Monday, 21 May 2012

'Might Contain Nuts' Brecon Beacons 40. 12/05/2012.

Race 4 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

Cribyn panorama.

I left fading showers behind on Friday afternoon to drive down to Talybont-on-Usk for my accommodation at the outdoor centre/bunkhouse. Registration on Friday evening removed the stress and hassle of having to do it on Saturday morning.

Saturday dawned cool, calm and cloudless. The record turn-out of runners was impressive compared to last year. The boom in ultra running continues unabated. This was race 4 of 4 in the Welsh one-day ultra running series put on by 'Might Contain Nuts'. It is the only MCN race in the Runfurther / UK Ultra Running Championships, which is why I was there. I like this event because it offers the rare luxury of a fully marked route, while the convenient accommodation at the event centre for before and afterwards makes for a perfect ultra running party weekend.

After a roll-call of residents to make sure that no-one was still in bed, and instructions of which markers to follow and not to follow (there was a walking event also taking place), we were sent on our way a few minutes late. Despite the cool ambient temperature the lack of wind, the sunshine and physical exertion meant that we were soon toasty on the first climb to Tor y Foel.

The stream / linear pond that was supposed to be a path after checkpoint 1 demonstrated how much wetter it is this year compared to last year. Water and mud would become a much bigger feature. Did someone mention drought? Lucy Clayton passed me shortly after the flooded path. I commented that either she's much faster this year or I'm much slower. I suspect a bit of both. (She was equal first female last year with Sam Scott. I finished with them after they caught me up in the cloud on the peat moor before the final descent.)

Exchanging a quick word with Lucy.

After checkpoint 2 the long climb to Pen y Fan involved plenty of trudging through tussocks, water and bog. It was impossible to run even though I tried a few times. Paul Higgs had a lucky escape from the bog monster that lurked in front of the tied-up gate we had to cross. By the time I reached the tourist path I could do little more than walk. (I'm sure I ran most of it last year.) I was even overtaken by a slightly overweight recreational hiker. Did he not realise I was supposed to be one of them there ultra runners? What is the world coming to? Where's the respect? It's an outrage, I tell you. Shortly afterwards I was able to regain the lead when I activated the pathetic shuffle down to checkpoint 3/5.

Bog monster got Paul.

The run down to checkpoint 4 was a welcome relief from the trudge but the path was busy. At the footbridge at the bottom I became trapped in a crowd of walkers. I waited my turn to file through the kissing gate before turning right along the parking lane in search of the checkpoint (it was at the end last year). I got to the end and still no checkpoint. I asked a fellow runner where the checkpoint was. “Back there” came the response. It can't be. I've kept my eyes peeled and I've seen nothing resembling our checkpoint (no 'Craft' flag, no vehicle, no water, nothing). Confused and frustrated at the time I was now haemorrhaging, I started to walk back along the lane, observing and asking. Last chance saloon was the point where our descending path joined the lane. There was a vehicle with paraphernalia that did not look likely and which I had dismissed on the way down, but it was the last chance, so I asked. As expected it was not our checkpoint but they seemed to know where it was. I was directed back up the path I had descended earlier. Disbelievingly I walked back up to the kissing gate and looked over. The crowd of walkers had dissipated. On the grassy bank on the left was a pile of water bottles and a small group of people standing beside them. There was nothing to identify them, no 'Craft' sponsor's flag which my eyes had become attuned to, nothing. I approached and asked if they were the checkpoint I was looking for. They were, and I was the first person they had missed (despite me displaying my race number prominently on my front). I had evidently missed them as well and lost ten minutes in the process. That shows how busy it was when I passed through. I made sure they were aware of my lost time as I refilled my water bottle, before retracing my steps. I checked my watch and calculated that the speed I'd been going and the time just squandered were making a finish time of over 10 hours most likely. Compared to last year's 9:24, that was a bit rubbish, but I could only do my best. I'd keep plugging away as always.

The climb back up to checkpoint 3/5 via a different route was no less of a struggle compared to last year. The uphill gradients were well and truly trudged. This year we did not have to ascend Corn Du. Instead we contoured to the right of it on our way to the summit of Pen y Fan. From there was the ever-exciting initial climb down and ridge descent to checkpoint 6 on the lowlands, where the sun always shines and it's always warm (in my experience). On the way down, the vivid patches of yellow in the far distance signified fields of rapeseed crop – always so eye-catching in full bloom at this time of year.

Descent from Pen y Fan.

