Likeys Beacons Ultra

My big fear for MdS 2014 is the “big” day of 80 odd km. I needed a challenge to put the mental bit to bed. So back in March I decided I wanted to race an Ultra of about that length. Racing to me means crossing the finishing line with not much gas left in the tank, this’ll be different in the Sahara, maybe.

I settled on the Likeys Beacons Ultra because it’s local(ish) to me, has lots of big rocks, has one steep hill and one runnable climb and is two laps. I liked the idea of being self sufficient and this clip on youtube had so many people smiling it must be a good un!

My preparation hadn’t been exactly what I wanted it to be; stresses in other parts of my life has been taking a lead and making training really hard.

In the few days leading into the race I was starting to feel a little doubtful, niggles, not trusting my training and a general feeling of being tired. But, I figured that dealing with these things were important in the bigger picture of a multi day stage race where things are not likely to be too smooth the whole way.

Friday night I arrived in Brecon, headed to the Likeys new shop to register. I had a bit of a gaze around the shiny bits of kit and picked up my race number.

Next stop was Morrisons for those last minute bits that I needed (breakfast and wet wipes) and then out to the campsite at Talybont. In to bed at about 10pm was about right as I had my alarm set for 0430 for some breakfast.

The race starting at 0730 means that breakfast needs a little bit of time in the system so that digestion doesn’t grind you down.

It was a cool night but I didn’t notice it, the alarm woke me up for breakfast before I dozed off for another hour straight after.

Dressing was a little bit rushed, but I got over to Henderson Hall, the race HQ, with a few minutes to spare before the briefing from Martin Like. The race attracts a wide range of people including the current World Trail Running Champion, Lee Kemp who was making a return after an injury.

As soon as the briefing was done, it’s a 2 minute walk to the canal edge and the start line. The off road running scene is a friendly one and the Ultra one no different. Lots of jokes, greetings and “fare thee wells”.

And then, suddenly we seem to start, it’s a narrow tow path and I immediately tried to stick to my race plan and not get sucked along by everyone else. My realistic aim was to finish before dark, my stretch was to finish under 8 hours. 46 ish miles translates to 10ish minute miles to achieve under 8 hours, so that was what I wanted to average.

The normal jostling for position wasn’t quite so obvious, there were a few keen people heading passed, but also a lot of people taking it nice and steady. At the end of the canal section there is a small bridge over the canal and into some woodland, everything runnable. Out of the woods and up to the right Tor y Foel is visible. On a shorter day it would be runnable, but I elected to run walk this, walking where it is steep. The number of false summits (three I think) was annoying, and one I clocked for lap two. I was making my usual effort of being friendly to the marshalls, and one photographer with spotty boots was nice and chatty (and I later found out to be the daughter of the organiser-what a team!), right near the top. I ran through the top and into the small, steep descent with Talybont reservoir beneath us.

Image from Likeys.com
Image from Likeys.com

Onto an unsurfaced road that has CP 1 at the end of it with more friendly marshalls, telling us to turn left-I had to point out that it was their left, but our right. This little track was the first of some rocky nastiness, good fun, but a bit of care needed with not slipping or twisting an ankle. At the bottom of this descent the course joins a fire trail. I was in a goup of four others. Neal, bouncing along in an effortless way was the first chat I had. It turns out he too was on his first Ultra, and he too is heading to MdS 2014. We talked about various things, sponsorship, expectations and his friend who had persuaded him that the MdS was a good thing to do. This forest trail gains height, slowly and steadily, before getting a little steeper, climbing up to some tarmac. I was comfortable running this and for a few minutes the group of five split up. Neal came zipping passed again on a short descent and stretched out a lead as we turned of into Taf Fechan forest. More marshalls, some friendly mountain bikers and a few army vans here.

I settled into a steady pace, knowing that this climb was the one up the “gap road” reaching the col under Fan y Big. Here I got talking to Katie, one of the other group of 5. Another Ultra first timer, with an easy gait (later I heard it described as a metronome, and she really is a rhythmic runner). Katie was running for charity, and had completed her first marathon a month or so earlier. In testament to her modesty, it took me a while to find out she’d earned a silver medal there. We talked about the environment, her job co-ordinating learning outside the classroom with Plymouth Uni. We ran together up the gap with streams of very tired looking military guys coming down with full bergans and rifles. Over the top and a little rock hopping dash saw Katie and I pass Neal and a few others before stretching our legs on a long steady descent to CP 2. Some of this track has grapefruit sized boulders, and needed quick feet, some times finding dirt, but mainly on rock. Katie led into some single track and I had to ask her whether her odd socks were a superstitious thing. “No” came the answer “they’re a chaotic life thing”. The humour was welcome!

