Saturday 14th November
“I love Babybel”
I didn’t get to bed early on the Friday night and then I did the 130am feed with my youngest. It was 350am when my 5 month old son got me up again, but this was only 30 mins earlier than the alarm. Why am I getting up at this time on a day off to spend 9 hours in one of the remotest parts of Wales, on what could easily turn out to be the worst day of the year. Likey’s Beacons Ultra – my first ultra in 5 years.
During that time I never forgot why I loved ultra-running so much it was just more that life, especially kids came along. However, not experiencing it for so long I did question whether it was really worth the effort. Training had gone fairly well with no injury concerns and I’d recovered well from the Bristol to Bath marathon (dressed as Batman) three weeks earlier.
Getting up so early meant I left early and arrived early whilst the Likey’s team were still setting up the race HQ at Henderson Hall. I like being early, I didn’t register the night before so the last thing I wanted was to be all rushed and stressed and carry that into the race and set off too quickly.
Pack checked, re-checked, jacket on, jacket off, relook at the route, like there was any point, the signage was excellent and there was never any question of needing to even look at the map, but it passed the time. A quick chat with a few people who had run some of the previous 8 events and I was relieved to find out that most of the route was hard pack trial so the copious amounts of rain over the last week wasn’t going to create mud all over the route. As it would turn out water creating mud wasn’t to be the main obstacle of the day, water itself was, sheer volume. I overheard two people talking about using the race as preparation for The Spine and that they had done The Spine before. My next thought was quite simply ‘what am I doing here?’ I haven’t run an ultra for 5 years, I’m going to try to run 46 miles with over 8000ft of elevation and I’m here with seasoned, experienced people – this could go wrong, very wrong. Oh well too late, the short race briefing from Martin the RD and we were off on the short walk to the canal and the start. Jacket on, jacket off, a quick glance around and I spotted a few nutters in shorts and t-shirt but most people had on jacket, hat and gloves – jacket on. Just before the start I took the only photos I’d get to manage all day as the weather wasn’t going to let me get the phone out again. Countdown from 10 and we were off.
The first few miles were along the canal from Talybont-on-Usk, a nice gentle start to a long day. I was trying to hop around the puddles on the tow path trying not to get wet feet – if only I knew what lay ahead. I did know that the flat wasn’t going to last long and before we knew it a right turn into the field and up Tor y Foel. I settled into a good hiking pace in the light rain with my Garmin buzzing at me every now and again to indicate another 250ft of ascent. I wasn’t really pushing that much and I was catching a few people and no one was gaining on me. The winds picked up a lot when we neared the top and a few of us agreed that if the weather stayed like this for the day, we’d take that. We knew once over the top and on the decent we’d get some shelter. To my surprise, right at the top was a small tent with a couple cheering everyone through. I had to ask to double check that it wasn’t the checkpoint – what were they doing up there in those conditions! What support – surely they wouldn’t be there on lap 2?
My right heel had started to get a hot spot on the way up and I knew that I had to sort this out at the checkpoint. I love descending, letting gravity do most of the work. Don’t get me wrong I’m not very good at it and I hammer my quads in the process, but it is fun. Naturally on the decent my heel wasn’t rubbing so, being an idiot I decided just to shout out my number and run straight through the CP. I’ve read enough race reports to know that everyone regrets spending too long in CPs so I wasn’t going to make that mistake. However, I quickly realised that not stopping to sort out my feet could have been disastrous so I decided that I would stop at the next opportunity I got, although that turned out to be 4-5 miles later. Bearing left after the descent brought us out onto the first stretch of road. I’ve read race reports and knew what most had said about this bit. However, I was looking forward to it. I’ve done a decent amount of road running and so I was confident I was going to enjoy finding some rhythm and pace and gaining some time. WRONG! It was slow, monotonous and ever so slightly uphill. Not enough to make you run/walk but just enough to sap the energy from you. It just didn’t want to end and I tried to not keep checking the distance off against my watch.
