Wednesday, 10 September 2014

An Attack of Green Lumps

Not proper hills, the Brecon Beacons, no crags and nothing even scraping 3000ft, just green lumps really, can't see what the army makes all the fuss about.  I didn't need to go there to make this judgement, I'd seen the pictures. My one fleeting acquaintance was a day-trip to run the "Brecon Beacons Ultra" which actually doesn't go onto the hills at all but rather scuttles up a wide jeep track between two of the most easily accessible summits. But I'd been really impressed with the Clif Lakes 10 Peaks back in June;  the tackling of tops rather than just trails, the freedom to choose your own route between the checkpoints, the laid-back but clearly competent nature of the organisation, so much so that I had immediately signed up for its sister event, the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks. It had a bit less climb than the Lakes (just short of 16,000ft) but at 56 miles was nearly 10 miles further. I assumed that the going underfoot would be much easier (not entirely true in the event) but that having no knowledge of the ground I would take longer over the navigation (at least one assumption that was correct!), and that somewhere in the 18-20 hour region should get me round. I knew I would have to run a fair bit to keep up a 3 miles an hour average, but I thought I was ready for that by now.

The event describes a long flattened loop, out and back from its base at the Danywenallt YHA, situated just under the dam of the Talybont reservoir at the east end of the Beacons National Park. It has a nice camping field adjacent so I drove down on Friday afternoon, checked in and settled down as we needed to be up early. At 5am with remarkably little fanfare, 107 of us set off along the top of the dam and into the darkness. A near mile of loop along the narrow country lanes served both to avoid too much noise effect on a nearby farm and to string the field out a bit before we hit the singletrack up the fellside. The next couple of miles saw us rise from around the 650ft elevation to 2500ft on Carn Pica, a steep enough start. This was a peak, with a dibber box which we had to tag. Except it wasn't one of our ten peaks. A word or two of explanation here; a "short course" event would follow us, starting at 6am but following a shorter loop of about 35 miles. They would miss out some of the more westerly ground, but so that their course could also be a "10 Peaks", they would tag some more along the eastern part. We "long course" runners were told to dib at these also on the way out, so that if we were feeling a little frail after 15 miles or so we could transfer to the short course and still get a finishers medal. Right then, one peak done, 10 to go (the 11 peaks....).

After Carn Pica was a mile or two of easy running across a flattish moor with a vague path (this will become significant later), then a scarp edge and a long but easy grassy descent to another dam at the Neuadd Reservoir. I reached this with an ex army guy who had done the event before; he said the next uphill was "a bit unpleasant". He wasn't wrong, a very steep and often muddy seven or eight hundred feet brought us out on to the tops again at the summit trig point of Twyn Mwyalchod (2100ft), the grassy lumps were already beginning to show a bit of bite. This was another "non-peak" for us to dib (the 12 peaks, then....) but was followed by some great running, first along a flat scarp edge then a nice knife-edged ridge; I was beginning to see how the Brecons could be grassy but still offer some quite impressive terrain  -  most people wouldn't have felt too comfortable going off either side of this one. This led to one of the main junction points of the Beacons at Bwlch Duwynt just south of Corn Du, where we picked up a well-made rock and gravel path all the way down to the A470 road near Pont ar Daf and Checkpoint 1.  First checkpoint, over three hours and 10 miles in and we hadn't bagged one of "our" peaks yet! On the flip side, it was shaping up to be a wonderful sunny day and I was feeling good.

We didn't have long to wait. Peak 1 (Fan Fawr 2400ft) was waiting for us, a thousand feet up from and barely a mile beyond the checkpoint. The climb was up trackless grass, deep at times so not easy going, but it went quickly enough. From the summit a long U-shaped contour around the head of a valley was required, crossing a number of streams, gradually descending on a small track then back up again through more pathless grass to meet the long distance footpath "The Beacons Way" and follow it south for a mile or so to our second peak (Fan Llia 2070ft). On this section I was with another ex army runner for a while, but he said that this was his first ultra and he might have to default to the short course. I was going a bit faster so I left him on the final ascent to Fan Llia, from where it was another great runnable descent to the Roman Road (Sarn Helen) and Checkpoint 2. This was the decision point. The long course headed South then out West for more peaks, while the short course turned North to cut across the "loop" then homeward. I had had some doubts on the final easy uphill to Fan Llia as my calf was getting rather sore, but it seemed to handle the descent OK and the long course was what I'd come for, so I tried to forget about it and headed South.

