La Belle Sauvage, or "Into the Pain Cave"
Updated: May 22
Ultra Trail Snowdonia 100 mile: 12 May 2023
“Beautiful beyond belief. Savage beyond reason.”
Yeah, right. That’s what all ultras say … I thought as I clicked the “Confirmation” button on the screen, paid my entry fee and signed up for the UTS 100 miler back in late 2022. To be honest, with the Cheviot Goat, Winter Spine, TransGranCanaria and Istria 100 races all already in my calendar, it was quite a while before I again turned to thinking seriously about UTS. In fact, it was probably the week after DNFing on the Winter Spine. Funny how part of the process of purging one’s negative thoughts about a DNF involves setting yourself another difficult challenge with a high risk of failure with the possible consequence of yet more disappointment and negative thoughts. But then again, without the risk of failure the successes wouldn’t mean half so much, so maybe it’s inevitable.
In any case, now that the Winter Spine had come and gone and ended in me sitting in the aid station at Malham Tarn waiting for a lift back to Hawes and my drop bag, my new “A Race” for the first half of the year was the UTS 100 miler, and so I had set about reorienting my training towards peaking in mid-May.
Before the race
Training had gone well. I’d spent a week up in North Wales at the end of March with the dog, recceing the first 55km of the course as well as the 13k up-and-down Snowdon section from Rhyd-Ddu to Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf Farm, before the wind and rain proved too much and Alfie and I decided to return home. Alfie had managed to get from the start to Capel Curig (50km) in less than 11 hours, 2 hours within the cut-offs. Not bad for a miniature labradoodle!
I’d sandwiched that week in between doing TransGranscanaria (130k) in February and Istria 100 (110k) in April, so had plenty of both time on feet and vertical elevation under my belt, and in Istria had managed to finally get my nutrition, hydration and chafing issues put to bed. The final last month of training had given me time to get more climbing practice with lots of incline work on the treadmill – long aerobic sessions as well as intervals – and plyometrics to further bulletproof my legs against the eccentric loads (which for clarity, is not a coded reference to Jacob Rees-Mogg sitting in the back of a pick-up truck) that you get on steep downhills. And I’d even had time to get a proper taper week in. I felt in tip-top shape.
Like most competitors, I was glued to the weather forecast for the 2 weeks before the race. My family soon learned to expect daily updates every morning on the dynamics of a mid-Atlantic high pressure system “It’s started moving North East again!”, and what initially looked like it might be “typical” Welsh conditions of heavy rain showers gradually gave way to an increasingly clear forecast and potentially even warm and sunny conditions. Having been in near-zero, 100km/h hurricane conditions on the summit of Snowdon in the middle of June, it all seemed too good to be true.
Logistics-wise, North Wales can be a bit of a nightmare. Public transport is conspicuous by its absence and accommodation in Llanberis is limited. However, a 1pm start on the Friday and morning registration at least meant that travelling up on the Thursday would allow for a full night’s sleep, and even a late lie-in, and plenty of time to get ready in the morning, without the usual stresses of early morning starts. I’d found a place to stay in Betws-y-Coed, about 15 mins drive from Llanberis, had booked a parking slot for the whole weekend in the Dolpadarn car park right next to the start at the Slate Museum and was driving up with another runner, Jonathan Burnhams, with whom I’d run both Northern Traverse and Cape Wrath last year.
The journey up on Thursday had proved pretty smooth. We missed the turning off the M6 to the M54 / A5, so ended up coming via the M56 and A55, which as it turned out was probably even quicker than coming the “normal route” and gave us some lovely views of the mountains and the sea as we snaked along the coast past Flint, Rhyl and Conwy. Our hotels were only a few doors down from each other in Betws-y-Coed, so after unpacking our bags we reconvened for dinner at Olif, a great little tapas bar on the high street where I’d gone for dinner with my daughter a few years earlier on a previous hiking trip – I’d highly recommend it.
We’d agreed to meet at the car at 10.30am, which gave me plenty of time to have breakfast, apply K-tape and all my various anti-chafing ointments and double- / triple-check my pack and drop bag contents. I couldn’t see any other runners at breakfast in the hotel, just elderly tour groups, but then again we were quite a long way from the start and there were only 200 or so runners in the 100 mile race, most of whom I guess would have been staying closer to the start or in campsites / bunkhouses, or indeed driving up in the morning if they were coming from anywhere between Birmingham and the Lakes.
Having paid £59 for the premium parking service, I was really pleased to see that it was money well spent as the car park was literally just a 5 minute walk from the start, and the car park itself was still less than half full as we pulled in just before 11am. A few friends had already arrived before us – Jonny Ulett, who had earned his first full Winter Spine finish earlier in the year and Richard Hoyland, with whom I’d done the Summer Spine last year as well as a recent long training run together over the Surrey Three Peaks. Both of them were coming into the race short of full fitness, Jonny still recovering from a leg injury and Richard recovering from a cold. I know from my own experience that it takes a lot of courage to line up for a 100 miler as tough as UTS when you’re not sure you’re feeling 100% - even when you’re 100% fit, you just don’t know how your body is going to react to the sustained stresses of a 100 mile race.
Jonathan and I headed over to the Slate Museum to register, sort out our drop bags, get trackers fitted to our packs and do all the other pre-race faff that needed doing. Registration itself was remarkably smooth, with a minimal queue, and as I moved forward I spotted another friend from recent races following me into the tent – Michael Burke, who had run a fantastic race in last year’s Summer Spine to finish in 5th, one place ahead of me. With the kit check covering three items chosen at random, it was soon completed, so I was soon at the back of the marquee transferring the contents of one of my dry bags into the capacious, UTMB-branded 30 litre drop bag with which we had been provided. After depositing it to be taken to CP7 at Croesor, I took my remaining bits and pieces back to the car, and then returned to what was by now an increasingly crowded Race Village, sitting down on a shady patch of grass to enjoy a cup of coffee with Richard, while finishing off my stretches from earlier. With 10 minutes to go, we were all called to the other side of the barriers to take our places before the mass start.
