Sarn Helen Hill Race 2006

As a big fan of the Ras y Mast, I was keen to try any race put on by Sarn Helen club, and this 16.5 miler was the first counter in this year's South Wales WFRA champs, so I had to go for it. Usually my problem with getting to hill races is that they all fall on Saturdays and I'm at work, but this one is a Sunday fixture. Would you believe it, it clashed with the only Sunday of the year that Run and Become stays open (because of the FA cup final the day before, which makes trading in Wood Street in Cardiff impossible). Fortunately I was able to blag the day off and luckily for me my colleagues had a fairly easy time of it without me as Cardiff was quiet that day.

The weather was warm and sunny when I got to Lampeter rugby club to register - when I filled in the form they noticed I had already entered in advance, something I'd completely forgotten about. They must have thought I was very keen, entering the race twice. I hurriedly assured the ladies on registration that I had no intention of running two laps, which caused some amusement. As usual I'd got to the race very early - when it's a long haul in the car I get edgy about getting stuck in a traffic jam or something so I always set off early and end up hanging around for ages at the race HQ or the start. On this occasion I did the hanging around in my car; preparing inwardly, sorting my feet out with vaseline and two-layer socks and trying to decide what to carry. There was no mandatory kit, as the race is extensively marshalled and mostly on roads and tracks, and as there were 6 water stations promised I didn't even carry a drink - just 3 gels and a hat (good if it stayed sunny, good if it started to rain).

After the junior races we gathered at the start and chatted - the Sarn Helen runners are a friendly bunch and I also met people I knew as customers at Run and Become or from races. The furthest-travelled guy I met was up from Devon visiting family - almost everyone else was local. Lyn started us off with the reassuring advice that if we ran through town to Cwmann someone would be there to show us where to turn off, so off we went at a brisk pace through the "city centre" of Lampeter. Drivers slowed down to let us pass and waved their encouragement. Some of the guys around me seemed to know every driver and pedestrian on the route. Small place this.

Mile markers came and went, and I realised I had gone off too fast for my current level of fitness - we were running 6.45 ish per mile, which is normally no problem, but right now it was wearing me out. I was hoping this was just because I wasn't warmed up, and that once I got to 5 miles or so I would find things more comfortable. Unfortunately, by the 3 mile mark, where we climbed a sustained hill on a lane and exited onto the mountain, I had a major stitch. The first water station was there, so I took a whole cupful (mindful of the warm temperatures and the long distance ahead) and this made the stitch really severe - I started to feel stomach cramps too as an added bonus, something I hadn't had to contend with since a race in the Black Mountains several years back. The problem with the stomach cramp thing is that it's worse on the way down the hills, like being punched in the belly with each step, so on a hilly course your speed is impaired on the stretches where you should be getting a good pace up.

Anyway, enough about my hyper-tense torso and diaphragm-related dilemmas. The hilly course rolled on over fields and stiles, all the climbs eminently runnable, before descending on more deserted lanes into a valley. The views were magnificent, and the road sections made it easy to enjoy them to the full, as I didn't have to keep my eyes on my every footfall as you do in some fell races. I was surprised at just how much road there was - very glad to be wearing my trabucos and not fell shoes, which would not have been much fun on all that hard surface. After a little more road in the valley the course turned on to a muddy track, and I was ducking under trees and sploshing through boggy sections as two runners came up behind and then passed me, proving I'd paced myself completely wrongly and that the persistent and acute cramps that were knotting up the front of my body really were slowing me down. The path brought us out at the foot of a tractor track up the side of Craig Twrch, again a very runnable climb but I walked some of it as I tried every breathing technique and whatever else I could think of to try and shift the stitch.

Coming over a small crest I saw an unusual sight on the horizon - looking rather like one of those scenes in a western where the commanches all line up on the ridge, putting the fear of God into the seventh cavalry. In this case the Indians were in fact the race supporters, all massed on the summit to cheer their suffering friends and relatives over the top and in some cases hand them drink bottles. To their credit, they clapped everyone up to the top, even total strangers like me, and it got me running again as walking wasn't helping with the stitch problem anyway. I grabbed a water from the table as the path of the summit joined the roman road (Sarn Helen) and had just enough energy to joke with the marshal there. Despite the physical disaster I was going through, and the fact that I had pretty much "blown up", I was in great spirits. I could see down off the ridge into an adjacent valley surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, an isolated farm nestling in the valley floor - it was like a picture of rural heaven, such natural and harmonious perfection encapsulated in that view. I love hill country, especially when it is quite sparsely populated and unspoilt as it is here. All this helped keep me in a great mood as I toiled on down the roman road, a sustained, fast downhill stretch where yet more runners steamed past me, including the swift ladies of Ingli Runners, and I did my best to hang on to each one to keep my speed up to a respectable level.

After the roman road we came over a bridge in the lovely, tiny hamlet of Llanfair Clydogau, and began climbing on forestry roads into the plantation. Everyone who was going to pass me had already done so, and now there was no-one in view and I effectively had the forest to myself. Still in some pain and discomfort, with added fatigue, I counted down the mile markers through the peaceful woodland until I came to the descent through lush, green fields overlooking Lampeter. I could see the stretch where I had warmed up earlier, but even in those last five minutes I couldn't muster a surge. I finally came under the finishing banner on the rugby pitch in 2.17, to be greeted with a bottle of water and two chocolate bars being thrust into my hand. I joined the other finishers laid out on the grass and we talked through our races while a helper handed out certificates with our times and positions. I could have laid there all day, enjoying the warm weather and the comfort of the soft grass, but as always I had things to do, places to go, etc. I couldn't stay for the presentation, as I had to drive straight back to Cardiff, but as far as I could make out I was 29th out of 60 or so runners. Such an inspiring race, despite the problems - I'll need to go back next year and improve on my time. Better pacing and carrying my own drink would help. A big thank you to Lyn Rees and all at Sarn Helen for putting this race on. Like their other offering, the Ras Y Mast, it's a real gem.

Sacred Steps Home