WTF is sleet?

Coastal Trail Series

Endurancelife CTS Anglesey

Marathon #8

Saturday 17 January 2015

I’ve had a pretty good recovery in the nearly four weeks since the last marathon; plenty of time to warm up and get over my Portsmouth hypothermia. Xmas and New Year were quiet but I haven’t done a lot of training as Tracy has been having a break from work and we’ve spent a fair bit of time vegging out, eating, drinking, sightseeing and travelling.

With less than two weeks before Anglesey, I went for a long run (35km) on the Thames Path from Maidenhead to Windsor (Long Walk) and back; the weather forecast said it was going to rain in the afternoon, so I set out just after 10:00AM, it started raining almost immediately. The rain was hardest whilst I was at the furthest point of the run, on the Long Walk in Windsor, but it abated for the return leg to Maidenhead. The path was slippery and muddy on the way to Windsor and much worse on the way back, my hips were quite sore by the time I got home (the rain had stopped too!). The next day, I did a 10km tempo towards Cookham; my hips were still a little sore from all the twisting and slipping the previous day but I maintained a reasonable pace as the path was in surprisingly good shape. Later that day, my left hamstring and/or adductor started to get sore, very sore. The next day required ibuprofen, paracetamol and forced rest. On the Saturday before Anglesey, I was still feeling a bit sore so I decided I’d walk at Upton Court parkrun (but I’d not make it that morning due to a flat tyre).

I was feeling under-prepared and over-injured; not the best way to start my 2015 campaign.

The Course

The Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Mon) is situated off the North West coast of Wales. There’s not a lot of protection from inclement weather blowing in from the Irish Sea, so I was nervous when the long range forecast for the course was 3°C with 30knot winds (real feel -4°C) with the possibility of sleet. WTF is sleet? I’m not entirely sure what is or how to dress for it; all I know is that it’s going to be cold, wet and windy on the day. On Wednesday morning, the weather forecast for Saturday was, “Windy with showers around. High 6°C. Low 4°C (real feel -4°C / -6°C) Westerly winds, 30knots.” This was a slight improvement over the long range forecast, but I was still scared of what lay in store for us. By Thursday night, the forecasts had thankfully stopped including words like sleet, snow and hail, but still predicted strong winds with heavy rain.

The course is 43.1km on grass, rock, mud and some road, with +920m of elevation, including journeys up Holyhead Mountain (196m) just after the start and again just before the finish! The organisers rate the course difficulty 3/5 (strenuous). I’m hoping my Altra Lone Peak 2.0 will be up to the task, but as they’re the only off-road shoes I have, they’ll have to do. I bought another long sleeve running shirt so should be able to come up with a suitable combination of clothing to keep warmer, or at least to be warmer than at Portsmouth.

On the last Tuesday night before the event I spent some time reading runners’ blogs from this event last year. There was a common theme, running in the wet and cold has been done before, but not many had expected the wind to be as brutal as it was; stories of runners being blown off the trail were frequent. I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere on the organisers’ website about running through waist-deep water either, but apparently that was a “feature” of the course last year! Several blogs mentioned to pay particular attention at the safety briefing as there are sections of the course where you could get seriously injured (or worse); at a couple of these places there will be mountain rescue forces standing ready in the (likely?) event of an accident!

Getting there

Tracy and I set off on Friday morning for the 4.5 hour drive to Anglesey. Initially we headed up the motorway, which was pretty boring so decided we’d take a detour and head through the Snowdonia National Park on the way — we were glad we did! We’ll definitely be heading back there to spend some more time. Just as we were approaching the end of the park, I glanced sideways out the car and was basically eye-to-eye with the pilot of a RAF jet trainer as (s)he flew by, fast and very, very low in the mountain valleys!

