I sit here, a couple of days after running the hardest race I have ever run feeling nothing. I don’t feel epic, I don’t feel like a champion, I don’t feel like I have achieved anything out of the ordinary. There’s a kind of disappointment somewhere there – a disappointment in my self - that maybe I am not as good as I thought I was, that maybe I fucked up my race by being too blasé out the distance and terrain. There is always the eternal question of ‘what’s the point’. There’s a kind of fog which is hard to think through – possibly a type of exhaustion. I am exhausted. But it’s disappointment that looms large above all else. I just have no pride in what I did. I know these feelings will shift and change but they are here now, so I need to explain to myself what, if anything, I did wrong to make me feel this way.
I signed up to the Devon Coast to Coast last year, when my boyfriend told me he fancied doing a 100 miler. All the Centurion events were booked out at that time, and so on a whim, without looking at any info, I signed us both up for this one.
The 117 mile race is organised by Climb South West – a fairly new boy on the Ultra Running scene. The inaugural event took place in 2018 and was, by all accounts, marred by problems including terrible weather. I took a quick look at the results. The first man came in at around 26 hours, first lady at around 36 hours. I took this as meaning that the people who had taken part weren’t your top level endurance athletes, and that I had quite a good chance of winning. This is now a laughable concept. I felt quietly confident , and decided to make it my “A” game race for the year. I took it pretty seriously, but as I had already got two sub 24 hour 100 milers under my hat, I stupidly though I had enough experience to smash the extra 17 miles and easily get in for under 30 hours. I was so, so wrong.
Myself and Julius (the boyfriend) had gone out and recee’d most of the route. The only parts we had not done were the first 15 miles to Ivybridge and the last 10 miles from Simonsbath, as I had run those bits a few times in the past. The race is self-nav and runs along the (very poorly marked) Two Moors Way. It runs from Wembury in the south to Lynmouth in the north. It runs straight across Dartmoor and Exmoor and all the bits in between.
We had gone out and done a weekend in March and then another one over the April bank holiday – we knew most of the quirks of the course and we knew the brutal terrain. I still didn’t waver. I still thought I had this race in the bag. I knew it was going to be hard. I just had no idea how hard it was going to punch me in the face. The week before we ran the Ox Epic – 75 hilly miles over 3 days as a warm up. It took us about 17 hours all in. We felt relaxed and fit. It boosted our confidence.
We were lucky enough to have my very good friend and Head of Crew ™ Lorna Spayne crewing us. You don’t need crew on this race, as it’s supported with pretty good aid stations, but I am so, so glad we had her. She was involved from day one with planning. She came on the recees and we talked about strategy at length. We had a plan A, B and C and then the usual plan D (just fucking finish it). This plan was printed, laminated and given to everyone. I spent the whole day before the race making snack and food bags so we could easily grab them out of the car. I had clearly written on the plan when we should eat and what we should eat it. When we should get changed and what we should get changed into. I had this covered. I so thought I had it covered.
The day of the race came. Lorna came to the hotel to pick us up at stupid o’clock and take us to registration. We got to Wembury village hall, and that’s when I first started feeling that I may be a little out of my depth. Everyone looked relaxed and fit, everyone had amazing kit. People knew each other and were laughing and chatting and having a lovely time. Lorna pointed out all the amazing athletes in the room – Arc of Attrition winners, Spine runners, people who had done Dragons Back, Bob Graham Rounds and me. And Julius. It made me start to feel nervous and a bit sick. 117 miles is a long way. Dartmoor and Exmoor are horrible. I feel sick.
Julius was relentlessly cheerful as always – I was worried I had fucked his first 100 by entering him into this. That was the first time that I really thought I may not be able to do it.
I gave myself a talking to and decided on the “just 50 miles today and then we will see how we feel” strategy. Just 50 miles. Chunk it down. Except with 117 you can’t chunk it down because there is an extra 17 miles. There was a lot of chat at the start about how long the route ACTUALLY was. Most people’s maps said 107. But then what about getting lost and what about the wiffles and waffles of the moors? I decided to try and keep 117 in my head for the whole time, but I was so hoping for 107.
