As Britain’s de facto fourth major 24-hour fellrunning round, the 70-plus-mile South Wales Traverse sounded like something of an easy option, thought Damian Hall. Oh, how wrong he was…
I’m going to quit. That’s what I’ll tell my support crew, I decide, as I finally spy the internally lit car in the dark Mynydd Du Forest at 11pm. They’ll be pleased,I reason. Then we can all go home after a very long, tiring and always ill-fated day.
I’ve been running up and down the Brecon Beacons for 18 hours and, especially since getting intimate with a Waun Fach bog (which has redecorated my face and map with a flair Van Gogh would be proud of), I’ve had about enough. More crucially – and this is the foolproof reason my wimpier side is to the fore – I don’t have enough batteries left for both my headtorch and GPS. So, um, it would be irresponsible to continue, right? I’m sore, achy and very tired. And frankly I just want to lie down and cuddle my teddy.
After the big three 24-hour fell running rounds (Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay), the South Wales Traverse – sometimes, more accurately, called the Brecon Beacons Traverse – is seen, in my part of the country at least, as Britain’s fourth major fell-running challenge. The linear route includes 31 summits, 5,000 metres of ascent and over 70 miles (depending on route choice). That’s at least five miles more than any of the Big Three but significantly, about 3,000 metres less ascent. Yes Pen y Fan isn’t Ben Nevis but the Brecon Beacons is where the SAS train so it’s not exactly Telly Tubby Land either. I haven’t yet attempted one of the Big Three, and the SWT seemed like the perfect testing ground to see whether I’d be up to one in future.
As the date approaches, my irrepressible optimism, true to its long history of getting me into trouble, pipes up. When I find a 23-hour SWT schedule online I cockily doctor it to 21 hours. Underestimating the challenge? Me? My good friend and regular running partner Alex Copping fancies joining me. He’s a very experienced runner, but hasn’t hit the hills for some months and sees himself primarily as support. He agrees to begin with me and see how he feels.
Our start, from Pen Rhiw-Wen at 4.20am, doesn’t bode well. It’s summer, but chilly enough for three layers and disconcertingly misty. Within a minute we’ve lost the path in the white stuff and large yawning shake holes. As dawn breaks around 6am we find ourselves on a wonderful ridge that includes our third and fourth summits, Bannau Sir Gaer and Bannau Brycheinloig. “The finest views in south Wales” chuckles Jon, the locally based photographer, as we stare into the inscrutable whiteout. We reach Jon’s car at about 7am, with Black Mountain ticked off but already 30 minutes behind schedule. We hastily grab food and water, then attack the next ridge.
The section either side of Fan Llia (number 8 of the 31 summits) is a microcosm of the challenge. When terrain is tussocky grass, rocky or boggy, and the path is anywhere from intermittent to non-existent, it’s shout-out-loud frustrating, and slow going. When terrain is run-able, which usually means an obvious path and not too steep, it’s shout-out-loud joyous. Before Fan Llia it’s bobbins. After is an irresistible ridge under a big sky replete with billowing clouds and we hear nothing but the wind pushing us along.
It’s around midday when we reach Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre, we’ve been running for eight hours and Alex has had enough for now. I try to persuade him to carry on, but he offers to run the last leg with me and I realise that may be a greater help. I’m on course for a 23-hour finish, but every stage has been slower than the schedule so far. I need to up the pace.
The next section, through the Brecon Beacons themselves, is the most spectacular. Paths are firm and fast even if the gradient’s like a crown. The sun lights up the green walls and views go on for miles. After having the hills to ourselves all morning, suddenly there are hikers everywhere. I make a nav error in the woods below Allt Lwyd (number 18 of the 31 summits) and spend time brackenwhacking. I’m now heading for a 24-hour finish.
Realisation of my slow progress puts me in a muttering sulk for the next leg, making me slower. The convoluted link-up to the Black Mountains is a long detour to the miserable Cefn yr Ystrad (number 19 of the 31 summits). A little pimple on a far-away ridge behind an abandoned mine. I curse the SWT founders, who surely included this unloveable castaway as a cruel joke (while oddly Fan y Big isn’t, included – could be joke-related too?).
The Black Mountains
On the way back down, Jon and Alex surprise me with an unscheduled meet up. I refill water and snack supplies, while familiar faces and optimistic talk swings my bleak mood back the other way. The next 10 kilometres is on a traffic-free, country lane and I take advantage of the quicker terrain, blasting along to Llangynidr. I don’t check (I don’t want the disappointment), but I feel sure I’ve made up time.
There’s another road section before getting up onto the Black Mountains. I’m over halfway now, though when I see see my support crew and flippantly suggest “there’s only about a marathon left” Jon, gives me a look that says, “You’re very wrong, but I daren’t tell you”.
