I've always had a bit of a fascination for the Brecon Beacons but never been. As soon as I hear its name I immediately think of the armed forces and their gritty resolve. Looming over this is the huge beautiful lump they call Pen Y Fan. So when GB Ultras released a brand new race for 2019 - The Beacons Way Ultra - I thought "what a perfect excuse to go to the Brecons"! So, I spontaneously booked myself on the race there and then in bed late one night back in November 2018.
I had nine months to train and some good races already booked prior to it which would give me a good base to build on, prep, and work up to it! I don't think I've ever done a big race before and not reccied the course in advance, but this one I decided was going to be a wildcard. A 100 mile ultra with no reccies - what an adventure!
So I worked my way through the races prior to the Beacons way (The Spine Challenger, lm42, UTS50 and the Scafell Skyrace) as well as spending nearly every single weekend playing out in the mountains. Most people call this 'training') but I prefer to call it playing out - as it's my favourite bit.
The nine months went pretty quick and before you know it it's 5.45am on Saturday 13th July at Abergavenny castle, and I'm at the race brief. I'd been kit checked the day before.
It was just a case of get up, rock up, get briefed and away we go. I'd had about three hours sleep, but was excited and keen to go. The race started at 6am sharp.
The plan was to finish sub 24 hours. I didn’t think that was out of reach, and anything else was a bonus. I was hoping more for maybe 21-22 hours. The race started really quick and by mile one, I’d settled in at around 5th. I put some headphones in and zoned out. It’s the first time I've done this in a long time in an ultra and after an hour they were out my ears and back in my race vest!
Check Point (CP) 1 at mile seven came quickly. I filled up one flask, added my electrolytes and was on the move again in about 30 seconds. I’d moved into 4th now and there was a trio of us clumped together chatting so we were all dancing between 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the tracker depending on whether we were climbing or descending. First place set off like a rocket and he was 15 minutes ahead of us at CP1! I was stronger on the climbs but wasn’t able to let go as much as I’d of liked on the descents - I was really wary of an injury I’d picked up and had just managed to shake off about a week before the event. I was told by my physio to keep my cadence high so I was sticking with that; nice, small, fast steps! So I kept getting left on the flat sections as well as the descents but I wasn’t worried- just a bit frustrated. There was still a loooooong way to go.
I was starting to feel a bit tired. I wasn’t too sure if it was the humidity, that I’d only had three hours sleep, or that I’d raced an ultra a month since March. It was probably a combination of all of that. Luckily, we came to the top of a hill and the clouds rolled in, the moisture cooled me down. I couldn’t see much but it was nice.
Again, CP2 at mile 13 came around really quick! We were motoring through and I was sweating profusely. I’d made a conscious effort to drink both soft flasks of electrolyte this time round so I filled them both up and again I was back on the road within a minute, keen not to lose sight of second and third who were visible again.
We were on nice, rolling, single track trails passing through forest and shrubbery overlooking fields that looked like patchwork quilts. We then descended into CP3 together.
I don’t faff in aid stations. I was the last in and first out. It didn’t take long though before all three of us were back together again.
The race pretty much continued like this for the next 10 miles before one of the other two runners began to slowly diminish on one of the climbs and that was the last I saw of him. I was overheating badly now and sweat poured out of me. I can’t seem to remember CP4, but again it would of been an in and out job.
We were close to CP5 now (my one and only drop bag point) and boy was I looking forward to the chocolate yazoo I’d packed! You could of had two drop bags, and I had planned on utilising both: one at CP5 and one at CP9 but I thought your drop bag travelled up the course with you...I found out at registration you had to pack two separate bags to keep race logistics simple. So finding this out so late I kept it simple and went with cp5
The other lad I was with made a break for it. He had a camper van with a support crew meeting him at all the check points. The road leading up to it went on for a mile or two slightly up hill....it seemed never-ending, I couldn’t see the check point and I was getting worried as I was out of food and water until thankfully I was greeted by a Marshall as I turned a slight bend. “thank god for that” I thought!
I was on a bit of a low here and was really hot and thirsty. On arrival at drop bag CPs I ALWAYS politely ask for some headspace until I’m locked and loaded again, as in the past I've been known to talk too much, not concentrate, and leave without filling my waters up or collecting spare batteries etc - the really important stuff I need!
