Saturday, 26 February 2011

CTS South Devon Marathon - a perfect day?

The challenge continues, and this month's installment was a 27.5 mile jaunt through the Devon countryside.  I'd never been to the southern coast of Devon, and had been looking forward to this trip as a way to appreciate the reputed beauty of a new coastline.  A few weeks before, I double-checked the course details and saw nothing short of a tortuous second half.  The early hills led to gently rolling coastal paths, with the real steep stuff coming on the inland trip back to the start.  The final stretch along Slapton Sands was a big worry.  I'm still a bit reticent about beaches after the Gower and Portland races.  I could quite happily wait for a few years before another big-beach race.  The course is rated by Endurancelife as 4 out of 5 for difficulty (5 being stupidly hard).  I checked the 2009 finish times to get an idea of what to expect.  In the previous three races, I'd finished about 2/3 down the field.  For South Devon, that equated to around six hours.  So, I set my race plan for survival:  start as slowly as I could manage, have fun on the steep descents, and just get through the beach section.  With that plan in place, we once again took the opportunity to enjoy a day off and headed for Dartmouth on Friday morning - stopping by Sara's for some protective tape work on my weak calf.

Dartmouth, as a place to dine, is the opposite of Holyhead.  The small harbour area has an abundance of good restaurants and smells great at lunchtime.  We enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Taylor's (penne with a mushroom & white truffle oil sauce) and a gorgeous dinner at the Royal Castle Hotel lounge bar (sea bass with a crab risotto).  Plenty of good nutrition, not too much richness, and all done by 8, so I had enough time to digest while we enjoyed some World Cup track cycling on the TV.

On race day, I once again took the strategy of early (6:30) and late (7:30) breakfasts.  Lately, I've been able to eat less during my long runs, so I didn't worry about any food between second breakfast and the race start at 9.  We headed off to the start, a short 11 miles away, planning to arrive just in time to register and catch the race briefing.  I'd forgotten that Devon roads have their own variations on the words "main" and "minor".  Main roads have sections wide enough for two cars, minor roads have occasional places to stop or back into if you have opposing traffic.  In Devon, wide enough is only just, and occasional can be very occasional indeed.  As a result, we arrived a little later than anticipated and were sent into the overflow car park and asked to catch the bus (it was about 8:20 at this point).  After securing the car (i.e. parking it in the field deeply enough to be concerned about getting it out), we headed for the bus, which had disappeared and been replaced by a horse box.
It was clean before I parked in the other field...

A few more marathoners (and one ultra runner, who should have started at 8!) arrived, and the Endurancelife team realized the bus wasn't coming back any time soon.  Inexplicably, there was a bit more space near the start, so we were sent on our way to park there instead - 20 minutes of prep time lost.  I can't really blame anyone but myself for being late, but it would have been nice to avoid the hassle of nearly losing the car in the mud and missing the start while waiting for a missing bus.  But, true to form, Gary delayed the race briefing a few minutes to allow us all to get there and pushed back the start by a few minutes to give everyone a chance for the last-minute pit-stops.
Just enough time for the "before" picture - much more upright than the "after" shot!

All pre-race checks completed, it was time to start.  Because we were heading for narrow trails early on, we had a staggered start.  Each runner's chip was registered on the way across the start line, so the quick runners headed out first and the rest of us started in our turn.  I lined up about 2/3 back in the field, with a few people I recognized from previous races.  We headed out of Beesands and then straight into the first hills.  These were only a few hundred feet each, and gave me a chance to watch the leaders stream away.
Looking from hill 1 to hill 2.

Further back, I took these early climbs pretty easy, saving energy for the steep rollers in the second half.  We had a couple of nice slippery sections to give us some entertainment watching the few runners in road shoes.  Every bend, hill, and hedge brought another fantastic view.
Right about here, I realized I hadn't started my watch!

As we passed near the Start Point lighthouse, we turned to the West and were confronted with some astounding scenery.  The rocky path was tricky and slippery, so I didn't get as much of an opportunity to appreciate the sunshine playing on the sea and the hillside as I would have liked.

The day was fast becoming perfect for running.  The sun had broken through the morning haze and was making everything lovely and warm.  It was also proving useful to pick out the jagged stones poking just far enough out of the mud to potentially cause a nasty fall. So, I picked my way through the technical bits and eased along the more secure paths.
The sun poked through to help me avoid those pesky trip hazards.

