It has been a while since I finished the Ring of Fire (a 135-mile foot race around the Isle of Anglesey), pretty much 2 months. I have been putting off writing a blog about it, and I think it is because I don’t think I can do the whole experience justice with my writing ability, but I have forced myself into my study tonight, and I have just committed to getting it done.
Below is a blog post about my experience of winning the Anglesey Ring of Fire 2016.
Training for this race was gruelling, but awesome. Clocking up 120+ mile training weeks for the first time was a heck of an achievement. Over 15 hours of running time, journeying out for long runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to emulate the nature of this 3-day beast. After my previous podium finish in the 100km race I knew I had the stamina for one day, but considering this wasn’t even half of the total of this race, I was somewhat petrified. I trained A LOT on the Isle of Anglesey, I reccied pretty much the whole course (give or take) under the assumption that getting lost is what is going to lose me the most time in the race. Looking back now the training days I did were absolutely mental, I remember one Sunday being a 55km run followed by a walk up Snowdon. In my head at the time I still thought of myself as ‘not quite fit enough’, but looking back now I can’t fathom repeating that monumental day of training.
The start of the weekend
The race started on the Friday afternoon(56km), then the whole of Saturday (106km) then finished on Sunday (54km). I had convinced myself that I had a glute injury which was going to prevent me from completing the race, I was sure I wasn’t going to make it. Buying all the resources and equipment necessary whilst back in the mind thinking ‘I won’t get far enough to need that’. So much so that the night before I had a fantastic night’s sleep due to the fact I was sure I would pull out. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about letting everybody down who had donated money towards the two charities I was running for. I went down on the Thursday with a good friend, who was going to be my ‘crew’ along with another friend and my dad. My mum was going to be team cook, as she knew exactly what kind of vegan food I liked to fuel on. I was staying at our bungalow by the beach in Rhosneigr through the weekend, a safe-haven amongst the hell….
The race begins
A flyover from the red arrows (they are based on Anglesey) 5 minutes before the start of the race turned the anticipation up a few notches. And amongst all the calm of the beginning it began, and we set off in a clockwise fashion from Holyhead Breakwater Park towards Amwllch, where we would finish the first day. My legs felt like crap, I hadn’t run in a few days and so they felt heavy and stiff. Unexpectedly it got hot, which isn’t fantastic when you are trying to reserve your energy and your hydration levels, concerns over cramping rose because that could have a significant impact upon your fatigue levels over the 3 days. The first day was about finishing feeling fresh without burning out too much for the big second day, well that was the plan anyway.
First 20-30km went as planned, I moved up the field (100 participants), ticking each person off one by one, allowing my competitive edge to just get the better of me, when I was realised I was now in 2nd place, however first place was a good way ahead of me. My crew were ready at each stop to swap rucksacks and fuel me with the perfect running food….. peanut butter sandwiches! They looked to be enjoying themselves on what was a beautiful day in Rhosneigr. The last 20km of this first day is difficult. Undulating and unforgivingly steep hills, stopping your rhythm in Jurassic like scenery. It is a quite amazing part of Anglesey, (the bit from Church Bay to Amlwch) and certainly worth a walk, (maybe pass on running it though!) By the end of the day I had pretty much melted, dehydration had got the better of me, a pain in my right knee was becoming apparent and I was beginning to feel sick. How on earth was I going to be able to finish the 2nd day? I finished the first day in 3rd place (having took one wrong turning) feeling shattered. I set off home, refuelled and rehydrated, but more importantly sat and had a great time with my friends and family. My final friend arrived that evening, and after hearing my positon, he commented ‘I have come this weekend to help you win’, we laughed it off at the time as if he were kidding…
I woke up the 2nd day legs feeling fresher than the previous day, and due to my ability to eat huge quantities of food (never mind when ‘rungry’) I was full to the brim with energy. I met the rest of the runners, and before we knew it we had set off. The weather was predicted to get quite bad throughout the day, so the plan was to set off with the same mindset of when I had previously ran 100km in one day. Don’t get ahead of myself, and just tick away. It so happened that I was joined with the same idea by 1st and 2nd place. We, as a 3 set off heading towards Red Wharf Bay (about 30-40km away), the sun was rising. The conditions were fine at this point; it was almost an idyllic atmosphere.
