Peneda-Gerês Trail Adventure

This was a superb 8-day, 7-stage race through northern Portugal’s mountainous and bucolic terrain, much of it in the country’s only national park and even edging over the border into Spain for a short distance one day.

It was often cold, wet and windy but when the sun did briefly shine it was glorious.  The beautifully green landscape with terraced fields, stone villages and heather covered mountainsides proved a worthwhile challenge with almost 10,000 metres of ascent and descent over the 212km run – of which only about 15 were flattish.  Of course, according to the master trail runner and Race Director of this event, the very approachable Carlos Sa, each day was “relatively flat”.  Hmm, compared to the Himalayas maybe?

The whole race is very accessible.  Though a camping option exists, most chose to use the race hotels, some of which were very comfortable indeed, which together with the post-race lunches each day, complete with unlimited beers and food, made for a very comfortable way to relax and wind down prior to the next day’s stage.  There were both 4-stage and 7-stage options, and within each of these an ‘advanced’ and a ‘starter’ version, the latter of which started about half-way along the course, missing out much of the most extreme climbing and descending; though days 4 and 5 were the same distances for all.  It means there’s a choice for everyone and that was represented in the multitude of nations that entered with almost 30 countries represented from every continent.

Part of the chllenge was the first day.  An extremely early alarm call to get to the airport for a 6am flight to Porto, followed by a mad dash to collect our bags and get to the race shuttles that were waiting to transport us to registration a two hour coach ride away, was in itself tiring.  Then Naoko and I stood in the very long and slow registration queue before it was time later to board the bus for the start of the first stage.

Yes, day 1 really was day 1, with an evening stage kicking off proceedings.  Just 27km for the advanced runners but it was 27km with almost 1,500m of up and down.  I tried – but failed – to avoid using my headtorch, having to use it for the last couple of kilometres but really needing it before then.  I lost time trying to run the downhill to the finish without it and tripping over rocks and roots before eventually stopping to fish it out the back of my race vest where I’d securely stashed it.  Then in the dark of doing this, I lost one of my soft flasks without noticing, as well as several places as runners passed me.  Still I did OK and got back in time for dinner – which the last runners who arrived after midnight, didn’t!

It was more than a tough start because the next two days, starting early in the morning were the two longest – a marathon stage, followed by a 45km ultra.  The legs felt it going downstairs the next two mornings, though from then on they got only stronger and I suffered no more DOMS.  I also tried poles for days 3 and 4.  They certainly helped on the steepest sections, both up and down and I eventually worked out a way of helping me speed up running up gentler inclines (there weren’t many!).  However, I’m not experienced with them, they didn’t feel secure on my Ultimate Direction race vest when I tried to stash them and I felt they rather got in the way at times when I could run rather than hike.  So, for the rest of the week I left them back in my room and felt less encumbered by them – but still got passed by pole-users on the steepest ups.  More practice required.

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The days and scenery got better and better though and 7 stages were disappointingly too few by the end.  With the relaxed lunches and great ambience of the evening mealtimes that included a next day’s briefing and a slideshow and videos from the day’s events on the stage, this was a holiday as well as a race.  There really is something for everyone and Carlos Sa and his team worked extremely hard to make everything go very efficiently and smoothly.  Strongly recommended.

Oh, I finished 10th of 48 in the advanced 7-stage race; and Naoko did great to finish 20th of 30 in the starter 7-stage race.

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Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

Well this was a bit different – a genuine race of two halves.  The first was a trail run, starting from outside the Theatr Brycheiniog with a fast and flat 11k along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal towpath before heading up into the Beacons and past the Talybont and Pontsticili reservoirs and then to the top end of Merthyr Tydfil. Here we could access our drop bag, change our socks and from muddy trail to road shoes for the second half. This was a route of continuous towns and edge of town trails following the River Taff to Cardiff, passing through Aberfan, Abercynon and Pontypridd to the edge of Cardiff at Nantgarw and the finish line.  The first half was great – the second was a little bit boring to be honest and despite the recommendation to change into road shoes for this part, had plenty of muddy stretches to mess up my new pace grey Altras!

The day started at 6.30 with a fleet of coaches taking the 400+ runners from the finish point to the start point, only to run back.  The journey through the snow covered Beacons indicated a cold run, but in the end, despite plentiful showers it wasn’t too bad and even ended quite warm; relatively speaking.  The sun coming out helped.  Then after a briefing in the Theatre, we were off.

