A sprint finish

Beacons Ultra was going to be my second ultra marathon which I had already done previously and therefore knew the course and had a bit of a feel for what awaited me. I had done Beacons in 2011 and finished in 7:49 hrs and 19th position. I didn’t have a good race last year and was hoping to draw from that experience this year.

I went into Beacons off the back of a series of good races having completed River Ayr Challenge 10 weeks earlier in 6th, Three Peaks Ultra in 5th 3 weeks before Beacons and a 13th place at Glen Ogle 33 6 days after Three Peaks. I also had a good run at the Pentland Skyline. So confidence for a good race was high. The above mentioned ultras were between 33 and 41 miles long and I feel I have really nailed a good strategy for getting through these well and planned to apply a similar strategy at Beacons: Steady approach in the first half and then pick up the effort if possible, feed every 25 minutes, walk the feeds – nothing else.

One of the mistakes I made in this race last year was that I went off way too fast. The start of the race does lend itself to that as it is a flat 5k along the Monmouth canal before turning off and starting the first climb up Tor Y Foel, approx. 2km in distance and just over 400m of ascent.

Beacons is a 2 lap course so even if you are new to the race you will have a good idea after lap one what to expect in lap 2. The lap consists of the above mentioned flat start followed by a very steep climb. You then drop around 300m before reascending to the Gap. The descent off the Gap is quick followed by roughly 7 flattish kms to start/finish. With the exception of the first climb it is a very runnable course.

The initial forecast we had was going to be for torrential rain but as the race got closer the forecast got better and in the end we had a near perfect day with just a bit of drizzle at the start.

We made the long trek from Edinburgh down to the Brecon Beacons in 2 stages. Stopped off for the night in Ponteland and then got to Brecon YH just before 6pm on Friday evening, a bit later than planned. We met up with Pete who also was on one of the Elagen Teams organised by Daz (Darryl Carter) and headed into Talybont together to register and get dinner.

We got back to the hostel just after 9 – chilled and had a chat with some of the other runners who were staying there including Martin who went on to finish in 3rd the following day.

bag packed with all the compulsory kit

As I wanted to see if I could get all the mandatory kit into my Salamon S-Lab backpack I had already packed everything before we left Edinburgh, so unusually had nothing particular to do and got to bed nice and early. My bag contained full body waterproofs, hat, gloves, compass, map, whistle, head torch, spare batteries, first aid kit, space blanket and a 2nd warm layer just in case. On top of that I had all my food: 2000 cals in the form of gels, energy chews, shot bloks and jelly babies. A little bit of extra energy was in my drink which I would carry in a fuel belt separately.

As a change from previous races I was planning to see if I could take on more than 200 cals per hour. Usually I had settled for just under 200.

Race Day morning we got up at 5 had breakfast, got to Race HQ for around 6:30 and met up with the rest of the Elagen crew that Darryl had assembled. It was good to catch up with new and seasoned ultra runners pre race. The race briefing was straight forward but did include one bit of note: A diversion which would make the route a bit longer and add a little bit of extra re-ascent. According to Martin – the race organiser – not much!
Off to the race start, then a 3, 2, 1, go from the race organiser and we were off.

with Tony (1st ultra), Andy 2nd Ultra and myself starting my 12th ultra.

As mentioned above, I set off at a more moderate pace than last year and settled in roughly 15th place letting those that were faster or thought they were faster get away for now.
I realised half way along the canal path that I hadn’t set my timer on my Garmin to beep at me every 25 minutes. This could have been disastrous as I would no doubt skip feed breaks. So once the first 25 min were up and we were at the start of the climb up to Tor Y Foel I reset the watch to get the timer. It did mean that whenever I looked at the Garmin now I had to add 25 min to race time and 5.5k to race distance to stay in the picture. I still knew what position I was in though 😉

I powerwalked up the climb just as 95 % of the others did. I did see the lead woman at the time trying to run up which puzzled me. On this lap my powerwalk was mostly slower compared to the competitors around me and I lost a few places on the way up. Once over the top I regained some of those. I had a good descent, came past the checkpoint and continued further down until the start of the re-ascent. This climb along a forest road is very gradual and therefore very runnable. There was a group of about 8-10 running roughly 500m ahead of me and slowly moving away. I had settled in around 20th place and felt reasonably good but not particularly speedy. The last few races were making themselves known.

Once I had come out of the forest the weather seemed to have turned for the worse (or I had only just noticed) and I was hoping that the forecast weather would catch up with us soon. By now the competitors had spread out and I was running on my own sticking to the above mentioned formula of run 25, walk, eat and run again. At the start of the climb up to the gap I came past Jackie who was out supporting and she told me I was in 24th posisiton, a bit further back than I thought. One of us was wrong – I went with Jackie’s count though as I decided that would be more reliable.
Heading up to the gap was nice as compared the last year the weather was brightening up and we actually had a view. In theory I could also see how far behind the next competitor I was but that wasn’t very encouraging. I think I picked up one place on the way up but then was able to pick up another couple on the way off the Gap.

