As is traditional, the UK 100 km Championship and Anglo Celtic Plate returned to Wales and to the picturesque village of Redwick lying close to the Severn Estuary. However, the contrast between this year's race and that of three years ago could not be more stark. In 2012, the 22nd July turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures more suitable for sunbathing than ultra running. The weather in Redwick this year was dismal, leaden skies with drizzle for most of the day - which minimised dehydration and led to a spree of personal best times.
Men's team awards
The proximity to the London Marathon and an overly-congested calendar were obvious factors in the fields being smaller than usual. That said, these are heady times for UK ultra running and the field had a liberal sprinkling of top class performers. The course involved approx 450 metres followed by 32 identical laps of very flat running.
On paper the two runners with the greatest potential were Phil Anthony (England) and Ross Houston (Scotland) who could point to marathon bests of 2:16 and 2:18 respectively, but both of whom were attempting to run much further than ever before. On the ladies side the fifth and sixth placers from last year's championship, Katie Samuelson (England) and Rosie Bell (Scotland) looked the likeliest winners from the five starters, but it was an intriguingly open race.
The early stages were fairly tentative, with Ross Houston opening a narrow lead. However, by 10 km Phil Anthony had begun to move up, with the stopwatch showing 40:03 for Ross, 40:09 for Phil, then Grant Jeans and James Scott-Buccleuch running together on 41:40. The ladies were amazingly close at this stage, with Katie Samuelson leading on 49:45, Charlotte Black next 50:29, Natasha Farid-Doyle and Rosie Bell together 50:43 and Keziah Higgins 50:56.
Despite the inclement weather, there was plenty of banter from the lap scorers tent and the individual nations feeding stations, and in turn, some still happy looking competitors willing to engage in a bit of chat of their own, both with their team mates and with officials.
Racing strategies were becoming clearer. Phil Anthony was gradually speeding up and assumed the lead on the next circuit. He looked every bit as easy churning out 6:20 miles as you might expect a 2:16 marathoner to look. The lead over Ross Houston was gradually increasing lap by lap, so that by 50 km he had a 3 minute lead with 3:15:37 to Ross's 3:18:42. He'd also lapped everyone else, giving him a good insight into the overall picture. However, the experienced men were now beginning to jockey for position as the true value of pace judgment began to reveal itself. Marcus Scotney had cruised almost unnoticed into third (3:28:30) from the super-experienced Craig Holgate 3:28:46. James Scott-Buccleuch had slipped to 5th (3:29:16) whilst Wales's Daniel Weston was giving a great account of himself in 6th (3:31:33). The inscrutable Jon Sharkey was demonstrating mesmeric pace judgment in 7th (3:33:25) whilst Grant Jeans was struggling a little on 3:34:25.
The ladies race was still quite tight, with everyone looking pretty comfortable. At halfway Katie Samuelson held a four and a half minute lead with 4:08:45, although she had relinquished the lead briefly to Natasha Farid-Doyle in the first quarter. Rosie Bell was now up to second with 4:13:14, with Natasha 3rd (4:17:20), Charlotte 4th (4:24:08) and Keziah 5th (4:29:31).
Whilst the positions in ultras can remain unchanged for seemingly ages, the fascination lies in the fact that any misjudgments in pace can have huge consequences in the latter stages of the race. Having led for so long, Phil Anthony suddenly looked vulnerable. After 16 circuits the lead was 3 minutes, six laps later it was down to 48 seconds. The race was on! On the next circuit (around 70km) Ross swept into the lead, and continued to move fluently. Subtle changes were happening to the minor places too, as Craig Holgate had inched past Marcus Scotney, although this fight still looked far from over, and Jon Sharkey's consistent running had moved him up to fifth. Sadly for Phil Anthony, things only got worse, and despite soldiering on manfully for a while, he eventually withdrew, only one of two athletes not to finish.
Speculation and excitement began to grow as regards Ross's likely finishing time, such was the quality of his running and not least the fact that he was scarcely slowing. In the end he held things together remarkably well, and his time of 6:43:35 put him 6th on the all-time UK rankings. By tradition the Scottish ultra championships are also incorporated within this event, so he was rewarded with a both UK and Scottish titles at his first attempt. Craig Holgate also finished really strong, and eclipsed three minutes from his previous best set in Doha last November in the World Championships. Despite the obvious fatigue, his immediate reaction was to walk over to thank the officials personally, which was a classy touch. Marcus Scotney was elated to take 10 minutes of his best set six years ago in Galway in securing his first individual medal in the championship.
In the ladies race the positions remained unchanged throughout the second half of the event, and in all honesty none of the ladies ever looked in any trouble. Katie Samuelson always looked assured and came home 10 minutes ahead for her first UK title, with a three minute improvement on her run at Gravesend last year. Rosie Bell also continued to move away from her pursuers, and her 8:48:58 was a nine minute improvement on Gravesend – and she was clearly delighted to take the Scottish title as well as a UK silver. For Natasha Farid-Doyle, very much the newcomer to international competition, this was the stuff of dreams. Smiling throughout the race, very much a personal trademark, she was joined by her young son as she crossed the line – a truly emotional moment. In fact, an ongoing nice touch for all the runners was the tradition of carrying the nation’s flag for the final few yards as a moment to savour.
The English team (Holgate, Scotney and Sharkey) decisively retained the men’s team trophy from Scotland and Wales – a repeat of the 2014 result (three to score, cumulative time basis). Scotland won the ladies team (two to score, cumulative time basis) through Rosie Bell, Charlotte Black and Keziah Higgins.
Race Director Steve Brace thanked all who had helped make the event such as success, not least Gary Webb, the pub landlord of the Rose Inn which is very much the heart of the Redwick community, Rob Logan from UK Athletics, the St John’s Ambulance and all the volunteers who’d recorded, supported, fed and inspired the athletes on their journey. It was great to also see several past winners of the event, notably Eleanor Robinson as England ladies manager, Hilary Walker as Race Referee and Craig Stewart, Scottish men’s manager. It was a successful day for all the right reasons, heady with respect, loaded with the fulfilment of dreams, and maybe the launching of a new ultra star in Ross Houston.