I survived the Ring O’ Fire ultramarathon; I didn’t complete it but I did survive it 🙂
After all the training I lasted for 6 hours and 40 km, but just getting to the start line turned out to be a major adventure in itself.
The race started on Friday at 13:00, with my plan being to fly over on Thursday morning from Belgrade, and catch the direct train from London Euston station to arrive in Holyhead at 21:00, have a good sleep and be ready to run the next day. Well things didn’t quiet go that way, with so many things going wrong from Wednesday evening…
The evening before my flight I went to for a massage, and with my physiotherapist being away on holiday the masseuse said she would put some kinesio tape on my knees and back to hold me together. When I turned up she said she didn’t have any tape, but after massaging my back also said I really needed it. So then she frantically rang around other physiotherapists she knew, she, and her next client found me one on the other side of the city centre who would stay open until I got to him (it was after 20:00 by this time). So I went off to him, and he taped me up almost the same as my regular physiotherapist but as he wasn’t used to me it was never going to be the same.
So Thursday morning I was ready, bags packed, waiting for the taxi driver to take me to the airport. We get to the airport on time and then the Air Serbia checkout people tell me that as I hadn’t reserved a seat I had the choice of going to London via Athens, or having a refund. For the first time ever that I have flown with Air Serbia the flight was full, not only full but they had taken the money from more customers than they had seats in the plane. This was normal business practice they assured me, and basically I could take it or leave it as they had decided that I (and a few others) weren’t going to get a seat on the plane, even though I had bought a ticket a few months before. Air Serbia won’t be in my Top Business list that is for sure. Having checked online there was a later train from Euston, but only to Birmingham, with a 4 hour wait until the 05:30 train to Holyhead so in theory I could still get to the start line of the Ring O’ Fire. I also had to pay for another train ticket, but they weren’t interested in that either.
So first time ever to Greece, totally the wrong direction, but it was clear from the mentality of the Air Serbia staff that it was either that or get a refund; they couldn’t care less. Had 4 hours sat in Athens airport before getting a British Airways (BA) flight to Heathrow. Serbia is one of a tiny minority of countries that BA don’t fly to (they used to), and only having mainly flown with Air Serbia over the past few years it was good to enjoy a much higher standard of plane/staff/flight, even if I was not really happy to be there in the first place.
Arrived in Heathrow, just had time to get the Heathrow Express, and the tube to Euston in time to get the train to Birmingham. Arrived at 01:30, less than 12 hours before the race started, and not having had any sleep yet. Birmingham New Street station is having a major refit, so as I got off the train the announcer said the station was now closing so all passengers must leave the station. So what do you do in Birmingham on a Friday morning from 01:30 until your next train at 05:30? I went around the corner to the Britannia hotel thinking I could get a few hours sleep at least. The sign said £47 for a single, but the manager hiding in his office told the receptionist to say to me it would be £140 for 3 hours; needless to say the room stayed empty and wouldn’t recommend this place to anyone. The 24-hour Starbucks Birmingham New Street was the only place along the high street open, so I went in and stayed there for 3 hours. The friendly staff were great, and given I wasn’t a drunk or party-goer they were more than happy to just let me stay and have the occasional coffee (would recommend this place if you are in Birmingham).
Caught the 05:30 train and arrived at Holyhead, on Anglesey, at 08:30. No sleep (managed about a hour in total on the final train journey) for 26 hours now and my first ultramarathon was just a few hours away! I had sent Dave the owner of the Beach Hut Guest House a message so he knew not to expect me for the night, but he was ready to give make me breakfast and to let me use a room to have a shower/get ready, so I did get a decent full English breakfast on Friday.
Fortunately, another runner was staying at same guest house and he gave me a lift to the start area in the Breakwater National Park. Welcomes all round from the organisers, volunteers, and also from the other runners; they all made me feel a part of the event and that it was so worth the hassle of getting there. Much more of a close, friendly run than one gets at major city runs. Most people had seen each other at different events and so there was a great atmosphere at and around the start of the race. But it was chilly, with a strong breeze coming off the Irish sea. The daunting Holyhead Mountain was in front of us, this being the final part of the race, so if you survive for 134 miles/215 km you have this to look forward to in the last mile to get to the finish line!
After a briefing by Bing, my GPS tracker attached to my backpack that contained my emergency blanket, first aid kit, survival whistle, maps, and compass, the adrenaline of starting my first ultramarathon was over-riding the tiredness I felt.
