In the weeks leading up to The Beer Ultra people would always give you a funny look when you would say that you are running a 50K ultra AND drinking beer at the same time. I don’t blame them. It’s hard enough running 50K let alone throwing a Saturday night session into the mix.
The week prior to the Beer Ultra I attempted the 100K Race to the Stones race in Wiltshire but due to a variety of reasons including dehydration and a knee problem, I had to pull out just short of 50 miles. I wouldn’t usually want to attempt two ultras in consecutive weekends but the lure of a Beer Ultra was too strong for me to resist and despite continuing issues with my knee and general fatigue I was determined to complete the race.
This was a difficult race to prepare for and I had no idea how it was going to pan out. With each loop being 5K you didn’t really need to take anything with you along the way but what about between loops? Would beer be enough? What about other fluids and snacks? What would be provided? It was difficult to know so I went prepared with a variety of food such as Fish ‘n Chips crisps, Soreen, a bacon and cheese bake from Greggs and some cold chips from the Chinese (usually taste good the next day but didn’t work at all!). I also brought my Salomon Soft Flasks filled with SiS electrolytes just incase.
Before the race, the organisers informed everyone that we would be surprised how far we would get on the calories and water in the beer alone. We’ll soon see.
The race was being held on a farm nestled in a valley between the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk to the north and the Cardiff County border to the south. The route consisted of two separate 5K-ish loops with the farm being used as a base. Before arriving at the race I presumed that it would be 10 loops of the same route but it was a welcome discovery knowing that there would be some variation.
The first loop heading south from the farm up a steep hill and then east to follow a ridgeway path that offered views right across the Severn Estuary. You then descend through Coed Coesau-whips, a section of woodland that is home to a World War II bunker, although you don’t run near it. This downhill section would prove the most trickiest with loose rocks, muddy ditches and slopes that were guaranteed to deteriorate over the course of the race.
Just over halfway around the anti-clockwise loop, the route joins the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk and a steep climb through Coed Cefn-onn then drops down to a farm and the road that descends sharply to the farm.
The second loop retraces the end of loop one and climbs up the very steep hill to the farm then heads west back along the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk passing alongside a disused quarry and through wooded sections. Technical and muddy sections add some spice to the route and a very muddy section was trying its hardest to suck off shoes as runners gingerly tip-toed through it. A long descent down a few dozen steps proved to be taxing on the quads and the rain made the wooden edges slippery.
At the bottom of the steps you pass an air shaft which I only later learned was a sign of the railway tunnel beneath your feet. According to the OS Map for the area, the air shaft is no disused and others further north are in use.
Before reaching the lane that leads back to the farm the route turns off to follow a very steep track that runs parallel to the road. The possibility of the race director taking photos near the top meant being alert in case you had to switch from walking to running (nobody wants to be photographed walking!).
The top of the track joins the lane which then climbs then descends back to the farm. The total distance for the both loops was just slightly over 10K and over 5000ft of ascent.
Heavy rain greeted the runners as they arrived at the farm and with everyone kitted up for a soggy race, the clouds cleared to reveal some blue sky just as were were about to open our first can. Apart from a couple of heavy showers throughout the day, the weather was largely kind to us.
We were all issued with a numbered cup to deposit our empty ring pulls into. This would be how the race organisers would track the number of laps and beers consumed. The cans had a 360 ring pull which allowed for quicker drinking should you have the stomach to do so. As the first beer went down I was instantly reminded of the Beer Mile and the shock that you body gets when you gulp down a large amount of beer. Heading out the trick was to burp out as much gas as possible.
The organisers had run out of time whilst marking the loops and had only completed loop 2 so the first loop was taken at a much slower pace so that markers could be periodically placed. This was a good way of familiarising ourselves with the type of terrain we would be faced with (plenty of mud due to rain).
Arriving back after the first lap the race truly started with some wasting no time in polishing off their beers. I wasn’t as quick as some and the second beer was no easier than the first. Whilst drinking the second beer I could sense something in my mouth and figured a piece off the tree above had fallen into the wide opening on the can. I fished around inside my mouth only to pull out a now dead wasp. The wasp’s sting was stuck in my lower lip which immediately caused me concern as I had once had a bad reaction to a wasp sting as a child. Thankfully a fully trained paramedic was on-site and even though I experienced some swelling I was fine.
Gas, gas, gas!
Exiting the farm involved trying to expel as much gas as possible, and from either end! I wasn’t in a hurry so whilst the leaders sped off I took it easy and power hiked my way back up the steep road leading towards the turning point in loop 2. Each beer was always a struggle to drink and with each lap I found myself chatting more so taking longer to drink. The race director was always on hand to give you a prod and remind you that this was the Beer Ultra and the laps weren’t going to run themselves.
The constant ups and downs were taking their toll on and around the 5th lap some cramping was appearing in my calves so I knew I needed to get some salt in me. I didn’t want a repeat of Race to the Stones! I took on some salt caps and crisps which appeared to help but by the 7th and 8th laps my legs were getting tired. I started carrying a soft flask with me with some electrolytes to help keep me hydrated and planned to use the two bottles over the next two laps.
A Second Wind?
During the 9th beer I took a moment to sit down eat some more salt and vinegar crisps and delicious brownies from M&S that the organisers had picked up. I got out my headphones to provide some stimulation and departed from my penultimate lap and final lap of loop 1. I’m not sure what did the trick but my legs felt fine and I felt comfortable running. Perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was knowing the finish was nearly in sight or perhaps the beer was finally kicking in!
Leaving the farm for my final lap I could see some mean looking rain clouds rolling my way. I was hoping to complete the loop before barely half way around I was getting a drenching. The wooded sections on this loop were becoming increasingly darker due to the thick tree canopy but the technical descents still had plenty of light. I didn’t want to have a fall on the last lap so was extra cautious descending the now extremely slippery steps. There was just a long climb left and an easy run into the farm.
I initially thought that there would be 10 beers to drink and you brought the 11th to celebrate with but along the way it became apparent that you had to drink an 11th beer after arriving at the finish and the clock would only stop once finished. I relaxed a bit too early and only when reminded did I chug the last few mouthfuls to finish in exactly 8 hours.
The awesome Guillaume Arthus from RunnExplorer who flew over from France for the event took a video of the race.
The Beer Ultra is designed to be a social event where runners get together, drink beer and have fun and that’s what it was. There was a winner although not in the true sense as everyone was a winner for completing the tough course whilst drinking so much beer.
It was such a fun day, I got to meet amazing, inspiring ultrarunners and had beer along the way. I’m not sure when the next one is but I’d be tempted to run it again.
Thanks to Andy Nuttall from ULTRA magazine for the pro shots in this post.