Another weekend, another adventure in the hills. This time in the form of a multi stage ultra marathon, called "The Ring O' Fire" - the name stands out for itself! It's a single lap of the Island of Anglesey - some 135 miles and 13,000 ft of ascent.
I was lucky enough to get a late entry to this event 3 weeks before the event. Since the UTSW I've been bitterly disappointed with myself but it has also given me a bit of a kick up the arse. So with the event entered I did a bit of training, given I didn't have long before a taper I put in a couple of solid weeks before picking up a very painful groin injury. With a week's rest, some panic physio and a shit-tonne of stretching and strength training in the gym, I was feeling less sore and excited to get to the start.
The schedule of the event was as follows:
Friday: 1pm Start of a 35 mile section with a 3 check points with cut offs final cut off of midnight
Saturday: 6am start for a 65 mile stage and final cut off time of 4am
Sunday: 6am Start for a final 35 mile stage with a final cut of 5:30pm
On first look the cut offs look like you could walk it. But add in to this, coastal paths, big hills, steps, majority off road and sleep deprivation and it's not so generous after all and looking at the results from last year only half the field finished.
My friend Doug was also entered for the event so we arranged to meet up on the Thursday night, get some food and have a pre race catch up. We'd previously teamed up for the OMM and The Spine as well as a couple of Adventure races so had implied that we'd try and stick together. My race plan was to do a goodish time on Day 1, and get through day 2 and 3 without too much injury. After a few beers a pizza and a check of the maps we got our heads down for an early night.
Friday morning came too soon and we were up, repacking kit bags, drop bags, ate some breakfast and headed off to the race registration. Having arrived after dark last night I hadn't got a look at any scenery and straight away I was stunned by the views of the sea. The weather was pleasant and forecast for the weekend was good and I was excited to get started!
Registration was from 11am but it had been revealed a few days earlier that we'd be getting a very special send off - by Prince William no less so we arrived a bit earlier to ensure we got to park. There were several paparazzo knocking around who were obviously there for us!
We had our kit taken up to the registration area by the organisers and we made our way up to sign on and pick up our numbers. I was handed a t-shirt with a cute message on (nice touch) and some complimentary 3Bars and number 014.
Before long we were treated to not only Prince William but also Kate Middleton walking up to meet and greet a select few - she looked amazing - even if she hadn't given birth only weeks ago! I was desperate for a pee but wasn't sure if it was a bit inappropriate to drop my shorts and take a slash in a bush behind the royals! More to the point, I didn't want to get papped with my pants down or snipered! In any case, I only had 5 mins til the off so I ran down a lane and did my business.
Soon we were under starters orders (in the form of Prince William) and the bell was rung, and Jonny Cash played out "it burns burns burns!" and oh it would burn!
To the Race!
As mentioned my plan was to do a reasonable time this day and Doug planned to try to keep up (not that I'm much quicker than him) due to the volume of people trying to get through one kissing gate the start was fairly slow to begin with but once we spread out we set off at a comfortable 10 min/mile pace with amazing views to the left of the sea as we rose up and down the single track trails then looped onto a short section of road, only to be nearly hit by the royals in their Range Rovers! That would have been a good tale to tell!
The route was following coastal walk signs which was largely well sign posted which was odd as along the road section everyone was going straight on but the sign turned right and up over a bridge. I wanted to follow the masses but Doug was adamant that the trail went over the bridge since he'd walked round there yesterday. I went along begrudged still not believing that everyone else would go the wrong way!?
When we popped out of the train station and found ourselves back on the track and ahead of people who were ahead of us, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and put him back in charge of nav!
The first check point was about 10 miles in and we got there in a fairly good time, feel good I made a sprint for the check point. Doug followed suit and we crossed the line together (I think I was a bit ahead!)
The day went by in a blur of gorgeous hidden bays, and stunning views, I couldn't stop grinning,
taking pictures when I saw a nice view and larking about. I was feeling strong and wanted to jog and jog along the lovely single track but there was still a long way to go! My injury felt fine - I'd put a good deal of rock tape on it but it felt fine. I taped up a hot spot on one of my feet from my new trainers (always do an event in a pair of shoes you've never worn!)
We kept making targets of getting to certain points and miles in certain times, each time sprinting into the checkpoint to the amusement of the marshals. achieving the targets made me feel pretty good.
The sun begun to set during the final miles the most gorgeous view across the sea. The final 3rd of the route got a bit hilly and more like the coastal paths I'm familiar with - not quite like the pain of UTSW or the Jurassic Coast but up and down and challenging enough to make the legs burn burn burn!
The last few miles went on and on, I could see the lights in the distance for the village we were heading for, but it never seemed to arrive. We hit tarmac for a while - it must be soon before hitting trails again and decided to walk the last few miles in, flush out the legs a bit and since we couldn't see well and the ground was rooty under foot it was a wise decision and knowing we'd be back in time for a pizza dinner at the local Italian was a welcome feeling! We were overtaken by "the likely lads" (3 guys we'd been yo-yo-ing with all day) probably glad to finally get away from our inane chatter and singing.
