"Is there any hot water?"
"Yes mate, just not for you"
As overheard at the first indoor checkpoint after 100 miles. Mark was stood next to a camping stove outside the CP boiling up some water for a cup of tea. The road book had no mention of hot water so this came as no surprise to me - especially after the Kettle related bantz between Karl Shields and Mark from the 2017 edition.
So what is Lon Las Ultra? To quote the website:
A 250 mile non-stop race from Holyhead to Cardiff Bay down the centre of Wales crossing several mountain ranges. Mostly on road, you will be virtually self sufficient which will make this an incredibly difficult challenge as you would come to expect from COCKBAIN EVENTS.
You will follow Sustrans cycle route 8 all the way, with the last 55 miles along the 'Taff Trail', making this possibly the longest non-stop road ultra in the UK. As will all our events this will be no-nonsense, basic and low key designed to push you to your limits'.
Time limit 88 Hours
Support: Water ONLY every 25 miles. Drop bag access every 50. Minimal shelter
Hardness Rating 9.5
I had expected to have registration at the Travelodge but there must have been a better deal on rooms at the Premier Inn for Mark so I had a mile or so walk there to register and pick up my tracker. I walked back with Duncan and hardly saw a soul apart from a few other runners making the trip to check in. I was back in my room in time to catch a bit of Painting with Bob Ross - hard to find something more suitable to wind down before a big race. I followed this up with Rick Stein eating his way around the Mediterranean.
I made an absolute Horlicks of packing last time which resulted in getting to the start late. I had tried to allocate things for each checkpoint but this time I just went with a bag each for food, clothes, and electricals. I also left quite a bit of room in my bag so it wasn't too heavy (both for me and the crew). I had everything packed the night before including my race bag. I laid out my race kit so everything was ready in the morning.
I had a couple of Elvis Juice beers while watching yet another Rick Stein and then called it a night at about 10am. I had a decent night of sleep and was up at 5.40am for a breakfast of Clif Builders bar, and canned coffee. It would be quite some time until I would be in a comfortable bed again. The drop bag van was parked right outside my window and the runners were starting to assemble so I checked out and joined the mass outside.
I dropped my bag into the waiting van. My bag was probably about the same size as the others in there so I was pleased to have picked the right "average-sized" drop bag - it was probably about 8-10kgs so not too bad really. We then had our hi-viz checked by Karen. I had bought an extra one so had one covering my body and the other wrapped around my bag. I was also wearing a hi-viz gillet and socks so was very visible.
It was then a nervous walk back to Holyhead train station for the start line. I recognised a few from 2017 and it was quite a sociable journey and it would be my only interaction with some of them. There was then the briefest of race briefings with the key points being follow the blue signs, if you are a second over 88 hours you don't get a medal, and a quick description of the Barmouth detour.
The race then started after a quick photo and blast of an air horn. It was a strange feeling starting the race with the thought that I was amongst a group of people who thought they could run to Cardiff. Based on history, the vast majority of us wouldn't make it but some of us would.
I was up 15 minutes already on 2017 as I was late to the starting line due to the packing faffing so I had already learned from the previous experience. Last time I got to set my own pace but this time I had 28 other people around to run with. I was at the back of the pack when I crossed the line and had a nice chat with Richard McChesney - the NZ race walker and for a few paces was in last place.
We then headed up the first hill and I got a bit of a jog going. I then saw I had the opportunity to do a "David Hellard" and put a burst of pace and took the lead going up the hill. I have a feeling there was someone filming at this point so I apologise if I had a photobombed the footage. I then dropped back into more like 10th or so place as the initial groups started to form.
It was still somewhat dark as we headed through some woods after 2 miles but then it was becoming daylight as we crossed the causeway to leave Holy Island. Last time it was a lovely sunrise but today it was a bit grey. However it was not raining so I was happy enough with that. I ran with Gordon and Vic for a bit along this stretch. My family are Welsh so we had a chance to chat about Welsh stuff for a bit.
Tom Garrod joined us for a bit as we headed past RAF Valley. There quite a few training flights so this added a bit of interest. There were some Tornadoes as well as some training jets. It also seemed to be rubbish collection day for Anglesey so we also had some bin lorries to keep us company.
Tom and I took an early walking break. I had picked up a copy of Geraint Thomas's second book and there is a phrase in there which came to mind. "Don't chase the pain - it will come to you soon enough". He was talking about the Team Time Trial but was equally valid here. It is easy to go off to quickly on these things so it was definitely wise to take things easy. A little way down the road, we ended up going past Vic and Gordon again.
I had been chipping along at just over 5mph which was a nice balance between pushing along and conserving pace. A 2:23 half split was nice goldilocks pace and the first highlight was Llangaffo post office at 20 miles or so in just under 4 hours. Nice stop here for a bottle of Coke and Snickers Duo with a brief rest sitting on a wall. Tom had a tight chest here and dropped back a bit and I pushed along on my own for a bit. My first GPX track was complete which was a nice landmark. Next one would take me to CP1 and off Anglesey.
I made the left turn shortly after the stop which I missed back in 2017 so was even further up on last time. This section was quiet country roads with not too many cars but it still required concentration and careful lines around the bends. The marathon mark was achieved in just under 5 hours - not exactly speedy but you only need 9 hours per marathon to make the cut offs so I had 4 hours in the bank and at minimal physical cost.
There were some great place names here including Llandaniel Fab, Star, Porthaethwy and of course Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (Llanfair PG to the locals).
I made a stop at Menai Bridge petrol station. I had the option of the Waitrose over the road but only needed to get to Caernarfon which was 10 miles away so picked up a couple of drinks and some ready salted crisps. I went for a Dr Pepper to mix things up. Gareth Allen was just in front of me in the queue and had gone for IrnBru. I ended up having a lovely chat with a little girl (maybe 3 or 4 year old) in front of me. She asked if I was doing sports and I replied yes, I was doing PE. She then talked me through the dolls she had created on her tablet. Looked like Elsa from frozen to me but apparently it was totally different.
