Friday 22 April 2011

Endurancelife CTS Exmoor Marathon

They said it would be hard.  All of the reviews talked about the hills.  All of the people I'd met who'd run it before cursed the big hill at the start.  Nothing could have prepared me for a race this tough - except for the six races that came before.

I spent quite a few hours thinking about how this would go.

Since the return from Sussex, I'd spent most of my time feeling pretty good about Exmoor, unless I happened to be looking at the course profile.  This race would carry on to the West of last year's Seaview 17 course.  I know the area a little already, and know it is hilly and has very changeable weather.  So, I packed one of everything, added some extra food to the pack in case it turned into a long, slow hike, and headed for Devon.

Race prep had gone pretty well, except for the week off before-hand to let some muscle strains ease off.  A very tight hamstring was almost certainly the result of trying out some new shoes the week after Sussex.  The shoes feel fast, secure, and generally wonderful.  Unfortunately, I felt so great that I probably over-egged the run and then compounded the niggles by racing at Peopleton the following weekend.  But, with 5 days' recovery, loads of carbs in the days before, and some Kinesio taping from Sara, I was ready to go.  Nic was taking this race off, so was able to enjoy a walk along some of the course with her camera.  The best pics are generally hers.

Happy and cool at the start.

The race starts in the Heddon Valley. After a nice half-mile warm-up by the stream, the course goes UP.
  Steep climbing, occasional stairs, and lots of panting make up the first mile of climbing.  I thought I was taking it easy, but the air was so heavy that sweat just started to drip down my face.  So, I kept not hurrying along and enjoyed the camaraderie of the back of the pack.

That's the first climb - but we don't take the direct route, we take 3 miles to get there...

Back in the pack, we're in no hurry.

After what felt like hours, but was only about 10 minutes, the course levelled off a little into gentle undulations along the coastal face of the hills.  The views down to the sea were nice, but the path was narrow enough that it wasn't really worth the risk to take them in.

Don't look down!

On those occasions when I did look around, I noticed that the gorse bushes were in fine colour.  I like gorse in flower, in part because it reminds me of running in Edinburgh in the '90s when I was a student.  So, it was a pleasant diversion to see such vibrant yellow on a grey morning.

Eventually, we topped out on Holdstone Down, passing through the low cloud that hovered for the first 10 miles or so.  At 4.2 miles, that was the last time I saw the pack.  From the top of the hill, the course took an enjoyable three-mile descent back to the stream.  Some of the downhill was fast and technical, some was just free-flowing and comfortable.  Either way, by the time I headed up the other side of the valley, the pack had turned into a long, broken line.

The low cloud hugging the hilltops early in the day.

For the next few miles, the trails and roads passed comfortably.  The clouds stayed low, keeping things cool and muggy, while I experienced something very new to my trail running.  I kept finding that I was able to run up nearly all of the hills!  I wasn't running quickly, for sure, but it was much faster than walking.  By not having to stop to hike too often, the miles just seemed to slip away.

Lee Abbey

Before I knew it, I was nearing the half way point around Lee Abbey.  Lee Bay and the renovated Abbey complex nestle into a plush green landscape.  I enjoyed trying to take pictures as I ran along a good path.  The views were quite pleasant until I rounded a corner and could see what some trees had been obscuring - a slight turn to the right.

After I stopped admiring the Abbey and its grounds, I realized we were about to head UP!

So much for the sensation of covering the hills at a reasonable pace!  I put my head down, my hands above my knees, and used just about every muscle to push my way up the path.

Those two specs at the top are runners.

Now Lee Abbey and Lee Bay look very picturesque, indeed!

During the climb, I occasionally had the chance to hold up the camera to take in the increasingly impressive view.  After all, I wasn't moving quickly enough to worry about falling over.  Lynton's famous goats provided some amusement.  They looked on, unimpressed, while I looked back envious of their climbing skills.

Goats sunning on the rocks

The big black goat decided to eat a tree while I hiked past.

Finally, at the top of The Valley of Rocks, we turned down the hill towards Lynton.  The sun finally dispersed the clouds.  Once again, the terrain changed from steep to manageable.

The mist and low cloud burned off at about half way.

Gorse in full bloom looks great and smells of coconut tanning lotion.

