It’s difficult to know where to start with this one. So, as is traditional, I’ll try and start at the beginning.
Just under a year ago, in the middle of a good spell of training, I saw that one of the runners I follow on Strava had done the Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon. It looked amazing – 13.1 miles, 3,852 feet of elevation. It went over a mountain! The idea took hold quickly. But soon things escalated. I’d been looking for a trail marathon to do for a while. I wanted my first marathon to be off-road, and hilly; that way I couldn’t get too caught up in chasing a time. Also, once I thought about it, travelling all the way up to north Wales for a half marathon; one that was pretty similar to the Exmoor Stagger in many aspects (16 miles, 3,200 feet), seemed not really worth it. So obviously, rather than give up on the idea, I simply decided to run the marathon. And there it was; on Friday 28 July, I had signed up.
Six weeks later, a major spanner fell in the works when I sprained my ankle. Despite my initial hopes to be back up and running relatively soon, it dragged on. Then, in early October, more news: against all the odds, I’d got a London Marathon place. Wow. Suddenly, it looked like I was going from never having done a marathon, to a couple in three months.
In late October I started to run again – a mile here, a mile there. But it wasn’t really until December that I was doing much. Then, with Christmas and illnesses and whatnot, it was January. Various bugs meant that my training remained spotty. But, at the end of February, I made my return from racing. And I did it in typical fashion: a double-header. On Saturday, the Minehead Running Club “Hills to Coast” Relay. On Sunday, the Babcary 7.5.
On 12 March, I “started” my training. It was pretty ad hoc. After just two weeks, I was out of action for two weeks with a diarrhoea bug. Another couple of weeks of training and I had another bad bug, and missed another ten days. It’s fair to say that at this point, I didn’t really think a marathon was going to happen. I’d already deferred my London place; it was quickly obvious that wasn’t going to happen. But I was really starting to worry about Snowdonia too.
Despite all the issues though, I was still making progress. My long runs were getting longer: 13 miles, 14 miles, 17 miles?! (I blame Ron.) I went for a solo run around some of Exmoor’s highest peaks, totalling 19 miles and 3,300 feet. A few weeks later, after a couple of race weekends, I looped back, forth, and all around Center Parcs for 20 miles. By then I was pretty happy – even if I did no more running, I was confident that as long as I was fit and well, I’d be fine.
Which was handy, and I got ill, again. Another week and a bit of training gone.
I’ll start talking about the race now, I promise
Fast forward to race week. Suddenly, the logistics became real, and difficult. My daughter has been getting car sick lately, and a five hour car journey didn’t look too appealing. We created, then tore up plan after plan after plan. Eventually finishing with cancelling all our hotel rooms, and involving me driving up on my own on the Saturday, saying with my in-laws that night, and then driving back straight after the race. It looked like it wasn’t just going to be the race that would be brutal!
It’s a long old journey…
The drive up went pretty well – five and a quarter hours to Llanberis. Then another half an hour to find somewhere to park (this would have been easier if either [a] I had change or [b] North Wales joined the 21st century and allowed you to pay for parking by mobile phone.) It was then simple enough to walk into the race village and collect my number. Another twenty minute drive got me to the holiday cottage in Y Felinheli my in-laws were staying in. We went out for a lovely meal at the Torna a Surriento restaurant in Bangor that evening to allow me to ‘carb-load’. I’m not sure whether Carbonara really counts, but it was delicious, so who cares!
Okay, okay, the race
A relatively normal 6:30 alarm gave me plenty of time to have a large bowl of porridge, start filling myself with water, and get my kit ready before we left the cottage at 7:30 to head to the start. Rather than worry about parking again, my father-in-law kindly dropped me off – we arranged that he would keep an eye on the tracker, and hopefully work out roughly when I was due to finish. I guessed at something between 5 and a half and 6 hours to complete the race.
Having collected my number the afternoon before, I didn’t really have anything to do in the hour and ten minutes before the race. I took a few pictures – both for myself and others, and generally whiled away the time. Bizarrely, given that my main concern for the race was getting too hot in the sun, I also had to work on keeping warm. The sun was tucked away behind the clouds, and it was actually – for the first time in about a month – quite chilly.
