The Ultra Trail South West – a race from Endurancelife with 100 mile and 60 mile/relay options. An interesting concept as the course changes every year, taking in new routes around Cornwall with a focus on the South West Coast Path, (SWCP)
Billed as ‘The UKs Toughest Footrace’, although I think The Spine, The Dragons Back, GUCR and the Viking Way, (amongst others) may have a thing to say about that – it’s still a beast. 100 miles and 18,000′ of ascent on rocky cliff-top trails that typify the SWCP and this year, a crossing of Cornwall via Bodmin Moor and the highest point in the county called, (no sniggering at the back please) – “Brown Willy”.The Ultra Trail South West – a race from Endurancelife with 100 mile and 60 mile/relay options. An interesting concept as the course changes every year, taking in new routes around Cornwall with a focus on the South West Coast Path, (SWCP)
As you’ll infer from the title, I didn’t finish, but we’ll get to that in due course… There is a lot to love about this race, and I’ll probably wish I was still out there by the time I finish writing this – the race still has over 14 hours until final cutoff, and I’m back in Cardiff, in the pub with a pint. That’s my MO, I have to write these blogs while the experience is still fresh, and nothing seems to stir the creative juices like a beer or two!
I’d tapered to the race well, but 5 days before managed to trip over on an easy run and gashed my knee, took the skin off both my palms and split my eye open! So, I was in a bit of mess really… I’d been out for a 5-miler on Wednesday which irritated my hip and left me limping around until Friday. Not good… I nearly dropped out, but told myself to man up and start, but be prepared to drop if things didn’t work out. That was my first mistake!
Friday was gorgeous and the drive down to Newquay got me to the race briefing in plenty of time. I collected my T-Shirt, had all my kit checked rigorously and watched the briefing then headed back to the car to lube-up and get changed. Because the weather was so nice it was difficult to decide what to wear, I opted for skins shorts and a short sleeve top, my kit included tri-sleeves and a waterproof, plus hat, gloves and a pair of trail shorts just in case. Everyone headed down to catch the bus to the start at Polruan at 16:30 as we were running back to Newquay.
16:30 came and went, the bus eventually turned up at just after 18:00. We were supposed to be starting at 18:00 so it put me out of sorts immediately. I’d planned to be back for midnight on Saturday for a 30 hour finish and had pace notes sorted for this schedule – oh well…
Eventually the bus got us to the start line and after a quick line up we were off at 19:30. This was a significant delay as it was going to get cold and dark sooner, again putting my plans out of kilter.
Anyway – we set off and I was LAST for the first few hundred yards as I was still sorting out my pack when the gun went! Straight onto the SWCP for 12 miles and 2,000′ of ascent. The evening was quite warm and soon everyone was stripping off layers that they’d put on while waiting for the bus. Soon I was down to t-shirt and shorts and still sweating heavily, it’s difficult to reign yourself in during these early stages.
The SWCP truly is a gem of a trail – it’s very challenging, with lots of steps and single track and constantly going up and down, but the views are to die for – and on a nice night, breathtaking. I lost count of the amount of times I came around a corner or over a crest to be stopped in my tracks and just saying “WOW”. Sometimes it was a stunning rocky vista, sometimes a fishing village but it literally stopped me in my tracks. I took a few photos of the more memorable views which I’ve used in this blog – the dark bits didn’t come out very well.
I was following my usual ultra strategy – 150 calories every 30 minutes and walk the hills. As we approached Looe and CP1 at 12 miles it had got dark so it was on with the headtorches. I’d made reasonable progress through the field and fell in with a group of lads for the start of the “Smugglers Way” – a 38 mile cross-country route from South to North Cornwall, in the dark… lovely…
We ran through forests, up and down steps and trails next to streams and rivers, (I think – you could hear them anyway) I met up with a few chaps who’d were Fellsman veterans. I have a 50th Fellsman patch sewn onto my pack – it’s a good conversation starter! Both of the chaps I was with were 13-hour Fellsmen, 4 hours faster than me… But it was still comfortable so I was happy of the company.
The weather turned early after CP1 and the rain started, this turned the trails to mush so my feet were quickly soaked and I was wet through. All my kit went on too as the temperature dropped – including my trail shorts over the skins! The rain got worse and I lost the lads and carried on my own to CP2 at 20 miles where my drop bag waited for me.
My drop bag just had some salt tabs and a pack of pork scratching in for this CP and I left the salt tabs on the floor of the CP – D’oh. Thanking the marshals I made a sharp exit with a can of coke and a handful of nachos for the next climb and headed back out into the rain and dark. There was a couple of miles of tarmac to CP2 and it was back onto the black stuff for what seemed like ages out of the CP. Tarmac in wet trail shoes, especially minimal trail shoes is not good and hurts – possible the second issue for me.
Another 10 miles to CP3 which I don’t remember a lot of – I was on my own for the whole lot and pretty miserable in the cold, wind and rain. Loads of road work again, and when we went off road it was boggy and muddy – so your feet got nicely mushed in the wet and cold, then mashed on the hardtop. Somewhere on this section I was wandering around a wood and came across a retro 60s’s style bath in the middle of the trail… I’m hoping it wasn’t a hallucination? I ‘think’ I was around some area to do with King Arthur, so it may have been a mythical bathtub – maybe a missed opportunity to pull out the plug from a new millennium Excalibur?
