I arrived embarrassingly under prepared. I was about to take part in my first ever ultra marathon (this is just a footrace that is longer than a marathon) and by the time I swung my sandaled feet out of my car, it was late enough for the near solstice sun to have dipped behind the dark green ridge of the mountains. There were excited and very fast looking runners everywhere, all of which were sorting through impossibly lightweight racing bags and flexing lean calf muscles. As I jealously looked through the windows of the converted vans and estate cars, I could see tomorrow’s competitors had already pinned on race numbers to vests, shovelled pasta into their mouths and were starting to settle down to sleep. I wasn’t sure if I was too late to sign on and collect my number (teachers cannot just ‘take the afternoon off’), didn’t have a fancy VW Transporter to sleep in and only had a solitary scabby apple to eat for dinner and nothing at all for the following morning. Worst of all was the fact that I bloody hate running.
After meeting Martyn (you’ll read about him in other blog posts), signing on (I was just in time), and putting up my tent (you can camp at the finish line of the race – very handy) I started to pull myself together. We had enough time to get to Morrisons, buy some vegan food (did I not mention that it is against the rules to eat any animal products for the duration of this race?) and eat some beans in time to catch a couple of hours sleep before getting on the 4am bus (seriously) to get to the start of the race at 5am. I was in bed by about 1am, drank enough whisky to make me sleep and set my alarm.
It wasn’t yet light when we, a very oddly dressed bunch of skinny people groaning in several languages, boarded the bus. I sat next to a guy who had absolutely nailed the vegan ultra runner look. To the uninitiated, his clothing choice was simply bizarre. He was sporting more colours than one of Lawrence Lewellyn-Bowen’s mood boards, the loudness being distributed over at least twenty items of very skimpy clothing. It must have taken him half an hour to get dressed but somehow he had still managed to have his knees, elbows, armpits and hairy shoulders on display. Well, after the bus was underway, I whipped out my breakfast – a large brick of tried and tested Soreen Malt Loaf. My neighbour lent forward and quietly, compassionately, informed me that my breakfast wasn’t actually vegan and therefore not permitted.
“Not vegan? It’s raisins and bread,” I protested.
“I’m sorry to say that it contains a trace of milk powder”, he replied, his face stricken with regret.
Although I was initially a bit sad to hear this, I’m glad this guy had cast a wholesome light upon my dirty antics, and, to give credit where it was due, this guy somehow managed to essentially slap my breakfast right out of my hand, at four AM, with such a polite disposition that I even thanked him for it. Are all vegan ultra runners bestowed with this level of diplomacy?!
I wasn’t hungry anyway. Pre-race nerves turn the stomach.
There was that familiar chorus of Garmins as we started to run upwards towards the summit of Snowdon. It wasn’t cold but the tops were covered in cloud so we knew that it would be would be cold up there. The crowd thinned to a bunch and then a long, colourful snake, juddering rucksacks, rocking limbs, the only movement in the orange green landscape. Martyn and I were to stick together for the race but I thought he was running too quickly so I started to ask him lots of questions about things that had nothing to do with running. It did the trick and I got the the top without being sick.
The Scary Bit
We hit the top of Snowdon which was, as ever, crowded and then made our way across Crib Y Ddysgil, past Garnedd Ugain and towards the intimidating ridge of Crib Goch. We were really in the clouds now and it was wet and slippery and, for those wearing vests, quite cold. My incessant chatting had meant that we were at the back of the race and stuck behind some people who were, shall we say, reluctant scramblers. I’d been up on the ridge before and would agree that there is a certain feeling of exposure. Some runners either weren’t prepared for this or lost their bottle and resorted to bum shuffling and hesitation. I think this makes things more dangerous but it happens. For a rock climber, Crib Goch is a walk in the park, for a treadmill mashing, Oakleys wearing Londoner, its quite intimidating.
“You you sure you’re okay mate? You look like a ghost and you’re all sweaty”
Bottle necks and pale faces abounded but it wasn’t really too long until we were hurtling down the red scree slopes, the closest feeling to flying on two feet, and down towards the road. Cwym Uchaf is a beautiful setting, and despite my many trips to the area, it is a place that this race revealed to me for the first time. It really is special and I think I’ll be back – with a bivy bag and a bottle of wine. I signed up for a long race through an area I thought I new well and was shown a brand new beauty spot. That’s the sign of a great race!