An average view from the start/finish area
The Always Aim High event team were brilliant throughout the morning, given frequent updates on the mandatory kit list. They had loosened it slightly, removing the need for waterproofs or gloves – full-body cover was still needed (a long sleeve top and trousers/tights). Sadly, this made no difference for me, as the only full-body cover I had with me was my waterproofs, so I had to carry that anyway. A lesson for the future!
A race briefing was given at 8:45, detailing the cut offs, and some basic safety information – pretty generic stuff, but some good stuff. They asked runners not to use the drink station water to pour over themselves, as this would risk them running out, especially in some of the harder to reach locations.
This bit is actually the race now
Well, sort of.
Not only was this to be my first marathon, but also my first race with mandatory kit, my first mountain race, my first run with more than 5,000 feet of elevation (actually my previous most was 3,800), my first run further than 20 miles, and significantly my longest run time-wise.
I had two main concerns:
- Running that far.
- Fuelling myself.
You’d think that I was worried about the climb over Snowdon itself, and the elevation, but oddly, I wasn’t. I’d trained with a fair bit of elevation, and was fully expecting it to be a walk, so the difficulty of it had been diminished in my head. I wasn’t even too concerned about the distance. Again, I knew that Snowdon would be something of a walk anyway, so actually, I didn’t really think I would have a major problem completing the race from that respect.
Running in an anti-clockwise direction.
On the other hand, my food and drink situation was one that worried me a fair bit. I get quite significant headaches after a lot of my runs, which seems to be linked to my hydration and fuelling. This race was going to span lunch – in fact, a guide time of six hours from 9 am meant that it would actually be basically all day. I have never used gels in a race before, but had been experimenting with them during my long runs, and had no ill effects. I had also taken peanut butter and jam sandwiches out a couple of times, and found that this had worked well too. So, I made a rough plan for the marathon: 5 miles, gel; 10 miles, sandwich; 15 miles, gel; 20 miles sandwich; 23 miles gel.
My general race plan was to take it pretty easy early on: that initial small looking climb is still over 1,000 feet. So I figured that I would get over that without exerting too much energy, and then crack on along the descent and the flat section. And then, you know, the mountain. I’d basically try and survive the walk up that, and then see how my legs were for the big descent. Sorted. A plan.
The actual start of the actual race (Start to Rhyd-Ddu)
No, like, actually this time.
After the race briefing, we were called to line up at the start. It was all a little bit of a mess, and I didn’t really have a clue whether I was too far forward, too far back, or about right. I guessed I was a little bit too far back, and this was borne out by our start through the village. Heading right down Llanberis High Street, the crowd was going at slightly less than 9 minute miles. Not catastrophically slow, given that I wanted to take it easy to start, but still slower than I wanted. I was aware of a stile at around mile four which other blogs had described as a pinch-point, which long queues. While I wanted to take it relatively easy on the first climb, I also wanted to hit that stile far enough up the pack that I didn’t have to wait too long.
I can tell this is early – I had my cap on!
I continued to gradually pass people along the High Street, and then as we turned up the hill the crowd slowed to a walk. I jogged short sections when there was space, but was mostly happy to go with the group. I really didn’t see any point in killing my legs on this first climb. We continued to climb, first on what was mostly a proper road, becoming a decent, single road-width track, becoming a narrower track, becoming quite a gnarly path. I slotted in with a group of three runners at this stage, and let them dictate much of the pace for a while.
Our first peak was reached at about three and a half miles, and took me about 40 minutes. I say a peak – in reality we were running up a pass between the heights of Foel Goch (605 m) and Moel Cynghorion (674 m) to Bwlch Maesgym (467 m).
Cap off – looking a bit less kempt.
More ‘average’ views.
From Bwlch Maesgym, we dropped down towards the Snowdon Ranger Path, where we had a short queue for a stile. This was the first of the pair that I’d read so much about – I was thankful that I’d clearly got far enough forward that they weren’t too much of an issue. The half marathon route splits off to head up the Ranger Path, but the marathon and ultra runners continued on, down towards Rhyd-Ddu. But first, another stile and some pretty treacherous terrain. I was keeping a pretty decent pace up along this whole section (stiles aside). The downhill nature suited me, and the terrain was pretty friendly early on – soft grass with a few rocks around to avoid. But after we crossed the Ranger Path, we seemed to be in some sort of quarry, and there was a lot of loose shale-like terrain to deal with, and some seemingly artificial mounds to negotiate.
