When I first heard about the Ultra Trail Snowdonia I was immediately tempted. It ticked a few boxes for me. It was in the mountains, a new race, looked like a challenge and started almost on my dad’s doorstep. As I debated how to set up my calendar of major races for this year, I couldn’t let this one go. I went for the ‘short’ version at 50ish miles – I didn’t even qualify for the 100, let alone contemplate entering it!
And so started months of planning and preparation. I’m no stranger to long endurance events, but I’d only done one ultra before – the Tour de Helvellyn last year, which was enough to qualify me for this. I ran a bit more and was consistent, building on what I started last year. I investigated shoes (needed more cushioning for long distance on rocky terrain – plumped for La Sportiva Akashas) and went through several kit iterations trimming a little weight here and there. Although I was going as light as possible, I actually carried all the ‘recommended’ kit as well as the ‘mandatory’. A good example was that I stowed a Primaloft jacket in – I know how cold it can get when you slow down to stop and the weather is bad.
Preparation didn’t stop at kit. I also made my way over to Wales to recce the route, making sure I was carrying full race gear and testing clothing options. First up, section 1 by myself, then meet up with Andy and do section 2. All went well and I was thinking 16 hours might be a good time for the course. Although it was hilly, it was largely runnable. Second trip down and I set up a mini expedition. Running with all the kit and testing out poles, I quickly found I made good use of them on the Snowdon ascent. The next two sections were eye-opening. In the fog and on my own, it took ages just following the line on my gps, up steep slopes and across scrambly ridges. I nearly quit at Beddgelert, but pushed on and found myself running off Cnicht in the dark and fog, head torch useless and blindly following the trail line on my watch. I had never been so glad to fall into the Red Dragon camping pod, get my clean kit on and snuggle under a duvet with a rehydrated meal. The last section the next day was more of the same, with some scary moments on the Y Lliwedd ridge. I revised my time estimates to nearer 20h.
Finally I also wanted a really good map. A few hours with various map software and Photoshop, plus a favour from a friend who could print in colour on A3 waterproof paper and I had a perfectly highlighted route on two very light sheets, 1:25k scale. I wasn’t about to trust a scaled down 1:50k to get me off a hill at night!
In the run up to the race, I got the usual pre-big race type problems. My knee hurt. Work was stressful and I worried I had not slept enough. I got a bug. Actually – a proper virus three weeks out that I thought would be well gone by race day, but in fact I still had a sore throat on the start line …
The night before, I went to bed at 22:00. I tossed and turned for a bit, fell asleep, woke up, and generally attempted to ‘rest’ until the alarm went off at 03:15. I went through my ‘to do’ list and set off with Andy to walk down through the woods to the start in the dawn light.
Section 1 – Llanberis to Waunfawr (Moel Eilio)
Quite uneventful, apart from beautiful sunrise views and my shadow appearing in the perfect circle of a rainbow formed by the mists. I ate plenty and did not get overtaken by hordes of people on the descent. Final run in was chatting with a guy talking about how long he takes to ‘usually’ run 50 miles …
At the feed station, I was half an hour up on my plan, which was concerning and put doubts in my mind. Had I gone out too fast? Also had a bit of faff with my mug, which I resolved to sort out at the next stop!
Section 2 – Waunfawr to Bron-y-fedw-uchaf (Mynydd Mawr)
It was getting hot in the sun and I was slightly stressed as three men ran on my heels full of random chat whilst I was working too hard to stay out of the way … eventually I stopped to let them past. The route was a little different here to what I had recce’d but was obvious enough and we were soon on the steep climb. I worked my way up and was encouraged to eat by another competitor, even though I didn’t feel like it.
On the trickier descent a few people came past, but I was staying calm. Over the road and into the farm for more food. Another 10 minutes faster than plan. Hmm.
Section 3 – Bron-y-fedw-uchaf to Rhyd-Ddu (Snowdon via ranger’s path)
As I set off again, I walked for a while eating. It was warming up now, and I felt a bit dizzy and nauseous when I put an effort in, in a way I hadn’t earlier in the day. I tried to stay calm and steadily worked my way up. I fell in with Geoff from Manchester, who was a welcome distraction. I felt like I was clawing my way up the hill with my poles!
I tried to relax on the descent and stay focussed. There were rocky sections and I stumbled occasionally. I must be getting tired! Here I met an Irish man who I had to ask to repeat almost every sentence! 😀 He had broken his leg at the end of last year and only had it out of plaster in January. Respect.
The next feed station was where I’d meet Andy and dad with my drop bag. They knew from my tracker and a text I’d sent that I was ahead of plan, another 20 minutes, so they were there when I cruised in smiling 1h ahead of schedule.
I had always planned to feed up a bit here as the next leg is the hardest of the race. However, I didn’t really add the planned stop time here into the plan! Not to worry, after a toilet break, couple of bowls of soup and some homemade coconut rice with choc chips and blueberries + reload of snacks and drinks and I was ready to go again. I’d taken half an hour so was still 30 minutes ahead.
