THHN City to the Sea Marathon 2017

Report by Hana Clitherow

Now I’m a girl who likes to go for the odd jog around the block from time to time and I’ve even been known to enter a couple running events in the past but every so often I have this uncontrollable urge to do something really silly and enter a MARATHON. “Why” is the question I always ask myself after I have pressed the “pay here” button, but by that time, it’s too late. I’m not sure I even like the distance……I’ll correct that statement…….My body does not like any distance over 15 miles, but being a female of a certain age, I choose to ignore what it tells me. I started with a trail marathon about 5 years ago and on crossing the finishing line was heard to utter the words “if I ever say I’m going to enter a marathon again shoot me”. Well no one has and I’ve just completed my 7th with two more later this year.

Whilst trawling the internet for possible races/events to enter in 2017, I came across some lovely sunny pictures of “The City to the Sea Marathon” which starts at Exeter and finishes at Babbacombe in Torbay. The route was described as following the canal tow path and cycle route along the River Exe estuary and then the sea front at Dawlish and Teignmouth with the promise of beautiful views, a level-ish first 20 miles and a challenging last 6, all on a mix of multi-terrain and country lanes. This run/race/event appeared to tick all the boxes I look for in an event and not one word about MUD. So button pressed, money paid, the “Old Croc” was in, with plenty of time to train………Ha bl—dy Ha!

This event is on a linear route starting at a sports field at Exwick with buses available to book from the finish line to the start if required. I decide to book a night at the Premier Inn off junction 29 of the M5 and take my long suffering “husband who plays golf” with me as my taxi service to the start line and ambulance from the finish.

The hotel was ideal. It was clean, comfortable, reasonably priced and above all very quiet. Parking was available at an additional cost of £2:50. I provided my own breakfast of two Tesco’s own instant porridge pots. So after adding hot water, stirring and throwing a few fresh raspberries on top I was replete. Husband on the other hand was going to visit his mother after dropping me off, so he would have breakfast with her.

The event/race start time was given as 8am, with pre-race briefing at 07:45 so after a quick wake me up shower I peer out through the hotel curtains to see what the BBC weather app has forecasted, RAIN. Husband drives me to the Race HQ at Exwick Sports Hub and leaves a miserable aged female to collect her race number and wait for the start.

The Sports Hub is cramped with all the entrants to the event which also includes an ultra-distance and walking marathon huddling inside to keep warm and dry. I collect my race number, pin it first to my TRC vest, then I move it to my shorts so it will be more visible, as today I will be wearing a waterproof coat!

I then go and queue for the one toilet in the ladies changing room.

The use of this toilet requires befriending the person behind you in the queue as their help in holding the toilet door closed is essential to maintain dignity. The cubicle is not soundproofed, it has thin melamine walls with no bottoms and no roofing so using this vestibule requires complete control of your bodily functions if you do not want to emerge with a red face. Thankfully all I need is a short nervous wee visit, anyone wanting more is in for a shock or the one holding the door might be?

There are a few other single unisex toilets situated in the building but the massing crowd does not make for ease of finding them. Other than that apparently we could find others in the park???? Thank goodness for the Premier inn and an ensuite.

In my haste to locate the toilet I misplace my “IQ reducer” (cap) and have a slight non menopausal melt down. I push people out of my way demanding to be let back into the room where I think I may have left it and there on a table along with my “security hanky” is my cap. This item is essential today to keep the now heavy rain off my glasses, so with a huge sigh, I place it on my head for fear of losing it again.

At this point I bump into Alan L from Launceston running club and he tells me that he has run this marathon before. He then goes on to tell me how long it took last year in the dry. My shoulders drop, I’d sort of estimated 4:30 to 5hrs, he was saying 5:30 plus hours in the rain, what the hell have I signed myself up for?

So off to the start line we troop. Its pi—ing down and there are some inappropriately dressed competitors here who are making me feel even colder than I feel already. I am contemplating putting the blue latex “in case of a medical emergency” gloves on my hands to keep them warm and dry. I have a silky long sleeve top on, TRC vest over the top and then my waterproof running jacket with hood up and pulled tight over my “IQ reducer”. I’ve opted for cycling type running shorts instead of running tights and have selected multi-terrain shoes to cover all eventualities.

