Andy Gillespie in rocky terrain in Devon Coast Challenge

Andy Gillespie was going for a marathon treble at the Devon Coast Challenge meaning he was tasked with completing three marathons in three days

We’ve been reminded quite a bit lately how tough it can be running a marathon. Look at Stu Nicholas’s unyielding march toward the 50-marathon mark and the brick wall he hit at the Queen Elizabeth Spring. Look at the recent mayhem at the London Marathon where the sudden bout of hot weather caused complete carnage.

Then there was the Boston Marathon, where the icy temperatures, ferocious winds and unrelenting rain played havoc with peoples’ physical and mental aptitude. Then you have that cruel and cut-throat cretin known as cramp, which has provoked turbulent times for many a marathon runner in the latter stages where the lactic in the legs really starts to burn.

Now imagine doing three marathons in three days. That was the challenge Andy Gillespie was up against as he took to the wild and rugged terrain of the South West Coast Path in the Devon Coast Challenge.

Of course, doing three marathons in three days is nothing new to Andy G though. In fact, he did exactly that in October last year when conquering the Atlantic Coast Challenge.

Being a veteran of 85 marathons though, Andy had no doubt experienced all of the above and so much more and he’d always come out of it smiling, even if through gritted teeth, and he’d always demonstrated the tenacity to get the job done, no matter what obstacles he faced along the way. His unblemished record of 85 completions and no DNF’s was a testament to that.

The week before the Devon Coast Challenge, Andy had run the North Dorset Village Marathon in just under 4 hours 3 minutes, so that was a good little warm up for what lay ahead. With three marathons to complete in three days though, and with the courses being a lot tougher, he’d be taking it significantly steadier in the DCC.

On the first day, the route went from Hartland Quay to Appledore. The surface was hard and rugged and the changeable weather added to the challenging nature of the terrain, with some midday rain making it a little greasy underfoot.

It was a very hilly sector of the South West Coast Path, amounting to over 5,000 ft of elevation. Runners are tasked with using a map to find their own way along the routes, so that taps into the additional skill of navigation, which is a very important one for this challenge.

Andy Gillespie on first day of Devon Coast Challenge

The ground was a little greasy underfoot on the first race after a touch of rain

Arriving at the first checkpoint in 2 hours 34 minutes and 32 seconds, Andy was in 30th place at that stage. He reached the second checkpoint in 4:27:34, putting him 36th. He then got to the third and final checkpoint in 6:03:56 putting in 35th place. From there it was onto the finish, which he arrived at in a time of 7 hours 11 minutes and 40 seconds, leaving him in 34th position at the end of the Day 1.

On Day 2 the route went from Crow Point to Combe Martin via Staunton, Croydon, Woolacombe and Ilfracombe. The conditions were warm and sunny and the coast path provided some stunning views of the cliffs and beaches. The surfaces were much better for running on and the backdrop emphasized the outstanding natural beauty of the area.

At the first checkpoint of the day, Andy was in 20th place, arriving in 1 hour 18 minutes. By the second checkpoint he’d slipped to 25th, arriving in a time of 2:33:39. He remained in 25th place for the next two checkpoints before finishing in 26th with a time of 6:43:05.

As he approached the finish line Andy could see that his distance hadn’t quite reached 26.2 miles so he did a lap around the campsite before going over the line – just to make sure.

Andy Gillespie on the trails of the South West Coast Path

Still going strong after completing his second marathon, Andy had placed 34th and 26th on the first two stages

It was then onto Day 3, the final day of the race, where the route was from Combe Martin to Porlock Bay. This was the toughest day of the three with plenty of steep climbs from the outset as the path clung to the sides of the cliffs, crossing moorland and heading through woods and glades towards Hunters Inn, Valley of the Roacks, Lynmouth and Countisbury.

The course featured plenty of amazing scenery and breath-taking views as it progressed. After leaving Lynmouth there was a long climb up to Countisbury before the path became more wooded and undulating, going through glades and dells and culminating in the final big climb up to Culbone Church. The open fields provided clear views across to Wales before dropping down via farm lanes and tracks to finish at Porlock.

It was on this stage that Andy actually took an accidental detour after his map reading skills appeared to have let him down. That resulted in an all-round trek of over 31 miles and brought his elevation counter up to over 6,800 ft. Afterwards Andy declared the additional distance was a bonus but there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be brushing up on his navigation or studying the route a tiny bit harder before he embarks upon his next challenge.

At the first checkpoint of the day, Andy was in 24th place, with a time of 2 hours 12 minutes. At the second checkpoint he was down to 29th, arriving in a time of 4:16:46. He remained in 29th as he got to the third checkpoint, clocking a time of 5 hours 57 minutes. He eventually made it to the finish line after a very long day out on the path, crossing the line in a time of 8 hours 53 minutes and 53 seconds. That put him in 31st position for the day.

The overall standings for the challenge were calculated by the cumulative times of all three days combined. Andy’s came to 22 hours 48 minutes and 38 seconds, putting him in 33rd place. This was out of a field of 66 people who began the challenge on Day 1, so he’d just sneaked into in the top half.

It was another great multi-marathon experience for Andy and took his total up to 88 marathons, meaning only 12 more to go till he reaches the illusive 100 Club. His achievements never cease to amaze others and, at 59 years of age, he’s certainly a true inspiration to us all.

Taking that unplanned detour on the final stage might have persuaded many to throw the towel in but Andy’s ‘never say die’ attitude would not allow him to be beaten. Then again, perhaps for Andy, it was more a case of, three marathons in three days just wasn’t hard enough. He simply had to go and make it two marathons and an ultra! Well, it was supposed to be a challenge, right?

Andy Gillespie makes his way round one route of the Devon Coast Challenge

Although he went a bit off-piste on the final stage, Andy made it to end, finishing with a combined time of 22:48:38 which put him 33rd position