Sometimes I forget why I do it to myself. I always remember why in the end.
The practice of running over marathon distance seems outlandish to some and completely normal to others. I'm firmly in the latter camp, I'm not sure why you wouldn't want to at least try. That said I'm not the most prolific or proficient at ultrarunning. It's hard to be prolific in a sport that demands so much of your body, especially as you age. The training alone can be a huge time investment. And if you aren't prolific it's hard to become proficient.
The Riddum 2023 - Video
Five days after the Pier to Pint trail marathon of 27 miles I lined up for the Riddum 30 miler around the Rhymney Valley Ridge Walk in South Wales. Beforehand I expected to be apprehensive about how the legs would respond but in the intervening 4 days they had recovered remarkably quickly and so on the morning of the race they felt fine. I put this down to the amount of daily work I have done over the past year to strengthen them and keep them supple. the countless mobility exercises coupled with strength work has paid dividends not to mention the sheer amount of walking and running i have packed in.
So we set off at 7AM and the first few miles were mainly downhill or flat which led to may going out fast or at least faster than I would like so I stuck to my plan and let myself drift backwards through the field and not worry at all about all the people passing me. I assumed that later I would be passing them back when the climbs kicked in. I was as with Preseli completely right. And this is the crux of the day to me, my decision making and general experience of running longer distances has slowly grown and I'm now much more confident in my ability to manage my own race better. I have learned to run my own race not someone elses. Sometimes there is a tendancy in ultras to get sucked into someone elses pace or to even be polite and stay with someone just because you've been having a conversation. These days I'm happy to suddenly walk instead of run or vica versa depending on how I feel and not go by how someone else feels. If someone else switches to a walk and I don't feel the need to then i will just run on ahead. It seems to go against societal norms and maybe in polite society would be considered rude but in an ultra it's utterly neccessary if you want to run your own race.
Apart from pacing I've learned to panic less at setbacks, I had leg pain after only 6 miles but experience told me to ignore it and sure enough it just faded, it's much easier to tell now when it's just a temporary thing. When I took the wrong route and added a mile to my race it was a case of "oh well what's done is done and no point crying about it" I just forgot about it, adjusted my distances to the aid stations and moved on.
To be honest there is nothing special or exciting about the route or race, it held a challenge as all long distance races do annd of course there were some tough moments but looking back far fewer than I have felt before. I had the usual bad patch, in this case around 23 or 24 miles when I just felt off and tired for a while and I knew well enough what it was and just kept plugging. But I took something far more important out of the race and that was the pleasure to be found in helping others, early on I stuck with a lady who had fallen and saw her through to the next checkpoint which was a mile or so away - I 'm happy to report she finished. I'm happier to report I stopped for her and kept her together and her moving when I could have just sped past. And then I met a guy who had gone wrong too and run an extra 6 miles - in his first ultra - He was having a bad time and I'm not sure he knew exactly what to do at that point and I could only imagine how he was feeling - because I had been there before in my first ultra and my first 50 miler when everything is black and to go on seems impossible and futile and to give up is the safe and easy option. So seeing this and something of myself in him I offered him company and a helping hand and as it turned out we finished together as I managed to keep him moving until the end. I looked at my stats after and I had been aware I could have gone under 7 hours but was more aware that my help for him meant far more than a slower time. He couldn't thank me enough and swore he wouldn't have finished - I think he would. What I really hope is that he goes on to run other ultras and maybe one day he gets to pay it forward and help someone else who is struggling. I think he will. He seemed kind of shocked that someone would stop to help and then change their own race for 6 miles - it was clear I could have forged ahead much faster - but that is what ultrarunning is about and the ultrarunning community is about.
And in a kind of middle of the road day in a middle of the road race thats the lesson I learned that I can take forward. I'm part of a community that looks after its own.
And so that's how I ran a marathon and an ultra in a week. To be honest it wasn't as bad as I thought. I wouldn't recommend it unless you can recover - as I type this 24 hours after the Riddum finish I feel fine with no aches or pains at all. But while the first run was for friendship and helping my local and wider community through charity the second turned out to be for helping complete strangers. It's certainly a strange path along which we wend our way through life. Sometimes I consider myself selfish for only pursuing my goals in such a singleminded manner but this week just maybe I've learned that I have to be selfish in order to give myself the opportunity to something more for others.
