The Dragon, facing the Dragon. It has always been pretty symbolic for me. Representing something that was easy to run from, hard to face. I can still hear my Dad telling me, aged 10 to “Face your Dragons!”.
2015 has been a tough year in a number of ways. The final heartbreaking throes of a dysfunctional marriage. After 2 years of trying to find answers, finally accepting there are none. The needs of my two daughters, one with me half the time, one all the time, but for 2 days a fortnight. This and developing my business has been quite draining.
Through these times, running has been an optional extra, but also a really important way to work through my thoughts. A place of disconnected Solace. In terms of me time, and healthy time in stressful periods it is essential (honestly). It has also provided me with friends that are the most respected, anchored and trusted people in my life.
My running had two main aims in 2015, a sub 4 hour Trail Marathon Wales, and the 3 day Ring o Fire. I achieved TMW and in the process picked up an overuse injury that ruled me out of Ring o Fire. My tent buddies from MdS and I had a great time at Hope24 and some much needed social running, with a healthy dollop of machismo.
Whilst I rehabilitated my poorly ankle after TMW, I spent a while trying to work out my motivation for running. I don’t really fit the normal profile for a runner. I’ve done one road race, a half marathon, but don’t really derive pleasure from running in crowds, or towns. I don’t run to collect medals, t-shirts, or to beat people. I finally settled on running for the journey as my meaning.
I love the feeling of moving freely, to places that are remote. The challenge of managing myself and my environment. The feeling of resilience to move through those spaces without a massive sense of insurmountable challenge.
That is the reason I run. That it is my validation. Not peer recognition, nor a talking point. I run, for my own satisfaction. To expose my own vulnerabilities, and then conquer them. To face a smaller Dragon in each run, or to just kick up my heels and fly through an environment that I love.
And that then asked the question why I run in events. Why is it that I am drawn to things that I can run any old time. When it suits me, either alone or with a small group of friends. And that I can’t quite answer. There is the feeling of a safety net, being able to push myself harder than I would alone. Running alone I always try and protect my descending and my ascending, without putting anyone else at risk (friends, or Mountain Rescue). So, an event gives me a place to run “on the limiter”, in a more controlled manner. That encourages me to run drills, to further my technique, my fitness, my enjoyment through nasty sessions that don’t fit my criteria in many ways, but to go to a limit, and stretch it a bit more.
The other is the challenge of someone else’s cunning. Mountain Marathons, are so much more than just running. Club runners typically don’t understand why you would run competitively, not for distance or for time. But, it is more about the craft of moving quickly and accurately, and that really needs an event to be truly testing. Navigating, moving, connecting to that environment and focussing on that movement.
I had tentatively decided that 2016 was going to be a soul running kind of year. No events. But, Marmot24 snuck in, after spotting it in 2013. This is a very unique event format and one that really inspires me, endurance navigation. Then a place at the Brecon Ultra was offered, and that fits for so many reasons – a very special race. I suppose then that returning to Trail Marathon Wales is a must do as simply the best local trail marathon I have, and voted one of the seven best trail races in Europe.
So there we are, in the period of a fortnight, the race calendar for 2016 filled up. And that will keep me moving through the winter months of darkness and cold training. And that will put me in places that I love, that I feel alive and connected to. That is my running plan for 2016.
Did I answer why I run, or why I run events? I don’t think so, but actually, I also am growing more calm with not needing to know.
And where did the Dragon go, when I faced him? Not sure to be honest. Might have to run down his back the following year and have a different view!
This journey starts a year ago at Trail Marathon Wales 2014.
TMW is a local event for me, when it comes to participation events in Dolgellau, it is by far the biggest, and as running events go it is a tough marathon. Also, 2015 was the first year of a 3 years sponsorship deal from Salomon. This is fantastic news, and completes major sponsors for all the trail running events hosted by Run. Coed y Brenin.
2014, I came back from MdS and treated the event with complacency. It took me a good while to recover my feet, and then I just didn’t commit to training. A full write up from last year is here, but the brief line is that I had a big lesson, and didn’t achieve what I set out to.
I’ve had two goals in running this year, TMW and Ring o Fire (September). As well as challenges in work and family life it has been a bumpy journey for sure. However I’ve had a good deal of support from friends and family, and although not as solid as I wanted I followed a training plan, watched what I ate and stayed focussed on that finish line.
What does training mean, it means doing speed work, distance work and also getting my head in the right space. Training in the dark, the rain, between meetings and just whenever I could was a strange constant in amongst all the other noise. Even working out how to combine a few shorter runs with my 10 year old Daughter, all very calming.
Focussing on the food a bit was helpful, getting rid of a lot of processed food, and just being sensible with portions helped me. At the startline of TMW 2014 I was 93 kg, where as this year I was 78 kg. For those still in old money thats a couple of pounds shy of two and half stone. On me, it means instead of wearing 34″ waist jeans, 30″ waist is the order of the day now. I’ve lost a lot of upper body strength too, but I’ll work on that in the winter, maybe. Possibly after Ring o Fire, anyway.
I’ve never been so anxious on the lead into the race. A couple of big emotional strains in the week leading in were tiring, and general stress levels had reduced sleep to a few hours a week. Hardly the best preparation for an endurance event.
