The EnduranceLife Coastal Series: Gower was to be my second ultra marathon since SBU35 in August. As the distance was the same it made sense to attack this race next rather then trying to complete a longer distance.
People are often curious why anyone would want to run ultra marathons and if you ask any ultra runner from a seasoned runner to a first timer reasons, vary from wanting to win right through to wanting to complete something that appears to be completely impossible and downright bonkers. Here are my reasons:-
- The friendly atmosphere and the people you meet
- The scenery
- The immense sense of achievement
- The memories
- The fact that I’m racing against myself and usually the aim is to simply complete the route in one piece
- It gives me an opportunity to take photos along the way
I’ve found that when running 10K races or Half Marathons – and I’m sure Marathons are the same – I can’t help but keep aiming for a PB. I can’t seem to just turn up and run for pleasure or if I do try, I quickly turn competitive. I’ve found ultras to be different. The terrain and conditions are so varied it’s usually not possible to compare two different races so there’s no point in aiming for a specific time. I also found this on the Bath Very Long Half Marathon which was around 16 miles of roads, tracks, and fields. Sure, you may have a rough idea of when you’d want to finish the race (I had a time of 7 hours in mind) but along the way I quickly decided that I wasn’t going to rush to get under that time, I was just going to give it my best.
Even though I live around 90 minutes from Rhossili, I booked a Travelodge on the M4 so that I would only have to travel 40 minutes to the start line. I set numerous alarms to wake me up around 5am although when you are as excited as a six-year-old on Christmas morning, there was no chance of me not getting up in time.
I was up before 5am and triple checked that I had everything I needed and made some oatmeal, coffee and mixed a SiS tablet with water to get some electrolytes inside me. It was going to take around 40-45 minutes to get to Rhossili so I set off at 0630 to make sure that I could get a good space in the car park and camp in the toilet to try and minimise any risk of succumbing to the dreaded ‘runner’s trots’!
Arriving early was a wise idea. Registration opened at 0730 and was a quick process of getting a number, timing chip, t-shirt and some Clif freebies but with the marathon runners starting not long after the ultra runners and with a lot more entering that race, registration queues quickly built up.
I had been checking the weather religiously leading up to the race and the overnight rain was due to stop about 30 minutes before the race was due to start and surprisingly, a few rays of sunshine started to break through the clouds as we were assembled at the start line.
Leaving the start we were funneled down a narrow path that took a little while to navigate through due to people trying to navigate around a large puddle. If only we knew what the conditions were going to be like further around the route!
Leaving Rhossili you head up the Down for the first climb and one of the largest on the route. Wisely everyone walked up this section and I was wasn’t the first person to get the phone out to start taking photos of the view back to the start. Having walked this section in the past I knew what to expect which was a flat section followed by another hill and then a big descent into Hillend Caravan Park.
Shortly along the flat stretch a group of Gower Ponies dashed across the Down which made an excellent shot with mist still lingering in the distance.
Luckily the descent, which can be tricky when wet, wasn’t too waterlogged so I made it down in one piece. I would be revisiting the descent at around mile 28 when my legs would be tired so may be more of a struggle.
At the base of the descent you run on a tarmac section through the caravan park and out onto a sandy trail that leads to Rhossili Bay. The sand here is fairly compact so running on it doesn’t pose any problems although there was a stream to cross which meant wet feet early into the race.
Checkpoint 1 is located at the base of Llanmadoc Hill – the second big climb of the route. I had already done some planning so before reaching the station I used one of my TORQ shandy energy gels with the hope that it give me a little boost up the hill.
The checkpoint consisted of a timing point and water, crisps, custard creams and jelly babies. The checkpoint is only around 6 miles in so I hadn’t consumed much water so just grabbed a custard cream and headed up a very misty Llanmadoc Hill. This section was becoming muddy but most sections were easy to avoid.
The route between Checkpoint 2 and 3 headed diagonally south west along Llanmadoc Hill, down and back up Ryer’s Down and down and back up Cefn Bryn. The mist lingered for the entire time along this section making photographs look eerie. The sections between each of the hills were extremely muddy in parts and a lack of concentration and relying on following others meant heading in the wrong direction with around 10 other runners. Luckily we just ended up in the wrong corner of the field but the fact that there were so many of us meant that too many of us were relying on someone else for navigation.
Descending into Checkpoint 2 located at Nicholston the weather was improving and the views into the Oxwich Bay warranted slowing down to take some photos. I said to another runner taking photos that being able to take photos of scenery was one of the reasons for tackling an ultra. His reply – ‘well, we don’t do it for the running!’.
Like Checkpoint 1, I didn’t spend long here, just enough time to fill one of my bottles and grab a couple of custard creams. Leaving Checkpoint 2 I headed down through Nicholston Woods and out into Nicholston Burrows which was a tough section of sand dunes to trudge through. Thankfully this section didn’t last long the route headed out onto Oxwich Bay. The sand was a lot flatter but was slightly moist which made it tiring to run the 2km or so across the bay.
