The ‘Westcountry Ultra Hilly 50’ – what a blast!
Organised by Albion Running, the race is part of a three-race series; the Westcountry Ultra Flat 50, the Westcountry Ultra Hilly 50 and the Westcountry 100 – all running over the same weekend. I’d opted for the 50 mile hilly version. With over 8,500ft of elevation, the route starts and finishes in the seaside town of Minehead – taking in coastal paths, ancient woodland and moorlands across Exmoor. It’s a fairly low key event but what it lacks in participants, it certainly makes up for in charm – with breathtaking views across Exmoor and the Bristol Channel.
Training had been going well. Lockdown had been good to me (in running terms) and I was confident with the miles and elevation I’d put in over a 12 week training block. My on-going nemesis – the Achilles – was manageable – still flaring up on occasions but not to the detriment of my running and I was fitter, lighter and healthier than I’d been for a long time thanks to Maegen Fitness; a lifestyle programme I’d been enlisted in since the start of the year.
I’d travelled down to Watchet – just outside Minehead – on Friday afternoon straight from work. I’d booked an Airbnb for the weekend, some 25 minutes drive from the start line which ended up being a really comfortable and relaxing base.
It would be fair to say that conditions in the build up to race day had not been ideal. Persistent rain and high winds had swept across the UK, uncommon for the middle of May – with much the same forecast for race day. This led to me to chopping and changing my kit list in reaction to the ever-changing forecast. Unlike similar events I’d entered, there was no mandatory kit list, so I’d opted to go with the basics – first aid kit, biffy bag, collapsible cup, poles and a waterproof jacket – with the aim to be as light as possible. As you can see from the picture, despite my best intentions – packing light doesn’t always go to plan.
In terms of shoe, I eventually opted for my Hoka ATR Challengers, they’d served me well in training, albeit under dryer conditions and have that extra cushioning required for longer distances when the terrain and mileage starts taking it’s toll. How well they’d handle the wetter conditions however, was still an unknown.
I was joined on the day by Maria and Tom. Maria had been my ‘lockdown buddy’ throughout the pandemic – when restrictions only permitted you to exercise with one other person and Tom’s a good mate who was looking for a new challenge – both didn’t need much persuasion after I’d planted the seed. It was also their first foray into the ultra scene – although both had completed marathon distances in the past so was well within their capabilities. We’d agreed prior to the event that we’d all start the race together but then see what happens as the race unfolds.
Registration was held at West Somerset College at 9am – another low key affair huddled around the car park. We were greeted by Dave Urwin – the Race Director – who handed out our race packs containing our race numbers. I was given number 4 whilst Tom was given – unlucky for some – number 13 – much to our amusement and his despair! Ironically – we later found out from the marshal’s that they’d got the race packs mixed up and I should have been assigned number 13 whist Tom was down as number 4 – oh well, no harm done – other than to test Tom’s nerves from the start!
Unlike previous years, due to Covid restrictions the race started from the College and not from the beach promenade (they usually transport participants by coach after registration). They’d also had to amend the route slightly so the Westcountry Ultra Hilly 50 was in fact the West Country Ultra Hilly 47.4 miles – slightly disappointing but understandable in the current climate. – the fact that the race was going ahead was a bonus in itself.
With only 50 participants, we were given starting waves, in groups of 6, one minute apart which I suppose ticked the ‘social distancing’ box but also made for a nice start – being applauding as you left by the remaining waves was a nice touch.
And then we were off…
The first couple of miles were all tarmac as we made our way from the college down to the seafront and across the beach promenade – the location of Minehead parkrun. I was running with Tom and Maria at this point and although you could sense the nervous energy, the conversation was flowing and we were all in good spirit – looking forward to what lay ahead.
By mile 3 we’d arrived at the foot of the first climb, ascending up through Culver Cliff Woods. With Tom taking the opportunity to use the public facilities, Maria and I continued on ahead as it winds its way up through the tree line with views out over Minehead. At just shy of 2 miles, with 610 ft of elevation and a gradient of 5.9%, it’s a fair old climb but comfortable on fresh legs and we made steady progress. Once at the top we joined the South West Coastal Path towards Bossington.
This was a very runnable section with panoramic views across the Bristol Channel and Exmoor. As forecast, the heavens opened and we were greeted with torrential rain but we were in good spirits so continued at a comfortable pace.
Unfortunately, it was on this section that we encountered a group of riders whereby one of the horses had become distressed by the presence of a group of runners up ahead and bolted – causing a young girl to be thrown out of the saddle. A stark reminder of the dangers whilst approaching horses and something that should probably be briefed by all organisers prior to events.
By mile 8 we descended down Bossington Hill. At 539ft with a gradient of 30.3% it was tough on the quads and with the realisation that this was an out-and-back course, knowing that we’d be coming back up this hill at mile 39 on tired legs was a sobering thought! We made slow, steady progress until we reached the foot of the hill and the first checkpoint. A quick check-in, toilet break, water refill and we were off.
