I’m not sure about you but I tend to enter races that capture my imagination. There can be many reasons why a race grabs me; a beautiful route, a unique challenge, great reviews, to compete with friends, perhaps no obvious reason at all, but there does need to be a motivation to take part, some sort of why. I don’t race for the sake of racing or for that matter enter many races at all.
St Illtyd’s ultra definitely grabbed me, there was a real buzz on social media after last years race with lots of those I follow on Instagram and Twitter having taking part and raving about it. Throw in the fact that the race start/finish was less than an hour from where we were moving to in Wales and would be a nice intro back into some longer trail races and I found myself clicking the enter button.
The race concept is relatively simple, start next to Burry Port harbour just outside Llanelli, pick up the St Illtyd’s way just outside town and follow it for 25km. Turn around at half way and retrace your steps. Simple. The first/last 5km is super flat along a cycle path, the 40km in between however has 1200m of climbing, plenty to punish those who run the first half too fast.
The route has some road sections (maybe 30% road) but the rest of the route is footpaths across fields and through woods. Nothing technical but not always the easier surface to run on across fields of long grass or mud trampled by horses and now in a hard, break your ankle state. But rarely flat apart from that 5km at the start and finish.
The route is marked as the St Illtyd’s signs aren’t all that reliable, but only with tape tied to gates/hedges. Mostly this was ok and the organisers said they had increased the marking from last year. But haven’t seen that a few people got lost last year I went armed with the GPS file on my watch, not needed most the time but certainly useful on a few occasions. Even with the increased marking I think there would be opportunity to get lost, maybe not for long but definitely go off course. Potentially even more so if you’re at the back end of the field and finishing at dusk. The best races I’ve ever done in terms of course marking are those run by Cotswold Running, definitely the benchmark and impossible to get lost with loads of signs and even the wrong routes marked to warn you to turn around.
My training had gone well so I went in confident but also apprehensive, it’s been some time since I ran a marathon (2 years) and even longer since my last ultra (5 years) and therefore wasn’t sure how I’d feel going that long again. The plan was to keep the first half controlled, focus on my fuelling and then see if I could push on in the 2nd half. Hard when the start of the race is so flat and everyone is rushing past you as the adrenaline courses around their bodies.
The start at Burry Port Harbour was stunning with the blue sky overhead and the sun already warming up as I collected my number at 8am. I hate that time between collecting your number and the race starting, full of nervous energy and wondering if you should go and have ANOTHER poo just in case. Kit faffed with, decision taken to start in short sleeves and it was time to line up.
The first hour of the race passed quickly, I focused on keeping the pace easy, walking the hills and latching onto a number of different groups for company while they moved at the same speed as me. After the first 5km there is some steady climbing up onto the hills overlooking Burry Port and some great single track through woods. Progress was a little stop start as we moved along single track but things soon spread out and I found a group of 3 runners who were moving at a good pace so I stuck with them. There are some stunning views at this point down to Burry Port Harbour and on a day like we had across the see to the Gower.
This carried on until half way, the pace was a touch slow at times but I figured that was fine, it had got quite warm so a little easy was a good thing. At halfway they stopped for a bit at the aid station, I’m not a big fan of dawdling at aid stations preferring to get in and out quickly and eat on the move. Feeling good I pushed on and ran most of the second half on my own.
Psychologically heading back to the start made a real difference, you knew what lay ahead and could prepare for it. Running past people heading for the turn around point was also fun, nice to exchange some cheery ‘well done’ and ‘doing great’ greetings as we passed each other. Always a friendly, supportive vibe at ultra’s isn’t there? Plus having seen how far ahead the other runners were it gave me something to aim for and keep me moving.
In terms of race plan execution I think this is one of the best races I’ve ever done, I felt strong running the second half, picking off 15 people which just boosts your confidence and keeps you pushing. Fuelling also worked well, I had 2 bottles with Tailwind in that I topped up at checkpoints with additional Tailwind sachets from my pack. I also munched on a chia charge bar to keep something solid going in. I also picked a little from the checkpoints, the water melon in particular was delicious, I also hoovered up some salt and vinegar crisps at the last check point which tasted like heaven after 38km of running. Thankfully the weather cooled down for most of the 2nd half and made for pleasant running conditions.
I’d resolved to run the final 5km along the cycle path as hard as I could, I put my headphones in with some music turned up loud and pushed as hard as I could. I think I was close to a 25min 5km so pretty happy with that, plus 6th fastest ever on the Strava segment that goes from the last check point to the finish. Finishing knowing I’d given my all and seeing my kids cheering and ringing bells for me was the perfect end to the day.
So would I recommend the St Illtyd’s ultra? Absolutely, the marking can definitely be improved but otherwise it’s a great race. The checkpoints were well stocked and organised, the organisers very friendly and relaxed which is then reflected in the competitors. The route is challenging due to the elevation but definitely suitable for someone taking the first step up from the marathon distance. It’s also great value with an excellent medal (important) and race t-shirt. Plus free parking at the start/finish which makes race logistics very easy.
Next years race takes place on 3rd May so why not take a look?