The Might Contain Nuts (MCN) series of races are well loved in South Wales. How popular they are further afield I am not sure. Since the ultra is not part of the ‘magic’ numbers (50 Miles, 100K or even 100 miles), I assume that’s the reason I don’t seem to hear much of them on social media. The Ultra being ‘only’ 42ish miles I fear makes some feel it is not a real challenge. How untrue! The welsh mountains do certainly make these events hard, and the number of DNFs are a testament to the deception of the distance compared to the severity of the races.
MCN in spring was my first ever ultra, it was the race that gave me the ultra bug. The winter edition is now my fifth ultra. These particular events are great because they are hassle free, which for those of us with stressful jobs is a welcome relief. Despite the challenge for all distances (they do a 10 and 26 Miler, plus a 42ish ultra), the events are short enough to be able to do in a day, so there is far less worry about accommodation and other things that normally come with doing a 15+ hour event. Mix all that with the breath-taking scenery of the Brecon Beacons, and you have the perfect mix (for me at any rate).
The Winter Race
Each of the four events of the year have their own uniqueness. Ordinarily the spring event is very muddy. This round is usually less muddy, more track, but the dark and changeable winter weather brings its own challenges.
Because all MCN distances are extremely challenging, there is a lovely atmosphere in the room prior to the start. Anyone doing any race has respect. The 10 milers are pressured because its straight up a mountain and back, with the focus of time. The Marathon takes easily 8 hours! There is no easy option and everyone knows it, so that wonderful feeling of respect pervades the space at these events, and is the main reason I do the sport.
After last year’s fiasco of arriving late due a felled tree in the storms, I made sure I arrived very early. In December this means dark, very dark. The drive over the mountains to even reach the event was difficult. Dense fog and nothing but bleak moorland for visible indications of where the road was meant to be, resulted in driving at not much over 10 miles an hour for some of the journey. Welcome to the Welsh Mountains!
When registering for these events you get a map, which on the whole isn’t necessary as the routes are very well marked. There are one or two places you can go wrong in the dark, but is very unlikely. The organisers claim the maps are to allow competitors to make decisions about water and check points. So with my registration all done and now with a cup of tea in hand, relax! MCN bring in Prickly Pear to do the food – excellent stuff, and ‘proper’ food for veggies too. At the finish they do a vegan chilli, which is really amazing! I saw Joseph from Up and Under, but then missed him and unfortunately didn’t get the chance to say hello. Guessed I’d see him out on the course.
My prep for the event wasn’t brilliant. I had run the Lakes in a Day in October, and somehow hadn’t gotten back into a proper training routine. On top of the work commitments and a bout of winter colds I felt I was in less than peak fitness. Still its only 40 miles – a short one! Mistake number one, not the lack of training, that’s life, but underestimating this event!
We were called to the start line in the dark. The route takes a few miles to get up on the mountains, and the race follows the Taff Trail, which is easy in the dark. So setting off at 7:30 is just perfect to get the most of the very few available hours of light at this time of year.
I had brought my Mudclaws as these events are notoriously muddy, and this event has the joy of the ‘Bog of Doom’, but I decided against them. This winter has been exceptionally dry in South Wales. The trails are rock hard. I find my Claws can be tough on hard ground for too long. So I opted for my Terraclaws which I used in the Lakes. I was nervous about wearing what is essentially a summer/autumn shoe in mid-winter, but this route has a fair bit of track later on, so I opted for comfort over grip. I also thought that the bogs are so deep getting stuck is more of an issue than slipping.
So there we are, 7:30, in the dark. The frost of earlier in the week has gone, and the conditions are perfect, no rain or wind. Fantastic! And we are off. There is a regular at these events with a couple of huskies. I’m mentioning this because I am normally not fond people having inappropriate pets. Big dogs, with little exercise bothers me. Big dogs are a responsibility. However, these dogs are beautiful, and clearly Ultra races are great for them. The dogs were so full of energy, it really was like the start of a sleigh run, they were excitedly yipping. Off they went at a pace, dragging their owner behind them. Really nice sight.
