Saturday, 21 April 2012

Endurancelife Exmoor Ultra - brutal from start to finish

You may have gathered from my past postings that I enjoy the challenging courses provided by Endurancelife.  They offer fantastic scenery, plenty of miles (sometimes even a few extra "value" miles), and geological/geographical variety.  The Exmoor race rounds the series off nicely, with narrow cliff paths, steep hills, and an abundance of toe-catching, ankle-turning rocky paths.  It's rated as the toughest of the Coastal Trail Series courses.  So, naturally, I chose to put myself to the test and race the ultra.

The key part of this challenge really was not the course, or my fitness to run it, but the plan to "race".  I make a habit of running to a conservative plan for this kind of event, with the option of racing during the closing stages if I'm feeling good.  It's a good plan, and generally results in thorough enjoyment of the run.  The plan doesn't, though, give me too much feedback about what I can actually do.  So, being inherently curious, I figured that my third ever run over 50K was an ideal time to find some of my limits.  Being inherently stupid, I forgot just how tough the Exmoor course is.  After all, I remembered having had an awesome race in 2011, so the course couldn't be that bad...

The setting at The Hunters Inn is picture-postcard stuff, so we decided after the 2011 race that we would come back and stay at the Inn for this year's race.  Logistically, it was great.  Roll out of bed, have breakfast, register, have breakfast again, go to the start, run.  What could be better?  We had the benefit of our own toilet facilities (not to be undervalued on race mornings!), didn't have to wait around in the cold, got extra sleep, and were only a short walk from the shower and clean clothes before heading to the hotel bar at the end.  Strangely, though, it really broke the pre-race routine and meant that I hadn't had much of a warm-up before the race started.

Why warm up before an ultra?  The general advice is to start slow and get slower.  That's all well and good, except that at 0.5 miles, we start a half mile, 500 foot climb that runs between 15% and 30% gradient.  Without much warm-up, the calves were burning from the outset.

Part One of the 4-mile opening climb (Nic's pic from the next day)

At the start, I met up again with my friend Rueben.  He was doing his first long race for a while where he wasn't shepherding someone, so decided to stick with me for a while since we often run the first half in similar times.  It was nice to have someone to chat with, although we were moving at an effort level that didn't invite long, philosophical discussions.  We burned our way up the first hills (all 3.7 miles) before having the chance to scream back down to the start.

Hiking up the hill as fast as it will let us.

The highest point of the race - Holdstone Hill

Both Rueben and I enjoy a fast descent, and the drop from Holdstone Hill to the Hunters Inn is fast, occasionally quite tricky, and pretty unforgiving.  I managed to lose my footing over some roots and narrowly avoided causing a pile-up when I went down.  Rueben was more artistic and decorated the front of his white t-shirt with the local dirt when a rock failed to give way to his big toe.  Such minor incidents aside, we had a ball on that three mile section.  I also knew that the next time I would do that little loop, I would be moving much slower both up and down.

From the start, the course took us back out of the valley onto the cliffs heading towards Lynton.  The climb was pretty sociable, with small groups forming and reshaping as we moved along the coast.  I've usually run these events essentially on my own, but found that the pace I was aiming for (~6:15-6:30 finish) put me into a part of the field that I would normally never see by being more conservative.  At around 12 miles, Rueben and I caught up with the Shannon brothers to form a little international pack (1 American, 1 Kiwi, and 2 Irish).  We held a good, steady effort level until we passed through the worst of the hills at 19 miles.  The racing was good fun.  With people around to share out the pacing, gate opening/closing, and good camaraderie, I felt strong as we climbed up to the top of another of these 20% beasts to Countisbury.  From  there, I remembered there was some hard work to do, but nothing too unpleasant until the second round of the initial 10K.

It turns out that marathons really are a lot like giving birth (I've often heard it said, but have no experience upon which to judge).  The climb out of Lynmouth is quite steep, and more than just a little painful at pace.  I had totally forgotten about it from the previous year.  Looking back at the 2011 race report, I'd even forgotten about it by the time I had finished.  The hill doesn't show up as much on the chart - just another 500ft climb over a bit more than half a mile.  It happens, though, to come after the hill up to Countisbury and the long descent along vertiginous goat tracks where I kept having to remind myself to breathe while I tried to both run quickly and keep to the 10-inch wide path.  The result is that this little hill hits you when you're feeling fast but have in no way recovered from the battering you've just received over the previous few miles.  

By the time we got to the top at 21 miles, I was feeling pretty rough.  I also felt like a short comfort break was in order.  I chose to stick to our little foreign crew for as long as I could, hoping that I'd get some energy back within a mile or so.  By mile 23, though, I had to wave them farewell.  My guts were grumbling, my bladder was screaming (that, at least, was easily solved), and I was teetering on the brink of a bonk.  I was still in my "perfect-day" target zone, so eased back and tried to take on more calories and water and to just keep going for the next few miles.  The trick to trail racing, compared to road racing, is that a few miles can take nearly an hour when you're feeling below par.  So, I just kept pushing gels and the like in the hope that I'd feel less bad in 30-40 minutes.

The Exmoor ultra course has one very nice attribute, compared with other Endurancelife ultras - you don't actually pass the finish line before heading on the "ultra" part of the course.  About a mile before the finish, the ultra course drops onto a different path to get back to the bottom of Holdstone Hill.  Still feeling pretty rubbish, I was happy not to have to actively decide not to call it a day.  About half a mile up the hill, though, I had to stop for a bout of retching at the bushes.  Oddly, I found this unpleasant break to be quite uplifting.  For one, I didn't bring anything up - so, I figured that adding one last gel would work.  Even better, I realized that my abs still had a lot of strength left in them!  Most importantly, though, whatever unsettled feeling I had just went away.  Feeling a bit wrung out, I looked down the hill to the finish, told myself to stop being such a wimp, and carried on up the path.

I won't pretend that the next couple of miles up to the top of the hill were easy.  They weren't.  I was starting to get passed by guys I hadn't seen for over 10 miles, which really pissed me off.  But, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, running where I could and walking the rest.  I picked up a bit of speed on the final 5K descent, but nothing like what I had managed at the start.   My feet couldn't move fast enough to handle the terrain safely, so I was plodding (relative to the first lap, anyway) down the trail to the finish, where I crossed the line looking pretty wiped out, but happy (it's always great to cross the finish line).

Finishing at last!

Had I remembered the extra climb, I might have taken a slightly more conservative approach from 17 to 19 miles, but otherwise I would probably have approached the race with the same goal of finding out what I am actually capable of.  I also learned that I probably should ditch my waist pack in favour of a backpack for anything over 4 hours to keep from adding extra pressure to my digestive system and that I prefer gels over solids if I'm going to keep the pedal down.  In the end, I ran the marathon distance about 15 minutes faster than 2011, and survived the extra 6.5 miles in around 90 minutes - not too dissimilar from last month's trip to Sussex.  I can live with that for the first time I've "raced" an ultra.


  1. Don't you think that it's a little dangerous to put a time limit and competition on something like climibing? Surely it must be hard to think clearly on making the next grapple when it comes to the fact that you are racing against other people. Probably just my own personal reflection in regards to how i'd act in a high pressure situation like that. Keep up the good work!

    1. Sorry to cause confusion. I use "climbing" in the same sense as cyclists - going up a steep hill, rather than scaling a wall. That said, there are times and hills where, when running, it does feel like I've got a wall to climb rather than a trail to follow.