Thursday, 16 July 2015

Day 5 - Slaying the Dragon....but only just!!!

Getting up on Day 5 was an interesting experience. My eyes had been a bit weepy overnight, though they felt dry, but when I got up, I could hardly open them
How swollen??
as they were that swollen. They weren't sore or itchy, just swollen, and it wasn't that easy to see even wearing my glasses. I took an antihistamine, splashed water on my face as best I could and wandered around the campsite a bit, hoping that gravity would help ease them. No real joy so I went to the medical tent, only to find that it wasn't opening until 6am. Still, it meant I could,d have my breakfast in two sitting......pre 6am, and after some saline eye drops later (which did help a bit). The pictures I've seen of me on that morning show that I was no oil painting (ok, so I know that I'm not normally either!!!!).

Several of the other girls had told me that they'd reccied the final day a few times, so I was a bit worried that the navigation would be tricky......not exactly what you want when you're having difficulty seeing. The weather was also slightly threatening, as it was drizzly and so there were no hills to be seen anyway. Sabrina and I decided to wait and set off with Dave for some last day banter on the way.

Starting Day 5
I managed to get my contact lenses in at the last minute and off we went. The first section was a continuation of last night's roads, so I had to hold back so that we didn't lose sight of each other (but it gave me time to stop and remove the waterproofs that were causing me to overheat).

Lizzie soon joined us and although she and I might have had a slightly faster moving pace, Dave was better at picking routes through the first quarries so we ended up together in the woods. Unfortunately, we three girls didn't notice the fact that he wasn't coming with us as we trotted off down a succession of paths and tracks, taking it in turns to be the one that opened or closed the gates (though we climbed a few!).

Soon after we were directed onto a mandatory section of the route, we started to climb, and 3 became 2. The route was "marked" so Lizzie and I had fun seeing who could spot the tiny flags first. We had to stick to the marked route along the ridgeline as there was farmland on either side and we did not want to annoy any locals and hence put the future of the event in jeopardy.

As we descended off the ridge, another marshal warned us that there was a dog loose up ahead and asked us to walk rather than run when we saw it. I spent the next wee while in fear of being chased by an angry beast, but its owner must have secured it as there were none to be seen!

People had talked about buying pies in the town we entered, and some locals did try to direct us to the bakery, but we ignored it all and were soon trotting along a road leaving the houses behind. We passed a few more people on this stretch as we employed a steady run-walk (chat) strategy. A "shortcut" along a permissive path through a wood did not really gain us much time as it was totally overgrown and hard to find, but it made for a change of road surface.

I realised what Lizzie meant, when she had talked about liking a later start (she said that you got a mental boost by catching others up), as it became very sociable, with everyone exchanging a few encouraging words as they passed (including us to Konrad as he was the one person powering along past us!). One slightly amusing thing was spotting a sign to a place called "Halfway" as it was pointing down the wrong fork of a junction for us to get to our "halfway" mark.

Another climb and we spotted the reservoir and dam below us, so we knew we just had a comfortable run into the support point. The biggest surprise of the day came when we heard Lizzie's name being called out from away to our right. It was her boyfriend, who'd taken the day off work and come out to surprise and encourage her. He had been following her tracker so knew where to find her.....and it was lovely to have him run across the dam with us. Giving him a hug delayed Lizzie slightly from her usual speedy "in-out" at the support point, but I spent a lot less time there than usual (I didn't even sit down or eat anything, but just had a drink, refilled my bottles and food supplies, and ate my scones as we headed on out down the road).

It is odd how changeable the weather can be, as it seemed so hot and still when we ran on open roads and protected forest tracks, but it then got colder and colder as we headed up into our final range of hills. As we started to climb up, there were many coloured figures scattered across the hillside ahead of us, but they gradually disappeared from view as the weather closed in. By the time we stopped to put on our waterproofs and gloves, "my world" was limited to myself and Lizzie (and the odd person we passed on the climb).

Unfortunately the clag also gave us a false sense of relief when we finally reached the top of the turns out that the first cairn we ran to on the ridgeline wasn't the actual CP - it was one further along, but we found that easily enough. It seemed to be quite a long way to the next checkpoint, but that was probably as our visual fields were so limited by cloud. As it came and went, you could see people on hillsides in various directions, but we knew we were on course when we saw the "Elite Speed Train" approaching from behind us, headed up by Jim and Jasmin (and overall winners of the event). I was so impressed to see them running "easily" up some slopes we'd struggled up at a much slower pace! How "not worthy" did I feel!??

