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Beach ultra running

The 2014 Five Islands Ultra

15-Sep-14

Last updated: 20-Aug-18

By Digby Ellis-Brecknell

9th May 2014 -Steam Clock, St Helier, Jersey

Unfortunately due to adverse weather Uta Baird had not been able to make the start of the Five Islands Ultra and so would join the event in Guernsey. Shortly after 5am, the intrepid runners embarked along the coast road heading East towards Gorey and the first water stop at St. Catherine. Nick Guy broke away from the start and created a four minute lead over Leanne Rive, this being Nick’s first ultra, it might have been a decision that would cause payback later on during this 48 mile first stage. By the time runners reached La Fontaine at 22 miles Leanne had clawed back Nick’s initial lead and thrown down an impressive 15-minute gap that would only increase as time went on. Daniel Munns, unable to commence at 5am, started from La Fontaine and soon started to eat into the lead of the front-runners.

Leanne’s turn of speed was surprising and in the back of my mind I wondered whether she had forgotten that this was a three day, five stage race and not just a 48 mile ultra, how wrong I was! I next caught up with Leanne in St. Brelade’s Bay within 7 miles from the finish line, looking comfortable to say the least. Leanne’s eventual finish in a time of 7hrs 55minutes was impressive, with Stuart Paton finishing in 8 hours 36 minutes. All runners completed the course in less than the 12-hour cut off, which was determined by the check in time for the ferry to Guernsey.

Day 2 - Guernsey

The hardest part of any ultra should relate in some way to the actual running, but on this leg of the adventure it was the disappearance of 5 items of luggage that caused the most stress. Luckily these were retrieved before we left Jersey but this problem reoccurred once again and on arrival in Guernsey we were missing both Leanne’s and Simon Todd’s running gear. With a 6am start this was a serious problem that needed a solution; the borrowing of running shoes and underwear meant that all runners could start day 2! Despite St. Peter Port being in the midst of Liberation Day Celebrations we were able to sleep relatively undisturbed.

The Guernsey route throws runners almost immediately onto 17 miles of cliff paths. Along which there are a series of options that if taken would cause major frustration as the trail simply lead down to ladders or coves, with no option but a steep ascent. The route had been marked a number of days before by myself and Peter Tiffin, but as in all events there was a risk that markers had been moved and so 4.30am saw myself trotting out in the rain to check the first section of the route, a sensible choice as runners would have found themselves on a completely new route. Another disaster averted!

At 6am the runners could be seen forlornly standing in the persistent drizzle that was dampening even the most enthusiastic spirits. Three additional runners were toeing the line to take on the Guernsey stage, but unfortunately Simon Dorey had decided that Day 2 would be a rest day and so he was still slumbering.

As route checker I returned to my previous slog along the coast to continue checking the route. I have to admit to feeling a light sense of smugness as the route had been sabotaged and so there was a purpose in my damp state. The issue soon arose that despite my head start, my slow progress was being rapidly overhauled by the speed of Dave Minchin and James Leith, in fact I was soon overhauled by most of the pack. All I could offer was keep the sea on the left and hope that ahead the route was intact. All the runners made it to the post cliff path 17 mile check point, a friendly kiosk that offered sandwiches and tea if one needed, before heading off onto the fairly flat 19 miles of road with some interspersed trail sections. Although faster running this is a difficult section mentally, having just tackled the cliffs it demands a good deal of digging deep!

Simon had in fact arisen from his dry room to start the race, later than the main field, and reached the checkpoint before deciding that it was time to retire for the day. A wise decision as he had overcome the torments of the cliffs and would live to fight day 3 in Alderney.

As the morning wore on so the rain dispersed and the sun tentatively uncurled its rays to dry and warm the runners. By this time I had taken up my post at the finish line armed with a large plate of egg and chips along with a pot of tea to wash it all down. At least I was in heaven, unlike the 11 runners who were slogging their way along the coast. The arrival of Dave Minchin at 6 hours 12 Minutes 43 seconds was in my opinion an annoyance as it prevented further tea drinking, he was swiftly followed 2 seconds later by Daniel Munns. Two minutes later Leanne trotted in, soundly disproving my theory that she had overdone it on day 1! The Half Moon café gradually filled with ravenous runners, a perfect finishing point. All runners were firmly seated after 8.5 hours, a good set of results after a wet and at times, muddy day.

