Falling back in love with ultra running

Over the past few months there have been times where I think I’m starting to fall out of love with running.  In the early days, running was such an easy thing to do…throw on some running clothes, lace up my trainers, strap my watch to my wrist and just get out there.  I really never appreciated just how easy running was back then.  Now getting out on a run can become a military operation, planned weeks in advance for a run which might end up being cut short due to lack of sleep (Me) or the spotting of a park on route (Oscar) !

This Saturday, running the South Downs Way 50 reminded me of everything I love about running though, and everything I love about running ultra distances in particular.

I was always going to sign up for the SDW50 this year.  The event had been my main running goal for 2017 – my comeback race from having a baby, booking the race was incentive to return to running and to hopefully feel more like ‘Me’ again once the baby had arrived, rather than just a ‘Mum’.  It worked.  I had a great race last year and, despite having to stop for 25 minutes on route to express(!) I continued to book races into my calendar, including the South Downs Way 100 for this year.

Knowing that the SDW100 was firmly booked in for June, it only made sense to enter the SDW50 again.  Those 50 miles (give or take a couple) are the last 50 miles of the 100 mile race – and miles which I’ll likely be running in darkness next time round.  Having refreshed my memory of the route this weekend I feel confident that I can navigate the miles again in nine weeks time in the dark along with the help of a strong headtorch!

I haven’t really been focusing on the SDW50 this year to be honest.  I’ve actually been a little blase about it all, with my main focus as the 100, closely followed by Milton Keynes Marathon at the start of May where I hope to PB.  I’ve run the 50 before, and know that I can complete the distance.  However, I was a little on edge going in to this event as so many runners from my club of a similar speed to me would also be running the race, with six of them going for the Grand Slam of four Centurion 50 mile events across the year.  Last year I didn’t feel pressured to run at anybody’s pace or to perform a certain way, but this year I worried that I would end up running with one of the other runners from my club or would stress myself into trying to keep up with them.  I’m much slower over road races than all of the others who were there.  Don’t get me wrong – I love chatting to other runners when out on the course, but I hate feeling like I need to keep up with somebody’s pace, or hang back with them when actually that section suits me really well and I can run easily along it.  I race much better when I’m running on my own, even though I always find other runners to chat to along the way.

Friends Kev and Gary were crewing us all and so Kev arrived in his van outside my house to collect me a little before 4:30am on Saturday morning.  I’d set my alarm for 3:30am that morning but definitely hit the snooze button after Oscar decided to wake for a (very unlike him) two hour party at 12:30am.  Tip number one if you’re thinking about running an ultra…don’t live with a toddler!

After picking up another three runners along the way we arrived with the perfect amount of time before the start.  Kit check, numbers on, loo trip, drink, snack, bags on and a walk to the start.

South Downs Way 50 startline

It was lovely to finally meet Lauren properly after having cheering her on at Milton Keynes Marathon a few years back and also to bump into Ally as well, who I also saw at the finish for a chat.  Both ran amazing races in super fast times.  Lauren is also running the 100 later on this year like me and Ally is running the next Centurion 50 mile event in a few week’s time – the North Downs Way.

South Downs Way 50 startline

There was time for a quick photo of our club runners before the off and then followed a gentle jog to the gap in the field, with a bottleneck!South Downs Way 50 WDAC lineup

I felt good from the get go and having started right at the back, the pace was easy.  I didn’t rush to get past anyone, although I saw plenty of others jostling for positions.

South Downs Way 50 starting at the back

(Screenshot of the bottleneck taken from a video shared on the Centurion Facebook group)

About a mile in I started to regret having a peanut butter smothered bagel as a snack less than an hour before the race start.  I had eaten a bowl of porridge with blueberries when I first woke but knew I would need a top-up snack before the run, as I had already been up for so long that morning.  Turns out, a bagel was not the snack I required and I needed a loo stop from early on, on a course when I knew there was barely any course coverage!

Other than the first couple of miles (when everyone was stuck behind other runners along narrow sections anyway), it is fairly easy going until the first checkpoint at mile 11.  My strategy at checkpoints is to grab what food I need, have the lid of my water bottle unscrewed ready for topping up if needed and get in and out as quickly as possible.  Why hang around when you could be moving?!  It wastes time and means you end up getting stiff.  At this first checkpoint I grabbed a couple of grapes and some cheese sandwiches before moving on.  Fruit and cheese sandwiches are always winners for me during an event!  I’d already eaten half of a cocoa orange nakd bar on the way to this checkpoint, and grabbed a carton of chocolate milk out of my bag as I made my way up the hill along the other side of the road.

South Downs Way 50 the first big hillI’m aware that these pictures don’t make the hill look too ‘hilly’, but trust me, it was!  And, just like last year, the photographer was perched up at the top taking photographs!South Downs Way 50 the first big hillAnother runner struck up conversation when he spotted I was wearing the event t-shirt from last year and I ran with him for a few miles until he told me he needed to slow down.
Mile 15 was our first crew ‘checkpoint’ and I felt slightly guilty for not stopping as I waved at Kev and Gary as they stood cheering me by.  I passed two of the runners from my club here as they had stopped to top up on supplies from our crew.  There was just one from my club ahead now, which really surprised me and I knew wouldn’t last.  (Although I later surprised myself by coming in as 3rd runner of our 7).

Not long after this we headed slightly downhill through a small wooded section and I almost ran into the back of another runner who had squatted down on the path to pee!

Checkpoint two at mile 16 was in a slightly different location this year and I walked in, got some Tailwind, watermelon, more cheese sandwiches and made my way back out again in less than 30 seconds.  Smooth going!  I still felt good.

There were a couple of rather steep hills between checkpoints two and three at 26 miles.  There were also several runnable sections too which I made sure to take advantage of.  The course really suits me as it has rolling hills – dictating which sections to walk.  I usually really struggle mentally and also with my consistency over long flat sections, but had no problems with these this time round, which I’m putting down to the large number of miles logged on my treadmill this Winter!

South Downs Way 50

The third checkpoint was where I had stopped to express last year and this year, where I finally spotted a portaloo to use!  I grabbed some chocolate chip cookies, MORE cheese sandwiches and watermelon, Tailwind and topped up my water.  All in all I think I stopped for about 5 minutes here, but it was 5 minutes well spent.

South Downs Way 50

I knew I was having a good race and used the climb following this aid station to check in with Dan.  He hadn’t realised that he could track me online and so I let him know how to do this.  He also let me know that ‘Oscar’ had sent me a good luck video earlier that morning.  I had turned my internet off in order to save battery but after hanging up with Dan I quickly checked WhatsApp to find a lovely little video where Oscar waved madly at me, said “Sit down Mumma!” and then gave the camera a kiss!  It definitely made me smile.

South Downs Way 50

For the next aid station you have to cross over a set of railway tracks.  Oh how I’m going to love all those steps at mile 84 of the 100 mile version of the race(!)  I knew I needed more Tailwind here but couldn’t see any on display so asked one of the volunteers for some.  She told me that I was lucky, and they had just a little left.  Taking a few gulps from my bottle after being topped up I spluttered out that she could definitely make it go further by watering it down more…it was super strong!

I nicknamed the next section ‘Australia’ last year as the views, with the sun disappearing behind the hills reminded me of scenes I’ve only seen in programs about Australia.  This year though, the sun was still high in the sky (albeit hidden behind clouds!)

South Downs Way 50 It also definitely looked less Australia-like this year!South Downs Way 50The last two checkpoints follow in quick succession; starting with a lovely little pitstop in Alfriston at 41.6 miles with indoor seats to perch on for a few minutes.  This checkpoint is quickly followed by the final checkpoint at Jevington just four miles later.  It’s perched high up some steps alongside the road and I felt rather bad that I just called up the hill to thank the volunteers, continuing on my way rather than stopping in, but I didn’t need anything with only four miles to go and thought it better to keep moving at this point.

I strongly made the final climb up to the Trig point and started to make my way along the narrow, slippy path back down towards Eastbourne.  The clouds were threatening to rain at this point, and we’d been very lucky with the weather until now.  I had twice put on my jacket for the odd spitting shower but the temperature was fairly warm, and the rain never really stuck around.  It had made the rocks on this section rather slippery though.  This being the most technical section on the whole course.  My hamstrings had a few spasms along this section and out loud I told my legs they needed to co-operate for just a little longer…pretty please!

In my head I had secretly hoped to run 25 minutes faster than my time last year (12h 06m).  25 minutes was the amount of time I had stopped to express so I thought it was probably fairly achievable for me to gain back those minutes in my finishing time this year.  As I reached the bottom of the hill though and broke into a faster run I realised I would most likely go sub 11h 30m.

Running and maths never work and despite being just two miles from the finish now and having been out on the course for 10h 40m I was convinced I would have to run really fast to go sub 11h 30m.  Mile 48 ticked by starting with a 12:xx and I realised that actually, I should probably be targeting 11:15 instead.

I still felt really good.  No pains, no aches, I’d fuelled well, I was still running!  In fact, other than road crossings and twice when I walked a handful of steps, I ran pretty much the whole of the last two miles, passing several other runners along the way and changing my target at the last minute to 11:10 – coming into the stadium to the most glorious sunset.  It was honestly the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen and I really regret not asking somebody to take a photo of me in front of it after crossing the finish line.  Unfortunately my official finisher photo, despite showing colour, definitely does not do the sky justice as the photographer was using a flash so that I was the focus of the photo.

I could not stop beaming as I ran around the track!  I’d picked the pace up for the track finish, although definitely not enough to be considered a sprint finish!

As I turned the corner at the bottom of the stadium I noticed that opposite the gorgeous sunset, was a gigantic rainbow.  What a lovely finish arch!

South Downs Way 50 finish archI took this shot a few minutes after I finished but I wish I had taken more pictures, and actually of something, rather than just randomly pointing in the direction of the sun!

Looking on the Centurion Running Community Facebook page yesterday, I found these two images which another runner had taken which give a much better impression of the view we finished to…

SDW50 sky pictures

South Downs Way 50 sunset

It tipped it down not long after I finished and I was glad to bump into Nic, who had finished about ten minutes ahead of me and who had the keys to Kev’s van so that I could grab some warm clothes.  I took a quick picture with my medal in the fading light and queued up for my free sausage bap and hot drink, unsure of how long the other 4 runners from my club would take to come in.

South Downs Way 50 medalOfficial time: 11h 7m 22s
Position: 277/353
Gender position: 52/81
Category (senior female) position: 21/35

Turns out I took quite a lot of steps that day(!)

South Downs Way 50 Garmin step count

The EnduranceLife Gower Marathon (Pt 2)

(If you missed the first part of my recap of the 2017 Gower Marathon, you can find it here.)

Although it had been fairly windy at the start of the race, I had been able to take my jacket off a few miles in.  It wasn’t really cold, and we never had any rain actually during the race at all, although from talking to friends afterwards, both the ultra runners and the half marathoners got some light rain during their run.

I had wrapped my jacket up into a little ball, encasing my phone, and then jammed it into my bag, hoping that despite all the padding my phone would still track the miles I ran using the Strava app, although I wasn’t too worried if it didn’t.  Annoyingly, this meant that I couldn’t really take any photos out on the course during the day though, and I also never really knew at what mileage point I was on the course.  From the position of aid stations and the pace I knew I was roughly running at I could kind of work out how many miles I had run, but it’s not quite the same as having a Garmin beep to tell you each time you’ve ticked off another mile!  The EnduranceLife aid stations are also quite good in that they display a large board showing what mile the aid station is situated at and how many miles you have until you reach the next checkpoint.  I guess the marshals get these two questions a lot!  Perhaps this is an idea we could nab to add to the ultra checkpoints for Go Beyond events too?  I’ve just put my name down to marshal at Country to Capital again next year.

I had been debating whether or not to wear my new pair of trails for the run.  I say ‘new pair’, – they must have run about 100 miles or so by now – but as my feet are quite wide, I find it takes several runs in a pair of trainers before I don’t feel the pressure across the top of my foot from when my feet expand during a long run.  I paused not long after my fall to loosen the laces over the arch of my foot and tighten the laces higher up instead and this seemed to ease the pressure.

I didn’t stop at the first checkpoint.  There were a large number of people already spread out around the table and I didn’t want to waste any time getting to the cut off point at mile 19.9.  I just dibbed in, grabbed some jelly babies and left again.  I kept trying to work out at what point I was on the course by landmarks and the time of day, as I was still rather concerned about making the shortened cut off time.  We came down a very steep and muddy hill onto a blind bend section of road.  I think perhaps it was at about mile 8.  There was a marshal here – ensuring runners could stop their legs in time before hitting the road.  We turned sharply to the left, took the next right hand road turn and then climbed a stile into a field and were away again.  As I ran down the hill I asked the marshal at what mile point we were at currently.  She told me mile 12.5, with a half mile to go until the next checkpoint.  This confused me a lot.  I know that I definitely had not run 12.5 miles of a course with hills like that in under two hours!  And it then took a further hour for me to reach the next checkpoint which definitely hadn’t been only half a mile away!

EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017I paused briefly at the second checkpoint to get my water bottle topped up and to grab a couple of custard creams.  I never buy custard creams but after EnduranceLife events I always think I should probably run with them at my next race.

The second beach was much easier and shorter than I remembered and once again I managed to run steadily across the whole distance.  As you come off of the second beach you are greeted by hundreds and hundreds of uneven steps heading uphill through the woods.  They are really tough going and I had completely forgotten just how much they take it out of you at this point on the marathon.  I had not long told another runner that they worst part of this event was over now, with all of the major hills early on in the course!

Gower gully steps in the wood(Picture taken part way up the steps back in 2015.)

I ran up behind a family along the steps and heard them say “Move aside, there’s a runner coming up”, to which I responded in between rather heavy breaths… “I’m not doing much running I’m afraid!”
The journey back down is not much better as you can’t really find your stride with all of the steps being at different heights and lengths.  I was glad for that section to be over!

Soon I had made it to the third and final beach.  You need to run along a rather loose, sandy section before crossing a bridge and making it over onto the full beach.  This section seemed to go on forever.

Gower marathon scenery(Photo from the 2014 event.)

I crossed the bridge at 2:05pm, knowing that the 19.9 mile checkpoint was at the far end of the beach and that official cut off for the race was at 2:15pm.  I wanted my legs to hurry, but at the same time I didn’t want to hurry them so much that they burnt out and I had to keep stop-starting across the sand.  As I saw the time on my Vivofit get ever closer to 2:15pm I figured I could probably blag my way by 5 minutes or so.  Perhaps 10?  My watch changed to 2:16pm just as I pulled off the beach and turned towards the checkpoint.  I had made it!

I paused to top up both bottles here, and having made the one and only cut off in time I rewarded myself with a long walk and a chance to pull my pretzels from the bag on my back.  I’d devoured two Clif bars early into the race, and eaten the custard creams at the last checkpoint, but I’d been craving salty pretzels for the last few miles and daren’t waste the time stopping to rearrange my bag.  The pressure was now off though!  I could walk the rest of the way and would still be ticking off my thirteenth marathon before the day was out.  Having pushed it (although comfortably) I knew I would be in with a good chance of beating my previous time on the course as well, even if I did end up deciding to walk the rest of the way!

After quarter of a mile I was ready to run again, and so held onto my bag of pretzels and set off.  I had passed several people at the final checkpoint, – I’m guessing people who were also rewarding themselves for making the cut off in time!  We then went on to play leap frog a few times for several miles as we took it in turns to pass each other.  Although I don’t have any pictures of the course on the day, we did walk the final 7 miles of the course on the Sunday on our trip over to the pub (and back again!) so I took some pictures then, which I’ll share in a separate post.

The final checkpoint was the point at which I (along with several others due to the poor weather) was pulled last time I ran the event in 2015, and I was surprised how much of the course I remembered having not run this section since 2014.  There are several steep, slippery climbs where you need to use hands to help yourself up, but also a few longer sections of grassy trail where you can make up a little bit of time.

Annoyingly, my phone died at mile 25.3, so I couldn’t take my traditional photo of the ‘One mile to go’ sign.

Gower elevation(The grey is the elevation, and blue line my pace.)

A mile before the finish I saw a familiar shape hobbling towards me.  Kev, the guy who had persuaded me to run my first ultra back in 2013 and who has been super supportive of my running journey ever since made his way back along to track to give me a hug and fill me in on how the others had gotten on in their races.EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017Kev and another injured runner, Sandra, had been stood on the final mile post for hours, seeing everybody through to the finish.  The other runners from our club had all had a fairly good day, with just Tracey dropping down from the marathon to the half on route as planned, and Tom dropping from the ultra down to the marathon due to an existing injury.

Official time: 7h 03m 53s
Position: 125/129

I had beaten my previous time by more than half an hour.

It absolutely tipped it down just as I crossed the finish line where I bumped into James, the other marathon finisher from our club who had been back for 25 minutes or so.  We waited the worst of it out under the comfort of the marquee before making our way back to the cottages to a cheer from the runners who had already returned back, showered and eaten!  We were the last to return, so once showers were had it was time to really start our weekend away!

Do you like to take pictures during your races?
Have you used the Strava app on your phone to record your runs?

The EnduranceLife Gower Marathon (Pt 1)

When people say they are put off joining a running club I find it such a shame.  Joining my running club was definitely one of the very best things I ever did, and it helped me to fall in love with running.
My running club are so supportive, helpful and friendly…and they hold a huge amount of social events and weekends away too!

I first went on the November Gower weekend away in 2014, although the yearly trip had already been running for a few years before I first joined in.  I ran my sixth marathon that weekend, – my first one on trail.

I headed back to run the marathon in 2015, although poor weather (horrific hill fog, hail and wind) meant that a large number of us were pulled from the course when it was deemed too unsafe to run along the edge of the cliffs for the final few miles of the race.

Last year Oscar was only a few weeks old, and although I obviously loved spending time as part of our new little family unit, I still really missed the yearly getaway with other runners from my club.

My name was one of the first on the list for Gower this year and, no longer tied down to term time hours through school, I was able to go for the full weekend this year for the first time.  Traveling down on the Friday morning, and returning at lunchtime on the Monday.  Oscar usually attends nursery on a Friday and I just added a one-off extra nursery day to his routine on the Monday for this week as well.

Once again, this year I entered the marathon distance.  In total for the weekend, there were two others from our club running the marathon, one running the ultra, thirteen running the half marathon, two running the 10k distance, two injured runners who had decided to support as they were no longer able to run and one runner’s Mum.
We had quite the crowd in our three large cottages for the weekend!

Oscar’s nursery had messaged me earlier in the week to say that for Children in Need they were going to host a breakfast for parents along with their children on the Friday morning, so I loaded up my car that morning with running gear as my tummy rumbled away.  Not having to feed either Oscar or myself was a big timesaver as I had spent all morning finishing off my packing, but I was HUNGRY by the time I arrived outside the nursery doors at 7:30am.  I passed several parents walking back out in the other direction as I arrived but thought nothing of it, assuming they had been unable to get an hour off from work for the charity event.  It wasn’t until I arrived inside and realised that there were no other parents in sight that I must have gotten the week wrong!  I hurriedly made an excuse about having not been able to give Oscar any breakfast that morning, so he still needed to be fed and rushed out to Tesco to pick something up for me!  Turns out the breakfast event is this Friday instead!

It did mean that I arrived at my friend Steph’s house (who I was giving a lift to) in plenty of time and we had set away long before 9:30am though.  When usually, I would most likely have been late!  😉

We had a fairly easy journey, and even passed a car containing three of our runners along the way (although they still managed to arrive before us!)

When we arrived at the cottages there was enough time to all hang out for a bit and grab a quick drink before walking the mile down to Rhossili for dinner at the pub.  Those who couldn’t take the day off work on the Friday joined us at the pub for food and drinks as soon as they arrived.

Alarms were set before bed and I woke feeling rather refreshed on Saturday morning at 6:30am, having slept right through the night.

I walked the mile to the Race HQ along with one of the other marathon runners, the ultra runner, and our support crew of two.  We made our way down the road with a slight wind behind us, occasionally glancing up at the steep hills around which we knew were part of the marathon route, arriving to a long queue of runners snaking out of the registration tent.  Spots of rain had begun and all we wanted to do was to huddle up in the tent until our race was due to begin!  Tom, our ultra runner was fast tracked through the queue, as the briefing for the ultra race was now imminent. When it was my turn to pass through the registration desk process it became apparent that the marshals were unable to locate my chip, so ended up changing my race number – crossing the number off my hand, and giving me a brand new race number with my details written on in marker pen.

Having declared how much I love the Clif bars to several others before the race, I managed to acquire three in total from friends which I then tucked away into my bag for the race! :)  Winning!

The ultra runners were late setting off meaning that us marathon runners were very late starting our race briefing.  The briefing then seemed to last forever.  I, along with a few others were getting rather agitated by the time the briefing had finished and the race director told us to congregate at the start line in about 5 minutes time.  (Why not head straight to the start now?  We were already 20 minutes past our start time!)

One of the marathon runners from our club was concerned about the cut off times on the course so, as we now had a further 5 minutes to wait for the start, she headed over to look at the course map to see if it would be possible to turn off at the half marathon marker point instead, and if so, at what point that fell on the course.  As we headed over, I heard another female runner in discussion with the RD over what time the cut off was. He was reminding her that we needed to arrive by 2:15pm – 5 hours 15 minutes – at mile 19.9 on the course.  I butted in and asked if the 2:15pm cut off would actually be extended to reflect the fact that we were now so late starting the race and was told that no, it wouldn’t.  That there would be plenty of time to cover the ground if we were to run all the flats and downhills on the course.  Knowing the course, and knowing how technical the downhills on the route are, I knew that having 4 hours and 45 minutes to get to 20 miles would actually be a tough ask for plenty more runners than just me.

EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017

I was a little antsy as I stood on the start line waiting for the start of the race, knowing that half an hour of my time to get to the one and only cut off point at mile 20 had already been taken up by the briefing.  To add to things, when I had turned my Garmin on during briefing, it had flashed ‘Low battery’ at me repeatedly, before turning off.  I decided to try and use the Strava app on my phone to record my run – something which I hadn’t done before.

EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017

We bottlenecked as we all left the field before heading down a little farm track.

The first year I had run the marathon course the start line had actually been located at Middleton, the village we stay in.  (The start was literally right opposite our cottages.  We rolled out of bed and headed over for our numbers still in our pyjamas that year!)  But since 2015 the course has started further up the road, meaning that the first sharp hill is now very early on in the course.  One of my strengths is uphills.  I have long legs and can use them to my advantage to power up past those runners around me.  Much harder when you are still surrounded by all the other runners though, and it was difficult to get into any real stride here.

It didn’t last forever though and we did space out a little after this.  With so few of us from my running club running the marathon this year, this would be the first year where I was running the course completely on my own (something which I usually prefer), and I was surprised that at no point during the 28 miles of the marathon was I ever not in sight of another runner.

Coming back down the other side of that first hill is rather tough.  The descent is steep, with rocks sticking out in random places and a stream usually pours out of the side of this hill, although I didn’t see any evidence of that this year.  I saw one woman whose dog was attached to her waist actually leave the ground and go slamming into the hillside as the dog took off at a faster pace than her legs could keep up.  She got up and released the dog before continuing.
It must be an amazing sight to see the serious front runners agilely run down this first hill.  Most of the runners around (me included) were cautiously picking their way down the less slippy parts and looking less than impressive!

You hit the first beach of three around mile 3.5.  I passed the other female marathon runner from our club just before arriving at the sand.  I hate running along the beach.  These beaches are wide enough that you have plenty of space to pick your running line – along the grassland at the top or down by the shore.  The sand was actually fairly firm mid-way along and so I stuck to this line, along with the majority of other runners.  The beaches on this course are my nemesis and the point at which I lost my running mates last time I ran the event.
The beach stretches out far into the distance.  My pace always begins to pick up automatically as it sees the longest flat piece of ground it has done for a while and I really struggle to either hold myself back, or be able to maintain the pace my body wants me to run at.

This year I decided that I wasn’t going to let the beaches defeat me, and I was actually going to maintain a steady pace across all three, which I did manage to do, passing several runners who had chosen to walk sections of the sand along the way.  Running events like these it becomes all about the mind games, and I won on this occasion!

After the beach there was another short climb and then we were out onto grassland again.

EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017EnduranceLife Gower marathon 2017

We ran for a little way along a boardwalk made up of short planks to act as a path for pedestrians cut into the sandy track.  We had been warned that it would be slippy here.  The track was fairly narrow and there were still lots of runners around at this point.  The wooden slats were pretty uneven and jutted up in several places.  I figured that as they were so uneven I wouldn’t be able to slip on them.
That was a mistake.  I slipped and went down hard onto my knee.  (My knee is sporting a fantastic dark-coloured bruise now.)  Both the guy in front of me and the one behind checked that I was OK before continuing after I went down.  I got up quickly and could feel the stiffness in my leg immediately, limping briefing for a few strides before it loosened up.

(I’ll get the rest of the race recap up later this week)

Have you fallen during a race before?
Do you prefer up or downhill running?

Pembrokeshire Coastal Marathon – a long overdue race report

It was the first Bank holiday in May when I drove the 271 miles to Pembrokeshire for the EnduranceLife Coastal trail marathon, my eleventh marathon event.

Every year our club heads to Gower for a weekend in November to take part in the EnduranceLife coastal events (10k/half/marathon/ultra).  I was unable to attend last year as Oscar was only a few weeks old, so when there was talk of another race weekend away being organised I signed myself up without too much hesitation.

Oscar was actually only a few weeks old when I put my name down on the Pembrokeshire cottage list.  I was fairly confident that I would be back running marathon distances again by the time he was seven months old.  With EnduranceLife events, they allow you to adjust distances on the day of the event, so there would be the opportunity to drop down to the half marathon if necessary, especially as I knew by this point that I would have run the South Downs Way 50 just three weeks earlier and my legs might well be feeling the miles by then!

I almost backed out of the run at the start of the week itself though.  In fact, had Milton Keynes still been taking entries for the Marathon on the Monday (Pembrokeshire was on the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend), I would have swapped events, and just forfeited my £50 for the accommodation and £50 for the Pembrokeshire marathon and run MK instead.  At the time I just didn’t fancy the hassle of driving all that way when there was a marathon pretty much on my doorstep!

It wasn’t until he was eight months old that breastfeeding started to become less of an issue as Oscar ate more and more real food, but back in May I still had to spend the week beforehand expressing every morning and evening in order to leave Oscar enough milk for my time away, and then I had to express several times a day whilst I was away in order just to feel comfortable.  It was also a ridiculously long drive to Pembrokeshire!  Why do I never check the distance to these events before I sign up?!  The sat-nav said it would take nearly five hours to get there, but in reality I left my house at 4pm on the Friday night, picked up another lady from my running club in the next town, dropped Oscar off at Dan’s work, had one brief stop for the loo and dinner and we didn’t arrive until 11:15pm that night.  It was a very tiring journey!  Apparently Gower is a similar length trip, but I’ve always gotten lifts with others so having to drive myself this time made the journey feel much, much longer.  I was glad that I had company for the ride at least.

The cottages were lovely.  We had two, which faced each other across a courtyard.  Most of the other club members had traveled up earlier in the day on Friday and were already in bed by the time Margaret and I arrived.  There were ten runners in our cottage, and a similar number in cottage number two across the courtyard.  Our cottage was the central meeting point though and we had all put £10 into a pot towards house supplies – toilet roll, coffee, tea, wine, cider, and all the foods for the cupboard you could think of.  We never went hungry!

It was a fairly early start for all on the Saturday morning.  I was sharing a room with two other club members running the marathon distance and we took it in turns to jump into the attached bathroom before changing into our race kit and heading downstairs for breakfast.

The different distance events begin at different times.  This year there was nobody from our club running the ultra – so as marathon runners, we were the first to be bused the couple of miles to the start by our non-running partners.

WDAC at Pembrokeshire marathon

There were ten of us running the marathon, which caused a bit of a headache getting down to the start in just two cars.  We ended up piling six runners into our car alongside the driver!  It was very tricky getting back out of the doors again when we arrived at race HQ!

WDAC at Pembrokeshire marathon

The start of EnduranceLife events are very organised.  They remind me a little of the way you walk round IKEA stores – you follow the tape and have to visit each section of the race HQ.  You sign to say you’ve read the rules, you collect your number and your chip, you pick up a t-shirt and are given a Clif bar.  I would run these events just for the Clif bar.  And the Builder’s bar at the finish.  Best bars ever!  I wouldn’t normally buy either on a regular basis as my weekly shopping budget doesn’t stretch that far, but in the future I think I might enter a few more EL events purely for the bars! 😉

The race briefings are always long, and we milled around outside the start for what felt like ages waiting for the ultra runners to set off before it was our turn to be called over and talked through our course.  It was a bit drizzly by this point and so I put on my new waterproof.  I had bought it for the South Downs Way 50 but it had been boiling sunshine on raceday a few weeks earlier and the waterproof really hadn’t been required, despite being on the kit list.  It was probably the most money I’ve ever spent on a jacket though, so I was determined to get some use out of it!

Pembrokeshire marathon

The start was right down at the bottom of a boat entrance into the sea.  There were quite a few dogs in the marathon who were all rather excited by this point and barking madly away, ready to get going.  I placed myself just in front of the dogs at the back, and as we were waiting for the gun to go a large wave swooshed up the ramp and covered the poor dog and some of the runners right at the very back!

Pembrokeshire marathon

The race began on a rather steep uphill.  I think I was probably the first person to walk, but I ended up overtaking a number of runners who insisted on running whilst still so early on into the race.  There was a bottleneck as we headed through a narrow kissing gate a mile in and then we were out onto the coastal path.

Pembrokeshire marathon

The scenery on the EnduranceLife events is absolutely stunning.  This event was only graded as a 2/5 for difficulty.  (As a comparison, Gower is a 3/5 and South Devon which I ran a few years ago is a 4/5.)

Pembrokeshire marathonI found this one the least enjoyable of the three and the hardest for me though.  The coastal tracks along the cliff path were all incredibly narrow and with feet as wide as mine it was incredibly difficult for me to get into any sort of running rhythm when all I was doing was swinging my feet round in front of each other onto the same line all the time.  It also made looking up at the scenery very difficult, as I was forever having to watch my footing.

Pembrokeshire marathon(It doesn’t look too bad in this photo, as there is grass either side of the track, but there were large sections where the track was actually a narrow gully between rocks, which wasn’t quite so nice to run on.)

Pembrokeshire marathon

There were four checkpoints on the course.  The first checkpoint was also the fourth, when on the return journey to the town of St Brides.  I ran past the first checkpoint, not bothering to dip off the track and top up any food or water supplies as I didn’t need them that early into the event.

Pembrokeshire marathon

There were cows blocking the path at one point, and I nervously slowed down to a walk, making my way as calmly as possible through the herd which were stood grazing alongside the race signage.

Pembrokeshire marathon

I ran for a little way chatting with a lady who had spent some time running with two others from my club further back in the race.  She was much faster than me and dragged me along for a couple of miles before I insisted that she push on.  I ran those couple of miles much faster than I otherwise would have done, and ended up feeling rather rubbish because of it.

Pembrokeshire marathon

From about 16 miles in to the race I hated the event.  I think it was somewhere around this point that ultra runners began coming past me.

Pembrokeshire marathon

I’ve never hated a race before but three hours in and I was ready to have finished this marathon and be back in Northamptonshire with Oscar and Dan for the remainder of the bank holiday weekend.  I really was not enjoying the race and the times that I was able to run on the stupid narrow track were only run because it meant I would be done sooner.

I made a point of taking lots of pictures and chatting to everybody I saw to try and make things more enjoyable.  Part of my hating the race was due to spending my first weekend away from my new little family, part was getting dragged along by the woman I’d run with for a while, and I think a big part of me was also really missing all of the weekend chatty trail miles with friends I had missed out on in the run up to the event.

As I power walked up a super steep slope just before mile 19 a jolly guy walking in the other direction joked that there was an icecream van at the top.  I laughed at his comment, but then desperately hoped that he had been telling the truth, because all I really wanted right then was an ice lolly!

Pembrokeshire marathon

Luckily, he was telling the truth, and as I neared the top of the slope I could see in the distance a little white van.  I worried briefly that the old five pound note I handed over in exchange for my lolly wouldn’t be accepted as legal currency, but it turns out that they were still legal for a few more days yet.  I think the desperation on my face for an ice lolly at mile 19 of a marathon would have been enough for the icecream van man to offer me icecream, money or not though!

Pembrokeshire marathonI enjoyed that lolly for a good half mile or so, much to the amusement of a couple of passing ultra runners!

Pembrokeshire marathon

Despite knowing that the distance would be a fair way over a marathon, I was waiting to spot the finish gantry every metre after my watch beeped to signify 26 miles.  I was ready to be DONE.

Pembrokeshire marathon

My watch showed 27.9 miles when I finally crossed the line.

Official time: 6:38:51
Position: 114/124

I crossed the finish line to see nobody I knew stood around the finish gantry.  I suddenly realised that with no signal on my phone and having not made plans earlier for how we were to all return to the cottage again, I had no idea what to do next.  I wasn’t even sure of the nameof our cottage or the village it was in and it had been pitch black when I’d arrived the previous evening so I had no idea of it’s surroundings at all!

I did remember that at least two other members of our club were still behind me, so decided to make my way out of the wind and down the hundreds of steps back towards the race HQ.  (Who puts so many steps directly following the end of a marathon?!)

As it turns out one of the half marathon runners drove past as I was perched outside the HQ.  She had been heading back to the cottages with a couple of other runners inside her car, so I squeezed in and joined them for the ride back, catching up on how everybody had gotten on.  Everybody had had a fairly successful day.  Just one DNF and one fall onto the rocks out on the course.

We were all ready for our post-race curry that night!

Have you been on a weekend away with other runners before?
Which of your races has had the prettiest scenery?