A warm Saturday in June, 2011, and a team of foolhardy walkers hobble down to Pen-y-Pass and return their numbers to the race officials – a fatal combination of too many beers the previous night, general lack of fitness, poor navigation and, above all, serious underestimation of the distance and terrain meant for a forced retirement from the walkers’ team event in the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. Fast forward six years and I’m back on the start line, unfinished business in my sights.
The only difference? The walkers had set off an hour and a half earlier; this time my entry was for the Long Fell Race event – the hardest of the four categories on offer. 32km, 2500m of climbing, five peaks over 1000m, starting by the sea and finishing at the highest point in England and Wales. Ambitious? Mis-calculated? Damn right stupid?Only time would tell. 100 runners, with what can only be described as that ‘serious-fell runner’ look about them, lined up in a simple cow field just off the A55 by the beach in the sunshine. And me. A sense of hushed anticipation suggested the day ahead would be tough… and long. Whilst I’d failed to get any sleep in the hostel, at least I wasn’t hungover like last time.
A measured start indicated even the leaders were nervous of setting out too quickly with the field slowly spreading out as we left the road to climb through woodland towards Aber Falls until a variety of route choices up towards the first control point at Yr Aryg scattered runners all over the hillside. This proved to be the first of many truly punishing climbs; thick, mossy grass and heather combining with sheer steepness to sap energy from the legs straight away.
Eventually, the gradient gave way a little though running still required effort across desolate, uneven moorland. Speed became more achievable following the checkpoint and I chose to follow what appeared to be the preferred racing line to Carnedd Llywelyn (the first of the 1000m peaks), contouring around the steep slopes of Foel Grach – this could have been a touch hairy though my studs kept me from slipping down the mountain as I tried to keep up speed as much as possible.
Crossing Llywelyn and along the stony ridge to Carnedd Dafydd (the second peak), the views were superb: to the north, the spiky ridge down to Yr Elen dominated the foreground with a spectacular backdrop of Anglesey and the North Wales coast; to the south, the Glyder ridge acting as an imposing reminder of what was to come. I felt strong and set about a quick-ish descent into Ogwen, passing many competitors in the walking event. After a brief water stop and encouragement from my support team (Jessie), it was onwards and very steeply upwards towards Glyder Fawr.
The sun was out, it was hot. The climb was relentless. Ogwen, passing many competitors in the walking event. After a brief water stop and encouragement from my support team (Jessie), it was onwards and very steeply upwards towards Glyder Fawr. The sun was out, it was hot. The climb was relentless……….
Suddenly, I realised how dehydrated I was getting, how low on energy I was, and how little water I had left. I had a sandwich in my bag, but the first bite came straight back up again. With some effort, I managed to swallow and keep down a small handful of crisps but knew it was pointless trying anymore and I began to seriously worry about making it to the next water stop at Pen-y-Pas before flaking out completely. I decided to slow the pace, worked on eating jelly babies and with the climb only getting steeper to the point of scrambling up the final 100m or so (far from straightforward with cramping legs),
I somehow made it onto the summit ridge of Glyder Fawr to be greeted by rain and bitter wind. Marvellous. Without hanging about, I began the steep, mainly grassy descent to Pen-y-Pass where I planned to take on plenty of water for the final slog up the Pyg Track to Garnedd Ugain and, finally, Snowdon. Just as that thought was crossing my mind, a slippery rock sent me flying up in the air then crashing down heavily on my back……
If that wasn’t painful enough, the landing triggered agonising cramp in my calf. A few minutes of stretching later and I was back on my feet, only for my hamstrings to cramp up too. Eventually, I stuttered down to the control point at the pass, downed plenty of water, ate more jelly babies and began hobbling towards the Pyg Track.
Miraculously, the break seemed to work and slowly, the hobble became a steady jog, and I felt myself making up lost ground, digging in for the long, final push. Fighting through the tourist hoards – seriously, you’d think it was Northumberland Street on a Saturday afternoon – the top of the track began to seem achievable and the pain running through my whole body just about manageable; before I knew it, I’d made it onto the summit ridge, gained the summit of Ugain (peak 4) and was putting on a brave jog through the crowds to Snowdon summit and a finishers medal that’s been six years in the waiting.
In the biting wind, ‘creative’ poses were called for to desperately offset total-leg-cramp whilst dibbing in at the finish, crossing the line in 37th place with a creditable time of 5 hours, 31 minutes and 24 seconds. The race had been won by Jack Wood of Ilkley Harriers in an impressive 4:05:31, only 59 seconds away from the course record, with Andrea Rowlands of Eyri Harriers first lady in stunning 4:38:31, beating her own course record by just over 15 minutes!
The organisation of the race had been faultless and I am hugely grateful to the marshals whose positivity and encouragement went a long way. Any temptation to savour the finish-line atmosphere was short-lived, due to the imminent need to get out of the cold and complete the four mile trudge/limp/stagger back down to Llanberis before absolutely everything seized up.
The promise of a hot shower, a few cold beers and something other than jellybabies to eat just about made this possible. It’s no wonder that on that Saturday back in 2011, four hungover chancers out for a hill walk challenge met their match in this race.
It is a beast – from sea to the summit of Snowdon, covering some of the most spectacular and punishing terrain that Wales has to offer, it is 20 miles of grit and determination. I’ve learnt a lot from it, I have a finisher’s medal I’m truly proud of, and I’m confident that, when I finish typing this, my legs will struggle to cope with the journey from sofa to bed. What more do you want from a fell race? Matt Hetherington.