Winding Paths

Over the years this blog has featured so many races and events which I’ve attended with my amazing lady wife Nicky. Pretty much all of them have been hosted by small outfits creating amazing events just for us. I’m sure we can all be guilty of taking this for granted.

I thought it would be great to delve behind the scenes and have a look at the sort of characters who make up this wonderful world of trail running in our region. We can all be guilty of scrolling through life, picking snippets from a blur of social media nonsense. We miss out on engaging with some great people. And some great stories.

First up is Winding Paths, the brainchild of local runner Brian Lewis. As with all events companies, 2020 has not been kind to Winding Paths. But, a succession of cancelled events hasn’t stopped Brian from pushing ahead with his plans for the company. 

Only in its second year, Brian set the company up in June 2019, it would have been easy to let his initial enthusiasm slip during this challenging year. He hasn’t let that happen though and still strives for the very best routes, medals and finish line locations.

The loyal following Winding Paths has already acquired (social media is full of stories from those who enjoyed his events so far) is credited with keeping his motivation strong.

“what has kept me going is the very supportive comments, messages and emails from participants of my events”. 

Brian’s events do have a wonderful community spirit about them. As well as the runners, he has a great army of volunteers – friends, family and other runners all donating their time to make each event possible. Brian knows that Winding Paths’ events are nothing without this crew and he looks after them well to thank them.

As the pandemic became the author of the 2020 story, Winding Paths were immediately informing participants of their options when events were cancelled or delayed. This has been another reason why so many are staying loyal. Brian is determined to take the positivity and encouragement he gets and use it to arrive in 2021 on the front foot, looking forward.

As we speak in late November, Brian’s next physical event will be The Final Countdown, which, by coincidence, was also Winding Path’s first event on New Year’s Eve last year. 

Winding Path’s Summer Trails event was a welcome bit of ‘normality’ for those that managed to grab a place.

The Final Countdown 10k starts and finishes in the Dartington Estate and runners get to sample some of the best countryside (and mud!) that South Devon has to offer. Sold out in its first year, the route gives Brian the chance to share some of his favourite trails with the rest of us. Numbers are restricted this year and the event will feature a series of starting waves, but it is still a great chance to end the year on a muddy high. The staggered starts, and all the other measures Brian has taken, keep the event Covid secure without taking away from the atmosphere. 

Winding Paths were one of the first to host a Covid secure event when regulations permitted them back in August. On a scorching weekend, he managed to get 150 runners to complete either 5km or 10km in a series of waved starts. It was an enormous success. Those that took part waxed lyrical about the sheer volume of work which had clearly been undertaken to create the event. It is staged on the same course as his Totally Muddy races.

Brian also set up an ambitious virtual challenge – participants linked their Strava (other apps are available!) accounts and were given from May until December to complete the total distance of the South West Coast Path. The 300 places he created soon sold out, his 12 Runs Of Christmas virtual event has been similarly popular, with all the slots already taken.

Brian is very much a keen trail runner, and like so many of our local running leaders has a naturally philanthropic nature. He has been leading run groups for a few years now and when regulations and time allows he offers guided runs on his favourite trails. 

Just one of Brian’s many running achievements he doesn’t boast about – The London Marathon

When asked for his proudest moments in the world of running, his generosity of spirit again shows itself as his first thought is for the achievements of others. For five years he has coached, motivated and encouraged a couch-to-5k running group. “there is nothing that beats seeing a non-runner improve, shed the doubt and run their first 5k.”

But he can’t help but swell with pride when he sees one of his own events succeed. When pushed he’ll even allow himself to accept that his own running achievements are a source of great pride.

Brian’s initial motivation was a personal challenge. He was already involved with THHN (Torbay Holiday Helpers Network), a fabulous charity which supports families with seriously ill children, or those that have been bereaved by offering holidays, making memories to be treasured for families in their dark times.

He would attend THHN fund raising events, some of which included running, and would always dismiss invitations to don some trainers and join in. 

His interest was secretly piqued though. He was already organising events such as the fun runs and schools challenge which accompanies the flagship local road race The Torbay Half Marathon. He was inspired by the 20 THHN runners who had completed the half marathon and the following day he attempted to break into a run himself.

