"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Skirrid Hill Race - Dec 2022 - Llanfihangel Crucorney, Monmouthshire

If any race fits the bill for this kind-of-a-blog of mine about seeker-running in the beauty of nature, this race up what is known as the Holy Mountain is surely the one.

A big thank you to MARK PROSSER AND SALLY CAMERON for sharing their photos of this race online!

Having resolved to get out hill running at least once a month in the year leading up to the Helvellyn Triathlon 2023, I fell at a pretty early hurdle by missing out on The Sugarloaf in November 2022. I'd done Machen in August (a DNF as a result of taking a wrong turn, but good practice nonetheless) and Fan Breicheiniog in September then the Mendip Muddle in October. Poor planning messed things up in November though, with the race sold out before I got round to registering. I had logged in to Fabian4 to signup while in Macedonia, so while I was disappointed to miss out on Sugarloaf I did think ahead enough to get an entry in for the Skirrid Hill Race on 17th December.

Between the Mendip Muddle and The Skirrid I only managed a couple of off-road sessions, one running reps of the hill just over the back of Filton Golf Course and the other a series of arduous ups and downs by The Obelisk in Stoke Park. Both were good sessions, but hardly the genuine fell terrain that you really need to prepare for a fell race. The Weston Prom 5 miler fell 2 days before the Skirrid, which left me with a bit of a decision - having just got over a cold and missed out on a week's running, I knew my legs wouldn't cope well with doing both, but in the end the lure of the mountains was stronger than that of the road and I opted for The Skirrid. Glad I did.

On my way over to Abergavenny I did my usual stop off at the Peace Bridge plaque - we now have a rota where one member of the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Bristol goes there to meditate for peace every month and I'd put my name down for December. It was gloriously serene and I was glad I'd left myself lots of time, so I could let the meditation flow and not be watching the clock. It was about 4 degrees centigrade, a huge leap up in temperature after a week that had seen a real feel of minus ten, but I still had a feeling The Skirrid would be chillier so I was in long tights, windproof baselayer and gloves ready for the race. After all, if I found myself overheating, I thought to myself, I could just stash the gloves in my bumbag and roll the sleeves up.

Arriving at Llanfigangel Crucorney about 50 minutes before the start, I saw hi-viz signs outside a pub a few hundred metres up the road and a rapidly lengthening row of cars pulled up on the verge. I parked up at the end of the line and jogged down to this ancient pub, that claims to be the oldest in all of Wales, with its origins in the 12th century. The current building dates mostly from the 1600s and it feels like it too, with a thick iron-bound door of centuries-old timbers creaking open to let me into the dimly lit interior. There were no clues as to where race HQ actually was, so I just started wandering around and soon stumbled on a back room, with a few  familiar faces and a table with stacks of race numbers. With a cheery smile I was given my number and one of the small but legendary chocolate bears. And a mince pie too. All this got stashed for after the race in my car as I set about pinning on my number and getting race-ready. Prep at this stage included vaselining my feet, before pulling on toe socks first then another pair of trail socks over the top, stashing windproof jacket/trousers and a buff and some gloves in the bumbag and pulling on a fleece hoody that I use for warmup. It's such an old and ripped bit of gear that I always tell myself its worthless and I won't mind if someone else accidentally takes it from the race start - perfect no-risk warmup kit.

The route to the start was signed from only about 50 metres from my car, so I started jogging over there - first down and through a tunnel under the A road, then up past a farm with an amazing old barn, boasting stone-built ends and a frame of massive wooden beams. Up the hill and out of the woods I came to the start field, with a prominent tree in its middle that I knew marked the start line. Runners were gathering under the tree, while others warmed up with laps of the field. I joined a few who were running up through the first few fields of the race route, aiming for 20-30 mins of ups and downs to get my legs into gear.

