Monday, 21 September 2015

"Just keep the sea on your left" (part 2 - the Yorkshire version)

After running round the Anglesey Coast Path (the "Ring of Fire" race) a couple of weeks ago, another few miles of navigating by sea should be easy, right?

I had never done the Hardmoors 60, which after knowing the Hardmoors "community" for five years or so now seemed a real omission, so Friday afternoon saw me fighting the traffic (Manchester, Leeds, York) over to a Scarborough packed with visitors thanks to the recent fine weather. I didn't see much of it as a 5am start was required to drive down to Filey to catch the bus to the race start in Guisborough. Author of the Hardmoors events Jon Steele has driven his series with great success from small beginnings to the significant feature of the UK ultra scene that it is now. I remember marshalling at one of the early Hardmoors 110 races when there were about 20 competitors  - the start list for last Saturday's race was well over 200.

I had done the Hardmoors 55, over the inland and recognisably hillier "half" of the Cleveland Way a few times, so my initial thought was that the other "half" down the coast would be a somewhat easier proposition. Fortunately, I checked on the UTMB qualifying races list a week or two before the race; the distances and height gains on this list have to be supported by a GPS trace so I guess they have a reasonable chance of similar accuracy. I was a bit surprised to find that as well as being about 10 miles longer (I knew that already, after all the Harmoors 53 and 62 somehow don't sound quite as catchy), the "flat" 60 actually has, at something over 10,000ft, around 50% more climbing than the "hilly" 55, warranting 3 UTMB points to the 55's 2. So at least I was warned. The final cutoff is about 3 hours longer than the 55 so I guessed adding 3 hours to my typical 55 time (about 12 hours these days) would give me a reasonable target to plan with. 15 hours was the goal.

The weather forecast was not wrong, and even as we set out from Guisborough it was clear that it was going to be a stunning day. I was looking forward to the views.

The man of Steele being what he is, sidling up to the nearest point on the Cleveland way from Guisborough was clearly not considered man enough for a true Hardmoors 60 event; we accessed it at the highest local point  on the North York Moors scarp edge (typically around the 1000ft contour) via a direct and muddy climb ("always like this, whatever the weather" was the local opinion) up to Highcliffe Nab, with a checkpoint on top to make sure no skullduggery was engaged in. The flip side was that we now had a gently descending 8 miles or so down through woods and fields to the coast at Saltburn and checkpoint No 2. The checkpoints were all great, friendly faces, nice food, lots of encouragement. An added bonus for me was that I've got to know quite a few of the Hardmoors "gang" over the years so there was almost always someone I knew (Dennis, Flip, JV, Pat....) to tell me to stp messing about and get a move on.

When we hit the sea at Saltburn and started up the first set of steps onto the cliff top under a cloudless blue sky I felt the run had really started  - this is what I had come for -  just keep the sea on your left down to Filey, 50 miles or so further south. I'll come back to the steps later.......

Once the clifftop levelled out it was great running. The path underfoot was excellent, grass or smooth gravel underfoot, and the topography and Cleveland Way "acorn" signs meant that the map could stay in the pack for 95% of the trip. It was hot but there was a gentle breeze coming off the sea. I found out later that a lot of people had suffered from the heat but I'm generally happy with it. Wear a hat, drink a lot, don't overdo things and it's fine by me, I'd much rather have that than running in the rain all day. I'd decided to keep to around a 12 minute mile average to halfway, allowing me to slow down over the second half as most people do. 15 hours needed a 14 and a half minute average throughout so there was plenty to play with. I wasn't even really too bothered about the 15 hours  - the race started at 8am so 16 hours would get me in by midnight which was equally fine. I'm never going to set any records these days and these outings are too good spend suffering  -  you need to enjoy them.

