Friday, 22 October 2021

A Journey through Wales; or How I Lost my Mind but Won a Race

 

Lon Las Ultra 2021 – Race Report

Eighteen months of preparation.  13 months and 3,000 miles of training and all I was left with was this final 253 miles to achieve something that had totally dominated my every waking hour – and quite a lot of the sleeping one’s too – for far too long. It was time to start carrying out the plans meticulously prepared across 13 spreadsheets and a 37-page word document, condensed and printed onto waterproof paper – double sided, 2 pages per side! Yes, I really am that anal.

My Wife Sarah, my Sister Claire and I had all eaten at the standing stones pub the night before, headed to race registration at the Premier Inn, had a brief chat with my remarkable friend Richard “Mad Kiwi” McChesney, been thrown out of said Premier Inn because we weren’t guests and “Covid”, and had a fairly large whisky to ensure a good night’s sleep.  And, according to my watch, I got a really solid 7h45 before being woken by the alarm. I don’t think I’ve ever been woken by the alarm on the morning of a race before.  But then, I’d been quite ill on and off – nothing serious, just a succession of annoying colds, chest infections and deadly man-flu – for five weeks so my body was still quite tired.


Holyhead to Criccieth (0-60 Miles)

My drop bag was in the back of Mark’s van, and we were, en-masse, taking the brief stroll to Holyhead Station for the start.  Others were chatting but I found a little space by myself to clear my head and try to relax.  I can get a bit tense and excited.  There were several attempts to get a big group photo – the backlighting was apparently poor, so we needed to be wheeled around! Mark’s pre-race briefing was less scary than I’d expected and then we were off. A brief jog/walk slightly up through Holyhead for a couple of miles before heading out around a little nature reserve and the crossing from Holyhead (technically and Island in its own right) and onto the main Island of Anglesey. I was really focussing on not getting caught up in any early race silliness like “racing”. 

My plan was to jog at about 11 min/mile for 15 minutes before taking a walking break for 5 minutes at around 14 mins/mile. As I so often find, this puts me in a bit of a no-mans land. You tend to get a group out front of those mostly running. Then there is a group of others doing as I am, regular walking breaks, but they don’t walk as quickly as I do. After a couple of miles chatting to the inspirational Tom Garrod (just past Rhayadar on his return leg as I write this!!!!) I found myself alone for the next 14 miles. On the approach to the shop and Post Office at Llangaffo I saw Gordon Hughes, Vic Owens and another runner ahead being filmed by Kelp&Fern who had made a beautiful film of the previous Lon Las featuring Gordon. I passed them and headed to the shop for an early lunch of a sandwich, crisps, and plenty of drinks.

It was quite warm but incredibly humid and my back was soaked despite a conservative pace, so fluids were going to be important.  I took my time outside the shop to top up my bottles, add tailwind to one and ensure everything was “just so” before I headed off.  I had a list of everything I wanted from each stop in the race and planned to keep my race pack tidy, organised and well packed to prevent hard spots that might chafe or bruise. I worked on the assumption that time spent early in the race being sensible would be paid back with interest later when I could still find everything where it was meant to be, and I wasn’t horribly sore from a bottle digging into a Kidney or something. 20 miles down, 10 miles to the water checkpoint at Menai.

Anglesey is gently undulating but, other than the constant roar of jets from the nearby RAF Valley there was little to look at other than Snowdonia looming at me from over the Menai Straits. We passed through a village called Llandaniel whose sign had FAB written underneath. My eldest is called Daniel and, whilst I agree that he is FAB, I’m not sure about the “Saint” part (Llan being Welsh for Saint). But it put a smile on my face as I eased into Menai and over the bridge, catching David Harvey as we entered Checkpoint 1. We both quickly filled our bottles and left.  There was really nothing to hang around for. The checkpoint was under a support tower at the far end of the bridge and won’t be featuring in Welsh tourist brochures any time soon.

I was aware the signposts for Cycle Route 8 got a bit freaky as we left (I’d covered the whole route many times on Streetview, Komoot and other’s Strava tracks – obviously) but was still caught out a little. We were following route 8 to Caernarfon but there was also route 5 which often took a different route to us but ended up re-joining and re-crossing. And route 8 itself seemed to have more than one option. David and I seemed to choose different options each time and sometimes I would emerge ahead, sometimes it was David who gained a hundred meters or so. But we smiled and shrugged each time we looped back together. It was all good fun and helped to pass the time.

I stopped at a public toilet near a Marina at about 35 miles. I didn’t need the loo, but I thought it sensible to have a “little clean-up” and re-apply lube down below.  I was using a pack of anti-back wipes – invigorating! – and Tom’s Butt Wipes which had served me well in the past.  Again, all planned in as I felt five minutes on Chafe preventing now would be paid back many times over later in the race. We now joined a path that ran flat and West along the North Coast with the Menai Straits into Caernarfon which arrived more quickly than I’d anticipated.

I headed for Nemo’s Chippy in the main square and got 2 lots of Sausage and Chips (not intentionally, Double Sausage & chips must mean different things in different places) and enough drinks for the final 20 miles into checkpoint 2 and the first access to our bags. I sat outside and made up my tailwind and ate my tea (too quickly) before heading out of Caernarfon and onto a lovely cycle path that ran for 10 miles alongside a railway. Trees formed a tunnel in parts, and we were often crunching through crisp Autumn leaves. This was what I’d had in mind when I’d signed up for a run through rural, autumnal Wales. It was fabulous.

David and I were still to-ing and fro-ing as he was quicker than me but having to take regular breaks due to stomach issues. We settled in together and passed several miles chatting about Metallica, the 30th anniversary of the Black album and the (very) impending birth of his daughter. I was thoroughly enjoying myself until we turned off the cycle route, across some roadworks and up a near vertical farm track. My god. Not for the last time grappling hooks would have been helpful getting up that. Thankfully it was only a few hundred meters and was followed by a gentle descent for several miles along deserted country lanes towards Checkpoint 2 in Criccieth. 

Darkness arrived slightly ahead of CP2 so I was all lit up like a Christmas Tree (somebody else’s description, not mine) as we hit a final steep climb before dropping into the seaside town. I passed a couple of groups of runners on the climb. I love climbing. I like to think it is a Manx thing as you can’t really run anywhere on the Island without hitting at least a 10% incline and there are plenty double that. I arrived at CP2 to find only one other runner and he was just leaving.  But I was soon joined by the 2 groups I’d just passed, David and another runner who had been just behind David and I since Caernarfon.  I was following my 18-point CP checklist, designed to take 30 minutes – it did – whilst everyone else just seemed to grab a couple of things and be gone. It felt like I lost a lot of time to everyone there but I just had to trust in the planning. I’d rather be sure I had everything I needed for the next 40 miles of hilly, night-time running especially with rain forecast.