One of the many stiles to get over early on.
Rhyd-Ddu, just about 10k into the race, was the first drinks station. Having missed my first gel at five miles, I took it on here. I also had a big cup of water, and took the opportunity to refill my water bottle. The station was well-stocked with water, High5 Isotonic drink and High5 gels as well. This was also the first checkpoint for the live tracking, so the first time that those following my progress had any idea of how I was doing: 1:08:21, at an average pace of 11:13 per mile, apparently.
The ‘boring’ middle bit (Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert)
After the gorgeous first section, and ahead of Snowdon, the middle section was relatively dull by comparison. That’s not to say it was actually unattractive or boring – in any other race, it would have been lovely. It’s just that in this particular race…
Approaching Rhyd-Ddu, when I was still capable of looking like I was enjoying myself!
Heading out of the drinks station in Rhyd-Ddu, we went around Llyn y Gader (a lake) and followed the edge of Beddgelert Forest. The pace picked up; mile 8 was my quickest of the entire marathon (8:25), and most were quicker than 9 minute miles. The terrain was largely compacted gravel, and with less stop-start, it was easier to follow typical race tactics. Three of us ran much of this section together, our paces nicely matching, though we swapped lead of the group a few times.
Entering Beddgelert, we reached the second major feed station for the marathon. Again late for my food, I scoffed down my sandwich as we approached it, and then once again took on plenty of water and refilled my bottle. As I was waiting for my refill, I heard my name – it was fellow RFRC runner Matt Blee, who was doing the ultra. We had a quick chat; he let me know that he was ahead of Damon, but the two Andys from our club were just ahead. After a little confusion about which direction to head in to leave, I headed off once more, through the pretty little village. Beddgelert was very busy with tourists as the time approached 11 in the morning. 11 miles in 1:49:42, at an average pace of 9:58 per mile.
The end of the beginning. Or, the beginning of the end. (Beddgelert to Pen-y-Pass)
From Beddgelert, the race continued to be mostly flat until the approach the Pen-y-Pass. The scenery was very different to the earlier stages; despite the dry spell, we were surrounded by lush greenery. We were running up the Afon Glaslyn valley, and went passed a couple of lakes, Llyn Dinas and Llyn Gwynant. Shortly after Beddgelert was the lowest point of the race, around 50 metres. Other than a brief bump around Llyn Gwynant, we only gained about 50 metres over the next 10 kilometres. Despite this, the terrain slowed us down from about mile 14, as the path twisted and turned through the trees and rocks. There were quite a few scrambles up and down steep rock formations, and there were a fair few stiles again. A feed station around mile 15 reminded me to take a gel, and put me pretty much back on track.
Just more lovely scenery.
Just before mile 18, the climbing starts. It sort of caught me off-guard. I’d driven past the Pen-y-Pass car park on my way to Llanberis the day before, and I had wondered about how high it already was. Apparently, I never developed this thought to really work out that there would be a fair bit of climbing before the Pen-y-Pass feed station (and cut-off, though I was well ahead of that spectre). In fact, we had to climb about 250 metres just to get to Pen-y-Pass and the start of the Pyg Track. Mile 19 was that climb; the first of four miles of it. And it was one of the most significant; 756 feet (~250 metres) in one mile. Everyone slowed to a walk – one person joked that it was like something out of a war film, with everyone trudging along, snaking up the path as far as we could see. That didn’t make it any easier – we could see quite how much further up we had to go – just to get to Pen-y-Pass.
Up, and more up. And this is before even hitting the mountain proper.
It was a relief to reach Pen-y-Pass and refill my water, which had been getting pretty low. Sadly, with the trauma of the climbing, I forgot to have anything to eat – technically it was too early, but given how much I’d had to slow, I should have done anyway. Pen-y-Pass was the last checkpoint before the finish line; 19 miles, 3:33:29 at an average pace of 11:14 per mile.
