After getting back from skiing I'd tried to manage a long day out each week, so that I could at least get some miles and height gain in the bag even if I couldn't really run. Two weeks ago I had the usual sociable day sweeping on the Lakeland 100 recce from Buttermere to Dalemain (33 miles and 5300 ft) followed a week later by a trip from Keswick to Wasdale via Walla Crag, Watendlath and Scafell Pike, returning via Black Sail, Kirk Fell and Cat Bells terrace (34 miles and 9000ft). But these were at scarcely more than walking pace; the Exmoor Coast Ultra, while in the same general scope of distance and climb at 33 miles and 6500ft, would have to be done at a slightly faster clip to beat the the fairly challenging cutoffs. Still, it would be a good test of whether I could actually run (or more accurately, shuffle) on what I believed was a slowly improving knee.
Just to check that I could at least jog, I tried 4 miles along the canal on the Thursday evening. I managed just slower than 12 minute mile pace, at which the knee felt that it had been used but had no real pain or swelling. Good enough.
It's a fairly long drive down to North Devon from Chester, but the weather delivered a beautiful evening; it held through until Saturday morning and even as I left the hotel in Lynmouth it was clear we were in for a stunning day by the sea. The car parking field was about half a mile from the start at Hunter's Inn (no problem) but also several hundred feet vertically above it, so a potential problem for after the finish.....
Registration and briefing was all very smooth, and we were off onto the course shortly after 8am. I'd run this event before back in 2013 but I couldn't remember a lot about it except that there were a few steepish climbs but with a lot of cruisy territory in between. It's billed as the most "extreme" of the Endurancelife Coastal series but none of the races are particularly gnarly; not too much climbing and the ground underfoot normally easy going. But they are stressed as running events, the total time allowed for the 33 miles at Exmoor is eight and a quarter hours with proportional cut-offs along the way, so although you can walk the steeper climbs you need to get along a bit in between them. My aim for the day was to get around comfortably within the cut-offs but to finish with no significant damage to my knee.
As we crossed the Heddon Valley a half mile after the start to begin the first climb, I was in last place. It was a long crocodile up the single track path with too much effort required to pull out onto the much lumpier ground to the side and pass, so I settled in for an easy walk to the clifftop and the start of a beautiful undulating track along the cliff edges. This gradually gained height then cut inland for a few hundred yards to the summit of Holdstone Down, the high point of the course about four miles after the start. We were up into the sunshine now, away from the north-facing cliffs, and the day was really starting to warm up. I had generally just gone along with the flow up until here, passing the occasional tail-ender, and by the time we reached the first checkpoint a short way after the summit my watch showed an average pace approaching 15 minute miles. Not really good enough.
From here it was a steady 3 mile descent down an inland valley back to the start area at Hunter's Inn. A nice gradient but plenty of places with stones and tree roots so I took it very carefully, however at least the average pace was going up slightly.
The Endurancelife Coastal events follow a common formula, with at least four races on the day over the same ground. Usually there is a "10k" route with a loop back to the start, then a longer loop which when added to the 10k makes a trail marathon. A short-cut part way along the second loop affords a half marathon, while the ultra comprises the marathon course plus a second lap of the 10k loop. So we had now completed the first lap of the 10k (in the Exmoor event actually about seven and a half miles) and were about to set off on the second longer loop eastwards along the coast.
The climb up to cliff level in this direction was a long easy gradient for maybe a mile or so. Everyone in my bit of the field (ie the back!) was walking up the hill, but it was easily runnable so I settled into a steady jog. I passed at least 20 runners but as soon as we got to the level or slightly descending ground over the top around half of them came past me again. This was to be the pattern of the day, I would gain places on the climbs then lose them again on the long cruisy downhills. Uninjured I would normally take these at the speed of the slope, ie with no braking applied, but I had warned myself severely before the start that this would be a really bad idea today; the continuous loading on the knee was bound to cause swelling and any bad landing could put my recuperation back several weeks. When fit I would expect to cover ground like this at eight or nine minute mile pace, but my watch at the end revealed that my fastest mile had been 11 minutes and 30 seconds - just what the doctor ordered.
We carried on eastwards along fine cliff paths to the next checkpoint at Woody Bay, then another stiff climb and a long gentle descent into the top end of Lynton, from where a traversing track led along the valley side above the town and eventually down to a checkpoint at Watersmeet. One thing that I had remembered from my previous visit was the long descent of Countisbury Hill, but I couldn't remember how you got up there. I soon found out, I had obviously blanked from my memory probably the toughest climb of the day, directly up a hot, sheltered and grassy coombe. It felt good though to pass quite a few other runners on the way up. The downs were starting to hurt a bit more so I took a couple of painkillers in the knowledge that I was now over half way through the course as it turned back westward at the top of Countisbury. On the plus side my average pace had improved to around 13 and a half minute miles.
Down the hill and along the short Lynmouth seafront led to the next climb back to the cliff top, this time a much gentler one which could be taken at a better speed. A gently undulating stretch along a lower cliff route than the one we had come out on got us back to Woody Bay, from where it was just a three mile up and over back to Hunter's Inn. Although we now had the full heat of the day there was a gentle breeze along the cliffs so it never felt like an unbearably hot event (though I suppose setting off up the 3000ft climb from Courmayeur with the needle at 35 degrees last summer may have redefined what I think of as "hot"....). All that was left was to repeat the seven mile loop we had done first thing that morning.
The ups felt maybe a little steeper but I still felt I was going strongly enought and the high point soon arrived. So close to the end I permitted myself a bit more speed on the descent than first time round (this is where my staggeringly swift eleven and a half minute mile came in!) while still remaining careful. I told myself all the slowing down would be good quad excercise. Then we were back to base and through the finishing flags to a cup of tea and a laze in the sunshine. No significant soreness so job done.
In the company of two marathon finishers I made my way up the hardest climb of the day - the one back up to the car park after we had relaxed for a while; the day was still good enough to drive the majority of the 200-odd miles back to Chester with the top down.
My finishing time was 7 hours 36 minutes, which put me in 61st place out of 99 starters. I would have been happy to accept that if offered it at the start. I'd had a day out which needed a bit more than walking pace. But I can't help feeling that it was a bit of a contrast to the same event 4 years earlier, when my finish in about an hour less (6:35) got me an 18th place (incidentally, that time would still have got 19th place this year). If you assume that to attempt the Dragon's Back you really need to be in the best shape of your life, then I'm still way off the pace. But at least it's progress with no setbacks. So far, not great but still in the game.