I entered this race around 9 months ago and talked a triathlete friend, Leighton, into it for his first venture into the world of ultra.
I spent the first few months panicking ‘this is too much; I’ll get lost; I have no idea how Im going to be able to do this’. The next few weeks were spent thinking about the mandatory kit list and buying ever more kit. A few other events had come around and with training for those (Likeys Beacons Ultra November 2015; Might Contain Nuts Round 4 December 2015) meant I forgot about SW50 for a while.
Around Christmas I was conscious of having to get back into training. The Vale Coastal Ultra – Run Walk Crawl kept me motivated and being in early April it was a closer objective to aim for. January – March saw me running around 45-50 miles per week which gave me a decent performance at the Vale and the confidence that my training was being rewarded.
The difficulty was finding a way to squeeze the extra training in around my 3hr daily commute and young family. The solution was 3 runs a day Monday – Friday and a long run on Sunday. This meant 4-5 miles each run so 12-15 miles a day M-F. Jumping up to triples was a huge shock to the system. The first week I took the Wednesday as a rest day and on the second week I managed to get to the Thursday before needing the rest day. From week 3 though I was up to the 3 times a day 5 days. Because they were short, most of these runs were fast (for me) at around 7-7:40 per mile, so I found myself getting quicker in the coming weeks despite upping the mileage again slightly. The last 8 weeks before the event I was up to 75-95 miles a week, usually with a hill repeat session during a lunchtime in the week. It was impossible to replicate the Brecon Beacons in Bristol City Centre but I did what I could.
I usually don’t taper very well and run far too much in the week of the race but this time I was on half–term child care duties so that wasn’t an option. I did however keep eating like I was running 90 miles a week so I did put a few pounds on that I had managed to lose over the last few months.
I sorted out my race pack and drop bag before heading off to pick Leighton up from Cardiff Central on Friday night. We went for Pizza and Pasta in Cardiff Bay with a cheeky beer which was more to reassure Leighton this wasn’t like a marathon and he should forget mm splits and times and just enjoy the experience and not stress about it. I got a decent night’s sleep but we were up 5:10am and after silently getting dressed and having breakfast whilst trying to wake up the whole house we crept out and were on our way.
We arrived early and calmly got through kit check, ate some more food and managed to pitch the tent for our Saturday night’s sleep. I envisaged a finish time of around 10pm at the latest which would get me a decent night’s sleep and get me home in time to celebrate my daughters 5th birthday – not quite how things panned out in the end!
I’m rubbish at nav and this was most definitely going to be important today. I made sure I had the GPX on my watch but also that I learnt how to use it properly. A last minute top up of the battery on my watch (good job I did) saw it freeze. A few minutes of blind panic where I was frantically trying to remember how to do a soft reset, which worked and the route was still loaded as well – TFFT!
We hoped on the bus and headed up the A470 into the Valleys passing Castell Coch. A very welcome sight that would be 15 hrs later! Leighton commented a few times ‘were not going up anything like that are we’.
Our plan was to run to CP2 (16.5 miles) together before deciding if we would continue to run together. I knew I had done a lot more training than Leighton and I wanted to put it to good use so I was pretty confident of pushing on at CP2.
The start of the race is a gentle trot from Storey Arms to the phone box before a right turn and a power hike up Pen y Fan. I put my head down and opened up a small gap over Leighton. I already felt a rub coming on my heel so I pulled over to sort it out and wait for him. When he caught me he sat down and asked if it was all going to be like this – a little wobble – I reassured him the best I could but I couldn’t exactly say the rest would be easy. I decided to ask how he would feel if I pushed on earlier than planned as just from that first 15 minutes I felt a top 5 position was possible but not if I lost too much time early on. Within minutes I had another gap on him and by the top of Pen y Fan I couldn’t see him behind me, time to go.
One guy shot off up Pen y Fan and I knew he would be way out of sight. When I stopped to sort out my heel another 10 or so people had gone past me. I continued on across to Corn du at a fairly quick pace and during the descent I just let it all go and was bouncing down the stoney path with some people moving to the side saying ‘someones flying through’. Going up the next climb I was now in 3rd with a group of lads who I did my best to drop by the top. It was here I thought I need to hang on to this, top 3 is doable.
I pulled level with Chris who had shot up Pen y Fan just before the descent down into CP1 at Talybont Resevoir. We ran together for 30 minutes or so and I found out that Chris works for Centurion Running so I picked his brain about my 1st 100 in October (autumn 100).
As we trotted over the bridge to the CP I spotted a familiar face in the chair. Mark Buxton, a brilliant runner and friend who I met in November at Likey’s where we ran the last 20 miles together. Mark was in the 100 but had spent all week feeling shitty but started anyway. To make it past the 60 mile mark feeling like that, over terrain like that was amazing. I saw Mark again the following morning and he certainly didn’t look like he had run over 60 miles – he still sounded pretty shitty though!
Chris dropped back on the climb up Tor Y Foel, a bastard of a hill which I have done a number of times in the rain, although to be fair its just as much of a bastard in the sun as well! As Chris said, a 5000m week in the Lakes before the race will have an effect on people. I was now firmly in second with no real prospect of catching or even closing the gap on the guy in front, but I wasn’t going to let second go!
