On October 26, I ran the Snowdonia Marathon in Llanberis, Wales. This race goes through Snowdonia National Park. The course goes around Mt. Snowdon, which is the highest peak in Wales.
|Photo credit: David Bayley|
Here’s a map of the marathon route.
This is a popular race. It fills up about an hour after registration opens. Registration for this year’s race opened up on the morning of December 1st. In my time zone, it would have been 2 AM. My friend David, who lives in England, offered to sign me up at the same time he was signing up. The race filled in 45 minutes. Next year, they’re going to have a lottery.
The closest international airports were all in England. I got the best airfare by flying into Manchester, which is about 100 miles from Llanberis. From there, it’s possible to get to Wales by public transport, but it takes a combination of trains and buses, and the journey takes between four and five hours. If I rented a car, I could drive there in about two hours.
I don’t usually rent cars in other countries, although I’ve done it on a few occasions. In England and Wales, they drive on the left side of the road. I’ve done that before, in The Bahamas, but it still makes me nervous. Reluctantly, I decided to rent a car for this trip.
Thursday, October 24
I arrived at the Manchester airport in the early afternoon after an overnight flight and a layover in Amsterdam. I never sleep on overnight flights. Knowing I would need to be alert enough to drive, I drank several cups of tea on my flights.
Having a car gave me the opportunity to do some additional sightseeing. I’ve never been to Liverpool before, and it was kind of on the way, so I spent my first night there.
The drive to Liverpool went OK until I was about half a mile from my hotel. Then I missed my exit from a roundabout. Of all placed to make a wrong turn, I found myself entering the Queensway Tunnel, with no chance to exit until two miles later, when I was on the other side of the river. Then I had to get turned around and take the tunnel back, paying the toll both ways.
In Liverpool, I stayed at the Doubletree, which is in the heart of downtown. From there, I could walk to everything. After parking the car in a nearby ramp, I was happy to be done driving for the day.
Liverpool was the birthplace of The Beatles. Before they were famous, they performed frequently at the Cavern Club. The Cavern Club was torn down in 1973, but it was rebuilt in its original location 11 years later. Today, it looks much as it did when the Beatles played there.
Many of the regular performers at the Cavern Club are Beatles tribune bands. While I was there, Richard Batty was performing. About half the songs he sang were Beatles songs. The rest were other well-known songs from the 60s and early 70s.
After hanging out at the Cavern Club for a while, I had dinner at a pizzeria called Crust. Then I went to the Philharmonic Dining Rooms to meet my guide for a tour of Liverpool. By now, it was already getting dark. I don’t usually do walking tours after dark, but this was a walking and drinking tour. It including stopping for beers at three different pubs.
When I arrived, I saw two guys talking outside. One asked me if I was David. Then he told me he was my guide and I was the only one who signed up for the tour that night. That made it possible for him to customize the tour. I’m a Beatles fan, so he made it a private guided tour of the history of the Beatles. We visited various sights with connections to the Beatles. Each of the pubs we stopped at was a place where the Beatles used to go drinking. During our drinking stops, my guide filled me in on some of the other details of the Beatles early years, including their gigs in Hamburg.
I got back to the hotel after 9:00 and got to bed around 10:00. By now, I had been awake for almost 36 hours. I had no trouble getting to sleep that night.
Friday, October 25
During the night, I got up to go to the bathroom, and I stubbed my little toe on a chair that was near the bed. It hurt quite a bit at first, but the pain gradually subsided enough that I could get back to sleep. When I eventually got up, I could still feel it. I don’t think I broke anything, but there was some bleeding. That’s just what you want the day before a race.
After breakfast, I left Liverpool to drive to Llanberis. I thought I could get there by noon, but the drive turned out to be an adventure. I was counting on my phone to give me turn by turn directions. I set it up before starting the car. It seemed to be working, but as I started the car, it said, “GPS signal lost.” I was in a parking ramp, so I assumed it would pick up the signal as soon as I got outside.
I knew how my route started. I took the Queensway Tunnel to Birkenhead and got onto A41 going south toward Ellesmere Port. I assumed my phone would pick up the GPS signal once I was outside the tunnel.
