Lon Las Cymru
It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this report. No one really wants to read an account of a failure and no-one really wants to write one either. The only possible reason why anyone would want to do so is in the hope of storing those memories in order to learn from the experience.
So, what have I learned? Well, 1st of all I have learned that the older I get the weaker and more fragile my body gets too. No rocket science there but I also learned that in contradiction to increased physical frailty my head gets stronger as the years pass and can generally hold together a body falling apart, in circumstances where a younger me might well have folded.
I also learned that the further the distance and the shittier the conditions, the better I seem to do and I also learned that I hate races with tight cut-offs … No wait, I knew that already so why was I here? Had I not learned from that? Evidently not. I also relearned that it’s never easy trying to run 250miles.
I’m not sure why I’ve never done any of Marks races previously. I am old enough to remember him running himself and his runs are like the way he ran. Hard and uncompromising, so I thought that this race would suit me. I’ve never needed a crew or support to motivate me and the race rules of no crews/minimal race support looked right up my street.
I had been unable to get out and recce the route (well it is 255miles long) and not done a lot of specific training. Frankly, since I’d finally finished Spartathlon (bloody cut-offs again) in 2018 I’d been found wanting in respect of any real race drive or ambition. Without a goal to keep me going as my Spartathlon goal had for the past 10 years or more I could, possibly should have retired on that high, but I still felt I was good-ish at this lark for my age so in looking for a replacement goal found this race. The target of running from the North to the South of Wales ticked the boxes and I sort of overlooked the cut-off aspect, although I was subconsciously aware that in the previous and first edition two years ago, only 6 runners (loose description) had finished.
I had also done some research and my estimated time targets made me realise that it would be close, even at the 89hours I thought the cut-off was, let alone the 88hrs it turned out to be on the day. Only an hour less though at 88hrs. Surely that wouldn’t be important would it?
After lining up at Holyhead docks and being told in the briefest of briefings that the cut was now 88hrs and there would be no T shirt if you were a minute over, about 30 runners ambled off into the pre-dawn with little other ceremony. The weather was not good. Squalls of brief but heavy rain rattled windows across the darkened streets of Holyhead and continued as we made our way out onto Angleseys roads proper.
Head down into the rain I tucked loosely onto the back of a group going at about my pace having not yet turned on my navigation head. There were periods when I was on a vague track in the woods when I wasn’t entirely sure I was going in the right direction but I chanced it and as daylight arrived I was still on track. A brief detour soon after however, carrying on along the main road when the track had left it woke me up and I switched on the navigation head, soon getting into the swing of things and soon getting used to running on a GPS track again. It was going to be a long journey but best not think about that right now, just think that this is your life right now. Amble along, look at the GPS, eat something and keep on ambling.
It was however that around here, ie quite early into the race I was vaguely aware of having wet feet. Now this doesn’t usually happen. My tried and tested foot regime of vaseline/Injinji socks and Sealskinz outers normally prevents wet feet, unless the water is so deep that it comes over the top of my Sealskinz. Damp perhaps, but not wet, and a system that has worked well for me for the best part of 20years or more. So why was it happening? All it needed was a quick look down. For some reason – perhaps hurrying in the hotel room or not having done a race of this nature for some time, I had forgotten to tuck my Sealskinz under my calf guards. Now I know I risk ridicule here and I know there is no evidence that they actually do anything useful but they seem to work for me. I use them for marathon distances and over and they do seem to prevent/reduce muscle soreness after the race, but more importantly they help keep the shit off your legs and rain/water runs down them and onto the floor where it can’t do any damage if you fit them over your Sealskinz. Instead here they were helpful only in allowing water to run down my legs into my socks, where it couldn’t get out. Bugger. Race derailed after only 10miles or so and no opportunity to rectify the problem until the 1st kit drop at nearly 60miles. I smartly tucked my Sealskinz underneath to nip the issue in the bud but as the distance across Anglesey increased, I was becoming aware of hot spots on the balls of my feet and toes that were not going away.
