As I am training for my first ever ultra, Trail Marathon Wales seemed like a perfect ‘training run’. It offered similar elevation gains and terrain to Lakeland50 and it would get me used to running on trails for prolonged periods in a race set up. It seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
I drove up to North Wales the day before, picked up my bib on the way through and spent the evening in the shadow of Snowdon at my uncle and aunts house. Feeling somewhat blasé about it all I slept deeper than I ever have before a marathon. No midnight freakouts or 4am missed alarm panics but nine hours of blissful undisturbed sleep. The weather in the lead up to the race had been perfect, lovely warm days with a light breeze but when I headed out the door the next day, I realised that raceday was not going to abide by the trend of perfection. Light but unrelenting rain began to fall as I got in my car and drove the 45 miniutes to the race start. A bad omen I thought, pessimistically.
My ridiculous relaxed stated extended into my arrival time at the race. Most sensible runners will arrive an hour before the race starts. It gives you time to do your fourteenth loo stop, stretch even though you never usually do and crucially mentally prepare for what’s ahead.
I arrived with ONE MINUTE TO GO.
I was so late that I had to walk through the entire race field, pushing past the leaders and everyone else on my way to the back. I felt like the naughty school boy arriving late to assembly. Still with embarrassment induced red cheeks I started the race.
The race is in the grounds of Coed y Brenin, a trail running and mountain biking centre in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. It is one of my all time favourite places to run and as such I knew what we had in store for us. Although I had run some of the routes a few times the only time I had ever attempted to do a long run there I got royally lost. Instead of doing the well marked half marathon route I got distracted by a dog, because I have the mental age of a toddler, and ended up doing 18 miles in my attempt to get back. Luckily this was a race, I thought, so I all I needed to do was not lose the runners ahead of me.
As soon as the race started and we began our first steep climb the rain started to intensify. I was glad that I had made a last minute decision to wear my hydration pack which had another layer stash away, I slipped on at mile one and never took off. The rain never relented, it would ease and then intensify like waves crashing against my morale for the rest of the race.
Running a trail race is very, very different to a road race. For one walking isn’t frown upon and as we approached our next steep section you could see the pace of the race slow. The wonderful thing about these slower moments is that it gives you a spare breath to chat to your fellow runners around you and enjoy the surroundings. In a race with over 4,000 feet of elevation, the equivalent of going up and down mount Snowdon TWICE, there were many opportunities to do that. With the low lying mist adding to the sheer spectacle of the area the race felt epic both in scale and setting. When I ran the Queenstown Marathon in New Zealand last year I likened it to being in Middle Earth and once again I felt like I was part of the Fellowship running through the cinematic Welsh landscape.
One trial of the trails I had not prepared for was the bugs. During hard parts of the race, where my breathing would be laboured, I ended up inhaling more than a few. But, as one fellow runner pointed out, they are great source of protein on the go. By the end of the race my face was covered with over twenty of the tiny critters trapped in my sweat soaked skin.
As we neared the 11 mile point I knew what we were about to face; the next trail trial entitled ’the sting in the tail’. A long, steep and brutal climb which coincided with the leaders of the half marathon overtaking us. Even these incredible runners were having to walk the cliff like climb, constantly turning their heads to eye up how the competition behind was coping too. But with heavy lungs I struggled on, knowing that the next aid station was not far away and I could stock up on the electrolytes that my limbs were now screaming for.
My objective for the race was simple; get home and enjoy myself. I never lost that enjoyment even though the race was brutal and while my times were about what I expected they would be my body felt remarkably fresh even after the race. So as the long stretches that defined the second half of the race sapped my energy, I wasn’t worried about pace or pride it was all about just enjoying the moment.
Living in the moment is hard for me at the moment, with so many races and adventures down the road I feel like I am constantly staring off into the distance. During trail runs you have to keep looking at that which is just ahead of you so you don’t trip on a rock or miss your next turn. Having to live in that small bubble forces you to just exist in the here and now. Despite the exhaustion it can feel meditative as you push all other thoughts out and narrow your view. It is one of the reasons I am loving my transition into more trail races.
The second half is definitely not as picturesque as the first with more forestry tracks than tight trail sections. However, some of the technical parts were spectacular with speedy descents down changeable terrain. You feel like a child in those moments as you hurtle carefree down a hill slaloming around trees.
As I approached the final mile and the loop back on a part of the course I was on 13 miles before, I felt a twang of sadness that the finish line was so close. Despite the relentless miserable rain I had thoroughly enjoyed my first ever trail marathon and I crossed the line with a massive smile on my face. You honestly cannot beat the feeling of finishing a tough race like that because when something is hard to overcome, overcoming it is that much more euphoric.
So after the glory of completing the race I swiftly staggered to my car, made a very unsophisticated costume change where I definitely flashed my bare arse to the car parked next to me and drove the four hours home with bugs still stuck to my forehead. I mean who said that marathon running was a glamorous sport.
All in all the trials of the trails did not defeat me instead it has motivated me to keep training hard for my 50 mile ultra that draws ever near…
Highlights: THE VIEWS. To have a race that beautiful only a few hours drive away is such a blessing. Queenstown, New Zealand is unbeatable for the scenery but that was 30 hours away. The swag bag was awesome containing; a huge tech towel, gels and a high quality t-shirt. The medal or rather the coaster made out of local wood is a lovely touch too.
Lowlights: If anyone is on the fence about doing the half or full, both are run on the same day, I would choose the half. The best views and trails were in the first half. I wouldn’t call it a lowlight it is simply the only fault I can find in an otherwise well organised, challenging and beautiful run. Thank you, five coffee cups out of five.