Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Monday, 31 August 2015

16th August: Alone or with company?

So what do you do when it comes to training? Do you go out by yourself or do you go out with one or more people? From seeing the weekday joggers in my village the vast majority of people going round the block are doing so by themselves. Running can be viewed as an individual pastime of you pushing yourself, but being next to someone can really help to pass the time as I can swear by from running distance events over the last few years.

My neighbour and erstwhile marathoner Pini has offered to go out running together on a good few occasions, but with him being that much faster than me I have refused as I would not want to disrupt any training plans he is in the midst of (he is good at having those and sticking to them) and in effect, waste his running and training time by having to force him to slow down to maintain the illusion that we are running together.

I realise the offer to go running is made by him with this knowledge in mind, and when I have gone out jogging with LSS I have done so knowing it will be at her pace (well maybe a little faster than she would normally go) rather than at mine and I certainly have no problem in doing this as it is my expectation of the run, so surely the same applies with Pini’s offer to me?

Personally I am with the majority of those I have seen in the village and as a rule I run by myself (excluding a four legged companion). The major reason is more to do with time factors than anything else: With my line of work and its non-regular finishing times I cannot commit to set times or days, so I tend to run (or cycle) when I can find the time and this is also the same reason that I have not joined a running/ cycling/ tri club as it is tricky to keep the commitment that joining demands of you. If you are to run with someone and for it to become a regular occurrence then you need to have a day and a time that works and to stick to it as cancelling at the last minute will only lead to upset and you’re back to running solo again.

It looks like for the time-being I will continue ‘flying solo’ so-as-to-speak, but hey, I’m not discounting in the future going out running with other people… As long as they are happy to abide by the rule that if you can’t hold a conversation with the person you are running with, then you’re going too fast!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

9th August: Vote Pies

On the last three marathons I’ve been to, in North Devon, Fort William and Buxton, because of my 'Eat Pies' shirt that I run in, I’ve been asked on 4 separate occasions if it is me who has graffiti’d the bridge over the M6.

For those to whom this means nothing, heading north on the motorway there is a railway bridge just north of Sandbach Services where someone has had some fun with a paint brush… And on the way south there is another related daubing close by.

Now back in my mis-spent youth at a drunken student party I did once graffiti a road and as a consequence a few years back there was a report in the news of a zebra crossing being painted across the M3 a couple of miles from where I lived, those who knew me did ask if I had anything to do with the prank... So I suppose I should have expected the occasional question about the M6 prank, but no, its nowt to do with me!

Here’s what the  graffitis look like from on the road:

Northbound: Vote Pies
Southbound: Pies This is Your Time.
Incidentally, whilst journeying back from LSS's folks in Chorley, I was held at traffic lights to the north of Wigan, the pie capital of Britain, and saw this in a baker's window:

Why on earth would you want to put a pie in a roll?

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

2nd August: Peak Skyrace

Different gravy... That's the phrase I'll use to describe the Peak Skyrace: Different gravy!

I'd seen this race a while back and wanted to do it in my attempt at pushing myself towards harder runs. My long-term aim is to be taking part in some properly hard mountain marathons and ultras and you need to start somewhere! As such this race in the globally renowned Skyrunner series (well, renowned amongst us trail runners) offered a decent step-up in to what to expect in the type of races the global stars of trail runners lock horns against one another... The global stars of trail running and the 'Leeky Ladies': Kirsty, Lucinda and Sarah, whom I met at the Pendine ultra and have been ribbing me on Facebook and Strava over the last few months about how I would not be able to cope when I came to play in their backyard of the Peak District!

LSS and Spud our faithful sprollie had accompanied me to this race, with us all camping a short distance from the event base of Buxton high-school. Come the hour in the morning and I assembled on the road outside with about half the other runners. None of us had any idea of where to go as the school looked closed and there was no signage or indication as to where to go, so with just 30 mins left to the race briefing we all began to sweat nervously about what to do... Until someone pointed out where to go and half the field descended on the registration desk and the toilets at the same time!

Briefed, registered, lubed and numbered we all filed across to the playing fields on the opposite side of road. As we lined-up to start, I said hello to ‘Leeky Ladies’ Sarah & Kirsty (Lucinda had to drop-out through illness) and I had a good chance to survey the field of my fellow runners... I have to say I was disappointed at the paucity of ultra-beards lined-up in front of me! As a Skyrunner race you know its supposed to be a toughie, even if this is the ‘easiest’ of the British ones, but perhaps it was not hard enough to attract those sporting the face-fungus of men who live their life outdoors in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a running vest with a thousand yard stare deep in their eyes... I figured they must all have remained at home nailing their scrotums to planks of wood which for them would be marginally more painful than running here today!

