Author Archives: Ben

Ben’s training diary: w/c 7 January 2019

by Ben

Last week, I discussed wanting to increase my mileage up to 40-50 km per week by the end of January. Typically then, this week I developed a cold. But, such is winter with two young children!

The week was disrupted somewhat as I was working away from home Tuesday – Wednesday – Thursday, but as I’ve done before, I managed to work my way around it, and arranged to join the City of Salisbury Athletics and Running Club for their Wednesday night club run.

Wednesday: 10 km with CoSARC

In fact, that Wednesday night run ended up being my first of the week. I’d intended to run on the Tuesday night, when I arrived at my Salisbury hotel, but I ended up getting in so late that I basically just ate and went to bed.

I arrived at the Five Rivers Leisure Centre with plenty of time to spare, and was impressed with the organisation – everyone had to sign in, and note down which group they were running with. There was a box to later tick to say you’d returned. This wasn’t something I’d come across before, but definitely seems like a very good idea.

I’d looked up beforehand, and decided to run with their group 6, doing roughly 6.5 miles (just over 10 km) at 9 min/mile. The joy of running with a group in a strange place is being able to simply run, rather than spend the entire time checking where you are, where you have to turn next, and generally just getting a bit stressed. Of course, it was somewhat typical that the first thing we did was run straight from the leisure centre to my hotel; one bit of road that I did know!

It was a nice run – I really don’t know the area well enough to be able to comment much on where we went, but I did notice when we ran through the park that hosts Salisbury parkrun, which we did way back in 2016. I ran mostly alone for the first half of our run, just listening to various conversations, before having a good natter for the second half of the run. Our pace was a smidgen faster than advertised, averaging 5:30 per kilometre (8:50 per mile) for 10.6 km.

Thank you very much to all involved with CoSARC for letting me run with you.

Thursday: General aerobic

When I got back on Thursday, I was more or less straight back out of the door for this run. It was a bit chilly, but I needed the miles. Nothing exciting, just a 7 km run around Taunton at a relatively steady pace; 5:30 per kilometre average again, with no single kilometre faster than 5:21 or slower than 5:40.

Bright winter clothing – though I really want to get something more reflective for winter road running.
Saturday: Thornbury parkrun

I wrote a full report in another blog post, so as usual, I’ll just discuss my actual run. This was a tough course with a buggy. I took it relatively easy for the first lap, but was constantly easing my way through the field, having started at the back. There were obviously points where I was able to make better progress (downhill, on tarmac) and places where I made less (uphill, on grass, narrow bits). and so the pace bounced up and down a little bit throughout the run. I pretty much ran negative splits throughout though; especially if you consider the grade-adjusted pace: 5:35, 5:24, 5:06, 5:01, 4:56. A time of 26:25 with the buggy is nothing to be scoffed at; it’s quicker than I did Weymouth, Barnstaple, Plymvalley, Shepton Mallet or Exeter Riverside. And obviously quicker than Mount Edgcumbe!

Weekly summary

My cold, which started to come through on Friday evening, nearly stopped us going to Thornbury parkrun: I’m bad enough in the mornings, and waking up with the start of a cold didn’t help. But I made the decision that if I was going to get a cold, I might as well run while i could, as it wasn’t going to make things much worse. I’m glad we did, especially as I then wasn’t able to run on Sunday due to being too thick with cold, and just plain wiped out. So for the week overall, I did 22.7 km, which was well under the 38.8 that I’d hit last week. Still, it was three decent runs, and I’m now up to five weeks of more regular running. Hopefully I can shake off the worst of this cold over the next couple of days, and get some more mileage in this week, but in all honesty, I’m not going to force things.

parkrun tourism: Thornbury parkrun

by Ben

We’re on something of a parkrun streak at the moment: before this weekend we had done parkrun on each of the last six parkrundays (including Christmas and New Year). The last time I had done six parkrundays in a row was… February to April 2017. I could bore you with more stats, but suffice to say that parkrunning regularly hasn’t really been a thing for a while. With this in mind, I proposed to Lolly that we take a week off this weekend – at least, from touring. Then this happened.

Farewell, sleep.

Thornbury was one of many parkruns on our to do list that is predominantly on grass, and thus something of a lottery with the buggies in the winter (it also suffers from being up the M5, and therefore on the ‘avoid due to awful summer traffic’ list too). Thankfully, it stayed pretty dry this week, so we didn’t have any last minute panics. It was actually our NENYD (by driving time), and so we had a relatively friendly 7:30 departure time.

We used the recommended Castle Court car park, which was a doddle to find with the postcode provided on the website. The car park has both long- and short-stay areas, which are free for 12 or 2 hours respectively. I recommend the 12 hour option – breakfast in The Swan is worth it. [Oops, spoiler.] We did notice a potential problem in the car park though – the arrow pointing to the parkrun went through a narrow kissing gate. Which is… less than ideal with a buggy. Thankfully we managed to get alternative directions around to the park (back to the high street, a couple of hundred yards along, and then cut down a lane into the park). Phew.

Our first observations of the park were that it was, well, undulating. And generally… uneven. This might sound like I’ve basically said the same thing twice, but when you run with a buggy you soon learn the only thing worse than running up a hill is running along a hill, when your buggy wants to turn (or roll) sideways down the slope.

After a toilet break (ample toilets are located right by the start/finish) we were greeted by the chap who’d given us directions, and then it was time for the run briefing. During the briefing, the RD paused when he heard murmurs after saying there were no buggies or dogs. He followed the eyes of the crowd toward us. He paused a little longer. “It’s not really a buggy friendly course, but we’ll see how you get along.” I’m sure Lolly was about as enthused as I was.

