Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Burrowing Little Mole

Matt Fuller is a researcher at the University of Leeds, who works with performance textiles. When he's not 'working', he's doing crazy things... In this week's guest post, Matt describes his attempt on the Welsh 3000s challenge.

Sometimes things get under your skin. No matter how hard you try to ignore them they burrow away and eventually you have to give in. Just like anyone else, I've a list of things I want to achieve, and one of the more achievable aims was to complete the Welsh 3000s in less than 12 hours. This one had really entrenched itself; it had hired a JCB and a small-time construction firm to lay foundations.

To those who don't know, the Welsh 3000s challenge is to walk or run over every 3000 ft mountain in Wales in a continuous effort. There are 15 of them. Starting at the top of Snowdon the route covers 3250 m of ascent and descent over a distance of 24 miles. The terrain varies between scree, narrow ridges, bog, scrambling, boulder-fields, roads, and river crossings. After the end of the route there is a tricky descent to the nearest road, which is another 4 miles away. The challenge is a bit of a classic because, but for two miles, it is entirely linear and does not involve doubling-back on oneself.

I first learnt of the challenge through Trail magazine, who described their attempt to do the route in less than 12 hours. It sounded exciting but impossible for anyone but superheroes. Inspired, it was with trepidation that five years ago I started planning my first attempt on the Welsh 3000s, aiming to finish in less than 24 hours. All members of York's Ben Lairig, before we knew it we were on the top of Crib Goch as the sun was rising, we were flogging across the Glyders, and soon we finished the route. Of the six who set off, five finished the route. The weather was unseasonably hot, pushing 28 degrees. There was no wind and no cloud, making navigation obvious, and the dry rock made conditions underfoot easy. I got heatstroke with 12 miles to go and cramped so badly I couldn't move my right leg. I dragged it every step of the way across the Carneddeau. It was possibly the most stupid thing I've ever done, as it gave me a permanent injury that still twinges on occasion. Given the choice I'd do the same next time. After I finished I swore 'never again'. It was the physically hardest thing I'd ever done, partly because of the mistakes I'd made with hydration and nutrition. We finished in a highly respectable 15 hours 21 minutes, and the total time on the hill was 18 hours and 57 minutes.

Fast-forward 4.5 years and the 3000s had stuck in their claws into my psyche again. I had no interest in finishing in 15 hours again and it was either under 12 hours of not worth doing. Leeds' Hiking Club is bloody awesome because there are so many people practically dripping with keen. I mentioned the challenge tentatively to the club, stating quite how hard it was, quite how painful, and what it would entail. Soon we had ten mental people heading to Wales. Four of the hikers would walk the route; the remaining six would run the route, each aiming for less than 12 hours. Before the trip we had agreed that if the weather was poor then we would abandon and have a 'normal' weekend away. That just wasn't on the cards; as we pitched tents people were so psyched they were dribbling like rabid monkeys. The next morning we set off up Snowdon at 3.30. The weather was shit. Cold, wet, and very windy, the rocks were greasy and visibility was low. Anyone lacking maximum psyche kept it well hidden, and soon the runners were on the summit of Wales' highest mountain. Having set the GPS we legged it from the summit and along towards Crib Goch, the most dangerous part of the day. The ridge was exceptionally slimy: trainers skated off polished rocks and soon the runners were split into pairs. We took the steep scree slope down towards the Pass; taking big risks a few of us fell over: I shredded a fair bit of my thigh, a bit of waterproof jacket, and both knees. The inimitable Rich tore in his trousers a hole worthy of homosexual innuendo but carried on regardless. Joe and I were the first down to meet the invaluable support team in the valley. As we were setting off up the huge hill ahead, Doug arrived and asked to join our pairing. He followed us up the hill but, caught between paces, we became separated before the top. Doug waited at the top for Lewis but the shitstorm did not abate and he soon found himself verging on hypothermia. They made a brave call and descended.

A bit of training has proven to myself that I know how to suffer, and Joe and I pushed it balls-to-the-wall for the whole of the Glyders section. Foolishly wearing shorts we were in a constant battle to keep warm. On the smooth sections we could keep up enough speed to maintain core temperature, though when the scrambling got more intense we could do little to stop the cold's tendrils invading our clothes. Looking back now, this was pretty serious: it was a genuine storm, we had a t-shirt, jacket, shorts and trainers on and no emergency gear. But that's the point - we were pushing for a quick time and thought it was worth a punt. We descended Tryfan to meet the support team and were saddened to find four of our number had dropped out, either frozen, exhausted, ill-equipped or just plain unlucky.

The Carneddeau, the final section, were far harder than I remembered. We set a metronomic 165 bpm all the way up the first hill but the strong winds, hail and rain soon wore us down as we slowed over the ridge. Joe ate some magic beans (laser beans or something) and was soon at 100 % again and I found myself struggling to keep up with his ferocious pace. Before long we were on the final summit, just as the weather turned really nasty. Taking shelter behind a wall we realised that we were both very cold and had to get out of there quick. Descending as fast as we dared we were glad to reach the track out to the support team. I'd not been so pleased to see a minibus full of mates, plus a scotch egg or two, in quite a while. Joe and I had finished the challenge in 9 hours 45 minutes. We'd had 8 hours in our mind for the time to beat, but considering the conditions, we were happy with our result. We screwed up navigation on the Glyders and had stopped for too long at the first refuel, so 9 hours would have been possible that day. Despite Trail mag's implications, we aren't superheroes, just guys with a bit of fitness who are prepared to run until we're completely boxed.

Matt and Joe in the shitstorm on top of the final peak

Joe and I then became part of the support team, and enjoyed watching the others suffer. The two remaining walkers came down in good spirits despite having endured a massive day out in the atrocious weather. I'm sure they will be back to complete it in better conditions. Ben and the irrepressible Doug had pushed onto the final section and we waited for them to descend. The support crew began to get nervous when darkness encroached and there was still no sign of them; we'd expected them back hours ago. Two exhausted runners with little emergency gear, on remote and difficult terrain, in the dark, and with no easy way to contact them, this was potentially quite serious so we went to see if we could find them. After a brief search we fortunately found them at the lower car park. Ben had put in an amazing effort to keep going despite the worst of the weather arriving when he was at his most tired, and for Doug to retire only to bury himself again was exceptional.

A 30% completion rate might not sound impressive, but in absolutely terrible conditions, for anyone to finish was inspiring. All you can do is go for it, eyeballs out, and see how far you get. For me, in a challenge like this, finishing is a bonus: pushing it hard is the real objective. For a while, I've lost my little Wales-shaped burrowing mole, but it seems to have infected others. There is already talk of the club attempting the challenge again, and, weather permitting, more will finish this amazing route.

Thanks should go to Doug's Dad, Katie McMacmac, and Warren and Rich for driving. Plus all you other nutters who came along. Seriously, good effort guys.

by Matt Fuller

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