Brecon Beacons Ultra Marathon 2011

Posted on December 28, 2011 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

So this is where my blog should begin really as it was during this race that I thought it’d be nice to keep a track of events leading up to the DBR. This event happened more by chance than anything else and it all started with a text.

Martin Wilcock (my mountain marathon partner) sent me a text which read something like, “fancy doing something fun and free on the 19th November?” Sounded promising so I gave him a call. Two of his fellow runners had let him down so he was inviting Adair and me to take their places and do the Brecon Beacons Ultra Marathon. I said “why not!”

This was actually all very handy, I was due to be down in the area that weekend as we were visiting the outlaws. Laura was heading down earlier in the week with the boys and was going to be busy on the 19th, so I was set to get the train down and go for a run in the mountains around Abergavenny anyway. Perfect. I think Martin was a little surprised when I said yes so easily though, I guess it’s not everyday you ask somebody if they want to run 45 miles and they say yes 🙂

Things didn’t start off well. I missed the train to Chester, despite being on the platform when the train was there and knocking on the drivers window to let me in. Jobsworth. The bus saved the day and Adair, Martin and me were on out way.

None of us had run that far before in a race. I don’t think any of us had actually run that far before full stop. That said, Adair manages to run everything and Martin is a seasoned Ironman who is doing the Marathon des Sables (MDS) next Easter. I was putting in 50+ trail miles per week in the dark too, so this wasn’t three blokes down the pub that goad each other into running a marathon the next morning with no training; but then again this was unknown territory for us all.

The MDS is a 5 day stage race over the desert. Competitors must carry all their kit with the exception of water; this means the lighter one’s kit is the better chance one has. Martin had recently been taking this to extremes with paper suits that can double as toilet roll if you run out, etc. but the bulk of the weight is food. Revelation number one – champions eat cous cous!

Martin’s quest had led him to an incredible second revelation which was, in his own words, “Ainsley Harriott isn’t such a useless tosser after all!” A bold claim some might say, but Ainsley’s spiced packet cous cous manages to deliver 600 calories, is in a light foil packet which can be used to prepare it, and are actually tasty. I felt I had to put this to the test*.

We arrived at the hotel to find that we were room only. Was I glad that I found my cous cous on the way down! After a fretful night of sleep I was rejuvenated by a Moroccan spiced extravaganza of calories of the slow release variety. I believe this proved crucial to the day ahead!

Disorganised as always, we found ourselves running around trying to find the start line. We missed half the race briefing, but did arrive at the start line on time. Getting lost this early in the day didn’t spell good things, but the weather seemed to be holding and we were all in fine spirits as we eyed up other people’s rucksacks and bum bags, wondering how they had fitted all the mandatory kit in them!

We set out pretty excited as always. I have a tendency to go too hard too early and we were all conscious of how far we had to go, but we felt comfortable at the pace which was between the 6 and 6.5 minute miles. We had all agreed to run together and had a mildly romantic notion of crossing the finish line together. We’re all roughly even paced, although both Adair and Martin are faster than me. So far I had only come close to Adair once in a race and had only kept up with Martin on the RAB MM due to him having a chest infection!

The course started off along the canal which is billed as the flattest 3k you’ll find anywhere in South Wales. I had my latest GPS gadget with me (Garmin Foretrex 401 – but didn’t know how to use it) however the track and progress of my route is below – I didn’t calibrate the altimeter before I started… mainly because we were late!

[sgpx gpx=”/wp-content/uploads/gpx/Brecon Beacons Ultra 2011_Track.gpx”]

The buzz of the race and what was in store for us all was palpable. I had read the course description and had taken a very quick look at the map. It looked like there were two ascents, but they were relatively gradual. The first came immediately after the canal and from the map looked the easier of the two; in practice I found this to be the toughest.

It consisted of a long steep section broken over two hills. We trotted up this as far as we could before adopting a fell runners walk (hands on knees driving up the hill). By the time we reached the top we’d settled a bit too much and were in danger of forgetting it was a race. Martin soon fixed that and cracked on. Not before we had spotted the video camera and had made fools of ourselves. (55 seconds in).

My mind had drifted off as I was enjoying the race so much, so when Martin put on a turn of speed as we got to the summit of the mist covered hill I was pulled right back into reality. The race was on!

The next section was made up of fire roads and was essentially a long up hill with a short but rocky descent in the middle. The section tracks through a beautiful wooded area and we caught fleeting glances of the beauty around as the mist moved in and out.

