Jurassic Coast Challenge

The hills were steep and often, the miles many, the terrain varied and frequently difficult, but the sun was shining and the steep hills, varied terrain and many miles were all part of the challenge as Han and I set off to try and complete a marathon a day for 3 days over the rugged Jurassic Coast down in south Devon.

Travel back 6 months and it was yet another sunny day as Han came back from visiting her brother with knowledge of this formidable challenge now planted as an ever growing seed in her mind. She had seen some crazy runners plodding along the picturesque coastal path in Weymouth, around 15 miles into their 2nd day of the three 26.2 mile routes.

“This could be a fun challenge?” she thought
“Sounds like a whole lotta crazy!” I replied

And so the seed took root, the seed grew, and the seed blossomed until we found ourselves listening to the organiser of the VoTwo Jurassic Coast Challenge explain the OS driven map route for day 1 of the 3 day event.

The event in question was a 78mile route along the picturesque south coastal path starting at a non-descript hill 26 miles west of event HQ in Weymouth. Each day was a full marathon distance self-guided run (no markers or race signs), following the coastal path step for step, finishing up on Shell Bay a few miles North of Swanage 3 days later.

The first day had a relatively late start of 11:30am, and as we watched the eclipse swallow the land into darkness before releasing its enveloping cloak to reveal a glorious sunlight day, Han and I took our tentative first steps on our mammoth journey. We had been casually pretending to not peak at the weather report the week before, not wanting to jinx the outcome in some form of uncertainty principle belief, and we had either played our cards just right, or more likely had lucked-out, as the sun was shining but not scorching, the wind was a confortable 4-5mph, and the first mile was a downhill saunter with wonderful vista’s of high rising cliffs and golden beaches ahead of us.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 19.38.48We jogged on down, feeling light footed and free as the mass start of the 100 or so runners (and one dog) gradually thinned out and found their natural gaits and rhythms that would hopefully see them cross the finish line anywhere between 4 and 9 hours later.

Day 1 would see two monster hills approach and test us within the first 4 miles, but at such an early stage of the challenge our legs were still fresh and still warming up, and the vistas that we were rewarded with were worth the un-guilty walking that had seen us slowly traverse the 200m peaks. We stopped and briefly ate at checkpoint 1 a quarter into the first days distance before hitting probably the hardest part of the full 3 days; around 2-3 miles of intermittent shingle beach. This stuff just sucked all energy out of you, as each step just jostled the stones beneath your feet as you sank into their opening and closing chasms of energy sapping hard work.

“I think it will be easier if we just try and run across it” Han propositioned as she skipped elf like past every single other runner who was walking through the shingle pathways.

Not one for being left behind I grumbled my ascent and 15 mins later we were out the other side and closing in on checkpoint 2. As we neared the half way mark of the day Han started to feel some pain in her left knee, but shrugged it off as we gorged our way through cheese and pickle sandwiches, my new running favourite of cheesy cheddars, while stuffing flapjack and some crisps for later consumption into my running bags pockets.

As the energy slowly released itself into my slightly weary legs, the rest of the day was spent with Chisel Beach an ever-present visual spit of land between our route and the English Channel.

5 hours, 28mins and 48 seconds later we crossed the finish line to a few claps and cheers from the staff who were present, sat down and high fived to a job well done. We had done the first day, ran the first marathon, completed a third of the challenge and spent the next 20-30mins stretching and inhaling our recovery foods that we had planned out earlier on.

Click above to view the ‘story’ of day 1.

My emotions were somewhat mixed at the finish. Usually after a day of running the job is done. Beers are drank and highs and lows are discussed with other runners. Your training has been put into practice and utilised to its max and its time to head on home and celebrate accordingly. However this event had a much different feel to it as people discussed recovery tactics, what the next day was like and if there were any aches or pains or worries. I was wondering what my legs were going to feel like the next day and if running another marathon around 16 hours later was going to push me further into the valley of pain.

The mood was a lot more mellow and reserved.

After a carbo-filled dinner at Hans brothers and wifes pad just 30miles north of race HQ, it was a much earlier start of 8:30am the next day as the mill of runners lined up at the point of last evenings finish to carry on the coastal path journey.

My legs had a ‘you’ve just ran a marathon yesterday’ feel to them, although nothing too worrying yet, but Han’s knee was still giving her issues and was on both our minds as we trudged off over the first few flat pavement driven miles. Soon however it was up up up to the flat tops of Portland peninsula which we were to circumnavigate for the next 10 miles before hitting our starting point which doubled up as the days half way mark.

The day started well, the weather once again was gorgeous, a lovely mix of sunshine peeking out from behind light clouds with cooling winds to push you onwards, sideways or backwards depending. After a couple of miles all 4 of our legs warmed up and settled in to the acceptance of what was to come; they didn’t feel like they were going to run a new 10k PB, but they certainly weren’t grumbling as much as I had originally feared.

