Pen Llyn Ultra – Race Report
Warning: This write up is going to be long!
For my pre-race thoughts on this run, please check out this page.
The Pen Llyn Ultra – what a race.
I’d alternated between supreme confidence and the knowledge of my certain failure in the run up to this race. I’d done well in the Apocalypse 50, completing 50 miles in 11 hours 18 minutes, but my running since then had been sporadic. According to my magic GPS watch, I’d completed 105 km of training in the two months between that race and this one. I just wasn’t enjoying running and I was finding it tough mentally to push myself to keep going. I had no idea how I was going to survive 122-126 km along the welsh coast. Certainly when I considered that it had taken 2 months to even approach that distance through the fens.
At the same time, I felt quite strong. I’d been doing strength training in my local gym a couple of times a week and been keeping generally active. I’d done a bit of a hike in June, been to a few kickboxing sessions and played in a Quidditch tournament (yes really, and Cambridge has a team if you are interested in joining, it’s fantastic).
By the week before the race I knew I would do well, mentally everything just clicked into place, in no small part thanks to the people around me. Everything I could control was under control. My support crew of Patrick had very specific instructions regarding what I would need when. I had planned paces for different finish times, knowing if I started to slow down I would just adjust my target and keep pushing on. Everything I couldn’t control was not worth worrying about.
The drive up to Pwllheli was that familiar Welsh rain that is capable of permeating all waterproofs. The following day would be tough if the rain kept coming. It would be more of a long wet yomp than a run. This fell firmly into the category of things outside of my control.
We arrived to a rather wet Pwllheli where I registered for the race at Plas Heli, picked up my race number and signed the waiver to say that I really did know how stupid and dangerous this was. Onwards to the hotel, which was some rooms above the sort of pub that you look in and have that slight panic because all that’s there is a bar and a couple of people playing pool and you’re not entirely sure whether you will make it out alive. It turned out that the place was actually fine, although I was woken up at 1am by someone making some rather naughty noises and a lot of saying “oh please” far too loudly. I had to be awake again at 4am to get to the start line, so this was not okay.
4.30am back at Plas Heli and in the inevitable queue for the toilets. I waited until the last minute and darted into the ladies loo instead. 4.40am and there was the most brief of safety instructions, which was good because I doubted I would be able to remember very detailed instructions at that point. The main thing was that if got lost or hurt we could call the Race Directors who were tracking us and they would be able to help us. I’m not sure how well this would have worked in practise because the race was being held in North Wales which is not well known for its quality of mobile coverage.
Anyway, we were herded out onto the beach to the start line, where the music was playing (ACDC), adrenaline was pumping and soon the flares lit up and we were off. I kept at the steady level of effort and pace that I wanted to maintain as long as possible, leaving me near the back of the field early on. I looked out at those dashing off into the distance and thought to myself that they were mad and they would crash and burn later in the race, but no it turned out that they were just phenomenal – the winner posted a time of 13:45:57, two hours ahead of second place who managed a still awesome time of 15:52:35. I shuffled along and slowly made my way up the field.
I unexpectedly saw Patrick along the beach just before the Tin Man and the first Honesty Book. I knew he’d be at each checkpoint to hand me food and drink, but it threw me a little to see him so early on. I made my way up the beach, and rapidly climbed the hill up to the Tin Man. I probably pushed this a little hard. I was bang on the pace I wanted to be running at, and didn’t want to let time slip so early on. In retrospect the couple of minutes I saved pushing hard on this uphill probably cost me tens of minutes later in the race. My heart rate had been a steady 150 until this point; the climb pushed it up to 177. For me, at least, this was not the sort of heart rate that is sustainable for an ultramarathon.
I almost missed the first Honesty Book, only spotting it because other runners were leaving it. An honesty book is a book left in a less than accessible part of the course for you to go and rip a page out of to prove you had been there, if you missed it you would be handed a three hour time penalty. I’d later hear that another runner from near the front missed it altogether and would later drop out. That would have been devastating, so I clutched my piece of paper firmly and bombed on down to Checkpoint One in Abersoch. I handed my Honesty Book page over, used the facilities and carried on. The first 15 km were rather straightforward.
Unfortunately on an uphill around 21 km in my knee started hurting. This was not a good thing. 21 km being only half of a marathon and this race being almost three marathons long meant that my knee was likely to be a bit sore for most of the journey. It would grumble from time to time throughout the rest of the race but by 28 km in I had enough confidence that it wasn’t going to get worse to know I should keep going. I then ran through a very muddy field, possibly not taking the optimal route and ending up in water over my ankles.
