The Kenfig fixture seemed like a long time ago, so it was good to see some friends back on the circuit at Margam Park. It was cold enough outside, but the race HQ, the castle itself — a 19th century Tudor gothic mansion — was even colder. I changed quickly and hurried out to warm up.
Inspecting the course it became evident the going would be varied. The first kilometre or so was on a well-surfaced road; but then, after a brief section of trail, there would be a boggy switchback climbing through a sequence of fields up to a rolling trail, from which a fast descent would bring you back to the road for a second lap.
I ran alongside Paul Flynn until we hit the soft uphill at which point I pulled ahead. Royston Whitehouse came past me on that first climb but by the top I had my nose back in front. I went hard on the trail and by the start of the second lap was on my own, with Eamonn Kirk 100m in front and a similar gap on Roy behind. I worked hard to catch Eamonn but it wasn’t happening so I worked hard to stay ahead of Roy, aware of his fast finish.
Oh yes, the finish: for some reason I hadn’t worked out where it was, and assumed it would be at the foot of the climb and in front of the mansion, as fine a finale as you could wish for. I was horrified when I realised this was not the case and that, once again, I was on tarmac with no end in sight. Could there even be a third lap?
Luckily not, and I held it together until the line, to finish in 14th overall and first V50.
Making it to the start line proves hard enough. The park and ride is chaotic, coaches blocked, cars queued, attendants overwhelmed. I roll up a kerb and squeeze into a space on the grasss verge to continue on foot. Soon enough I cross the bridge and begin to weave through the crowds packing Mountain Ash’s small centre.
The town is the race course. Barriers separate the track (the road, that is) from the stands (pavement). Getting anywhere is hard, what with dogs, children, babies, buggies, but somehow the PA keeps the agenda moving: the torch, the fireworks, the funfair, the mystery runner, and of course, soon, the races.
A community centre has become a makeshift changing area. I find myself queuing with Eamonn for one of two toilet cubicles. Matt Rees is there too, treating this event as a speed session to temper a fearsome endurance training programme in preparation for next year’s London marathon.
It’s good to escape the crowds and join the runners warming up on the road. The event will be fast, I know, with elite runners at the front pulling the train along; but as I jog round the sharp bends and up the hill out of the town centre, it’s hard for me to figure out how so many manage a PB on such a challenging course so close to Christmas.
Wales football team manager Chris Coleman turns out to be the mystery runner. The torch is lit, fireworks explode, and now we’re being asked to line up at the start. At most races I run, the start line self-organises: the faster runners warm up last then fill the space at the front which the slower runners have left for them. This event is different, and it takes much pushing and shouting to get everyone packed behind the start line before — bang! — we’re off.
Although I charge off like crazy both Eamonn and Nick are ahead of me. I’ve never been so far down the field in a 5K. I settle on the short uphill then stride out on the way back down, listening to the feverish commentary. It’s thrilling to run through the packed town centre, crowds cheering and applauding, and already the first of three laps is done.
Eamonn has a huge gap but I catch Nick on the final uphill, which spurs him on to go back past me. My finishing time of 17:42 is the quickest I’ve run this year, just. Later I learn the course record has been broken by Swansea Harrier Kristian Jones with a time of 14:11.
The West Glamorgan cross country league visited Kenfig nature reserve for the first time this year. I was looking forward to both the race and to visiting somewhere new.
Shoe selection bothered me. Spikes were not an option on the multi-terrain course, but should I use my trail shoes (which feel clunky) or my light-weight racing shoes (barely any grip)? After warming up in both on the soft sandy trail I went for the trail shoes. I needed all the traction I could get.
Another first: the organisers led out the race on a quad bike. Runners did what they could to avoid the softest sand in the middle of the track, preferring to use the grassy verges.
After about a mile of this pacy dodging and weaving — stand back, dog walkers and spectators! — we took a turn to the left onto a firmer track through common land. Cows ambled along to their own agenda, not bothered by the event. I passed Charles Walsh and Will Munday. I passed Eamonn. Once again I had Alan Davies for company.
Another left turn and we were on a short fast section of rough road, the wind on our backs. Alan strode out and I stayed with him. The counter-clockwise loop repeated, and wewere passing runners still on their first circuit. Now for the hard part, the final mile on soft sand back to the race finish.
