What? Brecon Beacons Trail Challenge – Marathon option
When? Saturday 11th May 2019
How far? 43k (27 miles) w/ ~1500m (4900ft) climb
Where? Gilestone Farm, Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon
Finish time: 4:52:52 (results)
Position: 13th / 175
Website: The Trail Events Company
Activity Links: Strava | Garmin | TrainingPeaks
Training / Context
This race took place one week after the St Illtyds Way Ultra and was four weeks out from Race to the Tower, my first goal event of the year. This wasn’t a family holiday so I drove down on my own for this one but I did throw out a line on Facebook when I was first scouting suitable training events to see if anyone else was interested and, in the end, Jazzy and her boyfriend Pete decided to sign up for the 10k option, meaning I would at least see some familiar faces once I got there.
The race itself looked to be another enjoyable adventure in one of the most scenic parts of the country, the Brecon Beacons. I figured I would go with the marathon option seeing as the elevation and terrain would, in my extremely rough calculation, make it as tough as two road marathons. This was still technically training so I determined the ‘ultra’ option would be unnecessarily demanding at this point. Maybe next time!
In addition to the general challenge, the route advertised an ascent up to Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the area. With all these selling points it didn’t take me long to make up my mind, despite the weekend featuring a league race and a contingent of Beaumonters heading off to the Geneva Half Marathon. I scoured the area for accommodation (I’m not a camping person) and signed up promptly once that had been sorted.
A very peaceful night’s sleep – always a good start!
As mentioned before I am not really a camping person so I eventually found a local bed and breakfast situated in town. Driving up to the residence I passed the entrance to event HQ and quickly realised I was as close to the start as possible without camping. The host was lovely as the area with the chirping of birds the only sounds I could hear.
Being so close, I was able to set my alarm for 07:00 for an 08:30 race start but even this was generous. I breakfasted, showered, kitted-up and walked to the farm where I collected my number and t-shirt. After a warm-up and briefing, it was time to head off. The conditions were ideal – sunny with no chance of rain with temperatures staying in the teens.
All ready to go
The marathon route can essentially be described as a long trek up to Pen y Fan and back. The first ten miles are an extremely uniform and steady climb around Talybont Reservoir and up to the peak of Tywn Mwyalchod. It’s definitely not tough but it’s not flat either. Because of this you can quite easily get carried away and run at a pace you might do so on a flat but, as always in a hilly trail or mountain race, discipline is the order of the day. Considering I finished twelfth I would say most of the near two-hundred field of runners could be found ahead of me at this point. This stretch of path was also one of the more gravelly and therefore more run-able. I settled into my long run pace and awaited the first challenge.
Nice and steady in the shade, with the occasional peak at Talybont Reservoir
Getting ever so slightly steeper
A very short downhill section for a change of pace
The first climb up to the ridgeline coming into view
Starting the first ascent
The view from the top. Just a taste of things to come
The hills that surround Pen y Fan form a nice horseshoe ridge and after ascending up and around the side of Tywn Mwyalchod you are treated to a good half an hour period where you saddle the edge of the horseshoe. Pen y Fan can be seen looming on your horizon and to your right are the spectacular views of the Usk Valley and the distinct features of the Upper and Lower Neuadd Reservoirs.
The entire ridgeline opening up in front of you
A view of Upper and Lower Neuadd Reservoirs. Don’t stare for too long
However, staring at the sights past the cliff edge a few metres from you may not be the brightest idea. The ridges and trails that make up the Brecon Beacons are terrifically rocky and navigating the stones, slab and earth that protrudes at varying lengths from the path requires your full and undivided attention. The numerous times I tripped up were luckily only minor in nature with the worst fall being broken by the use of my hands. Therefore I achieved the goal of staying on my feet during the whole race – something I had failed to do in my last race and training session!
Straddling the edge
Watch your footing!
As the points of Corn Du and Pen y Fan came within touching distance the route took a sharp turn left and downwards towards one of the car parks, with a view towards making the runners climb all the way back up from the other traditional way up to the peaks which is slightly further up the road.
Corn Du slowly takes shape
Don’t get comfortable just yet, you have to go down first to get back up to there !