The next 3 miles were mostly runnable as the coastal path made its way across waterlogged fields, single file tracks and open moorland towards Porlock Weir Beach – with the latter being a pebble and rock beach which ‘ankle breaking’ capabilities so we took it slow and steady to avoid injury.
Once we’d safely navigated our way across the beach, we reached checkpoint 2 at mile 11 and the start of some unwanted pressure…
We’d been making good process up to this point. We were running to feel, the conversation had been flowing and we were simply enjoying the adventure. We’d started in wave 4, we’d overtaken a few runners and likewise we’d been overtaken by a few but we had no idea (and didn’t really care) about where we were in the field. Upon approaching checkpoint 2, the marshal congratulated Maria on being first lady. Although we were only on mile 11 of 47+ with a long way to go – and no real expectations – the mood changed slightly and the race felt like it had more of a competitive edge to it – something I think neither of us wanted. This didn’t last long – and I’ll explain more later – but for the next few miles we were both probably guilty of overthinking it and the race went from a comfortable run to pushing it slightly too hard over certain sections.
It was also the start of the nav issues.
We left checkpoint 2 and continued to run along the seafront, only to be stopped in our tracks by my watch beeping at me for being off-course. We retraced our steps and found the turn-off point – a single file trail heading up through some woods towards St Beuno’s Church. Rejoining the route, we now found ourselves behind a group of 5 runners – 4 ladies and a gent who’d obviously taken the correct route. Maria went from 1st to 5th lady. We followed them for a short while before the path widened out and we were able to overtake them on an incline – another tough climb with a 13.3% gradient and pull ahead.
At mile 14 we reached St Beuno’s Church – said to be the smallest parish church in England. Located in a quiet combe looking out to sea, it was also the first hint that the notes and GPX files we were given didn’t necessarily match up with the markings on course and it took us a fair few minutes to find the correct trail.
Correct trail found, we made our way up another steep climb before reaching some country lanes which headed towards Culbone. We made good pace here for a couple of miles, probably running slightly faster than planned but still in good spirits before making another incorrect turn, carrying on along a track for a quarter of mile or so, instead of making a sharp left, down a steep embankment. Retracing our steps put us back behind the group of 5.
Once again, we ran with the group before overtaking them once the tracks opened up and continued to make good progress along some country lanes, again pulling ahead.
By mile 18 we made our biggest nav issue. Approaching an intersection with three available trails, a ribbon attached to a post suggested that was the correct route was up a steep incline. It was a tough climb and progress was slow. We’d been constantly looking over our shoulder – mainly for reassurance as the nav was difficult to follow – but also to see if the group of runners was still with us – but they were nowhere to be seen. A quick check of the watch and a map and the realisation that we’d taken the wrong route – again! We turned around and made our way back down the hill. It was at this point that we realised it was probably a blessing in disguise. There was an unwanted pressure of being 1st lady – and although we were still enjoying ourselves, the mood had slightly changed. The goal was always to finish the race, for Maria and Tom to complete their first ultras without any unwanted pressure.
We composed ourselves, found the correct path and started to laugh and enjoy the trails again.
At mile 20 we reached the small village of Hawcombe and got lost again, only to be put on the correct path by another runner who’d taken a more direct route. This getting lost malarkey was starting to become a common occurrence throughout the day – but rather than let it get us down we simply embraced it. It’s part of ultra running. Yes, the course wasn’t well marked, the GPX file didn’t match the course marking but it’s all part of the experience – we were in an organised event and with everything that’s happened during the past 15 months, that was the main thing.
It was at mile 20 that my watch calculated that we still had 29 miles to go – which meant, due to nav issues, we’d be finishing at 49 miles instead of the advertised 47.4 miles. Now, if I’m being honest, we did discuss turning around for half a mile then running back to round it up to the full 50 – but we didn’t – well, not then anyway.
Once we’d successfully navigated our way out of Hawcombe, we started the climb through Horner Woods towards Webbers Post – and the third checkpoint. This was another difficult climb, not helped by the wet and muddy conditions underfoot. We were now following the written notes, as backup to the watch GPX, which suggested we’d find a wooden sculpture of a half eaten apple at the top of the climb. Despite us searching around aimlessly for what felt like an eternity, there was no sculpture – I think we’d still be there now if we hadn’t randomly stumbled upon the aid station – where even the marshals had no idea where is was!
Out of all three aid stations we probably spent the most amount of time refueling and chatting to the marshals here. They were extremely helpful and encouraging. They were also located at the foot of the highest climb of the day – Dunkery Hill – at 1,705ft with a gradient of up to 20% over a couple of miles, it’s a tough old climb! The route takes you up the Beacon – it’s highest point before descending back down the other side and following the road back to the aid station.