Section 4 – Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert (Mynydd Drws-y-coed and Moel Hebog)
The climb out of the village is a killer – super steep. I walked up calmly, leading a few others up the way. At one point we met someone sat down declaring it was too hard and he couldn’t do it. I assured him he could and indeed saw him again much, much later in the race. At the top of here there is a sharp ridge. It was so much more fun and in some ways less scary in the sunshine than it was in fog. I clambered up and over, thinking at this point how much I was loving the race and what a shame it was that we had already done so much 😮
There was some pre-race debate about the technical sections and how difficult they were. I think this is all a matter of perspective and experience. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as easy / nothing dangerous as some did, and if you had a fear of heights or airy drops you’d struggle. On the other hand, if you took your time, all these sections were short and doable and I enjoyed them.
We came down to the bwlch and dropped through the old quarries. There was some confusion as the markers weren’t obvious, but a few others and I knew the way and we were soon round and starting the next ascent. My memory of this section was a little hazy from the recce and now I was finding out why. I must have blanked it from my mind! It went on and on, 2 mini peaks on the way to the beast of Moel Hebog. Now it felt like my poles were the only thing stopping me from falling backwards.
The descent was hard as well, down a zig-zaggy scree-strewn path that taxed tired legs. I was waiting for a water refill at a spring I had found on recce but in the end decided it was so close to the feed station I need not bother. I was pretty thirsty though.
Just as I arrived at the community hall it started raining. My dad was there, trying to take a photo with the camera switched off! Also, why, oh why were the women’s toilets up some stairs?! 😀
My estimated time for this section was always going to be prone to a bit more error, so I was moderately happy to see I was only 15 minutes slower than planned, despite how hard it had felt. I hadn’t intended to stop too long here, but decided I needed more soup, sandwiches and rice. 15 minutes later it had stopped raining and I was ready to go. I was now leaving exactly on schedule, 16:15.
Section 5 – Beddgelert to Nantgwynant (Cnicht)
Somehow the break had seized my legs up and I found it hard to get running again. I felt a bit sick and something was going on in my left eye. I made use of the public toilets before the road section, but still couldn’t decide what I should do about stomach – had I not eaten enough? Drunk enough? Eaten too much too fast?
My eye was still bothering me and I realised the contact lens was not sitting as it should. Dammit, what would Izzy do?! I ran to the final junction hoping for a car with a wing mirror, but there was none. I had 4 options: do nothing and hope it settled, take it out and try and put it back in, take them both out and run with nothing, take it out and replace with a new one (buried deep in my bag somewhere!). I decided to try the second option. I couldn’t tell if it was the right way round and it was sticky and dry. A pair of runners caught me up and Sarah was very good at helping me get it back in again without a mirror. It stung like mad (dirty, salty, suncream fingers?!) but that made my eye water, which helped rehydrate it!
Off we went, at roughly the same pace. I hoped to stay with this pair, but when I stopped to refill my water bottle they got ahead and I just couldn’t close the gap. I still felt so sick and every time I put an effort in I felt dizzy, hot and sweaty again. I had to back off. Another runner gave me two polo mints and some chat up the final push, for which I am very grateful. We diverted the easier way to the summit then over the top into the boggy descent. I recce’d this in the dark and it was much easier in daylight. Despite that, the markers were very sparse (this whole section had been subject to some interference) and I went slightly awry once. Back on the main path and I was descending with increasingly sore blisters.
Someone new came up and I was able to chat a bit to Chris, which was good. Andy bounced up the road to meet us and at that second, one of the blisters burst and it was as if I had been stabbed in the heel with a hot poker. My new friend ran off and I limped into the aid station, where Andy had brought my drop bag out again. It was lucky I had asked them to bring this as it had my glasses in, so I could ditch the lenses. I also peeled off compression socks to apply a couple of blister plasters and tried to eat.
My head went down a bit here, thinking my ‘race’ was over (though I had no intention of stopping). I had taken half an hour longer than planned and was now stuck here for another half hour, treating blisters and close to tears. In reality, I wonder how much my mood dip affected the next leg – after all – my plan had been a ‘best case’ and I wasn’t that far off it.
My dad and Andy exchanged glances as I was determined to set off again but looked terrible (apparently). Several people had come and gone and I was fast slipping backwards through the field. I was really hobbling as I started, but knew from experience the pain would probably ease.
Section 6 – Nantgwynant to Llanberis (Y Lliwedd and Snowdon via Watkin and Miners’ paths)
Again, I was feeling pretty rough. Sections I had run in training I was only managing a walk, and when the path tipped upwards, I couldn’t put an effort in. My legs were fine but the nausea and dizziness kept returning. I allowed myself little micro breaks to stretch out. Even one of my shoulders was getting sore from pole use!
It was now dark and I could see the lights of other runners way, way up on the ridge above me and it felt as if they would never get closer. But eventually they did and soon I was on the scramble. It was good to be distracted and I actually found this OK. Again, we could see the lights of people now far below in the valley and dotted up the hillside as they did their final ascent of Snowdon on the Miner’s path.