A few friends came to stay the night before TMW, and we headed up to the pre-race party, nice to catch up with a few people, register, and share the atmosphere with Ciara (my daughter). MG Spalton was around with Lucy Bartholomew. Briefly, Lucy is the Junior World Champion in SkyRunning, and a really warm and inspirational character. MG has always been super supportive and warm towards running, and I’ve always been impressed with how she blends happy, warm, competitive running with duties of being a mum. No mean feat for sure! So after a bit of banter, music from CeadCyf we headed home for fluids and a snooze. With house sharing happening I was treated to my daughters bed, complete with princess net and snuggly blanket. Surprisingly I had a good night sleep, and though I woke feeling jaded the general feeling was good!
We woke to a slight drizzle, so I went with wet weather plan. I’d had two choices to make, shoes and tops. I was absolutely set on my Scott TR10 Trail shorts (no need for a belt). I was between a vest and a t-shirt. The T-shirt won easily. Then the choice was between my newly acquired (after demoing) Salomon Ultra 4 Soft Ground and the tried and tested Salomon Sense Pro. I went for the Soft Ground, knowing that both would struggle a bit on wet rock, but knowing a few soft descents would be quicker in them. I still slathered on the “Skin so Soft” to beat down the midges that are present at this time of year in Coed y Brenin. Breakfast down and then up to the forest.
Parking was even more slick this year (quite an achievement) and we all wobbled down to the event area at around 08:15. We met up with a few people who were also running, and the half marathon an hour later. My mind was all over the place, I just couldn’t focus between trying to make sure I was looking after Ciara, but also trying to get my head around what lay ahead. Gratefully my very good (best) friends Jeremy and Kim appeared, and Ciara happily went to hang out with Kim as planned. Phil and I went off for a short warm up and I tried to get “in the zone”. Phil was very gentle in encouraging me, and as a runner I greatly look up to this was, in hindsight really important.
I was starting to find my focus as we walked down to the start, underneath the Visitors Centre. This year I chose to start somewhere where I thought there was about 100 people ahead of me. This was very different to where I normally look mid pack. It was hard to hear the commentary own in the start box, the general chatter was loud. I could just glimpse Ciara and about 10 seconds out I waved, and then checked my watch. Glanced at Iori (game keeper with a rifle) and waited for the bang.
My aim was to chase a 5min42sec km the whole way round. I’d set my watch to give me that information every kilometre. I knew the first half needed careful pacing. I wanted to make sure I went fast enough to hit 4 hours, but not too fast that I blew up too early. The initial jostling settled down, and I started running within myself. I could hear Matty Brenin telling me not to fight the hills. I was remembering that downhill were free miles. But, also I didn’t want to smash my legs, so held back a bit on the initial downhills.
Where people had gone off fast, I settled into a pace, and was picking people off on the climbs. I’d worked hard on my posture and technique whilst running and this had felt good in training. In the race it felt useful to focus on that and my breathing.
At around 3 miles the marshalls, Elly and Chris, were whooping and hollering. Whilst I always try and say thanks to marshalls, I was still not relaxed into the race, and thing I uttered something about not being able to be friendly. The next long descent to the Mawddach is definitely free miles, and as I crossed the bridge, I was now on my own a bit. I spotted Rhys who was out on his bike supporting Sandra.
Everything was feeling good, and I wanted to get into the single track ahead in a place where I was free to run at my pace. In previous years I’d been held up, so this year I pushed into a bit of clear trail and tried to clear my head a bit too.
Things were feeling good, I was on target with my splits, and had my first feed coming up at the 10km mark (about 40 minutes in). A quick TORQ gel, and some electrolyte from the ‘usual team’ at feed point 1.
In to the top of one of my favourite descents, down to the Wen, last year I had a bit of a fall here, but this year with a lovely new bench cut trail, and being in the right area of the field the descent went well. The next firetrail shocked me a bit, at an hour MG came into view. Shocked because MG would be on for about a 3:40, and because though she was a good few hundred metres ahead I was closing on her steadily through the climbs.
A quick bit of tidy single track through Penrhos and here I caught MG. A quick hello, then she asked me to pass. I knew from this, and my splits that I was running the first half well. From here through to Sting in the Tail, my head really started going to the “am I going too hard”. As I’ve said before, because I don’t race that often, pacing is my biggest battle, but everything was feeling pretty tidy, so trust in my training was order of the day.
A committed run up Sting, a great undulating run through Cefndeudwr saying hi to half marathoners heading out, including seeing Sharon and Jude looking very strong. A quick TORQ gel ready to take on water at half way. Great camaraderie here, then the cheering (and slightly bonkers) Elly and Chris and the descent down the new demo loop to the half marathon. My chip split was 1:46:38. This was great news for a 4 hour target, potentially a lot better! A cup of water and then off under the A470.
I’d practise the next section a bit, early in the morning. Trying to learn the shapes and where to push well. At the top of the long climb, there is a feed station in an old quarry. Electrolyte, and a bit of banana and quickly on.
Some lovely downhill running here to the water point that gets two visits and cheerfully manned by the Hide’s. I was chasing a pair of runners, and was still gaining on the technical ground, right to the bottom of “snap, crackle and pop”. Well, at least nothing went snap or pop, but coming off the descent into the climb, my right quad started to cramp viciously. I tried shortening up my stride, and this helped a little, but I knew here that it was going to be a tricky run in.
