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!
Day 4 Schematic
Stage 7: Paddle (Glasbury to Bredwardine via Hay-on-Wye)
This was actually a fairly uneventful stage for us. We negotiated the slightly tricky bits with only a minor incident – Paul and I got grounded on some rocks! After he got out and pushed the boat around a bit we were able to set off again, without leaving him behind … In Hay-on-Wye (book town, and just before the border of our English sojourn) we said hello to Andy again and used a very old map to collect control points. We stopped at a promising looking café, dripping wet. Luckily Sam and I had kept our buoyancy aids on for warmth. Paul hadn’t though, and was getting very cold. We don’t seem to pick cafés well, as this one took an age to serve our food, much to our impatience (especially Sam’s).
Then we paddled and paddled until we got to the final optimistic ‘get out’. This one was so unlikely we needed ropes to help haul the boats out.
Jon has a reputation for being good at fixing stuff up. I didn’t realise this also extended to people. He was the only one in the group who had thought to bring lip balm, and by this stage we were all stealing it off him at every opportunity. I am not sure how, but here I seemed to get almost half a stick on my face and was left wondering how I could save a chunk for later 😀
We were all pretty cheerful and the marshals commented on what a good state we were in, which only made us feel even better!
Stage 8: Bike (Bredwardine to Talybont-on-Usk)
After persuading the naturally-conservative Paul that we were going for some more extra bike controls we set off up a steep road hill. From day 1 there had been evidence of the ‘arrow club’. Paul and I were definitely in. Jon was definitely out and Sam hovered on the sidelines. The arrow club applies on road climbs of a certain grade … but if I told you how to get in, it would be breaking the rules.
What followed was another of my favourite parts of the race. First there was good fortune. As we finished the road climb towards a mast, we saw the man with the TV camera. And just at that point, a double rainbow appeared! What luck, and a reward for the rain shower! As we rode past he got a few good shots – and if that doesn’t make the opening credits, nothing will.
A little further on Sam had a mechanical issue which I thought would scupper us. Her front brakes made a terrible noise. Now, Jon the fixer was immediately inspecting it, and he found that her brake pads had worn out. Sam was fuming, as she had asked the bike shop to put new ones in while she was away (she had only been back in the country a few days before the race). We rode on with Sam on back brake only and us shouting out when we slowed for bends. To her credit, she did the rest of this stage and all of the final one with only one brake, and you’d hardly have been able to tell the difference.
Paul took advantage of the pause in proceedings to invent a new bike clothing accessory. A T-shirt was folded and stuffed down his shorts to act as an extra cushion for his bruised derrière. Apparently it worked; at least, he was happy!
We rode over a grassy field that turned into some lovely tracks crossing the border just as the sun was low and golden in the sky. As we got to control number 52, the views were breathtaking. I certainly felt a tear in my eye, I was so happy and taken in by it all. It was magical. Paul and Sam felt similarly. We asked Jon, surely you feel something? He replied “well, I suppose it is quite a nice view” !! So, with three of us on a high, we trundled around collecting all the controls that were still in play for this stage. I wondered if some extra up and down on the roads would have been faster, but we were having fun on the bridleways. We came across a box marked ‘cold drinks, donations to mountain rescue’. Some of us tucked in!
Again we finished in the dark, but came into transition buzzing. James (event director) seemed a bit bemused as we raved on about what an amazing stage it had been.
The end seemed almost in sight now. At least, we could comprehend what we had left: a trek and a bike.
We popped the tent back up but limited ourselves to 40 minutes sleep. None of us wanted to wake up after that, but we did and were soon setting out into the cold night air.
As regular readers of my blog might have noticed, I have been getting ready to do my biggest race of the year; the Itera. This is a 5 day adventure race going from top to bottom of Wales in a team of 4. We’ll be kayaking, “running” (more likely, trekking!), mountain biking and probably a few other exciting things along the way. Maximum total distance is 660km with 18,000m of ascent. There are short course options though, which we’re likely to end up taking one or two of. We are called ‘team tentel’. Tentel are a new start up telecommunications company run by cool people who like adventure racing! They sponsored us to get some matching kit, for which we also got a discount from Outside Edge in Oban.
