I could have won the Steyning Stinger Marathon. I should have won the Steyning Stinger Marathon. Had I been running the 2012 version, I would have been clear in first place by 18 minutes. As it was, I was 40 seconds behind yesterday’s deserved winner, Stuart Mills. Mills – known as UltraStu – is a serious endurance competitor having donned a GB vest. I had raced him once – at the 2011 Beachy Head Marathon when he finished more than 10 minutes ahead of me.
He flew off the line, running close to six-minute mile pace for mile one. I had a quick decision to make: let him go or take a risk and race him. I caught him and we ran side-by-side for half a mile, before I pulled away on a slight incline. For 13 miles, I led the marathon race, running hard and with confidence. Mills was always close by, about 30 seconds behind, with me making gains on the ascents, him clawing time back on the descents. I swept through half-way in sub-three hour marathon pace, conscious that it was quick, certain that I could maintain the pace. Then, minutes later, disaster: I took a wrong turn. To be fair, so had Mills, although mine was the greater, hillier detour. My carefully-built lead had been demolished in a couple of messy minutes.
We ran together until the course reared upwards again, the third of four ‘stings’. I quickly made a gap. Disaster struck again: a second wrong turn. Quickly realising my error, I returned to the track to see Mills 100 metres ahead. From that moment, it became a seven-mile race to the finish. I was weary, but convinced I could beat him. A passionate advocate of positive thinking, I knew that I had to be as utterly sure of my prospects as Mills probably was. But there could only be one winner. Having looked through the list of recent races, I reckoned Mills had never run the Steyning Stinger; although the South Downs is his stamping ground, he may not know what was to come. We were equal in that sense, I reasoned. I should have delved deeper into the history of the race. Mills is the course record holder, having run two hours, 57 minutes several years ago.
One more sting; inevitably, I pulled ahead, climbing high onto the South Downs to mile 24, feeling tired, more than 800 metres of ascent in my legs. My lead was too slender. He was close behind, a nagging, looming presence. There was not a specific point that I gave up; moreover, I accepted the certainty of defeat. Mills had been out-running me on descents all day and ahead of us was a two-mile drop to Steyning. Catching me close to the summit, he very soon opened a gap and surged downhill through woods. He was gone. I finished the marathon in around three hours, four minutes, with Mills just 40 seconds in front. As I crossed the line, Sally Gunnell, walking her two dogs, was coming the other way. The distance on my watch was 26.6 miles. I do not need to be a mathematician to estimate those additional metres account for about three minutes. Three minutes going the wrong way in a race that I lost by 40 seconds. That is racing, I suppose; that is also very frustrating too.