The 20 mile mark was up at about 2hr38, which in theory gave me a decent crack at 3:hr30! This was enough to push on, but coming out of “Heart of Darkness” and starting the descent my left hamstring started cramping really painfully. Again a quick shortening of the stride to try and let it rest. I did manage to run much of the bit in from here, but it wasn’t very enjoyable. The single-track descent was ugly, I could hear the PA over in the visitors centre welcoming runners in, but now I was just trying to keep up enough pace to stay under 4 hours.
Al Jones was at the marshal point at the top of the last single track, a quick sip of water, and then down to Mark Atherton who was on the road crossing.
Just here I lost two places to some quick runners, and then onto Pont yr Eden.
Just as I finished the switchback, there was a shout of “Ash!” and MG was catching me up.
Just as the climb on the animal trail reached it’s steepest, my left hamstring cramped again and MG came passed looking strong as always. I tried to stay with her, but I had nothing left.
The last little rise to the finish line was lined with plenty of people, my daughter, included. Across the line, and I knew I was under 4 hours, but everything was a bit of a blur. A hug from MG, Es (in charge of all the goodie bag packing) and round the finish funnel to find Ciara.
My chip time 3:43:34, and MG? exactly the same. Couldn’t have written it.
Then the meeting, cheering and supporting people coming in. Yes, I’d smashed the 4hrs, but know there is more in there. To have been on schedule for a quicker time, and then to have got my nutrition wrong is a good lesson. Definitely something to build on, in a positive way.
The trip out to mobile signal caused a bit of a jaw drop – 27th overall and 9th in category. That put the effort in perspective.
A really nice evening wearing my cozy new TMW15 hoody with some good friends, a few beers and some good banter. Then a little recovery jog up Foel Offrwm the next day and a great recovery massage from Katie from the Run.Clinic finished a great weekend.
A load of thanks are needed to quite a few people. Thank you all!
Looking forward to 2016 already, though I hope my legs have recovered by then…it’s taking a while!
For those with love of data, it was a 5:21/km average. Splits are here
Right at the start, I’m going to say a massive “Thank You” to all the organisers, volunteers, marshals, partners and Mountain Rescue team that supported this race as well as the supporters and competitors that made the event what it is. The time and effort that goes into the build up and break down to any event is pretty tough, but in the winter, in the forest with the wet and cold that we had in the week before the tough conditions were lost on us, the runners.
As Coed y Brenin is a trail centre that has a history in making great quality experiences for bikers, it is amazing to see the growth of trail running right here on my doorstep. Despite many many passionate runners in the area, it is the vision of one man (Matt Ward) and a whole gang of helpers and partners that is putting Coed y Brenin on the map for trail running. Trail Marathon Wales came to town for the first time in 2012, since then we now have 4 waymarked courses as well as a nearly endless supply of trails to explore and put together. We also have a really visionary running shop, Run.Coed y Brenin complete with the ability to demo trail running shoes out on the trails. If running off road is your thing, then just like if you’re a mountain biker, Coed y Brenin should drop on to your list of places to visit.
So that’s the location, about the race! Well, it is the same half marathon course that is used in the summer, only in winter conditions. 21.1km of hilly, woody goodness – views, single track, climbs, descents and the wild atmosphere of Coed y Brenin.
With an entry list of 400 that filled up really quickly, the visitor centre was humming from early on. Loads of familiar faces from all sorts of running, whether road, fell or ultra it was great to catch up with all the different personalities. I’d set myself a goal of 1 hr 50 for this, and had been working on my hill form in the lead up to the event. I’d had a rattly lung infection just after New Year and this had stopped me feeling fully confident in my preparation. But, in terms of other goals in the year this was to be a benchmark to build on with my other races in the year.
The start-line is beneath the visitor centre, meaning that the route takes you straight up between the centre buildings before turning onto the trail through the main trailhead.
Because this bit of trail is a little hourglass shaped it is good to be patient. So I picked my normal startline spot, about half way back in the pack. And just mooched off. There is always a rush, and I was planning on pacing myself nice and steady. As is nearly always the case, I started picking people off on the uphill, before them coming back at me on the flat. But, again I either do well on slightly rougher ground, or on a climb. I think I may need to try going out a little harder. But. as this was only my second ever half marathon event, I’m still only learning the tactics. I settled back into a steady climb pace for the whole of the trip up Sarn Helen.
This next section then becomes an undulating fire road that works it’s way across the back of Cefn Deuddwr before the long drop to the “aerial bridge” over the Mawddach. On this descent, it was noticeable that I was catching runners in front, and I need to focus even more on my downhill pace. It was in this part of the race that I ran my fastest event mile (6:09). Then a quick diversion to the waymarkings for the half marathon and up the steep little muddy climb on the Goldrush route before nipping off along the lovely descent of the old Karrimor trail. I’d shot this short video in poor light on this section before, and as good as the trail is, I couldn’t use my local knowledge here as I was stuck in a row of runners. Popping out onto the fire road at the bottom to Metallica – “Enter the Sandman” could mean only one thing, local running legend Ifs Richards must be the marshal here, and it was!
