Snowdonia Trail Marathon race report by James Norton

23 July 2017. Snowdonia Trail Marathon.

It was all Paul Stuart’s fault.

It was Paul who told a new runner all about the ‘Marathon Eryri’, (Snowdonia road marathon), the beautiful scenery and tremendous support from locals. Said new runner thought why not and gave it a go. On our return he then mentioned “the other Snowdonia Marathon….”

He told of a harrowing course of anywhere between 26 and 29 miles that rather than merely circumnavigating the Snowdon range actually ascended the top, where summer weather can mean heat or horizontal ice, an utterly awful and unforgiving race he’d never dare run again, finishing with,

“You should do it James…”

So I did.

The event includes a full marathon, a half and a 10k, all of which are off road. Entrants this year totalled 2000 from 40 different countries. The routes include terrain that is increasingly difficult as the distance increases but the overall gradient is steepest on the half, (the full having about 6000ft ascent, the half: 4000ft and the 10k; 1400ft). The half is definitely a race I would recommend as the Snowdon ascent is more runnable, it also has a glorious sting in the tail as on descending you pass the Start/Finish and go back up the other side of the valley… Good times… 😉

I actually entered in 2016 but running went out the window with various stuff happening, so I dropped to the half, but seeing Steve Clark and my old school friend Martin Usher finish the full marathon broken men (and Tom McCart deliriously insisting on a second lap when he finished…) …perversely made me want to give it a go this year.

Running was still sparse by January but leading the Couch to 5k course had improved my form and efficiency and I managed Tigger Tor; narrowly missing out on the delight of beating Phil Howson with only the loss of two toe nails in exchange. By the end of February, I’d managed to get out the door regularly three times a week and started building up.

I picked up a place pacing the Sheffield Half at 2:20:00 and did my first 15 mile run the week before. With a target time of 6 hours for the marathon, I knew I had to get comfortable running steadily for long distance and lengthy duration so had nothing in mind but slow sustainable pace on long runs.

I built from there running 30+ miles per week, then 40+ then 50+ as the months passed. I peaked at 59miles per week and a 24mile / 3000ft long run. By June I knew I was pushing my body close to its limit and so booked in for a pre-emptive physio check with Kim Baxter (who I can’t recommend enough) and we agreed a rest week, plus a final push and a two week taper. #Restweek rewarded me with a good Round Sheffield Run time. In the last few weeks I also introduced more structured hill and interval work. Most of the training was off road and where possible in the Peaks.

I approached race day with as much analysis and research as I could, quizzing Steve and Martin for info and looking at race blogs and research on cramp, (which plagues many STM runners). I’d booked my dad and I a nice place to stay with Rob Davies, Sam Brentnall (a Totley AC friend, entered for the half) and a Smiley Pacer or two who unfortunately had to both pull out. So we’d all kept in touch and managed a few training runs together which was helpful to discuss tactics.

Fuelled by a mild vegetable curry the night before, made by Sam’s partner Rebekah, full of great complex carbohydrates and our various pre-race breakfasts (for me: green tea, beans on toast and fruit juice all eaten before 6:30 a.m.), we arrived at the “event village”. We were just in time for the 8:45 briefing; having taken a postal registration option on entry. Weather was clear and with a chance of light cloud closer to the summit. Start/Finish facilities were pretty reasonable and only modest toilet queues. I did manage to hear most of the briefing through the portaloo wall but this can more be blamed on my pre-race frequency of toilet trips than the organisation. By then Rob and I had met up with Matt Gibson and his heel blister and Tom McCart who was down with his parents who were both doing the half. Sam was delayed but kept his later 9:30 start after a bad breakfast choice and consequent ‘issues’… We unfortunately didn’t meet up with Strider Adam Parkin, largely because I hadn’t been bothered to check who else was doing the half… …I understand he had a lovely time…

I split the race mentally into three sections about six miles each plus the ascent and descent. The first would be familiar to any Peak District fell runner with about 1000ft of ascent over mixed terrain of farm track, rocky paths and boggy moorland interspersed with rocky outcrops. I tried to keep steady but was hampered by people walking from early on, I also understand that further back in the field there were long delays at stiles and some infuriating queue jumping. I think starting nearer the front would have been a better choice; even if a bit more pacey, I would have been better able to relax.

The next five or six miles were easier, undulating and downhill on trails and I fell into an easy (but was faster than I’d planned) < 9min/mile pace. After the relentless energy sapping bogs my knees were already complaining a little; a cause for concern as this was not something I’d experienced on training runs. (I suspect that my legs had thought that my 2 week taper meant the previous 4 months of hammering was finally over…).

The third section was harder. Although broadly downhill, there were some proper ‘undulations’ and the terrain was more technical with many walking these parts even though I’d moved up through the field. I’d had a couple of gels by then and been drinking well from my water supply but this period gave me my first wobble. I was worried that I’d gone too fast as I was on for 3:00 to the start of the big ascent (20-30mins ahead of target). Also the stop/start of the trickier bits threw my rhythm and concentration and I started to fray a bit and had to stop for a wee and to gather myself and stare at my legs silently begging their forgiveness. I promised my protesting limbs a sodium and caffeine gel and a painkiller at mile 15 and they seemed to be O.K. with that, so we pressed on.

