My first visit to the marathon in the mountains was most definitely my running highlight of 2018.
A course I wasn't sure I was strong enough to conquer was duly completed and in a time I'm still very proud of today, comfortably beating the initial target I'd set myself (besides survival!) of going sub-5.
I must have enjoyed it – I too joined the online scrum in early December to secure a place for the following year's event, cursing when the system crashed and breathing a huge sigh of relief when the next attempt at registration and payment went through.
But would it be as good second time around? More to the point, would I be any good?
Given my form thus far during 2019 I felt the jury was out. By and large injury free, a major bonus, and some decent performances over distances up to half. But the three marathons I'd trained so hard for – Brighton, Milton Keynes and Chester – all had their issues, with my strength fading somewhere between 20 and 22 miles each time and the final stints to the line being pretty torturous.
Then I checked the weather forecast. Oh dear. Heavy rain on Friday, rain continuing on Saturday (race day) and gusty winds. That did little for my confidence.
I actually don't mind running in the rain. What was bothering me was the state of the ground for the two off-road sections along the Snowdonia course. The first comes just after 10k, an old farm track from Pen Y Cwyryd towards Llyn Gwynant that is rocky underfoot and quite steep downhill.
Then the infamous climb from Waunfawr at mile 22. It starts on tarmac but ends on a trail path, which takes you virtually all the way back down into Llanberis and the finish line. Slippy at the best of times, I was shuddering at the prospect of it being a mud bath, especially on the downhill section.
And so began a little game that would play on my mind from the minute I packed my bag at home on Friday to the minute I left my car to walk to the start line on Saturday morning – trail or no trail. Shoes that is, do I wear road shoes or trail shoes?
Road won, just, mainly because the vast majority of other runners had done the same and however bad those off road sections were going to be, they only represent about 10 per cent of the overall race distance.
Of course my road shoes were white – I mean, they had to be didn't they! They aren't now.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Snowdonia weekend starts on the Friday as team Realbuzz makes its way from various parts of the country to reunite in the small Welsh town of Llanberis.
Then comes registration to collect your number and race shirt. Then comes communal carb loading at Pete's Eats, something I was actually able to participate in this year because pre-race nerves trounced my appetite in 2018.
I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to catching up with everyone. I missed out on getting away this summer and so my trip to Wales, child-free and dog-free for once in a blue moon, felt like a mini holiday, a feeling authenticated by the sound of the rain bouncing off the car windscreen (we've all been there!).
People I started conversing with through a website have grown to become genuine friends who share my love of running and are always welcoming, enthusiastic and supportive.
I walked into that cafe on a cold, wet Friday evening and felt instantly at home. I also was on the receiving end of some serious shirt envy having told everyone how smart the tenth anniversary Chester Marathon finishers' top was in my blog and now proudly modelling it for all to see.
Carbs consumed and catch up chats enjoyed it was time to drive on to Bangor and my overnight stop. I laid out a few variations of kit – the weather would decide which I would choose – and settled down for some sleep.
For those staying in Llanberis, the 10.30am start time gives you the luxury of a lie-in, unless nerves get the better of you. I was going to have to drive back into town and find somewhere to park before the roads got either closed or congested.
I'd set the alarm for half six, but the shoe game had me wide eyed at half four and getting back to sleep proved impossible. I could hear the rain, still pelting down, so a wet race was highly likely. On the plus side, the winds they had forecast stayed away – something to be grateful for on the more exposed parts of the course such as Rhyd Ddu and Betws Garmon.
Pete's once again was our destination of choice and I had some toast and coffee to top up the porridge I'd already eaten in my hotel room. Here I met with Max, Emelie, Gaelle and her friend Sam who was taking on Snowdonia for the first time.
Sam was on the hunt for a Garmin cable to try and give her watch enough juice to make it around the course, so I said she could use mine and charge it from my car. We chatted freely (and were glad to shelter from yet more rain) and once again it proved just how friendly and welcoming the running community is.
At about 10am we joined up with the Buzzer group – now gathered at the Coffee Pot cafe – and took a steady walk up to the start line. I used a foil blanket from a previous marathon to try to keep the rain off and fortunately about an hour into the race it stopped altogether, making way for the occasional bit of blue sky. Another case of the weather forecast being wrong, and thank goodness too.
My mission at the start was to stay disciplined. I used Realbuzz legend Hollywood Dave to pace my first couple of miles in 2018 and that helped me tackle the first climb at Pen-Y-Pass with fresh legs.
Sadly no HD this year, so it was down to me to replicate that approach and resist the temptation to go off too quickly. Lots of people were passing me; a number of Buzzers too – Rob, Helen, Clair – but no matter. Ten minute miles were the order of the day, before flat turned to hilly and the calf busting slog up Pen-Y-Pass began.
Not quite as visually spectacular this year due to mist, drizzle and murky skies, but still breathtaking and well worth the occasional glance over your shoulder. I kept my weight forward and bounced on my toes, getting to the top in good time and still feeling comfortable.
Unlike last year, I felt braver coming back down the other side and let go to put in an eight minute mile to reach the gate at Pen Y Cwryd (seen here the next day in much better weather!). The track was in a better state than I expected and halfway down I caught up with Helen.
