It’s a warm Sunday morning in Llanberis, Snowdonia. The time is 08:55 and I am chomping at the bit, waiting to start the third Snowdonia Trail Marathon with around eight hundred other runners all equally eager for that starting horn to sound. After running the 2015 edition in 5 hours 7 minutes and missing the 2016 event, this year, I had trained well, I was very fit and I knew that I was in for a good time. Going in to the 2015 edition I had not done a huge amount of training, so I was disappointed with that time. But in my defence, the route was actually 28.8 miles and not 26.2. The route has since been modified to reflect the marathon distance.
This year was the one. I was aiming for at least a top 30 finish or SUB-4:30 on what is one of the hardest, but most beautiful trail marathons in the UK; one I’m very lucky to have on my doorstep.
The horn sounds, and we’re off. I ensured I positioned myself at the very front to avoid the inevitable bottle-neck through the start gate, which also meant I could keep ahead for the first tarmac climb out of the village, one that many of the runners here would not expect; local knowledge is a wonderful thing – forewarned is forearmed.
I certainly wasn’t pushing hard along the tarmac, but after the left turn and the initial ramps of the climb up Ceunant Street, I had my heart rate up nicely and shortened my stride and got into a rhythm up the hill.
A few minutes in I felt a tap on my shoulder, a member of my running club, Eryri Harriers. I hadn’t seen him for quite a while so it was nice to have a brief catch up; we follow each other on Strava so we always both know what one or the other is up to. After a little chat, he pulled away and I didn’t see him again, which I kind of expected, as he’s a very strong runner (Also finished in a superb time and place, well done).
The tarmac climb here is used on the clubs ‘Thursday Night Hills’ so even though I haven’t been to these runs for a long while (which I WILL be remedying as soon as I’m able) I am very familiar with it from my own fell runs. It levels out then climbs steeply again, before passing through a gate and hitting some level trail so I accelerated a little to gain ground and places on the slower climbers, but not too hard as I knew what was coming.
Cwm Maesgwm or ‘Telegraph Valley’ as it is also known as, has a long, lovely climb up to around 470 metres at Bwlch Maesgwm (for those non-local readers, a ‘bwlch’ is a ‘saddle’ or ‘col’ in Welsh). Including the road climb from the bottom, it is around 5km. Not steep, apart from a ramp near the top, but a hill you don’t need to walk on if you’ve had your Weetabix. A hill I know full well that I can maintain a run up. So I did. I passed a lot of runners and I felt on good form. The climb was pretty stuffy, as for the first time in the event’s three year history, it was sunny, not the ‘liquid kind’ we love here in Snowdonia, but the bright yellow, sweat-inducing kind you folks in the south east are generally more familiar with.
This made the climb tougher today, so I would have preferred it cooler, as I’m sure would a lot of runners. Dry however, equates to less or no nasty chafing. Assuming that you did lube your sensitive areas ladies and gents? Nipple plaster anybody?
After a while I gratefully arrived at the top of the climb and was looking forward to a fast-ish descent. I had managed to stay within view of the front runners and counted about thirty of us that had created a nice ‘break away’ in Tour de France parlance from the main bunch. I was listening for the sound of the gate closing behind me and it took a while, so I was pleased that I had made some good ground and this is how I wanted to keep it.
This was the first time that my Hoka Challenger ATR 3 had been across really boggy, wet ground and they performed admirably; I admit to being a major Hoka fan-boy. I like to be different and although Hoka One One have now been around a while with their ‘maximalist’ style, they are still ‘Marmite’ for a lot of runners. Here’s what the Challenger 3 looks like:
Without digressing too much, they are far more stable than their obscene stack height would suggest. Like all Hoka shoes, your feet don’t sit ‘on top’ of all that lovely RMAT foam (I’m such a geek) but are lovingly enclosed a little lower down, so your feet are a little ‘cradled’ for want of a better word. And if you want comfort for all-day running, especially on ultra-distance events, these are the way forward. But if you have wide feet, steer clear; Hoka are known for being narrow. My feet are about average (around 105mm at their widest point) so I can get away with them, even though I have 1/2 sized up in all my Hoka shoes, to allow for extra wiggle and for when my feet expand. My advice is to TRY before you BUY. Same for any running shoes really. If you want to know more of what I think of them then watch this video:
Anyway. I was keeping the heels of the guy to the front of me within a few paces as we made our way down the wet, boggy hill with a lovely view of Snowdon to our left. We all nipped over stile and hit the boggier terrain of this section. Then jokingly complained that we’d ‘got our shoes dirty’. Again, I knew this descent so could bypass most of the bog, but inevitably I would succumb.
The quarry was getting very close to us now and I was enjoying the pace; not big strides by any means as I knew that could spell disaster….
“Arrggghh YA BASTARD, YOU ABSOLUTE C**T!”
It happened. With no warning. I heard a nasty pop and felt it too; like the feeling of pulling an elastic band over the top of your finger. The awful pain that kind of makes you want to throw up your breakfast for a second. I pulled up sharp, and hobbled to a stand still, trying not to fall over. One of my hamstrings had said “f**k it”. I just stood there, almost in tears, as I knew what this meant. I tested the leg to see if I could extend it; not a chance. My race was over. I leaned on a conveniently handy nearby post and gathered my thoughts; tried to rein in the absolute frustration and upset that I was feeling, as all the runners I had gained even more distance on, sped past me.