“I was out walking along Cockington water meadow and I decided to try and run for a bit, stopping anytime anyone came in sight” 

He was back the next day. And the next. He had the bug. A watch and some decent kit soon arrived and he had entered his first 10k (The Totnes 10k) a mere 2 months later. Those initial 1 mile runs soon grew as Brian himself started to get shrink! The running encouraged him to improve his diet and before long he had lost a considerable amount of weight and was running for the pure pleasure of feeling fit and well.

Brian even turns his own running success into the success of a fellow runner. He has special memories of The Totnes 10k and ran it ‘virtually’ this year. Managing to find way to share this with somebody else, he used the occasion to accompany a friend on the exact course to help them best their previous time on the route

I have no idea whether Brian has a trumpet, but he isn’t inclined to blow it very often if he has!

A festival atmosphere at the City To Sea Finish Line

Those first runs were back in 2014. In September of that year Brian was Race Director of the epic City To Sea ultra marathon and marathon. He is hoping that Winding Paths will make him just as proud as he is of the 4 years in which he was at the helm of City To Sea. It is a major fundraiser for THHN and is a stand out fixture on the South Devon run scene. Selling out every year, it takes a herculean effort to host. Over 60 volunteers to organise, plus the festival at the finish line, Brian is right to celebrate its incredible success. 

Brian cites Luke Tillen, the THHN founder, as being a massive motivator and mentor throughout this journey he has been on. Luke’s own ultra marathon and fund raising efforts led to the birth of The City To Sea ultra marathon and quite possibly Brian’s own adventure in running. 

Brian was also Race Director for The Pennywell Challenge, another THHN fundraiser. Nicky and I enjoyed this challenging 10k back in 2018 on a very hot evening!

He feels that the first year of City To Sea as a Race Director will take some beating – everything was new, locals moved signs and tape which caused massive on course headaches and the event was even longer back in those first years. Up well into the night marking the course, then up in the early hours to chaperone the fleet of transport to the start, runners were on course until 9pm the following night.

You can feel and sense the emotion, even 6 years on, as Brian explains:

“the event was over but we had to go up on stage, in front of everyone and the compere did a speech, going backstage myself, Luke and Carolanne (who helped with the fun day and music festival) were all in tears at the fact we had done it, we had actually done it, that was a very proud moment.”

Since that first year Brian has gone on to achieve so much with his own running. He has clocked up 20 marathons and ultra marathons, the longest of these being 34 miles. He cites his first 50km event as his proudest running moment, completing the event only a year after starting his running journey. He discovered how easy it could be to lose runners in events that day –

“at one stage around ten of us took a wrong turn ran about 100 metres through waist high stingers, realized we were going the wrong way and had to turn around and run back through them, but the joy of finishing was amazing.”

Brian celebrating running over 100 miles in a week during lockdown. But will he attempt the century non stop?

I like to consider myself an ‘ultra runner’ and those that know me will know that I came within a whisker of being a 100 mile ultra runner last year (read about it here if you fancy), so I was eagerly awaiting Brian’s answer to the question “what are your next running ambitions?”

“Dare I say, I have one eye on a 100 miler, I said I would never do it, as while I enjoy shorter night runs, I am not sure about running through the entire night, but recently I have thought that now would be the time to try.”

In fact, Brian has a 50 mile event lined up already for next spring, a stepping stone to the century? I reckon he’s got it in him!

Brian’s ambitions for Winding Paths are about creating fabulous events to be enjoyed by all who enjoy the trails, whether they are chasing at the front or taking selfies and soaking up the views further back. He is trying to have options for all – the Total Coastal event (frustratingly put back a couple of times in 2020) is scheduled for April next year and features a bruising ultra marathon from Kingswear to Shaldon on the South West Coast Path as well as equally challenging but considerably shorter half marathon and 10k routes.

There are sacrifices of course, and Brian can sometimes need to be reminded to take his Winding Paths hat off during family time! He acknowledges that working from home has helped him fit everything and he is getting better at balancing his life whilst still giving his energies to planning his events. 

