I worried about a galaxy of things before running my first 100 mile ultra marathon. A million and one scenarios played out in my mind.
But, nothing prepared me for badgers, Russians or the restorative power of hot dogs.
Yes. My first 100 turned out to be pretty memorable.
Up and at ’em
It started bright and early, catching a bus from Cardigan to Dale. A sunny Saturday morning, with a little nip in the air. Cardigan looked like a Turner painting:
My dad and step-mum were at the race start to wish me luck. I think they were more nervous than me.
Race briefing done, we set off at 8am.
My plan: take it easy and finish by lunchtime on Sunday (race cut-off was 36 hours).
I can’t remember exactly when I decided to do a 100. But when I finished my first ultra (45 miles) in early 2017, I remember thinking: ‘well, that wasn’t so bad. I’m still alive.’
So, it wasn’t too long before I wondered how far I could go: 50? 60? 75?
Screw it. 100.
Now I was here, I’m not sure I knew what I’d let myself in for. Heading up the first hill out of Dale, I needed reassurance. I asked a guy next to me if this was his first 100: ‘Nah mate, this is my 6th. Took me five attempts ‘till I finished one.’
Beauty and the beast
Before clicking ‘confirm entry’, I poured over web articles and blog posts about 100 milers.
One bit of advice I kept seeing: do it somewhere spectacular. That way, if you’re dying on your arse – very likely – at least the views will distract you.
I went with Run Walk Crawl’s event along the Pembrokeshire coastline.
15 minutes in, we emerged to the coastline proper.
Another bonus: the route followed the Wales Coast Path. So, navigation was easy. All we had to do was follow the arrows:
But, there was a snag. Pembrokeshire may be breathtaking, but it’s also unforgiving and wild. Something I later found to my cost.
Oh. And then there’s the ascent I’d be climbing. All 5,000 metres of it. That’s 5 Snowdons. Sure enough, steps like this became all too familiar:
This was going to be brutal.
1 becomes 3
5 miles in, I got chatting to Helen.
Turns out we had a lot in common. We went to the same university, the same time, and both had upcoming 40th birthdays to celebrate. Shortly after, we were joined by Tristan. A GP, and all round lovely guy.
I didn’t know it then, but the three of us would be together for the next 70 miles. We talked about a lot in that time. But, you know, what goes on tour.
15 miles in, we arrived at the first checkpoint.
I’d been running for 2 and a half hours, but it felt like minutes. Pembrokshire was bombarding my senses, and I was grinning like a kid.
My dad and step-mother had made their way from the race start to cheer me on at mile 10, and to the checkpoint. As I gobbled down jaffa cakes and salted peanuts, they told me a girl leading the race was (already) 45 minutes ahead.
Water bottles re-filled, goodbyes done, we set off.
Not long after checkpoint 1, I felt a rumble.
If you’re going to be on your feet for 20-30 hours, you’re probably going to need the toilet – if you know what I mean.
Thankfully, fate intervened. A few weeks earlier, Tristan had snuck in a recce, picking up some critical local knowledge.
Little Haven: a lovely coastal village. And forever ingrained in my mind as stupendously timed toilet stop. I’ll spare the details.
Next up: Broad Haven, a proper town. Four and a half hours in, we couldn’t resist calling into a corner shop. Joe, one of the race organisers, saw us walking down the promenade. Tristan guzzling snacks, Helen necking a can of coke, and me on the phone to my wife.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be running?’
‘Just a quick break.’
I asked Joe to take a pic:
Toilet stop: done. Snacks: done. Just 80 miles to go.
If this was a movie, I’d now play a musical montage. Three of us running along rugged coastline, dropping down into coastal villages, stopping for a snack, and then climbing our way back up. All sound-tracked by Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.
The montage would fade out as we arrived at Checkpoint 2 in Solva, 33 miles in.
We’d been on our feet for 7 hours and it came at just the right time. I had peach slices, frazzles and coke.
Slips, trips and a fall
I felt great leaving Solva. But not long after, I took a stumble.
I had it coming. I’d been caught out on the rocky terrain a few times. Nothing serious, just a few comedy stumbles where I’d just managed to keep my balance (and dignity).
