Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Trail Report: The Saints' Way

This weekend a group of us ran the Saints' Way, from Padstow to Fowey. The idea to do this came from a good friend, Toby, who I have not seen for many years. We keep in touch via Facebook though and when he said he and some friends were going to attempt it and invited me along I jumped at the chance.

The Saints' Way was a route used by early Christian Travellers journeying from Ireland & Wales to Brittany and the rest of Europe. The route starts on the North Cornwall coast and meanders South to finish at Fowey.

Our team was Toby, Matt, Al & Nick. All had run at least marathon distance before, some more recently than others: Nick had run 3:10 at Edinburgh this year, Al had done Marathon Des Sables before but not been running big miles for several years, Toby, a keen runner for many years, had recently come back from knee surgery and Matt, also with several marathons under his belt in the past, was coping with the trials of a newborn baby. So we would run at the pace of the slowest and enjoy the day whatever it threw at us.

At about 8 am we set off from the Church in Padstow, running through town before gaining the trails and heading South close to the River Camel. The route is well signposted, with a selection of large signs and smaller posts carrying a cross emblem. Despite this it wasn't long before we took our first wrong turn and found ourselves thrashing around in dense overgrown woodland. Turning around and re-tracing our steps we were soon back on track, each now suspecting there would be more in the way of wrong turns before the day was done.

The weather reports for Saturday had not looked that great and for the first few hours as we hacked up and down the undulating countryside we were accompanied by a light but persistent drizzle. The terrain was varied throughout, we passed through small villages and found ourselves in woodland, then fields, farm tracks and some small amount of road. After about ten miles and at least one detour as we tried to find our way we arrived at the village of Withiel where we stopped for a few minutes and had a bite to eat.

Noticing the arriving of some sombre patrons at the Church and seeing the black traffic cones along the road we moved on before becoming an unpleasant and unwanted side show at someone else's funeral. After all no-one wants to see a bunch of sweaty middle aged men in shorts amid their hour of grief!

A very steep and rutted field led us out of the village and again we had to consult the map before noticing behind and to our left the requisite post signalling our correct line. On we went, with more of the same. A long climb led us out onto a fairly long stretch of road. Nick and I found ourselves suddenly a long way ahead of the others; as they caught up it was clear Matt was struggling a little, but still in good spirits.

On arrival at Lanivet, a busy village just South of Bodmin, we decided some sustenance was in order so decamped to the Welcome Stranger Cafe for a cuppa. This rapidly turned into lunch with two of our group ordering that well known athlete's meal of egg & chips! The owner of the Cafe was a helpful and friendly guy though his cackle on hearing we were running the Saint's way was concerning: "Which way?" he asked, "North to South" said we, "Haha, you'd better save something for the next few miles then!". We had assumed we were close to a point where it would be "All down hill from here".

All fed and watered - the owner helpfully refilled our bottles - and ready to go we set off, knowing our legs would have stiffened in the intervening period, up the long hill out of the village. And long indeed it was! We were road-bound for some time, passing up towards Helman Tor. At this point we had to make our final decision about the route; there are two options, down toward Lostwithiel and along the banks of the Fowey or slightly further West, via Luxulyan to the coast before heading back East. We decided on the former, it looking shorter and, perhaps a little less hilly. In hindsight I'm not convinced it was.

Running up the hill to Helman Tor we only got as far the the car park before we were heading downhill again. This time a long pleasant run to another section of road, which continued for several miles.

Passing through Lanlivery we were soon in sight of the Fowey over the hill and it was not long after this that our worst detour of the day occurred. Bad enough going half a mile up a road in the wrong direction but when it is about as steep as a road can be and still qualify as drive-able its really no fun to have to retrace your steps. Also slightly demoralising was seeing a sign for Fowey that said five miles. Two miles earlier we had passed one that said six!

