Woolacombe Dunes parkrun, let's take these three words one at a time. Woolacombe, is a seaside resort on the North Devon coast. The resort beach has a fantastic two mile stretch of golden sand that faces the Atlantic Ocean and draws in tourists all year round.
The dunes are the area of sand between the beach and the headland that have been blow into mounds or small hills and require a good amount of energy to scale. The 230 feet elevation gain might not sound too much but the majority of the course is sand and the icing on the cake is the Dune of Doom !!
parkrun is an all inclusive, 5 kilometer, world wide phenomenon for anyone that wants to run, jog or walk that distance on a Saturday morning at 9 a.m.
This is my run review of a course that sites in National Trust land, includes the South West coastal path and proudly relishes its North Devon AONB status (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
Woolacombe Dunes parkrun has been labelled the toughest in the UK and it has been on my bucket list for a while, I can confirm that the event lives up to its billing and on top of the difficulty the inspiring views almost make up for the lung and calf busting test that you experience.
Parking on top of the headland the beach’s full glory takes your breath away, facilities wise the Porthole café has toilets and naturally tempting food and drink on offer. I arrived early so as to get my bearings and have a chat with Paul Cooper the race director. Parkrun simply wouldn’t exist without the volunteers who cover all that’s required to give us a great run, so thankyou to Woolacombe’s volunteers.
Our run briefing was informative and entertaining, lets say we all knew what was in store and we all knew we were in good hands.
142 of us set off in an orderly fashion due to the width of Marine Drive, at the standard 9 a.m. time. The first 400 meters were slightly quicker than I’d planned but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did this, however, it allowed us to space out. A sharp right hand turn took us onto a compacted track that was no more than ten feet wide and quite steep. In no time at all we took a sharp left hand turn onto the South West coastal path, a sandy undulating track that immediately introduced you to the “sand factor” that would play a part in the rest of our run. The ferns and rough grass either side of the track made it easy to see where the trail was heading.
Apparently according to studies running on sand requires 1.6 times more energy than running on a hard surface. Yes, our friend “Lactic acid” was about to kick in. That burning sensation in your lungs and muscles is a sure sign you really are trying your best.
The undulating path then took a steep drop down to the beach, so care was needed as your momentum meant your feet sunk quite deeply into the shifting sand. As we hit the beach it was a magnificent sight, no wonder it’s an award winner !! This was the first mile done and with hindsight, the easiest mile of the three.
Next a mile of beach running and what immediately struck me was just how far the leading pace setters were ahead. However, first things first, this is a run and not a race. The sand was reasonably good underfoot but still with that slight “sinking” sensation. We had lots of room with it being out of Summer season, no jellyfish, children’s sand castles or Dad’s buried up to necks to avoid !!
The white water of the breaking Atlantic waves, the squawks of seagulls overhead and the salty taste in the air all added to the seaside vibe but even though nature was trying to offer us wellbeing and mindful distractions the inevitable trip back up the sand dunes couldn’t be disguised.
The golden sand is clearly what beings tourism to the area and I, like the majority of the parkrun tourists that have run here, contemplated how lovely it would be to live here.
As the two mile mark approached so did the Dune of Doom. A twenty meter incline that had our names nailed on it, character building, yes, painful, yes but that said, an experience to remember.
With seventy odd runners already having scaled the dune with was a mixed blessing. The imbedded footprints were almost like stepping stones to aim for so as not to interrupt new shifting sand but at the same time where the sand had been churned up it gave you an unbalanced feeling.
The lactic acid in my lungs and calves had hit in big time and there was almost a sense of an anxiety dreams when you are running with lots of effort but not actually getting anywhere !!
What encouraged me was the fact that I overtook a coupe of people with my fast walking and once at the top there was definitely a “Rocky” moment when he runs to the top of those stairs in the film. However, there was no time to dwell on reaching the top it was a case of trying to get back into a rhythm and trying to even out you breathing.
We were once again on the sandy Coastal path with a repeat of the undulating trail until, as I suspected, we joined the compacted path that that took us up the headland to Marine Drive. The speed that I generated on my return was in stark contrast to almost having to put the breaks on coming down.
Again, aggressive fast walking and some slow running were required. Thankfully the lactic acid kicked in for the final time. However, with only the prospect of 400 meters left once summitted this spurred me on to dig deep and find my “inner fell runner”. Once we hit that home straight it was still curiously uphill when it felt quite flat at the beginning of our 5K.
I guess these are the tricks our mind plays on us when we are fresh and when we are done in, ha ha.
I took out my parkrun barcode, thanked the volunteer for scanning the tags and briefly thanked Paul the Race Director with my final words being “I’ll be back”. The event is a great partnership between the National Trust land and the spirit of parkruns inclusive community running . Naturally there are hundreds of parkruns up and down the country but this is a special one.
Time wise 33.40 and position wise 76th out of 142 wasn’t too bad but I know I can do better now I know what’s involved. Whether this review has wet your appetite or confirmed that you will be steering well clear thanks for reading.
In summary, if you look up the words scenic or challenging in the dictionary there will be a picture of Woolacombe Dunes parkrun but it’s the same picture when you look up rewarding too . A great day, a tick on my bucket list and a pleasure writing about it.
This report also features on Roger's blog, IRUNOFFROAD. If you would like to read about more of Roger's off road running adventures, you can do so here https://irunoffroad.com
This week 142 people ran, jogged and walked the course, of whom 91 were first timers and 7 recorded new Personal Bests. Representatives of 42 different clubs took part.
The event was made possible by 17 volunteers:
Roger THOMASSON • Michael NOTT • Jonathan FAIRHURST • Paul COOPER • Jane RATTUE • Malcolm KIRK • Will COOPER • Paula WIDDOWS • Peter REAN • David RATTUE • Andrew REA • Ann WALLACE • Peter MURPHY • Gracie HUGHES • Julia WATKISS • Noah ZEALE • Jo MORTIMER