I crossed over Menai Bridge and onto mainland Wales. The first checkpoint was in the shelter on the Gwynedd side with a couple water canisters provided. I got there about the same time as Stephen Davies and Gareth Allen in just under 6 hours. I had been aiming to get to the next checkpoint in less than 13 hours so was on track nicely. I had a brief catch up here with Karen and posed for the compulsory "proof of life" photo. I was in 10th place or so but that was fairly irrelevant at this stage.
|Menai Bridge - CP1|
The route then heads along a pavement beside the A487 for a few miles. I ended up running with Gareth and Stephen along here. Fairly uninspiring terrain but safe, smooth, and flat so a chance to make good progress with a run-walk of 12-13 minutes a mile. I had seen Gareth at LL100 so we had a chat about that and Stephen had also done it. I was pleased to dip a few minutes under 35 hours whereas they were both sub 30 finishers. Stephen had also done the Hardmoors 160 in about 40 hours so a pretty decent pedigree. He would go on to win...
I stopped to open my packet of ready salted walkers that I picked up at the petrol station and let Gareth and Stephen crack on. The Lon Las Menai cycleway starts here in Y Felinheli and is probably one of the best parts of the route with quiet flat treelined paths all the way to Caernarfon. I had made it to 35 miles in just under 7 hours which was bang on plan. The cut off for the race is 2.9mph so I was 5 hours ahead of that.
Tom appeared from nowhere on this stretch - he was in much better form than when I had left him 3 hours and 15 miles previously at the post office in Llangaffo. He had been struggling with chest / breathing issues from an illness in the build up to the race but was in much better form now. A couple more flat miles and we were in Caernarfon. The "what would Karl Shields" plan had a stop at Morrison's on it but Tom suggested heading into town as there were some great cafes which would be quieter.
For May half term, I had visited Snowdonia including a visit to Caernarfon Castle so knew there to be many great cafes. I also knew not to be confused by the Lon Las signposting around the Castle - it is easy to end up in an infinite loop. Tom follows a vegan diet but there were still plenty of good choices - we ended up in Caffi Maes. I went for a cheese toasty and Tom had veggie soup - possibly the best cheese toasty I've ever had (the Lakeland 100 one was a close second).
I'm normally a grab and go guy but it was really good to sit down for a bit and have something to eat. Sitting down for a bit meant my body had a chance to digest and rest. It was about 3pm and I had been out for 8 hours or so and almost 40 miles down. It was a moment of being civilised with a proper tea pot and everything. I had a quick look on the tracking and we had technically overtaken a bunch of people who had stopped at the Morrison's cafe slightly earlier.
Tom was working his way through a particularly wholesome soup so I set off with an eccles cake Tom had bought me in my pack and I felt much better for the small break. I felt pretty good after I had started moving again and joined up with Duncan and Javed through Caernarfon and made our way to the start of Lon Eifion.
The Lon Eifion section is what I imagined most of Lon Las to be like when I signed up for it in 2017. Back then, there were a lot fewer 100 plus races and having just finished the Centurion Grand Slam, I was looking for something a bit longer and GUCR was during half term so the only other real option was the Thames Ring 250. I had signed up for that but switched to Lon Las - both were 250 mile races so I figured I would go for the most interesting route. Little did I know the difference between the two...
The route runs alongside a heritage railway so is pancake flat and has stunning views of Snowdonia. There were a few cafes on the route but I was well fuelled from my extended stop. I managed to knock off 10 easy miles on my own in about 2 hours which was another hour up on cut off. The 50 mile mark came up in 10h40 or so - I had been hoping for closer to 10 but I had spent 40 minutes or so in the cafe. I was still on my plan for getting to Dolgellau in about 24 hours.
The route takes an abrupt change in Bryncir as it heads up a hill through a farmyard before joining up with some quiet single track roads. It was starting to get dark and I still had a lot of work to get to the second checkpoint. Back in 2017 I had just about made it without using a headtorch but that definitely wasn't happening this time. I had held off using my head torch as long as possible but the route headed into some wooded areas and that was the end of head torch roulette.
I was on my backup headtorch as I had planned to get to CP2 at dusk like I did in 2017 as I figured I was much faster this time but wasn't. I had the big dogs in the drop bag but took two small ones with me - it is surprising how many people don't take headtorches with them to save a few grams but could risk a DNF (or DQ) if it goes slightly off plan.
I had stayed in this area during May half term. I was looking forward to running past the place we had stayed but got my bearings mixed up and thought I was much closer to it. I ended up going past it in the pitch black - it was opposite David Lloyd George's grave (we had stayed in his former residence). I knew it was still a couple of miles to get the checkpoint and felt pretty crappy at this point.
I came down the hill to CP2 in Criccieth just before 8pm. There was no official cut off at this point but a key point on the route had a cut-off - the Castle chip shop closing time. This was a highlight of 2017 and I had also eaten there on my May holiday. It was a fabulous chippy with a queue of over an hour during the summer. I hustled my way through the checkpoint with some provisions and the big headtorch. I also grabbed another layer of clothing or two.
I got to the chip shop at 8:00pm and it shut at 8pm - lights were still on but it was very much closed. Crushing disappointment but not the end of the world as there was a NISA shop just round the corner if I needed it. I figured I would just crack on to Porthmadog Tesco which was 8 miles or so down the road. 59 miles in 13 hours was decent - goldilocks pace hopefully.
Back in 2017, this was the point my race started to unravel. I had faffed massively in Cricceith as I didn't realise quite how far the chippy was from the Checkpoint so spent about 30 minutes walking back and forth along the seafront getting chips. It also started to rain at this point and I was caught out without my waterproof during the walk. Note the use of checkpoint rather than aid station - it is basically a bus shelter - standard Cockbain events luxury.
Back in 2017, I was relying on the maps and signs but this time I had the GPX route on my watch. I can't understate how much difference this made - my watch gave turn by turn navigation which is one less thing to go wrong. Speaking of things going wrong, I had an unplanned detour of 25 minutes back in 2017 due to a missed turn coming out of Cricceith so despite being arriving over an hour late at CP2 I was ahead of my 2017 effort - mainly due to 3 fewer miles to get to the same place.
