The Sunrise Ultra is a race that has intrigued me for the last couple of years – run in the middle of December, it starts at sunset (which is 3.42pm) with the idea being that you try to cover the length of the Norfolk Coast Path and reach Great Yarmouth before the sun rises at 7.55am the following morning. What that means is that while the race is predominantly flat, it is largely run in the hours of darkness. Combined with unpredictable winter weather coming in from the North Sea, and terrain varying from sand cliffs to muddy paths to shingle beaches to dunes to wooden boardwalks, it is a deceptively challenging race.
I had entered the race back in 2019, but only 3 months before Covid brought the world to a standstill, I was laid low by a really bad dose of the flu a couple of days before the race and so was forced to pull out. With the 2020 edition being cancelled, this was my next chance to give it a go.
With the race starting mid-afternoon, I had the luxury of being able to drive up to the finish at Great Yarmouth on Saturday morning, in time to catch the shuttle bus that the race organisers had arranged to ferry participants to the start line at Snettisham. By the time we arrived at the start the sky had already turned dark grey, and while it was still light enough not to require a headtorch, combined with the chill in the air it certainly felt like winter.
83 miles is a slightly unusual distance for an ultra, as most races are normally at the ‘standard’ distances of 50k, 50 miles, 100k, 100 miles etc. I usually budget around 4 mph for races of 50 to 100 miles, more if it’s a hilly or difficult course, so I was thinking that 20-21 hours would be a good target time to aim for, but it was difficult to know to what extent the terrain, weather, night-time conditions etc. would be a factor so I didn’t have a very good sense as to what a “good” time might be. I did know that my training had gone reasonably well, and I had managed to taper properly over the previous week, with just a few sessions on the exercise bike to keep my legs and feet fresh.
Start Snettisham to CP 1 Brancaster (23km)
The first section was largely along the beachfront promenade and concrete coastal defences. Although it was still light when we started, I had decided to start the race wearing both a chest torch and a head torch to avoid me having to stop to put them on, and also to have a couple of lighting options, including the ability to “double up” with both if needed. Headtorches tend to struggle when there is mist or condensation in the air, simply reflecting back the mist in front of your eyes, so having both chest and headtorch options felt like a good, but cautious approach.
I settled into a group of around 4 runners who had a similar pace to myself, and we stayed together for the first hour or so until eventually we passed through Hunstanton and we switched on our various torches. Even as the path moved inland and then back towards the coast, it remained a mixture of hard-packed trail and occasional road, and my Garmin watch vibrated with comforting regularity as each km was ticked off with a pleasing confirmation that my pace was strong and steady. 3 hours had passed when we pulled into the first checkpoint at Brancaster, an average of just under 8km / hr, which may not sound fast but at night by headtorch with slightly varying underfoot conditions it was very much in line with my target.
CP 1 Brancaster to CP 2 Wells-Next-The-Sea (45km)
There were a cluster of people at the Checkpoint, but none of us stayed very long as we were all keen to press on given the cold weather. I reckon I was somewhere in the middle of the pack at this time but with some bigger and more challenging sections to come, I was pretty relaxed and was determined to run my own race.
The next section started to get a little bit more challenging as the path moved away from the direct coastline to the inside of the Scolt Head Island Nature Reserve, giving it a rather desolate feel as the path was now surrounded on either side by flat wetlands which seemed to extend forever in the darkness. It had also started to sleet, and the temperature dropped slightly, giving me the feeling that I was running in a bubble, my world confined to the halos cast by my chest and head torches in front of me. With no visual clues, it was also hard to gauge the pace I was running at, and notwithstanding using two light sources, the ground was increasingly uneven making it harder to maintain a constant running pace for fear of tripping over. This was followed by a heavily wooded section, where route finding was made a little bit more challenging than I was expecting by there always appearing to be several different paths through the trees, with no obvious guidance as to which one was the ‘Official’ Coast Path.
Still, it was on the 6 hour mark that I pulled into the outdoor checkpoint of Wells-Next-The-Sea, right by the harbour wall, and felt reasonably pleased about my progress so far, with a third of the race complete and everything largely going according to plan. I stayed about 15 mins at the checkpoint, which in retrospect was probably 5 or 10 mins too long as I could start to feel my core temperature dropping as I stood in the cold, damp wind and sorted out my drinks, snacks and kit, but I eventually got going again, taking a paracetamol to relieve some pain in my ankles that I could feel coming on, not to mention a headache as well.
CP 2 Wells-Next-The-Sea to CP 3 Cley-Next-The-Sea (62km)
After passing through the pleasant village of Wells, the path followed the boundary between the Blakeney Nature Reserve – flat, featureless wetlands again – and muddy farmland. The track was filled with a thin layer of slippery mud above a slightly hard base, which meant that my Hoka shoes could barely get any kind of grip, and I was soon sliding from side to side and taking a couple of tumbles while trying to make progress. While the weather was now starting to improve, the sleet had stopped and the temperature had risen slightly, it was painfully slow. Luckily, it seemed as though everyone else was struggling on this stage as well, as no-one overtook me from behind, and I reckoned I was still somewhere in the middle of the pack. It took a scarcely believable 3 hours to cover the 17 km to Cley-Next-The-Sea, but with my overall timing at around 9 hours for the first 62km (just under halfway), I still felt reasonably confident of keeping to my target of finishing in around 20-21 hours. Arriving at the Cley-Next-The-Sea checkpoint – the first indoors one of the race and the only CP where we could access our drop bags – was very welcome and I took the time to have a bowl of soup, some snacks, a couple of cups of hot coffee, and get some replacement batteries for my torches, as well as replace my GPS tracker which apparently was malfunctioning and causing some of my supporters to wonder whether I had pulled out of the race at the start. It was also pleasant to just have some human interaction again after what had been quite a lonely couple of stages in the dark.
