It’s been quite a journey getting to Guernsey.
Usually I’ll know where I’m going overseas at least a year in advance. Unusually, for 2020 I had no idea where to go. I’d been wanting to visit Chile and Easter Island for a couple of years, but the friend I’d agreed to go there with was unable to. When it got to the point in 2019 when I’d seen people tweeting about how good an ultra marathon in Guernsey was, I decided that it’d be worth looking into. I’d got no plans, and visiting somewhere I’d not been before would be quite nice if I’d got an excuse for going.
It’s quite a popular race, and it filled up before I could enter it. I did however put my name on a waiting list, and within a week found I’d got a place. I quickly booked accommodation in Saint Peter Port, not too far from the race start, and then patiently waited to book flights.
The thing about travelling to Guernsey is the limited number of ways to get there - it’s an island after all. I could drive all the way down to the south coast and take a ferry, fly from London using Aurigny, or fly from Birmingham with FlyBe. Of course, the last of these options was the most convenient so as soon as flights with them became available in November I got them booked.
During the months of waiting for flights I also started planning some days of tourism on the island. Once I’d got a list of places to see I plotted them on a map, and then based upon the estimated times I’d need for each one I started to produce a plan that would involve hiring a bike. I realised that the day after the race I could use a bike to do another lap of the island and see almost everything there was to see. Anything local to Saint Peters Port I could see on the day of my flight home, time permitting.
The United Kingdom hasn’t been the most financially stable of places since the Brexit referendum, with many businesses moving to mainland Europe, or with the uncertainty or value of the pound causing them to go out of business. One of these companies in danger at the start of 2020, whether as a result of Brexit or not, was FlyBe. At the start of the year it was announced that they were in trouble, and on the verge of having administrators come into their business for the second time.
The situation left me paralysed - unable to do anything until I knew their fate. If FlyBe were to go under then I’d need to look at one of the other options. If I didn’t wait for this to happen and booked alternative arrangements, then this wasn’t ideal either as that could then be wasted if they were saved. All I could do was wait. After about a week FlyBe was saved when Virgin Atlantic and other owners poured £30 million into the business, and hoped the Government would do the same. Hopefully nothing further would go wrong between then and race day. Then there was the global pandemic of COVID-19.
Between December where the first cases in China were mentioned on the news, and March it seemed like the spread of this was slow and unlikely to affect travel outside of Asia, but then things changed. As cases started to appear in Europe we reached the point where there were increasing numbers of cases being reported in the UK on a daily basis. Some overseas large participation events such as the Tokyo Marathon and the Paris Half Marathon were cancelled amid fears of spreading the virus further. At this point it was impossible to know what might happen over the months that followed. There was speculation over whether some UK marathons would go ahead, such as both London and Manchester. If these bigger events got cancelled, what would it mean for Guernsey? Would their relatively isolated location be beneficial for them?
Before this question could even be answered, FlyBe fell victim to the pandemic - they went into administration again which meant I had no choice but to book new flights. This time I booked some to and from Stansted. It would now give me less time on the Tuesday - perhaps what I’d intended then could be done on the Sunday instead - if I finished the race quick enough.
As the flights weren’t part of a package they wouldn’t be ATOL protected, and it was unlikely my travel insurance would cover an airline going into administration. So this meant not only was I paying again for flights; but also paying again for travel to and from the airport. Train tickets this time would cost around £100 more than the ones I’d booked for Birmingham, so at only £52 for parking, it was now cheaper to drive to the airport and park-up for the weekend. Even valet parking with meet and greet would be cheaper.
I made sure that everything I now booked could be cancelled should the worst happen, and should COVID-19 prevent this race from taking place. It was still something we thought could become a real possibility as the US banned travel from the EU, and European countries were reporting exponential increases in reported cases. It even got to the point where COBRA (not the bad guys from G.I.Joe apparently) were preparing to step in and limit public events, and recommend self-isolation to try and contain the spread. Events all over the world had been cancelled already, including marathons I was doing in both Manchester (UK), and Jordan.
With Guernsey, this wasn’t yet cancelled, but we’d know more closer to the time.
At the same time as FlyBe went into administration, a major part of the course for the ultra marathon suffered a landslide. Seemingly everything was against the day taking place; though it’d just make seeing the finish line all the more pleasing. The organisers were on top of it though, and would be making a small diversion that would only add on a few metres. When you’re running 36 miles, what difference is a few metres? Well…. we’d see.
This never came to pass though, as eventually the event was postponed until 2021 as the country was in lockdown. The world had entered a state unlike anything in living memory. We all thought things would be better by the end of the year, but 2021 was more of the same, and the event was postponed until 2022 - meaning that hotels had to be rebooked once again. This time I held off booking flights so they would not need to be cancelled.