It is a pretty decent climb out of the CP and a relatively busy road which initially has a pavement but then it turns into running along the side of the road. I made the turn I missed in 2017 and it is not very obvious. Lon Las turns into a minor side road at this point and I could start to relax again. 60 miles and 13h15. Still nicely on course for 24 hours for CP4/100 miles.
As part of my prep, I had taken the GPX track for the route and carved it into bitesize chunks. The natural points were the 10 checkpoints but I also broke it up for other points of interest such as the Llangaffo post office, and the Morrison's cafe. The next up from here was Porthmadog Tesco at 68 miles. A full size supermarket with everything a runner could possibly want.
It was quite disorientating suddenly being in a regular situation with lots of bright lights. I picked up a few bit and bobs - fizzy drinks, canned coffee, crisps, chocolate bars, and a token piece of fruit. The staff were helpful as I couldn't find the coffee (with the dairy products). I really enjoyed my apple last time but there weren't any loose ones so I picked up a conference pear instead. 68 miles / 15ish hours - tidy.
I had made the Tesco closing time with less than an hour to spare - there was a garage on the way out of town which was the contingency plan but it wasn't needed. Next up was the cob - a manmade causeway over to Portmeirion. Back in 2017 there was horrific weather by this point with machine gun like rain being driven by strong winds coming inland. The wall of the cob was very welcome shelter but this time it wasn't needed as the weather was very mild.
The last trace of civilisation came and went as I passed Penrhyndeudraeth Spar. I could see the pool of light from the shop as I went round the corner but I had enough provisions for now. It would be just be a water stop for the next 30 miles or so.
This area is lovely and a very popular tourist destination with Portmeirion, Harlech Castle, and stunning views with a combination of the mountains of Snowdonia and sea views. However this section is done at night so it is just a massive steep hill to go up and down with an exposed route. Fortunately it was benign weather but it was fairly windy and there was some fairly light rain.
There was a long descent down to the coastal village of Llanfair for a water stop. Apparently it is pretty little village but all I remember of it was a car park next to a church and the A496. Byron was dishing out the water here and providing moral support. He even had a couple of chairs put out - very civilised. Gareth Allen was sat here having just dropped out with a calf injury and there were a couple of other runners here too.
It has started raining reasonably heavily now and it was now a case of following the cycle track along the A487 to Barmouth. Lon Las takes generally follows backroads where possible so this meant a few detours where you come of the main road and then re-join it a mile or two down the road. Typically the detour involves a nice hill but on a deserted single track road at least. There were a few nice cafes on this stretch but obviously they weren't open at 3am. Also a part-time petrol station.
There was a pavement all the way to Barmouth - easy undemanding running until the edge of Barmouth when the route takes a right turn down to the beach. I had been running with Allan since just after Cricceith and he was struggling a bit with sleepiness so we had a brief rest down on the beach on some picnic tables. A minute or two with feet off the ground helped restore things a bit.
Back in 2017, this was some of the worst conditions I've ever been outside in, let alone trying to race in. There was 40mph+ wind blowing rain and sand onto the promenade but this year it was pleasant as the rain had stopped now and there was just a light breeze. It was a pretty easy mile through town. I knew from last time there would be nothing open so not the disappointment of previous years. Not much is open in Wales at 4am.
Lon Las leaves the A487 to cross over the iconic Barmouth Rail bridge before picking up the Mawddach trail - a "stunning multi-use path following the old disused railway line along the edge of the beautiful Mawddach estuary". However the rail bridge was closed for repairs so we had to continue following the less than stunning, mono-use A487. This should be a one-off for the 2021 edition only.
I had been a bit worried about this section as running along busy A roads without pavements isn't safe or fun. I had recced it on streetview which confirmed it would be a bit sketchy but at least I had put things in my favour by getting here for about 4.30am. It would be after late night drivers coming home from the pub and before early morning commuters heading to work.
It wasn't a huge amount of fun but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. We generally stayed on the right hand side of the road except when approaching bends. There were mainly delivery lorries and vans with not many boy racers. We were generally given a nice wide berth by approaching traffic as the road was quiet and easy for them to move out of the way.
We were almost through the 6 mile A496 section when a car with super bright xenon headlights was approaching. People generally dipped their headlights as we were jogging along in some pretty decent hi-viz. This nobhead kept his on full brights and was sticking tight to the kerb. I was tempted to start shouting or waving my hands but figured I would just step off the carriage way and avoid confrontation. As the car got closer, I could make out the letter HEDDLU on the side - it was a police car. Probably a good call to keep my head down.
At about 6:30am, the turning for the toll bridge appeared. This was only open from 8am onwards but Mark had contacted the owners and they said it was ok for us to jump over the gate as long as we paid the toll. There was a gate at the turn off which was easy to climb over. This was a major milestone in the race as the rest of it was within my control.
It turns out there are two gates to cross over with one at the other end with massive spikes on the top of it. The leader of the race at this point decided not to chance the gate and ran the long route staying on the A496. David Harvey in second place jumped over the side of the bridge by the gate which was fairly marshy. One the Facebook discussion, this was viewed as the best option unless the river was high in which case risking the spikes was the option. We just used the unlocked pedestrian option...
I felt pretty good at the point as the somewhat dangerous A road section and the risk of being impaled was much lower. 97 or so miles done in less than 24 hours. It was an easy 3 miles to the checkpoint which I ran with Colin and Allan to arrive at about 7:45am with the sun just about to come up. I had hoped to be in during the hours of darkness as it would be much easier to sleep but I was happy to be in good shape here.
The jog across the rugby grounds was very different. Last time it was waterlogged fields and a phone call to my parents to be picked up. This time it was a beautiful morning and I was definitely carrying on. I could see the mountains in the distance which I would be climbing soon - but first some rest.
|Dolgellau - Allan posing with his medium sized bag|
I had hoped to get in before daybreak but unfortunately it was starting to get light which would make it harder to sleep. I got into the Rugby club and was allocated a spot in the "drops" room. There hadn't been many drops up to this point so it was pretty quiet. I got my sleeping bag out and Karen said she would wake me up in an hour.
It probably seems a bit mad to have been running for nearly 25 hours to only have an hour of sleep but it is a balance between too much time lost, stiffening up, and the issues with lack of sleep later on. I didn't really sleep but it was a chance to reset myself - a bit like trying to sleep on a short haul flight but with more leg room and a variety of exquisite pains to endure. Not much sleep either way though.
