I ran my first ever ultra on Saturday - 34.3 miles of coastal trail around Anglesea, featuring several gruelling ascents of Holyhead mountain.
I finished almost last, but that's not the point. I finished an ultra. It was something I'd wanted to do since I first started running seriously a couple of years ago.
Back then, after a few 10k runs on local trails, I began to wonder what it would take to run a marathon. I thought I could do it, so with no training I set off to try. After 22 miles and 3 big hills, I collapsed completely, but the distance bug had taken a firm hold.
I went back to the drawing board, running shorter races and keeping the miles up between events. Less than a year after the first attempt, I ran my first marathon. Then another. I thought I was ready for longer distances, so I entered the Endurancelife CTS Anglesea ultra.
Work on the new howies website made training tough until the middle of November, but I managed to keep the miles up and by the time Christmas and New Year came round, I was feeling great. I thought I was in the best shape of my life.
Then, exactly a week before the run, I fell off my bike and landed heavily on my leg. A previous injury in my knee was reawakened and as the days passed with me limping around I began to worry. I thought about dropping out, but couldn't bring myself to do it.
On the trip up to the race with Chris (also running the ultra) and Alex (running his first trail half) I was subdued, and at dinner the night before I found myself massaging the damaged knee and mulling over what was to come. I knew this was bad, and that the doubts were probably more dangerous than the injury itself so I tried to put it all to the back of my mind.
Arriving at the start before daybreak we found the car park was a 10 minute walk from the event HQ at the Breakwater country park. And again, the pain from my knee started nagging at me. The howling wind and lashing rain didn't help, although thankfully both began to subside as the sun came up and we began to run.
The course started off with a short flat run to the foot of Holyhead mountain, before the first long climb began taking us around to the South Stack lighthouse. I was more than happy to walk the steep rock stairs, near vertical in some places. I knew we were coming back here later.
For the first few miles I was running with Chris, who had kept me company during my first trail marathon a couple of months before. I don't think I was great company this time as I was still struggling to control my negativity and I was actually quite relieved to see Chris head off up the road, running his own race. I was now alone, and I knew that was how it had to be.
I was soon beginning to feel much better and was enjoying the scenery as we passed Trearddur Bay. My thoughts were a lot more positive, although my knee was still giving me trouble. Shortly after the half way turn around on Rhoscolyn beach, it flared up and my leg cramped causing me to fall against a low wall. To my relief I was able to recover quickly and get back on my feet, although cramp (and the fear of cramp) plagued the rest of my run. Especially over the numerous stiles, which I now negotiated ver gingerly for fear of triggering another leg failure.
Heading back toward the finish line, I saw Holyhead mountain again in the distance. Knowing I would be having to climb the rock stairs around the mountain again before the finish and already approaching the furthest I had ever run I wasn't in a hurry to get there. I ran a steady pace, but making sure I could make the cut off point in time to be allowed back onto the mountain.
As we joined the half marathon course, I was quite glad to have the company of other runners again, as I had be plugging out the miles alone, save for odd fragments of conversation as I traded places with a couple of the other ultra runners. By chance I met up with Alex, who seemed to be having a great run in his half. He left me with one of his spare gels and carried on.
The miles all began to blur together and my mind wandered until I reached the foot of the mountain and the sharp ascent brought things back into focus. The sun was out, the views were amazing, and passing half marathon runners with their fresh legs on the climb gave me a massive boost. I passed nearly everyone I saw on the first climb, although my legs screamed at me to stop. Eventually I reached the summit and took a moment to enjoy the view before turning back down the mountain toward the marathon finish line.
I made the cut off more than 20 minutes before it closed. I knew this wasn't fast, but it meant I would now get to finish the ultra. I set off toward the mountain again, looking over my shoulder to check I wasn't last. Ray who runs the whole food shop in Cardigan and his friend were the next through the gate, about 500 yards behind me.
Seeing someone I knew behind me gave me another boost and I was determined to keep up a good pace as the climb began again. I was impressed that my legs seemed to have recovered from their earlier cramps and I was able to power my way back to the South Stack lighthouse checkpoint without stopping.
I ran into the checkpoint and headed straight back out again, not wanting to loose any more places before the finish. The course now took me back inland and I knew that another trip to the summit was coming. My legs were beginning to feel hollow and my mind was wandering. I was interested by the sensation, but refused to slow down.
Reaching the summit for the second time, I almost cried. I knew that gravity would do the rest. All I had to do was point my weary body int he right direction and not fall over. I plodded out the descent, drinking whatever was left in my bag and eating a bar. I realised I had too much food left, and should have been eating more. I was already planning my next ultra by the time I finished.
Chris and Alex were waiting for me at the finish line. I had to wait a few minutes to get my time. They'd turned the power off and had to restart the computer. As I waited, Ray and his friend came running home. I would later find out they were the only finishers behind me, although 9 runners dropped out.
I followed the others back to the car and was more than happy to let Chris drive home. I was done. I had run my first ultra.
We stopped at a little climbing cafe called Pete's Eats that Chris knew on the way back to Cardigan. The good coffee and baked potatoes seemed to serve as a fitting full stop to the run, and the reality of the achievement began to sink in.
There's such a difference between believing you can do something and knowing you can.