I scanned the horizon for some sign of the Kenfig visitor centre but could see nothing but sand dunes. The pace felt so slow compared to the high energy start along the same track. I was exhausted but guessed others would feel the same way. Don’t look back, press on. Alan pulled a slight gap and suddenly the finish was there.
I came in 14th, one place behind Alan Davies, closely followed by Will Munday and Eamonn Kirk.
My two worst races in 2016 have been the two biggest. First, the world half marathon championships in Cardiff, which I entered a year in advance. Second, the British and Irish Masters International, which I was selected to compete in just three weeks before it took place.
In both cases catching a cold before the event blunted my performance. I struggled round the streets of Cardiff in atrocious conditions, finishing over three minutes down on the time I’d hoped and trained for. The half marathon is a tough event and I can still remember the mounting pain I felt as I slogged through Roath with rain slicing across me. Happily, though, I’d let noone down but myself. In Glasgow things were rather different. I had been selected for the Welsh team. It was a full weekend, involving flights, a hotel, dinner, an awards ceremony.
I arrived at the hotel late on the Friday night to find some of the senior team members in the foyer nursing half pints and soft drinks. They were talking about how much slower runners were these days, apparently a discussion they have every year. Bernie Jones, the team manager, went to collect the vest I’d ordered in advance. Unfortunately the small vests had been taken and the best he could do was a medium which came mid-way down my thighs.
Saturday, race day. I liked the look of the course: a grassy, undulating loop of Tolcross Park, soft in places but no standing water. There were team photographs by the rose garden. I warmed up, puffing and blowing, missing the usual spring in my legs.
Eamonn had lent me one of his old vests, a small, so I at least looked the part.
I didn’t go out hard. For the first two laps I ran with Royston Whitehouse and Alan Davies, two runners who I’d taken a minute out of at Bridgend. Then I faded badly. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had to rein my effort in and suffered the indignity of being an easy target for runners who had paced themselves better.
The worst of it is that if it weren’t for the cold, I was in great form. Oh, I’m under no illusions, I wasn’t never going to challenge the leaders in my category, but I could at least have run to my full ability and scored for my team.
Call it a learning experience.
Watching the V35-V50 race was a true education: I have never seen such fast cross country running. The Irish team smashed the course, tailing an unfortunate English hare for three high speed laps then flying round the final lap at full tilt to take the top three spots.
Newbridge fields is closest to home of the Gwent League events and, since changing jobs at the end of August, it’s even closer to where I work. During the weeks before the event I’d reconoitred the course in my lunch break. It’s a straightforward route, three flat laps around the boundary of the playing fields and back alongside the Ogmore, each finishing with a bridge crossing and a short switchback through a wooded meadow.
Late summer and early autumn have been dry, and even the meadow section wasn’t bad underfoot as I warmed up. Yet again, no need for my spikes: I wore my light but grip-less racing flats.
Alex’s school friend, Nathan Jones, was in the Swansea Harriers tent near the race HQ. I’ve been training with him on Tuesday evenings and it was no surprise to see the Welsh gold medal hanging round his neck. Unfortuntely I arrived too late to see his race. Apparently he’d been disappointed to finish a close second, losing out to an English runner — at least he has someone to aim for in the next fixture.
Well over 400 runners lined up at the start of the men’s event. I positioned myself as close to the front as I dared, not wanting to get stuck in a queue around the first corner. We were off, surging forwards at speed. I held my position, using elbows and hands to make space for myself.
Coming into the technical meadow section at the end of the first lap, I was running well. My shoes had barely any grip in the mud, and I would have to rely on momentum and foot placement to carry me up the two short climbs. A Bristol University runner fell, got up, slipped over again; somehow I kept going and passed him. Spike- and stud-less I took no chances on the soft downhill.
I tried to hold my pace in the second lap. My starting speed had put me ahead of several runners who would normally be in front of me. I wanted to stay clear of them. Coming into the race, the first of this season’s league, I knew my form was good. It was the West Wales championships. I had also been told that the selectors would have their eye on the results; a strong performance here would put me in contention for a place on the Welsh team at the masters international in Glasgow. So, some motivation.
