Monday 25 March 2013

The Adventure Hub Exmoor Ultra

What can be better than running along the coastal trail from Minehead to Lynmouth?  Why surely only turning around and running back again?  That's the theory, anyway. This race has been on my radar for a few months, but the March schedule was a bit busy, so it was only loosely penciled onto the race diary.  During February, the weekend came free, so I entered together with my friend Mitch and started to promptly panic that my Winter ultra training was fairly pants.  I had a duff toe, a ropey hamstring (especially following the Threshold 10K), and not nearly enough miles in the legs.  Compared to 2012, I was woefully ill-prepared for this race.  With such great background, I did the only sensible thing and had a bit of a rest before the race to give my body a chance to sort itself out.

The day started early, with the alarm going off at 3:30.  I woke to the sound of the test match commentary I'd been listening to while trying to get my legs to stop twitching so I could get to sleep.  Why, oh why, does my body want to start running the night before the race?  I made up my tortilla-based menu for the day - breakfast of scrambled eggs in a tortilla, pre-race snack of peanut butter and banana in a tortilla, mid-race snacks of hummus in tortillas.  If there'd been more leftover tortillas from dinner a few nights earlier, I'm sure I'd have found a use for them.  Aside from being light on the stomach, they're a great way to carry a nice filling without taking up much space.

Mitch picked me up at 4:30 and we talked our way through the 2 1/2 hour drive down to Minehead, arriving in plenty of time to register, eat, etc. Thankfully, we don't need our jaws much in an ultra, because I expect they would have been a bit tired by the time we arrived.

The forecast was for fog, followed by thunderstorms, followed by rain, and I'm pretty sure I saw a plague of locusts tacked on as well.  The race started at 8 with a few drops of drizzle, which quickly gave way to glorious sunshine.  The first 4.5 miles are basically uphill out of Minehead, so I had ample opportunity to take off my jacket during one of the hiking sections.  It was glorious to feel the sun on my skin, and I tried to run as much as I could with the goal of getting as far as possible before the weather turned.  I enjoyed a few miles of chatting with Ted, a fellow American enjoying the UK life and ultra scene.  I always seem to find a bit of an international collection at events in the south, and this was no different.  American, French, and Irish voices made for an eclectic mix. The stop at the first check point was brief, enough time to drink a cup of water and give my number.  I was running self-sufficient, other than water, in part to avoid losing time in the friendly comforts of the check points.

By the time we dropped down the rather steep Bossington Hill and made our way to the pebbly beach at Porlock, it was sunny, warm, and beautiful.  I took a few pictures on the run to prove that we'd had some sun.

Perfect dog-walking weather

The Sunken Forest as the tide headed out
Leaving Porlock Weir, the route climbs for another few miles before flattening out and then presenting another big downhill just after the second check point.  At this stage, I'd realized the basic pattern: 5mi up, 5mi down/flat, repeat.  So, I did my best along the rough single track over the next few miles to make good use of the terrain.  I knew there was at least one more big hill before the long downhill to the turnaround point, and wanted to get there as quickly as I could sensibly manage.

In truth, I was struggling to run with any cohesion.  My legs were getting close to the furthest they had run in a while, and I didn't feel I had full control over where they were going.  I'm also not that keen on steep cliffs combined with wet rock (strange, for a trail runner, really).  The combination meant I felt the need to take a bit of extra care.  As a result, I wasted a fair bit of time gingerly picking my way along track that I would normally jog along without too much concern. On the plus side, I'd been able to eat regularly and felt quite happy with how things were going.  After all, there'd only been a few small showers and I was almost to my favourite downhill section of the Endurancelife CTS Exmoor Ultra, where I would surely be able to have a good run into the halfway point.

Of course, at this point, the weather turned and I had the chance to enjoy a heavy shower followed by a long hike up the final hill with a sleet shower blowing into my face.  Thank goodness for a good waterproof jacket.  As I slogged it up the hill, eating my final hummus wrap of the day and looking at the herd of Exmoor ponies, I wished I had reached this point before the storm.  It would have been nice to take a picture of the young foal with its dam, and I expect the views would have been quite pleasant.  Instead, the camera stayed in the dry pouch and I just kept trudging up the hill.

At last, I prepared to run down the final, long hill to the turnaround.  I had approximately 2km of steady track to enjoy.  Or, after all of the overnight rain, 2km of slippery single track to pick my way along.  The front runners were flying past at an amazing rate on their return journey, which meant lots of "keep going" and "well done" as we wished each other well on our respective challenges.  Those at the front had a race on, with the front few fairly close together.

I reached the turnaround in 4:23, expecting to slow down by around an hour on the way back.  The sun had come back out, so I could take off my sodden gloves and prep my bag for the return journey.  More TORQ bars and gels came out of the main pocket and went into the convenient front pouches and I pulled out some dry gloves and buffs and headed back to Minehead.  On the way out, I got a hug from Sharon Walton, who had been slowly reeling me in for a while.  Sharon ran the Naunton 19, and it's not always possible to have as good a chat with runners as I'd like when on the other side of the fence.  But, when we met before the race it was like meeting an old friend.  She and her husband Tim were very encouraging.  Sharon and I passed each other regularly on the way back.  It would have been great to run together, but I couldn't stay with her on the run, while making up lost ground on the uphill hikes.

Somehow, the way back seemed much harder than the way out.  The reality of it, though, is that the first 10 miles is actually the most runnable section, so the middle 20 are a real struggle.  I knew, once I got to the penultimate check point, that I would be able to get in somewhere near 10 hours if I just kept running.  Easier said than done, but I kept my check point visits short and kept going.  Yes, there was more sleet, and some rather festive snow for a mile or two, but that wasn't such a big deal.  It was, after all, better than heavy rain.

My biggest concern as I headed down to Porlock was strangely my hands.  The windproof/waterproof gloves weren't as waterproof as they needed to be, and I lost feeling in a few fingers.  Once the snow stopped, I wrung the gloves out and put them in a pocket, using spare buffs as make-shift mittens until my fingers returned to normal.  Once again, the sun came out to help take the chill off and the 10km shuffle home was on in earnest.

A nice coastal rainbow (if you look closely) as the snow stopped

At the top of Bossington Hill, I knew it was a clean run to the end and did my best to carry on at as fast a jog as I could manage.  The mist began to roll in and I tried to up the pace a bit to at least finish before sunset - I didn't want to have to dig the headtorch out of my bag.  I finally reached the end at 10:06, the longest I've ever raced for both in time (by nearly 3 hours) and distance (by nearly 2 miles).  My quads were shot, my achilles were ready to disown me, and I was pretty happy about the whole experience.  I'd wanted to go faster, but I couldn't, so that's just the way it goes.  The race was good, I had no real problems, I never got lost - in other words, it was a success.

Since the race, I have been double-checking that next month's Highland Fling isn't due to be this hard (it's not), because frankly, I think another 11 miles like that would have turned a good day into a world of hurt.

Garmin's interpretation of the Exmoor Ultra

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