For me, a half marathon is a race against the clock, a notoriously ruthless opponent, and since the city halves are fast, flat and accurately measured, you can compare your time in Cardiff to your time in Bristol, or your time in Cardiff to Neil’s time in Brighton or Matt’s time in Bath. There’s nowhere to hide.
Maybe that’s whay I prefer trail and cross country, where conditions and tactics seem more important than minutes and seconds. For a half marathon conditions are either suitable for a PB or unsuitable, and there’s just one tactic:
Run an even pace, or
Don’t go out too fast, or
Don’t slow down, or
Keep going, for, in my case, 80 minutes-ish.
Oh, but the -ish matters! My personal best of 1:21:30, Cardiff 2011, the last time I ran a half, was 90 seconds over. At the start of this year, 2014, I decided to do something about that. I’d return to Cardiff and I’d try and go under 80 minutes. Effectively, I’d have to cover a distance which previously took me 60 seconds in just under 59 seconds, and I’d have to repeat that record breaking performance 81 and a half times in a row.
Such a calculated task requires planning.
A couple of days after a fast, flat 5K, I lined up for the 3rd of this year’s TACH races, the Dundry Thunder, a tough and hilly 10K. Having run the race last year I expected livestock, farm machinery, gates, stiles, bridges, rutted mud, long grass, crops. Andy gave me a lift from Southville confessing he’d be running to enjoy himself since he wasn’t feeling great, he’d picked up a bug of some sort.
For the first 100m or so I led the race. Once we hit Littleton Lane I eased up, picking my footing carefully across tarmac, stones, rubble, compacted refuse. Down, down we went, then down some more before eventually sweeping right and looping back up through the fields. There were 5 ahead of me now: Matt in the lead, 3 Bristol and West runners, including Neil, and one from Weston AC. By chance I’d positioned myself well, catching runners as they bunched up through a sequence of gates.
The route levelled on to an overgrown path, single file only. You can’t see me in the photo but I’m right behind the Weston runner, who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the long grass. By now Matt had built a commanding lead, sensing and grasping his chance. On leaving the path we had an opportunity to accelerate on level, open terrain. The tall runner in the green vest behind me who I’d assumed was Phil turned out to be Andy, who did indeed look to be enjoying himself. Past the radio mast, though a barley field, and then hurtling back down the hill with Chew Valley Lake and the Mendips ahead.
As on the first descent I chose to run alone allowing the leaders — Matt and Andy — to extend their lead. I had them in sight. I reckoned, when we hit the bottom of Littleton Lane, there were 10 minutes to go. This was where the race would be won. Last year, I’d caught Matt on this climb, as well as a runner from Weston who’d been reduced to walking; I’d put time into Andy, and I’d also caught Andy Malloy — only for him to speed up and blow me away. This year, neither Matt nor Andy showed any sign of weakness. A couple of lads were playing on bikes towards the top of the climb. I hoped they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.
At last I reached the top of Littleton Lane. Turn left, a marshal indicated. I wasn’t quite sure which way to go at the next junction but chose right. Good, there was Andy! I wouldn’t be catching him now but I couldn’t see anyone catching me either. I heard a scream: had a runner tangled with those cyclists? No, there was Matt, sprinting back towards the junction I’d just navigated. He must have gone the wrong way. I considered slowing up to let him finish in his rightful place ahead of me, but having got this far I wanted to get to the end with a time to compare against last year’s.
In the end, my time was 4 seconds faster than I ran last year. I’ll take that. I’ll also take 3rd place, one position higher than last year — Andy and I gave the win to Matt, since we clearly wouldn’t have caught him. Next up (and down, and up, and down), the Purdown Pursuit!
Here’s Andy, who can now see the finish but not Matt!
Dried mud — hard work after the final climb. As you can see, having run the entire race in front, Matt has ended up behind me.
My thanks to Antony Clark for the dramatic photos used on this page.
On a warm summer evening I cycled out of Bristol on the railway path. The verges were overgrown, the air dense with insects. Coming through Staple Hill the path enters a tunnel, water falling from the arching roof and onto the tarmac.
