I woke to the sound of strapping – nothing untoward going on, just Rob taping his feet in preparation for the day. In my state, somewhere between awake and asleep, I did some diagnostics expecting the worse. I rotated my ankles, bent my knees, lifted my legs… I did it all again not believing the results – the same came back, I felt like new! In general, spending just shy of 14.5 hours out running up, down and across mountains I tend to know about it the next day, but I was raring to go! Result!
Original expectations had been that I would get in each night, snack, wash, dry/ sort my feet, eat, sort my kit for the next day and hit the sack. Arriving in darkness had meant that this didn’t happen. In fact one of my gripes about the set up had come straight to the fore as when we got in we not only had to drag out dry bags in the dark to find a tent, but we then had to go fishing in our bags for our plate/ bowl. Why a large bowl couldn’t have been provided I’ll never know. It certainly made for grouchy people on camp. For non-elite runners (and I suspect many of the elite) being able to pick up a bowl and get food immediately after completion would have been very welcome and would have fed the recovery process immediately.
Back to the morning, we were meant to leave between 6 & 6:30, but didn’t get going until just after 7. Primarily as we were sorting bags and reloading drop bags, etc. faffing basically – unsurprisingly it was me that was last to be ready. I’d managed a double sausage and fried egg bap and chucked in a rehydration powder to my first water bottle. We collected a map each and away we went.
My final day out in the mountains prior to the event had not been a day out in the Rhinogs as hoped because the logistics were a pain, instead I’d headed out on leg 1 of the Paddy Buckley round as it takes in the Moelwyns; albeit in the wrong direction. In the interests of time on the day I had taken a different route down from Cnicht and hitched a lift from the road… this just happened to be the very road I was stood on, so the day started with a degree of familiarity despite the mizzle.
We were moving reasonably well, but as the track became increasingly unfamiliar we took a grid reference from my GPS to confirm location. We’d gone up too far and needed to head directly East. We did and hit the base of the climb perfectly. The top appeared in no time. As we got close enough to see the box a large group appeared including (amongst others) the Spaniards and Mike from the States. Mike had seen and signed up for the race before persuading his friend Brad to sign up. Brad was from Bristol, but had lived out in the States where he’d met Mike. In the competition for man with a permanent smile Brad won hands down – not sure I ever saw him without a smile on his face. A legend and a real gent too. Brad and Dan had started off together but by the drop bag it had become apparent that Dan had underestimated the difficulty of the race (as had so many others) and had taken an injury too. I guess “toughest” is over used in the relatively new world of Ultra running (as Joe Faulkner once said to me; “It was called long distance walking when I started”).
Once again I found myself leading the group on a descent I didn’t know. I’d done it in reverse before and got it quite wrong. The top of Cnicht has a path which I was running and it felt like everybody was tearing after me. I got a bit of path fever which is common when you haven’t had a clear one for a while and over shot the drop point.
Waiting for Denvy and Rob (whom I had thought were right behind me) we had a quick map conference and dropped straight down. Denvy sighed exclaiming; “Is this another one of your crazy descents Chris?” Whilst Rob took to sliding as much as possible on his backside. We dropped so quickly we lost the large group much to my relief – if we’d have come out on a bog I’d have felt even more guilt than if I’d just taken myself there. I felt no guilt in leaving them, they were whooping and hollering all the way down the mountain – we couldn’t see them through the mizzle, but we were in no doubt they were loving the experience!
As it was we found two people who had taken a slightly closer line to the optimum – one speedy chap who had passed us a while back at significant speed (so the line wasn’t so bad afterall!) and the other person turned out to be Wendy Dodds.
For those that don’t know, Wendy is a fell running legend and I don’t use that word lightly. At 61 she was the oldest competitor and was one of the returning four. She won the ladies race along with her running partner Sue Walsh, although Wendy modestly pointed out that they were the only female pair in it. Wendy was incognito as she was wearing a man’s waterproof and told us a bit later she was trying not to get spotted. She was there to race and race hard.
We were cracking on with our own Nav’ I was looking for the small Llyns that would provide a handrail for us and we fell in step with Wendy until we hit the disused Cwmorthin slate quarry. At this point we split again for the ascent to Moelwyn Mawr. Up until that point Wendy went from “trying to hide” to permanent commentary in a flash. I thought I could talk! Even on the way up Moelwyn Mawr I was looking around for the other groups approaching as I could hear talking – I’m now convinced it was Wendy talking out aloud to herself 30 yards ahead of us!
