Snowdonia Marathon 2015

Thirteen Cwm Ogwr runners made the journey up to North Wales to tackle the Snowdonia Marathon last weekend. There’d been much talk about entering the marathon after Dai Cappell and Dave Evans ran it last year. Entries opened on January 1st with Dai Kembery, Kelly Owen and Fiona Evans signing up on day one. I spent much of January 2nd checking the entry list as the number of available places left dwindled almost by the minute. I’d already said on several occasions I wasn’t going to do another marathon, even though just a few weeks earlier I’d signed up for Manchester Marathon in April. But Snowdonia is the ‘runners marathon’. Whereas a non-runner will envitably ask a runner “so have you done London Marathon?”, a hardcore marathon runner would be much more likely to ask “so have you done Snowdonia Marathon?”. Could I really retire from marathon running having only done super-flat marathons? For a lot of people watching the London Marathon coverage through the years inspires them to enter the ballot, and if they are extremely lucky, they might even get to run it, and I’m very grateful I got my chance last year. However, I’d say I was even more inspired having watched the Snowdonia Marathon highlights over the past few years. The thing was, whereas the former seem doable, the latter seemed bonkers. The pondering continued… Fiona’s done it, Dai Cappell’s done it, Dave Evans has done it… so why can’t I do it? The available entries continued to drop and it’s now getting late. If I don’t enter and go to bed, it’s likely it’ll be sold out by the morning. I’m discussing my predicament on our club Facebook page when soon to be 100 marathon club member Paul Bigmore comments. I can’t remember what he said exactly but it was along the lines of Snowdonia being his favourite marathon and highly recommending it. Whatever it was, I think that was the clincher for me. If someone who’s done dozens of different marathons says it’s the best one then how could I possibly resist, and with the number of entries remaining at less than 100, I was in. It sold out shortly afterwards.


You may be thinking, yes, that’s four, but you said thirteen were doing it? Well, two more were yet to join the club with Steve Riddler and Richie Pett also in the initial entries. A couple of months went by and Fiona recommended having a look at Runners World forum which normally has a thread about the race. Many of the people posting on there having done the marathon several times so its a great place to get tips and read some of their quite frankly bonkers stories about their most recent hilly marathon, or in some cases 50+ mile Ultras. It was on that forum someone advertised they had three spare places. I quickly private messaged them to say I may know some people who were interested – despite the fact that no one had actually expressed an interest! Onto Facebook Messenger and I added a list of members (willing victims) I thought could be convinced. I was very surprised with a no from Nick Harris and Helen Davies was high on the list but had been suffering with injuries so also declined. Having recently enjoyed the challenge of Manchester Marathon, Aled was first to say yes and it wasn’t long before Richard Lowcock James was in as well. I was now determined to get all three places on offer so needed a third person. I’d promised the lady who had the three places I would get back to her that evening so needed to find a third person quickly. That evening was the Aberavon 5K. Chris Pratt was there and I’d already mentioned about the places on offer – he was still a maybe. Then I spotted Heather. After a convincing load of nonsense about why she should do it, she made the rookie mistake of saying she was tempted. Richard helped me out by also confirming she had mentioned it and was thinking about it. As we lined up for the race she finally said yes – possibly to stop my nagging. So now we’re up to 9.


A day or two later Chris Pratt confirmed he would be up for it, and Antony Lewis had also expressed an interest so I was now on the hunt for places. I think the best one had to be Richard Garratt though who also joined the waiting list as he said ‘well I might as well do it if I’m going up with Heather anyway’ – love it. Antony managed to secure a place through Facebook and it wasn’t long before there were a couple more spare places going on the Runners World forum, so Chris and Richard were in as well. The searching for places had become a bit addictive at this point and I decided I’d probably exhausted all my options and there wasn’t much interest from any other members. However, another place popped up. Unable to resist, a private message was sent to ask if they could hold onto it as I might know someone interested – or what I really meant was hold onto it whilst I nag every person who turns up to training tonight to do it, even if they have no interest in marathons and especially hilly ones. I asked several people on our run down to Blackmill and back before coach Kevin expressed an interest. That’s good enough for me and within the hour he was signed up.


So there’s our thirteen. We had Fiona who was the only one to have run Snowdonia Marathon before and had a total of 4 marathons under her belt. I had completed three very flat marathons. At the time Kevin and Anthony were about to run their second marathons having both only run their first this year. Interestingly Steve had only run marathons during Ironman events whilst another Ironman Richie had done one marathon outside of Ironman – although it was on the Long Course Weekend which involves doing the three disciplines over 3 days.  Chris had run one marathon albeit 3 years ago under very different circumstances in London. Kelly, Aled and Dai had only recently run their first marathons, whilst Richard LJ and the Garratts would be running their debut marathons in Snowdon. Quite an inexperienced bunch when you consider that a large proportion of Snowdon runners are multi-marathon or ultra runners who particularly like the hilly ones. In fact, when sorting out the places, I had a couple of long e-mail exchanges which included a woman who’d run 10 marathons in 10 days and the first woman who had the 3 places on offer was going to run with her husband and son and all three of them were regular Ultra runners and were pulling out to do another event. Snowdon obviously wasn’t hardcore enough for them!