The next leg was the easiest on the course. All runnable, first following the rocky Sarn Helen Southwards, then cutting Northwest over 4 miles or so of open moorland on a good track to Checkpoint 3, but I was taking it very easily and not running anything that was even slightly uphill  -  that will still have to wait for a month or two I think. It was a jolly scene at the checkpoint with all the crew dressed as pirates. They were offering hot pasta, so everyone around was tucking in. The girls serving said it was more fun now the slower runners were arriving, the quick guys hardly stop at all at checkpoints. I said they were now experiencing the gentlemen's end of the field.

Leaving the checkpoint, the route dropped down into a valley via some fields, and I immediately made a navigational error. Quite happy on the open fells, finding the way and avoiding crags, I'm hopeless at the agricultural stuff. I don't have the patience to work out exactly which gate or stile I should be using and which way to go across the field, I tend to burble on along the easiest looking route. I really must concentrate, this little episode added nearly two miles to my day, although it was all downhill so not a lot of extra effort involved. Then the work began again. From the bridge over the river it was a 2000ft climb up to the peaks of the Black Mountain. Although after the initial pull up through the bracken it was not too steep, it was several miles and the sun was really doing a job now so it was a sweaty business and I was glad to reach the first top (Fan Brycheiniog 2630ft) where there were a another pair of the ever-friendly marshals. From here there was an out-and-back to the furthest West point of the course, so I started seeing a few more people. Otherwise I was tending to see other runners only at checkpoints, it's always surprising how far apart runners get on a 50-60 mile course. Only about a five hundred foot dip to the col, then back up to Bannau Sir Gaer 2460ft, officially peak number 4, then back down and up again to the marshals and we were definitely heading East  -  homeward bound.

Next came another lovely long descent, first steeply down the scarp edge via a rocky path to the outflow of Llyn y Fan Fawr, then following the outflow steam across country, with traces of path at times, all the way down to a minor road by the River Tawe  -  but crossing the river with dry feet didn't prove to be an option.

The next couple of miles were for me the most arduous on the whole course. First, we had to cross a little rise for about a mile or so to the next road. The height gain was barely five hundred feet but the vegetation was deep, grass, bracken and heather, and there was no path, just occasional trods that kept petering out. Eventually though I reached the next road on which sat Checkpoint 4. That was a welcome relief, but then came what I had been looking at nervously since turning eastward on the Black Mountain. From the checkpoint to the summit of Fan Gyhirych (2380ft, peak 5) is only around 1000ft, but it happens in just over half a mile. Very steep from the road, then an easing in angle through difficult tussocky grass for the middle bit, then a final few hundred feet where a trod with steps has developed, but where I saw runners using their hands on the ground in front of them to aid progress. Just green lumps, these hills.

But after the bad normally comes the good, and the rest of the stage was a delight. Easy running off the back of Fan Gyhirych, then a smooth jeep track and more grass, a short easy ascent to the next top (Fan Nedd 2170ft, peak 6) and another great runnable descent. This soon led back to the Sarn Helen road and we were back on the same ground as the short course, followed by another short ascent on a good track to Fan Frynych (2060ft, peak 7). From here a short down and up, then another long, easy descent, following a superb contouring path high above the A470 led eventually down to the road at the Storey Arms, Checkpoint 5. I reached here without turning a light on   -   just. Five minutes at the checkpoint and it was dark.

