Monday 15 November 2010

Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series: Gower Marathon

One of the highlights of the Autumn was scheduled to be Endurancelife's Gower Marathon.  I had planned to run it last year, but had a calf injury and down-graded to the half.  It was difficult, but in the way that makes one think it's worth trying again.  The full distance takes in a vast array of coastal views, so I really wanted to get the total experience.

By taking the Friday off, we were able to arrive at the Wyndgarth House B&B at around 3:30 - having learned previously that it's better to drive through the winding roads in the Gower peninsular during daylight hours.  As it happened, daylight was dark grey, as opposed to the black of night, but it was still better than the driving rain on a moonless night that we had for last year's trip.  As ever, Lynda and John's warm welcome was an immediate tonic to the dreary drive.  We made our way to The King Arthur Hotel for an early dinner.  I had chicken, rice, and peas while Nic enjoyed a perfect steak.  It was just the sort of light and lean meal I wanted. Later on, I realized this is pretty much the ingredients list of the dried cat nibbles - maybe I should just keep it easy and have cat food!  After dinner, we drove out to Rhossili to register and get race number, chip, etc. to allow more time in the morning - thank goodness for that!  We headed to bed early, hopeful that the forecasters would be right and the wind and rain would blow through by dawn.

Getting ready the night before - it paid off!

Indeed, the day dawned with clear blue skies and little wind.  We were set fair for a warmish run, bathed in sunshine.  After the experience of the last two marathons, I had been eating double portions for the past few days, to avoid completely cracking.  So, first breakfast was porridge and isotonic drink at 6am.  Second breakfast of more porridge, toast, and juice came at 7:45 with Nic.  We headed to the race HQ, ready for the race briefing and the 9:30 start.  We parked in the soon-to-be muddy field, hoped we would be able to get out again, and wandered in to find the briefing underway.  It soon became obvious that something wasn't quite as expected, so I checked with the registration desk that the marathon would start at 9:30, which they confirmed.  About 10 minutes later, it was even more obvious that the person I asked was as clueless as me - leaving me about 5 minutes to get my shoes on, my warm clothes off, and be on my way!  At some point in the run up to the event, the start time had been moved 30 minutes earlier.  Still, I was given the opportunity to learn a few valuable lessons.  First, read the e-mail carefully - it clearly shows the schedule (which had probably changed a good 2 months ago...).  Second, if I'm not expecting to run at 90% heart rate, I can eat quite near to the start of a race.  Finally, if you ever have a choice between getting everything ready the night before a race and the morning of, choose the night before!  I arrived with very little left to do, and that saved me a lot of panic given the lack of learning for the first lesson.  In the end, I set off in 91st position - out of 104 runners.

The sun enjoyed a day at the beach!

We set off through a field of cars and into a field of cattle - the cattle make for a much more hazardous footing.  Not wanting to start my day ankle deep in muck, I kept a beady eye out as we made our way onto the coastal trail.  The first real hill of the day was up, along, and down Rhossili Down.  After a couple of gentle miles to warm up, we re-entered Rhossili to be cheered by a few onlookers.  Nic was there to take my picture and give me a shout.

Worms Head in the distance as we head into Rhossili Village

Feeling great - but then we hadn't hit a hill yet.

Then, we hit the 1:4 climb. The path we take is great for hiking.  Running it requires a level of strength and fitness I have yet to achieve.  It's only half a mile worth of climbing, but the gradient in the first half ranges from 1:5 to 1:2.  So, I climbed at a walk like everyone else near me.  Long steep hills are at least sociable.  I exchanged pleasantries with a few people and enjoyed the sound of a non-stop chat from a group of friends who had obviously not had a chance to catch up for a while.  I also noticed that one of the group was wearing road shoes, or possibly light-traction trail shoes.  At this, I made a mental note to keep away from her on the equally steep descent.

Heading up Rhossili Down

 Last year, the grassy hillside had been quite slippery as the previous night's rain left an inch of water working its way down in a slow-moving puddle.  Sure enough, as I quickly skipped through the bracken and among the rocks, I heard squeals of "oh my God!" from those who ignored my shout to avoid the middle section.  Once you're into the slippery grass, it's very difficult to get out except by sliding or stopping and gingerly picking your way down.  I was long gone by the time they made it down, so I assume that I was the only one of my pace group who took the hill at a run.  I only saw 2 of them again during the race.

Rhossili Bay & Beach

 The fifth mile took in the beautiful Rhossili Beach, part behind the sand dunes in the soft sand, and part along the beach on firm, wet sand.  We took a gentle climb off the beach and along a boardwalk generally used by the local surfers to move around the worst of the dunes.  Our next climb, not much better than a muddy sheep track, was a lonely slip-slide up Llanmadoc Hill.  The sun was warm and I shed my buff, gloves, and windproof.  Happily, I had chosen a top with a zipper, so I could unzip in the sun and zip when the clouds came through. There were a few runners in the distance fore and aft, but none close enough to share the dark humour of hiking ankle deep in mud and peat.  It was a bit of fun, followed by a slightly more sure-footed descent to around 11.5 miles.  At this stage, I consoled myself with the knowledge that there was only one more big hill, and then a fairly flat second half.