The parkrun commences

After the usual inaudible start (seriously parkrun event teams, buy megaphones), we were off. The first, oh, 100 metres(?) was on tarmac before a sharp left onto the grass around a football pitch. Thankfully this was pretty flat and well looked after, and with the ground firm enough at the moment, it was still decent running. (I feel like I’m describing a racecourse; “the going was good to firm”). We then went along past Thornbury Town’s main pitch before things got a little bit more rugged. Passing through into the next field was a little bumpy with the buggy: comparing Open Street Map’s satellite images with those from Google suggest that this might be a relatively recent conversion to playing fields.

Everything changes.

Going around another two football pitches (presumably youth pitches, as they are a little smaller) gets you most of the way back to the start, but only for half the lap. The route doesn’t quite kiss before looping around another field. This is the part where things start to get a little lumpy. (I should preface this by clarifying that a lot of what I might describe as “lumpy”, “hilly”, “a climb” etc might not be considered much of anything without a buggy, but with a buggy, these things get magnified.) Part of what makes this course feel so tough with a buggy is the number of 90° corners on grass – each time you lose pretty much any momentum you’ve built up, and simply getting the sufficient grip on the grass to wrest the buggy around (even in the relatively dry conditions) can be tricky. I found this especially the case on the way out of the third field, when we had a right-angle bend, up the hill. with a slight bump up onto the path.

Once on that path though, you’d done the toughest part of the lap. There was a little climbing left, but at least it was on a tarmac path, and then we went all the way around the top field, which was mostly downhill, enjoyed a little dip back on the path and crossed the start line. Rinse and repeat three times, and you’re done.

Go around that field, then that field, and then that field, and finally that field. Then do it again. And again.

I’ll be honest – it’s not the most inspiring course I’ve ever run, especially when I’m visiting a week after doing Woolacombe Dunes. But parkrun isn’t about the course: if I’m totally honest, as predominately a trail runner these days, the majority of parkrun courses are a bit bland to me. What I think is far more important is the atmosphere. And while I related earlier that the RD had said it wasn’t a buggy friendly course, I can only half agree with him. The physical course is pretty unfriendly for buggies. In fact, as I went around one corner, I got so worried that my (pretty old now) buggy was going to fall apart that I started making plans for how I would finish if I had to abandon the buggy. (I mean, it wasn’t a complex plan to be fair – I would simply remove child from the buggy and walk with him to the finish.)

But the people; the marshals and fellow runners; they were extremely friendly. It might be partly because it’s a course that buggies are rarely seen at, but so many runners and volunteers took the time to cheer me on during the run, or step over at the end to congratulate me. I know it was the same for Lolly – she got a huge cheer when she finished, and received no end of encouragement throughout the run.

For me, that was the overwhelming takeaway from this run, the camaraderie. (Also, I avoided being lapped by about 6 seconds.) After the run, a group of us gathered together to try and recreate the 50 t-shirt photo.

(We’re far right. You basically can’t see me because of Lolly. Ironically.)

Afterwards, the kids had a play in the playground, before I took both the buggies back to the car and then met Lolly and the kids at The Swan for breakfast. It was reasonably priced, and more to the point – HUGE!

The most important part of parkrun tourism: sampling breakfasts around the south west.

Ben’s training diary: w/c 31 December 2018

by Ben

Training diary might be something of an exaggeration – on both counts. My ‘plan’ at the moment is to spend most of January just getting back into a pattern and rhythm with running, building my mileage back to a decent base. Only once since my marathon back in July have I run anything approaching a decent weekly mileage. In reality, primarily due to illness, I’ve simply not run during that time.

My aims for January are to build up to a 40-50 km weekly mileage consistently, ideally with a long run in the region of 16 km. Although I’m not planning on focusing on my speed, I would expect my 5 km times to come down towards 20 minutes naturally just through improvement to my general fitness.

Tuesday: parkrun double

Lolly blogged here about our parkrun double, so here I will focus more on my personal effort. I planned ahead to push during the first of the two; Penrose. The course is a mostly flat out-and-back, and I figured I could set a relatively representation time on it. I got caught up in congestion early on during the run, but cleared it to set 4:31 for the first kilometre. The second kilometre was the most consistent in terms of pace, and was nicely quicker too; a 4:14. A small climb at the turnaround point slowed me down a little in the third, but I was cracking along quicker than I’d expected irrespective; 4:24. The second half was a slog; I’d predicted to my brother before the run that I might be around 23 minutes; it was pretty clear that I’d be sub-22. In the end, I held on for a 21:21, which clearly significantly exceeded my expectations.

Four Timpsons at Penrose.

On the other hand, I was a little worried that I had destroyed myself for the second run. I jogged back along the course to run in with my sister, who was running her first ever parkrun, and this nicely acted as a cool down for me.

After a 20 minute drive, we arrived in Heartlands with around half an hour to spare. I had every intention to take it easy and jog around in something like 24 minutes. It’s fair to say that those plans fled out the window pretty early, when I hared off along with the front pack. I really enjoyed the course, which was fun as it twisted and turned through the gardens. My pace throughout the run was more consistent than earlier; registering 4:12, 4:16, 4:12, 4:16 before a drop to 4:31 for the final kilometre. Not a surprise really! Still, I was pretty chuffed with another sub-22 finish; 21:44. In fact, Strava suggests that my pace was quicker at Heartlands than Penrose, but the distance discrepancies resulted in a slower time. If I put those two times together (and it’s clearly not this simple) I’d be delighted with a time of 43:05 for a 10k!