As 2022 arrived, the UK relaxed all restrictions around COVID-19, not because the pandemic had gone anywhere, but because the mortality rate had subsided. It seemed extremely likely the event would finally take place. I rebooked my flights, and started to think about what training would be needed beyond training for the Manchester Marathon.
One good friend had done Guernsey before, and had commented that it’s a very hilly course and had mentioned stairs. I’d heard approximations elsewhere of a thousand foot of climbs in the first sixteen miles, and then that it levels off after that for an easier twenty miles to the finish. My thought was that I should make sure I got in lots of hills in training, but kept forgetting to plan any routes with some. I did however get some good practice with stairs when going up to the top of the Monument to the Fire of London a couple of months before, and also one week decided to do a run including every hill I could think of in my local area. Maybe not much, but it was something.
I never made it to the Manchester Marathon due to a family emergency, but I still managed to run a marathon as a solo effort - something which may actually be beneficial for Guernsey if I found myself running alone for long stretches. It’s something I’ve encountered on trail marathons before, so seemed likely here too.
Beyond the training, the next consideration was what to take with me. For this race the mandatory kit list is smaller than most ultra marathons, I would need just:
- Suitable running attire for the day,
- Enough water for at least 10 miles,
- And a mobile phone containing the race organiser’s support number.
I’d take my trusty #Racecheck visor with me as well as a way to keep the sun out of my eyes whilst on those coastal trails. Of course though, it could rain all day so I would also pack a small waterproof coat that I could decide on the day whether to run with in my backpack or not. This backpack would be the usual running one I’ve used for the other ultra marathons I’ve done. It’s also come in handy on some of my longer training runs over the summers. Some blister plasters wouldn’t be a bad idea either - just in case.
I figured I could be out there for seven or eight hours, so I’d also carry some snacks as well. I find I can’t stomach jelly babies after more than half a dozen and that really does make fuelling on a marathon quite difficult as I’m also not keen on the idea of gels. So in this case I’d only take a handful of jelly babies with me, and would take some mixed nuts as well. If I found I needed any more fuel than that then I’d rely on the checkpoints for that. This race has a checkpoint at 8 miles for water, and then at miles 16 and 25 they’d also have food available.
There’s the option of having a drop bag at checkpoint 2 for a change of shoes, but I felt the first section I could manage without trail shoes - I don’t have any, and my balance has always been pretty good in trails with regular road shoes anyway. My friend mentioned this section also had nettle last year, so I seriously considered compression sleeves, but in the end decided that as I’ve done no long runs wearing any I won’t know what it’ll feel like to run in them. Even though I’d be using a new pair of running socks, I’d be trying to avoid using anything else for the first time on the day. This is one of those race-impacting factors that is usually in your power to control - make sure you’re familiar with what you run in!
Beyond the race I’d want cycling gloves for the Monday, and the usual slew of camera equipment needed for some tourism. I felt for this trip I could get away with just one camera body and lens, so I could travel much lighter than I have on many of the trips in the past. If I was lucky then I’d get some reasonable photographs on the run and could take it easier when cycling.
I could only find the one option online for hiring a bike in Guernsey, and it’d be a bus ride to get it. They offered deliveries, but that requires an extra day as they’d have dropped it off on the Sunday instead - when I’d be running. As I’d got a list of sights to see, I used an online tool called Komoot, based on me being an average cyclist (with post-ultra legs, that’d be pushing it), to calculate the times between each of them to see what would be possible based on my estimated viewing times at each stop. I realised I’d need about ninety minutes more than I’d have, so rather than rush around and miss the experience of the island, I would instead decide which ones I could miss out on, or what I might get reasonable photographs of whilst running.
The only other planning required was where to get some pasta from the night before the race, so based on my friends' experience, I checked what other events were on over that same weekend (particularly football matches), and then came up with a list of possible places that would not just do pasta, but also provide vegan options just in case. It seemed there were very few places that did pasta, and even fewer of them had any vegan options on their menu. Most places focussed on things like steaks and burgers - whilst I’d be happy to have either after a race, or even a pizza, before a race I do prefer to stay traditional. As I mentioned before, whilst you can’t control everything about a race, it’s good to make sure as much of it is as predictable as you can make it.
I also decided to book a tour of Hauteville House for Tuesday before flying home. It’d be tight, but I figured it was about possible. The significance of that house is that it is the former home of French author, Victor Hugo - the author of The Hunchback of Notredame, and Les Miserables to name a couple of his most notable works.
After being patient for two years, it was almost time to go.