The Grizzly Race 2014 – Withering Heights

Without a doubt the toughest race I’ve run yet, the Grizzly lived up to its name and fearsome reputation.

For those who don’t know, The Grizzly is just short of 20 brutal miles set against the stunning backdrop of the cliffs around Seaton, Beer and Branscombe in Devon with a mix of trail, knee deep mud, steep climbs and descents and a climb up a narrow 200ft high cliff path designed entirely to punish even the fittest runners.

For those who read this site, you’ll know that The Grizzly was my “A race” for the first part of the year so I’ve been ramping up my training miles and the elevation I cover each week but as I found at the Hardmoors 60 last year, there’s not much that can prepare your quads and calves for the brutality of steep clifftop ascending and descending.

In the end, I was incredibly happy with 2:56:20 and 69th place (of 1544 finishers)

Stunning day for the grizzly race

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Up the road to the right then along those cliffs in the distance..

Ally & I took the opportunity to run and visit family in Beer who we’d not seen for a while so it was a real family affair which is part of what made the whole day so great, everything in the area is geared towards Grizzly. It’s a weekend event welcoming more than 1500 runners in just the Grizzly alone (they have a slightly shorter version called the Cub) and also loads of entertainment on the saturday too.

The race

Getting busy! #jyrun #grizzlyrace

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I had a plan and a goal. I wanted to run this race in less than 3 hours. That was it. 9 minutes a mile for 20 miles and 3000ft of ascent. I started on at the front as I wanted to stay clear of any surge because with 1500 runners all waiting to go, you never know.

The plan – executed

I decided in advance I wasn’t racing anyone, I was determined not to go out too fast as usual and I was going to run to the Garmin time for this one. Sometimes all that is tough and with such varied terrain I just broke down the splits I wanted to run into 5 mile blocks to allow a bit of flexibility and knew 45 minutes per 5 miles would be about right with a long mile and bit down to the finish line there would likely be a 7ish minute mile available there if needed.

Ultimately the terrain beat the hell out of my legs and I worked hard for my 2:56:24 finishing time in 69th place (out of 1544 finishers) and I maintained a steady pace throughout without ever overdoing the effort levels until about mile 17 where I pushed hard up the cliff climb with full hands on knees power hiking up the cliff and and passing several people I knew I’d be unlikely to see again as being passed in steep spots is very demoralising.

It was clear from mile 2 that there would be plenty of power hiking to be done up the steep ascents and I figured slow going up would at least mean faster descending which I’m fine with. I saw a lot of people trying to run (quite slowly) up some grades approaching 20% and to be honest, they were moving about as fast as me hiking hands on knees but working much harder!

Mile 0-10

Splitting the race into 3 parts (0-10, 10-15 and 15-finish) meant I could keep a track on effort levels and getting through 10 miles was purely a case of staying as comfortable as possible and I was actually about 5 minutes up on pace plan by then but I’d not been through the infamous Grizzly bogs and mud yet so I figured that time was a bit of a bonus that would get eaten and I was glad to have it in hand in the end!

Mile 10-15

Bogs, mud, bogs, steep climbs and pain. The Grizzly is famous for its bog section and it was again knee deep mud this year which meant keeping shoes on was hard work on its own! I nearly lost one but just about got through pleased to be honest that I was probably somewhere about 80th-100th position so they would have been worse for those following!

Mile 15-Finish

My plan was always to have energy available to start reeling in and overtaking people from about 15 miles so I’d been happy to “cruise” (make no mistake, I was working hard still!) at about 75% and then rely on my winter training miles and effort to reel in as many in front of me as possible. 5 miles is a long time at the back-end of a race this hard.

The slog along Branscombe beach (shingle/pebbles) was painful, slow and I ended up walking some of this my progress was so slow but I figured keep moving! The remaining miles I’ve started to understand that one of the great fundamental truths about race effort when running is that it’s as much a mental battle as physical.

Your brain has to be able to dish out a massive amount of pain but more importantly, it then has to overcome it.

It’s a classic internal struggle!

Nutrition and hydration

This race is very well supported with hundreds of people around the course cheering but despite this, the only official support was water stations every few miles, no food, gels or other drinks which is fine by me. As such, I carried two gels which I’d intended to take around 8 and 14 miles and I knew that because it was such a big community event there would be people with jelly babies and other bits of food that could be picked up so I had a few jelly babies on the way around but beyond that nothing else.

I don’t take anything when I train up to about 13 miles and felt comfortable with this although I think I’d probably just about got to the limit as I felt completely drained from the effort straight after finishing and was close to being sick.

Organisation and atmosphere

I maintain that there are few places in the world nicer than Devon on a fine sunny day and conditions were absolutely perfect for racing and a nice day always ensures more spectators too and the race is fully marked but there are also more than 200 marshals on the route too all pointing the way and offering encouragement (thank you everyone!).

Add to this the motivational signs dotted around the course, local bands, the drummers on Branscombe beach, the bagpiper in the woods, the throngs of people cheering as you come out of a fast, narrow descent just made everything amazing.

Thank you to every single person involved with organisation, marshalling, cheering and generally making this one of the most enjoyable events I’ve been to.

Next year?

Who knows, I was lucky enough to just sneak a couple of minutes inside my target and I don’t know right now what I’d even want to try for in a years time. I know Ally wants to run it again already as she was unlucky with injuries throughout training (although still managed a frankly incredible 5 hour time) and it’s always great going home to Devon to visit so who knows?

In the meantime, I’ve got 2 ultras in 2 weeks followed by my next A race – The Calderdale Way to plan for so we’ll see. Perhaps a 2:45 next year …

Kit

I raced light and it was actually the first time I’d raced wearing Meltham AC colours (although not in time to change my club on the results) so I opted for the simple club singlet, New Balance shorts and Salomon Fellraisers which I knew would be able to handle the mud although they’re a little hard running on tarmac of which there’s a couple of miles at start and finish. I’d have preferred my Adidas XT4’s but they’re wearing down a bit now and simply don’t have the outright grip of the new Fellraisers I bought a few weeks back.

ally-james

For anyone who wants a copy, here is The Grizzly 2014 – Withering Heights gpx file

Ally recorded some footage on the Go-Pro and I’m sure there will be some official shots to follow so I’ll also update this post at some point in a few weeks.