Start to CP1 Pen-y-Pass
I nestled into the pack of runners lining up, probably slightly ahead of the middle but with still a hundred or so people still in front of me. Just before the countdown started, I spotted Andy “Basil” Heaney, fresh from his recent Northern Traverse finish, running past and managed to quickly say hi to him before he took his place at the back of the line-up. I gave a quick high five to all the surrounding runners, wishing them well, and we were off. The crowds that had gathered round the start were in full voice, whooping and cheering us on as we jogged along the road out of the Slate Museum and towards the town of Llanberis and the start of the first ascent, up the Llanberis Path towards the top of Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon. I’m always amazed at how quickly everyone goes at the start of 100 mile races – I can kind of understand it, in that nobody wants to be stuck in a traffic jam early on in a race, but given the kind of zombie-like crawl that most people are reduced to in the second half of most 100 milers, your pace over the first couple of kms is ultimately irrelevant. Of course, I found myself swept up in the pace and when I checked my watch I was running at sub-5m30s / km! Maybe it’s not so amazing after all.
As we reached the bottom of the Llanberis Path and the first steep slopes, the pace slowed dramatically, poles were reached for and unfolded, and the characteristic clickety-clack of pole-assisted power hiking began to accompany the gradually spreading ribbon of runners. Almost immediately I started to feel my body begin to warm up, and I rolled down my arm sleeves and moved one buff from wrist to head, both to protect against the sun and reduce the amount of sweat dripping into my eyes. Although there’s a lot of ascent on the Llanberis Path (almost 900m of vertical to the Finger Stone at Bwlch Glas), it’s wide, easy and the gradient never gets much above 15%, so progress can be quite rapid once you get into an established rhythm. I alternated between jogging the flatter sections and hiking the steeper ones. It wasn’t too long before I found myself behind Nicky Spinks and Matt Neale, who were taking it relatively easy on this first climb while a lot of the rest of the field were burning themselves getting to the top of the climb as quick as possible.
As with my previous few races, I’d set my Garmin to alert me every 30 mins to drink and eat, so I dutifully downed half a drinks bottle as we went past the mid-station of the mountain railway, and as we started to approach the Finger Stone, the 1 hr alert went off and I downed a gel and finished off the rest of the first bottle. 100g of carbs sorted for at the least the first hour of the race. The descent down the PyG track to Pen-y-Pass is one of the most enjoyable runs there is to be had in Wales. Particularly when your legs are fresh and the weather is good, there is just enough rock, steepness and technicality to be an interesting challenge, plus plenty of flatter sections where you can really stretch your legs and let fly. Having done this recently on my recce, and with my quads and knees feeling in superb shape from the plyo and downhill work that I’d been doing, I was confident enough to accelerate down the slope, leaping from boulder to boulder. On the way down I passed Fumiaki Imamura, 2-time winner of the Sunrise Ultra along the Norfolk Coast and with whom I’d chatted before his recent run in the Northern Traverse, and soon after saw the characteristically metronomic stride pattern of Eoin Keith just ahead of me. We stayed pretty much alongside each other all the way towards Pen-Y-Pass, and as we turned the final corner and saw the car park and YHA buildings appear I glanced at my watch – 1h55m to the first checkpoint and bang on schedule.
CP1 Pen-y-Pass to CP2 Ogwen Valley
I stopped for a couple of minutes just to refill my bottles while Eoin just breezed straight through without stopping – that’s what I call checkpoint discipline! The climb out of Pen-y-Pass up Glyder Fawr starts pretty much immediately after you leave the checkpoint, and while there were still some mildly muddy parts, the climb as a whole was far less boggy than how I had found it 6 weeks prior. I surprised myself in terms of how quickly I was able to climb – all that treadmill incline work had paid dividends – and while some of the strongest climbers were pulling away from me, I was still closing on and passing several people as I made my way towards the summit. It certainly felt a lot less effort than the early climbs had felt on TransGranCanaria back in February. The flat top of Glyder Fawr soon gives way to a scree descent towards the small tarn of Llyn y Cwn and I was able to keep up a decent speed without too many stumbles. I’ve found that being a relatively poor off-piste skier has some advantages when it comes to scree running as the techniques have a lot in common.
After circling the tarn comes the vertiginous descent of Devil’s Kitchen. Alfie had amazed me – and onlookers – by doing this entire descent on his own when I’d taken him down it in March. Dogs do seem to have a knack of finding jumpable routes that humans fail to see – four legs probably help as well – and he had thoroughly enjoyed the rough scrambling that it presents (even if he ended up getting canine DOMS a few days later). I passed several more people and soon found myself behind Eoin again in a small ‘peloton’ of three runners, and we stuck together as the path snaked first under the cliffs and then back across the head of Cwm Idwal and round the side of the lake towards the Ogwen Valley. As the path flattened out, we started jogging at a pleasant cruising pace, before turning back towards Tryfan and the long, scrambly climb up to the saddle point. It’s rough terrain alright, but when your legs are fresh and you’ve done it before, it’s easy to get that feeling of “flow” with distance and elevation flying by much more quickly than normal, and it didn’t feel long at all before we were crossing over the stile at the top of the saddle and starting the descent towards the Heather Terrace. Again, while the first 50 metres involve a tricky scramble among boulders, once you’re on the path proper it’s a fun descent from here back down to the Ogwen Valley. While Eoin had by now pulled somewhat ahead of me, in what felt like no time at all I was also crossing the A5 and making my way into CP2.
