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Devon Coast to Coast Ultra Race report

Race report from Martin Webb ...

Warning ⚠️ this is a long race report, just like the race itself.

Devon Coast to Coast Ultra Race report.

When a race has been in the diary for almost a year there is a great level of anticipation when it finally comes around, the planning, training, kit tests and emotional investment to name but a few. As myself, Adrian Edwards and Peter Hall set off on the Falcon bus on Friday afternoon there was a palpable sense of what was to come, we all knew that running further than any of us had run before would be tough but that would only be half the story.
The Race is run by Climb South West, relative new comers to the market of ultra-running, but they are professional and invest well to put on a good event, not least of all running great social media streams of the events and live tracking, all of which help those following on from home the chance to experience a little of it first-hand. Peter had raced one of their events last year as they were starting out and like all events they are still learning but appear to have improved from last year.

We jumped a taxi once we arrived in Plymouth and headed over to Wembury, our home for the evening in a local B&B. This was very comfortable and our host could not have been more accommodating, from being genuinely interested in what we were getting up to, through to getting up and 5.30am to make sure we could have a good cooked breakfast at 6.30am. Dinner was at the local pub the Oddwheel, the food was excellent and the beer was even better. Conversation was directed around running mostly but there was an underlaying current of nervousness about the race the following day, we headed back to the B&B and an early night.

Registration for the race took place down in the beach car park, we arrived at 7.30am and it was busy, the weather was poor but not so bad that it impeded us, mandatory kit check was carried out but they appeared only interested in seeing a couple of items from the list including the emergency bivvy bags. We were told that there would be more kit checks through the race at check Points (CP) if these did happen we didn’t experience them. I think it’s fair to say that you should take responsibility for your own kit including mandatory items, however it would become clear later in the race just because you have the kit you should also know how to use it.

We started on the beach, you can’t after all have a coast to coast race without starting and finishing on a beach right. The plan was to start slow and get slower, and boy did we achieve that. Peter thought it would be approx. 90% walking and 10% running. Now this is a strange one to me, because after a few years I do consider myself to be a runner (albeit no Mo Farah) and this was an ultra-marathon so we should be aiming to try and run it right? otherwise it would be just be an Ultra Walk? Little did I know!

Heading out of Wembury, up though the local paths and trails was relatively easy going but there was plenty of mud to be had and the rain was coming down harder now than earlier. The route at this point was made up of some open fields, minor tracks behind villages and the River Yealm. This part of the south Hams is very pretty and little explored. Yealmpton was the first mini CP with jelly babies and water, we topped up bottles and were on our way quickly. Pace was around 4 miles an hour, which for the distance we had planned was spot on. During this section, we formed a lovely group of about 8 runners as we traversed the gently hills. Adrian could demonstrate that should he ever choose a career change that farming might be in his blood as he rescued a newly born lamb trapped behind a gate to a very relieved Ewe. Needless to say, Adrian looked like a hero to the group, I looked like the guy who held the gate 1-0 to Adrian.

The next CP was in the centre of Ivybridge and the start of the Dartmoor crossing. Again, more water and snack available but myself and Adrian opted for a Pasty at the local shop, which we devoured as we started up the first of our major climbs. This is a mere 1000ft climb along a 10K track that horseshoes around the southern edge of the Moor. The views from here are spectacular, with views down into Plymouth and the natural harbour. This gave us the opportunity to chat to other runners for the first time, some local some from further afield, Peter and Anna to name but two who are both members of the 100-marathon club.

The route here was saturated from the recent heavy rain and we were consistently having to go off the track into the longer grass, this saps your energy and slows you down, but when the water is knee deep there’s little choice. The route from the top of the track into Holne was across open moor which had been marked for us with small flags, and I’m so pleased they did this as the moor is an inhospitable environment at the best of times and when you are trying to add navigation into the mix too it would take more energy. We finally dropped down from the moor and into the back of Scoriton and made our way to Holne on back roads and lanes and into CP1 at 3.30 ish.

Hot soup and cake was on offer and we were well tended to, this also gave us the opportunity to check for messages from home and social media. Whilst it’s no one’s primary concern it’s always good to receive messages of good will when you are cut off from home life. We discussed a small detour that we needed on the way out with the CP staff and we were on our way shortly before 4pm. It had been our aim to be off Dartmoor before nightfall, this was optimistic and we knew that we would have to tackle the last few miles in the dark.

