I started jogging when I was twenty seven, in Canada. I’d tried out for the university swimming team, but they took their training far too seriously. I mean, daily. I thought I should be active occasionally, but these Canadians took their fitness too seriously. This was a year or two after Jim Fixx had published his book on running and started the whole American jogging thing (to die later, ironically, of a heart attack while jogging), so that’s what I started doing one day, jogging. Once round the block and I thought I was going to die.
But I jogged on, even in the winters when my moustache froze solid and sweaty hair became an ice helmet. I kept it up through my single days back in the UK, and then when I got married. About half an hour two or three times a week seemed adequate.
The Realbuzz group induced a change of state. I went with Kat to cheer them on during the 2016 and 2017 Snowdon Marathon, and afterwards HD, with a grin like a pantomime villain that I remember clearly, said he reckoned I had a marathon in me. And so one December morning at 7 am when reservations opened I booked a place. Who knew it was so easy to do something so alien? I have been a bag of apprehension ever since. Kat and I bought proper off-road running shoes. We were going to do this marathon thing together.
Training: well, clearly I wasn’t going to survive a hilly road marathon without a bit of training. For years, every Tuesday evening Kat has been doing a NASS gym session at St Peters hospital. For a year or so I’d driven Kat to the gym, then jogged to Chertsey bridge and back. 9.4 km in 65 minutes, and then driven her home again. That was one thing I could work with. We had also spent a couple of years doing a 4-10 hour walk once a week, and several 100 km non-stop walking events each year, because we enjoy them.
We had also joined Parkrun in 2017, 5 km round the local park every Saturday at 9 am. It became my regular, push-yourself bit of running with (or against) others. So I had reliable feet and significant walking endurance, but no distance running beyond 9.4 km. Kat and I did the 100 km Jurassic Coast walk in late July, planned another 100 km walk in early September up the Thames Path, and then I intended to build up the running to a marathon distance by mid October. There was always the fall-back plan of walking the entire course, which I know I could do in 8 or 9 hours, although that’s a cold option which needs more kit and clothing.
My aim was to do a long and increasing run each week, along the various Surrey canals, and on 28th August I did my first ever run for longer than an hour, 17.4 km along canal towpaths in 2 hours 10 minutes. I thought I was dying again. Plans then went a bit awry when Kat’s hip cartilage split. The Thames Path had to be abandoned, and for a couple of weeks life was more about getting by while Kat jumped the medical hoops of A&E, scans, experts, consultants, diagnostics, GPs, wait-and-see and bed-rest.
On 18th September I did 16.3 km in 1 hour 57 minutes. On 25th September, 21.5 km in 2 hours 37 minutes. On October 2nd, 24.1 km in 3 hours 10 minutes, with time out for first aid following a trip and fall. Finally on 9th October, 21.4 km in 2 hours 37 minutes with another two trips and falls. It seems I only have one speed setting!
I thought of this last outing as my dry run (and warm and flat too), with shorter runs to keep moving but allowing the body to entirely repair and build up. And so that’s what I did.
Let’s go over almost live now to October 26th, the Friday before the show. I swear I’ve been receiving weather reports from Kat hourly for a fortnight, but the final forecast seems to be for about 5 degrees, blue skies with a small risk of sleet or hail showers, and a brisk northerly wind. I have no idea what to wear. Options range from a technical non-cotton T shirt and shorts to long sleeves and lycra-type leggings, and given the cold I even briefly consider a tracksuit except (a) no-one does, and (b) if it rains, it has unfortunate rain-absorbing qualities. Should I wear a race belt for carrying small stuff? Or a small pack? What water-proof gear? First aid kit? Hat and gloves? Food? Spare socks? (some swear by a sock change in wet weather). Should I rely on the watering points round the course? Is it possible to get lost? Do I need a headlight and whistle, for heaven’s sake? The eventual choice is made on Friday morning, and I go out for a twenty minute experiment with two shirts (long-sleeved and short-sleeved), leggings, shorts, race-belt with phone, tissues and a rolled up rain jacket, and a back pack containing a thin fleece, a little food and water, a hat with a head-light in case I’m out for 9 hours, gloves, a first aid kit with several elastic bandages, and a plastic poncho.
