I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.
However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…
Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.
Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.
So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.
A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.
I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.
It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.
By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.
I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.
As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.
But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.
And they’re off…
The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.
I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.
The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.
That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.
The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.
It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.
Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.
Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.
Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.
‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.
‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.
Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.
With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.
Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.
The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.
We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.
These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.
The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.
Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.
I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!
The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.
We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.
This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.
However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…
‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!
More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!
I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.
Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!
It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.
Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.
It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.
We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.
It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.
I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.
The three of us pulled slowly into CP4 a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.
As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.
However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.
I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.
The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.
However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.
Distance: 50(57) miles
Ascent: +3486 metres
Location: Brecon Beacons
Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, hilly, toughTough Rating: 4/5
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!
Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.
Check them out www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk
- Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
- The button mushroom: ‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
- My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
- Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
- The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
- The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
- Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
- Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.
As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.
Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.