Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Pumlumon Challenge Recce Run

Hi, welcome back,

Well it has been over two weeks since my last post.  Apart from being busy enjoying my summer holidays, I have found that I haven't really got an ultra running topic I wish to share at the moment.  In my previous 25 posts I have described many of my thoughts on ultra trail running, so I think maybe it is time for a few Millsy Memory posts.  However, before them, time for tonight's post on my mini adventure last weekend as I recced the Pumlumon Challenge course.  The recce wasn't as demanding or as exciting as my Lakeland 100 recce back in May, however, hopefully tonight's post will be interesting, especially to those of you doing the race in a little over two weeks time.

The Pumlumon Challenge is a 27 mile race that takes place in Mid-Wales not far from Aberwystwyth.  My overall aim this year is to run the UK ultra-running championships, also known as the Runfurther series of ultra trail races.  The series consists of 12 races, however, only the points scored on your best four races are counted.  One other requirement is that you must race a 'short', 'medium' and 'long' race, plus one other.  I have already raced two long races, and one medium race, so the Pumlumon Challenge, classified as a 'short' race will be my fourth, and possibly my final ultra race of the year.  Having learnt from the Highland Fling race last year, where I got lost within the first two miles, I am now a bit paranoid about knowing the race route.  With my "Run as fast as you can, while you can" strategy, I am often leading many of the ultra races at the start, so with no one to follow I need to know which way to go.  Hence the need for a recce run.

The alarm goes off at around 3:50am !!!  A quick breakfast and I am off on my mini adventure, starting with a 5 hour plus drive to the Nant Yr Arian Forestry Centre.  The drive goes smoothly, it is amazingly quicker driving at four o'clock in the morning, no traffic jams at that time!  I had been checking the weather forecast over the last few days and each day it seemed to change from heavy rain to sunshine and showers.  I was hoping for the later, but came prepared with plenty of wet weather kit and emergency clothing.

At 9:34am I start my Garmin 305 GPS watch and although not really sure of the actual start line and which side of the lake to run along, I choose the east side and start off slowly in bright sunshine.  You can access the GPS trace on the Garmin Connect website by clicking the following link: Garmin Connect - Pumlumon Recce Run   My Inov8 backpack is full with 2 litres of water, 5 Cliff Bars, 2 High5 gels, emergency/extra clothing, mobile phone, compass, head torch (just in case I get severely lost!), and the race route printed out in large scale over eight pages, with annotations about the race route I obtained from reading Nick Ham's 2009 race report.  (Thanks Nick for the detailed description of the course, it was a great help.)

Straight away upon reaching the end of the lake I am unsure which way to go, whether to go up the hill along a zig-zag track or along the bottom next to the smaller lake to the east.  I work out that I should have gone up the zig-zag track a couple of zigs before crossing a stile and starting the first short climb.  After this 'dodgy' start, all goes well as I am able to follow the course quite easily, first along a quick fast downhill section through a small forest, and then up another shortish climb to the summit of Dinas.  Coming down from the first summit, (which will have the first checkpoint on race day), the track gets a bit wet and boggy, before another short climb and a skirt around the side of Bryn-llwyd hill before the first major climb up to Pumlumon Fawr.  At about half way up the steep climb, it all of a sudden gets dark.  I look behind and see loads of massive rain clouds coming towards me from the south.  Well I had 30 minutes of sunshine!  As the wind picks up I put on two extra layers and continue climbing bracing myself for a torrential downpour.  I didn't have to wait log before I was absolutely soaked and my visibility was down to around 50 metres, immediately reminding me of my Lakeland 100 recce on leg 10 where I had to abandon my recce due to only 20 metre visibility!

Looking at the map I am well aware that I have to turn right shortly after reaching the summit at 752 metres.  I think, (not really sure due to the heavy thick mist!), I am at the summit so turn right and head off in a direction slightly north of east.  I have been racing trail marathons for the last 9 years, but these are usually marshaled and have direction arrows.  So it is only since racing ultras since 2008 where I have had to learn to navigate my way around the course.  I usually seem to have a good instinct in knowing which way north is, (the direction of the sun at mid-day in New Zealand), so I never use a compass, although I carry one just in case!  Well I learnt a good lesson just after the summit of Pumlumon Fawr where my natural instinct of direction just wasn't good enough.  Take a look at the photo below which clearly shows me heading due south, NOT the correct direction!

