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The Man behind the Guernsey Ultra

Photo credit: SocialIcon

The Man behind the Guernsey Ultra

20-Jul-20

Last updated: 06-Aug-20

by Kate Allen

You may have heard of the GU36 and Gun31 races in Guernsey. Both extremely popular and places for them get snapped up very quickly. RunUltra wanted to learn why and who was behind this popular race.

The ultramarathon race now known as the GU36 started life as one leg of the (now-defunct) 5-Islands Ultra.  This was organised by Digby Ellis-Brecknell of Hare and Tortoise Events in Jersey and was a multi-stage race with a leg on each of the 5 major Channel Islands.

The 5-Islands only ran in 2014 and 2015 with the “Guernsey Ultra”, being the Guernsey leg of the race, also open as a stand-alone race.  After the demise of the 5-Islands, Digby continued the Guernsey Ultra for another year before handing over the organiser reins to Peter Tiffin.

Then COVID-19 came along and with health issues of his own, Peter had to postpone both races to 2021.  The race places were increased to 200 and at the time of writing there are around 50 on the waiting list.
In 2018, Guernsey Ultra also launched the Gun31 – a tougher companion race to the GU36.  This is a challenging night race that starts at midnight and required the runners to race along the rugged Guernsey cliffs and back to the start in 7.5 hours or less.

Like so many ultra runners, Peter only started running in 2006 aged 43. 

“Four years later I attempted my first ultra  -  the London to Brighton Trail Race by Extreme Running (now no more).”

“I DNF’d this because of a major navigation error but loved it.  I did this a couple more times along with the Round the Rock in Jersey and running the entire coast of Guernsey, although an official ultra did not exist.

In 2013 I took on the GUCR and (amazingly) finished this in 39:36 and then went on to complete the T184 and the TR250.”

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Photo credit: SocialIcon

Peter casually drops these jaw dropping races into the conversation. He went from 63 miles to 145 – more than twice the length of anything he’d attempted before. All of those are iconic and very hard races. But throughout all of them he was learning and thinking about how he would put on a race, thinking more about what he wouldn’t do than what he would.

“The whole atmosphere, the whole community feel around the race and the runners that were doing it really appealed to me. It’s what ultra running is all about and you don’t get in any of the big marathons.”

So Peter felt Guernsey should have an ultra. In 2014, he did Round the Rock, a race in Jersey also organised by Digby Ellis-Brecknell who Peter contacted after and said he wanted to put on a race in Guernsey. As it happened, Digby had the plan for the 5 Islands Ultra.

“After a couple of years, in 2016, he said do you want to take it on? I said “Gulp!” but OK I’ll do it. So then I had to get into all the things I hadn’t previously been involved in, such as race insurance, websites, booking sites, permissions from Parish Constables and the States of Guernsey, Harbours, Occupational Health… the list goes on!”

“It was a steep learning curve but I’ve really enjoyed building the race. We went from a maximum 20 people for the race, which I was expecting for the first year in 2017, but those places filled so I expanded it to 50. Then 50 places were taken so I expanded it a little bit more to 70 and thought right I’ll stop there!”

That was achieved without any advertising beyond Peter just engaging with people on social media. Peter’s ambition to build a race with lots of communication and feedback certainly worked.

Relaunched as the Guernsey Ultra GU36, the 2017 race was a great success. Stephen Cousins from Film My Run was in attendance and no doubt contributed to the word-of-mouth publicity that has seen the start line increase to 160 places for 2020 (the place limit), with well over 100 on the waiting list hoping to get a place if someone drops out.  The 2020 race places sold out in less than 45 minutes which is testament to the popularity and the regard in which the race is now held.

“Next year I’ve increased the numbers to 200, almost against my better judgement. One of the complaints I do get is why do I limit the number of places. It’s because I want to keep the personal feeling and touch; over about 150 it’s very hard to keep track of everyone and remember them.”

“The thing with the GU36 is that it’s an ideal first ultra. It’s not too long, but it’s not too easy either. You have 16 miles of cliffs and the cut offs are doable; I wouldn’t say they’re very generous, but doable. And then you have 20 miles of flat. There’s lots of support, whilst getting people in the mindset that they don’t have a water stop every two miles; no energy drinks or all that stuff.”

