Snowdonia Marathon’s reputation as one of the most challenging road events in the UK running calendar is well earned. But with the benefit of a few days’ distance, I have concluded that the real challenge would be to find another running-centred weekend to match it!
The list of things that could have gone wrong is endless: We drove to the extreme NW of the Welsh mainland with a feverish two-year-old human and an arthritic fourteen year old pointer. The weather forecast was for heavy rain throughout and our accommodation consisted of a two-bedroom cabin with no central heating. On the running front, the two (crucial) last months or so of my training hadn’t gone well, so I was split between trying to translate my flat marathon PB to a target time for Snowdonia, and abandoning any attempt to race and plod along it instead…
And then we reached Wales and everything magically fell in place!
The road to our accommodation outside Caernarfon took us down from Pen y Pass to Llanberis, a twisting three mile (5 km) stretch of road that in the race would constitute the first of the three hills. Even driving downhill on that road, Demi and I couldn’t help but just laugh at the incline, the beauty, but also the fact that it just went on, and on, and on… Downhill. In a car!
That seemed to provide the reality check I needed… It whet my appetite for the race (and no, it was not going to be a plod!), but at the same time liberated me from any obsession on finish time… I, a notorious pre-race worrier and race-pace calculator, finally achieved calm!
Unusually for such events, the marathon is held on a Saturday (I understand that it was changed from a Sunday years ago, to allow participants and spectators the day to travel back), and we spent the rest of Thursday and Friday pretty much as planned: scouting the pub we had booked for our post-race dinner on Saturday night (the Black Boy Inn in Caernarfon – highly recommended as both a pub and a restaurant: They also do rooms, but I don’t know what they are like, collecting my race number, doing a reccie of Llanberis (the village where the race starts and ends) and sorting out our family logistics for race day. Most importantly of all though, and I cannot stress how crucial this was: We got home early in the afternoon on the eve of the race, and I spent the rest of the day resting, lounging about and cooking our pasta dinner!
The truth is that I did our little cabin a disservice earlier: True, there was no central heating, but that was more than adequately compensated by the abundance of electric heaters which kept us cozy and the autumn chill out. It was on a holiday park and built on a slope, so the views were lovely, and it was equipped with everything we needed for the weekend. It also had two bedrooms, which meant we could still move around and cook after Philip went to bed. In the circumstances, and given the rural nature of the race, I much preferred it to an apartment or a sterile hotel room! It was also dog-friendly, which is always a huge plus!
And so the big day dawned: It was still raining, but in a steady, easy fashion which was a relief after the downpour of the past days. Llanberis seemed completely taken over by runners and their support crews, and it must have been the friendliest and chattiest pre-race crowd I have come across (and that’s saying something)! I bumped into Mike and Nick from Huncote Harriers between portaloo visits (the romance!), and spent some time talking to two other runners, one of whom was running his 15th Snowdonia, and 35th marathon overall!
The start is a five minute gentle walk from the south-east edge of the village, and made sure I was to the back of the crowd that headed there: I wanted to complete my pre-race preparation at leisure, and had no intention of starting at the front, among a speedy bunch who would either pull me to a faster pace than I should set off at, or would just vanish in the distance over the first mile: My ideal start (and I think I achieved this to a great extent) was three quarters from the front, starting easy, locking into a sustainable effort and gradually moving up the field, while maintaining – as far as the geography permitted – that effort level.
While it was my first time on that route, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: The race profile is as iconic as the race itself and gives a pretty good idea of what it’s all about. More importantly, experienced Snowdonia runners had been extremely generous with their advice to us newbies the weeks and months before the event. I paid attention to every word spoken and written on social media, and by combining all I had learned I had decided to split the race as follows:
- Start to mile 2 (0-3.2km): fairly flat, use it as a warm up and to lock into the right level of effort.
- Miles 2 to 4.5 (Pen y Pass climb) (3.2-7.2 km): the first big hill: take it easy, try to keep running, but don’t do anything to ruin your race. Lots of way to go still!
