This story starts long before signing up for the Wild Horse 200 South Wales, even before its creation but for now I shall keep that part off these pages.
I had been looking for a multiday event for months, something that didn’t need the house to be re-mortgaged and somewhere that I would love. Step up: Wild Horse. Now, I had never done a 200-mile race before so this would be all sorts of firsts, if I got the green light. I needed to speak to Rhys Jenkins, Race Director and Course Designer to better understand the event. Next, I needed to speak to my coach and running mentor, Damian Hall, to know if it was possible for me. We have worked together for a couple of years, so he knows my ability probably better than I do. The final approval was needed by my long-suffering girlfriend, Michaela. If she said yes to me taking part it would mean she would be taking mantle as crew chief once more. I mean, who doesn’t want to drive across South Wales to remote areas for days at a time waiting for me to come in? (In some circles CREW stands for: cranky runner, endless waiting – which sums up the job pretty well).
Approval granted, next up was: follow the training plan created by the coach; ask people to step up and be part of the support crew; ask for volunteers to pace me through the mountains and forests; recce the route
During the recce runs across South Wales, an area I know reasonably well thanks to my involvement with Limitless Trails (@limitlesstrails), I was accompanied by fellow competitors thanks to a quick Instagram post. It was nice getting to know some of the people I would meet during the race. As I continued to train, continued to talk to other runners on social media, continued to refine the plan and not feeling even close to being ready, I suffered from imposter syndrome. Could I finish? Could I do it within the 120-hour cut off? What if I don’t finish? Why do all the runners look more experienced, stronger and fitter? Why on earth did I sign up for this?
Wednesday 13th April
The alarm goes off. Why is the alarm going off so early?! It’s 0400!
2 hours later I am stood on the start line of the biggest challenge I have ever attempted. With the countdown from Rhys and his Wild Horse team, we are off. A joyful but nervous group of 43 runners. I tell myself to go slow, real slow. There is a long way to go. I shortly found myself in the top 10 and when I say shortly, I mean within the first few minutes…. Sh*t this isn’t part of the plan. I force myself to walk and start chatting with people around me. This works for the next hour or two where I find myself in a group running a nice comfortable pace. Leaving Chepstow and heading towards Monmouth along the Offas Dyke Path.
Enthusiasm and my ability to not stick to plans (more on this to come) finds me in joint first at 25 miles. I link up with fellow runner Ged. We arrive at Checkpoint (CP) 1 about 1130. This is 2 hours ahead of when I predicted I would be there. A quick refuel and I was off again, back on the heels of Ged. We now head onto the Beacons Way and towards the mountains. The route is mildly undulating, constantly changing from forest to fields to paths. I start to get a pain in my hip, a pain I am familiar with, caused by a mountain bike accident years ago. Feeling it this early on, not even at CP2 and under 50 miles in is concerning. I get into the CP in a bad place. I am now questioning myself, thinking dark thoughts about not carrying on, not completing. After a stern talking to, pain killers, full change of clothes and hot food, I head to the highest point of the entire route, Waun Fach. There is no running just power hiking to the top. Trying to play the long game, moving along the route but not pushing too hard. Once at the top, I am a new person, my mood has lifted, the pain subsided and I feel the hunger of finishing. I start running Ged down and also pulling away from Lenka, a Czech Republican runner with a wealth of experience who had been rapidly closing the gap on me.
My poles get stowed and I am off; man am I off. Fresh legged and full of energy. It takes a while but I catch Ged just before the final climb of this section. From here, the route flows and dips all the way to Crickhowell (CP3), arriving at 9pm.
My crew are there waiting, probably expecting a grumpy old man but instead get a jubilant Scotsman bounding down the road. Seeing some of the Limitless Trails crew on home turf in Crickhowell where they are based, definitely gave me a boost.
I pick up my first pacer, Holly, one of the team at Limitless, who is no stranger to pacing me or putting up with my bad jokes. This 19-mile stretch takes us up to CP4 at Talybont. Between bad jokes, long stories and our rendition of Disney songs, the likes that should never be heard again, time passes quickly and gets us into the checkpoint 5 hours ahead of when I predicted I would be. Arriving at CP4 at 3am.
