‘The inaugural Snowdonia Marathon was held in 1982, and was conceived as a dramatic alternative to the numerous city and town races becoming so popular. The demanding and spectacular route, encircling Snowdon, Wales’ and England’s highest peak, has given the event a unique place in the annual marathon calendar ever since.’ (source www.snowdoniamarathon.co.uk)
So as the description states and the image shoes, this marathon is a run around Snowdon starting in Llanberis, through Nant Peris then up Pen-y-Pass. Following this it is a downhill and both on road and a brief stint on trail, then undulating road past until reaching the second of the climbs at Beddgelert. After this climb it is more undulating road until hitting the biggest climb of the race at mile 22 just past Waunfawr. This climb continues until about mile 25 before a steep descent back into Llanberis and the finish line.
With the profile giving an indication of the amount of climb involved, this is by no means you classic practically flat marathon with a view for setting PB’s if you have previously run marathons. To put it into perspective how a different a beast this run is, the London Marathon has a total climb of around 174 meters, just compare the below profiles to get an idea.
Going into this run, I knew it was going to be a challenging, with the potential for the weather to really add to the challenge!
It had been a long time coming, with the NDW50 well behind me I had been waiting for this race to bring my running year to a close. Training for this specific event had been sporadic but I felt I had a base level of fitness following the work done previously so although I was uncertain of what time I would be able to achieve, I knew I would be able to get around.
I was going to be running this race with Gareth, who crewed the NDW50 for me, with this event being his first marathon. With race number on, kit ready and feeling the anticipation of the race starting we headed to the start line with about 1600 other runners.
The race started and we headed off, the course is pretty flat for the first couple of miles before hitting the climb up to Pen-y-Pass from mile 2 to 4. The first 6 or so miles went by in a flash, the general atmosphere of all the runners around us carrying us forward and our pace reflected this averaging about 10 minute mile, increasing slighty on the uphill but us making up time on the downhill. The one section that caused me what would be a repeated problem later on was the section after Pen-y-Pass of about 2km which was on a trail. I was wearing New Balance Minimus Road, zero drop shoes and with the rocks and uneven surface I was getting a lot of discomfort on my feet as the soles of these shoes are very thin and designed primarily for the road.
We got past this section pretty quickly and before we knew it we had hit the half marathon mark in 02:04:26, a new PB for Gareth and I. As we crossed this milestone the second of the climbs was upon us, heading out from Beddgelert. As the legs were starting to feel it we opted to walk this hill, although when I say walk it is more of a march so as to minimise the impact on our time. With this hill out the way from mile 15 to 22 the course undulated along the road heading Waunfawr. During this section we were experiencing the support of the local people, with kids and adults shouting their support and offering high fives. This really kept us motivated, particularly as my choice of zero drop shoes may have been a step to far. My arches were starting to suffer and with the balls of my feet getting sore maintaining the proper gait was getting harder and harder and I kept dropping to my heels which was causing further pain.
My problems were not going to get any easier as we hit mile 22 and the last (and biggest) climb of the race. After 22 miles the last thing you want to see is a climb going from 116 meters to 376 meters in just under 3 miles. This was punishing, there is no other word for it and we were not alone as other runners were suffering as well. We passed people who were struggling with injuries, trying to stretch out their legs and one runner who was throwing up (possibly the dodgy stomach that can come from too much carb gels). This 3 miles of pain was taking its toll and the decent into Llanberis was no better. Dropping from 376 meters to back under 116 meters in about 1 mile just destroys any remaining strength in the legs.
With the balls of my feet in agony and literally no strength in my arches it was a struggle to carry on but with the finish almost there I thought I was over the worst of it, I was wrong. With the finish now in sight both calf muscles cramped up and I literally couldn’t move. This is the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced, Gareth who had carried on about 10 yards turned back and asked what was happening, I said cramp and for him to carry on. Gareth wasn’t having any of that and said we are going to finish it together, so I did the best to stretch and started running, both legs still cramping as I ran to get over the line.
Crossing that line was the greatest feeling in the world, we had done the marathon despite the aches and pains and set a much better time that we anticipated. What topped it off was seeing my wife and kids waiting for me and giving them a hug just made the day even better.
