Event reviews, Reviews, Run

Beacons Ultra 2016

MedalWelcome to my race report/review of the Brecon Beacons Ultra 2016. It is a challenging event in a beautiful location and features a 23 mile loop which you do twice. There are only two hills on it, nothing to worry about. It’s also held in the remote welsh countryside in November and the weather is absolutely guaranteed to be sunny and pleasantly warm….. I shall give a short brief on the race itself and then follow it up with my experience from the day itself.

Elevation profile Beacons Ultra 2016
See, only two hills.

Beacons Ultra 2016

The Beacons Ultra race entry for 2016 was capped at 300, and it was a sellout. There were a few no-shows on the day as the weather forecast was a touch unpredictable, but still a pretty big field. The positive atmosphere surrounding the event starts long before you turn up, thanks to the sterling effort that Likeys have put into it over the years. This year it was run by Force 12 Events, but Likeys were still heavily involved. The info provided on the race website is brief, but clear and doesn’t leave anything out. The community support around the Beacons Ultra is great, and it has a well supported Facebook page here. Alternatively swing by Likeys in Brecon and have a chat with Martin or Kevin, they also have a lot of good stock and interesting things to buy 😀

You can register the day before the race at Likeys in Brecon, or first thing on race day morning. The race starts nice and early at 0730. This means you are off and running almost as soon as it is light, and you can make the most of the daylight hours. There were two aid stations, approximately 8 miles apart plus the control at the start/finish. There were also marshals at other points on the course and reflective signage too, as well as an unofficial checkpoint or two. The route can be described simply as a long flat bit in between two hills that you go around twice, but that is entirely misleading and belies the true and technical nature of a large portion of the course. I shall sum it up by saying that you shouldn’t expect to make up much time on the descents. Personally I really enjoyed the course. It was spectacular, challenging and varied. As it was my first time the starting lap was very much a sighting lap for me. I then broke the second lap down into sections in my head. This meant that I was never worrying about the whole lap, just the bit I was on and it never became overwhelming. Just in case you wondered the sections were:

  • Canal
  • Sod of a hill
  • Down to the checkpoint
  • The long grind
  • Ascend the gap
  • Technical descent
  • Fields and road
  • Canal

When you pass the start/finish at the end of lap one hot drinks are on offer as well as a few snacks. There also seemed to be hot drinks at the other marshals points by then too. A nice move, but not something I took advantage of on this occasion as I was focusing on getting a bit of a wriggle on 🙂

When you finally cross the finish line you get your medal, a handshake and enter the village hall. It was lovely and warm, with a variety of snacks and drinks for finishers, including hot soup and bread.

Overall I heartily recommend the Brecon Beacons Ultra. My experience at the Beacons Ultra 2016 was entirely positive. It was well organised, well supported and the course was entirely beautiful. I also got to sample all the weather that you can possibly get in one day in the UK!

My race – Beacons Ultra 2016

Fuelled on this occasion by Bounce Energy Balls (review coming soon which will be available here), Torq Energy and High 5 Zero tabs 🙂

I’ve spent a few years now turning up to ultras and simply striving to finish. Each finish bought with it a sense of accomplishment, but there have been a few tough failures too. I certainly believe that failing an ultra can be tougher than finishing one for a variety of reasons. A change in mindset has meant that I’ve achieved all of my ultra goals this year, including finishing two tough events that have beaten me in the past. The Thames Trot and The Oner. This all came together even more when I race in Iceland as part of Fire and Ice in August 2016. In Iceland I found my confidence and started to believe that maybe I could do a little more than just strive to finish. Maybe I should expect more from myself and become a little more aggressive in my goal setting. The Beacons Ultra 2016 was my first ultra with this new approach, a new (more mental) me, and some tough pacing goals. I tentatively started talking in such a way on Facebook, keen to put a little bit of pressure on myself to prevent any last minute weakness.

As part of this change I’ve taken on a new coach, Charles Miron of Solo Sport Systems. I know Charles well after spending 6 nights in a tent with him and 6 others in Iceland. When I found out he was a professional coach it was a no brainer to seek his support. Part of my brief with Charles just before the race went something like this:

  • Charles: “So, do you have a target for Saturday?”
  • Me: “Well, it starts at 0730 and I would like to finish before dark, so maybe 9 to 10 hours??”
  • Charles: “…….You aren’t going to do it in 9 hours.”

I felt crestfallen, I really thought that was a reasonable goal. But it sounded like I should be expecting to run in the dark. Charles continued

  • Charles: “I think you can do it in 8.”

I nearly fell off my chair.

