Gary Davies from the Mynyddwyr De Cymru (MDC) Running Club challenged two friends to tackle the South Wales Traverse; an epic fell run taking in 75 miles and a total ascent of 5150 metres. Picking a weekend mid heat-wave, they cruised through the challenge in 19hrs 53m 29s. Although a few hours shy of Mark Hartell’s 1990 record of the same route, one of the trio, Katie Roby, smashed the women’s record by over 2 hours. This is Gary’s story.
I regularly hear great stories about the challenges that current and past members of the Mynyddwyr De Cymru (MDC) Running Club have done in the past; some of the tales are folklore in the pub after the Tuesday night training runs! The South Wales Traverse (aka Brecon Beacons Traverse) is one such challenge which was established by Derek Fisher and Andrew Lewsley in July 1983 (30 years ago) when they were considering a 24 hour challenge in the style of the Bob Graham Round.
They consulted George Bridge’s book, The Mountains of England and Wales which classed 31 of the tops and peaks over 2000 feet (610m) within the Brecon Beacons National Park as summits. The area split naturally into sections:
- the Carmarthen Fan (five summits)
- the Fforest Fawr (six)
- the Brecon Beacons (eight)
- and the Black Mountains (twelve).
The length and ascent in the challenge varies depending on route choice but we covered over 75 miles and a total ascent of 5150m.
Stories from previous attempts were legendary with tales of hypothermia, sheer exhaustion, golf ball sized hailstones and exhilaration. So I had little difficulty in persuading two other members from the club to partake in the challenge! Both Chris Jones and Katie Roby were enthusiastic and we soon fixed a date a few months in advance of the weekend of 20/21 July. Advice was sought from our friends in the club on potential routes between the summits and we started doing recces of some of the trickier sections, particularly those that involved going through old woodland rides and those that we’d do in the dark.
We planned to start at 0400 on Saturday 20th July from Pen Rhiw Wen (Black Mountain) at the western end. Some of our closest friends suggested that we postpone the challenge to a later date due to the heatwave leading up and forecast for that date. However we decided to continue with the event but to start at 1900 on Friday 19th July with a run through the evening whilst it was cooler.
Derek Thornley was our Chief Supporter and would meet us at the major road crossing along the route. His task was to restock us with food supplies and water. We also had five other members from MDC who would support us on foot on each of the legs. These included Matt Stott, David Powlsland, Steve Ironside, Alan Stone and Andy Blackmore.
After a countdown from our supporters, we headed south-east towards Garreg Lwyd (#1). We headed over Foel Fraith instead of around it as advised by our club friends. Some had contoured around it in the past and regretted it. This section was unfamiliar to me but our navigation was good and we successfully found Garreg Las (#2) which had two large stone piles at the peak. I had decided to buy a bumbag for this challenge instead of my normal rucksack to enable my back to breathe and avoid the dreaded sweat in the heat. It was new to me and the two 800ml bottles kept falling out until I discovered a thin bungee cord that kept them secure.
The next section was familiar to me because it’s similar to part of the Transfan route which I’d done three times previously. We ran above Llyn y Fan Fach and summited Bannau Sir Gaer (#3) then managed to find a good sheep trod/path to the summit of Fan Brycheiniog (#4). This was much drier than my three Transfan attempts and we managed to keep up a fast walking pace to the summit. The out-and-back to Fan Hir (#5) was swift, although we may have wasted a little time because we weren’t sure which point marked the summit so we ran to all the indistinct high points just in case.
The view of Llyn y Fan Fawr on the descent was stunning in the sunlight but the first of the many rocky stepped descents didn’t allow us to get into a free flowing rhythm until we ran parallel to Nant y Llyn to the first road crossing in the River Tawe valley. The climb over the “hill with no name” was tough as ever but was faster than running around it.
