Vale Of Ewyas Race* and Storm Dennis – 15th February 2020.
*The Valley of Ewyas is the steep-sided and secluded valley of the River Honddu. As well as its outstanding beauty, it is known for the ruins of Llanthony Priory
Early in January interest was piqued by a Facebook post for a new Fell Race in what has, thanks to Andrew Wood, come over the past year or so a regular stomping ground; the Black Mountains.
A reconnaissance of the route confirmed the sales pitch; Andrew and I committed and entered. There followed some weekends of excessively wet and windy weather as the UK was battered by a sequence of three storms. The third, Storm Dennis, coincided with the Vale of Ewyas race weekend. Numerous races were called off and the forecast was less than encouraging for the Black Mountains and Sugar Loaf…
However, the race director gave a green light for the event following a late Friday run round the route. Based on the conditions experienced they advised wearing two tops underneath a waterproof, at least one long sleeved. Having participated in a number of Fell Races with sporty weather and where other folk seem impervious to wind and rain, often enduring in just a running vest when I was wrapped up in full waterproofs and thermals, that advice indicated the outing would be a challenging one. The one positive was the temperature was above freezing, even with wind chill taken into account, so not excessively cold and no risk of slipping on ice either.
Saturday morning saw an early start just in case the Severn Bridges were closed. As it was the Prince of Wales bridge* remained open so there was plenty of time for a pit stop in Abergavenny. A quick scan of Tripadivsor identified an open greasy spoon and we dived in.
*Because of the more advanced aerodynamic design of the later bridge, the Second Crossing is far less prone to such restrictions caused by cross winds than the first Severn Bridge.
Amply fueled, and with Dennis starting to make his presence felt, we made the short drive to the Old Pandy Inn to register and gear up. Due to the inclement weather plus the length and nature of the race, there was not a big queue to register and in due course only 28 runners toed the start line.
For only the second time ever I started a race in full waterproofs; and not the usual running “crisp packet” waterproofs, but heavyweight mountaineering Gortex, generally reserved for full-on Scotish or Lake District outings in testing conditions.
On the sheltered, initial road section I felt a little overdressed. However, as soon as we climbed onto the open hillside and got into closer company with Dennis the decision was vindicated. Andrew’s choice of shoe was less ideal as he “wheelspan” his way up the waterlogged and steep grassy slope. As our pace / endurance was broadly similar, Andrew and I had decided to run as a pair and provide some safety in numbers given the conditions. His lack of traction therefore gave me an opportunity for a breather and helpfully to suggest he might have been better off with the studded shoes he chose to leave in the car.
Thankfully the exposure to wind driven hose pipe levels of moisture was brief as we headed up and over the first summit and checkpoint. From there it was onto the first navigation choice of the day. We did not follow the small herd in front of us but elected to drop more directly towards the valley bottom or a lower line we had used on the reconnaissance. It was six and two threes and we neither lost nor gained places. A short, steep climb led to the second high point and Checkpoint. It was not a day for views or lingering. So after having hearlity thanked the marshall for their endeavour, we pressed on.
Faced with another navigation decision, we went with the majority this time. As a consequence we lucked out on a much more direct line than the one we had taken on our trial run. In no time at all, thanks to Storm Dennis wind assistance, Andrew was charging down to Llanthony Priory with the only interruption to his flow being the Checkpoint 3 marshall, who had sensibly elected to move to a lower, less exposed position. I lagged behind, blaming my slowness on steamed up glasses and lack of regular hill running. Andrew being the perfect gentleman duly waited for me at the gate off the fell and we enjoyed a frightfully skiddy descent down water-logged grassy field to the priory. By this stage the effects of the full fat breakfast were starting to wear off; the briefest of stops was made to top up energy levels ahead of the climb out of the valley. It also provided an opportunity to check on water levels as we crossed the River Honddu. It was already a mass of boiling muddy brown water, which did not bode well for the stream crossing awaiting us towards the end of route.
The path ascending from Llanthony up to Bal Mawr, the highest point of the day’s Type II fun*, is a beauty and provided welcome relief from the breeze. As we neared the top of the climb, Dennis, in the form of his howling could certainly be heard if not not felt. We were also approaching what the race director had advised would be the most exposed section of the route. We duly paused to don extra layers in preparation for the predicted battering. The reality, whilst pretty grim as the pictures above indicate, was manageable. The expected long drag into the prevailing teeth of Storm Dennis passed swiftly enough and was eased by being slightly downhill. That said, the weather was far from balmy and still warranted full waterproofs and the extra layers. We also started to haul in some runners ahead of us, which further improved morale and provided a bit of added impetus as we passed the halfway mark, marching onto the fifth checkpoint.
From there it was a long section of downhill and a bit of tarmac towards the brooding mass of Sugar Loaf. The 400 metres of height loss was immediately clawed back in the fruity, gradually steepening climb to the summit of the Loaf and another checkpoint. Writing nearly two months later this section still firmly falls into Type III fun* territory. The entertainment factor was further reduced on the descent from the wind and rain lashed summit of Sugar Loaf when I led us astray, having relied on instinct rather than the map over a part of the route we had not covered on our previous visit. An unnecessary loss of hard won places and added time and distance resulted in some colourful language. The moment was rapidly overtaken however by the desire to crack on and get to the dry embrace of the Old Pandy Inn. We were thankfully soon back on known, gentle downhill ground and equilibrium was restored.
*Type 2 fun = Miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect.
*Type 3 fun = Not fun at all. Not even in retrospect. More information on the “fun scale” Here
The downhill concluded with the much anticipated stream crossing. Water flow was indeed a little boisterous. However, a bridging fencing arrangement gave something to hang onto and we both got across without too much drama. From there it was onto yet more Type III fun for the brutally abrupt and bramble strewn climb to the penultimate checkpoint; it was definitely a day that kept on giving.
Absolute stars of the day were the marshals who were in positions fully exposed to Dennis’s rough and moist embrace but unceasingly encouraging and cheery. The one at Checkpoint 8 was the best prepared and was fully ensconced in his bivvy shelter with just the electronic dibber showing; I was clearly getting tired as I faffed and took an age to “dib”. Having not found a decent descent path from this highpoint on our reconnaissance, I had identified a white house in the valley as the best point to aim for. So rather than following a path Andrew had found heading in the right direction, I stuck to Plan A and headed off to find the white house marker; unfortunately as we entered unfamiliar looking territory it transpired there was more than one white house in the valley. Thankfully it was not too much of an excursion but did generate a bit more effing and jeffing verbalisation on my part.
The Old Pandy Inn was now tantalisingly close as the crow flew. We were not crows though and in a lovely quirk of route setting there was one last little bump to negotiate before the canter back to dry clothes, shelter and oodles of cake some two hours after the winner; despite my navigational blunders we did finish in the top 25 though.
On entering the pub I was mightily surprised to be identified as the first V50 home. My reward was a pack of dry socks, which was both marvellous and farsighted given how we found Andrew’s car when we left the pub…
A twenty plus mile outing over the Black Mountains in mid-February is always going to provide memorably good sport. The Vale of Ewyas in combination with Storm Dennis certainly did not disappoint in that regard. Very many thanks go to the race director Tim and his brilliant band of helpers from the Mynydd Du fell running club for putting on the event, and the trust they put in the judgement and ability of the runners in doing so.
Writing this some two months on as the sun shines and Covid-19 impacts, the winter hills of South Wales and racing already seem like another age. However, “what was has been will be again”* and that is sustainment enough while Covid-19 is overcome.