563 runners registered for the 34th Snowdon International Race, the “10 miler” (its real length is a bit less), to the top of Snowdon at 1085m. Among them were 8 international teams: England, Wales A and B, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Slovenia and Northern Ireland. I always take this time to wear the Danish kit as well, for as I said to Keith before the race: “If they (the Danish Athletics Association) can’t be bothered to send someone better, they’ll have to live with me”.
We’d all been picked up by a bus send by the race organisers before being dropped off in Llanberis (pronounced “Clanberis”) the small town that sits in the midst of the three mountain groups of Snowdonia: The Glyders, The Carneddau and the Snowdon Group. Together these groups sport no less than 15 Munros (peaks over 3000-foot) and man can only wonder if their lonely cousin Lugnacoille gazes jealously over the water. If this sounds good you can read more about how to run them all here: http://www.welsh3000s.com/. The record for this traverse is held by a former winner of the Snowdon race: Colin Donnelly of Eryri Harriers, the local club.
When we woke up to a slightly overcast day, it was a different winner that we all had to measure up to: English International Andi Jones, looking to take his fourth victory in a row (a new record). The Welsh name for Snowdon “Yr Wyddfa” literally means “The Tomb” and the rocky mountain has proven the graveyard for many hopes of wresting the title from the formidable Englishman who recently ran 2:15:25 for the marathon and is one of the best athletes in International Mountain Running.
The Irish team had arrived with more moderate goals than taking on Andi. Richie Healy of Crusaders was hopeful of improving on his time from last year when the heatwave of 2008 punished all runners in the race and caused several cases of heatstroke. Vincent O’Sullivan had been keeping “hill-fit” on his treadmill as there were no mountains around Coventry and for Irish duathlon International Keith Heary 1:20 sounded like a nice round objective to aim for. The ladies team had Cathy McCourt, the former 35-minute 10k runner from North Belfast, back from a long running break, Angela Speight, the immensely promising Omagh Harriers runner, and Leinster League winner Caroline Reid, ably supported by her family (Caroline's dad Eddie is one of only 8 people to have run all Dublin Marathons).
Joining the official team was myself, hoping to break 90 minutes after having sat out the 2008 race with injury, Cormac O’Ceallaigh, possibly the races greatest Irish fan, Niamh, the only “non-international” Irish female in the field on the day, and Tommy Galvin who had to listen to more slagging on whether he’d hit the ground running coming off the summit. During registration in the Electric Mountain centre in Llanberis city centre John Lynch from Munster also joined us to build on his 12th and 8th placings on Carrauntoohil and Galtymore. Northern Ireland also send a strong team consisting of Andrew Niblock, Johnny Steede, Gary Bailey, and Alex Brennan, so here was an opportunity for another IMRA v. NIMRA showdown.
It would prove a forgetful weekend if not a weekend to forget, when I almost forgot my race pack, my number, my food voucher, as well as innumerable smaller items before finally managing to forget my chip. I jogged the 2k from the Lakeview Hotel outside town and through the carnival atmosphere surrounding the start on the grassy field next to Electric Mountain. The mass of runners heard the call from the organiser’s and we started amassing in the wide orange chute. I waved at Keith a few rows in front of me and saw Cormac a bit behind but didn’t see any of the others at this stage. Finally, I spotted team coach John O'Connor, 6th in the race in 1989, and gave him the "thumbs up", a greeting he returned. Thanks John for all the organising.
The countdown from ten commenced in Welsh and then the gun went and the race took off. “Half-marathon pace”, “half-marathon pace”, I repeated to myself. Snowdon is a rare long climb by Irish standards with its almost 8 kilometre length and 1000m vertical ascent. As you exit the grassy field onto the main road in Llanberis it’s tempting to be sucked away by the pace. Anyone who’s done the race knows that the moment you cross the wooden board that has been placed over a cattle grid at the edge of town you face one of the steepest sections of the route up an old tarmac path.
The Tarmac Wall – Snowdon’s Nasty Surprise #1
Andi Jones employs a devastating strategy: As the flat road nears its end, he speeds up and keeps up his momentum on this tough climb. The last few years he has generally broken away decisively. Today his nearest contender would prove to be ageless Ian Holmes. Ian has won Snowdon on three accounts and an amazing 11 years passed between his 2nd and 3rd win in 1993 and 2004 respectively.
I passed out one of the female Welsh internationals: like many her breathing sounded intense at this early stage, and I admired their ability to suffer that much this early with an eye on what’s to come. Richie passed me out on this stage: “Hey Rich, how are you?” “Not bad,” and he ran on strongly having been caught out a bit at the start too far down the pack. "I realised they were only jogging in front of me, you know."
We left the tarmac now onto the rougher rock path to the summit, and after a few hundred metres the route levelled out a bit giving us all a welcome rest. Richie carved out a gap of a few hundred metres on me here. Coming through a gate there’s a slight decline and then a very gentle climb. I resisted temptation to go hard and just kept steady: The main “Wall” of Snowdon was lying ahead, the tarmac being the mere appetizer to the true rocky staircase of the route.
