I’m not sure exactly when the idea of doing the Snowdonia marathon nudged its way into my sub-conscious, writes Dave Collins. I have vague memories of someone running it when I first joined Phoenix, but it seemed to be whispered in hushed tones for fear of being found doing something different. The seed of an idea lay dormant for several years as I chased pb’s on fast flat courses, but with age proving to be a major factor in improving further, the notion started to germinate. A chat with Chris Wilson over too many drinks at the back end of last year, made us both realise that this was something that we needed to do. Entries went live on 1st January 2014, and within a few days we had both independently entered. For good measure, I “persuaded” Jayne to sign up, whilst Chris Burgess and Colin McEvoy also took the bait. For the record, Chris W didn’t make the start line, having been saved by an invitation to a wedding on the day of the race!
The decision to enter set the tone for our whole summer’s racing and training program. If we were going to do it then we wanted to give it our best shot, and having spoken to hardcore marathoners and Snowdonia completers Barry Abram and Kev Edwards, we knew that some serious work was required. Back off the miles, but just run hills, hills and more hills. Forsake short fast races for Horwich, Harrock, Garstang and Woodstock. And eat plenty of red meat!
Chris Burgess had mithered the life out of me from very early in the piece about what training we were doing; advice which he promptly ignored. He had run the marathon as a “young lad” and seemed confident that a sub 3 hour was within his grasp – yes Chris, you did put that on Facebook several times! At some point he checked in with reality and started talking about 3.15 (still too fast!) which he planned to do by getting me to run with him. I have never prepared for a race as meticulously as this one. Jayne and I recced the course a couple of months before the race, and I laid out the pace that I thought I could run the various sections at. It came out at 3.21.20 for 26 miles, so that became my target. Actually, I hoped to run a tad faster and get a London qualifying time. Jayne had set herself a much less ambitious 3.45, with a secret 3.35 that she hadn’t revealed to anyone. Chris was still talking 3.15 – no harm in positive thinking? He had also recced the course the day before the race, using the little man on Google Earth, and seemed to know every undulation.
And so to race weekend and mixed preparations for the four of us. Jayne and I had a luxury overnight stay in Travel Lodge Colwyn Bay with a chippy tea. Chris got stuck in horrendous traffic on the M56, and then spent the night in a friend’s caravan with his daughter nursing a mouth abscess. Colin was enchanting wife-to-be Emma in a quality local hotel offering meals of choice to the assembled marathon runners. One of these turned out to be the race runner-up, who modestly revealed over breakfast that he was hoping for sub 2.50.
We had all been anxiously watching the weather during the week, as the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo swept into the UK. I have track record of bad weather during marathons and was fully expecting an apocalyptic storm to descend upon us. As we approached Llanberis on race morning, the sky darkened, the heavens opened and we prepared for the worst. We parked up near the Race HQ and waited for the rain to blow over. Remarkably, it soon did, and as a bonus the threatened high winds didn’t seem to be materialising either. With over 2000 runners registered for the race, and associated supporters accompanying them, you would think it unlikely to bump into anyone that you knew. Imagine our surprise as Jayne looked out of the car window to see Alison and Duncan Drasdo from Trafford pull up alongside us! More about them later. Although we had arrived with nearly two hours to spare (Jayne likes a decent warm-up!), the time flew by. We met up with a tired looking Chris Burgess – “haven’t slept for three nights” – and a very relaxed Colin McEvoy, with support team Emma. I managed to limit Jayne to less than a mile warm-up before we strapped on the gel belts, donned our green bin bags and headed off for the start.
For such a big race, it was a really relaxed start. We jog-walked out of town to the start line not only with fellow runners, but with their supporters – children in buggies, dogs on leads, grannies with zimmers (not really!). There was no great push to get near the start line and we positioned ourselves at what we thought to be an appropriate distance back. I thought that I’d managed to shake Burgess off, but then just before the start he appeared on my shoulder with Colin. “What pace we running Dave? Think we’re on for a sub 3.15”. Aaaargh.
We wished each other luck, then the gun went and within a few seconds we had crossed the start line and were on our way up the Llanberis Pass. I was about to be treated to nearly 3 hours in the company of Chris Burgess! The first two miles, passing through Nant Peris, is an easy run and there’s a temptation to go off too fast. “Are we on pace Dave?” At this stage, me, Jayne and Chris were running together. Dunc had also decided to stick with us as far as the first hill. He had hardly done any training and had only managed two longish runs, but thought he might as well run round! As the climb up to Pen-y-Pass came into view, we could see the lead runners snaking out ahead of us and knew it would be our turn soon. “We can still see the lead car Dave so we’re not that far behind. Are we on pace?” The climb wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined when I’d been taken up it on the Sherpa bus a couple of months earlier. Having said that, I didn’t run it quite as fast as I’d planned but was still surprised how many people were struggling with barely 3 or 4 miles done. Chris backed off a bit, not wanting to burn out and I wondered if that would be the last I would see of him. Not at all. Having spilt a cup of water all over myself at the Pen-y-Pass drinks station, I was flying down the road towards Nant Cynnyd, gel in hand when I heard “What pace we doing Dave?” and he was back.
