Tuesday, 24 May 2011

'Might Contain Nuts' Brecon Beacons 40. 21/05/2011.

Race 6 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.

My first ‘Might Contain Nuts’ event was a testing little number in the Brecon Beacons based in Talybont-on-Usk, east of Brecon itself. The Talybont Outdoor Recreation Centre in the old station building proved to be an ideal base, offering as it did modern bunkhouse accommodation for the Friday and Saturday nights as well (though the owners do need to get the drainage sorted out in those showers so the room doesn’t flood every time someone takes a shower). As I was there on Friday evening I was able to chat to the organisers and early registrants, as well as help to set up the start banner for the following morning; the cut-down saplings we found proved ideal as hoisting stakes. It was a glorious calm, clear evening.

By the 8am start on Saturday the cloud had already rolled in and the wind was blowing a little. A weather front was forecast to hit some time during the day but I was hoping I might just get lucky and finish before we got hit by the worst of it. It would be a tough 40 miles and I was hoping for a sub-10-hour finish, which would mean I’d be out there until 6pm max. I might just get caught in the final hour. What better incentive is there than an impending soaking in the mountains to get a move on?

This event would be unusual for me in two respects:
1. Save for water refills, we would have to be self sufficient;
2. It was not supposed to be a navigational exercise so the course would be marked.
Number 1 is no problem as long as we know and we can plan how to look after ourselves. Number 2 is a luxury that was really appreciated by the runners, but what a responsibility for the organisers! To mark such a long and rugged route must have taken many committed ‘person-hours’. The unusualness (for me) of the event combined with the location (I had never been to the Brecon Beacons before) would add some considerable spice to my ‘weekend at the office’.

With the provided waterproof A3 map in hand, we started with a bit of track running to reach the canal towpath, which we had to follow further than originally intended for a longer way round to the first ascent, thanks to the blocking of our intended path off the canal. At the beginning of the first climb to the summit of Tor y Foel we got sworn at by the local bad-tempered, quad-bike-riding farmer for leaving the footpath gate open. “Yu dorn’t live the bleddy gate ope-e-n du-euw?” As a sop to calm the unjustified outburst, the next runners who were just about to come through (we had better manners than to close it in their faces) opened his field gate for him to let him into the adjacent field before venturing through into the footpath field and dutifully closing the gate behind them. Perhaps it was the same farmer who fenced off the route from the canal towpath.

The sun had come out and was warming us nicely as we climbed. The first top was no molehill, yet it would be just a small taster of what was to come later. The runnable grassy descent brought us to the first checkpoint to the east of Talybont Reservoir. Following on from that was a delightful out-and back, in-and-out, sometimes precipitous old mining trail through the woods that eventually brought us to the gently ascending quarry road to the massive limestone quarries. This would have been all runnable were it not for the strong headwind blowing through the man-made pass. The quarry landscape was very different, so entertaining to my visual senses. Someone said it’s used to film Doctor Who scenes. It does not surprise me. It does look alien.

A sharp left turn took us over the moors (Bryniau Gleision) and down to the woods (Cwm Callan) for the final rocky descent to checkpoint 2 between the Pentwyn and Pontsticill Reservoirs. Garry Scott, with whom I had run the final stages of the Hardmoors 55 in March, had been playing cat and mouse with me again, alternating from behind to ahead as we each experienced our highs and lows. This time you couldn’t see him for dust as he left the checkpoint while I refilled my water and tucked into my first Marmite and cucumber sandwich.

The sun was still keeping us warm and the wind on the tops was preventing the overheating that might otherwise have occurred. Nevertheless, in anticipation of worse cooling on the next high, rugged and exposed sections I put my wind-proof Pertex on. That was a mistake because I was immediately too warm as I climbed through the woods. Mark Hartell (originator of the Runfurther series, for which I am extremely grateful) was descending the trail. His camera shutter clicked wildly as he passed a comment about it being too dark in there.