From here is the longest sustained climb on the course, up through the halfway point. I knew I wanted to run this bit well, and I picked up a good 10 places along here. Through the first feed station, and stuck to my plan to take nothing here. A quick zip down through the trees to the Afon Wen, a guy having a heavy tumble crossing the mountain bike trail, and then the fire road back towards Tyn y Groes. This section I can definitely run faster than I did, and I think this is where my downhilling needs a bit of work. The transition back to the flat took me a little while to get momentum again, and whilst I din’t lose places I didn’t protect the gains on the previous climb. I love the section here from Penrhos over to the banks of the Mawddach and I had enough space to enjoy it. At this next (and last feed station) I took on a gel and some electrolyte and got on with the fire road run up to the bailey bridge. Some stern, but very welcome encouragement from Hilary sent me up “sting in the tail”, I pulled to one side to let a runner go by, let him go in front, before passing him back when his legs gave up. I made good progress to the switchback and then had to settle for a quick walk to get to the top. Just not quite enough power (or too much weight!) to see this one through at 18km. Then the undulating run and small climbs back towards Cefn Deuddwr before the little sharp descent back towards the finish. I caught a runner here, and was determined to pass him on the way into the finish, hoping that I would get him on the last rise to the line. Unfortunately he didn’t fancy giving way to easily and I finished on his shoulder after a good 80m push to the finish.
The finish line was well organised with the friendly face of Es handing out the mugs and various finishers having a chat. All in all really good. I finished just outside my target time at 1:50:15 which gave me 54th overall and 20th in category. I’m pretty pleased with that. I know there are a few areas, especially in the opening quarter where I could make up a minute or two, and better mental preparation would help me in the last half as well. Job well done.
In summary then, the Buff Winter Trail Wales has, I think in it’s first year, built on the successful summer events in recent years. Great quality terrain, backed up by great facilities, put on by a high quality team who know exactly what they’re doing. A really fantastic addition to the events calendar in the UK. It was fantastic to be a part of the inaugural event, and I applaud Matt and his team for delivering the high standard, in year one, in the winter. Da iawn!
It was lovely that my daughter Ciara asked to go running with me as soon as I felt recovered, so we talked about heading back up to Coed y Brenin the following day. To say that I was super proud of her run/walking the 4.3km Sarn Helen – Byr route is an understatement.
It was tough for her, but she plugged away at the various bits, and as always flew off down any descent. Seeing youngsters running downhill just for the love of it is lovely and it was great to be out in the woods the day after such a big event for the area. It was quiet, and peaceful again and sharing it with Ciara was a real honour.
Moving quickly in the mountains is a pleasure, and that means packing light. As winter conditions arrive in Snowdonia there are always people who are not ready for the conditions they face – and they end up on BBC news, or worse, dead, or both. There is currently controversy about whether mountain running, especially big mountain running in tough conditions with light equipment is ok – some high profile runners like Kilian Jornet with big publicity machines are very visibly pushing what the understood limits are and what is thought to be possible in inspiring envionments. But those judgements aren’t being taken lightly or without a serious apprenticeship in the hills.
Please don’t think that what I am saying is you should or shouldn’t run in the hills in winter conditions. I’m not. With the correct knowledge and judgement it is rewarding and largely controllable activity where the risk can be reduced to an acceptable level. Equally, this isn’t intended to be a “this is the right way or only way” type post. It is meant to give a few pointers to those who are thinking about making their first few steps into running in our wilder places during the winter months. For those that know more, or have a different point of view, please feel free to comment, so that can be incorporated too.
I posted a picture of me on the top of Rhobell Fawr, in running gear, and it sparked a fair few private messages. I hope this post answers some of my thoughts.
The most common question was how do you stay safe, what do you take?
My answer is simple, knowledge.
An accident in winter conditions escalates quickly because when travelling light, staying warm depends on being mobile. A sprained ankle is potentially lethal in remote locations, hypothermia the killer. Knowing the terrain is sensible, being able to navigate is mandatory. Knowing where safety is, and being able to get to it is really essential. Having some basic hill skills can make the difference between being uncomfortable, or a whole lot worse.
What do I carry? As well as clothing for moving, (including hat, gloves and the right footwear for the day) I tend to pack an extra warm layer, and a base layer for my core. If needed, I’d make a judgement as to whether the layer I was wearing was wet enough to justify stripping it off, getting a dry one on next to the skin and re-dressing. A shell layer is essential, and full body cover makes a real difference when you’re forced to slow down. A headtorch is sensible on short winter days, even if you don’t plan to use it. Map and compass – should be second nature in wild areas.
[EDITED to add feedback] It was pointed out by Janson Heath and ‘Forest’ Bethel that depending on how far aware from help you are, a sleeping bag, or highly insulating thermal layer (down or primaloft) are sensible additions. Additionally a long day might be made so much better with a lightweight cooker and some hot food.
Like anything, there is no point carrying anything you don’t know how to use. I carry one more sweet snack than I need, as sometimes a quick sugar hit will help with decision making. I also carry my hill safety pack (295g) which carries a few things that I’m confident in using.