There was a lot of caution in the camp, but we were holding an average of 9 minute mile pace which seemed comfortable enough, but slightly taxing given the mental aspect of the unknown and the gradual ascent. We arrived at the Taff trail in high spirits and started our ascent to “the gap”. Things were going well, we all seemed to be eating well and my home made brownies (thank you Nigella) were going down a treat.

Up until now I’d never managed to get my food right on an event. I’ve suffered some nasty “bonks” in my time so had come prepared with far too much food. This was usually the case, but my issue was remembering to get it down me. Getting my food right is crucial to completing any of these races and certain will be if I am to complete the BGR and DBR. I’d also ditched my horizontal Inov8 bladder (great to use, terrible to fill) for two 0.5 litre water bottles set in holders on my rucksack straps. I think these proved to be the best purchase ever.

I’d decided to work to a food every 30 minutes schedule and was alternating between techno-food (shotbloks) and the afore mentioned brownies. I’d also loaded up with 0.5 litres of isotonic drink and 0.5 litres of water. I had ‘zero’ tablets to make up more isotonic stuff and there were three water stops on the route. At last, I’ve found a system that seems to work, I just need to prove it on multiple occasions and events now!

Anyway, back to the gap. The track up was covered in large stones/ small rocks all set at jaunty angles. Not great for the ankles as you’re heading up the slope, but hey, it certainly sharpened the mind! We passed a checkpoint and began an horrendous descent. One of the other boys had noticed that the guy marking the check point appeared to have an automatic rifle – we pondered whether this was in fact an ultra version of the running man and the people at the back would be shot if they missed the cut off timing – never did find out!

I still hadn’t let go of “the gap” in my mind. I was convinced we hadn’t passed over it yet as the last checkpoint had seemed too easy to get to. We finally passed somebody and I asked only to be told that we’d passed it a mile previous. What a result! I knew the rest of the course now was, comparatively, undulating at best now so it was a huge relief. Little did I know that a narrow, stony dried up river bed was to follow, but hey ho.

Not long after this a chap had the indecency to pass us! He didn’t accelerate away so I caught him up and got chatting. It was Sam who, much to my delight, is now joining us on the BGR. We had a fair old chat and unsurprisingly had a fair bit in common given that we were out in the beacons running 45 miles. The more I come to know about Sam the more I like – I love his approach of just getting out there and doing it rather than fretting over things or putting up mental walls which aren’t really there. A man that decided to run home to Cambridge after the London marathon (not on a whim to be fair, but he did only start running in 2009). I suspect we’ll find ourselves at similar races from now on and I see a kindred spirit in him.

The miles flew by and I realised that Adair and Martin had dropped back so I stopped at the next village for them to catch up. The three amigos were back together! It was about this time that I realised just how good I felt. I felt like I was just starting to run and was finding it difficult to hold myself back. We also started to pass people and came up on the end of the first loop.

I realised that on distances like this you go through different stages. I was at a stage where I just needed to run at my own speed, so I was doing just that and was gradually moving away from Martin and Adair, so I was really caught mentally as to what to do, I decided that we’d keep together and no doubt they’d be on a second wind and passing me at any moment. I was straining at the leash simply because the running just seemed to flow, but a plan was a plan.

We passed another chap from Chester Tri (Martin’s club) and Martin got chatting. At the half way mark I ran back 50 yards to the boys so we were together again, but they said not to worry and to just run as I was. We started eating up the competition and were moving into single figure placings. I felt fantastic so just kept running. Adair came with me and we ran along the tow path knowing exactly what was in store for us.

Adair and I had run together in races before, so I played the same routine, one of us in front pulling the other one along. Granted it has always been Adair in front until now, but the brief spell in front I had at the British fell relay championships (anyone can enter!!!) Adair had been telling me not to let up so we continued like this.

I caught up a dairy farmer on the canal who was aiming to beat his previous time, but it was whilst I was chasing him up the hll after the canal section where Adair shouted me to go on ahead. Although we split a few times, from the first hard hill section until just by the town we pretty much ran together, stopping briefly for each other on the track up to the gap as we tripped over. I went hands down, but was quickly up as I was conscious that he didn’t really want to wait.

He had sowed the seeds early by trying to lose me on the hill, but I felt pretty determined to hang on. On the fire road section this had meant that I got my head down and probably produced my best section of running for the day. I became fixated on doing sub 9 minute miles on this very long hill section and achieved just that.

A relentless period of pressure from me gave me a significant lead on him, but poor food planning meant I had to get my rucksack off at the next section so he caught up and overtook me. As I hit the start of the taff trail I was told I was in 6th so I now had a mission to be in the top 5.

