Snowdonia Trail Ultra

It’s taken me a good 6 months to do an event again, for a number of reasons, February and March I’d had minor surgery so that put me out for a while. I’d danced around a few trails myself in slow-mo mode over bank holidays which was fun but just taking my time. I then signed up for Endure 24 in Mid to late May thinking I may be able to have a go at 100 miles in a looped event, something a bit different. I told the world, and every man and his dog and every lady and their cats and my cats. But alas it wasn’t meant to be, the conspiracy theory set in and I found myself withdrawing a few weeks after due to a minor tweak to my ankle and more importantly the loss of my beautiful best friend and running buddy. Ultra-running is more mind than the body and my mind wasn’t on it. It wasn’t meant to be. My confidence and mindset had taken a bit of a tumble and though I loved running I had fallen out with wanting to enter events and challenge myself in a different way to just running on within my isolated self.

I wanted more running happiness, something that my best friend left me scribbled on a piece of paper. I wanted running happiness in a different environment as I was getting a bit bored of running from home. I’d also taken her running hat and was determined to wear it with gratitude and passion for putting one foot forward for a few many miles taking it on different journeys to beautiful places.

My feet have several thousand meetings scheduled with the dirt on a trail, who am I to keep them waiting?

So, I’d seen this event about a month previous, on a Sunday (yey no time off work), various distances (10km, half, marathon and ultra) and still places available. Within a three hour drive of home and in a stunning part of Wales, it was attracting me day by day. The Snowdonia Trail Marathon (Ultra). I looked up the Facebook pages and saw that people were selling entries (legally as the system allowed swapping to only a few days before) So about 5 days before I contacted someone about an entry he was selling, we swapped all details and boom I was in. A little bit of YHA luck too as I managed to bag a dorm bed at Llanberis Hostel only half a mile out of the village for £20. So by Thursday night, I was all set to take on the Ultra – 37ish miles with over 7000ft of ascent with an amazing climb to almost the top of Snowdon after 30ish miles. Sounded like a perfect excuse to have a day in the hills. Cut-offs were generous – a whole 12 hours to do the Ultra so I knew I could probably power walk it if worse came to the worse. I say this as the week before I faceplanted around a Dam near to Sheffield and jarred my hip so it was aching and I was nervous walking around with the little bit of itchy discomfort I had.

So on Saturday evening, I arrived at the YHA. The dorm room had other runners and one swimmer. I switched myself off and mindful event thoughts ran through my head. I wasn’t going to put on my competitive head for the day, I just wanted a day out in the hills and to run happy.

The race started 6.30am Sunday morning. The weather gods were amazing, even at the early hour of 5.30am as I walked down to the race village I was in tee and shorts. The compulsory kit included ‘full body cover’ I had opted for my waterproof top and trousers rather than showerproof in case the weather would change dramatically and if I was moving slowly or if I tripped. Registration was a breeze, even though there was no breeze. I was surprised having only entered a few days before that my bib supported my name on it, normally I get a blank bib due to entering so late.

After the briefing (full kit required as the low cloud was forecasted at the top of Snowdon later in the day), the race began. I started about 3/4 the way back. The usual style of race starts, lots of anxious runners came bounding past me through the village and back up the hill past the YHA. I was walking within about 3 minutes of the start. I didn’t care about those around me, about my slow pace about anything. I was running. My hip was already hurting and I was worried but as I’d said to Matt at the start – a local lad from Sheffield who told me he was doing the event a while back, even if I get to 10 miles it’s a day out in the hills.

Start running, clear your head, stop when you are done

The route took a climb up from the village on a rocky trail. The trail was lovely but everyone was doing my head in around me. I don’t mean this in a cruel way, it was just my mindset and though people had come hurtling past me in the first few miles, conversations that I just wanted to block out, too many people engulfing the beautified mountains, I felt a little frustrated about 3 or 4 miles in with a big trail of people climbing up the hill. I kept my distance and just put my head down to grind out the first bit. I wish I’d plugged in my headphones something I never do in an event as many events don’t allow it.

When I am running I don’t have to talk to anyone and don’t have to listen to anybody, this is a part of my day I can’t do without

But then my running happiness exploded. As a mass of runners reached the top of this hill, to join up the Snowdon Ranger Path, I found myself jumping and skipping down the path and within a few minutes a gush of adrenaline swept through me and I danced my way across the fell-like terrain in my own space. Mud trods, mud bogs, mud trails in many different places but that didn’t seem to bother me, but just gave me more energy. I felt my balance, my placement and my happiness. I was now in running happiness mode just over 4 miles in and that didn’t stop for the majority of the rest of the event.