Next up – the same matter of training for it. Lots of different approaches with some starting up to 4 months before the event and others barely having started 2 months before. Some chose runs with lots of hills, other chose to keep it reasonably flat. Some rigidly stuck to plans whilst others were happy to mix things up. The approach to the taper was much the same. The final long run ranging from 4 weeks before to just 2 weeks before, and five of the thirteen even doing double figure hilly mileage with just 6 days to go. There’d be various injury scares from the taper-madness-psychological niggles that only really exist in your head to much more concerning injuries such as Kelly breaking her little toe and Chris Pratt needing Gavin Gates healing hands to help a hip injury. I should point out to those that don’t know, Gavin is a Sports Massage Therapist not some sort of religious healer.


The week leading up to it was a mixture of nerves and excitement. Moments of thinking ‘I’m going to bosh this’ to wondering an hour later if maybe I should have done one more long run… should have I have done more hills… did I do my long run too early? Earlier this year before the Manchester and London marathons there was a running joke (excuse the pun) about brandishing the marathon card in training if you thought what was being suggested was a bit too much with only days to go. To be fair, we all got on with it and even did hill efforts on the Tuesday before. Thursday’s session included Dai Kennedy giving out goody bags to all the Snowdon runners including a baseball cap with nicknames on the back, plus some essential nutrition.


The journey up included driving the reverse route from the half way point back to the start. As we turned into the road I was unsure I wanted to see what was to come. The first few miles suggested a bit undulating even though this was supposedly the flatter / downhill section. We got to Pen y Pass so this was where we’d witness what the first long hill would entail.. albeit in reverse. The road twisted and turned at a pretty constant descent. I even turned to look out the back window to get a better idea of the incline. This was similar to Bwlch territory.. slightly more than I hate anticipated. I was glad I’d seen it beforehand though and knew what to expect in the first half at least.


It was suggested we all met up for registration but it didn’t seem feasible with people leaving at different times. I’m the end, me and Chris only just missed the Garratts who left as we got there and despite only staying half hour we ended up seeing Nick, Steve, Kevin, Dai and Richard. Kelly wasn’t far behind either so it turned out we could have met up for registration / food after all. Lots of nervous excitement picking up race number and the fact they all have each runner a poncho was confirmation they expected some adverse weather.


All made our way back to various accommodations before the Bangor Travelodgers went out for food and bumped into the Owens and the Garratts. Carbs aplenty consumed and it was back off to our rooms. I decided to watch highlights of a previous years marathon – I think it enhanced both the nervousness and excitement – possibly not the best bedtime viewing when trying to calm down and relax.


Travel and accommodation sorted, pre and post race meet up’s arranged, training completed – just one thing left to do – run the Snowdonia Marathon. 26.2 miles and nearly 3000 feet of ascent ahead.

The Bangor Travelodgers (me, Chris, Nick and Steve) decided to go for breakfast at 8am. Two toast with jam and porridge for me. Tried and tested on my long runs. Nerves kicking it. It’s raining hard outside. Good luck messages continue to come in and it seems like practically every one of our 100 members have posted on Facebook. I think to myself that normally I’d be getting ready for a gentle jog around Porthcawl parkrun.. do I wish I was doing that instead? Why am I doing another marathon? Why am I doing a hilly marathon? Imagine Dai Cappell could hear these thoughts. Man up! I’ve done the training, I’ve got a dozen other club mates challenging themselves to complete this race, I can do this! But first, I think I might be sick…


Onto Llanberis and managed to park in the main car park opposite the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Decided to stay in the car for as long as possible before heading to the visitors centre to meet up with most of the other CORC runners and the usual pre race toilet visit, and then again five minutes later. Heather seemed very quiet whilst Richard seemed pretty up for it. Richard LJ seemed reasonably upbeat and positive reminding everyone the training had been done and we’d done hills tougher than anything we were due to tackle. We’d left a little later than expected for the start as there was now only 15 minutes or so to go with a 10 minute walk to the start. Groups seemed to form on the walk over with Kevin heading towards the front end of the runners, with Aled, Dai, Anthony and Richard LJ a bit further back. Me, Chris, Kelly, Heather and Richard opted to start quite near the back. The rain was coming down, the poncho’s provided by the organisers the previous days were being worn by almost every runner. I think mainly due to a lot of the runners leaving it until last minute to walk to the start, it ended up being a little late starting. A countdown from 10 and we were off and shuffling slowly from the back towards the starting mat.