A funny thing happened here, two guys were just in front of me most of the way along the road. One of them dropped a Babybel which bounced in front of me a few times (a bit like the advert) and landed at my feet. I scooped down and picked it up. I shouted ahead to the guys but they didn’t hear me. I’ll put a spurt on and catch them. A few seconds later, mmm maybe not. I’ll pocket it and wait until when (if) I catch them. I eventually got level with them 2 miles later and after a quick chat we concluded that neither of them had packed any Babybel that morning!
Still on tarmac but off that stretch of road we came across Martin from Likey’s in the middle of road cheering us through. It was pretty wet by now and water was running down off the hillside creating streams wherever it could. After rounding the corner I spied Martins pickup truck, the perfect place to sort my feet out. I hopped into the back and put the worst plasters in the world onto wet feet – needless to say they fell off instantly. 7 minutes wasted and I’d lost about 10 places as well – very annoying. We had a gentle downhill on the road now before starting the second climb and I decided to put a spurt on and ran probably my fastest 1.5 miles of the race taking back 4 or 5 places. Slowing down and waving to a few volunteers safely tucked up in their car as I turned the corner to start the second climb, I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret that burst of energy.
The second climb felt a much gentler slope than Tor y Foel but the terrain was jagged and uneven stone and rock. It felt like a good time to walk and others near me were doing the same. I took on some food but I had probably left it a bit late and I was struggling to find some energy on the flatter sections to run again. The incline was long and took us up beyond 2000ft. I don’t remember much about the descent on either lap, apart from having to make a choice between some very slippy grass and the massively uneven and rocky ground. I opted for the grass and after a few near misses I decided to give the rocks ago on lap 2.
Somewhere before re-joining the canal for the last few miles of lap 1, was a narrow gully, about a foot wide with high hedgerow on both sides. Water had been running down the hillside for the last few hours but the rain was steady and minimal meaning there was a small stream over the rocks on a number of sections. It wasn’t to stay that way much longer. Back onto the canal and a slow plod along to CP3 and halfway for a Tailwind top up and Nuun tablet. I have a Salomon 14+3 race vest with 1.5l bladder but have the option of front bottles as well. I faffed around at the CP with the bladder and lost another 10 mins and 6 or 7 places.
Lap 2 – I wasn’t feeling particularly good after the CP. I may not have run an ultra for 5 years but you never forget that there are times when you just want to pack it in, but, you also know from experience that this doesn’t last. Eat, focus on moving and just keep going. My heel was still giving me grief and after a chat with an Irish guy from Limerick and a short discussion where I found out he didn’t know the only other person I know from Limerick, he did offer up a compeed. My saviour! A quick immediate stop was called for where I tried to put a damp compeed, on a soaked foot and pull back over wet socks and sodden trainers. Needless to say it was a pointless task and I lost another 5 minutes and 4 or 5 places. The climb up Tor y Foel on lap 2 is where things took a turn for the worse. The rain got heavier and colder, the wind stronger and colder, both were slamming into the side of my face for what felt like hours. It was without doubt the most unpleasant running experience I have had to date. Over the top and into some shelter on the decent. I did notice the tent had gone but I can’t say I blame them as things were very hairy up there by then. I ran straight though the CP again trying to make up for lost time. The rainwater was now gushing down the hillside in torrents and the rocks were under several inches of ice cold runoff water. No point trying to hop around it anymore, so straight through the middle it was. The uneven ground I knew was underneath was almost impossible to see so it was a bit hit and miss with every foot step. The water had a surprise in store for the rest of the race though, it did wonders for my heel as it numbed my foot and I couldn’t feel the pain any more.
Back to the road where I pictured the incident with the Babybel, no point carrying it to the end. This was a new one on me but it was very edible and is something I’ll definitely be doing again at my next event. I was feeling good again now, all thanks to the Babybel I’m sure, and I made good progress to the second climb. Shortly after starting the climb I settled into a natural pace and got chatting to Mark, also from Cardiff, who I ended up running to the end with. We chatted our way through the next 15 or so miles of up and down and debated the difficulties of training and racing with a young family and his experiences of 100 milers – my main objective for 2016. We ran the flat and descents and joked about walking anything around 2% incline, but this wasn’t too far from the truth in reality. I got knocked off my feet crossing the small but now not insignificant stream which was more like a small river with its makeshift logs for a bridge which on lap 1 were 6” above the water but were now 6” under.
