When the red mist clears.
There is always an element of ‘red mist’ at the start of any race, no matter how relaxed you tell yourself you are. Surrounded by other runners, you start to think tactics and plot your stellar performance as your heart beats louder and your stomach flips. It’s less often that there is actual, literal red mist though. But this is how the UTS 50 began.
The event this year was a behemoth compared to last years’ low key affair. Now that UTMB are on board, the whole experience was different and in a way that made it even more exciting to be back in Wales. From the event village to the staff and volunteers, it was a slick and professional outfit with a real sense of occasion. For me, it was about coming back and having another grand day out, this time on a new course and one that I was convinced would be faster, even with a double ascent of Snowdon herself. But the red mist you ask? As part of the fanfare, red smoke bombs were set off as the race started which did make it feel pretty special but as for metaphorical red mist, that was lacking in my case as I shuffled across the line amidst the almost 600 other starters.
The start was potentially fast and we should have spread out quite nicely but after the initial crazy steep road climb up the Llanberis path, those of us not at the front had to queue to get over a couple of stiles across the railway line. Mike Jones (the RD) has since said that this won’t happen again with a slight change of course next year. It wasn’t a huge deal though and from here it was a pleasant gradual up the Maesgwm Valley towards Moel Eilio. These climbs are tough: they are long and steep, and my poles were a godsend as I had done virtually no targeted prep for this race. My plan for the year is to chill out and do what I want, in training and in racing, after almost a decade of focusing hard. Unfortunately this has the side effect of making big hills harder. What didn’t help on this initial climb was that I could see Kelly, an amazing runner from my club, just up ahead. Although my red mist is fading, there is a touch of it still there and I was having a battle in my head about how I should be able to stay with her. My reasons were: this was her first ultra; this was her first mountain race; I had more experience; I had poles for crying out loud! This debate only bothered me for a short time before I realised that it didn’t matter at all, I was just happy that she was out doing it and that I knew she would be amazing again. Once I let that go, I enjoyed my race!
The climb up may have been hard but the descent down was ace. This section is very grassy and while steep, it isn’t ridiculous, so it makes for a fun run down. Hitting a wide track that turned into road towards the first CP at Waunfawr was also fun. I knew already from this section alone I would be faster overall than last year: I definitely hadn’t been running 7.30 m/m at any point on the old course! Although tarmac isn’t my favourite, it was nice to have this turnover early on in the race and feel quite nippy, plus it made it feel more like a UTMB event, as you often run through villages and small towns before heading up high again. Coming into the CP at the Snowdonia Inn, I was pleased to see the legend that is Nicki Lygo on duty. We had a little chat as I munched a little sandwich and had some coke, before I headed out again with some orange segment for the short climb on the road. A steep little wooded climb brings you out onto a moor, a really pretty section but one that I had made shorter in my head! It was also much wetter on race day than our recce so there was some bogginess to contend with but nothing that the North Yorkshire Moors hadn’t prepare me for.
Elephant Mountain or Mynydd Mawr was where I noticed people around me tiring. There were a few having little breaks on the long drag up and with the weather beginning to come in on the tops, it was a shame we didn’t get the lovely views of the valley. The ridge here was fab, really swoopy and runnable but the descent not so much! I was cautious here while others around me went down on their bums, literally sliding most of the way. Into Beddgelert Forest and this was where the downpour the previous day really showed. The singletrack path was already tricky with roots and rocks, but now it was a quagmire of ankle deep clart. Some DofE kids coming the other way kindly let us through and I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Another short road section and it was the next CP before The Big One. RD Mike was also at this CP after being at the previous one which I thought was great; he was out seeing how people were doing and if they were enjoying themselves! I had some coke here and took another sandwich for the walk out across some private farmland to join the Ranger Path.
The time passed quite quickly here despite the long climb as I chatted to a French guy about what races we had done and how he had some ankle issues that meant he was a bit unstable. As we got higher, I left him and eventually caved, putting my jacket on as the rain came down and the temperature dropped. The Ranger Path is loose, rocky and steep so it was hard work again but reaching the finger post near the summit, I saw Serena from my club, out supporting Simon, another club member and doing Snowdon herself. It was great to see such a smiley familiar face and to learn that the others were doing really well. The summit was busy, as usual, so I got down as quickly as I could. Turns out that is not too quickly when the descent is the Watkin Path! This was the section where I really slowed as it is not my forte or my favourite terrain. The most technical stretch, it is very steep in places, with an unclear line so you just have to pick your way down. The poles had been stowed at the summit as I knew I would need my hands here. On reaching the saddle, the route then goes over Y Lliwedd, a stunning peak that looks scarier than it is when you are on it. That’s not to say it isn’t dicey though and again, I kept it easy and slow and managed to get over it without incident. My French friend had caught me back up here and had another fall though, a little too close to the edge for me but he seemed fine! After a short section of running, there is one last technical section for the day and where my bum shuffling skills came in handy, as I even managed to overtake a woman who was more cautious than me. Lowering yourself down steep but short drops is something that I don’t think I will ever be completely happy about doing but it is now at a point where I will just get on with it and am happy to pick my way over. Spotting Ian Corless for the first time going up as I was coming down was also cool but I remember thinking it was a shame that I wouldn’t get a picture of me from him: I was very wrong and he captured this amazing image!
