A bit of context
The year was 2019, and in what feels like a simple world now, I was doing lots of races. And entering them too. Then COVID-19 happened and it rather derailed everything, including a whole slew of future races I’d booked myself onto.
I’d discovered Stephen Cousins’ excellent YouTube channel called FilmMyRun and dreamed of all these amazing trail ultramarathons that were waving their arms at me*, vying for my attention. One in particular, was GU36, a jaunt around the coastal path of Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. I was aware of the race as one of my friends, Carmen, had attempted it in 2019, but was left with unfinished business. It’s a small local race, with a similarly small number of places, but once entries opened for 2020, I was quick to make sure I had bagged one of them. In fact, a group of my running friends from the Racecheck community all got places (including Carmen), so it was set to be a very social event for us. As well as knowing each other from Racecheck (via Twitter), we’d descended on Cyprus twice in previous years, so it was set to be another mad reunion.
But then, COVID-19 happened and that curtailed things for a while. In terms of GU36, the best we could manage was the outgoing race organiser, Peter Tiffin, running the route with Michelle along with his GoPro, and uploading it to the Guernsey Ultra YouTube channel.
* Ultramarathons don’t have arms, but if they did it would be pretty cool
Some day our race will come
The 2020 GU36 race was postponed for a year, but as that new date approached it still wasn’t clear whether travel restrictions would be lifted in time, so in his last turn as RO, Peter suggested that all overseas participants deferred for another year, although there was a much smaller 2021 edition made up essentially of Guernsey residents.
I booked my hotel and flights to Guernsey in early 2022 and crossed my fingers that the race would happen. I did get a little nervous having not heard anything since confirming my intention to defer to 2022, but a quick email with new ROs Michael & Paul confirmed that I was definitely on the start list and they were expecting me to show up!
As you’ve probably gauged from previous posts, getting time away from my busy little small business is something of a challenge; last year was 6 months working every day, and 2022 was well into 8 months non-stop with me having to try to work around bookings in order to squeeze in a 48 hour trip to Guernsey, and a similar trip (albeit without running) for my brother’s wedding. But come 14th May at stupid o’clock I was on a bus headed to Manchester Airport and by mid morning, on another bus bound for the guesthouse I was stopping at, in St Peter Port, Guernsey.
Getting to Guernsey
I suspect it was the time elapsed since entering the race to actually going away to do it that I was somewhat sketchy about the details. Aside from the fact it was an ultra of about 36 miles (trail events rarely are the distance they say they are!) and a circumnavigation about the island. In the final instructions it was suggested that trail shoes were needed for the cliff path, but then to swap to road shoes for the rest of the route. Given I was only in Guernsey for 48 hours, I had a bit of a complex about taking more pairs of shoes with me than days I’d be away! So I decided to wear my road shoes on my journey over to Guernsey, with my trail shoes in my luggage. And to not take a third pair of ‘normal’ shoes.
Having had a wander around in the Saturday afternoon sunshine in my road shoes, my troublesome left foot started to protest. Which isn’t a good sign ahead of dragging it around the island! So having found an ice-cream (I’m on holiday) and spent a small fortune on a panini for lunch (so many Italian food places in St Peter Port!) I went back to St George’s guesthouse to rest my foot. Not exactly how I intended to be spending my free time, but then if I’m going to be on my feet for much of the following day, it wasn’t a bad shout either!
I’d contacted my friend Kyla who was over for the race, but they were sightseeing on the other side of the island. The others were apparently meeting for food at Gusto (another Italian establishment) but I didn’t see anything on their menu that took my fancy, and discovered Otto’s (yet another Italian establishment) who were serving pizza. Which was my sort of venue!
I was slightly troubled by the BBC weather forecast of 15 hours of thunderstorms for race day, but having started my food and getting chatting to a couple of others in the restaurant who were also doing the race, it became obvious that each of about 4 different forecasting sites were saying entirely different things. These chaps (I forgot to ask their names) had done the race before and gave me a few tips about it which was helpful. I went to bed early, full of pizza and with another early start for race registration the following morning.
Race registration and a few hellos
I woke up before my alarm, ate a pot of porridge I’d brought with me as I suspected that breakfast wouldn’t be available at the time I needed to have breakfast. As it happens the guesthouse owner knew I was racing and popped by just as I was getting ready to leave and asked if there was anything I needed. Which was really nice as they didn’t have to. But by then I was full of porridge and some day-old pastries from the co-op down the road, so I was good to go.
I headed down to the Liberation Monument, joined the queue to get my race number and deposited my drop bag. Not long after, the whole Racecheck crew had arrived and we grabbed a pre-race photo! Peter & Michelle were also around and so it was nice to actually meet them in person!
