Running the Blacks to the Beacons 50 mile ultra marathon

Last Saturday I ran the 2022 Blacks to the Beacons 50 mile ultra marathon. The race was 52 miles over the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons in Wales, with an elevation of about 11,000 ft (3300 meters).

I finished with a chip time of 14:30:56, placing 29th (21st in my age category). It was a tough race with the combined distance and elevation!

Blacks to the Beacons 50 map and elevation profile
Route map with elevation profile (in ft)

Highlights

Here are some of my highlights (aside from finishing the Blacks to the Beacons 50 of course):

  • Meeting and running alongside some new ultra enthusiast friends (Hi Tom and Abbey!)
  • Conquering the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacon peaks, including Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales.
  • Running along and down the ridge of the Brecon Beacons in the early evening with the sun starting to set.
  • CP3 (Parkwood) and their hilarious cow bell ringing to herd us in after we lost sight of them in the valley approach

Here are some highlight photos.

Race preparations

My wife and I hired a camper van for the weekend, camping at a nearby designated field. We got my race registration done on Friday evening. Limitless Trails were efficient and very well organised.

They checked my race pack for the mandatory requirements and gave me my GPS tracker and bib.

Returning to the camp site for the evening I spent some time re-packing and organising my race vest.

Blacks to the Beacons 50 equipment and running pack
The various required (and nice to have) items I took with me.

Here is a list of my gear:

  • Salomon Adv Skin 12 running vest
  • Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z running poles
  • Ledlenser NEO10R headlamp
  • First aid kit with various bandages, plasters, tweezers, space / foil blanket etc…
  • Garmin fenix 7
  • Collapsible cup
  • 2 x Salomon 500ml soft flasks + Salomon 2l hydration pack
  • Anti-bacterial gel
  • Sunscreen
  • Tailwind powder in a bag for refills as well as SiS electrolyte tablets
  • Gloves, Beanie, Buff running cap
  • Naked running belt
  • Water proof long running bottoms
  • Water proof Salomon running jacket
  • Whistle
  • Anker PowerCore 5000 power bank
  • USB charge cables for headlamp and phone
  • Mobile phone
  • K-tape
  • Spare socks

For the running kit itself, I started with:

  • Odlo Base layer
  • Odlo running shirt
  • Danish Endurance Graduated Compression Socks
  • Naked running belt
  • Garmin fenix 7
  • Gloves + Beanie for cold morning
  • Hoka Speedgoat 5 trail shoes

Drop bag

I setup a drop bag for CP4 (Parkwood). I had various spares and extra bits of food and drink packed. The main spares I wanted were:

  • Shoes (I added my older pair of Hoka Speedgoat 4 trail shoes)
  • Extra set of Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z running poles (I have a spare set that are too short for me, but good to have in case I broke my main set)
  • More spare socks, and another set of compression socks (I find that these really help prevent feet swelling when you’re on your feet the whole day)
  • Maynards jelly sweets, snickers, coke, lucozade, more electrolytes
  • Spare change of running shorts and shirt (I changed out of my sweat soaked base layer and shirt at CP4 and it was magnificient!)

Running the Blacks to Beacons 50 mile ultra

Start

In the morning I ate a quick bowl of cereal and snuck in a small coffee. I grabbed a slice of peanut butter toast and a banana and ran a short distance from the camp site down to the local village hall. Buses were there to transport all runners to the start line closer to the Black Mountains.

Blacks to the Beacons 50 mile ultra start (2022)
After the 10 minute bus transport to the starting line, we all lined up on the starting line.

The morning was cold, but already starting to warm up. We had a perfect day in terms of weather.

The initial miles were slower going as there were some steep climbs and of course everyone was more bunched up. Running poles were deployed as we all began the ascent up to the Black Mountains.

Some of the initial ascent.
Blacks to the Beacons 50 - looking back over the start.
Looking back down into the valley after a little way up.

After climbing the initial ascent, we were able to spread out a bit and enjoy some running along a ridge line.

Blacks to the Beacons 50 - view around the Black Mountains area
Spectacular views across surrounding elevation

Middle

I ran along trading places back and forth with Abbey (new trail friend!) and a few others. My focus was to keep my heart rate down in the fat burn zone as much as possible. The simple goal was finishing the race with a goal time of 16 hours maximum.

The checkpoints were great, and offered good sustainance. Electrolyte / juice / coke refills as well as savoury and sweet snacks. Everyone was super helpful and did our refills for us.

At CP2 (near the River Usk) we were spoiled with hot chips. At CP3 (Parkwood) we had the option of a hot drink too!

Blacks to the Beacons 50 comraderie
Tom and I running near Talybont Reservoir, before coming to CP3 by Pentwyn Reservoir.

Running into CP3 with new trail and ultra friend Tom, we heard the sound of cow bells. The two energetic Limitless trails staffers there were absolutely great (and provided some good laughs too).

I changed out of my base layer and put on a fresh shirt from my drop bag. We had coke, snacks and a quick hot drink and I re-applied sunscreen to ward off the sun’s now beating rays.

Tom and I set off down and around Pontsticill Resevoir with Abbey following shortly behind.

This was the initial approach toward the Brecon Beacon peaks. Our coming route would take us around and up, nearly reaching the top of Pen y Fan, then heading all the way down again to CP4 (Storey Arms) before having to ascend all that elevation over again, this time to the top of Pen y Fan.

Pen y Fan and the Beacons Elevation

The second, and more brutal elevation hardships had soon arrived. The profile would now take us up the mountain range, down, up, and down again.