CP2 Ogwen Valley to CP3 MCNW Hut
The next section is almost certainly my favourite one of the entire race, and the only section where Alfie and I had enjoyed decent weather in March. Luckily the weather today was identical. Eoin had already left the checkpoint by the time I had arrived, and while I only stopped to fill my drinks bottles, there was a fair amount of runner throughput in the 3 minutes I was there. Nicky Spinks arrived just as I was leaving and it was halfway up the long climb to the top of Pen yr Ole Wen that she passed me, looking for all the world like she was going for a casual afternoon stroll rather than clocking 3000m of vertical on her third big climb of the day. An incredible athlete and it is one of the joys of races like this that you get to race alongside legends like Nicky and see them performing up close.
I love the climb up, as you gradually see the Ogwen Valley slipping away, then Tryfan and the Glyders emerging as you near the summit, before suddenly you are presented with a stupendous 360-degree panorama encompassing Snowdon, Anglesey, the Carneddau the Glyders and even some of the Moelwynion. The traverse across the broad ridge of the Carneddau is possibly even better in weather like this, as you get to stretch your legs on runnable terrain and see the angle of Tryfan’s wedge-shape alter as you pass first Carnedd Dafydd and then climb up towards Carnedd Llewellyn. You’re just drinking it all in, while trying to concentrate on keeping up a good pace without continually stopping to take photos of the views.
The field was now quite spread out – Nicky was several hundred metres ahead of me, and I briefly turned round to see a handful of runners along the ridge, all spaced out at intervals of a few hundred metres. Passing the summit cairn of Carnedd Llewellyn I turned right to start the descent down towards Pen yr Helgi Ddu and within 5 minutes let out a very loud swear word and fell to the ground clutching my ankle. The path among the scree slopes was studded with irregular-shaped and -sized rocks and my left ankle had landed awkwardly on one of them turning outwards and sending both a jolt of pain up my leg, and me tumbling to the ground. I shouted out in pain again and tried to get to my feet to see whether or not it could bear my weight. Phew. I limped the next few steps, but the pain subsided and it looked as though I had managed to take my weight off the ankle as soon as it had started to turn, so any damage appeared minimal and I would at least be able to continue for the time being. But it had been a big shock, had given me a stern warning to be more careful with my foot placement on descents and I would have to keep an eye on it from now on to see if there was any swelling or residual pain.
For the moment though, I was able to resume my momentum and soon the rocky outcrops of Bwlch Eryl Farchog and Pen yr Helgi Du appeared. When doing these in March, Alfie had found the descent of the first set of outcrops particularly hard. With the rock forming downward-facing slabs, there aren’t many easy holds and he was reduced to shivering on narrow ledges waiting for me to climb down in front of him, before being hauled down by his harness to the next narrow ledge. Still, he’d not been too traumatised by the experience given that he’d run on ahead of me as soon as the ground levelled out. This time round the correct route down the slabs was reasonably well-marked with red flags and while a scramble it was quickly negotiated, followed by the steep scramble up to the top of Pen yr Helgi Du. It was hard work but fun and I had soon forgotten the near-accident with my ankle earlier on as after Helgi Du flatter grassy slopes led gradually down towards the bottom of the Ogwen Valley again and the next checkpoint at the Mountain Club of North Wales Hut.
CP3 MCNW Hut to CP4 Capel Curig
I made this just another short checkpoint break, stopping long enough to refill my bottles, take an extra slug of water, strap on my chest torch and put my head torch in the front pocket of my vest, as by the time we’d get to the next CP at Capel Curig it would be dark and I never like having to faff around on the trail trying to sort out my torches in deepening twilight. When I had done the next section at the end of March it was raining the whole time, the path around the Llyn Cowlyd reservoir was pretty much a full-blown river and the climb beyond towards Pen y Graig Gron was a complete bogfest. Although my waterproof socks had been completely unnecessary to this point, I was hoping now that they would start to come into their own.
One of the best things about this section is that there are plenty of runnable parts – after a short and gentle climb it follows a drainage ditch for a couple of kms, flat and easy running – until eventually another short gentle climb leads to the reservoir. Unlike my previous visit, there was far less boggy ground than before, and the path itself was largely free of water. There were about 4 of us by now strung out over several hundred meters, and progress round the lake was rather swift. As we traversed the dam and began the slow climb up the heather-strewn slopes, the light faded and I simultaneously switched on my chest torch and donned my head torch. The landscape here closely resembles what you find on the Spine Race and in the Cheviots – clumpy heather interspersed with boggy sections. That said, the slopes were not particularly steep and progress was quicker than I expected, at least until we got to the edge of the forest and encountered a large wasteland of felled trees and tangled undergrowth. I’d struggled with the nav when I’d done this before, but now I could see the path better and the occasional red flags and ribbons together with the bobbing rear red lights of the runners in front made it much easier to follow.
Lopped trees gave way to pine forest and a wonderful night-time descent through trees, over roots and rocks, across streams, with the strengthening glow of headtorches in front telling me that I was gradually closing on the runners in front. Having both the chest and head torch definitely made a difference on this forested section, as the double illumination meant I could run with much more confidence and speed and as I emerged from the trees into the hollow at the head of the Llyn Crafnant reservoir (a beautiful sight during the day) I passed a couple of runners who had slowed down in the dark. From now on the track was really good quality fire road and as it snaked over a small rise and then back down towards Capel Curig I was able to keep up a good running pace and was soon diving back into the short series of switchbacks through the trees that led to the first indoor checkpoint at Capel Curig with 22:15 on the clock and only 9h15m elapsed – a solid opening third to the race and I went into the checkpoint in an upbeat mood.
