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Pen Llyn Ultra (Winter Edition) Nov 2018

It’s 9:00 am and I’m standing in a nervous huddle on the Llŷn Peninsula, waiting for an astronaut to drop his smoke grenade. As you do.

Published in Outdoor Fitness (February 2019)

Diolch anfarth i Gwynfor am y llynia gwych! Photos thanks to SportsPicturesCymru

I spare a quick glance out over the Irish sea and instantly start regretting it. Storm clouds are prowling. The heavy sky creates an eerie twilight that defies the time of day. The orange flame erupting from the smoke grenade is the centre of all our attention, and it stands out in stark contrast to the dark headland beyond. It’s been held aloft by the astronaut and race organiser, Mr Williams, who is ready to set us off. I get a little over excited with my running teats (aka Soft flasks) and squirt myself in the face as the grenade goes flying to signify the start of the race. It’s a nice distraction as we set off and I find myself pondering that age old conundrum of whether new mothers have to deal with the same problems as ultra-runners with full Squirty-pouches. Quite topical after the controversy at this year’s UTMB (Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc)!

70 of us set off at a tentative trot but as the cheers of the start line fade away, I can’t help wonder how many will finish? I hope that I’m not a DNF statistic by the end of the day. It’s been one year five months since my first experience with ultra running – The Dragon’s Back Race (Film link below). Touted as one of the hardest running races in the world, it certainly lived up to its reputation. Although I did finish (in 96th position) it took a lot out of me and I have not done an ultra since. The visible effects have gone; my feet look less like five-day old battered haddocks, the stone in weight I lost returned with a vengeance (within about two days!) and I smell less like a talcum-powdered honey badger. But the effect it had on my running is an unknown. Everyone talks about the long-term damage that doing races like the Dragon’s Back has on your body and it’s always at the back of my mind – have I really healed? Will I ever?!

Today I’m about to find out. The inaugural Pen Llŷn Winter Ultra, with 59 km of costal path and 1700 m of ascent. The numbers alone are substantial but weave these statistics into the sinusoidal muddy winter trails of Pen Llŷn and this race really comes alive.

I settle down into my stride, physically and mentally get down to the grindstone ready for a big shift. It strikes me how contrasting this is to the manic way I set off on the DBR – map case flapping, overloaded backpack spilling kit everywhere and me panicking about the number of electrolyte tabs that I’d packed! Today I’m a different person. Yes, I’m excited but I’m surprisingly relaxed. There’s no real pressure, no expectation. DBR aside, this is my first one day ultramarathon. I only signed up a month ago and although I’m always active, I’ve done little in the way of specific training. The beauty of this is that the only thing I’ve had to sacrifice to get here are a few pints the night before. I have nothing to lose and I’ve already told my family to meet me for a swift half in two of the check point pubs on the way round. I’m here to enjoy a hard day out in good company.

For the first two kilometres, I’m running next to Lowri Morgan – a Welsh ultra-running legend. She’s won the Arctic 6633 ultra, outright! I’m happily chatting away until we drop down onto the first section of beach. As I look up admiring the view over the headland, my heart sinks. I see the Lycra clad chain of ultra-runners that are extended ahead of me heading straight into the sea! The only way forward is to wade through the incoming tide. The leading runner is up to his armpits in water! As someone who loves a bit of “schaden freude”, I fail to stifle a giggle as the man next to me slips on a hidden rock and, with a bone curdling yelp, ends up swimming. It’s a brilliant way to start one hell of an adventure. I enter the water in sixth position and come out fourth. All those triathlons have done some good after all!

Diolch anfarth i Gwynfor am y llynia gwych! Photos thanks to SportsPicturesCymru

The down side is the cold. This would take its toll on the field over the course of the day. Luckily for me I’m the hairiest person in North Wales and my very own layer of merino comes into its own in situations like this.