Would I recommend it?
In a word, yes. The organisation is great, the atmosphere fantastic and the route amazing. I myself am a trail runner at heart but this is one road marathon that I can see me doing again. If you have done a marathon in the past and are looking for a road marathon with amazing views and something a bit different (read significant climbs) then this is for you. It is a run that everyone should add to their bucket list.
Now that I am able to concentrate on anything for more than 30 seconds (more explanation will follow) here is the report of my first Ultra Marathon, the North Downs Way 50 mile.
To try to write about 11+ hours of activity would probably lead to a wall of text and the reader falling asleep, so I will try to keep the text down and break things up with the numerous photos that were captured on the day.
An early start:
After a reasonable nights sleep I woke up at 05:15, having gotten my kit ready the night before it was just a case of having some breakfast and a quick shower. Breakfast consisted of 4 of my home-made flapjacks (recipe will feature in a post following this one) and water.
Gareth, who was my support crew for the day, picked me up at 05:45 to head down to Farnham for the start, the key memory of this journey was Gareth pointing out that it is a long drive and I am going to be running back. Race HQ was at St Polycarps Primary School where I collected my race number, and the race director gave a briefing on the race route, “don’t cross the A24 or you will be disqualified!”
Gareth and I had established a plan for where we would meet as well as what supplies I would need throughout. The race organisers had set up 6 aid stations between Farnham and Knockholt Pound, 2 of which crew were allowed access to, so the plan was that I would meet Gareth at various points throughout the course to resupply, meaning that minimal time would be needed at the official aid stations. Another key advantage of this was that all the sports nutrition I would be using throughout had been tried and tested beforehand.
Farnham to Puttenham – Aid Station 1: 6.8 miles/6.8 miles overall
It was a short walk to the start of the North Downs Way and there was about 15 minutes of waiting around for 07:30, the race start time. It was during this wait that I was really aware of the lack of nerves, comparing it to the Trail Marathon Wales where my nerves were all over the place, here I was remarkably calm. Standing there I had no doubt that I would finish, be it under the 13 and a half hour cut off or not, I was going to finish.
The anticipation was starting to build and following a 10 second countdown the wait was over and we were off. I was in the middle of the pack and I was distinctly aware of the pace, having to really focus on keeping it steady. Throughout all my reading on the subject of Ultra’s I had come across numerous bits of advice and one was ringing in my head “start slow, then go slower”. Not allowing the pack to dictate my pace I slowed down and let people past, it wasn’t a race against anyone else, the challenge was to complete the course and to do this I would stick to my race plan as best I could, a 12hr 15min finish time.
The first 6.8 miles from Farnham to Puttenham was wonderfully flat and the route pretty straight forward. For the most part I had other runners around me, but eventually all our differing race plans meant the field was spreading out.
The Puttenham aid station stop was brief, I grabbed a cup of water and a couple of small cupcakes and was off again.
Puttenham to St Marthas Hill – Aid Station 2: 5.7 miles/12.5 miles overall
So far so good, I was plodding along under my planned pace of 13:30/mi and feeling good. It was getting warmer and this part of the route was pretty exposed, but I wasn’t overly concerned as I knew the latter parts of the Way were under tree cover.
This part of the course was pretty uneventful, I just kept monitoring my pace, keeping an eye on the route ahead and ‘feeling’ out for any hotspots on my feet.
Hitting aid station 2 about 2 hours 18 minutes into the race I met up with Gareth, who after getting a couple of photos commented on how hard this crewing malarkey was.
First order of things to do was get my hydration bladder full, I had already pre-prepared bottles of electrolytes the night before so leaving my pack on Gareth poured it into the pack (In hindsight this was a mistake, see why later on). I filled my bottle with a 4-1 Carb-Protein mix, grabbed some more gels and was off again, I would be seeing Gareth again at the top of Box Hill.
St Marthas Hill to Box Hill – Aid Station 3: 11.5 miles/24 miles overall
Now starting to get into the swing of things properly it was time for the longest stretch between aid stations, 11.5 miles overall. The Way was starting to get a few more hills, which meant the views were only getting better.
