For large-scale, spectacular events, turn to Rat Race.
Man vs Mountain was one of my highlights of 2015, so I was really excited to be returning to the beautiful surroundings of Snowdonia, to once again take on the mountain that almost broke me last year.
This year I would be more prepared, I had told myself. Unfortunately, I had less than ideal preparation for the event. It would be my first proper race since injuring my knee at The Wall and then compounding that injury by running Man vs Lakes too soon afterwards. (Both stunning events that I would love to do again). My Physio, Isla at Clinic8 Studio, has worked wonders on my knee and given me a really comprehensive rehabilitation plan but this would be the first real test.
After an amusing drive up from St Albans with the inimitable David Hellard to keep me company, we arrived at the Llanberis Community Centre for registration and a check of our mandatory kit. With severe weather warnings in place, driving rain and 45mph winds expected, this was more thorough than the previous year and led to long queues but the volunteers did their best to keep things moving, whilst ensuring that everyone had the correct kit.
That night we met up with a few of the other brave souls who, like us, had decided to not only tackle the mountain on Saturday morning but also the Welsh conditions the night before, camping up by the youth hostel. The weather had already started to come in, with high winds battering the tents and not affording any of us the best night’s sleep.
The morning of the race started with a taste of what was to come. The rain had started but it was only a light drizzle. There was still a small hope that the weather might not be as bad as predicted. After a quick porridge breakfast, we managed to blag a lift from Adrian Payne to the start line at Caernarfon Castle. Before being allowed to the start corral there was a second check of everybody's bag, to ensure mandatory kit was being carried and there were rumours of a delayed start and change to the course.
The rumours turned out to be true, with an announcement from the Race Director confirming that, due to a dissipating hurricane at the summit and advice from mountain rescue, the course would need to be re-routed. We would no longer be going to the summit of Snowdon, as it was considered too dangerous and a new route was being marked out, which was the reason for the 30-minute delay. Gathered around the start, anticipation built and conversations turned to where the new route would take us and if we would still make the full 22-mile distance.
By 8:30 the rain had started to fall more heavily and the first wave set off with David Hellard leading off from the front. I set off with Adrian and we decided to try and set an even pace for the first half of the race. I had gone off a little fast last year and faded on the ascent. Exiting the castle, the route takes you to the right and through the streets of Caernarfon and a beautiful view over the water, which only reminded you of the climbs to come.
Running with Adrian, we kept a comfortable pace along the streets and paths that would lead us to the base of the mountain. This is about a 9km route, switching regularly between road, pavement and light woodland paths. I was sure I had made the right choice in my Hoka Challenger ATR’s at this point as the extra cushioning was appreciated and a more aggressive trail shoe would have been uncomfortable on this approach.
I was feeling really good by the time we reached the base of the mountain and appreciated the steady pace we had kept on the approach, as I felt I had kept plenty back in reserve and the Shot Bloks I was carrying would help me the rest of the way. This was also the point I had to take the first of a few ‘comfort breaks’. Something I had eaten the day before obviously didn’t agree with me! The First Aid Station appeared around the next bend and I think the surprised expression from the volunteer as I asked for some loo roll will stay with me for a while.
The ascent then began in earnest along narrow stony paths and boggy grassland. Adrian began to fade at this point but I felt strong so pushed on ahead. Even as the weather continued to roll in and the winds battered against my already soaked frame, I was able to appreciate the beauty in my surroundings. I was now running alone, as the path became steeper and more rocky. It steered toward the final ascent to what, in better conditions, would have been the summit of Snowdon. Today it would take me to a point about two thirds of the way up. About half way along the climb, Hellard, running in 1st, came flying past me in the opposite direction looking strong and good for the win for the 2nd year in succession. I hit the turn around point and was told that I was currently in 15th place which gave me a boost, as we were about to start the descent where I felt I could really open up my legs and let fly.
The descent, already made treacherous by the weather causing the rocky paths to become wet and slippery, was made more so by having to navigate your way back past those making their ascent. I had a number of close calls on the way back down despite constant shouts of “coming down” and “stay left”. There were a number of runners not totally aware of their surroundings, either with their heads down or headphones in, that were not aware 'til the very last second, of a Mudstacle clad midget careering down Snowdon directly at them.
After numerous evasive manoeuvres and one quite spectacular fall and slide, I reached the point where those descending would split off and head towards the valley floor in Llanberis. Here is where Rat Race had more challenges for the runners to face, including the infamous ‘Vertical Kilometre’. I had made up a few more places on the descent through a mix of disregard for personal safety and speed and was again grateful for my shoe choice as the Hoka’s gave me confidence both over the wet rock and muddy trails. My knee was giving me no problems at all, which given how badly I had felt it at Man vs Lakes was a really welcome surprise.
I approached the Vertical Kilometre, recalling the cruel and punishing nature of the climb through an old Welsh slate mine from the previous year. It offers some beautiful views and at the halfway point, running past a row of derelict buildings is quite haunting especially with the wind howling and the rain continuing to pound your exhausted body. If you haven’t made the climb before, it’s at this point you think you have made it to the top. But, as you make it to the stone arch at the end, an arrow directs you left and you see that the majority of the climb is still to come, along some old iron train tracks you are forced to trek on upwards. Even feeling pretty good, the steepness of the climb forced me to slow into a long steady walk to the top, where I was treated to a beautiful view over Llyn Padarn. Stunning, even with the weather being what it was.
The descent following the Vertical Km is a technical winding path through a small wooded area, which provided some welcome shelter from the rain. Not that it mattered much by this point, as I was already soaked to the bone and approaching the water jump in the quarry. Given a life jacket, you climb up to a 15ft high platform and then walk the plank to plunge into what was a surprisingly refreshing lagoon, before swimming to a cargo net to haul yourself back on to dry ground.
The much-vaunted Abseil has been replaced this year by the Rapid Rappel. Similar in concept but instead of going over the side of a bridge you rappel at a 45 degree angle down a large sheet of tarp into Llyn Padarn, before continuing on to face some more fun water obstacles to clamber over, dive under and slide down. I enjoyed the Rappel more than the Abseil and think it is more accessible, in particular to those that may have issues with heights.
Climbing on to the bank, I could see the finish line and the last wall and A-frame separating me from it. A 7ft wall is normally no issue but after 22 miles and numerous metres of ascent, it presents more of a challenge. Still, I hauled myself over and pushed myself on to cross the line in what I was told was 10th place and collect that well-earned medal. I was delighted with the result. That I had completed the event with my knee pain-free, I think made me even happier.
Man vs Mountain confirmed my feelings from last year. This is a truly epic event. One which even having been completed before can throw up a surprise and challenge you in a completely new way. I have to congratulate the Rat Race Team in how they were able to adapt to the conditions, which could have potentially derailed the entire event. They made a decision based on the safety of those competing. Even with a much-changed course and the disappointment many felt at not being able to summit Snowdon, they managed to put on a fantastic event and challenging course, whilst still setting the full 22 mile distance.
This is an event to put into your calendar. It offers a challenge for those experienced in endurance events and those taking their first step into this exciting sport. It lets you enjoy the beautiful scenery of Snowdonia in a very unique way. I will be back at what I would mark down as my favourite event in the UK next year. You do need to plan ahead, with registration taking place on the Friday and the start and finish locations in different villages. I would say get a group of you together and make a long weekend of it, that way you can enjoy a classic Rat Race after party and the wonder of an Even Bigger Breakfast at Pete’s Eats on Sunday morning.