I changed shoes and socks. I started the race in standard size 11 hoka Clifton but knew my feet would swell so had size 11E for the rest of the race. Actually, I probably would have benefitted from the extra width 15 miles earlier but that wasn’t possible. I made myself a flask of huel and drank it, opened a can of self-heating coffee, and left it to heat and then activated my self-heating all-day breakfast pouch.  I grabbed my bag of snacks for the next 40 miles along with the printout including maps, directions, the location of every shop and toilet along with opening times, and an elevation profile. Then I had another careful “clean-up” and lube before restocking my toilet kit with fresh wipes. I studiously re-packed everything carefully to ensure I could find what I needed, grabbed my now hot all-day breakfast, and reminded myself to walk slowly out of the checkpoint. I’d just taken on quite a lot of liquid calories and had hot food to eat. Attempting to move quickly now would likely result in indigestion and/or me burning myself as I tried to eat. I knew it was a decent climb out of Criccieth so conservatism was the best approach.

Criccieth to Dolgellau (60-100 Miles) 

I really struggled with the breakfast. I think the humidity had left me quite dehydrated and I often struggle to eat solid food after 45/50 miles.  I forced down as much as I could over about 1.5 miles but a good half went in a bin before I risked bringing everything back up.  This wasn’t a great sign.  I had food plans for the whole race.  I’d made and vac-packed pitta breads with various fillings.  I had my own homemade energy balls of Oats, Manx honey, peanut butter and cocoa. I had snacks galore of nakd bars, cliff bars, chia bites, Haribo and others.  But if my body was rejecting food already, I might have to switch to liquids only with tailwind, huel and whatever drinks I could buy along the way. It wasn’t a massive issue as I was used to this happening, but it was the first deviation from “The Plan” and liquid calories are heavier and less easy to pack.

My wife called during that first climb, and I explained to her about the food.  She was also quite relaxed.  She knows I frequently train without any food at all and often race on only liquids. I quickly dropped down into Porthmadog and passed a group of about five runners as I approached the petrol station and saw David just coming out. I stopped for some energy drinks and to make sure I had enough for the rest of the night (30 miles) now that I was going to be on liquid calories only. The previous group had gone straight past except for someone called Geoff who was apparently struggling to stopped to get a bottle of Lucozade in the hope it would knock him out of his funk. When he did get going again Geoff must have had the highest cadence of any runner I’ve ever seen.  He was the Michael Flatley of ultras, legs a-blur as he crossed the bridge across the estuary into Portmerion and the start of our first “real” climb. And what a climb!

I quickly re-passed the other group as we started with a 20% gradient for half a mile. I could see some lights ahead and assumed one was David but when I caught and passed them, I think I caught the dulcet tones of Karl Shields amongst a small group and was informed “Congratulations. You’ve just walked yourself into 2nd place”. This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Claire and Sarah were under instructions not to tell me my placing until at least 200 miles and, even then, only if there was a chance of me doing something about it.  I’d entered the race with the plan of winning it but that plan involved doing my own thing and sticking to my own pace until much later-on before any actual racing took place.

We hit thick fog – visibility was just about out to the edge of the single-track rode – before we began the very steep descent down to CP3 where I refilled my bottles and was caught by David and another runner called Stephen who must have also enjoyed the hills.  I may love climbing but I am no fan of steep descents.  They destroy the quads and bruise and blister your feet, so I had taken it easy down there. I hadn’t remembered passing David – having been told I was 2nd I’d assumed he was 1st – but it seemed he’d made another mistake and I’d probably passed him as he retraced his steps. As it happened, I also made a mistake as we entered a little cluster of villages around the small town of Llanfair. I’d spotted a lovely, big old pub, restaurant and hotel. Unfortunately, it was on the far side of a left turn I should have taken but I was so admiring the pub I walked straight past.  Luckily, I checked my watch soon after, realised I was off-route and headed back.

I was sure I’d been passed by Stephen and David due to this and, sure enough, I spotted them as we all came down a much gentler descent towards the West coast and the run towards Barmouth. Then it started raining. Really quite hard. I had a lightweight jacket on and wanted to stick with it if possible as it was still very warm, so I took a chance on it not lasting and caught the other two. David was too quick on the flat stuff for Stephen and I and soon left us behind and we settled in together for a chat to pass the dark hours South along the coast. We were 85 miles in – a full Parish Walk – and I still felt good.  Yes, the legs were a little tired from the climbs and the feet a little sore but nothing of concern.  We began discussing what to do about the diversion ahead.

The Sustrans 8 route goes over an old wooden rail bridge at Barmouth and then heads up a trail along the South bank of the river Mawdach. But the bridge was closed for maintenance.  We had to head up the north side of the river along an A road and then make a choice.  We could head across a toll bridge we new to be closed but for which we had permission to scale a high gate to get across and join the original path into CP4 at Dolgellau. Or we could ignore the toll bridge and continue along the main road adding nearly a mile but removing the need to scale the gates. I’d already decided I was taking the long route.  Stephen wanted to go over the gates, but we had 7/8 miles to do before then, so we settled in to walk the ups and run the downs of a phenomenally dull bit of constantly undulating A road. It was just dull, dull, dull and I had my first negative thoughts of the race so far, realising I would be in Dolgellau in time to get a train to Cardiff and spend a lovely few days with my Wife and Sister.  I never seriously considered it but it was the first time such thoughts entered my head and I had to remind myself why I was doing the race and that there were bound to be tough parts.  Especially at 3 am, in pitch dark, running along an A road in the drizzle with the next checkpoint never seeming to get nearer.

As we approached the right turn for the toll bride Stephen persuaded me to at least go and have a look – although I’d seen it online and knew I wasn’t getting over it. Sure enough, it was a good 2 meters tall with fancy ironwork on top that made climbing it impossible.  There was a low gate to the left onto a balcony that ran around two sides of the toll both. But that ended in a 2 meter drop onto possibly marshy land and then a scramble up the bank of the river.  Stephen was still contemplating this when I suggested we at least check the gates in-case the owner had left it open. After all, he knew we were coming. I climbed back over the low gate, checked the main one and, sure enough, a small access gate built into the main gate had been left open for us. Stepehen and I shoved some money into an honesty box and passed through, singing the praises of the kind man who had been so thoughtful.