I peeled off the hoody for the race briefing and soon decided I was going to need a buff to be warm enough in the race - later I was very glad I'd made that decision! The briefing was quite tough on the kit requirements and race conduct - organiser Andy was clearly concerned that  not everyone would respect the conditions. I guess if I was organising a fell race I'd take the same stance, as it only takes one person being reckless, unprepared or under-equipped to cause a bit of an incident. One guy had arrived in road shoes and was dispatched back to the pub to borrow something with grip. Someone asked if they could leave the mandatory kit at the start and race without, it but they were very clearly informed the kit did have to be carried on the race. With that serious stuff all sorted we lined up at the start, ran a sharp lap of the field and then began to string out as we climbed through a series of fields up towards The Skirrid, which loomed dramatically on the skyline like a massive thumb pointing at the heavens.

I was breathless early on and stayed that way, having decided not to check my heart rate and race conservatively (a habit I got into with the Virtual Races in lockdown) but just to go for broke on the way up, seeing as I knew  I'd be one of the slower descenders. When I had to stop and queue a couple of times for the styles I was actually pretty happy to have a 5 second breather! Before we even got to the road crossing, I saw lots of solid ice in the puddles and realised the mountain proper, the open fellside above the last of the enclosed fields, was going to be treacherous. I was running in a kind of race trance, entirely intent on each step and on maintaining max effort on the climb, but every so often my awareness surfaced just enough to drink in the mountain scenery and offer a moment of gratitude that I was out there doing the kind of race I love with dramatic and inspiring views in all directions.

Once over the final gate, having run 90% of the climb so far, things got steeper on the open terrain and I was soon walking with hands on knees, pushing myself up metre by metre and running whenever the slope eased enough. I gained a couple of places on the ascent. That walking part of the climb didn't last long and soon we were turning right on the ridge to approach the pinnacle of the mountain, running between guardian stones into the ridges marking the ruins of the old St Michael's Chapel and the up to the trig. Here we showed our numbers and turned to begin the crazy descent of the shoulder of the north face. It was marked, like the rest of the course, with small pennant-like flags and looked just about runnable despite the steepness. I soon found that the ground was like tundra, ice frozen into the grass and a dusting of powdery snow in places too, so keeping my footing was nigh on impossible. Ahead I spotted others opting for a slide-approach so I did the same, down on the backside and sliding down the frozen surface with my hands out to the sides to steer around the clumps of heather and using my feet to brake when I needed, or using them like a bow-rudder to steer me into a frozen channel that  was probably a sheep trod or a pathway when not packed with snow. I found I was making the same pace as people who had managed to stay on their feet, without having to use my legs and put more attrition into the muscles, so it seemed like the sensible way to descend. Around me almost everyone did the same, though we all ended up on our feet for a few seconds every so often before plunging down again in slide mode. It was epic fun and exciting too, sledgeless-sledging, something I'd never had to do before in a fell race! Nice to have a totally new experience after around 20 years at this malarkey. Seeing so many people flat out rather than on their feet reminded me of footage I'd seen of the legendary Cheese Rolling event. Fortunately there was not the same level of injury. Here's a shot of 4 "runners" descending - it looks grassy with only sporadic snow, but looks can be deceptive. That's me in the fluoro top, hands steering and feet braking, looking very concentrated but actually having a whale of a time. And glad not to be risking injury by trying to stay upright!

I'm not exactly sure how long that slidey descent lasted, but it was all the way from the summit to the spot where the terrain flattened out and we shouted our numbers to a marshal before turning right to contour round the base of the peak and rejoin the path through the fields. On that traverse section there was plenty of ice that looked lethal, but somehow we all found a way around it and I didn't see anyone take a tumble. I'd thought the run in through the fields would be my strong point, after slow going on the steep descent, but although I ran close to flat out down the succession of fields and over the numerous styles, I still lost several places as runners with more left in the tank eased past me. My garmin tells me I was clocking close to a 6 minute pace though, so I can't complain, I probably paced the race as well as I could. This shot is from the final run in to the finishing field.

I didn't have time to hang around in the ancient tardis of a mediaeval inn, sadly, but as I walk-jogged back to the car I was feeling kind of elated after the fun of the race, the oneness with the mountain and the relief I always feel these days after finishing a race uninjured. That makes me grateful every time. Thank you Skirrid. Thanks to all the marshals, timers and organisers too - this was a classic race.

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