I’d positioned myself near the front and was surprised how long I held a top position, with gaps growing ahead of me from the leaders but more so on the chasing pack.  The narrow towpath that was the first 11k had room for overtaking though and fortunately wasn’t too busy with non-runners at that time on a Sunday morning.  Each of those 11k were sub-5 minutes, which I realised was too fast for me but I was feeling good and continued to through the rocky hill paths and down into Merthyr.  Here I wasted far too long finding my drop bag (which I’d marked with a tied handkerchief but was still difficult to find amongst the 100s of identical white bags supplied by the race), struggling to change socks and shoes and make the only top up of my water bottles of the race.  Some runners ploughed on without a change of shoes and in hindsight that would have been the best policy.  A low lug trail shoe like my old Inov8 Trailrocs would have been ideal for the whole route, I think.

Anyway, despite this interlude my Garmin later informed me I’d set a marathon PB for the first 42k.  An indication more of my too fast pace in the first half than a sensible strategy, as my significantly slower splits for the last 25k or so illustrated.  A more obvious indication was the pain I had in my right leg though.  From about 40k in it started in my rear thigh, spread to my groin, front thigh, knee, then down to my shin, calf, achilles and foot.  It was really quite painful and impacted greatly on my running, as I lost several places as the race progressed.  My left leg was absolutely fine though? (Postscript – two days later, the pain has gone and both legs are aching equally, so no serious issues, I think.  It’s just my right leg isn’t as robust as the left. I’ll have to learn to live with it.)

Further problems were caused as we approached a crossing of the A470 with about 20k to go.  The race signage disappeared.  A group of four of us worked out we had to cross the footbridge to get to the other side and we knew the River Taff and therefore the Taff Trail roughly followed the road, so we crossed, headed south and carried on.  The others soon left me behind as I started slowing.  I knew there was a checkpoint at 60k, so from about 58k I was looking for it and I knew I was in the right town but I just couldn’t find it.  I therefore stuck to the main road and at about 65k saw a couple of the runners who had previously passed me, just as the signs appeared again.  As I caught up to where they were when I spotted them again, I saw race signs leading up from a side road and figured they must have come from the checkpoint.  I could have turned back and searched for it but by then didn’t fancy going backwards only to then have to turn around and add in superfluous distance.  I later informed a race marshal at the finish and he said they’d been reports of problems with disappearing signs on course.  At least I wasn’t disqualified!

The final 10k was mostly on a muddy trail, which would have been a delight to run on fresh legs but seemed interminably long with my gammy leg.  It was fairly featureless and each kilometre seems to be really dragging.  From the hilltop I was running on though, I eventually saw the building where the finish was.  It was still about 5k off but the end was literally in sight – until it disappeared from view again.  still, I summoned up a bit of a sprint finish and just neat my pre-race target of 7 hours by 7 minutes, finishing in 6:53:22 and 25th place; this in the Over 50s.

 

So, all in all a successful race and a timely reminder to pace myself better, as I’ll need to manage things much more carefully in next race – oh, yes, Portugal beckons! Vamos a isso!

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Man Versus Mountain Adventure Race

The final part of the Man versus trilogy started on the coast inside the grounds of Caernarfon Castle. We were set off in five waves and headed out of town before running cross-country up and down along mainly single and double track, leading eventually to the Ranger Path to the summit of Snowdon.

 

It gradually became wetter, foggier, much windier and colder as the we climbed, though not so bad as to require getting the mandatory waterproofs out.  However, I did pull my buff down over my ears and put a thin pair of gloves on.  After the summit turnaround, there followed a fast, sometimes too fast, long run down to Llanberis parallel to the train tracks.  This route was extremely busy with tourists, so this added a further challenge into the proceedings but it was here I gained many places.  Sure my quads were being trashed but they wouldn’t announce themselves regarding this until the next day.

Hurrying through the final aid station I reached Llanberis nd sight of the finishing line only to be sent up the extremely steep slope of the slate quarry on the other side of Llyn Padarn. This was the expected vertical kilometre of zig-zagged steps cut into the slate amongst the trees.  After reaching the top, there followed a winding, wooded downhill path to the first of the water challenges.  A high, springy ‘walk the plank’; started proceedings, then a run and a swim out and under some inflatables, followed by an uphill run to reach an abseil challenge where the rope ran out and deposited me back into the lake again.  A further run to a waterslide into the lake (again!) and just as I thought the water dunkings were over, it was back into the lake for a 30 metre swim before the final sprint to one last climbing obstacle and the finish line.

