The last time I ran an ultra marathon was Race to the Stones. It’d been a hard 62 miles, possibly the hardest race I’ve ever done, but I hadn’t intended on it being so long before doing another. Guernsey was supposed to be a chance for adventure, and to experience running long distances again.
Over the last couple of years I’ve planned runs that have taken me on trails, some with considerable climbs where in places it did include stairs. The Round Sheffield Run for example had 587 metres of climbing across 14.63 miles. There were breaks in that as it was broken into stages, but with those breaks it took me a little over two hours. For this race I’d be looking at almost 900 metres of ascent across 36 miles. I wasn’t sure really how this’d compare, or what sort of time I’d be able to do it in, but I figured as long as I completed it, and enjoyed the day - it’d have been well worth the challenge. That trail race however was eleven months ago, so probably wouldn’t help that much other than as a vague reminder of what trails are like.
Today was an earlier start than yesterday, needing to be up at 05:00 so I could have breakfast before heading to the Liberation Monument for the race registration. It was only one week ago that Guernsey was celebrating the 77th anniversary of the liberation of this island during the second world war. I’d seen some signs of this celebration already and would most likely see some more before the day was over.
Photo courtesy of Si
I met up with a few runners I know at the start where we had a group photo for #racecheck, and waited for the race to begin. They gave us a twenty second warning before starting - which was lucky as I hadn’t noticed the time due to talking. At 07:00 the race had begun, and some were off like a rocket - the one who would eventually win the race out-paced everyone from the very start. In terms of my own pace, I was going quicker than I’d planned, but still slower than I'd run at the start of any previous race. Hopefully I’d be sensible over the miles that followed.
After about half a mile of running through the town, it then hit the first of the inclines on the road up to where the cliff trail starts. This was a slightly different route to previous years apparently as there’s another path onto it they usually take, but that has not been repaired since the storm damage in 2020. Once onto the cliff path I switched to walking most of the climbs, and making up some of the lost time on the flats and the descents. Whilst my first mile was done in 09:30, the miles that followed it averaged from 11:00 to 12:00 per mile depending on what the stairs upwards were like. Early on it started to rain, and as it got heavier I decided to walk to get my disposable poncho from my backpack. This was only needed for a few minutes, and then it started to warm up and the poncho was not helping at all. Instead, I took it off and tied it to my backpack without stopping. At some point miles later I decided even if it rained again now, I wasn’t going to use it so put it away in my backpack. We’d been forecast a thunderstorm all day, so this one little bit didn’t seem too bad. Maybe the storm coming across from France would miss us.
These first few miles were very mixed, and the trail reminded me of another race, but I couldn’t quite place which one. I’d wondered if it was Nepal, which was a much steeper race overall due to it being on the side of an actual mountain, but felt it must have been a part of Race to the King or Race to the Stones instead - they both had more elevation than this too. My friend, Carmen, had warned me about what the steps were like, but I don’t think any description can really do them justice. It’s them, not the elevation changes, that make this hard work.
For a lot of the first eight miles to the first checkpoint I had other runners around me constantly, and we’d shift places depending upon how fast we wanted to take different sections - some preferred a much slower pace on the stairs in either direction, but would then overtake on the flats, or vice-versa. One of the really handy things about doing this race today was that I’d be able to look out for places to lock up a bike tomorrow. The first of these places was Jerbourg, where I would want to walk down to Petit Port to get a photograph looking out of a cave there. Today though, I was taking frequent photographs using my iPhone of anything I thought was worthwhile - this did mean stopping an awful lot after rounding that first headland.
Somewhere around Moulin Huet there’s also two picture frames through which you can see a view of what Pierre-Auguste Renoir once painted. These two frames are actually part of a Renoir walk that allows people to see the many different views he spent years painting.
By seven miles into the run, I was having one jelly baby every mile or so, and half of the group I’d been running with were now far enough ahead to no longer see them. The other half had dropped not too far behind me. At the time I was pretty sure one of them was the first of the female runners as well (she actually wasn't, I think she was actually the second!), so if I was this far forwards, I was probably going too fast too soon. She would pass me again later around Pleinmont and would then get further and further ahead. What this spreading out meant practically for now was that I was no longer following anyone and would have to rely on my own navigation and observational skills. Oh great!
Fortunately I spotted orange ribbons when I needed to, and eventually descended down to Petit Bot Bay for the first checkpoint. Along the way there though I took a descent too quickly and couldn’t slow down for the gate - I mildly winded myself crashing into it. I was cheered into the checkpoint, but I kept on moving whilst they asked if I needed anything.
“No thanks, all good,” and I kept on running and actually ran up that first hill. One of the few I had done.
I’d made good time getting to that first checkpoint. This next section was the harder cliff section I think, but I spotted every orange ribbon in plenty of time, even when it was almost the last second from a chance glance the right way. What made this more difficult was that the stairs down were steeper, and the steps back up just the same. It meant more care was needed going down, but I refused to walk them. I wondered how a friend thought about these, as I knew she wasn’t that keen on heights. On the way back up the climbs were starting to pull on my hamstrings. The last two miles of this cliff section, rounding Pleinmont, were probably the hardest of the cliff section. There were also plenty of paths that were overgrown and I could at times feel where I’d been stung by nettles, but would later forget about it.
Somewhere along that cliff section I went inside what I think was one of the observation towers, and also photographed a large anti-aircraft gun. Well, I’d already made plenty of stops for a bit of tourism photography - I figured I might as well make the most of being in the area even if it meant losing a bit more time. It was also where I started to be overtaken by people again, at first by about three or four. These soon disappeared far enough ahead of me that I was soon alone once more.
During that final descent I did wonder if I’d gone the wrong way. The path led down to a rocky outcrop and then went to the right where the only option would be to go through some rocks. This came back onto another path that went past the Table des Pions. Looking behind me I could see the route down I’d taken, whether right or not, got me to the same place that going straight on would have taken me as well. There were no orange ribbons in sight still though, so I still had this nagging doubt. I then saw someone walking towards me, and he shouted something, but I couldn’t figure out what he’d said. As I got closer I heard him say, “that’s a nice easy number,” He then explained he was radioing numbers ahead so that drop bags could be ready for people as they reached the checkpoint. I was going the right way!
I was running on the road then, running towards civilisation, to checkpoint 2 - just over sixteen miles into the race. I’d not provided a drop bag as I had no intention of changing my shoes. I went straight to the aid station and looked at what they had. There was such a variety, but there was so much I was unsure of how well it’d sit in my stomach for the next 20 miles. Trying something you’ve not tried on a run before is not a good idea, especially when there’s so many miles left. I wanted to finish this. It’d been some time since I’d given up on jelly babies and had eaten a handful of nuts.
I decided on a square of granola which crumbled in my hands as I tried to pick it up, so one of the marshalls gave me a cup to put some in. I also ate a slice of Guernsey fruit loaf which was buttered. Despite me not liking butter, it did taste good and I didn’t seem to taste the butter at all. They also topped up my water bladder, and after thanking the marshalls I started walking out of there as I finished eating the granola. It was 10:20, and 100 minutes before the cut-off time. Two down, two to go.
When I left the checkpoint, I soon started to wonder if I was going the right way. I didn’t run for very long at all before I started to walk and looked around me. There was nobody I could see as far as the sea wall stretched in either direction. Was I going the right way? I got running again, but found it wasn’t easy at all - I was so tired. Despite Carmen’s warning from her previous experience, I think I’d spent too long at the checkpoint. During the cliff section I’d gotten used to knowing when I’d next walk, but here along the seafront the best I could do was decide on a spot in the distance and agree with myself I’d run to there, and then walk. It didn’t really work though, and I found it difficult to find a rhythm. Looking back now I should have concentrated on dividing up each mile by minutes or distance instead, and making sure I ran so much of each one. Being that specific, instead of a vague goal would have been a way to push me on, and is something I’ve done on marathon training before when it got quite tough in the summer months.
Anyway, for a while I was doing run-walk splits, but once a local caught up with me we got talking and I ran with them for a few miles, passing by Fort Saumarez. They’d run the Guernsey marathon just four weeks ago, and apparently it was a very similar route, but without the cliff section. Whilst there wouldn’t be the steps, I still imagined it to be a very hard race with plenty of hills to run up and down. I started to tire again though, and at that point I dropped back and started to walk.
At twenty miles, I thought about the distance I’d got left to do. Sixteen miles. If I’d not run so many miles already, I’d do that distance in under two hours. That wasn’t going to happen today. I’d got five hours to cover it in, and if I did my usual walking pace of 15:00/mi then it’d take four hours. I knew this meant that as long as I didn’t injure myself, I could actually finish it. Ideally I wanted a little more time than that though, so I was determined to have a few bursts of running every now and then to keep the time down. Knowing it didn’t matter if I ran or not now, didn’t really motivate me to run. So if I didn’t feel like it, I didn’t. By 21.5 miles I didn’t feel like I could run much more anyway. For a flat part of the course I could certainly feel some small hills still. What I did find though is that the further you get into an ultra marathon, the more you lose your sense of time.
The motivation signs I’d seen at various points on the cliff section seemed more frequent after checkpoint 2, but for the most part I’d ignored them. Many of them were phrases I’d seen many times before, and at many races. If I’d focussed on them, maybe it would have helped. There was one that made me laugh though, and at the same time thought “yes I can.”
It was great getting to see what the different parts of the coast were like though, some parts were incredibly rocky and with the tide out I could see little rock pools. I wondered if there were crabs in any of them that I could photograph if I thought the amount of effort required was worthwhile. I didn’t. The downside to this flatter area was that for some of it I had to run along loose sand. It wasn’t as bad as Malawi, but it was bad enough - the sand would shift under foot, and would make you use even more effort to keep going. On some of the sandy stretches it was possible to walk through some grass on the banks to the side, but sometimes even this wasn’t that much better.
I did notice that not everyone was following the orange ribbons quite so closely. There was one headland where you needed to cut across a car park, but one runner was already too far the wrong way to warn them they’d gone past the turn and was now adding on extra distance. At another headland the orange ribbons indicated you needed to follow this one around, but I saw one runner stay on the road where he couldn’t see the ribbon, and missed out some of the course. I imagine in the grand scheme of things the two would balance out anyway.
During my long periods of walking I occasionally browsed Twitter or Facebook to think about other things. I saw a post from over an hour ago saying that Checkpoint 3 was ready. I replied to it saying I’d be there soon. I figured if I walked it all then it’d take me 45 minutes yet. This checkpoint was at Rousse, 25 miles in, and was where Peter Tiffin, the former race organiser, was manning the station. The first thing I did was to get a calippo, and then I asked if he knew how Carmen was doing. He didn’t know, but I asked him a massive favour and asked if he could message me when she came through - just so I’d have the peace of mind of knowing that she was going to complete it. I had no doubt she was going to, but it’s nice to get that reassurance as I knew how much this race meant to her. It’d also give me an idea of how much time I’d have to get her balloon at the finish.
Although I don’t really like cola-flavoured ice lollies, the callipo tasted amazing. It was cold, and exactly what I needed. What I should have done was finish it at the checkpoint so I could have gotten rid of the rubbish. Instead I walked for quite some time, holding onto the rubbish until I found a bin, and then got running again. I then walked, and even stopped for a while along Chouet Bay where there was racing around a course of tyres on the sand. I took a few photographs, got some video, and then got going again. This was the source of the engine noise I’d heard for a while before getting there, and for a while afterwards as well.
I realised I was past the marathon distance now for the first time in a few years. I was also conscious of the area that went through a golf course as well. There’s a sign saying to keep an eye out for stray golf balls, but the problem is they’d likely be moving fast, and at this point I’m sure many of us wouldn’t be able to move fast enough if we needed to. I don’t think I could have at least. This next section had a barrier across it, but I noticed there was an orange ribbon on a path to the side of the barrier so followed it round past an area that is apparently used for flying model aircraft. It seemed to be a bit of an industrial area too.
The next time I made a stop for photographs was at Fort Doyle. There was now less than 10K to go. So you’d have easily thought less than an hour of running to go. That really wasn’t the case though. There were a few places in this remaining stretch where I took the wrong turn and had to backtrack. The first of these was across a carpark and onto some grass where I’d barely gone a few metres before I realised I’d gone wrong - I actually needed to go back out onto the road. The second time however was just after Vale Castle. I hadn’t spotted any signs ahead and as I saw a left turn towards the sea, I took it. This however turned out to be a mistake as at the end of this long road was a large security gate, and I had to go back up the hill to rejoin the course where I’d left it. I’d had over a dozen people overtake me since checkpoint 2, and about half a dozen since checkpoint 3. On my way back up to rejoin the course a couple more overtook
Just before this though, when I’d reached Vale Castle, and was running up the grass near an area where people were picnicking around a kiosk, this was when I saw a couple of rabbits before they scampered into the bushes.
I could see the clock ticking closer to 14:00, and no sign of Carmen getting to checkpoint 3. I was getting concerned that something may have gone wrong. After all her hard work she had to do it, it was unimaginable that she wouldn’t. Still, I was now checking my watch every few minutes, willing it to show I’d received a text message. Maybe Peter had forgotten? Then at 13:53 I received the text message to say she was past the checkpoint. They were going to do it! The relief of this gave me the encouragement to get moving - I realised she’d be maybe 2 to 2.5 hours yet, but I could use that time to look around Castle Cornet as well. What I hadn’t realised though was that I was tired enough to be misremembering the cut-off times. It was actually 14:30, and she’d absolutely smashed it. Time to get moving.
Once past the headland for St. Sampson’s Marina, my eyes followed the coastline around, wondering what I’d got coming up next. I knew I had to be getting close now, and assumed what I could see was St. Peter Port. I then recognised Castle Cornet, so knew the monument must be nearby. If I could get running again I’d be there soon.
As I got closer I realised the monument wasn’t where I was expecting it to be. Had I been mistaken with what I’d seen? There was a corner I wasn’t expecting, and after that I could see the castle again, and there was no mistaking it. There was a park area not too far ahead now. Was that the monument? From this direction I didn’t recognise it, but I started to run, and kept running. For the first time in about thirty miles I actually overtook another runner instead of the other way around - even though they’d only overtaken me a few minutes before. Eventually I realised this was it. I rounded the last corner and was unsure where I was supposed to stop, so ran over to the tent. Someone shouted to me to touch the monument, so I turned back, touched it, and stopped my watch. It was done.
This race had never been about time or position, it’d been about the experience, and then about wanting to support someone else. Whilst I was pretty sure I could have put more effort into this, it was over now. I finished in 7:31:27 in 38th place out of 109 finishers (the last two of these were actually a little over the ten hour cut off - but still finished!).
I was given a medal, and then a small t-shirt. I sat down at the monument briefly and found they’d got orange calippos here so had one of those, and walked back to my hotel room as I ate it. I’d not wanted to stop at any of the kiosks on the way for ice cream, and this one ice lolly made that wait worthwhile for how much better it made it feel.
At the hotel I picked up the LEGO minifigure of myself, my camera, and attached the balloon to my running backpack so it was now bouncing around behind me. Although I don’t like sparkling water, I drank a whole bottle of it, and then made my way to Castle Cornet.
I was surprised how well the walk to the castle went, it must have been the fact the last twenty miles had barely involved any running at all. Along the way I stopped briefly to buy a rum and raisin ice cream - I didn’t really feel like proper food yet, and making sure I was taking on some liquids, even frozen, would be a good idea. The entrance to the castle cost £10.50, and they do accept contactless which is always nice now. I did however forget to check if it was one of the sights that use the Discovery Pass - so it could have worked out much cheaper.
I think on fresher legs that didn’t mind lingering longer, I could probably spend close to an hour looking around, but instead I tried to not stay standing in any one place too long. My main concern though was making sure I didn’t miss Carmen finishing, and I’d estimated that to be between 16:00 and 16:30. So I quickly took photographs, and saw the entire castle in around half an hour. I then headed back to the Liberation Monument, with the balloon hidden behind me just in case. I spoke to Peter first, and then saw a couple of runners from the group had finished too, so congratulated them next. I was torn on where to wait - I could wait at the monument and see her finish, or I could find a spot to cheer from. I decided cheering her on felt right, and I was able to find a spot where I could hide the balloon behind a wall, and sat on the floor. The only downside to this was that it was in direct sunlight, and I was sure I’d end up burning. I just needed to wait a little longer.
I saw Keith and Kyla and cheered them on, they let me know Carmen wasn’t too far behind. I guess they’d realised who I was waiting for. However, after at least ten minutes had passed, one of the other runners from the group sent their partner out looking, and then went themselves too so they could run with her to the finish. When I saw Carmen coming around the corner with Julie I leapt to my feet and started clapping.
Carmen tried this race in 2019, and had done so well, but had unfortunately timed out at checkpoint 3. She’d trained so hard since then, with all sorts of training, looking at using stairs more, back to back races, and all the cardio she does too. It’d seen her times drop massively such as at the Manchester Marathon. Now she’d achieved her goal of finishing this race, her unfinished business, and I was so happy for her for doing it. At the finish, even our LEGO minifigures celebrated completing the race, after I’d given her the balloon to celebrate her first ultra marathon.
Photo courtesy of Kyla
I’m sure I’ve never been so lucky as I have been this weekend, and having a room on the ground floor with a bath was certainly a lucky thing. Whilst this was a chance to relax, I eventually walked for about ten minutes back along part of the course to reach a Chinese restaurant called Red China. This was my first proper Chinese meal since getting back from China ten years ago! I went with egg fried rice as that was a type of rice I’d never actually had before (I usually had what our tour guide referred to as ‘sticky rice’ - steamed), and kung pao chicken with cashews. It was very nice, and very filling - just what was needed. It was a good chance to talk to the group one last time as well. We had all done what we’d set out to do, we’d gone the distance. Tomorrow we’d all be going our separate ways.