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CTS Exmoor Marathon Review – Helen’s Experience

I have been missing trail races as the last race I completed was Trail Marathon Wales last summer, so I signed up in February to run this tough race, CTS Exmoor Marathon, on 9th April. CTS Exmoor Marathon is quite possibly the UK’s toughest marathon distance race, due to the amount of climbing involved being greater than any other I’ve come across when researching UK trail races. With 2000m of climbing and descending (on paper) and a varied mix of terrain, this race was going to be in the same league as the Transgrancanaria marathon – and I do love a good challenge!

The Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series (CTS) races around Exmoor are held on stunning coastal routes around the country, with Exmoor looking to me like the most spectacular. I had been having some little doubts as to whether I could complete another tough marathon but put them to the back of my mind after signing up, so I could focus on mentally preparing for the race.

The course

26.7 miles in a loop, half along the coast and half a small way inland, through woods and forest tracks and across streams. 2000m of climbing and descending, over mixed terrain, including grass, mud, stony paths and a small amount of tarmac/road running. The muddy sections were very slippery due to recent rain.

This year the start point had been moved (although I was not clear on how far until I saw the data afterwards). However, the race route map on CTS’s website had not been changed and the race briefing did not make it clear how much further along the start point was – about 16k, as normally the start point is where the 26k point is on my route data below. As it turned out, this meant that the two biggest hills, which would normally be the first two of the race, were at the end of the race, so there I was after 30k thinking all the big hills were out of the way when there was still about 5k of climbing to go…

CTS Exmoor Marathon 2016 profile. Note how the start was several km further along the course than on the official map – this may not be the same on future events
CTS Exmoor Marathon route 2016

Race preparation

I find it hard to find the time to run lots of miles in training. I also find it very boring to go out and run for longer than 2h30 unless I’m racing or somewhere scenic! It’s difficult to find training plans which are based on lower mileage, terrain specificity and cross-training, which is what is the most realistic training plan looks like for me… most just say something along the lines of: “run X miles per week and up the mileage as you approach the race, allowing for 2 week taper, and fit in some interval runs”. That just doesn’t work for me. So I made up my own training plan for this race, which basically involves running when I can, doing what I feel like, and trying to get as many hills in as possible (unless I really don’t feel like doing hills that day). Very flexible and I didn’t run over half marathon distance in training. I may not be the fastest on race day, but considering the level of preparation I put in, I was really pleased with how the day went.

My game plan

I also focused my mind on my race-day plan. What did I want to achieve out of it? Certainly not a fantastic time or position, as I didn’t know what would be realistic and I didn’t want that pressure on myself. So my plan was as follows:

  1. Eat regularly, keep fuelling and avoid ‘bonking’
  2. Walk up the hills, run everything you can
  3. Save energy for the last quarter. Once you get after 30k start making up time and places, to finish strong and happy!

The first two are pretty standard trail marathon tactics, the third is because that’s how I enjoy running my races! Here’s how the race went…

The race

I started off racing easily, not putting any major effort in for the first half of the race. The few people I was running with hiked up ahead of me, but I resisted the urge to keep up with them and ran my own pace. At around 10k in I reached a muddy ridge and descent section, which really slowed me down – I don’t enjoy it when it is slippery, particularly when descending, so I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other and told myself the whole course wouldn’t be like this! Thankfully I was right, as I was at a slow walking pace trying to navigate the mud without going flying. As a result, the people I had been following disappeared into the distance and I hardly saw a soul between around 10k and 22k.

Looking cold and serious near the start of the race
Looking cold and serious near the start of the race

The halfway mark

I reached halfway in around 3 hours – right where I expected to be, as I was aiming for a finish of just over 6 hours. I also thought three of the six largest hills were out of the way, but of course I was wrong due to the course start point being moved! After the checkpoint, where I refilled my almost-empty water bottle, this was my lowest point, as I hadn’t seen anyone for ages, thought I was at the back of the pack, and had endured the aforementioned muddy slog. At this point, I ate an energy bar (tasting horrible but washed down with water, it gave me a big boost), looked at my toes at the advice Anna Frost had written on them last weekend when I met her(!):

Salomon Sense Ultras signed by Anna Frost
Salomon Sense Ultras signed by Anna Frost

Remind yourself that you chose to run this event and go through the pain and challenge you are undertaking. So you owe it to yourself to get the job done!

