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Dueling with the Red Dragon

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Three marathons in three days on the wild Welsh coast equals a humbling and exhilarating adventure for six veteran Canadian runners.

When the voice inside tells you it’s time to jump out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, what does it take to make that leap?

Longer runs? More mileage? More hillwork? More speedwork? More coaching?

Or maybe, all it takes is a simple leap of faith—the conviction that, yes, you can do this … with a little help from your friends.

For six masters-age runners from Vancouver, British Columbia, the voice called early in 2011 and they answered it on the rugged coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales. Betty Tod, Hilary Ewart, Jan Snow, Lishe O’Kiely, Pat Woods and Tom Lucas train together in Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains. When Betty, who had hiked in Pembrokeshire, suggested the Pembrokeshire Coast Challenge (PCC)—three marathons in three days along a rugged coastal trail—the game was on.

“Hilary and I were looking for our first adventure ultra,” Betty recalls. “We had gone overseas for road-marathon holidays and wanted to expand on that. We picked the Pembrokeshire Coast because I had hiked it and marveled at how spectacular it was, even in very bad weather. And so it grew!”

“We’re used to running in West Coast rainforest, surrounded by cedar trees, gnarly rocks and roots, up and down mountains, and not much in the way of views or open spaces,” says Pat. “When I saw photos of the open Pembrokeshire coastline I thought: ‘Yeah, cool runnings!’ I wanted to find out how my body would respond to running three marathons over three days.”

Despite its 78.6-mile length and multi-day format, the PCC seemed within reach. Welsh weather in mid-November would be much like home—grey, cool, rainy, windy—while the maximum elevation on the course was just 425 feet, a fraction of the thousands of feet they routinely climb on the North Shore.

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Classic Pembrokeshire coast terrain: Pastures give way to steep cliffs and the path skirts the edge, just feet from a steep drop to the ocean.

Back-to-Backs
The runners share many years of trail and road experience but varied experience in trail ultras, mostly participating in local fixtures such as the Knee Knacker 50K, on Vancouver’s North Shore, and the Diez Vista 50K―a rugged traverse of the Diez Vistas ridge east of Vancouver. Hilary ran her first 50-kilometer race just last spring while Pat, the strongest runner in the group, finished the Canadian Death Race (125 kilometers) in July.

“In the Death Race, I had to dig deep to find reasons to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” says Pat. “It was a confidence builder, and I knew I could go the distance in Wales.”

After training and racing in local events through the spring and summer, the Canadians began preparing for Wales in September by running “back-to-backs”—two- and three-day clusters of long runs to get them used to the long days and short recoveries they’d face in the PCC. After a few two-day sessions in September, most of the group ran five consecutive three-day weekends through October and early November, peaking with two to five-hour runs and up to 20-mile days. The rest of the week involved only a single short run or an evening of speedwork.

“The back-to-backs were really important because we knew we had to be able to get up the morning after a long run and do it all over again,” says Jan.

Says Hilary, “Realizing I could feel better after day one gave me tremendous confidence. I think that was the point when I realized that I could do this.”

The Course
The Pembrokeshire coast is awe inspiring. Green pastures stitched by hedges and grazed by sheep, cattle and ponies slope toward the sea, then drop precipitously off steep cliffs. Hundreds of feet below, the sea breaks against the cliffs and the jagged reefs just offshore. The coastline is slashed by an endless series of points, headlands, coves, harbors and beaches.

Part of the United Kingdom’s network of national trails, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path skirts this exposed knife-edge between land and sea, climbing up, down and around all those cliffs, points and headlands. Humans and animals have tramped the trails here for centuries and the path passes ancient stone circles, tombs, forts and other historic sites. In places the trail is so well worn that it is a narrow trench over a foot deep.

In its third year, the PCC follows the path from Dale in south to Pwllgwaelod in the north, with finishes and restarts at Newgale Sands and Porthgain. The challenge is as much the weather as the distance and terrain. Autumn rains create slippery, clay-like mud that sucks at runners’ feet and cakes shoes into blocks. The wind blows regularly at 10 to 20 miles per hour and often reaches 30 to 40 miles per hour, buffeting runners as they try to maintain footing on slippery rocks or in the deep, narrow track. A runner who slips over the edge will almost certainly need rescue by lifeboat or helicopter—if they survive the fall.

The coast path has a daunting reputation even among locals―like taxi driver Rhydian Havard, who ferried us from the train station in Haverfordwest to race headquarters in Saint David’s.

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“Dangerous, dangerous! You’re all crazy,” Havard exclaimed when he heard why we had come to this corner of his country. “I’d have a hard time just walkin’ it. I know the guys on the Fishguard lifeboat, so I’ll know if they have to head out and save you!”

The day before the race, as if on cue, the wind honks at 30-plus miles per hour. That night, rain hammers against the windows of our cottage.