We all arrived at the CP together and then Lizzie jumped onto the back of the speed train. The ground was much rougher here with no real paths, and I didn't want to risk an injury myself when I'd come so far, so I let them go (I say it like I had much of a choice!!!). They did stay in sight for a short period as the clouds lifted briefly (Jim was wearing a bright t-shirt which he hadn't yet covered up with a dark waterproof), but then I was on my own. I did feel totally isolated as I could see no-one, there were no obvious paths underfoot, and the rain was started to pelt down on me.

I managed to catchup to a couple on the next little uneven stretch and finally worked out why the previously mentioned lady had been running with her map tucked away whenever I'd seen her. She was carrying a GPS so from time to time, she would use it to check their position, while the guy she was running with would then correlate this with the map and plan the next bit of their route. That must really have helped in the poor visibility, and it was incredibly reassuring to see that they were planning on going in the same direction as me!

We were trying to maintain height and contour round some hills, but not everyone had made the same route choice, as three guys suddenly appeared up from a valley to my right. Luckily, they seemed to be going at about the same pace as me, so we stuck together to the next checkpoint. From there, it looked (on the map) to be an easy route to the next CP......down to a road, across it and up the other side. I'm sure this would have been the case in even slightly better weather, but we headed off the summit as best we could. I doubt we actually crossed the road at the optimum point, as although we saw a small signpost, other people (later on) definitely mentioned a parked car and some supporters, and until I'd been struck blind, they weren't at the point that we crossed. I was so cold and wet by now that I admit to considering pulling out......but realised how ridiculous it would be to DNF with only 1.5 checkpoints to go, and so pushed on.

Local knowledge (ie having reccied the route) would have really helped us between the final two checkpoints, as it turns out that if you climbed up onto the top of the ridge, there was a really good runnable trod all the way along it. Without being privy to this information, it made sense to me to avoid further climbing if possible, and so to contour round to the CP. The three guys that I had joined forces with were navigating by their GPS (watches and hand held) but had the same plan. I have to admit that I'd nearly lost the will to carry on by now (it really does say something about me if I'm too cold and wet to be bothered to eat) but then promised not to abandon me in the cloud (though in the end, it was actually one of them that we stood around waiting for).!

Woohoo - the castle!!
When we got to that final checkpoint, I could have hugged and kissed the marshal there, as he was proffering a big bag of jelly babies (I had rather a I apologise to anyone later on that missed out!!). Now it was just the finish that beckoned.....yippee....I was going to make it even if I had to crawl. I actually nearly did end up crawling, as I caught a tired foot in heather roots and went for another sprawl, this time hurting my left quad, but I just got up and carried on. We finally descended below the level of the cloud and spied the castle in the distance....though it did still appear to be a couple of ridges away. I had almost forgotten about my eye problems, but one of the guys was an eye specialist and commented on them (now that we could actually see each other properly) - he suggested I might need steroids to help them settle down.....the very thought of which turned my stomach as I get so anxious re drugstesting.

Woohoo - finished!!
The final section looked like an appealing run down to the river and then a stiff climb up the other side to the castle on the crest of the hill (what else would you expect but a sting in the tail?). Unfortunately, this was where I discovered that I really had hurt my quad earlier, as I could neither run down the slope, nor up the other side. We were all still together as we started the final climb, but I could not manage to go with them when they broke into a final run (I did not want to risk further injury, even though it meant suffering the indignity of being seen to walk the last uphill).

Finally, I rounded a corner, entered the castle and crossed under the finish banner - I had made it!!!

Hmmm...still rather swollen!!

Helene was there (amongst others) to welcome us in and I admit to almost crying on her, as I had gone through so so many moments (long moments) of self-doubt. It was an amazing feeling - I'd been so far out of my comfort zone (as I'm sure had many others) but I'd pushed on and made it. Angie had taken a picture of me covered in blood and bruises on Day 1 and so it was amazing to see her snapping a finisher's picture what seemed like a lifetime later.

My hard-earned Dragon!

Jonny and I loving our Dragons
I can't really describe the event properly - people may say it's one of the toughest things they've done, but at the time, you don't think about just live in the moment and get on with it. I met many inspirational people, reconnected with others, laughed, cried, cheered, encouraged, was encouraged by others, and proved what you can do if you put your mind (body and soul?) to something.....a roadrunner? Doing a mountain race? and finishing 12th overall? Who'd have thought it?!!!

And I even got a huge piece of cake before leaving the castle and heading off to camp and the finishing celebrations!!!

(picture credits for the race - Ian Corless, Rob Howard, Angela Foster)

Friday, 10 July 2015

Day 4 - Outrunning the Dragon!

