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On Snowdonia Trail Marathon

 

Hello Hello, let me tell you what it’s like to be a

Zero Zero, Let me tell you what it’s like to never

Feel Feel, Like I’m good enough for anything that’s

Real Real, I’m looking for a way out

The weather is perfect, cool, sunny, no wind. I have slept soundly (as always), I have breakfast with my kids, give everyone a kiss, and get in my van. I stop by at the same petrol station I always do, get the same Costa Coffee and Bevita Biscuit as I always do, and continue. The drive is 45min from my house to Llanberis, where the race starts.

I warm up to the song above, I am locking my rhythm into the beat of that song. Fast and light. I am also locking in the lyrics. I’m done with disappointments and underachieving, done with seeing my friends make it, while I don’t. I’m tired of being a zero.

I am the fastest marathon runner here. I am the current Snowdonia Marathon champion. I am the fastest descender here. I live here. I have practised this course more than anyone. This is my race. This is my time.

I see some very good runners on the start line. I’m happy they’ve come, I want to race them. I’m not afraid of anyone.

I leave it as late as I can before arriving at the start line. I am doing drills on the grass. I line up 5min before the start. Phil Tan asks me if I have a bumbag with kit. I have left it in the van. I thought I read that it was advisory, seeing as the weather is so perfect, but he informs me it is compulsory. I don’t have time to get back to my van. He rushes off to his car and very kindly offers me his. I have 2 minutes left to judge myself for nearly messing the whole thing up, despite months of preparation, but instead, I spend the 2 minutes frantically adjusting the waistband. With a minute to go, I still can’t get it tight enough. I tie a knot in it, it fits. Gun goes. I don’t even have time to remember how much I hate wearing kit.

 

I go straight to the front, and lead us up the first hill. It doesn’t feel hard, I don’t feel scared; I trained for this, I visualised this, and now I am enjoying doing it. Elbows in, rhythm. We come off the tarmac onto the trail of Bwlch Maesgwm, I am smooth and relaxed. Just before mile 3, a group of three guys catch me up. I am not worried, I was kinda expecting this. I hang on to them, it’s not too difficult. The hill ramps up, one guy drops off, I stay attached. Then the two infront, Chris Holdsworth and Seb Batchelor, start to gap me a bit. Not much, no problem. They are both GB Internationals, Chris was 2nd in the Snowdon International Mountain Race last year, Seb won team Gold in the European Mountain Running Champs this year. We are nearly at the top of this incline, then there is about 3 miles of descent to come. I stick to my pace. I know I will catch them back up.

We round over the hill, the dynamic changes instantly, I am gaining on them both, and am back in front within half a mile. We are now in fell running territory. Although pretty tame for a fell race, trail runners will find this difficult. There is little in the way of a path. Lots of bogs, long grass, mud and hidden rocks. I know the route through it all pretty well, and I am flying. Zero effort, just concentrating, in my zone, my body is so up for this. Chris is an awesome descender, and he is keeping close enough to me to see the lines I’m taking.

I try, at one point, to up my pace to shake him off, I get to a gate far enough in front that I can open it and close it without slamming it in his face, but then we hit firm trail, the descent levels off, and Chris reels me back in. We get to Rhyd Ddu, the first water station, I grab a gel and drink off Nina, and pour water over my head from my Dad. Chris and I are neck and neck. Although my plan had been to run away from everyone, I realise, at this point, it is going to take a massive effort for me to run away from Chris. He has posted some very fast road times over shorter distances, and this is only mile 6 of 27. I decide to work with him, and it feels like a good decision. The pace is hot enough. We are streaming through the woods of Beddgelert now. I am in my element.

Into Beddgelert village, mile 10, we are locked together, me leading, I grab gel off Nina and water off Philip, I pass some to Chris. We are now heading around the lake, Llyn Dinas. I let Chris lead now. I know there are about 5 or 6 gates to open and shut, so with Chris infront, he has to open them. In my recces, I had been practising vaulting over most of the gates, which saves heaps of time and energy, but the Race Rules disallow it by fear of disqualification.

We hop over a cattle grid, I take it faster than Chris, I am back infront coming into Nant Gwynant, the next aid station. Mile 15, all fine.

Round the final lake, Llyn Gwynant, the track is very narrow, and awkward. People use the word ‘technical’ for terrain like this, but I don’t agree with the description. I prefer ‘gnarly’; sounds more natural, and less scientific. Steep hills, big rocks jutting out everywhere, the first time I did this route, it nearly ate me alive. But I figured it out, and today, I am smiling. Chris is doing a sterling job for someone who has never been in here before, but I am finding it so easy tracking him. I have time to admire how much I have improved over this terrain these past few months.

