Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Ultra Tour of Snowdonia

The UTS is the event that Snowdonia needed and deserved, and if Race Director Mike Jones has the energy and inclination, it will surely attain the status of one of the UK's very best mountain ultras in a very short time indeed.

The format is simple yet ingenious. Two fifty mile loops based on Llanberis showcase most of the best ground that the region has to offer, not only the  battle-scarred classics of the Snowdon, Glyderau and Carneddau ranges, but the beautiful, less frequented and often still challenging hills to the west and south as well. The 100 mile event follows both loops, the northern one then the southern, while the 50 miler takes only the southern loop. The 100 starts at 5pm on Friday evening with a 48 hour total time allowance. The 50 starts at 5am on Saturday morning and as Mike explained  "because the checkpoints are open for the 100 anyway", the 50 competitors have 36 hours to complete their course. So you end up with a 100 mile event that will challenge even the best around, and a 50 that is accessible to anyone who wants to commit a bit of time and effort to preparation then getting around the course.

Similar to the Lakeland UTLD events you may conclude, but don't make the mistake of thinking that the UTS is in any other way "equivalent". The Lakeland 100 has just short of 7000m of climbing, and the 50 around  3000, while their UTS counterparts weigh in with 10,500 and 6000 respectively. Add to this the fact that the ground underfoot in Snowdonia is generally far gnarlier than in the Lakes and you can see that the UTS is no pushover.

But these are the hills of my formative years, so when I found out about the event back in February I just couldn't not go for the inaugural running. I was fighting a long-term injury and had just pulled out of starting the Arc of Attrittion so the 100 was out of the question, but the generous time allowance on the 50 made it possible and I signed up.

I was one of the small crowd cheering the 100 competitors as they set off from "The Heights" pub in Llanberis on on a fairly miserable wet Friday evening. They were going to have an unpleasant first few hours but the forecast was for things to improve significantly later on. Registration had been efficient and low-key and for those of us due to start the 50 a short night's sleep was on the menu before re-assembling in the same location in the 4.30am half light of Saturday morning. I chatted to one or two of the others, Dan who I had met on the Northern Traverse and the Dragon's Back with his girlfriend Claire, Nick who I had communicated with on line but never met face to face before. We wondered about times. It was difficult to predict how you were going to get on with the unrelenting rate of climb. Dan and Nick were hoping for somewhere around the 20 hour mark, I thought I might get 24 or 25 with a following wind. We were near the back so didn't really hear the countdown, but then the pack started moving and we were off.

RD Mike on his bike led us out through the streets of Llanberis and on to the easy track of the first climb. He stopped at the end of the tarmac to let the field go by. When I got to him I was already detached from the back of the field by maybe 50 yards. " Having a nice long day out?" he grinned as I walked steadily past.

The first section was a relatively gentle introduction to the day. The route followed a good track up the Maesgwm valley to what my generation will always refer to as the "Telegraph Col" though the line of posts that gave it the name are now long gone, and from there to double back over Foel Goch and along the undulating grassy ridge to Moel Eilio, the high point of section one. The track up to the col is easily runnable but I had decided from the start that I was going to walk all the uphills so before too long everyone else was out of sight; I wasn't bothered, this was always going to be a "run your own race" day for me.

Out of the shade and into the sunlight at the col it was clear that it was going to be a beautiful morning. Blue sky everywhere as I made my way up the easy slopes to the sound of skylarks. I had seen one or two runners ahead in the distance along the ridge, and finally caught two of them up at the Eilio summit. I recognised one of them, it was Raj who I had last seen in July last year when I checked him in at the finish of his fifth Lakeland 100. We jogged together down the gentle grass slope towards the col where the gravel road from Waun Fawr comes over to Llanberis, chatting about past events, future plans, like you do. The descent down the road to Waun Fawr was a cruise, in contrast to my last two acquaintances with it in the opposite direction, when it presents quite a formidable hill at around mile 23 of the Snowdon Marathon. Going through Waun Fawr we passed two more runners; unfortunately they were just about to drop out at the first checkpoint as they were together and one of them had damaged an Achilles; apart from them, Raj and I were the last two of the field into the checkpoint in the pub garden by the narrow gauge railway station. Around 10 miles and 2500ft of climb done  -  we had just about scratched the surface.

Raj was more efficient and left before me as I faffed about eating biscuits and topping up the Mountain Fuel, so I was once again solidly at the back as I set out on the next section over Mynydd Mawr  - the "Elephant Mountain". A short ascent through woods and moorland leads to a long level traverse before the final grassy slope to the summit. This slope was steeper than the ones on the Eilio ridge but not too long, maybe a thousand feet or so, and went quickly enough. From the summit, the run all the way down to valley level again was just perfect; a gently descending grassy ridge, steep on both sides but too broad for a knife-edge, easy running and great views to the mountains on the left and the coast far away on the right. I could see Raj way ahead in the distance. Down off the ridge and through woods for the last few hundred feet led back down to the road near Rhyd Ddu, and a few hundred yards along it to Checkpoint 2 at Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf farm.

