Llanbedr to Blaenavon Fell Race

I first came across the Llanbedr to Blaenavon fell race early last year, but unfortunately due to injury, I was unable to take part. Instead, I still went along and cheered Lily on as she took part for the first time. Since then, this race has been on my radar and I was eager to make sure I did it this year. The only downside was that it is 3 weeks prior to the London Marathon, which has been my priority for the start of this year. Despite not having done much (not enough!) fell running, I decided to give it a go, and was really looking forward getting off the boring and flat roads.

The day before we arrived in Abergavenny to stay with our friends Lowri and James who had also decided to do this race for the first time. After checking we all had the right kit (as it was a category AL fell race, full kit must be carried), we sat down with the map to check we knew the route. In short, the race is 15 miles, with around 4500ft of climbing. There are 7 checkpoints that must be visited but you can go any way you want, although some of the route was marked for runners like me who had no idea where to go! I had decided that rather than use my Salomon S-LAB 12 vest, I’d use my OMM waist pouch for the first time. I was torn between the 2 as it meant I wouldn’t be able carry any water with the OMM. However, since there were 2 water stops enroute, I decided to use the OMM, and Lowri used the Salomon. Checking the weather the night before, it looked like it would be perfect, clear sunshine from 12 (when the race was due to start). However waking up on the next morning it wasn’t what they had said! You couldn’t see the nearby Skirrid or Hatterall Hill mountains due to low cloud, and rain was steadily falling. It looked pretty set in but we hoped for the best.

Due to the race being point to point (Llanbedr to Blaenavon) rather than a circular race, we sorted logistics (using 2 cars, taking both to the finish (where registration was) and then one to the start), and after a large bowl of porridge and 2 rice cakes (I’m still reducing my consumption of bread) we set off to register. Like with all fell races, it was so low key it was not obvious an event was taking place, but that’s one of the things I love about fell racing. We saw a few familiar faces at registration and Lowri and James caught up with some Mynydd Du club mates and then we headed to the start in my car. Driving over to Llanbedr you see the 3 peaks that you’ll be soon passing over (Crug Mawr, Sugar Loaf, the Blorenge), all looking very imposing in their own right, especially the Blorenge, the 3rd and final peak which the race website called ‘the killer’. Thankfully by now the rain had stopped and the cloud was starting to lift so we could see the summits poking through.

After arriving at Llanbedr and checking my OMM pouch had the right kit in, I stuffed a handful of coffee beans into my mouth for a last minute caffeine hit – these are amazing and a great energy boost. Just before 12 o’clock we were stood at the start and the RO gave a short briefing. Looking around there were about 90 people, some I recognised and some looking fitter than others. I wasn’t sure on how I’d fair, especially not having ‘mountain legs’ at the moment, but I hoped for a top 10 and a time around 2:30 – last year the winner (Hugh Aggleton) finished in 2:12. I saw Mark Palmer (fell legend with the 4th fasted BGR time) on the start and I made my way towards him at the front. One thing I’m always nervous about on these checkpoint races is making sure I go the fasted route, but when you don’t know the mountains you’re running in, it’s easier said than done! I had a map and compass but didn’t want to use them so hoped I could follow some of the guys around me but this is always a very risky strategy!

The race begin and off we went. Immediately we dropped down a steep path but then we started climbing up towards the first peak, Crug Mawr (550m). The climb was steady but in places steepened which slowed me to a hands on knees power walk. Straight away I could tell that it was going to be a tough race simply down to the lack of climbing I’ve done recently as my focus has been on flat, fast running for London. About half way up the climb I quickly calculated that I was sitting in about 10th place – the guys ahead were still running although not pulling away from me, but a gap was developing behind me. Up and over Crug Mawr we went (first checkpoint) at which point I had to ask the Marshall which way off to go as the guys ahead had dropped out of sight temporarily.

It was a very fast decent, initially on paths and then off-path through knee-deep heather. I like this sort of descending and I made ground and caught back up with the guys ahead of me including the leading lady. After a quick cup of water at the water stop, next came the Sugar Loaf (596m) which I have run up before but not from this side. Again, on the lower slopes I was able to run, but then it got a little steeper and my legs couldn’t handle running so back to a walk I went. Looking round I couldn’t see anyone behind so I wasn’t worried about being caught. Like on Crug Mawr, the runners ahead of me carried on running, including the first lady – impressive stuff, but this time they started to pull away. It was quite busy on the Sugar Loaf as there were lots of walkers out doing a local 3 peaks walk so we had to dodge some of these but I did get a high 5 off an old lady as I passed her! The gradient did ease out a bit as we got onto the ridge but the summit was still a good distance away, and 200m higher! I was able to speed up again and overtook another guy. After the scramble over the rocks on the summit and checking in with the marshals (again I had to ask for the line off the top!) the very fast descent began. Thankfully the weather had improved dramatically and it was now clear with glorious sun so the views from what I glimpsed were stunning. There are multiple paths coming off the summit and looking down I couldn’t make out who was a runner or a walker, and this was the point of the race I had most hoped to follow someone elses line. In the end I trusted what I had previously studied on the map and went for it. Thankfully it was all fine and down into Abergavenny I went, and I came out where I was expecting.

Photo: Greg O’Hara Sports Photography

After running through Abergavenny, next the 3rd and final obstacle, the Blorenge (559m). I ‘ran’ up this before Christmas in the Blorenge fell race, and dispite only being 2.3 miles, it was one of the toughest races I’ve ever done. From bottom to top it’s 1 mile, rising 1,448ft, with an average gradient of 28%. The final third has an average gradient of 40%! It seems to go on forever, giving no respite, and it really is a killer as the organisers claim. Chugging down 2 cups of water and some jelly beans I set off. Again, I couldn’t see anyone behind or in front of me, but thankfully I was confident I knew where I was going. I started running but very soon that turned to a walk. At first you’re in the trees and the summit is out of view, and then you come through and realise you’ve still got the steepest section to come!

Photo: Greg O’Hara Sports Photography

Whilst in the trees I turned a corner and to my surprise saw 2 guys ahead – I don’t know how but I had caught them. They were in my sights now and I told myself I had to catch them. They were walking also but at a slower pace to me. The first guy I caught was the first runner over Crug Mawr, I think he must have gone off too hard. Upwards I plodded, knowing that when I reached the summit it was pretty much all downhill to the finish. The final checkpoint was at the top, after which I painfully tried to break out into a run again, but this hurt after the thigh and calf bursting climb! I’d caught the second guy who had been in my sights but he was still close behind as we summited, so I was determined to stay ahead. I tried to push on but it was pretty boggy and rocky on the top so running was hard going, and to compound matters, every time I leapt over or waded through a bog, a shot of cramp swept through my calves – from experience I know this is due to lack of water. Thankfully the bogs subsided and the downhill begin which was a lot better on my legs. I was starting to pull way from the guy behind, and I enjoyed the descent down into Blaenavon.

Photo: Greg O’Hara Sports Photography

I crossed the line in 2:32, which I later found out was in 6th place. To top off a great race, as I crossed the line Mark Palmer (who won in 2:17) came over, congratulating me and asking how I’d found it etc – what a top guy! All in all I was very happy with the result. James was back in 3:05 and Lowri in 3:14 – both also very pleased with their times. I definitely recommend this race, although underestimate it at your perril! For me, it’s now back to the flatlands for 3 weeks of tapering leading up to London, and then the fell season can really commence with the Yorkshire 3 Peaksrace on April 30th. I can’t wait to be back in the fells for good!

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