Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Winter Fan Dance 2014 'Fear & Tears'

The Winter Fan Dance now seems all but a distant memory and a delayed onset of muscle soreness.

This years event started for me on the eve of the big dance at Avalanche Events HQ, Storey Arms. I rolled up to Storey Arms with a Volkswagen Caddy full of merchandise and Chris Buckle who arrived via train from Colchester. Chris you will now know as the acting DS on top on Pen Y Fan. When we arrived HQ was already a hive of activity with people queuing at registration. The usual suspects greeted us and we wasted no time in helping out on reg. This years event had seen 500 entrants across both Load Bearing and the Clean Fatigue categories sign up, the event has gone from strength to strength in its short 12 month history. Within a space of a few hours we registered 250 people who travelled to Storey Arms to soak up the atmosphere get the race numbers.

418 toe the line

With the hustle and bustle of registration continuing, Linda proceeded to knock up some fine scram to keep us going. One of the entrants, Matteo, travelled from Italy with his father and brought with them some fine cheeses and salamis, happy days!

Well fed, it was fast approaching 9pm and it was time for me to get home and get some shut eye.

I returned to HQ at 6:30 and the place was buzzing, people everywhere, organised chaos, race numbers getting attached to bergens, and bergens getting weighed. There were so many faces I recognised from previous races, facebook and twitter, many of which were requesting weather forecasts. To which I could only reply "I hope you've proofed your gear".

The Load Bearing category started at 8:30am, with the rain lashing down, their spirits were not dampened, Ken's speech brought a round of applause and the beginning of their ascent. Within an 100 meters they disappeared into cloud.

Now it was time for the racing snakes. We toed the line at 9:30am, and with Ken's safety briefing digested we set off, into one hell of a side wind and driving rain. It was this early on I knew it was going to be tough, but just how tough? My strategy was to go off from the gun and hold on, I've done it in training so what could possibly go wrong? A few strong climbers made an early break, I managed to keep them within 50m until the cloud thickened towards the Corn Du contour, it was then I lost them. As I contoured around the summit of Corn Du the head wind felt around 40-50mph bringing with it sleet and hail full force into my face. My pacing strategy was going out of the window.

The summit of Pen Y Fan could not come quick enough, and ironically it offered a respite from the wind which, just a few minutes before blew two runners off course making them take the wrong folk towards the Summit of Corn Du, I tried to call them back but the wind sucked the air right out of my lungs. As I made the check point with fellow Fan Dance runner Chris Mills we made our descent of Jacobs Ladder. I decided to make up time and ran down as quickly as I could, it felt easy, although I started to catch a lot of the load bearers and found that I had to put the breaks on, ducking and diving through the crowds, bashing my quads to pieces, would I now pay for this?

On approaching the windy gap check point I proceeded to call out my number and get on the Roman Road. In past experiences I've found this trail the toughest section, it goes in a straight line as far as the eye can see and although its about -6 degrees, the head wind was constant and energy sapping, it felt like a plod rather than a run. There was welcome relief at the turnaround point with the DS Jason asking if I was ok? I was only 7.5 miles in and it felt like an ultra already. I got in some power shots and got moving quickly as not to lose too much of my core temperature. I always joke with the other runners about never having a tail wind to run with in the Brecon Beacons, therefore, a head wind it was. At least this time I could see the faces of the many people I've met from previous races and recce's. People who I now call friends. High 5's, cheers and banter followed, providing a much needed lift. The return leg of the Roman Road seemed to last an eternity followed but the contour of Cribyn. The only thing that now stands in my way of the last check point and downhill section is the notorious Jacobs Ladder, a 541 ft climb in half a mile with an average grade of over 21% and 36% at its worst. Check out the Strava segment entry for details. As I began the ascent, the conditions worsened, the wind was reaching speeds of 60-80mph and it brought with it a wall of sleet and hail, pummeling you every painstaking step of the way. The wind was coming from the worst possible direction too, pushing you closer to the cliffs' edge, go over here and you're dead. Upon reaching the top of Pen y Fan I shuffled over to the DS' and was asked the obligatory compos mentis questions, I found myself managing to be able to string a sentence together but only just. To say the weather conditions were extreme would be a vast understatement. All credit to the DS, superhuman!

