Woman Can Marathon Tipton St John Devon 2017

Report by Hana

I am starting to suspect that I suffer from some sort of OCD. I have found that I have an uncontrollable need to enter races and last year I had to take myself in hand and go through a race detox program. I limited myself to just nine races, two of which were marathons, a distance that in truth I don’t actually like, with the only reason for completing such a distance, other than as a sort of penance for all the bad things I have done in my life, is to put myself beyond the comfort zone of a Half Marathon.

So with 2016’s detox satisfactorily completed I again found myself trawling through details of up and coming races on the 2017 race calendar and the “Women can” Women only Marathon at Tipton St John in Devon appeared. In a moment of senile madness I hit the “Enter here” button and I was in. I was attracted not by the fact that it was a WOMEN ONLY event but by the fact it was in Devon and the route was predominately on trails and coast paths. The race info also stated that there was a FREE cream tea for all finishers at the end. How could I refuse such a treat?

Now I’m a lazy race entrant. I do go out running at least 3 times a week usually running 6 to 8 miles each time with a run up to 13 miles at least once a month. I walk at least 4 miles every day and on three occasions this year I have run 15 to 16 miles home from work. What I don’t do is follow a MARATHON TRAINING PLAN. I’m a “let’s see what happens” delusional runner which is not a great thing to be. It’s fine for any event up to half marathon distance but after that it is bloody stupid. Do I learn? No I don’t, so once again I approach this marathon totally unprepared as usual.

“Husband who plays golf” agrees to come away for a weekend with me but only if he can play Golf first on the Saturday morning. I don’t have a problem with agreeing to this, so with accommodation booked in an Inn Keepers Lodge not far from Topsham which is between Exeter and Exmouth the weekend is sorted.

My pre-race nutrition and hydration required us to take a lovely stroll down to the village of Topsham where we firstly sat out in glorious evening sunshine overlooking the River Exe with a glass of something cold and pink for me and a pint of ale for my long suffering husband. We’d never been to Topsham before and were really surprised by just how lovely it is. Think Flushing near Falmouth but larger. Think Fowey but smaller with houses to die for, Boutique type shopping and plenty of Pubs and good eateries to keep everyone happy. It also has views over the estuary and reed beds beyond. There is a brilliant cycle path that takes you either to Exmouth which is 5 miles away along a tarmac trail or this same path also takes you the 5 miles in the opposite direction to the quayside at Exeter. I was starting to wish we’d brought our bikes with us and sod the race, but a table booking at “The Galley” restaurant dragged us away from people watching and onto the important task of putting calories other than alcoholic ones into my body for the following days exercise.

View over the River Exe at Topsham

The meal was superb. Scallops followed by monkfish and king prawns washed down with a lovely Pinot Grigio then to complete the meal a Tonka Bean Crème Brulee with crumble ice-cream and burnt apple. The title didn’t do it justice, just think master chef and it was divine. We left replete, nourished and took a lovely evening stroll along the riverside where the tide was in and the lights of Exmouth twinkled on the horizon. Suddenly from out of the murky water below emerged an apparition and numerous alcohol induced giggles. He was stark bollock naked and with 2 other young men, had chosen the river exe to cool off in. Time for a holiday snap I thought, so with mobile phone at the ready the two males still in the water appeared somewhat shy and remained shivering and giggling in the water. From what I saw of the first male it wasn’t worth hanging around for the photo opportunity so husband and I continued on our stroll back to the hotel.

Room heat and imminent, spontaneous, menopausal, combustion along with snoring from the room next door and live music wafting up from a venue somewhere in the distance, didn’t make for a good night sleep. Breakfast service time at the hotel would be too late for me to eat, so I came prepared and once I’d eaten my muesli my chauffer drove me the 7 or so miles to the race HQ at Tipton St John, this time via a route found on a good old fashioned map and not the Sat Nav’s selected route which we took the day before where meeting another vehicle could have been interesting.

