To balance my trips up the M6 to Glasgow and beyond, last Saturday saw me travelling in the opposite direction down to Hunters Inn on the edge of Exmoor. It happened in a roundabout sort of way; I was looking for a short ultra to do in January and the Endurancelife Coastal Series Anglesey event seemed to fit the bill perfectly - 32 miles, nice scenery and a start location barely an hour's drive from home. Only problem was that it was cancelled because of drifting snow on the course. I can almost hear John Steele and Joe Faulkner snorting in disbelief, but the Endurancelife Coastal Series is a different style of event. Multiple trail courses run on the day (10k, half marathon, marathon and short ultra), no navigational or self-sufficiency skills needed so no requirement to substantiate your survival potential on entry. But nevertheless, as last weekend showed me, very enjoyable and well-organised days out. After the Anglesey cancellation, we were offered the chance to transfer our entry fee to any of the other events in the series; I chose Exmoor because it came at the right time and sounded good.
I drove down on a beautiful Friday evening and stayed at the Fox and Goose pub in Parracombe, about 4 miles from the start, a friendly place which saw me set up with a good curry, fine local ale and a comfy bed for the night. I set out on a much greyer Saturday morning with the promise of rain and gale force winds to come - this winter still isn't giving up without a fight - but on the plus side it was noticeably much warmer than of late.
For those unfamiliar to the area, it's worth spending a word or two on the lie of the land hereabouts. Most of Exmoor hangs around the 1000-1500ft contours, then at the North coast it simply plunges into the sea, either directly down cliffs or via steep and often wooded valleys ("combes"). Any habitation in the combes is approached by narrow, winding, and very steep little roads, and Hunters Inn is just such a place. The pre-race instructions informed us that there would be parking "about a mile from the start - a nice little warm-up"; they neglected to add that the parking field was several hundred feet higher than the start, which meant that you had to leave that little bit extra in the tank later in the day for the work to be done after the finish. But overall this landscape is simply stunning, mile for mile definitely the best scenery I've encountered on any run in the UK.
Anyway, down at the start at Hunters Inn, we had a longish pre-race briefing then at 8.30am we were off. "We" were all the ultra competitors plus a number of slower Marathon competitors who had elected to start early, on the basis that they would probably take more than 6 hours for the marathon, about 100 of us altogether I guess. Timing was by the Sportident "dibber" system and we were required to "dib" individually through the start gate - this seemed a slow way of going about things but it was clearly right as we were immediately on to three or four miles of singletrack trail and the dibbing spaced us out nicely. The trail climbed steeply from near sea level to around 750ft up the side of the combe, then out onto the front of the cliffs on a two foot wide shelf climbing steadily for a mile or so to the cliff top. A mile or two along fields by the cliff edge then a final pull up inland over open moor to the high point of the course on Holdstone Down at around 1200ft. It was pretty blowy here and a strengthening wind was forecast but at least the rain was holding off so far. From here, fast running down a steady descent over three miles at first over moor then on singletrack down a wooded combe, led us back to Hunters Inn. This first loop was the complete course of the "10k" (it was actually 7 miles) due to start later in the morning. The ultra and marathon then set out on a 20 mile loop in the opposite direction along the coast, after which we ultra participants would repeat the first loop for a total distance of 34 miles.
Inevitably, the second loop started with another long climb back to the clifftop, but throughout nearly all the course the ground underfoot was even and easy to run or walk on. You could spend time looking at the scenery without worrying that a trip would send you over the cliff. On this second loop the outward leg was back from the cliff edge, undulating through woods and open hillsides, then cutting down through a local beauty spot known as the Valley of the Rocks and into the top end of Lynton, the only town on the course. From Lynton, another climb and an exciting descent led to a checkpoint at 17 miles, the halfway point and time to refill the water bottles. I was experimenting with Salomon "soft" water bottles on this run and found them excellent; all the advantages of a bottle (easy accessibility and knowing how much you have left), but with no sloshing sound! From the checkpoint the course wound down another wooded combe (Watersmeet) then up the second biggest climb on the route to the top of Countisbury Hill, quite a long section of walking for everyone I saw around here. But the reward was another great descent, now back on the cliff path, all the way down to the seaside village of Lynmouth. Another climb then brilliant cliff scenery along an undulating route all the way back to Hunters Inn. We had been lucky with the weather, although we had seen rain clouds all around since not long after the start, the actual rain held off until I was almost on the last descent back to Hunters Inn.
All that was left was to repeat the initial 7 mile loop and its big climb, a bit bleaker in the rain but even then we were lucky as the promised gale force winds hadn't materialised. The only disadvantage was that all of the races had now used this loop, upwards of 500 runners, and churned up the downhill back to the finish somewhat so you just had to go with the flow and hope for the best in many places.
This was another "take it easy" event for me but I made it back to the finish in 6:35:29 for the 34 miles and around 6500ft of ascent. I was well pleased to get 18th place out of just under 60 starters and the first Vet 60 home, especially as only 4 runners got inside 6 hours, although I suspect this probably reflected the quality of the field rather than anything special on my part. All that was left was to drink the tea at the finish, slop wetly back up the hill to the car, and drive the 260 miles home. Burger and coffee on the motorway helped, but what really kept me going was the thought of crisps and beer with the family back home at our local, which I finally staggered into at around 9pm after a really great day out.
The Edurancelife Coastal Series seems to have a lot going for it for a well-organised, non-stressful experience in nice surroundings. I may well do some more of them.