Here’s my race report following the Might Contain Nuts Brecon Beacons 43mile (ish) ultramarathon. I’ll cover the race, my nutrition, and my psychology (Nuts!).
I woke up at 0330. By 0400 I was in the truck, huskies loaded, having eaten a big bowl of muesli, rechecked and loaded my kit, and I was away. At 0615 I was at Talybont at Race HQ. Friendly smiles met me – the MCN staff are always so welcoming and accommodating! I quickly checked in, received my race number, and was back in the truck to park up a few hundred metres away in the adjacent farm. The huskies were let out for early ablutions, then back in the truck, recheck the kit, and rest for a while. 0710 I returned to Race HQ and was lifted by my friends James and Becca with the fluffy Samoyed Eskie driving in – always great to see them! 0720 I was in the field behind Race HQ for the race briefing, not that I could hear as Dr Max Husky was excited and wanting to race, so I kept in the corner out of the way. 0730 we were off to the start line, and a few minutes later we were away!
As usual we started fast – the huskies loving to pull, enjoying the frosty start, and excited. They went ‘on task’ straight away. I ran smoothly with them as I didn’t actually want them to go too fast or work too hard – I knew what was coming! A short bit of bimbling along the valley floor and canal and the steady climb started for the next couple of miles, through the checkpoint, and then the steady slog up Tor y Foel, the first peak of the day. It gets steep in places and this was the first time I walked, pushing on my quads to help us move up.
Then we were ready for my moment of truth – the downhill the other side! I often hear runners and people we pass saying “that’s cheating” when they see me running with the dogs. They may want to think again. Sure, at the start of the race I get a slight pull and yes this gives me an advantage here. Yet I also have to run with them, so my legs are turning, I am still getting the calves to work. Following the first couple of miles I don’t get any pull on the uphills as the huskies need to get up themselves. On the flat I get hardly any pull, I’m keeping the huskies steady, and the only benefit is a slight stabilisation. The downhills however, are hell. Running downhill is several times harder than running uphill. Yet, here I am also braking 56kg of 8 paw drive – the huskies LOVE to run downhill! On a hill it is agony. But on a mountain it is hell on earth. My quads get shredded, and if I lose my footing, I’m taking a tumble. Further to all this I have to keep us as a team, all three of us ‘on task’, I have to pick up when they drop, I have to allow for their water when they are thirsty, I have to carry extra kit in case of lines braking or one of them has a problem. Don’t get me started about all the stiles and gates either – I have to take my turn and lift them over one by one, often with other runners barging through during the process making it unsafe. I believe I could run this route an hour quicker without the huskies – yet I only do ultramarathons for them!
So what was this moment of truth? I’d trained the huskies to pull on harness, yet not on their collars. So I pulled in the lines, hooked my finger on the neck line, and go the huskies to run beside me. Brilliant! Although very slow, it was quicker than walking, and I was in more control than before. Later in the race there are some tricky loose rock covered descents and I managed to have the huskies behind me for safety. There were a few instances later though where I was pulled over – the Welsh sheep like to block the path and then run out of the way at the last moment, causing the huskies to trigger ‘chase’ response and pull me over! Ouchie!
The race continued quite nicely, apart from a sign getting blown the wrong way round, sending us on a little detour until we realised that we were going the wrong way, backtracked, corrected the sign, and now we were back in the middle of the field of runners. Through checkpoint two and then the horrible stage, steep shale downhills with mud and ice before very steep hill climbs up again. This is usually the worst part of the race for me, yet this day I recognised it, and every step just put a smile on my face knowing that once I was through this the rest was ‘easy’, despite having over 30 miles to go!
Through checkpoint 4 and we had a truly lovely part of the race. It is a very long steady climb up the mountains, with Talybont Reservoir beside us. I really love this stretch as the views are fantastic, and the climb hints of the portent of what is to come.
At the marathon split point there was an amazingly friendly group of race staff – so full of smiles despite the cold! They checked we were OK as this is the point where we could ‘downsize’ and take on the marathon route back. I was feeling really strong – well, as strong as you could be after 17.5miles and some killer climbs, descents and terrain! So I downed some water and was off, ready for the 7.5mile slog along what would be the most spectacular part of the race.
I headed off following the signs, dropped down and crossed Pentwyn Reservoir Bridge, and immediately began the steep climbs that lead to the ‘bogs of doom’. These are peat bogs and grass tussocks (‘baby’s heads’) where one step you’re fine, the next, knee deep in bog, the next ankle deep – and this would continue for several miles whilst still climbing in elevation. I managed to catch Harley Husky PhD’s rear legs on GoPro disappearing completely into a bog as he missed his step. This is treacherous ‘running’ – it’s nearly impossible to run and is more of a difficult slog.
The higher we got the icier the ground became and patches of snow remained on the ground. As we reached the ridge I was rewarded by spectacular views of the Breacons with Fan Y Brig and Cribyn on my right, sheets of snow and ice on their steep sides. We were still climbing and eventually the bogs gave way to the ridge path which was treacherous – so easy to get your foot caught and fall. With the steep cliffs to my right I was careful with my footfall. At times no one was in sight, and this reminded me of why you don’t mess around on the mountains.
Speaking of which, we have to carry emergency kit. Although I was running in just shorts and with a light compression top, in temperatures approaching ‘feels like’ temperature of -10degrees, in my race pack I had running tights, spare base layer, mid layer, top layer, wind and rainproof jacket, waterproof trousers, space blanket, medical kit, compass that can take a bearing, a whistle, an ‘SOS light beacon’, and a phone. I also had a fleecy buff for my head and gloves. As Pen y Fan and the Corn Du came into sight and the elevation reaching its peak I realised how cold my hands were getting. It was only a mile before I started my descent, yet, realising I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers I stopped and put my gloves on and warmed them best I could. I realised that if I needed to access my emergency kit very soon I wouldn’t be able to operate the zip, let alone access the equipment. Lesson learnt fortunately without peril.
The huskies loved this stretch along the ridge. There was a steady wind of 20-30mph blowing in across the mountains and Harley especially just had his nose in the air taking in the smells. I loved the visual spectacle, and the huskies loved the olfactory spectacle!
I laughed as I approached Corn Du and saw the cruellest part of the race. The race sent us all the way down to the valley and The Storey Arms, before sending us straight back Jacobs Ladder. Joys! We descended Corn Du with the Saturday afternoon hikers and families looking at me as if I was mad as we made a careful descent, “passing on YOUR right” announcing my intent, holding the huskies back, trying not to slip on the ice and snow. A record I think, in the course of 500m I think I heard “where’s your sled?” about twenty times. Not heard that one before, not heard that one before.
The checkpoint at the bottom was awesome. Approximately 25miles completed. The staff at this checkpoint are the friendliest, and that’s saying something – the marshals and race staff are simply spectacular. I call them friends. They keep us safe and ensure we are OK, give encouragement and at this stop biscuits to cheer the huskies. They always have smiles. They’re out in sub-zero temperatures, for us. Thank you so much each and every one of you!
We went off again. Straight up Jacobs Ladder. I kept smiling with every step. Every step was taking me closer to the top. The top meant home free! For once the huskies didn’t pull me left and right after the sheep. They were pretty much on task, walking easily, line slack yet off the ground. The occasional sniff to the side yet moving, they’re good pups.
Up to the top and the mental bungee cord that had pulled my up this stupid climb ‘pinged’ me onwards, and the difficult descent through to checkpoint 6. Many runners find this the best part of the race, around 3.5miles of steady downhill where they can freewheel. Not so me. I have huskies that want to pull me over and the ground is slippery. Sheep don’t help as my huskies like sheep and this causes me control issues. Previous races I’d fallen over twenty times on this stretch. Gulp. Yet this time I was ready. The neckline technique worked, and despite a slow descent, it was safe and actually pretty enjoyable! We arrived at checkpoint 6 with a smile, 29.5miles in. I was feeling strong.
