I had been pre registering for an event waiting list on si entries and happened to see this event coming up in the next two weeks. I didn’t have the money or time off from work but needed one more confidence boosting race before heading out to the Amazon at the end of September and this fitted well.
I contacted my good mate Pete about it. He was keen on doing the 10 peaks down in the Brecon Beacons but I thought it was a bit close to the Jungle. I asked if he was up for it but he needed to check with his wife. A short while later he came back to me saying “let’s go for it”. Within a couple of hours we had both registered, booked flights and arranged a hire car. It was on. I arranged to work an early shift on the Friday so I could fly out from Jersey in the afternoon and then a late shift on the Sunday starting at 15:00. Perfect, only one day off so no need to inform the boss.
The two weeks passed quickly and I was constantly on the website trying to learn a bit about the course. I didn’t know this part of Wales at all but enjoyed being in Snowdonia for day 1 of Dragons Back in June and was keen to explore a bit more.
Off to Liverpool we flew and I was very excited just to be off work for a day. A quick pint at the airport and we headed off for our first visit to Liverpool. Grabbed Hire car, got ripped off with extra insurance, had a small debate as Pete wanted a bigger car and I liked the Fiat 500, not just because it was cheaper.
Off we went for our 1 hour 30 minute drive which took closer to 3 hours, not just due to the poor navigation. Pete struggled a bit as he’s used to his GPS and I gave him directions printed from AA route planner.
Eventually we made it to the school at Betws-Y-Coed which was to be our base for the next two nights and proceeded to register. We were given our T-Shirts which are awesome, our Buff’s and our chip/dibber things to be worn on our wrists. Two forms needed to be completed, disclaimers I think and then we were done. I think the event crew were impressed with the distance we had travelled.
We had about an hour to get our tent up, get organised, get back to town to buy some food and beer and be back at the school for registration. I hadn’t put the tent up for a couple of years and it had only been used by my kids in the garden so I had no idea what sort of condition it would be in but it went up with minimal delay and we dashed off to the lovely little village for fish and chips and to stock up on snacks and breakfast for the following day.
The briefing was informative with a nice bilingual welcoming from the race director Henry. A couple of changes from the issued Harvey’s maps and a few comical pronunciations of little Welsh villages but all was done in quick time. Following our thorough kit check we headed off for an early night in the tent in the rain. Lovely Welsh summer weather. And it rained all night and was due to be on and off for all of the following day.
We woke up nice and early at around 05:00, had the compulsory wee out of the door of the tent, only to stand in your own piss a few minutes later when exiting the tent. Breakfast of a cheese and ham sandwich we purchased from the Spar the night before, feet taped, balls lubed, clothes on and final kit check. Ready to rock.
There was a lovely small race vibe about the morning. Only about 68 competitors and all very friendly. I think the whole primary school setting keeps everyone calm and happy. The flowers, the bright colours, murals, paintings etc. After a quick countdown we headed off with me and Pete comfortably in the middle of the pack. A few guys shot off at the front but we knew it would be a long day. Our main aim was to finish in 14 hours. This was based on nothing scientific, merely that we wanted to finish in day light and we guessed that it got dark at 20:30 in this part of the world. That’s it and that’s all. We were clueless. With plenty of people ahead of us there was little need for the maps. I don’t remember much about the specifics of the race as I was busy chatting and socialising but the terrain was great, extremely varied. A bit of forest running which I really enjoyed, some ups, some downs, some road, a bit of marshland and bog. I think I sank up to my knee on a couple of occasions. The welsh slate was treacherous and greasy due to the rainfall and I’m not sure my New Balance Leadvilles were the best choice however I’m not really sure what would be good on slippery, smooth wet slate? Answers on a post card please.