- Miles 4.5 to 7 (7.2-11.3km): the first big downhill, most of it off-road. Recover from the hill, let yourself run freely to make up for time lost going up, but don’t ruin your quads by pushing!
- Miles 7 to 13 (11.3-20.9km): generally downhill, but with numerous undulations. Goal here is to get to Mile 13 ready for hill number 2!
- Miles 13 to 15 (Climb from Beddgelert) (20.9-24.2km): Second hill, probably the hardest mentally, as it’s past the half way point, but still too far from the finish. Also it’s the easiest-looking on the map, so easy to underestimate. General feedback was that this can make or break your race. My goal was to keep a steady effort up it, but if I had to choose, I’d ease off rather than push too hard.
- Miles 15 to 21.5 (24.2 to 34.6km): Recovery time! Generally downhill, but deep in the race. Prime objective was to get to Mile 22 in the best condition I possibly could, not too fatigued or in too much pain.
- Miles 21.5 to 24.5 (Climb to Bwlch y groes) (34.6 – 39.4km): This was going to be the hardest part of the race: the steepest, longest hill at the worst possible point! Objective here was to not die, and to run as much of it as I could.
- Miles 24.5 to 26.2 (off-road descent to Llanberis) (39.4 – 42.2 km): Notorious for being steep, slippery and an agony for the quads even (especially) when it returned to tarmac! My plan here was to run down as fast as I could without breaking any limbs in order to recover some of the time I’d lose on the last hill. Ha!
While I had freed myself from the tyranny of chasing a target time, my rendezvous with Demi and Philip at the finished was based on a finish time of 4h 10′ to 4h 30′, so I had a very rough idea of the time envelope I expected to come in.
The race started as planned: I crossed the start line three and a bit minutes after gun time and I spent the whole first section admiring the majestic scenery, getting into the moment and connecting with runners around me. There was a guy having a pee by an electricity sub-station, which drew some puzzled looks and led me to wonder whether he was after a shot of energy!
Passed Llyn Peris (one of many lakes we’d run next to) we entered the village of Nant Peris: there were people outside every house cheering, shouting and banging pots and pans together – the support throughout the race was amazing: Yes, there were long spells spent running on empty road, but even then all drivers, kayakers and walkers shouted out to us; and when we hit a village, it seemed that everyone was lining the streets making as much noise as they could, and offering high fives and jelly beans! And after a few minutes of taking all that in, off we would go along the next stunningly beautiful stretch of road.
So it was that we left Nant Peris, reached the head of the valley and started climbing Llanberis Pass. This was going to be the first real test, so I made sure I kept in a low gear, making short strides, using arms and keeping the effort easy: The scenery here was probably the most dramatically beautiful of the whole course: Running next to a river which flowed between two steep mountain faces; waterfalls and stone bridges adding to the scenery, everything in steel greys and khaki browns: and through it all a long thin line of all hi-viz colours in the rainbow winding its way up.
I was pleased with my running, stealing glances at my watch only to confirm distance (are we nearly at the top yet!?) and heart rate zone: it was holding to the top of zone 2 and that was exactly how I felt. I was still easing my way through the field and was pleased with my decision to start at the back: There was no congestion, but it eased me into the race and closing up to runners ahead kept my spirits high.
There were two other runners keeping at a similar pace as me, a lady from Whitchurch Whippets (if memory serves) and a gentleman with a 100 Marathon Club vest on. We traded places a few times as the road climbed and turned, but somewhere past half way I saw them both begin to gently pull away from me: I felt a pang of regret there, thinking that I should be keeping up with them as we had been running so closely for so long. I soothed myself with the usual platitudes, that it was still early days, that each one of us was running his / her own race and I’m glad I did: I found the last half mile of the climb beginning to test me, so to have tried to go faster would have been a mistake: Besides, the 100 marathon guy was walking when I passed him a quarter of a mile from the top, and I went past the Whippet lady just after the summit.