It was at this point on the course, (well actually off the course!), the rain was the heaviest.  I was beginning to get cold, so for only my third time ever (Hardmoors 55, and Lakeland 100 recce leg 10, being the previous two occasions), I have to put a balaclava on to keep warm, as I am stationary for quite a while as I finally get my compass out and work out the correct direction to head in.  I finally manage to get back on course with a little bit of help from two walkers, also enjoying the rain, heading up to the summit, who confirmed what I had just realised, yes I was heading in the wrong direction!

The next key feature I begin to look out for is the side of a forest, my map labels it Pen Pumlumon Arwystl.  As I am starting to get a bit confused as I should be right next to where the forest should be, I notice that in the field over the fence there are loads of tree stumps, aha, the trees have all been cut down!  I am beginning to lose my navigational confidence, and start thinking that it could be a long day in Wales!

Luckily the next section goes well, with help from Nick's race report I spot the small meteorological station over in the distance and follow a faint four wheel drive track towards and then looping past the station, through a gate and enter some forest, that hasn't been cut down!  There is then a smooth and fast gravel track that twists and drops gently towards a stream which has a Severn Way finger post clearly indicating to turn off left and follow the obvious path up the gentle hill.

This part of the course is a nice relief from worrying about where to go.  The climb alongside the stream is a nice runnable gradient, with there being large flagstones to run over.  It doesn't take long to reach a small wooden platform and a small pole that symbolises the source of the River Severn.  As I reach the top of the climb, the rain has stopped and the mist has lifted which aids immensely in working out the best direction to head down off the tops to the Hengwm valley.  It doesn't take long to reach the stream in the valley, following no clear path just aiming straight down towards a small valley/stream descending down to the valley on the directly opposite hill. 

Although Nick's race report prepares me for "2 miles of tussock-bashing, bog-dodging slog with no consistent trod to follow", immediately after crossing the stream I continue heading upwards towards the bottom of the hills and manage to find a semi-visible trod to follow, which makes running massively easier than trying to run across the tussock and bog!  The next section along the valley then goes surprising well until I reach the point on the race website map labelled Radio Point 4.  My semi-visible trod which has been a real 'life saver' disappears!  Being well aware that finding a runnable trod could make a massive distance to my race time, I spend ages trying to find one as indicated by my GPS red scribble on the photo below.

I finally give up and cross the stream coming in from the right, but stay on the right of the main stream/river, as indicated on the race website map.  The next section is extremely slow, every stride is a struggle as my foot sinks into more uneven bog.  Out of desperation I head further upwards towards the bottom of the hill, further away from the river and it becomes less boggy.  Still difficult running, but at least I am not falling over every fifth step!  It is a relief to reach the bridge over Afon Llechwedd-mawr.  Unfortunately the relief doesn't last very long as immediately after crossing the wooden footbridge there is a very steep climb up to the summit of Drosgoi.  Unfortunately, the thick mist has come in again so I can barely spot the hill so have no idea how high up the top is, although my map states 543 metres.

I slowly get to the top, (I think, again there is really thick mist), but having learnt from my earlier mistake I have my compass out, and take a bearing down towards the reservoir inlet, wherever the reservoir is as I am yet to see it!  After a few tumbles as my foot sinks into bog, I make it to the reservoir.  The race website map clearly shows the path heading north before crossing the stream, so I similarly do this thinking there must be an obvious dry track to run along.  No, definitely no track, so more foot sinking bog as I head south and cross the stream.

After the stream/reservoir inlet I start running along a trod skirting around a hill with the reservoir on the left, when I notice about 20 metres above me an obvious track.  I head up to this track and find that it is actually a four wheel drive track.  I shout out with joy, so happy with myself for finding some solid, smooth ground to run on.  I think to myself how lucky I am that I have found this track as without finding it my running pace would be heaps slower.

All is then easy to navigate, with solid ground underfoot as I run easily along the track that meets and follows a sealed road for 100 metres, before heading up a gravel track (checkpoint 6).  My next key feature to find is a stream after which I need to veer off to the left.  I find the stream no problem, but where is the track veering off to the left.  There isn't one!!!  By this time I have been running / walking / stumbling for just over 6 hours and I am beginning to feel a little bit less positive towards this Welsh tussock!!!  The course is meant to skirt around the left side of a hill called Disgwylfa Fawr, well with the mist, and now more heavy rain, I can't even see a hill!  Anyway using my compass I head off in the direction the map indicates, stumbling constantly.  I finally find a semi-runnable trod which seems to be going in the right direction and stick to this.  I occasionally lose the trod but manage to re-find it, or find another, and make semi-good progress.

