Looking back over the seven-month period from September 2017 through to the spring of 2018, I’d crammed a catalogue of mammoth races back to back alongside work and life:
Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc
Half Marathon des Sables Fureteventura
Trans Gran Canaria
Marathon des Sables
These races were arguably four of the toughest mountain and multi-stage events on the International Ultra-Running calendar*. By the end of April, I was physically, mentally and emotionally tired. My “Quality over Quantity” mantra had been broken by the temptation, opportunity and lure of races in sunnier climes. It was time to step back, take a break and mix it up back in the triathlon world.
I’ve always enjoyed the pursuit of a variety of sports to balance out my running; a quick glance on Strava illustrates this mix of cycling, swimming and yoga amongst the running, to the extent that my weekly running load can be interpreted as pretty questionable for an ultra-runner. The opportunity (that word again!) to join Ben at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Nelson Bay in the Eastern Cape of South Africa was impossible to ignore. The idea was muted that I could embrace support team duties though I choose to gamble with a last-minute entry into IRONMAN 70.3 Staffs, place the decision on my results, and cling onto the golden rule of IRONMAN World Championships qualification: “Always stay for Roll-Down”. Thankfully, the triathlon gods were feeling favourable and my 2ndin Age Group place was enough to guarantee me a slot and South Africa was confirmed as the destination for Team Watson-Psaila’s 2018 summer holidays**.
It was the first time this event has been held on the African continent with nearly 4,500 athletes travelling from over 90 countries to take part. The separate ladies and mens races took place on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd September respectively with plenty of chances to rub shoulders (at least from a distance!) with top pros such as Javier Gomez, Alistair Brownlee, Jan Frodeno, Daniela Ryf, Lucy Charles and Emma Pallant.
The race started from Kings Beach in Port Elizabeth with a 1.9km swim in the Indian Ocean, a stunning 90km rolling cycle route up and over the Maitlands before returning along the coast to finish with a 21.1km run along the seafront.
In line with all my triathlon races, the swim is a bit of an ordeal to endure until the real race starts on the bike. Having eventually emerged from the ocean into T1 after 38 minutes, I soon began to make up places on the bike, especially on the hillier sections. The final 25km snaked along the coastline where it was a struggle to avoid the temptation of stopping to admire the breath-taking scenery. While the day had started overcast, once into T2 the sun appeared and temperatures sky-rocketed. As usual I set off onto the run course with a bit too much enthusiasm (i.e. too fast according to the Garmin!), though I was feeling strong and decided to go with the flow. Luckily my gamble paid off clocking the 3rd fastest run of the day in my Age Group, equalling (literally to the second!) my previous Ironman 70.3 Run PB of 1:32:27 for a total finish time of 5:02:50 and 13th place in my Age Group out of 252 athletes.
While I enjoy the sport of triathlon and it’s been an excellent mid-season break, it’s done and I am ready to dig out my trail shoes and return to the ultra-running world. Last weekend I dipped my toe back into the ultra scene at the Exmoor Coast 50 which I’d purposively selected from the Run Ultra race directory to fit my longer-term build into Oman by UTMB and for ease of travel from Wiltshire. Climb South West run a series of events from Dartmoor in a Day, Jurassic Coast, Welsh 3000, Devon Coast to Coast and this race, the latest addition to their race portfolio: the Exmoor Coast 50 (with the aim to add 100km and 100mile distance in 2019).
If you mention the South West Coastal Path within ultra-running circles, it’s likely Damian Hall’s name will be mentioned. His phenomenal yet bonkers FKT along the 630 miles from Poole Harbour in Dorset to Minehead in Somerset and broke the previous record by 16 hours to the current 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes. It’s worth checking out “Salt and Dirt” his video coverage to fully appreciate the blood, sweat and tears behind his endeavour.
Anyway, back to the more manageable Exmoor Coast 50 where the route traces the coastal path within the boundaries of the Exmoor National Park starting in Combe Martin and finishing 55km later in Minehead. The race name was cheekily described as a “long” 50 by Justin Nicholas, Race Director with a wry smile during our early morning race brief delivered through the distinctive English drizzle.
I’m a self-certified fair weather athlete where whinging about the weather is a side-line hobby so I’d habitually stalked the forecast in the lead up to the race. Unfortunately, the “Grey cloud with rain drops” symbol remained stubbornly present on my iPhone screen and at seven o’clock on Saturday groups of ultra-runners were trying unsuccessfully to huddle underneath the registration awning reluctant to expose themselves to the elements.
Heading off along the trail at a comfortable pace the running chat began to flow, with the inevitable stories around last minute races being done to hit the target UTMB points by the cut-off date. My main aim was to “take it easy”, easy enough to be able to head out for another jaunt out the following day with Ben, though admittedly this strategy has categorically failed many times before. Thankfully, somehow, today was different, and I happily fell into pace with Kyle, a fellow runner from Manchester who’s determined to tackle the CCC in 2019.
Running shoulder to shoulder, the miles slipped away unnoticed through the Valley of the Rocks with the distinctive Castle Rock and Jagged Rock, past Lynmouth whose name conjures memories from Geography GCSE lessons in relation to the famous 1952 flood, and The National Trust Foreland Bothy where I’ve stayed on mini “back-to-basics” retreat (read trail running training camps!). Six hours later (though it felt far shorter) Kyle and I fist bumped the 12ft high galvanised steel hand sculpture on Minehead promenade and attacked the organisers delicious homemade flapjack with pumpkin seeds.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive, welcoming friendly event, like cake and/or beer (and flapjack), check out Climb South West events.
* Outside the ultra-running world these race names usually elicit no response and it’s like talking a foreign language. Despite the hard work of amazing athletes, writers and influencers I suspect it will be several years (if ever L) until ultra-running achievements will afford similar recognition to Football, Cricket or Formula One. In a nutshell:
1. Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc is a 170km race which circumnavigates Mont Blanc with over 10,000m of vertical climb and takes the average hiker seven to ten days to complete (I’ve done it in 28hours 37mins, finishing 7thin 2017).
2. Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura is a spin-off from the notorious Marathon des Sables (see below). Half the distance, but really not half as tough.
3. Trans Gran Canaria involves Friday night fun starting at 11pm, snaking 125km down the island of Gran Canaria with over 7,000m of ascent.
4. The Marathon des Sables once described as Sir Ranuplh Fiennes as “more hellish than hell” involves the equivalence of six marathons, in six days, in the Sahara Desert, fully self-sufficient.
** Holidays in the Team Watson-Psaila household usually revolve around races, training and travel, ideally in the sun with pretty views accompanied by tasty food. Our planning ritual centres on the international ultra-running and triathlon race calendars, a world map, and average temperature and rainfall statistics.