The checkpoints were all great, with enthusiastic, supportive and really helpful marshals and a good spread of food at each. I had taken along a few Mars bars and gels but I needn't have bothered, we were well catered for. I was relying on Mountain Fuel for drink, which when mixed at about half the recommended maximum strength seems to work all day for me, supplemented by a drink at each CP for a bit of flavour change, Coke at the "cold drink" CP's and tea or coffee at those (the majority) with heating facilities. After my normal five minute faff another runner appeared along the drive to the farm; at first I thought it might be the first of the 100 runners coming through but it turned out to be Raj who had missed the entrance and overshot to the Snowdon Ranger hostel before he realised his mistake. I left him to feed and water and set off up the next hill.

The next hill was Snowdon, up the Ranger track and back down the Rhyd Ddu one, a classic day out for walkers. Mike had negotiated a way direct from the farm up a jeep track to meet the path from the Ranger hostel just below the Cwm Brwynog col; it was an easy and pleasant alternative but exercised a few different muscles as the numerous gates on it were all padlocked shut and had to be climbed. Meeting the Ranger track we were then in the crowds that flock to Snowdon every weekend and I seemed to be passing walkers every few yards all the way to the top, a real contrast to the near deserted nature of the first two sections. Still it's a nice enough track and it was still a beautiful sunny day so it was a pleasure to be there. Just short of the top I was greeted by an event photographer; I had seen the same guy coming off Eilio and was to meet him again on Moel Hebog  -  he must have covered almost as much ground as the competitors during the day!

It was good to leave the overcrowded Snowdon summit. The track to Rhyd Ddu is a fine one but for some reason less popular than the other well-known routes, so the crowds were now gone for the day. It starts off down some nice rocky ridge sections then blends out into a good path, mostly stony underfoot, for the  bulk of the descent. Just after the top I passed two lady runners, the first people involved in the event that I had seen for a long time, then half-way down Raj came bounding past at a speed I wasn't happy to commit to, wishing to preserve my knees a bit for the remainder of the course. I hadn't been down this way for some years so was delighted to find that a lot of the lower section which used to be rather squelchy and tedious has now been treated to a line of easily runnable flat slabs, leading down to the final mile or so of jeep track to Rhy Ddu.

The checkpoint in Rhyd Ddu was at the village Outdoor Centre, the first inside CP and one to which we had been able to send a drop bag. There were maybe half a dozen runners inside the hall including Raj so I was beginning to feel a bit more part of the event.  Claire was also there, just preparing to set out on the next section. There was some great soup on offer, so fortified by that, a sandwich and a clean shirt I was also out of the door before long, accompanied by Raj.

Now Rhyd Ddu comes up at just over 20 miles from the start with about 2000 metres of climbing done, but if you haven't done this event and maybe intend to in the future, one thing you need to understand is that although you have done 3 of the 7 sections and been up and down Snowdon (once!), you have really just completed the warm-up. This is where it starts for real. In fact if I had just one suggestion to improve the event for 50 runners it would be to have the drop bag at the following checkpoint in Beddgelert rather than Rhyd Ddu.

(Map of the 50 mile loop below, story continues after it)

The innocuous-looking (from the map and topo) section from Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert is probably the toughest in either the 50 or the 100 event. Not much more than eight miles, it packs in almost 4000 feet of climbing and some sections of hard ground underfoot. The climbing comes in the form of three ascents on steep grass, the first of which starts almost immediately out of the CP up to Y Garn at the eastern end of the Nantlle Ridge. Unless I'm especially tired I find these ascents quite pleasurable. Poles out and just get into an easy rhythm that you can keep up without any real stress and you get into the almost trance-like state that accompanies long ski-touring climbs. One foot in front of the other and let the mind wander. About half way up I passed Claire who was also looking pretty cheerful. I didn't look back but I lost Raj here and didn't see him again, though he finished the trip in good style not long after me, and nearing the top I pulled past two or three other runners. About 1500 feet of climb, far steeper and more relentless than the Fusedale pull on the Lakeland course, but somehow very satisfying.