The marathon begins. 26.2 miles to go.. but don’t think about that. The atmosphere was amazing. Unfortunately the start isn’t ideal for spectators to see their loved ones and club mates start but the runners were in good voice and cheery despite the miserable weather. After a few minutes we heard a voice from above… crikey, it’s a bit early to need help from above.. or am I hallucinating. Nope, it’s OK, it’s Dai Power who has somehow managed to get himself up to a high vantage point to cheer us on and take pictures. At this point me, Chris, the Garratts and Kelly and I were still running together and it was massive boost seeing Dai even though we haven’t even reached mile 1. Lots of cameras at the start and in the first few miles so we were all waving and shouting to try and get some Cwm Ogwr some coverage on the highlights program. Not long after seeing Dai, Chris and I found a bit of space and started moving away from the others. We had no plans to run together but were more or less side by side until the climb to Pen y Pass started at mile 2. Even then Chris was only a few meters ahead but slowly moving away. Forget about 26.2, the first aim is to get to mile 5 and over the first long incline which is the best part of 3 miles rising 800 feet. Not dissimilar to the Bwlch run. The road twists and turns with varying degrees of steepness. Around mile 3 or maybe 3 and half you can see right up to Pen y Pass. Despite the rain, the views were still amazing although there was a eerie mist formed around the bends that rose to the high point we were running to.  I’d started towards the back purposely as I find it a big boost passing people rather than starting too far forward and constantly being passed. Over the next 3 miles to Pen y Pass I seen several familiar faces including a couple of Old Parish runners, Samantha from Run for All, plus Cwm Ogwr runners Steve, Fiona and Richard LJ. Richard LJ was walking when I saw him and encouraged me as I passed. I didn’t think much of it and assumed it was part of a plan to walk some of the hills and run the rest. A tactic employed by a lot of the runners to conserve energy.  Crossing the timing mat at the top of the first hill I could still see Chris ahead of me.


At this point we turned the corner to see amazing views and runners doubling back on the off road section to come hundreds of feet below us. This was the first of many moments I had a lump in my throat and got a bit choked up. As we started the much needed descent I noticed a Cwm Ogwr runner looking over his shoulder up ahead and now in between me and Chris. It was Antony. Bit confused why he’s looking back at this early stage. I caught up with him just as we left the road for a 1.5-2 mile off road section and he explained he was looking for Richard LJ who he’d started with but had told him to go ahead after slowing on the hill to Pen y Pass. Chris was now only a few meters ahead so I put a short spurt on to get alongside him. He mentioned he had a slight niggle in his hip which had bothered him in the last couple of weeks. A huge part of running a marathon is being in the right frame of mind and remaining positive so I encouraged him and said it would loosen up during the run which I think he was confident of anyway. We went through mile 6 and he told me to carry on at my own pace. I felt great and ended up switching places frequently with two older female runners from Black Pear running club – I spent much of the race trying to remember where I’d seen the name of the running club before and a Google search afterwards revealed it’s a Worcester Running Club so I would have seen their members at the parkruns I’ve done around that area and the likes of Timberhonger 10K and Wyre Forest Half Marathon. Around mile 7-8 I felt the best I would all race. The adrenaline was pumping and felt awesome. I remember looking around and thinking ‘this is awesome. I’m running in the country of my birth, in a stunning part of the world, and with typical Welsh weather. It wouldn’t be right if it was sunny. I am running one of the toughest road marathons in the UK and loving every minute of it’. A short sharp incline took us back onto the road. The next few miles were mostly flat with the odd gentle undulation.


I’ve employed a tactic of only looking at my watch every few miles during races depending on the length. For marathons, this meant only looking every 5 miles. The mile 5 check indicated around 48 minutes – happy with just under 10 minute miles seeing as it included the first big hill. Miles 5-10 were mostly downhill but I didn’t expect my watch to say 90 minutes meaning just 42 minutes for the second lot of 5 miles. I tried not to let this worry me though and convinced myself I was running at a pace I was comfortable with. With 90 minutes on my watch I thought to myself – that must mean it’s gone midday which means we’re now into Saturday afternoon on 24th October 2015 – the afternoon I WILL become a Snowdonia Marathon finisher! However, at mile 11 I could feel my legs starting to tire. Only very slightly, but it was there. The mental battle commences… Had I gone to fast for the first 10 miles or so…. There’s still 2 major hills to go…. Maybe I should rein it in a bit… but then again, I feel OK and surely its normal… no one feels 100% after 11 miles do they? Anyway, I knew at mile 13 I would see our supporters in Beddgelert which was driving me on and at this point I was still regularly overtaking other runners and the Black Pear runners were still close by.


