Monday, 13 September 2010

Pumlumon Challenge - The Importance of the Journey Not the Destination


Well here is my race report from Saturday's Pumlumon Challenge.  The original sub-title was "Dealing with Disappointment" however, by the time I finished writing this rather lengthy race report, the disappointment had been resolved, so I have come back to the top and given the post a more appropriate sub-title.

As I planned my racing calendar for 2010 at the end of last year, there were two key focuses.  Number one, was the Lakeland 100, and that race went pretty well back in July.  The second key focus for the year was the UK Ultra-Running Championship Series which involves earning points over four races, based on your finish time in relation to the winner's time, with the winner receiving 1000 points.  As I highlighted in last week's post Pumlumon Challenge Excitement - A Strong Field, based on the points of runner's best three races, I was in joint first place with Jon Morgan, with 2985 points.  The Pumlumon Challenge was to be the Championship 'show down', the decider of the series!

The morning of the race I only had a short drive as I was staying with friends who lived reasonably close.  At the race registration we received: an A3 sized map with the route clearly shown by a red dashed line and the seven checkpoints that we had to visit as we ran around the circular course of approximately 26 miles, some final additional instructions regarding the race route, and a free meal voucher for after we complete the challenge. I read the instructions, took a quick look at the map, but folded both up and put them away into the top of my camelbak as I knew the route reasonably well.  Four weeks earlier I had travelled all the way up from East Sussex and ran in the rain for seven hours to ensure I knew where the route went.  In addition I had spent some time inspecting my GPS trace on Google Earth identifying where I had gone astray on my recce run.  I was all set for what promised to be a very competitive race.

There was a really good atmosphere around the start area which was located at the Nant yr Arian Forestry Centre.  I got a nice shock when one of my ex-students from ten years ago, Stewart Bellamy, re-introduced himself, as although I easily remembered his face, I couldn't recall his name!  I then met in person various runners who I had either read about, or had read their blog, including Mark Hartnell, Martin Beale and Nick Ham.  Shortly before the start, just to reassure myself regarding the rules of the race, I checked with Wynne Jones the Race Director to confirm that we had to follow the route indicated on the map.  However he replied by saying that runners should follow the route, but as long as they visited the seven checkpoints and didn't climb over any fences (apart from the two fences at 14-15 miles) then that would be allowed.

If you have read a number of my previous posts you will be well aware that I place a large emphasis on positivity, and the importance of remaining positive throughout the race.  A little bit of doubt rises due to my now apparent poor preparation.  When I ran my recce run I focused on the race route, not checking out possible alternative routes that may be quicker.  This bit of news regarding the race rules confirm that my previous planned intention, of not to run off too fast at the start and to run with other runners in case they know a less boggy route, is the best option for today.

I guess there must have been around fifty runners lined up ready to start in dry conditions, following the torrential rain of the day before and what seemed to continue throughout the night.  There was a strong wind and threatening of showers, but it looked as though visibility would be okay.  Wynne casually says Go, and we are off, and as expected, Jon Morgan and myself move immediately to the front.  (Adam Perry the other runner entered who had also won two races in this years series was not on the start line as he has apparently cracked a rib.)  The pace is quite quick, but comfortable, as Jon and I, closely followed by Ben Abdelnoor move away from the field.  I am a bit surprised at how quickly we drop the field as it didn't feel that fast.  Then as we approach the trees at the end of the lake, I see why there is no one immediately behind us, somehow there are around ten runners in front of us!!!  Jon and I go from leading the race to being around 50 metres behind!  We both quickly move through the field to regain the lead as we attack the first muddy climb.  Then as we enter the forest at the top of the first short climb, again one or two runners get in front of us, as they manage to cut a few metres off by going down a steepish bank.  A nice descent on a gravel road follows as we run through the forest and Jon, Ben and myself leave the rest behind, this time for good!

