It’s my third visit to Always Aim High Event’s (AAHE) Snowdonia Trail Marathon event and an opportunity to race my third route there – the half marathon. Previously sponsored by Scott, the 2019 edition was sponsored by On.
Half Marathon – choice of race?
A few people were surprised that I was doing the HM distance. Not least because I’ve already completed the Trail Marathon and Trail Ultra-marathon distance. But that’s sort of the point. OK most people might choose to do them in a more logical order, but my reasoning for doing the HM was twofold. Firstly, it’s a different route up Snowdon to the two longer races. I’ve done the Pyg Track twice (admittedly probably not doing it justice), but I thought it would be interesting to see what the Ranger Path was like. Secondly, I’ve already got 3 ultra-marathons booked in for 2019 so this event was slated more to get the mileage and experience up without completely trashing my legs in the process.
One advantage of doing the HM distance was the later start. The ultra-marathon sets of at 6.30am which required an overnight stop last year as I still had my smaller-battery electric car. Aside from that I’d have been getting up at completely-ridiculous o’clock as opposed to ouch o’clock. In contrast the HM starts at 9.45am, meaning I got up the same time as I did for the ultra last year, but could drive the journey much more easily in a day. The disadvantage was that parking was a lot busier by the time I got to Llanberis this year. But I managed to get into the short-stay car park which, thankfully, gave me just enough time to get around in the time.
Registration was simple. AAHE have adopted the ‘look-yourself-up-on-iPad’ approach for as long as I’ve done their races which meant for a quick number collection. The marathon runners were just getting their safety briefing as I headed back to the car to find my sunglasses and I caught up with Sam, Kerry & Garry from #visorclub who were somewhat apprehensive about what they’d let themselves in for. They said they’d read my write0up (from 2016) so I think that told them all they needed to know…..!
I got back to the event field and caught up with Kyla and Lewis (more #visorclub) as well as Heather & Sarah from my #LymeRunners group – Sarah was unfortunately injured so had come as head supporter for Lyme as there were a few of us running today! The safety briefing was thorough and AAHE were enforcing the kit-requirements which are there for runners’ safety. Apparently a few people were removed from the race for not complying; it was all in the entry notes and it was repeated over the tannoy ahead of the race so there really wasn’t any excuse for carrying kit. Heck, it’s only waterproofs, hat & gloves, water, snacks and a whistle so it’s nothing onerous given the route is off piste and up Wales’ biggest mountain.
Start and race profile
We set off on time and ran what felt like the only bit of downhill as we followed the road out of Llanberis. It was then onto a stony road that gradually reduced into a track and then to a trail as we climbed for roughly 3.5 miles. Nothing too steep but we gained our first 1200ft of climb in this bit.
I think this is where tackling the HM was so different to the longer races. When you know you’ve got 60km ahead of you there’s an acceptance that conserving energy for the climb at the end is needed. With something so much shorter, it’s a tough call to make. Do you still push on as it’s a shorter race or do you hold back? I went more for the former, but accepted that I needed to leave something in the tank. The quirk to the HM is that the route has a sting in the tail unlike the two longer races that finish shortly after the Snowdon descent.
Finally I reached the gate at the top of the first climb and enjoyed a half mile descent across moorland. Up to this point the route was the same as the longer races but when we reached the Ranger Path, the big races head down it towards Rhud Ddu whereas the HM joins it to climb the mountain.
The climb to begin with was gradual and very runnable. But as my watch ticked over the 5 mile mark, the gradient ramped up signficantly. I would say the route was technically runnable, but I wasn’t doing that. I figured I’d be quicker walking, although there were a couple of people around me making better progress. To give some perspective, that lower gradient section increased about 400ft in elevation over a mile whereas the next mile added a further 1200ft of climb. By this point I was making comparisons to the ultra/marathon climbs. As the Ranger path continues the gradient steepens. The Pyg involves a lot more clambering about although the very steep bit is right at the end near the switchback. In fact I was beginning to think ‘this is getting tough’ when I realised I was at the Finger Stone. The highest point. I’d been in the clouds for a good long time by this point so it was only visible at the last minute. So actually the Snowdon climb on the Ranger Path is a lot easier than the Pyg because it’s a lot shorter and less climbing over boulders.
The descent starts quite gradually but I think the effect of climbing for so long meant it immediately felt very downhill and I was running faster than I felt comfortable. This didn’t last once the gradient steepens and, to be honest, I wimped my way down the section to where it crossed under the railway, and then again on the next bit. I struggle on that rocky terrain, although plenty of people around me seemed quite happy to bounce their way down past me.
Once the Llanberis Path became less rocky and more path-like I was able to get into a jog. It wasn’t fast and it definitely wasn’t pretty. But I remained upright and intact which was my primary objective! Too many other races entered to risk a broken whatever on Snowdon. I actually caught up a couple of people when we got onto the very steep tarmac road which becomes Victoria Road! Once a road runner etc……
The bit named ‘Ouch’
By this point we were 10 miles into the HM. I knew there was another section to come but, prior to this point I didn’t know the distances involved. I think my heart sank a little bit in that there was quite a bit of race left for the ‘sting’ to occupy. My legs were also a bit shattered as I left the marathon/ultra route which was so very close to the event field and finish line and there was a bit of run/walk and eating/drinking to be done. I saw Sarah as I ran along the road section towards the slate quarry and she shouted ‘Just the easy bit to do now!’ Ouch!
And Ouch! was the correct assessment. A left turn off the road and a steep section of steps and general uphill travel commenced as we traversed the side of the quarry. We’re talking 500ft in half a mile but having already run up and down Snowdon, that is hard work, especially as some of the steps were quite steep. On the climb I passed the tail runner of the 10k along with a few from that race who were going through their own personal battles with the terrain. It did seem to go on forever, but eventually I passed a marshal standing on something akin to a real path and the downhill began.
The joy of an easy downhill was soon dashed as we rejoined another lumpy trail, but on the whole this wasn’t too bad underfoot. Although I did manage to stub my toes a few times. The problem now was I was getting cramps in my calf muscles. I kept myself going, but was slower than I’d have liked, letting a couple of other runners through. Suddenly we’re on a (very steep) bit of tarmac and shortly after a lady shouted ‘Racecheck’ at me (that’s what I had on my buff) we crossed the road and back into the event field. It was then just a matter of trying to not look like how my legs felt as I ran past the crowds and through the finish line. Final time 2:25:55 in 50th place (by chip). So almost an hour slower than my road HM time, but I was just pleased to have got around in less than 3 hours. That criterion was set based upon how long I’d paid to park!
I collected my t-shirt and medal having grazed on some of the fruit and drinks at the finish before getting back to the car and heading home to work……..! It’s never simple 😉
So to wrap up. The Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon is a great race. The route is filled with amazing scenery. But don’t underestimate the fact that you’re running up Snowdon. It’s a tough race. It also a very different dynamic to the longer races too. They have both got long sections of flattish terrain as they work through the valley, so whilst they’ve got many more miles, those extra miles aren’t too taxing as long as you take them steadily. That said, the ascent of Snowdon on the longer races is far tougher than the HM. The HM on the other hand has a nasty climb at the end, just when you’re in touching distance of the finish. These are races which are more akin to mini-adventures rather than bish-bosh job done races. As long as you know what you’re signed up for, you’ll have a tough but rewarding time.