We took the rocky route down the descent and whilst there were no near misses, progress was slow and we were passed by a couple who flew down the higher route which we didn’t know was there. Into the gully section for the second time which was now 9” underwater. Our progress can only be described as odd and a kind of leaping movement from one foot to the next, however it worked and a small section which could easily have resulted in a turned ankle at this late stage was successfully behind us. Out of the woods and with only a short hop back to the canal I remembered that whilst on my own on lap 1 at this point I went down after slipping on the mud. I was saying to Mark ‘it was just over…’ when all of a sudden, bang, down I went again. Quite funny at the time.
Only some country lanes to go before the canal where we were overtaken by Dan, one of Marks friends completing his first ultra. He looked fresh so after a 2 minute chat he was away and not to be seen again until the end. Back onto the canal and we realised that we would just about make it back to race HQ without having to get the head torches out. We were very appreciative of making it through the more technical stuff in the daylight and wondered about the effects the darkness would have on those behind us when they came to those sections. Despite being flat and easy by comparison, I just wanted it to be over now. We knew we weren’t going to catch Dan and that our positions were safe so we adopted a 3 minute run, 1 minute walk approach until the end. I was merely making grunting noises to signify each time check. I stole a slice of malt loaf from Mark for the final push just as my Tailwind ran out and we agreed to cross the line together.
The lights from race HQ were a welcome sight and the rain had even stopped. I laboured up the footpath off the canal turned the corner into the car park only to find out we had to run on the wet grass around the markers so we could come back to the line for a photo.
Relief was the word of the moment, for me anyway. My Garmin recorded it as 47 miles, 8658ft and 9:31:31. Joint 27th out of 151 starters, but as I found out a few days later the conditions took their toll as only 106 made it to the end.
The atmosphere in the hall was brilliant. Soup, cup after cup of sugary team, jammie dodgers and plenty of banter stopped me getting changed straight away, but eventually I changed and got warm again and felt good, even if I was walking a bit funnily. The men’s winner Barden Davis managed to run an incredible 6:55:38, quite how in those conditions is beyond me and the first woman Clare Prosser 3rd overall, was only 80 seconds behind, with Mark Palmer only seconds ahead. What a finish that would have been to watch. I made it back for a race presentation for the first time ever and Mark Palmer summed things up perfectly. I forget his actual words but he basically said ‘a huge thank you to the Likey’s team, volunteers and marshals and massive respect to those still out there, they are the true heros’. As I was leaving I heard the Likey’s team continually phoning around different checkpoints checking in on all the runners still out on the course, ensuring they knew where everyone was and that they could account for everyone. It would have been a long night so I know they would have enjoyed some well-earned drinks and banter in the pub afterwards and another Welsh win at the pub quiz I hope!
I had an entirely uneventful journey home where the highlight was a McDonalds with strawberry milkshake which is fast becoming my recovery meal of choice. Home, shower, collapse on sofa – job done!
Summary – Given it was my first ultra in 5 years and not a particularly short one at that; given the hills, I expected hills in the Brecon Beacons but I didn’t expect nearly 9000ft; given the conditions and given my blister coming on half way up the first climb that I couldn’t do anything about all day – I’m well chuffed. I can’t say it was fun at the time, but in hindsight the conditions made it even more of a challenge and therefore more satisfying in the end. However, I’d like a thin layer of standing snow and sunshine for Might Contain Nuts on 5th December please!
What did I learn?
– don’t wear new insoles for the first time in an ultra (not exactly ground breaking I know)
– Ice cold water does wonders for painful feet
– Use front loading bottles in races and the bladder in training
– I need a new waterproof with a hood (sorted that one already)
– I love running ultras!
– Babybel is brilliant
Thanks for reading. This was my first race report, and hopefully not my last.