Exodus

About the Race

The Exodus Race is a 100 mile single-stage race in the Brecon Beacons. It starts on the west of the Beacons in Llangadog and travels east along the Beacons Way to Abergavenny.

The timetable for the event was as below:

I drove to the finish at Abergavenny and left my car in the car park there and took a coach, laid on by the race organisers, to the start in Llangadog.

The race allows each competitor to leave a drop-bag at each checkpoint. The important point to remember is that after the drop-bag have been accessed at the checkpoint it is then moved to the finish, not to the next checkpoint like in some races. So, this means you potentially need more drop-bags and maybe more kit.

Beacons Way

The route was along the Beacons Way, west to east, except for the checkpoints that were in buildings like Youth Hostels, just off the route.

I know the Brecon Beacons quite well but have not been on all the route. I probably know the central section the best, then the western side and have not spent much time on the eastern side.

The Plan

My plan was to take this race fairly steadily and not to push things too hard. I knew that the weather was forecast to be bad; very wet and windy, so I was prepared for this. I assembled all the kit and food according to the plan I had produced.

My checkpoint strategy was to try to minimise time in the checkpoints. I would just get something to eat, change batteries in my electronics, change socks (and possibly shoes), reload food and water for the next leg and set off.

Check-In

Check-in was a simple process in Llangadog. I deposited my various bags with the race organisers and got my race number, GPS tracker, map and a hi-viz jacket! Then there was a race briefing before we walked outside to the start of the race.

Leg 1 – Llangadog to Llanddeusant, 22 miles

The start was at 7pm on Friday evening. Given it was December it was dark and the forecast was for wet and windy weather. As we walked to the start I fired up my GPS unit and my watch.

For some reason my GPS was playing up and would not load the route. As I fiddled with it, the race started and everyone ran off.

So I was jogging along fiddling with my GPS whilst watching the line of head torches disappear up the hill in front. I then realised that my watch’s GPS did not appear to be working either. This was not good!

So I decided to reboot all electronics.

I think I must have loaded the wrong segment on my watch (I had loaded each segment as a separate track on my watch) as this time all seemed good. I have no idea what was wrong with my GPS unit, but the reboot seemed to fix things and it was working normally now.

The first section was muddy footpaths through farmland. We were climbing as well. Llangadog is in a valley, and we were climbing up into the Beacons towards the Black Mountain.

There was some road and paths before we got into the Beacons park proper. The weather was still OK and there were a few people around. We went past the village of Bethlehem and continued south towards Trap. As I got near to Carreg Cennen Castle I past a farmer walking with his three sheep dogs. I got a nip from one of the dogs which was not good.

From here it was climbing up onto the Black Mountain. There is not much path here and it was eyes down onto the GPS for much of this section. The rain had started by now and as we got higher so the wind picked up.

After a while we came off the hills onto road and started descending. It was a few miles of undulating tarmac to the first checkpoint at Llandeusant. As is always the case the first checkpoint was quite busy but I found a seat, got something to eat and changed the batteries in my head torch and GPS.

I went to change my socks only to discover a packing failure. I was wearing toe socks where left and right is very important as you simply cannot wear a right sock on the left foot and vice versa. I pulled out the pair of socks from the drop bag to find two right socks. So, all I could do was change the right sock.

I was not finding the poles I was carrying very useful so I left them in my drop bag.

Leg 2 – Llanddeusant to Brecon Beacons YHA (near Storey Arms), 25 miles

I did not stay long at Llandeusant and was soon out of the door onto the second leg. I was with a younger guy who was not very confident with navigation so we were moving together.

We had a small amount of tarmac at first, out of Llanddeusant, before some muddy paths over farmland before we were back into the Beacons proper. The route was staying low around the northern side of Llyn Y Fan Fach and Llyn Y Fan Fawr, avoiding the higher ground of Banau Sir Gaer and Fan Brycheiniog.

We could just about see the water in Llyn Y Fan Fach as we crossed the northern shore and headed over to Llyn Y Fan Fawr, skirting the northern shore before following the water’s edge south, along the eastern side.

Then it was south off the hill into the Swansea Valley and across the A4067 just north of Pen Y Cae and the caves at Dan Yr Ogof. I made a slight navigation error here and missed the turn off through the graveyard, but soon corrected the mistake.

There were some reasonable paths here as we first traversed some lowland areas along the Swansea Valley, before starting to climb again. Eventually we joined the old Roman Road, Sarn Helen, that took us northeast.

It was starting to get light now and along the Sarn Helen we passed the Maen Madoc burial stone.

We had caught up with Iain who I knew from other races like Cape Wrath and Dragon’s Back. So we talked about these races a bit, as well as races we had coming up in the future.

We dropped down to cross a small road and then climbed back up to Fan Llia. It had been raining hard all morning and my waterproof gortex gloves were now waterlogged. The wind was strong causing my fingers to go numb with the windchill, so I took the gloves off which did improve things.

I was on my own again as I circled around towards the A470. I know this area quite well but had never seen the underpass beneath the road near the Storey Arms. But it was there!

Checkpoint 2 was off the Beacons Way in a youth hostel back towards Libanus. Initially the path was good but there were some seriously muddy fields to cross to get the CP!

I did the usual at the CP; got something to eat and drink, replaced batteries and loaded up my rucksack with food and water for the next stage.

As I pulled a pair of socks from my drop bag I found, unsurprisingly, two left socks. So I changed my left sock. At least at the next checkpoint the socks in the drop bag should be a left and a right.

Leg 3 – Brecon Beacons YHA to Crickhowell, 26 miles

I left the checkpoint fairly promptly and slithered back the way I had come across the muddy fields until I was back on the path. Feet were soaked again so changing sock was a bit of a waste of time.

From here we climbed up to near the summit of Corn Du, before breaking away and going up Pen Y Fan. It was very windy now, so when I got to the summit, I quickly got across to Jacob’s Ladder on the far side to start descending.

There where two routes advertised. A normal route summiting Fan Y Big and a bad weather route keeping to the Roman Road along the Neuadd Reservoirs. We were advised at the last Checkpoint to follow the bad weather route.

From the Roman Road I headed round to the eastern side of the Talybont Reservoir before heading east towards Llangynidr. From here Crickhowell is not too far away to the east, but the route we were following took us on a big detour to the north before swinging around south and back to Crickhowell.

It had got dark again long before I got to the Checkpoint. I did the usual checkpoint admin process and then closed my eyes and put my head on a table for a few minutes cat-nap. This didn’t work, so I found some camp beds behind a screen so I laid down for a few minutes. I did not sleep for very long, just a few minutes I think, but I was dawdling at the checkpoint.

My feet were starting to show a few signs of becoming waterlogged, which was not too surprising at they had been constantly wet since the start. My shoes were starting to hurt as well. I did think of changing from the Scotts to Hokas. I knew the Hokas would offer a little more cushioning but would not be as grippy as the Scotts on the mud. So I stayed with the Scotts.

After that, I got ready, changed both socks, and set off into the darkness again.

Leg 4 – Crickhowell to Abergavenny, 27 miles

This section was a big loop, firstly north, then east and then south back to Abergavenny. I was not very familiar with the majority of this section although I did know the final hill.

There was a sharp climb out of the checkpoint through farmland, before I dropped down to cross a couple of small roads. Then a repeat as we continued to travel north. We dropped off the hill into the village of Llanthony. Somewhere around here was an unmanned checkpoint. We were advised we did not have to dib into it, as it had some sort of proximity device to record us passing.

It was getting light and the weather was improving.

The next climb was up to Hatterrall Hill. I was now moving south towards the finish. I dropped off the hill and there was a bit of a lowland road section to traverse.

I was somewhat familiar with this area. The last hill was Skirrid, which I knew. In the past, I had taken a wrong turn off the road onto the hill and for some reason (tiredness probably) I did the same again. This was annoying and it took me some time to retrace my steps to sort it out.

Skirrid is quite steep so it took a while to get to the top. There was the second unmanned checkpoint somewhere at the top. I did not see it. I came off the hill through a wood and was now on the outskirts of Abergavenny.

There was a couple of miles still to go. This was a combination of roads and a golf course. And then I was at the finish!

I made it 107 miles in 41 hours 17 minutes. I did make a couple of navigation errors that may have added an extra mile or two.

Statistics for the race were: 55 signed up; 43 showed up at the start; 19 finished. I came 10th.

Things I Learned

  1. Its Wales in December so its going to be wet and muddy. We had pretty bad weather with a lot of rain and high winds.
  2. Take as much kit as you can, its good to change into fresh kit at the checkpoints (all my waterproof gear leaked to some degree).
  3. The Beacons Way is sign-posted but in places not that well. Most of the route has a reasonable path to follow but there are some less used section like the Black Mountain where there is not much of a path on the ground.
  4. Terrain is undulating and generally not technically difficult. It is mainly hilly rather than mountainous.
  5. There are not many places outside Checkpoints to buy things so you have to support yourself between CPs.
  6. Pair up toe-socks carefully to ensure a pair really is a pair!

How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Scott Kinabalu was good at these perform well on mud. Feet were quite painful at the end though.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times.
  3. UD Fastpack 15L backpack worked well and was plenty big enough.
  4. Waterproofs. Montane Ajax jacket and Montane Trailblazer trousers. Wore the jacket for the whole race and the trousers for the second half. Both leaked to some extent but given the amount of heavy rain I was happy with both.
  5. Sealskinz hat. Worked fine.
  6. Trekmates gortex gloves. Became waterlogged and useless. Changed to Sealskinz gloves and the same thing happened. Simply need multiple pairs.
  7. Garmin eTrex 30x. Worked fine after the initial problems at the start.
  8. Garmin Fenix 3 HR watch. Worked well.
  9. Organiser map. I had a couple of looks at the map inside at the checkpoint to get an overview of what was coming up but did not look at the map on the course. Navigating by map and compass would have been very difficult given the weather and the fact that a lot of this race occurs at night.
  10. Headtorch Ledlenser H14.2. Heavy so need to get used to it but worked well in the conditions. The light beam is big and bright and the batteries last all night.
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The Physics of Maps

Introduction

I love maps. But how do they work? This blog post examines some of the physics behind maps and how they work.

Representing the Earth on a Piece of Paper

If we assume the Earth is a sphere for now. Its not really, its quite a complex shape but for now we will keep things simple. More on its non-spherical nature later.

So a globe can be made to be quite a good approximation of the Earth. However, its not possible to represent the 3-D Earth on a 2-D piece of paper without distortion. You can see how this is the case by taking something spherical like an orange or an old football and trying to flatten out the surface layer (the peel in the case of the orange, or the football once deflated). The only way to flatten the surface layer is to tear it and / or stretch or deform it.

So, to get a representation of the globe on a sheet of paper a projection is required that will cause some sort of distortion. So compromises need to be made. The distorted properties are:

  • Distances
  • Directions
  • Shapes
  • Areas

There are many ways that a map projection can be done. These can be visualised as wrapping the Earth with a piece of paper in some way to mark all the detail on the piece of paper and then flattening out the piece of paper.

map-projections-explained

Mercator Projection

Gerardus Mercator, 1512 – 1594, was a Dutch Cartographer who came up with a world map in 1569.

mercator_1569
The Mercator projection is a conical projection. Conical projections preserve angles (this is called conformality) but distort other properties like areas. The cone touches the Earth, for example, at the Equator. Nearer the point where the cone touches the earth, the distortion is smallest; further away it gets progressively bigger. So, typically on World maps the distortion gets bigger nearer the poles.
Here is a typical Mercator projection map of the world. The classic distortion is the size of Greenland being much bigger than Australia where in reality, Australia is more than 3.5 times the size of Greenland!

mercator_projection_swThis graphic flips between the Mercator projection and actual areas of countries.
worlds_animate

The reason Mercator would have chosen this projection is because of navigation. With a conformal (equal angles) map, if you traverse a straight line from point A to point B, you will traverse a course of equal angle to the meridians on the Earth. A line of equal angles is called a Rhumb Line or Loxodrome. So, to sail from one side of an ocean to another, draw a line on the map and measure the angle, then sail that constant angle and you will reach your desired destination. This is obviously easy to do from a navigation perspective.