There is a mandatory kit which I am carrying, namely the ability to carry 500ml of fluids, Brandy would have been a better option to the lemon isotonic substance I have on board. I also have the coat with taped seams and a mobile phone with all the tel No’s they stated we needed.

Did anyone check this kit?

No they did not.

This would never happen at one of MudCrew’s events!

I also have some Kendal Mint Cake, Chocolate and a survival blanket which could have be used as a sail in the wind that has picked up if it wasn’t for the fact that we would be running into a head wind most of the route. Grrrr!

So off we all trot, firstly in the opposite direction to where we need to go crossing a grass playing field, just so our shoes get soaked straight from the off. How I love soggy feet and the prospect of 5+ hours of squelching. We soon about turn and head off along the canal tow path towards Exeter Quay and for one moment I almost thought the canal was actually tarmac as it was dark grey and ripple free. It would have put a new dimension to the race should I have stepped upon it!

The route is flat and follows the Exe Valley Way along the canal edge. The path is of a hard compacted cinder type with puddles that haven’t yet joined up to make a lake. I’m not having to weave around other runners as I seem to be in a group of predominately men all running at a similar pace. We reach the A379 at Countess Weir where we are signed left and down onto the opposite side to the canal to run in the opposite direction to where we should be going. Another female draws level with me and it’s Jayne Angilley. We have a short chat where she suggests I’m running well and I state that at this moment in time it may look OK but by mile 13 it will have gone to pot. It isn’t long before she picks up a little speed and disappears into the distance never to be seen again (I think she crossed the line as 2nd female)

We appear to have completed a loop of the Riverside Park and emerge back out onto the A379 and then back onto the Exe Valley Way which is a combined footpath and cycle route. On any other day the views would be interesting and colourful but today the dominant shades are reddish brown and grey. Luckily the “IQ reducer” is keeping the rain that is lashing down off my face even with the headwind we are running into. On the opposite side of the canal and mud flats is Topsham and we pass a sign pointing us to where a ferry will take you to the village but we plod on with no deviation to the path.

My feet are soaked. The legs of the runners ahead are splattered with mud and my shorts are sodden as are my knickers. I’m starting to worry about my socks and possible blisters due to the growing lake in my shoes, but I’m not hypothermic yet.

We pass the Turf hotel at Turf Lock and there on a spit of land next to the hotel/pub are some fool hardy campers emerging from a group of tents. I ponder over why anyone would want to camp there in this weather but yesterday of course was a lovely dry and sunny day and this location is close to Powderham where the “Lockdown Festival” has or is taking place. I google this when I get home and the festival performers have names I have never heard of such as Danja Kada. The only one I recognise is Dizzy Rascal who was a support act for Muse when I went to see them a couple years ago and he was cr-p then so I obviously haven’t missed anything by not going to this event.

There is a castle at Powderham but all I can see through the gloom is a folly in their grounds to my right. To my left is water, the River Exe to be precise and Exmouth on the far side of this expanse of frothing brown brine. We pop out onto a country lane and have the main railway line to Paddington between us and the river.

We continue along this lane with huge puddles which I just plough through or tip toe around depending what part of “Bothered” I’m feeling. We enter the village of Starcross where there is another sign post for a ferry, this time to Exmouth. I now find myself planning a return visit with a long circular WALK in mind on a DRY and SUNNY day. I’d stay at Topsham where there are nice pubs, restaurants, boutique shops and views over the river, take the ferry to the Exe Valley way/coast path walk to Starcross and catch the Ferry to Exmouth where I’d pick up the cycle route back to Topsham. Now that sounds so much more appealing than running in this infernal RAIN.

This planning of a nice WALK has partially taken my mind off just how wet I am. Strangely I’m not too grumpy or tired but I am only a tad above chilly and although I am wearing a “waterproof” jacket I seem to be as wet inside it as outside. Only a full diver’s dry suit would keep anyone dry today.

