UTS 100km – the race that almost was
UTS (Ultra Trail Snowdonia) 2020 was postponed, hung in the balance, reduced in size and, with a week to go, cancelled. I was gutted, but almost certainly less so than the race director who had done everything he could to salvage something for the race this year.
I was all trained, tapered and ready to go. My dad was expecting me and it wasn’t breaking any rules, so I went anyway. My plan was to split the 100km route into two days so that I would neither miss two nights of sleep nor trash my body to quite the same extent. I was fortunate in that my Itera-teammate Chloe was on hand to help with road support and to join me on a couple of legs.
The route is a figure of 8, crossing over at Pen Y Pass, so I started there instead of the real start in Capel Curig, and set off on the slightly longer and lesser known (to me) part of the route at about 7:30 after a nights’ sleep that resembled a pre-race one. There was immediate faffing with shoelaces, taking photos of the already incredible views and going slightly off route. The ‘red spot’ path was easy to lose! Eventually I was on track and summited Glyder Fawr alone before descending the scree slope to Y Garn, having a natter with a very chatty lady and heading to a much busier Ogwen.
The day was hot and I was pouring in sweat as I went up to the gap near Tryfan and I knew I was way off schedule already. I still had to stop and admire the goats showing off though. I managed a trot down the other side and I felt like a celebrity as I found Chloe waiting with the chair out, dry robe ready to keep me warm, water, snack replenishment and a sandwich all ready to go! After a rapid turnaround we set off together up Pen yr Ole Wen.
I was grateful someone else was finding the way and knew where we were going as this bit was largely new to me. The views coming across the ridge to Pen yr Helgi Du were amazing, and to top it off we found a group of wild Carneddau ponies as we descended. They were totally unconcerned by our presence. At the bottom I was pleased to see that leg had been done to target time, waved goodbye to Chloe and set off on what ought to be an easy loop with little climbing.
A few minutes in and I found my Camelbak was empty and I had only a 500ml bottle of water. Hmm. The sun bore down and my motivation flagged. The Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir was beautiful but the path was rocky and I was thirsty! I was missing Chloe’s company and feeling sluggish. I refilled a bottle at a stream that was ‘probably OK’ and again at a flowing bit in a bog that was ‘bit brown, but probably OK’ and again at a fast clear river that ‘looked clean but was low down, probably OK’.
The run through the forest was awesome and I remembered someone saying how good this part would be at the end of the race. Unfortunately, just as I reached what looked like civilisation, I was faced with another hill! Torture! This whole section was a mental test that took significantly longer than planned and after analysis, was still an outlier compared to other sections. I feel I need to come back and check it wasn’t just due to terrain but also to some element of heat exhaustion / dehydration.
Eventually I jogged into Capel Curig where Chloe and a food bag of rehydrated Vegetable Chipotle Chilli with Rice were waiting for me 🙂 I charged up my watch a bit, got my lights sorted, ate and gathered myself for Moel Siabod. Chloe was despatched to the YHA to see if she could check me in and to confirm what latest arrival time would be. I was confident of the next part having done a lot of it before. My tummy was warm and I felt good again as darkness fell and it got cooler. Although I wouldn’t make it back to the YHA by 10, I thought surely I would make it to the last road crossing in plenty of time for Chloe to pick me up and shuttle me there if needed.
I hiked up Moel Siabod at speed. As the light faded, the stars and a thin crescent moon lit the way. I delayed putting my torch on and was just getting used to being out in the dusk. At that moment I put my foot firmly on what I thought was a nice solid white stone in the bog. Like something out of a horror movie, it sunk into a decomposing dead sheep and I screamed 😮 Balance restored, light on, I made it to the top and texted Chloe. She said hostel open until 11 but I was not checked in – should she see me there or the road? An extra hour should be plenty, but I said road ‘just in case’.
It was tricky to find the right direction off the top and I was getting cold from standing around. Soon enough though I was flying down a lovely grassy ridge path. This was amazing running! I would be there in no time. Shortly after, I got to a tighter part of the ridge and the path had disappeared. I was working my way along when a shape loomed out of the dark. I swore and then realised it was someone in army gear, followed by two more, creeping about in the dark with no lights. ‘’I didn’t expect to see anyone up here” I said … and got no reply. Had I just blown their cover?! Maybe the mouse I’d seen earlier had been just as shocked by my own presence.
The next section was interminable as I picked my way down rocky outcrops interspersed with boggy bits. The distance was more than I expected, the whole thing was taking forever and there was no phone signal. I had to deploy mental energy to keep moving in the right direction and not panic as time slipped through my fingers. Eventually I got to a bridleway that I knew, but it was harder to run down than I remembered or imagined! I finally got to the road to find Chloe at about 2240 … wow. She’d been worried, but thankfully had spotted my light bobbing down the hill some time earlier. We flew up to the YHA, checked in, filled a dehydrated dinner and dessert bag with hot water and I was left in my room.
I sat on the floor, peeling off clothes interspersed with forcing down mouthfuls of dinner. I didn’t really feel like it, but thought it was important to eat. Due to being covered in suncream and salt I decided to also shower and dry myself on a spare buff. Good move. Into bed just after midnight and I couldn’t sleep as my tummy staged a revolt … still not sure if this was a result of dinner, dodgy water or just over exertion!
After a few hours kip I forced myself out of bed and ordered a breakfast roll. It was a bit dry, but needed and washed down with a cup of tea. I stepped out of the door 15 minutes later than planned and immediately decided to put a waterproof on after all.
First ascent was Y Lliwedd – I have done this the other way a couple of times in recent years. Going up was OK and just needed confidence in scrambling up when the path temporarily disappeared. Along the ridge I think it was easier route finding in this direction, but the wind was blowing and the rain was persistent. It might have helped that the fog hid some of the worst drop offs as it was harder to see what was coming up and how high up I was! I made it off and texted Chloe and some friends who’d been enquiring after day 1 (no reception at the hostel!).
Again, stopping made me get cold very quickly so I set off doing something that might even have resembled running and was soon passing lots of little groups heading upwards looking warm and toasty in short sleeves … Eventually I was taking off a layer as well, as I ran through Nant Gwynant and on to the path round Llyn Dinas. This was one of the longest running sections so far! I was greeted by the crazy dogs, Chloe and dad at the end of the Llyn with unexpected snacks and encouragement. I also put in an order for coke and crisps at the next stop!
Up a small hill and down through old copper workings, the landscape here was quite different and interesting. I was warned about slippery rocks by a chap who we’d talked to at Capel Curig the previous day but had completely forgotten me! Dad met me coming up for a quick wave and Chloe also came out and ran along the fisherman’s path into Beddgelert. The soles of my feet were getting sore by now and my running was distinctly slow.
After a refuel we headed up the steep and wild slopes of Moel Hebog, with Chloe coming along and the dogs tugging at their leads and getting impatient. At the next bwlch they diverted back to warm up and I carried on alone, not seeing anyone else on the hills all the way to the finish. This was also a section I had done the other way a couple of times and I think was also slightly easier this way. However, despite having upgraded to a heavier weight waterproof I was getting distinctly chilly and eventually decided to put on my spare baselayer. Very unusual for me! It made an instant difference though and I was glad of it as I slowed right down going over the ridge of Mynydd Drws-y-coed. I slid a lot of this on my bum as the rocks were very slippery and I wanted to stay alive…
I could see my dad and Chloe parked up far below, and was feeling significantly better than I had at the start of this leg, including my feet. I bounced down the hill and was met with more crisps and an apple. My dad wanted me to call it day and finish the last bit the next day, but I knew I would definitely not want to start again then and I also wanted to complete the challenge now!
I sensed he was worried, but I was determined to push on. There was a bit of extra pressure as he would now be picking me up from the finish and didn’t want to be out driving too late. I went clipping up the Rhyd Ddu path on Snowdon with confidence, munching on my new supplies and arranging some on-the-go watch charging. As darkness fell and I ascended, I remembered with dismay that fog and headtorches do not mix. Hm, what to do? I carried on for a while, searching out the worn rocks of the path and moving ever upwards. However, I was soon tripping over stuff and still had a way to go. I had to solve this problem.
I fished out my backup torch and held it low at arm’s length. If the angle was right, this gave me 2-3m of usable light, which was a significant improvement. I managed to wedge it in my belt and felt like I had some sort of groin laser, twisting my hips from side to side to scan for the path as needed! There is a short ridge section near the top, where again I had to always remind myself that this was a very popular path and the ‘right’ way would also be smooth worn rock with no grass.
There was no queue for the summit of Snowdon 😉 , so I popped to the top and then started my way down. Texting my dad before losing signal again I gave a shortest and longest estimated time and then paid attention to finding the turn-off.
The route down was on the Pyg track which I have not done recently, but again is a well-used route. I expected this to be easy to follow … but on sections where natural rock outcropped it was easy to lose the path. I could be just 1 or 2 metres from it and not able to see it. I started paying close attention to staying on the worn rock again, sweeping a few metres either side when I strayed from the path. I felt panic rising as I stood on a particularly large slab having no idea where the path had gone to. The added pressure of getting down within the time bounds I had set when people would start worrying did not help. It was moments like these I had to push down the negative emotions and find clear thought and logic to get back on route and not wander off down a boulder field.
Soon enough the stretches of clear path got longer and then I could see the youth hostel and carpark lights. Unfortunately they were a very long way off and the distance didn’t seem to be narrowing at any speed! This descent was not as breezy as I might have anticipated, but I made it back to the car with 4 mins to spare to my latest arrival time ..phew!
Back home my feet screamed in pleasure as I took my shoes and socks off. I downed a milkshake and fell into bed, where my feet felt like they were on fire whilst my top half shivered! My tummy was fine though…
Despite missing a short section on day 1 I had covered over 100km and 7000m of ascent over some tricky terrain, so I eventually fell asleep tired and satisfied 🙂
I was super pleased with how my body held up – a couple of bruised nails and small blisters plus tired legs for a few days, but little else. I could even go down stairs normally and was not ravenous. I had protected my feet better than when I did a different version of the race two years ago. Significantly, I also ate better, taking advice from the training camp last year to heart! More than once I heard the voice saying ‘you might not want to eat, but can you?’. This was one area I had been able to practice a lot and I was so pleased it paid off. It also seemed what I’d managed to do was adequate for the legs, even if I had not been able to go to the mountains.
I’ve not really raced all year apart from a few virtual club events and have travelled a lot less (i.e. not at all), obviously! It’s been interesting having such an unbroken length of consistent training with no races and thinking about the effect that might have had on both how prepared I was and how much stress my body has been under.
I also learnt plenty for the race – not least that I need to go a lot faster on some of the early race sections if I will make cut offs. Course familiarity, marking and race day adrenaline will help with that but I have earmarked a couple of sections for repeat practice, should I be able to. This should also help my feet get more used to rocky running – the Pentlands are covered in too much grassy heathland!
Can’t quite decide whether I preferred the sun (views, dry rocks, dehydration) or the rain, fog and wind (not too hot, feels more wild, can’t see a thing).
Many thanks to Chloe for all her support with food, water, company, photos and lifts, to my dad for support and lifts and Paul for helping with the maps.
Michael the RD has designed a tough technical course, with awesome views on the right day and plenty of challenges both physical and mental. Fingers and toes crossed we can go ahead for real next June!