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Race review: RunWalkCrawl Brecon to Cardiff Ultra Winter 2020

RunWalkCrawl’s Brecon to Cardiff Ultra (Winter) is a 70km, point to point race which mostly follows the Taff Trail from the beautiful hills of Brecon through to Nantgarw (on the outskirts of Cardiff).  It’s run in February and in previous years the race has seen all weathers – from sleet and snow, through torrential rain and wind, to even some lovely sunny days.

Team Runnerverse signed up in July 2019 as we love a winter ultra, and felt this gave us enough recovery time after December’s Montane Cheviot Goat (as well as plenty of eating and drinking time over Christmas of course!).  We haven’t done much racing in Wales (the last being the epic but horrendous Winter Fan Dance) and so we were hopeful of seeing some more of what Wales had to offer.

For me, with the 12 hour cut off, it was an opportunity to assess my fitness and I planned to use my performance to help me decide whether to go for the big 100 miles this year.

Signing up to the race was simple, via the SiEntries system, and we promptly booked a Travelodge for the night before the race and treated ourselves to a couple of nights at Llanerch Vineyard for our post-race R&R.  Communication from the Race Directors was excellent in the weeks leading up to the event – reminders on the mandatory kit list, timings and so on were all gratefully received.  As were the emails with regular updates on the weather and hints and tips on what to expect.

In the week before the race we learned that Storm Ciara was due to hit the UK with a vengeance on the Sunday the race was to be run.  Being hardy ultra runners we, of course, hoped the event would go ahead and thankfully we received a couple of emails and SMS messages to reassure us that it would do so.  RunWalkCrawl had clearly carried out extensive risk assessments and consulted with various agencies in deciding that the event would be run, despite the yellow weather warnings for high wind and heavy rain, and I certainly felt that their priority was to keep runners safe, whilst still allowing us to enjoy the challenge.

Team Runnerverse travelled over to Cardiff on the Saturday and it was a glorious day.  We passed some time in Caerphilly, wandering around the castle, which is very picturesque.

Registration was open from 5pm to 8pm on Saturday, which was hugely useful with nearly 600 runners to register and we found the process smooth.  No kit checks at registration, but the organisers requested all runners complete a declaration to say they would be carrying the mandatory kit.  The list of required kit was reasonable and comprehensive without being too dictatorial… just how we like it.

Once registered, we headed back to our accomodations for the night.  Having unpacked and repacked our race kit, we took advantage of a tasty steak dinner at the local pub before settling down for the night.  As usual, Richard didn’t sleep much whereas I got a good 8 hours in (so at least I wasn’t grumpy in the morning :))

Kit used on Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

We had received clear instructions at registration that the buses (which transport runners from the finish at Nantgarw to the start at Brecon and are included in your race entry fee) would leave at 6.30am prompt so, after our customary porridge pot breakfast, we hopped in the car and made the 5 minute drive to the finish.

Everything seemed to be running fairly smoothly, with runners onto the buses and full of excitement, with a healthy buzz of conversation.  Our first hint of trouble came 10 minutes or so into the journey when the bus driver pulled into a petrol station.  Nothing to worry about, we thought, and within a few minutes we were back on the road.  Our relief was short-lived though when, not 5 minutes later, the bus ground to a shuddering halt on the side of the dual carriageway.

Thankfully, two replacement buses were promptly despatched to come and collect a bunch of now slightly impatient and desperately-needing-the-loo runners and off we whizzed to the start.  Our break down had meant that the organisers had delayed the start of the race for us, so on arrival we were promptly whisked into the auditorium for the race briefing.

It was fantastic to be able to actually hear the briefing and I thought using the auditorium was inspired.  We’ve all been there… stood in a muddy field whilst someone with a megaphone 200m away mumbles unintelligble instructions before everyone sets off hoping for the best.  This was the total opposite – a clear, concise briefing that everyone could hear with full instructions of what we could expect and what to do if various circumstances arose etc.  Brilliant!

Once the briefing was finished, we were scanned into starting pens and within minutes we were off, onto the canal towpath for the first 7 or so miles.  Storm Ciara had hit overnight so it was already raining fairly hard, the towpath was a mud bath and, on the slightly more exposed sections, the wind threw the rain horizontally.  Despite all of that, we made good time and the front runners set off at full pelt.

Our first checkpoint of the day was 7 miles in and, despite being out in the elements, the marshals were cheery and helpful.  We thanked them, stopping only briefly, before plodding on.

I was looking forward to getting off the canal, and soon we diverted, climbing a long, slow but not steep track through the forests.  The forests were really beautiful and, through gaps in the trees, you looked down on glimpses of reservoirs and lakes.  I imagine on a spring day it would have been beautiful but sadly it was a bit rainy and grey so we didn’t get the full effect.  We knew this was the longest climb on the route and that, once we reached the highest point at around 15 miles, it would be mostly downhill to the finish.