I find the next series of photos from this section of the ultra quite amusing, as you can see the pain in my facial expressions slowly developing.

The early evening leading to finish

Tom and I stuck together for much of the last bit of the race. After finishing all the hard elevation of the Beacons mountain range, the sun was beginning to set. On the ridge line we started to get cold and put on a warmer layer.

Shattered after the prior ups and downs, I re-fueled with a snickers bar and some haribo sweets. Tom headed off ahead of me to see if he could keep pushing for his goal.

I didn’t think I would be able to keep up but the warmth of my Salomon running jacket combined with the ingested chocolate bar gave me a second wind. I sped off along the ridge line of the mountains, enjoying a bit of solo running and the beautiful views.

Miraculously I was able to keep only a few hundred meters behind Tom all the way to the bottom. We met up again after 45 minutes and decided to finish the race together.

The final checkpoint was unmanned. Dusk had arrived, and we re-fueled with 2 x cups of coke at the little table that had been setup for support. Earlier on we had passed three or four people and we wondered how much distance we had on them as during our ridge descent we didn’t spot anyone else behind us.

The final leg of the Blacks to the Beacons 50

We set off again to join up with the canal route in, the final leg of the race.

As we were passing through and closing a cattle gate, all of a sudden Abbey pounced out of the dim, late evening light, full of energy. We were pretty startled as she proclaimed 3 x cups of coke at CP5 had bounced her right back.

The three of us ran in the remainder of the distance to the finish. The canals were flat and boring. We were also all pretty shattered after running all day. This part of the race was tough, but the 3 x of us soldiered on.

The final few kilometers required headtorches as we lost the last remaining light. After what seemed an eternity along the canals we suddenly saw the village hall in the distance. With some celebration and whooping we powered on through the finish line.

With hugs, high fives and medals all around, we entered the hall to relax and get some hot food in our bellies.

Results

blacks to beacons 50 mile medal
The completion medal

Tom roughly met his goal time, I surpassed my goal time by 1 hour 30 minutes (we finished in 14 hours 30 minutes), and Abbey improved her previous year’s time by 3 whole hours!

The 2022 Blacks to the Beacons 50 mile ultra marathon was brilliant. A truly great experience, lots of comraderie, beautiful views, tough terrain and many memories.

Official event photos from Andy Gale on Flickr

6 thoughts on “Running the Blacks to the Beacons 50 mile ultra marathon”

  1. What a fantastic race! Well done, Sean!
    Running 52 miles in itself is daunting, add to that challenging terrain and 3’300m of elevation – wow!!
    A trail race becomes even more special when you can make new running friends. Is it just me or do you and Tom even look alike? 😉
    I hope you don’t live too far apart from each other so that you can do some training runs together.

    Reply
    • Thank you Catrina! Maybe the resemblence is in the beards! 🧔‍♂️ Definitely plans to run future events again if we can coordinate them 👍 Meeting new people was a highlight of the event for me.

      Reply
  2. What an incredible race event, Sean. And such a well written race recap that had me feeling like I was right there.
    That is massive elevation and definitely would have needed a lot of preparation. I appreciated you sharing your race kit and gear.
    Love the fact the the 2 separate runners, Tom and Abbey who you ran with or back and forth with, finished together with you. That is such a great time for such a challenging course. Congratulations, Sean.

    Reply
    • Carl, thanks for taking the time to read and for the message!

      I did prepare a fair bit specifically for this event. I went down to the Brecon Beacons area twice in the months before the ultra to run segments of the route. Once was a 42km section from nearby Talybont-on-Usk to just short of the top of Pen y Fan, and back again. Then I also did another 42km route closer to the Black Mountains side (a half day outing whilst camping nearby with family). Those were both invaluable as there were certain parts of the ultra on the day where the route was slightly uncertain and I could have ended up taking a wrong turn wasting energy. This was the most elevation I’ve done in a single day so far, suffice to say I’m now looking forward to next month’s ultra on the Wales South coastal trails with significantly less hills!

      Thanks again for the message Carl. I’m looking forward to reading your next race recap!

      Reply
  3. What a great account of the good, bad and the ugly. Clearly, the preparation I’ve seen you’ve been doing in the lead up helped to position you mentally as well as physically.
    I hadn’t considered the use of compression socks during a long trail event, I only use them for recovery. This is something I’m going to ponder as it does make perfect sense in many ways for lengthy outings.
    Not only have you completed a phenomenal ultra but making new friends too I’m sure makes this even more special. I find there’s so much more to an event than a medal. Yes, it’s an acknowledgement and something to hang up and to be proud of but the people you meet, the exchange of conversation and jokes and the support teams at checkpoints bring together something that can be hard to impart to others. As I read your write-up I too was getting that holistic feeling which makes your story even more enjoyable.
    Great work Sean, can’t wait to hear what’s next!

    Reply
    • Thank you Darren.

      I’m definitely becoming a fan of compression socks for longer runs. I ran a 20k earlier today and even put them on for that. I got the idea from my mom who had used them on long flights to help with swelling. After realising that I had felt uncomfortable swelling on longer runs, particularly in my feet, I gave them a try and they do seem to help.

      Really appreciate your comment on the social aspect of these events. I do enjoy the achievement associated with completion, but it’s the connections and memories with others that really persist in the longer term and continue to bring fond memories whenever thinking back. I like to use the medals as visual conduits to the good memories with friends!

      Thanks again for reading, and I too look forward to your next adventure!

      Reply

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