Michael Littlewood’s club challenge for the week was to get the most elevation in half an hour or an hour. For me, that came with parallels for my last 2 months and I wanted to make sense of that time before my next challenge – another kind of chemo for my brain tumour.
Before anything else, I hope all are well and can still run. For me, my consultant says I can get out but shouldn’t shop
I’ll start on a good bit. On 6th March I caught the buses to Wolsingham and ran the 19 miles home. The longest run since my 20s, there were some proper climbs at the start and I could see snow on the tops further West.
The second half was mostly cycle tracks – much easier. I’d love to get out there again.
On the 10th I went for an MRI – results can take ages. Then on the 14th came the race at the Lambton Estate. I took the wrong shoes for the hard ground. Pilates had pushed my gait to the limit. It was the last cross-country so of course I pushed it despite the feel. I was an idiot and I limped away from the finish line
Four days later I limped to chemo – but there were to be no pills this time. Instead my consultant came to see me. The tumour showed a ‘fleck’ that shouldn’t be there; I’d had twenty rounds of chemo and was hitting the limits; I should help my immune system fight covid 19 if needed. It wasn’t a huge surprise to stop chemo but the only up-side at this point was alcohol. It doesn’t take much after so many months off!
Back home, my ankle was too bust to run, all gyms were closed but… a recent optician’s test looked OK, my bike was still there… I took my son out on the pavements. Then I started going out on the road, sometimes alone and pushing it, sometimes with a child or two and enjoying that too. I got as high as Burnhope. It was lovely.
At the end of April I started running again. With cycling and Pilates it’s one hell of combination. On the 27th I cycled to and from Newcastle for the follow up MRI. No need for my wife to drive me – and the kids – to the hospital. No need for public transport. Quiet roads provided the best option for the virus. A slow ride North to minimise the sweat; a pannier with a change of clothes… and 17 miles flat out home in the sunshine.
The call came the next day. The tumour is growing – even I can see it in the images (November-April. The latter is on a newer MRI. All MRIs are upside down, so right=left).
I will finish the three month break, then start on the next type of oral chemo. As before, it’s palliative. Because of covid, the blood test will happen in my home, then be checked by the hospital. The pills will be delivered to my door and are as dangerous as last time, so they go on a shelf that only I can reach. It’s somehow very normal. The NHS has looked after me for more than half a decade
Later that week I took my son out on his first proper climb, up to Sacriston. He kept going, used his gears, eased off on the flat. For a few seconds on the way down we were doing more than 30 mph. I’m so glad we did that, even if it’s just once. He ached for days afterwards. I hope he remembers the down bit too!
On Sunday 3rd May I went for a run before breakfast. 3 miles in, most of the way up the side of a field, things went wrong. I fell over on the familiar footpath. The route looked wrong somehow. I slowed down and took the shortest pavements home. I ate breakfast, got a shower… still not all here. Julie took me to A&E. The kids stayed in the car. The doctor found I was missing all my sight on the right hand side. I could say my name but not much else. Julie couldn’t understand me. My head ached.
Late that afternoon I’d slept and the paracetamol had eased things. I could talk but reading was a nightmare. I went home with five days of steroids. I know, now, that the problem had probably been a seizure. The first knocked me out back in 2018, this was my second.
To write this, I’ve had to work out some of the words. Misspellings had the right sound but the wrong letters. Reading is variable. My sight isn’t missing the full half any more but it’s rough first thing. Cycling is stopped again. Whether things get better or not depends on whether the chemo works. I’ll find out in August. Another chemo reps challenge would be good.
In the meantime, my body is registered to train medical students and I want to leave them the best specimen I can. A club challenge is just what I needed. I’d cycled Charlaw Fell and knew it was about as high as I could get to. I looked for the lowest – the Wear at Cocken Bridge, less than a mile from home – and suddenly there was a new route. Back roads, only half with pavements – but my left sight is fine. I couldn’t resist this one. I even got down to the river to start, just 10 metres above sea level.
The first climb was 45m up in 600m running. The next stretch was flatter with some dips, then over the dual carriageway and steeper up to Nettlesworth. ‘Gentle’ climbing, then down Cross Lane in Sacriston. Then up and up on Acornclose Lane and the steep climb to the Trig point 232m above sea level. 222 metres up, 4.5 miles in 37:30. Glorious.
For me, there’s a purity to that line. East to West, bottom to top, one aim – but it didn’t seem quite right for a half-hour/one hour challenge. My thinking was that a long up-down-up was better than reps – two-thirds up not half – so back I went to Charlaw Fell, via Norburn Lane this time. I think I got the pace right – I was certainly pumping my lungs by the end and the last stretch is steeper. It was a great thing to aim for but, given Alex Mirley’s ‘lunch run’ of 890 metres elevation, it clearly wasn’t perfect! Still, 221 metres climbing in 30 minutes with a 6:23 mile in the middle can’t be bad.