It was then a short and pleasant jog into Dolgellau and CP4 in the Rugby Club changing rooms.  We knew the route took us all the way around a big recreation ground littered with Rugby pitched and then back along a road to the Car Park where the club house was situated. However, we saw a very bright torch shining at us from across a couple of pitched, clearly trying to guide us in, so we took a chance that the pitched hadn’t become too rutted or muddy just yet and headed towards out guiding light who turned out to be Karen who was to be looking after us at CP4. As we arrived, David was just leaving, clearly having made much better time along the road section than we did.  He asked whether we’d climbed the gates or taken the big drop as he’d gone for the big drop.  “Neither” we replied. “We went through the unlocked gate” and then burst laughing at the look on his face as he explained it HAD been marshy ground he’d dropped into.

At CP4 I think I was ten minutes slower than CP2 which I don’t understand.  It was indoors so I could actually see what I was doing, and I didn’t need to grab food or heat my meal pack this time. I still felt solid foods would cause me problems, so I concentrated on getting liquid calories in, mixing my drinks for the next section, changing shoes and socks and giving myself another thorough clean and tidy before Stephen and I headed out together to a slightly lightened sky and a very cool, clear morning ahead of the two huge climbs ahead.

Dolgellau to Rhayader (100-150 Miles)

Stephen and I quickly headed through Dolgellau and made the right turn that starts the first climb of the day up towards and major road.  It heads up some farm tracks and heads down a short while before we dog legged over the road, through a gate and started the second part of that climb up a decent single lane road.  It was steep but not too long and it was now definitely morning and already starting to warm up.  I took a couple of opportunities up here to just turn and admire the view; okay, I was checking behind to see if anyone was behind us as well.

Then there was a long descent into a little village called Corris.  It started very steep and, ordinarily, I would walk these whilst leaning forwards and using a really high cadence to take the load of the feet and quads, but Stephen was jogging them, so I kept stride alongside him and we got to the bottom of the steep section and onto more runnable, gentle slopes down for a few miles into Corris.  I needed the toilet by now but I new there was one in the village just 120 meters off route, so I was holding on. I jogged on ahead to get to the loo and checked my directions with a couple out for a sunny Friday morning walk and yes, they were just ahead on the left.  However, they were also locked. So back up the path and I gave chase to re-catch Stephen.

Never mind.  There are toilets in Machynlleth and, as Stephen had run this only a few weeks before, he was confident it was just around the next corner.  In fact, he was confident it was just around the next corner for every corner between Corris and Machynlleth.  And that was a LOT of corners! We eventually came to a spot where a new road and bridge were being built just outside the town from which we could finally see it.  I knew there were cafés and shops, and the toilets were just opposite the Spar shop.  I pointed Stephen to a coffee shop for a caffeine boost and I headed to the loos.  This time the ladies were open but the men’s were locked.  So that was nice. I headed back to the Spar and bought supplies as we were unlikely to see anything but water for the next 30+ miles.  As I came back out, I saw Stephen with his coffee.  I stopped to pack everything, and we headed out for the 9 mile climb to the highest point of the course followed by a short drop to Dylife and the water-only CP5 at half-way; still needing the toilet!

My race plan had me in Machynlleth for 11:30 but we were there an hour ahead so we had a bit of time in the bank.  We knew David had been about 30 minutes up leaving CP4 and a guy called Jamie was leading but I had not seen him at all and we’d been told he was miles ahead.  There didn’t seem to be anyone close behind so we could just focus on getting up the big climb of the day – indeed, the whole race – efficiently but without expending too much energy as it was now hot and only going to get hotter as we approached lunch.  The road up was very narrow but seemed to be used by HGVs and larger delivery vans a LOT.  It was about 1 ½ car widths so if you saw something coming from one direction you quickly had to check the other way and, if there was something there, stop and get off the road.  I had finally found a discreet spot, off the road, to go to the toilet and re-apply my anti-chafe, I had all the food and drink I needed, and the views were just getting better and better as we climbed.  It really was an amazing two and a half hours. 

Stephen’s wife had been meeting us in Machynlleth but, with us being a bit ahead of schedule, she had missed us so drove up the climb and pulled alongside about half-way up, which gave me a bit of a shock.  The only slight frustration with the climb was that, on the elevation profile it looked like a steady, continuous climb with a few slightly steeper parts.  In reality, it would go up steeply for a mile, then drop for a few hundred meters, then a really steep bit to regain height before another plunge.  So, although we only gained somewhere around 1300ft, we must have climbed well over 2000ft.

But despite the heat, the traffic and the deceptive height gain we actually made great progress and I was thoroughly enjoying it. Over the top there was a mile or two down to CP5 where I performed my usual half-way song of “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. “Woah, we’re half-way there.  Woah woah.  We’re running on a prayer”.  This was performed to great excitement and enthusiasm by the checkpoint collie dog and general apathy/distaste by Stephen who felt he’d already suffered enough.

From CP5 it descends in much the same way as it had climbed.  Steep in parts and with several unexpected climbs to interrupt your flow. We were following signs for Staylittle before making a right towards Halfren forest where we very much hoped the traffic would be light to non-existent and we could perhaps relax a little. Again, despite the elevation profile showing a fairly continuous descent all the way from CP5 to CP6 we were encountering a lot of short, sharp climbs. They may have been too short to register on the profile but there were plenty long and steep enough to register in the legs and, perhaps more so, the head.

I was starting to get low on water now but I had sterilising tablets and filter caps for my bottles so I could fill them from any water source, wait half an hour and have safe water to drink. However, I knew there was a public toilet in the forest car park so I decided to wait and see if I could top-up from a tap in there.  It seemed to take quite a while to reach them. I think I’d added a few “Bonus miles” by now, with all the trips to closed toilets and various shops.  My watch was telling me I should be at some know marker, like the forest car park, when we were really, still 3 miles or so shy. That was becoming a bit of a mental issue as it was quite disheartening.  At the pace we were moving now – about 4mph – 3 miles was another 45 minutes!

But we got there, and the toilets were open.  At last! And they didn’t have a sink. What? A toilet, a urinal.  But no sink.  I knocked on the door of the ladies but there’s were the same.  I can safely say I have never come across a toilet, public or otherwise, without some kind of sink or tap.  Even in Brazil, where some of the facilities were well below basic, there was always a tap of some sort.  Luckily there was a lovely little stream bubbling away next to the carpark and it took little time to fill my bottles, pop in a sterilising tablets and screw on the filter caps.  I was even able to make up some Huel for later.

Now we did have a very runnable downhill section from Halfren towards Llandiloes. This is where Stephens focus and discipline really helped us. The afternoon was passing into early evening. We were running through a stunning valley with a river churning down to our right as we pass farms and cottages straight out of a James Herriot novel. I would have switched to a power walk which I can do with little energy expenditure or focus.  But it would eventually tire my hips.  Stephen kept us on a walk/jog all the way into the dark which, I’m sure, kept everything fresher by spreading the load more evenly between muscle groups.  It also helped to break the run up into more manageable chunks.