In the winter, the race seemed a long way away. I found, and wholeheartedly adopted, a great method of taking my mind of what was coming up. This was to enter lots of other races, as I can only concentrate on the next thing coming up and not much further! Some people have asked me if I have done anything different with my training. Well, I changed the type of races I entered (almost no short, fast stuff) and did less interval work and more longer distance things. But I also distracted myself with longer triathlons and the open water swim a couple of weeks ago. If you’re busy thinking ‘when and where can I swim outside again next?’ then you don’t worry so much about ‘how will I last more than 24 hours, let alone 5 days?’.
April and May were good months for mountain biking, when I deliberately entered events such as the Selkirk MTB marathon and three of us got together for an overnight mountain bike / bivvy ride. In the last few months I have panicked slightly about my lack of time spent on foot in the hills. But over June and July I did get out for 5 longer sessions (3 were races!). I don’t normally spend any time kayaking. This isn’t because I don’t like it, but for more practical reasons. Like, where would I keep a kayak? And how would I get it anywhere? I like to tell myself that doing plenty of swimming is good substitute training, as it’s sort of the same arm action … who knows if this is true, but I have a good time all the same! And I have generally done remarkably well on kayak sections in races. All things considered.
My team mates for this race are Paul McGreal, Jon Ellis and Sam Rose. I raced with Paul in a similar event (the Terrex) two years ago. We were still talking to each other at the end of it and he enjoyed himself enough to want to do it again. With a team of two we set about persuading Jon that he really wanted to race with us. I have competed with Jon a couple of times before, but many years ago when we didn’t really know each other. We’ve kept in touch and met up quite a few times since then though. He has loads of expedition event experience and did very well at the Terrex last year with his ‘last minute’ team. When he finally gave in to our pestering, we were three and only needed one more.
Luck would have it that at this point Sam emailed Jon asking if he knew any teams she could join. With a mutual friend’s endorsement (thanks Elizabeth!) we thought she’d be a good match. As soon as we said ‘join us’, she hesitated! Having spent 8 months off work travelling the world, she seemed unsure of her fitness. However, having heard tales such as these, I am feeling confident of her ability and suitability for our team. In fact, she may well be the one waiting for all of us!
“I raced for two days on a broken ankle last time”
“We hunted out Koh Si Chang Island’s only kayak yesterday, which was a 100 year old sit on top and paddled it round the bay for a couple of hours until it sunk”
“I’ve spent the day being kicked to condition my muscles and crawling down steep stone steps head first on hands and feet”
“This week was three days kayaking in the Marlborough sounds and yesterday I biked the queen Charlotte track”
“I’m currently cycling back from Italy to try and get miles in my legs”
Emails are all I’ve had to get to know Sam, as we won’t meet until Friday evening before the race begins. However, this hasn’t been my biggest concern at all! In fact, much more stressful has been trying to organise and coordinate kit requirements, social media and logistics. All made much more difficult by the fact that I lost internet access at a critical time and have been offline for over a week! Many thanks to the various friends who have let me squat at their houses using their facilities (Robert, Hayley, Vicky, Glen). Apart from all that, this week’s training has mostly revolved around getting plenty of sleep and eating good food – kale pizza saved for my last night at home!
I am confident that once we start, I will enjoy it. Before that we have a prologue to do on Saturday (10km run round Cardiff bay, with a white water boating thing in the middle) and much planning and kit re-packing and organising once we get the route maps at registration. Then we will be ‘whisked’ up to Caernarfon on Sunday for an 8am start on Saturday. When I say whisked, I mean we will crawl up north on a 5 hour coach journey with the promise of selected DVDs to entertain us. Hmm!
My dad lives just 20 minutes drive from the start, but won’t be there to wave us off! (he’s away for the weekend). However, it does mean I’m relatively familiar with the area I expect we’ll be in for the first couple of days. We’ve been given an idea of how many stages there are and their length and height gain, but no other clues as to where we’re going. I love to play ‘guess the route’, even if it is only speculation and probably a waste of energy. For me though, it’s part of the fun! I have something in mind for the first 5 ½ stages, but then my knowledge of Wales gets a bit too hazy! One of the pictures in the montage gives you an idea just for the record, but only if I’m right. If I’m wrong, then it’s just a pretty picture. I have made sure to maximise the number of castles en route, so it’s a good one even if it’s not the right one 🙂 .
