Although the Bristol Half Marathon was my big target race for the year, this was the race I was most excited about. In each of the three previous events, the Steeplechase has taken place in the Peak District, so it was very exciting that after a year off in 2015, it moved to Exmoor this year. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and signed up almost as soon as I found out about it.
For those that don’t know, the race follows an unusual format, with four designated ‘steeples’, which are essentially knockout checkpoints. At the first, only the top 220 men and 90 women could continue, at the second 100 men and 50 women, and at the third 20 each. Everyone who reaches the first steeple is considered a finisher, everything after that is just a bonus!
Those few that completed the whole course did 22.6 miles, with over 1,800 metres (not feet, metres) of climbing. Not to mention that most of the run was taking place on the South West Coast Path, which was described by Elise Downing as “tough and gnarly and wild but the rewards are so worth it.” She was right.
The worst thing about morning races, particularly those that aren’t too nearby, is the early alarm call – 5:55 in this case. Admittedly, that was partly due to me misjudging how long some of the drives would take, but never mind! I headed up towards Minehead to meet up with Matt, who drove us both over to Lynton. Although the race itself started in Lynmouth, there is very little parking there, so a free park and ride had been set up from a farm above Lynton. I’d been a bit concerned about this, and left a bit of extra time in case the buses weren’t very frequent, but they were brilliant. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but we got straight onto a bus, and didn’t have to wait inside long before it left for the short drive down to the race village.
Race registration was a little convoluted, if still very well organised. First, we had to fill out a disclaimer (“If I die, it’s my own fault, ya de ya..”). This had been emailed to us, so I’d completed it in advance. We then had to queue by surname (well, A-C, D-F, that sort of thing… there wasn’t a queue specifically for each surname. That would be absurd.) From here, we received our race number, and were then directed to a bench to fill in the reverse. After completing the reverse, we then had to another tent collect our chip, which had to be registered to our number. Still, I suppose it gave me something to do, rather than just stand around in the cold.
Ah yes… standing around in the cold. Because it was a bit nippy, I decided to put a t-shirt on under my club vest for the race. I figured that if it was cold standing in Lynmouth, which is pretty well protected, then running around on cliff-top paths open to the elements would be colder. I would have done well to remember the “wear clothes for 5-10 degrees warmer” advice frequently thrown around.
Anyway, after a short warm-up along the seafront, and to the toilets in the car park (which had no queue, unlike the long queue for the portaloos in the race village), it was just about time for the start of the race. Matt and I lined up about five rows from the front, and pondered whether we were too far forward. Neither of us had any idea if we’d get through the first checkpoint, let alone any after that, and our normal tactic of standing right near the front for small, local races wasn’t going to be a good idea here!
After a few words from the town crier (don’t ask me what he said, I barely heard one word in five), we were off. The start was a mad dash around the roads of Lynmouth, which were taken at around my 5k pace. Thankfully, the fast start was then completely negated by a concertina effect on the footpath up the cliff. Each switchback slowed the race back down to a walk, and most of the second half of the first mile was walking with 5-10 pace jogs in between. Which also conveniently made the first climb at lot easier than I had been expecting. In fact, despite the speedy start, the first mile took 10:46 to complete, and some of my pre-race concerns were starting to fade.
Once we’d reached the top of the cliff, we found ourselves on a narrow-ish tarmac path which wound around the clifftop to the Valley of the Rocks. I described this as a “boring tarmac path” to my wife, though the views attached to it make it possibly the least boring “boring tarmac path” around. While the footing might have been easy, the route was still twisting and turning with the topography, and one slip or trip could have dire consequences with the cliff so close. Which made me all the more worried when one runner near me declined to tie his laces up when it was pointed out to him that they were loose – not a risk I’d have taken!
The view as we turned the corner on the Valley of the Rocks was probably the best of the first section of the race – it was also one of the better supported locations, and even had someone up on the rocks playing… ummm… some sort of instrument. That said, they only seemed to have a repertoire of two pieces: the William Tell Overture, and the London Marathon theme. Still, that’s better than I can manage, so I won’t complain! The route had descended pleasantly to the valley, but then rose again gently as we left. I know – shock – we went down into the valley, and then had to climb again to get out of it! The descent, on good terrain, made mile two the quickest of the race (6:53), though both the following miles were quicker by the grade-adjusted measurement.
Those miles took us through a wide woodland trail, and though we remained close to the sea, you couldn’t tell through the trees. The course undulated, but gradually rose, and I adopted a little bit of a run/walk strategy up some of the longer hills; particularly knowing from some locals (and the course profile) about the horrible climb around mile 6. After about four and a half miles, we hit the first intermediate checkpoint, and found out our positions. I was very surprised to see that I was 120th, and I immediately realised that I’d need to relax my pace a little bit, as I was definitely running more than 8 miles.
