The devil whispered, ‘you cannot withstand the storm’ to which the warrior replied ‘I am the storm’
The ultra is my battle ground. It’s where I go to challenge myself and do battle with the voices that tell me ‘you can’t do this’ , to battle the expectations and self doubts that try to persuade me to tow the line of life. Above all, I enjoy the more extreme form of running. I love the adventure it brings, from the planning (I start planning the moment I have clicked the ‘enter’ button), the packing (I start this weeks before my event), and the participation (the best part). Ultra running is where I can wield my metaphorical sword (I do wield a real viking sword to rock music/metal the night before an event 😁🗡️) and slay my enemies called doubt and fear. Once the finish line is crossed the voices in my head telling me ‘you can’t do this’ and ‘your in pain, quit and get yourself some well earned beers’, can no longer have any power, I have silenced them, for now.
Welcome. I have been running a long time. From primary schools fastest sprinter to undefeated 800m and 1500m runs in secondary school. I have have run County cross country, but it wasn’t until I went to the New Zealand to live that I got into the longer distances. Through this blog I will tell stories of all my running experiences and adventures from primary school to present day. I will offer tips and advice from training to nutrition that I have have picked up from professionals, books, and through trial and error. So prepare for rocky, muddy and hilly runs full of adventures!
GB Ultras Snowdon 100 miles
September 22nd 2018
I have been waiting my whole life for an ultra like this. Brutal, tough, unforgiving. This is my perfect battleground. After a DNF in the Jurassic Coast 100, I knew I would have to do some serious training for this one. Long days on my feet, core work and leg strengthening, and the much neglected by a lot of ultra runners, mental toughness training. Bar a few niggles and tiredness towards my three week tail off, I was in great shape. 4kg lighter and a lot of emphasis on mental training. Meditation, positive affirmations, and visualisation were all techniques I used to prepare my mind for the unknown. The longest I have been on my feet prior to Snowdon was 24 hours, this could potentially take 38-48 hours (on my race plan I calculated 38.5 hours). Aerobically I was spot on, but my legs, more specifically painful hips and ankles, and a recently developed pain in my right knee could come back to haunt me. It was my ankles that stopped my Jurassic Coast 100 quest (although with hindsight I could have pushed the last 30 miles if I had been mentally stronger). Apart from a couple of tough landscaping jobs, I did no exercise for the week prior to the event. I still felt shattered. Most niggles had gone apart from my right knee.
I was travelling alone to Snowdon. The overnight ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. A brief chance to sleep. Not the best but it was a rest. The next day I had a chance to drive to Betws y coed and around the area to view some of the course before I checked into my accommodation. Seeing some of the course and the climbs close up brought a smile to my face. This was going to be tough. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you fear something, then the battle is already half lost. I had run the course in my head, following it on my OL17 Snowdonia map, a hundred times. Every time I visualised strong flowing running, effort, but not fatigue. I was gunna kill that climb up to Carnedd Dafyd! COME ON!!
An early rise on the morning of the event. I followed my usual plan and made my way to Betws y coed for registration and gear check. I’m always quiet before the start, a million thoughts going round in my head. We were starting in the dark so head torches would be needed. I never got to see the start/finish line in the daylight. I did not feel nervous, there was nothing I could do now but stick to my plan. Yeah right! My plan was to walk the first bit but everyone was off! Running!
It was an easy and comfortable pace. The route to the first checkpoint was relatively flat and not that technical bar rocks, mud and tree roots. After CP1 is where the terrain got interesting. Heather Terrace on Tryfan was a long scramble/climb, a lot of fun but slower than I had anticipated.
The route to CP2 was rocky to start, then became increasingly wet and boggy. Not much running on that leg then. I took an hour longer than planned. Snowdon, I thought, would be fun, but it seems half the population of Great Britain had decided to climb it that day. Reaching the CP3 and the summit of Snowdon was mentally relieving as it is the highest point on the course. My right knee gave me a bit of jip on the way down, but nothing major. CP4. Still feeling energised, I just needed to replenish water, eat, drink a black coffee before climbing back towards Tryfan turning left to Glyder Fach and Glyder Faw and the infamous Devils Kitchen.