The distance was 36km, which was the shortest in the race series and it seemed by far the fastest but that was definitely down to the extended downhill sections that went on so much longer than the other two races.  Of course they were precede by equally long uphill stretches.  ‘Mountain’ didn’t have the impassable single-track or long obstacle queues of ‘Coast’, or the long lonely stints with few other runners around you of ‘Lakes’, so in many ways it seemed much more of a proper race – and was thus probably my favourite of the trilogy. Each one had it’s own unique selling points though – the sea swims and beautiful north Cornwall coastline of ‘Coast’; the remarkable bay crossing and   views from above Grange-over-Sands and then again above Windermere of ‘Lakes’; and the iconic castle start and classic Snowdon climb and descent of ‘Mountain’. It’s really difficult to pick a favourite from these ‘Rat Race’ events but if I had to then I’d have to choose… well, actually it would be the 2-day Ultra Tour of Arran from earlier in the year in April!  That was just magnificent and in a different league.

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Man Versus Lakes Adventure Race

Part 2 of the trilogy, a 50k ultra through the Lake District, starting with a 12k crossing over the sands of Morecambe Bay and finishing in Coniston after a brief kayak over the lake itself.

The bay crossing had to follow the ‘Master of the Sands’ leading us on a winding route to avoid the quicksands.  It may have been low tide but there was plenty of pools and streams of seawater about – enough for the start to result in sand and seawater getting kicked straight into both of my eyes. Not a good start!  The deepest channel crossing was over knee deep and you had to fight the current dragging you under but on the whole it was fast progress – too fast for a 50k mountain ultra.

The marshes at the end of the bay slowed us down again before a flat run along the promenade speeded us up again before reaching the first checkpoint.  After that it was rapidly uphill, with the race’s own Vertical Kilometre section topping us out for a magnificent view of the coastline and the bay we’d just crossed.

The route then took us cross-country, up and down, often on overgrown single track, some of the ferns and grasses being head high.  The first swim was a smelly dirty one, across a mountain top tarn (my dry bag inside my pack worked perfectly) before we started descending again and were rewarded with a truly magnificent view of Lake Windermere where we were headed.

As we reached the lake it was the first of the water obstacles was a ‘water-wipeout’ style sprint across three unstable floating inflatables before diving into the lake, swimming to a small island and then swimming back before a couple more inflatables that we had to swim under. Gave us a break from running…

A brief run along the lakeside led us to the next obstacle section.  A swim out to some monkey bars, swing across, swim to a floating obstacle to climb up and slide down, back into the lake and swim to shore.  Another run, some more obstacles, swims and big floats to swim under. The it was uphill.

By now the constant watery dips had left me a little chill, so the last thing I expected was yet another obstacle/swim section across a muddy, gritty tarn further up. Swimming under and climbing over, the one left me with debris in my shoes for the first time and I had to stop and empty before continuing.

Then it was again uphill, up and up and up, some it on narrow steps zig-zagging upwards – was I back in Tenerife?  No, it was too warm!  On and up, through Grizedale forest and eventually we reached what really was the top.  There was not far to go distance-wise, so it had to be a steep descent.  “Let’s hope for a nice grassy fell” I said to the chap I’d been power-hiking/jogging upwards with.  No such luck.  It was the steepest, rockiest section of the entire race.  The other guy soon dropped back and I reasoned it wasn’t too  far so I might as well step up the effort. Several stumbles ensued but my Inov8 X-Talon 200s protected me sufficiently.

As we reached tarmac towards the bottom I glanced back and could see a lady runner much closer behind than I expected, clearly wanting to overtake.  No, that’s not going to happen I decided and started putting in sub 5minute kilometres.

Soon we reached Lake Coniston and it was time for a brief out and back in kayaks before running around the lake beach at the north end of the beach, along a short stretch of path and into the field on the edge of Coniston village where the finish line and race camp was set up.  I could hear the race tannoy and looking over my shoulder could see I’d distanced the runner chasing me (who I later found out was second lady).  Ahead, was  another runner that I felt I could catch with a sprint finish but alas, just before the finish line was a final obstacle, a wall with a single rope to climb up it and I had to wait for the other guy to get up before it was my turn.