Image from likeys.com
Image from likeys.com

Back onto the tarmac and aware that I was starting to run a bit harder than I wanted to, I let Katie pick up pace and dash off. I started talking to a chap who had been on the OMM and we started talking bottoms, pains and all sorts. After a bit of  pleasant running round some fields we were back on tarmac, and meeting spotty booted camera lady again, Neal was back along side. We ran down to “Simon’s Bridge” greeted by a tail swinging purple dragon. Simon’s Bridge is named after Simon Robinson who was there with X Bionic’s. A quick right hand turn onto the canal tow path for a run into the half way point and CP 3. I was pleased with my lap 1 time of 3hrs 44 and a position of 30th. I refilled my water bottle, grabbed some gel and chatted again to some friendly marshalls. Neal ran on, whilst I walked for a few minutes whilst getting some fluids and gels down me, Then back to running the same route.

My guts were cramping mildly on the canal. I passed Neal again who was having a quick meal and then turned up hill to Tor y Foel again. Ready for the false summits I tried to control my stomach and keep a good pace going. This was definitely less pleasant this time round. Back on the track again and I took on more fluids. I had planned to mix some TORQ fuel at the next checkpoint ready for the run up to the gap again. CP 4 arrived, or I at it, and I topped off my water and enjoyed a little run down through the broken path in the woods. On the flat section I took the chance to add some powder to my bottle. The mix tasted strong and as I turned into Taf Fechan Forest for the second time, my stomach started to rebel. About a third of the way up to the top, I couldn’t get my body to accept food and I just had no power left in my legs – my stomach was really uncomfortable. This time, being slower, I took the chance to have a good look at Neuadd Resevoirs. Over the high point, and my world was definitely a bit smaller this time round-in my own little bubble. Still managing to run the descent was good and I had my eye on a few runners ahead of me. This bit was really lonely, I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. At CP5 I ditched the mix out of my water bottle and took on some water only. A gel and some water and my stomach began to feel a bit better. Back to Simon’s Bridge, the man himself was there handing out Jelly Babies to give runners a lift-I rambled something incoherent about Cookeen.

Image from Likeys.com
Image from Likeys.com

Now the run back into the finish along the tow path. It was a bit longer than I was expecting, I’d been nattering to Neal the last time and hadn’t paid attention. A group of three runners caught me in the last 200m, I couldn’t get back passed the first two, but managed to hold the third off and under the finishing arch.

Katie had finished her first ultra in third place, Neal came in just a few minutes after me. A few chats with faces I knew and then a quick shower at the campsite before heading back home.

A great Ultra for me, I’m happy with the results, and what I learnt. A little disappointed not to sneak in under 8 hours, but there is always next year. The Beacons Ultra is a super friendly race that taught me lots-as one very experienced trail runner said to me its an ideal entry level ultra. I’d agree, but the racing at the top end of the field is pretty clear that it’s just a great Ultra!

I’d added another 20km to my longest training run and 35km to longest race-happily this was good for my brain training!

My final finishing time was 8hr 12 mins and 23 seconds, and despite the provisional results having me down as 27th, I definitely finished ahead of Patrick, so I’m taking 26th. I’m happy enough with that for a first Ultra.

That’s one more demon down on the way into April 2014!

A massive thank you to all at Likeys and especially the volunteers who were standing around in the cold making the race so friendly!

OMM 2013

I always look forward to the clocks going back, it means its the weekend of the Original Mountain Marathon (used to be call the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon). 

The event moves around various mountainous parts of the UK and is a 2 day race for teams of 2 runners. The teams have to carry everything with them (tent, sleeping bag, cooker, food and various mandatory kit). The race has a range of different classes. Elite, A, B, C and D class follow a preset route along “controls”. These controls are small orange and white cubes of material about 40cm off the ground and are often hidden from view. They have to be “dibbed” with a little wrist worn dibber. When you put the dibber in the hole at the control it logs the time that you check into the control point. On these classes the fastest from start to finish is the winner.

There are three other classes that are ‘score’ classes. These classes have points assigned to each control. Each control has a different value. The classes have a set time on day 1 and an hour less on day 2. The winner is the team that collects the most points over the two days. Navigation and time keeping is critical. The highest points on a control is 40, and runners get 2 points deducted for every minute they’re late to the finish control.