It seemed to get dark quite quickly. We’d made the right turn to head South just before Llandiloes (139) at 17:30 and the next target was a small village with two pubs at 141 miles. Again, this section had some phenomenally steep climbs, despite being “all downhill” and someone in the village had lit their fire without getting their chimney swept and was now covering the whole area in smoke, obscuring the last of the twilight from the sky. Rhayadar was down as 150 miles and the first checkpoint with an area set aside for sleep.  Stephen began talking about how he planned to get 2-3 hours in once he had sorted out his kit.  He reasoned that Jamie was so far ahead he’d be gone.  David was either there sleeping or would have headed off after Jamie and so there was a chance we would have the place to ourselves making peaceful sleep easier. I told him I would try but did mention that I can’t really sleep on demand.  I need to be already on the verge of falling asleep otherwise I just lie there uncomfortable, hot, and worrying about the time I am losing.  I sleep on my side and sore hips from 2 long days of running would likely make sleep impossible unless I arrived in Rhayadar on my last legs and, right then, I still felt good. So, we agreed that I would try but if, after half an hour, sleep wasn’t coming, I would head off on my own and leave him to rest.

But first there was the small matter of the run in to Rhayadar. Looking back now it seems obvious. The village with the pubs was 141 miles.  Rhayadar was 150.  That’s 9 miles so probably 2 ½ hours. And looking back at Strava that is how long it took within a few minutes. But our watches were showing telling us we had run further than we had, and our sleep-addled brains were no longer capable of doing the simple maths required to make allowances for this. Throw in a second night and another section of downhill that was anything but and we were getting a bit frustrated.  Rhayadar just didn’t seem to be getting any closed.  To add to the confusion the signposts in mid Wales are just unreliable.  You could see a signpost for Rhayadar marked 9 miles.  Then another saying 10. Then another back to 9.  Then another saying 9.  You’ve run a few miles and, seemingly, got nowhere closer to where you’ve been heading.  My watch can display the distance to the next checkpoint.  I’d chosen not to use it as I was worried I would clock-watch and then time would seem to drag as it ticked down more slowly than I would wish.  I’m sure that is true but not knowing at all felt far, far worse.

I started Yawning an hour or so (probably) from the checkpoint so I began to feel more like I might be able to sleep and get a bit of much needed rest. We got there at 21:30, half an hour ahead of my pacing plan so we had lost a bit but that was because my pacing plan had assumed a steady, continuous descent and it had been anything but. There was no sign of David at the checkpoint.  He had gone straight through without sleep.  Jamie was there having just been woken and was having something to eat and getting his kit sorted.  As I was going through my usual checklist, another runner arrived, delivered by the “Meat Wagon” meaning he had dropped out been driven there to sleep before making arrangements to get himself home the next morning.

I finished my checklist, grabbed my sleeping bag, and headed to the furthest, darkest corner of the hall. I quickly realised earplugs would have been sensible.  Jamie was getting his kit together, ready to head back out but, despite his sleep was clearly still a little uncoordinated and was dropping bits of kit onto the wooden floor.  The guy who had dropped out was in his sleeping bag a few feet away but chatting on his phone to someone.  Add to this that my hips ached within a few minutes of turning onto either side and it rapidly became obvious that, tired as I was, sleep was not going to happen here.  I quickly decided to pack-up my sleeping bag, grab my kit and head out hoping to find a quieter and more comfortable spot for rest out on route.

Rhayadar to Llanfrynach – 150 – 203

Jamie and I left CP6 together but he needed to call his wife and let her know so I headed off into the darkest of dark nights at about 22:30 feeling a little guilty about leaving Stephen behind after nearly 70 miles together but also excited at the prospect of running through the second night trying to chase down David.  I’d been told he was well ahead of me, so I wasn’t expecting to catch him.  But I wanted to win, and if people started to tell David that there was someone chasing him and eating into his substantial lead then he might start to make mistakes.  I already knew (from David) that his navigation wasn’t great.  He had been having problems with his guts since 30 miles and the trail from 100 miles was dotted with patches of vomit suggesting he still wasn’t able to keep food in. It all seemed a bit unlikely given his lead, and you certainly never want to see a fellow runner drop-out, but if he got tired and low on energy it is surprising how quickly a lead can disappear as 4mph becomes 2mph or less.

Case in point was Jamie. He’d had a huge lead but was now in 3rd. And as I left CP6 and began a steep climb up a rough farm track up and over to Newbridge-on-Wye, I built a 30-minute lead over him in just 10 miles or so. The surface on that track appeared to have been designed by Beelzebub to torment the soles of runners with battered feet but the night had cleared to leave a beautiful starry sky and I was out running by myself at night. I was in my element and absolutely loving it.  I passed through the pretty Newbridge onto a short section of dedicated cycle path lined with hedges and then saw a small copse off to my left through a broken wooden gate. I slid under the gate – just – and found in the middle a huge oak surrounded by dry, soft moss.  I took my hi-vis off and laid it down as a ground sheet, used my pack as a pillow and very quickly dozed off.

I think I got 10-12 minutes but woke up very cold. The temperature had dropped from +20C during the day to around 4C at night and, whilst I’d put extra layers on, I was dressed for moving and I’d lost a lot of heat.  I was also sure I’d heard someone go past whilst asleep so assumed I was now in 3rd but that was fine.  I would be moving better now. I got dressed – bad idea – and then tried to slide back under the broken gate. And my pack got stuck. Doh! Pack off, back under, pack on. That was a waste of time and energy.  A mile or so later I was still cold, so I made another stop to get my waterproof jacket and over-trousers out of my pack.  This meant removing my shoes first and wasted yet more time but better that that hyperthermia! As I was just getting everything back on Jamie caught me up, which rather confused me as I has assumed it was him who had passed me whilst asleep.  All in all, I had spent 20 minutes having my 10-minute nap and now another 10 putting on warmer layers, which is how I eventually calculated I’d built a 30-minute lead in 10 miles.

Feeling protected from the cold air and a little rested I got back on it.  I was power walking at about 14-15 minutes per mile and it felt fairly effortless. I quickly re-passed Jamie and headed on into the beautiful town of Builth Wells.  The route through was a bit confusing.  We seemed to loop back on ourselves a bit and the final exit onto the path out of the town wasn’t really signposted, but my watch was guiding me well and I would occasionally check my smartphone with online maps if I needed a bigger picture of the route to get things sorted in my head. Talking of my head.  Whilst I didn’t feel sleepy and was in a happy state of mind my eyes were starting to play tricks.  Anytime light was shining on an object ahead – i.e. always as I was wearing a headtorch – my brain was trying to make sense of the patterns created.  Especially so if a few objects were clustered together. And the pattern the brain recognises most easily is the human form, so I was starting to see people up ahead all the time.  Sometimes alone.  Sometimes in groups. In one particularly gruesome case I saw the body of a small child clearly hanging from a tree. I could see if from a long way off and all the way until I was a few meters short when I realised a streetlight from across a river was dappling through the leaves of the tree and the dark and light patches had been rearranged into a shape my brain could interpret.  I won’t forget that image for a long time.