Thursday 14th April
Talybont was a double checkpoint (CP4 & CP5) with a 10 mile loop around the reservoir. Ceri from Limitless Trails takes over from Holly and the decision is made to power hike this loop and use it as a recovery. This would take me to just shy of the half way mark at 6am, 24hours after starting.
With confidence growing, spirit soaring and enough light to no longer need the headtorch, I permitted myself a little fun and stretch of the legs as I headed away from Checkpoint 5. As I ran the first mile or two, I passed 2 fellow competitors, competitors I knew to be 4th and 5th on their way to Checkpoint 4. Third place was at Checkpoint 4 about to head out on the 10-mile loop which meant Lenka was already well into the loop and heading for Checkpoint 5 behind me.
Talybont to Storey Arms, 22 miles that I was not looking forward to. We all have our likes and dislikes when running, flat canal paths and roads are up there on my dislike list but before the canal is 6 miles of hard pack trail on a gentle descent.
Into Brecon and I picked up my next pacer, a fellow Lliswerry Runner Lloyd. I didn’t envy his task of keeping me going on this section, all road!!!
I slowed down, not wanting to have too much impact on my joints, still playing the long game. And this section dragged until the familiar and welcoming site of the Storey Arms and the checkpoint. This meant one thing, back into the hills. Hills make me happy. Yes, I know a weird thing to say but it is true.
Arriving at the checkpoint just before midday, changing my socks and shoes, getting my pack topped up by my crew who were experts at this by now. Other than the banter they were throwing my way about plans, schedules and timekeeping, you wouldn’t have known the amount of logistical reworks and ever changing support plans that were going on behind the scenes just to keep up with me. Lenka comes bounding into the checkpoint. Fresh faced and energetic like she has just run around the block. I am happy she has caught me, I was getting tired of looking over my shoulder
Then she is off, away in front of me. Powering up the hill. Well, at least now I can start to chase Lenka or more realistically, let her disappear into the distance.
Richard, another Lliswerry Runner took over as pacer from here. Following the Beacons way for 22 miles to CP7 at Llanddeusant. It didn’t take long to get into a rhythm and make our way to the summit of Fan Llia to enjoy the fine views into the valleys. Turning round to look back towards Storey Arms I see Lenka behind me… How? What the? Damn!! The game of cat and mouse continues.
Just as Richard and I are descending into Glyntawe we looked left and saw the sea. The excitement was out of this world, we whooped and cheered and ran a bit faster, for a few seconds anyway.
As we climb Fan Brycheiniog, 140 miles into the course sleep deprivation starts to raise its head. As we climb, I have to tell Rich to give me two minutes to sit down. I can feel a slight fuzzy feeling in my head and this isn’t somewhere to push it, a long tumble would be the reward.
Two minutes later, we are back on our feet and off to the checkpoint. We later find out that at the bottom of the descent, in the boulder field which is heinous to cross, Antelope Media had placed motion activated cameras in the trees. Will be a lot of expletives from me!
Finally at CP7 for 8pm it is time for dinner. The helpful staff ask me why feels like a thousand questions. I don’t have the capacity to answer and just say yes please. I still don’t know what I tried to eat.
And now sleep, 143 miles and 40 hours after starting. This is going to be magic……
45 minutes later the alarm is going off, it is now 9pm and time to get going. I tentatively stand up thinking I am going to hurt but I don’t. Another shock, a good one this time.
As I leave the CP I am told Lenka has been and gone about 20 minutes before me…. Here we go again!!
The body is moving well and I am now on the hunt for one persistent Czech lady… standby Lenka, I am coming for you.
I catch Lenka in what can only be described as pea soup conditions on the mountains; thick fog and poor visibility. We work together to get through this section. Once clear of the boulder field, I try to push on, try to finally put some distance between Lenka and I. The trail descends down and out the cloud, onto runnable paths. Time to push, to pick up the pace. That was until I got to Llandyfan where the wheels started to wobble, or more appropriately the legs started to protest. Now running through farmer’s fields, knee high wet grass and then onto road. Ankles and knees were screaming in torture. This section seemed to go on and on and on. Was I hitting my limit? Have I pushed too hard and now going to suffer?