With a projection that is not conformal, Rhumb lines are not straight lines. Or, put another way, if you follow a straight line on a non-conformal map, you will need to constantly change your bearing as you get nearer to your destination. Possible, but far harder from a navigation perspective.

So for a standard Mercator projection centred on the Equator, the map is very useful around the equator but less so nearer the poles. Lambert realised that if you rotated the piece of paper relative so the Earth, so it touched a meridian of longitude then you could produce a map accurate around that meridian. This is the Transverse Mercator Projection and is useful for mapping areas with a north south extend, like for instance South America.

Gnomic Projection

Marine maps are often Mercator projections. But to travel large distances it is usually better to take the shortest route. The shortest route between two points is a straight line, right? Well, not if you are travelling on the Earth (unless you plan to tunnel through the Earth to your destination). To travel from A to B on the Earth’s surface, you will travel a curved line along the Earth’s surface. The shortest curved surface route would be the Great Circle going through the start and end points. A great circle is any circle on the surface of the Earth centred at the centre of the Earth (assuming the Earth to be a sphere for a moment).

Rhumb lines on a Mercator projection map are not Great Circles so are not the shortest way to travel from any given start point to an end point. A “planar” projection map called a Gnomic projection is defined to represent all Great Circles as straight lines and so drawing a straight line from start point to end point will result in following a Great Circle on the Earth’s surface which is the shortest distance between the start and end points (on the Earth’s surface). Note, to steer this course will require constant bearing adjustments.600px-gnomonic

Lambert Conformal Conic Projection

The Lambert Conformal Conic projection is similar to the Mercator projection but is a conic, rather than cylindrical, projection. The imaginary cone touches the Earth twice. Being conformal, angles are preserved so Rhumb lines are straight lines on this projection (like Mercator).

However, by touching the cone on the two extremities of the area to be mapped, distortion within the mapped area is less than with a Mercator projection, and the Rhumb lines are nearer Great Circles than on a Mercator projection.

Baltimore-Washington_TAC_82.png

The Lambert Conformal Conic projection is often used for Aeronautical charts (as above).

More Projections

Many projections have been produced for specific purposes. A large list is here.

Globe

A globe, of course, suffers none of the distortions of a 2-dimensional map, but is obviously more difficult to carry about and impractical at a more detailed level.

The Shape of the Earth

The Earth is obviously a complex shape with mountains and valleys, land and sea. It is best approximated by an oblate ellipsoid, that is a sphere that has been squashed slightly at the poles, so it is wider at the equator.

00wit_MOUNTAIN-jumbo

semi-minor-axis

So a point on the equator is approximately 21km (13 miles) further from the Earth’s centre than the North or South Pole.

By convention, mountains are measured as height above sea level (even if they are nowhere near the sea). An alternative would be to measure their distance from the centre of the Earth. Everest is 28º North, so clearly at a disadvantage compared to mountains near the equator. In fact, Chimborazo, a peak near the equator in the Andes turns out to be the furthest point from the centre of the Earth (even though it is not the highest peak in the Andes!). Everest does not make the top 20 mountains using this method of height calculation.

Ellipsoids

So the best simple shape to use to model the Earth is an ellipsoid but it is only an approximation. Depending on the intended use it may make sense to use one ellipsoid over another. For example, the best fit global ellipsoid may be a relatively good fit in some areas but relatively poor in others so typically country or regional maps will use an ellipsoid that makes sense for that country or region.

screenshot2019-02-01at09.13.42

Globally, the most common ellipsoid in use is the World Geodetic System 1984, WGS-84. GPS uses this. In the UK, it is common to use the Airy ellipsoid (calculated by George Airy in 1830), for example, this is what Ordnance Survey uses.

Here are some common ellipsoids:

Screenshot 2019-02-02 at 12.47.42

Geoid

By convention, “height” is measured with respect to sea level. But what sea level? Tides rise and fall, the moon influences the height of the high tides at different times of the year, etc. So some conventions are required?

Typically, an average sea level is chosen as height = zero. The shape of the Geoid is defined as a surface perpendicular to the Earth’s field of gravity, having a constant gravitational potential. Gravity generally acts towards the centre of the Earth but due to differences in the composition of the Earth there are variations on both small and large scales meaning that gravity does not always point at the centre of the Earth. The shape of the Geoid is therefore as complex as that of the Earth’s surface, but usually approximated by an ellipsoid.

Global Geoid

The Global Geoid is usually defined with height relative to the average sea level across all the world’s oceans. This leads to an ellipsoid accurate to about 200m across the whole world, quite good but not that accurate.

Local Geoid

In the UK, the Local Geoid height is measured relative to a tide-gauge at Newlyn in Cornwall. The seas around the UK are below the global average and the Newlyn gauge measures about 80cm below the Global Geoid! The seas are not all at the same level, due to temperature variation, tides, winds and water impurities.

This also means that measuring sea level at Newlyn from year to year will give different results (and that is before global warming comes into play!). The Ordnance Survey defines Ordnance Datum Newlyn as the mean sea level at Newlyn between 1915 and 1921. It is still used on maps and marked as ODN, and all heights on Ordnance Survey maps are relative to ODN.

Datum

A datum is a convention used to define a coordinate system and reference points in order to describe a point on the Earth. So a datum would typically reference an ellipsoid, a coordinate system and an origin of that coordinate system. It is a little confusing because sometimes the datum and its ellipsoid have been given the same name, e.g. WGS84.

The datum may refer to a globe, which is unprojected or to a particular map projection that specifies how to translate from the 3D ellipsoid to a 2D map, e.g. a Mercator projection.

Lets look at a couple of examples:

World Geodetic System 1984, WGS84

GPS uses WGS84 as it is a global system with the satellites orbiting the centre of the Earth on elliptical paths, so basing measurements from the centre of the Earth is quite convenient. This datum is unprojected. WGS84 is defined by the following:

  • The WGS84 Cartesian axes and ellipsoid are geocentric; that is, their origin is the centre of mass of the Earth including oceans and atmosphere.
  • Their orientation (that is, the directions of the axes, and hence the orientation of the ellipsoid equator and prime meridian of zero longitude) coincided with the equator and prime meridian of the Bureau Internationale de l’Heure at the moment in time midnight on New Year’s Eve 1983.
  • Since this time, the orientation of the axes and ellipsoid has changed such that the average motion of the crustal plates relative to the ellipsoid is zero. This ensures that the Z-axis of the WGS84 datum coincides with the International Reference Pole, and that the prime meridian of the ellipsoid (that is, the plane containing the Z and X Cartesian axes) coincides with the International Reference Meridian.
  • The shape and size of the WGS84 biaxial ellipsoid is defined by the semi-major axis length a = 6378137.000 metres, and the reciprocal of flattening 1/f = 298.257223563.

UK Datum OSGB36

The National Grid defines the UK into a series of 100km x 100km squares each given a 2 letter code. The datum specifies a Transverse Mercator Projection. The origin (called True Origin) is defined at 49°N 2°W. To remove the need for negative values west of the origin, a False Origin is defined 400km west and 100km north of the True Origin.

Any point in the UK can be defined to a 1 square metre accuracy as:

  • 2 character grid square
  • 5 digit “easting”. Number of metres east of the southwest corner of the square
  • 5 digit “northing”. Number of metres north of the southwest corner of the square.

Screenshot 2019-02-01 at 14.32.06

GPS

Following a map on a GPS is relatively straightforward. If you need to take a position reference from a GPS and compare it to, say, a map, then it is important that the GPS is configured in the same way as the map. Typically, this would involve configuring:

  • Datum
  • Ellipsoid
  • Grid System

So, in the UK you would set the OSGB36 datum, Airy ellipsoid and UK National Grid system.

The Physics of Glories

What is a Glory?

A Glory is an optical effect, not unlike a rainbow, where an object appears to have a halo of light broken into individual colours. Usually, the object is a shadow of a person but, if flying, the object would be the aeroplane the person is flying in. Interestingly, you can tell where the person taking the photo is sat in the aeroplane by where the centre of the Glory intersects the aeroplane. In the photo, below the photographer is sat in the middle of the plane just ahead of the wings.

When the object is the distorted shadow of the person viewing the Glory, it is called a Brocken Spectre. The Brocken is a mountain in the Harz Mountains in Germany whose geometry and meteorological conditions lend themselves to the formation of these Glories.

How does it Work?

So the basics behind the Glory are that a light source, like the Sun, is directly behind the person seeing the Glory. In front of the person would be cloud or fog that reflects some of the light back to the person.

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 11.33.58

So, when out walking, you need a particular geometry to see this. You need the sun behind you and in front you need a cloud or fog bank. So you need to be on, for example, a ridge looking down, and the sun cannot be too high.

The spectre appears deformed because of the long shadow that is cast, but is really just you blocking out the sunlight.

The Glory Itself

The Glory itself is a set of concentric rings with blue at the centre and red further out. This is opposite to a rainbow where red is the lowest arc and blue the highest. It is also possible to see higher order rings following the same pattern as the innermost ring, but with reduced intensity.

Rainbows (more here) are an effect of refraction, “2” in the below diagram; whilst Glories have the characteristics of a diffraction phenomena, “1” in the below diagram.

comparison_refraction_diffraction_spectra.svg

The exact mathematics required to produce the Glory need a computer to calculate the light intensities based on Mie Scattering. The parameters are water droplet size, refractive index and angle on incidence. One thing that does seem to be required for a Glory is a fairly uniform droplet size.

Whilst Mie Scattering gives the right answer in terms of computer simulations it does not explain what is actually happening. Several theories have been tried:

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 12.22.55Internal reflection of the light ray inside the water droplet. The issue with this is that water does not have a high enough refractive index to bend the light ray enough to return it to starting point. The best water can do comes up about 14º short.

 

Maybe there could be multiple internal reflections before the light ray returns to the observer. The issue here is that intensity is lost at each reflection so light reflected multiple times would be very faint; much fainter than is actually observed in Glories.

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 12.23.11Next way an idea that light rays incident with the edge of the water droplet could propagate a short distance along the surface before being refracted and reflected off the back wall, thus making up the missing 14º. The issue with this is that the surface propagation, though possible, would result in a significant reduction in intensity of the light eventually reflected back.

 

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 12.23.20 The current theory is that the largest contribution to the formation of a Glory is from waves near (within 1 wavelength) of the surface of the water droplet. These waves are able to “tunnel” into the water droplet, and eventually after several shallow reflections (where energy is not lost) are able to tunnel out and return to the observer. This tunnelling effect has been observed in many areas of physics and quantum mechanical tunnelling is well known (for example in alpha particle radioactivity). However, it is a wave phenomenon and light is a wave.

So the conclusion is the Glory effect is a light tunnelling phenomena.

The Spine

What is The Spine?

The Spine is a point to point traverse of the Penine Way, starting in Edale in Derbyshire and travelling north to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, 268 miles away.

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There are 5 checkpoints along the way at: Hebden, Hawes, Middleton, Alston and Bellingham. There are three x.5 checkpoints which are not really checkpoints but timing points where you can stay 30minutes and get water. No food nor access to your drop bag is allowed. In addition, there are several other small villages and points of interest that the route passes through.

