Itera 2014 Part 5: Friday
Day 5 Schematic
Stage 9: Trek (Talybont-on-Usk to Ponteneddfechan)
All our best stages came in a row. This was one we unanimously voted for as a favourite. We started at 2:30 am and even though we were climbing, we were soon feeling cold. We stopped to put on an extra layer. Ten minutes later, we stopped to put on lots of extra layers! We were moving really well though.
Reaching the ridgeline, we could make out the dark looming shapes of the Brecon Beacons. I recognised it from an old black and white aerial photograph that hung in our house when I was a child. As the sun rose, everything was slowly revealed. There were mists swirling around us, which made the whole scene even more atmospheric.
On the descents, my feet were getting sore but were still manageable. I think Jon was towing me a bit, but I only remember this from looking at the photos! We almost missed a control by accident when we turned the map over, as the tops all look very similar (on the map and in real life). Seeing two sets of teams in front of us going different ways made us double check. It turned out that the team who initially finished third did actually this mistake – meaning they were relegated to 7th.
We were excited to meet the crazy Swede with his helicopter camera, swooping around as we walked. We even gave the event photographer (James) the chance for some good shots as we went the wrong way up a ridge! I was then on the tow behind Sam, who declared herself ‘full of beans’. We raced down to a road, where I was extremely grateful for a toilet and teams were congregating at a burger van. This was a descent I actually enjoyed. Despite sore toes and heels, being behind Sam as we barrelled down was a load of laughs!
We just had one more hill between us and the final run into the transition.
Unfortunately this section was more arduous than we had expected. By now the sun was really hot, and we had to strip off all those extra clothes and carry them instead. Paul was having ‘a moment’ rather like mine in the woods on the second trek. We stopped for a while for him to gather himself, as he was feeling dizzy and tired. We switched Sam’s tow from me to Paul and made better progress, though now I had trouble keeping up!
Off the hills, and we had a watery walk through a cave system. Sam was unimpressed because it was too easy! But I liked the little break in proceedings and Paul enjoyed the effect welly boots full of icy cold water had on his feet. Afterwards, I felt pretty rough; my legs and feet were complaining.
As we plodded on we got to some woods where there were two controls to find. The path to the first one was initially unclear. Jon ran ahead and I had a grump standing waiting for what felt like forever for him to come back (it had been a long day!). However, he did ascertain that it was definitely the right way, which was a good thing, as we had to pick our way over rocks on a steep downhill and I wouldn’t want to have done that for nothing. I felt (and probably looked) decrepit! The final trek control was behind a waterfall that I used to visit as a child. It was not as I remember though, now teeming with tourists enjoying the spectacle.
The last part of the trek seemed to go on and on and on. There were lots of teams around for quick chats though, which broke up the monotony. Finally in transition, I saw Andy again but was feeling weary and unenthusiastic. I unwrapped the last slice of banana bread I had made exactly a week before. It had lasted well, but this piece had cobwebby mould growing all over it. Eurgggh!! I had eaten a slice just a few hours before in the dark, when I couldn’t see such delights. Makes me feel a bit queasy, though there were no ill effects 😀 .
We were all now pleased that we just had ‘one easy bike stage’ to go ….
Stage 9: Trek (Ponteneddfechan to Cardiff)
There had been some last minute route changes to the start of this stage, which we were given in transition. They involved a long draggy road climb, then a bridleway which deteriorated in quality as it went up, so that we ended up pushing. I could tell I was getting increasingly incompetent. ‘Just riding a bike’ is very easy to do, but now normally simple things became hard – like starting off, and riding in a straight line!
At the first point we had to stop, I realised I would need to burst the blisters on the outsides of my heels. The action of unclipping pushed on them perfectly! Jon’s skills came to the fore again, as he produced sterile scalpel blades, wipes and sticky plasters. I was given a lesson in how to do it, and when we got moving again it was many times more comfortable. I was profusely grateful and expressed my surprise. But he just said ‘well, we all have to get to the end’ … I am sure he was quietly prepared for many an eventuality, had we needed it.
After the difficult bits we were onto some speedy forest roads. But the light was fading fast and we still needed to keep an eye on the navigation. I knew when we reached the start of the Taff Trail it ought to be consistently downhill, but we had to get there first.
