How did it all come about
So it all started last year when Dai Cappell and Dave Evans ran the inaugural Vale Coastal Ultra. I met up with the Garratts in Ogmore by Sea to cheer the runners in and was inspired. Well.. at first I thought ‘they are all bonkers and I would never do anything like that’ but of course, such thoughts are common with runners who a few hours later can’t wait to sign up. I checked every day for entries to open and finally last July they did and I signed up straight away expecting to be first on the start list. Who beat me to it… Dai Cappell and Dave Evans! The Garratts didn’t take much convincing although I have a feeling they signed up quickly to avoid being nagged for several months. Nick Harris signed up and a bit later Aled and Chris Pratt completed the 8 Cwm Ogwr runners who would be running the Vale Coastal Ultra 2016.
The race also has a 18.5 mile option which Richard LJ and Dai Power ran last year and both signed up for again. Natasha Kerr was amongst the first to sign up for the 18.5 with Kelly joining her and there was an influx of entries in the new year with Richie Pett, Brian Cotton, Liz Davis, Sian Tossell and Natalie Griffiths.
The 32 miler starts from Penarth Pier with the 18.5 starting in Porthkerry Park. The route follows the All Wales Coastal Path and finishes in Ogmore by Sea just as you go into the car park. Organisers Run Walk Crawl describe the route as being ‘almost entirely on trail. It hugs the cliff top passing numerous hidden and rugged bays all the way to the splendid beachside resort of Ogmore-by-sea. The route itself passes 19 beaches, with the final 14 miles travelling along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast with its dramatic cliffs, amazing rock formations, romantic coves and rolling countryside.’
Training for the event took many forms. Dai Cappell did a longest run of 11 miles, whilst injury meant I didn’t run over Half Marathon distance in the last 7 weeks of training. On the other end of the scale, Nick Harris and Chris Pratt regularly hit 40 and even 50 mile weekly mileage and Chris warmed up the event with a tough off road marathon 5 weeks before. Chris Pratt and I came up with a plan to recce the whole course in 3 stages. We did Penarth to Barry in January, Barry to Llantwit in February before my injury meant the final 9-10 miles from Llantwit to Ogmore by Sea recce had to wait until 3 weeks before the event. Sian, Richard, Aled, Nick and several others did sections of the course beforehand as well.
The build up
The week leading up to the race had several of us constantly checking weather reports. We wouldn’t normally care if it was a flat road race but the weather would have big impact in this event. As we found out in the recce runs, a bit of rain and the course is a mud-fest, but a few dry days and you could arguably get away with road shoes for the entire course. We shouldn’t of bothered checking though as it changed slightly at least 20 times over the week and in the end we discovered we’d be starting at least in wet conditions.
The evening before the race several of us met up to go out for food locally where there was a real mix of nervousness and excitement. The event also required a compulsory kit list including waterproofs, compass, whistle, foil blanket, basic first aid kit amongst others so there was much checking and rechecking of kit bags late on Friday night. The approach to race nutrition was interesting with some taking what could be described as a family-sized picnic whilst others went for a few gels and whatever they could get their hands on at aid stations.
The 32 miler started at 8am and with kit checks in registration beforehand and getting there in plenty of time, it meant setting the alarm for 5:15am! My wife, Amanda and I picked up Chris Pratt and his partner Jo to travel down to the start together. Some anxious moments at registration as they asked for proof of a few items and hoping nothing had been forgotten, but all was fine. We were given a sealable plastic bag with two race numbers, a map and a checkpoint card. The checkpoint card needed to be clipped at two areas in Barry as a section had been added this year to ensure runners went right around the coastal path rather than cutting straight through Barry as they did on what was a 30 mile version last year.
Runners huddled under the Pier with about 40 minutes to go as more Cwm Ogwr runners turned up. The Garratts were no where to be seen with 10 minutes to go so we were a bit concerned they’d had a change of heart but sure enough they turned up. Eventually we walked up to the end of the Pier where the race director went through a thorough race briefing whilst we stood in anticipation in the drizzle. Worryingly, we’d somehow ended up at the front so worked our way back to at least a couple of rows back.
We set off at walking pace as there wasn’t a lot of room with over 200 runners leaving the pier, plus it’s a sensible option when there’s 32+ miles to go. Chris and I actually stopped for a quick comfort break before even leaving the pier which meant we ended up towards the back. We decided we needed to at least get passed some of those who would be walking a significant amount of the course as within a mile or so, the path does narrow to pretty much single track. I’d estimate at least a third of the runners started by walking most of the first mile – particularly as you start with a not insignificant hill out of Penarth.