CP4 Capel Curig to CP5 Dolwyddelan
The old school building was a hive of activity when I came in. Eoin Keith was there, as were another half a dozen runners, all stocking up on food and drink while at the same time making adjustments to kit and layering, now that the warm temperatures from earlier on had given way to a chilly-ish night. I didn’t plan on staying long there but wanted to use it as an opportunity both to maintain good hydration levels and get some solid food inside me after the monotony of gels. I refilled my bottles, ate a couple of Naak flapjacks, washing them down with another flask of water and then decided to grab some crisps as well to give my mouth a taste of something a bit more savoury. Having just about managed to avoid giving myself hiccups I headed out again within 10 minutes, crossing over the footbridge that led to the long, steady climb up Moel Siabod.
The air was chilly, but I’d decided against adding an extra layer, confident that as I started climbing my core temperature would remain steady, and just donned a pair of gloves and lengthened my sleeves to cover both arms. As with the previous reservoir section, in March the footpath had been a stream, and anywhere that wasn’t rocks was bogs, but now it had dried out considerably and while progress on long climbs like this is never swift, it was steady. It still felt like a long slog, made to feel even longer by the fact that you couldn’t see the summit in the dark. I did look at the altimeter on my watch, but the numbers seemed to increase pitifully slowly. Eventually the stony path gave way to the broken boulders of the summit plateau and a couple of fluorescent flags indicated a sharp turn to the left and the start of the descent. This was as far as my March recce had taken me, and now I was very much in unknown territory.
On paper, the descent of Moel Siabod does not look that challenging, around 700m of descent over 5km, so around a 14% grade, with the route traversing above the cliffs that gird the south side of the peak. The reality was very different as we were met with a huge boulder field, and steep slopes of around 30%, with course markers few and far between and in many cases very hard to see as the ribbons had folded in on themselves (the dew perhaps not helping either) leaving the markers lying almost invisible in limp bundles. It was a nightmare. There were headtorch beams scattered across the slopes as people tried to find a way through the boulders, whose size made it more like scrambling than boulder hopping. Nobody wanted to slip and break an ankle or twist a knee. Just as you’d followed a couple of markers they would seem to disappear and you would be left trying to figure out the next part of the route in darkness with nothing to guide you. It took around 40 minutes to cover 2km of ground, slower than all of the uphills we had done so far. If there is one thing that I would ask the organisers to do next year, it would be to ensure that the course markings on sections like this are much more frequent and regular, as while the course overall is appropriately tough and challenging, when you have to do technical sections at night it’s almost impossible to see the optimal route down on sight and GPS tracks are not granular enough to choose the best line. It wasn’t helped by me losing my bearings (and losing track of the flags) as we went past Llyn-y-Foel, which forced me to retrace my steps back onto the route, turn on the navigation mode of my Garmin (which drained the battery much more) and which probably cost me another 10 minutes. Astonishingly, I only lost 4 places on this section, which just shows how tough everybody found it, although at the time I was becoming convinced that the course had a vendetta against me and was determined to prove what an utterly useless ultra runner I was.
Luckily, after the first half of the descent, as the terrain flattened out progress became much easier, and once we were in the forest we were back on a motorway-like fire road that swiftly took us to CP 5 at Dolwyddelan, and a chance to lick our wounds.
CP5 Dolwyddelan to CP6 Blaenau Ffestiniog
The Dolwyddelan checkpoint was quite spacious inside, with several runners already sitting down, and several arrivals also bringing their support crew in with them. I again decided not to stay too long, particularly as the next two sections were meant to be somewhat “easier” (it’s all relative) with less vertical and lower gradients, and just took a brief toilet break and grabbed some fruit after refilling my bottles. It certainly felt easier as I hiked up a good quality path and was pleasantly surprised by the speed with which the altimeter on my watch ticked back up again. And yet I still found the beam from a headtorch closing on me from behind and the small figure of Kaori Niwa rocket past – she went on to finish in 24th place as 4th woman in a superb time of under 35 hours. The slope flattened out and I looked forward to a long gentle runnable descent towards Blaenau Ffestiniog. Instead I was met with the worst bog imaginable. Covered in spaghnum moss, occasionally sinking thigh-deep, it was easily as bad as anything I’d encountered on Cape Wrath last year, or on the Winter Spine. At one point both legs sank above knee deep and I struggled for several minutes to free my feet from the suction of the mud, hoping frantically that I wouldn’t lose a shoe and be forced to end my race with a barefoot trudge to the next checkpoint.
It took a long time, but eventually the bog gave way to trail again as we entered the edges of the slate mines around Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the gravity from the downward slope gave us a boost as we were able to break into a jog. Out of the darkness, the hulk of abandoned mining equipment or buildings would occasionally loom, until eventually we passed the cold dark waters of Llyn Bowydd and the old mining roads that led through the quarries and slag heaps to the town itself. I glanced at my watch and at 3:30 in the morning it seemed scarcely believable that the last stage had taken only 2½ hours – it had felt like much longer, but I was still only an hour behind my original plan.
