Trailing the adventures of an ultra-marathon runner; Sheffield & the Peak District National Park, UK

Devon Coast to Coast

Two weeks before the Easter break I found myself signing up for the Devon Coast to Coast because a good running friend had also signed up and I only required a bit of begging to get 1 day off work for the price of 5 being the long Easter bank holiday weekend. Billed as 117 miles either all in one or over the 4 days of Easter, we were to opt for the easy version of four days. The route was actually 109 miles but more of that later.

The secret of Running is……Running!

Another reason for signing up was because it was open to walkers too and I knew if I got injured I could probably make the cut offs of 12 hours each day by walking, so what better way to spend Easter than tramping (someone has been to New Zealand) from one end of the Devon coast to the other in gorgeous spring weather, sun shining, daffodils blooming and the birds singing their jolly spring songs? And cue Mother Nature for the second wave of the ‘Beast from the East’ was about to hit the UK over Easter.

So down in ‘River Dart Country Park’ we set up our tents, a standard soggy camping field. The wellies were certainly a good idea. There weren’t many people choosing the camping option, and as we found out throughout the four days a lot of people were quite local and were shipping themselves back and forth daily. Unlike the few nutters camping with ice on the tent – yes I said ‘ice on the tent’ Brrrrrr…

Day 1

At 6.30am we were shipped from River Dart Country Park to the start in little mini buses. The start was at the small village of Wenbury on the South Coast. Not much here apart from a gust of wind or two and National Trust Car Park with a sign that said ‘Coast to Coast’. After a couple of obligatory wee stops and a briefing it was ‘right off you go’ in a very casual manner.

About 80 or so of us – runners and walkers all shuffled forward across a little wooden footbridge and into a few of many hundreds of puddles of mud. No point in dodging them as we were in for four days of very wet feet, and I’d only brought two pairs of trainers with me.

Within 2 minutes the leading pack had taken a wrong turning – this didn’t bode well. I had printed maps and had the GPX on my watch but my watch had already failed on me leaking battery every 2 seconds so I wasn’t relying on technology. The watch then died at 3 miles so I gave up and took it off. Lets just run this naked, regardless of how cold it was. Plenty of Nakd bars to go with it.

The first part of the course followed the Erme Plm trail which was semi marked on finger-posts. The trail is marketed as 17 miles but after 14 miles we’d reached the little town of Ivybridge which signified the start of the 2 moors way – 100 miles over Dartmoor and Exmoor to the finish at Lynmouth. So the 117 miles wasn’t adding up already, and we lost a few more miles here and there probably in knee height peat bogs on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

A little mud never hurt

The Erm Plym trail was nothing really to shout home about, it meandered itself around some rather muddy footpaths, in and out of fields and up and down some little hills. Pretty straight forward. There were a couple of pretty hidden estuaries and the odd undulation here and there to keep us on our toes.

The first checkpoint appeared unexpectedly around 5 miles with a few jelly beans and popcorn. I didnt really fancy anything this early on in the day and didnt need any water.

Myself and fellow companion John stuck together-ish, each of us taking it in turns to have our little fast spurts or slow spurts – whatever you want to call those in the realms of ultra running. It was great having the company, there were plenty of people around however as some people were just doing the one day rather than the four days. Those that were doing the whole route in one go would start the following morning.

At Ivybridge the checkpoint was slightly bigger but with the same selection of jelly beans and popcorn, water and juice, not a lot else. I little disappointed with the lack of choice at the ‘well stocked’ checkpoints but I always take enough myself anyway so I dived into my own picnic of food instead.

Jelly babies want to go to school so they can be a smarti

We swiftly moved on up a steep tarmac hill to the proper climbs of Dartmoor. I’d had enough of low lying muddy footpaths and little non descriptive woodland with a bit of tarmac thrown into the recipe so I was looking forward to some hefty ascents and widespread desolate moorland.

