Motivation is everything. When you want something this much, then you surely will prevail. Well, after 3 days spent running 135 miles, I have proven to myself beyond doubt if there ever were any, that the mind rules the body and your legs will go where you direct them.
This could be a long race report and so I feel that I need to set the context.
I entered this race last year as my ‘A’ race and spent 8 months building up to it. Then less than 48 hours before the start, as we were setting up the family camp at Lligwy beach, I did some serious damage to my adductors while hauling our trailer onto a leveller block. It put me on crutches and despite an attempt to run on Thursday, my race was over before it even began. All the recce trips, planning and preparation necessary for my first multi day adventure went on ice, along with my groin! We stayed on the island and followed Dave as he raced around in fine style, along with the Helsby green army. It hurt to be there but yet it was still fabulous, infectious and I hobbled back home wanting it even more…..
Stalking RoF from every available vantage point!
Having vowed to be back, nothing was going to stop me in 2015.
This year has had a few injury hiccups as is usual with distance running (and age!), but finally the running gods smiled on me and so I came to Holyhead in one piece, with 5 Ultras in the bag for the year so far and more than ready to run one big lap around this stunningly beautiful island.
Not wanting to miss the fun, there would be 5 more hardy Delamere Spartans toe-ing the line; Andy, James, Ged, Gareth and Jason. I predict a riot!
Support from families would be on hand here and there, plus Paul Avo who would become a key member of the Spartan squad.
Day One Fri 4th Sept
Me, James and Andy rode with Ged to Holyhead to meet Gaz and Jetpack and then join the other hundred or so nervy looking figures hauling enormous weekend kitbags over to the start line at Breakwater Park.
Conditions looked dry for the weekend, though a pretty gusty northwesterly was clearly going to buffet us on our 36 mile journey to Amlwch today.
The atmosphere on the start line was friendly but with a lurking sense of what lay ahead keeping the runners pretty subdued. At last, 1pm came and off we went, Johnny Cash ringing in my ears, where it stayed for most of the next 3 days.
A race is a race, so I naturally wanted a decent finishing time and I had made a sort of total guesstimate for each of the 15 checkpoints, which was tucked away in the pocket of my racevest. However, my primary goal was completion, so not going off like a giddy kipper was high on the priority list!
As we (thankfully) left Holyhead town behind us, I found myself in step with John Knapp; last year’s winner. As far as someone to find myself in pace with, I pondered the sanity of this.
However, on day 1 the plan was to use my HRM as the gatekeeper of effort and I used it all day to throttle in my exuberance. It mostly worked, until I met another character. Back to that later…..
The only section of the entire 135 mile coastal route that I haven’t ever stepped foot on is the path beyond Holyhead as far as Church Bay. Looking back, it doesn’t provoke many memorable moments other than the odd nasty shingle beach, with Holyhead seemingly always still in front of us but to our left now. After sensibly letting John slip away into the distance, Andy and I cruised along happily together.
We were soon joined by a young guy wearing some knee length boardshorts and at first I figured he must be a kitesurfer who had been caught up in the fun when we crossed a few beaches earlier on. Introductions were soon made with Luke who turns out to be a very handy runner and we had many a fun hour off and on until our final dash back into Holyhead together 2 days later.
The most beautiful section of the island is arguably the Northern coastline, with beautiful inlets and dramatic clifftop singletrack paths. It was a joy to be flying along, with a whole weekend of running ahead of us. My spirits were high, though my right ankle was already making a horrible grinding noise and both Achilles tendons were very tender.
Disciples of Stuart Mills will be aware of his ‘Race Focus Energy’ mantra and my RFE needle was pointed high, enabling me to easily bury the aches and niggles by looking up, taking in the surroundings and enjoying the moment. My RFE tank stayed pretty full for the entire journey.
You won’t find better coastline anywhere in Britain than northern Anglesey
After 20 miles or so, the elastic between Andy and I stretched a little and I pressed on towards Amlwch with Luke for company.
As we headed towards Wylfa, a figure appeared in the distance running towards us. This signalled the arrival of the one man Spartan service station; Paul Avo, who had come straight from work to provide support for the weekend. This didn’t just mean sitting by the roadside, he was a proper mobile pitstop, refilling bottles and handing out food as we ran!! Refuelled we ran on and Avo then ran off to hunt down the others. 5 star.
