Andy Gillespie in action in the Atlantic Coast Challenge

The Atlantic Coast Challenge provided a rare opportunity for Andy Gillespie (left) to run with other people and he did indeed make some friends along the way

There were probably very few people more relieved to see the return of competitive racing, at least in some shape or form, than Bournemouth AC‘s resident marathon guru Andy Gillespie.

He’d only been running by himself since lockdown restrictions began at the end of March so Andy was kind of looking forward to being joined by some other people for this one.

Living over near Salisbury, Andy doesn’t get the opportunity to mingle with his BAC counterparts very often, hence why he’s ended up restricted to solo training runs for the past six or seven months. At least no one could accuse him of not isolating or not social distancing though.

Despite the lack of opportunities to run with others and with no parkruns on the agenda, Andy was still feeling pretty good in himself going into the Atlantic Coast Challenge, both mentally and physically.

For those who aren’t familiar with the format of the Atlantic Coast Challenge, it’s basically three marathons on three consecutive days, with the route following the South West Coast Path starting from Padstow in Cornwall on Day 1 and finishing in Landsend at the end of Day 3.

The terrain is wild and rugged, with steep climbs and descents that will test a runner’s concentration, as well as their strength. Each of day is unique and brings forth its own challenges and famous landmarks to add to the experience.

Three hilly, off-road marathons in three days might seem a tall order to many runners. To Andy though, this was not so much “a new normal” but rather more, a return to the old normal.

Andy is something of a connoisseur when it comes to the three day eventing format. He’s a veteran of the Atlantic Coast Challenge, the Jurassic Coast Challenge and the Devon Coast Challenge. In fact, they are all pretty much annual events for Andy and this was his eighth time of participating in the ACC.

With the Covid situation still very much at the forefront of peoples’ minds, it brought a slightly different twist to the proceedings for this year’s ACC. Face masks and hand gels were mandatory on the transfer buses and became part of the already long list of kit you had to carry on the event.

There was also a tracker that runners had to carry with them in their rucksacks and they also had a carry two litres of water with them from the start.

The race organisers were clearly more generous than Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak as they provided each athlete with a ‘packed lunch’ in order to cut down on possible contact points.

On the first day the competitors were met with windy conditions. which seemed to be in their faces most of the time. There was the occasional bit of respite though, when they were running through Newquay, for example.

The route was supplied on an app, with no maps being issued, again, the cut down on risks. There were only two checkpoints but they did offer the opportunity for runners to refill their bottles of water.

Everyone seemed to get used to the changes quickly though and Andy didn’t hear anyone complaining. They were probably all just pleased to be out there to be fair.

Day 1 took the participants from just north of Constantine Bay, near Padstow, to the sumptuous sands of Perranporth.

With the positive mindset he had going into the race, Andy got away well and he managed to maintain that positivity the whole day. He met a couple of other runners 13 miles in and ran with them for the second half of the race.

That helped Andy enormously and worked a lot better than if he’d been on his own. They were able to work off each other and Andy found himself being dragged along without even realising it.

As he arrived at the Gannel Estuary, which leads across towards Perranporth, the water didn’t seem as deep as it was last year which told Andy that he must have been running faster than he did then as he’d beaten the tide.

Andy heads over the beach after crossing the Gannel Estuary

That’s Andy on the beach in the distance after crossing the Gannel Estuary

In fact, it turned out to be an ACC Day 1 PB for Andy, meaning he’d secured a faster time than in all of his seven previous attempts. Completing the course in 5 hours 26 minutes and 51 seconds, he was in 58th place in the standings at the end of stage 1 out of the 137 who successfully made it through the first third of their journey.

It can be difficult to judge on Day 1 how much effort you can afford to throw at it with the prospect of two more days to follow. The temptation was always there for Andy to go harder than planned and he did give in to that along Perranporth Sands, knowing that a PB was on.

With a total elevation gain of 3,520ft, it was always going to be a test but it had been a promising start for Andy and he jumped into the jacuzzi afterwards to recover and recuperate read for the next day.

Andy makes his way down the sand dunes on Day 1

Andy heads down the sand dunes at the 20 mile point

The starts were literally as soon as you got off the bus, so with the tracker in your rucksack being picked up by the satellites, the clock was ticking and it was game on.

After doing so well on the first day Andy was keen to get away quickly on Day 2 and set off as soon as he was out the door. There were some narrow tracks along the cliffs on the earlier part of the route and Andy was conscious that you can get held up if you hang about.

The route for Day 2 took the athletes from Perranporth to St Ives Holiday Park.

As it had been the previous day, the headwind was very strong which forced Andy to put the work in but he felt even better on the second day and didn’t even need to top up his water bottles when reaching the first checkpoint at 12 miles.

