2013 was turning out to be a bit of a pants year for running, various things had got in the way of training – I had been reduced to training on a treadmill and turbo trainer for 50% of the time and had been really struggling for months to get my asthma under control. I’d managed to get out for some big days in mountains with friends but the lack of racing or solid training had meant I’d gone off the boil a bit and started losing enthusiasm. I’d even contemplated giving up running altogether.
I’d already entered The Old County Tops fell race earlier in the year, and with dubious training and fitness I took part as wimping out would have not gone down well with my team mate, Jim Mann of Durham Fell Runners. I struggled with the magnitude of the course and horrid conditions even though I have taken part before - my normally talkative nature was reduced to silence on a few occasions! Despite having to be coaxed for the last 10 miles or so (with a wheezy chest), we finished 2nd mixed pair. But more importantly after a day in the mountains, I realised I didn’t want to give up running and should use the run as a spring board for something else, nearly 10 hours under my belt was not to be sniffed at.
The week after, I watched Andy Davies, a fellow Mercia Fell Runner, complete his Paddy Buckley Round (PBR). Supporting ‘rounds’, whether on the hill or in this instance from the comfort of my car, is one of my favourite things to do – it’s like waiting for a baby to be born. I enjoy the camaraderie, the ups and downs of whether the contender is going to make it, and the endless banter and cups of tea! And again, my enthusiasm began to grow.
I’d joined a few other friends on days out while they were training for the PBR, and finally twigging that over the past 18 months I had recc’ed the whole route several times, and thought that maybe having a go myself could be a possibility, although it would be a big ask in light of my inability to train outside.
I’d also been looking at the Bob Graham Round and had become familiar with the whole route through support running – but living in Shropshire, Snowdonia is logistically more viable – and it’s my favourite place to be.
So, the moment came that I really thought I should get my finger out, so I fired out an email to my running friends declaring my intention and asking for support – this would also put some pressure on me as I’d made some commitment as friends started to reply saying ‘yes’ to helping .
It was getting serious. The incline on my treadmill got increased to its maximum of a pitiful 12%, I found some leg weights in a charity shop and filled my mountain marathon rucksack with a load of my daughters cuddly toys. I kept the blinds shut in my study so no one could see me!
I had some opportunities to get out for some longer runs by supporting friends on their PBR completions. I also had a few mad dashes over to Wales, sending off hill route (safety) cards to friends and running legs solo at night, sleeping for a few hours in my tent, and then running a couple of legs the next day. Running solo in the mountains is not something that I had done a lot of before, I found it mentally tough to run for 10 hours or so, the temptation to cut the route short was always there. I was carrying extra kit too, in order to keep myself safe. I gained a great deal of satisfaction from navigating my way round on my own, it meant I was really able to get to grips with the intricacies of some the route and I had some amazing runs.
The fantastic asthma nurse at my local surgery, whilst bemused by my description of what I was contemplating, also changed my inhalers – after trial and error, I finally seemed to have got something sorted.
My final big mountain run was to support a good friend of mine, Dave Hindley on his PBR, on the Hebog and Snowdon legs. I had unintentionally ended up navigating and supporting him over the Snowdon leg in the dark with limited visibility and appalling conditions on my own – I would have never had the guts to offer to do this on my own, but sticking me in at the deep end once again bolstered my confidence, although this was not without a few expletives being uttered.
So the big day was getting closer and I was getting more and more nervous. 5 days before I started to suffer with the symptoms of a rotten cold and I also managed to get really anxious about it all and had to be rescued by my running friend Mel Price talking some sense into me, or I would’ve spend the next few days hiding on the sofa under a duvet! One of my support runners was also in hospital and another had been the subject of a mountain rescue call out. So a few more texts and emails got sent out and I acquired a spare support runner, just in case.
My alarm went off at 5.30am on Saturday morning, no time to be nervous now. I drove myself over to Llyn Gwynant, carrying a precious load of butties and cakes for my support crew made by Mercia Fell Runner’s Queen of Cakes, Pauline Richards - to be transferred to my road support, Dave Hindley. As I passed through Llangollen, the clouds started to lift and I could see the Berwyns and I contemplated that it would be a nice day to do Leventon’s Line again.
I pulled into the campsite which has become a regular haunt; Dave was waiting with his big truck. We drove over to Capel Curig and meet Lawrie Jones in Pinnacle Stores for coffee. But no sign of my leg 1 support runner, Andy Davies, so I started to get a little concerned. Andy was hiding in the car park, grinning to himself whilst I flapped like a chicken.
Myself, Dave Hindley and Andy Davies, ready for the off.
I said thanks and farewell to Andy as he handed the support baton over to Lawrie for leg 2. We trudged up Bryn Banog which was harder than normal as the bracken was so high and it was extremely humid, and I felt awful! I climbed the fence and hung my head and said to Lawrie ‘I don’t think I can do this’. Lawrie looked down the hill we’ve just fought our way up and mentions we can always turn around....damn, he called my bluff! I decide to take some painkillers to help with feeling fluey and get a grip!