The last 10 miles are a bit of a rollercoaster and Luke and I were both starting to feel the climbs a little. On the Lakeland 50 this year my run had been decimated by really severe adductor cramp in both legs that crippled my pace and plagued me all the way to the finish from before Kentmere, so when they started clutching again after just 25 miles of day 1, it was a bit of a warning signal. Time to take the climbs up the big steps more conservatively.
However, on reaching the final turn off the coast into Amlwch and retrieving the honesty book page, instead of cruising home, the pace of the boardshorts noticeably increased!
As we wound our way around the streets in search of the Leisure Centre, the day ended in a sprint finish to the line.
Like you do on day one. Conservative? Great fun!
Job done. 6hrs 23 mins for just under 36 miles and 4,000ft+ of ascent.
This was actually about 10 minutes slower than my pre race finger in the air guesstimate, but I blame the headwind and my dodgy legs!!
Now it was time to get into the hall and bagsy a sleeping spot for the night. As I had finished quite early, the choices were still reasonable (for a sports centre floor!) and I cleared the far corner of the hall, laid / tipped out my kit and moved in!
Not sure what time this was; looks like faff o’clock to me
Before long all 6 Spartans were back and apart from Jason and Gareth who were sleeping elsewhere (who said that was cheating?!), the remaining 4 of us claimed the corner for Sparta!
Although I fancied a swim to loosen the legs, my adductors were really tight and I was starting to get the odd severe full on leg cramp, so I opted for a massage instead. This was both a very smart and very painful move as my adductors were pummelled relentlessly into submission! I have to say that for the rest of the weekend, I never had another peep from them. Thank you! In fact, having had a post race massage after day 1 and day 2, this was probably the smartest thing I did all weekend as my legs behaved impeccably.
The cafeteria in the Leisure Centre was serving lasagne, so I reluctantly left my curry Pot Noodle in my kitbag and Andy and I went to try it. Conscious of the need to replace valuable Kcals, we both forced ourselves to finish every piece, though my appetite was really not co operating.
Faffing about endlessly seems to be a key ingredient of multi day racing, so the rest of the night was consumed with doing just that, until finally shoving my twitching limbs into my sleeping bag and sticking in the ear plugs for about 4 hours of fitful sleep.
Day Two Sat 5th Sept
At 04:50 the rousing strains of Johnny Cash started to leak through my earplugs and the big mileage day was upon us.
I’m a creature of habit regarding toilet visits in the morning, but very early starts normally catch me out and this had concerned me before the race. I had to make 2 unscheduled stops in this years dawn start Highland Fling.
Anyway, I actually managed a ‘performance’ and then set to work on a 500kcal expedition porridge to get maximum fuel in for the 66 mile day ahead.
Outside it was still dark and a bit chilly, but armwarmers and no jacket was the best choice for me at the start. Overnight the wind had been howling but thankfully this seemed to have notched back in time for the 6am start. As we headed through Amlwch and back onto our south bound coastal journey, the beautiful first rays of dawn were appearing before us.
Dawn on a long day 2
What a fantastic time of day to be out on the coastal path. I know this section of coastline better than anywhere else, having run it countless times when staying at our favourite spot at Lligwy beach and so the miles just glided by.
Although my adductors still felt slightly sore, it wasn’t easy to hold the pace back when the trail was so inviting and the energy levels were bubbling. The plan was to always run with just the next CP in mind and not dwell on the fact that we would cover 50% of the entire island coastline today.
As I focused on the path and the views, I soon found myself more or less on my own, with a few of us exchanging places back and forth as we covered the ups and downs of the first 12 miles.
I came through Lligwy beach CP5 bang on my ‘schedule’, stopping only briefly then passing quickly onto Moelfre where I had a fantastic pannad and jaffa cake greeting from our friends Eira, Ann and Gwyn. I love a cup of sweet tea on ultras!
Fabulous morning passing Lligwy beach
The next stop was Red Wharf Bay and CP6, where I knew that Sian would be waiting. Avo of course was also bouncing around as I came into the car park and he set off to get the pitstop ready.
