I have battled a lot with my head the last few months, after training so hard for the SVP100km, starting so well in the lead, only to lose the race through a single simple error. What do you do after an event like that? How do you get over it? How do you fix those demons telling you to quit? Of course, the ‘only’ way is to enter another race. I decided the route to squashing my demons was through a well-marked, lapped route, and one that I could get to recce before the race. The Likeys Brecon Beacons Ultra fitted the bill.
The route takes you over a very mixed route starting in Talybont-on-Usk, along the canal, then straight up Tor Y Foel, a splendid mountain at 550m, with stunning panoramic views from its summit. Then along the Brecons Way and Taff Trails towards the big mountain of Pen Y Fan. In contrast to the steepness of Tor Y Foel, the climb to the Gap (Blwch) of Pen Y Fan is gradual over 5-6 miles, with the last mile or so up the Gap pass on very rocky terrain. The 3 miles to drop down from the Gap is equally terrifying, for me anyway, with my fear of running downhill, huge slabs of shattered rocks, with lose smaller rocks ready to trip you up, followed by a very narrow gulley filled with lose rocks, water and leaves. The last 10k of the route is lovely, open fields, woods and rivers, followed by a slightly tortuous 2-mile section on the canal to finish. The 46-mile Brecons Ultra is run over two laps of this route.
I woke at 4am on race morning to get ready for my lift at 4.30am. Came down stairs and promptly tripped over a huge box of old books that Chris had left in the dining room! Cue much swearing and cursing, I had to sit with an ice pack on my shin to try and curb the massive black egg appearing whilst preparing my porridge. It was slightly ouchy I must admit!
Everything packed up, my lift arrived with fellow ultra nutter Jason Cuthbert from the Chippenham Harriers and a lovely chap James from Reading, doing his first ever ultra. After an easy journey, we parked up in the pitch black and made our way to registration. Very slick, sign the death waive form, collect a map, kit check and then time for silly photos before the race briefing.
We were told the weather was going to change and to be prepared for the worst on top of the Gap. My nerves were raging and I just wanted to get started. The start was on the canal, only 100m from the HQ, so I made sure I was close to the front to prevent having to get around other runners on the narrow path.
The first 3 miles, I kept my pace down and just trotted along preparing my head for the big climb in 3 miles’ time. The start of the climb up takes you through a wood on a slant, difficult running as the path is pretty non-existent amongst leaves and roots, and then into fields that start to gradually slope awards to the top of the Tor. My calves were screaming at me already which was a concern, but I tried to ignore them. The climb has several false summits which can be very draining and was especially so on the 2nd lap with the snow and wind. This first time though the sun was shining and although the terrain was icy, the views made up for any discomfort I was feeling. I was proud of myself for the way I managed to leg it down the 200m descent onto the Beacons Way, following a path above the Talybont Reservoir. My first major panic came when pulling my soft flask up towards my mouth the mouthpiece came off in my hand, causing an electrolyte fountain out of the lid all over my gloves and legs. Cue much swearing and panic about having cold hands. I kept trying to convince myself they will dry out; it will be OK. However, in the current freezing conditions they felt very cold. After composing myself with a few deep breaths and getting the mouthpiece back on, I trotted on towards the first checkpoint, shaking my hands out to keep them warm.
The first checkpoint was a very welcome sight, I didn’t need any water at this point so just shouted my number, smiled, thanked them and trotted on down a very steep, very muddy slope towards the Taff trail. Once onto the trail, the terrain was good. A few rocky, muddy sections, but it felt good to turn the legs a bit faster and I started to gain on a group ahead. I had a feeling a might be first lady, but wasn’t totally sure, so kept up a steady pressure up the gradient towards the big one. Stacey from Swansea Valley Harriers was a smiling face at the start of the road hill, such great support all the way around the course. Just before the start of the really tough section of trail up to the Gap, I found fellow clubmate and one of my sports therapists, Stuart Dinwoodie. He did say he might pop up to watch, and it was so fabulous to see a familiar face. A quick hug and the reassurance that I was first lady and off I went, full of anticipation, up the rocky Gap path. It was freezing and my hands were so cold, but the merino wool liners had dried out thank goodness, and I warmed up a bit with the continuous need for a bouncy, high cadence stride over the rocks. My new Hoka One One Challengers were perfect for the terrain. Training for races like this should include plenty of drills such as high knees, low hurdles, side-ways mobility and those that encourage landing and pushing off on your toes. I also advocate getting out on similar trail and building confidence on rocky terrain, especially descending, which can seem very daunting on tired legs in an ultra. The ability to pick your feet up at a high cadence up and down trail such as the Gap, should be incorporated into any trail running programme.
