Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Snowdonia Marathon 2010

The Snowdonia Marathon boasts a spectacular and demanding route which circles Snowdon. It runs from LLanberis over Pen Y Pass; down to Beddgelert then past Waunfawr and back to Llanberis. It is widely regarded as one of the most scenic marathons in the UK. The huge changes in elevation and weather also make it one of the hardest. This year is Snowdonia’s 28th Marathon. It is my first.

I started the year feeling like I had become too comfortable with life. After a hard shift at work I would crack open a few beers and drinking to excess was routine each weekend. My smoking was also a problem. Like every smoker and non-smoker know: smoking is a stupid habit. It was particularly stupid for me because it often made my mild asthma a lot worse. Also, the two habits of drinking and smoking would often go hand in hand. One could not be done without the other. This meant that I wouldn’t smoke too much in the daytime but would more than make up for it in the evenings and weekends. I was quickly putting on more weight than the festive excuses would allow. At the start of 2010 I was two stone overweight and not very happy with the early onset middle aged spread that I was developing. Like many people who start running I was getting depressed at the lack of progression in my life. I really needed to run away from my past and keep moving forward at all costs. Running seemed the only option.

Like most people I was made to run in school. I was quite good in both long distance and sprint but by the time anyone noticed I had discovered smoking, drinking and laziness. From then on I ran occasionally but never kept it up for more than a week. Part of the problem was that whenever I ran I tried to run as quickly as I had done in school. Of course, this just led to me getting too tired too quickly and left me disheartened at my lack of ability. This time I followed a training plan which increased my mileage slowly and sensibly. I immersed myself in books and magazines to learn exactly how complicated it could be putting one foot in front of the other. What I’ve found is that to varying degrees of accuracy everyone who has ever run has an opinion on the best way to do it. This means there is an almost infinite amount of advice on nutrition to running style to fashion. This sea of knowledge seems to exist solely to confuse the novice runner. However, two pieces of advice seemed to stand out, First off, the most important item is a good pair of running shoes which are fitted at a specialist running shop. Secondly, having a goal is very important to help motivate and encourage. With the first one ticked off I went about setting my goals.

Whilst flipping through a running magazine I came across a particular breed of mad men and women. These are the strange and almost superhuman set of creatures known as ultra runners. I was instantly captivated by the crazy feats of endurance that these people put themselves through. How did I not know that there were such things as 100 mile races; or that people ran continuously for 24 hours. These people run through deserts and mountains seemingly impervious to weather conditions. I was captivated by the sense of freedom that these people must feel. I wouldn’t even consider walking a mile to the shops leave alone running these seemingly impossible distances. I suddenly thought that it would be an amazingly simple way to see the countryside. If you could run 100 miles anything could be possible. A very stupid idea slowly started to hatch. I wanted to run an ultra marathon by the summer of 2011 and become an ultra runner.

To accomplish this long term goal I needed to set out a series of stepping stones along the way. One of these (admittedly, rather large) stepping stones was to run a marathon. The Snowdonia Marathon seemed the obvious choice as it was close to home and gave me ten months to prepare. It also provided me an opportunity to run around one of the most beautiful areas in Wales.

In this blog I have detailed the ups and downs of my training and the definite highs of completing two half marathons. Needless to say, I won’t go through it all again here. However, my immediate preparation for the marathon was far from perfect which meant that my confidence was at rock bottom. A month ago I was hoping for a finishing time that was close to four hours but now I considered my odds of just completing the marathon were approximately fifty-fifty. As I sat in my car on a very wet Llanberis morning I was apprehensive but genuinely pleased just to be starting.

The weather was supposed to be quite mild but as I walked to and from the race registration it was clear that it was going to be far from a nice day. Never trust the weatherman. With some last minute changes to my attire, and after 200 trips to the toilet I lined up at the start confident that I was ready for anything. Around me people chatted and it seemed half of them had done the race before and were giving advice to the other half of first timers. “Don’t go all out on the first downhill bit” said one experienced looking fellow. “Everyone walks the hill at mile 22” said another gnarly looking man in a 100 Marathon Club vest. I was more than happy to take these pieces of advice on board as I had very little notion of a race plan of my own. All I wanted to do was to take the first half easy and then see what would happen. I also knew that this was going to be the toughest day of my life. My mental and physical reserves would be tested to their absolute limited. Of course, I tried not think about any of this and, with very little fuss or fanfare, the race began.