We were soon blessed with a light breeze and I felt better. We had good visibility on the hummocky section between Bryn Banog and Moel Hebog and despite suffering, I had made some time up on the climb. But then, on the very steep climb on Moel Hebog, I felt some blisters explode on my feet. I felt like this really wasn’t going to be my day.
Once I reached Mynydd y Ddwy Elor, I got a second wind and started to enjoy myself again – perhaps because I really like the section from Trum y Ddygl to Y Garn, Lawrie wasn’t too keen on my change of pace, after carrying all my gear and water plus his own, me racing up a climb wasn’t favourite! Lawrie got a perfect line from Y Garn to the forest – I was pleased that we would get to the next road support at Pont Caer Gors without the need for head torches.
Arriving at Nantmor with Andy Davies.
10.10 am and I set off with Andy and we’re joined by Dave for the first part of the leg. I was sniffling and coughing still going up Moel Siabod, but felt better once I got to told by Andy that I needed to slow down a bit. Having rested up for a couple of weeks and not having to carry anything, I feel like I’m floating down the boundary ridge towards Clogwyn Bwlch y Maen. As we got to Carnedd y Cribau, we parted company with Dave who had done a great job in making sure I was drinking enough from the off and also lightened the load for Andy.
Andy and I trotted though the boggy expanse that follows miles of fence line, occasionally making a little detour to take in one of the many tops. The weather was almost perfect. As we chatted away, we suddenly realised we’d missed a top, so had to back track, thankfully only by around 200 metres, oops! I mentioned that the ground conditions were the best I had experienced, although I spoke to soon and managed to run into a waist deep bog and had to get Andy to pull me out.
We stopped to fill up water bottles at the stream between Allt-fawr and the quarry track. We were now off the boggy ground onto the Molewyns. This was a beautiful section, both in mountain scenery and in the industrial archaeology with the old quarry workings and we had some great views from the tops. Andy kept reassuring me that we were on or just ahead of my schedule. The climb up Cnicht was a relief from boggy ground again, although I found the track to Bwlch Gwernog a little monotonous. A little tarmac bashing and we arrive at Nantmor to see Dave, Lawrie and Jim. I managed to neck a pint of Ribena and chew a peanut butter butty and Dave changed my socks for me as the wet suit socks I’d worn for leg 1 were starting to rub. I giggled to myself as I’d said to Dave that I didn’t want too much fuss on my road support, no picnic tables or chairs, just grub on the back of the truck – but the blue chair I sat on was rather comfy, he must have found it in Beddgelert because he promised he’d not packed a chair?!
The imaginary blue chair. Pont Caer Gors
I arrived at Pont Caer Gors still just a little ahead of schedule, sat in the imaginary blue chair again and ate some fruit salad and more Ribena. Jim Mann and Chris Atherton were waiting to take the reins for the night section, along with Roger Taylor who arrived just as I was about to leave! I’d been lent a super duper head torch by Dave, so got all that sorted and we set off through the boggy, tussocky climb up Craig Wen. I really enjoyed this section; I got to catch up with Chris who had spent some time in hospital the previous days, hanging around in a nightie having his tonsils lanced. It was also Chris’s first time doing some support running, so running a night section was particularly admirable, if not mad. He then told me he’d done Tryfan Downhill race that afternoon, and they tell me I am mad! It was good to catch up with Roger again who had stepped in to help with just a few days notice, along with his green bobble hat. With Jim along too, the banter and stupidity started, mostly at my expense, I spent a lot of time laughing.
Chris and Lawrie at Pont Caer Gors
I also knew that this would be the leg that I need to try and make a little bit of ground on as it’s one of the most straight forward and I knew that I could possibly lose a little time on leg 4 due to my dislike of big rocks on Tryfan.
I really enjoyed the big climbs along the ridge to Snowdon, especially as there aren’t that many people on top of it at 11pm, knowing the route better that the lads, taking the lead with some of the navigation buoyed me along.
We had a slight hiccup with the bearing from Crib Y Ddysgl, but this was quickly corrected thanks to Chris’s local knowledge from his Peris Horseshoe recces. I had fun cutting little corners that I’d learnt on my solo recces when the lads weren’t looking!
As we reached Llanberis, I was pleased to find that I had made good time on leg 3, especially as it hadn’t been as much as a fight on the earlier legs. We took Dave H by surprise, but luckily my next set of support runners had arrived in time. Dave Swift had travelled all the way from Lancashire to come and help – having good knowledge of the route and who had also completed a PBR a few weeks beforehand. Also joining in was another Mercia Fell Runner, Tom Roo, who had travelled down straight after racing at Burnsall the previous afternoon. Jim was staying with us for another leg. The agreement for this leg was that we would all work together on the navigation. I knew the route really well until the Glyders, but my concentration was starting to go with tiredness.
