The essence of the race is simple; you race round the entire coastal path of Anglesey in a clockwise direction, keep the sea on the left. Day 1 is about 35 miles, Day 2 a whopping 65 and finally a quick sprint of 33 miles back to the finish at Holyhead. How hard can it be?
Tracey and I headed down to Anglesey on Wednesday, which gave us a nice easy drive, with a full day on the island before the start on Friday lunchtime. It was sometime during this period that an email came through from the organisers that the Duke of Cambridge would be the official starter for the race and, while this would obviously put some extra pressures on the pre-start period, it was a massive coup for the race organisers and made the start of the adventure even more special.
As soon as we arrived at the event on Friday, you could see that it was going to be a special occasion, largely due to the number of police in attendance. As we walked to the event centre and registration, we played the who-might-be-a-security-guard game but it was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel as the all had ear pieces and suits on. Obviously they didn't do their homework otherwise they would have been in Hokas, shorts and t-shirts (with ear pieces).
Registration was a quick affair and we were able to have a relaxed chat and take in the wonderful views out over the bay before heading back to the car the get changed and be back at the start for the pre-race briefing. I spent some time chatting with fellow WHW race competitor Karl and his wife Fiona; I would spend much of the weekend with Karl and greatly enjoyed his company along the way.
|Registering alongside George|
Once the briefing was out of the way we waited the arrival of the royals. I say that in the plural as The Duchess had decided to be a part of the great event too, making this her first public engagement after the recent birth.
|The royals with race directors Q and Bing|
They spoke to the organisers and a few of the runners as us mere mortals waited in the pre-start area. I was not really sure of the royal protocol for this occasion but I really needed a call of nature, so once they had all gone past where I was standing, I found a quiet area at the back of the waiting pen and had a quick pee, fighting back the image of me locked up in The Tower of London being fed energy gels by a Yeoman guard.
Finally, we were ready for the off. There was a 10 seconds countdown and The Duke rang the (newly acquired) Ring O Fire brass bell and off we went - just under 100 souls with an adventure ahead. I had an original game plan of taking things nice and easy for the first part of the day, with the understanding that it was not just a 35 mile race but had to be followed by another 65 miles and then another 33 miles. However, my usual discipline in this situation somehow got left behind. I did not wear my GPS watch for this race and simply got too carried away with the route. After about 4 miles, I was running along with Euan (as would for many hours over the next couple of days) when he commented that we were running at 7:30 min/miling! Oh, bugger. Euan slowed at that point, but I thought in for a penny...
|Approaching feed station near Llanfachraeth|
I made good time to the first feed station and was really enjoying my running, though I remember commenting at the time that I was going way too fast. As this was not my A race for the year I continued with the idea that I would just keep going with the flow and see what happens later; I'm sure you can all see where this is going!
I made more good time on the next section to the half way feed station, feeling great and still running just about everything the terrain could throw at me. I was totally on my own for this section but was able to take in the stunning views to help carry me along.
As the terrain started to get a bit more hilly over the last third of the course, I managed to catch up a couple of runners and started to think that this might be my day, however, just before the third feed station near Wylfa Point we cross a shingle spit at Cemlyn Bay, the best part of a km long. I trudged across fine, but as soon as I hit the tarmac on the other side, I got cramp in both hamstrings so had to take some time to stretch and then just had a walk for a while. It's amazing how quickly you can got from great to crap in these events. From this point on it was going to be a case of get in to the finish as best I could.
Tracey met me just after this point which was a perfect tonic and just enough to keep me trudging in the right direction. The final push has a lot of ups and downs which was a bit of a blessing as I was just able to walk the ups and shuffle the downs, though at least the threat of cramp had started to diminish. The views continued to be awe inspiring so I tried to concentrated on the journey rather than my embarrassing shuffle.
A few runners came past and I just had to let them go, concentrating purely on the finish at Amlwch which eventually came, although the extra mile from the coastal path to the finish at the leisure centre was a killer.
|Finished Day 1 (only just!)|
I knew I was in a bad shape and desperately wanted to lie down and start to regroup so quickly went round the corner and into the campervan in the car park where Tracey had thoughtfully left the bed out ready for me to collapse on to. Initially, I just got wrapped up in a quilt to stop shivering and then started to get some coke in, along with the magic salt and vinegar crisps. Only after a couple of hours was I able to start eating some proper food and finally, just before bed time, I hobbled into the leisure centre to get a shower.
Having now seen the results, I finished in 11th place, taking 6:07 hours for the 35 miles. I was 41 minutes behind the winner, Richard Ashton, which in the cold light of day now seems a whole lot better than it felt that evening.
|Trying to stop shivering|
It was a shame to spend all this time in a state like that as one of the special points of this event is the craic in the evenings with fellow runners/sufferers but on this occasion I had to just look after myself and try to get myself into a state where I could go out again the next day and run 65 miles.