There was a niggle though – how close to half an hour could the river-Trig course be? I’d start on the bridge, not by the river. I would push the pace. On the way home from the up-down-up I found ways to cut corners in Sacriston and Nettlesworth… a second attempt beckoned, and this time there would be me to race.
This is where ‘me’ gets complicated. For a while on the 3rd I lost the kids’ names – but I still loved them. I can, I hope, cope with losing tools like words and sight, but sometimes I wonder if there’s some ‘me’ missing – and there’s no way to find out. This is far from unique – my grandfather and many others died of Alzheimer’s. That doesn’t make it any easier. While I remember, you’ve probably seen comments on medical diagnoses not happening. The hospitals are separating covid 19 from other illnesses. GPs are doing phone appointments. If you or someone you know have something wrong that should be looked at, please go find out about it. Give yourself a head start. Lecture over, back to racing whichever version of me ran 37:30.
All the advantages of a second go: knowing how hard to push it because you know what’s coming; knowing the short-cuts; in this case, giving myself a head start – 16 metres above sea level this time. Downside of three climbs in a week? There were bits of me that were sore before I started. Result: top of Acornclose Lane (193m) in 30 minutes dead. Top of Charlaw Fell in 33:04 having nearly thrown up. Quarter of a mile less distance, 6 metres less height – but pace going from 8:20 per mile to 7:47 and that view again. I don’t want to stop doing this.
I wake alone on the floor of the van, my sleeping bag around me in a twisted mess, rain is hammering down on the roof. Where am I? I open my eyes and roll over to look out the window, its daylight, my watch says its 13:00. I feel like I’m 9 again, having successfully wrangled one extra day off sick from school, but mum, knowing full well what I’m up to forces me to stay in bed all day.
I try to remember what’s outside the van and realise I’m in Capel Curig, the meeting point for our Paddy Buckley attempt.
Now I need a wee, I glance over to the bottle in the corner, it’s already perilously full from last night. Perhaps if I fart it’ll take the pressure off for a few more hours? Dangerous game that. I recall a gas fitter friend who admitted going to the loo in his van as he was fed up with cleaning folk’s mucky toilets after he’d carefully used them. I pull the sleeping bag up over my head, try not to think about what’s to come and fall back asleep.
I wake again at 16:30, we’re meeting at 18:00 so I figure it’s time to get up. Half dressed I peer out of the van door into the fresh air and I’m greeted by Graham Thomas, who’s arrived early and instantly comments on how much he still loves my hair, I reply it’s a work in progress but that I think I’m through the awkward phase. He’d planned to run the round but has a few niggles so he’s supporting legs 1 and 3 with his dog Edwin – a Springer-fauve de Bretagne cross. I wonder if he’ll still be tempted to have a crack at it anyway. I put a brew on for us and gobble down my breakfast porridge.
My Dad and twin-sister Faith arrive shortly after, “Can I get a hell yeah?!?” she exclaims and shows me the tick bites she got from a recent trip to Etna complete with lyme-disease rings, “It’s not infectious”, very cool. “We’ve made everyone a stack load of pasties, brownies and flapjack, all vegan”. It sounds delicious right now but I know I’ll struggle to get it down later.
Martin Wilson joins our growing group. Mild-mannered and dependable, he’s our support for legs 1, 2 and 5 – he just asks if I’m ready. I nod and take one last look at my feet – sorry fellas, smother them in Vaseline, inspect my socks for grass seeds and lace up my shoes.
Tim Wiggins, who’s running the round with me arrives with his wife Lee and Nala the dog – who bounds out of the pickup and makes a beeline for Edwin’s breakfast. We briefly say hi, shake hands and give each other a hug, there’ll be time to catch up later. We all pile into two cars and head to Pont Cae’r Gors, our start point for the round at 19:00. The cloud lifts as we drive to Beddgelert revealing towering damp rocky fells on all sides – I try to suppress the nerves.
What the fuck am I doing?
The weather has finally settled down, ex-hurricane Lorenzo fizzled out to nothing. We gather the last of our gear at the start point, switch on the GPS tracker and pose for a quick photo, its 18:50. Too cold to stand here for another 10 minutes, shall we go? Just like that we’re off.
We cross the A4085, jump the gate and start the boggy climb to Craig Wen. Ten strides in and my feet are sodden – welcome to Wales!
We take the first climb easy, admiring the glowing sunset on the nantlle ridge over our shoulder, it’ll be a while before we cross that ground. We chat about how Martin broke his finger during a recent fell race, but pulled it back into place and still ran well. We keep calling Edwin to heel from sheep on the horizon.
One summit down, 46 to go, we’re 15 minutes down on our ambitious 21-hour schedule.