It is telling that Brian’s positivity and relentless humour both shine through when asked what he’s most looking forward to with Winding Paths in 2021

“I am really looking forward to 2021 with positivity about the events, I am also looking forward to having a dining room that is not full of medals, t-shirts and two gazebos.”

Find Winding Paths – Twitter Facebook Instagram brian@windingpaths.uk

In Praise Of 2020 (#2)

A Tale Of Three Hoodies

March 2020 was a month of fear and food. When Sainsbury’s unleashed the 12 pack of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs onto the shelves, how could I refuse as I anxiously did our shopping after work. Everybody was fighting their own battles, shielding their loved ones, trying to understand the world as it shifted on its axis around us. And for some of us, Creme Eggs were a coping mechanism.

But we needed better, longer term and let’s face it, healthier ways to survive our times. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was after hoodies!

Oh, and challenges.

In stepped many of our favourite event and race organisers with ways of challenging us ‘virtually’ in our running. Huge races got involved, including the Great North Run and London Marathon. Even better though, local, less high profile companies were finding ways to keep our running mojo up.

I threw my hat in the ring of Cornish race organisers, Bys Vyken, as they created the wonderfully titled Dark Clyde Of The Moon virtual 100 or 50 mile challenge. It worked! I gave myself 14 days to complete the 100 miles. There was no time limit (you can still enter in fact) but I decided to really go for it. At that time I was more comfortable away from the more popular trails and sea fronts and found myself running quite obscure, and very hilly routes.

My goals are still to accomplish epic distances on the type of demanding terrain Bys Vyken are so renowned for. So hills are where I need to train,

Nicky completing the Cousin Jack, a Bys Vyken event, almost the last pre-lockdown race.

Hoody #1

Rather proud of this magnificent medal

Bys Vyken must have been reading my mind because the next virtual challenge on offer was The Goat. The task: to run the equivalent elevation gain as the highest 40 hills in Cornwall in a fixed time frame. Bloody made for me that challenge. As ever, my beautiful lady wife took up the challenge too and we’re both now proud members of the goat academy! Not only that, there was a rather lovely hoody as a souvenir.

With our love of Cornwall, being lucky enough to call Dave and Sally from Bys Vyken friends and the epic medal and hoody this challenge was a perfect distraction from the world around us.

Hoody #2

The last ten years have seen a deluge of running communities appear on the internet. Ways of recording our exercise and training transformed by the devices we wear and the apps we use. I was lucky when I started running back in 2007, I almost immediately stumbled upon the lovely running community Fetcheveryone.Com There I found a place to keep a track of my running of course, but also forums of fellow ‘newbies’, a directory of events taking place, blogs and inspirational stories and just the best bunch of people.

Me and my brother, both long standing ‘Fetchies’
I have spent much of 2020 following this advice!

Jump forward 13 years and despite all of the competition out there, Fetch goes from strength to strength. As many of us have found this year, the ‘performance’ based analysis and competitive nature of more bullish sites hasn’t really sat comfortably with our mental health. Founder, Ian Williams, has kept Fetch as almost a cottage industry. There is no charge for any feature and never will be. Fetch survives on its advertising income and the goodwill of those of us happy to make a monthly donation. Whilst it feels like sharing your running life with a couple of mates, there are actually 100,000+ users and 2020 has seen many come and join us.

And, of course, I’ve recently acquired a much needed Fetcheveryone hoody.

Visit Fetch for the best people, great running data stats, a comprehensive event guide, blogs, games, forums, podcasts……

Hoody #3

Here in the South West of England we are blessed with thousands of miles of paths, lanes and trails, plus every sort of terrain when it comes to choosing which gorgeous routes to run on. Any regular readers of the blog will know that I am at my happiest when running out in the open air, particularly on the coast path.

Well, a very old friend, Jamie (back in the day we both managed public houses in Totnes) was almost born on the trails of South Devon. Jamie decided a few years ago to combine his passion for trail running with his natural gregarious and philanthropic nature and create an online space for us all to share these wonderful trails.

