Monday, 21 November 2011

Brecon Beacons Ultra 2011

It seems such a long time since i decided to undertake the challenge to run 3 marathons and a half marathon in the space of 4 weeks. To top the challenge off i decided rather than to dip my toes in to ultramarathons i would just dive right in. With this in mind my last challenge was always to be the Brecon Beacons Ultra 2011. So keen was i to ensure a place that i ended up receiving the number 4 bib. This was fantastic as long as no one assumed this a reflection of projected finishing points ;)

Over the last few months i have taken time, when running in the wind and the rain, to really reflect on the challenge that was awaiting me. In undertaking the Brecons Ultra i knew it would be a tough challenge, but never could i possibly imagine exactly the emotional journey and physical demand it would place upon me. You may be thinking “well duh 46miles is obviously going to hurt” to which my response is “well duh i thought it was only 45 miles J
In training i have known that hills are going to be an enormous  challenge and something that i was going to have to dedicate some serious time to. That was fine when i lived near the South Downs but for more than two years i have lived near Cambridge. That’s not such a good platform. I have made the best of the situation that i have and found hills where i can and used a stepper to work on some leg strength. I have found myself getting fitter over the last few months, but in all honesty still don’t consider myself that fit. I think that on reflection this comes down to perspective. Once you start running amongst others who are at 6% body fat and strolling at 7minute miles it can really distort reality. So on November 17th I was sitting at home knowing i would finish the race. Don’t get me wrong not because i am so good it was inevitable but rather because i am just that stubborn. My friends, family and most importantly my wife will testify to that. On the evening of the 18th November i got in the car with my Best Friend, Sam Robson, he is one of those 7minute strollers ;)
Sam and i were expecting the worst from the journey. When you have to drive across the A14, M6, M42,M5 and M50 on a Friday evening you can safely assume that it’s going to take a while. A long car journey is not what you want just before an Ultramarathon. Fortunately Sam and i were relieved to find a clear run the whole way to Wales. Granted a “hiccup” once about ½ mile before the Youth Hostel, with Satnav telling us we had arrived, added about 20minutes to our journey. This did not detract from the excitement of the race.
From the first moment i was considering this race i can honestly say i have received nothing but support and encouragement from Martin and Sue Like. They are the organisers of this amazing event and their passion and enjoyment had clearly spread throughout the whole of Talybont. Sam and i arrived on the Friday evening in time to make the early registration. We were greeted with smiles and a serious sense of anticipation from everyone around the venue. We shared greetings with people in the centre and i grabbed my Inov8 wrags that i had purchased from the website. At this point i should point out that Martin and Sue had attached to the wrags and tube of NUUN tablets. My relief was massive as these are my hydration tablet of choice and i had left mine at home. My god these were going to come in handy on the run.

I headed to the Youth Hostel with Sam and we were both happy to see a warm environment and catch up with a few other people who were also running. We were less happy with the room with a radiator that wouldn’t turn off but that’s another story. We were sharing our room with a couple of other runners and enjoyed some sharing of war stories with Karl Zeiner and Jonathan Bacon. It was great to catch up and even better to discover that there was someone else running of similar ability to myself. Big thanks to Jonathan for this reassurance. It also gave me another opportunity to reflect on how this challenge came about as during conversation Jonathan noted that he was from Eastbourne. I responded quite casually with “oh my wife is from Eastbourne” I then noted that i was running for St Wilfrid’s Hospice and that as Jonathan was from Eastbourne he is likely to know of them. Jonathan responded with “my wife works there”. So in conclusion small world!!! We all got our race kit together and ensured that we were as prepared as we could be for the following day.
So the 19th November arrived and we all woke up at the delightful hour of 5am. Yes that’s 5am, it’s a begrudging fact that when you are going to run in the mountains for 12+ hours you have to start early. We headed down to the hall ready for briefing. Sam and i had a chat and both decided that we wanted to run separately. Sam had offered to run with me and pace me through the race. I have done all the other races on my own and i really felt that i wanted to embrace the biggest challenge alone. It’s a little symbolic and a little selfish. I wanted to be able to say “i did this” and that when it got tough “i got me through it” in addition to you will know from previous blogs that i am raising money for St Wilfrid’s  and because of the pain that my wife’s grandfather and uncle had to endure alone. It seemed only right then that i endure this alone. Don’t get me wrong the marshalls are as supportive as family were to Tim and Alan, but the reality is that when the pain hits only one person feels it. I knew there was going to be pain in this race, but just how much i had not anticipated. I wanted to take in the whole atmosphere and so made the decision to run without music.
We were at the start for 7:30am and with a countdown from Martin Like we were wished well and sent on our way. At this point i normally end up throwing my entire game plan out the window and going way to fast. Today something was different and i remained controlled. I held onto a planned 10min30 per mile along the canal. It’s a gentle start to the day and lures everyone in to forgetting about the sleeping giant that is Tor y Foel a hellish mountain climb. On the first time round i was feeling really good i was pacing well had said good morning to Sue Like as i went through the gate to start this two mile battle. The first challenge is approaching Tor y Foel on a steady climb as out of the corner of your eye the mountain appears. This is accompanied by the knowledge of a 1200ft climb looming.


