Having had a couple of weeks off from racing due to illness, I felt like I hadn't raced for ages. Luckily I still had one race remaining to finish off my first ever ultra marathon season - the Brecon Beacons 45 miler in Wales. This race, now in its fourth year, is organised by Martin and Sue Like from Likeys, a fantastic source for all of your ultra running needs. This was also a very special race as it would be my best friend, Dan Park's, first attempt at running an ultra marathon. He has been running to raise money for St Wilfrid's Hospice, and this was the last challenge in his series of runs.
We headed off for Wales on Friday evening expecting the worst (traffic-wise), yet fortuitously managed to get a clear run all the way through to Talybont-on-Usk. We even managed to get there in time to pick up our registration packs, saving us from an early start the following day.
We made our way over to the Dan Y Wenallt youth hostel and, following some slight navigational misgivings and geographical embarrassment, we finally found it nestled by the Talybont reservoir. Considering that we had a satnav it this stage of affairs, it wasn't a great indictment on my navigational skills... We met a couple of other runners, including our room mates Karl Zeiner and Jonathon Bacon, who were also looking forward to the following day's activities.
After a rather restless night's sleep (due to the incessant heat from the blocked off radiator in the room), we made our way over to the start by the Talybont canal. My original plan had been to run along with Dan, so I had packed a large amount of food to last me the day, along with the large amount of kit that we were required to carry. This meant that I had to use my OMM 15L rucksack rather than my much smaller and more comfortable Salamon Skin S-lab pack. However at the 11th hour we decided to run separately, with me chomping at the bit to see if I could keep up with Karl who seemed to have a similar pace to me, and Dan wanting to continue his streak of doing his challenges on his own. So, with a quick last minute effort to dump half of my bag's contents, I was ready to go.
We all made our way over to the start at the canal and, after a small amount of confusion regarding which direction the route was going, Dan and I split off to our respective starting areas. I managed to briefly catch up with Jo Kilkenny, another ultrarunner and blogger who I know from the Facebook ultrarunner community. Martin started proceedings and, with a big cheer at 7:30 am, we were off along the canal. The starting section was several miles along the narrow canal path, and I found myself settling into a comfortable pace of about 7.5 minutes a mile at the back of the front pack.
After crossing the canal, and following a quick scramble through some woodland, the path opened out to the bottom of the first challenging part of the course; the rise of Tor Y Foel. Gradually this roughly 1,200 foot climb became tougher and tougher, throwing up more and more false peaks so that you never knew when you had gotten to the top. I pushed on, attempting to walk as little as possible, opting instead for a (slightly) quicker shuffle. The fog was getting thicker as I got higher, until I could barely see 5 feet in front of me. Regardless, the route was easy to follow and marshals were on hand at the summit to point us back down the other side.
The next section was much more fun; a nice steep technical downhill, with lots of loose rocks to twist an ankle on. Downhills are my favourite sections, as I can throw myself down and feel like I'm flying. Or controlled falling, which would be a more accurate description. Down I went, avoiding braking (and breaking...) as much as possible to avoid trashing my quads. The downhill opened out onto a road with a light uphill gradient through the woods. This was a really pleasant section, plodding along in the early morning light through the trees. It was here that I caught up with Karl, who has having a quick break to recover from the previous hill. I said "hi" and took off feeling good for the next section.
The gradient of the road increased leading up to a main road, before turning off to head up the long stretch of the next main climb of The Gap and Tor Glas. The gradient of this ascent was much more forgiving, but it was a long climb. Midway, there was a rather fun dip, which Dan described as being like something from Mordor from Lord of the Rings. As I reached the peak of the main climb, the fog was making visibility difficult, so much so that the marshal almost missed me passing. His call of "it's all downhill from here" was gratefully received, and as it turns out was almost true!
The downhill made the previous few miles feel completely worth it, speeding down the hill to the next checkpoint. I was doing well with hydration, and didn't feel the need to stop for a refill. This let me sneakily slip by the three guys who had been just ahead of me since Tor Y Foel. The next section was a downhill run through a very narrow trail, with branches whipping at my legs and face. Great fun! As the path opened out, I was caught up by one of the three runners, Chris Baynham-Hughes, who I ran with for a while. We discussed running, and he was able to give me plenty of tips for fitting running in around families and children. He is planning on attempting the Bob Graham Round next year, and suggested I should join him. It's definitely on the bucket list, but I already have a whole heap of races planned for 2012 so we'll see what happens. Either way, hopefully we'll stay in touch. He decided to hang back to wait for his friends who were just behind us, so I pressed on.