I packed up my things and headed out for the next leg. Allan was still packing his stuff up so I got have a chat with Mark and Karen out the front of the Rugby club. Mark was putting on a brave face but you could tell he was absolutely gutted that the weather was so nice. A bit like an Australian cricket fan expecting the pomms to be smashed only to find them putting up a decent batting display. Practically sunbathing weather and it would help reduce the DNF rate - Mark was cagey about how many medals he had but needed a few more drops to make sure every finisher got one. He thought the weather might be a bit hot and people would get dehydrated - clutching at straws a bit...
Allan and I headed into Dolgellau looking for food. It was quiet a nice moment for me as I knew I had at least beaten my DNF from last time - everything would be new from now on. After asking a few locals, we ended up at Popty'r Dref bakery. There was quite a few cafes to chose from but this was the best looking one. I ended up coming out with a couple of cans, a latte, a cinnamon swirl, and a slice of cold pizza. It was a decent trek to Machynllyth so good to have some provisions.
It took a while to find the right road out of Dolgellau - it was then a couple of miles of fairly steep single track road before we got to a turn off for a traffic free road - and more climbing up to the plateau crossing the A487. Lon Las followed the A487 for a only a few yards before crossing over for some more off-road climbing.
We had been pretty much on our for this section. Some people like Colin had arrived at Dolgellau at a similar time and cracked on, and some had taken longer so the race had spread out quite a bit. Adrian Martin came past looking speedy heading up the hill but that was it apart from a very strange chat with a farmer in an old Land Rover Defender. This was probably the most beautiful section of the race - well best of the parts you see during daylight.
It had taken the best part of 2 hours to travel the 6 miles to the high point - this was on track with the required 3mph but with a decent chunk of climbing. The reward was a great view back towards Barmouth and several miles of descent to make up some time - we were about 7 hours in hand on cut-offs at this point.
The descent levelled of in Corris after passing some slate mines and more Snowdonian scenery. Tom had mentioned that it had a great little cafe but we didn't find it. I still had a massive slice of pizza to keep me going to Mach so didn't spend too much time looking for it.
Corris to Mach was a nice single track level road. It follows by the river and the main road for about 5 or 6 miles before we hit some construction and a footpath diversion before joining a cyclepath alongside the A487 in to town in search of lunch. It was about 2pm (31 hours race time) and the halfway point wasn't too far away now.
Machynllyth was a lot more artisan than I was expecting with a quite a few nice shops and cafes. We ended up at Ty Medi. This was a vegan/vegetarian cafe which had some great options. I was slightly concerned about a snow plough of roughage coming through after two days of mainly beige food. I ended up going for a cheese toasted sandwich with potato wedges and tea for two.
There was a slight "Karl Shields" moment as both Allan and I had ordered tea for two but only one turned up. Eventually the second pot arrived and we polished off the food in about half an hour. It was 3pm and we had a quite a bit of time before dark to get to the half way checkpoint. Speaking of Karl, we bumped into him and Tom outside the cafe. Karl had knee troubles and sadly dropped here.
Fortified by tea and cheese, it was time to start the climb up to CP5. It started off pleasant enough after leaving town with a golf course which had far more sheep than golfers on it. It was a just about double width road but no road markings. Just about enough room for cars to pass each other but not leaving much room for runners if timed badly.
I figured we would take a turning off at some point onto a quieter mountain road and the traffic would disappear. It wasn't exactly the M25 but there was a steady stream of cars as we were into the Friday afternoon school run and leaving work time. However it seemed there was only one way over the mountain. It had been a gradual incline for 3 miles or so before a turn off and the proper climb began.
Day 2 featured two big climbs - the top of the second one would be the high point of Lon Las and it was net downhill all the way to Cardiff from there. The second climb also started pretty much at sea level so it would be a full 1,500 feet of climbing and about 6 miles or so. It went on for nearly 2 hours and just when you felt like you were almost there, you came round the corner and there was a lot more hill to go.
I was still a decent way short of halfway and over two days on the road to go. I had considered the idea of calling it a day at Rhayader, or Erwood but after a chat with Allan it was back to taking each day as it comes. Allan then took a pit stop and I was back to making my way up the hill on my own for a bit. My naïve original plan had me with option of a short detour into Llandiloes to but it was coming up to 5pm and that was a long way in the distance and there was a lot of road before the stop for the evening.
With a few bends to go, the view started to open up. It was into a quite decent road now with good visibility. As I got towards the summit, a guy on a bicycle was coming towards me. Rather than taking a racing line around the corner, he was hugging the outside by the verge. I thought it was a prick of a cyclist trying to make a point but it turned out to be Byron who had come out to meet me. A couple of miles to the checkpoint from here.
There was no real summit - more of a plateau below a modest peak - no grand vista as a reward ahead for the climb. It was pretty decent view back towards Mach though. Time to pick up the pace as the road headed downhill and widening up. I even had my first sub 15 minute mile since Corris. It was back to double width normal roads for the last stretch to CP5 / Dylife.
It was relative luxury here with a couple of camping chairs and some refreshing tap water. Glorious surroundings of a gravel car park next to a road. There had been a pub a short distance from the checkpoint but that had ceased trading. Lots of nothingness as far as the eye could see.
Byron gave a quick synopsis of the route ahead - about a marathon to the next checkpoint. No shops or cafes - there is one pub on the route which has had runners before. Karen then reminded us it would be cold so make sure we wrap up warm now. It was about 5:30pm now so hopes of making last orders in Rhayader had evaporated and with a marathon to go now it would be the early hours if I was lucky.
I had also been lucky with my GPS files. Before the race I had split the route in bite size chunks but had missed to upload the Dylife to Llandiloes section - about 13 miles or so. I realised this when I was in the cafe at Mach and managed to freestyle draw the section on my phone and the snap to roads function did the rest and I had a perfect GPX file.
