Stephan and I are holed up in Caseg Fraith recovering from the race. My brain is not at it’s best, but I wanted to write a race report for all of you who have been dot watching this week (I might do something more detailed about prep etc., one of these days). Knowing you were watching and receiving your encouragement really meant a huge amount to us and fuelled us across the mountains. We love dot watching, but are aware that there’s of course absolutely no context to what you’re seeing. So this is what happened…
So, Monday morning, Conwy Castle. We’d dropped off all our bags the night before, changed into our race gear in the car and walked up the hill to the YHA ready for the next morning. We decided to wake up as late as we could, so had trotted back down the hill to the Castle for 06:25 (we were supposed to be there by 06:30). With hindsight, I think we followed the advice I give my students pretty well: Don’t turn up to exams really early and let everyone psyche you out! Our friends Kim and Andy met us at the castle to see us off, with an awesome cow bell we could hear ringing through the Castle walls. They’d also fed us and put up with us fussing for all of the preceding weekend! Our friend Sam was on the event team and gave us a big hug too. We’d volunteered for the sister race to this one the previous year (Cape Wrath) so knew lots of the event team, who also showered us with good luck wishes; there are too many awesome Oureans to list, but you know who you are! I think we were both crazy nervous by the time the choir started, not so much because of the race but because of all the people looking down at us from the walls. It’s nervewracking to know that only 1/2 the people in that castle will be on the finish line.
Most of you will know that I’ve had some back problems over the last year that have really hindered my training. Over Easter weekend Stephan and I wanted to reccy the last section we had left, Ogwen to Nant Gwynant. We’ve done the mountains in this section loads of times, but wanted to check we could do them in a reasonable time. I was using this as a test run; if it went badly I would pull out of the race. But it didn’t go badly, it was super fun and I was feeling really fit, until the descent off the ridge when my left knee started hurting. This was a new injury… I never have problems with my left leg. So what should I do? I decided it was a niggle and ignored it. It flared up again a few weeks later at GL3D, but I hoped the two weeks between GL3D and the Dragon would be enough for it to work itself out. So I started the race knowing that I maybe had two ticking time bombs, my back and/or my knee. But I have a feeling that a lot of people on that start line would have the same problem, it’s sort of the nature of long distance running.
Anyway, we started off quite strong. I am not very good in actual races, when people are zooming past I get quite stressed and don’t pace myself well. Luckily Stephan yelled at me a bit; our pace was fine and definitely sustainable for 50km. The bad news was that me knee flared up down the first hill (Conwy Mountain). This was really not good. I tried to ignore it, but it got worse and worse, sending a shooting pain down my leg with every descent. That continued for the next 20-30km. Every downhill we were really slow, I was feeling sick and was having to use my poles as crutches or having to run sideways like a crab. We’re strong on the ups so made up some of the time, but it seemed as though most people had overtaken us. I really have to thank Sarah and Julie for their encouragement at this point. Faced with having to pull out before the mid-way point on Day 1, I was in a really bad place, but Stephan, Julie and Sarah really helped me get out of it.
I can’t really explain what happened next. Stephan and I had a serious conversation about the fact that he would need to leave me soon to make the cut off. We’d prepared for this before the race and I had already said that even if just one of us made the whole five days I’d be super happy. So we agreed that I would try to keep up with Stephan, but if I fell behind he would have to go on without me. I think my knee must have heard this because it sort of just got better. Not completely, but definitely became more manageable, and I was able to keep up with Stephan down Pen Yr Ole Wen and we made the cut off with some time to spare. I don’t really understand how something that painful can just “get better”, but it did.
The rest of Day 1 went superbly well. I changed my shoes at the drop off and my feet and legs felt like new when we started again. We beasted up Tryfan, which is basically my favourite bit. Scrambling suddenly uses different muscles to walking, so it’s a bit of a break. We made the cut off at Pen-y-Pass, again with enough time to do some sorting. It was awesome to see Matt, who was super lovely and encouraging as ever. We set off up to Crib Goch feeling pretty good. We walked with Mike, one of the other Cape Wrath, volunteers for a bit, but weren’t sure if my knee would hold up forever so decided to get a move on while it was feeling good. We’ve done Crib Goch quite a few times and have learnt how to do it quickly and remove some of the slip and die bits (by walking off the main ridge, for example), so we overtook quite a lot of people here. In fact, since Pen Yr Ole Wen, we’d gained quite a bit of time. There were lots of event crew strung along Crib Goch, which was really motivating. Some banter with Jimmy the photographer half way was particularly uplifting; apparently not many other people had been smiling at that point! We managed the horseshoe pretty quickly, although we got a bit lost of Lliwedd, getting distracted by other people who insisted there was a shortcut (there wasn’t ). We were pretty slow after Lliwedd; I still wasn’t really able to run downhill, but was trotting faster than at the start of the day. Stephan became a bit of a pied piper for a bit, with those less good at navigating tagging on to us for the less obvious bits. We made camp before dark, which was really handy, although there were annoying midges. So Day 1 over and we felt pretty confident, only just missing out target time of 14 hours.