After what seems quite a while I begin to think that by now I should have run over a stream, (or is it a track?), where checkpoint 7 will be on race day.  So I look at my compass that I have been carrying in my hand, but not using!  Instead of heading south I am actually heading in a north-east direction.  I swear at myself for my stupidity, ignoring my compass!  The photo below shows where I went astray, with a blue dashed line showing where I should have gone!

Realising that I am lost, I decide then to pretty well just head south and see where I end up.  I know I am only at most 3 miles from the visitors centre so things can't go to far wrong.  I spot a farm house and then a gravel road, so I am able to work out where I am.  I run along the gravel road and rejoin the race route to climb the last gentle hill up a rough gravel track, through a gate, into some more forest, finally onto a proper gravel road and then descend gently down to my car at the visitor centre.  (Later looking at the race website finishing photos I see that I should have finished by running along the lakeside track.  Oh well, just another occasion of going off-course.)

So finally seeing my car again I am one happy runner.  It has been a solid downpour for pretty well the last hour, and my total time of 7 hours, 3 minutes and 53 seconds for the 29.77 miles I have covered is way way slower than the time I had anticipated that it would take.  I think to myself, how do runners manage to win this race in 4 hours 6 minutes?  I think that it is time to ignore the physical preparation during the next three weeks, my mental preparation requires maximum effort.  Time to focus on positivity and self belief.  But at this particular moment in time, absolutely soaked and rather tired, my confidence and usual total self belief, lets say was just a wee bit lacking!!!  Luckily I notice that the cafe is still open for a few more minutes before the 5:00pm closing, so my positivity begins to immediately return as I enjoy a lovely hot coffee and a few cakes!

Well, looking back at my recce run now, after a few days of dry underfoot running, (although it is actually pouring down with rain now in the dry South East), I am now happy and positive about my recce run.  Having run the course, I am now able to mentally prepare for the race, with clear mental images of the key sections of the course.  If you have read some of my previous posts you will be well aware of the emphasis I place on mental preparation for ultra trail running.  With now only a little over two weeks to race day, my excitement is really building as race day gets closer.  Although the Pumlumon Challenge is specified as a 'short' race, it may be short in terms of miles, but not short in terms of the challenge!  I can't wait until race day.  To run fast over the course, to puff and blow up all the climbs, to hopefully see the amazing views that are visible in last year's race photos.

If you are reading this and are doing the Pumlumon Challenge for the first time, hopefully my recce write-up has given you an insight into the demands of the course.  Hopefully I haven't made the course sound too demanding!

Time to sign off with some 'words of wisdom'.  "Remember race preparation should focus predominantly on the mental preparation leading up to race day.  Develop the confidence and self belief, to match your carefully planned goals for the race. Ensure the positivity is in abundance, and the success, however YOU define success, will eventuate."  Stuart Mills, 2010.

All the best with your final race preparations.  And to those of you running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc and associated races in Chamonix this weekend, a very special 'All the best'.  I really envy you this year being out there, ready to enjoy the most absolutely amazing ultra trail experience you could ever imagine.  Enjoy every moment in the amazing mountains, amongst amazingly minded people.


PS  To follow on from the previous nutrition post I forgot to mention what I consumed during my recce run.  Although I carried 5 Cliff Bars and 2 gels, I only actually consumed 2 Cliff Bars and drank about half of my water so around 1 litre.  As I mentioned in the nutrition post, because the intensity of the running was so low, there was no need to consume much carbohydrate, I simply relied on my body fat stores to get me around.

PPS  Yesterday late afternoon with it raining outside, Robert my older son was searching for some images on our computer and for fun searched for images of me!  Three quarters of the way down the page was a photo I had not seen before.  I got a real shock when it took me to the a website, where there was an article on my nutritional approach to running the 56 mile London to Brighton Trail race back in 2008.  I very vaguely remember being interviewed while receiving a post race massage.  Anyway here is the link to the article that is titled "Cola and cake: a winning combination".  Just thought you might find the article interesting. Finally with regards to the  London to Brighton Trail race.  Another great event, there still maybe time to enter for this year, which takes place on Sunday 5th September.


  1. Sounds like you had fun!

    Look forward to hearing how the race goes.

    Hope you get better weather!

  2. This looks a great challenge. I want to engage i that kind of running challenge someday.

  3. Hi Stuart. That report paints a pretty accurate picture of the area. If you get it right it's barely 26 miles but the terrain and ascent make it seem much more. (BTW I never imagined my description would have proved so useful.)
    I might see you at Nant Yr Arian, when I'll be expecting warm sunny weather yet again.