The wind whips the grass tussocks as we run along the ridge towards Yr Aran, the light quickly fades and we put on our head torches. It was great to start in the daylight. A quick summit to Yr Aran and on fresh legs we make easy work of the long slippery descent to the base of the southern ascent of Snowdon via Cribau Tregalan. We briefly lose the trod part way up the climb, a common occurrence on this round less travelled, but Edwin sniffs out the trod up ahead and shows us the way. As we traverse Bwlch Main the conversation shifts to the perils of internet dating, always a popular topic between Graham and I. We cover what makes a successful profile photo, how to secure a date or two and why it is that the best ones are always a little bit bonkers. Tim, being the only married gent in our group of exceptionally eligible bachelors shakes his head in disbelief. Before we know it the rest of the climb passes without drama, we smell the diesel fumes from the cafe generator and the summit of Snowdon looms into view amongst the thin cloud.
We touch the brass-plated trig point in turn and head down the staircase tourist track. Easy running now, our pace quickens. Graham and Edwin cross paths mid-bound, Edwin comes out the worse off. He briefly yelps in pain then resumes his place at the front of our group, “sorry buddy”.
We slow to make sure we hit the junction for Crib y Ddysgl marked by the standing stone, here we pass two lads camping out at what looks like a race checkpoint, they ask and we reply we’re on the round. We’ve already passed them as they shout back to wish us luck. I head in front on the gentle climb to the top, cairn after cairn comes out of the mist in my head torch beam. Then the clag really closes in. I start to doubt my nav and I sense we’re heading downhill. Where is the summit? “It’s still further on”, Tim reassures us, and sure enough it’s the next thing to come into view. We’re still only 15-minutes down on our schedule, good to be holding pace. Graham takes a bearing from the trig and we descend west through the boulder field. I glance back to check that Martin is still with us as he hasn’t spoken for awhile, and of course he’s still there just getting on with it. We cross over the tourist path at the old station platform, then the railway line and continue the westard bearing to pick up the ranger path. The temperature rises quickly as we lose altitude and we make stops to take off sweaty gear and to drink. We make short work of the remaining grassy peaks, I feel very strong but we’re only three hours in and I sense I’m pushing too hard. I ease off the pace and focus on eating and drinking. Chat quietens down now, we’re all thinking about the warm food in Llanberis.
We tick off Moel Eilio and make the ridgeline descent towards the lights of Llanberis. We hadn’t reccied a line through the farmer’s fields to link up with road support, but a bit of off-piste descending through bracken on a compass bearing and Edwin’s trusty nose does us right and we make the road support point 12 minutes down on schedule. The road crew have all the food and drinks out ready for us to devour, winner! It’s 23:00 and as I munch on a pasty my brain suggests now would be a sensible time to lie down and sleep. We leave the Llanberis support crew along with Graham and Edwin after a 15 minute stop, pretty much on schedule. Tim and I agree it’s going to plan – one leg down, four more to go.
We start the climb out of Llanberis along the mine access path, high slate walls line our route, then through the parallel ruins of single story barracks that were once miner’s accommodation. I try to imagine what it must have been like to work here during the peak of slate production.
We reach the bottom of the incline that will take us straight up through the quarries. We discuss how much water we’re carrying between us given the mild temperatures and consider if the high voltage cables within the shallow concrete conduit we’re to clamber over are still live, the warning signs look pretty fresh.
We make steady progress to the top of the incline, as we clamber we’re accompanied by the distinctive clap of slate slabs underfoot and their echo off the big quarry walls, the lights of Llanberis spread out below and we follow the fence line to the access road of the reservoir, taking care to avoid castration as we hurdle the high barbed wire. We head left then follow the straight line trod through heather and boulders to Elidir Fach the first peak on this leg, then traverse the loose slope up towards Elidir Fawr. I’ve pushed hard on this climb, well ahead of our intended pace. Tim and Martin are being sensible and have hung back, sticking to the plan. Their headtorches are easy to spot in the darkness and I wait for them here, my heart thumping against my ribs.
I recall the advice given to me at Moot Hall by Andy Blackett before my Bob Graham, relating to glycogen and heart rate when on a round, essentially keep your heart rate down and don’t thrash your legs, otherwise you’re screwed. I stare at the black horizon and concentrate on getting my heart rate back down, if this is even possible, as Tim and Martin pass by with a few choice words about exactly what it’s like when your legs blow up. Point taken I drop in behind.
We skirt the rocky ridge and the sheltered hollow of Elidir Fawr then zig-zag up the ridge before the grassy climb to Mynydd Perfedd. I let Martin know this one is an out and back, but he comes along anyway. He’s going so well I wonder who’s supporting whom. If Tim and I bail he’ll definitely finish the job!