Again, virtually zero chance to run because of the rocky terrain. When it’s like this you will expend more energy trying to run over terrain like this. I hooked up with an American living in Cambridge doing his first ultra, the 50 mile option. Then it hit me, I had not seen a 100 miler for some time. Hmmm. Anyway, good company for the next few hours took my mind off the slow pace and the quad bashing technical descent of Devils Kitchen.
At the bottom I could run! Woo hoo! Next was CP5 then the beast of a climb up to Carnedd Dafyd. Below is a photo looking to the climb from Devils Kitchen.
It was a beast. Energy sapping climbing, but I loved it. This is what I funning live for! Getting up the ridge before dark was a priority. Done.
Now across the top before descending to CP6.
Darkness came, the cloud lowered, it got cold. A few of us got mildly lost. Our head torches could not pick up the course marker reflections through the low cloud. I had done this part of the course last year so I knew roughly where we were going. Darkness and cloud can confuse and disorientate. I led a pack of runners off the top and down to CP6 for a much needed black coffee and food. Now it was the relatively easy route back to the start/finish and halfway. We still had to go via the Llyn Crafnant loop. The night and lack of sleep can play tricks on your mind and body. Strange creatures reveal themselves out of the corner of your eye and the lack of light around you means that sometimes your balance can feel a bit off. A rough technical path to the lake and an easy forest road to CP7. By now it was gone midnight but I still felt awake and alive. The first part of the second half of the loop was very technical with rocky river paths covered by ferns and bracken, and sections of Lake shore completely covered in tree roots. There are no trail shoes that grip tree roots. This was slow and slippery going, and incredibly frustrating, even more so because I would have to do it again before the finish. One of the affirmations I repeat to myself is;
My heart is strong, my mind is strong, my body is strong.
While positive affirmations can help immensely, so can concentration. On a roll, I was not concentrating on the route. I saw a course marker and turned down a path. I came to a forest road and vaguely recognised it. Not listening to my gut feeling I ran on for another couple of miles and ended up at the bridge at the start of the lake loop. Oh dear, this isn’t right, I thought to myself. I took 5 minutes to check the map on my phone. It turned out that I shouldn’t have taken the turning when I saw the course markers, that was the track from the start of the day! I had just added 4 miles and lost an hour. I didn’t get angry, that was pointless. So back I went. On route I met two runners who had done the same thing. One of them was in a bad way and moving very slowly. I explained where we had gone wrong, the one who was in a bad way was still doubtful of my explanation so I stayed with them until we were all back on track, and then I went ahead. The path along the river was long and lonely but Betws y coed and halfway loomed.
The halfway point was a chance for hot food. Baked beans and bread never tasted so good. A boiled egg, half an avocado, and some pork scratchings all went down well. I have trained my body to burn fat as fuel, plus the nutrients from the egg and avocado are great for ultras, but more on that in later posts. I changed my base layer to a long sleeve thermal compression layer, changed my socks to skins compression and my shoes to the Hoka Speedgoat 2. They still have good grip but more cushion for the the less technical second half. I spent about 30 minutes there, then off again.
An easy going forest road was welcome, but running was virtually off the cards. The pain that halted my JC100 had come back to my right ankle. Ever since I broke my left ankle trail running in New Zealand back in 2005, I have favoured my right leg. This means I put more weight and pressure on my right leg. I have realised for the a while that I need to balance my body if I want to finish longer events. Anyway, I was OK, for now, but a realisation that I still had a very long way to go and some tough sections brought the first hints of self doubt. Those voices in my head were getting louder. CP9 at Trefiw came soon enough. The checkpoint crew commented how fresh I looked. Inside I was having doubts. I was chatting away to them when they revealed that I was currently in 17th place for the 100 mile. Well, that was a shot of wolverines green syrum right there. That was just the boost I needed. All the self doubt had gone. I was going to funning do this!
The next leg to CP10 was both exhilarating and down right frustrating.
