PREVIEW: Snowdon International Race

Here we go again, three years in a row the ferry from Dublin has taken me to Hollyhead before a busload of hill runners has been my transport on to Llanberis in the heart of Eryri: Snowdonia, home of the Welsh Three Thousand Foot Challenge, starting place of the Dragon's Back ultra-run and part of the Paddy Buckley Round.

That's not what brings me there, though, it's the annual Snowdon International Race where around 450 runners contest the highest peak on the Irish and British Islands outside Scotland and its mighty Munros. 1085m she stand: Yrr Wyddfa - Snowdon and by the Gods, she is a beauty of a beast.

She is flanked by two of the other 4 peaks of the Snowdon Group: Carnedd Ugain (1065m) and Crib Goch (924m) and her legend chiselled on the pages of Ronald Turnbul''s comprehensive book "The Welsh Three Thousand Foot Challenges - A Guide for Walkers and Hill Runners" which any fan of the area should read.

Snowdon - "The Tomb"
How many hill runners know that the proper Welsh name for Snowdon "Yr Wyddfa" means "The Tomb"? I'm sure many suspected it for the drama on the hilly slopes never disappoints, the many people who staggered to the ground struck with heat stroke last year (such as Northern Ireland's Alwynne Shannon) may have suspected such a grim name hung to the name. Others like debutante Richie Healy, running for Ireland, must have thought the same as he slowed to a walk and the local Welshmen cheered him on with cries of "Go Jesus".

Yet the name may come from the nature of the peak, guarded as it is by precipitous cliffs and spectacular views from the jagged edge of the summit from where the waters of Llyn Llydaw glint back at you on a rare clear day. For even on sunny days, the summit tends to mysteriously disappear in the mist as so many Welsh peaks do.

On the way up you pass the "Pass of Arrows" where according to legend King Arthus slew his nemesis sir Mordred with Excalibur. At this peak starts the grandest race in Wales: The 3000 Foot Challenge which starts on the summit of Snowdon before taking in 15 other peaks.

In 1973 a disappointed Wasdale shepherd Joss Naylor, on his 4th visit to Wales, set a record that, despite Joss' navigational problems on the day would stand for 15 years: 4:46. Colin Donnelly, the Scotsman, was the man to take the record with his stunning run of 4:19.

But for us mere mortals, the work doesn't start at the top, it starts in Llanberis city centre as we have to make our way up the next to the railway constructed on the mountain in 1896 to support the copper mining there.

Snowdon International Race
This year sees the 34th incarnation of "Ras Yr Wyddfa", the popular race which sees international teams from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy, France, and others contest each other while the rest of the field compete against each other or just the mountain.

It's a race that harbous great victories for Irish runners. Robbie Bryson still holds the all-time summit record with his time of 39:47 and John Lenihan was the proud winner of Robbie's time should be put in proper perspective: It was set in the same year as the overall record was erected by the indomitable Kenny Stuart (01:02:29) and both records have stood untouched for 24 years and will perhaps never be broken.

1989 was the zenith of Irish influence on the race when John Lenihan won the race with Robbie Bryson 4th and current Snowdon manager John O'Connor 6th. Astoundingly, England still pipped Ireland for the team competition.

In later year's there's been a resurgence, however, and many remember with joy how Eoin McKenna, the then Irish Champion, finished 9th after a stunning descent. Last year newcomer and debutante Brian Furey surprised everyone to finish 37th in his first attempt. Only former Ben Nevis winner John Brooks finished ahead of him from the "Irish" contingent (John Brooks has finished 6th in the race previously).

This year, duathlete Keith Heary, Crusader Richie Healy and Sli Cualann's Vincent O'Sullivan make up the Irish team while Caroline Reid, in perhaps her best season, northerner Cathy McCourt and Angela Speight.

The Strategy
My first and only time racing Snowdon led me to a credible time o f 1:39:19 basically my half-marathon time and I believe your half-marathon time would be a pretty accurate reflection of your estimated Snowdon time.

While some of my tests confirm I may capable of running 1:24 for the half at the moment, I am taking a more cautious approach as I know I am weaker in the hills than on the flat. Aoife stole some of my thunder by running 1:39:08 last year, so I am looking to take those 11 seconds back, and more, to restore order in the household.

The goal therefore is to break 1:30 while I would consider 1:28 a good stretch target. And I've got a plan too.

In 2007 I measured the race (officially 10 miles) as 15.35k with 993m of ascent. The 6th kilometre is by far the hardest and in 2007 it took me 12:36 to cover it. Compare this to the second slowest, the 7th, which took me 9:07. My fastest "uphill" was the first (5:47) but a good bit of that is run on flat road out of Llanberis.

This year to break 1:30 I must keep a pace of 7:33min/km to the top on average while my average downhill speed must be 4:07min/km (between 10k and half-marathon pace). On paper this looks very achievable because Snowdon's average ascent grade of 13.4% is not daunting compared to for instance Lugnacoille.

What can make or break my race, though, is the distance and the true state of my speed-endurance. I showed in the Wicklow Way Relay that I'm capable of running hard for 1:33 over rough terrain, but this was on a route with much less climb (albeit also 6k longer). Endurance is therefore likely to be there, but the tenacity of the climb is another unknown factor. Leg 7 starts with 4km of gentle climbing (which I did in 20 minutes). I'll have to tackle a steeper climb of twice the length but I do have almost thrice the time to do it. If I can run to the summit in around 59 minutes, I have 31 minutes to make it down. This only requires I better my stomach-cramp crippled descent of 2007 by 4 minutes or 30 seconds per kilometre.

If my projections are relatively correct, I'll need to be half-way up by 26 minutes, at the top under the hour and at no stage on the descent will I need to run faster than 3:43 (I only need one kilometre that fast, which is my 10k pace). I can help myself by avoiding the disastrous kilometre 10 last year when cramps and a steep decline slowed me down to 5:10. So the moment my watch beeps for kilometre 9 on Saturday, I am going to tell myself to keep pushing it past this difficult kilometre.

I still remember the exhilirating feeling as the crowd in Llanberis roared you on so now all that is left is to make them roar again. The Danish singlet and shorts are dusted off and ready to show their colours on Snowdon once again! See you all Monday!


Anonymous said…

Cool Blog

`the super-fast tiny step technique of the Tarahumara Indians´
Could you write more on this, sounds interesting

Renny said…
Hi Anonymous, the technique is described in more detail in "Born to Run" a book I heartily recommend as an easy enjoyable, but enlightening read.

The principle is simple: You run with a cadence of around 180 strides per minute (many runners may be below half that).

You lower leg operates as as spring ricocheting kinetic energy back from the ground for every stride you take. This energy "comes free" and uses none of your fuel.

Its known that most elite runners have a quicker footstride (and followingly less ground contact time). Evolution Running, ChiRunning and other running technique teachings focus on increasing leg turn-over and minimise ground contact time for various purposes.

however, the main thing is that the more often you hit the ground within a minute the more energy is released "for free" back into your power output. Theoretically this implies that a shorter stride should be more energy-efficient.

The Raramuri use the 180 cadence and I've tried practicing this whenever I feel fresh. Although it should be more energy-efficient, it still feels more tiresome after a while as my body isn't used to it. Give it a try.

Sprint training is a great way to supplement your ability to move your legs quickly and would ease your brains learning process if you change your gait likes this.

Incidentally, a quicker turn-over reduces the risk of overstriding and thus the injury risk too.