Oh, the other thing is that you only get the map, marked up with the controls for that day, 1 minute before you cross the start line. 

I run with a local and very good friend Jeremy, we enjoy the short score class and we do it for fun, not to be super competitive.  This means 5 hours on day one and 4 hours on day 2.

This year the OMM was in the Brecon Beacons. This meant that the journey for Jeremy and I wasn’t too onerous. We left home at 1730 and after driving down, buying a few bits and bobs, had some food and faffed a good bit we were at race HQ at 2030. 

The car parking was on a big wet field and even as we were parking a few cars were getting bogged down. HQ is a big barn, first job is to register, which means getting the dibber attached to the wrist of one of the runners-me this weekend. A quick look round the shop inside, buy some gas for the cooker, have a quick beer and a natter before getting some sleep. 

Jez and I knew our start time was 0906 on day 1 and 0851 on day 2. We have a bit of a sort out of kit-splitting the tent up, sharing out our food and packing everything down. The nights sleep was reasonable, and we were up to get breakfast and hit the toilets before it got too busy. 

The start was about 3km from the car park so we set off through the forestry and wound our way up to the start area. A few people milling around and a chance to chat with the course setter who assured us the layout would be plenty challenging this year. The weather forecast was ominous and the streams in the area were already high, with some being un-crossable.  We had arrived 9 minutes before time, and at 0903 we are called forward. At the first line, the dibber number is checked in against the correct start time. A minute later move through to the check control to ensure the dibber is registering. A minute later we’re handed the days map and we’re stood on the start line. One compulsory control about 750m from the finish. But the finish is only 5 km away? That’s unusual. Normally the finish would be a distance away with the controls laid out spread across the route. Jez and I are talking about where we’re going as the start horn goes.

We’ve about 1.5 km down a channel with out of bounds either side. We’re run/walking in the steady rain whilst talking about which way we’re going to get points. We get to the control at the edge of the out of bounds channel. We’ve now got the whole of the Black Mountain range in front of us and some tricky decisions to make. Picking controls is a compromise between picking easy to run terrain, easy navigation (!) and enough points to make it worthwhile slogging some big hills.

The event maps are 1:40000 which I only use once a year and so the second control takes me a little while to judge. But we hit it after being about 100m away on the way in. I’m checking my now ancient Suunto Vector watch for height and time and working off a dead reckoning bearing. We’ve made good distance in the first hour so we agree to change our route and go for some more points. A hard pull over a ridge sends us towards a control that is Waterfall (E). This is the big waterfall on the Haffes, a mountain river that gets kayaked in big water. Although it’s a long leg, my nav is spot on and we hit the control directly on the opposite bank of the river… a few metres upstream and then splash across and dib. Thankfully the rain has stopped and though the wind is high it’s quite nice. Now for a really long leg to get a 40 pointer and a long way South. The area is full of rock, sinkholes and featureless terrain. We work hard to get south and I realise we’re drifting a little East of where the control should be. I’m planning to run through a saddle and then contour off West at the right height to hit the control. Hmmm over shot a little in finding the saddle, this means I now knew that the control was behind to our right. A quick turn round and gain some higher ground. We’re too far away from home to spend ages looking for this. Jez and I agree we’ve got no more than 5 minutes to get this one. With about 30 seconds left on the clock, I spot the orange and white material I’m after and I rush over and touch in. 

Now it’s a dash North collecting as many controls as we can on the way to the finish. There have been literally no paths, really wild running and the going has been slow through tussock grass, broken rock and marshy land, but suddenly we’re on sheep grazed firmer land. This is now nearly pleasant to run on…passed the wreckage of a crashed airplane, then a series of river crossings and a climb up on to Fan Brycheiniog. From this control there IS a path, and a few teams are visible on it. However, we decide that if we straightline the descent we can get another control comfortably on the way into the finish. It works out and 25 minutes later we run under a finish line frame being held up by volunteers-it’d had just been blown over in the wind. 

Jez showing off the warm feet technology and freezer bag water carriers.
Jez showing off the warm feet technology and freezer bag water carriers.