I was feeling pretty good up the hill and although it got steadily steeper i knew i was going to plan to make up time on the down hills. Despite this the real killer is the number of false summits as it has a habit of making the mountain seem never ending. I have all respect for Martin Like as there was some particularly colourful language being directed his way. All in good spirits but nonetheless colourful. Turning up the mountain and watching it get steeper and steeper was a daunting sight. I knew at this point this was going to be where the race was won or lost. The term “win” was taking on a massively different context for every competitor. At this point a 12hour finish seemed massively far away and i was just focused on getting to the top of Tor y Foel. My legs were burning as one foot went in front of the other. A small drop appeared and then a final small climb and the top was reached. The mist limited the view to well 5ft, but the jovial nature of the marshalls spurred me on and i knew i’d cracked the mountain. It was at the back of my mind that i had to do this one more time.
The fun began for me following the climb as i have always enjoyed running downhill. I learnt today just how much. There is a bit of andrenaline to this type of running. When it’s on a technical trail and marked on a map as “rough descent” it basically means there are sudden drops, loose gravel, lots rocks, and general unstable surfaces. To me the fun was placing the feet quickly and trusting that my foot placements were correct and not panicking if something briefly slipped. This sense of stupidity means i was sprinting the down hills. It allowed me to protect my quads and give my calf muscles a break. The next stage of the run was a steady climb in which i ran with a pocket of four people all chatting about aims to be in under 12hours. It was great to have a sense of the same goal and throughout the race we would be swapping position. The climb up The Gap was run up and over Tor Glas and is certainly manageable on a steady climb. There is a fun brief short descent into Mordor from Lord of the Rings. At this point the little stream became my saviour. I had been listening to a podcast with Sam from Ultrarunner (an excellent podcast) where they spoke about dunking t-shirts in the stream. Off came my Inov8 wrag and straight in the stream. What a relief to cool my head down and something i recommend to anyone else running the course in the future.
Unsure of how my body would react after 30miles (furthest i had ever run) and the terrain i was on i was cautious not to over do it on the first lap. On this climb i continued to take it steady and made the decision to walk up the climb. On the ascent i noticed the swelling of my hands so no fear for my wife that i might lose my wedding ring. The top of the climb peaks out at about 1800ft and leaves a brilliant descent. It also indicated being at almost 16miles, phew a long way still to go. At 16miles i grabbed some water and chucked myself down the next descent a narrow enclosed rubble path and a moment of brilliant fun. So i ran with the branches whipping at my legs and the thoughts of the halfway point looming in my head. I knew this was the point where it could be hard to carry on. I was feeling good and resolved myself to a continuous walk run routine. I continued my back and forth game with the other runners. I would over take them down the hill and they would get me on the ups. The last 6miles (of the first lap) include lots of mini ups and downs and cut through fields back towards the canal.