Youtube video of the day is here
Preseli Ultrabeast 2023
Or how to get a monkey off your back and then find out it was never there in the first place. If you don't want to read the whole thing about running over hills skip to the last 2 paragraphs for the result.
Quick bit of background - Last year (2022) I DNF'd the Preseli Ultrbeast which is a tough 32 mile fell race in West Wales and had to drop to the 24 mile version. Mainly a I didn't prepare well enough for heat. more of that later. So for the last year I have put in the training and prepared with the sole focus of completing the 32 mile version. I analysed what went wrong last year and put plans into place to overcome the points of failure. I did everything I could to make sure that I controlled all I could control on the day.
The forecast leading up to raceday was perfect, no rain but plenty of cloudcover - This allieviated one of my concerns that it would be sunny and too hot. As I mentioned the year before it got very hot in the valleys and I overheated which played a large part in my downfall. I had everything packed in the van the day before, no rushing around in the morning, no stress. I had time to give Murph a proper walk at dawn and even time to get my core-work, pullups and pushups done before I left - This was important, I've made the commitment to get it done everyday and not even on raceday was I going to make an excuse and miss it - What was important was that I would know it was done while running - psychologically I had done some work already that day. Hard to explain.
Left early with plenty of time to get there - no stress again. Parkedup, regsistered and got myself ready. Everything was organised, plenty of time - no rush - no stress, I can't understate how important it was to be in control, not stressed, no last minute panicing or losing kit. After the usual briefing and an unexpected kit check we were off and a year of waiting and working came down to this but oddly I felt very few nerves - Mainly as I think I knew I had done the work, I was confident and I knew all I had to do was execute my plan for the day.
Part one of the plan was to run my own race and my own pace, I always tend to get sucked along with the surge at the start when the adrenaline is flowing and people head off at much higher pace than I can sustain all day, it's compounded at preseli as you are heading off with runners who are doing the shorter 24 mile version. Last year I went off way too fast and paid for it. This year i was literally at the back, last person and I didn't care one bit. it was my race and my plan, I wasn't falling into that trap again. I didn't care I was dead last leaving the village. I admit it took some confidence and in front of all those people watching it was hard to swallow the pride but it was what I had planned and I wasn't going succumb to temptation.
The first few miles clicked by nicely, I kept to the plan and my pace, kept the effort level generally low and when we hit the first climb I just kept the same smooth cadence and with little effort started to pass people while walking not even running. I could see people running and making virtually no more progress than i was. The temptation was to run myself but the ego is a beat that needs to be tamed and so I did.
This was a pattern that would repeat throughout the day. I was in control, the race wasn't dictating to me, I was choosing how I was running it. Even before the first aid station and then big hill I had pulled away from the back of the race and was overtaking people without putting out any particular effort. I had started my nutrition plan of an energy tablet every 15 mins and then started the fruit and nuts mix I had ready (I had two full pouches of these to get through - I had wondered if it was too much to carry but as it turned out I got that decision right too) I was hydrating properly. The sun had come out and I started ot worry it was going to be another hot day - The forecast had said clouds but as we were up high I could see the sun beating down on other parts of the course. My only real mistake - I had trusted the forecast and had no sunscreen on me. But what could I do there and then? Not panic is all. I was shirtless by now to keep cool and I decided to carry on as I was and see how the weather progressed.
The first big descent is a few miles long and in the past I have taken advantage and really bombed it at pace but experience here had taught me it was a long way to go and a surefire way to blow up the quads early so I took my time and descended at an easy pace behind others, not bothering to overtake which in the past I would have been desperate to do. When we hot the bottom of the valley I could feel the heat and so on with the Raidlight cap I bought in preparation for hot weather, its white, its light and it really keeps the head cool. Hair up in a ponytail - which is unusual for me but keeps me cooler and keep on trucking towards aid station two. Around here I notcied pain in my side and found that my phone had worked loose in my pack and the corner of it was happily digging a hole above my hip. No panic - it's happened, deal with it. So I took the time to stop, repack my kit, get vaseline and tape ready in case I had to dress the chafing and then move on. No rush - no panic. Do you see the common theme here. Everything in control. As it turns out my decision to stop to deal with it paid off and I wasn't troubled by it again.