Day 3 - Alderney, Sark & Herm

With the Alderney trail race cancelled and flights unconfirmed an alternative plan was created but confirmation came through that flights to Alderney were operational. With that news, I reverted to the original plan, with the added difficulty of knowing that the Alderney route would not be marked and the local runners felt it was too dangerous to run.

Possibly when one has run a few ultras and spent time with the trail hounds that undertake these mad adventures, you realise that risk and danger is a part of the adventure and when I informed the runners that the Alderney race organiser was not supportive of our intended run I merely received a snigger, this was not a group to be put off by a few gusts on a gently undulating coastline.

The journey to Alderney is interesting as the plane is as diminutive as the islands that it flies over, a shock to some of the runners who had never been quite so close and personal with a pilot before. There was a slightly worrying constant drip of water that fell from the roof depending on the tilt and angle of the plane, but we survived and 10 minutes later landed safely. We were soon all seated in the local Thai restaurant before our beds were beckoning us back to The Farmcourt, with the lure of an enormous cooked breakfast before 10 am race start.

The original plan had been cunning as the Alderney leg coincided with the annual 10 mile Coast Race, which meant that all marking, water stops, timing would be accounted for, allowing myself to race and lie in as well as eat. Plan B had been activated and with a very ropy map I was once more heading out on the trails at 4am by head torch. For all of you who have never marked trails before it is a very slow affair as you have to repeat sections checking that your marking is clear for even the most easily fooled runner! A 10 mile route that was not familiar proved a mission and before long 9am strolled on past with me still out trying to decipher the route around the dunes and fort. Eventually the route was marked and I returned to the guesthouse but only just before 10. As race director I insisted on a 15 minute start time delay to allow a full English breakfast to be consumed in 5 minutes; even race director’s need fuel.

Awaiting us at the start was Rod Paris, the local race organiser, and two runners who were mighty disgruntled at us being 15 minutes later than our original 10am schedule. There certainly wasn’t any friendly banter or jovial welcome, more of a “who do you think you are?” atmosphere, which only deteriorated when I announced that the route had been marked and that I had made a route error in one section, but that all runners needed to follow the marked route despite the error. The sheer impudence of a Jersey race director telling Alderney runners where to go. As Lee my trusty helper and team masseur started the race I took up my place as back marker and sign remover.

As the pack headed off it was fairly apparent that the two local runners were determined to show these foreigners a thing or two.

At the back of the pack, life passed by at a relaxed pace, perfect for my full belly, my second lap of the island and for giving me time to untie marker tape. Simon Dorey was concerned that he was holding me up and that I should leave him. It took some persuasion before he would accept that as back marker I would go at his pace and no faster.

The Alderney coastline is stunning to run on with views of ruined castles and desolate shores. As a group we all felt privileged to have this opportunity, as the weather had almost prevented this experience. Simon and I ran to the finish line together, clocking a time of 2hours 25 minutes, allowing time to walk back to the guesthouse and get ready for the onward journey.

At the front of the pack, the pace had been far from relaxed with Daniel keeping pace with the fresh legged Alderney runners, who were not happy that my marking allowed runners to choose the tarmac or grass over the last half mile. Daniel chose the tarmac option which was longer but albeit a faster surface than the “traditional grassy” route. Was this a case of sour grapes, as Jersey ultra runners with over 70 miles on their legs were beating the local talent? Daniel’s finishing time of 1 hour 22 minutes saw off the exceedingly fast run of 1hour 26 minutes achieved by Nick Thorne; this being Nick’s first ultra. The leading men were soon followed by Ute (1:28:28) and Leannne (1:29:33) who were able to finish with times that in many years would have seen them on the podium of the 10 mile race.

I was shocked at the pace that had been set on the start of day 3 and wondered how the day would unfold. Next stop Herm. The return flight took us low over Herm allowing us all to view the coastal route that would be run that afternoon, a rare opportunity to carry out a recce of a route in less than 5 minutes.

