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Wandering the World

Stories and tips from around the world.

Guernsey Ultra 36 #GU36

Last year I did GU36 for the first time in a time of 7:31:27, and in 38th place out of 109 finishers. It's a small race over a long distance, yet it was enjoyable enough to want to try this race at least one more time. It wasn't just scenic, but wherever you encountered locals they were friendly, and the aid stations were very helpful too. My races this year have not gone well at all due to factors affecting training for numerous months meaning that long runs could not really go that well without needing a break. Really, my goal for this years race should be just to finish it, but despite it all, I still wanted to do better than last year, to push myself that little bit harder. Could I do it? Beating last years time would feel really good, but would it be out of the question on so little preparation to try and get a sub-7:00 time? Most likely.

Kit List

There isn't really a mandatory kit list for this ultra marathon, but there are recommendations such as carrying a first aid kit. It's not just for your own safety but for those around you too. If you see someone have an accident you'll be in a position to help them before anyone else could get to them. What is mandatory is that you wear kit that is sensible for the conditions, enough water for yourself, and that you have the organisers number in your phone in case you need to withdraw.

For this race I used:

  • #ukrunchat technical tee,
  • #visorclub visor,
  • Flipbelt containing my iPhone and 200ml of orange Tailwind,
  • Knee-length nike shorts,
  • Absolute360 socks,
  • Saucony Omni 19 running shoes,

I'd considered calf sleeves to protect my legs where it'd be overgrown on the cliffs, but thought they may be better after the race for recovery. In my running backpack I was carrying:

  • Around 750ml of water,
  • Waterproof poncho,
  • Long sleeve top,
  • Snacks.

Whilst most people have a drop-bag for CP2, I decided to not bother as I wanted to keep my time at each checkpoint to a minimum, and I only run in road shoes anyway. I'd decided that the snacks would only be there for emergencies.

Pre-race Day

We'd flown into Guernsey the Friday afternoon so that today could be focussed on relaxing. It would have been nice to have run at parkrun, but I was sensible and just volunteered instead. I marshalled at one of the farthest points on the course, and was led there by Karen, a local runner who would be parkwalking and doing GU36 tomorrow also. I got to pet some dogs as I waited for the start, so there was some company at times. It’s a slow course though, and as it's two laps as well I didn’t see the tail walker for the second time until almost 10:00. It'd been a good ten minutes or so since I'd seen any others. He was running though as the last runner had suffered a fall and pulled out so the tail walker was going on ahead letting us know we were free to go. On the way back I collected up flags and signs and delivered them back to the organisers before joining a few parkrunners in the nearby cafe. A cup of tea and some Guernsey gâche was a good start to fuelling up for tomorrow's run.

For the rest of the day I sat around, trying not to be on my feet too much. This year we could collect race numbers on the day before the race between 17:00 and 19:00 from The Slaughterhouse, so made my way there to get my number, and then took it back to my room before then heading back out for some pre-race pasta from Gusto in the evening. It's the same place I went to last year with a group of runners, and I think last year I'd even had the same item from the menu, but this year it was with a few fried aubergines as well.

Last night had been a little restless, but as long as I could get a decent night of sleep today, I'd be all ready for the race ahead…

Race Day

The only downside to this race really is the early start. Last year when I was here I'd been up a hill that really wasn’t that great to walk up, even if I did it numerous times before and after doing this race. This time I’d booked a room in the Best Western at the bottom of the hill. It makes more sense really, and this way I’ll have had both experiences of racing in Guernsey.

At 05:40 I was up and having breakfast with over an hour to go until the race start. I’d got Crunchy Nut Clusters with bits of chocolate in them, and followed this with some water rather than the usual cup of tea I’d often have. At around 06:30 the time had come to head down to the monument. I was strangely calm about the prospect of running 36 miles today. The time had come to head to the race.