Nary a beard to be seen!
I waited near the rear of the group (starting how I figured things would pan out by the end) with the grey clouds hanging overhead threatening a soaking upon us. After the countdown we were off on half a lap of the field before climbing in to the woods at the side, the race grinding to a halt as we ascended 'Indian file' onto the woodland path.

So fast we were all a blur!
Under the canopy we climbed and descended on the sometimes slick trail in a good warm-up to get the blood pumping and emerged out the far side with a short but lung-busting climb up to Solomon’s Temple whilst serenaded by a piper... The definition of a gentleman is 'somebody who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to’, so this chap certainly wasn’t one... Either that or the missus has banned him from practicing in the house on a Sunday morning!

The congregation off to 'Temple' on a Sunday morning.
Rounding the temple and breathing out of my arse it was down the other side and a cut across a couple of residential roads with a long drawn-out climb to hit the wilderness of the Peak District moorland.

Syonara to civilization for a few hours.
Soon it was just the sound of your own breath and the occasional gust of wind as all civilisation was left behind with Burbage at the bottom of the hill. So far, so enjoyable and my times were up on what I had anticipated they would be at this point. I had hoped to average 15 minute miles over the course and I had posted an average of about 11 so far. Over this first moor and we passed a very picturesque gorge with the stream burbling away in the bottom, running above it on the rocky and sandy path before crossing over it about a quarter mile later and in no time hit CP1 on a hairpin bend through a gate.

The checkpoints on this race were a mix of manned aid stations and self-clip orienteering style points.

An aid station with a view.
Whilst registering we were all handed our brevet cards and to finish the race we were to collect 6 individual clips from the various points on the run with a further 3 checkpoints being manned aid stations.

From the well-stocked aid station we hit more moorland and farmland, including a few climbs of particularly fiendish gradients that at least were mercifully brief in their duration. It was on this section I bumped in to a chap by the name of Jason, a teacher by profession, who was out on his first ultra and ran for a while with him, with us and others losing our way on part of the course and having to clamber over a low barbed-wire topped fence to get on to the road we were all sure we were supposed to be running along, before we yo-yo’d and he disappeared-off in to the distance.

...And down.
One of the highlights for me was running over the ‘Ramshaw Rocks’ where at times we had to scramble over the outcrops of the gritstone monoliths. It was up here that I saw a familiar face perched on a rock above the trail cheering us runners on: Lucinda the last of the trio of 'Leeky Ladies' was there with her spotty-dog Lily, so I paused briefly to chat with her and wished her a speedy recovery to get back out running these stupidly long distances that she loves (and is very good at as well).

Off the high point, down and round before ‘Hen Cloud’ was conquered… Next-up ‘The Roaches’. At this point I was suffering from overheating as the clouds had now burnt away and the sun was shining, raising the humidity level, and with being on track for time and nearing the halfway point I decided to rest under the watching eye of some rock-climbers beginning their ascent of the vertical face behind me. Eating a breakfast bar whilst perched on a handy rock I had to fight-off the plethora of flies that plagued anything that was not moving and would dog us runners for the rest of the race now the sun was out. Once back up and running along the trail we skirted some centuries-old woodland on the downward slopes which were beautifully verdant with age.

As I descended off the Roaches I could see by the road in front of me was parked an ice cream van… Dear god I was tempted for a 99, unfortunately I was not carrying cash so it just teased me as I passed it and the gathered throng of weekend walkers all enjoying something cold to cool-off. As I passed them by, one group asked if it ‘was me who graffiti’d the M6 bridge?’ - this was the first of 2 asks today, combined with recent asks at Fort William and the North Devon AONB marathons!.. What has happened is earlier this year someone has painted ‘Vote Pies’ on a bridge over the motorway, and with my ‘Eat Pies’ shirt it seems there’s a bunch of people putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 5!

Make mine a 99!
Back up on to the next ridge for some more spectacular running amongst the wilderness, another self-clip point then through some woodland and the second aid station was there with sweet sugary goodness to be had.

Passing out the other side of the aid station I bumped in to Jason again who was struggling his way up the hill getting a bit of gip from his leg - I offered him some Deep Heat, which after he’d massaged in coupled with a bit of a stretch he was fine to continue… With us chatting about the coaching standard of football in Britain as opposed to the US and in Europe and how they get things right over there with infrastructure as opposed to the way it is done in Britain, especially from his experiences of training as a coach and working over in the States before coming back to Britain to become a teacher. Talking at length over this and football in general and what has got us to the lunacy of where we are now certainly managed to while-away the miles and forget about the heat beating down on us from the sun… When with a sigh we saw our next challenge: Shutlingsloe - a spiky brute of a hill that seems to rise vertically out of nowhere and returns just as quickly. Watching from below we could see the slow progress of those on their way up, picking a path and using their hands to help in some places near the top as it was that steep.

