Now I understand

Posted on: 31 Oct 2018

As I drove along the A4086 towards Llanberis and made a sharp right turn at Pen Y Pass I got my first visual clue that the Snowdonia Marathon was imminent. 

A ‘road closure’ warning sign, which to the uninitiated like me meant one of two things – either we’re going to be running down this steep and foreboding mountain pass, or somehow we’re running up it.

Less than 24 hours later I would have my all too predictable answer: UP!

Of course I was under no illusion that Snowdonia was going to be tough.  It’s been the talk of Realbuzz since I joined this community in 2015 and has since been dubbed our unofficial AGM given how many members turn up to run and spectate.

But seeing the terrain with my own eyes felt daunting to say the least.  Cannock Chase and Hednesford Hills this is not.  The question was therefore, would my legs and overall stamina be able to cope?

On arrival at my accommodation – a rented room via Airbnb as I’d left it too late for a local hotel – there wasn’t time to ponder.  As I offloaded the car, I could hear air gushing from the front passenger side tyre.  A flat!  Today of all days…

Of course, punctures are easily fixed and however remote parts of Wales can get, they have heard of these mysterious things called ‘garages’.  But I’m one of those people in life who unfortunately has a tendency to catastrophise.  A flat tyre isn’t an inconvenience, it’s going to leave me stranded for days and cost me my life savings.  I’m exaggerating of course, but you get the picture.

So it was with this distracted frame of mind that I headed into town to meet the Buzzers for registration and food.  I apologise if I came over a bit twitchy, certainly eating food was the last thing on my mind.  A sudden torrential downpour did nothing to relax me, although at least I was inside the event village tent at the time collecting my number.

But with good company, flowing conversation and a plate of the nicest chips I’ve tasted in years, I eventually managed to calm down.  Then it was back to the house to meet my hosts for the weekend and start laying out my gear ready for marathon day.

I didn’t sleep well – not many people do on the first night away from home (especially those with a persecution complex over trivial things like flat tyres!).  However, the late starting time of 10.30am meant I could at least enjoy a leisurely breakfast before walking to our designated meeting point. 

Again I was twitchy, looking at those now snow-capped mountains all around the town.  I’ve done enough marathons not to be nervous about the distance, but the combination of off-road running, steep climbs and fast descents was definitely preying on my mind.  And having ran the Chester marathon just three weeks earlier, there was a good chance I’d end up pushing my body too hard.  More catastrophising…

The first familiar face I spotted was Gaelle, shortly followed by Jim and Hobs.  Then Liz, Maxine, Team Miller, Emelie and head coach Hollywood with his family.  Slowly the nerves started to settle and by the time we had walked to the start, posed for photos and listened to the race briefing it was time to run.

What first changed my mood was the weather.  We’d read every conceivable variation in the forecast the night before, but for now there was blue sky and sun creeping over the mountain tops.  Cold, yes, but with a base layer and gloves I felt comfortable.

The next positive step was choosing to start steady.  No rushing to the front, no going off like a gazelle.  I stayed with Hollywood and Joe and enjoyed their company for two miles.  We were running in the high ten minute miles, but that was fine because Pen Y Pass was approaching and fresh legs were most definitely required.

I had three goals for Snowdonia, the most important of which was to enjoy and savour the experience.  You can’t do that if you’ve crashed and burned.  Second was to run at least one of the big three climbs.  And third – desirable, but not essential – to finish in five hours or less. 

So far, so good then because I certainly enjoyed those opening miles with company for a change.  On the way up Pen Y Pass I saw Liz and Richard, then later on Rob and Clair and finally Jenny.  I also saw a couple of people I know from Aldridge Running Club and we enjoyed a brief spell running together.

The miles ticked by and my legs were coping just fine, with small uphill steps, weight forward and plenty of bounce in my toes.  Wowed by the scenery, I couldn’t resist getting my phone out and taking snaps – heck, loads of other people were, which is another reason for this marathon feeling so different and special.

Of course, what comes up must come down and after Pen Y Pass we did just that.  Eleven minute miles switched to high eights and low nines, plus I took the chance to refuel with half an energy bar, some water and a decent swig of flat coke.  Fuelling on this marathon would be key, and for once I reckon I got it just right.

Besides more stunning views, and a brief switch of surface from tarmac to trail path, this stretch of the race was pretty uneventful.  I completed my miles for Kat – numbers eight and nine – and again the phone came out to capture the moment.  A woman took pity on me at the nine mile marker after observing my complete ineptitude at taking selfies.

“Would you like me to take it for you?” she enquired and I told her all about why our team was running for a fellow Buzzer who had unfortunately had to give her place up due to injury.  It wouldn’t be long before I saw Kat at the halfway point in Beddgelert, along with Bolty, Gaelle and Joe's family. 