Day One—26 miles
It’s a young crowd: most are in their 20s and 30s, a few in their 40s, with only one or two hikers older than the Canadians. Some have prepared carefully for the weekend’s challenge―and some not so much.

At dinner last night, the Canadians met a trio of runners they dub “The Apostles.” Their names are Matthew, Mark and Luke. One of them, Matthew Wilson, is an Australian-born archeologist living in Norway. As a seasoned ultrarunner, he has trained on trails that sound more challenging than the Canadians’ home mountains.

“I’ve been running every day after work, mainly in the dark, up and down really rugged, rocky trails with several thousand feet of elevation gain. I’m ready.”

Another runner, an Englishman named Tom, is using the PCC as training for a multi-day desert run but starts on less sleep than most: “I worked last night till 11, drove five hours from London, slept in my car for two hours, had a snack … and I’m ready to run.”

The rain has stopped but the wind blusters outside as race director Ben Mason briefs the runners. The PCC is not a race but a challenge, he explains dryly: “A coastal marathon to be enjoyed and remembered fondly on Monday morning.”

This morning and before each day’s start, the runners are checked for a hefty gear kit they are required to carry in case of severe weather or accidents. The kit includes dry clothing, a compass, a mobile phone and critical phone numbers, and a pencil and paper so they can write a note for fellow runners to carry in case they need help.
The run begins in two waves. “Joggers” and “walkers” start at 8:50 a.m., while “runners” go at 11 a.m. with less than six hours of daylight to finish. Team Canada opts for the later start.

Each day’s course is divided into four stages, with checkpoints and aid stations roughly every six miles. Today’s first stage takes the field around the Dale Peninsula, into the teeth of the southerly wind. The first checkpoint is less than a mile across the peninsula from the start but six miles into the course, thanks to the tortuous route. The trail is mucky, slippery and liberally coated with sheep, uh, droppings, while the wind makes footfalls wobbly and uncertain.

“The toughest thing was the slippery mud. It was totally different from the packed trails we’re used to,” says Betty.

“I think the wind was the hardest thing. It drained me, and and also caused dehydration,” says Lishe.

Team Canada rides emotional highs and lows: they’re thrilled to have made it here at last but daunted by the challenge that has seemed to grow. They have realized that they have lost key details in translation from British runner-speak to North American. Elevation will be much more of a factor than they anticipated; they had focused on the maximum elevation, not total elevation change.

“We were very cocky coming over here, but really had no idea about the terrain or the conditions, no idea it would take as long as it did,” says Lishe.

Today’s course actually climbs and descends about 3450 feet—and days two and three increase from here. And a “runner” here is closer to an elite competitor who will run most of the course, while the Canadians generally run and walk so would have been better classed as “joggers.” They also know that they will finish this challenging day in the dark.
Jan falls three times early on, and Lishe’s spirits crash. The wind is warm and they are wearing too many clothes. Where the path crosses pastures, they have to open gates and climb over stiles—more than 100 of them today alone. The path is well marked with its upside-down acorn insignia, but side trails bear off regularly and the Canadians grow frustrated with repeated navigational errors.

Today they do something they seldom do on training runs—they stick together behind their strongest member, pushing along at “Pat’s Perfect Pace.”

When the light fades at about 4:45 p.m. they are among the last runners on the course. Within a mile or two of the finish, they end up thrashing in the gorse—thorny shrubs native to Western Europe and Northwest Africa—in the dark, well off track again.

They finish more than an hour after dark but their time, 7 hours 15 minutes, is respectable given their detour. And they look fresher than some who finished ahead of them and are already limping.

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Team Canada and and an English friend look fresh at day one’s final checkpoint in Broad Haven.

The evening is short and busy: they shower, eat, wash clothes and prep food and drinks for the next day. At dinner, race coordinator Peter Mason suggests tactfully that Team Canada might try the early start on Saturday. The words are barely out of his mouth when several of the runners blurt, practically in unison: “Yes, we’re getting the early bus!”

“It was much, much harder than I thought it would be,” says Lishe. “It was an extremely humbling day.”

Day Two—26.7 miles
The wind has eased, the sky has cleared and it is warmer than yesterday—in fact, this November is one of the warmest on record in the U.K. The course rounds Saint David’s Peninsula onto the coast’s most scenic stretch. The greens and blues of land and sea are a sharp change from yesterday’s uniform grey.

“Usually we’d be standing here and the rain would be blowing horizontal,” marvels assistant race director Andy Blow at checkpoint one, high above Caerfai Bay, a rocky cleft in the shore of the peninsula with sweeping views southward across Saint Brides Bay and the Bristol Channel.

The path is drier and wider on this section of the course, and the packed grass is softer underfoot. The Canadians are relaxed, less worried about time and more willing to mix walking and running since they’ve started with the “joggers.” They enjoy the camaraderie on the trails and the friendliness of the few spectators who are drawn out to the beaches and paths by the unusually fine weather.

