Racing the Sun

Charity fundraisers and events are an excellent way to get colleagues working together and gelling as a team, and after the success of last year’s 40 mile ‘Plod’ across the Cotswolds, this year myself and seven other  f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶ brave volunteers took on the Race the Sun Brecon Beacons challenge, a bizarre triathlon-like event comprised of 47 miles of cycling, an 8 mile hike to the summit of Pen y Fan, and a canoe around the Pontsticill reservoir. The cause was a good one – Action Medical Research, a charity funding research into rare and lethal diseases affecting infants.  The fundraising had been tricky – we’d organized a few events here and there – and each managed to contribute a good amount under our own steam. Operating as two teams of four, we’d all done our bit to gather contributions where we could, knowing that it wouldn’t be over until the last team member had crossed the line, we’d each put effort into training in our own way too. Still, as we left work on Friday 27th June and headed for Brecon I think many of us were wondering if we’d perhaps underestimated the challenge ahead.

Arriving at the Brecon leisure centre, we were ushered into the sports hall for a briefing  after a short meal. With about 300 people in the room, things began ominously as the speaker asked if team “True Clarity” was present. There was a deathly silence as four meek hands went up and everyone turned around to gawp. Fortunately, a bit of last-minute admin was all that was required, and the organisers hurriedly cracked on with the rest of the presentation. A representative from Action Medical Research greeted us warmly, with encouraging remarks and statistics about the fundraising efforts and where our hard-won cash was going to end up. While this had gone some way towards lifting people’s spirits, the next presentation brought everyone crashing back to reality. Employing scaremongering tactics the Daily Mail would have been proud of, the head marshall seemed utterly gleeful as he summarized all of the pitfalls and dangers that awaited us out there on the course. To make matter’s worse, he seemed positive that come mid-morning there would be heavy rainfall over Brecon. Needless to say, we were more than a little unnerved, deciding to head back to the hotel for a thoroughly sensible quick drink to steel ourselves before the next day’s endeavours.

The teams set off around 6.40. We were all in reasonably good spirits after taking a couple of group photos at the start line and making a few nervous jokes, although I’d be the first to admit that I was feeling pretty daunted by the prospect of what lay ahead. The first few miles really helped get us into a stride though – the going was fairly flat, with a myriad of winding country lanes soaking up the miles, and an encouraging amount of sunshine on our backs. We were both overtaking and being overtaken constantly, it being clear that there were some teams that were most definitely out for that elusive course record.

After zipping through a few picturesque villages and a short stint on the A40, visibility had considerably worsened, and the course veered off onto a steep section of off-road cycling. We knew this was coming, but I think we were all caught off guard by how muddy the tracks had become due to the previous night’s rainfall (not to mention the scores of cyclists that had started before us). After a breezy and enjoyable start, all of the previous evening’s consternation reared its ugly head and before long, we were all mired. The mud had created somewhat of a bottleneck, with many teams ahead of us struggling to make good progress. Those of us with road bikes were having a hard time here, and as the track veered up towards the base of the mountains the mud path gave way to one of rough gravel that was barely more forgiving. This was the most challenging part of the first leg by far – a good couple of miles uphill of gravel track littered with potholes, tree branches and other detritus.

Both teams eventually made it to the end of that first leg, where a quick break to eat and rehydrate awaited before we were to change into our climbing gear for the ascent ahead. It had not been without incident though, as disaster had struck team True Clarity. Somewhere on a country lane in the first leg, Mike came crashing backwards off his bike (bought in good faith from a colleague and serviced only the week before) as the bolt supported his saddle sheared off, narrowly avoiding a serious, albeit, hilarious injury. Refusing to accept defeat this early into the competition, the rest of the team rallied around and hastily pulled off a miracle repair, taking a bolt from his rear reflector and using it to affix the saddle back in place, though at a somewhat uncomfortable angle!

Improvised Bicycle Repair

I think climbing the peaks surprised a lot of us – it did for me at least. Last time I underestimate a mountain, that’s for sure!  Beginning with a gentle amble down a few country lanes and past disused properties, it took a few moments of hesitant glances at the snaking, distant line of figures scaling the hill ahead before the notion that this wasn’t going to be a stroll in the park dissipated. Half way up to the first ridge, we were all feeling it and doing whatever it took to keep going – counting steps, counting sheep, anything. That we would be scaling peaks of similar height and gradient a further three times was mercifully absent from my mind. Still aching from the bike ride, that first ascent was awful.

Fortunately, the view from the top more than made up for it, and the going was good once we reached the main ridge that runs towards Pen y Fan. The Beacons look out over a great expanse of South Wales and it was a fantastic opportunity for a few candid photographs, especially upon arrival at the peak itself – what an awesome feeling that was! It took its toll though, as most of us were dreading those last couple of inclines, and Mike was doubled over with leg cramp. To make matters worse, Captain Safety’s weather prediction had come true, and, having threatened with a few showers earlier, by the time the last of us were coming down off the mountain the heavens had opened.

A short cycle down to the reservoir ensued, and with it still lashing down with rain we were all truly soaked by the time we alighted from the canoes. The canoeing itself was pretty uneventful, our team managing to get ourselves overtaken before finally working out how to get the four-man craft going in a straight line (teamwork, eh?). All that remained was the final bike ride. 22 long miles back to Brecon.

Without hesitation, the first half of that cycle ride was one of the hardest, most physically demanding things I’ve ever done. 12 miles, almost entirely uphill, the majority of which spent struggling on the side of a main road. Battered from the rest of the day’s exploits, it was all we could do to keep going. Our team had had issues too – Jonny’s saddle supports had snapped, meaning he was sitting very precariously, and we were all finding it hard to keep the energy levels up. Without a team for support, this would have been a far more difficult feat to accomplish. At its toughest moments, the advantages of the team came to the fore – we’d stop if someone fell, or swap positions if someone was slowing up or clearly in difficulty, keep the peloton together. Sometimes all it takes to spur you on is a word of encouragement, a friendly face, a sense of camaraderie when you’re all in it together. We felt for those teams that had split into four individuals and were separated, with the slower members lagging behind and the quicker ones waiting impatiently for them to catch up, never giving them a chance to compose themselves.

Mercifully, we peeled off the main road with 10 miles of largely downhill track to go,  though not without its fair share of nasty surprises. The final 500 metres were horrendous, a long stretch of steep uphill that nearly finished us off.  Battered, bruised, soaked and exhausted, it was all worth it in the end though; as the finish line came around the bend the sense of achievement that rushed in was wonderful. An experience not to be forgotten, and one that really made you appreciate the people around you.

We’re still raising money for the Event, so it you’d like to contribute to a worthy cause our team pages can be found here:

http://www.action.org.uk/sponsor/trueclarity1

http://www.action.org.uk/sponsor/trueclarity2

One thought on “Racing the Sun

  1. Wendy July 21, 2014 / 7:41 pm

    Great write up Nick, almost made me wish I’d taken part!

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