We pick up the pace on the grassy descent and loose switchback climbs of Foel-goch and Y Garn. I let Tim and Martin know this is a good climb to grab a bite to eat. Tim is leading the way but I can tell he’s going through a rough patch, I try to break the strenuous silence with uplifting conversation, which must be thoroughly annoying and we both know he’s just got to ride this one out. We top out at Y Garn as the clag closes in quickly. I try to figure out the height of the cloud base and look west out into the darkness towards the rocky moonscape of the Glyders and Tryfan, a challenging piece of ground but all that’s between us and the next support point.
It’s now 01:30, 6 1/2 hours in. I take a moment for a deep breath of cool mountain air, to forget the task at hand and to appreciate being in the hills with friends.
We enjoy the easy running down past Devil’s Kitchen to Llyn y Cwn and the loose gully climb to Glyder Fawr. The clag has really closed in now but we find the summit easily, so far so good. We head east from here towards Glyder Fach and pick up a faint path through the boulder field. Our pace slows as judging shape and depth of the boulders becomes more difficult as the wind swirls the mist in our headtorch light. We hit the smooth narrow path before Castell y Gwynt and contour around the southern side. Then it all goes to shit.
I’ve misjudged our distance travelled and feel the need to start to push on north from here, taking a bearing uphill through increasingly larger and angular slabs of rock. We scramble and jump between the slabs and eventually come up against a sheer wall of rock. We find some footholds and make it to the top of the outcrop, only to find it descends as steeply on the other side. We’ve gone wrong somewhere and it seems we are trying to summit the Castell.
I’d done this particular line in the daylight on a previous recce with two lads from Lancashire I met on the trail who were also out for a recce. I followed their nav and we took this exact route and it didn’t end up all too bad. But in the dark and clag mid round it’s all going to hell. We double back on ourselves and try to skirt round the southern flank of the Castell but we end up getting disorientated again and ending back at the sheer wall we just climbed. I can feel the minutes passing and try not to panic. Eventually Tim demands we take a bearing to Glyder Fach and to stick to it. I agree and say that he must ignore my gut feeling to change direction. We head off on the bearing, I tell Tim I don’t think it feels right, he ignores me as per the plan and we make it out of the Castell and eventually find the small rocky summit of Glyder Fach and the easy out and back ascent to the top from the south east. Goodness knows how much time we’ve lost here.
We make the steep loose descent north east and start the climb to Tryfan. We climb over the stone wall in the col of Bwlch Tryfan and begin the ascent of Tryfan. Each time I’ve reccied this ascent I’ve done it a slightly different way, all with success, but this is my first ascent at night. Things go to plan and we top out next to the far southern peak, scramble round to the left and make the final climb up to Adam and Eve. I know the summit well and pick up the descent path, but the clag is thick. We spread out and take our time on this descent. Tim is starting to struggle and I sense he hasn’t really come out of the bad patch he was in earlier. My fannying about on the Glyders won’t have helped matters either.
Eventually we hit the tourist path and make the grassy run in to the checkpoint at Ogwen Cottage, at 05:00, 10 hours in and a whole 02:30 down on the 21 hour schedule but having crossed the toughest terrain on the round in pretty crap conditions. My sister gives me a hug and passes me a bowl of warm soup and bread. “You took a long time, we were worried about you”. I reply that I was worried about us too but that we made it ok.
The plan from here is for Graham to support the next leg to Capel Curig, but there’s been a mix up and he’s nowhere to be seen and isn’t answering his mobile. He would have been here already given that we are properly behind schedule, so it looks like he’s not coming along. Tim and I could really do with some support. I look over to Martin, having just done two legs for us already, loaded up like a packhorse and down for leg 5 later in the day, I get a strong facial expression back but no words – he’s not up for it. I glance over to Tim. He’s already figured out the deal. He’s not looking great and Lee is having a concerned looking discussion with him. I feel he might have had enough, which would leave me to do this leg on my own. I tuck into my soup, head down, I’m planning how to convince my crew to let me head onwards into the night on my own, finesse is not my strong point. I finish my soup and stand to see Tim has put his headtorch on. “You’re coming along then?”, he nods. Lee gives me a concerned look and says to be careful as he didn’t want to go. I say I understand.
We head down the road to begin the ascent of Pen yr Ole Wen. Tim – thank you – you knew they wouldn’t have let me head out alone and so carried on, even though you really didn’t want to. I owe you big time.
We keep the chat up on the long ascent and take things steady. We discuss how far we’re off schedule and how keeping the pace down here right now is the best way forward. We make the summit and head north into the Carneddau. The clag is still down very thick, but we enjoy the first bit of easy running underfoot for the last few hours.
I’m starting to feel very tired and struggling to concentrate. For those that don’t know this round, there are rocks, lots and lots of rocks. The placement of your foot on every stride requires thought.
