Written by Paul Ali - https://ultraavon.com
After a dream race at the Liverpool Leeds Canal race (link here) there was only one way race results could go and this is a brief report on my DNF at the Lon Las Ultra.
This was a new event on the Ultra running calendar put on by Cockbain events. The event involved a 253 mile run/walk/crawl across Wales starting from Holyhead in Anglesey and all the way ‘down’ to Cardiff following the Sustran Route 8. The event had limited support with competitors having access to water supplies every 25 miles and access to their drop bags every 50 miles. Between these points runners should be self-sufficient although purchasing supplies en-route was allowed.
I had about six weeks from the LLCR to this event and after having a full weeks rest put in 4 training weeks of around 75 miles each week although I backed off the training in weeks 3 and 4 as my legs weren’t feeling totally fresh. This gave me about 10 days taper where I brought the mileage right down. I had made a particular effort to include some hill reps each week with the course profile for Lon Las described as ‘undulating’ with a few peaks. The course profile for Lon Las showed around 18,000 foot of elevation. Although over 253 miles you could argue that this was pretty flat.
Race Start. Photo by Karen Webber.
We set out under the cover of darkness at 7am and headed away from Holyhead Port/Station along the streets and roads before joining the coastal path. As the darkness receded, the sun came out and the weather was looking really good for a mid-October day as we followed the quiet roads. I spent the early part of the race running with Martin and Riccardo.
The only interest of note was when I took a ‘slight detour’ around the 20 mile point. I had been following the route instructions and signs and turned right onto a main road. I had been looking for the next turn off but simply missed a sign on the opposite side of the road and continued on ahead. It was a really simple mistake but cost me a few miles as this main road continued for quite a while without a turn off before I realised my mistake. Unfortunately, Riccardo had been following me and also went the wrong way. As we checked maps, we worked out that we missed a turn and back-tracked by which time the full force of the GPS tracking came into play as I received a couple of texts from friends with the “Where the hell are you going?” type message. There is no hiding place on a GPS tracked race!
It was a simple mistake but over the course of 253 miles not a massive issue and I tried to just get on with the running. However, it was fair to say that the detour played over in my mind like a persistent annoyance for the next couple of hours although the mood was lightened by the light joshing from other competitors and support team.
I had been carrying a handheld GPS unit but for some reason my course file hadn’t loaded up at the start of the race and wasn’t displaying the route correctly. I was going to look at it at the first Checkpoint but after the earlier mix up I took a minute or two a little while later to power it off and on and reload it which seemed to sort the problem and it was fine from that point onwards.
The first Checkpoint (Water Only) was at the 30 mile point at Menai Bridge and I continued on the next 10 miles to this point and caught up with a few people. To be honest I was moving slower than I would normally for a race of this distance and taking the odd short walk break very early on and wasn’t quite feeling 100% fresh, perhaps I was still a little jaded from lots of long races over the summer. I had a brief stop of a Garage a mile or two before the Checkpoint to buy a can of coke and jogged the last couple of miles over the bridge to the first Checkpoint.
CP1 – Photo by Karen Webber
I think the usual approach when you make a navigational error is to exaggerate the distance to indicate that you could have finished much quicker. I thought I had run an extra couple of extra miles and was playing it down in my mind (simple mistake, no big deal etc.) but it turned out to be nearly 5 miles. The first Checkpoint at 30 miles showed 35 miles on my GPS watch, oops. I topped up my water supplies as Lindley, Maxine, Karen & Peter asked if I enjoyed my extra detour before I set out again. Cheers guys, I had just about got it out of my system. The only saving grace was that another competitor (no names mentioned) seem to be taking the heat off me by making a number of navigational errors.
The next section was a bit mixed. I recall this section being fairly flat and there were times when I felt ok and ran steadily for miles and then I hit sections when I just felt I needed a walk break and I wasn’t even 50 miles into the race. I leapfrogged a few competitors here and eventually buddied up with Duncan for the remainder of this section as we saw out the rest of this leg and arrived at Checkpoint 2 at 60 miles.
This was our first Drop Bag stop, and I had purchased a few ‘Self-Heating’ meals (just add water) which takes 10 mins to cook so I put this on straightaway as I had a drink, attended to a toe blister (thanks Maxine) and took the opportunity to top up the charge on my phone and Garmin. After perhaps 25 mins, I set out again towards Checkpoint 3 feeling good after a nice meat-ball dinner (Duncan was jealous as he mentioned what a good idea it was a least three times!). This was a nice ‘reset’ point for me as I had planned to stop and re-start my Garmin each 50 mile or so section between Checkpoints.. mainly because the Garmin 920XT does not charge and record at the same time (seriously Garmin, my old 310XT does it).
