Tales of the Long Runs Episode 2: September’s Off-road Ultra Marathons
I’m recovering at the moment from the second of two long runs, and hoping to be in a fit state to run OK in the Sandstone Trail race on 4 October. Here’s what I’ve been up to in September.
On Friday the 4th I left work, drove to the physio so he could ultrasound my back, then down to Clun in Shropshire, which in itself probably undid all the good the physio had done. There I headed for the New Memorial Hall and parked up for the weekend. Inside the hall I registered for the Across Wales Walk 2009 – the hall was already filling up with campbeds, sleeping mats, rucksacks, and even some bodies lying around trying in vain to get to sleep early. I pitched my tent on the playing field outside then headed for the pub for carboloading: pasta, pudding and enough red wine to get me to sleep. By 9 I was in the tent and nodding off.
At 3:15 my alarm went off, and despite all my instincts I got up, put on my running shorts and shirt and packed my camping gear into the car. Other poor souls were also wandering around wondering aloud how they’d talked themselves into this and gradually getting themselves ready for the day. Inside the hall about a hundred people were milling about, eating toast, drinking tea, waking up and packing up. At 4:15 we all traipsed up through the town in the dark to where two coaches were waiting to take us a few miles west to Anchor Bridge and the Welsh border.
That’s how 110 people came to be gathered together under a full moon seemingly in the middle of nowhere just before 5am, ready to run, walk or if necessary crawl across Wales to the coast at Clarach Bay just north of Aberystwyth. It’s a walkers’ event really, but they support runners too, and I suppose about 20 of us would have claimed we were runners if we’d been asked. Plenty of others would be running downhill though: you have to keep moving pretty smartly to complete the event in the 18 hours maximum. At 5 we were off up the road in the dark, and the few of us who set off running didn’t see any of the others again until teatime or later.
After two miles of gradual climbing up the road, I turned left off the road along the Kerry Ridgeway, and It was off for 23 more miles through the hills on paths, tracks and the odd bit of road, to reach checkpoint 3. After about 5 miles it was getting light, the sky was blue and the day was looking good altogether. I was running well, and these Welsh hills are great to run – mainly rough pasture rather than moorland, easy underfoot, varied enough to keep the interest despite the effort. And so I plugged along the last couple of miles of road to checkpoint 3 in the middle of Hafren Forest. 25 miles done, and effectively an off-road marathon completed.
Now if you look at a map you’ll see that there’s an obstacle between Hafren Forest and the sea, in the form of Plynlymon, 752 metres high, mostly tussocks and distinctly short of paths. Checkpoint 3 to checkpoint 4 is the “gird your loins” section. Up a forestry track to the bottom of the mountain then 200 metres of climbing in 2 km, over the pathless tussocks, up to find the fence along the eastern ridge of Plynlymon, and follow it more or less to the top. This year it was out of the cloud most of the time, and I managed to find the tiny path that enables you to miss out the final climb to the summit, and skirt round to start the descent on the other side. And of course it’s all downhill from here, for about 15 more miles. You really can’t give up once you’ve crossed Plynlymon, however tired you are. Down the mountain, then track and road to checkpoint 4 by the Nant-y-moch dam, along the reservoir road, over to Craig y Pistyll on a lovely little path, then 7 miles of road at the end that feels like it’s going to last forever. And then I saw the seaside caravans in the distance, then the final checkpoint by the sea, and then, finally, I could collapse into a camping chair, drink tea and give up. What a brilliant day. 45 miles in 9 hours 23 minutes, nearly an hour faster than last year, and fourth to finish.
It takes a while to recover from a day like that. I could barely hold a conversation that afternoon and evening. A car-full of us were driven to Aberystwyth University where we were to be put up overnight. I picked up my bag, had a bath, had a sleep. At 6:30 I was just about in a state to eat something in the restaurant, and opened a bottle of wine. By 9 I was back in my room, in bed. The next morning we were all more in a state to socialise, so we swapped tales of the previous day over breakfast, during the presentation ceremony, and again on the coach back to Clun. I walked painfully to my car, drove carefully home, and collapsed onto the sofa.
I was still very tired on the Monday, wasn’t able to run properly on the Wednesday evening, or the next Wednesday come to that. And then three days later, on the 19th, I was lined up once more for an Ultra, this time the High Peak 40 – a 40 mile circuit from Buxton. This one’s one of the Vasque Ultra series, so it’s nearly all runners, and some of them seriously fast. It doesn’t really make much sense to try to do two Ultras two weeks apart, but I didn’t want to miss either of them. The HP40 isn’t as hilly as some Peak District trail runs, but it’s got a lot of stony tracks, a fair bit of road, which I really don’t like, and goes over the top of Mam Tor. My legs felt tired from the start, but I managed to keep to schedule reasonably comfortably for about 28 miles, at which point I really started feeling rather ill. The last 12 miles were about the worst I’ve ever felt in a race. I was so tired, I couldn’t keep anything down but water, and people started passing me in the last 5 or 6 miles. I’ve never been more pleased to see the end of a race. I still finished within my target of 8 hours though, in 7h 45m, 56th overall out of 160, and 3rd out of 26 male supervets, so I must be a bit fitter than I was this time last year.
And now I’m recovering again, resting up, hoping to be in a fit state to take 15 mins off last year’s time in the Sandstone Trail race. And yes, I am doing the A race, but please don’t suggest any more Ultras for a while!
[Andy told us earlier about his particular niche in Fancy a longer a run?]