Conwy Mountain Challenge – Race Report
The Conwy Mountain Challenge was the second race of what will hopefully be four races in 3 weekends for me. The British Quadrathlon Trophy Series of races were a bit unevenly spaced this year with 3 weekends of races back to back.
- 2nd Sept – Shrewsbury Quad
- 9th Sept – Conwy Mountain Challenge
- 15th Sept – Bude Awesome Foursome
With dodgy knees, dodgy achilles and a general lack of form I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do them all, but at the moment that is still the plan. The fourth race in 3 weekends will be the first race of the Welsh Cyclocross season. This takes place in Cardiff the day after the Bude Quadrathlon event so that weekend involves a fair bit of travelling too.
Conwy Mountain Challenge
The Conwy Mountain Challenge is a bit of an anomaly in the British Quadrathlon Trophy Series as it isn’t a Quadrathlon at all. It’s a mountain triathlon with a twist. There’s no swim – which isn’t great for me as I usually do well in the swim. It starts with an 8 mile long kayak section up the River Conwy. Next is a really tough 8.5 mile fell run. This is all followed by an 11 mile mountain bike ride around the Gwydyr Forest and parts of the Marin Trail. It attracts kayakers, fell runners and mountain bikers, along with the Quadrathletes looking for some more points in the trophy series. Lots of people do it as teams so there are plenty of fast specialists in each of the disciplines as well as the all-rounders such as myslef doing it solo.
It attracted me as a bit of a challenge and because it’s quite close to home in North Wales. It didn’t play to my strengths though. The lack of a swim doesn’t help me at all. I’m sure they could include one at the beginning really, even if only for the quadrathletes. The kayak section isn’t usually my strongest as I’m still quite new to it, so the fact that it is quite a bit longer than in most events didn’t help me either. As far as the run is concerned, again it’s quite long, very tough with over 2000 feet of climbing and worse still from my point of view some difficult, steep, muddy technical descending too. Running downhill on any surface isn’t my strong point. Running downhill over slippery, rocky, muddy terrain turns me into a gibbering wreck – a very slow gibbering wreck at that! The same could probably be said of the bike section as well. The first half is mainly on fire-roads, but the descents include some fairly technical single track. I’ve never been fast at descending on a MTB, and never will be.
Understandably I was there for the challenge rather than to gain any trophy series points, so intended to enjoy my day.
Saturday was a wet, windy and very miserable day. There didn’t seem much point in driving to North Wales too early so we stayed at home. Anna and I went out for brunch and we basically chilled until mid afternoon when the three of us set off in the camper. The campsite and the Nant Conwy Rugby Club wasn’t due to open until 6pm anyway so tour aim was to arrive there then, have dinner and then get ready for an early start the next day. The drive through Wales was a very wet one. We arrived at the rugby club in the pouring rain. We’d brought a SUP paddle with us to drop off for someone and he soon met us there. I registered for the event and then we headed off to find some dinner.
First stop was the Eagles Hotel in Llanwrst. As we pulled into the car park, it was packed but a chef and someone else moved some picnic tables out of the way for us so that we could squeeze in at the end of the car park. Squeezing in with a 6.2m surf ski on the roof and a bike rack on the back is never easy. The place was heaving. There were people everywhere. There was noise and music and had they not already been so accommodating it probably wouldn’t have suited us. We however felt obliged to at least check it out. Getting in through the front door was the first challenge thanks to the throngs of people. Finding a bar and somewhere to eat was the next. We found at least three different bars though and eventually went through another door that looked a little like a fire escape to find yet another bar. This one was much quieter, had lots of empty tables that were all reserved and thankfully a table in the corner that was just right for us. It was much quieter in here away from the hubbub elsewhere in the hotel and we soon relaxed.
The food was good too. A huge ‘tower burger’ for me and a ‘meat sharing platter for Anna and Morgan. I of course helped them out with theirs as well. Not exactly the sort of meal I should be eating before a big race, especially with the beer to help it down, but I was only there for the fun, not the glory, so didn’t feel the need to take things too seriously. After such a big meal puddings were unnecessary though (not something I think I’ve ever said before!). We did pop into a mini-market next door for some chocolate though.
We then headed back to the rugby club where we chilled for a while before heading off to bed. Yep, you’ve guessed it, I didn’t sleep a wink. I really have to sort this out as I’m sure getting no sleep at all before a race doesn’t help my performance.