Approaching half way and from a good 200 meters away I could see the massive Cwm Ogwr flag and several supporters including Denise, her husband, Fiona’s husband, Jayne, Judith and Helen LJ (sorry if I missed anyone). I think I ran the next 200 meters with my hands in the air waving frantically and shouting like a madman. Denise shouted that I was looking strong and I nearly burst into tears. My imminent blubbering was delayed a few seconds when someone else shouted ‘well done Gareth’ – it was Chris’s parents. Over the next couple of minutes I was trying to hold back the tears and breathing deeply trying to regain my composure. There’s a bloody big hill starting and crying uses up energy! I reminded myself this second hill was the baby of the three significant hills but still needed to give it the respect it deserved given it still rose over 500 feet over the next 2-3 miles. It was tougher than I expected and seemed to go on forever. It was on this section I passed the legend that is ‘Bomber’ from Port Talbot Harriers. The rain finally stopped and the sun even made a brief appearance. As the road finally levelled out I was starting to really feel the effects in my legs. One more massive hill to go, but still over 10 miles. Around mile 16 I passed a little tea room which seemed rather appealing compared to the alternative of running another 10 miles including a huge hill. In my first marathon back in 2011, this was the point I first started walking and never really got going again. It was a boost to pass the point, but also stumbling block with thoughts creeping in that this 16 miles was significantly tougher than that first marathon… but then again I had to remember that I’ve improved dramatically since then as I’d only been running a few months when I did my first marathon.


The dark thoughts continued though and at mile 17 I really wanted to start walking. My calves were tight, the energy fading. Why the hell did I sign up for this. The thing is, in both my first and second marathon, at the point I started walking, I never got going again. In both I didn’t managed to run more than half a mile without walking a significant amount again. There’s no way I can do that for the final 9 miles after a really solid pace to this point. I’ll allow myself to walk, but not until that final hill where practically 90% of the runners will walk. I somehow plodded onto mile 18 and felt a tiny bit better. I’ve never really got this ‘second wind’ business. I don’t think it’s ever happened for me. Once I start hurting, it doesn’t suddenly get better. However, I’m feeling a tiny bit better and a bit more positive. I keep reminding myself that the longer I manage to run, the less time I’ll lose and the quicker I’ll get to the finish.  Approaching mile 19 and running through some country lanes with mountains towering over the runners in all directions, there was couple who’d parked up in with music blasting literally jumping around and shouting support to every runner that passed. They were brilliant. Unfortunately as I passed there was obviously a group of female runners just behind who they directed their support towards and missed me out. I didn’t mind as they put a smile on my face with their enthusiasm. I thought of Dai Cappell at this point who says mile 19 is his nemesis and insists on showing it the middle finger. I intended doing this but must have got distracted and missed it. Around mile 20, I seen Graham from Run for All and said a quick hello and ‘keep going’.


We’re into the 20’s. My calves continue to hurt like hell and my energy continues to fade but I’m now confident I’m not going to start walking until ‘THE HILL’. I even have moments of trying to convince myself I might even be able to run the hill. Dream on. I check my watch at mile 20 to find I could run the final 6.2 miles in 80 minutes or so and still finish sub 4:30 which was my goal. This is a huge boost as I now know I could pretty much walk all of the hill and as long as I jog back down the final mile or so, I’d achieve my target. However, that just won’t do now and the minimum target changes to sub 4:22 – an odd number you might think but sub 4:22 means under 10 minute miles for the whole damned hilly marathon! Mile 21 passes. Just a Cwm Ogwr 5 miler to go.. well that thought kind of worked in a flat marathon like Manchester. However, our 5 miler is around 450 feet spread over 5 miles and I have an 850 foot hill ahead spread out over just 2 miles to come. There’s no choice but to get on with it.


The incline started – nothing to taxing at first but there was a long way to go. The night before I’d watched highlights of a previous years run and seen the leader turn onto another street before going up the hill – I haven’t done that yet. Oh, there’s the turning! Turns out ‘THE HILL’ hadn’t even started yet and that was just a little teaser. OK, so now we are really on the hill. In a last minute decision and never done before, I’d decided to wear my Snowdonia baseball cap with a beanie over the top and I used this to my advantage putting my head down and the peak of the cap hiding all but the few meters of road in front of me. I didn’t want to see what was coming. Like passing the scene of an accident and looking even though you’d rather not see anything horrific, I kept lifting my head to see what was to come. It wasn’t good. Head back down. The mental battles continues – one side saying ‘walk, stop, quit’ and the other saying ‘keep going, pain is temporary, glory is forever’.