We clear the gnarly track, and are suddenly busted out into open fields. I am looking forward to the climb to Pen Y Pass, it is a really well built path, with good size steps and a consistent gradient. But, very quickly, I am not feeling that great. Chris is getting away from me, I am getting woozy. I come to the first steps of the climb and I am not popping up them the way I have done in training. The route makes a switchback and I see Tom Adams is catching me. I am suddenly feeling quite weak and dizzy, I don’t understand why. Tom passes me. I try and keep my rhythm, I am singing the song to myself.

I get to Pen Y Pass (mile 19) in 3rd place. Chris and Tom are a fair bit infront, but I still feel it’s all to play for. I am aiming to win, and although we have 3 miles of torturous climb ahead of us, I firmly believe that if I get to the top anywhere near the leaders, then I will catch them with my descent. One of the selectors has informed me I need top 2, to ensure selection for GB. But the win is what drove me every step of the way through training, so I am not compromising now. I get to a high step, only just out of sight from the water station. I leap up, my right hamstring cramps up. I grab it, WOW! It feels like a rock. I am squirming around on the track, I try and sit down, stand up, stretch it out. A runner passes me. I start walking. Someone else. I try and tag onto them. I fall over. I am bonking and cramping at the same time. A darkness descends as we enter into thick cloud. This has, incredibly quickly, turned into a nightmare.

I am walking, walking, walking. Runners are passing me. I can’t count them, or even recognise them. Every time I try and hang onto one of them, I trip and fall. If I try and climb too quickly, hamstring cramps. My mind is not working, my body is failing. I had a sip of caffeine gel from Nina, I’m waiting for it to kick in. It doesn’t.

I’ve hammered this climb so fast in training, that I have flown past the walkers. It has led them to shout things such as ‘Ooh, Excu-ooose meeee!’ or ‘Look at him, thinks he owns the mountain’. All this made me laugh. But now, they are saying things like, ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Do you want the last of my water?’. This is not so funny.

At some point, about halfway into this hell, it dawns on me that I’m not going to win this race. I’m not even going to come 2nd. I know my family are down at the bottom of this mountain waiting for me. The last time my kids saw me, I was looking strong at the front. Now look at me. I knew this was the hardest part of the race, and yet I have still fucked it. How many times can I keep failing like this? How many times can I let my family down like this? I am never going to get a chance like this again. I’m not good enough. Why do I keep doing this to everyone? I’m just not good enough.

Oh the shame. Look at yourself, you are an embarrassment. What made you think you would ever be good enough. The SHAME.

I stumble on. Everything hurts and goes numb. I stop and walk when my hamstring cramps. I run when it doesn’t. I drink water out of a puddle. Walkers around me are saying concerned things. I can’t even hear them. I stumble on. A guy is organising his dozen friends for a photo. I walk right through it, he shouts ‘Oi! You’re not part of our stag-do!’. They all laugh and slap me on the back. I don’t even smile, or look up. I just stumble on, hands on my knees at this point.

I have decided that if my family are still waiting for me at the bottom of this hill, then, whatever happens, I’m going right up to my kids to give them a hug and promise I will never ever put them through this again. This vision, gives me a slight boost in the chasm of my despair.

I manage to haul myself up the mountain, and finally, finally, onto the descent. The weather is absolutely perfect for descending. Excellent visibility, a headwind, and dry rock. I instantly pass a rival runner. We have merged with the ultra runners, so they are also in the mix, but I can pick out the marathon guys clearly ahead of me. I just say to myself, catch this one guy. Catch that one guy. I take over three or four. It keeps me occupied. I briefly spot Tom Adams, the GB International who passed me so convincingly way back at Pen Y Pass, but it can’t be him, he is surely long gone by now. We hit the steep tarmac descent. It levels off, I see my kids right where I hoped they would be. Just as I am going to cross the road to hug them, I see it IS Tom Adams, just ahead of me, with a mile to go. I have to leave the hug for later.

I pass Tom, it means something to me, that someone of his calibre has also misjudged this race. We are coming past lots of runners doing different distances, I have no idea who it is breathing behind me. Is it Tom hanging on? With 100m left, the race narrows and a group of ultra runners are running abreast taking over the whole path, I have to very rudely push straight through them, and haul myself to the finish line in front of Tom. 3hrs36. Less than a minute quicker than I did in training 2 weeks ago.

Some people are saying I finished 10th, some say 11th. It doesn’t really matter. I wanted to win. I bent my will around winning. 10th, or 110th, what’s the difference. All I had wanted, through the blackness of Snowdon, was to sink into my family. Now I don’t want to see any of them. The shame kicks back in with a vengeance. Catching scalps on the way down distracted me, but now I am comprehending what I have lost. I just wanted, so badly, to sit on that plane to Argentina, wearing GB tracksuit, hear that chime to put my seat belt on, that was my moment, right there. It was so real, and so close, I really believed I had it in me. But I was kidding myself the whole time. I am back to zero.