Snowdonia
Snowdonia

Just before dark, we arrived at Yr Hendre B&B and was greeted by our host, Rita. We were shown to our comfortable room and then went out to do some reconnaissance of the start area. Volunteers and staff were setting up the marquees, banners etc not too far from our accommodation, so we headed back to Yr Hendre to drop off the car and then walk to a local pub for dinner. The Boathouse Hotel was on the waterfront, a short walk down the hill from the B&B. The bistro section of the pub wasn’t full when we arrived, but most of the tables were reserved; one large table of women were already in the full swing of a 40th birthday, cackling and shouting and generally drunken behaviour. Luckily, they paid up and left to go into town and the Holyhead nightspot(s) (if they exist?); had they not done so when they did, the hotelier was about to ask them to leave anyway! After they had gone, we and the other diners got eat enjoy meals in peace and quiet. There were a few other runners there, some staying in the hotel accommodation, so a few pleasantries were exchanged; everyone was concerned with the weather. Tracy and I walked home via the town centre (dead quiet and it’s Friday night!) and a few detours eventually arriving back at Yr Hendre.

The next morning was cold and windy, but thankfully dry. I started my usual pre-running day routine of porridge, feet-taping, anti-chafe and filling hydration and nutrition packs and bottles. I still wasn’t exactly sure what to wear so decided I’d start by putting on everything I had and then shedding layers as required before the start. Meanwhile, Tracy went downstairs for her breakfast, I dropped in for a coffee. After a final check, we drove the short distance to the start area. Marshals were diverting traffic to a parking area, but as Tracy was only dropping me off at the start we were allowed through (she stayed until after I had started my event!) The start area was pretty similar to what we had seen at CTS Dorset with a registration tent, a briefing tent and lots of runners milling around; there wasn’t a Clif marquee this time though, much to Tracy’s chagrin as she was going to pilfer some goodies to fuel her day.

The Start

We stood outside the tent and listened to the briefing for the ultras. The organisers did stress a couple of safety issues, but nothing like I had imagined from reading about last year’s event; maybe the conditions weren’t as bad as I was fearing? It was emphasised the wearing of headphones/earbuds (music playing or not) was strictly prohibited in the first mile (as the crowd thins out) and at any time on any road; it was made abundantly clear that if you were caught, you’d be immediately disqualified. It was also made clear there was mandatory equipment which must be carried, otherwise immediate disqualification or be registered DNF. You’d think these instructions simple enough? As it turns out, however…

After their briefing, the ultras were given a moment or two for a wee and to finalise their clothing. They assembled on the start in the early morning light and in the wind-shadow of the mountain at their backs; after a few last words from the race director, the countdown and they were off. Just a few metres from the start was a massive track-wide puddle. Some thought better of getting their feet soaked so soon into the event and formed a queue to skirt around the water, others accepted their feet were going to get wet at some point and now was as good a time as any and ploughed on through. I had decided that when it came to our start, I’d try to keep my feet dry too.

Ultras on the start
Ultras on the start. Doesn’t it look warm?

At our briefing, pretty much the same information was given to us as to the ultras; safety, headphones and music, and mandatory gear requirements. We were also informed that our course had a few minor alterations which made it just slightly shorter than the advertised 27.3 miles, by not-enough-to-worry-about! I had a look around at the slightly smaller field than CTS Dorset but with the similar mix of awesome looking uber-athletes and weekend-huffers. At the briefing, Tracy started talking to a guy, Craig, with whom I’d end up running nearly the entire day (or near); he’d run Comrades and some other awesome events, but as he was now living in London felt unprepared for the hills of these CTS events. As I had done almost no vertical training since CTS Dorset, I was feeling even less-prepared. I stripped off my fourth shirt and zipped up my jacket; there was only going to be one way to find out if I had done enough training…

Pre-marathon briefing
Pre-marathon briefing

I started the event wearing three long sleeved shirts and a water-resistant, wind-proof jacket, thick gloves, buff, beanie under my peaked cap, skins shorts, long tights, compression calf sleeves, mid-length tights and two pairs of socks. I know the “rule” about not trying new things on the day of the event and although I’ve never run wearing two pairs of socks before I was hoping two pair would keep my feet warmer than both CTS Dorset and Portsmouth; I knew the socks would get wet and probably remain wet, I had prioritized warm over dry.

