“I knew you’d be hating this bit, I just had to come and find you.”
The words of my beautiful wife.
She was right. I was about 92 miles in to my attempt at the inaugural Dragon 100 Ultra Marathon and my soul was being broken by the roads and pavements leading me out of Barry, the famous South Wales coastal resort.
I’d made a small navigation error.
I was now beyond exhausted.
I’d been heckled by some young hipsters heading out for the night.
I was crying.
I was moving very, very slowly.
As Nicky got out of the car, we were both emotional wrecks.
For the previous 24 hours, I’d had a great big smile every single time she appeared on the route. Something which she’d managed so many times I simply couldn’t count any more.
It had all started the previous evening at the glorious setting of Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsular.
About 70 hopefuls lined up on the chilly windswept headland to set off east towards Cardiff. Alongside me was Lewis, running buddy and founder of Keywood Preston Runners, the running group where we both coach.
Nicky, Lewis’ girlfriend Gemma, and a few other hearty souls braving the icy wind, waved us off before returning to the warmth of their cars.
Following the Wales Coast Path, with its challenging ups and downs and beautiful scenery, we soon warmed up. Those of us who had put on our extra layers started to pause for wardrobe adjustments.
As we enjoyed the stunning scenery with the bright spring sun lowering behind us, we felt good.
Until Lewis caught a foot in a divot and rolled his ankle over. We’d probably only covered 3 miles and he was clearly in pain. We joked about having 97 miles to run it off, but we both knew it was potentially not good news.
The first checkpoint, at Port Eynon, was soon upon us and Nicky was there, battling the cold wind for some lovely words and encouragement. Bottles filled and snacks scoffed we headed into the evening.
The gloom started to become dark and I paused to reapply some layers and fire up the head torch. The extensive compulsory kit list may seem long, but as the night and following day wore on, I was to make use of much of it.
Lewis was keen to push on, trying to divert his focus from the worsening discomfort in his foot. As the sun set behind us and darkness fell, we made good progress towards the second check point at Southgate.
In the darkness all spectators see is your head torch approaching. We had to shout out to Nicky before she realised it was us. Again we had snacks and new drinks but best of all was the can of Coke Nicky gave us to share.
Nicky retired for the night to head off to her cold and noisy accommodation. Apparently, her upstairs neighbours sounded like they were alternating between games of skittles and tap dancing. A hair brush hurled at ceiling seemed to calm them down!
With the lights of Swansea in the distance, we turned into the Mumbles. A long, straight, flat section on hard surfaces here. I find this hard and I don’t think Lewis was enjoying it either.
We got in to stride with a number of other runners here and ticked of the miles to checkpoint 3.
Soup! A quarter of the way into the race, and way passed my usual bedtime, I found my spirits lifted by the hot food and soft bread roll. Lewis changed his socks and freshened up but he was clearly in pain. We didn’t say much, but I think we both feared for his race.
Out of the checkpoint and back to the long promenade of Swansea Bay. A beautiful location which started to lose its novelty value as the relentless hard paths started to get inside my head. We zig zagged, using the grass verges where possible to give our joints a break.
The port of Swansea was a change of focus. The route weaved around the various docks and we focused our attention on not losing the route. We ran alongside a canal for quite a while, the quiet and dark lending an eerie feel to the night.
Another road section and Lewis was really struggling now. This is a man who has covered 100 miles before, I knew it was serious. We made it to the next checkpoint and we both knew the game was up for Lewis.
I won’t dwell on this point, that painful decision was hurting him badly.
With Lewis urging me to carry on, I headed out into the night. From here the route went inland to the long dark forest trails which meant we avoided Port Talbot.
I loved the night. Through miles and miles of forest trails. I had the great company of other runners for some of it. At other times I was in solitude.
Dawn in a silent forest. The haze of day break in the distance. Birdsong, wow, the birdsong.
Only a very brief ‘dark’ 5 minutes broke the spell and I was caught by Boris and Christian, two guys I’d ran with earlier. We shared some fabulous miles as the forest came alive with light.
Something I had worried about was how I’d fare with my stomach. It was about 5 am when I asked the other two to push ahead in order to have some private time to, well, you know……
50 miles came up on the watch and I did a mental check over of how I was faring:
I’d kept my promise to myself to slow down, slow down, then slow down some more. TICK
I’d been extremely careful with my kit and hadn’t found myself hot, nor indeed cold, even though there was frost on the ground. TICK
I’d eaten and drank consistently well throughout and was feeling better after my little disappearing act behind the trees. TICK
I’d kept myself lubed in areas which would thank me for it later. TICK
I felt good. Tired, naturally, a bit sore, naturally. But good.
The seaside beckoned as I headed through Margham. A wonderful early morning telephone conversation with Nicky as she headed towards me really boosted my spirits. I joined up with another runner, Stacey, who was also on the ‘phone to his loved ones.
The dunes down to the sea were tough on the legs but we’d formed a gang of 4, with Boris & Christian catching us up again.
I wouldn’t say I was bouncing, but I had now gone further than ever before and no matter what the next 50 miles had in store, nobody could ever take that away from me.
Went through 60 miles along a great boardwalk approaching Porthcawl and there was Nicky. We were both tearful and so, so pleased to see each other. I will never stop saying it, without Nicky I would achieve nothing. We are a team.
Nicky’s role in the team was to keep supplying me with smiles, oh and welcome slurps of fizzy drinks.
As I headed to Porthcawl Rugby Club for more soup and coffee I ticked off another small victory: 100km. Blimey it felt good. I couldn’t help but start thinking about how much further there was to go. This didn’t help me much but the next section certainly did.