Thursday: General aerobic

Weirdly, this was my biggest success of the week: getting out for “just a run”. If I want to get back to decent weekly mileage, then I need to be able to just go out and run, particularly for these first few weeks. I’d originally hoped to be able to get out and run somewhere more interesting – maybe the Camel Trail near Wadebridge where I was working. Unfortunately, work took longer than I’d hoped, and by the time I really had a chance to run, it would have been too dark, so I just headed home for a plod around Taunton. Nothing much to report, but I did gently speed up as I went along, and averaged 5:25 per kilometre for just over six kilometres.

Saturday: Woolacombe Dunes parkrun

With some childcare at home (thanks in-laws!) we were able to get out and about. We targeted Woolacombe Dunes, as it looked like one that we wouldn’t be able to run with the buggies (confirmed). It was a tough course – I’d put it as the toughest parkrun course that I’ve done, harder than any of Lanhydrock, Parke or Mount Edgcumbe. Again Lolly has blogged about this one, so I won’t go into too much detail on the course, and rather focus on my run. After a 1.6 km warm-up (ahem, it’s a slow transition from imperial to metric), I was just about able to change my shoes in time for the start.

The beach didn’t feel that bad to run on, but it noticeably slowed me down.

A downhill start played into my hands, and after the first kilometre I was still running with the leaders after posting a 3:54 opening kilometre. The sand dunes were hard work, followed by the beach itself, which slowed me to 4:44 and 4:41 for the next two kilometres. It go slower yet as we climbed back up the dunes to get off the beach, and then continued to climb back towards the start/finish. This was compounded by another descent, which was fun, but of course added to the climb! 5:41 and 5:37 for the final two kilometres reflected both the hills and my fitness by this stage of the week! A time of 24:55 doesn’t look like anything special on paper, but I’m happy that I couldn’t have gone much faster on the day.

Sunday: Minehead RC M2BL Leg 2 Recce Run

Snappy title, eh? Each year Minehead RC put on a club relay. I ran it last year, and blogged about it. In the couple of months leading up to the relay, there are a number of club-organised (or semi-organised) recce runs. Although I’m not running leg 2 myself, it’s nice to get out with others, particularly to see routes I haven’t done before, so I was happy to get along to this run. (It would probably be good to recce my own route at some stage though…)

Yeah, we probably had to run up that!

My legs were pretty broken after four hard effort parkruns in the last week and a bit (dating back to Trelissick parkrun last Saturday) and it was a pretty hilly route. My legs weren’t helped by the fact that I opted to run most of the route at the front with Matt, pushing myself more than necessary! It was a lovely off-road route with some good company, and better still for being further than I’d expected, giving me a nice 13 km distance.

Weekly summary

This week generally exceeded my expectations. I ran the parkruns harder and faster than I thought I would, and I accumulated a much higher total mileage. In fact, if I ran this every week, I’d more or less hit my 2,000 km target for the year. Over the next couple of weeks I intend to stick to much the same. Ease the overall mileage up a little bit, but mostly just keep getting out there and running. I’m working away from home for a couple of nights, which adds its own challenge, but if I can get two midweek runs in, then I’ll be in a good place come the weekend.

parkrun tourism: Trelissick parkrun

by Ben

When the New Year’s Day double of Penrose and Heartlands appeared, it became almost inevitable that we would spend New Year’s at my parents’ in Cornwall. When we realised that we could also do Trelissick parkrun if I took the Monday (New Year’s Eve) off work, it became a nailed-on certainty. We had done Penrose before, but that was on the old cliff-climbing course, while Trelissick and Heartlands would be completely new to us. But more about the NYD double in another post.

Our logistics were not without their issues. As I was working on Thursday and Friday, and parkrun is on parkrunday (sorry, Saturday), this meant we’d need an evening drive down. Unfortunately, due to various issues (us not getting our stuff together) we left home at 19:40, having not eaten any dinner. We arrived at my parent’s house at 22:10, still having not eaten any dinner. Nor even snacked. A bowl of pasta with chicken nuggets and cheese at 22:40 eventually counted as dinner. This was not an optimal fuelling strategy, to quote a couple of the guys that I race against in the Somerset Series.

For a change, we were able to leave the children behind and head out alone. In general, we like to bring the children along, even if we have babysitters, so that they can be involved in the parkrun atmosphere, but after the night’s antics, we let them rest at home. (Wow – how many commas did I manage in that sentence?!) It was, for us, a short drive to a tourist parkrun: about 25 minutes.

Run briefing gathering.

The parkrun is hosted by a National Trust property, Trelissick Gardens, though the run itself doesn’t enter the gardens. As a result, there are copious amounts of parking, free for NT members or £3 for non-members. Runners gather by the cafe and toilets for the run briefing, before a walk through the gardens to the start. While we were waiting, we noticed a couple with cow cowls and an apricot declaring ‘Yeovil Montacute’, and so got chatting to the lovely Dave and Deb Stanfield. During the run briefing, Ola then got chatting to another tourist, this time from Pomphrey Hill parkrun – Helen Spilsbury. It was great to meet all three, and it was far from the only time over the parkrun holiday!

Anyway; paragraph 5, the run.

I hadn’t really researched the course. I had heard that there was a hilly field, and so in my head, the whole thing was on undulating grassy fields. It turned out the undulating was spot on, but not so much the grassy fields – for the most part, anyway. We started next to the River Fal by the King Harry Ferry – and a huge ship moored up out of the way. It was a downhill start on a woodland/coastal style path – compacted mud with a fair smattering of rocks and tree roots. It turned out that this was actually the terrain for the majority of the route.