I count the Pomphrey Sports 5K as unfinished business. Last time I ran it — the only time I’d run it, in fact, the only timed 5K I’d ever run — on a dark, blustery winter’s evening it took me 18 minutes and 44 seconds to get round. Today, I had to do better. I wanted to test my speed ahead of the Swansea half. An email from race director, Chris Elson, warned me I wouldn’t get another chance:
This race incorporates the Avon AA mob match with the winning team (20 to count) being awarded the Andrew Rawnsley Memorial Trophy. We hope there will be lots of Avon Clubs with teams! This race will be the last, after some 15 years, to be held on the course but plans are at an advanced stage to move the race to a flat fast course using the mile circuit at Aztec West.
After a short warm up around Pomphrey Hill playing fields, I joined the other runners at the start of the course. Fewer than I expected — maybe a couple of hundred of us, and only seven from SRC. There was Sam Stone, a work colleague, running for Emersons Green. We gathered on the cycle track under the B4465 bridge over the ringroad. After a brief announcement, we were off.
For me, 5K is a tough distance. It feels like I’m running flat out the whole way. The track veers through a subway under the ringroad. At 1K, my watch showed 3:30. Now we skirted the new roundabout exit, trainers hitting plywood boards laid over fresh tarmac. Crossing the ringroad now on a pedestrian bridge. I hit 2K around 7 minutes in and realised my target, 18 minutes, was very much on. Matt was just ahead. Around us, red and white vests, Bristol and West. The track takes a left at the next roundabout and then at exactly 2.5K out doubles back.
My legs felt tired in the final kilometre. Somehow sensing my weakness Matt opened a gap which 5 Bristol and West runners smartly filled. I checked my watch. A PB for sure. 18 minutes, definitely, but having got into this position how hard would I push for the finish? Did I really want to set a best time which would be out of reach in future? My legs felt ragged.
I crossed the line under the bridge over the ringroad and stopped my watch. 17:48, it said.
At the presentation, Roger, one of the race directors, took the opportunity to talk about the history of the race which originated some 20 years ago to finance Bristol and West AC sending competitors all round the country, paying for petrol and entry fees. Back then there was no roundabout, no ring road, no cycle track. The sports pavilion we sat in hadn’t been built and so the Bridge Inn hosted the event, which was run on dirt tracks around the former quarry.
As the first MV50 to finish, in 22nd place with an official time of 17:50, I picked up a £5 Easy Running voucher. Without me being aware of it the next two runners, just 4 and 13 seconds behind me, were also MV50’s. Some race!
1 15.23 John Ashcroft Bristol University SM 2 15.34 Matt Whitfield Bristol & West AC SM 3 16.21 James Denne Exeter Harriers SM 4 16.33 Jarlath McKenna Bristol & West AC SM 5 16.35 Matthew Krelle Bristol & West AC SM 6 16.48 Mark Edwards Bristol & West AC SM 7 17.06 Iain Stuart Bristol & West AC SM 8 17.08 Olly Sheppard Team Bath AC SM 9 17.09 Sam Hedley Team Bath AC SM 10 17.14 Jenny Jagger Bristol & West AC SW 11 17.24 Anthony Hall Bristol & West AC SM 12 17.26 Torran Elson Bristol & West AC SM 13 17.34 Jacob Hayes Bitton Road Runners M40 14 17.35 Matt Burns Southville SM 15 17.37 Chris Palmer Westbury Harriers SM 16 17.38 Peter Gandon Bristol & West AC SM 17 17.40 Alexander Whittaker Bristol & West AC SM 18 17.41 Helen Sharpe Bristol & West AC SW 19 17.42 Phil Lucker Bristol & West AC SM 20 17.44 Jason Barry Stroud & District M40 21 17.46 Ben Farrell Bristol & West AC SM 22 17.50 Thomas Guest Southville M50 23 17.54 Gary Hughes Team Bath AC M50 24 18.03 Phil Westlake Bitton Road Runners M50 25 18.04 Julian Bailey-Gard Westbury Harriers SM 26 18.06 C McQuade Unattached SM 27 18.08 Andrew Malloy Bristol & West AC M40 ...
Cycling back along the track which was once a railway I thought about Bristol traffic, transport and history.