CP 1 came and went without hassle and I stuffed my face with plenty of food and drink. I don’t really remember the route much but it was fairly flat for a couple of km and followed a river until the check point in a tiny village. It’s always a relief to get the first check point out of the way. You know the race is on then and you have a fair idea of what to look forward to at the other check points. None of them disappointed. They were all manned by a bunch of friendly volunteers and stocked with a huge array of food and drink. Plenty of water and flat coke, lots of nuts, sweets, sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. Another race where I was going to put on weight throughout the day!
On leaving the checkpoint it was a long and steady hike up a well maintained track/road traversing a decent size hill and passing briefly through a small forest where I had to stop for a toilet break in the woods. It’s always annoying to let people overtake you but I felt better and quicker for it so I’d catch them later. Towards check point two I noticed some strange man made structure at the top of what seemed to be slate quarries. People started appearing in red jump suits with helmets and harnesses and it turned out to be “Zip world” – home of the longest zip line in Europe and the fastest in the World. Snowdonia seems like a fantastic place to live and both Pete and I were rather envious about the activities available up here. Very impressive. Immediately we could hear the loud whizzing noises and looked up to find people in their red jump suits flying along horizontally through the air at up to 100mph. Incredible and rather exciting to have this unique activity occurring over your heads as you’re descending the trails. Check point 2 was similar to the first, lots of food, friendly marshal’s who were more than happy to top up your water and plenty of banter. One memorable conversation went like this:
Random female competitor: I like wearing tight shorts but they do give me a massive camel toe
Steve: Strange look towards aforementioned camel toe
Random female competitor: Sorry about that (slightly embarrassed face)
Steve: It’s OK, I haven’t seen a decent Camel toe for a while
Random female competitors boyfriend: Angry look in my direction
Still, it gave Pete and I something to chuckle about for the next hour or so and there you have it, a new nick name for one of the competitors. She would now be know as Cameltoe for the remainder of the day – and we saw her a lot.
I enjoyed CP 2 TO 3 on the whole. The weather wasn’t great and the rain became fairly heavy but the terrain was varied and the views dramatic. A bit of road and then a bit of a shaley climb around some disused quarries, past a very pretty lake and some very old foundations of buildings. There was a long down hill towards CP3 with the path quite technical and very slippery. I came a bit of a cropper as I was going a bit too fast down hill and lost my footing on a big slab of wet Welsh slate. 82kgs of solid muscle landing firmly on my left arse cheek. It knocked the wind out of me and I immediately thought I’d broken my pelvis and my race was over, and the race after this one. Once I’d manned up a bit and gathered my breath I struggled to my feet and continued running. A couple of passers by offered assistance but I was OK, just a blow to my confidence which made me a little more cautious. Shortly after I slipped on some wet grass and landed in exactly the same place! Typical! Pete made me feel better though by catching his toe on a stone and launching himself face first across the path in front of me. Note to self, I must buy a Gopro for the Jungle to catch similar moments.
CP3 was fine. The usual. Friendly volunteers, filling water bottles, eating as much as possible and heading off before we were overtaken. I was made to feel better about my fall after seeing another runner with blood all over his head and face. He was unlucky and clipped his eyebrow when he fell. He was still running and gave me no reason to moan about my sore arse.
The rest of the day passed without incident. I had been tired all day and my legs just didn’t feel fresh. This could be down to me not being recovered enough from Dragons Back in June and Round the Rock in July but I think it was more down to poor personal management in the week leading up to the race. No mental prep, no massage, very little stretching. Perhaps only booking it two weeks ago doesn’t give you enough time to get excited and prepared. Never mind, I was never in doubt that I would finish it but Pete and I had revised our 14 hour finish to 15 hours and I think at one point we said we didn’t even care if it was 18 hours, it was all good training.
