Tuesday 10 September 2013

Race Report : The Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks

At the race briefing
2am Saturday 7th September and my alarm is beeping, time to get up and complete my routine in preparation for what I'm expecting to be to my biggest challenge yet.  This race is billed as "one very tough day in the mountains" and having recce'd the route a number of times I wasn't going to underestimate it.

Living at the foot of the mountains, this race was in my back yard so to speak and I was confident I could get around without having to navigate.  This bonus meant that I could concentrate on transporting myself over the 55 mile course and up & down 10 or so peaks.

The course takes in 12 mandatory peaks, with 5 check points on route, each of which must be completed in order.  Electronic tags were used to record times and locations of each competitor, as well as manual records at each checkpoint/feed station.  The event is effectively a self sufficient individual race with food and drink top ups available should you need it. 

The race kicked off at 4am from the YHA at Talybont Reservoir, with about 120 starters on the long course.  This was my first foray into night running, although I've been out with my head torch at night, I'd never started a race in the dark before.  As we headed off on a 2km single track route, I found myself crossing the start line at the front of the pack.  I really had to fight to stop myself from tearing off too quickly and not even making peak #1. 

Carn Pica
Running at night has its advantages, you can't see how much further you've got to go to the top of the hill.  I was soon at Carn Pica to my surprise and dabbing into the first mandatory checkpoint, 57 mins after setting off.  I was on schedule, having previously decided this section I should allow an hour for.

It was around this point when the heavens opened and the wind picked up and I was soon experiencing the weather that you come to expect on the Beacons.  Not long after this I found myself descending and had to stop and double check my location.  I was a little concerned as I didn't think I should be heading downhill yet.  Turns out I was a mile further ahead of where I expected to be, which in hindsight is slightly concerning.  It makes you understand how easily people can get lost/disorientated when navigating at night.

The suggested route drops down to the Lower Neuadd Reservoir and then heads directly up the other side of the valley to Trig Point 642m.  The second climb of the morning and I was pleased to not be able to see the top as I slogged up the steep path.  Some of the other competitors cut out right on a path that cut diagonally across the hillside.  This route wasn't any faster as I bumped into the guy who was right in front of me as we dabbed into the second mandatory peak (1hr 55min).

Dawn was just breaking as I ran along the ridge line towards Corn Du.  It was at this point I decided to trip myself up and practice my commando roll across the floor.  Luckily I didn't cut my hands although my hip did take a bashing and caused me a little bit of pain later in the day.  3 days later it's a wonderful dark purple and black bruise but thankfully it doesn't hurt any more.  When will I learn to watch where I step?

Checkpoint #1 was at the car park south of Storey Arms on the A470.  I arrived here after a fairly quick descent of the mountain, with just enough time to briefly say hi to Nikki and Mum, switch out my water bottle, take on some food and get going again. CP1 was about 10-11miles into the course and I was on schedule (just) at 2 hours 39 mins since the start.  Next stop the first of the 10 peaks.....hard to believe I was a fifth of the way into the course and hadn't hit a single peak of the ten yet.

Although it was now light, Fan Fawr was covered in mist which nicely shrouded the peak as I climbed the hillside.  A few of the guys I'd run the ridge line from trig 642 with earlier caught me on this ascent, this is always a little annoying but I reminded myself it's me against the clock and not other people.

Ruins near Pant Mawr
Reaching the summit of Fan Fawr in an elapsed time of 3 hours 10 minutes, I'd made it to the first of ten peaks!  The next peak was on the other side of the valley and the most direct route would be a straight line, down one side and up the other. Having recce'd this route before I knew it was quicker to follow the recommend route around the valley, staying higher but travelling slightly further.  Given the mist and to ensure I took the right line, I took a bearing from here and jogged on down the hillside.

A short time later I was bagging peak number two in an elapsed time of 3 hours 48 mins.  Next stop the second checkpoint (4hr 6min) which was on the edge of the Sarn Helen road and a short jog down the hillside.  I refilled my water bottle, a few quick hellos and then continued on the rocky Roman Road. 

