Sunday, 9 February 2014

Endurance Life South Devon Ultra

The alarm went off at 4am, or rather it didn't; I was awake and got to it just before its insistent tone ripped through the dark night. My attempts at an early night had failed miserably; initially through not getting to sleep in the first place and later as my youngest arrived in our bed post nightmare. Her presence kept me awake until it was time to get up. After a quick breakfast I was off, into a surprisingly calm night, heading for Beesands in Devon.

The preceding week had seen the South West racked with some of the worst storms of the winter, leading to widespread flooding and general disruption. The met office suggested that Saturday would be no better. All week the Facebook gossip had questioned whether the Endurance Life South Devon leg of the Coastal Trail Series would, could or even should go ahead. Many, myself included, wondered whether it was right to risk overloading an already stretched emergency services by placing several hundred runners on the coast path. Updates from Endurance Life were somewhat well spaced and this gave everyone, especially those travelling from further afield, plenty of time to worry about what to do. Eventually though, it seemed the event was on.

Simon had already told me he wasn't coming. His training hadn't been going too well; on a good day he would struggle to complete the distance but with 70mph winds forecast there was, as far as he was concerned, no chance. Struggling to decide whether the whole thing was foolhardy or merely adventurous I eventually stopped procrastinating and committed to give it a go.

I made good time and arrived early, got registered and said hello to a few familiar faces. During the race briefing we heard of the route changes; no loop out East around Slapton Ley, instead we would return to the start after 20 miles and, for those of us running the Ultra, head out again to follow the half marathon course. Before long we were briefed and ready to go, shivering in the early morning chill we lined up and waited for the off.

At last it came and we headed off up across a couple of fields before joining the coast path. For the first few miles the lay of the land saved us from the full force of the wind. On reaching the car park at Start point we were diverted to the right as the organisers had deemed the traverse of the rocks around the headland too risky in the current conditions. Dropping down a long, fairly technical rocky path we got our first taste of things to come; the wind roared up the valley buffeting and blasting us and letting us know exactly what we were in for.

Our first taste of the storm
Turning right as we reached the sea the wind was at least at a slight angle but no less fierce. The next 8 miles or so were incredible; the beauty of this stretch of coastline was enhanced by the fierce weather. With a huge sea to our left and dark threatening clouds ahead we ploughed on, I kept my head down and concentrated on maintaining a reasonable pace but it felt like running through treacle. Never-the-less I was just about keeping up with the loose group of runners ahead and seemed to be doing OK. A few squally showers of rain and hail added to the experience and in places the sea spray was whipped up and thrown in our faces as we struggled along. I almost choked to death a couple of times; first from inhaling a hailstone then soon after, and somewhat more seriously when the wind drove a sizeable chunk of flapjack into my windpipe leaving me coughing and spluttering for a few moments before I could continue.

Dramatic Devonshire coastline with added weather for good measure
It was a relief to get to the Estuary and turn North and, more importantly, out of the wind. There followed a pretty wooded path with views across the water to Salcombe and, shock horror, the sun had come out! We soon reached the first "dib-in" check point. I had plenty of water and all the food I needed so carried straight on, up a long path, walking and munching on a potato I felt a world away from the maelstrom of the coast a few minutes back. It wasn't to last however, at the top of the hill we dropped down again onto the coast path and retraced our steps for a few miles. This was a hard few miles for me, we had fast marathoners passing from behind, the rest approaching upfront and somehow the wind that was in our faces on the way out seemed not quite to be behind us on the way back. Nearly being blown off the path into gorse bushes while trying to make room for other runners was taxing and I was feeling far too tired given I was only 13 miles in.

Sunny Salcombe from across the Estuary

As is often the case though, things soon started to look up, we abandoned the coast path and headed inland, the sun popped out again briefly and I stopped to get some photos before entering a sheltered pathway up to a road section that brought us into East Prawle.  It also brought us another violent hailstorm that stung my face and legs but it was over soon enough. Another check-in followed and more fields and muddy pathways too; some of this I recognised from the year before when I had run the half.

Dark skies approaching
I had good fun running these next few familiar miles and before long I was dropping down to the start, another check point and the unavoidable acknowledgement that the second lap, including those wind swept cliffs, was imminent.

One of the great things about running these long races is the interactions with other competitors. Often the same faces are passed and pass you many times throughout the course of the day and one of those was Ferg, of Mud Crew fame. We kept each other company on and off for the rest of the run and it was good to have someone to chat with along the way.

Having felt so good at the end of the first lap I felt awful for the first miles of lap two; things did not exactly improve once I reached the coast - the wind, if anything, have become stronger and I was in no condition to manage more than a slow, painful slog. That said, once I accepted any chance of maintaining a decent pace was fruitless I was able to just get down to getting through it as best as I could. Again, once we turned inland, despite feeling quite tired by this point, things improved.

A bit breezy, spume covers the "path" - actually ankle deep water
The final miles were slowly ground down with a stretch of road back to East Prawle and a second visit to the checkpoint we now had no more than 5 miles, along terrain we now knew from the first lap. The last long hill before the run down to the finish nearly did for me, the first cramps of the day threatening to strike in my calves just as I reached the "one mile to go" sign (a cruel joke on lap one this was a great relief second time around). Managing a better pace on the downhill to the finish I passed a couple of other runners and was soon crossing the final fields to the finish line, with a huge smile on my face.

One mile to go - bloody good job!
Job done, I gobbled down a pasty, grabbed a cup of tea, shook hands with Ferg and made my way back to the car, battered but not beaten, and glad to have decided to take the foolhardy course and run the 2014 Endurance Life Ultra.