It was freezing at the top, not great visibility either which was a shame and then the reality of that descent hit me. Icy, shattered, sharp, spiky and very slippery rocks looked up at me. Time to dig deep and run! I was pretty pleased with my descent on this first lap. I’m renowned for my terrible descending, so have been working hard on it my training. What did make me chuckle half way down the Gap was a text flashing up on my watch from Next, telling me my parcel had arrived in store! I also had a text from one of our athletes and now good friend Sarah Dickinson, ‘You’re on fire Mrs!!’ which really spurred me on 🙂
Finally, at the bottom and chatting to a lovely chap doing his first ultra, we were greeted by a friendly marshal at CP2. Quick water refill and down into the gulley. I was dreading this section too. Such a narrow path, and filled with rocks covered in water and leaves. Very fast feet and keep moving I kept thinking, followed quickly by don’t think and just keep moving!
The next section is my favourite part of the course, a bit of road, which was actually nice to get the legs moving again at a descent clip followed by some lush fields and the Three Rivers Path back down towards the canal. I found this canal section really tough going on the first lap, as I knew after the CP3 we would have another 3 miles along it and then the big climb up the Tor again. First lap completed in 3:51. I’d hoped for slightly quicker but at the same time wanted to ensure I could get around the next lap.
I had to walk up pretty much all of Tor Y Foel on the 2nd lap, my legs were burning by the top and shaking on the grassy descent down again. It had started to snow and the wind was pretty strong on the top. Not hanging around up there. CP4 again was a massively welcome sight, a great spread of snacks available. I’m not a great eater in ultra races and tend to stick with what I know, but the cakes did look good! I decided to try out a sachet of Tailwind for this second loop. It seemed to help me to get food into me the whole way, something I often struggle with in the latter stages. The crew were great at helping me open packets and fill up my flasks, cold hands don’t help when trying to get these things done quickly. Always asking if I was OK, such a great group of people.
Onwards up the gradual climb towards Pen Y Fan, it was snowing pretty heavily and I had some great support from spectators waiting for their loved ones. Another much-needed hug with Stuart and more reassuring words of wisdom. I found out afterwards that Chris had missed me by only a few minutes. When questioned by Chris one of the supporters, who was taking the fabulous pictures I’ve included here, described me as ‘the really tall blond lady in the lead’. I keep smiling just thinking about it, as those who know me will know exactly how short I really am 🙂
The ascent and descent of the Gap loomed ahead of me. It was snowing hard when I saw Claire Prosser walking towards me, previous winner in a super-fast time last year and in 2014. She was so encouraging and it really helped to push me on up the hill.
Miraculously there were 2 marshals at the top of the Gap who asked me if I was OK! I quickly replied, yes, are you? It was so cold up there, windy and wet. I have no idea how they managed to stay up there for so long, but I really hope they have now thawed out. Now the descent, big time combatting my fear of descending. I was nearly in tears at this point as my head just wouldn’t let my legs move. I won the battle with the head demons by reminding myself I could do this, and had done so already today and in a recce two weeks ago and cracked on, very much slower than the first loop and coached along by a lovely Welsh chap who joined me after a few 100m.
It was huge relief when I then saw Chris and the kids playing in the last field on the Three Rivers path. I was overjoyed to see them, and them me. A quick hug with them all and time to push on for the last 3 miles. I got my head into gear and dug deep managing to clock some decently quick miles along the road section. The last 2 miles on the towpath were long. I was running a good pace and could see the two triathletes I had chatted with previously just ahead, but had lost count of how many bridges I’d run under and how many to go. The finish is at the Henderson Hall HQ with a cheeky little dog leg to get the mileage up around the field!
I cannot describe how happy I was to finish 1st lady with a top 15 position in 8 hours
10 minutes. The August demons have been banished and my mojo has returned, well
once my legs can actually move again!
My take home message from this last few months; if you are feeling down after a bad race or just struggling a bit with that drive to get out there and train, take a step back, rest, enjoy other parts of your life and then enter the perfect race to get you back out there and firing on all cylinders!