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!
Throughout the year, events pop up which catch my eye. I put them in the calendar as a reminder ‘just in case’ I get the opportunity to do one of them! So when we started discussing going to see my dad in November, I noticed ‘Coed y Brenin off-road duathlon‘ pencilled in…
It was decided, the visit planned and the race entered. It was organised by Always Aim High, whose triathlons I had a habit of doing a few years ago. They’ve grown a lot since then. This event was a new one and I thought it might be low key as a result. In fact, it nearly sold out!
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve made the effort to get out on my mountain bike, riding a few tricky trails on the way to work. I usually struggle finding my MTB groove for the winter, but was pleased to discover I was enjoying it straight away! After pondering over the maps in a bit more detail I realised that a lot of the bike course seemed to be on fire roads. I couldn’t decide if this was good as I wouldn’t have to stress about my riding skills, or bad because I would have to rely on some bike fitness and not just skills!
On race morning my tummy was churning with nerves. On the plus side, I had sorted out a rapidly deflating rear tyre just by tightening the valve core! After sorting out kit and racking my bike, the technical officials came over and asked if my handlebars came with the bar ends. No, I added them. Then they pronounced that they were ‘clip ons’, might skewer someone if there was a crash, and therefore not allowed. Panic! I’ve never touched them before, but grabbed my multitool from the seat pack and figured out how to get them off.
I was sure I had read the relevant rule beforehand and thought it didn’t apply. Numbers were being read out on the tannoy calling other offenders. I nipped back up to registration where I’d noticed the rule posted up earlier on. ‘No clip ons (aerobars) allowed, but standard bar ends authorised’. I ran back, queried the ruling, had a discussion and we concluded I could fit them back on again … After all that stress it was basically time to throw off my jacket and line up!
I looked over dressed compared to many athletes, with a long sleeved windproof and a little race pack. However, it kept raining, there was a northerly wind, and I wanted to stay hydrated and fuelled for a 3h race, not just a 9km run. After a friendly chat with a fast looking girl (who turned out to be the eventual winner) we were off; up, up and up! This was my first ever run-bike-run duathlon and I had Andy’s voice in my head telling me not to go too hard on the first run. I tried to keep a steady pace, even as I kept swapping places with the same guy.
There was a techy grassy wet downhill bit where I wished I had on Inov8s instead of Icebugs, a bouncy bridge, and more climbing to a feed station that I ignored, having sipped water all along and taken a gel on a climb. Another muddy rocky descent and then transition appeared sooner than I had expected. I raced in, stuffed down a banana, changed my bag along with my shoes and got out of there.
The bike was mostly straightforward. Annoyingly, one of my bar ends was now at the wrong angle, but I put it out of my mind. One guy elbowed past me on a narrow section at the start but then it was wide fire roads. My friend from the run came by with words of encouragement and onwards we climbed. I did spot a good view or two as well 🙂 . At one point we turned off, rode through some big puddles and up the first ‘technical’ section – a bit narrower and rocky. I enjoyed the power climb!
It was very quiet out on the bike, and I was pleased only a handful of other people came past. I must have hung on to some bike speed after all. The descents were fast and into the headwind; I was glad of that jacket now. I had got off at the entrance to the short section of trail centre singletrack, and as I rode out of it had to stop to straighten my mudguard. At this point a girl came alongside and we chatted a little as we climbed the steepest fireroad. At the top a guy was fumbling with a broken rear mech. She stopped to help and I hesitated, surprised. I thought I was in about 4th and she could have been racing for podium. I’d stop to help someone seriously injured or unwell, but take the view that you should be self sufficient for mechanicals. I pushed on.
Rounding the end of lap 1 and as I munched another banana, I caught someone I’d been drawing in on for a while and was surprised to find it was another girl! So now I thought I might be 3rd. Knowing what was coming up gave me more confidence and I powered away. I enjoyed some of the fast descents, really starting to get used to the bike and riding. I thought there might be issues passing lapped riders or people on the sprint course, but only met a few others.
Coming out of the singletrack, the same girl from before caught me in exactly the same place!! This time she said nothing and pulled away quickly. I kept my cool, rode hard and held the gap. Down the final descents and into another rocky section, I was catching back up. Just before the turn onto the final narrow section I was on her wheel. We were caught behind two slower sprint racers with another guy who had screeched in between us, but we all rode in line until the track widened up into transition. I dismounted and jogged up to my shoes, seeing everyone else walking. I had drunk well on the bike and didn’t need my bag for the final 5.3km run.
As I ran out, I heard announcements over the speakers welcoming back the full course leaders and several sprint racers. My laces were flapping and I paused to try and tuck them back in, decided it was a waste of time and ran on. I thought I had a running advantage over the girl who was near me, but didn’t want to take chances. Behind me I could hear steps and breathing. I was not alone. However, I was determined not to look back. I was going to run strong and fast out of every steep bit. I ate my gel and stayed calm. Someone was right on my shoulder, they were going to pass … but didn’t. Were those footsteps light enough to be a girl’s? I heard a cough and thought it could be … I still didn’t look back. At the feed station they stopped and I ran through. Just one long descent, skip over the stones and roots and run like I had done with someone breathing down my neck the first time. I sensed I had got a gap and I was going to hold it.
The final bend came into sight and we had to sprint up one more incline to the finish arch. Andy had made it back from his trip to a gold mine on time and informed me that I did not look strong and tall at that moment!! Cheeky, but the photos do not lie. I was still not sure of my place, but as we wandered off to the car I was called back to find out I was 3rd overall! Yay … It had indeed been a girl behind me – finishing with an 18s deficit in the end. I felt bad as she may have been on podium if she hadn’t stopped, though that was her decision and I had been able to react when she did come past. Full results here.
After 5 or 6 weeks off, this was a great start to winter racing! Very well organised with super friendly marshals. I’m not used to racing on my own and was glad to exchange a bit of banter with them on the way round! Tasty Welsh Jones Crisps, a Wild Trail bar and a slate coaster on the finish line (I can never have too many coasters). Hot showers and changing at the end, and some more chat with other racers. I was happy spending my Odlo prize voucher on a pair of fancy arm warmers. Even better, we had plenty of time to get back to Caffi Gwynant for a splendid meal, including the most amazing lemon posset …
Roll on the rest of pre-Christmas races – 4 more in the next 5 weeks!
What we did on Saturday:
We wanted to visit my dad at least once this summer. My calendar is always full of ‘potential’ races, most of which I don’t end up doing. However, ‘mysteriously’ we ended up in Wales at my dad’s just when there was a swimming race on at the local lake!
I’ve done an event run by this company before and had been impressed. This time they had three different length swims on offer, with separate classes for wetsuit / non wetsuit. I was keen to do the 10km, maybe without the suit. But eventually I was talked down by both my boyfriend and my coach into doing the 5km with a wetsuit! (I’ll just save that notion for another time 😉 ). Andy decided he would join me in the same race.
We woke up to a pleasant morning and walked down through the woods to the start. Midges had appeared from somewhere and time flew by so fast that I ended up getting changed whilst standing in the toilet queue ..
We scuttled to the lakeside just in time for a briefing that didn’t seem to be happening and jumped in for a warm up. The water was pleasant and exceptionally calm. Just before 9 we got out and waited a bit whilst there was a glitch with the timing system. At this point we got a very brief briefing, then we were all allowed back in the water. It wasn’t exactly clear where the start line was, so I shuffled up to the first buoy and chatted to a young girl doing the 10km with no wetsuit. She was lovely and I hope she did well!
