I am not a fan of jigsaw puzzles, I don’t think I have the patience for them. I remember trying one at a family holiday in the South West of France a few years ago. I felt no sense of accomplishment about finding that tricky piece or completing a section. This is because at heart I am a planner and these plans should not be complicated puzzles that leave you frustrated. It also means when plans change I find adapting hard. I know this is something I have to work on. I guess this is why I kinda have a plan B and C, just in case. What relevance does this have to running you are probably thinking! Well let’s go back to the summer of 2017.
I first heard about the UTMB races in 2016 and something in there ignited a spark of interest. Visiting some mountains in France, Italy and Switzerland sounded amazing. At this point it was just a far away dream though. It wasn’t until last summer that I found out about the points system for qualification. For those that don’t know, you need to collect a set number of points to enter one of the festivals’ races. For example, the actual UTMB 100 miler requires 15 points from up to 3 races. That might not seem much, but to put it into perspective, the South Downs Way 100 miler is worth 5 points. So you would have to run 3 of these types of races, and then to make it more tricky, your points are only valid for two years. You can have cross over so you don’t have to run all the races in 1 year but you need to keep on top of this. The spark then became a solid thought. This was this something I could do – me! having not ever raced in the mountains and a sufferer of vertigo! The race I was interested in running, as mentioned in other blogs, is the CCC; the so-called “Little Sister”. It’s 100km with around 6000m of elevation gain and for this you need 8 points from 2 races in any combination. So it could be a 5 & 3 or 4 & 4 for example. Most 5 point races are 100 miles or tough mountain races. That was going to be out of my reach, so I opted for the 4/4 plan. Something to note at this point is that the points do not guarantee entry, they just allow you to enter the ballot!
Also note, I had only run 1 road marathon and it hurt quite a bit.
Just let that sink in for a moment. Even writing this now, I wonder what the hell I was thinking at the time. I would have to run two ultras in a year to get the points. I had Paris marathon booked for April, so wouldn’t be able to do anything a month either side of that. I had heard about Race To The Stones from the same lady who I was discussing the points system with and she said it was worth 4. A 100K race, sure I would sign up for that! LOL! Where would I get the other 4 from? This was my quandary as I knew I wanted to do Berlin in September so it would need to be after that. I started to look on the UTMB site at qualifying races in Autumn and came across “The Brecon Beacons Ultra” in November. Suddenly a few things clicked, I had just signed up for Beachy Head Marathon in 2017, this would give me an indication of how my trail running would be on the hills. I parked the idea for a little bit and ran Beachy Head. When I got to the end, I felt pretty good, I felt like I could run further even if my quads were on fire! The rest of my body felt great and it gave me confidence to research further into this Welsh race.
As the 2017 race day got closer, I noticed a few posts from Pete, aka @Sprintkitchen on Instagram, where he talked about running this race. I thought great, I can see what it’s like through someone else running it, like a virtual recce. He had a nightmare race though, the weather was shocking and he got injured. With the help of a kind runner, he made it over the finish line and got his points. The camaraderie of this race really stuck with me, so I looked into it a bit more.
46 miles total. 2 laps of 23 miles with 1600m of elevation according to the website. Self supported, with only water provided. Ok, this would be tricky, not only was it all new terrain for me but also the idea of working out nutrition and carrying it for the race meant added things to worry about. After pondering it, I decided to sign up on my own and just see if anyone else would end up joining the party.
There I was, before the year even ended I had two 4 point races booked, that’s planning for you.
Flash forward to this year and I soon had three other runners signed up for the challenge, and accommodation booked and so I parked it because there were more races to get through first. Race to the Stones came and went and the points were bagged. Then due to circumstances I won’t go into here, two of the party had to pull out. It, kinda threw me to be honest, as I hadn’t thought of a plan B or C. It took a little time to get my head around it but I talked through options with Dai and then a new plan was formed with two new people joining the party. I had met Gif a few times on various trail runs. It turned out she already had a spot and she persuaded her friend Reka to take one of the places that became free to join Dai and I. Dai told me about a guy named Ged who he had run with a few times and I’d met briefly at the end of RTTS, who was also running, so 4 became 5.
I learned a lot during RTTS, where I had some major fueling and kit issues. Run a 100k and make mistakes, lol! I knew I needed to work on resolving these beforehand as I would have to carry everything myself this time and I also needed to switch race pack. The Nathan I had just wasn’t working out for me, I wanted to switch to bottles instead of bladder as it was such a faff to refill, especially when tired. I purchased a Salomon, got some speed straws to mimic the bladder and set about testing and testing some more. I had Beachy Head booked in again as a training run. I could use this to try different types of energy bars and other food because I decided on a plan of alternating gels with real food for race day. This worked perfectly and I had no issues on that day. I also then got some peeps together for a 32Km North Downs training run, where I would pack all the required kit to test out how that felt. Again, that went to plan, phew!