We walked down to the beach and said our goodbyes to our crew and that was it – we started running. The first few miles were lovely – we had some great chats with people that we half knew from other races and took the whole thing really easy. I tried not to think about how far we had to go. It was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Ivybridge - most of the terrain was runnable, and we go there fairly quickly. Lorna was there waiting and we swapped snack bags and got back on the road pretty fast – we knew the course for the next 80 miles so that made us feel more confident.
We got our heads down and marched up the hills onto Dartmoor. It was such a great day weather wise – cool with cloud cover and a breeze and we were making good progress. FYI the whole thing is up hill. The downs are short and sharp and the ups are constant, rocky and fucking annoying. We had 13 miles to the next aid station at Holne so totted along talking to people, dogs and lambs. Coming into Holne we met Lorna who had hot coffee and pretty much anything else you could think of in the back of her car. Again she fed us and asked us questions. I feel like we spent a little too much time at the car, but after we had refilled and refuelled we trotted off again – next aid station was only 6.2 miles away, and then we were onto the moors proper.
The climb up to the trig point was long and arduous, but we kept marching pretty quick – we were managing 4 miles per hour on the long climbs, running on the flats and down the hills. The moors were beautiful and brutal and nowhere near as wet as they had been during the recce so everything was going like clockwork. At this point the ETA on my watch for the following day was 8am. That would make this a 24 hour race. As if that was going to happen.
We stopped short of the next aid station to eat the first of 3 dinners. I had bought Wayfayrer wet pouches for Lorna to warm up for us and we sat in the carpark just short of the Metherall checkpoint and ate our dinner. We spent about 20 mins eating and drinking and got back on with it – eyes on the prize to get to the halfway point at Hittersleigh before dark, get changed, get dinner number two and march it through the night.
Physically I was ok at this point, I was eating properly and not pushing it speed wise – I was aware this was Julius’ first 100 and wanted to get him there. At some points I was actually having a brilliant time, and things were hilarious and wonderful. I really wanted to triumph in the second half of the race and felt really focussed. What I hadn’t bargained for was how the terrain would take it’s toll on me over time. It’s a fucking hard race. Anyone that’s been up to Dartmoor can tell you that. On paper it doesn’t look too bad – about 15,000ft elevation across the whole thing. In reality it’s constant up and downs and the terrain moves under your feet, with rock and rubble sending you skidding down hills, bogs to navigate, tiny trails, rabbit holes etc etc. But it is BEAUTIFUL beyond belief. I wanted to ty and take it all in. I made friends with some ponies. Or tried to. I did a dance on the way up past Castle Drogo and petted dogs and was happy. I wish I could have held on to those feelings.
We managed to get into Hittersleigh (halfway point) at 10pm – we had been running for about 14 hours. We were now firmly in Plan B land, but that was OK. Lorna and Dom refilled bottles while we got changed into night kit – it was getting cold. I changed my socks, put on a warm base layer and gloves, ate my delicious chilli. Drank some coffee and resigned myself to getting back out there. It was now 10.45 pm. I wanted to get to 75 miles before daybreak. It was then that my maths started going bad.
Tiredness does weird stuff to you. I personally become obsessed with numbers, when in normal life I am useless with numbers, and never really think about them. I do really bad tired maths over and over again trying to work out when we are going to get to the next aid station, working out how many hours it will take to do 4 miles. Gah. We had left the aid station with a couple of guys that we had run with fairly constantly – Damian and David. They were both lovely and ran just behind us – I think they were glad of the company. We chatted about all sorts of shit.
The night section was made easier by the fact we had recce’d it in the day. We knew where stiles were, we knew how the path would trick us. Even with the map on your watch it’s easy to get lost. I hate running at night – the torch is annoying and I hallucinate a bit. I definitely didn’t eat as well as I should have on this section. I just wanted to march through it. At one stage we turned a corner to find about 10 other people all bumbling around, lost, in the corner. It was weird and quite funny. They were all like little minions with their hedtorches, lost in the dark. We scooped them up and got them through to the next field.
