I had done the Endurancelife South Devon Coast Ultra back in 2015 and enjoyed it, so I decided that rather than running around potentially cold and miserable mountains for my February outing this year that I would return to the lovely scenery and better climate of South Devon once again. The Friday afternoon drive down wasn't too promising; I went through several deluges which were only adding to the dousing that the West Country had endured over the preceding two or three days. But after checking in at the Globe Inn at Frogmore near Kingsbridge and enjoying a good meal and a pint of the local, I had a final look at Saturday's forecast which showed uninterrupted sunshine through to mid afternoon, followed by a return to heavy rain showers. No problem, should be done and dusted by then. A good night's sleep and a (fairly) early start.
In 2015 it was possible to drive down through the narrow, sunken Devon lanes to the start point at Beesands, a few miles East of Start Point, but this year I guess the locals had held sway over the event organisers so cars were banned and we parked about 3 miles from the village for a shuttle bus down to the event base and registration. At the briefing at 8am the marshal in charge told us to be careful because "the course is extremely wet and slippery"; from a personal viewpoint a few hours later it was clear that this fellow had never enjoyed the aquatic delights of the Lakes or the Dales after a bit of rain. An inch or two of mud in places and the odd puddle really doesn't class as "wet" for most of us.
Anyway, we were off at around 8.30am and almost immediately onto the beautiful South West Coast Path. The course follows this westward for about 11 miles, past Start Point and Prawle Point lighthouses and around to the deep inlet at Salcombe. From here, after a short loop inland it goes back along the coast for a mile or two then strikes inland with more purpose, heading north over a series of ups and downs over fields, tracks and the odd bit of sunken lane to return to the coast at the north end of Slapton Sands. A flat couple of miles back south along the causeway between the sea and the inland lake leads to the village of Torcross, where a climb over a headland leads to the final mile back along the shore to the starting point at Beesands. Runners participating in the simultaneous "marathon" event will have done their shift by here, but Ultra suitors are treated to an extra "10k" loop back out to Start Point lighthouse then some more inland hills and vales back to the finish. In all it's billed as 34,3 miles and 4809 ft of ascent, though I remembered from 2015 that my Suunto, while agreeing pretty well with the distance, clocked up a few hundred feet of additional uphill - a free gift from Devon I suppose.
It was initially a chilly enough morning, 4 or 5 degrees I guess, but the sun sooned warmed us up to sweating and hats, gloves and layers came off as we followed the undulating and interesting but always easily runnable path westwards. In 2015 I had finished in comfortably under 7 hours by running a final average pace of 12 minute 16 second miles. My aim today was to try to run an even paced race but to see if I could maintain nearer to 12 minute miles throughout. All seemed to be going well to plan as I approached the first timing point at Salcombe, about 11 miles in, with an average of 11.50 showing on the watch.
Then in the final few strides of easy woodland path leading out to the road and the checkpoint, I somehow put a foot wrong and wrenched my knee. In a ski crash nearly twenty years ago now I ruptured the ACL in this knee and by the time the problem was diagnosed it was too late to fix it, so I'm left with a knee that has more potential movement in the joint than the remaining soft tissues can happily cope with. I've learned that with care this can be managed but I still occasionally get it wrong and load it suddenly in the wrong direction. Usually I get away with a sharp stab of pain, two or three limping strides and a quick return to normal but with the reminder to pay better attention to where I'm putting my feet. This time though it really made my eyes water for a few second as I hopped to a standstill.
Two or three runners around were concerned, but as the checkpoint was in sight I told them I would be OK. On the first attempt I couldn't put any weight on my right leg at all, but with a bit of patience and persistence I hobbled along to the checkpoint. Luckily there were plenty of other runners around, dibbing in, filling up with water and food and so on, so the checkpoint crew were too occupied to notice that I wasn't really functioning normally. I wasn't sure what was going to happen or whether the situation was recoverable, so I deliberately took my time filling up my water bottle and eating some biscuits and jelly babies. The track away from the checkpoint was slightly uphill and nearly everyone was setting off walking for a short way, eating what food they had picked up, so I followed them moving as normally as possible until I was clear. For the first two or three hundred yards I was convinced I was going to have to go back, any forward movement was just too painful, but then I managed to ease into an uneven but steady walk. Although everyone was passing me the track was still gently uphill so I didn't prompt too many questions. After 10 minutes or so I was still making progress, enough to consider what the action plan should be.