What seems fairly certain is that we will spend some time paddling round the north coast of Wales, go on a big mountain trek in Snowdonia, paddle again and do a long bike ride across the middle of Wales to get us back down south for some fun on the Brecon Beacons. I might spend half the week saying ‘oh, I’ve been here before’ as we cross and join either the routes from the Trans Wales event I did a few years ago, or my Cardiff-Holyhead Sustrans cycle tour from even further back.
I expect to be providing some blog updates as the race progresses. They won’t be posted here, but on the live race website here. This is also the place where you can track our progress against other teams or leave messages of support. If you’re on facebook you can also like our public team page here. We’re hoping to be able to publish a few updates about how we are. Since we are not allowed access to things like phones, these will come from our supporters interpreting the maps and reading between the blog lines for you, and from my boyfriend, who is working as a volunteer / marshal for the week.
The field for the race is truly international. This is fantastic. It does mean we don’t really have a clue how well we might do. Out of 36 teams I have estimated that top 20 would be an achievement, anything higher a bonus. Before that though, even finishing together still smiling and full of tall tales of derring-do and adventure will make it all worthwhile.
See you all on the other side!
After 6 hours of hilly, off road riding on Saturday, I woke up from a good sleep on Sunday morning. The sun was shining and I was ready for more!
What I had in store was a 3 hour MTB score orienteering event. As I had been ‘staying with the organisers’ I knew they had worked hard to make sure the control checkpoints were accurately placed and marked on the map, and they had done a lot of pre-riding. I was looking forward to a good event.
I was joining forces with Jon, who is one of my teammates for the 5 day expedition race in August, called Itera. We haven’t raced together for 3 years though we’ve shared a few long car journeys since then! The map was printed on A3 paper, which is quite large and means you need to refold once or twice during the race. This was because it was on a 1:25k scale. This is a bit unusual for MTB events, but definitely necessary for navigating the intricate maze of tracks on the Bowhill estate.
As usual (for me), we set off at the latest possible time. 200m later we made a slight mistake, but hoped that would be our only navigation error for the day! It was soon righted, and we find ourselves riding along a fun trail through the trees alongside the river. The controls came quickly enough as we skirted round the edge of Bowhill, picking out a route that was easiest to follow.
My legs were complaining a bit from the day before, and I gratefully tucked in behind Jon as we rode into a headwind. I knew I could carry on like this if we didn’t go any faster, of if my legs didn’t get any worse, but I was slightly worried I might not keep up 🙂 .
After about an hour, we paused to consider our options. Time was passing faster than we had hoped and it was quickly becoming obvious we wouldn’t be able to get everything. In the end we stuck to the plan, looping round to the back of a big hill with controls worth lots of points at the top. Our alternative route still had all the climb in it, so it seemed best to carry on via the most number of controls.
In retrospect, this took a bit longer than expected, but was definitely worth it for the views! Up by a gigantic cairn, we could see for miles and miles all around. The route up had all been entirely rideable and was quite rewarding. From there, we passed a milestone with a control attached to it and started a fabulous fast descent back to the forest. We got straight to the highest scoring control of the day, in a small quarry in the middle of all the criss-crossing tracks. Getting out was a little bit trickier, but we escaped without incident!
As we turned onto a minor road, we realised we had only half an hour left and were heading in the wrong direction for home. An about-turn saw us considerably shorten the route, dropping more 25-point controls than we really wanted to. My legs got a new lease of life as well – and suddenly it was Jon who was working hard to keep up instead of the other way around! Unfortunately, the final kilometre along the Borders Abbeys Way was not nice easy double track as suggested by the map. Instead, it was grassy, slidy, bumpy and punctuated with numerous stiles. Progress was much too slow! We skidded back to the finish nearly 9 minutes late.
It was enough to win the mixed pairs, but only just! Marc and Ewan planned a very good event, with some challenging decisions to make about where to go, great riding (and not just a repeat of yesterday’s routes) and awesome homemade cake to finish off with. I was happy 😀 .
On Wednesday the week before the Selkirk MTB marathon I fell into a metaphorical hole. My ride to work felt laboured and the easy lunchtime run might as well have been a hard race. Thursday was no better; I missed out the end of our running intervals session and wrote ‘felt bad’ in my training log – two things that never normally happen!
