Ring of Fire 2016
Fate whispers to the warrior, “You cannot withstand this storm.”
And the warrior whispers back,
“I am the storm.”
So it’s taken me over a week to sit down and write about my return to Anglesey and my second attempt at this beautifully brutal event. First though, I think it’s important I go back 12 months and to my first attempt at the Ring of Fire.
May 2015 I had decided to finish playing rugby. This was a promise I had made a while before to my family. I was fortunate enough to go through my rugby career without any major injuries and that’s how they wanted it to stay. A few weeks before my final game, I decided I would like to try running as a new sport. Now, normally, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, unless you were a 5 foot 8 and 16(ish!) stone prop. Now, I firstly looked at running a 5k/ 10k race and start there, with plans on moving up to marathon distance over time. However, while looking at what races there were on Anglesey, (I grew up there and always on the look out to go back and visit family) I spotted the Ring of Fire. A 135 mile, 3 day event which circumnavigates the entire island. There was one free charity place left and I took it. Only problem was, there was just over 100 days for me to train and get myself ready. I trained hard. But it wasn’t enough. On the second day, I got lost with two other runners, Chris and Susan, on a beach looking for an honesty book late at night. I hadn’t taken on calories for several hours, it was cold, and I was wearing the same sweat soaked tee shirt I had worn for 55 or so miles, with only a light jacket as cover from the ever increasing gusts of wind coming off the sea. Quickly I succumbed to the cold and was helped to the next checkpoint roughly 2 miles away by Chris while Susan set a land speed record to get help. My memories of that evening are blurred, but I do remember waking the next morning at my mum and dad’s, feeling deflated, embarrassed and broken. I only had 7-8 miles left to get to the end of day two. I remember an over whelming feeling of guilt for ruining two other runners races (Chris dropped out at the end of day two with an unrelated ankle issue while Susan re-grouped with no sleep and went on to finish day three and the race, becoming my running hero and mentor). That day I made a promise. This race wasn’t going to break me. This wasn’t the end for me and my ultra running days.
For 12 months, I lived, breathed and ate ultra running. I changed my diet (I became a vegan). I studied all the great ultra runners and their training regimes and incorporated them into my own. I pushed my body beyond limits I could only have dreamt off. There were PB’s set and tears shed. There were times where I felt I could take on the world and other times where I was so low, I couldn’t visualize me ever finishing this race. I tested every gel and food known to man to find what worked for me. I raced and completed other ultras, but I was only ever thinking about going back to Anglesey and conquering my demons.
12 months down the line, and I was stood on the start line of the 2016 Ring of Fire. Now, I had travelled up 2 weeks in advance, and to say I was anxious was an understatement. I think its best I thank my family right here who put up with my grumpiness and my negativity. I truly had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to finish this ultra. That I was destined never to have that slate medal around my neck. I had convinced myself to such a point, that a friend had to convince me not to pull out the race. Physically I was ready. I was in the shape of my life. Mentally however, I was struggling. And this was a battle I had fought for as long as I can remember. My thoughts always embraced the worst case scenario, so if it ended up any better, it was a bonus. But it also meant sometimes I’d want to hide and not face my challenge. And this was one of those moments. I looked for excuses not to run.
Come Friday however, I was there. Standing on the start line. In front of me was 35.7 miles with an 11 hour cut off for the day. My anxieties were atrocious. I hadn’t slept at all the night before. I struggled to eat a decent breakfast. But as I always do, I stuck a smile on my face and attempted to hide my inner struggles and battles from the world. I stood there, with 88 others, including Chris and his brother Jon, and tried not to embrace the worst case scenario, and scupper my chances of finishing before I had even started.
Now from the previous year, I knew how tough this first day was. Last year I went off way to quickly and got caught up in the moment of it all. The first 16.5 miles tempt you into running hard, there are no major climbs and some good running ground. However this year, I was determined to maintain a solid pace and keep plenty in reserve for the climbs after CP2 which pretty much continued until the end of the day at Amlwch. The weather was stunning, and the views were incredible. Anglesey is a truly magnificent and beautiful place, and on the Friday, it was showing off.