Towards the Stony Staircase
Vincent was climbing phenomenally at this stage and would go on to finish first of both the Irish and the Northern Irish to the top in 49:40 chased by Andy Niblock about half a minute behind him. He lost a bit of ground going down as the Northern Irish team flew down like a pack of wolves: As they always seem to do.
For me the midway point restaurant came in sight and I gulped down water from the station here while splashing most over my face as the heat was increasing. We rounded a corner and came to the controversial patch of grassy trail (a shortcut) that intersects the main trail. The organisers had said anyone using it would be disqualified but as half seemed to take the route (and eventual winner Andi Jones used it as well) confusion abounded. I’d passed out an Eryri Harriers runner who got ground back on me as I faithfully trotted along the path. The majority took the shortcut and on the way down I decided to also ignore the website instructions and fly over the grass rather than the rocks. I had estimated that you needed to cross the 4k mark in 25 minutes to make it to the top in under an hour, so I looked at my watch and read “25:01”: Now how’s that for timing!
And there was Eryri Harriers everywhere. “Eryri” is the local term for “Snowdonia” and their green and red singlet stands out. Every time I passed one, another was on my neck and it felt like “Eryri Harriers vs. Rene Borg” for long times and it was tempting to exclaim against better judgement: “Would you guys leave me alone already!”
We were now travelling up the first of two interlocked “staircases” making up the dreaded 6th kilometre taking you under the railway bridge. For me and most others it was time to walk and another Eryri Runner finally gave into the hands-on-knees technique as I passed him out this way. As the pull gave way, more cameras and the viaduct came into view. I had taped a gel around my left arm and now was the time to tear it off, gulp it down, grab a water bottle, have a sip, and continue the hard upward slog onto the end of the “Wall”. Every now and again I had to walk erect to relieve pressure on tightening muscles. Last year it had taken me 12:33 to cover this kilometre, this year it still took me over 11, but it didn’t matter, I was on target. However, this looks like a main place to win time for the future.
I’d lost sight of Richie for a bit now and mist descended upon us, there were still a few kilometres to go and now the battle really heated up. Runners, including myself, were attacking left-right and centre. Maybe spurred on by seeing Andi Jones majestically hammers down the hill-side seemingly holding an unassailable lead, or maybe because the gradient kept changing. Every time a runner attacked he’d grind to a halt only a bit further up and some would jolt in surprise as you came back at them. But finally flatter stretches became more and more frequent as the mist grew thicker.
Crossing the Summit
No one could sustain an even pace and some were devastated by the first false summit. The real sign of the top is the endless masses of people up in the eerie mist and the railway track coming in sight just to your right. Then the final nail in the coffin: A human built staircase of big rock slaps to the trig point marking the top. I was going well here but as my legs hit flat and had to come down the steps again it was like they didn’t belong to me. 10 steps, 20 steps, still wobbly and out of control! Yet, I had looked at the clock: 58:45, I'd broken the hour as planned, but now only had about half an hour to get home.
Then suddenly, things starting gliding and now the main threat was the ascending runners and the many hikers and spectators that appeared out of nowhere in the thick mist as you descended rapidly. Keith Heary felt a twinge of guilt here as a confused hiker tried to jump out of the way only to seemingly hurt himself in the attempt. Maybe there was divine retribution for Keith suffered three falls on the way down breaking a finger and twisting his ankle in the process. Once he had to be helped to his feet by by-standers and as he said at the afters: “My right side is a catalogue of mountain running injuries”. Angela Speight was going well too before she had a close encounter of the first kind with Welsh rock and cut her elbow to the bone. Cormac continued his annual tradition of ridding himself of all skin on his one heel coming down the steep tarmac to Llanberis.
I was making great progress passing out runners and feeling in touch with the rhythm of the mountain. Snowdon runs fabulously when you’re in the zone as the hard ground doesn’t budge and quick feet can get you out of most problems as you can see what’s coming for miles once off the top. After many frustrating descents this season it was a wonderful feeling to be in the company of many hardened British fell-runners and, at least in parts, being able to set a pace that few around me could follow.
A reminder of the dangers was served to me as I saw a runner lying, his head bleeding and in a foetus position on the track. I skipped past quietly as he was receiving treatment. Someone was seen later with being brought into the train and taken down. Rumour also later had it that someone died of a heart attack on the hill but this hasn’t been confirmed.
Richie was having a great time coming down (his descent was the 38th best on the day) and knocked 13 minutes off his time from last year. I’d hit the flat bit towards the final descent and noticed the insidiousness of this piece of route: Coming up you curse it for not being entirely flat. Coming down you curse it for being too flat to support your momentum.
