Birthday Challenge Take 2…

How I finally ran the whole length of The Taff Trail

by Fiona Gagg

She Runs: Cardiff 2nd Birthday Challenge – The Taff Trail

In Autumn 2020, She Runs: Cardiff announced their first birthday medal challenge.  I read everyone’s amazing ideas for their challenges but was stuck for what I should do.  I really wanted to do something big that I had never done before, something exciting and, well, challenging. Then inspiration struck.  What if I ran all the way down the Taff Trail?  Not in one go obviously.  That would be mad, but if I split it up into chunks, could I do it?  Did I dare do it?  What if I got lost and had to be picked up by Mountain Rescue?  That might seem like an extreme fear but those who know me, know that I could get lost in my own house.

 I did a bit of research then took a deep breath and posted it on the Facebook group.  Now I had to do it because I’d told about 1000 people that I was going to.  I did some more planning with OS maps and a spreadsheet because I love a spreadsheet and worked out where I could start and stop and feasibly be picked up along the route.  It was all getting exciting…. then we went back into lockdown, and you couldn’t leave the county of Cardiff.  I was disappointed but I modified my challenge to run around the perimeter of Cardiff instead.  On 11 October 2020 I did my first run from Castle Coch to Cefn Onn Park.  

I didn’t get lost.

I really enjoyed it.

I slipped on a rock and broke my ankle.  

That was the end of my 2020 birthday challenge.  No running for 9 weeks.  I hung up the medal on my medal rack even though I didn’t really feel like I’d earned it.

Roll on Autumn 2021 and the announcement of the second birthday medal challenge.  The challenge was to incorporate the number 2 into your challenge.  I thought back to 2020 and the excitement of planning the Taff Trail run and although it only very loosely fit into the brief, I decided to make my 2nd attempt to run it.  I dug out my plans from the previous year then broached the subject with my long-suffering run widow husband.  He’s so used to me saying “I’m going for a run” that he barely even raised an eyebrow when I asked if he could drop me off and pick me up every weekend at random points along the trail.  Better yet, I had a new watch with a map function so I could programme the route into it to prevent the Mountain Rescue nightmare scenario.

 Week 1 – Brecon to Talybont Reservoir (8 miles)

My first run was Sunday 3rd October.  I had persuaded my husband and kids that they would enjoy an afternoon in Brecon while I did the first 8 mile leg.  My sense of trepidation in the car as we drove through a monsoon up the A470 almost made me ask to turn back but I kept thinking, “If I don’t start now, I never will.”  Miraculously, by the time we arrived in Brecon, the sun was shining.  A quick picture with my kids at the start and a hug from everyone and I was off down the canal towpath.  Paranoia kicked in quickly and I spent the first 2 miles continually checking the route and panicking about missing my turning but the Taff Trail is very well signposted, so I easily spotted my first right turn off the towpath and onto what turned out to be quite a busy B road.  

This proved to be the downside of it being primarily a cycle path.  Most of the rest of this section was along B roads without pavement or even grass verges in a lot of places and I had to keep leaping into hedges when a car approached.  In hindsight I should have stuck to the canal path all the way to Talybont on Usk but I was stubbornly determined to run the actual Taff Trail so I doggedly followed the signposts.  At one point, I could see the canal towpath again and I climbed over a gate and crossed a field of sheep to rejoin it but the panic of being stuck on the wrong side of the canal sent me back the way I came and out onto the B roads again.  One hour and 40 minutes later, my family passed me in the car on their way to our rendezvous and the sight of them all waving and smiling spurred me on for the last half a mile.  They know me well enough not to stop and offer to pick me up there because that wasn’t “the end.”  Part one done and I felt like I had achieved something incredible, mainly because I hadn’t got lost.

 Week 2 – Talybont Reservoir to Brecon Mountain Railway (12.5 miles)

Week 2 was set to be a long run – 12.5 miles from the top of Talybont Reservoir to Pontsticill.  Last week’s successful navigation and the fact that the first 5 miles or so were familiar as they form part of the route of the Brecon Trail Half Marathon meant I was less worried about getting lost, at least at the start.  All I had to remember was to turn left at the top of the hill.

Instead of making my poor family hang around for the best part of 3 hours, we went in convoy to leave my car at the end and then drive to the start.  The SatNav took us on a hairy drive up the side of Talybont reservoir, much of which actually turned out to be the Taff Trail so it was helpful to have seen some of it in advance.  My husband was less pleased!  

I got out where I had finished the week before and headed off across the top of the reservoir.  The weather had been kind to me again and it was a beautifully sunny morning.  The path through the forest was completely empty.  It felt incredible – just me and the trail.  When I reached the top of the 5 mile continuous hill, the trail turned onto the road that we had driven up on the way here.  After the solitude of the forest, suddenly it seemed like there were loads of people here, a mix of cyclists and walkers but no crazy runners like me.  From here, the trail continues partly on road and partly on tracks through the forest until you get to Pontsticill.  Finally, there were some more scary B roads without pavements until I arrived back at my car parked outside a pub near Brecon Mountain Railway.

This is definitely the prettiest part of the Taff Trail as you wind through the forest and across the tops of hills along Talybont and then Pontsticill reservoir and was certainly my favourite part.  It is also where the majority of the elevation occurs, as evidenced by me making third place for elevation in the weekly Strava round up that week.  