The race HQ is in a pavilion on the village sports field where there is also a large marquee and a row of green portable toileting vestibules. A contingent of camper vans are also parked up on this field in which some race entrants have camped overnight.

I decide to make an early visit to the toilets and find them tilted slightly at an angle where falling backwards is an option, but they are very clean, pong free and remained so till the end of the event, because this is a WOMEN ONLY event and women don’t smell as bad as MEN. Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails V sugar and spice and all things nice springs to mind.

I’m soon joined by the lovely Jenny from Launceston road runners who has entered this event as it’s the only off road event being held locally and she didn’t fancy travelling up to Yorkshire on a Bank Holiday weekend for a National 100k Race. She is very petite and even though she is 13 years my senior, I cannot match her speed in a Half Marathon let alone a Full one. I recon she was once at least 5’8” like myself but years of long distance running has worn her legs away. Suddenly we are joined by Liz T of TRC which is such a lovely surprise. I must apologise to Liz as in a moment of over exuberance I give her a big hug, which I know some people might not like but my usual hugs from men of a certain age is not a possibility today.

My usual dilemma of what to wear is as bad as ever. The weather forecast states that there will be rain maybe at midday or later. The sky is grey and it’s humid so precipitation could occur at any time really. I decide to stick my “IQ reducer” on my head to keep rain off my glasses or sun off my face should it appear. I tie a lightweight waterproof jacket around my waist along with a small bum bag with phone and Kendal Mint Cake in it plus I have my trusted “Security Hanky” clenched in my fist. Both Jenny and Liz are far more hard core than me and will be running in nothing more than T-shirt and shorts, although Jenny is the only other person I know who also has a man-size security hanky at the ready.

This event isn’t just a marathon for solo runners there is also the option to run the distance in a relay of two or 4 plus there are a group of Nordic walkers who are tackling the whole distance and they set off an hour before our start time of 09:00

There appears to be some sort of group disco type warm up taking place, I turn my nose up at this as I have 26 bloody miles ahead of me in which to warm up, expending this type of energy at the start seems somewhat foolish to someone of my age. Neither Jenny nor Liz seem interested in joining in with the gyration that is taking place before us, best left to the younger females I think.

Time to gather at the start line. I have no nerves at all as I have decided today is about completing the whole distance and to treat it as a nice day out. Like I’ve said before, I’m prone to delusional thoughts so off I trot in the middle of a throng of women of various ages at a slow jog which my legs find hard to maintain, I could walk faster!

We leave the sports field, cross a road and are pointed in the direction of a level riverside path than runs alongside the River Otter. The path is sandy and pebble strewn underfoot and really very pretty, off to my right is a field of rapeseed with red poppies and blue forget-me-knots growing amongst it. It is a riot of colour but it is far too soon to stop and engage the camera on my phone.

I’m in the leading group of about 20 ladies with Jenny just ahead of me who is having to dodge flying elbows which for someone so petite are just missing her head. There is lots of chatter, the clouds have parted and the sun is out in full force. I am regretting the jacket around my waist but thankful for the “IQ reducer” upon my head, my body is slowly dissolving.

Hog weed

This path takes us to the village of Newton Poppleford where we are safely marshalled across the A3052 and back onto the riverside path. The path is still flat, hard under foot but in many places the plant life lining it is somewhat overgrown and engulfing us runners. This is where having a few men ahead to trample it all down would have been useful. The Nordic walkers have flattened some of the edges but we are having to dodge Nettles and Giant Hog Weed which I know to be a plant that should have a government health warning attached to it. It has lacy white flowers a succulent and hairy thick stem and stands as tall as me in places. The biggest problem is when you come into contact with its sap:

When giant hogweed sap, which contains photosensitizing furanocoumarins, contacts human skin in conjunction with sunlight, it can cause phytophotodermatitis – a serious skin inflammation. In brief, the sap prevents your skin from protecting itself from sunlight which leads to a very bad sunburn. Heat and moisture (sweat or dew) can worsen the skin reaction. The phototoxic reaction can begin as soon as 15 minutes after contact, with sensitivity peak between 30 minutes and two hours after contact.