Apart from the villages of Skinningrove and the delightful Staithes it was rural clifftop for the next 10 miles along to CP3 at Runswick Bay. The heat made itself felt on the descents into the villages but once back on the clifftops it was cool and beautiful. The route went along the beach briefly at Runswick. It's not possible at high tide and there is no inland alternative so you have to wait, but today the sea was well out and the run along the firm sand past all the holiday-makers was fine. Many people we passed throughout the day asked what was going on  -  were were normally dismissed in a friendly but rather Yorkshire way as "complete nutters" when we answered. At the far end of the beach the track climbed back up to the clifftop again.

The enduring memory of this territory for most of the way from Saltburn to Filey is the contrast between the flat, easily runnable clifftops and the regular diversions to sea level. The Yorkshire sea cliffs are continuous for the whole coastal section of the Cleveland Way, and are several hundred feet high at times, but interrupted by numerous gulleys where streams have found their way into the sea. Sometimes these are big enough to generate towns and villages such as Staithes, Whitby, and Robin Hood's Bay, but the majority exist just as narrow inlets into the cliffs. Known as Chines on the south coast, here they seem to be called Wykes. And of course when you come across one, the path goes down to sea level (or near it) and back up the other side  -  "the steps" known to everyone that passes this way.  They are nearly always steps, very few simple steep paths, but they take all forms  -  wooden reinforced steps in the soil, wooden boardwalks, pitched stone steps, and even at one point a flight of a few hundred paving stones. I'm sure this is where the majority of the height gain on the course comes from. They are never more that a few hundred feet high, sometimes a hundred or less, but there are an awful lot of them! I was completely happy to take these philosophically, jog down, walk up and accept that for these few minutes your running average goes to pot  - you just have to go a bit faster once back on the clifftops to compensate.

A few miles of clifftops and ups and downs led to beach level at the town of Sandsend. From here a long promenade then road led along the waters edge then gradually climbed to the cliff top gardens in Whitby. After the peace and quiet of the clifftops Whitby was a jarr to the senses. It was hot and packed. "Swim through the crowds" had been Jon's advice at the pre-race briefing, and that was about right. Down the steep maze of narrow streets to the harbour, fight your way across the bridge and along the narrow main street. A good walking pace, let alone running, just wasn't possible. But then we climbed the advertised "199 steps up to the Abbey" (one of the least demanding climbs on the course!), out the other side and calm reigned once more. A bit of cliff and a caravan park led to CP4 at 31 miles, half way. I hadn't made my 12 minute average, more like 12:15 but I hadn't pressed anywhere and felt good so I wasn't bothered.

More cliffs and wykes over a short 5 mile section took us to CP5 just above the picturesque little resort of Robin Hood's Bay. Flip Owen refilled my water bottle and I asked him what happened next. "straight down to the Smugglers pub, turn right and up the steps" -  I love these coastal paths, where else could you get directions like that! But in the space of around a mile and a half it was down to Robin Hoods and back up, down to Boggle Hole and back up, down to Stoupe Beck and back up............well, I guess you're getting the picture. A bit more clifftop then we turned inland for the climb up to Ravenscar. A runner I had been sitting by on the bus that morning had said he thought the climb up to Ravenscar was the biggest on the coast; I'm not sure but the cliffs are well over 600ft here and the checkpoint was right at the high point of the village. This was the only inside checkpoint, in a church hall, so a very welcome cup of tea was available. But 41 miles done now, we were definitely starting to count down rather than up.

I was still happy to jog the flats and down hills, but I noticed that my speed on the level was a bit slower than the runners who I kept seeing at checkpoints. I found the answer when a group caught me up just before a descent/ascent; I seemed to be much quicker at going down and up the steps than those around me -  life in Keswick must be starting to pay off a bit! 