We discussed the terrain, and what I thought it would be like (I was wrong and underestimated it significantly!), and then we continued discussing pacing, food and hydration strategies until I had scribbled all over a side of A4 paper. Come Saturday morning I had everything worked out, I was well prepared and despite the pressure I felt remarkably relaxed.

For the first lap I kept mostly to myself, moving along the canal with the bulk of the other people and into the first and most challenging hill. It has false summit after false summit and was a steep slog. I fell further and further behind on my pacing goal. This was ok because I knew it would happen and I planned to make it up along the descents and flatter sections. Looking around every now and then was well rewarded. The morning was stunning and the colours in the landscaped just popped. As we crested Tor Y Foel we could see snow topped hills with a small amount of cloud on the top in front of us.

Snow capped hills

The descent was very steep, but not too slippery. I descended down to a rolling track with the grace of an 80kg one winged bumble bee. I didn’t make up much time here, and the rolling descent to the valley floor was very technical and loose in places before joining a wide forest track. As I climbed this track I noticed that I was creeping my way through the field. I would run alongside people for a bit, and as they waned I would carry on at a steady pace, moving up to the next group. My legs were burning as the deceptive trail crept upwards and I shifted my gait to move the stress around the various muscle groups. I felt ok, so I carried on pushing. In hindsight it was too fast and I certainly paid for it later.

We came off the track and had a short but icy tarmac descent before turning onto another trail. At the end of this we started the climb proper up to “The Gap.” This was a very loose few km, climbing at an awkward angle. For me it was too shallow to walk, but too steep to run. I carried on with my poor decision making and chose to run when I should have done a bit of both. I made up another few places though. As we passed the top the terrain underfoot got even worse and it was a really tricky descent down to checkpoint 2. My stomach was starting to feel a bit bloated, but I ignored it and carried on. As the course rolled its way through a few fields, along a few roads and back to the canal I found myself in the company of the then 2nd placed lady and we chatted all the way back to the end of the first lap. Somewhere along the way a spectator shouted that we were in about 40th spot overall. This was much higher up the field than I would normally expect to be. I was struggling to keep up by the time we got to the checkpoint. I was very aware though that keeping up with her meant that I was rapidly getting back on track with my pacing strategy, so I hung on for a 4:04 first lap.

I stopped just long enough to top up my bottles and started lap two. It was now an effort to maintain my target heart rate and my stomach felt awful. I was failing to put food or drink into it, and I was beginning to get worried. I slogged/shuffled the three miles along the canal and started up Tor Y Foel for the second time. The endless false summits didn’t seem so bad now that I knew what to expect. I was also chatting to another chap and it made the climb much easier. It distracted me from having a stress about my pacing! After the summit I had a quick pee, and wasn’t too happy with the bright yellow colour of it. I resolved then and there to sort myself out, or this would be a punishing last 20 miles. With this in mind I drained a bottle by the time I got to CP1, and topped it up, adding an electrolyte tab. I then caught up with another chap and we made conversation all the way up the gap. We were both suffering and were both glad to have someone to talk to as we ran/walked our way upto the top. By now it was snowing and the landscape was even more beautiful with large white flakes falling all around us.

We ran together for another couple of miles, but I was starting to pick up. Consciously rehydrating and running at a slower pace had bought my stomach back around, and I could get some energy through it. The snow turned to rain as we descended and I could hear voices behind us, catching us up. I ran on, my heart span up to a decent level and I was off. It felt good to be running strongly again. As I passed the marshal to rejoin the canal I asked if there was anyone in front of me. I was hoping to have someone to hunt down in the last few miles. My hopes were dashed though as the marshal told me that the previous person went through quite some time ago! Never mind. I stomped onwards ignoring the pain in my legs. The canal slowly wound its way through the countryside and even at a good pace it took a while for the final bridge to come into view.

The finish was back at the village hall, and it felt amazing to power to the line and then finally to stop and take my medal. I had clocked a total time of 8 hours and 46 minutes, and was done half an hour before it got dark. Charles had sent me a message of congratulations within minutes of my watch syncing to Training Peaks 🙂

As for my overall placing it turned out that I wasn’t 40th at all. I was 22nd with my best ultra placing ever. What a feeling. 🙂 To give you an idea how different this is for me, my previous expectation would have been about 2 hours longer and 80 places lower in the field!!!

My next race is a little bit bigger, a little bit tougher, and a lot longer. It is the main reason that I asked Charles to coach me. Watch this space over the next few months as I train for The Berghaus Dragon’s Back 2017.

Here are some pictures from the Beacons Ultra 2016. I got lazy after the first lap and stopped snapping away, so the pictures are all from the first 20 miles.


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