We wondered if the start was really here as there were a lot of people huddled around at the shore still. Suddenly someone shouted ‘attention racers!’ ‘go!!!’. We were off. I quickly got into a rhythm. Round the first lap and still with plenty of people. One of the legs was straight into the sun so the buoy was impossible to see until we were almost there, but I kept following other people. At the end of the second lap we headed for shore to jump out and back in again. A number of racers seemed confused at the last buoy, turning left to go round again instead of into shore. The kayakers were directing them.
I leapt out, resisted the urge to put my goggles up and run off up a mountain, and was straight back in again, heading out across the lake. Suddenly it was a lot quieter in the water as all the people doing the 2.5km race hadn’t got back in. At the end of the third lap I was passing people but couldn’t work out if it was people slowing down or people I was lapping. I got to the last buoy and was ready to turn left – but wait?! Where were we going? The next buoy seemed to have moved! Indeed, I later found out that it had, so I wasn’t just going mad.
Final lap and I thought I should give it everything I’d got. It turned out that was what I was doing anyway as nothing much different happened! I was trying to keep myself conscious of my technique, doing all the things I’ve been working on this summer. I’d felt my timing chip shift just after the start and had been paranoid it was falling off, but tried to ignore it as I kicked. Despite a determination to focus, I found myself drifting off and thinking about the plotline of the gripping audio book I’d finished that evening…
Now I was definitely lapping people as I’d come up on them so fast I’d almost go straight into their feet! Out of the corner of my eye I could see another swimmer going a similar speed to me. We were on our final leg and I decided to push it for racing fun. We merged, though I couldn’t get a look at their face to see if they were a boy or girl! We were side by side, matching each other’s stroke and sprinting for the finish. Now I was concentrating 😀
Suddenly they stopped to look around whilst I kept going. I smashed it into the shore, staying horizontal as long as possible; it’s quicker and in this case made it less likely to shred your feet on the sharp stones! I sprinted under the arch, panting for breath and then recovered in time to shake hands with the man who I’d just beaten 🙂
The online results said I was second and I collected a little slate trophy. Discounting a couple of people who looked like they had switched to the 2.5k, I was 8th overall. Not bad. However, later that night I saw some comments on facebook from a pair of people who had mixed their chips up at the start – one of whom was a girl who had gone 30secs faster than me but was listed under the males! Darn, I was relegated to 3rd (overall unaffected)! I was disappointed at first, but it was still great to be on the podium and in the top 10.
We found out later that some of our friends had been racing too, but we completely failed to see them! Andy got us drinks and excellent cake at the coffee van and we wandered off to meet my dad for lunch.
I book-ended the race with some parkrun tourism, finally getting to do the tough and lumpy Penrhyn course on Saturday, then a run up and down ‘my dad’s mountain’ – Elidir Fawr. 20 minutes faster than last December – swapping frost for fog and wind!
Thanks to the organisers and to Babs Boardwell for doing an amazing job of capturing people’s faces in a swimming race!
That’s my last official event before this year’s Ötillö – stand by for the big one!
The trip down to Wales was quite eventful. I was travelling with Jim, a friend from the Wild Ones (Edinburgh’s outdoor swimming group). As we approached the summit of Shap on the motorway it was snowing hard and we were driving slowly, trying not to become one more of the various cars and vans strewn around the carriageway. Jim remarked he was anxious as it was 40 years since he did his ice driving training and some time since he’d practised in a car park. I was thinking I probably couldn’t have picked my driver much better …
We arrived at our accommodation safely, a cheerful pub with a spacious room and extensive menu. As we settled down in the bar we chatted to some guys who were racing for the first time. Their ‘main man’, an Ironman veteran, had bailed at the last minute. I joked that maybe it was because there wouldn’t be enough sun or perhaps he was worried about his shorts getting muddy … In any case, after I’d given Jim his detailed tutorial, I passed on a few more tips and we left them still cheerfully partaking of beer when we went to bed! 😀
We were so close to the registration area that we shouldn’t have needed to rush in the morning. But what with a slightly more leisurely breakfast than planned, helping Jim with route ideas, needing to get to a remote transition and the new, earlier start times, Lucy and I were almost last to start for the second month in a row.
We dithered about what to wear as it was cold standing around and forecast for rain. We started straight up a hill and Lucy’s running legs had obviously returned. I had to concentrate hard to keep up and felt a bit queasy from eating so much dinner and breakfast. I was also soon boiling and wriggled out of my waterproof as we walked a steep bit.
The hills were shrouded in cloud. As we approached a high point, I spotted a couple of Santas emerging from the mists. Then another, and another! We ran for a while mingled in with all these people in another race, before we struck out to go ‘off piste’.
The map had looked daunting with lots of tightly packed contours. But I was having a surprisingly good time, despite the fact I still didn’t have enough breath to chat. What?! Quite a change from last month! Following Lucy downhill is hard enough at the best of times. The hillside was covered in heather and bracken and her movement reminded me of startled deer bounding away at high speed. I lumbered behind, feeling my ankles go a few times before deciding to take it a ‘bit more slowly’.
We were moving well but kept debating where to go to next. Out of two controls on Lucy’s ‘optional’ list, we went for one and left the other. At the time it seemed a good decision and we came back to transition after just over 2 hours. The route was interesting and I was happy that I had been pushed hard but still had fun!
After a change of tops, still anticipating rain, we set off biking. As soon as we were up on the hill proper, the going got more difficult, with variously mud, rocks and bits steep enough to have us off and walking! Over the top we went and as we flew down the other side I wondered if I should have checked the contours more carefully when I was planning. Maybe the ‘shortest’ route wasn’t the best? We also had a decision to make about control ‘number 9’ – worth plenty of points but a bit stuck out on a limb. After changing our minds twice, we went for it, out along a fast road round the bottom of the hill.
Tom and Chris (eventual winners) flew past us, so we thought it wasn’t a bad choice. Lucy had told me about her extreme lack of sleep in the last few days. As we bowled along there were mutterings of tiredness and we might have passed a coffee place, but we only had £1 on us!
As we turned off road, the mud got stickier and deeper than anything we’d encountered so far, but we were still pedalling. It was not the same story after the control though. My wheels stopped turning as they jammed up. We were pushing heavy reluctant bikes through a mud bath of doom!
We stopped to poke the mud out with a stick and I swiped vainly at my map board to try and see through the smears. I decided we ought to have turned back, lost height and gone by the road. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and now we were committed. I kept hoping it would be better just round the next corner … A kilometre later we finally got to something rideable. Never have puddles been approached with such intention – we needed big splashes to clean some mud off!
Our route choice kept changing as we bumped down a rocky track and then decided to go the long way round via another control and a road climb, rather than retracing our wheel tracks back up the difficult way. And now we were concerned about time. With several high value controls left up on the hill, we had to go up and get them.
I was very relieved to find ourselves on a rideable track, gaining height at speed. We were tempted, so tempted, to go and do an out and back to some more high points on the ridge line. But Lucy’s sane brain got the better of the situation and we pointed our wheels down a wet grassy track, onto some more slidey stuff and eventually out onto a hard packed track we’d run earlier in the day.
The last control wasn’t straightforward to ride in and out of (or to dib without standing in a river), and suddenly we seemed to be very short of time. We hooked up the tow for the last km dash back to the finish and managed to arrive 2.5 minutes late.
