Race report: Our obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward meets his toughest challenge yet at the Outdoor Fitness Man vs Mountain race, powered by Merrell & Rat Race - September 6, 2014
Man vs Mountain has always been one of those events that you look at in the Rat Race "Ratalouge" and think "that looks amazing", but the thought process ends there. Or it did until this year. This year I wanted to race 20 miles across Snowdon in Wales, or at least I thought I did.
This "race" takes place on the highest point in the British Isles outside of the Scottish Highlands. Snowdon boasts an impressive elevation of 1,085 metres and is linked to "afanc" (a water monster); whilst sounding fantastic - this is not a race for the faint hearted. I would even say that it is not a race for a lot of people but with a record 934 entrants this year – clearly I am wrong in this view.
As though we could be in any doubt of the magnitude of the event, Rat Race sent an email a few weeks before the event, outlining the "essential kit", ranging from a survival bag to a whistle, that is not optional and you will need if you want to race. Queuing in a camping store and explaining that you need the bag to run up a mountain brings it home that this is not Men's Health Survival of the Fittest or Dirty Weekend, this is actually a full blown serious race.
Before setting of I compiled my kit including a pair of Merrell Bare Access Trail that are designed for trail running. I must say that they looked and felt the part, unlike me, and inspired some confidence that I may make it through this race.
On arriving at Llanberis, our new home for 48 hours, you cannot help but notice the idyllic scenery. Regular readers will recall that I have moaned about and/or delighted in the horrendous hills I have faced during the last 24 months. I need to edit all of those articles to "blemishes" on the countryside - the real hills are found here, in North Wales. For example the hill to the campsite was enough of an incline to break a sweat and we were not even near the mountains.
At 8.15am the next morning I was stood with Run247 colleague and hero Mr Paul Shanley and 200 fellow competitors at Caernarfon Castle. What follows can be summed up in one word – horrendous or amazing - I cannot quite decide.
The race began with a five mile jaunt to one of the entrances to Snowdon, across paths, roads and small trails. Each mile we gradually got higher and higher, only to come back down again! After the first couple of "hills"; I slowly realised what I was about to take on, as these knock the rhythm out of you completely, your legs become tired and you haven't even made it to the mountain.
On reaching mile eight, after the first pit stop, serving more chocolate and cakes than I have ever seen, the path began to lead to Snowdon and for the next four miles I was treated to some of the most incredible views that you can imagine.
The "essential information" states that you have your two legs to rely upon to get you there and back, and this is no understatement. Bar my fellow competitors I was on my own, surrounded by mountains and some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. The hills were separated by a number of downhill sections that, whilst hugely enjoyable and a welcome reprieve from climbing, made me realise that all of that effort; all of that climbing - was for nothing, although the miles were ticking off.
The pain I felt now was nothing compared to what happens at mile 12, the climb to Snowdon. What started as a steep climb soon turned into an impossible effort to get to the top of this mountain. If you are in any doubt of the extent of the brutality, my Garmin was happily beeping away at 29.08 minute miles as I passed professional mountain climbers with all sorts of poles.
Thomas Blanc, the male winner of this year's Man vs Mountain, hails from the French mountains and told me that "you cannot beat a mountain, she will decide if she lets you up". This is the understatement of the year - on reaching the end of a climb, we were faced with another twist or turn leading up the mountain and I wondered if she just did not like me.
Luckily I was distracted from this thought process through the breathtaking, in many ways, view. I have never seen anything like this and it made me think how lucky I was to be doing this race and having this experience.
On reaching the top, staring out at the top of "the stairs" over and across Wales, I didn't really know what to do bar gasp in awe - it really was quite something to see. After checking in, refuelling and taking some pictures, the task was to get back down again - a mere seven miles to the finish line.
As I began the descent, with my legs burning from the horrendous climb that they had just endured; I saw the famous train and members of the public smiling as they climbed Snowdon in comfort. I had been told that it was £20 to get the train and although completely cheating, thoroughly tempting.
