Race Report: Snowdonia Marathon (Marathon Eryri) 2016

Saturday 29th October, 2016

It was early in 2014, still relatively fresh to running, when discovering that Channel 4OD (now All4) were showing highlights of triathlon and endurance events around the UK, and the world, that I discovered the Snowdonia  Marathon. I remember downloading it and being taken in by the incredible climbs in elevation involved, the sheer fortitude of the runners taking part to take on such a race, and, most crucially, the scenery. Such I was taken in that I watched the same highlights several times in the calendar year, along with those of the Snowdon International Race. In 2015, when I was beginning the process of preparing for my first marathon, I watched the highlights of the 2015 race – in which Tracy  McCartney came in to take the ladies’ title while John Gilbert, complete in torrentially soaked woolly hat, stormed to a course record to take the men’s title.

At what point I decided that I really wanted to do this race, I can’t remember – but I knew that I was starting to lose a little interest in chasing personal records, which I was braking for fun, it seemed, until I opted to step up to the marathon. I later got my London Marathon entry for 2016 on Good For Age, but by the end of September, recuperating from sesamoiditis, that after seeing the Snowdon Race highlights again, that I’d been bitten and declared my intention to a few people to enter the Snowdonia Marathon in 2016. Cue a deliberate entry process at twenty past midnight on New Year’s Day, and I was in. My name, on the entry list, for  the 2016 Snowdonia Marathon – or Marathon Eryri, to give it’s Welsh name.

London might have been the biggie as a World Marathon Major, but heart in heart, my true expectation lay with the challenge of Snowdonia, famed for three key climbs, and a very steep descent into Llanberis near the finish, 3,166 meters of elevation, its fabulous local support, spectacular mountainous scenery, and a propensity to absolutely chuck it down. What wasn’t to love?

So after a summer preparing by walking in the Dales and on the Pennine Way, getting lost during the (Wo)Man vs Barge race, frequently running at 4am on Thursdays, getting covered waist down in manure in Hebden Bridge, climbing through Saddleworth and up Dovestones, and later experiencing sheer exhaustion, running up and down Holme Moss twice in a single run, and nearly passing out on what should have been a routine flat canal long run, I was finally here. Here in the heart of North Wales. Here in Snowdonia.

The family racecation, discussed in my previous post, was built around this race, and it was thanks to Joni, and her contacts in the area, that she not only arranged a lift on race day with a member of her running club, Richard, but also lent me use of a foam roller (so I didn’t have to pack mine) and sourced car booster seats so she could transport my wife Laura, and my twin five-year-old kids (for whom the boosters were for!) to Waunfawr to watch me at roughly mile 21 of the race. The nerves were present the day before,  but following race registration, I was raring to go.

Race Day

After a quick dash to buy lunch for my family and a cup of black tea – my first caffeine for two weeks – I arrived to meet Richard and his club mate Leon, and off we went to Llanberis. The same drive I’d taken with Joni and Richard to race registration the night before in darkness, now revealing an increasing number of hills growing in stature, later becoming mountains. We arrived in the car park for Llanberis Lake Railway at 10:10am. While Leon went to grab a parking ticket, we were busy taking selfies before the inevitable punishment began.

Pre-race

At this point, I can safely say the caffeine was having the desired effect. I was wide awake. Actually wired, a feeling I don’t think I’ve experienced since childhood, a feeling I possibly didn’t think existed!

I had time for a few warm-up exercises too but we were soon making our way to the start line, and had little time to spare.

Once we arrived we had about four minutes left. I did what I could as I realised I hadn’t stretched my feet this morning, and with less than a minute retied my shoes to make them tighter. The hooter went, but we could barely hear it from where we were stood. And so it was off and away for the biggest challenge of my life, setting off at a pace leaving Richard and Leon behind.
The first couple of miles were gentle as we left Llanberis and went through Nant Peris. I was around 7:00 minute mile pace at this point. The rural nature of the race was quickly evident against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance, all shrouded in cloud and fog. There was a great spirit and camaraderie amongst the runners, and it was absolutely great to see. I had a minor hiccup when a mini Chia Charge bar shot out of the top of my race vest, but I managed to quickly pick this up and head back in the right direction without impeding anyone. Onto the first of the three major hill sections, by which any semblance of housing or farmland gave way to the magnificent rock and slate formations either side. The drizzle returned and as we ascended higher, the cloud got thicker and thicker, and was misting up my glasses.

The race soon had its first downhill section, which headed down towards the Pen-y-Pass, and here I decided I was going to throw caution to the wind, and to hell with the consequences. We could all only see forwards as the cloud smothered everything inbetween. It made for exciting racing, and the sixth mile went for 5:38! We turned the corner, and right now I was in no mood to hang around. As I headed down onto the first of the two trail sections, I felt as though I couldn’t actually stop, my legs and the gravity just carrying me down and simply relying on foot placement and a sense of spatial awareness to those around me. Another sub-6 minute mile followed. I wasn’t paying too much attention to my pacing, more to the actual time elapsed during the race to take on board the pre-prepared carb-loaded drink I’d packed, and of course, the lovely view. As we continued to make our way back onto the main road, the cloud had now begun to lift, revealing the beauty of the land and lakes beneath, and the majesty of the mountains beneath which they sit. Inside, I knew that pace had butchered my race plan, but I decided to go with the flow. I wanted to enjoy this race, and I can safely say that Pen-y-Pass, or what I could see of it, had possibly just become my favourite part of any race ever. Whether a wise move or not, it felt so pure to race across it. Reaching the top of that climb, running down the hill, taking the right and joining the trail path towards Nant Gwynant – incredible.

