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

Fan Brecheiniog Fell Race - August 2022 - Black Mountain, South Wales

On September 3rd I had been due to swim the Dart 10k, the culmination of a summer of swim training with weekly 2-hour sessions in Cromhall Lake and my other sports, especially cycling, very much set aside while I focussed on my swimming. I'd done so many laps of that  lake that my wetsuit was starting to crack under  the arms and it's getting beyond the point where I can glue it back together now! Anyway, yet another of life's lessons in non-attachment came just 2 days before the event, when a text and an email pinged up from the organisers saying the swim was off because of the forecast of force 4-7 winds in the estuary. I have to confess I was not particularly detached to start with! This was a massive disappointment after all those hours of training, especially as this is the second time I've built up to a 10k event only to have it called off (the previous one was the Big Brutal Swim four years ago). What I felt I needed was an alternative event to get my teeth into, so although I wasn't properly recovered in running terms from Machen Mountain, I decided to drive over to the western fringes of the Brecon Beaconds for a 9.5 mile Fell Race on some wild, open terrain - Fan Brycheiniog.

For this one I warmed up with just a few reps on the lower part of the ascent and a short jog along the path that I believed would be our home straight to the finish. I memorised the map in case the cloud didn't lift (the summits were all obscured by clouds on the way over) and made a plan to work moderately hard on the climb, take it slowly on the steep descent (as I still can't run un-injured in fell shoes and have to use my Asics Trabucos) then give it all I had left on the run-in (undulating/flat in places with a slow drop in height to the finish). I was in two minds about doing the race at all, with my right knee still a little suspect, but I figured that as I only seem to get injured when I'm not expecting it I would be unlikely to get injured when I was expecting it - classic case of the mind coming up with an utterly delusional rationale for something!

Photos of the start/climb are by Cherry Fowler who shared them on WFRA FB page.

The start was through two gates then into a single-file channel through the ferns on a steep ascent - I walked a fair bit of it as I knew it was around three and a half miles of climbing and most would be at an easier gradient. I found myself more than half way down the field but my heart rate was reassuringly low and every so often I was able to jog past someone and move up the field where the width of the trail allowed. Above the bracken came incredible views down into the valley on our right and as the trail ascended alongside a precipitous drop there were glimpses of Llyn Y Fan Fawr and the homeward trail we'd be following in an hour or so. Routefinding here was easy, the cliff-edge acting as a perfect handrail for navigation, though I was glad the weather was clear enough for me to see it well from ten or fifteen feet away - in nasty weather and gusty winds this would be a scary path.

The climb went on towards the cloud-enshrouded heights, then we dropped down out of the mist to a spot I remembered from 18 years ago, Bwlch Y Giedd, where the path from the lake comes up and heads to the summit. We joined that path and headed back up into the murk, though I was pleased to see it was now starting to lift with the breeze clearing the cloud from the upper reaches of Fan Brycheiniog. It's over 800 metres which is pretty high for South Wales and it was fortunate to have good visibility when we reached the shelter, shouted our numbers to the marshal at the trig and then went sharp left - west - towards the col between this summit and Picws Du. The view out over the dark and dramatic escarpment was a great reward for the climb, but I kept my eyes on the action ahead as the runners in front of me were spreading out and taking different lines towards the col. I could see where I wanted to go so I stuck to my plan and slowly descended, sticking to the path rather than going off-piste, to arrive by a pretty direct route at the top of the Goat Track. This narrow groove in the steep scarp zig-zagged down towards the second check and I took it slowly on the loose stones. To my right I could see a brave runner tackling the open slope, sliding down on his backside for much of it, while ahead runners who had descended faster than me were peeling off the trail and heading across open boggy fellside to the knoll where the next marshal was due to be. I took a direct line through the waist-high grass and reeds that clearly marked a bog and in the dry late-summer conditions I found solid enough footing and pulled myself up on to the knoll without any hassle.

Once on the knoll I encountered the strange sight of around 7 or 8 runners all spread out like a search party, searching in vain for the checkpoint. We were rescued by a runner from Mynydd Du who confidently jogged past, telling us this was the right place - The Knoll - and the marshal was not there so we should just carry on to the next check. Because we had all stopped and lost our impetus we all found ourselves walking the ascent from the knoll to the high paths that contour round the various spurs of the escarpment, but once we had gained height and found a sheep trod to run on we were all back into racing mode and heading for the next landmark, Llyn Y Fan Fawr. Before we got there we did pass marshal number 2, not at The Knoll as advertised but on the route from the Goat Track round to the Lake so we called out our numbers and got checked off.

At this stage I was aware I was running out of fuel so I downed a gel and one of my drinks as we approached the lake - here there was no trouble finding the third check, the marshal standing in hi-viz gear close to the water's edge. Llyn Y Fan Fawr is a glorious stretch of water that mirrors the dramatic cliffs and peaks above it and we saw several hikers on this section heading towards it. The pack of runners spread out here and as the gel kicked in I was able to move up a few places, leaving behind some runners I had caught at The Knoll and starting to chase the next group up ahead. At first I felt I was gaining on them as the route followed a very runnable trail, but as it got more rocky and technical I felt myself running out of puff and having to slow down to negotiate the downhills and the bogs and the stream crossings at a pace that wouldn't be risky. I was very aware that  I had entered the race with the main aim of just surviving it uninjured and my next aim was to carry on conditioning myself back into fell running after not having done much in recent years. Last and least of my goals was to finish in the top half of the results and of my age cat, but I wasn't going to risk turning an ankle or bashing my troublesome knee to achieve that.

Each time my watch beeped to signal another mile completed I felt grateful to be out there, soaking up the experience of a hard run in exquisite mountain terrain, but I realised I had missed a trick in not bringing a second gel as I was running out of fuel. The runner from Mynydd Du, who had given us the confidence to stop searching for the marshal at The Knoll, breezed past me, with the easy leg-swing of a born mountain runner, making me realise I was ungainly by comparison. I stuck to my own race though and ran as fast as I could on the easy sections to make up for the rather slow progress where the course was more challenging. My last test came in the final mile where I passed a gate and wasn't sure if it was the right route to take or if I should stay on the trail that went past it, even though that meant climbing and diverging a fair bit from the stream - I went back and opened the gate and looked at the path the other side, hesitating, when a runner caught me up and said he didn't recognise that gateway as part of the route. I remembered that I had a map (shows how mushy my brain was at that point) but simultaneously remembered checking the run-in route on that very map so I didn't have to fish it out and check it. I had a clear recollection of staying to the right of a walled-off wood so  I stuck to the trail instead of going through the gate and soon saw a race arrow directing me through a more familiar gate - then it was down past the start alongside the bubbling stream and over the bridge to the finish.

This was an awesome race and although a faded towards the end I did achieve all 3 goals - finishing unscathed, getting more adjusted to the rigours of the mountains and being in the top half of the results and my age cat - 18th out of 37, 4th out of 8. Just made it! This little adventure in the mountains got the Dart 10k disappointment out of my system too, which I guess was actually goal number one.

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