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Chasing down my ‘PW’ in North Devon – 30 June 2013

Phil Whitehurst reports on a scenic marathon

Arguably the most beautiful marathon you can do in the UK, I attempted the North Devon AONB in 2012 and was a little disappointed with a PW (Personal Worst) time of 5:03:09.  I was sure I could do better, so with unfinished business, I entered again this year to do battle with the (super challenging) course. Although Woolacombe is a good three hour drive away, it’s a great place to spend a long weekend, so that’s what Michele and I did again this year.

Steeper than it looks! Phil in North Devon

This marathon is divided into two halves in a ‘figure of eight’ starting in the town centre of Woolacombe in Devon.  We lined up at 10:00am, and then headed off south through sand dunes, then along the ridgeline car park that runs along Woolacombe beach to Putsborough, then around the magnificent headland to Croyde. This section is not too challenging – total climb of only a couple of hundred feet.  Then a crazy descent into Croyde, with the half marathon leaders now ‘harrying’ us marathoners! At this point a handy pitstop was taken due to an excessively fibrous dinner the night before (and an eggy breakfast – don’t recommend it for future marathons!). 

Then we crossed the beach at Croyde, climbing up the hill above Saunton sands (stunning views!). After the descent to Saunton Sands, there came the first really big hill climb, then down through a farm to a pretty little village.  Another big climb over the hill and back along the ridgeline car park to Putsborough then back past the start at Woolacombe.

After last year, I knew to take it easy on the first half. This marathon demands that you feel pretty much fresh at the halfway point, so a time of 2:09 was nice and conservative to attempt the ‘beautiful monster’ that makes up the second half.  One other thing I did last year was take a camelback.  The organisers put so many water stations along the course that this would be unnecessary unless it was blisteringly hot.  Every two miles or so there seemed to another set of friendly marshals loaded down with bananas, water, jelly babies etc. etc. which was amazing considering how difficult it was to get access along this wild course…

Michele was waiting outside the hotel just past the half-way point to give some encouragement as I went off along the costal route to Morte point, then on to Bull Point lighthouse.  This section and the next bit along to Lee is fabulous.  Green and craggy cliffs hug the sea crashing onto the rocks below as you run up and down a seriously undulating coastal challenge. I gave a few fellow runners some advice to save themselves along here, knowing that the really big challenges lay ahead…Flying through the descent into Lee, a second ‘pit stop’ was required, the excellent public loos there allowed me to enjoy a quick fresh water wash down too!

Now onwards to the ‘big climb’ at mile 20. This bit is a relentless ascent of the hill above Ilfracombe. The path never seems to stop going up at this point, but finally, after a couple of miles of climb, you are rewarded with a stunning view of the whole coastline you have covered behind, and a lovely view of Ilfracombe and beyond.

I descended the steep hill from here, overtaking some runners who had been ‘broken’ by the terrain. Passing through the lovely village of Slade on the outskirts of Ilfracombe, this is where the course finally turns back to the start. Mile 21 and we run past some beautiful reservoirs,  before climbing to the old railway line at mile 22.  Two miles of steady but relentless uphill here, and past more runners who had ‘spent’ all the energy earlier.  I was feeling really good, and sped up to 9 min mile on the nice smooth surface, overtaking more exhausted runners as I went.

At mile 24, we finally were on the traverse across the big hill into Woolacombe, with more unbelievable views, improved by the knowledge that just a few miles remained to the finish. The last mile is a fast and crazy drop down to the seafront, to the finish line, with a ‘cream tea’ awaiting the finishers (fantastic!).

I was very pleased with my new finishing time of 4:39:10, over 24 minutes faster than last year, anything under five hours would have been enough. 

I definitely recommend any marathon addict to do this marathon at least once; it’s an amazing course, very well run, good value for money and simply the best looking course on any marathon ‘beauty parade’.  The tactic has to be run below your capability for the first half, and keep that 10% in the bank for the second half, then a good time will be had.



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