I was very aware that the first five miles were going to be a test of my bad knee. If the pain surfaced early on I knew that it would be nearly impossible to get to the end. So, every step was a tentative shuffle into the unknown. Other than that I felt pretty good and was running well whilst deliberately holding back. The climb up to Pen y Pass can only be described as “constant”. It wasn’t particularly steep but the three miles of uphill just went on forever. Half way up someone said “they say you should never look at the white house at the top of Llanberis as it never seems to get any nearer”. Of course, when someone says “don’t look at something” all you can do is look. Thanks to Mr.Stupid, I was now trapped in an optical illusion where the house does indeed get no closer. The persistence is rewarded at the top of the Pass by a glorious view and the promise of several miles of relaxing downhill.

As I started on the long downhill section to Beddgelert I was keen to hold back even though people started streaming past me. A couple of things started to happen on this stretch. Firstly, my knee gave out its first pang of pain. This weighed quite heavy on my mind for a bit and I started to get angry at the thought of pulling out. Then I had a bit of a mental breakthrough. Now this is a bit mad so bare with me. In my mind I spoke to my knee along the lines of: “look, I know you hurt but I am just going to ignore you. I don’t care what you’ve got to say, I am just going ignore you. Do your worst”. And that was that. I was aware of the discomfort throughout the rest of the race but I didn’t pay it any attention until right at the end. It was some kind of Vulcan mind control shit. From that point onwards I didn’t give my knee a second thought.

The second thing to happen was that after my first gel my stomach started throwing loops. On my long training runs I have never really had any problems in the stomach department. The Lucazade gels have always worked for me and I wasn’t really expecting my stomach to start acting up after just six miles. It occurred to me that with all my injuries leading up to the marathon I hadn’t used any gels for six weeks. I had only done short runs and had no need of them. Of course, this meant that my stomach wasn’t used to them and was revolting. In future I might take a gel before every bout of exercise during a taper. Anyway, I struggled with this all the way to mile 15. I won’t go into specifics but let’s just say that whoever was behind me would have got 9 miles worth of gut rot. Sorry about that.

I kept a nice constant pace up until the half way point. I reached 13.1 miles at Beddgelert in two hours and ten minutes which was bang on my target pace. The long hill out of Beddgelert presented me with my hardest mile so far. For some reason I went through a bad patch on mile 15. I think maybe it was just the thought of how far there was left to go. From mile 17 I kept on thinking about what the old codger said at the start: “everyone walks the hill at mile 22”. In truth, I was just looking forward to having a bit of a walk. I was really starting to struggle and decided that I would have two minutes of walking at every mile marker. I had stopped looking at the scenery, my head was down and my pace had dropped considerably. I got really demoralised at this stage and felt trapped between the impulse to stop and the determination to carry on. Luckily I managed to cling on to the latter. At mile 20 I was acutely aware that every step was the longest I had ever run. I just wanted to get to mile 22 where “everyone walks”. I naively thought that it would be easy from that point. A bit of uphill then a fast descent back into Llanberis. How wrong I was.

When I reached the foot of the hill at mile 22 my legs were gone. My feet and muscles were barely functioning and I was reduced to walking for the best part of two miles. I wasn’t alone in doing this. Nearly everyone except the odd nutter was reduced to an uphill shuffle. Halfway up I was passed by a guy still running who looked about 100 years old. I hope I’m that fit when I get to his age. It was also at this point that the weather turned from grim to hellish. Fierce lashings of rain accompanied by rumblings of thunder and lightning made the climb more ominous. I was also aware that running to the top of a high hill in a thunder storm is not the best policy if one wants to keep living. The most depressing thing was how long and steep this hill was. Physically, I should have been more resilient and tried to run but mentally, I couldn’t have given any more at that stage. If I was mentally tougher I would have tried to run for twenty paces then walk for twenty paces. However, in my state it was all I could do to just keep moving forward. The hill just seemed to carry on and on until at last the first signs of glorious, amazing, beautiful downhill trail.

