Our club has a proud history of fell running – our former chairman Eddie Leal was a founding member of the Fell Running Association, scores of Harriers have run the infamous Ben Nevis race and the Edale Skyline even has a RH trophy as they recognised the insanity of a regular visit from a southerly club with no mountains. With this is mind it was very satisfying to survey the table of the White Hart Inn in Talybont-on-Usk last Friday and see a posse of club members ready for a double visit to the biggest mountains in the south of the UK over the next two days. We had all made the trip up for the Brecon Fans weekend with its dual races of the Pen Y Fan and Fan Y Big Horseshoe; everyone was hyped up, some more than others, and some a little frightened too. Lots of the party were facing their first ever fell race with Rosie admitting she’d never even been up a mountain before!
Saturday began drizzly and windy, not good omens for a jaunt in to the hills but Brecon town had sunshine and after a motivational coffee plus a quick trip to add to the essential waterproof kit we all had to carry for the race, we wound our way to race registration. Now softy road runners at this point would probably give up, fell races often start from a map grid reference and thats it…facilities are usually a bush and a tent with a warning notice along with a map of the route. Once registered we jogged our way up a footpath to the start.
This first race, the Pen Y Fan, is an AS. A being the hardest type of race with the most climbing, S being the shortest. Looking up the hill from the start there wasn’t much to go on with the cloud tumbling down about 200m further up, obscuring the summits we faced. As we lined up the junior race did too, they were only going as far as the first stile and we had Tom, Ben and Jimi from our party ready to battle it out with the locals. After a short safety talk that put the fear into many people we were off. Fell runs don’t tend to give you much of a warm up and this was no exception as it was straight into climbing. As we hit the fence, Tom turned second in the junior race with Jimi and Ben well placed as well. We later found out Tom had hammered the descent to take the win, this from someone who a year earlier had told me he didn’t like and couldn’t run downhills, with Jimi third and Ben fifth.
We however had a lot more racing to do and soon we were into the clouds. The climbing was relentless and I got into a walk-run-walk groove making sure the small group behind me didn’t catch me by starting to run when they were on my heels. With legs screaming, wind battering us and the drizzly rain building we scrambled the last tricky climb to the summit of Corn Du with a cheerily soaked marshal yelling encouragement and our race placing. I was sixteenth and this spurred me on as the summit dropped away to a plateau. Walkers, layered against the conditions, looked on incredulously as vest and short wearing lunatics hared past them. I push away from the chasing group and caught, then overtook, two fellas in front of me and I was feeling great. The summit of Pen Y Fan came up in no time with two more bedraggled marshals awaiting us.
It was then time for the dreaded descent…I consider myself a reasonable descender when I take on Island runners at races like the Needles half, but mainland fell races show me up as a mere amateur. The two runners I had previously passed careered past me as we took a couple of steps down the walker’s path before diving off in to a grassy, fog-enveloped abyss. The descent was incredibly steep and I started to worry as to how the first-time Harriers might fare as I was fairly bricking it. The two others disappear quickly into the cloud, one of them using the run run slip slide run technique that looked quite frankly like it was made for breaking several bones.
Les appeared beside me going well and I steeled myself not to let him get too far away. Luckily the gradient slackened and it became a better surface for running (just). It’s at this point that I started to wonder if we were going the right way! We were all going downhill but some point we needed to be heading left to retake the path we started from. I decided to head that direction whilst more figures appeared from the mists.
Suddenly I heard a shout of “Over here!” and found someone ready with a camera at the crossing to the mountain stream. I ran past them and found myself back on the original track. I looked over my shoulder to see at least ten runners appearing out of the gloom and realised that my route choice put me ahead of all of them. I pushed on hard and came to the stile with 400m to go. The ground was now mostly grassy and true so I legged it hard. Choosing the outside grass path gave me a view of the lower, rockier path and I saw one runner hurtling down at a ridiculous speed. He overtook me but nobody else followed and I finished fourteenth with Les just behind in. Shortly after Nigel came in looking very strong and then there was a little more of a gap to Andy Keehn who had Andy Leal close behind. Then we waited…and waited. Still no sign of Sarah, Rosie and Elaine and I started to get a little worried so I trotted back up the hill slowly to see if I could spot them and cheer them in. Still nothing. I moved a little higher and came across a couple of walking wounded including a guy who had dislocated his shoulder.
Over the stile I went and up the rise to where it flattened a little. I could see some figures coming though the mist slowly and I crossed my fingers it’s the girls. Nope. A marshal told me that the sweeper had been through and everyone was down…where were they?!