We hit the summit and the remaining speedsters came past; Nicki Spinks, who had arrived as first lady for day 1, Mark Palmer and some of the others. As we departed Moelwyn Mawr I was surprised to see them all take a a very different route in what felt to me like totally the wrong direction. I figured they knew something I didn’t, but we weren’t quick enough to keep up so we could try to follow and miss the line so we stuck to our chosen route. Much to my surprise, many people were going over Craig Ysgafn as well given that we weren’t doing Moelwyn Bach this seemed like extra climb when we could just descend directly to Llyn Stwlan (Cronfa Reservoir) . We took the direct route down which didn’t look to bad from the top.
“Another one of your crazy descents Chris?” (not sure there was a question mark at the end this time). This one turned out to be just that. It wasn’t that bad, but having relooked at the maps I think the best route was to just cover off the other bump. At one point of the descent I lost my footing, fell forward down the slope (on rocks) bounced and rolled 360 degrees sideways as if I had laid down to roll down the hill. Thankfully I stopped after one rotation and got to stand up to finish the descent. The thought did flash through that it might be curtains for me, but luckily not so it was on with the show!
To my delight several groups followed, or rather, they chose to come down the same way as they wouldn’t have seen us until committed to the descent – so I wasn’t totally barking… well, I just wasn’t the only one at least! We also caught up with people that were 5+ minutes ahead or kept pace with the faster people so I was pleased with the route despite everything.
Wendy appeared again only this time she had lost her map. We offered her Denvy’s map which was unlikely to see the light of day and she offered to show us the rather tricky to find path down as a thank you. At this point Steve Birkinshaw came flying past which was really something to behold. He looked totally fresh again – the night before he had specifically come to find me and have a chat after we had arrived in which took me a little by surprise, not least because we’d only just found a tent. He’d mentioned how tough he’d found the first day and was interested to see how we’d faired. How many sports do you get that in? Sums up mountain running in the UK for me, the best in the sport appear to have no ego and are genuinely interested in the other taking part. No big “I am”, just another bloke out there loving the fact he gets to share the mountains with other likeminded souls.
Finding the path down would have been difficult and I was very happy to have Wendy at the helm as she had recced it before. We’d decided to take the road rather than the rough ground and after checking out a disused railway only to find it overgrown and unsuitable, we took the long stretch of A470 to Trawsfynydd – what the drivers must have thought I can only hazard a guess!
We were all moving about the same speed and cracked on as a six. Denvy, Rob and I could have pushed on as a three, but although we never discussed it we reigned ourselves in a few times to stay together and enjoy the day as a team. In hindsight we probably lost and gained – lost as we could have moved quicker; gained as in places we would have spent more time if we didn’t hit the line right.
That said, we took a bad line whilst attempting to pass by Bwlch Gwylim on the way to Llyn Cwm Bychan. We went well wide despite Rob spotting the path (probably) and took in a lot of rough, boggy tussocks as a result – if only Yannis had been there
The descent to Llyn Cwm Bychan was magnificent. The Llyn slowly reveals itself and then boom, It’s all there. Given the rate perfect weather we were having (the Mizzle only lasted until we got off the Moelwyns) I was totally blown away. My only regret is not capturing it on video.
The drop bag crew were fantastic again. I grabbed some soup and refilled my cake stash. We really spent too long there, but time was not at the forefront of our minds.
The group started out and I waited for Rob. Despite a 10 minute head start we caught up quickly on the Roman steps and headed up to Rhinog Fawr.
If you skip to 6:22 on my video diary there is a 360 from the top of Rhinog Fawr; what a stunning area – no wonder it’s Yannis’ favourite part of Wales!
I’m not going to lie, I feared the Rhinogs. I’d heard many tales about how dreadful it is underfoot and missing the path leads to hours of slow movement and despair. I didn’t find it like that at all. I felt we had good paths which were easy to find throughout, but I spent the whole time anticipating the bad news – it was just around the corner wasn’t it?
I’m sure the crystal clear visibility and A1 perfect weather helped (it was blooming hot mind). I know people that have visited the mountains of Snowdonia for over 20 years and haven’t had such good weather – the foreign competitors may be lulled into a false sense of security and return to take on the dragon again only to find disorientating zero visibility, freezing conditions and feel like they would have stayed dryer sitting in the bath; but right then there was nowhere I’d rather be.
Such a spectacular range of mountains, views, terrain and relative desolation cannot be beaten. Fair play to British Columbia, the Argentinean lake district and the Himalayas – they have all blown my mind but in a different way. Their beauty is individual, not to be compared, just enjoyed in that moment.
