Saturday 18 January 2020

Devon: Plym Trail Winter marathon race recap

Devon, as you may know, is very far from Liverpool.  Approximately 300 miles away in fact.  What I've noticed is as this challenge progresses is (unsurprisingly) I've gradually ticked off all the nearby counties leaving all the travel-intensive ones.  January is also not a good month for marathons generally - there's not many on.  So when I found this one, it was the double-whammy, gold star, perfect timing race that I couldn't possibly turn down.

On a more personal note, my boyfriend Ian and I recently got back together and he kindly offered to do all the driving.  This makes a huge difference - a marathon is easy, but a marathon combined with ~13 hours driving is another thing altogether.  So big thanks to Ian - it also made it a lot more fun.

The race started at an incredibly civilised 9:30am.  We were staying 5 minutes drive away which meant I got a pre-race lie in until 7am, a pre-race breakfast of porridge and a croissant at the hotel, and still had loads of time.  On arrival, the race start was in a picturesque little village.  It was cold but bright, with quite a lot of ice on the ground.  Not as bad as the start of Oulton Park though.  I'd somehow forgotten to pack a jacket - lucky it wasn't raining!

I was feeling strangely cheerful.  I'd just come off a couple of 'easy' weeks of training, I felt fresh and ready to go, it looked to be a beautiful course and it was two out-and-back half marathons with very little navigation required.  Some days I have to force myself to run marathons - this wasn't one of them.
There was a 5 minute race briefing - mostly comprising warnings about the ice - and we set off.  To my surprise we set off up the icy hill - I hadn't realised there was a small loop to do before starting the out-and-backs.  It was a bit skiddy but OK, and after the turnaround point I got my phone out to take a picture:
The chap behind me said something about instagram, and I explained I was taking pictures for my blog, and then he asked about my blog and we got chatting, so I asked what he was training for (nobody runs marathons in January as a one-off!) and he said he was planning 12 marathons in 12 months.  He was hoping to do a sub-4 hour one sometime during the year.  I gave him my usual spiel about taking it easy because the most important race is always your next race.  We ran back to the start and turned onto the 'Plym Trail' after which the marathon is named.  I found out his name was Shaun and we had a nice chat before I had to let him go as he was much faster than me.  He soon disappeared off into the distance.

Shortly afterwards I saw this tunnel appear.  Nobody had mentioned a tunnel in the race briefing and there was nothing in the notes either.  How exciting!  Love a good tunnel!  Turns out it was a pretty long tunnel, probably a couple of hundred metres long.  On googling it's called Leighbeer Tunnel, designed by the main man Isambard Kingdom Brunel and apparently it's haunted. 
It's pretty long and pretty dark and it goes round a corner.  It was lit but only dimly.  I thought of the Tunnel Ultra whilst I was in there - a race devised by the evil genius Mark Cockbain, which involves running back and forth through a 1 mile tunnel 200 times continuously.  No thank you!
I came out the other side into glorious sunshine.   Autumn leaves clustered on both sides of the path.  The trail reminded me of the Ralla in Liverpool, only with less litter, less motorbikes and significantly less weed being smoked. 
There were a couple of bridges around this point and some beautiful views of Dartmoor.  I stopped to take this picture - you can still see the frost in the valley.  The path was not very icy any more and it completely disappeared within the first hour or so. 
I soon came to the first checkpoint.  I didn't stop as I was only just getting warmed up, but I was a bit worried because I'd agreed to meet Ian at Bickleigh which was where the checkpoint was.  I ran on, fumbling with my phone to call him, when I came round a corner and saw him.  I stopped briefly to say hi and said I'd see him in another 12k or so.
Shortly after this, I overtook a woman who asked me where I'd got my leggings from.  I was wearing my new Lululemon ones that I'd got for Christmas so I enthusiastically extolled their praises and we got chatting.  Her name was Caroline and she was from Cornwall.  We ran together for the next 10k or so and during that time she helped me choose a suitable race for Cornwall (the Roseland August Trail aka The RAT) - sadly when I checked later the date for this year clashes with Mendip Marauder.  But 2021 - for sure.  She also gave me some top tips for driving home - don't stay on the M6, turn off towards Shrewsbury and cut through Wales.  In case you're reading - cheers Caroline, this tip was awesome and made for a much prettier and more relaxing drive home!

Caroline had done the Arc of Attrition and the Lakeland 50 and most of the 100.  She was a much better runner than me but patiently put up with all my questions.  She told me about her daughter and her job - as usual, these races are all about the people.

