Exmoor Coastal Trail Marathon 22 May

Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series 7/7. Mike Berry reports…..

0500hrs, the alarm goes off on the final day of 7 months of endeavour. As usual I am already awake, lying, thinking about the race ahead. I have an itch on my foot that I scratch; a large sheet of dry skin falls off. I look at them, one black toe nail I really need to work up the courage to pull off, two neighbouring nails with thick ridges where I left the last ones too long, an ingrown toenail, a few areas of healing blisters. I really should sort those feet out, but for now I do the usual, pull on a pair of socks, out of sight out of mind. Trail shoes sit accusingly in the corner of the room, for some months now my wife has been eyeing them with deepening disgust and lust for a burning; they smell, they are dirty and the lining is worn away. I seem to have become strangely superstitious and I can’t part with them until the end of the series. According to my training log we have been together for 1318 miles, we are getting to the end together.

It is fitting that the last race should be tough, 28 miles, 10000ft vertical. By 0800hrs it is already 19°c and promises to get hotter and hotter. I am strangely relaxed. Australian surf rescue sun cream on, jungle formula insect repellent on, electrolyte tablets aplenty. The race start is split into 3 for the marathon, Elite, Standard and Slow. The slow group gets to go out 45-minutes earlier, since I am planning a 6-hour schedule I join that one, hoping to avoid the worst of the days heat.

We get stuck in from the very start with an 1100ft ascent from sea level onto the moorland. There has been a fire recently, the exposed earth is white, reflecting the sun to create a ferocious heat, the air is filled with ash kicked up by the runners and the summit only appears after 3 false summits which all combines to give me a spinning sense of dislocation. I convince myself to stop thinking about anything except putting one foot in front of another and get back into a good rhythm. The descent is quite steady and through a woody valley, the wash of cooler air brings me back to my senses. Only six miles in and I have already got through 2 litres of fluid.

Looping back onto the coastal trail I catch up with a group of paratroopers I have run with on previous races, familiarity brings about a steady pace that the friendly banter keeps fairly slow. Checkpoint and 10 miles and fill my pack with another 2 litres plus electrolyte tablets x4 (thanks for the tip Mark Lynock).

The course then follows the coast for a further 4 miles before cutting back over moorland to Watersmeet, a truly beautiful wooded valley with where 2 rivers meet with cascades of waterfalls. I could run here forever but soon enough the signage indicates that I must leave this outstanding trail and take a steep sided gully straight up. Again the temperature soars as I climb the scree of a dry river bed for 700ft, at 19 miles in my sense of humour begins to thin just as I crest the summit and am rewarded with the most outstanding view of the whole North Devon coast, fringed with an emerald sea and azure blue sky. I catch my breath and with a feral grin throw myself down the long descent into Lynmouth with a recklessness that my quads will be reminding me of for some days to come.
I make up two places, some local lads seek to abuse me by shouting “there’s a bloke miles in front of you”. I laugh like a maniac and thank them, I started early but it’s still pretty funny to be lying in second place. A steep climb from Lynmouth to Lynton is well known to me from childhood holidays and I take it at a steady pace, refuel and rehydrate. 21 miles in, 7 to go, feeling great, I graciously hold open the gate to 3 elite runners as they pass me. Of course they are 45 minutes ahead of me but their pace is now somewhat blunted and I make a secret pact with myself, “keep them in sight, no-one else passes”.

As we pass the final checkpoint I realise I have walked this trail before, which adds to my confidence, I pick up the pace a bit further, I know that after the next ascent there is a 2 miles steady decent on good packed trail to the finish.

I cross the line in 5 hours 9 minutes, despite the slow time it felt like a strong run but because of the staggered start I have no idea of my position until 3 days later I find out I was placed 28th, completing my ambition of a top 30 finish. Naturally I keep quiet at the line and am happy for everyone to think I came in 5th.

I thought I would feel like partying all night but as it turned out I wanted nothing more than to get home to my family, eat four suppers and sleep, a lot.

Many thanks to all of you who have given so generously to “Help for Heroes”, not only is this a charity close to my heart but your support kept me going through the moments when training, fitness and endurance are not enough and only single minded determination will get you through. Thanks also to my wife and children who have supported me despite my numerous reckless abandonments of them, including leaving them in New Zealand while I dashed back for the Cornwall race – I suspect I may be reminded of that for many a year to come.

The series has been a voyage of self-discovery, during which I have learnt as much about myself as a person as a runner. Testing myself to the bounds of my physical and mental strength makes all of the colours brighter, the tastes and smells stronger and everything feels in its right place in the world but the thought that on completion I would be left with a quiet sense of satisfaction is an obvious delusion, what I sense is a yearning black hole that must be filled.

Draw your own conclusions, I have to keep running.