The trail finally came back into civilisation, joining the canal west of Talybont. After almost running straight into the canal (I saw runners on the other side of the water and it never occured to me to use the bridge to get there...), I was on the final section of the first lap. The final 2 miles or so of the canal path seemed to stretch on forever, underneath identical looking bridges along the water, until we came to the identical looking bridge where we had started. Chris and his two friends (Martin Wilcock and Adair Broughton - the Anklebuggers) arrived into the checkpoint just before me in a time of about 3:20:47, which I was incredibly pleased with! I took a little extra time to refill on water, and was surprised by how little I had drunk. I was feeling good, although was definitely feeling quite fatigued. Once I was all set, I headed off for the second lap of the course.
The second lap was much the same as the first (well duh...), except that I was feeling it a lot more the second time around. This time I was unable to run Tor Y Foel as I had previously, and resorted to walking much of it. "It's worse the second time" as I pointed out to the amused looking marshals at the summit! I was also using a lot more water than I had previously, with the increased work that my body was doing finally catching up with me. My pace on the flats was also noticeably slower, but I was still feeling good. For the first half of the lap, I was to-ing and fro-ing with a group of runners, but eventually I saw less and less of the runners ahead of me. A sudden stitch hit me about 5 miles from the end which was not ideal, so I walked briefly to try and shake it before the final push. A final runner, Richard Brown, passed me checking that I was okay, and I reassured him that it was just a stitch. Checking behind me there was nobody else in view, and I decided not to push myself to try and catch the people ahead of me, so resorted to just enjoying the last few miles. Looking back, I wish that I had sucked it up a bit more and pushed for a better finish, but hindsight is a wonderful thing!
The final section along the canal once again felt longer than it should, but I at least knew some of the landmarks along the way to judge my distance. As I approached the end, I visualised the finish - arriving at the bridge to see the finishing line. I picked up the pace for the last half mile to ensure a strong finish through the line, only to find a small arrow where the line should have been. Bugger. Heading up the path, I followed the road back into Talybont and into Henderson Hall, where I could see the flags heralding the finish. I ran into the car park, elated at finishing the race! Only for Sue to point me away from the flags into a short stretch of roped off grassland, being instructed to run to the end and back again. Bugger x 2. I ran to the end, turned around, and kicked in for a final attempt at finishing the race. Was that it? Did I have to do a lap of the car park?! No, I was finished! Huzzah!
I finished in 13th position in 7:34:03, about 5 minutes behind Richard, and less than a minute ahead of Martin. The race was run in an utterly astounding time of 6:16:50 (a new record) by Marc Palmer, who has won the race for the last four years. Second was Daz Carter in 6:29:05, and third was Shaw Pye in 6:33:24. Chris managed to push ahead for an amazing finish, coming in fifth in 6:56:57. Sarah Kenworthy was the first lady in, coming in 15th with a fantastic time of 7:35:41. Karl came in soon afterwards in a time of 7:49:13, beating his target of 8 hours. Comparing the results with last year, it appears that there was an incredibly strong field running this year, with 5 runners coming in under 7 hours as opposed to only 2 last year.
I managed to blag a ride back to the youth hostel (thanks to Gary Davies) to grab a shower, then walked back to the finish (much further than I anticipated...) to cheer the rest of the runners on and wait for Dan to come in. It was great to cheer so many people through the line, and it was amazing how fresh and happy everybody looked. Although there was certainly a lot of colourful language used by people when they got to the final extra section before the real finish...
I was up by the road cheering people on and directing them towards the finish when Dan came past. He looked great, and I ran along with him to the final stretch. He headed off to the end of the grass section - and almost went straight through the gate at the end! After calling him back, he sprinted the final section and finished with a time of 11:29:26 - smashing his 12 hour target by over half an hour and finishing his challenge in style! Jonathon came in soon afterwards in 11:36:30 also under his target time.
I was aiming for sub-8 hours, so was also very happy with my time. However (watch out, here comes the self-deprecating part...) looking at my splits, I think that there is a lot that I can improve on. It took me almost an hour extra to run the second lap; perhaps I went out too strong in the first lap, or perhaps I just need to work on my endurance further. Either way, I had a fantastic time, and am really happy with how things went.
Huge thanks to Martin, Sue, and everybody that made the day run so smoothly. Particular thanks to the guys and gals manning the more remote sections for the whole day - they must have been more tired than I was afterwards! My one negative part of the whole weekend is that we left the pub too early and missed the quiz. Damn! Martin, Sue, and everybody else - I owe you all a drink, and will be back again next year to pay up!