Care for Kids 10k – A ‘race’ report

It’s been fifteen months since G and I relocated to North Devon from Sussex in search of an outdoor lifestyle.

On the face of it, the move would seem a bit rash since Devon was a stranger to us both. Neither of us has spent any time there other than the odd trip to Torquay and a brief cycle through the county a few years ago but the lure of living by the sea on a coastline dominated by stunning beaches and a thriving outdoor culture persuaded us to at least give it a go.

Devon presents a very different landscape to what we were used to. It has a wonderfully diverse and varied geography. Dominated by the Atlantic Ocean to the North and English Channel to the right it is predominantly built on sandstone, limestone, granite and clay. Exmoor to the North and Dartmoor to the South are key geographical features as is the South West Cost Path which runs along both coastlines. Although in fairness, the whole county is littered with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas. It’s a compelling area to inhabit.

When we confirmed the move, one friend (who had been brought up in Devon) mentioned that we were certainly not moving for the weather. It turns out he wasn’t kidding. North Devon is buffeted by storms rolling in off the Atlantic. The exposed areas can be a bit exciting but thankfully, the area is blessed with pockets of ancient woodland and deep gorges which offer shelter when the storms are blowing in. The area is also consistently hilly, much more so than Surrey, making it a good test of our #hillsarefriends philosophy.

With so many wonderful areas to explore, we reasoned there is no better and more efficient way to discover new run routes than to utilise local knowledge via races. In the latter part of 2019, it paid dividends with beautiful runs at Arlington Court and Castle Drogo.

We just got into our stride then the pandemic hit and we had to rewrite everything.

Like everyone else we have stumbled around the last few months, working to form a new narrative and using the time productively to listen and learn. This time of renewal has opened our mind to looking for new experiences. So when a colleague from G’s work suggested we sign up for a virtual 5k run organised by a local charity he supports called Care for Kids, it seemed like a really nice idea. On completion of the 5k, the charity contacted us about a 10k they were hosting in July, so we signed up for that too. And that’s how we ended up stood in the car park at Woolacombe last week ready to explore.

Since we discovered the parkrun at Woolacombe Sands, it’s become one of our favourite places to run. The beach itself is edged by low cliffs to the North (Morte Point) and the South (Baggy Point). Morte Point we had explored many months ago and while Baggy was on the list we never seemed to find the time to get there.

Woolacombe looking North from Baggy Point

Although the virtual event was meant to be self timed with awards for the fastest runners, neither G nor I had any interest in running at speed. The event was a way to motivate us to get off the couch and run around a reputably stunning part of Devon. We were more inclined to explore and if that meant we were last, so be it.

Starting out from the Porthole cafe, the toilets were open thankfully, we headed South along the paved road towards the South West Coast Path.

The path undulates along the edge of the cliff for a time, offering tantalising glimpses of Putsborough sands below until it opens out onto the land mass. To go on would take you over the hill towards the village of Croyde and Saunton Sands. We were to turn right.

We decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the northern edge of the headland. The path is narrow and cursed with a natural camber. Simon Armitage describes the path in his book, ‘Walking Away’ as ‘and the path a narrow and occasionally precarious tightrope down the middle that has to be watched and negotiated. Also, the natural camber of the coast means that my right leg is always further down the hill than the left and is theoretically doing more work… I might even end up with one leg longer than the other, like people who live on the side of mountains’.

The path is so narrow in places and over grown with gorse – a pernicious shrub if you have the misfortune of coming into contact with it – that you are forced into a one foot in, one foot out hobble slowing us immensely. We were passed by several runners who had the seasoned look of experience. Interestingly they consistently shunned the path altogether and took their chances on the slope above and made much better progress than we did, so we give it a brief go before sliding back to the path.

In any respect the slower pace was worth it to enjoy the views and we took the opportunity to look up and take in the panorama as well as the sounds and smell of the sea. It was blowing quite a breeze along the headland, a refreshing and life affirming wind that makes you feel alive and happy to be so.

