Tail End Charlie - Sweeping the RWC Brecon to Cardiff

by Mark Aston

19th February 2017

The Run, Walk, Crawl Brecon to Cardiff Ultra is very popular and it is easy to see why. The extraordinary changes from tranquil canal sides, through mountain passes and ultimately to tragic and historic industrial landscapes depicts the whole of South Wales history in a day!

Though not actually a participant in this year’s race, I volunteered to sweep the route. I have a hundred-mile race to train for by June. The discipline of spending the whole day on my feet would be good training for the longer distance in the summer. In the days building up to the event I was in mixed emotions. Not ‘racing’ the event I was simply not worried about the distance, however intellectually I knew that over 40 miles was never going to be easy. I simply could not convince my emotions that I needed to take the day seriously. Emotionally thinking, I was going to take it easy, and pretty much walk at the back of the event. It was an odd sensation, because I am normally panicking at the insanity of running almost two marathons back to back, and trying to intellectually calm myself down, knowing I have done all the proper training. Well, we’d see.

Parking at the end of the route, just on the outskirts of Cardiff, a bus takes the victims, sorry racers, to Brecon. As I mentioned earlier, the route does cover South Wales history.  Brecon is quite a picturesque town, but it is a garrison town too.  This is an historic as well as practical matter.  In Wales you are never more than a few miles from a castle. Edward Longshanks ‘conquered’ Wales in 1282-83 through a massive castle building exercise. Many are still standing today, and are worth a tour in their own right. Edward bankrupted England suppressing the Welsh in this way, and was economically unable to use the same tactic in Scotland, and failed to beat them. Today, the Brecon Beacons is a training ground for the army, and the SAS can regularly be seen tramping around the mountains with massive packs. Hence the garrison remains.

River Usk alongside CanalThe buses took us to Christ College, a school near the River Usk, where we all registered for the day. The registration venue is a short walk from the start. We were led down to the Canal Basin next to Theatr Brycheiniog where the race starts. The start of the race is the very pretty Canal Wharf, which is the start of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. After a short briefing we were away. The start is a little narrow, as the race twists past some bridges and houses. After a few minutes we were all running. For the next seven miles the race follows the canal, to Talybont on Usk. Even if you are not into racing Ultras this is definitely a place that is worth a visit for a walk. It is just beautiful. Today, the sun was out, and spring was in the air. Every few miles or so there are information boards which tell of the industrial use of the canal, ferrying ore from the Welsh mountains to the ports just over 40 miles away.

Despite it being February, it very much felt like spring. Swathes of Snowdrops covered the banks, white carpets of hope heralding sweeter days to come. The canal runs alongside the River Usk, and after a couple of miles we met an aqueduct. The aqueduct takes the canal over the Usk, and toward the Brecon Beacons.
Aquaduct over the Usk     
Aquaduct Over RiverBeing at the back of the pack, and not rushing like usual was very nice, and I was able to soak up the scenery and truly enjoy the morning. At points along the way I met the occasional friendly rambler or chatty dog walker. At each of the bridges I also met the First Aid team, specialists specifically brought in for the event, impressively professional.

For the next few miles it is possible to see the Beacons beckoning. Today they were frowning and intimidating  Despite the nice weather lower down, the clouds covered the peaks, and there was an ominous and Cantilever Bridgeforeboding presence to them. It was nice to know that today I would be following the Taff Trail, clearly marked with no navigational issues. We also wouldn’t be going that high, but…..well there is a climb.

On nearing Talybont on Usk, there are some fascinating drawbridges (well, as an engineer I’m fascinated!). They are still working today to get across the canal to fields and houses. The one in Talybont is part of the main road to the reservoir and the beacons. Once past the first checkpoint in Talybont, we start up the hill, along the old iron carrying tramway, that is now the Taff Trail. The picturesque little cottages, welcoming country pubs, and pretty canal side gardens give way to the low woods of the Beacons. The climb, though not steep, goes on for mile after mile. I’ve mentioned in earlier reports that it is a tricky section of any ultra, particularly so early in a race. The gradient is steep enough to raise the heart rate that it is hard work, but not so steep as to warrant walking. Tough, tactical choices here, just seven miles into the course.

TTalybont Damhe picture shows the lush green pastures which we are now leaving, along the Trail. Talybont Reservoir ahead. Carn Pica to the right and ahead, the invisible peaks that our slow, long climb will take us into. The Trail here is an old iron works railway line to carry the goods to the canal.
The race route slightly deviates from the Taff Trail half way up the mountain. Trail Race directors seem to think its funny to make routes that little bit tougher by going through deep mud, and this diversion was no different. Slippy, ankle deep mud, and now we were in the mist that was turning to drizzle. To be fair, the weather was excellent for February in the Beacons. And the climb through the woods with the imposing mountains in the background was wonderful. Finally, at the top of the pass, a turn left down a short section of road and back on trail. We were now running near the Merthyr Mountain Railway. I was fortunate enough to run past as the small gauge steam train chugged passed.

