Saturday, 10 September 2016

A Wet Weekend in Wales

10 Peaks Brecon Beacons Long Course, 10 September 2016

For the second race in a row I am left with mixed feelings about the outcome.  On a personal level I finished in a time that is quicker than I would have expected – especially given the conditions – but once again I failed in the core objective which was to get around as a team.

Team at the start line at YHA Danywenallt Talybont-on-Usk
Our four-man team – James Rodge, Anthony Parsons, Andy Morris and myself – had been depleted before the start when Anthony had to pull out having injured his knee ligaments in a freak accident while on holiday a few weeks previously.  For the remaining three, the plan was to start on the Long Course (89km / 55 miles and 4,800m of vertical ascent) and then gauge how we were feeling at the second feed station.  At this point there was an option to switch to the Short Course (58km and 3,000m ascent).  However, the overarching plan was to compete as a team and finish as a team.

The name “Short Course” is totally misleading because it is far from short, and very far from easy.  I had completed that course in around ten and a half hours as my first ultra marathon two years previously and remembered very well how punishing it is.  I had tried to convey to the rest of the team that either way this was a serious endeavour, and we agreed that we would only opt to “go Long” if we all felt very strong at the point the two courses diverged: one third distance on the Long Course and around halfway on the Short.

Feeling good as we eye up Fan Fawr - the first of the "official" 10 peaks
As we ran into that key feed station at around 10am, five hours into the race, we looked each other in the eyes and tried to gauge how we were all feeling. We appeared to be in good shape – our time was spot on our planned schedule, there were no injuries, and even the soaking we had received in the first two hours had not dampened our spirits.  A brief discussion resulted in an agreement to continue on the Long Course, and we set off from the feed station in confident mood.

In retrospect there were some signs to which I should have taken closer attention.  First, at the feed station, James sat down in a deck chair rather than continuing to stand like Andy and myself – a possible sign that his legs were feeling it more than ours.  With his preparation for this event having been heavily disrupted by ongoing foot problems (a possible stress fracture), he had not managed to get the usual training miles into his legs.  Second, the extremely wet conditions under foot – with almost continually boggy ground and the need to wade through several streams – meant that our feet were not getting an opportunity to dry out, and I should have anticipated that toe nail and trench foot problems would become more serious as the day went on.  The boggy ground also made running significantly more sapping on the legs than I remembered from two years ago – we had travelled 27km but it felt a lot more.

James making good progress as the fog clears
It is a really difficult decision: whether to leave one of your team behind.  James started to show signs of tiring as we climbed the initial steep section of the long slog up to Fan Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gaer.  Whilst only peaks number 3 and 4 of the 10, they lay close to the far westerly point of the course and represented over half-way in terms of both distance and vertical climb.  Our rest stops had become more frequent and our pace had slowed.  After the steep section, there is soul-destroying, apparently never-ending slow climb of nearly 5km to the peak.  The grind upwards is made worse by being able to see the end destination in the far distance the whole of the way up.  Having dibbed in at Fan Brycheiniog James announced that he had decided he was not going to be able to finish the course, and that he wanted Andy and I to push on and leave him.  He said he would go to the next feed station where he could safely retire.  He resisted our encouragement that we were happy to go slowly and that it was all about finishing together, and he was insistent that no matter what happened he was going to “drop” at the next feed station.  

One of the challenges of this course is the relatively long distance between feed stations.  There are five in total across the 89km – an average gap of 10 miles might feel comfortable in a flat race, but in the Brecon Beacons and on tired legs they feel a very long way apart.  This is particularly the case when you have to get to the next feed station in order to drop out.  One of the key elements in James’ thinking was that, from where we stood at Bannau Sir Gaer, it was over 7km of hilly terrain to get to the next feed station in a layby on the A4067.  Furthermore, from that point there was a long gap of 19km to the next and final feed station at the Storey Arms, and he couldn’t see himself successfully bridging that gap to the next point of safety.  That was why he had firmly decided to retire at the A4067.

Steepest climb of the day up to Fan Gyhirych immediately after the fourth feed station at the A4067 - the only time in the day when I wished I had walking poles
Leaving him was very painful, and Andy and I fell into a period of quiet contemplative running, both lost in our private thoughts.  We hoped we had done everything to ensure he was safe – he had map, compass, phone and the correct route programmed into his GPS watch, both visibility and weather conditions were good at this stage, he is very experienced in the mountains, and there were plenty of other competitors around.  We made sure that the marshals camping out in the cairn at Fan Brycheiniog knew to look out for him on his return – they even got a cup of tea ready for him! – and also warned the marshals at the A4067 feed station.  Nevertheless it was a relief to get a text message from him a couple of hours later to say that he was safely in the minibus awaiting his lift back to camp, and it was only then that I started to enjoy the route again.
Magnificent scenery: Llyn y Fan Fawr in the Black Mountains

James consoled himself that by the time he dropped out he had covered 55km and around 3,000m of vertical ascent – exactly the same as we would have done on the Short Course – and that therefore he had done his ultra marathon.  However, it is still a shame for him because this is such a great event in such superb surroundings – the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains are just so magnificent.  Sadly, because we had rain for the first two hours and then fog for the next couple of hours, we didn’t get the wonderful views of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big as we headed out westwards past their southern flanks in the morning.  We did get some fine weather during the middle of the day, and the best views of were undoubtedly from the Black Mountains looking eastwards to those famous peaks of the Brecon Beacons.  Our enjoyment of the view was tempered only by the knowledge that we would have to bag those far distant peaks that night before we got home.

Views of Corn Du and Pen y Fan from Fan Nedd trig point
Some wading may be necessary!
In the event the weather conditions were much better than we could seriously have hoped for given the cataclysmic long-range forecasts from the week before.  We still received the promised massive rainstorm, but it hit us on Friday night rather than during the day on Saturday (race day) as originally forecast.  Whilst an infinitely preferable outcome, the downside of the heavy rain on Friday night was that we all got practically no sleep as the precipitation treated our tents as a drum kit until our alarms went off at 4am.  

Heading towards Cavers' Cottage at Penwyllt




The other downside of the rain was that the ground was absolutely soaked.  I knew to expect some boggy sections but some of the bogs had turned into small lakes.  Also, streams that I had crossed two years ago by rock hopping this time required calf-deep wading.  Since I was a small boy I have always loved splashing in puddles, but I was also aware that I have previously suffered badly from blisters on my soles arising from wet feet never drying properly, and this was probably my biggest concern this time out.  As mitigation I carried spare dry socks in my pack, and had a couple of pairs (plus a dry pair of shoes) in my drop bag waiting at the third feed station – Cavers Cottage at Penwyllt.  In the end I didn’t use the spare shoes – much as I wanted the luxury of dry feet, I knew that it would not last for long, and the tread on my spare shoes is not as good for wet and slippery conditions.  I did however use the spare dry socks, and made sure to reapply masses of Gurney Goo to try to protect my feet from blisters.  Fortunately this seemed to do the trick, because whilst I ended up with the compulsory black toenails, I didn’t get a single blister.

The streams were full, and the waterfalls spectacular
However, I didn’t quite get home injury free.  As I have already said, the conditions under foot were very challenging, and all three of us had spectacular tumbles at some point during the day.  As it grew dark, and particularly given we were following very closely the edge of a very steep escarpment, Andy and I had decided that running with tired legs on uneven ground so close to a precipitous fall was just too dangerous and we had decided on a quick-paced walk for most of the final 15km.  However, on the last descent from Cairn Pica back down to the finish line at the YHA Danywenallt in Talybont-on-Usk, I spotted two other competitors’ head torches ahead, and reckoned that with a gentle jog we might be able to overtake them.  Damn my competitive instinct!  I had controlled it so well all day only to allow it to get the better of me at this late stage.  Predictably, after a few minutes of running by head-torch on such uneven ground I missed a step and fell, badly twisting my ankle.  Andy did a wonderful job of getting me up, calming me down, and then providing guiding footsteps for the rest of the way back to the YHA.  I was very fortunate that it happened only at this late stage because a fall like that earlier in the day would have been a certain DNF.  The most ironic thing is that those two head-torches ahead of us must have missed the (legal) shortcut across a field to get home without having to do a 2km loop around the road, and we ended up shuffling in marginally ahead of them.

The famous Storey Arms burger van
So, not quite the result we were looking for in terms of a team finish, but there is no doubt that Brecon 10 Peaks is a superb event.  It is wonderfully organised by Mark, Paul and their team, with a relaxed feel and a small friendly field of competitors.  The volunteer marshals are just amazing – quick to help with filling water bottles and making cups of tea at the feed stations, and always cheerful and encouraging.  Particular thanks to the mountain rescue team who drove a 4x4 up a mountain track to set up an impromptu water and food stop on the long drag between checkpoints four and five.  There is a school of thought that says ultras are just as much about the food as the running – my highlights were the malt loaf at checkpoint one; dry roasted peanuts and flat coke at two; chilli and rice at three (where, rather bizarrely, all the helpers were dressed in onesies!); tortilla chips at four; and finally the famous Storey Arms burger van with its unfeasibly large sausage and bacon roll – all hit the spot just perfectly.  In fact the biggest disappointment of the weekend was our massive failure to find a suitable greasy spoon for breakfast on the Sunday morning drive back to London – the sausage muffin at a motorway service station Burger King was just such a let down.

Massive thanks to Andy for being such a thoughtful running companion, for dragging me up some of the later hills, for guiding me home when injured, and of course for doing all the driving.  Thanks also to James for bearing his disappointment so stoically – definitely unfinished business, and we will be back next year.

The Statistics
  • Andy and I finished 29th out of 125 starters and 83 finishers in 18 hours 29 minutes
  • I was fourth in the over 50s
  • My GPS recorded 4,865m of vertical climb
  • Adjusting for the climb, the 89km distance is equivalent to 120km on the flat
  • Strava says I burned 8,650 calories although Andy’s claims over 10,000 calories – how does that work?

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