Monday, 22 January 2018

Anglesey Coast Ultra

I last ran the Anglesey Coast Ultra back in 2015. January 2016 saw my abortive attempt on the Spine Race and last year I was laid low by a flu bug, so it was a welcome change to get the year off to a productive start again. I remembered 2015 as being a cold and windy day but with patches of sunshine; you can't really expect much in January, the same again would be nice enough.

It's not too far from my house to Holyhead so it wasn't a half way through the night start this time, just an early breakfast and an hour or so drive to the Breakwater Country Park just beyond the town, the base for the event. Events in the Endurancelife Coastal Series always follow a similar pattern; there are 4 races on the day, a 10k, half marathon, marathon (all "nominal" distances to suit the local site) and an ultra which is around 32-35 miles. The course consists of loop along the coast (usually outwards along the cliff edges and returning a short way inland) of marathon length, with "short cut" options to give the 10k and half marathon distances. Ultra runners complete the marathon followed by the 10k, which means that short sections of ground are repeated but I've found this doesn't really detract from my enjoyment of the event. The courses are fully signed so they always give a nice, fairly casual day out in grand surroundings.

The ultra event usually starts first, a half hour or so before the marathon which means that the faster marathon runners pass you at occasions during the day, but on this occasion we were told at the  briefing that marathon and ultra would start simultaneously. I guessed from this that the field was smaller than usual which proved to be the case. Both events were shown as full on the website so I supposed there were numerous no-shows based on the weather forecast which had been uniformly dismal, grey skies, wind and rain.

Most of the runners stayed in the registration tent keeping warm until the start which was around 8,30am, then we were off. It was cold and breezy but at least not raining. We followed the Country Park approach road for half a mile or so then turned onto the coast to make our way first Westward, then South. Within maybe twenty minutes of starting the rain had begun but only showers to start with so I held out against putting on a waterproof. The course took us from sea level fairly quickly to near the top of Hoyhead mountain at 750ft, then across the attractive heather covered headland to the first checkpoint  on the cliffs above South Stack lighthouse about 4 miles in. The 10k would later wend its way back over the summit of the mountain via a different return route from here.

Heading for South Stack with Holyhead Mountain behind

A quick look at the watch showed that I had managed the outstanding pace of 14 minutes per mile to here; as I was hoping to stay under this for the whole event, and we had so far only done one of the least demanding of the four main climbs, I really needed to get a bit of a wiggle on. The conditions were conspiring a bit though; as the route turned southwards it started to rain in earnest so the jacket had to go on, better be wet and warm rather than wet and cold, and the fairly sprightly wind would now stay directly in our faces for the next 10 miles or so. I ploughed on down the coast, pleasant springy turf until the start of the Trearddur Bay area and checkpoint 2 at around 12 miles, a couple of miles of road and promenade through the little resort, then more cliff top with gentle ups and downs and odd bits of rock to the Coastguard station above Rhoscolyn. Next came great grassy descent down to Checkpoint 3 at the near end of Rhoscolyn beach, and by here I had finally got the clock down to under 12 minute miles average; I would need all of that though with the climbs near the end.

We had been warned at the briefing that the inland sections were likely to be muddy, but the first few miles after turning left at the far end of Rhoscolyn beach were not bad at all. It was great to have the wind from behind for a change, the uphills were gentle, and the course followed a series of woodland paths, boardwalks and short sections of minor and unsurfaced roads, all of which seemed to lead back in no time to the coast just south of Trearddur Bay and a run back along the seafront through the village. Another checkpoint at about 20 miles marked the next turn inland. We were now back on the half marathon course and I was cheered to overtake a couple of its participants before too long. But after a couple of tracks, this section crossed a few miles of heath farmland with grass, gorse bushes, and lots of mud in between. Some of this was up to mid calf at times and wouldn't have been out of place on the Pennine Way. I remembered it as being muddy in 2015 but conditions this year were far more gloopy making for slower progress and the odd concern about losing a shoe.

Still, all things come to an end and I knew as we trudged across the final muddy farmyard, shoving a couple of pigs out of the way to get to the gate,  that once we hit the South Stack road the mud would end, but the climbing would begin again. As we gained height up the hill the wind began to make itself felt once more but I was pleased to be off the mud and tackled the first climb, back up to the top of Holyhead Mountain, with some enthusiasm.  For the marathon runners this would be their final climb but many in my bit of the field seemed to be feeling it a bit by now and I was able to overtake quite a few on the way up. The safety marshalls on the top were doing a great job in the cold wind, I said I would probably see them again in something under two hours time.

It was a rocky descent all the way from here down to the event  base, my sort of territory so I was able to overtake a few more marathon competitors on the way down. Then inevitably we reached the sign which said to the right "Marathon Finish" and to the left "Ultra".  All we had left was about seven miles and two further visits to the top of the hill. In deteriorating weather and daylight they didn't seem to take too long, no-one to hold you up on the rocky single tracks this time around. I thanked the marshals at South Stack and on the summit as I passed, they had all had a long cold shift, then the final run down to the finish. I had been wet pretty well all day but a quick change of shirt and cup of tea sorted me out ready for the half mile walk in the rain back to the car and the thankfully this time not toom long drive home.

I finished in 7:39:14 in 26th place (which sounds OK until you know that there were only 41 starters this year!).  At first I was a bit disappointed because this was a couple of minutes slower than my time in 2015 and this year I had finished feeling in much better shape which usually means going quicker. I put it down to the tougher conditions under foot, but then did a bit more digging back in my records to discover that the course was around three quarters of a mile longer this year - the southern loop from Rhoscolyn followed a slightly different route, so that made me feel a bit better about the day.  Interestingly, Endurancelife gave this year's distance as 33,5 miles and my watch showed 33,3 which is a pretty good correlation; I made the 2015 event 32,6. But somewhat surprisingly they only showed 3,500 ft of ascent whereas I've clocked nearly 5000 ft on both occasions that I've done the race. Maybe that's why they rank it easier than their South Devon event in February, whereas I've always found it harder! Anyway, these are just details to play with after the event. The main thing was that in spite of the conditions, both atmospheric and under foot, it was a good day out and a good start to 2018.

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