The first few miles out of Ravenscar were easy clifftop running, being, as we had plenty of height to lose, mostly gently down hill. The miles passed quickly. Then there was a very deep descent into Hayburn Wyke and the consequent climb back up. But from this point it was clear that the cliffs gradually descended into the distance, getting lower all the time. Although there would no doubt be a few more steps, we seemed to have cracked the last of the big ones. Knowing that there was a long run along the promenade to come I was really hoping to get to the start of Scarborough without having to get the torch out, but I failed by just a few hundred yards. But once on the sea front it soon went off again, even though long stretches of the near 3 mile promenade are very poorly lit. A steady jog soon demolished most of it. The tide was nearly in and patches of the prom were sporadically drenched by waves hitting the sea wall, but I escaped with only having to run through a few puddles. The last checkpoint before the finish was at the far end of the prom by the Spa. A chance for a last hit of Coke and a few peanuts, top up the water and go. "About ten to the finish?" I asked. The marshall said he thought it was only about eight; I should have kept quiet, it was ten, false hopes and all that.

Continuing along the prom I was unsure where the route went, even though I had been warned and read about it. People have got lost here in the past. A guy up near some beach huts above shouted down "That's the way, it's dark and a bit wet, but it's the way". Another runner had stopped to adjust some gear and he confirmed it. He'd done the race last year. Waves were still breaking occasionally over the dark path but we carried on and eventually came to the rising path up the hillside that signalled the escape. After not having spent much time with anyone all day I carried on with the other guy who was Steve for five or six miles. We had experience of the same races, knew some of the same people, it's still a small world in ultras. When we made it back to the clifftop we were directed back down by Marshalls to savour the "Cayton Bay option"  -  last chance for a sizeable descent down a wooded cliff and the consequent steep stone steps back up again. From here though it appeared that the track followed a more or less level course along the cliffs to Filey Brigg, where we would turn off for the finish. We were still going well enough, jogging where it was easy and walking the rest, it looked as though 15 hours was nicely on the cards.

Then three or four miles from the finish I felt I was getting a bit cold so I told Steve to go on while I put a long-sleeved top on. I expected to take seconds but I had earlier tied the top onto the top loop of my bag using the sleeves. It had worked itself into a knot which took a frustrating three or four minutes to free up. I was pretty annoyed but then as I restarted I found I'd lost all the go-forward momentum. I could still walk briskly but couldn't get going into a jog no matter how many times I tried. I don't know if it was the miles from the Ring of Fire finally catching up with me or the slight infection I'd been suffering from, it was just as if my system was saying "had enough for today".The track wasn't very helpful, it was quite narrow with longer grass on both sides so needed concentration to keep on the line of least resistance. The last couple of miles out to the turn on the Filey Brigg seemed to take a frustratingly long time. I passed and re-passed another runner just before the turn, then the way back into town which I expected to be straightforward wasn't. We wandered too far to the right, then we saw another runner back near the clifftop. She had reccied the route and said it was the right way. But then on the next bit she said she had reccied the beach option but it looked as though the tide was in now and we should take the higher path. This involved an initial climb up, and although it was really short I found it hard so the others got away quickly. 

But then it was down the other side, along the promenade and up through Filey town, passing revellers spilling out of pubs, back to the bright lights. The finish wasn't far. Shirley welcomed me in, Dennis made me a cup of tea, I think I told him I was feeling a bit old at that particular moment. But tea is the reviver and I was soon good enough to realise that the quarter mile walk back to a crash-out in the car would be the most effective next step.

15 hours and 9 minutes. Not quite but no disappointment really, times are only stamp collecting after all. I'd had a wonderful day.  But for the second time in two weeks I had to reflect  -  they're quite tough, these flat coastal paths.

Friday, 11 September 2015

"Just keep the sea on your left"

I entered the Ring of Fire race a couple of years ago but had to withdraw before the start because of an injury, so with no long outings planned after the Dragon's Back, this year seemed an ideal opportunity to set the record straight. Last weekend was the event's fourth running and friends who participated in previous years raved about it, so I was looking forward to the trip.