I felt really in control by CP2. My thoughts had settled and I was finally enjoying myself. It had taken 16.5 miles, but I was finally settled. By the time I left CP2 at Church Bay, I had been joined by 3 other runners who were running strong, and soon they started to pull away from me. The competitive side of me wanted to chase them. I felt strong; I knew I could do it. But I had a plan. There were still seriously steep climbs into the side of the cliffs to climb. There was also the matter of two more days of racing. I quickly settled, and stuck to my race plan. My quads were aching with climbing the steep steps that were almost vertical at places, but I always felt I had something in reserve and I never pushed beyond my limit. However, just before CP3, I had quickly caught up with them and spotted them heading in the wrong direction in the woods before CP3 at Wylfa Power station. With a quick yell and a wave, they soon followed me in the right direction into CP3. I had decided not to meet anyone of my support team (my family) on the first day unless I was in trouble. But several times I was messaged telling a few had gotten lost. This is where I felt I had an advantage. The last 10 miles to Amlwch were incredible; I again let the other 3 run ahead of me. I ran the entire 10 miles with a smile on my face and in my soul. The sun has started to go down as I got to the beautiful village of Bull Bay and the Honesty book. It was a timely reminder of why I ran these ultras. And why I loved going back “home”. I got into Amlwch at the end of day 1 with a time of 6:43:10 and seventh for the day. Almost 21/2 hours faster than the year before. But most important of all, I felt fresh and I didn’t feel I had pushed myself too hard. I quickly showered and went in search of food, Finding a local chip shop and reverted back to my rugby days by ordering the biggest bag of chips money could buy. Most important of all, with 65.9 miles to cover the next day, I felt fresh. I felt I had in no way pushed too hard. If anything, I may have even taken it too easy. But my only goal for the whole weekend was too finish. And that was it.
The overnight accommodation was the local Leisure Centre. This for me is part of the charm. It adds to the challenge. It adds to the whole experience. Yes, I could have slept in a nice comfy bed at my parent’s house, but I feel it would have taken something away from the whole experience.
Sleep shouldn’t really be an issue after 37 miles but the endorphins continued to flow well into the night. Runners continued to appear up until the cut off at midnight. I was warned about Chris’ epic snoring abilities well in advance (thank you Susan). There was no escaping the noise from him or others that night. But worse of all for me, I knew what was coming. My mind was already on the beach where it all went wrong the year before. I was already preparing myself for the worst case scenario. I attempted to settle myself and get my head down for some sleep.
A couple of hours sleep is all I could manage before a 4 am wake up to get ready for a 6am start. Ahead of me was 65.9 miles mixture of brutal climbs, fast flat road sections and beaches. And to add to the mixture, the fine weather from the day before was to be replaced by heavy rain and gale force winds. But to start, the sun was shining on us. And the sunrise was beautiful and the views even more so as I ran the first 11.8 miles to the first CP at Lligwy Beach. I found myself immediately in the Zone. I was running on my own (which at times, I prefer) and my legs felt incredible and loose. But most important of all, my mind was settled; I enjoyed looking at the sun rise over the island I grew up. It raised the spirits and set me anxious mind to rest. I was enjoying my running and met up with my family at the second CP of the day at Red Wharf Bay. By now the rain was about to set in. But I was still in a positive frame of mind, and by now, I had been joined by another runner, Gerald, who seemed to be running strong along the sand of Red Wharf Bay and Pentraeth Beach, heading towards the climb around Arthurs Table and over towards the third checkpoint at Penmon Point. I let him go on the sands; he was quicker than me on the flat. But I knew I could catch him on the brutal climbs that were coming up. Within a couple of miles I was ahead of Gerald and pulling away. I still felt great. I was pacing myself well and felt very much in control. My nutrition was on point and even the weather to this point wasn’t as bad as first feared. My head was clear and my anxieties from the night before had melted away. I was completely in the groove and deep down I knew I could keep this up throughout the 66 miles. I had the local knowledge and I knew where I could push, and where I had to take it easy. With two miles to go, I spotted a runner (Oliver) in front of me. At this point I had roughly placed myself around 8th to 10th. However Oliver soon told me he was in second place and I was in third. Now, I knew I had run well, the times had showed that, but I never placed myself that highly up. I had never been in this position. And I soon began to panic. Had I pushed too hard? Would I suffer like I did last year? Have I blown my chance of finishing? My mind was racing. But I quickly realised how fresh and good I felt. If I had pushed too hard, I wouldn’t be feeling like this. The months and months of training. The early morning starts and the late night finishes. The back to back long training runs up the mountains of South Wales were showing. I had never felt like an ultra runner until this point. I always felt like a fraud standing at a start line of a race and accepting a medal at the end of one. But at that moment something clicked within my fragile mind. Finally I accepted the truth. I am an ultra runner.
The weather by now was classic Anglesey summer weather. The rain was heavy and the gusts were picking up. Not wanting to get to comfortable at the next checkpoint at Penmon, I quickly filled my bottles and headed up the hill and towards the half way checkpoint for the day and the race at Beaumaris.