This was taking longer and was harder than we had all imagined. Morale was dipping. After all the fun of the last few days, this felt like a bit of an anti-climax. I think as with other stages, how you found it depended on when you got there and how you were feeling at the time. Lucy from the 2nd placed team (Haglofs-Silva) were racing for position in daylight when they did it. She told me it was actually rather pleasant.
I concentrated on making sure we went the right way whilst keeping chatting and looking for the positives. Once on the Taff Trail it was ‘just’ a case of following the Sustrans route 8 signs and not missing the castle.
However, in some ways this was one of the scariest parts of the race. By the time we finished, we had gone the last 42 hours with just a 40 minute sleep break. Paul was getting strange swirling visual effects and Jon was swerving as he almost nodded off. We all imagined we had a 5th team member – who or where they were, no-one knew. On the long tarmaced off-road sections, with my light illuminating a tunnel in front of me, and the trees seeming to close in overhead, I felt like I was going into a trance. Never have I been so grateful for trail obstructions like gates and bars, as they kept us awake! I also deliberately let myself get slightly too cold for comfort – another good staying awake strategy.
Sam had entertained us with her singing all week. I am not a good singer at all, but felt free to join in 🙂 . We attempted to get Jon and Paul to ask for jukebox requests, but didn’t get very far. Hmm, I wonder why not? Instead, we used Sam’s great conversation skills to wake Jon back up again.
Getting through Pontypridd was a bit of a nightmare. Music blared from somewhere and seemed to follow us around from every angle. We looked out for the little 8s and twisted and turned through the streets. Eventually we saw the signs the other side of a large fence – but how to get there? Just follow the signs away, round the pavement on a roundabout, and on to who-knows-where, but we still had the 8s. We went past teenagers who yelled at us and offered beers. We think.
Getting to the castle was exciting, though it needed Sam and Jon to point out the control that Paul and I walked straight past. Now the end felt close … more route sign spotting (hey, I’m good at this!) and we were in Cardiff. Hurrah! We just had to do an extra 10km back round the loop of the prologue before we could finish.
At the start of the day, we had aimed for an 8-9pm end and it was now nearly 2am. The ride down had been slower than I felt it should / could have been under normal circumstances, but it was a success for us just to make it all there together and in one piece. Another team rushed past as we finished (the first we had seen since very near the start of the stage), so we slowed to let them go ahead.
Finally, there was the finish line! We parked our bikes and ran, I mean, walked, across together. It was all a bit strange as we weren’t on an adrenaline high, just exhausted. We ordered Dominos pizza and waited for the shuttle mini bus. Back in our accommodation at the university, I literally feel asleep as my head hit the pillow. Sweet dreams!
We got on brilliantly as a team and were generally well matched for speed. We discussed our options and agreed our strategy, even if on reflection it might not have been perfect (it never is!). With a little more ambition earlier on, we could perhaps have done a bit more. Our transitions would make a top team wince and we spent rather too long in some café stops. The results show our first half the race was off the pace, but that we finished very strongly (which had been our plan, after all). We were 20th short course team over the first half of the race but 9th over the second half (6 more teams were on long course). We finished 12th short course team, making us 18th overall. Our goal was to be in the top 20, so we achieved that!
I would also say that we had a lot of fun. We were never going to make the long course and, although we wanted to do ourselves justice, we also allowed ourselves time to enjoy the journey.
From a personal perspective there were a few things I was really pleased about. I was much better on the foot stages than two years ago. The onset of severe discomfort was very much delayed! I am still not a great descender, but there have been definite improvements. I am good at paying attention to (and remembering) detail, which helped in all the briefings, when we went through the maps and for various updates throughout the race. I also felt I brought something useful to the team when I led us through some of the night stages on the bike, keeping alert to where we were going and helping to make sure the team supported each other and stayed safe and positive.
I had never met Sam before, but she was fantastic to have in the team, always cheerful, positive and full of energy. Paul held a consistent pace, navigated on the run and curbed any of my over-ambitious tendencies! Jon was ‘back-up’ navigator throughout the whole race, but was often doing the job full time. He fixed up bikes and us when needed and could still run at the end. We loved getting all your trail mail – so thanks for sending it in! Thanks also to all the organisers (especially James and Tom), photographers (James Kirby, Andy Kirkland, Eddie Winthorpe) and volunteers for making it such a great race!