Slaying the Welsh Dragon – Snowdon Trail Mountain Running Challenge (Ultra)
It’s the week before the Snowdon Trail Mountain Running Challenge (Ultra) and I’m dreading it. I have been looking forward to this like a kid in a sweet shop for months but the weather gods have decided I should be miserable …
How dare you presume to be fit for such a challenge. You shall suffer heavy rain and 45mph winds for your insolence.
And it wasn’t just the run I was dreading, I had chosen to camp on the Friday night and didn’t really fancy trying to put up a tent in 50mph winds. I even went as far as testing out my car boot space at home and decided if necessary I could sleep there if needed so at least that fear was allayed somewhat.
As the race drew closer though, the outlook started to improve and it looked like we would only have to endure severe winds for the first couple of hours or so then it would drop down to a manageable 25mph.
Following an awful 7 hour car journey (compared to 4 hours on the Sunday), that only just saw me registered in time, Friday night delivered on its promise and I settled down to a night of relentless battering and zero sleep … not exactly ideal preparation!
This did provide the silver lining that I was awake in plenty of time for my pre-race prep so I nonetheless arrived at the start line relaxed and surprisingly energised.
Race direction announced a couple of route changes but we were still going to the summit of Snowdon and that is really the only thing that mattered to me (it was the only reason I chose the ultra distance) and with no further ado we all assembled at the start and awaited our fate for the next 7 to 13 hours depending on ability.
And yes I was again looking forward to this … I learned my lessons from Scafell, I’ve trained well, I’m ready both mentally and physically, bring it on …
… and we’re off!
Since the Scafell Sky Race I’ve run a couple of marathons and twice run a local route called The McWilliams Round which is perfect training at equal distance and about 2250m ascent. I’m not afraid of the distance – I’ve done it more than once and whilst I know I am likely to have problems with cramp I reckon the increased ascent will slow me down and probably reduce the issue compared to my training runs. But I also know hydration is important and I always struggle with food so energy could be an issue, especially given my lack of sleep.
I used Mountain Fuel at Scafell and several times since and it works for me, I’ll be OK for energy providing I don’t run out of Mountain Fuel so I started loaded with 3 litres of this plus powder to mix another 3 litres. In the end I only filled up with another 1 litre at a checkpoint but I did not run out during my run yet still arrived at the finish line empty … I basically could not have judged it any better. I ate half a banana at CP1 but that made me feel nauseous and at the bottom of Snowdon I tried to eat a sandwich but one bite told me that was a bad idea so I took a gel instead and called it on the food.
What other lessons did I learn from Scafell?
The main one was probably to develop my quads more … I worked hard on climbing but I didn’t really train for steep descents before Scafell and I suffered badly as a result so my modified lunchtime training took in a short but steep descent, I ran it countless times and I ran it at all sorts of different paces and that too paid off. I came off the top of Snowdon straight into a fast run (everything’s relative) down to the Ranger’s Station – my core complained bitterly but my legs did a great job and I kept up with the group I was in at the time and waltzed past a group of marathon distancers that had now rejoined our route.
Taking an elevation of 70m as a reference point (that’s the elevation of the Ranger’s Station) it took me 1:35 to ascend Snowdon and 49:56 to drop back down – almost 50% quicker. I compared as best I could against a 500m ascent/descent at Scafell and the difference was about 35%. That’s a win in my book.
It wasn’t all great though – I suffered from quite bad cramp climbing Snowdon. Twice I tried to plant my foot and my calf muscle said NO bringing me to an immediate halt balancing precariously on my poles with my weight on one foot trying to ease my other heel down. As the path got steeper this really slowed me down as I had to pick my way carefully, ensuring my foot was flat and well planted before I dared transfer my weight onto it, often having to haul myself up with my hands. Patience paid off though and I reached the top without any further issues.
Which brings me onto poles, the other significant difference between Scafell and Snowdon. I did have my poles before Scafell but didn’t take them because I hadn’t trained effectively with them and wasn’t even convinced I liked them. When I trained for Snowdon though I made sure I gave them a proper go and used them on both McWilliams Rounds plus one other training run and what a benefit I got. Not just on the climbs … they provide stability on rough flat ground and allow marked drops and jumps to be taken in my stride. And on one occasion in the Cheviots I discovered that they are excellent for hurdling startled snakes although apparently they don’t stop me from screaming! It was a very manly scream though 🤣.
I must confess to attracting one “watch your sticks mate” … that’s not acceptable so I need to work on that. That is in fact one thing I whinged about someone else doing at Scafell so I’m really quite embarrassed about that.
What about the race itself?
