20 sodding 20 – No need to explain the sort of year everyone has had. This race was about salvaging some sort of running achievement from this year.
Build–up and training
Originally scheduled for early May, my training for the Dragon 50 miler started in January. For obvious reasons it was cancelled and I fell into a training slump from March until May. I lacked motivation without a specific goal, I ate poorly, gained weight and lost fitness. No surprise there.
When the race was rescheduled for mid September I saw it as an opportunity to drag myself out of the Covid funk, following the 16 week training plan I’d started back in January. Even if the race was called off (like many others), I’d be happier and fitter. I hoped it would go ahead but was mindful that there was a high probability that wouldn’t.
I used the Sage Running Advanced 50mile to 100km plan, which I chose because of the success I’d had using their marathon plan at Valencia last year. What followed was the most consistent block of training I’ve ever done. Without any races to distract me I was able to follow the plan to the letter, hitting all the sessions and weekly mileage targets and feeling myself getting fitter.
By the end of July I was feeling strong and started to think about what I could do in the race. With no hint of cancellation, I started to recce parts of the course.
Each training week had good quality speed work – something I have tended to neglect in the build up to other ultras. For the 16 week block I averaged 62miles/100km per week which included having to reduce the volume in the final few weeks due to manage a plantar fascia issue.
3 weeks out from the race the runners received final confirmation that it was going ahead. The organisers Run Walk Crawl had worked hard to alter the race format to adhere to Covid rules and convince 5 local authorities that the event was safe.
Another week of training, a last recce, a bit of a taper and race day finally came.
The race largely followed the Wales Coast Path from Kenfig Pool to Cardiff. There is also a 100 mile option on the same day starting at Rhossili in the Gower, picking up the 50mile route at halfway. (It’s on my list – maybe one day. I’ve been saying for years that I ought to run a ‘proper 100 miler’.)
Participants were asked to give an estimated finishing time and were set off in small socially-distanced groups between 6:45 and 8:30am. Runners who expected to be on the course for longest started first and the faster ones started last.
The start, the finish and all aid stations were outdoors and had social distancing measures in place. Hand sanitiser was provided at each checkpoint and all runners had to carry a ‘Covid kit’ containing a mask, gloves and sanitiser.
I got an email with my start window a few days before the race. I was in the final starting group with 6 other runners – Exciting!
I was feeling quite confident. I’d trained better than ever before. I’d recced a grand total of 38 miles of the course. I had a solid nutrition plan and pace strategy. I’d run in my full race day kit the week before. I was meticulously prepared. The other runners and the weather were the only things I needed to react to.
Six of us assembled at the start to collect our GPS trackers. One runner hadn’t turned up. One of us would likely be the winner.
The race director told us that the first part of the route had been altered to avoid “a horrible bit”. The horrible bit was an area of bog less than a mile into the course that Beth and I recced the previous weekend. I’d marvelled at the meanness of getting runners shoes soaked through right at the start of a 50mile race, so I wasn’t too upset when he said it was removed. The change of route cut a chunk of distance off so I guessed we’d be running closer to 48 miles instead.
The First Bit (Kenfig Pool to Ogmore)
At 8:17am we set off. The altered first part of the course was marked with flags and easy to follow through the dunes. After a mile I hit the coast path and turned left towards Cardiff. I’d taken the lead but someone was right on my heels. I was going quicker than planned but felt fresh so stuck at it. I couldn’t believe I was actually racing again!
The coast path is basically flat from Kenfig to Porthcawl and is a mix of gravel, grass, a bouncy plastic boardwalk and then tarmac. 3 miles in, the runner who was following and I had started chatting. A nice bloke named Sean from Pembrokeshire. We chatted about all things ultra-running and about how we were almost certainly running too fast.
The weather was overcast. Not exactly warm but definitely humid. The forecast said there’d be glorious sunshine later in the day but it was hard to imagine at that point.
We ran along Porthcawl seafront, around the back of Coney Beach fairground and past Trecco Beach caravan park towards checkpoint 1 at Newton Beach. 7 miles down in around 55 mins. I topped up my soft flasks and we headed off along the beach towards Merthyr Mawr sand dunes.
We stuck together on this section, our pace slowing to around 9mins per mile due to the sandy terrain. I tried not to work too hard running on the soft sand knowing that I’d pay for it later.
At about 11 miles we joined a country lane which felt good after the soft sand. We ran through Merthyr Mawr village to the stepping stones that cross the Ewenny River next to Ogmore Castle.
Beth, Mam, Dad, Bec, Matt and Zepp the hound were at the castle to cheer me on. The shortened course and quicker-than-planned pace meant that they’d missed me at Porthcawl. I wasn’t about to apologise for racing too quickly, said a brief hello and cracked on.
The next checkpoint was about 1.5miles away at Ogmore Beach. I really enjoyed the next section of rolling sandy single track and pushed the tempo a little. Sean stuck with me.
