Endurance Life: Gower Ultra

Another race that’s been on the radar for quite some time.

The Gower Ultra – as described on their website – is a 32.9 mile trail race ‘set against an awe-inspiring natural backdrop of cliff tops, downland, woodland, sand dunes and world famous beaches’. With over 4,000ft of elevation and the prospect of gnarly, wintery conditions for this time of the year, it sounded like my kind of type 2 fun.

Registration was done on-line. Race numbers were posted out to all participants on completion of watching a safety video emailed two weeks prior to race day. A good system that worked well.

There was a choice of 4 distances on the day – ranging from 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon and Ultramarathon distances – catering for all abilities. The Ultra and Marathon distance had a mass start of 8am, the Half Marathon at 9.40am whilst the 10k had a later start time of 10.30am.

I’d travelled down to Wales on the Friday evening and booked a room in the Ibis in Swansea – some 40 minutes drive from the Gower. For a self proclaimed ‘budget hotel’ I had a comfortable stay – carb loaded accordingly and slept reasonably well.

Alarm set for 5.45am – I love these early starts – I met up with Jasper and Ian at reception – both of whom were also staying at the Ibis – before picking up Maria en route and headed to race HQ.

Upon the approach to Race HQ, we were greeted with standstill traffic as cars were queuing to pay/enter the official carpark – delaying the start by 15 minutes. No harm done, everyone made it to the start line on time – just maybe something for the organisers to think about next time.

Despite the prospect of ‘gnarly, wintery conditions’, we were greeted with unseasonably mild, calm conditions and a beautiful sunrise over Oxwich Bay – it really was stunning!

Sunrise over Oxwich Bay
Mass start and safety brief

Following a very short intro and (*another) safety brief, we were sent on our way – some 400 runners – a mixture of both marathon and ultra runners – making their way across the beach before turning off and heading into the sand dunes – a lovely start to any race!

The initial mile and a half weaved it’s way through the dunes, with narrow tracks and numerous stiles and gates to navigate – leading to the inevitable congestion as runners patiently waited for their turn to pass. Jasper, Ian, Maria and I had started the race together – with an unspoken rule that we’d stick together unless anyone felt the urge to sprint off/slow down – but I soon found myself ahead and running solo due to the congestion early on. I’d lost them in the crowds. I settled into a rhythm knowing that with my current levels of fitness, they’d no doubt catch me up!

By mile 2, we’d reached the foot of the first main climb. Against my better judgement, I’d decided to run most of the hill whilst those around me had the better sense to walk. Being so early into the race, my legs felt fresh and although the climb was relatively long and steep, it’s something I’d normally run in training – albeit not 2 miles into a 33 mile ultra!

Once at the summit, there was a gentle 3 mile descent, on a mixture of road and hard packed trails which I ran at a reasonable pace to stretch the legs.

I ran straight through the first aid station at mile 6 – stopping only to have my race number scanned. I was carrying 2 x 500ml soft flasks of Tailwind and had no desire or need to top up on hydration or fuel at this stage.

Miles 6 -10 can only be described as undulating – with some decent elevation and climbs. I was still feeling comfortable and was running to feel – hiking the hills whilst maintaining steady pace on the trails. The ground underfoot being a mixture of mud, hard packed trails and tarmac as we heading inland away from the coastal paths.

At mile 12, we descended off the moorlands and headed back towards the coast – greeted with views of runners making their way across Rhossili Bay. It was a truly spectacular site and I excitedly made my way down to the beach to join them.

Rhossili Bay

At 1.3 miles long, it was probably one of my favourite sections of the course. Being from the Midlands, I don’t get chance to run on beaches very often and with the sand being wet and compact, it felt springy underfoot. Looking ahead, I could see a long line of runners making their way across the beach – heading off towards a flag in the distance.

Rhossili Bay Beach run with mist in the distance

On leaving the beach we hit the second aid station which was located at the foot of the biggest climb of the day. Given the magnitude of the climb, I’d decided to fuel at the aid station and grabbed a banana and an orange – eating them whilst I walked. Disappointingly, there was no Coka Cola available (my go-to energy source for ultra’s) so I filled my soft flask with water and slowly started making my way up the grass embankment.

It’s a long way up….!

It was a tough old climb which the quads and calves certainly protested about. Given my lack of training/running over the past 3-4 months, it was certainly a shock to the system but the normal mantra of ‘one-foot-in-front-of-the-other’ soon got me to the summit. I even managed to hide my discomfort from the official race photographer who had brilliantly positioned himself three quarters of the way up the climb to get that ‘action shot’ mid grimace.

Photographer situated at the summit

I took five minutes at the cairn to regroup and get my breath back. My legs, for the first time in the race had started to feel heavy and I was only 15 miles into a 33 miler. I knew from the race profile that that was the last big climb of the day and what waited ahead, although undulating, was much more forgiving terrain in terms of elevation.

I was just about to head off when I noticed a familiar face approaching the top of the climb – it was Jasper – and I must admit I felt relieved at the prospect of having some company for the rest of the race. On tired legs, having someone to share the trails with, engage in conversation and to take the focus off how tired you are is a godsend. Jasper was also starting to struggle – the climb had taken it out of both of us – but we set off together at a nice comfortable, chatty pace.

It was short lived.