After getting up, coffee and breakfast it was time to start sorting things out for the race. I had most things organised so it was a case of filling up a water bottle for my bike, attaching a number to my bike, checking tyre pressures and then leaving it in transition along with my helmet, cycling shoes, glasses and gloves. We had to wear gloves for this ride, although I saw plenty of people not doing so – what is wrong with people? Either they don’t read the rules or they just choose to ignore them both of which are as bad as each other.
We had to take running kit with us during the kayak section. Running kit included not only the clothes and shoes you would run in, but also a water-proof jacket, waterproof trousers, a hat, gloves, compass, map and whistle. I had all of this in a rucksack which I stashed on my surfski. I was wearing my Scimitar tri-suit and decided to wear my running shoes in the boat as well. Yes, they would get wet, but it was a fell run in North Wales so they would soon get wet on the run anyway! No doubt there were plenty of people out on the hill without all of the required safety kit though as I saw plenty of people without rucksacks or packs of any kind. I’m surprised that the organisers didn’t check that everyone had the requisite kit really. It was all in the race notes and all mentioned during the race briefing too, so there were no excuses. With the briefing delivered it was time to head to Conwy.
The race starts in Conwy. The kayak to run transition is in Dolgarrog. The the run to bike transition and the finish were at the rugby club near Treffriw. The logistics weren’t going to be easy which is why Anna and Morgan had come to help. They would come with me to Conwy, watch the race start and then could drive the van back to the rugby club so that it was there when I finished.
We launched from the banks of the River Conwy at the RSPB Nature Reserve.
Not the easiest of launch spots but we were doing our best to avoid SSSI’s and such like. At least, most of us were but as usual there were one or two people ignoring the instructions and trying to launch from places they weren’t allowed to. It’s a good job I’m not the race referee as I would be disqualifying people before they even started. Incorrect launching spots, not carrying the requisite safety kit on the run, not wearing gloves on the bike, at this rate there would only be a few of us racing!
We then had to paddle 900m up to the Conwy Cob where we assembled for the start. Getting lined up with the stern of our boats touching the cob wasn’t the easiest of manoeuvres in unstable kayaks but we got there in the end. I was packed in tight with boats touching me on both sides and nowhere to put my paddles once the race started.
The whistle was blown and we were off. Slowly at first as we tried to spread out to make some room. There was a little bit of contact between boats here and there but after a short while things settled down and we were able to get into a rhythm. We were following the River Conwy upstream to Dolgarrog with the incoming tide assisting us somewhat. The heavy rain of the previous day had river levels high and there was quite a head wind for much of the way too.
Two people, the uber-kayakers Michael Mason and Colin Cartwright, soon pulled out a lead and disappeared out of sight. Behind them was a group of 3 consisting of James Wingfield, Chris Carter and someone else, I was about 50m down on this group and trying to get onto their wash. I couldn’t bridge the gap though as they swapped places here and there riding each others wash and helping each other out. I held the gap at about 50m but couldn’t close it. The conditions were fine. There was some chop and a few small waves here and there and some wash from powerboats but I was never in any fear of falling in.
We went under the Tal y Cafn Bridge and into more river like conditions as we started to make our way around the meanders of the river. It was now a case of looking for the flow in the river and trying to pick your line so as to make best use of it. At one point I saw the three ahead of me go left towards the inner bank of a left hand bend so as to cut the corner and take the shortest route. It looked as though there might be a back eddy there though so I stayed out wide, taking the longer line but with the aid of the current. I worked, I finally start to not only catch, but overtake them. Chris Carter came across to get on my wash as I went past but we dropped the other two. I was now up into 3rd place overall with Chris Carter sat on my wake. The other two tired as slowed and we opened out a gap on them in the final couple of miles. As we approached the bridge and transition area at Dolgarrog Chris who had been sitting on my wash put in an effort so as to get out at the bank mere seconds before I did.
We dragged our boats up onto the bank, stashed paddles and buoyancy aids in them, I grabbed my rucksack and headed off. I stopped at the feed station for a drink and some jelly babies and then climbed the stile onto the run.
So, as we dibbed our timing bracelets at the first checkpoint I was doing OK. Way out in front were Michael Mason who had completed the kayak in just under an hour, and Colin Cartwright who had done it in 2 seconds over the hour. Chris and I were 8 minutes down on them with my official time being 1:08:12, 4th fastest in the kayak. Colin Cartwright was part of a team though so I was actually in 3rd place overall.