Only 36 people started the 50 and only 1 was ahead of me, with only 5 people ahead of me on the 100. With 40 miles still to run it was clearly going to be a lonely day.
I can’t recall anything in particular about the stretch between CP’s 1-2 apart from Tor Y Foel and catching Emma on the 100. She went on to be 1st Woman home. I met Emma on the recce from Storey Arms to New Tredegar back in September last year. We exchanged a quick hello and I tried to reassure her she was looking good. Somewhere before CP2, I also caught a guy called Ryan who was also on the 100. We chatted for a while and had a walk across some gently inclines until we started a jog and Ryan let me go. This said he looked really strong and I knew he would finish.
CP2 came at what I made 18 miles and I grabbed something to eat. I picked up my food in my drop bag and a spare bottle of water as the next few stretches were over 9 miles each and it was very warm and humid. I had a bite of a hotdog which really didn’t go down well followed by 2 bowls of fruit cocktail and rice pudding – Rocket fuel as I know from a charity event back in February this year (7.5 hrs on a treadmill). The 2nd and 3rd place guys on the 100 were just finishing up at the CP and got out a few minutes ahead of me. My bag was a fair bit heavier now with all my food and all my Tailwind powder also. I got ¼ mile up the trail before I realised I had left the extra bottle of water behind. I didn’t think 1L would be enough for 9 hilly miles in those conditions and after a short deliberation, I went back to get it. As it turned out that small bottle of water saved me from a horrible day as I needed all 1.5L between every CP from there until the finish. I would likely have DNF’d if it wasn’t for that 69p bottle of water!
1.5-2 hrs later I trotted down through the ferns into New Tredegar which is where my familiarity with the route ended. I joked with Joe before the race that being 9 months ago the recce would be near useless but he was right, so much of it came back to me. It was from here that I worried a bit more about the nav as I wanted to make sure I kept second. I think I had a decent lead on 3rd by now but I didn’t want to get complacent and there was still 25 miles to go which at this rate could take another 7 hours!
At the train station in New Tredegar, which for some reason is called Tir-phil, you pass right next to the train station as you climb up back towards the trails. At that exact moment a train to Penarth was pulling in. It was very tempting to home on and go home, and I thought about trying to get a photo but I decided the conductors may laugh as they would have had no idea why.
After picking up the trail again, I climbed up through a never ending zig zag of wild blue bells.
I felt great on the not too severe inclines and whilst I was walking it was fairly quickly, my HR wasn’t really that high.
After running into CP3 to the sound of cowbells there is a tiny stretch along the river before you have to cross it but I just couldn’t see how. I went up and down the trail for 10 minutes and whilst there was a bridge set back from the path I didn’t realise it was a foot bridge. There was however what I thought was probably a sewer or gas pipe which had about a 1 foot diameter. For about 30 secs I thought about trying to balance my way across. Perhaps I was a little irrational already. I thought I should at least check if the bridge was doable first and surprise surprise it was.
Again things are really hazy in my memory around this point. I do recall a fairly steep road where I kept going and missed the turn off back onto the trail. That was a fairly common situation, but the nav on my watch never let me get more than 200m or so off route before I realised and was able to retrace my steps and correct it. I was still feeling fairly strong and I amazed myself that I was able to run some of the more gentle inclines and get a decent pace up on the flat and especially on the road sections.
CP4 came and went in a village hall type room. The marshalls were overjoyed that I wanted some of their rice pudding and so they speedily obliged as well as efficiently sorting out all my water and TW.
It was obvious that the light was definitely going to become a factor as it was 7:45pm when I left CP4 and still with around 16-17 miles to go. The terrain and the amount of walking was making things take much longer than I had envisaged and so I knew the watch was going to start buzzing ‘battery low’ not too much further on. I was regretting the last minute decision to not bring my external battery pack and watch charger. I decided the best thing to do was to put my all into it and run as much as I could and from now on, only walking the steeper and longer inclines. Sure enough around halfway between CP4 and 5 the watch buzzed for the first time. Why I didn’t turn off the HR sensor a few hours before I have no idea as I hadn’t looked at it more than a few times all day. I started to panic a little now. I had put my map and road book in my waist pack about 8 hours ago (not in a plastic protector) when I decided to stupidly just rely on the watch. I took them out to try to find where I was, which had they been eligible would have been fairly easy, I swore very loudly in the middle of nowhere in the dark. They were wrecked. All the ink had rubbed off pretty much everything. Now I did panic. How much longer would the watch last with the nav running? I couldn’t turn the nav off as I would get lost within minutes. I knew it would be around 2 hours before it died but I didn’t know how far I was from CP5 and being able to get another roadbook and map, or even when I got there if I was going to be able to. I was tempted to check my distance but what would that achieve apart from draining more battery. It would run out when it would run out there was nothing I could do about it except get as far as possible before it did and hope that CP5 had at least another map if not roadbook.