There was a bit of a steep section to finish and we found ourselves on an exposed ridge – now Storm Ciara really started to bite!  The rain was torrential, lashing down on us and creating rivers on the roads and tracks.  The wind howled (we later found out it had been gusts of 70mph) often pushing us sideways or backwards and driving the rain in our faces, like thousands of tiny icicles.  This was a really tough section for everyone and I for one was glad when we dropped back off the ridgeline into slightly more sheltered terrain.

Our next checkpoint was 16 miles and the marshals had a gazebo set up (no idea how they got it to stay in one place with that wind) with some delicious Frazzles and ginger nut biscuits as well as squash.  Feeling thoroughly rejuvenated we headed back out into the elements.  There was a slight road diversion at Pontsticill Reservoir due to a bridge being down and then we were heading for Merthyr Tydfil, and our halfway point.  By now, it had been raining constantly for hours and, despite wearing excellent warterproofs, I was soaked to the skin, so we were looking forward to getting our drop bags at Merthyr.

Before we knew it, we were there – popping out of a footpath suddenly we were outside the Community Hall.  The lovely marshals there grabbed our drop bags for us and pointed us in the direction of the loos and brews.  Initially, I’d planned to just change my socks and top here, but with conditions being so horrendous and being so wet, I decided to go for a full clothing change (so I was glad I’d packed everything).  Pre-race, the guidance seemed to be that most runners changed their shoes here, from trail shoes for the first half to road shoes for the second, but I like to wear my Inov8 Race Ultra 270s for everything so stuck with them.

Rich and I are forever reminding each other how important it is to make sure you have the right kit for events like these and how quickly things can go wrong – we always look out for each other.  And in Merthyr we had a stark reminder of this as a runner was brought in suffering badly.  I have never seen anyone shivering so violently or uncontrollably.  He had to be undressed by CAVRA (who provided phemonenal support on the day) and put into sleeping bags and all sorts to get him rewarmed.  Luckily he seemed to be on the mend by the time we left and I wish him a full recovery.  Despite the weather not being particularly cold (11 degrees) and us not being out in the hills properly, it shows just how easy it is for things to go wrong.

I was so grateful for my Montane Ajax Jacket which kept my top half dry and protected as much as possible from the wind, and my Rab Fuse II waterproof trousers, but even then I cooled quickly when we stopped at Merthyr.  We both made sure to change quickly and I added a long sleeved Montane Merino top to my Ronhill T-Shirt as an extra layer for the second half.

As we left Merthyr we finally got a break in the weather – the rain stopped and we even saw blue sky.  With a full set of warm, dry kit on we felt like new people!  Merthyr also marked the point where we joined the number 8 cycleway and so we knew it would be all tarmac now to the finish.

We made good time and were sheltered from the worst of the wind in this section, and other than an hour long shower, the rain stayed away.  For which we were grateful.  Most of this section was uneventful, until we reached a point where we were met by marshals and told another diversion had been put in place as the Taff Trail was flooded ahead.  We were to divert through a housing estate and would come into the final checkpoint from a slightly different direction.  This section seemed to go on forever and I had a bit of a dark spot.

That was quickly alleviated though when we passed runners coming out of the checkpoint, who told us sausage and chips were waiting.  Hoorah!  Sadly, they’d run out by the time we arrived and we weren’t going to hang about waiting for a fresh batch to be cooked.  I, for one, just wanted to get those last 5.7 miles cracked.

Now in the dark, we rejoined the Taff Trail and chatted to a lovely lad called Harry, who was competing in only his second ultra.  I’m not normally one to chat to people whilst I’m running an ultra, but it was really nice to have someone to distract us from the fatigue and pain we were inevitably starting to feel.  Eventually we could see the finish below us in the town, and soon we dropped off the trail to cover the final few yards.

The medals were lovely eco-medals made from wood, which I thought was a really nice touch and there were a steady flow of runners finishing in the minutes before and after we arrived.  Sadly, the cafe was closed so we decided on a McDonalds (after Harry had spent at least half an hour talking about how many cheeseburgers he was going to eat) before heading over to the Llanerch Vineyard Hotel for a much needed shower and a beer.

I was pretty pleased with my time and the consistency of my pacing – frankly, just to finish in those conditions made me smile.  Of the 600 runners who were due to run, a significant proportion DNS’s – whether this was due to Storm Ciara or other factors I don’t know.  And 50 runners DNF’d on the day.

Overall, both Rich and I thought this was a great event.  A lovely route through a mixture of terrains.  Not too hilly, so perhaps an ideal for first-timers or those wanting to post a quick time.  And really well organised.  Definitely one we would do again.

For more info on the race, visit the RunWalkCrawl website here: http://www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk/events/brecon-to-cardiff-ultra.html

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