Two runners standing in front of a monument with other runners behind them

At the race start we still needed to sign-in so they knew who’d made it to the start. It didn’t feel quite as cool as it had done last year, so it already seemed like we’d have warmer conditions for this race. Unlike last year when there'd been several #visorclub members, this year the only one I really knew was Carmen To who I've crossed paths with at a few races over the years. There would have been a couple of others who'd been at last year's race as well, but they'd pulled out due to injury. At least there was someone to talk to; to contemplate the challenge that laid ahead of us. It’s moments like this you wonder why you’re doing a race like this, but then remember that it’s worth it for the scenic views and the challenge it brings. It’d be worth it when we crossed that finish line.

At 07:00 the race started, and I started further back than normal as I didn’t want to go off too fast. This was sticking with my 'game plan' to take the cliffs slower in the hope my legs would feel fresher hopefully for the flat section. I noticed a lot of people were taking this flat bit through town faster than I would have wanted to, so fell back a little as well during this stretch. It was still my fastest mile though, even with walking up the hill and onto the cliff path before the first mile was even over. Just like last year, the ‘normal’ route up the stairs at the start hadn’t been repaired so was again the same as I’d done before.

Unlike last year, the weather stayed fine and sunny throughout the majority of the early morning on the cliffs. There were times in the first few miles when I felt tired already and thought I didn’t have it in me to finish this race and perhaps it’d be a good idea to drop out at checkpoint 1, and just enjoy the rest of the weekend with legs that weren’t going to ache so much at the end. I kept going though, I ran down the hills and along most of the flats, and walked up the majority of hills to conserve energy where I could. Some of the smaller ascents it made sense to run up or at least until I felt my legs slowing down - aided by the momentum of running down a hill immediately before.

For a while I'd been stuck behind a runner with a walking pole in each hand, with them spread out either side of them it was impossible to pass in most places and I wondered how long my pace would be dictated by him. Those poles could be lethal overtaking at the wrong time. I kept focussing on what was ahead, trying to spot somewhere I could overtake. Eventually on one of the smaller inclines I jumped up onto the embankment and ran along that briefly in order to pass. It might not have been the best decision, but it got me in front of him. I was now able to return to my plan comfortably, and soon left the walking poles runner behind.

There were sections I definitely remembered from last year, not just from the race itself, but when I'd done some tourism the day after too. The hard slog of walking up some stairs to Jerbourg was all too familiar. I remembered how much I'd have my arms pressing into my legs thinking that pulling on them would help with climbing it faster if I was somehow using my arms to help. This familiarity helped me in places though so I knew where I was going without too much thought, and I didn't stop for photographs that would have been too similar to ones from last year. Maybe I'd still find some interesting views though later. Although I hadn't expected to, I was able to overtake a few runners in this first section too whilst others were also overtaking me. I felt like I was towards the back of the race, but it was hard to tell, and I'd got no idea how I was doing compared to last year.

Unfortunately just after mile 7 I couldn’t be sure which way to go, as I couldn’t see a ribbon to mark the way. As the general rule of thumb is “keep the sea on your left” I followed the path down into another bay. However, when looking behind me, I could see other runners continuing on slightly above me meaning that instead of turning left at the fork I should have continued on. I back-tracked back up the hill, wasting energy I'd be trying to conserve, and got back onto the actual route. Just one mistake - it wouldn't be a disaster for me just yet.

Last year there'd been a gate that I'd ran towards too quickly and had been unable to side-step quick enough and had instead gone into it. This year I slowed down enough at the last minute to instead get safely through. When I approached the first checkpoint at Petit Bot there were people cheering us all on as we approached. I could see a few familiar faces I'd seen on the route going through the checkpoint, and the marshals called out my number as I came in. Rather than stop, I repeated last years tactic of continuing straight through onto the steps, and in doing so caught back up with runners I’d lost sight of when I’d made that earlier mistake. I hoped I was still ahead of the runner with the walking poles.

A male runner on the road

The climb up out of Petit Bot is hard work compared to what has come before up to this point, but that could be that after eight miles you’re also starting to tire a little from the constant ups and downs of this cliff path. Just over ninety minutes done, and I was about five minutes slower last year. I didn’t know that at the time, but I had a feeling it was slower, but I was okay about that. I thought some of the terrain after CP1 wasn’t great, and I wondered how Carmen was going to cope with this with her depth-perception impacted from an eye infection. I’d slipped a few times already but had so far managed to stay standing. The worst of these was almost face planting on some steps after photographing a puffin statue at what I think was Le Gouffre Cafe. I was only in road shoes though - as of yet I've never done a run in trail shoes.

I’d gotten about one mile out from checkpoint 1 at the most, and got a message from Carmen that she’d fallen 3 miles in and had stopped at CP1, and would now see me at the end. I had no idea how serious it might be, just that she'd had a fall somewhere along this cliff path. I wasn't sure what to do, and thought I should pull out at CP2 so I could make sure she was okay. She'd cruelly had a potential PB snatched from her by unfortunate circumstances, and her race was over. She insisted I should carry on, so that is what I did, but I sped up.

The coast was now covered in fog which meant there weren’t really much in the way of views, and in places it actually made it difficult to see ahead for where the course was going. There had been times before CP1 when visibility had come in handy for being able to judge which way I should be going, but that was no longer an option. There was climb going into a steep descent where my glasses had misted up so much in the fog that I wondered if just removing them would be better over all. It wasn't really. I had to do my best to keep them clear, and struggled on, hoping I'd be lucky with foot placements. This path did however eventually lead into an area where I couldn't see my feet anyway as the vegetation was so thick. I'd remembered this from last year and knew I'd likely get stung. It didn't take long for that to happen again this year, and at times I could feel brambles catching on me and trying to pull me back. I hadn't realised they were cutting my legs to shreds as well, with cuts so deep that they'd take a few weeks to heal.

From previous experience though I knew that the effects of the nettle stings wouldn't feel so bad if I kept on running. Towards the end of this thicker vegetation it opened up a bit, but this time my left foot slipped and disappeared into the nothingness beneath the brambles. Knowing that to my left there was a very long drop I grabbed onto the plants to pull myself upright and got going again. The wetter weather during the lead up to this event had certainly made it harder this year.

Sometime after mile ten I rounded a corner and then saw a potential turn through more long grass, or straight on along a well worn path that looked like it might lead back into town. I couldn’t decide which was right, but thought maybe turning left through the tall grass seemed more likely as it would after all be closer to the cliffs. After a few minutes I saw nothing obvious to indicate this was the right route, so I turned back and then stopped. I looked at the other route and thought it didn’t seem familiar at all but tried it briefly. I back-tracked a little and saw more runners on their way behind me so I rounded the corner again and waited for them to catch-up with me to see which way they'd go. After a minute they hadn't caught up, so I walked back again and nobody was there. Where had they gone?

This time I saw another runner come around the previous corner, and I waited. He pointed down into the trees, and said it was that way. I ran back and looked at where he was pointing, and sure enough, difficult to see from the track unless you knew where you were looking, was an orange ribbon. Looking at your foot placement at the wrong moment would mean easily missing that one. Looking at a map after the race I found that if I’d continued on with my original mistake I would have eventually come out in the right place anyway. As it were, this was more lost time. More wasted energy on the cliff path. For the last couple of miles I'd felt that I just wanted to finish as soon as I could.

The cliff path dragged on, and for long periods of time I saw no other runners about. There had been one point where I’d caught up with another runner, and she'd asked me which way to go. I really couldn’t remember this section at all. There were no ribbons anywhere. The runner with walking poles caught up with us here, and we asked him, and he confidently pointed the right way. I got going again, and decided I’d try to stay ahead of them both for now. The sooner I got to CP2 the better, after all.