We then hit the next climb, a bit steeper, but not that long as we head up to the summit of Dinas.  I am working hard at the front on the steep section, but then as the hill levels off a bit, first Jon and then Ben run past me.  I try to stay with them , but decide that upping my intensity takes me too much into the uncomfortable zone.  Although the race is only 26 miles, nothing like the 104 miles of the Lakeland 100, and therefore one is able to run at a much higher intensity, it is still going to be a duration of around 4 hours, so I decide to ease off.  Although my motto is "Run as fast as you can while you can", this mainly applies to longer distance ultra races.  Today's race is pretty well only a marathon, so one doesn't really automatically slow down as the race progresses, so running a more constant pace tends to be my strategy during trail marathons.  The heart rate trace later shows I reached 179 bpm going up the hill, not far from my max of 187bpm, so letting Jon and Ben move ahead was the sensible decision.

Those who have read some of my other posts, are probably thinking that my inability to stay with them is due to my "Train Easy" approach to physical training, and yes you are partly right.  My training during the year had been for my key focus race, the Lakeland 100.  The limitation to performance in that race was totally different to what was going to limit performance in today's short race.  The shorter the race, the greater the emphasis on the physiology, and the lesser the emphasis on the positivity of the mind, the wisdom, the experience.  With my age being now well into my forties, it isn't difficult to detect where my strengths are going to lie, hence my focus on the longer Ultra events.  So the Pumlumon Challenge was always going to be a challenge for me, but one thing that does develop with age is the experience of racing, and knowing not to panic because alot can happen in four hours!

Jon and Ben gradually pull away, but then as we start climbing the big climb of the day up towards Pumlumon Fawr at 752 metres, I get close to them again, in distance but not in time, as we have to walk up due to the steepness.  As we first near the crest of the smaller summit at 654 metres the mist comes in and they are now out of sight.  I reach the summit of Pumlumon, visibility is minimal, there is a strong wind, beginning to try to rain, and I find two or three marshalls sheltering within the cairns at checkpoint three.  I thank them for the water as I consume a gel, decline their offer of waffle biscuits and head off thinking how amazing it is that marshalls would volunteer themselves to be battered by the wind and rain at the top of an isolated hill in the middle of nowhere!  Heading east and losing some height the mist clears allowing me to see the red and black tops of Jon and Ben as they run together, dropping down towards the weather station. I can see them probably now around two minutes ahead, as they head into the forest, which follows another gravel road before the route joins the Severn Way up to the source of the River Severn.  I am a little bit concerned that they have put such a gap on me by mile 11, indicated by my GPS watch, but I feel as though I am running strong, and try to remain focused on what I am doing, rather than what they are doing.

The next section of the course is really great.  It somehow feels kind of special as I run along the Severn Way, over large flagstones, next to a small stream to the very start of the River Severn as the mist by now has fully lifted.  I am working hard running up to the source of the Severn.  I am enjoying the puffing and blowing of the higher than usual intensity, enjoying the surrounding environment.  Then as I am probably around halfway down the hill towards the Hengwm Valley  I can see Jon and Ben crossing the river distantly below, probably around three minutes ahead, but hard to accurately gauge, but further than before.  Seeing them ahead distracts me, as I am starting to begin to pay too much attention of their whereabouts.

The run along the valley goes well as my recce run pays off, as I am able to find quite good footing along some reasonably worn trods.  It doesn't seem long before I am making a small descent down to the new footbridge over Afon Llechweld Mawr.  As I make my way up the steep climb to the top of Drisgol, I start to get close again to Jon and Ben, who are still running together, although pretty well every time I have seen them it is the red shirt of Jon  leading, with the black shirt of Ben around 10 metres behind.  They now don't seem so far ahead which is pleasing, but I attribute most of this to the steepness of the climb, and having to walk again.  They are probably still around 3- 4 minutes ahead!