The fast downhill start set the trend for the first kilometre and a quarter: though it gently undulated, we gradually dropped down to basically sea-level. I hadn’t really noticed from the running itself (though I should have realised that it felt too easy), but I did twig that the river had got a lot closer! Unsurprisingly, the first kilometre was my fastest. We crossed a bridge and had a short (like 20m? horizontal) climb followed by more path.

The view from the start. Bang average.

Just short of the two-kilometre mark, we reached the field that I’d heard about. And yeah – it had a climb. First, we more or less doubled back on ourselves, running the other side of the hedge from where we’d just come, and then took a sharp right up the hill. It wasn’t awful. Roughly 30 metres vertical gain at about 20% gradient at the worst. That said, it was relatively dry – I imagine that it’s pretty awful in the wet, slippy mud. The beauty of the loop around the field though was that what had gone up had to come back down. The descent was less steep, making it more runnable for most (personally, I’d clearly prefer it the other way around, but I firmly believe that parkrun courses should be as accessible as possible). It was still a fun-enough descent, and saw me hit my quickest pace of the run; a not-too-silly 3:14/km.

Back onto the path, and after the short run back to the bridge, there was no avoiding that it was going to be something of an uphill slog to the finish. I tagged along with a young lad (JM11-14) through this section, but eventually I had the legs on him and eased ahead. Between him, and another couple of runners, I managed to keep myself honest towards the end, when I really just wanted to take it easy and plod back. The hill kicks on steeper at the end, and a “120m to go” sign was a mixed blessing! The finish is further up the hill beyond the start line, making it technically an uphill course. That final stretch from the sign was one of the best finishes that I’ve experienced at parkrun. The nature of the course means that the spectators line the river-side of the path, creating a little cheering funnel up to the finish. Sadly, for those finished later than about 30 minutes, most of the spectators had left with their families, resulting in a far quieter finish for those runners.

I headed back down the hill after finishing to cheer Lolly in – I think she appreciated the shout of “Push, push up the hill.” [Editor’s note: she didn’t.] We both hung around for a while to cheer people in, before grabbing our hoodies, socialising a bit more, and heading back to the toilets and car, to rescue my parents from our children. Or should that be our children from my parents?! Just our short walk through the Gardens had shown how pretty they were, and we returned with the whole family in tow on New Year’s Eve. With the added advantage of being not in smelly running gear! It was really nice, and I’d recommend allowing time for a visit to the Gardens if you’re in the area.

More average scenery.

Trelissick was a stunning parkrun – possibly in my top-three. I’d love to come back and run it when I’m at my peak, but that mostly depends on no more parkruns starting up in west Cornwall before we next visit my parents! The attendance at Trelissick didn’t quite set a new record, but was only 13 short – it seems that we weren’t the only ones who realised that a trip to Cornwall over New Year’s was a good way to tick some of the further parkruns off the list! (To my parents, if you’re reading: I do love you really!)

Next, three days later, the New Year’s Day double

Brent Knoll: race report

by Ben

I have previously taken part in the Brent Knoll Race in 2016, 2015 (when apparently I didn’t blog about it) and 2014. Last year I was injured, but went along anyway to take some photos and go to the Somerset Series presentation afterwards.

Due to illness, I’ve barely run since the Snowdonia Trail Marathon in mid-July, although I did manage to get around the Ash Excellent Eight in August. My monthly stats make some poor reading: I peaked at 131 miles in May, then was around 90 in each of June and July. Then… 29, 36, 18, 9. It’s not a great trend.

It’s been pretty rough: running is one of my main methods of stress relief, so without it, I’ve struggled. Particularly at a time when I’ve been feeling quite low anyway, because of being ill for such a long period. But: I generally seem to be much stronger now, so hopefully I’m through whatever it was, and can get back on with life.

Enough rambling about that – let me ramble about the race. Or at least the most direct pre-race. This is the final race of the Somerset Series. In order to qualify for the series, you have to complete eight of the participating races. I’d done seven. So, I resolved that I was doing this race, whether I could run, walk or crawl it. (Okay, slightly exaggeration possibly.) Given the aforementioned lack of mileage, it was clearly not going to be easy. For those not familiar with the race, it’s worth giving my 2014 report a read: it details it more than I’ll go into again. But I’ll let the Strava elevation plot give you an idea:

So… we got a bump coming up…

The basic race plan was to take it relatively easy, and just finish. So, obviously, I completely overcooked the first mile, cracking along at (quick-for-me-now) 7:16. I maintained much the same pace for the next half a mile. I then refer you to the above plot. I didn’t even try and run/jog/power-walk the hill. It was a trudge.

Trudging. (Credit: Neale Jarrett)

Let me tell you, I was loving it every bit as much as it looked. This is pretty much my favourite race. But it’s an awful one to attempt when unfit. And boy, am I unfit. Still, the first climb was managed without excessive drama (just excessive sulking). My pace dropped off completely from those around me after that exertion though; I started dropping back slowly through the field along the relative flat between climbs. The second climb acted as a leveller, with us all walking, before I dropped back further as we circumnavigated (well, nearly) the summit.

Finally! The descents! Those who know me will know that there is little in life I love more than a trail descent. I took this first one a little bit steady, as I was a bit unsure of how I’d manage, given my lack of recent running. I still managed to pass a few people on the way down, and make up for a fair bit of my previous rubbishness. Of course, once we were back on the flat, they all streamed back past me, but whatever.

On the second descent, I really let myself go, and perhaps for the only stage of the race, had a genuine smile on my face. Of course, once we were back on the flat, they all streamed back past me, but whatever! The rest of the race, about a mile-and-a-half, was just a slog to finish.