This gave me an enormous boost, and not just because of the homemade energy bars that were up for grabs.  Of the eight marathons I’ve ran now, only London and this one at Snowdonia have been supported – the rest, solo efforts.  I don’t mind attending events on my own, but the promise of a cheer and a hug just when you need it really does lift your spirits and, for me at least, motivates me to push that little bit harder.

And when I realised, even with the selfie stops, hugs and chats, my halfway time was 2hr 12, I felt very satisfied.  Sub five was a distinct possibility, so long as I could fend off the wall.

Next up was the course’s second big climb, Beddgelert to Rhyd Ddu.  Most people were walking by now, but much to my surprise I felt comfortable with a steady run.  Up and up until we crossed over the mountain railway, which is when the weather took a turn for the worse.

A biting wind and occasional sleet made miles 16 through to 20 pretty bleak.  Scenic, but also quite lonely with fewer spectators and a subdued atmosphere among the runners.  I had a wobble here too at mile 18 – heavy legs and the need of a comfort break.  It was the first time I’d slowed to a walk all day, so I found somewhere to stop and forced myself to eat and drink.

This is where my marathon running is starting to improve.  I’m reacting to the early sensation of a crash coming on, rather than waiting for said crash and then trying to recover from it (usually in vain).  It meant that come mile 22 and the final beast of a climb at Waunfawr, my body was ready.

Sure, I walked most of it – it’s so steep and so prolonged I don’t see how anyone bar the elites could really do anything else.  But this wasn’t a wobbly jelly leg walk a la Forest of Dean.  I was striding, marching up that hill, and still enjoying myself.

I made another friend on this stretch who knew the course and was telling me what to expect.  But for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why the crowds were calling out ‘come on Nick, come on Spanky’… Is it a term of endearment in rural Gwynedd?

After glancing across, I realised that was the name printed on my new friend’s number.  I asked him why and the response was ‘it was all I could get away with, what I really wanted to put on there was much worse’.  Well, it made me laugh if nothing else!  

Another morale boost came when I saw Dave H at mile 23 who was getting ready to run the final few miles with Jenny.  And similarly, the enthusiasm of the volunteers at the mile 24 feed station was completely infectious (and their hot tea definitely welcomed!).

My only scare of the day came after the hill flattened out.  My left thigh was twinging big time and the whole leg started to stiffen.  Was it going to let go as had happened on my right side in Manchester last year?

As a result my final one mile descent into Llanberis was not only frightening because of the terrain, but also very painful and very grunty.  I apologised to those around me and at one point actually shouted out loud something like ‘don’t you dare let go on me now’.  That’s because I’d looked at my Garmin and realised I had something like 20 minutes left to card a sub-5.

I needn’t have worried though.  I ran through the pain and on tarmac rather than uneven grass and stone, the discomfort wasn’t so bad.  Reviewing my stats now, I can see I ran that final quarter downhill mile at 6:09 minute mile pace.  How many marathons have a course profile that lets you do that?

The finish was a dream, the high street lined with supporters, cowbells galore and plenty of yells of encouragement.  I didn’t know if any Buzzers were there, but all I could focus on was the clock.  Sub-5 was secured, but now there was a hope of ducking under 4hr50.  And with a final sprint, it was there.  Just!  4:49:57, averaging 11 minute mile pace for the whole race.

Ever the pessimist, I waited for the after effects.  I expected to collapse or be sick, but nothing of the sort.  No wall, no crash.  I am almost more proud of that than I am the finishing time, given the brutality of the course.

There was one thing I couldn’t control though and that was my emotions.  The tears came within a minute or so of finishing such has been the fragility of my mental health these past few months.  Problems at home you know about that have left me living alone for a year now (almost to the day). Problems at work you don’t know about that mean I have concerns over the stability of my job.  Both have left me lacking confidence and self-respect.   

Yet here I am, a strong finisher at one of the country’s toughest marathons.  Exceeding my own expectations and probably those of a few other people too.

And with that, I collected myself and headed back to the finishing straight.  I met with Jim and Hobs, the first Buzzers home, and screamed my lungs out when I later saw Liz rounding the final bend.  I wanted to stay and watch everyone else finish, but the cold got the better of me and I had to hobble back to the rental for a shower and change of clothes.

Being with such good company for the weekend made it all the more memorable.  Some had tough races, some had to contend with other issues that put my flat tyre firmly into perspective.  But we faced our challenges together and helped each other wherever and however we could.

Countless Buzzers have said how special Snowdonia is and I get it now.  But they don’t just mean the marathon itself, they mean everything that sits around it.  Friendship, minds that think alike and bodies that like to do alike.  It’s a very strong bond.  Whether as a runner, or a spectator, I know I’ll most definitely be back.

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