She also said to remind yourself that you chose to run this event and go through the pain and challenge you are undertaking. So you owe it to yourself to get the job done! So true, and that advice really stuck with me. So at this point I focused on getting the second half of the race done… and was rewarded by the most beautiful (and for me, runnable) section of the course, on a grassy trail along the coastline – it was perfect, easier on the feet than running on rocks and mud, and after a second brief hail-storm, the sun came out and I started warming up for the first time that day. Bliss!

Gorgeous coastal trail about halfway around the marathon course
Gorgeous coastal trail about halfway around the marathon course
Nice wooded trails
Nice wooded trails

A new experience: cramping!

I then started experiencing something I’d not had before – calf cramps! It felt like I was being electrocuted in my leg, which kept buckling under me. By this point I was so so sick of chewing down sweet sugary Shot Blox (although they were working well for me, one every 15 mins or two every 30 mins), that I could have done with eating something salty even if I hadn’t been cramping. Gah! Fortunately, the next aid station came up at around 31k and I was grateful that there were still some crisps left, grabbing handfuls and unceremoniously shovelling them into my mouth before trotting off ahead of a couple of guys who had overtaken me in the last section on the hills.

RELATED: How Can I Prevent Muscle Cramps While Running?

Other than a few jelly babies and the crisps, there wasn’t much food at the aid stations (and I had a similar experience when I attempted the Dorset marathon in 2014), which is rather disappointing, and so I recommend coming well prepared with your own food and not relying at all on what may or may not be on offer when you get to each checkpoint.

The crisps seemed to work, and I enjoyed running along a boggy path and downhill, where I went past a few more people in various stages of exhaustion, and kept on running, feeling pretty good at this point. “Less than 10k to go – let’s get this thing done!” I told myself.

Smiling for the camera!
Smiling for the camera!

The final push

I had a decent amount of energy for the last section, and managed to jog or hike past another few people along the way, including those people that had left me behind at around 10k. Going past the ‘1 mile to go’ marker, I was following three guys up ahead of me, and the competitive streak in me emerged – I had to get past them! Two of the guys I hadn’t seen before, so had been ahead of me the whole time, and I was making up ground. We were still climbing, gradually, so I managed to run slowly past them and keep going. With probably only 500m to go, there was one last steep muddy climb to get to the finish, and fearing that I’d be overtaken, I ate a gel and pushed myself up the hill and across the grass to the finish line, grimacing at the recurring calf cramps, but grinning as I had finished my third tough trail marathon, in 6h29 minutes.

29th/37 woman, 96th/130 in total.

Check out Alastair’s review of the same race from a faster runner (and male!) perspective.

Pleased with my medal
Pleased with my medal

My kit

It was a cold, changeable spring day, with a bit of sun, wind and hail forecast and 4-6 degrees. I didn’t want to be cold and stuck to tried and tested clothing for race day, but opted for a relatively new pair of shoes.

  • Shoes – Salomon Sense Ultra 3 (hard ground) – worn a couple of times, signed by Anna Frost! Lightweight and comfortable, more minimal than I have been used to, and needed more wearing in really, but did the job well with just a small blister on the side of my big toe to show for 6h29 of running.
  • Race vest – Ultimate Direction Vesta – as per my review, I love this vest, very comfortable. I just wish the bottle pockets were big enough to comfortably hold a 500ml soft-flask, my Salomon flask nearly bounced out several times, and I had to tuck it into the elastic loops on my shoulder to stop it flying out and off a cliff
  • Clothes – Lululemon Run Swiftly long-sleeve top and vest underneath, and 3/4 length tights. Balega socks, a visor, North Face waterproof jacket, Buff (from transgrancanaria)
  • Watch – Suunto Ambit 3 sport
  • Nutrition – Clif Shot Blox, High 5 gels and a chocolate Etixx energy bar. Moma porridge and coffee for breakfast!
Race kit for CTS Exmoor Marathon
Race kit for CTS Exmoor Marathon (plus the shoes). I switched the green top for a warmer grey base layer as it was a colder day than expected when I woke on race morning
I finished the CTS Exmoor marathon!
I finished the CTS Exmoor marathon!

Check out EnduranceLife’s video of the event:

One of Trail & Kale's co-founders, a mom, and guardian of our resident trail dog, Kepler, Helen can be found trail running with Kepler and enjoying road runs with her mini in a jogging stroller, all while testing out the latest running gear for our readers.



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