Having recently plotted the route, I knew what to expect. It was a last couple of miles on B roads before turning onto backroads. No dramas until Staylittle and then it was backroads all the way to Rhayader. Having said that, it is easy to make navigation mistakes as I think Ronnie Staton and Adrian Martin both too wrong turnings in the Hafren Forest. The RAC Rally used to have special stages in these woods and the headtorches were on when went past the Hafren sign into the pine forest.
If you take one piece of advice from my entire blog, it is beware of trailers. There was very little traffic on this section but there were a few farmers out an about with 4x4s. It was easy enough for them to pass the single track but the risk is to step back into the road too early and get taken out by the trailer. It is a mistake you only make once - or at least have a near miss when you almost step into the road and feel more breeze come past.
Allan and I caught up with Tom and we have a decent chat through the forests and alongside the upper reaches of the Severn River. The river helped reduce temperatures even further to go with the dark starlit skies. It was frost conditions in places and quite cold. It was very beautiful in places with a fullish moon lighting some of the hills. It was one of the more pleasant sections despite being pitch black by now. I suspect this would be beautiful section if you were lucky enough to hit it during daylight hours.
Lon Las emerges from the Hafren forest for a couple of road miles before the Llanidloes turn. Some regard CP5 as the halfway point and others have Llanidloes as halfway. The true point by distance is somewhere in between. It was about 9pm so 38 hours to halfway left a fairly generous 50 hours for the second half.
It was a half mile detour in town from here but I decided not to add any bonus miles. Back in 2017, I had lunch here on the Friday in a cafe. I figured if I was running really well, I could have spared time for a return trip but it was about 930pm and I didn't fancy a pint in town and a bonus half hour of run/walk. Sadly this also meant that I wouldn't be making last orders in Rhayader.
Adrian Martin in his distinctive cyberman outfit was on the junction and was slightly confused by our arrival. He was trying to head down a different route but we had seen the Blue 8 so were definitely on the right track. After a bit of discussion we were on our way. About a half marathon standing between me and sleep.
The last bit of civilisation on this section was Llangurig. We had made it here in time for last orders at the pub but it wasn't clear if it was still open as it was nearly 11pm. I suspect we could have got a drink at the Lion hotel or the Bluebell Inn but the post office was most definitely closed. I did however take advantage of the bench outside it for a brief rest.
Adrian reappeared at this junction and he had a brief chat. It turns out he made significant detour in the Hafren Forest and had added a good hour and several miles to his race. He was not a happy bunny - I tried to give some supporting words but to be honest my brain was pretty battered at this point and basically just said that I had made that turning without issues.
I had got my nav perfect to this point. A detour can be truly demoralising and cause a massive dip on morale - especially when it means you are out on the road when you should be tucked up in a sleeping bag. It was still 10 miles to go from here and I ended up getting into the checkpoint about 30 minutes ahead of Adrian whereas he would probably have been at least an hour ahead for the detour plus he was moving quicker than me generally up to that point.
I can't really remember anything of the next 3 hours. It was a little back road which followed the River Wye and had the A470 on the other side. It went through the odd farm yard and was fairly easy nav. I have a vague recollection of a guy coming out of a house with a head torch to have a chat with us. I thought it was a concerned farmer but it was a chap who had got into running and in a previous year had rescued someone with hypothermia from a hedge who was in a bivvy bag.
There were a few extended rests on walls - sitting on a 4 foot high wall with your feet of the ground and head in hands in lovely for a minute or two. Eventually Rhayader arrived - Lon Las arrives from the opposite way that I was expecting so it was a nice surprise when the School hall suddenly appeared just before 2am on Saturday morning. 150 miles in just under 43 hours leaving about 100 miles / 45 hours. Halfway by time for sure now.
Day 3 follows the River Wye for most of it. Although CP6 is referred to as Rhayader, you technically don't set foot in Rhayader as the Wye is the border between Cwmddaudr and Rhayader and you don't cross the Wye until Newbridge on Wye 10 miles downstream. It is a pretty quiet start to day - especially if you leave the CP at 430am. Very limited civilisation although you could take a detour to a 24 hour garage and Greggs at Llanwrthyl after 4 miles or so.
Photo of morning
The route heads into a national trust common for some traffic free miles until emerging near Newbridge. A few quiet country roads and then the first stop of the day at Newbridge post office. Except it didn't open until 8am and I wasn't going to hang around 20 minutes for it to open - it isn't a lock that it would open then anyway. Instead I sat outside on the wall and had a can of coffee and snickers. It did look quite a good selection of good though. Next stop would be another 8 miles and I had enough provisions to last that long.
The roads towards Builth were some nice quiet country lanes. Gently undulating and never that far from the River Wye. Pretty easy start to the day with 15 miles done in 5 hours - no further time give up to the cut off since Rhayader. Now it was only 90 miles left and 36 hours to do it - I was about 5 hours ahead so safe but still a lot of work to do.
It was nice to come into Builth as that was the meal stop for the day. Builth parkrun was just finishing up as we went through. It was nearly 10am so they volunteers were packing up. We had a quick chat with them as we came past. I had a debate with Allan as to whether we would have done the parkrun if we were there on time. The answer was no but partly due to not having our barcodes with us. Lon Las is definitely set up for a parkrun double as the Builth one could line up perfectly if you are slightly quicker than me.
When I first scope out the route in 2017, there was the holy grail of nutrition stops here. Sadly Little Chef went bust so there would be no Olympic breakfast with a side of jubilee pancakes. It had been replaced by Burger King which has excellent facilities but a menu which resembles car tyres - I didn't fancy a whopper for breakfast and the rest of the menu was a bit meh. Fortunately over the road as an excellent option in Greggs.
I had learned form my fuelling mistake the previous day so it was coke straight away followed up with a ham and cheese toasty and flat white. Excellent toasty with cheese on top as well as in the middle. A Belgian bun was tucked away for later. I was all fuelled up for one of the worst sections of Lon Las - here until the Erwood CP.
This section started off with a some riverside paths before heading through an industrial estate then about a mile along the verge of the A481 - no footpath but a decent verge to bail out on. Then it was a turn off for the B4567 for the next 6 miles or roughly 2 hours.