The first slog up into Dartmoor didn’t disappoint, a nice steady wide pathway meandered up into the remoteness of Dartmoor. There were a couple of runners near us of which I found out were just doing one day when I stopped to take a photo of them. Once up on the ‘flats’ of Dartmoor I stopped to take it all in, remote, baron, windswept with sneaks of the coastline peaking out in the distance. My body didn’t really feel like running that much, I wasn’t exhausted I just couldn’t be bothered to ‘run’. As we were just running rather than ‘racing’ the route it all felt very relaxed – a few days out in open moorland and new countryside. Why not.

Further into Dartmoor it became a little more bleak but visibility was good. The large track gave way to more rough ‘fellike’ trails – then descended down into a beautiful valley and across a picturesque stone cladded bridge. As well as the camerawoman being there, a drone was zooming across the landscape to capture the vast valleyesqueness of the runners having fun in the Dartmoor playground.

The moor has done his work the moor may go

Mother nature just started spitting as we began the climb out of the valley. How rude after a near on day without any rain. I began to pick up a bit speed up down the hill in order to avoid the rude spitting of the clouds above. The route had been marked with small orange flags so it was easy to see which way to go. I thoroughly enjoyed the descent, bouncing through the soft squidgy soil occasionally slipping a little as I made my way down to a pretty brook and over a delightful little bridge. I waited for John and a couple of other runners to catch me up and we all navigated ‘home’, to the aptly named village of Holme. But not before a little sting in the tail. We approached a village thinking it was ‘Holme’ but alas it was called ‘Scorriton’ and Holme was another couple of miles away with a hefty rocky ascent just to finish us all off.

A very informal entry into the village hall at Holme, a sit down, cup of tea, piece of cake and some soup set us up for the journey back to River Dart Country Park. A good day out and 28 miles bagged for day 1.

Day 2

I felt undoubtedly fresh on day 2. We were minibused to the start in the village of Holme ready for our next adventure over Dartmoor. I was somewhat looking forward to this. Today I had brought my poles with me to try them out whilst running. Even though I had used poles for walking many a times I’d never really ran with them before.

The whole set up was a very informal affair, even the checkpoints seemed to be ‘approximatly 10 miles’ (of which one was at 13 miles, not that is is an issue but its’s good to know when to stock up and eat all the food) All the runners left the building on the word go whilst myself and John were left discussing where the checkpoints and a few logistics to the route. We were told to head down the hill – so we did. After about 5 minutes despite being last we knew we’d gone the wrong way so our merry little descent u-turned into an extra bit of ascent. But it was all fine (and it was fine as at this point it wasn’t raining). Within a couple of miles we’d caught up with the walkers, and within 4 miles we’d caught up with some of the runners who had also gone the wrong way despite signage and being told at the briefing that there was a small diversion. But it didnt matter we were back into the beautiful lifestyle of Dartmoor, rugged little pathways, boggy holes and slippery streams. It was therefore inevitable that I would faceplant and fall straight into a wet marshy puddle. With gloves and bum all wet I had a bit of a grump picked myself up and got on with it.

The route climbed up and up. The first check point was manned by ponies, Dartmoor ponies, very cute. Just jelly babies and coke and popcorn again. I must admit although flat coke is normally quite nice after 20 or 30 or 40 miles we were only 10 miles in and it was only about 10am far too early for coke my dears.

I took on my own food as was not tempted by the jelly babies and popcorn personally. I needed proper food as we were to head into a blizzard of sorts for the next few hours.

nor rain nor snow nor sleet nor sun I will always run

It was bleak up on the tops, bitter with a blustery wind nipping every foot forwards. Mother nature decided to throw more obstacles in our way, down came the sleet and hail just as we hit a further climb. The wintery conditions battled against us mile after mile. The views were supposed to get better and better the further into Dartmoor but the blanket of fog meant that we were lucky if we could see the next tussock of heather beneath our frozen feet. I was now using my poles but could hardly feel my hands as they were so soggy from the earlier fall. I knew I had arm warmers in my rucksack so managed to get them out after coming off one of the summits. Horizontal rain didn’t help in trying to fish out the merino tubes and wrap them tightly around my hands. magnificent views of fog beckoned us to move forward.