The torturous mental battle gets interrupted by another runner… ‘alright mate, how’s it going’? I lift my head to see Chris! Since passing him at mile 6, I hadn’t looked back once as I knew if he was out of sight then I’d have been concerned his injury had reoccurred, but if he was close behind I’d have felt the pressure of someone breathing down my neck. A very quick catch up and this time it was me telling Chris to go on at his own pace. He moved away slowly at first but now the mental demons had taken over and it wasn’t long before I finally walked my first step of the marathon. Mile 22.6. My legs instantly cramped and I had a sickening feeling that like in my first two marathons, this would be it and I wouldn’t get going again. The pain eased and I tried to walk as fast as I could, telling myself that I wasn’t going massively slower than if I was attempting to ‘run’ up the very steep incline anyway. I walked a couple of minutes before telling myself to try and run to the 23 mile marker. I managed this but that quarter of mile felt like the longest of the race. I walked a minute or two more before I spotted Dai Power!! Right, I better get running in some description as I’m not having photos of me walking on the Cwm Ogwr Facebook page. Dai spotted me and shouted “GARETH!!!” to which I screamed back “Dai, you legend”. He shouted that he wanted to get an air shot so I managed some sort of skip / jump (all of 2 inches off the ground) to which he replied “yeah, that’ll do”. He told me Chris was now a couple of minutes ahead which I’d expected as to the point he was out of sight I’d yet to see him reduce to walking. So grateful for Dai for being at that point as I managed to get going again with the top of the hill now in sight.


Mile 24 passed and someone commented it was all downhill from here. I’d studied the elevation profile in some detail and knew that although ‘THE HILL’ was done, there was a slight dip before it rose again, and it was only really from mile 25 that it was all downhill. As expected there were a couple more undulations but what not of us expected was that we basically had to run through a stream! The rain overnight and all morning had meant that much of mile 24-25 was off road through a couple of inches of water! I didn’t care at this point. The hill was done, I was nearly at the downhill point, I was about to complete the Snowdon marathon. Wet feet wasn’t going to dampen my spirits. Approaching mile 25 and another time check. The walking on the hill had lost me a few minutes but sub 4:20 was still on the cards even if the downhill section was too tricky to run at any sort of decent pace. The descent began – I was very conservative at first and there were a few runners around me to contend with as well. Then I thought, stuff this, lets go for it and run this like Richard LJ would advise us too – like a child with no fear! Another check of the watch suggested that actually sub 4:15 was on – amazing. Then, disaster… ok, well, maybe that’s an exaggeration – my laces came undone! Considering the tricky steep descent I had no option but to take a few seconds to go off to the side to tie them back up.


I sprinted back off now with less than a mile to go and was alongside a Run for All member. We were going exactly the same pace and ended up having a quick chat with the pace increasing. A marshal said there was only a minute of running to go – I looked at my watch which indicated there was still about 0.3 of a mile to go so obviously this guy thinks we must be capable of a world record or something! Finally we hear the crowds cheering in Llanberis. I turn the corner to see my wife Amanda, and Chris’s wife Jo. I raise my hands and start waving and shouting like a madman again. Another lump in the throat and tears in my eyes. But hang on, there’s no time for that, there’s a sprint finish to commence. No idea how far there was to go but I pull up alongside the Run for All runner again who says ‘come on Cwm Ogwr’ – rookie mistake, I’m not saying ‘come on Run for All’, that’s wasting energy and this is now a race. I sneaked in front at the line and we shook hands and had a very manly hug. OK, it’s was a tear filled, ‘I’ve just completed the Snowdonia Marathon’ hug. Collected my Welsh slate coaster and a bottle of water, bottom lip quivering with emotion. Legs like jelly.


It was actually a few minutes before I checked my watch as the time had become a bit irrelevant. I had completed the Snowdonia Marathon! Incidentally my time was 4:12:37 which was much better than I could have ever dreamt of. I finished in position 777.


I spotted Jayne who was looking for Dai who had finished a few minutes earlier. I then bumped into him and Kevin on the way to find Amanda. A huge hug from Amanda brought tears to the eyes again.. I wish she wouldn’t squeeze so tight. Just kidding. It was amazing to share such an amazing experience. Chris was already there and within a few minutes we were both sat on the floor with legs in agony. I couldn’t even straighten mine out to try and alleviate the pain. I started shivering so got my Cwm Ogwr hoody on and some jogging bottoms. Obviously I was keen to hear who everyone had done so far…


Kevin had smashed it with a 3:35:26 – 14th in his age category and in the top 250 finishers. Phenomenal. I found out later that he’d actually walked sections of all three of the hills but clearly boshed the rest of it. He actually fell three times on the final descent including one that left him face down and covered in mud for the finish. What a runner. It was over half a hour before our next runner came in which was Dai Kembery in 4:06 – an amazing time considering his flat marathon time is 3:52. Chris Pratt was just 32 seconds behind on chip time but because he started so far back, he had no idea they were so close. However, Chris did see Aled who had also started a couple of minutes ahead. He shouted ahead to Aled (rookie mistake when trying to beat someone) and Aled did managed to finish ahead on gun time but it Chris on chip time with a 4:07 to Aled’s 4:08. Richie Pett got a 4:10 before me with 4:12. Only 6 minutes separated 5 of us!