Lazy technique. (Credit: Daniel Anderson)

I was glad to finish, and not bothered at all about trying to put in a sprint finish. It was done, I’d completed my eighth race, and qualified for the series. Now it just remained to be seen if I had done enough to finish in the top ten? I’d been (based on points average) eighth coming into this race, but it all depended on how other people had improved compared to me.

While the race wasn’t a great experience for me, it was really good to get out and see the racing community. Being the end of season race, most of the familiar faces were there, and it was nice just to be immersed back into that. As well as that, both of my clubs, Running Forever and Minehead had good contingents at the race, so it was a nice, social occasion. Most importantly though (!) my attendance had paid off, and I finished ninth in the Series – another glass for the shelf!

Club swag!

So… what’s next? I honestly don’t know. I’d like to set down a foundation over the next few weeks, even if it’s just a couple of runs a week. After that, hopefully I can work on getting back up to pace. But first, I’ve got a cold to shift. [EYE ROLL]

parkrun tourism: Weymouth parkrun

by Ben

Weymouth parkrun has been running since August 2013, just marginally longer than our home run of Longrun Meadow. As with most in the South West region, it’s been on our radar to do for a while. The course description describes part of the course as being on the grass, and with the buggy(ies) that has put us off in the wet, wintry months.

Lolly and I travelled to the run separately; I had been working in the area on Friday and stayed in a local B&B the night before, while she was coming over from Taunton with the children. As a result, at 8:29 we had a conversation on WhatsApp:

Lolly: Awake yet?
Me: Yup.
Me: Where are you?
Lolly: [Picture of car in car park]
Me: Where’s that?
Me: I tried to park in the College Car Park that the website recommends, but it seems to be closed?
Lolly: Oh
Lolly: I parked in the country park car park

An encouraging start. I set up both buggies, and walked through the college car park to the start area for the parkrun. In the Country Park car park. Oh.

So for some clarity on the parking: you can park in the Country Park car park, which is in fact where the run started and finished for us: but you have to pay: 50p for one hour, working up to £6 for all day. The College car park was eventually opened, and is free for the duration of the run. There were also toilets in the car park, although only one of them was open, causing a long queue, even early on.

Smile!

After a fair bit of faffing (it turned out that I hadn’t changed into running shoes, so I had to go back to the car) we lined up for the start. As usual, I managed to miss the first timers briefing, but Lolly gave me a synopsis: keep left for the out-and-back section, turnaround at the stone pineapple. (Which, for the record, I never noticed.) Apparently, it was a very good first timers briefing: they had a big, obvious, sign showing where it was, and it covered everything that a first timer might possibly need to know.

As noted, the start/finish area was unusually located in a car park. In general parkrun tries to avoid areas with traffic: the course map doesn’t show the car park being used, so I can only assume that this is a variation due to wetter weather, possibly. Starting at the back of the pack with the buggies, we couldn’t hear the pre-run briefing, but there were various bursts of applause – presumably for landmark runs and thanking the volunteers.

I started gently – so gently that the tail walkers went past me! This just meant that I had no one either side of me, and I could easily dart across to the side to ease my way through some of the crowds while we were still in the wide car park area. Thankfully, even when we entered Lodmoor Country Park, the path stayed wide initially – easily allowing four people to run abreast. There were a few bollards to avoid, and although there were grass verges at the sides for sections, they tended to be slightly sloped, and not ideal for the buggy to put a wheel onto. I eased my way along through the field as well as I could, targeting the buggy that I could see ahead. Me, competitive? No…

Into the Country Park.

We started off with a clockwise lap of the park, around both a pitch and putt golf course and a field with a miniature railway in. Another third of the lap, and this time we split off to head up the out-and-back section. By this stage, I’d managed to find a bit more free space, and had got in front of the other buggy (there were four in total). The terrain up this section varied quite considerably: initially it was quite nice, if a little narrow in places: roughly three people wide. This opened out onto a rough clearing that had some – well – craters in it, which had to be navigated quite carefully with the buggy. The path after this was tarmac and very nice to run on.

I noticed as we approached the turnaround point that the other buggy was getting quite close behind me – thankfully things cleared up a little in front of me at this point, and tipping the buggy back onto its rear wheels, I navigated the tight turns, to the call of “quick buggy coming through” from the marshal. Heading back, I more or less gave up on passing people as the path got congested with the mid-pack going in both directions. We weaved past a few runners, but for the most part, I was content to sit and hold position.

Until, that is, I noticed the other buggy closing in behind me again. Sigh – can’t I just have a nice jog to the finish? (I mean, obviously I could have just let him pass me and not worried about it. Apparently.) After passing the tail walker coming the other way, I was able to move out and pass people with a bit more freedom, before we finally reached the park once more. I had expected that we would turn right and head straight back, but it seemed that we were still too short for that to work, and so we turned left for another longer loop of the park. I pressed on, though without going crazy, working myself into some clear space for the finish. (I tend to prefer more space when I’m finishing with the buggy – it stops any silly accidents.)

Past the miniature railway station.

The finish funnel was pretty congested, so as soon as I’d picked up our finish token, I ducked out of the funnel and went back to watch Lolly finishing, before scanning when it got a bit quieter.

Overall, I enjoyed the course – it is nicely varied. I would say that it is pretty much completely flat, though there may be a very slight climb up to the turnaround point. But Strava reckons it was 22 feet, so, maybe not. Looking at the volunteer roster, it looks quite a labour intensive run; eight marshals, a lead bike, two funnel managers, two on finish tokens. There was certainly never any trouble finding where to go on the course!