It has a SOL emergency bivvy bag. My opinion is that blankets are a waste of time. When you need thermal protection, only getting in a bag, and being able to sort stuff out makes a difference. The SOL bag is a great, reusable bit of kit. I carry a Peperami, food and energy helps with making decisions, not essential but I like it! I carry one number 8 wound dressing, and a 10cm x 10cm low adherent pad. This is for the biggest wound I think I could cope with on my own. Most likely a rip on barb wire, or possibly a puncture wound on a fall. I also carry a 9cm x 6cm adhesive wound dressing to cover small lacerations. Whilst on the first aid theme I have a small kit, this has two steri strips, five normal plasters, three easy access plasters, some fabric strip plaster, 3 small pads (5cm x5cm). Narrow zinc oxide tape, 2 safety pins and 3 benzalkonium chloride antiseptic wipes and 4 panadol complete the first aid kit. I also carry a small lock knife with 2 m of paracord as a lanyard, a sharpie pen (will write on plastic) and a red light that has an SOS flash function. All this goes in a heavy duty double ziplock bag, to keep it dry.
I also carry the knowledge of how to use those things, and a good deal of ability to improvise. I am aware that, in reality I am more likely to use the stuff on others, rather than me. If I can move then I’ll get to somewhere less exposed, this kit might just help in the situation where I can’t move. Knowing to get insulated, off the floor, out of the wind and ideally in somewhere visible seems obvious, but when did you practise it? Why not practise it? I’d suggest some time on the hill, or out in the wilds with a good friend in winter conditions. Try taking a rucksack with plenty of warm clothes. Stop for lunch in your running kit, note how long things take to change in your ability to function, physically and mentally.
I look through my kit every couple of runs, check everything is dry and usable. I also practise my own skills. Use it or lose it is true, and when you need your skills to deal with a situation isn’t the time to practise.
Carrying an ice axe and running crampons isn’t a discussion for here. Yes, they have a place, but due to the skill needed to use these in a running environment I’d suggest the potential number of competent users are limited. The chances of hurting yourself by having these with you increases dramatically, especially if inexperienced. If you are heading to terrain, or ground conditions that need these tools, then you must have practised extensively in a way that already provides you with the required knowledge. My feeling on this is, if you cannot arrest on a technical axe, from every orientation of fall, go run where there isn’t ice. If any of that doesn’t make sense to you then you shouldn’t be in that environment.
When I’m running solo in hard conditions I remove an element of risk by going places where I know I can communicate with others. If I honestly thought to stay safe I would have to endanger the lives of Mountain Rescue volunteers, the only position I have is – don’t go there. But, in the eventuality that I have acted in a reasonable and educated way, the back up of emergency cover is silly not to take. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT. However, I have used a phone to give me an alternate, earlier finish point, where I have judged that continuing to plan would be silly. Use phones with discretion in the wild, they can be a useful tool, but not to be relied upon. Tell someone where you are going, how long you’ll be and check in with them. [EDIT to add comment from John Taylor] Remember that the international mountain distress signal is three blasts on a whistle, with a minute delay. In the Alps and the UK this is six blasts, also with a minute delay. The reply from rescuers is three blasts in both cases. Before you add an extra whistle to your kit list it is worth checking your bag or headtorch to see if there is an integrated one already.
You can learn skills a number of ways. Find a knowledgeable friend who will show you, or go on a course. But, practise, practise and practise again.
So, there is no simple “buy this and pack it” advice from me. Exploring wild places is massively rewarding, and competent people make it look deceptively easy. You can, and should explore. You should do this from a position of knowledge.
Know the limit of your ability, know the weather, know the ground conditions, know your kit, observe your surroundings, be prepared to change your plans to suit the conditions or changing conditions. Be prepared to cancel your trip and come back another day.
Have fun, be safe, learn lots and don’t be the next to appear on The News.
As the year changed Facebook got full of my year in review posts. I hope most peoples lives are more full than their social media feed! As this is mainly a running blog, looking back I can’t do justice to all the experiences that running has given me in 2014. Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Wye one Way and OMM all taught me lots of different lessons. Critically they’ve left me with a lot of friends and memories that will last far in to my life.
Looking forward this year, running wise I am entered for Winter Trail Wales, Hope 24, Trail Marathon Wales and Ring o Fire . Whilst not entered yet, I’m sure the OMM will make an appearance too. Personal targets rather than podiums are the aim, though I’m already planning something special for 2016.
For those interested in statistics, Strava produce a little summary video that highlights some of the numbers. However, numbers don’t tell the story of 2014, certainly don’t describe some of the feelings and experiences I’ve had and those things that will motivate me for 2015.
As with every year, I wish I’d taken more pictures, but here are some of my favourites from 2014.
Time for a write up of an event. This one comes in a roundabout way. Mainly because I got to the start line with so many doubts and feeling more pressure than I had before. It’s an ultra right up, so you might want to grab some hydration (tea should work).
I was heading to the start line to support Sandra Williams in her first 50 mile run, and to help her raise money for the Welsh Air Ambulance – please consider donating here
Sandra and I have run long runs together over the last little while, and her company in long runs whilst training for MdS made some long weeks bearable.
The original aim was for the South Down Way 50 in April, but events meant that Sandra deferred to the Wye One Way Ultra, run by Might Contain Nuts. I can’t really remember when she asked whether I would run it with her, but I said yes, and booked my place.
The route is quite special, first it is linear, it starts in Llangurig and roughly follows the Afon Gwy (River Wye) to Glasbury. When I say follow, it sort of meanders up off over hills, meaning that the 50 miles roller coasters up and down 2200m.