The night of Day 3 had been a rather interrupted one for me. I had been very lucky so far in that I hadn't had to share my corner of the tent with anyone, but unfortunately there had been a rather unpleasant disagreement in another tent. This meant that a rather upset lady suddenly joined me in my portion of the tent. I felt really sorry for her, as I thought that she had born the brunt of someone else's bad temper, but selfishly I have to say it wasn't the most fun thing for me to do - get up again after I'd gone to bed, and clear a space for someone to else to try to sleep. She was probably too upset by events to sleep well, and hence I had a disturbed night.

Checking out the map

My eyes been slightly weepy overnight and so when I caught sight of myself in the small mirror in a portaloo in the morning, it wasn't a pretty sight. The lack of sleep had given me rather puffy eyes but they did improve as I wandered around the campsite, had breakfast etc. I had some added time for them to settle as Sabrina was took a bit longer than me to pack up and get ready for the off. We had enjoyed teaming up and so arranged to start together again (in fact, a friend who had been following the race sent me a message to say that as our trackers had been so close to each other for most of the week, he almost expected to see her on his doorstep with me when I dropped in on my way back from Wales!!).
Always dropped off the start...
The map on Day 4 looked absolutely huge (and there was an added insert of the bottom part of the map), but luckily some of this was due to the fact that a different scale was being used. It took a little while to get "your eye in" to the different scale, and the fact that permissive paths, certain features etc were marked in a different colour, but again, by the time we'd gained the first checkpoint, we'd almost forgotten that we'd been using other maps/scales! There was very little flat running at the start of the day to get us warmed us, so we were all too soon working our lungs and legs ascending the first hill. Sabrina and I complemented each other with our strengths and weaknesses - my running pace was faster, and my fast walking pace was only just slower than her running pace so I could lead the more runnable sections, but she was better than me on the rough tussocky ground, and much more confident in her navigation than I was, so tended to take the lead there.
It was interesting to be passing and be passed by several runners over the next few stages between CPs as we were probably all of a similar speed, though Sabrina and I tended to find that we could maintain our speed over the day while others did tend to fade a bit, so we weren't fazed by this. I had noticed a lady (the day before) that ran with her map tucked away in her bag, which made me wonder how well she knew the terrain if she wasn't having to try to read a map as well as run, but this time I noticed that she was running with 2 guys who did the navigation, so she just had to follow/go where she was told. That might suit some people, but I'm never good at doing what I'm told and like to be able to make my own mind up (admittedly that is sometimes to my detriment!).
We justified our interesting navigational error that morning with the fact that the day was due to be shorter than the previous one, so we "just wanted to check out another hillside", but we clearly weren't the only people to make that slight mistake. It just meant a longer trek through the rough stuff to join a section of road (and then we got the added boost of passing those people who had come to the road by a more direct route).....and we're sticking with that argument.
I found it hard to judge my pace on the road so that we could stay together and chat, but the best way seemed to be to let Sabrina get slightly ahead of me by me going along at my "yomping" pace and then breaking into a run to catch up and move slightly ahead. The slower pace meant that I could take on food and drink more easily, and although I discovered that I was running at a decent pace when I did run, my legs were quite happy to NOT run for certain periods!!
Into the hills - credit Ian Corless
We linked up with Dave on this section (he and Sabrina are in the same adventure racing team) as he appeared to be cutting off the road and up the hillside at the same place as us (which was reassuring as we knew that he is a good orienteer) - there was a bit of "to and fro action" as we picked our routes between the next few checkpoints, but Dave made sure that we arrived safely into the support point with a nice run downhill on a small trod through bracken, then ducking low-lying branches along a fence on a permissive path (the support point was down in the bottom of a valley).
Jonny had been there refuelling when we arrived and I suddenly looked up from my "trough" food to see him and Dave heading off on the next leg. I scurried after them so we could have a bit of a chat and gossip as we ran along, with Sabrina quickly catching up as she clocked the departure. We separated into 2 pairs (the girls being faster than the boys) as we hit some tarmac and then became rather strung out as it was hot trying to run uphill in the sun.
Not exactly a flat profile!
We had been advised of a quad bike track along one of the hill ridges so cut off the path to try to find it, but it wasn't the easiest to spot amongst the strength-sapping tussocks. Eventually we got it, and looking back at where others were relative to when we left the path, it looked like we had made up a small amount of time, though not as much as we had hoped. As we descended through what was marked on the map as a forest (there had actually been a lot of tree felling so it appeared slightly different to how we had imagined it to be), we found ourselves running behind 4 people that we recognised - the Swedish pair (who were running down a road parallel but across a stream from us) and Owen/Jonas (who appeared to be on the same route as us).
Interestingly enough the Swedes turned right at the bottom of the forest, whereas the rest of us opted to go left. Both routes started on our road, but ours then wound up a valley to cut through a pass off road, whereas the Swedes were going to run slightly further, but all on tarmac. I had vaguely thought about the full road option but Shane had advised against it, even knowing how much more comfortable I was on tarmac than streambeds and such like. This could prove interesting (results-wise), as although I was currently leading the Swedes in the overall results, Sabrina was just behind them and so quite keen to finish ahead of them! The boys kept looking back as if they were worried that I was going to catch them up and fly by (as people kept joking to that effect whenever road, but I was determined to stick with Sabrina and encourage her, as she had for me on previous days.
The boys must have been tiring as we gradually closed the gap down on the road and caught them up at the end of it, but we did find one thing rather odd. They were about to go up a private road (out of bounds) rather than the permissive path, so we called them back, and also checked that Jonas was OK when he took a tumble behind us,  but when we went up the wrong side of a fence and so ended up parallel to the path we wanted to be on, they didn't alert us and just kept going up the correct path themselves - to give them the benefit of the doubt, we decided that they were just hot and tired rather than amusing themselves by watching us go astray.
A huge map for a long day!
They remained ahead of us for the whole of that off-road section, but Sabrina suggested I chase them down on the final road stretch. We did pass a gentleman for what must have been the 4th timeof the day, so we wondered how he kept appearing ahead of us without ever passing us. It turned out that he knew the best route and every shortcut possible as not only had he run the race 3 years previously, but he had also reccied those very hills many times. That made me feel better, as I wondered if I'd been having absence attacks and missing him each time he overtook us.
The last part of the day's run had been referred to as a "10K timetrial" on several occasions and I felt rather under pressure to run it fast, as so many people had made comments about how much I would be looking forward to it - while most people dreaded the very thought of it (who would want to run a road 10K after a 30mile hilly multi-terrain warmup?). Although I had stuck with Sabrina up to that point, she kindly said she didn't mind if I went ahead and stretched out my legs, especially if I caught the boys up.
The marshal (Chris) at the road when we climbed over the barrier onto the tarmac didn't half put me under extra pressure by calling "3....2.....1.....Go!". My heart sank as I realised that it wasn't a nice downhill 10K run, as the road wound up ahead of us out of sight. Still, I didn't want to disappoint (myself or anyone else) so off I set - though it would've been better in dry road shoes....and without having to carry my backpack!
Chewing the fat in camp/listening to important briefings
I soon overhauled Jonas and then also passed Owen before reaching the first (blind) summit. looking back, I could see that the Swedes had now made it onto this section, so I frantically tried to signal back to Sabrina that they were there, but behind her now. I believe there was a short off road that cut out one of the switchbacks, but I decided to stick with the road and try to maintain my stride. Whoever built the road was trying to throw me off, as there were cattle grids to negotiate (and I must have been the only person to meet a car coming the opposite direction at both cattle grids and so have to slow down for them to cross - the road was empty apart from these few cars!!) and a few extra climbs thrown in for good measure. However, I reminded myself that I had run every step at comrades including all the hills, so I could certainly make the effort now. The road did then become a long downhill run and I even got some 7 minute miles (or so) in. The campsite was quite well hidden amongst the trees, so whenever the road flattened out, I though I must be there....only to spy another corner! I was so glad to spot the tents and the finish straight (as running at a faster pace on the road had certainly got my gut working) and ran in with a smile on my face. Some of the smile might have been due to Beth and Lizzie (who had already finished and so were sitting in the food tent right by the finish dibbers) telling me that we had apples as a treat that day (I had been craving fresh fruit and veg all week!)!