It wasn't long before we were waiting at the harbour in St. Peter Port, Guernsey, to board Ray Lowe’s boat. The crossing proved fairly comfortable allowing 10 runners to arrive in Herm with breakfasts still intact, a problem that I had had the previous year.

The Herm route was fairly simple “blue on the right and green on the left…” and at only 3.5 miles wouldn’t pose too many problems. Matt Nichols was on hand to lead the pack away from the harbour on this incredibly short stage. The route took runners onto Shell beach and the softness of the sand and strength of wind proved a real challenge. If the runners thought that there was time to relax, they were much mistaken; the boat was ready to motor off to Sark and the final stage of this Ultra. Daniel managed to complete this miniscule circumnavigation in 32:43, in second place Nick Thorne (34:35) with Stuart Paton hot on his heels finishing one second later.

Our journey to Sark brought us in for a 5pm race start, which was the planned rendezvous with local runners Alex Magell and Mickey Doyle, who had intended to lay the 10 mile trail. However they had not managed to mark the route but instead were offering to lead two groups around. This had not been the plan but there was little that could be done to at this stage and the group seemed fairly relaxed to run in a more sociable frame of mind.

The route starts off from the harbour and rapidly climbs up steep narrow steps, just what weary runners wanted, a gentle warm up! Simon Dorey had decided not to run this leg and so we walked to our final night’s resting place at the Vieux Clos. I was able to borrow a bicycle and cycled off to set up a suitable aid station; water from a bottle. All the runners came past with a great big smile having succumbed to Sark’s beauty and relaxed pace of life.

As the evening descended so the rain started to fall, ending three days of phenomenal running. In many ways this final leg was the best as runners were able to enjoy the scenery rather than watch their clocks. However, the competitive spirit soon returned as the finishing line drew near with Ute and Stuart breaking away to make their mark on the timings; Ute finishing in a time of 1hr 50 min 25 seconds and Stuart arriving five seconds later. Leanne’s finishing time of 1:56 ensured her overall victory with a time of 18:11:31 and Stuart bringing up the second place in 19:38:34. The final runner Nick Guy arrived in a time of 2:20 concluding the evening and allowing a feast of roast beef, lamb and chicken to commence served by our wonderful hostess Sally and her ever watchful husband. Some hours were then spent with Alex and Mickey at Stock’s Hotel before tiredness claimed even the most hardened ultra drinkers.

Final Thoughts

The uniqueness of the Five Islands Ultra is down to the route itself; each island has its own distinct character in terms of the topography and when coupled with the excitement of arriving by charter boat or ridiculously small plane it truly becomes an adventure. At each stage of the event there was an element of uncertainty as there was the distinct possibility that one stage might have to change as the weather conditions progressed.

The success of the event is down to, in many ways, the blind optimism of myself as race director and more importantly the attitude of the runners who took part; they all knew that they were guinea pigs and there were distinct possibilities that my fool proof plan unwound like a reel of cotton, so thank you for having faith!

For the second year running the event has been able to take place but on a very small scale, however for 2015 I have decided to increase the field to 30 and also to expand the Guernsey stage and encourage runners to enter the Guernsey Ultra. The date has therefore been set for May 23rd 2015 to coincide with the UK bank holiday.

The increased field will also expand the opportunities for additional prizes for each stage win, such as “grab the cash” in Herm, where £50 will be awaiting the first runner across the line! Other changes will certainly be made around the marking to ensure that all the islands are marked to my particular anal standard!

This is an iconic event that all the runners raved about and I truly hope it will become an event that many ultra runners are able to experience. Huge thanks go to the 2014 runners, also to all those who supported this crazy ultra; Lee Bennett, Peter Tiffin and family, Alex and Mickey on Sark, Matt on Herm and to those who supported Lee and myself on our original Five Islands Ultra 2013.

So, please look at your race calendars and head over to www.hareandtortoiseevents.co.uk or email Digby at hareandtortoiseevents@gmail.com for more information.

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