My descent off Drisgol goes reasonable well, although looking at the GPS trace on Garmin Connect my route down shows a few distinctive kinks, not really the straightest of lines down to the reservoir.  After crossing the top edge of the reservoir I climb up to the easy to follow four wheel drive track and decide that if I am going to try and pull Jon and Ben in, I better do it now as my GPS watch is showing nearly 19 miles, so only a little over 7 miles to go!  I pick up the pace, with the GPS later showing a 7:13 mile which isn't too slow considering the extremely wet underfoot conditions, and a gate or two to stop at.  As I approach the north eastern point of the reservoir, before turning left uphill to Radio Point 5 I can see the two of then together leaving the radio point on the other side of the reservoir, they are definitely closer in time now. 

At the radio point I decide to change from taking on gels to my 'magic' chocolate covered coffee beans.  Although I lose a bit of time stopping to drink water to wash down the coffee beans, I am all hyped up ready to chase down Jon and Ben.  My next mile along the rough rocky four wheel drive track, complete with ankle to knee deep puddles is covered in 6 minutes 57 seconds.  Jon and Ben are now on the same stretch of semi flat road as me as we head to Radio Point 6 where we have to turn left off the road, back to the boggy tussock, as we have to run around the east of the hill Disgwylfa Fawr to the final checkpoint.  I have managed to pull Jon and Ben back to within probably around no more than one and a half minutes. 

As we leave the road heading east towards the north side of Disgwylfa Fawr, Jon and Ben are on a higher up track than me, but it appears that the two tracks will soon converge as we have to skirt around the east of the hill, without climbing unnecessary height to reach the last checkpoint.  I lose sight of Jon and Ben but expect to see then shortly at the bottom of the north side of the hill.  After a minute or two without them appearing I realise that they must be taking a different route around the hill.  I recall the reply Wynne the race director gave me just prior to the start of the race. "As long as you go to all checkpoints without crossing over a fence you won't be disqualified".  I think should I stop, turn around and try to follow the path they are going?  How do I know if there is a fence needing to be crossed or not?  The map which I haven't needed during the race is in my back pack, should I stop to get it out?  Is it actually detailed enough to clearly show the fences?  I have seconds to make the decision, but really by then it was too late, as I had already started to skirt around the north side of the hill.  I had recce this part of the course, so I decide to stick to the route marked on the map.

Although the route skirts around the east side of the hill it still actually climbs quite a bit, gaining quite some height, so the pace is slow, before losing what seems loads of height to drop down to the checkpoint.  As I start dropping down and have a clear view all around me and a wee bit ahead of the checkpoint I am surprised that Jon and Ben are nowhere to be seen.  I can't understand where they could of got to, as the last time I had seen them on the other side of the hill there wasn't that much distance between us.  The image below shows the section of the route map where the route passes around the east of Disgwylfa Fawr.

It is then as I run around the smaller hill after the checkpoint P7, that way off in the distance, climbing the last climb before the short descent down to the finish, I see them.  They are absolutely 'miles' ahead!  I cannot believe that they could be that far ahead.  I think that maybe they have missed the last checkpoint, but knowing that this was highly unlikely, as this would lead to disqualification.  As the points for the UK Ultra-Running Championships are based on my finish time in relation to the winner's time, I continue to run hard, but I find the positivity that I had had prior to then, was no longer present!  I am not a happy runner as I run the last two miles or so to the finish line. 

I cross the line in 3rd place and see that I am around six minutes behind Jon and Ben who finished together in a race record time of 3 hours and 56 minutes.  I aggressively challenge Jon and Ben asking them if they visited the last check point.  They confirm that they did and that they got there taking the west side around Disgwylfa Fawr as they could see that the direction they were heading in around towards the east side was bringing them closer to me.  Wynne senses the slight tension in the air and comes over and confirms that as long as all checkpoint were visited then all is fine.  At that precise moment in time, to me all was not fine, I know instantly that finishing six minutes behind Jon means that I have now lost too many points, so no matter what happens in the remaining two series races I cannot exceed Jon's points tally of 3985 points.

