Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Monday, 28 March 2016

15th November: CTS Gower

I returned to the Gower peninsular in South Wales today for the second in this year’s Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series. Last time around I had just come out the other side of a bout of the lurgy, found my va-va-voom had va-vamoosed and that the run was more a test of endurance of my body and mind rather than any semblance of enjoyment! I always seem to underwhelm on this great course, so today I wanted to get round giving a good account of myself rather than struggling from start to finish.

This year there was to be some added spice to the proceedings in a severe storm blowing-in off the Atlantic… Heavy rain and gale-force winds were forecast for the duration of the race, with it all kicking-off beforehand in the small hours!

Whilst registering at dawn in the promised weather, I found the event had come quite close to being cancelled the previous day when the company supplying the marquee did not provide one ‘meaty enough’ to deal with the gusty conditions, which led to it partially blowing-over and an ensuing mad panic to obtain one that was strong enough to cope… After all with no base, there’s no race!

Even though there was a fierce gusting wind and the rain coming down, it was not cold with the storm system blowing-in off the relative warmth of the Atlantic to the west, rather than the frozen North or Siberian East. Taking away the rain and the wind, the air temperature was supposed to be around the 15C mark, which for this time of year is exceptionally warm, so I elected to wear my summer base-layer and light-weight Montane waterproof jacket as if I was to be sporting winter garb then I was sure to overheat in no time... Also with the weather conditions, taking any decent photos on the route was not really going to be possible.

As I waited for the start, I greeted Tania, an old school-friend whom I occasionally bump in to on my running escapades, who was also running the marathon as prep for her competing in the Pilgrim Challenge Ultra next February. This race was the furthest she had been in a long time and she was determined to get round in one piece rather than aiming for a certain time, in order to help to build herself-up for the back to back 35 milers that make the Pilgrim Challenge! Having seen her zoom-off in to the distance when I’ve bumped in to her in the past I was wondering how long it would take before she decided she had had enough of merely plodding and accelerate away.

Looking north shortly after the start.
Once we were off, I was keeping pace with Tania and CTS regular Luke as the field headed round at a brisk pace to the almost immediate ascent of the hill and the ridge overlooking the surfer’s paradise beach of Rhossilli. Hitting the steep climb here I found my dodgy calf was giving me grief almost immediately and I had to drastically ease-off for risk of compromising the rest of my race, which resulted in being overtaken by pretty-much the entire field over this short, sharp ascent!

Topping-out of the climb on to the plateau of the hill, which gently undulates over the next few miles, now the pressure was off my calf, I was able to pick-up the pace again and managed to reel-in Tania and Luke. This stretch is one of my favourite runs; traversing a spectacular grass-covered cliff-top overlooking the beach, through the remnants of a derelict WWII coastal defence station and then the excellent steep descent at the other side in to the caravan park and the first CP at the 6 mile mark.

Hitting the ridge.
This slope is a lovely steep grass-covered one pock-marked with boulders. The thing with it being grassy is that after a bit of rain it can get pretty greasy and slippery underfoot, with a lot of the less confident (or should that be foolhardy?) descenders reduced to going down sideways with dolly-steps worried about damaging themselves on one of the rocks that just invite you to dash yourself on them like mythical sirens… I love the challenge of this and I’m pretty sure footed, so I relish the chance to steam past all those who have overtaken me on the climbs as they gingerly pick their way down, so as on previous times I just threw myself in to the descent with reckless abandon.

Luke & Tania leading the group.
I’ve seen plenty of people go down this slope on their arse having slipped over, as I merrily skipped past them, smirking as I went, but today was a pay back for my previous hubris: when looking back behind me to see how Tania was faring, I lost my footing and slid down the slope for a few metres, fortunately just on the greasy grass and avoiding the rocks that protrude from the slope here and there! Laughing at my folly I dusted myself off and more carefully picked my way down the rest of the slope and into the caravan park for the first of the day’s check-points.