With stiff legs I started to run again. The weather had been damp all the way round: dry with the occasional heavy shower. But by this point the weather had gotten ridiculous and the pathway had turned into a stream. It was useless to try and stay dry and whilst people were going the long way round the puddles I came crashing through with gleeful abandon. I was actually beginning to enjoy this. The path then became so steep that it became difficult to keep my footing. With most people wearing road shoes everyone was slipping and sliding. If there was a Ministry of Silly Runs we would have all been part of it on that slope. It would have been tricky in fell running shoes but in road shoes we might as well have been running on ice. I was now officially having fun.

Once I hit the tarmac my knee suddenly became really painful and on the steep descent my quads were in agony. I was forced to slow down but I didn’t really care because I knew that I was going to make it. At this point the rain shifted up another gear and became insane. Over the last two miles I had been experiencing a proper “runners high” and the further change in the weather got me laughing. It was just ridiculous. It seemed the closer I got to the finish line the worse the weather got. But, I knew I had beaten it. Nothing was going to stop me now. As the road levelled out I kicked on and flew around the last few corners until I saw the finish line. Then I kicked again, sprinting the last fifty meters and across the finish line.

Through the torrential downpour I was greeted by a woman who kindly put a space blanket over my shoulders and told me that we were all mad. I wasn’t going to disagree with her. And I wasn’t going to stop smiling. Now, I am not an overly emotional human being and after hearing stories of people crossing their first marathon finish line I didn’t know what to expect. Wandering away from the finish area, I was caught with a feeling somewhere between sheer relief and happiness. The former made me want to cry and the latter made me want to laugh. The feeling only lasted a second but it felt good. With the emotional moment over I went to find a wall to lean against. My finishing time: 04:48:30. I am pleased that I managed to do it in less than five hours but the time is not really important. I am at peace with just finishing.

There is nothing quite like the calmness that exhaustion provides. As I was congratulated by my family I felt quite far away. I was getting cold and was really appreciative of the hot coffee at the hall. Once I got changed into some dry and warm clothes I started feeling a bit more normal. The organisers and marshals did a stellar job and deserve as much credit as the runners for putting up with some of those conditions. I’m also really thankful of my family who put up with the crazy rain at the finish and who drove me home and fed me steak.

Over the past few days I have been perfecting the zombie walk. It’s very difficult to walk up stairs without bending your legs. I’ve been eating a lot and trying to stay off my feet. I am in a great amount of pain but am constantly reassured by the fact that I am a marathoner. At mile 17 I felt like maybe marathons weren’t for me. Now I’m looking for my next one. I would like to try a flat one in future safe in the knowledge that my time will only get better. At least I know that there is not going to be a harder course than that.

With the breathtaking hills and apocalyptic weather Snowdonia has given me a glimpse of my own frailty and of my own strength. They say you learn something about yourself in those last few miles. I learnt that I really like rain and splashing through puddles. It really was one of the most amazing things I have ever done and I will certainly continue being a marathoner for many years to come.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely love your race report and so glad you actually raced and finished. I had read some of your blog on U-tube before the marathon so am really pleased for you ....i know the pain runners knee can give you!!!!! Snowdonia was my second marathon.....London being my first. I wont be returning to London but i sure will be returning to Snowdonia ....next year!!!!
Well done you ....you have mad me laugh this morning with your decriptive antics !!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog! Well done on completing your first marathon - always the hardest!!
My own very brief story "Started running in 2005 age 40, never done any serious physical exercise in life before, more than 3 stones overweight. Now weigh less than I did as a teenager! Finished Snowdon race in 2:51 8th place. As the saying goes - anything is possible" Good luck with future racing! Hope you get the running bug!

John said...

Good effort James & great blog too.

The weather certainly was special at mile 22 but I think that added to the race. Coming down the last stretch was a blast!

Did you see the soldiers on route with their packs?..unbelievable stuff.

My thanks to the organisers and the people at the drink stations (and the merry cyclists en route!)

Good luck with the future runs!

Nick said...

Nice report James, and very well done. I bet you're hooked now. This must be the best 'road' race out there. Look after that knee on your build-up to the ultras. I look forward to reading about your future exploits. (I'm a bit late posting my own SNOD report.)

Kate said...

Great Blog mate.....and a MASSIVE ACHIEVEMENT! Congratulations! xx

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