The checkpoint was brilliant, in spite of being outdoors. Friendly as ever, with the catering being subcontracted by the race organisation to the regular burger van - a ticket from the marshal got you all you could need! I decided I better get a bit warmer as a fine day might turn into a chilly evening, so out came jacket, hat and gloves and I was on my way.

Ten miles to go. I left Checkpoint 5 with 15 hours and 45 minutes on my watch. I had covered the parallel route on the way out in three and a half hours. The return, I believed, was on better tracks, a mile shorter, and overall more downhill. I felt that 4 hours should be enough, getting me nicely inside my 20 hour target. This seemed to be working out as I cruised gently to the top of Corn Du (2860ft, not one of "our" peaks......ah, the 13 peaks then...) and on to Pen y Fan (2900ft, peak 8). There was not much wind and it was a beautiful moonlit night. But here things started to slow down. The paths up were much rockier than I expected, with big rock steps a lot of the way, not easy ground to jog down in the dark. The "little" dips that I expected between the peaks were a bit more than little. There were certainly no navigational problems but it was not so quick. Cribyn (2600ft, peak 9) seemed to take a long time to arrive, as did Fan y Big (2360ft, peak 10).

I nearly lost the plot on Fan y Big. I arrived on the summit. I knew it was the summit, it's right on the scarp edge and there was no more hill left. It's an impressive little rocky outcrop, with a "diving board" rock, like the one on Half Dome. There was even a little brass plaque to something embedded in one of the rocks. I knew it was the top. Only problem was, I couldn't find the dibber box. All the others had been so easy to spot that it got me worried. I searched every rock and crevice, but nothing. To complete these events you have to tag every required point, otherwise you're disqualified. But where was it? After about fifteen minutes I saw the light of another runner approaching. It was a guy I'd seen before as part of a pair who were going slightly faster than me. He said he'd got temporarily separated from his partner and missed this peak, but then met up with him again further on. His partner had tagged the peak, so the dibber was here somewhere. We both looked for another ten minutes or so but with no result. We just couldn't believe it. Eventually we decided that we were not going to find it, and took a photograph of the plaque in the hope that this would be accepted as proof we'd been there. He said he would get a move on to try and re-catch his partner, and ran off along the path. A hundred yards or so from the summit the path passed by a circular shelter wall. The other guy ran to the left of the shelter and on into the night. For some reason, I went to the right and there on the wall of the shelter was the dibber. I shouted him back just in time, we tagged it and he went on his way. I'd lost a good half hour. The box was actually well over a hundred yards from the summit. I never found out why, there was speculation among some runners that I talked to that because the top is a favourite tourist spot, the organisers might have worried about it getting removed. I also heard that it was in the same place last year, so a lot of runners knew, and others got the word. For those reaching the place in daylight it wouldn't have been a problem because the approach path was not too far from the departure one and they would have spotted it peripherally (and didn't need to go to the top!). The frustrating thing for me was that if I had given up earlier, I would have found it earlier. No matter, just one of those things that happens in this game. Two runners got disqualified for missing it.

With enthusiasm a little dampened I carried on along the rim of the escarpment for another mile or two, passing another short course peak at 2470ft (with an easily found dibber (!), so 14 peaks in all, getting like Snowdonia down here....) and back to the Western end of the moor above Carn Pica. The sketchy path was much more difficult to follow in the dark and a bearing or two was needed, but Carn Pica appeared eventually. Just down the way I'd come up from the dam this morning then. But there was a little sting in the tail. On autopilot, and ruminating about the time I'd lost over the final stage, I missed the gate which by-passed the original starting loop, so treated myself to nearly a mile of extra fun right at the end. Not to worry, the effort was over and it had still been a great day out.

I clocked in 20 hours and 51 minutes after starting, in 60th place. With my navigational errors and the faffing around on Fan y Big, I was clearly fit enough but not competent enough on the day to get in around 19 and a half hours, but not in 18. I'd been worked over a bit by the green lumps.

Congratulations to the organisers and marshals for providing a super experience, every bit as good as the Lakes event. I may be back.

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