I’d started to question my options for dropping between CP3 and CP4, but still was strong so went through CP3 and off onto the toughest section of the Smugglers Way over Bodmin Moor and Brown Willy. It was dark and foggy, with horizontal rain in the wind. Impossible to run on the tussocks and trying to find the markers to guide you over the moor was entertaining. The elevation went up, and up but I had no idea where I was or what was coming next – thank god! Eventually I was presented with what looked like a vertical cliff face, this – I believe was 1378′ of Brown Willy staring me in the face.
Ok – sorry, that’s the last of the Brown Willy jokes. But don’t worry smut fans, I get into dogging in a minute!
We’d been told it was possible to skirt around Brown Willy, but Endurancelife had told us they’d put a message on the trig point which we’d need to tell them at the finish! I didn’t know this was Brown Willy, so crawled to the top. I remember this as being a really weird section and i think my senses were playing tricks on me. I have vivid memories of green eyes staring at me as i clambered up Brown Willy, (foxes, rabbits, gremlins, hobbits?) and also noises behind – quite scary… Beast of Bodmin anyone?
Coming off Bodmin was equally nasty, and then we hit road again. Running along the road there was a suspicious amount of cars with their lights on and VERY steamy windows? I think we all know what’s going on here, could ultra-dogging be the next new sport? It would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “dibbing-in” at checkpoints!
Slowly it began to get light as I approached CP4 and the first, (non-deviant) life I’d seen in over 2 hours! There were a few lads at the CP shivering and suffering from the cold, but they all seemed to sort themselves out and headed off as I grabbed a cup of soup. I cooled down very quickly and was shivering in a minute so had to get moving again.
Finally, we were off the moors and back towards the coastal path for the final 60 miles back to Newquay! It stopped raining, and got light and I actually really enjoyed myself for a few miles through Boscastle and back onto the SWCP. Mentally I’d told myself, that was the hard part done – now it was a nice, easy scenic run back home for midnight. And I was making very good time, probably around 26 hour pace….
My feet started hurting a mile or two into the SWCP, really hurting! I took my shoes off and smacked out all the grit but I think the damage had been done. The tarmac had taken its toll… Then, another mile or so later the weather turned again and gale force winds and sheet rain battered me relentlessly. The SWCP is tricky at the best of times, but with mashed feet, sleep deprived and grumpy it’s a nightmare!
A mile-or-so from CP5 which was about halfway I started giving myself permission to drop. As I got nearer I overtook a chap and did one of those internal promises to myself, I said to myself “if he says he’s dropping, then it’s OK for you to drop as well”…
As I passed, I gave my usual cheery “hey buddy, you OK”, the reply came “I’m out at the next CP” and that, as they say, was that.
Almost immediately everything began shutting down, my feet screamed at me, my calfs started cramping, I was reduced to a hunched, shivering mess! Shambling into the checkpoint I did a dramatic, Dragon’s Den-style “I’m Out”, just in case they wanted to talk me out of it! My chip/dibber was cut off and it was over!
There were 4 lads at the CP who were surprised I was dropping as I was still going strong, and could have walked it in under 30 hours – I was also still quite smiley and cheerful. One of the lads dropped too, but he was near hypothermic, another chap nearly dropped but I convinced him to go on. Now, I’m in the middle of nowhere, 50 miles from my car, cold and wet in gale force wind and rain, how do I get back?
Fortunately, a chap from the Newquay running club gave me a lift back to my car – superstar! We had a great chat on the drive back, he’d dropped from UTSW100 last year and was going to pace his mate the final 30 miles today/tonight. Runners – we are the greatest!
So I got back to the car, lay down for a few hours and then made my way home – I’ve had a few hours to ponder the last 24 hours, and – you know what? It WAS the right decision… Yes, so I’ve broken my DNF duck – but who cares? It wasn’t my first 100, or an important 100 and it’s certainly not my A Race. Best of all, I got a magical 12-hour, 50-mile overnight training run in and I won’t be battered for the next fortnight!
But, you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. And I’ve been riding a wave of ultra success recently, so did I learn anything? A massive YES….
- Never, Ever, Ever give yourself permission to quit. Ironically this is embraced by the Endurancelife motto “Never, Never Give Up”
- You can’t wing a 100, you need to be emotionally and mentally prepared for it, which brings me onto:
- Visualisation – I do this all the time, imagining crossing the finish line… The final few yards, the satisfaction, medal, first beer etc… This didn’t happen with UTSW, all I’d visualised was dropping.
- Take more warm clothes… It was mid summers day and I was close to hypothermic! British summer time RIP
- I love my Petzl Nao head torch
- Foot care… Minimal trail shoes, rain and hard surfaces destroy my feet. Not sure what to do about this? Stay off the roads in my MT 110’s would be a good start.
But finally – how lucky are we, as runners to be able to run on these amazing trails? That’s what it’s all about for me – being out there and cruising through the amazing trails… See you out there soon!