(Sorry, I made it as short as I could)
I’d wanted to run an ultra for a while, partly due to the “encouragement” of a certain men’s captain, and partly because I felt I had a point to prove to myself after what I considered two failed attempts at GB24 and Manvers Dusk til Dawn, having not achieved the 32 miles that seems to be the acceptable distance to qualify according to the ultra community (whether or not this is official I don’t know, but it played on my mind nevertheless). I won’t lie, when some of the other Harriers ran Canalathon earlier this year I was surprised by how envious I was of their amazing achievement, and when Kev Reardon shared his emotional updates during his mammoth run at The Wall, I was galvanised and started to plan my own ultra adventure.
I always knew my first proper ultra would be a pilgrimage, and when I saw a post about a 50 mile race around The Gower, I knew that was the one for me. To me that peninsular is one of the most beautiful in the world and was my playground as a child, having spent so many summers on it’s beaches.
So, after months of pretty much zero decent preparation short of club runs and a few long(ish) runs at the weekend the day finally arrived. A meal with the family in Swansea the night before ended with me settling down on a borrowed futon in my sister’s living room, which was surprisingly comfortable, and I got a relatively restful five hours sleep. Kit packed, and checked for the third time I was off, only to find that someone had blocked me in. It was 6.00am and I wasn’t about to go knocking on doors, but luckily the mystery driver appeared and moved his car, so I was off.
Upon arrival at Mumbles Cricket Club (within a sturdy six runs of Catherine Zeta Jones window apparently) there were plenty of runners already milling around, checking bags, testing head torches and mulling over trainer selections. My first order of the day, find someone who looks like they run at my pace. If there was one thing I was worried about for this race, it was getting lost and finding a running buddy would quell that fear immediately. I’d never run a self navigated race before and despite knowing the area fairly well, there were sections during the first 20 miles that I was extremely unsure of. I got talking to a small group outside and asked how long they thought they’d take and one of the guys said, “oh, I did this last year and it took me just over twelve hours”, I sniffed and thought that would be too slow for me, how incredibly wrong I was, and only time would prove me horribly wrong.
After a quick safety briefing we were off, still in virtual darkness a stream of 105 bouncing head torch lights streamed out of the cricket club and down the road towards Mumbles, a bustling seaside town to the west of Swansea housing a grand pier and lighthouse, both of which looked resplendent in the slowly rising dawn light. As we headed east towards Swansea the morning light became brighter and the sound of the waves rippling into the bay made for a beautiful opening to the challenge ahead.
About two miles into the race I had a quiet chuckle to myself as we passed the turnaround point of Swansea Bay parkrun, remembering how often I’d heard the words “only a parkrun to go” and didn’t want to even consider how many 5k’s I’d have to complete before I saw the finish line. Anyway, the thought soon subsided as we swept left over the road and into Clyne Wood en route to Gowerton, and the first checkpoint some 7 miles away. The first section of the race was pretty much all on tarmac path, and virtually a straight line with little to see other that trees on either side, the steady incline hardly noticeable as I chatted along with fellow runners. Finally, through a break in the trees we could see the stand at Dunvant rugby club, and the first checkpoint in a small car park on the left. Beginners arrogance at the fore, I grabbed a couple of crisps and a sweet and kept running, this is easy right?
The next checkpoint was another ten miles away, and awaiting me there was a clean pair of socks and trail shoes, the advice seemed to be that they’d be needed, so who was I to argue? Trust me, I was going to need them. The Gods had been kind so far, the forecast torrential rain hadn’t materialised, but there were plenty of puddles along the route, and little opportunity to avoid them. This section was much more familiar to me, across the Loughor Estuary I could see home, the town of Llanelli, as we ran through Penclawdd (the cockles are legendary). I’d found another running buddy at this point, local lad Joe, whose “local knowledge” was to prove questionable at best, especially as he led us over the salt marshes, instead of along the nice dry road that everyone else had managed to find! But eventually we met up with the rest of group, and our minor 0.4 mile diversion was over. We reached the second checkpoint, in the village hall at Llanrhidian and gratefully changed our saturated footwear before moving on again. having to sit down to change my shoes I failed to heed the “beware the chair” warning and got a little too comfortable, dawdling far too long and allowing my legs to cramp a little making for an uncomfortable start to the next stage.
My lovely warm, dry Inov8’s stayed that way for about 5 minutes. A quick left turn down a farmers track led us into a field which could only be described as a quagmire, the mud was horrendous and tried it’s best to wrench my trainers from my feet several times before we finally hit firm ground again a mile or so along. I was beginning to realise that 12 hours to complete this thing wasn’t so unrealistic.
It was with a fair degree of envy that we realised the second race of the day, the 34 mile Ultra Bach (or Little Ultra) had set off just ahead of us. Just 34 miles, lucky sods! But we plodded on, and finally those who didn’t know this beautiful coastline started to realise what all the fuss was about. On the approach to checkpoint 3 at Llanmadoc the sweeping cliffs along Broughton Bay came into view, the horizon stretched out across the Bristol Channel and out towards The Atlantic. If anything could lift tired legs at the 21 mile point it was that view.
More soggy crisps, a jaffa cake and a refill of my water and it was time to get moving again. The gaps between the checkpoints were now getting shorter, purposely to help tired runners and because the organisers knew what maybe the majority of the competitors didn’t. The nature of coastlines in this part of the world is that they have cliffs, and cliffs tend to be pretty high, the flashbacks to Snowdon were starting to spring into my mind.
No cliffs yet though, next up it was a 3 mile stretch of beach to negotiate, the stunning Rhossili Bay, popular with surfers and you could see why as the tide slowly made its way towards the beach. Still carrying the mud from the field some miles back I decided to take advantage of the sea water to wash off the muck, and my feet really appreciated the refreshing cold of the waves. As we approached the end of the beach I knew it represented the start of the south coastline of the peninsular, and the beginning of the end of the race. The next checkpoint was in the village of Rhossili itself and my running mate Joe was greeted by his dad at this point. I’d been running well up to now, but seeing my new friend chatting with family made me want to check my messages to see if there was any encouragement from my own friends and family, but the “no service” status in the top left of my phone made my heart sink a little and I started to feel tired for the first time, I needed a pick me up but technology was to play it’s part, and not for the first time.
Only five miles to the next checkpoint, so I dug in and kept going, but before getting there there was the small matter of the map clip we had to find. In previous years there had been some cheating as competitors took shortcuts, so the organisers had introduced four points along the route where a unique clip was hanging and had to be used to punch your map to prove you’d used the official route. All well and good, except for the fact that all the clips were located at the top of the cliffs, which had to be climbed. That 12 hours was looking les and less likely, and my optimism for getting back before dark was diminishing with every mile.
The first clip was reached after an hour and a half or so, and the conditions were starting to get worse, the first spots of rain were falling and the wind was starting to pick up, so I decided to unpack my rain jacket for the first time, this wasn’t necessarily a good decision as the next few miles saw my body fluctuate from freezing to boiling and back again every few minutes. I started to become conscious that I’d hardly eaten at all during the race and probably needed to force something down, so I grabbed the first thing I could find in my pack, some kind of apple flavoured protein bar, it was like chewing a bath sponge, but I knew I had to eat something.
Half a mile along at the Port Eynon checkpoint I tried my phone again, but nothing, no signal. I was starting to flag and I really wanted to talk to my wife, who I knew was probably on her way to the finish to meet me. Just to hear the words “I’m proud of you, keep going” would have given me the boost I needed, but luckily there was now a group of runners who kept catching each other up and had developed a camaraderie that was helping to keep us all plodding along. I’d have to make do with my temporary family for now.
More cliff running, walking and climbing eventually got us to the next clip at Oxwich Head, but it was getting harder, the climbs were becoming relentless and the rain was dampening spirits a little, but it was now a case of just getting to the next checkpoint and psychologically ticking it off the map. Another mile or so and we reached checkpoint 6, only two more to go before the finish and what represented a massive mental barrier reached, I actually found myself saying, “only a half marathon to go”, ONLY A HALF MARTHON TO GO??? Are you @£%$ing kidding me? I took my phone out of my pocket, devastation, it was dead. I wanted to cry, but suddenly remembered I’d brought my power bank, huddled from the rain in the checkpoint gazebo I plugged my phone in, YES, a signal, so I rang Rosie, but no answer, I wanted to cry. A few seconds later, my phone rings and I get to hear my wife’s voice at last. I tell her I’m doing fine and I’ve only got 12 miles to go, it’s that word “only” again, and I see Michael’s comment on my Facebook about the race only being 16 parkruns. It makes me smile, and I’m ready to set of again, this time with a man from Portsmouth I met near the start, whose name I never did get, but who I’m really grateful to for getting me through some tough sections. We run along Oxwich Bay as the rain comes down, it’s another lengthy stretch of sand, but another opportunity to soak my tired feet in the waves. The guy I’m running with has developed some pretty impressive flatulence, but nobody cares, were too tired to even laugh at the noises, I’m just hoping for his sake it stays in gas form!
As we turn the corner to the next beach a sudden panic hits me, the next checkpoint is at Three Cliffs Bay campsite, and having been here only a few weeks earlier I know exactly where that is, and I look to the top of the cliff in from of me and almost sink to my knees. The climb is horrendous, especially as we virtually crawl up the steep path while five middle aged surfers skip past us in the opposite direction, and an urge to swear loudly at them for no justifiable reason overcomes me. Instead I smile politely and continue the climb. Eventually I get to the campsite, swig some squash, force down a strawberry jelly and push on. Just eight miles to go now, though I’m starting to hear rumours that the course measures long, by up to 3 miles! You have to be kidding me!
Anyway, it’s time to keep moving, and this time we have some good news, the final map clip has been stolen, so we don’t need to look for that one. It’s a huge relief, but that relief is short lived as more steep climbs hit us before the home straight. It’s a real plod now and I try to eat some peanut butter, not an easy task when you have no saliva left. But after a meandering route over some deep sand paths the next hill my biggest boost appears around the next corner. Caswell Bay, my favourite beach in the world, and only four miles from the finish. I know the paths from here on in are all man made and smooth, if undulating. I find energy I didn’t think I had and run as fast as I have since the start of the race for a good two to three miles until confusion about the turn back to the finish gets the better of me and the two other runners I’m with. Eventually a dog walker points us in the right direction and a s the light starts to fade we make the turn onto the last 800 yards of the race. We turn a corner through a small gate and see some people holding torches guiding us into the the finishing straight, and the guy next to me yelps a relieved “YESSS!” as he sees the word FINISH directly ahead. We’ve done it, and there’s Rosie waiting for me. Twelve hours after leaving the same spot I hug my wife harder than I think I’ve ever hugged her.
I never thought I’d be able to do what I just did but I did, and seeing so many others do the same was so inspiring. What a great race, what a great challenge, what a great adventure.
33rd out of 105 competitors
Finish time: 12 hours 02 minutes 58 seconds
Distance covered: 51.77 miles (there may have been a couple of wrong turns.