I was expecting my phone to tell me where to exit from A41, but it never did. I realized I had gone too far south, when I started to get into Chester. I found a gas station where I could pull over, and I checked my phone.
It was raining, and I had a spotty data connection. I couldn’t get navigation to work. I eventually got back onto A41 going north and started watching for signs for North Wales. I kept following them until I got unto A55 toward Conwy. I knew my route would take me through Conwy and Bangor, so I followed A55 until I reached Bangor. Then I started seeing signs for Llanberis and was able to follow those for the rest of the way.
It would have been a scenic drive if not for the weather. I drove past rustic hillsides and within sight of the Irish Sea. Rain and low clouds, however, obstructed most of the views.
The last five miles were on narrow two lane roads. All the rain was causing large puddles to encroach on the road, making that part of the drive unpleasant. When I finally got into Llanberis, I pulled over to see if I could get my phone working for the last part of the drive. Now that I was in town, it worked.
In Llanberis, I stayed at Y Gwynedd Inn. They have their own parking area, but it’s small, and I wasn’t scheduled to check in until 5:00. I found street parking about half a block away, but I could only park there for 45 minutes. I parked the car and walked over to see if there was room in their lot. There was. I went in to ask if it was OK to park there even though I hadn’t checked in yet. Not only was it OK to park there, but I was able to check in early.
My room was small, but the location couldn’t have been better. The finish line was right in front. By the time I moved the car and unpacked my things, it was already 1:00. Street parking in Llanberis is hard to find. Everything in town was within a mile, so now that the car was parked, I left it there and just walked to everything.
My first order of business was lunch. There was a pizzeria I wanted to try, but it was on the other end of town. I got my umbrella and started walking. Even with the umbrella, I got wet, particularly my shoes and pant legs. I was looking forward to getting indoors and warming up. Then I discovered they aren’t open for lunch. I had to walk back into the center of town. I ended up having fish & chips at Pete’s Eats, which is the most popular restaurant in town.
After lunch, I walked over to the event village, which was in the parking lot of Electric Mountain Visitor Center. I picked up my race packet and walked back to the hotel. I changed into dry clothes, but my only dry pair of shoes was the pair I was saving for the race.
I had planned to spend the afternoon sightseeing, but it wasn’t a good day for it. It rained all afternoon, and you couldn’t see the mountains. Now that my shoes were wet, I didn’t feel like going back out until they dried. In the meantime, I changed into my race shoes and hung out at the bar, and eventually had dinner there
Later, David and some of his friends from England arrived. I met them at Pete’s Eats, where they were having dinner, and I joined them for beers after dinner.
Saturday, October 26
Saturday was race day. The race didn’t start until 10:30 AM, so I didn’t need to get up early. I set my alarm for 7:30, but I woke up at 4:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep. I made myself some tea and had a pastry that I bought at a convenience store across the street.
I usually organize my race clothes the day before a race, but this time I waited until morning, so I could see what the weather was like. It looked a lot like Friday. It was raining when I got up, and it looked like the rain wouldn’t stop until mid-afternoon.
I didn’t know what the wind would be like, so I erred on the side of being warm enough. Temperatures were in the low 40s, but I dressed like I normally would for 30s. In addition, I wore a plastic rain poncho. If the rain stopped, I would be too hot, but I was willing to risk that.
The starting line was about a 15 minute walk from the inn where I was staying. Because of the rain, I waited until 10:00 before leaving the inn.
This is a hilly course. It’s mostly on roads, but there are three tough climbs. There are also two steep descents. Here’s the elevation profile (in meters).
After David signed me up for this race, he challenged me to try to break four hours. At the time, I could barely do that on a flat course, but I’m in much better shape now. At first I didn’t know how much a hilly course would slow me down. Then I noticed something on the elevation profile above. In the upper right corner, it says this course is equivalent to a flat course that’s 29.32 miles. I’m not sure how they arrived at that, but if you take my time from the Chicago Marathon and scale it to 29.32 miles, it works out to 3:45:40.
