The Peris Horseshoe – Taking on the best of the best!

Originally posted on September 17, 2013 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

Let us make no bones about it, the Peris horseshoe is a beast. 2600m (8500ft) of climb is squeezed into a mere 29KM (17.5 miles) and six splendid peaks: Elidir Fawr, Y Garn, Glyder Fawr, Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and Moel Cynghorion. Full details and .GPX files can be found here:

Those looking for a stern challenge can take on the half Peris which starts in Llanberris and after a short flat race to the quarry entrance it is up, up, up to Elidir Fawr, a short descent and fantastic run-able track around to the short climb to Y Garn, then another relatively short descent takes you to the base of Glyder Fawr. Summit there and the red spot path is all that stands between you and the finish at Pen-y-Pass.

Those attempting the full horseshoe must continue on from Pen-y-Pass (assuming completion in the half in under 2 hours 45 minutes) to take on Lliwedd, Snowdon and Moel Cynghorion. Lliwedd is another brutal climb to sit in perfect contrast with the beautiful surroundings. From the peak with the right visibility, you are treated to a view of the insane climb and terrain that is in store. The ground is very technical and no words need to be exchanged for you to know that every competitor is asking why they have to descend so far before commencing the final assault on Snowdon.

The steepness of the ascent results in plenty of scrambling and just when you thought the summit would never arrive, it’s there. Number passed to the marshals and the race is on down the Ranger path before breaking off to add Moel Cynghorion just because it is there it would seem. I have no idea what the gradient is that follows, what I can say is that it is but a few degrees of the realms of possibility and simply destroys your quads (4 days on and I am still struggling to walk without pain). Boggy ground and a small stream crossing are all that stand between you and the short climb to Maesgwm and the final run into Victoria woods.

I’d recced the route twice before, once in very poor visibility where we ditched the final peak as we’d done some of the other several time due to disorientation! The other occasion involved deep snow, microspikes, shorts, stunning alpine weather and many strange disbelieving looks from those with full crampons and ice axes. As such I had at least some idea of how long it would take; I set myself a target of sub 5 hours with a hope of going sub 4:45 and a dream of scraping under 4:30. The race this year was one of the British championships so the best of the best were there to show us hobbyists how it is done – given that field I’d set my target as being in the top 90.

Jeff McQueen and I travelled down together – I’d never beaten Jeff in a race and his running CV includes 10 Comrades finishes and a top 5 finish at the Lakeland 100… no slouch! Fantastic comany and great to catch up. We started out and in the initial scrum to get up Elidir Fawr Jeff surged ahead. By the time I reached the summit Jeff was long gone and invisible to me due to sweat in my eyes, needing to look where I place my feet and… sheer distance ahead really! I hoped I’d be able to get close and potentially challenge him on the second half, but I was just concentrating on my own race.

Climbing Elidir Fawr – Excellent photography by Simon Murray

I’d worn my fantastic race belt but I’d drunk the wrong bottle on the way up so the rear bottle jumped out as I started hammering down the descent. As I went to retrieve it Nicky Spinks whizzed past asking if I was ok. I took the opportunity to readjust the belt length and get the full bottle in the front pouch before chasing after Nicky. Whilst my general speed is relatively slow at the minute I was making good ground around to Y Garn. As I hit the climb I’d overtaken Nicky again and was momentarily sidetracked by a clearing in the visibility. Y Garn is my favourite peak in the UK, with clear visibility the views are unrivalled as they take in Snowdon, Llanberis, the Glyders and the Carneddau.

Kit malfunction aside, I was happy with how I was going – pacing was good and I was cracking on to Glyder Fawr without losing places and maybe even sneaking a couple on the climb up to the summit. Just before the summit I was shocked to see Jeff who had slowed significantly. I passed him just before the summit and began down my Nemesis… the red spot path! I have never got this damn thing right and I’m not super quick on technical descents but I tried to hold my place as others breathed down my neck.

It didn’t last long, Nicky passed me and slowly started to build a sizeable gap by the bottom. It seemed for the first time I was actually sticking to the path… but as a group streamed out from a clear track to my left I realised that whilst I had certainly come down the red spot path it had not been the fastest route as I’d lost several places… one day I’ll work it out!