We didn't go quite to the top. The reason for this was that the course was marked with a series of reflective wands and streamers, stuck in the ground, tied to rocks and fenceposts and so on. Mike said there were 3 or 4 thousand of these along the 100 and 50 courses. I've discussed my view on marked courses before, but briefly I'm a bit ambivalent. I'm a reasonably competent navigator so in many ways on an unmarked course I can use this to mitigate my relatively feeble running abilities, but I also enjoy not having to do the navigation and just relax into enjoying the day out. My experience is that even on a marked course you need to be able to find your way without the flags if necessary, because in mist and/or darkness it is often impossible to see from one flag to the next, and sometimes flags get moved or taken out, either mischievously or by natural causes  -  on my Tor des Geants trip for example, towards the end numerous flags had been taken out by high winds or herds of cattle. Anyway, the line of flags didn't go quite to the top of Y Garn, so neither did the runners.

There was half a mile or so of bouldery ground from Y Garn towards and over the top of the next hill, Mynydd Drws-y-Coed. I seemed to be a bit quicker than those around me on this so I was soon on my own again jogging down the far side of the hill. From the col there the flags led off along a foot-wide trod across a very steep grassy hillside; easy enough in the daylight but I wonder what those meeting this in the dark made of it? Then down a bit more steep grass where I passed a slow moving runner to another great bit of near horizontal ridge. This ended at another col where we turned right down past some old quarry or mine workings with some deep holes in evidence, another place to be careful in the dark. Then a bit of generally jumbly ground led to the next climb, another 1000 feet up to Moel Lefn.  Going up here the sky clouded over and we had a few drops of rain. I held off as long as possible but a fairly cold wind had sprung up as well so had to put a jacket on for the final few feet.

The mostly grassy ridge over the summit and the next top Moel yr Ogof went easily then a steep few feet of stony descent led to another col before the final pull up to Moel Hebog,  the shortest but probably the steepest on the section. I seemed to be passing people fairly regularly now including another two just starting this ascent, but then halfway up I was conscious of a runner gaining steadily on me. "This hill!" he exclaimed as he drew level. It was Marcis Gubats, the leader of the 100 event. We pressed on and before long I could see the summit trig point, which I pointed out, and we were soon there. "I've enjoyed it, but now I just want it to end!" said Marcis. We traversed the summit and caught another couple of runners on the first rocky bit of descent, then he seemed to get another burst of energy and sped off downward at a pace I couldn't match.

The long descent off Hebog didn't seem to be as bad as I remembered and it wasn't too long until I was in the CP at Beddgelert village hall. Even so the 8,5 miles had taken over four and a half hours. The soup was again so good that two helpings were necessary, then after a few other bits of eating and admin it was out onto the next section which I felt would go quicker, even though it was 10 and a half miles. The first bit was a picturesque path along the river through the Aberglaslyn Pass, then a mile or so very narrow road through Nantmor village and woods out to the start of the long track up Cnicht. As the road crossed the narrow gauge railway I was held up by a train, complete with double-ended steam locomotive, a real treat for an old engineer like me. After the road section a good track swung generally northwestward towards Cnicht, climbing at a very gentle rate for two or three miles. On all this ground from Beddgelert it was good to get along at a better pace, particularly as I knew it would get dark on this section and I was keen to make as much ground as possible before nightfall. But here, after seeing quite a few runners over the last stretch, I encountered only one other runner who came past me at a better pace than I was managing.

The path steepened and became rockier for the last few hundred feet towards Cnicht summit, and the couple of hundred right at the top were the steepest. Just before this last step I caught three other runners. I had climbed up from this point a couple of times in recent years on the Dragon's Back race, so knew the easiest way was around to the right, but the flags led round to the left. The answer we found out later was that they had been moved by someone just wanting to cause a bit of confusion. I hope that didn't put anyone off too much as there is a way round to the left anyway  - witness the following quote from my 1967 guide written by the venerable Bill Poucher...."the last section is steep and there are two alternative routes: that left is the more popular because it includes some easy scrambling over rock and scree; that right is easier, grassy and less sensational but joins the other just below the cairn..".

We continued over the summit and started the long easily runnable summit ridge. I got ahead of two of the others but caught another two, Paul and Simon, by Lyn yr Adar, when it was just about dark enough to require torches. We found the contouring path that goes around then down some tricky ground to the little re-entrant and the more obvious path on the far side of the stream leading down to Lyn Llagi. But from when this track runs out down to where the route comes out onto the road above Nant Gwynant is not easy in the dark. I had been round there a week or so earlier because I suspected I would be in the situation that now arose. The whole area is boggy and any trace of track on the ground cannot be identified by torchlight. To blast straight down in a straight line would not be the quickest because the area is peppered with small rocky drop-offs which would make this approach a bit tedious. I hoped the flags would be close enough to make it easy, but just to be on the safe side I'd put a trace in my gps for this section. On the night, many of the flags had been removed so in the end we resorted to the trace, but we were still slower than necessary, though I guess more or less everyone meeting this section in the dark would have had the same problem. But once on the road it was just another mile or so gentle trundle down to the checkpoint at the Nantgwynant Cafe.