The B4567 is mentioned in the notes as being a bit sketchy. It was fairly quiet but being a B road, it had a national speed limit and not much in the way of verges. The drivers were very decent - if speedy - and would pull onto the other side of the road. The only issue was if was two cars were coming from opposite directions - that then meant jumping into the hedges just in case as there wasn't room for 3 to pass safely. There were a few nasty bends - particularly with narrow bridges but I made it through safely without an real issues.
I had recced this section back in March. It would have been illegal at the time but I was there for my grandmother's funeral which took place about a mile from Lon Las. I knew it wasn't too much B road to go until the aid station from here. I have family connections most of the way on Lon Las - I have family in Holyhead, Rhayader, and Erwood so have seen quite a few sections of the route before.
Soon it was time to pull into Erwood station for some refreshing tap water. There were quite a few people here. A couple of Karen's friends had kindly turned up for CP duty with a camper van and had some chairs set out for us. I grabbed a seat and a refill of the bottles. It was quite a relief to be off the road and slightly weird to be chatting to someone other than Allan.
My parents had turned up to say hello. They live a few miles further down the route. They were not able to provide an assistance and just had a quick chat from a safe distance away. I probably smelt pretty bad so that might also explain the wide berth. My uncle even made an appearance letting me know he could have easily done this but didn't have time to spend 4 days jogging across Wales.
Karen then told us to jog on as we were cluttering up the aid station. 175 miles covered in 54 hours. Cut off was 60 hours to here so a moderate buffer but no time to hang around. It was roughly a marathon to go until the overnight checkpoint and it was about 1pm so on for a reasonable bedtime hopefully.
The route thankfully comes off the B4567 at Erwood and it is back to country lanes to Boughrood. It was here that I was Ronnie on his 2017 finish. I was about 6 or 7 hours slower than Ronnie to this point though. There was a village store here but didn't bother grabbing anything as I still had loads of stuff my bag and didn't feel like stopping.
It was then back on B roads for about 3 miles or so but it was a pretty wide and quiet so easy going. Nothing too memorable apart from a road kill badger. Nothing too weird about that apart from the fact it had been skinned - perhaps Mike R had been on the route earlier? My parents came past in the car and we had a brief discussion about the badger and they were on their way. They live about a mile from Glasbury which was our next village.
My feet were absolutely battered by this point. It was 33 miles and 11 hours to this point and the last 20 or so had been pure road. I was moving reasonably well but when I ran, my feet really hurt. It was also about 4pm and surprisingly warm so it was time for an afternoon rest. Time for a 10 minute lie down with the shoes off by the river.
The rest made things more manageable and it was time to cross the Wye again. There was a garage here but for some reason decided not to stock up here - apparently it has some great homemade cakes. About 15-20 miles to go so it was a case of cracking on to get things done for the day.
We were now into the Brecon Beacons with a steady climb up from the river. This was one of the Lon Las detours where you avoid a major road by heading up into the hills for a bit. Through the village of Felindre which has a lovely looking pub which wasn't open despite it being 6pm on Saturday evening. It was also home to a perfectly spherical man who we had very entertaining chat with. He was absolutely baffled that we were heading to Brecon tonight as that was at least 13 miles away. He had assumed we were lost as we were miles from anywhere.
It was then back down onto the A4078 which fortunately had a nice cycle path alongside. This meant it wasn't long until Talgarth which had a good range of provisions including a chip shop, Coop, and various pubs. The first we came to was the Castle Chip shop. It had the option of sit down service but went for the chip shop counter. To be honest the restaurant might have been faster but eventually I was on my way with a chip butty (plenty of salt and vinegar), a can of coke, and a sprite.
I had been struggling with pain in my side - possibly digestion related - and the chip butty seemed to ease things a bit. It was a mile or so along the main road before heading up into the hills again along single track hedgerow lined roads as the sun was setting. Half marathon between now and sleep. Unfortunately I had 40 miles in my legs already so it was going to be a slow half marathon.
I had been pretty good with the sleep deprivation but soon after the head torch went on, my eyes were already starting to play tricks with me. The shadows that are cast by the light made the hedges look like they were cardboard cut outs and the patches of water on the road formed faces with trees being all sorts of things. It was going to be a long third evening.
Fortunately for my sanity, and couple of head lights were catching us up and it was Colin and Rich who had caught up. This was the battle for the Europa league spots as were in 5-8th position overall. This was the first time since Hafren the previous evening I had seen anyone other than Allan. It was strange to be in single digit placings in an ultra but this isn't a typical race.
It was a solid half hour of climbing out of Talgarth - very little traffic but a few 4x4s with trailers. Remember the advice to stand back in case it isn't just a car. I suspect this would have been a beautiful section and I seem to remember it being cold with some stars. Having looked at streetview, this would have been a lovely section to have hit 4 hours earlier but there was a view out with the light of villages in the distance.
Soon enough, there was the tunnel under the A470. I had thought there had been many bridges and tunnels up to here but the trees were playing tricks with the light so it was weird to actually go under a tunnel. This also meant Brecon was pretty close and shortly after Lon Las reached the outskirts of Brecon - just in time for Saturday night drinking time.
It was very disorientating to suddenly be in an urban environment with roundabouts, streetlights, and people. I had a very surreal moment where I thought I saw two police officers waiting by a house but it turned out to be a laurel bushes. There were quite a few groups of yoofs out on the lash and driving round in cars. No issues at all and we go on with our route through town. Shops were closed but I could probably have grabbed something from a pub if it wasn't a short distance to the CP.
It was a pretty quick slice through town and there was the very welcome sight of the Brecon canal which marked the start of the Taff Trail. In my sleep deprived state, I had it my head I would be running alongside a canal for the next 50 miles. First up it was 3 miles or so to finish up today's work.
It was a couple of miles along the canal which were really challenging. I was really struggling to stay awake and it felt like running through a dark tunnel and my eyes started to go funny following the hi viz in front of me. I suspect if it hadn't been only a mile or two until the CP, I might have gone for a sleep in a bush somewhere. I had not had any caffeine since the chip shop so I could sleep properly but it had worn off a bit early.
Lon Las comes of the canal for the last mile of the day. It was a climb on a deserted B road which felt like it went on for ever and I nearly fell asleep going up it. I looked afterwards and it was a whopping 15 metres high. It was about 1030pm so wondered if there would be a pub open in the village. As I approached the CP, I thought there were a load of people dressed in biker and military gear outside a pub. I got closer and it was actually a bed of roses outside a house. It was definitely time for sleep.
