Imagine a windy shoreline at the remote southwestern tip of England early December. Add a 54k trail looping the cliffs with 2900m of elevation and a bit of mud here and there. CTS Dorset ultra turned out to be one of the most scenic races I´ve experienced – and one of the toughest ones too.
A couple minutes past midnight on Thursday evening I stepped in a taxi at Wool railway station in southern England and asked to be taken to a small village called Lulworth Cove. Before starting the engine, the driver opened up a discussion:
Are you here for the race? Which distance? Have you done the Marathon des Sables (a multiday race crossing Sahara desert)?
Turned out he had.
This was a perfect setting for the last leg of my trip from Finland that had already lasted for 12ish hours and included re-routing of flights, two taxi rides and barely catching the last train from Bournemouth to Wool. We spent the rest of the way discussing running and the upcoming race on Saturday.
CTS Dorset is one of the Coastal Trail Series trail running races organized by Endurancelife. It offers distances from 10k to 72,5k in pretty rough terrain at the southwestern tip of England. I had signed up for the 54k ultra including 2900m of elevation gain along the way.
The route started from a small coastal village of Lulworth Cove and circled around the coast to both directions. I arrived at the location two days early to allow myself some time for settling in after travel and taking an early peek on the trails.
The location felt pretty remote even when the sun got up the next morning. The constantly raging wind, lack of proper mobile phone connection, high hills all around and rough sea right next door added to the feeling of remoteness. I already loved the setting and was really looking forward to the race day!
As the evening approached I started my routine of race preparations for the following morning. I carefully set out all the clothing I was looking to wear, loaded the battery on my watch and camera and packed the race backpack with energy, mandatory race kit and water.
Even though the weather forecast wasn´t predicting rain for the race day I decided to carry my waterproof jacket just to be on the safe side – being soaked for 6+ hours in the gale winds raging outside didn´t really sound like a good option. Once everything was set, I took the last look out the window, set up double alarm for 5AM and hit the bed.
When the alarm went off it was still pitch dark outside and the wind didn´t show any signs of calming down. Throughout the night I had been constantly waking up to the howling and screeching caused by the gusts coming from the sea.
Luckily, the race day adrenaline pushed me up the bed and downstairs for breakfast in no time and after a couple of big mugs of hot coffee I was wide awake and already taking my thoughts towards the start line.
At the breakfast table I was accompanied by a guy from Moscow sharing a story of running a marathon across Lake Balkan on ice. You´re apparently able to see the finish line on the other side of the lake all the way throughout the race.
Another new candidate added to the endless list of potential future races.
For the race briefing all the ultra (54k) and ultra plus (72,5k) participants packed in to a small tent sheltering us from the constant wind. We were advised to stick to the marked trail for avoiding unexploded shells that may still be found on the shoreline as well as minimizing the risk of being pushed down from cliffs by the gusting winds.
Once the briefing was over, we took our drop bags to the small tent next door (we´d be able to access these at 44k to get mandatory head torch for the last 10k) and gathered at the start line.
Soon enough, the race was on and we were hitting the first hills in one long queue.
This time around I had decided to control myself in the beginning of the race and keep my heart rate in control. This wasn´t such an easy task when scaling the 30 to 45 degree climbs followed by equally steep descents one after another.
I slipped down to around the middle pack of runners and kept convincing myself that I would still have plenty of time to pick up the pace later on if I had the legs for it.
The first 10k followed the shoreline westward and this meant facing headwind most of the time. The gusts were strong enough to stop you in place if they hit you on uphill or level surface. However, on downhills I actually found the strong headwind pretty helpful as I was able to take some weight off the legs by leaning forward on the wind.
Later on at around 40k I actually found someone sitting in a hole in the ground sheltering himself from the wind. When asking if he was alright I just got a weak answer “Yeah, I´ll shortly be on my way – I just needed a break from this wind for a while“.
After the first 10k the trail turned inland and for the first time we got some shelter from the wind. Unfortunately, the shelter didn´t last for long as the inland loop quickly climbed up to hills where we were again well exposed. However, as the trail looped back eastward towards the start line the wind was behind our backs for a change.
I finished the first 20k loop in 2:15h. After re-fueling my water bladder at the aid station I was ready to head for the next section making a 24k loop eastward. Overall, I was feeling good and running felt effortless.
The second loop started by running on the shoreline before climbing back up to the cliffs. The climbs on this side seemed to be even more brutal than the ones on the first loop and my legs were starting to feel the burden.
When approaching 25k on top of a cliff I could see the constant ups and downs ahead in the distance. With still a bit less than 30k to go I hit my low point of the race and started feeling sorry for myself.
My legs were getting heavy, knees started to hurt on downhills and my back was aching on the climbs. I had been running pretty much alone since the aid station at 20k and had too much time to think of all the small annoyances I was experiencing. Even the wind seemed to be against me even though I was supposed to be having tailwind when heading east.
I realized I needed to do something to help myself survive for the next 30k. I knew there was an aid station coming up a couple kilometers ahead and decided to concentrate on fueling to get myself sorted. I munched through an extra energy bar with not much appetite and made sure to hydrate myself properly by drinking significantly more than I had during the past hours.
At the aid station I grabbed a handful of candy, some crisps and again filled my water bladder before heading off for another climb.
After half an hour of running the energy started to kick in. I started to feel stronger, the pains subsided and at around 40k, after almost 5h of running, I felt renewed!
This was when I realized it had suddenly started to get crowded. People were passing me from left and right and even though I was somewhat able to keep up with their pace on the climbs I was quickly dropped on downhills.
I was puzzled on what was going on as it was a bit early for a finishing sprint with still 14k to go and yet all these people were running like crazy.
After a while of running next to me one of the guys asked how far I had been going. Suspecting we were running the same race I let him know we had just passed 40k.
“Wow, and you´re still going pretty much the same pace with me doing only the half marathon!“.
I felt a quick surge of proudness! Finally, I realized all the guys passing me were doing a fraction of the distance I was on and they were just about to finish their race!
This was all the energy I needed for the last 14k I had to cover!
When approaching the last aid station at 44k I started to smell the barn. There was still 10k to go and I would need to repeat the four tough climbs we had done earlier in the race, but I was feeling strong! The small cup of Coke before exiting the last aid station tasted heavenly and I hit the climb with determination.
At this point I realized there weren´t that many people around and I was actually running at a pretty good pace. I had started the last 10k with 5:20h on the clock and having looked at the previous year´s results I knew I had the chance to hit top20 with a good run.
After the last checkpoint at 48k I decided to start the final push. The wind was behind my back again and I was clocking 5:15-5:30 splits on level sections. Running felt light and easy and I was about to break into tears looking at the scenery around and contemplating on the day´s effort.
I crossed the finish line after 6:35h of running and was really surprised to find out I was the 16th finisher out of all the runners who had lined up at the ultra start line the same morning!
This time, I couldn´t hold back tears and quickly retreated to a quiet corner to sit down, munch a protein bar and stare at the results ticket provided by the organizers.
Later in the evening, after 3 cans of coke, large plate of lasagna, bowl of chips, protein bar, filet steak, glass of red wine, 1000mg of vitamin C and two painkillers I decided to take a short walk outside to stretch my legs before hitting the bed. It was already dark and in the distance, I could see head torch lights crisscrossing down the hill next to the last aid station and heading back uphill for the final 10k loop.
The 72,5k runners were still out there.