I couldn't walk the rest of the course, even if I wanted to. Although the time limit for the whole distance only required a speed of 3 and a bit miles an hour, the cut off at marathon distance demanded an average of over 4 miles an hour, and with the time I'd lost faffing about already that wasn't going to happen.
But I didn't know exactly what I'd done to my knee so I still had hopes that things might improve. Thinking back to a conversation I'd had with the knee surgeon a few years ago, he'd basically said that if there was no loss of movement, no swelling and no noise coming from the joint, exercise was unlikely to make things worse. I was still able to bend and straighten it, I couldn't see any swelling through my running tights and there was certainly no noise. It just hurt every time I put weight on it. I decided to take a couple of paracetamol and push on to see if I could improve things - the next checkpoint was only three or four miles away and I could duck out there if things didn't work out.
We had now reached the first longer climb as the course turned inland. I concentrated on walking as strongly as I could and was encouraged to find that I was actually starting to catch people up again. At the top it levelled out onto a soft farm track which stayed horizontal for a few hundred yards; I tried a tentative jog. It was neither pretty nor pleasant to execute but I settled into a shuffle that was at least better than walking pace. I found over the next mile or so that I could keep this up on the flat, or on gentle uphills. Downhills were painful, particularly the steeper ones down the odd tarmac lane, but as the painkillers kicked in a bit things got manageable and I started to take a bit of a perverse pleasure in making my hard-won miles.
I was into and out of the next checkpoint deliberately fast before I had a chance to change my mind, and from that point on I was pretty sure that barring any further mishaps I would make it to the finish. It was frustrating not to be able to cash in on the many long, gentle "money-for-jam" descents, but I was in a whole better place than I had been an hour or two so earlier. For a while I was catching up with a lady runner on the ups but she was getting away on the flats and downs; she turned out to be Sharon whose name I was aware of on Facebook, and we ran together and chatted for a mile or two. I was quicker through the next checkpoint though as I didn't need to refill water. I expected her to catch up but I didn't see her again.
All the little ups and downs along the inland section were each still several hundred feet of climb, so it was good to be on the final descent down to the northern end. from here there was a horizontal mile or so through some woods then we were back on the coast for the long straight run down the causeway southwards. I remembered that I had been able to hold a steady 10 minute mile pace down here two years earlier but today that meant too aggressive a stride so I was much slower. It was a strange feeling to be wanting the long flat section to be over so that I could have a bit of a mental relaxation going up hill again! But I was eventually up and over the headland with Beesands back in sight.
Since getting into my shuffling pace again I had been wondering whether I could finish inside 8 hours. The last finishers normally seemed to be somewhere near the 9 hour mark so at least 8 would be respectable. As I reached Beesands and set out on the final "10k" loop (actually 7 miles), it looked as though if I could keep my act together I might have a chance of 7 and a half. Another long-awaited landmark was coming up, in fifteen minutes I could have another couple of painkillers, so I set out on the southward cliff path again with a bit of vigour. We had had the best of the day though, it was getting colder again so another layer went on. I seemed to make good progress out to the Start Point lighthouse. On the slightly descending track onward from here there was no dancing from rock to rock as I had over six hours earlier, this time I was looking for soft spots to land on carefully between them. A climb back up from near sea level brought me to the final checkpoint; another one where there was no need to stop, just dib in, grab a handful of jelly babies and go, time for the end now.
But there were still two final dips down and re-ascents to manage - hard roads, slippery tracks and soggy lanes to the end. Then I was up the last hill and past the "one mile to go" sign. The final run in was down a gentle grass slope through two or three fields, and just at the top of this the weather forecast proved accurate again, a torrential shower, the first of the day, accompanied me to the finish.
I eventually shuffled over the line 7 hours and 26 minutes after setting out, 35 minutes longer than in 2015. I was in 62nd place out of 130 starters. After completing 23 of the 34 miles after my little knee event, I felt that it was a result.
There was a changing tent so I could strip off the sweaty and muddy stuff before heading for the bus, but the shower continued so persistently that my new dry clothes were pretty well soaked again by the time I got there. Sharon was on the bus, she must have tracked me all the way round the second half of the course to finish only a few minutes after me.
A couple of hours up the M5 I pulled into a service station for a meal. I got out of the car and found I could barely walk. It's surprising what a few paracetamol and a bit of adrenalin can achieve.
After a night's sleep I've discovered that I do have some swelling around the knee and can't bend it much beyond ninety degrees. But with a bit of strapping I manged a gentle walk with Jan around the city walls this afternoon. It will be a call to the physio first thing in the morning but I'm hopeful that I can get through this in a couple of weeks or so. We'll see.