The next sections of the race are the ‘easy’ part. A couple of road sections allow us to get some legs turning. I ran this stretch with a couple of other runners, and when we moved on, Max kept looking behind, like ‘hey, can’t we run with them too?’ They’d catch us at the end – so many stiles to come that slow me down. I was also held up by waiting for a line of horses to pass. I had to pull in to one side to allow safe passage, and, erm, they took their time! Tourist riders had to be helped by the horse staff to move their horses forward – the problem was a dog from the adjacent farm house barking and snarling at my two huskies. Frustrating, yet, this is the countryside, and the lead rider was very friendly, gave warm smiles, was grateful for me realising the situation and pulling in, urged the other riders to hurry up, and gave kind words of encouragement for me to complete the race. I was already feeling strong, yet this lift took me further!
This stretch has a ‘tricky’ river crossing too. I love it. There’s a steep mud back to slide down to reach it, before a mud bank for a couple of hundred metres to scramble up from it. The river is a welcome relief. The huskies take on water. (They generally eat the snow and drink from water courses on the route.) I cool my feet in the icy water. My calves say thank you. The scratches cuts and bruises on the lower legs calm down. Lovely.
Check point 7 and 34.5miles and light looks about to fade. I set my head torch up ready for the inevitable darkness. Only 6.2miles to go, and this is a tricky stretch. I’m feeling strong. Surprisingly strong. We head off and munch through the miles, and the stiles start. So many stiles! Sheep each side. This makes it tricky. I have to unhook the neck line and lift each husky over one by one, careful to keep control, and careful not to be pulled over the top of the stile. I lose a LOT of time on stiles. Frustrating, yet, hey, this is what we were here for.
Darkness fell quickly and I was working off my head torch. Then disaster! 3 miles to go and my torch dies on me in the middle of a field in pitch black amongst sheep. I was sure that I had charged my torch! Even though I knew where I was, and there was only three miles to go, I was taking no chances. In the dark I changed the batteries on my head torch, careful not to lose anything from my pack. I could have used the light from my phone, yet, I only had 10% battery remaining and had to save my Strava!
Head torch working again and we were off. Soon we hit the canal. We picked it up. The huskies knew we were close. The team were working well and at a very good pace. I was at full run for the last two miles, legs turning easily. I felt strong. Surprisingly strong. Along the canal stretch, up and along the road, up and into the field, turn right and across the finish line, to the warm welcome of the staff and other runners. Always such a lovely welcome from everyone!
I went straight into Race HQ to see what chef has on offer for us! He always looks after us. This day he had some pulled pork for the huskies with rice, and they munched it nicely. Friendly MCN staff fed them some biscuits too, and a couple of kids came and snuggled the huskies, who had laid down with happy panting faces. I chatted to the runners who had passed me with smiles and friendly words of encouragement. I thanked the staff. I put my warm clothes on quickly and enjoyed what I always crave when I finish – a cup of warm, strong yet milky, sweet tea.
MCN Brecon Beacons – done.
I completed the race in 9hrs 30minutes of moving time. 42.3miles. This is likely to be an official time of around 10hrs 30minutes, as there is so much time lost at the stiles!
I didn’t do too much training for this event. I only ran lots of little runs throughout the summer, and the heat continued, so I didn’t start my longer runs until the start of October. I got a few 19mile runs in, but to be honest, not a high distance overall. I tapered off in the last couple of weeks before the race. I was also carrying a hip injury and knee injury for most of the year, which wasn’t exactly helpful!
I eat a plant based diet in accordance with the UK Government Food Guidance, with limited animal products. I increased my starchy vegetables in the last week. The night before the race I had a lovely present of homemade authentic Sushi which was superb! The perfect pre-race food. Thank you Stefan, Koyono and Yuki!
