Some races you enter with great expectations on your performance, and you build up your training over the preceding weeks and months building up to the event. Other races – although still important – you never really get going and its race day before you even settle into training. This was one of those races, except it wasn’t it was a 50-mile ultra-marathon.
We (as in Tom and myself – the way things are going this blog may need to be renamed “Ross and Tom do increasingly stupid shit”) arrived at Gower Cricket Club at half five, and I am so undercooked I am barely even defrosted. After a few nervous poos and a last-minute bag repack its time for the race brief – which barely registers – and time to get going. We leave the warmth of the clubhouse and enter the cold, wet darkness. As the rain teems down we are sent on our merry way out into the inky unknown. Almost as soon as we start the nerves dissipate and my bowels feel a little more secure. I promise this will be the last reference to my bowels/movements. Definitely, maybe.
The route is split into two distinctive sections. The first is mainly on tarmac, and the second mainly trail – and conveniently there is a bag drop at the checkpoint between the two sections.
The race starts with 500 metres of meandering single track before hitting a made path along the coast, after a short distance we cut off down a path and down a series of steps and behind a block of garages before coming out on to the main road through Mumbles. As we make our way through the Mumbles the lights from the shops and bars dances off the wet surfaces and puddles, its almost beautiful. Actually, it is beautiful; but I am slightly preoccupied by what is in store.
After about 6km, we turn off the road and join a cycle route that will take us up to the northern side of the Gower. As we gently climb we begin to try and incorporate a few walking breaks as we try to manage our early efforts. At this point I try to eat one of my breakfast burritos (which consist of banana, Nutella and peanut butter – it seemed like a good idea while I was making them), but after one bite I had to put it away again; it just wouldn’t go down, even after excessive chewing. Over the next few km I try to finish the burrito one bite at a time. I don’t even entertain the second one.
After an hour or so of tree lined cycle path – in the rain – we come out into a housing estate to find a group of runners waiting for checkpoint 1 to open, and after a short wait we give our number over to a marshal and make our way along the road. By this time the sun has begun to push away the gloom and we are treated to the kind of wonderful glow that you can only really appreciate when you get up disgustingly early in the morning – it is however still raining!Once out of the housing estate (think new build rather than Trainspotting) we spend a bit of time running along what I imagine what might be a main road at a more civilized time of day. I won’t lie, I found this section far tougher than I thought I would. Having not managed to eat much – neither before starting nor while running to this point – and knowing there was still 60km to go didn’t really help that matter. Most of the remaining stretch to checkpoint 2 is a montage of snippets. Quiet village here, another tree lined cycle path somewhere else and a long coastal road somewhere near the end.
I am relieved to reach checkpoint 2, if you ignore the hike-a-hill to get to it. Not only are my (well broken in – at that perfect balance between done miles but have miles left in them) trail shoes waiting for me, but also food. After changing shoes and socks I pack all the new food and grab a few Jaffa cakes and a fist full of frazzles on my way out. Once out of the checkpoint and onto the trails I feel much better. I’m still not sure what was the cause of the improvements. Shoes, terrain, the recently erupting sunshine or the frazzles; or just rose-tinted glasses. However, from where I’m sitting now this is the point where I begin to feel like I’m comfortable with what I’ve let myself in for. After a short stretch of wonderful single track and a bit of country lane we start to climb through some woods, before taking a spur into an open grassy field. Once across we go through a gate into a second field. This one seems to have been churned up by a battalion of cattle on special manoeuvres. It’s along here I brave my fist savory burrito, and I can’t relay how relieved I was that it went down like a dream. Happy days. We continue to pass fields and thickets before coming out on a lane. We climb along the lane before dropping down to the salt marshes alongside the estuary.
Once alongside the estuary the route seems to flatten out for a while, with a series of paths running alongside each other with the odd path spurring off towards the estuary. It’s along this section that we are passed by the first of the late starters – making an hour and a half in 30-35 km. it’s easy to tell that they are the quicker runners from behind rather than someone from our start time having a good few minutes. It’s the way they glide, as smooth as butter hardly looking like they are having to work. Its sickening, they could at least pretend to be trying. I was feeling good (read not dying) at this point, but Tom later tells me he really struggled with this section.
Its not long before we reach picture postcard Gower, as we come to the end of the marshes we take a hard right through a gate (with the help of a rambler who has watched several runners pass it and come back) and up a climb steep enough to make
your eyelids fill with lactic acid. We top out and pass through another gate – where there is a miscommunication with a runner behind us and he nearly poleaxes himself by running straight into it. After a little plateau we climb again, coming out at the coffee shop in Llanmadoc. It takes a large amount of will power to run past the coffee shop -and associated cakes – and on to checkpoint 3 a few corners away. This checkpoint stop is probably our quickest; Electronic dib, top up drinks, bit of coke, handful of Frazzles and off we pop down the hill and off to the land of imposing sea cliffs and surf beaches.