After Builth Wells there was a long road section that we had repeatedly been told would probably result in our deaths from locals who used it as a racetrack. Part of my race plan had been to get there in the small hours in the hope it would be mostly traffic-free and any traffic that did come would be visible from a distance due to its headlights.  This worked exactly as planned.  I saw six vehicles along the 7 mile stretch and they all gave the walking Christmas Tree a wide birth. I got into CP7 at Erwood for a bit after 5am so now exactly on schedule after using some time up at CP6 and sleeping/swapping clothes on he way.  All time well spent.  A lovely couple were manning CP7 and they were from “Down South” so were able to give me a bit more information about the Taff Trail that we would be following from Merthy into Cardiff.

I left them at about 05:30 and decided that, if I was to survive the next day well, some more sleep would be a good idea and it would be best to get this done whilst there was still no traffic and before the sun started to rise.  Luckily, the next section after CP7 was a very quiet cycle path – I think someone said it was a converted railway – and there was a nice, dry ditch for me to curl up in almost immediately after I’d set off. I may have had 10 minutes, but I doubt it.  I probably spent more time finding a spot, getting my pack off, getting settled, getting back up and dressed and moving again than I spent sleeping but I’d given it a go and got a few minutes and that had felt important.  I guess dry ditches just don’t make such comfortable beds as mossy oaks!

I knew there were a couple of villages to break up the next section before a significant climb and descent into Brecon at 200 miles and the start of the Beacons. These villages became my targets and I got back into a good pace as the sun finally began to show the night what’s what. It was a flat run into the first, Glasbury, at 185 miles and I was half an hour down on my race plan but unconcerned. I’d had a short sleep and felt very good indeed.  There were sections ahead where my race plan assumed I would be struggling but If I carried on like this, I would be making time, not losing it.

As the morning progressed it became clear that we were in for another hot day, so I stopped at the shop in Glasbury and grabbed a sports drink, a canned latte and a magnum choc-ice, the first solid-ish food to pass my lips in over 100 miles.  It was gorgeous.  Best magnum ever. The next town was Talgarth, a lot bigger than Glasbury and there was a bit of a climb up and over past Three Cocks to reach it. I’d checked the maps on my phone and saw my old school friends were very excited that I was passing somewhere called Three Cocks, so I stopped to get a photo and sent it to them.  Other than phone calls with my support team this was the only contact I’d had with all those following me.  I was constantly aware of the amazing level of support going on back on the Ise of Man and elsewhere as people were “Dot Watching” my progress across Wales. But whilst I could see the many hundreds of messages and took time to read some, I wasn’t able to respond at all. My smartphone was for navigation and was kept in flight mode to save battery unless needed to find my way, at which point dozens of messages would appear all at once.  I was using an old Nokia “Dumb” phone for calls but only my support team, race organisers, and my parents had the number for that.

At Talgarth I headed to the Co-Op and, with a newfound confidence that my stomach was now able to deal with food, I got a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich as well as lots of drinks.  The climb was approaching, it was close to midday and the heat was astonishing for Wales at any time, let alone mid-October. Unfortunately, I tried to eat the sandwich too quickly and it was a lot drier than I’d expected (probably cut back on the Mayo to meet some government calorie target!), and I ended up choking on it a little and gave myself a touch of heartburn.  Then I started coughing.  And coughing. I was bringing up quite a lot of horrible phlegm that had bits in it light rolled oats.  I decided to put this down to the Huel mix.  It did contain oats and I was making it far too thick to get more calories in me, so it was coating my throat and must have started irritating it. This carried on most of the way to the finish, but I needed the calories, so I calculated it was worth a bit of a loose cough.

Of course, back on the Island and in isolation for 10 days with COVID-19, I now know that the loose cough was the beginning of Covid symptoms. This thought never crossed my mind during the race but, looking back, I’m not sure the weather was really as hot as I felt it was. I probably had a temperature to go with my covid-cough. I suspect I caught Covid from someone on the ferry over from the Island on the Wednesday morning.  Certainly, the man sat directly behind me on the boat had spent the entire 4 hours kindly coughing onto the back of my head without a mask or covering his mount, so he is a prime suspect. But that’s all speculation. What I know for certain is that I did the race with Covid and was probably symptomatic from the Saturday afternoon. But I had no way of knowing as the symptoms matched those of someone running far too far and for far too long with little sleep.

The climb out of Talgarth went by in a blur of heat and coughing and I began to plan what I might want to stock-up on in Brecon before heading to CP8, 3 miles further on. Brecon could have been the last shop I saw if I went well. There would be a 24-hour McDonalds in Merthyr but, after that, I hoped to be in Cardiff before anywhere was open. This meant it was crucial to get high-calorie fluids from Brecon to supplement my dwindling supplies of tailwind and huel for the climb over the beacons and the last dash along the Taff Trail into Cardiff.  There was a Morrisons just off the route but I knew there was an Aldi a little further on and it didn’t require a diversion, so I went for that.  Oh dear!

As soon as I walked in, I spotted packs of four cans of double-shot lattes. Perfect.  I grabbed one and headed to the nearest checkout.  There were only three and they all had 3-4 groups in the queue and all had trolly’s, not baskets, except for this one where a group of “Young Folk” had stopped to grab lunch and were queuing behind just two trolleys. That’ll do.  The first trolley belong to a lady who had a load of discount vouchers and coupons, none of which seemed to work. The poor checkout girl was so patient with her as she scanned every coupon in her purse in the hope it might apply to the contents of her trolley. They didn’t. The manager was called for one because that should have applied. Except it was two weeks out of date!  Brilliant. It was so hot, I was knackered, my mask felt let it was cooking my face and my sense of humour was evaporating. Luckily for me, the next trolley was also returning something they had bought a few weeks ago which involved he manager, a trip off to another computer, a few minutes wait and the annoyance of the “Youths” who clearly thought old people were incompetent technophobes who shouldn’t be allowed out to delay their important lunches. And I was starting to agree.

