I woke up on Saturday September 9th, at 3:46am, almost exactly 33 years to the very moment I was born. Yes, it was my birthday, but I had business to attend to. I’ve no other reason to be up at such an ungodly time (well, maybe, but thankfully not this time) other than to get on with my ultra marathon training. The White Rose Ultra, a mere eight weeks away, has a take no prisoners course that will surely take every last ounce of energy to get over the line. The training diary said 21 miles. There was no getting out of it, not that I had any intention of doing. Not even on my birthday. Not even on holiday. At Butlins Skegness. Again.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here in the last few years, and on this occasion it was to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 50th birthday, the day after mine. I personally wouldn’t choose to come back time after time, but it has its perks. Its great for kids and families, and its got a beach nearby. And in planning for this holiday, and holidays past, I’ve come to realise it has miles and miles of coastline to explore.

My training has had to account for plenty of steep hills, being a Yorkshire lad. But in route planning I found I’d have to travel too far inland to get even the slightest mound to have to run up. So my only realistic option was to plan this run on the Lincolnshire coastal beach. Having run as far as 3 miles to the north of Butlins, and 3 miles to the south – Skegness itself – I had become used to its camber, and the difficulty in running across those sands. Basically, I had the perfect equalizer for these hills lying in the sands. But 21 miles was going to require a massive step up. Was I truly physically prepared? Arguably not – how often do I run on sand? Maybe a couple of times a year at present. And as for the beach itself, not being familiar with just the unpredictability of the terrain alone was a major red flag.

But did I feel mentally prepared (or indeed, ‘certified’)? Absolutely!

South from Butlins wasn’t an option – beyond Skegness is Gibraltar Point Nature Reserve, which would mean getting forced inland onto the roads as the beach would run out, turning mostly into wetlands until Norfolk. Too far, and somewhat less enamoured with that potential out and back through the streets of Boston. So it would have to be northbound. Beach was guaranteed on this route the whole way, joining from Ingoldmells, and running to Sutton-on-Sea, via Chapel St. Leonards, Anderby Creek, Huttoft and Sandilands, before doubling back.

Outside at 4:21am!

Headtorch and race vest equipped, and a little older (& wiser?), I set off from with the grounds of the holiday village and north towards Ingoldmells, home to Fantasy Island theme park and various brightly coloured bars and shops. Turning right, I soon swapped the darkened streets for the moonlit beach.

The tide out and the sand was relatively flat and firm, with streams of water trickling back into the North Sea as it pulled back and forth. The streams varied in width, but it didn’t make much of a splash even if stepped in. Still, I had to keep an eye on my footstep, and on how close the sea was to reaching my feet. At one point, near Chapel St. Leonards, it was right up against me, and I had to make a quick shift upwards to not get caught. I doubt it would have been a major issue – it wouldn’t have been an excuse to go for a swim, but I wouldn’t want to get into any difficulty while it was still dark. With that considered, my headtorch was certainly coming in for good use in the early stages, particularly to avoid one particularly squelchy section of sand.

Not everything was coming up roses however. A few years back I saw a seal on the beach before it quickly made a move back into the water. I’d longed to see another one in the wild since. And around five miles into the run, I did. However, it was lying on the sands apparently not moving. There were no obvious signs of harm, no signs of an attack or a fight, but I struggled to be able to tell if this particular seal was simply just resting or very much deceased. I, like many I suspect, have no expertise on how exactly to check a seal’s vital signs, so after a minute or so gently trying to startle it, I had to assume the worst and accept it wasn’t coming round, simply washed up by the tide by its harsh mistress, its natural habitat, the great sea. There was a part of me that hoped I was wrong, but by the time I came back it was gone, presumably reclaimed by the now incoming tide, which I’ll come back to later. I can only assume the worst, as I’m sure it would have been alerted to my presence if I was pounding my feet in the nearby sand if it had half an idea I was there.

Looking out to sea at Huttoft (I think), 9/9/2017

I was roughly 8:30 miling up to about 7 miles, at which point I was beginning to struggle against the terrain, but having run for an hour, it was a good time to practise my refuelling strategy, which today was to eat half an orange. About five minutes later, I went back into a jog, and then a run, as I made it to a relatively grippy and firm stretch of sand, meaning it wasn’t so much effort trying to dig in and therefore my gait felt freer. However the tenth mile became awkward, as the sands approaching Sutton-on-Sea became deeper, making them effectively unrunnable, if such a word exists. I reached my target destination rather slowly, but I was able to get to the promenade and all in all I could feel happy at this point. 1:32, bar stoppages. All in all a good 10.5 miles, and pretty much how I’d expected, if I could have any expectations beyond tough at all.

