Help me out a little here – Imagine reading this one in a David Attenborough-esque narrative, with a Welsh twang of course…
Since life began on this nature-rich planet we call home, a sub-group of the human species have sought out the endorphin rush of adventure, exploring their habitat on foot. These humans, known as ‘Runners’ have been seen exploring the concrete jungles of their city homes and often, now in increasing numbers, are seen venturing further a field into the wilderness of the countryside.
In this episode we follow one particular pack of (trail) runners and recount their journey as they seek their thrills in the Countryside of the Brecon Beacons.
Pre-dawn and the runners are rising. Rubbing their eyes whilst eating porridge, the morning rituals begin. Caffeine is consumed and hydration tabs passed among each other as survival kits are checked and race numbers attached.
In the quiet community of Talybont-on-Usk the runners, in numbers reaching 250 convene in the village hall. An annual pilgrimage will soon begin where these runners set off on a journey of self-discovery and adventure in the National Park. A race director inducts the runners into today’s challenge before the runners start gathering in the nearby field to begin their journey – one which will take them over and around the Brecon Beacons National Park. This epic adventure will see the runners climb to exquisite viewpoints, traverse through forested woodlands and cross streams before returning to the sanctuary of the village hall basecamp. Whilst alone this presents a significant challenge to push these runners to the limits of their physical and mental boundaries, on this occasion they will venture back out to complete the 23 mile loop for a second time. An adventure of ultra proportions and one bestrewed with dangers and obstacles to be overcome.
As dawn breaks, the runners are released from the safety of the basecamp and they begin their journey, their quest for adventure and ultimate safe return to the camp before succumbing to the challenges ahead. The initial route takes the runners, in their large numbers, along the Monmouthshire & Brecon canal towards Llangynidr. Passing the Llangynidr Locks, the atmosphere is jovial as the collective mass of runners form into single line formations as they jostle for space. Their legs heavy from sleep they shuffle in line, greeting each other with pleasantries and enthusiasm for the trail.
Within a short time the collective begins to disperse and spread out. Packs and teams of runners compete among themselves and the others around them. Some runners decide to ‘go it alone’. Typically The faster, stronger runners. They might be fearful of the rumored challenges laying await in the night, or seeking personal dominance in a show physical supremacy. Either way, they risk it all to finish earlier than those around them. Such runners standout in the collective through their professionalism and determination strewn faces. Built like gazelles they are seen briefly in the very early parts of an adventure before vanishing into the wild. Later on they are recognisable by the often gaunt look of exhaustion that accompanies their remarkable achievements.
Other runners in the collective opt for the tactic of strength in numbers. They Form ‘packs’ with other like-minded runners where they will show solidarity and support each other through the obstacles of the journey. Often heard before seen, these runners are most visible at viewpoints and aid stations and recognisable from their readily accessible phones and abundance of selfie poses stuck.
The runners turn off the canal path just before Llangynidr and the journey up to Tor Y Foel – the highest point on the loop at ~1,700ft – begins. The runners enter the lush green fields and are greeted by the docile stares from herds of sheep and cows. No particular concern for most of the runners as long as the stares remain just that. If undisturbed, the runners can cross the fields unobstructed. Fear however can cause a stampede of livestock and the pack hope that the runner Gif will get through the fields unaffected. As the path starts to incline, the runners choose their survival tactic. Some jogging on at pace, others embracing the ‘walk the hills’ approach. Our pack take the later and the cameras are soon out snapping pictures of the morning mist.
Up ahead their view is obstructed. Visibility is low, wind is howling, covering the pack with a fine spray of the morning rain. The runners soon become damp with the fast-moving mist. They trudge onward into the unknown. Uncovering just a few meters of the trail at a time. One minute warm and the next minute cold, they struggle to adapt to the changing climate as the effort levels increase. Ensuring their body temperatures remain comfortable is critical to their survival.
The climb is an opportunity for further interaction between the pack and with other runners around them. Jokes are traded and stories exchanged. Before they know it they have reached the summit and can begin the descent towards the reservoir. One runner known simply as ‘Ged’ comments on the beautiful Welsh scenery, comparing it to the steamy view he can achieve in the shower back in his man-made shelter.
Atop the summit, the down hill begins and the runners break out into a run. This is the prime characteristic of runners – a faster, flowing synchronised movement of the feet which differentiates them from other human forms. The collective disperse further as runners bound over the wet boggy land at different speeds. The pack stay together, finding a communal pace they can all enjoy. Off in the distance to their right they can vaguely see the vast storage of water that is the Talybont Reservoir, shrouded in the mist. Alongside the reservoir, the pack will embark on the journey along the long path of the ‘Fire Track’. Before the trek begins, one runner – Dai – sneaks to relieve themselves against a man-made stone structure known as a wall. Returning to the pack he moans of wet feet incurred through stepping in a bog. A natural obstacle so often catching out runners in need of relief. With wet feet he continues alongside his pack, conscious not to stray far from the safety of the pack again.
The fire track is a long gravel road gently climbing alongside the reservoir. It is a mental challenge for runners who endure it. Wide, lonely and everlasting into the horizon the runners have to continue exposed to the elements and unsure as to what lays ahead. A decision faces them as they contemplate whether they should run whilst they can or preserve energy for the challenges further on? Our pack decide to run whilst they can. A classic runners tact to focus on the ‘now’ rather than the ‘later’ and to “bank some miles” whilst they feel good.
The fire track comes to an end near Blaen Y Glyn, like much of the first loop, Organisers and marshals are present along the course to help ensure runners are steered in the right direction, preparing them for their challenges ahead with a fighting chance of survival. They direct the runners towards the next section where the will follow the route along side the water station near the Lower Neuadd Reservoir. From here the runners could venture left and up to to the peaks of Corn Du and Pen Y Fan. On this adventure though it is straight. Straight up towards ‘The Gap’ between the peaks of Cribyn and Fan Y Big.
Up ahead the runners encounter a hoard of the ‘hiker’. Another human variant, the hiker is similar to the runner in many ways. They are however often found in groups of large, slow moving numbers. To the runner this can cause a blockade that needs navigating. The Pack need to be swift footed to find a route through these friendly hoards, being careful not to cause them trouble or disruption as they pass.
The path is again long and straight and the pack can see runners dotted ahead rising into the distance. The negative mental effect this could have is combated by the morning mist leaving the ground and the sky clearing. With optimistic smiles the pack continue onward, putting distance between themselves and the hikers, all is not safe though as the track is formed of loose rocks waiting to trip and injured the runners. The pact decide it best to walk the incline, recuperating some energy as they go.
Here, at the second summit, the pack are rewarded with unfiltered sunshine raining down on the sacred land around them. Before their eyes lies ‘The Gap’. A vast valley formed deep between the peaks of Cribyn and Fan Y Big. Paths winding off into the distance beyond the sun’s reach. For a moment they stop, breathing in the fresh valley air and assessing the land in front of them. They begin their decent – down along the Gap on to the trails to the towards the villages of Cantref and Llanfrynach.
As the terrain continues, rocky underfoot, the pack pick up the pace. The gravity induced run raises the energy levels of the runners and whoops and cheers can be heard echoing around them as the bound onward. Fleet-footed they choose their path wisely and leap the streams of water washing over the well trodden track. There’s no avoiding the cool wet mountain chill on their feet as they splash their way through. A short mile or so ahead lays one of the great wonders of the running community – an aid station.
‘Dabbing’ in at the checkpoint the runners confirm their safe arrival. Tracked by the organisers, their safety is not taken lightly. Water and refreshments are served and the pack joke with the race ‘volunteers’ – an incredibly supportive form of runner, donating their time as a gift to support and encouragement runners on their journeys. “See you later Butt!” Lingers in the air as the runners set off on they next installment of the adventure. The next time they stop will be in the sanctuary of the basecamp…
First though, more treacherous challenges are thrust before the runners and which the pack must overcome. Upon leaving the aid station the runners are thrown straight back into a single line formation as they navigate the overgrown, rocky ground that might form a natural stream under adverse weather conditions. The runner by the name of ‘Jon’ takes the lead, guiding the pack through the seemingly never ending track. Legs are stretched as they straddle the banks and hop from rock to rock, their limbs scratched at by thorny foliage. Before they can reach the end they are tested once more when a cry of “Bike!!” is heard from behind.
A more dominant, faster sub-group of humans is racing down the track in the direction of the pack. The pack speed up with the end of the path looming in sight. But it is too late. As the bikers, on their mechanical contraptions are hurtling towards them, the pack have no choice but to move to the side and throw themselves deep into the foliage to avoid a near-fatal collision. In this desolate land, assistance and recovery would not come quickly. Passing the pack safely the bikers continue. But ahead of them, Jon is still chasing that glimmer of freedom and light at the end of the overgrown tunnel. With moments to spare he makes it unscathed and the bikers continue off out of sight.
Pleased with their escape the runners continue but are then greeted with a short run along a trail runners nemesis – a paved road. Vast man-made formations, roads litter the natural landscape like tribalistic markings. Designed for speed and mass transportation they can cause all manner of injuries to runners. Navigating the roads, the tarmac bends through the village of Llanfrynach, where a sole local-supporter offers another restbite for runners with fuel and support. Shortly after which the paved road once again gives way to a welcomed return to the lush green fields of Brecon.
