Thought I’d write a bit about my attempt at the Ultra Trail South West 100 mile trail race, UK’s toughest foot race ..organized by Endurance Life and held in Cornwall on the weekend of the 21st June…how tough is it and how did I fair ??
..well yep it was tough, very tough and unfortunately it got the better of me due to injury, sadly I had to pull out at the 50 mile check point but up until then, I absolutely loved every minute ..every mile !
To me or rather my perception of an Ultra Trail race is a race that is both challenging to the body as a whole and the mind ..ok yep every Ultra is challenging, both physically and mentally because of the distance, but in my eyes a trail race should be that and more ..a Point to Point race on a course with terrain that’s ultimately challenging …a course that’s full of surprises and unknowns ..a course where you know your not going to smash a PB ..on a course where you’re just looking to finish in one piece, and a good time is an added bonus.
The Ultra Trail South West did exactly that ..in my eyes ..ok its my first 100 mile single stage trail race so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but if I was to plan an Ultra Trail race ..then this is what I’d like as the end result.
The terrain was mixed and tough, a combination of small coastal paths, dense wooded trails, open field trails, dirt track , roads an boggy uneven moor land trails ..all helped by inclement unpredictable weather to make them even more challenging.
The race started on the south coast of Cornwall in the small Coastal town of Polruan. It was meant to get under way at 6pm on Friday 21st June, but due transport delays the race didn’t start until 7:30 pm, but to me that’s all part of the challenge ..being unpredictable and dealing with changes.
Once we did finally get under way, the route lead us along the narrow coastal paths from Polruan to another small Fishing town of Looe, where the first check point was, approximately 11 miles away.
For those that have never ventured down to Cornwall ( I’m Cornish by the way born and bred ) or never experienced the spectacular Cornish coast line, the Coastal paths follow the contours of the cliffs, which means by all accounts your in for a stunning roller coaster ride along small narrow off road paths, with short non stop steep vertical ascents and descents and very little flat running.
My plan was simple, take it steady and fuel regularly and stay hydrated, ok hydration I knew would be good mainly as I’ve been training in Dubai in temperatures up to 40 + degrees.
I used my North Face Enduro 13 back with two 750 ml bottles, as we had a mandatory kit to carry which would be checked at the start and at the finish ..this included water proof jacket, first aid kit, 200g of high calorie food, long sleeve top, hat and gloves, mobile phone, emergency bivvy ( not foil blanket ), head torch and spare batteries, compass and money. Total weight with 1 and a half liters of water came in at 3 kg which for me was great as I train with a 5kg pack. I also taped my shoulders back and hips with strapple zinc tape to prevent and rubbing..tape was great and stayed on all the way despite being soaked through.
Fuel wise I estimated I needed 250-300 cals an hour, about 60g carbs and about 5-10g protein …so I used GU Roctane high energy endurance drink in one of the 750 ml bottles ( used water in the other ). Roctane contains electrolytes a good amino acid profile and provides 240 cals and 60g carbs in the shape of Maltrodextrin and fructose ..and no artificial additives, sweeteners or preservatives, along with that I used a combination of natural energy bars in the shape of Bounce natural Energy balls, 180 cals, 22g carbs 5g Protein .. Nakd Bars, 228 cals, 37g carbs & 5g Protein, Chia Charge Bars, 378 cals, 44g Carbs & 5g Protein… I also had GU chomps and gels as back up, in my bag drop I had GU Recovery shake, 250 cals… 50g Carbs and 8 g protein.
I sipped the GU Roctane every 10-15 minutes and ate one of the bars every hour I also used the cliff bars at each check point just to add more variety. I was lucky to have my Father and Son as Support crew, they could only assist me at the two drop bag points 20 mile mark and 70 mile mark, but they were there at the check points to cheer me on ..was awesome pick me up seeing them there
At each check point I made sure I’d finished the Roctane and re – topped it up with a fresh sachet, re filled my water ..picked up any extra’s I wanted food wise ..at the bag drop points I had a GU Recovery shake I also carried one for the moor crossing over night to have at the check point at the other end, I knew it would be a brutal crossing.
So that was my Plan and it worked well, especially the fueling side at no time did I feel tired or out of energy.
After the roller coaster ride along the south coast paths to Looe darkness was settling in and so was the rain, from Looe we headed inland and the climb out of the valley via the thick, very dense wooded smugglers way trail, Endurance life had marked the course well with reflective markers which worked extremely well with your head torch.
The Inland trails were awesome, especially at night, complete darkness with the rain now lashing down through the trees, the paths narrow, muddy and technical ..with just my head light to pin point the way I was soon scrabbling through bushes ..climbing over logs and fallen trees ..dancing through thick bogs and falling into streams and many a time finding my self in clump of brambles and stinging nettles and all I could do was smile & laugh, this is what its all about, this is what I live for .. brought me back to when I was a kid doing exactly the same .. to me this was trail running !!!