As you can see from the photo above the views were stunning and these really helped keep me motivated, the sand however not so much. Along the route there was increasing sections were the path was sandy and this just sapped the strength from the legs, not to mention getting into my shoes.
With only a couple of clouds in the sky the sun was starting to beat down and I was increasing the amount I was drinking. I was feeling good and enjoying myself, I was well on my own by now so I had my music going in one ear and was singing to myself (god help anyone who witnessed that). Things were progressing well, then I hit a snag which fortunately did not impact me as significantly as it could have.
About three miles from the Box Hill aid station my hydration pack ran out of fluid, it seemed that filling it up on my back had resulted in the bladder only appearing full when the reality was that it must have only been about half full. This was a mistake that could have cost me dearly if it wasn’t for the bottle I was carrying and while the 4-1 mix wasn’t ideal to drink on its own, it got me to the Box Hill aid station where I could grab a quick glug of water.
Box Hill to Reigate Hill – Aid Station 4: 7 miles/31 miles overall
I didn’t spend too much time at this station as I was meeting Gareth at the top, crossing the stepping-stones with due care it was time to climb up to the summit (anyone who has been to Box Hill will know what a pleasant stroll up that is!!)
I had rung Gareth before starting the climb to detail what I needed and I opted to put a fresh pair of socks on as well. The climb was expected, (horrible) but I got up there eventually. Gareth ever the motivator asked me what had taken so long, I think my response was of the 4 letter variety.
Fresh socks donned, I was off again and having done this section of the North Downs Way several times I was aware of what I was on for. The route would now be in the shade with tree cover for the most part (a good thing) and more hilly (a bad thing).
Having now done a Marathon and being only just over half way I was feeling the strain on my body, from now on it was unknown territory. So far my nutrition plan was working and I hadn’t had any stomach discomfort, my feet were sore but no blisters. My legs were feeling it and every hill was a real struggle, with every downhill a pleasure to be savoured (albeit briefly)
Reaching Reigate Hill felt like an age, but I was still under my projected race plan.
Gareth had fetched me a bottle of Coke and a Mars bar which lifted my spirits no end. My Garmin’s battery had started to run out, but I had planned for this and using a Duracel pocket charger, a Hilly Gel armband and the base unit for my Garmin 305 fashioned a booster pack that fitted to my arm and would go on to charge my Garmin for the full 11 hours.
Reigate Hill to Caterham – Aid Station 5: 7 miles/38 miles overall
Another part of the North Downs Way that I had already done previous, leaving Reigate hill 31 miles in I was now really feeling sore. I had popped a couple of Ibuprofen to try to keep the inflammation down and ease the soreness but this 7 miles was hard going. The negative feelings were washing over me and as from the photos above I was finding it hard to concentrate, getting confused very easily. I was relying more and more on my map and the tape that the Centurion running team had put out at various locations to mark the route.
I would find myself running along, coming to a junction and standing there totally confused where to go next. The caffeine from the Coke had helped somewhat but it was getting steadily worse, despite this I kept on. It was here that I went wrong on the route, missing a clearly marked sign-post for the North Downs Way and carrying on, only to have realise what I had done and run back up the hill I had just run down, adding about a mile onto my journey.
Towards the end of this stretch I started to feel better in my legs and my pace was starting to return, although the confusion was still there.
I met Gareth just before the Caterham aid station, replenished and set off again.
Caterham to Botley Hill – Aid Station 6: 5 miles/43 miles overall
Leaving the Caterham aid station I was feeling better, I had begun to pick up my average pace and was running stronger again. I would see runners in the distance and slowly close on them, my average pace being quicker than theirs. Despite me not considering it a competition against anyone, it was still a boost when I eventually passed someone.
This was a short section overall and almost passed without incident, I managed to take another wrong turning but the impact wasn’t as significant as the previous. I also passed a women who said well done and that I was looking strong (take compliments when you can get them)
Botley Hill to Kockholt Pound – Finish Line: 7 miles/50 miles overall
Once I got to Botley Hill aid station I knew I was going to do it, I was going to finish. I passed through this aid station quickly as I was going to meet Gareth a bit further up the road.
