Thursday, November 03, 2011

Marathon Debut - Wet and Wild in Snowdonia

Training for sprint orienteering is fun. It’s fast, furious and hard work. But it also involves a lot of short sharp track intervals, 2-mile and 5km races and, this year, hard blasts around the old towns of Scotland and Switzerland. While that is fun for a while it’s nice to have a change once the big summer orienteering races are over. Last year that meant long hill races like the Two Breweries and the Pentland Skyline as a prelude to the OMM. This year I decided it was time to have a crack at the marathon.
The idea of an Autumn marathon had been bouncing around my head since the start of the year. I wanted to find one that was long enough after WOC to prepare for it properly but not so far into the winter that it would compromise my cross country season and preparations for next year. So I settled for the end of October – 10 weeks after WOC but still 16 weeks before the National XC Champs. I found three alternatives for this weekend – Frankfurt, Dublin and Snowdonia – but didn’t think much more about it until I was watching the London Marathon on BBC in April. Suddenly I realised that I didn’t want my marathon to be a procession down anonymous streets linking the tourist traps of some metropolis. I wanted to be out in the wild, on a course that was designed to be tough rather than fast, in weather that could do anything, and even, dare I think it, in a race I could win?

So the Snowdonia Marathon, or Marathon Eryri in the local lingo, became the goal. Twenty-six miles of rural Welsh roads and tracks, including two significant climbs at the start and end, and the worst that the Welsh weather could throw at us were the main obstacles. The likely competition came in the form of last year’s winner and recent Commonwealth Ultramarathon champion Richie Gardiner; Andy Davies, a fell runner I’ve battled with on occasion in the past and who took silver behind Richie at the Commonwealths and local boy Rob Samuels who recently represented Britain at the World Mountain Running champs.
As I mentioned one of the main reasons for entering the marathon  was to enjoy a change of flavour in my training during the Autumn. Out were the track sessions and orienteering, replaced with a weekly long run and a “marathon-pace” tempo run on the canal towpath.  My other runs all lengthened slightly – while in sprint mode I rarely run more than 10 miles in one go, preferring a morning 6 miler and an evening of 7-9. During September though it became common for me to get out for 90 minutes or more in the evening and then enjoy an extra hour in bed the following morning!  The Sunday runs were generally at an easy pace and just about getting time on my feet and miles in my legs. The key session, insofar as I had one, was the tempo runs. I did them all out-and-back on the canal, starting with 30minutes each way and building up to 45 minutes each way. I had planned to finish off 10 days before the marathon with a 2 hour tempo like this, but unfortunately I got sick after my last long run (a three hour, 23 mile epic through the Pentland Hills in monsoon-like conditions in the dark after work with no torch!) so had to skip this final session.
All in all I was happy with my training. Having hit the magic 100-mile week a good number of times in the couple of months before the race, even maxing out at 119 for one crazy seven day spell, I was comfortable with the distance. A target time or pace was harder to estimate. On a flat marathon with proper preparation I would aim for sub 2:30 I think but on this course it was hard to know what that translates to. My canal runs told me that six-minute-miling (3:45/km) felt comfortable enough so I decided that I would aim for around that pace on the flat sections of the race and let the ups and downs work themselves out. Aim number one was to enjoy the experience! After struggling to maintain a target pace in the Bristol Half Marathon recently I didn’t want to be a slave to my watch so my tactics were nothing more complicated than to take the first climb as easy as I wanted and then let it roll from there. I’d been assured that “the race starts at 21 miles” so I wanted to get to that point feeling good and then give everything over the final climb and descent.
I found it rather amusing in the week before the race when a couple of articles appeared online suggesting I might be in contention for the win. What did they know? I was making my debut over the distance and just aiming to run at a pace conducive to enjoyment rather than success!