The morning of the race I had my muesli and a coffee. Before we started I had a banana. This ensured I had good levels of blood glucose for the race. I had taken advice from my metabolic scientist friend Ray Cronise before the race, who reminded me about glycogen “once it is gone it is gone”. I also took advice from the amazing Robbie Britton (162miles in 24hrs!) who said he always takes on food early and as much as possible.
So I started the race with full glycogen stores, and circulating substrate. I know I can run well on this for three hours. So I started taking on board food after two hours, and went with a pure sugar boost that provided a massive psychological boost for me due to past experience! I used Crunchies. I ate 9 during the course of the race. I also had a handful of Jelly Babies or equivalent at each of the 7 check points, from check point 2 onwards.
To recover I had my sweet milky tea at race HQ and a slice of lemon cake. I always crave pure sugar immediately after a race. So I had a bag of Jelly Babies on the way home, and a couple of cans of Red Bull kept me alert for the few hours’ drive home.
At home, after checking the huskies over, giving them some food and water, and cleaning myself up, I had the rest of the awesome sushi. It. Hit. The. Spot!
Sunday I didn’t want any food until it got to around 1500. I then craved McDonalds! No chance was I going to do that – yet I recognised my body was crying out for fatty salty food. I bought a large premade, cottage pie, some bubble and squeak, and mixed vegetables, and ate enough for four people. I followed that up with some apple crumble and a big box of chocolates. I was on full on craving mode!
Today, as I write this, I haven’t eaten and it is midday. I’m not hungry yet, and I’m back on my plant based diet.
I run ‘cold’, which is a key part of performance for me. I ran with minimal clothes, meaning I didn’t sweat as much as if I wore more. This is a key part of my strategy, meaning that I would utilise my ‘metabolic water’ more efficiently. I’m very, very comfortable with mild cold and even more extreme cold as long as I am moving.
I only took on board water at the checkpoints. I used no electrolytes as they are not necessary. I was not thirsty at any time during the race. I had no cramps. I felt strong. My legs responded exactly how I wanted them to. This tells me I got my nutrition right. It could always be better, and I’ll be making adjustments, yet it was most definitely right.
I do this race because I can. It is as simple as that. I run with the huskies and have that breed of dogs because they need to run, and I wanted to ensure I maintained my physical abilities after I retired from my fight career. Yet most importantly, I do it for my mind and even my ‘soul’ if you will. Let me explain.
I’m a serial achiever – it is what I do, it is what has taken me to so many world titles. With that career over I need to continue to achieve, to test myself mentally and physically. This is why I now do several ultramarathons a year. I particularly like the MCN Brecons because it is so harsh! The distance is easy to be honest; the difficulty is with the terrain and the weather conditions. It is indeed a challenge. Yet, this is the fifth year I’ve run this race, and suddenly, it is easy.
I started the race with poor preparation yet knowing I would easily finish it. I completed 42.3miles of tough terrain, sub-zero temperatures, and around 2,800m of ascent. That’s whilst handling two independent thinking huskies, managing their performance health and safety and enjoyment of the race too. At every stage of the race I actually enjoyed it! Yep, I’m a sick puppy. Here are some mental tools that I used:
- Every step was one more step towards the satisfaction of completing. I ran, walked, hobbled, and scrambled with a smile.
- The top of the mountains and climbs had bungee cords attached to them. They pulled me up, and catapulted me onwards.
- I sang ‘doggy’ songs. When there were no other runners around I sung bits of popular songs in my mind. Only with the word ‘dog’ replacing key words. Stupid I know, yet fun for me. Don’t ask me to perform as I don’t want to torture you.
- I spoke with the animals. The horses and I had a good chat as we passed. The sheep less so. The birds are always chirpy. On the ridge heading up towards Corn Du I lifted my arms as wings and ‘flew’ with the Red Kite that was tracking me a few metres to my right. (I was on the trail; he was level with me but a couple of hundred metres up above the cliff.)