Not too bad, but on reflection we could definitely have been slightly smarter in our route choices … one less run control and two more bike controls in a different order perhaps. But it’s a sign of good course planning that the ‘best’ route for us wasn’t immediately obvious. At least we didn’t have any disasters! Plus, the heavy rain never did materialise.
We were good enough to win female pairs, and 10th overall. I was also pleased about how well we were moving … still some challenges to set ourselves if we can combine both smart racing and high speed at the same time 🙂
My pal Jim did brill to finish well inside the top two thirds, with a big smile on his face as well. And this from someone who still finds mountain biking scary and proudly has ’60+’ next to his name! Our friends from the pub seemed to have a harder time of it; looks like they had some ‘issues’ on the bike and only just squeezed in one run control. But if you’re reading this, I hope you still enjoyed yourselves?!
Many thanks to James and all at Open Adventure for putting on the event, James Kirby for photos and Si Enderby for course planning. Time to go and run around in the hills in between eating mince pies 😀
It’s been oh so quiet … Since Itera I have not been doing much. I learnt my lessons after the last expedition race I did (the Terrex in 2010) and this time I wasn’t getting back into anything too quickly. So I spent 3 whole weeks eating, sleeping, pottering to work on my bike and not much else.
When I did my event planning for the year, I thought perhaps I could combine Itera training with iron-distance triathlon training. So I kept my eye on an event near my dad’s house in Llanberis 5 weeks after Itera, which I could enter at the last minute providing I had recovered well and was feeling fit.
As it turns out, I did recover well, and managed a good strong week of training after my 3 weeks of recovery. But the event I had in mind (the Brutal) wasn’t just normal iron-distance; the run had large chunks off road and finished with a run up and down Snowdon with a buddy. To be honest, I didn’t have the motivation to race that hard for that long and face another few weeks of tiredness. I hadn’t done any specific training and was feeling pretty satisfied with the year from a ‘big race’ perspective. I was also starting to feel good again and had my eye on quite a few events for the rest of the year!
So instead I entered the ‘half’. Half the distance, half the laps (I’m not a big fan of laps), half the price and I could run Snowdon at the end by myself. I innocently thought I could just bash this one out, feel good for the rest of the weekend and carry on uninterrupted 🙂 .
On Friday we ended up walking down through the woods to town twice, once to register and once for the briefing and to set up kit in the transition marquee. I managed to get a lift back up the hill twice though, despite my dad’s poorly leg!
The first ‘brutal’ part of the event was the start time. I set off from my dad’s house to pedal down the hill at 05:25. Urgghh! It was still dark and the road was twisty and gravelly. I stayed safe though and had plenty of time to find a space to rack my bike (it was pick your own spot, I went for last rack, second frog from the end) and double check all was still as I left it in the tent. We each had our own chair – very unusual! But this event not only had people out doing the full distance, but also some doing double that again, and not finishing until late on Sunday. OK, I admit, as well as debating between full and half I did also consider the double … but sense got the better of me.
The lake wasn’t cold for the swim, about 16ºC. My main problem was not having worn a wetsuit since my last triathlon on 29th June and having done just three swim sessions since the end of July, 8 weeks before. My arms felt constricted and a bit heavy, but I got on with it. We were confused at the first turn by all the orange buoys – which one was ours?! I swam a bendy line but got back on track. Two laps later and just 2 minutes slower than I had planned I was running across the field into transition.
A quick changeover and I set off on the bike, with Andy cheering. About 200m later I was still feeling a bit weebly wobbly from the swim, was worrying about whether I should have tucked my jersey under my race belt and noticing I could see the lake on my right and thinking I might be able to glimpse long course swimmers. Next thing, I looked up to see I was heading towards the kerb at high speed. There was a wobble, I don’t know exactly what happened, but I knew I was going down. Smash! I catapulted head first onto the pavement. My immediate thought was ‘I’ve hit my head, I’ll have to stop’, immediately followed by things such as: Is my new jersey ripped? Are my shorts OK? I’ve dropped a bar. There’s blood. No broken bones. Lucky I wore gloves else my hand would be full of holes. I’m not unconscious. Is the bike working?
Pretty quickly I was astride my bike, tucking my jersey in (didn’t need that thought distracting me again) and cautiously pedalling along the course, away from transition. My tri bars were a bit askance, but usable. My arm hurt to rest on them, but was bearable. My elbow and knee were bleeding, but moving. There were no holes in my clothes. The brakes and gears were working. I carried on. The next 25 minutes were slightly hesitant. I ate and drank and monitored myself, especially when I saw a few stars. But then I decided, if I’m still doing this, I need to get on with it. I started to watch my speed and keep the power up.
Each lap had a flat bit, a short sharp up and down then a long ride along the beautiful valley from Waunfawr to Beddgelert. Then there followed a long steady climb. As my dad has told me, it was graded for a horse and carriage, so you can ride a lot of it on your tri bars in something other than your lowest gear. Over the top and it’s a fast, twisty descent back to the start. I had to do 2 laps.
At the start of the first long climb I had just caught another girl. I ate a bit and planned to ride past on the climb. But she pulled away!! I lost her somewhere over the descent, but she must have paused as she went round for lap 2, perhaps to pick up a bottle, because she popped out just in front of me again. I came past and opened a gap but then there were traffic lights on red. She caught up and went by on the hill. I decided to just work at my own pace along the valley and keep her in sight. Although the gap between us varied a bit, it was never more than about 100m.
I assumed she would go again on the climb, but I think she had worked harder knowing I was there this time and was perhaps a bit more tired. In fact, the results say we both went faster the second time around! I was holding the distance between us, and then somehow managed to catch her. We exchanged a few amicable words, then I passed and came into transition with a slender 1:20 lead.
The first part of the run was round the lake. It was flat on the first side, then up a steep road and into the woods, with variable gradients and surfaces. Andy jogged next to me for a couple of minutes, which was nice. I was in a lot of pain as I’d had stomach cramps since the end of the swim. Sometimes this happens and I don’t know why. It wasn’t because I’d eaten gels and bars either! I’d had two bananas, a big square of sticky rice cake, a porridge bite, a mouthful of a bread thing and water and Nuun (electrolyte solution). I could hardly stand upright but eventually it eased as I ran along the lake shore. As I slowed to go through a gate I realised I was quite dizzy … I had another porridge bite and then a bit later a gel. I was gasping for water but expected the feed station as we turned off the road.
The girl I had overtaken on the bike caught me up on the road hill. She was looking bouncy and I was dying! I know running is not my forte, so had expected to be caught given how well she climbed on a bike. I had no choice but to let her go. At the feed station I gulped 2 cups of water and 1 of squash and felt better. Running back to the transition field I was actually feeling OK!
To go up on the mountain, we had to carry compulsory kit and pass a medical check. As I ran in, I was asked ‘do you need to see the medic?’ I assumed this meant, ‘are you ready to go up the hill?’. I looked confused and said ‘but don’t I need to get my mountain bag first?’ (as this also got a quick check). Back came the reply ‘you’re bleeding!!’. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. But the blood had mostly dried up by now and I was on a mission. I got my bag and went for my official check. The medic asked me more than once … are you sure you don’t want it treated? … But I said no, it had been like that for 4.5 hours already, it could wait a couple more. I was allowed to go!