Leaving Oxwich Bay you descend out along a road before going back off-road and up steps, lots and and lots of steps. Just what the legs needed! The path winds through woods alongside the coast with occasional views back towards Oxwich Bay. This section was one of the few where I was truly running alone with nobody in front or behind me for a good few hundred metres.
This section of the route leads towards Port-Eynon and I was encountering an increasing amount of walkers who were all very supportive. After running alone words of encouragement work wonders for your motivation.
Port-Eynon involved more beach running which again was difficult but not as difficult as the Oxwich Bay section. The third checkpoint was positioned in the far western corner of the beach.
I used this checkpoint mainly to refill water and grab a few ready salted crisps. I did grab another custard creams but at this point biscuits were proving difficult to eat. I chose to stick with my mints, jelly babies and Clif Shot Bloks. Each checkpoint had a sign which would indicate the next checkpoint/feed station for both marathon and ultra runners. Marathon runners would be finishing in around 7 miles but the next for ultra runners would be over 11 miles. As you’d have to pass through the finish line there was an opportunity to grab something there before attacking the last section.
Leaving Checkpoint 3 I started to find things tough. There were plenty of ascents and descents to contend with and I was finding myself walking a lot more. A team of 70 Dutch runners had travelled over to enter the different distances so their friends and relatives were spending the spare time walking along the coast and they did an excellent job of encouraging all runners.
Knowing that at mile 27/28 I would have to pass the finish line my mind was doing its hardest to convince me that quitting at that point would be the perfect idea and I was considering it but there was no way that I could come this far and pull out. I didn’t have any injuries so all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what speed, and make it to the end.
Near the finish line I was so desperate for some liquid sugar rather than just water so stopped at the car for a Lucozade fix and then headed towards Rhossili Down for the second time. As the race analysis shows below, I found the climb a real struggle the second time around. I wasn’t alone though and the others near me also struggled. The descent down to Hillend Caravan Park was a killer with my quads Getting a good battering.
Instead of turning into the caravan park like the first time, the route bears to the right and along the other side of the Down. On my recce run a couple of weeks I had run along this section without any difficulties but the overnight rain had turned the already sketchy path into a bog full of mud and water. With the sides of the path consisting of ferns on uneven ground you had no choice but to squelch your way through for around 2km. My feet were soaked and freezing by the time I completed this tough section. This was truly a ‘character-building’ section of the race.
After a long, hard trudge through the boggy Down, it was a welcome relief to see the checkpoint in the distance on solid ground. A refill of the water bottles and I was good to go again. As I was just about to leave another runner arrived and asked how far we had left to go. When told we had around 3 miles to go he remarked with a smile that there was only a parkrun left to go! Sure, but it was going to be the toughest parkrun I’ve ever run!
A short distance after the checkpoint you rejoin the coast path that we ran along in the latter stage of the marathon route which meant a good few more climbs including the one out of Worm’s Head. It was getting closer to 4pm as I neared Worm’s Head and the sun was starting to set bathing the scenery in a warm glow. Perfect conditions for taking the last few shots of the coast.
The first time I had climbed out of Worm’s Head on the marathon route I walked a large section of the final mile to the start/finish line but this time I decided that I was going to make an effort and run the entire distance rather than walking to the finish line and running across it. I focused on the finish line in the distance and concentrated on moving one leg in front of the other determined to make run to the end.
The end of the route takes you around the edge of a field before double backing on yourself to cross the line. I couldn’t have timed the finish any better. The sun was setting behind the finish line and a small crowd were cheering the runners across the line.
It’s difficult to describe the emotions as you cross the line. First, there’s the relief that you can finally stop running, then there’s an immense sense of achievement that you stuck it out to end and the weeks of training and long weekend runs had paid off. Sure, there’s the pain, but the sense of elation far outweighs what your muscles are feeling.
Running alone can be so difficult and it’s incredibly challenging to tell your mind and body that you are going to complete this race when its trying its hardest to convince you to quit. In the latter stages you are telling yourself that ultras are too tough and you are never going to run another race like this but it’s surprising how quickly after completing the race that you switch to convincing yourself that the next race will be easier!
Race Route and Profile
Should You Run This Race
The simple answer is yes. I have listed some pros and cons below but running around the Gower, whatever distance you choose, is something so memorable, particularly if you are fortunate to have good weather.
- Simply stunning scenery. It’s clear to see why this area was designated as the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK.
- Well sign posted and marshalled at key spots such as busy roads.
- The friendly people that you meet on ultra races
- The feed stations I encountered on my first ultra (SBU35) were very well stocked with different drinks and hot and cold food. I felt the feed stations here were very limited and I heard a report from one runner of stations running low or out of items towards the end of the race.
- The medal appeared to be the same for everyone which some, myself included, were disappointed with. The medal was quite basic and the least they could have done was to have different ribbons on each medal.
The cons are quite subjective and I was basing them on past, albeit limited, experience and the amount I paid to enter (£60). The most important part is that it was well organised (it was difficult for anyone to get lost) and took part in one of the most scenic parts of the UK.