We ran around and through a quarry with stone sculptures, had amazing vistas overlooking the channel and surrounding countryside with grand white cliffs dropping away to wave driven rock shores and after an hour of leaving the warmth of race HQ we hit the first checkpoint. We stopped for a quick refuel but as we set off Han had to stop, stretch and assess the knee situation. It was hurting – not in a tired muscular way – but hurting in a more acute injury way. With strong determination however we set off at a very relaxed pace and slowly she seemed to find a sustainable groove and we started to once again enjoy the views and run.

As we approached checkpoint 2, the original race HQ, and half way through the second days distance, we hit 3 miles of tarmac running, and the repetitive pounding seemed to put stress and pain through Han’s knee. We hit the second checkpoint, and after a prolonged stop, and an attempt at carrying on only to backtrack, it was with an amazing strong willed decision that Han had to pull out. I had seen Han run 50mile races, complete half ironman distances and paddle for a week down the Yukon River, and it was no mean feat for her to pull out – physically the muscles were not sore and she could have carried on, but the acute injury meant an end to her race.

After ensuring she was fine and had contacted her brother, I carried on and flew out from checkpoint 2. I had a renewed sense of determination and quickly passed runner after runner as my pace rocketed to un-before known speeds. I hit checkpoint 3 feeling better and running faster than I had the previous 45 miles – Han was there to greet me and I was overjoyed to see her and appreciated her supporting the rest of my run. Just 6 miles more to go till two-thirds of the challenge was done.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 19.40.20Two thirds of some serious rollercoaster hill climbs and descents however. As I threaded my way up the first climb I knew not what was in store, until a couple of female runners kindly informed me that this was just one of 2-3 more.

As I ran up and away from them, before slowly descending the first hill, I looked back over my right shoulder and saw in the very far distance Portland standing proudly out to sea. 4 and a half hours ago I was there, running around jutting peninsula, and the sheer scale and distance that I had progressed from took my breath away. Often when running, distances are mere markers, numbers that are ticked off and measured against, but seeing the original starting point around 15 miles away put it all a little into perspective. This was a long race!

As the first of 3 quad burning hills approached however it was back to business, and as we all ascended and descended past gorgeous coves, rock formations and refreshing sea breezes the finish line slowly but surely came nearer. As I walked up the final hill near Lulworth Cove, passing hundreds of tourists and walkers alike, some moving out of the way, others watching with what I liked to think was awe, but which was much more likely to be irrelevancy, the change of human scenery was refreshing and gave me an extra metaphorical jump in my step, allowing me to ignore the quads and achilles heel pain to run down the final steps to the finish line of day 2. Han was of course there to greet me, ensure I got my recovery food and look after a sore runner’s legs.

As Han and I drove back to the amazing hosts of Tom and Miriam, who were now joined by Han’s and Tom’s parents, my emotions were once again confused. I felt awful for Han, overjoyed at finishing day two, relieved at having no real injuries, trepidacious about a third marathon tomorrow and worried about recovering enough to get some enjoyment out of tomorrow.

However, a nice recovery beer (or two), a whole host of food, and Han getting her birthday presents and an awesome cake, proved to lighten my confused mind, allowing me to just concentrate on the moment and enjoy the evening before crashing out early as my eyes slowly closed around their warming surroundings.

Click above to view the ‘story’ of day 2.

Day 3 arrived. I woke up lying in bed, having had a bad nights sleep with restless legs yet fairly buyout that when mentally inspecting my condition feeling no worrying aches or pains. Then I got up and tried to stand. Oh there you are quads. Welcome to team left achilles. Oh calves you wish to join in as well – come join the party. Yep – I was sore and my body was letting me know.

“How you feeling” Tom enquired as I was shovelling my calorie driven breakfast of Weetabix and nuts into my sleep deprived body.

“F*!cked” I replied.

Check out Mr Grumpy in the morning! Nothing a cup of tea can’t help though, and by the time I was on the road by 8am I was actually a little more perky and looking forward to starting, to getting this beast done, dusted and in the bag.

The usual days briefing on the route, things to look out for and changes to the usual ways were pointed out.

“And then its just 3miles of beach to massage those weary feet of yours to the finish” the organiser announced to a chorus of groans.

We all jumped into the minibus to take us to yesterdays finish and todays start and around an hour later after chatting away to the other runners on the bus, were off.

The day started like yesterdays ended, with hill climbs and descents, but just like the day before I started to warm up fairly quickly and actually found a decent pace to set out to. As I trudged up the first hill I found myself in top spot, ahead of everyone else and moving at a decent pace.

