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  • Jo Houghton

Want to know what an ultra is like?

Read Rob Tomlin‘s account of his ultra running experience last year.

You might remember a few of months ago I did the North York’s Trail Marathon, the event was an Endurancelife race and a stonkingly amazing well organised event it was, so much was I smitten by it I quickly thought about seeing what else they have on their calendar, and also seeing the ultra runners setting off in the first wave... looking all heroic, only perked my interest even more to follow in their trail shoe path.

So I entered a race that most suited my own calendar, not even giving a second thought to its details. Paid my fee and only after a couple weeks had passed I thought I’d check out its route and other info... seems Endurancelife rate their runs on severity... the NYM mara was a level 2 moderate terrain (it bloomin near killed me), and the Gower Ultra... level 3 strenuous terrain. Oh bugger.

Anywho... I stayed over night in Swansea and carb’ed-up on pie and rocky road sundae. I was near enough the first in the car park for the race, but totally lost track of time and realised I’d better get a jiggle on to make the briefing, which I got to late. Managed to catch the bit about what marker signs to follow and something about a cutoff time. I scoped the crowd... erm, seems quite a lot of Ironman tees, a fella running in a flat cap, and almost everyone carrying walking sticks. Double bugger. The ultra runners set off at 8:30am right on the beach, and there after the other distances went at half hour intervals. Right from the off you just had to stop and jaw open stare at the vistas, just mind blowing... God gets a few things right occasionally, this coastline must have been his finest... or was it the work of Slartibartfast?

Within the first mile everyone’s finding their pace to suit the terrain and that’s how myself and Paula and Alexa and Alexa’s dad became running buddies. Alexa’s dad though was soon saying the pace was too fast and he dropped back... Alexa surprisingly never tired of me asking “Alexa, what is the current temperature”, “Alexa, what’s the capital of Peru”, etc... the miles are going to fly by. Apparently she was a ‘hockey blue’ (Oxford), and annoyingly far too bubbly and happy. I actually remembered her from the NYM run... she was just as annoying there also. Paula was from Exmoor and doing her 2nd Ultra... but hearing about her adventures I soon fathomed I was the runt of this group... I’ll try to hang on to them I think.

The run was tough, unbelievable hills where we were on all fours, energy sapping sand dunes and steps... I counted 230 of them on one climb alone, but the views, did I mention them... every direction you looked it was like being in a Lord of the Rings set. The weather was ‘changeable’ I think is the term... started the run in rain that felt like we were being fired on by a machine gun, and became less of an issue as the day went on. What didn’t let up though was the wind... 35mph and always in your face.

Each checkpoint the ‘band’ would regroup and replenish supplies before setting off, but come the second to last checkpoint things started going wrong. This was the actual marathon finish and the point where the cutoff time kicked-in. Apparently we were on the cusp of being stopped... had we arrived any later, we were told, by the time we started the final run to the ultra finish the tide would be too far in to pass safely. The group were the last to be allowed to continue, by literary a few minutes we made it! Seems a few dozen were stopped behind us but they still completed the Mara and were able to claim a medal. Got to say if it wasn’t for Paula and Alexa I’d have been way short of the cutoff... they stayed with me when I took on painkillers from a medic at the steps and constantly was trying to chat and take my mind off the hurt. Bloomin’ love ‘em... trail buddies for life lol.

So Alexa wanted to wait for her Dad at the cutoff point, so Paula and myself cracked-on doing the ‘small’ 10k loop. I’ve never ever felt so emotional... I was struggling, it was very rapidly getting dark and this loop had a vicious hill to see off, and then down on to the beach for the run to the finish. This was meant to be just a 10km... it was closer to 15km! We had run from dawn to dusk !

The final few feet to the finish line were on very loose sand, and I could only just muster enough energy to trudge over it, not the arms sprayed out chest out breaking the tape kinda finish I had imagined. Dabbed my timer for the last time, had a medal put ‘round me, and pointed in the direction where I could get a free cup of tea.

And I cried. I’m not ashamed to say it, I wept uncontrollably. A few high-fives to others in a similar state, Paula and I hugged, said a few words and went our separate ways. I saw on the timing list that Alexa and her Dad had managed to beat the cutoff and were the very last runners to finish, in total darkness.

So..anyway, you know. Trail running, on routes like this, are life affirming sprit soaring experiences. And I will do it all again. Soon as my legs stop hurting.


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