40 miles in though, I stacked it. Distracted by the coastal views, my (tired) left foot caught a rock and I went arse over tit. I got up, checked myself over and felt ok.
Phew…that was close.
Checkpoint 3 and drop bag 1
My fall came close to checkpoint 3, where our first drop bag was waiting for us.
A drop bag is any bag (usually 20 litre limit) you can fill with supplies (kit/food etc) that the organisers transport for you to have at various stops along a route. For this race, there were two: St Justinians (43 miles) and Fishguard (75 miles).
As we got near, we bumped into my wife. She’d walked along the coast path to meet me and it was so good to see her. I thought she’d want to chat, but she shooed me off to keep up with Tristan and Helen.
As soon as we got there, I dived into my drop bag. I knew I’d be tired, so I’d left a note with instructions in massive writing:
- Change socks
- Change running top and mid layer
- Put warm gear for the night into rucksack (fleece lined jacket, beanie, gloves, buff)
- Lose sun tan lotion and hat
- Put food bag 2 into rucksack
- Eat Katsu curry noodle pot
It helped. I’d been running for 10 hours and sorting the basics was a challenge. My wife caught us up and took over, making sure everything was in its rightful place.
After a kit change, hot noodles and a goodbye kiss, we set off again.
12 hours in (8pm) we hit 50 miles. I shouted at Tristan and Helen to stop for a ‘halfway point selfie’:
It’d been a glorious day. Cool, bright with a gentle breeze. I’d run (nearly) every mile with a smile on my face.
Helen reminded me that 100 milers begin at mile 51. Reality bites. As the sun began to set, it became quiet and still. Night was coming. My nerves were jangling. I took a selfie:
Into the night
The night began as we pulled into Porthgain, checkpoint 4.
Lots of confused looks. We’d come into the village from the north, while everyone else was arriving on a coastal path from the south. God knows how.
Soup, tea and lots of support from loved ones and race volunteers. My wife watched me clumsily put my warm gear on, checking I was ok.
I could’ve stayed at that checkpoint for hours, but the temperature had nosedived. We needed to get running again.
Three people was now four. We’d been joined by Rachel. As we headed into the night, headlights on, we had no idea what lay ahead.
Well, first up was a badger.
Helen was leading, closely followed by me, Tristan and Rachel. Chatting away, Helen opened a stile and began walking along a narrow path, gorse to the left, farmer’s fence to the right. 20 yards or so ahead lay a sharp turn to the left.
As we approached the bend, Helen screamed and jumped back, nearly knocking me over.
A badger – who did not look impressed – was running right at us and snarling.
We retreated so the badger stopped charging us, but we were boxed in. How the hell are we gonna get around it?
And so began our 10 minute stand-off with an angry badger, which went something like this:
- Tristan and I walk towards badger
- Badger backs off
- Badger eyes us up and down and launches counter attack
- Tristan and I retreat
- And repeat.
A Monty Python sketch. Right in the middle of the night during an ultra marathon.
Our advance/retreat manoeuvre wasn’t working. We hung back, gave the badger space and let things calm the hell down.
Eventually, Tristan tip-toed his way to the bend. I was close behind, pretending to be tough but secretly shitting it. Peering round the corner, we expected to be savaged at any moment. But…nothing. It had scurried into the gorse.
I motioned for Helen and Rachel to come quickly and pegged it. We started laughing deliriously. This night was getting weird.
Steps at midnight
Just before midnight, I was curious what my step count for the day was. I checked:
A watery dilemma
17 hours in (1am), I was paying the price for my earlier fall. My left knee was aching.
Making our way across a cobble stone beach – ouch – we came to an impasse. Between us and the trail ahead was a fast flowing tidal stream.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do, at 1am, in the dark, when you’ve been on your feet for all that time, it’s run through a stream.
- Backtrack and follow an alternative trail, adding a mile to the journey.
- Cross the stream, and run the remaining 40 miles with soaking wet feet.
Wondering what to do, Tristan suddenly charged through the stream, the water waist high.
‘Christ Tristan, you’re soaked!’
Oh well, at least he’d made my mind up.
Soaking wet feet. No dry running trainers in my second drop bag. 40 miles to go. Perfect.
