Paddy Buckley Round
For a long, long time I’d wanted to link the 47 summits that make up the Paddy Buckley round but it never seemed to fit. With other running plans taking priority and a racing schedule as long as my arm, I knew I would need some time to miraculously show itself to make it happen. A UTMB DNF and a shorter recovery process as a result would leave a void that needed filling. Could I turn my UTMB disappointment into a positive and tick the Paddy box?
Post UTMB the body felt ok, I was managing a couple of weak spots in my glutes and being pro-active making sure injures didn’t materialise. The mileage was low and everything was specific, no junk miles. Rest is best. Some shorter, sharper hill workouts in my local woodland and a real focus on technique when running uphill was the focus. Everything felt aligned after two easy weeks so I decided to head to Shutlingsloe on a glorious Friday evening to climb the fells again. The hill segment there is a 0.85m rep with 789ft of vert. It’s tough and it bites back. That evening I do 4 controlled reps and my technique is terrific, I feel light and powerful. I add in some new trails I’ve not ran on before and some short but punchy road climbs to finish. The session is only 10 miles but that evening reignites my passion again after a shit show at UTMB. A hill I’ve ran up 80+ times, in all seasons and at all paces. I return to my van and I think ‘I’m back’.
The easy thing would have been to race, to find some false confidence from a result which would have satisfied me for a matter of hours. I wasn’t after a win or a strong performance, I needed something clean, simple and pure. I wanted to think outside the box and started checking the weather.
Work had been slow and stagnant since UTMB. I was working local which was brilliant but the job was dull and unsatisfactory. I had lots of time on my hands to plot and scheme, to break away from the world of phones, people and problems.
I come up with a plan. Saturday September 24th was the Peris Horshore fell race, a tough welsh classic and a race my good friend Huw had won a few years back. I set out my stall to race and I enter. It’s the Saturday before and my legs are growling from last nights Shutlingsloe session. I prioritise an easy week setting myself up to race well in Wales one month on from UTMB.
A couple of elements change my thought pattern and ‘look on life’ that week. It’s the Queens funeral, a slow hard watch on the television with the family and work continues to be stagnant. A close friend receives some tragic news that sends a shock to the system and to say there was a grey cloud lingering was an understatement. I’m longing for something tough, simple and satisfying.
I have a physio session with Steve and we talk, he channels my thoughts and energy and gives me the confidence to go Solo and unsupported on the Paddy that weekend.
I arrive in Llanberis on Friday afternoon, the MWIS weather report suggests Saturday is going to provide fine running conditions with only a strong northerly wind to contend with. I’ve covered much of the route, in training and on support duties for other peoples attempts. The only two sections I don’t know are the off piste climb from the forest at the start of leg 5 towards the featureless summit of Craig Wen and the first 2 miles up through the Slate mine heading to the first of the 47 tops.
My plan is extremely basic. Clockwise from Llanberis, solo and unsupported. The rules state I must carry all my supplies and the only thing I can gather/rely on is water from natural sources. I highlight 5 opportunities to top up my bottles using my local knowledge from over the years. The night before I cook a pizza at home and individually wrap each slice, I throw together 4 veggie chicken wraps loaded with Hummus and sweet chilli sauce and I pack 6 chocolate bars, 4 gels, 2 packs of crisps, 5 sachets of tailwind and a random assortment of sweets. It all that fits snug in my Inov-8 2in1 Vest with additional kit:
Map & Compass
Headphones x 2
My pack weighs 6.5kg with 1ltr of water to start. It’s basic and I decided against taking poles, waterproof trousers, portable charger and extra gloves to save weight and space.
There are areas on this route that need some second guessing when planning a start time and a start point, especially in late September when daylight fades fast. I don’t want to be descending Tryfan in the dark, I don’t really want to be playing around in the Glyder boulder field in the dark, I absolutely do not want to be navigating the long and trackless leg 3 in the dark. I opt for a 4am start on Saturday.
I book a hostel for the Friday and Saturday night. Unsure how long I’ll be out on my feet but I’m confident of a sub 23hour round. I jot down two splits. I know I need to run leg 1 in 3.5 hours to allow for the sunrise to aid my boulder hopping skills on the Glyders and the horror leg 3 needs to be completed sub 7hours.
The evening before I’m in bed @ 19:30 with an alarm set for 03:05. I’m due a good sleep before something of this magnitude and I get one. Ear plugs in and the other 3 guests in my bunk room are irrelevant. I have 3 large bowls of cereal with added blueberries once I’ve parked my van in Llanberis town. £9 for 24hours parking at the electric mountain centre(a bargain) and I have to be back before then. I’ve checked the weather and things have changed slightly from the previous nights forecast. Hill fog is forecast for the morning, clearing the way for a sharp few hours of high winds and possible sleet above 800m after that it settles into the afternoon.
