Tuesday 8 May 2012

Red Kite Challenge and Ras y Diafol - a foray into proper fell racing

This weekend is a three-day one, due to the national holiday celebrating the first floods of the year (or possibly May Day, if you don't live near a river).  To celebrate the extra recovery time available, it is customary to put on stupidly difficult races.  In 2010, I ran my first trail marathon (Three Forts Challenge).  In 2011, I completed my final Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series marathon of the year at the inaugural Endurancelife Festival.  I can confidently say that the latter was the more difficult course.  I had planned to head back to Sussex to have another go at the Three Forts, but then I saw some of the other races available on the weekend.  Plan A was Malvern Ultra due to the lack of travel required.  However, once Nic was successfully putting away the training miles, we changed plans and set our sights on the Welsh Hills.  For this change of plans, I blame my good friend Roy.

Roy and I have been training together for a few years now.  If ever I want to find a new route, I ask Roy along.  We're a similar pace, like similar trails, and are equally good at finding "scenic" options to the path we're meant to be following.  He has been singing the praises of the Red Kite & Ras y Diafol (Devil's Race) for a year or two, and when Nic suggested that she get to choose a race for once, we decided to give it a shot.  On paper, the weekend shouldn't be too hard: 11 miles on Saturday, 17 miles on Sunday, ~5000ft of ascent combined.  It should be no more difficult than this year's CTS courses, so why not have a nice weekend running in the hills?  Day one takes place from the Red Kite visitor centre (great viewing of these amazing birds), and day two is just a few miles away.  Add to the fun that friends Roy, Chris, Ned, and Sheila were all running both days, and what could be more relaxing?

And then, of course, one pins on the race number and all thoughts of a relaxed and scenic run go out the window.  They are replaced by thoughts like "It's only 11 miles" and "race today and then worry about tomorrow when it comes".  Having tried to race last month's Exmoor ultra and come slightly unstuck, I decided to listen to the speed demon on my shoulder rather than the armchair angel.

Nic's picture from the Red Kite Challenge.

The Red Kite Challenge also happens to be the Welsh trail running championships, so the field is pretty handy.  A couple of local international-class runners turn up to have a wee sprint while the rest of us grind it out in their wake.

The race starts with a gentle run around the lake and then throws in a few modest climbs of between 100ft and 400ft, before giving us an amazing two-mile, 900ft descent.  I'm pretty sure this was the first time I had ever put two sub-6 miles into a race (I haven't even done that in a 5K!), and that was taking the hill with a fair amount of control to save something for the inevitable uphill.  It was an amazing feeling to be moving that quickly for an extended period.

Eventually, the down ended and we went straight back up out of the valley - another 800ft in a little under two miles of fast hiking with occasional runnable bits.  Upon reaching the top, my climbing muscles were in rebellion, but the race was over half-way finished.  The final five miles were gently undulating (little rolling 100-200ft ups and downs), which certainly kept the heart rate high as I tried to keep from losing too many places to the more practised fell runners.  A final sprint got me to the line in a reasonable time, but with not much energy left.  I was even too tired to eat any of the delicious-looking fruitcake on offer at the finish.

Nic finishing strong on Day 1
 (courtesy of Alastair Tye / www.fellrunningpictures.co.uk)
Once everyone had finished, we made for the tea shop and I joined the queue.  They must have run out of tea, because eventually we gave up on the lack of progress and headed back out onto the balcony to watch the kites and wait for the award ceremony.  Chris and Roy showed their experience by bringing a huge Thermos of hot water and sharing out some very warming coffee - saviours!

With prizes for the open race, Welsh race, and age groups, the prize-giving lasted for quite some time.  But, I'm glad we stayed because Nic picked up an age-group silver medal for her sterling effort!  Ned, Sheila, and Chris picked up age-group bronzes, and Roy and I won the opportunity to buy drinks in the pub later in the evening.

Day two was a bit more of a relaxed affair.  Only a fraction of the field come out to do the combined event, and a few people turn out just to do the longer run.  The plan on Saturday morning was to just take this as a recovery run, but once again the number got pinned to the chest and sense got left in the kit bag.  However, I had a pack on this time, so at least had the chance to take a few pictures on the run.

