I start 2016 the same way I started 2015, with a very delayed race report. My new year’s resolution for 2016 should probably be the same as 2015 too, to update this blog more frequently. This blog post has been nearly ready to publish for ages, but has been delayed by computer problems. I phoned my computer helpdesk (dad), who adviced me to take my computer back to the store, where I was adviced to take it back home and try to fix the problems myself.
Anyway, back to the race report: Sara, my sister, and I have an agreement that we will participate in at least one Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series race per calendar year. CTS Exmoor was our our very first race of any kind, back in 2011. Since then we have both run lots and lots of races, mostly ultra marathons, but the CTS series will always be extra dear to us. You are always guaranteed a beautiful and challenging course, a friendly atmosphere, and for us it seemed like we were always guaranteed good weather too. Well, not this time. With CTS Gower, it turned out to be fifth time unlucky…
Arriving in Wales 12.11.15, two days before the race, we were soaked by heavy showers just as we departed Swansea for Llangennith, where we were staying. During the night we could hear the rain pounding against the skylights of out attic room, and the wind howling around the corners. The weather forecast said this type of weather was to be expected for the rest of the week, except on Saturday, during the race, when there was going to be even more rain and wind. Endurancelife’s website said they were monitoring the weather and trying their hardest to make sure the event would go ahead.
Friday morning we followed part of Saturday’s course from Llangenith to Rhosilli, the event base, and witnessed the Endurancelife guys battling the winds to put the marquees up. Out in the open fields it was at times difficult to stay on your legs. However, climbing up a hill we could really feel the benefit of a 50 mph tailwind. The trails were in surprisingly good condition too, considering the amount of rain that had come down in the last 24 hours.
Friday evening we continuously checked the weather forecast and Endurancelife webpage for updates. Despite a storm being forecast from just after lunchtime Saturday the event would go ahead. Having signed up for the ultra, that meant looking forward to at least 7, maybe 8-9, hours battling the elements. Oh well, at least that meant running with a lighter pack than usual, as I would be wearing most of the mandatory kit.
The hosts of our fabulous b&b, Western House, had gotten up extra early to ensure we got a hearty breakfast before the race. A full English vegan breakfast was on offer, but we opted for muesli with soya milk and soya coconut yogurt instead. Then Mike, the friendly local taxi driver, took us to Rhosilli, and the equally friendly Endurancelife team. Despite the foul weather, the atmosphere at the registration and during the extended, and very safety-focused, briefing was very relaxed. We were to run the marathon course first, running the length of three beaches, then return to Rhosilli and run the 10k loop, basically repeating the first few miles of the marathon loop, and then turning back to Rhosilli again. During the last 10k or so of the marathon we would be running into a headwind. As the wind was going to pick up during the day, with predicted wind speeds of 21m/s from one o’clock onwards, Endurancelife warned us they might move this part of the course away from the coastal trail and onto a more shielded road inland. The cut off at Rhosilli would be 15.15, after which time no runners would be allowed to start the final loop. Sara and I had also set a deadline of our own; finishing before 4 o’clock, when the National Trust shop closed. They sold Kendal mint cakes, and we intended to stock up.
At 8.50 we set off, 20 minutes late. If you ever see a big hill near the start of an Endurancelife race it usually means you will soon be running up it, and the Gower CTS course was no exception. As I was running/powerwalking upwards I could feel my glutes start to ache, which worried me somewhat. My glutes had been sore for more than a week before the race, and I had been hoping it was just a persistent case of DOMS, though I had not really done anything that should have caused this. However, I soon had other things to worry about, such as the descent on the other side of the hill. A downhill so steep and slippery we had been advised in the briefing to walk down it, and the race medics had set up an aid station at the bottom, ready to receive any casualties. I tried jogging down it, and predictably ended up sliding on by bottom at least three times. Luckily the mud did a fantastic job of cushioning any falls.
After the scary hill we came to the first beach, and new challenges in the form of a strong side wind and soft sand. As I was fiddling with my hood I realised my gloves were caked with mud, and that I had now probably smeared it all over my face. Lovely!
The next section had been described as fast, and it was the easiest of the day. The trail turned inland, meaning we were more sheltered from the elements, and we were for the most part running up and down gentle hills, and across fields. The main challenges were staying on your feet on the slippery downhills, jumping across huge puddles on the trail, in futile attempts to keep one’s feet dry, and climbing rickety stiles without tumbling head first over the fence. I felt pretty good here, and thought about how this race would be a good reference when struggling during future races. Yes, my glutes were still aching, and I was eating and drinking far less than usual during races, but the pace felt comfortable, I was not nauseous, and the hip flexors, which went on strike during my last ultra, were doing their job without protesting. On the first beach I had been running alongside another female, but soon after she disappeared, and I was informed at the first couple of checkpoints that I was in the lead.
After 24-25km we arrived at beach number two. This time we were running more or less straight into a headwind. On the first beach I had been surrounded by other runners, and could shelter behind them, probably much to their annoyance. On the second beach I still had quite a few runners in sight, but the field had stretched out, and everyone had to battle the winds on their own. Progress was slow, and there were sudden gusts that brought us all to a halt. Approaching the far end we realised power walking, leaning into the wind, was more efficient than running.
After the beach came a couple of miles through a wooded section, and what looked like quite a technical trail. Due to leaf fall you had no idea if there were rocks, roots, low branches, or other tripping hazards in front of you, and I therefore chose to progress at quite a cautious pace. As it turned out, the path was nice and even and mostly free of obstacles. My main annoyance during this section, apart from the persistent ache in my glutes, was my waterproof trousers becoming waterlogged and heavy, clinging to my legs and creating a slight resistance that had to be ovecome for each step. I figured I was more comfortable with them on than off,though. They were still doing their job of keeping the water out, and if removed the tights I had on underneath would let both rain and wind through.
Some other runners, all male, came whizzing past me, and I wondered how they were able to muster the energy for a surge after that draining beach. Maybe they just had been more conscientious with their eating and drinking than I had been? After another couple of miles on wet, soggy grass, again completely unsheltered from the wind, and still running into a headwind, I simply sat down next to the trail and downed a couple of gels. Another couple of runners sped past, pausing only briefly to check that I was ok. I probably sat down for two minutes, and it was the only two pain-in-the-butt (literally)-free minutes while out on the course.
After the attempt to repair my blood sugar levels I slogged on through the mud to the third and final beach, where events unfolded much like on the second beach. Approaching the end, I could see a checkpoint just beyond the beach, but had to stop for a moment to figure out how to get to it. (Answer: get off the beach and run behind the beach front properties, rather than picking you way through the rocks and debris.) At the check point I was yet again informed I was the lead female. I topped up my water bottle, stupidly not taking the time to mix in a sachet of energy drink. As about 90 % of the gels, bars and sweets I had brought with me in my pack were still untouched I refused any offers of food.
The landscape during the next 10k was stunning, green fields, steep cliffs bordering the seafront, and lava fields extending out into the surf, but I was becoming too tired to enjoy it. Running into a headwind it felt like I was making no forward progress at all, despite expending a lot of energy. My watch said it was 10 k left of the marathon loop, and just after the checkpoint I ran past a sign saying “Rhosilli 7 miles”, but I kept hoping it was less. My Suunto has been known to underestimate the distance covered before… Since we had recced part of the route the day before I knew that the characteristic headland Worm’s Head was a landmark for Rhosilli and the end of the marathon course. Thus every time I saw a headland jutting out into the sea my hopes that I neared the end of the marathon course were raised, and then dashed.
In the middle of a steep ascent I stopped again, stuffing half a mint cake into my mouth in yet another desperate attempt to get my energy levels up. A friendly, and possibly slightly tired, runner stopped for a chat, solving the mystery of the energetic runners who had kept racing past at infrequent intervals. They were marathon runners, and having started 20 minutes behind the ultra runners the fastest were now cathcing up as they were surging towards the finish.
As I slogged on I started catching another group of runners myself, the half marathoners, who were entering the course towards the end of their shorter loop. Some of them were casulaties of the weather and their own optimism regarding the ambient temperature. One guy wearing shorts and t-shirt had wrapped himself in his space blanket in a failed attempt to keep warm, he was supported/dragged by two other runners with one mile to go. Medics were on their way out onto the course to attend to other hypothermic runners.
Maybe it was the sight of the weather-related casualties that was the proverbial straw, but when I finally caught sight of Worm’s Head and the 1 mile to go sign I decided that a marathon was enough for me. My main reason for signing up for CTS Gower was to visit Wales and explore new trails, an that had been accomplished. The last 10k loop was already familiar, and would only be an exercise in suffering/mudbath. Besides, Endurancelife usually has a policy of moving ultra runners who stop after the marathon course to the marathon results lists. I was quite confident my marathon time would be good enough for a place quite high up in the marathon. Nobody would ever know that I had dropped out of the ultra. So, instead of running past the finish line and continuing up that hill again, I turned tight, crossed the line, and handed in my timing chip. The marshall at the finish line probably thought I had completed the ultra in record time, as I was subjected to an extremely thorough kit check.
After a quick change in an accidentally unisex changing tent (this seems to be quite common at ultras, this time it was due to the medics having commandeered the female changing area), I downed several cups of tea, shamelessly taking advantage of the free refill policy, and texted Sara to say I had decided a marathon was plenty. She was by the one mile sign when she saw it, and decided to follow my example. We were both well within the cut off time, but just too tired and fed up to go on.
As it turned out, dropping out of the ultra did not prevent a mudbath, as the finishing area had been churned up by hundreds of runners milling about before and after their race. Most of my other justifications for not finishing the ultra also turned out to be wrong. Yes, my marathon time of 5 hrs 8 min would have been good enough for a 3rd lady in the marathon if I had been given an official marathon result, which I was not. And it seems I cannot drop ut of a race unnoticed anymore, not even in a remote corner of Wales. While waiting for the start I struck up a conversation with Svein-Erik and Torunn, after guessing correctly from the names printed on their bibs that they were fellow Norwegians. We met up with them at the finish, and in the pub later too. Svein-Erik did really well in the ultra, finishing 4th overall. Being pleased with his result, he sent in a race report to kondis.no, a Norwegian web site devoted to endurance sports. They posted it on the front page of the site, with a lengthy paragraph devoted to the fact that Sara and I had not finished, despite me leading the women’s race and both being well within the cut off time.
The next couple of weeks after the race I was regretting and second guessing my decision to DNF, but now, a couple of months later I think I made the right desicion. My glutes continued to torment me for over a month after Wales, and forcing myself to complete the last loop could well have resulted in an injury. Yes, I did give away a safe-ish win, but this race was not an A-race, not even a B-race, in my race calendar, merely sighseeing in Wales. However, I have learnt that if I want to sqeeze in an extra race or two at the end of a lengthy season, I should probably settle for a marathon distance that has not got the word «ultra» in front of it.