I am so used to writing nice reviews of races and suddenly I have to go into rant mode to write about the Longman Brighton – Falmer 18.5 miles trail race. Except I struggle. This race goes down as one of the most poorly organised races that I have entered, which is a real shame because the route takes in the stunning South Downs Way and has the potential to be a real corker of an event.
THE PLAN called for a 16 mile run but an 18.5 trail jaunt sounded fun and my diary suddenly opened the day before so I made a late entry. I scoured their web site and there was no mention of a deadline so I figured at best that I would be a normal entrant and collect my race number on the day, just like everyone else, or at worst they would laugh at me and I would be running 18.5 self supported miles without a race number. I was joining another Eagle runner for the day, so to be honest I didn’t mind either way.
An early start at stupid-o-clock as I was picked up for our drive down to Falmer for the early start. My Camelbak was packed with the mandatory kit list (drink, gloves, windproof jacket, wound dressing and a whistle) and my bag packed with a change of clothes and my recovery drink. Our car discussion moved onto tales of various Eagles getting lost at races and oh how we laughed as we then took a few wrong turnings just before Falmer and ended up taking an unplanned detour around the surrounding area. Our tales of lost Eagles would come back to haunt us later.
Everything looked ok when we arrived but my race spider-sense began to tingle when I joined the registration queue and it didn’t seem to be moving. We’re British so we joined the line. We waited. We waited. We waited a bit more. Then another runner helpfully told everyone that there were 3 registration desks inside the hall and the 10k & ultra desks were empty. Thankfully this led to people splitting off into the hall rather than everyone waiting in one long line while 2 out of the 3 registration desks were empty.
We finally made it to the registration desk where they had no record of my entry. I had brought the confirmation email with me and I wasn’t the only one in the same situation so it was easy enough to get a race number. I had registered too late to get an official timing chip (it was an anklet type affair) but I had no interest in getting a chip time so all was good.
My spider-sense went into overdrive as everyone waited outside by the start line and nothing happened. The hands continued to move past the official start time and nothing much seemed to be happening. Finally, someone official looking joined us and we were basically off. No real race briefing and no split of 10k, 18.5m and ultra runners. Off we went.
The heavens opened and a storm of hail flew in horizontally. Little daggers of ice flying into your face isn’t the best way to start the race but thankfully the brief storm passed. The 10k runners were the first to branch off and the 18.5m & ultra runners continued on their merry way. Everything looked good to me although I later found out that my fellow Eagle, who was running in the lead group, had already gone the wrong way at this stage due to marshals not reaching their marshal points before the first runners appeared.
Little coloured flags were planted along the course to guide our way and I was able to high-five my Eagle friend as he ran back on the first out and back section. Things were looking and feeling good. A food & drink station marked the point where the ultra runners branched off and I was soon running back on the same out and back section as before. Then things went downhill. Literally and metaphorically.
The next marshal muttered the immortal words…
“Just keep going straight. Follow those runners in front of you.”
If I had been thinking straight then I might just have engaged brain and considered that there might just be other runners out enjoying the fine weather and terrain. Yes, you guessed it. The runners in front of us were nothing to do with the race. However, they were going straight. A bunch of us kept on running straight. I got into a nice running groove so was happily splashing and sliding through the mud until I got too run happy and went sliding through a muddy swamp on my derriere. I still like to just think it was mud and nothing else. I’m sure that all the nearby sheep had been nowhere near the mud.
As a group we came to a standstill when the train became a t-junction at a road and there was no marshal or no flags indicating a direction. When in doubt, go straight. That’s what we did. A few minutes later our group expanded in number as another lost looking group of runners approaching from in front. They’d also been directed the same way and it was clear that we had all been sent off course. Thankfully a local resident took pity on us and pulled over in her car to help us out with her local map. We had probably run an extra couple of miles but at least we had a good way back to the correct route.
The marker flags suddenly appeared again (where were they before this, eh?) and we were back running the first sections but this time in reverse. Marshals were visible again and my happy-o-meter was raising back to normal levels, although it was tiring having to keep extra attention for when the marker flags vanished again.
Another food & drink station appeared and this time there was pizza, flat coke, cake, sandwiches and riches of other food. I can get why people like trail and ultra running. Who cares about running fast when you can pootle along in breathtaking scenery with fuel handed to you at nice intervals.
Then things started to go wrong again… the route filtered down into a valley and suddenly there were runners coming back towards me. Runners with official race numbers visible. It seemed a bit strange but I thought this must be another out and back section. Except it wasn’t. The path performed a loop around the ridge of the valley and there were no marshals to turn us back while the flags vanished once again. Runners were starting to look round to see what everyone else was doing but a single muddy path was all we had so everyone carried on.
I still have no idea why some runners had double backed and were running past us.
Our path continued back to the top of the valley and there was a marshal standing at the gate, just before a t-junction. Hallelujah! Broad smiles broke out as the marshal helpfully told everyone to turn left and carry on. Hallelujah! The trail broadened into a pathway covered in deep puddles so a trail of little duckling runners waded through in a line. That’s until half a mile later when an equally large group of grim-faced runners came trundling towards us. Oh dear.
Once again a marshal had sent everyone the wrong direction. The large group of runners approaching us were not happy bunnies. Everyone waded back through the puddles, including a visibility tired woman who slipped and went face down into the water. Thankfully runners are a kind bunch so helped her up and made sure that she was ok. The mass of fuming runners turned on the marshal. It seems that the first group had been sent the wrong way and only realised several miles later when they approached the coast at Saltdean. The group included the second placed woman and she was fuming. It seems that the marshal was meant to be sending the ultra runners to the left and the 18.5m runners to the right. Except he didn’t know this.
We were still lost at this stage as the marshal clearly had no idea. A group decision was made to branch off on a narrow path that carried on round the valley ridge, a path that suddenly turned into ankle-deep mud that tried to suck your shoes off. Not fun when you’re tired, teetering on a narrow path with a significant drop down to the valley below and still unsure if you’re on the correct path.
A lot of tired & fed up runners squelched through the mud until a marshal was finally visible on the valley below. He directed us up to intersect with the race route again and we reached another marshal point. This marshal seemed to have a clue and helpfully plotted out a route to head straight back to the finish rather than the several miles of looped running still ahead on the full route.
Mobile coverage appeared and phones started to ping as already finished runners tried to make contact with their lost and missing friends. I overheard tales of runners reaching the coast at Saltdean and having to find a coach back to Falmer, although I have nothing to confirm that actually took place. Then my phone rang as the finished Eagle offered to drive and collect me since he’d finished and was aware that there were lost runners. Thankfully I was able to pass up on the offer because there were only one last mile to trundle though.
Our merry band of lost runners crossed the finish line although there didn’t seem to be anyone officially checking us in. I wandered to find my friend so we could swap war stories from the race. He was part of the leading pack had made made a few wrong turns during the first few miles due to marshals not being in place. He hadn’t got lost at the same points as me, mostly due to marshals not giving an instruction or the marshals not yet being in place. He may have been the first male finisher of the 18.5m race, although there doesn’t seem to be a way to verify it, because other runners took wrong times and finished.
The race was poorly organised, there were marshals who didn’t have a clue which way to correctly direct runners, and there were unexpected bonus miles all over the course thanks to the lack of directions at key points. The race results were probably all over the place as runners took unintended short cuts while others ran long. However, despite all these problems – I enjoyed myself. The trails were plentiful and the views stunning (once the hail passed).