 Week 3 – Brecon Mountain Railway to Aberfan (9 miles)

I had some company this week which gave my husband and kids a week off from long drives to drop off mummy at some godforsaken point in the middle of nowhere.  Complicated plans were made for where to meet, where to drop off various cars, etc.  Once again, the weather was sunny and 2 of us set off from near Brecon Mountain Railway down the trail towards Merthyr Tydfil.  This section is all tarmac path but runs under the trees, so you still feel like you are in the woods.  It’s also all downhill here so we were absolutely flying.  At mile 4 in Merthyr Tydfil, we were joined by another friend and continued down to Aberfan.  I’d never been to Aberfan before despite having lived in Cardiff for nearly 25 years.  The anniversary of the disaster was later in that week and we finished on the trail just above the remembrance garden, a poignant reminder of the terrible history of this town.  

The first week before I had brought a change of clothes in case it rained.  When I got into the car for the hour drive back to Cardiff, I realised that I would have to wait for my usual post run cup of tea so for the next week and all the rest, I brought a flask of tea and something to eat at the end as well as the change of clothes.  A pint of lukewarm tea turns out to be a great post run drink.

 Week 4 – Aberfan to Upper Boat (12.5 miles)

My luck with the weather didn’t hold out for this one.  As I got into the car in the dark at 7.30am on Sunday morning, it was already starting to drizzle.  The sun was just coming up as I got to Aberfan and this time I caught a glimpse of the cemetery where all the children and their teachers are buried.  Rows of white arch headstones on the hillside brought home how many were lost that day.  

A lot of this run was through forest again and even though you are running alongside the A470 for quite a bit at the beginning, you can forget it’s there.  Two miles in, the trail signs directed me to double back on myself and go down some steps towards a tunnel under the A470.  I can honestly say that this was the scariest tunnel I think I’ve ever been in.  It has a massive pipe running through it and you can’t see into it until you get to the very bottom of the steps.  I sprinted through that to get out the other side and back onto forest trail again.  

When I reached Abercynon at mile 6, it was properly raining.  By the time I reached Pontypridd at mile 10, I was completely wet through and properly miserable.  This is possibly the least attractive bit of the trail as it goes along a busy road by the side of the A470 with lorries thundering past spraying up water.  Maybe it looks better in the sunshine.  I pushed on, around the back of the University of South Wales and miraculously the rain stopped….for about 5 minutes.  Finally, I found the path off the trail down to Upper Boat and made it to Tesco car park and a warm car with a flask of tea.

Week 5 run 1 – Upper Boat to Coryton (5 miles plus a bit more) 

  As it was half term, I split the last section into 2 runs rather than have to do another 12 miler.  My daughters were at their grandparents and I usually finish at 3pm on a Wednesday so I took advantage of this and headed back out to Upper Boat.  It turned out to be one of those runs where I found it difficult to settle into it.  There was quite a lot of faffing in the first 2 miles with sorting out my backpack and eating sweets that I didn’t really need but had persuaded myself I couldn’t do without.  Funny how the shortest run turned out to be the most difficult.  Despite the fact that this part of the trail runs through quite a populated area, at least compared to earlier sections, I saw hardly any people at all.  It sort of felt quite lonely but maybe that was just my frame of mind that day.  When I got to Tongwynlais, suddenly I was back on familiar ground and I didn’t need the watch anymore to tell me where to go.  I stopped where the trail meets Longwood Drive planning to call my husband to pick me up but on the spur of the moment, decided to run all the way home from there.  Not the prettiest run along Manor Way in the fast-darkening evening, but I had done it.  One more to go….

Week 5 run 2 – Coryton to Cardiff Bay (7 miles)  

 The final run!  The weather forecast for the last weekend of October was dreadful.  I had originally intended to do this run on Halloween but decided to take advantage of the most likely dry weather and go on Saturday instead.  I got out the car on Longwood Drive in the pouring rain!  Never mind, it’s not like I hadn’t already been wet on this challenge and I’ve never been a fairweather runner.  This was the most familiar part of the Taff Trail so no navigation required.  I must have run down this part a hundred times but somehow this time felt different.  It was part of something bigger and somehow special.  

As I ran down through Bute Park, I discovered that what I had always thought was the Taff Trail wasn’t!  It goes across the river at Blackweir Bridge when I’d always assumed it carried on straight down Bute Park.  Of course, I crossed the bridge because I was running every step of the actual Taff Trail.  On into Cardiff centre where the city was gearing up for the rugby international with Wales v All Blacks.  Here it was really busy and I was weaving in and out of groups of people all heading to the match (or the pub!)  Finally, after 55 miles and about 11 hours of running, I reached Cardiff Bay.  Miraculously, Roald Dahl Plass was entirely empty of people, so I ran right down the centre of it feeling like a hero.  It was epic.  

 Turns out I’m not entirely sure where the official end of the Taff Trail is in Cardiff Bay so I just stopped when I got to the water and awarded myself my medal which had serendipitously arrived just before I left for the final run.

I was actually quite sad that this was the end.  These runs have been some of the most enjoyable that I have ever done.  The sense of achievement has been incredible and this year I feel like I have earned that medal.  I challenged myself to do something big and I succeeded.  

If anyone else is thinking of running down the Taff Trail, count me in – I would love to do it all again.

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