A crazy idea is born!
June 2016. I spent 5 days in Pembrokeshire in Castlemartin. During this time I explored the local segments of the coastal path and was astounded by the beauty of it. The whole area was so quiet, peaceful and unspoilt (apart from occasional gunfire from the military firing range nearby!). I did a longish run one afternoon from Little Haven to Solva along the coastal path and really enjoyed it. By chance I discovered that the Pembrokeshire coastal path was around 300 kilometres in length and a plot was hatched to run the whole length of it. My wife who is well used to such crazy ideas ( I had completed an Ironman distance triathlon the year before, as well as two 100 kilometre ultra marathons), offered to be my crew.
Mid August, 2016.
The UK weather had been glorious for quite a few weeks. Indeed, when we set off on the road journey to the northernmost end of the Pembrokeshire coastal path, the sun was shining as usual and we expected to arrive at our destination by mid afternoon. We planned to sleep in the car and my wife, Elvira, had gone to great lengths organising the car to be our home for the next seven days. A good long rest ready for an early start the following morning on what would be the toughest most remote part of my 300 kilometre journey on foot in around 5-6 days. I knew it would be hilly in parts as I had done random parts of the trail a few months earlier, but the plan was the usual ultra runner’s method; run the flat and the downhill and walk the uphill sections and continue this way for as long as possible.
NOTHING could have prepared me for what was to come as the gods of ultra running unleashed their wrath upon me! As we entered Wales on that lovely sunny Friday morning, the motorway traffic started to build up, gradually becoming more and more intense as we ventured further into Wales. Eventually the trip degenerated into a slow crawl, hour after hour of stop start driving, getting nowhere fast. Meanwhile the rain clouds were gathering overhead. By the time we finally limped into Cardigan at around 8pm the rain was already lashing down and the wind began to howl. Suddenly the idea of preparing a meal on our gas stove outside didn’t seem quite so practical.
We decided therefore to stop at a pub and have a meal there for the first night. The warm haven of the pub seemed like a nice place to be after a long day in the car so we decided to ask the landlady if she had a room for the night. Sorry but it was peak season and she was full, like most other places, she informed us. However, she spoke to a friend who miraculously discovered that she had a spare room – only £90 for the night! This was our first introduction to the concept of ‘exploit the stupid unprepared English’ at every opportunity. We said that we thought that was quite a lot for a simple room with no breakfast or evening meal, but were told we’d be lucky to find anything else as it was peak season. This was not the only time we heard this reasoning in the course of the next seven days.
So we resorted to plan A, found a car park close to the inconspicuous start of the trail, marked by a plaque next to the river estuary at St Dogmaels, just south of Cardigan and, despite the wind and rain, finally got into the back of the car and tried to sleep, in spite of the signs everywhere telling us that camping overnight was strictly prohibited. Sleeping was difficult with the lights of vehicles going past and wondering whether one of them might be the authorities telling us to move on. Now I began to understand how the travelling community might feel. Plus, going to the toilet was not easy in the dark with the wind and rain.
After a largely sleepless night, we woke up early to the sound of driving rain and gale force winds. Not the ideal way to begin this challenge! We decided to postpone the start due to the horrendous conditions and drove down to Fishguard where we had the most disgusting full English breakfast in a back street cafe. Here we met a wizened, gnarly old fisherman type and happened to mention what we were intending to do. He shook his head ruefully, the epitome of bitter experience speaking. ‘Very bad idea to go up on those high remote cliffs in gale force winds in running shoes, they’ve even stopped the ferries from running because of the conditions’ was the gist of what he had to say. He asked which section of the path I was running. ‘Start to finish’ I replied. Again he shook his head – ‘you’ll need boots not just running shoes’, replied the voice of experience, not even bothering to point out the sheer insanity of the challenge. He then went on to mutter something I had heard rumours of before, but not found any records to confirm- that an army friend had covered the entire trail in 5 days. My google searching had found no record of this; I had only discovered that a female ultra marathon runner had completed it in 6 days something and this was considered to be the unofficial record. I thought it would be good to at least equal that. We did hear several times, though, that the SAS had done it in 5 days.
The rain and wind continued all day, but by around 3.15 pm I resolved that I would have to brave it or we would not finish within the seven days that we had allocated for the trip. Starting from the plaque at St Dogmaels I began to jog. The first few miles were fairly flat, then the trail began to climb and climb and climb, steeper and steeper and steeper! I was walking now. Soon I was up on the high cliffs, very remote, not a sign of human habitation or life anywhere to be seen. Wild, wild territory up above the sea, the trail barely clinging to the cliff tops, sheer drops to the tempestuous sea below, crashing against the rocks. The wind was blowing off the sea for the most part but there were many exposed places where I had to crouch down low to the ground to avoid the risk of a gust of wind blowing me over the edge. The trail was narrow and rocky and uneven. It was also very hilly and exposed. Running had become impossible for the most part. Nevertheless there was nowhere to stop until I reached the point where we had agreed to meet up (the only place accessible by road along this section) – a beautiful green valley with a stream leading down to the sea in a place called Ceibwr. There was a small parking spot next to the stream where Elvira had parked up and, despite the wind and rain, had miraculously managed to cook a wonderful, nutritious meal. I wiped the sweat off with a towel and splashed some cold water over myself, then we decided to hunker down for the night. Instead of the minimum 50 kilometres we had intended to cover on day one, I had managed just 10 over some of the most difficult, dangerous terrain possible. This was beginning to look a little bit more difficult than I had envisaged!
After our meal, I spotted that one of the tyres on our beat-up old Vauxhall Zafira was looking very deflated. After much discussion, we decided we needed to make sure it was inflated for the following morning because Elvira was worried it might not get her to the next meeting place at Newport Sands. So we got in the car and drove for about 30 minutes until we found a garage, pumped it up, then drove back again to our camping spot for the night. Just another added stress that we didn’t need, but better safe than sorry. Then we went to sleep.
After an hour or so, I woke up terrified, in the grip of awful claustrophobia. I had suffered from this occasionally as a child and once on a long haul flight to the Seychelles, but not for a long time. The low roof above me in the back of our car had brought back these feelings of panic and not being able to breathe. I had to get outside and spent about an hour walking up and down in the wind and rain. I tried to get back into ‘bed’ but the panic overtook me again and I ended up sitting in the driver’s seat with the window open, trying to sleep unsuccessfully.
Dawn broke, grey and inhospitable in this remote region. The wind was still howling, but maybe not quite as bad as the previous morning. After a sleepless night I felt awful – sick in my stomach and shivering from the cold and damp. Not for the last time that day and the next, I felt like quitting and wondered why I was doing this. I was afraid of suffering from exposure in the remote high cliffs of the long difficult section ahead to get to the sanctuary of Newport Sands. I therefore took no chances – thermal top, then two t-shirts, a jumper, a light rain jacket, then my thick North Face coat on top, plus a rucksack for the first time, to carry extra provisions, knowing there would be nowhere to stop for at least the next 3 or 4 hours. I was seriously concerned about my safety over this section, in my very poor physical condition and was thinking of withdrawing altogether. However, it was Elvira who managed eventually to get me out on the trail reluctantly, a couple of hours later than planned, and I’m glad she did. It would have been terrible to let her down and the charity and myself of course. This was one of the real low points of the trip. I decided to not to try to run for a while, but just focus on the incredible scenery, grey and miserable though the weather was, and just start putting one foot in front of the other.