Much of the next few miles of the route were semi familiar to anybody who has run the Dartmoor Discovery as we used moor and track to pick over the course. This area is some of the most beautiful parts of the moor, and I must say it was a privilege to be out enjoying it. The second big climb of the moor lay ahead of us as we moved up past Widecombe-in-the-moor. The temperature here started to drop, especially in the exposed areas and as we climbed beyond 1200ft Peter needed a quick stop for and extra layer, no more than a mile later Myself and Adrian were doing the same thing. At the top of the ridge the film crew were in place and when we got home I was pleased to see that we had made the edit. We’d see them many times out on course during the day and I must say it made you feel part of something special, I’ve always watched the films from the Spine etc to get a flavour of the event and share some of the experience, so it was good to feel that our race was doing the same for others.

Dropping down from the highest point on the course and into the mini CP near the Warren House Inn and the Temp began to dip, headtorches on and during the short period our body temps began to fall, it takes you longer than you think to build that lost temperature back up when you are moving slowly in wet and heavy ground so we were keen to get back on the move. Again, the organisers had flagged the course across this part of the moor which made navigating that much easier as we headed for Chagford from the Fernworthy reservoir. I think it was about this time as we headed off the moor that we all began to lose our sense of humour about the mud and heavy ground, picking our way down hill in ankle and knee-deep mud and running water was starting to take its toll. After about 3 miles of decent we turned off the open moor and finally onto something more solid. The final mini CP at the back of Chagford where we changed batteries on Adrian’s head torch and we had the final push off the moor to the Hittisleigh halfway CP. This route takes you around castle Drogo, which I’m sure in the light would be spectacular, for us it was just more hard slog in the rain, but the moon was starting to poke out from behind the clouds and this cast a gorgeous blue hew over the scenery.

As we climbed and switch back route up along some high ground we could see the red lights of the group in front that had dropped us on the big climb above Widecombe, this was reassuring as we felt at this point that the slow speed was sending us backwards, but it was doing the same to everyone. Picking our way through the fields and mud we climbed up to Hittisleigh and it was a most welcome site.
Drop bags at the ready and we could carry out some running repairs and get messages out to love ones. For me it was to assess the state of my feet, getting clean dry socks on and some running repairs on a blister that was forming on my left heel. Food here was veg chilli and Adrian surprised myself and Peter with a Cadbury’s Crème Egg, never had they tasted so good. Fully warmed up and ready to go we left the CP at approx. 2.30am and the next 2 miles were bliss, all on road, the moon was out, the conversation flowed and the speed picked up and we even managed to run for what felt like the first time in forever. This didn’t last long as we were soon heading down hill and across the trails and fields of Mid-Devon.

This section nearly broke our will, the terrain was so heavy going that just getting from one side of a field to the other would take 10-15 mins. Between the recent heavy rain, runners going through ahead of us and farmers recently ploughed fields ready for spring crops they resembled something more akin to the Somme than a running surface. This simply didn’t stop, mile after mile, turn after turn it became relentless, couple this with increasing body, foot and muscle pain and there were plenty of times when you questioned if it was worth it. Small victories however kept us pushing on, the simple act of passing over the A377 made me feel that we were, however slowly making progress North and this was worth it. The darkness started to lift and daylight took over as we entered Morchard Bishop for a mini CP. The marshal here was sympathetic to our cause and suggested a small detour of the next mile just to keep us out of the mud for a while, the distance would be the same just the route would be on the road rather than through a wood. But we were soon back into fields and hard slog picking our way to the next mini CP in Witheridge.

The terrain to Witheridge was no different to the previous 30 miles, hill after hill, ankle deep mud and energy sapping climbs. I’d love to say that I was able to get my head up and take in the scenery but at this moment it was head down and tick of the miles. The Witheridge mini CP was in a hall, and again we were well looked after, a warm cuppa and biscuits were taken on board and the opportunity to use a proper loo felt like being treated like royalty. A surprising number of runners were here that we’d not encounter before, some had taken the chance of a little sleep others simply taking the time they needed for the push to the next and last full CP.

We left Witheridge around 10.30am in generally good spirits, we were told a few fields of mud lay ahead but after that there was a good road section you could take advantage of. Of course, normally this might mean some running, though to us by this point it simply meant walking with less impedance and the potential of covering 4 miles in an hour. We passed families out for their Easter Sunday jaunts and it was good to see life continuing outside of our little bubble. As we made our way across the first few fields Peter lead the charge, myself and Adrian falling back a little, I’d picked up a niggle traversing across one sloping field in my right ankle, one that didn’t disappear for the rest of the race. Adrian began to suffer from knee and leg pain preventing him from moving in the same fashion as previously. Neither of us complained we just kept our heads down and cracked on. The road section we had be promise duly arrived and we did speed up to a dizzying speed of 17 minute miles. As we were approaching the North Devon link road near to Rackenford, we were just about to head off road and down a trail when a car pulled up and beeped us. Being the polite chaps, we are we stopped and headed back to them, and low and behold it was Chris Poole and family in tow to give us a cheer on. Chris had been tracking us all from the start and circling the lanes traying to find us, with a boot full of biscuits and goodies which we happily munched on (Jaffa Cakes for me) it was the most welcome distraction. For those reading this Chris is an ultra-runner himself so knows the pain we put ourselves through, he’s also a member of TRC All Blacks who is always on hand at their events encouraging all the runners from the front to the back. This simple act of taking the time out to come and find us, support us even though he knew it would only be for 5 mins was amazing. I felt a little emotional as we set off again, but it gave me renewed belief that we could make it to Lynmouth.