The race briefing was short and sweet, and included some nice touches, including thanking Peter for getting the event started and reminding the runners to look out for each other and to help if needed. This is something that is well entrenched in the fell running world, and similarly the trail world, but I think has been lost to some extent within the mass participation world of the ever-expanding commercial road races. It is something that’s very special within these smaller events, that actually the organisers care about the event and participants, beyond the statutory requirements!
Great expectations – or not!
I’m going to start by talking about race plans and expectations. Usually, when preparing for a race, you have a rough idea as to what ‘success’ means. This could be a intended finish time, or it could just be to just complete the course within the cut-offs. Now having been sidelined throughout 2021 and really not undertaken any focused training, I was firmly in this second category. Which is totally fine, there’s no point pretending that I’m in the shape of my life when I’m clearly not. On social media someone commented to others that I was “taking part” in the race. And whilst the competitive me might take umbrage at this comment, it was fair as my only goal was to complete the race.
The weather was suspiciously sunny during the briefing, but clouds soon erased that, although thankfully not the sort that come with bangs and crashes! 7am arrived and we were off!
GU36 2022 – it begins
The route starts off south down the main coastal road through St Peter Port before turning off and beginning the first climb. Initially tarmac before we joined the trail. The first 16 miles of the race takes the runners over the cliffs on the south of the island. There are many paths that criss-cross the race route, but the organisers had marked the course with orange ribbons, plus (on the road sections) some fabulous cards with motivating statements on them. I’d also downloaded the race route onto my Garmin as a back up, but initially we were in a long conga line making our way up and down some various woodland paths as we ascended the cliffs.
There was a wrong turn within the first couple of miles and I’d been blindly following people in front before those behind called us back. So that was a reality check to wake up, focus more and know where I’m actually going!!! The heavens opened and I stopped to put a waterproof jacket on, but typically within 5 minutes the rain had stopped and instead I was sweating buckets inside my coat. So it was duly removed on the trail side as the chain of runners rapidly thinned out.
Step up – step down
Once onto the cliffs it became a constant repetition of steep steps up out of one cove followed by a descent into the next cove that contained some or more steps down. And these are steps of random height and width with the added jeopardy of the front of the steps often being slightly taller than the step itself! On a number of occasions the air turned a bit blue as runners were faced with a column of steps that seemed to reach ever higher! The overall elevation of about 1000-1200 metres wouldn’t normally worry me as the Peak District is plenty lumpy. However when much of that climbing is on steps where you’re working the muscle groups that much harder, you soon know about it!
CP1 – water and the prospect of more steps
By the time I was dropping down to CP1 at 8 miles there were a couple of people ahead of me. I stopped to swap over to my next tailwind-filled soft flask, plus a top up of water. Some people flew through but with the next ladder of steps immediately present I was happy to take my time. In fact, this was something very new for me; I had my watch in navigation mode the full time and never looked at the time elapsed or distance covered. It was just recording what was going on and I was happy to follow the trail with no idea whether I was quick, slow or indifferent. Well, I knew I wasn’t quick, but the rest is true!
The second 8 miles was very much a reprise of the first 8; beautiful coves along the south coast with less than beautiful steps climbing up and down them! It was only 16 miles (bearing in mind this is a 36 mile race) but it felt like it was going on forever, pretty though it was. I hadn’t a clue whether I was up against the cut offs, but I figured that as there were plenty of people behind me, and that nobody was pointing at their watches and telling me to get my finger out, that I was probably OK.
CP2 – food fest and new footwear
After what felt like an eternity of steps I emerged onto a tarmac road. One of the marshals called out to check my race number and I heard him shouting it on to others I couldn’t yet see. As I passed him he explained that CP2 would have my dropbag ready for me as I arrived. The cliff section was done and I dropped down into an oasis of people, food and seats. And more food. I collected my bag from the marshal holding it out for me, sat down and honestly wondered where the next 20 miles were going to come from.
I’ve never changed my shoes in a race but given that was the suggestion I took off my gnarled up Altras and put on the Sauconys that yesterday had my foot complaining. But either way, the cushioning felt awesome, so I decided I’d go for it. I swapped out my next water bottle and grazed on cake, crisps and fruit which watching a good few people who I’d passed on the cliffs barely even stop at the checkpoint. But this didn’t bother me, I was sticking to my own plan of just getting myself around. I made use of the toilets, dropped off my bag and set off down the road for what is the second race of the two (unequal) halves.
