Races, Running

Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

23rd February 2017

The Brecon to Cardiff Ultra is organised by Run Walk Crawl, a race organiser that specialises in long distances races across south Wales. They also organise the Ghost Run which was my first ever night race.

After completing my first ultra back in August 2016 I must have been on a high from completing what I thought was the impossible and within two weeks I had signed up for the race. With five months until race day I would have plenty of time to train and I even managed to squeeze another ultra into the training schedule!

I’ve never followed a strict training schedule, instead I’ve opted to make sure that I keep to a certain mileage (between 40 and 50 miles a week), have plenty of back-to-back long runs, double run days, speed work, hill work and races including 5K, 10K, trail and cross country. I found it to be flexible and I can move things around or squeeze in a race here and there.

Race Day Prep

The race was due to start at 0800 in Brecon and the coach from the finish line was due to leave at 0615 which meant leaving the house around 0500 give me time to get there. I don’t like to rush in the morning so set my alarm for 0400 so that I could have breakfast and take my time double checking I’ve got everything I need.

Arriving at Nantgarw I got kitted up, and took my drop bag to the awaiting coaches. The journey followed the A470 to Merthyr before heading through the Brecon Beacons to a college in Brecon. The section to Merthyr served as a reminder to the distance that we would be running in the second half of the race.

Arriving at registration I made the mistake of heading straight to registration instead of to the toilet. It soon transpired that there was just a single cubicle for men and a single cubicle for women (295 runners had registered!). This meant extremely large queues to use the facilities and ultimately delayed the start of the race by 30 minutes. It was unfortunate but I’m sure they’ll be learning from their mistakes.

Heading to Checkpoint 1

After the race briefing in the college it was a 5 minute walk to the starting point on the canal. From here we would follow the canal over an aqueduct towards Talybont-on-Usk and the first checkpoint. This was a beautiful section of the route with canal barges moored along sections of the canal and a number of old stone bridges to run beneath.

Talybont-on-Usk

The first checkpoint was located at the White Hart Inn in Talybont-on-Usk and confused me a little. I was expecting something a bit more organised but I only saw a woman holding a tub of sweets and didn’t see any water. I still had a full flask which would see me through to the next checkpoint.

Leaving checkpoint 1 you meet the beginning of the longest, steepest section of the route. For the next 7 miles you climb 1,000ft alongside Talybont Reservoir to a section of the Beacons known for its waterfalls.

Talybont Reservoir Climb

The terrain at first is a wide rocky tramroad which is certainly ‘runnable’ although I’m sure many people will have opted to have walked this section. You then drop down to a dam at the edge of Talybont Reservoir where there would be a 5 mile climb.

Prior to the race I had run this section to get a feel for the gradient and to determine if there were any sections that were too steep to run. I followed the Taff Trail and used the 2015 GPX file from Run Walk Crawl and the forestry trail was wide, easy to run on and not too steep. I was prepared to take a steady plod to the summit but that soon changed when the route took a detour to a path further up the hillside. I was aware of this path but knew that the terrain would be different.

After a steep climb to get to the path the terrain quickly changed to narrower paths some of which consisted of cross-country grade mud. The path would ultimately end near the path I had originally climbed but this section took a bit out of me and required more walking.

Going Off Piste

At the summit the terrain briefly changes to tarmac which felt great to run on but the long descent didn’t do the quads any favours. Heading down the road I was expecting to continue past a tearoom and around the west side of Pentwyn Reservoir but instead we went off road along the east side and followed the a forestry trail alongside the Brecon Mountain Railway. I was fortunate enough to time it just as the train was pulling into Torpantau station.

I’m not sure if the path was on previous races but according to OS Maps it’s not part of the Taff Trail. Being out-of-bounds to cars it was probably safer to take this route and the softer terrain was better for the joints.

The route crossed a bridge between Pentwyn and Pontsticill Reservoirs to checkpoint 2 on the road I was expecting to have run along. I stopped at the checkpoint to refill the bottles with Tailwind then headed off piste again. I was expecting to be running along the road along Pontsticill but instead headed up a very steep forestry track. This was definitely a hill you need to hike up but once at the top the track wound its way, at first, away from the reservoir and then back in the same direction. This section threw me off a little not because I felt I would running any further than expected but I wasn’t sure how long this section would last. For the most part I was running alone with nobody in front or behind I was enjoying the run so plodded onwards.

The track eventually joins that road I was always expecting to run on and I was back on familiar territory. I was just outside Pontsticill village so there was a switchback down towards the dam near the southern edge of the reservoir where you would cross it, and then follow the road before joining a dismantled railway line that would eventually take you directly to checkpoint 3.

Checkpoint 3

Arriving at checkpoint 3 at 23 miles I could finally get to use the toilet! I had opted for a drop bag at this checkpoint which contained road shoes, socks, gels, more Tailwind sachets and a change of top if required.

On my first ultra my drop bag consisted of nothing more than a mobile charger but due to a difference in terrain between the first and second half I opted to switch shoes but doing so meant I had to also switch to thinner socks and that took time. I still had to fill my water bottles feeling like I really should be getting back on track I only quickly grabbed some food. In hindsight I probably didn’t need a change of shoes and should have focused more on grabbing more to eat.

Potential Problem?