I had no idea where I was in the pack. Runners behind and runners in front. I didn’t care this wasn’t about racing it was about running happily in the hills within a safe and controlled environment. The route was fully marked, literally. I’ve always been dubious about ‘fully marked’ courses and always check the map beforehand. I had also printed off the map and got the GPS file as well as faffing with the OS maps on viewranger prior to the event.

The route dropped down to a place called Rhyd Ddu and then left the ‘marathon’ route and went onto the ‘ultra’ route. Through forestry tracks to start with, wide and runnable. I was feeling steady, enjoying every step. My thoughts drifted to certain events in the past month, my body filled with gratitude. I smiled as I remembered the cap on my head and whispered something to myself and gods above.

Peace, love run

The route then diverted into more fell-like tracks and a climb up another felly hill, across some rocky streams and a clamber up a few little rocks. The clag on the top cleared as we climbed up. I was now making polite ultra talk with a few people, including a lovely girl who was taking photos of mountains that engulfed the landscape.

A marshall at the top warned us of the slippery descent, he was certainly right. The slippy rubble and grass gave the potential for some potentially powerful skids and faceplants but I managed to stay on two feet. After meandering through more woodland we dropped down to the village of Beddgelert where the marathon runners were to join us. I caught up with a couple of people, another girl and a guy, we had a little chat and I managed to sneak in a wee whilst she was just behind me rather than do it in front of anyone of the opposite sex.

Then the superspeedy marathon runners came hurtling past us, wow they were good. The strides, the power the energetic athleticism of the front runners was just amazing to watch. Both the men and women marathoners were now coming at us at full speed whilst us ultra runners would politely cheer them on at the same time as opening gates and letting them go over stiles first. The marathon was the World Mountain Championships Qualifier, so I knew the front runners would want to go go go, for me holding a gate open to let them come through was the least I could do for such amazing athletes.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order

The checkpoints were every few miles, and though I had my own fuel, Tailwind of course, along with a couple of mini chia bars – my new experiment, and a few little other goodies, the checkpoints were stocked up with sweeties, water, high 5 juice and bananas as well as gels and flapjack bars. I didn’t take any food from the checkpoints as my body was feeling quite strong on Green Tea Tailwind and Chia bars.

The route followed a river to a lake, pretty, and pretty flat, and more and more marathon runners (so I assumed) came whizzing by thanking me for holding more gates and allowing them past as I just plodded on in my own solitary way. I was running strong at 20 miles. I hadn’t bothered looking at my watch it didn’t matter and I didn’t need the breadcrumb trail either I just knew my body was holding up and the hip issue was about a 2/10 rather than the 5 or 6 /10 at the start of the event.

Rocky terrain followed the few miles of easy flatness, I let more and more marathon runners pass on by as I plodded on in my own little way. There were a few people I was overtaking both male and female at the same time but by this time I had no idea who was in what race and whether the half marathon joined up or not.

After our ‘ultra’ marathon, i.e reaching 26 miles, the route climbed up to Pen y Pass. It looked miles away but I knew this track slightly as I’d walked it a few years ago. I got out my poles and cracked on. Surrounded by more runners but now at much more peace with myself, as everyone around me was just concentrating on their own selves, there was some sort of bizarre comfort now with people around me, making typical trail conversation, egging each other on. ‘It’s just one more big bump’ said one girl to me as Little Miss Snowdon dramatically disappeared up into the mist. The next mission.

The guys at Pen y Pass were excellent, filling my bottles and asking how I was. I said hi to Matt, the guy I saw at the beginning who I knew from home, a Steel City Strider from Sheffield but I won’t hold that against him. He was being fed by his other half and must have had a cracking first 30 miles. 30 miles, and only 7 or so to go, up the Pyg track to almost the top of Snowdon, so let’s get this done.

Trails, natures treadmill

I put one foot in front of the other, as I transcended the Pyg Track. There were hordes of day walkers going up too, I had to do my ‘excuse me please’ puff as I staggered past them all. ‘A girl on a mission’ said one as I passed them. I was also passing a few other runners, having no idea which race they were in. My nutrition so far had been pretty spot on. However, I was beginning to get cramp in my left quad. I’d never really had cramp before and I could feel it freezing up. It was my right hip that I was having a few issues with so wondered if I had overcompensated on the left. I started trying to lean in with my right leg first to take some pressure off the left leg and the oncoming cramp. I got out my salt tabs too. As I climbed higher the cramp was creeping in further, as was the low cloud. The change in temperature, the number of miles and the technically but stupendous natural scenery were obviously taking its toll on my body. Running the hills of Sheffield is all well and good but it doesn’t quite prepare yourself even for one of the more ‘easy’ routes up Snowdon on the Pyg track. I had a faff with my rucksack taking it off my back to find another mini chia bar. I found it in an unstrategic place in my backpack. Meanwhile, my somewhat dodgy watch had fallen off my wrist (the strap was half broken anyway) and I hadn’t noticed it had fallen off for a few minutes as I scrambled up the slippy rock face. I then noticed and shouted back, ‘**** I’ve dropped my watch’ a kind runner behind me caught me up and had found it. I stuffed it in my pocket and that was that I didn’t need it, it wasn’t going to help me, the strap had broken and I didn’t care.

Finally, I reached the top of the Pyg Track a photographer had taken a fantastic spot at the top and captured me with the biggest grin on my face as I ploughed up the final little bit. The quads were still tight but as I reached the top they eased off. The top was clagged in mist as the marshal pointed the direction to go, straight ahead and then straight down the Llanberis track which was masked in greyness. The day so far had been incredible, blue skies all around so I certainly couldn’t complain.

It’s not about how fast you run it’s about how long you stick with it

Then just 5 or so miles to drop back down to the race village and the finish. Once I started to descend the mist cleared to display hordes of day walkers picking their way up or down the path. There was one more checkpoint just after one of the stations on the railway that takes those that don’t like walking or running up and down the mountain. The loose rock created difficult conditions to run on after 32 plus miles. To make it even worse another Strider came hurtling past me, however, he was in the marathon so it did make me feel better as I had a bit of banter with him.

At the final checkpoint, one guy was having a wobble. Although I had enough water to last me the final 4 or so miles I took two cups of high 5 which I had declined at other checkpoints as I couldn’t be bothered to faff with any more Tailwind. That made me feel better and I followed the twists and turns that just seemed to go on forever. Steep at times and somewhat relentless it never seemed to level out. I held back a little as I was aware of my hip, and knowing it could click any time, and although the quads were now tight and taking a real hammering down the hill I could deal with the discomfort that engulfed my body.

A photographer snapped at me around 2 miles from the end. I am not sure how I looked that far in but I didn’t care. I still had a smile on my face and I knew I was going to make it to the end. A couple of people came past me but I didn’t care either and wasn’t going to chase them down, I was happy in Helen mode and I stayed in Helen mode.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I reached the road, where we merged with the 10km race. This was nice, nice and simple running alongside the 10km’ers. I put on the brakes when I hit a very steep tarmac descent as I just couldn’t relax and plummet down. Finally, I reached the village but I didn’t quite realise there was another half or so of a mile around winding trails that would bring me out towards the back of the race village. That last half miles felt tough, very tough but once I saw the race village and people cheering me on ‘oh another ultra runner, well done, well done, that’s amazing, well done’ my grimaced face turned to a big grin and almost a tear in my eye, not emotionally for me but for the hat I was wearing. I ran into the finish feeling astonishingly overwhelmed with the terrific trails that I had just been able to run.

Good, better best. Never let it rest. Till your good is better and your better is the best.

Little did I know that I’d actually bagged 3rd Female overall well until I’d become human again. I managed to down my recovery drink (Tailwind Rebuild mixed with coconut water as I had left one in my finish drop bag instead of a bottle of water), had a cup of tea, a packet of crisps, sunbathed and contemplated the world, the universe and beyond. It felt weird not being able to send a message to my best friend as I would always send a message to her after races, as she’d often be the only person to know what I was up to. I didn’t even know my time as my watch was still in my pocket broken and probably still switched on.

I began to wonder how long it had taken me and how others had done. I had a quick look at the app that showed various checkpoint times and finish times. I was gobsmacked, I was shown as third female overall. I didn’t race it I just had running happiness in my heart and on my head. I found out a conversation had evolved on Twitter to whether I was me or not. I had to admit later it was me and not my twin sister. I just wanted the solidarity of running, the weird feeling of no one knowing where I was, what I was doing and just being engulfed in the beautiful scenery and this beautiful world. I am just grateful for running happiness. Be happy, stay happy, run happy.

Thank you Snowdonia Trail Marathon (Ultra) for an amazing day out in the hills, for the well organised beautiful trails, for the weather gods and to lead me to even more running happiness.

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