Race Format

Its a single stage race with five checkpoints where competitors have access to a 20kg drop bag as well food, water, sleeping and medical facilities.

There is a 168 hour time limit (7 days) with corresponding cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. You can sleep at the checkpoints and along the route. The race starts 8am Sunday so you have until 8am the following Sunday to get to Kirk Yetholm.

The route is not marked by the race (except near checkpoints which are off the Pennine Way). The Pennine way itself is a national trail and is marked although not well enough to navigate by these marking alone.

Preparation

Preparation for the race had not been ideal. I did a 100 mile race in November with the aim of taking it steadily and using it to test out some new kit. Shortly after the race, however, I developed very painful sciatica which significantly impacted my running. So I did very little training in November and December.

I pulled together all the info I thought I’d need in a spreadsheet. The mandatory kit was the most extensive of any race I’d done before. Not only were the kit items listed but extensive guidance on each item of kit was provided, e.g. sleeping bag ratings, mat sizes. I had not put much effort into reducing kit size of weight and consequently my pack was about 9kg without water so I was due to spend the week carrying between 10 and 11kg along the Pennines.

The organisers had supplied several GPX files of the route. I loaded them as sections between checkpoints and added a few waypoints for interesting items along the way. The race is a little unique in that competitors need to be self sufficient between checkpoints but can use shops, cafes, pubs, etc. along the way. It is quite difficult for newcomers to get a complete list of these unofficial aid points; folks who have done the race before seem to  build their own list. Anyway, I added waypoints for aid points that I managed to scavenge from discussion on the facebook forum.

One thing was clear though, distances between CPs is very large so I would need to carry a lot of stuff. My strategy was to try and sleep only at the CPs and eat the food provided at the CPs and just eat snacks in between. I decided to minimise sleep as much as possible.

Registration

I arrived in Edale on Saturday morning and checked in, picking up race number 140. I had the privilege of a “full kit check” because of my race number, whatever that meant.

I chatted with a few other competitors that I knew and then decided to have a look around Buxton in the afternoon.

In the evening I checked into the Edale YHA and arranged to have dinner with Gwynn and Marcus. Back in the YHA it turned out that I was rooming with Steve who I knew from other races such as the Rebellion.

Section 1, Edale to Hebden. 45.9miles 2,442m.

We got up at 6am and had breakfast at the YHA. I gave Steve a lift down to the start in Edale and we got our trackers fitted and waited around until just before 8am when we walked down to the start in a field next to the car park.

At 8am we setoff. It was windy and had started to rain.

We climbed out of Edale and soon hit Jacob’s Ladder on the way up onto Kinder Scout. There were plenty of people around and I settled into a pace set by those in front. It was very windy up on top and quite cold. Past Kinder Downfall and eventually onto Bleaklow Moor. In the main the navigation here was quite straightforward as I was just following people.

I saw someone in front of me slip over and sit on one of his poles; which of course broke.

We started to descend to Torside and the water station next to the reservoir.

I noticed that I was feeling lethargic. I put this down to the 100 miler I had done a few weeks before. The felling persisted for the first 48 hours of the race then I did not notice it after that.

This was also the first race I have ever done in glasses; I usually wear contact lenses. Going into the strong headwind with heavy rain it was really difficult to see where I was going. With all the water on the lenses of my glasses I could just about make out where to put my feet but following the path was difficult and navigation very difficult. I fell into just following the person in front. This is not the best idea but did work until the rain lessened.

After that we rounded the reservoir and tracked along the far side for a bit before starting to climb back onto the moors, coming out onto Wassenden Moor. There was a good path of flagstones here so progress was good.

We crossed the A62 where I was expecting at least some water but it got confusing with an aid station for another race that had setup at the road junction. The marshals were not keen to give us any water with “nothing for you here, move along”. I was not particularly bothered as I had enough water.

Next up was another moor section ahead of the M62 crossing. Here I was expecting a burger van. Unfortunately I think I was too late and there was no burger van. There were some folks offering water so I took some.

So, on we went across the very windy footbridge across the M62 and across another moor. There is a pub called the White House Pub which was closed but some folks had setup a small tent with some supplies, tea, coffee, water and snacks. It was nice to stand out of the wind for 5 minutes and resupply.

After a while the lights of Hebden Bridge came into view. The first checkpoint was a little past the town and slightly off the Pennine way.

The detour off the Pennine way is quite narrow and with all the traffic, very muddy and slippery. But we eventually arrived at CP1.

I got my drop bag given to me, handed in my running shoes and poles and sorted out some kit. The CP was very busy and there was not much space to spread anything out and my top opening rucksack and drop bag were not the best in this confined situation.

I ordered and ate some food and prepared to get some sleep. I went into the sleep area with a sleeping bag from my drop bag (which is lighter and more suitable to sleeping indoors that the one i carried in my rucksack). The sleeping area was very hot so I lay on the sleeping bag.

I set my phone to alarm in 2 hours and charged both my watch and phone.

I didn’t sleep much and remember being awake. I estimate I only slept 30-45 minutes of the 2 hours.

When my alarm sounded I got up and ordered some breakfast. I changed the batteries in my GPS and head torch, packed up my kit, reclaimed my shoes and poles and set off on section 2.

Section 2, Hebden to Hawes, 61 miles 3,195m

This is a tough section. Its long and hilly, but there are some unofficial aid stations along the way. Also, there is the official CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn. The x.5 CPs are not really checkpoints. You have a max stay of 30 minutes before you are asked to move along and whilst water is available there is no food, you have to eat your own.

So we setoff from Hebden and retraced our way back up the narrow, muddy path. I was travelling with Colin who was reasonably familiar with the area which helped. I can’t quite remember when but Will joined us and we moved as a three.

We kept climbing and Colin kept mentioning Top Withens. On Wadsworth Moor we came across a deserted farmhouse, Top Withens, which is said to have been the inspiration for the location of the Earnshaw family house in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

We went inside and sat down for a 5 minute catnap.

We descended off the moor and saw a sign for a cafe just off the Pennine Way, so we decided to see if it was open. The night had passed and it was now morning so we were hopeful. And yes, it was open! So we had breakfast.

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After breakfast, we went back to the Pennine Way and continued onto Ickornshaw Moor.

The sun came out periodically and the rain had stopped. The wind has lessened a bit as well so this section was quite pleasant.

From here we dropped down to Cowling but there was not much there for us so we continued onto Lothersdale. The pub in Lothersdale was closed but a local triathlon club has setup an aid station so we sat there for a while and ate and drank their fayre – which was very nice of them.

After Lothersdale we joined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal for a bit. This is an interesting bridge. Looks like they built the bridge then needed to raise the road and build another bridge on top of the first.

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it was a few miles cross-country to the village of Gargrave which had a Co-op. We bought a supply of ready to eat food and drink and sat outside eating it. It was getting dark and with it, getting quite cold. I was pleased to get moving again.

Next up was Airton, then Malham, but we did not stop. We were aiming for the CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn, north of Malham. This was a checkpoint that was not a checkpoint.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Malham Tarn. Will and Colin were unsure whether to try and sleep at Malham Tarn or continue. I was keen to continue. We thought we’d see how long we could stay at the CP, but they were onto us and after half an hour someone came round to point out we had to move on.

Colin and I decided to carry on. Will needed some sleep so he decided to bivvy down outside the CP on a verandah.

As soon as we left the checkpoint that was not a checkpoint, at Malham Tarn, it was obvious that the weather had changed. The wind had strengthened and it started raining. We started climbing towards Pen Y Ghent.

Pen Y Ghent is a well known hill in the area. Most people seem to translate it as Hill of the Wind or something similar. In modern welsh this would be Pen Y Gwynt. Apparently it could also mean Hill of the Border or refer to a particular tribe.

As we climbed so the wind and rain increased and so our group of 2 grew bigger and bigger numbering about a dozen. People  were becoming concerned about traversing Pen Y Ghent in these conditions. I did not have much of a view not having been up before. In the end Colin decided to try and call race HQ and see what they thought, but neither he nor anyone could get a phone signal.

So there was a lot of indecision. Colin went off to try and get a phone signal, the rest of the group continued on thinking the decision was to avoid and the summit and skirt around the lower ground.

I waited for Colin for a bit then went off to try and find him. The visibility was very low and I did not find him. So I set off on the route again. After a short while I came across the rest of the group sheltering in a farm building.

The group decision was to avoid the summit so I thought I would stick with the group. After a while, however, it became clear that folks doing the navigation were not clear on the route to avoid the summit so we passed up and down the same path a few times. Eventually, we found the path to descend the other side of Pen Y Ghent and after a while came out in Horton in Ribblesdale.

There is a cafe here (the Pen Y Ghent or PYG Cafe) that stays open 24hrs during the Spine race so we took the opportunity to order some food and drink and rest a while. I had only been in the PYG Cafe 5 minutes when Colin walked in. So he had eventually got through to Race HQ who said Pen Y Ghent was fine so he had gone over it. I picked up a 1 hour penalty for missing the summit.

After the PYG Cafe, we set off again. The weather was improving as we moved along Cam Fell. Eventually we started to drop down to Hawes. It was a long and muddy descent into the town and CP2.

We were all very tired when we arrived at the CP.

I handed in my shoes and poles and had some food and drink. Then I sorted some kit out and prepared for a sleep. There were bunk beds here so no need for a sleeping bag.

I planned for a 2 hour sleep here and found an empty bunk. As I was drifting off, it became apparent that one of my fellow Spiners had the loudest snore that I have ever heard. In both the human and animal kingdom. This snore was not just loud; it was deafeningly laud. I have no idea how this guy was not waking himself up with each breath; but unfortunately he was not.

After a couple of minutes it became apparent that I was not going to be able to ignore this noise. I was just about to get up and go find another room to sleep in when someone else had the same idea and noisily got up, moved about and left the room, slamming the door behind him. This seemed to wake snory guy up as the snoring stopped. I fell asleep.

My alarm went off after 2 hours. My estimation is that I had slept for about 1.5 hours.

I got up and had some breakfast. I also thought I would get a medic to have a look at my feet as I was having trouble with blisters on the little toes of both feet. I was wearing toe socks which I am normally OK with but the very wet underfoot conditions I think were causing more wear and tear than normal. I think if I were to do the race again, waterproof socks would be the way to go.

The medics did a good job of dealing with the blisters and taping up my feet a bit.

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I sorted out some more kit, packed it all up and prepared to set off. I had arranged with Colin to set off at 3pm and had got up at 2:25 but had not seem him. I asked a couple of folks but nobody had seen him. So either he could not sleep and had already left, or was still sleeping. I decided to set off on my own to make use of the hour or so of daylight.

Section 3, Hawes to Middleton, 33.7 miles 1,871m

The first section was a big anti-clockwise loop over Thwaite Common to the village of Thwaite. There is a cafe here, but it was dark when I arrived and the cafe was closed. So I continued on with a steep climb before starting to contour along a river valley. Somewhere along here I missed the path and found myself too high and had to shimmy down and a steep bank. Back on the path I went up onto Stonesdale Moor. It was raining hard again now.

I was moving well on this section which was slabbed in the main. The moor was quite bleak but eventually the lights of the Tan Hill Pub came into view (the highest pub in England).

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The kitchen was closed but they did me tomato soup, cake and 1 pint of coke.

My feet were beginning to swell and getting going after the Tan Hill Pub was a little difficult. Not helped by getting a few hundred meters out of the pub before discovering I had left my poles there!

I don’t remember much about the next section except that the flag stones ran out and the ground was very boggy and therefore progress was slower. Eventually, I arrived at Middleton and CP3.