Picking up the last of my nutrition and refilling the hydration pack for the last time I set off, to the sound of Gareth telling me to do this last 6 miles in an hour and come in at 11 hours overall. I tried my best to do this, I really did but despite the mind being willing the legs were not. The challenge of the hour really fell apart when again I missed a marker and took a wrong turn, adding another half a mile on. I turned back, found my way and caught and passed the women who I had already passed not 15 minutes before.
My 50 miles actually clocked over while I was still 1.68 miles from the end, so the vision of the mile counter tripping over as I crossed the finish line wasn’t to be.
How did I feel crossing the line? I would like to say elated, full of tears, but the reality was I was so tired I just sort of stood there. My wife and kids were at the finish waiting for me and this filled me with pride, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that I was dumbstruck
My time (according to the Centurion Website) had me at 11:19:44 placing 58 out of 92. My actual distance was 51.61 miles, so possibly without the errors I could have placed a little higher but it wouldn’t have been significant. For my first ever Ultra I am very pleased with this result and it gives me something to work on.
It was a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish, an experience that I will never forget, but one that I want to repeat. I will be signing up for the 50 again next year.
A few thank yous are needed: Thanks Gareth for an excellent job of crewing, I can imagine it was a bit tedious sitting around for 12 hours and without your ‘motivational’ support it would have been a much, much tougher day.
Thanks Centurion Running for putting on such an excellent event and thanks to all the volunteers who manned the aid stations, without you there wouldn’t be a race.
Thanks to all my family and friends for the kind messages, they really helped keep me going and gave me the self belief to finish.
Lastly, the biggest thanks of all, goes to my wife for supporting me this last year, all the times I came back with a new rucksack, trainers or some other piece of kit, for tolerating me going out for 3-5 hours on a Saturday to run, and for giving me two wonderful boys who are my inspiration for trying to better myself.
Just a quick update, I will do a full race report with all the photos tomorrow or Monday.
My immediate feeling after the run are this; extremely happy and absolutely shattered. My time for the run was 11:20:36 and it clocked in at just under 52 miles as I went wrong a couple of times. I am not going to type anymore as constructing sentences is too much hard work for my brain.
My previous post was a brief preview on the Pen Y Fan race and what it entailed, now its done and dusted how did it go and what are my thoughts?
Arriving at the race start the weather was appearing to be in our favour and although there was a substantial amount of low cloud the rain was holding off. Heading over to the registration tent we queued for our race numbers, collecting mine (176) it was also reconfirmed that due to the variable weather conditions all runners were required to carry the mandatory kit; full windproof body cover, compass, whistle and map all in a rucksack or bumbag. Having sold my Inov8 bumbag and not wanting to use my Salomon S-Lab because it’s not waterproof I opted to use my OMM Ultra 15 which might be a bit large size wise but I had taken out the foam padding and compressed it right down.
With the 11am start looming I was contemplating my objectives for the race. Last year I completed the run in 1:05:38 which considering it was my first proper fell race wasn’t too bad, but given the record time of 00:30:00 not a winning time and in I finished second to last in 2011. Given how the weather had been I was preparing myself to being slower, remembering how punishing the climb was and how difficult the descent would be.
Trying not to dwell on the prospect of finishing worse than last time I waited for the race briefing to be completed and for the starter to kick things off. At 11:05 we were off and immediately the lead runners were off at a pace I can only dream about. I on the other hand was plodding along, Gareth had a good start and was a head of me and increasing his lead. I fell into the pack and ran until the climb started getting steeper and fast walking was the more efficient method of progressing. Eventually crossing the stile the real climb began and the sweat was pouring off me. Gareth had now opened even more gap and I was moving as quickly as I could but keeping pace with those in front of me, with some conciliation taken from the fact that I wasn’t last and had a few people behind me.
I am not going to lie, I found the whole uphill section hard going, despite all the running I have been doing the relentless uphill just took the strength of my legs. The year before in preparation we had been on the treadmill with 10kg in a backpack and the incline ramped up, this year I had done none of that and it was showing. I hit the summit in 00:43:06, 16 seconds slower than last year.