Trail Running South West founder, Jamie Bullock
Every day the group page is filled with lovely images from the South West’s trails

And so Trail Running South West was born. A Facebook community which has grown to over 4000 members in nearly 4 years. Jamie is not just a keen runner, he is often found volunteering at trail events hosted in the region and even hosts the quirky, always sold out Stoke Gabriel Carnival 10k (I’ve volunteered at the event a couple of times – I even wrote all about it here)

The TRSW Facebook group is a great place to share in others’ runs as the feed is flooded with amazing photographs from around the peninsular.

Local organisers keep us up to speed with upcoming events and gatherings using the page too.

Bumping into Jamie at aid stations is a regular occurrence when running events.

As the group grows, Jamie is adding more ways of engaging and sharing the community he has created. Obviously, for me, the best of these is the introduction of some Trail Running South West merchandise, not least, the rather toasty hoody!!

Visit the Facebook group for the great merchandise but also to find out where to run and what events are (hopefully) planned around the South West.

And rest assured I’m going to be toasty this winter!

Rocks And Roots And Rabbit Holes

Images from a lovely Dartmoor run with Nicky last week

No Lazy Steps

Three years ago I ran my first 50 mile ultra marathon. I might have mentioned it once or twice (you can still read alllll about it HERE). I took a tumble early on in that race, making the remaining 43 miles extremely painful! I’d share a picture of my post-race ankle with you, but to be honest I’m not in a massive hurry to look at it again myself.

Well, I’m planning on attempting another coastal 50 mile event. And I would rather not attempt it on a bulging ankle. So I’ve been rolling out my favourite running mantras as training starts to (and I apologise for employing the phrase which has been wrung out by 2020) ramp up.

The most important of those mantras has to be no lazy steps, no lazy steps, which I tend to repeat to myself when the terrain starts to become, to use another cliched expression, technical. And by technical I mean when there is an abundance of rocks, roots and rabbit holes. But also to be negotiated carefully are steep edges, muddy descents, steps, loose, gravely paths, sheer drops on the side of the trail, standing water (you never know what it might be concealing!) etc etc.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy running with a headtorch

Practice. Practice. Practice.

I heard a great interview with Beth Pascall on Adharanand Finn’s podcast The Way Of The Runner where she explained that there really isn’t any substitute for practice. Not just training to get fit, but specifically experiencing the type of terrain you are training for. I guess it’s no different to any other skill, like writing, playing the guitar, or driving or anything else, it doesn’t matter how many instruction manuals you read or videos you watch you’ve just got to get out there and do it.

Berry Pomeroy Castle in spooky half light on an early run

Never stop learning.

I’ve been trail running and tackling ultra marathons for quite a few years now, but I still like to try and learn something new, improve something about my running every time I go out. I started running later in life and for the first couple of years only ran on the road.

The biggest thing I’ve learned to change is not to trust the ground! Doing laps around Paignton Green on the pavement, I would only need to consider the ground below me a couple of times in a mile, where the curb drops and rises again.

On the trails by contrast, as Beth Pascall says, I need to be reading the ground a few steps ahead. All the time. I guess we learn to cover the ground quicker the more experienced we get on the terrain.

Exploring new trails is very much part of the fun

Running For The Joy Of It

Another major change in my own running from those time-chasing days on the roads is that I really no longer care how fast I run, nor where I might place in an event. Selfishly, the Covid restrictions which mean events starting in small waves doesn’t affect how I might approach the event.

For those who enjoy a good tear up on the roads, racing the girls and guys around them, this has taken some of the fun and motivation out of the events. I’m there to run the best I can still, but really don’t mind what that looks like in terms of time or pace.

The first thing I look at when considering an event is the cut-off time. That becomes my goal, to be quick enough to be inside that. Whatever else I might achieve is a bonus, but sort of unimportant.

After battering myself for a couple of years early in my running career, it is bloomin’ liberating to be running just for the pure pleasure of it.

So on loose rocky descents, covered in freshly fallen leaves and where the light is inconsistent thanks to a canopy of trees, giving the image of running along a blissful tunnel of autumn colour, I slow down to make sure I’m not going to hurl myself to the ground. I think I’ve improved over the years. As I get fitter, I will hopefully be naturally covering the ground a bit quicker without really noticing. But if not, then so be it.

You never know what might be lurking under the leaves! No lazy steps.