At the start of the month I attempted the Wrington Woodland run. Conditions were warm and damp. The race starts with a gradual climb from Goblin Coombe. I was tracking the leaders at this stage. The rocky track became a river of viscous clay. A Frome runner slipped and slithered, his five fingers affording little traction. I moved past into second place.
My own shoes — my normally trusty Adidas swoop trail shoes — skidded on the fast tarmac descent to Wrington. I slowed down then pushed on, determined to hold my position. On the second climb, the steep one up Bullhouse Lane, my right calf went. I limped, then walked, then tried to run through the injury, then walked again. I was in some pain. Runners passed me. I’m fine, I said, it’s cramp. The woods on top of Wrington Hill were packed with bluebells. A kindly marshal gave me a lift back to the HQ once the race had passed. My first ever DNF. I felt lousy.
Yesterday, three weeks later, I showed up for the Tyntesfield 10 — a favourite event from last year. My calf still isn’t 100% but I needed to get round the course to put Wrington behind me. I could surely do that.
I started easily on the first meadow circuit. We looped back to the house, swerving round the croquet lawn and flowerbeds, then back to the meadow again. My legs felt good. I pushed on towards the woods, passing runners as the track rose. Watch out for tree roots! Go on Southville! The track twists and swerves, hurdling fallen trees, ducking under branches. I was glad to be clear and able to pick my own route. Andy Malloy cruised past. I drafted him, pulling me into contention with a couple of other runners.
Out of the woods and into long grass, nettles, thistles, rape. At this stage last year I’d been wiped out. Today, a more cautious start had earned me something in reserve. To my surprise, Annabel Granger was in range, plus another couple of runners I didn’t know. At last we reached the long descent bringing the route back home. I passed one runner. I passed two more, only for them to nip ahead when I misinterpreted a marshal’s signal and turned the wrong way. Down the steps and on to the tarmac. I dug in on the final short climb, regaining my earlier position. On the finishing straight, for the first time in the race, I looked behind me. My position was safe. I crossed the line.
Training mate Neil Williams was so close behind I didn’t see him finish. I cheered in another friend, Steve Swan, drank the water and ate the minuscule cereal bar in the goodie bag.
I was 7th to finish and 1st in my category. My time, 40:39, was 22 seconds faster than at the same event last year. Next up: the Welsh Castles Relay.
Thanks to Rich Kenington, theracephotographer.com, and Sally Johnson for the excellent action shots used on this page.
Blame the wind, which started before Christmas and still hadn’t stopped. Or the rain, which had been similarly persistent, flooding roads, train lines, villages and fields. I guess even the toughest runners may have thought twice about showing up for another mudfest, even if this one was the Welsh championships.
Still, you can only compete against those who turn up.
We parked up, as instructed, on the outskirts of the Dinefwr estate, and caught the shuttle bus to the event. A massive tree, toppled by the recent storms, lay on the grass, its roots pointing upwards. The racing had already started: junior runners picked their way through the mud. I collected my number from the race HQ in front of Newton House.
Luke Davis, the commentator said, was hot favourite for the U13 boys’ event. You can tell it’s Luke Davies, he said, because of his socks: one pink, one green. If Luke Davies felt the pressure of expectation, he responded well to it, taking an early lead and extending it all the way to the finish.
The rain held off. The wind was strong but no gale. The senior event would be four times round a rolling, heavy, lovely course. I ran one as a warm up with Kneath, Eamonn, Raul and Martin. Dewi Griffiths, defending champion, was here, and although I’d be on his team, I didn’t want him lapping me!
Some great photos, taken by Gwynfor James.
It was a great day for Swansea Harriers! Here’s a snippet from the report on the club’s website.
[…] arguably the main highlight of the day showing the talent and strength in depth of the senior mens team, saw the B team win team SILVER, just, by a point! The SILVER winning team were Eamon Kirk (14th), Lewys Hobbs (16th), Thomas Guest (21st) Matthew Richards (22nd), Raul Reismann (30th) and Kneath Philippart (35th).
The cross country course at Builth Wells ticks all the boxes:
- hills ✓
- mud ✓
- scenery ✓
They even threw in a log jump (✓) this year!
They’ve adjusted the course since I last ran it. If anything, it’s better. What used to be a steady climb has been reversed, becoming a fast and treacherous descent, which you’ll have to undertake on wobbly legs after a woodland ascent through ditches and streams.
