This weekend I ran the third of the ‘big three‘ races I set out to complete last year. The Exe to Axe is a 22 mile brute of a race taking runners from Exmouth sea front to Seaton sea front. The race visits Budleigh, Sidmouth, Beer and Branscombe. Attacking the coastal path with over 4000ft of elevation and some serious cut off times, there’s no hanging around!
My training for the Grizzly would mean I’d be ready for this challenge. Although the Grizzly was cut short due to adverse weather, it still stood as a good build up run to the Exe to Axe. The longest race I would have competed in since the London Marathon in 2017. It will also be my last race this year, the training and commitment to these big races is just too much. I’m missing out on doing a lot! So for the summer through until next year, I’ll just be running for fun around those hills!
The morning of the Exe to Axe
Where to start. Now I’m recovering from the race it seems like there is so much to say about it. The hills, mud, steps, climbs, descents and views.
Arriving around 9:15am I proceeded to get my race number and take one final loo stop. At around 9:55am the field made their way to the start line on Exmouth sea front to await instructions and the countdown. Bang on 10am we were off, 22 miles away from the finish in Seaton.
Start – Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton
I broke the race down into four quarters to help forget about the overall distance. So Exmouth to Budleigh felt great, the first 4 miles in the bag. My pace was on point and the hills were not too bad. The field bottle necked at the end of the sea front in Exmouth, but after that we all spread out accordingly. I walked on the steep uphills to conserve the energy as did everyone.
Coming down into Budleigh it was easy to miss the turning to the beach. The runner in front of me overshot the ally and I used this to gain a place. At this early stage though that meant nothing. I took it easy along Budleigh sea front and turned left into the car park where Amy and her parents were waiting. Amy took some pictures and Alan and Gerry spurred me on! From here it was about a half mile along the river Otter inland and half a mile back out to the coast path.
Budleigh Salterton to Sidmouth
Back out on the coast path the hills now start to appear. This section from Budleigh undulates with two or three quick steep inclines. Some little energy drainers to help spread the field even further. Further along you pass the WWII ruin and descend a little towards Ladram Bay. Here you make your way through the caravan park and hit the first of the huge, steep hills. This one climbs up to High Peak Hill, roughly 400ft climb over a third of a mile, 9 and half miles into the run! This was one of the nicer climbs…
From High Peak it’s a little down and up to the base of Peak Hill where you get the stunning view down to my home town of Sidmouth. I text Amy and Bea to let them know I was on my way down. At the base of Peak Hill it’s a sharp right down to Jacobs Ladder and then across to Sidmouth esplanade.
Along here Amy snapped a few pictures of me again and Bea, David, Gerry and Alan were cheering me on. Amy also topped up my gels for me and ran beside me for a moment to see how I was doing. At the end of the esplanade was the 11 miles mark and half way! A little behind my time schedule by roughly 15 minutes.
Sidmouth to Branscombe – The section I was dreading.
Over the next 3.5 miles I would take on some serious assent and descent. From the end of Sidmouth esplanade it’s straight up Salcombe Hill (400ft) to the top. Here it’s a quick flat run then a steep drop to Salcombe Mouth (312ft) before climbing again (256ft). Then it’s a (400ft) drop to the beach at Weston Mouth before climbing back up again (350ft) to Weston Cliff and the welcome site of the Trig. A total of 1718ft over 3.5 miles incorporating slippery mud and hundreds of uneven steps. This was a psychological goal for me as the harsh assent and descent was behind me… So I thought.
Now I had my sites set on Branscombe, 2 miles away. It’s a beautiful stretch along the top of the cliffs and through and old fort in the ground. At the end of these fields it’s time to start dropping down towards Branscombe. By now I imagined the race leader had finished. I helped a fellow runner with the directions through the woods as it’s not marked, local knowledge helps here. It’s a steep drop down to the beach where Amy was there again and said I was looking strong, around mile 18! She told me that Alex, her brother was 25 minutes ahead, which was good news for me as he is seriously fast. I stopped for a second to catch my breath and to view the hill ahead. Steep with runners making their way up, slowly.
Branscombe to Seaton – Finish
This hill was devastating. The steepest on the course and after 18 miles of running it’s not what you need. Not only that, half way up you round a corner to be faced with a set of steps the rise up in a straight line to the ‘top’. When you finish those it turns right up even more hill. There was a runner here having a very aggressive asthma attack. Another runner had stopped to help along with a marshal and I felt they had it under control. Later I would see her overtake me as if nothing had happened, very amazing effort.
Once on the top the cramps began to hit my feet and legs, the steps taking their toll massively. My legs were just struggling with the effort and I really had nothing left in me. I still had 4 miles left to go. The coast path swings around and drops into the town of Beer, the last town before Seaton. Having done the Grizzly a month ago I knew how far I had left and made checkpoints in my mind splitting the last 4 miles up. I was also alone at this point believing the Exe to Axe would defeat me.
I dropped down into Beer and then hit the steps back out again willing my legs to get one foot in front of the other. It was so hard and was feeling so depressed and tired. My body had given up but my mind was still going. I dropped down towards Seaton and then it turns away from the sea front due to a landslide years ago blocking the road. From there you climb again through a small woodland into Seaton itself, the last of the hills!
A marshal directed me down to the beach where I turned left to see the finish line at the end of the sea front – half a mile away!! Strava tells me I was running 14:49 a mile here – wow! My normal pace on the flat is around 7:40 – 8:00 minutes a mile – I was ruined!
I crossed the finish line in a pretty unspectacular way to find Amy and her family there. Collected my medal and caught up with Alex’s thoughts on the race. We both agreed it was the toughest we’ve done. The Exe to Axe was an incredible experience though and I feel a great sense of achievement at having completed it.
- Race Time – 4:25:01
- Elevation – 4642 ft
- Distance – 22.1 miles
- Race Number – 126
- Position – 114th of 200
Photos – Amy Kerr