Down to the download area where all the information get’s sucked off the dibber. This show’s us we’re without penalties and scored 240 points (out of a possible 500). We scoot into the camping field and manage to get the last flatish piece of sheltered land,,we’re probably the 20th team in and there are lots to come so we’re pretty lucky. Time to fill some freezer bags with water to save getting up and down and get into some clean dry clothes. Because we’re travelling lightish, the only way to have warm dry feet with wet minging fell shoes is to switch to dry sock, ram these into freezer bags and then back in the shoes. We start boiling water, have a cup of tea, rehydrating food and letting the legs rest a bit. The rain and wind come back with a vengeance and we’re pleased to be dry and warm and getting food. There are a lot of runners still on the hill and we can hear some terrific volunteers encouraging them down to download in increasingly more worried tones. As the hours pass the message changes from a cheery “well done, download is only 2 minutes away” to “download is 60 seconds away” to a fairly concerned “are you ok?”.

Jeremy and I have a rule, that we go as light as we can without spoiling our enjoyment of the weekend. So after our rehydrated plap we break out our Wensleydale and Cranberry cheese and some oat crackers. A nearby tent guffaws as Jeremy says “Do you want to have a go at the 12 year old or the 15 year old first?”-I’ve already got the 18 year old between my legs, warming up. As well as the cheese we’d got some miniature single malts. I can’t think how it sounded from outside!

Just the essential then, some freezer bags, cheese and teenagers, Single Malt that is.
Just the essential then, some freezer bags, cheese and teenagers, Single Malt that is.

We spend the next few hours talking rubbish as only boys in a tent can. 

There is a quick break in the rain at 9pm and I shoot down to look at the results and start times. We’d done pretty well and from 151 starting teams in our class, finished the day 25th. This meant we were issued a new start time of 0751. This was great, it meant we might get home before the big weather front was due in!

A reasonable nights sleep came and went, some heavy rain, some thunder and lightning and some big blustery gusts meaning sleep was even harder. The tent we use is a 1+ man tent, so for Jez and I it means a good bit of coziness.  The informal spoon only broken when a hip seizes or a calf cramps.

An enormous thunderclap wakes us at 0545 (now GMT after the clocks change) and so I get on with boiling water for porridge and tea. We shovel that down, get the toileting over and done with-the portaloos are pretty horrific and start breaking camp. 

The rain is coming and going and the wind is much stronger than the previous day. We get everything squared away and we head down to the start area. 

The same process is about to happen, 3 minutes to go. A lot of the nights conversation had been whether we were going to be able to get off the car park, and whether we really wanted to be car 400 of 800 cars being towed out one by one. Jez needs to be at an airport early doors on Monday so sitting in a car park for 12 hours waiting for a tractor wasn’t going to happen. We’d agreed we’d see what the course looked like, but we certainly didn’t want to be on the course for ages. 

The Southerly wind and heavy rain meant that working back over the Black Mountains was going to be a big ask. Jeremy had rolled his ankle and his calves were a bit “tweaky” after last weekends dualthlon. The first climb took me a while to find my rhythm and Jez was definitely suffering. We were looking to do a loop of about 160 points and get to the finish ASAP.

The second long climb was straight into really strong wind, it was cooling down as well, this front was arriving sooner than expected. The nav was spot on and we hit every control we wanted. We turned back under the escarpment of the Black Mountains to be blown in 3 metre strides down the hill with hail pinging off our hoods. Pretty fun, but also not without risks! 

We blast our way across some soggy mush, with both of us falling up to our waists in bog holes. We’re tiring and making mistakes. We discuss whether we can get a 30 pointer off to the North but both agree our legs don’t have the power to do that and get back early. We climb to 600m, grab the penultimate control and then start the best descent of the event (for me) down to the finish. Mucky, soft runnable hillside, then down a piece of forestry track, then picking a route in and out of the trees down to the finish. 

Over the finish line, dib out, then Jez and I have a lovely hug, and then make our way to download. We’re the 6th team in and we know our position will change loads as the other teams come in over the next few hours. 

Our plan is to down the free soup on the way back to the car park, get off the field and find a layby to change in. We made it about 30 feet before the front wheels buried themselves. The farmer came over in his tractor and gently pulled us out to the tarmac…he was going to have a long afternoon and night ahead of him! 

The results were published later; despite taking nearly an hour less than those around us we’d finished Day 2 in 20th position. This meant we’d scored 405 points in 7hrs and 51 minutes, good enough for 26th overall. To compare 25th place had scored 406 points in 8hrs 48 minutes.

The winning team scored 535 points in 8hr 18mins, so there was some epic running out there in really tough conditions. Full results are here

A brilliant weekend! 

We’d planned to do more filming, but the only footage worth sharing is here and the commentary is good from Jez.