Upon reflection, I can now say that this was the point when things started going downhill, I hauled myself up to Corn Du as my body started cramping, all over, I slowed to a grinding halt. I had just hit a wall at the worst possible time, my body would take no more, I was shutting down. The wind was now taking me right to the edge of Corn Du's north face, it took all my strength to get back inland a little which would give me more ground to stop myself if the wind did topple me. My vision started to blur and I found myself muttering out aloud; "If I die now my Mrs will kill me" not realising how irrational that sounded. My legs and body went numb with cold and fatigue, I had started to wane. I was becoming hypothermic, mountain rescue had crossed my mind. My mountain leadership training taught me that a helicopter would not get here in these conditions and that I should put on the extra clothes that I was carrying. But the cold gripped me fast and I was not thinking straight. At least I knew I had to get down off this mountain fast. I dug deep and proceeded to descend Corn Du the cramp was agonising, I kept repeating the mantra; "one foot in front of the other". It seemed like an age that I hadn't seen anybody but all of a sudden a couple of Fan Dancers passed me stopping to see if I could make it and that I was ok. I must of looked like shit or in trouble if people were stopping to lend a hand, but this only spurred me on. From somewhere I found my last scrap of inner strength and ran the rest of the way, picking up a few of the places that I lost in that dark moment. I had made it through the kissing gate, called out my number to Mick at the red telephone box and lowered myself onto the floor, lay in a puddle and closed my eyes. I thought it was over, but things were just about to get interesting.

I could here somebody talking to me, it may have been Mick or Ken, but I was unable to think or pay attention to what they were saying, I couldn't move and remembered slurring something or other. I then found myself being picked up and carried off into Storey Arms by Chris Mills and Steve Hughson where my outer clothing was removed and replaced by Steve Hughson's rather lovely Montane smock. The shaking was uncontrollable, I was indeed suffering from moderate hypothermia. I must of looked like a right tit when passed a mug of tea which I shook everywhere burning myself in the process. It took about half an hour before my vision returned and another 30 minutes to talk without slurring and I was still shivering right up to the point of going to bed at around 9pm.

Ken Jones and Steve Hughson (and that life saving Montane smock)
I've done much longer races in the past, and races with more elevation gain. But a race over the Brecon Beacons in winter invites a different beast as it has taken at least 4 lives in 2013. This year scared me and I got beat up pretty bad but it's not about the medals or patches, it's not about the personal best or course records. It can't be about winning and getting that podium spot all of the time. As Lizzy Hawker put it quite brilliantly;

"It's about the fears and tears, the laughs and smiles. I'ts about the shared experiences and the raw emotions. Challenge yourself, share, experience - and know that in your vulnerability is a beautiful strength. Go Race!"

May I take this opportunity to thank all of those involved, the competitors and the DS. And special thanks to Steve Hughson, Chris Mills, Ken Jones and the lovely lady for the cup of tea!

The day after the Fan Dance (Can you believe it?)
The Altra Lone Peak 1.5's held up well, Chief trail shoe washer in action!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 Shoe Review

Today I finally had the chance to test out my new trail shoes from Altra. I hadn't heard much about the brand until the recent hive of activity via the usual social networks invaded my interest. The model I've purchased is the Altra Lone Peak 1.5 (new for 2013) from Likeys (probably the best trail and adventure shop in the world) located Brecon and online.

According the Altra's website they were designed to cope with the gnarly rocky mountainous and technical trails of the Wasatch 100 mile race (Utah) in mind. I won't be travelling as far to test these shoes, so I've decided to give them a bashing on similar terrain, the rugged sandstone trails of the Brecon Beacons mountain range. 

The route was a short and sharp ascent up and over the peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan from the infamous red phone box of the Storey Arms outward bound center. This is also the start point if the Fan Dance Race and the Pen Y Fan Race. I had a little warm up mainly to get used to the feel of the shoe and quickly realised that I needed to tighten laces over the bridge of the foot to stop my foot bashing into the toe box on the descents. 