The views from Pen y Pass really were all they are made out to be, especially as the rain had stopped and clouds were lifting! I caught up with Julie just past the crest and we had a little chat on the way down towards the gate that would take us off the tarmac and onto the Roman Road which was the first trail section. The transition to downhill was welcome, but I was keeping it free and not making any effort to go fast. Hitting the trail in well worn road shoes (my loyal Escalantes had passed their 1,200th mile (2000th km) well before I lined up at the start that day) was a bit more of a shock, but I stayed on my feet and kept running in a nice, easy flow.
It was worth looking over my right shoulder towards Pen y Pass to see the multicoloured line of runners making their way up to the crest and down again: The views in all directions were absolutely spectacular! The trail promptly descends into woods and comes to an end by Llyn Gwynant in a short, sharp uphill which gets you back on the tarmac, before continuing downhill at an easier angle. On the way down I ran for a while with Wendy, who had made an amazing recovery from a very bad trail running accident a few months ago and was back in fine form, powering through a race none of us who were with her on the day of her accident thought she would be in a position to run!
The stretch to Beddgelert and the second hill was lost in the beauty of the surroundings: I was running with my new action camera, so I attracted some comment from runners and spectators which helped the conversation flow. I’m still learning how to use it effectively when running, but I managed to take some clips from our passage through Beddgelert:
As expected, the second hill wasn’t as long or as steep as the first, but by then we already had a half marathon on our legs so it didn’t feel any easier, and I think this is the trap it lays: you still have half of the race ahead, with the hardest parts to come, and the hill tires you more than you think it should. Physically I felt the incline on my calves and achilles, but I found the mental drain a greater challenge, and in fact my first difficult moment came just after that second hill, and next to a beautiful railway line.
The route had evened out, but I could feel myself getting tired. A familiar voice whispered in my ear: “this is not good… you are still on mile 16 (25th km) and are beginning to struggle… and you remember what the last 10 miles (16 km) of a marathon feel like, don’t you?” I am glad I had done my homework and split the race in the way I did, because I was able to counter that there weren’t 10 miles to go, but merely 5.5 miles (9km) to the foot of hill 3. And my job at that point was not to keep to any pace, not even to finish the race, but merely to get to that hill in the best possible state I could. I relaxed into that thought, made sure I maintained a level of effort that allowed me to recover from the hill just gone and began to feel better. Then as my muscles engaged in level running and began to feel the strain, I felt that the mile 22 (35th km) and the final hill couldn’t come soon enough!
And then it did… It starts as a quarter mile / half km climb up to Y Waunfawr which you immediately notice, but which I felt was hard yet doable in a low gear and with patience. Then the course takes a turn to the right towards Groeslon-waun and feels like it keeps getting steeper, and steeper and steeper… I am afraid I let out numerous expletives as I tried to keep running (if you can call it that!) up an increasingly unforgiving hill, till in the end (about half way up? but that’s a guess), I gave up and took a walking break. Most people around me had changed to a run-walk as well, and it was funny to see someone run past you as you were walking up, then slow to a walk a few yards ahead; then you’d get into a run, get past them and the process would reverse.
The road surface kept deteriorating, till it became a trail full of puddles and rocks. Finally the flags of the final hydration station at Bwlch y groes came into view and I felt a sense of immense relief: Finally, the last b@stard hill was over and all we had to deal with was a perilous, yes, but downhill nonetheless into Llanberis, right?
Wrong! Bwlch y groes is a false summit, so you have the joy of another kilometer / 0.6 of a mile of uphill trail to the real summit at 24.5 miles (39.5km). And then the pain starts!
Remember the final 2 miles / 3km which I had planned to run down as fast as the surface would allow me, to make up time? Well, I was bang on for a four hour finish at the summit, which felt a great position to be in – surely I could shave a second or so off my pace on the downhill to shore it up?