When crossing another car park I was told that the worst of it was now over and it was now mostly downhill, but there were still a few more climbs before descending down to the fairy pools. Last year I’d made a mistake on the descent and had gone down further than I’d needed to, just to then need to come back up on tricky terrain. Fortunately the ribbons here were clearer this time and I managed to get it right, and onto the road. The cliffs were over.

I had recollections from last year of forcing myself to run as soon as I’d hit the road and then hadn’t really stopped until I reached CP2. This year I allowed myself walking breaks whenever I felt was a good time to have one. There was another runner I’d caught up with which I’d now decided I’d stay ahead of, just as motivation to get into CP2 sooner.

They called out my number as I got near to CP2, and I let them know I didn’t have a bag. I was going to be quick through here. Twenty miles to go. On a good day, that by itself would be two and a half hours, but today I’d already tired my legs on the cliffs so wouldn’t be anywhere near that. So far it’d taken 3hr20 to reach CP2, and I was ten minutes behind last year’s time. Karen’s husband saw me and we had a quick chat. He then helped me with getting supplies from the checkpoint and within three to four minutes I was on my way again along Rue de Portelet. So far I’d been drinking from some orange Tailwind I’d got in my flipbelt, and with every gulp of that I’d have some water as well. At this second checkpoint I had a slice of Guernsey gache, some coca-cola, and a peanut butter Snickers. My fuelling was certainly more limited than last time, but Tailwind seemed to be working a treat.

I messaged Carmen to let her know I was out of CP2, and a few minutes later she called me so we could talk and I was now happy she was okay. I told her I’d try to get to the finish as quickly as possible but she insisted I take my time and stay safe as it was so warm already. She wasn’t kidding either, as the humidity in particular had felt oppressive in even just the first few miles.

Seeing Fort Grey, and the Guernsey Pearl cafe, I knew I’d run most of this stretch from Portelet last year. My memory was that I'd walked up the hill near L'Erée and had then switched to taking more walking breaks after that. My legs did feel fresher this time, but I still took walking breaks much sooner whilst making sure I ran a good portion of every mile, even if it was slow. I thought that maybe with pushing myself to run more regularly rather than making the running sections last longer than I felt I wanted to, I would overall run more of the remaining miles. The fog that had caused my glasses to mist towards the end of the cliff path had mostly burnt off now, but I still didn’t bother to stop for photographs. I got those last year, and this year the only difference would have been the fog when I'd been concentrating on being more careful. That may have made for some interesting shots though.

The flat section went ever on and on, and seemed like it was taking forever to get anywhere. I was over 20 miles in when I checked my phone to see how long it was until the next checkpoint. I realised there was only three, but in my mind there’d been four last year. I must have remembered that wrong. The miles ticked by and I thought of how this sort of distance feels in a marathon, and also thought about my reason for wanting to push on and get this run done faster. I think this helped me run more of it than I had done last year.

I overtook one runner, and made sure I stayed ahead as extra motivation to keep on going - I'd originally passed him on the way into CP2 some miles ago, and had overtaken him a few times since. When heading around into the area that cautions of drone use, this was the closest he got to catching up for the last time, and I remained ahead of him for the remainder of the race. A different runner overtook me at this point - she was powering through and running up the hill I was walking up. It was impressive to see someone taking hills with that much effort this far into the race.

Around mile 24 I found I’d run out of water, having started with less than a litre, so knew I’d need to top up at the Rousse checkpoint. Instead, I sipped on some Tailwind, and kept on plodding forward at a steady pace around the headland. When the checkpoint appeared I removed my backpack whilst running, and got it ready for topping up with water. They put a lot more in for me than I’d need, but that was okay - better to be safe than sorry as the next checkpoint would be the finish. Eleven miles to go. The only other fuel I got from that checkpoint was an orange Calippo. So far relying on the checkpoints for fuel, other than Tailwind and water, had been enough - my backpack snacks had gone untouched. I'd not even thought about using music like I had last year - I felt far more focussed on my goal.