You never know rain sleet hail or snow see you gotta accept that’s how things go

More ascent with further biting winds were made worse by the horizontal rain dissolving into horizontal sleet battering us down as we attempted to climb further up. I took a clumsy descend down to the next Checkpoint to take shelter for a few moments. I was advised to put on my waterproof trousers as the biting temperature were seeping down into my skin, testing my body temperature to the max. I sheltered from the horrendous wind and found some more gloves (hurrah) and my waterproof trousers. Best decision I made, for the next 10 miles or so even though it felt a bit restrictive I was much warmer and protected from the blasting winds and pouring rain.

We began our climb out of the valley again, across huge vasts of boggy marshy land, squishing and squashing through small streams that had turned into little rivers. Path or river – oh take the little river why not. What’s another wet foot anyway? I’d got my Aldi waterproof socks on today, and glad I did for when I took them off at the end of the day I had clean feet unlike most other people. I’d also managed not to get water in them despite the amount of running through streams and sloshing through muddy puddles.

There is no such thing as a difficult trail just a soft runner

The vicious wind was not going to ease but the sleet turned into small splatters of rain which eventually eased almost completely. Finally we descended off Dartmoor to somewhat easier running even the tarmac was almost a relief, until we found the little village of ‘Chagford’ where there was a swimming pool just in case we hadn’t seen enough water and a checkpoint serving jelly babies and popcorn.

prepare for the rainy day or the sun’w glow
But there’s clouds moving in and the clouds gonna blow

I stripped off the waterproof trousers which had served me good but I did feel like I was boiling in a bag a little now we had dropped into the much warmer valley. My hands had thawed out and I was able to scoff some food down me. Jelly babies and popcorn anyone?

Three of us left the checkpoint together, myself, John who I was still more or less running with and a German guy. John and German guy talked lots about ‘Cape Wrath’ Ultra – their next adventure ‘There are still spaces you know’ I am told. But I know it’s out of my league – maybe one day but not just yet.

Yeah I’d run that – someday

Not concentrating out of the checkpoint – probably too busy stuffing ourselves full of jelly babies and popcorn (or not) we went the wrong way. Back on route a mix of soggy waterlogged fields and easy running mud cladded pathways made for slightly easier running but not by a great degree.

Into a cutely named wooded area called ‘Fingle Woods’ and through a National Trust site called ‘Castle Drogo’ which on a beautiful summers day would boast panoramic views of the Teign Gorge with the river gushing in the valley. It was easy to see how dramatic this gorge could be on a nice day and although the rain had eased it was still very dismal and uninspiring. Running on the ‘easy going’ footpath on the edge of the gorge however was quite fun, flat once on the tops, runnable meandering its way round and round the vast valley.

With navigation by John I had gone into CBA territory with my map reading and just ran. Lazy yes, but but I was getting a bit of the grumps inside, aptly named the ‘Ultra grumps’

One mile at a time #run

We eventually made it to another charming village hall at Hittisleigh, and handed over some very tasty potato wedges with veggie bean topping followed by some delicious flapjack and an obligatory cup of tea.

Unfortantly the drop bags hadn’t arrived even by the time we came in. Some of the guys had been waiting over an hour, it was a good job there was plenty of tea and cake to keep them going.

We were finally shipped back to the campsite once again. Darkness was already falling and the slow hissing of the pattering rain on the tent turned into shrieking attacks as mother nature once again decided to let the heavens open and bring more wet carnage to the campsite. Luckily my tent was waterproof so I kept nice and dry all night.