I'm sure that's the only hill we didn't run up!
The course starts fairly gently, with a short downhill and a steady uphill.  We were joined by some enthusiastic horses for a short time (somewhere just out of the picture).  Just before mile three, we began what seemed like a fairly innocuous climb and then turned into mountain-goat territory.  At this point, I started a game of hill leapfrog with Sheila that lasted nearly nine miles.  She would leave me for dust on the ups and I would catch her and try to gain some margin on the downs.

The challenge of the day was the two-mile, 1000ft climb up to nearly half-way.  As I dragged myself up the switchbacks, Roy caught up for a brief chat and Sheila pulled well clear.  I managed not to lose too many places with my relatively slow pace, but it was a huge effort to keep any pace at all.

At last, the long uphill was finished.
The hill finally ended with a short section through a wind farm.  It was amazing to pass so close to the majestic, near-silent drone of the blades as they slowly rotated.  From there, we had nearly three miles of descent broken by the occasional sharp hill during which to "recover".  I eventually caught up to Sheila again, just in time to ruin it all with yet another uphill section.  From 12.5 miles, it's essentially down hill to the finish.  Unfortunately, I slightly missed a step and jarred my right leg on some stairs.  By the time I reached 14 miles and the end of a long steep road, my right calf was objecting to the point of full cramp.  I'd been taking salt tablets to avoid cramp since I was dripping with sweat for much of the race, but obviously the calf didn't enjoy having to take up the slack for the muscles that suffered from the earlier misstep.  So, with a few stops to massage and stretch, I started to lose time properly.

The silly leg did ease up enough to get back up to a reasonable jog, but not before Roy caught me.  I could see the joy on his face from catching me at last, and wished him well (something encouraging like "carry on, because I'm going to try to catch you!").  It was the kick up the backside I needed to get back into a proper run.  It didn't feel great, but it also didn't feel like getting worse.

Although I struggled any time the ground was particularly rough, I could focus on chasing Roy.  I started to see more runners that I'd long-since passed lining up in the distance behind me, and that gave me even more encouragement to "man-up" and move faster.  That, for me, is one of the key differences between racing a run and just running it for the experience.  When I'm racing, finishing position matters.  When I'm running just against myself and the course, then the watch and the view are the arbiters of success.  I knew as we came into the last mile that I couldn't catch Roy (I'm sure he'd have died before letting go of the few hundred metres margin he built up).  But I also knew that I could keep the line of runners where they were - behind me.

As the line approached, I was 2nd in a loose group of three.  The runner behind me sprinted for the line with an energy that I certainly did not possess.  When the man in front didn't respond to his charge, I decided to give it a go and slowly ramped up into an ugly sprint.  This time, he responded - obviously he saw the state of me and decided he just couldn't lose to such a wreck.  We shouted each other to the finish in an epic battle against our rebellious legs.

It's all fun and games at the end of a great run. (courtesy of Alastair Tye)

It's laughable to watch two grown men struggle for the line in the middle of a race that was over so long ago that the winner had already showered, but at the time it seems like a good idea.  We finished in the same time, and I got the position on alphabetic ordering, but the photo shows he may have been a bit ahead.

Roy also had a sprint finish, just a few seconds earlier (courtesy of Alastair Tye)

The double-race weekend was tough, but was also a lot of fun.  It's great to share the race experience with friends, and two-day events double the pleasure.  Chris and Sheila picked up awards for the Ras y Diafol, and all three ladies won their age categories for the combined events.  I won a very fine bar of chocolate for completing both events, which was rather welcome on Monday afternoon when the munchies hit.  There are, as I said, a lot of great events on the May Day holiday weekend.  I think the others may take a back seat for a few years, because I have already pencilled a return to Wales for next year!

Chris and Ras y Diofl running partner Idris receive  Chris's age-group win award.
(courtesy of Alastair Tye)

Sheila and Ned with multiple awards, including Ras y Diafol 2nd lady
(courtesy of Alastair Tye)


  1. Ran out of tea!... That would never happen in England! Well done on your long weekend - you well deserve something stronger than tea after such an effort.

    1. I'm sure they didn't actually run out of tea, but they certainly ran out of steam for a bit. Luckily the hotel bar where we had dinner did not run out of beer! And well done on your Pony Express.