Llanbedr to Blaenavon Fell Race 2009
Photos from Christine Vorres of Griffithstown Harriers
This race is such a legend, and I'd heard so much chat about it over the years, that I just had to have a crack at it. In fact I booked the day off work months in advance and even managed to recce the course (which I'd definitely recommend) a few weeks ahead of the event. The talk I'd heard in the shop had all been about one thing - the Blorenge. This mountain is an easy stroll from the south, but the north face is as close to vertical as you can get and still call it running rather than climbing! It's this steep climb, and the fact that it comes late in the race when you are already fatigued, that makes the L to B race so famous/notorious (delete according to your experience!).
Race day dawned clear, bright and mild - as per usual I was one of the first to pitch up at Blaenavon, pay a princely sum of six pounds and then meander around the car park until I was offered a lift to the start. It says on the race info "ad hoc transport to start" and this seemed to work fine - in fact some runners arrived at Llanbedr and were still able to register. I managed a short warm up to get loose, then we waited until all the registered runners were assembled, then waited some more while a flock of sheep was driven up the track we were about to run down, and then a horn was sounded and 60 odd runners cheerfully loped down into the dingle behind Llanbedr church. I'd resolved to follow someone who looked like they knew their stuff wherever possible, as my recce run had been some time ago and I hadn't committed every inch of the 15 miles to memory. Two recce sessions, one just a week before, would be the perfect prep, but there you go... Anyhow I was able to keep within sight of one of the organisers, dimitri, as we came out of the dingle, headed left on a lane and then spotted a shred of hazard tape that marked the trail up to Crug Mawr. I was taking it easy on the climbs, mindful of the length of the event, and I was pleased that I seemed to be up there with the pack (if not with the leaders, who were over the horizon before we even crossed the stream).
Visibility was the best I've known in a race - absolutely crystal clear - and the trig on Crug Mawr was visible from the gentle upper section of the first climb, which is not too much of a killer. Once round the trig, number shouted and noted by marshal, it was time to pick the best line down into the valley, and I saw the two runners ahead of me diverging giving me a choice of follow one, follow the other or split the difference! In my recce run I'd taken a pretty unsatisfactory line down a rough slope ankle-deep in foot-catching bracken roots and heather, and had to climb in and out of a shallow gully, so I went to the right of the gully and found the going a little better. At one point I even seemed to be on a path - or just a sheep track? Whatever, I came to the corner of the stone wall at about the right point and from there it was easy path down to the second check point where numbers were taken by the two 118 runners in wigs and false moustaches. Really. By now I had sore feet - strange as I had raced in the same shoes and socks before, but perhaps lack of hill work was taking its toll - I've been road running and biking in preparation for an Ironman so hills have had to take second place this year. I was a little worried that the blisters could get to be a problem later on, but with only two big descents in the race, and one nearly done and dusted already, I wasn't too fussed. After the long easy lope down from Crug Mawr there was a short section of lane then an eastward skirting around the base of the Sugarloaf - again there was some marking with tape on this section which I was quite glad of, especially where the streamside path after the bridge heads into the woods and you have to run up a steep bank to join the (much wider) parallel path above it to avoid running into the undergrowth where a machete might be needed!
When the time came to make a right turn and get back on to the open fellside, running up a stoney streambed, there was tape again to make sure we didn't miss it. I still felt good at this stage, having downed some smartgel and nabbed a drink at the aid station on the road between Crug Mawr and Sugarloaf, but I was still slowing down. The tactic of going off fast to keep contact with other runners was not a bad one from a navigation point of view, but I was paying for it a bit. At the path junction came the third checkpoint and we turned eastwards again to climb a long spur to the Sugarloaf summit - exhilarating views abounded in all directions - it was a real "big sky" day and the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons were laid out gloriously to the north, while to the south lay the much more relevant and increasingly imposing silhouette of the Blorenge. Such a soft name, it sounds like a dessert of some kind but the closer you get the meaner it looks - should be called The Scorpion or something a bit more fitting! On that long climb up Sugarloaf I mostly walked, but it flattens out at the top and I was running OK as I got to the summit and gave my number at the trig. Now my legs were getting to that "heavy jelly" state that said "OK, so your'e aerobically fit from the biking, but you haven't done your homework on the fells have you?". OK legs, you're right, but we're half way now so let's just go for it! Sore feet and jelly legs are the usual deal on a fell race, so inside I still felt great - the beauty of the mountains, especially on such a lovely day with the greenness of Spring bursting out everywhere was enough to give anyone a song in their heart and that's just how I felt. The pain was just a counter melody.
Coming down the Sugarloaf I realised I was not in full control of those jelly legs, so I had to keep my stride short and go slowly on the steep bit. In places the path has been worn into steps by countless boots and this made life easier. Once on the shallower slope I was running again, and thanks to that recce run I had no trouble picking the line down to the roadway that led, via a brief diversion to cut a corner through a field, to Avergavenny. I passed one of the Hungarian runners, and a couple of people passed me, but I made up one place again by taking the shorter route through town - Chapel Street, right on Orchard Street (opposite the school) then left on Mount Street - straight over at the roundabout then leg it down to the bridge. Here I was following Matthew Lawson from Chepstow who had overtaken me as we reached the first road, and he seemed totally oblivious to the traffic so I just hung in behind him in the knowledge that if one of the trucks didn't see us at least he would get hit first! Still, before long we were over the bridge and back on track, literally, to the aid station in Llanfoist. I started chain-eating my jelly beans so I could wash them down with a cup of water, but saved a few for the big climb itself. And then, with the drinks table behind us, the BIG ONE began in earnest...
At first it's just a walk/jog climb through the trees, then a long narrow tunnel under the canal, then it begins to steepen and then....back on the fellside with the looming might of the North Face of the Blorenge before you, a Welsh flag fluttering at the top. It starts steep, and gets steeper, and being unsteady on my feet I soon found myself grabbing the odd hand hold. I got my hands on my knees and just slogged up. "All things must pass" I told myself, and I kept reminding myself that each step forward had a sacred meaning of its own. And so it went on, onwards and upwards and upwards, until finally the jelly beans were gone, replaced by totally (instead of partially) jelly legs, and I was there at the splendid flag that marked the change from vertical to horizontal. No false summit here - the top you see as you climb really is the top of the ascent. Unfortunately, as I passed the flag to a word of encouragement from the marshal, I found myself totally spent. oops! I had blown up. Fortunately I knew from experience that there would be a "second wind", and I had saved half a bottle of my supercharged gel for just such a moment. My drink was all gone (I'd carried half a litre in a bladder in the bumbag) but the gel was runny enough to suck down on its own. Soon I managed a jog, and at least managed to get myself moving over the challenging stoney ground, hard to pick up the feet but at least it wasn't a steep climb - just a gentle up to the trig and penultimate check point at the Blorenge summit. More encouragement from the stalwart marshals and more carbs working their way into my system and I was running slowly but surely towards the radio masts. From here to Blaenavon there were some helpful markers of hazard tape, so it was easy enough to pick the right line and soldier on. Once on the road, I was able to dig out the sketch map that Gareth Buffet had handed out at the start, confirming the right way in to the finish on the roads of Blaenavon. I knew it anyway from the recce, and I bumped into the (slightly lost) runner in front, who had fared better than me on the Blorenge and overtaken me just after the top of the climb, and together we legged it to the finish, 12th place in 2.42.
It had been a glorious day, a tough race, a great feeling between the competitors and marshals and a joyful experience all round. My first fell race in a while and a reminder of what I'd been missing. Race number 31 sorted, and hopefully 9 more to go aged 40.
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