Day 3

Onto day 3 already and my legs were feeling pretty good. I was liking this ‘non racing’ tactic. After another night in 6 layers of clothing and two sleeping bags, the porridge pot was in a food flask and cup of tea in another flask. It was Easter Sunday but no Easter Egg waiting for me outside my tent, I think the Easter Bunny must have forgotten those camping. Mother Nature was to be kind-ish to us today but the rain throughout the night had created carnage on the trails as we were to find out.

We were shipped back to the village hall at Hittisleigh. A long journey to begin another long journey on foot circa 29 to 30 miles ish with checkpoints around 10 miles ish apparently. We were getting used to this ‘ish’ ness of the checkpoints so I had learned not to rely on them and take everything I would need for the day. Not a fan of normal popcorn and jelly babies / beans were getting a little sickly too.

Have you ever eaten a jelly baby from the feet up so you can prolong their suffering?

This time we set off with the rest of the crew and didn’t go wrong – hurrah and Happy Easter. Runners all began at once, and we sat comfortably within the first 10 or so. The first 4 or 5 miles were on tarmacked country lanes, a tad dull for my liking but soon to be mixed up with soggy boggy fields of mud, real quintessentially English mud.

En route were quintessentially English hamlets with thatched cottages and delightful little villages, giving us a rest bite from the quintessentially English mud. Sweet aromas of garlic fields filled the air on many occasions but no garlic bread in sight.

Most of the day became a grind through bespattered soggy farmers fields, growing with crops of mud. Puddles of mud, Streams of mud, rivers of mud appeared from nowhere cladding up our gear. Although it seemed there was not any considerable climb there was still 3000 ft that day and the poles came in handy only to keep steady on the abundance of mud that they’d not ordered enough of.

How deep is the mud?

The first checkpoint was Easter tastic. Yes really. It had the usual jelly babies and popcorn but also had fruit pastle type sweets, sausage rolls, nuts, and other really tasty things that runners really want to eat. No easter eggs that was later but definatly a scrumptious amount of snacks to keep any greedy ultra runner happy. That was a real checkpoint. Tick!

I picked up some of the treats, stuffing some into my greedy mouth and others into my backpack and off we went to find some more mud.

And the mud didn’t disappoint at all, plenty of it, more than plenty, enough to fill a big moorland 10 times over. Maybe this was the day of mudmoor.

You’d better laugh at yourself when you slip in the mud

About 8 miles and lots of fields of mud, we came across the next checkpoint. After the last one we had high hopes. Inside the village hall they were serving tea. We also came across some of the runners who had been out on course since Saturday morning completing the course all in one go, still looking strong. Not for me but good luck to them all. We took up the offer of the tea and biscuits but sadly nothing as elaborate as the last checkpoint. Just tea and biscuits really. And of course jelly babies and popcorn. But no one can turn down a cuppa tea in this weather.

After our cuppa we went on our way following the finger-posts of the Two Moors Way renamed to the ‘Two Muds Way’.

We began to pass a few more of those attempting the route in one job lot; 75 miles into their journey. Full credit to them all. Bravo, well done, keep going, and I hope they did. We kept marching through the squelchy gunky dirt, each footstep leaving dents in the ground for the next person to sink into. This was the longest day at 29.5 miles, yet my body was holding up well. A little tarmac helped remind ourselves that the world wasn’t full of mud and nothing else.

Every strike lands you nearer your goal

The finish at Yeo Mill Village hall was in sight after battling over a few stiles and fences across a few farmers fields oozing deep with manure and mud. With a delightful descent into the finish, one of the Race Directors came to greet us just as the rain started pattering down. Perfect timing. 10 or so of the others had already arrived so we once again made it onto the first minibus back to the campsite after of course the obligatory tea and cake. Being Easter we were also offered a cream egg or a bag of chocolate eggs, what a lovely thought for the day. Today gets the thumbs up for the best checkpoint, the cup of tea and the chocolate at the end. Simple ultra pleasures that make us runners really happy.

The rainstorm came in thick and fast, and didn’t ease all night. So much so that I ended up moving some of my gear from the porch into the tent to ensure it remained dry.