I reached mile 22.7 and halfway in 5hrs 15mins feeling really good. I was greeted by Sue Like and others with huge encouragement and efficient, effective support. My water bottles were filled and with words of encouragement ringing in my ears and a spring in my step i set off for lap 2 and the inevitable battle with Tor y Foel. I had put this to the back of my mind as i was enjoying the run so much from mile 16. I continued to enjoy myself passing other runners on the way who were incredibly generous with their encouragement and i would like to thank them all for that.
Tor y Foel this time round was HELL!!!!!!!!!!! And that is an understatement. I was not going to quit, i would never quit, but, i did not believe it was going to be possible to get to the top of this mountain. I was fading badly and knew this was the true test. I put to the back of my head the promise from my brother-in-law of doubling his donation if i came in under 12hours. I just needed to get up this bloody mountain. All i could think was “one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress”. About ¾’s of the way up i glanced back to see Jonathan Bacon, my room mate, and fellow Eastbourne man. Well i thought it was him and he was moving well. With him about 10mtrs behind me i heard “is that you Dan” which was met with a “helloooo there Jonathan” I have to thank him for this as my stubborn stupid nature meant i didn’t want to be passed. I found a little extra and pressed on up the mountain. That was the last time i would see Jonathan until the end. I hit the top and belted down the mountain praying my legs would not collapse. At the bottom i saw Martin Like for the fourth time today and was spurred on with a “Looking good” confirming that Martin was the biggest liar of the weekend J The Gap passed without event other than my wrag in the stream and me pressing on to enter the furthest point i had ever run.


My walk run strategy was pressing me on and i was reeling in other runners. My quartet shooting for 12hours i assumed were long gone but at the top of the gap i was proud as i had forced myself to run some of it. At this point it was dark and the final descents would be in the pitch black! Thank god for my brilliant head torch. You want to go quick in the dark you need one of these. The marshalls can testify to this as one very kindly got my head torch out of my bag and must have assumed my fingers were dead so turned on the torch, unfortunately straight into the eyes of the other marshall. After a brief joke they bid me well down the mountain side. I had already hit a point now of feeling great. I knew i would finish and the 12hour mark was back on my mind. So sprint down the hills i did and what do you know i passed the quarted i had been running with. They all said “we were wondering how long you would be” they bid me well and off i went. At the bottom i grabbed some water and continued on down the narrow path and onto the roads for the final push.
Occupying my mind with time calculations i figured i had a shot at 11hrs 30min and was ticking of the miles. I reeled in a couple more runners encouraging one along the way that he could get in under 11hrs 45min and then another who looked like he was about to head uphill rather than straight on to the canal. The canal then lasted forever with an overwhelming sense of emotion i knew i was going to finish and hopefully finish strong. I pressed on for the finish, being spurred on by a headlight behind me. When i approached what i thought was the finish i was pointed out towards the hall. At this point i wanted to push the lady in the canal. Apologies to this lady who was just being helpful and to be clear i did say “thankyou” (what i was thinking will not be shared). Running down the hill i saw Sam who ran with me for a few metres and directed me to the finish. It was a grassy stretch down and back up. My natural act of running through gates meant i nearly carried on through the gate. With a shout of “come back” i turned and sprinted for the finish. I was meant with cheers and the comment i have always longed for “you look like you could go again”.
It was so lovely to have the sense that Sue, Martin, the marshalls, and other competitors were as delighted to see me across the line as i imagine they were the first place finisher, Mark Palmer (6hr16.59, course record). My time of 11hrs 29min26secs was 30min34sec under my target time and i can honestly say i loved every single minute of it, even Tor y Foel.



In picking out my best moments it’s impossible to express the camaraderie of this race. Everyone was smiling throughout and keen to see each other succeed. Every achievement as good as the next from 6hr16.59 finish time to those making the determination to simply try. One of my fondest moments aside from sprinting down the rough descents was the friendships  made and seeing the quartet of Pete Horvath-Howard, Richard Gee, Julie Lewis and Terry Lewis all coming in under 12hours. Fantastic that we all managed it. It was as great to see Jonathan Bacon come home in 11hrs 36.30 a brilliant last 5miles Jonathan.
Thanks again to Sue and Martin for a brilliant event and all the marshalls. I will definitely look to be back next year.
Please everyone remember why i was doing this. It was part of a series of 5 runs and until 8weeks ago i had not even run a marathon. This is all to raise money for St Wilfrid’s Hospice a fantastic organisation who require more than £2950000 every year just to stay open. Please consider going to www.justgiving.com/danpark
Thanks for all your support. Finally i am now an Ultramarathon runner.