On the lower slopes I was sweating profusely and very glad it was an overcast day. Andy appeared again for a bit and gave me some encouraging words. After he had gone, Kev (another racer) caught up with me and very kindly accompanied me to the top. He had done this event last year and could give me pointers on what was coming up and how fast to expect to do it. He also kept me motivated to move when I felt like stopping (as I didn’t want to slow him down) and checked I was alright in woozy moments. I felt a bit sick but also realised that tripping over my feet and the dizziness when I paused were due to lack of food, so I made myself eat some more.
We overtook crowds of tourists, including someone in a onesie. Really? There were cigarette butts on the floor, and Kev remarked he wasn’t sure if he was impressed or horrified. People kept asking me if I was alright and I kept thinking I must look dreadful, until I remembered the blood all over my leg. We didn’t run for long as it got pretty steep and my legs were tired. My calves were also threatening to cramp and I was extremely grateful that I had taken my poles with me! Given how I felt when I stopped using them to eat I definitely know they were helping.
Because you come back the same way you go up, you can see where everyone else is. After we saw the leading lady going down, it took us 6 minutes to get to the top. It was quite cold and wet, as the cloud and fog were heavy. I told Kev to go down at his own pace. I know my descending isn’t great. I wasn’t giving up though, as visions of being caught in the Coniston race played on my mind and Andy had told me off earlier and said not to settle for ‘third is OK’. 3 minutes after I’d turned, I saw the next lady going up. We said hello, and I wondered how much faster going down was than up!
Now I knew I had to go for it. This was one of my aims for the race. I wanted to remember how it felt running off the Brecon Beacons on a tow behind Sam at Itera. If I could do it then on day 5 with blisters, I could do it now for sure! Off I went and actually kept Kev in sight all the way. I passed the halfway house. I almost got calf cramp again, several times. I almost face-planted, but didn’t. I reached the road. Still only one person had come by.
I allowed myself to check over my shoulder and could see ‘someone’ about 200m behind. I was determined not to give in, and my poles click-clacked on the steep road. We reached the first row of houses and it was maybe only 300m to go. I nearly got cramp again! So I had to moderate my speed and try and work out how to land and pick up my foot not to set it off. Then there was the finish archway, and I was under and I was second. Yay!
Compared to my target times I had done alright. A couple of minutes down on the swim (due to lack of specific training), and a few more on the bike (due to crash, cramps, lack of ‘fast’ riding recently and fighting a bug the previous week, I think). My lake run lap was spot on target. My mountain run was much slower – but I had underestimated the difficulty! It didn’t stop me being proud of my descent and of holding my time compared to 3rd. Interestingly, my overall placing for the mountain was lower than for the rest of the race, but 10 minutes would have lifted my place for ‘Snowdon only’ by 16 spots. People’s times on this section were close together. My race against 1st was lost on the run, but my race against 3rd was won on the swim.
Now I only had the matter of getting up off the floor and seeing the medic. ‘Pouch’ did a fantastic job of checking for broken bones then patiently cleaning and bandaging my wounds before I hobbled home. The next day I could hardly move. This was a combination of all the bumps and bruises (road rash, holes and scratches on my left shin, knee, hip, arm and shoulder and right arm and elbow), stiff tummy muscles from the cramps on the bike and all the usual soreness from running up and down a big mountain! Never has getting dressed and standing up and down been so difficult. Lesson learnt: pay attention to where you’re going on a bike and don’t underestimate the difficulty of a 7.5h long event called ‘Brutal’, even if it is only ‘half’ of something! 😀
Many thanks to Brutal Events for putting on an event with such a great atmosphere. Also to Andy Kirkland for the photographs (click on the link for a gory knee close up shot)!
Day 5 Schematic
Stage 9: Trek (Talybont-on-Usk to Ponteneddfechan)
All our best stages came in a row. This was one we unanimously voted for as a favourite. We started at 2:30 am and even though we were climbing, we were soon feeling cold. We stopped to put on an extra layer. Ten minutes later, we stopped to put on lots of extra layers! We were moving really well though.
Reaching the ridgeline, we could make out the dark looming shapes of the Brecon Beacons. I recognised it from an old black and white aerial photograph that hung in our house when I was a child. As the sun rose, everything was slowly revealed. There were mists swirling around us, which made the whole scene even more atmospheric.
On the descents, my feet were getting sore but were still manageable. I think Jon was towing me a bit, but I only remember this from looking at the photos! We almost missed a control by accident when we turned the map over, as the tops all look very similar (on the map and in real life). Seeing two sets of teams in front of us going different ways made us double check. It turned out that the team who initially finished third did actually this mistake – meaning they were relegated to 7th.
We were excited to meet the crazy Swede with his helicopter camera, swooping around as we walked. We even gave the event photographer (James) the chance for some good shots as we went the wrong way up a ridge! I was then on the tow behind Sam, who declared herself ‘full of beans’. We raced down to a road, where I was extremely grateful for a toilet and teams were congregating at a burger van. This was a descent I actually enjoyed. Despite sore toes and heels, being behind Sam as we barrelled down was a load of laughs!
We just had one more hill between us and the final run into the transition.
Unfortunately this section was more arduous than we had expected. By now the sun was really hot, and we had to strip off all those extra clothes and carry them instead. Paul was having ‘a moment’ rather like mine in the woods on the second trek. We stopped for a while for him to gather himself, as he was feeling dizzy and tired. We switched Sam’s tow from me to Paul and made better progress, though now I had trouble keeping up!
Off the hills, and we had a watery walk through a cave system. Sam was unimpressed because it was too easy! But I liked the little break in proceedings and Paul enjoyed the effect welly boots full of icy cold water had on his feet. Afterwards, I felt pretty rough; my legs and feet were complaining.
As we plodded on we got to some woods where there were two controls to find. The path to the first one was initially unclear. Jon ran ahead and I had a grump standing waiting for what felt like forever for him to come back (it had been a long day!). However, he did ascertain that it was definitely the right way, which was a good thing, as we had to pick our way over rocks on a steep downhill and I wouldn’t want to have done that for nothing. I felt (and probably looked) decrepit! The final trek control was behind a waterfall that I used to visit as a child. It was not as I remember though, now teeming with tourists enjoying the spectacle.
The last part of the trek seemed to go on and on and on. There were lots of teams around for quick chats though, which broke up the monotony. Finally in transition, I saw Andy again but was feeling weary and unenthusiastic. I unwrapped the last slice of banana bread I had made exactly a week before. It had lasted well, but this piece had cobwebby mould growing all over it. Eurgggh!! I had eaten a slice just a few hours before in the dark, when I couldn’t see such delights. Makes me feel a bit queasy, though there were no ill effects 😀 .
We were all now pleased that we just had ‘one easy bike stage’ to go ….
Stage 9: Trek (Ponteneddfechan to Cardiff)
There had been some last minute route changes to the start of this stage, which we were given in transition. They involved a long draggy road climb, then a bridleway which deteriorated in quality as it went up, so that we ended up pushing. I could tell I was getting increasingly incompetent. ‘Just riding a bike’ is very easy to do, but now normally simple things became hard – like starting off, and riding in a straight line!
At the first point we had to stop, I realised I would need to burst the blisters on the outsides of my heels. The action of unclipping pushed on them perfectly! Jon’s skills came to the fore again, as he produced sterile scalpel blades, wipes and sticky plasters. I was given a lesson in how to do it, and when we got moving again it was many times more comfortable. I was profusely grateful and expressed my surprise. But he just said ‘well, we all have to get to the end’ … I am sure he was quietly prepared for many an eventuality, had we needed it.
After the difficult bits we were onto some speedy forest roads. But the light was fading fast and we still needed to keep an eye on the navigation. I knew when we reached the start of the Taff Trail it ought to be consistently downhill, but we had to get there first.