My parents and Nina and kids give me kisses and hugs. I apologise to them. I can’t look them in the face. They say they are just relieved I’m in one piece. I lie in the grass, legs cramping up, sun shining. I had been in a similar state after Berlin Marathon last year. Couldn’t get up for about an hour. I phoned Nina then, and wished she was with me. And now she is. My parents take the kids to get ice cream, while I roll around with Nina looking over me, trying to cheer me up. I try and stay as friendly as I can to everyone who comes to say hello.

I wish I didn’t have pride, ego, self pity; but I do. It is stinging really badly. It is a physical pain that is clawing at my throat. I don’t understand what happened. How did I hit the wall? I had been doing 30 mile runs with no fuel, and no problems. I came through Trail Marathon Wales a month ago with no issues. It’s not fair.

I get in the car with Nina and the kids, they fall asleep after a frantic morning. I’m trying to work out what the hell happened. Nina is showing me my gels and energy drink. It is now I realise, I was hardly taking anything on. The gels are almost full. I had meticulously planned with Nina that she would give me all the gels, so I didn’t need to carry them. I would then drop them further along for her to run and collect. At the race briefing, right before the start, the organiser stated that anyone caught dropping any litter, under any circumstances, would be instantly disqualified. Instead, packets could be handed to the next available marshal. It was too late to explain this to Nina. If I dropped my litter with a marshal, she would be left running along forever. I resolved to take a quick sip and then drop the gels right by her, so it was clear to any observers that I was not littering.

With my recces, I had not hit the wall, but I was in a lower gear, mentally and physically, which burns more fat than glycogen. When I ran Trail Marathon Wales, I took around 6 gels, and gave myself a good mile to ingest each one. It worked so well, it gave me a false confidence, that I didn’t need them all that much.

Also, on top of all this, I had come into this race overcooked. Five days ago, I was in bed with fatigue. That last recce should have been done three weeks before the big race, not two, and I should have skipped the 10km race. But I wasn’t in shape three weeks ago, and I needed to nail that recce, to prove to myself that I could do the difficult thing I was intent on doing. Yes, in hindsight, I should have skipped the 10k. But sometimes a taper and a short race can sharpen you up nicely.

I got a lot right. I got a few things wrong.

My family are Whatsapping me to say supportive and lovely things. I am trying to hear it, but I just wish they didn’t always have to pick me up. That, this time, they could all share a little in the glow of my success.

We sit down for pizza and beer. My traditional post marathon meal. The pain in my legs is subsiding gradually. My kids know I’m down, they keep hugging and kissing me, I don’t want it, I don’t deserve it.

At around 6pm, we go to the reservoir so the kids can cycle along the dam. It is a beautiful evening, the low sun casts a golden light and long shadows over everything. The kids take off on their bikes, and Nina runs along with them.

The Moelwyn Mountains look down on me, mighty, but friendly.

I am left to my argument with the universe;

Look at the mountains. Look how enormous they are. And they are millions of years old, have been here since the dawn of man, and will be here long after you are gone. They are so big, and you are so small, and your time here is so short. Why worry?

I don’t want to hear that b######t now. It’s not fair. It’s NOT FAIR!

I look away quickly, I go back to my pain. Head down in shadow. The sun warms my skin, and I try to walk away from it

I know. I know. But you like the sun on your back, don’t you. You always have. Here, let me gently massage the pain out of your shoulders. Why don’t you think about Kenya, and all your friends there right now, living under the same sun

I said I don’t want to hear it! I sacrificed so much to win that race! And you cheated me out of it. So now I am just going to feel sorry for myself, I deserve to feel sorry for myself!

I know. I know. But look at the lake. How still it is. How the mirror of the sky looks like heaven on Earth. How the low sunbeams sparkle on the water like diamonds. And, what have you sacrificed, really? A few Sunday morning lie-ins? So you could run through the mountains of Snowdonia? And you loved every moment. You felt so alive, it was an epic, incredible adventure. Think again, about your friends in Kenya, who have trained harder than you, sacrificed more, and were never given a chance.

Not listening! Not listening! BLAHBLAHBLAH. My pride hurts. This was important to me. And now my life is terrible! And I’m a failure. And I’m angry!

There, there. Ok. Your life is terrible. But then, look at your family. Look at your boy, fearlessly racing that bike around for all it is worth. Your little girl, stoic and independent, making her own way on her little balance bike, with her little ladybird helmet. And look at your beautiful wife, laughing and running, young and fit. And see how I light them all up, so it looks like a Hollywood movie. Yes, you can feel that warmth, deep in your heart, can’t you. That is real pride. That is what is really important.

I try to fight it, but yes, I can feel it. I don’t want to feel it. My resolve is weakening. My petulant stubbornness is trying to hold on.

But I’m not ready yet. I don’t want to be grateful. I want to be sorry for myself. The race isn’t even a day old. I need more time to be angry, to blame someone, to cry.

Sure you do. You take all the time you need. Let’s go home. Oh, and remember, there is a full tub of Ben And Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie waiting for you in the freezer

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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