Saturday, 25 September 2021

Ultra Trail Snowdonia 165

 As UTMB drew closer the uncertainty was doing my head in. Would we be able to travel? Will the race be able to enter other countries? Will it even go ahead? Will it get cancelled and I lose my hard earnt place for ever. A pandemic makes racing tricky, it makes travelling to a race even trickier. As soon as UTMB stepped up and offered deferrals to 2022 I was on it. Deferred. That left a gaping hole in my race calendar. Ultra Trail Snowdonia sat just 2 weeks after UTMB, It is an Ultra Trail World Tour Event and in one of my favourite places. Since my Bob I've been considering a Paddy round but was still yet to recce as my three previous attempts to recce had been scuppered by the weather. So what better opportunity, enter the UTS165, get to experience some of the Paddy terrain and take part in a badass race. I was in. 

As we crossed the A5 from the campsite towards the start my mind wandered, thinking about how I'd been told by a couple of friends how hard the 50 mile race had been a few years previous. Both had expressed to me what a complete hellish experience it had been. I mean how hard could it be? I've done hard races, what would make this different? I was about to find out. It had rained solid for 5 or so hours prior to the 11am start, luckily it had stopped for now and with little fuss or excitement we were given the GO and sent on our way. 

The start is right at the base of Moel Siabod and after a couple of hundred metres of jogging we were hiking. It was a steady up and I chatted briefly with Drew Sheffield (a previous winner of the race) and Mark Collinson who I bump into at all the major UK events. Both previous finishers and both gave me glimpses of what lay ahead. After an hour of steady climbing we summited but instead of following the natural path we veered off and started a long and knarly descent. We skipped over rocks, slid on our arses and tried desperately not to fall over. The pace was hard, hard for a first descent, the views were stunning. I stopped to take a couple of pics. This was fun. After the first steep section things levelled out slightly and we entered some forest and followed an undulating path at last feeling like I could run a bit. I looked at my watch and we were just 5 miles in which had taken about 2 hours. I won't lie I was feeling it. We rolled into cp1 for a well earned drink. I needed my coke fix. 

Leaving the Cp I joined the road which led into a forest track it was steady up hill and I hiked the next mile or so until the track went straight up into the thick woods. The area beyond had been heavily forested and there was mud a plenty. It climbed steeply to the top before the steady run down through the amazing derelict quarries. The humidity was very high so far, I was really sweating one out. My water was running out fast and I was feeling uncomfortable. We soon reached Ffestiniog and civilisation. Dan Milton was there and it was good to chat and rest for a bit. I had been on the go for about 3 and half hours and a half marathon in. Dan said "see you at 100k", it actually felt a million miles away. 

I was still so hot, my internal thermostat was stuck on full and I couldn't get cool. I walked
with my coke and half a cheese sandwich just to try and regulate myself. I was carrying a lot of calories for this race. I'd figured I'd potentially be out for 40 hours max so I carried 20 items of 100 calories for the first 50 miles then I'd pick up another 20 at half way to get me through. I had a main stay of gels but also had a few bars, my plan was to have 100 cals every hour then top up with a further 200 or so every checkpoint. 