As I pass the leading female on the way up to the first honesty book checkpoint, I have a nagging feeling that I’ve done the same old schoolboy error of going off to quick once again. But I can’t help it – if I bonk at half way then so be it. I rip out my page and squelch on down the coastal path towards Abersoch. The nappy rash sets in after eight kilometres as we head away from the south Llyn coast on the recently restored Llwybyr Y Morwyr (Sailors Path) which cuts overland to the north coast. I stroll into the first supported checkpoint after 13 km and casually ask how far ahead the other runners are, “there’s only one and he left a few minutes ago.” Confusion turns to an inner grimace as I realise that my gentle pub crawl around Pen Llŷn has just changed. Through some miracle I’ve found myself in contention – I’m actually going to have to race this. This is going to be painful.

The next few hours fly by – I catch the first placed runner (Liam Mills) after another 5 km and we run together for the best part of 20 km. It’s very amicable and the scenery on the Llŷn peninsula forms a beautiful backdrop. Lush green hills roll into the sea, dark storm clouds boil and occasionally burst with bright sunshine basking the whole vista in vivid dynamic light looking like something straight from Instagram! #nofilter.

Liam and I have a good chat about all sorts. Fresh from his win at the Maverick X Snowdonia ultra he is full of interesting race stories and generally is a nice man. But the friendlier it gets the harder racing becomes. At one point, Liam decides to stop and change his socks and I come to a halt with every intention of waiting for him! After a second or two I remember that this is a race and carry on. Being on my own again brings some much needed focus and makes racing a little easier. I pass a few more beaches and up onto a crumbling cliff top path that weaves it’s way down the coast towards our mountainous goal towering above the coastline – Yr Eifl. But before I get there I’m confronted with another 500m of wading through the crashing waves. So after almost 40km I come to the toughest part of the day in a cold soggy state. It’s a brutally steep 440m climb from sea level through an old quarry at Nant Gwytheyrn up to the most northerly summit of Yr Eifl. One of the prowling storms decides that this is a good time to pounce and just as I start the ascent the heavens open. The final few steps up towards the summit cairn are wild, there’s 20m visibility, the rain has turned to hail and the wind is pushing me off my feet, and just when I think it can’t get any worse my hamstrings start cramping – I didn’t even know they could cramp! I manage to rip a page out of the honesty book and start stumbling downhill. Liam is 50m behind me and I try not to think of the 15 km that are left.

The downhill pounding shakes some life back into my legs, but I’ve been running on empty for a while and the 3 km down to the final support point are hard. The marshals do a brilliant job of sorting me out and I eventually head off from the final support point about 200m ahead of Liam.

Diolch anfarth i Gwynfor am y llynia gwych! Photos thanks to SportsPicturesCymru

I’ve been going hard for almost 50 km, my legs are empty and the cold has started to seep right in. For the final 10 km of rolling tarmac roads, everything is teetering on the edge of cramp. I must have looked a right state – driving my arms like a sprinter and yet barely moving. But after the DBR this is nothing, perspective is a useful thing. Although it feels like I’m empty, I now know there’s more in the tank. So I empty it. My wife, Gwenllian, runs with me for a small stretch, screaming encouragement at me and it works – I put 10 min into the rest of the field on this last section and cross the finish line in 6 hrs 44 seconds to claim my first Ultramarathon win. Out of the 70 hardy ultra-runners who started the day, 56 make it round. The cold and cramp take a significant toll.

I’m thrilled with the win but I walk away with something much more valuable – an answer. Do races like the Dragons Back Race break you? No, quite the opposite.

Lessons Learnt

Try to warm up straight away if you get cold (increase pace/high knees…etc). Change running technique to target and stretch muscle groups that feel tight before they actually cramp. Cold-cramp is caused by oxygen depletion and it’s vital to get the flow back into the extremities asap. And always take a couple of spare electrolyte tabs wrapped in Clingfilm.