It was wonderful getting into the CP. The four of us arrived at about the same time. James McNamee in street clothes - I assumed he had won and got a lift back - and Tom was getting ready to set off again. There were some sleeping dogs and plenty of space to get some sleep. Dinner was a snickers and then I put my watch and phone on to charge and settled down for some sleep. I had gone for 90 minutes as a compromise between rest and cut offs.
There were some chairs set out so I slept with feet on the chair. I alternated to feet down which was quite painful but good to mix things up. I was completely fast asleep for the first time in the race and woke up to see the clock on the wall showed 230. I was cursing as I had intended to be up at 1am and figured I had slept through my wake up. I looked at my phone and it was 12:57am. Excellent - time to pack up and get going for the last time.
Breakfast was a pot noodle - chicken and mushroom - before heading out into the darkness. It was about 1:30am on Sunday morning so I had left myself 21 hours to knock off the last 52 miles. Seems pretty simple if you don't factor in that it would be a self supported double marathon having slept for a grand total of 2-3 hours in the previous 3 days and the small matter of 200 miles covered on foot.
The pot noodle and canned coffee was seen off in the first mile or so of walking so I would be fuelled up for a couple of hours as the pot noodle is 400 calories and the coffee about 100. It was now a case of chipping off each mile left through villages with nice pubs and everyone asleep.
I had some quite funny hallucinations in the previous night and thought I had another here when I saw a hedgehog. Except it actually was a hedgehog. I stopped to take a photo which was probably a bit harsh as the bright lights can't have been nice - but on the other hand, it made its way off the road so probably good overall.
This is quite an attractive section as it wends it way alongside the canal and then up into the hills on a quiet backroad. Except it was pitch black so just a case of plugging away to get to the first reservoir and climb of the day.
It was about 3am crossing the reservoir and starting the long climb up. I had seen on the course profile that there was a long climb up from here - only about 300 metres but a very slow gradient so it would take a while - but once at the top, it would be flat or downhill all the way to Cardiff.
To say the climb took a while is a bit of an understatement. "Taking a while" is the Whitchurch to Reading section of the Autumn 100, or the Wallington to Clifton Hampden section of the Thames Path. Those take about 2 hours and a relatively featureless. The climb up from the first reservoir was 4 miles of forest track with no features or shelter - just plugging away at 23ish minutes a mile.
It had also started to rain heavily now so it was a pretty grim section. Colin had caught up on the climb so there was a general chat about life and the position we had found ourselves in. Walking slowly up a hill in the pouring rain with about 20 miles to go until the next aid station. This is also a reception blackout zone so no option to go on Facebook live and get lots of supporting "U ok huns?" to get you through.
Lon Las attracts a certain kind of person. If you hear that the first aid station of your 100 miles race (admittedly run in hot English summer conditions) has be removed due to potential COVID overcrowding, do you go on Facebook and post on the race group panicking that you are going to dehydrate before the first aid station (ideally with a stupid background and large font)? Or do you just pack an extra soft flask which you carry at the start in your hand. Do you read every page on the RD's website or are you the person who posts on the facebook group (in massive font and stupid background) asking when the race opens for entries even though it is on the website in a massive font.
I was having a bit of a shocker going up the hill but still plugging away. Colin and Allan eased off into the distance and it was a bit of a grind but eventually after nearly 2 hours on the slope, the path opened up to join a road. Ironically this made things much worse as the trees which had been providing protection were gone so the wind could whip the rain in without obstruction.
The top eventually came after 2h30 of climbing at about 6am. 10 miles covered in 4h - average pace of 24 minutes a mile. Terrible under normal circumstances but what was needed today. The only thing resembling a place to take a break was a traffic barrier which Allan was resting briefly on. It was back on minor roads now with a few cars coming past to add to the fun. Very little in the way of shelter still - just empty car parks along the way - it was at least downhill now.
The second reservoir of the day appeared - Ponsticill - but rather than taking the direct route alongside, it was trademark Lon Las detour up into the hills again before re-emerging a short distance further down the route. It was probably a lovely section but it just felt like you were going round in circles - I think a lot of people have got lost here and I can imagine it would be easily done without GPS.
I hadn't really researched the last day of Lon Las as I figured I probably wouldn't get there and if I did, I would work it out. There also didn't really seem to be anything in the first 25 miles but figured there had to be something there. I was 15 miles in without a trace of life but had broken my GPS sections up a Ponsticill as it was a village which had some amenities.
As I made my way round the Taf Fechan forest, I had built up my expectations of the cafe that was in the village. It would have lots of dog walkers who would be asking us about our race. There would be home made cakes to go with a chocolate sprinkled cappuccino. A lovely view out over the reservoir and a chance to dry out and set off towards Merthyr. It was on the edge of a national park with lovely walks so the ideal spot for one.
I got to Ponsticill and there was a big sign for the Red Cow Inn - traditional ales and snacks - but not at 7am on a Sunday morning. The village came and went without any trace of a cafe, post office, or shop. It was however only 6 miles now to Merthyr. I had a 150ml can of coke and a mini snickers. The mini cans of coke were a pretty good purchase as they give you a decent chunky of sugar without having to smash down a full can. When combined with snack sized bar, it was well over 300 calories which would be at least an hour of fuelling.
Dawn arrived by the reservoir and the Ponsticill water treatment plant with the rain easing. Lon Las then turned off the road onto a lovely runnable section which was a former railway line with a gradual downhill gradient for several miles and soft gravel surface. It also excellent benches for a break every so often.
This was a pretty fast section with several sub-15 minute miles and well over 4 miles covered in the hour after joining the railway trail - probably the fastest hour since the first day. We "flew" past Colin again on the way to Merthyr with carrot of getting to McDonald's before they stopped serving breakfast. The rain had pretty much stopped and South Wales was waking up and taking their dogs for a walk.