I ran for a bit with number 58, who I would later discover was called Clare, she ran an excellent race and would eventually finish not far behind me. We almost got lost just before the checkpoint, but a manically waving Patrick alerted us to the correct direction. I vaguely remember that Checkpoint Two was a thing that happened. I may or may not have been handed chocolate milk and chocolate brownies. I am pretty sure I had some flat coke. The checkpoint may or may not have been in a car park up a hill somewhere in Rhiw.
My quads would immediately cramp up as I climbed up and out of the car park. This was not a good sign. I carried on regardless, jog, walk, jog. I seemed to still be slowly gaining on other people. My first marathon came and went, only another two to go. I’d like to say it was beautiful out there, and I am certain that at the time it was, but to be honest I can’t really remember much of this stretch. I ran along the stretch along road towards Checkpoint 3 with number 4, who happened to be called Ger and a 13 called Stuart. Stuart seemed far too full of energy for someone who had run a marathon. I was less full of energy.
Checkpoint 3 arrived and I was exactly at the pace I wanted to be at, but I was beginning to find things a bit tricky. I informed Patrick that despite being on pace for my original top target, I would instead be focusing on achieving my second target – finishing in under 18 hours. That was still an ambitious target for my first time at this distance. I knew the next stretch was going to be long, it involved making sure I got to the Honesty Book, my feet were still wet from the fields and my legs were less than a great state. This was emphasised on the first steep up out of Aberdaron, where my inner thighs cramped up something awful. Ger was also cramping up.
13, 4, 10 and I (59) made our way around to the second Honesty Book where we would also receive crisps for our efforts. From here to the next water stop, 10 and I would wander off ahead. I was struggling to keep up with him, and it seemed whenever I got close he would eek out a bit more distance. I wouldn’t have finished quite so quickly without a target to chase. The sun came out and I was starting to turn a little bit red. Patrick asked if I wanted sunscreen at the water stop, the answer was yes, but I was not about to wait for it, number 10 grabbed a bottle of water and carried straight on. I’d be damned if I was going to be left behind on this stretch, so I did likewise. We were told it was only 3 miles to the next checkpoint at Porth Colmon. That 8 km was the longest bloody 3 miles of my life. Owen (10), Pascal and I arrived at the checkpoint in rather different states of duress. I was at my lowest at this point. By now just finishing this bloody thing would be a success.
Checkpoint 4 was rammed with people and being all cheerful and supportive. I, on the other hand, was somewhat grumpy. I was asked how I was doing and only managed to reply that I was broken. Owen and Pascal left a while before I did. I needed a change of socks. Unfortunately I could no longer reach my feet. If I bent down I cramped up, if I tried lifting my legs towards me I cramped up. It took Patrick’s help to get fresh socks on, but fresh socks and sunscreen were the right choices. I recovered a little bit and then headed back out.
Leaving the checkpoint and 70 km in I was still bonking a bit, I was struggling to find any energy and kept cramping up. Still, the only thing I could do was keep plodding on, so that’s what I did. I could see Pascal and Own in the distance, but every time I got close to catching them, they’d pick up the pace, or I’d slow down and the gap would re-emerge. By the time I got to the golf course not far from Checkpoint 5 at Ty Coch I would get overtaken. This was a bit demoralising, but I think that person also overtook Owen and Pascal at the third and final Honesty Book. I almost got hit by a golf ball when running alongside the course. That would have been a sore one. My page from the Honesty Book told me that “My Other Self takes command”. I decided that my “Other Self” was clearly an asshole and would make this sentiment quite clear at the next checkpoint. There would be a pub at Ty Coch and I briefly entertained the idea of stopping for a pint. I had now run further than I had ever run before and still had the best part of a marathon left to go.
Checkpoint 5 was good. There were proper crowds there to give us a cheer, I had a can of energy drink, ate a bit, sat down for longer than I would have liked before setting back off along the beach and towards the big climb of the day. The encouragement from the crowds made me suspect that not all of them quite comprehended how long this race really was. Shouts of “Well done, you’re nearly there” are great when you are two thirds of the way through the race. After all, you only have that final third left. Unfortunately that final third was still a bloody long way. Still, I was struggling to comprehend anything at this point too, and I hadn’t even been drinking.
