The Marathon des Cote: Britain’s most brutal footrace?

I was completely and utterly out of my depth. My blood sugar level was 23mmol (it should be about five). The hills were taller, steeper and more frequent than I was expecting. I was three hours and 10 miles into a footrace that would take at least another three days and 176 miles to complete. If I could just keep going.

It was a big ‘if’. The two other people I entered this madness with had disappeared over distant headlands long ago. Now it was just me. I wanted to vomit. My mouth was dry. I was dying to piss, again. This was the Marathon des Cote 2018 [MdC], the first known attempt to cover the 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in 72 hours or less.

The Marathon des Cote: Britain’s most brutal footrace?

There are many races that might qualify as Britain’s most brutal – the distance, terrain, cut off times and conditions of events such as Arc of Attrition, C2C and Dragon’s Back all make them contenders – but at about 8am on 15 June 2018, the MdC was it. For me at least.

I suppose brutality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And to Richard and Helen, the two that had left me for dust hours ago, this seemed to be a walk in the park. This was their backyard, after all.

Helen regularly wins ultra marathons and has qualified for the Ironman world championships in Hawaii. Richard has spent a career in the forces, joining expeditions to Antarctica and teaching survival skills. I was just a stranger with type one diabetes and a midlife crisis. If falling of a cliff and into a coma didn’t kill me, the Mrs would, for being so damned stupid.

Marathon des Cote 2018

Then, gradually, I began to settle in. The beauty of the coast under blue skies began to outshine the brutality of its inclines. The last of the spring’s bluebells were giving way to the first of the summer’s foxgloves. There were butterflies everywhere. Song birds followed me, bouncing from fence post to fence post as I laboured up and down the hills.

Twenty or so miles in, I’d found my stride. My blood sugar had stabilised. The knowledge that the two highest peaks of the run (both within six miles of St Dogmaels, where the run began at 4.30am) were behind me, the hot tea and reggae (Max Romeo, if you’re interested) of checkpoint one and a tearful phone call with The Mrs had all helped rally my spirits.

The next 20 or so miles were perhaps the toughest I’ve ever run. They were also the best. The headlands gave views over bays echoing with the groans of seals basking on the rocks and the shrieks of birdlife nestled in the cliffs. The slopes in between were crisscrossed with streams and wooded, sun dappled ravines.

Those miles floated past. At two points the Mrs and kids were there to offer encouragement, hugs and peanut butter & marmalade sandwiches. It’s amazing how the beautiful scenery and the promise of seeing the faces of your most loved can divert your attention from the madness of what you’re doing.

MdC 3

I was brought down to earth in the miles following Strumble Head, a great lump of rock sticking north into the Irish Sea west of Fishguard before the coast dives southwest to St David’s. The hills got steeper again. The path was strewn with loose rocks and split like a river delta. I had to retrace my steps more than once.

At about 45 miles it became clear: I wasn’t going to be able to cover the remaining 21 miles of the first leg before the midnight cut off. It was gone 8pm and I was progressing at a rate of three to four miles an hour. I’d been warned that the terrain west of Abereiddy, the next checkpoint at 50 miles in, was treacherous. And it would be dark when I reached it.

I cried at the realisation I was going to fail on the first day of the MdC. I’d been training for six months. I’d told the world about this. I’d been doing my damndest to raise funds to find a cure for type one diabetes and help people living with the condition. I was failing. I sobbed like the berieved as I staggered along the path. You should have seen the snot.

MdC 4

Then two things happened: Rich, one of my oldest, best loved mates (who’d travelled to Wales in support of my mission) appeared over a headland; when I reached him he reminded me that the MdC was not my final goal, but a ’training’ run for the Marathon des Sables [MdS], a 150 mile race in Morocco that I will do next April for diabetes charities.

You can’t fail in a training run, he suggested. Rich ran/walked with me, walking stick in hand, for the final five miles or so to Abereiddy. All I remember is the laughter of those final few miles. It was like we were 10 again.

At Abereiddy, I was greeted by Ryan, the reggae playing, tea making ex Paratrooper who’d been keeping my spirits up at the day’s checkpoints. It was time to rethink, he said: I’d done 50 miles; another 16 could take me to 4am, then I’d have another 60 to do later that day. And another 60 on the final day.

So we changed the plan. I would run 50 miles a day along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path for three days. Pembrokeshire might not have the heat or sand of the Sahara, but its punishing hills would be good prep and the new total mileage was equal to the MdS, but I’d do it in three days, rather than the MdS’s six.

I managed three hours’ sleep at St David’s Bunkhouse, after a hot meal and a massage from lady called Marie, who had a grip like a monkey wrench. It was raining at 3.30am, when I woke. I felt like shit. Again, my blood was in the low 20s. My tongue was like sandpaper. I couldn’t eat with a blood sugar so high, and I had 50 miles to run.

And then help arrived again. Rob and Tim, who Rich and I grew up with and hold more secrets about me than bear thinking about, arrived. They took the piss out of me a bit and wished me well. They’d done an eight hour drive, wives and kids in tow, the previous night to support me. I owe them, but I know they want nothing for the effort they made to be there. True friends.

The first 30 miles of day two were amazing. The first 10 were wet, slippery and hilly as I climbed from cove to cove along the southern edge of the St David’s Peninsula, but I was buzzing. For St Bride’s Bay the sun came out. The scenery was amazing. But I got disorientated, misjudged where I was and pushed it too hard.

I arrived at the final checkpoint of day two, 87 miles in, exhausted. My family, my mates and their families were all there, but I felt defeated. I didn’t tell anyone this, but someone must have sensed it, because Rob, Tim and Rich all did the final leg with me. We hit the 100 mile mark at about 10.30pm.

I spent night two in a tent somewhere near Pembroke. It was cold and raining but I had my best sleep in three nights. I woke the next day at 3.30am, ate some porridge and was driven to Angle for the start of my final 50 mile leg. I began staggering on at about 4.50am.

My aim had been to sustain a three mile an hour pace for the final 50 miles. That would mean I’d rock in to Amroth, the southern end of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, at some point after 9pm. But it never happened.

The first three miles were relatively flat and I made good time. But as soon as the hills began, my left knee started to scream. Uphills were bearable; downhills were agony. The following two miles took me more than hour. The rain was closing in. Limping on slippery rocks with a sheer drop on one side was dangerous. And this was a training run.

I threw in the towel at Gravel Bay, just east of Freshwater West at about 7am on Sunday 17 June, having run about 107 miles in 30 hours. About 14 hours later, Richard became the winner of the first ever Marathon des Cote. Helen, sadly, was forced to pull out on day two with a twisted ankle.

This was not a failure. The lessons I learned were huge (there’s another post coming on those shortly). The people I met – organiser Fintan Godkin of Man Up UK, Ryan Naish and fellow competitors Richard Simpson and Helen Platel – and those that came to support me taught me so much. I can’t wait to put those lessons into practice.

Whether this is Britain’s most brutal race, I can’t say. But for me it will always be the most beautiful. One day, I’ll be back to complete the MdC.

Has this tickled your fancy? Then check out Man Up UK. As well as the Marathon des Cote, they run a whole range of running, endurance and outdoors events in the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Top people, breathtaking scenery, life affirming activities… what’s not to like?

And, while you’re here, why not make a small donation to help fund research into finding a cure for type one diabetes and help those living with the condition? You can do so here!

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