachy Head Marathon do this????! The Long Man to the right and panoramic countryside views to the left. The route then took us up, up and up in a shortish, but very steep climb to the highest point in the race; 217m above sea level in the Lullington Heath National Nature Reserve.
No Cups for Water
I had decided that I would try again, as I have done in the last two marathons, to run up all the hills. However, this particular hill, at only 15 km in to the race, was simply too steep. I was also mindful of the fact that there was plenty more elevation to come! So I walked. From the top though, it was a good run through Friston Forest to checkpoint 2 at 21 kilometres. I had my timing chip logged but again, no cups for water. This time I put my hand under the tap and drank that way, as you will see on the video.
We then arrived at a busy junction of the A259 just outside the village of East Dean. I was somewhat surprised that there were no marshals on duty here at all. It was the busiest road crossing in the race and there were marshals at some of the other road crossings but not this one. Still there we are. I’ll go in to this in more details towards the end. The run route returns to Birling Gap and heads up past Beachy Head and follows the coastal path all the way to Eastbourne, with a very steep descent down from Beachy Head. Again, amazing scenery.
Checkpoint 3 was at the foot Downs almost exactly where the Beachy Head Marathon starts and finishes. This time there were some plastic cups, although no one had thought to fill any up in preparation. I filled a cup myself, threw some water over my face and headed back up the hill and travelled the 10k or so back to the finish line. This is where the marathon runners could breathe a sigh of relief and stop their Garmins. For me and the other ultra runners it was a bit of a kick in the teeth to have to run a few yards from the finish and then back out again!
Having done one lap of the marathon route we were now to run one lap of the 10k route. In my head this meant that the full distance should be 52 kilometres. 42+10=52. I was sadly mistaken! I crossed the marathon distance at the finish line in 4 hours 27 minutes and, at this point, I was very hopeful of getting in at around 5 hours 40 minutes. However, I was becoming particularly fatigued and there was plenty more climbing to do back over the Seven Sisters and then back up to Belle Tout lighthouse and Beachy Head via East Dean and Checkpoint 4. I got to the final checkpoint, checkpoint 5, after the final climb at 5 hours 49 minutes and by now I had completed 52 kilometres.
Endurance Life CTS Sussex
Where the extra kilometres came from I don’t know. Was the 10k race actually 12k? I knew I was going to miss getting in under 6 hours which was a bit of a shame, but I was so tired and of course, stopping to film, does take up a chunk of time. I finally crossed the finish line in 6 hours and 4 minutes in 33rd position and as 2nd Male Vet 45 (for which I got a £5 voucher to spend in the Endurance Life on line shop!). I had covered 54.8kms. Richard, who I didn’t see again after the first mile, finished 10th in 5 hours 27 minutes, which is really good going on that course.
Returning to this rather odd corporate feel that we noticed at the Endurance Life CTS Sussex, this continued at the finish line. I was greeted with some definite Apple employee style whooping as I crossed the line and then funnelled through the finish chute. I had my timing chip logged, then someone else removed the timing chip which was handed to someone else who diligently printed out my finish slip. I moved through the gangway and was handed my medal and then offered another Clif Bar. Again, very ‘organised’ but…well it just felt weird, ok?!!
Corporate Team Building Day
So, here’s what’s odd about the Endurance Life CTS Sussex. In some ways it feels like you’re on a team building day out with your office. It’s very well organised in many respects, but it feels very impersonal and definitely corporate. Chatting to various runners and over-hearing people, it sounded like there were a lot of foreign competitors. I heard German and I spoke to a French group and an Italian couple and heard numerous US accents on the course. So they are marketing through tour operators and I’m guessing they are attracting a lot of new runners too, which is great. But I didn’t see anyone I know from any other races and I only spotted one 100 Club vest.
The route was adequately signposted, but the aid stations were sparse and poorly managed and the busy roads were poorly marshalled. I’m not criticising any individual marshals, but it was odd to leave that A259 crossing completely unmanned. Also, the medal is pretty basic. It’s a standard ‘Endurance Life CTS’ round medal with the word ‘Sussex’ added on. I’ll bet that every other Coastal Trail Series medal is the same but with ‘Exmoor’ or ‘Dorset’ or whatever area, in place of ‘Sussex’. It doesn’t distinguish that I ran the Ultra either. Is the 10k medal exactly the same as mine?
So Don’t Charge £60
NOW, I am well aware that we can get pampered at events these days, what with aid stations that look like fully functioning cafes and hand-holding signage the entire way round the course and ridiculous sized bespoke medals. I am also not afraid of races that are self-supporting. I CAN cross a road by myself, I am able to manage my own race nutrition and I can load the course map on to my watch. BUT, if you are not going to offer anything over the basics of water and jelly babies at an aid station AND you’re going to make me fill the cup myself; if you want me to cross busy roads by myself and if you are going to hand me the same medal as a 10k runner, don’t then charge £60 to enter. Fine, if the entry fee was £20-25 then I’ll run 54km self-supported and be happy with a cup of tea at the end. Currently, if you want to enter the Dorset CTS Ultra+, it’ll cost you £70.
Am I being harsh? Are there expenses I hadn’t considered? Are the landowners charging huge sums? Were the marshals paid staff rather than volunteers?…..and if they were, why didn’t they earn their money and fill cups of water in advance of my arrival at the aid station?!!! I might have made it in under 6 hours then!
Aaah well, look, I’m not annoyed about this at all. I’m just making a point. I love running and I loved running the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Ultra. The scenery was fantastic, the course was a real challenge, in a good way and I’m glad I did it. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. I would be interested to see what the Devon and Dorset events are like but I’m not sure I can justify the price. If you have enjoyed reading this Endurance Life CTS Sussex race report and watching the video, do be sure to share it, comment and give it a ‘like’. With that…thanks for reading!
Footnote: I feel a bit bad about this review because I just had a really lovely email from one of the organisers saying how much they enjoyed watching my film of the race.