As I head off to my car to get my clothes and to have a shower, I find myself feeling really angry.  Firstly, and mostly, I am angry with myself for not following Jon and Ben around the west side of the hill.  If I had simply followed their exact path I wouldn't have lost six minutes, which equates to around 25 points.  But I am also angry with Jon and Ben for deliberately not following the route to take a short cut, (which when looking at the contours on the map afterwards, not only is it a shorter distance, but it actually climbs 50 metres less in height), and thirdly at that moment in time I am angry with the race organisers for the confusion over whether the Pulmulon Challenge consists of a defined race route or consists only of checkpoints that require visiting.

I am writing this race report, now a few days after the event, but I am trying to reflect my actual emotions at the time.  Looking at what I have written, it amazes me just how negative I was, during the last part of the race, and then to quite an extreme immediately upon finishing.  I like to consider myself as a positive person, one that gives off positive energy, not the opposite.  Sensibly, following my shower, I decided to sit on my own briefly within the cafe, to get things into perspective, and to get back to my usual positive self. 

Yes, the UK Ultra Running Championship had been decided, and had been won by Jon Morgan (with the only possible exception being Adam Perry winning the final two races, although with him apparently suffering from a cracked rib, this doesn't seem likely).  But I then begin to think deep down, what do I run for?  Why do I enjoy ultra-trail running so much?  It isn't the winning, that is not the major aspect.  It is the personal challenges I set myself, of running hard and fast, to my best ability on the day.  Did I do that during the Pumlumon Challenge?  Yes, I felt I ran strong, and ran well, at a pretty high intensity most of the way, considering the difficult terrain, which made it hard at times to keep the intensity consistently high. 

I run for the enjoyment of being outdoors, the freshness, the scenery, the climbs, the descents.  Did I experience that during the Pumlumon Challenge?  Yes, the route was fantastic, a real challenge with some great climbs, descents, and tremendous scenery at times as the mist disappeared.  But I also run to be part of the Ultra-Running community.  To enjoy the positivity and friendship of the other ultra runners, the marshalls and organisers, who generate and transmit loads of positive energy. Are these people here today at the Pumlumon Challenge?  Yes they are?  I consider, at this precise moment in time, am I here today with this positive energy?  Upon this reflection I realise I haven't been, not for the last 30 - 40 minutes! 

I get up from the table, with renewed energy.  There is still some disappointment at no longer being able to win the series, but this disappointment is now in perspective, with winning not being the major motive for why I run.  I leave the cafe and join the other ultra runners, as we chat and share experiences of the race over the very welcome free cake, pasty and coffee provided by the race organisers, on the outside decking, watching the Red Kites above, as the sun makes a welcome appearance.  I learn that Kate Bailey has won the womens race, in a time of around 4 hours and 26 minutes, smashing the womens course record, beating the current series womens leader Nicky Spink into second place by around 30 minutes.  There is good banter amongst the runners as it is proposed, not sure by who, maybe by me, that all points for the race should be void, as Martin Beale's GPS watch has recorded the course as being less than 26 miles, so technically not qualifying as an Ultra race, so therefore can't be part of the series! (Although my GPS watch did indicate a distance of 26.34 miles.)

Well, writing this rather lengthy race report has helped me with my reflecting on the Pumlumon Challenge.  Within my quick update on the afternoon of the race I referred to there being "a little bit of controversy over what were the race rules, what was the actual course, what was the moral thing, the correct thing to do within the spirit of Ultra running".  As we chatted following the race, it became apparent that I was not the only runner surprised by the late ruling regarding there being no need to follow the marked route.  This seemed rather strange when the Additional Instructions given out on the morning of the race, together with the route map clearly stated "head east around Disgwylfa Fawr".  So yes there was controversy, it was interesting discussion amongst the runners gathered.  Were Jon and Ben running within the rules of the race?  Yes, as confirmed by Wynne, the race director they were.  Was it the moral thing to do, within the spirit of Ultra running, i.e. deliberately not taking the intended race route in order to gain a clear advantage over another competitor?  Now that question does not have such a clear cut answer!