Day 4

Just one more day of 26.2 miles, just one more day. Remarkably my legs were still alive even after all the mud. With a 5am alarm call I got into my daily routine of turning on my Jet-boil to make my cuppa tea and cuppa porridge to take with me on the bus. With a few sultanas and ginger pieces thrown in for good measure I was liking my own porridge pot concoction.

It was a rather long drive back to Yeo Mill Village Hall, quietness in the minibus all praying the rain would ease slightly.

There was a slight delay in the start whilst the race directors checked that the route was safe. We were to cross the ‘infamous’ Tarr Steps but due to all the rain there was questions over whether it would be safe. After the go ahead that all was good, we were off.

its a good day to have a good day

It was a ‘fast’ start with only a handful of runners infront of us. John was being a bit lively today, got a bit excited and easily took the lead down a technical fell section and I never saw him again until the end. If he can be lively I thought so can I, so I caught up with the second leading pack after John and and another guy. We’d obviously both got the power in our legs so we were going to push it in our own ways today.

The terrain was more runnable today as we passed through Exmoor. The showers had eased and it turned out to be a reasonably good day even the sun breaking through with some difficulty.

There were a group of about 7 of us to start with, sticking within ‘throwing’ distance of each other.
After a little climb about 6 of us reached the quite infamous ‘Tarr Steps’ 17 steps the longest in the country what a joy it was to run over them.

Let the run do the talking

I was enjoying the chase today,, sticking with the pack. not letting them get too far in front of me, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with them. My legs felt lively and I played around with my speed a little at times taking the lead at times hanging off the back of the pack.

There were 7 little runners hanging on the tracks, and if 3 little runners stopped hanging on the tracks, there’d be four little runners still hanging on the tracks. Four of us remaining followed a riverbed that diligently meandered its way around the valley to a little village aptly called Withypool – like we’d really need another pool of water. At times the route was so waterlogged that if kayaks and wet suits had been on the compulsory kit list we would have pulled them out but instead we had no alternative than to wade through the soft mushy bankings.

It’s your choice. I choose to run.

The first checkpoint had… you guessed it… jelly babies and popcorn but it did also have scrumptious brownies hidden away in a Tupperware tin. I took a piece and scoffed it down – now that was nice despite it only being 10 am and most people would probably be having their cornflakes at this time rather than naughty chocolate brownies. But had they been running on the trails for two hours with 80 plus miles of trails behind them? Probably not.

At the checkpoint we were told the other two (John and the other bloke) were only 5 minutes or so infront of us. I wasn’t convinced we would catch them and as it was we didn’t. We climbed out of the checkpoint coaxing us into some majestic surroundings – welcome to the delightful landscapes of Exmoor. A little like Dartmoor but more subtle, less bleak and much more dainty. Meandering around pretty valleys, the delightfully runnable paths were fun to bounce through, with little rivers cutting through the pretty landscape, wooden bridges holding the landscape together and the occasional radiant glimpse of the sun as it tried to burn through the thick cloud encasing the grey skies.

Worry less run more

I was running strong and in my head knew my legs were strong too. but this wasn’t my race, as I knew the other three had been pushing it much more in the previous days so I let them do their thing as I happily hung off the back of them.

Before we could say boo to a goose or baa to a sheep we’d arrived in Simonsbath the next checkpoint. I think we’d had our fair share of baths along the way so we took the tea and biscuits on offer to fuel us for the last leg of this epic journey – less than half a marathon to the finish.

Feel the mud feel the run

The rugged climb out of Simonsbath allowed us to munch on our goodies (probably popcorn and jelly babies) which then led into remote moorland. With no way markers or obvious pathways it was a matter of just following the fog which was coming in thick and fast. Alongside the fog and mist came a drop in temperature and the pitter patter of raindrops. Just in time for the leading lady to fall thigh first into a big deep peat bog. Delightful timing.

