I’ll keep this as brief as possible….still going to be very long though!!
Ring O’ Fire Ultra Marathon – 135 miles of very mixed terrain going the whole way around Anglesey’s Coastal Path across a 51.5 hour period. Having done the first 35 miles last year as the ‘Firelighter’ Ultra, I felt capable of achieving this with the right training, planning, mentality and a bit of good luck. What follows is the story of how close I came, and how success is not always a finish line.
68 runners (quite a low turnout) started on Friday at 1pm at Holyhead.
Day 1 involved 35 miles to get to Amlwch Leisure Centre – Firelighter from last year – so I knew what to expect. What I hadn’t expected was very warm conditions. The first 3 hours went according to plan, but by Checkpoint 2 I could sense that all was not right. I was on my schedule to the minute, but at a price. The first 4 miles of the run to Checkpoint 3 was pretty much hell on earth, with double leg cramps, stomach upset, mild dizziness – and major morale issues. I had been in 29th place at CP2 – this dropped to 50th by CP3, but I’d managed to get through the very bad patch OK. I’d planned my pace to finish before dark, but this was now not going to happen, so the focus was all about getting to Amlwch.
This stage has two ‘honesty books’. You need to collect a page from these books, and hand them in at the next Checkpoint to prove you were there. They are used to ensure that runners do not take shortcuts, and are generally in fairly remote locations! The first one is at the top of the steepest set of steps on the route….possibly on any route! (We really must have a WRC away day to give it a go – it’s probably a Strava segment as well!). 400 meters after climbing this monster, the
leg cramp returned….and it was without question the worst of my life. If you are a film buff, imagine the scene from ‘Alien’, except it was my right calf instead of my stomach. 10 minutes lost waiting for that one to resolve – felt like hours. The 2nd honesty book should have been easier. It wasn’t. By now I was running with a group, we all went the wrong way, and arrived in Amlwch too soon. A very positive sign was that I kept calm, and just back tracked to get the page before returning back the same way, ending up at the Leisure Centre at 10pm. 1 hour later than plan – it had been a tough day.
The first night you all get to stay in the Sports Hall at the centre. I felt pretty broken, and with 67 miles to cover the next day, optimism was in short supply. Food, shower, new clothes, massage – felt a bit better. Then, I looked around the hall. There was a lot of pain on show, not much laughter. I started talking to others – they all had similar tales to tell. I was far from alone, and this helped hugely. It was 1:30am before I tried to sleep, but no sleep came. So, no choice but to lie back and relax, and hope this would be enough to mend my body.
Day 2 – 4:50am – organiser comes in with his mobile phone playing the ‘Ring of Fire’ song by Johnny Cash. Actually made me laugh. For those who had managed to get some sleep, the phone was held close to their head to wake them up – again, this made me laugh. I stood up – sore, but not as bad as expected. Time for Day 2 plan to be put into action. At this point, 54 out of 68 are still going – I’m still in the game.
So, question I have been asked most this year. How do you train to run 67 miles in a day? Honestly, took me about 3 months to identify then implement the solution. There are 8 sections across the day, each with their own characteristics. I’ve learnt on longer runs to set smaller targets (i.e. get to the next checkpoint), so all my planning was based around running 8 events on the Saturday. I absolutely refused to refer to it as 67 miles. I know this should make no difference. A bit like the footballer who, given the choice between having his pizza cut into 4 or 8 slices, opted for 4, because there was no way he could manage 8. It worked for me though.
I’d walked / run much of the route across the 8 ‘events’ on Saturday. My worst relative performance was on events 3 and 6 – yes, the 2 parts I hadn’t managed to recce. The first 4 events took me from Amlwch to Beaumaris (the halfway point of both the day and the event). Good sections of running, striding the uphill’s, but protecting the body as well with long sections of walking. Event 4 to Beaumaris was another potential low – having to double back on a beach when the tide was too high, and adding up to an extra mile to the journey.
Coming through Beaumaris, I noticed a huge increase in the level of support. People in pubs shouting, tourists going to the food festival that was on, or going to the pier with their kids to go crabbing. This lifted the spirits, but nothing prepared me for the next bit….
****THE FAMOUS WRC CHEER SQUAD ON TOUR****
Honestly, never felt so energised by anything in my life. I ran smoothly to the Checkpoint and suddenly felt good. Picked up my mid-race bag – new clothes, footwear, nutrition, salt tablets, watch (yes, watch – if you’re out for 19 hours you may well need 2). Event 5 was then my best section of the whole event, covering 6.5 miles to the other side of Menai Bridge.
43 runners remain – I’m still in the game.
Setting out on Event 6, I was joined by another runner called Ian. We would spend the rest of the day / evening together. I always knew that there would be several hours running in the dark, so it was a good time to make a friend! His two running partners had both dropped out. I listened with fascination over the next 2 hours to the interesting, funny, exciting tales of all the many ultras / endurance events that these guys had all taken part in over the years. But they had dropped out – I was still going.
