Snowdonia marathon, 26 October 2013: An epic tale…
The 31st running of the Snowdonia marathon enjoyed decent weather for this time of year and given the location, with only a little (horizontal) rain over the final climb. The course starts in the small town of Llanberis at the foot of Mount Snowdon and circles the mountain mainly on roads, but with about a mile or so off road on gravel track and even grassy/muddy trails towards the end.
The course map and profile published on the web site (snowdoniamarathon.co.uk) provide a good indication of what you are letting yourself in for if you decide to give it ago.
Preparation, training and strategy
With only about 2200 places available this race does sell out in a couple of months and I recommend to other Abbey’s that fancy a different type of marathon challenge to give it a go! An ex-colleague of mine from Southport and Welsh exile had suggested this as an option and we both registered about a year in advance. Mark Davies was the person that helped me to start running when I was living and working midweek in Southport between 2007-10. He is a member of Southport and Waterloo AC and also competes in (Ironman) triathlons. We had ran together in the torrential rain of Manchester marathon 2012 (my first!) and in the same event this year Mark was about 15 minutes slower than me. So I knew that we were reasonably well pace and ability matched and we decided that running together in Snowdonia would work fine and that he could hold me back from my chronic impetuous tendencies to rush off early and die/bonk later in the race.
My training preparation hadn’t been ideal with a 3 week holiday from any endurance training in August and straight back into a fairly disastrous Yorkshireman half in early September. Leanne’s “words of running wisdom and encouragement” as she passed me on the second half of the Yorkshireman race hit home and I knew that I had much work to do to be ready for Snowdonia in just 7 weeks. Mentally rationalising this as my first long training run for Snowdonia, I built on it and managed a further 4 long weekend runs on my favourite routes taking in Harewood, Otley, Menston, Guiseley, and Horsforth and notably (owing to some fatuously bad route planning) this included an undulating and confidence boosting 26.2 mile training run alone just 3 weeks before the marathon proper.
Given the terrain, it is obviously not a PB course and for our first attempt, our objectives in priority order were:
- To finish;
- To finish in under 4 hours;
- To enjoy ourselves; and
- If it went really well to target 3 hours 45-50 pace.
Our pre race “strategy” was to start and run very steadily (especially on all the uphills) and to aim to be averaging 8:30 minute mile pace by the time we hit the hill in the middle of the course and subsequently to keep maintain this average pace. The plan was to keep enough energy “in the tank” for the final big hill and finish relatively strongly. This pace was over a minute slower than my planned pace at marathons earlier in the year but given my history of poor pacing when racing alone, I was happy to give it a go! (“Lose 2 minute now to save 10 later” – wise words from Mark!)
Driving over from Southport Mark took the opportunity to drive me up to have a look at the first hill out of Llanberis before we parked up. Though this was also his first running of the course he knows the area well and is also familiar with my (schoolboy error) pacing skills and this was a great move! The course includes a long first climb that steepens slightly towards the top and actually looked steeper on the decent back down from the viewpoint of our Landrover Dicsovery.
The scenery is stunning and alone is worth the trip. (My note to self is to go back with the family for a holiday at some point: something I haven’t done since my parents took me as a child on the longest and easiest walking route up the mountain during a summer holiday in Wales.)
Llanberis is a tourist destination being at the foot of Snowdon and the hosting the railway station for the Snowdonia railway line that allows passengers to ascend the mountain and the town also has the starting point for some of the hiking routes up. So parking wasn’t an issue and we selected one of the pay and display parks for its proximity to the start and finish (£7). Picking up our race numbers, rather nice race t-shirts and pamphlets before the start was straightforward at the large local community centre which also hosted a small “race expo” with some discounted / end of line running gear and fuel supplies.
After registration and traditional queuing for the loos we returned to the car to complete changing and preparation and any last minute “faffing” about. Discussing clothing selection, we decided that we were too soft (and I was certainly not Welsh enough) to attempt a “vest and shorts only run” and especially as the weather looked unpredictable, so I swapped my long sleeved HH top to underneath my Abbey vest and donned my new (and first!) buff to offer some head cover options if required.
The start of the race is about half a mile out of the town following the main road over a few minor undulations and giving us a small taste of the amazing scenery and terrain. We walked up towards the starting area slowly and sporting black bin liners and ‘disposable’ hats. There was clearly no need to warm up for this distance and evidently the first two miles of the run would provide a warm up opportunity ahead of the first real climb. The banter was good on the walk up with numerous Welsh speaking runners and accents from all around the UK and probably tongues from further reaches of Europe in evidence. Relatives and supporters mingled with runners up until the final call to action and the atmosphere was extremely friendly certainly at the middle of the starting area.
“Race” (run) time!
Starting on time to much cheering and mutual / supporter- led encouragement (“ogi ogi ogi oi oi oi”) we trotted through the start in no great rush and with the first mile or so being just a little congested this helped us to maintain our “keep it steady” strategy and kept my typical adrenaline rushed start appropriately in check. We knew that the first hill would immediately thin us out and by 2 miles, sure enough, the field had already spread out enough that we did not need to worry about zig zagging past anyone or risking collisions. Given the challenge ahead it felt more like a run than a race, but we had our objectives in mind and kept to plan.
The first (of three) climbs had the potential to be taming if not managed appropriately and sensible steady running was the order of the day. We were already passing quite a few slower runners and the banter between us and fleeting chats with many “new friends” all along the course was excellent. On one level it didn’t feel as though we were competing the other runners and there was a fantastic race atmosphere and spirit in the face of the challenge head.
My usual running verbal diarrhoea kicked in early and I thought that this helped to pass the time although Mark did drop back a few yards occasionally to rest his left ear. This was a fairly serious runners’ race and we gave strong cheers of encouragement with genuine admiration to the occasional charity runner that we passed.
Over the first hill top we passed the youth hostel at around 4.5 miles and dropped down (still steadily) with an awesome view as our first reward along with water and cheers from roadside supporters and hikers from the summit car park. The road descended nicely for recovery running and rebalancing our average pace and turned right after about a mile or so onto a slate gravel-surfaced trail path wide enough for a car, continuing back to road at about 8 miles. For a few more miles we ran a mildly undulating route at steady pace taking in some more feeding stations (very frequent and superbly run and provisioned) and overall dropped further down to below the altitude level of the race start.
A 2+ mile climb at just over 12 mile distance looked less worrying on the profile (see above) pre-race compared to the two that book-end the course. However, it should not be underestimated and I think this is where the challenge really started to kick in and as we continued on our “steadily paced mission”, we gradually passed many runners and few passed us so we felt good. Banter remained high and I realised the value of having names and other information printing on the back of running shirts with a notable, very fit looking middle aged couple from “Almost Athletes” running club “benefiting” from and responding to some appropriate encouragement and banter as we slowly drew past them. I decided that an occasional rousing chorus of “its all gone quiet over here” was appropriate on the ascents as people were digging in and feeling the gradient, but by this time some runners were starting to hit their own physiological walls and psychological challenges, so I quietened down for a bit and just shouted encouragement where I could.
Around this time, we met a couple from Chorlton Runners that we ran with for several miles and formed a temporary self-help group that was a bonus (seen and commented on during the S4C documentary the next day – running “fame” at last!). Gavin (who is Chorlton Runners’ head coach) was pacing his better half: Charlotte around and we chatted and ran together. Gavin and I having a really good chin wag whilst Mark dropped back a little with Charlotte to rest his ears a little more. This was their 3rd marathon in two months including Berlin for both of them and Charlotte was clearly a little tired. Useful new information I picked up was that Gavin “didn’t know anyone” that had run up the entire final climb of this race and that walking some of it was the norm for most. This “new info” helped to manage our expectations and running egos, so that our having to resort to a bit of fast walking would not and did not break our spirits later.
The final “killer” hill!
If you are still awake at this point in my ramblings, I can tell you about the 3rd and final hill which as you can see kicks in at 21 miles and upwards through to 24. So it is nicely positioned to break those that had nothing left….
We approached the hill on an initial gradual climb with legs tiring a little and a view to the right of the approaching 3 mile hill climb up the mountain. Plenty of supporter encouragement and cheering was available at the point where we turned right off the main road onto a side road that pointed straight up! We ran (/shuffled) on past many a walking competitor for at least a mile and a half of the climb before I decided that big speed-walking strides for a while was faster for me too and we passed a few people broken with cramps and fatigue – onwards and upwards for us. Having S4C film cameras filming on the steepest bits of the ascent was a little cruel and I suggested that they cut out the section with me walking. I think we ran a great deal more and ascended faster than most people that we saw anyway!