The format is fairly simple; you start from Holyhead and run clockwise round the entire length of the Isle of Anglesey coastal path, just 135 miles back to where you started from. "Just keep the sea on your left" was the navigational briefing.  It's a staged race starting at 1pm on Friday, from where you cover 36 miles to the first overnight stop at Amlwch. A 6am start on Saturday sets you out on the 66 miles to Aberffraw, where you arrive hopefully in time to get some sleep before you're out at 6am again to tackle the final 33 miles back to Holyhead. There are cut-off times each day but they're fairly generous, the total time allowed is 44 and a half hours. There are no major hills but coastal paths normally have a bit of up and down involved and this one collects just short of 14,000 ft of ascent along the way.

Many ultra courses claim to be varied but you'll have to go a long way to meet such a spread of terrain that you get here; the sections that stand out in the memory are the switchback clifftops as good and wild as anything in the country and the long, firm, near-empty sandy beaches, but along the way you also encounter farmland, forest, estuary marshes, sand dunes, shingle, rocks, boulders, the odd bit of seaside promenade and what must be the finest set of stepping stones in the UK.

I wasn't best prepared for the jaunt. A leisurely walk along the Dales Way with my brother and our wives (10 miles a day and a regime that meant we actually put on weight over the 8 days involved), followed by consecutive celebratory long weekends with friends and relatives we hadn't seen in a while ensured that August was a wonderfully enjoyable write-off. I showed willing by walking up Skiddaw with my daughter Julia two days before the event - we jogged back down the steep track to Millbeck and as I drove down to Anglesey there were twinges in my quads that I hadn't felt for a long time. Still, I was probably well enough fuelled to complete the course even if I ate nothing from start to finish. I had no ambitions for the event other than to complete and enjoy it, so at least there was no real pressure involved.

Although Race Director Bing told us that many more had originally signed up (and presumably had subsequently had some second thoughts), it was about a hundred of us that set off from Holyhead to the sound of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on a dry but breezy afternoon. I settled down somewhere between middle and back of the pack as it rambled around the coast out of the country park, down through the town and out over the causeway, off Holy Island and on to the bigger part of Anglesey. The only people I really knew in the field were Helen and Mark Legget, but as they're both much more competent performers than me I assumed they were well ahead.

The first real obstacle was the Llanfachraeth estuary. On the first running of the race (and on the only other time that I have run round the Island, for fun about 8 years ago) this involved a lengthy knee-to-thigh-deep wade, but they've worked a lot on this trail and there is now a sturdy new bridge upstream making the route a lot drier (and incidentally 4 miles longer!). The first checkpoint was here. The checkpoints were all a joy, friendly faces, lots of support and a good selection of snacks to keep us going. On average they were 8 miles apart but depending on accessible spots this varied from 5 to 12 miles in practice. It meant that you never had to carry more than one water bottle in between.

After the estuary the coastline started to build up into the higher cliffs and more rugged paths of the North West coast, no big climbs but plenty of up and down. Continually interesting running in stunning scenery.  I kept to my plan, walk the uphills and jog steadily on the rest, aiming for  a 4mph average speed.  It was good to get around the North Westerly point of the island, because the fairly strong wind that had been directly in our faces was then coming from over your shoulder. The beauty of the coastline was only interrupted by the huge shed-like bulk of the nuclear power station at Wylfa, in the shadow of which was checkpoint number 3, the last before Amlwch 10 miles further on.

Just before Amlwch we had to locate the first of "the books". In common with pretty well all coastal paths, on the Ring of Fire it's possible to take shortcuts at many places along the way. To discourage runners from taking the bigger ones there were strategically placed books along the way, each to be found in a waterproof box with a large flag alongside for easy location;  runners had to tear a page from the book and present it at the next checkpoint to prove they had been there. Failure to produce a page resulted in a time penalty of 3 hours, so not finding the book was really not an option.