We made our way back into the final check point following some signed which had been put out to help us back and save using the map, with a half assed sprint and big smiles to a fab welcome committee of the marshals - how they kept their energy up all day is amazing!
The accommodation for the night was a sport centre, the fast guys had been back hours, had showers, eaten and were already asleep on the floor! We laid out our sleepy bags, had showers (the best shower ever!) and walked the half km to the pizza restaurant, had a cheeky half and a pizza found ourselves falling asleep and made our way back, compression tights on and bed down for the night. It wasn't the best nights sleep but it was the most we'd have for a while!
4:45 came and it was time to get up, normally after a race the normal thing to do is rest, even after a half marathon I don't normally want to do anything, but after 35 miles running round the coast, instead of hobble around in a pair of slippers the best thing to do is go out on little sleep and embark on another 65 mile adventure!
The first stage was just under 12 miles and it was a pretty hilly start. Starting off gently, tentatively testing the legs and surprised at how they felt - OK they were stiff but nothing like I expected - they wanted to run.
The views just didn't get boring, the day drew on, and we were still in the race. We were clearly some of the back runners but it didn't matter, what mattered was finishing, others were pulling out at each check point but we were holding strong, slow but strong. There was some really shitty sections of pebble beaches to run across along the course of the weekend which was probably some of the worst parts of the route. Coming into the the penultimate check point the sun was beginning to go down so we had a little sit down with the lovely marshals who gave us some glow sticks for a night rave and put on an extra layer and headlamps on and checked the maps. We'd sort of decided that we'd walk most of the night section unless it was particularly easy going but we were both getting tired, Dougs' feet weren't in great condition (they'd not healed since Lakeland100 only 4 weeks ago) and the skin was threatening to shed again.
The next section was a long one, the short ones are nice because you can visualise them better but with about 12 miles on this one it was going to be a slog, especially in the dark but the going was fairly flat. we rounded a corner and upon us was a section of river to cross with giant stepping stones about 4ft high! it was fun hopping from one to another in the dark :-) Wwith a small navigational error ending us in the woods for a while eventually got ourselves to the final check point were Bing the organiser a big group of marshals and a vat of Soup was waiting! It was much needed as the temperature had dropped and we were moving pretty slowly now.
A big group of competitors turned up behind us, they'd previously been ahead but had got lost so ended up behind. They flew in and out of the check point whilst we enjoyed the soup and chatter.
After outstaying our welcome we set off on the final 6 miles, soon catching up and overtaking the other group. We took charge of navigation, and found our way back along the route, through fields and sandy tracks. I was feeling quite spritely again (I had taken a gel shortly before and they turn me into a different person) so this didn't go down well with Doug and the others whilst I was bouncing next to them limping and hopping (there were quite a few injuries in the field)
Two of the group set off in front as we hit the dreaded sand dunes and by this point Doug was in a
real state with his feet. It was terrible to watch him wince and limp on every footfall as the blisters worsened. The next 2 miles across the sand dunes were the darkest time. It was grim. It was way past bed time and nearly 2am, my ankle had got really sore and every time I place my left foot a sharp hot pain shot up my shin and top of foot. I tried to encourage Doug on, it was heartbreaking but the going was so slow and the sand so deep and hard to get across it took forever!
Finally we came to the end, crossed and bridge and went back on ourselves. We couldn't see the guys who were behind us so assumed they'd dropped far back in the slog and gloom. We limped and hobbled the last few hundred meters to the village hall we were to sleep in to the smiley face of a marshal outside and Q giving us a double high five. There were several people still up and eating pasta that had been put on - including the guys who were supposedly behind us on the dunes! I was pretty pissed off the next day to find out they'd skipped them and taken the easy route claiming to have "bailed" but still starting Day 3!? Well, they're only cheating themselves hey ;-)
The shoes came straight off to get some pressure of the feet, Doug was in a bad state and I was worried. I set our stuff out whilst he inspected his damaged feet, we didn't even get out of our kit, it wasn't long before we had to be up again so any sleep is good!
Doug wanted to get up to pop his blisters but I insisted that sleep at this stage was more important. I fell asleep pretty quick but had funny hallucinations of bugs scuttling towards my head and my legs waking me up with spasms.
Almost as soon as I closed my eyes I was awoken by "IT BURNS BURNS BURNS, JUST LIKE A RING OF FIRRREEEE!" played at volume into the room and Q bouncing around like a kid on red bull! There was a small part of me not wanting to carry on, my ankle was agony and first instincts were that Doug wouldn't make it today with his feet in the condition they were in.
We made a plan to ensure that we at least started and would go from there check point to check point. The plan was Doug to pop his blisters, we'd tape his feet, and he'd use my trekking poles, and drugs all round. Lots of drugs!
I went and got changed, came back and found him patching up his feet, I cut strips of tape and helped where I could, passed drugs around, packed sleeping bags away, taped up my ankle and got ourselves motivated for one final push.