The now winding road narrowed and turner into a track and appeared to flatten out briefly before rising again to the summit and turning into ‘fell’ terrain through open fields over the tops with one or two large, deep and unavoidable puddles and uneven slate rocky and slippers grass surfaces to negotiate. The wind also started to get up as the top flattened out and drove a few rain flurries horizontally across us! By this stage we were not deterred and knew that we had conquered the climb and just needed to descend safely to finish and that sub-four hours was still achievable.
As we started the muddy grass and slate shale descent allowing Mark to run a few yards ahead of me so I could see the terrain, I suddenly decided that I needed to take a much closer look at the ground. Tripping on a small rock, I threw myself forward in what was almost a “head plant” dive and this was a warning to be more careful on the steep and slippery descent. Luckily I broke my fall with just a few grazes to arms and leg and sore ribs, nothing that fell runners don’t practice every day I am sure. It was quite annoying though as my legs felt strong and it had just been carelessness, but could have ended my race so near to the end (at around 25 miles).
The hill dropped away steeply and with slick road shoes on and a mixture of wet grass and slate rocks and gravel under foot we did have to be careful. Re-joining tarmac at around 25.5 miles I headed faster down the steep descent with Mark trailing behind slightly. Living in Southport offers little scope for practising steep fell descents and after my fall I think he was being more careful. I looked back to him at about 50 yards behind as I was happy to slow and run in together as planned, but he waved me on.
The finish at Llanberis
Accelerating down the steep road I passed quite a few slower runners struggling with the effects of the steep ascent and descent and commenting that it was more punishing coming down than it had been on the way up! A fresher looking lady runner was descending well in front of me and offering encouragement to strugglers that they could still get under 4 hours.
The battery on my Garmin had not lasted (and needs replacing) and I asked her how far to go and she told me it was just 0.45 miles and I could see on my other watch that I was at 3:53. “Under 4 hours is not in doubt”, I shouted as I accelerated with a final adrenaline rush fuelling me past her into full strides down the last half mile of the straight down descent, finally to a sharp right turn into the finishing straight in Llanberis of around 200 metres! Big crowds and cheers helped me to a ‘sprint’ finish and I held up my number that was now hinged on just two remaining safety pins to show the officials and cameras and I crossed the line in 3 hours, 57 minutes and 39 seconds. Slightly bloodied and certainly relieved this had been a tough course and the sense of elation was huge, and quite emotional! Mark had dropped behind a little but ran in at 3:59.20: also suitably chuffed as he knows friends (competitors?) at his club that had not beaten the 4 hour mark! Helpers were on hand quickly and wrapped us in our foil sheets and handed us bottles of water and we turned to be given our rather nice and well earned commemorative slate coasters.
We just made time for an official photo of the pair of us holding our numbers: the “after” photo might actually be worth the money just this once from the official photographers. Apart from a few scrapes from my recent grass and slate investigations, I actually felt quite good and we shuffled quietly back to the car park, got changed, sank a couple of bottles of recovery drink and headed for home. Unfortunately I had missed Fozzy all day who had finished ahead at 3:40.53 but we exchanged texts once my Skodafone signal connected towards Chester.
As I draft this rambling report the day after the race, I am definitely keen to run this again next year! It was a fabulous day running with a friend, not looking for a PB and enjoying the banter, scenery, encouragement of the supporters and locals (who turned out in numbers) and the friendly camaraderie of the runners. This was the best race day experience that I have had and reminded me that running isn’t just about finishing times, and it can be challenging and enjoyable in other ways too! I am really happy with my time and the way we ran the race and far from disappointed I feel genuinely quite proud of our achievement.
Thank you to the organisers, marshals and everyone concerned for an epic and spectacularly enjoyable day!
P.S. I am going to try to generate some interest in entering this race for next year, at the club and with friends in the other local Leeds clubs. It would be great if we can get a decent group together from Abbey, Striders, Hyde Park, Pacers, Kirkstall etc for a weekend outing! BRING ON SNOWDONIA MARATHON 2014!!