In the last hour before Amlwch it got dark and the track was very narrow along the top of what was clearly a high steep cliff, requiring a bit of caution. But as soon as we got to the book the trail turned inland and we were soon running through the streets and on to the first night's stop in the local sports centre. I arrived after 8 hours 27 minutes of running in 56th place, at just before 9.30pm. The stopover was really well organised; plenty of space in the sports hall to lay out your mat and sleeping bag (overnight bags were transported onwards each day for you), hot showers and some good hot food available at the still-open sports centre cafe. I was soon washed, fed and resting. I felt pretty good, well, good that is for someone who's just covered 36 miles.

From the depths of sleep it seemed to start quite softly, but grew rapidly louder until it was all you could focus on. That song again  -  ''......and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''.  Ah, yes, the morning alarm call courtesy of the organisation, 4.50am.  Those of us continuing were up, breakfasted, bags packed and out ready for the re-start at 6am. It was still dark.

I guess we were all wondering how the legs would feel, mostly we take the day off after a 36 miler, so it was a fairly cautious caravan that started out when the bell was rung. But we soon warmed up, it soon got light, and with the dawn came the promise of a beautiful day. I had a plan for Day 2; I wanted to finish feeling good and by midnight, that is after 18 hours running. That should leave me with enough time to eat and sleep to make last day enjoyable rather than a trial. 4mph pace would get me to half way in 8 hours, leaving 10 hours for the second half allowing for tiredness and the night shift, which should be 3 hours or so.

The day started with more miles of undulating clifftop, much like the evening before, absorbing and with great views, then a long detour inland around a sandy inlet. The first checkpoint was a bit of a hike away at nearly 12 miles out but they passed easily enough. The path then started to burrow into woodland on the cliffs to the next checkpoint outside the pub in Red Wharf Bay. From here there was a long level section, first along the sea level margin grass, then along the top of a sea wall and a track, after which came the second biggest climb on the course, up to the TV mast on Bwrdd Arthur. All the morning I had been passing and re-passing the same few runners; by now most people were finding the right place in the field for themselves. I ran and chatted with the odd runner or group from time to time but not often for more than a mile or so. It's not that I'm antisocial, it's just that we all have different strengths and weakness and if you stay with someone for too long you both slow down because at any one time you go at the pace of the slowest, and can't recoup that later. I tend to walk everything uphill (but I can walk quite fast), and jog the rest. Others have different strategies such as walking slower or more often and running faster in between, and so on.

We now left the coast for several miles and followed fields, tracks, and tiny roads Eastwards, finally popping out onto the coast again at the lighthouse at Penmon Point, the furthest Northeast tip of the island, where there was another checkpoint. All the checkpoints had good food but this one had fresh orange segments which all the runners seemed to be going for in a big way, a reflection of the hot conditions. I got to here half an hour up on my 4mph schedule, and since the halfway point at Beaumaris was now a mere 5 almost flat miles away, my plan seemed to be going well.  But we soon discovered that these 5 miles contained a couple of miles of pebble and shingle beach. It would be interesting to see how fast the leaders covered this sort of ground, but for me and the people around me it was a slow and rather ungainly walk.

Beaumaris was a bit of a culture shock after the sparsely populated areas we had been through so far - a holiday resort in full swing. On the flip side, quite a few people seemed to have heard about the race so there was a lot of vocal encouragement as we went through. The half way checkpoint was at the far end of the seafront. From here, as one of the runners arriving the same time as me observed, we would be counting down rather than up.

The next section involved a short climb to a high road with great views over to Snowdonia, then a descent into Menai Bridge and a path along the shoreline under both the bridges. As I came down the hill it was starting to get really hot, so an additional hundred yards or so off the trail into the town for an ice-cream seemed a good idea - it would be the last chance today! The stage from the checkpoint just after second bridge (the Britannia Bridge) to the next one by the Sea Zoo further down the straits was probably the least interesting of the whole trip. The land adjacent to the strait for the next couple of miles is part of the Plas Newydd estate (once owned by Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame) with no rights of way across it, so a dive inland over fields is necessary followed by more of the same on the far side of the estate. Some of the latter could be avoided by going along the beach at some times of day, but as I passed this area just 30 minutes after high tide it wasn't an option for me. Still, it was another few miles in the bag.

