Gary 'Smiler' Turner's Blog

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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Brecon Beacons Ultra Marathon December 2013

I had put kickboxing pads into the foot wells of my truck to create a level floor with the seats, and laid down the blankets to form dog beds. My little husky Max curled up beside me on the passenger seat. I rolled my chair back and pulled the sleeping bag over me. My big husky Harley settled into the rear seats and popped his head on my shoulder. Now, if only that damn owl would stop being so noisy we could have got some sleep…

That was how I spent the night before the race. Cuddled up in my truck with the huskies keeping me warm. At 5am the first cars started to appear in the car park, waking everyone who were sleeping in their vehicles and camper vans. The day had started, the race was on.

I emerged from the truck at 6am and took the huskies for a little walk, letting them stretch their legs. More hardened racers were starting to accumulate, the bobbing of head torches lighting up the pretty village of Talybont. I popped the huskies into the truck, popped to the race centre for my morning’s ‘activities’ and to brush my teeth, and then it was final preparation time. I fed the dogs some sausages, and I had a few hard boiled eggs. I don’t run well on food, so it was just a light snack to put something in my stomach.

Getting changed I had my first problem. I knocked the water bowl over on my race shorts. I laughed. Wet shorts in the cold were going to be the least of my worries – I had 42 miles across the Brecon Beacon mountain range to come, and the terrain is horrendous – there is a big reason why they are used for Special Forces training!

The racers accumulated at 0715 for the race talk, but I couldn’t hear. Max was whining with excitement. Sorry about that everyone! We then walked towards the start and then yes! Success! I picked up the deposit and placed it in the bin at the start line. One less weight to carry round – yes, us canicrossers pick up after our dogs even when racing.

I had a strategy for the start. Having run this race last year I knew my huskies would go off like a rocket, so I aligned myself to the right side of the pack to keep clear of everyone as much as possible.

Suddenly we were off – a sharp turn to the right, and then the first climb, a long gradual constant one. The huskies were on form and provided the only effortless part of the race for me. Storming through on the right side of the runners, they effortlessly pulled me up. Many commented “that’s cheating!” as I eased effortlessly past – yet they didn’t understand what was to come!

I was well placed for the first downhill across the fields. My quads quickly burned on the descent as with every step I had to brake the huskies. Everything I gained going up is lost and more going downhill as the huskies continue to pull. Last year I was pulled over at least 50 times. I was looking for an improvement on that! I used ‘fast feet’, short steps, and had better footwear this year – the Vivobarefoot Neo Trails, worn straight out of the box, were providing lovely grip and were really comfortable.

I made the first stile in a little gap between the other runners, and quickly hoisted the huskies over. I’d trained them for robustness on landing the other side! The stiles on the course were a pain – only a few actually had dog access and the rest I had to lift a 30kg and 25kg pair of huskies over. I also had to wait at times to ensure I didn’t hold up the other runners. (Thanks have to go to the people who helped me too – especially the lady on about mile 35 who held onto them when the stile was too high, and it was easier to slip them under the fence.)

The weather was unseasonably warm, and the huskies had gone off pulling with all their might. Max was starting to suffer, and started to lag a little. This was worrying as he had a long way to go! I HAVE to put the dog’s safety and health first. I carried on, yet Max was worrying me. Harley was as dependable as usual, the perfect lead dog in every respect. He was going just fine and loving it. Max just looked a little uncertain.

Max hanging back taking it easy, not working at all now. Harley still in front though checking out the sheep!

A little incident then happened with a farmer in his van on a tight bit of single track. Coming up behind us he didn’t slow to let us get to safety. The dogs jumped out of the way just in time yet my elbow bounced off the side of the truck. A few minutes later he was parked up unloading straw bales. As I approached I shouted “excuse me Sir, I understand you have a job to do, but next time please wait until everyone can get out of your way.” I guess it is lucky that I don’t speak Welsh. I got a nice little tirade of language. I thought about asking what the Welsh was for “tosser”, yet the race was more important.

Max continued to look and act tired and retirement for him was a growing concern. Fortunately the lovely Claire O’Brian, running the support vehicle for some other canicrossers, had offered to be support for mine too if they needed it. I was seriously thinking of letting Max spend the race curled up in her vehicle. Yet he continued to put one paw in front of the other. We were now running at Max’s pace.

The first third of the race was out of the way, including some punishing climbs and horrible downhills. Most of the climbs are too steep or too boggy/treacherous/rocky for the huskies to offer any assistance. I was feeling good. The temperature seemed to drop again and the long exposed ridge run through the bogs was surprisingly fun. Max was hanging in there. 