The final few miles to CP3 went slowly, my ankle continued to hurt, and Adrian’s leg, far from getting better was only getting worse. As we began the final decent into West Anstey Adrian informed us that he was going to withdraw at CP3, this must have been a hard decision to make, when you invest all that effort in going so far you want to see it through. But far from letting his desire to get to the end overrule the sensible choice of knowing when enough is enough he made the right choice. He had smashed his previous mileage PB and should be very proud of an incredible achievement. I know picking up with him later that the emotion of pulling himself from the race was soon overtaken by the support he received when he posted on social media of his withdrawal. Not just kind words but people offering to drop everything and go and collect him from the middle of nowhere, it is a close a supportive community we choose to run in and never was that more evident than at that point.

Peter and Myself, packed ourselves up, dropped any unneeded weight with Adrian and cracked on. The sign we passed as we headed for Exmoor read Lynmouth 24 miles, and never had it felt that we were not ticking the miles off rather than adding them up. Exmoor felt like different terrain to Dartmoor, the paths more stone than mud for the first time. The first big hill was met with and sharp downhill, followed by more uphill’s and muddy fields, we picked up here with Anna and Peter again who were having Navigation issues, so we made up a four as we headed to Tarr steps. The Rain was now heavy and we pulled into a farm building to make sure we had every layer on and waterproof trousers, feeling snug and dry makes you so much happier. Peter and Anna, who were already kitted out for the weather joined another passing group but by the time we’d headed down to the Step we’d caught them back up along with some other and we found ourselves in a group of 11 runners running alongside the river to Withypool.

This section was 4 miles long, the heavy rain had made sections impassable and we had to detour many times into woods to make our way along. Peter’s pace dropped off and he was grumbling a little and I was reminded of a tip that Emma Greig had given me should I encounter such a problem, Feed Him! we pulled off the group found some shelter and munched on some crisps together. This did the trick nicely and we were soon on our way. A final detour a mile before Withypool nearly took us off track but we found a way around down a steep sloop, this made my ankle scream, so I slowed us down considerably, but Peter never complained he just encouraged me on and sure enough some muddy hills and a dodgy water crossing later and we walked into Withypool.

Now at this point, we spotted a car flashing its lights at us, our thought was this must be the mini CP we were expecting, but no, a couple emerged from the car and walked towards us, it was Paula & Ali Bisatt that had come out to cheer us on. What an incredible effort from them to figure out where we would be and wait patiently for us when we moved so slowly. They offered us Scones and walked us to the CP here the group we had fallen back from were just getting refuelled. Paula and Ali helped us with Kit and drinks as both Peter and Myself were struggling with some of the simpler tasks by that point. Handshakes, Hugs and best wishes were exchanged and we set off over the first of the high moors left to tackle.

We climbed and climbed and eventually popped out onto the moor, at this point it had started to Snow, and after Peter had told me for the 3rd time he thought it might be snowing, I figured we didn’t want to stay up here for long. The darkness descended and we found ourselves in the snow, in a white out trying to navigate across open moorland. This was a completely new experience for me and not one that I felt comfortable with at all. Relaying on just a blue line on a watch for safety to get you through the moor was an uncomfortable feeling, and when we found a group of 5 who’s Garmin had packed up and they were trying to use a map in a white out in the dark made it even more scary. We used my Garmin and found the trail, despite a small Nav error that nearly put me and Peter back up on the high moor we kept to the path and soon found ourselves on lower ground. We were now a group of 7 and I was having to lead as the rest didn’t have a suitable means of navigation, to say that I felt the pressure is an understatement, but it was certainly a shot of adrenalin, all I could think about was getting them to the next CP where they would become someone else’s problem. The section along the river to Simonsbath was saturated and the river was flowing heavily past, I was keen to keep the group away from the edge as the last thing we needed was anybody slipping into a torrent. We finally made it through what was a very wet and muddy section and we climbed out of the river bed and onto a more usable path into Simonsbath and the final CP before the final section to Lynmouth.