Into the third lap now and I picked up my pace again. I recognised the runner ahead, Alex Hamblin, Westbury Harriers. Last time I saw him he had finished maybe 10m ahead of me in torrid conditions at the Blaise Blazer. Today, on a longer and flatter course, I was catching him. I passed him before the bridge. I passed two or three others too.
I dropped a couple of places in the final meadow section — others were attacking the finish of the race, and I was unwilling to take risks in my slippery shoes. I sprinted with what little I had left for the line. I collected my position token and, as ever, a letter from Hedydd Davies iniviting me to represent West Wales in the inter-regional championships. The next two Swansea Harriers to finish were Eamonn and Ifan, two strong veteran runners who normally leave me trailing by some distance: confirmation I’d run well.
The results were published later that week confirming I’d finished 74th out of 468 with a time of 38.27. Even better, I got a message from Bernie Jones, the Welsh Masters team manager. I’d been selected to run for Wales at the home cross country international in Glasgow.
Conditions in Gnoll Park for the second West Glamorgan league fixture were perfect. I hadn’t expected to run since Alex had a rubgy game, but his misfortune in fracturing a finger in training (all better now, thankfully) gave me a chance to compete.
At Gnoll the women and men race different distances, the men running two long loops of the estate to the women’s one. Some women may feel slighted by this discrepancy but it does make for some fun on the course for spectators and runners alike. A staggered start means there’s plenty of action and overtaking.
When I arrived to collect my number the estate was buzzing. I found out afterwards that 366 athletes completed the course, a league record: I’m proud to have been part of that.
Confident in my form and lifted by the occasion, I set out fast. A tight loop took us back to the start, where we got a rousing cheer from the women who were awaiting their own start, before heading out on the first long loop. The course is truly mixed terrain. What was meadow became gravel and now we were heading up through woodland. Watch out for roots and rocks! There’s a long level section through some felled forestry, then a long downhill before another grassy climb to complete the circuit. My brother Dan had turned up to support after all — there he was with Schnorbie!
Gareth Poston pulled alongside me. He’s a running rival who proved too strong at Port Talbot, but beatable at Llanmadoc. Today, he opened a gap at the beginning of the second lap. I did my best to keep him in sight; to use him to keep me ahead of my chasers.
Up through the woods, back over the stream. Now I was passing the tail of the women’s race, overtaking, concentrating on holding my line and not clattering into anyone. I didn’t look behind me but could hear spectators cheering for Royston Whitehouse, a V50 rival who could surely strike if I slowed up. I pushed hard up the final climb and held on to the line. I came in first V50, just 3 seconds ahead of Royston Whitehouse, and 12th overall with a time of 35:07.
The first fixture of the West Glamorgan league was held on a fine but fresh day. I cycled across from home and ran a warm up along the track through the woods following the start of the race route. In wet weather the path floods. Today it was quite dry. No need for trail shoes: I opted for the racing flats which have served me so well this year.
Some turn out, too! Word got round that the start was to be delayed by 15 minutes — agricultural traffic on the narrow Gower roads had held up participants. I stayed warm, shook out my legs, chatted to friends.
It’s a fast, jostling start. I held my place and let others hare off — there would be time to peg them back. Coming out of the initial wooded section the wind was on our backs. I felt lively, quick, comfortable. Now we entered the next forested section. The track becomes less firm, more sandy, winding and lumpy in places. The pace had settled down. I passed Eamonn, Charles, Paul.
On the beach now, running across the slope on soft stand studded with rocks and pebbles. There is no easy line on this terrain. I could see the estuary and the cast-iron lighthouse. Turning the corner the wind slammed at full force into our faces. The exposed mile or so back along the beach suddenly looked a long way. The race leaders were strung out ahead battling the gale.
“Work together boys!”
The advice came from Alan Davies, the V60 wizard from Llanelli.
“Work into the wind together,” he urged, indicating with an arm that I should tuck in behind him.
I tucked in. Alan is too skinny to be a great windbreak; nonetheless, the combination of the shelter he gave and the respite from making the pace made things easier. We were gaining on runners in front. After a minute or so I took the lead, Alan now sheltering behind me. Fighting the wind felt easier now I knew I could loop back.
We caught a Swansea Harrier, James Dean, who’s coming back to full fitness. “Hang in,” I said, but he was cooked.
