Woolacombe Beach 10k
11th June 2017
Just a week ago I travelled to Fairford with a couple of colleagues (in terms of both work and running club) and completed a 10k amongst a morning’s worth of childish banter. This time the number of boys was doubled on what was a weekender to (almost sunny) North Devon.
We travelled from Cheltenham at about 8pm on Friday evening, the official excuse being that we wanted to avoid the end-of-week rush-hour traffic (it had nothing whatsoever to do with questionably slow service at a specific eatery, immediately prior to the trip). This would see us nicely refreshed for some Saturday morning parkrun tourism at Barnstaple (the course is two and a half laps of a flat figure-of-eight circuit – you do not actually cross each other! – on tarmac and some gravel path).
The remainder of Saturday was spent having a fry-up and a pint, visiting Ilfracombe, playing crazy golf, having a pint, visiting the harbour, having an ice cream, having a pint, grabbing pizza and beer for the evening, watching football, eating pizza / drinking beer (that was a challenge – the beer we chose was of a rather acquired taste!), playing board games. Not forgetting the childish banter, or course. It must be quite a special weekend when six grown men find themselves arm-in-arm side-skipping around a table doing a disturbing Bananarama rendition (Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Yahtzee..!).
All this was the undercard for the main event. Sunday morning dawned, bright (OK, cloudy, but with sunshine threatening) and breezy, much like us (OK, sleepy… but with banter threatening). After a half-hour drive to Woolacombe, from the farmhouse we were staying in, we made our way onto the beach to register / collect our race numbers.
The sun was threatening to come out and, by the sea, the breeze was very real! Our warm-up consisted of a kickabout (Frisbee having been dismissed on the grounds of said breeze) on the sand plus a jog to the outgoing tide and back. Several surfers were making the best of the conditions; some quite reasonable waves were being generated.
Just over one hundred runners were called into the start to be counted down to a hooter. Off we set, on sand not quite firm enough to spring off. The course, like yesterday’s parkrun, is a figure-of-eight. Unlike the parkrun, it is not all flat and very little of it involves path. The first 3k are from one end of the beach (Woolacombe) to the other (that end being Putsborough). That ‘softens’ you up nicely for the slip road and about 40 metres of climbing (though at least it’s much firmer underfoot, tarmac road).
That takes you onto the coast path, where you travel back in the general direction of the start / finish. This undulates for a while before you are directed left, and back downhill, into the dunes – and decidedly soft sand. As you pass the 5k mark you snake (or plough) your way between dunes – it’s quite energy-sapping. Finally (I say ‘finally;’ in reality, it’s a little less than 1k through those dunes) you drop onto the beach again and cross your early path.
You bear left (away from where you need to be going!) towards the headland at Putsborough, doing a U-turn pretty much at the cliff face. From there, it’s a straight run to the finish. Along the length of the beach. All 3 – 3½k of it. Two miles, in which you can see the finish line getting seemingly no closer.
Back to the race itself. I had the three youngsters (Sam, Tom and Jack) in front of me and Gareth and Andy behind. Much of the first kilometre was spent finding the ideal line. This isn’t simply a straight line from the Woolacombe-end start to the slip road at Putsborough; there was some weaving by all, seeking better going underfoot. This is a study in other runners’ footprints and how deep they are in the sand… well, it passes the time.
I drew level with the three colleagues ahead and, before I knew it, there were just Sam and myself as we approached Putsborough, and a water station immediately ahead of the climb. We weren’t alone for long though – Tom and Jack passed us both as we ascended the road. Completing the climb and turning onto the path, I found that Sam was no longer aside me, and that Tom and Jack were closer than I had thought. I latched onto them as we made our way along the inclines and descents of the coastal path.
Tom began to waver as we passed a second water station and approached the turn that would lead us down into the dunes, leaving me following Jack as he made the descent, agile as a cat (my descent was a little less sprightly). The path through the dunes was indeed soft sand and I tried to minimise the effect by running alongside the flora that bordered it. Focusing on keeping pace with Jack, and another runner immediately ahead of us both, I managed the dune section without completely exhausting myself and was feeling in reasonable shape as we reached the beach again.
Leading runners were approaching us from the U-turn we were ourselves headed for, with encouragement being exchanged from both directions. As we made our turn and commenced the long (two miles, I’ll just remind you) run back towards the finish (at the other end of the beach – I’ll remind you again) we passed Tom, then Sam, both coming the other way – Tom not at all far behind us.
Jack started to up the pace and I was struggling to do the same. Slowly, but inevitably, he eased away from me. Just to add to this, three other runners we had been tailing did the same. If that wasn’t enough, Tom then drew up alongside me briefly, before giving chase to Jack. I was left to keep pushing myself in an effort not to continue backwards.
I felt as if I’d covered quite a lot of the beach we were traversing but the finish was still a long way off. In an attempt to distract myself from this I watched the runners ahead. Over the next few minutes I saw Tom slowly drop off the group and realised that I may yet catch him. I found some hidden energy and started to stretch my stride.
This is a stage where I find myself mentally swinging between you-can-do-it and it’s-not-going-to-happen. One moment I’m thinking, Keep pushing, I can definitely catch up – the next I’m thinking, this gap isn’t closing, oh well, it really doesn’t matter that much. Plus several thoughts ranging between the two.
In this manner I did eventually draw alongside Tom. Having passed several minutes getting to this stage I realised that the string of beach huts immediately preceding the finish line were quite close ahead. Encouraging Tom to keep up I found a little spring in my feet and, together, we made it to the end.
Jack had finished just over a minute ahead, and Sam came in just a minute or so behind. The four of us wandered back along the beach to meet Gareth and Andy. As a finale for the weekend we wrote YAHTZEE in the sand and – to their credit! – Gareth and Andy danced around it singing that iffy Bananarama rendition before continuing on to the finish, flanked by us.
If you ever fancy an early summer weekend away near the sea, with a 10k thrown in, you could do a whole lot worse than this! It’s not the easiest 10k but certainly worth the experience. Plus the scenery in this part of the country is quite outstanding – we took the coastal route over Exmoor on our return journey; it was so worth the extra half-hour in travel time.