Afterwards, it looked like a lot of the parkrunners were going back to the Lodmoor pub, a Brewers Fayre attached to the Premier Inn right by the start/finish. (There’s also another Premier Inn by the turnaround point, so both are pretty convenient for the run.) We opted to drive into town to visit Wetherspoons for a cheaper breakfast, before returning to the Country Park car park to visit Weymouth Sea Life Centre.

parkrun tourism: Bideford parkrun

by Ben

Bideford parkrun has been up and running since April 2016, and is up to event #125. We’ve been intending to do it almost the entire time since. Bideford is about an hour and a quarter drive for us, so is very reasonable as an out-and-back in a morning option. With Lolly’s parents over for the weekend (helping us out with a childcare emergency – thank you) we were free to roam. Unfortunately, the August Bank Holiday meant that the roads were likely to be awful, eliminating most of our options. After a short analysis of the remaining options, we chose Bideford – essentially as the one using the least amount of M5/A303!

Bideford is a town in North Devon that sits on the River Torridge (the name comes from ‘by the ford, rather than a ford of the river Bide). It’s closest other parkrun is Barnstaple, which we did in November 2015. The pair tend to double up for New Year’s Day. The course goes around Victoria Park and King George V playing fields, near the river.

The parkrun course is also marked as an England 3-2-1 route.

We arrived in plenty of time, and parked in the spacious pay and display (or Parkmobile) car park located right next to the park. With some time to kill, we had a wander around Victoria Park, getting a feel for the place. We were annoyed that we hadn’t brought the children, as there is an amazing play area in the park, along with a cafe, paddling pool, toilets, and well… all sorts!

Pre-run faffing and toilet stops done, we headed over for the new runner’s briefing. This was relatively short and to the point, explaining the course: three and a half laps. Basically, one loop of Victoria Park itself to start (the 0.5) and three full loops of Victoria Park and the King George V playing fields. Or, as the RD succinctly put it at the end: three times around the tree stump and four times past the toilets.

The main briefing was similarly routine; one runner on her 50th run, standards terms and conditions apply, let’s go! We were shepherded a short distance back towards the start, and after a little wait for some runners that were late, we were set on our way.

Four times past the toilets (and amazing playing area).

The half lap to start is entirely on tarmac paths skirting around the outskirts of Victoria Park. The event feels like it has a lot of marshals, giving great support on the way around. I can recall eight marshal locations, plus the mass of volunteers around the start/finish area. Not bad for such a small course. The paths are all a pretty good width, and the event tends to attract between 100 and 150 people (we had 133), so there isn’t too much issue with congestion.

After the first half lap, we passed the start line and headed right, going around a Children’s Centre, and into the playing fields. This involved switching off the tarmac paths onto the grass. I’d opted to wear road shoes, not having noticed the grass section during our wander around the park, but thankfully it was plenty solid enough that I didn’t regret my decision. Towards the end of the grass, the ground started to get a bit rutted. On the first lap lightly turned my ankle, but thankfully it didn’t bother me after a few strides. On the final lap, rather than continue back past the start line, we turned off early and headed down the grass for the finish.

Finish strong!

In advance, I always think that courses with three or more laps will be tough and dull, but I didn’t have an issue today at all. In fact, thinking back, I’m not sure I ever have. From a personal point of view, my run was quite disappointing. After a few weeks of not running, I struggled with the pace, and faded away after the first kilometre or so. Hopefully a couple of weeks of decent running will get me nicely back into shape.

As a parkrun, I’d say Bideford is good without being amazing. The park itself is lovely, and the volunteers were plentiful and supportive. Having done 35 different events now, it can be easy to start being snobbish about different courses, and I might have prejudged this course harshly because of that. I would have no complaints at all if this was my home run, and it benefits from being almost entirely pancake flat (just a small lump past the toilet block really).

The Barge Cafe.

Lolly had a fantastic run, setting her P2BPB (post-second-baby personal-best). We considered hanging around for second breakfast in the cafe (which is on a boat!) afterwards, but neither of us were feeling ready for food immediately, so we ended up stopping at Sainsbury’s cafe in Barnstaple on the way home for food instead. Victoria Park also hosts a junior parkrun, Torridge junior parkrun, and we’re already planning a weekend away to spend a Saturday in Bude (Tamar Lakes parkrun) and the Sunday in Bideford. Both because the park will be great for the kids, and because Bideford looks such a lovely place.

parkrun tourism: Exmouth parkrun

by Ben

A bit of a #throwbackthursday post today to a parkrun that we visited back in May, but for one reason or another, we never got around to writing up at the time: Exmouth parkrun.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

This was sort of unintentional parkrun tourism. Sort of. Exmouth parkrun was not our intended destination when we set out. Let me explain…

My in-laws were with us for the weekend, and so we decided to take the opportunity to get out and visit somewhere new. A look around, and we decided that Torbay Velopark took our fancy. It was a reasonable, but not silly, distance away, and it looked an interesting course.

We set off, a little bit late, but without too much concern. But, as we went, we noticed the traffic was a bit heavier than we’d accounted for (it was a bank holiday weekend). We kept going, though the sat nav estimated arrival time was starting to get a bit concerning. 8:55 might be an acceptable time to turn up to your home run, where you know what’s going on, but for touristing… it’s not ideal.

We passed Cullompton (and the turning for Killerton), and the traffic certainly didn’t seem to be easing. We had to make a decision soon: did we keep on going past Exeter to Torbay, or turn off early to either Exeter Riverside or Exmouth? We hadn’t really fancied Exmouth initially, as being a “road” course, it was one we could easily do with buggies. But, we were getting really touch-and-go for Torbay, and didn’t fancy repeating Exeter Riverside.

And so, we arrived in Exmouth with plenty of time. Which was handy, as we drove around the block a couple of times while I got confused about where we should park. In the end, we got it about right, parking on the prom, just metres from the start/finish. It’s paid parking, but I seem to recall that it was pretty reasonable, even taking into account the extra hour’s cost to fit in breakfast!

