EVER heard of Merthyr Mawr? No, nor had I until I turned up in the Mid-Glamorgan village on a cold Sunday morning in December. But I won't forget the place too quickly either.

Merthyr Mawr is an idyllic little settlement, as picturesque as they come, with an outstanding collection of Thatched Dwellings straight from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel.

Surrounded by meadows and woodlands, the Ancient Church dates back to the middle of the 19th century.

But Merthyr Mawr also packs a big surprise. It is surrounded by a huge network of sand dunes which stretch along the coast towards Porthcawl and the Mumbles. Parts of the 1962 Hollywood blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia' were filmed there.

And sitting at the heart of the dunes if the grand-daddy of them all, the Big Dipper - a 245 metre climb on soft sand and the biggest sand dune in Europe.

The Big Dipper also provided an unenviable start to the Merthyr Mawr Christmas Pudding 10km Challenge, rated as among the most popular races in Britain. It is no surprise why.

Okay, the Big Dipper is tough, very tough. Arms pumping, legs driving, this is a lung-busting climb which hurts. There were around 700 runners at the foot of the Dipper who set off to the summit. The sand churned up and was flying everywhere. It was difficult to get a grip.

It was hard to run all the way to the top. You lost the momentum and with lots of runners around you it was hard to keep driving up the sand dune.

Once at the top, with hearts beating fast, and lungs straining, there was something of a bottleneck and runners queued to head along the ridge of the Big Dipper.

Then, there was a wonderful descent and once into proper running the beginning of a thoroughly enjoyable race.

The course was challenging and picturesque. The climbs were hard, but the pay back was divine. At half way, the enthusiastic marshals were offering water, mulled wine and mince pies.

The atmosphere among runners and marshals was friendly and fun. The one sting in the tail were two streams to cross near the finish where the water was icy cold.

I had a blast finishing the 5.7-mile course in around 53 minutes. With soup and rolls waiting at the finish and a bountiful goody bag which included a Christmas pudding, this was a fantastic, friendly run. You could even forgive the Big Dipper for providing such a harsh welcome.