We reached the Sea Zoo at 7pm, 13 hours into the day. I was about 45 minutes to an hour behind plan, but that was fine. At this rate, I expected to finish at around 1am, one hour ahead of cut-off. Quick body status update….feet blistered, calves OK, right knee swelling and in a bad way, left knee OK, upper legs OK, the rest…..OK. Brain update….thinking clearly, can perform calculations quickly, read maps accurately……all OK.
Events 7 and 8 were pretty much walked in their entirety, at 12 miles and 6.5 miles respectively. Event 7 took 3hrs 30mins, which was the 23rd fastest of the 39 who completed, and was done mostly in the dark. When you walk on an Ultra, you really need to stride and push hard, otherwise the pace is too slow. Now, Newborough is a wonderful place – if you have never been, please do yourself a massive favour and go at least once in your life. However, in the dark it shows its teeth. The surroundings now feel hostile, the sands start to grab your feet, the forest looms over you to tempt you to take a wrong turn. So, we stayed on the beach for as long as we could. The downside – sand flies, and not just a few. The headtorches attracted flies in their hundreds, if not thousands (don’t even think this is an exaggeration). It was impossible not to consume some of these along the way – I’d have eaten anything by this stage anyway! There was another honesty book to find on this beach, but it all looked the same. This was mentally pretty much the toughest section, as I kept thinking we must have missed it. After an absolute eternity, I was elated to spot the book ahead. Still 3 miles to go to the next Checkpoint though, and now we were going through the Forest.
It is no wonder that I’ve heard so many stories of people getting lost here – staying calm after covering such a long distance over the day takes colossal mental strength. I reckon we only lost about 10 minutes taking a wrong turn, before stopping and recovering the situation. i had walked this route a few weeks earlier, knowing it would be a potential banana skin. The planning was very worthwhile.
Arriving at the CP at 10:35pm, we just had one more event to go – and I knew we’d make it. I also knew that my right knee was finished, and I already started to think that Aberffraw would be my final stop. Had to clear my mind of these thoughts though – one step after another for 2.5 hours or so, that is all I need to think. Event 8 was a blur – have very little memory of any of it as things stand. I do remember the feeling of reaching Aberffraw, and being clapped in by people as I arrived at the Village hall at just before 1am on Sunday morning. Day 2 was done. I was elated and heartbroken all at the same time. I’d come so far, achieved so much, but knew in all likelihood that it was over. I wasn’t quitting yet though – still 5 hours until we have to go again.
The next few hours were horrible. There are very few facilities at the Village Hall (no showers, 2 toilets and 2 washbasins (as Ian had told me, these were 100% improved on previous years, when there was just one of each!). I lay on my mat in severe pain. I’d taken painkillers, but it only softened the edges. By the time the RIng of Fire restrain once again echoed around the room at 4:50am, I had no option but to end the adventure, and leave the remaining 37 to complete day 3, I was out of the game – and the extreme feeling of hurt will probably never fully go away. I don’t want it to…I’ll use it on my next attempt at somethiing big, be it this or something else.
So, the stats. 102 miles covered across 36 hours. No sleep. Lots of pain and hurt. However, and this is really important, it may well be the most incredible adventure of my life. I made it further than 30 experienecd and talented ultra runners at my first attempt at the Ring of Fire. Even as I write this, with the physical pain still present, the mental pain has been crushed by an overwhelming feeling of personal pride. I may not have finished, but I gave it everything, and actually know what I need to do if I choose to come back and finish what I’ve started. Too soon to make that call now, but I will return to Anglesey in some shape or form for many years to come – it is a very special place.
Finally, some thank yous. There are many who have supported me this weekend, and too many to mention to be honest. They all know who they are, so I’ll refer to them as follows:
‘The Main Man’ – the person who was there in my darkest moments (literally), prepared my things, saw me at 5am to check I was OK, walked / ran near me on some sections, brought me home. I owe you – and look forward to repaying the debt.
‘The Extra Checkpoint Couple’ – seeing you both made me smile, energised me (and other runners). Your selfless actions on behalf of runners in WRC are legendary – I will always be truly grateful for your support.
‘The Cheer Squad’ – simply, thank you so much – you’ll never truly know what a difference you made.
‘The Running Friends’ – helped me by just being there, joining me on sections, and keeping my spirits high by constantly reminding me that I was doing well. I will return the favour, especially to the one who might just enter this in the future….when the time is right, of course.
‘The Wife’ – OK, you all know who this is. Fortunately, Sue will probably have stopped trying to read this long ago, so I can be soppy and say that I love her with all my heart, and her support has obviously helped me to get this far.
If you’re still reading, congratulations. You’ve taken your first step on the road to Endurance! And the good news…I promise not to post anything else until at least October 😉