After popping to the toilets (very conveniently located) and faffing around for a while, I realised that I should probably head off for a warm-up jog. I headed off west along the Esplanade, knowing that the course mostly went the other direction. I knew I didn’t have too much time, but for some reason, I just kept on going, and ended up clocking up 1.1 miles. Which is perfectly reasonable, except when you get back to the start and find that everyone else is already gathered up ready to go!

Having missed the new runners briefing, and apparently the normal briefing too, I was initially slightly disorientated, and couldn’t work out which end of the pack I should integrate myself into. It soon became apparent when I paid attention, and I snuck myself into the side. Unfortunately, poor preparation meant that a few things weren’t quite ideal. Firstly, I was wearing my new inov-8 Parkclaws. These light trail shoes had seemed ideal for the mixed terrain of Torbay Velopark, but for the 100% pavement course of Exmouth, they were less ideal. Unfortunately, they were the only shoe I’d brought with me. Well, other than my Primark rip-off Vans, and well, no. Secondly, I was still in two layers from my warm-up, and couldn’t see anywhere obvious to leave the outer layer. Thankfully, it was just my ’50’ top over my apricot vest, so it wasn’t like I was in a thick hoodie, but still.

Anyway, without much further ado, we were off. And I had no idea where we were going. Normally, before any parkrun (or race, or training run) I intensely study the route, the elevation, any slow bits on Strava that might be because of mud etc. However, as I’d been expecting to go somewhere else, and had missed the run briefing to boot, I really had no idea. Sure, I knew it went along the seafront, and went mostly east, but a little bit west too. But I didn’t know how many laps it was, or whether it was the same lap each time, or, well, anything useful.

Actually, a very simple course!

On the other hand, it didn’t make a huge difference; I wasn’t going to finish first, so obviously I could just follow those ahead of me. That said, I was still caught a bit by surprise at the sharp hairpin bend we had to negotiate almost straight away! They had pacers when we were there, so I decided to tuck in behind the group that had formed around the 20 minute pacer, and just see how long I could settle in there before I lost them. Even holding back behind that pack, I was cracking along at a fair pace; around six minute miles for the first quarter of a mile; far quicker than the 6:25 needed.

About three quarters of a mile in, we were directed around to the right of the lifeboat station. I fully expected this to be a turnaround point, but no, we kept on going. It was quickly becoming apparent that this was in fact a single lap course. Out-and-back east, followed by a small out-and-back west. Which was a shame for my spare layer of clothing that I was now wearing wrapped around my hand – I’d hoped to throw it somewhere as we looped for a second lap. Damn this missing the briefing thing.

All the way to the end of the esplanade, about one and a quarter miles, and we turned around a nice large circle – none of this tight corner around a cone nonsense here! (That was later, at the other end.) Heading back, we were directed around the other side of the lifeboat station (right again, of course). Being near a pacer, there was still a nice little pack of us, which was helping me to keep with a pace I hadn’t really expected to maintain. In fact, Exmouth parkrun was a rarity for me – a fast paced run in which I ran perfect negative progression. After 2.4 miles, we re-passed the start/finish area, and I was  finally able to throw my spare layer of clothing at the RD (what else are they for, after all?) Unburdened, I headed off for the eastern spur of the run reinvigorated! Or something like that.

As I alluded to earlier, the turnaround point at this end was just a cone, but with the field spread out more than at the other end, it wasn’t an issue for me as a pinch point – had I been running with the buggy in the mid-field, it might have been a bit trickier. That turn comes at about 2.7 miles, so provides a nice mental point to start ramping things up a bit more for a quick finish. The course veers to the right to finish, but carries on a little further than the start line (this would have been nice to know in advance – if only I’d been around to hear any sort of briefing!!) I was chuffed with my time of 19:41, my second fastest parkrun ever!

Lolly did pretty well too, finishing in 29:27, her 10th different sub-30 parkrun course, also making it only the second course on which we had a sub-20/sub-30 pair. (Along with our home parkrun, Longrun Meadow.)

Not just a dull out and back… The wheel is more or less the start/finish area, which is a handy landmark on the run.

The course sounds a little dull; out and back along the prom. Similar to Seaton, but without the run on the pebble beach, and Minehead, but just one “lap”. In some ways, it is a bit dull. It’s flat, all pavement. But, of course, the views counteract that to an extent – Exmouth is a pretty bit of coast. It’s a much quicker course than Minehead, (Seaton is relatively slow because of the beach sections), but this might have a bit to do with the relative amount of wind at each. Despite having pretty big number when we were there (337), it didn’t feel too overcrowded, even with passing other runners on the prom.

After the run, the barcode scanning is (a little confusingly at first) in the cafe across the road from the finish. Although there were signs, I found them a bit unclear initially, and mostly worked it out by following other people! Of course, once we were in the cafe, it would have been rude not to stop for some breakfast too…

My Snowdonia thoughts

by Ben

A bit of time has passed now since the Snowdonia Trail Marathon. (Did I mention that I ran a marathon?) I wanted to post again to reflect on my thoughts about a few things. Overall, I did it. I did it in more or less the exact time that I estimated. So I can’t have too many qualms about the race really. But.. there are a few things that I’ve learnt from.

Training

So, again, I finished, and I finished in pretty much the time I predicted. But that doesn’t mean that my training was perfect. Or even adequate. I took a relatively laid-back approach to this training cycle. My focus was on two main things: mileage and elevation.

