Lickety spit around the sticky puddingbowl

Merthyr is seriously foul in a hardy annual race built on sand
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is the easy way of getting your Christmas pudding and then there is the way they do it on Merthyr Mawr. The easy way is to buy one at the supermarket and the Merthyr Mawr way is to put on a pair of fairy wings, drape some tinsel round your shorts, and sprint up the highest sand dune in Europe, run six miles of bleak moorland and golf course with a detour round a sewage works, then survive a mini-steeplechase along a sodden river bank and up a log-strewn track to the finish. When you've recovered from your journey, someone gives you a Christmas pud. You might have just enough energy left to eat it.

There is the easy way of getting your Christmas pudding and then there is the way they do it on Merthyr Mawr. The easy way is to buy one at the supermarket and the Merthyr Mawr way is to put on a pair of fairy wings, drape some tinsel round your shorts, and sprint up the highest sand dune in Europe, run six miles of bleak moorland and golf course with a detour round a sewage works, then survive a mini-steeplechase along a sodden river bank and up a log-strewn track to the finish. When you've recovered from your journey, someone gives you a Christmas pud. You might have just enough energy left to eat it.

The Merthyr Mawr Christmas Pudding Run is a 10km race across some of the most fetching terrain in South Wales, combining cross-country, trail and road with a bit of involuntary immersion in the local river thrown in when runners get tired and conditions are especially slippery. Along with the pud presented to all finishers, the winners of the hill prime, as the race to the top of the sand dune is called, receive a Christmas tree complete with fairy lights.

It is the brainchild of Steve Brace, the former Olympic marathoner, who lives close by and used the leaf-carpeted forest and nearby sand dunes as a summer training route, along with other such heroes of athletics as Steve Ovett. Past races have included the legendary one during which it was so foggy on the moor that a whole tranche of runners got lost. But as the race organiser, Rob Lynch, puts it: "Where else could you run through unspoiled countryside with the sea and the dunes beside you? I have never seen a race to match it."

Brace had always organised the race himself with the help of colleagues at Bridgend Athletics Club, but having become director of the Athletics Association in Wales, work commitments looked like forcing him to bow out. The 1999 Pudding Run was set to be the last until Lynch's club, Brackla Harriers, offered to take over, and with Brace on hand as consultant thereby saved one of the quirkiest and bestloved races in the calendar.

Last Sunday, 360 competitors, including an intrepid 77-year-old, lined up in the shadow of Candleton Castle, overlooking the South Wales village of Merthyr Mawr. In the car park were decorated tents, carols and Christmas lights and just beyond it was the Big Dipper, as Europe's biggest sand dune is known. It is at the foot of the Big Dipper that the race traditionally starts.

The Big Dipper is an intimidatingly huge wall of sand, 808 feet at its highest, gouged out with footprints and sprouting frosty whiskers of grass. An additional challenge last week was the big puddle that had formed in front of it, necessitating a shortening of the course by three metres and a makeshift bridge of planks to the start line (one competitor fell off).

"The Big Dipper is what gives the race its character," says Lynch. "It's why people come back year after year. You have to shoot off with the front-runners and when you get up to the top - ugh - it's horrendous. Most just run three-quarters of the way and then walk."

So let's hear it for Richard Williams, first to the top in 1min 41sec. "He was standing on the top panting as I came across and passed him," says Brace, who went on to finish the race in sixth place. "He didn't mind. The hill prime was his mission. He'd won his Christmas tree and lights." First lady up the Dipper was Frances Gill, who went on to win the women's race. "She popped the lights off and gave us the bleeding tree back," says Lynch.

With legs turned to jelly, you then follow the route as it doubles back to the car park over a kilo-metre of soft sand. Dung-splodged tarmac takes over through Merthyr Mawr village, followed by an almost endlessly bleak section across a moor, where top-class athletes used to running through a howling canyon of noise have to make do with an audience of sheep.

"It was already very greasy up on the golf course because the pony trekkers had been using it," says Brace cheerfully, "so it wasn't necessary to get the sprinklers out. The river bank was very wet and we made everyone cross the river four times to make sure their feet were properly chilled." It was during his last river crossing that the eventual winner, Darren Hiscox, fell in, though he still managed to complete the course in 33min 31sec.

Many of Britain's oldest and most traditional road races are threatened by increasing problems of policing, safety and traffic. Some have already been lost, making largely off-road races like the Merthyr Mawr increasingly popular. "In any case, the human body isn't really built for tarmac surfaces," says Brace. "These shorter races, the 10ks and the like, are attracting more and more runners because unlike the half-marathon and marathon there's less training and you don't have the aching legsafterwards. Obviously, runners will still want flat, fast courses for your fast times, but then there are your more challenging events where times don't matter and the course itself doesn't create a problem."

Incidentally, the 77-year-old finished in an hour and 20 minutes. Never was a Christmas pud more richly deserved.

Comments