Snowdonia Marathon... An insight into one of the toughest marathons in the UK...
The night before.... I arrived in Llanberis to meet up with Nick Ham who was my roomy for the weekend and had very kindly offered a share of his twin room (I had left booking accommodation far too late!) Our minds soon turned to food. There was one particular eatery in town where all the runners were heading - Pete's Eats!! One Fish & Chip supper later all washed down with a pint of tea and I was a happy boy. We retired to our hotel for the night - Padern Lake Hotel and despite the Karaoke party right beneath our room a reasonable nights rest was had.
Race morning... a bowl of porridge was the order of the day with OJ and coffee. I was saving myself for the full Welsh breakfast only if I PB'ed today. This would require me to run faster than London 2010 (my last marathon over 18 months ago) and go sub-3:30! was it on....? Hell yeah!!!!
Race conditions... This was the subject of much debate and discussion on the Runners World SNOD forum all through the previous week. Would it be dry, or wet, warm or cold, windy or still... It turned out to be all of the above and more!! This made for some difficult decisions on race gear. How many layers were too few or too much? Do I start with a jacket or not. Gloves and hat too?? Decisions decisions... One very good decision the night before at registration was the purchase of a Buff. This is essentially a piece of tubular cloth that can be worn in a variety of ways on the head or neck. It doesn't sound like much but it was probably the one best kit choices of all!! And stayed on my head throughout the race keeping me warm enough without overheating.
The Start... Nick and I made our way to the start line a short walk from the hotel. We bumped in to Jez Bragg on the way and had a good chat with him. Jez was a late entrant and using this race as training for The North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco in November. Jez would surely finish in the top 10 today. What a legend. We started right near the front... Was this wise? In hindsight... absolutely the right decision! And we may even get on TV as a result! Welsh channel S4C has an hour show covering the whole race on Sunday evening, and available online too. So take a look...
We timed our start perfectly and only had to hang around for 5 minutes or so before we were off!!! Long enough to frantically discussed whether to start with wind/rain proof jackets on or off. Decision made and they were off and packed away in our waist packs with our energy gels. It was a fast start and I covered the first 2 miles in 14 minutes... Oh heck slow down Stu... But that huge hill through the mountain pass ahead should do that for us! And it did....
The Rain... It chucked it down buckets from start to finish with the occasional break which lasted all of 5 minutes. The first climb up Llyn Peris pass was soooooo long and very wet and windy. If this was the face of things to come then it was going to be one hell of a battle. And this was the case as the rain simply didn't let up all race. But this race has gained a reputation for throwing everything it has at runners and you certainly don't leave dissappointed. I don't think snowdonia does 'dry and sunny'!
Oh the wind!!... And I'm not referring to my room mate Nick! ;-) The wind was relentless too but it was also on our back at times. It was both friend and foe but you soon learn to accept it and move on. And accept it I did and move on I did too well under a 7:30mpm pace.
And talking of pacing.... I made the decision to NOT where my garmin for this race :-O yes that's right no minute by minute feedback of how fast or slow I was going, no averages, no actuals, no bpms, no fear!!! I was gonna run this one by 'feel' alone. I don't want to be a slave to the watch that could potentially spoil my enjoyment of this epic race. I was set free from the shackles and relied soley on my trusty London marathon freebie watch. It worked a treat for so many reasons. 1- I didn't really know my marathon pace anyway so what use would the splits and instant feedback be to me, other than a cause of potential annoyance and frustration, 2 - on such an undulating course the splits would no doubt be all over the place as you either climb, descend or pump out the miles on the flats. So constantly checking your spilts is of no use. It was a great decision!
The scenery.... This marathon has the tag as one of the most scenic and beautiful races in the UK (certainly for a road marathon). It was truely breathtaking with sheer cliff faces rising on either side of you as if they were gazing down on us as we threaded our way up and over the mountain passes. These gave way to sweeping views of lakes, waterfalls, and open fields but mostly mist shrouded valleys and villages below. It was certainly a good distraction.
The support... The locals were out in full force despite the awful conditions. Each village and town that we went through had spectators waving, offering words of encouragement and support, handing out orange segments which I gratefully accepted, and generally boosting your morale. It was great and most definitely appreciated.
The hills... Oh the hills! Is this a PB course? Well you will have to wait and see for that ;-) but on paper it shouldn't be with over 2,500ft of equal ascent and descent. I can say with some certainty that you cannot make up the time lost on the climbs whilst descending. The first climb from around the 2 mile mark to 4 miles was emmense especially so early on in the race and with the driving side wind and rain. But it wasn't unjoyable! You just had to grin at what we were being subjected to, and put one foot in front of the other and continue climbing whilst taking in the stunning surroundings.
Off-roading... Trail on a road marathon I hear you say!! Yes that's right. The long descent down the first mountain pass took us eventually onto the first trail section which continued to weave down the mountain side with cliff tops and a lake to our right. It was a blast to run and I overtook many cautious runners perhaps not so use to running this type of terrain. I was loving it. The second bit of trail in the race was promised at the very end with a mile descent to the finish. I was looking forward to that!