I was taking on a Chia Charge bar in segments at 20 minute intervals, a trend I would continue up to halfway, and around mile 10, I found myself in an odd position of being separated from runners in front or behind me. I actually felt the need to slow a little and allow others to catch up. I don’t mind running alone – I train 99% of the time alone – but in a race situation I felt it helpful for a while just to be part of a small group. So as I began to nibble on that Chia Charge bar, I got swallowed up by four others and started running as part of a group. This more or less continued as we approached the halfway point, Beddgelert, one of the more populated parts of the course and with a great crowd presence. I’d gone through in around 1:31:00, a shade off the sub-3 hour pace which led many of those tracking my race online to believe I actually on for a sub-3. Any hope of that, should I have chosen to believe that prospect, quickly evaporated as the climb out of Beddgelert took hold. Here the hills weren’t the steepest, but they were continual in nature, and energy sapping. Really sneaky indeed.

I’d finished my Chia Charge bar long since, and I felt a little boost from that and the isotonic that was being handed out by the excellent race marshals. It was onto Rhyd Ddu, which featured the beautiful Llyn Cwellyn to the left. I was told here would be the place to see Snowdon in all its glory. The cloud meant it wasn’t to be, though I did get a boost out of seeing a gap of blue sky starting to emerge above the lake.

It actually seemed there were more hills than the organisers had let on. Everyone seems to focus on those three major climbs, but there’s a few sneaky ones during this section after Beddgelert, which really soften you up for the bigger tests ahead. It was hard to keep up the momentum, and I could feel the pace slowing. I’d also run for a good mile or two out on my own and actually started to sing Iggy Pop tunes to myself to try and take my mind off any approaching discomfort. My pace also seemed to be dropping. But you know what? I was having a good time. The race felt a little like home, in the sense of the many narrow, rural roads I raced on, similar to back in Yorkshire, only somewhat upscaled due to the great many Llyns and mountains in the area. It felt like a great privilege just to be in that area at that moment.

Happy to see family at Waunfawr

I knew that my impending implosion was possibly arriving, and after mile 20, I turned to looking ahead to mile 21, because for only the third time since I started running, my family were going to be there to watch me, so this became my inspiration to drive on. I was getting encouragement from another runner and I sensed this was turning from something enjoyable to something attritional. But I was still on my feet. I was going to finish the damn race.

I don’t remember the name of the pub in question, all I knew is that when I began to approach, I could hear two very loud, very young voices above everyone else’s. And those voices unmistakably belonged to my kids, both vociferously shouting ‘come on Daddy! ‘Go on Daddy!‘. I spotted them on my right. I really wanted to cross the road to greet them, but oncoming traffic meant it wasn’t really safe or wise to do so. I made sure I smiled and waved at my family and Joni as I ran past. I felt as though that gave me a bit of impetus to at least up my stride, and before long I was advancing towards the sharp right, notable by the giant road sign pointing to the turning point, at which the sharp end of the race would bear its teeth.

The initial hill felt like a struggle, and I just about made it up that, but the infamous climb out of Waunfawr, named Bwlch-y-Groes, was now present, and at this point in the race, it seemed unholy. I took one look at it, and both my mind and body abruptly said ‘no!‘. Somewhat reassuringly, a man at the start of the climb informed us it was ‘only’ two miles to the top. Cheers for that, I thought to myself, somewhat sarcastically, before the same man advised of two drinks stations, one halfway up, the other near the top. I’m sure he meant well. That didn’t make it any easier. Almost immediately, I reverted to the run-walk strategy I used to get up Holme Moss five weeks before. A minute run, a minute walk. Except this became a minute walk, thirty seconds running. Sometimes only 25 seconds running. I passed the first drink station, took on some more isotonic, and tried to go again. Nothing. More walking. Just keep moving forwards, I told myself.

Somewhere up on the pass, the wheels were starting to come off. As I got back into a run motion, as the incline levelled out a bit, I feel a strain in my groin, on the right, more specifically, towards…my crotch. Ok, my inside leg. Wow, this was a new one. All I could do was stop and stretch. Another runner suggested I stride or change my gait. That helped briefly, but then the tightening came from the other side. I stopped, and I think I had a white flash. I’d taken on Chia Charge, Soreen, jelly babies, isotonic, and clementines up to mile 22, but my plan to complete without a gel was to be compromised. I had to take on a little more. So I reached for a gel, received out on the course, took it, and began walking again. It didn’t taste horrible (the first one never does), and it seemed to recharge my batteries just enough.

Not once, not even in that moment, did I even consider quitting. The top of the pass was close, and the hardest part was nearly through. I just needed to get to the final downhill.