It’s about 8pm when I leave them, determined to make the most of the last hour of daylight, especially as Jon has warned of a super-bog on Waun Fach, where two men once rescued him from its squelchy embrace. I don’t want to be there in the dark…
I need to make up an hour on the schedule to finish under 24 and the last 40 minutes of sunlight finds me on a wonderful long ridge. The sky is pinky-yellow, while waves of peaks are either side, some I have yet to conquer but plenty have been slain. The terrain is perfect, mostly flat with a clear path, and it’s exclusively mine. I feel free, happy and alive with the challenge. And then it all goes wrong…
When it gets fully dark, it’s very different. Darkness isn’t conducive to good navigation or fast running and on the dreaded Waun Fach my headtorch dwindles. The mist makes visibility pathetic. The terrain is boggy, tussocky and a labyrinth of deep channels. My foot finds air and I face-plant into a bog, taking the map with me, rendering it semi-useless.
At least I have the GPS. Then that dies. So, I’m alone in the dark, lost in a mountain-top superbog, with almost no light. I have two more batteries, but I’m sure one is old. Miraculously though – phew! – the GPS powers up. For now… I’m not really enjoying this much anymore.
Via some bush-whacking and a disagreement with some nettles, which on my sore legs feel like shards of glass, I finally find the car.
After waking my support crew (ahh sleep, those lucky so and so’s), I don’t directly say I’m quitting. But I suggest “some alternatives” to continuing on. A sub-24 hour
effort looks unlikely, so maybe we could just all come back, you know, in the morning, and finish it? Or, perhaps next week? Erm, next year then?
Their response is both disappointing (at the time) and perfect (in retrospect). Instead of calling me a big Jessy, as they should have, they ask what the weather’s like on the mountain tops. “It’s really good now, a big moon, almost no wind.” What do I want to eat? “An apple and a sausage roll would be amazing… Oh, wow, thanks.” Do I still feel physically strong? “Yeah, surprisingly good, thanks.”
More importantly, my critical argument that it would be unwise to continue without more AA batteries is blown out of the water when, disappointingly, Jon hands me four new ones. I’ve got no excuse. I’m not injured, or too fatigued. I’ve got food, drink, a map and a mission. Bugger.
A race against time
After another ill-fated physical disagreement with a thicket of head-high bracken I reach Chwarel y Fan (number 26 of the 31 summits) and a deliciously runable ridge with a clear path, and my mojo returns.But after an hour or so it dies off again.
I knock back gels, but they don’t defibrillate me. For the first time, I’m hiking flat sections, shuffling at best. My sense of urgency has gone. It seems an age till I reach snoozing Alex and Jon again. I’ve assumed a sub-24 hour finish is impossible and haven’t checked the schedule for some time. But I may as well finish what I started.
Alex joins me for the last leg. It’s really good to have company. There’s one final climb, then it’s onto the Offa’s Dyke National Trail, which is obvious and mostly flat, flagstones and gravel. Alex flies out of the blocks and into the mist. I can barely keep up and try desperately to stay in sight of the two luminous strips on his leggings. We must be doing sub-seven-minute-miles.
After an hour I check the map. Wait, there’s only about eight kilometres left!
“Alex, what time is it?”
“3.20am. We’ve got an hour!”
Holy smackerals Batman! There’s still hope…
Normally I can run 10 kilometres in well under 40 minutes. But I’m about as fresh as a month-out-of-date yoghurt, and a wrong turn would end all hopes. But we’re gunning for it. At least Alex is. I’m hanging to his coattails and cursing myself for hiking on the previous leg. Will that cost me? Or those altercations with bracken?
We repeatedly check watch against Garmin. Six kilometres to go, still on target. Four kilometres to go. Still borderline. “Wait, hold on.” There’s less than three kilometres to go. We’re searching for a crucial turning to take us down off the ridge to the end point at Llanthony’s 12th century Abbey. This looks like it. But the GPS says we’re not there yet. Do we gamble, or play it safe – which might mean backtracking?
We hammer it downhill, a knee-juddering descent of several hundred metres. We spy lights far below – that must be Llanthony. I constantly scream to Alex for time checks. He constantly demands directions. I slow a little. I want to be sure of the route.
There’s going to be just minutes in it. There always seems to be one-kilometre more to go. The grass slope is wet and slippery. “There it is!” yells Alex, waking half of Llanthony. The giant arches of the ancient Abbey loom welcomingly out of the dark. We still have to negotiate some village streets to get to the entrance. “Wait. No. This way!” says Alex.
I haven’t dared ask the time for a while. I’ll hate myself if I’ve missed out by a few minutes. As we run through the Abbey gates to touch the ancient walls, Alex says, “We’ve got 12 minutes to spare”.
Sure, it’s not quite a Bob Graham Round, and I’ve only just made it. But it’s still one hell of a feeling. And to think that, in a moment of very pathetic wimpishness, I was all too willing to sacrifice this sweet, elusive euphoria for a feeble excuse about a couple of AA batteries.