I was about 50 miles into the day by now and decided that I could afford to walk the last two sections of the day and still get in by midnight. The first one was a lengthy 10 miles; a mile or two of lanes and tracks led to the mgnificent stepping stones over the Afon Braint near Pen-lon, 30 or 40 yards worth of blocks about 4 feet square and at least the same in height.  Another mile of lane led to a track alongside Newborough Forest back down to the sea. From here the course follows Newborough beach for about 3 miles. I had been wondering what the surface would be like and how hard it would be to make progress, but after a couple of hundred yards of soft dunes it turned into a magnificent firm beach, a pleasure to walk on and a wonderful place to be in the now setting sun. Another ''honesty book'' was located at the far end of the beach and I just reached it before having to turn my light on. I had caught up a group of 3 or 4 runners at this point, and in the general banter we let our concentration slip and missed the path back into the forest, which resulted in our having to cross a bit of soggy ground to get back on track a bit further on. They then ran on while I continued walking steadily. For the last half mile to the checkpoint there was a choice of track, either following the main forest road or following a slightly shorter but narrower track nearer the edge of the forest. I chose the latter and hadn't gone far when a barn owl swooped past and landed in a tree maybe twenty yards ahead. As I passed under it, it repeated the manoever several times, keeping up with me for a hundred yards or so until it got bored with the game. Brilliant.

Flag locator for the honesty book on Newborough Beach

The checkpoint was a welcoming oasis of light in the darkness, so I stayed a few minutes for something to eat and drink then set out on the final 6 miles of the day. It looked easy, a final cruise home to bed. The first three miles were just that, over a long causeway to Malltraeth then some nice little fenced-in paths and a lane to Hermon. Going through Hermon village, a lady wished me luck and warned me that she had just seen several runners ''lost in the fields'' on the next section. Forewarned, I pulled out the GPS and concentrated. The second field was a deep cornfield but had a track though it made by some sort of agricultural machine that made progress easy. It was heading a few degrees off from the right direction but I could see that in a few hundred yards it would meet another track which would take us back on track. A runner came up behind me at a great pace so I stepped into the corn to let him through.''Is this the right track?'' he asked, more or less, I replied. He shot off ahead but stopped after a while and waited. There were runners' lights off to the left and he was unsure. I explained what I was doing and said I thought we were in a better place than they were so he elected to stay with me. His name was Ben, and he said he was going fast because he ''just wanted to get the day over with and go to bed''.

After a while we converged with the other lights and I told them I thought they were now on track.  Although they too had a GPS we had some debate on which was the right way which led to Ben and I getting separated from them again. I was happy that I was OK, we were bang on the trace, but it was the sort of ground where you needed confidence in the kit. We passed through a series of tussocky fields with no paths. In daylight you could probably have picked out each stile from the previous one, but in the dark you had to rely on the trace getting you there. It was really encouraging that at each field end we arrived within headlamp distance of the next stile. Eventually we reached a track along which we could see the lights of the day's end stop at Aberffraw less than half a mile away. But there was another honesty book out on the dunes to our left which meant that we had to cover another mile or so before we finally arrived at the village hall. We checked in a few seconds before midnight; it had been close in the end but my plan had worked! My time for the day was 17:59:42 and I was now apparently in 26th place.

A much smaller hall this time but even more friendly, full of people already asleep or satisfied that they had had a big but successful day out. No showers but it didn't seem to matter. Drink tea, eat pasta, go to sleep. Life gets so simple on these outings.

''........and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''  Oh, must be 4.50am again. Lights on, Bing trying to do a briefing to a hall of people still half asleep. Banana milk, ginger biscuits, find trainers, roll up bag and mat. Amazingly, those going are outside and ready to go at 6am again. A few bodies still on the hall floor, deciding not to participate further.

