Written by Steve West - https://theparttimeultrarunner.wordpress.com
Midnight on June 4th 2016, I had just finished the inaugural SW50 in second place. I had a brilliant 13 ½ hours in the sunny Welsh countryside. This was a major part of my training for an attempt at my first 100 a few months later.
October 2016 – Autumn 100 – 23:38 – this broke me for weeks.
SW50 was brutal but my 100 was relatively flat (which I now think is harder but I didn’t then), so after finishing my 100 all I could think about was how on earth can people run 100 miles all on terrain like SW50. I hoped that one day I too would be able to do that.
October 2017 – After a good block of training I had my first ever DNF at Gower 50 due to a tendon injury which didn’t go away for a few months. This really worried me as I was training for the Arc of Attrition in the February.
Arc – I recovered from the injury and threw myself into 70-110 miles a week for the next few months. I was feeling confident and I was running well on race day – comfortably inside the cut offs despite the nasty diversion and small time allowance that was given as a result. However, the Arc is brutal; the distance between the CPs, the lack of food (not at the CP’s but just because there are so few CPs) and water and the general conditions underfoot got to me and at 80 miles and in just under 24hrs my mind and body admitted defeat.
I knew I had it in me to finish a nasty 100 and I like summer and I do well in the heat, unlike others I know who are stronger than me but can struggle in the heat. I had learnt a lot about running 100 miles from both my success and my failure and of course I knew half of the SW100 route. So for 2 months the thought of SW100 as a revenge race for my failure at the Arc bubbled away in my mind. I finally took the plunge in late March and entered, not huge time to prepare (12 weeks) but I was coming off the back of good Arc training and had recovered well, much quicker than from Autumn 100. I had 10 weeks training and 2 weeks on holiday for taper – trying not to get too fat.
I ran good weekly mileage of at least 50, but often 65 and when really wanting big weeks I managed a few 90-110 mile weeks. The difference here though was I knew I needed to drop my obsession with mileage and focus on elevation instead. I live by the sea in the Vale of Glamorgan and the highest point in town is only about 200ft, and the biggest hill climb is only 150ft. I work in Bristol City centre with a similar issue. I run 3 times a day when in peak training, usually all on the flat, but this time I was doing hills regularly, twice a week to start with and in the end 5 days a week at lunchtime, 700 – 1000ft. Towards the end I was doing my long runs, which were short for a 100 miler, of about 12-15 miles on hill repeats, sometimes doing 30 reps and managing 3500ft in the process. You do get funny looks from tourists at the seaside when you run up and down the same hill 30 times whilst they are having ice-cream in the sun.
I was feeling strong before holidays, but now was danger time, 2 weeks in Majorca, don’t get fat! I knew I wouldn’t do lots of running as it was during my taper, but I thought a few medium sized runs in the heat would be good preparation as last time in ran this route (SW50) it was sweltering. A few hill sessions on a treadmill in a non-AC gym were also good practice. As well as this I did a short heavy weight leg session in the gym each day, which I still think was of major benefit. I always wonder about building strength training into my plan, but like most ultra-runners, fall back on the false belief that time not running is wasted.
I came back from holiday feeling great and in the final few days before the race did some really quick runs (for me that is), which felt quite easy. I was now feeling confident.
A lack of planning for the Arc found me out, too little water, food, clothes at the right time. I wasn’t going to make this mistake again. The CPs were much closer together on SW100 than the Arc but 11 miles over the Brecon Beacons across the middle of the day is still a long way.
There were 2 drop bags allowed for the 100, 1 at 45 miles and another at 71. I thought very carefully about what I had to carry from the start, what I didn’t need until DB1 and what I may want at DB2. For example, all mandatory kit from the stat and a decent amount of food and tailwind powder. Powerbank, watch charger, suncream and more food at DB1. Road Hoka’s at DB2, and more food and tailwind powder. A full change of clothes was also in both DB’s, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.
I knew the Runwalkcrawl CPs would regularly have my favourite snack, cold rice pudding and jam, so I knew I could access that at least every 15 miles or so at every other CP. I added a Pot Noodle and a pot of Porridge to each DB also. The DB routine was planned out well in advance. Arrive and bag off. CP marshals to fill both bottles and add tailwind whilst I got hot water for both Pot Noodle and Porridge. Let it cook for 2 mins, then add cold water. Drink/eat them quickly, grab anything else I wanted to eat. Change of clothes/socks as necessary, final grab of food for small plastic food bag to carry and eat whilst Pot Noodle and Porridge were settling in my stomach. I didn’t want to bring them straight back up again! It worked perfectly!
I arrived early for registration, got the kit check done, tracker fitted, then went for a walk with the Etrex to ensure I knew how to use it. Then it was just a matter of waiting it out and being ready for the start – apprehension builds naturally.
I had a quick chat with Emma Williams from RWC fame who commented on my cool race vest. An Innov8 race ultra with front fitting pack. I thought it was great, but I had never raced with it. Off we go streamiling live on FB. FUCK – end FB live.
Literally my first step over the line saw the front pack disconnect from the main pack. I had to try to tie it on – but it didn’t work. The ‘No Limits Photography’ video of the start shows me being the final person out fiddling with it trying to bodge it together.
What a start! I had to basically run to the first CP at 10 miles, holding my poles in one hand, which also wouldn’t sit in their holder properly (again hadn’t run with that before – I know I know!), holding part of my bag with the other. This means I didn’t have a third hand to hold the Etrex. This meant I had to run to keep up with people to ensure I didn’t get lost, meaning a quicker start than planned. What a disaster. 36 hour race and all this happened in the first 30 seconds. When I arrived at the Llantrisant CP I managed to find a way to drop a load of non-mandatory kit and somehow stuff the other bits into the 5l race vest which I didn’t think was possible. Just shows how much you can actually get in.
I thought I was pretty much last and I was trying to calm myself down, ‘don’t get angry, there is a very long way to go’…’you’re only racing yourself’. However, CP1 is where it all started to go right. I was running well, enjoying myself, taking it easy and ticking off the miles.
I forget where, but a few hours before darkness fell I started to run with Anthony Howells, we made good conversation and helped each other through the first night. We took a bit of a detour through the bogs around the wind turbines – my god they are massive – and I had to pull Anthony out a few times as his legs disappeared to his knees, but we were in good spirits. We left the final CP before Drop Bag 1 (Hirwain) just behind 2 other runners, maybe 10 mins. Before leaving the CP, Ben Morris, RD, said to me that this next section to Ystradfellte was gorgeous and very runnable especially the first bit to Penderyn and so ‘make the most of it’. I didn’t mean to leave Anthony but a few minutes later I started running and just didn’t stop. I soon caught the 2 guys who left the CP 10 mins before us, as well as someone else about 20 minutes later – I left them all and despite looking back I couldn’t see any of them.
I could now hear the waterfall at Ystradfellt. I had been waiting for this for 2 years since hearing stories from the 100 runners in 2016 when I ran the 50. I saw John, a walker I knew from other RWC events and stopped for a quick chat with him. He looked in a fairly bad way and I gave him some paracetamol and wished him well for the day ahead. Unfortunately I later found out that John DNF’d. My phone had died for some reason just after the start so I had no battery to take a photo of the waterfall which after waiting 2 years to see it was rather frustrating. (Below is a stock photo just so you can see how amazing it is). As I walked behind the waterfall I didn’t really know what to do as I couldn’t take a photo so I just stopped and shouted at the top of my voice. I had to do something to mark the occasion. I felt amazing and I ran all I could to the next CP and Drop Bag 1 where my DB routine worked brilliantly and I was leaving as Anthony was coming in about 15 minutes later.
It was all a bit of a blur really from there until Storey Arms, apart from I recall putting sun cream on before leaving DB1 CP and then sweating instantly and trying to wipe sun cream out from my eyes for the next 4 hours. Oh well I suppose it was a distraction of sorts and helped pass the time! This photo was taken somewhere in this section – I think!
The section from Storey Arms to Talybont Resevoir was the make or break part of the run. 11.5 miles, lots of elevation gain and no shelter from the now sweltering heat and strong sun. I made sure I ate a lot at the CP just before Storey Arms, 3 bowls of rice pudding, 2 bowls of soup and bread and was sure to make sure I had all my bottles full and the spare 500ml bottle was full too. Whilst only 11.5 miles it was going to take over 4 hours. Did I mention the heat?
The SF (Special Forces) Experience was out in force on Pen-Y-Fan, much like the rest of the world when the sun shines in the Brecon Beacons. I was moving fairly slowly but these people had 40lb ruck sacks on and were hardly moving at all. They also had SF people shouting and swearing at them to ‘move it’…’keep going’. One guy was half way up PYF, but he hadn’t moved in minutes, he was totally gone. When I got level with him they had almost given up on him and were now asking him if he had any food…protein bars. He replied feebly with ‘its in my car’ which was met with ‘what the f**k is it doing there’ in raised voices to say the least. I felt so sorry for him I gave him one of my Clif Bars. He tried not to accept it but I showed him how much food I was carrying and I made him take it. He actually hugged me! Very strange experience. I moved on and didn’t look back.
Corn Du – done. Pen Y Fan – done. Fan Y Big – done.
I still felt good and ran when I could. Rounding the headland just before you first see Talybont reservoir I had a short chat with Barry Griffiths who had caught up with me from the 50 starters, his final prep before LL100 attempt in mid-July. I also managed to stop for a call of nature when no one was around, it all rots away in the end!
The view of Talybont Resevoir is gorgeous, but lingering in the background is the dreaded Tor y Foel. Personally, I think its worse than anything else on the route. I hate Tor y Foel. Head down and get it done. It was slow progress but I still felt strong. Its almost the place where you can say Im going to do this. There is still a very long way to go, but the back is definitely broken.
My feet however were starting to hurt now. Not blistered just painful from unsupportive trail shoes with less support than I am used to (Road Hoka’s). I did another FB live as I had charged my phone. This was partly to break up the boredom of the now walk off the fire road into Trefil CP and DB2. My ankle was on fire as well. I said some hello’s to people and thanked them for messages of support but I stated that with over 20 hours to do 30 miles (was actually 35) I was going to walk it in and not risk running and my ankle getting worse and causing a DNF.
The routine for the DB worked well again with lots of food being consumed. Imagine an all you can eat buffet approach, plates and bowls of food all around me, whilst I got out of the sun for a bit.
The pivotal moment of my race now happened. I asked RD Ben if he thought I could get away with my road shoes. He said ‘Hoka’s, put them on’. I bounced out of the CP. I was running and running well. There was a group of 4 of us now, three 50 mile runners and myself. We stayed together until New Tredegar where I immediately headed for the shop and bought a 2l bottle of water, a white magnum ice-cream (which I had been dreaming about for 10 hours) and a mars chocolate drink.
I was walking out of New Tredegar and enjoying my ice cream thinking the other 3 had gone a good 15 minutes up the road, when one of them appeared out of Tir Phil train station, Michelle McCully. Michelle’s friend started the 50 knowing she wasn’t well or fit and very quickly decided to drop, which meant Michelle had herself a support crew for the rest of her race. We walked out of town and onto the slopes and overgrown path that led back up. The ‘No Limits Photography’ people jumped out of the bushes and caught this shot of me here too.
Michelle kept saying she was going to drop at some point and was not sure she could make it to the next CP. It was her first ultra and so I knew her self-doubt was a bigger issue than her fitness. She was strong and moving well so I made it my mission to make sure she didn’t drop – hoping she would thank me in the end.
My Garmin had buzzed once for low battery and it did it again now which got me in a bit of a panic as if I’m going to run a 100 miles I want it on my Strava! This wouldn’t usually be an issue, I would just charge it on my powerbank, but I left my phone charging longer than I should and now the powerbank was dead (its old and only holds half charge – I definitely need a new one). It was at this time that Kelly Felstead, a FB friend and fellow 100 mile runner, had been messaging me, just with encouragement and trying to get me to run quicker to catch people a few kms ahead. A few km’s really!
She had offered to meet me somewhere with a bag of goodies and alike, which was amazing but unnecessary so I declined. However not having the run on Strava called for desperate measures. I asked Kelly if she had a charged powerbank I could borrow. She said yes but then said she had had a drink and couldn’t drive. I was deflated, but only momentarily as her amazing husband and ultra-runner in the making, Dewi, had agreed to meet me instead. Now I thought this was a short 2 mins up the road for him as we agreed to meet at the Bargoed CP. However it turns out he drove, on a Saturday night, 15 minutes from home and sat waiting for me for another 15 minutes at the CP. Oh and he did bring a back of goodies as Kelly made him. The guy is a legend. I offered to post the powerbank back on the Monday and put a fiver in for a few beers.
Dewi also joked that Kelly said she would come and run with us for a bit too. I said but she’s had a drink, which Dewi simply laughed off saying, and. Michelle and I left Bargoed CP in good spirits, with Michelle again making plans with her friend to potentially meet somewhere before the next CP in Caerphilly if she wanted to drop and me jokingly saying that was never going to happen. About 10 minutes after leaving the CP and at a set of traffic lights in Bargoed town, a car pulls up, the door is flung open and out jumps a blonde woman in running kit and race vest. Yes, Kelly decided to tag along anyway – her poor husband!