I was so relieved to arrive at CP5 but it was short lived when I realised they had neither a roadbook nor map to give me. I explained but left in a hurry and mentally in a pretty bad way which probably explains what happened next. Instead of going up and over Caerphilly Mountain to the right, not knowing the mountain (hill) nor having recced that part of the route I didn’t realise that I hadn’t gone over the mountain (hill). I noticed I was off the line and headed back to it. I came to a main road thinking ‘why do they call that a mountain’ when a woman in the distance shouted to me ‘are you alright’. I replied yes just thinking she was a local concerned about the physical and mental wellbeing of a weirdo with a headtorch on at 10pm on a Saturday night. But then she said ‘you’ve come back. I saw you leave 15 minutes ago’. SHIT CP5 again! I could blame the battery on the watch but that didn’t affect the map or route it was just me reading it wrong. I explained my predicament and checked if she has a map or roadbook – which of course she didn’t (although she did have the route on her phone but I looked quickly and there was no way I was going to find my way through that by memory). I had to go again. The watch was obviously still losing power and I had no idea what percentage it was on by now. I didn’t even know what percentage the alert first went off on.
Somehow, I think by just being very conscious of what happened last time, I got over the mountain (hill) and found the Compulsory Clip. At this point I was as stressed as I had been for the last few hours. I was so close but it could still go so wrong. I knew the Taff Trail was close and if I could get there I could find my way in and the watch could die whenever it, liked it wouldn’t matter. However I also knew that if it died before I got there I would have no choice but to sit down, keep warm and wait for the next person to find me and then head in with them to the finish. I was sure that was what would happen so 2nd was gone.
I am still bemused by how I was able to run as quickly (relatively) as I did over that few miles to the Taff Trail. I ran everything, some bits slower than others, but I ran; pure adrenaline I guess.
The watch died as a minute or so after I spotted Castell Coch. I had done it. I made it to the Taff Trail without having to be rescued! I was so relieved I continued to run pretty quickly all the way down the Taff Trail, under the bridge, along the river, through the diversion until I saw the event signage again.
I realised then though that I didn’t know if I was still second. In that 15 mins (not) on Caerphilly Mountain (hill) the guy in 3rd could have gone past me. I forgot to ask. I was fairly confident the pace I had run since meant that if they had, I would have caught them again, but I couldn’t be sure. I slowed my run across the Rugby pitch and for some reason checked the tent was still there. Ran through the taped finishing channel and caught everyone by surprise. I was still 2nd and they recorded my number and time. Joe put the medal round my neck and shown a bloody great head torch in my face and took this photo – which is awful and makes me look possessed!
A few minutes later I sat down upstairs and took this photo which is even worse.
I chatted with Michael, the winner of the 100 for 20 minutes or so, along with a beer each which Joe bought us and some food which was lovely but I really didn’t fancy it.
All that was left to do was get the caffeine out of my system, wait for Leighton and get a few hours sleep before getting home for my daughters birthday. Which it already was as I finished at 00:05. Ideally I wanted to be home before she woke up. I thought another pint of Guinness would tire me out, but it didn’t. Perhaps another would, no. In the end I stayed up until nearly 6am and had 5 pints of Guinness. It was only when I got a text from Leighton saying he had just left CP5 at 5:40am that I thought I need to sleep. I reckoned he still had another 2 hours at least to go, despite it being light again. There are only so many toasted marshmallows I could eat and despite lots of random chats with Joe, along with trying to keep the fire going, a bit of kip seemed sensible.
I was up by 7am and decided to get the tent packed up and everything else ready to go shortly after Leighton arrived. Mark came to collect his drop bags and he seemed more impressed by my 5 pints than my finishing 2nd.
Finishers were few and sporadic. 22 out of the 36 starters on the 50 in the end. 27 people started the 100 but only 6 finished. Leighton came in with another runner at 9am. Somehow after 22.5 hrs and this being his first ultra, he was in a good mood, relieved it was over but looking forward to autumn 100.
Whilst in a similar physical state to the rest of us, he was very conscious of the time and that I wanted to get home for Ffion’s birthday. So after a cup of tea, bacon roll and I’m sure a challenging but speedy change of clothes, we were off.
The only way to sum up this event and route is simply calling it what it is ‘BRUTAL’. My watch died but according to Chris Mills’ Strava feed, 56 miles and 11600 ft. I’m sure given the personality of most ultra-runners, the brutality of the event will only encourage a much larger field next year.
Ben (RD) joked about me doing the 100 next year and I confidently stated that I was on holiday in early June 2017, to which his response was ‘its 2 weeks later next year’. Mmm well in that case…
Thank you as always to all the volunteers, marshalls and Joe and Ben (RD’s). A brilliantly run 1st time event that is going to get better and bigger over the years.
What did I learn:
– Lots of training miles pay off (for me at least)
– Rice pudding is still awesome!
– Carry an external battery pack and watch charger (on long hilly ultras in the future)
– Learn how to navigate properly.
The rest of the day was lovely and whilst I wasn’t exactly able to run about with Ffion on her birthday, I did just about manage to stay awake!