Clif Bar 10 Peaks Brecons Beacons Ultra Recap

Race Report by Elisabet Barnes (race date 6th September 2014)

About Clif Bar 10 Peaks

10 Peaks was created in August 2009 by Paul Smith to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support and as a legacy for his father, John, who lost his battle with cancer shortly before his 62nd birthday. The event has grown and in the first three years has raised over £80,000 for Macmillan. The Clif Bar 10 Peaks events are designed to challenge even the toughest competitors, combining ultra distance running/ hiking with some of the UK’s most rugged and mountainous terrain. Navigation plays a major part as there are no marked trails leaving competitors to plot the quickest, safest route between the 10 highest peaks. These non-stop courses vary from 48km to 100km with up to 7600m of ascent.

The Race

I wasn’t planning on running the 10 Peaks this year (although I had wanted to have a go for some time) but I felt disappointed that I had not finished the TDS the week before, having been forced to pull out after 66km with symptoms of acute altitude sickness. This meant that my legs were pretty fresh so I thought it would be nice to experience this event first hand which has had such good feedback. Mulling over whether the long or the short course would be the best I decided to opt for the short course. Despite of the name, this is a tough course of 58km and 3000m of ascent with 10 mandatory peaks.

Unlike the majority of popular ultramarathons, the course is not marked which means competitors have to navigate. It is worth noting that an excellent Harvey map is included in the entry fee and the recommended course route is clearly marked on the map. As long as you visit all the mandatory peaks and checkpoints in the correct order you can deviate from the recommended route, it is up to you. There will probably only be a couple of places where there is gain in doing this but the option is there for those who are competent navigators and familiar with the area.

I was all but rested before the start having had a long drive and just a few hours sleep. Having checked in at race HQ on Friday evening I was back again at 4:20 am on Saturday to pick up my timing chip and see the start of the long course at 5 am. I listened to Mark Bottomley as he did the race briefing. This covered all standard things about the course, mandatory equipment, what to do I the case of emergency, how to retire if needed etc. It was clear from the briefing that this is an event where safety is taken very seriously. With the ultra running scene being flooded by races you can’t trust all of them to have appropriate safety measures in place but the 10 Peaks races are certainly right up there in terms of quality organisation you can trust!

All the long course competitors seemed well equipped and prepared as they gathered to set off, still pitch black outside and head torches on. 10 Peaks use a popular orienteering timing system and all competitors wear a timing chip on the wrist. This must be put into a reader at all mandatory peaks and checkpoints. At the start, competitors “dab” their chip into a reader and each individual’s time doesn’t start until this is done. Therefore the start was very relaxed and no one was worried about being first or last out of the gate. Of course, when you set off for 89 km and 4800 metres of ascent there really is very little point in being in a hurry! 🙂

An hour later, at 6 am it was time for the start of the short course. I had been hoping the sun would rise so that I didn’t need to wear my head torch but it seemed like I would need it for the first 15-20 minutes. As a result, I was pretty much the last person out as I was digging around in my pack to find it. Head torch on, poles in hand, pack on I was finally ready!

I must admit I had been concerned about the navigation aspect. Despite my grandfather founding Silva and having a respectable family history of great orienteering achievements, I think I was born without much sense of direction :-). However, I can interpret a map, use a compass if I must and I had downloaded the GPS track of the course to my Garmin 310XT. I soon “warmed up” and found the navigation pretty straight forward. In fact, there are other races I have done, claiming to have marked courses, that have been more difficult to navigate!

Starting at the back I decided there was no point to hurry, after all, there were a few hills to come. However, I broke into a jog on the first strip of the road passing quite a few walkers. I am a decent runner on flat ground (which is of little use in the mountains) so whenever there is a flat section in a hilly race I always run it if I can! The first hill came soon enough. I was glad at this point that I wasn’t wearing a jacket and my arm warmers came off after just a little while. I passed a few people sitting on the hill faffing with kit and emptying their shoes of stones. I thought it was a bit early to take a break already but if you have to make adjustments best make them sooner I guess!

