Taking on ‘The Beast’ as I Return to Ultra Running

Taking on ‘The Beast’ as I Return to Ultra Running

The Maverick Race Exmoor Ultra is set in the Exmoor National Park in the South West of England.  The coastline is outrageously beautiful with dramatic cliffs, savage ascents and wonderful flora and fauna.  The race has been nicknamed “The Beast” due to the severity of the course.  Covering 57 km with a vertical ascent of over 2600 m throughout the race, it is not to be taken lightly.

The Southwest Coastal Path is 1010 km / 630 miles of beautiful trails.

This is where I fit in, the “taking it lightly” category.  I have not run an arranged ultra since December 2019, when I took on the Montane Cheviot Goat.  Early in 2020, COVID struck so my plans, along with everyone else’s changed.  I kept up my training at the beginning of Lockdown and ran a few self-propelled challenges such as The Gordano Round and the Bristol Bridges Marathon.  Recently, I have really lacked self-motivation, having exhausted my local trails and been unable to put in enough hill training.  Combine this with studying an Electronic Engineering degree part time and sitting 3 exams in early may has meant that I am not in peak ultra-condition.

I hope I have now set the scene.  This is not a post about breaking records, it is about doing what I love, in a manner that was most appropriate to me at the time.  This is an important point, racing should be enjoyable to you, the runner. I had to acknowledge that I am not entirely ready but there was no way that I was going to back out.  I was excited about about the prospect of standing in at a starting line again.  The ring of the cow bell, running with other people (socially distanced of course) and the overwhelming sense of achievement as crossing the finishing line. 

I decided before the event that I was going to engage a slow strategy.  I would walk the ups, jog the flats and cruise the downs.  Making sure I ate loads of food and did not give too much when descending.  It is an easy mistake to make descending too quickly as you can burn out your quads.  I thought if I could manage to maintain 7 km an hour, this would give me a respectful time of 8 hours.  The race starts and finished in Caffyns Farm, it then follows the rugged coast for roughly 26 km before heading in land from Porlock Wier then returning via the higher Moorlands back to the start.

I arrived at Caffyns Farm campsite on the Friday, the weather was perfect and the views are amazing.  I highly recommend visiting this campsite, they have so many facilities on site and sell local produce including an excellent cider.  I have linked the campsites website HERE

I spent the evening carb loading with plenty of pasta followed by stretching, enjoying the views and packing my bags, making sure I had all the essentials:

  • Blister pads
  • Emergency Bivvy
  • First aid kit
  • Plenty of food
  • Whistle
The evening sunset at the campsite

I woke early so I could eat my breakfast and then nervously packed and repacked my bag. I was ready. 

Race ready, I think…

The ultra started at 0900 so I headed down to the starting area.  I positioned myself near the back of the queue, being conscious not to get caught up running too fast with other people at the start so I wanted some space.  Unlike pre COVID times, the starts are staggered by roughly 10 seconds to give adequate spacing between runners.  When it was my time, I waited then with the clang of the cow bell I was off like Husain Bolt. 

No, I really didn’t, I plodded off in a steady rather mundane sort of way (it was all my part of my genius strategy).  Early on, there is a steep climb which opens the first view of the dramatic coast.  Climbing steadily up this, taking in the sights, enjoying the fresh coast air with a huge grin on my face.  Around 18 months since I had last been doing this, what a joy!

I am on the right setting off like a lightning snail

The route continues to the Valley of Rocks which are strikingly jagged rock formations and aggressive cliffs.  There where even some hardy feral goats enjoying their day in the sunshine. 

The feral goats enjoying the sun

We ran down into Lynton, which is a picturesque seaside town and then followed the coastal paths all the way to Porlock Weir.  The coastal path just keeps on giving, as soon as you turn a bend, another section of coastline appears which is as beautiful as the last. 

The coast that keeps on giving

There was a particularly memorable section which was devilishly technical, and not a place you should fall.  It passed behind the Lighthouse Keepers Cottage and as beautiful as it was, I was grateful to pass that section as there was sharp, loose rocks just waiting to catch you off.