Up Shutlingsloe.
Dear god, it was as tough as it looked trying to get up it, and all the words of encouragement of those passing us on the way down could not lift my spirits. Finally, absolutely rinsed with the effort we were at the summit, clipped-in at the CP and were able to cool down in the gentle breeze blowing across us. From our vantage point you could see stunning views for miles, including in the distance our next target in the form of the Cat & Fiddle pub and the aid station beside it. Surveying the landscape you could figure-out where our path would cut its way through the landscape to get there.

As you can see the view was worth the struggle!
What went up must come down, so we descended from the ‘Matterhorn of the Peak District’ and as those who had done to us before we bade all those we passed the best of British. We found our way through some forest and climbed-up along a babbling brook, which I took the opportunity to sit down in to cool off, dousing my cap with water as well before continuing refreshed.

The view from in the babbling brook!
One of the course markers!
Across the moors we reached the pub and its aid station. When we arrived the medic chatted to the two of us, ascertaining in his mind if we were in a fit-enough state to continue as-is or were suffering from dehydration or anything else. We seemed to pass muster and a quick query about cut-offs by me to see if we had definitely made it - I estimated us to be about 15 minutes inside of it at this point - and we were told as far as they were concerned we were good to go, so loaded-up with food and drink the two of us headed out of the aid station towards the last self-clip at CP9 on Shining Tor.

Towards the Tor.
We made a good pace now fortified with a blast of sugars and salts, making the next mile in good time and in not too long a time we had completed the out-and-back leg to Shining Tor and mentally we were now on the home straight. At this point Jason crossed beyond the furthest distance he had ever run (marathon distance) and we edged closer to the bottom of Goyt Valley.

Descending in to the valley we were now out of the breeze, the heat & rising humidity now became an issue for me and progress was slow. Jason was sharing the suffer-load with me, almost as a tag team: me on the ascents and him on the descents. Our mile times at this point seemed to drop off a cliff as the buzz from the aid station fodder had worn-off and we were now both in a bit of sense of humour failure; our sole focus now to get to the end of the race, no matter what, where or how. Everything was now just plain hurting!

It seemed an eternity, but we finally emerged on the other side of the valley and from the view of Burbage below and Buxton beyond it we realised that we were closing-in on the end, with mostly just descent to go as we re-traced our steps from this morning under cloudy skies, that now seemed an eternity ago.

Eventually the two of us reached the school and crossed the finish line to the accompaniment of an air-horn and the remaining runners/ spectators still yet to clear-off home. We crossed the line 20 minutes down on the 8 hour suggested finish time… That said we were not quite last (but nearly) finishing 6th & 7th place away from the wooden spoon although there were a few runners who were hooked from the course at the Cat & Fiddle for being too slow as well as a few casualties en-route.

An understandably chuffed Jason!
LSS & Spud had been waiting for me for around 2 hours at this point and typically, LSS kept up her ‘not quite there’ record at these events and was away from the line as I finished thanks to Spud needing a wee at precisely the wrong moment, so again there was no finishers photo of me!

Sarah was chilling out by the finish line with her faithful lurcher Willow. She had become one of the casualties of the race having to drop around the 10th mile and the disappointment was writ large on her normally cheerful face. Kirsty however was all smiles, and finishing 6th lady was a terrific outcome for her!

I’m now the proud owner of a ‘Skyrunner’ medal and the finishers tech-tee is a very classy simple black affair with a white outline print.

In the school’s canteen there was plenty of left over food from the checkpoints for us to indulge in should we want to, although I was more interested in drinking than eating with the heat… For the last 2 hours I had been craving a chilled can of Red Bull or 2, fixating on this and using it as a motivation to get across the line, but I settled for a load of squash instead as it was sitting there nice and cool in a jug ready to be drunk! All the leftover food was to be donated to local homeless shelters, which I thought was a lovely touch and very classy of the organisers and an incentive not to eat anything!

Speaking of the organisers, they have put on a very challenging race and worthy of sitting under the Skyrunner banner - you don’t have to be running up and down mountains in the back-end of beyond for the course to be challenging, as there’s certainly plenty of ascending to be done here in the Peak District. The race clocks 2km of vertical ascent - yep, more than a vertical mile over the course of the race!