As I waited with Amanda, Chris and Jo, the next runner over the line was Antony with 4:23. We were delighted to see Fiona up next with a 4:40, smashing her previous Snowdon time. Chris and I had been worried after passing her in the first few miles that she didn’t seem to happy but clearly she was in the zone and smashed it. Steve Riddler came in at 4:49 which he was really pleased with. Who was going to be next? The 5 hour mark passed and it became more and more likely that the final four would come in together. We were right and Richard, Kelly, Heather and Richard LJ finished in 5:15-5:17 – the difference being when they crossed the start line as Richard LJ started a couple of minutes ahead. It turned out Richard LJ had less than ideal preparation for the week with little sleep that week due to his son being ill and then suffering during the race. Kelly and the Garratts who had run together from the start caught up with RLJ in the second half of the race. He wasn’t in a good place but they picked him up and had an absolute blast. Out of the 13 Cwm Ogwr runners, I honestly think they enjoyed it more than anyone. The time didn’t matter one jot. They were there to finish a marathon – a first marathon in the Garratts and Richard LJ’s case, and have an amazing experience – and that they did. Madness – it turns out you can actually enjoy doing a marathon!?


Off back to accommodation for a much needed bath and change of clothes before descending on the Gardffon Inn where a few of our runners were staying for a stunning meal and many well deserved beverages. An absolutely amazing weekend with an amazing bunch of people. Thank you to everyone who got involved – from the members who ran, to the supporters who came along, and everyone tracking us and sending good luck messages back home.


Now who’s up for next year!

Vale Ultra 2016

How did it all come about


So it all started last year when Dai Cappell and Dave Evans ran the inaugural Vale Coastal Ultra. I met up with the Garratts in Ogmore by Sea to cheer the runners in and was inspired. Well.. at first I thought ‘they are all bonkers and I would never do anything like that’ but of course, such thoughts are common with runners who a few hours later can’t wait to sign up. I checked every day for entries to open and finally last July they did and I signed up straight away expecting to be first on the start list. Who beat me to it… Dai Cappell and Dave Evans! The Garratts didn’t take much convincing although I have a feeling they signed up quickly to avoid being nagged for several months. Nick Harris signed up and a bit later Aled and Chris Pratt completed the 8 Cwm Ogwr runners who would be running the Vale Coastal Ultra 2016.


The race also has a 18.5 mile option which Richard LJ and Dai Power ran last year and both signed up for again. Natasha Kerr was amongst the first to sign up for the 18.5 with Kelly joining her and there was an influx of entries in the new year with Richie Pett, Brian Cotton, Liz Davis, Sian Tossell and Natalie Griffiths.


The course


The 32 miler starts from Penarth Pier with the 18.5 starting in Porthkerry Park. The route follows the All Wales Coastal Path and finishes in Ogmore by Sea just as you go into the car park. Organisers Run Walk Crawl describe the route as being ‘almost entirely on trail.  It hugs the cliff top passing numerous hidden and rugged bays all the way to the splendid beachside resort of Ogmore-by-sea. The route itself passes 19 beaches, with the final 14 miles travelling along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast with its dramatic cliffs, amazing rock formations, romantic coves and rolling countryside.’




Training for the event took many forms. Dai Cappell did a longest run of 11 miles, whilst injury meant I didn’t run over Half Marathon distance in the last 7 weeks of training. On the other end of the scale, Nick Harris and Chris Pratt regularly hit 40 and even 50 mile weekly mileage and Chris warmed up the event with a tough off road marathon 5 weeks before. Chris Pratt and I came up with a plan to recce the whole course in 3 stages. We did Penarth to Barry in January, Barry to Llantwit in February before my injury meant the final 9-10 miles from Llantwit to Ogmore by Sea recce had to wait until 3 weeks before the event. Sian, Richard, Aled, Nick and several others did sections of the course beforehand as well.


The build up


The week leading up to the race had several of us constantly checking weather reports. We wouldn’t normally care if it was a flat road race but the weather would have big impact in this event. As we found out in the recce runs, a bit of rain and the course is a mud-fest, but a few dry days and you could arguably get away with road shoes for the entire course. We shouldn’t of bothered checking though as it changed slightly at least 20 times over the week and in the end we discovered we’d be starting at least in wet conditions.


The evening before the race several of us met up to go out for food locally where there was a real mix of nervousness and excitement. The event also required a compulsory kit list including waterproofs, compass, whistle, foil blanket, basic first aid kit amongst others so there was much checking and rechecking of kit bags late on Friday night. The approach to race nutrition was interesting with some taking what could be described as a family-sized picnic whilst others went for a few gels and whatever they could get their hands on at aid stations.


The race


The 32 miler started at 8am and with kit checks in registration beforehand and getting there in plenty of time, it meant setting the alarm for 5:15am! My wife, Amanda and I picked up Chris Pratt and his partner Jo to travel down to the start together. Some anxious moments at registration as they asked for proof of a few items and hoping nothing had been forgotten, but all was fine. We were given a sealable plastic bag with two race numbers, a map and a checkpoint card. The checkpoint card needed to be clipped at two areas in Barry as a section had been added this year to ensure runners went right around the coastal path rather than cutting straight through Barry as they did on what was a 30 mile version last year.