Once upon a muddy moor

We spent the rest of the Exmoor experience more or less together, which was nice, supporting each other and keeping an eye on each other for the pathway just became a scramble over peat bogs with no identifiable pathway, made worse by mother nature that had dumped upon us once again, some horizontal sleet as we climbed to perhaps the highest point.The squishy spongy swampy ground took some grit to navigate around, moorland reeds obstructing every foot place, marshlands in abundance squelching through the remoteness of landscapes.


 

As we came out of the wind and rain the moorish marshland dissolved into a nice runnable path down the valley. And the rest was almost downhill from there on.

The runnable wide pathway twisted its way through the valleys across a couple of little rivers (or big streams depending if you see the glass half empty or half full). We were not far off the finish, counting down the miles whilst marvelling at the surroundings.

It felt like we were approaching the end, some 3 miles or so to go. One of the RD’s appeared to inform us we had just over 2 miles left. After descending down a steep banking with a number of sharp switchbacks we thought we were nearly there, but another sting in the tail was about to hit us as it led to a serious uphill grunt which seemed like it would never end right into the last mile. Finally we reached the top and started the descend back down to the little coastal town of Lynmouth. Steep but fun, littered with more mud, rocks and tree roots to make the descending even tricker.

Conquer from within

The four of us ran through the small town, a few passer by’s clapping us in, a few looking a bit bewildered at what we were doing, and into the finish we ran together to be clapped in by John and that other bloke, who had arrived some 30 minutes or so before us. We’d certainty all ran very happy today.

We were given a rather commendable Coast to Coast medal and a handshake with the RD and an iconic statue – a larger-than-life walker made out of stainless steel wire stretching out his hand to greet us all.

Reality is wrong dreams are real

Into the cafe we went with a £5 voucher to spend on tea and cake, all part of the race ‘package’ I was pleased to just have finished it in one piece and really enjoyed the non strategy of taking it easy for three days then giving day 4 a bit more of an effort, especially as for me day for was more runnable me – gorgeous rolling runnable trails – that’s what I like.

109 miles across the Devonshire land, from coast to coast. Happy with that for a somewhat spontaneous trip.


Further Comments

It was the first time the race had been ‘run’. A delightful route and very friendly and present crew and RD’s. There is room for improvement in terms of setting expectations for the runners more than anything. Races that do well are all about setting expectations. Deliver what it says on the tin and you are in for a winner. Do a bit more and you will win every time and more.

‘ Well stocked aid stations’ should be well stocked rather than with popcorn and jelly babies, if they are to be ‘well stocked’, if not no problem, runners will come with their Aldi shopping trolley in their back pocket and that’s fine, as long as we know!. It would be so useful to know the near to exact location / millage to each checkpoint as runners to rely on these for water / food if they are ‘well stocked’.

The checkpoints were very very approximate. A handy little hand drawn fun sketchy map on the website with the distance on would be useful to show this a la the ‘White Rose Ultra‘ who have ‘well stocked checkpoints’ (including mince pies, crisps, sausage rolls, cake, cake and cake, jaffa cakes, JB’s, peanuts and everything else you get in the Ultra isle in your local supermarket).

The published 117 should be made into 109 as 8 miles is rather a big gap, not that I am bothered but some people may be and I do feel a bit of a fraud wearing my 117 tee. I felt for those that did it in one go, more so due to the lack of variety of food at the CP’s.

The transport however did work smoothly, the RD’s were very friendly and willing to learn, which will hopefully show potential for it to be an improved event in the forthcoming years.  The Medal was really nice despite saying 117 miles on it, and the tee was pretty not bad for a tee too.  Food at the end on day 2 was nice, and the Easter treat on Easter Sunday was a lovely gesture. Little things like that are worth remembering. It must take a lot of hard work to put on an event especially one of a great scale and I am sure  in the future it could be an epic event.

Meanwhile I think I will be hitting the Lake District, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales for my next Adventures.

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