This was by far the hardest of all the 43 marathons and further that I have run. As I stated at the start I found it to be ‘different gravy’ so I’d better explain what I mean… From looking upon a trail marathon as a pie, on paper this marathon seems to be just the same as your ’standard’ trail marathon meat pie, but as soon as you sink your teeth in to it you soon find there’s a different taste going on here… You still have your normal filling of hills, mud and puddles etc… But boy the way they are all mixed-up together combining the ever changing terrain underfoot, vista after sweeping vista, ridge running and even a small scramble, it is a different gravy poured over the filling that makes it taste a whole lotta different, and it tastes GOOD! I will certainly be back for a second helping and I have a burning desire already to finish my next sitting in under the 8 hours.

Having slept like a baby from when darkness fell (no, not waking up screaming at 2am having shat the bed), the next morning LSS and I stopped-off in the village of Hadfield. The reason for stopping was two-fold: Hadfield is LSS’s maiden name and it is also the location for one of my favourite comedies: The League of Gentlemen

The iconic Hadfield war memorial.
I was able to park-up and walk in to Hilary Briss & Sons butcher’s (Mettricks in real life) and come out with a pack of the ‘special stuff’, or sausages in this case!

Got my 'special stuff'!
Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

27th July: Fort William Marathon

It was a long drive up to Fort William, the self proclaimed outdoor capital of Scotland, if not Britain, for the latest leg of my trail marathon oddyssey (oddity?).

This highland town is one of my favourite places to be and I would happily move there in a heartbeat if circumstances allowed, so when I heard last year that they were holding their inaugural marathon I entered it in a thrice.

The course is centred on the Nevis resort ski centre, with the first section coincidentally on trail I had run along last year on the way back to my holiday gaff having face-planted off the side of Ben Nevis, with the rest of the route looking quite straight-forward and surprisingly not very hilly given the surroundings!

I drove the 10 hour journey up on the Saturday (thanks to roadworks and traffic-jams it took an extra 2 hours more than it should) in time for the pre-race ceilidh being held in the Snow Goose restaurant at the top of the gondola.

The race organisers had arranged this as an easy £20 up-sell (for the gondola ticket and food) when booking your race entry, as it took away one of the unknowns when you arrive, that of where to get some scran and avoid a last resort visit to an establishment that pedals nutritionally dubious food promoted by a clown if you’re unable to get a table anywhere else.

Looking up from the cable car at the restaurant.
The view down from the cable car.
Soaking up the sights from the cable-car I marvelled at the changing view that follows the route of the UCI World Cup downhill MTB course over the ten minute ascent and emerged at the top able to see a small patch of snow still on the north side of the mountain.

The lonely patch of snow.
Wandering in to the Snow Goose I joined the queue for what transpired to be a very underwhelming meal… For our troubles we were given a meagre plate of pasta, a slice of garlic bread and a soft drink - without second helpings on the pasta to help fill you up. The view for the meal was probably the best I have had though, so after finishing my plate (it didn’t take long) I wandered around the restaurant’s veranda taking pictures and chatting with some fellow runners. A good plan for the meal would have been to offer ‘bottomless plates’ so with the small size of portions people could have second (or third) helpings as pasta in a tomato sauce with mince (I chose the carnivore option, there was also a veggie one) is not the most expensive to provide or complicated to prepare.

With the dinner eaten there was no point in hanging around any longer, so I descended on the cable car and headed back to Fort William itself for some more food, stopping for a pint in the Grog & Gruel before grabbing a portion of chips to tide me over till the morning. Hunger finally sated as the sun disappeared behind the mountains I kipped for the night parked in the ski centre car park, all ready to waken the following morn next to the start line.

Awake and breakfasted, registration was a simple straightforward affair in the resort cafe, and the queue for the toilets was not too bad (it does help if you are not leaving it to the last minute though).

One of the sponsors of the race was Smidge, the insect repellent company who were offering a free basting in their product to anyone who wanted it - well it seemed churlish not to take them up on their offer, as from experience a plague of the little biting feckers can be pretty annoying, so I went over to lard-up with it, and bumped in to a familiar face from last time I was up here: Theresa Majeed, fresh from winning an ultra over in the Irish Republic and newly engaged, so I was able to offer congratulations to her and her trail running fiance in person.

All the runners were champing at the bit ready to start!
Soon we were all corralled at the start and sent on our merry way… Uphill through the trees on the fire-break roads of Leanachan Forest, before hitting a clearing where we had the Grey Corries overlooking us on our right. The first couple of miles are essentially a steady steepish climb before there’s a slight drop to offer some respite to fatigued calves before the climbing recommences and we reach the highest point of the course just shy of 5 miles in to the run.

The Grey Corries overlooking us.
Playing 'follow the leader' through the clearing.
On this stretch I bumped in to one of the runners I had spoken with last night, who was also underwhelmed by the meal and their party too had returned to Fort William to seek more fodder in the form of a substantial dessert!

