Saturday, 30 June 2012

Ultra Trail South West - Race Report

Award Ceremony - thanks to Simon Ritter for photo

I was both excited and apprehensive of entering the Ultra Trail South West 100. This would be my second 100m race to date with my last being 2 years ago. That was at the Lakeland 100 and it turned out a true disaster coming in at around the 31 hour mark. I have done a lot of running since the Lakeland but it would be true to say that 100 milers are new to me.

Many people asked me: “how long will it take you?” and my usual response was “I’ll be glad to the finish, thanks!”.  I am pleased to say I crossed that finish line and here are my thoughts from the day:

The Ultra Trail South West 2012

A wee introduction to the course. The event is organized by Endurancelife ( who organize a variety of events along the Cornish and Devon coastline including the Classic Quarter and the Coastal Trail Series amongst others. Check them out.

The Ultra Trail South West 2012 covers a 100-mile stretch of the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall. The path itself covers a stretch of around 630 miles and is maintained by the National Trust. According to Wikipedia:

The path originated as a route for the Coastguard to walk from lighthouse to lighthouse patrolling for smugglers. They needed to be able to look down into every bay and cove: as a result, the path closely hugs the coast providing excellent views but rarely the most direct path between two points.

Lesson over.

The race is claimed to be the toughest foot race in the UK and there are many reasons for this. The multi-terrain is extremely technical in places, there’s a lot of climbing and descending , with much of the course exposed to strong winds.

The race covers a different section of the SWCP each year with the 2012 edition covering a stretch of the coast from Porthleven to Watergate Bay (north Newquay).

As far as terrain is concerned, runners will need to tackle road, trail, forest, sandy beaches, very large sand dunes (some stretching on for 2 miles!), rocks, pebbles, cliff faces, tin mining areas, and some extremely large boulders! The course has a cumulative gain of around 6500 metres.

The event started at 7pm to ensure everyone faced a night section and of course to make the event that little more difficult.

I have been truly looking forward to this event for a good few months. I love the coast (I have spent most of my life along it), it’s the kind of terrain that you can say is truly ‘alive’. The views of the cliffs and wave cut platforms are magnificent. At night listening to the sea smashing up against the cliffs adds to the drama, character and excitement of the run.

My Approach

For me, it was key to recce the entire route: a) to know what laid ahead, b) reduce the risk of getting lost on the day (this didn’t work!!); and c) note key locations to use on race day to get an understanding of how far I had left. I therefore took the time to go down to Cornwall on 3 or so occasions to check out what we had in store.

Kit wise:

I was expecting to wear the new Solomon Sense shoes but they gave me massive blisters so I had to run on the day wearing the NB MT100 which are 4mm differential and are a reasonably minimalist trail shoe. The key point to these though were they had a very good rock plate which really looked after the sole of my feet during the race. Not an ideal shoe for 100 miles or for any road sections but they would have to do.

I was also wearing the Newline Imotion tee, Newline Stormpack Jacket and BTN NF shorts.

I would be using my Elete eletrolytes (seriously, if you don’t use this stuff, DO IT!!). The Salomon SLAB pack, a few GU gels, some 9bars, a hot cross bun (I know!) and whatever I could get my hands on at the CPs.

Finally, I taped a pic of my boy on my water bottle, to give me that lift I may need later on in the race J

Just before the start, I knocked back a Redbull. I know! Absolutely disgraceful. I picked that habit up doing a training run with Oliver Sinclair. In training, I knocked back a couple of tins and was running around like a rabbit so thought it may help on the day. Can I suggest that this is not a great idea for such a long event?

The Race

The race started at Porthleven and this is where I met Stuart Mills and Neil Bryant. It was great to finally meet Neil who only recently raced and won the 110 Hardmoors and is of course one of a few who have completed the John o’ Groats to Land’s End challenge (and win it).

I try not to worry too much about who is running and simply focus on my own challenge that lies ahead. As always I tend to go out way too fast and pay for it later on. It seems to work for me and I find it very difficult to play the game any other way. Perhaps this will come with more experience.

