There was a time when I was an ultra virgin, and it really wasn’t all that long ago. Back in April 2014 I had just completed my third marathon, having done one each year since 2012. But I was disappointed with my time and decided to book another one soon after. So in May I ran the Milton Keynes Marathon and clocked an even slower time! But doing that, made me realise that I didn’t need to stick to one marathon a year. I could run two, three, maybe even four in a year if I wanted to.
Then, my new running buddy Richard, suggested we do a race called the Longman Ultra in September 2014. A 33 mile event along the South Downs Way. I told him to go away but I used slightly more colourful language to get my point across. He, and a few of my other club mates, had already booked up to run a 46 mile race in Wales called the Brecon Beacons Ultra in November. A few weeks passed and my attitude softened. I eventually agreed to run the Longman Ultra.
The race was a bit of a baptism of fire. It was a hot day. I had nothing left in the final 10 miles, I had gastric issues and threw up at the end! But I loved it and when a place became available on the trip to Wales for the Beacons Ultra, I decided to go for it. After all, I was no longer an ultra virgin. I had run 33 miles and survived. Another half marathon after that should be fine, surely! I mean how big are the hills in Wales anyway?
Wales in November
November arrived and I had what I would describe as a very acceptable run at the Brecon Beacons Ultra 2014. I felt strong most of the way round, apart from painful feet caused by my rubbish Fellraiser trail shoes. I finished in 9 hours and 25 minutes in 49th place. The weather had been superb and we’d had a real blast of a lads weekend away. We vowed to do it again. The high coming off that run fuelled my love of ultra running for months, but it took 3 years for me to organise another trip to Wales for the revamped Force 12 Beacons Ultra.
Richard and I had initially planned to camp but given the cold and the wind and the rain, we were handed the last minute lifeline of a B&B about 12 miles from Tal-y-Bont on Usk and race HQ. Hilariously, when we arrived, the heating wasn’t on in our room and it was almost as cold as if we’d been in a tent. Still, we managed to turn the radiator on, then went to the restaurant, stuffed our faces with chips and got our heads down by 10pm.
Beacons Ultra 2017
Race start was 7:30am, at Henderson Hall, as it had been 3 years earlier. Since then Martin and Sue Like, who run the Likeys shop in Brecon, have handed over the running of the event to Jonny Davies and the crew from Force 12 Events. Essentially the race remains the same. Two laps of 23 miles each. The course is identical to 2014 save for the bits that occur around HQ, namely the start, middle and finish. But it’s basically the same. The forecast had been for quite heavy rain early on, but as it was we lined up on a cool, overcast day with just a hint of rain in the air.
There were one or two people we knew on the start line. Clare Prosser, who actually won the event overall in 2014. Helen Etherington who we see everywhere these days and who can finish running 100 miles and still manage to look like she’s about to go out on the town on a Friday night. Also, Richard Hurdle who has run everything under the sun, including Arc of Attrition, UTMB and the Transvulcania Ultra in La Palma.
We began on the sports field next to the canal, ran around the field and up on to the canal bank. The first 6km is flat along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. It’s tempting, as always, to go off too fast, either accidentally or deliberately, in order to get some miles in the bank. This is almost always a mistake. Obviously, it’s all relative. It depends what you are capable of. But, whatever your pace, I am a fan of even splits as far as is possible. In a hilly ultra it’s simply not going to be possible to hit every mile or kilometre the same. But it might be possible to do each quarter at the same pace or both halves.
Richard disappeared along the canal and was out of sight after 2 or 3 kilometres. I was careful to keep my pace steady. Quite a few runners came past and I was very happy to let them go. I secretly whispered to myself, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of hours’. Six kilometres into the Beacons Ultra the route leaves the canal at Llangynidr Locks and we began the long steep climb up to the 551m summit of Tor y Foel. It is a 400m climb with about four false summits! It is by far the toughest climb of the race, and beware, you have to do it twice!
The Dreaded Coal Road
The weather was holding and although it was a little windy on the top, it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining! A steep descent off the hill leads to a dirt road and a short run to checkpoint one. I didn’t stop. There’s a gentle but technical descent down to the old coal road and then it’s a long slog to the next mental break in the race. The old coal road is about 4 kilometres of slightly uphill running. It’s pretty relentless. It’s flat enough that you feel you really should run, but the incline is such that you can definitely feel it in your legs and I know it’s a dreaded part of the course for many, especially on the second loop.
I skipped along it quite gaily first time round and made it to the tarmac near Blaen y Glyn Uchaf car park. There’s a nice little downhill recovery on the road towards Torpantau Station, where the railway line ends. You don’t quite reach the station though because there’s a right turn at 19km (56km on lap 2) which is the start of the climb up to The Gap. The highest point on the Beacons Ultra is The Gap. It does what it says on the tin. It’s a gap in the ridgeline on the climb up Pen-y-Fan at about 600m elevation. The view is fabulous, although it was a little shrouded in mist on the first ascent.