Grumbling to myself about what a prat I’d been seemed to pass the time and gradually Anglesey passed. Occasional glimpses of Snowdonia were the only high point in what was an otherwise grey, damp and rather flat and dull route and the head was already having to work overtime in keeping things in check. A swift stop at a shop for orange juice and some food was followed shortly afterwards by a multipack of pork and pickle pies from Waitrose just before Menai and then Anglesey was a thing of the past.
The water stop at Menai was brief. Nothing to keep you hanging about and I saw the need to make as much progress in daylight towards Criccieth as I could. I already knew I wasn’t going as fast as my estimate had said I should be going, so needed to press on. Things start to get a bit vague around here. One of the tricks of running a race of this length is to break it down and to change hours into minutes. You are on the road for a very long time so you need to throw mental garbage into a cupboard and lock it up. You need to get into the mode of thinking ’only an hour to…’ etc rather than ‘it’s another hour to…’ and to do that you have to forget a lot of stuff. I now only vaguely remember bits and pieces of the route even though I was on the road for hours on the 29mile section between Menai and Criccieth. I remember traipsing through Caernarvon, past the castle whilst looking after a can of lemonade and a massive bar of peppermint Aero and I remember a long section on an old railway line but that is about all. Criccieth was the next target and all else was forgotten in the task of getting there.
Criccieth at 59m was the 1st stop where we had access to our kit bags. I hadn’t planned a long stop here but I needed a pit stop to look at my feet and change my socks. It was now dark and there wasn’t much cover in what looked like an old bus shelter but it was enough to effect running repairs and coat my feet in Sudocreme. The soles of my feet had felt bad, with pins and needles telling me that they were about to fall off, but on inspection didn’t seem too bad. Hopefully the Sudocreme would forestall any further falling apart. My toes were sore though and it was hard and painful work getting a fresh pair of Injinji over them. With fresh Sealskinz under the calf guards I set off to find the legendary chip shop only to find it had closed about 15 minutes previously, at 8pm. Seriously, who closes a chip shop at 8pm even on a Thursday? As it was a steak pie from the nearby Spa had to do instead.
More route vagueness followed. I became aware of other racers behind me as I crossed the cob at Porthmadog but they didn’t pass me and as the route then started to go uphill after Penrhyndeudraeth (had to look that one up) the lights and voices faded. It made a pleasant change to be on a hill and as it wound up forever, into the mist, the eerie light of sheep’s eyes reflecting back from my headtorch gradually changed to the more bulky outline of cows, but with the same eerie shining eyes. The cows were right in my way on the path and unmoving. They seemed a little disconcerted by the bobbing light approaching them and I was unsure how they’d react, but at the last minute they skittered aside and let me past.
The hill went on and on. It would have gone on even further had I continued to follow my GPS track too since it was at this point that the cycleway no.8 signs went downhill but my GPS track did not. It turns out that the track I had uploaded was the high level route version and whilst this diversion had been fairly obvious I would need to be alert to any other difference. As it was I gratefully jogged the downhill section onto Maxine and Lindleys water stop at 79m just south of Harlech.
Anyway, the route dragged on (just like this account) further into the night. A memorable point was the beachfront path into and through a sleeping Barmouth and an exposed path across the bay next to the railway line. I was dog tired now. I’d decided I needed to go straight through the first night but tiredness was starting to make the navigation decisions harder. I dithered about a bit trying to find the correct path onto the muddy and puddled pedestrian causeway along the estuary into Dolgellau and as light gradually returned a couple of other racers, Karl and Tom came past me. I was struggling to stay awake at this point and although I hadn’t seen another racer since I had left Criccieth, my monosyllabic conversation meant I didn’t hold the two of them up for long.
Dolgellau Rugby club, accessed over an extremely soggy set of pitches was a more inviting CP than Criccieth had been but since it was daylight I planned to pretty much keep trucking on to make the most of it. I seemed to have reduced my self-imposed deficit from 60mins at Criccieth to only 30mins at Dolgellau but a stop of 30mins put me pretty much back at the same point. Nonetheless it was important to eat up and I cracked open the Primus to heat up some beans and sausages and used the hot water for a quick coffee. Idiotically however and in my keenness to depart I forgot to top up my water and had stop at a Co-Op in Dollgellau shortly afterwards to buy some, the shop seeming inordinately busy for that time of the morning. Anyway, 100miles done and only 150miles to go … nearly half way (which is just the sort of thought you try so hard to shut out of your head on a race of this length).
