UTS 100k Race Report

3 a.m. The alarm goes off on my phone. Finally, the day has arrived: Ultra Trail Snowdonia UTS 100K. I had trained for six months and somehow stayed injury-free, an absolute miracle! Previously, I’d struggled with Achilles tendonitis and various hip twinges. During the taper, both had flashed warning signs, but I’d experienced phantom pains before and cursed my mind for being so cruel.

Before I knew it, the countdown had finished, and we were off at 4:45 a.m. Heading up the Llanberis path, it was warm but clear. Most people walk the majority of the path up to the Bwlch Glas. I chose to do the same, determined not to start too fast in my first-ever 100K race. Perhaps more challenging than other 100K races, this one has 6,400 metres of climbing.

Image from the top of a mountain on an early sunny morning with people going down a rocky path in front of the camera for UTS 100k

To most people’s astonishment, I was doing it without poles. Many expressed genuine concern at my decision. I was asked a few times, “What races have you done in the build-up?” The only race I could recall that came close was The Bullock Smithy. “It was 93K with 2,500 metres of climb, no, near enough 3,000!” I said nervously. Little did they know, I did this four years ago now but I didn’t want them to worry. I knew I’d had a really strong training block and just needed to believe in myself.

I made it up to Bwlch Glas (988 metres) in 1 hour and 15 minutes, a bit slower than anticipated (this would become a theme). You’re then directed onto the Pyg track, and as usual with Snowdonia, it was filled with tourists, even at 6 a.m. Navigating down the rocky steps and stones of this path is a pain, and you descend 600 metres in a short amount of time. I was very wary of how my quads would handle this race, so I walked a good bit of the steps and tried my best to ignore the people bounding down around me. Play it safe, Robin, play it safe; there’s a long way to go.

Selfie of Robin Leathley at UTS 100k

At Pen-Y-Pass was one of many amazing aid stations throughout the route. I filled my water again, another 1.5 litres, and carried on up Glyder Fawr (980 metres). There is a little scrambling on this section but nothing too tricky, though not something you can practise outside of the mountains. The descent down Glyder Fawr takes you through the “Devil’s Kitchen,” where you pick your way down rocks and steps again, but even slower this time. Average pace for this race gets completely thrown out the window. There’s then a lovely path alongside a lake, and you ascend a path around the side of Tryfan (Bwlch Tryfan, 726 metres). It looked glorious that day, but I didn’t want to waste time staring; the next aid station was just down the hill!

There was a huge roar of applause at the next aid station at Glan Dena, the first checkpoint that allowed your support crew. I didn’t bring one, but the extra bodies welcoming you in made a difference, and you really needed the lift before the next, arguably hardest, climb. The heat was starting to get through now. It had only been 24 km, but I’d been out for nearly five hours already. I knew I was on course for 20-22 hours; I just needed to keep moving forward! This climb tops out on a ridge with Carnedd Dafydd (1,044 metres) and further on Carnedd Llewelyn (1,064 metres), only 22 metres shy of the summit of Snowdon, so it’s no joke getting up there!

Image of mountains and a rocky path leading away on UTS 100k

The sharp rocks scattered across the trail mean you have to keep your focus. I met a guy up there who looked like he was having a hard time. Questioning why he’d signed up for this race, I tried to encourage him, telling him he’d done the hardest climbs already, but he was on a real low. He’d done no elevation training for the race whatsoever—absolutely crazy! I told him he’d done bloody well to reach this point and that the next bits were easier. I wish I’d taken his number to see if he finished, but I didn’t. Mystery man, I hope you finished.

The next sections off the ridge were much easier, onto the first bit of flat ground to a nice lakeside trail. Two guys with a freezer bag full of ice had freeze pops earlier, but I wasn’t quick enough. I waved past them, not really listening to what they said, only to find out later it was Gary House and Robbie Britton (24-hour distance British record holder). I was gutted to learn later I’d ran past one of my personal heroes. Goodbye Gary. The next sections weren’t so hilly, and I made it down to the 50K halfway checkpoint at Capel Curig with the help of a bit of pizza.

Upon descending into the checkpoint, a kid on a wall shouted my race number down the trail, “1299!” A further “1299” echoed down the zigzag path. When I reached the bottom, a cluster of kids in “Trail Fam” t-shirts shouted, “Give me an R, Give me an O, Give me a B, I, N! ITS ROBIN!!” and then erupted into applause. It was such a beautiful moment; I was completely taken aback and nearly cried. I’ve since looked up Trail Fam, and they do such lovely charitable work in getting people outdoors. I’ll be trying to raise money for them in the future after this unforgettable memory. It really is the small things in these long races that stick with you.

At halfway, I changed my socks and t-shirt, restocked food and drink, and left after about 20 minutes. It should have been shorter, but I really needed to gather myself after that seriously tough first 50K. I left reminding myself to just keep going. Time wasn’t a factor anymore; I could pretty much walk the rest of the race and make it through the cutoffs if I needed to.