I’d worked so hard to be able to run this marathon at a good pace and to give a strong performance. Put in a lot of training miles and long runs with a lot of climbing so I was strong and ready. After the Welsh 1000ers race in June, after surprising myself in that coming 26th with a 5 hour 17 time, I just knew I was on form.
Looking at the results later, if I was able to carry on the pace I was going, I’m sure I would have been in the top twenty, with a definite sub-4:30. One of my friends I hobbled back up past came down quite a bit after me, and she posted a fantastic time and finished as 3rd lady, an absolutely brilliant race for her. You know who you are 😉
There was nothing left for me to do, but turn around and head back up the hill as ably as I could; I was in a lot of pain but I had no choice. Eventually, the main bunch started to come down and seeing it from this perspective, there were so many runners! They formed a big snake all the way up the hillside back towards the bwlch.
So many of them asked if I was okay and gave their commiserations; I just said thank you and tried to put on a brave face. Truth be told, I was embarrassed and ashamed, even more so as I was wearing the Eryri vest; I felt like I was letting the ‘local side’ down. But any Eryri guys passing me all checked to see how I was, plus other friends; something I was very appreciative of.
I reached the bwlch and had a five minute chat with another friend who tried to put things into perspective for me. For once, I too was taking a pragmatic view on the situation but I was devastated. This may sound over the top to some people or none runners, but a D.N.F (Did Not Finish) for a runner is almost taboo. They are the three letters, the acronym that we all fear and do our level best to avoid. But today proved one thing: you cannot push your body for weeks on end without working on separate strengthening exercises, and expect it to pass its M.O.T. Like a car, the body needs maintenance. Sure, post-run I’m very diligent and stretch religiously but I rarely do it any other time. And after all the long runs I’ve been doing, something had to give. I’m a fool for never working on my hamstring strength and flexibility, something I will not be neglecting in the future.
Here’s how I summed up my thoughts after all the runners and the back marker had passed me (for some reason WordPress is not allowing me to show the video from within the post, sorry guys):
At least, when I finally reached the finish area, I could now watch my wife finish her 10K race. She ended up doing really well also and confirms to me again why I am so proud of her.
A day later, sure I’m still very disappointed and after having a ‘walk’ around in Llandudno to meet some friends (it was more me sitting down with them for coffee for ages!), there is definitely a rest and rehab period required as I am still unable to extend my leg without pain or not feel that sickly, faint ‘clicky’ feeling in my hamstrings.
Rest is a good and bad thing. Firstly, I am unable to work (I’m freelance so no work equals no income for the week). I lead members of the public around two disused slate mines here in North Wales for the excellent local family business Go Below Adventures; a very physical and tiring job where I need to be 100% focused in these dangerous environments to keep myself and others safe. Leading these trips will only exacerbate the injury.
Also, we runners are a pain in the arse if we cannot run! We become grumpy and our partners/wives have to put up with our moaning. I’ve suffered with depression for twenty years, so for me personally, running acts a lot like medication so there’s every chance that I’ll enjoy a ride on the big dipper.
But. The good thing or things. I can focus on rehab and the newer buzz word ‘prehab’. I can spend time whilst off work ensuring that once my leg is past the painful stage, I can work on it with gentle stretching and strengthening. I’ll also look forward to a massage by a friend and professional later in the week, before heading into the mine on Saturday.
I can spend time studying (aboriculture, by the way: it’s what I want to do when I grow up).
I will and am already reflecting and looking at how my lesson has been learnt. I’ve kind of been a bit naughty and my wife will probably kill me.
Earlier I said when I’m recovered I’ll be getting back into the Thusday night sessions with the club. To motivate me even more, I have purchased, erm, another pair of Hoka shoes, this time the highly-rated Speed Instinct that were on sale for a massively reduced rate; I got them for £45 instead of £80. I ended up getting the most offensive colour though, as the more ‘toned-down’ versions were not available in my size:
Pretty funky some of you will perhaps agree. These will be perfect for those hill sessions: firmer cushioning in the forefoot for the climbs/toe-off and softer, plusher stuff for the steep runs down on the heels. They will also be perfect for my ‘shorter’ circuits that I enjoy. It does mean however, that I will have no more room in my current shoe box (see below) which may also be added to further with the purchase of some Hoka Speedgoat 2 for my next ultra. Hmm, I’ll have nine pairs then. Maybe I need help.
Erm, sorry honey. N + 1 also applies to running shoes 😛
Unfortunately, I will never know if I will get a sub-4:30 on the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, as next year Always Aim High are introducing an ultra marathon, which is 60km or 37 miles. And having an unhealthy, sadistic fetish for discomfort over long distances, I will be entering that instead.
On that point, my next event is the Ultra Tour of Snowdonia, which is a 58 mile long ultra on September 9th, so it’s especially important that I rehab and become stronger for that. I’m certainly not going to win it, but I definitely want to do well.
I’d like to end by thanking all the runners, (local or not), marshals and volunteers for asking if I was alright as I hobbled painfully back to Llanberis (it’s a long bloody walk with a hamstring strain!); it was very much appreciated and made me feel proud to be a part of the amazing running community. Thank you to those of you that know me/Eryri guys and girls for stopping during your race to ensure I was okay; legends all of you.
So I DID NOT FINISH but I am FAR FROM FINISHED!!
Happy running guys and see you all out there on the hills (well, not just yet).