Fast forward. Three thousand starters drift out of Llanberis a bit after 10 am on Saturday, heading south-east to the start point just out of town and clog up the road. I stand with the Realbuzz group, perhaps in the middle, no idea, can’t tell. There are camera crews, a drone, cheery chat, enough people to keep the wind off. My clothing choice doesn’t seem out of place, but “All the gear and no idea”, as they say.
Nervous doesn’t begin to describe me. I hear the hooter for the start, dead on 10.30, but nothing happens for several minutes until the congestion clears, and we cross the starting line at about 10.34, with RFID tags in our race numbers recording our actual start times. So it’s the gentle start of Llyn Peris lake, and being a lake it must be a flat road. There’s no real jockeying for position this far down the pack. The lake lasts for a mile, and the next mile is still flat; steady pace, Jim and Hobbs already out of sight ahead, and Lord knows where the other Realbuzzers are. I see the 2 mile marker and the road starts to climb up to Pen y Pass, and for some reason it doesn’t seem hard. I keep the same pace uphill to the 4 mile marker, and then have a 30 second walk, just because the plan was always to walk the uphills. Right in the throat of the pass the wind really asserts itself, blowing very chilly on my back. I don’t need the hat, but the gloves, long sleeves and leggings seem indispensable.
I run again and reach the Youth Hostel at 4.5 miles in the pass itself, full of cheering crowds - I’ve never been so popular! I catch up a drink in passing, but it’s too cold for comfort, it hurts to swallow it. There’s a man wearing a hollow pumpkin over his head, a real pumpkin. The road starts downhill, with a sharp left at 5 miles then a hairpin back to head south on the main road for half a mile. The downhill isn’t as simple as I thought, as the knees decelerate me against gravity every step. The route then leaves the road on to a stony track for half a mile or so, and every step is now a threat, given three falls in my last two runs. Wide concrete gullies cross the track to carry off rain – I have to cross them just right so I don’t trip on the edge. I pass one or two people, which is great; rather more pass me, which isn’t. A small girl waves a cardboard box at me and shouts “Rubbish!” I think, I’m not that bad, and at least I’m running it kid, not just watching. The track becomes a smoother solid road. I catch up with the Mighty Thor with his hammer. We reach mile 8 as we rejoin the main road, where traffic is still moving, but well marshalled to one side
The next leg is long and moderately flat, five miles to mile 13 in Beddgelert. This stretch is where the real runners regather their strength for the next hill. For me, it’s the stretch which just about brings me to the furthest I’ve ever run. But it’s a friendly stretch, with clumps of cheering spectators clanging cow-bells. The Pumpkin, Thor and I keep changing position, because they occasionally walk, I’m still jogging. Then some real surprises – I’ve been in front of Dave and Joe, Rob and Clair, and Libby all this time. Now they slowly overhaul me, but the chat is good and uplifting. Rob and Clair in particular I keep quite close to for most of this stretch. In a layby I slide off the road to pee behind a parked track, although later I notice there are one or two public toilets, useful if you know where they are in advance. I have more freezing water at another water point, and then pass Bethania – it’s a beautiful name. I pass the Sygun copper mine, wondering idly if this is the location of the exploration boreholes where heat-flow measurements of Snowdon were taken in the 1970s (once a geologist, always a geologist). That occupies a few more minutes. It’s starting to hurt, and distracting thoughts are helpful. I’m checking my watch every ten minutes or so. If I can just not stop, then it’s just a matter of time before it’s all over.