Leanachan forest is a managed environment that has reached maturity, so the timber is now being harvested before re-planting, so running along the fire-break roads on this high-point of the course you were looking down at times over a site of desolation: where once stood firs now lay just torn tree stumps. 

All warmed-up with the 5 miles of climbing, we were able to breath, relax and make the left turn down towards the valley bottom, encountering our first road at seven miles as we ran along above the river Spean, hearing it tumbling over the boulders that form its bed a good 30ft down the embankment next to the road.

The river flowing below the road.
A short detour back in to the forest and we soon hit the village of Spean Bridge where having been well marshalled across the A road (one of the main roads linking the west and east sides of the country), we crossed the bridge that gives the village its name and headed off on the path following the undulating bank of the river till we found ourselves on the dismantled railway bed of the former Invergarry to Fort Augustus line. From here we passed the remains of Highbridge and moved away from the river towards the Commando Memorial.

The remains of High Bridge.
On the moorland approaching the aid station in the sight of the statue, amongst the other spectators, there was a gathering of some women of pensionable age all cheering us runners on and ringing cow bells! I noticed that a couple of them were sporting red maple leaves on their cheeks, so I figured there must be a Canadian connection (an absent great-grandfather is Canadian) which made me smile all the more.

Don't fancy living in the palindrome of this place!
Down the road to Gairlochy.
From this water stop where my shirt got plenty of laughs and love from the assembled support it was downhill along the road passing through the hamlet of Mucomir and alongside the hydro plant before hitting Gairlochy and the start of the plod along the canal tow-path. Upon reaching this point I had a look at my Garmin and realised I was easily on course for a PB - in fact I was nudging into sub 4 territory if I wanted to push myself till I dropped… Trying to use my loaf for once and thinking of next weekend and the Peak Skyrace I made the conscious decision to slow down so as to not ruin myself for that run.

Starting the 'beasting session' along the canal.
The Nevis Range, the Spean River and the Caledonian Canal in one shot (just)
Another canal user.
Along the canal there was plenty of yo-yo ing of positions as some people found it harder than others before they discovered a second wind and were able to get their running mojo back on track. A big surprise was at the mid-point water station, which was manned by someone from Portsmouth whose nephew turns out to live about 7 miles from me… Small world and all that!

M for 'muff'?
The high end of Neptune's Staircase.
Once at the end of the canal, turning off the tow path at Neptune’s Staircase it was a jog on the country lanes, giving a very excited little girl a high-five as I ran past. We skirted the northerly edge of Fort William, passing the ladies with their cow bells again and began the climb out towards Torlundy on the cycle path next to the A road.

Back in to the forest.
Reaching the turn for Torlundy we made our way back on to the forestry roads leading back in to the Ski centre… And it was here that I saw the most bizarre sight I have witnessed in 42 marathons: In the middle of nowhere there was a family out walking their 2 dogs… and their cat! The cat was merrily plodding along like the dogs, sometimes behind the group, others in front. The poor thing must have had an existential crisis and believed itself to be canine rather than feline!

Here kitty-kitty!
Into the last mile now and running through the last stretch of forest we crossed the finish line with the music blaring over the PA system and plenty of cheering runners and supporters in a good-old party atmosphere.

Considering it was an inaugural event, there seemed to be plenty of supporters gathered along the course specifically at the aid stations and other easy access points for spectators, such as at Neptune’s Staircase. I couldn’t fail to notice that a fair chunk of the days runners had also, like me, run in last October’s Glencoe judging by the number of shirts on display!.. And speaking of shirts, the finishers one is particularly classy with a very good simple design on the front and the ‘swag’ was great, including a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer (the best chocolate bars in the world) and a miniature from the local Ben Nevis Distillery.

The aid stations were perfectly placed and well stocked with amongst other things a bountiful supply of High5 gels - my go-to of choice in that department at present and the course was well marked and easy to follow. The surroundings are superb (which was a given anyway considering the locale) so there was always something good to look at - although I did find the canal section a bit of a relentless slog as you just had to find a rhythm and tick-on like a metronome. The course is probably the quickest ‘trail’ one I have run along with the pancake-flat Portsmouth Coastal which has a similar blend underfoot (around 8 miles was on the metalled tow-path and about another 6 on roads/ pavement does help to speed things up) and even with throttling back from hitting the canal and even more over the last 10k to save myself for next week’s ‘A’ race in Buxton I was still able to post my 4th fastest marathon time without feeling I had made any major effort.

