Time to head back to the cliffs and bogs of Devon for another punishing crack at the mighty Grizzly race.
2017’s Grizzly race is my third running of this exceptional and tough race over 19.5 miles of Devon coastal path, pebble beaches, bogs and everything in between and I really didn’t know what result to expect this time.
I’ve run 2:56 in 2014 & 2:51 in 2015 for the last two races and felt that despite my lack of training on the terrain this year (marathon training has all been flat road runs) I felt that my increased mileage and overall speed have improved significantly since Christmas and I’ve been able to get a regular long run in most weeks so felt 2:45 might be a good – if ambitious – goal.
The first half of the Grizzly is challenging but pales in comparison to the difficulty of the second half so my aim was to run steadily through halfway somewhere around 1:15 which would leave me 1:30 for the second half which would include the infamous “bog of doom” and the “stairway to heaven” climb straight up the side of a cliff after half a mile along Branscombe’s pebble beach.
I was hoping to not entirely break myself in this race as it’s not an A race for me but I’m also not driving all the way to Devon to not give it a strong effort so I was pushing hard but on the steep inclines I made a conscious effort to power hike instead of try to run which has tired me significantly in past races.
The lack of stress in my race plan certainly made it a little easier to pace myself I must admit.
Start to 10 miles
As ever, we start with the town crier whipping up the crowd with the Grizzly poem and we’re off and straight onto Seaton’s pebble beach which is a punishing way to start the race but this time I took it easy effort wise and found a good tactic is to follow someone and run in their footsteps as they disrupt the pebbles and you can step into their footprints. Much easier than breaking your own pebble path!
As we looped out of the beach and up the road out of Seaton I heard someone behind asking “Are you James?” which caught me by surprise and had a nice chat with a guy called Steve who told me he’d read one of my previous race reports and had obviously recognised my Meltham AC vest.
It’s always nice to meet someone who’s read something on the site so thanks for that Steve – and in a small world twist, we actually bumped into his parents that night while we were out for dinner. He went on to have an excellent race finishing 22nd so congrats Steve!
Running out of Seaton and down into Beer the pace is pretty good because it’s all road so it’s worth keeping the tempo high through to the caravan park at the top of Beer at which point you’re up onto the cliff tops before heading down to Branscombe beach where the race organisers kindly route you directly into a small river for their own fiendish amusement and that of the crowds who gather at Branscombe which is one of the big supporting points and there’s always a great crowd to cheer you on.
Once off the beach you begin several miles of country lanes and little paths in and out of fields before hitting halfway and a nice descent through the woods although as a fellow runner observed during the long descent – there’s going to a big climb back out..
10 – 15 miles
At about 12 miles you switch back on yourself and start to see the other runners who are about a mile and a half behind you which is nice as there’s always a bit of mutal cheering there. The last couple of years I’ve seen the lead guys go past me but this time I didn’t so I must have been running faster and in a higher position.
I wasn’t checking my watch as regularly as usual this time so didn’t really know exactly where I might be position wise.
This section has the bog – which actually wasn’t too bad this year due to more rain which made the mud deep but less claggy although I did fall waist deep into the stream before it which was a lot deeper than I’d expected.
There’s then a couple of great checkpoints including the amazing descent straight through a pub beer garden which is a real buzz and then a couple of pretty tough climbs and a long and pretty slippy trail back down to Branscombe beach.
15 miles – Finish
The beach section at Branscombe broke me last time, I practically went backwards I was so slow – this time we had a bit of luck in that the tides and nature had washed a long strip of pebbles away and left some very runnable wet sand instead of soul sucking pebbles so the beach section went reasonably easily for once.
You still have to climb up off the beach to the stairway to heaven though and make your way up the cliff via some very steep steps but to honest – this year they went quite quickly. I think this might be because I just power hiked up them the same as all the other steep hills so had a little more in reserve.
At the top I know there’s only one decent climb back out of Beer and you’re on the last stretch back to Seaton and glory so coming off the top of the cliff I picked up my pace a bit although did feel a little queasy at one point but it passed as quickly as it came on.
Once back on the last stretch of road to Seaton it’s a nice half mile or so downhill to the finish and cheering crowds at the finish. One of the marshals at about mile 14 had said I was 26th which was massively surprising as I’d felt this run and effort was going to be more like 2015 and something like 2:50ish and perhaps top 50 again but looking at my watch dropping into Beer I had about 15 minutes to cover about 2 miles which had a climb out of Beer and a little climb back to the road to Seaton but should even out with a fast finish downhill.
Sub 2:45 was suddenly a very reasonable prospect!
I was happy to keep a steady pace and effort level dropping down to Seaton, I was passed by two people and passed one and ran fast but steady to the finish to see the clock reading 2:43:25 – delighted!
I didn’t really put much pressure on myself for this one but I still gave it a big effort. My pacing was the best it’s been at this race and the walking of the bigger inclines left me with plenty in the tank later in the race (relatively speaking). It’s probably also the best block of training I’ve had leading into the race with regular weeks of 65-70 miles and a good 20 miler once a week no doubt helped massively.
My general pace on the flatter/easier sections is undoubtedly a key difference too – although I’m not training on the terrain I am developing a better “engine” to keep the pace on the runnable sections for longer.
I knew it would be muddy so I wore the Inov8 X-Talon 225, shorts and club vest. Because it’s such a well supported race there’s no need to carry anything although I did bring 3 Torq gels (used 2) and had a couple of cups of water on the way around.
It’s all tried and tested stuff but I must say I really don’t like the X-Talon 225 or the direction Inov8 seem to be going with their new designs. I’m a massive fan of the old X-Talon 190’s and if my pair hadn’t reached the end of their usefulness I’d have worn them. The harder sole compound and general stiffness of the 225 is too much for me. I prefer a softer lightweight shoe.
The Grizzly weekend
Normally we stay with family in Beer but this time Ally and I stayed in a B&B in Seaton and were able to take part in the Grizz-Quiz the night before which was a great laugh and all part of the way the race takes over the whole town for the weekend.
We also caught up with our friends Susi & David who have moved from Meltham down to Musbury (much missed here!) which again was a real highlight of the weekend along with a steady trot around Seaton’s new parkrun which they run direct so there’s plenty to do if you’re there for the whole weekend and not just the race.
The only downer for the whole weekend sadly was that Ally had to DNS on the day thanks to waking up with a nasty cold and took the tough decision to maintain focus on her Paris marathon goals.
Another Grizzly done, my best result by a long way and I’m not sure I could improve it much further without making it an A race and training specifically for the climbing but either way – I’m very pleased and it’s a real confidence boost for my London goal and hopefully Canalathon 50k in 2 weeks time.
If you’re considering entering the Grizzly at some point – I can’t recommend the race highly enough. The course is brutal, the support is incredible and it’s a great weekend all round.
If you’re reading this (or another of my race reports or blog posts) and spot me at a race, do say hello like Steve did – that made my day :)