To summarise, the Pumlumon Challenge was a great race, over a very demanding course considering it was only just under or just over 26 miles. The performances of the three winners Jon Morgan, Ben Abdelnoor, and Kate Bailey, all breaking the course records were outstanding.  I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Jon for his excellent run on Saturday, which looks like will pretty well result in him winning the UK Ultra Running Championship, as due to my rather negative state of mind immediately upon finishing the race I did not congratulate him, and by the time I had returned to my usual positive self, following my shower and self reflection, he unfortunately had had to leave.

I will sign off with one thing I have been reminded of from the Pumlumon Challenge last Saturday.  "That it is the actual 'journey' during the race, shared with the other participants, which is most important.  Although winning or finishing high up in the field is pleasing, the actual 'destination', i.e. the finish place, must be kept in perspective and should not dominate one's enjoyment and satisfaction gained from the overall occasion."  Stuart Mills, 2010.

May you all enjoy the 'journey' of ultra trail running,



  1. A very honest and thoughtful report Stuart.

    Obviously no easy answers but hopefully in the future the rules will be clear for everybody.

    I'm glad you were able to identify your feelings and get back to that positive frame of mind.

    So congratulations on an excellent run and well done in the overall series.

  2. Good report and well run. I can understand your disappointment but am glad you came round to the realisation that process rather than placing is the important bit. Too easy to get sucked into the negative aspects of competition. You can always come back next year and take all the short cuts. :-)

  3. A frustrating event for you I can well understand, particularly as we were both sure we were following the rules- as you know I specifically checked it was acceptable to go the opposite side of the hill. It was certainly a risk, and I could easily have blown it, had it been tussock, as opposed to the short runnable grass and sheep trods I actually found. I thought you did an excellent tactical race, and assumed you were letting me and Ben go ahead to force us to navigate- we made the odd minor error along the way. You also broke the existing course record and should be rightfully proud of that. Like you I have not won countless races on navigation rather than outright athletic performance, and it is quite possible you would have beaten me if we had gone round the same side of the hill. It would have been a memorable race to the finish for sure. So it is a shame the way it has worked out, but I appreciate your comments. I think you will probably win both that race and the UK Ultra series next year, and I wish you the best of luck. Jon Morgan

  4. Great run and very good report! I agree with your way of thinking during this run. I'm a natural slow runner so it's all about the journey for me. Rest well!

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  6. Stuart,

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the weekend and share in the enjoyment of a great race in a beautiful area.

    I'm sorry that you feel the way you do about the outcome of the race and series. I can only say that I sincerely empathise with what happened.

    Everything you have blogged is a fair reflection on what happened. I do however find comments refering to myself and Jon as 'taking shortcuts', 'deliberately not following the route' and 'not keeping within the "spirit" of the rules' as a bit unsavoury, ambiguous and unsporting.

    Both myself and Jon regularly compete in fell races. We both finished in the top 15 of the 2010 English Fell Running Championships. The Pumlumon Challenge was a fell race, not a trail or road race. A rule in fell running is that you visit whichever chekpoints are listed for that race and in the correct order. Any flagged sections must be followed to, and out-of-bound areas must be avoided. Apart from that there is no specific route to follow. That is what myself and Jon did. I realise that there was a marked route - but that was all it was, marked; not a compulsory route. It never occured to me to follow it. Race maps for fell races will often have a route marked out. Early on in the race when we were overtaken by a number of runners cutting off an out-and-back track, surely they weren't following the red line? Martin Beale suggested a contour that saved a minute or two by going around the side of a hill just after Pumlumon. Was he guilty of not following the red line? How do you prove someone was/wasn't following the red line as best they could? The written instructions on the back of the map most definately did say to go east of the final hill - you are absolutely right. But I don't think that was your issue when you crossed the line and began questioning myself and Jon.

    Due to a number of ambiguities we have ended up with a slight disappointment to this race. I do however hold you in great regard as an awesome runner and was impressed in with your solo running abilities over some tough Welsh terrain, shod in a pair of road running shoes!

    Take care Stuart, and all the best for the rest of the season and seasons to come!

