The Steyning Stinger is so called as there are 4 stings (climbs) up to the top of the South Downs. I honestly think that there are 5 distinct long climbs, as you will see from the gradient from my GPS record of the event, but I guess that’s a technicality.
This is what makes the event so attractive. If it wasn’t the ‘Stinger’ it would be like any other event. But it’s not. It’s a real test, whether you do the half or the full marathon. The event this year was made even tougher by the mud caused by the past 5 months of rain and by the southerly wind, which was pretty strong on the top of the South Downs.
I knew parts of the course from previous events organised by Steyning AC and my time off road biking on the Downs. I knew what to expect. Well, I thought I did anyway.
The race HQ is in the Steyning Grammar School. The welcome is warm and the atmosphere very pleasant. There are changing rooms and an area where to leave valuables and bags.
The start of the event is unlike any other that I have done. There is no mass start. There is only an earliest possible and a latest possible start. So you turn up more or less when you want, they record your start time and then you’re off. The advantage of this is that you can get ahead of the cut off times and also you are out on the course at the same time with runners of different abilities.
So, we set off, Nick and I together. A baptism of fire awaited us. The first 700 metres were already pretty boggy, almost impossible to run on. This was the type of leg sapping that we didn’t need at the start and I started to think about what was ahead of us.
We soon popped out onto Mouse Lane, a welcome country lane. I made good progress up to kilometre 4, where we hit the first and worst lot of mud. We had been warned about it the previous day when pictures were posted of this area. I saw the unmistakable gait of Jon Lavis a few hundred metres in front of me and caught him up as we went through the muddy section. It was thick and deep. I wanted to go through the ruts that the tractor tyres had made, but you could not tell what was below the surface of the water, so I decided to go through the mud, which was shin deep in places.
Luckily it didn’t last for too long and we were able to start to run again, until we hit the first hill. It was not a sting, just a hill that no-one in my vicinity even considered trying to run up.
After an extremely steep downhill and a very boggy, muddy field, we arrived in Washington and went back onto the road, past the village church and over bridge at the A24 and to the first check point.
All check points were really well manned and offered cold drinks, biscuits and chopped up chunks of Mars Bar. I stopped and fuelled, even though I didn’t really feel the need (a point I will come back to later).
So here was the first of the ‘stings’. It was a climb of 2.2 kilometres in length and a height gain of 133m to get us onto the South Downs Way.
I walked almost all of it. This was the plan and I stuck to it. I could have run it, but resisted the temptation. 1 sting down, 3 to go.
The next 4.2km are plain sailing. All downhill, all off road and a total height loss of 115m.
In this section we passed the most remote of all of the marshal points. The 2 marshals were sitting on deck chairs and must have been freezing. At least the tail runner would have passed them relatively earlier, so they could head back to the warmth of the school.
At 13km we crossed the A24 again (over a bridge), refuelled at the check point and headed up sting number 2. This one had a height gain of 139m over a distance of 2.7km up to Chanctonbury Ring.
It was at this stage that I realised for the first time that the wind had increased and we headed southwards, straight into it.
The longest descent of the race followed. Over 7.5km we lost 186m in elevation. The descent was tempered slightly by the strong headwind, but it was pleasant nonetheless. After a couple of km down this descent there was the turning for the half marathon runners to head home. That must be a huge temptation for some of the marathon runners to cut their race in half. I wonder how many did take that route.
There was a checkpoint and feeding station half way down the descent, just before the half way marker. This was a double checkpoint as we were about to embark on a 5 mile loop which almost touched the north end of Worthing.
What was to follow was not so pleasant. It was by a distance the most difficult section of the course. I took one of my gels and set off on the long walk up and north. In 2km we had an elevation gain of 120m. The actual gradient and the length of the climb were no greater than the previous stings. It just came at the wrong time. It was 15 miles in. There was a little self-doubt starting to creep in and the actual surface was horrid. It was chalk and extremely rutted. At this stage I was thinking that 11 miles is a long way to walk if I was going to run out of steam. Luckily, things soon got better when I reached the summit of sting number 3 and I descended back to the checkpoint I had passed at 20km. I was now 27km in and could see people at the same checkpoint who were 45 minutes behind me. If that doesn’t cheer you up, then nothing will (I know it’s bad to have those thoughts).
From here we headed east. This was the flattest part of the course. It wasn’t flat. Far from it. It’s all relative. It was a 6km section, which involved another loop and a section where you passed other runners heading back. This was great. I like meeting runners heading in the opposite direction, even if they are in front of me. I also have to say ‘well done’ to every one of them, even if they look like an Olympian compared to me. That must be the result of around a year of volunteering at parkrun and shouting out encouragement there.
So at the 34km point the final sting began. This turned out to be the longest climb at 3.3km long, but the elevation gain was more forgiving at 122m. The wind was behind us at this stage, it was the last big climb and I was familiar with this section from my cycling days, so I almost ran it. I had the energy, I was approaching the end and I had a target time in the back of my head which seemed like it may be possible.
It was all downhill from the top of the last sting. Well almost all downhill. I soon learned the downhill is not always your best friend when it comes at 23/24 miles of a marathon and it’s too steep to run down. In fact I walked down this section more slowly than I had walked up the hills.
There were a couple of small inclines at 25 miles, but I didn’t care. I was nearly there. The only pain was the last 700m, which was the same as the first 700m, only now lots more muddy.
I got to the finish line in 4 hours 59 minutes. I’d gone under 5 hours. That was my goal, although I had no idea what to expect really. It was great to get a big hug from Jan as I went over the line. She had just finished as well. I’d obviously been just behind her for a while, but didn’t realise.
Quite fitting really as the race plan came from advice from the Lavis family. These are the golden rules that I followed:
1. Walk the hills, run the flat and run the downhill sections. This is exactly what I did for the most part, even if I was tempted to run the hills early on.
2. Even on the flat, if you feel the need to walk, do it. Don’t take a rest when it’s too late. Rest before it’s too late. I did just that and it worked.
3. Make sure you fuel regularly. I have often not fuelled properly during races through fear of losing ‘vital seconds’. This is totally stupid and I made a conscious effort to fuel regularly.
I can not over stress following this advice.
A free breakfast was served to everyone in the school canteen at the end. It was really funny to see all of the running shoes outside the entrance to the school.
It was a really lovely way to finish off the day. Sitting for food and swapping stories.
So, let me summarise. This event is excellent. It’s tough and not for the faint hearted. It’s incredibly well organised and I would recommend it to anyone. You are never going to set a PB at this course. It’s not the point. The point is to challenge yourself in a different way and it certainly does that. You also get to see some of the beautiful Sussex countryside. We are so lucky to have running clubs in Sussex who stage these events and Steyning AC do a tremendous job on this one.
Photos supplied by Sussex Sports Photography, Caz Wadey and myself.