The flat roads of the west coast
It was quite a strange sensation, bouncing along in road shoes having really worked my body out on the cliff path. I had no idea of my speed as I was still on the navigation screen on the watch. It felt slow, but that’s as much down to the fact my body was feeling the effect of that first half. But I seemed to be catching up with a number of the ladies who had passed me by whilst I was in CP2 although it was with a bit of ‘they’ll surely pass straight by me again’ dread. Not that I cared about the position, it’s just that feeling that you’ve stuffed your own strategy by inadvertently reeling in runners ahead and going too quick as a result. But weirdly when I looked back, they were nowhere to be seen. Writing this now, I’m hoping that they were actually there and not a figment of my imagination…..!
I passed one chap who was clearly struggling with a piriformis injury. Although I was surprised when he told me that he’d run the Thames Path 100 mile ultra the weekend before! So that’s probably the lesson learned there, especially with a punishing schedule of cliff-side steps.
They didn’t mention SAND
In between the tarmac was a few sections of soft sand to negotiate. Which was not fun. It’s tough at the best of times. But half-way through an ultra that began with step-fest, it’s just not funny at all! Thankfully in most places the path was alongside the main road, so there was a tarmac option for some of the time. It takes a lot these days to lure me to tarmac, but soft sand gets a pass EVERY time!
Typically I passed by a public toilet (they’re all open on Guernsey, which is a strange sight coming from the UK where they’ve all been closed down!) and within about 300m my stomach decided to start doing somersaults. At least I knew from the course map that there were more toilets up ahead. I just didn’t know where.
The next few miles (genuinely I have no idea about time or distance) I was plodding along on my own, cove after cove. Every now and again I caught sight of lady in a pink running vest up ahead, but never seemed to get any closer. I was getting a little concerned a few times as I hadn’t seen any course markers, but Garmin seemed happy I was on the right route so I kept plugging away. I got pulled slightly off course when I saw another lady running perpendicularly to my direction but as I started to head towards the trail she was on I spotted a course marker ribbon to my left (she was on my right) and so I fumbled my way back onto the route. Clearly she wasn’t doing the race and I never saw her again. As if luck should have it I spotted the other lady up ahead, way off in the distance, so at least I knew my trajectory was correct.
Next up I starting closing up on a male runner although some very soft sand slowed my progress. As did the sight of a toilet block. So by the time that had become available and I’d sorted myself out, there was nobody to be seen! Every now and again there were other people on the coastal path and I was almost surprised how supportive people were. Lots of encouragement all round. But still nobody else doing the race!!!
CP3 and actually seeing runners
Some time later I realised I had made up some distance on the lady in front. Still a long way ahead, but closer than I’d been. As I dropped into CP3 she was actually just leaving, but I wasn’t for chasing after. I was feeling pretty beaten up by then as the marshals were feeding me oranges and refilling my water. I commented that I presumed the winner had been crowned and they confirmed he had, and in a new course record of 4h12m, which was completely unfathomable to me how he could have covered the course in that time. Just wow, incredible!
And then I noticed they had Calipo ice lollies on the table and I was dragged back into the real world that involved another 10 and a bit miles before I would see the Liberation Monument again. I set off with ice lolly melting faster than I could eat it. The sun wasn’t out but the day was warming up. I was concerned about my lack of energy. but also concerned that I’d filled my bag full of food which was currently getting a free ride around Guernsey. And not in my stomach either!
Although I wasn’t actively watching my mileage or time, I knew the distances between the checkpoints. At each mile my watch still buzzed to let me know a mile had gone and whilst I wasn’t looking to see how many miles had passed or how long each mile had taken, it allowed me to count down the miles from that. I guess it was something different for my mind to think about, instead of focusing on how everything was achy and tired!
A bit of company
It was all run-walk strategy now. Run down the (minor) hills, and walk up the slight undulations. The lady was maybe only 100m ahead but suddenly vanished. There was a male runner up ahead who seemed pretty beaten although we jogged along together for a while, only for the lady to shoot past us. I think she must have stopped and I didn’t see. Cove after cove passed and the male runner dropped back whilst the lady whizzed off into the distance.
But before long I was running with another bloke who I’d caught up with. It was his first ultra and he was definitely in the pain cave at this point. So we had that in common! Over some indeterminate amount of time we ended up joining the lady and the three of us ran loosely together, sometimes one of us would be ahead, then would slow down and be passed by the other (s). I’ve since learned the lady is called Karen and the man is Simon. That’ll make the rest of this write-up a little less awkward referring to people by gender alone!!