The whole headland is undulating but has a prevalence to climbing out to the point. It means that running should be easier on the way back (although it doesn’t always work like that) and we set a steady run/walk as we make our way along the coast. We we’re mindful the distance we need to achieve was only 10k and we’d already clocked a mile to get to the foot of the headland. A quick calculation revealed we should hit half way on the ‘point’ of Baggy Point and while it was tempting to explore the whole area, we would save that for another day.

As the path runs up and down it also weaves in and out, sometimes hugging the edge of the coast to an almost precarious point before drifting back inwards. It was an interesting path to run and one which draws you along to see what is over the next hill. The island of Lundy was to our right, sitting like a dumpling in a bowl of stew and clearly visible in the clear air.

As we crested the climb, the view opened on the bay to the South. In actual fact, we could see beyond the beach to Northam Burrows and along the coast past Clovelly right to Hartland Point. It was stunningly beautiful and exciting to see the geography laid out before us after obsessively studying it on maps and visiting various points in piecemeal.

Looking South towards Saunton Sands

We stood for a little while, taking in the sights, sounds and living in the joy of being present in the moment before turning back to head back along the path, in a reverse of the direction we had come.

We had spent quite a while lollygagging and so confident our time would not present a threat to the top of the results table, we enjoyed the return journey at a similar pace.

One of the things I love while running is enjoying the movement of my body. The inherent strength that indicates, should I need to, I can rely on my body to do what it needs to and get myself out of trouble. This terrain is perfect for that. A classic trail run in which no foot strike is really the same and attention needs to be held at all times. There is a kind of meditation in this type of running that switches off all excess thoughts other than where the next foot strike will go. So despite the howling wind around us, I was entrenched in a meditative peace.

A view of Woolacombe beach from Putsborough

We steadily made our way along the path, loosing elevation until eventually we dropped down onto the beach. We plodded along for a short while until we reached the point where the parkrun route reaches the beach. We picked up the path heading into the dunes and ran the route in reverse until we were back at the Porthole in time for coffee.

Lose yourself

I was one of those kids that really liked school. I wouldn’t go so far to say they were the best years of my life and all that, but I was blessed with wonderful teachers and interesting subjects and I just loved the formal process of learning. It was obvious that once, I’d finished school I’d want to continue with studies, so I headed off to university to carry on where A levels left off.

I chose Geography because it was diverse and I didn’t like being pinned to a particular genre of study. The course was fundamentally split between human geography – the study of people and physical geography – the study of ecosystems. Although the physical geography was interesting I was compelled by the human element.

Of course one of the obvious attractions of Geography was the faculties predilection for field trips. When it came to our field trips, the humans and physicals separated. Physicals headed to Mallorca to study sand ecosystems and we headed to the Netherlands to study integrated transport in an urban environment. It sounds like we got the raw deal (and certainly there was a LOT of gloating when Mallorca was mentioned as a destination) but I think that actually, the Netherlands turned out to be a result. We got to explore Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam and all of the tourist attractions available there and play on bicycles while we explored the cities. We had a wonderful time with lots of giggles and learned a lot.

One of the stand out lessons was regarding the use of space and humans interaction with place. We were sent out to a suburb of Utrecht and urged to take a seat on a bench in a local park. While there, for a minimum of 10 minutes we were to use all of our sense to map the surrounding environment and its ways of being used.

We mapped out the landscape through political influence, urban development and redevelopment, housing policy, transport infrastructure and most importantly the relationship local people had with the space. It opened up my eyes to the information available if we just took the time to stop and look, really look.

Since that time I have been intrigued with people and our sense of place. Of what place means to us, our relationship with it, how it identifies us, how it pulls our memories and tugs at our emotions. Why, when we go to the place where we grew up with our loved one for the first time we insist on the memory tour entitled ‘this is where…’.