As I gradually passed people walking again and then begrudgingly accepted that I was walking not just because they were in my way but that it was too hard and too steep, I realised I was at the start of the Snowdon ascent at a time of 2:55… I went for the Lidl malt loaf that the slower pace would let me digest, (Soreen has some iffy friends I’ve recently found out…) and started to dream about the pure clean water and orange slices awaiting me at the mile 19 feed station, (as I’d run out of water by then). There were many feed / water stations along route and depending on the runner / pace you could complete without carrying water/fuel.

The views were stunning and I could see the summit ahead and started easily passing people. At 19 I restocked my water and took a salt tablet and can report that the much fantasised orange was every bit as lovely as I’d dreamed. The legs had been distracted by the slower pace and orange and I thought best not to mention the next bit to them. I felt good and the distance training was paying benefits as I steadily passed 20 people or so on the way up.

The ascent up the Pyg Track is difficult walking terrain never mind running. Wherever it was runnable I broke into a light bouncy stride, switching back to walking but trying to keep a constant effort level, working and breathing hard on the walking. Some sections require a bit of scrambling but that added interest and distracted my calves and knees from the bitterness they were now no doubt harbouring towards me. After my first mile ascending I felt good and just kept pushing on and passing people.

By this time the winner Callum Rowlinson of Sale Harriers was coming into Llanberis closely followed by Sheffield housewife’s choice and running shoe shop proprietor Steve Franklin… As the weather was nice I decided to let them have it this year and resisted the urge to sprint the last two miles and 2000ft to the highest point where the Llanberis path joins, (just short of the Snowdon summit).

After another mile, the ridge was visible again and I felt relatively fresh and very positive knowing that if I took care I would be well under even my stretch target if I could reach the top and descend without mishap.

Changing pace and form at the top to descend the Llanberis Path was hard and the initial steepness brutal on my legs who I had not yet told about the ill-defined course distance… But as the incline slackened the legs and I were in good enough shape to keep a relatively light agile step, choosing the bigger boulders and flags to the side of the more trodden, gravelly tourist path. I understand some were less fortunate and there was evidence of some grizzly bloody tumbles by the end of the day.

As the remaining miles passed though, I made the mistake of counting down fractions of miles to 26.2, despite knowing it could be actually in excess of 27. I started to worry that my legs would see through my deceit and just give up at any moment. As we came off the Llanberis Path onto a steep tarmac descent, (missing the woodland section of earlier years), they were starting to get suspicious, and I had to slow and sit back on my heels and lost a couple of places. The thought that the legs had no concept (or care) of how close (or not…) we were to the finish kept replaying in my head. We got to the Royal Victoria Hotel and actually started heading away from the sounds of the Start/Finish field (with no idea whether it was going to be another half mile or another two miles) and I was starting to wobble again. I ground to a halt at 26.1 miles and the legs and I had another internal domestic while a couple of people passed us. In the end we concluded that irrespective of our differences, it was in all our interests to just finish now.

So we did.

At mile 26.8, I attacked the table full of custard creams, bourbons, orange slices, water and jelly tots with the same grim determination I had approached the ascent, pausing only to stop my watch at just under 5 and a half hours; 87th (chip time) out of 660 finishers (and 20+ DNF). I’d smashed every time expectation I had but just needed to refuel and be immobile for a little while.

Sam, Rebekah and my dad met me and we had a bit of a chat with Sam’s club mate, the aforementioned Steve. I tried to keep my mouth from gaping and giggling like a school girl too much when we discussed our respective times, I mean, he didn’t win either to be fair so we were essentially in the same chasing pack…

In that group of people who also didn’t win the Snowdonia Trail Marathon was Rob, “I only did it for the slate coaster…  …what do you mean there’s no slate coater?” Davies, Matt “I’m a beaten man, that was brutal 7.18. NEVER again” Gibson, and Thomas McCart, who may well go for the hat-trick next year.

I’ve not told the legs yet but to do better next time I’ll need overlapping periods of intense fell hill training along with the high mileage. With the demands that will place and so rest periods required I would imagine a 6-7 month program. I also think that much of the wobbles are related to sugar rushes and crashes and may experiment with carbohydrate powder in a drink to reduce the insulin swings.

I’ve entered for 2018 as soon as it opened as has ‘never again’ Gibson and Rob despite the lack of coaster… The only issue is whether to have a go at the Ultra they’ve introduced for 2018….

Race was won by Calum Rowlinson in 3:51:42, and ladies race won by Jo Meek in 4:10:36

Half was won by Elliot Cox in 01:52:57 and Emma Clayton 02:15:44 first lady.

In the 10k, first was Sam Roberts 00:41:49 and Katie Lloyd 00:57:03 first lady.

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