Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Snowdonia Marathon

The Snowdonia Marathon. Sounds easy when you say it quickly. It’s also probably the most scenic road race in the UK, alongside the Langdale Marathon, and lined with friendly supporters all the way.

I’d done this one twice before:

2009: 4h46


2013: target sub-4.

After July’s Lakeland 50 I had 13 weeks in which to go from an ultra-distance, slow paced running routine to a fast, consistent paced, continuous running style. I had a week or so off after the 50 miler and then got back into things with the Cracken Edge fell race. My plan was to use the 50 as a general foundation for fitness, and slot some short, sharp speed work on top, combined with a good foundation of 8 to 15 mile runs.

Having done Snowdonia twice before I really couldn’t be bothered doing it too many times again, and the lack of a sub-4 hour finish was starting to annoy me. I set about devising a training schedule that had a mix of speed, distance and climb – all on the road therefore specific to the race in hand – working up to the clichéd 20 mile long run about 3 weeks before race day.

Luckily mrs theoptimistic runner had also signed up for the race, so more often than not our Sundays saw us getting up, sorting the kids out and doing family stuff then passing each other on the doorstep as we set out on our long runs.

Training for a specific time on a road marathon, at around 7 weeks before race day the long runs were getting to be 2+ hours long, and whilst they were enjoyable, I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel at times – the runs had to be done whether I felt like it or not. For the record I did about 85% of the training runs in my plan, if I ever missed something I’d try to make up for it by putting more into the next run, or taking the dog for an extra walk or something. During my training I did find some lovely routes over Werneth Low and down the back of Mellor, it’s always great when you discover new routes.

I averaged around 20 miles a week over 3 runs. I think I had two 30+ mile weeks. If you think that just by putting in the miles you will get the job done, you are wrong. It takes a good diet, a plan of how you’re going to run the race, a desire to do well with a positive mindset, and good overall fitness. Also – if you live by your schedule and you miss a session, the feelings of guilt and despair when you miss a run can really knock you back. By incorporating more factors that you can actually control, you stand a better chance of running the race you want to run.

My 20 mile long run a few weeks before the race was an absolute disaster and I was hobbling from about 15 miles onwards. Even downhilling I could only manage 7:30 minute miles. I put it down to a bad day and decided to bank the strength I’d gained – when you run 20 miles, no-one can take that away from you – either if you stuff yourself with junk food afterwards, or the run itself doesn’t go to plan, you’ve still done those 20 miles and your legs have still got that little bit stronger.

I think of running as building up a foundation of capability – so for instance on a marathon, if you can get to the stage where you feel comfortable for the first 15 miles, then you are only left with an 11.2 mile run – and an 11.2 mile run should be pretty straightforward for someone wanting to run a marathon. It’s a bit of kidology but similar to how I approach ultras – just keep chipping away and keeping yourself hydrated and fed, resetting yourself back to zero with food and drink from checkpoint to checkpoint as far as possible whenever you can.

In the 10 days leading up to the race I laid off all caffeine, processed food and cakes, but I did have a cheeky bottle of Pendle Witch’s Brew and it tasted rank! Together with mrs theoptimistic runner we knocked our cake intake right back and mainly kept to dark chocolate for treats. So we approached Carnarvon on the Friday night excited and ready to run the next day. We nipped to Llanberis to get our numbers and the weather was doing its worst – I’ve got to be honest and say if it stayed like that I wasn’t going to have a great run the next day.

We had a look around the registration area which has now moved into the Electric Mountain visitor centre and incorporates a mini-Expo (more like a jumble sale but it’s nice to see the race getting bigger and more popular by the year), and then ran back to our car through the wind and rain.

Tea on Friday was a big lasagne with sweet potato chips for me, and I finished off mrs t.o.r.’s steak and ale pie, along with a medicinal pint of stout. Breakfast on race morning was a bowl of porridge, with a full English in sandwich format to eat after the race.

On the day, things went great. The weather was perfect and we got there in plenty of time. I'd borrowed a Garmin to keep me on pace, anything like 8 mins on the flat, 7 mins on the downhills and 9 mins on the up would see me right to the tune of 3h39. I'd planned each mile against the course profile and my knowledge of the route and it felt achievable.

planned timings

Mile 1 went a minute faster than predicted so that was 60 seconds in the bank. Halfway up the climb to Pen-y-Pass I realised one of the Garmin displays was wrong, so I got that sorted and pushed on uphill.

When the road after Pen-y-Pass opens up and the route down the valley is laid out before you, at that point of a marathon, there aren't many better places to be in the world. The next downhill is as fast as you want it to be, the fastest part of the course, so I took advantage and got a couple of 6 minute miles under my belt - another 2 minutes in the bank.

From then on it's a bit more downhill to mile 8ish, then along the valley bottom to Bedgellert which seemed to take an age to come. Just keep the head down and concentrate on running, no thought about planning for retirement, pints at the end or anything else - stay focused on the job.

Bedgellert finally arrives along with the following uphill slog for a couple of miles. This gave me a chance to use some different leg muscles, there was a brief shower too which was a nice break as well. Time for another gel - during the race I took one at 3, 9, 16 and 21 miles. 9 and 21 were caffeine gels, I swear by SIS, they always seem to do the trick.

From mile 16 it's tough for a few reasons - no suppport, it's quite an isolated stretch, flat, and nearly 'wall' time. Time to bash out some consistent miles and tick them off. They fell soon enough, and a few runners overtook me. Just concentrate on my own timing and my own race; stick to the plan.

By this time we were approaching Waunfawr and the famous last climb - looking across the valley, it looked much the same as Lantern Pike near me which I run up all the time, which was reassuring.

There's no big story about the last hill on this run - I ran about 90% of it, but there were a couple of times I was reduced to a walk. I looked down at my watch  and it was about 3:15; I had around 3 miles to go. It was decision time. Find something extra in the tank and be home in half an hour, or forget it all and get back sometime later. The path flattened out and I pushed on, the quarry gradually came into view. I stopped for a quick drink at the final station and then it was time for the final descent. The last downhill on the tarmac is brutal at that stage of the race, but it's all free energy and I tried to take advantage as best I could.

Turning the corner into the finish strait in Llanberis I had the biggest smile on my face as I saw the clock: 3h39. I crossed the line and went into the kit hut. I was bleeding in 4 places and pretty emotional and had a bit of a moment to myself. After 9 months of planning and prep, and 2 previous attempts over the past 4 years, I'd done it. Should have run quicker in the first place!

I hope you enjoyed my tale.

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