Up until the race I’d not explored Southern Snowdonia as it’s awkward to manage the logistics. Being out there I felt very privileged to have been shown the secret. I’ll spend the rest of my life returning to the area now; any logistical difficulties are well worth it!
From the top of the Rhinogs the mountains just don’t seem to stop until the sea. Sure there are settlements that can be seen, but I found them to almost disappear like a mirage as my visual cortex filtered them out.
Back to business and the descent from Rhinog Fawr. It seemed a shame not to be taking in Rhinog Fach; tantalisingly close and as we descended the tight gully to the South of Rhinog Fawr’s summit I couldn’t help but be touched by a little disappointment. Day 2 was described as the Moelwyns and the Rhinogs, yet we only did a Moelwyn and a Rhinog. Did it save us a lot? Not in distance really and I guess about an hour in total effort max, although I may be underestimating Guess I’ll just have to go back and have a go another day!
When a course is printed on a map it feels a shame not to do it, but the game is to get up each morning, get your brief and race the controls that are open. I’ve recently read a series of forum posts by people not involved in the race; throwing stones from their armchairs about how the event is devalued by cutting it short – the fact is that the event was longer in distance and clearly harder judging by the winning times. It smacked of jealousy more than anything else and on reflection I just felt sorry for them – the type of person that complains about the content of a radio or TV show that they don’t listen to/ watch and have no intention of ever listening to/ watching. Sad really.
We came up to Y Llethr (which looked a tad easier to get to from Rhinog Fach but I may be wrong) and the stunning environment just kept on giving. The views from each control were just amazing and kept coming. Seeing the last control (Diffwys) from Y Llethr was particularly spectacular; not just for the 360, but I suspect also because it was the last control. It allowed the sense of achievement to sink in and I could reflect on another magnificent day. I was striding ahead now on the climbs, but those are my finishing legs. I always subconsciously save something back for that point where I know the end is in sight. I had no intentions of splitting from our trio, I was trying to pull things on though by setting a target for everyone else to chase. As a team we all did this across the course of the day – whether that was conscious or not – in this environment it’s too easy to drift off and forget the imperative to keep moving quickly – watching the video back it’s clear the ball is dropped a few times. There is no time to stop and stare!
Finishing in the dark adds a lot of extra time. We were very keen to avoid the dark tonight and get to those hot showers! The end of the day consisted of a mean descent, a forest track to the road, a trail to remove as much main road as possible and then a couple of Km’s on the road to the campsite. We got to the forest track with Wendy and Chris still with us and we started to jog the path. Next thing I remember is somebody saying that Wendy and Chris were no longer with us. We cracked on and since the others were no longer with us we picked up our pace as we raced the daylight.
We just about managed the trail without head torches and didn’t need them on the road. We arrived exhausted but elated again. Again the tent situation was poor. Arriving in the dark and looking at each tent, as you’re tired and hungry, for a small piece of tape whilst dragging two try bags around was bonkers, frustrating and led to more than one sense of humour failure around camp.
Whilst the camp had hot showers it was also a terrible lay out. We had to walk quite a distance to everything and food was in a totally different field. It just didn’t work… but damn that shower was good!
Tent found, feet dried and talc’ed, Wendy and Chris arrived. Denvy asked for her map back… oh dear. Wendy was not happy and felt that we’d just used/ followed her on all the “good lines” and then sprinted off to leave her at the end. This really wasn’t the case or intention and I was really sorry she felt that way. Whilst we certainly benefitted coming down from the Cronfa reservoir and were grateful not to have to find that “path”, we’d just been going at roughly the same pace and it was comforting to have a bigger group that seemed to agree on the navigation. It had been nice to spend the day with others too. I guess we could have covered the road section a lot quicker and we may well have crossed between Trawsfynydd and Bwlch Gwylim quicker through hitting the path earlier, but there was no guarantee that what Rob saw was a path. The rest of the Nav was simple and between Rob, me and the clear visibility we would have been quick and accurate enough. So whilst I’m sorry this feeling existed, I didn’t feel guilty about it (despite being accused of it for the rest of the week :), but that’s a different story) and I’m certain Wendy would have done the same if she could have.
The real story was 2 days down, just shy of 28 hours out on the mountains, 75 Miles covered and 7595m of ascent and 7609m of descent and 5 hours before I was up to take on a “long day”. I couldn’t wait.
Day 2 Stats:
Distance: 57.1km (35.5 miles)
Ascent: 3000m (9842 ft)
Descent: 3063m (10048 ft)
Time taken: 13 hours 26 minutes.
My Video Diary:
Official Video teaser for day 2: