St Illtyds Ultra Trail Marathon is ran in the southern part of beautiful Wales, extends through the rugged rolling hills and steep sheep clad sheer climbs of the surrounding Swiss Valley. (7,405 ft or 2,257 m of elevation) You run through lush lavender rich meadows, and Boulevards full of what i can only describe as boulders! Starting and finishing at Burry Port, right where Amelia Earhart (the aviation pioneer and aviatrix) landed her plane after her solo flight over the Atlantic in 1932. This was one very tough ultra distance race to dip my toe into. Especially given my training and injury predicament!
I planned this race as my introduction into ultra distances because i was assured of a tough but well organised race. Organised by Nathan Flear and Tori Robinson i knew runners would be well catered for throughout the race and certainly there were no disappointments.
My training for the event had been unfortunately negligent at best. Due to a knee injury sustained by me kneeling on a hammer while attempting a swift peddle upgrade on my road bike. Having a bruised patella and a medial knee ligament issue, i struggled to run in the 3.5 weeks leading up to the race. I only saw a maximum of 13.3 painfully filled km’s of running a week before the race. I wasn’t confident at all and questioned whether i could run the course! It was throw caution to the wind effort time, give it a go, push yourself hard and see! I certainly wouldn’t advise that approach to anyone attempting these kind of events and i was very aware of the potential risks. To quote Amalia Earhart “The most effective way to do it, is to do it”.
We arrived in Burry Port the day before the race, settling down for an early night at Ashburnham Hotel because it was a short 0.7 miles from the Burry Port Yacht Club. I set up my Garmin map and viewed the route to be sure of the pattern. Interestingly this hotel is where Amelia Earhart stayed the night she landing her plane. If she could fly the Atlantic, solo, i could surely run for 50 or so km with a painful left knee, right!? I hoped so!
Due to my knee pain i knew i needed to do the most i could be be competitive, i had an ultrasound on the knee a few days before the race, iced, elevated it and even took NSAID’s! Now it was race day, i needed to be smart in this race as well as be relaxed and comfortable being in pain and uncomfortable from the very first step. At breakfast we ate with other like minded sane lunatic’s who had laughter and banter which was good to settle the nerves. This due my attention to the finer details, ones that maybe could give me the slightest edge!
I thought about the load my knee needed to carry, how much i really needed, how much too much would hinder me, i already had pain relief and salt tablets scheduled in to my race plan but now i thought about fighting light and freezing at night. I took the aggressive decision to only add 3/4 pt of water into my camel pack, i removed my light weight jacket as it was a sweltering 22 degrees, i also ditched my 2 extra fuel bars opting to only take 1 fuel option that would be taken strategically during the race. This all meant i was as light as possible. I planned to finish my water completely by the half way turn point where i would reload for the return leg only using the aid stations on my return. I felt this meant i could be as light and as efficient as possible.
Personal admin tactics decided. Now it was time to think race tactics! I had no idea who was “in the race” to win or be strong, who i could follow or try to stick with, before the race briefing i looked around, listened in and a fair few looked the part well prepared and hungry to do well. I spoke to Nathan who knew i wasn’t in the best of shape but was complementary all the same, i explained i did have a distant time of 8 min miles as an average pace, i knew this would be “advantageous” but also wanted to gauge his reaction, with a laugh and a tap on the back i got the reply, ” If you can hold 8 min miles on this course you’ll be one of the first one back”. This tone of a tough day at the office to come was echoed in Nathans pre-race briefing, among telling stories of angry bulls horses and sheep Nathan prepped the fresh faced wet behind the ears first timers saying, “if you can complete this course today, you’ll be able to complete any ultra in the UK for sure, i can guarantee that”.
This drew my attention further as i knew i could be competitive on the hills as my cycling training would be of benefit here. I started to think that this race needs to be won early, the heat, the hills, and my knee may well not hold up if i took the steady race, the sticky movement pattern coupled with many hills wouldn’t be a positive end result especially as i had opted for fight light, freeze at night personal admin option.
As we emptied out and moved towards the start line i found myself at the front and eager to get the job done! It was a game of there and back, as quickly as possible, don’t over complicate matters i thought, out and back as quickly as possible its still a race and you’re hear to race not just to finish!
As we headed off i had a company of 5/6 runners around me, i asked them after a few moments ” has any of you ran this course before”, the answer was nope! As the small group thinned out i saw the leader look to put an early 20m gap on the rest, feeling the pain in my knee every step i took, waiting for it to numb a little i knew i couldn’t loose touch this early and crept up to his shoulder, listening to my body and feeling the slower pace i opted to take on the race and make a race of it right away i put in a hard but sustainable effort 7.27 m/mile 7.07 m/mile then a 6.37 m/mile, Nathan pulled up in the car at the last minute as we approached the road crossing, he waved us right across towards the first real hills shouting go go go. The 2 of us together and some space to the rest is was time settle in and press on. It was really comforting to be shouted at when i missed a turning and this made me remember be careful, extra miles are not welcome today! He could’ve just let me go wrong and got a lead, but he didn’t. This ultra running is more than simply running i thought, it’s about the journey through emotions, making friendships, conquering what seems impossible, sharing that experience and helping others achieve.
Running through the glorious sites, fields and forest we stayed together. I knew nothing of the runners behind now and allowed the front runner to again pull a small lead to see what his game plan was. I lost sight of him over a crest and then disaster stuck, i took a wrong turn at the top of the crest, more extra’s already! That was 2 wrong turns so early on, as i got back on course and flew past the check point i was kicking myself. I could still be in contention if i only could pay more attention and block out the pain off my knee. I pressed on up and over more hills trying even more to remove the knee pain from my mind. The next real drama came at a farmers gate that i couldn’t see the correct route past i guess down and across, i guessed wrong, the field was steep long grassed and hard work on the legs, after a number on minutes i caught site of the 3rd place runner moving across the top of the field, so i ran up as quickly as possible and held on to him for a while until just before the turn point. By now my water was gone i had finished my food and i needed a pain killer top up!
As i was about to turn right to come around the lake and up to the half way point, i saw the leader. He called out “I’m DQ, i’m DQ, i missed the check point, i went around the lake, your leading, tell them i went around the lake!” I thought this is terrible for him, what a nightmare, but it settled my mind that anything can happen over this distance, and that maybe wrong turns are not so out of the norm after all. He clearly had not seen the 2nd place runner in front of me. Keep pressing on i thought back in 2nd place and almost half way! The half way point was up a very steep incline and i saw the, now leader, on the way down, just a hill behind i thought, be quick here and anything can happen! Everything did happen and i wasn’t as quick as i’d have liked at this station. My camel pack strap came off, i struggled to close the water bladder and popped my pain killers without water. I came out of the station seeing the other runners as i was on the way down the hill and tried to put further distance between us, running as hard as possible to the next aid station. Now i needed to top up on carbohydrates s i enjoyed a some pineapple, melon, orange, belly beans and i tried flat coke at every station. Retracing my steps back toward the finish it felt so tough this time round, walking on the hills and running the lesser inclines it was a brutal battle to keep a pace. It’s party time now, i reminded myself, its time to really suffer and just push on after all i needed to get back quickly for lunch i thought, Claire is waiting and i cant have her waiting around to long while i walk, moan and shout at my knee, it#s out and back as quickly as possible, so go as quick as possible!
Cramp was starting to setting in now and i was managing constant knee pain, calf cramp, IT band tension and inner ankle pain likely due to my unbalanced pain filled running. I was caught by the 3rd place runner who i ran with for a while but then the lead female passed us both, as i tried relentlessly to get back to the finish as quick as possible, the decline steps were a serious challenge. A classic side ways shuffle saw the step completed like i was having a seizure. Yet again 2 wrong turns meant even more unwanted distance! As the constant barrage of hills, hills hills eventually died out i managed to put in some faster running, well what i thought was faster running, 10.09 m/mile, 10.05 m/ mile and 10.19 by this time i was having to stop every 200m, stretching my legs to prevent cramp setting in full time, pushing through as much as possible i came though to finish in 6th place with a time of 5 hours 45 minutes. Glad to finish, glad to rest, and ready for a painful car journey home! I congratulated the winner and apologized for not being able to stay with him. Enjoyed the views, a scone and cuppa tea.
What a great day, but a hard painful experience. The moral of the story is never kneel on a hammer before your first ultra trail marathon.