Pen Llŷn Ultras 

Beautiful scenery, no fuss old-school organisation and a brilliantly eccentric race team. It’s a good combo! It’s not every day that you get four brawling knights in full armor and an astronaut starting you off on an ultra with a smoke grenade…but it should be! They organise a summer version as well and their fame is spreading – Rachid El Morabity, six times winner of the Marathon Des Sables is coming over for the 75 miler, I better get training!

Kit List

  • Shoes – My Salomon S-Lab Utras()were perfect for this – a classy  pair of shoes. The demands of long distance and rough terrain are hard to satisfy at the same time. With these shoes Salomon have nailed it. This was the third time I’d worn them and I didn’t even come close to getting a blister.
  • Backpack – I almost never go running without my Salomon Advanced Skin race vests (and this race was no exception. Like the name suggests it fits naturally to your body, hugging the contours and placing the weight as close as it can be to your body – the result is that it barely feels like your wearing a backpack.
  • Base Layer – Merino wool is the perfect base layer for this race. This race throws everything at you – one minute your wading through an incoming tide and the next your 500 m above sea level battling 50 km/h winds and driving hail. No other fabric can cope as well with these extreme conditions as merino wool. EDZ Merino)is a British based company that produces bombproof merino kit. Originally designed as a base layer for motorcyclists, practicality & wear resistance is at the top of their priority list. Their products have one of the highest weight-of-wool/£ on the market and were perfect for the changeable winter weather on Pen Llyn.

Diolch anfarth i Gwynfor am y llynia gwych! Tag for the photos: SportsPicturesCymru 

Berghaus Dragon's Back Race

Berghaus Dragons Back Race 2017

Fire in the Belly  

 Ras Cefn y Ddraig Bergahus 

 

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It’s harder than passing a kidney stone and then trying to put it back. It’s harder than growing a new shin (which I really did try to do). It’s left more broken bodies in its wake than drunken overconfidence and it’s responsible for more lasting mental damage than the lie about Father Christmas.

The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race (Ras Cefn Y Ddraig) has long been regarded as one of the hardest races in the world. Plenty of stories have been spun about the severity of this challenge. I can now confirm that they are all true. 100% true.

First staged in 1992, the race lay dormant for 20 years before its resurrection in 2012. It’s only been staged four times. With a dauntingly low completion rate of 47% you can see why this running race is revered the world over. It’s verging on mythology.

As usual I signed up on the premise of an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and only then did I begin to realise what I had got myself into. Prior to this I’d ran one marathon and I didn’t even know what an ultramarathon was (I’m still not entirely sure!). I was out of my depth in a big way.

The more I looked into it, the worse it got. With 315km of running and 15,500m of altitude gain all crammed into five consecutive days, the stats alone are startling. But weave these numbers into the unforgiving terrain of the Welsh mountains and this dragon truly comes alive. It starts in Conwy on the North Wales coast and ends in the Brecon Beacons. The route takes the runners up, over and through the highest & roughest terrain Wales has to offer.

Preparation

In the five months leading up to the race I did everything I could to improve my miniscule chances of getting through. I researched the best kit, sought route and nutrition advice from the experts and did some good-old-fashioned hard training (see Outdoor Fitness magazine). This pressure cooker of preparation proved to be another unforeseen element to deal with – the more I put in the higher the stakes got. Getting to the start line of this race proved to be hard enough. Almost a quarter of the people who signed up and paid didn’t even start (if this is the case you do get to defer your entry).

Since I started training more and going out with some serious running groups I began to realise that fell runners have a certain build – long legs, massive calves, optional beard and the less of the rest the better! I on the other hand, I’m built more like a hairy baked potato, designed more for mining and eating sausage rolls than bouncing over mountains. But getting out of your comfort zone is good for you right?