It was the usual checkpoint process but I decided to go for 3 hours sleep rather than 2.

On waking up, I had breakfast, did the necessary admin and prepared to setoff again. I then saw Colin just arriving at the CP. He said he had overslept at Hawes. I also saw Will who said we had slept at Malham Tarn for an hour or two and felt fine so had continued and was obviously doing very well.

Section 4, Middleton to Alston, 38.5 miles 2,002m

Setting off from Middleton, the Pennine Way heads west towards Dufton. The first part of the route is quite straightforward along the River Tees and some rapids.

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The weather had improved again and the sun was out, so all was well. As I followed the River Tees so the terrain became more and more remote. Some quite long scrambling sections followed that were slow going. The light was fading so I was keen to get as far as I could before night settled in.

After quite a while I came to Cauldron Snout which is scramble next to a cataract upto the Cow Green Reservoir. At this point I got out my head torch and prepared for nighttime.

The next section was fairly easy to travel and then we arrived at High Cup which, by daylight is supposed to be a spectacular view. Visibility was low when I got there and staying on the path at the top not easy. The path got easier further down, though, and was easy to follow to Dufton. I met up with Carlos and Ken and we started travelling together.

Checkpoint 3.5 was in Dufton. It was another of the x.5 checkpoints, that are not really checkpoints. Just before the CP, was a cafe that was open. We jumped in for a meal which was great.

They were just closing up so one more Spiner got in before the cafe closed.

After the cafe we moved along to the checkpoint. We only stopped there a few minutes.

After Dufton the path is very muddy as it heads north and starts to climb. The is the climb to Cross Fell the highest point on the Pennine Way, at 893m. The weather was getting worse and we were told in Dufton to expect high winds, snow and -18C at the top. It did not disappoint. I was struggling to get moving after the stop at the cafe and Carlos and Ken pulled away from me.

At the top I saw a head torch and headed over thinking I was near Gregg’s Hut. It turned out to be a guy called Javed who was camping out there for some reason. He gave me a biscuit and a piece of cheese which was very nice, and pointed me in the direction of Gregg’s Hut.

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Gregg’s Hut is not a checkpoint but a welcome aid station on the Spine. There is an entrance porch that leads to an outer room which itself leads to an inner room. In the inner room, John Bamber cooked us chilli noodles and hot chocolate. Perfect!

Carlos and Ken were in the hut so we determined to set off again together.

It was good to get over Cross Fell and as we descended so the wind eased. It was very cold though and we hurried along to stay warm. The descent is quite easy to navigate and we soon picked up a road that took us down to the village of Garrigill.

I thought we were close to the checkpoint here and refused the offer of some refreshment that a Filipino lady was making. Probably a mistake as it took forever to travel the last few miles. The navigation across fields was awkward and slow. Ken had disappeared by this point and Carlos and I trudged on slowly.

Eventually we arrived at CP4!

Usual checkpoint procedure with a 3 hour sleep. Again, as usual, on awakening I sorted out and packed up kit, ate breakfast and set off.

Section 5, Alston to Bellingham, 40 miles 1,674m

Andy suggested we travel together and this sounded good so we set off from the Checkpoint.

The section after the CP at Alston is low lying farmland which is muddy and moreland and quite boggy. Blenkinsopp Common eventually leads to the village of Greenhead. There is a pub and cafe in Greenhead off route but we were not confident they would be open when we got there so we passed on by.

Instead, there is a museum as the Pennine Way leaves Greenhead. And associated with the museum are some public toilets which are unlocked at night. So in we piled. There were already some other Spiners there and inside the building was much warmer than it was outside.

So this was time to use my stove (with a urinal providing a water feature in the background) and try a freeze dried meal.

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After our meal some people wanted to bivvy down for an hour or two but I decided to push on. Andy came with me.

The next section was quite hard as it followed the undulating ground of Hadrian’s Wall. Navigation is, of course, quite easy as we just followed the Wall but the terrain is quite hilly so progress was slow. The weather had improved and the moon was out which was quite spectacular. I attempted to take some photographs but for some inexplicable reason failed to take any!

Andy was getting tired by now and kept sitting down for a catnap. I would head on and then he would catch me up. This happened a few times then I think I pulled away.

I eventually headed north through the wall. I went through some wooded areas and some moorland. It was very cold.

I had used up the water in my soft flask and then realised that my bladder had frozen up. Initially I thought it would just be the outflow pipe that had frozen but after removing it from my backpack I realised that the screw cap fill had also frozen.

Although there was some ice in the bladder most of it was liquid. I just could not get at it. It would have been easy to make a hole in the bladder and decant the water to my soft flask but that would have been a bit destructive. I tried warming the bladder on me but that did not seem to work.

So i decided to pee on the frozen inflow cap. That worked and thawed the ice sufficiently for me to be able to remove the cap and decant water to the soft flask.

I started noticing hallucinations at about this point. They seemed to follow the following format:

  • In the distance I would see African animals (elephants, rhinos, lions) or cartoon characters or zombies.
  • If I looked away and back again the original hallucination would be replaced by a European type animal; horse, dog, etc.
  • When I got nearer the secondary hallucination would disappear and I would see a bush.

Sometimes the cartoon characters would laugh and point at me. The zombies would try and chase me. The African animals never took any notice of me.

Next up after a few miles was a farm called Horneystead which acts as an impromptu aid station.

The farmer seems to like walkers and has kitted out one of his outbuildings into a little den with food and drink. Perfectly possible to sleep there and top up on supplies. He even has some spare kit. I make a coffee and had a couple of snacks. I put some money in the honesty box and was on my way.

My feet were very painful by this point and each step hurt. A lot. They were very swollen and being crushed by my shoes. This seemed to be the major source of pain. I was thinking about cutting open my shoes to relieve the pressure but was concerned that on the boggy terrain this would lead to other problems.

In the end I left the shoes as they were.

It was not too far to Bellingham and CP5, but a miserable few miles just the same. I was very tired when I arrived just as the daylight began to fade.

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I thought I would maintain the same checkpoint routine, eat, sort kit out, sleep 3 hours, get up, sort more kit out, pack up kit, get feet sorted and re-taped, eat breakfast and leave.

Section 6, Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm, 41.9 miles 2,146m

I got up and started on the painkillers straight away. The recommendation from the medics was for paracetamol and to avoid ibuprofen. I thought I’d start with paracetamol and keep the ibuprofen in reserve. My feet were not quite as swollen as before I went to sleep so that was a good thing.

I took my flask out of the drop bag for the first time at this checkpoint and it filled with sweet, milky coffee.

Setting off out of Bellingham, I was soon onto moorland. The next milestone was another x.5 checkpoint, CP 5.5 at Bryness so I was motivated to get there.

After the moorland there was a long section of road and then forrest fire track. Progress was quite reasonable. A couple of miles before Bryness I met two Mountain Rescue folks marching straight towards me. They asked me how I was before marching off the way I had come.

I continued on towards the x.5 checkpoint (that is not a checkpoint).

I got there and Chris, Carlos and Ken were already there. They make us a drink and I got my flask refilled with coffee. Then there was talk of the “casualty” which did not sound very good.

A few minutes later the two Mountain Rescue folks burst into the CP matching a competitor who was shivering badly. They went straight into a small room next to where we were, that evidently had been warmed considerably to reheat the guy suffering from hypothermia. Apparently he was bivvying outside and had become hypothermic and pressed his emergency beacon.

Then we got the nod that our half hour at the CP was up and we had to move on. Chris, Carlos, Ken and I decided to move on together to the Cheviots.

We were told it was going to be very cold and very windy.

Next up was a steep climb through a forest up Byrness Hill. There was no wind and we were all overdressed and sweating. As we came out onto the moor the breeze picked up and the temperature dropped. It was now cold!

The next section was, for me, the worst of the race. The sleep monster was calling to each of us and our pace was very slow. Not only that, we were lurching along in a zig zag pattern rather than staying on the path. We would each fall half asleep then trip on a rock or tussock which brought us back into the world of the conscious only to slowly drift off again.

And on we trudged. We were all quiet; even the normally talkative Carlos.

I was cold because we were moving so slowly. My feet were getting painful again, making progress more difficult.

Had there been anywhere to rest, we would have done. I was certainly concerned to stop after witnessing what we had back at Bryness, and I think the others would have felt the same. I am not sure how we kept going through the night but we did.

As it started getting light so the sleep monster’s grip on us started to wane and the others picked up the pace. I was struggling at the back with my very painful feet. Eventually the others pulled clear.

The hallucinations were back. I remember seeing a field of sheep with an elephant and 2 lions. I wondered way the sheep were not bothered by the lions. Then the lions and the sheep turned into bushes.

Around Lamb Hill we came across Hut 1. Not much had been made of this by the organisers so we were not sure what would be there for us but as I arrived I saw a few sets of poles outside so it was obvious there was something going on.

Inside a couple of folks were making hot drinks and food. Chris, Carlos and Ken were there as well as a couple of folks just leaving. I got a hot drink and made up a freeze dried meal.

Chris, Carlos and Ken were keen to move on so left. By the time I packed everything up they were out of sight.

The next section along the Cheviots was relatively easy to navigate. The Pennine Way follows a fence marking the boundary between England and Scotland and the path is reasonable. Everything was frozen so it was nice not to have negotiate bog.

As usual getting going after a stop was very painful and slow.

I trudged on alone for several hours before the ground starting rising sharply. After a while there was a sharp left handed bend and we started descending towards Hut 2, the last timing point on the course before the finish.

I caught up with Carlos.

It had been foggy for some some time and as we descended so the fog came and went. Then the sun appeared on the left and over to my right I saw an apparition. It was not an average hallucination! I knew what it was, as I had seen photos but have never seen one in real life before; a Glorie or Brocken Spectre. I got my phone out to take a picture but it disappeared!

I walked on a bit and suddenly it reappeared. Wow!

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So the figure is my shadow (the sun is behind me) distorted by perspective and the halo of light is the sun reflected by the mist. The “white” light of the sun is broken into constituent colours like a rainbow. But there are some interesting things here:

  • Blue light is nearest the centre, red furthest away. This is opposite to a rainbow where red is nearer the ground, blue furthest away.
  • There is a fainter set of rings outside the primary blue to red set of rings.

If you are interested I did a bit more research on Glories here.

A little bit further along we came to Hut 2 and had a chat with the folks there.

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It was mid afternoon and I thought it would be good to see if we could finish before dark. Carlos was not too keen so we separated.

It is mainly downhill from Hut 2, but there are a couple of hills before the descent proper starts. They told us it was about 7 miles down to the finish.

I hobbled on as fast as I could; which was not very fast.

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It was dusk when I saw Kirk Yetholm in the distance after climbing the last hill. A short jog later I was at the Border Hotel, touching the wall to finish my Spine race.

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Colin, Carlos, Ken and Andy all finished. Hypothermia guy was at the Border Hotel as well looking pretty chipper!

Race Statistics

The race distance is 268 miles long with 36,000ft of elevation.

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There were 123 starters and 70 finishers. I came 46th. I took 153 hours to complete the course. I tried to sleep for 13 hours, and probably did sleep for 11 hours 15 minutes during the race.