Fuelling... I had 5 energy gels in my waist pack which worked an absolute treat. Sweatshop didn't have my normal GU gels so I opted for a new Powerbar gel made with real fruit juice instead and they had a real kick. The caffinated one was an instantanous pick me up that had me flying and had a dramatic effect on my positivity! I was even singing 'oh what a beautiful day'! Lol. The water stations were frequent and had bottled water, and energy drink. The Powerbar gel did need to be washed down with water so I used these stops to spreadout my gel intake. I took four in total at around 6, 10, 15 and 20 miles.
The flats... Despite it's reputation it isn't all hilly and there were also long stretches of flat road beside several lakes on route to eat up the middle miles. These miles had to be fast if I were to get under 3:30 because time was obviously lost on the climbs. The early flat stretches were easy going as I probably ran a sub 7:15/30 pace. As the miles wore on though even the flats were starting to tire the legs. The stretch between 17-22 miles which was flat/undulating was the toughest of the whole race. Strange that it was the flats and not the hills that turned out to be like this. Although perhaps understandable as the pace was so much quicker on the flats that it demanded a lot of effort to sustain it.
Half way split... I worked out before the race that I wanted to hit half way inbetween 1:35 and 1:38. Any slower than this and sub 3:30 was going to be extremely tough if not impossible. The second half of this race is slower than the half, no question. Negative splits were out the question with such a tough final climb in store at 22 miles. Anyway I hit half way in 1:38 which was remarkable considering I wasn't wearing a garmin! What pacing even if I don't say so myself. But it was at the bottom end of what I think I needed to run to be on for a PB so clearly the effort had only really just began.
Cameradaire Rules... It wasn't only the spectators that boosted morale. In the second half of the race I made the point to talk to those runners that had been within the same pack as me for quite some time now. One chap Paul who I said hello to just after halfway was also targetting sub 3:30 and had run this race before. I asked if he thought we were on for it and his confident response that he thought we could was an extra boost. If he thought we could and I did then what was stopping us from achieving our goal? With this we set about tackling the final half running together, whilst at other times I stretched ahead, and then a mile or so later Paul would do the same. So we were working well together to keep the pace going. This was great motivation and helped me to really believe that I could do it.
The final hill... And so we approached the final hill which loomed large and I had heard so much about from other peoples accounts. It is this hill which has broken many runners that have run SNOD and been reduced to a 15 minute per mile crawl up the two mile stretch. I certainly couldn't afford such a pace and had no intention of being beaten by it. I dug deep and gave it my all. I had 4 miles remaining and around 40 minutes to cover this distance. A 10 minute mile average seemed doable I thought to myself. I approached a chap in a '100 marathon club' vest who had previosuly passed me, and I asked whether he thought we were on for sub 3:30? His response was not as confident as Paul's was earlier who was now 200 or so metres ahead of me on the climb. With this grim prediction but fate still very much in my hands I set off up the hill with new vigour. After everything I had given to this point not letting up the pace once I was about to blow it with 4 miles to go. I grunted and shouted to myself to haul arse and make light work of this mere hill. I didn't count how many I passed on the way up but it must have been well into the 20's and not one passed me. I had made it to the 24 mile mark on top of the ridge and was looking forward to the final 'easy' 2 miles of descent to the finish. How wrong could I be...
The final descent... For a start the descent didn't start at 24 miles like I had thought and we continued to climb and undulate along the top of the ridge now on to trail. These weren't fast miles as I had hoped. When the descent did finally start it was far from easy. Road shoes on slippery grass, mud and rocks are not the ideal combo! It was now raining hard and it was a case of picking a line and getting down safely.
The 'fall'... WIPEOUT!! One second I was on my feet the next I was over on my left arm and arse sliding down on the rocks and mud. Ouch! No time to waste though and I bounced up quickly surveyed the damage and continued down. I overtook more runners on the way down this tricky part of trail and got back onto the tarmac road. The descending wasn't over though and this last part on road was extremely steep with my toes crushing into the end of my shoes. Applying the breaks was near impossible.
The finish line... it eventually flattened out and we were back in to the town of Llanberis. At this point I was now sprinting and wanting to go as much under sub 3:30 as possible which finally seemed to be a reality. I turned the corner, and another and another and there was the finishing arch ahead on the high street. I felt amazing. The pain was gone. I couldn't feel the rain anymore and I had finished. What an awesome marathon. The time on my watch was 3:26.51 :-) I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground - a bit dramatic you might think but there was a very good reason for doing this! My timing chip that was tied around my laces had come unstuck earlier in the race so I was now holding it in my hand and had been for the last 7 miles. So to make sure of an official finish and time. I placed the tag on both timing mats under the finish arch to be certain.
I collected my Welsh slate coaster from a volunteer and whooped with joy at what I had accomplished. In all honesty I had no idea if a PB was possible on this course and my training for this race wasn't exactly text book. With few long runs, little hill work and low mileage this all added to what was a great feeling at the finish. To better my London marathon time in Snowdonia on such an amazing course in such awful conditions was the icing on the cake.
Official chip time and position just in!!! 3:26.43. 115th position overall out of 1418 finishers.