Howdy folks. Well what can I say? I did it. I actually ran my first ultra marathon without dying. Here you’ll find my write up with a few VLOGs I took during the event. Likely a long read, so set yourself some time…
We traveled down to our friends just outside of Swansea, as they were kind enough to put us up for the night before and after the event. The plan was to originally get the bus put on by the organisers on the morning of the race from the finish, but I got a lift instead up to Brecon with my wife and support crew.
I have to say, the evening before I was becoming very nervous, as I had never ran this kind of distance before. I spent a lot of time checking and re-checking all my kit and ensuring that it was comfortable to wear with no bounce. Even with a 10 litre sack, I only just managed to fit in all the mandatory gear, including my food. I’d have a drop bag with my Hoka Bondi 4 and some other dry gear if needed at the Merthyr checkpoint, or halfway.
Eventually, I was sorted and relaxed enough to attempt to sleep, reading a fantasy novel to take my mind off anything to do with running. This worked, as I woke up with my alarm at 04:45 or death o’clock.
Normally, I struggle to get out of bed on a morning, especially at this time, but I literally sprung up and got dressed. My breakfast consisted of porridge and banana, a nice slow-burn fuel to get me started and a strong coffee to wake me up, and to er, ‘wake up’ my digestive system. We set off for Brecon at around 05:30 and again, my nerves were starting to show, with an unnecessary snap at my wife whilst I was strapping my ankle; I apologised soon after. I tried to get my head down in the car but I was too fired up.
Upon arriving at Christ College in Brecon, we found an empty car park and two marshals who kindly directed us. I was pleased to see a mobile coffee van near registration. I walked into the big sports hall to find only a couple of other runners, so I quickly registered and got my drop bag numbered, only after nervously folding and pinning on my race number, in this case 79. It was a chilly morning so we opted to wait inside. Not long after, hordes of runners arrived after coming up by bus.
Naturally, everybody was checking everybody else out; gear, size, shape, male, female. Do they look fit and on form or are they going to DNF (Did Not Finish)? All these things go through your mind at the start of a race, whether it’s a 10k or an ultra. Some runners certainly didn’t look as though their packs contained the mandatory kit; I had very light and tightly packable clothing in the form of the ever reliable and British brand Montane, and it was packed very well, yet my race pack was bulging compared to others’ with smaller packs.
If you’re not aware, the majority of long distance/fell running events have what’s known as a mandatory kit list that you must have with you or face disqualification; the idea is that you can be completely self-sufficient: feeding yourself to changing clothes or tending to an injury away from check points. In my humble opinion, if you don’t carry the gear, you’re only cheating yourself, regardless of how experienced you are, but people will always try to cheat the system.
Kit checks today were being carried out at the finish, in order to prevent competitors discarding things en route and also to prevent us having to unpack all our carefully packed equipment at the start. I felt pretty nervous, as I just wanted to get going:
Unfortunately, there was a delay at the start due to so many runners needing to use the loo, as there was only one cubicle we were allowed to use by the college. Certainly no fault of the organisers; personally, I chose to ‘go’ en route if I needed to, and so far the double-espresso that I had to ‘encourage’ this had not helped! Unfortunately, running tends to cause the ‘runners trots’ what with all the jiggling that our innards have to endure for so long. Thankfully, I never suffered during the event.
After a late start, we were all walked down to the start line at Theatr Brycheiniog next to the Brecon Canal, about 5 minutes away on foot. I was so glad to be moving finally! There was the usual nervous, yet excited conversation and laughter as we toed the line, and being the ‘selfie king’ that I am, I had to have one:
Then “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and the horn sounded. We were finally off! Straight in to a bottle-neck with one false move and you’d be in the canal. Watch yours and other runners’ feet! Ahhh that movement of running. The endorphins starting to flow and the sheer enjoyment of being surrounded by nearly three hundred other like minded, slightly crazy people! You HAVE to be crazy to WANT to run this kind of distance! 😀
Initially I did not try and stay with the front half but as I warmed up, I decided to make some early ground and overtook a lot of runners on the way to CP1, maintaining a steady 5:20/km average. Was I going too fast? Too slow? About right? I decided that this pace was fine up until after CP1, where I would consciously slow down by around 30 seconds per kilometre. Approaching CP1 at 7 miles, already people were slowing down as they’d clearly gone out too hard, a common mistake, but an easy one as you are ‘pulled’ along with everybody. About a kilometre from the CP I gave my wife a quick call to say I’d be there in around 6 minutes, so they (my wife and friends) could get a picture:
My lovely wife ran along with me for a 100 metres or so, then I gave her a kiss and carried on. No stopping at this CP, I’d got enough fuel and fluid.
Shortly the route would turn away from the canal and towards the Tal y Bont Reservoir. The weather had changed a little, bringing in a lot of damp weather, but not really raining. This was to be expected as we made our way through the Brecon Beacons, a long climb up to the valley’s head.