It started with sun and easy terrain, over the top to Llyn Cowlyd reservoir. Looking to the dam I saw black clouds. It wasn’t long before it started raining. I then had two hours of driving wind, rain, and the occasional hail shower. The temperature had dropped and I was feckin freezing! The trail down the lake didn’t help. Technical, rocky, slippery, in fact most of the trail was river! At the end of the lake I met a mountain biker and the sun appeared briefly. We exchanged positive banter about how we could be sat at home by a fire drinking hot coffee, but we chose to be out living at the edge of our comfort zones in an environment such as this. At that moment sitting in a pub by a fire with a large glass of whisky would have been perfect, but while I don’t invite life’s challenges, I won’t back away from them either. Life is not meant to be easy. Pushing through the adversity, the obstruction, and the pain, is when you get the greatest rewards. That sun was brief, as was my encounter with the only person since the last checkpoint. The rain returned and the terrain became ankle deep bog. Come on CP10! I need you! On an event like this, checkpoints are like mini pods of heaven. Encouraging words from the crew/angels, food, hot drinks, and a chance to sit down, but not for too long! I was shivering and cold, but did not feel too tired. One competitor had sat in one of the crew’s car with the heater on to the warm up. I put on another layer, drank TWO coffees and marched on. We no longer had to ascend the last climbs of Foel Grach and Heather Terrace on Tryfan because of the high winds. We still had the same distance but it was an out and back to CP11 and then the normal lake loop and river path to the finish. This was motivating, but at the same time I was gutted. Its actually like the incline, it takes the pain away from my now very painful right ankle.
Most of the next 30 odd miles would be flowing and relatively flat. Sun and hail storms were the weather to CP11, but it came soon enough. The checkpoint crew were amazing. My spirits were good. I was still very much awake (probably due to the guarana in my homemade gels. More about those in later posts). I was fed mini pasties, sausage rolls, and pork pie. I just could not stomach the sweet stuff at the checkpoints. I drank black coffee and warmed my hands on a kettle and was generally pampered. I swear these checkpoint crews are guardian angels!
I left in high spirits hobbling a bit until I got back into the groove.
No stopping at CP12, I had plenty of food and water and I just wanted to get that lake loop out of the way. It was at this point I knew for certain that I was going to be finish. A partial rainbow appeared directly ahead in the direction of Betws y coed. I believe that the universe gave me a sign. The Last I heard I was in 17th place, this would mean I would get a gold belt buckle. The top 50 get gold, the next 50 silver, and the next 50 bronze. Now, legend has it there is gold at the end of a rainbow, this rainbow ended in Betws y coed, the finish line! Hey, don’t we all have moments like this from time to time? Little signs, profound moments only recognised by the person they are directed at. As you have probably guessed, I am a little spiritual.
On the way up to the the lake I met a couple of walkers coming down. I had put my head torch on my head in anticipation of the impending dark. They told me that I wouldn’t need it, but I knew differently.
I didn’t come this far, only to come this far.
I was now in real pain in my right ankle and I just wanted that psychological boost of the last checkpoint. The tent had gone when I got there but a coffee, a homemade pumpkin, chia seed, turmeric, and himalayan pink salt smoothie, and encouragement from the crew gave me the boost for the tough section to come. The rocky wet paths had not changed, the tree roots on the lake shore had not changed. This time a bit more tired, I fell into a Gorse bush thinking it was a rock that would stabilise me. And I jumped out of my skin when a man launched out of the lake at me, which turned out to be a wave crashing on the shore, the wind, and a lake side shrub. I was seeing many strange things, or were strange things seeing me? Without getting too deep, when we are extremely tired, does our life conditioning and everything we have been taught about reality start to blur? We always look for the rational explanation because we have an innate fear of the unknown. So when we are seeing things maybe we ARE seeing them but in an instant our mind rationalises what we saw as something we know and don’t fear. Just a thought.
Anyway, the lake loop ended and I took the correct route this time! The last few miles along the river were the longest but every step was a step closer to the finish. The march to the the finish line was emotional. A few cheers from the remaining crew and other finishers. My head torch died (another one of those moments) and I crossed the finish line with an amazing feeling of accomplishment and relief.
All the training and preparation had paid off. My first belt buckle and what beauty and a tough one to get. It turns out that I did get the gold buckle because I was only one of 12 people that finished the first GB Ultras Snowdon 100 miler! 65 started. More had entered but pulled out after doing recce weekends on the course. My final time was 41h 17m. I can describe the course as ‘wonderfully brutal’.
There is one thing very clear to me. I would not have finished without the checkpoint crews and marshals. They are the ultra runners guardian angels. Thank you.