By now I had moved ahead of Oliver, and was moving well. The route between Penmon and Beaumaris usually takes you onto a stone beach section for several miles. However, the weather was atrocious, and the tide was unseasonably high, cutting off the route completely. Not really fancying a dip into the fast flowing Menai Straits, I stuck to the road and re- joined the Costal path further along before reaching the CP at Beaumaris. I spent a little bit of time here changing my top, ( I decided not to run in a coat as it was still warm even though it was raining) and got some hot soup off my family before heading off up towards the next CP at Sea Zoo. The wind by now had really picked up and was quite difficult to run in the more exposed areas, and I was quickly joined again by Oliver. Having only been running for over a year, I’m still learning lessons. Oliver seemed to be getting in and out of checkpoints quicker (he shared his tips and wisdom after the race ended on Sunday) and after coming into the CP at Sea Zoo at the same time, he quickly set off while I still tried to get myself sorted and going again.
So again, I was running alone. And to make matters worse, between me and the next checkpoint, was the beach where it all went wrong. I knew I was a fair few hours in front of last year’s time, and I would easily reach the beach in day light hours. But my mind was already starting to race. The very few memories I have from that night raced through my mind. The feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment returned. For the first time in a day and a half, I wasn’t enjoying my running. I couldn’t even enjoy the stunning site of the stepping stones across the River Braint (which became unsafe to cross later on that night for the runners at the back of the pack due to the weather causing the high tide to be over the stepping stones).
Soon, I was skirting down the side of Newborough forest and towards Newborough Beach. Once on the beach, I could see Oliver up ahead. This gave my mind a distraction. The old competitive rugby brain soon kicked in. I wanted to chase him down. I wanted to catch him and try and beat him to second place. All thoughts of the previous year were quickly replaced by a steely determination to finish strong. The wind, thankfully, was now to our backs and after 55 miles plus, this felt like heaven. Though, I could have done without the mouthfuls of sand.
The honesty book I couldn’t find the year before was easily visible in the day light, and with only 6.5 miles to go from the Newborough CP to Aberffraw and the end of the day, I pushed as hard as I could in an attempt to try and catch Oliver. These last few miles were a dream. I still felt good, for a man who’d already run 60 miles. But this was soon to change. After collecting a page from the honesty book on Aberffraw beach, and I ran the last few steps up into Aberffraw and into the Town Hall with my family there waiting, it was over. All those demons and feelings I had felt for over 12 months disappeared. I finished third, minutes behind Oliver and William, with a time of 13:10:17 and finished in the daylight. All I hoped was that I had done Susan (who was watching the trackers all weekend and sending constant messages of love and support) and Chris proud. That run was for them. It was for sacrificing their race last year to help me. It was for the incredible love and support they had shown since that day in my quest to come back and conquer this demon. I can never thank them enough, but I hope this went some way towards it.
Yet, I didn’t feel at all happy. In fact, I felt awful. I didn’t want anyone around me. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I was angry. One of the race directors kindly gave me a bowl full of pasta; I took one mouthful before a trip to the bathroom. I was in trouble. Nothing wanted to stay down. I quickly decided the best thing was for me to find a nice quiet spot behind the stage curtains, unroll my sleeping bag, and pray I would feel better in the morning.
That night was horrible. My body couldn’t regulate my temperature. Other runners were coming in right up until 4am. These guys had endured some of the worst of the weather and made it. However once again, I got next to no sleep. And worse of all, I was no better. I felt weak and broken. I honestly didn’t think I would be able to walk, let alone run. I got up at 4am and attempted to eat. I managed some plain porridge but that was about all my stomach was going to tolerate. This was by far the lowest I’d felt all weekend. There was 33.4 miles in front of me and I couldn’t eat and I could barely move. The other runners were woken up abruptly at 5am to the sounds of Johnny Cash. In the light I could see Jon and Chris. They got in just after 3am and had fallen asleep as they sat. Jon seemed in decent enough shape. But Chris, well he was back where he was last year. His ankle had swollen up. He could barely move. I found myself encouraging him to get moving and get changed. Not to give up and to at least start the race, when deep down, all I was doing was trying to encourage myself. I was in a world of pain. Every fibre within me was yelling at me not to do this. That I was being stupid and I could never finish it. That this idea of me being an ultra runner was stupid and foolhardy. But there’s always a fight within me. Sometimes this manifests itself with me self destructing and arguing with the world. But on this morning, it made sure I stuck my inov8’s and UD vest on and got out to the start line.