I spent much of the next section leap frogging with other runners, a long steady climb over grassy non descript terrain, lots of bog, tussocks and disused quarrying sites. We reached a point and the guy I was alongside said we had about a mile descent that was really runnable. I just opened up and sprinted down just to keep my legs turning over properly.  I grabbed some coke at the next cp and moved on up the very tough climb of Cnicht. It went on for ages and was incredibly misty at the top. We were now about 19 miles in and I was pretty tired. 5 hours had passed. Now Cnicht was done I thought that I'd actually be able to do some running. How wrong could I have been. I soon found myself alone for the first time. I followed the gps track closely. The group I had walked behind up the mountain had surged ahead. I desperately tried to get my heart rate down before trotting on. The next few miles were ridiculous. Every step was into a potential bog. Massive holes in the bog were scattered everywhere where previous runners had pulled themselves out. I was so careful knowing I could get swallowed up by the muddy mess at anytime. I reached a sharp left turn on the grassy trail. Easily missed as the markings were a bit far apart. I took the turn but the group from earlier had not and soon came running up behind me again. As we started to descend runners were appearing from all sides. All had obviously missed the turn in the mist. It was a slog even on the down basically just bog hopping. After about 2 hours of hard bog running and just 10k covered I reached a road. I was in shock, that section had blown my mind. I passed a guy on the road as I trotted along he had obviously gone into the bog upto his chest and looked really pissed off. I reached CP4 and started to refill my long depleted bottles. I needed water badly. The bog guy from the road promptly stripped his pack off and declared he was out. I couldn't blame him. A marathon covered in 7 hours. The aidstation was in the middle of nowhere like most of the others. Being that there was no death bus or phone signal for that matter it was just best to carry on because there was no way out. The race guide had given a phone number for a random taxi firm if you dropped. Not sure how that would have worked out? 

I worked through the race in my head. 7 hours for the first quarter then maybe 8, 9 and 10 for the subsequent 3 quarters would have me back under 40 hours, eating pot noodles and drinking tea. Easy. I was having a second wind as I marched up the stepping stones towards Pen-y-pass. A left turn and a nice jog along the sedate miners track. The miners track turns right but of course we turned left up the massive rocky climb. The light was fading when started on the ridge of  Y Lliwedd. It's high, rocky and exposed. The mist had dropped, the rock was wet and it was maximum concentration. There were other runners up there and for the first time I was feeling a chill. I had seen Mike and Alice Sheldon earlier in the race, they were looking incredibly strong and had shot off early, I caught up with them on the ridge and we crossed the ridge together. Eventually I had to stop, layer up and dig out my head torch. As I scrambled across to the end of the ridge I was supposed to pick up the Watkin path and to my left Mike and Alice were climbing down what seemed the wrong route. I carried on forward following the random markers in the thick mist, drizzle and darkness. Eventually I found the path but none of the previous 50 mtrs of rock climbing had felt right or easy. The others that had climbed down were long gone but I was now on a definite path which after a mile or so got very runnable and by the bottom I was running full pelt and relieved to be able to open up a bit again. I ran all the way in the darkness to CP5. 

Walking along the road with my now standard plain cheese sandwich and third cup of coke I contemplated what might be ahead. I felt like I had run a hard race already yet we were only 35 miles in. What more could this race throw at us. I had a really bad back ache at this point which was coming from a long standing work injury that I've hoped and prayed I can keep away from my running. Only time will tell on this. The next 10k was fairly easy, maybe only a 1000ft of climb but some quite runnable bits and a nice trail along a river. This took us to Cp 6 at Beddgelert. From memory Beddgelert cp was inside. I wandered about filled with water, drunk coke and just headed off. Not a proper stop at all. As I left an aidstation member said "quick stop, impressive" as I wandered off I couldn't fathom what they had meant. 