Can I please just give up? (Snowdon ascent)
The Pyg Track is often described as the prettiest route up Snowdon. It is one of the more popular, as it is also the shortest (assuming you start in the car park, and not 19 miles previous in Llanberis…) It is not however, the easiest. According to walkupsnowdon.co.uk, it “can be steep and rocky in places”. Yes. Quite. No one was even remotely considering running, and we were frequently slowing right down to clamber up some of the trickier climbs. It was amazing, let me be clear about that. Had I not already run pretty much as far as I’d ever run before, I’d probably have loved it. As it was, I’d already been climbing for a mile, knew that I had a fair bit left, and was getting fed up. It didn’t help that I didn’t remember exactly how much I had left. I recalled that the summit was somewhere around either 22.5 or 23.5 miles in, but couldn’t remember which. So I couldn’t even console myself by counting down the distance.
Mile 20 took 24:19, followed by mile 21 in 20:12 – there were actually a few points during this mile when I was able to run! Well, sort of. My this stage I was really struggling with basically everything. My groin or quads (I couldn’t really pinpoint which) were struggling with the big steps needed at times, and my calves and hamstrings weren’t too happy either. I sat down for an actual break at about 19.8 miles, and then repeated this again at 20.6, 21.1 and 21.8 miles.
Frankly, my head was broken. I didn’t want to keep going. I’d already gone further than I’d ever been before, and the walking was really demoralising me. I’m a runner – I train to run, I like – heck, no – love to run. And yet, for a few miles, and for more yet, I was just walking. Trudging really, not really walking at all. If there had been a feasible way to stop, to give in, I’d have probably taken it. As it was, I was halfway up a mountain. I had to either walk back down, or walk the rest of the way up. I could hardly sit there and demand Mountain Rescue come and take me off the mountain. So, on I went.
The views though!
I kept on going. And going. And going. Thankfully, my estimates for the summit (well, where the Pyg Track meets the Llanberis Path, which is as far as we went) were off, and we actually got there at mile 22. There was a photographer near the top, and I’ve not included any of the photos – the backdrop is stunning, but I was… not. My efforts at a smile and thumbs up are quite amusing though! For the record, mile 22 included 983 feet of elevation, and it took me 30:58!
Down Snowdon back to Llanberis (to the finish)
Normally, I’d have gobbled up the downhill; it was rocky and fun. However, I had no legs left to work with, and very little energy. I knew by this point that I’d messed up my food, and although I’d tried to have a sandwich halfway up, I just manage it. I’d ran out of water on the climb, and the drink station wasn’t until a mile into the descent. But, importantly, I knew that having made the climb, I could definitely finish.
I once again made full use of the drinks station, having two cups of water, and refilling my water bottle up completely. I tried to then spur myself on down the hill, but truth be told, I just had nothing left. I ended up running with the half marathon sweeper for a fair while – I think he must have sensed my despair! We chatted for a little while about the race, and running in the area generally, before he stopped to talk to some marshals and I continued on. For about two and a half miles after the drinks station, we dropped down the Llanberis Path before it deposited us on the road. I was unusually happy to see the road, and the regularity it brought with it – my muscles were fed up with variable terrain.
Spurred on by a runner who passed me, I managed to put on a bit more speed down into Llanberis. Thankfully, I remembered from the blog posts I’d read that the course didn’t head straight to the finish, but took a right-hand turn to approach the finish from the other side. I assume this has something to do with traffic management, but even knowing it was coming, it was pretty hard to cope with being diverted away from the finish when you’d already run 26.2 miles! Still, a wiggle through some trees, and an annoying little climb, and then I was into the meadow next to the race village. And then into the finishing funnel – which went on bit longer than I would have liked!
Nearly, nearly, nearly there.
Then, finally, I rounded the corner, and could see the finish. Damon, who I discovered had been forced to drop out, was right by the finish, and I’ve rarely been happier to see a friendly face and have a high five towards the end of a race.
You know what, I don’t even remember what my finishing time was. It doesn’t really matter. It was a bloody difficult course. It was my first marathon. It went over a bloody mountain. I survived – physically, mentally (just about). But, for the record, it was 5:46:28, an average pace of 12:48 for the whole thing. Pen-y-Pass to the finish was an average of 16:20.
Looking more or less how I felt.
I think this is plenty long enough for the moment – I’ll post about my reflections on the race later in the week.