He was not the only person to catch me as a whole platoon of giddy runners swept by. Between Pen-y-Pass and the half way point at Beddgelert I went from 135th to 176th! There is a sharp bend in the road at Nant Cynnyd and at this point you leave the main road and run on the old Roman road for a few miles. This section is very traily with plenty of trip hazards but it’s a nice downhill gradient on which you can really build up some speed. For some reason Chris had decided to tuck his gels in his shorts – “I must get one of them gel belts” – and so it was no surprise when he dropped one. He stopped, went back for it, caught me up and announced to the group of runners we were with “I’ve got one in my hand and two down my underpants!”. Priceless. “What pace we doing? I’ve got us sub 3.15 still”. How many times did I have to remind him that there is one of the worst hills in marathon running 4 miles before the end.
At this stage people still had plenty of puff and there was a lot of chat going on. Chris’s Google Earth recce had warned of a hill at about mile 8, but this was really just a little kick back onto the main road. From there we took in some fantastic scenery along the side of Llyn Gwynant, then Llyn Dinas, as we kept a good pace towards Beddgelert. I treated Chris to a salt tablet – “What are they for Dave?”, while he explained how he had perfected biting into the foil covered plastic beaker things that they had at the water stations. The plan had been to grab a gel at the station just before the village but I missed mine. Young Chris was much more alert though and took one for both of us; I was starting to appreciate having him with me. The crowds through Beddgelert were superb and gave you just the boost that you needed before taking on the second serious climb of the race. This one was a steady two miles or so; not a killer, but hard enough that we started to pull back some of the runners who had sped past us earlier. As on the Llanberis Pass, Chris dropped a little on the hill, but the elastic that he’d tied to my shorts saw him pull back as we started a slight descent. “What pace did we come up at? Should still be on for 3.20.”
The next section (about miles 15 to 20) is usually my worst on marathons and I hadn’t enjoyed the recce of this part of the course. Although overall downhill, it is undulating and quite exposed. Thankfully the wind was not as strong as the earlier forecasts had predicted, and the direction was across us rather than in our faces. Chris and I were still together and I gave him one of my Energy Shot sweets. 4 miles later – “Have you ate yours yet Dave? Mine’s still at the side of my mouth. What pace we doing?” I thought he’d been quiet. We ran through Rhyd-Ddu, along Llyn Cwellyn then through Betws Garmon. At this point we had 20 miles in the bag and had reeled in runner after runner. The ones we chatted to all commented on how the hills took it out of you. I didn’t like to point out that they hadn’t seen anything yet! The smart money had Burgess starting to crumple at about the 18 mile mark. However, the lad was still on my shoulder and running strong. I can honestly say that running together seemed to eat those miles up, and it’s the best I’ve ever felt 20 miles into a marathon – probably because you usually run a lot faster knowing that there’s no need to have so much left in the tank!
Unbeknown to us, some potential reaping was going on behind. Jayne was having a ding dong battle with long time rival Alison Sedman, a fellow vet 50 and previous winner of this race. Between them, they had all but hauled us in by the time we reached Waunfawr – I’ve really not a clue how you pronounce that one! This is the village where the serious climbing begins up to the tongue-twisting Bwlch-y-groes. The gradient actually kicks in as you approach the village, but you then take a sharpish right turn and the true magnitude of what you are about to take on is revealed. As you round the corner, the 22 mile sign is there, together with a water and gel station – no way was I chancing either of those at the start of that climb. I apparently (Jayne says) glanced over my shoulder at this point. Jayne and Alison had been telling the cheering crowds not to shout their names (everyone’s name is on their number), in case Chris and I rumbled them, and she did think they’d been spotted. Chris had fallen off the back of me at this point and pulled over for a drink. He was greeted by a cheery “Hiya Chris” as Jayne reaped him and set off up the hill. What a kick in the gels that must have been.
