My trips to Dorset in the past have involved the usual summer clichés – picnicking on sandy beaches with the kids, exploring hidden coves and supping a few beers in sunny pub gardens. But that’s always been in the height of summer. So a true test of my affection for this county was returning in early winter for a brutal off-road race.
I’d signed up for the year’s final Coastal Trail Series event, organised by Endurancelife. As well as a host of other races, the company stages 10 challenges along some of our most inviting shorelines. Each offers runners the chance to complete a 10K, half marathon, full marathon or an ultra. I’d plumped for the half – although it’s actually 16.6 miles – and is rated as ‘extreme’ by the organisers. After reviewing the course elevation map, which looked like the result of a Donald Trump polygraph, I tended to agree.
From the start in West Lulworth village, we were immediately presented with the task of scaling the first of seven significant climbs, which would total almost 1,100m of ascent over the distance.
The first of these challenges was particularly cruel, featuring a long stone step path comprised of far too many small, shallow steps that broke my running rhythm – I had to develop a kind of speed-mincing technique (if you can imagine such a thing) to get up any head of steam.
(Related: 21 quick trail running tips)
From there we hit Durdle Door, one of the route’s early highlights. It might sound like a dorm name from Harry Potter but in fact it’s a magnificent limestone arch lying off the Jurassic Coast – and was the first of my many breaks to record the moment on camera. In fact, I’ve never snapped away so much with my smartphone during a race, but the aggressive beauty of the landscape demanded it – swapping phones with random fellow runners to take pictures of each other became a feature of the morning.
Yet (and you may have predicted this) the enjoyment of such a stunning coastline came at a cost, as the pain in my calf muscles would later attest. Many of the climbs were so steep I resorted to hauling myself up with my hands on my knees. Even my years of running on the South Downs had proven insufficient preparation.
With three miles ticked off, we headed inland and away from the South West Coast Path, looping back on ourselves towards Lulworth Cove, which lies beside the race start. I had ample opportunity to admire this beauty spot as I headed over its pebbles and shingle before tackling another fearsome climb – this time straight up almost 140m. I felt like I was on the geography field trip from hell devised by a particularly sadistic teacher.
The descents were no easier on the body. I was constantly dabbing my brakes as I hurtled down rutted, grassy slopes, and on the steeper ones I seriously considered coming down on my bottom, toddler-style.
Much of the second part of the race was on Ministry of Defence land – we’d been warned to stay inside the yellow marker poles or risk treading on a potentially live shell. A cease fire on race day ensured the chances of me blowing myself up or being taken out by a trainee sniper were remote – but it still made me think twice about nipping behind a bush to alleviate overhydration issues.
About two thirds of the way in we passed through the ‘ghost’ village of Tyneham, which nestles in a valley of the Purbeck Hills. Just before Christmas 1943, the War Office requisitioned it for use by Allied troops to hone their combat skills. It meant 225 locals were immediately moved out, never to return. Ever since its abandonment, it has been used by the MOD, though it has also become a quirky tourist attraction where visitors can peer into its deserted church, schoolroom and destroyed homes.
After leaving this valley I enjoyed some respite from the gradient up on a flattish ridge – where I had the chance to take more photos – before one final up-and-down that knocked out most of my remaining puff.
Digging in for one last effort, it was back over the pebbles at Lulworth Cove, up the slipway from the beach and a grateful flop over the finish line, where I was handed a printout showing my finish time, complete with splits.
That time was irrelevant given the nature of the course, but I noted that it had taken me a whole hour longer to complete this half than my par 13.1 finish time, confirming that the Coastal Trail Series is not to be taken lightly. First-time entrants will find these events a significant mental and physical challenge, and there’s no chance of just rocking up and winging it. However, if you believe that you get out what you put in, it’s simply a matter of stepping up your training so you’re prepared. And you will want to come back for more.