Race to the Sea – what an exciting title for an event. I knew I wanted to take part the moment I heard about it. And who better to share the experience with than my sister Katie. I made a quick call to her and within the next few hours we had signed up. Of course, for us, it’s time to spend together. We don’t live near each other so this would give us 31miles of walking, to catch up.
I picked my sister up from Newtown station in the afternoon the day before the race- how exciting, coming all the way up from the southeast of England to race to the Welsh coast with me. We have done the Rotary Cross Wales together 5 times but this was something new, something quite different. Couldn’t wait to get the maps out together and go over the route one more time. Couldn’t wait to clear the kitchen table and lay out all our gear and equipment, compare what we had between us and make the final tweaks. Head torch – check, blanket – check, whistle – check and so on. And then of course prepare our all-important egg sandwiches. Katie did these (with eggs from my chickens – the very best) while I cooked a huge chicken and mushroom pie to be devoured for tea. I had made flapjacks the night before and bought some delicious Bara Brith - all essentials for the race ahead.
It is not unreasonable or particularly uncivilized to get up at 5am so why lie restless all night? Why not just relax and get a beneficial night sleep? Because I am taking part in Race to the Sea! That’s why. Even so, what was there to worry about? Fitness level, gear, food, the weather – actually nothing major but enough to stop me having the sleep that would have been sensible, but that’s just me.
My husband James was kindly taking us to Llangurig – so an early start for him too. Lucky him, at least he would have had slept. No, very unlucky him, not a chance lying next to restless me. Anyway, arrived at Llangurig 6.10am. The village hall was a bit cramped but we squeezed our way through to get a bit of toast and a cup of tea, checked in and received wristband. My number 930, Katie’s 954. A number is just a number but strange that a number can become so significant, so personal by the end of a day like this one. It is your number and only yours, it means you and you say it as if it is your name at the check points and look for it on the list of timings later that number would mean so much by the end of the race.
We crossed over the road to the start point where everyone had gathered, runner and walkers. Dark and cold, really cold – frosty. We didn’t start right on the dot of 6.30am but not long after. I had walked the very first bit, the Wye Valley, before so it seemed familiar even in the dark. Thank goodness for head torches, negotiating boggy patches in the fields until we came to a lane that would take us up high on to Carnbwlchcloddiau.
The tarmac road was so, so slippery – we were trying our best to walk in the narrow gritty bit on the very edge of the lane where it wasn’t icy or at least where we might have more grip. We managed to stay upright but apparently some poor runners slipped over. As it started to get light we could see the top of Plynlimon covered in snow. I had texted Katie during the week to say that we might get snow but not really believing it. We climbed higher and higher - it got more and more slippery. The forestry had been cut near to the track and the surface of the stumps were covered in snow, they looked like white discs dotted about either side of the road, quite odd.
Always looking back occasionally (one of our mottos) to take in views behind as well as in front, the sun was on the rise and everything was taking on a beautiful orange glow. The view east, back towards the Wye Valley was fabulous and the view ahead was spectacularly remote. It was just fantastic. We felt so privileged, invigorated – buzzing. Just after the first checkpoint it actually started to snow, we could see the cloud coming in and down it came. It just couldn’t get any better. An overwhelming feeling of happiness and appreciation and wanting to savour the moment but time moves on and we had to move on too – after all, it was a race to the sea.
It’s a good job that I hadn’t realised that there was a trig point at Carnbwlchcloddiau – I might have had to have made a quick detour to 559m. Near here, before the first check point we reached our highest point of the day 529m.
Over a footbridge, slippery of course, and on to a much rougher track, quite ‘stumblely’ under foot, how the runners do it I don’t know. This took us down to Blaenycwm where we walked through a river side campsite, the river being Afon Ystwyth. I have stayed at this campsite a few years ago, quite an experience – we were bitten to death (we did survive) by midges, and they don’t normally bother me but on this occasion I resorted to rolling myself up inside the picnic blanket – it was the only way.
From here the path followed the river over very uneven terrain and still frosty to the checkpoint Ty Mawr (always friendly faces at the check points). And then came the sleety rain. We persevered for a while but it was coming down thick and fast. At least one way to make it stop and see some blue sky again is to put your waterproof leggings on. Guaranteed result every time. So we did this and it stopped raining and the sun came out, perfect!
The side of the valley to the right of us was steep slopes covered in disused mines, the colours of the slopes were an amazing mixture of the grey/purple scree and patches of orange bracken. There was the odd tumbledown industrial building dotted about too. It was so quiet, still and a beautiful but once having been a noisy, dusty place buzzing with heavy industry – apparently the average life expectancy here was 32 because of lead poisoning. Mining had begun here in this valley as far back as the bronze age - lead, silver and zinc and just a ruins remain.