Oblivious to what was going on behind me, I set off on my mission not to walk for any part of the climb. Waddy had warned me of how the mind will convince me that a walk would be good, and as I passed walker after walker I could see where he was coming from. When we had recced the course, we’d taken a wrong turn half way up the hill and so had an enforced stop to look at the map. It was a real nasty shock to have to take the climb in one go. It went on and on. The more times I tell the story, and the longer and steeper the climb becomes. There was a timing mat at 23 miles, and the results show that I had gained 70 positions from the half way point; now up to 106th. I had not walked one step – honestly. I knew that once we had peaked, there was over a mile of steep descent which was going to mince our quads. Again, I was not disappointed. The hard hill training over the summer paid back in buckets now though, especially since the terrain was fairly rough. I was quite isolated, with the lad in front well ahead and going strong, and no-one close behind me – not even Jayne.
I took advantage of running on some slightly softer grass as we approached the town, then it was back onto tarmac and a last turn before I saw the magical 26 mile sign. I glanced at my watch and knew that barring a trip or a nasty cramp, I was going to get under 3.20. The crowds over the last few hundred metres were amazing. Everyone shouts your name and you come through a wall of noise to sprint to the finish line. I crossed as the 3rd lady was being interviewed for S4C, but didn’t have the presence of mind to muscle in on her moment of glory. Just over 3.19 on the clock, but a very pleasing 3.18.56 gun time, and 90th place. Job done for me.
I took my foil blanket and Eryri Marathon slate coaster – much nicer than a medal – grabbed a bottle of water and went to watch for Jayne to come in. I thought I’d have about ten minutes, so was chatting to Emma and Chris’s mum, not paying much attention to the race. I happened to glance over my shoulder just in time to see Jayne come tearing along the home straight. Unbelievable! As is her way, I found her draped over a fence – “Is she alright?” asked a marshal, “Yeah, she’s always like this!”. Her epic battle with Alison had seen her dropped on the last uphill section, but she then staged a remarkable downhill assault to pass her rival with a few hundred metres to go, and pull away towards the line. Great running from the two girls who had been told that they’d finished 6th and 7th, Jayne in a time of 3.22.07.
Chris Burgess dug deep to finish in a very impressive 3.23.55 and prove a lot of his doubters wrong. Let’s hope he can now start to train properly and kick on from this ! I’ve not mentioned Colin much, but he did what Colin does better than most and just got on with running a solid steady race. In fact, such is his reputation, that at about 18 miles a runner came on our shoulder and was amazed as Chris said to him “Phew, I thought you were Colin”! Yes he did wear the Vibrams for the whole race; though I haven’t worked out how he was supposed to change them mid-race anyway. His time of 3.38.32 was impressive given how little training and how few long runs he had managed to pack in. Watch out for him at London.
Jayne and I went for a badly needed cup of tea and biscuit in the Community Centre and chewed over the race with fellow runners. How many people said “I was on for a sub * at 20 miles”. Had they not heard about that hill! Although Jayne hadn’t finished in the first five, for which there were prizes, I fully expected her to be first vet 50, having beaten Alison. I was amazed as our results were texted to us within minutes of finishing to find that she was second vet 50. The girl who had finished 3rd, just in front of me was also a vet 50. Turns out that she is a bit of a legend. Angharad Mair (Les Croupiers), current Welsh TV presenter, 23rd in 1997 World Championship marathon in Athens, and just over 34 minutes for 10,000m track. Wow!
For the record, the race winner was Welsh international Alun Vaughan, a local lad and Eryri Harrier, who finished in a mind blowing 2.40.10. First lady was Andrea Rowlands, a vet 40, also from Eryri, in a time of 3.08.52. Jayne was given the vet 50 prize and got a nice hand crafted piece of local glassware showing Snowdon and neighbouring peaks – bit of a glorified ashtray. Most unusual performance of the day went to Dunc Drasdo though. Suspecting that he was going to struggle due to lack of training, he decided to stop off in Beddgelert for a pint!!! He still managed to get round in just over 4 hours.
This is not a marathon to do if you are looking for a good time. However, it is the most scenic marathon that I have done; a really beautiful, interesting and challenging course. Superbly organised, very friendly, great value for money. I would recommend anyone who enjoys distance running to give this one a go before they retire. And try to get Chris Burgess to run with you – he’s much better than an iPod!
Jayne and I coffeed then set off home only to get stuck in some nightmare roadworks near Cheshire Oaks. A lot of clutch work to test Jayne’s left leg.
Colin and Emma went back to their quality hotel to prepare for a drive up to Gretna Green for wedding plans! Chris Burgess got boxed in on the car park by the finish line and had to wait until 6 o’clock to get back to the caravan and his appointment with a bottle of red.
Alison and Dunc forgot to “Pay and Display” and were awarded a parking ticket!!!!!!