And at 13:00 we were off, and at 13:01 just over 100 of us came to the first wooden kissing gate and had to wait one by one to get through, and the same happened at around 13:03, but then we were all on our way. We ran along the coastal path. The first few kilometres this also took us around Holyhead, and plenty of bemused looks from locals and tourists (along with welcoming remarks and clapping). Then across bridge, turned left and were very soon onto the rocky cove. This is where the fun really started…
Try running for a kilometre or more across a very large pebble cove, with the tide coming in, and into what felt like a gale force cold wind; exhilarating, but cold. Then it was across farmer’s fields and up and down hills. At the first checkpoint, around 9.5 miles/15 km from the start my body felt good, but I was still cold, and getting colder. At the second checkpoint (~16.5 miles/26 km) I was the same, enjoying the race but getting colder and colder. Things were also getting tougher as the hills were becoming much bigger and much steeper, so it was very much a run when you can, and walk up the hills time. Given I was getting colder all the time, every time I stopped to walk up a hill it was becoming harder to start again as my legs muscles tightened up. The winds whilst running along the cliff tops were strong, but they became extremely strong when running across several more pebble beaches. At around 30 km I went through a stile to find a few hundred cows looking up wondering what on earth I was doing there. Trying to get through them was amusing.
I reached the penultimate checkpoint (25 miles/40 km at just before 19:00) on Day 1 and was shivering. Given that the final 10.4 miles/16.5 km would take me into the night and I wasn’t running with anyone I decided that enough was enough. Getting hypothermia and being lost somewhere with vehicles unable to get to you I just decided was not worth the risk (the ambulance was called out for one runner suffering from hypothermia during the race). The team at the checkpoint were great, they found me a blanket and some tea, and then got my emergency blanket from my bag. Thanks to Toby who drove me to the Amlwch Leisure Centre, the final stop for the day, and made sure I was OK. As we hadn’t removed the tracker (or even thought about it) my speed over the stage must have seemed fantastic for those tracking me live!
At the Leisure Centre, those involved with the race (organisers and volunteers) were very helpful. The few (fastest) runners who were back all understood where I was coming from and the leisure centre staff were helpful with meals, directions. I had a cool shower, and managed to get myself onto a massage table where the masseuse got my legs working again. At this point, around 20:00 I had not had any sleep for around 38 hours and whilst I was no longer freezing I was a bit exhausted. As I was out of the race the thought of a 05:00 wake-up call the next morning was not appealing so I looked to other options. The Leisure Centre staff first tried a taxi as the best option would be to return to Holyhead, but even they were amazed that it would cost £50. Eventually I walked into Amlwch’s town centre and found a quiet room at the Dinorben Arms hotel, and crashed out there. Thanks to the Scottish taxi driver who drove me back to the Leisure Centre to get my gear and back to the hotel then charged me half of what the meter said I owed him, think it was out of pity for what I had been up to that day!
After a very good English breakfast the next morning, Saturday, I left Amlwch and caught the bus to Holyhead, only £3.50 (bit cheaper than a taxi!) I spent the day wandering around Holyhead, and watching England beat Ireland at rugby, and then Wales beat Italy. As the Beach Hut Guest House was fully booked I had to find another place, and as it was close-by I found a room at the Stanley Arms pub, and after eating there went off to bed.
Woke up Sunday morning and when I went downstairs found that everything was still all locked up. This was 08:00 and as it was a Sunday I thought that maybe they just started late, however when I came back down again at 08:45 the place was still all locked up with only a one way door out to the car park available. As I was hungry I didn’t want to just sit around so got my stuff and decided that as I had paid up front for the room I didn’t need to stay and wait for anyone. So I went out to the car park, and found that the main gates were padlocked. So now I was out of the building, with no way back in, high walls all around the car park, and the high gates locked. Only one thing to do, put my rucksacks carefully onto the top of the gate and climb over, receiving an odd look from a passer-by but such is life. Fortunately the Beach Hut Guest House was open and as I wasn’t going to be getting breakfast there the next day (leaving too early) I got a free breakfast in lieu of this.
Then it was off to the Breakwater National Park to watch and congratulate those who had stayed in the Ring O’ Fire finish. Richard Heath came home first, in a new record time of 22 hours 19 minutes of actual running. Like the first dozen or so who came in over the next few hours, they all looked like it was a stroll in the park and they could turn around and run it the other way with no problem at all. Phenomenal group of runners, and they all deserved their medal and the bottle of Purple Moose beer. Well done to all who were there on the start line, and congratulations to all those who got to the finish line, a massive achievement. And finally well done to all involved behind the scenes, the organisers, volunteers and supporters, they all made it a great race to be part of, and a great place to be.
Just to finish my adventure, the trip back was so uneventful that it isn’t worth commenting on. Needless to say I got up at 05:00 and was in my home at 17:00 (UK time) so 12 hours; just as it should have been getting there, but wasn’t!
So to finish this post a few questions to be answered:
How much was raised?
In total for this event I raised £830 (~€1,130 / 135.000 RSD); this will all go towards the Bowel cancer charities I support.
Thank you everyone who donated directly or via the events. I am aware that many had already helped with raising money (£4,200) when I ran the London Marathon earlier on in the year.
Would I enter again?
Think I’ll go as per Sir Steve Redgrave in Atlanta 1996 on that one 🙂
Would I recommend this race to others?
Yes, most definitely 🙂
How could the race develop?
Make it harder – do a non-stop 135 mile race!
Make it easier – now it’s an established race look to build up with those just starting to run ultras by making it possible to do Day One (as currently) an option in its own right – 35.7 miles / 57.1 km is still an ultra itself.