Ultra Trail Snowdonia

Andy Wright had never done an Ultra run before so decided that a good starting place would be the most brutal 50 miler that Snowdonia could muster.  Below he describes his experience at the 2019 UTS50

The Idea

For some time now I’ve been keen to try my hand at an Ultra, though some level of depravaity led me to decide to start my Ultra journey by picking a race as brutal as the UTS50.   The seed had been sown 12 months previously when a group of us met race organiser Michael Jones during our Welsh 3000s challenge.  I’m sure he did mention something about tough climbs etc, but all I heard was “top quality coffee at all the check points” and so it was that I’d signed up and began training.

During a recce 2 months before the race I finally realised what I had let myself in for, but by this stage it was paid for so there was no way I was not going to finish.  The figures for the race explain why it earns the tagline “Beautiful Beyond Belief.  Savage Beyond Reason.” 

This 50 mile (85km) route has 5,100m of climb in it which is more than a parkrun.  The expected finish times reflect how this compares to regular 50 mile runs.  The winner is expected to come in around the 12 hour mark, with most finishers taking more like 20 hours and some 30 hours to complete the course.

The big brother to this is the UTS100 which sends runners off on a separate 50 mile loop the previous day, before coming back around to join us 50 mile runners as their second half.  Most of these runners will spend 2 nights out running over various Snowdonia ranges.

 

Race HQ

Plenty of space was available for those keen to camp at the start/finish

Fast forward to May 2019 and after training going almost to plan I was arriving at race HQ with fellow club member Iain Illstone.  Race HQ had moved this year, so we now had one of the car parks in the Llanberis Quarry.  This was brilliant for us for parking the campervan, though some really hardy folks were pitching tents on this crushed slate in the section of the car park which was roped off for this purpose.

We just missed the 100 mile runners who had set off at 1pm on the Friday, though we did get to experience the downpour that welcomed them to the mountains in the first hour of their run.  Fortunately for all involved, the rest of the weekend had a much finer forecast.

With the nature of this event kit check was very thorough, not every mountain in the area is served by a railway line so the rather extensive kit list ensures that you are prepared for any eventuality.  Even the quality of your footwear was assessed as part of the pre race check, but the most important item of kit for this race was a folding cup (did I mention the top quality coffee?)

With race number and GPS tracker collected, the remainder of the afternoon and evening is then a case of finding ways to fill your time.  For some this was packing and repacking your kit numerous times, but I’d got everything ready in one box for Saturday morning as I had no plans to do any thinking in the final hour pre race.  So we settled down with some food and a beer before setting several alarms and attempting to get an early night.

Race Day

Ready and eager to start

4am Saturday the alarms went off and the campsite came to life.  With temperature a little above freezing, we were dressing ready for the heat of the sun that would be our companion for most of the day.  Pre race routine was the same you would see at any race, but in the dark: keep warm, drink some lovely coffee, get some food down you and pay a final visit to the plastic throne room.

By 5am the sun was starting to make an appearance so we didn’t need to take out the head torches at this stage, just wander over to the start line and await the starters announcement, minutes later and this has finally started.  A year of planning and I’m doing my first 50 mile race.  All runners know how important it is to control your pace at the start of a race and not go off too fast, but nobody ever does and today was no exception.  We were all keen to get out of the quarry, and off the tarmac as soon as possible.  Only once we were travelling up Maesgwm did everyone really seem to settle into their long distance pace.  With legs and body now warmed up it was time to start our first climb of the day.

For once the summit of Snowdon was free of cloud.  Yet Snowdon was not our first port of call, we had two other ranges to cover before our first visit to Snowdon, and both of these had cloud sat firmly on top of them.  This did not detract from the amazing views on the climbs and descents though.  The first big descent of the day was down to our first feed station at Waunfawr.  This began with a lovely grassy descent that was very runnable.  I wasn’t about to start bashing my knees by trying to slow down on this and just let go and enjoyed the work that gravity was doing for me.  Later on this turned to tarmac so I took it a bit gentler in order to pace myself for a planned day.

My pacing strategy felt to be working.  I wasn’t chasing a particular finish time as I had no idea what I could achieve.  All I was hoping for was that the scariest part of the course, a ridge known as Y Lliwedd, might be completed before it got dark.  But that was an issue for this evening and we still had the day to get through.

 

Breaking Point

 

On the ascent of Mynydd Mawr, looking back to the previous stage over Moel Eilo

After a quick feed on the feast that was set out in Waunfawr, we restocked with water and electrolytes and set off up through some lovely scenery up to Mynydd-Mawr.  Climbing first through woodland, then through some abandoned slate miners huts, we began to see the variety of hidden gems that this route excels at showcasing.  The trekking poles were out in force here, though neither of us were using poles, instead we picked our way through the field using just our legs.  It was here that I first began to feel problems in my knee.  This worried me as a pain in that knee had caused me to cut short a training run a few weeks previously, though nothing I could do about that now.

We crossed the peak of Mynydd-Mawr and began to descend where we very quickly emerged from the cloud and could see our next 6 hours of running mapped out for us.  Looking up to the East we could see Snowdon waiting patiently for todays onslaught of racers and tourists, while to the south you can see Y Garn and the Nant Ridge which was to be our first technical challenge of the day, yet before we can even contemplate either of these climbs we have to descend over 500m.

The ever versatile buff, here becoming a wrist support for a trekking pole

This descent really took it out on my knee, despite my best efforts to take care of it and make my descending smooth.  So it was that we came to run through Bedgellert Forest and I found my eyes drawn to the forest floor either side of the path.  Forget your £200 carbon fibre trekking poles, I’m after a basic wooden stick!  After a few severely rotten twigs I finally found a suitable candidate.  Light and strong, with a nice fork to form the grip.  It was amazing how much this helped me along the road section to the next aid station and when I saw the camera was out I even managed to smile as I ran.  Five minutes earlier I was seriously considering retiring at this 15 mile mark, but with ‘Stick’ keeping me company I now felt ready for the long slog up the Rangers Path to Snowdon.  I was atleast getting to Rhyd Ddu before retiring.

Picture Courtesy of Andy Milton Photography https://andymiltonphotography.smugmug.com/

Yr Wyddfa

Snowdon was a rather unremarkable experience, there are some far finer mountains alongside it so I’ll keep my description as it being busy even though it was hogging all the hail showers for itself and leaving neighbours with nothing but sunshine.

No time to stop at the café as we were about to head off down the lovely technical descent to Rhyd-Ddu.  I stashed ‘Stick’ behind some rocks incase I needed it later this evening, preferring to have my arms free for this descent.  Hot stepping from rock to rock down the hillside, I was really succeeding at looking several steps ahead and absolutely relished the work out for legs and brain that this gave.

 

Looking across to the Nantlle Ridge from the foot of the Rhyd Ddu path

Nantlle Ridge

The next stage was the toughest of the day, so we took time at the rest centre to rehydrate properly and then topped up our drinks again before setting off for the unforgiving climb to Y Garn.  This was akin to climbing a set of ladders in places, perhaps why Iain enjoyed it so much as it’s just like a day at work for him.

looking ahead to the approaching ridge, while it was still safe enough to brave the camera

From the top of this you drop slightly in order to cross the first stages of the Nantlle Ridge.  Not my favourite type of running by a long way.  With steep drops on either side and a narrow path that sometimes ceases to exist while you go bouldering for a short way.  Yet with the support of fellow runners I managed to overcome the reservations in my own mind.  Being led by a runner who had much experience of this ridge in all weathers and yet who still respected the risks really helped me over this, as did the runner behind who was a keen climber so made it all seem very easy.  This marked a key point in my day, as I’d now overcome personal fears and proven that I could get past this difficult and remote section without becoming rock-fast.

So we came to an amazing section of the route, where we would pass old mine workings in the most remote of areas, a testament to the tough work ethic of those in days gone bay.  Yet once again we have that evil game that Snowdonia loves to play, our next climb was an enormous climb up to Hebog, but before this you have a great deal of climbing and worse still, unnecessary descending just to make those climbs bigger.

Bedgellert

From Hebog there is an exciting section of loose rock at the top of the descent, but it is by no means a slow descent and soon I was letting gravity do it’s stuff and flying down that hill ready to reach the next rest centre at Bedgellert.  

  On top of the usual range of food and drink, this rest centre also housed our drop bags.  Having seen my number on the GPS tracker, the volunteers here had already rooted out my bag from the hundreds of others, and this was brought over to me as I sat and was waited on like a king.  Water bottles were refilled and I had a good feed on nuts from my own drop bag.  I also elected to go for a full change of clothes here.  Evening would be drawing on soon and I was very sweaty from the heat of the day, so in the interests of staying warm I went for a fresh t shirt along with tights and socks.