It was great to see Sian for the first time and so topped up with fluids and snacks, I headed off in high spirits towards Penmon.
The next section was 10.6 miles; with a reasonably long flat estuary run followed by a fairly big climb to the Llandonna transmitter, around the longstanding landslip diversion and then some quiet lanes meandering down to the beautiful Penmon point.
Ahead of me was Dick, who was leaving Red Wharf Bay as I arrived. The gap between us had been fairly static. However, as I climbed off the beach at Llandonna and began the climb up through the fields towards the radio mast, he appeared right in front of me. The little blue tern coastal path signs tend to be erratic in different parts of the island and he had taken a wrong turning somewhere, adding ‘bonus’ miles to an already epic day.
I know how much that can screw your positive thinking and he certainly wasn’t happy, but we ran on together and I was glad of his company, enjoying some good conversation all the way into Penmon.
We chatted about past events, including UTMB and I remarked that although the RoF is a tough event, was it worthy of a 4 point qualifier rating? His straight response was; come and ask me that when you are done on Sunday and see if you think 4 points is merited. Wise words indeed Dick. In fact I was convinced by 8:30pm on Saturday that 4 points is a worthy haul!
We arrived together at Penmon CP7. Once again I seemed to be bang on my expected timing, which always feels reassuring and helps your supporters as well!
It was getting pretty warm now and as usual at about this stage, I wasn’t really feeling hungry. Left to myself I would no doubt have ignored the CP offerings but Sian and Avo double-teamed me into forcing something down from the car and they also sneakily loaded my pack with extra bits for later.
After climbing out of Penmon, the journey to halfway at Beaumaris is simple enough, except for a horrendous rocky, shingle beach section that tested my will a little. This was probably the only time I didn’t feel smiley all weekend, as it was impossible to make any pace and my feet and ankles were battered and bruised by the constant lateral movement.
By the end of the day I had developed a sore ankle bone, my fibula was bright red and bruised from the constant impact of the side of my shoe on it.
As a measure of my protest, I stopped and had a pee on the rocks before ploughing (literally) onwards to Beaumaris.
The town was typically very busy and I had my fair share of odd looks from daytrippers enjoying the sunshine as I tramped along the seafront. There was the odd cheer from a pub beer garden, but it seemed as if we were travelling relatively unnoticed by the general population.
I made the halfway point CP8 in my predicted 7 hours and decided to stop for a shirt and shoe change and refuel, with the whole family as well as my inlaws here, making it a little party!
Immediately beyond the CP, the route heads away from the coastline towards Menai with a pretty cheeky steep climb up a back lane. I saw Robin with poles out and decided to have a go myself as they were in Sian’s car. So after making Sian run halfway up the hill to hand them to me (sorry!) out they came and I clack clacked onwards.
I think it took me about a mile to get pissed off with this decision, but now they were with me to the next CP. Damn. I folded them down and stuffed them in the back of my pack. Waste of time or what! I had only used them once before on the Lakeland 50 back in 2013 and I doubt they will be making an appearance again any time soon.
Midway along the lanes, the route heads back off road onto a short loop section of trail. There was a small group of us together here now, including Dick who appeared having managed another little blue tern induced detour onto someone’s front garden! As we ran down some narrow singletrack, we were surprised by a few cows and a bloody enormous bull trotting right towards us. Yikes! Who wants to play chicken with a large bull? Thankfully as the cattle panicked they veered off straight into the undergrowth and we scarpered before they re emerged.
More stretching of the elastic in the group came as we ran down into Menai Bridge and so I pulled away on my own along the Straits, enjoying passing under the bridges in the sunshine.
CP9 came at 40 miles and perhaps symbolically, is in a churchyard, where thankfully I wasn’t in need of the last rites just yet. I dumped my poles onto Andy’s wife Val, stole as much coke as I could for my bottle, picked up a welshcake and set off towards CP10, on what is probably the least inspirational inland section of the entire route.
As I trotted along a shingly piece of beach, who should appear from nowhere like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben? Avo of course! It was really toasty now and so I took more time to reload my bottles from his car and as I headed inland towards Brynsciencyn, Dick and the rest of the little posse regrouped with me.