Don’t Be A Whiny Git

With all of this in mind, and in response to me becoming a bit of an annoying whiny git a few weeks ago (‘I’m so tired, I can’t do it’ etc!), I’ve written myself a training program.

Blimey!

10 days in and I’m still following it. I want to be fit enough to complete a challenging (and long) trail marathon in a few weeks time and then continue getting fitter for the big 50 mile challenge at the end of January.

I bloomin’ love being on the trails, and this week I’ve rediscovered my love of running by torch light in the dark too. Even if the situation changes for event organisers, and for their sake I truly hope it doesn’t, I’ll still be happy to get out there and enjoy the process.

And After That?

Beyond that 50 mile event next year, I might even be having another crack at *say it quickly and it won’t sound so scary* the big century. I know the phrase never again might have passed my lips after I very nearly got to end of my last attempt! If I haven’t yet bored you with that tale, feel free to check out my blog about it HERE.

You could subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already. guaranteed fresh content every, er, now and then!

Onwards.

(not quite) a dragon slayer

The Dragon 100 Ultra Marathon

“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?

Perfect.

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.

A Run in 27 Pictures

glorious south devon

A 5.30am start the day before the clocks sprung up, fell over, dropped back, or whatever it is they did, meant hitting the beaches of Paignton, Goodrington, Broadsands and Elberry Cove as the sun burned into the early morning mist.

Picking up the Musgrove Trail for a while after leaving Churston Village, some of my favourite local trails. from the top of the hill the views take in Torbay in one direction and the River Dart the other way.

Past Greenway and down to the boat yard on the creek there before climbing the field on the outskirts of Galmpton. A bit of road from there until you get into Stoke Gabriel.

Picking up Fleet Mill lane towards Totnes where I can never resist running to the end of Long Marsh, particularly early morning, for the jaw dropping view down the river.

From Totnes, picking up the Torbay/Totnes trail, through the traveller’s site which has been there for decades, passing the Mare and Foul Sanctuary and into the shadow of the spooky ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle.

The trails towards Marldon are fabulous running on soft ground, woodland and fields (with a very slow mile as I tip toed through some young cattle!) before running under the gorgeous underpass to head towards Occombe.

Passing the marathon point of the run in Scadson Woods before popping out on Preston Sea Front then running up through Victoria Park and home.

28 miles of Devon’s loveliness.

The Cousin Jack Ultra

The Alarm Is Set For When?

Nicky was right to double check. 3.30am really isn’t early morning, is it? More late night.

Tucked in our rented barn near Hayle, we listened to the rain batter the roof lights. The farm’s wind turbine was getting plenty of encouragement from the brewing storm to provide fuel with. “WHOOSH. WHOOSH.” it rhythmically insisted. The accompanying, constant whine from its motor completed the orchestra.

We did sleep eventually. But 3.30am comes around so quickly.

Shower, muesli and strong coffee and I was ready for battle.

It Takes Two (or three)

My inspiration, my world, my whole reason. That’s Nicky. Regular readers will know that my beautiful, amazing wife truly is the heart and soul of everything I do.

Nicky was ready for battle too. She has left the marathons and ultra marathons alone this year in order to concentrate on her ironman ambitions.

So instead of competing, Nicky was ready for scrambling under electric fences, abandoning the car in random locations and appearing at some of the most remote and inhospitable vantage points on the Tin Coast.

Our intrepid Border Terrier, Charlie, by her side.

And They’re Off

Bys Vyken Events‘ Cousin Jack Ultra (35 miles) set off from The Surf House on The Island, St Ives at 5.30am. A trail of head torches and tail lights snaking across Porthmeor Beach under a cloudless sky. (I know it was a trail of lights as I was right at the back so I could see all of my fellow runners!)

17.5 miles away, Cape Cornwall, in all its raw, bleak, midwinter glory, awaited us.

Our mission was to conquer this most inaccessible, isolated, desolate chunk of the South West Coast Path.

And then turn around. And conquer it all again.

Let There Be Light

A flicker of my head torch, as dawn approached, suggested an equipment failure was imminent. Fellow runner, Martin, magically produced a small hand torch, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I was able to return it to him as both the sun and my own torch both came alive.