CP 3 Cley-Next-The-Sea to CP 4 Overstrand (85km)
If the last stage had been tough, this one proved even harder. After less than a kilometre, the path left the village of Cley and took us onto the shingle beach, which stretched 7 miles / 12 km down the coast towards Sheringham. Only this shingle was too soft to run on, giving way under your feet like sand while at the same time consisting of large stones that would have proved torturous to my feet had I not been wearing my thick soled Hokas. The puddle of light in front of me cast by head/chest torches and the relentless ‘scrunch’ of the shingle was my entire existence for the next 2 hours. Moreover, the shingle itself was not completely flat but sloped slightly, putting a little bit more strain on one side of your body. Just as you thought you were on the flat top of the shingle bar, the slope seemed to shift again. Occasionally there were patches of firm ground or sand dune that made you think that you were nearing the end of the shingle, but these were mirages, and it seemed to go on for ever.
Eventually the path left the beach, rising up the right hand side to the crest of cliffs, before dropping down again on an enjoyable downhill run on the approach to Sheringham. I seemed to remember there being a CP in Sheringham and so expectantly awaited the welcome sight of a tent, some snacks and drinks. But I passed through Sheringham without seeing anything at all. Had I completely missed the CP? Was I in danger of getting disqualified for not checking into all the CPs during the race? My mind wandered, but there was no point in leaving the GPS tracks in search of a checkpoint that may only have existed in my mind, so I pressed on towards Cromer, the next village along the coast.
Although the path itself was now very good – asphalt in many places – disaster struck when I lost concentration for a few moments, tripped over the poles that I was now using, face planted cheek first on a side-road while passing through a caravan park. My glasses went flying – luckily scratched rather than broken – and immediately had the cold, wet sensation of blood from a gash in my cheek, with the taste of blood as an added bonus as it dripped down to my mouth. I lay down a few moments to check that I hadn’t concussed myself (not sure how reliable self-assessment of concussion is, but I figured that the fact that I was aware enough to be worried out concussion was evidence that I was probably not concussed).
After passing through Cromer (still no checkpoint in sight), I slowly made my way into Overstrand, the next checkpoint (also indoors) unexpectedly appeared and I was able to get some first aid from a very helpful medic, while collecting my thoughts, taking a selfie of my newly bandaged face, switching my GPS devices and having another strong coffee to see me through to first light. There was no chance of me finishing the race by Sunrise, and with 14 hours now having elapsed with 50 km still to go, my 20-21 hour target was also looking very challenging.
CP 4 Overstrand to CP 5 Sea Palling (111km)
This stage had probably the most varied terrain of the race – sandy beaches, caravan parks, road, clifftop trails, muddy farmland – but also the morning light always improves my mood levels and as I made my way towards Sea Palling, I was able to maintain a decent pace by running all the runnable sections, particularly the downhills on the cliffs and where there was asphalt / sea wall. Astonishingly, for this stage I had the 7th fastest split (for the previous stage, my split was in 20th place!). Still, it was a long stage, and I was so tired when passing through Sea Palling that I did in fact almost run right past the checkpoint without noticing it was there, and it was quite gratifying to find when I went inside that I had in fact caught up with a couple of other runners – the first runners that I had seen for almost 50 km.
CP 5 Sea Palling to CP 6 Hemsby (124km) to Finish Great Yarmouth (134km)
The next two stages were in reality one large stage, and one where it soon became apparent that this race was somewhat tougher than its initial impression as a flat, coastal course had created. Again, the terrain was quite varied, with long stretches of sandy beaches making continued running hard alternating with more hard-packed trails that ducked in between the dunes, the sea and the coastal villages / caravan parks. Although I was starting to feel the effects of the length of the race in my legs and hips, I was also finding myself overtaking several other athletes who were struggling even more, with feet or legs that had taken even more of a beating than mine had. The varied terrain did make it hard to plan in terms of shoe / sock combinations – what worked well on the road and shingle would be a liability on the mud and sand and vice-versa. I was also quite glad that I had used my running poles and knee supports – although with it being a flat course these were not strictly necessary, they definitely took some of the strain away from my quads and enabled me to keep some strength in reserve for the final miles.
One of the highlights of this section was passing a seal colony by the dunes between Sea Palling and Hemsby – the seals had wandered quite a long way from the beach and in many places were lazily blocking the path. Luckily there were a number of animal welfare volunteers patrolling the trail to alert us to the seals’ presence and make sure that we kept our distance to avoid distressing them. An unexpected Sunday morning treat!
As we approached Great Yarmouth, the sea wall provided a slight escape from the challenges of the soft, dry sand, albeit one that required some concentration as it was only a foot wide and had several metres of drop either side. Soon the path reverted to the main road on the way into the town, and the appearance of the Britannia Pier showed that the finish line was in sight. By maintaining my 50:50 run:walk ratio, I was able to pass one more athlete whose pace had slowed to a walk and crossed the line in 13th place with a time of 22hr 52 mins, quite a way off my target of 20-21 hours, but as it turned out a time I was very happy with, given the unexpectedly difficult nature of the course. In retrospect I could probably have shaved an hour off the time with better checkpoint discipline (and by avoiding accidents) and another 30 mins by packing some YakTrax spikes to improve my traction in the mud, but this was a good result, backed up by the subsequent ITRA rating I achieved in this race of 469, quite near my all-time best of 495.
It was great to tick off this race, Number 3 of the races in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate).