Friday 28 July 2017

Snowdonia Trail Half-Marathon 2017

For years I had promised my daughter that I'd take her to Wales to climb Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), but it's one thing to say it and another to actually organise it. I needed to do something to help to make it happen, so I entered the Snowdonia Trail Half-Marathon which is hosted by Always Aim High. We booked a place to stay and that was that... we were going to Wales!

As you'd expect, the race features quite a bit of climbing, so during the early months of 2017 I started to work some hillier routes and races into my training. In February I ran the Valentines 10ish Mile Challenge and then in March I ran The Ridge 10k - both hilly courses and I was happy that the training was going well.


At the end of March I developed a pain in my right ankle which was quite intense at times, so I almost stopped running completely and largely switched cycling instead. This helped to avoid worsening the ankle pain, but it still lingered on through April, May and June.

July finally came around and although I had sprinkled some more running into my routine, it was nowhere near the volume I would have liked before running a half-marathon. I made the decision to drop down to the 10k option, but when I looked on the Always Aim High website, I saw that I'd missed the 30 day deadline for changing distance.

waiting to get going

I decided that I'd just have to crack on with the Half-Marathon. I removed all thoughts of a time goal from my mind and got myself in the right mindset to just enjoy being on the mountain and try to manage my balance between running and walking in order to keep the ankle happy. The new goal was to get around the course without setting my recovery back further.

We set off for Wales on the Friday before the race and I had a nice easy run around Conwy parkrun on the Saturday with my friend Adam who had also entered the Half-Marathon. Race day soon came around and I headed off to into Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri (Snowdonia National Park) with my wife, daughter and father-in-law. My wife had downloaded the official tracking app to track my progress.

the first two kilometres

The race village was based in Llanberis and we parked in one of the car parks off of the main road for £4 which covered the full day (parking can be up to twice the amount in the more popular car parks). I walked the 200 metres or so to the race village and picked up my race number with in-built timing chip and I also stocked up on energy bars as I was instructed to take 'as many as you like'. I also picked up the technical race t-shirt that I had ordered when I had signed up.

The village featured a few stalls, mostly centred around mountain running gear, selling trail shoes, waterproof clothing etc.  There was also a stall selling fresh coffee and snacks, a truck with hot food and some inflatables to keep the kids entertained. Then there were around 15 or so portable toilets plus a few urinals to speed up the process for the gents.

the first real mountain path (2 - 6km)

Being a mountain race, there were a few items of compulsory equipment for every runner; waterproof jacket (with hood), and waterproof trousers - both of these were required to have 'taped seams'. Energy bars, hat, gloves and a mobile phone were also mandatory. It was also advisable to carry your own water, but there were water stations on the course. I had all of my gear in my running backpack which was feeling a lot heavier than I was expecting.

In addition to the half-marathon and the 10k, there was also a marathon and this race started at 9am. That left a short while to revisit the toilets, say my farewells and then get in place to listen to the Half-Marathon safety briefing at 9.15am. The half-marathon was started at 9.30am and considering my plan for the race, I started quite near the back of the pack.

The weather forecast was for a bright, sunny day with barely any wind and this really was a bonus.

snowdon ranger path

The race itself started off by heading through the streets of Llanberis and eventually onto a narrower lane where the climbing started. I dropped down to a walk as the road got steeper because those around me that were running were not moving any faster anyway. The first water station was on this road and I grabbed a cup of water to keep the hydration levels topped up. The road wound its way around and eventually at the 2km point we went off-road.

The path was generally flat to start with and I got myself running again - with the path being a little congested and passing possible, but not always easy, I stuck to running at a nice, easy pace and enjoyed the stunning scenery that I found myself immersed in. On my right was Foel Goch (605m) and the path ran along its contour lines as it lead us through Bwlch Maesgwm (pass).

snowdon ranger path (6 to 9.3km)

The rocky, mountain path gave way to a spongy, grassy section for a short downhill section and then, at the 6km point, the course joined the Snowdon Ranger Path and we moved along the southern side of Moel Cynghorion (674m). The view to the south was simply stunning. I'd already eaten an energy bar by now and all along the route I had been switching between running and walking - largely dictated by the severity of the incline or the will of the masses. It was quite fitting that the wind howling way up on the mountain sounded just like a dragon.

At 8km into the race, the real climbing began and it's difficult to see how anyone could continue running at this stage of the race. It was a slow plod and my Garmin showed my pace generally hovering around the 20 minute per kilometre mark, but there were occasions where it dropped much slower. Llyn Ffinnon-y-Gwas (reservoir) glistened below as we passed along the southern side of Clogwyn-Du-Yr-Arduu (cliffs whose north face is said to offer the best climbing in Britain).

reaching the top / view of snowdon's summit (Yr Wyddfa)

The climbing continued with the gradient regularly between 20%-30% (sometimes steeper). I ate another energy bar and got some water from my bag here. Underfoot the path had been stony, but changed to large boulders used as steps as the zig-zagged its way up. Then the boulders gave way to a looser scree type of surface and then the course crossed the Snowdon Mountain Railway tracks.

One hour and fifty minutes into the race and I finally reached the point where the Snowdon Ranger Path meets the Llanberis Path - it's highest point of the course. My Garmin recorded the distance as 10.3km (almost halfway) and the elevation as 968m above sea level. The race does not go all the way to the summit (it's about another 500 metres along the path and over 100m higher), so I took a moment to admire it before continuing with the race.

llanberis path (10-11km)

The course now follows the Llanberis Path all the way down, and you might think that going down would be easier. It is not. The first few hundred metres had a slight camber to the left and as I ran over the loose slate fragments there was a constant pull to the left - it was really odd. The decline became steeper and the stones and slate that make up the path were hazardous with the risk of slipping pretty high.

There was a fantastic view across the Llanberis Pass towards the Glyderau (I climbed Tryfan, Yr Garn, Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr about ten years ago) from the 11.7km point which is where the Llanberis path goes underneath the railway line for the first time. After this the path switched from loose slate to large boulder stepping stones - these were no easier to negotiate and I came down quite heavy on my right foot causing a little pain in my ankle on more than one occasion.

view across to the glyders from the llanberis path

The path continued down at a gradient between 20%-38% (according to my Garmin) and the thought of twisting my ankle badly lead me to take these parts a little slower than I had imagined I would. The runners had really spread out and there were times where I couldn't see any other race participants. At about 13.5km I passed the Halfway House and received a few cheers from the hikers that were resting on their way to the summit.

The path generally got easier to run on the more I descended and I eventually caught up with another runner who informed me that he had already taken two tumbles on his way down the mountain. Every now and then there were some more sections of uneven rocks to negotiate and again I came down heavy on my ankle. Fortunately I got away with it again.

further down the llanberis path (11-16km)

The view to the left across the valley was just sublime - the Afon Arddu (river) was glistening in the sunshine and all that could be heard were the sounds of the passing steam trains and sheep bleating. As I neared the end of the Llanberis Path, the view to the right opened up and in the distance I could see the Dinorwic Slate Quarry which is where I would be heading shortly.

The end of the Llanberis Path was almost perfectly aligned with the 16km (10 mile) point of the course and my watch says I reached this point at around two hours and thirty-two minutes. With the uneven ground behind me for now and the smooth tarmac road still heading downhill, I quickly gained some speed and started flying past other runners.

tarmac path back to llanberis and the slate quarry steps (16-18km)

Into Llanberis, across the road and then through a bit of woodland behind the Royal Victoria Hotel, I ran just metres away from Dolbadarn Castle before popping out on the road that leads towards the previously mentioned slate quarry. At the end of the road I was directed into a small alley way (18km) which turned into a slate staircase which zig-zagged its way up the side of the quarry.

Given that I had been taking the race at a pace well below my ability, I was full of beans here and wanted to attack the steps, however I was stuck behind a long line of runners who had most-likely given everything they had already and looked totally knackered. At the end of the staircase, I was in a forest and running mostly on dirt trails.

finish area (21.1km) [note: clock showing time since start of the marathon]

Every time an opportunity presented itself I would move forward a place. There were rocks and other hazards on the trail path but it was a lot of fun here and while I was still moving slower than I would have liked, I was at least now back to running. This climb was the most frustrating section of the race for me and it took over 17 minutes at snail's pace to cover the 1km part staircase / part trail path of ascending (most of that was spent at a painfully slow pace on the staircase). By the 19 kilometre point the forest trail path was generally starting to head back down. It twisted and turned, was pretty technical, but above all, brilliant fun.

At the bottom of the path, the course returned to downhill tarmac and passed The National Slate Museum, again I opened up my stride and my pace quickened, overtaking plenty of runners who had been reduced to a shuffle. My ankle felt ok and I put in a honest effort over the last kilometre, finally turning onto the field where it all began, giving a thumbs up to my family and then crossing the line.

food / medal and t-shirt collection

The first thing I did after crossing the line was grab a drink and dive into the trays of food that had been laid out in the finishers' area. Crisps, oranges, biscuits - I took quite a lot and kept on eating - I was so hungry. After about 10 minutes of eating and drinking, I finally moved onto the commemorative t-shirt and medal collection point. I went for the extra small t-shirt and it fits really well.

The results were available instantly via the app and I received a notification on my phone. I had crossed the line in a gun time of 3.16.35. Given that I started fairly near the back, my official chip time was faster at 3.15.37. I had finished in 235th position out of 518 participants - still well within the top 50% despite taking it easy.

the hoops conquered the mountain

I was then reunited with my family and my friend Adam who had put in a great race effort and finished around 45 minutes earlier than me. We had a few photos taken and then Adam and his wife esther had to leave to head back to Dartford. We took things at a slower pace and wandered around Llanberis for a while before hitting the road back to our Welsh accommodation.

The only thing we were a little disappointed with was the TDL Event Services app which sounded as if it would give regular updates as I reached certain points of the course - the official race website called it the 'Live Tracker'. The reality was that it just gave a notification that I had started and then another when I had finished, along with my finish time.

the course hill profile

That aside, from my point of view the race seemed to run flawlessly and the course was just spectacular. The fact that it was such a tough course actually made it easier for me to use a run-walk method so that worked out much better than I had imagined. Although not the longest distance I have run, this was the longest amount of time I had ever spent out on a course so it was new ground for me.

If you are looking to enter this race I think you need to plan to take at least 1 hour longer than your usual half-marathon time if you are towards the sharp end (sub 1.30 half-marathoner). If you are further back or not very good a running uphill, it could well take you a hell of a lot longer. For the record, the last runner logged a chip time of 8 hours.

my official race stats

I recorded the whole race using my Garmin and you can view the course GPS file, here: Snowdonia Trail Half-Marathon 2017. The total elevation gain recorded on my Garmin was 1,183 metres and the highest point of the course was recorded as 968 metres. Interestingly, my data reports my 'total moving time' as 3 hours flat (I stopped quite often to take photos). You can also view my Relive video of the course, here - Snowdonia Trail Half-Marathon 2017

Full results: Snowdonia Trail Half-Marathon 2017
Official chip-timed result: 3.15.37
Overall finishing position (gun): 235 / 518 (234th by chip)
Gender position: 186 / 317
Age group position: 29 / 51

Related blog posts from my visit to Wales:
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