We start the gradual ascent of Carnedd Dafydd, having been on the go for 11 hours and my poorly adjusted body clock is fighting back. I follow Tim, his head down as a dull shape in the clag as he zig-zags between the ankle-high rocks on what must be a faint trod, and I zig-zag along in his footsteps, the blind leading the blind. Perhaps he’s choosing the most efficient line? We haven’t spoken for at least 30 minutes. Blood sugar is low and both our brains are barely ticking over.
Friends often ask what it’s like to do a round. I explain that you disappear into this magical world where life becomes very simple and you disregard all but the single-minded task of making progress over terrain. Only the rounds are long enough to get to this place and it’s in the days and weeks after that I long to return to this place. This for me is one component that makes the rounds so special and it was at this point that the door to this world opened for me, this is why I come to run these rounds, finally – I’m in. “Mate you’re gonna have to go first, I’m falling asleep here”, I realise I’ve not been pulling my weight and move past Tim to keep us on track.
We keep moving but the ground is relentlessly rough and devoid of any significant features, it feels like an endless rocky conveyor belt. The October night feels equally endless, “It’s getting light now mate, won’t be long until we can up the pace” Tim says, I glance over to the east, it looks deep black to me but with Tim being a navy lad I don’t question it, perhaps he’s referring to nautical twilight? He’s right of course and at long last the terrain gradually expands out in front of us from our dim 5 meter headtorch halo to a well-lit 30 meters in the mist. Now that we can see where we need to be running our spirits and pace lift. Finally the sky starts to lighten and right on cue I need the loo. One of my best in recent times, I feel like a weight has been dropped and I’m lighter on my feet for it.
We make quick work of the run off of Carnedd Llywelyn and the Bwlch Eryl Farchog ridge, it’s at this point that I start to get a pain in the outside of my right knee – it’s typical IT band pain and I know that it’ll be with me until the end. It’s partly masked by my tiredness and the rest of the aching in my legs. I dig out the blob of voltarol from my pack in a small wrap of clingfilm. I pretend it’s making a difference as I rub it on my knee and carry on regardless.
We pass the first group of early morning hikers on the descent from Pen yr Helgi Du, they give us a cheery set of smiles, which is encouraging to see instead of the classic opened mouth stare which usually signals we aren’t looking too chipper. We make the climb to the top of Pen Llithrig y Wrach, the last for this leg. Tim smiles and pats me on the back. I return the gesture. He looks properly done in and I want to be sick. He says he’s had enough now and I point out it’s all downhill to Capel Curig from here.
As we descend I hear the drone of an engine down in the valley. It’s a high revving 4-cylinder motorcycle. I hear the rider drop down a gear going into a corner and the revs build as they exit the bend and set away down the road. This is comforting as it tells me two things – we must be close to Capel Curig; and that the weather is likely to remain settled for at least the next few hours.
Tim picks up the pace as we make the run to Capel Curig. The tiny uphill slope feels like a killer as we stagger into the car park behind the Joe Brown shop to a crowd of support crew.
14 hours in and 3h30m behind schedule. Three legs down, two to go. I see a familiar face. It’s Ewan Brown, a friend from my time in Edinburgh. He’s a local lad, runs for the Scottish hill running team and is an absolute beast of an athlete. I’d let him know I was doing the round this weekend and he was keen to be involved but we hadn’t finalised plans. He must have found my schedule one way or another but I wasn’t expecting to see him here. I give him a nod. I get emotional about the unexpected support and feel my eyes start to fill up with tears.
The plan now is for Patrick Bonnett and Ross, a climbing friend of Graham’s who I’ve just met to support the epic 7 hour leg from here through the Moelwyns to Nantmor. As I sit down to eat Patrick already has his phone out, “Smile for the camera!”, I give him a big cheesy one but can’t help feeling like the dancing monkey in some wicked show. I guess you can’t question folk’s interest in your own selfimposed destruction. Graham has returned from wherever he was at and points out I’m still on track for sub 24 hours if I can smash this one out in 7 hours. Ross and Patrick are raring to go and this lifts my spirits as I give Tim a departing handshake.
We jog along the road to start the long climb up to Moel Siabod. Ross and Patrick are chatting away and asking how the night was. I splutter out a few details about us getting stuck in the Castell and that I’m glad it’s daylight now, they have a spring in their stride but slow up once they see I only have one gear. Patrick is a veteran runner who supported me in my Bob Graham round last year. It’s great to have him here again and I’m pushed on by the fact that he’s kindly made the overnight trip down from Durham amongst his busy work schedule – you can’t mess about when there’s an elder in attendance!