With the sleeves of this new encumbrance rolled up and body hitched up as high as possible to increase cooling, I emerged into the sunshine and the LONG, north-westerly climb across open moor between the shake holes. I was alone. The pathless route was marked out by occasional flags of the appropriate nationality. Garry was a long way ahead already and surely uncatchable. The route march took me across boggy areas that were covered with white fluffy marsh grass before eventually reaching the precipitous edge and ‘other people’. Yes, our route so far had been remote and unused by others, but now we were approaching the honey pots of Corn Du and Pen y Fan. It was getting like Piccadilly Circus. I said “Hello” to all I passed and chatted to a group. I took pictures. I was slowing down. I needed food. Kellogg’s Elevenses bar to the rescue. I looked behind and the first two female competitors had just caught up! The food started to kick in and I got on with the job of running again. Mick Cooper caught up with me, true to form. We would run together for a while but the inevitable would surely happen sooner or later with him slowly disappearing into the distance on the next climb.

Checkpoint 3 (a tent and a very enthusiastic marshal) was at the col at Bwlch Duwynt. From here we did a left turn for the loop down to checkpoint 4 at the main road, round and back up via a different route. Near the beginning of the descent the path we would later climb back up came in from the right. A much speedier competitor was on the way back. I wasn’t quick enough with the camera. Down at CP4 we got our much-needed water refills. The sun was still very warming and the encumbrance had to go back into my rucksack.

I had been noticing a lot of other walkers and some runners wearing numbers who weren’t ‘one of us’. I noticed more of them on the climb back up. Some of them were carrying dummy weapons. I asked one of them what the event was. It was a ‘civilian event’ (Fan Dance?), with some wearing large rucksacks and come carrying guns as an added burden. The guns must have been heavier than they looked. This area is well used by the military services as a training area. In fact some military types were taking part in the Brecon 40.

I eventually got back up to CP3, which to me at my stage in the event was now checkpoint 5. From there was the easy jaunt to the mini peak of Corn Du before the peak proper of Pen y Fan. I thought it was Piccadilly Circus up there but marshal Colm McCoy said there were hundreds up there an hour earlier. He directed me to the descent route, where a nasty accident could easily occur if you weren't very careful. It was a climb down a cliff face of very large rock steps, blocks and muddy ledges to the ‘safety’ of a gravelly surface that sloped away steeply (see picture at the top). From there was the most amazing grassy ridge descent down the spine of Cefn Cwm Llwch. Photographs cannot do the views justice. On the way down I stopped to look back and photograph Pen y Fan and the mountain range behind me. I commented on the amazing views to a couple of passing walkers. They complimented me for taking the time to stop and take in the views when I was supposed to be running a race. I didn’t tell them it’s any excuse for a rest.

The path took me around the left-hand side of Allt Ddu at the foot of the spine and onto grassy fields. I was sheltered from the wind and I was in an oasis of sunshine. It was very warm. I caught up with Garry and Pat Mullen. (I saw Pat at Inversnaid on the Highland Fling after dehydration had forced him to retire.) In following the race route marker in the middle of the field the three of us had gone too far to the right. We could see the checkpoint across the next field. The marshals gesticulated us back across to where we should have been. I still don’t know how we lost the path to the stile.

As we were sitting down at checkpoint 6 to refill and recharge, the marshals commented: “Here come the first ladies.” Ever competitive, I was off, leaving Garry still recharging. Shortly I pulled Pat back onto route. He had lost his way in the next field. The heat was getting to him and he was beginning to cramp. The next stile nearly did him. After checking that he had enough sustenance and wishing him good luck, I carried on. I was feeling quite strong, having got my hydration and fuelling just right. The Accel Gel I had consumed a few hours earlier (bought at registration on Friday) had been very effective along with my other food.

As I climbed back up Bryn Teg towards Cribyn on the other side of the valley from where we had descended, the weather was looking ominous. The sun was a permanent feature behind me in the valley but ahead was a pall of blackness and I was climbing into it. It was not yet 3pm and it had already come. I felt mildly put-out by its premature arrival. The wind blew strongly and transiently as it turbulated from the other side. Occasional sheets of spray blew over the top and down the valley. If I couldn’t keep moving I would soon cool down too much. The sleeveless shirt and shorts that had served me so well up to now would no longer be up to it. I could not risk a slowdown so I consumed my second gel, this time with caffeine. I could feel it kick in within minutes and I climbed strongly, feeling mentally alert. Near the foot of that pyramid corner of Cribyn that I was about to ascend I stopped by the race route marker to put my Pertex back on. I struggled with it as it ballooned wildly in the wind, even trying to blow back off me again when I had got it on. The leading women had closed considerably.