The second aid station is at the foot of the first really steep climb and the plan was to get the poles out at this point and they never got put back from there on. Choosing to train then run with poles was a big decision and one that paid off handsomely on the day. It's hard to quantify but they do just make climbing so much easier as you can transfer just a small bit of power through the arms which just eases up the legs. Nothing is ever equal so of course the extra hill training, being 30 pounds lighter than last year and being cooler all contributed but the poles helped make that first hard hard climb much easier, in fact i was shocked when I reached the top feeling fine, i couldn't believe it was done so quick.
The trip over the top and down to Newport is a fun one to run and here I found the poles useful on the descents too, just to stabilise and on the steeper sections take some of the impact off the legs. Newport lies at the base of Cadair Idris which is the steepest climb of the lot. We got there an hour ahead of cutoff around two and a half hours in. Very happy with that. Cutoffs can be tight at Preseli if you get things worng so mentally it was good to know I had time in hand. I took a minute or so at the aid station to get myself together - eat some aid station food - which this year I was not shy about doing, I can stomach chocolate, cake and jelly babies it seems. In fact I was finding that I can happily tolerate proper food not just energy tablets etc So with no rush off up the mountain we went. And again the poles made a difference, usually off the top of cadair Idris the calves are burning and the legs a little wobbly but this year they felt pretty damn good.
Down into the Gwaun valley and the heat and my favourite aid station with the old guys who are here every year. I always enjoy this one, it's bizarre how you can look forward to a few minutes a year but I took the time to stop, get water and food, say hello and then move onwards. At this point the fatigue starts and it's a bit of a grind through the middle section of the race to the road crossing at around 19 miles. There's nothing particulary hard in this section but it's probably the one section with less character than the others and one I know I struggle a little on as fatigue sets in and energy levels start to drop off. But I also recognised this would happen and just dug in and through it. It was in this section i bumped into a guy who I actually completed this ultra with in 2018 - Sheer chance he reconised me. And for the rest of the race we stuck together. It is sometimes good to have the company in the latter stages of a race and despite him being a virtual stranger we had enough of a shared bond to work together which was important later as I wasn't 100% sure of the navigation of the unmarked back end of the race.
We stopped at the road junction for a few minutes to eat and repack gear and gather ourselves as this is the last aid station and guarunteed water until the end. There are streams you can use from here on in and the possibility of some at the final turnaround point in the out and back loop. At this point we were 45 minutes before the road cutoff - and we weren't hanging about. I began to realise how tight the cutoffs on this race can become. Last year I only had 25 minutes and this is where I made the decision to switch to the shorter 24 mile course. As it turns out a wise one.
The 8 mile difference in courses doesn't sound much until you realise the terrain goes from trails and paths to bushwhacking straight along and up hillsides, you might find a sheeptrod if you're lucky. There were 3 of us by now and we were having issues navigating to the next checkpoint - we could actually see it in the distance but out there it's still not an easy task to get to it - get it wrong and you're knee deep in a tussocky bog which requires huge effort ot wade through, let alone the wear and tear on your ankles and knees as you tread on the uneven and collapsing ground. We continued as best we could, following other runners in the distance and hoping they had hit better lines. Who knows if they did? Eventually though after some slow progress we hit a better path and from there it was on to Carn Alw which is an old iron age hill fort. The area is dotted with cairns and I mistakenly took Carn Bica for Carn Alw. Which meant we were on the right path but a few miles further back than I thought or hoped. Instead of moaning and cursing the extra miles - which weren't really extra as it was wishful thinking that made me think it was Carn Alw - t was a case of laughing it off and keeping the grind going to Carn Alw. At Carn Alw the marshall and his dog let us know we had an hour to reach Foel Drygaen hillfort a few miles further on. Sounds easy but nothing is out there - We had a choice of routes and took the one he recommended - not the straight line but I prefer to bow to local knowledge. Eventually we pulled up the steep hill into the last aid station - where there was plenty of water as they had carted it up on a quad bike - thankfully.