On the day, as a representative of West Wales in the inter-regional championships, I was running in a red and black vest. Since the race included the Welsh Masters cross country championships, I was also running for Swansea Harriers, and — for the first time ever — running in the V50 category.
This rare combination gave me several chances so I struck out at a sharp pace, stretching my legs on the rolling prelude, and — to my surprise — found myself just behind Peter Coles, last year’s V50 winner, on the first downhill. I passed him at speed.
Maybe if I’d paced myself better I could have finished in the top 10. Maybe not. In the end I came 12th.
I won a bronze medal in the masters V50 category, coming around minute behind V50 winner Ifan Lloyd and just 20 seconds behind Peter Coles. West Wales were the winning V50 team and Swansea Harriers were the winning V50 club.
Two of my favourite cycling videos. The first chases a solo rider downhill on the ride of his life, his flamboyant skills matched only by the increasingly hysterical commentary.
The second catalogues the participants in this year’s national hill climb championships, ticking off a series of skinny introverts who battle elements and inclines.
Blaise Castle estate, another great location for a multi-terrain race. I was looking forward to running in the third and last of Westbury Harriers’ Blaise Blazer 2013 races for a couple of reasons: first, my knowledge of the estate’s winding paths and trails could only be to my advantage; and second, I’d be running for Southville Running Club, who I train with on Tuesday evenings, and who would be defending the Blazer Challenge Cup they won in 2012.
Next time, I’d try not to arrive so early. It took a while to register everyone. Eventually, over 120 runners toed a wide starting line on the field looking down towards the mansion.
We charged across the grass to A hitting the path at B. I must have been about 20th at C, the foot of the first climb, and picked up a few places by H, where we switched from a well-surfaced path to a woodland trail. Matt, Mike, Mark and Tim — all Southville runners — were ahead, but not too far ahead. Climbing I, J, K, a treacherous uphill track, I passed Tim. I took the muddy descent from O to P carefully. Mike pulled away on the flat, Q, and somehow I was pulling away from Mark and staying in contact with Matt. Maybe I could have done more on the final climb to the castle, R, S, T, but maybe I didn’t know the paths quite as well as I thought.
Either way, I was glad to finish and cheer in the remaining runners.
Half an hour later we were back at the Westbury Harriers club house and half an hour after that the results had been logged and checked. Southville retained the Challenge Cup, hooray! I finished 10th, the first MV40, in a time of 24:17.
I’m not a member so I had to fork out a 50% premium to enter. For £6 I got:
- a cup of tea
- a toasted tea-cake (help yourself to butter and jam)
- a route description
- a protective cover for the route description
- a brevet card
- two cups of squash
- a chocolate flapjack
- 100km of cycling, to include 2400m of climbing and some of the finest scenery in south Wales
- another cup of tea
- a ham roll (help yourself to salad)
Oh no, not another puncture!
Happily I recovered from flu in time to line up for the start of the Wrington Woodland run. 100 or so of us queued on the footpath just outside Cleeve listening to a well rehearsed pre-race briefing: this is going to take 5 minutes so don’t stare at me, I won’t go any faster, a special announcement, Jim and Alfredo are running 10km a day every day this year so like them on Facebook and when you shower check yourself for ticks, you’re unlikely to have any and they’re unlikely to be carrying Lyme disease, which can usually be treated, but if you do and they are and you aren’t … conditions downhill are fine but uphill watch out for tree roots, loose stones etc. Honk! We were off!
The path climbed steadily up Cleeve Hill. Matt hung behind the leaders then eased away hitting a pace I couldn’t follow. Andy passed me when the path levelled off. A tall runner from Weston AC bounded downhill on elastic legs. Hey, maybe I was still the first veteran runner on the course? If I was, I wasn’t for long. I felt weary on the climb up Wrington Hill; Andrew Malloy (V40) and Adrian Noble (V50) overtook. At last the track levelled and zigzagged downhill back to Cleeve. I clattered over a narrow wooden bridge and cleared a stile and ran on wobbly legs across one last field to the finish.
Well done Matt for winning! Jim and Alfredo ran on through the finish, the route being a few metres short of 10k. Prize-giving was held in the Lord Nelson skittle alley. How we cheered!