I’d started to carry out my run/walk strategy now. Basically, I would run for 20 minutes and walk for 5 minutes, taking on food and drink at the same time; I adhered to this religiously. There was a lot of continuous uphill now, but not so steep that I couldn’t run it. The run/walk did mean that I was having runners pass me, only for me to go past them again soon after. But I was saving energy by doing this. Here’s my first VLOG update as I ran up through the forest on very muddy tracks:
This part of the route was my favourite, as it was in beautiful countryside and on trail, not tarmac, although it was very muddy in places. So I was glad I opted to wear my trail shoes before changing into my road ones at Merthyr, as I ran past one chap shouting to his mate “I told you we should have worn trail shoes!” as I bounced down the muddy single-track past them 🙂
I carried on up, with views now looking down to the reservoir, but unfortunately, all the hills of the Beacons were shrouded in clag today.
Nearing the corner at the end of the climb and highest point of the day (438 metres) at 14 miles/22.6 km, I was surprised to see my friend Alan running towards me and my wife further up; it’s always so nice to see your support when you least expect it: Alan is 66 by the way, but he still ran a little with me:
I was still feeling brilliant, but after my feet sloughing around in my right shoe especially in all the mud and uneven terrain up the hill, I had a feeling I had a blister or two. It was a further 3km to CP2 at 25.6km, but again, I would run right through without stopping, shouting my race number as I did so. Next stop was the Merthyr checkpoint at 36km/22.3 miles, and now unfortunately, all on tarmac. Blisters were sore, but not painful. Yet. I did another VLOG from CP 2:
So from this video you can tell that I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do with my feet at CP3. It was inevitable really and I knew that I would also lose a lot of time and places, but I didn’t let it affect my morale. I was disappointed that even though I had certainly thought I’d laced up my right shoe tightly, it was still sloppy enough to cause me a blister on my arch.
After passing through CP2 at 25.6 km, it was a sharp right turn then up a fairly steep hill. I ran most of it, but after a while resorted to walking so as not to burn my legs out. I chatted to a fellow ex-military chap here who’d said I had a “good march”; that is, long strides, arms swinging from the side towards the front of my body – what we called a T.A.B in the Army or ‘Tactical Advance to Battle’. It’s quite an efficient way to move whilst carrying heavy equipment and rifle without actually running, so came in use here. It was now back into a lovely pine forest, again, with only a couple of runners in sight either direction. The field had definitely split now. I was at 30km/18 miles with a time of 3:10 and an average of 5:59/km and despite the amount of uphill, I was really pleased with this time and pace. I still felt really strong. Unfortunately, I was about to lose all of that…
At 36km/22.35 miles I had arrived at CP3 in Merthyr Tydfil and was dreading removing my shoes. Before I did anything else, I filled up my 2 litre bladder whilst there were no other runners present and went inside to grab my drop bag.
I sat down and gingerly removed my muddy trail shoes, and peeled off my soaking socks. Oh crap! Huge blister on my forward arch which needed immediate attention. I pulled out a needle from my first aid kit and proceeded to lance the thing in four places in a line, next to the intact skin; it didn’t need much encouragement to bleed out, as the fluid spurted out immediately. I ensured I’d got out as much as I could and cleaned the skin before applying a large blister plaster, and then securing it properly with surgical tape. I then attended to my little toes, both suffering with large blisters and blood blisters on each toe next to my big toe, caused by the constant pounding of toe-pad into nail, despite them being cut short and filed.
Once done, I repacked my bag with extra food and gels this time and put on my Hoka road shoes and stood up. Holy crap!! The pain was so bad. It crossed my mind that I could not carry on. But no. If there’s one thing runners are is stubborn, obstinate. And I was not about to allow these blisters to defeat me. But shit the pain! I hobbled out of the check point and I was really suffering, despite the rest of my body and mind feeling great. I called my wife to inform her I’d left CP3 and just gritted my teeth and got on with it. Pain is temporary and this was part of ultra running; dealing with pain and discomfort, yet finding the strength to just push through it. I made another VLOG a little way out from the CP:
I’d spent 40 minutes sorting myself and my feet out at CP3, so I lost a lot of time. I was aiming for a sub-8 hour run, but that was not going to happen now and I’d lost around 40 places. I guess from a pragmatic standpoint, if I’d NOT fixed me feet, I may have DNF’ed…
From here on in, I was pretty much running through suburban Rhondda and I’m sorry to say, not the prettiest place I’ve run. This area is very deprived and high in unemployment and running along the Taff Trail highlighted this. It also demonstrated how environmentally NOT sound a lot of the population are here. All along this section of the Taff Trail there were at least three dumped vehicles, countless discarded fridges, microwaves and even a washing machine. There were the remains of fires everywhere, endless fly-tipping. Just rubbish every where you looked. And any ‘local’ that you ran past gave you a noseful of cannabis smoke. Ugh. It’s quite common in the UK that where there is a disused railway at the bottom of your garden, it is ‘easier’ to throw your rubbish over the fence. I have seen this in many places. It’s just such a shame that this is on part of the National Cycle Network, Route 8 and seemingly nothing has been, or can be, done about it. And I would not come this way at night. I tried not to let it blight my enjoyment of the day, but after chatting with another runner, we both agreed that it was pretty awful. Eventually the area became a little less built up, but there was always the sound of the Heads of the Valleys road or the A470 heading down to Cardiff.
