The first of the UK Skyrunner Series – 55km over some of the most spectacular terrain the UK has to offer. With around 4,000m of ascent (13,000′) including the infamous “knife-edged” arête of Crib Goch it looked like ideal training to get some altitude in preparation for Tahoe. Reality was a little different…
I’ve been up to Snowdonia in North Wales a few times and have run the Snowdonia Marathon a couple of times – including a “double” run last year as documented in this blog post. However, I’ve never been up into the mountains properly – but have always marvelled at them from the relative safety of the lower valleys.
This race scares me senseless, more than ANY other race I’ve done or am planning to do. I’m really not good with heights – and there’s a section near the start called Crib Goch which involves a scramble across a rocky knife-edge with huge exposed drops on both sides. I’d spent some time watching YouTube videos which hadn’t helped my nerves much, however – despite everything, I decided to MTFU and head off to tackle my fears.
The UK had been basking in a heatwave for a couple of weeks prior to the race, but typically – come race day, the clouds and rain rolled in. The 4-hour drive up on Friday was wet and when the mountains finally came into view, they were shrouded in cloud…
The race is unique in that it’s run by Vegan Runners and a condition of the race is that you are Vegan for the day, this isn’t really an issue for me as I was trialling Tailwind nutrition for the race which seemed to work well. The pre-race briefing the night before was quite comprehensive and finished in time for me to head off to the pub for a quick beer before settling down for a restless night listening to rain pattering on my tent.
At 03:00 people started stirring and, after getting changed and a coffee around 100 of us gathered at 04:00 to catch the coach to the start. At the start a swarm of midges appeared and started chomping on any exposed skin, I may have sent a couple of them to midge heaven, (I hope this doesn’t affect my Vegan status for the day). Soon enough – and with little ceremony we were off at 05:15 on the first climb of the day, Snowdon!
I started dead last as was planning to take it easy and hike most of the race, the route started climbing straight away and I settled into a nice aerobic hike. Soon enough it got steeper so the poles came out to help me ascending. I found myself in a group with a couple and two lads, (George and Joe).
The Snowdon ascent, (approx. 3,000′ in 4 miles) was steady and really enjoyable on a decent path and I got to the summit in around 1hr40. We were now in the cloud and visibility was down to a few yards. So, that was the easy part – it was time to face my fears and head over to Crib Goch. But before Crib Coch was the minor matter of Garnedd Ugain which I wasn’t aware of. All of a sudden there was a wall of rock with no way over it, it was time to start scrambling.
The next hour or-so was intense, there was vertical rock climbing over wet, slippy rock with massive drops on either side. There was scrambling over scree sections where a slip might send you flying down the mountain and finally – there was Crib Goch. At one point I must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in a bit of dangerous spot which must have taken me 30-40 minutes to get myself back into a safe position! We were in the clouds, so the full extent of the exposure wasn’t evident but – it was scary, very, very scary. I’ve no idea how people skip over this stuff – I was absolutely terrified, but there was no way back so carried on. Eventually, it was over and after a crazy scree descent and a comedy slip which landed me head first into a stream the first Checkpoint at Nant Peris arrived.
I was SO glad Crib Goch was over, in my mind – the rest was easy and although there were some big climbs, no more scary stuff. So, after stocking up on Vegan snacks headed off up the big 2-mile, 2,500′ climb up to Elidir Fawr. Nearing the top the clouds closed-in again and visibility dropped to a few feet. The organisers had marked the course with little green flags which helped a bit with navigation, but the markings were becoming increasing sketchy. Having not recced the course I was reliant on the markings and my GPS, but both were letting me down and sending me into dangerous territory which took some getting out of safely. Though I was trying to follow the course markings and sticking to the GPS line – I just kept ending up in dead-ends, in rock-fields or on cliff faces and having to backtrack down wet, near-vertical slopes to find a different route.
I should mention that the photos included in this blog are not mine – at the time I was more worried for my life than taking a photo, reaching into my pack to grab my phone required removing a contact point with the ground and I’m sorry patient reader, that just wasn’t going to happen!
This section just went from bad, to worse. There were 5 peaks and visibility got worse, markings weren’t there and my GPS was all over the shop. The scrambling went from difficult to just plain silly with the final descent off Glyder Fach and the subsequent ascent of Tryfan just about finishing me off. This was in no way running, it was scrambling – with a dose of rock climbing thrown in. As I summited Tryfan I had 30 minutes to do the 1.5 miles down to the next aid station at Ogwen to meet the cutoff at 15:00 – I got there at 15:20.
In my heart, I knew I was done – although the course is spectacular – it wasn’t what I thought it was, and to be totally honest – I just don’t have the skills required to tackle the mountains. I didn’t feel safe and so, gingerly I picked my way down to the Aid Station – it must have been obvious I was out as the Race Director said to me at the bottom “you look like you’ve had enough” – and I had.
Joe and the couple I’d met earlier turned up shortly and were also timed-out, as was the leader of the “v3k Ultra Extreme” race who was also retired to his disappointment.
Without a doubt, this was the hardest, toughest, nastiest race I’ve ever done. Despite not finishing, and the terror – I have absolutely no regrets, I conquered Crib Gogh and some other really, really scary stuff. It was generally thought that the 3pm cut-off was a bit tight and everyone who was cut believed they could have finished as the last section is the easiest, I really felt for the one-and-only remaining, v3k Ultra Extreme competitor who was cut after running the course TWICE to that point. He could easily have finished.
Because the race is now part of the Skyrunner Series, the organisers have understandably been very strict with the rules so as not to compromise its status. Skyrunner requires a course to be marked, but I’m not sure how you could mark a course adequately of this type, and especially in these conditions? It requires a solid knowledge of the route and area with excellent navigation and mountain skills to safely complete a race of this type – neither of which are my strong points, maybe one day – just not at the moment…
Finally – some more photos from the leaders courtesy and copyright of Mick Kenyon at RacingSnakes, I have nothing but awe and respect for these lads – I was on my hands and knees on this terrain.