Arriving at Pen-y-Pass I got my bottles ready for refill only to find they had run out of water! Disaster! I was already gasping – luckily Wayne came to the rescue with his mobile support services and was able to spare me half a bottle (~150ml) of water; serious lifesaver. I set about making up the time I had lost by being a little slow on the descent and overtook a number of people including Nicky by the time I’d reached the base of Lliewdd. As I refuelled on the way up Nicky overtook me – roughly 1/3rd of the way up and I managed to stick with her step for step for a further third or so. I was then treated to a master class in climbing as my strength drained it appeared that Nicky was just getting stronger and stronger. Suffice to say, this was the end of my battle with Nicky; I never saw her again!

I was really struggling with mild dehydration by the summit of Snowdon and I’d felt my recent lethargy return. If I’m honest I don’t think I’ve got the L100 out of my legs yet and my running mojo has been missing for a little while (May-ish) which hasn’t helped my training. No excuses though, just aspects to work on and it’s nice to know I’ve got room for improvement that I can target for next year.

The end is near! Photo by Simon Murray

I hit the summit and spent a minute or so filling bottles and downing water to bring my balance back; the race was on! I slowly made my way through the field, moving from 75th I took 11 places before the finish. 64th against many of the finest fell runners in the country and a time of 4 hours and 20 minutes. I was pretty chuffed overall!

So what did I learn this time? Well, I learned that to do well in a race like this with a stella field (winning time was Rob Jebb in 3:12:29 – frankly astonishing!) then I need to target it as a specific race – knowing I can run long and manage the mountains is a big difference from racing long in the mountains. I’ve simply got to increase my basic speed and my experience of feeling on the edge of effort. Aerobically I felt I could have done more but my leg strength wasn’t there. To give myself fair crack of the whip I think that running long races where I’d expect to continue for two, four or maybe more times the duration has taken some of that away and it’s easy on those longer races to tell yourself to ease back on a climb. Thus my plan is two fold:

1)      Continue to adjust my training plan to ensure I have a mixture of focused quality sessions to work on:

  • Speed (Overall base pace & pace management)
  • Leg strength
  • Skill
  • Strength
  • Stretching (Yes, I think it’s about time)
  • Specificity

2)      Gym and Mental preparation

  • Functional strength/ pre-fatiguing muscle groups to simulate the feeling of a long run without the consequence of the impact
  • Focus for pace management, controlling the central governor and learning from others

The big question for me is whether gym work will provide me with genuine functional leg strength that translates to the hills… it’s something I think I should try, but I’ll be looking out for thoughts/ experience from others that have done this too. I’m also planning to put in two sessions a couple of days per week – the second of which would be a recovery run focused on skill and leaving me wanting more at the end of each session.

Whilst I look at my race diary and laugh at my inability to say no – I am supporting a 52 mile run including an ascent of Snowdon on the weekend, I have several fell races left, cross country season is about to start, I have 3 ultras (40, 46 and 50 miles) in the Brecon Beacons and I couldn’t resist another crack at the Tour de Helvellyn to cap off the year. That aside, I have dropped out from the Spine which would have put me out of action for several months and I have made a decision to start training for a “fast” marathon – Fast for me is a sub 3 hour marathon. I’m convinced I’ll be far more competitive in my ultras if I can nail a fast marathon, the focus required to maintain the pace, the pace itself, the training required; it should all contribute to putting me in a new category. I will also continue to get out in the mountains regularly either walking or running and use cross country and fell races to work on my speed and race focus/ mentality. I will also need to work on saying no to long fun sounding races too!

Back to the day, Jeff made it in just before the five hour target we’d set ourselves. I think Jeff would be the first to admit he struggled on the day – speaking after he’d finished it reminded me of the way I’d felt after my first attempt of the Welsh 1000m peaks race. That day I got taught a stern lesson in the harsh realities of racing in Northern Snowdonia – I guess all that beauty comes at a price, but if it were easy we would value it less. For Jeff, starting out too quickly and the wrong shoes (Hokas) had made the course harder than it already was.

Despite the sincerely arduous nature of the race I will most definitely be back; I hope Jeff will be too. The only thing missing for me was getting to see the top runners blasting across the mountain, but then I’d not have been able to race, so it was a small price to pay. I’ve got a glaring target for this race now though as I think that if I came into the race fresh and on form I think a sub 4 hour time would be possible… now that would really be something!

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