The run starts off with a flat section along a grassy trail. There are a few stiles to climb which breaks it up somewhat as I tried to get into a nice steady rhythm. I knew that there was a brutal climb to some so wasn’t pushing too hard as I overtook Chris and moved up into 2nd place overall. We exchanged pleasantries and continued on or ways. I crossed the road and then started the climb. I’d done this run once before early in the year and it was just as steep today as it was then. An unrelenting piece of concrete track that climbs the side of the hill at grades of around 20%. On it goes for about a mile until it eases off a little to run alongside a leet. I managed to run it all (at a very slow pace) last time but today I had to power-walk some of it. To be fair, it was probably quicker this way and my heart rate was up over 160bpm so I was still working hard. There was no one close behind though so I was doing OK. Soon the track gave way to tussocky grass as I headed for a marshal at a gate. Again some walking was involved.
To give you an idea of this first climb, here’s the topographic profile of the run route.
The run then went alongside the leet for a few hundred metres before crossing a small bridge and heading across more tussocky grass up the steep hillside towards the huge pipeline that crosses the hill. It was raining quite heavily now and I could see someone catching me up. We were running into a headwind as well as we made our way along a nice double track climbing gradually now towards the dam of Llyn Cowlyd. There were a few gates to open and close and a few stiles to climb over. We then made our way over the rocky ground at the foot of the dam before climbing steeply once again up onto the ridge. We were now following a narrow, twisting trail through boggy hillside. The guy who had been catching me caught me up and we chatted for a while as we climbed the hill. He was the run part of James’s team so I was still 2nd overall. As we crested the hill and started to run down the other side my lack of fell running skill soon became evident. One minute he was there ahead of me. I was concentrating on foot placement and where I was going so the next time I looked up he was gone.
I was feeling good though. I was conscious of my knee that had been a little sore, so as I descended I was trying not to stress it too much. I can’t use that as a suitable excuse for being rubbish at descending though. I don’t know how other people do it, I’m just terrified of tripping and falling and seem to slip and slide with every foot step. I was making steady progress despite my lack of skill. I stopped for a wee and then continued on my way down into the valley. The rain had at least eased now. I lost my shoes a couple of times in particularly deep muddy patches too. Each time it took a few steps to come to a halt, followed by a scramble back up the hill in my socks to retrieve them. It took me a while to actually find my shoe on one occasion as I felt around elbow deep in a boggy mud-bath looking for it. I found it, stuffed my foot back into it which forced mud to squelch out into my face and then continued ever onwards.
There was a short stretch along a road and then another steep descent to the valley floor. Here someone else from a duathlon team overtook me. I was gingerly making my way down the steep slope whereas he flew by seemingly not even touching the ground. As well as the individual ‘triathlon’ event and the team triathlon event, there was also a duathlon and duathlon team event which started from the road crossing just after the kayak. They were just doing the run and the bike, not the kayak and the leader of it had now caught and overtaken me. I was still 2nd in my race though which felt good, especially as I was hoping to go hard on the bike section.
Next came another climb and then a final less technical descent down to the rugby club. I was obviously putting in more effort than I thought as I suddenly felt a little tired. weirdly my arms cramped up. I thought that was a little odd but decided it was a sign to take on some more nutrition. I’d had 4 jelly babies from the feed stations and a caffeine gel so far. I grabbed another energy gel out of my pack as my arms cramped up again. next thing I knew, both sides of my torso cramped as well, the muscles between my ribs and on my back seized up, and then so did every muscle in my legs. The sudden full body cramp locked up every muscle but I still had forward momentum so simply ended up flat on my face on the floor. The gel in my hand had squirted out of it’s pack into a sticky mess and I lay there a little surprised, wondering what I happened. I picked myself up, checked the resulting cuts which weren’t too bad and managed to run once again. I licked the gel off my hands but only got a mouthful of mud and leaves so spat it out and continued on my way.
I now hadn’t seen any signs or tape for a while so started to wonder if I had missed a turning whilst flat on my face. I eased up, looking about to see if I could work out where I was. I thought about turning around and going back. I investigated a few little turnings off the main track to see if I could get my bearings with the road below. I couldn’t quite work out where I was so continued on and eventually saw marshalls at the bottom of the track who guided me across the road and into the transition area. I’d been going well but had lost time on the descent due to lack of skill and had lost even more time in the final mile of the run thanks to the cramping, the falling and the indecision.
I was still in second place, but the others were closing in and were now just behind me. I saw Anna as I came into transition and asked how far behind 3rd place was. Apparently he was a few minutes behind me, but that was at the last checkpoint. As I got to my bike it was clear that the gap was much smaller now as two people also came into transition with. One of them was Ben who I knew was doing the individual event as well. He was right on my heels.