Why the pressure? Well, I managed to roll my ankle the weekend before the run, and it was a little achey. Plus I felt that I hadn’t really managed to put as many back-to-back miles in as I would have liked. I also really wanted to make Sandra’s run as easy as possible. Running that distance is mainly mental. It is going to hurt. It is about managing everything to get to the finish. The last thing I wanted to be was another thing that Sandra needed to manage to get her to the finish.
I found it quite challenging planning in my head. Trying to visualise how I would go at different points. I am fairly detailed in how I plan. And the unknown, being there to be invisible became more and more of an issue as my ankle got more sore. I’m so used to running my own race, this was a new challenge for me.
Sandra messaged me to say “Start together, finish together” which worried me. The doubts I had meant that I needed to know, if I was truly broken, she would carry on. We were fortunate that Rhys, Sandra’s husband was going to be following us down the route and be at checkpoints (CP) so I knew I could bale if I really had to. Though I really didn’t want to, I doubted my ankle would take the battering.
I got all the food together that I needed. This time I was going to take most of my calories from TORQ gel and TORQ energy, I had two Pepperami Wideboys, some NutriGrain breakfast bars and some ’emergency’ Jelly Babies. Because we had Rhys following us, I also had some flat Coca-Cola, just to lift me at CP’s. Along with the madatory kit my pack was 3.5kg, plus a litre of water, made 4.5kg.
I packaged it all down, and was comfortable with the set up. One chest bottle, and one bottle in reserve, just in case it was hot on the longest leg, that also had some large climbs on it.
I also decided that I would use tried and tested shoes; the Inov8 Roclite 315, just for a mixture of grip and cushioning. My last job was to get the CP’s onto a Movescount Route, this would mean I would have some leg by leg navigation. Because the route is marked it should be a case of just following the markers, but it’s nice to have a ready reference.
We arrived in Llangurig at 7:15, registered in the village car park. Made use of the portaloo’s and controlled start nerves. The bus load of other runners, who were being shuttled up from Glasbury, arrived, The quiet car park became a lively chatter of 40 ish runners. A couple of dogs were running. We all wandered onto the little lane for the race briefing. Because it had been dry the cattle were still on some of the fields we were running through. As always leave gates shut. And other than that it was a case of “have a good one”.
We all agreed the start could be brought forward a minute, and then a hoot of a horn and we all started shuffling forward. It was immediately nice to be running. The nerves gone, the focus on the job all that was important.
Sandra and I were running together, just finding our way through the runners to our easy pace. With a race this long, the start is never rushed, warming up as you go.
The route slowly turned uphill, then off tarmac and onto farmland. Not fighting the hills was key; just enjoy the views. I was aware of Sandra breathing hard, and we both slowed to a walk together. Up a big grassy hill, lovely views to the west towards Pumlumon. The group of runners already spread out, and finding their own pace. Plenty of gates, and that was a theme that carried on.
Of course, running down the Wye, if you climb, you descend. That first descent was probably the steepest of the course. It would be lovely on a shorter run, but on this distance taking it steady was essential. We come out on to a little road, and the pace picks up naturally as we are on easy terrain. Quickly, it seemed, we arrive at CP1. We’re quickly through, no need for anything after 5 miles. We join a runner, Nick Lindley, who is having a big year of Ultra’s and we chat about all sorts of stuff. He’s off to do a marathon assault course next weekend. Sandra and I are both impressed!
We climb steeply over Cefn Bach, with Nick pulling ahead before a lovely descent. Sandra and I catch Nick at the Afon Elan crossing. Because of the low water, it really is only a splash, but getting wet feet in the first 10 miles isn’t ideal. We join tarmac and as three runners round a very low Craig Goch Reservoir. Just before crossing the dam, Rhys is roadside. Sandra ditches a bit of her kit that she is finding too heavy. CP2 is on the other side of the dam. The marshalls, in their camper, had a lovely smell of sausages wafting out, I joked with them about having no brown sauce. Great to get some friendly banter whilst filling up on water. There are toilets here and we avail ourself. We chat with a runner who is on the way on, who has run the event before. he wans us there aren’t toilets for a long time yet.
CP2 to CP3, is on the face of it simple, alongside Penygarreg Resevoir, then down Garreg Ddu Resevoir to the dam and CP3. At the end of the Penygarreg Resevoir, we catch the runner in front who was trying to work out which fork to take on an unmarked junction. Quickly checking my watch, I can see it’s right and we run passed. The next bit of reservoir is stunning – inky water, slate blue rock and fresh green grass that has grown on the low level fringes of the foreshore. We pass a big group of walkers who shout “runner” to alert the others. I explain jokily that we’re shufflers. It’s very friendly. We arrive at CP3, Sandra takes a layer off, we refill water, have a chat to the marshals about how bad Diet Coke is. Rhys points out we’re moving quite quickly. We both agree we should back off a bit; we’re going to need to.
We’re both avoiding the fact that this leg is long, and with a big climb. The other runner sets off in front of us and we grind up past the Church. We’re chatting about future events – Snowdon Marathon for Sandra. We’re steadily contouring round above the western end of the Caban Goch dam. We talk work on the descent back to tarmac. Again it would be a lovely quick descent on a different day.