At this point, as I’m contemplating the state they will all be in Les bounded up and announced they’ve been finished for ages so we jogged back down to the car park to find that the three of them had stayed together and had managed to take a route a half mile longer that brought them up from a totally different angle. The post-run beer and cake now tasted excellent with everyone safe home and everyone buzzing. We had a relaxed afternoon of cricket, frisbee and tea drinking back at the campsite before retiring to the pub. On the way in a small coach party was tipping out looking very refreshed and Jane spotted someone she knows. Most of us assume this is an old friend but in actual fact it was legendary Welsh comedian and singer Max Boyce.
Sunday began with improved weather and even some sunshine as we packed up the tents and prepared for race two. The Fan Y Big Horseshoe is a BM so not as hard climb-wise (although we do climb for longer it’s more spread out) but a longer race at ten and a half miles. My legs weren’t feeling like they were in the mood for one mile never mind ten on a mountain. We found the start easily and picked up our numbers. This race was much more popular, a sell out in fact, and we stared jealously at the bouncy looking runners who clearly hadn’t raced before.
The race began with a path along a river that wound through some woods before a steadyish climb across some fields. Still the legs weren’t really up for it. Then we hit the first proper climb, on road to stat with and within seconds Les and I are walking. The gradient eases and we come on to a grass-covered slope that is the start of the mountain proper. Then it was back into the walk-run-walk pattern from the day previously and I was actually feeling ok. We had incredible views to take in including a good look at Cribyn to our right, which a few of us raced up a couple of years ago. Before the final summit climb there was a long flat section which was very boggy and it became very tricky to avoid the sucking mud with limbs starting to ache. My feet were starting to go numb as I did my shoes up too tight so I stopped to adjust and had my final glimpse of Les for the rest of the race as he hacked on up the climb.
The summit was clouded over with just a pair of soaked marshals a little way from the top. After hitting the summit I had a burst of enthusiasm that didn’t last long. Soon it became trickier and trickier as I had changed shoes from the day before as my Walsh fell shoes, with their excellent grip, were falling apart and my trail shoes just don’t give the safe traction on the wet and slippery ground. We have a long curved run (the horseshoe!) around the top which raised again to an unmarked summit before the long long descent. At the descent I realised I was in real trouble. There was a strong tail wind and that combined with the gradient was pushing me downhill at an almost uncontrollable speed in non-gripping shoes. I applied the breaks and actually started walk-run-walk down but it was very hard. Eventually the main mountain ended and the final descent to a road ended with a stile at which point I was overtaken by a women wearing a fluorescent yellow crop-top who gate vaulted the five-bar gate next to said stile and disappeared in to the distance, leaving me fully demotivated. Eventually I crawled across the line and collapse.
The rest of our group had a mixed bag of results. Les, unsurprisingly, had run superbly and his time was only thirty seconds off his previous Fan Y Big time, set in perfect conditions. Nigel came in around five minutes behind me, finishing very strongly. Sarah, Rosie and Elaine finish looking fresh as daisies, smiling and waving. Then there’s Andy Keehn, who surpassed us all by crossing the line waving one of his shoes having lost his sole on the mountainside with four miles to go – insert your on joke here
A brilliant weekend all round that had us all buzzing for more and hopefully there’s going to many more visits to the hills like this one. There is a series of fell races over the winter in the Brecons on Saturday afternoons, meaning a trip up in the morning and then an overnighter at a bunkhouse in in the great pub we frequented. There’s also a good series over the summer on Dartmoor, one of the races a few of us sampled last year for my stag and it’s excellent. Then there’s the Cribyn in April that I’ve already mentioned and a small group of Harriers did a couple of races in the Peak District over a early June weekend. There’s lots to choose from but most of them need an overnighter as we are a long way from mountains! The FRA has a diary, as does the WFRA, online to check more of these out
Pen Y Fan race
Tom Blackwell 46:23
Les Cupis 46:47
Nigel Eldridge 54:22
Andy Keehn 1:01:40
Andy Leal 1:02:17
Sarah Blackwell, Rosie Eldridge and Elaine Parry 1:16:20
It’s worth checking the official results here as they show the ascent and descent times as you can see how some people are clearly better at one or the other!
Fan Y Big
Les Cupis 1:35:59
Tom Blackwell 1:44:41
Nigel Eldridge 1:49:57
Sarah Blackwell, Rosie Eldridge and Elaine Parry 2:20:31
Andy Keehn 2:25:28