I was as efficient as possible at the aid station, topping up my soft flasks and leaving quickly. Sean said he was going to stop briefly as his wife was there, so I headed off on my own. I passed a few runners at the checkpoint but didn’t know if they were in the 100mile race or had started the 50 in an earlier wave.
The Middle Bit (Ogmore to Sully)
I was on my own and ahead of the 5 runners I’d started with. I couldn’t have asked for a better first 13miles! I mentally reset and pushed on.
I had run from Ogmore to Sully in one go some weeks earlier as a recce. Conveniently it was exactly a marathon distance and a nice way to break down the route into mentally manageable blocks. I knew exactly what was coming and wanted to build a gap to the runners behind and hopefully pass some of the ones who’d started before me.
The next 13 miles were easily the most scenic of the race.
The coast path mainly follows the cliff tops with the odd detour inland in a few places. It has some steep climbs and descents, some steps, a lot of gates and stiles and a couple of pebbly beach crossings. While not technically difficult, it’s not fast.
I overtook a few runners who’d started earlier and I saw my support crew again just before dropping into Dunraven Bay and got a good cheer. I was feeling really good!
At around 17 miles there were 2 detours inland one after the other. The first one dropped through a small wooded valley with lots of steps down and up the other side. I took the steps very easily to save my legs. The second one was more open and gave me an opportunity to look back along the course to see if I was being chased. I could see one runner who might have started at the same time as me. At a guess, he was about 3 mins behind. It was hard to be sure.
I overtook a few more runners before I got to Nash Point lighthouse at around the 20 mile mark. I’d expected to see everyone there but it turned out I’d run that section too quickly. At least they were following me on the tracker and knew where I was.
As I passed the lighthouse the sun came out. I put my sunglasses on and could feel the temperature creeping up. I was running low on fluids and wasn’t exactly sure how far it was to the next aid station at Llantwit Major beach. As it happened, it was only 2.5 miles and I dropped down the steps to the the checkpoint soon after I’d run out of Tailwind and water.
My cheering squad/ support crew/ family were at the checkpoint waiting. We had a quick chat and I got some info about the other runners. It seemed that I was the third 50 mile runner to come through, the first one having left the checkpoint around 20 mins earlier. I refilled my drinks and made my way up the steps out of the bay.
I was starting to feel the heat and decided to hike some of the uphill sections. I came over the brow of a hill and could see the Aberthaw power station ahead. An ugly part of the route but I knew there was some flat running and tarmac where I could hopefully gain some time.
I passed two runners who might have been in the 100 mile race just before the coast path came out onto a section of pebbly beach leading towards the power station. When I recced the route I overshot the exit from the beach and was careful not to do it this time. The large pebbles were impossible to move quickly over so I picked my way through them knowing there were a few faster miles to follow.
As I approached the power station I could see a runner a few hundred meters ahead. He looked to be moving well and I decided to set about catching him.
The path around the power station is flat and fast but demoralisingly ugly. It was hot running on the concrete and starting to get uncomfortable. I was definitely gaining on the other runner though.
At 28 miles he stopped and leant against a wall to stretch. I picked up my pace a tiny bit and went past and said something like “that’s the worst of the race done”, knowing full well that it wasn’t. I only realised later that this was the point where I had hit the front of the 50mile field.
The runner I’d just passed caught up to me and we briefly complained about how warm it was as we clawed our way up the steep steps to Fontygary caravan park.
I’d been using a combination of Tailwind, Maurten gels, Gu gels and Trail-butter. I took a mouthful of Trail-butter and instantly felt sick. It’s has a consistency like sloppy peanut butter with crunchy bits in, (sounds lovely) which can be very hard to swallow with a dry mouth. I used up a lot of my water trying to swallow it and really hoped I could get some more from Beth pretty soon.
I got to Rhoose Point, the southernmost tip of Wales. My watch beeped for 30miles. I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. We’d agreed that it would be a good place for support because there was a fairly large distance between aid stations. Mild panic and a bit of swearing. 3 miles to the next checkpoint and just a dribble of Tailwind left. Time to suck it up.
I was bang on target pace at this point and had 18 miles or so to go. I’d pulled ahead of the other runner but I was suffering. I made my way through Porthkerry caravan park – I figured there had to be a drinking water tap somewhere. I’d almost given up hope but but as I was leaving the park I spotted one. I doused my buff and hat in cool water and refilled a bottle. Absolute heaven! I looked behind and there was still no sign of any runners. I headed down a hill through some shady woodland feeling like a new man.
What I didn’t bargain for was that the new man I had become was prone to cramp. The steps out of Porthkerry through Cliff Wood were excruciating. Every time I lifted my right leg my hip flexor cramped and every time I lifted my left leg my quad cramped. I don’t know exactly how many steps there were but 20,000 is my confident estimate. I eventually made it to the top and broke into a jog. At least it wasn’t far and mostly downhill to the penultimate checkpoint at The Knap.