The echelon had grown as we came to the end of the beach section and on to the marshy path. The headland gave some shelter. I pulled away from the group knowing the race was nearly done. I would be better attacking on the short climb than trying to sprint for the line.
I was pleased to finish in 7th place with a time of 28:46, my highest ever finish in a West Glamorgan league race. The only thing I got wrong was failing to start my Garmin until 4 minutes in.
I suffered at the world half marathon championships held in Cardiff earlier in the year. I’d put in the training but failed to shake off a heavy cold by race day, besides which the weather was foul.
The inaugural Port Talbot half marathon offered a chance to bury that memory. A small, local event with an entry limit of 200 people, staged on grit and tarmac cycle tracks in the beautiful forest of Afan.
After a technical opening section though width restrictions and around a fishing lake, we were on a firm gravel track heading gently downhill, and that’s pretty much how it continued for the next 6 miles. The weather was cool, with a light breeze, the sun occasionally threatening to break through.
I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Gareth Poston. We worked together.
“We’re not catching them,” I said, meaning the group of 4 about 200m ahead.
“Wait for the uphill,” he said.
I felt dehydrated and made sure I got some water in at the feed station at the turning point. Gareth pulled a lead on me, maybe as much as 20m, but I wasn’t going to lose him. The track was heading uphill now. The next groups of runners were entering the feedzone. Time to dig in.
I caught up with Gareth and again we worked together. A runner in a red vest, dropped from the fractured group of 4, was in sight. We went past him. Just a couple of miles from the finish we caught and passed another runner. Now I was hurting. Gareth pulled ahead. This time I let him go. I could see he was fading but I was too.
I finished in 6th place with a time of 1:22:33, which I was pleased with on a sloping course.
The Blaise Blazer is one of my favourite events. Short but tough, it packs plenty of racing into 4 miles of footpaths and tracks through the beautiful Blaise Castle estate. The hosts, Westbury Harriers, are a fine club with a thriving junior section and a strong cross country tradition.
Three years ago Southville RC won the mob match. This evening we didn’t even have a team. In fact, only Westbury and Emersons Green had a full team. Blame the weather — relentless heavy rain.
Cycling across to the race left me soaked before the start. I shivered and tried to stay warm in the clubhouse whilst the deluge continued. Pinned to the wall was a picture of the new route, which, rather than ending at the folly, passes in front of it before a final charge back down to finish just outside the clubhouse.
At last we were off, 76 of us speeding over the wet field. The race starts downhill and fast. Ascending the zig-zag I figured I must have been around 10th. My wet feet were warming up. Down across the meadow and back on the path, trying not to skid on the greasy camber. How dark it was for a summer’s evening!
Climbing again, murky and muddy, roots and stones. Passing runners. I could barely see what was underfoot on the wooded descent but attacked nontheless. Alex Hamblin and a younger lad were just ahead of me. I didn’t know who was ahead of them. Now we were following the new route. I closed on the two in front of me on the steep ascent to the folly. Past the folly and back down on an unfamiliar switchback of a path. I took the corners carefully. Out at last and on my way across the sodden field to the line.
I was surprised to learn I’d come in third. The two runners in front, Alex Hamblin and 15 year old Aidan Noble had taken the first two places. Could I have found something extra if I’d known I was contesting the lead?
The Purdown Pursuit very definitely counts as a home run. I’ve used Purdown as a training route for a good 15 years now. I love the short, sharp climbs, the mixed terrain, the urban views, the buzzing hum of the motorway. The communications tower. The WWII gun emplacements. The teenage parties when exams are over. The barbeques. The fishing lake. The joyriders. The abandoned vehicles. The other runners. Even the dogs.
Building works meant a couple of slight tweaks to the route. We started maybe 100m further back to give the race a chance to string out before the restricted access to the path, and later, after the short circuit, we had to skirt round a new fence protecting the landworks.
I felt energetic and ready. I attacked from the start and led the race over the first and longest climb. Then Chris Mcmillan hared off. Another runner in a blue vest passed me. Don’t let him go, I said, meaning Chris. I stormed down the first descent; I’ve been working on the downhills this year, and it’s paid off. I still felt fresh on the second proper climb. On the long, straight, almost flat section after exiting the woods I ramped up my pace and slowly, slowly closed on blue vest — Jeroen Bromilow.
