Ever since catching covid almost a year ago, running hasn’t quite been the same for Chris O’Brien. Developing breathing difficulties off the back of the virus, it’s been a real struggle for him ever since. It hasn’t been such a problem for him when he’s on a slow paced training but when he tries to up the pace, his chest and his lungs haven’t been able to operate as they should. Of course, that has massively hampered his ability to race, since the general idea is usually to run fast.

He did still manage to complete the extremely hilly Larmer 20 Mile race back in March, even though he also really struggles on inclines. Recently he had been thinking though, since he can’t really do much speed work and gets into difficulty every time he tries to up the pace, perhaps longer endurance runs could be the way to go. That way, he could potentially still be competitive in a race without having to get up to top speed.

The Run to the Sea Bournemouth was the ideal race for him to test out that thesis and see how he took to it. He’d never done a proper, continuous ultra before and this was a 50k. He had done big distances before though in 12 hour and 24 hour races. At the Unicorn Frolic 12 hour race he amassed 36.6 miles and at Endure 24 he covered a staggering 70 miles over the 24 hour duration. In fact, he’d done that on two separate occasions.

He was tacking the Run to the Sea with his buddy Mark Hillier, who used to run for Bournemouth AC as well. Mark is certainly no stranger to ultra running and has, in fact, done some of the toughest ones out there. Over the summer he completed the Valdaran Pyrenees 100 mile race which featured over 32,000ft of elevation. And that was after being cruelly pulled out of the race just four miles from the end the previous year.

He’d also successfully negotiated the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail, which was a 230km race in a five stage format. And the Marathon des Sables, which is a 254km trek across the desert over a six day regime. Therefore, if you’re going to have someone to run your first ever ultra with, Mark was a pretty good companion for Chris.

The route for the Run to the Sea Bournemouth starts at Moors Valley Country Park and follows the Castleman Trailway, a disused railway line, for the first part of it. Then it reaches Holes Bay and Poole Harbour before veering over to Sandbanks for the final 12km stretch along the seafront, all the way to the Hengistbury Head end. Then it’s up the ramp and through the sandy trails, creating a challenging last few hundred metres as you head toward the finish line.

To start off with, Chris and Mark were going at around 7:45 pace for the first 10k. Then after that they were going at around 8 minute mile pace before hitting Oakley Hill in Wimborne. After that there was a nice downhill stretch through Broadstone and Upton before they came round onto Holes Bay.

An equipment failure at 33k cost them a bit of time but they were a couple of minutes ahead of their target time going into it so it wasn’t too bad. There was another little climb just before Lilliput, after which they continued onto the promenade at Sandbanks. Even though they still had 12km left to go, they were sort of the home straight by that point.

Managing to maintain a pace of roughly 8:30 for the the last 10k, it was an impressive display of endurance from Chris and Mark. They went on to complete the course in 4 hours 23 minutes and 8 seconds which put them in joint 17th place out of 327 runners. They were also joint 1st in their age category, which was a terrific result for them.

Mark Hillier and Chris O'Brien did the Run to the Sea Bournemouth together

Mark Hillier and Chris O’Brien approach the finish in the Run to the Sea Bournemouth 50k

Peter Lawrie of Undercover Runners was the winner of the race, finishing in 3:36:17, giving him an advantage of just over 3 minutes on his nearest rival. That was Mike Wright, who got round in 3:39:33. Oliver Delve, also of Undercover Covers took 3rd place, crossing the line in 3:45:34.

Annaka Charters of Victoria Park and Tower Hamlets AC was 1st female and 11th overall in 4:02:42, with Ruth Hawkins of Buckingham & Stowe next to come in in 4:09:56. Sarah Stewart was 3rd female and 14th overall in 4:14:07.

Mark Hillier and Chris O'Brien finishing the Run to the Sea Bournemouth

It was a good solid ultra marathon debut for Chris

It was nice for Chris to have a high moment in running after a pretty miserable 11 months and he’s now enjoying it again and feeling much more positive about the future. He’s very much looking forward to getting faster again as well going into next year.

Chris O'Brien and Mark Hillier after completing the Run to the Sea ultra

Chris and Mark topped the standings in their age group finishing in 4 hours 23 minutes