Will I be back? Yes, as it gives me a reason to get up to Fort William again and I’m intrigued as to what time I can lay-down if I am not saving myself for a particularly tough 30 miler the following week! It was a lovely course, well organised and well supported and the fellow competitors were lovely and cheerful and very willing to chat - it will probably be an event that is really taken into its heart by the town over the next couple of years… Not too sure about the pre-race ceilidh though. If it was on a bottomless plate basis then that would be fine, but if it is to continue in the same manner then you’re probably just as well rewarding yourself with a ride up to the Snow Goose on the gondola for a post-race beer with a view!

Only a week for the legs to recover before the Peak Skyrunner!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

20th July: Devon Coast to Coast

This weekend saw my second annual cycling expedition with school-friends Dean, Rob & Stu. Last year was a circuit of the Isle of Wight on our MTB's where despite being on an island we never once touched water. This year we were to start and finish in water with a cycle from north to South Devon, the only county in the country with 2 independent coastlines.

We would be starting on the Saturday morning from Ilfracombe with an overnight stop in Okehampton before continuing from there to the finish in Plymouth the following day, with a rail journey on the Monday from Plymouth to Barnstaple before cycling the last 15 miles back to Ilfracombe.

We all gathered on the Friday evening at the house of Rob's parents who had retired to Ilfracombe a good few years back which gave us an ideal starting point and we all enjoyed some pre-ride carb loading of fish & chips and beer watching the sun set over the Atlantic ocean before retiring for the night.

Spot the difference.
Bright and early we readied ourselves and rolled down the hill to the harbour in Ilfracombe, starting our ride by the Damien Hirst statue ‘Verity’ and a quick ceremonial dip of the wheels in the water and we were off up the hill and on to the former railway line heading south.

Wheels wetted.
The ride was to take in as much off-roading as we could along the route to Plymouth following the Sustrans national cycle-route 27 with the majority of the 100 mile ride (about 70 miles) being covered on day 1 we were aware that we needed to make good time, so we eagerly pushed onwards.

Just follow this sign for the next 100 miles & we'll be ok!
Following the old railway bed, I found us retracing the steps of my last marathon, before we turned-off and headed for Woolacombe via Mortehoe, where on the descent through the village we were held-up in a traffic jam of holidaymakers in vehicles too wide to pass a road in opposite directions causing the blockage, before weaving our way round it and continuing.

Rolling downhill to Mortehoe.
A lovely downhill section in to Woolacombe and again we rejoined the North Devon AONB marathon course, where we hit the sand-dunes next to the beach and the coastal path where disaster struck for me… I had fitted my bike with panniers to carry my luggage on this journey, but the bouncing over the dunes had caused a screw thread from the luggage rack to strip out of the aluminium frame, cause the rack to twist, the pannier to shift with it and become trapped between the wheel and the frame, tearing it all open and scattering the contents over the ground.

Approaching Woolacombe.
Cramming everything in to the other side of the pannier and accepting Dean’s offer of a cable-tie, the rack and panniers were bodged together enough to be able to continue the journey towards Georgham and an MTB section only of the route. It was soon apparent why it was marked as MTB only with how slippery the steep rocky muddy uphill section was that had us all losing grip and having to put our feet down or push the bikes through insufficient traction to pedal in a straight enough line.

The effort to get to the top was worth it though as the downhill that followed was quite fun and off the back of this hill we rolled all the way in to Braunton, with our path passing directly through the centre of the town. I took the opportunity whilst here to track-down then nearest hardware store and bought a roll of duct tape and taped the pannier back together so as to be able to continue the journey with an evenly spread load.

Within the next mile I had to stop a further 3 times to adjust the setup of the rack and panniers as they were continually slipping and I became acutely aware that my mechanical issues were really dragging the rest of the guys back… Once moving again, with the mechanical issues resolved, the real problems started for me:

For breakfast I had only eaten 2 slices of toast, and with a combination of the bike weighing what felt to be an extra 20 kilos with the luggage rack, panniers and their contents (I had deliberately overpacked on repair tools etc.) and the drama of the breaking of them, I had neglected to eat anything since about 8am and I really was beginning to bonk.

Pedalling hard I managed to catch-up with the others as I crammed a Cliff bar into my mouth in an effort to get some food in to the tank, but with this section along the flat path of the estuary from Braunton through Barnstaple to Bideford, it was a real struggle to keep my legs moving at all. Once all grouped together upon crossing the bridge over the estuary in Barnstaple we decided that to make as good a time as we could we would ride this long flat section as a peloton, with each of us taking a turn on the front for a mile with the others drafting off the leader, before dropping to the back.

Even with the assistance of drafting, I was struggling to keep my legs going and stay in touch with everyone, but I lasted till it was my turn on front, and looking at my Garmin the whole time I hammered the pedals as hard as I could for a mile and a half, maintaining the speed needed before I dropped to the back, then really struggled to hold on to the rear of the ‘train’… From this point the others were really being slowed down by me, so it was a relief to finally reach Bideford where we stopped for lunch in a cafe overlooking the river.

