With one week to go until our third Camino Epping 50KM we are excited that Camino athlete Benji Byrne will be back in the hunt for local glory.
Why? Well we first met Benji at Epping - he is one of only five runners ever to get under 4 hours for this event and he wasn't that happy with this - so he joined our coaching stable.
What we loved is that this initial 'How do I run a 50KM and enjoy it more' spawned into a side step into a Lakes race followed by a 'I've just signed up to the Dragons Back in four months time'.
We love this. There are very few ultramarathon events in the world as challenging and epic as Dragons Back (6 Days of mountain trails from the very top to bottom of Wales along the Spine) - many good runners we know attempt and fail Dragons - they underestimate too many things. We often discuss with our athletes the numerous 'super-powers' that can be deployed in finishing epic events (eating well - recovering inside - problem solving - it's a long list and goes well beyond running) and these can be the differentiators for getting it done.
We are really proud of how Benji used the lead up months of training. Oscillating between family, work and French travel commitments he found intricate ways to add quality miles and especially hill hunting.
He investigated and executed several purposeful recces - taking in the toughest sections of Dragons and using full back to back weekend dates well. He tried some new nutrition ideas and not all worked. With Dragons it was important to focus on the mental challenges and resilience - something that Benji is actually great at - he just needs to be reminded. A long list of great things that all played a part in getting Benji ready.
The race week itself was wonderful. We love this event. We love Benji.
Grateful to Benji for taking the time to share this awesome blog on the event.
If you are considering entering for 2024 or 2025 and want to discuss - send us a message email@example.com
Over to Benji x
Among a few other cliches and clumsy wordsmithing, that was the repeated internal monologue from start to finish. I had quickly scribbled that into the personal blurb required in the entry form but unbeknownst at that point, it would appear on my public profile for the event – cue ridicule and piss-taking from friends and family, wouldn’t have it any other way. I possibly misinterpreted the expected comments as there seemed to be plenty of the standard drivel ‘I’m a 34-year-old accountant from Grimsby and I have a budgie’. C’est la vie.
So, training all banked thanks to the Camino patience, expertise and insights over the previous few months. Quality not quantity seemed to be the key. Varied and consistent sessions in the rage of 45-70 miles a week with a couple of 80 mile plus. Not crazy by any stretch. This was supplemented by once a week visit to Fabian’s strength and conditioning sessions on a Friday morning. Great guy and great stuff; never feared and hated an exercise ball as much. Fab directed some unimaginable manoeuvres and contortions using a simple oversized ball that hurt. Really hurt. All good stuff though as a necessary evil (I do not like S&C). No regrets.
And off to Conwy castle for the start of the 380km distance, 17,500m vertical quest.
After the initial procession along the castle walls (which I could take or leave), we were off. A frustrating first three miles or so as the single track and 350 competitors jostle it out to get going. Frustration takes over and I go off-piste, bounding through the bracken and heather to get ahead of those thoughtful folks leaving nothing to chance.
I get going in the early morning sun and put a shift in arriving at the half way check point under five hours in. Upon ascent of Tryfan, I cramped up. Completely underestimated the heat and hadn’t kept up my salts. Losing the best part of two hours (sitting/standing/sitting/raging), and taking as many salt tablets as I could get I hobbled on. This was the first main test of the mental fortitude I expected but I didn’t expect it so early on in the event. Six months before I’m not sure how I would have approached it.
Over Crib Goch (knees-a-knocking), round the Snowdon horseshoe and down the steep and nasty descent into camp 1 just before dark. I needed sustenance, salt and a bit of a talking-to. How can I manage this cramp as the heat is expected to last the remainder of the week trending hotter? Some motivational and perspective texts from the Caminos, layered with plenty more salt and fluid – never had electrolyte tea with electrolyte chips before. Tomorrow is new day. No regrets.
I tried to get out as early as I could (course opened form 6am), and despite awakening at 4.45am everyday, I faffed with all the gubbins and couldn’t get out before 6.30am.
Determined to manage electrolytes and fluid consumption better, an inkling of momentum through the main section form Cnicht and up over the Rhinog’s. Despite the frustrating first of three ‘out-and-backs’, just to merely claim a peak (Diffwys), by the time I was over the Penmaenpool bridge (evading the 30p pedestrian fare), it was a flat track back.
Now establishing the routine, straight to food tent for a first round of soup, lentil pasta, chips and whatever else was going. Cheeky dip in the nearby river and feet in the sandals.
Great to see my recce partner, Onions (an agronomist with a focus on sprouts broccoli and, yes, onions), keeping well in the event. Ten years my senior but a seasoned old goat with plenty still in the legs. He ended up battling with a former nemesis of his for first in the fifty plus vintage. Top boy and good chat in the marquee.