Looking out from Sutton-on-Sea

I spent a good five minutes or so here checking out the information about the Mablethorpe to Sutton-on-Sea Cycleway, while taking on some carb-based drink to refuel for the second half of the run. I opted to run the next mile or so on the cycle path, to avoid the deep sands that seemed so stifling. And also to try and make up a bit of time so I wouldn’t be too late getting back to Butlins. Or so I foolishly hoped.

I recorded a 7:34 mile for the twelfth, and had hoped I could carry a little of that pace back onto the sands when I rejoined. However, I quickly found myself struggling for grip again and the next mile went for 9:22. Any gains had quickly been lost, and so the scene was set for the remainder of the run. I had another recovery walk at 2 hours into the run, but in truth I was beginning to walk more often, be it because of fishermen, people who couldn’t control their dogs, or growing tiredness. I’d covered just over 13.5 miles though, more or less where I’d hoped to be, but was now running more or less in the plus 9 minute miles as the sun rose over the North Sea.

Sunrise off the Lincolnshire coast, 9/9/2017

Everything was being taken incrementally now. Mentally I was fine, but physically I was up against it, and my quads were starting to ache in a rather dull fashion, like I’d taken on one too many hills. That’s what running on sand all this time was doing to me. I was counting debris that I’d seen on the way out as markers. However, the tide was coming in, and it was doing its bit to accentuate that one thing you can count on the guide you home along the stands (unless the tide swallows them up, that is). Yes, footprints. Something as simple as that is the mark of any journeyman, and to see my footsteps now lined up against the gentle waves hitting the shore, brightened up by a glistening sunrise, was great motivation. To see where I’d come from, and to show how far I’d come.

Rather than now focusing on 21 miles, I chose to count down the miles to Ingoldmells itself – merely single digits, literally taking one mile at a time, trundling along in search of the skull and crossbones flags I’d noted when I entered the beach in darkness. Eventually I spotted Fantasy Island in the distance, and knew it wasn’t far to go. But my footsteps were slowing. My pace had dropped again and I was now working harder than ever to keep going. Any notion that it was my birthday had long been left behind. I was absolutely in the zone, only thinking forwards and looking for the flags.

Finally, there they were. I was almost at a walk when I trudged up the steps. Over the brow of the tiny hill, and at last, concrete. Firm ground. I had roughly a mile and a half left now, and I managed to maintain a reasonably slow and steady rhythm until I reached the holiday park, running through the car park and clocking up the big 21, stopping there and then.

I had done it. My crazy training run, over 80% of it on sand, was complete, and I took my creaking legs back to the apartment to return to the real world, and receive my birthday greetings from my wife and kids. I also got to give anyone sat in view of the balcony a view of my stretching ability, perhaps enforced by not wanting to get my sandy, muddy feet all over the furniture.

A fellow runner on the Facebook group, Running The World, had wished me luck before my run and warned that 21 miles on sand will sap the energy out of me. He wasn’t wrong. This was perhaps the most destructive run I’ve ever experienced. Had I run about another half a mile of beach I’d have been ready to collapse. My legs had got ridiculously heavy at the point of returning to Ingoldmells, it didn’t make a difference if I was running on flat sand or deep sand. I was still absolutely mentally clear, but physically, I almost had nothing left when I got back onto the road in Ingoldmells. This relatively flat sandy run was quite possibly the most gruelling I’d had since the one where I ran to Dovestone Edge and spontaneously started rock climbing. A good long sand run will absolutely compare with any hilly one and quite the feat of endurance if you can manage it.

But without question, this was absolutely worth doing. Even on my birthday, ultra marathon training cannot and did not stop, and this was exactly the kind of brutal training I thrive on to prepare for the rigours of what lies ahead in November. It was awesome to be running on the beach in darkness, the tide out, relatively easy to run on. Sheer willpower got me to the end, but I achieved my training target and amazingly the recovery aspect went really well. By the evening I was well prepared for the night of boozing I was treated to by two family members.

All in all, this was a great way to start my birthday, even if somewhat an act of self-flagellation, and across an absolutely amazing setting. This was incredible preparation as a training run for the White Rose Ultra in November. But I know I’d be crazy to ever attempt this distance on sand again!