Not a chance! The running surface was a choice between slippery mud, flowing mud and grass – which looked like the obvious choice to run on, but that was just a trap! I saw a lady runner ahead of me fall twice; a few more slipped but kept their balance, and then I joined the party: I was slipping and sliding all over the place, fell on my backside once, slowed to a walk, slipped, tried to run again, fell on my backside a second time and then just concentrated on making it to the end of the mud with no injury!
The wind carried the muffled voice of the finish line announcer and the cries of the crowd when I was a mile / 1.6 km away and – despite it all – it started feeling like a party again! Back on firm ground I picked the pace up, and was running freely again. I remembered the words of one of the Snowdonia veterans I had spoken to who had warned of bad quad pains at this point, and wondered what they were on about: I did a self-check and, true enough, my quads were on fire, but it was bearable so in the enthusiasm of the final miles it hadn’t even registered!
The megaphone voices were getting louder now. With half a mile (800m) to go I reached into the pocket of my hydration pack and pulled out a small Greek flag I had for some reason decided to run with, and held it up as the first houses appeared. We all picked up the pace upon entering the Llanberis, and then it was just a right turn, then a left, then I heard Demi’s voice calling me as I approached the last right-hander; she gave me a high five on the bend and I broke into a sprint for the last 200m to the line!
I’ve finished marathons in the shade of the Colosseum and in the magnificent Panathinaiko stadium in Athens, but in my memory the narrow, short stretch of Llanberis High Street is as beautiful a marathon finish as I could ever hope to experience! Unfortunately I did not capture the finish on camera (I know!), so it will have to live in my memory…
Upon crossing the finish line I was wrapped in a foil blanket and given a commemorative water bottle in Snowdonia Marathon Eryri’s colours; but most precious of all, a piece of slate from the mountains of North Wales: A tough trade I thought, after all the mountains hacked a bigger piece off me… For the record my time was 4h 3′ 11”.
Surprisingly I was still able to walk, so I dropped my stuff in the car, wrapped up with something warm (I was beginning to feel quite cold) and headed over to the massage tent where a burly Welsh guy made sure that the few parts that weren’t hurting yet did, and then for a wonderful hot shower before joining Demi and Philip for a cup of tea and cake!
I loved how everything – car park, massage, showers (although these could have been better signposted) cafes – were close to the finish line. And I think I needed that space by myself to let things settle and to compose myself physically and emotionally before joining my family.
This was only the second of my three marathons in 2019, but I suppose it was “The Big One”. This is taking nothing away from Prague or Athens, each of which have their own beauties and challenges, but Snowdonia was the one I entered precisely because doing so scared me, and because I needed to feel that sense of fear in anticipation of the marathon, as well as the physical challenge during the race.
Just to have the right to stand on that starting line, I had to re-invent my marathon training plan, ride the mental and physical fatigue of training for another marathon just after Prague and try to string together every hill in flat Leicestershire in an attempt to simulate the challenges of the course.
And just like that it was done. For all its difficulty, I feel the route profile really helped me mentally, as it naturally broke the race down in smaller sections, each with its own characteristics, demands, purpose… Physically too, I think I preferred my quads and hamstrings / calves taking it in turn to bear the grunt of the course, rather than using the same muscle groups evenly throughout a flat course. Yes, it’s harder and slower than a flat big city event, but at the same time it’s somehow easier too…
As I came out of the showers, mud and baked salt washed off my face, I felt a quiet, gentle feeling of pride come over me: I had faced Snowdonia marathon, given it my best and wasn’t found wanting. I thought about the other Huncote Harriers I knew to have run it, this year and in the past, and felt a sense of genuine privilege to have joined their ranks. A privilege I earned, I like to think, but a privilege nonetheless!
But even that achievement wasn’t enough to keep my wife from exchanging passionate kisses with younger, more handsome men in the pub afterwards!
And here is the compulsory Relive video: