Llangollen Round running challenge: trials and tribulations

What a day! I spent most of it unsure whether I’d complete the full 33 miles or not, swinging from lows when my whole body ached and my mind wanted nothing more than to give in, to highs when I was loving it and determined to finish. The scenery was stunning; the weather was perfect for running; the challenge leaders set a steady pace, but were patient with the slower people at the back; and the whole group was cheerful, chatty and supportive.

The alarm woke us at 5.45 and we had mugs of tea and bowls of cereal in bed before washing and pulling on our running gear. Blue sky meant shorts, although it was quite chilly so we needed long sleeved tops. Our running packs and drop boxes were pretty much packed: we just had to fill our hydration packs then drive the short distance to the start at the Ponderosa cafe on the Horseshoe pass above Llangollen.

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A cloud inversion in the valley below the Llantysilio ridge

Joe Cooper’s Llangollen Round isn’t a race, but a guided and supported challenge following a 33 mile (53 kilometre) circular trail above the Vale of Llangollen, with 5,300 feet (1600 metres) of ascent. The day is split into 5 sections, with checkpoints where we’d be met by a van carrying our  spare kit, food and drink. John and I did the same challenge last year and I loved the route, although it’s tough. The scenery is stunning and very varied,  taking in high ridges, rolling green hills and heather moorland, and crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and a lovely 17th century bridge over the River Dee. At some points you can see the whole route spread out before your eyes. I struggled last year but completed the challenge; however, this year, I was pretty sure I hadn’t done enough training to do all 5 stages.

There were about 12 of us running, I think. I was quite apprehensive because everyone I spoke to either seemed to have done more training than me, or had done long races quite recently, whereas my longest run has only been about 10 miles this year. It didn’t matter though… I could drop out at one of the checkpoints if I couldn’t keep up, or miss out a stage if I was getting too tired to continue.

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Looking back down to the start, and over at the masts at the top of what would be our final climb

Joe welcomed us all, checked we had everything we needed and introduced us to the challenge leaders: Dave and George would lead the first section, then Joe and Dan would take over at the first checkpoint. Joe told us that the first 2 sections were the hardest, with the majority of the ascent. Then we were off. The route immediately headed uphill quite steeply to Moel y Waen but we started slowly, with a brisk walk, only running when the gradient was shallow or flat.

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John and I on Moel y Gamelin, enjoying the running and the early morning sunshine on the Llantysilio Ridge

The views were stunning, and we were treated to a cloud inversion in the valleys far below as we ran along Llantysilio Ridge to it’s highest point Moel y Gamelin. Stunning! There were some steep descents over loose scree and I was pleasantly surprised how much my poles helped on these.

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I found my poles very handy on the steep descents on this section of the Round

We were all chatting and getting to know a bit about each other, very excited about the day ahead. Some of us were a bit anxious about running through a field of bullocks running around wildly, especially when we ended up between a cow and it’s calf, which was dancing around madly, not sure which way to go! This 7 mile section ended with a descent through dappled shade in beautiful woods to the first checkpoint at by the old bridge on the River Dee at Carrog.

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The runners & group leaders taking in the stunning views over the valleys and towards Snowdonia

My feet were quite wet so, at the first checkpoint, I changed my socks. Then, after refilling our hydration packs, replenishing our snacks, and grabbing something more substantial to eat, we were off again.

The start of section 2 was a long, steep climb through woodland then moorland to the highest point on the Llangollen Round, Moel Fferna in the Berwyn mountains (2067 feet). The views were amazing from here, in every direction. We had another snack (as one of the other runners said, it’s a moving picnic!), then we had our first spell of prolonged running along a gently undulating path before we climbed again to the top of Vivod Mountain.

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On top of Moel Fferna, the highest peak on the Llangollen Round

This section was 10 miles, and I was now starting to tire. We finally reached a lane, heading steadily uphill and, knowing the next checkpoint was about a mile away, I made my self run 50 steps and walk 50 steps, counting in my head to distract from the aching in my legs and lungs. I was thinking how much I liked section 4, high above Llangollen looking back over the hills that we’d run at the start, so I toyed with the idea idea of missing section 3 to make sure I could do 4. Joe, however, reminded me that I’d struggled at this point last year and advised me that he thought I’d be better to carry on and reassess at checkpoint 3. After all, I was half way now and the next sections were each shorter. I put my determined head back on and agreed I would be better to keep going.

A change of T shirt; more flat coke, jelly babies, malt loaf, and a peanut butter and jam sandwich; more electrolyte solution, flapjack and salted peanuts in my pack; then we set off on leg 3. We weren’t allowed to hang around for too long in case we seized up or gave up!

Overall, section 3 was relatively easy… well… easier than I remember it being last time…. but still very hard!  After thinking I was doing ok when we left checkpoint 2, running the gentle climb up the road, everyone else overtook me. My mind concluded that I must have been super slow, which sent me into a panic, thinking maybe I’ve done the wrong thing carrying on. Thankfully, John reassured me and I plodded on, feeling better.

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Crossing the Llangollen canal and heading along the towpath to the aqueduct

After a beautiful section through woods full of bluebells and wild garlic, we descended to Froncysyllte, regrouping at a bus stop and joking about catching the next bus. I started struggling again and did a lot of run-walking, but I wasn’t the only one… some other people also seemed to be slowing down, and everyone was much quieter. After we followed the Llangollen canal and crossed the amazing aqueduct, packed with canal boats and walkers enjoying the sunshine, our route climbed steadily through woodland and, finally, we reached the lane and checkpoint 3.

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Running over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, with the canal boats alongside us and the River Dee far below.

I knew now that I had to complete the Round. I knew I liked the next, 5-mile section and the final section is ‘only’ 4 miles, and not too difficult. Another T shirt and sock change, and some fresh trainers; yet more food, and another bag top up and off we went again. The stop seemed to have raised everyone’s spirits again, or perhaps it was that we realised we were probably going to complete the challenge now. There was certainly more banter again. I don’t chat much when I run… breathing is hard enough! But I love to listen to everyone around me.

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Almost at checkpoint 3, very weary now after about 23 miles

After a shortish section on the road, we headed uphill on the grass between limestone crags, finally reaching a flatish section with the most stunning views of the whole Round. We could see the whole of our route so far, stretching for miles and miles… something which I can’t entirely comprehend… I ran-walked all that!!!!  We could also see the mast which signalled the end of the Round, only about 8 or 9 miles away!

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Panoramic image showing all the hills we’ve already completed, with the remains of Dinas Bran castle in the centre

The path wasn’t really difficult now… grassy and undulating… but my whole body was protesting and it took some determination to make myself run the flats and downhills, treating myself to walks on the uphills. I had developed a pain in my foot, my hips and back were aching, and my calves were cramping intermittently.  I told myself to keep snacking, keep drinking and keep plodding… you CAN do it!

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The Llangollen Rounders

The final checkpoint was World’s End, which I have fond memories of visiting as a child to collect moss for my dad’s orchids. I completed the final part of section 4 to this checkpoint on my own and, without the distraction of the chat of other’s around me, my mind took over. I sobbed as I trudged along the road uphill to the van and the others ahead of me. I knew I had to complete the challenge now… only 4 miles… but how? Everyone was lovely… ‘cry all you want, it’s ok’. John said he’d stay with me for the rest of the challenge, and he did. He was great. As was everyone else. What a fantastic group!

I left my running pack, deciding instead to take a small bum bag, which I hoped would help ease my back ache. I’d already stopped carrying my poles, which I think may have started the back ache because I wasn’t used to using them. I tucked a small water bottle, some snacks and my phone in the bum bag, clutched my snotty hanky, and we left. Let’s do this!

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The day’s ascents and descents… no wonder I got tired!

We set off on on board walks across the boggy moorland, following Offa’s dyke path to Llandegla woods. The climb was steady and I didn’t feel too bad now. It’s funny how the waves of different emotions occur… it is like a roller coaster for me, doing these events. John kept chatting to distract me, and we walked with some of the others for a while too. We were all looking ahead to the mast and I felt relieved when we finally reached it. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten there were two masts and there was still a bit more uphill to go!  Once we reached the summit, I knew it was all downhill to the end along a cement road. I tried to run but my foot was now quite painful and I was disappointed that I couldn’t make myself run for long before I was back to walking. Also, my tummy was very bloated for some reason, and the bum bag was very tight and uncomfortable around it, so John carried it for me.

The others drew further ahead and my mind started playing games again., so that I had to battle to stop feeling sorry for myself. John was very patient, staying with me, and the buildings and cars at the bottom gradually got nearer. ‘I’m going to do it!’, I said. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to do it!’. It finally sank in and I struggled not to cry with relief. I wanted to smile as I reached the finish, not cry!

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John helping me over the ditch at the end 🙂

The others cheered as we walked up the road… I couldn’t run… my body wouldn’t let me! Then we had to cross a ditch to reach the car park. ‘No! How am I going to get across that?!’ John took my hand and yanked me across, and I was done! Everyone clapped and we were handed a beer as I collapsed and sat on the edge of the boot of Joe’s van. I did it! I did 33 miles! What a feeling! What a great experience!

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The runners and leaders celebrating a great day

I did feel rough yesterday evening, and this morning after a restless night, and John wasn’t much better. Maybe the combination of wind and sun made the dehydration worse than usual. I don’t know. But we’re both feeling fine now, if rather tired and a bit achy. I don’t think I’ll manage the Welsh 3000s, but maybe I’ll do 1 or 2 sections. I’ll consider what to do in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ll reflect on this weekend… what I achieved, and how lucky I was to share it with a great group of people who were good company, supporting and encouraging each other, enjoying beautiful scenery and lovely weather, and being out in the open pushing our minds and bodies. We can all be proud of ourselves  🙂

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Map of Llangollen round taken from my Strava log

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