Lessons Learned

  1. My backpack weight just under 9kg without water so would have been between 10 and 11kg during the race. If I really tried I could probably cut this in half.
  2. My strategy of sleeping only in the CPs worked but was inefficient. It would be more efficient to sleep along the route as you can sleep when you want and without disturbance. I would practice this before doing it though.
  3. My backpack (UDFP35) was big enough but only openable from the top so not possible to take the bottom items out without taking everything out.
  4. I think cat-napping for 10 minutes when really tired, for example, at Bryness would have helped.
  5. Shoe / sock combination did not work very well. I think waterproof socks would have really helped in the first 3 days when it was very wet. My feet got waterlogged which I think contributed to my blister problems. Feet also swelled up significantly which I think was due to lack of training in the run up to the race due to injury. A bigger size of shoe in the drop bag would have been good.
  6. Hokas were OK (not so much grip on the muddy sections) but gentler on the feet.
  7. I carried poles but did not feel I really needed them. They are useful on very steep ground (not much on the Pennine Way) or when very slippery. The rest of the time I did not find them very useful.
  8. My primary headlamp (LedLenser H14R2) stopped working, due I think to water ingress. Good to carry 2 headlamps.
  9. Navigation is generally quite easy with a GPS on the Pennine Way. I used my watch and a Garmin Etrex 30x. This combo worked well. I did hear of people’s GPS units freezing in the cold weather so it is worth having a backup unit. Going to map in high winds, low visibility is not very practical unless you are a hardcore map user.
  10. Good waterproofs are vital. Use many clothing layers to allow for large temperature variations.
  11. The goggles on the mandatory kit list got quite a bit of use. The winds were for the most part side winds with the occasional head wind. Some people did have eye issues from the winds.
  12. Some folks took a front pack for easier access to things like food. This is worth considering.
  13. Waterproof gloves. I’ve never owned a pair despite trying a few pairs that have claimed to be waterproof. I wore a thin pair of liner gloves and a thicker pair of “waterproof” gloves over the top. This was OK except on the wettest sections when my gloves became waterlogged. I saw a few folks with toughened rubber over gloves that would be genuinely waterproof. I would get myself a pair of these if I was to do the race again.

Tor des Géants

What is the Tor des Géants?

The Tor des Géants, TOR or TDG is an anti-clockwise loop around the Aosta Valley in Italy starting and finishing in Cormayeur in the west, and extending to Gressoney Saint-Jean in the west.Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 10.15.06

The route divides into two unequal halves; the first goes south from Courmayeur to Gressoney Saint Jean along the Alta Via 2 for around 200km. From Gressoney it returns north to Courmayeur along the Alta Via 1 for about 130km.

In the local dialect spoken in the Aosta Valley, Tor des Géants means Tour of Giants or Giant’s Trail and refers to the 4 four-thousand plus metre mountains surrounding the valley; Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Monte Cervino (Matterhorn).

Race Format

Its a single stage race with around 50 checkpoints with food and water, 7 of which are called Life Bases which really means they are big checkpoints with more facilities. You have a drop bag that you can access at a Life Base for new kit, snacks, etc. which gets transported to the next Life Base for you when you hand it in.

There is a 150 hour time limit with corresponding cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. You can sleep at the Life Bases and at some checkpoint, space permitting. The race starts midday Sunday so you have until 6pm the following Saturday to get round the loop and back to Courmayeur.

The route is marked with little yellow flags marked TOR, TDG or Tor des Géants. There are literally thousands of them. In addition, green spray paint is used on roads and some stones to point the way. The route is easy to follow.

This is an interesting graphic that the organisers produced with all the hills, checkpoints, Life Bases, cut-offs, etc. Essential reading for all runners.

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Preparation

Preparation for the race had gone particularly badly. Firstly, I’d had a achilles problem at the end of February that prevented me from running until June and then when I started training again I got a knee problem at the beginning of August that set me back.

I hadn’t run for several weeks before the start of the TOR so I had made my mind up to walk it. Its so far that this won’t have been much of a disadvantage for me but did mean that I would have to go on minimal sleep rations.

Anyway I wasn’t hopeful about getting up and down the hills with my knee problem but I  thought I’d give it a go and see how it went.

I pulled together all the info I thought I’d need in a spreadsheet. The mandatory kit was fairly standard except for the crampons (we’d be going over high mountain passes above 3,000m so snow and ice is possible in September).

The organisers had supplied several GPX files of the route. Because of the size of the files, I had to load them as seven files, one for each Life Base to Life Base section. I also loaded the waypoints supplied by the organisers that gave the Life Bases, most of the checkpoints and some of the higher mountain passes.

Registration

I arrived in Courmayeur on Saturday morning and checked into the hotel I was staying in, just outside the centre in an area called La Saxe.

Unfortunately, somehow my watch strap had broken on the trip to Italy so I went back into town to see if I could buy a new one. Now, buying a new Rolex would have been fine, but no chance to get a new watch strap.

So I gave up on the watch strap and decided to swing past registration as it was just about to open. I had not seen anything saying that registration would include a kit check although I suspected it would, and as I arrived at the Mountain Sports Hall I could see everyone had their kit with them, so I went back to the hotel to collect mine. By the time I got back to the Mountain Sports Hall with my kit, the line had grown a bit so I took my place.

It was a very slow moving line.

After about 3 hours I got to the front, passed the kit check, registered, got my race numbers, drop bad and GPS tracker.

So I went back to the hotel to sort out kit, drop bag, etc.

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Section 1, Sunday

The instructions were to drop our drop-bag off and be at the start before 11:30am otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to start.

So I got to the start just after 11am and waited near the back. Since I was intending to walk this I was quite happy being at the back. There was a party mood on.

At midday we got underway with a run around town. There was quite a crowd out to cheer us on.

After a mile or so we came to the start of the trail which is single-track so we all stopped for about 10 minutes to get onto the trail. Once on, it was slow going up through the forest as we kept coming to a standstill.

Eventually we were through the forest and onto open pasture, heading up our first climb to Col d’Arp at 2,571m (a climb of 1,350m). It was sunny and quite hot on the climb so no bad thing that the pace was slow.KRKGp9IpQiOBG3RehPVkvg

I was pleased to make it to the top and immediately start the descent down the other side. I had been worried about my knee which had been fine, I would soon find out how it would be on the descent!

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The first checkpoint was half-way down the first descent at Baite Youlaz.

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I didn’t really stop here as I knew we’d soon be at the bottom of the valley in La Thuile. I knew the way down to La Thuile and was soon in the town. A marquee was coming up which I assumed was the checkpoint as I could see people inside eating and drinking. Surprisingly, we were marshalled around and away from the marquee and up the road. Eventually, we came to the checkpoint and I got some Coke to drink, bread and cheese and biscuits. This was to be our rations for the week supplemented by pasta and soup.

From La Thuile it was another climb of just over a 1,000m to Refugio Deffeyes, and some more food and Coke.QCRDCifmTpGvIYvvKSQsxQ

A bit more climbing brought us to Col Haut Pas (2,857m). From there we dropped down to the checkpoint at Promoud at around 2,000m. It was getting dark now so headlamps on and our first excursion onto the TOR at night.

Navigation was pretty easy. Each yellow flag had a reflective tag on it so they showed up very clearly in our headlamps.

The last climb of this section was Col Crosaties (2,829m).

From there I started the descent to Planaval. Somewhere on the way I came across the sobering memorial to a Chinese runner who had died in a previous edition of the TOR. He had fallen and hit his head. RIP Yang Yuan.Aaa+hrdiSqeZMZymFQALDg

From Planaval it was a few kilometres to Valgrisenche, the first Life Base, which was at about 50km. I had been moving for about 15 hours.

I drank some Coke and ate some snacks. I also had two portions of pasta with tomato sauce. I reloaded trail snacks from my drop-bag and topped up with water. I didn’t sleep here.

Section 2, Monday

So after the Life Base, was climb of 550m to the checkpoint at Chalet Epee. For some reason I was not feeling well. I had only gone a couple of miles from the Life Base when I was sick. Without any food in my stomach I quickly lost all energy. All I could do was move 100m and sit down for 5 minutes to rest and repeat. After an hour or so of this I started to feel better and my pulse began to come down so I carried on on the climb. With hindsight, I would have been better having a couple of hours of sleep in the Life Base before setting off!

Some folks had elected to sleep at Chalet Epee (there were various rumours of some Refugios being quieter, and therefore better for sleeping, than the Life Bases).

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From here, we continued climbing to Col Fenetre, 2,840m.

I arrived there at daybreak, which was great for the views. From here it was a big 1,100m descent to Rhemes-Notre-Dame and another checkpoint. After that we had our first three thousand metre col, the Col Entrelor at 3,002m.

From here it was a 1,300m descent to the next checkpoint at Eaux Rousse. This was exhausting! But my knee was holding up. I was still nervous on the steeper descents but so far so good.

The last climb of this section was to Col Loson at 3,299m the highest point on the course. It was a real moonscape of boulders and scree and we were all moving slowly due to the altitude, but eventually we got to the top and had some wonderful views down either side.

There was a checkpoint at Rifugio Sella on the way down, and then on to Cogne and the second Life Base (1,531m). I had been going for just over 30 hours so I was planning to get some sleep here.

Firstly I got my drop-bag and got some food. Then I had a shower. Then I found the sleep marshall and said I wanted to be woken up in 3 hours.

This was a disastrous sleep. I don’t really remember sleeping at all (although its possible I  dozed for a few minutes). Anyway, I got up after just over 2 hours as it seemed pointless to lie there, with my eyes closed, not sleeping.

After getting up I had some more food to eat and prepared to set off again. I handed my drop bag in, set my watch up on the third segment of the TOR and departed.

Section3, Tuesday

On paper, the next section looked fairly benign. One climb and a long descent to the next Life Base at Donnas at the lowest part of the course. Obviously there would be a gotcha!

We climbed out of Life Base to checkpoints at Goilles and Refugio Sogno, before continuing the climb to Col Fenetre de Champorcher (2,827m).

The terrain here was rougher than earlier with lots of boulder hopping. Good fun, but slow going.

I found a cow on the way to accompany me!

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Eventually, the boulders came to an end and as we got lower there were some nice waterfalls and landscapes to see.

We came out into a picturesque town which I initially thought was Donnas.

Turned out that Donnas was a fair bit further on, but we eventually found the famous Roman arch; the gateway to the city.

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After passing through the arch it was a few more kilometres to the Life Base. It was afternoon by now and very hot. My feet were hurting and I was very glad when the Life Base finally appeared.

I collected my drop bag and got some food and drink. After that I had a shower and planned to have another sleep. I think I went for 3 hours. This time I did sleep although I still remember waking up a few times.

After the sleep I got some more food and drink, reloaded my rucksack and loaded up the next stage on my watch and was ready to go again.

Section 4, Wednesday

It was getting dusky as I was setting off from Donnas, so there was just time for a few photos before it got dark.

I switched into night mode as we continued the climb out of Donnas. It was good to be travelling in the cool, but my feet were vert stiff and it took a few miles to loosen them up.

I was wearing my relatively heavy, but very robust Scott’s. These are a good trail shoe and cope with most things. I knew if it was wet they would do well and that they would cope well with rock. The only downside is that they don’t offer as much cushioning as, say, Hokas, and my feet were starting to feel this. The lack of training, combined with the rocky terrain were giving my feet a real battering.

Leaving Donnas, the lowest point on the course at 330m, there was only one way to go… up! There were checkpoints at Sassa (1,398m) and Rifugio Coda (2,224m) which meant almost 1,900m of climbing; the longest climb on the course. It was pretty exhausting!

After that there was a descent then another climb. Half way up was the checkpoint at Rifugio Balma where I got some food and drink before continuing up to Col Marmontana (2,350m) at daybreak.

Down the other side and the next checkpoint at Lago Chiaro where some barbecuing was going on, in addition to the traditional fare on offer.

After the short break I set off again, as ever following the little yellow flags.

Next up was the summit at Crena du Ley.

From here we traversed along to the Col della Vecchia before starting the descent down in Niel, and the next checkpoint. I don’t remember this checkpoint at all, but I probably got some food and drink and passed on through!