This was taking longer and was harder than we had all imagined. Morale was dipping. After all the fun of the last few days, this felt like a bit of an anti-climax. I think as with other stages, how you found it depended on when you got there and how you were feeling at the time. Lucy from the 2nd placed team (Haglofs-Silva) were racing for position in daylight when they did it. She told me it was actually rather pleasant.
I concentrated on making sure we went the right way whilst keeping chatting and looking for the positives. Once on the Taff Trail it was ‘just’ a case of following the Sustrans route 8 signs and not missing the castle.
However, in some ways this was one of the scariest parts of the race. By the time we finished, we had gone the last 42 hours with just a 40 minute sleep break. Paul was getting strange swirling visual effects and Jon was swerving as he almost nodded off. We all imagined we had a 5th team member – who or where they were, no-one knew. On the long tarmaced off-road sections, with my light illuminating a tunnel in front of me, and the trees seeming to close in overhead, I felt like I was going into a trance. Never have I been so grateful for trail obstructions like gates and bars, as they kept us awake! I also deliberately let myself get slightly too cold for comfort – another good staying awake strategy.
Sam had entertained us with her singing all week. I am not a good singer at all, but felt free to join in 🙂 . We attempted to get Jon and Paul to ask for jukebox requests, but didn’t get very far. Hmm, I wonder why not? Instead, we used Sam’s great conversation skills to wake Jon back up again.
Getting through Pontypridd was a bit of a nightmare. Music blared from somewhere and seemed to follow us around from every angle. We looked out for the little 8s and twisted and turned through the streets. Eventually we saw the signs the other side of a large fence – but how to get there? Just follow the signs away, round the pavement on a roundabout, and on to who-knows-where, but we still had the 8s. We went past teenagers who yelled at us and offered beers. We think.
Getting to the castle was exciting, though it needed Sam and Jon to point out the control that Paul and I walked straight past. Now the end felt close … more route sign spotting (hey, I’m good at this!) and we were in Cardiff. Hurrah! We just had to do an extra 10km back round the loop of the prologue before we could finish.
At the start of the day, we had aimed for an 8-9pm end and it was now nearly 2am. The ride down had been slower than I felt it should / could have been under normal circumstances, but it was a success for us just to make it all there together and in one piece. Another team rushed past as we finished (the first we had seen since very near the start of the stage), so we slowed to let them go ahead.
Finally, there was the finish line! We parked our bikes and ran, I mean, walked, across together. It was all a bit strange as we weren’t on an adrenaline high, just exhausted. We ordered Dominos pizza and waited for the shuttle mini bus. Back in our accommodation at the university, I literally feel asleep as my head hit the pillow. Sweet dreams!
We got on brilliantly as a team and were generally well matched for speed. We discussed our options and agreed our strategy, even if on reflection it might not have been perfect (it never is!). With a little more ambition earlier on, we could perhaps have done a bit more. Our transitions would make a top team wince and we spent rather too long in some café stops. The results show our first half the race was off the pace, but that we finished very strongly (which had been our plan, after all). We were 20th short course team over the first half of the race but 9th over the second half (6 more teams were on long course). We finished 12th short course team, making us 18th overall. Our goal was to be in the top 20, so we achieved that!
I would also say that we had a lot of fun. We were never going to make the long course and, although we wanted to do ourselves justice, we also allowed ourselves time to enjoy the journey.
From a personal perspective there were a few things I was really pleased about. I was much better on the foot stages than two years ago. The onset of severe discomfort was very much delayed! I am still not a great descender, but there have been definite improvements. I am good at paying attention to (and remembering) detail, which helped in all the briefings, when we went through the maps and for various updates throughout the race. I also felt I brought something useful to the team when I led us through some of the night stages on the bike, keeping alert to where we were going and helping to make sure the team supported each other and stayed safe and positive.
I had never met Sam before, but she was fantastic to have in the team, always cheerful, positive and full of energy. Paul held a consistent pace, navigated on the run and curbed any of my over-ambitious tendencies! Jon was ‘back-up’ navigator throughout the whole race, but was often doing the job full time. He fixed up bikes and us when needed and could still run at the end. We loved getting all your trail mail – so thanks for sending it in! Thanks also to all the organisers (especially James and Tom), photographers (James Kirby, Andy Kirkland, Eddie Winthorpe) and volunteers for making it such a great race!
Day 3 Schematic
Stage 6: Bike (Machynlleth to Glasbury via Devil’s Bridge, the Elan Valley and Builth Wells)
I think our race turned a point here. We had saved up some time at last and we set off on a hunt for some controls! It was raining when we left transition and then it got worse. As we lifted our bikes over yet another locked gate and bombed along some fire roads, the heavens opened, we were soaked, it was windy and we were cold. But we were just a bit too cold to risk stopping and getting more layers on – no-one dared stop moving!! As we ‘waited for a sheltered spot’ we started going uphill again and the rain eased off. By the time it was warm enough to stop, we didn’t need to! 😀
This stage took in a big loop of the Nant y Arian mountain bike trails. The first section was a natural double track with some fun rock sections. Looking at the map later, we probably could have taken a shortcut, but we’d have had to make assumptions about the likely control positions. There were 4 controls on the route, but not marked on the map. Anyway, even now I don’t care, as I had fun here!
At one point it was my team’s turn to make fun of me. I felt behind to check my rear light was still attached to my bag, but couldn’t find it. It must have popped off on one of the rocky sections. I announced this to my team, glad that I had a back up light on my bike, but sorry to lose a decent rear light and clip! (I get sentimentally attached to objects). Paul brushed it off (he does not get sentimentally attached to objects). As I mourned, I moved in front and, to my surprise, the others told me the light was still there. I felt behind me again. I was teased for not believing them. Of course, I believed them, but needed to touch it for reassurance… and kept doing so for the rest of the ride, much to their amusement!
We zipped round a section of trail I remembered doing in the Trans Wales. Sam and Jon had also raced here at different times. Then we were out on the road sailing down towards Devil’s Bridge and the waterfalls. We were hungry again and there was a café here. We weren’t certain to make it to the Elan Valley before the place there shut at midnight so we had a bright idea. We instructed the girl that we’d like to order food now, to be ready in 30 minutes when we came back, and that we wanted it to come out all at once.
We trotted off down to the falls, collected a control and came back again. No sign of our food. 45 minutes after ordering, a soup came out but nothing else. The whole thing had got lost in translation, and although they cooked everything else as quickly as they could, we saw other teams come and go as they wolfed down fast chips. On the plus side, I had one of the best meals so far in Wales (a sweet potato tagine with rice and an orange salad, plus a huge portion of crumble). A lady with her family at the next table was entranced by stories of what we were doing and took Jon’s phone number, promising to track us throughout the rest of the race!
As we set off through some industrial landscapes, it was getting cooler as dusk fell again. Sam had found her biking legs after day one and had had no trouble keeping up. However, here on the roads her low body weight for the descents and heavy full suspension bike meant she was finding it hard going. She suggested we either slowed or she went on a tow. I was more than happy to tow as I still felt great on the bike. But Paul said I should save my energy for later and so we slowed down. This was probably one of the hardest parts of the race for me. I felt we were crawling along and I was getting cold. I had tonnes of energy but nowhere for it to go, which was frustrating.
