Saturday, 17 February 2018

Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

I was on the start list for the Arc of Attrition but two weeks out it was clear that I wasn't in a suitable state to take on the challenge. I had reccied about half the course so had a good impression of the ground involved and this, together with the impact of winter weather, limited daylight and tight cut-offs for someone of my abilities all added up to an event which under any circumstances would be near my limit to complete. I had finally decided a year ago that I would not go into races like this carrying any sort of injury so it was a no-brainer: although I was making progress my knees still weren't good enough to last the course yet, so I reluctantly pulled the plug.

I looked around for a less demanding event around the same time and found the Brecon to Cardiff ultra, 44 miles with fairly minimal climbing (around 2000ft) and a good surface underfoot. It would be a good test of how far I could a actually run, without the excuse of hills for extended walking breaks. A bus was provided from the finish (at Nantgarw, actually a few miles short of Cardiff) to the start, so I travelled down on Saturday afternoon and stayed at a hotel a 15 minute drive away; making the 6am bus departure time was then a fairly relaxed process. There were actually three buses including a double-decker so a lot of runners had decided to take this option. I don't know how many started the race but when I entered the SI list was up to 338, so I guess around three hundred on the day would be about the score.

After a bus trip of about an hour, the check-in process at event start base at Christ College in the centre of Brecon was fairly painless, then after a quick briefing mainly about the weather, everyone walked the five minutes or so to the start line at the basin of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. I think we got away at about 8.15am.

The first seven miles were absolutely flat, following the towpath of the canal, so after ten minutes or so it was easy to get sorted out into a group that was going at a  pace I felt comfortable. I had a fairly loose target which was to see if I could run the whole race at under 12.00 minute mile pace. I had translated this into aiming for about 11 minutes per mile on the flat bits and for the this first canal section that turned into 10,30's - maybe a bit quick but it felt comfortable enough. The weather was a bit bleak to start with; grey skies, temperature just above freezing and a noticeable north westerly wind. The forecast promised sleet showers and we seemed to get them at regular intervals, though none of them lasted particularly long and they seemed to be either snow or hail rather than sleet. This meant we weren't getting wet from them so I was happy with starting out with a windproof top rather than a waterproof one, so cutting down the sweat and subsequent chilly sensations from condensation inside the jacket. The running was easy as the towpath had a firm base nearly all the way, either gravel or naturally firm earth, much better than the ankle deep soft mud I had encountered for so many miles on the Shropshire Union back in November. There were frequent puddles which many runners jumped or detoured round but I've never understood this tactic, I assume you're inevitably going to get wet feet at some point so using a lot of energy to delay it by an hour or so doesn't make sense  - maybe I get this way  because I cover so many miles on our northern hills and moors.

The first checkpoint was where we turned off the canal at Talybont-on-Usk, water and jelly babies available. The longest distance between checkpoints was about 9 miles so I only took one 500ml bottle and topped it up at each one if necessary. This cut down the weight a bit, but the kit list included all the normal gear for a trip in the mountains; sensible in the conditions I suppose but from my point of view not much was used.

The next section climbed gently but steadily for another 7 miles or so on gravel forest roads. There were enough gaps in the trees to see the Talybont reservoir to come into view below us on the right, a place I remembered from both the Beacons Ultra and the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks which both visit this area. I kept going at a steady jog most of the way, just stopping to walk for 5 minutes each hour which had been part of my plan from the start to use some different muscles occasionally. I passed several groups of runners up here, some whom were walking continuously and some who were adopting a run/walk strategy. I don't normally run long hills on events but I felt it would be a good training exercise for me today as there wasn't a lot of climbing overall.

The final mile or two of trail swung north westward so we were fully aware of the wind, then  it popped out of the trees just before the high point of the course at around 1500ft, to join a minor road running south west. We were greeted with a longer shower, this time much more like sleet, but after a few hundred yard the road started to lose height, then we left it to follow another undulating forest trail off to the left. Several runners that I had overtaken on the uphill were making better speed on the downhills and came past me again, but my downhill speed was governed mainly by wanting to keep the knee impacts as gentle as possible so I was happy enough to let them go. Another mile or so and we left the forest road for a short steeper path down to the dam and road at the end of the Pentywn reservoir, which led in a couple of hundred yards to checkpoint 2 at 16 miles from the start.

The next six miles or so between checkpoints 2 and 3 contained the sharpest uphills on the course, though none of them were long, as we worked our way through the forest to the west of the Ponsticill reservoir. It was still cold and the showers had not gone away, but in between we were starting to see increasing amounts of blue sky and sunshine which enhanced the fine views already in evidence since we had crested the high point. A scattering of snow on the hilltops completed the picture.