We had made that last checkpoint with 30 minutes to spare - see what i mean about cutoffs? We still weren't hanging about but it was getting tight. Just those last few miles had taken half an hour between checkpoints. But as it was the final timed checkpoint now the pressure suddenly eased and I knew that barring severe misfortune I was going to finish this ultra and get the redemption I was after. There were still 8 mountainous miles to go but all I had to do was buckle down and keep going. And keep going we did, it was useful to have others along at this point as the temptation is to slacken off because by now everything was hurting from teh waist down, feet and calves especially. It becomes harder and harder to run, downhills become painful from the accululated battering, in fact you look forward to uphills so you can powerhike them. The third member of our group had fresher legs and forged on ahead and Ian and I just ground out mile after mile of climb until we hit the final trig point.
I mentioned to Ian about failing the year before and was surprised to find that he did exactly the same thing, he started on the ultra loop but was beaten back by the terrain and the heat. I realised on that loop that if I had continued the year before I would never had made it in the condition i was in. It would have been dangerous in fact and I actually made exactly the right decision - Of course I couldn't be sure of that at the time but with hindsight being 20/20 vision I see now that what i thought was a failure really wasn't, it might have been a physical fail, I might have screwed up the choices I made, pace and nutrition but when it came to it I couldn't have finished it in that heat and that condition and really I made the right decision and won. I just had to run it again to appreciate just how hard it is up there and to see how I could never have finished the year before.
From here it was nearly all downhill, 3 miles or so to the end. A quick shake of the hands to acknowledge we had hit the final peak and then off we went, I told him i'd see him at the finish if we split up and he took off like a rocket downhill. I followed barely able to keep pace, everything screaming at me to just stop, to take it easy but something deep inside me said no - You keep going until you can't go anymore. And I followed him doing 9 and 10 minutes miles over the rough paths. he just kept going even when it flattened out and I kept following and in hindsight it was the right thing to do, fight to the very end and give all you have, get back with nothing left. We passed 3 more runners who I think didn't expect these two idiots to appear out of the blue making a headlong charge for the finish. We hammered through the forest, over the wooden walkways through the marsh, along the treelined path where we had fresh legs several hours earlier. Eventually we hit a small uphill and I simply had no more and had to slow and he went away a little, I slowed but refused to walk it in and came running through the village at my own pace.
I won't lie I felt quite emotional coming down that last half mile through the village with people clapping and congratulating, not just because I'd got it right on the day but because I got it right for an entire year. I made my mind up a year ago that I would be back and redeem the mistakes. In that year I put in the hard yards. I grafted, learned, planned and prepared and it all paid off and I got my reward in that last half mile running to the finish line.
In the end I completed the Preseli ultrabeast in 7 hours and 21 minutes and 27th place. Certainly not the fastest time on the day and it wasn't the slowest but really it was never about the finishing time it was about the finish. Not just to the race but to a year of hard work and learning. I now truly know what a blessing in disguise is. By coming up short the year before I was forced to look at myself and make hard decisions, I took the right ones and pushed myself onwards and upwards.
I have thought since about whether I will ever run the Ultrabeast again. I love the mountains, the course, the marshalls, the people, the challenge. I think the difference is now I don't need to run the Ultrabeast again I just have to want to.
Some photos - I didn't take many. The day was more about a job to do than a pleasure trip. Plus my phone lived in my pack so I had to find it each time.
Gwaun Valley aid station - love this one
Cloudy with a chance of sunburn (which I got)
Discussion over route selection - Usually its a case of "lets go up and pray we find a track"
This is why there is sometimes slow progress - There is no path
When I look back at the photos the scale amazes me - We were heading for the mountain in the middle of the photo.
Smiles halfway up Foel Drygarn - At this point we knew we had enough time in hand
Scale again - Looking back we had come from Carn Ingli Which is the peak on the far right of the photo
Just another hillside - No path just pain
Legendary race organiser Caz the hat. Taken at the end after i had lay down and couldn't get up for a while.