Powering through the bogs (Max back on form!)

 The forest section I really took my time. There were several reasons. This is the middle section of the race and I wanted to ensure that I was fresh for Pen Y Fan and what comes beyond. I allowed Max to completely recharge and he munched on some sausages to give him some energy. It also gave me a chance to change my running gait because I didn’t want to get cramps – which are a neurological ‘trip up’ from fatigue and nothing to do with the popular myth about hydration and electrolytes. I took on board some of my flapjacks, and like an idiot I managed to drop the entire pack somewhere leaving me without any food – what a muppet!

Pen Y Fan soon loomed and I was ready. The race route is straight up the steepest path. But my secret weapon was there – the cafĂ© shack at the bottom was open! I grabbed an ‘emergency’ Crunchie and got a ‘special’ cup of coffee – two heaped teaspoons of coffee, two of sugar, half of hot water, half of milk. It. Tasted. Delicious!

As the caffeine and warmth started to spread I began the horrible climb. Pen Y Fan is not an easy climb at the best of times. Yet try doing a marathon distance over mountains first. It saps the legs. Harley and Max were being pains, pulling me left and right as they were getting some smells in, and trying to pull me after grazing sheep on the mountainside. Putting one foot in front of the other, and being a complete moaner all the way up like an irritable teenager, I was there. Result. Now to face my nemesis – the descent from Pen Y Fan. 

Last year I went over a good 25 times coming down. The huskies pulling hard, me trying to brake, failing, and crashing hard. This time I was ready. New shoes. Better grip. Faster feet and better technique. Better strategy. Coffee inside me. Time to go for it!

IT ROCKED! What a completely awesome descent! Max was back and rocking. Harley was excited at the sheep yet kept on task – a miracle in itself! I only went over once on some granite, cutting my legs quite nicely to give me some war wounds. Not enough to warrant patching up, I slowed the blood to a trickle, and smiled. Picked myself up and back on the run. I over took loads of runners on the way down and finally felt what it must be like to be a fell runner at full speed. Brilliant, brilliant, fun. I charged into the checkpoint arms wide shouting “yeeeeeeeeeeesssss!”

I knew I had it in the bag. Around 11 miles to go. Ahead of time. Every flat stretch of terrain I eased into technique allowing my heels to lift and my heels to turn in a circle, relaxing into it. The downhills I started speeding up, trusting my new found technique. I know I was going around 7-minute mile pace where the terrain allowed.

The river crossing was fun, and the huskies took on more water. I was running with a fully loaded race pack carrying all mine and their emergency equipment and spares, and had two front-mounted 750ml water bottles for me, that I kept regularly filled to the top. I was running with a pack that weighed around 12kg. The huskies took water on board from mud, from puddles, and from the rivers and mountain streams.

The last checkpoint was passed and the team powered on. Taking the middle section easy allowed me to have lots in reserve. So did the huskies. We were rocking. The last 6 miles passed fast, even with the head torches on as darkness descended, and only one comical incident.

Crossing one of the stiles there were around 100 sheep the other side. I hoisted the huskies over, told them to wait, and started to climb over. No chance. Harley charged for the sheep and I got flipped over the top of the stile and dragged along. I recovered, shook Harley by the scruff of his neck to snap him out of ‘prey mode’ and with him back ‘on task’ the going was good once more.

The course was brilliantly marked, even in the dark, and soon the finishing line was in sight. Passing the finishing line was fantastic, the people cheering me on taking the time out to get out in the cold and give support. Thank you! I registered my number, bent over and turned my head torch off, and went straight in and put my food order on. Two big fat chef’s best burgers each for the husky and one in a bun with all the trimmings for me. I slipped out of my race pack and collapsed against the wall. The huskies lay down beside me with their happy faces on.

Might Contain Nuts Brecon Beacons 42miles Ultra Marathon – DONE!

So that’s my experience, hopefully it will inspire you to get out and put one foot in front of the other and enjoy running. I’ll follow this blog up with some more, lessons learnt and how I knocked nearly 1.5hrs off my previous year’s time, and an important blog on how I have been recovering. I’m nearly there now. Just got the deep pains from my quads to ease….


  1. Totally amazing Gary. Truly inspirational!

  2. Respect and a good read.

  3. Wow, wow, wow awesome, what an achievement!

  4. Fantastic story Gary. I know this area well so can imagine how difficult the run must have been. Full respect must go to you ,Max and Harley.