Now it was the Youths.  Just some sandwiches, drinks, and snacks.  Except one of them had taken a single can from one of the four-packs of coffee I’d also chosen and they clearly said, “Not Sold Separately”. She had to swallow her pride and head back around the supermarket and grab the other three and come back around again and through the queue.  Whilst we’re waiting, the ultra-patient woman on the checkout glances at me to apologise for the delay and notices what I’m wearing – and possibly the smell – and asks if I’m cycling or running.  “Running” I reply.  “You look like you’ve run a long way?”. “Yes, from Holyhead”. The queue went quiet and even the “Youths” stared in disbelief.  “Sorry, did you say Holyhead?”. “Yes.  I set off on Thursday morning and I’ve run 200 miles. I’ve got 50 more to get to Cardiff by tomorrow”. This got unexpected looks of admiration from “The Youths” and the checkout lady was awash with kind words when she heard I was doing it for a Children’s charity.

20 minutes lost in Aldi, and I still had a horribly hot run in to CP8 at Llanfrynach. This felt a lot longer than 3 miles and I was already down to 3 cans of latte when I finally arrived at the village hall and found the infamous Mr Cockbain, Race Director, and torturer of deluded ultrarunners, manning the checkpoint himself.  It was the first time I’d seen him since Thursday night at Criccieth, so I made sure to look happy and comfortable and talk down any problems I was having. You can’t let him know he’s winning 😉

Llanfrynach to Merthyr – 203 – 228

I was my usual 30 minutes or so at CP8, the last indoor checkpoint and the last chance to get anything from our drop-bags that we thought we might need for the pull over the mountains to Merthyr or the final push through to Cardiff. I had another good clean-up, but this time nearly screamed the place down.  Despite my caution it seems I was now suffering from some chafing downstairs and the anti-bac wipes nearly sent me through the roof.  I re-applied the 2Toms Butt Wipes, and then decided I’d better change my undershorts just to be sure (to be sure). It was now mid afternoon and would be starting to get dark and cool down within a few short hours but, for now, it was still hot outside, so I stuck to light layers.  I carried a long sleeved top and lightweight jacket with me in addition to the full waterproofs in-case it got too cold up in the mountains or later-on that night when I would be moving more slowly.

Mark explained that tracking was often poor in the Beacons as there wasn’t much of a phone signal up there.  So, if I was planning a nap could I let them know now so that they didn’t worry.  I told him that I planned to have a nap on the way up and probably another on the way down in the hope that this would leave me reasonably fresh for the final run to the finish from CP9. This agreed, I headed off with a pack waaay heavier than when I’d left Holyhead on Thursday but knowing there was a good chance that, water aside, I wouldn’t get the chance to collect anything else before the finish. Best to be carrying a little bit too much than not enough.

Leaving CP8 I headed along some lovely, quiet lanes, gently sloping upwards and tried to ignore the heat. I knew I was headed to Talybont reservoir but, again, was having trouble reconciling the distance showing on my watch with the distances in my route guides.  I knew Talybont to be about 4 miles from CP8, which was at 203 miles.  Except, my watch was already showing 208 and I wasn’t there yet.  Sat here those numbers are easy to deal with but, at the time, I couldn’t hold any thought or figure in my head long enough to carry out even the simplest mental arithmetic. On reflection, I should have stopped my watch when I arrived at CP8 or maybe even Brecon at 200 miles.  I could then simply start it again from scratch knowing I had a good base reference from which to work everything out.  But I didn’t.  And the next 20+ hours can be in some large part be attributed to my watch showing me the “wrong” distance from the start, my not knowing how far away things were ahead, and my inability to perform basics maths to reconcile the two.

Having left the hall at 14:30, I reached Talybont at about 15:40 to find a running event taking place.  People were taking part in a Brecon Beacon’s half, marathon or ultra, up and around the hills above the reservoir. I crossed the reservoir wall and headed up a rocky forest track which, my notes told me, was 7 miles of steady climbing followed by a “few” short descents and 1-mile climbs before dropping straight down to Merthy.  That sounded simple. The track wasn’t great underfoot and I was forever switching from one line to another to find the least rocky or most overgrown to protect the soles of my bruised feet. I’d managed to avoid blisters – actually, that’s untrue.  I had them but they weren’t bothering me at all – but the bottoms of my feet were still bruised and tender from 200+ miles of mostly tarmac. I started to lose the light early. I was in a plantation with high hills all around so, although the sun hadn’t officially set, it had from where I was. I decided to get that nap in before it got cold and eventually found a likely looking spot off to one side and settled down with a timer set for 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, after about half that time and not really having had any sleep, a kindly walker spotted me and rushed over to check I was okay. A perfectly reasonable and, indeed, responsible thing to do when you see someone lying prone at the side, several miles up a steep track but that was the end of any attempts to get some sleep on the way up.  I quickly got back into my climbing stride, and, despite a few false summits, I reached the top in about 2h40 where I stopped to put on my waterproofs. It was now nearly dark and getting cold and I wouldn’t be generating the same heat now I was no longer climbing.

My race notes of a “few” short climbs proved hopelessly optimistic.  I recall a lot more than a few. However, Strava shows that it was only six miles more before I “should” have begun the descent into Merthy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I still felt strong and like I was moving well, although my pace had dropped.  It was night and a lot of the surfaces were rocky, so it was tough going. It was very much up and down with both being very steep and I still had no idea how far away things were. I stopped for another nap, as promised, and, whilst I fell asleep, I don’t think I got more than a few minutes.

I was coming down through Taf Frechan forest and knew there was a hairpin back towards a small village I couldn’t pronounce (Ponsticill). Coming down the track I saw some cars parked on a hairpin bend and people out walking their dogs with even more cars coming up from below. I began to wonder if I’d stumbled across some meeting point where the locals like to drive up to a secluded point in the dark and check out each other’s dogs!!!! But this was what I was looking for, so I turned back on myself down the track.  The watch quickly started buzzing to tell me I was “off route”, so I stopped and checked but the watch was showing I was very close to where I should be; within 30-40 meters. In the mountains and forests, it is perfectly normal for GPS to be at least that far out, so I wasn’t concerned.  I carried on but my route and the route the watch thought I should be on kept diverging and nothing was looking quite as I expected.  I thought I should be through the unpronounceable place by now but that had been happening all day.  Everywhere seemed to be several miles further than I thought. I ploughed on and cars kept driving up the track. But I began to doubt myself.  I got the phone out and turned off airplane mode but nothing.  That would usually produce endless pings of messages arriving, but I clearly had no signal, and the GPS was showing me as being somewhere without a road even though I was clearly stood on one. 

