Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Classic Cliffs

By Nick Tidball

I knew this race would be hard as I’ve run quite a bit on the Cornish coast paths, and with this race billed as one of the UK’s toughest ultras with 57 miles of rugged coast paths and 15000 ft of climbing it was always going to be a tough one. When we got to the little village we were staying in called Clovelly and even the village was built on a 25% hill it was clear this area wasn’t going to disappoint. We rested on Friday as much as we could and tried to sleep before being met by the Endurance Life guys at Clovelly. We were then driven to Port Isacc before being set off at midnight.

Within 20 minutes of the race starting and once we were out onto the cliff paths I noticed I couldn’t see much. I was using the same head-torch that I had been using in the Namibian Ultra, but I couldn’t see a thing. Then an hour in and when the drops to our left started to get a it bigger; as in 400ft bigger, I started to think I might have to do something, so I changed my batteries. It was schoolboy error not to have put fresh batteries in, but its hard to think of everything in these races, I think it takes time to learn, although the idea of taking a swim or dying made the choice of stopping and changing them easier for the sake of losing a few minutes.

We went through amazingly craggy places like Tintagel and Boscastle it was like being in Lord of the Rings just in pitch darkness, and for some reason you’re running like a nutter with a number on your bag and the knowledge you are going to be running for a long time. I cursed that night section a lot, it would have been fine if it weren’t for the vertical cliffs. You would scan the way with your light and realise that 3 feet to your left the cliff just disappeared. At about 2 hours in and after the first checkpoint, Steve and I found ourselves lost on the edge of a cliff with a crazy drop down to the sea. It’s just so hard to follow the exact paths at night. We were standing there thinking ‘surely the organisers can’t have wanted us to run on this cliff?’ It was like full on climbing but without the ropes. But it’s hard to think clearly at 3 in the morning, but eventually realised we would end up in several pieces if we went much further so we turned back.

About 3 hours in and it was obvious that Steve was starting to be in some serious pain with his foot. I could see him trying to hold it together but he looked like he’d just gone 10 round with mike Tyson and he was falling over a lot, it was gutting to see when it’s your brother. At about 4.45 in the morning he was all over the shop, he could walk and that was about it, the sun was starting to rise. We were pretty much in last place, and we had chat about the fact I would have to go this one alone otherwise I would be in danger of not making the cut off times. So I gave him a hug, tried not to cry, and legged it.

We’d done 5 hours in the bloody twilight zone, but I felt as fresh as anything now that it was daylight and I could see where I was going. In ultra marathons you should really pace yourself, but I couldn’t really be bothered at this point when I left Steve and I felt great so I went for it. I ran flat out for the next 2 hours 30, overtook about half of the field and came into halfway, not too far outside the top 10. I had told my girlfriend that I would call her halfway round ‘when Steve and I would be going for a swim and taking the race nice and easy’… as it happened things don’t always work out to plan!

What hits you running the coast paths is the distance. A mile on the coast feels double what it normally does, so you have to get your head around that. After half way I was caught up by Vicky Skelton Britain’s top female ultra runner, so I ran with her for around 3 hours, she was treating this as a training run, and with her record of running 131 miles in 24 hours, this was just a little jog for her! She was great, although I had to drop off her pace after a while as I was getting very low on energy, coupled with her being a bit good! I find it hard knowing how much or what I should put in me. So I ate some food and drink, and soon was feeling better again.

The rest of the race for 6 hours I then ran on my own. I really enjoyed that, as I got to experiment with how hard I could push myself. I started drinking from the streams and cooling myself off in them. That was like heaven, as I find my body and feet really heat up doing these races. I didn’t ever look at the map as all you had to do was stick to the coast path really, a task that was much easier during the day. Keep the sea top your left and were on track. Some of the beaches I went past were just wild, it was a lot not to stray off the path and just go for swim instead.

During this race unlike our desert race, I didn’t stop at the checkpoints for any longer than a couple of minutes, I did however chat to all the walkers I saw on route. The majority knew there was a race going on and looked at you like you were crazy. One couple asked what the prize was, ‘to be able stop running at the end’ I replied.

Near the end at about 14 hours in I was nailing myself into the ground up yet another hill maybe at 50 % gradient and breathing like a psycho when I got a text from our team mate Darren saying ‘how did it go lads?’ It’s moments like this that make you laugh. I felt like replying it ‘it still f******g going!!! and its still f******g painful!!!’ but didn’t have the energy.

Within the last few miles I thought a couple of people were catching me as I entered some very steep wooded valleys. I thought I could see them at the top on the other side as I was just leaving them, so I tightened my bag up and pushed on as hard as I could. As it happens no one came in for quite a while after me, so I must have been imagining it! It was funny having this kind of adrenaline after 15 hours of running, but I used it to motivate myself. The last few miles seemed to go on forever, but as I reached the village of Clovelly some 16 hours after starting I just felt pumped. I ran down the village street which was pretty much the gentlest slope I encountered on the whole run. I then stood in the sea for a long time, something that I had been dreaming of the whole race. It was an brilliant and brutal race by the Endurance Life guys, but one of the most amazing runs I've done in my life.

Lessons learnt.

1. Always have a good light when you are running on cliffs that can kill you.

2. Never underestimate the British coastline.

3. Don’t drink from the streams, as they are not made from Evian water…*

*I spent the Sunday travelling home on the train vomiting my guts up into a tiny sink in the train toilet, it was as fun as it sounds!

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