Dueling with the Red Dragon - Page 2
The Pembrokeshire coast is awe inspiring. Green pastures stitched by hedges and grazed by sheep, cattle and ponies slope toward the sea, then drop precipitously off steep cliffs. Hundreds of feet below, the sea breaks against the cliffs and the jagged reefs just offshore. The coastline is slashed by an endless series of points, headlands, coves, harbors and beaches.
Part of the United Kingdom’s network of national trails, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path skirts this exposed knife-edge between land and sea, climbing up, down and around all those cliffs, points and headlands. Humans and animals have tramped the trails here for centuries and the path passes ancient stone circles, tombs, forts and other historic sites. In places the trail is so well worn that it is a narrow trench over a foot deep.
In its third year, the PCC follows the path from Dale in south to Pwllgwaelod in the north, with finishes and restarts at Newgale Sands and Porthgain. The challenge is as much the weather as the distance and terrain. Autumn rains create slippery, clay-like mud that sucks at runners’ feet and cakes shoes into blocks. The wind blows regularly at 10 to 20 miles per hour and often reaches 30 to 40 miles per hour, buffeting runners as they try to maintain footing on slippery rocks or in the deep, narrow track. A runner who slips over the edge will almost certainly need rescue by lifeboat or helicopter—if they survive the fall.
The coast path has a daunting reputation even among locals―like taxi driver Rhydian Havard, who ferried us from the train station in Haverfordwest to race headquarters in Saint David’s.
“Dangerous, dangerous! You’re all crazy,” Havard exclaimed when he heard why we had come to this corner of his country. “I’d have a hard time just walkin’ it. I know the guys on the Fishguard lifeboat, so I’ll know if they have to head out and save you!”
The day before the race, as if on cue, the wind honks at 30-plus miles per hour. That night, rain hammers against the windows of our cottage.
Day One—26 miles
It’s a young crowd: most are in their 20s and 30s, a few in their 40s, with only one or two hikers older than the Canadians. Some have prepared carefully for the weekend’s challenge―and some not so much.
At dinner last night, the Canadians met a trio of runners they dub “The Apostles.” Their names are Matthew, Mark and Luke. One of them, Matthew Wilson, is an Australian-born archeologist living in Norway. As a seasoned ultrarunner, he has trained on trails that sound more challenging than the Canadians’ home mountains.
“I’ve been running every day after work, mainly in the dark, up and down really rugged, rocky trails with several thousand feet of elevation gain. I’m ready.”
Another runner, an Englishman named Tom, is using the PCC as training for a multi-day desert run but starts on less sleep than most: “I worked last night till 11, drove five hours from London, slept in my car for two hours, had a snack … and I’m ready to run.”
The rain has stopped but the wind blusters outside as race director Ben Mason briefs the runners. The PCC is not a race but a challenge, he explains dryly: “A coastal marathon to be enjoyed and remembered fondly on Monday morning.”