What could possibly be a better way to celebrate a birthday than by running a marathon? Ah yes, running a ‘severe’-graded trail marathon along the South Devon Coast.
Saturday 7th February dawned bright and sunny, albeit rather cold and with light breezes (14mph average with 35mph gusts!), so perfect running weather. Race HQ was hidden away down miles of narrow country lanes at Beesands, which was almost an hour from the hotel in Paignton. Registration started bright and early at 07:00, and there was plenty of time to pick up numbers, timing chips, t-shirt, free dubious looking energy gel (which I doubt will ever be consumed!) and stuff breakfast part two into my mouth before the race started at 09:00 after a pre-race briefing.
The start of the race was uphill and out of the grassy field where the registration tent was, before we hit the coast path and a nice gentle downhill. The first hill came at 2km and took us from c.6m above sea level to 112m in just under 1km. This set the scene for the rest of the race, which was unrelenting in terms of hills. No other race I have ever attempted has had so much constant up and down, there were only two bits that I remember being anything approaching flat, and both were short! One was a fabulous section of the path that took us along the bottom of the cliffs not long after the big climb to Start Point lighthouse, and the other was towards the end when we followed board walk and then a road along an estuary.
The first 17km of the route were by far the most spectacular, we followed the South West Coast Path, which was frequently barely a foot wide, and with nerve-jangling drops to the frothing and foaming waves far below on one side, and rocky outcrops above us. At the furthest distance from the start was a slightly annoying loop, which included an out-and-back section where we had to pass some of the ultra-marathon runners coming in the opposite direction on some extremely narrow paths, but luckily for me there weren’t too many to pass and I could keep plodding on. After this we headed inland along paths and roads, which were just as insanely steep as the coast path, and in the case of one field, almost vertical.
Somewhere at around 35km, when my mind was starting to wander I came around the corner to be confronted by a pack of dogs and horses, complete with riders resplendent in full hunt dress. For a moment I thought I might be hallucinating, but they were quite real, which was a shame as I dislike dogs at the best of times, and running through a pack of large hunt dogs was scarier than the vertigo-inducing coast path. Luckily I was so sweaty and disgusting by this point the dogs paid no notice and I could carry on running.
The hills were unrelenting until almost 40km in to the race. It was long before then that I had given up any hope of running them, but it was almost as hard coming down them by this point as my knees and thigh muscles were protesting. Thankfully I had actually managed a small amount of training for this race (clocking up my highest ever total mileage in January: 100 miles), and so at the usual point I start to break down (somewhere around 17 miles) I didn’t feel too bad, and I was shocked to see that at about 23 miles and under four and a half hours I was way ahead of the time I was expecting. There was a chance I could actually complete this in less than 6 hours! I tried to convince my legs that with just a smidge of speed I could do this, but they had other ideas.
On the internet it was claimed the race was 28 miles, whereas at the briefing we were told it was 26.5 miles, so at 25 miles I was contemplating some extra speed, but there was no sign of the finish line. Unexpectedly, when I had managed to convince myself the end was just around the corner, we were taken up and over anther 70m hill before dropping down to where we had parked the car. However, instead of taking the short route up the road to the start, we were directed up an agonisingly long and steep set of stairs before we met up with the half marathon finishers and were able to sprint (slowly) down the field we started in and cross the line.
Having completed the Anglesey trail marathon, which has half the total climb of South Devon, in a shade under 6 hours, I was expecting to crawl across the line in anywhere from six to six and a half hours, so I was overwhelmed to realise I had finished the 27.34 miles (=44km, and 1,389m of climb) in just 5:22:34! When the results came out I also found I was 13th woman (out of 30 finishers) and 50th out of 115 overall. Not a bad birthday present, and the longest run I’ve ever done.
Details of the Endurancelife Coastal Trail series can be found here: http://www.endurancelife.com/ all races have 10km, half-, full- and ultra-marthon distances and are in a variety of locations around the country.
If you don’t believe there could possibly be that much climbing, my race is on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/252530707