Report by Jo Marriott.
The idea of running an Ultra has been on my mind for some time. I had begun to recce and train for the 2021 Shropshire 80k in August last year but life got in the way and I decided I wasn’t ready for an ultra at this point. So when I spotted that Green Events (who run Man vs Horse and Ron Skilton Half) had a inaugural event called the Devil’s Staircase Ultra I knew this was for me. I mean, who can resist a title like ‘the Devil’s Staircase’? Also a 50k distance seemed to be a nice ‘entry-level’ ultra – only another 6 miles more than a marathon. The fact it had ascent and descent of 5,700ft didn’t really register at the time!
Training went well until I had Covid three weeks before the event and a 20 mile training run 10 days after I tested positive left me mentally and physically battered. So, apart from a short jog, to make sure everything worked, I didn’t run again until the event (which turned out to be a blessing).
The race started at 9am from the Neudd Arms in Llanwrytd so it was an early start on a very cold morning (minus 2 at Llanwrytd). I was stupidly anxious about the race but I had arranged to share a lift with some Hereford Couriers (John J, Chris & Aaron Smart) and the chat on the way over kept the nerves at bay. I was delighted to see Flora arriving shortly after. It was a small field with a few familiar faces from Builth and Rhayader and others from much further afield (Essex, Hampshire … ). Everyone was shuffling around trying to keep warm before the start.
Then we were off. My plan was to start slowly and try to maintain a consistent pace, walking steep hills and jogging the rest with the only aim to get around before the 8 hour cut-off. It was cold with a few light snow flurries so it was hard not to start fast. My advice from more experienced runners was wear everything you have and then take things off when you get hot so I had two long-sleeved thermal tops, hat, gloves, buff and my waterproof on to start! After a mile or two we started to climb steeply on a uneven, scree-filled hill so off came the waterproof and hat.
After the first steep climb I started to feel more comfortable and found I could keep a consistent jog. I caught up with John J and we spent the next few miles chatting and admiring the stunning scenery as the route alternated between road, forest trails and river bank along the beautiful Irfon Valley. John’s shoes were rubbing badly so he slowed down after a while and I carried on alone until I caught up with Aaron. He was religiously walking the hills and jogging the flats and downhills. Worrying I might have been going too fast I stuck with him; having someone to chat to really helped the miles to pass more quickly! We were both relieved to reach the first checkpoint about 18km/11 miles in at the top of the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ – a winding road section with a 25% incline. We had 30 mins to spare and had already climbed around 2000ft. We now had a much more reasonable 3.5hours to reach the next checkpoint, another 18km away with a further 1500ft of ascent. Easy peasy we thought – except once we had descended a long section of road we then had a horrendous mile or two across boggy fields topped with wiry rushes or clumps of grass. We tried to hop from clump to clump but our feet kept slipping and we ended up ankle deep in mud. The sleet had now turned to rain and I was getting soaked but wanted to be on drier ground before pulling out my waterproof. We were both relieved when this section finished and we emerged without having turned an ankle or fallen in a bog. Our reward was a run around the head of the spectacular Llyn Brianne Reservoir with the 2nd checkpoint at the end.
Although we had ascended the Devil’s Staircase earlier, we now had the biggest climb of the race at about mile 25. Here, another steep windy road ascended over 800ft. Aaron was a strong uphill walker and I focused on maintaining his pace as much as I could. After several twists and turns of the road, we spotted Flora ahead. I hadn’t seen her at all since she shot off at the start. When we caught up with her she said her legs were giving her some pain and she was low on energy. (She was mainly relying on the two feed stations and they only had sweets and biscuits). She had more aggressive trail shoes than me and the jarring meant her legs were being hammered by the sections of road and hard forest trails (a lot more than any of us expected!). Fortunately, we were nearly at the top of the climb and then it was more or less downhill for the next 4 or 5 miles with a water stop to come. My legs were really starting to hurt at this point and it was now a head game – ‘only a Park Run left,’ ‘just 2 miles’ ‘less than a mile’, ‘twice around the track’. I was also lucky to have Aaron still there jointly suffering and keeping me company!! We splashed across a stream and ran in past the field where Man vs Horse ends, past the Victoria Memorial Hall and the end came unexpectedly before the bridge that crosses over to near the Neudd Arms.
I was most delighted to be uninjured and feeling relatively normal (!). I was also pretty chuffed to be 2nd lady in 6:04 hours (although there were only 70 competitors and the 1st lady was almost 20 mins ahead of me!). We waited, fingers crossed, for Flora to come in and I was thrilled she hadn’t been overtaken so was 3rd lady in 6:12hours. Aaron’s Uncle Chris came in 20 mins later after going into Afib at 23 miles but still finishing and John J limped in10 mins after him, heels bloodied but still standing. We were rewarded with a warm bowl of vegetarian or Welsh Cawl and Flora and I were presented with engraved glasses.
I would highly recommend this Ultra. It is sign-marked and marshalled with lots of smiley people. The scenery is stunning, remote and breathtaking and the hills shouldn’t bother Croft members as we train so much on them. Just be prepared for long stretches of road/hard forest trails and some wet, boggy marshland/uneven scree-filled descents which means a hybrid trail/road shoe might be best. Also carry your own fuel/refreshments although with the feedback given this year hopefully they will have more sustenance on the feed stations for the next race.