Pen Llyn Ultra (Winter Edition) Nov 2018

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 

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