Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Brecon Beacons Ultra

I had never been to the Brecon Beacons so I decided the 45 mile Likeys Beacons Ultra was a good opportunity to rectify this, especially as it is run in November when not a lot else is happening. I must have got lucky when I found the website because I don't remember rushing but apparently the event was full within a few days of entries opening back in May. Popularity augurs well for quality so I was looking forward to it. By the time it came round though I had had a month of near inactivity trying to see off an Achilles niggle which had left me minus a lot of miles and plus half a stone in weight. No matter, my head is always convinced I can crank out a 50 miler whatever the circumstances so until the body lets it down I'm happy to go with that; I would just have to take it fairly gently. I had been doing some contracting work all week but sneaked off at 3pm on Friday to drive the hundred miles or so of wiggly roads from Chester to Brecon.

It's a bit strange in the hall on Saturday morning. I've got used to seeing at least a few familiar faces at the start of events but this time I don't know anyone. A guy called Paul recognises me from reading the blog, we commiserate, he had to pull out of the UTMB this year as well, then it's soon around 7.15 and time for the race briefing. Race director Martin tells us "not to fall in the canal" and if we do to "get straight out again" - British Waterways rules, apparently - then we wander out to the start and at 7.30 prompt, 144 of us trundle off down the towpath. The weather is dry and quite mild but still quite Novemberish because the hill fog above the 300 metre level has shown up as forecast. The route crosses the Beacons ridge twice and I guess for this reason it's a "full bag" event  - compulsory equipment of full waterproofs, fleece top, woolly hat and gloves, survival bag, etc, etc, and all food for the trip. Even though it is a two lap race, passing within 50 yards of the start/finish at half way, you're not allowed to pick up or drop off anything from start to finish. Water is available at checkpoints about every 7 or 8 miles which means a 500ml bottle is all you need, but even so with the bag and my additional new ballast I don't feel very sprightly as we set out.

The first three miles are along the canal towpath, then the route swings off right through woods, a couple of fields, then open hillside to the first climb up Tor y Foel, 1200ft of ascent in 2 miles. Of the 5700ft in total on the course, the two ascents of this first hill are the only real full on climbs. I'm sure the boys at the front run up it but all the field that I can see, in front or behind, has settled for a steady walk. Not that I can see all that far because by now we're getting up into the fog. A brief video of the event here gives a bit of the atmosphere of the day. If you don't blink you'll see me towards the end of the clip, recognisable as easily the slowest runner featured (or by way of my usual headgear).

The descent from Tor y Foel is great, grassy and a perfect angle for just letting go, then a mile or so of easy track and we're at the first checkpoint. There was a warning of a rocky descent from here but it turns out to be just an easy angled stony track, good ground for the Hokas which I've been using since late spring this year. Then comes around 5 or 6 miles of gentle ascent, first along forestry tracks and then an ancient bridleway across open hillside to the high point of the course, the col between Cribyn and Fan y Big. This probably has a proper Welsh name as do most significant "bwlchs" but seems to be known generally just as "The Gap". In the mist, right on the crest, is a small tent with a couple of marshals outside. These guys always deserve more than a word or two of thanks, they were probably going to be there from around 9am to 7pm, what a way to spend your Saturday!

The easy angled but stony track continues down the other side, and I'm cruising down with thoughts miles away when I manage to trip on a loose stone and measure my length. A quick count to ten then start moving things and assess damage - a bloody hand, flow easily staunched by a quick wrap of the faithful WHW buff, nothing broken, adrenalin masking the rest for now, no doubt there will be some bruising and stiffness to come but off we go again. Luckily the field has thinned out enough for no-one to be aware of my moment of incompetence.

Down out of the mist and the next checkpoint soon appears, on the border between hillside and pastoral farmland. A narrow stony track, hemmed in by hedges both sides, then out into fields and country lanes. I catch up with one or two other runners around this time, and chat with a lady who I later find out was Mimi Anderson (check out her CV!), should have twigged when we were talking about shoes and she said she was sponsored by Hoka, but I'm not very good at that sort of thing. Still with company, now a guy from Manchester, we reach the canal again with two miles along it to the start of the second lap.

I was never quite sure about doing a two-lap race, I sort of like to feel my events are journeys rather than performances in an arena, but I'm feeling OK and I know now what's to come, so it doesn't seem too bad. One thing that does leave an impression though is the canal, five miles at the junction of laps 1 and 2 and more than enough for me. No view except trees, no change of angle, in fact no real change in anything - note to self, never do a canal race.

Lap two takes me nearly an hour longer than lap one. The hills are bigger, the distances in between longer, and I run nearly all of it without seeing any other runners, but the checkpoint crews are as enthusiastic and welcoming as ever. As I descend from the Gap for the second time (carefully to avoid a second ground excursion) the mist clears momentarily ahead and I can see a small piece of blue sky, the first and only one of the day.. Dusk is gathering as I reach the farmland before the canal, so I am able to play one last game - can I get to the finish without turning my torch on? The gloom steadily deepens along the tree-lined waterway but the ground is even and I can make out where the edge is. A couple of hundred yards before the finish I'm passed by a runner who has judged her race better than me, but she has a torch on so I nearly lose my vision, but in the end just make it. I finish in 9 hours 26 minutes 19 seconds for 51st place. That's OK, I would have taken that if offered at the start of the day. I would have liked to have seen the Brecon Beacons but apart from that it has been a pretty worthwhile trip.

I have a couple of cups of tea and stay awhile for the prizegiving. The winner Mark Palmer (winner also for the previous two years) got home in the amazing time of 6 hours 16 minutes. That's 45 miles with nearly 6000ft of ascent at a pace that I would be chuffed with for a flat marathon - a shade over 8 minute miles. He has just completed a 14 hour Bob Graham though...

I get changed, thank Martin for a good day out and wiggle my way back through the now misty Welsh roads to Chester, shifting position every few minutes to combat the aches and pains in the legs  - driving home after an ultra is always like this but I know I'll be OK tomorrow.  I call Jan, then stop to collect fish and chips and a few celebratory cans of Boddingtons. As I pull into the drive at around 8.30pm it occurs to me that it's still two hours until the race cutoff time, runners and marshals are still out there in the darkness. What a bizarre game this is.

1 comment:

John Kynaston said...

Hi Andy

Congrats on an another successful race. You are an inpiration to us all.