Ultra Trail Snowdonia: run report by Daniel Horner

11th May 2024

Not sure what can be said about the Ultra Trail Snowdonia that isn’t captured by the slogan ‘Beautiful beyond belief. Savage beyond reason’. This was my third time doing this race, not sure why but as I grew up in the area, I tend to do a lot of my racing in Eryri (Snowdonia) but after a DNF last year, I felt that I had to come back to prove that the first time wasn’t just beginners luck. I raced the 50K race, but there are also 25K, 100K and 100M distances, all with a ridiculous amount of ascent.

The race itself claims 55km of distance with 3300m of elevation gain, though my watch read 58.27km with 3449m of elevation and that extra bit hurt. Starting from the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, the route goes straight up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) to the Finger Stone using the Llanberis path before heading straight down the Pyg Track to Pen-y-Pass before dropping to the valley floor for the first checkpoint. At this point, I was feeling pretty good, especially as I was catching people in the first wave who supposedly have a higher UTMB index. My tracking app even informed me I was in the top 25% of runners, which is mad considering you’d normally find me pootling along near the back for these kinds of races!

Setting out for the second ascent of Yr Wyddfa was probably when I realised how overconfident I was. By this time, the sun decided to really crank up the heat, and much like last year, it was brutal. My pace dropped off completely by the time I reached the southwest ridge with my (very optimistic) dreams of sub-10 becoming quickly highly unlikely. Despite carrying more water than last year and topping off from a questionably clean stream, I was getting through my water supply at an alarming rate. Hitting the summit, I realised I had barely a few mouthfuls left and my food I planned to keep my salt levels topped up wasn’t going down without drying my mouth to an almost uncomfortable amount. After dodging around what felt like an endless stream of tourists queuing up for the summit picture, I started the descent down Ranger to the second aid station. It was at this point, I found out how shot my legs were already, barely halfway around this immense beast of a route. With my knees creaking, I eventually got down having slipped back about 150 places and going from on track to over an hour and a half behind schedule. I wasn’t happy.

At the aid station, I took the opportunity to top up my water and downed a cup of coke and topped up my suncream, which to make the day go even better, obviously spilled out into a rather compromising and embarrassing location. Red faced and not from the sun, I cleaned myself up and applied the spilled suncream onto skin so I wouldn’t become permanently that colour before setting off.

Climb number 3 is up the smallest mountain in the race, Mynydd Mawr, which directly translates to “Big Mountain”. It’s not often I curse knowing the Welsh language but this day, it filled me with dread. It was also this section last year where I took so long I was timed out after being overtaken by the only other strider in the race, Lee Mills. It starts with a boggy section on a gentle (for the day) climb through a forest so there was some respite from the unrelenting glare of the big yellow thing in the sky, but sadly, the shade only lasted about 5 minutes before being out on a south-facing bugger of a climb. Again, I slowed considerably at this point and I started to worry. Was history going to repeat itself? I couldn’t come away with another DNF from this ridiculously expensive race.

Fortunately, I pushed through to the checkpoint and got there an hour ahead of the cut off. I did it. I beat my best on this new route. I was even still in better shape than the poor lady sat crying in the corner, though I must admit, I was tempted to join her. The aid station was about a marathon in with around 2700m of elevation gain, my body was wrecked, yet I continued on to the next climb.

Throughout the race, I kept telling myself that once I got to the top of the second ascent, it would be easier. Mynydd Mawr is a fair bit smaller than Yr Wyddfa, and Moel Eilio, the last of the major climbs barely 30m higher than that and with the gentlest of slopes to the summit, can’t be that bad… Could it?

After slowly and painfully getting myself through another boggy forest that included a red armchair and a stream crossing (yay, wet feet, I was doing so well with footcare), I rounded a corner onto the main climb and looked up the hill and just… Sat down. Everything hurt, I was pretty much at 50km and this mountain in front of me that I’d fooled myself into thinking it would be a piece of cake just looked… Massive. I think I sat there for about 10 minutes and even called my wife who was at her parents for the weekend (it’s OK, it was her mum’s birthday so she escaped supporting duties!). After some encouragement from quite a lot of people at the party through a very patchy video call, I got myself up and soldiered on. I knew there was no chance of even beating my back up target of 11 hours and 12 was looking less and less likely. I really didn’t want to take longer than 13, so I kept moving. Mostly. Fortunately, it wasn’t just me struggling, a number of people were stopped and sitting down. One bloke was even in the foetal position but refused all offers of help from other runners (limpers?) but fortunately I spotted someone from the race safety team descending towards us so I pointed them to the man down situation. Not long after this, I summitted! Brilliant! Last big climb done, just a chain of three peaks with a little undulation was what I recalled from doing this section in reverse at the start two years ago. With that in mind, I perked up and even started jogging again for the first descent. The uphill for the next peak in the chain wasn’t fast, but it was OK, maybe a little over 30m height gain, literally 1% of what I’d done so far. I got so confident that I messaged my friend who was waiting for me down in Llanberis that I’ll probably be 45 minutes. When I summitted number 2 though, my heart dropped. The final slope looked like a scene from Saving Private Ryan with runners just collapsed on the ground, left, right and centre.

Now, according to Komoot, it’s a 60m climb. Something I wouldn’t normally think twice about. What it actually was, was Sam and Frodo’s last push up Mount Doom. Sadly, I didn’t have a Sam with me. All I had was a couple of energy gels left, a very tired pair of barely functioning legs, and again, maybe a mouthful or two of water. I don’t know how I did it, but I eventually got to the top and it was then a sharp descent onto the path back to Llanberis. I knew this path. It was the first ‘runnable’ section in literally hours, so I did what any person in my situation could do and limped. And then I ran. It started slow, getting myself to jog for a song then walk a song and repeat, all the way back to the road that I sped up so many hours before. And then I really ran.

I don’t know how, but that last mile was the fastest I’d gone throughout the entire race. As I charged through Llanberis to get to the finish, the Lord of the Rings soundtrack serendipitously started playing through my headphones. I ran faster. I was even making my way up the field, passing people who had overtaken me what felt like hours earlier. I was so fast, my friend even missed me as I rounded the last corner after checking my tracking and assumed I’d just be shuffling and taking forever! But disaster! The last bloke ahead of me to overtake suddenly had two young kids come out to join him across the finish. What do I do? Be heartless and overtake? Graciously hang back and let them have a nice family moment?

I knew if I slowed too much, I’d lose all my momentum and crash, but I couldn’t bring myself to pip this guy to the finish, so instead, it was probably worse. I ran in straight behind him and now that family has a weird bloke in a bright orange top awkwardly chasing them in their finish line pictures. What’s even more annoying is that THEY RUINED MY BIG FINISH! There’s not a single good picture of me getting across that line that I was dreaming of for the whole day! Bastards.

As far as I know, I’m the only strider this year and finished in 12:46:54 and was 580th out of 789 finishers with 1056 starting the race. The men’s winner was Brennan Townshend of Keswick AC in a time of 6 hours 1 minute and the women’s winner was Henriette Albon from Norway with a time of 6 hours 39.

Striders result

Daniel Horner 580th place in 12:46:54

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