THE ROAD to recovery started for Jim Cole at the South Molton Struggle in October.
Five months after his comeback race, the Tavistock athlete returned to North Devon on Sunday and was far from struggling.
Cole led a field of 867 runners to win the 19th Bideford Half Marathon.
And a personal best (PB) of 68mins 56secs proved his illness and injury problems are well behind him.
Trading places at the front with Shaun Antell, the pair dragged the best out of each other over the 13.1 miles to Torrington and back.
For Cole, a jump jockey who trains and rides his own horses, the last 12 months have been an up-and-down ride.
First, a broken collarbone from a fall prevented him running. Then, on his return, the 31-year-old was debilitated by low blood sugar levels.
"I collapsed in a race in Okehampton and was in hospital for three days," said Cole.
"My first race back was at South Molton. I'm just training harder, putting in 40 or 50 miles a week, and it's paying off."
As the lead group – including Dan Alsop, of St Austell RC, and Mark Jenkin, of Bideford AAC – left the town, Cole was urged by his coach Kevin Jones to ease his way into the race.
Caution, though, has never been his style and the battle at the front made for fascinating viewing.
"I took the race on," said Cole. "I couldn't help it.
"Shaun was on me and I couldn't drop him. I blew up at ten miles.
"He opened up about 20 or 30 yards on me and I thought, 'After all that hard work I ain't letting you have this'.
"I composed myself and got back in after about 11 and a half miles.
"I was away and I just worked, worked, worked, worked all the way home."
Cole, who once rode a winner in the Hunter Chase at Aintree, held on for a ten-second advantage at the finish line on Bideford Quay.
For Antell, having switched from North Devon Road Runners, it was a bittersweet debut in the blue vest of Bideford.
Despite missing out on the top prize, he was delighted to smash his personal best.
In fact, his time of 69-06 was half a minute faster than his winning effort from last year.
After fighting to keep Cole in touch on the Tarka Trail, Antell sensed an opportunity three miles from home.
"I was just trying to hang on in there and make sure he wasn't getting away," he said.
"I could tell he was starting to tire and I thought, 'It's now or never'.
"I got a little gap but I didn't have enough in my legs to keep pushing on.
"I couldn't have given any more. I left it all on the Tarka Trail."
With five of the first seven athletes setting personal bests, it was hugely competitive at the sharp end.
Alsop, third in 70-18, beat his best time by 90 seconds and put the improvement down to his new diet.
"Me and the girlfriend are trying to go vegan for Lent," he said.
"It's made me cut out all the rubbish and I've lost a bit of weight.
"I've got more energy. That's the thing that has surprised me."
He was also surprised when a sudden attack of stitch briefly forced him to stop.
"I hit mile 11, looked at my watch and thought, 'I'm on for sub-70 here'," said Alsop.
"I changed my stride and it just walloped me. I didn't stop for long. Luckily it cleared for the last two miles."
Alsop finished 41 seconds clear of Jenkin who continued his preparations for next month's Boston Marathon by taking fourth in 70-59.
Ronnie Richmond, of North Devon Road Runners, was fifth in 74-14, knocking more than 90 seconds off his previous best.
He finished eight seconds ahead of Dave Tomlin, the Teignbridge Trotter, who was the leading M40 athlete.
And Ian Gooding, of Torrington AAC, was seventh in 74-39, shattering his PB by more than a minute.
He appears to be in fine form ahead of his debut for Devon on Saturday at the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships at Birmingham.
Robbie Murray, of Bideford, was the leading under-20 runner, finishing in 92-18, two weeks before his marathon debut in Barcelona.
It was a good day for the host club with Antell and Jenkin joined by Jamie Blackman and Dan Brewer to win the senior men's team prize.
Numbers were slightly down on last year's record field but it was still a bumper turnout considering the event clashed with the Bath Half Marathon and Duchy Marathon.
Runners from the South West and beyond, many taking part to raise money for charity, contributed to the atmosphere and enjoyed fine racing conditions.
The next road race to be hosted by Bideford AAC is the 10k on May 12.
Entries are available online at www.bidefordaac.co.uk