I have been pondering for five days on my race blog, I started it twice but stopped. I couldn’t work out what I wanted to say; something I don’t normally suffer from! I have never felt so conflicted about a race before. I finished the toughest road marathon in the UK. Go me! I should have done better but for too many reasons I just couldn’t run it the way I wanted. It’s left me slightly dissatisfied and disappointed but also incredibly happy. Another challenge completed and I am still standing and excited to start on my next adventure.
To describe Snowdonia as a marathon with three hills would be a massive understatement. The route is incredibly varied, there isn’t a flat, straight mile in the whole race which circumnavigates the base of the mountain. The scenery is quite dramatic and so varied it drags you along wondering what new vista will be around the next corner. Sounds like a travelogue doesn’t it? Sorry.
If you haven’t looked at the elevation profile and didn’t know what was coming then the first two miles are very pleasant – a gentle downhill taking you through the lush, green valley floor. You can see the long, colourful snake of runners in front of you stretching out for over a mile. It’s pretty and lovely and totally at odds with what is to come next.
Gradually you start to notice the road taking you up until at last you look up and all you see are steep, grey slate cliffs on either side of you as the road cuts up into the mountain. It’s so twisty though you can’t see what lies ahead but it’s getting steeper with every bend. If you are lucky and the clouds aren’t too low there is a point when finally the top comes into sight and it’s still a long way far above you… Gulp! At least another mile of relentless hard work until you are crossing the first timing mat and getting a lovely drink from the aid station.
Next comes the fun bit. An incredible two and a half miles of high speed,downhill, adrenalin filled fun. If you thought the first two miles were inspiring then the point where you look down the steep valley to see the runners stretch out in front of you for over two miles will take your breath away – good time to take a selfie! It also includes a section of lovely trail which is always a bonus.
Once you are back on the road it is easy to be lulled into thinking the worst is over as it gently undulates through pleasant woodland but you know there are still eighteen miles to go and then there’s the small matter of that last hill.
I have thought it through and I wouldn’t change how I ran the first half. I just wished I had pushed a little harder for the following six miles. There is an uphill section out of Beddgelert which lasts nearly three miles. I was thinking about the last four miles with the really big hill so instead of running this middle hill, I walked it, which in hindsight was a mistake. Once I got to the moorland between Rhyd Ddu and Snowdon Ranger (mile 18) I had got into a bit of a good walk-run rhythm and wasn’t pushing too much. Most of the runners around me were run-walking at this stage. We ebbed and flowed, chatted and laughed, kept each other company and enjoyed the scenery as it passed. Once I passed the four hour cut off point at mile 18 I was quite relieved as I still thought I would finish within the target time I had set myself. The undulations were very gentle at this point but I was slowing down because with every step I was getting closer to the worst part. I always hit my wall between mile 17 and 19 – every race and training run is the same, I just start to find it hard to maintain motivation to keep pushing. I was just taking it all in, trying to enjoy the experience but I know I stopped pushing myself and then to make matters worst I ran out of downhill stretches at around mile 21.
Before you even get to the hill at mile 22 the route starts to climb again. Only gently at first but by the time you reach Waun Fawr it’s clear the fun has ended and you really have to start digging deep. Then you turn that corner. There it is. You can’t call this an undulation or a mound of opportunity. It isn’t even a hill, it’s a mountain. Much steeper than the first one and by now your legs are tired and your stamina is waning. Luckily there is a lovely aid station with so many people cheering you almost want to keep on running. No I am joking, nearly everyone walks or at least slows down quite a lot.
In a very weird way I found myself enjoying that climb. I didn’t stop but I didn’t run; it wasn’t as awful as I thought it was going to be. I kept pace with everyone around me. I got to mile 23 and knew I was nearly there – just a little bit more only a bit steeper. I can’t tell you when we ran out of road and it became gravel track but it started getting flatter and there were potholes full of rain water. I started running again and amazingly started to pass people. I found myself apologising for running when clearly most people wanted to walk and there I come trotting past like I run up mountains all the time. But I still thought I could make my target. Quick stop at Tafarn 24 for the best cup of tea ever. I hate tea, haven’t drunk it since I was nine years old, but it was amazing. Still don’t like tea though.