The path down was just as demanding as the climb and was hugely technical. It featured a mixture of broken rubble, large stones and mud. To get any form of pace was increasingly difficult and there was the added challenge of avoiding ramblers and members of the general public, mostly looking at us like we were crazy.
At the base of the path I came to a break and was met with a stunning view of Llanberis and hope filled me. My Garmin stated 18.5 miles and I thought I was actually going to make it. With four and half hours on the clock it looked like it could happen too!
Sadly this race was by no means over! It was a two mile run from this point to the Merrell "vertical kilometre", which was an individually timed section, intended to "burn those quads".
I was broken due to Snowdon, so this was just unfair. The climb was just as sharp, just as technical and almost horizontal at points. On reaching one section, which I thought was the summit, I noted the bright orange flag in the distance and realised that I had much further to go before this test would end.
On reaching the end, in quite some state, the marshals gladly shouted that this was the "fun point" now, but some of me was still left across the last 20 miles and if I'm honest I was asking just why I thought I could complete this or whether it had been a good idea to enter.
At least I took some comfort in the fact that I would be facing some obstacles in the last mile. Although they break your rhythm - they were the perfect distraction to every ache and pain in my body. From a mixture of walk the plank and a jump into a freezing pool in the quarry, to abseiling down a disused railway line, it was a fitting end to the race and a welcome addition.
On surmounting the last two walls and rope climb, the finish line was in sight and I honestly had not thought that I would see this point. After collecting my medal I joined a number of my competitors in collapsing by the finish line. I could not do much more than listen to other people discuss the race being "22.6 miles by my watch" or "there are free cookies in the tent" and murmur how I would like a cookie.
After a good ten minutes I mustered the energy to get changed and find Paul. On seeing his smile, I instantly told him that he'd be on his own next year, I would not be doing this "ever again". Two days on and I want to go back. I want to train harder and I want to experience that all over again.
This "race" is by no means easy, far from it, and to finish is an achievement, let alone to do so in a crazy time like Thomas' 3 hours 30 minutes (one minute shy of the course record); but this race is incredible. I have done some pretty brutal things in the last 24 months but nothing comes close to this – Man vs Mountain has everything: pain, euphoria and madness. I cannot recommend this race enough.
I went through a mixture of emotions whilst during the race, from feeling alive and strong, to feeling broken and wanting it to end. Nothing will ever take that moment away from me of lying by the finish line thinking "I have just run up Snowdon and lived to tell the tale".
Special thanks to Merrell for the Bare Access Trail shoes - find out more about them here.
Click here for results and interviews with the winners
Find out more about Rat Race Man vs Mountain: www.ratracemanvsmountain.com
I am 33 years old and spend the majority of my life within an office environment. Whilst I played football, I never really took an interest in sport let alone athletics. In 2011 I joined a gym as I was slightly concerned about my weight. However I was, like an awful lot of my colleagues, coasting and I considered spinning three times a week a workout.
This changed when I took up a circuits class and found myself entering Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest London in November 2011. I was assured by my friends that this was a good idea and would be a “challenge”.
I had never entered any form of competitive event before and training for this run changed me. I listened to my personal trainer, who assured me that if I quit drink I could be dangerous, and sorted out my diet, stopped drinking so much and focussed my training. I completed the race in just over an hour and I was instantly bitten by the racing bug, I loved the challenge the event offered.
Nearly two years on I have completed a half marathon in 1hour 49 minutes, came 6th
in the Rat Race Horseplay 5k event and usually come within the top 30% at Obstacle Course races. I am also a part time triathlete and I am lucky to find myself in a running club where we have a great coach and the focus is on members. If I am honest - I came to running through these events and I am not alone.
My aim through Run 247 is to promote, discuss and publicise Obstacle Course racing. It is becoming huge and over the coming months we will cover all of the major races and the new competitors entering the scene.