Yesterday I ran the hardest marathon of my life. By all rights it shouldn’t have been, however a few things conspired against me and it started to go wrong from the day before. The weather was gorgeous though and I met some interesting people while out on the course. There were also some stunning photos to be had, plenty of mud to slide around in and perilous drops to avoid. This was of course an Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series event, it was the first one of the year and was based in Little Haven, Pembrokeshire, on the west coast of Wales. Read on to find out more.
Of course, when I say “hardest marathon” I only have two others to compare it to and neither of those were a walk in the park. As an Endurancelife CTS event you might think that it’s a no brainer that this should be the toughest, what with all the mud and climbing etc. As it is I am, at the time of writing, a better runner than I’ve ever been in my life and on an ordinary marathon I would currently expect to beat my previous personal best (PB) of 4hrs 30 mins by about sixty minutes. I’m that much fitter. On this event I wasn’t expecting to do anything special and simply wanted to run the course, it should have been relatively straight forward. I’ve been training with long offroad runs over Dartmoor and South Wales, and covered twenty two hilly miles with ease at the end of August.
Ok, the scene is set and we are on our way. I’ve been taking it easy all week, I’m fresh and raring to go. It’s just a shame that I wasn’t watching what I was eating. I got partway through a meal on Friday evening and realised that the gravy was a bit creamy. I hadn’t been paying attention and I had managed to eat some dairy product. Those that follow me regularly will know that I’m lactose intolerant and the dairy started to unsettle my stomach almost straight away. I had also forgotten my lactase, which is an enzyme that you can take to help your body process the lactose in milk. We nipped into a local Boots and when I asked if they had any lactase the lady on the pharmacy counter looked at me as if I’d asked for a Ouija board and a bucket of goats blood. Oh well, hopefully it would settle out by the morning.
So much for that theory. I managed to poke my breakfast down after a rough night of reflux and nausea, eased somewhat by some Gaviscon. We then drove the ten miles down to Broad Haven where the event car park was. It was a lovely little town with a massive sandy beach. On the way to the event registration at Little Haven we identified a potential Cafe for lunch later. I had read the event day brief on the Endurancelife website so I knew that it was a good fifteen minute walk from the car park to registration. We ambled along the road, over one of the bigger hills that the race would cross twice (four times for the ultra runners) and dropped down into the tiny village of Little Haven. The start and briefing tent were down by the beach and the registration was fifty meters away in the town hall. The registration was straight forward enough, although most of the staff did seem a touch shell shocked. Perhaps it was the early start? And I had to fill out a double sided disclaimer/health declaration to demonstrate that I was fit to race.
We then walked back down to the start area for the race briefing, I was beginning to feel a bit nippy at this point and wasn’t relishing the idea of stripping down to my running gear. The brief was detailed and necessary, focusing primarily on safety but also stressing that we should do everything that we could to keep the area tidy, as well as being courteous to the other footpath users. It certainly seemed to cover off the essentials and a few more things besides. Due to the perilous nature of running along slippery coastal paths, often at the tops of cliffs, it was good to be reminded of the dangers, after all nobody was there with the intent of being carried off in a helicopter or ambulance. Once it was all said and done we walked back to the town hall so that we could get ready.
I stripped off my jeans and jumper and pulled on my running shoes and Camelbak. I had my running gear on underneath my clothes, obviously! My teeth were chattering as I walked back down to the start, but we were set off on time and I was soon warmed up by the large hill out of Little Haven. I managed to lead to the top of it, but that was the only time I was in front. I settled into a steady rhythm, surprised at how hard some of the people around me seemed to be willing to push so early on. There were several people breathing really hard, but they soon dropped back, hopefully to find their own pace or they would be struggling later. I chatted to a couple of people as they went past and soon found myself having a pleasant conversation with student doctor Beth. Worried about slowing me down she told me that I shouldn’t hang around chatting with her and should go on, she then proceeded to kick my backside around the entire course, eventually finishing well ahead of me. Go Beth!!
I was doing quite well for the first ten miles, but it became apparent that my stomach still wasn’t working properly. It felt full and I had reflux, despite not running too hard, and I obviously needed energy. I kept choking back the drink and my gels, but the energy wasn’t getting through to my legs. I was soon grovelling along, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. It all meant that the second half was quite the struggle, with the last five miles going slower and slower. I started walking the uphills but before I knew it I was walking the flats and downhills too. Each crest revealed another valley, with Little Haven showing tantalisingly in the distance. I was regularly swapping places with a few other walk/runners and we traded the occasional joke, which helped to keep morale up.