Before the race I had been quietly confident about Day 1 if injuries would hold on. It’s the bit we know best, so is easier to mentally check off mountains in your head and gauge progress. Day 2 was a different matter; the terrain around the Moelwyns can be challenging, and most people dread the Rhinogs. We had had an epic on our reccy in this area, so were a little intimidated. I felt okay on Day 2 though. My knee problem had gone and I had no back problems. I also had no feet issues from Day 1, which was lucky. Stephan though was feeling pretty rough and had a tricky time of the first half of Day 1. I wasn’t really sure what to do, so offered encouraging words and took the lead to keep our pace up. Stephan perked up as we left the Moelwyns and we ran through the Vale of Ffestiniog without too many issues. We stopped in The Grapes Hotel for a pint of Coke. Just after this Jim Mann went flying past us, running uphill (crazy). We were still strong by the mid-point, where we got away from the crowd and sat with our feet in a stream. Stephan had a few blisters by this point, which he patched up, and I stuffed myself with rehydrated scrambled eggs.
The second half started off pretty well too. We had found some alternative routes up the Rhinogs, which seemed to gain us a bit of time on some of the other runners (though it’s hard to tell as we generally seemed to be faster uphill than a lot of people, but a lot slower downhill!). We met up with Luke, another of the Cape Wrath volunteers, and showed him the steep way off the Rhinogs. Luke is a hero basically; he had a chest infection and has still outlasted us in the race. But more importantly, he’s had a smile on his face the whole time and encouraged everyone he’s met. What a legend. Anyway, on the descent we were really slow again, so Luke, Megan and the others we were walking with soon left us behind. I was completely knackered by this point and had a feeling I had blisters everywhere… I should have changed my shoes at the mid-way point, but hadn’t because I was worried my Inov-8 Talons were too sloppy for scrambling up the Rhinogs. With hindsight I should have done this, because we limped into the finish only 30 minutes before cut off and consequently had almost no time to sort ourselves out for the next day. I had two blisters, one pretty big on my little toe. I sorted it okay and we got about four or five hours sleep I think. At this point, we were pretty sure we wouldn’t start the race the next day.
BUT we woke up feeling good on Day 3. Well, not good, horribly stiff, but able to move. It took us a little while to get going, and we left at 0635 instead of 0600, but we felt like we’d needed that time to get mobile again. We started off super strong, much better than on Day 2 and started to catch up with guidance times. The weather was much colder and I think this really helped me. Most mountain marathoners seem to have race times that vary with the weather, i.e. they get slower if it’s cold or wet. Stephan and I have never really had this problem for some reason, and I think for me not being in the sun was a real bonus and allowed us to fly across Cadair Idris. We took a shortcut after Cadair and caught up with quite a few people, so felt pretty positive. At this point, I really thought we were going to smash Day 3, even though we’d left late.
But then it started going a bit wrong. Down into the valley I slowed down again and was feeling a bit crashy. I had some gels and knew we needed to run through the valley so make up some time. We managed this and ran all the way to Bird Rock at a fairly good pace. But it turned out that I’d only managed to keep the crash at bay, not get rid of it. The sun came out and started baking us again and I just couldn’t get my speed up. Jim Mann flew past us again and told us to keep going. I thought to myself, Yeah Rumble, get a move on! And I did manage to up the pace for about 10 paces and then slowed down again. Coming down towards the railway a group of ladies sitting on a bench cheered us on and I burst out crying. That was the beginning of the end really. I still felt happy, but just kept crying all the time and/or hyperventilating. I was still eating, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything. Stephan told me he couldn’t eat any more either and that it was inevitable that he’d crash at some point. We tried to move quicker up Tarrenhendre, but I just couldn’t and eventually was ill half way up (sorry to my sister who I had to hang up on!). Time slipped away and away and about half way up we knew we couldn’t meet the cut off. On the way down we got politely “swept” by Colin, who suggested we skip the last peak, which we duly did down an adventurous esoteric shortcut. As we got to Machynlleth, we happened to bump into our tent mate, Nico, who it seemed had also not had a great day. We slowed down to watch some baby pheasants, bought a Coke in Machynlleth and made it to the checkpoint 90 minutes late, out of the race. We decided not to do any more of the course either; we’ve done the whole route in bits and would rather recover sooner for another adventure. The only downside is missing the party on Friday and not being able to cheer on those who are still in the race (Go Lisa, Luke, Megan, Julie, Dan and Louise!). And of course, missing out on chats with the Oureans.
I hope that gives an idea of what was going on under the dots! We’re going to do very little for a few days while our muscles get back to normal. Thanks to everyone for your support on our adventure. Even though we didn’t finish, we have had an amazing experience and couldn’t have done it without people cheering us on.