It was a steady incline out of the CP and before long there was a sign for Moel Hebog.
The climb up Hebog killed me. It was steep and went on forever. As I reached the top the weather was shocking. Steady rain, mist and a cold breeze. I was tired too. Visability was shit and it was about 2am. Chin up though. The route went up and down two further peaks. The wet rock was really pissing me off now. This had really got hard. I dropped down again to find a couple of marshals in the middle of nowhere. I think they had been placed to provide emergency water although I didn't recall any water being there. I climbed back up a slope again only to join a really dodgy rocky ridge line. I was tired and and a tad confused. I followed the markings but the route was so unclear I couldn't believe this was the way. A couple of guys had joined me but we were having communication issues due to all of us having different first languages. We reached a point and could actually see no way through. We climbed across massive wet rocks all of us falling several times. This was getting silly. I was aware in the mist we were very high, very exposed and there was large drops either side. A massive boulder blocked our way and to the side of it was a flat slab maybe a metre by a metre. Tadeusz got on it first and slid off the other side, then Chean did the same. Before I knew it and against my better judgment I was on the slab. It then occurred to me it was a sheer drop directly to my side, I was on a slippy slab with a drop off one side. What the hell was I doing? Why wasn't this bit marked? Where were the guides to get us beyond this point? The guys sensed we had put ourselves at risk and help me forward. I must say I was pretty pissed off at this point. 3am in the rain and mist, not a clue where we are going and in potential danger. I couldn't help thinking about the poor guy who had lost his life at the TDS not three weeks before. We threaded our way through the rest of the rocks before reaching some solid ground. Just before the summit of Y Garn we turned off and descended on a normal ish path. We eventually reached the halfway point around 5am. I was determined to pull out, I'd had enough. On reaching the Cp I grabbed my drop bag and went and sat inside. I needed a rest and to get my head together. 

I sat and emptied my drop bag across the floor. I'd had my waterproof socks on for 50 miles and 16 hours by now so they needed to come off. My feet were wet but having waterproof socks on seems to help keep my chronic foot maceration at bay. I immediately wrapped my feet in a towel, ate my pasty and drank a massive can of Monster. Was I actually going to drop I asked myself?. No. Middle of nowhere, no cabs, already been out for 16 hours and although still bitching in my head about the Nantlle ridge I needed to finish this. I sat there and something clicked in my head. If I continued from this aidstation I would finish because there was no way I was ever coming back. I powdered my feet,  got changed, restocked my pack, packed my dropbag, grabbed a sarnie and wandered off up the trail. 

From Rhyd ddu I got straight on the Rhyd ddu path which leads to the summit of Snowdon. Its a long hike that I managed to power up passing a few people but mainly I was alone. By the summit I was in the mist again but daylight had broken and I had a new found determination. The summit was busy already to my disbelief. Yes it was Saturday but please. Dark, misty and queuing for the summit. I descended on the Ranger path for a while before veering off to the next CP. From what we had experienced so far this climb and descent of Snowdon had been rather sedate. The checkpoint staff informed us that some signage had been messed with so to be careful. 55 miles in and I'd had enough of hills, I looked ahead and saw a massive hill but thought surely we must skirt around this one. I managed to get my self a little lost in the small forest, for some reason I just ignored the signage and did my own thing. I popped out the other side of the woodland not too far off track but I did have to climb a barbed wire fence, not great when your legs are like jelly. As I re-joined the path I could see ahead the orange markers disappearing up the mountain I had just seen and into the mist. It was a hard, grassy climb. At the summit I could just see another mountain. Up again! The descents now were killing my big toes. The nail was pushing hard into the end of the shoe, the steeper the descent the more it hurt. I had a quick system check and my back hurt, knees were sore, calves sore, toes killing me, maceration pain coming on and shoulder pain from using the poles. Ok I was a wreck but my quads were holding up and my energy levels were not too bad. CP 9 was 100k where I saw Dan again. We had a good chat as I ate another cheese sandwich and lots of coke. It was quite a lift to see a friend and I left happy enough. Just 40mile to go now and probably near or around the 24 hr mark. I knew the next 40 would take a while but the first night was behind me and there was no way I was stopping now. 

I hiked up through the village of Waunfawr, it was nice to see some human life. Much of this race is in the middle of nowhere so it felt comforting to be around people. The hike up the road lead to a track before a turn right and another slog up. This time Moel Eillio, Foel Gron and Foel Goch. You get the picture. Leave checkpoint, climb massive mountain, descend to Checkpoint and repeat. On this descent I could recognise we were heading back down towards LLanberis. This chirped me up a bit knowing the climb back up Snowdon wouldn't be too bad. Around this time I met Richard Thompson for the first time, we passed each other a few times, exchanged a few words but were both pretty focused on our own race. 