I must have been on a go slow at this point, because after just a few miles I found myself dropped a few yards off the back of this group. I stopped and dipped my buff into a stream to cool my head in the heat of the afternoon. I was actually quite happy on my own, when I’m feeling a bit tired I’m happier sticking to my pace, not a group pace.
After what seemed like an eternity of drudgery along lanes and then fields, I re engaged with the group just as we approached the Sea Zoo CP.
Now about 10 hours on the go, seeing the kids waving their flags as I approached the CP gave me a real boost, refilled my RFE and refocused me on the job left to be done. Various hotspots on my feet necessitated removing shoes and I sorted my feet out, before leaving just as Andy and Gareth arrived.
The next section was the longest of the day, at 12 miles, including the passage all around Newborough beach and forest. Knowing I was still on schedule, I kept my steady plod going, preparing myself for the leg sapping crossing of the sandy beaches ahead.
I knew Andy and Gareth were travelling quicker than me right now and it was no surprise when I heard a gate close behind me about 30 minutes later and Andy joined me.
Having his company was a great distraction to increasing fatigue. Having been here together before, we both acknowledged that the fastest should carry on at his own pace and not linger.
In reality we were pulling each other along! As we ran into the car park at Newborough Warren, Andy’s family and Avo were waiting for us. Sensible decision making definitely becomes harder as the tiredness takes over. I knew I needed fuel but was reluctant to wait for Pauls mobile brew machine to heat up! I made do with fantastic mandarin orange segments while Andy was keen to keep moving. He set off while I filled up, then while I caught him up, Paul produced a cuppa and ran after Andy to give him a quick top up. Quality support!
We reached the edge of the dunes, where the coastal path heads both left and right. Right takes you away from the beach via the forest track and the correct route takes you first left and then around a sandy dune and immediately onto the beach.
It was a gorgeous afternoon, the sun was out and the sky was blue. Although the beach is seemingly endless, I have done this section twice before on long recces and I was ready for it. I love this beach, it’s a favourite of Sian’s and so I kept positive and knew we had day 2 sorted if we could keep moving well to the next CP.
Newborough; one of our favourite beaches
About half way towards the turn at Llanddwyn island, Andy was starting to suffer. After ignoring our agreement and his instruction for me to press on, we settled into a run / walk combination and fixed our focus on a group of 3 runners that were now just ahead of us.
This seemed to work well and we steadily covered the next long stretch before the honesty book flag, slowly closing the gap ahead. We arrived at the flag at the same time as the others, before heading across the marshy rough track to regain the forest trail that would lead us to CP9.
Having pushed ahead of the others at a steady pace on the fire roads, Andy’s pace faltered a little and the suffering returned. I knew that getting to the CP was a priority so he could recharge, so we pressed on, before I finally decided to go ahead and get to the checkpoint and have them ready with a hot drink to revive him. It is a horrible place to be when nausea and fatigue take over, so I was reluctant to leave him. I also know, having been there, that I would rather sort myself out on my own.
At the CP, I had a few chips offered by Sian, but really did not want to eat. Andy arrived, was ill and after about 5 or 10 minutes indecision I finally agreed to leave him. He would take the sensible proper time to get sorted to cover the last 6.5 miles.
I headed out across Maltraeth cob and was soon joined by Steve. We pressed on together and rejoined Erixon from Sweden. The three of us stayed together to Hermon, where we negotiated the diversion from the trail. After dodging a combine harvester heading towards us, we had a chat with the farmer. Having seen a couple of runners ploughing straight through his crops, he had decided to make a better path through the field for us!! I was just glad it was daylight, as navigating this section in the dark could not have been much fun.
I could smell the finish now. Having seen a beautiful dawn, we now watched the sun as it started to dip towards the horizon and I was determined to finish without using a headtorch.
I picked up the pace over the final set of dunes towards Aberffraw beach, retrieved the honesty book page and then set off as fast as I could for the village, leaving the other two behind.
It’s amazing where the energy can come from after 14 hours of running. As I came around the estuary in the gloom, I was sure I heard my name being called!
I looked across towards the other side. There it was again! Then I heard ‘Daddy!” It was Sian and the girls and they ran parallel to me along the shoreline path in Aberffraw and met me as I came over the bridge into the village. Those last few hundred metres were a blur. What a relief to get into the finish. Job done in daylight. Epic!
