Friday September 4th
I arrived in Talybont-on-Usk in the early afternoon having had an easy journey travelling from Nottingham. I grabbed the final carbo-loading meal at the M5 services en route for lunch. On the way in to find the campsite I passed the sign below which I knew was on the route to the bottom of the first climb. The Hill – probably a bit of a local joke, for I knew what was up there!
I assembled the tent and made final kit preparations, spoke to a few other competitors and after some lamb soup, and baked beans & sausages for tea, I got an early night. Others however ensured it wasn’t too early – some people arrived later in the evening, presumably having finished work only a few hours earlier.
Race Day – Saturday September 5th
The day began fairly early with some noise from nervous racers going about their morning routine. I was feeling pretty relaxed and completed the pre-race ritual in time for the briefing and move to race start. Breakfast was just a banana – I’d eat another on the go, and plenty more race food besides.
The process for the start, finish, and all checkpoints between was to dib your dibber (an electronic key) into the marker device (think electronic read/writer) and this recorded your time, storing for download at the end of the race to give your eventual time. This meant there was no massive rush to get across the line and to get started, which was pleasant!
I got started in the second group – the race director still recommended a bit of self seeding, as there would inevitably be a bit of a conga line through some of the narrower sections close to the beginning.
The early morning weather was not fantastic. The forecast was however for some good weather, so this start was a little disappointing – I hoped it would not continue. It was only light rain, and a little bit of wind, but enough to make you cold you’re not paying attention!
The cloud remained on the highest ground but cleared as we descended. The ground under foot was certainly wet and my Hoka One One Stinson ATRs were ok on the softer, flat bits, nicely absorbing the impacts. Where they struggled, however, was on any kind of wet descent, due to the minimal grip on the soft mud. I think they were on their last legs, and I resigned to not putting them back in my suitcase for the return to Sydney a couple of days later. I had a few hairy moments with them as I struck off-camber areas – but surprisingly only hit the dirt 3 times throughout the day!
The route took us across to Trig point 642 – a well known landmark for the locals and visitors alike. This was not an official peak of the Long Course, but was the second peak of the Short Course, with The Hill being the first.
The route then tracked along the ridgeline towards the popular peak of Corn Du, deviating off the ridge and descending to the first checkpoint at the side of the A470 just south of the Story Arms Outdoor Centre.
Having refilled the necessary water into the backpack bladder, and popped a couple of High 5 tablets into the bottles on the front of my vest, I pressed on, across the road and up towards the first official peak. My nutrition consisted of a few bananas, early on, The Clif Bars which I had used in training, and were available at these checkpoints, and PowerBar gels – apple, and blackcurrant flavours, both with added caffeine.
The weather didn’t change much as we travelled from checkpoint 1 through 2 and on to 3. The kms were being gradually eaten up, as were the required amount of nutrition. There was company at times, and the checkpoints were manned by helpful and smiley volunteers! I had a target of about 17 hours, which had me arriving at CP3 (39km) in about 6 hours – which was almost exactly the time I had taken.
I took in some of the chilli and rice on offer, but not so much that I needed a lie down afterwards to digest it. I refilled the hydration and pressed on leaving all of those who had arrived with me still getting themselves in order. I hoped to snap the elastic, so to speak, and make some good time up the next climb and reach the western-most tip of the route.
From the valley below CP3 I had a couple of options – either ascend early up the nose of the hill and proceed along the ridgeline for the 3 kms or so to the next peak, or hold the lower ground, which gradually climbed up the valley to the path we would eventually take back down the peak, when heading east again. I had followed another racer in front who was taking the latter option, and after a brief conversation we agreed this looked to be an ok approach. Rather annoyingly, however, it ended up being a gradual climb most of the way along, meaning that running it was just that little bit too demanding. Once ascending the steps to the ridgeline and checking in at peak 3, there followed the out and back to peak 4 (where the army were seen training) and where I also saw a few of those folk I had successfully left in CP3. 😦
So I turned and headed for home as quickly as possible, determined to chase down some of those ahead of me.
