Classic Crossings – 33 mile ultra with a twist

The Classic Crossings event was a 33 mile ultra race with a twist. To complete the course, runners would have to swim half a mile across three estuaries along the route. It was too good a challenge to miss. Once I’d read about this race I knew I had to enter. After two months of chomping at the bit, training, testing gel bars and reading a hundred and one different running strategies, race day was suddenly upon me. No more excuses. Just me, the trail and these bloomin’ estuary crossings.

The route began on the harbour pier at Mount Batten in Plymouth and headed eastwards along the South West Coast Path, ending in Salcombe, some 33 miles away. Along the way there were three estuary crossings to negotiate (the Yealm Estuary, the Erme Estuary and the Avon Esturary) adding about 0.6 km of swimming to the mix. Depending on the state of the tide, we were told that it may be possible cross some of them merely by wading but that we should expect to have to cross by swimming!

At 6am the taxi dropped me and Claire at the registration tent at Mount Batten car park. Few other runners were around at that point so I quickly got the formalities of signing indemnity forms and registering out of the way. My number, 83, was scrawled onto the back of my hand and the back of my left calf in large black ink. I was given my electronic timing tag to wear around my wrist. It was surprisingly cold and the wait only intensified the nerves I was beginning to feel.

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The other runners began to arrive, all looking as if they were competing in their 100th adventure race. (During the safety brief well over three quarters of the runners raised their hand when asked if this was their first Endurance Life race – that was somewhat reassuring). At 7am, after the short safety brief we wandered to the end of the pier to take up our starting position. “5-4-3-2-1-GO!!!” With that we were off. I was happy to sit in the midfield and not get caught up in the inevitable dash down the first few hundred metres. With 33 miles to go, I figured I would have plenty of time to stretch the legs.

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Waving to Claire and the camera as I went by, I felt the nerves totally disappear. No more questions about how many gels to take, what shorts to wear, whether to take this or that, all those decisions had now been made. Now came the comparatively straightforward part of just running!

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Within the first two miles the route climbed steeply up and over a 300ft hill. Now I’m the first to admit that this doesn’t sound like much but when you’re running and the hill is as steep as the cost of First Great Western train tea (£1.60 for a small cup of tea, quite unbelievable, outrageous, but anyway…) then it can be hard work.

7.5 miles into the run I reached the first estuary. Woah! There were quite a few runners already frantically shoving their kit into their dry bags so I didn’t waste a moment – off came everything bar my shorts and into the dry bag it went. Some chose to swim in their running gear and consequently had wet clothes and packs but I didn’t fancy that. So I had to make my way along the path to the jetty, down the steps, ah ah ah, cold, cold, cold, but keep going, push on…. Phew, I was in the water, my dry bag floated and I began swimming to the other side. There were four safety kayakers marking the route between the buoys and yachts to the small slipway on the other side. The swimming was tough. Tiring. Seaweed would appear out of nowhere and wrap itself around your arms and legs but that didn’t bother me too much. I was praying the dry bag lived up to its name and was relieved to find my kit dry on the other side. I lost a bit of time to some of the runners around me (some swam faster, some got changed more quickly) but made up time on others. After drying off, having an energy gel and repacking the tiny rucsac I was off running again.

Satellite map showing first estuary swim crossing

Satellite map showing first estuary swim crossing

Swimming, dry bag in tow

Swimming, dry bag in tow

My ankles felt quite stiff after this first swim but otherwise I felt great. Another climb followed, giving all the opportunity to walk for a while and catch one’s breath. I was still placed in the midfield at this stage but began to make up a few places as some of the early pace setters began to tire. Catching the tail of a faster runner and hanging on for a while was a useful way to keep up the pace.

The scenery was gorgeous throughout. On my right were endless sea vistas; behind were the cliffs I had recently traversed and the chasing pack; ahead were the runners I was chasing and the path up and over cliffs that the leaders were now negotiating. Light clouds and occasional drizzle kept me at a perfect running temperature.

The second estuary was soon upon me – an even longer crossing but by now the tide was ebbing. This meant that the field was able to wade part of the way before having to swim. The current was strong causing a choppy, confused water state. This crossing was more difficult swimming than the flatter first crossing. Again though, it was great fun and gave a great sense of adventure. I couldn’t help smiling and thinking how bonkers it all was. And yet, how alive it made me feel. Everyone about me seemed to be genuinely relishing what they were doing. They were digging this adventure.