Something that I hadn’t bargained for was the change in season. This makes me sound incredibly stupid and maybe I am. When we did the route 8 weeks ago it was spring – all the grass was short and easy to navigate, no crops and it was a bit muddy but not awful. It was also daylight. Now, in mid-May, the grass was knee high. But most importantly, it was wet. It was full of dew, and it soaked our legs as we marched across field after field. I was wearing my sealskins socks, which are amazing and totally waterproof. That is unless water gets INSIDE them.
Water was soaking through my leggings and into the socks, and because my feet were cold, I wasn’t really noticing it happening. And it was happening for about 9 hours. I don’t remember too much about the second part of the night section. I just remember being really, really tired and a bit scared. We still had so far to go. 117 is not a round number. I was losing the battle with my brain.
At about 4.30am the sun started to rise. But instead of feeling the usual wave of relief, with light signifying the end is near, I felt even more scared. It was getting light and we weren’t even on 70 miles. I didn’t want to eat anymore. I didn’t want to be out there anymore. We still had about 41 miles to go. The tiredness made those miles seem impossible to comprehend. I was messing this up for me and for Julius by not being quick enough. And my feet hurt.
We eventually got into the Wittherage checkpoint at about 5am. Lorna was sleeping in the car – she had met us at just about every checkpoint so far. She had been passing us Lucozade and snacks all night, constantly supporting and encouraging us. When we got into the village hall some people were sleeping, some people were rollering. All of us looked sad and a bit broken. We still had so far to go. So far. Lorna came in and made us coffee.
I took my shoes off to change my socks. And here comes the bit where everyone reading calls me a fucking idiot. I didn’t bring a second pair of shoes. I have never changed my shoes half way through a race, and the weather looked fine, so I just didn’t bring a second pair. My trainers were fucking SOAKED. My feet were soaked and wrinkled and soft. I didn’t have a towel to dry them off and it was freezing cold in the hall. So I used a buff. This didn’t really work, but I was not functioning on any real level of intellect, so I just covered them in Vaseline, put fresh socks on and put my soaking trainers back on. This was not my best idea. Not that I had a choice.
A quick word on the aid stations. Climb South West have the best people on their stations – everyone is brilliant, friendly, nice and helpful. But they don’t have a whole lot of food at them – so it’s advisable to think about that if you’re planning on doing this. There’s the usual – crisps, jelly babies etc but nothing really chunky apart from at the halfway point. I was hungry. It was morning and I didn’t want another fucking peanut butter sandwich. So I had some watermelon. This was the beginning of the end for me. I had made some stupid mistakes with kit and foot care and couldn’t deal with the fact that we had over 40 miles to go. I was losing my position mentally. Julius was doing well, and I felt like I was holding him back. I tried to encourage him to go on without me, but he wouldn’t. And I am glad he didn’t. But I felt like I was letting him down.
After spending way too much time at the checkpoint procrastinating, we left and headed onwards over Exmoor. Exmoor is so different to Dartmoor – the only similarity being they are both utter fucking bastards for hills. I had marched and run partially through the night but I had not run enough, and I was seizing up. I couldn’t run without everything including my skin hurting. It was a horrible realisation. I was going to have to just do the best I could. I felt terrible for Julius. My feet had also started to hurt pretty significantly. I could feel them being rubbed raw. I just kept going.
Time passed by, the sun came up, the long slow uphills on roads were arduous, the downhills on trails hurt. I was completely exhausted – I had never been on my feet running for this long. It had been almost 26 hours, and I thought I would be much closer to the end than I was. I desperately needed sleep, but there was no way that was going to happen. I felt frustrated and angry. I was irrational and tired. I know that now. At the time I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing better. I didn’t know what better was. I just thought I should be doing this better.
I was hungry but felt sick, I wanted to run but could only march. There are parts of this time that I don’t really remember very well. Maybe that’s for the best.
After another 10 miles we got to the West Ansty Checkpoint. There was some hot food here and pasties but I didn’t want any of them. Lorna was once again there with some food that she had bought from the garage. I sat on the kerb outside the hall looking at the floor. A cat came over for a stroke. It was another 11 miles to the Withypool checkpoint and then 16 miles after that to the end. My feet were now killing me, but I didn’t dare take my shoes off. It was at this point that I realised I was being beaten. I couldn’t do it anymore. I just didn’t have the strength.