No breeze now for the remainder of the week and we didn’t realise at the time but each day would beat the previous temperature and 2023 highest recorded.
Anyway, hadn’t done reconnaissance of day three but safe to assume its more of the same with a wee bitty less scrambling. As soon as I scaled the top of Cadir Idris, I just let the legs go and for the next few miles of gradual descending I was in my element. Freely striding down the path allow the contours to lead the way. Although the path was pretty uneven and rocky surface the feet just bounced off and this now felt like enjoyment. Even a navigation problem in the last ten miles couldn’t dampen my mood in camp that evening. It was a good day and now felt like I was in a race as apparently now in the top 20. No regrets.
A tough day for Onions exemplified by the two fingered salute he gave me after finding out about my day. I returned the greeting, naturallement. Bantz!
Also managed to see Minnesota Tim and a few others I hadn’t seen since the start line. Thought they may have dropped out but the Hatchling safety net ensuring continued participation albeit half the daily distance. A delight to see him. Earlier this year, he completed the Arctic 6633 (look it up), a self-supported, arctic adventure, pulling his gear in a sleigh. A full-on adventure race. Not many hills in the arctic though.
That night was a curious one as a cacophony of owl twit-twooing filled the air. Quite the backdrop to contemplating the next day and nodding off. I’m almost definitely, sure I heard this. Probably.
On day four, the ascending reduced by one third so classified as an ‘easy’ day. Contrary to that sentiment, I still saw a 45 mile ultra with 2,300m of vert.. Anything but easy.
An unexpected spit of rain at the half way point before 30 degrees through the bracken. Passed by Hugh, the overall leader which was a daily occurrence of course, and whilst unspectacular, he looked effortless as he cruised past. Quite amazing, really.
A solid day, steady and somewhat controlled. Then, the last five mile section on the road into camp was a delight. Some hate the tarmac after so many miles in the legs and knees, but I was thriving, and averaged eight and a half minute miles for the final four into camp. No records broken there, but felt great and my pithy self-abuse and internal motivational monologues felt profound inducing a quivering lip and surge of emotion. I rode that wave all the way to camp. There is a very good argument for protecting the legs and not over doing it given two big days still remaining, but rightly or wrongly, I just went with it and (not always gone well in the past). Running freely with an exuberant tingling feeling just felt good. Either way, there was plenty pain to come. No regrets.
With the field now fewer than 90 in the main event (approx. 30 withdrawals and the rest doing the half distance options), day five was always going to test the resolve and will to get to Cardiff. Statistically, the percentages are in everyone’s favour once past day three, but day five is a monster day; energy sapping, relentless and damn tough. After getting over the six up-and-downs before Pen y Fan, I was pretty done in but I had recce’d this route and knew that once up the first climb out the car park, there were only a few short upsy-downsy’s before descent into camp. I had conveniently forgotten I did this on fresh legs. It was hellish. Five peaks with five check points but not really much overall vert. Brutal. My carefree descending from the previous two days had left me and I felt every heavy step; even the Benny Hill theme repeatedly going through my head did little to lift the spirits and it was a lonely, long early evening, eventually scaling the stile at the river which meant a short, flattish trot to camp. Kiwi Matt, also a tent mate, cruised past looking strong. Pleased to see him keeping our tent percentages up in the main event. Boy, was I glad to get to that food tent and shovel it in before some basic admin and off to bed. A whiff of Cardiff in the moonlit air for all of us, but I couldn’t smell anything. I needed bed and recovery. No regrets.
And so there we were. Straight into the hottest day of the year and 40 short miles from the Welsh capital. Could feel the emotions building throughout the route. Tent mate, Big James coming into his own and bounding towards the finish like a majestic, drenched stag.
Two bags of salt and vinegar and a pint of syrupy cola with Onions at the final pit stop which was thankfully in the car park of a pub, ten miles from home. Carried away with the climax of the week and within touching distance, I coasted. Well, full-out for the last seven miles, grunting, panting, viewing the path like a concrete treadmill, quickly disappearing under my worn out Hokas.
My beady, desperate eyes were eagerly looking for the castle and I could feel the emotion bubbling under the surface all over my body. And there it was, a right turn into the grounds; cue the tears and cheers (and then a few beers). Family and friends welcoming everyone over the line. Sticky, moist hugs all round. 12th overall and 8th male in the end. I’ll take that.
A wild and wacky, physical, mental and emotional ride. The toughest and most extraordinary week.
What a legend. We loved every second of Benji's triumphant Dragons Back - Up there with some of the best trail runners in the UK. Congratulations.
Now for finishing the even tougher Camino Epping 50KM with Full on Enjoyment Vibes xx