At Cockwood we are directed to a village hall where all the competitors have to check in. there are tables with assorted treats for us to eat and hot tea or coffee. Now I’m generally not good with consuming either liquid or solids whilst running but I drink about a 3rd of a cup of tea and as it reaches my stomach I feel for the first time since staring this event a “Ready Brek” glow. I slowly munch a small shortbread biscuit and contemplate not moving any further but it’s time to “man up” and I step outside to feel instantly frozen. A complete change of clothing would have been nice but that isn’t an option without a backup crew and he’s drinking coffee at his mother’s.

We continue along lanes on tarmac with the river to our left until we reach Dawlish Warren, a holiday camp bucket and spade destination. Followed by Dawlish where there are a couple cafes open but they look deserted. It would have been so easy to just pop into one of them, but with my head down I battle against the howling wind and rain and a short section of respite in the form of a covered section of seafront path appears but the surface under foot is uneven cobbles.

Teignmouth sea front

At this point we cannot follow the water’s edge so are sent uphill and along the road to Holcombe before taking a very steep access road down to Smugglers Cove where we start the long concrete section along Teignmouth sea front with the railway line to our right and a boiling muddy brown sea to our left. This is resistance training at it’s worse, I’m head down, clinging on to my hood which even though I have pulled the cords tight so that it hugs my cap and head, it is trying hard to come adrift. The noise that the wind makes in the gap between my hood and my ears sounds like I have my own personal thunder storm going on. The puddles under my feet are inches deep, as wide as the Atlantic and bl—dy cold. Then out of the blue appears a male of about 70 plus, in silk shorts with a mahogany tanned torso running towards me. He smiles and passes by. The man is only wearing shorts and a smile. Before I reach the end of this sea front he passes me again now heading in the same direction as myself and utters the words “keep going, you’re doing well” I feel even colder now and at no point do I feel the urge to rip off my top and adopt his style of running attire.

There is a large group of children ahead of me on the path all rushing about excitedly with wet suits on. It appears to be junior life saving/surf club and Teignmouth Beach is still not looking very inviting with its dark brown sand and stormy seas. “I might need saving very soon folks” I want to shout, but I stay quiet in fear of scaring the small children.

My left leg is not feeling very comfortable and occasionally feels as if it doesn’t even belong to me and that it will just give out if I put weight upon it. It has been my right leg (IT issues) that has been causing me grief all year but today my left leg decides it wants some attention and this reduces me at mile 18 to walk run which is really annoying as I haven’t felt too tired up to now.

At the end of Teignmouth seafront we take a route around the houses and along a path below the Rugby club where some hardy souls are either waiting to train or play a match. I glance at my watch and its 11am, 3 soggy bl—dy hours after the start with just over 6 miles to go. The worse 6, which are described in the race info as challenging.

I run across Shaldon Bridge which crosses the River Teign and develop a knicker chaffing issue. I try to adjust said “Bridget Jones” style pants but they aren’t moving. I do that little jiggle that people do when their underwear isn’t where they want it to be, shake my right leg a little and then give up as check point No 2 is in a hall a short distance ahead. I step inside looking bedraggled, miserable and in need of something hot. I can see a hot water dispenser. There are empty paper cups and people in dry clothing sipping tea, but nothing around for me to partake in other than cake or water melon. My ability to form words or hold a conversation has gone. I decide to exit the building fairly quickly as I know that once I step outside I will be frozen to the core. I try to run to warm up but my left leg protests. The last 6 miles will have to be speed marched, running is not an option. There are people overtaking me which dents my pride but as I start the coastal path section from Shaldon to Babbacombe I realise that even if my leg was OK running would still not be an option.

The path goes vertically up and vertically down on a scale to equal and surpass MudCrews Roseland August Trail. There are steps in some places and not in others. These paths have turned into rivers of blood and the soil into what should be called “slip”. So in short I slip and slide for 6 very long miles. The ups are far easier than the downs which are causing me to wince, moan and almost cry. I’m having to hold onto wire fencing in order to get down the slopes without falling over. I’ve got bramble scratches, stinging nettle stings to make things even better. Then from nowhere appears a knight in shining armour. I’m making hard weather of a steep downhill when this gorgeous young male ultra-runner offers me his arm and helps me down one particularly nasty slope. If only I could have kept him to myself for the rest of the route, but I thanked him and watched as he sprinted up the next slope and off into the murk and gloom. It brought a smile to my face for a couple minutes. Bless.

My Garmin seemed to stick at mile 22 for an eternity. Runners would trot past and then even though I was walking I would catch them up or overtake them on the next uphill section. My emotional state was tearful at mile 22 and 24, I gave myself a good talking to reminding myself that in order to collect my race medal I would have to cross the finishing line.

I climb a path alongside and above a funicular railway then down yet another treacherous slippery path before finally reaching Babbacombe Downs and the finishing line. Somehow, battered, limping, sodden and cold my ordeal has ended. I forget to turn off my Garmin in my knackered decrepit state, the rain stops and I collect my lovely dark blue technical T and the biggest medal I have ever received. Should you drop this medal, it would break your foot (It fell off my pin board at home and took a chunk out of the skirting board). A lovely Sea cadet passed me a cup of tea and a small piece of cake before another runner took my photo for me, so I could check I was still alive.

My greatest need is to get out of my saturated clothing before I need admitting to A&E. There are no changing rooms so I spy a traditional “open on all four sides” seafront shelter and chose the seaward facing section to perform my cross between Burlesque and a strip joint routine. The removal of my jacket, TRC vest and long sleeve T is simple, but my vintage small “Sticker” race memento purple towel is having difficulty drying the flesh I’ve exposed. I’m in need of replacing some clothing as a woman of my age stood on public view with only a sports bra and smile is not a pretty sight. I manage to get a loose T-shirt on but having placed my two arms into a warmer long sleeved top I find myself in the equivalent of a straightjacket. No matter how many times I flap the sleeves and my arms around nothing changes apart from the gathering crowd of tourist who want to know if I’ve run the marathon. Now I talk using my hands, but they are stuck in my sleeves and my brain has been shrunk in the rain, the spectators are moving on. Even I’m giggling by my predicament and suddenly I have a break through and my top is over my head and I’m feeling warmer.

On to my shorts and chaffing “Bridget Jones” big pants. No, don’t pull faces please!

I decide to stay seated for my next attempt at keeping my dignity. I place towel (Small purple vintage Sticker race memento) across my lap and with a firm tug manage to remove both shorts and pants in the same fashion someone pulls a tablecloth from under the tea set placed upon it. Some more tourist walk by, gaze at me and all my belongings spread across the shelters bench and decide I must be a “bag lady” and move on. My towel will not cover my embarrassment or dignity as it isn’t big enough so with luck I produce a charity bag from my ruck sack, place it over my lap and then place the towel under my rear end. Wet wipes to the fore I scrape layers of mud off my legs then return to the straight jacket routine this time with my dry running tights that are refusing to go further than my thighs. There is no other option other than to stand up, expose all and thankfully with one sharp yank I’m at last decent.

I wonder across the road to the Babbacombe Hotel entrance and take shelter from the rain under its porch as just for a change it is raining once again. This hotel has a sun room at the front where lots of tourists are having afternoon tea and coffee. I’m shivering and hopping from one foot to the other waiting for my “Husband who plays golf” to come and rescue me. It’s at this point that one of the elderly ladies sat in this sun room comes out and asks me to join them for tea. I politely thank her but feel I must decline her offer. She then offers me a whisky, and again, shock horror, I thank her and say no. she returns inside brings me £5 as sponsorship for the charity organising this race and again asks me to come inside. She even offers me the use of her and her husband’s hotel bathroom. I give in, I go inside to the sunroom and sit with the lovely couple, have a nice chat and from nowhere the lady running the bar brings me a huge HOT CHOCOLATE on the house. Oh the kindness of strangers.

Husband arrives, shivers all gone, all mirrors avoided for fear of cracking them and off I head waving goodbye to my new found friends. 5hrs 37 flipping long, wet, cold and painful minutes it took to be able to come home with a Technical T and a medal that needs a health and safety assessment before you can wear it.

Its 5 days now since I completed this event and I’m less traumatised now. My legs feel fine but I haven’t attempted a run yet. I have though signed up for the Cornish and the Birmingham Marathon due to a selective memory. Would I enter this event again? Well the funny thing is that when I explained to my “Husband who plays golf” that there was a marathon for runners and walkers he seemed interested. So watch this space next year!