I was standing at the finish line of the Beachy Head Marathon yesterday afternoon, discussing with other runners the merits of Richard Moore’s book on the 100m final at the 1988 Olympics, The Dirtiest Race in History. As the conversation fell quiet, I thought (and I appreciate this is a gross generalisation): what can we trust about professional sport? Elite competition can be driven by money, commercialism and the sad spectre of drugs. What can we – the watching, trusting public – believe? And then I turned back to the Beachy Head Marathon, the stream of runners parading down the finishing slope before meeting the road and launching into a sprint finish. It was a little American at times: occasional whooping, arms above heads and fathers plucking baffled children to carry across the line. They deserved their moment in the limelight, nonetheless. They had endured 26 miles of the South Downs, ascending and descending some 4000ft, with the vast majority run into the teeth of a very determined westerly wind. This I could believe in: these 1,000-plus brave souls running for nothing but pride and achievement. Long live amateurism! This is what I can trust; this I can always believe in.
Countless times as I was running yesterday, I asked myself not why I was doing this, but why I was pushing myself so hard to do what I was doing. I would finish fourth in three hours, eight minutes, 47 seconds. What difference would fifth or sixth place make, or even 100th? Why try so hard for something that has no material reward? There is no prize money at Beachy Head. There are no trophies for winners. There are no team awards. Financially, I made a big loss on Saturday. But – as I ran over those Downs and Sisters – nothing mattered more to me than finishing this race as fast as physically possible, as fast as my preparation would allow. My headmaster calls it ‘flow’ – when an individual is so focused on the moment that external distractions cease to matter.
Sometimes when I asked myself the why-I-am-pushing-myself-so-hard question, I did not have an answer. Those were my lowest points. Mostly, I had a reply ready. Because Stuart Mills is behind me and I will not, cannot let him pass. Because of the adrenaline rush that comes from running fast. Because of the insistence of my watch to bring a 7.01 split to 6.59 before the mile is out. Because I desperately want to reach the end – and the faster I run, the faster I get to that hallowed finish. Because I do not want to think I wasted time training: the long runs, the tempos, the speedwork, the hills, the recoveries. And, perhaps most importantly, because I want to be better; to be as good as I can be. That does not happen without making the required effort at the required moment. There lies the spirit of amateurism: the common bond between every athlete that finished the Beachy Head Marathon yesterday, from Jeff Pyrah, who won the race in a stunningly-fast (given the conditions) two hours, 55 minutes, to a woman called Emma Alexander who was out there for nine hours, nine minutes. Nine hours! Presumably, Jeff and Emma were striving to be as good as they can be.
This year’s race was unrelenting, not only because of the hills, but because of that wind. What was the speed of it – 30mph? There was simply no chance to recover on the downhills or flat stretches of the course. Having reached Bo Peep car park in fifth, what could have been a glorious cruise into Litlington became an almighty battle with the gusts. There were two or three runners in close pursuit at half-way, but upon reaching Litlington, I realised I had created a gap of at least a minute on sixth. It was my reward for perseverance. By the time I began the ascent of the first Sister, I finally glimpsed a runner behind, descending to Cuckmere Haven. It was, unmistakably, Stuart Mills. I ploughed on, counting the Sisters off, not giving them give too much respect, not even contemplating walking. I caught a Tunbridge runner who had been locating fourth. He was walking uphill. I mumbled words of encouragement as I skipped by. He did not respond. I did not blame him. I would have hated me at that point.
Coming up Beachy Head, the wind, so long a nemesis, became a friend, putting a hand on my back. I had only to keep running with a semblance of pace and co-ordination to secure fourth. As I crested the summit, a spectator commented on my apparent freshness and ease. ‘You’re fourth,’ they enthused. I did not have sufficient energy (or time) to point out that I had been on the exhilaratingly terrifying edge of exertion for 15 miles. It was then – about seven minutes later – an absolute delight to simply finish. And then I watched them come in, hundreds of them, cheered home like heroes. I suppose that is what they were. Dads, mums, people who had not slept the night before, the overworked, the underpaid, the over-stressed, the under-trained. Normal people. All somehow finding time amid the melee of just existing in this life to train for and run the Beachy Head Marathon. Once again, long live amateurism!