Fortunately the weather looked to be improving and the remaining low cloud had risen meaning patches of blue sky were appearing! The route to Fan Gyhirych and the preceeding Checkpoint 4 led me off tracks and travelling along a bearing to pick up the checkpoint at the road. Unfortunately I thought the checkpoint was on the first road we crossed, and it was not – there was another ramp up and down over a further 2 km to get there. I had run out of water on the approach to the first road so paused to refill a bottle from a stream at the base of the next climb, adding to it a puritab to kill any bacteria, and a High 5 tablet to make it taste in some way reasonable. This helped me get across the hill to CP4.
Clearly the rise up from CP4 was severe and there were about 9 others in the checkpoint preparing for the onslaught. This was a climb of 400m over about 1km. Over the course of the next few hours I successfully caught up all of those who I had seen in checkpoint 3. We hit the Roman Road and headed towards Fan Frynych. People on both the short and long tracks appeared to be heading up the hillside to the right of the Roman Road, and off to the next peak.
I had gone further down the Roman Road before I decided to also head up to the same high ground. In doing so I accidentally cut off the next peak – Fan Frynych, although I had got to within 30m of the same height, I missed the extra 2km return trip to the actual peak. I headed off on a bearing again to the Storey Arms thinking I was also tracking a familiar figure at a distance but also heading in the right direction. I thought this was one of the people I had been with on the Roman Road (but it later turned out not to be) so I therefore didn’t think to check that my navigation was correct!
The Storey Arms checkpoint was quickly got through. I filled water containers and obtained a hot dog from the food van (this was the checkpoint hot food option). The guy (Rob) in the familiar top, I now realised was not who I thought, and I decided to try and stay with him, and he was just leaving. This meant I leap-frogged one other, who was sitting in the cp. Rob and I ascended the track towards Corn Du with a steady effort, and took the path that traversed around it. (It was not on the Long Course track). We hit Pen y Fan in the lengthening shadows, and down, then back up to Cribyn.
A map check showed us that we again were required to go down then up the final climb of the day – Fan y Big. There were also paths which cut around this one! There was a marvellous set of steps down the side of Cribyn – hill repeats up them would be brutal.
From Fan y Big, Rob and I tracked around the long perimeter track as the darkness fell. We paused for our waterproof to protect us from the cooling wind as the sun was no longer providing sufficient warmth. All that remained was the peat bog and the descent to the finish. My feet, which I had coated with Lanolin in the morning were feeling sore – not from rubbing or blisters, but from the instability in the soles of the big Hoka soles. Rob decided to try to avoid the bog and given his experience I agreed (he was the brother in law of the organiser and had done the course a good number of times over the previous years). We headed north of the planned route, and held our height around the edge of the hillside but any path we might have been following disappeared and we ended up laboriously travelling over large grassy tufts (aka baby’s heads) and making pretty slow progress. Rob was very apologetic!
The track down to the finish was straight forward enough, except that it seemed much longer than it had been in the morning dawn. We took the turn off which cut us directly back to the finish across the reservoir dam wall. Rob paused with some family and I jogged in for a finish in 16:55:45. 87.2km (so missing the 2km I skipped!) I’m happy to say the 2km would have taken me 20 minutes, so with that my 18th / 92 would become 20th. (75 finishers).
I was very pleased with my days work. I would like to come back and see what I could have done, with some local knowledge under my belt. There were some particularly evil climbs, and some spectacular views, and some fun conversations, including the one with Rob, talking about his brother-in-law, who we agreed was a sadist, who had based the route of the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks on the route the SAS use for Endurance – the long endurance march that SAS selection culminates in – hence the same 24 hour time limit.
This is the track for the Strava activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/388166723
This is the track, with the beginning missing, but including more running and HR metrics, until my watch died: https://www.strava.com/activities/385911476