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Photo credit: SocialIcon

Where did it all start for Peter?

“In about 2006 I felt I had to do some exercise and I bought a treadmill. I started doing 15-20 mins every day and I ended up quite enjoying it. Then my first race, the first time I ran outside, was a quarter marathon. I loved it!”

Peter did the usual progression through races until he was doing marathons. And doing marathons in good times too; he did the Beachy Head Marathon in 4hrs 15mins which is great for such a hilly marathon. His PB is 3hrs 27mins in the Jersey marathon. But he tired of the constant speed training and that’s when he came across James Adam’s blog. And learned about this mad race along a canal…..

He started with the London to Brighton races, three times just to get them right, before running GUCR, the famous 145 race from Birmingham to London.

“I don’t mind running on the flat; I find it monotonous but ok. I don’t have any mountains so I’ve always shied away from those bigger ones. It is an ambition of mine to do the Spine.”

Then Peter went on to run T184 and the 250 mile Thames Ring.

“The Thames Ring 250 is a planning race. I generally do 3 plans; gold, silver and bronze plans. Gold never happens and gets chucked out by Checkpoint 1 or 2 and they are a general guide! But on that race I was pretty much on silver/bronze planning and it was a case that if I wanted to sleep, I had to get to a CP with a few hours in hand which would allow me to. After the first day, that was my job; don’t worry about anything else except getting it done, and getting to the next checkpoint.”

“I nearly had to pull out at the last checkpoint. I had a sleep, woke up but my feet had swelled up so much I couldn’t get my shoes on! So Maxine Locke cut my shoes with scissors to give my feet room. So I ran the last 80 miles with my toes hanging out of my shoes!”

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Can you see Peter's toes?

2020 was supposed to be the last year Peter organised the Guernsey Ultras. He has exciting projects of his own that he wants to pursue, but also earlier this year Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer which helped his decision. So Peter postponed both races to 2021, and after running those he will pass the reins over to the new organisers Paul and Michael who will run the race from 2022.

There’s no doubt this race is a firm favourite with anyone who has done it. Many people got in touch with me when I asked for opinions, and it’s not just the course but the Race Director who makes this race special with his winning combination of communication, personal touch and a genuine love of Guernsey he wants to share with all.

Jane Duffus:

“Peter is a good egg. He is one of those race directors who seems to know all his runners personally, due to communications beforehand. GU36 2017 was my first ultra, and I got a special enamel 'first ultra' badge at the end alongside my medal and t-shirt. That was a nice touch. He answered endless 'silly' questions beforehand with patience and generosity, he was nothing but encouraging and welcoming.

He is an excellent ambassador not only for his runs but for Guernsey in general. His social media accounts should be the official tourist board sites for the island. I didn't run his race in 2018 but went back last year, and he and Michelle treated me like old friends. How many races can you say that about? It's all the attention to detail. He remembers what snacks/treats you like - I got to CP3 and Michelle had an orange calippo that she'd been saving just for me, as well as some watermelon slices - very nice!

He is keen to be as inclusive as possible. Too often, races get packed up with competitive, pushy men. Not at GU36. And he keeps trying to get me to enter the Gun 31 (not a chance!), because a) he keeps telling me I can do it, whatever I think and b) he is/was worried he didn't have enough female entrants and was concerned about that."

Mick:

"For me it's a real pleasure to run around this magnificent little island. So many memories from years gone by and familiarity and a magical vista around every corner. Superb organisation, friendly, a defined split of cliffs and flat. Simply the best wee race on the planet!"

Carmen:

"An amazing race that makes you want to go back. I DNF'd on my first try but I totally fell in love with the island. Peter is such a friendly and awesome race director and he made what felt like a failure at the time an actual achievement because I chose a challenging one for my first ultra and managed at least marathon distance over a hilly course. The other runners were also so supportive before, during and after the race. I'm going back next year to finish the course from start to finish."

Find the Guernsey Ultra online, Gun31 online, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

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