Chris and I decided we’d run together for a while until we got to a point where one of us needed to drop back. I’d gone for road shoes hoping that the rain overnight hadn’t been enough to affect the course too much. It quickly became apparent that trail was the sensible option although we knew from the first recce that there was plenty of tarmac in the first 12-13 miles. Nick’s mum had planned to see Nick at various points along the course so Jo and Amanda decided to follow which our first ‘cheer point’ being just 3 miles or so into the run just after the Captains Wife restaurant near Sully. The rain was still coming down at this point although I felt a little warm in my waterproof jacket.
Just after mile 5 the course turns off the Coastal Path and onto the roads of Barry with a long loop around the docks before reaching Barry Island. As we turned onto the road, it was also the site of the first checkpoint where a volunteer needed to take your race number before you could go on and have a look what treats they had on offer. We took a handful of jelly babies and jelly beans whilst neither of us needed to top up on water just yet. Chris and I had briefly discussed what pace we wanted to run in the early miles but settled on going for what felt comfortable. On the flat tarmac surface around Barry, our pace did unintentionally increase a bit and we made a conscious decision to rein it in a bit given there was still almost a marathon distance to go.
As we approached Barry Island we joined the parkrun course where the marshals were still out and it was also the checkpoint for getting out cards clipped. Further along we met Amanda and Jo and I decided to change into trail shoes and take the jacket off as the rain had stopped and the temperature was rising slightly. At this point we’d comfortably averaged under 10 minute miles for the first 10 miles. We walked the short beach section before getting back into the previous pace for the section around the Knapp where the second clip of the card was taken. We seen Aled, Dai and Dave who were running in a group with a couple of others including Bridgend AC’s Jon Theil. Again, with 20 miles still to go, Chris and I decided not to make a concerted effort to close the 200-400m gap and I needed to make a quick shoe adjustment anyway which meant they were quickly out of sight again.
After several miles of tarmac the route ascends steeply with some steps thrown in for good measure towards Porthkerry. This was the first section we decided we should walk to conserve energy for later. We arrive at the checkpoint in Porthkerry which was the 14 mile point and where the 18.5 milers would be starting. Jo and Amanda appeared again to cheer us on with Nick’s mum, and we were able to see the 18.5 milers and shout good luck although I only saw Brian and Richie who were towards the front of the starting pen. The second checkpoint had more goodies on offer including flapjacks, Jaffa cakes and cookies which I tucked into before setting off again.
A steep incline out of Porthkerry opened a gap as Chris is much faster striding up hills than me. Over the next couple of miles, Chris was 20-30 feet in front and dropping back now and again for me to catch up as I was starting to struggle but afraid to admit it given we were only at half way. I decided to admit it around mile 16 and told him to keep going if he started opening up a gap again. During this time, Brian and Richie overtook us and were in 3rd and 4th place respectively in the early stages of the 18.5 miler.
I was having issues with my trail shoes which felt uncomfortable and my right heel felt like it had a blister developing so around mile 17 I decided to stop, sit down on the floor and sort things out. Shoes and socks came off and I had a fresh pair of socks in my rucksack which felt really nice to put on. First kit aid out and put blister plaster on my right heel. Undid shoelaces and made sure I felt comfortable before setting off. Probably lost about 4-5 minutes but it was so worth it compared to being uncomfortable for the rest of the race and potentially developing a big blister on the back of my heel.
Alongside Aberthaw power station is probably one of the worst parts of the run as there’s a high wall to your left and wired fencing to your right with just a 4-6 foot wide path to run on in between. After initially feeling the benefits from my short break, my legs started hurting as I approached the 3rd aid station. There’s still 13 miles to go! Greeted Amanda and Jo at the mile 20 checkpoint with a little less enthusiasm than the previous ‘cheer points’ although it was still a welcome boost to see them. I decided I needed a good refuelling so topped up my water bottle and dug in to some biscuits and sweets. The volunteer on the aid station asked how I felt to which I simply replied ‘a bit tired’ to which she said ‘well you have run 20 miles’. Weirdly, this did help and I reminded myself that 20 miles is rather a long way and I’d done reasonably well to this point.