Between Dol-chenog and Pont-rhyd-y-groes we had to consult the Ordnance Survey map a few times but it added to the fun. On reaching Dologau emergency point the landscape was familiar and I immediately recognized it to be Hafod. Hafod was an 18th century magnificent mansion, now sadly only the footing remains but the grounds, most of it is owned by Natural Resources Wales and together with the Hafod Trust, manage the preservation. The grounds are well worth a visit if you haven’t been– a spectacular gorge, waterfalls and woodland walks.
Pont-rhyd-y-groes check point was going to be round about half way so we here we stripped off our waterproofs, had another egg sandwich and then quickly got going again. The huge foot bridge here spans the river Ystwyth. As we crossed it, eating a lump of yummy Bara Brith, I thought it seemed vaguely familiar – apparently this was our family holiday, en-route to Fishguard, picnic stop in the 1970s.
The woodland here, Coed Maenarthur was so pretty and the right time of year to be walking it. The path took us up on to a track which was covered in a carpet of beech leaves but somewhere along here I lost my hat – blast. The view when we came out of the forest looking down the valley was beautiful and must be quite different when the river is in flood.
Passed a few more disused mines and then an emergency rendezvous (ER) point. In the next bit of woodland we stopped to have another egg sandwich. I felt I was slowing down a bit - brought on I think by being a bit sad that I’d lost my nice hat. This was our longest stop – 8 mins. It was soon after this that we started to do the ‘Garmin guess’ – every lap (1 mile) my device would buzz and we had to guess our time for the last mile – lots of fun! Our average turned out to be 19.57min.
We reached a track after this and were met by a truck which slowed up - we recognized the friendly face – the same face that was at Kerry Pole on the Cross Wales Walk. He kindly gave us some directions for the next bit and asked us if all ok and sent us on our merry way. Seeing a marshal of course is much appreciated but I find it a bit surreal; I think we get so absorbed, so focused on walking and having a conversation almost continually with my sister (usually some nonsense- we would both agree) that seeing and talking to someone else is almost like coming up to the surface, saying ‘hello, yes we are fine thanks’ and then going back down and carrying on. Anyway, fully energised after our refreshment and breather we carried on with a bounce in our stride once again.
Soon after following the river from Gwel Ystwyth the route used the disused railway line that used to run from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen. It was closed in 1965 because of flooding and the Beeching report. It is now actually part of the Sustran route 81 (Aberystwyth to Wolverhampton). At Trawsgoed where we met the old train line there was a check point. We picked up some orange segments and topped up our water. Really pleased to see that huge containers of water were being used to refill, instead of handing out masses of plastic bottles. The old railway was pretty and we covered ground very quickly but it did get a bit monotonous - I’d like to try it on a bike it sometime. At last we reached the Glynwern checkpoint with only 8 miles to go. Topped water again and headed up the steep road called Cwm Pantygwyfol. Katie and I thought that perhaps the route took us up high once more before reaching the coast so that we would get a view of the sea. Could we see the sea? No. Ah, well, we would soon.
Now for some reason when we started to approach Llanfarian I had a burst of energy and really upped my pace. I don’t think Katie will ever forgive me. She had spent the week prior to the race, walking mountains in the Lake District so was feeling every aching muscle by now. But I sprinted on … and on. She stayed with me though and so did a lady that we met at Llanfarian who was really pleased to have us to keep up with, it really spurred her on. It was lovely to make conversation with her for the last 3 miles – she lived in Aberystwyth but knew a friend of mine from Newtown and also Dafydd Morgan from Tragaron who I know through Mynyddoed Cambrian Mountains – Wales really isn’t that big. The 3 of us arrived at the bandstand together just before 5.30pm. The sun had about an hour to go before setting over the sea and the starlings had already started to create their murmurations.
The bandstand was a great finish point, glad to see it was still standing after the massive storm a couple of weeks before. The live music was lovely and relaxing, just what we needed with a cup of tea. The musician, Tommy Mills happens to be my neighbour so it was nice to have a cheery wave when we arrived. A goody bag full of useful bits and bobs (my favourite being the sweat towel) plus a trophy was lovely surprise. We were ready to get home after our cuppa so made our way to the station to get the 6.30pm back to Newtown only to find that it had been cancelled and that there was a replacement bus service. A slow journey home!
Thank you to Cambrian Mountain Events for organizing such a fantastic and successful event and thank you to all the marshals en-route at the check points and the emergency points – always helpful and always smiling. Thank you to Katie for being my ‘Race to the Sea’ partner – we are so lucky that we walk at the same pace, have the same level of fitness (I actually I think Katie is fitter than me) and that we can make conversation almost continuously – a very good catch up!
My only regret - not dipping my toes in the sea, but I can do that next time.