I’m sat at my desk after work, one day after tackling my first official ultra-marathon. The whole weekend was a mini-adventure in itself. Not an adventure in ‘Hollywood blockbuster territory’ but one where there were a lot of unknowns to negotiate.
As usual with my races, I like to do a write-up. Partly to create a memory for me, and partly to help you decide if the race is one that you might like to do.
I’ll separate out the journey bits from the race itself, so you can jump to the bits that are of most interest.
So let’s get started.
I first ran a race in Snowdonia back in 2016 when I took part in the Scott Snowdonia Trail Marathon. It was my first trail marathon and it’s fair to say I underestimated that challenge. That said, I finished it with a smile and chalked it up as a great event. One that I had absolutely no intention of putting my body through again!!!!! Even the extra discount due to a misplacement of finisher medals wasn’t going to persuade me otherwise.
But then, in mid 2017, Always Aim High Events advertised a new 60km ultra-marathon version of the event for 2018. And despite all sensible notions, I couldn’t do anything other than digging out my credit card and clicking the link to enter. We’ve all been there. Haven’t we?
All drives are epic when you have a tiny battery
The journey itself was to be an adventure. As you may know from previous posts, I drive an electric car which only has a small battery; great for what I normally use it for, but this would be the first long-distance journey. And North Wales isn’t exactly well provided for when it comes to charging stations; in fact one of the most useful ones in Bangor is currently out of action. So the exercise of getting to and from the start line had it’s own set of unknowns to deal with.
On the Saturday morning I set off from Stockport to Caernarfon where I had a B&B booked; not that I’d see breakfast as the race would be starting several hours before any rashers of bacon were taken from the fridge! That one way journey would be about 110 miles, although I also needed to collect my race number from the start line in Llanberis, so another 20 or so miles to add on. Nothing amazing, but with a range of about 85 usable miles on a full charge, a plan was required.
I had charging options at Chester (35 miles), Holywell (60 miles) and Bodelwyddan (70 miles) and my plan was to go for Bodelwyddan, but with a slightly nearer option if it was getting a little too dicey!
Delays, followed by mixed results
The first problem was that there was a major road accident on the M56. So a good 90 minutes was spent with stranded strangers passing the time of day on the tarmac of the motorway, cringing at the fool who took her daughter to the opposite side of the other carriage way, only to be trapped over there when the other carriageway was reopened. Lots of people took photos. Except me. And I’m probably the only one who is mentioning it in a blog. Oh well!
I got underway again, and easily made my charging destination, which worked without a hitch. That gave me another 80 or so miles to get to my destination which included a drop-in to a charging point at Asda in Bangor so I’d have enough miles to get back here again after the race.
The one thing that you notice with a short-range vehicle is how quickly those miles are eaten up; you simply don’t notice it if you’ve got a range of a couple of hundred miles or more. The journey to Llanberis to collect my number was only 37 miles but by the time I’d done that and made the 9 mile journey back to Bangor I had 45 miles of range left. However, I knew I needed 55 miles to get to the B&B that evening, then to get to the race, and to get back to Bodelwyddan. Plus a bit of margin as I’m a little risk averse.
This should have been easy, however the Chargemaster point at Asda didn’t want to play, and no amount of remote-poking it from their support team was persuading it. Thankfully the 3-pin plug option on the point did work, however it was extremely slow. My idea had been to set up the charge and then have a wander around Bangor and get some food and come back to a fully charged car. The reality ended up being 4 hours in Asda car park (the first hour being the time messing around trying to get things to work) eating a half-roast chicken I’d picked up from the supermarket. At least it was a sensible meal for the race ahead.
By 8pm, I’d had enough, but had 74 miles of range which gave me enough leeway in case I had a miscalculation in there somewhere. Off to the B&B (9 miles) and pretty much straight to bed. I needed to be up for 5am to get myself down to the start-line (and consume vast amounts of porridge in the morning).
Scott Snowdonia Trail Ultra-marathon
As mentioned above, this is my first ‘real’ ultra. There seems to be a very hazy definition of what constitutes an ultra-marathon. Some people suggest it’s anything above 50k, others suggest it’s anything beyond normal marathon distance (26.2 miles / 42.2 km). The Trail Marathon itself is 27.8 miles in length, so actually meets the second definition. That said, the new ultra-marathon is 60km and 7200+ft of ascent, so that definitely meets all available definitions!
Let’s start with the course profile which will help to explain where all the following sections relate:
It begins as it means to go on. Uphill
Like the marathon, the ultra starts in Llanberis and heads over past Rhyd Ddu before heading through the valley to Beddgelert Forest. The first 4 miles are pretty much all uphill before a rapid descent. Actually the descent was different to the marathon I did in 2016 which was grassy. This followed a stone trail before going completely off road. It felt very much at home as a fell run and I was able to open up a bit and enjoy the amazing scenery and great running conditions. For this section I had been following a group but lost them on the descent and picked up at the back of another group. However, I was all for pacing myself this year and let them disappear ahead. As I approached the 10k timing mat, there was a convenient public toilet there so that helped to get more comfortable before heading around the lake and into the forest. It’s all pretty flat and tame through this section and important to stick to the game plan.
Ultra runners please turn right…….
Once in the forest the small number of race signs ensured we stuck to the correct paths. And before long, one that had ULTRA pointing to the right meant that we were on our way out to the ‘new’ section. It started out pretty tame whilst remaining in the Forest and whilst the path was undulating, it was obvious that the elevation was gradually cranking up. Having followed a lady for about a mile, I eventually caught up to her and we chatted for about a mile. It turns out Emma was also from Stockport (Marple in fact, as I’m a Marple Runner) which was a nice coincidence. We parted company at the next marshal point and I carried on up the hill.
This section was very much in the realms of fell running albeit without any requirement to navigate. The terrain was tough under foot, very steep and consisted of an endless series of false summits! In fact we were never to ascend the actual summit of Moel Yr Ogof, instead circumnavigating it. When we finally reached the last of the climbs we were rewarded with a technical descent. I’d merged into another group (who I met at the start) and we picked our way down, nobody daring to try and run it. But we got down and onto a gravel track on which was the next (first?) feed station.
I refilled my water bladder in my rucksack and ate a lot of maltloaf before carrying on downhill. We were back in Beddgelert Forest and heading to the town itself. On the descent I caught up with another runner, Alex who I ran with off and on for almost the rest of the race. As we dropped through the Forest, we merged back onto the Trail Marathon route which was now busy with runners, all of whom had run 10 miles and one nasty set of climbs less than us. They looked really fresh. We looked knackered! We adopted a run/walk strategy almost from this point on. The tough thing about this race is that the difficulty is very much back-end loaded so the hardest climbs are yet to come!
I remembered running into Beddgelert last time being a pleasant experience. This time was no different with lots of local support and people cheering the runners on. The next feed station was just by the river as we entered the town and it was very busy serving water, electrolytes and bits of fruit. I added my remaining malt loaf to the mix and we carried on crossing the main road to pick up a footpath traveling through the valley.
We passed a couple of lakes with superb mountain backdrops before heading into woodland again. Snowdonia is stunningly beautiful. Again the paths were pretty good although they were becoming increasingly rocky. Another road crossing and another feed station passed. A few of the marathon runners seemed stunned that we were running with them (I think they were beginning to tire now). We headed off on a downhill, knowing that we’d be climbing very soon. My watch beeped at another mile marker and I realised that I was into uncharted territory in terms of distance. The 27.8 miles of the trail marathon had been passed (being my longest ever distance) and we hadn’t even started climbing Snowdon yet!!!
Upwards. This time it’s for real
But that was to change. We joined the Pen Y Pass which runs across the landscape and climbs at an ever increasing gradient for about a mile, gaining about 800ft of ascent. The terrain isn’t complicated in the most part, but despite a few people running early on, it was ultimately a procession of walking runners trying to get to the final check-point for the mandatory cut-off, which we made in good time.