14 hrs 38 mins. 66 miles 4,600ft ascent
After the massage miracles of day one, it was a no brainer for a post day two pick me up so I got my name down before nabbing a spot by the stage and unrolling my sleeping bag. I was delighted and slightly amazed when about 20 minutes later, Andy appeared in the hall. Back from the dead!!
Time for massage therapy. This time Ceri worked her magic and loosened the knots in my legs. Fabulous and something to remember for future multi day events, as it’s a real tonic for tired muscles. No cramps today, very sore feet and ankles, but apart from being exhausted I was in good shape. All I needed now was some food and clean gear.
The family were in a B&B at Maltraeth, so we nipped back there and I had a bath while my microwave stew and dumplings cooled down.
Then it was straight back to the hall, where folks were slowly starting to arrive. James and Gareth were home safe. After a beer with Luke (thanks Tim!) and some chatting with James while he spilled spaghetti on himself, I decided to get my head down at about midnight. With a fairly large pile of bags still unclaimed in a heap in the middle of the floor, god knows where all these people would sleep; there wasn’t a spare bit of floor left! I couldn’t be bothered to prep for Sunday. Sleep called…….
Day Three Sunday 6th Sept
04:50 and everyone’s favourite artist blasted out from the speakers. I left my earplugs in while I sat up. When I went to sleep the hall was half full of unclaimed bags. When I woke up, their owners were lying in an untidy heap all over the place. I picked my way through what resembled a war zone, made my visit to the throne and then warmed up some porridge.
Attrition rate was high after day 2. Not quite everyone got up for the Johnny Cash alarm call
My brain was on go slow and I had barely enough time to dress, get Andy to stick tape over my various bits of worn through flesh on my back before we had to leave. The porridge remained half eaten. Paul grabbed my kitbag for me and outside we went for the 6am start.
Damn, where’s my headtorch?! No time to find it, so Paul took his off and plonked it on my head as Bing gave the briefing for the day. Feeling very unprepared and with no food and just one bottle, I was already looking forward to the bacon butty 7 miles in at CP13 Rhosneigr!
Off we went into the darkness. I had no idea if my legs would work after yesterday, but as we headed out to the coastal path I was amazed that they were moving well, with no pain. I found myself at the sharp end and concentrated on my footing, glad of the headtorch for the first mile or so of rough ground.
Feeling comfortable and happy with the pace, I carried on, stashing the torch after about 20 minutes as we made our way around the headland.
We were soon at the Anglesey circuit after about 2.5 miles and I moved into 5th place as we headed up the short hill to the fields beyond the circuit. The lead 4 runners slowly pulled away and I settled down.
I was happy to have reccied the potential obstacle of the route through the dunes into Rhosneigr, and soon enough the CP at Sandys Bistro appeared. I was already over 15 minutes ahead of todays plan. All good. I gave Paul his headtorch back and with a bacon butty in hand and a cup of tea, I jogged through the deserted streets of the town.
Checkpoint nirvana; bacon butty and sweet tea
Having negotiated the dunes into Rhosneigr, now I had to navigate the dunes out around RAF Valley. After a bit of meandering, I popped out onto the beach and headed steadily onwards towards Four Mile Bridge. This section can only be described as mostly dull, winding around fields and brambly singletrack as we went up the tidal estuary before the crossing onto Holy Island. By now, the ball of my right foot was starting to burn and in need of attention. A job for CP14.
Eventually I emerged onto the road again, where Paul was ready with his service station, about 400 yards short of the CP.
I whipped off my shoe, tried to dry my foot and stuck a Compeed onto a large and deep double blister. Hmm. I filled up with mandarin orange segments, reloaded my bottles and scuttled off, waving merrily at the checkpoint crew with just the briefest pause to show my number before heading straight onto the boardwalk section over the marshy estuary.
Now about 25 mins ahead of schedule, the next few miles went very uneventfully as I aimed for Silver Bay and the honesty book. The relief from applying the foot plaster lasted all of about 5 minutes and I tried to bury the discomfort in the back of my mind.