The GPX file took the direct route to the summit – a fell route rather than following a trail. Rather than trek through the heather, we opted to stick to the trails which meandered around the hill before the steep ascent up to the beacon. It was a tough climb and definitely not the most direct – we were caught by a couple of other runners who took the most direct route up the hill – just in time for them to kindly take our picture next to the cairn!
25 miles done – we were half way!
We made the descent down the other side of Dunkery Hill towards the main road. It was here that I had to stop to address some blisters which were causing me a few issues on my feet. I think it was a combination of wet feet, lack of tape and relatively new shoes. Blister plasters applied, we made our way down the road and back to the aid station, reaching it at mile 28 – making Dunkery Hill a 5 mile loop.
Back at the aid station, we were once again greeted with a warm welcome and took the opportunity to refill our soft flasks and take on some food. As it was the turn-around point I also enquired as to whether Tom had been through the checkpoint yet – to which I was told he had. It was a huge relief and knowing he was somewhere on the 5 mile loop was uplifting – he was approaching half way and still going strong.
It was now a job of retracing our steps.
We made our way back to Horner Wood – again looking for this elusive apple – which still wasn’t there – before starting the long descent. The mud and surface water making conditions underfoot hard going but we took it steady and eventually made it back to Hawcombe at mile 32.
Between miles 33-37 we’d had a few more nav issues whereby the markers on the course did not marry up to the GPX file – only noticeable as we were piggybacking to and fro with the couple who had taken our picture at the top of Dunkery Hill. We’d be in front of them, only to take a different trail and come out behind them. It was never an issue and we made steady progress – running the flats and downhills whilst hiking the hills. We were both still feeling incredibly strong.
At mile 38 we made it back to Porlock Weir and the fourth aid station. The group of 5 runners were also here, the chap looking in a bad way as he was being fed warm soup by the marshals but insisting he would carry on. We gave them some words of encouragement before making our way across Porlock Weir Beach – pebbles in all!
As we made our way carefully across the pebbled beach, I took the opportunity to call Ruth whilst Maria called her parents. It gave us both a massive boost and we ran the next three miles into checkpoint 4 knowing that there was only one hill left to navigate.
And what a hill!
It was dark by the time we reached the foot of Bossington Hill so we’d equipped ourselves with our head torches ready to take on the ascent. The temperature had dropped and the rain was getting heavier but I was reluctant to wear my waterproof jacket as I knew I’d overheat on the climb. With every step the rain got worse and with a gradient of 33% and 41 miles in the legs, it was brutal. Head down, one foot in front of the other and slowly you’ll make it to the top I kept telling myself. We were about half way up, I was in front with Maria just behind me. The rains crashing down, I’m shivering and the light from my headtorch is lighting up my feet when I hear Maria calling my name. I lift my head, turn around to answer her and the beam from my headtorch picks out the silhouette of a cow – right next to the trail. It was huge! Now, those that know me know I don’t do livestock but I’m half way up Bossington Hill, everything aches, I’m wet, I’m cold and I’m not a) turning around and going back down or b) running ahead, so its head down and carry on…she was probably more afraid of me than I was of her. Probably.
We eventually reached the top of Bossington Hill – just in time to grab my battery pack for my watch and to put on my waterproof jacket as I was now cold and soaked through. 42 miles done – 8 to go. The next couple of miles were a mixture of running and walking. I’d felt a blister pop on my toe so I’d knocked a couple of paracetamol back to make the last few miles as comfortable as possible and eventually the pain subsided.
Conversation had somehow turned into our ‘3 course meal of choice’ for the following day and the mood instantly lifted. The rain was lashing down, the legs felt tired but we both managed to continue running at a steady pace, deep in conversation and fantasising over our prospective food choices. So much so, that we overshot the turning off point and ended up massively off course through some secluded woods. Rather than turning back, we calculated that we were going in the general direction of Minehead and decided to continue, albeit the long way round. Eventually we found our way out of the woods, through a field, passed some horses (!) and ended up on a secluded country lane at the top of Minehead.
49 miles done.
A quick google maps search suggested that we were just shy of a mile back to the college so we steadily made our way back but not before running a few hundred metres out-and-back down some side road to ensure we’d both covered 50 miles on the watch.
We were greeted at the college by Dave Urwin, who kindly gave us our medals and Darren, Maria’s partner who had been supporting her all day. We finished with a time of 13:36 with 9,306ft of elevation and 50.4 miles recorded on the watch.
We finished in joint 27th place but given that we’d done 3 extra miles, we’d sacrificed dropping down the leaderboard to ensure we’d hit the elusive 50 miles!
Tom finished not long after with a time of 15:07 – a fantastic run for his first ultramarathon.