I wandered up and down the road, holding my phone out in front of me which you sometimes need to do for the GPS to figure out which direction you are really facing.  But the arrow just kept spinning around and wouldn’t settle down. I began to accept that I was lost, despite a strange sense of having been here before and feeling I really DID know where I was going, it was just that the physical roads weren’t quite matching up. I couldn’t call for help but I’d seen some dog walkers and plenty of cars, so I set back off down the hill and, after 10 minutes or so, saw a headtorch coming up towards me and steeled myself to ask for help.  I don’t like asking for help!  “Excuse me.  Do you know if this is the way to Merthyr Tydfil?” I asked politely, trying not to sound too English. “Of course I don’t, you berk.  I’m as lost as you are!”.  It was Stephen!

Somehow, between my delay at Aldi, my interrupted nap on the way up, my nap on the way down and getting lost, not to mention what must have been a remarkable effort from the man himself, he’d closed the gap from around 10k to zero.  Although he’d missed off a chunk of the up and down bit off the mountains which was how he now found himself on the same wrong road as me.  We later discovered that he’d missed a right turn up and had carried on along this bottom road.  I had made that turn (and had a nap), gone up and down as I was supposed to but then turned too early and was coming back down this bottom road rather than the road to Merthyr.

 


The turn I made but Stephen missed and went straight on (luckily for me)

 

Where I bumped into Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Where I turned back (1/4 mile too early)

 

Where I should have turned back

 

It took us both a lot of back and forth trying to figure out where we were but, without a signal, GPS, or any general overview (my main mistake. I try to keep a mental image of my overall position even if I rely on GPS to know exactly) we were lost.  So, we tried to flag down a car but they swerved around us and carried on.  Luckily another came along shortly after and confirmed that Stephen had, at least, been heading in the correct direction and that, if we carried on back up the steep road I had been running up and down for quite some time, we would eventually come to the turn down through Ponsticill and into Merthy.  It took a good while and some more self-doubts but when we did find the turning it was as obvious as could be.  A big, well sign-posted junction.  I’d only been a couple of hundred yards away before. Looking back, it seems almost impossible that I hadn’t seen it from where I was, but I was convinced I was taking the correct turn as I “knew” it was a hairpin bend to my left.  How many of those could there my around here? It had cost me about 90 minutes and added a fair few miles and a few hundred feet of climbing but we were back on the right track and the “Team” was back together.

At this point my phone went mental.  I had text, WhatsApp, and Facebook messages galore, not to mention several missed calls. It seems everyone had seen me make the turn up the track and then my tracker disappeared completely. I’d been missing from the tracking website for about 2-hours, and nobody had been able to get in touch with me and things were all a bit frantic back at race support and race HQ.  So, I called Mark to tell him yes, I had been lost but Stephen and I were now together and knew where we were going.  Then I texted Sarah with much the same message and relied on the renewed data connection to restore the tracker signal to let everyone else know I was still moving roughly in the right direction.

It was now 20:00. I’d left the previous checkpoint at 14:30 and made just 16 miles progress in 5 ½ hours despite travelling closer to 20. And we were still a looong way from Merthyr.  Not that we knew this.  Neither of us either knew, or could really work out how far away Merthyr was.  There were road signs giving distances.  But we didn’t know which bit of Merthyr they were referring to or via what route.  I knew the Taff Trail took us on a loop west and south around Merthyr before dumping us somewhere in the middle to find our way across a lot of junctions to a retail park with the aforementioned 24-hour MacDonald’s and a Travelodge, used by the race-crew to get some much-needed sleep whilst waiting for us to arrive for some water.

We ploughed on, thankfully downhill, and Stephen really started pushing.  He admitted that he just wanted to get this section done and get to Merthyr as soon as he could. It turns out we had just shy of 7 miles to survive and it was just after 10pm that we arrived at the Checkpoint – although only after taking another wrong turn, going past, and then having to climb a grass bank to reach Karen and her bottle of special, “A” grade, restorative mineral water. On the way through the disturbing, unsettling, and downright scary town of Merthyr – we both concluded nobody should really attempt that section on their own – we had been discussing our targets.  It seems we had both noticed that the course record was a fraction over 74 hours, and we both had a target of under 72 hours, although I think Stephen mentioned 70. I pointed out that under 72 hours was under three days and would be a major milestone.  If we got to CP9 and back out before 22:30 we believed we would be nailed on for a 72-hour finish. That would leave 8 ½ hours to cover 25 miles.  Under 3 mph!

We topped up our bottles, had a chat with Karen trying to explain how we’d got so hopelessly lost, how we’d bumped into each other and our plans to get in by 7am. She said she’d seen us get back together on the tracker and was glad the “Bromance” was back on after our falling out in Rhayadar 😊 She then told us we were in first place as David had dropped out.  We were astonished.  We asked why but, understandably, she gave no details at all. She did say that Tom Garrod was third but, last she’d checked, was still at CP8 getting some sleep. We had a 25-mile lead and 8 ½ hours to cover just under a marathon – or so we thought. What could go wrong?

What did go wrong – Merthyr to Cardiff – 228 - ?????????

As we left, I felt physically very good.  My legs were still absolutely solid, and I could comfortably walk at 4mph on the flat if the surface was half-way decent. What blisters I had were causing no issues, my back and my knees were of no concern.  I was still seeing things caused by tricks of light and I’d had a funny sense of deja-vu since I got lost up in the forest, but I was putting that down to having researched this section a lot over the last eighteen months.  I felt like I had walked it before because, in a way, I had. Albeit virtually.

To start with, Stephen seemed equally well.  I was the one now trying to push the pace, after his efforts into Merthyr.  Stephen was keeping up and we quickly found the Taff Trail and made a wrong turn.  Doh! Less than a km and we’d already added a chunk and lost some time. This was partially because my watch had suddenly stopped showing the route.  It had worked flawlessly up until now, and I had probably come to rely on it too much.  I think that’s why I’d got so hopelessly lost earlier. I wasn’t keeping track of where I was. I was just relying on the watch to say, “Turn here”, “Go straight over here”. Now we were reliant on Stephen’s watch, which had no turn-by-turn, and my smartphone, which wouldn’t last until the end if I kept it on all the time, and so needed to be used only when really required.

Looking back, again, I should have stopped my watch entirely, started a new track and reloaded the route in.  I would have had a nice clean slate.  25-ish miles to the finish and I’m sure the watch would have behaved itself.  But after 64 hours running and almost no sleep such obvious decisions aren’t so obvious, and I didn’t do it. We made another wrong turn 1k later. Then we got in a solid 5 ½ miles without a mistake, although some of the navigation was hard and slow so progress was equally so. We were two hours in and had gone up a stupidly steep track.  So steep, we’d missed the right turn and decided to sit down in the road for a rest before heading back down to see where we’d gone wrong.