At mile 15.5 we passed through Rhossili – and the Rhossili Gallery – the home and business of one of my key customers at work – some 200 yards off the trail. I made the decision to take a slight detour and go and say hello. Jasper, rightly so, carried on – I think we were both secretly hoping that we’d reunite on the trails a couple of miles further on. I spent a good 10 minutes at the Gallery – longer than I’d planned – I’d informed them beforehand that I was running the event and I’d drop by if passing – so it was a nice surprise and good to catch up.

Rejoining the trails, I left Rhossili and headed towards the next aid station past Mewslade Bay at mile 18. Jasper was nowhere in sight and must have made good progress. Conditions underfoot were now started to get muddy and hard work on tired legs with the undulated trails following the coastal path. The views were spectacular and I kept reiterating that to myself as I was starting to struggle.

Approaching Aid Station 3, I was again disappointed to find no Coca Cola available – something I was now craving. I picked up another couple of orange’s, a bag of salted crisps and refilled my water bottles before heading out.

Miles 18-22 were mentally, the hardest of the race. The terrain, in large sections was covered in heavy mud – the kind that sucks your shoes off no matter how tight your laces are – and incredibly exhausting on already tired legs. On top of this, I started to get cramp in both my quads and hamstrings – a sign of how unfit I currently am. I was hydrating as much as I could but I was struggling to consume my Tailwind – which in turn was starting to make me feel sick – and the water I’d topped up with at the aid station had a stale, plastic container taste to it. It wasn’t good.

I found myself walking a lot during those miles and the demons were starting to set in. Even when the trails went downhill, cramp would stop me in my tracks and I’d have to stop, stretch it out then cautiously limp on. I found myself being overtaken by numerous runners – all offering words of support and encouragement – before disappearing off into the distance. It was frustrating.

I’d mentally been toying with the idea to drop out – DNF – at the marathon distance. Due to the nature of the route, the ultra runners were required to complete the full marathon route before heading off out again at the finish line to run the 10k loop. The prospect of carrying on whilst those around me were finishing was starting to play on my mind and I’d convinced myself it was ok to drop out – after all, with my recent injuries, lack of training and leg cramps, there was no point in risking further injuries…

At mile 22, we reached the second beach crossing at Port-Eynon Bay. At just short of a mile, the beach was packed with surfers, dog walkers and local supporters – it was just the lift I needed to get me out of my current headspace. I was still enjoying myself, the views, the trails – everything was spectacular – it was just the cramps and inability to get going at any decent pace than was playing on my mind. I managed a slow, steady shuffle across the beach – much to the amusement of the onlookers.

Aid station 3 was situated just off the beach and yet again was lacking any Coca-Cola or fizzy alternative. I begrudgingly grabbed another orange and made my way out back out on to the coastal trails.

The next couple of miles were probably the worst conditions underfoot – with clay-like mud covering the trails. At this stage I was running with a lady who was wearing road shoes and literally sliding across the trails – how she managed to stay upright was a miracle. She was down to do the marathon distance and was counting down the miles to the finish – I think we’d both had enough at this stage. I’d informed her of my decision to pull at the marathon distance and she’d given me that look of approval – the prospect of another 6 miles at the finish was hard to fathom, for both of us.

For the next couple of miles, the cramp had finally banished and I’d started to run again – albeit at a very conservative path. By mile 26 we’d reached the foot of the woods – and the start of some steep steps which meandered their way up through the tree line. Once at the top, the trail snaked around before more steps greeted us to descent back down to the coastline. Checking my watch, I’d already covered 27 miles and the beach/finish line was nowhere in sight.

The trail continued to descend until we were at sea level and we caught the first glimpse of the finish flags on the beach.

Upon setting foot onto the beach, I was instantly ushered into the 4th Aid Station whilst the marathon distance runners continued straight ahead to the finish line. As my race number was scanned I noticed that they had ‘Coca-Cola’ available which instantly lifted my mood – I’d been bloody craving that sweet nectar since mile 12!

Fed, hydrated and scanned, I made my way across the beach towards the finish line – being cheered on by numerous spectators. The temptation to finish under the gantry was strong – but I continued straight past and started the 10k loop – I would complete the ultra!

The first couple of miles were through the sand dunes again and this time, on tired legs, the loose sand made for hard work. I was in better spirits though and maintained a steady pace – ignoring the tiredness and aching limbs – and just enjoyed the views. It’s not everyday I get to run coastal trails.

Coming out of the sand dunes, we were greeted with another mile or so of beach which although hard on the legs, was a joy to run across. Reaching the flag at the far end, we were then forced to climb a narrow, single file track up through some woodlands. It felt like it was never ending. I wasn’t expecting any elevation at this stage of the race and it came as a shock. Again, I found the climb tough going. I remember thinking what a tough 10k route this was – with the sand dunes, beach and now this steep climb.

The trail eventually levelled out as it meandered it’s way through some woodlands before we reached checkpoint 5. I didn’t hang around here, I’d got speaking to a couple of runners from Malvern Joggers, based in the Malvern Hills – one of my favourite training grounds – and we were in conversation which helped pass the miles.

Before long, we descended out of the woods and back onto the beach for the mile long stretch to the finish line. The support along the beach was incredible and it spurred me on to run the last mile before finishing under the gantry.

Exhausted but extremely proud, I’d completed the Gower Ultra.

Jasper had finished ten minutes earlier (if only I’d have not took the detour for work!) – well done mate, whilst Maria had pulled out at the Marathon distance – the right decision for her – and Ian finished some 25 minutes later to complete his first ultramarathon – a brilliant achievement!

The Medal

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