Runners huddled under the Pier with about 40 minutes to go as more Cwm Ogwr runners turned up. The Garratts were no where to be seen with 10 minutes to go so we were a bit concerned they’d had a change of heart but sure enough they turned up. Eventually we walked up to the end of the Pier where the race director went through a thorough race briefing whilst we stood in anticipation in the drizzle. Worryingly, we’d somehow ended up at the front so worked our way back to at least a couple of rows back.


We set off at walking pace as there wasn’t a lot of room with over 200 runners leaving the pier, plus it’s a sensible option when there’s 32+ miles to go. Chris and I actually stopped for a quick comfort break before even leaving the pier which meant we ended up towards the back. We decided we needed to at least get passed some of those who would be walking a significant amount of the course as within a mile or so, the path does narrow to pretty much single track. I’d estimate at least a third of the runners started by walking most of the first mile – particularly as you start with a not insignificant hill out of Penarth.


Chris and I decided we’d run together for a while until we got to a point where one of us needed to drop back. I’d gone for road shoes hoping that the rain overnight hadn’t been enough to affect the course too much. It quickly became apparent that trail was the sensible option although we knew from the first recce that there was plenty of tarmac in the first 12-13 miles. Nick’s mum had planned to see Nick at various points along the course so Jo and Amanda decided to follow which our first ‘cheer point’ being just 3 miles or so into the run just after the Captains Wife restaurant near Sully. The rain was still coming down at this point although I felt a little warm in my waterproof jacket.


Just after mile 5 the course turns off the Coastal Path and onto the roads of Barry with a long loop around the docks before reaching Barry Island. As we turned onto the road, it was also the site of the first checkpoint where a volunteer needed to take your race number before you could go on and have a look what treats they had on offer. We took a handful of jelly babies and jelly beans whilst neither of us needed to top up on water just yet. Chris and I had briefly discussed what pace we wanted to run in the early miles but settled on going for what felt comfortable. On the flat tarmac surface around Barry, our pace did unintentionally increase a bit and we made a conscious decision to rein it in a bit given there was still almost a marathon distance to go.


As we approached Barry Island we joined the parkrun course where the marshals were still out and it was also the checkpoint for getting out cards clipped. Further along we met Amanda and Jo and I decided to change into trail shoes and take the jacket off as the rain had stopped and the temperature was rising slightly. At this point we’d comfortably averaged under 10 minute miles for the first 10 miles. We walked the short beach section before getting back into the previous pace for the section around the Knapp where the second clip of the card was taken. We seen Aled, Dai and Dave who were running in a group with a couple of others including Bridgend AC’s Jon Theil. Again, with 20 miles still to go, Chris and I decided not to make a concerted effort to close the 200-400m gap and I needed to make a quick shoe adjustment anyway which meant they were quickly out of sight again.


After several miles of tarmac the route ascends steeply with some steps thrown in for good measure towards Porthkerry. This was the first section we decided we should walk to conserve energy for later. We arrive at the checkpoint in Porthkerry which was the 14 mile point and where the 18.5 milers would be starting. Jo and Amanda appeared again to cheer us on with Nick’s mum, and we were able to see the 18.5 milers and shout good luck although I only saw Brian and Richie who were towards the front of the starting pen. The second checkpoint had more goodies on offer including flapjacks, Jaffa cakes and cookies which I tucked into before setting off again.


A steep incline out of Porthkerry opened a gap as Chris is much faster striding up hills than me. Over the next couple of miles, Chris was 20-30 feet in front and dropping back now and again for me to catch up as I was starting to struggle but afraid to admit it given we were only at half way. I decided to admit it around mile 16 and told him to keep going if he started opening up a gap again. During this time, Brian and Richie overtook us and were in 3rd and 4th place respectively in the early stages of the 18.5 miler.


I was having issues with my trail shoes which felt uncomfortable and my right heel felt like it had a blister developing so around mile 17 I decided to stop, sit down on the floor and sort things out. Shoes and socks came off and I had a fresh pair of socks in my rucksack which felt really nice to put on. First kit aid out and put blister plaster on my right heel. Undid shoelaces and made sure I felt comfortable before setting off. Probably lost about 4-5 minutes but it was so worth it compared to being uncomfortable for the rest of the race and potentially developing a big blister on the back of my heel.


Alongside Aberthaw power station is probably one of the worst parts of the run as there’s a high wall to your left and wired fencing to your right with just a 4-6 foot wide path to run on in between. After initially feeling the benefits from my short break, my legs started hurting as I approached the 3rd aid station. There’s still 13 miles to go! Greeted Amanda and Jo at the mile 20 checkpoint with a little less enthusiasm than the previous ‘cheer points’ although it was still a welcome boost to see them. I decided I needed a good refuelling so topped up my water bottle and dug in to some biscuits and sweets. The volunteer on the aid station asked how I felt to which I simply replied ‘a bit tired’ to which she said ‘well you have run 20 miles’. Weirdly, this did help and I reminded myself that 20 miles is rather a long way and I’d done reasonably well to this point.