It’s all very well knowing the above but when you are running on a path where there is no option but to carry on ahead and the sun is out in full force, you just have to run the gauntlet, which is what we all did. I felt the odd stinging nettle grab my hand and ankles, but I appeared to evade the Hog Weed beast or so it seemed.

The route continued along the banks of The River Otter passing the village of Otterton and then it started to climb up across fields with views to my right of the Otter Estuary and Budleigh Salterton. My “IQ reducer” is managing to soak up sweat that is seeping from my head and my security hanky is catching the rest. My body has no form of air conditioning or temperature control and I feel as if I’m about to explode. I start walking and watch the leading ladies trickle off into the distance. I’ve reached the cliffs and stunning views abound.

Now, I have a terrible fear of heights, which at times is totally irrational and drives “husband who plays golf” mad. It’s no good reasoning with me that the tall footbridge spanning the motorway is not going to collapse under my weight or that I won’t fall off the escalators that climb up the middle of a shopping centre, my fear has nothing to do with facts it’s all visual and balance orientated. It will start with tingling in my feet and lower legs. My balance will go and a surge of panic starts to emerge from the pit of my stomach much like the beasts in the film Alien. I will freeze not being able to move until someone takes hold of my hand and helps me. So there will be no holidays in Nepal or walking the Lavadas in Madeira. I won’t be going to the top of the Eifel Tower in a hurry, and so with a section of cliffs coming up that I have never visited before I feel a tad uneasy. All my fears were soon put to bed as these cliffs although high in places could be traversed along very wide grassy buttercup strewn paths and the cliff edge need never be looked over. The views are wonderful, out to sea on the right, and over rolling lush Devon countryside to my left. With blue skies and full sun it was truly stunning, but the climbs were energy sapping. My resolve was being tested and we hadn’t even reached the half way point yet

The cliff path drops down into Sidmouth and we are directed around the back of the town rather than through the middle, thus avoiding the Bank Holiday tourists in their seagull feeding, ice-cream stuffing masses. After a few twists and turns through these residential street we seem to be at the halfway point in a sports field where the solo runners keep right and the relay runners change over. I look a fraud as I casually walk through this section trying to eat a Jelly Baby and drink water. Once through this area it is onto a path alongside the River Sid through Parkland across a footbridge with a ford to its side and onto Sidford. We pick up a cycle route back out into the countryside and farm fields passing Brook Farm and Burscombe Farm and the gradient is upwards. I’m feeling knackered, my resolve has dissolved but I must push onwards and upwards.

At Burscombe Farm there is a short section of downhill which I should be grateful for, but I’m not. It hurts, the tarmac road I am on hurts my feet and my thighs are protesting. My trail shoes are just not offering enough cushioning for my tender soles. I have recently purchased some new “Hoka” trail shoes with lots of cushioning to replace the ones I am wearing but as I  haven’t been able to test them out on a long run they are sadly at home in the garage awaiting for another race.

After a short section of road where the width is only slightly wider than a car I meet a silver coloured Mercedes which decides that stopping to allow the elderly to pass is not an option they want to consider. The passenger window of this vehicle which is next to me as the car continues past is open. Do I release my inner grumpy old woman angst at the inconsiderate driver or shall I just utter some expletives and turn the air blue instead. Sadly I just don’t have the energy and all I can muster was “you could have stopped to let me pass”. I really am slipping, “Arsehole or Dickhead” are my stock cycling utterances. I’ve been known to make the odd one fingered gesture from time to time as well, but maybe with such close confines, tired legs and a hill upwards as my only escape route, caution was the most sensible stance to take.