Jogging along the beach I came across Owen, who was walking this section due to a sore knee. My feet were blistered and sore, so I walked it with him. At this stage his walking pace was not far off my jogging pace. Patrick met us halfway along this stretch to hand me some trekking poles. They would save my knees on the next uphill, I’d offered one or both to Owen, but he declined them, and indeed by the time I’d got them to the right length and thanked Patrick he was far enough ahead that it would take me another ten minutes to catch him back up.
Patrick met us again on the road up the hill to Checkpoint 6. He was full of joy and enthusiasm. We reached the checkpoint and Owen continued as I stopped for a rather tricky shoe change into my road shoes and a bit of a rest. I seemed to have sat there for ages before getting up and carrying on. I was concerned that my brain was not functioning quite as well as it usually does. Patrick reassured me that at least my brain was functioning well enough to know that it wasn’t functioning well enough. I didn’t really need much brain function anyway, the final stretch was all road and I had my GPS with me, so it’d be fine. My GPS had told me that I had, at this stage done 4 km more than the distances of the checkpoints were marked at, so this was definitely going to be more like 77-78 miles by the end rather than 75. Well, at least I wouldn’t be able to complain about being short-changed by the distance.
I continued on out and jogged down to Huw’s house at Checkpoint 7. I’d eventually catch Owen just before the checkpoint, leaving him as he did a sock change by the side of the road. Patrick informed me that Clare was running well and not far behind me, so I decided my stay at this checkpoint would be brief. All I could stomach was some flat coke and lobscaws. The stew was just what I needed. Clare came into the checkpoint as I left, and I quickly made my way past a guy called Alex who was now committed to walking the final stretch. I wished him luck and continued on into the dusk. The dusk became dark and my GPS watch ran out of battery. My phone was also low on battery so I didn’t want to use that as GPS either. It was maps in the dark for me.
This stretch seemed to last forever. I kept imagining voices behind me, or maybe I wasn’t imagining them and they were the sounds of ultrarunners in the distance. But it was dark and I just wanted to be done. I was back to the familiar jog-walk-jog. My pace at least faster than it had been between checkpoints 5 and 6. It was dark and I had a couple of miles of beach to still look forward to. This was so hard.
Patrick met me just before the last checkpoint and we jogged along the road to that together. The marshals at the checkpoint would congratulate me and assure me that I seemed more coherent than some of the runners that they had encountered. I promptly then missed my mouth and spilt coke all down me. Ah well, at least I could change out of the t-shirt eventually.
Patrick ran with me down towards the beach until I was caught up by Ger. That was unexpected and he seemed to be absolutely storming it. Patrick would then dart back to his car and around to the finish line while I would jog along the beach. Ger left me for dust early on, although I would try my best to reel him back in the last stretch, I left it a little too late to catch him. He’d finish about three minutes ahead of me.
My main incentive to keep moving forward was that I thought I saw a headlamp in the distance and there was no way I was getting overtaken again. I started bombing it along and then met Patrick coming back in the other direction who encouraged me to keep going, but he was pretty sure there was no headlamp behind me. No amount of reassurance would convince me that I was not going to get overtaken until I crossed the finish line, where confused organisers were wondering why I ran so fast along the beach. Apparently I was travelling at 6.8 mph through the sand at the end of an ultramarathon. I wish my GPS watch had lasted long enough to track that one.
I crossed the line in 19 hours, 20 minutes and 37 seconds. I no longer had the capacity to keep myself warm. My legs had very little left and my brain was struggling to process information. I was glad to only have to answer simple questions – like would I like tea (always yes). I kept wanting to thank everyone who was involved for allowing me to put myself through all that. I sat in Plas Heli, having spent almost an entire day travelling back to end where I had started. Clare was the person behind me, and would complete 20 minutes after I would. I was gutted to discover that Owen DNF’d. I looked at the tracking map and saw other runners still out as far away as Checkpoint 6. I had to admire those people who would be running for the full 24 hours. That must take a lot of determination, knowing that there were people who had finished long, long ago.
The Pen Llyn Ultra has to be one of the best things I have done. Everyone I met was fantastic. The Race Directors, Huw and Dan, were brilliant and the race was absolutely mad. I met some great runners and even managed to keep up with a few of them. The marshals at the checkpoints were brilliant. It was the little touches, like knowing all the runners’ names as they ran through the checkpoints which made such a big difference. Next year they have a 50 and 100 mile option. If you are interested in trying to run an ultramarathon then I would really recommend taking a nosey at their website.
You can check my actual results and split times on their results page here.
And as always – if you would like to buy me a beer for my efforts, donate here instead: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/stupidway-littlemiracles