Pre-race selfie
Pre-race selfie. Hopefully, I’ve got enough clothes on to keep warm?

After the briefing, we made our way to the start, just as the ultras had done. The starting area was in the lee of Mount Holyhead, but the breeze was still brisk and chilled. I started imaging what the conditions were going to be like on the other side of the hill and the windward coast, but stopped myself as it wouldn’t be long until I’d find out in person. We received our final encouragement from the race staff and after our countdown, we were off. I skirted around the outside of the first puddle; some chose not to! As we got onto the first real section of road, I looked across and saw Craig running next to me; we’d run together for quite a while and had a pretty good chat along the way.

This first part of the course saw us run along a road (of sorts) towards Anglesey town and then turn back onto a trail which would lead us “around” Mount Holyhead; we’d actually end up scaling about 150m of the 196m. As we came out of the lee of the hill, the wind was brutal! It was consistently strong, but it also buffeted the runners. If you leaned too hard into the wind as you scrambled over the rocks, puddles and trails you’d run the risk of falling flat on your face if there was a sudden abatement, or if you weren’t leaning far enough forwards you’d run the risk of being blown over backwards if there was a sudden gust. The ground was also very wet from recent heavy rains, so in the first few kilometres I saw several runners either lose their footing or get blown over; one guy had a pretty good graze on his knee and quite a bit of blood after just 1.5km (he was tough, he was wearing shorts!). Even though it was cold, it wasn’t long before I had to take my cap off and stuff it into my pocket. I had tried pulling the adjustable strap as tight as I dared to prevent it from being blown off my head, but it did keep blowing off and it also gave me headache, so I just had my beanie over my head and pulled my buff up for a little bit of extra warmth as I needed.

Shelter on Mount Holyhead
Shelter on Mount Holyhead

Everyone had done a pretty good job of sorting themselves out in the first few miles; the contenders were already a long way in front and I was somewhere in the middle of the long line of runners heading uphill into the wind.

There was some spectacular scenery along the course, with old stone buildings, lighthouses, cragged cliffs, bays containing sandy beaches (spoiled by a lot of rubbish in places), beautiful coast-line houses, farm lands (and in the distance, some industry). Fortunately, from the running perspective, it was sunny and dry, but this made point-and-shoot photography a bit hard; I didn’t want to stop too long and play with photo settings on the iPhone, but I still wanted to collect some shots.

Craig (in blue) and I head into CP1, above South Stack
Craig (in blue) and I head into CP1, above South Stack

The first check-point was at about 6.6km, overlooking South Stack. I got my timing chip read, waved at Tracy who saw me there (and loads of other places on the course) and pressed on into the wind. Not long after the checkpoint, we popped out onto a road section. I haven’t run with music in my ears for a really long time, but for some reason, I did a little check to make sure I wasn’t wearing my earbuds as we appeared on the road; an automated response to the safety briefing. Craig and I chatted about road running in winter and black-ice, thankful there was none today like I had experienced at CTS Dorset. The road didn’t go on for too long then we were back in the fields and on the trails along the cliff top. The wind was so fierce that it drove the sea spray up the cliffs, we were getting wet with salt water and sea-foam dotted the countryside. It didn’t matter though as my shoes and socks were already well and truly soaked by now, and had been for some time.

Rugged beauty
Rugged beauty. If you look closely you can see some of the sea spray.

You had to be on your guard as the trail often passed close to the cliff edge. It might not have been as dangerous as the unexploded ordnance and crumbling cliffs of Lulworth Cove, but it was worth paying attention to where you were going!

Pay attention!
Pay attention!

Along the route, we came across expanses of open ground used to graze mainly sheep and horses, but some cattle too. At times, I was not entirely convinced the mud we were running through was necessarily all we thought it was as the bouquet made you think it might have been more manure than anything else? Regardless, you push on, passing the time chatting with those around you and/or admiring the scenery, all whilst trying to concentrate on keeping moving forwards, hydration and nutrition, and following the course markers.