Every now and then I’d stumble over a style and into field, scan the way a head with the head torch through the rain and darkness and spot the next marker in the distance, a small speck of reflective card with an arrow and off I’d go making a bee line, stumbling over wet slippery vertical fields, full of divots and holes formed by the grazing cattle, over another style, through a stream and back into the dense wood..just awesome.
About half way between the next check point I hit a small road and realized the wind had picked up and also I was soaked through with the rain, which was still lashing down ..I should have but my jacket on earlier, at the last check point .. but better late than never so I slipped on my cap and OMM Kamleika Race Jacket , what a godsend that jacket turned out to be ..light, flexible, breathable, 100% water and windproof with a great hood !! then it was back into the dense wood
The final couple km’s to the next check point at Dobwalls memorial hall was on road, my son and Father were there waiting which was great, they had my shake ready and was surprised I had arrived roughly in the time I had estimated due to the weather, on hind sight I should have removed and changed my running top and long sleeve base layer top which I had started with ..it was soaked through, I knew it was pointless changing my socks as I still had a full night of rain and moors to cross ..but should have changed the tops ..anyway lesson learned …after a quick top up of supplies I was off.
The next few miles were road so was able to keep a steady rhythm going, but still taking it easy ..power walking all the hills running flats and down hill sections ..my aim was to save everything until I reached the second half of the race and the North coast and coastal path.
After a few miles of road I was back on the trails which were now a combination of dense wood and moor land, as I climbed higher the winds picked up and the mist came in .. soon I was breaking out of the sheltered woods into open moor lands and horizontal rain mixed with mist and fog, my head light barely penetrating through either and reflected back off the mist.. I could see the ground about 5 feet in front with my head down, every now and then I’d glance up and scan ahead just picking out the reflective markers and thankfully the faint glow of another runner in the distance.
Little did I know that my little red flashing light I had chose to put on my pack was a godsend to another runner who was some way behind me, every now and then he said he’d see it and breathe a sigh of relief he wasn’t alone and lost ..
The crossing from the last check point to the next as I said was a continuous combination of wood, road and moor land, with driving rain, high winds and fog, I was stumbling out of hedges onto roads and checking the ground for white chevrons sprayed by Endurance life to help mark the way, finding them was a huge relief as I was still on the right track.
By the time I reached the Jamaica Inn I’d caught up with the lad in front of me ..he was now stopped and looking for the check point which I pointed out was under the next fly over ..we spotted the light of the lad behind me and waited for him and we headed to the next check point together ..subconsciously we were all thinking the same thing the next 7 miles after this check point was the moors crossing and the climb up Brown willy ( Cornwall’s highest point ). None of us fancied being out there on our own in this.
We all re fueled at the check point as quick as we could ..it was then I realized how quickly it got cold, my clothes under my jacket sucked the heat out of me quickly once I’d stopped moving ..I gathered the other two were having the same issues so we were off as quick as we could be.. we headed down the right lane unfortunately only to miss the marker for the turn off over a style in a hedge .. wasn’t until we reached the end of the lane and a locked gate did we realize, so we had a mile run back up the lane looking for a marker, fortunately we found it along with another group of about 5 runners .. we all stuck together for moors crossing, one had a hand held GPS with the map uploaded which saved our asses. Daft thing was I had the map up loaded on my fenix but had forgot to set up the watch to track the route so I only had the GPS on.
The moors crossing was brutal, if you have never been on Bodmin moor during the day then you’ll have know idea what it was like during the night, the rain was horizontal, gale force winds and mist rolling in, the terrain is thick heavy uneven moor land grass and bogs, filled with granite boulders and stones, the next 7 miles was going to be a hike and a half.
We were all strung out in a line ..barely making out the guy in front .. stopping every now and then to check direction then back off again ..stumbling and tripping, trying to stay on balance. Feet were water logged from the rain, bogs and thick moorland grass, it was heavy going to say the least but I’m not lying when I say I enjoyed every minute ..laughing to my self as I trudged along ..had to be the best thing I done in a long time.
Soon we were nearing Brown Willy, a near vertical ascent of some 150 meters, funny thing was I remember looking a head and slightly up through the rain and mist to see if I could make out any other runners scrabbling up the hill, as I expected I saw nothing until I happened to glance straight up and much to my amazement that’s when I saw a light ..then we hit a wall which was the side of Brown willy, fortunately partly sheltered by the wind, we began the ascent mostly on all fours to stop you slipping over the rocks.
