DROVERS RUN 2007

I rarely go west out of Cardiff - it's usually north to the Beacons or East to the Black Mountains, so I hadn't seen much of this lovely area around Llanharan and the ridge of Mynydd Y Gaer with its parade of windmills. The morning of the race felt like the first real spring weather of the year - incredibly clear and bright, with the colours of the daffodils sharp against the brilliant green of the fields. It was cold though, with a harsh wind from the northwest, and the hedgerows still looked wintery and bare in the sunlight.

I got there early and spent ages getting myself ready for my first hill race in about eight months. I had quite a long meditation in the car then a slow, deliberate warmup with a mile of walking before I even broke into a jog. I was feeling that great combination of nervous expectation and excitement mixed with the higher calm that came from the beauty of the day and the meditation and just the serenity of the countryside in contrast to my nighbourhood in a city centre suburb just fifteen miles away. The long warmup was for the sake of my injured knee, and it seemed ok after a little soreness in the first few minutes. The race would be a stern test for it, expecially the descent.

The race began with a stiff climb along narrow lanes leading north out of Brynna. It's always hard to pace those climbs - it would be easy to hang back and save energy for later but I feel uneasy about going out too slow and leaving myself with more to do later, so I let my enthusiasm win and just went for it at a steady but taxing pace. Couldn't stay with the lead pack, unsurprisingly, but I was surprised at how I was able to hang in there with the second, rather strung-out bunch of runners - probably positions ten to twenty - leaving behind one or two guys who I know are quite handy from their times in our Self Transcendence Races.

It was fantastic to be out there again in the mud, sweat and spit of a hill race. Inside it all felt mantric and good, in my body the beginnings of a stitch, my suspect knee only a little sore and no real cause for anxiety. I was duelling, soort of, with a couple of other runners on the climb, but the onset of a stitch was making me cautious - everything else felt great though so I was loathe to slow down too much. I tried all the tricks like changing the rhythm of breathing, shortening the stride, pushing my stomach out. I also took a few five-second bouts of hands-on-knees walking, which helped relax the cramping and hold off the stitch without losing me too much ground from the runners up ahead. By now we were over the cattle grid and on the long, slow end to the climb - the gradient had eased but it still took ages to reach the carpark on the crest of the ridge where the race route switches from lanes to open fell. Here the trail was a wide series of ruts and ridges, with a choice of walking the tightrope along a grassy ridge or splashing through the boggy and waterlogged channels in between. I opted for the latter at first, but a couple of slight slips made me change - it was better to keep my feet landing where I could actually see them. My shoes were gripping nicely in their first race and got me through the mud ok. The guy ahead who had beaten me up the hill was tiring slightly and I felt strong so I surged on a downhill and moved ahead.

 

The whirring of the windmills was almost musical and mixed in with the roar of the wind across the hilltop - the only other sounds were the shouts of encouragement from the numerous marshals and the spattering of mud with each footstep. Ahead I could see a top local lady mountain runner, and this made me worry that I had gone off way too quick and might blow up very soon, as she is an awesome runner and usually some distance ahead of me even on a short race, but trying to catch her was probably the best way to keep myself running hard and make sure I didn't slacken off as fatigue started to tell. The wind got up and started to attack us with horizontal hail, which in my book is preferable to rain or snow, if a bit stingy on the face. We turned south off the ridge and a marshal cheerily declared "all downhill from here", then ten yards later we started to climb again! To be fair it was only an easy gradient as the track undulated down towards Brynna and became a stoney farm track that was hard underfoot. We found ourselves back in the lanes and by my reckoning only a mile or so from the finish when a fitter runner came up behind me and surged past - I was trying to stay with him but was on the limit already with no extra speed to draw on. After a few more twists and turns and a short stretch on a footpath we were on the home straight, the driveway of Brynna community centre, and I was able to summon up a sprint finish to grab 12th place instead of 13th by a whisker. I was pretty hammered and nauseated from the effort at the end but elated as well to have raced on the hills again after severa months out. In response to Steve Butler asking me if I enjoyed the race I was unable to speak but managed a smile and a thumbs up so I hope he got the message. I felt on a real high afterwards - it lasted for a couple of days. So did the soreness in my knee, but only very mildly so no damage done I hope!

Many thanks to Pencoed Tri for putting the Drovers Run on - so many marshals and such a well organised race. I doubt it will often be run on a day as beautiful as this but it's a great course and well worth the trip out to Brynna.

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