I could tell this would be an awesome place for road riding though, and vowed to come back sometime with Andy. Shooting down a fast track in the woods cheered me up and eventually we made it to the Elan Valley special stage. Because we were a short course team, we were advised this wasn’t worth our time to do. The café was still going strong, so we had drinks and set off again. Oh how I wish I hadn’t drunk hot chocolate! The perfect sleepy drink … now I was drifting off as we rode along in the dark.
It started pouring with rain again, and as we sheltered under some big trees I began to wake up. Good job too, as Jon was suffering from the same hot milky drink syndrome as me, and we were the two in charge of the maps! Now I was on it again, feeling responsible for guiding us out of here and on to Glasbury.
We were doing the short route, on the race planner’s advice. It turned out those who went the long way had to contend with some crazy weather and waist high stream crossings, so this was probably for the best! It was a bit dull though, so we livened proceedings by making up special ‘adventure race bike riding in the rain’ versions of Billy Joel’s song ‘River of Dreams’, first line: In the middle of the night … We had only one slight hiccough in route finding, and as we neared the end I was able to shout “I recognise this church! We sat and had lunch here 14 years ago!”. Weird.
We rolled into Glasbury with Jon and Paul very grateful for making it. As Sam and I got the tent up, we conferred and confided that we both felt a bit woozy as well, but weren’t showing it as much! So we were probably all happy to fall asleep for another couple of hours. Second blog was also written here.
Day 2 Schematic
Stage 4: Paddle + bike (Tan-y-bwlch to Barmouth)
We got down to the river and looked at it, confused. We were fairly sure the sea was to our right and were looking forward to a nice, downstream paddle. But the river appeared to be flowing to our left. We double-checked the maps. Yep, we had to go right. We had not accounted for this being a tidal river, and the tide coming in. We launched anyway, and set off into the teeth of a roaring wind, which was funnelling into the valley shaped by the river and twisted as we did. Each new bend brought new paddling challenges as we occasionally struggled to make any forward progress at all.
I was relieved to get to the portage section as it meant we had got somewhere! The portage turned out to be a nightmare, as James (race director) had warned us at transition. We took the boats to a road one by one; all four of us lifting each one out at another improbable ‘get out’. We used the trolleys to wheel round the railway bridge which was under construction. Then we were faced with a flooded field, not quite deep enough to paddle. We had to pull and shove our boats across, taking care not to lose our feet in the deep and narrow underwater channels.
Then we were battling for Portmeirion. The weather conditions meant this paddle was also shortened, and we all had to be held at another time out until it was safe to cross the bay. However, we arrived relatively late due to the sleeping and hitting the tide at the wrong point. So by the time we had finished the amusing orienteering (Paul: “We have 1cm to go. The scale on this map changes with every step we take from the centre”) and partaken of the Italian gelato / sorbet (mmmm) it was already time to go again.
A short paddle and a long drag across the sands and we were back on the bikes to finish the stage. The team had mixed feelings about this kayak stage. Personally, I enjoyed the feeling of taking on the challenge and succeeding, but it was hard work!
In transition, Paul panicked when he thought he’d lost his skewers (which hold the wheels onto the bike). “I’ve left them in the car park at Ogwen!” he declared, in a state of high stress. We sent him off to enquire whether the marshals had any to spare or could help in any way. Jon, Sam and I wondered how this could have happened (Sam was meticulous at sweeping any area for left behind stuff). I knew how well daft questions went down with Paul … so I saved it and just as the marshals were telling him there was a bike shop in town, I had a little look at the bags next to his kit, ‘just to make sure’. There they were! What a huge sigh of relief! It was just one of those things that can happen when you’re tired and in a hurry.
The main road hugs the coast, but going that way would not be in the spirit of adventure racing. We rode / walked up and over a long road section, which I recognised from a tour I did in 2000. It was very wet then, today was much better weather. As soon as we reached the sea it was time to go up and descend again, this time largely off-road. A lot of this climb was rideable, which was a relief. The view at the top was stunning, and the ride back down technical. This was one of Jon’s favourite sections!
When we got into transition and saw Andy again, I felt quite teary. It had been a tough day so far, the paddle was such hard work and the bike wasn’t easy. I was also navigating on the second half of the bike stage, taking over from Jon as we crossed a page on our maps. I was acutely aware of the need to get it right first time as the team were getting tired and having a little dip.
We had a slow transition. I was naughty and hopped in the shower to wash the salt out of my hair. I felt guilty for holding the team up, but wasn’t really thinking straight. We also went to the chippy and stocked up on huge quantities of food. Paul had 4 cans of fizzy pop lined up! I settled for just one, but also had a veggie burger in a bun plus a jacket potato with beans and cheese.
As it got dusky outside it was time to set off again.
Stage 5: Trek (Barmouth to Machynlleth)
By cutting the first trek stage so short and getting a sleep, we had hoped to start this stage with plenty of time and energy to take in the big mountain top of Cadair Idris. However, the trials of the day had almost put paid to this idea, and by the time we had crossed the bridge we had decided to miss it out. As we trekked upwards I started feeling quite ropey. I think the emotions and physical exertions so far had got to me. A common thing we found throughout the week was an inability to keep our body temperature ‘just right’. At this point I was waaay to hot. I was taking off clothes but feeling uncomfortably warm. I took any confusion over the map as a handy excuse for a little sit down. I think this was the trek where we stopped in the woods for a 10 minute rest and snack stop. We all turned our torches off and enjoyed the darkness.
After one steep forest climb, we emerged onto a fire road and I just collapsed to the floor, not wanting to move. I ate and drank, and realised I was probably dehydrated as my body craved the salty Nuun solution I had made up. Eventually I got up again and went on a tow to Jon, who pulled me onwards through the darkness. I was getting some interesting ‘sleepmonsters’ now. I saw things like scary men looming out of the shadows, an imaginary dog that jumped from behind a wall and various buildings that didn’t actually exist. I also heard phones ringing and disembodied footsteps behind us.
As we made our way along a road 2.5h later, the rhythm and lack of technicality lulled me and I found myself falling asleep as we walked. We had to stop at a handy roadside lay-by with a bench and small grass section. I pulled out the small sleeping mat / back support from my bag, put on all my clothes and curled up. 30 minutes later I was awoken by a cold team and we continued. I felt much better though!
Before long we found ourselves stuck in a quarry. There were many other teams all around. We struggled to find the right path out and kept trying every likely looking track, following it until it stopped or turned the wrong way. I did a bit of digging into this after the race – look here if you want to know more! We’d been about an hour and Paul was losing his patience, suggesting we might have to just sit it out until light. Jon kept popping off into the quarry or up little paths to see if they went anywhere, while we stood together waiting for news.
As we walked back to a known spot on the map, Sam pointed to a stile we had in fact seen on the way in. “Look – perhaps if there’s a stile there, then there’s a path behind it?”. She was right, and I launched up it with enthusiasm. The others weren’t so sure, but there was no stopping me now as I marched across a recently deforested area. My headtorch picked out where it went, though it was hard to find in the dark and with the trees down. We were on a path we had seen others on earlier, but not been able to find. It was eventually even in the same place the map said a path would be 😀 . On we went, over a stile and across a bog-fest of a field. Jon announced he definitely knew where we were. Music to our ears!
As dawn broke we were in mists and light rain, contemplating a quick jaunt up a nearby hill for a control. I am still not sure if the suggestion to go up there was a joke or not. We were all pretty tired and wanted to get to transition, but again, in retrospect getting this and possibly another control on this stage might have been a smart move. We made our way down. The last tarmac section was hard on the feet. I think we all felt a bit jaded. It had been a hard day / night and, except for special stages and one that was on the short route, we had not got a single one optional control yet.