We make use of the climbing time to sort out the food and water for this leg. An extensive menu of goodies is reeled off and I manage to cram in a gel on the way up. I’ve had trouble with my stomach shutting down on long runs and I’m mindful I need to keep eating even though I don’t feel like it. This leg is a long one but we have plenty of food between us. We top out on Moel Siabod just behind schedule for this leg and enjoy the long grass descent.
Ross hasn’t run this leg before but leads up ahead with a gps which I’d loaded up with a track put together from my reccies. We make good time over the next few tops and I’m being pushed on by the undulating terrain and Ross’ pace. I have short spurts of decent pace but then drop back into first gear. I’m being constantly badgered to eat, but I don’t feel up for it. I rummage around in my pack and find half of a slab of dark chocolate that someone must have slipped in there at Capel Curig without me noticing. I make the mental suggestion of it to my stomach and it agrees – I eat the whole lot in one go. My energy immediately lifts along with my vision and balance. I catch Ross up and decide that I haven’t seen him eat in awhile, I ask him if he’s eating ok. He laughs at the fact that I’m worried about him. It might seem like compassion on my part but really I’m just checking he’s able to carry me when the time comes. The weather is remaining still and clear and we make steady progress with ticking off the multitude of little tops that make up this section of the round.
I discuss with Patrick about why these seemly minor lumps of rock have been included in the round, perhaps they are significant in Welsh folklore? Or maybe it’s just to break up the long steady slog through the heather and bog of this section. Perhaps Paddy Buckley thought we’d be missing the rocks by now? My impression was that this section was the hardest to nav and easy to miss some of the smaller tops and so I’d reccied this section of the round a number of times in both directions and even gone to the trouble to rebuild some of the summit cairns, which I was pleased to see were still standing.
We make our way up to Allt-fawr which signals the end of the little tops and onwards to the big tops of the Moelwyns proper to the south of Rhsydd quarry village. Up to now Patrick had been following me, I’d been following Ross who had himself been following the gps track. A perfect setup, until the gps decided to crap itself and die – I don’t blame it, it was an old garmin model I’d had for years and clearly this jaunt was the final straw. I felt like doing the same. But now Ross didn’t know where to go so we had to switch things up.
Much to the delight of Patrick it was time to go oldschool and get the compass out. I think he tried hard to hide his satisfaction that the electronic cheating device had bailed out on us but I spotted it nonetheless. I mostly knew the way from here but given my past nav error and just to be sure Patrick took a bearing, paused for a moment then pointed. And so Ross sprinted off in that direction and I hobbled along behind. Occasionally Patrick would shout from the back. We’d both stop, look around and he’d point in a new direction and we’d set off back in that direction. It was a comical chain of command but it worked well and made a refreshing change to the proceedings.
We made decent pace on the southern loop section of the leg, choosing not to dump some of our gear at the quarry village. Patrick was flagging a bit on the steep grassy climb up to Moel-yr-hydd but he kept pace with us along to Llyn Stwlan reservoir. It was at this point that he decided it’d be best to wait in the col for Ross and I to do the out and back to Moelwyn Bach on our own, with just a map and a compass. What could go wrong? As usual I was happy I knew the way and so we cracked on.
We traversed on the eastern side of the mountain and I remember there being a steep climb up through a grassy gully to pick up the trod. Except the gully wasn’t there and so we carried on contouring round to the east. Ross hadn’t run this section before and so it was all down to me. Had I just screwed up again? The trail looked unfamiliar so I decided we take a bearing west and straight line it up the summit. We scrabbled up the grassy bank and onto a broad rocky top, which also looked unfamiliar. Oops. We traced a few large circles to try to find something familiar but it all looked new to me. We took a look at the map and decided to head north towards ground I should know and after a few minutes we hit the familiar trod to the final climb. When we finally made it back to the col Patrick wondered what we’d been doing on such a simple out and back. We gave him the compass back pretty quick!
Regrouped we set off on the narrow climb up to Craig Ysgarn. This is one of my favourite sections of the round. It feels exposed and deep within the mountains. We continued the climb to Moelwyn Mawr, but I was really starting to flag now. My stomach wasn’t wanting food and I was starting to trip up over the rocks. We made it to the top and decided to take a minute to try and get some food in, I think they could see I couldn’t keep going. I didn’t have anything I fancied in my pack and the usual offered options of gels, crisps and bananas came up short too, until Ross rummaged out a block of Jamaican ginger cake. I used to have it with custard as a kid. My eyes relay the massage to my stomach and the green light is given. But Ross says there’s a problem, he’s not sure if it’s vegan – I tell him not to check and cram it down my throat.