Already I was slower and I still had the descent to come, which I had already anticipated being slower than last year. Running towards the cairn and following the marshalls instructions to drop to the left I hit the downhill. As you will be able to see from the hill profile at the bottom of the post this descent is steep. With no path to speak of it’s just trying to find a route down on the grass as quickly and safely as possible. I can’t recall how many times I slipped over onto my bum, each time thinking to myself “don’t break your ankle!”. One guy decided that trying to descend on his feet was too much and slid about 50 meters on his bum, overtaking about 4 people as he went. He got up find and carried on, but this is not a technique I was going to adopt.
I continued down, aware that I needed to make up time on the climb but knowing there was only so much I could do. Not being a seasoned fell runner I simply didn’t have the experience or the bravery to go any faster than I did. Eventually it leveled out and it was then a case of navigating through the boggy grass back onto the route we took up. Continuing down I was finally able to break out some speed (you will see on the pacing chart) and actually did some running!! It was here that I managed to re-take some of my lost places on the descent and passed about 3 people on the final sprint finish.
Surprisingly I had finished the race in 01:01:55, about 3 minutes 30 seconds quicker which I was utterly surprised at. The descent had been done in about 18 minutes which rather than the 22 minutes the year before.
As an Event
As an event the whole thing is great, from the simplicity of signing up on the Brecon Fans website (link at the bottom of the post) to the value for money (who can argue with £4.00). Organisation is really good and the people are all very friendly. I was most pleased with the return of the beer and flapjack at the end of the race. I would say if you are looking to add a fell race to your calendar then this one is a must.
So what have I learnt?
First and foremost, I need to train on the descents. I just can’t seem to go as quickly as the other runners, I know I am not going to be as quick as the top end runners (9 minutes anyone!) but if I could shave 4-5 minutes off I would be pleased. Part of me thinks the shoe choice could play a part, but that must only a small one at that, it has to be mainly in technique and confidence.
If anyone who reads this post has any suggestions, training or technique then feel free to leave a comment as the advice will be most appreciated.
For those that saw my post yesterday you will probably already be aware that my overall impressions of the event were positive. I guess I should begin on the Friday evening, after a long journey to Wales from London.
The Build Up:
Arriving at Coed y Brenin Visitor centre at around 19:00ish myself and Gareth (designated driver and running the TMW Half Marathon) went in to collect our goody bags and race numbers, the goody bags were particularly nice with a decent pair of Salomon S-Lab socks, T-Shirt as well a Shotz Gel and Gel bottle (and some brochures etc).
When I collected my number I was told that the Marathon route had required a change due to the weather conditions over the past week and that we would be told more at the race briefing. This news didn’t make much difference to me as I hadn’t had an opportunity to run any of the route at this point, although for anyone that had been lucky enough to recci the route this news may have caused them some concern.
A restless night followed with the nerves starting to build up.
Arriving at the Coed y Brenin visitors centre the nerves were really starting to take hold, which wasn’t helped by seeing the calibre of runners that were turning up. I tried to maintain focus, telling myself that I wasn’t racing anyone and the challenge was the route and the distance but its unavoidable not to think about where I may place, would I even finish….. The mental battle had already begun and the race hadn’t even started.
At 08:45 we received a race briefing which explained why the route had been changed in more detail. The day before the organisers had been on the route checking out how it was fairing under the huge amount of rain that the area had been seeing over the last week and unfortunately a section of the planned route was now ankle deep bog and it was deemed that in order for all participants to be safe the route would be changed. We would now be following more of the half marathon route, splitting off around mile 11 before rejoining it again at mile.
With the briefing over it the marathoners moved forward to the start line, I was now starting to need the toilet but the queue for the loos was too long and so I decided to try and hold out for a bit. The organisers started playing the Final Countdown to get everyone ready for the race start and with a gunshot we were off. As this was my first marathon I had given myself a conservative estimate of 12min mile (which is also the pace for the Ultra) and opted to stick to this rather than set off too fast and regret it later on.
Within about 15 minutes I had to stop for a toilet break, moving over to the bushes at the side I did the deed (which went on FOREVER as person after person passed me), then feeling more comfortable I set off again, now a lot nearer the back than when I started.