A quick refuel at CP6 and an interesting conversation with the marshal about heavily discounted supermarket produce on its sell-by date (prompted by my consumption of a long-expired mini pork pie that had been unrefrigerated for 24 hours and been cooked for the day in my rucksack) saw me power my way back across the fields, lanes, tracks and climb towards Cribyn. After a slow initial two thirds of the event I seemed to be getting stronger and for the first time began to overtake people instead of vice versa. It was good not to be climbing into the tempest this year as I overtook others on the ascent of Cribyn's exposed corner. A group of marshals watched from the top as we toiled our way up the steep staircase. From the top there were views I had never seen before as I set about running down along the ridge on freshly jellified legs towards the final checkpoint (CP7). This section seemed shorter this year now that I could see where I was going. I was feeling surprisingly energetic after the steep descent and after a final water bottle refill I set off up the final climb to the long run along the left-hand edge of the ridge.

Checkpoint 7 down below.

David Minchin caught me up and started to discuss finishing times. He sowed the seed in my head that not only were we likely to smash 10 hours, a PB of sub 9:24 might be on the cards. I continued with renewed vigour. The right turn across the peat moors proved to be no problem this time with perfect visibility. I observed where I had strayed from the path last year before being rescued by the leading ladies, and with continuing energy ran across the Fellsman-like peat hags and bogs towards the poshest cairn in history with luminous arrow on the top just for us. This marked the beginning of the ever-so-long, often steep, sometimes up(!) descent with a few more bogs along the way to swallow the feet, squelch, squirt and splatter my person. The eventual arrival at the Talybont Reservoir dam crossing was a relief because it signified the end (almost). The reservoir was overflowing, which figured given the wetness of the course. Drought? Don't believe the hype.

Talybont Reservoir.

I glanced at my watch and, amazingly, a PB might be on the cards – unbelievable given my earlier prediction. I had really picked up the pace, though, after a long slow start. The body was finally adjusting to what I was asking of it. The rocky track, which sadistically sometimes ascended, seemed interminable and the canal a long time coming. More occasional glances at my watch confirmed the minutes slipping through my fingers. Eventually the White Hart Inn came into view, which signified the left turn along the canal for a short way. John Taylor, who I had overtaken on the final descent, had re-overtaken me and was a few yards in front. I tried to hold on and used him as a visual target to drag me along, up the brief incline to the track and along to the lane to the finish. However, he gradually pulled away and I had nothing with which to respond (a familiar story). The time ticked down to 9:24 and I still wasn't there. I finally crossed the line in 9:26 but I knew it was really 9:16. Now if that repositioned checkpoint had been visible, my PB (like hen's teeth these days) would have been official. Miffed isn't the word.

Lucy Clayton knocked 38 minutes off her time of last year. I knew she was running faster this year. This got her 6th female place, which compared to last year's 1st place is indicative of the increased competition. Well done Lucy.

Thanks to the big crowd there was more chat and camaraderie over the weekend. The excellent food provided throughout by the one-man catering staff provided a good reason to linger and refuel. It was much better than last year. He must have done a roaring trade.

After two dinners plus snacks I went for a luxuriously warm shower before wandering up to the White Hart with others for drinks and endorphin-fuelled animated conversation until late. Afterwards as we wandered back to the Outdoor Centre we stared in wonder at the night sky, all the stars made visible by the clear atmosphere and lack of light pollution.

Finally to bed, I laid my head on the pillow and stared up through the roof window above my head for one final look at the stars, and saw a shooting star streak across the sky. With that I fell into the fitful sleep that always follows a tough day of running, only restless, well-used muscles preventing deeper slumber. They'd be recovered by morning, though probably not sufficiently to do it all again.

The photographs I took are here.


  1. Great write up, as ever. Definitely need to try this pork pie strategy at some point.

  2. I have been drooling at the photographs all day....I really wanted to do this one this year but the Grand Union Canal Run takes predicence. Maybe next year

  3. Nice report Nick - I chatted to you briefly on the descent from Pen Y Fan, (I was the chap who'd done Fellsman a couple of weeks before!)
    Cheers - Guy

  4. Dave, the pork pie works, but only several hours into an Ultra when you need real food. Best not to risk the dodhy old relics though.

    Jerry, you need to get your priorities sorted. How could a boring flat canal race possibly take precedence over some glorious hills?

    Guy, I remember. I even took a picture (trust you saw it). You made up a bit of time on me - hardly surprising given the energy with which you overtook me. Well done with your strong finish. Regarding The Fellsman, me too!