Again, Andy had company from another runner he’d met on route and they stayed together up until the 19 mile point when his newfound running buddy had to drop back.

It was going well again for Andy and he was looking on course for a Day 2 PB until he was thwarted by the tide at the end of Gwithian Sands at the 22 mile point.

The water was quite cold and came up above Andy’s waistline. It was a slightly different experience than he’d had in the jacuzzi the previous night.

The crossing was about 50 years long and Andy could feel the strong currents as he waded across. He got some strange looks from people passing by as he was on his own at this point and there hadn’t been too many runners coming through before him.

Arriving at the finish in a time of 5 hours 21 minutes and 23 seconds, Andy 41st quickest on Day 2. When he crossed the line though Andy was dismayed to find that the route had come up short.

In fact, according to his Garmin he’d only done 25.42 miles. Andy prides himself on how many marathons he’s done, having already made it into the esteemed 100 Marathon Club and he likes to be able to look back on that record and know he’s gone the full distance for each one.

Andy is a real stickler for the rules as well and never short cuts any corners in these events. In turn, he gets very annoyed when he sees others flouting the rules.

There wasn’t much he could do on this occasion though about the route coming up short. His OCD almost took hold and he nearly did a bit to make up the distance but he’d already stopped his watch by then so it would have been a pointless exercise.

He knew Day 3 always comes up well over marathon distance though so he managed to put his OCD back where it belongs, keep calm and carry on.

The mileage he clocked for the day did take him past the 2,020 mile mark for the year 2020, so that was something else to celebrate. His total elevation for the day was 3,789ft so again, it was a tough route but that just makes it all the more rewarding to get to the end.

At the end of stage 2 there were now 131 competitors left in the running.

Day 3 can almost not even be described as a running race. In fact, the term “technical” even stretches it to its limits. You do get a nice run through St Ives but that’s the calm before the storm.

With his renewed positive attitude, Andy went out hard. He was actually running with Steve Clark, the same guy he had been accompanied by for the majority of the previous day.

The incredible thing about these events is how you can recover so well after a tough day out and then get back out there and run again the next day.

Steve had certainly done that and this time they stayed together for the entire duration of the run, sharing the load and pulling each other along, although having done the event so many times before, Andy’s main contribution was the navigation.

The section of the coastal path to Lands End is rocky beyond belief and the concentration required can tire you out more than the running itself! It’s a precarious route and Andy did take one fall but he managed to pick himself up, dust himself off and carry on.

Completing the stage in a time of 7 hours 21 minutes and 24 seconds, Andy was 40th quickest on the day. It was a Day 3 PB for him as well, which he was over the moon about.

He felt he owed a lot to his companion as there were certainly moments when Andy may have slipped back if he hadn’t had Steve there to chase down.

Andy with Steve Clark on Day 3 of the ACC

Andy arrives at the finish with his newfound running buddy Steve Clark after three grueling days on the coastal path

Completing a total of 27.8 miles that day and wracking up a staggering 5,266ft of elevation, it had easily been the most brutal run out of the three for Andy. But he’d made it through, as he always does, showing great determination and character.

By the end the field had been whittled down to 114 runners who successfully negotiated the difficult third day and thus had completed the Atlantic  Coast Challenge.

With an overall combined time of 18 hours 9 minutes and 38 seconds, Andy finished as 37th male out of 73 which was a remarkable achievement.

More importantly though, he’d secured an overall PB for the event, out of all the eight times he’d done it. That was a massively pleasing outcome for Andy.

The following day Andy’s ankles were swollen and he had three blue toe nails. His quads were shot to pieces as well but he didn’t mind one bit. He was just thrilled to have run so well by his standards and to have exceeded his own expectations.

The event has given Andy a renewed confidence and in truth it had been quite a while since he’d actually felt like he’d done himself justice, especially over the three day ones.

For the past couple of years he’s kind of felt like he was falling to bits and with just about everything hurting, he was finding it a real struggle to stay positive.

Now he’s well and truly got his mojo back though and just in time for his next event, the Jurassic Coast Challenge, which starts on Friday 6th November.

The JCC had been rearranged from March and will possibly be dark at times with the shorter daylight which will add an intriguing element to the challenge.

It is looking like it could be a wet one as well and with the weather getting colder, it was going to be a testing task but one that Andy is very much looking forward to. There are also more changes at foot in that event as well, with the route for Day 3 being reversed.

It’ll be another epic battle for Andy but no doubt he’ll enjoy in and make the most of it as he always does. Perhaps even more so now he’s managed to stop the slide and turn the clock back a little, as he did at the ACC.