I took the time to drop into the toilets here when we arrived, more to gather my thoughts than anything else. Peter went straight to the CP for a cup of coffee to get the chill out and I joined him. Thankfully all those who we’d joined to get off the moor had made the wise decision to retire as they had little chance of navigating to the finish, it had been my intention to speak to the marshal here to recommend that they were pulled for the same reason, and this saved me an uncomfortable conversation. I grabbed a cup of tea, checked my kit, put my watch on to charge and we discussed the route with the marshal into Lynmouth. Honestly at this point I was kind of hoping they would hold us until the worst of the weather passed, but despite us telling them that it was a white out on top they said it was safe to navigate. Sadly, none of the harder to nav areas had been marked on day two, unlike day one and I’m sure that had they been it would have given competitors more confidence in setting out. We formed a group of 5 runners, myself, Peter, Peter (from Anna & Peter Anna must have pulled herself at some point earlier?) and two others. Between us we had experience, a good map and two garmins and this was deemed sufficient, and I’d have to say we agreed. Our only nervousness, and we discussed this with the Marshal was the highest ground on an open ridge section as we’d be moving slowly in white out conditions with no markers. We were informed that sweepers would be following behind us, I asked how far behind? 8 Hours? No just 3, this still didn’t settle the nerves. Our final challenge before setting off was to ask if we could take the road to Lynmouth but we were informed this was too dangerous as the sweepers would follow the course not the road and if anything was to happen to us on the road we would get missed, potentially causing them to look for us where we weren’t supposed to be.

We finally set off at 10.30 and nearly instantly missed the first turn, we got back on track and headed up to the moor. On top it was blowing a gale and sleeting, the ground and paths in this section were so muddy and one point I stepped of a small bridge ended up over knee deep in bog. Thankfully I had both poles with me and managed to stay upright, I had been the first to step off here so the others were able to avoid the hazard. Conditions as we gained height got worse and as we made it to a short road section the decision was made that the final ridge and moor section was to hazardous to entertain, therefore as a group of 5 we made the choice that we should walk into Lynmouth on the road, even if this meant potentially forfeiting our finish, better to get out alive we thought. Decision made, we called it into the emergency phone number, sadly it went to voicemail but at least they would know where we were, between that and the trackers we hoped they would figure it out.

Half a mile into the walk a VW van pulled up and it as Anna (yes that Anna) with her friend, they told us the race had been stopped. We had a conversation with them about what that meant, did that mean we should get of course, continue to the next CP, in our case the finish etc? She told us that they had closed the finish and there was no one there! What the hell should we do? Where are our drop bags going to be? I had a car key and a spare drop bag and sleeping bag in the car, so I know that we could cobble something together for everyone to get warm and dry. We cracked on.

No more than half a mile later, Justin the event organiser passed us in the van, pulled us over and informed us that the race had indeed been stopped, the arrival hall was closed and he couldn’t allow us to continue on the road, he wanted us off the course. He agreed that as we had done well over 100 miles we would get our buckle and UTMB points, this made not walking anymore a much easier decision. Sadly, with no room in the van for all of us he let us know that the minibus would sweep us up in 20-30 minutes, but to keep moving for warmth and they would find us provided we stuck to the road. As keen as I was to stick with the group I had begun getting cold and I took the choice to jump in the van, Peter agreed this was ok, but I felt guilty at leaving my partner of 108 miles for the warmth of a van. Peter as always was gracious and didn’t complain, thankfully it wasn’t long before I was transferred to the minibus and we were back out to collect them. At this point the group had become quite cold, as they climbed into the bus Peter (A&P) was clearly becoming hypothermic, slurred speech uncontrollable shaking and talking incoherently being some of the symptoms being displayed. Thankfully he got wrapped in warm dry clothes that were spare in the van and he was well taken care of. Peter sat towards the back of the van and was holding it together well, it was only after as we sat back in my car waiting to warm up he shared just how cold he’d also been at this point.

So, what do I say? Did we finish? No, we didn’t, we had that opportunity taken away. Am I sad about this? Not in the slightest. Whilst it would have been nice to get to the finish under our own steam you simply cannot control everything and this was one such event that was out of our control. Am I disappointed? No, I’m not, I think I would have been if I’d missed the chance for the UTMB points and the buckle, especially on my first attempt to complete 100 miles, but running these distances for me is about the challenge I set myself. That challenge this time round was to go further than I had ever been before and to test myself, what am I capable of, like many runners most of the time we’re simply competing against ourselves to be better than yesterday, and on this occasion, I can say with certainty that I performed my best and was better than before.

I don’t want to speak for Adrian or Peter, but they both had incredible races. Adrian ran further than he had ever done before, as did Peter, we all, I suspect, found out quite a lot about ourselves and each other about the act of what is possible. For me today as I’m writing this, the act of what is possible is simply being able to walk to the kitchen, tomorrow it might be walking down the stairs without having to hold on for dear life, but over the weekend it was definitely can I run 100 miles, and I’m pleased to say that, Yes, I can.

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