The course took us down the back lanes of Lynton, which are lined with quaint country cottages.  It seemed like quite a nice town, if rather steeply set - I only saw flashes of colour on the way down.  From Lynton, we followed the Two Moors Way towards the third checkpoint at 17 miles.  I started to wonder how much water I had left in my pack.  The plan was to carry a bit less than usual and refill at 17 miles, because the warm weather would have required a rather heavy 2 litres.

The checkpoint came after a nice long descent, and I arrived feeling good and still unsure about how much water I had left.  As I punched in, I realized that quite a few other runners must have had the same plan.  There was a small wait to refill water bladders, and the queue included a couple of people I normally finish near.  I quickly weighed up my options, realized that I was running comparatively faster than in any other race of the series, downed a cup of water, and shot off down the trail.  I figured that the next checkpoint was 7 miles away, and I could, at need, run the rest of the route without more water, so I would refill at 24 and try to gain my best finish placing on what is rated as the most difficult course.  A bit mad, I know, but this revised plan gave me a boost and, for the first time all series, I treated the remaining course as a race.

Oh, yeah, Countisbury is on a really steep and nasty hill!

Then came Countisbury Hill.  I'd managed to forget about this blight on the course map!  In truth, the climb up to Countisbury is visually impressive.  When you're in the mood to race, though, it's a real killer.  For the final time on the day, I stomped up a hill with a forward lean to avoid falling backwards.  The hill is only 3/4 of a mile long, but is unpleasantly steep.  The climb took me straight back to the painful memories of the climb out of Portlock in the Seaview 17.

Half-way up!

The Blue Bull Inn - now I've joined up to July's course.
Nearing the top of the hill, we briefly joined the road and staggered past the Blue Bull.  This time, unlike last year, I could at least see the pub from the other side of the street.  It would have been a fabulous day to sit out with a pint, but there were still nine miles of racing ahead.  So, I trudged on until we reached the top and then worked back up to a run.  It wasn't long before the 1.5 mile descent to the course's low point at Lynmouth.

What goes up goes quickly down!

The descent to Lynmouth took in some spectacular views as well as some very narrow and technical paths.  Having decided to aim for a good placing, I kept my eyes on the trail and tried to maintain a good pace.  The mind was willing, and the legs didn't seem to mind too much, but the water began to run out.  Alas, it happened about 20 minutes earlier than I expected - the result of the long, hot climb up to Countisbury.

Full sun makes for some great views

As usual at 21-22 miles, I began to struggle.  In comparison to some other events, like Pembrokeshire, this was more of a curb than a wall.  I knew that, if I could get to the final check point with any energy left, I would be able to keep it together until the finish.  Luckily, I managed to sync in with one of the early starters, and we egged each other on up the hills and chased each other down them.  At the check point, I was able to quickly refill my bladder - no queues this time - and carry on into the final miles.

I was so focused I didn't even see the waterfall - luckily Nic was paying more attention!

Because I'd been getting regularly disoriented in the previous races, I carried a picture of the course profile to remind myself of the final miles.  I confirmed that I only had a couple of small climbs left before the long downhill finish.  So, I pushed as hard as I could up the hills (still pretty slow by this point), knowing it was nearly over.

Nic's favourite view of the day.

A final look around before dropping to the finish.

The long downhill was a joy, with a few early starters kindly moving aside as I ran as fast as the trails and my legs would allow.  It opened onto a nice wide trail for the final half mile, with a small stinger of a hill just a few hundred yards from the line.  That little hill kicked me back into a fast hike for a few yards, until I gathered enough energy to run full pelt to its mini-peak and down into the finish. 

A big smile and fast finish to end the 7x Challenge!

The rush of a final "sprint" felt great, but once I crossed the line I staggered through the de-registration tent and sprawled out on a grassy bank.  I finished the race, and the 7x Challenge, with a flourish, and felt every one of the 192 race miles in my legs.  The Exmoor event is rated as the toughest in the series, and I agree that it was a very difficult course.  But, with the training and experience for the previous six races behind me, I ran my fourth-fastest pace of the seven.

A few medals to add to the collection!

The Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series has a final.  To qualify, one has to either complete the 7x Challenge, finish one of the races in the top 20%, or get a lucky lottery place based on completing one of the races.  When I entered this year, I had a pipe dream (or maybe wine-induced hallucination) that I might be able to qualify in all 3 ways.  I was pretty sure I could survive all seven races, and assumed that seven entries into the lottery would give me a good chance, but that qualifying by speed would require a lot of people to fail to show up.  In the end, that final sprint finish gave me the placing I needed by less than a minute.  So, that little pipe dream has come true.

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