I carried on to CP4 at Aberfan at 46.4km/28.8 miles, where I quickly grabbed some Coke for a sugar hit. I was now obviously past the marathon distance and yet I still felt brilliant, with only my blistered feet giving me discomfort. Just 4 more kilometres and I would officially be an ultra runner! Yaaaay 🙂 I was unbelievably pleased with myself, not for getting this far as I’ve run nearly 29 miles before, but for getting this far and still feeling very strong. All the days running in the mountains of my home in Snowdonia had paid off, my legs stronger and my endurance at a level it had never been before. I did another VLOG from the 50K mark:
After achieving this I was on a massive high and at no point did I have to play any mental games to keep myself going forwards. Everything was good. Everything was great!
At 54.05km the TomTom I borrowed off my wife had died, so I had to quickly get my Garmin setup ready for duty. The next checkpoint, CP5 and the final one at Pontypridd was close now and again a short VLOG from here (sorry about the burps, I’d just had more Coke!):
Little did I know that from here, I would encounter a seemingly endless climb for what felt like miles, leading up towards the finish. In fact, it was for 7 kilometres. I trudged up it, slowly at first but then out of nowhere, I pulled deep from my reserves and sped up, quite significantly for this stage in the race. I’d been watching three runners in front of me who I had been steadily gaining on, but not quick enough for my liking with a chap on my heels too. So I decided to politely ‘drop’ them. Here I was running at about a 7:00/km up this hill, but I managed to get up to a 5:20/km for around 3km. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. I had a lot more strength than I gave myself credit for! Eventually I caught up with a nice girl I’d been chatting to earlier. She said she’d had enough, yet at the end of the hill she still managed to pull away from me and out of sight to the finish. Good on her!
I was so pleased to reach the end of that damn hill, but at least if I do this next year, I’ll know it’s there.
Turning into a housing estate, and looking at my Garmin, I knew now that the finish was close, within a couple of kilometres and downhill for some of it. Oh my goodness. I had actually done it. I was so elated as I approached the finish line. I said to a spectator that I wasn’t going to do the ‘cliche’ sprint finish, but he shouted “No, go for the cliche!” so I attempted a sprint. And when I say “sprint” I mean a fast ultra shuffle. Let’s say it felt fast!
Over the line. Medal and tech t-shirt received. Quick chat with one of the organisers and a staged shot of me star-fished on the ground in front of the finish. Honestly, even after Marathon Eryri, my local marathon, I couldn’t stand, yet today after 70k or 42 miles, I could still have ran farther.
My first ultra marathon medal, one that I will covet:
So what did I learn?
Well, not to run long distance in those shoes again. That trying to eat solid food after around 35 miles is just disgusting and everything tastes awful. Thank goodness for the Ella’s Kitchen baby food and SiS Caffeine Gels, plus those little lunch-box sized malt loafs. That I need a GPS device with a longer battery life. That applying strips of surgical tape over large blisters takes far too long; use something wider next time or better still, prevent them in the first place. That I need running underwear that won’t try and saw me in half like a cheese wire towards the end. That I will be investing in zero drop shoes in the form of Altra, as they are nice and ‘foot shaped’ and as I already run in 4mm drop, a no-brainer.
In all fairness to my Hokas, that are famed for narrowness, they did not exacerbate my blisters in any way. In fact, they were a better fit and thus rubbed less.
The most important thing for me, personally? That I’ve proved I can do anything that I put my mind to. After successfully completing this ultra, I feel now that I can only go further and farther in my running career. It almost makes me feel invincible or super-human. I’m not obviously, far from it, but that’s how it makes me feel. In fact, I have already booked another, later this year, The Ultra Tour of Snowdonia in addition to the local events I will take part in: the Welsh 1000’ers Fell Race and the Snowdonia Trail Marathon. I will hopefully squeeze in one or two 50k ultra marathons along the way if time, family and work commitments permit.
The below video is a sneak preview of what to expect in the Snowdonia 50. In fact, the event is nearer 60, at 58 miles. It’s in September, so I have plenty of time to train up for this and be ready. But with only 70 entry spaces, it will be quite competitive, who knows, by then I may be in the kind of place physically and mentally where I can be the competition? But I am too humble to think of that realistically.
I would like to thank my amazing wife for being so supportive leading up to, during and after the event and our lovely friends Jen and Alan for having us and supporting me during the day. I’m also very grateful to the organisers Run, Walk, Crawl events for a brilliantly run event and all the volunteers who selflessly gave up their time to marshal and help out. Also to Ella’s Kitchen, High 5 and SiS for keeping me fueled throughout.
And finally, a huge congratulations to all the runners who took part; you were all brilliant and I’ll hopefully see you all next year 🙂
Thanks so much for reading folks.
Bye for now.
p.s: you can catch me on Strava if you want to follow what I’m up to.