Joining the Miner’s Track was a joy as I opened my legs up after what felt like a couple of hours of trekking. It is a wide and runnable vehicle track leading to Pen Y Pass and the final CP. I caught up with another woman here, Amelia, who had made light work of the technical descent but told me she was struggling running down and on the flat with some hip pain. I ran on ahead and made it into the CP for more sandwiches and cola. I had been having Luchodillitos and Veloforte chews and gels too but knew that the CPs had enough real food to sustain me. I was disappointed here though as I couldn’t find my cup: it must have fallen out somewhere en route or I managed to not squish it into my bag properly. Luckily, there was an almost empty bottle of cola, so I asked if I could down it and was allowed. Sandwich and orange segments for the road and it was the home stretch.
On the climb up the Pyg Track, I chatted a while with a German guy, again mostly about races and about poles. He had never used them but seemed intrigued. I told him how much they helped me but he ultimately used his long legs to skip his way into the distance! This climb up is more straightforward for the most part but it felt long and it was taking more out of me by now. Amelia caught me again and absolutely steamed up – it is not often I get passed on a climb so it did give me a bit of a kick to dig in, as I knew the last descent suited me and was fun! Just before I got the top, I caught another woman and, after some pole faff, I got them stowed and cracked on, passing her as again I felt I could really run. The Llanberis path is a great descent, just enough rock hopping to make it interesting but not so much to be frightening. I did almost run straight past the railway bridge, which we went under and then it started to even out. Somewhere around here Josh Wade flew past me, miles ahead in the 100k. We shouted some encouragement at one another and he was gone. I was really happy for him after he came second last time and I was happy for me as, this time, it was later in the race when he passed me! I started picking more people off here, including German guy and Amelia, and felt great. A walker sat at the side of the path shouted, ‘You’re mental!’ which I took as a huge complement. As fun as it was in the moment, I was very aware that after a 4 mile downhill it might not be as enjoyable when I hit the road, but I genuinely couldn’t stop myself. Coming onto the tarmac, I saw Josh ahead which was not right as he should have been finished. A walker shouted that he had gotten confused as his GPX didn’t match the flags. There had been a last minute change of route which the 100k runners didn’t know about but luckily, he followed the flags in the end. This section is very steep but so fast. I passed another runner who told me I was doing great and I told him it might not last long. I was right. As soon as the road flattened out, my hip flexors stopped working and I was shuffling bent over. I was pretty sure Amelia wouldn’t catch me so I just had to keep moving! Having to walk a couple of times in the last half mile was not my finest moment but it meant I could muster a jog down the red carpet and through the finish gantry. 8.20, a whole 90 minutes quicker than last year. I finished in 14th place, 2nd in category, which I was really pleased with in the circumstances and with the world class field.
Catching up with the other folks from my club was lovely too. They had all done brilliantly, but there was a small part of me that was sad about being the last club member over the line. It seems like, although the red mist is clearing, part of it is still hanging around! In reality (and not just in my distorted view of the race!) we all did so well as a group, all finishing in the top 116 in an international field so to be last in my group of peers is not too shabby. Having our post race rice and beans in the sun, medals around our necks was a great ending though, as was the lovely pizza with Jayson at our campsite that evening.
The UTS races really delivered for me this year. They are a deserved addition to the UTMB fold for many reasons, not least of all because the courses are amazing, and that is why I would recommend them. Mike has done a great job designing these routes and I think the magic happened this year with really well rounded, challenging and jaw droppingly beautiful races. Add to that, that as a runner, I felt looked after but not coddled, and like everything went really smoothly, you could not get a better event. The addition of the E25, a 25km race that gets you a running stone and an ascent of Snowdon is fantastic too, as hopefully it will give more runners the chance to experience a high profile and exciting event but be done within a civilised time frame!
As well as Veloforte gels and chews, and Luchodillito blocks, I used Precision Hydration in my water. I love all of these products as they are natural and easy on the tum, but they do need a cheese sandwich or two in addition when you are out all day! The Montane Gecko VP+ is my go to pack and easily fit the mandatory kit, as well as being super comfy and holding my poles well. I wore Montane’s Katla t-shirt and shorts too and there were points where I genuinely had to look down to check I was wearing bottoms, they felt so light and comfy. And you can carry your orange segments in the side pockets. Scott Supertrac RC 2s were the perfect shoe, good in everything except wet rock, which we had none of. I also wore Stance socks and Bum Butter (a cycling chamois cream) on my feet and had no issues whatsoever!