Anyhoo, the body is an amazing thing, and when the alarm went off at 4:30am the next morning, my immediate thought was that I'm up for this! Would go back to doing what I do best; start steady and try to finish strong, certainly in better condition than the day before. I met up with Karl on the start line and with a very relaxed countdown, we were off for the big day.
Stick to the game plan! Stick to the game plan! I kept that mantra ticking over in my head as we made our way out over the cliffs beyond Amlwch. The process was made easier with the stunning sun rise which you just had to slow down and take in and the beautiful smooth rhythm that Karl was setting, his running gait is so metronomic it just draws you along for very little effort; exactly what I needed.
As a pair, we ran with no stress, taking in the views, just quietly ticking off the miles, occasionally running in a larger group of 6 or 7 runners. By the time a couple of hours had passed and we were approaching the first feed station, my legs had started to loosen up and I felt that I might get through this day.
|With Karl approaching 1st feed station|
One thing I was determined to do on this day was be more relaxed at the feed stations. I generally wanted some savoury items at each one and would use my usual gels/shot bloks/energy bars in between. I also just had a few swigs of coke at the stops and drank plain water out on the trails. This combination seemed to be working on this day, so I just stuck with it all day. If it ain't broke...
I felt the next section was important as it would take me to Red Wharf Bay and the place where I started my recce run so I would be back on familiar ground which always makes me less stressed when racing; I don't like surprises, I want to know exactly what is coming up ahead. Along this section you can see right out to eastern end point of the island at Penmon which is a great vista but a reminder of just how far we have to run; the point is not even half way on today's route.
|Looking across to Penmon Point|
|Checkpoint at Red Wharf Bay|
One little note to self - when you leave a checkpoint (Red Wharf Bay) knowing that you have 2 hours to the next one (Penmon Point) on a hot day, don't forget to fill up your second water bottle too as you might end up running 100 yds out of the checkpoint, remember your mistake and have to run back to sort yourself out. Oops!
After the long, flat run round the bay, we faced a climb with a detour to avoid a landslip. Initially, I thought this climb would be tough but, in fact, it came at just the right time. It was a steady walk and allowed some time to sort out food and drink and have a nice easy walk and therefore a much needed change to the constant running shuffle. I was running on my own for a few miles here as Karl had dropped to a walk earlier to take on some food (as he does every 30 minutes, you can set your watch by it), then I was passed by a group including Euan, Matt and Wolfgang (from Austria). I would be spending a lot of time with these chaps, but for now, I just let them run on ahead to the checkpoint at Penmon.
|Penmon Point. Euan (left), Matt (right)|
As ever, the halfway house is such a reassuring place to reach. To be able to restock with some of your own trusted food, a change of socks or shirt, etc, etc. I spent a couple of minutes longer at this station than most of the other ones and about 7 or 8 other runners were congregated there which, along with the marshals and spectators, gave a great atmosphere. Karl caught me up at this point having already changed his trainers and we left, along with Wolfgang, Matt and Euan, making the long steady climb along the country lane out of the town.
It was really getting quite hot at this point and about half a mile out of the checkpoint I realised I had made a schoolboy error! I was so concerned at the feed station with getting my new food and maps sorted that I forgot to refill my water bottle. Aaagghh! I mentioned this to Karl, who immediately offered some of his as he said he had plenty for this relatively short leg. What a star; I certainly owe him a big favour for this one. We had a slight navigation error as the path cuts off the road and crosses a lightly wooded area. The sign was a bit ambiguous in it's direction and we all veered off to the wrong side of a small copse. It only cost us about a minute in wasted time, but those that know me will understand when I say it took a lot of effort to get that out of my mind.
We made our way into the town of Menai Bridge and under the two famous bridges onto the island. There was some kind of festival going on and it was heaving but the marshals involved in the festival had obviously been briefed about the race by the few extra race helpers there and we were efficiently guided through the traffic and onto the quieter paths under the bridges.
By this time, our group had thinned to just myself and Wolfgang, though the others were all within close proximity. One thing I was very pleased about on this day was how I just ran my own race; if others slowed, fine, if others pushed on, fine. As ever, what look like big gaps at the time, soon shrink and you are all back running together. This is exactly what happened as we reached the checkpoint just after the Britannia Bridge; back to the happy crew.
