Sunday 28 October 2012

Snowdonia Marathon - Marathoneryri - a once-in-a-lifetime race?

This weekend, Nic and I joined our friends Roy and Chris for a relaxing run around Llanberis and surrounding villages, at the Snowdonia Marathon.  The story of why we were there goes back just over a year, to my failed attempt at a PB in the 2011 Abingdon Marathon.  And once we got there, we enjoyed what can only be described in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Cast your mind back to October 2011, when I was disappointed that my body, while clearly in the best condition it ever had been in, failed me for a second year as I attempted to break 3:20.  I knew I needed to put a lot more focus on my core strength and add more long, fast running to my schedule.  Then, I had to write a few "for fun" races off my schedule while I recovered the minor niggles.  It's safe to say that I wasn't in the best frame of mind for scheduling a fast road marathon for the third straight year.

If we fast-forward slightly to January 1st, 2012, when I came back from a slightly "merry" 5k jog to clear the fog, I had a text from Roy notifying me that entries had opened, and would be closing very quickly indeed.  So, with both Nic and me still somewhat judgement-impaired from bringing in the New Year, we decided it would be a great first road marathon for Nic.  I decided that I'd had enough tilting at the 3:20 windmill and would enjoy doing a road race somewhere "just for the fun of it".

Then, the magical racing year that has been 2012 happened.  As part of my ultra preparation, I had increased the core work, added a 4th run to my standard running schedule, and was enjoying the benefits of consistent training.  By the end of August, every race I had run was either a course best (trail) or personal best (1mi, 1.3mi, 5km, 1/2mara). So, I started to look at 2011 Marathoneryri times from runners I know and compare against that 3:32 from Amsterdam to see if there was any chance of keeping my streak alive with another road PB.  I concluded that it would be tight, but possible, and put a little more work into finding a sustainable uphill running effort for the final hill of the race.  The idea of cracking my PB, set on a pancake-flat course, among the hills of Snowdonia struck me as the sort of convoluted achievement that I particularly enjoy.  After all, a PB is always nice, but setting it with an extra 2500ft of ascent is so much better!

Along comes race day, and everything is set - after a few flakes of snow overnight, the sun came up to bring that rarest of beasts, a cold, bright, and dry day.  Everyone was amazed - it was the first clear day the race had seen in many years.  The previous 4 had all been held in truly wretched conditions.  After my warm up (yes, even for a marathon!), I made a quick trip to the car to dig out the sunglasses to deal with that funny thing showing between the clouds.

What's that bright thing behind the mountain?

Heading to the start line - sunnies at Snowdonia?!?

It's only a road marathon - how hard can it be?
Nic was in charge of the camera today.

The race, in all, was an exercise in guesswork - there were no sections of the course where I could judge whether my pace would get me the time I wanted, because it's such an undulating route.  I started the first half mile slowly (8:30mm) and just kept an easy effort going to the bottom of the first hill.  As the road went down, the pace got faster, and when we hit the hill just after two miles, I just kept the rpms high and spun up like I would on a bike.  I removed my Buff, pushed up my sleeves, and unzipped my top and just kept ticking along.  Just after 4.6 miles, it was time for the downhill.  Barring a few interruptions to climb up some very small hills, that downhill lasted a good 8.5 miles.

Most road races don't boast views like this!

Totally unable to tell if I was running fast enough or too fast based on pace, I went for the logic of "if I'm hot, it's too fast".  I tried to keep my effort level just high enough to feel warm, using my sleeves, zip, Buff, and gloves to manage the changing effects of the sun and wind.  At half way, I was on 3:20 pace, which I knew was an unrealistic expectation because the second half has more ascent than the first half.  So, I mentally allowed myself a net 5-minute loss for the final hill, did my best not to lose too much on the steady drag from 13-15 miles (I lost 2 minutes), and kept repeating the mantra "every minute not lost is a minute off your PB!" for the 10km in between.  This is the bit where Nic got bored of running on the road, so I'm glad to have had a goal to help me keep focus.

Snowdon off in the distance

The climb at Waunfawr hurt, as expected.  Hamstrings and calves started to rebel, and eventually I was pushed to a speed-walk to use some different muscles and try to stretch out the screaming ones. The run-walk strategy got me up the hill and I finally got to enjoy the final descent into Llanberis, although I got a gentle reminder that the legs have to be as ready as the head when I clipped a rock on the trail and spent a few seconds on the ground.

Just a short burst down to Llanberis and it's all over!

With a mad sprint down the mountain for 1.3 miles, I clawed back enough of the walking time to finish in 163rd with 3:31:16 - 70 seconds faster than I'd run on the flat roads of the Dutch capitol.  Twisted, for sure, but also evidence that two years of (mostly) consistent marathon and ultra racing are really paying off.  A personal best on a course with 2500ft of climbing, a sunny day at the Snowdonia Marathon - it's a combination that will almost certainly never happen again.

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