My Uncle Mike moved to Bridgend to work and then retire back when I was a young man. This next section of coast was his stomping ground. I have many happy memories of times around Ogmore and Southerndown. I knew I was going to run past the spot where we’d scattered his ashes and couldn’t help but be spurred on by this.
Mike was taken too soon in the same year that I also lost my sister. I ran this ultra marathon with a piece of my ‘Karen ribbon’ tied to my rucksack and with Mike and Karen very much in my heart and thoughts.
Another little navigation error as Ogmore came into view brought the focus back to the job in hand. I was back in the gang of 4 again and we found our way back onto the route before, guess what?? Nicky appeared in a little car park in the middle of nowhere!
A cuddle, a slurp of cold drink and I skipped away again, across the second set of stepping stones the route had treated us to, and along the path to Ogmore.
Here, Nicky was joined by Lewis and Gemma. Lewis very generously lending me strong support despite his massive disappointment of having withdrawn in the night.
Nicky again appeared on the next headland. I’m getting emotional just writing this. I was about 75 miles done by this point and still moving ok, but the lift I got from seeing Nicky here was just wondeful.
On to Southerndown, I ushered the other 3 on and used the beach facilities to get myself empty and fresh again before having a moment on the beach to think of Mike.
I then made another navigation error. You wouldn’t think it possible, on a coast path, but I ended up circling a headland before heading east again. Emotion was starting to get the better of me, so I walked quite slowly for a while and had a stern word with myself.
“I’m at a lighthouse, are you on a big hill?” Nicky was at Nash Point and as I crested that big hill, there she was in the distance. Another spring in my step.
You’ve got this, Kevin, c’mon you’ve feckin’ got this.
I was chatting away to myself as I descended the headland towards the lighthouse and my incredible lady.
Hurting now, and so tired, but still moving, I even ran a little up the slope to where Nicky was waiting.
No matter what the moment; good, bad, wonderful, tragic, immense, beautiful, inspiring……. any moment we share is just so precious.
Back onto the coast path again, the next section to the check point at Llantwit Major went really well. Nicky was there, what an incredibly lucky man I am. This is how we work, Nicky and I, and here we shared another emotional moment.
Christian and Boris were here and Stacey was heading out. I set off replenished with fluid, calories and emotion.
I started to struggle on the next section of coast path. The industrial skyline coming into view in the distance, the tightening muscles and fatigue were getting inside my head.
My struggle became more acute when I had a sudden and blindingly painful sensation in my big toe. I’d been feeling quite squishy in my trainer for a while. I sank to the floor and braced myself for what I was going to find inside my sock.
Sparing the gruesome details, 15 minutes later, after some self surgery, used my extensive first aid kit and half a tub of Vaseline, I was up and away.
Then came my biggest route error. The coast path (I now realise) goes up on the sea wall around Abethaw power station. Me? I headed across the ‘beach’ made entirely of boulders!
Ow! Ow! Ow!
My ‘phone rang. Nicky. What a woman. After she negotiated her way through a caravan park, and I across the beach, with Nicky’s relentless encouragement I made it back up onto the cliff path.
Fanta and a Mars Bar. How did she know?
With the love of the most incredible person I’ve ever known, I pushed on again. Try as I might, I think the previous few miles had already started to break me.
I arrived at the penultimate check point, at Porthkerry, quite distressed. The welcome sight of Nicky, Lewis and Gemma and their incredible support gave me just enough lift to crack on.
From here the route quickly became road, and I knew that was it for the trails now. Moving very slowly, I plotted my way through the streets of Barry.
“I knew you’d be hating this bit, I just had to come and find you.” Nicky had started to drive towards the last checkpoint but had turned around when she realised I’d be on main roads in built up areas.
Another couple of miles (with Nicky driving to every quarter of a mile or so) my body decided enough was enough.
Without going into too much detail, I seemed to go into shock. My dry feeling got worse the more I drank. I was dizzy, disorientated and broken.
I was violently sick, shivering quite dramatically and seeing double. The game was up.
A call to my incredible friend, Martin (regular blog readers will know Martin well), confirmed I was making the right decision.
Nicky wrapped me up and got me as comfortable as possible. We let the organisers know I had stopped and headed for the Travelodge.
Once I was showered and laid down, I started to feel a bit brighter and we had a late night pizza feast lying on a Travelodge bed, trying not to look at my toes!
Am I disappointed?
Not in the slightest. I’m more gutted for Lewis.
Nicky and I, as regular readers will know, are THE team. Yet again we were invincible. I covered nearly 95 miles in about 25 hours and without Nicky, I would never have been on the start line, never mind cover that sort of distance.
I’m proud. really proud.
As I leaned against the wall in the Travelodge reception, dizzy, nauseous and in a ridiculous amount of pain, I knew I never wanted running to make me feel like this again.
I absolutely love running, love challenging myself. BUT, I only ever want to run with a smile on my face.
For that reason, this has been my last 100 miles race, my last run with sleep deprivation, the last time I’ll put myself, ourselves, through that!
So, what have I learned?
I’m as tough as I hoped I would be. The mind is a wonderful thing. I have nothing to prove to anybody. I am the luckiest man alive to be half of the most incredible team, thank you Nicky x
And thank you Lewis and Gemma.
Thank you Run Walk Crawl for another epic event in South Wales. And thank you for the incredible support from the teams at all of the checkpoints.
Thank you to all of the amazing friends and family for their support for both Nicky and myself and all the wonderful messages we received before, during and after the event.
Thank you to all of the runners who shared the course, particularly those I spent time with. Special thanks the guy who offered to crawl the rest of the way with me as I was slumped on the boot of the car where I stopped.
It was a special, special weekend.