The start of the route quickly brings you to the Brecon – Monmouth Canal. Following this for a mile or so is a lovely gentle start to the day. It is here that you really start to appreciate the beauty of the route. The tranquillity of the canal is followed by a track through woods, which used to be a rail line for carrying quarry goods. Then up a stony path. The final section of Tor Y Foel is open hill, sheep pasture and exposed mountain. Within three miles this route has it all. Amazing!
Tor Y Foel, on the maps is only 550M high, so can catch out those unfamiliar with the area. It is a very tough climb. The first two miles from the canal up the mountain are a gentle gradient, and this was tricky for me. On races I use a HR monitor to make sure I don’t go shooting off and destroy my legs before we get into the main race. The gradient was not steep enough to walk, and not flat enough to run comfortably without the HR monitor screaming at me to slow down. I decided to chance it and tried to run as gently as possible up the slope. I figured I could try and take it easy down the other side.
Past the first checkpoint just after mile three and the wooded section, then into the mist and the final push of the climb. Tor Y Foel just gets steeper and steeper. The route we took was the ‘easy option’. There is a path from the East that is just straight up. The path we took is not so severe, but results in a longer climb. Finally, the top came and I felt a little tired, maybe the running at the bottom wasn’t so wise.
I’ve said in other reports that my downhill has been poor. I have been practising my running form, and downhill repeats to sort this. This does appear to be working, because for the first time in a race I overtook someone going downhill. Then another! Admittedly quite a few passed me, but – two people! Really chuffed, training is doing something good.
Unfortunately, I did make the mistake of then being encouraged by this and bolted down the rest of the hill. After the decision to run up Tor Y Foel, running down it was not exactly a considered approach to the first 5 miles of an Ultra.
At the bottom of the hill we were back to the gorgeous canal, and through the pretty village of Llangynidr. Along some roads and up the next climb of the day to the high moorland of Llangatwg. Since I knew I had set off a little fast, I took the chance to chat to a couple of women walking up the hill and slow down a little.
Ben, my trainer from Aspire Fitness, went pelting past shouting at me that if I had breath to chat I could go faster. He was on the Marathon, which starts half an hour later, and had already caught me up. I was an hour and half in at 8 miles, and he had run the same distance in an hour! It was his Gym that got me into this whole mess – really! They direct Run Walk Crawl events, and two years ago I did their trail half marathon, my first ever running event. I would never have thought a marathon was possible then, let alone an Ultra. To me the sign of an excellent trainer, making the impossible possible.
Anyway, I couldn’t let him get away with the comment and sprinted up the hill after him and asked him how I could have caught him if he was pushing it too, at which point I collapsed and he left me for dust, not fair really!
Slowing again to recatch my breath, I made it to the hauntingly open moorland of Llangatwg in the mist and the gently jog back down the hill. This section is nice, the serenity of winter moorland, rolling grass hills, but with the bleak beauty of the welsh hills, just so special.
Now I mentioned above about these events being famed for mud. But this year I had definitely made the right shoe choice. The lane up the second climb from Llangynidr is one of those disused overgrown farm tracks. Last year the path through the overgrown trees and broken stones was ankle deep in mud, not this year.
Check Point 2 and Mynydd Llangynidr
The next climb, which last year was a slippery mud bath was a pleasant green field. This did make life a lot easier. We ran past a couple of farms and up the third steep hill of the day to the second check point.
The route now goes out onto the open moor of Mynydd Llangynidr. For those who haven’t been here it’s well worth a day walk. It’s not on the usual route for tourists so there is the wonderful isolation that can so seldom be found these days. Sometimes you will meet the occasional mountain biker, but I have spent the best part of a whole day on the moor and not met a soul. It is also about the best place in the world to practice map and compass work. Miles of open moorland and some isolated features of interest to go and find. Like the Chartist Cave, where chartists used to meet during their campaign.
It’s at this point in a race where I normally find pacing hard. I pass people and they pass me. Differing strengths and weaknesses, but it is easy to dragged along at someone else’s pace. This was clearly the case at this point in the race. Lots of people I had passed up the hill were now passing me. It takes some strength to let them go and run my own race.
The route now follows a track down a very pretty steep wooded hillside, past some farms and back up another very steep hillside to Check Point 3. I did mention that this event was particularly dry, but it is a Might Contain Nuts event and the lack of mud is only relative. The route down through the wood was very muddy and running through a river of water on what is meant to be a track is all par for the course, and immense fun. The first female marathon runner went flying past me here. I know there are matters of fitness, but I do find it amazing to watch these great athletes, it is so far beyond me that I find it a joy to watch. How do they move their feet so fast over that terrain, just incredible?