I left the LLanberis Checkpoint very quickly leaving Richard behind. I soon joined the LLanberis path aka Snowdon High St. It was busy! I have honestly never seen so many people walking off a mountain. At points the path is about 3 metres wide and I couldn't pick a route through. I had my sticks out for the long slow walk up. It was nicely broken up chatting with the walkers coming back down. I was extremely tired and occasionally getting flicking eyelids but in the grand scheme of things this was easy going. Richard passed me a marched ahead. I was going well and didn't feel the need to chase him. After what seemed like an age I was near the top and back in the mist. The mist and masses of people were disorientating me. I couldn't work out in my head where the start of the Pyg track back down was. I have been up there at least 50 times but I felt completely lost. I found a marshal and just stood staring at his face. He looked and said "you ok mate". I'm not sure I even answered such was my mental state. This race was taking everything from me. It was obvious this was the turn and I started heading down. The amount of people was doing my head in, I couldn't get past. Luckily a few 100k runners came behind a were waiting for no-one. They literally barged through. I jumped in behind them and followed through until the hoards dispersed a bit. The Pyg track is a fairly simple descent but my legs were like stilts and the wet rock was still quite hazardous. Not only was this race physically demanding but the mental demands are massive. The concentration it takes coming down rocky terrain is high. I was catching Richard slowly. We reached the carpark after an age. Straight into the Cp. 77 miles done and roughly 3 quarters done. It must have been about 3pm so I'd been on the go for 28hrs. A few rough calculations and I was fairly sure I was going to spend another full night out. What could I do? Just crack on. Only a marathon to go. 

This next section was going to be tough. Lots of hard rocky terrain. Straight up to the summit of Glydr Fawr. I left the cp and soon started losing the markers. They were sporadic and didn't match the GPX file at all. I could see high up on the hill side a few runners so just picked a line through and steadily worked my way up. Tadeusz who I'd crossed the Nantlle ridge with joined me again. He was really struggling with the markers and couldn't see anyone on the hillside. I told him to follow me, he wasn't sure but did. It was fairly hard going but we joined the really steep bit where I'd seen people earlier and the markers re appeared. I climbed the steep hill side pressing on into the mist toward the summit. I met with Mike and Alice Sheldon again and Richard had joined us too. Alice was struggling on the climbs and I was slow on the descents. So we were all roughly the same speed. The rocky landscape was doing my head in and I was hallucinating, seeing lots of faces on rocks. We were scrambling, climbing, shuffling and stumbling all the way to Y Garn. Richard and I crept ahead again. Light was fading and the descent was steep and super technical. It just went on forever. Maximum concentration and maximum pain in my feet. Maceration was taking hold, as were blisters, pain in my big toes and just soreness from being on my feet. Mike and Alice overtook us and got quite a way ahead. We were heading down to the Ogwen valley, great I thought just run across the lakeside to the checkpoint. No chance! We had to climb back up the side of Tryfan round the back and back down to the checkpoint. This was some knarly shit. Actual rock climbs, dodgy marking and the fact I had zero idea what was even going on. Night time had come and torches were on. We had caught Mike and Alice once again. There are times in distance running when you just need to tuck in behind someone and shadow them and concentrate on moving forward. This was mine. I didn't know where we were, what we were doing or why. Every so often I kept twigging we were in a race but most of the time I believed we were on a recce or my usual odd thoughts of walking to work. This with heavy hallucinations was hard work. The four of us were in the same boat though and between we had all the attributes to stay on course and keep moving forward. Reaching CP12 was a massive relief. I was in shock. Everything was hurting. Mike said look why don't we stick together now, we are all tired and it will be safer and quicker to work as a foursome. We all agreed. I completely lost my bearings at this point and argued we were heading in the wrong direction but it is always hard getting your bearings leaving an aidstation. I can look back at the map now and its all so obvious. 

