Monday, 23 August 2010

Brecon Beacons fell race

The mangled pile of aluminium should not have been there. The memorial, adorned with poppies, should not have been there. The big cliff up above on the left that kept appearing and then dissapearing into the cloud and wind-driven rain should not have been there. More importantly, the four of us should most definitely not have been there either.

It was the second time that day that I had been 'temporarily misplaced,' as my book on mountain navigation likes to put it. The earlier time had been when, preoccupied by the atrocious weather conditions and concerns about the race, I had looked with a horrible sinking feeling past manicly flapping windscreen wipers at a big green sign that said, 'Newport'.

I'd made it to the start just in time to see a body of runners heading off at speed. Resigned to a solitary run around the first half of the course, I got changed and trotted up to the start where a car full of marshals was just leaving...

The race organiser jumps out:

"Late entry? Name? Sign there. They've just gone. You look like you should be able to catch them," he grins.
"Have you got a map?"
"Yeah, got a map. Did it last year."
"I remember him, give him number 12," a woman's voice from the back seat. He writes 12 on the back of my hand.
"We had a retiral. Someone didn't pass the kit check."
"Have you got full kit?"
"Full kit, yeah," I say.

He points me at a clag-covered lump of landscape and I'm off, running along the top of the Taynont Dam! I'm in the race! No warm up! No nothing!

Buzzing from the reprieve, I push my way up through the soaking head high bracken and brambles and into the field above. A direct line up the edge of the wood and a hop over a fence and I'm on the lower slopes of Tor y Foel with the back markers in sight.

The race route itself covers 19 miles and 4000+ ft ascent. Organised by the Mynydd-du, the circular course takes in the Beacons themselves but also a number of other, less populated hills along the way. It's run in opposite directions year on year. This year was clockwise, and conditions couldn't have been more different from twelve months ago when Mike Wood and I had staggered across tinder peat bogs and burned up in the heat. This year everything was saturated due to the prolonged heavy rain.

... overtake a distinctive-looking runner with an improvised splash guard over his specs, made from a visor from a motor racing helmet...

... overtake a couple more on the monotonous track before the heavens properly open and the rain stair rods down...

...short cut a direct line on a bearing over the tussock and bog of Bryniau Gleision, and make places on others who have been more energy efficient and followed the track...

Self doubt creeps in for the first time as I run alone in the heavy rain and cloud on the featureless moor. It's reasurring to see footprints left by the runners ahead. At the second checkpoint, the trig on Pant y Creigiau, a woman's voice from beneath a drawn-in hood cheerfully says, "Number 12" - I take my hat off to her - literally - for it is a very bad day indeed to be marshalling.

The rain somehow manages to come down even harder as I descend to the road. Without meaning to, I reel in the guy ahead on the forest trail that follows by concentrating on a low gear steady pace. Away over on the hillside to the left, sodden clouds congeal in patches over the conifer plantations.

The roaring peaty brown water beneath the footbridge over the Upper Neuadd reservoir overflow is exhillarating.

The path up the steep hillside to the beginning of the Beacons horseshoe has become a stream. It's a hard climb back up into the cloud.

The grey cairn on the summit of Corn Du develops a blob. The blob waves an arm, and I run up to another inexplicably cheerful marshal. It's the same on Pen y Fan, except that this marshal has brought his dog and is handing out waterlogged bits of banana. The rain stops for a short moment on the climb up to Cribyn and I manage to get the camera out of the plastic bag and take a snap.

So I'm running along with a friendly guy from the Rhonda Valley. He's a keen climber and we're getting on well as we make our way along the Bwlch y Ddwyallt. We find the path off to Waun Rydd and are joined by two other runners who have doubled back - one of whom looks pretty cold in his vest.

I've been here before, albeit in good weather and going in the opposite direction. But I know it's featureless. So I get out the compass and set it to the pre-measured bearing of 117 (i'd done me homework). I sight along it, feel confident, and then follow a path that goes in a different direction. The path becomes a trod and then peters out. And then a pile of mangled aluminium comes into view...

Like sheep, we press on...

Try as I might, I can't make the features that I'm seeing relate to where I know we should be on the map. Luckilly, one of our number has a brain and locates us half a kilometre to the south of where I'm looking - wait for it - beneath a crag and, lo and behold, near a memorial...

Meantime, one guy has already headed off down into the wrong valley. The rest of us head back to the end of the crag and climb back up to the top. Aiming off a little bit, we follow a bearing to a little tarn and pick up the path proper. Drama over.

The rest of the run is nearly all down hill and I start to overtake the same people again! I enjoy the last stages of the race and happily chug over the line with what feels like plently left in the tank.

A great race. I'm sure that it would attract a field of several hundred if held in the Lakes, Peak or Snowdonia. As it was, on this day, there were only 45 of us.

A special thank you is due to the Marshals, who must have really put up with some grim conditions so that we could enjoy our race.


  1. Sounds a right good run, Matt - tempted to give it a go next year

  2. There's the Black Mountains race coming up soon if you can't wait til next year. Never done it myself but it's supposed to to be well worthwhile. Championship race this year... Shame I can't due it due to family committments :(

  3. Great report Matt. Like 4winds I too like the look of this race.

  4. God bless all clag bound and rained on marshals.