We were quite a friendly lead pack initially sharing experiences, and enjoying each other’s company (these things can get quite lonely) before the pain sank in. There was no need to be racing at this point, with such a brutal amount of distance left in the day. One of the runners dropped his pace a little leaving me and the race leader to run at the front of the pack. We both discussed our slight injuries, we both had complaining knees. I was feeling good at this point, and after the first checkpoint I started to realise that the leader was struggling to keep up with my pace. She realised after a while that I was following her as it was the only part of the race I hadn’t done in training, and after guiding me down a couple of tricky routes she stated ‘If you are going to beat me, then you are going to have to navigate yourself’, a fair point and off I went into first place. The first time I have ever lead a race like this, and I started steaming ahead, but the weather was beginning to turn.
At Penmon Point I met my friends, drenched but feeling great, my knee was hurting a bit, but it wasn’t bothering me at all. My friends told me I was about 30 minutes ahead of the rest of the pack and that yesterday’s first place had pulled out, I was convinced that she was going to win this race, but now she was out of it, I had my first glimmer of hope that I could actually win this race….wait a second, I could actually win a 135 mile race ?!? I was just trying to finish the thing
And so, this became my race mantra…
‘ Stay ahead of 2nd place for your dear life, do not let him see you, be around every corner before they see you. You never know when you are going to have this opportunity so do not mess it up’
I hit half way through the 2nd day feeling good, soaked to the bone but positive, a couple of friends had planned to meet me at Anglesey Sea zoo about 70km into the 2nd day, so in my head I just needed to make that point and not let them down. And then my knee began to hurt more and more, the undulations seemed to wreck my IT band, and the pain started to become ever more present in my thought process, becoming more and more difficult to ignore, but still I ploughed on.
I was beginning to fatigue, my crew was trying to help and I just couldn’t take in what they were saying, almost like they were annoying me, a bit like that feeling when your training hard and when someone tries to talk to you, you hate them just a little. I could tell I was tiring because my focus was going and my conversation was becoming weak with my crew. But still I plodded on, lengthening the gap on the rest of the race, with the weather getting worse and worse. It was point blank horrendous. I can handle the weather but the wind and rain was unbearable. Fully flooded shoes and clothes sodden. But still I chopped away the miles. About 1 km before Sea Zoo I had started to walk more and more as my knee tightened on me. I was beginning to panic, I still had over 30km left in the day, and another 50 the day after. I needed a boost, and when I looked into the distance of a drenched path there was a nutter in jeans and a hoodie running towards me. He was drenched, I instantly recognised him to be my good mate who had been waiting at the sea zoo. He saw me and shouted ‘ I haven’t come here in the pissing down weather to watch you walk!’ and so we ran to the checkpoint, meeting his wife and kid and my crew. I knew there was trouble around the corner as I left the checkpoint…
I turned down the stretch and tried running, my knee gave way on me and I went straight to the floor, I was about 20 metres away from my crew, but they couldn’t see me. I felt helpless, I was leading a race and I couldn’t run, I was over with! My crew soon drove past and got straight out, changed my clothes, put several paracetamols in me and just kept me moving. I had built a lead big enough that I could walk. I wanted to give in, but my crew never let me think that way, they just pushed me on my way, as I started hobbling down a beach front with massive winds in my face and rain I began to cry. But I kept moving forwards. Another few km down the road my crew had to force me to keep moving as my knee just wasn’t letting me move properly. I remember crying (again!) on my dad’s shoulder. I just didn’t want to let him down, he told me that I needed to finish this day no matter how long it took.