With Lizzie at camp

My first comment to Shane when I finished was "yeay....41 minutes for the road section....not bad!!" though I wasn't sure of the exact distance we'd run....but then my next thought was that I needed to keep going to find the portaloos (I didn't want to revisit Comrades that vividly). It was nice to then be able to cheer Owen, Jonas and Sabrina in as they crossed the line (still ahead of the Swedes!) - and (when comparing times with Sabrina afterwards) to realise that I'd actually made up 11 minutes on that road section (and finished 10th overall on Day 4 - with the "timetrial record") - happy days!!!!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Day 3 - Breaking the Back of the Dragon....

I really wasn't sure what to expect from Day 3 - it was to be the longest day at over 68K. Helene (Whitaker) had said that it was the day that she really didn't enjoy - it was just about getting your head down and getting on with it - but she did, however, think it might suit me more than some of the other days, as there were some good runnable stretches. The added bonus was that if I made it through Wednesday without missing a checkpoint or cutoff, then I was over halfway there!

A better view of Cadair Idris
Having looked up at the "chair" of Cadair Idris the night before, I was actually quite looking forward to getting up onto it and running along the ridge, but although it was fairly sunny when we set off, we could see that the summit was gradually amassing clouds.

Setting off

Sabrina, Jonny and I set off together again and enjoyed some good banter on the first "mandatory" part of the route....into Dolgellau. It seemed like a nice place to stay for active types....walkers, hill runners, mountain bikers etc, but all too soon we were through and out the other side heading uphill. It was still relatively clear when we reached the first checkpoint, but the weather closed in soon afterwards, and the ridge run was made easier by the fact that there was a fence to navigate our way along. There were plenty of people strung out along the ridge, who had started slightly ahead of us. We caught up with Rob (who we had seen on and off during the previous day.....he had been going at a slightly slower pace as he had slightly overheated in the sun, but usually picked a better line) and so three became four.

Four soon became three again, as Sabrina was feeling strong and so forged ahead as we descended in the mist. It was nice to be in a group as Rob kept Jonny in sight (ahead of him) while making sure that I didn't fall too far behind. I tried to hone my descending skills (well, a slight improvement would do) by following their lines when they chose to leave the path and descend on grassier slopes.......and I definitely noticed how much more confidently you could run down when your footing seemed surer. I realised that it was only day 3 but I was definitely going down faster than I had been and managed to maintain contact, knowing I would catch up as soon as the terrain flattened off, or indeed started to climb.

Surprisingly, I found the rough track down to a road rather unsteady underfoot as the stones tended to roll under your feet, and if you didn't pick your feet up you could easily trip. Is was another mandatory section and the was a photographer positioned halfway down (I'm sure that was because they expected some dramatic trips and falls). Lizzie (Wraith) just seemed to float effortlessly past on that descent!!

I was surprised to hear what sounded like an airhorn ahead of us, as I was sure that we weren't near any checkpoint.....but it was actually from a trainline (I learned later that this is the trainline used in the "Race the Train" event) we had to cross.

Yippee....there was a short road section, but I "paid it back" and made sure that Jonny and Rob were just behind me. The next section seemed to be an interminable drag up a rough road......I managed to run-walk all the way, and even chatted to some hikers coming in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, I lost sight of everyone on this stretch, even though I waited for two faster runner (Owen and Jonas) to catch me up to double check I hadn't misread a turning. I decided to strike up off the road and make a beeline for the summit (even thoughI had seen Owen and Jonas continue further along the road), but turned back to see if I could spot Jonny or Rob before the cloud enveloped me again. There were definitely figures some way back heading up the road, so I decided to just press on, as they'd be sure to catch me up on the descent from that summit checkpoint.

Just before I reached the summit, I realised that I was right behind Owen and Jonas again, as they'd followed a fence line up along the end of the ridge, but the extra distance had meant that it wasn't any quicker than my climb. The visibility was very poor again and they disappeared into the mist as soon as they'd "dibbed". I passed a couple of runners on the descent (there's something you wouldn't expect to hear from me!) and put some trust into my navigation skills when the others didn't catch me. It can't have been a bad choice as I caught up with Owen and Jonas again before the next CP. It was an interesting one to run into, as our route choice involved going in and out of the CP along the same path, so you passed runners ahead of you (including Sabrina and Lizzie) and then behind you as you left (I did see Rob but unfortunately no Jonny).
The Day 3 support point was just through the town of Machynlleth, but in order to get down to it from the hills, we had to work our way through a forest. On the map there were several forest roads and trails...on the ground there were many more, and some areas of deforestation to add in another level of confusion. Owen and I managed to multitask - running, chatting and working out a route as we went (though I think he had prior knowledge of the forest which helped) and Jonas pounded after us.

It appeared to be market day in Machynlleth as there were many stalls being set up along the main streets, and although I know some poeple were nipping into shops to buy drinks and sandwiches etc, I carried on to my restock bag at the support point. Having not passed anyone except the Swedish couple (who had been ahead of me everyday so far) in the forest, I thought the marshals were having a laugh when they said that I was the first runner to the support point but, as I found out later, they were being serious and our navigation/routechoice must have been spot-on!

Just to further show the difference between those of us "completing" and those that were "competing", I sat down on a nice camp chair to open my bag, eat and drink during which time several speedsters arrived, grabbed a bag restock and headed straight off again. Helene even had to chivvy me along to stock chatting and get running again!
The mandatory route out of the CP had been marked in error on some of our maps, so after a quick correction I was off again (and only managed one small wrong turn on a dead-end forestry road that wasn't on the map), but was very surprised to see Lizzie, Owen and Jonas up ahead approaching the next checkpoint from what appeared to be a different directrion entirely. Appearances must be deceptive as we all thought we'd followed the route drawn on the maps. We joined forces after that as the time passed much more quickly with some good chat and we motivated each other to keep going.