We enjoyed each others' company for the next three miles or so, after which I felt the need to break away and just be on my own for a bit (with apologies to Helen who I never actually got to explain this to until after the race!).
This was because my legs were getting worryingly heavy. The stretch from mile nine to half distance at Beddgelert is about the most forgiving of the entire race, so feeling tired now was definitely cause for concern.
I went into a quiet place, stopped admiring the views and chatting to anyone and everyone around me, took on some fuel and got down to some steady and consistent miles in the mid to low nines.
The hope of seeing a friendly face in Richard, our head supporter, at Beddgelert was my main focus along with getting my hands on one of Kat's famous homemade energy bars. The crowd support was immense throughout the village, but I couldn't see Richard anywhere and before I knew it the High Street was behind me and the course's next big hill looming ahead.
Fortunately I still had my own supplies on board and wolfed down a banana malt loaf bar. Progress up the hill was slow, but I kept running – just like 2018. I was also ahead on time through half distance by around 5-10 minutes which was definitely helping me to stay motivated.
That second climb is long and tiring, however it rewards you with some fantastic views of the mountains to your left and right. I could feel my energy levels picking up and I struck up conversations with a number of other runners as the miles ticked by.
The reward of starting slowly and near the back is that when you do hit your stride you're invariably moving through the field and overtaking people. This also meant I was getting lots of encouragement from the crowds who perceived me as running strong no matter how exhausted I was feeling on the inside.
By mile 19 it was definitely getting harder and the temptation to walk growing ever stronger. So I used a technique I'd found helpful in training which is to just concentrate on nothing else except the mile you're running. Finish it, then reset and do the same for the next one, blocking out any thoughts about the final 10k or the possibility of bagging a PB.
After mile 20 I passed a runner in a bright orange top and didn't for a minute expect it to be Chairman Jim – but it was. He looked in pain because of his knees but was pressing on and, unlike the rest of us, eager to get to the uphill section at Waunfawr because it didn't trouble his injury so much.
I was also keen to get there because that was the part of the course where I told myself I could have a guilt-free walk. On tired legs it's arguably a quicker way to climb, certainly for me that's the case. And so the running continued, non-stop until just before the 22 mile marker, after which a chance to refuel, take stock and tackle the marathon's steepest climb.
I found it harder this year, probably because I was ten or so minutes up the road and therefore had been pushing myself more whilst running. I kept moving but the legs were now wobbling a lot and although the sight of Dave and Jenny halfway up gave me a boost, it didn't change how bad I was starting to feel.
True to form, Jim had overtaken me again and was now an orange speck in the distance. But somehow, as the gradient levelled out, I started to run again and just focused on the aid station at mile 25. That final stop always does something special to support exhausted runners and for 2019 they themed their offering around a Mad Hatters Tea Party.
I took them up on their invitation to tea (but resisted the cakes and sandwiches) and it most definitely helped. I felt sure I could summon the strength to run the final mile and improve my time. The bigger challenge, however, would be staying on my feet.
I'd expected there to be mud – and there was (photo courtesy of another running group). I wasn't expecting quite so much standing water and it soon became apparent that dodging around the puddles was more likely to cause an accident than just hoofing it straight through. RIP white trainers.
A few people around me fell on the slippy stuff. I kept my cool and prayed for the churned up path to give way to tarmac, which it eventually did, and the grip beneath my feet returned.
Legs and lungs were burning, but it didn't matter. If you can manage to run this closing section it is the best feeling of any race I've taken part in. It defies logic that you can run at your fastest during mile 26 of a marathon, but Garmin says I peaked at six minute mile pace, something I attribute more to gravity than my own abilities as a runner.
And as I approached Llanberis High Street, Hawkesbury orange was once again in my sights. I shouted after Jim and we ran the final yards together. And when I saw my finishing time, it was sweaty and teary-eyed hugs all round. Four hours and 39 minutes – 11 minutes quicker than 2018 (not 15 as I said on Facebook, I blame post-marathon brain fuzz for my inability to do simple maths).
It wasn't all good news. I needed some time to recover after the finish as I felt extremely dizzy and sick such had been the effort to get up and down the final hill. Fortunately after a rest in my car with the heater on full blast to do away with the shivers, things came good.
I hobbled back to the High Street just in time to see Emelie cross the line and secure her course PB. Not long afterwards we cheered Kat home, a sensational performance to yet again defy the odds and make us all proud.
The celebrations continued into the evening with an emotional series of after dinner speeches where we all shared our favourite Snowdonia memories. This brilliant idea was conceived by Jim on the basis that 2019 could well be the last time we run this event as a group because the entry system is switching to a ballot.
I don't know if I'll end up running it again myself, so just in case I took up Rob and Gaelle's offer of an early morning guided hike up Snowdon to complete my marathon weekend experience. My legs hated me for doing it, but the views and sense of achievement more than made up for the pain.
As an overall event (and weekend away with friends) Snowdonia didn't disappoint, however much pressure I'd loaded onto it beforehand. Never mind a second album, this was a greatest hits compilation that I'll enjoy playing back in my head over and over again.
I cannot recommend it enough.
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