I took that with a grain of salt. First of all, the Chicago Marathon was my best effort on a course that suits me well. It’s the type of course I’ve trained for. I haven’t trained much for hills, so I expected to be slow on the long climbs. Also, this course has two sections on trails, and they’re both downhill. I descend well on roads, but I don’t descend well on trails. Finally, I didn’t dress optimally for running fast. I knew I was probably overdressed. If the rain stopped, I’d probably overheat, and that would slow me down.
Breaking four hours was in the back of my mind as a goal, but I was so sure I couldn’t do it that I brought a camera with me to take pictures along the route.
For a race in a remote area that’s partially on trails, this race is surprisingly large. I got some sense of that at packet pickup, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I got to the start area. There were a lot of runners.
I lined up a fair distance back from the starting line. The first two miles are relatively flat, so I thought it would be reasonable to start at the same pace I would in a flat race. With so many runners lined up in front of me, I was surprised that they all went out as fast or faster.
We started out running through a valley. The first mile had a slight downhill trend, but felt flat enough that I had a chance to find my rhythm. I ran that mile in 7:57. The second mile had a slight uphill trend to it. I slowed to 8:25. On average, I was going a little bit slower than I would on a flat course, but I knew what was coming.
In the third mile, we began the first of three long climbs. This was the climb to Pen-y-Pass. The climb started out gradual. I was pleasantly surprised to run that mile in roughly nine minutes. That’s the pace I needed to average for a four hour finish. If I could do that in an uphill mile, I was in good shape.
In the first two miles, I didn’t feel at all overdressed with the rain poncho. That began to change on the climb. In the first mile of the climb, my hands were still cold, but under the poncho, I was warming up.
The fourth mile had a more noticeable grade. I wouldn’t call it steep, but it was gradually wearing me down. Now I started to feel hot under the poncho. In that mile, I slowed to about 10 minutes. That wasn’t too surprising. I expected the climbs to be slow.
In the fifth mile, the climb got steep. I had to slow down, but I was determined to run the whole way. Now I was getting uncomfortably hot. My poncho had a hood, and I had to take it off my head so heat could escape. My hands were feeling warm now, but I kept my gloves on. I was working up a sweat on the climb, but soon I would begin descending.
The summit of the first big climb was at Pen-y-Pass, which came just before the five mile mark. At the top, there was an aid station and some spectators. Up until now, I had resisted the urge to stop and take pictures, but I had to get a photo of this couple. That's the Welsh flag.
The fifth mile took almost 11 minutes, but now I was done climbing. As I began descending, I got my first view of a different valley.
At first, the descent let me recover from the climb. Then I started to pick up speed. It was steep enough that I didn’t have to work to run faster. I was actually putting in so little effort that I wasn’t generating much heat. I cooled off nicely here.
At six miles, we left the road for a trail. We were still in the middle of a long descent. Thankfully it wasn’t as steep here. There were enough rocks in the trail that I had to slow myself down and watch my footing carefully. Other runners started passing me. I made no effort to keep up. I just wanted to feel like I was under control. I don’t descend well over uneven footing, so I just let everybody go by. Over the next two miles, I must have been passed by 100 runners. Even though I was going downhill, my pace slowed to nine minutes per mile.
At eight miles, we went up a short hill to get back to the road. On the trail, I was always watching my footing, so I couldn’t take in the views. Now that I had sure footing again, I was able to take in the views of my surroundings.
Over the next five miles, there was a gentle downhill trend. My mile times varied, but they ranged between eight and nine minutes.
It was somewhere around 10 miles that I realized it wasn’t raining any more. I’m not exactly sure when the rain stopped. I was too focused on other things to notice. I regretted my choice of rain ponchos. The one I was wearing covered me from my head to my ankles. I had another one that doesn’t cover as much of my arms and legs. I wished that I had chosen that one instead, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was getting hot again, and I just had to hope it wouldn’t slow me down too much. I’m sure that was the only reason I couldn’t run eight minute miles on this section.
With a low cloud ceiling, we couldn’t see the mountain tops, but there was plenty of scenery closer to the road. At different times, we ran by lakes on either side of the road.
At 13 miles, we passed through the town of Beddgelert. This was the largest town we would see before returning to Llanberis. The crowd support here was great.