    Kind regards,
    Ben Abdelnoor

  7. Thanks to all of you who have commented on my Pumlumon Challenge post. In my post I have tried to express my thoughts at the time on the day, and my thoughts a few days later after some reflection. I think where a lot of my confusion over the rules for the route is to do with my lack of understanding of Fell Running, as I have never run a Fell Race, having only competed in Road and Trail races. Thanks to Ben, I am now more aware of what take place in Fell Racing, and I can see how my comments could be interpreted as being "a bit unsavoury, ambiguous and unsporting". I am sorry, this was not the intention.

    As I have just commented on in my most reason post, "I think we may have all learnt something from the (Pumlumon Challenge)event. I find that it is always useful to reflect and learn from our experiences, and then to use the wisdom gained in the future."

    Thanks again for all of the above comments, as they have aided me in my overall learning from the Pumlumon Challenge.


  8. Great report Stuey mate. Good to see you quickly got past the neg state reaction and back to the bloody fast pos runner i know mate.

    Good running on the weekend 40 plus more your style now too.

    See you bright and early Saturday week for our more leisurely training run (yep i am back running easier too ).

    Go enjoy that journey mate(and dont get lost)


  9. In the light of Ben's message I've deleted my comment about runners not following the "spirit" of the race. Through Ben's & Stuarts comments I've realised that I too had missed the distinction of this being a fell race rather than a trail race and as such there was no impropriety. I apologise to any and all who felt slighted by my comment.

  10. Hi Tim

    Thanks for your comment, although I don't feel you needed to make any apologies, although it appears my comment directly above following Ben's comment unfortunately seems to acknowledge that the Pumlumon Challenge was a Fell Race.

    This was not the case! It was not promoted / advertised as a Fell Race! I was just acknowledging that now being aware of what Fell races involve, I can see how my "short-cut" comments could have been interpreted as being unsporting.

    The whole confusion and disappointment that followed was that it was not clear whether the Pumlumon Challenge was a Fell Race, (whereas Ben explains, one is only required to visit the checkpoints in the specified order), or a Trail Race, (where one has to follow the shown route to the best of one's abiltiy, deliberately not trying to take short-cuts).

    I have been in communication with Wynne, the race director, and he has assured me that this confusion over whether the Pumlumon Challenge is a Fell Race or a Trail Race will be rectified for next year's event. Personally, I feel it would be best if it was a Trail Race. Everyone would then run the same route, and therefore the route distance of 26 miles could then be advertised on all of the pre-race material.

    Onward to the next Challenge, the High Peak 40 tomorrow, Saturday!


  11. Hi Stuart. I'm a bit late catching up with this (too much of my own running and blogging to do). It was great to meet you and chat a little at Nant yr Arian.

    What you, Ben, Jon and all the other front runners achieve is a wondrous and admirable thing. I hope the pressure that comes from the competition at the front does not diminish your enjoyment too much.

    Like The Fellsman, this event is unusual in the Series with its off-path, fell-like nature. I would never regard it as a trail race. In my opinion I hope the organiser clarifies matters by describing it as a fell race, thereby giving official sanction to picking up the best terrain in the open-access country where even sheep trods may not be found. (Having tried both sides I know which I'll be aiming for in future - THE RIGHT! If it all comes good I might even scrape another sub 6, then I'll be chuffed ;-)

  12. Hi Nick

    Thanks for the comments. Good to chat also at the High Peak 40. See you at some races next year.


  13. Stu - fantastic and thought provoking report. It's wonderful to read the amount of preparation and commitment that went into your series this year - it makes me so happy to know that people care about this stuff.
    If we can muster a team next year I would be delighted to have your running and writing ability as part of that team and hope that 2011 allows you to realise your running ambitions

    Mark H

  14. Hi Mark

    Thanks for the comments, but mostly thanks to you and your colleagues for organising such a great ultra series of races. As you have read, the series of races have given me, but no doubt,hundreds of other runners much enjoyment.

    Thanks for the invite for next year. Nobody has ever asked me to write anything before!


    PS I am really sorry to hear about the passing away of your dog. It sounded like he gave you great joy.