By Rick Ansell
Many years ago I ran the South Wales Traverse—a run of about 70 odd miles across the Black Mountains East, Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains West. It didn’t count as inadvertently I missed a couple of tops but was still a significant day out in my books. It is brilliant in conception, but in practice spoilt by a ten mile road section between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. Rather than go back and do it properly I decided it would be good, one day, to do them as two separate runs and so this weekend I went down to do the Black Mountains section, the shorter of the two. I’ve just measured it (with my wheelie thing) as 48km with 1,900m of ascent. It felt longer but maybe that is just age and Lockdown.
The South Wales Traverse finishes at the Half Moon in Llanthony so I decided to start and finish my run there. It sort of has mountain running history, a bit like the Moot Hall in Keswick (I decided the Moot Hall was too far off track and in the wrong country to start form).
I spent the night in the back of the car parked outside the pub. There is a deep peace about the place. The old priory, vandalised by Henry VIII, seems to exhale tranquility and harmony. There was no radio reception in the valley let alone a phone signal. No wonder the monks chose it to make their home. I watched satellites and shooting stars between sleeping fitfully.
Usually when the sun rises on the day of a big event I think how nice it would be not to have to go and run all day and to be at home to make some coffee and go back to bed. But on that day I found myself actually relishing the day on the hills in the sunshine. I couldn’t think of anything better to do after all the weeks of being stuck at home.
I loitered about the pub watching swallows nesting in the eaves, waiting for 9.30 to click round so I could start. There was no real reason for not starting at 9.23 but 9.30 seemed neater somehow. The run began with a 400m climb to the ridge. The Black Mountains are brilliant hills to run in. Once you are up you can go for miles without having to come down. There are grassy paths to almost anywhere you might want to go so there is no thrashing through tussocks. The hills were bone dry, I didn’t step in a single patch of mud and my feet only got wet when I crossed the river at the foot of the final climb in the late afternoon.
I padded along Offa’s Dyke, one foot in Wales and the other in England, the sun on my back, the breeze in my face and huge views on either side. Hay Bluff marked the northern point and I dropped down to the Gospel Pass with less than two hours run. Lord Hereford’s Knob, the next hill, it has to be said, is a rather more commanding feature than Paul’s Knob.
Although I seemed to be making good progress, it seemed to take an age to overhaul walkers and once passed, they didn’t seem to disappear very quickly behind me. I felt I was moving slowly and got depressed. I tried to persuade myself that the time didn’t matter, that I am an old man and that just being able to get out and travel over the hills under my own steam is enough. I wasn’t very convinced.
As the morning wore on the clouds built up and away to the north little strands of showers swept down over the Wye Valley. On Pen Allt-Mawr I drifted off line. I had been going for four hours now and decided I must be getting tired. I suppose Mark Innocenti would have covered about 30 miles in this time and would be just getting warm. At least my views were better.
The next leg took fully two hours as the wheels fell off. I had terrible stomach cramps, something I seem to suffer with a lot now on longer runs. Psychologically I was on the way home but now, after all the ridge running I had three big descents and two big climbs to cross the ridges back to the Vale of Ewyas. There was a certain amount of tricky route finding to pick up paths to cross the farm land in the valley bottom but everything started hurting—feet, quads, knees. I got too hot in the valley and then too cold back up on the ridge and the afternoon drifted by. After gaining the next ridge there was 5km of gradual uphill to the penultimate top of Pen y Gadair Fawr. My stomach was more than uncomfortable when I jogged, the wind had turned unfriendly and the sky was overcast. It was teeth gritting time.
At the top I was on the Black Mountains Race route. I haven’t done the race for a few years now but I remembered there was a small grassy trod and a glorious swooping run down to the valley. The trod has become a well-worn path now and my stomach, feet and knees meant there was not much swopping but I got myself down and had a two minute sit down before the final climb. I remembered it as starting with a steep scrabble through some gorse.
I slipped and wobbled and noticed someone behind me. He quickly caught me, chatted for a moment and strolled on up the hill looking for his wife who he said was out for a run. Although I was tired it was soul destroying to be passed so effortlessly. He wandered off across the hillside and then came back to join me on the race line. He looked familiar and I searched an addled brain for a name: “I’m sure I recognize you.” I said. “Yes, you look familiar too, I’m Lloyd Taggert” . I didn’t feel so bad about being passed then. Soon Jackie Lee, his wife and also a British Fellrunning Champion came lolloping down the hillside to us. She’d been out collecting Nuttals and done about 25 miles. She looked a lot fresher than I felt.
I pushed on to the final top and was soon slithering and stumbling down to Llanthony. I touched the door of the pub at exactly 6.15pm and sauntered back to the car. Rooks cawed in the trees and somewhere a cuckoo called. The cold wind blew the first drops of rain into the ruined abbey. Mission accomplished. Take some satisfaction from it.