Finally I crested a hill and walked through a gate that I recognised. It was the one on the top of the final hill. All I had to do was descend into Little Haven, well almost. A left turn arrow from Endurancelife pointed me away from the town again, before I looped around and down the final set of stairs. A few seconds later and I dibbed in at the finish, then stood there with a daft look on my face while I waited for my brain to catch up. I hobbled through the tent, collecting my timings (11th in 5 hrs 9 mins, the winner finished in 4hrs 19 mins) little goody box and a Cliff Builders Bar, before giving my wife a quick kiss and finding somewhere to sit down. I was utterly exhausted and could barely walk. I slowly ate the bar and had a decent drink before climbing to my feet and staggering down to the sea. I rinsed off my shoes and knelt on the sand, with the cold water up to my waist. I waited for everything to go gloriously numb in the cold and then zombie shuffled back to where my wife was sitting.
Back at the town hall getting changed took sometime as I was moving at ultra slow speed. Finally we ambled back over the hill, saying goodbye to Little Haven, passing the occasional brave ultra runner completing the final leg of their run, before heading into the Cafe that we had spotted earlier for a Jacket Spud and a coffee big enough to swim in.
You can see my GPS track of the course on Training Peaks here. It was essentially an elongated figure of eight, with several miles in between the two loops. The 10K course did the small loop. The half marathon did part of the big loop and then cut across. The marathon did both full loops and the ultra did small loop, big loop, small loop. As you can see from my track the hills were short but sharp and regular. The marathon was slightly long at just over twenty seven miles. That isn’t a complaint, like most endurance runners I would much rather it was long than short.
The start times were staggered such that I didn’t have any issues with runners coming the other way on the small single track coastal paths. For most of it I was running with very few other people around. The walkers didn’t seem too bothered by us and most offered words of encouragement, which were welcome. There were a few Endurancelife checkpoints and it was always good to see a welcoming face as they wrote your number down and made sure that you were ok. The signposting was impeccable for the most part, but the routes did rely heavily on the integrity of the runners, with plenty of potential shortcuts being unpoliced. In reality it would be impossible to police them against the more unscrupulous runner, without issuing everyone with a GPS logger, as the paths are simply too complicated. I don’t see this as being an issue as these aren’t the kind of events that would appeal to anyone that would only be interested in taking the easy route.
These courses aren’t for the total novice though and if you aren’t sure about running offroad, on clifftops and beaches, and finding your way through fields then I’d recommend starting with one of the shorter courses first. Once you get comfortable these races are incredibly fulfilling in a way that many other runs struggle to get near and they show off some of the best that the British coastline has to offer in areas that you might otherwise never discover.
If you fancy having a go at a Coastal Trail Series event then here are some tips to get you started:
- Wear suitable running shoes designed for trail use
- For anything longer than the 10k you will be required to carry a minimum amount of equipment, listed at www.endurancelife.com. This needn’t be expensive, but it helps if you have something suitable to carry it in, such as one of the inov-8 race elite packs.
- Every now and then remember to look up and enjoy the view (just don’t trip over and fall off a cliff while doing so…..perhaps walk for a couple of steps!)
- You don’t need a compass or map as the signposting will generally be very good, but do have a look at the route beforehand so you have a rough idea of what to expect and a vague idea of where on the course you are at any given point.
- Don’t plan on setting a PB at your chosen distance, the CTS event will be much more challenging than a normal road based event. It will also often be slightly long and will certainly be very challenging in places
- Do expect to have a smile on your face when you finish, if you can manage one!
For the organisers
Here is my usual list of feedback for the organisers, just in case they should happen to read my review. Some are more receptive than others. If you are the organiser then feel free to get in touch if you would like me to go over any of it.
- The Endurancelife shop at the event HQ was disappointingly expensive. Two sales were lost as I walked past due to the high price of the technical head gear. (Buff style scarf and race visor)
- The staff at registration seemed a bit uncertain as to what to do, which I felt was odd as they must have already registered the ultra runners before I arrived.
- No more temporary tattoos in the box you get at the end? My kids were very disappointed. Last time my daughter managed to scrub off the “never” and was running around with “give up” written on her arm for about five days….
- There doesn’t appear to be a place on your website for the CTS results. I found a results page, but it didn’t show either of the first two CTS events yet. All I know is that I was 11th of 11 when I finished, it would be nice to know a bit more.
Those are the only things that I felt needed improving, and as you can see none of them are showstoppers and I would heartily recommend the CTS events to anyone that is wanting a bit more of a challenge. Personally this was the first of 8 CTS marathons that I have lined up between now and May. Thanks to the organisers for planning and executing a fabulous race.
Would it be too much to ask for the weather to be this good for all of them?
I almost forgot:For next time
- Watch what I eat much more carefully in the days before the race. Self sabotage is definitely not fun!
- Apply protective tape to both hips to prevent camelbak from rubbing. I have quite a nasty friction burn on my left hip.
- My Camelbak will take three litres of fluid, I finished with a litre left in it. This will probably be one of the warmest of the marathons due to the exceptional weather, so next time I will only put two litres in. On this occasion I effectively carried an extra kilogram around the entire course.
- Don’t trust Beth, she’s a lot quicker than she thinks she is!!
- Spend some time planning for bad weather, including testing my gear out the next time the wind blows and the heavens open. I don’t want to fail a CTS event through being unprepared.