So with an average gradient of 20% I dug in at a comfortable pace and began to ascend the sandstone path to Corn Du at 873 m (2,864 ft). First impressions were positive, they felt fast and agile and the "Mountain Footbed" felt comfortable. Also the StoneguardTM rode the terrain extremely well with no sharp stabbing sensation off the sandstone rocks. As I approached the cwm (valley) of Blaen Taf Fawr I crossed the stream via a few chosen rocks that were wet and greasy with ease and continued my way up and out of the cwm to Corn Du. On approaching the peak the wind picked up to storm force, gusting to 70mph (in my estimation) partner that with the hands on rock gradient of 35%, the Altra's stuck like shit on a shovel. With all that in mind I still managed a PB (PR if you're American) of 30mins 17s and moved up into 9th overall on Strava. Get in!!! From here I made my way over to the parent peak of Pen y Fan 886 m (2,907 ft) at pace, which wasn't planned, I had know choice with a 70mph tailwind up my arse.

Once I reached the top, I composed myself and caught breath in anticipating for the descent of the notorious Jacobs Ladder. The integrated TrailRudderTM coped extremely well with the -36.6% gradient (at its steepest) and exuded confidence to tackle it at a relatively fast pace. As I reached my turnaround point I popped a PowerBar shot, composed myself and assumed the standing start position to take on the dreaded ascent of Jacobs Ladder, with the prospect of setting a Strava segment record... 

...Unfortunately it wasn't to be, I was 41s off the CR of 6:54 set by James Appleton in September 2013 (one day soon Appleton, one day soon). Oh and by the way, just for the record, I was running into a headwind of storm force gusts. There's was no time to hang around and take photos today that wind was coming over the top strong enough top blow my but into Brecon. This left only the descent of the Corn Du back to the Old Red Telephone Box of Storey Arms and cup of coffee. Or as I call the descent (descent dɪˈsɛntnoun 1an act of moving downwards, dropping, or falling.) "Death of a Trail Runner" (see strava segment).

The ability that this shoe gives you to descend at a very high speed and still believe your in complete control is truly amazing and at no time did I ever get the thought 'Slow down, you're going to fall'. The Altra in my humble opinion will compete with the likes of the Salomon LAB Sense Mantra and Inov-8's Trailroc range. I didn't test these shoes in thick mud or on grassy sloops as they weren't designed for such terrain, but if Altra came up with a shoe that did, I'd have now hesitation of donning a pair as quickly as they'd get realised.


The fastest and most comfortable shoes I've tried on rugged terrain.

Pros - As comfortable as smoking the pipe of piece whilst laying on the sofa (Couch if you're American) watching the Yellow Submarine and they descend quicker than Penelope Pitstop's  pants in a brothel
Cons - Personally I would like a couple more millimeters on the lugs. (but I can live without that).

Well Done Altra!!!

Saturday, 10 August 2013

If Carlsberg did trail running...

There's not much to said about this route, so I'm not going to. I'll let my photography do the talking. Although I will say that this is a route that can be as brutal as it is beautiful and is seldom used in comparison to the obligatory start points of Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms.

I started at the car park of Blaen y glyn SO 056 175 (Garmin Route) and ascended the Beacons Way path up to Craig y Fan Ddu (brutal) following the track to the ridge of Graig Fan Las. If you glance over to the right you can see the Memorial for the Canadian crew of the Wellington Bomber which I'll get to later. Upon reaching the end of the spur I took the hairpin onto Bwlch y Ddwyallt 753m (mind your step). I continued along the ridges of Craig Cwareli to Craig Cwmoergwm and descended the technical track to Bwlch ar y Fan a.k.a. Windy Gap. This was my turn around point for the day because I had to get back to the family (as you do). If you had the time you could crush your quads and take in Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn du. At the gap I hit the steep pull of Fan y Big towards the 'Diving Board' 

Time to retrace my steps

I then made my way over the the memorial and paid my respects to the fallen, took in a gel and had 5mins to reflect.

Time to get up to the ridge of Cwar y Gigfran via the hairy grade 2 scramble and down to where the spur meets Gwalciau'r Cwm and the fun begins. For those of you who thought 'Jacobs Ladder' was a steep descent, think again, for this is frigging nuts!!! You descend 100m within a linear distance of 200m (imagine a ladder 45 degrees) even Killian J would walk this or not. From here on in this trail becomes one of the most beautiful trail routes anywhere I'm the world, meadows, rivers, wild flowers, ancient oak woods, waterfalls by the dozens and not a soul in sight.

Need I say anymore?!

Have fun out there and stay safe. You knows it like init bra!