When this sort of thing happens people always say it's like travelling by bus; you wait for ages then two turn up at once. The Lakes has for some time had an abundance of superb races at around the 50 mile mark - the Lakeland 50, Lakes in a Day, Lakes 3 x 3000, Lakes 10 Peaks and so on - but Snowdonia, the UK's only other "south of the border" true mountain area, was lacking. Then this year we had the inaugural running of two hopefully long-term classics, with the "Ultra Tour of Snowdonia" back in May and the "GB Ultras Mt Snowdon" last weekend.
I was going to do my normal event write-up of the latter, but then a friend who knew that I'd done both events asked me which one I liked best and it seemed that it might be more useful to compare and contrast the two experiences. I'll say at the start that I'm not going to come up with a "winner"; I thought both events were great days out which I enjoyed thoroughly; however they were different in many ways and it may be of interest to record how and why.
These will be only my own impressions of course, and in case this goes a bit beyond my normal following, perhaps I should start with a brief word on my stumble into the ultra running world so you can decide whether or not to take my comments seriously. After a lifetime of mountaineering I got into running quite late in life and ran my first ultra back in 2007 when I was approaching 59. Since then I've found it an absorbing and rewarding pastime, probably reaching my "peak" (!!) about five years ago with 10 hour finishes in the Lakeland 50 and Highland Fling. I've done a fair few 100's and longer races, but dodgy knees and the inevitable passage of time means that I'm happy enough just to complete the events I enter nowadays. The Snowdon 50 last weekend was my 77th ultra.
It's worth noting that each of these Snowdon 50's have an accompanying 100 mile event, and it's impossible to do any sort of comparison without referring to these at times. Unless someone comes up with a magic knee potion I'm afraid both of these are beyond me now, but as I know the hills of Snowdonia pretty well having been kicking around in them for over 50 years or more, I think I can stray into odd comments on the 100's without too much trepidation.
So here we go.
1. The Organisations
The UTS 50/100 was organised by Apex Running, a small company run by Mike Jones. Mike is an elite runner himself, having won the Lakeland 100 twice and got a top ten finish in the CCC among other things. This year's 50/100 was Apex' first event, and I don't detect that Mike wants to expand beyond this one race at present. So for this year, Apex had no experience, no track record, and no "following" of regular attendees.
The GB Ultras 50/100 was organised by GB Ultras. This was my first GB Ultras Event so I don't know any of the organisers personally but they have been going several years and run a series of 50/100 mile events plus their flagship "Race Across Scotland" which follows the 200 mile Southern Uplands Way. So they have more experience than Apex in running events and a clear following of regular competitors who focus on their events, in a similar way to the groups that follow and take part in Jon and Shirley Steele's "Hardmoors" series or Richard Weremiuk's "Beyond Marathon" races. This is evident from their Facebook pages and groups. However this was GB Ultras' first race in Snowdonia.
Both of these are small organisations run by capable enthusiasts. You wouldn't expect the same level of attention to detail as you get in major established events such as the Lakeland 100 or the Dragon's Back, but that is just a fact, not a disadvantage. There are still plenty of events out in the Pennines where you can turn up on the day, pay your fifteen or twenty pounds and have a great day out with mimimal fuss. One of the attractions of ultra running is that it encompasses a whole range of event style and sophistication; you can choose what suits you best.
2. Facts and figures
The UTS50 as run this year was advertised as 50 miles and 6000m (19,700ft) of ascent; with no navigation glitches my watch recorded 55 miles and 18,000 ft of ascent. (Looking at the website, it seems that a revised course is proposed next year with a 5,100m (16,700ft) of ascent.
The GB 50 course was originally advertised as 55 miles and 17,900ft of ascent. However, shortly before the event it was shortened by omitting a descent to Nant Peris and re-ascent over Elidir Fawr and Y Garn. Again I made no navigational mistakes and my (same) watch recorded the course as it was actually run as 50 miles and 16,000ft of ascent.
In terms of the challenge, both of the 100 courses are monsters, with UTS weighing in with 33,000ft of ascent and the GB 29,000ft. Compare this with the until-recently-one-of-the-tough-100's-in-the-UK Lakeland 100, which comes in at a relatively modest 22,000ft.
The cut-offs are interesting. The UTS allowed 48 hours for the 100 (50 next year) and 36 hours for the 50 (34 next year) whereas the GB allowed a similar 48 for the 100 but only 24 for the 50. This meant that whatever the challenges the actual course presented, completing the UTS 50 was always going to be an easier deal than the GB50 for slower runners.