Day One

  • Route: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon
  • Distance: 52km
  • Ascent: 3,800m
  • Time: 9hr52min
  • Daily position: 28th

 

Somehow, I made it to the start line. I was one of 237 twitchy fell runners poised on the ramparts of Conwy Castle. The cloud was hanging low – weighed down with the weight of expectation and sacrifices made. The atmosphere was tense – almost electric as all that pent up energy and excitement reverberated off the castle walls.  The starting hooter broke the dam and signalled the start of this epic journey. I was surprised to feel a weight lift – all the trepidation and tension of the past few weeks & months seem to dissolve with the base notes of the male voice choir (Hogia’r Ddwylan) seeing us off with a stirring rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of my fathers).

That first day was a joy. Flowing through Snowdonia, dancing down over the boulder pebble dash on the Glyderau and flying down Pen Yr Ole Wen. Even Grib Goch in the clag and a 30 mph wind was no trouble; I finished in 28th position and as I looked around the finishing paddock alarm bells started to chime. I was in the company of some hard, wiry looking mountain goats, I stood out like a fell runner at Weight Watchers. I would come to regret this first day of wanton abandonment on the descents.

Day two

  • Route: Moelwynion and Rhinogydd
  • Distance: 58km
  • Ascent: 3,600m
  • Time: 13hr 19min
  • Daily position: 100th

I started too late, too cocky, two hours after the runners in the know. It was high stakes stuff as I charged through the thick morning mist reciting bearings and distances like a madman. One navigational error and my race would be over. Other runners would be hearing me before they saw anything – God given bearings drifting out of the clag! I made it to the halfway checkpoint with less than an hour to spare. Others weren’t so lucky.

The Rhinogydd were rough, as expected. Remote and untouched compared to northern Eryri the difficulty of the terrain came hand in hand with stunning scenery and some unforgettable moments as the sun burnt away the curtain of morning mist. From running past a mirror flat Llyn Eiddew-mawr in the company of a pair of honking Canada Geese to standing and taking a moment on Y Diffwys – the final mountain of the day. The sun was setting as I looked down at the Mawddach estuary snaking its way past the base of the adjacent giant Cadair Idris. Stunning yet daunting, as it was a job yet to do – tomorrow’s load to bear.

 

Day Three

  • Route: Cadair Idris and Pumlumon Fawr
  • Distance: 71km
  • Ascent: 3,500m
  • Time 14hr 06min
  • Daily position: 87th

Touted as the make or break point of the race, if you get through today you stand a good chance of making it all the way. Or so they say. A mist smothered Cadair Idris was our wakeup call. I slowed my pace right down to try and right the wrongs of the previous days. Down to Dyffryn Dysynni, past the old ruins of Castell y Bere* and over Tarren Hendre to Machynlleth I went. By mid morning it hit 28 degrees and with less and less water en-route by the time we got to Machynlleth we were a sorry bunch. We decimated the little town like a plague of smelly, lycra clad locusts – consuming everything within reach. For the second half I had the pleasure of running in the company of Joe Foulkener (the only person to have completed all four DBRs). I learnt a lot. In an endurance sport like this, to have endured four of these things over a period spanning 25 years, is an incredible achievement. What a chief. I asked him why he had come back four times? “The journey” was his beautifully simple answer.

I was just coming down the final mountain of the day Pumlumon, when, with 500m to go, my shin went. I didn’t even know they could go! I had a searing pain down the outside of my right leg. I hobbled home, desperately trying to ignore the 71km that were waiting for me the next day.

Day Four

  • Route: Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr
  • Distance: 71km
  • Ascent: 2,400m
  • Time: 15hr 56min
  • Daily position: 138th

This day was one of the hardest of my life. I got up at 4:30am, strapped my right leg, had breakfast, packed and was gone with the first wave at 6 am. If I was going to make it I needed every second I could get. My shin was no better, in fact it was getting worse. I had over 130km of mountains still to go and I could not run downhill and even the flats were reduced to a wretched hobble. It was agonising. It was the first time I actually thought that I might not be able to finish. I started thinking of everyone that had helped me get this far – all the sacrifices others had made on my behalf – and here I was failing miserably, letting them down. It hit me like tonne of bricks and I started crying. My sunglasses were the only thing saving my embarrassment as other runners cruised past.