Kicking into Llanberis
Now my steam-tank had gone somewhat off the boil. I’d been running solid sub-4 minute kilometres since the top and with 3.5k to go my legs stopped “cruising” as the long downhill took its toll. My loss of momentum cost me a few places as two runners, going well, passed me by but this was made up as I caught a batch of of 3-4 runners coming onto the tarmac. A lot of people slammed the brakes against the skin-ripping descent grade that is known to fry your feet as you make your way down. My technique work must have paid off for I didn’t need to brake much and instead skipped down the steep slope on my forefoot never touching down with my heel and zig-zagging to reduce the steepness of the gradient when needed. The speed injection put me within touching distance of the next female Welsh international having a battle of her own with a guy in white singlet.
Just as I hoped to put in the final sprint, we hit the flat and the road started sloping up towards “The Vic” (as the Royal Victoria Hotel is known to competitors) and my legs turned to jelly. The long dormant muscles that hadn’t been needed on the downhill refused to cut back in to action. I practically closed my eyes at this stage in pain and the crowd’s cheer did nothing to stir me this time. A runner came down a tremendous speed and took out both me and the two in front of me. Somehow, coming around the corner, I had closed the gap on the Welsh girl and her challenger. Turning onto the final 50m on grass to the finish I did my best to keep pace, there was no finishing sprint, and I floated in a few seconds after the Welsh girl as she outsprinted the big bloke in white! Astonishingly, I had still covered the last kilometre faster than any other: 3:28.
Richie would have done more damage here, coming onto the final bend he had activated the infamous “Healy-sprint” showcased once at the Dublin Novices and before that at the European Trial when he took myself and Jason Kehoe out on the final stretch. Unfortunately, as he’d tell me later: “There was no one there to take it.” That didn’t matter much in the end as his impressive time of 1:22:20 redeemed the death he'd almost died on the descent of 2008.
Keith Heary had arrived before him both of them clawing a bit back on Vincent’s huge lead at the top (Vincent was first Irish to the top and the only one to break 50 minutes) but descended in about 31 minutes with Keith in 29:33 and Richie in 28:31. It wasn’t enough the change positions despite Keith having to deal with the after effects of his fall. Angela Speight made a good first impression at Snowdon arriving at the top just 40 seconds short of the hour and coming down in 33 minutes to finish 12th woman overall despite also falling badly on her elbow. Cathy arrived around 1:01:40 and then Caroline 6 minutes later. Niamh would be another 8 minutes coming over the top but showcased her fine descending by coming down quicker than both Cathy and Caroline although their gap was too big to close.
Cormac had climbed the final stairs only 36 seconds after Cathy and managed to overtake her on the descent to register a good 1:35:40 bettering his 2008 time by about 10 minutes but staying some seconds short of his 2006 PB. Tommy Galvin came down without any bad tumbles this time but had to restrain himself somewhat on the descent due to a bad ankle which cost him time but he still left a good 260 runners in his wake. For myself, I came to break 90 minutes and was rewarded with a run of 1:29:13.
Both the Northern Irish and the Irish teams packed very well and finished close together, especially the NI team who seem to get a kick out of chasing each other up and down the hill. Andy led narrowly at the top and also descended the fastest while Gary Baily almost clawed himself back to score for the team but couldn’t quite close the two minutes or so he’d lost to the top.
All descenders were put in the shadow of Ian Holmes; the grand old man of fell running came down in 23 minutes (almost bettering his own downhill record) and was within 45 seconds of winner Andi Jones who had put together an decisive lead to the top and decided to cruise down to secure quicker recovery time for his next outing. Katie Ingram took her second title in two years and put 8 minutes into the next woman, a formidable achievement, and came within 3 minutes of Carol Greenwood’s record with the best female time for years.
This double-victory paved the way for England winning both team competitions as well. The future of their fell running scene seems to be safe at the moment. And what an all-rounder Andi is, he’s won many road races, was English cross-country champion 2006 and ran 2:15 for the marathon: A true force on the mountain running circuit and beyond.
The teams had a great evening out, relaxing with a few pints after the pasta dinner given by the organisers and the prize-giving in “The Vic”. Unfortunately Llanberis always shows its nasty face at this stage as the locals (especially the younger ones) descend into a violent drunken stupor and turn parts of the town centre into a war zone that even 6 police cars could barely contain. We cleverly kept our heads down even when one competitor was provoked by being spat in front off and called ****** Irish. There was more encouragement from the Scots as Richie tore down: "Go the Celts", which, as he said, topped the "Go on Jesus" heard in 2008.
The atmosphere was somewhat intimidating for everyone in the group at times, but we managed to sit down to tell the tales of the day at a sequestered table in the team’s hotel: “The Heights”. It’s a pity that a great racing event is marred every year to such a degree by excessive drunkenness and brawls.
Thanks to everyone for a memorable trip and hopefully we’ll do it all again next year. You should go for “1:25”, Keith said after, sounds like a nice round target for me. Likewise, the lads on the team should be looking to break 1:20 next year and I won’t bet against them, perhaps we could dream of making Snowdon flare bright Green once more as it did in 1985 and 1989.