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.


Bob Elmes said...

Well done Andy.

Dave T said...

Congratulations, mate. Great write-up too. I think it's a fantastic race and will definitely be going back again sometime.

Rob Reid said...

Brilliant - performance AND description.
I can see the time coming up when you'll be scooping all the MV70 prizes!