For races like these, I take the view that ignorance is bliss.  I know roughly where we're going, approximately how many hills there are, and generally have a good idea of how long it should take.  But, I avoid knowing precisely how long each hill will be, or how many minutes before the next steep drop.  The main reason for this is that I can't keep it all in my head, and I get confused when I try.  The other reason is that it's often best to just look ahead and keep plugging away - thinking too far ahead can make it harder to deal with the task at hand.  Consequently, I hadn't really noticed that this "last big hill" would be two miles long.

As I ran/hiked/shuffled up the hill, I noted that the hill was actually pretty runnable - if one wasn't already suffering from the previous 12 miles of silliness.  It turns out that most of the ascent is at less than 10% gradient, so my feeling was correct.  Towards the top, the path was littered with large "puddles" of varying sizes.  Being rather peaty, the water was rather dark, making it difficult to judge how deep they were until it was too late.  Still, by the time I'd passed half way, I was happy to dip into these convenient "foot spas" for some refreshment.  After all, my feet had already been wet for over 2 hours, so keeping dry wasn't a priority.  Finally, at approximately 15 miles we topped out and headed back for the beaches.

The run down through the moorland was a good chance to stretch out and properly run for the first time in miles. We hit a short stretch on the road, which helped to knock some mud off the shoes, and gave a chance for some supporters to join the course.  I came on Richard Baker as his family surprised him by joining in for a few hundred yards, racing ahead to take a picture, then racing ahead again.  It was great to see his grandaughter chasing after him and cheering.  Finally, we left the road for the beach - and then turned onto a steep staircase strewn with soggy leaves.  The Autumn colours looked amazing, but having them wet and underfoot presented a serious hazard for a tired runner with a bit of a reputation for nose-diving.  So, I swore profusely as I concentrated hard to get off the stairs in good order.  Honestly, I don't know which hurt more, my quads or my head!

At the bottom, it was another trip into the loose footing of the sand dunes.  Whatever energy I had left was quickly ebbing away.  Three hours into the run, with an expected 2-2.5 hours left, and I felt just as bad as I had at Amsterdam.  My hip flexors weren't flexing, and various muscles whined at the continued effort.  After what felt like ages, but was only a little over a mile, the course took me back onto firm sand at Oxwich Beach.  The sun was low, and the beach long.  I gave in and took a short walking break on the premise that it couldn't possibly be much slower than the shuffle I was adopting.  The rest worked, and when I finally got off the beach, I was able to drag myself up through the woods and back onto the cliff paths at Oxwich Point.

Oxwich Beach - the footprints heading for some firmer sand

A couple of gently rolling miles of cliff path ended abruptly at Horton and our last water stop.  At Horton, we headed back to the beach for the last time.  The beach was only about half a mile, but I'd finally had enough of sand!  I shuffled along, thankful that I had sunglasses to help against the now very low sun.  As I neared the end of the beach, one of the very chatty group I'd left behind 17 miles previously passed by like I was standing still (I wasn't far from it, to be fair).  She had obviously grown tired of waiting for her ill-shod friend and was running quite easily among the mossy rocks.

Finally, with around 6 miles to go, I climbed up back onto the cliff paths.  One small sign said "Rhossili, 7 mi".  I saw this and said something akin to "7 miles?!  It had better not *#@#*& be!!"  For the next mile or two, I shuffled along narrow cliff tracks, encountering more runners than I had seen in miles.  Some I passed, some passed me back as we each struggled through the sharply varying terrain as best we could.   I spent some time running with Noel Cheseldine, who is training for a second attempt at the Marathon des Sables.  It was, for me, the most sociable part of the event - and we all kept looking at our watches with a confused look.  I even started to check the map screen on my Garmin, to make sure I hadn't passed the turn off and accidentally taken the Ultra course.  No, still on course, 26 miles long past, and still at least a mile from the finish!  I am sure the organizers' ears were red, because the coastal air was starting to turn blue as we vented our frustration at not having finished yet.

Are we there yet?

 Finally, the sign pointing to the finish arrived, and we knew it was less than a mile to go.  The cattle, bored with the wait, had not lingered to wait for the end of the race.  I continued to shuffle up the hill to the finish, turned the corner, and was greeted by Nic cheering and shouting at me to run.  I smiled, raised my arms for the picture, and tried to move less slowly towards the flags.  In the end, my Garmin says the course was roughly 28.5 miles long with a time of 5:55:48.  I'd managed the expected 27 miles in just over 5:30, which was near expectation.  The extra mile and a half were tough, but by that stage I was actually moving fairly smoothly (if very slowly!).  I politely thanked the organizers for the extra distance (no really, I did - I hope the sarcasm wasn't lost on them...), collected my goodies and headed for the car to get changed.  There was no way that anything I was wearing was going into the B&B - Lynda and John are far too nice for me to bring such filth into the house!

Yippee!  Here comes the finish line!

Looking fresh as a daisy but smelling like a camel

Of the marathons I've done, this was by far the toughest.  It was the furthest I've ever run, and the longest time I've ever been running (walking/trudging/shuffling).  Strangely, it is also the one that has caused the least pain.  I finished feeling OK, if very tired and stiff.  My traditional recovery meal of fish and chips with 2 pints of real ale felt great (especially the beer - the King Arthur knows how to treat its ale!).  So, although I am a bit trepidatious about the Portland stage of the series in less than 3 weeks, I am pretty sure I'll survive it.

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