I finished with a cartwheel across the line in 5 hours 53 minutes and 32 seconds according to my Garmin (a few second quicker officially, as I was bit slow switching it off); 27th out of 481 finishers from over 600 starters – (official results show me as 28th but I know they got at least one placing wrong!); 26th out of 382 male finishers; and I think, first in my age group.  I was actually a little surprised to finish so high up but as ever, in hindsight, felt I could have pushed more in certain places and lost less time on the obstacles.

Up next, Man versus Mountain in Snowdonia, running from the coast at Caernarfon to the summit of Smowdon and then back down to Llanberis – 1st of September – bring it on.

Man Versus Coast Adventure Race

An incredibly sunny and warm weekend in what’s been a hot and dry summer, saw me in Cornwall for the first of trio of ‘Man Versus’ races, organised by Rat Race and part of my season ticket that saw me compete in the Ultra Tour of Arran in April.

The race started off on Marazion Beach opposite St. Michael’s Mount near Penzance, headed west along the beach, before turning inland to cross to the north Corwall coast.  There is followed the south-west coastal path anti-clockwise, along the rugged and remote part of the county known as the ‘Tin Coast’, before reaching Land’s End and then turning inland to our weekend campsite.

Three waves were set off from 9.00am and unfortunately I was in the last of them at 9.20 – meaning there were lots of slower runners to struggle past on the narrow single tracks across the moors later on.  This aspect could definitely be improved, Rat Race.  The event though was a delight, helped by the weather bit made by the geography and turquoise coves that with the current heat made it feel almost Mediterranean.

Within 100m of the beach start, we off for the first of six forays into the sea.  This was a simple swim out, around a buoy and back.  We left our running backpacks on shore against one of eight marker posts.  I was one of the first out of the water – surprisingly, as I’m not a swimmer – counted to the third post but couldn’t find my backpack!  Many people had similar packs but I’d attached my visor to mine to make it easy to find but still it was nowhere to be seen.  All the time runners were collecting there’s and heading off down the beach as I was frantically turning over packs looking for mine.  Eventually, by when most people had already left, I realised it was the third post from the sea side of the beach and not third from the land side that I’d dropped my pack.  What an idiot!  I ran down to the third post, retrieved my lonely pack which had received a thorough kicking through the sand by then and chased after the other runners.  I was running angry by then; angry with myself for being so stupid and wasting more than five minutes.   After about a kilometre I caught up with wifey, who was cruising along the beach without a care in the world, not realising that for the first time in a race she had been leading me for the first kilometre or so.

Very soon after that was our second sea excursion.  This was a longer swim out to a platform anchored off shore, a climb up the steps and a bit of a queue to jump off the end and swim back ashore.  Life jackets were mandatory, which I was glad of, not being a strong swimmer.  Swimming back was harder because of the tide but the good news was, unusually in this country, that the sea wasn’t cold at all.  It was shallow and the sun was strong, so what would normally be freezing was merely refreshing.  Even better news – no repeat mistake memorising where my backpack was this time.

Another section of beach running, led to a narrow estuary where we ran up river , through a low tunnel and then through the back streets of Penzance before heading into uphill to the moors.  This was hard but enjoyable running, mostly on single track.  Yes the slower runners from earlier starts were frustrating to try and get past but running through the heather in the blazing sunshine made it almost feel like running abroad.  This was a good day out.

As we crested the divide between south and north coast we started heading downhill again and picked up speed, zig-zagging along, bounding over rocks, leaping through stiles.  This was my favourite running part and I managed to gain a lot of places.  Before too long we reached the Atlantic Ocean on the north coast and it was time to head to climb down and then up for the first of the cliff jumps into the sea we would do.  A mini-adrenaline rush from about 12m ensured full submersion before having to climb back up the slippery wet rocks and back to the trail again.  This was surprisingly hard and I worried about how wifey would cope and whether she’d be cursing me for signing her up, by this stage of the race if not before. Later though, she told me the marshalls had put a ladder down into the water tomato it easier to get put.  A good decision as I’m sure many wouldn’t have been able to manage that rock climb.

Thereafter, we were up and down the cliffs sometimes on steep trails, sometimes on steps carved into the cliff face and on one occasion actually having to scramble up a rock face, full on climbing with rope support and another stategically placed ladder.  This was great and really enjoyable and a nice break from the running.