The next three hours were my lowest of the whole race. I eventually ran out of tape after plastering my entire foot in a desperate attempt to make it work. Although my pace was horrendously slow I was, however, moving in the right direction and miraculously my uphill legs were untouched. I set myself the goal of getting to the half way support-point in the hope that one of the medics could help me out. Through a mixture of bad singing and too much Ibuprofen I made it through the first 40km.

Berghaus Dragon's Back Race

 

This last support point was like a war zone. Bodies were strewn all over the place and busy medics were strapping people up. The only thing that was missing was some background artillery fire to set the mood. The medical team gave me a thorough check over and a stern talking to about taking too many Ibuprofen (it can lead to kidney failure when mixed with dehydration), but eventually gave me the good news – It wasn’t a stress fracture, the injury I had been dreading. Shin splints or tendonitis they said, and these would not leave any proper long term damage. On hearing this a weight lifted off my shoulders. It couldn’t get much worse than the previous five hours and I was closer to the finish. The mornings cry-baby episode seemed to have passed leaving me recharged and after overhearing my conversation with the medic, some absolute legend casually walked over and lent me one of his walking poles. Things were looking up.

I somehow started to enjoy it again. I shared a glorious sunset with a new Japanese friend over an otherwise deserted Caban-coch Reservoir. He was as delirious as me, repeatedly screaming “beautiful” at the top of his lungs as we came down the final mountain of the day. I soon realised that this was the sum total of his English vocabulary so I just joined in. This obviously developed into a Welsh/Japanese conversation about the merits of mars bars that made the final 10km of tarmac fly by. I made it with less than an hour to spare, which was the closest I came to the dreaded 11 pm cut-off.

Day 5

  • Route: Carmarthenshire and The Black Mountains
  • Distrance: 63km
  • Ascent: 2,200m
  • Time: 13hr 38min
  • Overall Position: 118th

This was the final push. I left at 6am sharp – no way was I falling at the final hurdle. I acquired a pair of semi-broken poles from the lost and found and got on with it. By now I’d perfected my drunken hobble and, excluding descents, could cruise at a respectable pace. It was hot, in a valley below Fan Brycheiniog (The Black Mountain) it hit 34 degrees, but apart from the heat the day passed without much incident. The organisers arranged some surprise choc ices at the final checkpoint, which were unimaginably good. They refused to let me into the freezer so I just had to crack on to the finish. I made it home in a total time of 66hr53min and in 96th position – a broken, smelly, happy mountain-mess looking for a shower and a beer. I had both and fell asleep halfway through the latter. Only 127 runners made it.

Winners

Men’s Race: The 2015 winner Jim Mann floated over the big rough stuff of the North and was leading until he made a navigational error on day three that saw him lose close to an hour to Marcus Scotney – then commenced an epic chase down the length of Wales that went down to the wire – Marcus being better on the flatter terrain of the south saw him hold onto his lead and won in a total running time of 37hr58min. Just to emphasise the quality of this field, this winter Jim Mann broke the records for all three UK fell running rounds (The Ramsey, the Bob Graham and the Paddy Buckley), in the same month. a phenomenal feat.

Women’s race – with half a day to go there were three women in it – on the way up to the final mountain the current race leader Sabrina Varjee went astray and the 20 min detour was enough to lose her the race lead to Irelands Carol Morgan who won the desperate chase to the finish and took the win in a total running time of 48hr41min and also took ninth position overall. One week after coming second in this race, Sabrina Varjee completed an unsupported Bob Graham Round in around 21 hours. This is mind boggling – at this point in time I’d just about managed to pull my shoes off and literally was struggling to walk. Not quite emulating Helene Whitakers feat, who beat some of the world’s best male mountain runners in 1992 to win the original DBR, but not bad!

