“I’ve entered Guernsey for next year. 25 places remain now”. “19”. “18”.
“FFS I haven’t run more than 5k in ages”
“2 places left”
And this is how my brother Toby, who had never run more than 13 miles at that point, signed up to run 36 miles around the coast of Guernsey.
Aside from a couple of Whatsapp chats about trainers and kit, we didn’t really mention it for the rest of the year. I carried on completing then DNFing ultras, Toby threw up at parkrun 😊
But he was putting in some effort. Strava has many detractors including me but it is handy to see how someone is getting on and he seemed to be doing good, getting in a couple of halfs here and there.
And as we walked up to the bright orange GU36 tent on a cool Sunday morning in St Peter Port, 13.1 miles was still the longest he’d run. This could be interesting.
Fail to prepare
This was probably the least prepared I’d been for any ultra to date. Not in terms of fitness as I had MIUT and the Southampton marathon in the previous month, but logistically, I hadn’t really looked at the terrain, fuelling, distances, weather…pretty much anything.
This meant that everything was new, every corner a discovery and each decision made in the moment. The 7am starttime came and went with minimal fuss and barely a countdown. The GU36 was the smallest ultra I’d done but it had a real family feel, with people greeting each other in recognition of previous years or in some cases from social media (hi Rob!).
A quickish trot along the harbour wall, past the aquarium and bang, you hit the cliff path. The only thing I knew about the route was that the first 16 miles were very hilly, the last 20 miles were not so once you’ve got past the tough bit, it’s almost literally plain sailing.
Walk the ups, run the flats and downhills was the mantra for the day as we traipsed, single file, up the paths to head straight back down again. Compared to Jersey, the climbs and descents were steeper which meant it was hard to get any rhythm.
It was already beginning to get warm, even with the shade of the trees as we ran with the tranquil, slightly misty sea on our left. There was a happy atmosphere and lots of chatting around us while we discussed bits and pieces about training, running and anything else in between.
One of the fun things about running with your brother is that you don’t need to talk all the time but when you do, you have a lifetime of shared memories as well as a similar sense of humour. This meant that time flew past and we were soon at the first aid station – Petit Bot.
The volunteers had everything – peanuts, M&Ms and crisps and they sprang into action, eager to fill up our bottles. Everything had a lo-fi, friendly vibe, even down to the guy writing our numbers and times down on a piece of cardboard.
As with all checkpoints, the aim is to get in and out quickly, which is a good idea to save time but a bad idea when you stash coloured chocolate in your race vest.
Still, we were bang on Toby’s timings for a mid-pack finish so headed straight back out. Slowly the trees disappeared and we found ourselves on a constant rollercoaster of steps and rock hard paths in the increasingly strong sunshine. Here I began to worry about the amount of food he was taking on. I’d packed my usual assortment of CLIF bars, bloks and a few random others but Toby only had a couple of gels.
Nutrition can ruin an otherwise successful run but he seemed happy enough with my spare TRIBE bar. I’d love to say it was the older brother sensibility kicking in but I just didn’t want him to be having a shit time in another couple of hours and me having to run next to him for that long.
New shoes, Tahar
Just like that, the cliff paths smoothed out and gave way to paths at sea level, cutting through the final persistent rocks before we were on tarmac and “speeding” our way to Portlet, the “halfway” checkpoint.
Here the “aid” was a bounty of local goodies. Guernsey Gosh (a very buttery fruit cake), cakes, fruit, crisps; everything I could possibly ask for and more (famous sausage rolls for the carnivores). We also met our “crew” – Deb, Chris, Amy and Lauren – who looked a bit surprised at how good we looked, especially Toby.
A quick change of shoes to my road Hokas and again we were off. It’s one of those stops where I would’ve been happy to stay and chat all day, take in the surroundings, the race and lovely bay but we had another 20 miles to go!
How I wish I’d stayed. The blunt change between stunning cliffs and running along the road full of cars and motorbikes jarred me immediately. Part of the reason I run is to get away from that stuff. I wasn’t in the greatest mood but we were beginning to get some get pace together.
That is until I fell over the smallest pebble in a car park. I’d managed to get through 16 miles of rocky uneven cliffs to be taken down by a speck of dust in an empty flat car park. Embarrassing doesn’t come close but at least it was bleeding a bit so looked like I’d been hurt – nothing worse than falling with no evidence.
After that, the miles and hours just fell away in a blur of picturesque bays. It’s very flat and very pretty. I could’ve done with a couple of hills for a little, legitimate walk and rest but it’s a great way to make up time and take in the scenery of the North coast .
The final checkpoint was again staffed by brilliant, cheery volunteers at Rousse (25 miles). Somebody also took probably the best race photo I’ve ever got (all photos are free by the way).
The other great thing about having a checkpoint with 10 miles to go is that, for me anyway, it starts the countdown. Suddenly you’re in single figures, and every mile run is a mile less to go. I know that’s the same all the way through but it becomes real when you get past 10 to go.
At this point, I think Toby may have been struggling a bit but being the most stubborn of the brothers, I knew at this point he was never going to give in. It was just a case of managing pace through to the end.
I’d love to say the final miles were all a glorious parade of stunning island scenery. Well it was, but just hidden by the industrial north east of Guernsey (who knew such a place existed).
After that though, it really was the home straight and once we spotted the massive mast which marked the finish line from a few miles out, the legs lost all memory of the 34 miles before and felt like they were brand new. We passed and chatted to a few people and tried to get them to join us but as we turned the final corner, our pace just kept getting quicker and we ended up running by ourselves.
It made me realise how much having company during ultras cuts the distance. We turned the final corner, it also made me realise how annoying younger brothers are as he put on a sprint to touch the giant sundial first and technically finish ahead of me. Luckily the organisers saw sense and put it down as a joint 56th – still not bad for his first run above a half marathon.
Also, he appeared to have barely sweated whereas I could’ve supplied a chippy with the crystallised sodium on my face. But anyway, it was pretty cool to run my brother’s first ultra with him and also there is something satisfactory about running around a whole island.
Thanks as always to the brilliant organisers and volunteers. They really do make the difference in races. Thanks even more than always to the family and friends for continuing to put up with my ultra wanderings and even dragging Tob into it. Congratulations to everyone for completing, it’s a tough race. Special well dones to all the Jersey runners and Steph for 2nd placed lady (just Herm, Sark and Alderney for the CI grand slam).
There are so many amazing things about Guernsey – the cliffs, the beaches and of course, Matt Le Tissier. Thank you donkeys, see you soon x