There wasn’t a marker for halfway, but based on my 13 mile split, I ran the first half in less than 1:54. Now I was cautiously optimistic. I was easily on pace to break four hours, but it’s worth noting that the second half has a tougher elevation profile. Beddgelert was at the bottom of a valley. We weren’t even out of town yet before we began climbing. This was the second of the three tough climbs.
At first, the slope was gradual. Early in the climb, I paused to take a picture of the fall colors. That brief rest break energized me enough that I was ready to tackle the rest of the hill, even as the grade got more challenging.
This hill wasn’t as long as the first one. I slowed down, but not as much. At 15 miles, the climb was over. I didn’t lose too much time there, so I thought more about what it would take to break four hours.
In contrast to the first climb, this one wasn’t followed by a steep descent. Instead, we had a gentle downhill trend over the next six miles. I realized this was my best chance to pick up my pace. I still had one tough climb remaining. I knew I would lose time there. I also knew the final descent would be mostly on trails, so I couldn’t count on making up time there. My goal over the next six miles was to put enough time in the bank that I could afford to be slow on the last big climb.
I wanted to run the next six miles with times between eight and nine minutes. I succeeded at that and even ran one of them in less than eight minutes. That boosted my confidence.
I was passing other runners somewhat regularly now. I wondered how many of them were the same runners that passed me between six and eight miles, when we were descending on trails.
On this part of the course we had a headwind. At times, it felt tiring, but it kept me from overheating. My hands started to get really cold here. I reminded myself that I would warm up on the last climb.
As I passed the 21 mile mark, I was surprised that I wasn’t to the big climb yet. With 5.2 miles to go, I could afford an average pace of 11 minutes per mile. I was focused on breaking four hours, and I liked my chances.
We were almost to 22 miles when the climb finally started. The change in grade was unmistakable. This one was steep from the very start. I couldn’t run very fast, but I was determined to run the whole thing.
As the grade got steeper, I started seeing more and more people walking. I was one of the few people still running. I got lots of cheers of “good job, mate” from everyone I passed.
After 23 miles, the grade got even steeper. I looked ahead and saw what I thought might be the top. As I got there, I realized it was a false summit. The climb continued. This happened a few times. Looking at the hills around us, it seemed like we were about to go over the top. Then I’d get closer, and I could see more hills that went higher.
I finally had to take a walking break. I knew I could afford it if I didn’t walk for too long. I walked for about a minute. Then I forced myself to run the rest of the way. Finally, at 24 miles, I was at the top of the steep part of the climb. I checked my watch. Did I succeed in limiting the damage? That mile took only 10 minutes, in spite of the walking break. Now I had it in the bag.
Right at 24 miles, we left the road for a trail. We were descending now, but only slightly. There were puddles all over the trail. Some I could avoid; some I couldn’t. My shoes were filling with water. That’s just what I wanted before a long steep descent. Insole problems were almost inevitable.
The trail turned slightly uphill again. We had crossed one summit, but there was still a second summit before the final steep descent. Now there was water all the way across the trail. It was like running upstream through a river.
Finally, at about 24.5 miles, I reached the highest elevation on the course. It was less than two miles to the finish, but it was treacherous. What’s worse than a steep descent over uneven footing? How about adding mud to the mix? It was steep, and it was slick. I had to slow my pace and choose my footing carefully. This is why I wasn’t going to gain any time on this section. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
On one section of the trail, there was a long puddle running down one side. Everyone else avoided that side. One runner raced right through it, splashing mud waist high on everyone she passed. I didn’t appreciate that.
The sky was clearing up, and I came to a spot with a nice view overlooking the valley below. I stopped to take a picture, but my camera’s viewfinder was completely white. I didn’t know if it was moisture on the lens of something else. My camera was wet. I took a few pictures without knowing if I was aiming it right. I had no idea if they would even turn out. I don’t think I got the angle I was trying for, but this is the one that was closest.
Some sections were steeper than others. On one particularly steep section, I felt my insoles slipping forward in both of my shoes. That’s a common problem for me when I’m running down a steep hill with water in my shoes. Usually, it’s just uncomfortable. This time, it affected my running. I could feel my feet slipping back and forth inside my shoes with each step. Not only was the trail surface slick and unstable, but the insides of my shoes were as well.
