With 2020 being a little unique to say the least and racing opportunities being limited somewhat, when the opportunity to race again came, the opportunity was jumped upon. Tom suggested an ultra along the North Devon Coastal Path, and initially I was a little reticent, but it did not take long for me to come round and the North Coast 110 km ultra was entered.
During lockdown I had been training reasonably well and, seemingly bucking the national trend, managed to shift a bit of timber so despite only having a month between entering and race day I was positive that the step up in distance wasn’t an idiots folly. That’s not to say that I was confident, just not entirely negative – I like to operate in the grey area of uncertainty with regards to whether I can finish or not.
Logistically its decided it will be easier to catch the train to the start line in Barnstaple, giving us two and a half hours to nibble nuts and for me to fret after a morning of kit packing anxiety. There is something about a late race start to ramp up the pre-race tension. We arrive in Barnstaple with the weather exactly as forecasted – wet, really wet – and make our way to the Italian restaurant we have booked for dinner. We had decided to travel up and eat in some old clothes which could be dumped at the start of the race – which meant dodgy jumpers and my wife’s old, ready for the bin jeans. The wonderful thing about going out for a meal before a long race is that when the bowl of pasta you’ve just hoovered up doesn’t seem to touch the sides you can suggest ordering a pizza to share and not be called a fat bastard. The rain hasn’t abated by the time we leave, and we trudge across town to the start at the rugby club.
Due to the current ‘Miley Cyrus’ restrictions there is no mass start, its’ a case of turn up at the start between 7 and 9pm, get your shit together and go (the team record your leave time and work out your race time from there). Tom and I had planned to head off at around 8, giving us a little more wriggle room in the – what appears to be – generous cut off times. However, second dinner took longer than we anticipated to come out and we end up heading out just after half eight.
We head of into the darkness in the pouring rain, with full waterproofs on. The start of the race feels a little bit weird, it feels like we are just popping out for a run while on holiday with the families, and as a result we constantly have to check our pace and reign it in a little. As we make our way along a dual use, traffic free path I have to stop to adjust my laces – at this point I realise we have knocked off 5 km (only 105 to go).
While I am sorting my laces we are passed by another runner, and once I’ve got myself sorted we have to make a conscious effort not to chase after her. Ominously we miss a tuning and if it wasn’t for a guy running out of a café and shouting at us we could have ended up Christ knows where. We retrace the 50m and run along the road, before getting off the hard top and on to the trail. Along here we catch the runner who had passed us earlier – as she stops to make sure she was on the right route. We run together for about 5 km before she runs ahead. I feel absolutely no shame in being ‘chicked’ and was delighted to find out she was the second female finisher.
Running in the dark is a strange experience when its somewhere unfamiliar, and I only seem to remember strange little snippets of the night that don’t appear to knit together, mostly involving missed turns. Before I know it, we are over 20 km in and I have forgotten to eat, so I force down a burrito. I’m convinced it’s too late and whether its in my head or not my legs begin to feel a little heavy. I try to push this to the back of my mind and keep on keeping on. For the majority of the night I couldn’t tell you if we ran along cliff tops or fields, all I remember is following a letterbox of light through the darkness – wearing a cap and hood only adds to the feeling of peering out of the cupboard under the stairs.
We get to the first checkpoint which is in the salubrious surroundings of a bus stop in an eerily quiet Woolacombe – all the checkpoints had to be moved to outdoor locations due to current COVID guidelines. Not really feeling the food on offer I have a cup of tea and a glass of cola; which hits me like I imagine a few lines of coke and an E chased by a pint of Red Bull would. We consciously try not to waste too much time in the checkpoints – once bitten, having previously wasted too many hours in previous ultra checkpoints – so we are off on our way before too long.