The descent to Llyn Llydaw was one of the slowest and most tortuous I have done. The blisters were much more painful going down than up and I no longer trusted my legs to hold me up properly. Little steps looked like looming precipices. However, I was still making forward progress. Ally stayed with me to the end of the techy section, including a part where I may have whimpered, fearing I would slide down a slab of rock and down the mountainside! Finally I got to the easier part of the path and even managed to attempt some sort of run. I had to keep stopping to pee quite excessively though, which was slowing me down!
There was an ‘emergency’ aid station at Llyn Llydaw, where I got a couple of snacks and pushed on. I saw them note down the time. 01:00. Yikes. Next up, 3 drunk teenagers explaining to me how they were going to be the first alcoholics up Snowdon on an impromptu expedition with just their iPhone torches and asking how long it would take, was it this way and was this the steep part? Er no … I wondered if I should be assertive telling them to turn around but decided they would do that for themselves well before they got anywhere near the top. At least it encouraged me into a run to leave them behind!
A few people came past and I really longed for chat and company as I was now suffering from sleep deprivation. However, I just did not have the oomph to keep up and that frustrating dizziness was still there. I had to keep adjusting my zip and hood as I switched rapidly from too hot to too cold.
Finally, the top came and it was just one long run down to the finish. I looked back and couldn’t see anyone close behind. I resolved that no more people would pass me now. Somehow I had a revival, and started running properly. I texted Andy to make sure he’d get to the finish at the right time. The cuckoo woke up and reminded me it was morning again. I blasted through groups of mostly inattentive walkers heading up for the sunrise. I went under the railway, past the halfway house. I stumbled on a rock but saved the fall with my poles. Then it seemed to go on and on and on … I thought I was nearly there?! But I had decided to go for it and go for it I would. The road eventually came, horrendously steep on sore legs, then a trip round the back of the houses and into town.
I ran down the finish chute and fell in a heap …
I did make it in within 24 hours, finally clocking 23:41. However, I had lost over 3h compared to my plan on the last section – a combination of darkness, blisters, sleepiness and probably my mental state. Andy insisted I ate straight away, although I just longed to get my shoes and socks off and lie down. On my way to the toilet I more or less fainted, so my body was definitely having a meltdown!
We woke up dad and he came to collect us, so then I could get into a proper bed and sleep for a few hours…
I did the race a lot slower than I had wanted and was disappointed with my time. I came 99th out of 129 finishers, 166 starters, 191 on entry list – results here. I had put so much effort into planning and preparation, so I felt deflated. On the other hand, I had seen it through to the end and learnt a lot! It was also an incredible and unforgettable experience.
It’s hard to compare this race to others. It’s not just the ascent for the distance (6000m in 89km – strava), but also the ruggedness of the terrain. A few more experienced people were commenting it wasn’t like anything else they’d done, even in the Alps. Also on the positive side, recovery seems to have been pretty good. The blisters are healing fast (they’re not the worst I’ve had!), the soreness was gone by Thursday and I haven’t noticed any ‘injuries’ as yet – even the phantom pre-race knee pain hasn’t made an appearance.
I can’t decide what had the biggest factor on performance, though I suspect I set off at ‘full health’ pace and was affected later by the lingering virus. On top of that though, there are almost certainly a few other things I could change. I’d attach my number on my bag somewhere – it was handy to see timings but it was massive and felt funny on my tummy. Food – I’d take time to ‘cook’ a proper dehydrated meal at one of the feed stations, to fuel up and settle my stomach (I had one but didn’t use it). I probably also need to find a way to eat more on the way. Drink – more water, weaker energy solution, maybe ditch the coke (but never had problems with it before). Blisters – I’d had hot spots before that didn’t turn into anything even after 12+hours. However, 15 or 16 hours in they were causing real trouble, so I should have looked after them sooner. Pacing – undecided on this one! Maybe set off a bit slower. Illness – I’d try and start at 100% health, but this is pretty difficult to control! Photos – I clearly stopped taking these the tireder I was and the darker it got 😀
This was Michael Jones’ / Apex Running first event as race director. There were a few small things I’d change for next year, but on the whole the race was very well organised. I’m ambivalent about race flags as I think people can be too reliant on them, but the course was mostly very well marked. Feed stations had a wide variety of food and didn’t run out – surplus was later donated to charity, which was a nice touch. Volunteers were unfailingly helpful and cheerful, even though some of them must have been in place for 24 hours or more! We got a decent T-shirt, a fantastic Silva dry bag, a buff and a discount at Joe Brown’s shops, which had lots of things you need for a race like this. If I’d been anywhere near them, the prizes even went down to 5th. Finally, the course was nothing if not memorable and certainly a challenge! If you had done your research and knew what you were taking on, it was awesome. Short race video here.
Thanks to everyone involved, from organiser to volunteers, other racers and my supporters. Here’s to next year – I’ve got unfinished business!