Forest track at East Hill

The road now turns into a track leading ever upwards which then bears right at East Hill, a ridge covered in forest where there appears to be forest walks that families and dog walkers are enjoying. They have driven to this location not run/walked 15 plus hilly miles so they are full of smiles and laughter. The emotion that for me is starting to percolate through is tearfulness. Ahead are large muddy puddles where it would be just so easy to lie down and wallow like a hippopotamus but I must plod on, I only have another 11 miles to go.

The sun has been replaced by haze and the forest provides shade with a light breeze drying my sweat. My rain jacket is still tied around my waist and thankfully it is still not required.

The forest track has a few rough sections and the path is marked out by the odd bit of red and white tape attached to anything overhanging. I feel all alone in places and keep trying to remember to look up in case I miss a piece of tape and take a wrong turn. I shouldn’t have worried as more and more runners are overtaking me now so I can just follow them and hope they are going the right way. I was getting a little demoralised by just how many ladies passed me by, but then it dawned on me, that as a lot of them looked so fresh maybe they were relay runners?

At mile 20 my tearfulness feeling was emerging again. I didn’t cry but the feeling you get before bursting into tears was hanging around. Marshalls kept telling me I had climbed the last hill and it was all downhill or flat from now on. Downhill was feeling just as bad as uphill and my core and ankles were at war with me.

The Town of Ottery St Mary appeared and down its quiet streets I ran. A huge church tower came into view that looked as if it could easily belong to a cathedral, so I stopped to take a photo, chatted to a couple ladies sat in their porch drinking tea and cheering us runners on. I could have quite happily have joined them, as my body was craving hot tea, not the cold water that was being dished out at all the water stations. When I ran the Prague Half Marathon a few years ago, they actually had hot fruit tea at their feeding stations as well as the odd sample of lager.

As I pop out the other side of Ottery, Mark T, Liz’s husband appeared offering support and snapping photos of me looking my very worse. I’m not very photogenic on a good day, but at mile 22 of 26 I’m looking decidedly dog eared. He did offer me some coke, No, not to snort, and relieved me of my rain jacket, which even though very light felt like a millstone by this point. It was now back onto river paths alongside the River Otter and NO MORE HILLS. It was flat, flat, flat, through meadows full of Buttercups with the odd style to climb and Kissing gate to squeeze through. Every movement hurt, but the end was in sight.

The finishing line was back in the sports field by the pavilion in Tipton St John. A jazz band was playing, there were loads of people enjoying the festivities that were taking place and my cream tea was beckoning me. I crossed the finish line in 4hrs 50 mins feeling completely shattered. With medal placed around my neck and goody bag in my hand it was time to find that cup of tea I so dearly needed.

Two large halves of scone with jam and cream placed upon them in the Cornish style of jam first and cream on top are on my plate. Mug of tea in hand I locate a table and chair and soon Liz and Jenny join me. I have trouble eating the scones as they are acting like blotting paper inside my mouth. It takes 5 mugs of tea and two mugs of milk in order for me to finish the scones and between Liz and myself we attempt to get as much VFM from the FREE cream tea offer .

We hang around for the prize giving but only Jenny comes away with first in age cat, then its back to the hotel for more tea and a long hot shower.

All in all:

  • The route was wonderfully scenic and demanding on the legs. Anyone trail fit would love it.
  • The marshals were wonderful and water stations plentiful, but we could have done with some more nibbles and fruit on offer along the way.
  • The toilets were good with no queues.
  • There were showers which Jenny and Liz said were great and the water was roasting.
  • The goody bag was a shoe bag, technical T in purple with a few food items inside.
  • As for parking I don’t know as I didn’t use that facility but Liz and Mark did get to park their camper van on the sports field overnight with others which has to be a plus point.
  • Would I run this marathon again? Well I’ve told my husband NO, and I think in truth if I want to do another trail marathon it would be good to try something else but not in Nepal.

As for the Hog weed, this is what i’ve been left with. Thankfully just the one blister on my arm.


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