Derek met us at the A4067 road crossing and we relieved Matt Stott of his running support duties. The Camarthen Fans were behind us and Dave Powlsland led us up Fan Gyhirych (#6) to start the Fforest Fawr section. This climb always seems never-ending and it was no better this time either. However the view northwards of the Cray Reservoir reflecting the light from the three-quarter moon was stunning and it seemed to numb the burning sensation in my legs. The hillside gradually got steeper as we got closer to the top and all of us used our arms and legs to crawl up. The run to Fan Nedd (#7) seemed longer than I had remembered too. We summited in the dark and donned our head torches ready for the descent down to the Maen Llia Road. We found no path or sheep trods on this descent but plenty of tussocky “babies heads” which was a potential hazard for our ankles. We took it easy and headed for Derek’s car on the road who’d purposefully left on his hazard lights! Good thinking Derek.
Derek handed over some food and water and off we headed up Fan Llia (#8). I used my compass regularly on this section because I normally end up too far south on the ridgeline. I tend to go up hills perpendicular to the contours but this was not the best route on this ascent.
David never stopped talking at us whilst supporting us which was great. He kept us in good spirits even though we were a little hot and sticky in the hot night. It was 21 deg C during the night so we only had shorts and t-shirts on. I was consuming vast quantities of water too and supplemented them with double doses of electrolytes.
After the descent from Fan Llia and Fan Dringarth, we managed to find a good dry trail beside the fenceline to just south of Fan Frynych (#9). We dropped our bags for this out-and-back and managed to find the trig point effortlessly. We returned and picked off Rhos Dringarth (#10) with ease as it was only 250m from where we’d left our bags.
The run to the foot of Fan Fawr is normally boggy however the recent dry spell made it a very quick run that evening. We managed to find a good path and started ascending using the compass this time. We had earmarked a rock outcrop as a sighting feature on our recces but we couldn’t see it in the dark. I remember a lovely fresh breeze at the top of Fan Fawr (#11) but we couldn’t hang around long so we headed off. (David was still full of chat here too!)
The descent off Fan Fawr was easier than normal. The grass and soil is normally slippery on the steep slopes but not this time! I sometimes slide down on my bottom on this descent as it’s faster and safer when wet! We got to Storey Arms with no trouble and Chris had a cup of his Polish beetroot soup. He claimed that it was rocket fuel so we all had a sip!
The Fforest Fawr section was behind us and Steve Ironside took over from David as our running supporter to start the Brecon Beacons section. He led us effortlessly to Y Gyrn (#12) but we failed to see the stile in the fence afterwards. We ran back and forth a few times until we managed to find it further south than we’d anticipated. We all took slightly different routes from there. I traversed up the hill through tussocks whilst others contoured on sheep trods and then climbed on the main path up to Bwlch Duwynt. We picked off the next three points with relative ease as they were the most familiar to us. They were Duwynt (#13), Corn Ddu(#14) and Pen y Fan (#15).
I hadn’t descended off the south-east of Pen y Fan for many years and I’d forgotten how hard it was to run due to the steps. We were glad to get to the saddle and then walk up to Cribyn (#16) followed by an easier descent down to the Gap. Surprisingly, Fan y Big is not included in the SWT and I was glad to miss it out and traverse diagonally up to the path which follows the ridgeline.
We were still in darkness and summited Waun Rydd (#17) at 0308. We weren’t entirely sure which of the rolling tops was the highest summit so we ran over both of them to make sure. Our GPS log later confirmed that we’d summited the right one! I thoroughly enjoyed the run to Allt Lwyd (#18) where we had to take a bearing to find the right track through the woodland approximately 800m away in the dark. The hillside ferns were far more dense than our recces and it was very slow going. Our progress was hindered further when we got to the woodland where the indistinct path was even less distinct and now full of nettles and brambles! Ow ow ow.
We met Derek at Abercynafon at 0352 who reported that we were doing well and soon dispatched us for the next summit which was 5.8km away and included a climb of 445m. We’d reconnoitred this several times and were very pleased with ourselves when we managed to manoeuvre through the quarry, summit Chwarel y Fan (#19) and get back out and down to Pyrgad with no dramas. Chwarel y Fan marked the half-way point in the race and we covered it in just over 10 hours.