My plan for the final day was simple; don't worry about times or positions, just beat the cutoffs, take it easy and enjoy the trip. It had been great so far, no sense in spoiling things now. With the Hardmoors 60 coming up in less than two weeks I wanted to finish in good shape. It was a cooler morning, cloudy with the Northerly wind in our faces again but not so strong as on Friday. We wound our way out down the Aberffraw estuary, then over some rocky and sandy beaches, stoney tracks, grassy headlands, and a final mile of dunes to the first checkpoint of the day at Rhosneigr. The checkpoint was outside a bistro (owned by Bing's mum I think), and was providing tea, coffee and bacon sandwiches. What a way to start the day!

I had run into Rhosneigr with a guy called Steve, and he elected to carry on with me after the break. I insisted that after eating so much I needed to walk for half an hour and he had no objection, so although the couple of miles along the beach north of Rhosneigr are almost perfect to run on, we walked. Others must have had the same plan because no-one overtook us. A messy section of fields followed, along the channel between Anglesey and Holy Island, where constant vigilance with the map was needed. The route was signed but not at all crucial turns and it was easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the field if you weren't careful. But the next checkpoint at Four Mile Bridge soon turned up and we were then back on Holy Island for the 20 mile home stretch.

A few lanes and tracks led back to the coast at Silver Bay and another honesty book, from where we wouldn't lose sight of the sea all the way to the finish. Bays and headlands followed all the way to the final checkpoint at Trearddur Bay. Steve was a Spine Race finisher this year so I was able to spend a lot of time pumping hin for information on how he approached that race, which I'm looking forward to in January with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The last checkpoint in a long race is always a joyful place; everyone who gets there knows they are going to finish, and whatever aches and pains they might have are going to stop before too long, and so it was at Trearddur Bay. I had thought that I might make it back to Holyhead by 3pm but it looked as if that wouldn't happen now, we had gone too slowly. On the flip side, I felt nowhere near as bad as I should have done after covering 125 miles, and I had enjoyed the whole thing up to now. We set off on the last 10 miles.

More bays and headlands, another book to be de-paged, a slight navigational error as I led us too near the sea approaching the final bit of road up to South Stack and we had to fight our way back up through some quite determined gorse, then we were on the road then off down the track towards Ellen's Tower. Along the Castel Helen clifftops we saw climbers and my mind wandered back to my first abseil into the unknown from here back in the early seventies, when climbing at Gogarth seemed even scarier than it does today. We had caught up another runner who said he had finished the race last year, and the three of us made our way up to the carpark, down the road, up to the old coastguard lookout above South Stack, and along past the rather ugly communications installations to the steps up the side of Holyhead mountain. I lost sight of the others somewhere around here but I didn't think they would mind. I often like to enjoy the last mile or two of a long event on my own, to reflect a bit on the journey before the return to the normal world. And up here especially it was my kind of territory more than anywhere else on the course, rocky tracks, gradients, and a bit of wildness. I loved the long descent out to the North Stack radio station, and even the not insignificant reascent back up to the final little col. A bit more rocky track, a grassy track, then the finish in sight. And as I approached the finish..

''.......and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''

Cheers from everyone there, congratulations, a medal and a wonderfully welcome beer from Bing, and the Ring of Fire was done. I finished with an aggregate time for the 135 miles of 36:05:05, in 35th place. This is a great event, a big thank you to the race directors and all the marshalls who did such a fine job. Although it's a bit tougher than it appears on paper it's a really friendly experience because of all the support you get  -  no long sections out in the wilds like you get on mountain events!

I hung around at the finish for a while, soaking up the atmoshpere and watching and cheering as runners came in. Whatever music was playing, it immediately changed to "Ring of Fire" whenever an approaching runner was spotted, a great touch. Mark Legget had already been back some time and Helen arrived shortly after me, they had both had good weekends. It was tempting to stay longer but eventually the thought of a shower and another beer or two drew me away to the short drive back to Chester. I thanked Bing and wandered off to the car.