I was right about not making up time on the downhill. Mile 25 actually took longer than mile 24, which had been all uphill. Still, I had more than 16 minutes for the last 1.2 miles to finish within four hours.
Next, I got onto a section of the trail that was paved. It was still uncomfortably steep, but at least I had solid footing. I was coping with the discomfort of having insoles that were bunched up under my toes. Then I reached a section that was even steeper, and I felt something else going on in my shoe. This was something I had never felt before. It was extremely uncomfortable. I actually wondered if the back of my foot had come out of my shoe. Nope. As I tried to keep running, I realized what it was. One of my orthotics had slipped forward in my shoe. That’s never happened before.
I couldn’t run that way. The back edge of my orthotic, which normally stays behind my heel, was cutting into the bottom of my foot. It was painful, but more significantly, I was afraid it would cause an injury. I had to stop and fix it. I took off the shoe, moved the orthotic back to where it belonged, removed the insole, unfolded it and put it back in the proper place, replaced the shoe, and tied it. That took time.
I resumed running, and as soon as I hit another steep section, the orthotic moved again. I didn’t have time to keep doing this, but I also couldn’t run like that. My solution was to run on my toes, so the back of my foot wouldn’t strike my orthotic. Going downhill, that was uncomfortable, but I was in Llanberis now. I only had about half a mile to go.
After another minute or two, I finally got onto streets I recognized. I knew the grade was going to level out soon. When I made the last turn onto High Street, it leveled out completely. Now I could run on my toes more comfortably as I sprinted to the finish. Despite all the mishaps that cost me time, I finished in 3:54:48. To say I’m pleased with that time would be an understatement.
Instead of a finisher medal, the tradition at this race is for each finisher to get one of these slate coasters. In case you're wondering, "Eryri" is the Welsh name for Snowdonia. We also each got a water bottle, which conveniently was already filled with water.
After finishing, I had to go around the finish line fences, but then I was only about 100 feet from the door to Y Gwynedd Inn. Getting to my room, however, was like an obstacle course. First, I had to get through the crowd of spectators. Then I had to go through about five doors, and the sleeve of my rain poncho got caught on every door handle. It also got caught on a knob as I rounded the top of the staircase. Needless to say, that was the first thing I removed when I got to my room.
I was wearing multiple layers of clothes, and they were all soaking wet. Some were wet from the rain; others were wet from sweat. It took time to peel them off and find places to hang them up to dry. I also had to clean the mud from my shoes.
After showering and changing clothes, I walked over to the event village to attend the awards ceremony. I was impressed with how fast some of the other runners ran this course. The winner of my age group finished in 3:07!
David invited me to join his running club for a post-race dinner at the Royal Victoria Hotel. I joined a few of them for beers in town, and then we walked to the hotel. Better late than never, I finally had pizza in Wales. For those keeping score at home, that makes 38 countries.
After dinner, I was tired enough that I could’ve fallen asleep immediately. There was a band performing at the inn, and my room was directly above their stage. The bass was so loud that it was making things in my room vibrate. There wasn’t any point going to sleep until they were done. That was 11:00.
Remember that toe I stubbed? It never bothered me during the race, but when I climbed into bed, it was the only thing that hurt. Nevertheless, I had no trouble getting to sleep.
Sunday, October 27
I joined my friends for breakfast at Pete’s Eats. Then we watched a rugby match at a nearby inn that had several large TVs. Wales was playing in the semifinals of the World Cup, so it was a big deal for local rugby fans. It was an exciting game, but ultimately Wales lost to South Africa.
I had plans to visit Conwy Castle in the afternoon, but I had another driving adventure. A few minutes after I left Llanberis, I got a “check tire pressure” indicator. I stopped at a gas station and walked around the car. One tire was dangerously low. The car had been parked for two days, so I didn’t know how quickly it was losing air. I added air, but I didn’t know how well the tire would hold air. I decided the safest course of action was to drive straight to Manchester, without making any sightseeing stops. It was a nice sunny day, so at least I got to enjoy a scenic drive through north Wales. Before returning the car, I stopped to fill the tank. The tire was still holding air, but better safe than sorry.
I don’t fly home until tomorrow morning. For tonight, I’m staying at an airport hotel.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 8:57
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 390