This is the Gower’s money shot. We start running along a glorious stretch of single track atop of the cliffs. By now the rain has stopped and the sun is beginning to win the
weather war. As we come around the headland Rhossili beach comes into view, but there is still quite a bit of running before we even start running down towards the beach – never mind running along it. The descent down is so much fun, a few tight corners and switchbacks without being too technical. When we finally make contact with the sand we walk across the soft dry stuff in search of something a bit more compact. Once we find it we begin to run again.
This section is tough going mentally. As beautiful as this stretch of coastline is, the lack of features to act as distance markers took its toll. After a while it began to feel like the start of the beach was getting further away
but the end wasn’t getting any closer – like a bloody mirage in the desert. Finally, the end of the beach is upon us and we begin the climb up the other side. Rather than the wonderous switchbacks on the way down, the way up is a trudge straight up on a man-made path before tacking along the contours of the cliff to the top. Once topped out it’s a short run to checkpoint 4.
While at checkpoint 4 I finally take off my waterproof coat – having been using it solely as a wind shirt for hours (probably not actually hours). Once my coat is repacked and Frazzles are eaten we head off and carry on along the cliff top towards Worms Head
Watch Station, and as we turn to face the south coast proper the views are incredible. Cliffs, coves and golden beaches; people spend a fortune going abroad in search of places like this – calling it paradise. And here it is. Just outside Swansea of all places. We spend the next 10 km or so running along the rolling cliff top paths. This whole stretch is a real joy as the sun shines and the views seem to go on forever. That’s not to say its not tough because it is, but it managed to be both physically tough while mentally joyous.
While enjoying the flowing paths and the wonderful views there is a little nagging doubt. The first compulsory clip is coming up. I have been nervous about missing this unmanned check points since signing up for the race. As we get closer, we become more careful with our navigation – double checking our route choices. In reality the clip point is fairly easy to find. Maps carefully clipped, we make our way down a rocky path towards Port Eynon and checkpoint 5.
Before we get to the checkpoint there is a wonderful surprise waiting for us by the beach, the WAKs (that’s wives and kids) are waiting for us. The psychological boost from a quick kiss and a cuddle can’t be overestimated. After a quick chat Tom and I make our way to the checkpoint. This is the one we’d been looking forward to for a while (or I had at least), it was the hotdog checkpoint. We got our chips dibbed and made our food and drinks orders as the WAKs walked in. We probably stayed longer than we would have otherwise done – partly for the food but mostly the company. But there comes a point where we have to drag ourselves away.
Once we get going it’s a short stretch of rough road before we are running along a boardwalk through the sand dunes. The boards aren’t the nicest to run along, but they are certainly better than the dry soft sand. Before long the dunes end and the road is back. But then; the pretty is back. This section of the path is very reminiscent of the coastal path back home (between Plymouth and Wembury). Tom is obviously feeling pretty good along here and I just have to let him take the lead and try to hold his pace. This whole section seems to go by fairly quickly. It seems to go quickly anyway, but that could be due to a combination of amazing views and staring at the back of Tom’s shoes. Before we really realise we are close we come across two runners at the second compulsory clip stamping their maps.
Shortly after the clip point we enter a glorious stretch of wooded single track, and this time it’s my turn to feel good. There is absolutely no reason why I should suddenly be feeling the stronger of the two of us, it’s not all that long ago I was being towed along by Tom and nothing has changed. Except, now we are in the woods and I love woodland trails. I don’t run them very often, but once I’ve got my eye in I feel really comfortable spotting roots and winding around trees. After an initial section of flat, we climb a huge block of uneven steps before the fun, flowing wooded descent really starts. The flowing descent continues until we reach another set of rugged steps – this time down. Once down we pass a beautiful church nestles between the sea and the woods. Now, I’m not really a church goer, but I could see myself there on a Sunday morning.
To our right is the vast expanse of Oxwich beach, which we have to make our way across. We drop down to sea level and into the beach carpark to see our very own support crew waiting for us. After more hugging I get rid of the breakfast burrito that I have been carrying since 6am, and rewrap a piece of Tom’s Choco Mocha Cake, and off across the beach we head. Once again we head down towards the sea in search of firmer sand, and
once we do we’re off and running again. Unlike on Rhossili beach, we aren’t treated to hard sand all the way across, and before long it becomes a trudge along the beach. It begins to feel like the epic Trans-Saharan scenes from Ice cold in Alex. We cross a small bridge, about half way along, and continue our trudge through the sand. I think this is probably my lowest ebb of the whole day, as the going slows and the point we are aiming for doesn’t seem to be getting closer. We finally reach the point where we leave the beach and head into the dunes – missing a turning so we end up going further in than we should. What makes this worse is that there is a compulsory clip point in the dunes, which if we miss we will have to retrace back to the beach and start again. Luckily, after doing a large loop we end up at the clip point from a different direction. Major cock up averted, possibly due to luck rather than judgement. As we reach the point a group of 5 lads who we had been passing and been passed by for a good while reach the clip too – having come the right way. After chatting for a couple of minutes, one of the guys declares “I’m off for a piss or a shit, and at this point I don’t know which”. Much laughter and the low ebb of the beach and the sand dunes are behind me as we set off before discovering which option he went for. Once off the beach the path improves and we make our way to the 6th checkpoint. At the checkpoint we dab our chips and top up our water, and have a cup of the nicest cream of tomato soup I have ever had. After a bit of a chat with the 5 lads, who came in to the checkpoint shortly after us, we head of along a rough rocky trail and into another stretch of forest.