The next couple of miles includes what is probably the most technical section of the course with muddy trails, a couple of styles and a horrible ankle-breaking stoney / large pebble beach section which you have no option but to walk across. I spotted a female ultra runner lying on the floor ahead of me so tried to get to her as quickly as I could by which time she was back on her feet. Fortunately she wasn’t badly injury and I offered to help her off the pebble section to which she just let me lead to way to follow my footsteps. She was definitely alright as we’d end up switching positions several times over the remainder of the race.
The next couple of miles was along cliff tops heading towards Llantwit major. I was struggling and having to take regular walk breaks when I heard ‘have no fear, you’re captain is here!’. It was Richard LJ with Shelley in tow (forgot to mention Shelley took Kelly’s place with just a few days notice). It was a real boost to see them and we carried on together to the next checkpoint at Llantwit. However, there was another issue bothering me. As we approached Llantwit, my watch indicated I’d already done over 24 miles and I knew it was at least another 9 from Llantwit to Ogmore by Sea. Looks like there’s at least an extra mile on the 32 advertised then – not what you want to realise when struggling. Again, the checkpoint meant a quick catch up with Amanda and Jo and more treats from the aid station. I warned Amanda to expect a very slow 9 miles so not to worry if I wasn’t in within the next 2 hours or so. A quick photo with Richard LJ and Shelley and we were back on our way along a very muddy, slippery section out of Llantwit. My Garmin watch died around 25-26 miles but this turned out to be a blessing as now I only had my phone to inform me of time / distance which I checked a lot less frequently and subsequently made the miles go by slightly quicker than checking every few minutes.
I’ve never understood when people have said they’ve had a ‘second wind’ although I felt like this was the case when I reached Nash Point with around 6 miles or so still to go. I’m not saying I wasn’t still very tired with sore legs, but I could maintain an albeit very slow plod without needing to walk. My plod was 13 minute mile pace but a big improvement on walking pace. Sarah Littlewood had gone to that point to support which we were all very grateful for. From Nash Point I could see Richard and Shelley up ahead in the distance which provided an excellent focus point. They did disappear from sight again before I seen them whilst I was at the top of a steep decline followed immediately by possibly the steepest incline of the entire course. This was one of the last sections I walked apart from having to stop to climb over what seemed to be increasingly higher styles.
I was looking out for a wall we reached on an a 45 minute out and back recce run we did from Ogmore by Sea which seemed to take forever to reach but after this I was into much more familiar territory. The dreaded steps were to come with a quad pounding descent followed by a couple of dozen steep steps back up the other side. Onto Southerndown and final aid station, I decided to try some coke which seems to be a ultra-running thing and of course, a couple more sweets. By this point, Shelley had gone on ahead and was out of sight whilst Richard was still visible a few hundred meters ahead and running with Dan Morgan from Bridgend AC.
A final walk up the hill from Southerndown car park and I felt confident I could run the final two miles or so at a quicker pace. Just as I got within a few meters of Richard and Dan, Dan set off for what must have been a very swift final mile or so. I ran with Richard briefly again and he encouraged me to press on. I knew from the recce’s that the first stone wall you see in Ogmore by Sea isn’t the finish but what I hadn’t factored for was that the second wall is quite a distance after and you run a good few hundred meters around it before the finish. I wasn’t going to slow down now though so with a mixture of pain and overwhelming joy that I was about to finish, I managed what felt like a sprint finish. A dozen or so Cwm Ogwr supporters stood just before the finish and the cheer from them was amazing. I crossed the line with a sub 10 minute mile to finish. Collected my medal, t-shirt and handed my clipped card in to the finish line volunteers before a great big hug from Amanda. I measured the run as 33.6 miles although I think there may have been some error with Strava as most had it at 33.0 – 33.1 and I’m almost certain I didn’t go off course anywhere.
I joined the rest of the supporters and Dai Kembery handed me a bottle of beer and a cookie – much needed and tasted so good. Found out that Nick had come in just under 6 hours with Chris catching Aled and Dai who all finished together in 6:12 with Dave in at around 6:30. My time was 6:40. The Garratts came through in 8:49 with Heather describing conditions underfoot as horrendous – she’s not a fan of mud so 33 miles of it wasn’t welcomed.
In the 18.5 miler which was actually more like 19 miles – Richie Pett finished 3rd overall whilst Brian was 11th after a short detour cost him a few places. Shelley ended up as the 8th female finisher. Richard LJ finished next. Natasha and Liz came in together with Dai Power up next beating his time from the previous year by almost 10 minutes. Sian and Natalie ran the course together and are both talking of entering the 32 (33) miler next year.
An amazing day. The question now is how many will sign up next year?!?!