The second race, the Burrington Blaster, found me in better form, which is just as well: the route took us from the Burrington Inn right up to the top of the Mendips in one long climb. The view at the summit was spectacular and although the urge to stop and admire it was strong I pushed on through gusting winds and boggy footing. 4th place was mine if I could negotiate the treacherous descent. I couldn’t, falling a short way from the finish when my feet slid on loose stones. Nothing damaged, but physical and mental momentum destroyed. A couple of red and white vests — Bristol and West — passed. I held on for 6th.
I fancied my chances in the third race, the Purdown Pursuit, my former training ground. When I lived in Cobourg Road, on Sunday mornings I’d head out along Boiling Wells Lane and past the telecoms tower, attacking a selection of Purdown’s short sharp hills before passing the UWE campus to head under the M32 and back through Frenchay and Snuff Mills. How could they fit 10k into Purdown, I wondered? The answer turned out to be a double loop; the first short circuit had me wondering how I’d hang on for the second longer loop, this one covering the full length of the down, Stoke Lane to Muller Road and back again. Hold on I did, passing a pony-tailed Nailsea runner who took a wrong turn through the woods, and losing a place to Andrew Malloy (again!) on the final downhill swoop. I collapsed at the line.
Something different! Race four, closing the series, the Dundry Thunder run, started at the top of the hill. A prolonged spell of hot weather had broken into storms during the week and I wondered if the thunder would be more literal than alliterative, but the evening turned out just fine, clear, not too hot, as we gathered on the downs at foot of the radio masts. You could see all of Bristol, city and suburbs, the Clifton bridge, and beyond to the Severn estuary spanned by another suspension bridge and the angular second crossing. I warmed up, running the wrong way along the finishing straight, skipping over thistles and cowpats. The start was delayed whilst a local resident trimmed his hedge, destroying some route markings in the process.
The race was a double loop: starting with a jostling descent down Littleton Lane towards Winford. Determined to hold something back for the second loop, I watched the leaders stride away from me. Behind a hedge, the sound of gunshots. We turned off the lane and looped back through fields up the hill to Dundry, negotiating uneven ground, gates and stiles. Skittish cattle stampeded across the course. I pulled back a couple of places on the climb and sped up when we reached the level section along Crabtree Lane, vaulting a gate at the same time as a Weston AC runner tried to open it. We waded through a field of oilseed rape, the heavy pods slapping our legs, then past another radio mast. The second extended downhill cut a diagonal through a barley field. More gates, stiles, streams. Now we were back on Littleton Lane for a final drag uphill to the finish. I was tired but the runners around me were too, maybe more so. The tall runner from Weston AC was walking. I went past. Further on, I passed Matt. Briefly I nosed ahead of Andrew Malloy but that spurred him to up his pace and pull away again. One last momentum-sapping stop-start through a gate and I could see the line. Was Matt on my heels or 50m away? Now would not be a good time to look back. I blundered through thistles and cowpats and crossed the line exhausted but in control. The 5th place I thought I’d got turned out to be 4th. Result!
Summary: in the WW, BB, PP and DT races I came 9th 6th 5th 4th with times of 39:45, 37:11, 42:52 and 42:32.
Many thanks to the TACH team for organising such a great series of races with good humour and efficiency. I’m looking forward to next year already. Four pubs did well to serve drinks to all those thirsty runners but I guess they did well out of it too. Thanks to Matt for transporting the Swansea Harriers team. Thanks also to Rachel Foyle and Emma Postlethwaite for allowing me to use their fine photos here.
When I heard Matt Burns would represent Southville Running Club on the Drovers Arms leg of the Welsh Castles Relay, the race’s queen stage, I had to ask Gary, the Swansea Harriers team manager, if I could run it too. He warned me:
Stage 14 is a nightmare, the road zigzags up the mountain, not for the fainthearted!!
Zigzags and mountains don’t scare me. What does scare me is bright sunshine and that’s what we had on Sunday. I slathered on sunscreen and lurked in the shadows in sunglasses waiting for the stage to start.
Confusion at the briefing. An illegal rave at the top of the mountain: police had closed the road. We’ll finish the stage a mile early, the race official said. We’ll see what we can do. We’ll try and get you through.