The weather was remarkably kind to us. Sunshine was short lived and the wind was keen but the threatened storm delayed its arrival to this remarkable place until the event was pretty much over.

Cut Off

Most events, particularly in trail running, and even more particularly in ultra marathon races, have time limits within which us competitors must reach certain points on the course. Primarily for the safety of runners and crew alike, they go a long way to ensuring we prepare as best we can before tackling these challenges.

The first cut off point in The Cousin Jack Ultra was at 9 miles and we had 3 hours in which to get there. Whilst this may seem generous, the terrain can change your day rather quickly.

I was pleased to be over 30 minutes in front of that target by then, but certainly not complacent.

How Hard Can It Be?

Very.

The first (and later on, last) section, between St Ives and Zenner is about 7 miles long and probably the most challenging on the course.

Lots of rocks, awkward paths made of boulders (even a boulder beach!), mud, special knee deep cow mud, electric fences, ups, downs and an increasingly enthusiastic headwind (not to mention the first 90 minutes in darkness) all contribute to the challenge.

Yeah, it’s tough. But maaaan-alive, it’s gorgeous.

How Tough? How Gorgeous?

The entire route is trail running heaven. As I mumbled into one of the video moments I recorded during the day, “Until I do a race that’s tougher and more beautiful than this, then THIS is the toughest, most beautiful race I’ve ever done.”

Cornwall. It gets under your skin.

It was an absolute privilege to be running here.

Lest We Forget

I raised a water bottle as I passed Levant mine. 100 years ago a catastrophic man-engine failure at the tin mine here resulted in the deaths of 31 local men. Countless others were injured.

This is poignantly remembered in the engraving on the wonderful medals awarded to finishers of this incredible event.

It was an emotional day. I found myself welling up every time I saw Nicky and Charlie (7 times, you need to come here to see just what an achievement that was!)

The land has a magic to it, as I passed these almost mythical places; Zennor, Pendeen, Gurnard’s Head, Cape Cornwall, I could feel the history.

This coast has become synonymous with epic trail running, certainly in the small world I operate in, and to be here, becoming a tiny part of that history, felt so special.

Dot To Dot

As a self confessed dot watching addict (many events fit participants with trackers in order to see their location on an online map), following the trackers of runners at these types of events, it was great to actually be one of the ‘dots’ this time around.

Suck It Up Princess

Flu (and I mean actual flu, not the ‘manflu’) had wiped out two weeks of running (and anything else) and I only passed my self-imposed fitness test two days before the race. I certainly wasn’t oozing confidence at the start line. Prior to the flu, I had prepared well, so I was hoping this fitness was still in me.

Turning back at Cape Cornwall and looking back at the first few headlands to be negotiated again, I took a deep breath…… I noticed the organisers’ sign: “Suck It Up Princess, You’re Only Halfway”

I was feeling a bit weak, my thighs already objecting to the relentless ups and downs, but I was loving every step. Every single step of the way.

I sucked in that bracing Atlantic wind (thankfully now at my back), zipped up my man suit and set off for St Ives.

She’s Got My Back

Nicky and Charlie met me again as I left Cape Cornwall, at Pendeen Watch, then in a random location far from anywhere, before scrambling to Gurnard’s Head, Zenner and finally at the finish.

I may have been exhausted but my wonderful lady wife and cheeky chappie Charlie deserve so much credit for what I achieved.

Crossing the finish line, I couldn’t wait to hold Nicky and tell her just how incredible she had been and how much we shared that proud moment.

Did Someone Say ‘Steps’?

After following my footsteps back to St Ives, perhaps not quite as quickly as on the way out, I did try and save a little energy for the last half mile.

I knew what was coming. A leg burning trudge across Porthmeor beach followed by the climb up The Island’s steps to The Surf House.

Cruel. But fitting.

Such a perfect, iconic location to finish this tremendous day.

Bys Vyken Events Put On Quite A Show

A small, homely feel to race HQ and all the pre-event information gave way to an epic feel to the actual race. All race communication was brutally honest, tongue-in-cheek and absolutely comprehensive.