Just before Beddgelert, I comprehensively pass Thor, and then pass an unofficial watering point where someone has poured small cups of beer; it seems to be called Dead Duck or something. It’s warmer than the water, and one mouthful is cheering. Then I pass Gerry’s car, and there’s Gerry, with a drastically shortened beard, who offers me a piece of orange and some ginger beer, which go down well. So I go into Beddgelert, the halfway point, and there’s Kat and Gaelle in the usual spot just past the bridge. I pull over, hoping for hot tea; there isn’t any, but I eat an energy cake bar and swallow some water and exchange quick infobytes. Who’s in front, who’s behind, how am I, where are they going next? At the far edge of town is mile point 13.
Right, that’s the mid-point. It’s psychologically important, but so is this: I’m now beyond anything I’ve done before, and starting to hurt, and I know there’s now a steady hill to climb for two and a half miles. It’s not as long, and not quite as steep as the road to Pen y Pass but now everyone is walking quite a lot. I try to run but at best it’s fifty-fifty. As I slow down I cool off, and now I’m facing a brisk north wind that brings tears to the eyes. At about mile 15 I stop at a water point, take off the pack, get my jacket on and put the pack back on; stopping seems a bad idea, but it’s too cold otherwise.
Kat and Gaelle pass in the car. “How are you?”
“No, not really”.
Hot mint tea and encouragement, and I set off again.
I very slowly jog and sometimes walk along the levels, past Rhyd Ddu to Llyn Cwellyn lake. Did I see a train? I’m surprised by the size of the waves that the wind has raised on this lake. I’m also distracted by looking at the Snowdon massif to the right and thinking, Llanberis is on the other side of that. I have to go over that. I can’t even see a route, let alone something I could now run. I’m also getting strong flickers of cramp in my left leg, mostly the calf, sometimes the thigh. That is an old enemy. Is it possible to run it off? Past another Youth Hostel and here’s Mile 18, with a cut-off time of four hours. I get past with six minutes to spare, although they say it’s never enforced, it just means they won’t guarantee further support. All around there are people loudly saying, “You’re through, just relax now and enjoy the rest of the race”. This is a new use of the word “enjoy”.
But now the last 8 miles don’t seem so unlikely. It’s fairly flat through Betws Garmon to Waunfawr, mile 22, although I’m now walking more than jogging, and with the lower energy burn the cold is increasingly getting through. The twitches of cramp don’t go away, but with a salt tablet they don’t get any worse either, or go full blown; that’s for later.
At Waunfawr we leave the road and start on minor streets through the village, with lots of cheering folks. A proud father steps out and walks with his son for the last stretch, in tweed jacket and town shoes, and slowly pulls further and further ahead. How embarrassing is that? The back streets have a couple of watering points, then turn into a tarmac track over the mountain, which never seems to end. Thor goes by. I’m not even pretending to run now, and every so often a leg seizes up completely and I have to stop to stretch it out; jogging seems to make it happen more than walking. Just past mile 24 is the last water stop, and as I pass it I notice, too late, that it has a tea urn. I would kill for hot tea, but I won’t go backwards for it. The road has turned into a stony track. And soon the final downhill starts.
We can all hear the cheers from Llanberis way below as finishers cross the line. But the downhill is vile, grass and mud, rocky and steep, and that constant jerking of the knees hurts again. After a mile and a half we reach the last leg where the tarmac track starts again. I’m swearing out loud, but there isn’t really any choice now but to continue. So down and down and down some more, until suddenly we reach flat road on the edge of town. I stop and get the Realbuzz baton out of my bag. That is being carried over the line – waved even, if I can raise my arms. In fact I can neither run nor wave. I weave round the corner and along the main street to the finishing arch. I can just about get into a halting jog, stopping several times to straighten out the cramp. And over the line, in 6 hours 5 minutes 22 seconds. A space blanket is draped over me, I don’t grab it, and it blows off again. It’s replaced by someone. I don’t know what to do first, put on warm clothes, eat and drink or find a toilet, but as sweat suddenly fills both eyes I can’t be bothered to do any of that, and just prop up a wall until Kat comes.
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