The view from the cafe... And a bold statement on the digger's arm!
After a restful stop fortifying ourselves with coke, sandwiches and chips we mounted our trusty steeds and continued south, soon leaving the river behind and heading upwards and further inland. This next hour I found as hard as the last one before lunch as my legs were still dead through the fuel tank still registering empty. I even resorted to trying to persuade the guys to carry on and let me catch them as I had the directions on my Garmin so all I needed to do was follow the arrow and I would get to the pub where we were spending the night… Naturally the guys refused, so I plodded on as best as I could at the back of the 4 of us. About an hour in to this afternoon session, something amazing happened: all of a sudden my legs began working again and I was able to keep up with the guys and begin to enjoy the riding once more.

The view from the bridge leaving Bideford.
A popular route with the locals!
Inky black waters.
 We were now in open countryside, passing from hamlet to hamlet going up and down hills via farm and woodland. Everything was pretty uneventful, barring a near collision between Rob and a car driving on the wrong side of the road crossing a bridge in the wonderfully named Sheepwash. Ascending to Highampton we could now see in the distance Okehampton with Dartmoor beyond it. Pushing on along the ridge to Hatherleigh we had our last sapping climb of the day through the village - with its imaginatively named ‘High Street’ and a little way up the hill ‘Higher Street’, before our final lengthy descent in to Okehampton, which suddenly appeared around a bend from out of nowhere!

Dean with a distant Okehampton & Dartmoor behind him.
Through the town and across the golf course and we were at our resting point for the night out to the west of the town, Betty Cottles, where we all showered, ate heartily and drank a few beers before hitting the sack completely cream-crackered but with 70 miles chalked-off.

This way home (Hook)... I think?
Next morning we all had our ‘full English’ to start the day and were turfed-out with the doors locked behind us before I had a chance to fill my water bottles! Fortunately a stand-pipe was located in the grounds so I could use that to fill-up.

We made our way under the A30 and onto the former railway line that was forming the cycle path here and rode the first mile till we arrived at Meldon Viaduct, stopping to admire the view where over to the South we could see the Meldon reservoir dam.

The viaduct from the side.
Just past here Rob and Dean had found a bridleway that would take them up on to Dartmoor for a spot of proper off-roading and decided to detour on that, rejoining the path about a mile or so in front. With my bike not being in a state to follow on even if the rider was willing, Stu and myself just carried on along the route and waited for them outside the church where the two paths met once more.

Skirting the moor.
From hereon the morning’s ride was a trip around the edge of Dartmoor, with Dean and Rob detouring on another occasion, as we all soaked-up the scenic vistas and rolled the miles under our tyres.

Beats riding round a town centre.
Towards midday as we turned and left the moorlands behind we found ourselves next to a delightful stream that was supplying the local hydro plant and stopped to relax by the water’s edge before continuing on to Peter Tavy where we knew a pub to be for lunch. This knowledge was courtesy of diligent research by Dean and Rob as we were navigating using routes plotted on the mobile app Viewranger by them which helpfully included 'waymarks' of pubs in areas where we might likely be come lunch/ rest times.

The cooling stream under the trees.
Heading down to the hydro plant.
Approaching the village, we bounced our way down a narrow trail strewn with rocks, where upon bottoming-out on one of them I could feel the tyre begin to deflate as I picked-up the groups one and only puncture of the whole journey. Hoping it was going to be a slow one, I broke the news to the guys that I would be able to nurse it to the pub and repair it whilst we had lunch, to find we were right outside the pub - As poor a fortune as getting a puncture might be, it couldn’t have happened in a better place.

Dean was so hungry he even ate the garnish.
Filled with our lunch at Peter Tavy we journeyed onwards to Tavistock, taking the elevated route through it that looks down upon the town from a viaduct. Whilst stopping on the bridge to admire the view I commented to Stu about there being a mobile mast on the horizon off in the distance at the top of a big hill, and how knowing us we’d end up climbing to it… Dean and Rob just carried on, the ones who had planned the route which should have been a clue as about an hour later after climbing up what seemed to be an eternity along a 1 in 2 gradient we found ourselves by that self same mast, rinsed-out by the effort!

Looking down on Tavistock from the viaduct.
Shortly after this there was a cracking downhill section on a country road that was so steep that with our unfamiliarity of the road combined with the narrow nature of it we could not just let ourselves go and roll at maximum speed, so brakes were employed the whole way down… Employed to a level that they really had to work overtime to scrub off just a bit of speed. Soon with the extreme heat you could feel radiating off our discs, all of us began to experience brake failure in the latter stages of the descent, where no matter how hard you pulled the brake levers nothing more was happening. Fortunately at the bottom there was space to ‘run-off’ into and come to a halt - where Stu’s curiosity got the better of him by wondering exactly how hot his brake discs were and giving himself a bit of a burn - and he’s the one with a degree in physics!