This route down involves dropping down nearly 400m (1300ft) in elevation in a span of less than one and a half miles. This might be quite fun in ideal conditions, on say, a grassy trail with plenty of space. This particular descent, however, had a host of challenges and pitfalls ready to end your race. The path itself was, again, rock and slab but had the added delight of several-dozen tributaries that jutted out with differing breadth and dimensions. Hurtling down at sprint speeds then, I had to judge the gap, prepare my feet and then execute a hurdle of one or two stride lengths. One of the most treacherous but exhilarating sections of a race I have ever run. Oh, and it should be important to note – Pen y Fan is a huge tourist attraction so during this little trial I had to side-step and shout my way through the throngs of people hoping to enjoy their day without being a participant in a game of human skittles.
Oh, come on…
After getting to the bottom it was time to get primed for the climb back up! Climbing is still my weakness and running up the gradient (400m in less than 3km) was impossible so it was simply a case of one foot in front of the other and just keep the pace and the breathing steady. This was especially true the closer I got to the top as the surface became increasingly steep and hairy to traverse. Hands were definitely needed!
Taking a picture of what’s behind you is a good excuse to rest
Just one foot in front of the other
The weekend crowds start to grow
The closer you get, the steeper it gets
Once I got to the top and crested onto Corn Du, the pain and struggle of the previous thirty-five minutes quickly melted away as the spectacle of the surrounding landscape came into view. True, this was a race, but I simply couldn’t resist just coming to a stop, taking a breath and drinking it all in.
After asking someone to take my picture I thought it would probably be a good idea to start moving again. After a short hop to Pen y Fan, the highest point of the race, it was time for the next considerable descent of the race. While there were no tributaries to navigate, this section was as precarious as any other during the race.
Looks like I may have been a bit too tired to remember to smile
A short trip to Pen y Fan is in order before the descent
More amazing views of the horseshoe ridge
In an ultra or trail race, it is quite useful to think of what one is doing as not running, but moving. You see, running can be measured as the speed at which one can move in a straight line and if you whip open a textbook you’ll see that running technique can be broken down into straightforward components such as stride length and stride frequency.
Just a few steps down
This is completely useless out in the thick of a mountain path as all you can try to do is move from where you currently are to where you need to be. This might involve running, but more often than not it may very involve jumping, skipping, hopping, bounding, scrambling, side-stepping. No matter how you manage it, you just have to find a way to move over or past whatever is in front of you!
Things are just getting started
The best way across? One is as good as another
After barrelling down from the peak it was time for the last ascent of the day, after which I got to enjoy running along another magnificent ridgeline.
More breathtaking views, but as before, don’t look up for too long…
…as the surface doesn’t get any easier to run on
Rounding the corner of the last peak it was time for the stunning and completely thrilling final stretch of the race. A half-hour-long downhill jaunt with an unbroken, dazzling panorama of green and blue filling your eyes.
Unbroken that is, until the final aid station. Up until this point, I had not once checked the distance covered or the time elapsed in the race. So enraptured was I in my flow that I couldn’t tell you if it had been three, four or six hours. It may have been a little lapse of judgement on my part then when I stuffed my face and fully refilled my flasks before asking how far was left rather than leading with that question. The answer, it turned out, was only six kilometres – all of which was downhill and then flat.
A little surprised I was so near the end, I promptly sped off down the remaining downhill sections and settled into the fastest stride I felt comfortable at. On the final stretch, which was on a canal towpath, I caught up, chatted with and tried to spur on a fellow runner was running the ultra distance but had to drop him. We were then both overtaken by someone else who flew right past us with ease. The path was under the shade which provided welcome relief and as soon as the last turning and gate were cleared I could hear and feel the finish line as I was greeted and cheered on by marshalls and recent finishers alike.
As I turned the final corner I was delighted to spot Jazzy and Pete along the finishing stretch and tried to pull off a decent pose for their and the official photographer’s camera.
Embraces and congratulations concluded I was directed towards the tent where I was told I could find myself a table full of various sugary treats and snacks. I swiftly availed myself of everything on offer.
A the finish
A quick reflection revealed that I had finished in under five hours, a bit of a shock given the advertised course profile. It was only when I looked a bit more closely than I realised the elevation stated on the website was overexaggerated by a significant margin. Nevertheless, I had completed another amazing race in one of the most remarkable parts of the country and gained another experience that will live with me for a lifetime.
With three bucket list worthy events in the bag in the space of four weeks, it was time to take the foot off the gas a little, enjoy the company and camaraderie of my club mates at the upcoming Liverpool Marathon and then start to hype myself up for the big one!
Of course, that evening I decided to climb up another hill to get a sunset shot
But that was only after climbing up to it during the day to scout it out!