The Race Director, David, and his fantastic crew managed what looked like a logistic headache (there were three race distances on offer, the 35 mile Ultra Marathon , The 17.5 mile Classic Jack and a Little Jack 7 mile) and the whole event started as planned and felt as well managed as any ‘bigger’ event I’ve done.

There were enough course markings, but not too many. Well placed and thought out aid stations were manned by exceptionally knowledgeable and supportive crew. Similarly the marshal points were enough but not overkill.

I felt trusted to have prepared properly and to give the course the respect it so dramatically commands. But, I also felt protected and at no point did I feel I was facing the challenge alone.

And It’s Goodbye From Him

I only fell over once! I only (briefly) went the wrong way once. I was still running (using the term loosely) across the beach after 35 miles before hauling my sagging legs and beaming smile up those final steps.

Beating the time limit by just over 2 hours too. I’m rather proud of myself I hope you don’t mind me saying.

What Will I Take From The Cousin Jack Ultra?

A stunning medal, a handshake from the welcoming Race Director, a hot pasty and a heart full of memories.

But nothing will top the moment of cresting yet another rocky headland somewhere on the way back to see Nicky and Charlie awaiting me. In the middle of nowhere. Car abandoned, they’d crawled under an electric fence and made their way through the wilderness to the coast path.

My heart and soul fluttered.

From that moment on, I KNEW I would finish.

That’s 3 YEEESSSSSSS’s

If we 100% KNEW we would succeed, well, it wouldn’t be a challenge…..

Prior to this weekend just gone, my proudest ‘Team Bonfield’ moment had been when we crossed the finish line of the Dartmoor Discovery 50k Ultra just inside the time limit.

 

2017-07-23 09.37.28
Nicky eating up the early climbs

The Snowdonia Trail Marathon topped that, in so many ways. WOW. Too many breathtaking views to take in. WOWs  by the sack full.

 

AND 3, count ’em, THREE ‘YEEESSSSSS!’ moments.

Ahhh, the dreaded cut-offs. Only one here, after the climb up to Pen Y Pass. About 19 miles in. From there it’s up the mountain proper on the Pyg Track.

As we left the starting pen in Llanberris, nothing was certain. Nearly 700 runners, some strutting, some staring, some nervously pacing or muttering (‘madness’ whispered one guy as he fidgeted and fussed), listened to the race briefing.

Yes we can hear you at the back. Yes we can clearly hear that it is VERY important not to veer from the route and DEFINITELY not climb any gates or fences. More on that later…..

 

2017-07-23 08.44.26
Everybody listening??

We had dined with my brother and his wife, who live in Kimnel Bay, a feast on the eve of this epic adventure. Regular Snowdonia hikers, they were eager to share their local knowledge and we pored over the route to get ‘beat the cut off’ tactics in place.

 

9am. A brief road section through the crowds of spectators and Half and 10k runners awaiting their turn. Then up.

And up.

 

2017-07-23 09.52.24
Top of the first climb. WOW the views!

Nicky pushed hard here, brisk hiking the steepest bits, easy paced running where possible. When we reached the top of this climb, the 3.5 miles had taken us about 15 minutes less than my loose plan. Result.

 

Some moor like terrain, downhill and flat and we were feerrrlying…… oh hang on….

A queue. When I say a queue, probably about 200 people waiting to negotiate a stile. Hhhmmmm.

Some, whose race was obviously more important than ours, decided climbing a padlocked gate followed by a wire fence would mean they didn’t have to wait like everyone else.

Mildly annoying after 5 minutes.

Annoying after 10 minutes.

Absolutely infuriating when, after 15 minutes, the marshall charged with the unfortunate task of policing this area shouted to the approaching runners at the back of the field to take this alternative route…….

Nicky had worked so hard to get this far in this time, yet, now I was contemplating the cut off again whilst participants who had taken considerably longer on the climb didn’t even pause as they disappeared off ahead of us.

Potentially, a scenario where some of those runners who hadn’t had to wait at all, but took 15+ minutes longer than us over the first 4 miles, narrowly made the cut off whilst we narrowly missed it, was starting to play out in my head.

We were cross.

2017-07-23 09.32.08Once we were over the stile, and then through the next couple of miles and occasional further stiles, we made great progress on the rough terrain. Unfortunately the field of runners was out of sync now and we were constantly trying to weave through those who had been behind us until the stile incident. Or stilegate, as it shall be known.

Once we’d reached mile 6 we had found some space to run in and easier terrain for a while. A familiar face, Kevin (a regular face at events we have enjoyed in Dorset), greeted us at this point which was a real boost as well. We settled in to rattling off some miles as we ran through forests, around lakes, alongside miniature railways. All to the spectacular backdrop of the mountains around us.

Progress was good. I started to fear the cut off less and less and more and more enjoy absolute joy of running in this incredible place with this incredible woman.

I made a pact with myself to take no pictures until we reached that cut off. After negotiating a runner-jam in a single track section through the woods at the bottom of Pen Y Pass, we freed ourselves from the pack and marched the 2 mile climb to reach the cut off with about 40 minutes to spare.

 

2017-07-23 13.44.45
Cut off smashed??? We’ll drink to that….

YEEESSSS!!!

 

 

2017-07-23 13.53.15
Up

Now the hard climbing started. Please forgive us a smug moment here! We are rather proud to be running grandparents knowing our grandchildren can point at a map of Snowdon and say ‘Nanny and Grandad’ did that!

 

It’s a great leveller, a mountain and we were amongst runners of all ages as an unspoken comradery developed.

Nicky, strong as an ox. The climb is about 5km long from that point and is pretty relentless. It scrambles and winds and teases then punishes and it does go on and on. All to the incredible backdrop of the peaks and ridges all around.

My sister, Karen, who regular readers will know, was taken from us just so tragically early, would have loved to see us doing this. She would have revelled in the happiness I have found with Nicky and would have been championing us in all our adventures. I wore my ‘Karen Ribbon’ for this run, and definitely felt a gentle extra push as we reached for the top of the climb.

Talking of which, it turned out my brother, mother and uncle were all glued to the tracker and shared in our ‘YEEESSS!’ moments ‘live’!

Suddenly, through the descending mist (which was quite welcome as the heat was starting to build), a high-viz vest in the distance, still way up above us, but a welcome sight.

 

2017-07-23 15.16.42
Top of the Pyg Track – glad we didn’t go DOWN that way!

YEEESSSS!!

 

2017-07-23 15.18.32Exiting the other worldly atmosphere of the Pyg Track as the tourist trail becomes the Miner’s Track, with the train passing too, was completely bizarre and quite magical.

Knowing it was quite literally all down hill from here, we high-fived and then set about the descent…….

 

2017-07-23 15.27.58
DOWN!

Unfortunately, almost immediately, Nicky had a sharp and immobilising pain in the back of her knee. This stopped us in our steep and gravelly tracks, on this, er, steep gravelly track.

 

A fistful of vitamin I (Ibruprofen), gently and gingerly building up speed, we soon got up to ‘Ahhhweeeeeee’ velocity as we tumbled down and down and down.

2017-07-23 15.29.52Llanberris was soon coming into view, as we went further down and down and down. The very bottom of the descent was sooooo steep as it turned to tarmac before a naughty loop through a park and we could clearly hear the announcer calling the runners in.

“….. and coming in now, holding hands, in a cracking time of 7 hours and 24 minutes, it’s KEVIN BONFIELD and AMY SOMETHING…………..

…….. oh No it’s not it’s Kevin and NICKY BONFIELD!!!”

YEEEESSSSS!!!

 

2017-07-23 16.36.39
Sooooo proud…. I think there may be something in my eye…..

We truly felt (still feel) we had achieved something extraordinary.

 

 

2017-07-23 16.39.10
Down in one, down in one….

A fabulous, brutal, beautiful event. It’s big, probably 2000 runners across the 3 distances, yet it was so welcoming, brilliantly marked and marshalled (I think stilegate is a glitch, it needs addressing, but certainly the only real blip) and the event base in Lanberris has the cosy feel of a much smaller event.

 

 

2017-07-23 17.59.01-1It wasn’t necessarily on our bucket list, but it has given us a wonderful glow……..

 

2017-07-24 09.51.13
Howard and Hilda enjoyed Pen y Pass so much, they went back the following day!

 

Next up, the Cornish coast beckons in the R.A.T. ……..