If Jeroen had faltered I might have caught him, but he didn’t. Over the next winding and technical section, on road, steep descent, ragged ascent, steps, hole in the wall, overgrown pathway, he put distance into me. When I got to the top of the final open downhill, he was already at the bottom. I finished in 3rd with a time of 41:53, a minute down on Jeroen and 40 seconds ahead of Andy Hickman in 4th. Southville smashed the team prize with 4 runners in the first 5 places.
The end-of-series proze giving was held in the courtyard at the back of the Masons Arms. Congratulations to Chris Mcmillan and Clare Prosser, who took 1st male and female in all 4 races. I thoroughly enjoyed completing all 4 races and was delighted to end the series on a high.
Dundry Thunder, third race in the Tach summer series and I’d say the toughest.
It had been raining during the week and during the day. The skies were heavy as we lined up to start. The race tore down Littleton Lane, runners ricocheting across the damp, uneven surface, each of us trying to find our own racing line. I was wearing my lightweight race shoes, which are fast and comfortable but don’t have much grip. I skidded in the slick mud like Djokovic on a grass court.
Knowing what was to follow, I eased up a little and must have been around 10th by the foot of the hill. The meadows heading back up hadn’t been mowed or grazed. We were wading through long damp grass, stopping for gates and stiles. Getting into a rhythmn was impossible. I’d climbed to 3rd by the top of the hill and pushed hard along the level section through Dundry, getting a gap on my chasers. By now Chris McMillan was way out in front, but I had the second runner in my sights. Running through a field of oil seed rape, the rain bent the heavy pods across the track; they wrapped and trashed at my legs. Back downhill, this time through long damp grass, scanning for route markers.
James Killingbeck, in second, must have been about 20m in front of me at the foot of Littleton Lane, which we would now climb to the finish. I dug in, but he must have done the same. I wasn’t closing on him, and settled gratefully for a third place finish.
By now it really was raining, and within a few minutes the downpour had us racing for the shelter of the pub even though slower runners were still out on the course.
I’ve never actually run a flat 10k, other than as the first section of a half marathon, so I decided to give the Clevedon 10k a shot. It’s a fast course which attracts fast runners and a fast time is what I wanted.
It was a blowy evening but not too hot. Over 200 runners packed the quiet lane heading into the flat fields to the west of Clevedon. From the start the pace was swift. I passed the 1K marker in 3:35. Once again, I found myself alongside training partner and lift provider, Andy.
I’m not used to running at an even pace. The effect was hypnotic. I chose the racing line around corners, leaning into the gentle camber of the road which, strangely, seemed to tilt downhill, slightly, for the entire distance.
We turned into the wind after the 4th kilometre. I slipstreamed Andy. Whenever the road straightened we could see Will Smith ahead, running with his quick, loping stride. I upped the pace once we turned out of the wind and into the final 3k. Andy followed. We pulled in a couple of runners. Andy dropped me in the last 400 metres, opening a gap of 3 or 4 seconds. At the line, I retched, retched again. Sometimes that happens.
Southville had 6 runners in the top 25, led by club captain Mark Ducker in 13th place with a time of 35:09 — some 45 seconds faster than he’d run in the Bristol 10k.
I finished 22nd overall and 2nd MV50 with a time of 36:31.
It helps to have run the TACH races before, so you can gauge your effort for what’s coming. I have run the Burrington Blaster previously, but just the once, three years ago. From memory, we were facing a never-ending uphill followed by a treacherous downhill.
Either my recollections were faulty or we’d gone the wrong way, because, after an initial climb the route levelled then dipped. We were running full tilt downhill when, in my head, we should have been grinding uphill.
I was relieved when the course did turn upwards. My legs were ready. We shook off a few runners who’d been seduced by the fast start. Now I ran with three training partners: Andy, Neil, Paul. How many times have we climbed Nightingale Valley together, only to find ourselves shoulder to shoulder in a race? Paul set the pace. I expected Andy to pull away — he’s been flying recently — but eventually it was me who picked up the pace, passing Paul as the climb opened out from the woods and on to the top of the beacon.