Having done a recce a few weeks ago, I knew that the next couple of hours were fairly flat and easy under foot so it was a good time to tick off some miles before the final , tougher couple of hours when I knew I would be hanging on. That next leg to the Sea Zoo checkpoint was fairly uneventful; our group made steady stress-free progress and I came into the feed station feeling fairly good, still locked stride for stride with Matt and Wolfgang. I was further boosted by meeting Tracey here for the first time that day and I enjoyed some coke and sausage rolls which really seemed to hit the spot. I could tell I was feeling good as I was the first of the group ready and willing to push on, inevitably taking Matt and Wolfgang with me.
|Arriving at Sea Zoo with Wolgang|
Right, now it was time to get more of a game face on. Psychologically, the toughest section of the whole race (for me, anyway) was just around the corner. Some easy trails and a bit of road lead you to Newborough Forest which, when you look at it on the map, appears to be a nice flat trek round the woods and a jaunt up the estuary to the next checkpoint. If you are reading this and you ran this section of the race, I'm sure you will appreciate what I am talking about - it is a KILLER! Firstly, you have a mile and a half along deep soft sand to reach the beach, then you glance up to see a wonderful vista of beach and headland only to realise you have to run up to it and then repeat the distance again the other side, all on sand and then run the best part of 3 miles up the trails to the checkpoint. Throw a large, elderly, nudist bloke into the mix (yes, really) and you have one tough cookie to crack. You can only imagine how good it felt as Matt and I finally rolled into the feed station with our respective support crews there to meet us.
|With Matt at Newborough|
On the latter stages of that section we had overtaken a couple of runners who were both struggling with injuries (including Macca, who I would spend some of the following day with) but we had no idea of our position; our only thought was to get to the finish before darkness. We were now setting off on the last section to the finish at Aberffraw and just wanted to maintain the positive vibes we were both giving out, feeding off each others enthusiasm. Within 10 minutes we had closed on another couple of runners and four of us were making our way across some fields before the final sting in the tail - yes another sand dune and beach run. It then got a bit more interesting as a herd of cows blocked our way and the bull in charge wanted to protect his interests. A quick, careful check of the map showed that we could skirt round some woods and rejoin the path beyond them but it did involve some barbed wire crossing which we all helped each other through and then Matt and I took off on the last loop to the finish.
|Just before the finish|
What a great day out we had had. We just maintained a good solid pace for the full route and finished in far better condition than we could have hoped for. 13:30 hours for the 65 miles, about 1:55 hours behind the winner but in a fantastic 6th place. When I looked back to how I felt the previous evening, there was no comparison; I was fighting fit and ready to do battle again the next day.
Again, I was straight into the van for a lie down, but this time I was able to start drinking and eating again quite quickly. No showers were available at the small village hall so it was bed bath time with a large packet of wet wipes, but it is amazing how little you care after a day like that. This time I felt good enough to go back into the hall and socialise a bit with the other runners as they shuffled in after a long day out. I was just pleased to be able to get to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that some would only have a couple of hours between finishing the day (22 hour time limit) and starting the next.
Oh, it was a tough drag out of bed the next morning at 4:30am. Most parts of my body said enough is enough but the most important part, my head, seemed to be looking forward to the last day. Psychologically, it was far easier to cope with only 33 miles and I felt like I knew this section really well as it went past the area Tracey and I had made our base for our series of short holidays on the island.
I think by this time of the race, the field had been reduced to almost half the numbers that set off from Holyhead two days previously and most were at the point where getting to the finish was the only priority. I actually felt OK once I got moving and slotted in with the usual characters, running all the way to the first checkpoint with Euan and Karl. It was nice to be back on the interesting terrain again after the flatter paths of the previous day and we ground out a nice relaxed rhythm along the cliff tops, single track and beaches.
We arrived at the first feed station in Rhosneigr to be greeted with bacon butties outside the bistro in the main street. I didn't want to force down a full buttie having only had breakfast a couple of hours earlier but once one mouthful went in it was quickly followed by another and I was soon on my way, knowing that this next leg was quite easy underfoot and not a particularly long haul.
There were a couple of points along this section to Four Mile Bridge where one or two groups around me made some small navigational errors, just getting the wrong side of a fence or hedge, and it highlighted to me how important the recces were. I did not waste any time at all but, more importantly, I did not worry about the possibility of a mistake. By this stage of the race, it is mostly psychological and any negative thoughts that nudge in can have a significant impact on the final outcome.
As I approached the feed station, I was running along with Macca (John McBurney) who had made a fantastic recovery from injury the previous day; we would keep each other company for much of the day from this point.
We left the checkpoint just behind Matt who was having another strong run and a quick glance at the watch showed that I had covered the first two sections about 30 minutes quicker than I thought I would. This was a great psychological boost as I was feeling so good but a disaster for Tracey who drove past the checkpoint looking for somewhere to park just as I made my way out onto the estuary shore.
The next section proved to be significant for a number of runners, for all the wrong reasons. The course heads south to a small sandy cove, Silver Bay, but if you are not reading your map carefully, there is a subtle track junction that you need to take to keep on route. If you miss the junction and keep on the road, it brings you out on the coast about a mile out of position. On the beach at Silver Bay is a book that you have to tear out a page from and hand it in at the next checkpoint to prove that you have been there. Macca and I made no mistakes, picked up our pages from Harry Potter and padded off on the beautiful cliff tops towards Treaddur Bay and the next checkpoint. It was only when we were 6 or 7 minutes along the tops that we me Matt and a couple of others hacking back having missed the turning. I was gutted for them, especially Matt who was obviously have a superb run in his first ultra adventure and felt like a good friend after our hours of running together. On the plus side, he was still in good spirits and pretty philosophical about the whole thing.
|The magic Harry Potter book in the box|
I think Macca and I took heart from our shrewd bit of navigation and made good time into Treaddur Bay, running with Richard (Heath, who was suffering with injury). I was able to meet Tracey as she had sussed that I was running well ahead of schedule. This was the last checkpoint before the finish and the marshals (as ever) really whooped it up and sent us on our way for the final push. Richard was really suffering in pain, to the point where I thought he might have to pull from the race, but as is so often the case, he was somehow able to continue running and I was really pleased when we saw him finish (not long after me and beating me convincingly overall) - real man-suit time.
|With Macca and Richard at Treaddur Bay|
Right, here we go! Round the cliff tops towards Holyhead Mountain, I started to feel really good, probably on of those endorphins rush things I keep hearing about but never experience. We were both confident of a good finish and I was really looking forward to getting onto the final hilly section as I felt I would be on my style of terrain. Matt was steadily catching us and I knew I was in good enough shape to go with him when he did and, in fact, after our hours together over the race, I quite wanted to run in with Matt (and hopefully Macca) at the finish. When Macca took a quick pit stop, I was off. It was like I was suddenly let off a leash and I was just flying. All the hills on that final section that I should have been walking, I simply bombed up, running almost everything. I can't remember the last time I felt that good when out running; almost invincible. By now I was running with Matt who was in that same mindset; fast legs and big smiles!
|Going full bore over Holyhead Mountain with Matt|
As we came round a corner with one steep climb to go, about 200 yds ahead of us were the 3 guys in 2nd place. Matt and I exchanged a glance and went for it! Now you have to bear in mind that these chaps had spanked us in the overall race and would go on to form two thirds of the podium, finishing the best part of 2 hours ahead of us the previous day, but it felt amazing to suddenly be running alongside these top class athletes and having my first taste (if only on this short occasion) of what it might be like at the very front of an ultra race. Matt and I ran most of the hill and put enough distance between us and the chasing pack on the descent to be able to really enjoy the final run in to the finish. As we rounded the final corner, the race theme tune (yes, the obvious Jonny Cash one) blared out and we crossed the line to take 2nd place on the day in 6:00 hours, only 6 minutes behind the winner and Ring O Fire champion, Richard Ashton.
This time I didn't need to sit or lie down, I didn't need to find a quite corner and curl up in a ball, I didn't have my usual blood pressure drop; I was just buzzing and for once could enjoy the atmosphere at the finish. As every runner came round that final bend, the deep tones of Jonny Cash blared out, almost drowned out by the whooping and cheering from the crowd. Everyone who crossed the line to complete this amazing event got the same treatment and everyone knew what each competitor had had to go through to get to this point. Bing and Q (race directors) were there to high five everyone in and I congratulated them on putting together this beast.
In the overall competition I came 7th which I'm delighted with. I felt stronger as the days went on, or at least less knackered than those around me and felt that I learnt some more lessons which will, hopefully, make me a better ultra runner. I got the impression that all my new found friends over the long weekend also had a great time and probably claimed better results than they were expecting. Richard came through his injury pain to claim 5th, Matt, in his first ultra experience came 9th, George (Bate) who I didn't get to run with but had some nice chats with over the weekend came =10th with Macca, Euan with his orange calf guards came 15th, Karl and his smooth running style took an effortless 16th and Wolfgang made the long train journey worthwhile by claiming 17th. Thanks for your company over the weekend guys. 53 hardy souls made it round the full ring.
I would just like to once again say thanks to Bing, Q and the team for giving up so much time to allow us to experience an event like this and I must say a very special thanks to Tracey who really looked after me, especially on that Friday night when I was in bits - you know it is love when she takes your shoes and socks off for you at the end of an ultra!