Ascending the fiendish hill.
Now at the bottom of a hill we had to get up the next - over a very rocky path just as steep as the one we had come down. This was akin to something I have to tackle on one of my trail marathons so I was perfectly happy just pushing up the hill whilst Dean and Rob made determined attempts to at least cycle a few metres here and there along the path.

At least with the miles ticking down there was the certainty that this was going to be the only remaining climb of note and on the back side of this we joined the Drakes Trail and skirted back on to Dartmoor again, passing some of the wild ponies along the way and the side of Yalverton, the last town before the finish.

Wild ponies.
From reaching here we knew the route was now pretty much a downhill path to the finish and just as the road began to noticeably descend we reached Clearbrook, where we could see a conveniently located pub, which we took advantage of, before the final section of 10 miles or so in to the finish in Plymouth.

Chilling at the final stop before the end.
Out of Clearbrook and the cycle trail was once more a former rail-bed, this time along the side of a valley, with lovely views across the other side through the trees, and the occasional tunnel to traverse where you could feel the temperature drop as you entered their dark mouths. This entire section was pretty much rollable to the outskirts of Plymouth, where we hit the flat… As we pulled alongside the estuary the latest mechanical misfortune beset me - I could no longer get one of my shoes to clip in to the pedal, minor I realise but one that was bugging me, but at least it did not prevent me from cycling.

The easy roll down hill to Plymouth.
In to the city centre and we were pretty-much there, only delayed by an enforced wait for the swing bridge to open for us with shipping traffic needing to escape Plymouth, we rolled through the throng of tourists on a beautiful sunny evening in to the middle of town, finding an ideal spot by the water’s edge in to which we dipped out bike’s wheels.

Wetting the wheels at the end.
100 miles on MTB’s in 2 days done!.. We booked-in to our B&B and showered before hitting the nearest pub for celebratory beers and a hearty meal. As we sat outside enjoying our pints we watched as an ambulance pulled-up to the pub and paramedics went inside.

About 30 minutes later as we were inside and waiting our food, we found out what was the matter: A fellow patron had collapsed in the ladies toilets, so we were all hoping that we had not ordered what she had been eating!

At least we weren't staying at the 'Quality Hotel'!
After a few more beers we retired back to the B&B where we all slept soundly, before waking and enjoying another full english. The weather was miserable with it pouring with rain, so we made our way to the station as quickly as we could and loaded our bikes on to the train for Exeter before changing on to the local puffer there to take us to Barnstaple.

Whilst on the train I discovered the problem with my pedal - it was the metal plate in my shoe that the cleat attaches to had bent so far it blocked the cleat so was now useless!

The ride from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe was found to be tough by all of us and I think we were all glad to have ridden north to south rather than the other way round, but eventually we managed to drag our sorry saddle-sore arses back to Rob’s parent’s house where a good lunch was awaiting us.

An uneventful drive home passed and as soon as I unloaded the bike from the van I removed the pannier and the luggage rack and tossed them in the rubbish. Looking at the rear tyre, the tread had completely disappeared over the 100 miles. The front wheel was still barely worn but the back was now a ‘slick’, which goes to show how much of a weight the rack and panniers were bearing down upon the rear of the bike. The cycling shoes followed the panniers into the bin with them being unrepairable - basically all the new kit I bought for the ride ended up broken and jettisoned at the end. During the rides I was chastised by my comadres for my choices where it was pointed out that ‘you get what you pay for’ and I was a fool for buying cheaply off eBay, but hey, you learn from your mistakes, adapt and move on.

Overall the route is a very enjoyable ride through the changing scenery of the countryside, covering everything from coastal road to remote moorland. The second day was a very easy one by comparison to the first, so it certainly makes sense to ‘break the back’ of the route on the first day before resting at Okehampton.

I would have loved to join Rob and Dean as they went off up on to the moors a couple of times, but the bike really was not up to it… Its safe to say that I’ve learned my lesson for luggage next time: hydration back pack, a beam rack with a small bag on top and to hell with the notion of cycle touring: ‘put all the weight on the bike and not you’. I did not like it this way round and found it uncomfortable!.. Also I will spend a bit more on the components in future and ensure everything mechanical is sound before embarking on the ride rather than 'winging it'.

Whilst in the pub the previous night after successfully finishing, our minds began to focus on next year’s expedition and it looks like it will involve another crossing of some sorts… Time will tell :)

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Ride far.