Now we felt close though, the banks of the Fowey kept cropping up on our left and, although the sea was not in sight we knew we couldn't be far off. Rather than easing off as we followed the river towards its end the hills seemed to intensify. In addition I made a mistake in missing a turning off the road and into a field - I was ahead of everyone at the time and didn't hear the calls for me to turn around until Nick chased off up the hill after me. Shortly after this we again got it wrong ending up on "Private property you know" as the home owner ventured on our arrival. We had discussed which way to go a fair way back and made the wrong call.

Retracing our steps, running across a couple of fields and out onto the road we arrived at Golant, the last village before Fowey itself. From here we could see boats anchored on the river and, thinking I recognised the inlet across the water, I assured everyone that Fowey itself was just around the corner. So it was again a bit of a blow to find a sign saying three miles at the other end of the village. A lovely run through woodland including an exciting downhill stretch - the best of the day - led us to sea level...and the base of another gruelling climb. Once at the top of this one and out of the woods a further descent led worryingly on and on. Knowing how steep Fowey is I worried that we would have to ascend again before our destination.

Once we had regrouped though we ploughed along the road and into the town, coming in low at the end of the harbour. All that was left was to run through the town, stopping at last outside the King of Prussia. With the taxi due in twenty minutes we had arrived in the nick of time; just long enough for a swift pint before heading back north for more of the same. Some had stiffened up, all were tired, but there was a definite sense that this might be the beginning of something great and discussions turned to what might be next before the night was done.

On a practical note the Saints Way is well sign posted as long as you keep your eyes peeled though there were noticeably less signs in place on the Southern half of the route. We would have been in trouble had we not had the two OS Explorer maps required to cover the route in full. I am assured the route is around thirty miles though with the odd detour we ended up clocking thirty two. Lanivet is almost exactly half way and is a good restocking point, with a Cafe, pub and shop. Most of the other villages we passed had little in the way of sustenance so most of what you need should be carried from the start. All in all its an excellent route and is guaranteed to impress. While hilly its not as consistently punishing as a similar length section of the coast path would be and I would estimate 30-40% is on the road.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Heartbreak hills - Porthpean to Mevagissey

Porthpean beach
Last week, with the Plague fast approaching, I decided it was time to get familiar with the course. So after work on Thursday I headed over to Porthpean. Porthpean to Mevagissey is the first and last six miles of the out and back Plague route as well as the finish for all the other distances. I've run it before - two years ago I ran the red twenty mile course - and it is brutal. The Plague starts at midnight so the first twenty miles or more will be run under cover of darkness; I want to know where I'm going!

Memorial to Al Rowse
From Porthpean beach the coast path is gained via a steady climb uphill, which continues up a track before opening out into fields. A ludicrously steep climb follows and afterwards the first set of steps arrive. These first few climbs are just a warm up though. The coast path pops out onto a road at Trenarren; its easy to get lost here: take the left fork then left again just after a house. If you miss this you will be directed via some very clear signs through farmland before rejoining the coast path in a half mile of so. Get it right though and you will soon gain Black Head, passing a large carved monolith commemorating the life of Poet and Historian Al Rowse.

The path drops down, into woodland, and up again. More steps follow, steep ones, long ones, overgrown ones (at this time of year at least). After about three miles or so though the assault on your quads eases off. From here until Pentewan the path is hemmed in between the cliff and fenced off fields and a lot less hilly.

Looking West from Black Head
On arrival at Pentewan you skirt in front of some attractive houses, not sure but I assume they are holiday homes, then turn sharp left and steeply down into the village, passing through the square and past the Ship Inn. From here its out onto the main road briefly before rejoining the coast path at the entrance to the holiday park.

Looking back to Pentewan
If you thought you had left behind the hills then think again, more steep climbing follows over grassy fields and in the company of cattle. The views, first back to Pentewan and soon across towards Mevagissey are spectacular, so stop a minute to catch your breath as you take them in.

Towards Mevagissey
Entering Mevagissey you'll cross an open green and descend steps to the side of the harbour. Depending on the time of year you may be greeted by a far few tourists at this point. Last Thursday it was quiet though and I stopped for an ice cream and looked at the boats for a bit before heading back.

Mevagissey Harbour