I thought about my mental health. I thought about the days that I didn’t feel like I could go on living. I compared the two feelings, which was hard in the tired fog I sat in. I remembered “one foot in front of the other until you get to the end. One minute at a time.” I was in physical pain and I was in mental pain. 22 miles seemed like forever. How would we ever get to the end? How had I let this happen? We left the checkpoint slowly. I’ll just get to the Tarr Steps I thought. Just to the Tarr Steps.
After another painfully slow 6 miles, we got to the steps. I stood there and just burst into tears. Lorna was there with ice cream. Julius, who had been mega cheerful up until this point starred at me. I stood there all pale and tired and crying. I couldn’t go on. I announced that I was done. I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint at Withypool, about 5 miles away. I truly believed it was over.
Julius came up to me and he looked awful – which is a strange thing because he is always so cheerful. He told me I had to go on. He said he couldn’t do it on his own. I looked at him. I sort of believed him. I once again felt like I had let him down – I was the experienced one and I was letting him down. I felt angry and horribly frustrated. I sat down and ate my Calippo and then we automatically started walking towards Withypool. I’ll just get there and then I can look at my feet. It’s only 5 miles.
I love this part of the route – I have run it a lot. That made it even more frustrating. My feet were so painful it was having an effect on the rest of my body – I was moving at strange angles and my ITB had started hurting. The trails I am used to trotting along at speed seemed to stretch forever. It was horrible. I was refusing to eat. I just didn’t want to anymore. I got the standard response form Lorna: “EAT! I don’t mind falling out with you about this!!”. Lorna can be scary. I still didn’t eat.
Eventually we turned the corner to the check point at Withypool. Lorna’s car was there and so was Dom. The marshall’s at the aid stations were so kind. When they asked what we wanted the standard response of “beer” came out of our mouths and to our absolute delight one of the marshall’s produced just that from his car. It was so delicious. For 5 minutes I forgot about everything that was awful. Beer for the win. This is how I would get myself to the end. There was a pub a Simonsbath. I would aim for the pub – just get there and then, if it was too much, I would pull out. That pub was 10 miles from the end.
In all the excitement of the beer and the fact I ate a croissant in front of a very proud Lorna, I didn’t think about my feet. As we started the route towards Simonsbath, they got more and more painful. The trails take you across the rocky terrain of Exmoor – nothing flat to run or walk on and it was agony. About 2 miles into the 6 mile section I just stopped. And burst into tears. Again. And told Julius that I couldn’t do it. Again. It hurt so, so much. It felt like there were huge blisters on the ball of each foot full of liquid. I felt like I could feel them popping with every step. This was, of course, all in my brainhole. Julius was so patient with me. He found a routing that was almost flat. I know my way through Exmoor to Simonsbath – again it’s a favourite running route of mine - so I knew how far it was. Julius promised to sort my feet out once we got to the pub. He promised to buy me a beer to help with the pain. We had a full on first aid kit in the car – it would be fine.
We painfully limped into the pub garden and I sat down and took my shoes and socks off. Julius and Lorna looked at me with a sort of mock horror. They were white and wrinkled and soaked. There were pock marks and blisters on the balls of my feet – they were borderline trenchfoot. I’ve seen trenchfoot before, and that is where they were headed. 14-15 hours of being soaking wet and pounded on the rock-hard floor. They hadn’t got anywhere near this bad when I was I Panama. I was an idiot. This was my fault. I just didn’t think they would get wet. Dom bought me a pint and we tried to dry them off – making rudimentary soft bandages out of first aid kit and KT tape. This would have to do. I should have bought other trainers. FUCKS SAKE. I couldn’t find any dry socks (I had so many pairs in the car – I was just too tired to remember). I used a pair of Julius’ normal socks. They would have to do. I put my foot into my trainer, burst into tears and announced it hadn’t worked. Still another 10 miles to the end. That was when I took ALL the painkillers, downed my pint, had a word with myself, got up and for some reason got the fuck on with it.
The last 10 miles were stunningly beautiful and horribly hilly. Huge ascents and even worse descents. We had lost a lot of time at aid stations and checkpoints. That is a huge regret, but we had no idea what was going to happen. At the pace we were going, our ETA in Lynmouth was now 8.15 pm. The hours ticked by painfully slowly, but the painkillers meant that I could get a bit of speed up on the march, doing 14 mins miles, which was an improvement on the previous 6 miles.
