Waking up at 6am on a Sunday isn’t usually on everyone’s to do list, but when the view greeting you outside the window is as breathtaking as the Snowdonia mountain range it’s a little easier, it’s a shame the same can’t be said for what was awaiting an excited crowd waiting for the start of the On Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon.
Breakfasts of porridge, yoghurt and muesli, toast and two soft boiled eggs consumed and Adi and I are ready to hit the mountain, it can’t be that hard right? It’s only a half marathon with a bit of an uphill! Never have either of us been so wrong about a race.
The crowds are gathering after some inventive parking in the already packed car parks as the 26.2 runners are set off, each of the distances starting at staggered times. It’s 45 minutes until we’re off, so several toilet stops (nerves, too much coffee, both?) and a wander around the stalls of the excellent athletes village later and we’re called to the start for the safety briefing. It’s a decent sized field, with runners from all over the world, including a few recognisable vests from Sheffield and Beverley amongst others. Preamble over, and the countdown begins to start the race, and after 3,2,1, we’re away through the streets of the beautiful town of Llanberis before sweeping left and beginning a 3000ft, 6.5 mile ascent of Wales national mountain. The first 3 miles are OK, a steady climb up farm tracks and loose stone trails, easily runnable, albeit a challenge on the calves, but it’s fine, this can’t be that bad, can it?
At about 4 miles the paths sweep downhill, as Snowdon comes into sight and looms large over the landscape. It’s at this point the long snaking line of runners can be seen starting their climb. It’s a long, slow stream, and in about half a mile we’re about to discover why. The climb is brutal, loose rocks, uneven footing and steep slopes that wind endlessly. With each few hundred feet ascended the mountain disappears behind its own sheer face, and as each corner is rounded another few hundred feet come into view. It’s relentless, and runners can be heard all around cursing, complaining and almost sobbing each time they discover the summit is still some way off. Some 20 minutes or so after beginning the climb and about 2500ft up the mountain the clouds obscure the sunshine that’s been warming our shoulders and the peak is shrouded in a thick mist that sends the temperature plummeting, making us shiver. It’s at this point I have the urge to check for a ring tied around my neck, this no longer feels like a run and more like a journey into Mordor. It’s exhausting, cold and the voice inside my head keeps telling me to turn back, but the path levels off and the descent is in sight. After a ridiculously slow mile (over 25 minutes from mile 6 to mile 7) we can eventually start running again, but it’s not running as we know it, the craggy rocks are like shards and the footing is treacherous, so although it’s finally downhill, it’s not a downhill we can enjoy as we keep our gazes fixed at the ground immediately in front of our feet. There’s a faller in front of me, and the gravel sprays up around him as he tables, but with the help of a fellow runner he’s up in a flash and moving again.
As we drop below the clouds again the sun comes back into view and it’s with a welcome sense of relief that a drinks station appears from under a small tunnel beneath the train tracks, which we’ve looked at with envy on more than one occasion today. A quick swig of the sponsors energy drink and it’s onwards to the finish. It’s all downhill now right? Somebody mentions “The Quarry”, but no further thought is made of that particular aspect of the race, how bad can it be? We’ve only got a few miles to go. As we reach the bottom of Snowdon, the sound of the PA can be heard from the start/finish line, but a quick glance at the watch suggests theres still a couple of miles to go, ah yes, The Quarry.
11.22 miles, that’s the exact point at which my enjoyment of this race was most tested. As I saw the hard slate steps that greeted me my heart sank, legs that were on fire, lungs that had little or no breath left and steps that were taller than my knees. How on earth was I going to get through this? I wanted to quit, I had nothing left. Passing a young runner about half way up this bonus 650ft climb that must have been a sick joke devised by the organisers over a pint, I ask if he’s OK. He just looks me in the eyes and says, I just want to cry. I know exactly how he feels, the climb just goes on, and on… and on.
At the top, there is finally a top, the marshal greets us with a cheery “well done, only 2.5km to go” and I want to hurt him, the way my legs are hurting me, but I smile politely and say thank you. The surface turns to tarmac again as we enter the town, the train is pulling into the station as we round the final bend as if to taunt us just one last time. There’s nothing left in the legs and the downhill feels as painful as the uphills, but the end is in sight. Across the tracks, and the flags are finally in sight and it’s through the finish of what has been a race that is probably the most underestimated we have ever run. The winning time was 1 hour 58 minutes, utterly mind boggling, we Harriers managing 2 hours 50 and 3 hours 15 respectively. Those times felt disappointing initially, but when looking at the full results the magnitude of the run came into perspective as at least half the field was still to finish after us.
This was a relentless and cruel race, but the views were spectacular and despite our brains constantly telling us to stop, our legs had other ideas. We did it, somehow!