Climb Four, CP3 and the lovely ridge run to Dolygaer
The constant climbing of the event is apparent as the next climb comes immediately after we cross the small road. Through a pretty piece of wood, and a relatively short but very steep climb up to Check Point 3.
Once past Check Point 3, and finally a nice long bit of comfortable track to start to get some miles under the belt, and start to feel as if I am making progress. Check Point 3 is around the half marathon mark, and it had taken me 3 hours. There had already been four tough climbs, and only just over quarter of the way round! The psychology of hilly ultras can grind you down. It has to be very much – “it takes as long as it takes”.
Next to follow the path that eventually leads to Dolygaer Activity Centre, Pontsticill Reservoir and CP4. A couple of miles of a track gently sloping uphill, ice and a bit of snow. An amazing view of the valley below and the Talybont reservoir. It is here I get a real first glimpse of the mountains, and the real big climbs that are yet to come. Finally, through a gate, and then a nice downhill run all the way to CP4.
The gentle climb from CP3 is taking my Heart Rate too high. There never seems to be any place on the route where I can let it drop sufficiently for some recovery. With the silliness of my speed up and down Tor Y Foel, and the fact that after CP3 is the first time that there is anything like a track where some ‘proper’ running can take place I think I was simply overstressing my body.
I was about a mile from CP4 and I felt really nauseous. I have stomach problems when running, and it’s one of the things I am trying to learn to manage. I slowed to a trot to see if it would pass. I had run the last three hours on Tailwind, and a few treats. I drank some water and trotted for about half a mile. I didn’t lose too much time because it was downhill and I could drop my HR without losing too much speed.
Nope, nauseous still there. I didn’t want to spend the next 7 hours feeling sick! Now the thought of having heavy chewy food when feeling sick seems counter intuitive, but I thought about how cheese had helped in previous races. I had brought a couple of cheese sarnies with me, just to try. So I slowed to walking pace and nibbled on one. A runner flew passed shouting ‘lunch time then’, it is nice the way people talk, and keep an eye on you.
Amazingly the sandwich worked. After about 3 minutes the nausea had gone and I was trotting along enjoying the sun. CP4.
The Bog of Doom!
Fill the water bottles, no more Tailwind I think from now on. Then down to the reservoir, and up to the ‘bog of doom’. They train the Special Forces here. People see the army training over the peaks and it is obvious to think climbing the hills is hard; but the bog is the killer. It looks nothing on a map, so if unaware, the psychology of it really gets you. On this race this can be a real challenge, since at this point we are still under half way, and still have the major climb of the day to overcome. Energy sapping bog is the last thing needed!
Today though, was the easiest I have ever crossed it. Most was frozen still, so where there was water, standing on it carefully made crossing easy. I have tried so many times to find an easy way across the bog, but never have. It is simply a slog to get across.
Now I was across the bog I could really start enjoying the event. Up to the trig at Mwyalchod, then along the magnificent ridge that leads to Pen Y Fan. The winter route doesn’t normally go this high, but this year due to forestry work, there was an extra mountain thrown in for fun.
I am a little nervous of exposure and find ridges tricky. This ridge however is wonderful. There is a very precipitous drop on one side, but a lot of moorland on the other, so when my fear gets too much I can move away from the edge. This means I can relax and enjoy the views, and they were fantastic, with some snow still lying on the ground near the summits.
The climb from the reservoir to the summit near Bwlch Duwynt is over 6 miles. If this was earlier in the race a lot could be runnable, but at this stage there is considerable walking. It is here that fitness can be seen to be an advantage. The six miles took me over an hour and a half. I did try and run from time to time, but soon found the exertion was too much. I was nervous of burning out with still a long way to go.
The day is getting on a little now, I had taken five and a half hours to reach the Bwlch. I was just over half way, admittedly most of the climbing was behind me, but it is now nearly one o’clock. At this time of year it will be getting dark in a few hours. It’s those little things that make this event such fun, and hard.