Once I left CP3 I messaged Carmen again to let her know I was well on my way to her.

I knew last year I’d struggled to find somewhere to get rid of the rubbish, but this year found a bin pretty quickly after the checkpoint, and got running again as soon as I could. It was considerably warmer than this point last year too - I remembered last year it’d been dull and overcast, and hadn’t cleared until the last few miles. This year, the sun was still relentless. It didn’t help that around mile 29 I found my way following the path to a dead end where I had to turn back and go the other way at the fork in the road. Again, it was another junction with no ribbon to indicate the route. It had happened four or five times already.

I remember last year it difficult to push myself at times, but this year I was motivated to finish as soon as I could and this kept me going to a surprising fourth aid station where I had another glass of coca-cola, and a slice of homemade brownie. It sounded like most people had been avoiding the cake, but I was happy to dive in, figuratively. This station had been located where I’d made a mistake last year, so this year I knew the right way to go. I kept running when I could and tried to keep walking to a minimum as I finally reached Vale Castle. I had to dodge a police car in the car park, and a car that was reversing almost into that one. Fortunately I was walking at the time so could react quick enough, and made my way onto the grass and followed the path until it reached where the grass met a drop down onto the road.

As with last year I remembered jumping down off the wall to be a bit of a pain, and was sure there must have been a turn onto the road I’d missed somewhere. My thoughts then went to last year, not of running, but of when I’d cycled this way, and remembering the castle had been closed when I’d visited before. From there the harbour was familiar, and looking at my watch I felt like no matter what I did now, I was going to get a PB even if only marginal. If I could run as much of this as I felt capable of without pushing myself too hard, then it’d only improve.

Just keep going.

At a crossroads in town I had a vague recollection of going straight on there before, and fortunately found it to be correct despite the lack of markings. After having made several mistakes today where signage had been poor, this time I'd got it right. Eventually I could see the Liberation Monument in the distance from across Belle Grève Bay, over a mile left to go and I was now at seven hours. I knew this remaining section would drag on, and sure enough it did, but I tried to run as often as I could, for as long as I could without overly exerting myself. For the first time in ages I passed a runner and there was the occasional group of people along this section cheering runners on.

It felt so hot now.

I kept an eye out for China Red, knowing I’d be eating there later and figured it’d give me a good indicator of how far was left to go. I was sure that was about half a mile from the hotel. The monument had disappeared from sight and I’d got another corner to round. I knew shortly after that I’d be seeing landmarks that would indicate the finish was close. I wanted to run as much as what was left as I could, and wanted a sprint finish. Or rather, as close to a sprint as these legs could still manage. I got running again, and this time wasn't going to stop until I was done.

As I could see I was getting closer to the ships mast on the roundabout I sped up, and once I saw the planters ahead I knew I was just several seconds away now. I started to sprint, weaved past the planters and then jumped with my hand stretched out to ‘slap’ the monument as I sailed past it. I'd finished in 7:12:49 in position 56 of 125 finishers that day. Sadly there had been 11 that had not made it all the way to the finish that day.

After that last bit of effort I realised I didn't have to move any more. I laid on the floor whilst I caught my breath, and someone brought a medal over to me. I could see Carmen was a little bruised, but she was fortunately okay.

A male runner standing in front of Saint Peter Port's Liberation monument, and holding up a medal

So after a slow start, and what at times felt like I wasn't putting as much effort into the race despite the feeling I wanted to finish quicker I'd actually beaten last year's time by almost twenty minutes. My first PB since May 2019, even if only a course PB since it's not a distance I've done elsewhere. It was done, and now time to rest, refuel, and recover. Perhaps next year I'd manage that sub-7 hours time…

Next year? Well, it seems likely, even if I'd like to consider doing Jersey's Round the Rock ultra marathon.

Tags: guernsey race running sport travel trips ultra marathon

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© David G. Paul