As we passed these gates for the first time, a man running by informed us that last year they had opened to let a train through and added a couple of minutes onto his time.  As a result I was a bit paranoid and got a wiggle on every time I approached them in the hope of beating any trains!  Also love the sky trails in this pic which I didn't even notice at the time!
We got to the checkpoint at the far end and I was very surprised to find they had fruit teacakes made into cheese sandwiches, apparently this is a Thing.  Caroline also told me about fruit cake and Wensleydale (I was highly suspicious!)  I lost Caroline somewhere on the return journey but continued to run well.  I hadn't put my headphones in as I was enjoying just being out in nature.  At one point there are high walls on both sides of the path.  I stopped suddenly to take a close up photo without paying much attention and a bike curved around me - I apologised but the girl didn't seem to mind.  Everyone I met was super-friendly and easy going.

I stopped at the checkpoint on the way back and commented on what a lovely selection they had.  Basically it was the perfect checkpoint:  squash, water, Coke.  Chocolate biscuits, jaffa cakes, jelly babies.  Crisps, peanuts, cheese-y fish crackers.  Everything you could ever really need!  

This is the view from another of the bridges I passed out over Dartmoor.  Beautiful.
I reached the start and turned around without really stopping at the checkpoint.  I checked my watch and I'd done a half marathon in about 2 hours 10 minutes.  This is pretty good going for me and if I managed the same thing again, I'd have beaten all my recent times by a considerable margin.

On 1st January this year I'd run a marathon in Liverpool (just for fun as I've already done Merseyside) in 4 hours 28 minutes, which was my quickest time since May 2019.  But I was on track to go a lot faster than that.  And I was feeling good!  As I turned around, I wondered if I might be in the top three women.  That would be quite an achievement, wouldn't it?!  I started paying attention.  The first lady came past me when I'd not long started the second loop - she was incredible - running at way faster than my 5k pace! I picked up the pace and overtook a few people including a lady who'd been ahead of me for most of the race so far.   The lady in second place passed me maybe 10 minutes before the turnaround point, and the third maybe 5 minutes before.  Oh well.  I would be fourth then.

I took a picture of this bit of path because I thought the flooded bit next to it was kind of cool, there were ducks on it a bit further down but it was only a couple of inches deep:
Shortly after this I reached the turnaround point.  To my surprise, Shaun was there.  I hadn't seen him since the very start of the race but he'd hit the wall.  He was stretching and trying to take on board food, I suggested more sugar as he'd had lots of gels.  Meanwhile the volunteer dug around in the boot of the car after telling me they'd run out of Coke.  This is always disappointing but miraculously she found another bottle (this never happens) and gave me some.  I felt amazing and raced off.  I had about 10k to go and I could see I was definitely going to get a good time as long as I kept pushing myself.  For someone who doesn't like racing, I can get extremely competitive (with myself) once I know I'm in with a chance and the switch just flipped.  From kilometre 29 onwards, every kilometre took less than 6 minutes.  I didn't stop at the checkpoint.  I didn't stop to talk to Ian.  

Ahead of me I saw the lady in third place - she was walking.  This was the incentive I needed and I stepped it up a gear.  At kilometre 39 I cracked out a 5:26!  By that point I was huffing and puffing.  There was a very unwelcome hill in the last kilometre that nearly killed me but I knew I was on for a good time and there was no way I was letting that go now.  Randoms walking past, alarmed by the sound of my breathing, said, "well done!" - you know you're working hard when that happens.  I crested the hill and bombed it back down the other side towards the finish.

I finished in an official time of 04:16:40, third lady, 10th overall.   My best time for almost two years.

I was chuffed to bits.  We stood around for a while chatting to the race director, who told us the winner had been the speedy girl who finished in 3:09 - inspiring stuff!

The goody bag had a banana in it which I ate, along with a cup of tea with sugar from the village hall which tasted fabulous. I reckon I'm getting faster because I'm building up my mileage for Hardmoors in March.  The last time I got anywhere near this pace was when I was building up my mileage for Convergence two years ago.  I can see I busted a gut from the heart rate data from my Garmin - my races NEVER look like this - I usually hang around in zone 2-3:
I knew I'd be sore so I did some stretches (rare for me!) and while I was there I bumped into a Scouser, what are the chances of that!  He'd lived in Devon for years but had been back to do Rock 'n Roll a couple of times so we had a good chat.  
It was both a beautiful day and a beautiful place and I was feeling fine so Ian and I decided to go for a bit of a hike on Dartmoor.  I'd planned a route for tomorrow morning but it was too lovely to wait so we went there straight after the marathon.  Unfortunately the route I'd planned went straight through a river (seriously ... this navigation course I'm doing can't come soon enough, lol).  We made a detour... then we made a detour from the detour... but it was all good.  Stunningly beautiful part of the world.
The next morning, Ian and I ran 8k of the route again so I could show him how pretty it was, then we drove back to Liverpool.  Pretty amazing weekend!

Edited to add: Do you remember Tim, the juggling runner from Rutland marathon?  Well he contacted me recently to report that his zombie running blog is up and running.  It is bloody brilliant and you should definitely read it:

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