CP4 was the location of our drop bags so out came my millionaire’s shortbread and the other half of our cheese and ham sandwich. I took the opportunity here to take off my socks, re adjust my silicone toe caps and remove a load of grit from my socks. A quick stretch and off we went on our way towards CP5. This was a long old trek, probably about 15km but well marked and fairly easy terrain. We flanked Snowdon and some of the other mountains that I longed to climb but didn’t have the time or energy for any extra mileage. We had a long descent into Llanberis, crossing the Snowdon mountain railway which I realised later meant that we had gone the wrong way. We had taken the wrong footpath and had come off the mountain too early and had probably done an extra km and had to run through the town of Llanberis for a bit longer. Same routine at the checkpoint but this time Welsh Oggies (pasty’s) were on the menu. I declined as this wasn’t part of my carefully planned nutrition strategy of “eat everything in sight if it’s full of sugar”.
CP5 to 6 was another fairly long stint with a fair bit of climbing and for a change a little bit of navigation across some open marshland for a couple of km. CP6 was back at “Zip world” which confused me a lot as the route was a single loop. I discovered quite quickly that this crazy activity is so popular that they’ve built two, only about 30km apart. This one was even busier and I was told it was £60 per go on the zip wire. What a business. Now where could I put one of these in Jersey? I had been recommended the soup from a couple of lads that were about 10 minutes ahead of us so Pete and I indulged in a five minute sit down and a cup of lovely warming soup. Although Pete and I always just have the aim of finishing events, there is a bit of a competitor in both of us and we hate being caught up and losing positions and we love nothing more than getting someone in our sights and trying to close the gap and if possible overtake them. We were now at a stage, 75% into the race where we had overtaken quite a few people and been overtaken by none. This, I believe, is a sign of perfect pacing.
CP6 to CP7 was a long old stint but we had a group of three in front of us and we were closing the gap. The terrain was runnable which I hate but Pete was pushing the pace so I had to follow. I felt strong occasionally and he had to struggle to keep up but this was little chatting going on as we constantly leap frogged one another. I had the opportunity to practice my Welsh which was dreadful but I was so excited to have just spoken to real Welsh people in Wales in Welsh. You don’t get that don’t south you see.
Both Pete and I were making a note of where the three tiny specks (other racers) were in front of us and starting our stop watches to see if we were closing the gap. We were and we couldn’t see anyone catching us up. Good news and we were approaching Llyn Ogwen and the base of Tryfan where we had passed together about six weeks earlier on day one of Dragons Back. Tryfan still looked very imposing and again I wanted to have a crack at it but Pete was busy making me run along the pavement to the end of the lake where we would then turn off onto a footpath. I had the map in my hand most of the time and enjoyed ticking off the KM’s and informing Pete of our progress and how far we had to go which spurred us on a bit. Not long to the final checkpoint. At this point we had been being chased down by a more mature chap called John Jones. He was a phenomenal athlete who we had been passing for a few hours now. Due to his age and the fact he hadn’t run more than a marathon before and that he hadn’t run more than 30 miles in total in the first 8 months of the year made his performance even more incredible. He was like something out of the Terminator. Everytime Pete and I looked behind he would be sneaking up on us again. He was being well supported by his son so Pete and I would run past his son, say hi and shortly after we would hear his motor bike overtaking us as he made his way to the next road head to cheer on his old man. John would stop for a chat with his son and Pete and I would make our escape, run as fast as we could and try to open up the gap until shortly after we would turn around and see John relentlessly closing in on us. He never overtook though, I thin he preferred playing chase.
CP7 – The final checkpoint was fantastic. The usual goodies but this time with additional Marshmallows and Carlsberg although I rarely and sensibly declined the offer. Music was playing and the Marshalls seemed pretty happy on their sofa in the middle of the woods with beers in hands. We were informed that it was about 8km to the finish and mostly down hill. This was great news and we continued on our way. Full up with goodies from the checkpoint we made good progress and ran virtually everything as we knew 14 hours was back on the cards. There was a fair amount of road running and as we were told, most of it was downhill so progress was good. We hadn’t seen the three guys ahead of us for some time but after turning a corner we saw one of them. Like a couple of kids, we quietened our step to maintain the element of surprise and when the chap in front slowed, we sped up a lot just to really damage his confidence and improve ours thus helping us gain a place in the final standings. What a couple of dick heads!
On overtaking this chap and passing Johns son on his motorbike (stationary at the time) we headed up a steep section of road and entered some woods and lovely soft trails. This was awesome and a welcome relief from the exposed footpaths and roads we had become used to. This was soft and slightly technical and we were flying along in pursuit of the other two guys we had had our sights on for the past couple of hours. We had agreed that overtaking them with less than 2km to go was unsportsmanlike but we still had about 3km to go. We flew passed them and absorbed their “great running comments” happily. With confidence high, legs feeling good and lovely terrain we were running very well. We were averaging about 8-9 minute miles which for us at the 57 mile stage was quite impressive and at one point on a steep bit of downhill road I think I got it down to a six minute mile pace (for around a minute). The light was fading fast and had we not been so close to the finish I would have stopped to put my head torch on but we were so close. After crossing a small bridge over a raging river, climbing some steep steps and skating over some smooth boulders we emerged to the main road that looked like it was just a stones throw from the housing estate that surround the school we were camped at and the finish line. I whooped for joy and we both upped the pace along a short section of road to the finish line.
We crossed the line together in 13 hours and 54 minutes (20th) to a nice big applaud and plenty of cheers. Immediately offered water, beer or both, we went for the latter option. Presented by the race director with gorgeous slate medals we could barely hold up and a bit of paper with our finish times, positions and a hand drawn sheep. All lovely touches and added to the value of the event. From there I went to the kitchen area for several plates of very nice pasta and garlic bread. I had enquired as to whether the shop would be open in town for me to go and get more beer but was told it was all in hand. It turned out that there was free beer for everyone for most, if not all of the night. This was fantastic. Pete had a shower whilst I was eating and then I went to the tent to get my toiletries only to find my sleeping mat and bag floating on about two inches of water. Bloody marvellous! After a lovely hot shower (two had been set up in the school car park in old bathtubs) I changed and proceeded to sort out somewhere warm and dry to spend the night. We would have been perfectly happy sleeping in the Fiat 500 but a classroom floor with lots of cushions was the preferred option, offered by the RD without hesitation. We emptied the tent, hung it up to dry and set out our beds in Year 4. From there we went back to the kitchen for more beer, more pasta and a bit of chat about past and future events.
The next morning we were provided with bacon and egg rolls (for a small fee) and made our way towards Liverpool airport.
To summarise, this is a fantastic event that deserves to be on everyone’s radar. Very well organised, beautiful scenery, well marked but with a little navigation required at times or a good sense of direction and outstanding value for money. £65 for two nights of camping, a great T shirt, buff and medal, well stocked food stations, excellent Marshalls, free beer (although I did make a donation to Henry for the few hat Pete and I drank as I felt the provision of Beer was way over and above my expectations) and just a great atmosphere. I would certainly be back and would try to bring a few more members of the Jersey Ultra community.
Kit wise, I went quite light. I wore my NB leadvilles which was their last outing following Dragons Back, my Montane trail shorts – the tight ones as I wanted to trial them for the Jungle, my trusty OMM t shirt and Inov8 race vest 10 litre. I had the usual race kit of spare base layer, top and bottom, waterproof layers which consist of very cheap trousers from Go Outdoors and my Berghaus vapourlight hyper smock 2.0 which raised a few eyebrows at kit check due to it’s tiny size but worked very well throughout the day. I had a first aid kit, compass and LED lenser head torch. I chose not to use my poles which I’m happy with. They would have provided some stability on the wet slabs but I prefer to keep my hands free.
Would I do the race again? Yes, absolutely and I would try for sub 13 hours.
Thank you to my supportive sponsors; Dolan Hotels, Mercury Distribution, Expedition foods