Once again I’ve got some energy and we begin the descent back to the quarry village. A tough section of the round done, but I can sense we are well off the pace. Patrick takes the low level shortcut on the access track to Nantmor leaving Ross and I to tackle the final top of this leg, the aptly named ‘Cnicht’, which I assume is Welsh for ‘the bitch’, along with the 3 mile run out. We cut off of the access track and through to rough grass tussocks, descend to the dam of Llyn Cwm-y-foel and begin the straight ascent up the grassy slope. The ginger cake has filtered through to my legs and I decide I’d rather get it over with quick and bash on ahead and wait once I hit the hiker path. Ross follows quick behind and we top out shortly after. We shake hands, the last one done for this leg and just the run in to do now. Except I’d forgotten how horrendous the descent of Cnicht is.
The trail cuts across the foliation of the slate here, which is of great interest if you’re into your geology, but for everyone else it just means lots of exposed slippery rock. A lot of bum sliding saw done here to make it down and I start to get frustrated at how slowly I’m going. Eventually we hit the landrover track and I’m guessing by now Patrick is already tucking into this soup at Nantmor. Ross leads ahead and I try to keep up with the pace as best I can, my right knee is really pinching now, my feet are swelling and the rim of my sucks are cutting into the front of my shins. We make it to the National Trust car park. 22 hours in and 4h30m down on schedule. It’s 17:00. Four legs down, one to go.
I’m lifted by the energy of the support crew. My sister has convinced Ewan to set up the back of his van with a bed and blanket in case I want to rest. He’s left the side door open and they point to say I can go in there for a rest if I want to. It looks heaven but I know if I get in there I won’t be coming back out again so I politely decline. There’s no doubt between them now that I’ll finish. They ask where I’m sleeping at the end of this, I say it’ll be in the back of the van at Capel Curig and we joke about my van being towed by the police for overstaying with me asleep in the back.
I manage to gobble down some more soup and a handful of brownies. I change my top and socks for the first time as my top half is sodden with sweat and it is starting to rain. Ewan and Martin are ready to go. Ewan has a map and asks where the gps is. I pause and break the news that it didn’t make it. He looks concerned. I assure him that I know this round well having reccied it many times and that he has nothing to worry about… I also note that him being Welsh will do us right.
We cross the old stone bridge in the valley bottom and climb up through the trees on an overgrown and washed out stone path. Martin is in good spirits having had a sleep in the car. Ewan and I catch up having not seen each other for a few years. We ascend to the wall corner on the heather slopes of Bryn Banog and take a bearing to the top which comes easily. I explain that I’m not fussed about the pace but just to make sure that I hit all the tops. I don’t want someone pointing out tomorrow that I missed one. Ewan is happy with the nav being on home terrain and I follow his line, which is more direct that those which I’ve reccied, and takes us across some rough wet ground. I plow on knowing that there’s only so much more of this left. Martin digs out some vegan jelly sweets, I offer them one or two each and then down the rest in a couple of mouthfulls. I also manage to get in two gels and stick another in the front pocket of my jacket for the next climb.
We make the steep rocky ascent up to Moel Hebog which reminds me of the slog up Yewbarrow from Wasdale. We don’t stop at the top and go straight into the steep grassy descent with burning legs. Me knees are aching with every step but I make it down in a respectable pace.
I imagine the route in my mind and count the tops left. There’s 5, out of 47. I ask if we can start counting these down now? Martin and Ewan agree this is a good call. I take a look at my watch I’m just under 24 hours in. Can I make it back in under 26 hours?
We crack on with Ewan doing all the nav. He stuffs the map in his jacket and says he’s knows the rest now. We tick off Moel yr Ogof (4 to go) and Moel Lefn (3 to go). Then I realise that number is too low. I ask Ewan if he can check the map. He checks and counts them off and corrects me, there’s actually 5 left. I ask if we can start the countdown again and cram in another gel!
The rain is coming down hard now and the wind has gotten up. I consider this the last ditch attempt of the powers that be to stop me from completing. I smile to myself and lick up the fresh rain water as it runs past my mouth – bring it on. I’ve passed the 24 hour mark now and the sun beings to set. Into the second night now and I put my headtorch back on. We make Y Gyrn and start the long climb to Trum-y Ddysgl. Ewan is leading the way and my legs feel really strong having finally got some calories in. I ask if this is the last climb, he says we need to visit Mynydd y Ddwy Elor first, a minor top on the slopes of Trum-y Ddysgl, which much to be embarrassment I’d completely overlooked on my reccies, having assumed I’d automatically bagged it on the main climb. Thank goodness someone is still with it as I’d have missed this one.
We make the short detour and get back to the last climb. I double check with Ewan at this is the last one and decide to empty the tank. I give it full gas. It’s a decent climb but is near constant gradient so I figure if I can settle into a rhythm I’ll nail it. Ewan is laughing his ass off at my side “Mate this pace is bonkers!”, Martin shouts that he can’t keep up. I keep going, Ewan points out that a must ignore a trod to the right but I misinterpret his instruction and take a sharp right onto the trod, he yells at me that it’s wrong and I cut back onto the route and then my legs blow up. Ewan shouts for me to keep going and I give it another push but I’ve had it. I slow to a brisk walk and the trod levels off to the gentle climb. The rain is still lashing down and the wind has increased. Martin has caught up and we bring our heads together to shout to each other in the gale.