Having explored the previous descent earlier I was expecting wet feet so had put a spare pair of socks in for this point, and changed into them while the tea was brewing. The soup was excellent as ever with other goodies to fuel up for the last lap. There was in fact still one checkpoint to go from here but as it was at the relatively inaccessible Llyn Llyddaw we were told there wouldn't be much in the way of food or R&R possibilities there and we should make the most of the excellent fare at Nantgwynant. I was a bit indulgent and stayed nearly half an hour here. There were a couple of runners who had decided to call it a day and one of the marshals was arranging a taxi back to Llanberis for them. She said it would arrive in about 20 minutes, now that all seemed far too easy!

Simon and Paul were ready to go, and Alecsa who had barely come in was moving too, so just after 11.30pm the four of us set out up the Watkin path towards Snowdon. After a short way it was clear that Alecsa was going a bit slower, but she said she was quite happy to let us go on so her light dropped slowly back. I just got into a steady climbing rhythm again, and although it wasn't fast we seemed to be covering the ground. After a while I was in the lead and didn't look round until we were at the turning where the track up Lliwedd leaves the Watkin. Only Simon was there, he explained that Paul had been feeling a bit wobbly so had stopped for some more food. It seemed that he was otherwise OK because looking at the splits later he seemed to continued at the same pace as Alecsa to the finish.

I enjoyed the ascent of Lliwedd because there is a bit more finding your way through little rock steps and less of the simple "one foot in front of the other" stuff to increase the interest. I normally find the best line up here is directly up the very left hand edge but Simon preferred to keep a bit further away from the drop so we found a good enough way further right. The summit (or rather the twin summits) arrived soon enough but I warned Simon that the way down was a bit scrambly in places too. We had caught another three runners just as we reached the summit so we became a little gang of five as we made our way down the other side. I remembered most of the way having been up here many times over the years so we made steady progress. When we got to the start of the pitched slab staircase leading down the last few hundred feet to Llyn Llyddaw Simon and I speeded up a bit down to the checkpoint.

All the checkpoint staff were brilliant but these two were real heroes up here for more than 24 hours with a jeep and a gazebo. Not only did we get a welcome, but water and crisps, a nice bonus. They had chairs too but I felt it might be too difficult to get up again once I'd sat down so I declined the offer, and after a minute or two we set out for our final ascent up the Miners' Track to Snowdon. We made a steady pace over the causeway and around the lake, but once we started on the pull up to the top lake, for the first time I felt the climbing was getting hard. On reflection, I think I probably hadn't done enough uphill for the year so far; 50,000ft total going into the event compared with nearer to 100,000 normally at this time of year, a combination of injury, illness and a different training regime. Whatever it was, I knew I could make this final 2000ft but it was going to be slow. I suggested to Simon that he push on because he was still going strongly, and slowly he started to open up a gap, eventually getting back to Llanberis a quarter of an hour or so ahead of me. I still managed to overtake two other runners on the climb however, which gave me a bit of encouragement. I mentally ticked off the landmarks as we passed them, the lake outflow, the start of the steep bit, the junction with the Pyg Track, the start of the Zig-Zags, gradually getting there.

The night had got quite chilly in spite of the climb, and I expected to be met by a fierce wind as I came out onto the ridge, but it was surprisingly calm when I got there and I set off down the Llanberis track immediately. There were the usual summer Sunday morning gaggles of "Three Peaks" groups coming up and it was soon light enough for the lamp to go out. I got into a steady jog/shuffle and the miles went by easily enough, a nice time to savour the last hour or so of the event before it was all over.

I arrived back at The Heights not long after six o'clock, 25 hours 19 minutes and 41 second after setting out. I ended up in 107th place out of 166 starters. Happy enough with that.

It was a superb course really showing the best that the Welsh hills have to offer. Tough but beautiful. I am in awe of how the winner Oliver Thorogood could get round in just 11 and a half hours, beating the second placed runner by an hour and a half. It would have been interesting to see how Donnie Campbell could have got on, he was with Oliver until CP2, when I heard he had to pull out with an injury.

Runners in the longer event faced one of the hardest 100 milers around. To give some idea of this the winner Marcis Gubats, who last summer completed the Lakeland 100 in 20:52:35, finished in 34:05:00, beating the second placed runner by nearly 6 hours (which explained why I never saw any other 100 runners on the course). For my West Highland Way friends, Jamie Aarons, with a WHW personal best of 19:28:23, finished first lady and third overall in a time of 41:23:16.  Now with better course knowledge and specific training I'm sure these times will come down, but it will always be a really big mountain challenge. This year 47 runners set out on the course; 13 finished.

Congratulations to Mike and his team for making the inaugural running of the event so good. This one will only get bigger.

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