• Henry Morris

Beacons Ultra 2014

After the usual trials and tribulations of a week training my eclectic range of clients in North London, I set off from Kentish Town at Friday lunchtime towards my brother’s house in Wiltshire. The mandatory equipment list of the Beacons Ultra is extensive which meant that on the way I had to stop to buy about £60 of new kit. This was not because I didn’t already own the said kit, but because when I went to get it out of the box in my wardrobe on Thursday evening I discovered much of it was sitting in a black vinegary soup. It took me several minutes to establish that when I put the box in my wardrobe after Round Rotherham in October, I failed to remove two bananas. These had since reverted to a primal state of tarry gloop that rendered unusable everything into which they had come in contact. Somewhat grudgingly, therefore, I bought a new first aid kit, pair of gloves and emergency blanket, while making a mental note not to keep fruit in my wardrobe.

Courtesy of Stephen Cousins

After several hours of M4 traffic I arrived at Ed’s. We had dinner and an early night and pretty much as soon as I turned my light off to go to sleep, I turned it back on again to get up. That’s how it felt, anyway. It was 4am. We set off shortly afterwards. Ed drove to Talybont-on-Usk while I dozed. At 6 am the journey was interrupted by an amusing call from Atomic Jam, where friends were clearly having a lot of fun.

We arrived at the start, registered, signed off our kit, convened with Ed’s running friends from Cirencester AC, Rich and Andy, and shuffled out in the cold mist to the start line by the Monmouth Canal. Day was breaking and the canal looked splendid. However, two hundred runners on a single file tow path meant that as the race began, nobody (apart from the people who’d positioned themselves at the front) went anywhere very fast. The race is two loops of a twenty three mile trail and Ed and I had determined that we wanted to run a negative split. As such, we were happy to start steady as the pack slowly evened itself out into a natural order.

Tor y Foel

Three miles of misty canal turned into woodland and an immediate ascent up Tor y Foel. I had not done much prior research on the route so it was interesting to discover that with false summit after false summit, the ascent just kept on giving. After two miles of consistent climbing, during which we climbed out of the mist into clear air, sandwiched by a low cloud canopy, and then through that canopy into a glorious blue sky, we finally reached the summit. Friendly marshals said hello, before we descended a steep technical slope down to checkpoint one.

From here another rocky descent takes you through forest land and onto a long steady ascent on the Taff Trail. Ed and I ran well along here, passing many people as we went, with Ed reminiscing about free-parties he may or may not have been to in the surrounding countryside. The running was good and after passing several army officers in full kit eating a big bag of Milkybar Buttons, we progressed onto a long scree-lined ascent up the Gap Road. This ancient trail takes you 600m above sea level and passes between Cribyn and Fan Y Big summits, aka The Gap and the highest point on the race . We made good time on this stretch and again went past several people, although we had a couple of energy conserving walks to save our legs for the remaining 30 miles. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have walked so much as it was all runnable, but not having done it before we did not know that. At the summit, you are greeted by a breathtaking valley and a long, rocky downhill track with an ankle deep stream running down it. We picked our way down this to Checkpoint Two at seventeen miles in, but were both amused to note that everyone else was running down it significantly quicker than either of us.

With ironic sentiments about the slope we were about to run down ringing in our ears from the cheerful Checkpoint Two marshals, we stumbled down what I can imagine is a reasonable footpath in summer, but was today a babbling brook, with further people moving past us as we again struggled on the technical descent. From here, the final miles of the course loop through villages and across farmland, with a final two mile trot from Pencelli to Talybont along the canal and we picked up a bit of pace at this point as the route became more runable. This was cause for disagreement, as I was concerned that we definitely needed to slow down if we wanted to run a negative split, whilst Ed was arguing that we just needed to run faster on the second half instead. In my experience of ultras, there isn’t much ‘running faster’ going on in the second half of races. Which I guess is why I always finish in them where I do. But still! We completed our first loop of the course by returning to the start point on the canal in four hours thirty, and then determined that we ought to hare along the next three miles of canal flat in order to pick up time from our slow progress the first time around that stretch. We just about managed this (for ‘hare’ read eight minute miles) and committed to the long two mile ascent up Tor y Foel. I felt OK on this stretch and we again passed many people on the uphill, some of whom looked very spent, which is understandable when you’re pushing up two miles of a 1/3 gradient having just run a marathon. The climatic conditions had changed and the day was much clearer up at the top, but as we made our way back down off the summit, in keeping with the theme of the day, some of those we’d just gone past on the way up, returned the favour by sailing back past us, on their way down to Checkpoint Four.

In contrast to compliments about our cheerful demeanours received from the agrreable marshals at this point, we then swore like dockers as our clearly inferior Morris feet protested at being battered by yet another highly uneven, loose rock ascent. The subsequent three miles of uphill forestry track we broke down into an eight minute run, one minute walk strategy. This reminded me of a personal training session from a trainee’s perspective as the efforts felt like they lasted forever, whilst the ‘easy’ section seemed to be over in a blink of an eye. We lost time here and shuffled along again until we reached the Gap Road for the second time where we tried a couple of four minute run/one minute walks before deciding to stop pissing about and just run the whole thing. Which we did successfully, again passing other runners as we went. Of course upon reaching the summit, those people then all sailed straight back past us, but the views more than compensated. We picked our way, in my case gingerly, down to the final checkpoint and then again tackled the path that wasn’t a path. Equally, it was now no longer a stream either as during the five hours that had elapsed since our first visit it had partially dried. A highlight of  running the same route twice in one day was seeing the same places but under different conditions of water, cloud and light.

And so we found ourselves on the last stretch, running back through the fields and villages and then back on to the canal. With the finish approaching we were in high spirits and were laughing merrily, when we turned around and all of a sudden found quite a lot of runners bearing down on us. Clearly we were enjoying ourselves too much and realising it wasn’t job done yet, we knuckled down and ran the last, by now three miles, as hard as possible. This wasn’t particularly hard, probably about nine minute miles, but it certainly felt like it after the forty three previously. It was head torches on for the last fifteen minutes as the sun fell away, and we ran well, back down the canal, past the multi-purpose start-line/midway-checkpoint back onto the road in Talybont and back across the finish line at race HQ.

What a race. We completed the route in 9.50 and finished 68/177. So a long way off a negative split, but as it was also a very long way on foot in a fantastic part of the world and a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a day, we could cope. I couldn’t recommend this race more, a really friendly and efficient atmosphere, and a challenging course in a sublime location. What’s not to like? We’ll be back in 2015.

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