This section represents a real change of pace.  With very little climb it proves quite runnable, though the scenery was also a very different style.  Rather than rocky summits, we followed the riverside trail out of Bedgellert then crossed a small hill to get to the lakes of Llyn Dinas and Llyn Gwynant.  Crystal clear streams feeding these lakes were begging us to jump in and cool off, but common sense told us that we did not want damp kit 10km further on as we would be about 800m higher.

My stomach had finally given in by now and was refusing to take on any more food or liquid.  Hydration levels were about right at this point so I wasn’t too worried.  My body was well adapted to running fasted and we only had a half marathon to go now.

So began the trudge up to Pen Y Pass.  A combination of running and fast hiking had me making respectable time during this climb, but a misplaced step saw me crack my toes and I felt to have burst a blister.  In actual fact I had not blistered, but had simply torn the micropore tape off my hairy toes.  Far more painful than any blister!

Pen Y Pass saw two lively marshalls stopping their gazebo from being blown back to Llanberis whilst also looking after our every need. The folding cup came out to get myself a dose of coffee, plus a few slices of cheese that were supposed to be going into sandwiches, made it straight to my belly.

Snowdon the Sequal

As we climbed the Miner’s Track the sun was setting over Snowdon

Now my real nemesis had to be faced.  Y Lliwedd has two main weapons, firstly it has some exposed scrambling across the ridge, but equally it has a fierce rocky ascent that takes you up 400m from the lake after leaving the miners path.  The sun was setting as we climbed here, which made for some gorgeous skies, but I was perilously aware of my desire to get this bit done in daylight.

After some fierce climbing we were finally making our way along Y Lliwedd.  With more technical scrambling and careful walking than running, this actually turned out to be a really enjoyable section of the route.  Just one sting in the tail remained.  From the peaks of Y Lliwedd it is only a couple of hundred metres up to the summit of Snowdon, but that would be too easy wouldn’t it. 

At the 1km to the check point marker it cheekily seemed to be pointing vertically.

Instead the ridge drops severely before meeting the Watkins path and setting us up for the steep steps and scrambles that lead you up to the gale force winds that are whipping over the top of the Rhyd-Ddu ridge.  Bravely our marshalls here were set to battle through these conditions for the rest of the night, but for us there was only one thing in mind, that’s a run down to the finish.

With a sponsored sunset walk by Parkinsons, it was quite a busy evening on the Llanberis path.  Once we got to the bottom of the path and were crossing back over to Maesgwm, there was an amazing sight behind us as we saw the mountainside marked with dozens of pin pricks of light, each head torch representing another person out there enjoying Snowdonia in this magical moment. 

The Finish is in Sight

Now it’s barely a parkrun to go and we’ll be back at the finish. Knowing the food and entertainment were waiting for us, along with some warm showers, there was plenty of motivation to run the final section, even the road that climbs cruelly to the finish funnel.

This is it.  We’ve done it.  My first 50 miler and only my second ever Ultra, having completed one the previous month as part of race prep for this event.  Finally stopping and resting properly was a truly amazing feeling. 

  • I was proud to have done this. 
  • I was grateful that I’d been able to do this with ‘Fellow Wally’ Iain.
  • I was hungry enough to eat anything that was on offer.
  • I was an Ultra-Runner

With our push to the finish we managed to achieve a respectable time of 17:28:00 and arrived joint 50th out of 170 runners.  With only one runner managing sub 12 hours, this represents a very good result on such a course.

After showering, watching the band, chatting to fellow competitors and enjoying a finishers beer and feast it was now time to catch up on sleep.  Sadly my body doesn’t really appreciate when sleep is required, so after a few hours I was awake again and back at the finish line watching runners as they continued to arrive.  Everyone equally excited and proud to have finished, but everyone completely spent having given everything.  Sadly we couldn’t wait to see all the finishers coming in as we had a long drive ahead of us and I anticipated we would be needing lots of stops along the way.

Iain and Andy looking somewhat fresher having showered and slept before taking the finish line photo

2019 UTS50 Results

1st Place Josh Wade 11:12:00 (New Course Record)

Joint 50th Andy Wright / Iain Illstone Calder Valley FellRunners 17:28:00

Final finisher 30 hours (11am Sunday)

– Calder Valley News Reporter: Tim Brooks

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