As we moved further round the Tin Coast, there were many isolated coves of white gold sand, turquoise waters and granite cliffs that really did look very Mediterranean-esque.  One foreign runner voiced the same thought to me, until, he said, we had to get into the water when it was more like the Arctic.  Hmm, I thought the water was reasonably warm.

The race continued around the coastal cliffs and beaches, up and down, in and out. Another cliff jump; a foray into the sea on body-boards (really!); a harbour swim to find ‘treasure’ tethered to the seabed and floating just beneath the surface; a couple of rope bridges; more mini cliff jumps and sea swims and eventually we into the last few kilometres of running towards Lands End, the most south-westerly part of mainland Britain.

Having walked this part the day before from the campsite, I knew precisely the path to the finish and summoned up an increase in pace.  There was an additional incentive – the England/Sweden World Cup quarter-final match was being shown live on a big screen in the campsite beer tent at 3.00pm – and I finished with 5 minutes to spare. Race time, 5 hours 35 minutes 55 seconds for 40.61km.  Slow but this was no ordinary running race.

The finish line soup and flapjack tasted really good but what I wanted more than anything was a shower.  So, I quickly changed and showered missing only the first 10 minutes of the match.  Beer in hand, England’s first goal went in just a few minutes later. A 2-0 victory ensued, for a perfect day.

Wifey?  The match was finished, I got another beer and settled down at the finish line for her to come in.  It would take another couple of hours but she was smiling when she did so and she finished ahead of more than 50 other runners, so was happy and triumphant. A really perfect day.

Next up, in two weeks time, is the second in the series – Man Versus Lakes.  This will be a 46km ultra in the Lake District.  I’m looking forward to it.

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Tenerife Bluetrail

I opted for the 67km Trail distance rather than the full 103km Ultra coast-to-coast via volcano (Mount Teide, the highest mountain in Spain) version, which required recent ECG tests and other such nonsense.  Whilst running I decided 67km was plenty! A few weeks later, I’m thinking… well…!

Tenerife is a beautifully warm island in the Canaries, off the west coast of Africa.  Our start line was in freezing cold blackness in the mountain village of Vilaflor.  Runners crammed into early opening cafes for warmth – and to queue to use their loos – with a few even buying the odd espresso.  Jackets, gloves, hats and buffs covering all but the eyes was the order of the day for the local runners.  I had to put on my waterproof at the start and for the first few kilometres as it was so cold but running uphill soon warmed up sufficiently to have to stop and stash it away.  The start, in the dark at 6.00am on a Saturday in the middle of the village was a noisy affair with music, drums, klaxons, cheering etc – no hope of a lie-in for the locals.  A stream of runners’ headlights (and red rear lights) soon snaked its way upwards.

We joined with the Ultra runners that had started before midnight on the south coast for a while before they peeled off to head right up to the top of Teide.  Us Trail runners sort of circumnavigated it, circling anticlockwise around the eastern side at a high level between 2,000 and 2,500 metres. It provided for spectacular views once the sun came up,  high above the cloud layer which was a lumpy cotton-wool sea below us.

 

It was still cool but warming quickly.  Teide’s summit was forever in view as we circled around it, so much so that it seemed we were making very little progress.  I felt more for those Ultra runners having to run right up it though, having already ran over 30km more than we had.

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It really was superb running now. Lots of ups and downs, very rocky but spectacular and beautiful. I found myself humming the Big Country theme music with the blue sky, cacti and mountains all around.

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Passing one of the Mexican Tarahumara runners in her traditional colourful long flowing skirt and ultra-minimalist sandals after about 17km, just before I ran down a steep trail full of sharp rocks, I wondered how she’d cope with her scanty footwear. Looking back she was flying down no problem though – amazing, when my feet were taking a battering.

After what seemed like (because it was) hours, we started heading further downhill and into the clouds.

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Doing so meant the temperature, which had been warming, started to cool again.  We entered the mist and it thickened to drizzle and before long became really heavy rain.  Not what you need as the descents became ever more steep and mud started mixing in with the slick rocks.  Soon it became too steep for the trail to head down without having to zig-zag and there were many casualties with mud covered backsides.  The runners who continued to keep up a good pace were those using their poles as third and fourth feet to aid balance and traction.  This was the first time running I’ve ever thought that I needed to consider getting some running poles – and learning how to use them effectively, of course.