The next mile remained similar, and during this section of the race, I was quite disappointed: I’d been expecting much more a tough, technical course along the coastal path. So far, the only coastal path section had been on tarmac, and the woodland trail was pretty simple terrain with no view of the sea! And then…
The descent to Heddon’s Mouth. We’d emerged from the trees back onto the coast just after mile 5, and running along a narrow, rocky trail we started to drop down to the River Heddon. I thought that I was reasonable downhill, but a few people flew past me down here – which was a feat in itself. The path was clearly only wide enough for one, and yet more than a couple of times, I’d hear the yell from behind “your right”, followed by a runner careering past me, on the right (cliff) side. Perhaps I could have gone quicker, but at this stage I was going for the ‘rather safe than sorry’ approach. We spent a pleasant half mile running alongside the river, before heading sharply up the hill. This was the big one – three-quarters of a mile, averaging 12%, though the last bit was over 25%. The bottom was still run-able, but then it was a walk, plain and simple. No one that I could see was trying anything but, and no one was even trying to walk faster to gain positions. It was just about making it to the top with some semblance of being able to run again after.
That was as far as I had really paid attention to the route. In fact, mostly my knowledge of the route was: lots of elevation, particularly bad climb at 6 miles, first cut-off at 8.3 miles, second cut-off at 13.8 miles, third cut-off at something like 18 miles. Even that wasn’t likely to prove too useful anymore – as usual for a trail route, my Garmin and the official route distances weren’t tallying up too closely, so I was reasonably certain that the 8.3 mile checkpoint would be a fair bit later on my watch.
After a short descent, we were climbing again, albeit up a road to the first checkpoint. The sun was out in its full glory now, and I was really starting to overheat in my t-shirt/vest combo. I had to make a decision – keep the t-shirt on and get too hot, or ditch the t-shirt at the checkpoint, but probably never see it again. I went through the giant Red Bull arch, noting my position – 128th, and then stopped at the drinks station for a cup of water. And to ditch my t-shirt: it just had to go, I wanted to enjoy the next five miles, not constantly obsess about being too hot. I never got it back, but hey ho.
Getting through that first section and being able to run the second may not have been so hard as I had worried, but it was a massive victory in terms of the course. I had been distinctly underwhelmed with most of the first section, but the second was almost universally stunning. Immediately after the checkpoint, we turned back on ourselves and ran along the coastal path back towards Heddon’s Mouth. The views along the coast here were unrivalled. Coupled up with that, the coastal path here was finally meeting my expectations, with scrambled descents and rocky climbs. I knew I wasn’t going to make up 28 places to get through the next cut-off, so I could just enjoy myself.
In fact, I didn’t really notice that the route had come back to Heddon’s Mouth, so as we started to drop down towards the river, and I saw a huge climb with people slowly heading up it, I didn’t realise that this was the slower runners / women (who, remember, had started 15 minutes after us) going up what I had already climbed. And so, my heart sunk. Until we met that path, and turned left, down the hill. Running down a reasonably narrow trail with loose rocks while other people are trying to climb up it presents something of a challenge, but the race director had given priority to those descending, and mostly this was sufficient for us to safely get down, though I feel a little sorry for those climbing who had to keep stopping to let people by.
Shortly after crossing the river, we reached the second intermediate checkpoint, and I found I’d picked up some positions and was 119th. I started to worry a little bit that I was bringing myself back in contention for the top-100. I really didn’t fancy much more – my legs were pretty completely shot, and I was already starting to feel uneasy on the descents, worried that my quads weren’t really doing much to control me, which is particularly troubling when one false move could see you tumble off the cliff! (Or at least into a gorse bush…)
Of course, being down by the river, again, meant only one thing, again. Climbing. In fact, pretty much the rest of the second section was climbing. Though there were a couple of short descents. You know, so that we had even more climbing to do to compensate! Probably because I knew that this was the last push, I fared pretty well on the climb. I gradually worked my way past people, and spied Matt in the distance ahead of me. We ran past a number of walkers, and I offered a cheery ‘hello’ to them all, resulting in another runner commenting that I was “rather cheerful”. I was! I’d had a good, challenging run, I knew that there wasn’t too much left, and I had absolutely no regrets that I wasn’t going to be in the top 100 and running another five miles. I chatted to a few runners over the last couple of miles, and after running through the hamlet of Martinhoe, reached the second checkpoint, and was joyfully eliminated in 110th.
Matt had finished a few positions ahead of me, and also been eliminated, which made life easier for getting back. We just had a short walk up the road to the bus, and it really didn’t take long before it headed back with us, not even waiting to be full. We pulled into the race village just in time to see Ricky Lightfoot win the race in a frankly disgusting 2:41:22. For the whole (officially) 22.6 miles. I’d taken 2:12:58 for (officially) 13.8 miles.
After checking our chip in, we then gathered out goodies: a medal and a hoodie, both top quality too. The advertised free runner’s lunch turned out to be a beef stew followed by a cream tea (Matt – you’re wrong. It’s jam THEN cream.) We hung around for a while to watch the men, and then the top women finish, before heading off to find another bus to get back to the park and ride. And yet again, we had no wait at all.
This was a great race. Red Bull organised it really well (at least from a competitor’s point of view). They clearly spent a lot of money on it; this is part of their marketing, so it’s not designed to make money. The hoodie itself I’d expect to pay more than £30 for in a shop, so to get that, a medal, the food, AND a race for that price was a bargain.
Would I do it again? Hell, yeah!