There was one more climb to get over before the next Life Base at Gressoney at the 205km mark. This point would mark the end of the first “half” of the TOR and from here we would start heading west on the return to Courmayeur. We would also change paths; the Alta Via 2 would end and we would be on the Alta Via 1.

So one more climb upto Col Lasoney, 2,385m.

Then down to the checkpoint at Loo before moving on a few more miles to the Life Base at Gressoney.

I got some food and drink and had a shower and decided to go for a longer sleep here. The facilities at Gressoney seemed pretty good, a large sports hall with a separate sleeping area. Showers were above average. I think this all contributed to extra faffing about. Anyway, I arranged a wake-up with the Sleep Marshall for 3 1/2 hours and went to sleep. Sleeping was quite good here.

On being woken I got sone more food, reloaded my backpack and prepared to head out.

Section 5, Thursday

The Totdret (baby TOR) starts in Gressoney and travels 130km to Courmayeur along the second half of the TOR route so we would have extra companions on the trail from here. They had already started so were by now, long gone.

Out of the Life Base, we climbed upto the first checkpoint at Rifugio Alpenzu. I passed quickly through here and continued the climb upto Col Pinter, 2,776m. On the way we passed some slightly lower cols.

Then it was downhill to the next checkpoint at Champolac and another at Saint-Jacques. After that I began climbing again, this time to Rifugio Grand Tournalin, 2,535m and then onto Col di Nana, 2,770m. From there it was a short hop to Col des Fontaines, 2,695m.

The sun was out and the views were fantastic. There was a photographer who pointed out Mont Blanc, Monte Cervino (Matterhorn) and Gran Paradiso.The Matterhorn was covered in cloud but then it conveniently cleared for a photograph!

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Then it was a long descent to the next Life Base at Valtourneche. We came off the hill into the valley and then had a few miles on the road to cover to reach the checkpoint. When I got there they had rolled out the red carpet for the runners!

So it was the usual Life Base sequence of actions: get some food and drink and then have a shower. After that off to sleep on the camp beds, this time for 2 hours.

On awakening, I had some more food and drink, reloaded my backpack and launched the next section of trail on my watch, handed in my drop bag and set off.

Section 6, Friday

First off was a climb upto Rifugio Barmasse, 2,175m. There were some interesting sights on the way. Disused farms and villages, not accessible by road and therefore not attractive for modern living.

I continued climbing past Rifugio Barmasse, to Fenetre d’Ersaz, 2,293m.

From here we descended to the checkpoint at Torgnon before entering a section of undulating terrain for the next few miles. There was another Col Fenetre, 2,162m before the light starting failing. I was hoping to make the next checkpoint before it got completely dark, but in the end gave up and got ready for night, only for the checkpoint to be round the next corner. Rifugio Magia.

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I was very tired by now and plenty of people were asleep in the checkpoint.

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I decided to push on.

I think it was after here that I tripped up on something and found myself face down on the ground. Not sure what had tripped me up, but fatigue meant that whatever it was, I was unable to arrest my fall. Anyway, that woke me up!

Next stop was Rifugio Cuney. I rested my head on a table and closed my eyes for a few minutes. When I left the warm checkpoint the cold air was quite refreshing and I felt better.

From here we went over Col Chaleby, 2,693m. It was raining slightly and the wind had got up. I had my waterproof coat on over my tee-shirt which was plenty warm enough. Most people had plenty more layers on, including hats and gloves.

After a while I could see a strange green glow and then a green light. This turned out to be Bivacco Clermont, 2,705m, one of the checkpoints.

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Again, there were plenty of people asleep here, but I thought it best to push on. It was a short climb to Col Vessonaz, 2794m.

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This col marked the end of the undulating terrain, and there was a long downhill to Oyace. Once I got off the upper slopes the wind dropped and the temperature picked up.

I don’t really remember the checkpoint at Oyace, but I knew there was one more climb and descent from there to the next Life Base at Ollomont.

After Oyace, the climb upto Col de Brison, 2,508m had a checkpoint about halfway up. By the time I got to the top, daybreak had started.

There was a temporary checkpoint just after the col with water and some biscuits. The organisers helicopter these temporary structures into position for the race. I didn’t stop for long.

Then it was downhill. There was a checkpoint at Berio Damon and then it was onto the Life Base at Ollomont.

Section 7, Friday and Saturday

Ollomont was the most disappointing Life Base. It had the smallest footprint of the Life Bases, and was the most crowded. There was very little space to sit down anywhere. I got some food and drink and managed to find a bit of space in the sun to sit down and eat it. I had a shower (worst facilities) and went for a sleep. There was no sleep marshal so I had to set an alarm on my phone. The sleep tent was next to the finish line so there was constant cheering and cow bells so sleeping was terrible. I got up after about 1 1/2 hours and decided to move on.

First up was a 1,300m climb upto Col de Champillon, which was broken 2/3 of the way up by a stop at Rifugio Champion. Then it was onto the col.

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It was good to get this one out of the way at there were only 2 big climbs on the section so getting one done meant that there was only one left in the whole race.

After the col, we tracked around some mountains for a while before reaching the Rifugio at Ponteille Desot. From here we were on fire track that was reasonably flat; a good runnable section for anyone still running!

The checkpoints came along; Saint-Rhemy, Bosses and Merdeux as the light faded.

6jcx6caXSaKM7TLWHv7LCgIt was dark as we set off on the final climb upto Col Malatra. I’d been travelling with Phil for a while; sometimes he would push on and get ahead; then I’d catch him up.

Phil had done the race several times before so knew the route pretty well. He pointed out the next checkpoint at Rifugio Frassati. We could see the orange lights high up above us. It looked a way away but not too far. Of course, its impossible to tell distances at night.

Getting to Frassati, however, took an age. The lights would disappear as we contoured around the valley to the right; then reappear as we contoured to the left, then disappear again. Every time we saw the lights of the Rifugio, it looked no nearer.

Phil was getting very tired.

We chatted about past races and other things, and the lights of the Rifugio disappeared once again. I got the feeling we were on the final push now. And eventually the Rifugio itself came into view.

Phil decided to sleep here; a good decision. I thought I would push on. We were only a few hundred metres below Col Malatra, the last climb on the TOR.

I got some food and drink and rested my head on a table for a few minutes before moving on.

Outside in the cold air again, I moved on quickly to get warm. It was slow progress but I could see headlamps ahead of me higher up. The col gets steep near the top and is slow going. There were some lights and I could hear voices.

As I got fairly near to the lights a voice shouted: “Hello”. So I replied: “Hello”. There was then some Italian, so I assumed some other conversation was happening. Then some more Italian which I ignored. Then some more agitated Italian. So I asked the faceless voice if he, because it was a male voice, spoke English. To which the reply came to use the rope on the left.

So looking to the left I saw some rope so grabbed onto that and followed it for a while. Then the smallest bit of Via Ferrata. Then some more rope and then I was in a gap at the top of Col Malatra, 2,925m face to face with the voice. He congratulated me on surviving and I was off again down the other side.

I knew the route to Courmayeur from Col Malatra as I have done it before. In my mind this was almost the end of the race as I knew it was basically 10 miles, mostly downhill, to the finish from here.

I was very tired now but happy to be descending. From talking to others I was aware that the race route had been changed a couple of years back due to some politics. The easiest and most logical way is to follow the valley to Rifugio Bonetti and then follow the well used path to Rifugio Bertone and then down to Courmayeur. However, to avoid Rifugio Bonetti, the race diverts people up a short climb away from Bonetti through Pas Entre deus Sauts, down another valley onto the path between Bonetti and Bertone and then down to Courmayeur.

There was a temporary checkpoint at Pas Entre deus Sauts, so I stopped for a couple of minutes. The folks inside seemed quite agitated about something, so I quickly moved on.

Up the small climb to 2,500m and then down the other side. This path seemed to go on and on, never coming to an end. I was wondering where it would come out. I imagined it would be nearer to Bertone than Bonetti. My left hamstring started hurting and I was forced into a strange walk to minimise the pain.

Eventually it did join the path, but to my dismay it seemed to be near Bonetti so I still had  a few miles on this path. There is a rocky river section on this path where I managed to slip and fallover.

Eventually Rifugio Bertone came into view. I only briefly stopped as I knew it was a just a long descent from here to Courmayeur, the lights of which I could see below me. I really just wanted to finish at this point.

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It was just starting to get light.

As I descended through the forest and the daylight grew stronger, so I started to meet folks hiking and running up to Bertone and beyond. The TOR is very well known in the Aosta Valley and generally the locals are very respectful of folks doing it. Most would step to the side of the trail to let you pass (even though most were travelling faster) and offers words of encouragement like: “Complimenti” (congratulations).

I made it down to Courmayeur and followed the signs through the park to main road which lead to the town centre along Via Roma. There was hardly anybody about as, although it was light, it was still a bit too early.

I followed Via Roma and then there was a yellow carpet and gantry signalling the end. At first I though there was nobody there as I took a photo of the finish.

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But then I saw a few folks at the end to welcome me.

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Race Statistics

The race merchandise gives a distance of 330km with 24,000m of elevation. This seems to be widely known as understating the course; as if they produced the merchandise incorrectly and can’t be bothered to fix it. On the tracking website they were using 339km and 30,000m of elevation which would be 210 miles and 100,000ft of elevation.

My Strava trace got a bit confused towards the end and incorrectly added some extra miles but around 210 miles sounds about right. I had 95,000ft of elevation.

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There were 894 starters and 534 finishers. I came 320th. which given my injuries on the start line, I was very pleased with. I took just under 140 hours to complete the course and had about 12 hours sleep during the race.

There was a presentation on the Sunday; no medal but a blue fleece to add to the tee-shirt and bag we had already been given. Plus, a “Finishers of 2018” photo.

Lessons Learned

  1. You can only finish, if you start! The “sensible” option given my start-line injuries would have been not to start this race, but I’m glad I gave it go. You never know. There is a fine line between being giving something a go and being foolhardy and knowing when to stop is a great skill to have, but sometimes you have to give something a go and see what happens!
  2. Its completely possible to walk the TOR.
  3. I can keep going on a couple of hours sleep in a 24 hour period. Not sure how long I could maintain this beyond a week though. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 2, 3 and 4 hours sleep in terms of refreshing the mind and body.
  4. Cat-napping for 5 or 10 minutes when really tired provides noticeable refreshment.
  5. All my kit was fine. I would however, consider shoes that are gentler on the feet, like Hokas.
  6. Having an assistant, as permitted in the rules, to aid the runner at the aid stations would save quite a bit of time. I would estimate half my time faffing about at the Life Bases could have been saved by an assistant. This would have amounted to 6-10 hours over the course of the race. The thing to bear in mind with this though, is that faffing time is also recovery time when you are not out on the course, so its not completely wasted.
  7. People were travelling in groups which towards the end of the race is sensible and helps pull people through the low points. This is probably a good race to do as part of a group.
  8. We had pretty good weather in 2018, but some of the higher mountain passes are very exposed, so if the weather is bad, it could get very bad. So make sure kit choices would work in bad weather.
  9. I am a bit of a pole sceptic but they really help in the race. There are very steep up and downhill sections.

Gower Ultra 50

The first edition of the Gower Ultra 50 was on Saturday 4th October 2014, starting at 7:30 from the St. Madog Centre just outside Llanmadog, on the Gower peninsula.

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I’d registered the evening before which was fast and efficient and we arrived a few minutes before 7:00am on the Saturday, parked, and gathered in a hall for the briefing with the other runners. I counted around 50 runners in the hall, although 57 actually started the race.