Time for another sleep in our tent before we started a “new day”, even though it was 8:30 in the morning!
So, the race I have targeted all year has been and gone. I am on a somewhat unpredictable road to recovery. It has taken a while to reflect on the race and let it all sink in. The story of 5 days / 114 hours of racing cannot be told in one report! Instead, you can look forward to reading about each day in instalments this week.
The stress of getting to the start line seems so long ago now. After last minute purchases (duct tape, extra box covering, impulse need for trekking trousers etc) I was suddenly packed and ready to go. Jon picked me up on Friday morning and off we drove to Selkirk to meet up with Paul. Despite the detailed instructions we went round in circles a bit until we found his house – was this a sign?
Of course, by the time we had loaded the giant pick up truck with all our stuff and squeezed ourselves in, we were later starting than planned. Cardiff is a jolly long way away, and the journey was made even longer when we hit Friday rush hour holiday traffic on the motorway. Finally we got there and met up with Sam, our fourth team member. Plenty of time for team tentel to bond over a Chinese takeaway and box waterproofing.
The rest of the weekend went by in a blur, as we attended briefings, got kit ready, pored over the maps, laminated them, did the prologue and travelled up to Caernarfon.
The prologue was a 10km run around Cardiff Bay, with a short white water section in the middle. In an expedition race, the usual standards of decorum (with respect to changing clothes and wee stops) are eventually thrown to the wind. I didn’t expect to do so this early in the event though. As we walked through the multi-storey car park, I realised that my shorts were on back to front. In the stairwell I hurriedly switched them over, with Sam falling about laughing and pointing at the CCTV camera. Look out for me on some candid camera show soon!
We took the run at a fairly sedate pace. Paul wouldn’t have it any other way! As we got to the white water section, the leading teams were exiting and shouting a lot, which looked a bit stressful. We had to go in pairs, one after the other. Paul and I went first. The plugs came out of the bottom of our barely-inflated boat, water spurted in and we started sinking! After we took evasive action we felt lucky to get round in the boat. By the end, we seemed to be sitting below water level and steering was nigh on impossible.
On the bus on the way to Caernarfon on Sunday, we watched videos of previous adventure races, which just made me stressed. Surely we’re not about to start something like that are we? They were supposed to be inspirational, but the story of two Aussie blokes who went to the South Pole and back unsupported was easier on the mind!
As we tucked ourselves in overnight at the Travelodge, the wind whipped up the waves in the Menai Straits. Sam and I were sharing a room and were chatting away, whilst I’m sure Jon and Paul were sound asleep next door. Eventually I said “I think we should go to sleep now”, to which the response came back “I’m trying to!”. This was the funniest thing I had heard all weekend, as I’m sure I wasn’t the only one initiating the chat 🙂 . So I enquired what she would try next to get to sleep, since the talking wasn’t working. Perhaps a spot of dancing?
Day 1 schematic
Stage 1: Paddle + bike (Caernarfon to Conwy)
The next day we had an early start. A last minute leader’s briefing brought news that because of the weather we might have a shortened paddle stage. There were a few options, but we were to get out at Bangor Pier and find out which it was to be then. We ran round the castle twice, waved to Jon’s parents (who must have had a very early start), then we were off to the beach.
All we had to do was fit our new seats to sit on top kayaks (the straps go where?!), attach our bags out of the way of our feet and launch! It was still quite choppy, but we had the tide behind us and were whizzing along. I am not normally a kayaker and throughout the race I was bemused by what was counted as a suitable ‘get out’ point. At the pier, we were directed to go past the nice sloping gangway, nose in by some steep jagged slippery rocks and try and haul the heavy kayaks up over them. I got a good dunking here as my foot slipped and I was into deep water!
We rode our bikes for the rest of what would have been a paddle stage to Conwy. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased about this or not – but was probably mostly pleased! After a section on Sustrans route 8 (which I had done in the other direction with Andy last year), we dived off onto a rather pleasant off road section. At the castle, it was hot and sunny as we ran round on top of the town walls and sought out controls hidden inside the castle. What a shame we were in a race and couldn’t stay to run up and down all the spiralling tower staircases! Our tracker wasn’t working, which was confusing people at home, so we swapped for a new one before beginning the first planned bike stage.
Stage 2: Bike + zip wire (Conwy to Ogwen)
We rode back a different way to the one we had come, passing very close but taking a hillier and more off road route. Sam admitted that our earlier pace was too much for her to maintain, so we experimented with her going on a tow behind me. I love biking and was feeling strong and perky, so actually quite enjoyed this. All the more so when she said what a difference it made to her.
The wind was blowing hard into our faces so we travelled quite slowly at some points. I hoped it wouldn’t stay like this all week! The problem with travelling in lines instead of circles is that you could face a headwind all the way ….
At Bethesda, Paul got a cramp (the team’s first and only all week), but it was perfectly timed just as we got to the zip wire centre. Here we had to serve a time out – the length of which was dictated by our speed in the prologue. We had 53 leisurely minutes to stock up from the fast food hatch (chips, egg roll or bacon rolls, depending on tastes). Throughout the race I think Sam and I carried far more water than the others, filling up from ‘official’ drinking water sources when we saw them. Jon and Paul went for streams and rivers, and Paul batted away my concerns that he had used taps specifically saying ‘not drinking water’. He didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects though! He must have a stomach of iron.
Just before we had to go again, my dad appeared! He had been watching our tracker and only lives just over the hill from where we were. It was lovely to see him even though we couldn’t stop and chat. We had to hike up to the top of an old quarry, where there was another (timed out) wait for the zip wire. People were already sleeping in the cramped space, but I was anxious to stay alert and not miss our spot in the queue! As a Frenchman got kitted out he commented “What is this helmet for? Is it for when I smash into the brick wall at the end?”. We all found this very funny!
Soon enough we were ourselves suspended face forward in a harness overlooking the quarry. It didn’t take long to get back to the bottom when we were going at 100mph, or thereabouts. What a buzz! Quick goodbyes to my dad who had patiently waited, and we pedalled up to Ogwen to say hello to Andy. Oops, no, he was marshalling and we had a job to get on with – time to pack up the bikes in their boxes and start walking!
Stage 3: Trek (Ogwen to Tan-y-bwlch)
We had already made the decision on Saturday that we would miss some of the controls on this trek and immediately become a ‘short course’ team. Due to the time outs, the wait at the zip wire and our general ‘steady’ speed, it was getting dusky already. Two of the controls had also been removed due to high winds, which meant the penalties for going the shorter route were less.
My map reading duties were on the bike. On the trek, Paul and Jon were in charge, so I hadn’t really appreciated what faced us. Despite going the short way, we still had a significant hill to climb! Halfway up it started raining so we donned coats and got our lights out. Paul’s didn’t work. “I tested them this morning”, he said. I asked: “And they worked then?” Duh – stupid question of the race! Luckily, spares were produced from somewhere and we continued on. The route was hard to pick out over the top, though Jon found it brilliantly. It was quite a sight to see the bright lights of other competitors dancing off Tryfan and the Glyders. At Pen-y-Gwryd whilst I munched on Babybels and oatcakes, we debated whether to head on down or go over Snowdon. We went down. In fact, we went short course for the whole of this leg.