A quick group photo and we were off. I started at the back and then realized that the first section is very narrow so made the decision to try and get out in the open and as far up front as possible. I could see Neil ahead with a guy in front of him who looked like he was competing in a 10k!

I ran in a group of 3 for a while myself, Neil, and another guy who looked very fast. I wasn’t sure who the guy ahead of us was so I decided to push on a bit, knowing that I would probably see Neil and the other guy later on when I was shuffling along!

After a couple of mile I caught up with the guy who was knocking out an unbelievable pace only to be told he was running the relay. Doh! Dan this is not how you should be running a 100 miler!

It was about 7 miles in that I began to feel a hot spot under my left foot. Shit, this was not a good sign. I had not had enough time to properly break-in my trainers so this was to be expected. I passed the relay team and pushed on once I hit a short road section which took me neatly into CP1.

Just before I hit the CP there is a short section which requires a run across a sandy beach. As soon as I hit this section my shoes sucked up the sand with style that Mr. Henry would be proud of. I reached CP1 threw off my shoes and socks emptied the sand and got to town working on that hot spot. A quick shake, refresh of my bottle and one of those fancy foot plasters and I was ready to crack on. The hot spot didn’t affect me for the rest of the race.
In the famous words of Michael Barrymore, “What is a hot spot not”? Never could understand what the crowd shouted back… ha ha.

The second stage was pretty uneventful. Oh other than not seeing any pirates in Penzance, running past a massive fun fair, watching a seal swim close into the harbor arm for a bit, and getting some strange looks from guys and girls on the Friday night razz!

I wanted to get the first half of this section out of the way. It was mainly on road and I was not wearing the right footwear for this. But also it presented a short opportunity to run at a reasonable pace as things were about to get a lot slower and trickier underfoot. It wasn’t long before I hit the trail which felt a lot better on the feet heading towards CP2 at Lamorna.

Unfortunately, CP2 had yet to be set up, so I made sure some relay guys waiting for their team mates took down my number and time and I cracked on. I was a little concerned that I would be disqualified at this stage but later learnt that there was technical difficulties and a few went by without dibbing their ‘dibber’. To be honest I was a little grateful as it meant I could simply push on and had no excuse to stop. I knew there were a couple of streams ahead that would provide water so I topped up along the way. Next stop Land’s End!

I held on as long as I could before throwing on the headtorch -  there were a few parts which required running through a forest which made it overly dark, so I threw on the headtorch and prepared myself for a bit of night running.

This section was beautiful (if you could see it in the dark), it required runners to run through Portcurno, up and past Minack Theatre (an open theatre carved into the rocks and cliff face). I had a good view behind me so thought I would take a sneaky look at who was close by. Nothing. I expected to see Neil and the other chap close on my tail (or at least the relay teams) but there was just darkness. Not a headlight to be seen. I later learnt that Neil had a bad episode with a dog and hurt his foot quite badly which caused him to pull early on in the race.

I had been running for about 5 hrs when I hit CP3 at Land’s End. This was the first kit drop and I was pleasantly met by Oliver who ushered me into a nice warm room that had loads of food, chairs, hot soup, lots of people to talk to and my kit bag with loads of goodies in. Places like this can really add to your time, so I ripped open the drop bag re-stocked on nutrition and pushed on. It’s just too easy to sit down in these places so getting out quick was key for me. I must mention at this stage that on saying goodbye to everyone at the CP, I tripped over the door step and nearly ended my race!

Coming out of LE
The section between Land’s End to Pendeen Watch felt long. In fact I ended up getting lost twice at this stage and in the same place as I got lost in training with Oliver. This was evident when I noticed I was very close to the cliff edge and there was a barbed wire fence to my right. I jumped over the fence and kept running in land (up and over large hills with gorse bushes to tackle) until some kind of distinctive path showed up. This certainly cost me some time!