I’d kept my night kit on after Dolgellau since I hadn’t been too warm but the hill rising up towards Cader Idris out of Dolgellau soon saw me sweating and strapping excess kit to the outside of my bag. The weather had improved some here and although it was still wet underfoot at least it was no longer raining … for now. Karl passed me as I was changing kit but I repassed him again powering up the hill. I was quite enjoying it here, especially the hills and glad to have got 100miles under my belt still feeling quite comfortable.
No idea where this is
Woodland tracks followed and it was somewhere around Machynlleth at about 114 miles that I was told I was in 3rd place. I was rather taken aback by this since I am not used to being up at the sharp end and I’d thought Tom was still in front, having left Dolgellau before me (it turns out he’d not stopped at the CP in Dolgellau but had stopped at a café in the town). I also felt surprisingly good. My toes were still sore but the soles of my feet had calmed down and I was still able to make a good pace. The route out of Machynlleth soon stopped that though. I had been quite happy on some of the earlier hills, especially where there was a view but this one was 8 solid miles uphill to the highest point of the route. Not especially steep but especially boring, the wind increased as I neared the summit and as I crested the top Peter passed in the death bus asking if I’d met the hailstorm that had turned everywhere white. Fortunately I had not but by the time I got to Marks very exposed CP at the halfway point, it was extremely cold and windy. Still chuffed to be in 3rd place at half-way I had no choice but to jog out of there as quickly as I could, since it was still a further 25miles to Rhayader and the 1st point I’d factored in a bit of a recovery break.
This next section soon saw the euphoria of being in 3rd dissipate. As soon as it got dark again I became aware of just how dog tired I really was. If I’d found it hard to stay awake to Dolgellau, this section was on another level. The woods were full of familiar wizards and birds and I was convinced that there was someone walking with me. We chatted and I was aware that we needed to press on following this line on my GPS, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I needed to and nor was the phantom with me. He didn’t try to talk me out of pressing on but he did add to the confusion. I was drawn out of this fug only by a couple of calls from my wife and daughter, remarking on how slow my pace seemed to be. The act of texting on my race phone was nearly beyond me and on a couple of occasions working out which way to go and which way round to hold my GPS was nearly beyond me too.
I can’t remember much about getting to Rhayader, only that the cliffs and mountain paths I thought I was travelling along didn’t seem to be borne out on the map. I eventually worked out how to get into the hall that was the CP and as soon as possible stripped off enough kit to get into my sleeping bag.
I knew I was slowing down. I had planned up to 4hrs sleep here but had decided to make do with 2 instead. I thought sleep would come easily after over 40hrs on the road but it didn’t. I couldn’t sleep on my back since it hurt my heels and I couldn’t sleep on my side since it hurt my hip (I’d forgotten that that had been troubling me until I tried to sleep on it). As it was I eventually fell asleep in a sort of foetal position, but it wasn’t a good sleep and I was awake before my alarm went off. I decided I might as well get going and so still in the dark, I was back out on the road way too soon for what my body really needed. I’d also found out one of the drawbacks of using a Jetboil/Primus lite type stove to warm food up was that once you have packed the stove bit away into the pan bit, the next time you use it all the water just tastes of jet fuel. But on the plus side I’d now done 150miles, I was still in 3rd place, I’d got less than 100miles still to go and more to the point still felt ok. Don’t get me wrong it had taken all of the mental resolve I could muster just to reach this point and it had proved one of the toughest things I had ever done to this point, but I was still in the game.
I remember nothing at all of the next section and the brain cells responsible for that part of my journey are well and truly fried. Maybe something will come back to me and jog my memory but at present I recall nothing at all until I reached Builth Wells at about 167m in daylight again, seeing a Kingfisher on the river as I arrived. I had another little nav episode trying to negotiate Builth Wells but for the main the only bit I recall here was locating a Greggs and having a latte and Cornish Pasty (apparently called a meat and veg pasty in Wales) and a caramel doughnut.