Second estuary crossing

Second estuary crossing

Exiting the water after the swim

Exiting the water after the swim

Off running again!

Off running again!

Miles 17 to 22 went up and down and up and down relentlessly. My knees were beginning to complain when running the steeper downhill sections – they are only used to running along the pancake flat banks of the Thames. I would find myself sometimes running alone, sometimes sharing miles with other runners. Generally the conversation would start by complaining about being tired and aching before moving onto why we were here, what other races we’d done and then generally coming to an agreement about how brilliant it all was!

The third and final crossing was at mile 22. I was well up the field now, having given slip to quite a few runners at the last changeover and the hilly miles up to this changeover. My mind was bent on a top ten finish now. Unfortunately this meant that I missed seeing my sole supporter, Claire, as she was still stranded at checkpoint 2 at this time. This was a shame, but I couldn’t hang around; the finish line wasn’t getting any closer.

This river crossing was different than the previous two: much narrower with a much stronger current. It was hilarious, I found myself swimming forwards whilst moving sideways and out towards the sea (see the photo of the GPS map extract – RunKeeper caught the moment perfectly!). A gaggle of spectators cheered us runners as we hauled ourselves up the beach (as they had done at each of the crossings). This was a real morale boost and a lot of fun, especially compared to lonely training runs.

Third crossing - the current was very strong

Third crossing – the current was very strong

Finally all the swimming, changing and packing was over. All that remained was 10 final miles into Salcombe. Argh! Immediately after this final crossing the route followed the edge of a golf course for a couple of miles. I found these some of the hardest miles of the race. I was pretty tired by now, and my lower legs ached, but there was nowhere I’d rather have been at that moment in time.

There were two final steep hills to negotiate in the closing miles to Salcombe. Climbing up was fine; I was tired but it was aches and pains that were the limiting factor, not a lack of energy. Going downhill was tough therefore, not really painful, but becoming uncomfortable. I blame it purely on not having done enough hill training to build in some muscle and joint tolerance to hills. Ah well, we all live and learn.

A final steep down hill on a narrow road (wondering needlessly if I’d missed the coast path) was all that stood before me and the finish. Turning the last corner to the cheering of a modest crowd (the support was great, a really enjoyable aspect of the whole race experience) I was ecstatic, relieved I could stop running but also sad that the adventure had come to an end. It seemed to have flown by, that is until I stopped to think about the 5.20am start, the cold of dawn and running across the start line 33 miles ago in Plymouth.

So I finished in 8th place overall which I was really pleased with. I had no particular designs before I set out but being naturally competitive I realised, once I was running, that I would like to do well. The official results can be seen here. What is interesting to note is how close the final times were for the positions 4th to 9th are……oh, for a slightly quicker transition and maybe there could have been a top five place up for grabs….next time!

Still had the energy for a celebratory jump!

Still had the energy for a celebratory jump!

Overall impressions: a fantastic race along a great route with the added bonus of three adventurous swimming sections. Well done to the organisers Endurance Life and thanks to the marshalls, well-wishers, cheering dog walkers and, of course, Claire for her unwavering support.

Details: distance 33.30 miles, 6 hours 31 minutes 51 seconds (RunKeeper has recorded a longer time because I pressed “Start” a minute before the race began. Then I forgot to press “Stop” until a couple of minutes after the race finished – I was engrossed in the hot pasty that finishers were given), average pace of 11:55 minutes per mile, ascent of 4,863 ft, calories burned 4,866.
Graph showing the route speed/elevation – it’s easy to spot the three sections of swimming!

Route output

How the route was recorded: Again, I used my favourite iPhone application, RunKeeper, to record the route using the inbuilt GPS and then plotting it on Google maps. I extended the battery life by plugging my iPhone into a 3rd party portable battery charger (the Kennington Portable Charger) after the second checkpoint. I still had about 85% battery life left after 6 hours 30 minutes (although the portable charger was empty).

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The whole shebang was encased in an Aquapac waterproof dry bag to ensure it would stay completely dry during the swimming sections. I can still operate the iPhone through the clear plastic of the Aquapac dry bag so only needed to open the bag once during the race to plug in the portable battery charger.

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