"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Cwmdu Fell Race - May 8th, 2021
I was looking for road races to enter as part of my triathlon season buildup when I saw details of a Fell Race an hour's drive away for £2 with spaces available. I couldn't resist it! Covid restrictions meant the race was time-trial format and to be held in two waves. I went for the first wave but later realised I had overreached myself - I was basing my ability to run 1:45 (the cut-off) on my 1:18 at Mynydd Troed some 15 years ago, and had it been the same course I think I would have made the right decision, but Cwmdu is a longer race than its predecessor and the course record is around 1:18 so 1:45 for me was going to be a bit of a stretch!
By the time I realised my mistake the slower wave was sold out so I went for it, thinking a miracle of some kind might get me over the line with a recorded time rather than a DNF. I was in reasonable shape, with some reasonable 5k and 10k times and an OK marathon time all clocked up in the 3 months prior to this mountainous challenge, but I had only run twice on proper fell terrain in 2020 and 2021 combined. I had plenty of preparation for sure - just the wrong kind. I tried to make up for this by running reps of my local hills at Stoke Park and Charlton Common but they are not proper fellrunner territory and without any training on the mountains a mountain race is always going to be a big challenge.
The day of the race came round with the weather looking rough and unpredictable. I warmed up on the lane near race HQ and then took some time to meditate on the mountains and the sky while sheltering under a yew tree. When they called for starters I was in the first bunch, going off about third or fourth as far I a can remember. I was aware I was heading into territory I barely knew and was hoping that as the faster runners in this elite wave came past I would at least have someone to follow. A history of achilles trouble means I can't wear fell shoes these days, so I was in my versatile but imperfect trabuco shoes - a jack of all trades and master of none with lugs rather than studs - but I had run the Morning After Fell Race in these without once losing it on the downhills so I figured they would do the job. I had a windstopper baselayer to protect me from the worst of the rain, a strange gore running hat that you can tie on bandana-style so it won't come off even in a storm, a laminated map and silva compass, waterproof jacket in case of emergency and 2 micro-bottles of drink. And a whistle of course to avoid being lost and dying of exposure should I break an ankle.
The first climb was OK - 300m or so of ascent beginning on a lane, then a narrow path over lots of tree-roots, then after that the open fellside. I held back deliberately as I have gone off too fast so many times on the hills and paid for it later. I was fixated on hitting that cut-off time and hoping to reach the first road crossing in 35 mins then the second after 70, which meant keeping up a pace that was just on the edge of sustainable and not taking any wrong turns. After the reaching the first landmark, a major cairn on the ridge, I followed the route I had memorised alongside the "wall" (more of an earth bank) shown on the map but some runners, clearly with better knowledge of the terrain, took a slightly quicker line on a trail through the deep heather. I turned north and the going was good on a smooth trail - that's where the photo was taken. The elements were being kinder than expected - there was blustery wind and cold rain but not too much. The return ridge, over to our right, was shrouded in swirling cloud.
As I came towards the end of the ridge a runner ahead swung down to the left on a narrow path while I and those immediately ahead of me stayed on the ridge - again I'd taken a slightly slower option as we had an awkward, rocky descent while the pioneer who had detoured had a smoother course and gained some time. I took it slowly over wet slabs of rock as I was aware of being out of practice on this terrain. After the thigh-crunching descent I was crossing the road with around 47 minutes gone and the cutoff looking an unlikely goal. I set myself the target of hitting the top of the climb at 55 minutes and thought I had made it, only to find it was a false summit and there were a few minutes of walking/climbing up the steep spur still to go. On this ascent I downed one of my drinks - kombucha comined with an SIS caffeine shot. That helped a lot, as you can imagine. Good choice.
At the trig I found around an hour of race time had elapsed and as I turned south (well, 140 degrees) I found I was running into mixed fortunes, with great going underfoot (another smooth trail that was easy to follow) but poor visibility and a fierce headwind. Soon I was down out of the cloud and able to see some runners ahead to reassure me I was on the right route. The headwind got stronger and stronger and was even pulling my mouth open at one point, which was an unfamiliar sensation. The gore running hat stayed on but flapped alarmingly in the wind which was a bit distracting. I felt my number about to get ripped off my vest which might have made getting a finish time even more difficult, so I held it on with one hand and kept driving on into the harsh wind. After an eternal few minutes relief came in the shape of the flagged descent into Cwm Sorgwm which took us out of the worst of the wind but brough a different challenge in its place. The descent was very steep and the going underfoot was tricky - first we were running over loose soil where the heather appeared to have burned away in a wildfire and then a cominbation of vertical tussock, deep heather and bracken-mulch which combined to make fast descending very risky. I played it safe as I had on the previous downhill section and picked my way down, only getting up to a good speed on the smooth, sloping fields leading to the lane.
At the road crossing I made another mistake that could have cost me a lot of time, but fortunately didn't. I was thinking the route headed left on the lane then right, but I saw a runner in a yellow vest heading north on the lane and with my tired mind I just followed instead of checking. The runner behind me shouted to me and called me back on course, so I only lost around 10 seconds. A lesson learned.
By now there was well under half an hour left on the clock and I had one last mountain to get up and over and down from to complete the race. My mind and legs were both quite shot by now from the weather and the exertion but I was grateful to be out there in the mountains with the wind and the weather beating around me, as Sri Aurobindo says in his immortal poem. Hands on knees, I hauled myself up that final climb, made it to the cairn and hung a sharp left with around 17 minutes to cover the remaining distance. I followed the wrong line and had to traverse a hundred metres or so of heather to get back on the right trail, then I had a moment of doubt about the descent when I could see no other runners and had to check the map one last time. As I came down past the woods on to the tree-root path, 13:45 came up on my watch so I knew I had missed the cut. Knowing I would be DNF in the results, I took it slow on that last descent to avoid a last-minute injury that would have ruined an otherwise excellent day on the mountains, but I ran hard on the lane to finish in 1:53.
As it happened, the organisers relaxed the cut off and gave us all a time in the results - I was 31st out of 46 finishers and nowhere at all in the 50+ category, so not a good result on paper, but an achievement for me to be back on the mountains and to finish the race. My legs had held up pretty well and my energy hadn't crashed, so I think I am fit to fell race. Who knows, with perfect weather (ha ha) and now that I know the course and can take a better line, I might be able to improve my time on this one. Maybe I'll find out next year! Anyway, a great feeling to be back in the mountains.
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