What I recall from here though is that the road to CP7 at Errwood at about 175m was really busy and fast and with little protection from the traffic. As a result I kept as far into the verge as possible. For the 1st time I became aware of a slight lean to the right. I had thought it might be as a result of having to stay well into the verge and an adverse camber which would rectify itself as soon as I got onto a better path. As I got into Errwood though, Lindley and others remarked on my lean too. It was manageable at this point but clearly obvious to others as well as me. I’d known Peter having had a similar problem on Spartathlon in the past but I’d never previously had an issue like this myself. I wasn’t too worried though and after a brief stop at the station café where I was kindly bought tea, lemonade and a cake by a runner who had dropped out (sorry, I’ve forgotten your name) I just had to keep going.
Bit of a slant starting at Errwood
By this time I was starting to become aware that my pace, being slower than I had planned was starting to become an issue and I would have to make sure I kept on top of it and to at least 3mph whilst I was walking. At this point it didn’t seem to be much of a problem but it was the first point that I recall thinking that I didn’t have much more than an hour or so up on the eventual cut-off. The route to Glasbury where we were to cross the river was pleasant and dry and as I crossed the river I stopped for another pasty and coke at a petrol station.
I don’t now remember when Tom passed me but it must have been on this next section since Karl also came past on the road to Talgarth as it was getting dark again. We to’d and fro’d a bit as he stopped for the odd refreshment since in the main I just pressed on, having plenty of chocolate and Tailwind with me. I had another slight nav wobble in Talgarth, walking past a junction with my brain turned off for a few hundred yards until the GPS called me back.
CP 8 at 200miles was just south of Brecon. In hindsight I was now having a few too many nav issues. Normally this isn’t a problem for me and although reccying the route would have helped (especially from Brecon to the end along the Taff Trail, since my brother lives in Cardiff), the main problem was one of tiredness and confusion. I was finding that my GPS didn’t seem to be reacting quickly enough to help me remedy walking up an incorrect path. Locating the start of the Taff Trail in Brecon itself as the pubs were kicking out was one point and whilst it didn’t lose me a lot of time, it was all starting to stack up.
As a result once I’d arrived at CP8 I decided I couldn’t justify the 2hrs I’d previously set aside for sleep here. I ate a slightly warmed up chili, changed kit, dropped my chest pouch and got my head down briefly. This time I dropped off immediately and although it was only half an hour or so, I felt immediately refreshed, much more so than after the 2hrs I’d had at Rhayader.
Llanfrynach ... very tired
It wasn’t long after I’d left CP8 that I came across Tom having a kip in the middle of the path. Since it was so close to the CP I’d asked if he was ok and he’d said that he was having trouble staying awake and could he ‘run’ with me for a bit. I agreed and we pressed on together. The company certainly helped keep me awake and we passed several hours chatting about races whilst going up and down the tracks between the various reservoirs at a pace I’d not managed for many a mile. At this point I was confident that I’d have just enough pace to make it to the end. My back also seemed to have recovered a little after the brief stop at CP8. There was now less than 50miles to go and I still had a good hour in hand over the cut-offs. The last of the good points.
Gradually though Tom pulled away and as Karl too came past my back was starting to make itself known again. I had no other real issues. My hip was no longer hurting and my toes had plateaued and were manageable. I was just ignoring them.
Once again though a slight nav error finding the track after Pontsticill and then again trying to find the CP at 225m were having a small but negative and cumulative effect on my buffer. At CP9 at 225m just on the outskirts of Merthyr in particular, I was starting to panic. It now looked like I had less than an hour to spare and the confidence and positiveness I’d felt after CP8 were evaporating. I was no longer sure I had enough time, with just 30miles to go.
It wasn’t long after Merthyr either that my back started to really hurt. The slight lean now felt like a 45degree tilt and I just couldn’t stand upright. I picked up a stick (note not a pole, they aren’t allowed) to help me stay as upright as possible but I must now have looked like Quasimodo, shuffling along the Taff trail, bent over at 45 degrees dragging my R foot behind me and with the aid of a gnarled stick. I tried to run several times but it was painful, there was no way it was happening and I knew my pace now was below the necessary 3mph average needed, and getting slower.
I got to Pontypridd right on the nail where Byron, having dropped out himself previously, was offering moral support to me and Alan Cormack behind me. Alan was the last runner in the race and the rest had all gone. I was in 5th, Alan was 6th and that was it.
