Monday, 27 October 2014

The Beachy Head Marathon on Low Carb High Fat

When I started writing this blog I had one particular target in mind. The Beachy Head Marathon. This has been my favorite event for some years now and I have a decent record in it, finishing in 3:36:30 4 years back. Not bad for a 45 year old.  The blog has often wandered into the public health aspects of the diet as that has become a topic of great interest to me, but today I’m wandering back to where it all started: how fast can I run my favorite race on LCHF?

Ascending the last hill in the BHM on a good day

It’s been a difficult year of injuries and frustration and at times it seemed like I might not be running this marathon at all, never mind performing well in it. But something happened on holiday in France; my back got better, my walks turned into runs and for the last 2 months I have had no pain at all. I have not done any speed training, just hoping that I might be able to run at all has been enough; but I have done more distance training than ever before with three 20-mile plus runs in the last month including a steady circuit of the Edale Skyline, which is actually rather harder than the BHM.

I’ve notched up a fistful of decent tempo ParkRuns in the last 4 weeks (including 3 in a row last Saturday); each time reminding myself to take it easy when the temptation is to start at the front with the big boys. Then a fortnight back I surprised myself by coming 2nd vet in the 20 mile Jog Shop Jog, a traditional hilly warm-up for the BHM. And gradually I came to realise that I would not only be running the BHM but might actually get to go quite fast. Even so I set a reasonably safe target of under 4 hours and would honestly have been very happy with that.

The LCHF diet can be a bit hard at times.  I still crave a peanut butter sandwich some days. But the knowledge that I have been getting fit again has spurred me on. I think that this is why exercise and diet work so well together. I strongly believe that weight loss is mostly about the diet, but you need motivation to stick with diets (even LCHF at times) and getting fitter provides a huge boost to your sense of well-being and hence to your commitment to other things that are good for your health. For me it is not about weight loss, but for so many people less fortunate than myself that is all it is about.

In a previous post on LCHF and distance running I referred to the optimal output at which we can keep going for long periods as a fat-burner: ( Finding this optimal level of effort is relatively easy to measure in a lab but the only way for most of us to find it is to get out there and run; hence the long hilly training runs over the last month. Apart from the obvious need to train long, in this time I hoped to have learned enough to know what level of effort I could sustain for 4 hours of hill running.  

And in order not to burn out (by which I mean to start burning the few scraps of glycogen that my liver makes to keep my brain happy) I need to try to stick at this same level of effort as consistently as possible. So I planned go up the hills rather slower than I once did, and to come down them rather faster. I have trained for this also and my past fell-running experience is a big help here.

With 1 day to go I ditched the carbs altogether (from my norm of about 50 grams per day). There may have been about 10 grams of carbs that day but no more. For breakfast on the day I had a cup of soup, a cup of creamy coffee, 4 slices of streaky bacon and 2 buttery fried eggs. After that just a cup of water at each of the feed stations and 4 salt tablets.

The start of the BHM can be chaotic. After 100 meters there is a steep hill rising up about 90 meters towards Beachy Head on a narrow path with several flights of steps. In order to avoid the mayhem I put myself near the front next to a chap dressed as Gandalf, knowing that I would be going up a bit slower than many others. This was a bit selfish I know, but I knew I had to get into my tempo straight away and the chaos behind me would have made this very difficult. About 100 people passed me on that first hill! I soon re-passed most of them as I started to get into my stride on the hill-top.
Gandalf follows the race winner up the steep first hill

We passed the lone piper playing his pipes at the same place as usual and the pace and crowds started to settle down. The sun was out, the air was cool and the views were opening up. It was a beautiful and a nearly perfect day.

I had barely slept the night before. A dear friend named Piglet had died in the early morning after a long struggle with cancer and I had spent the night wondering what on earth I thought I was doing going off and running a marathon. Piglet had loved the hills though, and always supported my running. On several occasions over the last 10 years she and my father-in-law had driven out into the countryside to provide me with a meal or a drink as I was passing through someone remote farm or hilltop. And Beachy Head was one of her favourite places. I know that she would have approved. There were a few tears in my eyes at times, but they were good tears.

The lone piper playing an appropriate lament

For the next 10 miles I played an amusing game of see-saw with a group of perhaps 20 runners. They would pass me going up the hills and I would pass them going down them. This gave many of them the opportunity to see the “Fuelled by FAT” message on my shirt and I had interesting but rather too brief discussions on the subject with several of them.

Jane and the kids we planning to meet me at Bo-Peep hilltop car-park and I was sorry not to see them there. I cursed myself for telling Jane that this was half way and that I’d not be there before 10:45; I’d forgotten that it is actually about 12 miles, and I passed thought 10 minutes earlier. 

The next 4 miles are mostly downhill and I got a bit despondent for missing Jane on this section. I knew my speed was lower than previously here too. But I reminded myself that I was actually well within target as I went through half way in 1:45; and I resisted the temptation to stick with a number of runners who passed me on this section.

The BHM route profile

There is a feed station at High-and-Over at 15.5 miles and it was here that I saw the first signs of what was to come for the next 10 miles. Several runners were stopped there, feeding and feeling sore. You can see most of the 12 remaining hills from this point and it is a daunting prospect. I breezed through the station and flew down the hill quite happily. Things were looking good. I then slipped and fell flat on my face in the mud at the bottom of the hill! I gave myself a big telling off for that.