The latter I certainly achieved (compared to my previous efforts, at least). I opted for a two-pronged approach: I simply made an effort to target more hills in my runs, and run far less in central Taunton, and I joined Minehead Running Club for their Monday evening runs. The combined effect meant that by early July, shortly before my marathon, I had run just over 50,000 feet this year. In contrast, the most I’d ever run before *in a whole year* was 42,000 feet.

Courtesy of Veloviewer.

Mileage was generally less successful. I only ran one long run of 20 miles or more; and only three that were 15 miles or more. My weekly mileages were also pretty low. In the 12 weeks leading up to the race, my biggest week was 40.7 miles. In contrast, my biggest week for the Bristol Half Marathon was 45.9 miles. Accumulated across the whole 12 weeks, the difference is even more stark: 422 miles for the Bristol Half, compared to 301 miles for Snowdonia.

There were definitely reasons – I was ill twice during that training period for Snowdonia, and missed something like 15-20 days (not all of these were training days, of course). That probably works out to about 60-100 miles, a big part of the difference. Without those gaps, my training would have built on itself a bit better, and I would almost certainly have done longer long runs. Or at least, more of them. Races (as always) got in the way too. Doing a 10k, plus some added mileage isn’t too bad during training for a half, but it’s a pretty big dent for marathon training. If I’m serious about a marathon in the future, I probably need to curb my shorter distance racing habit a bit.

We also had a lot going on. Both me and Lolly have been busy and stressed at work, and we also have twice as many children to deal with now compared to during that Bristol Half training.

Could I have trained better? Yes, though it’s hard to account for illness. Do I really mind? No, this was all about completion, not time. But it’s still good to analyse it to see where improvements could come in the future.

Fuelling

This, in my opinion, is where I really let myself down. I don’t even know why it all went wrong. Well, no, I do. I got in my own head about it, and messed myself up.

I have quite a sensitive stomach / digestive system. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. For some reason, my head has too much influence over my stomach. I make myself feel ill – if I get it in my head that something smells funny and has gone off, then my stomach feels funny. Not because the food has actually gone off, but because my head makes my stomach worry about it. Or something like that. Because of this, I’d never used gels before this training cycle. I’d read so much about their possible effects on the digestive system that I thought it best to avoid them with my own.

I realised that running a marathon without anything would be stupid. Particularly this marathon. I am also something of a fussy eater, so most of the ‘natural’ alternatives don’t appeal to me. After a fair bit of research, I settled on trying the Torq gels. They were described as more of a ‘yoghurty’ texture and flavour, which sounded like something I could deal with. And I could. I used them in my training runs, and had absolutely no problems. I also tried having a peanut butter sandwich (too dry and claggy) and then settled on peanut butter and jam sandwiches instead.

My favourites: Apple Crumble, Raspberry Ripple.

So, for the race, I set off with (I think) seven gels, plus two slices of peanut and jam sandwich. My plan was to eat something roughly every 4.5 to 5 miles.

I had a gel at around 6 miles, and a sandwich at 11 miles. A further gel at 15 miles, and I was done for the race. I tried to have the other sandwich around mile 21, but by then I was struggling up Snowdon and was pretty dehydrated. I should have probably tried a gel instead, but as I say, I’d basically got in my own head by then. The distances don’t look too bad, but if I convert them into times, it tells a slightly different story. 1 hr 10, 1 hr 50, 2 hr 30, 4 hr 18. Yeah, not quite the same as 6, 11, 15, 21, huh?

A simple lesson to be learnt here – distances might be fine for flat road marathons where you would expect relatively even splits. But for gnarly trail marathons with mountains… not such a good idea. In future, I might try to base my fuelling on time, rather than distance. I also need to worry less about what everyone else is doing, and just focus on myself. Which is really bloody obvious, and yet still I suffered by it.

Hydration

For the most part, my hydration was pretty good. I carried a 500 ml bottle with me (this was part of the mandatory kit). For the majority of the race, this was plenty enough, in conjunction with the drinks stations themselves. However, for that four miles from Pen-y-Pass to the drinks station on the way down Snowdon it was not. Primarily because that four miles took me about 1 hr 45. Basically, as above, I just need to consider time gaps, rather than distance gaps. For most races, a 500 ml bottle plus refills would have sufficed, but for this one, I could have done with double that, if only for the big climb.

The mountain

Despite the sharp increase in the amount of elevation I clocked up during training, nothing could prepare me for Snowdon itself. A 1,300 ft climb up Corn Du in the snow in early February was the biggest single climb I did, while my “Exmoor Three Peaks” run totalled 3,300 ft, including Dunkery Beacon. Both impressive feats, but compared to a 2,800 ft climb over about four miles, they were small preparation. Especially after 18 miles of running. Simply put, the only thing that could have prepared me for climbing up Snowdon would have been climbing up Snowdon.

Would I like to go up Snowdon again sometime? Yes. Would I want to do it in a race? Maybe, but probably not. I run because I love running. Walking for four miles isn’t my idea of running. It was a great challenge etc etc, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t running. Would I do another race with over 5,500 ft of elevation? Sure. But it would need to be more spread out over the whole race, rather than concentrated on one big and one very, very big climb.

Marathon distance

I guess the biggest question is whether I would consider doing another marathon. Truth be told, I don’t know. The long runs were pretty tough on the family, and I really didn’t enjoy them that much. The race itself was hard, really hard. But then, I’ve heard it talked about as being the “toughest marathon in the United Kingdom”, so go figure. For the moment, I certainly want to focus on shorter distance stuff again. But… I do still have my deferred London Marathon place…

Hmmm…

Snowdonia Trail Marathon: race report

by Ben

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:

  1. Running that far.
  2. 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.

Tough going.

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.