The sun blessed us with its presence and we started worrying that the day would get unbearably hot like in previous weeks; but we were lucky as the clouds kept the sun at bay.
Each of us had sleepy moments during the night but continued to move well. My favourite memory was of Katie slapping herself in the face to stay awake!
Derek had made us some hot food by the time we’d met him at Pyrgad. We sat down in his deck chairs and changed to road running shoes for the next section which was a 10km long road section. We tried to stay positive about the hard road section by reminding ourselves that our speed would increase and that the miles would pass faster. But being fell/mountain runners, we really disliked this section.
The running supporter duties were taken up by Alan Stone from the north side of the Glanusk Estate and he started us on the Black Mountains leg. The ascent of Pen Cerrig Calch (#20) was the largest of the 31 summits and included over 500m ascent. The bracken and fern at its foot were far denser than on our recces and again slowed our progress. Katie and I being “gravitationally challenged” couldn’t be seen in the high undergrowth but Chris “the long legged one” Jones was visible throughout.
I had printed off paper copies of the SWT route on 11 pages of A4 paper at 1:25,000 scale. For a morale boost I announced to the others that I’d just flicked onto page eight when we summited Pen Cerrig Calch. We soon picked off Pen Allt-mawr (#21), Mynydd Llysiau (#22), Waun Fach (#23) and Pen y Gadair Fawr (#24) but took the wrong path off the summit. Alan recognised that we were descending too far and corrected our route before it was too late. He also took a better route than our recces to the summit of Pen Twyn Mawr (#25).
We’d recce’d the descent down into the Grwyne Valley several times. Maps from attempts made over a decade ago showed a wide ride/break through the forest but this no longer existed on the ground nor recent OS maps. However our club mates had informed us that a line did exist and we had managed to find it after a few unsuccessful recces. The gravel track crossings were far more overgrown however due to the recent heatwave. We lost several minutes due to this but gained several scratches to our legs!
Derek supplied us with sustenance in the Grwyne Valley car park and Andy Blackmore took over the supporter duties to the finish. Poor Andy was lugging a large pack full of water for us on this leg in case the sun should decide to break out from behind the clouds and increase our thirst. We left the car park at 1116 and scrambled up through the woods. We hit the open moorland and seemed to summit Chwarel y Fan (#26) faster than on our recces because we were able see the paths and sheep trods on the clear day. By this time, the majority of the ascent seemed behind us and we only had a simple trot to the finish along ridgelines. Oh boy was I wrong!
We ran over Twyn Talycefn and summited Rhos Dirion (#27) then headed north-east to Twmpa (#28) which is more affectionately known as Lord Hereford’s Knob to the English! We soon met Derek again at Gospel Pass where we grabbed a re-supply of food and water. I looked at my watch which showed that 1313 and 18hrs 13mins had passed since we started. I quickly did some maths in my head and realised that we could potentially complete the challenge in less than 20 hours if we could increase our pace in the subsequent 12km to the finish.
Chris had very sore feet by this point (we later saw very large blisters on his toes) but managed to keep moving quickly after a quick shoe change. He soon caught Katie and I before Hay Bluff (#29) where we changed direction and headed south-east along Offa’s Dyke to Black Mountain (#30). We kept moving at a good pace and passed the final summit Pen y Garn Fawr (#31) at 1426 and only had 4km to the finish. However our knees and quads were incapable of running down the steep rocky ascent at speed and I kept glancing at my watch to see if we’d make it to Llanthony Priory in less than 20 hours.
We touched the outside wall of the Llanthony Priory and completed the South Wales Traverse in a time of 19hrs 53m 29s. It was a far cry from the 14hr 42m record set by Mike Hartell in 1990 (www.gofar.org.uk) however Katie reduced the female record set by Debbie Cooper in 1993 by 2hrs 40m. An excellent run.
All three runners would like to thank friends, family and like-minded individuals who supported them in their first and successful SWT attempt.