- I was cheery with the other runners. (Apart from the muppet at the start over the stile who barged through when I was lifting Harley causing me to twist, pull a muscle, and drop Harley, less said about that the better! I always let other runners through first and wait for a gap, here I was halfway through lifting and Max was already over.) The runners are a friendly bunch, looking out for each other, giving encouragement – we’re all on the same journey!
- I ‘knew’ that I would easily complete the run. I imagined the feeling I get as I cross the line. Every step allowed me to experience a little of it.
- I maintained positive emotion. Negative emotions tense us up and close us off, which restricts running. Positive emotions relax us and open us up, making running easier.
- I stuck some photos up on Facebook, and even tried to do a Facebook Live during the race, yet didn’t have enough signal! I stopped this as the terrain got tougher, needing to concentrate on the safety aspect of the race, and missed sharing some amazing scenery as a result.
- I listened to the signals of my body. I know my body pretty well and understand much of the physiology behind the feedback my body was sending me. I used it to adjust what I was doing, even as little as ‘ease up here to spare glycogen’, or ‘relax a little’.
- I looked for the enjoyment and fun at every stage. If you do this when doing anything, the task becomes a non-task and becomes entertaining fun.
With the completion of this race my ‘soul’ is strengthened and lifted. I have reminded myself that I can achieve, by means of body, mind and spirit. This race is the ultimate therapy for me; much needed, and will carry me forward through life. This is not just an ultramarathon; it is far more reaching than that. This is not just surviving, nor even being alive. This race helps me to thrive.
Saturday night I had a disturbed sleep. I cramped in odd places, like my left hamstring and right quad at the same time, or my little finger locking straight on my right hand, or the middle toe on my left foot becoming a claw. I found myself waking several times and moving, breathing, to relax the cramp before returning to bed.
Sunday I woke up with a light ache on my quads, yet I could move! I felt surprisingly good – and yes, I could have gone for a run if I wanted – yet, hey, I’m not that stupid! I had an enjoyable couple of husky bimbles across the day, letting them ease their legs and get some smells in, as I mobilised my legs.
Today I’m aching a little more, my quads a little tighter, a light ache in my glutes and shoulders. Yet I am still mobile. I walked the huskies this morning and will walk them later before teaching my kickboxing class. Tomorrow I’ll do a light run in the morning and have said I’ll go mountain biking in the evening. Recovery is coming fast, and I’m back on good healthy food once more.
I’ll be doing a couple more ultramarathons this winter, yet the ‘mad’ one is over, the others will be far easier. Yet, what about you? What are you going to do? What are you going to take from this blog?
Firstly, ultramarathons are easy. Yes they are. If you disagree that’s just your imagination. If you understand that if you can walk normally and are free from physical ailments you can already complete an ultramarathon, you’ll realise that the only thing stopping you is your mind. I’m not suggesting everyone here should, yet running is easy. One foot in front of the other, repeat with a smile. If you feel good run further or faster, and if you feel bad run shorter or slower. Couch to 5k? Get up and do the 5k now.
‘Exercise’ is a subset of physical activity. Structured exercise is not necessary for healthspan, yet it can provide some good friends, some good psychology benefits, and a lovely release from day to day life. Physical activity however is just adding movement to your life. Turn the thermostat down a little, you won’t notice the difference yet your body will thank you. Do the housework listening to music and ‘dance’ as you do so. Do some gardening. Go for a walk in nature and enjoy it. Learn some foraging skills or how to spot wildlife. Get a movement coach and recapture the movement of your youth.
Get some movement in your life. Your healthspan will thank you for it. Sure, you don’t need to do the extreme stuff such as an ultramarathon, yet, hopefully this blog has inspired you to get up and get moving more. My soul is better as a result – how about yours?