As the race progressed, we also joined route with the Marathon race option runners and the Ultra race course also re-joined us.  Further along the Media (20km) race course also became part of the same route, so green, orange, blue and red bib numbers were mixed in.  Actually, I didn’t see any green Media runners, as they’d all long since finished.  It was encouraging to start overtaking again though, as I passed some of the slower Marathon runners and some Ultra runners whose pace has slowed painfully by now.  It wasn’t so good when other Ultra runners, skilled in their pole-use, came skipping past on the steepest downhills though.

The last few hills before re-entering civilisation were of extreme gradient.  Following that mad, slippery descent, zig-zag steps climbed seemingly forever torturing the backs of your thighs.  When eventually at the top, we were sent back down the other side again, this time the front thighs enduring being trashed, whilst trying to avoid skidding too much and slipping over.  As we reached the first bit of road and could see our end destination of Puerto de la Cruz in the distance by the sea, the sky was emptying itself of rain at an unprecedented rate.  At least it washed my muddy shoes.

We then descended further, almost to sea level, where the sun now warmed us back up again.  The end seemed close but I could see there was over 10km to go and I knew we had to run along the coast for a while.  Actually, the course directors took great pleasure, I would imagine, in sending us up and down a serious of further ascents and descents of seemingly unnecessary extra hills.  I suppose it kept us off the main roads and made the final run in more scenic and – in hindsight at least – this definitely improved matters. Maybe my general humour at the time wasn’t quite so appreciative though.

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Soon though we entered the town outskirts.  The local police were there stopping traffic as we crossed roads and I was impressed how sections of road were taped off for runners allowing just one lane for the traffic, the other lane for us and the pavement still for the tourists.

Approaching the finish we ran the final few kilometres through the pedestrianised area and along the seafront.  Locals and holidaymakers parted in front of us runners, clapping and cheering before the long stretch of blue carpet signalled the final few hundred metres.  I summoned up my best sprint finish and ran past the drummers and dancers to leap across the finish line and collect my medal.  That was a really tough 67km and took almost 10 hours to complete.

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My official finish time was 9 hours 56 minutes 52 seconds (9:56:44 chip time) which meant I finished 93rd out of 348 Trail race finishers.  I was 87th out of 316 male finishers and 8th out of 41 male aged over-50 runners.  I’m pleased with those stats but can’t help thinking if I had better balance/grip running the steep and slippery downhills – or could use poles like some of those I saw – I could have improved upon this significantly.  Something to aim for maybe.

The Tenerife Bluetrail is a great race and extremely good value compared to the price of most of these type of races, despite giving away a quality well-designed technical-shirt and useful race bag full of other goodies including snacks, buff, number-belt etc.  No extra fee for the GPS tracker either as some UK races add on to the advertised price.

Wifey did the Media race and was happy to complete it in good form and collect her medal having beaten a high number of other runners.  My friend who was there with his wife also did this short 20km race too.  Don’t be fooled by the distance though as this included the final insanely steep up and down that you can see on the race profile above – it’s that sharp triangle at the end – sharp enough that they, as well as me, took several days for their thighs to properly recover from the battering received.

It was a good battering though and having chosen the hotel that was exactly situated at the finish line, we didn’t;t have far to go to indulge in the endless buffet and drinks required to restore calories disposed of.  The following week by the pool and at the beach, with beers and wine to hand, felt like a very just reward indeed.

 

Ultra Tour of Arran

This was Rat Race Adventure Sport’s inaugural Ultra Tour of Arran and it delighted, surprised and did it’s best to break the 300+ runners, while trading us all to a wonderful range of scenery that was definitely a real challenge.  Day 1 incorporated hills and beaches, forests and peat bogs, with the first real challenge being the boulder-strewn beach section interspersed with sections of snaking, undulating boardwalks as we ran down the east coast.  Both the potentially ankle-turning rocks and the algae-covered and constantly twisting planks of the boardwalk demanded maximum concentration.  More muddy hills, some lovely coastal villages – complete with seals bobbing in the water – took us through the first two checkpoints.  Then it was uphill through forests that soon turned into jungle-like deep pine forest, with sodden peat bog underfoot.  This was a real pace-slower, with you never knowing if your next step would just sink ankle deep into the freezing water, or whether it would be knee-deep muddy peat trying to pull off and keep your running shoes.  This was real wilderness, with no tracks and only the marker tape to follow, for well over an hour.  Course marking throughout the race was truly excellent though, so there were no real worries.