We turn from travelling SW to just North of East as we climb back along the other side of Caban Goch. As we climb, we concertina closer and further away from the runner in front, depending on whether we are climbing or descending. On the long pull up Gro hill we pass the walkers again. Whilst they’re still bantering, we’re a little more subdued this time. A couple of mountain bikers zip down, it really is great riding in the Elan valley.
We’re descending here when Sandra pulls up with a really sharp pain in her knee. Obviously in a lot of pain, we talk through that it has happened before, and that it’ll pass. This is probably my most negative point of the run. My ankle is sore, and if Sandra needs to finish the desire to stop is massive. Sandra runs it out, and we climb again to Carn Gafallt. Sandra’s knee tweaks again on the descent into Llanwthrwl. But it quickly subsides and we descend to the CP. The runner in front is sat on a chair by the village hall. I take some pain killers that Sandra has brought. I can’t quite feel happy on my ankle. A good shot of Coca Cola too. Sandra has some coffee and we’re off ahead of the runner still sat. The Marathon distance run has started at this CP, and so there is more evidence of runners, suddenly. Grass shows the passage of people. This is reassuring for route finding.
The next leg is all alongside the Wye, and is beautiful running. I hadn’t quite plotted the CP in the right place, so I need to “skip” this on the navigation of my watch. Not having done it before, I stop the watch trying to get into a menu. Doh!! I start my watch again. So here is the first section the watch recorded.
We pass a mountain biker, who I’m briefly jealous of. I’d like to come back and ride this section. Having paddled it, and now run it, it seems like a good target to have.
We pass a very impressive house that I’ve never seen before, I think this is Doldowlod. It’s hard to imagine anyone investing that kind of money in such a development these days. Very impressive.
CP 5 itself is a bit of a blur, it’s on the side of a quick back road. I chat to a marshal who ran at Trail Marathon Wales, and was very pleased to hear that Run. Coed y Brenin has now got such an extensive range of demo trail shoes. I treat myself to a Pepperami and a slug of Cola here. There is a very uncomfortable looking runner, who is cramping badly. I offer him some Pepperami as he’s lacking salt and electrolytes and isn’t carrying any/ It’s 6 miles to CP6 and he is being encouraged to consider his choices carefully.
As we run out through woodland, I’m burping Pepperami and Cola, stay classy Ash! Sandra, understandably, wants to stay clear of the smell if she can. She’s feeling a little peaky! We have a quick navigation moment, as we cross into a field we can’t quite see where the path goes, we add a few hundred metres on, going to an opposite corner before we spot a yellow sign and regain the track. This leg runs right alongside the river, some fantastic swimming spots and at low water the lovely rock shelves are visible. We pass a really impressive chalet style building, Dolyrerw Farm. Sandra and I are both smitten! We pass under the railway, and then pass Builth Rocks, there used to be a very popular canoe slalom held here, but not at these levels.
We can see the Royal Welsh Showground on the other bank, Builth Wells is close. We run alongside the Rugby pitch, Builth are playing Gwemyfyd and are winning 27-0 (they want on to win 49-0, well done!) and there is a great atmosphere. Sandra is trying to work out what to eat, if anything, as she’s feeling a bit queasy. I make use of the toilets, scarf a Nutrigain, some JellyBabies and some Coke. This next leg is the last big climb, and so we’re preparing ourselves mentally.
Out of Builth and we turn uphill, on tarmac, there are lots of midges here and it is a little unpleasant. We climb about 70m and then on the crest of the hill, Sandra spots a little hedge lined lane on the other side of the valley. We both know we’re heading up there. We descend to the small Duhonw river before climbing up what feels like an old drover road. It’s pretty, but hard. We climb to about 400m on the side of Banc y Celyn before contouring. We lose a little height and join a track, before a small climb to CP7.
It’s under a half marathon left, in fact the 10 mile trail race starts here. We travel along “Twmpath” which is a beautiful mound of grass, quite high above the Wye. This is easy running, and I was lulled into false sense of security. Just above Erwood we drop in to a little wood. There are lots of brambles, and a nadgery little trail it’s only 500m or so long, but this is the most uncomfortable, technical section of trail yet. We finally clear this, and have about a kilometre to CP8. Sandra is hobbling, and has a very sore heel. We stop, and she gets a plaster on the blister. “Should have listened to Rhys”, she says, as he’d offered that advice earlier. Nothing ever gets better on an ultra!
We run into Trericket Mill, this CP is my final water fill up. I gobble a couple more Jelly Babies. We cross the A470 and follow the Wye Valley Walk alongside the river. There is a path, a hard path, I whoop in relief! The terrain is a little easier. Rhys toots his horn as he leaves us to get to CP 9.
We tick down this leg pretty quickly. The running is pretty simple, the route finding easy, and the light is still pretty good. Llangoed Hall is impressive and well lit, before we pass the Llyswen Water Treatment works and get back on tarmac. I know we’ll both finish now.
CP9 is quick, Rhys has noticed we picked up the pace, and confirms that if we do the same again we’ll finish under 12 hours. The light is fading so we put head torches on and run through woodland and farmland before picking up a firm trail leading towards Glasbury. At the road, we turn left and run to Woodlands OEC, where the finish waits for us.
Sandra spots that we’re just inside 12 hours, and whilst we’d been vaguely aware that Sandra was running well, here at the finish line it’s confirmed; she is the first lady home What an achievement – I’m so chuffed to be along for the run with her. The emotions of finishing smash home for Sandra, and a little lip wobble are sorted by a hug from a massively proud Rhys. If you’ve read this far, you’ll recognise the amazing achievement – donate here!