CP6 Blaenau Ffestiniog to CP7 Croesor
As I arrived at the checkpoint, I could see there was a small veranda on the outside where the runners were sitting, while inside the volunteers were busy attending to their needs. I was feeling a little bit scarred from the last two stages, so took some time to go to the toilet, have some more “proper food” in the form of banana, orange, cheese and peanuts and stretch out my quads and calves on the veranda. They were feeling really tight – I struggled to get myself into a squat position, and the quads were burning as I held it and waited for them to relax and loosen up. Meanwhile I recognised a few of the other runners that were there on the veranda with me. Kaori was there, with her support crew again, and I also bumped into Richard Curtis, whom I’d met during the Winter Spine earlier in the year as we descended towards Torside (as it turned out, both on our way to DNFing at the Malham Tarn aid station). I remember at the time that we had chatted about both doing the UTS 100 miler later in the year, so it was great to meet up on the course. By the time I had finished my stretches, everyone else had already set off, so I was on my own as I wandered through the deserted streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
I was hoping that as another “easier” stage, this one would be more true to form than the last one. At least the glow on the horizon meant that sunrise was not long away and with the next several stages in daylight, I was still optimistic at this point that I wouldn’t have to spend another entire night in the mountains. The path wound up through yet more slate mines and before long the light was strong enough to switch off my head torch and stow it away. I decided to take the next hour or so a little bit easier, partly because it was another clear blue sky morning and I wanted to enjoy the surrounding scenery and party because I was beginning to feel a bit more fatigued and – not knowing how much energy I would need for the remainder of the race – did not want to run the risk of emptying my tank completely before the finish. So it was a somewhat relaxed hike up the gentle slope of the mining tracks as they passed between slag heaps and wound their way round the reservoir of Llyn Stwlan below the slopes of Moelwyn Mawr.
The path narrowed and it was soon snaking along the side of a steep sideways slope, allowing a few hundred metres of jogging, before doubling back on itself as it hit the summit ridge of Moelwyn Mawr itself. I’d never climbed Moelwyn Mawr before, and it really is a beautiful mountain, set on a sharp ridge studded with rocky sections and with the reservoir far below. This was probably the closest I came during the whole race to a ‘Zen’ moment where I just felt at one with the environment. A slightly scrambly ascent ensued to the top of the summit pyramid, a moment to enjoy some stupendous panoramic views with Snowdon in the distance far to the North with the blade of Cnicht diagonally cutting across the foreground. The descent was as pleasant as the climb – no bogs this time, just grassy slopes that only occasionally veered towards quad-bashing steepness – and after a final steep descent followed by a bit of confusion over the right place to cross a river, a handful of us emerged onto the road and I was able to start running again as we pulled into the tiny village of Croesor. On the way into the checkpoint I passed Jonny Ulett, whose race had run its course at Ogwen Valley and who was now sitting outside, waiting for transportation back to Llanberis. I was finding it hard enough with full fitness, so I felt sorry for him and others who were carrying injuries or illness into the race. Apparently out of 231 starters, 90 runners had already DNF’d, an incredibly high attrition rate and we were still only at the halfway point of the race – the DNF rate would surely climb even higher over the next 24 hours.
CP7 Croesor to CP8 Gwastadannas Farm
Croesor represented for me the “point of no return” on the race. If I got this far then I would be determined to finish. It was over halfway (at least in terms of distance and elevation, if not time). We had access to our drop bags here. And the accepted wisdom was that the second half of the course was less technical and in theory “easier” than the first. I’d arrived at Croesor at 6.20 in the morning, 17h20m into the race and maybe an hour and a half later than my original plan, so I started to mentally recalculate what a reasonable finish time might be given where I now was. On the one hand, I was over halfway and had a full day of sunlight ahead of me. On the other hand, I was definitely feeling fatigued, had several hotspots developing on my toes and the balls of my feet and my pace had noticeably dropped over the past two stages, power hiking flat or gentle uphill sections that previously I might have run and taking far longer over downhill sections than before, particularly ones with rocky or uneven ground. So I doubled the elapsed time and added an extra 3 hours onto it to account for additional deterioration – 38 hours was my new target, which would give me a 3am finish, enough to still avoid spending an entire second night out in the mountains.
As I unpacked my drop bag, I also decided to take a slightly longer break here at Croesor – to change my socks, replenish all my food, powder and gel supplies, and take on fresh batteries for my head and chest torches so that I wouldn’t have any worries if I ended up having to spend another full night outdoors. As I peeled my socks off, the sorry state of my feet became apparent. They were quite macerated, with a blister on the ball of the right foot and all of the K-tape coming loose from my toes. I left them to dry out while gorging on chocolate and gels and waiting for the incredibly helpful volunteers to refill my water bottles. I did think about getting some hot food, but given I had avoided any indigestion or stitch so far, stuck with my dentists’ nightmare dietary approach.
Without intending to, I ended up spending an hour in the checkpoint – changing contact lenses and reapplying my anti-chafing remedies added to the time, and the cramped quarters with many runners coming and going meant that there was a lot of faff in unpacking / repacking kit and making sure that nothing had gone missing. I left the CP at around 7.15am, feeling much better for the rest and with dry socks and fresh K-tape cheering my spirits. This was another one of those stages that looked straightforward on paper, but proved anything but. It started off with an ascent of Cnicht, perhaps the most aesthetic of all the Snowdonia mountains with its Matterhorn-like profile, and while its lower slopes were quickly negotiated, the last hundred or so metres to the summit were steep and scrambly, although much better course marking here than the previous night on Moel Siabod made the job considerably easier. Again, I was rewarded with some fantastic views from the top, Yr Wyddfa now looking much closer with the Nantlle Ridge further to the west.
