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North Devon Marathon – 27 June 2010

Ian Kennedy reports.

At the back end of last year Jerry received an email from the organisers of the North Devon Marathon. They described their event as a brand new off-road marathon and half marathon that … is a full on fell race on the coast path and inland footways. I saw the words full on fell race and went to look for the chequebook.

Having decided to go for it, I sounded out a few WACers. Jon was interested in the race as it is the area his family comes from and Annie is an absolute animal on these type of races – she had totally beasted me on the Dorset Doddle last summer. They both signed up but not before, in a moment of weakness, I had allowed Annie to talk me into doing this year’s Dorset Doddle!

Back when I sent off my North Devon entry form I had this notion that I would arrive in Woolacombe for the race on a background of perfect preparation, the reality was quite different. I was due to have raced in the North Dorset Marathon in early May, but had to pull out after picking up a small hamstring tear the day before when taking a Saturday session. This put me out of action for a while, and my first real effort came in late May on the Ridgeway. Despite the lack of training miles I was pretty happy with how that went. A couple of weeks later I did the Puddletown Plod 20k, and once again I was reasonably happy with how I did. But I knew I hadn’t got in the long runs as I should have done, so when the North Devon Marathon came around I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence. The day before the race Jon and I worked together (along with Nick and Paul Hine) taking the Saturday morning session at QE. We had noted that the Met Office was predicting the hottest day of the year for us, and then Jon pulled out the race’s gradient profile and said something like ‘I thought you ought to know what we are up against’. Having the biggest climb of the race at 18/19 miles didn’t look ideal!

It was a 6am start from Jon’s place, and we made good time to Woolacombe, arriving around an hour before race time. There were some decisions to be made. Clearly hydration was going to be absolutely key, did we need to wear our camelbaks. Once we had established that there were going to be around a dozen water stations, it was decided to travel light. What about a hat, I hate wearing these in races but I did get into trouble with heatstroke in a 8 hours-plus race a few summers back – I opted to leave the hat behind. Then there was an issue of protection against sunburn. I worry that sunscreen inhibits your ability to sweat properly, so I tend to use it sparingly. I opted for a little coverage on the shoulders and the back of the neck. It’s time head to the start line. We were the only Dorset runners in evidence, there was a little cluster of New Forest Runners there though.

The marathon runners were given their pre-race briefing, it’s the first time I have been warned about snakes and ticks prior to setting off. Ten o’clock came and finally we were off. Briefly the three WACers ran together, before Jon, and then Annie started to pull away. I decided to run by feel, not worry about the clock or the distance covered. We headed south on the road parallel with the beach before the first of many climbs. Within half a mile we were off-road. Glorious sunshine matched with beautiful views. 

The view from the coast path, looking north towards Woolacombe

It was already hot and destined to get hotter. The first drink station was around four miles out, which was a little later than I would have liked it. Judging distances was extremely hard as there were no mile markers, and some miles were much harder running than others. I had decided in advance that odd seconds dropped at water stations didn’t matter and it was going to be more important to get a decent intake of fluids at every water station. I got talking to a fellow runner with a GPS a little further into the race and felt a little disheartened when he told me that we had covered only just over 7 miles. The half marathon runners had set off 10 minutes after us and we were continually being picked off by them at this stage in the race.

We rounded Baggy Point, traced the outline of Croyde Bay before seeing the 3 mile-long Saunton Sands and the dunes of Braunton Burrows with the River Taw’s estuary beyond. Then it was time to head back inland (over the hills, naturally) towards Woolacombe.

We reached Woolacombe and made for the start/finish area, which for the marathon runners is the halfway point. In the pre-race briefing we were told that those of us who felt we were struggling could bail out here and we would be credited with a half marathon finish time. I had been running for 2 hours 20 minutes by this stage, I didn’t consider halving it, but you do wonder how much is left in the tank, as I have done enough marathons to know that how you feel can change with little warning.

We now headed off on the northern loop of the course which is much hillier, and the coastal section of it even more beautiful than the section we have just completed. Off course we no longer have the distraction of half-marathon runners, so any runner you see ahead of you is a place to be won. The plasters I have used to protect my nipples have fallen off and I became aware that I am developing a serious case of runners’ nipple. Despite the fact that I have little protection from the sun I decide the only solution is to take my vest off and tuck it in the waistband of my shorts. The vest is soaking wet with a mixture of sweat and water from sponges, it feels good to get it off. I push on, and around 14 miles I run into a purple patch. I can see runners ahead of me and start to pick my way through them. We make it to Morte Point and a series of climbs, each followed by a steep descent, takes us to the lighthouse at Bull Point.

Bull Point Lighthouse

At 18 miles we get to the mighty spike on the gradient profile. I am still making good progress catching the runners ahead of me. It is at the top end of the climb where Annie comes into sight. We run together for a section that takes us uphill and inland past two reservoirs before we join the former trackbed of the Barnstaple & Ilfracombe Railway. The railway line has a ruling gradient of 1 in 36 towards the site of Mortehoe station. It is perhaps a 2-3 mile section at a consistent gradient which can be run quite steadily. Annie and I have been making steady progress together, but with a runner ahead of me who had previously been running in our group I decide to chase him down.

I get to the final water station. ‘Just 2 miles to go’, I am told. I am feeling good and there are runners to catch, so this water station is the only one I run straight past. Almost downhill all the way, I make up another three places and feel great as the finish line is visible in the distance. I look at my watch, I am going to make it in under five hours, I pop my red vest back on for the final section. The last bit of cross-country is on a very tricky sheep track on the side of a steep hill, before dropping down onto the road into the finish.

As I come down the road there are cars travelling in both directions and there is not enough room for a runner and two cars to pass. The driver on my side of the road has no intention of allowing me to pass and is expecting me to stop, I am stopping for no one, we have a sharp exchange of views. The driver then reverses and is only denied the opportunity of having the last word by someone doing a three-point turn behind them.

All this serves to get the adrenalin coursing and I hammer it into Woolacombe and the finish line. With around 50 metres to go I can see Jon there cheering me home.

We don’t have to wait long for Annie, but as she arrives she looks a little distressed. After we split up she took a tumble into some stinging nettles and had some sort of reaction which affected her breathing and she has struggled since then to get a decent lungful of air. An urgent visit to the first aid tent sets Annie straight and within 10 minutes she has recovered her breathing.

I have now done just over 30 marathons and there are very few (immediately post-race I am tempted to say none) that I have enjoyed as much as this one. Considering that this is the first staging of the event the organisation seemed to my eyes near flawless. The enthusiastic and encouraging marshals were outstanding, and in that searing heat we did need all those water stations. I was grateful for the plastic buckets full of jelly babies which helped to sustain me after I dropped one of my gel sachets.

On the down side we drove back from the race and endured the Radio Five commentary of the England/Germany game. Not even that could take the shine off a great day out – thanks Annie and Jon. The biggest disappointment is that we are going to have to wait a whole year before we can race from Woolacombe in the North Devon Marathon again. Official results have not been published at the time of writing but Jon got a time of around 4:20, mine was 4:56 and Annie’s 4:59 – even after her dramas in the final stages. I am a little mystified by where I found the endurance in the latter stages after having not done the training miles – perhaps it’s the power of beetroot!



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