You had to summit Brown willy as Endurance Life had place a card on a concrete monument at the top which you had to read, remember and repeat once you crossed the finish line to prove you made the top.
Once at the top I was hit by the full force of the wind which nearly sent me back down, the card read “ Spot Height of Brown Willy 420 meters” … then it was the fun ride back down the other side ..once down there seemed to be a sigh of relief from everyone and we began to pick the pace up a bit, a few more KM’s and we could then start to see the faint glow of dawn through the rain and mist … it was past 4am in the morning and that last 7 miles had definitely been the longest 7 miles I’d done ..ever!!
Unfortunately that was enough for some and a few pulled out, there was only one women manning the checkpoint because the volunteers pulled out due to the weather, she was trying to check everyone in and make coffee and hot chocolate, I refueled with a GU recovery shake, topped up the Roctane and then made the decision to wait for a coffee, but the cold kicked in ..the wind howling over the moors and little shelter at the check point along with my wet clothes under my jacket, just sapped the heat straightway ..after my coffee I set off on a road section for couple KM’s but was unable to run ..I was shaking that much and so were other runners .. I was flapping my arms and doing everything I could to warm up again, fortunately on a small down hill section I rolled forward and started to run, my legs kicked back in and so did the coffee and GU recovery shake ..heat started to fill my body and I was back cruising again .. I soon caught up with another group and we the stayed together as we descended down to the coast and Boscastle.
Now daylight was upon us it felt good, although the markers were a lot harder to see and many a time we were stopped scratching our heads in a field before someone spotted the marker ..but it was fun ..back through dense wooded trails and stunning scenery, I was still munching away quite happily on my chia bars, nakd bars and bounce balls .. still feeling good and looking forward to seeing the north coast.
The North Coast Coastal path was going to be tough, a lot harder than the south coast, plus we had the weather to deal with but when we reached Boscastle I was over the moon, my dad and son were there to meet me as we came out of the woods in to the small town, they’d changed the check point area to Tintagel about another 5-6 km down the coast so we didn’t stop, they both said I looked great and they would see me at Port Isac which was the next check point after Tintagel.
One of the lads running with me asked my I was so happy ..I said because we were on the home straight .. even though we had 50 odd miles still to go, as far as I was concerned it was the home straight, after Tintagel, 5 more check points ..along stunning breath taking scenery, small fishing villages ..passing hikers and tourists all giving you support ..awesome !!
But sadly for me it was not to be, about 2km from Boscaste we hit a steep decent then a steep ascent ..which were steps cut into the hill, on the climb I felt the back of leg tighten, so I adjusted the way I was climbing, shortening my stride, but the more I moved the worse it got, at the top of the climb I had to cross through a field and I tried to run or jog but the pain behind my knee worsened ..
I was getting annoyed, so I stopped tried to stretch my leg and that just made it worse ..from that point on all the back of leg began to tighten up until I couldn’t straighten it ..I was a few KM’s from the check point but there was no direct route which meant following the coastal path. I just told myself get to the check point and assess it there. Most check points have a medic so a bit of rest some stretching, warm the leg up a bit should be sorted.
But by the time I reached the check point, over an hour and a half of hobbling down and up cliff paths I was in a lot of pain .. at the check point there was a medic, but there was nothing he could do, we tried to stretch the leg out but there was swelling behind the knee and his advice was to stop, he didn’t know what damage I’d done but going any further might cause serious damage ..!!
I was so gutted but I had to be sensible, I know myself and quitting is just not in my make up ..but I had no choice. I couldn’t risk seriously damaging it as I’m doing the Grand to Grand ultra in September.
So sadly I had let the medic remove my sports dibber …you have no idea how gutted I felt …I also had to ring my father and tell him to come get me.
All in all though it was an awesome event and I seriously enjoyed every mile of it, and its what I’d call a proper Ultra Trail with out a doubt …I will be back next year to take on the UTSW again, nothing defeats me twice ..least not yet anyway.
The final results 100 mile solo :
1st place … Dan Lawson 21hrs 37 mins
2nd place … Duncan Oaks 23hrs 26 mins ( second last year as well )
3rd Place … Mark Turner 24 hrs 57 mins
Only one female finisher : Deborah Pitt … 33 hrs 02 mins
First relay team over the line finished in ….18 hrs 35 mins
As for the leg, well all seems to be good mainly as my old body is tough as old boots, its been a week and looks like no serious damage, no ruptures, torn muscles or damaged ligaments, still have some swelling but that could be down to some soft tissue damage, the rest looks like a bad strain so will soon have that sorted. Once it is I’ll back training for the Grand to Grand Ultra in September and I’m make sure that leg is stronger than it was before !!
If you are a serious lover of trails and you want a challenge, make sure the UTSW is on your bucket list…