Going into race day itself, I actually felt the calmest I had ever felt. Usually I am so nervous and sleep is broken and filled with anxiety. I will run through the plan again and again in my head to see what could go wrong. This time, I slept like a baby with a clear head and no stress about the race. For some reason I was at peace with what was about to happen. I woke up feeling pretty fresh at 5am ready to get on with the final prep. Dai and I had talked about a guide time goal on the drive down, I get the sense he likes to plan just as much as me. Nothing crazy as we were definitely not “racing” but we still wanted to push ourselves a bit. We set a provisional time of 10-11 hours, which seemed feasible considering the elevation was actually closer to 2000m and the terrain quite technical at points. It was weird as none of us had spoken about actually running together except Dai and I. This was going to be Reka’s longest ever run, she was quite nervous. This was my 2nd longest run, I was kinda calm. Dai and Ged had run a few times together at various distances and Gif is a legend in ultra running and McDonald’s eating. Who knew what would happen!
The 4 of us headed out in the dark to meet Ged at the start. We had travelled in the dark on the Friday night, so still hadn’t “seen” anything of Wales yet, which was a really strange feeling. I was wondering if we would actually start the race in the dark too. We arrived, met Ged then I experienced my first official race briefing. We were warned about a fire road, that if we fell in the canal we might get a horrible disease and then sang happy birthday to a fellow runner. Ok, so far so good. After some last minute toilet visits and kit checking we headed out towards the start line. Although we were all so relaxed and blasé about this, we almost missed the gun! Arriving just in time to get dabbed in before we were off and running down the canal. Dabbing was a new thing for me too, it’s for timing and safety purposes and involved a little chip thing on a bracelet that gets inserted into a small box. We were told we would be “dabbed” twice out on the course and at home base before starting our 2nd loop. I had also gone halves on renting a GPS tracker with Dai so that friends could see a little dot running around the hills from afar, I felt pretty safe.
It was a pleasant morning, about 9 or 10c and the 5k or so down the canal path was lovely. The chat was free flowing and we cruised along nicely moving up through the field at a steady pace.
Alas, we did loose Gif during this early stage, she was having some knee issues, which sadly meant she dropped off. As we got further down the canal, it became very evident that there was a lot of moisture in the air. We could see the big hill coming up, well when I say see, it was mostly hidden in a cloud of mist! As soon as we turned off the tow path and started the first climb, it was clearly evident that the views at the top of were going to be non-existent. I still really enjoyed getting stuck into some serious gradient power hiking though. It wasn’t too technical but with a few false summits appearing through the mist, it certainly kept us on our toes.
Summiting was an amazing feeling, I love a good climb and doing it early on in the race felt awesome. As predicted there were ZERO views around the little pile of stones. It was really, bloody cold though, with a strong wind whipping the mist around us. I should have put my wind breaker on, lesson learned right there! It did make the descent quick though as we all just wanted to be warm again and who doesn’t love a great downhill section? At some point soon after, we hit the first check point, I refilled a bottle and headed off quickly. The next thing I remember was the dreaded fire road we had been warned about. It was a car width gravel road on an incline. A perfectly runnable incline though, which we all decided to do, the funny thing is, as the mist was still pretty strong, we had no idea how long it would go on for, so just kept running and running until we hit an actual road.
At this point I need to mention that, clothing wise I pretty much stayed wearing my long sleeve T over my short sleeve until the last hour of the race. I had already noticed Dai and Ged in particular add and remove layers a few times. This would be a theme for the whole race, I know we are all different but this was a constant amusement for me and formed part of the light hearted banter throughout as one minute they would be in T-shirts then the next in 3 layers. They both pretty much took the piss out of me on a constant basis as well and remember giving them the finger about 20 times. True trail banter!
The next part I remember, was the technical climb to the pass. This was quite a tricky path, so we hiked most of it. The mist was starting to lift by this point and the surrounding hills were coming into view. As we reached the pass between Cribyn and Fan Y Big, the valley below came into view and what a view it was. We took a few moments to soak it up before embarking on a very technical descent. Plenty of water, loose rocks and a drop off to the right. This is why I came here though, to practice facing fears like this. I took it steady to start, while the others bounded off. With practice and more confidence I sped up and eventually caught them back up as the path turned to more grass and less rocks. We then had a gentle run into CP2, got dabbed, refilled our water, said hi to the volunteers and headed off again with the words “we’ll see you in a few hours” coming from the enthusiastic team in the tent.
The next section consisted off a tight single track rocky path, some road, some lovely fields, some more road then back on the canal path. We took a couple of minor wrong turns but we quickly corrected ourselves and before we knew it we were heading into base camp. It was lovely to see Kelly here cheering on as we entered the field and got ourselves dabbed in. The first loop was done in 4.5 hours, which we were all really happy with. We knew the 2nd loop would probably take longer but that was fine too. With that in mind, we took a break, ate some food, used the toilet and re-stocked our bags ready for the 2nd loop.