The next hill out of Litlington is short and steep and I have always walked it before. This time I ran it. There are then 2 long sets of stairs on the hills in the Charleston Estate that everyone walks most of; I got half way up each of them before reverting to walking (I use the fell-runners technique with hands on knees supporting your upper body in the lift phase of each stride). A chatty couple passed me easily but I passed another 10 runners on that section.

Exceat hill is where it has always started to go wrong in the past. At 18 miles you still have the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head to go, but first they make you run 60 meters up this hill and back down it again before you start the Sisters. I have always got hamstring cramps at the top of this hill before and lost several minutes stretching and trying to relieve the cramps over the next hour. But this time it felt different and I was confident that this was not going to happen; I put this down to either the salt tablets or the diet or the distance training, most likely a combination of all three. There was just one calf twinge when I tripped on a stone, that was all. 

Marcus from Arena 80 caught me up on Exceat hill and we ran together for a while. He was going well and was confident of a PB having done the Marathon De Sables earlier this year.  

Marcus passes me on Exceat Hill

Marcus’s pace was a bit quick for me though so I let him go ahead, but I kept him in sight as we traversed the Seven Sisters with a steep jog/walk up the face of each one and a long-striding decent on the downside. I passed another 10 or 15 runners here and started to feel that I had something in reserve despite going longer that I have run at pace for a long time. 
Descending to Birling Gap in my first BHM in 2007

I came down into Birling Gap at good pace and passed another group of runners at the feed station. Still no sign of Jane and the kids but this time I didn’t mind, I was in no mood to stop as I passed another group of runners on the next hill up towards the Belle Tout lighthouse.

I have always prided myself on running up all of Beachy head. This may sound a bit daft to some runners, it is only 150 meters high after all; but after 24 miles and about 17 hills this last one looks like a monster. I was gradually catching up with Marcus again and it was at the top that I caught him. Neither of us had any breath left for chat but I think this spurred him on a bit and he stayed with me for a while.

I was feeling great (in an almost completely knackered kind of way) and looking forward to the best finishing mile of any race I know. The last mile of the race is back down the big hill towards Eastbourne finishing  with the same wickedly steep slope that we started up; and I have always regarded this as a bit like a fell run.  I caught and passed another 3 or 4 runners including another Arena 80 colleague Andrew on the top half of the hill as I got faster and faster.

The last very steep section I took about as fast as I can run with my arms flying out like a bird as I tried to keep my balance. My son Cam was there at the top of the finishing slope; I knew Jane was there below but at the pace I was going I couldn't afford to look up. There was another runner about 100 meters ahead of me at the top of the slope and I caught him just before the line by sprinting down the hill and leaping over the long sets of concrete steps near the bottom . It was dangerous and perhaps a bit stupid but  I loved it!
Cam and me on the finishing slope

It was lovely to see Jane and the kids there at the end. Great to share this moment with my family. I couldn't quite believe it when a young chap gave me a ticket that said I’d clocked  3:38:31. I’d stopped looking my watch at about mile 15. I knew I had done well but that was only 2 minutes away from my PB.

It was the second half of the race that made the difference. My steady fat-burning pace paid off and I was only 8 minutes slower on the second half than the first. 

In fact it seems that the whole LCHF approach to running has paid off, in exactly the way that I hoped that it would. I can now truthfully say that a half decent club runner like me can run a marathon on LCHF at about the same pace that I ran on carbs. And maybe next year with a bit more training I might go even faster!

Saturday was also my 49th birthday. It was a sad day and a happy day and it marked the start of my next big adventure, which my family and I have named 50@50. Starting and finishing with the BHM I plan to complete 50 challenges in my 50th year, followed by a suitably big party. 

Some challenges will be big, some not, some on my own but most with family and friends; some will be running but others (like the “All You Can Eat Sausage Challenge” with Cam, or the “Shop Till We Drop” challenge with Molly) will not. I’ll try not to bore you with them all but I am looking forward to the coming year enormously!


  1. Malcolm, what a great achievement, particularly with your injury problems and relatively short buildup. Tantalisingly close to your PB school, of course means another attempt next year.......!! Well done

  2. So, a year has passed. A sad year in many ways with the death of two of my children's grandparents, but a wonderful year in many ways. The 50 challenges have provided a focus and a determination to look forwards and my family and I have had some wonderful experiences along the way. Today I am 50 years old, and yesterday I completed the list by singing with my son's band at my 50th party.

    But before that I ran the BHM one more time. And I did exacltly what I thought might just be possible. I beat my PB by 6 minutes.

  3. Hi Malcolm, found your blog and am enjoying reading it, esp the Beachy Head write up which i am doing for the first time this month. If its OK have sent you a Strava follow as be interested to see your training. Regards, Gary

    1. Hi Gary. Glad you like the blog. I've accepted your Strava request.
      I'm not running Beachey Head this year, I am taking a break and aiming for a fast authumn 5k instead. I'd say the key for me was staying injury free. My long runs peaked at 20 miles which I did 3 times finishing with the Jog Shop Jog; I like to race this as well as the Lewes 10. The key to a good time at the BHM is to be able to run the last 7 miles (except perhaps the steepest parts of some of those 9 hills) and you can only get used to this by training hard and long on hills and by not running out of fuel - which I managed with LCHF.
      Good luck!

  4. Excellent info Malcolm, agree on the last 7 miles being key, i live 5 mintutes from the start so have run the sisters a few times, after 18 miles is another thing. All the best, maybe see you next year if i survive. Gary