2012 didn't quite go to plan. I had a race number and accommodation sorted, but at the 11th hour my little boy developed croup. Sadly therefore I was a DNS for the 2012 event. The running community were great and I knew there would always be another race. Today was that race.
In 2013 I was more keen than ever to get a place and have the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. When it was announced the race entry would go live earlier in the year I was at the computer and debit card at the ready. The clock ticked over to midnight and I signed up. This race usually sells out within 24hrs and so for peace of mind I wanted to enter as soon as possible.
With confirmation I was in the little flame of excitement started burning, but thoughts towards the race were put on hold whilst I focused on Centurion Running's "Downs Double."
Training went great up to and through August and I was thinking that a fast time would be possible. Sadly since August I have had problems with ingrown toenails. One has now healed but the other was sore and proving problematic. It made my training difficult over September and October. I was having to review my expectations for the race. I was now focused on enjoying the day and the time would not be something I would concern myself with until I was across the line.
This was the 6th running of the race and you may wonder why people would run the same race 6 times over. I firmly believe that in this case asking this question immediately identifies those who have not run the race. The truth of the matter is this, it is a race that has something for everyone. There is a reasonable amount of flat ground, sharp harsh inclines, steady arduous inclines and some wicked descents. The descents at times are precarious underfoot, but great fun!
With approximately 6 miles of the race being flat that leaves 40miles with elevation gain of around 6000ft. My ambit readout shows how the incline looks on a graph and it can only be likened to an ECG of someone having a heart attack. The one thing that does not change during this race is the beauty that you are surrounded by. It is simply astounding! The atmosphere of the race is embodied by the life of the Beacons. Run this race and you will not help but feel part of something so much bigger than yourself. I love this race because it is beautiful, fun, but above all liberating.
Beautiful sunset along the route
I had left booking accommodation to the last minute, but I knew that a premiere inn nearby was a safe bet. I booked a room and set off to Talybont-on-usk. I had an opportunity to visit the new Likeys shop. It's an amazing store and every ultra runners dream shop. After a chat with some runners I browsed and picked up a pair of XBionix Fennec Shorts. Yes their expensive but I find XBionic the most comfortable items I've ever worn. I was feeling the anticipation building and after a chat with Simon Robinson (xbionic rep) and another runner who has previously run GUCR I was ready to depart. I got to my room and set about prepping everything for the day ahead. It was a little strange being on my own as normally the events I've been at I have been there with Sam Robson. I pre-packed all my food into single doses and placed them in my pack. I figured that it would be easier on the day just to reach for a pack knowing that it would have a good amount of calories and that i would have enough for the race. After packing my bag and a little pre-race taping of my feet i was good to go. Off with the lights and the next thing i knew it was 5am and i was up and drinking coffee.
I arrived at the Village hall in Talybont-On-Usk for about 6:30am. The place was buzzing, full of excited runners. Some of these runners were running the race for the 6th time and others their first. The reason i love this race is the complete sense of collaboration between the runners. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. Before the race i spent time talking with a few runners who i have the pleasure of knowing through twitter. In conversation with Tim Lambert it was clear that we both had a real sense of excitement for the race. My training had not gone to plan as i had been struggling to get my feet to heal after the North Downs Way 100. Tim was using this race to "get back on the horse" having DNF'd at NDW100. Martin Like gave his pre-race speech and at about 7:30am we headed over to the canal and the start. I lined up with Tim Lambert and Richard Fish. We set out at a steady pace all happy just to see how we got on and not burn ourselves out too quickly. I was aiming to try and beat my pb of 11hours 29minutes. Most of all i was intent on enjoying the day and the stunning surroundings.
As we ran along the canal we passed Kevin Maddern. This was Kevin's third crack at the race and sadly he already looked in a lot of pain. This was not to be his day and a third DNF occurred. Kevin knew he was injured and his guts to toe the line demonstrated everything i love about this sport. Kevin will be back to conquer this beast.
This race really has everything you could want in a race. The flat stretches are runnable and the climbs are tough and the descents technical in places and lightning quick in others. Coming off the canal the first climb starts. The route kicks up a ridge and over a stile. There is a brief pause as runners straddle the stile and make their way toward Tor y Foel. From this point there is not really any more delays with other runners as the racers begin to spread out. As i climbed the stile i knew that this was where my race would begin.