The next couple of miles includes what is probably the most technical section of the course with muddy trails, a couple of styles and a horrible ankle-breaking stoney / large pebble beach section which you have no option but to walk across. I spotted a female ultra runner lying on the floor ahead of me so tried to get to her as quickly as I could by which time she was back on her feet. Fortunately she wasn’t badly injury and I offered to help her off the pebble section to which she just let me lead to way to follow my footsteps. She was definitely alright as we’d end up switching positions several times over the remainder of the race.


The next couple of miles was along cliff tops heading towards Llantwit major. I was struggling and having to take regular walk breaks when I heard ‘have no fear, you’re captain is here!’. It was Richard LJ with Shelley in tow (forgot to mention Shelley took Kelly’s place with just a few days notice). It was a real boost to see them and we carried on together to the next checkpoint at Llantwit. However, there was another issue bothering me. As we approached Llantwit, my watch indicated I’d already done over 24 miles and I knew it was at least another 9 from Llantwit to Ogmore by Sea. Looks like there’s at least an extra mile on the 32 advertised then – not what you want to realise when struggling. Again, the checkpoint meant a quick catch up with Amanda and Jo and more treats from the aid station. I warned Amanda to expect a very slow 9 miles so not to worry if I wasn’t in within the next 2 hours or so. A quick photo with Richard LJ and Shelley and we were back on our way along a very muddy, slippery section out of Llantwit. My Garmin watch died around 25-26 miles but this turned out to be a blessing as now I only had my phone to inform me of time / distance which I checked a lot less frequently and subsequently made the miles go by slightly quicker than checking every few minutes.


I’ve never understood when people have said they’ve had a ‘second wind’ although I felt like this was the case when I reached Nash Point with around 6 miles or so still to go. I’m not saying I wasn’t still very tired with sore legs, but I could maintain an albeit very slow plod without needing to walk. My plod was 13 minute mile pace but a big improvement on walking pace. Sarah Littlewood had gone to that point to support which we were all very grateful for. From Nash Point I could see Richard and Shelley up ahead in the distance which provided an excellent focus point. They did disappear from sight again before I seen them whilst I was at the top of a steep decline followed immediately by possibly the steepest incline of the entire course. This was one of the last sections I walked apart from having to stop to climb over what seemed to be increasingly higher styles.


I was looking out for a wall we reached on an a 45 minute out and back recce run we did from Ogmore by Sea which seemed to take forever to reach but after this I was into much more familiar territory. The dreaded steps were to come with a quad pounding descent followed by a couple of dozen steep steps back up the other side. Onto Southerndown and final aid station, I decided to try some coke which seems to be a ultra-running thing and of course, a couple more sweets. By this point, Shelley had gone on ahead and was out of sight whilst Richard was still visible a few hundred meters ahead and running with Dan Morgan from Bridgend AC.


A final walk up the hill from Southerndown car park and I felt confident I could run the final two miles or so at a quicker pace. Just as I got within a few meters of Richard and Dan, Dan set off for what must have been a very swift final mile or so. I ran with Richard briefly again and he encouraged me to press on. I knew from the recce’s that the first stone wall you see in Ogmore by Sea isn’t the finish but what I hadn’t factored for was that the second wall is quite a distance after and you run a good few hundred meters around it before the finish. I wasn’t going to slow down now though so with a mixture of pain and overwhelming joy that I was about to finish, I managed what felt like a sprint finish. A dozen or so Cwm Ogwr supporters stood just before the finish and the cheer from them was amazing. I crossed the line with a sub 10 minute mile to finish. Collected my medal, t-shirt and handed my clipped card in to the finish line volunteers before a great big hug from Amanda. I measured the run as 33.6 miles although I think there may have been some error with Strava as most had it at 33.0 – 33.1 and I’m almost certain I didn’t go off course anywhere.


The results


I joined the rest of the supporters and Dai Kembery handed me a bottle of beer and a cookie – much needed and tasted so good. Found out that Nick had come in just under 6 hours with Chris catching Aled and Dai who all finished together in 6:12 with Dave in at around 6:30. My time was 6:40. The Garratts came through in 8:49 with Heather describing conditions underfoot as horrendous – she’s not a fan of mud so 33 miles of it wasn’t welcomed.


In the 18.5 miler which was actually more like 19 miles – Richie Pett finished 3rd overall whilst Brian was 11th after a short detour cost him a few places. Shelley ended up as the 8th female finisher. Richard LJ finished next. Natasha and Liz came in together with Dai Power up next beating his time from the previous year by almost 10 minutes. Sian and Natalie ran the course together and are both talking of entering the 32 (33) miler next year.


An amazing day. The question now is how many will sign up next year?!?!