"... we will never revel in the lap of luxury, unless first we crawl through the bowels of the stinking Bog."
Burying yourself in the throng of starters was comfort from the strong south-westerly gale, but I still wondered….
"What am I doing here?"
"Would nine pints of Palmers Traditional Best Bitter be enough carbo-loading?"
"Perhaps common sense and the atrocious weather will force a cancellation?"
No chance! The maniacs who organise this event are hell-bent in turning a delightful jog through the Devon countryside into a gruelling test of endurance, and every year hundreds of runners return, to go through it all again.
"What's the problem with these idiots, can't they remember what it was like last year?"
Endorphins have a lot to answer for.
The landscape around Branscombe, Beer and Seaton is undulating and lumpy, the Ordnance Survey map is rich with brown contours. The golden chalk cliffs soar to 150 metres above the shingle beaches. Over the years, tiny streams have eroded the soft chalk on their journey to the sea, and formed steep sided wooded coombs, in which small settlements have been established on any available flat ground.
But enough of all that, what have the organisers planned for my dodgy knee and sore feet? It's 10.30, we lurch forward and I'm about to find out. A drum band beats out relentless rhythms as we turn sharp left off the esplanade and onto the beach, where we are soon drenched in sea spray and foam. The waves are crashing on to the shore, and the roar almost drowns the noise of 3000 feet crunching on the loose shingle. It's a pleasure to return to firm ground, but the relief is accompanied by a head wind. Eventually we climb out of Seaton and into the country. The route twists and turns over flinty tracks, ploughed fields, grass paths and any other inclined surface you can imagine, with the odd stile, ditch and cattle grid thrown in for good measure. At the back of the race there is frequent opportunity to rest, whilst various obstructions, including hills, are negotiated with care. After an hour I had only reached the five-mile marker, the sun is trying to break through the clouds and the temperature is rising, I am feeling hot and over-dressed in long-sleeves and "Ron-Hills". From the edge of a hill-side you look down over colourful strings of runners, heading in all directions, and there's another column shuffling along the ridge on the horizon above. Our route had resembled a roller-coaster ride, more turns than the Royal Variety Performance, and I can't fathom if I am ahead or behind any of them.
The route is punctuated with thoughtful little notices, intended to raise the spirits, like ...
- "A wall is only a pile of bricks."
- "The means will justify the end."
- "Impossibility is only a cause for a better solution."
- "Surrender is not submission."
A great pity that my body could not be lifted along with my spirit! We climb on to South Down Common, and straight into an petulant gale. The runner ahead looks like drunk coming out of the pub at closing time, stumbling along, falling over and taking random excursions into the undergrowth, perhaps there was something special in the water at the last drinks-station. All this altitude is lost in two minutes as we swoop down onto the beach at Branscombe, and wade, waist-deep, through the river. A Scottish piper plays his bagpipes as we follow the river up-stream, towards the halfway point and the infamous Bog!!! The screams hint of its proximity. After wading against the steady flow of the stream you reach the point of no return, stopping in the bog is terminal, a twelve months sentence, imprisoned in the black stinking mud, with only the company of discarded running shoes.
The steep grassy hill out of the bog is covered in the black slime that had dripped from a thousand limbs, sometimes hands and knees were not enough, gravity defying the grip of the most expensive trail shoes! Great care is needed whilst negotiating the next stile, which is liberally coated in thick mud. Up still through the "Tomb of Buddha", decorations hang from the trees, sitar music, the tinkling of bells and incense fills the air. A plaque warns… "Stones", perhaps it should have read "Stoned". The mystic fragrance is replaced by wild garlic, as the fresh green leaves at the edges of the track are crushed by runner's feet.
Once again the height, that was so painfully won, is lost in one swoosh, down to the Fountain Head pub, where a jazz band compete with spectators to make the most noise. After the next climb (double arrows on the OS map) we turn East, with the wind in our backs, and the worst behind us. There was a long gentle muddy downhill path through the woods back to Branscombe, where the drink station had beer on tap, in addition to water. Then it's back on the beach, ¾ mile of loose shingle, it's hard to run at this stage, I didn't. Running is still impossible as weary athletes snake up the narrow coastal path, all the way up to the top of the cliff. The wind's ferocity blew unaccompanied hats straight back to Seaton, but we were not given the option of such a direct route. But only two miles to go… allegedly!
A near vertical road down into Beer, and what seemed like a million steps over the next hill, was the final cocktail which destroyed my right knee, and left me hobbling onto the final stretch of beach, and the finish. Not a stunning performance, but I survived. Stopping was the best reward and Fyffes provided tonnes of bananas. The local fire-brigade hosed everyone clean. I won't be taking the stench, just the memory of the Black Bog back to Bucklebury!
© Derek Matthews, 2002