An hour or so after I’d found my way through Pontypridd it started to get dark again. Once dark and within the space of another mile or so I made 2 nave errors in close succession. I missed a sign, turned the wrong way and lost another 10mins finding the right path. I then had a complete nav meltdown within about another ¼ mile. 1st I turned off up a dual carriageway thinking I was following the right cycle path only to find another sign telling me it was another cycle route entirely. I rectified that and got lost in some woods. I missed a sign (or there wasn’t one) at a track junction and merrily waltzed off in entirely the wrong direction again. In the woods, my GPS was slow to react whilst in the woods and it was a while before I realised I was on the wrong track. My downloaded GPS track now clearly shows just what a mess I made of this section. I had no time to spare and I was making a real pigs ear of it. Lindley and Maxine appeared out of nowhere, pointed me in the right direction and then left me to it. I was on my way again following a good path now but I had wasted a good half hour of time I just didn’t have. It’s hard now in retrospect to understand just how or why I made these errors, but it can only have been tiredness. I can remember for example just standing in some woods just not being able to figure out which way round my GPS went and at the same time panicking that I had no time for dithering.
Eventually things just petered out. I heard from Lindley and Maxine that Alan had called it a day. They told me I still had just enough time to make it but it meant keeping to 2.5mph-3mph, in hindsight a ridiculously slow speed but it must have been a measure of how slow my back was making me go that I couldn’t even keep to that pace, even when I was going in the right direction. I was still finding the route confusing but was now within Cardiff’s boundaries. I was crossing the odd major road and wasting only seconds or perhaps minutes checking the map and GPS to pick up the path again, but it was time I didn’t have. It might have helped if it had been a good straight path with no junctions but the writing was on the wall and had been some time. I just couldn’t drag myself through that last 20miles or so quickly enough. Eventually I looked at the map, saw I had about 10K to do but only an hour and a half to do it in. I knew it would take me at least 2hours probably more, so knew that I had run out of time. It just seemed so bizarre being virtually 250miles into a 255mile race, knowing that I had the guts to make the distance but that I would have been about an hour too slow for the cut … after being on the road and having faced a permanent battling away of the miles for a good 87hrs. So I made the call and dumped my stick by the side of the road. An ordinary bent bit of tree leaned up against a wall outside someone’s house marking the end of my anguish and travels from Holyhead to Cardiff.
So, a tough race. One of the toughest out there. Only 4 runners finished this year, even less than the 6 who finished in 2017. I was the last one out there on the course. I could have pushed it to the end arriving outside the cut-offs but I didn’t see the point. The race is to finish the distance within 88hrs and I wasn’t going to do that and wasn’t going to get the T shirt. I was also worried too that pushing on even just for another hour or two might cause me some permanent damage. I’d had to have most of a disc out in 2013 and the pain I’d had then wasn’t too dissimilar to that I was having now. I was pretty sure that I hadn’t damaged a disc but it’s one of those things that preys on your mind in moments of mental weakness. As such as soon as I realised that the maths didn’t work, it was the hardest but then again easiest decision I’ve had to make on a race like this.
Gutted is an understatement. I’m still coming to terms with this race and am not sure I ever will. Had I pulled out when my back started playing up as I probably should, I could have accepted it as an injury and just one of those things. However, having battled against that injury for so long and having put up with the pain to within a few miles of the finish, I’m not sure I ever will. After recharging my batteries briefly at 200m and being full of hope and optimism again, I really thought I’d done it too. It just goes to show, even when you've already done 200 miles, 50 miles is still a bloody long way and lots can happen in the time it takes to cover that distance.
So, at 61 and well past my physical best I know I am still mentally strong enough for this type of event and the further and shittier the better for me, but in this race I’m not sure if my head didn’t actually push my body well past its point of no return. Had I been still within time with a finish mathematically possible then even if I had been risking permanent injury my head would still have told my body that it was worth it. Worrying, foolhardy or just gutsy? … I’m not sure which it is, I’m just glad at the moment that even as my mascerated little toes mend and my back gets slowly back to its pre-run level of daily grumbling at me, that there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage, save as to my pride.