My crew forewarned me that I was going to get took over, and left me to meet me a couple of miles down the road near Newborough Forest. A remember feeling the softer terrain on my feet. Walking was no longer painful for me, and I thought to myself of the books I had read previous of Scott Jurek running through a near broken ankle, and Dean Carnazes searching for the pain, I made a sudden realisation that this was no longer a challenge, walking was too easy, and I was looking for an ultra-experience, and for that I needed to find it tough. So I started running, just trying to get to 10 right steps, then walk again, then 20 steps then walk again. Soon I was running 600 right steps without stopping. I saw my dad about 500m ahead when I hit the beach on Newborough Forest, and I remember him almost in shock to see me running, and so was I. How was I doing this?? I couldn’t stop though because every time I did, I seized up and it took another 10 minutes to get loose enough to run, my lead had reduced to about 2 minutes, but I started moving away again.
Almost fittingly the weather turned for the better as I grinded the last 10km or so out in a respectable time, I remember seeing my dad on Aberfraw beach, and just being so happy to see him, I hadn’t let him down, in fact I had stretched my lead to 15 minutes for the final day. We went home drenched, but with an ever so slight glimmer of hope. Although I had no idea how I was going to run the next day.
The final Day
I woke up and couldn’t walk, took several pain killers, had an intense stretching session with my dad and braved it to the start line. I got a massage and although I just couldn’t trust my leg, any time it cooled down it stiffened, I just had to keep moving.
My battle plan was simple, go out as hard as you can and hold on to the lead, for my own mindset leading the race was a much better place to be. This day I knew best, starting in Aberfraw and finishing in Holyhead, the first part of the section I had ran many times before and made the first checkpoint nearly before the race organisers did to my own surprise. About another `8km down the road, my knee once again went on me, every part of me was willing me to move forwards as now the race was on, I starting feeling those exciting feelings of racing again, unlike the other two days. It was game on, but I couldn’t move my leg, fortunately around the corner were my two mates and I got them straight onto massaging my leg, and loosening it up. It worked, and this became the tactic, my crew would meet me whenever they could, and loosen my leg off, then I would run as far as I could. The mini-breaks/ run tactic was much better than slowing down to a near stumble!
I managed to keep my pace up and keep pushing forwards, although I just couldn’t trust any step going forwards. My mindset was solid, those who know me best know I can be horribly competitive, mostly to my own detriment in performance and mostly pride, but this time it was working in my favour, I had the victory in my hands and I was not letting my grip loosen in any way whatsoever. Being in the lead and not seeing any other competitors is like being on the run from the police (I assume), you are constantly looking over your shoulder and have a feeling of extreme paranoia.
The next few hours were just grinding through the kms, not thinking too far ahead and pushing as hard as I could, not letting the pain leave the experience, ‘it must feel ultra’. I felt sick, fatigued, sweating a lot, I couldn’t eat anymore, I was forcing calories down myself. It was difficult to say the least.
I ploughed on until I saw my friends about 6 km before the finish, I was convinced the other racers were on my shoulder, but they told me I was about 30 minutes ahead of 2nd place. This is when it finally sunk in that I was going to win this race, I had a hard climb to come up Holyhead mountain, but nobody is running up it. I remember seeing my dad about a mile before the finish, and that was a nice moment. It was just us 2 at the final mini-checkpoint, we didn’t say much to each other, but it is a moment I will always remember about this experience.
And so I carried on right until the finish of the race, I had won the ring of fire 2016, I had won!
It was an almost anti-climactic feeling upon finishing, as these intense emotions (I think used for survival) gradually leave your state of mind. I sat there with a beer and pack of hula hoops and tried to take in what I had accomplished, still right now I don’t have a clue. I had to wait for a good while before the award ceremony, I was beginning to feel worse and worse, I am not one to enjoy the spotlight, so was happy to see the back end of things like this, although the beer was appreciated. I didn’t run this for the plaudits.
The next day I couldn’t get out bed. The next week I still couldn’t walk properly, the swelling on my legs was disgraceful, especially in the knee that was injured. It took a good month before I could run again. Although I won the race it well and truly chewed me up and spat me out. I am so proud of what I achieved, I am seriously considering whether I will run another ultra. I have been treating myself the last month or 2 and now it is time to get myself back into some good nick!
I want to finish this blog thanking all of my crew for helping me. They know how amazing they were, and any words written now won’t do them any justice. I hope they took away some experiences they will remember. I also want to thank everybody that donated on my just giving page, in the times of pure agony, you were a major reason that pushed me forwards.