I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what it is I enjoy the most about running. Everyone is different in their priorities when it comes to outdoor sports, and for me it has always been the opportunity to explore new places and to cover a much greater distance than by walking alone, with minimal extra kit. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy running quickly and trying to beat my PB, for it is of course a very satisfying process, but I don’t consider it to be why I run – more a happy consequence, really.
In the spirit of this, for the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about working to lengthen the distances I can run, into post-marathon territory. I have been very inspired by American videographers such as Jamil Coury of Run Steep Get High; the GingerRunner; and the films of Billy Yang (particularly this one about the Western States 100 mile race); and although I’m not sure I have the desire to try to run quite that far, 50 miles seems like a good place to start and an achievable long term goal.
So, confidence bolstered by a successful summer of short distance PBs and a decent result at the Southern Fell Running Championships (brought on largely by my shift to the LCHF/Banting way of eating and the associated weight loss), my backpack stuffed with food, water, and spare clothes for overnight, I jumped on a train to Fishersgate (a small commuter station west of Brighton) and began my first ever weekend of back-to-back 20 mile long runs.
The plan was a fairly simple one. Head up to the South Downs Way (SDW), follow it to Lewes via Ditchling Beacon (the highest point in my home county of East Sussex), stay overnight with my parents, and come hell or high water get up the next morning to shuffle all the way to Eastbourne. Fishersgate seemed to be the best option, with direct access to the South Downs.
Take the footpath between the houses heading roughly north from right next to the station, which becomes the Sussex Border Path as it leaves the town behind. Keep parallel with the overhead electricity wires to Mileoak Farm, then follow the byway all the way to the SDW at Edburton Hill. Turn right and begin your journey east towards Lewes.
Your first major landmark and potential rest/refuel point is the spectacular Devil’s Dyke, a 100m deep V-shaped valled carved into the hillside. The SDW runs along the southern edge and does offer some nice views, but it’s worth a short diversion to the pub at the top to really take it all in.
Descending to Saddlescombe and climbing steeply up West Hill, the A23 at Pyecombe hoves into view where you’ll find a petrol station for a proper stop to restock – it’s just down the hill if you turn right by the church in the village. This is the last point to fill water bottles and get more supplies if required before Lewes (without having to leave the SDW).
A few miles further down the path is the highest point in East Sussex, Ditchling Beacon (248m). The summit is marked by a trig point with wonderful 360 degree views towards the North Downs in front, and to the English Channel behind. Slightly further on there is a car park next to the undoubtedly more famous road which connects the village of Ditchling to the outskirts of Brighton. The scourge of amateur cyclists across the south of England, this steep tarmac climb is the final obstacle in the London to Brighton cycle sportive and even featured in the 1994 Tour de France.
It’s almost all downhill from here to the end of the run. Continue along the SDW, but just before the trig at Blackcap (206m) keep straight onto the bridleway instead of following the SDW south. Scamper up the hill to touch the trig, then complete your descent into Lewes via one of the two clear grass tracks either side of the clump of bushes. My favourite is the left hand one, as the terrain is a bit more fun as you head towards Landport Bottom and the High Street into the town centre via Jill’s Pond.
Now I may be a little biased, but I think Lewes is a rather lovely place. You could get the train back to London from here with ease, but why not make a night of it and stay in one of the many B&Bs or small hotels in this most independently spirited town. There are cosy pubs galore, good food, and great beer to help you while away the evening and reflect on a day well spent in one of the UK’s finest trail running playgrounds.
If you want to continue to Eastbourne the next day (or another time), the route is also very simple. Climb steeply out of town up Chapel Hill (from the bottom of Cliffe High Street) up to the Golf Club car park, then follow the footpath down into Oxteddle Bottom and up again to the summit of Mount Caburn. Now descend into Glynde, follow the country lanes across the A27 to the village of Firle, then rejoin the SDW just before Firle Beacon (217m). This is a really tough climb, but there is ample opportunity to recover in the next miles to Alfriston where you’ll find plenty of shops to restock water and food. Continue all the way along the SDW to Eastbourne via either branch of the path – my favourite is the southern option via Westdean and the breathtaking Seven Sisters for a long but very rewarding two day adventure. The SDW officially ends at Eastbourne Pier, and it’s not a long walk to the town centre and train station from there.
So did I learn anything from the experience? The approximate distances for each day are 30km/650m+ (day one) and 35km/1000m+ (day two) which turned out to be an ideal test of legs and mind, while still allowing me plenty of leeway to take some time if things weren’t going well. I felt really good throughout both days and bettered my target of maintaining 8km/hour including all stops, succeeded in eating and drinking plenty and not hurrying. I was very pleased to discover that even at the end I was still able to run without too much difficulty. It was a very positive experience and gives me a great deal of confidence I’m doing the right thing heading into the winter months, with so much work ahead. The very popular route I chose was easy to follow and occasionally quite busy, but offered up a surprising variety of conditions in which to test myself – not so much The Footpath Less Travelled, as The Footpath Most Convenient – but a very lovely way it was to spend a couple of days and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Map: OS Explorer OL11 (Brighton & Hove) and OL25 (Eastbourne & Beachy Head)
Start: Fishersgate Station, TQ2549005386
Distance: 65km: 30km (day one) and 35km (day two)
Climb: Approx. 1,650m: 650m (day one) and 1,000m (day two)
Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/1216517596 (day one) and http://www.strava.com/activities/1217843585 (day two)