Eventually gravel roads emerged and a final long steep climb gained altitude before the final descent into Brodick base camp.  The distance was only just over 45k according to my Garmin but it took 5 hours 16 minutes for me, which was a top 20 finish. Most runners chose to camp on the local rugby field and the race organiser laid on a food and beer tent with meal tokens given, along with water and flapjack to help to start with putting some calories back.

Some competitors raced only the first day but most were up again for day 2, which this time headed north and back, to take in the highlands.  There were more bogs and beaches but the main feature of day 2 was the mountains.  After starting with a run along the beach, we soon started climbing past the Arran brewery and then into the foothills that rapidly became true mountain running/walking/climbing.  As we ascended the temperature dropped, the first snow patches arrived and then the wind chill really hit.  A ridgeline run at the top allowed you to pick up a little speed, so long as you weren’t too busy fighting being blown over, before a tricky steep descent through the heather warmed us all up again.  Soon we were in a sheltered valley with the sun out and the temperature now making it too warm for the gloves and hat that were needed not long before.  Lots more bog-hopping and stream crossing led eventually to the first checkpoint at Arran distillery.  No whisky on offer but Red Bull if that’s your thing, hot drinks, fruit and the usual offerings that all helped to revive energy.

It was then a short run to the north coast, which offered clear views to the mainland, before turning and running along the coastal path, heading south again. On the map this looked to be an easy 10k section but the rocks and ever present boggy patches conspired against fast progress and a relentless headwind made it rather gruelling.  The second (and final) checkpoint at the end of this section provided more refreshments, with an unexpected extra refreshment of a waist-deep river estuary crossing following straight on. Back running again on the other side soon warmed me up again though but the sand in my shoes was now an irritant for the rest of the race.

The course now turned inland and started gradually climbing from the coast towards the highest point of the race – and of the island – Goatfell, at 874m. This part actually began as a morale booster after turning away from the energy-sapping headwinds of the coastal path  – but then the rain soon started as we gradually climbed into cloud.  Running, slowed to hiking, which soon slowed to climbing; and I do mean climbing.  Both hands were needed in places to pull yourself up gulleys and over rocks too high to simply step on to.  Eventually we reached ‘the Saddle’, a point where a decision had to be made to continue with the high course to the summit, or to take a low route down Glen Rosa and back to Brodick. If you missed the cut-off the decision was made for you but others chose the low course voluntarily anyway and I believe it was enforced on some a little sooner than expected due to the deteriorating weather.  The marshals also enforced a change into full waterproof jacket and trousers for those continuing on up.  Yes, we really had to actually use those waterproof trousers that everyone packs to pass the kit check but never expects to actually use.  The reasons soon became obvious though.  Driving rain turned to sideways sleet.  Wind strength tore at any loose clothing or straps and visibility closed in so much it became difficult to see the next marker flags, despite the snowy background.  Reassuringly there were other safety-marshals at and near the summit but though I pitied them camped out there for hours in such conditions, they were ever-cheerful and encouraging.

Finally the descent began; a bit more of an obvious path/staircase now but too steep to run properly and with every step/jump trashing your quads and beating up your knees. As we reached lower altitudes visibility improved, the rain stopped and it became too warm for the waterproofs but I for one didn’t want to waste time stopping to take them off.  Glancing backwards I saw a few runners that I didn’t want to overtake me and tried my best pick up my pitifully slow pace.  It worked and I held them off as we reached roads and civilisation again, rejoining the morning route out but going in the opposite direction along the beach this time, before cutting back to the camp site and the race finish.  My time was 8 hours 45 minutes for just over 50k but this really was a mountain run with no easy kilometres. It allowed me to finish as 18th man, 21st overall of the 145 that finished both days, with only 72 managing the High Course taking in Goatfell summit (23 didn’t finish at all). I’m not sure about age group results as they weren’t published but I’m pretty sure I’d have been on the Over-50s podium if they had. 

The results though, in a way, don’t matter.  This was a brilliant, tough but beautiful race, though the adjective I heard most from runners after the race was ‘brutal’! It was of course – but that’s what helped make it so worthwhile. The course designer did a great job.

 

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