Rain starts landing on my wind screen and I opt to delay my start time slightly to let it blow over. At 4:07 I leave Llanberis from the mountain train station and head towards the summit of Elidir Fach then onto Elidir Fawr. The climb through the quarry is tough but you can build momentum and I move well. Once you leave the slate behind you’re on open fell and it’s a direct line to the summit. I’m unsure on my splits for the first 4/5 tops. My watch is in dark mode but I’m following Kim Collison trace from his Record breaking round a few years prior. I supported him that day and bagged legs 3&4 at record pace, confidence I’ll need to draw on later in the day I think. No need to check my watch, I know this horseshoe and before long I’m climbing the shale towards the Glyder boulder field. It’s dark and it’s raining, this isn’t good. Navigation on the plateau is extremely difficult in thick mist and visibility is very poor, I’m checking my trace every few seconds and I’ve taken a baring which should see me tie the two summits together. There are hundreds of rocks to choose from, which one is the summit? Anyones guess to be honest. I slow right down and take my time to scramble to the highest point. No need to rush, I’m not after a fast round. Do it properly.
The mist follows me down the gully and evaporates at 700m. Morning light is close now as I climb towards Tryfan and it’s wild descent. I nail the line down ( I didn’t know at the time ) after touching Adam and Eve at the summit and I’m in the Ogwen Valley. Leg 1 complete in 2:58. I’ve consumed 200 calories to start, I’d planned 100 an hour and packed around 2400 for the full loop.
Me & Kim on his 16:20 round Spring 2021
Leg 2 is very runnable and if any part of the Paddy is simple, this is it. A slow climb up Pen Yr Ole Wen where my watch ticks and bags a 28min mile. I’d filled my water bottles up lower down and this added a handful of minutes. On the ridge round to the Carnedd summits it’s blowing a gale, I think my bollocks are going to freeze up and take a note to invest in some thermal pants for this winters adventures. I get a flurry of snow for around 2/3 minutes. I chuckle but the cold takes my breathe, luckily this is fast terrain and I’m moving well. Gloves and hat on, my new Inov8 jacket really protects my face and I need it here.
I’m comfortable with the Nav and things are good. A really enjoyable leg which I complete in 2:35, touching 5 summits in the process. Onto leg 3.
The leg I’ve done the most and possibly the hardest leg of all the rounds, certainly the longest @ 21 miles and with tricky navigation thrown in it’s always make or break and has crushed many a fell runner in the past. I mutter ‘patience’ and ‘work rate’ to myself as I climb towards Moel Siabod. Reminding myself often that I’m not after a fast round, let time do it’s thing and keep eating. Water is sparse on this leg and I had to be tactical whilst sipping.
On the long descent towards summits 2 & 3 of this leg I get a call from my wife who’s checking in on me. I slow down to FaceTime her and I’m in good spirits. I have notes written on my map to help with navigation over this featureless and baron terrain. Telling me what side of the fence is best, highlighting exactly where the deepest bogs can be found and the word ‘Conifer’ which dictates the summit of Moel Meirch.
My next water stop is a stream which flows through the abandoned Slate Quarry above Blaenau Ffestiniog. On route down I see another runner who’s out on a recce. He says hello and asks what I’m up to. I’m wary of too much communication because the rules are pretty tight on unsupported rounds. He runs behind me for a few minutes and takes a handful of pictures without me knowing. He asks my name and I tell him, he’s since sent me the photos. I nail the line down to the quarry after reading another note on my map ‘wall’. Another litre filled from the stream and its onto the last 5 summits of this monster leg finishing with THAT climb up Cnicht. I’ve eaten well but I’m down to my last 3 slices of pizza and I’ve got 2 wraps left. I summit Cnicht pretty much direct and find a line I’ve not done before, I know I moved efficiently over this leg and it would seem I’m well under my 7 hour target.
It’s a long descent down from trail to road and into Nantmoor. I’m always amazed by the beauty of the flowing river which comes from Beddgelert and flows towards the coast at Porthmadog. It really is a special spot and the day before UTS 50k in July me and Jess had walked the river side trail. Pleasant memories that I needed to draw on because this was starting to bite, 6:01 for Leg 3.
I take five minutes to walk from the car park to the base of the next climb up to the mighty Moel Hebog standing @ 783m. I know I’m just above sea level here and try to blank out the 2400ft climb I’ve got on my hands over the space of 2.5 miles, trying to compose myself for another push. I knew I was making good time and started doing the maths for a 21:00 finish. It takes me 80 minutes to reach the summit. I was surprised by the growth of the ferns on the lower slopes of the climb and this slowed me down considerably. I’d never done this leg in late summer/early autumn, at the best of times there’s isn’t a path or trod, just straight up. The summit is pleasant and the views are superb in the late evening light. My attention turns to finishing this leg and starting the next before sunset. I’d noted that this leg should be around 9.5 miles according to research and previous experience but I’m at 9.5 miles by the time I reach my next water point which is a stream running off Nantlle Ridge. Memories come back to me from when I was supporting Huw on his round last summer and he’d taken a dip at this very spot to cool off. I fill up 1.5 Ltrs because I’m unsure of water options for the last leg and I know Snowdon itself doesn’t give up the wet stuff easily.
Photo Courtesy of Matt Heason. I didn't know he took them till he asked my name. Thanks Matt.
Huw taking a dip on his round in Summer 2021.
At the road crossing after the forest road I take a couple of minutes. I add a layer, put my head torch on ready and stash my spare battery in reaching distance within my pack. I put my gloves on and a fresh buff for my head. I eat the last of my pizza and have 1 lonely veggie wrap remaining. I’d put copious amounts of sweet chilli sauce on one of the wraps and I’m guessing this was the one. A treat for Snowdon summit maybe. I reckon I have 20 minutes of light before it fades and I lap my watch. Leg 4 is 3:49. I acknowledge the fact that I’m looking after myself well and moving efficiently. This comforts me after getting beaten up pretty bad in the Alps a month before. I’d lost track of the maths and what time could be possible. I didn’t know this climb but on the map it looked slow and after checking past splits from faster fellows than myself I knew it was tedious.
I leave the private road behind and I’m in, in some horrible overgrown world of ferns and tussocks. Again I think a summer of blazing sun and lashings of rain has made this place a jungle, I’m totally relying on Kim’s trace here. My ability to take a bearing has left me and I’m struggling to concentrate. I reach the grassy ridge after what feels like 4 hours, I need to be wary of Nav errors here as the summit of Craig Wen is invisible. I bag it and follow the grassy trod towards Yr Aran, the views must be spectacular from here but everything is black and I take a risky line down. I know Kim did this in daylight at record pace but my god it was dangerous at night and moving slower than a hippo I trip and fall but bounce off the soft ground. Surrounded by hundreds of age old rocks it makes me wonder how I’ve not hurt myself.
I’m out of grub, I couldn’t wait for the summit for this sweet chilli masterclass and I’m down to 1 chocolate bar and a few gels. I check my watch and it states 17:14 total time. I think ‘ if I can get to the famous summit before 18:00 I might be good for sub 21’. I rejoin the Rhyd Du tourist path which leads to the Snowdon summit, my watch ticks by and records a 33 minute mile. Below the steps of the highest Cafe in England and Wales I get disoriented in the mist and take a minute to figure out what’s going on. Yards from the summit and I’m lost. The fog was banked at 900m and visibility was dreadful. I find the wall and follow it up, like someone climbing the stairs after one to many tequilas in town.
I check my watch at the summit and it reads 17:44, I’m in good nick I think to myself. It would be easy to forget the summit of Garnedd Ugain which is a short out and back and if followed leads to the famous Crib Goch ridge, but I remember and find the summit. I also thank Paddy Buckley himself for not including Crib Goch on his hit list for this mighty journey. Down we go and my watch ticks past 60miles. I figure I have less than 10k left if I can manage the lines and be efficient. Down Snowdon ranger and hang a right to the fence before a difficult climb of 600ft + over 0.5 miles to the summit of Moel Cynghorion.
3 summits to go, I check the watch. I know these lines now and I’ve raced hard over them during UTS. Is a sub 20 on here? One climb at a time I tell myself. My mind switches back and forth, thinking of a nice warm shower in the hostel and bed but also my friend and his family who are going through hell at the moment and how lucky I was to be doing something I love. Fit, healthy and safe. 5k to go.
I’d envisioned taking a moment at the last summit Moel Eilio, looking to my right and seeing those mighty dark lumps which make up Snowdonia and relaxing before a jog into town. Huw stopped for a few photos here last year and it was emotional to see him finish off his Paddy.
At the summit my watch read 19:22 total time, sub 20 was on. I hurtled down the grassy hill into town. I was going as fast as possible and begged my watch to tick by and show me a sub 10:00 mile. It pings, 12:39. I trust my instincts and ignore Kim’s trace here sticking to a route I know well but one I know is slightly longer. Watch pings, 14:07. How could I be so slow downhill. I drop a mitt and swear. Bending down isn’t fun and I nearly leave it but still thinking straight I turn and pick it up. On the road with 0.5 miles left (no idea of that at the time) I’m in Llanberis.
It’s the most bizarre finish you can ever imagine. Hours and hours on the fells and sharp edges of Snowdonia to finish running through a council estate childrens play area into tight alley ways and then onto the main road. I sprint to the sign and stop my watch. 19:58:34. I’m confused and I sit down on a slate bench. There’s a fox running round town and I weirdly nod at him, thanking him for being the only spectator at the finish line for me.
I’d turned my Ultra Trail Mont Blanc balls up into a positive and completed something extremely difficult and important to me. I opted for the hard way and needed to see if I was tough enough, this time I was and I’m absolutely over the have finished safe and sound after finally linking those dots together.
4 years ago when I started running in these mountains the Paddy Buckley was a wild dream and a world away from reality. It petrified me to be honest. I slowly left the tourist trods behind and started finding my way off the beaten track. The route is magical and different for everyone who comprehends a completion.
Thank you to my wife Jess who persists with my fascination for map purchasing and agreed that I needed to get back to basics after UTMB.
To Steve who gave me the confidence and belief that I hadn’t gone soft.
To Tom @ shape your future massage clinic who has invested in me and continues to offer the best services in Staffordshire.
To Inov-8 for providing the best mountain kit available.
I’ve ran further, steeper and been out longer than this, but there’s something about the Paddy. It’s brutal, bonkers and brilliant.