 

Berghaus Dragon's Back Race

Dragon’s Back Race: Recovery

The Long Road to Recovery

Six weeks down the line, my feet have shrunk back to their original size and look far less like day old battered haddocks. I’ve more than replenished the stone in weight that I lost during the race and I’ve just gone for my first run (flat 3km!). Recovery is going to be a long process for a mere mortal like me.

Everything about this race was extreme. My body, my mind and all my senses were pushed to their absolute limits. The highs were joyous and unforgettable, the lows were crushing yet galvanising; the scenery was raw and beautiful; the smell of my kit bag was noxious and, more than likely, carcinogenic by the end. I’ve never eaten or drank so much in my life.

At the time, I couldn’t take it all in. The whole experience was overwhelming and I had little spare energy or time to do anything except survive. But looking back now, it’s hard to believe that it all happened in five days.

The 47% average completion rate is one of the lowest in the world, but I don’t think it does the DBR justice. It’s harder than this. You have to remember that’s 47% of a field consisting of some of the best fell runners out there, no part timers would even contemplate this race (me being the one stupid exception of course!). Just to get out of the starting blocks you’ve got to be proficient in the mountains and have exceptional running endurance. With the advent of GPS, the navigation element of the race has, unfortunately, diminished which is probably the reason behind the slight increase in completion rate over the years; from 39% in 2012 to 56% this year.

The factor that stops most people is the cumulative damage of rough downhill running – slowing down or losing weight are the only options. It’s no big secret that top fell runners are light – Kenny Stuart (8st), Joss Naylor (9st), Killian Jornet (9st 2 lb). But for multi day events like this it seems to be even more prevalent. Not directly applicable but take a look at the Tour de France and you get an idea of the physique needed to keep going over mountains for days on end.

All the hard work is, however, paid back tenfold. In fact, if I was ever feeling low, all I had to do was look up to see a never-ending supply of fuel for the fire. And that’s the one thing that you need above all else to get through this – fire in the belly. Fitness and compass skills will only get you so far, you must really want that finish line to get there.

Another thing that helps is the camaraderie; it was a crucial part of what got me through. I was sharing a tent with four others – Jezz Bragg (one of the best distance runners around, modest and funny – an inspiration), Radio Two’s Vasos Alexander (bubbly and somehow always full of energy), a mild mannered yet steel-willed doctor named Dave and last, but not least, Ed – a Royal Marine.

On the end of the second day I’d crawled in late. I was pretty empty and confronted with one of the unexpected challenges of this race, admin. Unpack 59ltr expedition dry bag – change clothes – cry a little – pack day bag for up to 15hrs of running the next day – pack and re-stock half way drop bag – lance blisters – eat food – prepare clean running kit – more food – food until I was sick of the sight, smell and thought of it – and all of this flopped on my back like a dying fly with my legs seized up and my feet swollen so that they wouldn’t fit into my spare shoes.

I was just setting to the task when Ed got up out of his sleeping bag, sacrificing precious recovery time and insisted that he helped me. Clearly an absolute legend but let me frame this picture a little further – he did this, knowing full well that he was struggling himself. He was forced to pull out part way through the next day with stress fractures in his legs. What a chief. Not many people get through this alone and I was no exception. Thank you Ed.

Yes, this was the hardest race I’ve ever done and parts of it were painful. But once the blisters have healed and the fell shoes have been burnt, the pain is just a distant niggling memory. The rest is still vivid – priceless, hard-earned memories of an epic journey through a beautiful country.

I remember back to the end of the fourth day. My legs were long since spent, the best I could muster was a shuffle – but what a shuffle! I was completely alone in a vast sloping valley near Dyffryn Elan, chasing my shadow as it carved its way through a sloping field of blue bells. The quiet was intense, natural and ran to the beat of a solitary Cuckoo. It cut through my stupor – a crystal clear memory that I would never have had without this race.

The logistical capabilities and faultless organisation that underpin this race are mindboggling. How they do it is a mystery, the fact that most of the organisers and support staff are veteran fell runners is a big factor. You might ask yourself what you get for your £800 entry fee and the answer is one of the most spectacular journeys you’ll ever take. Breath-taking in every sense – the harder the climb the better the view.