The distance to Merthyr had been quite variable on the Lon Las signposts but I had my countdown to the McDonald's which was the other side of the town centre. I had done quite a bit of work editing the GPX into bite size chunks and this section would finish at the door of the McDonald's. First up was crossing the Cefn-Coed viaduct which was a glorious feat of engineering which was now reduced to carrying cyclists and pedestrians across it. For most it not have been the most inspiring view but seeing the panaroma of the industrial revolution town meant were through the Brecon beacons and starting the finish towards Cardiff. It was also a first view of the A470 dual carriageway which would be a companion for much of the rest of the day.
Merthyr Tydfil did have its moments with some interesting industrial heritage parts and generally nice cycle paths but it does have quite a bit of running alongside dual carriage ways or through back alleys which aren't obvious. The GPX was very handy through here though and before long the golden arches were calling.
One of the great inventions of modern times is touch screen ordering. There were plenty of screens so I got to choose my meal without having to talk to anyone. I thought I was perfectly coherent but it was nice not to take the risk. I added coffee, then a hash brown. Deciding the main item was slightly tricky but ended up going with an egg mcmuffin as it was the closest thing to a cheese toasty (it has cheese between bread). It then offered to make this into a meal so I had to remove the coffee and hash brown I had already put in. In hindsight I should have gone for two coffees, two hash browns, and zero egg mcmuffins.
McDonald's breakfast is very overrated in my view with egg being basically made of rubber but the coffee and hash brown was excellent. However on Lon Las sometimes you just need the hope to get you to the next point and then regroup to work out what the next target is - and occasionally you get a great moment like the cheese toasty back in Caernarfon.
I hadn't looked at my phone all day but now had a chance to catch up how the race was going. Bizarrely, Allan and I still could win the race. Stephen and James were on the outskirts of Cardiff with a few miles to go, with Tom and Adrian halfway down towards Cardiff. Rich and Colin were nearby - turns out Rich was only a minute or two ahead but gained a big lead by not stopping at for breakfast - Colin was in the other McDonald's. Weirdly, it seemed like David and James Mac were on the retirements list.
One of the amusing aspects of tracked races is that everyone can see exactly where you are going. In this case, Karen had predicted we would end up in the McDonald's and was obviously correct which confirmed by posting our location on the Cockbain event page. It also meant should was there in plenty of time to set up the aid station for our arrival. The aid station was a 5l bottle of water.
We got a debrief on what was happening with the race. There were 13 of us still in it with 4 miles ahead and 5 back in the reception deadzone. We were left with 27 miles to go in 13 hours which was pretty comfortable but it was going to be a lot tighter for Vic and Gordon who had an almost impossible 48 miles to go.
My last GPX section was titled "Merthyr to the medal". It was going be 28 miles or so which would hopefully be no more than 11 hours leaving 2 to spare. I had broken up all the other sections into smaller chunks but couldn't really be bothered by this point plus there were plenty of towns along this section so didn't figure I needed to.
From here to Cardiff, it was suburban cycleways and minor roads. Smooth with some non-tarmac sections which the feet appreciated. I suspect Fred Dibnah would have found quite a lot of interesting features along here - there were some former tramways and disused railway lines which made for efficient progress. It was a mix of semi-rural parts and cycle paths down the back of terraced gardens. Also so genuinely ugly bits.
There were probably loads of options just off the path but the first place food stop was Pontypridd Londis with about 15 miles to go. Bottle of coke and snickers later, it was back on the route - sort of. The GPX I was using was based on Northbound route so was at odds with the signposting on the ground due to the Pontypridd one way system. My watch was shouting that I was off route but I was following the Blue 8 signs - and the signs were pointing me through a lovely park rather than alongside a busy A road. I figured there might have been a diversion in place but it turns out the North and South routes are different here.
Next major landmark was crossing under the M4. Generally nice trails with only negative being that other people were also using it as it was a beautiful afternoon in Cardiff. Lots of folks walking with dogs to dodge, and electric bikers who were in a desperate rush to be somewhere. My pace was basically a sedate walk so it was generally fine - although it seems Welsh people share with the folks of Surrey the lack of spatial awareness that if you are walking side by side with your partner towards someone it is impossible for the someone to get out of your way if the path is only two people wide. However if you move to one side, it easy for you to both pass each other.
Blackweir bridge was another landmark which meant it was Cardiff proper. Past Sophia Gardens - scene of Monty Panesar and Jimmy's last wicket stand to earn an Ashes draw. Then it was past the Millenium stadium - home of Wales rugby and then the finish was just round the corner. In my head, the finish was right by there but instead you keep going off into residential areas and random parks with hidden gates. Having looked on the map before and after the run, the finish looks simple but even just being a street away from the river loses your bearings.
The Lakeland 100 finish is the benchmark for UK ultra finishes for me and perhaps if Lon Las had a few dozen marshals for the last section, that might have been close to replicated but it was a somewhat frustrating scenic route round the riverside parks to the finish where you feel like it almost there but not quite. I had hoped to get things done before sunset but thanks to the street lighting, I wouldn't need a head torch.
The had been a dearth of people asking what were up to but there was a pearler in the last mile. A guy asked if it was the Cardiff half and we let him know we were just finishing the Holy Head to Cardiff race - yes all 253 miles of it. His face was a picture.
I was expecting to finish with Allan having run with him for the previous 70 or so hours but he told me to crack on finish on my own as it meant more to me to do so. I took him at his word and put on a spurt for the finish. I was could see the finish ring and was heading towards it but Karen sent me off to the far end of the quay. I thought this was so that I could have better finish video but it turns out the end of Lon Las is actually by the Senedd so technically stopping at the ring wouldn't be all of Lon Las.
Mark gave me medal and finisher top and I banged out the traditional BBR press-ups and Lon Las was finished. Allan finished shortly after and it was all over. 83h40 (just under 3.5 days) and joint 7th place.
Lon Las - completed it mate (epilogue to follow if you have managed this far)
A huge thanks to Mark, Peter, Byron, Lindley, and Karen for being there along the way plus Julie and the camper van.
Also thanks to my fellow runners - especially Allan for putting up with me for nearly 200 miles.
Final words go to Ronnie as I feel the same but slightly less well… Ronnie like…
|Isotonic recovery drink and recovery snacks|
|Before and after|
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