The Grizzly has a very tough reputation and 2015 lived right up to it. After huge bowls of porridge all round we travelled the three miles from our cottage in Beer over to Seaton, the start of the race.
One of the things I really like about the Grizzly is the amount of Bedford Harriers that travel down. It’s a long way from Bedford to Devon, but every year a convoy makes its way down. Wandering around Seaton before the race there were the familiar black and yellow tops all around town. Apparently we had 51 running in either the full Grizzly or the Cub.
We huddled at the start on the Esplanade and listened to the traditional Town Crier poem. He was on great form this year and made everyone laugh. Always puts you at ease. Then he tinkled his big bell and off we went! The Harriers got a name check from the tannoy as we crossed the start and then we got going along the shingle beach. It’s a really unique start as unlike a lot of races, just as everyone gets into their stride they suddenly hit the uneven ground and imediately grind to a near halt. The sound of over 2000 pairs of feet on the shingle (350 on the Cub, 1800 on the Grizzly) is deafening and we slogged our way for half a mile before exiting the beach with screaming thighs.
We settled into the race, travelling from Seaton to Beer. I had to stretch my leg out a couple of miles in as the first big hill pulled on my tight adductor as usual, but then got into a rhythm. Running through Beer high street is always great as the crowds turn out and gives you a pick me up after three miles. Then you turn right and hit a long, steep hill up to the campsite. Lots of people slow to a walk at this point and I think for first timers it starts to dawn on them what the challenge is going to be!
As we passed through the campsite at about 4 miles we start to go off road properly for the first time, which will be the case for 90% of the next 13 or so miles before we come back to Beer. This part of the course is really windy as you are on the top of the cliff and today the winds were about 20 miles an hour so pretty hard going. After a mile or so you suddenly veer steeply downhill along a muddy, rocky path. It was this point I started to notice how much muddier the course was than last year (this was my 4th Grizzly). Last year this path was reasonably dry, today the rain over the last few days had made it slippy and treacherous. I also noticed how much more grip my Inov8 trail shoes have than my old Asics ones – something I would be extremely grateful for later on!
Next main feature was Branscombe beach. This was the point that the Cub runners split off and went left along the beach. Us Grizzly runners plunged straight into a stream feeding the sea and suddenly I had sodden, FREEZING feet!
No major moments of interest the next couple of miles until a monster hill at mile 6. The main thing I remembered though was a truly nuts marshall who was singing and messing about with an inflatable zimmer frame! I must mention the marshals as they were brilliant as usual. They are so supportive, there are hundreds of them and most have jelly babies ready for weary runners. I also saw one of the other Harriers, Juliet, at this point about half a mile ahead of me. I thought it would be nice to run together for a while so I tried to catch up.
The next 5 or so miles were relatively uneventful, and actually I was feeling really good. I realised I was doing better than last year, and was hopeful of a decent time.
About 12 miles in I finally caught up with Juliet – it had only taken me an hour! We chatted for a few mins but Juliet was struggling with her leg at this point and actually trying to catch up meant my pace was a bit faster than what she was doing. We discussed it and she told me to plough on. I knew the big bogs were coming so I assumed we’d regroup after that.
Anyway – the bogs! Part of the Grizzly’s notoriety is the bogs and as usual they were a challenge. You run through a stream for a while just to get really wet feet then they send you in. Actually one of the benefits of the recent rain was that the bogs were looser than normal so I didn’t get stuck. Although they still come up to your thighs so are still tough to get through without falling over! I looked back for Juliet but could not see her so I jogged on. Turns out she’d got pain in her leg when stuck in the bog so was taking her time getting through it.
I was chatting to a bloke at this point and he asked me how I was doing. I told him that actually I was feeling the best I had ever felt on the course. Oh I was to rue that statement! And not very long after. Seriously, within half a mile I was all over the place. I hit a brick wall energy-wise and I was really, really struggling. I could not work out what on earth was wrong with me. I dug in though as I knew I just needed to put one leg in front of the other. Not easy though as the main feature of the Grizzly is hills, massive, leg energy-sucking hills. I was in trouble and felt very wobbly.
Sometimes though, things come along just when you need them. The next aid station (of which there are loads – another great aspect of the organisation), was a very special one. A local club takes pride in what they provide at their aid station and they had flapjack, battenburg and fairy cakes. I really needed more than a gel, so this was perfect. I think battenburg may be my cake of choice for running from now on!
I still struggled for another half a mile or so though. It was a long slog up a very steep hill and down the other side through the beer garden of a pub. At this point Juliet caught me up again and passed me. She was looking really strong, and so bounded off up the next hill. I started to feel better at this point, I think the cake energy was kicking in. Plus I started to use my little mantra that I often chant to myself on long runs (“I am steady and I am strong”). That also helped as during the previous mile I’d had some very negative self-talk and this pulled me out of that.
I ploughed on and made it back down to Branscombe beach. This is where the Grizzly really kicks you when you are down! You run back the way you come, through the tributary and follow the Cub route home. This initially involves about a mile of energy sapping shingle beach. A lot of people walk at this point, but I dug in, went into my own mind and got myself to the end – the Stairway to Heaven.
The Stairway to Heaven is around 400ft up a steep cliff face, on top of the beach legs it is very, very tough. It’s also quite scary at the top as you have weak, wobbly legs and you are teetering on the edge! The mountain rescue team up there are welcome though.
That leaves you with about 3 miles left, back across the cliff top (even windier!) and down through the campsite into Beer. I was feeling pretty fine by now and realised that without any issues I was going to beat my previous best time of 4:11. That put a bit of a spring in my step and I picked up the pace a bit.
After a couple more leg sapping hills you are in the last mile and running downhill all the way! I changed my matra at this point to bring me in – “I am speedy and I am fast!” I overtook a few people at this point who were clearly reaching the end of the road energy-wise. Then I was running down to the finish on the Esplanade.
Hang on – what does the clock say? 3:59?!?!?!
I pegged it down the finish line and came in under the 4:00hr mark at 3:59:23 – I was so chuffed! Then my legs reminded me they were very unhappy with me and the wobble was back 🙂
So – the Grizzly? Do I recommend it? Absolutely. Is it hard? Damn right it is. Its one of the hardest races you’ll ever do, but I tell you when you pull on that special survivors t-shirt, boy have you earned it.
Postscript: you can see a Go-Pro video of the course here: http://youtu.be/NieXivBQ93E