There was a mandatory kit list for the race. In addition to what I was wearing, I had my 2ltr CamelBak, waterproof trousers, compass, silver-foil blanket, hat, gloves, Nuun hydration tablets, peanuts and several breakfast bars.

The RunWalkCrawl organisers gave us a map of the course and some instructions that covered both the route for the competitors as well as spectating points and how to get there.

The briefing took a few minutes and went over the obvious stuff: follows the Wales Coastal Path, keep the sea on your right, etc. After that we went outside and lined up to start.

My strategy was to go at a comfortable pace for as long as I could. I didn’t know anyone else doing the race and didn’t recognize any competitors so was planning to run alone. With around 50 competitors for a 50 mile race, and with several walkers, I thought the field would string out pretty quickly. For food, I was planning to eat a cereal bar every 45mins until I didn’t fancy them anymore, have a few peanuts a few hours into the race and see what was available at the 7 checkpoints along the way. For hydration, I had my CamelBak filled with about 1 pint of water that I planned to refill at each checkpoint, trying to carry as little extra fluid as necessary. Once in a while, I intended to add a Nuun tablet to the CamelBak.

The weather had been wet and windy overnight (we’d been kept awake a little by the weather). However, as dawn broke the rain had stopped and we’d been greeted  by a windy and overcast morning.

RunWalkCrawl has erected and inflatable arch which we ran through on the off. We went out onto the headland towards the sea and turned left. I was overtaken by a few keen folks and was in the top third as we descended from the headland, through a few dunes onto Braughton beach. Low tide was at 9:00am so there was plenty of beach to run across.

At the briefing, they had said that we were not allowed to go through Llangenith Caravan Path up onto the headland, but had to go across the beach and up the cliff. As we went across the beach, a figure became visible up on the far cliff to point out the way up… which was quite useful.

Once up on the cliff we followed the path round and descended down onto Rhossilli beach and started the 3 mile run across the windswept sand with the Worm’s Head in the distance.

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The runners started to string out as we went across the beach; a small group stayed high up the beach whilst the majority went nearer to the water line to run the tangent along the curved beach. We passed the lone cottage and headed for the path up to the village at the end of the beach.

There was a photographer halfway up the path to snap a few photos. Most people were walking.

At the top we turned right and went to the first checkpoint in the carpark. We gave our number in and headed off, not stopping for anything else. We headed down the path towards the Lifeboat station on the cliff edge but followed the path round to the left before we got there.

The second stretch took us along the coast to Port Eynon. This is one of the more remote stretches of coastline as we went along the cliffs past Fall Bay, Mewslade and onto Overton. We went past an ancient burial cairn and climbed back up the cliffs to Port Eynon point, before descending down onto the beach.

We ran along the beach and up past the Coastguard station before looping back a bit for Checkpoint 2 in Port Eynon carpark. We stood around for a couple of minutes and had some snacks before setting off again along the coast past Horton and onto Oxwich.

The path deviates inland at Slade due to coastal erosion but then runs along the edge of the cliffs before arriving at Oxwich Point. From there we climbed through Oxwich Wood before descending the steps and coming out by the St Illiad’s Church and running down the lane towards The Oxwich Hotel. I’d caught up a couple of folks by the time we came out onto the beach and headed towards Three Cliffs Bay.

Oxwich Bay is about 2 ½ miles long and was fairly deserted as we ran over the sand. The weather was improving and blue sky had started to show through. I ran out of water on the beach. It was a silly mistake to forget to top up at the Port Eynon checkpoint. Fortunately, it wasn’t very hot and I knew that the next checkpoint was not too far away at Southgate so I just pushed on.

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I could see that the tide was on its way in and was wondering where I would come off the beach and climb the cliffs. The shortest route would be to get round from Tor Bay to Three Cliffs Bay and onto Pobbles Beach. The tide was in though and that would have involved a bit of wading, so I decided to come off the beach at Tor Bay. The path up the cliffs at Tor Bay is one of the easier ones and once at the top I continued around to the edge of Three Cliffs where I descended down towards the beach and ran along towards the stepping stones.

There were a few folks a bit confused by the route here and I’d caught up a small group of people. Across the stepping stones I headed over the shingle and up the cliff. Tough ascent here as its quite steep and all sand. A few folks started to follow.

At the top was a glorious view of Three Cliffs Bay in the sunlight.

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I followed the path down towards Pobbles and up onto Westcliff for the run towards Southgate.

Checkpoint 3 was located in the carpark at Southgate. I filled up with water and added a Nuun tablet to the bladder and had some snacks. As I was doing this a few other folks started to come into the checkpoint.

F was there and gave me my sunglasses. Should really have taken them along myself but it didn’t seem very likely at the start that they would be needed today.

Set off again fairly quickly and headed off towards Pwlldu. No other runners in sight at this point.

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The path around here is quite rocky and has a steep climb upto the gate and through a field before rejoining the road and dropping down to the beach. Round the back of the beech and up out onto the cliffs again as we headed over to Caswell Bay.

Rounded Smugglers Cove and came into Caswell. Dropped down onto the beach as the tide was still a fair way out and ran over the beach to the far side of the bay.

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I rejoined the coastal path and headed up hill again out onto the cliffs. Round to Langland Bay and kept a look out at the Langland Brasserie but did not recognize anybody so kept going.

There was a group of supporters along the promenade who gave me a cheer which is always good. Took a quick snap of Langland Bay and carried on. This was about the half way point.

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From Langland Bay its not too far round to Limeslade where there was a lookout from St John’s Ambulance to point out Checkpoint 4 in the car park at Bracelet Bay.

Got a good cheer there when I arrived. Stopped for a little while to fill up with water and have a slice of Angel Cake and a few other snacks before heading on. Another runner came in as I was there so after a few minutes I headed off. He carried on as well and came out of the car park ahead of me.

We headed along the road to Verdi’s and Mumbles and joined the Promenade. The other runner stopped a little way along here to chat with some friends so I carried on, saying “hello” as I passed.

Past someone I knew on a bike going the opposite way and met up with Paul and Geraint who had run down to meet, and run with me for a bit. By now the weather had warmed up a little bit.

As we ran along, we were caught by Natasha who was going a bit quicker at this point. She went past and Paul decided to run along with her for a bit whilst Geraint kept going with me.

We reached The Junction Café and crossed Mumbles Road to head up the cycle path to Gowerton. Surprising how the slight gradient up here made quite a bit of difference. Just over half way along the cycle path we came to Checkpoint 5 at Dunvant. The checkpoint was set back a bit off the path, in the car park.

Had a chat with the guys on the checkpoint who said I was in third position. Filled up with water and added another Nuun tablet. Didn’t have much to eat here and set off again fairly quickly.

From the checkpoint we continued up the cycle path to Gowerton. Geraint had some things to do in the afternoon so took a turn off the path and we said “goodbye”.

At Gowerton, I continued out on the North Gower Road towards Penclawdd, joining the North Gower path when I could. We went through Penclawdd and I was beginning to wonder where the checkpoint was when it became visible in a lay-by out towards Crofty.

Checkpoint 6 was very jovial. They topped up my CamelBak and told me I was looking good. I has a few jelly sweets; didn’t feel like eating anything else and set off again. Nobody else was in sight at this point. They said the chap in front was only a few minutes ahead but I wasn’t really sure about that comment.

I walked for a few minutes out of the checkpoint before setting off again. Negotiated my way through Crofty and joined the Marsh Road off to Llanrhydian. Going had slowed down a bit more by now. There isn’t a great deal to see along Marsh Road, except Llanrhydian marshes and the view over to Llanelli. I could see the Whiteford Sands Lighthouse in the distance and knew we wouldn’t be looped around there today as the course had been changed to avoid this loop.

The ground rises into Llanrhydian and I started walking at this point. Things were beginning to get quite tough. The next checkpoint was in Landimore. I wasn’t completely sure where it would be.

After Llanrhydian the path goes across fields. I wasn’t sure exactly where to go around Weobley Castle as the coast path goes up onto the cliff at one point. I’d done these fields in the reverse direction a few months ago, so decided to stay low, in the fields. Its quite tricky here to spot the field exits and ended up wasting a bit of time here.

Eventually I regained the road and down a hill Checkpoint 7 came into view. The chap took my number. I declined any water as there was only 3 miles to go at this point. I managed to take a chocolate biscuit and set off. Mainly walking at this point.

The path to Llanmadog is quite simple and goes round the marshland in a horseshoe. As I followed the path round one of the style’s was closed. I imagine that some of the path across the marshes further out was damaged, hence the changed route. Anyway, the diversion was through the woods into Cwm Ivy, which is a path I’ve not used before. Was keeping the walk / run going.

In Cwm Ivy I went through a gate onto National Trust land, that someone was trying to unpadlock to get his car out. Down a short path with the sea starting to become visible. I know that the finish was going to be on top of a hill to the left, and when I came round a corner to a crossroads in the paths, I could see people waving from the top of the hill.

The last hill was a nice steep, sandy one. Took a while to walk up. From the top it was a small distance to the finish which was on a short downhill stretch to encourage a running finish.

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So, clocked in at the end, where I was informed I came third, which was pretty good! Not many people about, but the winner had stayed around which was nice, although second place had disappeared.

The Winner took 8:55. Second place was 9:25 and I took 9:45. Joint 4 took 10:10.

Wandered back to the race HQ, and bought a coke. We weren’t staying for the evening meal so decided to go home at this point.

When I got back I realized I had lost 6lbs on the day.

Overall, it was an excellent race, so well don’t to RunWalkCrawl for organizing it.

Lessons Learned

  1. Peanuts seemed to work well. Will have these again.
  2. Think I should have had more electrolytes. Only used 2 Nuun tablets (plus some salt on the peanuts). Bit fiddly with water and tablets, etc. Winner used S-Caps, so might be worth giving those a try.
  3. Excellent result considering fitness levels (not many 20+ miles). The relatively modest pace worked well. Got to 42m with continual running, then was forced into Walk / Run. Eating a bit more may have helped a bit.

Dragon Ride, 2018

The Dragon Ride is a cycling sportive in South Wales. There are 4 distances to choose from:

  • Macmillan 100, 100km
  • Medio Fondo, 153km
  • Gran Fondo, 223km
  • Dragon Devil, 300km

I was doing the Dragon Devil which cannot seem to make up its mind if its 300km or 305km long. I’m going for 305km (189 miles) with 15,843ft of climbing.

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The race starts in Margam Park, just outside Port Talbot and loops around the Brecon Beacons before returning to Margam Park. The road book advertises the following:

Climbing: The route features 6 x Category 5 climbs and close to 5,000m of total climbing.

Timed Climbs: There are two timed climbs (Devil’s Elbow @ 90km & Devil’s Staircase @ 190km).

Feed Stations: 6 stops at 59km, 96km, 122km, 154km, 219km & 256km. There will be a water station at 185km.

Travel

I got up at 5am and had some breakfast (porridge) before driving to Margam Park which is about 40mins from where I live. I had a start time of 6:45 to 6:55 as the Devil distance sets off first. This was a good thing as it meant there was not too much traffic getting into the car park and I was able to park 3 rows back from the start.

Unfortunately my watch had decided to stop charging itself when I turned my back on it so it was on 8% battery when I woke up. I had it charging from a powerbank on the way to the start but it only got to about 50% so I knew it would not survive the whole race.

I put my bike together and got dressed and headed over to the start area.

The Race Start

I got into the 3rd of 4 pens and waited about 15mins before my pen was called forward to the start. The race briefing was quite short and consisted of basic instructions about following road signs and the highway code (no road closures), avoiding sheep and avoiding a piece of metal in the road 50m from the start.