Tim Lambert disappeared off into the distance and somthing told me that he was in for a good race. I set about moving on with my own game plan. The weather was very pleasant and not at all cold compared to the previous few days. Moving up towards Tor y Foel i was conscious to make sure that i had energy to power up the hill. Despite a lack of training i was feeling strong and taking it steady appeared to still be quicker than i was when i last set out upon this race in 2011. I was nervous as I knew how gruelling the climb would be. I got my head down and with my hands on my thighs I powered up the hill. It didn't seem to last as long as previously. This could be due to the fact that I knew the course would reward with a lovely downhill and I was prepared for the false summits. I reached the top and was chuffed that no one had over taken me. Climbs are not my strong point so it becomes about hanging on. At this point I was more than hanging on.
Summit of Tor y Foel
With my head literally in the clouds I felt a real surge of life. The magic of the beacons can just take your breath away. Just like 2011 I felt like I was running through middle earth and once again (like a child) I imagined myself being chased by Uruk hai. Having crested Tor y foel the fun began. A lovely steep downhill. The way I see it there are two ways to approach the downhills. You can be cautious and fight gravity or let gravity do the work and just worry about foot placement. For me sprinting down the hills is pure euphoria. The surge of enjoyment I can only liken to a 5 year old running down the stairs on Christmas morning. I was in the moment and I was having a blast. I felt like I was floating about 2 inches over the rocks. I passed several runners who were tentatively coming down the descent. I heard one of them say "look out someone's on a mission." Looking back perhaps I was, but at the moment I was just grinning from ear to ear. In my head I blocked out the fact I would need to climb Tor y foel again and just thought about how much fun I would get coming down the hill.
Once you finish the descent there is a slow steady climb up and through the forest. In any other race this bit would be monotonous, but when when you look to your right and see the lakes and the hills it is such a joy. The lake was reflecting the image of the world back at itself. With a view like this available I am always saddened at the thought of people who would rather just watch the tv. I was out running and I wasn't worried about the time and I felt alive.
Running through the first water stop I knew I had plenty left so I pushed straight through as I knew there was another loose rubble descent. Running down and through the water I knew I was making good time. As I opened out onto the forest road I knew the next test was ascending the gap. Remembering 2011 I quickly resolved that I would walk/jog all the way to the top, rather than death march it. I quickly arrived at the start of the Gap road and was met by a stream of army guys who were running down the hill. Now don't get me wrong they were in full kit, but elite they clearly were not. In my head the tune "who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler" (apologies if this Dads Army reference is lost on you) popped up. The army lads all looked in a bad way, although the commanding officers appeared to be having a good time. As I started to implement my walk/jog strategy I was sharing the path with the army. There appeared to be a sense that we were an inconvenience to their training. A few looks given as they would go into single file and share the road. The only blight on the day was what happened next. I broke into a jog and two members of the army decided they would not take up single file. I moved out the way as much as I could, without sliding down 30ft. This wasn't far enough though as my arm was whacked by the butt of the rifle. It bloody hurt and no apology either. Now sorry it must just be me, but my mum always taught me if you hit someone with a gun you apologise. Karma appeared to take control though as I glanced behind and saw the same soldier sprawled on the floor having caught his foot on a rock. In fairness maybe he was so out of it he didn't realise he had hit me with the gun. I decided to choose this option rather than the thought he was a Pratt.
Heading up the gap I was re-energised by how well my walk/jog strategy appeared to be working. Again I managed to pass a few runners and this year noone with walking poles passed me. At the top of the gap there is a short loose rubble descent (sooo much fun) and I sprinted down this without issue other than a stubbed toe. A few choice words and I felt better. This would normally not have been an issue but I now know an ingrown nail was digging into the flesh from the other side. A short steady incline leads to the penultimate descent. If you watch your foot placement this is an opportunity to go all out. So at an average of 6min per mile I embraced the descent. From here there is some woodland to run through that descends to a checkpoint. From here there is about 6miles to go to complete the loop.
I topped up my bottles and set off. My body so far was responding really well to a diet of cashew nuts and chocolate pretzels. I felt full of energy and things were shaping up for a good race a brief thought of the second climb up Tor y foel was firmly slapped from my mind.
The opening to the last 6miles is down a really narrow path way. It's made up of loose rubble, pot holes and sudden 1ft drops. The result is that a lot of people walk it. I got stuck behind three runners and decided just to take it slow and pass on the wider section.
The final section involved an undulating road and running through some fields. Already I was craving to get back up into the summit of the beacons. Before I knew it I was approaching the canal path. I passed Simon Robinson and his giant XBionic flag, crossed the bridge and joined the canal path. I was on what would later be the home stretch. A flat couple of miles along the pathway felt really tranquil and for a moment I could have been out on a relaxing training run. The varied experiences of this one loop of 23 ish miles still fathoms me and is something everyone should experience at least once.
I pulled into the final checkpoint and completed my first loop in 4 hrs 44min. Delighted with the time the race now changed for me as there was a very serious chance of beating my time from 2011. A lot can happen over 23 miles of varied terrain especially having already run it once.