Kelly knew the area well so I was able to put the Etrex away for a few hours which meant I could switch off for a bit. We chatted, ran, walked and took photos of a gorgeous sunset as we made our way to Caerphilly.
Kelly headed home and we were now approaching Caerphilly and were running on what was a lovely sloping road into the town centre. We ran it all in the middle of the road like we owned it. Why not? It was nice to get some flow going for a change.
We headed around the castle wondering where the CP was and when finally finding it and heading in we were greeted with Pizza and chips. Heaven. The chips didn’t agree with me, but the pizza, oh man!
We headed out renewed of energy and Michelle was now feeling confident she was going to get this done. This was the final section where the only real climb was Crag y Alt. We were back to the 4 of us again and despite being the only 1 on the 100 I was keen to really push on but we held it back slightly and found the compulsory clip on Caerphilly mountain after circling the top once and missing the very unobvious path to the summit. From here it was on to Crag Y Aly which wasn’t as bad as I had feared and heard about. We dropped onto the Taff Trail which allowed for some easy running but the group wanted to walk again which I did find frustrating at times.
However I was quite grateful as the climb up Castel Coch was much longer than I expected. We had a great pace on for the walk with the poles but it just went on and on. At 2am and with a narrow head torch view you can’t see or recognise anything so it is the same step after step until it’s over. Michelle was amazing on the nav around here as she used to live locally and knew the area well.
We were dreading the descent down Castel Coch driveway as it is very steep, just what the quads don’t want. We heard a scuttling noise and the next second we were confronted with 2 badgers who were heading up the driveway. The 4 of us and the badgers all stopped in our tracks. They turned around and we gone as quickly as they appeared.
My Garmin was now showing around 104 miles but I knew from previous CP supposed mileage points vs actuals that we still had about 2 miles to go. I got slightly confused as to where we were as I thought we were coming out by the Motorway bridge but there was still a mile to go on the Taff Trail first.
Michelle and I wanted to finish strong and we started to run again, somehow getting under 10mm pace – speedy stuff for 32.5 hours in. We dropped the other 3 people that were now with us, walked for 30 seconds before agreeing to run in all the way across the line. My head torch died the moment we entered the field and the finishing funnel but it was done.
31 hour and 56 minutes. 105.7 miles. 19,416ft.
After picking up our medals and having the obligatory finish line photo, we picked up our drop bags and hobbled up the stairs to sit down and let it all sink in. Michelle’s friend Hannah had promised us a can of beer if we got to the end which she duly handed over. It was very refreshing but it quickly did its work and half a can later I was feely very sleepy – not a huge surprise.
I eventually picked up all of my stuff and headed down to sleep in the car for a few hours. I tried to unlock the car but nothing happened. I slowly realised that the car battery had died. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why (turns out I had left the lights on) but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So I just stood there….pressing the key fob and watching nothing happen. This went on for at least 3 minutes! I went inside and asked Joe (RD) for some jump leads. Don’t know why as I wouldn’t have been able to get in the car anyway to open the bonnet. There were some jump leads going to be available in the morning but what use would they be anyway. I went back to the car and just stood there pressing the fob again.
Remember now that my head torch had died so it was completely dark. It took a few more minutes before I remembered that you can open cars with keys! Boy did I feel stupid, but ultra brain fog was at work. I tried to open the back door to sleep across the back seats but it wasn’t having it and I couldn’t be bothered, nor did I have the physical manoeuvrability, to climb into the back so I just slept in the drivers seat. I couldn’t even get my sleeping bag open properly so I just lay it over me and went to sleep. I managed an hours sleep before the cold woke me up and I made myself get into the sleeping bag properly. I managed another 2 hours sleep and woke up just in time to see another group of 100 runners finish including the guys I ran with Friday night. I’d somehow managed to gain nearly 4 hours over them.
I loitered around for a short while, got the car started with the help of Pete from the RWC team and headed home for a proper sleep and feed.
This race had been in my mind for over 2 years. For most of that time it had been in my mind as unachievable or certainly a major step outside my comfort zone. The reality of the race is that I loved every second of it and I didn’t want it to end. I could have happily turned around and headed back to Brecon at least. Easy to say, far less easy to do.
Joe from RWC did offer in the following days to support me back to Brecon next year for an unofficial 150 (which I reckon would be 160) and whilst I am tempted by this, I have other plans for similar distances next year – namely Canalslam if I get in GUCR via the ballot.
I also have enough points now for CCC 2019 so I may enter the ballot for that too. Choices choices. There is something about this route though that the SW150 or even SW200 appeals.
What the hell is wrong with me!
Thanks for reading.