This is not the end of the runner’s dilemmas though when, after overcoming many other man made torture devices – the sty – the runners follow a course marking in the wrong direction. The sense of urgency on a trail is heighten. More so that, if it wasn’t for the eagle-eyed Reka spotting the path into the fields, the runners might already be lost to the endless pain of the paved road. The risk of going wrong, getting lost and expending unnecessary energy is too great so Jon calls the pack to a halt. A moment of democratic discussion sees the pack retrace their steps a few meters to inspect the signage and opt for a different path out of the fields. The right path. Runners know only to well to trust their gut feeling.
Crossing a river stream the runners again emerge onto another paved road leading to the next village of Pencelli. They slow to a walk and swear with other runners as they pass. Soon, the road should again join the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal path, the final stretch into the basecamp. Eventually in the distance a hi-vis yellow arrow directs the runners over a bridge. The canal has been reached. The end of the lap is within their grasp.
Dai, spurred on by the sense of familiarity (he has traveled this path before – Brecon trail), breaks into a run. He knows where he is going and just how long it is. His confidence is high. He sees lone runners scattered in the distance and picks them off one by one with greetings of support to each he passes. Soon he sees the turn into camp but he grinds to a halt as a familiar voice calls out “there he is!”. Up-ahead two bobble-headed supporters wave and cheer. Kelly and Fudgie are supporting one of their own and cheering the other runners into camp. The greatest strength of a runner is the support from within the community and other runners bringing energy and joy to them. It works. They stop for a chat and wait a few moments whilst the rest of the pack fall in. Goodbyes are said and the pack head into the base camp sanctuary. Just under 5 hours elapsed. Time for sausage rolls and coke.
Rejuvenated with fresh supplies the pack head back out with their kit adapted for the second passing. Alas they emerge not empty handed. They take with them offerings to pay back the supporters for their sacrifices and giving up their time to be on a cold and lonely path all day. Sweets and brownies deposited to Kelly and Fudgie. The pack start the journey all over again.
Second time out the conditions have changed. The path is the same and the runners have boosted confidence in knowing what is in store. Now they also have light on their side. As Jon proclaims “daylight is underestimated”. They are not alone though and more wildlife is also enjoying the sun’s rays. Dai takes time to interact with some cows watching the adventure unfold before he hastily returning to the pack. They run the canal back to the beginning of the climb to Pen Y Foel. A climb this time they can see in all is magnificence.
What nature gives with one hand though, it slaps the runners with the other. With the clear visibility of the the afternoon, comes the torment of seeing the monumental challenge of the mountain ahead. Whilst they’ve summited once before, now they are tired and aching. They can see Pen Y Foel in the distance. Way off in the distance. As they hike it once more, this time it drains them. The runner Ged is prepared. He has brought poles. Like a modern day archer he unleashes them from his back and hikes on. Or at least that was the intention. He has all the poise of a clumsy Star Wars AT-AT wobbling from side to side. His frustrations grow. But to the enjoyment of the pack. The summit is overcome through laughter and piss-taking. A runner’s secret weapon.
A moment up top this time offers another chance for the runners to rest. Unlike the early misty morning, the clear panoramic views are there to be absorbed. The pack take it all in. The cameras are out and they dance around the (quite possibly least impressive) summit stone. The enjoyment continues down towards the Talybont Reservoir where it is this time revealed in all its glory.
A few rarely seen Locals line the entrance to the fire track offering support to the runners. No doubt veterans of these paths themselves, they laugh with the pack and send them on. This time the pack walk-run the length of the fire track, stopping momentarily to interact with other runners and some more of the hikers they encounter. Unseen in the morning, the colours of the trees and woodlands below them flicker in the sunshine and light reflects of the reservoir behind them. The track is overcome with no casualties and they progress back onto the rocky climb to the next summit. Already half way through the second loop they are optimistic about the final quarter of the challenge.
But they are not ill-prepared. They know their greatest challenge is yet to come. A danger they cannot avoid nor out run. One which they must endure and be at their most alert for it will test them to their limits. The darkness.
The runners had been aware of this danger since before they left camp in the morning. But now, as the hours pass by, it has quickly become a reality as the sun begins to set behind the Welsh mountains. Soon the pack will be entering the The Gap where the sun’s reach will diminish to nothing. They have less than an hour of daylight remaining before the darkness will come. Whilst the trail runner is adapt at running in the dark, they are vulnerable to its energy. More than ever before on the run they are aware of their surroundings which soon they will no longer be able to see. Led by Jon the pack treks up to the summit. Unlike the first passing it seems to take far longer this time around but they persevere. They have made it to The Gap in time and can once again begin their descent. This time their descent is impeded as the rocky terrain is wetter than before and the danger of slipping has increased. A fall here could end the adventure and leave the runners exposed to the elements of the night. They descend with less haste than earlier in the day before picking up their pace as they hit the grassy stretch just before the final aid station.
Inside the recognisable volunteer faces greet the pack and help them with water and cakes. A cookie dough brownie is a favourite which the pack feast on before being released back out onto the track with their head torches accessible. The darkness setting upon them is imminent and they are conscious of the single narrow track of the river bed to which they now need to navigate. Whilst there are no bikers this time, the pack once again find themselves in a race through the foliage tunnel as they try to emerge injury free before the darkness completely devours them. They narrowly achieve their goal and emerge onto the road into pitch black of the night. Darkness is here.
The lap has felt longer this time around and is taking its toll on the pack. They are drained of energy and longing for the safe arrival at the basecamp. With darkness now here to stay, they walk on into their next challenge. As darkness lingers around them, the dangers change. The course has become quieter and runners are now at their loneliest. The marshals had, but for a few, all retreated to the safety of their homes or the sanctuary of the basecamp and very few locals are seen outside. Along with the humans the animals have also sought safe shelter from the elements. Darkness would bring exquisite views to follow a beautiful sunset. But with the orange burn of last rays of light succumbing to the night, new dangers await. Dangers that are are more psychological and which will toil with the runner’s tiring mental strength. In these parts the runners are aware of the nocturnal predator that is the Talybont Nun.
Rumours from the villagers report of the mythical Talybont Nun who feeds off the fear and depleting energy of runners. The stories tell of runners who go missing at night and the uncertain implications of being “touched by the Talybont Nun”. No runner is certain. No runner can escape the clutches of the Talybont Nun. No runner is safe at night.
In these isolated villages a network of locals provide warning signs to support each other through times of darkness. Visible signs are there to warn those out at night. The runners know how to recognise and interpret these signs, the most prominent of which is the dim orange glow which signifies a reported sighting of the Nun – an orange light in their window warns that the Nun has been seen in the area and to take extra care, to seek safe refuge before it is too late.
The pack continue. Aware of the rumours. Aware of the occasional orange light shinning out at them. They are together. They are strong. they huddle closer as they run to improve their chances of survival. No runner wants to be alone at the back, likely to be the one touched by the Talybont Nun.
The runners need to see in the darkness and their head torches are out, bobbing away and brightly lighting up the paths ahead. A necessity to their safety, but a contradiction all the same. The light will alert the Talybont Nun and guide it to their location. They have to keep moving. Keep on their feet and hope they can reach the goal before the Nun makes a showing. They are tired now, exhausted from hours on their feet. The risks are increasing and chances of survival balance on a knife edge. Now is not the time to slow.
The pack rely on their kit. Technical advances in fabrication have enabled them to increase their chances of survival through carefully selected attire. But each garment comes at a cost, like the torches, the reflective materials used on the kit can act like a flare in the night when caught by the glow of a head lamp, a risk they must take, hoping that the reflective material does not alert the nun to their location.
Up ahead the pack spot reflections coming back to them from the kit of other lone runners. They head after them, chasing them down one by one. An ideal addition to their pack, not always as a friend but sometimes as a sacrificial runner that can be offered to the Talybont Nun to increase the pack’s chance of survival. If it shows, the Nun can be distracted with its ‘fear-harvesting’ from the sacrificial runner, offering a chance for the pack to flee ahead to safety. This ruthless instinct for survival pushes them on as, with runners behind them, for a moment the tension reaches critical levels – the runners pass a sign for the Village of Pencelli, and Llanfeigan Church, the known origin of the Talybont Nun, if ever a sighting was likely it was now.
Leaving the other runners behind them the pack reach the Canal path once again. The greatest risk of all is the isolated loneliness of the canal path at night. 2 miles of darkness and no where to escape. A single direction onward to safety. No turning back. To one side a canal that would consume them if they were to fall, behind them, somewhere the Talybont Nun lurks. This is an all or nothing moment as the runners pick up the pace and start racing off after their medals. The pack break into a sprint as they sense the end is near. In the distance the cowbells of safety ring out to mark the safe return of another runner, welcomed to the warmth and sanctuary of the finish.
The Pack’s time has come. The bells ring out. On this adventure our pack have not been taken by the Talybont Nun. They dab into the finish line where warm flames flicker from a fire and they are awarded with hot food, clothing and a medal of protection. The runners retreat to a pub. For this group they survive, to run another day. Many other runners and packs remain out on the dark course, a DNF looming, their fate as yet unknown….
* Note. The myth of the Talybont Nun is just that. A myth. Orange glows from cottage windows are most likely coming from families enjoying a bit of Ant & Dec on a Saturday night. No nuns were touched in the making of this adventure and the race organisers have confirmed the safety of each runner.
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