This was a very lethal section of trail even though this picture looks remarkably tame

I had been managing to keep to my 7 km per hour plan all the way to the halfway point at Porlock Weir. 

Passing through Lynton

We passed through beautiful woodlands and along coastal shrubs with flowering Rhododendrons added fantastic pinks and purples to the landscape.

The purple flowers, as always, running photos never capture the beauty of the trail

I was feeling great, halfway in by 3 hours and 45 minutes.  However, I made a bit of a mistake at the feed station.  I had ran out of liquids and usually carry electrolyte tablets to add to my water bottles but I had run out. Instead of using the tablets, I filled both of my bottles with Precision Hydration being given out at the feed station. I make my electrolyte drinks quite weak, but I found the concentration too strong which meant later I had a sticky mouth. Having a sticky mouth meant I felt like I needed to drink more which caused me issues later on.

Anyway, I will get onto that.  Happy with my progress, I ran out of the Weir and then quickly approached the largest climb of the course.  From Porlock as you head inland there is a climb which I recorded as 435 metres.  This really took its toll on my “not hill trained legs” and it took a little while to recover.  What I had underestimated was the severity of the hills in the second leg.  They were much more frequent and more sustained than the beginning and, having already been on my feet for 4+ hours by this point, I was starting to feel the strain.

I kept running but things started to get a bit wobbly by the 40 km point.  I had a sticky mouth and really wanted water but all I had was more concentrated electrolytes.  The sticky mouth meant I kept sipping fluids and forgot to eat for too long.  As I started another climb I felt really low on energy and quickly realising my ridiculous mistake, I smashed half a wrap, some of a bagel and a gel.  This gave me a good boost, but the damage had been done and I struggled to keep pace for the rest of the event.  At the marathon checkpoint, I destroyed a lot of watermelon, and filled up bottles with water. 

From here there was another 15 km to the end.  I knew I was close, and had plenty of time in hand however, I was not going to make the dreamy 8-hour aspiration.  Heading on, feeling tired but grateful for the water stop but I was feeling a bit bloated and could feel my stomach sloshing around.  Speed was not an option otherwise I would probably be sick.  I gently continued to the final checkpoint at roughly 51 km.  It then started to gently rain, which I was actually very grateful for as it cooled me down. 

The next section followed a lovely meandering river before a couple of horrible climbs which took me to the top of a valley, back to the bottom and then up the other side.  I can’t remember which side, but there was a section with never ending steps. I think they must have been devised by an expert torturer, someone intent on causing physical pain.  The stairs almost killed me off, but I kept on.  My watch was showing 3 km, 2km, 1 km remaining.  I could almost taste the finish.  I turned into the road at the top of the farm and blasted down the hill at full pace.  Rocketing past all people who were kindly clapping away, I ran into the finishing area and through the finish line. 

I was given a medal (they cannot put them on during COVID times) and a beer, then I proceeded to collapse on the floor.  I was spent. 

The race was everything I had hoped for, gorgeous views, savage climbs, technical trails and an all-in adventure.  As always, it was an excellently organised event by the Maverick Team and the course was equally astonishing and brutal. 

I messed up my nutrition which played havoc on me for the last 20 km.  Precision Hydration is brilliant, but I prefer it a weaker than the concentrated version being handed out at the feed stations.  This is a personal preference of course and my own mistake for not being prepared. In hindsight, I should have filled up my bottles with half water and half Precision Hydration. A lesson learnt.

I came in at 9 hours and 30 seconds.  An hour from my desired time, but I think I had an unrealistic expectation.  I really had not trained adequately so I should have had a more realistic expectation of myself.  I am not the runner I was in December 2019 but all in all, I am overjoyed with this achievement.  It does go to show that ultras can be completed even with a busy schedule.  Ultra running is not a sport exclusive only to the hyper elite.  With a bit of work and a lot of grit and determination, not forgetting a good supply of bagels, anything is possible.  So, get you shoes on, and get out on the trails.  See you at the start line. 

It really was a beautiful location for the race

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