The grizzly brown bear of North America or Ursus arctos horribilis, to give it its full name, is famed for being a menacing beast. It stands on its hind legs to survey it’s territory, which can be a mind altering combination of vertiginous mountains, rivers or streams, running through mud, prairie or stony beds. It is never more dangerous than when bounding across familiar territory to defend its’ turf. It is adapted for great strength, agility and speed, as well as impressive feats of endurance. If only we were directly descended from grizzlies.
You do not run The Grizzly, I’d been told. You hope to run it. But you also inevitably slide, stumble, plough and slip. Every year, this ‘run’ takes on a new motto, depending on how you see it. In 1989, its second year, it was The Torment Ten, a long way from its present 20 mile Odyssey, Every Hill Has a Silver Lining. In between there has been The Valley of The Bogs, The Nightmare Returns and my favorite, Revenge of the Lemmings.
I’d heard of The Grizzly before but was reminded of it’s existence by Mark, after I’d established a trail running company Wild Running, which aims to reconnect people with the spirit of our sadly, long lost wilderness. “You’ve got to do The Grizzly,” he’d said in his Black Country drawl, “It’s the toughest 20 mile race around.” Coming from a UTMB veteran not given to overstatement, it felt like a challenge had been laid.
I’d only got in on a wild card entry, as the race traditionally sells out months in advance, but upon arriving with Ben, who was also tackling his first ever Grizzly, I knew we were in the midst of something special.
This year’s event, which marked its quarter century, started and ended in the unassuming village of Seaton in East Devon and attracted more than 1,500 Grizzlies, as well as 500 Cubs in a marginally less taxing ten mile run.
The Grizzly is neither about winning nor personal bests which is why the route is slightly altered every year. Whether you are at the front, or the rear of the snaking, running samba, you enter a struggle between your own inner boundaries and the terrain. You cannot afford to treat it merely as a race. I discovered this while negotiating the infamous bogs (at around halfway) and The Stairway, which coming just two miles from the end, seemed to ascend to hell itself and to what was either a waist deep rock pool or a stream, running down from one of the many, gladed coombes, which pointed ever up to chalky cliffs.
There’s something about these kind of events that brings the best out of the British character. Forget warm beer and cricket. To me The Grizzly is a celebration of latent optimism, a reluctance to give in and a slightly cultivated eccentricity.
And there’s the impressive support. This included the residents, who sat in their gardens and clapped, the children who held out tubs of sweet things and the creativity that went in to the Buddhist shrine with flags, representing the different nationalities taking part. This was like a wild running Mecca, which had taken on an almost spiritual dimension. I’d never run in a race with the smell of incense wafting through trees and wry proverbs suspended from anything, declaring such things as 7/5 of people don’t understand fractals. It all helps to make the journey a lot more tolerable, as you skirt the edge of your energy threshold.
The barrel chested, the pipe cleaner, pigeon toed, mesa morphs, metamorphs and ectomorphs, all emerged from a long winter’s hibernation for the main event. Squinting in to the sunlight as we ran, stumbled and walked in wildebeest herds across the mile long stretch of beach, past the rhythm of drums and up the circuitous climb to the cliffs above, before descending back down to Branscombe beach, where the shale seemed to beckon us down its gradients in to the sea.
After half way, it was a struggle to keep admiring the stunning views. The lone bagpiper in the woods, the didgeridoo and any one of the six bands, became more incidental. Instead I concentrated on keeping my footing. Or footwear. The notorious strength sapping bog, must have been hell for some of the tail-enders to negotiate. Ben lost one of his size 14s in the mire.
At around mile fifteen, emerging from the woods, my four minute lead had been eaten in to, after a mix up with one of the marshals, who had apparently not anticipated my arrival. Only luck and a hasty gate vault, redirected me back on to the correct path. I was barely able to contain my annoyance but short of biting the head off a jelly baby, there was little I could do about it.
Approaching the penultimate climb up a very steep flight of stairs, I summoned every inch of resolve. Close to the top, my inner commands of keep running, keep running, were replaced by keep moving, keep moving, as the lung rasping ascent, required hands to rest on knees for brief moments of respite.
‘Go On Kronenburg,’ someone shouted, as I struggled up the last hill. It was only later, when I ripped off my number that I understood. It said 1664.
The final half-mile descent to the finish line, was a mixture of relief and exhilaration. The time, a little over 2 hours twenty five minutes, irrelevant. But my achievement was nothing compared to one frequent finisher of The Grizzly, who had had to miss this year’s event. Colin Edwards, a below the knee amputee, somehow manages to negotiate the course with a prosthetic limb. This year Forest Stump, as he is known, had suffered a bone abrasion, which was causing him intolerable pain. But he will be back next year, his friends promise.
Enjoying a couple of Guinness’ with Ben and Mark in the Hook and Parrot afterwards, we watched the procession, as runners continued to pour in, nearly six hours after the start, despite a cut-off point instigated by the organizers. There was talk of one competitor who had had to be airlifted to hospitable, after collapsing. Organisers said they were reportedly in a ‘stable’ condition.
As masseurs worked on aching limbs, the local firefighters hosed down human herds and England were busy beating France at the rugby on a nearby screen. This was the stuff of the carnival, the comical, club newsletter photo captions, networks being forged, promises made and broken. Money raised and spent.
Three weeks on, organizer Garry Perratt has already begun organizing next year’s event, even though he is still winding up this year’s merchandise and DVD sales, plus accounting for the estimated £22,000 of charitable donations.
As a metaphor for the defiance of austerity, The Grizzly is an inspiring model. As Gary explained: “We’ve had a lot of access to private land and the level of co operation from landowners has been fantastic.
“We start organizing the next year’s Grizzly 15 months before hand, although entries don’t open until September. This year, entries were full within 14 hours, which is a record.”
If you can run but you don’t want to hide next winter, you cannot afford to hibernate if you want to be a grizzly.