Before too long we come out of the forest, cross a stream before following it back towards the sea. It started off as a grassy meadow, but the sand pockets grew in size and frequency. We follow a sandy track, but turn off too early and end up having to cut across a golf course. Heavy of limb and slow of mind the risk of a golf ball to the head was probably reasonably high, but thankfully we traversed the pringle minefield in one piece.
We find the coastal path again and follow another boardwalk section through the sand dunes, until they stop at the bottom of what the north face of the Eiger would look like if it was made of sand. Up we trudge, the euphoria of the first beach sighting seems a very long time ago (mostly because it was a long time ago). With only 5 km between checkpoints 6 and 7, it’s not long after scaling the Eiger that we are at the final checkpoint.
The now time honoured protocol of dibbing my chip, then filling my face with Frazzles and Jaffa Cakes it followed by a cup, actually two cups, of coke. I don’t normally drink a lot of coke – or fizzy pop in general – so the surge from the sugar hit way pretty noticeable.
We leave the final checkpoint buoyed by how quickly we had got to that one, and set of in search of the final compulsory clip and the finish line. This final leg starts with some rolling commons, with swaths of gorse and paths fracturing off in every direction, luckily the main coastal path is obvious. As we get closer to the final clip we, once again, become very deliberate about our navigation. The clip points are strategically placed to prevent people from shaving the course – and I don’t want to shave the course especially not because of shit navigational decisions. There is only one place where we could have gone wrong, but with the daylight beginning to fail and our pace dropping we – definitely I – become unsure if we have missed it some way before we have reached it. After a few premature stops to double and triple check the map we find the last clip and mark our maps. With all the compulsory clips done, now it’s just the run in to the finish line.
The daylight finally fails – or more accurately we finally accept we need to put on our head torches again – as we are running along a technical part of the coast line. Once we get them on we are back at the races, the sense of being close to the finish line has given us both a bit of a lift. We continue to make steady, if slow, progress along the cliffs as we reel in and pass the odd headlight we can see in the distance. It’s a funny thing the effect of a rabbit can have while running; I am under no illusion that had there not been lights ahead of us our progress through here would not have been as quick. This happened entirely subconsciously too, neither Tom nor I mentioned trying to chase people down we just began to up the pace a little and take our turn with our noses in the wind. Tom may well read this and point out that is total horse crap and it was all me – and that wouldn’t surprise me, I can be a competitive soul sometimes.
This continues until we reach Caswell Bay – the penultimate bay in the race. We follow the high tide route that goes up a crappy little path out to the road and around the bay the long way. As we plod along the road we see the head torches of other runners who have missed the turning and taken the low tide route, coming out just ahead of us.
The rest of the way to Langland Bay is a blur, as we begin to feel the effect of exuberantly chasing people down when we felt like we were almost home and hosed. The finish feels a way away now and as we push on through the darkness. Once passed the sea front at Langland Bay it’s a hardtop path most of the way back to the finish. Usually I would be running on the edges of the path to try to preserve the tread on my trail shoes, but not now. I seem to be feeling a bit better than Tom is at this point so I try to set a steady pace. We are both pretty much out on our feet and make ridiculous decisions – like running up the hills and walking down them. This section feels like it takes forever, it’s completely dark by now and we seem to be running the same bit over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day in trail shoes.
Eventually we reach the bit of single track that started the whole thing, and that was it. So, 500m or so of trail running to finish off the Gower 50 ultra-marathon all to the backdrop of pissed kids somewhere in the darkness. We get to the last corner to find the WAKs waiting for us, round the corner and into the finishing straight with my kids, crossing the line in 14 hours, 14 minutes and change.
I’m not usually one of those happy clappy everyone’s a winner types. I like to see where I stack up in a race, and while I accept I am unlikely to ever, ever, win a race I think it’s good to see how you stack up. Not so much with this, I don’t care that I took nearly twice as long as the winner. Nor that it took over 2 hours longer than I had hoped. To be perfectly frank, with the amount of training I did in the run up I’m bloody ecstatic I got round under my own steam. Don’t get me wrong, if (when) I do another ultra I want to see some improvement, but at the moment I’m content. At the moment!