At some point in the dead of night – before 40km I think– I begin to feel my left knee. I was expecting to get some sort of knee pain, but much, much later. This compounded by the dark and the weather made for some tough going and mentally it begins to feel like a grind. This isn’t helped by the shitty coastal path signs which are incredibly easy to miss – and we do miss them more than once. One detour which has been engrained permanently into the recesses of my soul involved going down several flights of stairs to a beach, only to find no way off other than those same sets of steps. We trudge back up them again to find the coastal path sign perfectly camouflaged with its environment. Remind me never to play hide and seek with a south west coastal path sign, and certainly not in the dark.
As we approach the second checkpoint at 55km both my knees are now hurting, and it is really beginning to play on my mind. We stop and the checkpoint for another cup of tea – this time with sugar – and a cola. Double sugar kick. Once again, we try to keep our stay to a minimum and are on our way. Halfway up the first climb from the checkpoint I decide that I’m going to have to take some painkillers. By dawn the painkillers had kicked in and I felt like a new man, and not just physically. The heady combination of daylight and pain relief has me feeling like I’m floating on air.
With dawn comes the views and they are certainly worth the hours of darkness. The scale of the landscape comes into stark focus as we trundle along. The rocky path clinging to the edge of the cliffs with the sea whipping itself into a froth at the bottom far below. For hours we make our way along the cliff tops, dropping down and climbing back up again. At some point during the night the rain stopped and for the first few hours of Saturday morning the weather is almost kind – the wind never subsides but for a heady while there was no rain.
The rain more than makes up for the short hiatus and by the time we reach the fourth checkpoint at Lynmouth the rain is coming down hard enough to convince a bloke called Noah to build a boat. Once our checkpoint ritual is done – more tea and cola – we battle the elements along the sea front before making our way back up onto the cliffs. Despite the weather it really is amazing up there, but mentally I can feel it all beginning to slide.
By now both my knees are hurting, and my left Achilles Tendon now aches too from stomping up hills – if I was a horse I’d have been shot. As a result, I cant run down steep or technical descents, being reduced to a geriatric shuffle. This progresses from being a frustration to just plain fucking annoying, and as a result of this Tom is getting noticeably cold having to wait for me and I feel increasingly guilty. The weather is showing no signs of abating and as we get closer to the last checkpoint Tom runs ahead so as not to get too cold.
Mentally, I think the stretch to the last checkpoint is the hardest. I’m tired, my knees feel like someone has a screwdriver in behind the kneecap and is trying to pop them off, and the trail down through Embelle and Culbone Woods are delightful. Delightful trails may seem like a strange reason to be struggling mentally, but allow me to explain; under normal circumstances I would have loved it through here, and taken the opportunity to let the hand break off a little. I love running in the woods and always feel a little psychological and physical boost when a race or training run enters the woods – no matter how far I have run. Not today, today it was like torture. I wanted to run, not even quickly just consistently. It feels like I have a certain stride length that I find comfortable but anything outside that and the pain intensifies and I have to stop.
I reach the final checkpoint, and its great to see Tom. I had convinced myself that he’d have gone on towards Minehead – and I wouldn’t have blamed him, I would probably cried but wouldn’t have blamed him. I try to be as quick as I can – conscious that Tom has been standing around for a while – as I drink a tea, top up my water and have a cup of cola.
Its only 9 miles to Minehead, but unfortunately it’s not an easy 9 miles. Back out again we run along the road for a short section before we drop down onto the beach. When I say beach don’t think of of golden sands think more gravel pit. I spend the next however long – felt like it could have been days – trying to find veins of smaller pebbles to run along. After a few hundred metres, where we should have turned off the beach, we commit to wading across a knee deep stream. Once across we realise we have missed a turn, but as much as I have hated the beach I was lucky not to take a plunge the first time crossing the water and don’t really want to cross it again. Luckily Tom happened to have visited this beach a few months ago and knew the exit at the far (far, far, far) side of the beach met the path so we trundled on.
Gradually tom worked up a bit of a gap, and I then notice him spring up the pebble bank and disappear down the other side. As I get close he warns me not to follow him, and the stench confirms that would be a bad idea. I get out the wind, and out of range, while he finishes his dirty business.