Well, it is a brutal route and there are some amazing views and even early on you round a corner and a huge vista opens up in front of you of a slate quarry … it’s not natural beauty but it was nonetheless breathtaking. As the route wends round we start taking in some proper elevation and the views are amazing … until you get above the clouds of course … it is late September after all. If you want views from the top you might want to pick a different race. The winds were strong at the top, especially Y Garn and one particularly well equipped runner (mountain rescue perhaps) reported there were 56mph winds.
The route played with my mind a bit – I knew what lay ahead but I personally found it tough that the route takes you right back to near sea level before each climb, Scafell was much more traverse/ridge oriented and I found that easier to reconcile mentally.
The ascent to Snowdon was via the Watkin Path and guess what? That path has the largest height gain!
The top of Snowdon was funny … there were hordes of people and I’ve never been glared at as much as I was when I dared to go near the trig point without queueing. I went close enough for my own satisfaction then rejoined with other runners to tackle the next stage. A fast descent down, we were forced to run by the railway line as it was just too busy to make any progress on the main path but that provided an extremely runnable descent and there was no time for a breather. Someone up ahead seemed to know where they were going and I ran for a long time without seeing a single bit of tape but it fitted with the map route and was definitely in the right direction so I was happy to go with the flow.
And boy did that flow flow … a huge drop in elevation on a path that also seemed to go on forever and oddly seemed longer going down that it did when we had to come right back up the same path. By the time we turned perhaps I’d got it out of my system by accusing the marshal of gratuitous cruelty 🤣 (good-natured of course) and that turn at the last checkpoint also hailed the homeward stretch.
The final climb had three false summits and each one revealed a significant drop in elevation before regrouping. That was mentally hard too, especially so near the end. Summit that one though and it genuinely is downhill all the way, although that run in seemed to go on forever. That’s part of the problem with long routes, what looks like a short distance to the next turn on my running watch is still a couple of kilometres.
Did I say I had no further problems with cramp? Well that may not quite be true! I’m not competitive on runs like this, I have my own time targets but I wouldn’t dig in to pass another runner just for the sake of it … I would however dig in to NOT be passed by another runner, and there was one runner in particular that I had spent most of the race close to. I’d spoken to her early on and several times throughout and she consistently proved faster than me on the flat and downhills but I was stronger on the climbs. We had repeatedly passed each other on the way round and as we crested the final hill she wasn’t far behind me with a long descent to come … hmm!
So with no margin for taking it easy, off I went asking my muscles to just grind it out. We gained an understanding, my muscles knew what to do and they were OK with that …
… run downhill, easy …
… and there it is – the finish line …
… all I have to do is go round that post and a wee stint back up the field …
… the crowd and marshals are clapping me in like they did for everybody else …
… wait …
… what? …
… you want me to run on a flat bit now? …
For the third time I simply cannot put my heel down. The crowd stop clapping and there’s an awkward silence. Someone shouts to keep going and “the line is just there” but I don’t move, I know this will clear quickly and once it does, I will be able to run again – that’s the quickest way over that line. Sure enough it clears in seconds and I get going again …
… the crowd start clapping again …
… round the post, just got to do that wee bit up the field …
… WHAT? …
… you want me to run UPHILL now? …
I stop again … 2m short of the line. I’ve run 52km and I’m incapacitated 2m short of the line … I could literally fall over it from here.
The crowd has stopped clapping again and this time I am tempted to hobble over but no … after what I have just done I declare to the finish line marshals and photographer that “I am going to run across that bloody line”. I actually back up a bit to take my final run and this time I make it, with the crowd cheering and clapping me over 🤣.
GET IN!!! I’m officially an Ultra Runner now.
I must congratulate the photographer on capturing the somewhat unflattering moment that cramp struck.
I finished in 9:27:59. 34th place overall and 5th in the veterans category (all veterans not just V45). 89 runners officially finished out of 169 entries but I’m not sure how many started – I’d guess around 150. Runners were coming in for a very long time after the official cut-off of 6:30. Last one was 7:50 and it was pitch black by then.
Towards the end of the race, lots of the “marathoners” were saying “I don’t know how you ultra guys do it” – well I used to be a half-marathoner thinking exactly the same thing … I originally started this off-road malarkey with a 14km/550m trail run and now look at me … 3 ultras under my belt and none of them exactly flat.
Final thoughts go to the organisers – Trail Events Co …
Great race. Loved the route, superbly marked throughout and the marshals were fantastic, they couldn’t do enough for you at each checkpoint. The atmosphere was great too … everyone around was chatting, checking stopped runners were OK and encouraging from start to finish.
EVERY runner that finished got a medal even if they didn’t get an official time and I think that is great – I hate finish line time-outs – the race directors can’t leave till everybody is home safely so unless they actually need to be fetched off the mountain there is no reason to not give them a medal.
One shouldn’t have favourites but CP4, the Welsh Dragons, did a fabulous job getting everyone prepped and buoyed up for Watkins Path and the mighty Snowdon summit. Thanks ladies ;).
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