Earlier, there’d been talk of a vintage car rally coming down the mountain at the same time as we we ran up it. No rally, apparently; instead, a rave. I guess anyone holding a 20 stage road race over a summer weekend has to think on their feet.
We were off. I settled into a steady pace. There’d be plenty of opportunity to burn energy later. The rolling route left Builth Wells on the A483 heading west, hills rising ominously to the south. Supporters offered wet sponges and water. Thanks!
At Garth we turned and ducked under the railway line and then the climb started. I was passing runners now. For the first time I could see Matt, not so far ahead of me. At the side of the road a sun-burned and dreadlocked girl huddled against the crash barrier.
Gary had warned me about the false summit. You get to the top and then you’ve another couple of miles to go. Except today we hadn’t and there, at the top of the first climb, suddenly, was the finish line. Oh.
The views were spectacular. I felt uncomfortably fresh, especially considering I’d just run the best part of nine miles the last two which had been uphill. We set off to follow the next two stages of the race. Rob had the top of his BMW down. It took a few tense minutes to negotiate the road past the Drovers, reduced to a single lane by vehicles on the verges. Team vans were trying to head in both directions as the music throbbed and pulsed and ravers staggered around in the sunshone. Down the hill the police were methodically pulling over and questioning people.
Over a period of several minutes on the run into Brecon we overtook the stage 15 runners. Mark Roberts, one of Swansea’s finest, was near the front; ahead of him some seriously good athletes from Altringham, Port Talbot, Les Croupiers, Hare and Hounds tore up the road. On the way out of Brecon we passed by stage 16, the mountain stage I’d run in filthy weather two years earlier.
Swansea Harriers were 11th overall, 2nd in the vets category just 16 minutes behind Bath. It’s the fastest time we’ve completed the route in for some years. Thanks to Rob Falconer for providing a lift, the photo, and for putting in a storming run on stage 13. Thanks again to Gary Irving: as manager of a veterans’ team I think he accepts and expects a few injuries will upset his plans, but four people pulling out in the final week, that’s tough!
About time I recorded some of my race results since the WCR, 2012.
My next race was the Gwent League opener at Newbridge Fields, Bridgend. I ran this same course the year before on a cold, blustery day, sheets of rain swirling. This time, the weather turned out unseasonably warm. I came 78th with a time of 38:22, an improvement of 26 places and 3 minutes over my previous outing.
Soon after I ran closer to home in the West Glamorgan League at Llanmadoc. Although the rain held off on the day, it hadn’t over the past weeks and the track out to the lighthouse comprised a series of ponds linked by mud. I made a mistake lining up for the start some way from the front of the field and ended up jostled and sodden by the time the race stretched out and settled in. After, I hooked up with Ifan for a warm down; we ran the full route a second time.
Blaise Castle, Bristol, for the 3rd fixture in the Gwent League. Isobel and Alex ran too. I tried to keep up with Eamon but he pulled away on the second lap. In the closing stages I looked over my shoulder to see Raul storming towards me. I had enough left, or he timed his surge for the line too late; either way I finished ahead of him, but I can’t see that happening next time we race together.
And that was it, my cross country season over. I was supposed to run the Welsh regional cross country championships but didn’t make it.
Last night I ran the first of four alliterative TACH races, the Wrington Woodland run, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The course started in Cleeve with a long but gradual climb up a woodland track. After a few dry weeks the surface was rocky and rutted. Matt (who I beat in the 5K, remember?) strode ahead a few minutes in, clocking a pace I couldn’t follow; and, as it turned out, noone else could either. As we crested the top of the climb Andy overtook me. On the descent to Wrington another runner bounded past. I wasn’t feeling too fresh by Bullnose Lane, the second uphill section, and settled on trying to hold my place rather than catch anyone. Even that proved optimistic and a couple of runners pegged me back before the final descent back to Cleeve.
I was pleased with 9th place. Congratulations to Matt on his well deserved win! A diet of interval training and competitive racing have honed his form and after a series of top ten placings in recent events it came down to when not if.
Last year I ran a mountain stage through heavy rain and into the wind. This year I ran a flat stage, well, flat for Wales, and — despite news reports of flooding and dams bursting — the weather was just fine: overcast, a light wind, not too hot. We gathered in Navigation Park, Abercynon, just off the A470. For “park” read “industrial estate”. After waiting a few minutes after the scheduled start time of 14:25 for the Turner Broadcasting runner to (not) appear, we were off.
