I had been looking forward to this race with rare excitement. It's a marathon that people speak of with hushed tones of reverence for its ability to chew people up and spit them out. It's not easy; the mountain is the last seven miles of the marathon, so by the time you reach it's foothills you've already run twenty odd miles, and many of them couldn't easily be described as flat.
In the five weeks since Yeovil I've concentrated on 1) rest and recovery, 2) walking a lot, 3) running consistent but not fast or long mileage and 4) getting the hills in. The longest run I did in that time was a half marathon, albeit it a very hilly one over the south downs. We also did four hilly races in the run-up as prep, but I took all of them deliberately slowly and ran/ walked them, just as I knew I would be at Snowdon. My highest mileage run week was 54 (with walking added it took it to 92 miles), and I reckoned I'd done as much prep as I needed and was fit enough for the distance and terrain.
Having never run a mountain marathon before and remembering my friend Kate telling me it broke her when she ran it two year's ago, and also remembering the air ambulance being dispatched to pull someone off the mountain when I did the 10k here last year, it was all a bit of an unknown so I trained more by gut than anything else. I reckoned it would take me between 6-7 hours to complete.
M and I drove up the day before and stayed at the Royal Victoria, the hotel next to the start/ finish field, so we had a very short walk to the start line on Sunday morning. Our friends, Mike and Sue, were also running, Mike doing the 10k a year or so after a heart attack that nearly took him from us, so the four of us met up for dinner in the hotel the night before which was jolly. I had a crap night's sleep owing to the presence of a wedding party who were up half the night and was awake at 6.
We ate an early breakfast and went down to the start field at 6:30am to watch the ultra marathon runners set off on their 36 mile run, before heading back to the hotel to get ready.
Mountain marathons carry a compulsory kit list that you have to take with you. This was full waterproofs, hat, glove, survival blanket, water, food, mobile, long sleeved top and suncream. It made our race packs heavy but it's part of the deal so everyone just got on with it.
At 8:45 the RD gave the final briefing, warning everyone that Snowdon isn't a playground, the ascents are brutal in places and the descents almost more dangerous. I grinned at M, because I'd been telling him all week if he fell off the mountain and my race got cut short I wouldn't be at all chuffed- it was the best way to get him to be careful :o).
Friend Sue, who is a super fast marathon and ultra runner, had had little time for dedicated training for the race so elected to run the first couple of miles with me as I could pace her to a slower start, so we had a very companionable and chatty start as the route led out of Llanberis and up into the fells.
Soon the hills began to bite and I slowed to a walk. My strategy for the race was to treat it like an ultra: walk up all the hills and inclines and run the flat and (where it was possible) the downs. Sue walked with me and then I bumped into Nick whom I'd met at the Charmouth Challenge the weekend before, so we had a bit of a chat before the land levelled out again a bit and everyone started running again.
Soon the hills grew steeper and Sue carried on running, leaving me to my thoughts and own company which, to be honest, is my preference.
It was breathtakingly beautiful out in the mountains. After the first 3-4 miles we came over the top and dropped down into the next valley, where there was a long queue to get over the first of many stiles. Races like this have cut-off points- if you don't make it to the next check-point by a certain time you are DQ'd. It's a safety thing. The cut off time for the first 10k was 1:30 hours- plenty of time in normal circumstances, but add in steep hills, a 20 minute wait at the stile and boggy ground to navigate through and it soon dawned on me that I was going to be ten minutes over time. I felt a surge of panic and turned to ask the people around me what they thought. Many of them had done the race before and all assured me we'd be fine- that the main cut off to worry about was the one at Pen y Pass later in the race. So it proved- I reached the check point at 1:39 and was waved through.
I'd taken 2 ltrs of tailwind with me (carb and electrolyte mix) as well as an empty 500ml soft flask and enough spare tailwind powder to mix up another 2 ltrs for later in the race. I also had two bags of sweets and two blueberry muffin date bars. I sipped the tailwind every few minutes from the start, conscious that the fuelling and nutritional requirements of the race were more important than ever here.
For the next few miles we were in the foothills, running along lanes, through woods, over bridges and by a lake. It was so beautiful and peaceful and awe-inspiring with the mountains as looming presences all around us. The field thinned out and I found myself on my own at the 12 mile point and wondering if I'd gone wrong, but then some tape came in view and some other runners so I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. I got a piece of grit in my shoe and decided to stop and take it out, dealing with it before it rubbed a blister, and made a mental note to get some gaitors before the next run.
I wasn't expecting any major hills till mile 18, but at mile 14 I realised I'd been wrong- we started the climb out of the valley and up the side of the mountain. There were a couple of people behind me moaning and I decided I couldn't cope with that- I mean, why enter a mountain marathon if you can't do hills? - so I decided I would have to walk faster to put some distance between me and them. This meant I caught up with a guy who had a Transvulcania shirt on, a race I've been reading about recently, so I asked him about it and we had a bit of a chat as we climbed the hill. This turned out to be a good move- he'd done the marathon last year and this year was doing the ultra so he knew the course. I kept with him more or less to the top of Snowdon.