The top of Cribyn was still visible as I began the final assault but by the time I reached it I was in cloud. A couple of marshals (at least I assumed they were marshals because who else would be standing up there at that time?) nodded in the direction that the race arrow was already pointing. I dared not stop for an instant. The wind was whipping the rain violently across the top, but fortunately it was no more than heavy drizzle. Big rain drops would have been much worse. All picture-taking would be off limits from now-on. I ran as best as the terrain and visibility allowed along the ridge, eventually descending to the last checkpoint, CP7, in the col near Fan y Big (fnarr!). Visibility was worsened and my pace was slowed more by the water droplets that coated both sides of my glasses (depending on wind direction). I was running blind. Unless the path was very obvious I could not pick it out in the haze. I was struggling to see route markers until I was almost upon them.

I did not loiter at CP7. I still had plenty of drink in my two bottles to last me for the final 8 miles, so taking the marshal’s direction I set off up the minor path, climbing yet again but still feeling strong, to keep myself just warm enough with my clumsy blind running. A long contour round to the left with precipitous death drop to the left (Craig Cwareli) brought the wind onto my back, which is always less cooling, especially when wearing a rucksack. I overtook a walker with full waterproof gear for herself and her rucksack. I must have looked naked in comparison. I knew in the back of my mind that I was pushing my luck not having used the proper waterproof that remained in my rucksack. My senses were honed for the trigger point to slip into something a little more comfortable.

I turned the right corner (Bwlch y Ddwyalit) and followed the path to a race marker arrow, where I was faced with a dilemma. The arrow could be interpreted as directing me into a peaty drainage ditch with rocks sticking out of it (how like The Fellsman) or it could be directing me along the feint path I had been following, which forked slightly to the left in more of a NE direction, but how was I to know it wouldn’t veer back to the east, where we needed to be headed? I ventured up the ‘path’, such as it was, for a short way. It did not veer right like it needed to do, it faded and I could see no markers. I turned and struggled to see my way back to the last marker I had seen. I looked back to the drainage area and could see no path or markers, but surely I had to go over there.

At that point two women came to my rescue. No, I wasn’t hypothermic and I wasn’t having my final euphoric dream. The leading two, Lucy Clayton and Sam Scott, finally caught up with me in my minute(s) of need. What perfect timing! Without glasses they could see a lot better than I could, but they were still puzzled. They knew we had to be going east to reach the reservoir, which was into the black morass, so after confirming with the compass they led the way down and up over the peat hag. Soon they could see a marker and pointed it out to me. I could not see it; then another one. I could not see that either. I removed my glasses and could suddenly see the scudding mist in the full clarity of the unobstructed blurred vision with which nature has blessed me.

At times I just about kept Lucy and Sam in sight as they ran strongly across the moor top, often on no path, or so it appeared to me. We passed the big beehive cairn, straight across the more obvious path that led others astray, in the easterly direction where my competent navigators and saviours knew we had to go. We descended steeply to finally reach Talybont Reservoir. We crossed the dam and turned left on the track back towards Talybont-on-Usk. It was too warm again in the shelter of the trees. The Pertex got hitched and the sleeves got rolled again to aid cooling. We turned left along the canal past the White Hart pub (which was heavily frequented that weekend for food and drink by a lot of ‘Nutters’). I hate flat running, especially at the end of races. I struggle to make forward progress. I do not (I CANNOT) do sprints to the finish line. I struggled to keep up but I just about held on. We left the towpath to continue our reverse of the outward route right along the track, up the scramble and across the lawn to the finish in 9:24:30.

What an epic. The climbs and descents are serious, the views are breathtaking, and if it rains, it becomes even more challenging. I would not have enjoyed such a successful final 6 miles were it not for Lucy and Sam. If you read this both, Thank You! Emma Key was 3rd in 9:39:15. Those are pretty close times for F1-2-3!

The winning time was 5:54:02 by Mark Palmer. Second was Andrew James in 6:15:40. Third was Daniel Doherty in 6:30:10. I don’t know how they do it. All the jammy speedsters beat the rain that troubled us mere mortals. Many people had navigational problems in the cloud on the final 8 miles. Some were forced to drop out as a result. Despite my fuelling that kept me motoring pretty well, and my (aided) strong finish that I would never have done on my own, I still finished joint 33rd out of 61 finishers – i.e. bottom half. I find that quite sobering. There were 12 retirements.