In the last few years I have done most of my exploring on foot. Although I like to vary my routes, invariably I would run the same few over again. Sometimes clockwise, sometimes anticlockwise to vary the view (and goodness it’s amazing how the scenery and topography can change just by running a route in reverse). I liked to think of the lines being drawn on a map, over and over again. As I got more familiar with the landscape, I started to map a memory trail.

I was amazed at how this memory trail would then make me feel each time I ran it. The time I stopped for a ‘stretch’ at the top of the hill that then became an ingrained habit. The trails that would make me feel safe, the one that felt like the woods were haunted and ever since I would try to avoid – or at the very least pick up my pace. The corner where I had a post split conversation with my ex that would forever induce a feeling of sadness.

The phenomenon can be utilised for a positive benefit. Running is as much a mental sport as physical. Over the last ten years or so, I guided an annual run for London Marathon entrants running for the Children’s Trust in Tadworth. Usually held a week or two before the event proper, the aim was to recreate a positive memory trail in the last few miles of the race, traditionally when it the starts to get really tough.

London Marathon – Tower Bridge

London is undoubtedly one of the most iconic marathon in the world. It follows an interesting course but invariably all of its great landmarks are encountered in the last few miles of the run, when the pain and fatigue had accumulated enough to slump shoulders and cast eyes downwards to the road ahead. The plan here then was to enjoy the landmarks while fresh and hopefully help runners feel a little better on race day.

We would start from London Bridge, cross the river at Tower Bridge and pick up the route at around 22 miles. We ran the route slowly with frequent stops for a chat, the odd anecdote and to visualise feeling strong and in control at these points. Occasionally I would ask them to attach a song (that they loved and never failed to uplift them) to a landmark they would pass en route, in the hopes it would reawaken that feeling as they passed on race day.

Visualisation is an efficient way to build up a link with your route and is a very strong (and under-utilised tool) tool to pop in your running kitbag when you are training for a big event. However, it does not substitute mapping out the environment yourself by actually being there. I have run London six times in the last fifteen years and each run builds upon the memories left by the previous attempt. Creating subtly different layers to make it multi-dimensional experience. It helps that despite the route being the same, no marathon experience is ever the same and so the trail left behind adds texture in a subtle yet tangible way.

As long as the pathway markers left behind are positive rather than that of a breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel, this mapping can also make each run easier. Although, even if you did have a bad experience, as long as we are willing to question and learn from the experience it can be a valuable lesson for next time. Jessie Zapotechne in a recent online edition of Huck Magazine explains this phenomenon rather well:

‘There’s a topographical awareness that happens when you run distance through the city. Running not only creates a deep engagement with a sense of place, but also with ones self’.

Zapotechne is talking about her experiences of running in New York but this could just as well be applied to London or even a rural area if that’s where you run regularly.

Beachy Head marathon – climbing Beachy Head

For example, I have also run Beachy Head marathon six times and like London, each time has been very different. Even if the topography here remains the same, the weather invariably makes it a different experience each time. Nevertheless, I know the route well enough now to be able to recreate it in my memory.

The map of this route is enriched with the ghosts of the people I have run or had conversations with. The feeling of the changing surface under my feet, the shoes I have run in, the views (or in the case of the heavy fog year) the smells of the earth around me. Memories of being too hot, or freezing cold.

All of these sensations accompanied by an internal dialogue plotting the experiences of my life at the time of each of the runs and particularly how my life was changing across them. Beachy Head marathon inexorably links my old life and new. In that time of turmoil each run helped to slough off the mental health illness that threatened to overwhelm me, generating the strength to keep going. The challenge of this topography was reflected in the struggle of shedding of the person I had become. Being outdoors in this tough environment with time to think and feel, like a phoenix reborn, I came alive again.

When I hear people talk about the benefits of running, my thoughts nearly always turn to physical fitness. To an improved cardio vascular system, lower risk of co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity, or maybe better body image. But we’re missing a trick. Running, and particularly our relationship with where we run can create a place in which we can lose ourselves, and in which we can find ourselves again.