My official time for the run was only enough for 7th fastest split at 1:35:28. Mind you, the slowest runner took over 3 hours so it wasn’t too bad. Meanwhile up ahead, Michael Mason had recorded the fastest run split of 1:22:27 and was opening out his lead.
I dropped off my rucksack, changed my shoes, donned glasses, gloves and helmet and left transition.
The first part of the bike was easy, along flat tarmac roads towards Llanrwst. It was short-lived though as we soon climbed steeply to the Marin Trail Car Park. I overtook a couple of people here (presumably teams members of the runners who had overtaken me earlier). As the gradient eased off through the Marin Trail Car park my calves and toes decided to lock into fierce cramps again. Try as I might to stretch them out there was nothing I could do. So much for going hard on the bike. I felt pretty good, full of energy and ready to go harder but my muscles were having none of it. The fell run descent was obviously more than they are accustomed too and they had decided to do everything in their powers to stop me. Throwing me on the floor hadn’t worked as I was still going. So, now they were just locked in cramp so that I couldn’t flex my ankles. My only choices were to stop and try to stretch them out, or to carry on through the pain without really using the lower portion of my legs. I opted for the latter as stopping seemed wrong. I seemed to be able to move my legs in circles without relaxing my calves. It meant that my toes were pointed and that my toes themselves were curled up in cramp as well, but I was still at least going forwards.
It certainly wasn’t comfortable but I stuck with it. I had another gel and drank most of the energy drink in my bottle along this stretch of the course. I was just trying to get my body back under control. We were climbing gradually up to what I knew to be a really steep section. The people I had passed earlier on the bike caught me back up. One of them went on ahead but I dropped the other one and then got off the bike to walk up the steep part. I had decided that trying to ride up it would end in disaster. I also hoped that walking for a while would ease the cramps. It didn’t really work as they returned as soon as I got back on the bike at the top.
A little while after this as we continued to climb through the forest fire roads I was overtaken by Alex Pilkington and therefore dropped to 3rd overall. There wasn’t much I could do about it though. What I had hoped would be a fast bike ride was now a case of damage limitation. I just had to keep going despite the cramps. Technical sections were the worst. My calves and toes were locked in cramp the whole time but if I stopped my legs from turning for tight bends or to float over rocky sections then my quads and hamstrings in whichever leg was on the inside of the turn would lock up in cramp too. A couple of times I had to deliberately and very purposefully force my brain to move the leg after a turn so as to get it going again.
I’m not the best at descending in any circumstances but trying to do so when my legs are simply ignoring instructions doesn’t help matters. At times the sides of my torso would cramp up too. I don’t know how I managed to stay upright really but I did. I did take it very easy on some of the descents as crashing was a distinct possibility with so little control over my body. The rocks and roots were slick and slippery too as I gradually made my way over them. I was overtaken by two other people, but they were both in teams. Eventually I made it to the finally very slippery descent and the welcome Finish signs.
My official bike time of 1:12:14 was enough for 4th fastest split.
Note the Strava data below has the first couple of miles of the bike missing as I didn’t press the button on my watch.
I dibbed my timing chip and headed back to the rugby club. Anna and Morgan had been watching the live timings on the projector in the rugby club so knew I had finished and came out to meet me. I managed a bunny hop for Morgan and then put my bike on the van and headed off for a nice long hot shower. The recovery advisor feature on my Garmin Fenix 3 watch which usually says something between 3 and 15 hours said 3.5 days!
Packing Up and Presentations
There was free food and a hot drink for competitors after the event so I had a bowl of rice with curry and chilli. Not content with making us sweat our way around a tough kayak, run and bike course, even the curry was designed to make you sweat. It had quite a kick to it, which was fine for me but I think it was a little too much for many!
Anna and I then left Morgan at the rugby club while we drove into Dolgarrog to collect my Surf Ski from the river bank before returning for the prize givings. There were plenty of prizes including some nice kit from OMM. I picked up 3rd overall and received some goodies, including a voucher towards entry into next years event and a voucher worth £50 for a Go Below Challenge.
My legs were at least up to the task of driving home and didn’t cramp up on the journey. Although we did nearly forget the box of kit I had left at T2. Fortunately I remembered it just after we drove off so turned around to get it.
If you fancy a challenge then I can highly recommend this event. Organisation was top notch, support excellent, the scenery is stunning, the atmosphere friendly, the racing is fierce and the course is certainly testing. Full results can be seen here, but here are the top 20 places. Hopefully photos will follow soon.