At Pen Y Pass everyone breathed a sigh of relief- we'd made it through the final check point with bags of time to spare so all we had to do now was climb Snowdon and run back down into Llanberis to the finish, some seven miles away.
I'd refilled my water bladder at the check point at mile 14 and the additional weight was uncomfortable on my back. I'd been fiddling with it over the last six miles and couldn't get it comfy again no matter what I tried. It wasn't an ideal distraction with a huge climb ahead but the terrain soon became so brutal I stopped noticing the back pack!
The Pyg trail is not a well-paved track to the top of Snowdon. In some places, it isn't a path at all: it's boulders, rock face, slabs of rock, and you end up scrabbling, climbing, crawling and clawing up it. For three miles. I did fine until half a mile from the top when suddenly my mental focus went. I could feel my emotions turning in on themselves and exhaustion reached out towards me, something I hadn't felt once yet on the run. A rock face confronted me and there was no obvious route over or through it. I didn't know which way to go. Luckily, I have been doing a lot of reading about ultra running recently and the one message that has sunk in is: if you start to lose the plot on a long, difficult run, eat and drink. Nine times out of ten it's low blood sugar making you tired and confused and food sorts it. I knew tailwind probably wouldn't be enough to fuel me round and although I'd been eating sweets too I knew they wouldn't either, so I'd also packed some blueberry date bars. I pulled one out of my pack and took a bite. At the same time, my Transvulcania friend appeared. I don't know which way to go I said, watching as other people tried and failed to get through the seemingly impassable face of rock in front of us. This way he said, and scrambled up. The blueberry bar and my new friend did their work- my head cleared, my emotions settled and I scrambled up using my hands to pull myself up and onto the rock and followed him over the non-path beside some boulders. He really saved my bacon I think.
Once we'd got through that very technical section I started to feel better. The blueberry bar was just what I'd needed- real food, and I was able to take over and walk in front again when my new friend flagged. I do love the way runners help each other out on these events. It's very selfless. Anyway, we were now approaching the summit and the day was clear as a bell so you could see for miles. The marshals at the top were cheering, other people also out summiting Snowdon were saying well done and I was feeling fab again.
I got to the top, thanked my new buddy for getting me up the mountain and set off down the Llanberis pass.
If I'd thought the descent would be easier than the climb I was, if not wrong, then not entirely right either. It too was technical, with loose, sharp rocks everywhere as trip hazards. After 22 miles of running, walking and climbing, my quads and hips now really started to complain about this steep downhill section. I tentatively ran, catching my toe in a rock and only just saving myself from tipping over. I caught the eye of an old chap who was walking with his wife and we grinned at each other. Nearly! I said. Oh, I'd have had to get a photo if you had! he grinned back, in a broad welsh accent. Yup, I said, I've just run 22 miles, I'd be really cross if I fell over now! As I ran on down the hill I heard the people behind me all saying: She's just run 22 miles! It made me smile.
I caught up with a lady who was doing the ultra and we ran on for a bit, but the downhill was just too steep so I said good luck and dropped back to a walk while she sailed on. I heard a cheerful hello! you again! as a chap I'd chatted to in the queue for the stile all those mile ago came sailing past. He was running his 88th marathon. Earlier, I'd climbed a section with a woman who'd completed the Thames Ring 250, a non-stop 250 mile race, only four weeks earlier. I knew I'd be slow today, she said. Ultra runners are a different breed.
I'd been out of signal range for most of the run, had just managed to send L, my mum and running guru Abz some photos from the top and to receive a message from M to say he'd finished in under 5 hours (his target) and won his age category (seriously impressive stuff as it was very competitive field full of fell runners and we don't have any mountains to practice on at home), but had had no other contact with the outside world for over six hours. Now, however, the signal came back on the phone, so I gave M a call to tell him I was OK and only half an hour away. We had a nice chat and then I ran on again.
When I hit the road I walked with two guys who were just finishing their 3 peaks challenge with one hour spare. They looked strung out. One had had two hours sleep, the other no sleep at all, but they still asked about how my race had been and were really lovely about the achievement. I ran on and caught up with two old veterans of the race and we had a laugh about me being full of energy still while they were both feeling knackered. They were lovely too. Then I ran on again, the road levelling out as it came out opposite our hotel. We'd recced the finish the night before so I knew where the path went. I was feeling remarkably well considering I'd run just over 26 miles, been on my feet for seven hours and just climbed up and down a mountain.
As I ran down towards the finish lots of people were cheering and calling out my name (the numbers had our names printed on them) and saying well done, and then there was M with the camera and a bunch of flowers. I ran on past him and round to the finish gantry, crossing the line feeling ridiculously well and still with energy to spare. My time was a fraction over 7 hours, I'd run 27.2 miles, the furthest I've ever run and climbed and descended a mountain at the end and I felt great.
What an amazing experience. I honestly don't know how I'm going to top that.