This was the third year running that I had entered the Anglesey Coast Ultra. In 2013 it was cancelled due to snow and in 2014 I was cancelled due to having a bad leg, so it was time that the race and I got our act together.
The Endurancelife coastal series comprises a number of events all based on scenic coastal locations around the UK. The only one I had run previously was the Exmoor Coast ultra back in 2013 and I had enjoyed it a lot. Each event in the series follows a common format of four races all starting and finishing at the same point. The "marathon" makes a complete loop of somewhere around 26-28 miles, the half marathon cuts the loop short and the 10k cuts the loop even shorter to give a race of 6-7 miles. The ultra completes the the marathon route then repeats the 10k to give a distance of between 32 and 35 miles. It's a format that is easy to organise and marshal (and of course gives competitors whose race doesn't go quite as planned on the day a softer option if required!). The courses are fully marked so no navigational skills are required. This last feature is not really my thing and the entry fees are quite high, but they do provide races in the winter months that are usually less affected by the weather than mountain events, and the "sign up, turn up and go" ambiance makes them easy to enter.
I was looking forward to the run, but was still a bit apprehensive on four counts. The main one was that it is a long time since I've run an ultra. I completed several last year with a combination of a lot of walking and a bit of jogging, but although the coastal series ultras are not long (this one was billed as 32,7 miles with 3550 ft of ascent) you have to maintain a steady 4 miles an hour to beat the cutoffs, and over any normal UK coast path this needs quite a bit of running. Still, I had to start again somewhere. Secondly, I was carrying 12lb or so additional ballast from a fairly lazy year and an indulgent Christmas holiday period, but again this is no real excuse not to go. Thirdly, after careful progress over nearly nine months now of recuperation I had tweaked a hamstring a week earlier and hadn't dared to run since, though I had walked every day. I hoped it would be OK. Finally, when I checked the weather forecast on Thursday it was far from promising - high onshore winds, 4 degC maximum and periods of sleet and rain. But then I thought of what the Spine racers had been battling through this week and decided that these sort of conditions would seem like a day on the beach to them so I had better just get my plastic mac out and get on with it.
Anglesey's not too far for me so a 6am start from home saw me down there in good time for formalities at the Holyhead Breakwater Country Park. Getting out of the car, the wind made the cold seem even more so and the half mile walk in the dark from car park to the registration tent wasn't too pleasant. Registration was quick and efficient, leaving about 60 ultra candidates being briefed then hanging around in our duvet jackets in the tent until the last possible moment before we were called over to the start line. Thankfully there was only the briefest of holds here, then we were away at just about 8.30 am.
When you get moving things always feel better. At least it was dry and that's the way it stayed all day. It was cold and there was a steady 15-20 miles an hour wind from the West but apart from that we had a quite beautiful day, winter sunshine and great views, ample reward for those who turned up. I ran in a base layer, thin fleece and windproof jacket and was comfortable; taking hat or gloves off was chilly, but of course there were a dozen or so hardy shorts-wearers who didn't seem to feel the cold at all. We seemed to have just hit a lucky gap between two Westerly fronts.
My plan was simple; go fast enough enough to beat the cutoffs but not much faster; cut the route short if anything starts to hurt; have a nice day and get back before dark (I hadn't taken a torch). After a half mile of road and lane we hit the coast then followed the coast path up and around Holyhead mountain, beautiful territory. I was happily placed at the absolute tail of the field, about two hundred yards behind the last runner in front, but going at a pace I thought was about right. On the first climb of a steepish few hundred feet I gradually caught up to the back markers. As we reached the top of the hill the runner immediately ahead of me stopped and bent over a rock, gasping for breath. I asked if he was OK and he said he was, but it didn't bode too well for the rest of his day. Some nice bouldery tracks led down and over to South Stack and the first checkpoint after just over 4 miles.
From here the course followed the coast path all the way down to Rhoscolyn beach at the 15 mile point, with another checkpoint near Trearddur Bay about halfway along. It was great running, mostly along the edges of low cliffs on springy turf with the occasional wet bit, undulations but no real hills and the sun shining on the sea. I trundled along at somewhere around 12 minute mile pace with everything feeling OK. I eventually passed one or two other runners, then an hour and a half or so after the start the first of the marathon runners came past, their race having started half an hour after ours. From then on I was seeing people all day, catching one or two of the slower ultras, being passed by marathon guys and sometimes re-passing them as they slowed, and the whole thing got pretty sociable.
After the checkpoint at Rhoscolyn, the course turned inland for a loop, coming back to the coast to revisit the checkpoint at Trearddur Bay, then inland again. These sections away from the coast were sometimes on small tracks and lanes, but often across quite boggy heathland, so even away from the mountains and moors, you rarely return from an ultra without your shoes covered in mud. I often wonder by how much all this peaty acidity and animal deposits shorten the life of shoes; still, five minutes under the tap when you get home normally gets most of it off.
The marathon course finished with another visit to Holyhead Mountain, this time climbing right to the top (at all of 750 ft above sea level!). The safety marshals scattered around the top and descent, mostly MR and Coastguard guys, were cheerful but looking a bit chilly now as the sun was getting lower and the wind gaining strength again, but the runners were rewarded with a wonderful and slightly technical descent of 700ft in a mile directly to the finish near sea level.
I had taken stock of how I felt at the duck-out points at 4 and 9 miles in, but they came a bit soon so I was committed to the marathon distance from then. I'd had a suspicion in the preceding days that 26 miles might be far enough for me on a first outing, but as I approached the sign which said "finish" in one direction and "ultra" in the other I felt that I had taken things conservatively enough to gamble on a further 6 miles or so and another 1300ft of ascent. I set off again along the coast for another lap of North Stack, South Stack and Holyhead Mountain.
I managed to pass one or two more runners on the way around, and even some late marathon participants on the last pull up to the summit, and enjoyed once again the swooping descent to (this time) the finish. I finished in just over seven and a half hours, 45th out of the 65 starters. I was pleased enough with that, at least as good and possibly a bit better than I could have hoped for. But to put it in perspective, I completed the slightly longer and very much tougher Exmoor course in 2013 in six and a half hours for an 18th place. Two days later I'm still a bit stiff but OK for a walk yesterday and a first gentle run today. Nothing really hurts. So, fit enough to run ultras? Not yet I'm afraid, but fit enough to start training? I think so, and that's progress.