Before long the forest tracks led back to a road over the dam at the end of the reservoir. A half mile of road led to a surfaced cycle track through woods alongside a river, with a lovely gentle downhill gradient all the way to the half-way checkpoint on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil. The previous checkpoints had been roadside but this one was inside a small hall and very cosy. We had been allowed a drop bag to send to here; the recommendation had been to use trail shoes for the first half and road shoes for the second. Actually the ground had been so firm and there was so little mud that road shoes would have been fine for the whole trip, but I had gone with the advice so swapped my Hoka Speedgoats for Skechers GoRun Rides, which felt like carpet slippers as soon as I put them on. I also took the opportunity of a dry shirt, so with a drink and a bit to eat the stop probably took a rather indulgent 10 minutes and I was right up to my 12 min/mile limit as I rejoined the course.

After a bit of urban work through Merthyr, the course settled down onto a surfaced cycle track alongside the River Taff (The "Taff Trail"), which it would follow almost all the way to the finish. There were still plenty of runners around, I would occasionally pass one who was walk/running and then one going at a faster pace would come by. I ran for short periods with others but never for very long as I was trying to complete my exercise of running (well jogging) about 50-55 minutes in each hour; I reasoned that if I could keep that up and not stop for too long at checkpoints then I could achieve my 12 min/mile target. So far it seemed to be working but I still had the best part of twenty miles to go and any prolonged walking would really put a hole in the average.

I'd looked on the map before travelling down to Wales and it seemed that the 22 Miles from Merthyr to the finish were likely to run through an urban landscape, but in fact the cycle track (which was once a single track railway line) found it's way into plenty of green space within the fairly narrow Taff valley and was generally really pleasant running. Seven miles out of Merthyr another checkpoint appeared at Aberfan, accompanied by another squally shower. As the day was warming up (well maybe up to 3 or 4 degrees!) and the route now less exposed, I had left my windproof in the drop bag and was now happy in a vest and light fleece. The showers continued to be mostly hail or snow so not really wetting. Crisps and Jaffa cakes saw me on my way  -  the checkpoints were well-stocked, although I had taken a couple of Mars Bars in my bag I never needed to eat them  -  and I followed the trail another 8 miles down to Pontypridd.  The trail was now cutting roads more frequently and at each crossing there were plenty of supporters and spectators to encourage the runners along.

A mile or two before Pontypridd we ran into probably the worst shower of the day, heavy hail which went on for ten or fifteen minutes, rapidly turning the trail into slush and making me wish I hadn't put my hat and gloves away a few miles previously. But then it stopped almost as quickly as it started and the sun was out again so the world was still looking good.

The Pontypridd checkpoint was inside a workingmen's club and looked far too inviting, hot drinks snacks were on offer inside. I was tempted but with only 6 miles to go I just filled the water bottle outside and headed out on the last stretch. Again, a bit of town to clear then we were on the cycle track heading through woods, though this time it started to pull further away from the river and gradually gained height. Though uphill it was a very gentle gradient and I was pleased to be still running after a fashion. After an hour or so I recognised the buildings of the college which was the finish point down in the valley to the right. At first encouraging, the sight became a bit more unnerving as the trail seemed to keep climbing and go right past it. At this stage there were no other runners in sight and at times like this there is always a bit of doubt that you may have missed a turning. We had been given a paper map at the start but mine had got so soggy and unreadable that I'd thrown it away, on the basis that the second half followed a well-signed bike trail. Only problem was, I knew we had to turn off the trail to the finish at some point and I wasn't sure where. Major turnings had however been well marked up until now, although the Race Director had explained at the briefing that the local population wasn't averse to playing with or removing them on occasions.

I needn't have worried, a few hundred yards further on the trail cut a road, and race signs clearly led off to the right down into the valley. A few steps, a footbridge over the main A470, and I was into the last few yards to the finish. A nice welcome, a finishing arch, plenty of spectators and a round of applause as you crossed the line. I finished in 8:32:44 which worked out at an average 11.40 per mile for the trip, I was happy enough with that. I was in 98th place out of 253 finishers, as I said earlier I don't know how many started but it was a good turnout. My right knee had hurt for some periods but I took painkillers when necessary and it wasn't too distracting. 

The race was well organised and marshalled and overall an enjoyable and satisfying experience. I'm not sure if I would go again because of the amount of hard-surfaced track, but in my current phase of trying to get back into some consistent running and not just walking up and down hills, it came at the right time and was an encouraging outing for me.

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