Joe Faulkners Top Tips for pros

  • Get used to long days on your feet. Not necessarily running, standing all day will help. Start this ASAP e.g. a year out from the race.
  • Recce all of the course.
  • Drink from streams – carry as little as possible.

Huws Top Tips for novices

  • Use the word “clag” indiscriminately and as often as possible and it will help your integration into the fell running community.
  • Get very excited when someone talks about a “line” they took. This is where a real mountain runner makes up time (never by running faster).
  • Lose weight – I was 12 stone starting this, If I were to do it again I’d aim for 10 ½ stone.
  • SLOW DOWN!! Especially descending. No matter how comfortable you are going down, the increased impact is ruinous in multi day fell runs. This, I think, is especially true for the heavier runners. The descents are the ones that will break your body down. Go for gold on the ascents.
  • Take walking poles for the flatter days. Saves 10% on your legs and essential if you pick up an injury.
  • Do not rely on GPS. Using a map and compass will keep you switched on and allow you to react to the situation at hand. The best route on the day will depend on numerous factors.
  • Start early to make sure of the cut-offs.
  • Start slow and speed up on day four & five if you still have anything in the tank.

Kit Bag

  • Maui Jim Sunglasses: Surprisingly my most indispensable bit of kit. Designed for water sports in Hawaii, their anti-fog is faultless. My prescription lenses were crystal clear even in the clag with me sweating buckets beneath them – vital for map reading and avoiding falls, two race-ending mistakes.
  • Footwear: My biggest error was going for lightweight racing shoes with minimal cushioning. Your feet get pounded to pieces in this race so next time I’d go with the majority of the field – Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra all the way – the extra cushioning is vital in the DBR. Take sandals or crocs for the evening, at least one size too big (your feet will swell).
  • Jackets & Waterproofs: The Berghaus Extreme range is pricey but worth every penny. Lightweight and they did everything I asked of them (which was a hell of a lot!).
  • Nutrition: The fact that Science in Sport (SiS) energy gels didn’t require water made them indispensable and not sickly. Their Re-go shakes & over-night protein are delicious and therefore easy to take in – this proved to be very important as my appetite was non-existent. Whatever you choose get used to it.
  • GPS: My Suunto Spartan worked every time I needed it. Instant satellite pickup. But keep it as backup – save the battery.
  • Backpack: My Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 12set distributes the weight and hugs the body much better than a conventional backpack. Light, comfortable & accessible.

 

Coast to Coast: The Longest Day

 

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I’m going to be up front from the start. I was not ready for this race.

With 140km of cycling, 33km of running and 70km of kayaking, the numbers alone look tough. Weave these stats into the mountainous wilderness of the Southern Alps and this race comes alive.

Since its humble beginnings in 1983, where a mere 25 pioneers took on the course, the Coast to Coast has grown to become the undisputed pinnacle of world multisport.

I first heard about it years ago, standing around the office photocopier. A colleague fondly recalled a story of a spectacular adventure. So when I landed in New Zealand and heard it was on, I decided it would be rude not to have a go.

A couple of weeks into my training, I bumped into Steve Gurney, a living legend. This man is the most successful athlete in multisport history – who’s won this monster nine times.

“The key to this one is specificity,” he said. “It’s unique terrain, so get used to it. Practice boulder-hopping, do long hours and get used to white-water. I spent two or three years on the river before I even contemplated the Coast to Coast; any less and you will waste energy and risk injury.”

Bugger. I had four weeks.

You need a Grade Two certificate in white-water kayaking before signing up. The only time I remembered being in a kayak was a couple of hours spent trying to capsize friends on a lake in Snowdonia. With no time, boat or experience there was only one thing for it – a few blatant lies about the ferocity of Llyn Tegid and I was on a course. Two days and four capsized rapids later and I had my ticket. The patience and knowledge of the guides at Topsport Kayaking had a lot to do with getting me through. However, getting through the Grade Two examination and facing the Waimakariri Gorge alone, without the watchful eyes and calculated lines of river guides, are two different things. The 70km of white-water changes daily, so chances are on race day I’ll encounter a completely different river.

The Race

It’s 5:15am and I’m already two bacon sandwiches down. A sky full of foreign stars flicker above my head, mirrored by a string of head torches dancing down the beach in front of me. I follow the pre-race tradition of dipping my running shoes into the Tasman Sea and line up. The sacrifices people have made to get here are remarkable. From the five people I’ve just met, two have given up their jobs and sold their homes.
There’s no more time to think. The tension breaks with a 3km stampede over the pitch black sand. Two people are down within 50m. It seems an absurd way to start such long day but everyone is desperate to catch a good group for the first 55km cycle leg. I make it into the second group, the elite 15 are gone for the day.
Immediately, the old generals start barking orders, herding us into the efficient lines of a 30 strong chain-gang. Although it’s an individual race we’re in this bit together. Most people do their share but there’s always a few hiding at the back. I hear them getting an earful and soon enough the passengers disappear.
I look up from the middle of the peleton and see the Southern Alps appear in front of me. Their vast craggy outline bathed in the soft glow of dawn. The day hasn’t even started and I’m already covered in energy gels and sweating buckets.

Down hill from here! Goats Pass, crossing the Southern Alps.

The next stage is a 33km mountain run over Goats Pass, but before I even start, I’m thrown on a chair, watered, fed and smothered in sunscreen. This is my possie. Every competitor must have a support team to follow them with kit and food. Without them this would be impossible, they’re the ringside coaches that sort you out between rounds.

I’m barely out of transition and I’m up to my waist in chilling water, clambering over massive boulders. They call the next leg a run but in reality it’s more of a mad crawl up a riverbed relying just as much on strength and stability as it does on running ability. By the time I’m at the top of the pass, 800m up, I’ve fallen twice, crossed 17 rivers and lost my sunglasses and hat in the process. I’m having ball.

Six hours in and I reach the Waimakariri Gorge to begin the 70km kayak section. The river is running at 38 cumex, half the flow of my last outing – meaning that more technique and energy is needed. This is my fourth time ever whitewater kayaking and I’m bricking it. If I’m too slow I’ll miss the time cut-off, if I capsize or get pinned against a rock I risk breaking my boat and myself.

I’m just entering the narrowest section of Gorge when I start cramping. I’ve drank too much and flushed my body of all the good stuff. The technique that got me through my training was all power no panache, attacking anything with foam on it. With this option gone, I’ve got to get into the rough stuff if I’m going to make it down in time – let the river do the work. I head into the first S-bend with my heart pounding in my ears, If I hadn’t already weed in my kayak I would have done here; a shear rock-face on one side and whirlpool on the other with a narrow strip of good fast water flowing through the middle.

Somehow it clicks and finally this silly water makes sense. I cramp for most of the way down but start enjoying the ride. It seems that I’ve learnt to kayak on race day.

Gurning like I mean it in the Waimakariri Gorge

I crawl out of my kayak 12 hours after leaving the beach this morning. My legs have seized on the way down and sulk for a while as my support team drag me towards my bike.

As I start turning the cranks a weight lifts off my shoulders. I understand this machine – we’re old friends. There’s no white water, no whirlpools or hidden rocks to stop me. One foot after the other and I’m there. There’s a pint calling me home.

Three hours later, the sun having just set and I’m running over dark sands towards the Pacific Ocean and the finish line, three and a half hours after the winner, Sam Clark who took 11 hrs 37min to cross a country.
In his own words:

“This is a race for hard b@#%£@£s.”

Out of the 101 people who started, only 83 finish. I came home in 47th position. I might not have been ready, but I got through and my bucket list is one down. Waiting to be ready for such a race could see it never come. Take your chances.

My sister, Gwen, supplying the recovery drinks…