I’ve learned a lot, again, about myself. I’m pleased to have made it down the Wye. It’s very satisfying personally, but I’ve got far more pleasure considering Sandra’s achievement. Da iawn San!
Meirionnydd offers up some really terrific running routes. An eye on the map, or local knowledge will find them for you.
This run was about putting some time into my legs, and checking out how I was doing with hydration and nutrition on longer runs. I try and learn from every run I do. This run hurt, but I recovered quickly, so things aren’t as bleak as I thought for the Wye one way in a fortnight.
With all of the hard work done, travelling around Cadair, and the majority of the 1000m of ascent done, this view leading back to Dolgellau really inspires me.
Here’s a question that gets asked a lot. And there are some things that make the best trail running shoe.
In my opinion the best trail shoes should:
Instil confidence in your feet
Be well made
Now, because of the difference in trails there is always a compromise. Here in the UK we have a variety of different styles of trails, and these throw heaps of challenges to shoes. Consider the difference between hard pack, dusty, dry forest fire road trails and sloppy, boggy, marshy trails after rain and you’ll start to see the fact that no one “foot tyre” can fit. Tractors have big aggressive tyre patterns compared to a formula one car. I dislike “waterpoof” shoes, instead I prefer quick drying shoes, which allow water to drain from the inside out. Think if you will about filling your wellies up with water and then walking 10 km. Your feet will be soft and broken. This is what having a liner in creates in UK conditions. There are places where it’s useful, but in my opinion, not on UK trails.
In the same way, everyone feet are slightly different. High arches, wide forefoot, bony heels the list of “I’ve got’s…” is impressive. Get the right length shoe, and then learn how to lace you shoe up properly.
Trail shoes aren’t a one trick pony – I have three shoes that I run trails in. I can run any trail in these three, but my speed will be massively affected by what I have on my feet.
I’m looking at three shoes (L-R) Inov-8 Roclite 315, Salomon Crossmax Neutral and Asics GT2000. At the time of being pictured I have racked up, collectively, 2700 km on these shoes, split as follows:
Inov8 Roclite 315 – 700 km
Salomon Crossmax neutral – 620 km
Asics GT2000 – 1,380 km
I primarily use the Roclites when I’m heading off the beaten track, mountain, forest and although not this pair, these were the shoe I chose for Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Brecon Ultra and some other off road races. The sole is, in my experience pretty spot on for UK trail running. The rubber is soft enough to give good traction on rock, wet and dry as well on wet tree roots. As the pictures show, despite this soft rubber, the wear has lasted well, bear in mind my running weight is a minimum of 85 kg, sometimes 90+ depending on how much water and kit I am carrying. The upper too deserves credit, these have smashed new paths through heather, run down scree, kicked big rocks in slate fields as well as pottering through Skye’s vicious Gabro rock. There is a bit of material damage inside the heel cup of one shoe, but that is my fault not the shoe, and after 700 km I think that this is a massive success for a shoe that often gets sodden!
The Salomon Crossmax I use when I know I have a large amount of tarmac and hard pack and when I know there are not steep grassy slopes involved. I love these shoes for running alongside canals and rivers. I haven’t raced in these, primarily because I’ve not entered a race where the terrain has suited, but I would use them for any of the Thames path races, or at this stage, something like Ring o’ Fire. These also get a fair hammering through the undergrowth. Though I don’t think this is the reason for the failing upper over the bridge of the toe. The speed lacing system is very effective, and I do like this very much where I don’t need to tension the shoe in a non standard way (swelling feet, steep terrain). The rubber compound is very solid, sometimes at the detriment to grip in the wet. I don’t trust the soles much on wet rock, or tree roots, but this is perhaps because I’m acutely aware of this where I run the majority of my routes.
Whilst the Asics get used mainly on tarmac, I’ve added them here for a specific reason. I use these where I’m running fire trail, or prepared trails where the surface isn’t broken. I also think the Asics demonstrate how it is possible to make a very long lasting shoe. Whilst these upper do not get abused anywhere near as much as the Inov8’s these do get wet and mucky fairly regularly and I’m really impressed how well they look after 1400 km’s. The sole rarely gets anything more complicated than some big pebbles, and some pretty steep tarmac that I have locally but the sheer volume of footstrike these have experienced (nearly half a million) with my 85kg on top of them are a massive testament to the build quality of these shoes. The grip side of things is never an issue for me, but that is because they are never pushed in a position where I ever really test it. The major win for these is the sheer contact area that they have available without knobbles!
Which are the best trail shoes? Well they’re the ones that work for you. I consider that I’ve tested these three shoes reasonably extensively in UK conditions. Is one of these the best pair of trail running shoes? For me yes, I could pick one pair for all my trail running. I’d prefer to have all three pairs, and I will probably keep on experimenting over the coming shoes. Technology is still evolving in trail running and that will bring about better shoes. Which should you choose? You should choose a shoe that suits the majority of the conditions that you run in.
If I had to choose one pair of shoes from these three, it would be the Inov8’s. In fact I have a few pairs and would happily run any route that went off road in them.
Trust the shoes on your feet, and go run exploring. The best kit in the world does no good sitting on the shelf!