As I got there, second place was just on his way up Pen Y Fan steps. I did what I needed to as quick as I could and immediately felt my pack weight increase as I’d loaded it with enough electrolyte satchets to get me to the end. The way I was sweating if I began to cramp it was game over for me. I could live off the aid station food every 10 mile or so I filled my spare pockets with that rather than my preferred food, and a gps device in case my watch died.
I explained to the staff that this was my only planned drop bag so that’s why I was concentrating so much making crucial decisions what to take and what to leave before one of the staff said she was to be CP9 leader and could have my drop bag there for me when I arrived so long as I didn’t arrive before 6pm when she was due to set up ha! I was very grateful for this so I set off up Pen Y Fan with my chocolate yazoo in hand about 50 miles in. I’d wasted what felt like a good 5/10 mins at that CP, my brain was a bit fried.
I took my time getting to the summit of Pen Y Fan enjoying my milkshake and the cool breeze that was getting stronger and stronger the higher I got. I passed my empty bottle to a passer-by and asked if he could hand this into the checkpoint staff at the bottom. I don’t think he had a choice - I just smiled and passed it to him and said “thank you very much”!
The terrain had totally changed now. It had gone from dry, earthy, grass, soil, single track to more technical. Not majorly so, but there was a huge change in contrast. It was definitely more suited to my style of running. I was pretty fudged by this point but I kept going the best I could. The wind was blowing into me so I didn’t fight it, but I efficiently went as fast as I could.
Second place was back in sight, and I saw him disappear over the top of “Corn du”. I guessed I was 5 minutes behind him. I got over it myself and it was a quad busting descent for 2k down to CP6 . I was out of water and Wayne the event organiser managed to catch me filling my waters up when having a cool down in a steam at the bottom about half a mile before the aid station.
I was feeling better now so I jogged onto CP6. Second place has taken a nasty fall on the descent. Luckily he was more shook up than anything so we left the CP together and stuck together keeping each other company.
We stuck with each other all the way to CP7. I had another very quick turnaround, so we said our goodbyes. He re-joined me and within a few miles I just couldn’t keep up with him; his pace just didn’t correlate with mine so I had to let him go. Being on my own didn’t bother me at all but I was peeved off with myself and questioning why I felt so weak.
After an hour or so on my own and took a wrong turn somewhere just before CP8! I gathered I could get back on track the way I was going but it was a longer route. I carried on hoping I wouldn’t get penalised for doing more mileage. Then the track went really vague and my watch couldn’t make its mind up if I was on or off course. I was in a field of horses that kept charging at me so I bailed over a barb wire fence ASAP, forcing me next to a river. I filled my waters up again and came to a realisation I was on the wrong side of the river so I ran through it and scrambled up the bank, getting back on track but cut to ribbons off prickle bushes in the process. I finally made it to CP8 glad to be alive!
I was pretty fuming with myself so I sat down for five minutes, had some Coca Cola and a chat with the staff who gave me some baby wipes to clean up my little cuts. While I was sat down I emptied my shoes of stones. They said second had only been here 10 minutes ago. That didn't sound too bad - I’d got lost, went river trekking and climbing up mud banks through bramble bushes! I put my head torch on ready for darkness and started my ascent on a big looking hill. The sun was just setting; the sky was orange and there was a big cloud bank heading in our direction. It looked amazing taking me out of my bad mood. Once the cloud came in though, visibility was 2m max. It got pretty cold too so I stopped in a shelter at the summit and put my spare Montane Primino 140 T-Shirt
base layer on. Navigating along the ridgeline was relatively easy, but during the descent of it, I just couldn’t find a path or trail in the grass and the underfoot conditions were really slow going.
I made it down to the tarmac road eventually without going off course and made some good time back, running all the way to CP9 as I knew my friend Kim was going to be there ready and waiting. I was well behind schedule now and wanted my watch charger out my drop bag too. As I came into CP9, second was on his way out. I wished him luck and to keep going.
Kim was in there ready and waiting, chatting to the staff. I was red hot again now with putting on a good pace along the 2 mile stretch of tarmac so I took my midlayer off. The staff offered me some warm soup - I refrained as I didn’t want to waste any time. I rummaged in my drop bag, quickly grabbed another yazoo and some of my own food and off I went.
My legs were pretty hammered now so I tried my best to make use of the 2-mile tarmac road back onto the trail but was struggling to be honest because the roads were quite steep, but I did my best. I batted it out and soon enough we were on the last of the big climbs and what a bugger it was!