In the darkness up ahead we can hear the wind blowing up and out of the corrie on the northern face of Trum-y Ddysgl. Ewan dashes on ahead and I’m concerned he’ll overshoot the top. We make the top and briefly stare down into the darkness of the corrie. The wind and the rain persists. Two more tops to go on the nantlle ridge. Ewan leads the way, we follow the narrow hikers path then cut back up slope to the tip of the ridge to reach Mynydd Drws-y-coed. The rock is polished smooth and soaking wet. I look down and point my headtorch at the spot where I want my feet to go. I throw a leg forward and miss the spot I wanted by miles. My foot lands and sticks through so I go with it. Martin in close behind and we make slow progress around and over the rocky ramparts. We come up to traverse along a narrow ledge. Nothing too bad but with a significant exposed drop. Ewan goes first and scampers across. I make note of his route choice as far as I can with my headtorch. He makes it onto easier ground, clearly loving it he chuckles like a madman and dashes off into the darkness without a look back. Great. Martin and I make slower progress and follow the best line I can see along the ridge. We come to another rampart and I hear a shout to my left, Ewan has found the line and is making his way down. I follow with care and when I get to the bottom realise it’s steeply exposed on both sides with only a narrow run out at the bottom of the crag. I make sure Martin gets his footholds on the wet rock and we follow Ewan’s headtorch in the distance.
The ground becomes easier now and we regroup to make the final short climb to Y Garn (the second such named top on the round). The scattered stone cairn comes into view. Ewan has already made it. I clamber up the pile, bend down and kiss the wet rock. 47 done!
We all cheer and take a quick photo. Then I start to feel the cold. I’m soaked now and the exposure is chilling me. I check my watch, we’re over 26 hours now. No bother I got it done.
We make the long descent down the grassy slope and into the forest. Mentally I’ve done it now and this takes me over an hour. We pass through the gate into the forest and the trail levels off onto a gravel fireroad. My legs are killing me and the top of my socks still feel like they are cutting into my shins. I can’t wait to get them off. Martin and Ewan try to lift the pace to a steady run by I’ve had it. We shake hands and slow to a walk. The trail widens and the edges of the trail is littered with leaves and broken twigs. I spot a silver rabbit at the side of the trail, only a few feet away and still in the night, its fur glistening in my torchlight, then another appears soon after, but as I try to focus its features become less clear. I glance over to Martin and Ewan, they haven’t noticed these wee Welsh creatures lining our path. I say nothing. There’s a head torch down the trail and my sister comes up to greet us, “You’ve done it!” she exclaims.
feel like it’s done me to be honest. My Dad smiles, “You’re bloody nuts you lot”. I finished the Paddy Buckley round in 27hrs 23 mins, being the 196th completion since Wendy Dodds in 1982.
I’d like to thank everyone that helped me to finish, including all those who couldn’t be there on theday but pushed me on with my training. We will all be back out on the fells soon.
Max Wilkinson, November 2019 (finally completed during lockdown, May 2020)
Not the London Marathon – but the London Championship Marathon Virtual Relays!!!
Didn’t know they existed? Well they didn’t, until last weekend, when 6 somewhat frustrated locked-down Striders (Stephen J, Michaels L and M, Emma T, Corrine W and I) took to the roads, treadmills or anywhere else as deserted and flat (or ideally downward sloping) as possible, and hurtled their tired legs through exactly 1/6 of a marathon as fast as they possibly could. This varied rather amongst team members – notably Stephen Jackson and I may have differed a little in the actual outcome of running as fast as possible. Nonetheless we all got suitably exhausted from our efforts, and then added up our times to see how we fared against our natural competitors (Mo, and the likes of…).
So – we managed an awesome 2 hours and 36 minutes and a few seconds (I forget…). Which really does make you realise just how fast our friends Kipchoge and Mo are!! But hey, if we did 400m relays and had a really huge team, I’m sure we would stand a fighting chance against those giants – as long as they were doing the full marathon.
Other benefits of our version of the race included the Very Short Toilet Queues. And a really nice Zoom meeting afterwards (we had to do it by Zoom because Stephen appeared to actually have gone to London and to be sitting in the bar at St Pancras station. Or had he?? I’ll have to teach him how to set his Garmin for time and distance travel – so much easier!)
Confession – due to other pressures this race was extremely poorly advertised, i.e. not at all. This had the foreseeable consequence that we were the only team entering and therefore we came first. And, simultaneously, last…