The northern descent of Cnicht is much easier but before long the path disappears into a flat wasteland of clumpy, heathery bog, interspersed with occasional mounds and wire fencing. This time the bogs are wide, extensive and deep, some of them requiring 50-100 metre diversions to locate a crossable section. The course markers here were more of a hindrance than a help, as frequently they were placed next to impassable sections of bog and you were much better off relying purely on the GPS tracks and then finding your own route to traverse the boggier sections. The temperature was rising too and the intense sunshine and difficult terrain made it hard work even though the ground was flat. This section seemed to go on for ever – looking at my splits it took me around 2 hours to cover 9km, for a flat section. Still, I didn’t notice anyone passing me so I guess everyone near me in the placings must have found it similarly hard.
The bulky shape of Moel Siabod gradually came closer, and eventually the ground started to slope downwards, the bogs giving way to firmer grassy moor and eventually farmland with a discernible trail to follow. As I crossed the A498 and followed a smaller road around towards Gwastadannas Farm and the next CP, I was suddenly met by a wall of runners coming from the opposite direction – literally hundreds of runners from the 55k race were descending en masse to what was their second checkpoint. It was absolute carnage. By complete coincidence I bumped into Jenny Yeo, with whom I’d run the Northern Traverse last year and who was doing the 55k race, so we jogged into the checkpoint together, briefly chatting and wishing each other well.
CP8 Gwastadannas Farm to CP9 Beddgelert
The checkpoint was chaotic. I had no idea that there was a section reserved inside the marquee for 100 mile and 100k runners and there were no marshals available to provide any guidance or triage of the runners – all the volunteers were overwhelmed manning the water stations and just trying to process as many runners as possible. I found a space outside, took off my pack and gradually wandered round to compete with the 55k runners in the queue for refilling my bottles.
The next section was almosty entirely flat, with the path following the bottom of the Nantgwynant valley past a couple of lakes before heading over the old copper mines towards Nantmor and the riverside path that leads to Beddgelert. It’s all very pretty and with no major climbs I was hoping to make rapid progress. But the combination of hundreds of 55k runners bustling past and my general physical and mental fatigue made it hard to summon up the willpower to sustain running pace and I soon found myself falling in with a couple of other 100 mile runners, Jack Waterhouse and Jonas Krepelka (who had been napping when I arrived at Croesor). The sun was by now getting quite warm and we seemed to have mutually agreed to take this stage easy – I got the sense that none of us particularly wanted to break into a run at this point. Eventually the 55k runners peeled off to the right and the Watkin Path that would take them back up Snowdon while we continued a little further until our turn off to the copper mines and the only small climb of the stage.
It didn’t take long and I’d pulled ahead of Jonas and Jack as we neared the crest of the hill and dropped down towards Nantmor, joining the rocky and slightly technical path that wound beside the river of Afon Glaslyn towards Beddgelert. Now I was on my own I would have loved to increase my pace, but the rocky and uneven path made that hard and it was slow going, even if it was exquisitely pretty scenery that I was passing, with lots of young families enjoying themselves by the water. Eventually Beddgelert came into view and I paused briefly to consider getting myself an ice cream there before heading into the checkpoint, noting that it had taken me three hours to cover less than 15km since Gwastadannas – ridiculously slow for a flat section. Even my revised 38 hour target was looking less and less likely, particularly as the next two sections had over 2,000m of ascent with the toughest remaining climbs of the race – the ascents of Moel Hebog, the Nantlle Ridge and the final ascent of Yr Wyddfa on the Rhyd-Ddu path.
CP9 Beddgelert to CP10 Rhyd-Ddu
The slow progress on the last section had lost me several places, and while I knew the next section would be tough, I hoped that I had preserved enough strength to push harder again and make up some more ground. I’d not gone more than a couple of hundred metres out of the checkpoint when I had already made up one place. A runner who had left earlier had turned back on the first climb and was heading back to Beddgelert to retire. “Just no more legs left.” We wished each other well and I carried on up the steadily steeping slopes of Moel Hebog. Before long I saw another runner a short way in front of me, climbing painfully slowly with frequent stops. As I went past him he was sat slumped with his head in his hands. I could completely understand that feeling. It really was a merciless climb, and a relief when the steep grassy slope gave way to slightly harder ground with more frequent rocky outcrops.
If the ascent of Moel Hebog was hard work, the descent was maybe even harder, as by this time my quads were aching, and I was feeling a tightness in my right hip as well as right IT band and knee. Slopes that I would have been cantering down 24 or even 12 hours earlier were taking twice as long as was forced to walk down them. The heat was not making things any easier either, even if I was still staying well on top of my hydration, as sweat from my forehead had dried into a salty crust on and around my eyelids making my eyes itch and sting. After traversing a couple of minor subsidiary peaks, the path bottomed out before starting to climb again up a ridge towards Trum y Ddysgl and the main Nantlle Ridge. Given the heat, the race organisers had stationed a volunteer with some extra water at the bottom of the climb, a sensible response to conditions that – while not too hot in any objective sense – were probably warmer than most people were expecting in North Wales in mid-May. I took the opportunity to replenish my water bottles and continued up the ridge, another soul-destroyingly slow slog that took 50 minutes for 2km and 350m of vertical. Once on the Nantlle Ridge, it was hard to get up too much speed as before long the path was blocked by yet more boulder fields, with the boulders again too large to easily negotiate and as with the Moel Siabod descent, the course markings not particularly helping matters by appearing to zig-zag across the boulders with no real correspondence to the easiest line to take.
Eventually I managed to find my way through and after turning right towards Rhyd-Ddu had one final precipitously steep descent to make before the path flattened out on the valley floor, circled round the lake of Llyn y Gader and led to the checkpoint. It had taken me 5½ hours to go 14.2km – less than 3km/h pace.