We had pretty much settled into a rhythm and Adair seemed to have fallen off the pace. I don’t look back in races as a general rule and so I wasn’t sure where Adair had dropped off, but I didn’t seem him after the fire road section. This was a great shame in my eyes, but I started to realise it was the first time I may actually beat him in a race. As the end drew near I began to believe I could complete the race in close to 7 hours. Given that I had started out with a best hope of going sub 8, this was very good news indeed.

The second loop had not all been plain sailing. I had reacted badly to a gel and just felt sick. I’d missed a feed as a result but diligently put it back in ten minutes later which threw out my timings a bit. I found my mind getting into loops and almost obsessing about certain things – time calculations, speeds on sections, body sense checks, etc. The most unnerving of which was yet to come.

I need to point out that the event marshaling and organisation was superb. Perfectly spaced water stops (roughly 8 miles apart) Marshals on all key turning points in the mountains and signs in the villages. The one place for improvement (and this is getting really picky) was the route between the little village and the canal. It was signed, but on the second time around things seemed different and I began to doubt whether I was on the right path.

Sensing he had nothing left I had put a spurt on just before the village and had left my latest running buddy behind. Lucky for me he effectively gave up at this point and let me go. Running down the country lanes I was beginning to wonder if this was lucky at all. I found myself looking back a lot and slowing at junctions to see if a sign had been torn down or moved. Finally I saw another runner behind me so figured I was still on the right track… or was he following me?

As I got to the canal I waved at some people on the other side. They shouted “he’s catching you” which I took as a joke. I turned to see he was catching me. I turned again, to check how quickly, and again when I realised he looked different. It was Adair! He was running hard and I was once again caught in two minds as to what I should do. Should I slow down and we cross together? If I slow down will he just overtake me and go for it? If he does then it’ll jut sound like an excuse to say I did slow down… in the end I decided to go for glory and see if I could hold him off.

The canal went on forever. I was running hard and refusing to look behind me. I was convinced I could hear him on my shoulder and I started to want the win more and more. I’m now in the final two miles of a 45 mile race and I’m running sub 7 minute miles, but still that bloody end won’t appear!

I finally turn the corner which reveals the end… but it’s not! I’m directed off the tow path towards the school. I’m hurting now, but have sneaked a glance behind to see that Adair is nowhere in sight. My mind had played tricks on me, but it had got me to the end alright. A final loop on the playing field got me to the finish in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 57 seconds. A mere 40 minutes behind the winner Mark Palmer* who set a new course record in the process.

To have a 6 as the first digit for my time was just awesome. To sneak one over Adair was great, but I did point out to him that whilst I had put in well over a hundred miles in the 14 days before the event, none of those had been in the last 3 days… Adair had run 17 miles the day before. As a measure of the man, he also went and rand the Conway half the next day and put in a sub 90 minute time including going over the Great Orme!

Martin came in not too far behind us. Turned out he’d got his food wrong and had bonked. He must have gone at a terrific pace one he sorted that out though a he really wasn’t far behind. His Chester Tri team mate had also made me feel a lot better when he said that Martin was chuffed when we had cracked on, commenting that we were slowly killing him. Although Martin had scheduled this as a kick off event, to most people (and I mean those that do these sort of things) it would be looked as the end of an epic season and coming off the back of illness and injury which had left him short on training miles. My aim this year is to get half as fit as Martin so I can tackle the DBR!

Back to the day, tea and biscuits were served and there was even talk of a shower. I started to shiver uncontrollably as I chatted to the winner who had not long ago completed a sub 15 hour Bob Graham Round. Lovely bloke but I was falling to bits. Adair and I went to get the car so we’d have our kit and so it would be there for Martin when he got in. We somehow managed it and went for the showers. The were cold. 😦  Still, nothing could take the smile from my face after without doubt my best ever run.

Turned out we came second overall in the team event so we even got some prizes out of the event. My thanks go to Martin for getting me involved, Adair for completing our team, the Likeys (Sue and Martin Likey – the event organisers and owners of the Sam and the Dairy farmer fella for interesting chat on the run and last but not least, Ainsley Harriet* for giving me the fuel!

Fantastic event. Fantastic people. Fantastic day out.




* Ainsley’s cous cous is the perfect mountain marathon breakfast and dinner. It’s less than a quarter of the weight of a hi-cal expedition food pack (800 cal) and delivers 200 cal in one cheap and light package. At around 75p a packet it beats the pants off £6-7 for the hi-cal ration pack. The foil packet is much lighter too so even your rubbish weighs less. Ainsley, I salute you!

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