Racing Jonas in - photo credit Rob Howard

The final checkpoint wasn't hard to find but it was a slightly arduous climb to get there. We started off in a valley wading through a riverlet and then decided to find out own route up a hillside to the summit ridge. I think it must have taken about 45minutes - and we climbed up relentlessly with owen leading the way. Jonas and I swopped places at the rear of our little group, but I'm kind of glad that the others pushed on without looking back, as there were many many occasions when my legs were trying to say that they wanted to have a sit down protest!! Finally we got to the summit, and then knew it was just a (long) run down to the campsite.

Photo credit Rob Howard
We split up on those descents as there were all types of terrain to cover (and a few fences/gates to hurdle).....grassy slopes, then track, then rocky road, then grass/tussocks, then countouring round, then a small ridge, and finally a steep slope down to the road in the valley. I could see Lizzie and Owen racing each other to the line further ahead as Jonas and I stuck closer together. Having the group to work with for the second half of the days really helped may have been the longest day, but it was my fastest and most enjayable day so far....and I finished 12th on the day (the only problem being that the portaloos were so far away from the tents in the campsite, that it felt like we were going to another CP just to get to them!!).

"Another day to go?"
On a slightly funny note, I had convinced myself when I ran into camp that there was only "one short day left", so it was rather disappointing to get my day's printout which told me the next day was not much shorter and it was only the penultimate day.....still, at least the "back was broken" as we were over halfway there!!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Day 2......Feeling the Heat of the Dragon......

Chasing them down off the start!
We had been given "suggested start windows" when we finished Day 1, and as we had enjoyed the chat on the previous leg, Sabrina, Jonny and I decided to start Day 2 together......well, when I say start together, it took me 50m to catch the others up as they sprinted off the line!The day started with some nice easy running along an unmarked mandatory route, before we headed off higher to climb Cnicht and then the Moelwyns. This gave us a chance to loosen off muscles that might have stiffened up overnight, but also gave us a clue that it was going to be a rather hot day, as the sun was already high in the sky despite the early start.

It was nice to get CP 1 ticked off again on the summit of Cnicht, and we could then settle into our day as we headed up to the Moelwyns. I was trying to take on board the conversation with Littledave from the previous day about fear being all in our heads, as I know this is a lot of what limits my descending. It must have worked to some extent as I actually passed a few guys as I ran down off Moelwyn Bach. I had a very blonde moment as we searched for the next checkpoint as, when I glanced at my map briefly, I didn't realise that I had rotated it by 90degrees. That would explain why I ran halfway across the dam to the far side before realising and coming back to find the right "corner of the dam" and hence the dibber!

There was an interesting route decision to make after coming off the Moelwyns - it was a real dilemma for me, more than most people I expect. The suggested optimum route to the support point involved some navigation choices to find various tracks and paths but heading mainly south across rough ground. There appeared to be a considerably longer route that avoided all of this area and instead skirted around to the east by road. 

I knew that everybody expected me to go round by road, and I could see why, as I would cover the ground much quicker that way. It would also be a chance to just get on and run with a decent rhythm, but be able to refuel myself with food and drink. Very tempting.....very very tempting....but I was there for the whole off-road experience rather than just trying to get to the end as quickly as possible. It seemed more in keeping with the ethos of the event not to take what, for me, would be the easier option. 

Jonny and Sabrina fully understood why I made that choice and so we headed into the unknown together - well, we picked up and lost a few others along the way as we climbed, descended, ran on trails, bushwhacked, stumbled and generally fought our way through to the support point. The beauty of the scenery more than made up for my choice, though I would have preferred it on a slightly cooler day. Interestingly, somebody later told me that he'd picked a great route through and found lots of runnable trails without having to fight through grass tussocks, heather and bracken. 

When we got to the support point, I learned that Lizzie had chosen to go round by road (which actually surprised me as I hadn't thought of her as liking the tarmac) and in doing so had made up over half an hour!! Oh well, I'd made my decision and I was happy with it - it's not like I was going to be competing for a podium position or anything! 

It was so hot that I downed my bottle of Powerade as soon as we got there, and then sat down in the shade to eat my scones and cake....I would definitely have loved a nice cup of tea to wash them down!! Bottles refilled but all too soon Sabrina and Jonny were raring to go.
Running for the picture - credit Ian Corless

We started off on a nice trail/rocky path, making sure that we were running rather than walking as we passed Ian and his camera!! It was a bit of a blow to come to a dead end in front of a rocky outcrop, but it wasn't far to backtrack to another trail the skirted round it. A couple out walking in the hills told us that everybody ahead of us had made the same mistake, but they had thought it would have been "breaking the rules" to tell us before we went down the dead end path! 

