It is always bad when you know you will be running longer than you are about to sleep. So I sneered as I set my alarm for 3:45, all too soon jumping up and trying to silence the thing. Some instant oats for breakfast and a carb drink mixed for the road, I grabbed my waiting kit and headed North; picking up fellow ultra-runner Dino on the way out of town. We arrived in good time to a cold and blustery car-park. Registration was easy, and rumours of up to 85 entries circulated the quiet pre-dawn gossip.
A short bus journey later, we amassed on the starting beach behind a simple line in the sand. Nervous and blood not yet flowing, a shivering collection of colours soon spread into a moving line as the countdown ended and the race began. We ran easy into the stiff breeze, keeping the heart rate low to find our pace. Aiming for the lights of the distant jeep where we were to turn back, we saw the Mussenden Temple perched on the cliffs in the distance, with a cloudy pink dawn above. White waves rolled in, and sea-foam (green) blew up the beach. Is there a nicer way to start a race?
The first 13 miles passed nicely, with each turn of the headland offering a new vista. So many different rocks and crashing wave patterns to enjoy. Locals out on early walks gave their support, as well as quite a few friends & family of racers; making the most of the easy access along the route they routinely popped up to spur us on. The occasional brief squall blew in, but for the most part the day was dry and blustery. As we entered the middle third of the race, just behind the marathon bunch, we climbed higher into stronger and stronger gusts. I passed a man measuring the wind who told me he had just read 46mph, and that certainly wasn’t the strongest I had felt it. The wind was onshore, so one moment you would be leaning 45 degrees into it trying to move up the headland, only to turn the corner and take off like Usain Bolt… well I did anyway. I thought best to make use of any advantage and soon pulled out hundreds of metres on anyone I passed using this technique. If you climbed ‘expectantly’ it was also often possible to catch a gust and breeze to the top (if the wind was the other way, the steps blocked it… until you reached the top). The key in weather like this is to separate the psychological buffeting from the physical buffeting. The wind can and will blow your body around, but the mind should only concern itself with where the feet are going and the lovely rippling dune grass. Relax in the inevitability as if bobbing in the sea.
The drop bags were unexpectedly at our actual half-way point, and not the 26 mile turn-around. Although this meant we passed them twice, it threw a little spanner in the planning. I hadn’t used all my gels yet, so had to recount and choose what to restock with rather than just transplant the whole resupply. It was funny how quickly the little voice in my head protested, “but I’d planned…”. Thankfully I caught myself on and went about the trivial process of getting what I needed – better too early, than too late. If this happened in a hundred mile race when you are out of your tree and hanging on, it could be a much bigger disturbance to ‘the force’ but at least I am now aware to prepare for such changes… indeed, the larger and more remote the event, the greater likelihood of such things. Hey, whole sections of the UTMB get diverted sometimes due to conditions!
There were some teasing, twisty road drags near the turn-around, that I actually enjoyed once I started up them, although one of the most memorable moments was coming back along the far beach. There were some families near the top, and the occasional runner still on the out leg that I waved to, but I was mostly on my own. The constant head-wind and breaking rollers masked other noise, and I felt a comfortable isolation. Progress was inapparent for a while on the long sands, so running on the spot as it were, a little infinite-present manifested. Is this why I run or search out the elemental? Many turn to drugs, or meditate for years to dissolve away the world and themselves in such a way. In truth, you can find the same stepping off a bus, but it is not as beneficial for your heart.
Crossing the rocks was easier on the way back. My beach meditation had focused me and I picked through the obstacles with ease, passing a bunch of runners just as we reached the other side. Another nice road drag to power up. With my focus and now-numb pains I was fully in race mode…nobody would pass me! To my surprise, as I reached the fields and glanced over my shoulders, there were a few runners gaining fast on me. Who was this with such speed? I had forgotten about the half-marathoners! I couldn’t keep with half front-runners any day, let alone with 30 miles in the legs. I kept glancing and letting them past, but after 2 dozen or so they stopped coming so strong. I was outrunning the hounds. This motivated me. Everything motivated me. The wind had eased but when it blew, it cooled me. Steps gave me a firm footing up. Stones supported me. Mud cushioned me. The final aid station appeared and I tried to be quick. “1 hour left from here” I told myself. I had 2 gels still on me, so just grabbed one to eat on the spot and filled some water. No more stops. It was a little over a 10K and I was resolved to run it like a 10K. I was bent double pushing every climb and made good on gravity’s invitations when it suited me…and started overtaking people.
I didn’t know if I could sustain the effort but my fueling seemed to have kept me topped up. As I rounded the last high point and could see the finish about 3 miles along the coast, the pains were really starting to come back. Muscles threatened to cramp, pull, or stop, but it was in my sights now. I heard resignation in voices and remember passing one guy in the final dunes who was cruising along with the biggest smile on his face… I felt slight guilt in these moments as if I was doing it wrong, but we all had different reasons for running or expectations and I couldn’t apologise for mine. This was the last big run of the year, the final measure of my training from January and I didn’t want to finish and think I could have given more. I sprinted straight over the line in a wave of euphoria that continued to crash over me, like the waves had crashed the cliffs all day. For a good 20 minutes my body and mind balanced on crumbling. I had beaten 7hrs… it wasn’t the ‘ultimate perfect run scenario’ of a 6:30 but it felt like beating something. Whatever it was, I had won. I was an hour behind the podium, but I had won my race.
I went back to get my finishers medal as I had run right past the girl on crossing the line. The goodie bag followed, as did the freshen up and the start of the recovery eating, before I returned to the line to cheer in friends. There were broken wrists, people who had been cramping, runners who had felt terrible even before 10K, first time ultra-runners….each rising to the challenge they had chosen. Many will have said, “never again”, on crossing the line but most who do will be back for more: maybe not to the addictive world of running all-day through stunning wilds, but to whatever boundary, previously unthinkable, their life next throws at them. They crossed over from common acceptance even as they stepped up to the line…. that beautiful line in the sand. Once you cross it all lines fade. Some say, if you search far enough, they disappear forever.
The data – 6:57, 17/71 finishers (~86 registered). 65km, 1348m vertical, 6600 calories.
The following photos captured by Gareth Heron throughout the day clearly show the philosophy with which I ran the race… 1st third easy, 2nd third moderate, final 3rd hard…