For what it's worth I'll add in here that I finished the UTS50 in 25 hrs 19 mins, in 107th place out of 166 starters, and the GB50 in 23 hrs 7mins, in 111th place out of 200 starters, so I think a similar level of (fairly mediocre) performance in both, but again a reason why I think I can compare them objectively. But I also think if the GB50 had followed its originally intended course including the Nant Peris loop, I would probably have been in some trouble.
Anyone who wants to see the detailed courses can of course look on the appropriate race websites, but in brief they were as follows:
The UTS100 followed two loops based on Llanberis. The "northern" loop headed first over Snowdon by the the Llaberis and Pyg tracks then cut south of Moel Siabod to Dolwyddelan, returning north to Capel Curig. From there it headed north to Llyn Cowlyd then traversed all the southern Carneddau to Ogwen, followed by all of the Glyder range except Tryfan back to Llanberis. It then continued round the "southern" loop which took in Moel Elio and Mynedd Mawr before heading up Snowdon by the Ranger path and back down by the Rhyd Ddu path. From Rhyd Ddu it followed a section of the Paddy Buckley round, over the northern peaks of the Nantlle ridge then along the subsidiary ridge to Moel Hebog and down to Beddgelert. From there it went through the Aberglaslyn pass and back over Cnicht to Nantgwynant. The final "sting in the tail" was the ascent of Lliwedd via the Watkin path, a descent down to the Llyn Llyddau causeway (ie almost back down to Pen-y Pass) and finally back over Snowdon via the Miners and Llanberis paths to Llanberis.
The UTS 50 followed the harder southern loop only, and as the 100 started 12 hours ahead of the 50, it was logical to allow 36 hours as it then used the same checkpoints during the same opening hours as the 100.
The GB Ultras 50 started and finished in Betws y Coed, first following valley footpaths to a checkpoint near the foot of Tryfan on the A5. From there it went up the Heather Terrace to within about 300ft from the top of Tryfan, then picked up the Miners path down to Pen y Gwryd and up to Pen y Pass. The original intention was to go up Snowdon via the Pyg Track and down over Lliwedd, but on the day the descent was re-routed down the Miners path. The route then retraced its steps via Pen y Pass, Pen y Gwryd and the Miners track, turning off on the top plateau to take in both Glyders and descend via the Devils Kitchen to Ogwen. It then went directly up Pen yr Oleu Wen, over the southern Carneddau as far as the start of the climb after Craig yr Ysfa, then directly back down to the A5/Tryfan. checkpoint. From there it followed the outward low level route back to Betws but with a 6 mile detour out to Crafnant to make up the mileage.
The GB 100 runners followed exactly the same route, starting at the same time (actually just 10 mins earlier), then did a second loop, first out to Cowlyd and back to the A5, an ascent of Pen yr Oleu Wen by the easier eastern track, then a long descent down to Bethesda. They then returned along valley paths to the Tryfan A5 checkpoint. The final run-in was another ascent of Heather terrace, down the ridge to Capel Curig then a repeat of the 50 finish along the low level route via Crafnant back to Betws.
I have described both routes in the past tense because I suspect both RD's will want to "tweak" them in some areas for next year.
Of course I don't have access to the thinking of the course setters, but from how they turned out it's clear that they started with different objectives. In summary, I think the UTS route was devised as a journey through the mountains which incidentally was a challenging course, whereas the GB Ultras route was set to be a challenge, but happened to run through some spectacular mountain scenery. The GB ultras 50 contained a few "in your face" climbs and some gnarly descents, but also a total of nearly 25 miles of fairly gentle ground at the start and finish; the UTS 50 had equally steep climbs but the majority could be done by steady walking, the only "scrambly" type ground being on the Nantlle ridge, a short section of Cnicht and the traverse of Lliwedd. However there was no "easy" ground at all on the UTS route, it was either up or down all the way.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that the GB routes, both 50 and 100, repeated the same ground for quite a few miles, either in the same or opposite direction, whereas the UTS100 only repeated the Llanberis track to Snowdon (up at the very start and down at the very finish) and the UTS50 repeated not a single step. If you're in this mainly for the challenge this comparison will be totally irrelevant to you; if you're out to experience as much of Snowdonia as you can, it may be important.
4. Course Marking
Both events went for marked courses to some degree. The UTS attempted a fully marked course, with a flag on average about every 50 metres - closer on the tricky bits and further apart on obvious, easy to follow paths. The idea was that you could if you chose follow the route from the flags, as you do in Alpine events. GB Ultras went more for "reassurance" marking, ie fewer flags but in place at critical turning points and occasionally elsewhere; my understanding was that you needed to navigate by other means but the flags were intended to give you some confidence that you were getting things right. Neither of these approaches was totally successful.
