Last year, a couple of friends ran the Snowdonia Trail Marathon and returned utterly elated and completely exhausted. It's a monster of a race with 1700 metres of elevation gain over the 26.2 miles. Earlier this year, mindful of their stories of how epic an experience it had been, I booked M and I into the shorter half marathon distance (which has a mere 1200m elevation gain) and last weekend we travelled up to North Wales to run it.
I had taken the decision some weeks ago to downgrade my entry to the 10k (395m elevation gain) being mindful of my knee's only recent exploratory foray back into lumpy trail running and so was feeling pretty relaxed about the whole affair. It was going to be far too hilly to race and I needed to go carefully and test my knee so the pressure was entirely off me. I was facing a pleasant trot round the mountains on a sunny summer's morning with photography stops. M, meanwhile, returning from a recent hip injury which meant he'd done no hill training at all, was slightly more trepidatious about his race.
It took five and a half hours to reach Llanberis where we were staying in a wonderfully quirky hotel run by an equally wonderfully eccentric couple. The clock on the bar ran backwards; a bit like this place, grinned the owner. After a supper of yummy and inexpensive pub grub (m had welsh burgers, I had a curry followed by crumble and custard washed down with a pint) we retired early and I was asleep by nine.
The following morning after a simple breakfast of toast and tea we made our way into the village which had transformed overnight into a fell running paradise. Everywhere you looked there were hardy souls in shorts and vest tops and running shoes with water packs on their backs, compression bands on their arms and legs caps on their heads. I felt instantly at home and energised by the buzzing atmosphere. Fell runners are a proper tough bunch; no messing about, no false modesty, these are men and women with a core of steel running through them. There was also a genuine spirit of camaraderie amongst all the runners because we were all in it together and everyone knows Snowdonia takes no prisoners and is a place that deserves respect. For once, even the 10k run had a gravitas about it.
M's race set off at 9:45 with me telling him not to run too fast and fall off the mountain. Then there was a half hour wait for the 10k, which I used by warming up and stretching so when we set off I felt good and ready to go.
We wound out along Llanberis high street then swung left and left again up into the foothills of the mountains. There was no messing about, we were straight into a long, arduous climb. I realised early on how many of the runners were locals by the lack of people walking. Almost everyone ran the first mile which was all uphill. I was one of the first to break ranks and walk, but I was quite happy, particularly as I made up many of the ensuing lost places over the next two miles when people who had tired themselves out by running up the hill started to fade.
A mile into the race my watch informed me that M was ringing me. My heart dropped into my stomach. It could only mean one thing: that something had gone very badly wrong, there was no way he'd ring me mid-race otherwise. My husband is a tough man, he keeps going no matter what and brushes off injuries and accidents that would floor most people, so, heart racing, imagining a fall on the steep climb, I rang him back, but all I could hear was heavy breathing and the rhythmic crunching of feet running on stone. Grinning and relieved, I realised his phone had rung me all by itself, which it has a habit of doing from time to time, and that he was fine. During the course of the next hour and a half it rang me no less than 17 times. I texted him: your phone keeps ringing me! and did call him a couple more times just to make sure he was OK, but each time all I could hear was panting and running feet.
I pressed on, the land levelling out briefly before plunging downhill back towards Llanberis. I glanced at my watch and saw we'd covered 3 miles in 40 minutes. An indication of just how challenging the landscape was is that I'd done the same distance at home in just under 24 minutes the previous day.
I was loving it. I pelted down the tarmac track with a lady from Canterbury and we chatted as we flew along. I left her on the main road as the route turned left up into the hills once more. I was warmed up by now and my pace had improved. I was feeling good and really, really enjoying the race. I overtook a few people on the next uphill and then chased after the chap in front who had slowed to a walk as the path went up the steep zig-zagging sided of a slate quarry seen in the pic below.
After a mile or so we emerged at the top. What views! I had to stop for pictures....
There was only a mile and a half to go and suddenly I wished I hadn't changed to the 10k because it was all going to be over soon and I was only just getting into my stride.
We cracked on, down through some sandy foresty bits, over a wooden stile that breached a hedge/ bank, along a track between ferns. I was really loving it, overtaking people, chasing the lady in front, flying along.
The final downhill was a bit technical and perilous with lots of sharp uneven jagged stone waiting to trip you and smash an ankle. I slowed my pace a bit, but not much, I was enjoying flying down the hill too much and by now my competitive instincts had woken up and I could see three people ahead I knew I wanted to catch. I was also on for a much faster time than I'd reckoned, well under the 1:20 - 1:30 hours I'd thought I'd take, so as soon as we reached the flat I pushed on, got past my targets and hoofed it on down to the finish where the guy doing the announcing asked (over the loud hailer) whether I'd come all the way from the South coast for the race.
I collected my medal and t-shirt, patted the nice lady from Canterbury on the back by way of congratulation as she came over the line and went to watch for M. The lead half marathon runner was just coming in, having set a new course record, and from then on there was a steady, if limited, trickle of half runners mixed in with the 10kers.
Eventually, I spotted M off in the distance and could tell from his face that it had been a tough but enjoyable run. He crossed the line in under 2:30 hours, which is amazing given the lack of hill training, and came back full of tails of incredible climbs up the mountain on hands and feet and being enveloped in cloud at the top, and of a terrifying descent off the mountain where all the fell runners flew past him at breakneck speed, sure as mountain hares. The mountain had been kind to both of us, it had been warm but breezy and we'd both kept our feet. More than that, we both absolutely loved it.
My knee was fine and the muscle aches I fully expected to hit 48 hours after haring down a mountainside never materialised. I went out for a brisk 5 mile run with Pop yesterday to loosen everything up and all was good. This is definitely one of the best races I've ever done and I can't wait to go back next year. I feel the mountain marathon calling.......
Hope all are well.