Looking down at the Gap (picture not taken from race route)

I made a mistake during the descent: It is amazing how little things can make a big difference. I had passed another runner on the descent and because I wanted to hold position I held off with my next feed break initially until the descent flattened out. The next bit was tricky though so I decided to feed after that. In the end I had nearly skipped a full 25 minutes, doesn’t sound like a lot really and at the time didn’t seem to have an immediate impact. A few kms later though when we reached the flat section before hitting the canal and then along the canal I was struggling, I had slowed down quite a lot. Looking back I can quite clearly point the reason for the struggle to the lapse in feeding as it turned out to be the only part in the race were I ran into problems.
Before I got into problems though I had a nice chat with Neil Bryant who had only recently done the Trans Europe Foot Race from Denmark to Gibraltar – an absolutely awe inspiring achievement.
The part after the descent off the gap looks roughly as follows: tarmac road, fields and woodland, followed by another tarmac road section and then the canal. Some of the woodland section were the muddiest I have come across in recent races. The rest of the course actually wasn’t too bad and remarkably got better during the day.
When I reached the canal I had a long feed walk taking on a decent amount of energy and also my now usual Pro Plus tablets that I take after approximately 3 hours of racing. I continued to struggle up to about 1km beyond the halfway point and then something switched. It wasn’t me that noticed at first as I still felt I was struggling along but I passed a couple of runners and one of them said: Got a 2nd wind? My answer was: doesn’t feel like it!
But something did switch as it didn’t take long for me to open a considerable gap. At the half way point I had dropped to 28th place and was starting to doubt if I would make it into the top 20. I reached the start of the climb back up to Tor y Foel and as in the previous lap powerwalked up this. My conservative approach on lap 1 seemed to be paying dividends now as the gap to those behind we widened and I was quickly closing in on a number of runners up ahead. By the time I had summited Tor y Foel. I was back into the top 20. When I came past checkpoint 4 which is half way down the descent I’d calculated that I was in 16th position. Everything was starting to look good.

Fiona was waiting for me at the top of the forest road and had kept a tab on positions. She told me that I was in 13th. Wow, three places better than I thought I was. Again I was a bit confused but decided to go with her count reasoning that a couple of runners must have dropped out after lap 1. Sam Robson who ran the Piece of String Fun Run a week later was one of them, sensibly.

Being in 13th I was well inside of what I was hoping to achieve (a better position than in 2011 and another top 15 finish). I was being pursued by Chris over the next few kms who had broken away from his mates to run at his own pace. When he caught me we ran together for a bit but then he slowed for a walk break. Although I did the same just moments later he never caught me again.
I had a good run up to the gap again catching one runner who was mixing his run up with quite a lot of walk breaks. With that I was in 12th and didn’t see another runner on the course. I enjoyed the descent off the gap, the sun was out, legs were feeling pretty decent and the technical bit was good fun too.
When at the bottom I realised that I was being pursued by another runner and was getting worried that my 12th place was under threat. It was the guy who I had overtaken on my way up to the gap – 2nd wind for him then. Although I knew he was there it took him ages to actually catch up with me.
Even before I knew that he was closing I had planned on making it a strong finish if I felt reasonably good. Oddly when this guy did catch me I can’t say I really felt up for a strong finish at first and I was happy to let him go.
We chatted briefly and I said something along the lines of planning on a strong finish. He thought he didn’t have any more in him and would just stick to that pace. Either he slowed at this point or I subconsciously sped up but my legs felt as if they were given a new lease of life. I literally put the afterburners on and went for a sprint finish. I should add at this point I still had 5km to run, so this turned into a 5km sprint. Sprint being a relative term as a sprint at the end of a 74km ultra is still not fast compared to a sprint finish at the end of a 5k. But looking at the stats after the race I managed to hold 5 min/km for those 5km.
There were a few very small rises on the tarmac road and then the bridge over the canal but apart from that those last 5k were flat. Remarkably very little of that hurt, my legs actually started to feel better the faster I seemed to run. I thought to myself this is how runners and triathletes feel when they are sprinting for the finish line and all the pain goes away. For me it crowned an incredible 2 months of racing. I finished on a huge high note on a perfect autumn day. I well and truly made sure I got my 12th place. The guy I left behind finished 2 minutes behind me.

Sprint finish!

I crossed the finish line after 7 hours and 44 minutes, 5 minutes faster than in 2011 and 7 places better. The course was a bit longer, conditions were harder and the diversion added a bit of extra re-ascent which makes the improved time look even better.
In 2011 my 2nd lap was 40 min slower than the first lap. This year the 2nd lap was only 2 min slower. This is mostly down to a much more sensible pacing strategy. With the exception of the hiccup just before the end of lap 1 my nutrition was very good and to my surprise I ate virtually all of the nutrition I had taken with me only leaving 1 jelly baby, 3 shot bloks and 1 cliff bar gel (I tried one and decided I didn’t fancy another). Overall more than 2000 calories consumed. If it wasn’t for the hiccup the race time may have been a little bit better yet. Hydration wise I had planned to take 900ml in 3 fuelbelt bottles (2 Infinit Nutrition and 1 flat coke). The plan was to refill these at the checkpoints when necessary. There never came a point that I needed to refill. I made do with 900 ml for the entire 7:44 hrs of running. Fiona does liken me to a camel at times. Quite useful, being a camel! 😉