In an effort to keep an easy heart rate and remind myself to keep things steady, I stopped to take the odd picture instead of snapping on the run.  Given the fairly steady pace, it wasn't much of a time loss, and stopping to "smell the roses" now and then boosted my mood.  I kept feeling happy, which definitely wasn't expected in the first 10 miles of a long day's running.
It's a long way to Prawle Point, but the sun makes it all good!

It's still a long way to Prawle Point...
While I enjoyed the sunshine and warm Southwesterly (head-on) breeze, I kept a steady rhythm and a manageable heart rate of around 150bpm (~80%).  Every once in a while I would meet up with other runners and have a short chat.  I wasn't the only cheery face in the crowd, but I was probably one of the most comfortable.  Quite a few runners were dressed for the previous day's weather - windy, wet, and miserable.  As a result, my short snap stops paled into insignificance compared to the delays some had in removing their spare layers - it's just not easy to take off a long-sleeve compression top while one is running! 
Some hills don't look like much until you turn left...

Looking back to Start Point.  It seems so flat.
After what seemed like an age, but was only about four miles, we crossed over Prawle Point and headed gently Northwest.  The head wind became a cross wind, the sun shone strong, and the going was good-to-firm with occasional tricky rocky bits.  I was running strong, comfortable with my pace, and feeling generally on top of the world.  It's hard to explain why things all come together, and in the early stages of a marathon I typically expect them to start falling apart at some point.  This time, though, I had a nagging optimism that it would be OK as long as I didn't get in a hurry.
Looking back to Prawle Point
This final stretch of coastline before the inland trip back towards Beesands had some nice little rollers to keep things interesting.  Over the three miles, we climbed past the Saturday hikers on the odd sharp ascent and sped away down to find another little gully or hillock waiting.  By the time I'd reached nine miles, I was starting to reel in runners.  For once, my poor wee brain wasn't too frazzled, and I realized that these were mostly the slower Ultra runners and marathoners who had started at 8-8:15.  They were in for a very long day, but seemed cheery enough at the prospect.  It's amazing what the lack of wind and rain can do for one's mood!
Just a couple of small hills on the way to Mill Bay
The final bend towards Mill Bay was the highlight of the weekend.  By then, I was running confidently, the temperature was up to around 13C, and every time I looked up I was blown away by the views.  I decided that Sunday's recovery walk, weather permitting, would be here so Nic could enjoy it.

Kingsbridge Estuary and Mill Bay are just over the hill and around the bend...

Looking over to Salcombe

Even the seas were relaxed.

A final look back along the coast before heading inland.

Doh, if you take your eye off the trail, it throws another climb in as punishment!

I still can't get enough of these cliffs!
With all of the great views, and the occasional swearing at the camera phone switching to video mode as I went back to snapping on the move, it felt like no time at all before I was ready to head away from the sea and into the rolling hills.  By this time, I'd covered eleven of the most stunning miles I've ever experienced.

I hoped for continued strength into the properly hilly inland section.  Looking back over my recent marathons, I knew I'd started to crack far too early.  So, I decided to keep relaxed and save something for the dreaded beach and final hill.  I took advantage of our check point at 11 miles to stop for a few seconds to down some water and compliment the marshalls on the weather they'd organized for us before heading up onto the first stretch of road.  Some of the road was nearly as claggy as the trails, due to the vast quantities of mud from a rainy week and a lot of farm traffic.  One short section looked like someone had tried to take a street cleaner along it - and failed.  The remains of brushes and the metal rings that hold them onto something rotating littered the muddy ruts.
Heading away from the sea.

The last picture opportunity for a few miles.

As I neared the highest point on the course at half way, I remembered that the next couple of miles would be fairly flat, with a fair bit of road.  With the sun shining and the wind quartering from behind, I checked my pace, changed my mind, and decided to push a little harder until I returned to the mud and standing water.  On a different day, in different terrain, and not in the middle of a multi-marathon sequence, pushing a little harder would mean hitting a 7:15 pace.  In the context of this race, I was happy to move from trail-plod to anything starting with an 8!

I began to catch more of the early starters, as the course turned into some adventurous farm tracks.  The torrential rain of the previous few days had left a lot of standing water in the wheel ruts.  Where the raised centre was firm, we could run easily enough.  Where it got slushy, I had to choose between two of my basic rules of wet running: 1) avoid stepping into anything whose depth you can't judge, 2) tractor ruts usually bottom out at something firm.  I opted for door number two and shipped some very cold water - very soothing on the feet.