Finally off the beach, we follow a wide muddy trail past a couple of houses, then it’s a right and over a great big bloody river. Luckily this time there is a bridge, once over the river its through a gate and off towards Bossington Hill.
Bossington Hill had been haunting my dreams ever since I made the mistake of looking at the elevation profile of the race weeks before. Rising from sea level to over 275 metres in a couple of kilometres, its an absolute brute of a climb. It’s every man for themselves as we haul our way up the side of the hill. Its steep at the bottom, steep in the middle and steep at what you initially think is the top. Once at the first top the gradient eases and it becomes runnable for sections. Up here the weather feels like it has gone into overdrive with most of the path under several centimetres of water at least. Initially I try to weave from side to side to follow the driest path, but soon give up and just trudge along regardless of the water depth. There has been so much rain up here that I’m sure in places it was running up hill to weir off the track.
As the route plateaus I catch up with Tom – by catch up I mean he has stopped, put on his waterproof trousers and essentially waited for me – and we run together for the few kilometres along the top. After a while we turn right and begin to drop down towards Minehead. Just before the turn Tom is about 15 metres ahead of me and as we begin to drop down he begins to pull away from me and I don’t see him again until the finish line. After an initial rocky section where I struggle, I enter another wood and this time it is perfect for my dodgy knees. For a while I am actually enjoying it, its not technical nor too steep its just lovely. That is until I reach the switchbacks. These kill me, the varying gradients, the steps. Its fucking torturous.
Thankfully the switchbacks don’t last long and come out onto a road for a while. Within a few hundred metres along the road its back off it again. At this point I notice I have about 1 kilometre to go, at almost exactly the same time my guts drop and I have to stop immediately. Panicked, I try to find somewhere to hide, and somewhat typically there isn’t anywhere. The best I can do is a tree barely any wider than a telegraph pole, but with no other option I take a cursory glance to make sure no one is coming and bare my arse to the elements. As I finish I spot someone coming my way and I hurriedly manoeuvre myself so I can pretend I’m having a wee, and then as I squat down to get the shit kit (tissues and poo bags for soiled paper) from my bag – there was no time to do this before the act – someone else comes down the trail. This time I have no way to reposition myself, so I just have to stay where I am and hope they don’t notice my ghostly white, bare arse sticking out the back. I don’t know if they noticed, but they had the decency not to say anything. Paperwork swiftly completed and stowed in a poo bag, and I’m up and running – hoping to run passed a bin in the not too distant future. The final kilometre goes without a hitch, and thankfully the finish line isn’t on the far side of town – don’t think there is much worse than realising you have to run all the way through town at the end of a race.
Crossing the finishing line is a weird feeling; there is no elation, nor initially a sense of achievement. Just a sense of job done and feeling cold. It always feels like this, but this time it just felt more stark, maybe that was due to COVID restrictions meaning there weren’t many people milling about (the rain could have had a hand in that too) or just sheer exhaustion. Once across the finish line, there is time for a quick photo and then its off to the car to get dry and changed. When it comes to describing my experiences at the race it’s quite difficult but, there is a school of thought that suggests that if someone has done something well then copy them. With that in mind its over to you Charles Dickens, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. With the focus of time, I am pleased with how I got on and a great day out, but it was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done – especially mentally. I finished in 18 hours 55 minutes, which is good enough for 14th position (out of 37 finishers) which I am as happy as I am ever going to be – although I am mildly frustrated that I was an emergency poo away from 13th position (2 minutes quicker). Tom came in in 12th (over 10 minutes quicker than me, but that should and could have been much more), mate I couldn’t have done it without you
Although ‘only’ 30 km further than the Gower 50 ultra, this was by far the hardest thing I have ever undertaken. The combination of sleep deprivation, the amount of climbing, and the weather combined to make this race a go to for running anecdotes for years to come. My poor wife, she’ll be hearing about this for years to come. Time to cure the post race blues by booking another one!