I know one of the reasons for course marking is to attract runners from overseas, where the ability to navigate is not usually a necessary skill to take part in ultra races, but I really think RD's in the UK need to have a rethink on this for two reasons:
(1) Marking is fine where the route follows paths that are well defined on the ground (as they are in almost all Alpine events). But courses in the UK often follow tracks that are hard to see on the ground even in good visibility, and almost impossible at night. If you combine this with misty conditions that can limit visibility to significantly less than the distance between flags, you get a situation where you can't see from one to the next with no clue on the ground as to which direction to take. Being able to navigate without the markers is then the only way safe progress can be made.
(2) In many events that I have run in the UK with marked courses, including the two we are talking about here, markers get removed or moved. This can be by high winds, animals or humans, either mischievously or maliciously. Once the integrity of the marker stream is compromised, you don't know if you can trust it so you may as well not have it. Marshals may be able to keep an eye on the situation over a 35 mile Sky Race taking place wholly in daylight, but once you are into 50 or 100 miles of flags needing to stay in place for several days, keeping control of the situation is all but impossible.
Both events suffered from both of these effects.
I'm sure the attraction of a marked course attracts some competitors who would otherwise not come because they are not confident of their ability to navigate. If the marking goes wrong then these people are in trouble. For this reason alone I believe RD's should stop marking courses in mountain events, and insist that competitors can find their way around with map/compass/gps/etc.
Because the routes visited the same ground on more than one occasion, the GB Ultras events were able to use most of their checkpoints multiple times. They needed only 6 checkpoints in total (plus the home base) to cover both races, and the 3 key ones were linked by only about 10 miles of main road. This slick bit of organisation obviously improved their ability to communicate and keep checkpoints supplied and crewed. The checkpoints were all in Gazebos with mainly snack type food and cold drinks, although the later ones could provide tea and coffee too. There were always a lot of volunteers at the checkpoints, they were really enthusiastic, helpful and supportive, giving great encouragement to the runners. It was clear that a lot of the checkpoint crew were also runners, which I think helped a lot.
Because it took in a much wider chunk of Snowdonia, The UTS needed a lot more checkpoints. 7 (plus home base) were shared by the 50 and 100, and a further 7 were required exclusively for the 100. I only experienced the ones catering for the 50. They were often only crewed by only two or three people. The early ones were outside but key ones later on were in halls, cafes, etc. They had quite substantial food including hot chunky soup, which was a great boost when you're about to set off up Snowdon at 1am on a chilly night.
6. Odds and Sods
For such demanding courses in a mountain environment, I was surprised that neither event went for individual competitor tracking. It obviously adds to the cost but it is a feature of the majority of comparable events nowadays. I would have thought RD's would have gone for it purely for peace of mind, but it creates such interest among "dot watchers" that the publicity generated for the event must be a significant bonus side effect.
I found the other runners that I met along the way interesting. Now remember that I am very much a back-of-pack competitor but in events such as these every one that leaves the start line has to have a degree of competence to survive, let alone finish. Almost everyone that I talked to in the UTS50 knew that they were taking part in one of the toughest 50 milers around; they expected it to be hard. Conversely, I met many runners on the GB Ultras course who were finding it tougher than they expected. Whether this is as a result of website publicity, word of mouth, Facebook pages, I don't know; that's just how it seemed to me. For anyone who hasn't done either of these events, my take is as follows; there are a number of fairly classic 50 milers that have been around for a while, all of a similar level of difficulty, such as the Highland Fling, the Hardmoors 55 and the Lakeland 50. From these, it is a significant step up to events like the Lakes in a Day and the Lakes 3x3000. It is then similar step up from here to the UTS50 and the GB Ultras Snowdon 50. Make no mistake, these 50 milers are tough.
At the moment, what makes the GB Ultras slightly harder is the time allowance of 24 hours. I finished with less than an hour to spare. Had the Lliwedd traverse been included it may have been touch and go for me, had the Nant Peris loop been included I would almost certainly have been timed out. On the UTS50 which in my view is a slightly tougher course on the ground, I was always in my comfort zone because I was never going to be timed out.
The UTS offers a 100 which is going to challenge the very best, while at the same time a 50 which is accessible to almost anyone who has the determination to tough it out. By extending the time allowance for the 50 (the checkpoints are there anyway for the 100) The GB Ultras team could do the same.
But as I said at the start, they are both great events in their different ways, and I really hope they continue long into the future.