The Race
Marathon day dawned wet and windy. Perfect. This wasn’t meant to be easy.
Part One: Llanberis – Pen Y Pas (4.5miles)
After a brief speech from Matt Ward (of MudSweatandTears fame) the race got underway on the winding roads south east from Llanberis past Nant Peris. These early miles were very much about conserving energy, sheltering from the ferocious headwind and sizing up the opposition. Gradually the gradient picked up and the lead pack was whittled down, first from 20 to 12, then 8 and finally 5 as the road opened up and we could see the top of the col. Everyone took a turn at the front but some guy in an Army vest was keen to push it on. I took one look at him and decided he was trying too hard so when he opened a gap before the summit I was happy to let him go: plenty miles still to go. He crossed the top with around a 30m lead on my group of four, which consisted of the main protagonists I named above.
Part Two: Pen Y Pas – Beddgelert (7.5miles)
Once we got over the col the pace really picked up as we hurtled down the other side. I have to say, I wasn’t too comfortable with the high tempo so it was a relief when we swung off the road and onto a rougher Land Rover track which would lead us down to the valley floor. The Army chap had opened up a good lead but I was able to move to the front of our group of four, my off road roots showing through on the rougher surface. Once we were back on the flat tarmac I just concentrated on a steady rhythm, trying not to get carried away and counting down to the 10mile/1 hour point and the first gel that would come then. At about 8.5 miles a curious thing happened – the Army guy stopped to tie his shoelace, which roughly halved his lead from 100m to 50m. This seemed to spur Richie and Rob on to close the gap further and our foursome became a twosome as they bridged the gap leaving Andy and I in 4th and 5th. I could have worried about this and picked the pace up but the feedback from my Garmin was that I was going fine – 60 minutes exactly for the first 10 miles was bang on my 6min/mile target, and that was with the climb up to Pen-y-pas.
About this time Andy started chatting to me. This took me a bit by surprise initially but the conversation came easily and the pace didn’t drop. This was Andy’s ninth marathon in nine different countries so he had plenty stories to tell and we both have a history in fell running so there was plenty overlap.
The half way point comes on a long drag out of the village of Beddgelert. We passed through here in around 79 minutes.
Part 3: Beddgelert – Waunfawr (9miles)
The next notable event was just after 14 miles when the road straightened out and we could see Mr Army ahead of us, clearly dropped by the others who were nowhere to be seen. Shortly after, on a very moderate gradient, he started walking and we quickly caught and passed him. Game over for him and a definite “I told you so” moment. From there on I just rolled along steadily, shoulder to shoulder with Andy. The passing of Army boy did mean that we were now in 3rd and 4th, which gave the battle between us a little more interest. From time to time the TV bike came back to see us but it must have been quite boring for them. I had no plans to accelerate, sticking instead to my original plan of getting to 21miles in as good shape as possible.
That largely held true. Around 19 miles I noticed my left ITB tightened up. That didn’t slow me at all, but it was a timely reminded of the fine balance between speed and patience. As we approached the final drinks station before the turn off the main road I moved ahead just to make sure I could grab a bottle unobstructed but this time Andy didn’t move back onto my shoulder. I was quite happy with this as it meant I could focus on my own pace as we came to the foot of the climb.

Part 4: Waunfawr – Llanberis (4.2miles)
Now the race begins. Turn off the main road and the hill kicks up straightaway. Not steep by hill running standards but after 22miles nothing should be taken for granted.  The first section was wind assisted but we quickly turned to have a fierce cross wind. By now the gap between Andy and I had grown significantly and I was in a comfortable 3rd position.
Halfway up the climb though, I caught a glimpse of another runner ahead of me. The black and gold colours of Richie came into view. “Surely just the climb foreshortening the gap” I thought, long since having ruled out seeing him or Rob again. But no, as steadily the gap fell and eventually I cruised past him on a flatter section close to the top of the col.
At the top of the hill we passed the 24mile marker. I was now well into the realm of “longest run ever” but taking comfort from the fact that the last two miles were all downhill. Easier said than done! Yes they were downhill, but the hill was so steep, wet and slippery that they were probably the hardest miles of the course. At first it was just a grassy path across the hill side – fine in a fell race, but less than ideal in road racing flats! At least I was wearing inov8 f-lites which gave some semblance of grip but I will admit to being slightly cautious in places. Once on the road it wasn’t much better as the roads were so steep your quads took a real pounding.
Eventually we got spat out onto a flat backstreet of the town, and past the 26 mile marker. From here it was a simple case of “head up, shoulders back and try to look relaxed”. With no one near me and no particular time or PB to beat it was just a case of getting to the line quickly and happily, satisfied with a good long run. Mission accomplished! And as for the online pundits… what do they know anyway?

Epilogue and Analysis
Rob Samuels was a worthy winner. From the TV coverage it looks like he had a three minute lead on me before the final climb, which I managed to squeeze a minute out of. That is still some pretty damn good running to build up that margin in the space of about 12 miles and I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with that all the way had I tried to stick with them.  Later I discovered Rob was the first local winner of the race for 20 years and he also coaches the juniors at Eryri track training (I met one of his protégés who apparently is the fastest U13 800m runner in GB this year!) so he was a very popular and emotional victor. Congratulations to him!

An obvious question is what would I have done on a flat course, in, say, Frankfurt or Dublin. It’s hard to say. Attackpoint says 2:28 which I think is over generous – that doesn’t allow for the benefit of the downhill sections. Looking at my split times, on the flat kilometres I am running at around 3:35/km which is 2:31 pace. That sounds more realistic, but I think that I might have run a flat marathon quite differently: more focus on pace, negative splits and heart rate than running by feeling and enjoyment. Finally there was the impact of the howling gale and torrential rain – even I can’t come up with a calculation to allow for that!
So, what next?  Short term: a few days off to recharge the batteries and let the legs recover. Medium term the focus is on a strong orienteering season next year up to WOC in Lausanne in July. Beyond that though? Definitely some more “full distance” racing.  A flat one, at some point, has to happen but for now the Jungfraumarathon, which next year incorporates the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs (at which Scotland are current champions) has definitely captured my interest!


Steve Hillman said...

Well done on the race and on a great report. Very interesting to read about the training and 'race thinking' of an elite runner.
This event is on my 'races to do before I'm 60' list (currently 56). All being well it will be next year

Will Critchley said...

WOW, nice work. That race looks like fun, I'd love to do it one of these years.

Also, we've got to get you a new race kit that looks more like a "singlet" and less like a "wife-beater".