I think this became part of our problem. We compounded time-wasting mistakes with time-wasting rests to mentally recover from the blow of yet another mistake. Stephen was in a bad way by now. We hit a section of the trail which, although close to a main road, was in amongst trees and shrub. The path was very poorly maintained making progress difficult and you really had to watch your feet as you were forever tripping over mounds of tarmac, pushed up by the roots of trees. I was in front with Stephen following, trying to put his feet exactly in the same spots as mine to avoid tripping. However, he dozed off and I heard him grunt as he ran straight into a tree and collapsed to the ground.  I “rushed” over to help and pulled him up.  We took a few moments to check him over, but he seemed fine. They say you hurt yourself less when you fall, if you’re relaxed, and he was so relaxed he was fast asleep.

At various points along this section Stephen would stop running and I would hear him say something, turn to ask him what he’d said, only for him to shake his head, as if trying to shake himself out of a daydream, mutter “sorry”, and carry on running. Once, he stopped in front of a patch of mud and declared that he had been thinking of planting some potatoes here. It was shortly after this that both our races nearly ended.

Stephen had been running just behind my right shoulder when I heard him stumble and turned just in time to see him fall, face first, into a patch of nettles and weeds to the right of the track.  He didn’t even put his hands out to stop himself.  He’d been fast asleep.  Had he fallen straight, and not slightly to the right, he would have hit the tarmac with his jaw, nose and probably forehead and we would have been looking at a serious A&E situation with no obvious way to get an ambulance crew or stretcher into us.

I announced that we really needed to get some proper sleep.  I don’t really recall what time it was or where we were, but I felt we needed a good half an hour, maybe more, if Stephen was going to be able to get to Cardiff at all, let alone winning or setting any records. I still felt physically good – though not as good as at Merthyr – but my hallucinations were getting worse, and I was losing my grip on reality.  My sense of déjà vu had now evolved to the point where, at each navigation point, I was convinced I knew the way.  This was made worse by the fact that, sometimes, I clearly did – having travelled it on Google Street View. Other times, not so much and I would lead us on merry diversions across major junctions and roundabouts, utterly convinced the start of the next section was “just over here”.  But it was “just over here” often enough to convince myself that I’d done all of this before.  As the night wore on, the hallucinations, déjà vu and overwhelming tiredness had me convinced that I wasn’t IN the race.  I was REMEMBERING the race. And, if I was remembering it all then I must have already finished.  And, if I had already finished then, all I had to do to end this torment and finally get to bed, was to simply remember the finish.

Every few seconds I was having this fight. 

It’s a memory. No, it’s real and you must keep going.  No, I can just remember the end.  You can’t, the only way to get to the end is to put one foot in front of the other.  But why? It isn’t real. But it is real.  You’ve got to keep moving.

This fight was being repeated inside my head endlessly and at speed and it was exhausting and I cried repeatedly as I fought for control of my own mind, all the while concerned that Stephen – whose name I couldn’t even remember – was going to fall asleep, and really hurt himself and desperately trying to work out where we were and how far we had left, something I hadn’t been capable of for many hours.

It was a literal waking nightmare and I just wanted it to stop but couldn’t figure out how.  Stopping didn’t make it stop.  Running didn’t make it stop but didn’t seem to bring the end any nearer, either.

Then there’s a gap.  I have a memory of a shop and a kind man trying to open the shop but us already being there.  I don’t know how long.  I remember us asking lots of people for directions, following them, and ending up back where we started.  Sometimes we asked someone else.  Sometimes it feels like we asked the same person many times but got different answers. I remember a dog.  I remember falling into nettles.  I remember it getting lighter and feeling a little better and the loop in my head, that had been going tens of times a minute, seemed to slow to something manageable and now we were in a park.  I don’t know what park or where, but someone was walking beside us, and I recognised their voice.  At first, I thought it was Stephen’s wife, Ange, but Ange isn’t Welsh, and this lady had a lovely, light, sing-song Welsh accent. 

It was quite a while before I realised it was Fiona. I’d met her on Wednesday night at race registration in the Premier Inn car park on Holyhead. Now she was with us, and I was confused but comforted because she had a pleasant voice and was saying reassuring things about it not being all that far, although we were off course. Then I realised I was limping, and my right Achilles was incredibly sore, and I couldn’t really bend the ankle.  I was just shuffling along very slowly.  I don’t know when that happened or how long ago, but the realisation of the pain really snapped me back awake, and I thought I knew where I was again.  I didn’t.  But I wasn’t far off and, besides, the confidence of knowing, even incorrectly, made me feel much better.

Fiona explained that we had missed a bridge crossing not far back, but that was okay because we could cross another bridge just here and get onto the correct side of the Taff.  From there we just followed the riverbank to the final bridge, crossed over, did an annoying loop for no obvious reason, and finished at the Celtic Ring. We thanked Fiona and headed over the Bridge with a load of people wearing orange and “Walking for MS”.  There were a lot of them and, although we were moving slowly, due to my limp, we should have been going more quickly than they were but there were hundreds of them taking over the bridge and the embankment path.

Because I now “knew” where we were, I took us back across the wrong bridge and we needed to double back again. But this seemed more an annoyance now where, before, it seemed something to despair about. It’s amazing what difference sunlight can make to the mind. Back with the Orange people and we were led further down the west embankment. Me convinced I knew the way. Evidence proving me wrong yet diminishing my confidence not one iota. How I didn’t get pushed in the river I’ll never know.

I eventually found the correct bridge.  Law of averages.  If you cross them all you’re bound to find the right one.  The Orange people agreed that this was the correct bridge but also seemed to feel that the unnecessary loop around the park was, in fact, entirely necessary so we followed the strange trail of chanting, placard carrying, orange folk.  Out around the park and back towards the Quay. I could see buildings I knew to be above the Celtic Ring.  Once more unnecessary diversion away and through a playground and over a fence.  We should have stuck with the orange people.  They know.

Then accents we recognised. Voices we knew. They were waving and cheering.  Not long now. Oh? Another loop out, around, and down? My chance to play the fool and pretend to try to out sprint whatsisname even though I can barely walk.  I pretend to dip over the line as we cross into the finishing ring, guided by Mark and applauded by a small but enthusiastic crowd of family and race crew. I shake thingie’s hand and collapse over the side of the ring. I can’t control my eyes or the huge, heaving sobs but I realise I don’t really want to.  Don’t need to.  Let them run their course.  People check if I’m okay. 

No.  

Not yet. 

But I know I will be and, last night, that seemed far from certain.

(Left to Right) Sister Claire, Me and Wife Sarah

Stephen Davies (Left) and Myself, Joint Winners of the Lon Las Ultra 2021





1 comment:

  1. I came and said well done when you were in Bute Park, just after missing the bridge- Fiona was with you so assumed you were ok. You both looked in remarkably good shape and were coherent.

    Fantastic effort and a very good write up.

    ReplyDelete