The Black Mountains race: it's a fine brew of perfectly balanced ingredients. There's no need to talk it up, the flavours speak for themselves. A straightforward mix that packs punch.
This year 69 entrants form a motley, good natured assemblage of fellrunner 'chic' outside the Red Lion. Race organiser, John, stands on a wall to do the formalities and tells us that one of the checkpoints will not be manned today, and then laughs and says he's not going to say which one.
I enjoy the very tready sound of studded footfalls as we all set off down the lane. Right away the temptation is to charge away but this is most definitely a route where you must pace yourself, if you aren't going to pay dearly later on.
The initially steep sides of Pen Cerrig-calch give way to a gentler gradient before the summit plateau is reached. Paragliders wheel in stately circles above. There are clear views across to the Beacons to the west. I alternate between running and fast walking, making and losing the odd place, chatting with Dave who has done the race may times and is going for a sub-3 hour run today. He has even got splits and a schedule in mind.
Passing Pen Twyn Glas it's time for me to have the courage of my convictions as everybody ahead keeps going to the north and the instinct is to follow them. I bomb down over the tussocks and through the rushes, failing to recognise any of the landmarks i've 'memorised' on my last visit. Down a gully and onto the magic little grassy path through the heather where you can really open it up.
Fill my bottle (pre-loaded with electrolyte) at the Grwyne Fechan crossing with a view to having a gel and a good drink on the way up the 400m climb to Pen y Gadiar Fawr. The runners ahead have gone to the right. There are others further ahead but way off to the left. Again, it's time to trust the recces and head up the middle. Dave and I climb on up. It's a long steep pull. Towards the first of the false summits it becomes more energy efficient to lean forward and walk chimp-like on all fours.
I follow Dave now as he picks up speed down the shoulder into the next valley. "A lot of people tank it down here," he calls back, continuing our theme of taking it steady in the first half of the race . It's not feeling exactly slow to me, however!
Towards the bottom, I'm stepping down off a bouldery bit when my left calf locks up with cramp and I know that any hope of pushing hard from now on needs to be tempered. Considered running is going to be needed if I'm not to find myself tied up in painful knots miles away from the finish.
Fill up the bottle again at the stream, cross the road and head on up the bank on the other side, pulling hand-over-hand on the fence to make matters easier.
Now Dave steadily pulls away on the climb upto Chwarel y fan as he begins to put his foot down. Me, I get another gel down and have a good drink to try to stay fuelled up. Along the top I lose another place to a chirpy guy who keeps telling me he's no good at downhills.
Off Bal Mawr I know where I'm going and we follow the path down and around until I see my dead sapling marker. Then its fast as we can down through the bracken. The recces pay off properly here and I make up a good half dozen places by taking the best line.
The initial darkness of the short cut through the spruce plantation is like a blackout until eyes adjust.
Oozing another gel into my mouth as I shuffle up the forestry track and the long, long ascent to Crug mawr. Stop for a leak on the basis that it'll be one less thing to think about and promptly lose the places I made coming off of Bal-mawr!
The asent leaves the track and moves up underneath the spruce again. Huge Fly-Agaric mushrooms, red with white spots, line the path in places and lend a surreal atmosphere to the place.
It's getting a bit messy by now. The chirpy Welsh guy's overtaken me again and I'm cramping-up painfully. Tell myself that I just have to keep running through it. He's kind enough to hold the gate for me and then, losing ground every time I look up, I follow the others onto the top itself.
"Will this pleasure never end?" I ask the marshall when I get there - which gets a laugh.
Downhill all the way from here on in and as fast as possible given the state of my legs. Overtake one guy, but by now the others are diminishing figures way ahead. A loss of concentration and a misjudged footfall and the cramps seize me yet again. Give myself a good shouting at for losing the focus....
Down into the fields and woody paths that remind me of my local hill at Leckhampton. Along the road, living with the cramp now, head high and arms working hard. Over a stile - verrrry cautiously to avoid locking up - and then the last field and woody section before the malevolent final climb up to the finish. I run it all because I'm feeling boody-minded, but also because it would probably be just as bad to walk. Over the line with the sound of claps from the other runners who've already finished somehow in the background.
Sit down. Come round. Fall into conversation with the chirpy Welsh guy and a Chepstow Harrier called Steve who I'd been trading places with for most of the second half. We go fill up our bottles at the village tap over a trough of green murk.
3:08:something was the final time for me. Mike was around the 3:30 mark. Dave would have got under the three hours if he hadn't eaten - wait for this - "lentil and cabbage chilli soup" the night before and had to do a 'Paula' in the final stages.
Jamie - well the poor guy had picked up an injury and couldn't take part.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
There's a special feeling that comes with doing stuff you enjoy when by rights you should be at work. A special timeframe, therefore, and what better way to fill it than by putting a keen edge on my - ahem - 'navigational skills'.
The plan for the day was to drive to the problem points and suss them out rather than do the whole circuit of 17m or so.
Moving up to a cloudy Pen twyn Glas the air was still, condensed droplets balanced on each blade of grass. A raven sat on the gravestones over to the right and croaked at my to-ing and fro-ing. Indistinguishable clumps of rushes were memorised as landmarks to lead the way down to the trod that turns into a path...
Then back down the lovely valley, spotting some good overnight camp spots by the stream along the way.
Drove down tunnel-like roads clogging up with encroaching vegetation. Finches flew infront of the car, fluttering and then gliding along in streamlined dips. A farmer raised a hand and grinned teeth so widely spaced they could be flossed with bailer twine.
Pulling into the car park at Pont Cadwgan I was cut up by four mountain bikers who came flying out of the woods to the left. It was quite satisfying therefore to overtake two of them ten minutes later as they pedalled at slow speed and high cadence up the extraction track that leads to the route to Bal Mawr. Luckily I was able to sneak into the cut through the woods and start walking again.
The route that works for me off Bal Mawr leaves the main path and follows the smaller path/trod that descends around the side of the slope. Again, I memorised unidentifiable landmarks - a dead sapling, a tiny hawthorn and a splatter of horse shit - to lead me down through the bracken to the forest...
Heading back to the car I harvested some Sparassis crispa or Cauliflower Fungus.
I'd never eaten any before and it went down well having been dipped in egg and fried in butter. Mushroomy with a tripey texture...
So all I got to do now is enjoy the race next Saturday. They say 3:30 is a respectable time so I'll be aiming for that - can't wait.