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Start to Feed Station 1, Penderyn Primary School, 59km

The first section is relatively long to the first feed station at 59km.

After exiting Margam Park we headed out towards Port Talbot. Past the steel works and into the town, under the M4 and then we started to head up the Afan valley. There were a few sections of traffic-lighted road works so it was a bit stop start along here.

It was good to get in a group here as its flat and it was easy to draft along.

At Pontrhydyfen, the birthplace of Richard Burton, we swung under the aqueduct and then there is a short, sharp pull for 30 or 40 metres, which always seems to catch people out.

From here the road follows the River Afan up the valley to Cymer, an old mining village that had a massive mining tragedy in 1856, killing 114 people. Nobody was prosecuted for it, and no compensation was paid to families.

As we swung through a right handed corner in the village there a police motorcyclist standing in the road shouting “watch out for drawing pins”! Easy to say but not so easy to do.

I was lucky. For the next mile or more I was constantly passing upturned bikes in various stages of puncture repair. I stopped counting at 30.

From here we started the first climb of the day, the Bwlch. The Strava segment has this at 4.2 miles @ 5%. So this is a steady climb.

The sun was out and there was little wind so it was shaping to be be a cracking day!

From the top of the Bwlch there was a great view down to Treorchy in the Rhondda valley below. Its quite a fast descent and you have to mindful of sheep.

From Treorchy we rode through the town to Treherbert where the next climb, the Rhigos, started. Its a similar climb to the Bwlch in terms of length and gradient.

From the top, it was another long descent, this time ending at a roadabout near Hirwaun. We crossed over the A465 and continued heading north to Penderyn on the A4059. Past the Perderyn Whiskey Distillery and just a little further along was the first feed station.

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Always good to the get to the first checkpoint. It was busy but not overcrowded. I topped up on water and ate a few salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes.

Penderyn to Feed Station 2, Ystradfellte Car Park, 96km

So after a quick stop at feed Station 1, I headed out on the second leg to Ystradfellte, 37km away.

Its a steady climb on the A4059 into the Beacons. This area can be very windswept, but today was relatively calm and the sunny weather continued. There is a short descent to merge with the A470 towards Brecon before we climbed again to the foot of Pen Y Fan, before descending again towards Libanus.

Just before Libanus, we turned left onto the A4215 towards Defynnog. I have driven this road many times and it does not seem particularly hilly, but on a bike it always feels more hilly than expected. About halfway along we turned left again, now heading south. The roads here are very small, single track and quite windy.

After a few minutes we could see the Devil’s Elbow climb ahead snaking up the mountain. Its just over a mile long averaging 10% with 2 switchbacks in the middle. The steeper part is about 0.5 mile @ 12% going to 15% in places. My strategy was to go in, in my second lowest gear and take it fairly steadily as we were still in the first third of the race.

It can be awkward meeting traffic coming the other way on these type of climbs but fortunately the road was clear today. Didi the Devil, mascot of the Tour de France, was there to cheer us on although he was out of oomph when I passed him, managing only a feeble “Allez, Allez”.

From the top of the climb its mainly descending to Ystradfellte, which is a small village. There is a sharp right hand bend in the village and the car park was just there on the right hand side.

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As usual I filled up with water and ate some more salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes and prepared to set off.

I was quite amused when I went to collect my bike, to find it sandwiched between two Pinarello Dogmas. It was quite tempting to take the wrong bike, but I managed to resist. Needless to say, given they were at the feed station at the same time as me, these were not TeamSky riders.

Ystradfellte to Feed Station 3, Crai, 122km

There are a couple of short sharp pulls out of Ystradfellte, but generally its descending down off the Beacons to Pontneddfechan with a sweeping right hander and the bottom of a hill, and then along to Glynneath.

I would normally be heading home down the Neath Valley, but not today! So we climbed out of the Neath Valley and over to the Swansea Valley at Abercraf. We turned north onto the A4067 and climbed up to the Crai reservoir. There seemed to be a bit of a headwind here so I caught up some guys in front and drafted along for a bit. I took a turn on the front, and of course, nobody was interested in coming past so I towed the group upto the village of Crai where we turned off the “A” road towards Trecastle.

The third feed station was just off to the left here. For some reason its not marked on the event map.

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It was around here that my watch ran out of power.

Crai to Feed Station 4, Llandovery College, 154km

Setting off again there is one quite steep climb shortly after the feed station, but its not very long. Then some undulating terrain for a few miles until the route for the Devil splits from the route for the Gran Fondo distance, just before Trecastle.

After the split there was noticeably fewer cyclists on the route, as expected.

I was riding on an unknown road for the first time now, on the section from Trecastle to Llandovery, along the A40. Its generally downhill all the way so this was a fast section of the route.

We passed through the village of Halfway, and although close, it was not at halfway!

From there it is a short ride to Llandovery and the next feed station, in a tent inside the grounds of Llandovery College.

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Llandovery College to Feed Station 5, Llandovery College, 219km

So the next section was a northerly loop upto the Devil’s Staircase and back via Llyn Brianne, probably the most scenic section of the race.

We headed off north on the A483. Its quite undulating here and we went past the village of Cynghordy, before climbing up and around Sugar Loaf Mountain. From here its a descent down to the town of Llanwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the smallest town in Britain and the home of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, as well as the Man vs Horse Marathon which I should do one day!

From here we turned left onto a small road towards Abergwesyn. I had caught up another rider, the first I had seen since Llandovery. I was expecting a water stop around here as there was one advertised at 185km, just before the Devil’s Staircase, but did not spot anything.

At Abergwesyn, we turned left along a small road that heads along the River Irfon. Its very scenic along here as we climbed along the river valley toward the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. The road is very narrow here and I was almost forced off it by a van driver thinking its fine to pass a cyclist at 40mph along these sort of roads.

At the end of the valley the road drops down from the hillside and crosses the river before starting the climb up and around the mountain, Cefn Coch. This is the Devil’s Staircase, the most difficult climb on the ride. There is a helpful sign at the bottom about staying in a low gear!

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I was at about 120 miles at this point, but at my level of ability, there is not much strategy involved, its just about survival. Here is the VeloViewer profile for the climb:

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Cross the cattle grid and pass the trees on the right, hiding the climb. The road turns slightly right here and then you can see the climb, very steep at the start. Down to lowest gear and out of the saddle. No chance of carrying any speed into the climb as there is a poorly maintained cattle grid and a slow preamble before the climb proper starts.

The Strava segment says it hits 40% here; I’m not sure that is right but it is very steep at the bottom of the climb. Over the ramp and its around 15% to the first hairpin. Best to take the long way round here; its a left-hander so if there is a car coming down it could be game over on that hairpin! No cars today.

Round the hairpin at 20% and you can see upto the next hairpin. The gradient eases off to about 12% at the start of this section, so sit down and have a rest. By halfway to the next hairpin it ramps up to 20%. Wide berth on the hairpin at 25%.

Gradient then eases back to 15% for a little while so sit down and relax for a few seconds before the next sharp ramp which Strava says gets above 30% (umm, not sure). Then it eases again for a few seconds before ramping again to 25%. Pure survival now; one peddle stroke then the next. Tack across the road. Sight for traffic every 5 to 10 peddle strokes. Car coming down. Car stops. Reach car, thank driver. Pass car and continue tacking. Road turns slightly left and the gradient drops to 15%. Pass a walker; just about going faster. Another ramp to 25% then the gradient drops off again.

This is about halfway to the top, but the second half averages about 10% with some short sections at 15%.

From a race time perspective cycling up the Devil’s Staircase probably results in a slower time for the race, versus unclipping and walking up and putting in more power for the rest of the route… but who wants to do that!

I was very pleased to have got to the top.

Its a steep descent down the other side (25%) so hard on the brakes and do not miss the left handed turn off halfway down!

From here we started to head south and after a few miles we came to the shores of Llyn Brianne, which is a massive man-made lake supplying water to a large area of South Wales, including where I live.

Its very picturesque around Llyn Brianne, but I had just about run out of water as we left the lake and headed along the Towy River valley towards Llandovery. Its undulating but not too difficult from here to the town.

We stopped at the same feed station as last time, in Llandovery College.

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This feed station had some cooking capability so we had cheese on toast and pasta. There was no sauce for the pasta. Now I know this was a cycling, not a gastronomy, event, but in my opinion this should not be allowed. On the positive side, all the feed stations were well stocked, so pasta aside, all good.

It was good to know we were heading back towards the finish!

Llandovery College to Feed Station 6,

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr, 256km

After filling up with water and food I set off again. We were heading south, firstly to Llangadog on the A4069 which runs parallel to the much busier A40. At Llangadog we turned left and started the climb up the Black Mountain.

This is a regular climb for me so I know it well; the official Strava segment is 4.5miles @ 5%. It only get over 10% in a few places. The climb starts in forrest, then into farmland before crossing a cattle grid out onto wild hillside. It can get windy and usually its a headwind, but today was calm and therefore relatively easy. The Gran Fondo route rejoined our route at the base of the climb so there were more people about again.

It was a case of plugging away to get to the top. Its a good descent on the other side though, down to Brynamman, although again you have to watch out for sheep.

We took a sharp left at Brynamman onto the A4068 which heads south-east over to the Swansea Valley at Ystalfera. It quite undulating here, but no big hills. Somewhere along the road was the last feed station; this time in a local school carpark, Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr.

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I did the usual topping up on food and drink and prepared to head out on the last section of the race to the finish, back in Margam Park.

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr to Margam Park, 305km

After the feed station I continued along the A4068, until it joined the A4067 which runs up the Swansea Valley. We headed north until Caerbont where we turned right and started to climb out of the Swansea Valley over to the Dulais Valley. From there we headed south down the valley to Aberdulais where we joined the Neath Valley and the A465, down towards Neath,

From Neath, there was one last sting in the tail as we climbed Cimla hill. There are easier ways to get to Port Talbot from Neath, but this race is a challenge so fair enough. Climbing out of Neath we were heading over to the Afan Valley again at Pontrhydyfen. Again, it was a slow and steady climb.

At Pontrhydyfen, we turned south down the Afan Valley to Port Talbot. It was about here that I joined up with a few riders going quite quickly on the flatter ground and was able to draft along with them. The group slowly picked up more riders as we went and by Port Talbot we were about a dozen.

It made the flat miles from Port Talbot to Margam Park go by a little quicker, but eventually our little group broke up and I did the last couple of miles back to the park more or less on my own.

It was good to finish in 12hrs 39mins 5secs and collect my medal!

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Since my watch ran out of power during the event I only have a relive for the first part of the race, but here it is anyway:

Lessons Learned

  1. My experience was that the event is well organised, and although there are a lot of people the roads and feed stations are not too busy.
  2. Food: I carried 6 cereal bars and 9 packs of Shot Bloxs. I ate 5 cereal bars and 2 packs of Shot Bloxs. There is plenty of food on the course and the feed stations are well stocked (apart from pasta source)! In reality after the first feed station, you could just eat at each station and not carry much with you. Bear in mind that there are not that many shops about to buy things.
  3. Water: I did not see the water station before the Devil’s Staircase and ran out of water before getting back to Llandovery. It was very hot there and this is a difficult section so pay attention to water here.
  4. I am very familiar with the route, but the signage looked pretty good to me all the way around so no navigating required.
  5. Riding with a group of friends would help with drafting on the flatter sections. Also, you could take it in turns to stop at feed stations, fill up for the group and catch them up again, rather than all stopping. Obviously only relevant if you care about improving your time.
  6. Travel to and from Margam Park is easy for me as I live in South Wales. It seems to be a good location for an event like this though as its near the M4 and is a big open space with ample parking and areas to congregate.