We had a plan. Despite having to switch from the long course white bib to the short course black ‘bib of shame’, we hoped that we could change the moniker to ‘bib of cunning’. We didn’t want to be chasing cut offs and knew that controls later in the race held higher time penalties than those we were missing now. If we played the long game we would have more time and energy to get these controls in the second half of the race.
In retrospect, perhaps we could have been a little more ambitious on this stage, even just going for the two less committing controls with some extra climb near the end. As it was, we trotted down the road. Sam and I stared at the sky wondering if we could see dark clouds or dark sky. We were just discussing the important matter of how a certain cloud definitely looked like a poodle, when we saw the brightest of shooting stars! Amazing.
The maps marked a suggested ‘short route’, but unless otherwise specified these were not mandatory. We thought we were being smart by taking a minor road (‘A’ and ‘B’ class roads were out of bounds) and linking onto a good track via a short section of footpath. The footpath turned out to be very non-existent. In fact, its route traversed The Swamp of Doom. The further we went, the soggier it got. We tested the ground with our poles before committing the next step as we fanned out a bit. I stayed near Sam for moral support and combined safe route finding, though I’m not sure who was going to rescue who. We nearly lost her in a particularly deep wet patch! Just as my patience was wearing extremely thin, we got out of there and made rapid progress into the transition.
Here we had our first access to tents. It was still quite early in the race, but we knew we wouldn’t get them again until after the second big trek stage, in another 24h time. It was either sleep now, or sleep outside somewhere without a tent or warm sleeping bags. After a quick blog, we tucked ourselves up for 2h kip.
As regular readers of my blog might have noticed, I have been getting ready to do my biggest race of the year; the Itera. This is a 5 day adventure race going from top to bottom of Wales in a team of 4. We’ll be kayaking, “running” (more likely, trekking!), mountain biking and probably a few other exciting things along the way. Maximum total distance is 660km with 18,000m of ascent. There are short course options though, which we’re likely to end up taking one or two of. We are called ‘team tentel’. Tentel are a new start up telecommunications company run by cool people who like adventure racing! They sponsored us to get some matching kit, for which we also got a discount from Outside Edge in Oban.
In the winter, the race seemed a long way away. I found, and wholeheartedly adopted, a great method of taking my mind of what was coming up. This was to enter lots of other races, as I can only concentrate on the next thing coming up and not much further! Some people have asked me if I have done anything different with my training. Well, I changed the type of races I entered (almost no short, fast stuff) and did less interval work and more longer distance things. But I also distracted myself with longer triathlons and the open water swim a couple of weeks ago. If you’re busy thinking ‘when and where can I swim outside again next?’ then you don’t worry so much about ‘how will I last more than 24 hours, let alone 5 days?’.
April and May were good months for mountain biking, when I deliberately entered events such as the Selkirk MTB marathon and three of us got together for an overnight mountain bike / bivvy ride. In the last few months I have panicked slightly about my lack of time spent on foot in the hills. But over June and July I did get out for 5 longer sessions (3 were races!). I don’t normally spend any time kayaking. This isn’t because I don’t like it, but for more practical reasons. Like, where would I keep a kayak? And how would I get it anywhere? I like to tell myself that doing plenty of swimming is good substitute training, as it’s sort of the same arm action … who knows if this is true, but I have a good time all the same! And I have generally done remarkably well on kayak sections in races. All things considered.
My team mates for this race are Paul McGreal, Jon Ellis and Sam Rose. I raced with Paul in a similar event (the Terrex) two years ago. We were still talking to each other at the end of it and he enjoyed himself enough to want to do it again. With a team of two we set about persuading Jon that he really wanted to race with us. I have competed with Jon a couple of times before, but many years ago when we didn’t really know each other. We’ve kept in touch and met up quite a few times since then though. He has loads of expedition event experience and did very well at the Terrex last year with his ‘last minute’ team. When he finally gave in to our pestering, we were three and only needed one more.
Luck would have it that at this point Sam emailed Jon asking if he knew any teams she could join. With a mutual friend’s endorsement (thanks Elizabeth!) we thought she’d be a good match. As soon as we said ‘join us’, she hesitated! Having spent 8 months off work travelling the world, she seemed unsure of her fitness. However, having heard tales such as these, I am feeling confident of her ability and suitability for our team. In fact, she may well be the one waiting for all of us!
“I raced for two days on a broken ankle last time”
“We hunted out Koh Si Chang Island’s only kayak yesterday, which was a 100 year old sit on top and paddled it round the bay for a couple of hours until it sunk”
“I’ve spent the day being kicked to condition my muscles and crawling down steep stone steps head first on hands and feet”
“This week was three days kayaking in the Marlborough sounds and yesterday I biked the queen Charlotte track”
“I’m currently cycling back from Italy to try and get miles in my legs”
Emails are all I’ve had to get to know Sam, as we won’t meet until Friday evening before the race begins. However, this hasn’t been my biggest concern at all! In fact, much more stressful has been trying to organise and coordinate kit requirements, social media and logistics. All made much more difficult by the fact that I lost internet access at a critical time and have been offline for over a week! Many thanks to the various friends who have let me squat at their houses using their facilities (Robert, Hayley, Vicky, Glen). Apart from all that, this week’s training has mostly revolved around getting plenty of sleep and eating good food – kale pizza saved for my last night at home!
I am confident that once we start, I will enjoy it. Before that we have a prologue to do on Saturday (10km run round Cardiff bay, with a white water boating thing in the middle) and much planning and kit re-packing and organising once we get the route maps at registration. Then we will be ‘whisked’ up to Caernarfon on Sunday for an 8am start on Saturday. When I say whisked, I mean we will crawl up north on a 5 hour coach journey with the promise of selected DVDs to entertain us. Hmm!
My dad lives just 20 minutes drive from the start, but won’t be there to wave us off! (he’s away for the weekend). However, it does mean I’m relatively familiar with the area I expect we’ll be in for the first couple of days. We’ve been given an idea of how many stages there are and their length and height gain, but no other clues as to where we’re going. I love to play ‘guess the route’, even if it is only speculation and probably a waste of energy. For me though, it’s part of the fun! I have something in mind for the first 5 ½ stages, but then my knowledge of Wales gets a bit too hazy! One of the pictures in the montage gives you an idea just for the record, but only if I’m right. If I’m wrong, then it’s just a pretty picture. I have made sure to maximise the number of castles en route, so it’s a good one even if it’s not the right one 🙂 .
What seems fairly certain is that we will spend some time paddling round the north coast of Wales, go on a big mountain trek in Snowdonia, paddle again and do a long bike ride across the middle of Wales to get us back down south for some fun on the Brecon Beacons. I might spend half the week saying ‘oh, I’ve been here before’ as we cross and join either the routes from the Trans Wales event I did a few years ago, or my Cardiff-Holyhead Sustrans cycle tour from even further back.
I expect to be providing some blog updates as the race progresses. They won’t be posted here, but on the live race website here. This is also the place where you can track our progress against other teams or leave messages of support. If you’re on facebook you can also like our public team page here. We’re hoping to be able to publish a few updates about how we are. Since we are not allowed access to things like phones, these will come from our supporters interpreting the maps and reading between the blog lines for you, and from my boyfriend, who is working as a volunteer / marshal for the week.
The field for the race is truly international. This is fantastic. It does mean we don’t really have a clue how well we might do. Out of 36 teams I have estimated that top 20 would be an achievement, anything higher a bonus. Before that though, even finishing together still smiling and full of tall tales of derring-do and adventure will make it all worthwhile.
See you all on the other side!