As I plodded off along the canal the reality of my year dawned on me. This year I have completed two 100 milers, set a 1/2 marathon PB and a PB for the beachy head marathon and now I was on course for PB for this race . All in all this wasn't a bad year for me. My mentality has shifted a lot this year and my confidence has grown. I have trained better and more consistently this year, but still not with the regularity and purpose I would like. The way my brain works I was already wondering with a year of good training what I could achieve at this race in 2014. Still competing against myself. I am under no illusion that I am anything other than a mid pack runner.
My focus was brought back into the here and now when I soon realised my second assault on Tor y foel had started. This time there was nothing beautiful about the climb. I felt like there was cement in the ground and I was having to pull my feet out of it every time I moved. I paused a few times, never doubting I would get to the top. In these short moments I enjoyed the views. Eventually I got to the top. I paused and took in the sights. I felt like I had earnt it more this time. It seems apt that if you want to enjoy such beauty then you must make the effort and endure the pain. I was pleased that I hadn't lost any pace coming down the descents. I'm always appreciative of my twitter family and at this point I remembered Graham Carter's very kind comment of likening me to a gazelle. It made me smile as the truth of the matter is I probably looked more like a grizzly bear falling down the hill. Maybe next year I can be a gazelle :) I should take this opportunity to apologise to the couple of ladies who I made jump with the pounding of my feet as I plummeted down behind them.
Second time up Tor y Foel
The views remained spectacular on the second loop. What is really striking is that although the race is on a loop the changing light dramatically alters the view and in turn the atmosphere of the race. Climbing the gap for the second time the light was beginning to fade. Suddenly the environment felt almost sinister. I felt this urge that I had to get off the Gap before I needed to put my head torch on. I knew I would beat my time of 2011 and now it was a case of by how much. In 2011 I had to put my head torch on at the top of the Gap. Getting there and not needing to get it out felt great.
It was only during the descent that I realised I had made my first mistake. I had not eaten for a little while. I had run out of food in my side pockets and not bothered to stop to retrieve any from the main compartment. I was feeling a little wobbly and so at the start of the main descent I stopped and retrieved the food from my pack. Two runners came past me and one asked if I was ok. The ultra running community is amazing and I know if I had said no he would have stopped and helped me down the hill. Thankfully my experience meant I knew I just need to eat. I shoved some Christmas cake in my gob and BOOM! I felt almost instantly better. It was as if not only only my energy came back, but my vision improved. I hurtled down the descent with 39miles in my legs at 6min mile pace. I felt a bit of a fraud as I passed the guy who had been kind enough to ensure I was ok. I decided against shouting "feeling better now" and figured at least by passing him I had reassured him I hadn't passed out on the Gap.
At what was now the final checkpoint I decided to turn on my head torch and have some fun. Heading off down the narrow descent this time I asked a couple of runners if they minded if I came by and I was off. Some where in this moment I decided 10hrs 30min was achievable. I chucked myself down the descent and in that moment everything seemed to be coming together. It was only when I reached the road it dawned on me that one wrong foot placement and I would probably have broken an ankle. I guess that's why the others were walking. Equally at no time did I feel in danger of slipping.
On the final stretch I had a good run walk rhythm in place. When I hit the canal I knew I was on for a good time. I didn't want to finish the race with any regrets and so when I hit the canal path I resolved that I would walk for no more than a total of 30 seconds for the rest of the race. The finish line was in reach and my pace was good. I passed a few runners in the final stretch. I had more in the tank so decided to go for it and with just under a mile to go I upped the pace. Turning off the canal I broke into a sprint and headed down the 10metre stretch of grass to turn back up to the finish. I stopped my watch in 10hrs 24min. I had beaten my previous time by 65 minutes.
After the race I felt really good. I chatted to some runners and had a cup of tea. I was privileged to see a few runners finish their journeys and delighted to hear Tim Lambert had finished and in around 9hrs 30min. Hopefully he feels he has exercised his demons from NDW100. During a chat with Simon Robinson he pointed out to me that the course record had been broken and was now 5hrs 58min. I am in utter awe that such a time is humanly possible. I can't wait to see how hard Darryl Carter pushes next year in an effort to regain the course record.
I love this race and left the Brecons feeling motivated and inspired. I am not remotely religious, but driving home I realised this race made me feel part of something bigger. Standing on top of the Gap I realised if the only purpose of life is to "take in the view" then that is purpose enough. Let's just make them the best views possible. It's not hard to see why people return to this race year after year, or why Sue and Martin have such a passion for the event. I can't find any criticism of the event and will definitely be signing up for 2014. Who knows maybe I can go 65 minutes quicker than this year :)