I wasn't hungry for breakfast so we just had a few cheddars crackers and gathered outside with the remaining runnners. It was cooler this morning and the fatigue was set in, although I did feel so much better for just an hour or so sleep. We set off for the final stage - somehow the front guys still running fast!
The plan was in action, get to the check points inside the cut offs. I was very surprised at my ankle now I had taped it and compression tights on, Dougs feet seemed less horrendous and although we weren't moving fast we weren't at the back. The first check point was about 7 miles in and we knew breakfast was there waiting - in the form of bacon butties - I'm a vegetarian but I really fancied a bacon butty so when we reached the checkpoint (complete with a half hearted sprint) we boshed the most delicious bacon sarnies!
We reached the 2nd check point with 15 mins banked, telling us we'd slowed down further. A few guys we'd been yo-yo'ing with to this point retired here, We took a bit of time to do some foot admin before carrying on.
The next section was another bastard pebble beach. Something I noticed was that there were a lot of people skipping these hard sections in favour of the road, whilst it's clever to use the map to their advantage it's not really in keeping with the spirit of the race to cut corners.
For this section we had to do a prove we'd gone to a Bay slightly off the course rip a page out of a book that was left there and bring it back, (it would be an easy cheat to knock off a few miles) we made our way to the bay and came to a lush opening on to the beach, I felt like a pirate!
After some larking on the beach some more pics and long walk along the seafront we realised that we still had a long way to go before the next check point and time wasn't on our side.
Knowing how bad Doug's feet and shin were (I could tell by the swearing and faces he was pulling) that he wasn't up for running but eventually I said that if we wanted to get to the check point in time and hence continue to the finish then we had to dig deep for the next few miles and really push on. It didn't receive a great response initially but before I knew what was happening he was off!
We ran, proper ran up the hills, down the hills, along on and on and on. I was so impressed with the turn of foot. I knew the pain was bad, my leg gave way a few times but I managed it as best as I could.
We carried on like this for a few miles until a steep incline, I caught up with Doug who was like a man possessed! He said he'd taken 2 packs of bloc shots ! no wonder he was blasting along!
After a brief walk, we were back running again until we met the tarmac. There was no way we were going to run on this, the pain was too much so we marched on, knowing the check point must be soon.
Doug was so amazing that section, I knew that that had got us to the check point when we finally made it there with 20 mins spare.
I insisted we take 10 mins to get our shoes off, get some food in, drug up and prepare for the last 10 miles.
We'd done an epic 125 miles so far and had the last bit in sight. We could do this!
Saying good bye to the lovely marshals and hoping the last time we'd see them would be at the finish line.
We weren't in great shape, I was really worried about Doug as he seemed to be bonking so I slipped him percy pigs for the next couple of miles.
Looking at the map was a bit depressing, it went right round the edge of the coast in a zig zag fashion. We plodded on, taking it in turns in having food swings. Lots of walkers on the trails knew what we were doing and gave words of encouragement and knowing we had less than 10k to go should have been a positive. We wound along the coast round the fields of heather taking in the breath taking views
The map gave hope looking like we'd be at the finish soon. it looked like about 6k, but we had to go "around" the mountain. Climbing up to a little stone hut it looked like we just had to climb up and over, then down and right and we'd be home and dry. We had time to kill and we'd still be back in good time!
We were sadly mistaken. We plodded up over the "top" only to find that we had to go along more trail towards the mountain. Looking at the map we decided that it was just to the lip of the next ridge then right....
It was not.
We reached the top to see the trail go down then up again, then up some more and disappear to the ridge of the actual mountain!
OK, we can do this!
We plodded on. Time was a ticking.... and fast running out!
The trail seemed to be dipping and I was convinced that just round the next corner would be the finish. But the trail took a dip to the left, and went waaaaay out to a point on the far left. I thought I recognised a building below and got excited and shouted to Doug who was limping badly down the big steps only to be told that "um... no, we have to go back up and over"
At this point, we had only 15 minutes to get back in the allotted time not to DNF and we had no idea how many twists and turns and extra climbs would appear! We started to panic a bit so again we had to dig deep, pain schmain, we hadn't come this far to not finish.
Adrenaline kicked in and we ran and ran, up and down, steps and rocks came and went and checking my watch , seeing the minutes pass by. We can do this!!
We rounded another corner and there! we saw it ! the finish shute! it was still about 500meters to go but the end was right there! We had so little time, we ran hard down the final decent, we saw a couple of marshals running up the mountain to meet us - screaming and whopping at us. We sprinted past, we could see the finish post and hear the cheering of the organisers willing us to finish. I looked at my watch - one minute to go. we sprinted head to head towards the finish.
Crossing the line was the most euphoric end to a race I've ever had! It was the most amazing feeling! It was such a dramatic and exciting end to a race and the relief was fantastic knowing how close it had come to not finishing.
We accepted our medals and the marshals and organisers seemed genuinely impressed at our comedy timing.
We don't enter races under "Team Chuckle Bros" for nuthin! ;-)
What an amazing event, I don't think I've grinned so much during a race before and I'd recommend it to anyone!