I led the way through the quarries, following the old concrete bogey ramps and then snaking through the old inclines. I found the steepness hard and felt like I was moving backwards with every step, but on reaching Elidar Fach, I hadn’t lost any time. My legs were starting to get a little tired on the descents and I was really conscious that I was living in jelly babies and really needed to eat some proper food. I was still able to climb well, although it was getting tougher and tougher and I was starting to get moody and stroppy. Jim, Tom and Dave did their best to try and get me to eat, I kept trying and taking food from them, but then needing my hands free, I kept sticking the food in my bumbag and forgetting about it. Dave kept handing me wine gums in three’s, it meant they got eaten!
I hauled my tired body up the horrible scree path up Glyder Fawr having to keep stopping as I thought I was going to fall asleep – but every time I stopped Jim kept making me keep moving. I decided that I needed a new strategy in order to have a little rest – I’d need to pee! When we hit the top, I was still just about ahead of schedule, but it was still dark and claggy. Both Jim and Tom set to work on compass bearings, and I was reassured to hear them both shouting to each other to get the best line. Dave stuck by me, still feeding me wine gums and encouraging me to keep moving, but also got out a brilliant hand torch that he used to light the greasy boulders that I needed to jump over with the elegance of a hippo.
We skirted around Castell y Gwynt but struck trouble when we couldn’t find the faint worn path through the massive boulders onto the plateau where Gylder Fach’s summit sits.
I was now painfully aware that I was losing time on my schedule, my feet were in agony and I was kicking myself for not spending more time on that part of the route to get it sussed. In the hour that we’d spent trying to negotiate our way I’d also forgotten to eat, big mistake!
I started to ‘bonk’ and started staggering all over the place, not ideal just before going up Tryfan. I feebly call ahead to Jim that ‘I don’t feel safe’ as I wobble about – which he mistook for saying that I am a big scardy cat on big, exposed scrambles, and I got told to stop being a wimp. A few choice words are expelled with the last bit of energy I had, which sets Tom off in a giggling fit – Tom has the world most contagious laugh. I was force fed the most revolting gel, whilst resisting the urge to be sick, but it worked wonders, plus the mood had been lightened by my outburst of unladylike language. Jim found the best line that I have ever taken up Tryfan and I only need Tom to give me a leg up one of the final big rocks, I start to perk up again.
We started to descend – but the daylight now meant we realised that we had taken the wrong path and end up having to contour through rough ground to pick the right path, with Jim running ahead to try and rectify our mistake and save me a little ground. Tom and Dave tried to console me and stay positive that I can still complete the round, whilst putting up with more expletives.
Looking across to Tryfan from the Carneddau (leg 5) - the Glyders still in cloud!
I arrived at Ogwen Cottage over an hour behind my schedule and very disheartened, as with all long distance stuff, mental strength is as important as fitness, and mentally I had lost it. I sat for longer than I should have in the imaginary blue chair and reminded myself how hard I’ve worked over the past 20 or so hours and that it would be a waste to quit now, plus my friends who had travelled for hours to help me and the hours of running on the spot on my treadmill would be for nothing. And – the PBR is not a 24 hour round! I dragged myself up and get going again, saying thanks to Dave and Tom.
Trying very hard to smile on the Carneddau
Jim and Lawrie deserve an award to the patience they showed me on leg 5. Tiredness was really starting to kick in and I was looking at anything as a possible bed - boulders, cairns, paths and bridges, anywhere would do as long as I could sleep. I was pleading with my legs to work on the descents, but they ignored my begging.
Top of Pen Yr Helgi Ddu, reflecting on the 46 tops done, just 1 more to go.
Slowly crawling to the last top, Pen Llithrig y Wrach with Jim
As I reached the road at Capel Curig, Andy had come over to meet us and jog the last section. I hit the grass on the road island and lay down, never have I been so broken! 25.49 hours, not quite what I envisaged, but it was a completion and one that I now reflect on with great pride. Asking my support runners ‘why didn’t I do a Bob instead?’ was consistently met with the reply of ‘because you are an idiot Helen!’
The Paddy Buckley Round is certainly the hardest but best thing I have ever done, I loved almost every minute, and it I’m grateful to my friends who helped me achieve it. Doing the round it’s self was the cherry on the cake, preparation has really helped me gain confidence in my own abilities and made me try something new, get out in to the mountains with my friends and reignited a new enthusiasm for my running which I feared I had lost.
Road support: Dave Hindley (South Cheshire Harriers)
Hill support: Andy Davies (Mercia Fell Runners)
Lawrie Jones (Wrekin Orienteers)
Jim Mann (Durham Fell Runners)
Roger Taylor (Mercia Fell Runners)
Chris Atherton (Maldwyn Harriers)
Tom Roo (Mercia Fell Runners)
Cakes: Pauline Richards (Mercia Fell Runners)
Helen Skelton, Mercia Fell Runners.