Confessions of an Ultramarathon Virgin – by Layton Jones

I’m not sure how it all came about but somehow I entered the Run Walk Crawl Vale Coastal Ultra. Probably down to of my ‘I wonder if ‘ moments, which is usually the case. Up until that moment, the furthest I had run was a ‘Long Half’ at 22.5km but I accepted the challenge and started my training. At best, my training could only be described as hit and miss and plagued by injuries and illness, which did little to ease my anxiety.

But at precisely 8.03am on Saturday 6th of April we set off from the end of Penarth Pier. Once off the pier, it was a relief to be back on hard ground, because standing amongst hundreds of people packed onto a wooden deck suspended above the sea, every little movement was beginning to me to panic (the result of being brought up on a diet of 70’s/80’s disaster movies…)!

This feeling of dread was certainly not helped by the gentleman to my left bouncing like a toddler…

The route started with a gentle climb along The Esplanade and Cliff Hill before joining the Wales Coastal Path. The initially hard tarmac soon gave way to a softer, more forgiving surface (very soft in parts!) before re-joining the road.Once we reached Swanbridge, the route once again became a mixture of soft and firm trails, where the was an opportunity to stretch your legs and take in the views across the bay toward Barry.

This was over too soon and became, what I consider the worst part of the route, the 10km between CP1 at Hayes Road and Harbour Road. The route was predominantly on unremarkable public highway through Barry’s industrial and residential areas, quite a contrast to what had come before and what was to come. The Barry Island loop was a welcome distraction and was quite well supported, which helped raise our spirits.

To ensure that runners weren’t tempted to bypass this section, we were required to get our orienteering cards stamped. The first Control Point was situated near the National Coastwatch Institution (though the punch had broken and we had to make do with dents, not holes, in the card) and the second on the other side of Whitmore Bay at Friar’s Point (this one was intact).

A short stint along through the car park and Harbour Road brought us into Knap Gardens and along the pebble beach to Knap car park, where some savvy runners chose to change from their lighter trail/road shoes into something more suited to the terrain we were about to face.

Then, THAT climb! This brought audible groans from a number of runners, including me but comforted by the knowledge that CP2 awaited us on the other side, we pushed on. This, coupled by a rather spirited dash downhill (my inner 7 year old was unleashed!) through Cliff Woods, which abruptly ended by steep steps which caught a few of us out but got me grinning and excited to what was ahead.

I was met at the bottom of the steps by none other than my wife and children holding a “Go Daddy, Go!” sign and my change bag.

So whilst taking full advantage of the well-stocked and varied selection of refreshments on offer (the “energy drink” turned out to be very weak squash, bleurgh!), I changed from my hybrids which had performed well on the various changes to terrain, but would not have coped with what was ahead – best decision ever! Though, as it turned out, even my more capable Hoka’s were struggling to keep me upright in some parts.

Once fully refreshed and rested, I started off for the next part of the adventure. From here on in it was full trail and thanks to the damp weather in the lead up, very slippery in parts. I loved it. Though at 6’2” and 15st, graceful whilst sliding was something I definitely wasn’t! The next few miles flew past, with spectacular views on offer and the solemn moments where the reminders of war were dotted along the coast.

The crossings over the pebbled beaches filled my fragile ankles with horror. With thoughts of “This is it, this is where it ends” running through my mind I continued, gingerly.Then it was back to business onwards to CP3 and a chance for more snacks and a top-up.

The next section from CP3 (Aberthaw) and CP4 (Llantwit Major Beach) was a combination of open fields and wooded tracks. It was near CP4 that I, and a few others, happened upon a fallen runner. Thankfully we were only about 500m from CP4, so I ran on to alert the marshalls and the emergency crew, who were off like a shot.

I took a moment to re-gather myself and continued onwards. One more pebble-filled beach crossing and I arrived at St Donat’s Castle, where I was greeted by high-fives and jelly babies, courtesy of some Ogmore Phoenix running club members. This was followed by the strangest phenomenon, I could see Nash Point lighthouse in the distance, but I never felt I was getting any closer. Then suddenly it was gone. I’d passed it without noticing.

On my arrival to the nearby carpark, I was met by the most welcome of sights. The ladies of RunNewport were out in force, with bells ringing, some singing, all accompanied by Gaynor Lugg on her ukulele! My flagging spirits were raised, and I couldn’t have more grateful. From here on in, the course was undulating across the fields. But I was reaching my limit.

The furthest I had ever ran to this point and it was beginning to show. I had to adopt a 200m rum/200m walk policy all the way to CP5 at Dunraven Park. After this I struggled to muster much running, my muscles were aching/cramping and even though I’d refilled at CP5, I found myself running low on water again.

The crowd were increasing as the finish approached which I used to keep me going. With 200m to go, I saw my son run out to greet me – I fought as hard as I could to stop me crying like a baby as he took my hand. This was made doubly difficult when my youngest daughter took my other hand. They towed my towards the last 20m where I gathered what little I had left, and “sprinted” (read: fast shuffling) to the finish line.

Done.

Finished.

What an event! Brilliantly organised and executed. The route (other than Barry) was spectacular. We are fortunate to live here in Wales. The scenery change every time you turned a corner. I had to laugh that every time I was building up a head of steam, it was quickly extinguished by a set of steps…Oh, and those stiles! Those hateful stiles! I swear the next one was higher than the last. Joints creaking, muscles complaining we all made it over, before composing ourselves for the next one.

One thing I have learnt: It is entirely possible to be completely hating life and having the time of your life all at once.

Will I do another ultra? Probably.

Will I do this one again? In a heartbeat.

I loved it. I will probably always love it.

But you never forget your first time, do you?

 

By Layton Jones

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