There's something special about heading to Wales in the autumn that made me return to Snowdonia for the 32nd Marathon Eryri.
Leaving London on Friday morning, it was typically British weather with contrasting green rolling hills and charcoal etched skies fading into one another at the horizon. With the train gently swaying from left to right, I settled in to my journey taking me from tower blocks and terrace houses to the coast of Colwyn Bay, eventually settling in at my home for the weekend, looking out onto the Menai Strait at Caernarfon dock.
I took an afternoon walk around the little dock basin, which is now only used for mooring yachts, along the harbour wall and to the pier, with stairs going up and down like an MC Escher sketch. After wandering around for a bit I decided that with little else to do in this sleepy town, I'd have dinner and fuel my body for what was to come tomorrow and still be in bed by 9pm.
I had set my alarm for 6am for a leisurely start to the day. A cup of coffee and pot of oats later and I made my way to the hotel breakfast for a pastry and espresso.
The cab journey wasn't long, in fact I think it took little more than 15mins, the pefect amount of time to swap stories with the cab driver, who despite being in his seventies, has still never been to London. It made me think that sometimes the sense of adventure is not always about going to a big city and losing yourself, it can also be going somewhere remote and finding yourself.
After collecting my bib, pinning it to my racing vest and having a cup of tea, I dropped my bag at the local scout hall and started to walk up the hill to where the race starts. With a bit of time to spare, I took a few pictures and had one final pitstop before the klaxon sounded.
The course starts with a slight drop before climbing 210 meters over the next 6km, before the steep drop running across loose shale down from Pen-y-Pass, where you put all your trust in your legs and give them full control.
You reach asphalt which climbs then evens off, opening up to one of the most spectacular views across Llyn Gwynant with the leaves of the trees fading from green to yellow and red, the ferns curling up being preserved from rusts to brown, all contrasting against the cottonwool sky and rich deep textures of weathered rock, glistening in the gentle mist which is keeping us cool.
It is this moment when I realise it's the overwhelming sense of beauty and seemingly endless landscape which keeps me coming back. This is wild country and there's no taming it.
With a hill behind, it was time to enjoy the meandering road carved between mountains, passing a few lakes and always within earshot of the river breaking the silence. The moments of stillness let you listen to your body, your heart and your lungs before a sheep bleats, distracting your intense concentration on something you can't remember moments later.
In the distance I hear a faint noise, a sign that we're fast approaching Beddgelert, the halfway point. It's also the lowest point in the marathon and leaving the crowds cheering us on from this little village, we have a nice climb of 160m over the next 3km. Just enough to challenge the legs a bit whilst passing through some farmland before the turning into undulating hills, keeping your fresh with the steady climb and drop, as you look up to the mountains on either side, following them as they disappear, only to be replaced by another.
The challenge was yet to come. 35km and we have reached Waunfawr, turning right to be greeted by the mother of all hills to climb (250m) over the next 5km. At some point you can't help but walk up the steep slope with a sense of purpose, as it's quicker than running. When things got tough, I reminded myself that I've been through worse pain and that it's only temporary. Another runner, Paul Sole, asked me about whether it was the top of the mountain after so many people had said it's not long to the top, to which I replied it drops before a final climb and you pass through a farm gate.
Soldiering on, I reached the top of Bwlch Y Groes, with the path ahead giving way to the most spectacular view of Llanberis below and a realisation that what goes up must come down and the last two kilometres were going to be cruel to the knees. There's no option other than to bound down the grassy slope, which after a few twists and turns becomes tarred. You find a patch of soft grass on the verge to carry running on, so that your knees don't have to take the worst of the final steep slope down into Llanberis.
After a final drop and a couple of twists and turns through the houses, I could see the final approach and decided on one final sprint to the end, managing to shave nearly 20mins off my course PB, finishing 109th in 03:21:38 and 28th in my category.
I took some time out to stretch and chat to another finisher at the bus stop before heading back to Caernarfon for a bath, burger and banoffee pie waffle. It was time to indulge in a little me time.
Without much in the line of Saturday night viewing and feeling just a little tired after a big race, it didn't take me long to fall asleep, waking only to the sound of my alarm on Sunday morning. With that I decided after looking outside that I'd do a little active recovery and go for a run along the Menai Strait sea wall. 8km of blustery sea wind constantly pushing you back made me hungry for breakfast and I took full advantage of the hotel breakfast buffet before making my way back to London.
As the mountains faded into the distance behind on the train home I was already contemplating returning for more hills. This time maybe trails. Failing all else, I will most likely return to run Snowdonia Marathon again as "my end of the year" marathon. No matter how weary my legs feel I've returned with a fire burning within.