By this point, I had a solid running foundation and was running regular marathons. Once you’ve run a marathon there are a two main stages to go through: the first is “never again”, the second is usually “what next?”, more specifically “do I go further or faster?”.
For me, this thought came before I’d even run my first marathon. While I was training for my first, the London Marathon back in 2009, I asked myself these questions. I answered myself “both!”. I decided early on I wanted to join the hundred marathon club, and also set myself the goal of doing an ironman triathlon. But it was a few years until my first ultra.
From August 2014-August 2015, I took a year out of full time medical work and I had some sporting endeavours in mind, one being a “Fuego y Agua” adventure race. “Fuega y Agua” is a small company putting on a select few races around the world. They sounded MAD, and I wanted in. I’d heard of these races a while back. There was “Hunter Gatherer” in Texas which involved making your own running sandals and bag at the start of the race, and later making bows and arrows, climbing trees and pushing beyond limits. And there was their race on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua which involved swimming through rough seas carrying and not cracking a raw egg, climbing volcanoes carrying gallons of water, diving down deep wells, making flotation devices and other such challenges throughout the night for an undisclosed distance and time. Then, as if by magic, a new event was created in Kenfig, South Wales…literally two miles from my parents’ place. It was a sign. I signed up straight away. We were given a list of mandatory kit, and a list of clues/training hints including “learn about wode”, “become a sheep whisperer”, “learn about the traditional art of blacksmithing and use of anvil”, “learn to run with and throw a spear”. I was lucky to have a place to stay nearby to recce the area, find the plants used to make wode, failed to make wode, visited a blacksmith and made a spear head on an anvil, and I learned about the local folklore and history over a huge pub lunch.
Sadly, for a number of reasons the race was called off, but given the American origins of the company and therefore its American fanbase, many had already booked flights and were still due to come. We were lucky that “Primal Events”, recently renamed “Roots” stepped in and put on an event for us last minute. A group of us met up the night before the race at the original planned location for a get to know you and beer mile, and I was intimidated by their racing credentials, and felt quite the naive newbie!
Then early the next morning, 12 of us met in Penarth at the barrage, home ground for me as this was where I grew up. We had our kit checked, all got burpee fines, and then split into teams. Me being an unknown, and one of only two females, I was picked last. My team consisted of a British father and son duo, and Billy a crazy red-mohican topped American.
We were given the coordinates of our first check point and within seconds I had it – Cosmeston Park! I’d spent so much time there as a child growing up, and it had become a standard run route for me when I first started running. My team and I set off at a lick, and I talked there ears off pointing out my friends’ houses and my school on the way there. We got there first and were sent off on an information gathering mission around the lake – this turned out to be a stalling method as we’d got there first and our memorising of facts from information boards around the lakes was fruitless. However, we did gather a whole sack of rubbish (we were given points for rubbish collected and brought to checkpoints based on weight collected). We got back, and the other two teams still hadn’t arrived, at which point, one of the team dropped our (laminated) map in the lake. It was saved, but it was spotted and we got fined, in the form of having to strip off and do a full submerge in the lake, which was quite thick with duck and swan poo!
Our next stop was the Mediaeval village at Cosmeston Park, then Marconi Point (where the first wireless signals were transmitted in 1897), followed by Sully Beach and Sully Island (places I could see from my childhood bedroom window). We spent a good deal of time on Sully Island looking for ammo boxes containing some wooden dowels and screws, and collecting litter, once we’d found our teams numbered tiny pebble in a whole heap of tiny pebbles and sand. From here, we headed to Barry Island (made famous by Gavin & Stacey). Our route took us through an industrial estate, climbing down a cliff, and a short (<10metre) boat trip from a kindly scout leader when we found ourselves stranded.
Once we got to Barry Island, we had to make sandbags with materials, needle and thread we’d brought in our mandatory kit to a specified weight – one per team. Every ten minutes, we were stopped and had to run into the sea. Once we were finished, we spent some time doing practice runs up and down the beach with our bags, before being told we could shower off (we should have known this was a trick!). Once we were clean (and wet), we had to form a circle on the beach and throw sand at eachother in a ‘sugar cookie’. And once we were satisfactorily caked in sand, we were allowed to make a move, carrying the sandbag between us to Porthkerry Park (the site of many an August bank holiday monday for me as a child).
This visit to Porthkerry Park was a little different though. We were taught about the fundamentals of camouflage and then given time to camouflage ourselves, before being tasked with a river crawl. One by one people were spotted and made to get out. Some poor sods ended up being in there crawling through the cold muddy river for almost three hours, while those who’d been caught, dried off in the sun. I even dried my underwear under the hand dryer!
From here, we continued towards Rhoose Airport, Llantwit Major, Atlantic College, Nash Point, and eventually finishing at Ogmore. It was starting to get dark, and at this point, memories start to blur. Challenges included chiselling a message in a bottle out of a block of concrete to obtain our next coordinates, and treats included an opportunity to all have a rest together and build a campfire for an hour or so. Once we arrived at Ogmore beach (first team there again), we were absolutely exhausted, having been going more than 24 hours through the night. Our final task involved getting a float (like in a toilet cistern) out of a drainpipe standing upright in the beach. There were holes drilled in the pipe at irregular intervals all the way up. I was so tired, and flummoxed. Gathering and pouring water in didn’t work, even with taping the holes or plugging them with sticks as it just poured into the sand. Flipping the float up by poking sticks in the holes like a game of reverse kerplunk worked at first until the holes became too far apart. Our eventual solution was to tether two long bits of driftwood together and tie a knife tightly to one end. Jack on top of his dad Sean’s shoulders, makeshift spear in hand, he stabbed the float and we had it! The float had written on it one last clue leading us to a few more bits of wood. These bits we’d been collecting turned out to be the elements of our trophy, which we still had to assemble to complete the race. And we’d done it – winners!
What a wonderful race, and what a wonderful bunch of people. Half of us went out that evening to a Brazilian all you can eat meat buffet, and we sure did eat all of the meat! I’m writing this blog post 18 months after the race, as I’ve just decided to back-blog my most significant events to date. This was my first ultra-distance race, our team’s route totalling somewhere in the region 40-45miles. And now, in February 2016, I’m excited to be just a month away from going back to run a 32mile ultra race (The Vale Ultra), again starting in Penarth and finishing in Ogmore, but with fewer stops, checkpoints and challenges, a bit more speed, and probably a bit less mud!