Tag Archives: coast path

Red Bull Steeplechase: race report (catch-up part two)

My catch-up quest continues! Three more races to get through, starting with a big one (literally):

Red Bull Steeplechase – 18 June

This was one of my favourite races of 2016, and when I saw that it was coming back to Exmoor for a second year, I couldn’t resist. Despite the huge hike in price. In 2016, I’d been pretty close to making it through the second checkpoint, and onto Lynton, but I missed out by a couple of minutes. I was itching for the chance to go further. Of course, then we had a baby, didn’t get enough sleep to train properly, and I came to realise that even equalling last year’s effort would be a fair achievement! This race also happened in what was pretty much the hottest weather I have ever run in. So not ideal… (Getting my excuses in early.)

The race started at 9:30, which I had figured would be one small mercy with the weather. Except that the day before the race, I was doing some gardening at 9:30, and it was already baking hot, so there would be no respite. I mostly tried to stay out of the sun before the race started, and made sure I drank plenty. I also toyed with my race tactics – namely my plan for the start. Last year I was surprised by the pace of the start – we did the first half mile at around 5k pace, as it went through the street (singular) of Lynmouth and then hit a bottleneck at the coastal path.

Ultimately, I decided to take it a bit easier in the heat, and then slowly pick my way through the field later on when it was wider. I then completely ignored this plan, and pelted it through Lynmouth at what Strava suggests was pretty much exactly the same pace as last year. After that quick half mile, we then had a slow half mile of hill climbing. Very slow in fact. The first half mile took about three minutes. The other half took about eight minutes. But, important detail, that was the first horrible climb completed.

After that first hill, things level off for a time, and I could just run. Each mile was slower than 2016, but between the training and the heat, it was still feeling pretty tough. Very tough in fact. About six and a half miles in, running alongside the River Heddon, I stopped for a drink station. Credit to Red Bull: there were lots of drinks stations, and they were very well stocked with bottles of water and cups of Red Bull or a water/Red Bull mix. When I say that I stopped, I really mean it. In a knockout race, I, along with two others I’d been running along with, came to a complete stop to drink a complete 500 ml bottle of water. Such was the heat, and such was the knowledge of the hill to come.

But now, some good news! The marshal at the drink station asked if we’d done it last year. Yes, we all had. Well, he said, that horrible hill climb through the scrub? Not there. Instead we’d turn left and head up the coast path instead. Great!

For some context. These two “struggling” runners came first and fourth. This is how hard the course is.

No, it bloody wasn’t.

It turns out that when you’re at 120 ft, and the checkpoint is at 815 ft, there isn’t really an “easy” option. In 2016, we had one horrible climb, and then a gentler ascent up the road to the checkpoint at about 8.7 miles. This year, the climb up rugged terrain just seemed to go on forever, and the first checkpoint wasn’t until 9.4 miles. On the two intermediate checkpoints, I’d been 110th and 108th, but I knew I’d dropped places heading up the never-ending hill and was 113th. Considering my expectations, I was surprised at how highly I was placed – in 2016, I’d been 128th through the first checkpoint.

Through the second section of the race, things became more lonely as the field spread out, and I was really starting to struggle in the heat. There aren’t really any flat sections of the route, and I was taking frequent walking breaks. Where in 2016 I’d been cheerily acknowledging walkers and those around me, this time I was grunting and hoping for it all to be over. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning. But my body wasn’t really up for it, and I didn’t cope with the heat very well. Amazingly, I finished in exactly the same position, 110th in both 2016 and 2017. But whereas in 2016, I was only 2:44 behind 100th, this time I was 5:41 behind.

Some other comparisons; last year it cost £30, this year £45. Last year, there were 281 men and 96 women. This year 198 men and 93 women. I fear that the race might have to either move again, or consider the price. It’s an expensive race to put on, and Red Bull do a hell of a lot to make it worthwhile. The drinks (as I said) were well stocked, there was a free “runner’s lunch”, this year it was a pasty, followed by a cream tea. The hoodie from last year had been downgraded to a cotton tee though. And yet again, despite photographers and videographers all over the course, there were no participant photos, just a “pool” of about 15 shots available to the press. To me, this was the most disappointing aspect. Red Bull could get lots more publicity and marketing exposure by making the photos available, with big Red Bull logos in the corner. We’d have shared them on social media, especially given the amazing backdrop. But there was nothing.

All that said, if the race is back on Exmoor again next year… you know, I’d probably do it again: I really want to get to Lynton, and get the train down the cliff.

Right. This was meant to be all three race reports, but I got a bit carried away with the Steeplechase! Look out for part three…

 

Red Bull Steeplechase: race report

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.

Pre-race

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.

2016-10-09-08-48-10

Race village – who sponsors this again?

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!

The race

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!

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

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.

See that river down there? That's the River Heddon. See these high bits either side? Yeah.

See that river down there? That’s the River Heddon. See these high bits either side? Yeah.

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.

Race profile. Pretty flat... not.

Race profile. Pretty flat… not.

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.

All done!

All done!

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!

A great medal.

A great medal.

... and a brilliant hoodie from the Red Bull Steeplechase

… and a brilliant hoodie.