A mile later and the second checkpoint came. The lovely Marshalls were unusually happy to see me since I was sweeping, and now they could go home. The Beacons section of the race was drawing to a close. One last section of wood and out of the national park. This section changes gradually from the wild barren moorland of the beacons to the hidden industrial secrets of the South Wales valleys. Coming out of the woods, the route passes the end of the Pontsticill reservoir. Then following an old railway line across the amazingly high, many arched Pontsarn Viaduct. Within a mile, we reach Check Point three, in the town of Merthyr Tydfil.

Merthyr ViaductIf you just take this route as normal ultra, you will miss so much. The next section crosses another viaduct, from which you can see Cyfartha Castle. It is more of a stately home, that a castle. It was once owned by the Crawshay’s, one of the two coal and iron barons of the town. The other family were the Guests. The history of the families describe well how people in the industrial era were treated. One of the families kept the truck system, where the owners provided everything as part of the renumeration. The other family paid wages for use in any shop. Each had their advantages and disadvantages. All is described brilliantly in an excellent book by Gwyn Williams.

Ultimately the conditions for the working families led to the Merthyr Rising. As legend would have it, when a white flag was dipped in cows blood, the Red Flag was borne. Also Merthyr, was the first place a train ran, with Richard Trevithick's engine carrying ore to the works. Wales hides its history well!
Or you can ignore all this and trundle through Merthyr.

Once out of Merthyr, after about 3 or 4 miles the route comes again to another infamous historic site. The path passes above the Aberfan Memorial. A very sad moment in South Wales history, and I could not help but stand for just a moment. It still brings me to tears if I think about it too much, where just over 50 years ago 116 children, who should be my age now, lost their lives through the corporate negligence of the National Coal Board.

The Taff Trail is now a tarmac path (and is for the remainder of the race). The Directors allow a drop bag in Merthyr to permit runners a change from Trail to road shoe. Not long after Aberfan is Check Point Four. Because of the time of year it was starting to get dark now. I was glad we were out of the Beacons and dropping much lower in height. You really feel the difference in weather between the mountains, and the coastal port of Cardiff.  Whilst it had been drizzling in the mountains, the rain was holding off here, and the couple of degrees increase in temperature makes a big difference, especially as you tire toward the end of the day.

After probably the trickiest junction of the day, a sharp right (indicated on the floor!) to pass under the A470.  A couple of miles and again back down to pretty brooks, streams, and woods. I was lucky enough to catch the last of the light. Frost on the ground and sun reddening the tops of the trees. Throughout the day I had seen such a spectrum of nature’s colours, and such a variety of scenery, its what makes Ultras, no other race offers the time and distance to provide the variety.

Taff ValleyIn South Wales, streets can be very long (following the valley), but every few hundred yards, the street becomes a different town. Now we were in Valleys heartland, place names flew passed, Treharris. Quakers Yard, Fiddlers Elbow, Abercynon, Cilfynydd. It was dark now, and I knew it was only four or so miles to the final check point in Pontypridd. Many people use this as a first ultra, and the directors make a point of laying on chips at Trallwng Working Mens Club, the final checkpoint. An added incentive to keep going when it gets tough. The people I met along the way were certainly dreaming of the chips to come.

After a quick handful of food at the club, it was back out and the final six miles. Now I mentioned earlier that I was a little nervous of today, and rightly so. I started to struggle with the last section. I think it was down to the fact that I normally run, and today I walked. I assume the change in muscle usage played a part. A blister developed at the bottom of my heel, again I think caused by the walking. I had run 50 miles in these shoes without a problem.

I caught the last people at the back, and it was a race. The 12 hour cut off was looming, and the back markers were trying their damndest to get a medal. I have huge respect for these people. I know its great to see fast runners (the winner today ran 44 miles in 5 ½ hours! Mad), but if it comes easier to people then….. well to me the people I respect the most are those at the back. It is truly hard to do something that doesn’t come too naturally. Its one of the reasons I love Run, Walk Crawl events. Their mission is to get people to the finish, and they try so hard to do that. The chips are a great example of the way they try to help with the mind games to get you to the end.

The last mile of trail seemed to go on forever. If this had been the start of the day, then it would have been pleasant. In the dark, at the end of 40+ miles, and facing missing the cut off, the last mile went on, and on. Finally, street lights, houses and a short dash down the hill to where we started the day, getting on the buses over fourteen hours ago.

The people at the back, just over the 12 hour cut off. Got their medal though, Finishers T-shirt, and a time on the results. Why not, they had done the 44 miles and earned it the hard way. That is why this event is great, it supports runners to achieve their goals.

Finally, a comment on the event - do do this event if you are looking for a fast time, a marathon runner looking for an ultra, or are poor at navigation. If you are looking for mud, serious climbs and knife edge ridges, probably not the race for you – try the RWC SW50  or SW100 in the summer.

Great write-up! I'm running this in 2018 and have been scouring the web for reviews. It sounds like a great race for a beginner to ultras! Thanks!

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