It was going to be a hot day and already, before 7 am, it was warm and extremely humid as the stony path turned to an overgrown jungle. Once through this rich vegetation, the air became a bit more easy to breathe and we were out in the open. At this early stage there were quite a few of us together out on the course. The climb up to Spot height Waun Rydd at 762 metres was steep and I surprised myself by passing a lot of people. I was wondering if I was going too fast but I felt good so I pressed on. Essex is flat as a pancake and having always lived by the sea I am not a natural talent on the hills. Therefore I have learnt to just keep moving forward as quickly as I can and to make good use of my poles to help me up those climbs.

The following few hours passing another 3 peaks and CP1 and eventually arriving to CP2 were very enjoyable. The terrain was varied but never easy, ranging from swampy marshland to mud, scree and rock. This meant I had to stay 100% concentrated on where I put my feet down most of the time, especially as I am very prone to stumbling and falling even on a normal road! I passed a couple of guys with insanely large backpacks, probably with enough supplies to survive a month in the wilderness. Turned out later that the challenge was too much and I don’t think they finished. I was sorry for them but not surprised…

Not entirely sure what the “correct” path into CP2 was but I climbed a couple of barbed wired fences which probably weren’t on the intended route. Luckily I was not alone and got some help from a gentleman who had set off on the long course but was going to switch to the short. That is a good thing about these races: if you set out to do the long course and realise that you have taken on a bit too much, it follows the same route as the short course up until CP2. At CP2 it is then possible to switch to the short course by informing a marshall.

Up until CP2 there had been quite a few runners around me on the course and there were also quite a few people at the CP itself. I only spent a couple of minutes: filled up my bottles, had a coffee and took another bar for the journey. As I set off I was all of a sudden on my own. I could spot a runner far in the distance and a couple of guys behind me but I soon left them (or so I thought but I found out later that they had kept me well in sight which of course was not difficult as I was wearing a bright pink top easily spotted.)

A nice flat stretch of tarmac laid ahead and I enjoyed some running although my feet started to get battered from the ruthless ground covered so far. After about a mile the route came off the road and I was on an old Roman road (Sarn Helen) where moving forward quickly was difficult and pretty painful. Forced to a bit of walking I decided to make the most of it and got a couple of baby food tubes out of my pack. Baby food, and especially the fruit purees, I find are excellent for running as they are easy to take and digest. A handful of cashew nuts followed and I attempted some running again. Approaching the 5th peak, Fan Frynych, the marked route was unnecessarily long so I decided to opt for a fairly obvious short cut as the terrain looked good. I set off for a bit of cross country climbing up the hill. This was “interesting” but I was soon able to find the path I was looking for.

Fan Frynych done I continued and the path got better. In fact the descent that followed a small hill was so comfortable that before I knew it I had gone too far and had to back track. This was a bit annoying although I had discovered it in time and only lost a few minutes. A couple of guys I had a bumped into a few times during the race (“we’re just two friends out chatting for a day”) caught up with me and we deliberated over the course. This ended with us not agreeing on the same approach and we split up taking different routes! They decided to cut down to the A470 main road and I decided to stay on the marked route which was a narrow trail on the hillside above the road. CP5 was located a further 2.5km along on the A470 and I could see it as I made my way, carefully watching every step I took not to fall. They reached the CP just before me but I was happy to have taken the more scenic route and avoided the cars.

At CP 5 there was an option of hot food which I declined as there were only a couple of hours left to run (I say run but in fairness it was very difficult to run on any part of that remaining stretch!!). One of the marshalls informed me I was only 10 minutes behind first lady and then corrected that by saying “actually, probably 5 minutes as she had to go to the loo”!! This was motivating of course but having not seen anyone in front of me for hours now I didn’t believe him. However I set off again, not wasting any time. I don’t know if it was the quick CP stop or the determined progress but my time on the climb that followed up to Corn Du was the 5th fastest overall I discovered later.

