The Main Event
The North Wales Half Marathon
I know it’s a massive cliché to have the Chariots of Fire soundtrack rattling around your brain when you go running, but when it came to this gorgeous multi-terrain race, I felt circumstances genuinely merited it. With the tide out, the sandy shoreline of the beach at Conwy is revealed – and a more beautiful opening mile you could scarcely hope to find. The North Wales Half Marathon begins in style.
I’d hoped to resemble a modern-day Eric Liddell or Harold Abrahams, but as my shoes sank deeper into the wet sand and I sidestepped the numerous jellyfish lying stranded in my path, I realised this wasn’t going to happen. I probably looked more like Mr Bean in the spoof version of that scene, screened at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
The magnificent beach section (we’d finish the race on it, too) certainly helped make this among the more memorable half marathons I’ve done. But it wasn’t the only reason – for a start, the views were glorious. I could see the Great Orme at Llandudno, the mighty headland that for generations has drawn visitors up it. Further out in the water, on my right, I spotted Puffin Island – the uninhabited, slightly flattened rocky dome that’s a haven for sea birds – as well as the tip of the island of Anglesey.
Once off the beach, I was soon on much firmer ground, picking up pace on the cycle path that took me four miles along the coast to
Penmaenmawr. This village on the fringes of the vast Snowdonia National Park originally sprang up around its granite quarry. History buffs might know it as the place where 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone often chose to relax on holiday (if sternlooking Victorians engaged in such frivolous activities as relaxing); for us runners, though, it marked the point where we turned our backs on the sea and headed inland. It was also the halfway mark and the start of the approach up to Conwy Mountain, the race’s centrepiece.
As we made our way through Dwygyfylchi village, the road in front of me rose sharply and the gradient suddenly became horribly steep. I dug in and as I climbed ever higher, the land to my left on the other side of the stone wall at the roadside fell away dramatically in a magnificent long sweep back towards the sea. At one point I appeared to be surrounded on all sides by rugged mountain slopes.
But it was the sight way above me that my eyes became fixed on. ‘Oh, blimey, we’re going up there, aren’t we!’ a runner beside me exclaimed. She’d read my mind. High on the ridge far above us (244m, in fact), a line of tiny runners was already approaching the mountain’s peak. I wished I was one of them.
One mile and considerable effort later I had also conquered the rocky 15 per cent gradient and stood for a moment on the top, shaking my legs out and getting my puff back. Looking around, I could see why this vantage point appealed to our Iron Age ancestors, who built a hill fort here.
I really enjoyed the next two miles up here as I followed the narrow, stony paths that snaked through the abundance of purple heather, all the while snatching glances down over Conwy, its commanding 13th-century castle resplendent in the sunlight; my attention was torn between this grand structure and the equally striking 19th-century suspension bridge in front of it, a fine example of civil engineering maestro Thomas Telford’s handiwork.
But there was work still to do, so I curtailed my sightseeing; if going up the mountain was all about zoning out while making slow but steady progress, coming down required significantly more concentration. With protruding roots and loose stones littering the rutted path, hurtling down at full pelt was something I was more than happy to leave to the fell runners at the front of the pack.
Back on the flat, we enjoyed a stellar final three miles, taking in first a large section of Conwy’s impressive medieval town walls, then skirting past the boats moored in the pretty marina close to where the River Conwy opens out into the sea. From there, we headed back to the beach, where it had all begun. And yes, there was that tune again.
For many runners, seeing the finishing arch gave them the perfect excuse to slip off their socks and running shoes and run that last 500m barefoot before heading straight into the sea for some instant hydrotherapy. I preferred to simply gaze back up at Conwy Mountain and reflect on how glad I was that I had made the trip to come and discover this little nugget of gold in the Welsh race scene.
SOFT LANDING Looks like a day at the beach but there are also some serious hills to tackle.