Cutting through the caravan park and amongst the sand dunes, we found ourselves on the flat mile of the first of the day’s beaches, where I had to ease-back and let Tania hare-off at her natural pace as the rain ominously began to fall more heavily than before.

Off the beach and we had the ascent on to the highest part of the course: the inland stretch across the moorlands of the peninsular, with the inevitable exposure to the elements that it would bring… And it certainly brought it! The rain was hoofing it down, propelled broadside into our faces by the raging gale. Progress was reduced from any attempt at flat-out running to a jog/ fast walk through the battering we were taking. For the whole of the ridge’s length you had to hold on to your hood to keep it over your head and shield your face, unable to raise your head to look in front of you at where you were going with the horizontal onslaught that stung your face, reducing you to staring down at the ground a metre or so in front of you to make sure you knew where your feet were going! My tired legs were screaming at me to take a rest and just walk this section, but the survival instinct was saying to carry-on till I was over the other side and off the exposed terrain… Eventually after a good few miles of buffeting we dropped-off the top of the moor and instantly the wind waned to a mere breeze as we hit the shelter of the leeward side of the hill and we could enjoy the respite as we headed through to the next checkpoint.

From here it was a short descent through the village of Nicholaston across more dunes and on to the next beach crossing and back in to the teeth of the gale once more! it seemed on this stretch to be even more ferocious than on the ridge, the relentless blast across the flat mile or so of the beach seeming to concentrate the wind’s power, forcing you to a near standstill in its more powerful gusts. Attempting to run was a folly as with no point of you in contact with the ground, you were being blown-back so much that a speed-walk was the only way to make progress; tucking your hands in behind your back and leaning in to the wind to slipstream as much as possible and make the crossing as quickly as you could.

Looking forward across the beach.
Back across the beach.

At the other end of the beach is one of my least favourite parts of any course, the hundred or so steep steps that take you back up on to the cliff-top path. On my other runs here I have been reduced to a near crawl ascending these; having to stop a couple of times to drag my sorry arse up them with how wiped-out I have been in getting to this point. Fortunately, with only being able to walk the last mile in the teeth of the gale, I was fairly well rested compared to previous times and I was able to climb here without any bother… Although the next stretch was very treacherous with it being incredibly slippery underfoot with the mud covered in a layer of fallen leaves that were disguising protruding tree roots, so caution needed to be taken rather than powering through as I have managed in the past!

Out of the woods and on to the grassy cliff-tops it was again a case of attempting to progress as best you could in the face of the elements, which I found to be good fun with the challenge it added, rather than the slog I have previously endured; continually having to have your wits about you to stay upright over the muddy sections and the rocky parts of the cliff-tops whilst trying to keep my hood over my head in the driving rain… No iPod in the ears to listen to podcasts or tunes as I went with the roar of the wind so loud that it would cancel-out anything playing!

Rounding the 'Worm's Head' to the finish.
As I rounded a headland I spotted Tania a couple of minutes in front with about 10k left to go, so I was faced with the internal dilemma of carrying-on at my own pace or to push myself and attempt to catch her by the finish… Although this soon became a moot point as I climbed to the top of one hill, walking through a gate and saw Luke about 30 seconds behind me, so I waited for him to catch up and we jogged-in this last 10k to the finish line and a triumph over the elements.

Turning away from the sea to the finish line.
I managed to cross the line faster than last year, with still some fuel in the tank and only 12 minutes slower than my first time when I ran it in perfect weather conditions - which gave me comfort that my run was certainly stronger than in previous efforts once you factor in the day’s conditions!

Meeting-up with Tania afterwards she had turned almost as blue as her waterproof in the wind and rain, but was happy to have got around in one piece in anticipation of her February ‘A’ race… And was very relieved to have a B&B with a hot shower close-by to warm herself up and relax for the evening!

A welcome cold beer in the Worm’s Head with Luke afterwards and it was the drive back from the South of Wales to the middle of Hampshire.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.