Land's End

The race manual described the next stage leading to Zennor Head as difficult. That just doesn’t cut it. It was horrendous, made worst by a lazy and stupid omission that cost me a lot of time and very nearly my life!

By now my head torch was starting to lose its light/power and was screaming out for some fresh batteries. At this stage I should have spent a couple of minutes changing my battery but failed to do so.

The coastal path is quite faint through this stage with a lot of rocks on the path itself (requiring a lot of hopping, skipping and jumping) and sharp turns. In addition, there are a lot of descents on boggle wet grass with boulders randomly sticking out and in places the path seems to completely disappear. At night, this was really quite challenging. Even more so, with little light.

There is a common pattern along the coastal path. Each cliff section usually ends with a sharp descent, a short river / stream crossing over a bridge, followed by a steep climb up on to the new cliff section.

Zennor with random people

However, while running the Zennor section I had come off the trail too far left. I stopped at the edge of the cliff and looked over the edge, my head torch light simply disappeared into darkness. I could hear the stream/river flowing some way down which indicated it was a very, very long way down. I went to turn and find the bridge and as I did, the mud bank gave way and I fell over the side of the cliff. I must have fallen half my height, closed my eyes and expected to keep falling. Thankfully, the muddy bank kept me up and I grabbed hold of two clumps of grass. I was stuck. If the grass gave way, I was likely to fall. For some reason, I cried out “help” and realized that it was about 3am with no one around. Perhaps I was hoping some seals would team together and sort me out!
Realizing that I would be there for a very long time, I dug my fingers deep into the mud and slowly climbed up and back over the edge. I spent a couple of minutes to compose myself, had a sip of water and changed my head torch battery! Close call… That said, it did give me a wee adrenaline fix and proved that Redbull doesn’t give you wings!!

Shortly after this episode not far off St Ives, the first relay team passed me. We chatted for a short while and then for some reason it must have been through early morning tiredness or a rock that didn’t like the look of me, I tripped over a jagged part of the trail slicing myself up across the knee, elbow and shoulder. I lay on the path for a while thinking that the last 10-15 miles was not going so well for me! But hey, a few more miles down the path and I’ll be at St. Ives. Winner…

The run into and through St. Ives was pretty uneventful, so was Hayle. I also don’t want this report to go on for another 10 pages! 
The difficulty of the last 35 miles of the race is set at ‘moderate’ but I actually found them to be the most time consuming. Of course, most runners will lose form 70 miles in but the true time killer was the large sand dune sections that we had to tackle.

The sand dunes after Hayle simply went on as far as the eye could see and at some stages were higher than my house. At times it was like being in a maze. The coastal path simply disappeared and I was forced to focus on heading in the general direction of the other end. Trying to run on very soft sand dunes for nearly a two mile stretch was energy sapping to say the least. A truly savage obstacle to place 70 miles into a 100 miler.

Sand Dune on Coastal Path

Every time I passed through one of these dunes, I had to take off the shoes and socks and empty a small desert from my shoes and crack on.

I hit Perranporth (a two mile beach section) when another person from a relay team caught up with me. We kept each other company for a while up to the penultimate CP which would lead us into Newquay. Nearly home! Yeee haaa.

The final 6 miles or so into Watergate Bay went on for far too long for me (probably because I was not far off a shuffle) but as soon as I could see the hotel in the distance, I simply let everything go and roll in. I took a cheeky look behind me to see if anyone was close (you never know) it would be awful to lose the winning place 200 yds from the finish line.

Watergate Bay

It was a great atmosphere at the finish line to be greeted by the team and the locals. I gave the family a hug and the first thing I could think of was “burger. Feed me now!”

Till next time J

Coming into finish line at 19 hrs and 31 mins


  1. Quite the adventure, especially falling off a cliff. Congratulations, that's a savage time on such a course.

  2. Hi Dan

    An excellent run and race report. Sounds like you had some real challenges along the way. Your finish time of 19:31, very impressive, especially with your adventures your experienced. Stuart