I took emergency measures. I went to bed early on Thursday night, took Friday off work and spent the morning packing for the weekend, cooking up snacks and generally getting on top of a few things. Marc and Ewan picked me up at lunchtime and we headed down.
Although we didn’t need to arrive so early, it meant we got our pick of the camping spots and I had a wonderfully relaxed lead in to the event. 30 seconds of high speed racing on the rollers against Paul (organiser and Itera teammate) straight after I had eaten probably wasn’t wise, but I got over it!
The Selkirk MTB marathon incorporates the British MTB championships, as well as offering a sportive version of the full course and two shorter options as well. I had only entered the sportive, as I didn’t want to pay extra to upgrade my British Cycling membership and buy a race licence just for this one event. However, I was keen to get into a good position at the front of the rest of the riders as we rolled out of the town centre. The ‘racers’ get a short headstart and were already out of sight as we turned into Bowhill estate, off the roads and onto the first climb.
The route for this is course is amazing and I really recommend it! Almost all of it is off road, there are 4.5 big climbs and there is a mix of fire roads, moorland paths, built singletrack and muddy natural stuff. 75km of riding, 2100m of ascent. I dibbed in and out for the timed enduro sections, but I’m not sure why as I really didn’t enjoy them and fell off on the first one, quite badly bruising my inner thigh and knocking my confidence a bit. On the second one I decided it was quicker and safer just of get off and run down!
After 35km and two climbs I was beginning to feel a bit weary. Goodness me – we weren’t even halfway! Luckily, I caught up with my friend Caroline here and we rode along chatting for a bit. She needed to stop and stretch, but just after that I hit a singetrack switchback climb through the forests, which I really enjoyed.
During the ride / race my plan was to work at a hard but sustainable effort throughout and to play it smart. This meant out of the 4 feed stations I only stopped at the third (to refill my empty Camelbak bladder, eat a banana and reorganise my remaining snacks). That took 7 minutes and my gps showed I was stationary for 15 in total. My guess is some of those were when I was reduced to pushing up one of the steepest hills too slowly, or when I was busy falling off! I overtook a lot of people at the first two feed stations, most of whom didn’t catch me back up.
I was also testing out some more feedzone portables. For the whole race I only ate these and a banana and drunk water. I think it was a successful combination! This weekend’s portables were: banana and walnut almond milk pastry mini pies (slightly under-done, but tasted good nonetheless), spinach and courgette frittatas (a well-tested favourite) and peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiched between layers of sticky rice. These last were new to me and I was unconvinced at first. However, during the race they were fantastic! Salty and sweet, sticky and easy to eat. The also didn’t need an oven to cook, so were quick to prepare.
Although my descending is passable (compared, say, to a roadie ha ha!), it is by no means up to the standard of most of the girls there. This meant I caught people on the climbs and was passed on the downhills. By the time we got to Innerleithen at the bottom of the last big climb, we had done 51km and I was beginning to feel a revival.
As I’ve said before in this blog, the climb up to the top of Minch Moor is one of my favourites. I started with a few other people and as we powered up I lost all but one of them, and caught a couple of others. They paused to take in the views at the top (and they are worth taking in), but I was on a mission.
My legs were feeling good now and with the incentive not to get caught, I sped along the Southern Upland Way until the final descent, which I’m sure I took faster than I normally would! Zooming under the finishing arch in top gear, I was all smiles 🙂 .
This event wasn’t one of my targets and was more of a test / training run for Itera in August. After the way I felt Weds and Thurs I was actually pretty pleased with how I rode and how the eating plan went. Out of a combined total of about 30 girls who did the long course (race or sportive) I was firmly middle of the field with the winner nearly 2 hours quicker than me! A reminder that there’s always plenty of faster people.
One final note. Marc and Ewan were the best support crew ever. They were there to organise the SMBO event on Sunday. As well as driving me down on Friday, they: adjusted my suspension forks (rebound and sag), helped check my brake pads, let me sit in the van while it rained, gave wise advice on clothing choices (short sleeve jersey and gilet, despite the forecast rain), lent me a big down jacket to ride up to the start in and throw back at them just before we left, were there as a welcoming party at the finish to say well done and take photos and, finally, stood in the slow moving queue to get my bike washed whilst I showered and changed. Awesome!
After an early dinner it was off to sleep ready for the next event – 3 hours of mountain bike score orienteering.