CP10 Rhyd-Ddu to CP11 Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf Farm
The Rhyd-Ddu checkpoint could not have come soon enough. I was feeling pretty drained, both physically and psychologically, and needed a reset to get myself ready for the final 3 stages. I took a bit of extra time to take my contact lenses out, wash and rinse my forehead and eyes, and switch to glasses for the rest of the race. The next 3 stages would be mostly in darkness, and with the weather still clear and the temperature dropping, I probably would not need to worry too much about either sweat or condensation on my lenses from now on. I ate some more savoury snacks – yet more cheese and crisps – and put my chest and head torches back on again, as I would most likely need them for the descent of Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon. Having recced the next stage in March, I knew that it was largely a long slog but not too steep and on reasonable terrain, and with the winds very light the south ridge should not pose any problems either. I stepped out after about 10 minutes, determined to stop the rot and even if 38 hours was increasingly unlikely as an objective, maybe a sub-40 hour finish was still a possibility.
The Rhyd-Ddu path starts out quite flat, and seems to take forever before you start to gain altitude, but the plus side of that is that it does allow you to develop some kind of power hiking rhythm. I felt much better for the cooler temperatures and the relative solitude meant that I could just focus on keeping up a steady pace as the path wound towards the western slopes. I could see the outline of the Summit Station building and the summit cairn silhouetted on the skyline as I started the first set of zig-zags and after about an hour the altimeter hit 700m and the path started its long loop around the south-west ridge. Climbing conditions were nigh-on perfect with no wind at all, and after more switchbacks the path turned north along the narrower section of the south ridge, and I was overtaken by a group of 100k runners who had ascended via the Watkin Path. We cheered each other on as they pressed ahead with much fresher legs than mine, and I switched on my headtorch as the light continued to fade as I approached the final slopes to the summit.
There were quite a few people, from both 100 mile and 100km races, taking a breather by the summit station, although I didn’t see any of them following me in taking a quick detour to touch the summit trig point (understandably so, as it was an unnecessary waste of energy, but having come so far I thought I may as well touch the actual summit). Having done so I started back on the descent via the Snowdon Ranger’s path, joining a burgeoning number of headtorches that were slowly snaking their way down the mountainside. My legs were too tired and feet too painful to run at full speed, but I managed something slightly faster than just a hike. I was also starting to get some asthma (probably delayed impact from the ascent) so made a mental note to use my inhaler at the next checkpoint. I found out afterwards that I’d gained 11 places across the whole stage, but I suspect that this was almost entirely due to the speed of my ascent, as I was finding going downhill still be hard work, although it was clear that all the other 100 milers were finding it equally hard – it was only 100km runners who were passing me now, while I was picking up quite a few 100 milers on the descent.
As the route turned off the Ranger’s path and headed towards the next checkpoint, the ground became softer, grassier and easier to jog on. At the same time, the temperature was starting to drop with the clear skies causing an inversion and as I pulled into the lights and marquee of CP11 Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf Farm I also had to consider whether now would be the right time to put on an extra layer.
CP11 Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf Farm to CP12 Betws Garmon
After sitting down inside the tent, I pulled out my inhaler and took a couple of puffs to clear my lungs of the mucus that had built up over the last hour or so, and refilled my bottles once again, although the colder temperatures meant that I was no longer drinking as much. As I headed out again, the increased chill in the air meant that the inversion was getting stronger, and almost immediately I stopped to roll down my sleeves and put on my waterproof jacket. Sure I would generate some more heat as I started the climb up Mynnedd Mawr, but with my pace a lot slower than earlier in the race there was no risk of overheating during the night. The path wound upwards through the Beddgelert Forest, the ground quite muddy underfoot until it emerged from the woods and steepened, the ground becoming stonier and harder as I gained height.
Despite the accumulated fatigue, this was one of the easier climbs of the race, perhaps because the darkness and the not-too-steep gradient meant that you could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping the rhythm going. You can always tell when you’re approaching the end of a climb at night because the convex shape of all summits means that the headtorch beams of the climbers above you are obscured by the brow of the hill. Sure enough, one by one the headtorch beams above me winked out, and shortly afterwards the ground began to flatten and the path first angled left then slowly curved to the right along a broad ridge that led to the summit, where a couple of hardy volunteers were keeping watch – a tough assignment for them but welcome sight for us runners.
For a change the descent was not one of quad-busting steepness, nor were there any random boulder fields for us to negotiate, but equally it was not one of those gentle slopes that was easily runnable with fatigued legs. So I managed a power hike with occasional jogging, enough to get me to the final descent to the valley floor and the final checkpoint of Betws Garmon in 2½ hours, yet another section where I had taken longer than expected, but at least now the end was in sight and the next checkpoint would be the finish line.
CP12 Betws Garmon to Finish Llanberis
Checkpoint 12 was in a caravan site, and there were a few hardy souls from the neighbouring caravans sitting outside as I and a few other runners jogged through, trying to find the location of the checkpoint tent. After sitting down inside, I was joined by Duncan Hay, whom I’d seen a couple of times already at earlier checkpoints, and we chatted briefly about our experiences of the race so far and how we were currently feeling. A very kind volunteer at the checkpoint brought me a coffee and jam sandwich, which tasted like a Michelin-starred meal after the monotony of 36 hours of largely gels and powders.
We set off together along with a number of other 100k runners, and it felt as though we had kind of implicitly agreed to do the stage together as long as we kept a similar pace to each other. The beginning of the section involves a gentle climb through broken woodland and a sight of the famous red armchair which somehow I contrived to miss. The ground underfoot alternated between decent forest trails and deep, sloppy mudpits, mostly surrounded by thickets of branches. It certainly wasn’t fast going, but Duncan and I seemed to manage it better than most people and soon we had pulled ahead of the 100k runners and were on our own. After a sharp turn to the right we saw more headtorch beams above us and we started the long climb up to Moel Eilio, one of those climbs that always feels like it takes a lot longer than it should because of the large number of false summits.