Finally, we started to see the light at the end. I looked at my watch – 3 miles to go. This was it. I felt buoyed. I could do this. It was nearly over. But there was something strange going on. My watch said it was going to take me and hour and twenty mins to do those 3 miles. I knew there was a hill at the end – the race director had told us, but he just said a slight ascent – it couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t take us that long.
It was that bad. The end of the race takes you up Porlock Hill (the steepest A road in the UK at 1 in 4 or 25%). Then you come off it, onto another trail track that is even steeper. This takes you up, and up, and up. I think it’s known as the Two Cleaves – might be wrong. But for someone that’s not keen on ridges with steep drops it’s pretty horrible, even on fresh legs. It just keeps climbing going up on a very thin trail, snaking back on itself over and over again until you reach the top. It took us almost an hour to get to the top. My legs were jelly. I tried to see the beauty in what we were doing, but fear and tired rage were slightly overcoming my ability to enjoy it. Finally, it goes back down, and downhill was still hard. Julius fell once, I nearly fell a couple of times. A 1000ft surprise at the end of a 112 mile race.
We popped out on the streets on Lynmouth. It was beautiful. The sun was going down and we could see the end. We tried to run it in, but we couldn’t. We eventually turned the corner to see the race organiser, the van and the Wire Man marking the end of The Two Moors Way. We had done it. We had fucking done it. And it had taken us 36 hours and 37 minutes.
There were no tears, there was no collapse or feeling of completion. I was overjoyed to be allowed to stop, but I was just so, so tired. There were photos and a cuddle. There was Lorna running out from the pub to say she had ordered our dinner. There was the buckle. There was the end. It was finished.
We went straight to the pub where some of the other competitors were eating and drinking. It was so lovely to see them all. I ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir and drank it in about 30 seconds. A delicious (organic and free range thanks) steak was put in front of me – I managed to eat half of it. And that was it. It was over.
In the days following the event I’ve had the usual post big race misery. The one I am still sat in now. As I said at the start, my overwhelming feeling is disappointment. I am disappointed in myself. I should have been stronger, faster and more prepared. I let the trail get to me – I almost let it break me. I didn’t prepare for wet feet at all. How had I managed 5 days in the jungle totally fine and fucked up on a trail in England? I feel like I was a burden to Julius. He has the makings of an epic and fast 100 mile runner, and I held him back. I feel like maybe I am not as cut out for these distances as I thought I was. There were times in that race that I thought I might never run again. That scared me. I am known for my whole ‘you run for you’ thing here I am ripping myself apart about it.
I know deep, deep down that all this shit thinking is bollocks. I know it will go away. I just wish I could have this event differently. I don’t want to feel like this. I want to feel proud and happy about my achievements. The DNF rate was high for this rate – around 40%. So maybe I WILL do it differently. I think I have to go back. I think I have to make that route a joy and not a hell. I think in two or three years, when I am a little more experienced, I will go and return the favour to those trails. I know what to expect now.
Lastly, a shout out to the race organisers. As I said, this is a new race and one that I should really have done more research on. It is a lot harder than I gave it credit for on the recces. The organisation, the marshalls and the checkpoints were brilliant. Not as much food as I am used to, but it’s my opinion that your food is your own responsibility anyway. You just need a good chat and some encouragement at a checkpoint, and you got it from these guys.
Finally, an answer to the question ‘how hard was it though?’ There was a runner there called Laura Swanton. She came in first female, completing the race about 10 hours quicker than me. This year, she also won the 100 odd mile Arc of Attrition – a renowned sufferfest held on the Cornish Coast in February. Lorna told me that in passing conversation she had said that the Two Moors Way makes The Arc look like “a piece of piss”. And that made me feel a bit better. Maybe I just haven’t realised that it IS actually is a very hard course, and I’m not just a bit pathetic. Maybe I did do my best. Maybe I should be proud. That won’t stop me trying again.
I have a feeling about this race. I have a feeling it’s going to become very, very big and very, very famous. Sign up now before that happens. www.climbsouthwest.com