My main worry before this race was that I might not make it to the start on time, or be in a fit state to complete it. It was one of those big weekends with too many things in it really. I was organising a race friday night, late to bed after clearing up (and typing up the results for 86 runners) then up at 4am to go to Paris to play in a concert. Two performances later and another night of naff all sleep and I was heading to Abergwynfi via Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow and some surprisingly clear roads - in fact I was the second runner to pitch up, over an hour before the start.
Turnout was on the low side of low at 16 runners, but conditions were set fair (mild and dull) so I was looking forward to the race. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation, but I made a stupid decisions before the start to leave my OS map behind and just take the 1-50,000 mini-map that we were all given to confirm the position of the 5 check points. I scrawled down some bearings (these were in the WFRA newsletter so I didn't even have to work them out) and tucked the map in my bum-bag pocket so I could refer to it frequently. Next thing I knew we were off along a deserted road then jog-walking the pathless and tussocky ascent of Werfa - I was pursuing a definite policy of going off slower than usual so I had time to grab a pic of the runners on that first climb. Organiser Martin Lucas had built a style for our benefit for the fence crossing half way up, but the eight or so runners ahead of me seemed to have demolished it already - still, it proved we were on the right track.
Once at the top, things started to go wrong. I had a feeling we should be heading left to pick up a path past a radio mast but the only runner I could see was heading more to the right - I assumed she was following the faster pack who were just out of sight by now so I followed and we both found ourselves off course. Once I realised and spotted some runners over to the left on a ridge I changed course and sped up to stay in sight of them - hadn't lost much time and I was soon lurching down the twisty descent (reassuringly marked with occasional flags). My tired brain had lost all recollection of the course so I fished for my map only to find it had fallen out and was now blowing around merrily in it's plastic bag somewhere on the slopes of Werfa. Doh!
I took a right on the road - I think I saw a runner disappearing in that direction - and asked some locals (who were sat outside their house watching proceedings) if I was going the right way. They all seemed sure I was so I assumed a bunch of runners had already been past them and carried on. Road ended and forest began, again I couldn't remember if I was supposed to stay on the track or climb on a thin trail through the woods so I just kept on going - a few bits of marking tape appeared, enough to make me keep faith in my route choice, and I found myself coming out of the woods in the right place - the foot of the infamous Blaengarw Bunny where the steepness of the ascent had slowed the runners down and I could see a couple of them going over the top. Again the camera-phone came out and I snapped the climb as I began the long walk up.
Yes, it is steeper than it looks. I employed the pull-yourself-up-on-the-fenceposts technique to some effect and once at the top I headed off into space (couldn't remember the bearing) and chanced upon the checkpoint - number 3 - without any hassle. The marshal pointed me off toward number 4 and as the mist rolled in I weaved across the moorland keeping the trees on my left until another marshal appeared. I asked him the way optimistically and he gave me a vague pointer - I seemed to remember the bearing here being about 320 so I glanced at the compass and ran aimlessly onward, brain not sure whether to follow that bearing from a rather unreliable memory or follow the pointer from a marshal who hadn't seemed that sure himself (not his job to navigate for us after all, so to get any help had been a bonus). A guy from Pennine Runners caught me up at this point; I recognised him from a couple of other races - usually he's way ahead of me but a dodgy ankle and stomach trouble were hampering him. I explained I was lost but he pulled out his map and gave it to me and between us we started to "navigate" with rather misplaced confidence since we weren't sure of our position. We were joined by another runner - the lady I had followed on the first slope - and the three of us headed towards a dark ridge that seemed like it might match the contours around check 5 on the map. The mist lifted and a trig with a marshal appeared way over to our right - had we done that far off course? We arrived breathless to see a very confused and amused marshal who informed us we had all been to that point already as it was check point three. Aargh!
The bearing - due north - took us off to checkpoint 4 again and we carried straight on this time. "We" in this case were myself and the Pennine guy as our third lost soul had decided to call it a day and head for the finish with the marshal who had seen all sixteen runners through by this time. The best route would have been down into a deep valley head then up a steep climb, but I decided to contour round and save losing all that height - in fact this proved a reasonable decision and soon I was running round John S at the last check and following flags to the road near Abergwynfi and a short dash back to the the Great Western Hotel where I was identified as one of the "lost boys of Heligon" or something and surprised to find that I was not last. Someone came in behind me with only one shoe, and it sounded like a few had been lost at some stage or other.
Well, that was the first time I've really messed up badly with navigation, and at least I console myself with the fact that the main problems came from losing the map rather than misreading it. Perhaps it's good to have this experience to make sure I prepare better next time, and stick with my 1:25,000 maps which is what I'm used to. I'll be less inclined to follow the runner in front from now on. Oh and another bonus is I got some extra miles of training in :) And as I said to the race organisers at the finish, I enjoyed that course so much I ran some of it twice.
I hope the turnout is better next time - it needs to be for the race to be sustainable - and I for one aim keen to do it again just to get it right! Thanks should go to the organisers headed by Martin Lucas and to the Great Western Hotel, a friendly pub which holds a world record for frequency-of-swearing and is happy to welcome wet and muddy fell runners for a post-race sandwich. Cheers.
Results are online at: http://www.wfra.org.uk/results.php?race_id=268
Sacred Steps Home