As soon as we arrived at the summit and the flatter ground, we could see the silhouette of Yr Wyddfa ahead of us, and to the left, light grey against the darkness of the hills, the sunken clouds of the temperature inversion in the surrounding valleys. As the path bent left, the clouds began to lift somewhat and it wasn’t long before we were enveloped in fog, blowing across us from the right. Not only could we not now see any of the course markers, but the fog was also condensing on my glasses making it hard to see even the ground in front of me, and I had to constantly wipe the condensation away with my hand. With zero visibility, we were now entirely reliant on following the GPS tracks on my Garmin (Duncan’s having run out of battery life), which slowed us down considerably as we frequently had to re-align our direction of travel as the map on my watch repositioned itself.
Nevertheless, the ground eventually began to slope downwards and as the morning light spread across the sky in anticipation of sunrise, we could make out the path below us leading towards Llanberis. As we hit the path, spirits almost immediately lifted. We switched off our headtorches and started talking about the races we had done, the races we wanted to do, our families, our jobs and everything else as we cantered the last few kms. After a sharp turn to join the Llanberis Path, and a reminder of the route we had followed almost two days earlier, we were back in the town, and broke into a run for the last mile in order to squeeze home in under 41 hours, finally crossing the line together in 40hrs 55mins in joint 49th place.
It’s hard to describe how extraordinarily difficult I found this race. It was easily the most challenging 100 mile race I have ever done – and harder than many 200 mile+ races I have done, such as Northern Traverse, the Summer Spine and Cape Wrath. What makes it so hard I think is the sheer relentless technicality and difficulty of the terrain. While with most 100 mile+ ultras you have plenty of sections of easy cruising where you can mentally switch off, there is virtually none of that on the UTS course – perhaps only the section from Gwastadannas to Beddgelert, and maybe the few kms approaching Capel Curig. Everything else involves either steep climbs, steep descents, technical terrain or bogs (and frequently all of them together or in swift succession). There is just no relief. And that is why the impact on your body is so much more than the bare distance and elevation statistics would suggest – you’re constantly being asked to solve problems that also require you to concentrate as well, so the race is mentally taxing as much as it is physically demanding.
A lot has been said about whether the course is too tough. I don’t think it is, although I’m not sure it’s a race that I’d want to repeat every year, as I’m not sure I would be able to recover quickly enough to do all the other races I would like to do. I think the difficulty is definitely “up there”, but as the UK’s only race on the UTMB World Series it is great I think for the UK to be represented by a race that is arguably harder than almost any other race in the UTMB stable. It’s certainly an order of magnitude harder than Istria 100, and while I’ve not done UTMB Mont Blanc, in talking to those at the finish who have done both, the general consensus (borne out by the finish times) is that UTS is significantly more challenging.
It is a race where the specificity of your training makes a huge difference – while the overall DNF rate was 60%, it didn’t appear to be overly skewed towards runners with a lower UTMB index, and I know a number of runners with very fast times on flatter courses ended up with much slower times than other runners who would do relatively worse on a flatter course. While older runners as a rule had higher DNF rates, there was far less variation by age than I was expecting (reassuring for me as a 50-something). I was certainly relieved at having done so much hill, incline and plyometric work in my last 3 months of training, as I found that this gave me a lot more power / speed on the hills in the first half of the race, and more resilience to get to the finish line in the second half.
It’s also a race where familiarity with the course pays enormous dividends, and this is perhaps one thing that would tempt me to the do the race again. Aside from the obvious benefits in terms of faster navigation, less reliance on course markers / GPS and better picking of the best line through technical or boggy sections, one factor that slowed me down, particularly during the second half, was uncertainty in decision making and pacing, which in turn was a result of not having recced that part of the course, and not knowing how much energy I would need to get to the end with confidence. I think in retrospect that I could have pushed harder on several sections but was holding back because I just wasn’t sure that I would have enough reserves to get to the finish line. If I was to do the race again, I would certainly want to come up for a couple of trips to recce out in detail the sections where I’d struggled.
Lastly, I think it’s worth mentioning the Race Director, the race organisation team and the volunteers who delivered the race on the day. They have done a truly superb job in developing over the last few years what I think is going to become an iconic race in the Ultra race calendar and a challenge that many of the world’s leading mountain and trail runners are going to want to take on. There were some organisational glitches, but when one looks at the expansion in participation numbers, the degree of achievement felt by those who got to the finish line, the quality and depth of the fields, and the overall “buzz” that the race has generated, it is difficult to argue that it has been anything other than an extraordinary success, especially given the challenging backdrop of the last three years. The volunteers in particular were incredible – nothing was too much trouble for them at the checkpoints, no matter how exhausted they must have felt after putting in some very long shifts. My gratitude and appreciation goes to you all.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Montane Trailblazer 3L waist belt
Shoes: Inov8 Roclite Ultra G320
Waterproofs: Inov8 Ultrashell (Top), Inov8 Ultrashell (Bottom)
Socks: Waterproof: DexShell Kneelength Compression Socks, DryMax liner socks
Gaiters: Montane VIA gaiters
Shorts: 2XU compression shorts, 2XU ¾ length compression tights (back-up)
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Protium Lite (back-up)
Underwear: JustWears boxer shorts
Gloves: Montane VIA Trail Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, 2 buffs, plus 2 spare
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945
Headtorch: LEDLenser Neo 10 headtorch, LEDLenser Neo 10 chest torch
Poles: Black Diamond Carbon Z