Last time out this exposed section had been windy, wet and boggy. Today found the going still and dry. My chance was now! Convinced longer legs would catch me I hurled myself at the first open downhill, launching off ridges, sliding on bare earth, using the grassy verge to decelerate as needed. I knew my pursuers had me in view and didn’t want them to think they were closing in. Now the patch narrowed and swerved though bracken, gorse, brambles, still downhill. Room for one only: noone could pass.
I was on my own anyway. No sight of anyone ahead. No sound of anyone behind — even if you cannot hear a chaser directly, you can hear the spectators cheering them, or marshals guiding them. Of course you would never look back!
The final woodland descent, I took carefully. Three years ago I’d lost fourth place slipping and falling, and had considered myself lucky not to get hurt.
Today, I finished unscathed, 4th overall and 1st veteran, with a time of 35:36.
The winner, Chris McMillan, completed the course in a blistering time of 32:33, nearly two minutes clear of the next runner.
“So unless the weather picks up a lot I’m probably not going to spectate. Enjoy the rain!” Andy emailed, despite the fact Hannah, his wife, would be running.
Yet again the event defied the forecast. Heavy showers had blown themselves out during the day. The sun shone. Tyntesfield’s stone work gleamed. The lawns sparkled.
After a couple of laps of the lower meadow and formal gardens the race leaders had a substantial gap. From here, the course plays hide-and-seek through woods and rough pasture, and I wouldn’t be seeing them until the finish. I wouldn’t be looking back either, I’d be playing my part in a racing allegiance of four:
- the tall veteran from Weston AC
- Bristol and West, wearing tights
- a North Somerset runner
- me, the Southville second-claimer
Bristol and West led us through the woods, ducking, skipping, dodging and sliding. A wrong turn was quickly corrected. He made an error trying to squeeze between gate and fence, failing to spot the barbed wire. That hurt! Now we skirted the furrowed side of a planted field.
Weston charged into the downhill only to fall heavily on the wet mud. He was OK, he was up again. I dropped to the back of the group and chose my route carefully. North Somerset had built a clear lead.
After a short set of steps the course returns to a tarmaced road for the final section. There’s an uphill, neither steep nor extended, but brutal after 6 miles of multi-terrain racing. I caught and passed Bristol and West and Weston.
I could see the finish line. Andy was there, with Sam and James. Giles with his boys too. They were cheering me on! I had better support but Bristol and West had a better sprint. He stormed past me to take 9th in the race.
I came 10th overall with a time of 40:34, a little slower than last year. I was second veteran (behind Keiron Summers) and first MV50.
Special mention to Harry Allen, a young runner who has been training with Southville — let’s hope he signs up! — and who won the race in a time of 37:34, in the face of some very strong competition.
Thanks to Rich Kenington, Dermot McCann and Phil Murray for the photographs
This is my fourth year of running the Tach summer series, four multi-terrain events held on Thursday evenings in May through to July. These races play to my strengths — hills, uneven footing, twists and turns; long enough to require level-headed pacing, short enough to race the whole way. And when you look up, the scenery is spectacular.
The Wrington run starts with the steadiest of climbs on a woodland track. The leaders accelerated up the gradient and were soon out of sight. Some quality runners there, but did they realise how long this climb was, and how much tougher the following climb would be? Their enthusiasm carried me and I picked up my own pace.
In wetter weather there’d be a section of energy-sapping clay towards the top. After an unusually dry spring, we danced past any remaining mud on the course. I had picked off Matt and Paul by now. I could see Mark Ducker, Southville captain, not so far ahead.
The downhill transitions from footpath to farm track to tarmac. Then there’s a level section along Ropers Lane. I was running just behind Keiron Summers and just ahead of Ben Anderson. We turned up Bullhouse Lane, a rocky path littered with leaf mould, branches and loose rocks. I passed Keiron but he was having none of it. The route swerved, the gradient sharpened.
Back on tarmac again, along the top of Wrington Hill. Views of the Severn Estuary. Ben passed me. The bluebells glowed in the evening sunlight. I could still see Mark.
I caught and passed Ben when the road surface deteriorated. Keiron was still in range. We hurtled down the final woodland descent, shooting across the narrow bridge, over the stile, then stumble-running across the meadow to the line. I finished 4th with a personal course record of 37:52.
Thanks to John Cooper for the photos