Up Moel Siabod (872 metres), I met a couple of guys who were a great laugh. I wish I could have stuck with them for the entire race, but I was moving a little better now and wanted to capitalise on it while I could. The climb up Siabod is tough but straightforward. You can see the top of the hill early; you just have to keep striding. I had nailed down my walking-with-hands-on-thighs technique by this point and was so proud to have reached over 4,000 metres of elevation—more than I’d ever done!

At the top of this mountain, I began saying to myself, “You can do this, you can actually do it!” Still, I restrained myself on the long grassy descent to the next checkpoint. I wanted to stay in complete control. I’d listened to dozens of podcasts on ultras, about how things can go wrong at any minute, whether it be cramps, stomach issues, injuries, etc. Control the controllables, I thought.

After the next checkpoint at 63 km, I teamed up with another runner, Alex Holt. This is where the race turned on its head. I’d been plodding along the first two-thirds of the race, tentatively picking through the terrain, with the target of completion and nothing else. I wanted the stones; I wanted to enter UTMB, the ultimate trail race. For the last third of the race, however, I felt bold, strong, fresh even! Running and chatting with Alex had completely distracted me from the 40 miles I’d already covered.

We charged through the course, passing people left and right, marching up the back of Snowdon to the summit faster than I could have ever imagined. I kept looking down at my legs thinking, “Are you sure?? Can you honestly keep this up??” I couldn’t believe my training had been this good. Had I underestimated my ability on this course completely?

It didn’t stop there. We flew down the Ranger path off the top of Snowdon (1086 metres) to the 50-mile/80Km checkpoint. With a quick changeover of food and drinks, we didn’t waste much time. Earlier in the race, I’d been crushing ready salted crisps and pouring them into my mouth to hold off cramps, but I hadn’t felt a twinge in ages. I truly think the distraction and competition with Alex had pushed me to new heights, to the point that my body believed in me more than I did!

There were only two more mountains left to conquer before the final descent into Llanberis: Mynydd Mawr (698 metres) and Moel Eilio (726 metres). Wrapped up in deep conversation, we chatted through the next 10K into the darkness and finally turned on headtorches. Alex began to pull away on this next descent, which was pretty tricky with rocks, tight trails, and the beginnings of bogs. I had to let him go. “Run your own race,” “Don’t do anything foolish now,” so many sayings from the countless hours of lessons I’d listened to, ringing in my ears.

Upon reaching the final checkpoint at 90K (on my watch anyway), I told Alex to go on ahead. “I can’t keep up with that pace; you go on ahead.” His reply was, “Do you wanna give it a try?” I looked up and with very little hesitation said, “No.” He, myself and the volunteers all laughed.

I pretty much pushed him out the door while I tried to find anything that my stomach could hack, but all I could face were chocolate digestives. Spoiler alert: they did the trick. Navigating the forest and boggy trails of the next section wasn’t easy, but I was struck with such a free feeling. I’d reached the final section! I was going to do it! I was going to finish my first 100K race—and not just any race, a bloody hard one at that! No poles. Hours of hard training, regardless of the weather. I’d been ruthless in making sure I put the work in.

I actually shouted out upon reaching the final hill, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it!!” I held back tears and was determined not to break. I wanted to finish this strong; to do myself proud. I charged up Moel Eilio and even faster down it, all the way back to Llanberis. I passed 15 people in this last 10K; I was just so excited to finish. 

One kilometre from the end, I passed someone else and felt them surge behind me. Did I really want to fight even harder for one more position? He came up alongside me, and before I tried to muster another gear, I realised it was Alex. It was such a surprise to see him; I’d assumed he’d finish 15 minutes before me, but I must have crushed the downhill to have caught him. We ran it in together and it was a real joy to finish the race with him. It felt like the perfect finish to the race. I crossed the line and stood in disbelief for a moment as they put the medal on me; I’d done it—I’d completed the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 100K. I gave my brother a huge hug and pretty much collapsed on a bench.

I would say that I can’t believe I did it, but I always knew I could. My belief in myself never wavered in this race, and when facing a course as tough as this, you need that kind of mentality. What surprised me was how well my legs handled the climbs and descents—who knew they had it in them! They say you learn more from your failures, but I learned so much about my body in this race, and I won’t forget it. For my next ultramarathon, I’m going to hit it a bit harder. Let’s see how much it can take. The Bullock Smithy, let’s be ‘avin you.

Robin Leathley

The BACKBONE
The Backbone

"There was a huge roar of applause at the next aid station at Glan Dena, the first checkpoint that allowed your support crew. I didn’t bring one, but the extra bodies welcoming you in made a difference, and you really needed the lift before the next, arguably hardest, climb."

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