Some say it’s the toughest road race in the UK. Some think it’s the most beautiful. Still others claim it’s the friendliest. While I can’t say for sure whether any of these claims are true, I can say that the 2015 Snowdonia Marathon, which I ran on the 24th of October, was the race of a lifetime. It was, indeed, tough, unbelievably friendly, and heartstoppingly beautiful. It was also an incredibly special and emotional race for me. This was the final event of my LauranDoes179 ALS Challenge to race 179 miles in 2015 to help my friend, Andrea, raise money for the Blazeman Foundation to beat ALS once and for all. I did it. I DID IT!!
The Snowdonia Marathon is run in North Wales in the hills and valleys surrounding Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales. The course starts and finishes in the little village of Llanberis on the edge of the National Park which used to be a slate mining town. The whole area is rich in slate…the marathon even gives finishers a slate coaster instead of a medal! The marathon has three main hill sections with total gains of about 2,200ft. Sections of the course reach inclines of 10-12% for sustained periods. Here’s a course profile:
And here are some photos Mike and I took when we drove the course the day before the race to give you an idea of the unbelievable beauty of the area (and the size of the dang hills):
So the stage is set. Let’s get on with the trip report. Mike and I piled into the car on Thursday and made our way from Edinburgh down to a lovely little hotel in North Wales near Snowdonia National Park which would serve as our base for race weekend. Mike’s parents, Carol and David, drove in from Surrey to spend the weekend with us as well – very nice to have some support! Friday was spent doing a quick jog down the country lanes surrounding the hotel, visiting the registration expo in Llanberis, driving the course, and treating ourselves to a lovely pre-race Italian feast before an early bedtime.
Saturday, race day, dawned bright and sunny. Ha! Not a chance. It was tipping it down with rain. Rain, rain, rain. Mike and I tried to ignore it as we had our breakfast and drove with Carol and David to the start line in Llanberis. Good thing the race organisers gave us ponchos in our goody bags! I was bunny-in-the-headlights nervous at the start but Mike gave me a ‘you’ll be awesome’ pep talk and I focussed on being brave, being thankful, and enjoying myself.
The hooter got us underway at 10:34ish and off we went to tackle the first challenge of the day – summiting Pen Y Pass. Given the size of the hills and my previous injury woes, I went into the race with a run-but-walk-if-you-need-to attitude as finishing and enjoying the experience were my goals for the day. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I made it to the top of breathtakingly picturesque (Waterfalls! Fluffy sheep! Foggy Mountains!) Pen Y Pass in a fairly respectable 52 minutes having run all the way!
I was feeling great and, as I crested the top of the pass, I put the pedal down and enjoyed about three miles of downhill with some fun off road muddy bits as well. I enjoyed the wonderful support from the marshals and spectators (including a banana and a penguin) and chatted to a few of my fellow runners. At about mile 8, things flattened out again and the course was pretty smooth along the valley floor until the little town of Beddgelert at the halfway point. I reached halfway at 2:17 and was feeling good – despite the rain which was still falling.
The next hill section started just past the halfway point and lasted until mile 15. I found this section a bit tough as the incline just didn’t quit and there wasn’t much to look at. I had two instances in this section where I had to do some walking but I took the opportunity to have a Cliff blok (I accidentally ate two, actually), gritted my teeth, and got through it. I picked up my pace again at mile 15 and had a pretty uneventful, undulating trot through to mile 21 during which I chatted to more runners, ate lots of sweets, and bantered with the supporters. As I had some time to think, I had some really, deeply emotional moments during that section. I allowed myself to be proud of what I was achieving, to fall stupidly in love with the little section of humanity involved with the race, and to be so unbelievably awed by what Andrea and her courage has brought out in me this year.
About halfway through mile 21, the final hill made itself known. At this stage, you turn off the road and wind your way on farm tracks up and over the top of the hill then sharply back down into Llanberis and the finish line. Miles 22 to 24.5 are pretty much straight uphill. The vast majority of people walk most of this section and I did, too. It was at this stage that my ankle and knee, which had been perfectly behaved up until this point, decided to start protesting. But on I went, marching as smartly as possible. I remembered to turn around for a brief moment at the top of the hill to survey the beauty of the area and appreciate how far I had come. I wish I had taken a picture. The rain had finally stopped, the autumn light was lovely and golden…it was a beautiful sight.
I was looking forward to the downhill from 24.5 miles to the finish but this ended up being the hardest part of the entire race for me. Most of this section was on gravelly or grassy tracks which the rain had made very muddy and slippery. The downhill gradient was just as sharp as the uphill section and my knee was just screaming at me. I ended up having to basically mince down this whole section with little tiny steps then jogging when the terrain decided to flatten out a bit. It took me AGES.
Finally (finally!!), at the 26 mile mark, the track flattened again and turned back into tarmac. I picked up my pace and made the dog leg left-then-right onto the final stretch towards the finish line in Llanberis town centre. I saw Carol, Mike’s mom, and waved like a maniac then promptly started sobbing with joy. I ran on a few more yards and heard shouts from Mike and his dad and I waved and smiled like a fool with tears streaming down my face. Mike (who had finished in a blazing 3:30) started running along with me on the other side of the barricade towards the finish shouting encouragement and then I was there! The finish line!
I got bear hugs from two of the lovely marshals, got wrapped up like a Christmas ham in one of those silver sheet things, picked up my finishers’ coaster, and was scooped up by Mike into the best hug of my life. After pulling myself together and polishing off like eight cookies in the village hall, the four of us celebrated with a Guinness and some rugby watching in a nearby pub then went back to the hotel for a feast of lobster and chips. What a day. What. A. Day.
I am going to do a final wrap up post in the next couple of days to try and draw together some of my thoughts on my challenge, what the future may hold, etc. But I do just want to say a couple of things.
Firstly, thank you to all the thousands of people involved with the Snowdonia Marathon. The super organisers, my amazing and brave fellow runners, the cadets at the water stations, the kids who gave me candy on the route, the couple playing Chariots of Fire on their iPhone speaker at mile 23, the woman at mile 13 who looked me in the eye and said ‘Lauran you are doing so WELL,’ the marshal at the end who told me I was amazing and hugged me despite me smelling like a locker room, my amazing and supportive husband, my wonderful in-laws who braved the rain, and all the rest. All of you have a place in my heart. I know I can be a sentimental sausage sometimes but the generosity and warmth of the human spirit never ceases to amaze and move me.
Secondly, I’d like to thank all of the folks who have donated so generously over the course of my challenge. I’ve raised $3,000 this year for the Blazeman Foundation with some more still to come in and it’s all because of the unbelievable generosity of my friends, family, co-workers, and a few complete strangers.
Finally, to Andrea. I know you didn’t want to get ALS. I know you didn’t expect your life’s work to be battling to raise awareness of a terrible disease. But I want you to know that you are making a difference. Not only in working towards treatments and cures for the disease which has changed the course of your life, but to those of us lucky enough to be with you on your journey. Way back in 1759, Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.’ I know what he means. It’s because of your inspiration and your bravery that I found bravery within myself that I never knew was there and re-discovered how wonderfully limitless the generosity of others so often is. I now have absolutely no idea what I am NOT capable of and for that I thank you from the very bottom of my heart. I am so privileged to have you in my life and, even though I am far away, I will always be by your side.
And with that, dear reader(s), I will leave you. I am now 179 miles into my challenge with no more miles to go. If you’d like to donate to my challenge you can either click the donate button in my header or visit the link below…many thanks!