It was a relief to get up on top of Rhinog Fawr as the breeze was nice and cooling - and although there was no obvious track marked on the map, we thought that as it seemed a popular area for walkers, we should be able to pick up a path to descend down to the coll and back up Rhinog Fach. Unfortunately that was not the case, and although we managed to descend OK, the climb up the other side was not so simple as we did not find any hint of a trail. To say that the way was almost blocked by heather would be rather an understatement. It felt like we were trying to ascend a near vertical slope pulling ourselves up by using the tough heather bushes and hanging on for dear life. I felt that if one bush gave way or my feet slipped then I would tumble a significant distance back down to the valley below....and they were rather "scratchy" on my battered legs from the previous day!! 

Just before gaining the summit, we did join a better path that appeared to have climbed up from the bottom - oh well, it's all about the journey........and we got there in the end, though it made the lake we skirted around later seem even more tempting for a quick dip. There had been a distinct lack of fast flowing water on the hills, so I was glad of the "emergency" purifying tablets which meant less stress about filling up from more dubious sources as the sun wasn't abating. 

I have to confess that I did start to feel rather grumpy as I felt that we weren't really working as a team - Sabrina and Jonny seemed to be bouncing the navigation off each other and not really including me in the discussions. I rationalised this by realising that I had said at the start that I wasn't overly confident in my skills, whereas they both appeared to be. My "reputation" as a road runner probably also made people doubt my map-reading and navigation. 

Nowhere was this more obvious than after leaving the last checkpoint. I thought we should double back on ourselves slightly to pick up a track heading down into the valley, but Sabrina confidently headed off running in a different direction. Being hot and tired, I presumed that my route was probably completely wrong and was happy to be advised by the others. Unfortunately on this occasion, it meant that we ended up almost off the map, making a massive detour and taking some considerable time trying to cross areas of both bogs and grass tussocks at waist height - not ideal, but at least we kept on moving forwards. 

Queuing for life-saving showers
Not only did Day 2 turn into an (almost) 12 hour day, but Shane had put in a sneaky sting in the tail. The last few kilometres were along a marked mandatory route which, from the map, looked like a pleasant road then forest track. Not even slightly.....there was a steep quad-busting descent on road and then the forest track wound up and down what seemed like interminable ascent and descents. Still, all was forgiven when we crossed the finish line and Shane greeted us with the twin surprises of an ice lolly and showers in the campsite!! 

After all that, I was actually 20th on Day 2 - and that's without going round by road, and taking the "more scenic" route at the end!!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Day 1.....Awakening the Dragon.....

I didn't quite manage my ideal pre-race prep on the Monday morning. Having requested something early for breakfast from the B&B (eg cereal, bread, fruit or something), all I was left was a small bowl of cornflakes covered in clingfilm, with no milk etc. After that I had to detour round the houses to pick up a few people who had begged for lifts to the start....only to find that when I got to the Travellodge, they had already left having hopped into a lift with someone else! Oh well, it's unlikely I would have been able to sleep anyway....and it saved hanging around for too long before the start!
We dropped off our bags for the support point and then all headed in to huddle in the visitor centre. It was great that everybody had their names on front and bag, as it meant that I could identify Jonny Whilock - another competitor with whom I have a couple of mutual friends, and who was much more proficient (and hence confident) in navigation that I am. We were given the maps for the day as we entered Conwy Castle, and so I checked with Jonny after planning a basic route - far so good!!

A Welsh send-off!!
I had a quick kit change to remove my longsleeve top and put my waterproof top on as the rain started pretty much as the Welsh Male Voice Choir started to sing. It was rather surreal to be standing in a ruined castle with 139 other runners, looking at a map, listening to singing and watching a clock count down to the 7am start!

And they're off....
Shane (the race director) had to provide assurance that there would be no racing around the castle walls, so after a fun run up and around various parts of the castle (including through the visitor's centre), we all had to "dib" at a checkpoint on leaving and heading out onto the road out of town (straight up a hill).

The castle walls

It was nice to get away from town and get running - I always feel that I settle down once I've visited the first checkpoint - though narrow paths and a mass start did mean that it became difficult to run your own pace at times as there were tailbacks of runners. It was nice and cool in the light drizzle (but I did experience some surprise hail just after checkpoint two). As we headed into the mist and clag I found myself running alone, but tried to focus on my own naviga
tion and ignore others that might be choosing slightly different paths to me - occasionally the cloud would clear and I would realise that I couldn't see a single other I had to hold my nerve and keep going.