I think its Foel Drygarn. Maybe ,,,
Some more specific training for Preseli on a beautiful if cold early spring morning. it was an odd run eventually clocking in at 15 miles. We started early and ran around the village and surrounding area for a few hours as I had agreed a 9.30 start time for training the others if any turned up. Which they didn't - well one did but was late so I wa already gone. I expected that to be fair as a few had let me know in advance but I am determined that I will put in the effort even if others don't. Anyway that just meant I could concentrate on my own training and so after around 8 miles or so I dropped off Murph so I could head for the cliffs to get some hill repeats done. Again I cant trust murph off lead on the cliffs and I cant hold him while using poles so as much as its sad that I can't have him with me he still gets his share of the run before and after.
The repeats went very well, felt really good and there was plenty in the legs. I'm sure it felt better than last time and I increased the number by one at Marcross - just because. The poles are becoming more second nature now, I have also taken them on a couple of long beach walks where I don't actually need them but the practice is paying off. I was scheduled to deadlift that day but common sense kicked in and so I got some benchpressing done instead. And that is progress too as maybe in the past I have blindly stuck to schedules without thinking of the consequences. I was glad I did the following day as my legs were surprisingly trashed for a 15 mile run, hill repeats or not.
So things are going well training wise, I have a few niggles but when don't I? Confidence for Preseli is high. This time I feel like I know I have done the work.
And so here is a video of the day. Warning - it's not exciting, the sound quality is poor at times due to the wind but it has a rogue sheep in it!
I ran my first 32 mile ultra on the South West Coastal path in August 2017. The race report will be in the Blue Green Gold Grey archives if you're really interested. In short it was a long, hot and mostly painful day full of beginner mistakes and lessons learned. Since then I've run more 32 mile races, one in Preseli - which as you may have read is a big focus of mine right now as I failed it last year, only completing the 24 mile course. I've also run a 50 miler around the Epynt way in Mid Wales which is my longest run to date. They have all been learning experiences, including the two I have done in my local area for fun. Each time I learn something new and can apply it the next time out, be it pacing, nutrition, mental toughness or kit selection. There are some things you can't learn from a book or website, you just need to go out there and face up to the fact you will make painful mistakes and then learn how to correct them for next time. If you don't learn from the mistake or embrace failure you won't go far in this sport.
So with that in mind I set out last Friday (24th Feb 2023) with Preseli specific training in mind. After the foot injury sustained in my last fell race at Kymin I'm a few weeks behind where I could be but that's no real issue. With 10 weeks to go to the race I can sort out my final conditioning. And as part of the lessons learned from last years failure I am doing more race specific conditioning meaning hills and longer runs. On Friday I combined the two in order to simulate the first half of Preseli. The idea was to run 10 to 12 miles to simulate the start of the race - Although admittedly Preseli has hills from the get go the two steepest appear around 11 and 13 miles in. I would drop off Murph before heading to the beach where I could do hill repeats in the Cwm (valley) at Monknash and then run over to Marcross and do repeats on the very steep cliffside hill there. This would also provide me ample chance to practice with my poles, test some nutrition and hydration strategies and put hill miles into tired legs. I also filmed parts of it - so you can watch the youtube video below if you're really that interested.
It went well - I confirmed what I could eat and drink on the run, I was happy with the kit and know what i will wear and take with me after a little fine tuning. The poles went really well - They make both climbing and descending so much easier. The two climbs I consider the crux of Preseli should be easier without taking so much out of my legs for the subsequent 20 miles. The run also boosted my confidence and gave me an idea of where i'm at in terms of readiness. I need more long runs and some more hill work would not go amiss although I was really pleased with my climbing and also my mental toughness. Hill repeats wear you down mentally as much as they do physically but i ground them out and took no shortcuts on the day.
Heading out - full of energy!
Daffodils in full bloom
We love forests
Atlantic College Seawall
Tide is In
First hill repeats - 6 times up and down both sides
Happy dog is happy