“Maybe I’m going out too fast”
“But then the quicker you go the quicker you’ll finish”
“Use it while you’ve got it, if you feel good then go for it”
“You’ll pay for this later on”

Were all mixed messages my brain was sending my excitable legs. Maybe the synapsis were overworked and confused, maybe my legs had just given up caring and figured they’d help out and give me some speed, or maybe I was delirious at knowing that every step was one step closer to the real finish, the finish of finishes. Whatever it was I was running well, I was out in front and enjoying the pace. As a GB runner passed me I let her go but maintained my second spot until suddenly I turned around and noticed no-one behind me.

I had been running up and around some boulders atop a hill and had followed what seemed like the natural path to follow. But after 300m with no-one behind me I started to wonder. I paused, waited for 10 seconds before getting worried I’d strayed off-course. Suddenly a pre-race briefing note came to me, something about around 5 miles in to go right and not follow the path. I checked my OS map, checked my watch, put 1 and 1 together and made 2. I had veered off the route and needed to backtrack the 300m to where I should have gone, turned the correct way to follow a steep descent and saw 10 or so runners ant-like trailing off in the distance.

I hadn’t approached this as a race, this was all about the challenge, but my relatively awake and energy fuelled legs had flicked a switch in my brain, and said brain started to throw around the idea that I could run todays route harder and faster than previous days. I was frustrated and annoyed at myself but soon calmed down and put a pace on that would take me forwards towards the front-runners, yet not overwork my body by playing catch-up within 2 miles. By checkpoint 2 however I was once again in second place and stopped to refuel and chat to the aid station staff.

As 4 or 5 other relatively fast runners came in, I let 3 of them go ahead as I refuelled properly, stuffing more sandwiches, crisps and cheesy cheddars into my mouth before slowly starting off again to finish the final 13miles. I was soon joined by 2 other runners, one of which was running the whole thing with his dog, Daisy. We all ran together along the beautiful coastal path, Daisy trotting on ahead, doing repeats up and down hills and turning and scolding us if we slowed down on anything that resembled flat ground.

Day 1 routeThe next 7 or 8 miles passed uneventfully; all three of us stayed together which allowed us all to have out down moments yet be pulled onwards by the other two. As my energy mirrored the rollercoaster of hills that we had ran across, it always seemed as though one of the other two runners were on an up, before we soon switched and I felt fine while they were in a darker place. It was a great way to keep us all going and as we chatted away and helped each other on, the miles ticked by and the distance to the finish was ever growing nearer.

We ran around the final headland, could visually appreciate the final stretch of beach in the near distance, went through a small town before dropping down onto the sand.

The tide was out and had left the sand hardened and relatively easy to run on, however after 75 miles of running, any terrain was a struggle. We put on our best running gaits, played catchup with some of the slower walkers who had set off 2 hours before us, and pounded out the miles. It seemed however that the finish was an ever-disappearing mirage.

“Just around the next corner”
“Maybe the next corner”
“I think I see a finish flag!”
“Nope that’s a buoy in the distance”
“There’s the finish flag!”
“Nope, another buoy”

Was the rough flow of our conversation as we all maintained a fast pace to finish strongly and put this challenge to bed; looking back over my splits in-fact, the final three miles were my fastest of the whole event.

Eventually however, as I was really starting to loose pace and focus, the finish line did appear. It was over a bridge, over some really soft sand before being welcomed into the warm embrace and comforting chair of finish line soup and tarmac. I had done it, it was done. I threw some food and drink down my energy craving throat and crashed on the floor allowing my legs to recognise that all was done and they could start moaning proper now.

The Ager contingent (Han, Tom, Miriam, Alan and Margaret) arrived into the car park a few minutes later and there were hugs and congratulations all around. I had done it. I had ran three marathons over three days, up and down hills, around coves, over beaches, through a whole host of shingles, grasses, mud, fields, towns, villages, promenades and people. I had covered 82 miles (according to my watch), covering an elevation gain of around 3000m, in 14hr and 57mins of running time.

Finish lines at events like this are never the same as the massive 10k, half marathon or marathon distances. With only around 220 runners taking on the challenge, and over such large distances, the finish line only consists of around 5-10 people, and as such you don’t get the buzz and chatter of finish line talk and energy. There isn’t the beaming, exhausted, overwhelmed mass of emotions being thrown around that you catch hold on and take a little on yourself.

As such my emotions were once again somewhat confused. I was sorely disappointed for Han, overwhelmingly relieved for myself, surprised that I had finished stronger and in less pain that I had imagined, and content that another challenge had been taken on and conquered. The scenery had been amazing, the route superb, the weather unconditionally perfect, the staff and organisers phenomenal and my body was surprisingly bruised but not battered.

Job done!