Follow the chevrons... towards beer!
Follow the chevrons… towards beer!

As I passed through 17.5km, the first ultra runner came passed in the opposite direction. They had started about 30 minutes before us, but this front runner was already passing through 29km! He was flying and looked so strong; I looked like a wet bag of rags. The second runner wasn’t too far behind the lead runner and he was flying too; what made me notice the second runner more was the fact he appeared to be wearing earbuds and he was on the road, exactly the situation which the runners at the safety briefing were told would lead to immediate disqualification. I’m not sure what happened, but on Monday as I write this blog, the results for the ultras show a confirmed first finisher, then second, third and fourth positions are “TBC”. Did the second ultra runner get DQ’d? For wearing earbuds?

Foolishly, Tracy and I didn’t have a firm plan where we’d meet to top up my hydration and nutrition. I sort of assumed that we’d meet up near CP3 which is at the furtherest point from the start. As I arrived at the beach near the check-point, I saw Tracy standing on the sand, waving and cheering but she was quite a distance away (taking photos). I gestured to her about my drinks, I couldn’t hear what she was saying over my own puffing and panting but I thought it was something along the lines of they’re in the car and the car is some way off! I grumbled to myself, got checked at the check-point and continued on, wondering how much longer my (now very light) hydration pack would last? By this stage Craig had fallen a little way behind me (maybe he stopped to take more photos than me?) and I was running behind Michelle; she was strong and had great running style, especially on the hills, uphill and downhill. She said to me not to linger too long; I wasn’t sure if she had heard what Tracy had said, or whether she was advising me not to concern myself too long with the hydration issue?

After CP3, we headed inland in a sort of loop. There were sections now which were so muddy that planks had been placed over the worst of it to make some sort of board-walk. Some of the planks had wire stapled to it in order to reduce the chance of slipping, but some of this wire had come adrift and posed a more dangerous trip hazard! After weaving in and out of woods and bogs, we eventually popped out onto a road, and who was there waiting for me with a car-boot full of water and Tailwind nutrition? Tracy, of course!

Out of the woods
Out of the woods

After I’d topped up, I headed along the short road section. Just at the point where we turned off the road into a farmer’s property, a couple who we had met at dinner the previous night appeared onto the road FROM the farmer’s property. They were running the CTS event with their dogs; Tracy had recognised the man from CTS Dorset where he also ran with his dog. It appeared they had taken a wrong turn somewhere and were running this part of the course in the wrong direction!? Two or three other runners had stopped with the couple and their dogs, offering different solutions on how to get back to CP3 and/or whether they should continue; I didn’t see any need to join in, so simply checked everyone was OK and kept going into the farmer’s property. (I don’t know if the couple and their dogs finished?)

Of course, a loop in the course means we end up at a point we’ve already passed through, but, something was “different” about the section of course we’d already run along. If we had a headwind on the way out, how can we have a headwind on the way back? Damn Murphy and his laws! We ran through a little section of Welsh suburbia, up a small incline which was into the wind, but the hill was shielding you from the worst of it. As we crested the hill and started down the other side, the wind was so strong and tunnelled between the houses that you could barely walk! This was at about 30km and I was starting to cramp; nothing too significant but it did irritate me as I was so careful about my pace at the start and I had been drinking plenty of my Tailwind (even supplemented with some extra electrolytes and salts). I was sweating, but not as profusely as I know I can sweat, and yet again at around the same point as previous events, I start to cramp! My inability to prevent cramp played on my mind for quite a while; happily, my grumpiness helped the miles pass.

30km. Into the wind.  Cramp.
30km. Into the wind. Cramp.

For about 5km of the journey towards the start we followed the same course as the outwards journey. At the 32km checkpoint (CP4, or more correctly CP2 revisited) we turned away the coast and headed inland. As I left CP4, I saw Craig just up ahead and put in a little effort to rejoin him. He passed me when I was refilling my hydration pack. He said he was travelling ok but was feeling a bit fatigued and was going to run/walk to the finish; I said I was cramping and would run when I could, walk when I had to. This section was a lot more agricultural, with hills and valleys, muddy paddocks, steps, gates and walls, all the time running back towards Mount Hollyhead which we could see growing larger as we drew closer. CP4 was also where our course and the half-marathon course joined, so now there was a lot more pairs of feet ripping up the soft ground, and queuing at each obstacle.

Marathon, or obstacle course?
Marathon, or obstacle course?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I crossed a paddock into a farm courtyard which was the last of the paddocks, but not the last of the mud. A couple of horses bewilderedly looked out of their barn stall into the courtyard as I passed, I could swear they were trying hard not to laugh at me as I hobbled through the shit and mud. A marshal was there to guide the runners out of the farm and onto the road… and up Mount Holyhead. The lower section of the hill was ok as there was a distinct path with definite foot placemarks, but as you climbed higher the path and footholds became less obvious. There were a few half-marathoners in front of me who thought they might have been racing and just wouldn’t let any one pass, easily. Another pair were obviously a couple and were having a distinct difference of opinion as they ascended! (Craig was now a few minutes in front of me; chatting afterwards he had mentioned that couple were arguing when he passed them before me!) With cramp and fatigue now kicking in, good decisions were becoming harder to make, meaning more frequent stops to ascertain the best place to put your feet in the next few metres of the climb. Luckily, the hardest parts of the ascent were in the lee of the hill and the wind wasn’t too harsh, but as soon as we approached the summit, the winds were there, ready to knock you back down the hill if you weren’t ready for them. All day, the volunteer men and women of the local rescue forces had been out and about on the course; I felt most strongly for the three at the summit who had spent the entire day in the howling breeze. I gave each a hi-5 on the way through, and stopped to take a photo from the summit.

One of our safety sentinels
One of our safety sentinels

Just as I was taking the photo of one our heroic safety marshals, I noticed a small sign in amongst the rocks. It’s was the sign every runner was keeping a special lookout for. “We’re in the home stretch now,” I thought. “All I have to do is get back down to sea level.”

Yeah baby!
Yeah baby!

The descent was brutal! The chalky rocks were unstable, the wind buffeting. Fatigued runners in front of you, less fatigued runners approaching quickly from behind (where the hell did he come from?) On the last few hundred metres of the course, I caught up with “that bloke in the black shorts”. We had been seeing each other all day, but had hardly spoken except to offer a few words of encouragement here and there. I thought it a suitable finish that I should cross the line with him as we had separately shared everything and nothing of the day; Adrian tagged in at the finish, then me. 5:11:44 for the 42.2km (Garmin distance). I came out of the finishing gate to see Craig chatting with Tracy, and my warm, dry jacket.

At the finish
At the finish

All-in-all, I was pretty happy with my work. I was peeved I cramped, but there wasn’t much else I could do on the course. I was pretty happy with my pacing, I felt restrained and didn’t go out too hard, too soon. Mentally, I liked my new mantra, “Run when I can, walk when I have to.” I had no lingering ear-worms today. My feet took a pounding though.

I might lose some toenails?
I might lose some toenails?

Craig walked with Tracy and I back to the carpark where we said our farewells. Tracy drove me back to the B&B where the zero water pressure shower was thankfully hot, a chocolate bar and hot chocolate. After a brief rest, we went for a walk into town to find somewhere for dinner and eventually ended back at The Boathouse Hotel where we had dinner the night before. This time, in the absence of the cackling drunken women, the bistro was much quieter; a suitable surrounding to relax with my t-shirt, bling, pint and dinner.

Finished now!
Finished now!

Aftermath

Sunday : My toes were still sore, but otherwise I felt as good as can be expected. My legs were a little tight and tender, but a short walk down the stairs to breakfast and back up to the room again got things moving, a couple more trips up and down the stairs before climbing in the car to drive home, via Chester, helped more.

Monday : Things feel pretty good. Still a little stiff in the hamstrings and quads, but I walked the 4km with Tracy to her work and back without too much difficulty.