From Bwlch Duwynt it’s a mile of downhill running to the car park, CP5 and the marathon mark. The route was icy, firm underfoot and relatively steep. All that way plays havoc with the joints and the pounding …..I know I need to get stronger to do this, but it takes time.
Anyone who knows the Brecon Beacons will know of the path from the car park to the summit of Pen Y Fan – it is a motorway of tourists. A well laid out path makes the mountain very accessible. So after nearly six hours of mountain marathon I probably looked a sorry sight to the crowds. And you certainly do get that look, at first its surprise – “they ran up there!” – then you see it sink in – “nutter, just mad!”
Burger Vans and Corn Du
Given the cheese sarnie matter earlier, there are burger vans at this car park….I was very, very tempted. I go nuts for fried onions….but thought the better of it. My stomach was doing OK, so took no risks. The checkpoints on these events are old school, jelly babies, and liquorice all-sorts if you are lucky. I like this, the support crew do what they are supposed to do, give loads of support, check for medical problems that we may not own up to with the determination to finish etc. They really are a great bunch on these events.
I now could look forward to the last truly big climb of the day, back up to Corn Du. I am usually strong on climbs but I think my exuberance earlier on was starting to take its toll. I hadn’t really let my heart rate drop all day. As a result the last 100m of the 350m climb up the hill was a struggle. That said I find it amazing how the state of mind can have an effect. It may well have been because I had psyched myself up for Corn du as the last hard slog, knowing it was mainly low ground from here on in. On the way up I met and chatted with the guy with huskies, really lovely chap.
Finally after what seemed an age, the turn to the left to leave the mountains and a nice gentle run through the grass for some miles to CP6. Thirty miles done, and only 11 miles to go. There is an enjoyable section of road from this point. I guess the reason the Directors have designed the course this way is to get most runners off the high fells before it is too dark. No more climbs above 400M.
The Roads and Lowland Sections
This bit of the race I did find hard, really hard. I walked to eat another sandwich, and my stomach wasn’t causing too many problems. Taking it easy for 5 minutes to get some good food in before some easy miles and a sprint to the end, or so I thought. This is where MCN events can bite you, my mind was in the wrong place I guess. If I had been more focussed it would have probably been easier, but I thought that the road section would be easy and the miles would drift by. But the 3 miles of road and lanes really dragged, and I had to fight hard not to walk. I missed a marker which made it worse, taking even more time. I’m not that competitive, but when you think that miles will go by in 10 minutes, but take 18 or twenty that can be tough on the mind.
At each milestone I had noted in my preparations, I was thinking, 11 miles to go, ten miles to go, 9 miles to go, 8 miles to go… and so on. I had made the most basic of mistakes in an ultra and focused on the finish, rather than achievable milestones. I was struggling mentally. I forgot to simply enjoy being outdoors. The country side here is very pretty, and a nice change from the mountains. If only I had taken time to appreciate the amazing route. The day started with lonely moors and high mountain ridges. There were now rolling hills, wooded valleys and hidden streams to cross, the sort of stuff that make life worth living.
When I got to CP6, with just a handful of miles left to go I had got my mind sorted. There are a few stings in the tail for this route. After Corn Du, the climbs are small, but there are at least 4 that can take the wind out of your sails, especially after 30+ miles of mountain.
The Marshall at CP6 had Hobnobs, I tried hard not to steal the entire packet, love them! Now with some oaty sugar in me I was set for the last 5 miles. I was fortunate to be quick enough to have gotten this far in the light, but it was getting seriously dark now, so put my head torch on. A couple of short road sections and some paths through fields. The section is well signposted, with luminous sticks regularly placed at sections where you may go wrong.
Finally, at the end of a countryside section, we are brought back to the canal, and I know home is not far. The last half mile is a return of the way out, and it’s nice to know how far it is. Then up a steep slope to see the finish.
At the end everyone is so welcoming and make you feel brilliant. It is quite an achievement to complete an ultra, particularly a tough mountain route such as MCN. The people at MCN support you in feeling that. I finished in under 10 hours. Considering my training had been poor, and I messed up the psychology in reflection I am pleased with my result. But the main thing is I enjoyed the scenery and the route very much.
So to wrap up, a massive thanks to the MCN team, yet another great event. Apparently they are going to mix things up next year. I hope they don’t change things too much, the events are great as they are!