The route climbed over the A470 and curved around to point south. After the usual initial shakeout the race settled down and I could see 7 runners ahead of me; within distance, but ahead. After a brief diversion through the Rhydfelin Housing estate we hit the Taff Trail. I’d been here before, on a bike. It’s a disused railway line, straight, level and shaded by trees. Cow parsley and nettles towered in the muddy verges. Insects hovered in the humid air. I was running alongside a Sarn Helen runner and could see two runners ahead. Then one pulled up. Over the course of a couple of steady miles we hauled in and passed the other. I looked back — mistake — and saw a Vale Royal AC runner approaching fast.
Leaving the Taff Trail we doubled back on to the Old Nantgarw road, a country lane heading sharply upwards. Ifan had warned me about this and now the marshalls at the bottom of the climb warned me again. About a mile uphill, it does get easier, look out for cars.
This was my chance. I’d lost sight of the runner ahead of me but I used the slope to push ahead of Sarn Helen and Vale Royal. Dig in, don’t look back. Hills suit my legs. A couple of off-road motorbikes bowled down the hill. More marshalls stood at the turn on to Groeswen Road. I’d drunk enough water but grabbed a sponge and wrung it over my head.
The climb sets the stage finish up, that’s how Ifan had described it, and he should know: he won this stage last year. It’s all downhill, lots of turns, all the way to Caerphilly. As the road swerved and tilted I saw the castle, a crumbled pile of stones, far away, further than I’d hoped. Now I looked back — no sign of anyone. I lengthened my stride, letting gravity swing my tired legs.
Swansea Harriers were marshalling the finish of the stage so I got some welcome support on the run in. You’re going well, said Gary. How far now? I asked Kevin. About a mile.
A mile! As good as a miss. Vale Royal had me in sight, blue and yellow squares. Luckily it was a short mile. I turned a corner and suddenly there were flags and people. Is that the finish? I sprinted for the line. My time was 01:12:08, 4:09 behind the stage winner. 12 seconds later Vale Royal appeared and another 27 seconds behind him, Sarn Helen. I came 5th, the first runner from a veterans team, but the runners ahead of me were veterans running in the open category. Anyone over 35 counts as a veteran, which makes no sense in endurance events: Haile Gebrselassie knocked 27 seconds off his own world marathon record at the age of 35.
I didn’t hang around in Caerphilly. I wanted to catch the finish of the next stage — leg 20, the final stage — which was scheduled to arrive in Cardiff at 16:00. The car was where Ifan had said it would be. I put my foot down. Djokovic and Nadal slugged it out on the radio. But a car is no match for a runner approachng the capital and by the time I’d negotiated roundabouts, traffic lights and ticket machines the race was done.
Studying the results later I discovered the first two home were separated by 14 seconds and 30 years! With Paul Hammond’s permission, here’s the culmination of 20+ hours of racing over 20 stages and two days. Andrew Greenleaf pips the veteran — who, at twice the younger runner’s age, truly is a veteran — Andrew Greenleaf in black pips Martin Rees in white to the line.
The castles relay offers lots of prizes in lots of categories. The grounds of Cardiff castle are a fine venue for an extended awards ceremony. I drank sweet tea from a thermos flask and munched garibaldis and shook my legs to stop them seizing up. My team, Swansea Harriers veterans, came second in their category, some way behind the Les Croupiers vets. We were monarchs of the mountains, collected first veterans team in a couple of mountain stages, and Matthew Gurmin won stage 17.
My thanks to Paul Hammond for allowing me to reproduce here some of his superb photos of the event. The versions here are low resolution copies. The originals are on Paul Hammond’s Flickr site. I also want to thank Gary Irving for his immense effort getting the team organised.
About time I posted these old race reports …
Welsh Inter-Regional & Masters Championships, Builth Wells, December 10th 2011
I did say, at the Fairwood race, I was invited to represent West Wales in the inter-regional championships? Well, the day had come, a chill December morning. White frost coated the meadow at Parkmill.