Up To The Gap
I managed to run the whole climb and was very pleased with myself upon reaching the top. The descent is very technical and you definitely have to watch your footing. You’re either going to stumble on rocks or slip on wet grass. When you reach the second checkpoint at the foot of the drop you have 10km to go. There are no more tough climbs left on the loop. There’s a little more technical descent, a road section, then some fields and styles to negotiate, another drag of a road and the final 3km canal towpath back to the start/finish. I got to the halfway point and was just starting to feel a little fatigued. But I could see Richard up ahead and that spurred me on. I grabbed a coffee and got going again.
The second lap is harder. Same course, same distance but now you have 23 miles of running and 900 metres of climbing in your legs. It’s time to dig in and flush out any mental negativity. It was good that I had the goal of chasing Richard down, because that certainly helped the canal path section to disappear relatively quickly. Having now run over a marathon it was time to start climbing Tor-y-Foel again. I power-hiked, with the odd stop for breath. I caught Richard about half way up. He was having gut problems and looked a bit rough. We are friends but we don’t do sympathy. Well, not that often anyway! So I left him behind. It was beginning to rain and the wind was also getting up.
Starting to Tire
I pushed on, feeling tired but confident. I stopped at checkpoint one to get my water filled up and then made my way down to start the long coal road section. This is a very easy place to get demoralised during the Beacons Ultra. It seems such a long way from home and such an unforgiving section of road. But once again I was lucky. Up ahead I could see another runner and I set my sights on catching him. He was walking and so it didn’t take too long. As I passed I asked if he was ok and he said he was feeling nauseous. Another one with gut issues. After injury, gastric problems are the number one reason for DNFs in ultra running. Anyway, once past him I thought I needed to keep running to make sure I got some distance between him and me. So, as much as I would have liked to walk, I forced myself to run on.
Richard Catches Up
I managed to run but I certainly wasn’t as fast as I had been on lap one. I needed my bottles filling again, which I did when I got to the checkpoint and as I was there, sure enough, who comes bounding down the hill but Richard. It is usually at this point that he disappears off into the distance again, but I think he had used a lot of his energy trying to catch me up. By the time we reached the road section he was falling behind again. There’s a turn off the road at 66km (30km on lap 1) on to the fields. Back in 2014 I missed this completely on the first loop and added another 400 metres to my journey going the wrong way. This time, I had stopped to stretch out my cramping legs, when Richard almost ran straight past the turn. He said if I hadn’t been there, he would have missed it. The rain had stopped now. It had only been really bad when we were up high.
We stayed together running across the fields. The cramp in my legs was getting so bad I couldn’t climb over the styles and had to open the gates instead. But I was still running and once we reached the road at Llanfrynach, I could see we were catching the same chap again. He’d either run out of juice or he was suffering a recurrence of his stomach issues. I told Richard I wanted to see if we could catch him, but I don’t think Richard was in the mood! So with one last big effort, I upped the pace over the tarmac and left Richard to his walking break. That’s not a phrase I get to say very often, where he and I are concerned!
Passing a Legend
After a couple of kilometres on the road, you can see the canal running parallel on the left, so you know it won’t be long before the final section. Sure enough, at 71km the route reaches Pencelli and joins the canal where Pencelli Castle once stood. I was feeling good now, knowing that I was nearly home, knowing I was going to catch the guy ahead and that I was going to beat my target time of 8 hours. Once I’d caught up, I briefly walked alongside the runner with whom I’d been playing leapfrog, and he told me he had indeed had a recurrence of his tummy troubles. I knew I recognised his face but couldn’t put a name to it.
It was still light and I was still running well when I approached the DayGlo arrow telling me to turn off the towpath and on to the sports field by Henderson Hall for the final 100 metres. I crossed the line in 12th place in a time of 7 hours 47 minutes. My goal had always been under 8 hours and ideally a top 10 finish. However, looking back at previous years results it does seem like, apart from in 2016, 7:47 has always been around 12th place finish time. So I am very pleased. Having won the women’s race in 7:20, Clare Prosser was there cheering people home and the men’s winner was Sam Humphrey, who won the Beachy Head Marathon in 2016. He finished in 6 hours 15 minutes. I’ll just say that again. 6 hrs, 15 minutes. Yea, I know.
Target Time Finish
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the identity of the guy with the gastric issues. I wish I’d known because I’m bit embarrassed that I didn’t acknowledge him en route. It was Steve Wyatt who is twice winner of the Arc of Attrition 100 mile race and who I knew was running. Remember that film I made where I finished in 29 hours 50 minutes? Steve ran it in 21 hours. He’s a phenomenal runner and it’s a total fluke that I came in ahead of him at Brecon. He was just having one of those days that we all have from time to time. So kudos to Steve. Richard followed both me a Steve a couple of minutes later to finish in 14th place in 7:50.
I totally loved the Beacons Ultra when I ran it with the boys in 2014. I love it even more now that we have returned and have to some extent, tamed the beast. It’s a great run and a super challenge. It’s a mix of fast, flat runnable, super technical runnable, runnable climbing and non-runnable climbing. I think it would make a good first ultra if you’re after a bit more of a challenge than a standard 50km trail race across the South Downs. It also makes for a very good race, for experienced and faster runners. Well done and thanks to Force 12 and all the volunteers. If you’ve not done it before, definitely go and have a look at the website and consider adding the Beacons Ultra to your list for next year.