Silver Bay is a beautiful little secluded cove. I grabbed a page, waved to a solitary couple on the beach, admired the view and began the final west coast traverse of Holy Island northwards towards Trearddur Bay.
By now my right foot was really burning and every step was becoming excruciating. Alone on the headland, I sorted my head out by screaming out loud at myself; ‘suck it up, it’s just f***ing pain and you’re almost finished’! That seemed to work, I highly recommend it as therapy!
Ahead of me I spotted the bobbing black wig of Luke in 4th place and we rejoined forces along the headland with about 13 miles left to run. Those last 13 miles were far more pleasant than I had been anticipating before the race and we cruised along having a great time, as our once distant Holyhead Mountain final destination got gradually closer and closer.
As we came into the final CP 15 at Trearddur Bay, the family reception committee were out and the atmosphere was fantastic. Luke had a can of Guinness (!) and while I waited, Sian sprayed a nice go faster Spartan green stripe on my head, along with some glitter. Don’t forget, we are serious endurance professionals you know!
Then we bounced off towards South Stack, as if it was a Sunday morning fun run.
The fun runners meet their fanclub
The final honesty book page was collected and we made our way over the last bit of trail and along the roadside path before starting to climb the hill up towards South Stack.
We were greeted by cheers from the kids and friends as we made the climb up the steep steps to South Stack. I love this part of the island, there are truly epic views over the cliffs. With a wave, we headed back onto the trail for the last 3.5 miles around Holyhead Mountain.
I was buzzing so much at this point that the climb was forgotten completely. The pace picked up and as we dropped towards the furthest point at North Stack I shouted to Luke to take it easy as a fall now would be disastrous. As the words came out of my mouth I kicked a rock and down I went like a sack of the proverbial. Luckily I avoided the rocks and did a full face plant into the bracken instead. I’m still picking splinters of thorns out of my hands and arms now. This was highly amusing for 118 and we bounded down the steep track to the house on the cliff edge. (Note: this corner would benefit from an honesty book page I think Bing!)
We passed a group of walkers with looks on their faces that spoke volumes. Luke’s GPS watch was predicting a finish time of 6:59 and it was clear that if we legged it we could break 7 hours. Time to light it up then.
We charged along the single track and bounced down the steep slab steps, with the finish line beckoning. We both agreed that our finish required a full sprint, absolutely nothing held back and so after coming through the gate we let rip, coming over the line (in the correct direction!) as fast as 135 miles of running would allow.
A brilliant and fitting finish to the best race experience I have had yet.
6hrs 54 minutes for the last 33 miles and 2,600ft ascent.
Euphoria that lasts for days
The action was captured here: https://www.facebook.com/270236483015488/videos/955940091111787/
After the obligatory and glorious Purple Moose beer, I waited for the rest of the Spartan team to arrive and before long all six of us were back.
Six started from Holyhead on Sept 4th and six came back in triumph to Holyhead 135 miles later.
RingOFire 2015 completed. Total time: 27 hours 56 minutes. 9th position overall out of 58 finishers, from a starting field of 100. That will do me just fine thanks.
Although it is now about 3 weeks since the race, I’m still buzzing. I never doubted my desire to complete this challenge. Any single day event holds no element of self doubt for me, but with all the aches, pains, operations and arthritis that I have accumulated, I had no idea what impact 3 days of running might have on my ability to carry on.
What a great event. Thanks Bing and the RoF crew. An event to remember for sure, just don't underestimate its seemingly low level location.
Massive thanks to Sian and my girls for believing totally in my ability to complete this. A huge thanks to Paul for fuelling and motivating me almost every step of the way. Thanks to my Spartan buddies for a great team weekend. I also met and made some great new friends, cheers Luke for your great company and humour around large sections of the island!
Next up its Dusk till Dawn on Oct 31st. I’m now planning the diary for 2016. Apart from the Lakeland 100, nothing else is confirmed, though some more coastline is on the cards for after Christmas I think. More to come.
I’m keeping off shingle beaches for a while though………..
Picture credits need to go to a list of people that were supporting the RingOFire and honestly I’ve lost track of whose is whose!
> Mark Wynne at aerial pixel photography, James Belton, Michael Hickman, Annette, Amanda, Val and more; thanks!