The Might Contain NutsWelsh One Day Ultra Series is a set of 4 races, with distances ranging from 33 to 50 miles. I’ve done all the other courses apart from this one – 33 miles in the Black Mountains which kicks off the 2013 season.
On the lead-up to the race the weather had been slowly deteriorating, with the Met Office issuing severe weather warnings – and using terms such as ‘blizzards’, ‘gale-force’ etc. to describe the conditions. We’d also been treated to some snowy pictures from the MCN team, but with Cardiff still relatively balmy – it seemed like exaggeration to me.
Then, on the day before the race Britain came to a standstill with snow and blizzards, at around 4pm on Friday the word went out that a new course was to be used, a shorter version at around 26 miles – and comprising 2 loops allowing runners to drop after the first loop if needed. It also allowed MCN to adequately marshal the course and ensure our safety. Some people were understandably disappointed – not me, I knew it would be a tough day out there.
We’d been warned about conditions and told that ski goggles would be a good idea on the high ground! I thought this was a joke, but dug out my old pair for a laugh anyway. At 6am on Saturday morning I loaded up the car and set off from a damp Cardiff to the start.
The start was 40 miles away, but as soon as I left the city and headed towards the valleys the weather deteriorated. The roads got worse and worse and I nearly had to turn back at one point, but eventually found an ice-free route to the start and parked-up. After registration I met-up with my mate who I always run the MCN events with – he had a good laugh at my beard and goggles, yeah – well just you wait.
At 08:30 we were off and up a muddy path, then onto a road for a couple of miles. Within minutes my feet were saturated and numb, so no point worrying about that any more. The weather was actually OK at this point and I was a bit concerned that 2 base layers, jacket, buff, wooly hat, double-leggings, army issue fleece-lined mittens and the goggles may have been overkill!
After a couple of miles we hit the start of the loop and the first climb. The trail snaked around what I believe is a mountain – unfortunately, after around 400m we hit freezing point, and shortly after cloud cover and snow which was drifting. As we got higher the wind picked up and the snow got worse. The goggles went on, then the buff to cover any remaining exposed skin and we continued to climb. Still the mountain went up, and up… We fought into a massive headwind with gritted teeth until finally finding a marshal in the whiteout directing us down the mountain and warning to beware of ice!
So, we headed off down sheet ice covered in a veil of snow, most of our group took a wrong turn and all crashed spectacularly on hard ice – ouch! Eventually we hit the freezing point again and the snow and ice cleared and everything turned into mud! It was weird – one minute you’re in a white-out on an ice planet and the next skidding over muddy fields in the sun!
We arrived at the checkpoint a bit shell shocked from the previous 60-minutes experience and headed off again into the void. Basically the loop consisted of 3 climbs into the world of ice, gales and snow – each of which was followed by a treacherously icy, then muddy descent into another checkpoint.
We hit the end of the first loop in about 3 hours, the marshals offered us the chance to drop out and head for home… Some people did and to be honest, I can’t blame them. That first loop was insane – and to have to do it all again, knowing what was coming could break a man.
But we were made of tougher stuff, the memories of the previous loop had faded already – hey, it wasn’t REALLY that bad was it? Bugger it, let’s go again!
And so, we headed off, back up the mountain and towards freezing point…
While we’d been basking in the warmth of the valleys, the mountain gods had obviously been annoyed by our previous intrusion. It was colder, windier and snowier than before – a lot more! We were walking about 40-50 yards apart and could hardly see each other in the whiteout. It was so bad that the person in fronts footsteps were covered in snow by the time you got there. Thigh-high drifts and icy sections were the order of the day. At one point I felt like I was in a movie, there’s no other way to describe it – I’ve never been in weather like it, anyone not in decent, warm kit would have been in real trouble up there – and we had to keep an eye on a couple of people who looked a bit shaky.
Anyhow, eventually we got to the top and started the descent. Once again I took a wrong turn and crashed down hard on the icy slope – laughing it off, I managed to pull myself together and pick my way down into the valley of mud and the checkpoint which was followed by more head-shaking and disbelief in what we’d just encountered.
I knew it was mega cold on the mountain because I’d lost the use of my hands, despite the fleecy army mittens so grabbing some food and water was difficult. Fortunately, the relative warmth of the valley section let my fish fingers defrost to be useful for long enough to scoff some sausages I’d packed.
We continued around loop 2, plodding up the mountains and sliding down the other side. The final big descent was something to behold – about a 200m hill of mud with a nasty downhill gradient. We’d managed to get down mud-free on the first loop, but this time round I was in no mood for treading carefully. Once past this hill, it was an easy 4-5 miles home.
I’d arrived at this section ahead of my pal and had caught up with 3 lads scratching their heads about how to get down mud-free. Bollocks to that, I decided to run as much as I could – then fall on my arse and slide the rest of the way. I made it about 10 yards then was over and sliding down the hill. Screaming like a teenage girl I hurtled down the hill to the cheers of the lads above. After spinning around at the bottom, I raised a fist and one by one, down they came screaming likewise! At the bottom, everyone high-fived each other – it was brilliant fun, you should have seen the state of us – caked in mud!
My mate appeared at the top of the hill, ‘ON YOUR ARSE’ I shouted and, after a bit of hesitation he too followed us in our ultra mudslide, I ask you – is that any way for a 51 year-old to behave?
The last few miles were a nice easy jog through the tropical rain forests, (it’s all relative) and through another couple of checkpoints. The CP marshals were astounded at how muddy we were, I think we must have been the only people to do the ‘mudslide’…
The finish came up in around 6 hours which was what I’d predicted at the start. But what a day of contrasts? I’ve never been happier with my kit, all of it – there wasn’t an item today that I wish I had or didn’t have. My goggles were a life-saver on the mountain, though I hope I don’t have to wear them again anytime soon.
The real heroes of today have to be the marshals and MCN crew. Several times we said we couldn’t believe the race was continuing under the conditions. There were a couple of marshals up on the highest, nastiest bits of the mountain sections ensuring we were safe and OK. On the second loop they all checked we were fine, warm enough and feeling good. Total respect to those guys – at least we were moving.
I’m already looking forward to the next race in the series in May, the 40 miler in the Brecons which includes the infamous ascent of Cribyn at the end… Let’s hope it’s warmed up a bit and I can leave the ski goggles at home!