I always carry far too much food. It’s a personal issue of mine. I agree that nobody likes being hungry and not having any food, but I suffer from an acute fear of it. I needn’t have worried. Nearly every race has a decent enough selection of food at the feed stations but this was special. It was all vegan, but just about everything was proper food. Salted, boiled potatoes, cups of vegetable soup, coconut flapjacks – it was such a treat. Seriously, you don’t need to pack too much on this race. We stuffed our faces, used the toilets, washed faces in cold water (it was quite hot in the valleys) and set off again.
There was a long, sweaty slog up Elidir Fawr which seemed to take forever but eventually we got there (no matter how bad I sometimes feel – I’ve always got there in the end). An exhilarating run across the Glyders was sharply interrupted by a sudden snapping twist of an ankle. Knowing not to fight it, I immediately just adopted the superman position and landed flat on my belly, it was about as soft a landing as I could manage. My ankle had rolled quite painfully inside and given way. I panicked and thought “race over”. We had already lost count of the number of competitors that we had seen retired at the side of the course with swollen knees and ankles. It seems that falling, like crashing in bike racing, is just part and parcel of fell running – the best you can hope for is a soft landing.
Which brings me to my next point. Nearly the entire course is very rocky. Sure, there is a long grassy section towards the end, and obviously there are the full blown technical scrambling sections, but don’t go thinking Crib Goch and Tryfan are the only places with rock to worry about. Although you don’t need to put hand upon rock anywhere else on the course, vast sections on all three ranges are littered with heavy boulder fields and jagged spikes protruding from the ground. It’s a minefield for tired, clumsy legs.
So I lay there, flexed my ankle and decided it wasn’t that bad. Panic dissipated, confidence resumed. I was lucky, and I hobbled on. After about an hour it stopped hurting. Well it stopped hurting any more than any other body part. We‘d been running for over eight hours.
The part when you know you’re going to make it
It’s a pretty tiring business. Over thirty miles and enough elevation to take you half way up Everest takes its toll. Passing time was easy on this race. The field was very international and everyone had an opinion on something that was worth discussing.
Something that was surprising was the number of French, German and Swiss runners who couldn’t believe how gnarly the running is in the UK. “You’d never get something so scary in the Alps!”
As groups of runners formed and disbanded I got to meet a lot of interesting people. The Brexit debate, raising children in America, and the oddest places one has slept in all kept the conversation moving on and the checkpoints kept coming. Soon enough it became clear they we’d finish the race, even if we had to hobble over the line.
If you are thinking of taking part in this race (if you’re still reading this then you probably should) then do save something for the end. It’s a long way from mountain 15 back down to HQ. We shuffled down, running sometimes, walking sometimes. The green trails just kept on going.
It sounds impressive, running something so far, so hilly and so apparently difficult. The non-athlete assumes that 34 miles trumps a 19 minute 5k. But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. Anyone who can run a sub 20 min 5k deserves much more kudos than an ultra marathon runner. And here’s the reason: Ultra marathons aren’t actually that difficult to complete. Sure, to win one, that’s hard work, and will require a fair bit of training, but to be a mid-pack-plodder, there’s not much to it. Its all about not carrying too much weight – on your back or on your belly – and eating enough. Keep eating, run slowly, walk and stretch it out when you need to, don’t stop (it won’t help) and have a positive attitude. And keep eating. Even when you aren’t hungry. Even when you feel sick. Your body is actually designed for running a really long way, really slowly. Enjoy it’s marvellous engineering at work. Smile.
Back at the camp there were hot showers, delicious food and plenty of beers. 34 miles, 15 mountains, 13 hours. It was my favourite and only ultra marathon I have ever run.
No animals were hurt in the making of this race. But plenty of consenting adults were.
34 Miles on the clock, 15 mountains, 2 excellent feed stations, 1 party at the end.
The V3k 2017 takes place on 24th June from Hendre Hall, North Wales.
Although the cost of entry has increased from last year’s £45, the cost of entry for 2017 is still currently a steal at £65. You are guaranteed an epic day out.