I began to accept I’d be finishing 3rd as I’d hit a new all-time low between check point 9 and 10. I told Kim I’m having a break from running - I was almost in tears saying it (being serious) and I felt emotional - I think I was just over-tired. The conditions underfoot had reduced me to a walk. It was pitch black and the track was vague. I kept finding it and then it would go. It was really hard to stay on my feet in the grassy tussocks and the big patches of boulders while trying to navigate, falling over loads! I could see head torches in different locations but I didn’t know if they were people in my race or another race going on in the area at the same time so I just kept on pushing to CP10. Finally, I could see it in the distance. My pace picked up a little bit now and managed to jog the few kilometres into CP10.
I’d managed to catch second place up! "Game on" I thought - it was turning into a proper race! I had a bit of cold pizza, a gallon of Coca Cola and filled my bottles back up ready for the last 15 Mile stretch which I’d been told prior to this off someone was all down hill to the finish line (lies!).
The CP staff also informed me that first place still hadn’t checked in yet so in effect me and Nik were joint first at that very moment. I couldn’t believe it!
“C’mon Kimmy let’s do this” I said. Nik was already locked and loaded and had a pacer with him now and had set off about 30 seconds ago. Apparently it was all down hill from here (pfffftt). Knowing what I know now I’d say it was more undulating but trending down hill with a couple of small brutal climbs - brutal when you have just been running 7/8 minute miles after already running over a hundred miles falsely thinking it’s all down hill.
So I got my bearings pretty quick and managed to get us bang on the track without any issues. Nik was slightly off track but moving parallel with us. With the new, raw adrenaline now flowing through my veins all the pain, fatigue and dismay had subsided and was replaced with excitement and a new found sense of strength and hope. I’m not gonna lie I set off like a man possessed. I could see Nik and his pacers torches a fair bit back now trying to find the trail! The sun was just beginning to come up and I yelled over my shoulder at kimmy, “turn your torch off”!!
There was just enough sun light creeping out of the darkness to be able to see where we were going. I forgot all about the distance (15 miles) and carried on booting it downhill, stopping every so often to check we were still on course as the track was abit rough at times. So we just kept going relentlessly until we hit abit of a climb and then the fatigue would kick back in. I felt sick, and kept having to force shot blocks in me, not even chewing them hardly just taking them like tablets with water.
This went on for 15 miles! I knew how strong a runner Nik was after running more than half the course with him. He has an ability to be able to just pull away from me and disappear at times. I was scared he was going to come sprinting behind me at any second so I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing - telling myself he was just round the corner, gaining on me all the time. Kim is a very fast runner - in a flat race she would kick my butt but she’s had a few nasty falls descending so on the descents she just said do not worry about me I'll find my way back - she also had the route so I’m bombing it down a steep rocky track on my own and I full on tripped and hit the deck hard - any other time I’d of stopped and tried not to cry but not today! I waited for Kim because I could feel all my kit hanging out my bag so I got her to push it all back in before setting off again to be cruelly met with the small brutal climbs which would reduced me to a walk again but as soon as it levelled out or we hit a descent we returned to the 7/8min mile pace.
Finally, we were on the home stretch and I couldn’t wait to get over the line and return my body and mind back in sync with each other. I crossed in 25hrs 9mins! 1hr 9mins later than my target but I didn’t give a flying fudge- I was buzzing. I asked how far behind second place was and they said about an hour. That really puts it into perspective how hard I pushed in that last 15 miles but man it was worth it!
I just repeated over and over again for about a minute with my head in my hands rubbing my temples saying “that was horrrrrrible!" I’d soon forgot about it after ten minutes though when the lovely ladies at the finish waited on me hand and foot, sitting me down and making me a cups of tea bacon sandwiches.
I loved it though. I don’t like to enter easy races and this one certainly tested me. I don’t think I gave it the respect it deserved in the build up to it. I’m used to races with much less support so assumed I’d find it much easier with the lightweight pack and frequent, well stocked aid stations. I think the humidity and maybe racing too hard and too much in the months prior to it had an impact on the way I felt?! Ultra Running is one big learning curve.
This was my first ever race win so I was absolutely buzzing. I won a Huge Gold trophy! A special two tone finishers buckle and a free entry into another 100 mile GB ultra event next year of my choice.
Big thanks and a massive well done to Nik for making the race a race, what an epic battle it was! Also a big thanks to all the GB Ultra owner, organisers, staff, volunteers and marshals for making the race happen. Memories I'll never forget.