I spent a lot longer at the feed station at the check point than I had done so last time I ran here. Partly to allow Alex to catch up as he’d dropped back a bit, but mostly because I knew what was coming next! Running bladder was refilled and additional electrolyte was added, flapjacks and orange pieces were consumed. Once we were both ready, we crossed the check-point and started the climb up the Pyg Track to the highest point of the race (Finger Stone) and only a few hundred feet from the summit of Snowdon. This 3 mile stretch added about 2000ft of ascent in the process.
To be honest, it was spectacular. We were treated to views in all directions and it was amazing to be there. It is also brutal! The first section is a bit of clambering over boulders and whilst steep, isn’t too bad. It then levels out and works its way around the edge of Crib Goch. After this point, the gradient ramps up steadily and the terrain becomes increasingly tough. Not good on tired legs. At least this year I could see where we were going, although as we kept climbing I wasn’t as sure this was a good thing! Even getting to the switch-back section I had to stop and get my breath back. And to try to stop my race number from blowing away as it had managed to shed a safety pin somewhere on Snowdon!
Head in the clouds. Feet possibly still attached
Eventually in amongst families tottering down the Pyg Track past the line of runners climbing up, I reached the Finger Stone and the highest point of the course. It was just in the cloud and you couldn’t see very much. Alex had tackled the climb a lot better than I, and was already on his descent. I started my decent on the Llanberis path, and before long stepped below the cloud to be able to see the magnificent view. I did eventually catch up with Alex, but neither of us fancied a rapid decent. I had no trust in my feet by this point, so exhausted and battered from the last 33 miles. And that first bit of the decent is very steep and made up of loose stones, so the risk of falling and properly hurting yourself is high. In the end we tottered down to the final feed station just after crossing underneath the railway.
We experimented with a bit of running with mixed results. I was getting more confident but Alex less so. A few other ultra runners passed us including the group I had been chatting to when we were negotiation around Moel Yr Ogof (no idea when I passed them!) We all started running a little more confidently although in the end Alex dropped back (his quads were shot to pieces). And it was almost all plain sailing save for me tripping on a rock and flying through the air, yet somehow managing a recovery which gained applause from some of the spectators (who were probably fearing a messy clean-up operation). So that was my big toe I splattered last time on this section, splattered again!
Unlike last time, when we hit the tarmac of Victoria Terrace, we chickened out and walked for the steepest section. In fact I think this was another section that was changed as I remembered turning right into some woods last time. This year instead we headed the full way down Victoria Terrace and crossed the main road to follow some gravel paths which lead though the woods and did a loop back into the field where we started many hours ago. I managed to run the last bit, but I was utterly finished by that point.
So after 9 hours 34 minutes and 32 seconds, 60km and 7200ft of ascent, I crossed the finish line as an ultra-marathon runner.
What an epic event. Seriously it was bigger than I could have imagined. The scenery never fails to blow me away and the weather was pretty much perfect for that; enough visibility to see the views but not a baking hot sunny day which would have made the climbs even tougher. The new section adding about 10 miles to create the ultra marathon is tough; lots of steep climbs and technical descents. But this is also a big positive point for the event. If there was any criticism of the trail marathon route, it was that essentially it was a small hill at the start, a big hill at the end and a relatively flat trail race in between. Having the extra hill bang in the middle really does add another dimension to the event. As usual Always Aim High Events pulled off a very well organised race and so a big thanks to them.
It’s also been nice to do my first ultra-marathon in a place I really love.
Would I do it again? Currently the answer is ‘no’. Mostly because my body is still hurting! But then I said that 2 years ago after the trail marathon, so don’t read too much into that! However it’s something ticked off the bucket list (ultra marathon) and done on my terms (off road). Am I glad I did it? Absolutely, I wouldn’t have missed yesterday for the world. There’s something amazing about pushing yourself to do things that you think are beyond your limits, only to find that they are possible.
And whilst I’m usually not at all bothered about finisher medals, this one is a little bit special. Normally I see them as a ‘medal for turning up’. 10% of the runners who started out at 6.30am didn’t complete the race. Yesterday I felt I really earned that piece of metal.
An electric journey home
Having collected my t-shirt and medal I had to make a rapid exit to get home due to work commitments! Needless to say, I had plenty of range to get back to Bodelwyddan and then back home.