After that I struggled a bit with the technical descents between the last few peaks although I felt relatively good. The views were stunning as the course then took in the last 4 Peaks in quick succession. The ground however was brutal on the feet and the descents put the already tired quads to good test. It would have been good to recce this part of the course to quickly find alternative paths down the mountain side as there was softer ground beside the stony main paths. I found better options in places but no doubt those with better knowledge of this section of the course could have made better choices quicker or alternatively descend with more confidence on the rocks.

The last 5km weren’t as flat or short as I remembered from the morning (never is!!) and I was glad once the last hill was done and I could stretch my legs on the few hundred metres of flat tarmac that led back into race HQ and the finish. I dabbed my chip in the last control inside the registration tent and got a print out of all my leg times and finish time. With a finishing time of 9:36 I had managed (to my surprise) to bag 8th place overall and 2nd lady which was a bonus after having had a lovely day out. I did not regret not doing the long course…:-)

The winner of the long course, Norwegian Erik-Sebastian Krogvig, came in not long after in 11:01. An incredible achievement. He looked fresh as a daisy and we exchanged a few words in our native languages (I’m Swedish) before he jumped on his bike to cycle to the train station (!).

I spent the rest of the evening and night cheering on finishers between napping in the back of the van. Mountain rescue was ready to launch a search operation after one runner on the long course was missing but to everyone’s relief, he eventually got back safely having temporarily lost track of the route in the darkness of the early morning hours.

The results of the long and short course are available here

Navigation and other practical aspects

Are you interested in doing a mountain event but worried about navigation? Most of the 10 Peaks short course is straight forward to navigate with the map alone and you can download the course to your GPS watch. However, bear in mind that the weather conditions can influence visibility and make navigation more difficult. Should you be out on the course in darkness this will also put different demands on your experience and ability to navigate the route. Getting some practice with a map and compass and doing a recce of the course can help.

I spoke to a few people who had done the short course as their first ultra. This is certainly possible but it is not the easiest of courses! If you come from walking or fell running background it would help. For someone unfamiliar with the kind of terrain you will encounter in the Brecon Beacons it might be good to try the distance first at an easier course. However, the generous cut off time (24 hours) makes this a very achievable event also suitable for walkers.

The short course has three checkpoints with water and food of which the last CP has hot food (five CPs on the long course). At all checkpoints there are snacks in the form of Clif gels, Clif Shot Bloks, Clif Bars and other bars like Mars and Snickers. There was also homemade cake at CP2 along with coffee and coke. For the short course, the selection was good and I supplemented it with own food consisting of baby food, cashew nuts (for the salt), Pulsin bars, Kendal mint cake and a couple of SiS gels. If I was doing the long course I would have taken more savoury options with me and generally more food. It is always a good idea to work out approximately how much time you will spend between checkpoints and therefore how much food you will need. Similarly, do this to determine how much water you should be carrying. There were plenty of streams along the course and you may want to carry a couple of water purification tablets should you decide to use water from the streams between check points. I carried 1 litre and never ran out of the water between CPs.

If you are a more experienced ultra / fell runner and looking for a challenge then look no further. This will challenge you for sure. 10 Peaks currently offer 5 courses in 2 locations, ranging from 58km with 3000m of ascent to the Xtreme course, 100km with 8000m of ascent. There is little doubt that the latter is one of the toughest – if not the toughest – 100km race in Europe. All of the longer courses offer UTMB Points. 

The 10 Peaks is very well organised.  The safety or runners is of high priority with mountain rescue present and specified mandatory kit. There is also an unusually generous prize pot for different categories and everyone get a medal, T-shirt (nice touch to actually get a women’s specific T-shirt for once!), bag and a Harvey course map. The timing system is one of the better I have come across.

There should be something for everyone in the events offered. Don’t be fooled by the distances as the terrain, climbing, navigation and the elements can make these races very tough challenges indeed but everyone I spoke to after the event were overwhelmingly positive about their experience. I certainly enjoyed it and will be back for more!

Clothing & Equipment

I was very happy with my kit choices. The weather was good so there was no need to unpack the waterproof and warmer gear, especially as I finished in daylight, however, for those who did the long course going through the late evening and early morning the mandatory items would have served them well! I used:

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