The red zone
All these niggly things were getting to me.
I was tired. The left knee I’d jarred on that bastard rock was killing now. My feet were wet and blistered. We’d taken 4 hours to go 10 miles. Except, the 10 miles between two checkpoints was actually 13 miles. Our watches told us so, and those extra miles were infuriating. And that bloody badger!
I was getting ratty. And a mile or so from checkpoint 5 (64 miles), I let rip.
Tristan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry you had to listen to me rant. I (temporarily) lost it and I’m a little embarrassed. Normally, I’m pretty laid back. But this challenge, and my sore knee, brought it out of me.
Pete, magician at checkpoint 5
So I got to checkpoint 5 (64 miles) in a foul mood. And here’s where I need to mention Pete.
Pete was the marshall at checkpoint 5. He single-handedly transformed a downhearted, ratty, hungry runner (me), into a fully functioning human being again. And he did it with hot dogs, tea and custard creams.
The hot dog I ate at 02:20am on Sunday 13th May 2018 had restorative powers. And Pete, you’re a genius. You even said we looked fresh – a total lie – but it worked.
Hard to believe, but we set off feeling chirpy.
From Russia with love
An hour on, still glowing from that hot dog, I heard something in the distance.
‘Did you hear that?’ I asked Tristan. ‘No, what?’
I could swear I’d heard laughing and shouting. On the other hand, it’s quite possible I was losing my marbles. After all, it was 3.30am, pitch black and I’d be on my blistered feet for nearly 20 hours.
‘There it is again. That’s definitely laughing.’
What if it’s a bunch of pissed-up stag do guys? And what if they shout at us? Or chase us? We were pretty exposed and defenceless, and I couldn’t fight anyone off with a protein snack.
Paranoia had definitely crept in. I didn’t fancy coming across anyone at this ridiculous time of night in the dark. We rounded a bend, and there they were. Wait…
Are they in army gear? Are they having a…barbecue?
In what I’m sure was a heavy Russian accent, a guy called out: ‘Heeyyy guys! You want sausage? Have sausage!’
I couldn’t figure out who was more crazy: them or us?
Let there be light
At 4.30am, I noticed a light patch of sky to the east.
We’d made it through the night. At 5:20am, the sun popped its head over the horizon:
I stopped to take it in. Quiet. Still. And not a breath of wind. A moment I’ll never forget.
By this point, every step was excruciating. My left knee was shot. I knew I’d never make it to the end.
At half 6, I hobbled into the checkpoint at Fishguard. After 75 miles, my race was over.
I sat in the car park, shivering my arse off. I wished Helen, Tristan and Rachel well. Inside, I felt empty.
Rachel’s sister, who’d been at the checkpoint, kindly gave me a lift back to Cardigan. When my wife opened the door to the apartment, she looked a little confused. She hadn’t expected to see me for hours yet. I talked her through my eventful evening.
After a quick shower, I hit the sack and dreamt of badgers.
After all the prep, training and hard work, not finishing felt like the end of the world.
Now, I feel ok about it. After all, I managed 75 miles (the furthest I’d ever run in one hit), made it through the night, met some incredible people, had a scrape with a badger, and loved every bloody second of it.
I know I can run 100 miles. So I’ll just have to try again in 2019.
Events like this don’t happen by themselves. So I’d like to say a BIG thank you to the following people:
Joe, Ben and Pete from Run Walk Crawl, who do an amazing job with their events.
All the volunteers and marshalls. Blowing hard in the middle of a challenging event, it’s easy to forget to thank them for everything they do. They check we’re safe, check we have the right kit, and provide us with fresh water and snacks at checkpoints. And then there’s the words of encouragement that always go down so well.
All the supporters and well-wishers we saw through the day (and night), wishing us luck. And everyone on Instagram and Twitter who sent me loads of good luck messages. The support was amazing.
My dad and step-mother. They met me the day before for a coffee, saw me off at the race start and at miles 10 and 15.
And my wife, who put up with my endless fretting, and ‘enjoyed’ 3 days/nights in Pembrokeshire, seeing me for less than half of it. She helped with everything, and even tried to keep a straight face as I limped down stairs the next day x