There were no markings leading up Pen-Yr-Ole Wen and we relied on my Etrex. Nothing seemed right but my head was a little straighter so I was able to pick a path through. It was a hard climb and it was clear I was moving very well on the ups but no point steaming off as we had agreed to work together so every so often I'd wait for the others. From the top we were to spend the next few miles very high up in the Carnedds. Scrambling over rocks with a few real rock climbing sections. It seemed surreal, like it was happening and not all at the same time. Mike started rambling about not knowing what was going on. I chuckled, I knew that feeling. We went on and on through the abyss of rock and mist. We changed direction off of Carnedd Llewelyn and the rocks started to disperse slightly. Mind you the lichen covered rocks made for some mental hallucinations. I was seeing people, animals, vans, cars as vivid as real life. We reached Pen yr Helgi Du and It was an actual climb. It was a little tricky especially with 90 miles in your legs. We climbed straight up the rock face which I must admit I kind of enjoyed. By this time we had amassed a few of us as some of the 100k runners had tagged on. We must have looked like we knew where we were going! Over the climb it changed to grass and was the beginning of a massive descent. I was trashed now but Mike insisted we should run. It was either that or a death march so we trotted down the grassy descent. We were actually in the middle of no where. Every so often I would switch my light off. No light not even light pollution, no sound. So quiet it makes your ears hurt as they strain to pick up any sound. A very strange feeling. I could see a little light in the distance that never got closer but eventually after a very long time I worked out this was the final aid station we jogged down the hill and into the Checkpoint. My feet were now shot, the pain was unbearable. So much so I took some paracetamol just to take the edge off. No use removing my shoes as there was nothing I could do. It was about 3 am with about 6 miles to go. My internal thermostat was now completely knackered, I was still sweating although there was a chill. It was a horrible feeling. I just wanted it to end now. 

The last leg was under way and no major climbs on this one. Immediately after leaving the checkpoint I started coughing. I had a tickly throat and it made me gag to cough. The urge to cough was too strong and I started again promptly followed by the contents of my stomach. All of it!. Running was near impossible now. I was tired and hurting. Alice was in pain too. Richard could walk at the same speed as my run and Mike was pushing us all forward. We joined a lakeside path but it was hard going as it was so rough. Power hiking was the best option. Daylight hit us at this point and I was able to remove my headtorch. My main concern now turned to the sleep demons. I could not keep my eyes open and was having micro sleeps every few seconds. I kept wandering into bushes and stumbling off the path. I really hate that as I had no control. We left the lake and entered the forest. This was heavy mud and one point Alice lost her whole leg into a bog. I tried to help her but was just making things worse so let her scramble out herself. As we left the forest I thought we were done and said that's it we must be here. I was soon put in my place by the others who knew we still had a 3 mile walk over more hills until we eventually reached the A5 again. We agreed to cross the line together and it was a great feeling running along the road at a walking pace knowing it was over. As we approached the line they held a finish line tape up. Alice was going to win the ladies race so we pushed her forward to take the tape a few seconds before we flopped over the line. 

I was in shock. The race had brutalised me. Everything hurt and my brain was not working. The relief was massive. I'm so glad I done it as I never want to attempt it again. It was 45 hours 9 minutes and 57 seconds of hard slog. That is easily the hardest 100 mile race I have taken part in. Time is irrelevant, its simply did you finish or not. I think if it had been dry before and during the race it would certainly be a lot easier but as it was it was as described. Savage beyond reason. 

Go on put an entry in I dare you!  

This was going to be my unofficial Paddy taster. I'd guess this is much harder than a Paddy and I won't be attempting any Paddy attempt or recce in anything but dry, sunny conditions. So I won't say I won't have a go but I'm a little less inclined. 

Just one final thing. When I researched this race I was constantly trying to gain a comparison to UTMB. Which is harder? Without a doubt UTS is harder than UTMB. 

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