At 6am the bell rang and to my surprise, I found myself running. It hurt like hell but I could run. I found myself in third place quickly behind William and Oliver. But these guys were in a much better shape than me and soon they were pulling ahead. The sun rose over sea and as promised, the weather was dry and warm. The first 7 miles towards Rhosneigr and CP1 of the day at Sandy’s Bistro past without much issue, apart from a field full of bulls who took interest in me and saw me turn from a shuffling mess into Usain Bolt and then a world class vaulter.
At the checkpoint, they were cooking breakfast for all the runners. I was kindly informed by the queen of vegans (Susan) that they did a vegan option. But I quickly decided against this. At the start of the morning, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and I should try and survive on tailwind only. I quickly left the checkpoint and soon found myself on the long stretch of beach just after. I was running well until all of a sudden, I began to vomit again. I started to believe that I wasn’t meant to finish this race. That I wasn’t meant to have that slate medal around my neck. I was again sabotaging myself. I was finding an excuse to turn back and not carry on. Yet I found myself sticking one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t quick, but I was still running. I drove through the pain and got myself to CP2 at 4 mile bridge. I was in a world of hurt. My feet were a mess, my legs barely moved, but all through the weekend, the volunteers at every checkpoint were incredible and supportive. And they were no different here. They made sure I didn’t stay any longer than I needed and sent me on my way.
The next 10 miles to CP3 at Trearddur Bay were the most painful I had ever experienced. I was still third but I was running less now, and I was convinced the runners behind me would soon catch up. I tried to run and shuffle as much as I could. I’m not ashamed to say at this point, tears were shed. I would never have wished this sort of pain upon my worst enemy. My feet were done. The incredible views offered little comfort. Every single step was a struggle. Yet I still kept sticking one foot in front of the other, as if I was in some sort of auto pilot mode. I knew as long as I made it to Treaddur Bay, I had enough time to crawl the last 9.5 miles to the end. This was now very much chest out territory. I had to ignore everything. The pain, the dark thoughts, everything. After a short road section I could see the CP on the front, like an oasis in the desert.
I had family and friends waiting at the checkpoint. But all I wanted to do was fill up my bottles with water and Tailwind and go. I kept checking the horizon, waiting for runners to appear, I was convinced I was going so slow I would be overtook. I just wanted to get moving and finish. As soon as I got moving, I could feel the darkness lift. I knew I could crawl from here and finish. But all of a sudden I was moving freely. I could run again. I was smiling! I could see Holyhead Mountain in the distance, but instead of feeling intimidated by it, I was now relishing the challenge. The last 9.5 miles flew by. I couldn’t stop smiling. I had even stopped looking over my shoulder. I collected the pages from both the remaining honesty books and pushed over Holyhead Mountain towards the end. As I opened the gate to run down the home stretch, my two beautiful daughters were there waiting to run the final few steps with me. The sounds of people cheering and Johnny Cash singing was the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard. I had finally done it. I had finally buried a 12 month demon. I had conquered The Ring of Fire.
I finished third for the day with a time of 07:02:00. But most important of all, I finished, and I finally had my medal.
With many friends and family there it was pretty overwhelming. I lay down on the grass and covered my eyes for a few moments and took in what I had just achieved. 12 months of pushing my mind and body for all of this. I was pretty emotional, and found it difficult to talk to anyone. Then it quickly dawned. With several day 2 drop outs, I was in the running for third overall. I quickly asked one of the race directors who helpfully answered with “maybe you are maybe you’re not. You’ll have to wait and see.” My brain quickly went into worst case scenario mode again. There was no way someone with only a year and a bit of running experience could be third in one of the most gruelling races in Britain.
And yet, somehow, I was. With a combined time of 26:55:27, this once overweight, broken rugby player was third. I felt like such a fraud. There was no way I deserved to be here. I had barely been running a year. This was beyond my wildest dreams. Even two weeks on it still hasn’t sunk in. But I suppose I proved one thing to myself, nothing is impossible if I stick my mind to it.
Oh, and Chris and Jon? Well after the trackers decided to freeze (a running issue throughout the weekend) and a few hours of nail biting, they soon appeared. Watching them cross the line made the weekend complete, and finally seeing Chris with the medal sealed the deal on an incredible weekend racing for me personally.
With two weeks past, I’m still struggling with the idea I came third. I still feel like a fraud. But then I look back at the 12 months of training and racing I did. The 5am starts to the 1am finishes. The joys and tears and injuries and fears. I went through it all too just finish this race, and to come third, well I suppose that was just the icing on the cake.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends and family who have supported me throughout the last 12 months. From dealing with all my mood swings to crewing for me and being such wonderful amazing people. I just hope I can continue doing you guys proud. Much love guys xx