Into the hills - photo credit Ian Corless

I found myself on a really wide rockstrewn track after checkpoint 6 - this didn't seem right to me, as it had been a combination of grass, rocks and small paths up until then, so I really doubted myself. I took Jonny's earlier words of wisdom into account (it's better to spend a short period of time making certain of your position than carry on in the wrong direction) and looked back on myself to the last checkpoint as I could be confident of knowing where I was there.
At that checkpoint, I bumped into Lizzie (Wraith) just arriving, so we carried on together. It was lovely to have company and be able to chat while we ran - and bounce our nav off each other......and as we ended up running on the track I'd been on previously, it turns out I hadn't actually gone way off course earlier (I do think that people following my tracker would have a good giggle at me looping around!!). It was nice to run a few checkpoints with Lizzie as we managed to chat and get to know each other better as we hadn't met pre-race.
We heard a group of runners coming up behind us through the mist and Lizzie hooked onto their train. I decided to let them go ahead, as I didn't like the feeling of having someone directly in front of me (I know how clumsy I am and so like to be able to see exactly where I'm putting my feet), and I felt that they were going a very slightly faster pace than I wanted to go. Alone in the mist again....but I had no nav problems and found the next checkpoint then started to head down towards the support point in the valley.
Descending isn't excatly my forte so I expected other runners to catch and pass me on this section, but I was rather surprised that the only person to do so was Jonny right near the bottom (I had thought that he was away ahead of me!). We joined forces and ran along the road to the support point, where I sat down and got out my powerade, Mr Kipling slices and scones. Unlike me, others just stopped for a brief moment to restock their bags and bottles, but Jonny soon chivvied me on to get moving.

Glyder Fach
The climb up Tryfan wasn't exactly at high speed, but as a fairly strong ascender, we caught up and joined forces with Sabrina (I'd chatted to her over dinner after the briefing the previous night) on that ascent and then with Lizzie on the next slog up to the Glyders. It was a good thing that there was a group of us, as it required teamwork to get up to one of the checkpoints, as it was situated high on a rocky outcrop. The first accident of the day came for me when I slipped and skidded down a wet rock coming away from the checkpoint (wet rock skid + loose shorts riding up = sore grazes on buttocks ;-( ).

On the path to Crib Goch

I decided to try and stick with the group as we started the descent down to Pen-y-Pass but it was not to be. An early fall saw me take a huge tumble onto a mixture of rocks and grass. I faceplanted rather well, so I found myself lying there slightly stunned, having to count my teeth to make sure that I'd not knocked any out. All present and correct, but by the time I was back on my feet (with blood coming from both my face and leg) there was nobody in sight so I knew I had to descend alone. That was probably a good thing as it took a few minutes of limping to get my legs working properly again (I believe that's called "running it off"!!).

I must have looked a sight when I crossed the road at Pen-y-Pass as the marshal there asked if I wanted medical treatment, and also offered to strap up my hand (I hadn't noticed banging my right little finger so it was swollen and black until then, but kindly declined, as I knew that the ridge of Crib Goch lay ahead). I have to say that trying to climb/scramble when your little finger doesn't bend or grip isn't the easiest thing to do, but no way was I giving up.
Catching up with Littledave - photo credit Ian Corless
I was very fortunate to catch up to Littledave as we climbed up, because I was all for giving up when we got to the ridge. The wind was blowing, the cloud had opened so that I could see the steep drops on either side, and I was straddling what seemed the tiniest of ridges. I was paralysed by fear and didn't know how I was going to manage to move in any direction - it was rather tempting to set off my SOS but then again, I couldn't see any way of being rescued either. Littledave was great, encouraging me along the ridge, talking calmly and telling me how well I was doing....and so I made it! I would describe that section as being so far out of my comfort zone that I was actually in another country....and was so glad that I hadn't reccied the route, otherwise I doubted that I'd have been there on race day. We also picked up Sabrina again on the ridge as she'd taken a slightly lower path in error.

Climbing Crib Goch - photo credit Ian Corless

By the time we got to the top of Snowdon, I would have hugged and kissed anyone that said we could finish the day there, as I knew there was a lot of descent still ahead of us, and I think that facing the fear had used up a lot of my energy - I know that fear is all in the head, but knowing and doing something about it are two entirely different things! By this point Littledave, Sabrina and I had decided to stick together and support each other to the finish. It wasn't "just a descent" down to the valley from the summit, but there was a trip round the Snowdon Horseshoe another few peaks and a lot more running, both on trail and through tussocky grass. Still, we did it and managed to run into camp (in the sunshine!!!) with smiles on our faces.....I was 22nd on the day (which is not to be sniffed at as I'd definitely doubted actually finishing at various times!). Thanks to everyone I ran with on the day - and Littledave definitely earnt his nomination for the "last rolo" award, a packet of rolos given to someone at the end of the week who had put helping others ahead of their own race, as he could easily have raced off along the ridge and left me floundering!!

(pic credits in "Dragon" posts: Ian Corless, Rob Howard and Angela Foster)