Everyone was at the aid station so I decided to take some time to reset my brain and have a chat. My plan had been to spend no more than 3 mins at any one aid station and I’d stuck to it up to that point. The main thing now was to calm down for the final push. I ate some salty snacks and drank some flat ginger beer to ease the nausea. My dad was on the phone to my brother, Tom, who asked how I was doing. My dad told him I was in the lead. It dawned on me that with less than 16 miles left I actually had a chance of winning this race!
After around 10 minutes I left the aid station and headed off through Barry. I knew it would be 10km of mostly tarmac until I’d next see my crew. I settled into a rhythm that was slow enough so my muscles wouldn’t cramp and went into auto pilot.
I got to Sully sports ground at around 39miles and met Beth and my parents. I picked up a 3rd soft flask to carry as I was sick of gels and decided to fuel the rest of the run with Tailwind. They showed me the race tracker and I could see I’d pulled a 1.5 mile lead since The Knap. I said as long as I keep pushing then maybe I could win. They laughed and said I had a big lead and of course I could win it.
The final checkpoint was less than a mile away and I dared to start thinking that maybe this could be my first ever race win. No. Too soon! Anything could happen. One of the runners I started with might be running a really smart race and come through in the last 10miles! I just needed to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. There’s nothing like a good cliché at a time like that.
I ate a couple of orange segments at the final checkpoint (handed to me with tongs) and set off with my three bottles. Two full of Tailwind and one of water. My watch said I’d been running for 6 hours and 38 minutes. 9 miles to go!
The End Bit (Sully to Cardiff)
This was the only part of the route I hadn’t run in training. It didn’t matter, I’m a massive running geek so I had the route gpx file on my watch and I’d looked at all the turns on Google Streetview beforehand, obviously. Like I said, I’d prepared meticulously.
A slightly uphill country lane brought back the cramp. I massaged my muscles as I walked and got back to a jog within a minute or two. I was even getting cramp in my arms. I must have lost a lot of electrolytes.
I passed yet another caravan park. That section was a blur and the next thing I remember was seeing Penarth Pier in the distance. It must have been around 2 miles away. My next goal was to get there. I’d worry about the rest of the distance later. There were loads of people out and about enjoying the warm September sun in Penarth. The runners were few and far between and didn’t have race numbers so I probably just looked like someone who was incredibly unfit, carrying far too much kit and shuffling along miserably. (Which wasn’t wholly inaccurate.)
I passed the pier and headed uphill. There were a few steps but no cramp this time – result! Only 5 miles to go and the only other runner I’d seen was one of the 100 milers. I followed the map on my watch left and right through some residential streets and dropped down to the marina. On my way down the hill a guy who was walking up it said “you should try running uphill instead”, to which I replied “I’ve just run 44miles – but thanks.” He was lucky he didn’t get any expletives.
Only flat tarmac lay between me and the finish line. I tried another gel to see if it would improve my mood a bit. It kind of worked. I got onto the final stretch of cycle path. Less than a parkrun to go. (If anyone says that to you in a race you’re allowed to punch them). I was jogging at just under 11 mins per mile, which was as fast as I could move without cramping. Definitely not what I’d planned but still faster than walking. Or crawling.
I kept looking over my shoulder for someone coming to overtake me. Replaying other races in my mind where I’d lost 2nd or 3rd place in the last quarter – but there was no one there. “Just keep doing what you’re doing” was the mantra circling my head.
I came around a corner off the cycle path and crossed a road. About 100 meters ahead I could see race flags. I saw my dad with his camera. I heard Beth and my mam shouting. The few people at the finish were clapping. I jogged to the finish and stopped. It was all very low key but I’d done it. I’d finally won a race.
When the results were posted I realised that second place was 71 mins behind me. So maybe I could have relaxed a smidge. My average heart rate was 165bpm for 8 hours plus. No wonder it felt difficult! At least I didn’t slacken off.
I feel like I could have paced the race better. I got excited at the start and caught up in trying to gap the field early and paid for it with cramp in the second half. I had cramp in my arms and neck as well as my legs so maybe an electrolyte problem might have been a factor. I did run out of salt capsules by 33 miles and my bag and kit were crusted with a lot of salt. I’ve been plagued by cramp in a couple of ultra races and had none in others. I’ve not been able to put my finger on the the cause as yet.
Learning points aside, I am elated to have won a race. I set it as a personal goal a number of years ago and have come close on a few occasions and fluffed it. I fully appreciate that this was a small event with only 29 finishers but I feel proud. I’m never going to win a big race and there are plenty of runners out there who could have wiped the floor with me at this race. However, I trained harder and more consistently than before. I planned and prepared in more detail than I have for any other race – and ultimately got to the finish quicker than anyone else on that particular day. You can’t ask for any more than that, can you? For my first and possibly only race win, I genuinely feel it was well earned and that is very, very satisfying.
It was so lovely to be back racing again. I like these low key ultramarathons where everyone is friendly and supportive while they quietly go about pushing themselves to the limit physically and mentally.
I’m grateful to have been able to go out and feel alive for the first time in months. Running an ultramarathon always feels like an adventure. If you’re a runner and you haven’t tried an ultramarathon, I urge you to give one a go. It’s excellent (type 2) fun.