Finally I reached the top. I checked my watch, realising there were less than two miles to go. One marshal said to the runners to let your legs carry you down, like some sort of deliverance, I guess. The run down was amazing – the initial momentum of gravity suddenly injected a bit more life in the lower limbs, and looking out, I could see the grand Llyn Padarn, so far below but so near, so vast and beautiful. The path got steeper, but I was almost there. It felt like a victory mile.

Finally, I got onto the road, I turned one corner, and then another. A cramp shot up my right calf. The finish was in sight. I gingerly adjusted. A cramp in my left calf. Again I adjusted. And I ran towards the finish. I was finishing the race on my own two feet. I looked out to find my wife and kids. Joni was running by with her phone, but no sign of my family. I continued running and with arms out wide, crossed the finish line. Without question, my most glorious finish to a marathon yet, and my yells of ‘Get in!‘ didn’t go unnoticed by the finish line announcer!

Having received my slate coaster, water bottle and foil blanket, my kids emerged round the corner from the finish. I gave them a massive cuddle over the barrier, which nearly brought a tear to my eye, I must confess, and a hug for my wife too. 
Immediately, I was being shepherded towards the visitor centre, with kids in tow. In we went, and while Laura took the kids into the toilets, Joni asked what I wanted. I asked for a black tea. After going through the sandwiches on offer, I settled on ham. I think my mind was a bit frazzled to consider this gesture, as I certainly hadn’t offered to pay out of my own pocket, but I was still good enough immediately after sitting, taking ‘the medal/coaster selfie’, and trying to contact my relatives back home. I spent a lot of time nibbling the sandwich, not putting any salad in at first, then trying with the second and realising onion tasted disgusting. I was starting to shiver, and mentioned I needed salt, which led to one of my kids actually picking up the salt shaker and handing it to me. Such a gesture. I sprinkled a bit on, and it helped a little, but my primary need was the High5 Zero electrolyte tablets, and a change of clothes. I went to get changed, filled up a water bottle and dispensed two tablets in there, and finally said to my family and Joni I felt ready to go, taking the journey back to Llandudno via the Pen-y-Pass, leaving Snowdonia behind, surveying the area I’d been running across just a few hours ago – now restored to its’ natural quiet.

That last paragraph puts into context the race I had. Yes, I went too hard early on, and I paid for it, and I ended up racing with a sound knowledge that I was going to end up walking, and indeed, suffering at some point. I knew I had been in a war of attrition. The feelings I experienced at Bwlch-y-Groes, I have never experienced in a race before. To see that flash as I pulled up for a second time was briefly, ever so briefly, a scary moment. Did I ever think I wasn’t going to finish? Not at all. I knew I had to, and though I compromised on my nutritional plan by consuming a gel, it was necessary to get to the end, and I would say overall, nutritionally, I got the balance about 85% right, which is as good as its got yet. But I have no regrets. I raced for the thrill of running, in the self styled land of adventure.

As an overall experience, this race absolutely puts every other race I’ve entered in the shade. Sure there are other races in the country, many of which I’ve yet to experience, that have equally beautiful scenery, a course just as, if not tougher, and crowds as vocal, or greater in number. Snowdonia just feels to have something more. They don’t just give out the status of ‘best UK marathon’ (a title won by Snowdonia in 2007 and 2011) without very good reason. Nor does it sell out within 13 hours without solid explanation. It might well be tough as a rusty nail sandwich, but that’s Snowdonia’s appeal. People want to run it. People want to race it. Its more than simply a fast time – its a unique challenge, set in an area of outstanding natural beauty. That’s precisely what drew me to it. To have actually completed it represents the proudest moment of my life as a runner to date. To put in all the training, the early starts, the long hours on the hills, for moments like this – I’m really trying, but I can’t put into words how much it means!

The race itself is exactly as I’ve seen it on TV and more. So well organised, support laid out across the entire course provided by marshals and volunteers; plenty of drink stations and absolutely fabulous local support. The people who live in this most spectacular area of the world come out in droves to support the runners. So many shout out your name, emblazened clearly on your vest, much more visibly then any Great Run event and it provides such a feelgood factor to have that much encouragement sent your way. And of course, the scenery, the terrain, the challenge itself. There aren’t many races in this country that can roll all of this into one, but Snowdonia absolutely does. It felt magical, wrapped in cloud and fog, running down Pen-y-Pass, to gaze at the clear blue lakes, to stare at the mountains and to see the slate the region once thrived on. The final run down into Llanberis, overlooking Llyn Padarn, is such a reward for the character-building toil of Bwlch-y-Groes. Its easy to see why runners want to return to this race despite its extreme difficulty and the often inclement weather, and why it sells out year on year. Every runner who wants to call themselves a marathoner has to try this race at least once.

The picture below perfectly encapsulates the emotional thrall. Quite simply, the Snowdonia  Marathon is the single most beautiful and the toughest race I have ever done, and I used every ounce of determination and willpower to finish. It was everything I imagined and more. And I’ll never stop smiling when I look back on this day. To have completed this race in front of my family, and to have taken on the challenge and succeeded, makes me immeasurably proud. Thank you Snowdonia.

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