This section of the course is undulating but doesn't offer any major climbs which makes it quite runnable although I was feeling a little fatigued and the lady that arrived at CP2 behind me, soon overtook me and disappeared into the distance.  This would be my first "chicking" of the day with another to come later.  I should point out this is a term taken from other Ultra runners and is not in any way supposed to be a derogatory term.

Reaching checkpoint 3 (5hr 18min) I was now ahead of my schedule and I had been feeling good, knowing that I was entering into the section which contained the turn around point, marking half the journey completed!  CP3 was also the point where dropbags were collected, although I'd not bothered with one as Nikki was meeting me at most of the CPs.

I refilled my bladder and my water bottle, grabbed a few shot blocks energy gels and took my leave.  My not stopping for a dropbag or hot food I had also caught up with a number of people who were now just ahead of me as we headed down towards the A4067, which we would cross before heading up towards Fan Brycheiniog and peak number 3.

Just before I got to the road, my bladder burst and the 1.5litres of water gushed down the back of my legs.  I was now soaking wet, although that was less of a worry, more concerning was the lack of water to get me round the next section of the course.  I had one 750ml bottle which was two thirds full and not much chance of getting any water before I got off the next hillside.  I continued jogging along, telling myself it would be fine but the more I thought about it, the more thirsty I got.  By the time I was halfway up Fan Brycheiniog I had to set myself goals to ration out the water I had remaining.  I was in no danger and this lack of water concern was purely in my head....it was a real low point and I think if there had been a proper Checkpoint at this peak, I'd have possibly jacked it all in.

I reached peak 3 in 6 hours 56 mins, continuing past it, knowing that I had to back track along this section of the route after bagging peak 4.  This wouldn't be too bad except to get to peak 4 you have to go down and up again, before turning around and retracing your steps back to peak 3.  Another low point in the day for me but at least knew that heading down from here I passed some fast flowing streams and I'd be able to get some fresh drinking water. 

The ridge line @ Fan Brycheiniog
Peak 4 was bagged in 7 hours 12 minutes, I was on my return journey, which was slightly shorter distance wise but with 6 peaks left there was plenty of climbing to be had.

As I made my way passed Lyn y Fan Fawr, I decided against filling my water bottle as the water didn't look as clear as I'd have liked.  I ran down the hillside and found some fast flowing water, topped up my bottle and threw in a chlorine tablet just to ensure it was clean.  The water tasted nasty but it was the best tasting nasty water I've ever experienced.

Reaching CP4 (8 hours 37 mins) I took a few minutes to dump my old bladder and luckily grabbed a spare water bottle from my bag, which I replaced with nice tasting water.  This CP was at the base of the steepest climb on the whole route, roughly 37 miles in, just what the doctor ordered, right?

Heading up the hill was both physically and mentally challenging but I had in my hand an apple, which was my reward for getting to the summit.  It's strange how little things like that can make all the difference to getting you from A to B, yet it's only an apple.

Munching on the apple, I checked into the top of Fan Gyhirych at 9 hours 25 minutes since the start and an amazing 48 minutes since leaving the checkpoint at the bottom.  This was significantly slower than I'd anticipated or experienced in any of the recces, although I'd never run so far or climbed so much any of those times.  

Heading off Fan Gyhirych the next stop was Fan Nedd but I almost had a spring in my step knowing that this was basically the home straight now with 16-17 miles left.  When I ran the North Downs Way earlier this year I had a similar feeling at around mile 31 knowing that I was counting down the miles and that the worst was behind me.  It's funny how the mind works; how little thoughts like this can swing you from such a dark place to almost breaking into a rendition of the 'The Hills are Alive'.  Lucky for my fellow competitors and for all the glazing in a 20 miles radius, I didn't follow through with my Julie Andrews impression.

I notched up Fan Nedd in 10 hours 8 mins before crossing back over the road (with a quick hello to my support crew) before re-joining the other end of Sarn Helen.  This put me back on the same route as the short course participants and those who'd decided to switch from long to short at CP2 earlier in the day.

The bruise on my leg from my fall
The Roman Road (Sarn Helen) is a rocky beast and not that great to run down but I did my best and continued the jog/walk routine as best I could, carefully weighing up speed against a twisted ankle.  I was neck and neck with a couple of other competitors around here who showed me (thankfully) a path which cut a corner off the suggested route and saved me plodding along the road much further.  We cut up the hill, before their legs out powered mine and they accelerated away. I reached the summit of peak 7 (Fan Frynych) in 11 hours 36 minutes, with the next stop being the final checkpoint at Storey Arms.

The route back to Storey Arms hugs the contours whilst bringing you back down the hillside, cutting in and out on the sheep tracks, you never appear to be getting closer and then all of a sudden you are at the stile.  Checkpoint 5 was the last point I'd see a friendly face or get any further official support in terms of food/water.  I arrived at 16:20 (12 hours 20 minutes elapsed) and a new race had started, this time could I make it the final 10-11 miles back to the finish before sunset (19:50).

There are two options to head up Corn Du & Pen y Fan from CP5, you can take the shorter but steeper route up past the famous red phone box or you can walk down the road and head up the longer but more gradual climb.  I took the first option, God only knows why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.  The next decision is do you cut across the front of Corn Du and then round the back of the summit and head directly to Pen y Fan, or do you head up to the summit and then down and up to the summit of Pen y Fan.  At this stage I was in a particularly stubborn mindset and I was thinking if I've come this far, I may as well tag another summit (even though Corn Du wasn't a mandatory peak for me).  

I clocked in at Corn Du 13 hours 21 minutes and then Pen y Fan at 13 hours 30 minutes.  After this fairly hard climb I started to feel a lot better than I had for a few hours, knowing that I was close to the finish and I set myself lots of little goals.  Can I get to the summit of Cribyn (Peak 9) before 18:30?  Can I get back to the finish before 20:30?  

The long and short course map

These helped me a lot, even if they were slightly easy goals to achieve, it brought about a win which mentally was what I needed at this stage of the day.  I reached Cribyn at 14 hours and then Fan y Big 36 minutes later, where I met some guys taking photos for Mid-Wales tourism.  They took a load of pictures of me standing on the overhanging ledge at the summit, which was quite weird and disconcerting, considering I was a little unsteady on my feet.  The guys promised to email me a copy of the photos, which haven't arrived yet, so I'm only 90% certain that this actually happened but I'll let you know if the photos do eventually turn up.

The run back across to Talybont is another one of those routes that gets me every time, it's much further than I remember.  Reaching Carn Pica at 1930, I had it in my head that it's just a straight downhill run to the finish line.  Unfortunately it's over two miles and it is mainly downhill but also involves some traversing which is a little undulating.  These last couple of miles were hard but I got off the hill and on to the road across the Talybont Reservoir dam before I lost all the light.  I even managed to put in a 9 minute mile to get me to the finish line in 16 hours 20 minutes 45 seconds for 19th place.

Exhaustion.  Happiness.  Hunger.  Thirst.  Sleepiness.  Pain. Achievement. 

All of these feelings and more come across when you get across the line.  It's so nice to be able to just stop!  So much time had gone into getting prepared for this event, with hours of running out on the hills, looking at maps, working out the best routes etc.  All of this paid off and I'd completed my second Ultra Marathon, this time with a few extra hills thrown into make it more difficult.  

The bling!
It was great to have a welcoming committee at the finish line, including my parents who'd been tracking me around the check points all day.  Josh also came down to see me get across the line, which I wouldn't have been able to do without his help in the gym getting my quads, hamstrings, and glutes ready.  

Finally a big thanks to my wonderful wife, who not only worked two of the aid stations she also went to the other aid stations to support me, as well as giving up a nights sleep.  I couldn't have prepared myself without her support and I certainly wouldn't have made it around the course without your encouragement, thank you!

Full race results are available here.