It’s quite weird when your concept of time has completely become disengaged. It was only when we were getting back into some sort of civilisation (away from empty coves) that the Simon muttered something about maybe getting in for just-over 7 hours. This was way ahead of my best-case scenario (cut-off was 10 hours and I thought 8 hours might be as good as I’d manage), given my overall lower fitness levels, and this surprised me a lot. That said, there was still 5 or so miles to go based on my counting down from the last checkpoint. And that felt like a long way, absolutely doable, but no idea how long it would take.
Karen commented that it was 3 miles from Vale castle to the finish so that at least gave another stick in the sand bearing in mind I had no idea about, well anything, by that stage in the race! It turns out both Karen and Simon are islanders and know their way around pretty well! Although neither had done the race before.
Return to civilisation
The route weaved through the outskirts of a town and we were fully back to the world of tarmac. Which would be easy underfoot were it not for the fact we were at the sharp end of an ultramarathon at this point. Vale castle appeared in the distance and after more time passed as we changed places, walked, ran, chatted, etc it gradually arrived into view. Which was good, although 3 miles still felt a long way!
We caught up with another runner, Ivan who seemed to be doing very much what we were. Apparently he’d never run more than 22 miles before so was in unknown territory and he seemed to do a more exaggerated run/walk than I was doing, whereby I’d pass him easily but then he’d literally fly off into the distance again. Repeat!
We passed a clock tower in Vale which said it was 1.30pm. This was the first actual time check I’d seen since we started at 7am! The maths was in our favour. 30 minutes to do 2.5ish miles and be in within 7 hours. Boom!
That said, the sun was also now out and the temperature was increasing uncomfortably. I still had some tailwind solution with me but it really felt like I was running on empty now, with nothing left in the tank!
I tried running with Karen for a bit but she was just too quick for me so I had to keep slowing down. Although once I got myself going again I did manage to catch up with her. She noted the ‘2 miles to go’ point and a bit further on comment that the 1 mile mark was opposite the ‘Red Lion’ pub. By this point Ivan was way in front and the three of us were bouncing around with one of Simon or myself dropping back and then catching up.
The finish line is in sight (well, it would be if it wasn’t around a corner)
I’m not sure what happened next but I realised I was running on my own. I don’t think there was a spurt of speed because I had nothing left to give. I saw the Red Lion and was just hanging on to get my body to the finish, with that sudden desire to not let sub-7 hours slip away. From being un-interested in a finishing time, this was a definite change in mentality, although I suspect in part it was down to the motivational signs on the route about giving it your all. That said, I’m so glad I didn’t know anything about time before this point as it was now a point of stress!
I looked around for the others, but they weren’t there. Oh heck, hopefully I’ve not hallucinated people and conversations….! It was a surprise as we had clearly all been quite close together in pace for some miles. Onwards and past St George’s guesthouse with the final bend in the road up ahead before the last quarter-mile push. I slowed to a crawl but was spurred on by another GU36 motivational sign on the lamp posts.
People were clapping and shouting ‘well done’ as I got closer in.
I had to stop suddenly to negotiate a road crossing (St Peter Port is a ferry terminal as well) – getting run over in the last 50m wasn’t an option!!!!! And then around the corner, the Liberation Monument! No finish gantry, the Monument IS the finish. I touched it at 6h49m45s and felt quite emotional as i received my finisher medal.
A minute later, Karen reached the monument, followed by Simon a further minute behind. I’m not sure what happened to Ivan but it was another 4 minutes before he arrived. but we’d all got there. I sat around for a little while but wasn’t feeling 100% so staggered back up the course to the guesthouse. Surprisingly on that walk nobody else came in.
Refuel and reflect
Once showered and feeling a little more with it I decided to go and hunt out some food. I bumped into Katie as she was on her way back in (successfully completing her first ultra!) and we went searching for food. It appears Sunday evening isn’t a great time to go out for food as most places in town are shut! But we eventually ended up in China Red, a stone’s throw from the guesthouse and Katie messaged the others via a group chat.
So in the end the 6 of us were fully fed and re-hydrated. We all completed the race within the cut-offs which was a great result all round.
Wrap-up and final thoughts
So that was a rather lengthy tale about my Guernsey Ultramarathon GU36. It’s a well organised and supported event across some beautiful coastline and I’d highly recommend it as a race. It’s a race of two halves, to stretch a saying. First is the cliff race, with some slightly technical terrain and a lot of uneven steps. Then there’s a roughly 20 mile road race, with a side of soft sand. So the 2 sets of footwear was a good shout.
Hope you enjoyed a bit of a ramble about my GU36 experience. It’s good to be back taking part in events after all this time!