I was running short bursts as there was still more up to go but I was pushing again. My stamina had lasted and I felt quite good. The track was uneven and slowing me down but short bursts seemed to be working and I overtook a few more runners. Then the track ran out and it was cross country. Great big mud filled ruts, slippery wet grass, uneven stoney ground all of which made it impossible to run with any speed. Behind me I could hear yells and gasps as people started to slip. I saw three people fall in the space of five minutes. Finally I reached the top but I can’t tell you about the view as I had been running in the clouds for the last two miles, my waterproof was firmly done up against the drizzle and it was pretty grim. By this time I knew I wasn’t going to finish within my target time but it would be close, I was still trying as hard as I could.
I have been assured that most years that downhill section is runnable. But not after two weeks of storms and 2000 runners have passed through in front of you. It was a mudslide for the first 300 metres. More people fell, lots of shouting and my heart was pounding. I wasn’t going to fall and get hurt in the last mile but it was downhill, you have to run downhill don’t you? No! I crawled quite slowly off the mountain, snivelling a bit as I did so – lucky it was still damp so I don’t think anyone noticed. But I felt broken and inadequate to the final challenge. My quads were singing to me, every stride sending waves up my legs and into my back. No one overtook me though. But I was slower going down that mile than I was the previous mile which had been uphill. Finally I got onto the road section, which was still very steep and covered in mud! My quads began to scream at me. But there down below was Llanberis. It was quite a bit below. It took nearly three miles to go up but the downhill section is less than one and a half miles. It was a lot steeper than I imagined and I couldn’t make myself fly down that hill. I took short steps, staying as upright as possible; core locked as tight as I could make it. Gradually I picked up some speed as the road became less steep. Finally I was running through a street with houses, more sharp turns and then the final turn came in sight and the noise from the crowds was uplifting. Time for a sprint finish, well sort of, but I did run. I crossed the finish line and saw my friend Jonathan waiting for me and burst into tears.
All of my races have been unique in some way and I have tried most of the variations – cities, towns, villages, urban, rural, trail, road, flat, undulating, local, international – all the distances too, from 10k to 50 miles. I have been at races with less than 300 runners and then ones with 20,000 plus participants. I can honestly say that this is the best organised race I have ever been a part of. No detail is overlooked and everything is of a very high standard. It all works really well from the communications throughout the year to the tea and biscuits by the ladies of Llanberis served at the end of the race. I couldn’t find anything to criticise. Not surprising really as the whole community of Snowdonia is involved. All the profits from the race are put into community funds and the organisers go round the schools, clubs and groups to raise awareness. We as runners can’t race without all the volunteers and support staff but this is the first time I have seen whole villages get involved. It makes a huge difference and they all seem to enjoy it too! It makes you feel part of something bigger than just a marathon.
It’s the little touches that show how much thought goes into every stage of planning an event like this. I like that no plastic bags are handed out at packet pick up, my hoodie is made from recycled materials, there were bins a plenty at every aid station and when I drove back along the route all traces of the race had disappeared. I loved the crowds of children dressed in Halloween costumes all trying to give me a gel at the same time. The pub handing out orange slices came at just the right point, a real pick me up. Without a doubt Tafarn 24 at the top of the last climb is the best aid station you will find in a marathon. Being served tea by a witch in the grey darkening afternoon is an experience I won’t forget.
From the moment you decide to sign up for Snowdonia there is sense that this will be something special. Waiting for midnight on New Years Eve with my laptop open, my finger poised over the sign up button I can remember being excited and already anticipating the challenges to come. I think 2017 sold out in about 7 hours. People complained about queues, being timed out and system crashes but I got my place so I was happy. I have spent quite a bit of this year looking forward to this race and worrying about it. All those hills, that elevation profile and I don’t even like running uphill.
I was elated and defeated at the same time when I crossed the finish line. I experienced every emotion possible during the race, I hurt all over but at the same time I was full of energy from my runners high. In the end it wasn’t the uphill sections that beat me. Instead it was that last crazy downhill mile but I am going back next year and next time I will beat it.