Shortly after leaving checkpoint 2 and running across the spectacular Grade II listed Cefn Coed Viaduct I began feeling just a little bit nauseous. My sweat had been tasting very salty so there was a good chance that they were linked and that I was losing too much salt. With another 21 miles to go I was concerned that things may get worse but I continued taking the Tailwind and eating mints and eventually it subsided.

Between checkpoint 3 at Merthyr and checkpoint 4 at Aberfan I got out the headphones for some motivation which worked a treat and I was able to main a steady pace for the 5 or so miles. At checkpoint 4 I drank some flat cola, grabbed a few nuts and sweets and filled up my bottles with Tailwind.

An Opportunity to Get Lost

Leaving checkpoint 4 you encounter a tricky section to navigate. Up until this point there had either been Run Walk Crawl signs or official Taff Trail/Cycle Route 8 signs but one particular section involves a junction where you can either head down hill or turn right and head uphill and slightly back on yourself. And there are no signs at all to guide you.

Naturally you would take a left and head downhill as after all, you’re following the river so why not head towards it. The trail actually takes a right and heads up hill, beneath a road then turns left and continues. Sure all runners had maps but for the most part there was no need to use them.

When I reached this section half a dozen people had taken the wrong turning and were walking uphill from the wrong direction. Luckily they hadn’t strayed off too far but afterwards I had read about people continuing down the path and through a tricky, muddy wooded section that ultimately rejoined the correct path.

I had previously run this section of the route with someone who had completed the race so was well aware of its existence. Whilst not always possible, recce runs are a great way of reducing navigation errors. And if you can’t do a recce run a subscription to OS Maps is an excellent way of familiarising yourself with the route and any landmarks or potentially difficult terrain.

Onwards to Checkpoint 5

For the seven miles between checkpoints 4 and 5 I plodded on and fortunately was in close proximity of other runners so had them to focus on in order to keep moving. Along the trail and near main roads there was great support from random people out for a walk, supporters and even people sat outside a pub. It’s surprising how much of a boost you get from a simple ‘you’re doing great’.

During the last mile before the checkpoint I was entering new territory. This was the furthest distance I had even run and my legs were feeling it. Walking breaks increased and when I arrived at checkpoint 5 I made the mistake of sitting down, albeit very briefly. I knew I shouldn’t be doing it but I just had to. I probably only sat down for about 20 seconds but I really should have kept standing. This checkpoint had plenty to eat and drink and and also included chips and sausages but I wasn’t feeling up to eating hot food. In hindsight I should have forced myself to eat something to see if it would have helped.

I Think My Legs May Be Broken

Leaving checkpoint 5 I soon realised that whilst I was capable of placing one foot in front of the other, I was only capable of doing so at a snail’s pace. I would try running but would quickly stop but eventually I managed to get going again.

This section of the route leads through residential streets until it reaches Ynysangharad Park. At this point a sign says enter the park and take a left. The very first left is straight after entering the park and is a gate that leads back onto the main road. On my recce run I took this route which went under the A470 and past the Bunch of Grapes pub ultimately ending up at the University of South Wales Pontypridd Campus. The runners in front of me carried on and I wasn’t sure which way to go. Do I follow the crowd or head the way I had been knowing that I would ultimately end up going the right way. Following the crowd is not always the best option so I went with my instinct and took the first left. Turns out I was wrong, it wasn’t the official route but very quickly the others appeared and I was back on track.

Did I Slow Down Too Soon?

At the University of South Wales Pontypridd Campus you enter a path the will take you a few miles to Caerphilly Road. Having run this path before, it’s hardly the most inspiring.

A small pack of runners had left me and I was running alongside another runner that was a seasoned ultra runner having run about 30 ultras. She was aiming for 07:30 and was looking to run/walk the final few miles. I was happy to join her and we got on well chatting and choosing landmarks to run towards.

Looking back I question whether I should have plodded on and pushed myself to run as much of the last few miles as I could but I honestly think I gained so much more by not going ahead. I picked up tips from her including running multi day races.

The path seemed endless! I knew we needed to run through a housing estate but was the one we were running past the one? Was it the next one? How about the buildings in the distance? Were they near the finish line? We were tired and keen to reach Caerphilly Road where we knew we would turn downhill and towards the finish line.

Spotting a random spectator in the distance I sensed we were close. I’m not sure how long she had been positioned there but seeing her cheering us on was such a great moment, a relief that we had almost made it. All that was left was a descent to the A470, a little climb over a flyover and on towards the cheering crowds on the finish line. And what a finish line! So many people cheering you across the line and even after 44 miles you always have enough in reserve to run over the line.

Post Race Thoughts

I set out, like many runners I’d spoken to, to finish sub 8 hours so finishing in 07:43:06 (Full Results) was a great achievement. I felt like I performed well and reached a further distance before struggling than on the two previous ultras. I still struggle with fuelling (or lack of it) and at times I wonder if I should be slowing down in order to conserve energy to pick up the pace later on in the race. I can’t help but go into race mode whereas I should be slowing down and spending more time at checkpoints to ensure I fuel up. I finished 46th place, which I was delighted with, but had I spent more time at aid stations and slowed down and had finished 60th or 80th would it have made any difference? Of course not! The same as it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had finished over 8 hours.

It’s early days and I’ve still got plenty to learn so I don’t see any failings, just opportunities to learn and improve.

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