Ifan took the scenic route through Llandeilo and LLandovery … I sank back into the passenger seat and watched the hills roll by. We parked outside the showground and crunched across ice and gravel to the race HQ where the tarpaulin they’d laid down on the floor was already rucked and muddy. Red and white tapes zig-zagged up the hill, marking out the course.
I collected my West Wales vest. When you get a heavy course, like today, one which includes sections of concrete and tarmac, Ifan said, use longer spikes here and shorter ones here, under the ball of the foot.
With just over an hour to go we jogged a warm-up lap, starting with an extended climb through the woods. You can push on here, he said, as we emerged from the trees and passed a static caravan, still climbing, it’s downhill for a while after this. At the summit stood an enormous speaker, part of the showground’s PA system. I could see the Builth Wells showground now — the timber-clad buildings, the neat field, the high boundary fence — like a stage in the centre of the immense ampitheatre formed by the surrounding hills.
Sunlight poked through the clouds as we lined up at the start, shivering, edgy. One short lap and two long ones. I found my place and settled in. On the first climb my way was blocked by a tall runner. I moved left to overtake. He moved left. I moved right. He moved right. I passed him by the caravan and extended my lead downhill. Briefly, our route intersected the U15 girls’ race and I was dodging elbows, legs, pony-tails. On the long flat section round the playing fields the tall runner pegged me back. I let him go.
Approaching the climb for the second time, the ground had softened. I went past a couple of runners who’d gone out too fast. I dug in as the path steepened, skeetering wide through tree roots, leaf mould and brambles to pass him. I was clear now but there were two more in front to aim at. I remembered Ifan’s advice and stumbled over the top on empty, relying on gravity to recharge my legs on the descent. I bounded down a final rocky path, arms flailing, and held on till the line.
West Glamorgan League, Margam, January 8th 2012
I arrived at Margam at eleven in time to see the race start without me. Lesson being, the West Glamorgan races are organised differently. The sight of all those humans on the move had animated the park’s deer herd. I watched them hurtle round their own short course. I ran the route anyway, slowly, and very boggy it was too. Next time.
Cardiff Cross Challenge, January 15th 2012
The McCain Cardiff cross challenge, held just north of the city centre in Blackweir Fields, is “one of the most prestigious Cross Country events in the UK”. Isobel was running. Last time she’d run, in the Gwent League, around a foul course in filthy weather, she’d failed to finish, so it was a crucial event for her. We arrived in good time and registered. She’d be wearing her Afan-Nedd-Tawe vest. I’d be running for Swansea Harriers.
Today, the going looked fine. The sun was out, the wind was down. The course was flat, dry, sheltered. Isobel had a solid run, finishing strongly.
Certainly, they’d fine-tuned the schedule, overlapping races, closing and opening routes through the parkland, somehow without any runners getting trampled, confused or impeded, and so it was that the senior men’s event, the last of the day, would be starting just an hour after Isobel had finished. With 5 minutes to go I made my way to the starting pen. Where was everyone? Suddenly the elite runners appeared, peeling off thermals, shaking long, elastic legs. We’d be running four times round. I realised I was in danger of getting lapped.
Happily I avoided any such ignominy. The course seemed tame — where were the hills, swamps, trenches, wild animals? Isobel injected some welcome variety, appearing at random positions to cheer me on, and her encouragement helped me maintain my pace and place. I did pass one runner on the final lap and pushed hard to close the gap on the next, a tall lad in a black vest, but, closing in on the finish, he kicked away.
Welsh Cross Country Championships, St Fagans, February 18th 2012
Torrential rain and wind during the morning made for very difficult conditions on an already tough course for the 108th running of the Welsh Cross Country Championships. While the junior races were run in these treacherous conditions, the rain had stopped by the time the senior athletes were on the starting line; the damage to the course, however, was already done. — Welsh Athletics race report
Hats off to Isobel for getting round this one. She lasted longer than the inflatable start and finish markers, which were swiftly deflated and packed away before the wind ripped them up. After, she went with Gail and Alex to visit the National History Museum.
The rain had indeed stopped by the time the men’s race started but the course was brutal. I slogged my way round one, two, three, four laps, and was glad when it ended. I pulled my bag from the mud and squelched back through the field to the road-side, texting Gail to collect me.