A love affair rekindled
The Moel Eilio fell race means something to me. It’s a race steeped in history, starting in Llanberis – the home of the much more famous Snowdon Race – it ascends Moel Eilio, takes in Foel Gron, Foel Goch and Moel Cynghorion before plummeting to the village once more…
I grew up close-by, and the Moel Eilio race was an event that I was never allowed to compete in whilst I resided in north Wales, as I left before my 18th birthday.
Although a mere 8 miles in length Moel Eilio always feels much further. Maybe it’s the steep ascent of Eilio itself, yawning ahead after the sharp left turn off the Bwlch Y Groes path at around 1 mile into the race.
Its straight-up aspect and yearning girth. A mountain that dominates the Llanberis skyline almost more than Yr Wyddfa (the Welsh for Snowdon), even though Moel Eilio’s 2,382 feet are dwarfed by the 3,500ft plus Snowdon.
Maybe it’s the stair-like descent off Moel Cynghorion. Its heather and moss merely a snare for those believing that the severity of the drop will be somehow made better with the cushioning underfoot.
Maybe it’s the endless, uphill ridge that is Foel Gron and Foel Goch, before the grassy retreat to Bwlch Maesgwm softens the quads, minutes before the tightening effect of Cynghorion.
Maybe it’s just me. A runner of 30-something, whose best days are behind him, ill prepared for the soft beckoning of Eryri, prior to the stranglehold that a combination of geology and weather brings to any disrespectful has-been.
I went into Saturday’s race full of hope. I mean I had been running quite well on the roads and trails of the rolling Chilterns. I grew up and was molded by the mountains, hills were my strength, a sub-1.20 run in the Snowdon race in 1989 showed that! How wrong I was come last Saturday.
The weather was, shall we say, interesting, some may expand on this, some may say biblical. Gusts of 80 miles an hour were recorded on Bwlch Maesgwm, a wind that most of us struggled to stand up in, let alone run in. However, stood on that start line the rain and wind didn’t matter – I was with 84 others, comrades, fellow runners who respected the hills, yet felt that they would conquer them, somehow.
My race strategy was simple, start steadily on the opening road climb, go hard up Moel Eilio, maintain my pace over Foel Gron and Foel Goch and coast down Cynghorion to a strong finish in Llanberis. I’d say that of that 6-point plan, the first 2 markers we adhered to, at my own pace. Then it all went out of the window!
The top of Moel Eilio was breathtaking, literally. A gust at the top stile lifted me off my feet, okay I am a mere 11st these days, but still. “it’s the same for everyone” I thought – there is often comfort gained in collective suffering.
The view to Foel Gron was barely visible in my tear-filled eyes, but a head down style, sucking the back of two larger runners was my tactic, “I should stay with these two and let them take the brunt of the gale”. Another failed tactic.
Yes, the two ‘larger’ runners were also two ‘stronger’ runners and as they disappeared from view of said tear-filled eyes I was in no-mans land. The thought of the origins of that saying were quite apt for the situation I found myself in – a battle, only this time the bullets and shells were replaced by hail, and a wind so strong it was sucking the very air from my lungs that keeps us alive.
At this point you may feel that my head is as though a poet, who had stood on the hills centuries before, well yes, it was, through all of the suffering and adverse elements that were being unleashed, I felt free. I felt as thought the titanic clash of beauty and pain could not be surpassed.
I had no view to the valleys and lakes below, as one fleeting glance from the path that I trod, or drop in concentration, could have resulted in something far more sinister that that which the mountain was already throwing at me.
As we descended Bwlch Maesgwn a huddle of souls lay in wait, sat behind the dry stone wall, clad in layer after layer of man made fibres, recording in pen and on film – marshalls and photographers – the real heroes of fell running. A 90 degree turn left and then it happened…
Just when I could see the top of Cynghorion, just when I could see the light at the end of the grass’n’granite tunnel. The hail. A hail storm so severe it left pin-like bruises on my thighs, 80 mile-an-hour hail, and like that, it was gone, replaced by sun and blue sky, appearing as though a smile of the Gods, laughing at us playing on the hills that had stood for millennia with no man or woman in sight.
The stile, the most beautiful stile, it was mine, at last, and then, the descent. The cliff-like drop to the village of Llanberis, Moel Cynghorion throwing runner after runner to the valley below, some in control, most not. Metronomic steps that by now were unstoppable, as unstoppable as the marching of time and the relentless gale that by now was at bay.
Through the river Hwch, a mere stream at this time of year, but still enough of an obstacle that 7 miles of running had made look like something much wider. Pick your spot, either way it didn’t matter, as the marsh and bog on the other side made sure that I was to endure a foot soaking before the hard pack run-in that is Ffordd Brithdir.
Funnily enough the last mile of stone, grit and tarmac left me wanting more, my second wind had been given to me by the mountain that had been extracting it for the last hour, once again I felt free…
I ‘broke the tape’, my own personal tape – as the real one had been breasted by Tim Davies some 20 minutes earlier – in a little under 1.30, a time that looking back did not matter. What mattered was that I had once more engaged with the hill, my second romance after a 20-year break – we were in love once again.