The mist had fully cleared now, as we ran along the canal path, we could see part of the hill we would soon be re-ascending. It was both glorious and a touch daunting. I love hills, everyone knows that about me. I have always loved them, where ever I am, if I see a hill I want to go up to see what the view will be like. It’s a very personal and emotional experience for me and I feel like you have to earn it with the climb. I loved this climb so much as you could see exactly where you were going and I remembered about the false summits, Dai didn’t and there was some swearing. I power hiked this a bit ahead of the others as I was desperate to get up there and it didn’t disappoint. The 360 views were stunning, we larked around and took photos before embracing the awesome descent. I was more confident too, with visibility being perfect, I let my legs run free.
We hit CP1 again all in good spirits but we knew the fire road was looming. This time we could see just how long it was and it was a bad thing. We had planned to run most of it but the depressing longevity of it meant it soon turned into a run/hike experience, with a few outfit changes for the guys again, lol! We also had some lovely conversations with some other runners and hikers out for the day, spirits continued to be good. Then before we knew it we were soon back on the technical up hill and making great time as the sun was clipping the top of the hills. We would definitely be down the other side before it got dark, which had become a goal for us earlier. I decided to stretch my legs out a bit on this ascent but soon it became rocky again, so it was back to power hiking. I had a lovely chat with another runner about goals, races and general life stuff. I truly love trail runners as we all have so much in common! Once I got to the gap I waited for the others and had a chat with the marshal, who explained he was waiting for a lost marathon runner trying to get down from Pen Y Fan. He also said we were wise to have pushed on to get the descent done before nightfall as we were about to find out.
After some pondering by Dai about whether he could find a spot to pee or not we headed off ready to tackle the rocks again. I noticed straight away a soreness in my left leg which was impeding my running style. This was really frustrating as the rest of me felt just fine and it also made navigating this section more tricky. There was also a lot more water, which had run off the hills and made it much more slippery, I stubbed my toes a few times, had a couple of slips but managed to stay on my feet somehow. Bless Dai, as he slowed down a bit to keep me company as I was obviously struggling a bit on this section, while Reka and Ged were bounding down like gazelles! Another thing that had been going through my mind about this race is I really wanted to do a bit of night running. I bought my head torch in the summer of 2017 and had only used it on two woodland training runs in the lead up to this race. No one else was particularly bothered, Dai and Ged had much more experience in this than Reka and me, so it amused them how keen I was to become a cyclops.
As we entered CP2 again and greeted the volunteers, again, (they did remember us), Dai ate cake…all the cake. I got my torch out ready as it would be dark soon! I also put on my wind proof jacket as it was starting to get cold and once everyone else was ready, we headed off for the last section. The single track path was also soaked and our feet got wet again but it didn’t matter now, we just concentrated on not breaking our ankles, although Ged almost tripped over a branch. I have to admit that I totally put my torch on early as I was a little bit excited. Dai and Ged took the piss out of me but I was happy and about 10mins later the rest had theirs on too! At some point during this early part the infamous Talybont Nun ,(I am still not sure where he got this idea from), was mentioned by Dai, who had been on a few school trips in the area and said something about it being local folklore. I think he was trying to spook us but we all just found it quite amusing as he continued his tales of runners being chased, as we took to the fields again, 4 torches lighting the way. My leg was still bothering me but I was able to run, I just put it out of my mind as the finish was getting close.
When we hit the canal again, Reka turned to Ged and me, (Dai was off making friends with another cow, this happened a lot!), and said we should run it in hard to the finish. Then without saying anything else, she just legged it! Ged looked at me then followed her. I though ok I will run walk it in, taking 30 sec breaks every 1km. Dai passed me, trying to chase Reka down but then I managed to slowly increase my speed. Before long I noticed that I was catching some runners and the adrenaline took over. I felt no pain, no need to stop, I overtook more and more, then finally caught Ged as we entered the field to the finish. Kicked it up a gear and sprinted it in to some cheers from the spectators and volunteers for the final “Dab”. It was done, there were hugs, a free T-shirt, a medal and a jacket potato with Cheese and Chilli!
Soon after Reka messaged Gif to find out where she was. We headed back to our accommodation down the road to have a quick shower. Gif messaged back to say she was done. We headed back to meet her and Ged. Then we all hit the local pub for a Beer and a chat before Gif, Reka, Dai and me went back to ours for pizza and more drinks.
Looking back on the race now, it pretty much went to plan from a physical point of view. Something that struck me though, is when I finished I lacked an emotional connection to it for some reason. Usually when I finish a big race like this I have so many emotions and often some tears. I am not ashamed of that as I get quite connected to the experience and process. Here I didn’t, I think I did something mentally different in the lead up and during parts of this race. My planned head took over – the task was to complete it and get the 4 points. That is all. I mean, I had an amazing time, in a beautiful setting with awesome people but the connection I’ve had with many other races wasn’t there,. My friend Heather (@yogaandrunning) wrote a post on IG the other day: “Have you ever being so caught up in goal you forgot to enjoy what you are doing?”, this really resonated with me on reflection. I would have been so upset to DNF in this race and as such I spent too much mental focus on the plan/goal of completing, I actually failed to get fully immersed in the experience. This is something I am going to try hard not to let happen again because this isn’t why I run, I run for the enjoyment it gives me not “The Plan”. Even though I am a planner at heart, I am a human with emotions and they need to be felt.