With the Brecon to Cardiff 70K ultra looming on the horizon I was keen to try and squeeze some long runs into my training plan just to make sure I still had a chance to complete it.
Having run part of the Sirhowy Valley Walk over Christmas with the club I was curious to know how far it was and whether I could use it as a long run. Measuring 26 ‘trail’ miles it was certainly doable. I plotted the route on the OS Maps website and with around 3,000ft of elevation it estimated that it would take around 6 and a half hours to complete (I did wonder if that included photography time?).
Being a linear route I had two options, either start in Newport and head towards Tredegar or start in Tredegar. The second option was more favourable due to a higher starting elevation which would mean more downhill sections and a shorter journey from the finish back to the house. I was able to catch a direct bus from Newport to Ebbw Vale and then a short connecting bus to the Aneurin Bevan Memorial and the starting point.
Leaving the Aneurin Bevan Memorial
Leaving the memorial, the route winds up Manmoel Road towards Mountain Air. Despite it being an overcast day, the patches of fog shrouding sections of the valley beneath helped create a great atmosphere to run in.
Earlier in the week the weather had been cold and icy but overnight the temperatures had risen and I was already heating up after just a mile. Even though I knew it was forecast to be around 10C, it’s always difficult to gauge what the temperature will be like in the hills and when you are going to be running for 6 hours plus a couple of hours travelling I wasn’t sure how many layers to carry with me. It’s always best to be able to take off layers and carry them rather than being stuck without enough layers so I had two tops, a thin wind proof jacket and gloves. At mile 1 I was already down to a single t-shirt which is how I remained for the rest of the run.
The road climbs gradually towards Y Domen Fawr in the distance and is mainly broken tarmac which is easy enough to run on. Apart from the sheep and horses roaming Manmoel Common, I didn’t encounter anyone along this section of the route. Skirting around Y Domen Fawr rather than up it, I had no need to scale it having only recently ran (walked!) up to the summit.
The road continues for a few kilometres before the official route leads off road alongside a wood called Coed y Llanerch. The path then rejoins Manmoel Road again probably less than a kilometre away so unless you are strictly following the path you could simply remain on the road.
Mud, Mud, Mud
Passing over a cattle grid Manmoel Road continues to the left but to the right is a rocky, tree-lined path which was a little wet and muddy in places. At the end of the path it bears left and down a steep hill to rejoin Manmoel Road again. At this point the path goes truly off road and into a field. With a little direction from a farmer in the distance I found my way across the first field. Having been previously occupied by cows, the each field I crossed became progressively muddier and muddier meaning I had to tip-toe along to try and avoid getting stuck in some deep sections.
Being more focused on where I was stepping, I missed the path heading off to the left. I was still on a footpath although it headed slightly away from the path I wanted. When I reached the end of the fields and hit tarmac again it as only a short detour before I was back on track and heading down a steep hill towards a dismantled railway where I could concentrate on running rather than navigating. The path leaves the dismantled railway for a detour up a steep track through a wood and then descending back down a road to cross the Sirhowy River and onto The Rock – an area named after an inn built in 1808.
Crossing back over the Sirhowy River the path passes beneath the Chartist Bridge which opened in 2005 and links the east and west sides of the Sirhowy Valley. I had already decided that I would break the route in three and make sure I stop for a snack and drink at my made-up ‘checkpoint’ at 9 and 18 miles. The one downside to stopping is getting going again!
Beyond Blackwood and Pontllanfraith, you reach Gelligroes which has an old water mill tucked away down a side road. The mill appears to be largely intact and possibly original, with a wheel located to the rear. A plaque on the front of the building mentions a Arthur (Artie) Ernest Moore that lived and worked at the mill and on April 15th, 1912 picked up RMS Titanic’s SOS. Nobody believed him until two days later it was reported in the local and national press.
The next section was more familiar to me as I had parts of the section last year whilst exploring the Raven Walk. It starts off-road with some very muddy tracks including one which was very much a mudchute! Descending through a wide forest track the path then joins a wide gravel and tarmac track which leads to the Sirhowy Valley Country Park. This section is popular with walkers, dog walkers and cyclists and allows for uninterrupted running.
You have to keep an eye out for where the official path leads off and up through a wood to join a larger forest track which then leads off and up steeply again where it joins the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk. I remember how muddy and wet this section was when I was exploring the Raven Walk and it was exactly the same. Due to the track being used by motorbikes it has become very cut up and leaves large areas for mud and water to accumulate.
The cut up path continues right across as you head toward Mynydd Machen making the section a lot more technical than it should be. Getting closer to Mynydd Machen you hit a stone track that ascends to the summit.
The summit of Mynydd Machen was my second checkpoint so stopped for another snack and drink whilst admiring the views. Despite being overcast you could see for some distance in all directions.
By this point I had completed the main climb on the route although there were still a couple of smaller climbs near the end of the route. I was tired, not mentally but physically. My legs up to this point had been aching more and more, in particular my calf muscles. It’s when you start hurting that you start thinking of the points where you can get out and cut the route short. When running alone I always make sure that there are ample opportunities to catch a bus or a train along the way. And this route did have a point at around mile 23/24 where I could take a different route and head back to the house instead of finishing, although I wasn’t going to get that far and not run the last 2 or 3 miles to the end.
With long runs it’s always a good idea to break it down into sections and I had been looking forward to the Mynydd Machen section for sometime along the route as it’s the only fast, technical downhill section.
Slip, Slip, Slip
I successfully descended the slope but hit another cut up section which did get the better of me and I slipped whilst trying to edge around some mud. No damage and I didn’t get dirty so saw it as a lucky escape.
It was then out onto tarmac through Upper Ochrywyth until you reach Coed Mawr wood where once again it was mud, mud, mud and slip, slip, slip. Thought I was doing well until I reached a large muddy puddle and whilst trying to tiptoe around slipped. Luckily again there was no damage or mud and despite always carrying my phone in my hand that escaped unharmed too.
The route is still descending through woods and fields until it reaches Rhiwderin and bears left to aim for Rogerstone. At this point it passes through Wern Industrial Estate and I just had to stop to see the progress of the new Tiny Rebel Brewing Co. brewery. It was also a good opportunity to pick up a full fat can of Coke from a burger van.
Head Home or Complete the Route?
Now at mile 21, it was becoming tough and whenever I encountered even a small hill (thankfully not that many) I would opt to walk. The route joined the canal and onto the Fourteen Locks for a nice descent down to the M4. At this point I had the option of heading home or carrying on. I didn’t even contemplate quitting at this point and climbed up the extremely muddy hill to Ridgeway. By this point, as long as I didn’t lose a shoe in the mud, I didn’t care what I was walking on.
Through streets, alongside a cemetery and one last long climb up towards the long gone ancient Gaer Fort, I was almost there. All that was left was to run through the Gaer and estate and onto Duffryn. It’s funny how you manage to keep going when you know the end is in sight. I had slowed down a lot in the last mile but made sure I ran until I saw the start/finish. I knew there was a shop at the end of the route and for the last few miles of the run I had been craving lots of milk so I wanted to get there as soon as possible.
After finishing the run I now had to catch 2 buses back home – one into the centre of Newport and then transfer to another that heads closer to home. Unfortunately this meant waiting for 20 minutes for a bus to arrive and with my legs on fire it sure was uncomfortable. I’d also started to get cold so thankfully the other layers I had brought with me and not used came in very handy. At home I made sure I stretched and relaxed and by evening the legs were feeling much better and I even managed to run a cross country race the following day.
Map and Route Profile