“There was less pressure today, even though we expected day two to be harder,” says Lishe. “It was easier mentally and physically.”

The Canadians make an impression on the race volunteers. Says one, “They are such a happy group, so full of energy. You can’t miss them!”

After Saint Justinian,―another rocky, precipitous bay with a lifeboat station and stunning views of offshore islands, including a pair of rocks known as The Bitches,―stages three and four introduce the runners to the mental challenge of staying strong and pressing on when the curve of the coast and clear visibility give them a dauntingly sharp view of the many miles they have yet to cover. This is the tortured Pembrokeshire Coast at its best (or worst). The path traces the cliff edge around, up and over an endless series of bays, cuts, cliffs and headlands―all with stunning views of the coastline and the sea in both directions, not to mention fellow runners far ahead.

“A good walk spoiled,” mutters a runner with arch British sarcasm as he crests the long hill near Penberry and starts his descent into yet another bay.

Pat pushes on alone to finish at Porthgain in just 7 hours, nearly an hour ahead of the group. Betty runs 7 hours 45 minutes and the rest 7 hours 55 minutes. They’re giddy with excitement at finishing two-thirds of the run—and the beer their support crew picked up at a nearby pub goes down easily.

Hilary may be the day’s winner. She endured a tough first day followed by a night of nausea. “Mid-race yesterday I wanted to sit down on the side of the trail and cry, but I dug deep. I realized I’ve got something inside I never knew I had. I felt more empowered today.”

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The race course crosses pastures bounded by ancient stone walls.

At dinner in The Farmers’ Arms Pub in Saint David’s, the locals are welcoming but just a little bemused by these visitors and their running antics. A farmer whose property borders the path near Penberry tells the Canadians they’ve passed the steepest climb on the course: “If you climbed that hill near my place, you’ll find The Strumbles [the highest point on the course, waiting for them tomorrow] easier than that.”


Day Three—25.7 miles

So the farmer was wrong.

The final day is the shortest but, physically, the toughest, with 4286 feet of elevation change, including the climb to the highest point on the course, 425 feet near Strumble Head.

It’s still dark at 7 a.m. and headlamps twinkle as the runners file up to the start above Porthgain. It’s misty and cooler than yesterday. The widely varying lengths of today’s stages only add to the degree of difficulty. Stage one is just four miles long, while stage two stretches nearly nine miles to Strumble Head. The combination of a short, easy stage with the long, hard climb up The Strumbles is often the last straw for tired, sore runners, explains Blow.

“We have a lot of drop-outs on this stage. But with the steep ups and downs close to the cliff edge, the third day is the most awe inspiring,” continues Blow. “You really feel you’re out in the wild—no civilization in sight and the sea out to your left. This day is what people really come for.”

Fatigue is written on the faces of all the runners and it’s clear some are beyond their limits. But the Canadians look fresh and relaxed. For most of them, if day one was hardest, today is easiest.

“At the top of The Strumbles, I was alone and in the mist. You could just see the ocean through the mist and hear the waves … just magical,” says Lishe. “It didn’t feel that difficult because I was in awe.”

After The Strumbles, the hardest stage is the final six miles from Goodwick to the finish. The course follows the seafront promenade through the town of Fishguard and up a long, gradual hill. Outside of town, the coast path skirts another series of headlands, down and around bays and beaches, then back up again. You can see runners a headland or two ahead, and you know the finish is frustratingly farther ahead and out of sight. There are dozens more gates and stiles, too.

“I remember thinking the finish had to be close, and I hiked very slowly to the rhythm of my family’s names: Pe-ter, Hun-ter. …” says Lishe. “The mantra saved me and helped me get the job done.”

The finish in Pwllgwaelod (say ‘puth’ and stick out your tongue, then ‘gway-lod’) finally comes. The path switchbacks down into a cozy bay tucked between two headlands, with a sweep of beach and a pub café busy with Sunday diners. The runners can see the finish line below. Down a last excruciating set of steps, along the road, through the parking lot, and it’s over.

Pat runs solo to finish, impressively in the same time as day two—first in her Female Senior Veteran age group. Jan and Betty run together for most of the day, focusing on each other or on runners between them and getting to the finish together.
They finish about 25 minutes behind Pat, with Lishe, Hilary and Tom another 25 minutes back.

Tom has a tough day, his toughest of the race. Struggling with nausea most of the day, he digs deep: “I had taken three lucky coins with me, representing three significant people in my life and representing adventure, purpose and strength through friendship. In the last couple of miles I called out loud for assistance from the ‘representatives’ of these coins and I felt they were there to help.”

That evening, it rained for the first time since the eve of the race.

Duart Snow is a journalist, open-water swimmer and Nordic skier in Vancouver, British Columbia. His favorite athletes make the difficult look easy—as Team Canada did in Wales.