The first 4 miles went with no problems, an easy uphill followed by a nice long downhill. However something was becoming apparent, I was being eaten alive by midges. The little bugs were swarming over anyone who had exposed skin and had neglected to (as I had) use repellent. This was a minor annoyance which I just had to get used to and fortunately there was plenty to keep me occupied, with the stunning views all around me.
The downhill lead to the inevitable uphill, which reduced me to a brisk walk, some respite was found in the short downhill at mile 6 but this was countered with another sharp uphill. My training had involved getting on the North Downs and tackling some of the steeper climbs around there so I was prepared for the hills, but there were a few which really took it out of me. Following the half marathon route for the first 11 miles I tackled the off camber section, which despite being downhill slowed me down due to the muddy, slippery terrain. It was here that the first of the half marathon runners started to pass, powering down the track at a frightening pace (how they do it I don’t know!) and not wanting to cost anyone there race I moved to the side to allow them to pass. Also on the half marathon route was a section labelled as “technical” which I thoroughly enjoyed. I can’t remember exactly what distance it occurred, but it was around the 8-10 mile mark (and later around 16-18) I think and was a nice section of proper trail which was through the forest, undulating uphill and downhill but overall downhill. Without thinking my pace quickened, I tend to really enjoy these types of trail as I loose myself in the flow. It was funny as it reminded me of being on my BMX back when I was a lot younger, flowing on the half pipe just letting myself feel the flow rather than thinking about it. Even though I was starting to feel tired this moment of forgetting everything and just enjoying the run was a great boost to my motivation, it was a shame that it didn’t continue longer.
At mile 11 the half marathon course and marathon course split and I continued onwards, and unfortunately upwards for one of the more depressing sections (in my mind anyway) which was a long hard packed gravel road on a gentle uphill. This section seemed to go on forever, in reality it was only about 3 miles, mentally it was quite draining given the previous sections I had encountered. I found myself thinking “when will I get on the trail again” over and over again. It did end, with a very muddy path leading into a field where the gradient increased and the going got slower, feeling mentally drained by the time I hit the aid station at 16 miles.
Things improved as the next section, about 2 miles, was a downhill which then re-joined the half marathon course. The previous uphill’s and downhill’s returned (along with the technical section) up until I ended up at the same split at mile 11, however this time turning left to complete the rest of the half marathon course. This was at mile 25 and I was thinking that it would all soon be over, my body was starting to really protest and every step was an effort, the race organisers had different ideas.
What I saw in front of me made my heart sink, a “sting in the tail” was ahead with a sharp ascent of about 110 meters over about a mile and a half. This was like a kick in the stomach and it sapped every ounce of energy I had left, but I got to the top and despite the protests of my legs started to run again. In the distance I saw a figure with a camera shouting smile, which I did. I then realised it was Gareth who shouted that I was nearly there, and started to run alongside me. Realising that it was nearly over I picked up the pace, repeating the words “finish strong” in my head.
Crossing the line in 05:19:00 I had completed my first marathon race, I was passed a coaster and water bottle and I stood and waited for Gareth (who had stopped running as his legs were not happy after cooling down from the half marathon)
And to put into perspective on the toughness of this marathon, the London Marathon has a total climb of approximately 157 meters, the TMW came up as around 1022 meters (or 1234 meters depending on “smoothing” being set to Default or None respectively)
Would I do it again?
Oh yes!! In fact as soon as I see the email go out saying entries are open I will be signing myself up for it. It is a fantastic event, for the first ever event the organisation was superb and even with the course change the route markers were clear with only a couple causing any confusion and there were Marshalls at these anyway. If you have the opportunity to add another Marathon into your race calendar, then make sure it’s the Trail Marathon Wales 2013, a big thanks to Matt, the marshall’s and the rest of his team who put together such an amazing event.
I would also like to add that the support from the general public was amazing, people who were watching were shouting positive things, kids who were out watching were supportive (which was great to see). Walkers and mountain bikers who were doing there own thing would shout encouragements, overall it was a great environment to be in
Lastly a top tip, book your accommodation early, it will go fast! We stayed at Heulwen Guest House (http://www.heulwen.co.uk/), a lovely place to stay at a great price.