CP2 – First Drop Bag stop
It was getting dark by the time we left so it had been a very steady 60 (65!) mile section and time to get the LED lights on to accompany the Hi-Vis everyone was expected to wear all the time as the route follows roads.
I picked up the running and ended up running most of this section by myself, this section felt a bit more undulating and as we got further into the night the expected rain started to fall. It even got to the point where I actually put my waterproof trousers on which was a rare occurrence.
There was a nasty little 4-5 mile section just before the next Checkpoint where you seemed to be going up and up hills with the wind and rain lashing down directly in your face. It was nice to get that section over with as the rain eased off as I arrived into the next pop-up Checkpoint (Water only) at 80 miles which was being supported by Lindley and Maxine. I paused here for a few minutes to eat some food. It wasn’t quite morning but I had packed some cereal and powdered milk which I made up with water and had a bowl of cereal. This was something that I liked and was quite easy to eat and after a little while I set off at a walk before picking up a bit of a jog.
The next section was only 20 miles or so but took me ages as I started to suffer with blistering around the toes mainly which meant I was walking more than I was running. Surprisingly, I didn’t suffer my usual sleep deprivation too badly but the constant drizzle in the face was good enough to keep me awake. I trudged through the next section to arrive at the 100 mile Checkpoint about 6am. I hadn’t expected to run a fast 100 mile time for the this event of this nature but arriving here at 23 ish hours compared to a 100 mile PB time of 17 hours was perhaps 3 hours slower than I expected to be.
Arriving at CP4 – Photo by Karen Webber
I had some food and removed the existing taping on my feet. I didn’t manage to sleep but dozed in my sleeping bag for 20 minutes as I wanted to allow some time to dry my feet completely before applying some new taping over the blisters and hotspots. I spent about an hour here in total and I was putting on some fresh clothes I took a look at the weather outside to see that the weather was worsening and the rain was lashing down in full force. I decided to go with my heavier waterproof jacket, trousers, gloves, the works as I had been planning to hike out the next few hours.
I set out in the rain around 7.30am. The next 3 miles went up and up over a hill and into a valley. The rain and wind here was even stronger with sheets of rain hammering it down, flooded paths and strong winds in this exposed area. My thicker Waterproof jacket (a Montane jacket) thankfully stood up to the weather, my Salomon Bonatti did an ok job but my Inov-8 mitts were useless as they couldn’t handle the volume of rain but thankfully this was a minor piece of equipment/clothing failure. I’ve had a few incidents with rain in events but this felt like one of the heaviest rainfalls I had experienced. Unfortunately, all of the effort to dry out and patch up my feet were wasted as my feet got soaked within a couple of miles of the last CP.
I spent the next 5 hours hiking this section through this incessant rain. I knew conditions would ease later in the day but unfortunately this didn’t help the condition of my feet which felt more uncomfortable.
Progress was really slow (about 15 miles in 5 hours) and I started working out the maths. Even based on this pace it was going to be a long walk. However, with my feet in the condition they were in I didn’t think this was going to be achievable and I didn’t really fancy a 135 mile death-march from this point and so when I arrived in a place called Machynlleth I made a rational decision to drop. I was definitely disappointed not to progress any further but it wasn’t really looking like my day from the start and it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. No excuses, I wasn’t good enough to complete the event on the day.
The ‘DNF’ selfie.
I stopped at a petrol station and made the call to Mark and Peter Foxall kindly delivered my drop bag to me where I could change into some dry clothes and get the train home. There was a train station at Machynlleth and a I caught a train home via connections through Chester and Birmingham although the section to Reading wasn’t very much fun at first as there were no seats and I just sat on the floor slumped next to my drop bag.
Massive congratulations to the six guys who made it to the finish (Bryan, Ronnie, Mike, Karl, Colin & Chris), a fantastic effort through some very tough conditions (especially on the Friday). You all showed some true grit to complete this event. I experienced mixed emotions watching the trackers over the next couple of days ranging from the satisfaction of seeing the other competitors complete the event with small doses of regret and envy from not having finished myself.
In addition, I would also like to thank the handful of crew members who supported the event including Mark, Karen, Peter, Lindley, Maxine and others. Each of them also pulled a long shift over the weekend to support a small number of competitors over a long distance and without their efforts we could not have organised the race.
What were my learning points from this race? This was probably one race too many this year and I probably need to approach this type of race fresh from other races as a minor point. Completing this race was always going to involve long periods of hiking as well as running which is something you need to be prepared for and I need to revisit foot care in order to be able to maintain some level of comfort to have a better chance of completing this type of race.