|On the SW Coast Path|
Not even the almost endless traffic hold-ups on the Friday evening M5 could spoil the stunning sunset as I travelled down to Devon under a cloudless sky. I made it to the pub near Kingsbridge just in time to catch the Wales-England match on the big screen in the bar - the weekend was looking good already.
The South Devon Ultra was the next event in the Endurancelife coastal series, following the Anglesey race which I had run three weeks earlier. 260 plus miles was maybe a long way to go for a 35 mile run, but I had really enjoyed the North Devon scenery on the Exmoor event two years ago and was hoping for some more on the south side of the county. I wasn't disappointed.
Fortunately I had already discovered on Friday evening that the direct road from Kingsbridge to the event base at Beesands, near Torpoint was closed. A bit of a shrug at this from the locals, I think it's been closed before. They were more concerned that the recent high seas caused by the fierce Easterly winds had removed a lot of shingle from Torpoint beach, shingle that had been shipped in to protect the sea wall. This area of coast has had a bit of a battering over the last year or two. So I started Saturday with a careful drive through the dark, frosty and very narrow lanes to get to the 7am check in. The forecast promised us a dry day, 2 degrees rising to about 6 under a cloudy sky, with a brisk East wind. They were right about everything except the clouds which didn't arrive until about 2pm, so just about as good as it gets for winter running.
All the formalities done, a couple of cups of coffee in the registration tent, a longish briefing then 100 of us hit the trail at 8.30am.
The course started by following the South West Coast Path for ten miles or so, past Start Point and Prawle Point then round into the Salcombe estuary. All of this territory was brilliant, a varied, undulating but not difficult track, great views and full sunshine with the wind at our backs. The event was billed as 35 miles with just under 5000ft of climbing - both figures more than in the Anglesey race but slightly less technical underfoot. I had decided it was time to try and up my game a notch by keeping an average 12 min/mile pace going for as long as I could, and so far it felt comfortable. There seemed to be a checkpoint or a water station every 5 miles or so, so I really didn't need to carry the litre I had brought and just kept refilling one bottle once I had used the initial amount.
After Salcombe the course turned North East and inland through a wooded section, then apart from a brief revisit to the coast for a mile or two, stayed inland for the next 15 miles, following the famous Devon tracks and lanes and their equally well known hills. The coast section had been nicely undulating, but here inland was where the majority of height gain was made. We had the wind in our faces now, but apart from the exposed sections on the crests of the hills it wasn't too troublesome. Eventually the course wound its way back down to the sea, reaching it at the Northern end of Slapton Sands.
Here, in complete contrast to the rest of the race, we had a completely flat couple of miles along the causeway separating the inland lake from the sea. One or two of the hills had made a mess of my 12 minute average, but a solid run along the flat here brought it back to 11.50 by the time we reached Torpoint. This area was the scene of a wartime disaster when American troops were attacked by German gunboats during training for D-Day, and we ran past a WWII tank on the approach to Torpoint. It was then a quick up and over round the next bit of cliff back to the event start in Beesands. For competitors in the "marathon" distance (at this event 28 miles) who started 30 minutes after us, and the more competent of whom had been passing us for the past three hours or so, this was the finish; but, following the pattern of all the "Coastal Series" events, the ultra then goes on to repeat the "10k" (ie 7 miles) course.
Part of this, out to Start Point lighthouse, we already knew, but then we turned back inland earlier this time to go up to the highest point on the course, then one final down-up-down and back to the finish. By this time I was walking most of the uphill but still going fairly well on the flats and downhills, and chugged into the finish in five minutes under the seven hours, in 46th place out of the 100 starters. This was 40 minutes faster than my time in Anglesey three weeks ago, so I think I'll take that as a bit of real progress. Nice to be back.