The big meal at the finish (I chose chilli beef on pasta) for a measly £3.50 really hit the spot after such a tough day. I cracked open the bottle of Rescue Ale I bought off Ian Winterburn after the Herod Farm fell race earlier this year, straight from the fridge and nicely chilled. That really hit the spot too (better than last week’s Wensleydale Wedge offering, it has to be said). I must get a case when I next see him.

Once showered, rehydrated and a little recovered, we wandered up to the best pub in the village for convivial drinks, packets of crisps, peanuts and chat until 12:30am. Mick sampled every hand-pulled real ale on the bar two or three times (there were plenty of them to go at). He'd already completed a round when I arrived. That's two things Mick excels at. One must enable the other, both ways. I am no match but I did polish off another 650ml of wine and never felt the effects then or the next day. Isn’t it amazing how the body metabolises alcohol without the usual undesirable after-effects when it is hungry for fuel, any fuel?

Many thanks must go to the Might Contain Nuts team. They put on a spectacular event for us and tried hard to make it a success. It was. It provided excellent training for Lakeland 100 and UTMB.

The pictures I took until the rain set in are here. Unfortunately the lens had got greased but be assured it's clean again for this weekend's Housman 100.

6 down, 6 to go.......


  1. Looks like a great race Nick - one to add to the list.

  2. Well done Nick for getting round all these races unscathed. The runfurthers seem to be all in clusters this year instead of being all spread out. Hobble & Hardmoors, Marlborough & Brecon then L100 & Bradwell all consecutive weekends. It will be some achievement to grand slam this year more so than ever before. The route looks very exposed for this race, quite different and good training for UTMB I would have thought.
    See you in Ludlow for the Housman 100.

  3. Fantastic looking event, you had me chomping at the bit whilst I was reading the report !

    1st class write-up & snaps (as usual) Nick.

  4. Great write up. Did the event too and loved it, but being a bit slower than you hit the hideous weather on the ascent of Cribyn and did the last leg in awful conditions and visibility, and got totally lost for an hour! Meant we ended up coming home last in 11:59!
    Got to be one of the best ultras around.
    Followed up with a strong 4:09 at Windermere the following day, so with the Fellsman a a good 'week' of events :-)

  5. Another great report Nick (there must be a publication of memoirs in the future).
    Well done for the race and officially half way to another Grand slam.

    Had a good time playing as you say "Cat and Mouse", im guesing the finish line could be considered the cheese.
    Good luck this weekend for the 100, and ill be seeing you soon enough at the Pheonix, until then good luck with your endevours.


  6. Well done Nick, fantastic notes and images.

    You've well and truly got me champing at the bit! After my enforced lay off I look forward to catching up with ya` in July. A big thanks for all these narratives as they have well and truly kept me up to speed with the series which I look to rejoin at Osmotherley.

    Cheerio Mike

  7. You are racking the miles up this year.

    I hope the housman 100 went well.

  8. I'm still here; I wasn't ignoring you all. Blogspot has got problems and I could not view any blog and be signed in at the same time, so I could not post any comments for well over a week. The fix? Log out and log back in but uncheck the 'Stay signed in' box.
    Blogspot teeters on the brink of not doing what it should, but when it does work it's pretty good. I shouldn't complain really. It is free after all.

  9. Now to reply to some comments.

    Ali, it's an amazing challenge. It gives the leg muscles a harder workout than the Highland Fling gives, that's for sure!

    Simon, it was good to see you at the Housman 100. Well done with your completion. The Grand Slam will be a tough call; there are just two of us left now. Lakeland 100 followed by Long Tour of Bradwell will be the ultimate challenge I think.

    Jan, if you'd been able to run it you would have missed the rain as well.

    Flanker, I remember talking to you as you left for the long drive to Windermere. I'm glad you arrived safely. That marathon time is pretty amazing. I'd struggle to achieve that when fresh.

    Thanks Garry. 6 down, 6 to go.... See you at Osmotherley, when I will have returned from 3 weeks of Globetrotting on business. I shall be anything but race fit.

    Thanks Mike. I'm glad my indulgent wafflings can serve some therapeutic purpose. Get well and I'll see you in July.

    Steve, it went amazingly well. I surprised myself with a 28:52. Weekly ultras seem to have got me fit again.