Into a village, damn it isn’t Ammanford, mood getting darker. Out the village and onto more trails then road. Village up ahead… lights…moving cars… village sign… what does it say?! Ammanford. Yes, get in. Almost at the checkpoint. Damn I need to sit down at the checkpoint, to be looked after, to switch off for 20 mins. The road continues… where the f**k is the checkpoint. Now almost out of Ammanford and no sign, have I missed it? No, GPS says I now go right, ooh Tesco, must be there… past Tesco not there, shit! Where is it? I need it to be here! I am hurting. I want the section to be over. Time to pull the phone out, no I’m not calling in, just checking OS Maps. Right, train station, where the chuff is the damn train station then I see it and the crew. I feel emotional, I speed up my hobble. I fight back the body’s want to shed some salty water 😉 It’s 6am, 48 hours into the race and only 40 miles left to complete.
2 legs left to do. 40 miles to cover. After 9 hours through the night running solo I picked up Tony as my new pacer. I tell him it will be a slow start and then we will see what happens. As I get going, happier that I have been looked after and now have company I move well, even start running at times. Then it happens, I start to feel a sharp pain in my left ankle. This is new, this is… holy shit that hurts. No more running on roads for me. Tony works out a pace I need to maintain to hit the target of getting to the next checkpoint by lunchtime. Power hike mode is on. Tony gets to the pace and let’s me stick at it then decides to test the strength of the invisible elastic band between us. He picks up the pace, I pick up the pace, he picks up again and I follow. In my head I am screaming at myself, don’t get dropped, don’t let up, Lenka is just behind me, somewhere. Tony keeps pushing me or rather dragging me along. With half a mile to go to the final checkpoint I ask Tony to run ahead, to get the team ready. Formula 1 pit stop this would not be but I don’t want to waste a second. Who ever said I was competitive? I reach check point 9 around midday, Berni from the Wild Horse Crew is beaming with a huge smile and gives me a hug. My crew are getting everything ready and are being incredible. I am then informed that second place hasn’t reached the previous checkpoint yet. At last, time to relax – or so I thought.
Now my crew are awesome, hands down incredible people but they also know me too well and know the buttons to push. Just as I was getting ready to head back out they happened to inform me that Rhys had predicted the first finisher would be about 60 – 65 hours and he would be peeved if someone went sub-60. Well, hold on, Red rag to the proverbial bull. Here we go. I didn’t need to say anything to Tony, he knew and had already worked out the pace to get in on the 59 hour mark to give me an hour’s buffer and beat this new goal that had been laid down in front of me.
We left the checkpoint with purpose, jogging at first then walking then jogging and repeat. My ankle is screaming at me, my knee is telling me I’m an idiot but my head is in overdrive, telling me to push, to fight.
A saying my coach has; in the first half don’t be an idiot, in the second half, don’t be a coward.
I wasn’t going out without the mother of fights here. The coastal path was kind and relatively flat at first, then the undulations kicked in and my body fought back harder.
6 miles to go and onto the sand. Why is sand so energy sapping?
4 miles and we are into some dunes…Rhys, you are a friend but right now you are a…(I won’t repeat what naughty words were in my head)
2 miles, down onto the final stretch, the last beach. The tide is out, hard pack sand to run on. I try to shuffle run, breathing heavy, clenching my teeth, pain score on my ankle is now 9 and I’m thinking I have done some serious damage but I don’t care, I am going to finish and by damn, I will finish strong.
1 mile to go and we cut off the beach to the track. Why? Why the chuffing hell would you do that? I can feel the anger rise in my head, anger at being slow, taking what seems like an age.
Round the corner, there in front, is the final climb. Half a mile to go and there is another climb?! I can see the finish, they can see me, they know I am close. I top the climb, I thank Tony for what he has done, the type of thing that not everyone needs to hear, a thank you between runners who have connected and just achieved something amazing.
Last bend, concrete road now, tourists are in the way, get out the chuffing way. Past Worms Head Hotel and I can see the flags, I can see Rhys, my crew and spectators. There is the gate, the 200 mile marker.
I feel a renewed energy to run down the slope to the end, fighting back the emotion. I slap the gate, kiss the National Trust sign and turn round to see Rhys in front of me with the biggest grin.
We hug, exchange a few words and then he hands me the coveted belt buckle.
I’m done!! To the amazement of those who know me, I actually cry.
Time for pictures and then to sit down. For a long, long time.
Total time: 58 hours 51 mins
Lead over 2nd place: 8 hours 22 mins
Time ahead of planned schedule: 19 hours 20 mins (sorry Crew!)