The farm tracks opened onto a fabulous downhill. At first glance, I exclaimed, "Wow!" to nobody in particular.  I briefly thought about taking a picture at the dramatic drop into a narrow valley.  But, I decided to avoid testing my balance and coordination as I stormed down the 1:4 grade.  Even though the grass was reasonably forgiving, my feet were pushing hard into the front of my shoes.  Halfway down, my toes were shouting obscenities and I expected to have to pick the nails out of my socks later.

With 18 of the 27+ miles finished, I was looking forward to six miles of short, steep hills and dreading the final slog along the shingle beach.  I assumed that Nic had finished her relaxing run along that same beach - she needed to do something to pass the time while I played - and sent her a text from the next short uphill hike to let her know how I was doing.  Her response was more than I could have hoped for:  the course didn't cross the seafront road onto the beach, but stayed on the firmer path.  For once, I was happy about the world of risk assessments and "health & safety" overload that probably kept us from dodging the traffic to get to the beach.

Knowing I didn't have two miles of slippery pebbles to navigate boosted my confidence.  I still expected to totally crack and lose half an hour to just being unable to move any faster.  But, I also knew that even blowing up at a 30 minute cost would have me finish in 5:45 - still 10 minutes below my expected finish time.  I kept to my strategy of fast plodding up the hills, free-flowing running down, and covered the next five miles of rollers in an hour. 
Fast starters were now paying dearly, but at least they had some nice views to ease the pain.

I had company from a couple of first-time marathon runners through this stage.  They were in good spirits, but weren't used to the idea that it's OK to walk up a hill.  As a result, they had beaten themselves up and were struggling to keep forward momentum.  I enjoyed having someone to talk to along the minor roads heading to the beach, and I'm sure they were happy to have the reassurance that walking up a steep hill is OK - especially if you've long since lost the strength to run it.

By the time we bottomed out at the wetland nature preserve, I was again on my own.  I passed the occasional runner as bodies began to lose the battle.  With only four miles left, and only one small hill to come, I was bemused to note that none of us was able to run with more than a hint of the freedom we had felt just a few hours before.  Tight hips, sore knees, tired feet - each runner I saw was afflicted by something that made 10-step stair cases feel like mountains.  My stride was now laughably short, but the sight of runners ahead helped me to keep going.  For the first race in what felt like a long time, I was passing in the final half rather than being passed.  In fact, looking back at the results, I had picked up nearly 30 places between miles 11 and 25.  Previously, I was only catching one or two.  So, I kept targetting the nearest runner as a way of moving forward.

At Torcross, one and a half miles from the finish, I still felt reasonably strong but very slow.  The beach-front cottages and pubs were crowded with onlookers, enjoying the sunshine and cheering the tired, crazy people covered in mud and sweat.  It was a huge boost.  The final climb over Torcross point provided a few more nice views, and my very slow hiking provided the time for some pictures.
Looking back to Slapton Sands from Torcross Point
The descent into Beesands left me with a flat half mile with the cheers of the crowd to push me along.  I could see Nic in the distance taking pictures, and tried my best to look energetic for the camera.
Just enough energy left for a smile and 2 thumbs up.
I'd had an amazing race, still didn't quite know how long I'd taken (having forgotten to start my watch until nearly 2 miles in), and was actively thinking about the beer at the Royal Castle.  I finally crossed the line in 5:15:50, my fastest CTS time yet, exhausted, exuberant, and buzzing with amazement at a day when everything came together.  As an added bonus, I finished with all toenails still intact!
What a race!

What a race?!
Days like that don't come along very often.  When the weather, the body, the mind, and the course are in sync, there really is no better feeling in running.  I may spend years chasing another day like it - but that's all part of the fun, isn't it?

Saturday, 5 February 2011

2011 Race Schedule

Now that it's February, I figured it was time to plan my fast Autumn marathon, so I didn't just have to select from whatever had places left.  Then, I could work back into the Summer and sort out my tune-ups and fit things in around the Summer's holidays.  As a result, I've selected the Abingdon Marathon for my next PB attempt.  It has the reputation of being pretty quick and the added bonus that it requires no air travel or overnight stay, so is fairly cheap.  Given the amount of time I'm spending away for the Spring races, I also think it might be nice to spare my neighbours yet another weekend of cat-sitting!  Happy Racing!