Race the Train - Tywyn

Several months ago I entered Race the Train - a fairly iconic race among the running community.  The format is quite simple, you run a challenging 14 mile cross country course and aim to beat a steam train on a narrow gauge railway.  This is not the sort of course that will result in a pb, so priority one was just to enjoy it but second priority was obviously to beat the train!  I was expecting to be around 20th to 30th, but hopeful of perhaps 10th at best judging by previous results.

After a 3 hour drive to the race centre I arrived to a far from pleasant August Saturday.  The forecast was heavy driving rain but also 40mph winds - the forecasters were not wrong! I knew the race was tougher in the second half and we would also be running into the wind at that point as well.  As a result I made the decision to take the first half of the race fairly easy and to start going full gas in the second half, well that was the plan anyway!

I tried to stay as warm as I could at the start and ended up about 5 rows from the front.  There was then the countdown to the start and almost simultaneously the steam train sounded its horn to signify the start.  As I got under way it was hard not to grin, what a way to start a race!

The first mile or so was a loop around the town on tarmac which was pretty flat and I quickly moved into about 15th position.  Despite the wind and rain there were loads of spectators around cheering us on around Tywyn's closed roads.  We then started to head out of the town, still on the main road and at this point I could tell I was 10th.  After one mile I felt pretty good, not too much out of breath and it was hard in a way not to push on.  We then started to turn off road, initially on a farmers semi-hard track before eventually turning on to a number of rough grassy fields.

Probably about 3 miles in.  Some of the more straight forward terrain.

As I entered the first field I was now 8th, with a runner just ahead of me, then a couple of runners about 40 metres ahead and finally a leading group of 4 a further 60 metres or so away.  I could tell the wind was mostly behind us and every now and then an additional gust would push us forward.  There were also a couple of sharp descents that I knew would be very testing on the way back.

Again, reasonably early on in the race, about 5 miles or so in.  Inevitably the sections nearer the train were mostly flatish and grassy.  The challenging sections tended to be further away.

Over the next couple of miles we ran on all sorts of surfaces, gravel, slate, tracks, grass, muddy paths - a real mixed bag of terrain; this course had it all!  Up to the four mile mark I think I was 7th, as a runner ahead in the second group fell away quite quickly, other than that it was pretty much status quo.  Even the distances between groups had not changed much which surprised me as I still felt pretty good.  A quick mention for the train, I could hear it every now and then with its whistle and even saw it when looking back in the distance a bit.  I knew though that the race against the train for me was already over, barring catastrophe I knew that I would finish miles ahead.

Still feeling pretty good about 3 miles in.  Either 6th or 7th at this point.

Getting to mile 7 was more of the same although there were a number of sharp testing up and down sections.  At this point I could tell the runner ahead of me was slowing a bit so decided to overtake at an opportune moment and then I caught another runner about a further 15 metres ahead pretty quickly as well.  I was now 6th, but more importantly starting to catch the runners ahead.  The lead group was no more and they were all spread out pretty quickly.  I was now starting to think crikey, I'm starting to get close to the front here!  It was at this point I started to push on.

Picture of the train at the station before it turns back round to head home.

Just after 7 miles we made the turn to start our way back home, but from miles 7-11 it was a different route back.  To begin with there were a number of sharp ascents and just after the first of these I closed right up with the front 3 runners who were now all back together with me just behind sitting in 4th.  It was also around this point I saw the train coming past in the opposite direction and I even managed to give everyone a wave and there were loads of cheering back.

We now hit a sheep track on the hillside and it was impossible to overtake so tried to just take a breather.  However, the extent of the wind was now obvious, the gusts coming head on were unbelievable and I struggled to keep to the sheep track and a number of times I almost slid down the steep hillside.  Eventually the sheep track finished and we moved into another section, a sort of muddy and stoney path before hitting what is affectionately know as 'The Bog' - I can confirm it was very boggy!  I had now moved into second, but the leader of the group a mile or so previously had moved away and had a lead of about 25 seconds.

People starting the sheep track section - see the hands in the air to try and stay upright!  My wife reports that loads of people were slipping all over the place.

Over the next mile I started to think to myself 'I'm coming to get you!' and even started to think a win was on.  I could see that I was slowly starting to reel him in and probably got within 15 seconds of him before disaster struck - I managed to turn my ankle and heard a crunch as I did it.  I had a huge jolt of pain and got back up but I was now hobbling, I hoped I'd be able to run it off but now it was a case of looking back rather than look forward.  At this stage I had about a 25 second lead over a couple of runners behind me.

From about mile 11 onward we followed our earlier tracks and were now back in open fields.  The wind here was horrendous, truly appalling does not sufficiently describe how bad it was.  Full on gale strength wind and even on the flat I was probably only moving forward at 20% pace at times.  There was another section where it was a 1 in 4 gradient and combined with the wind it was impossible to do anything other than power walk.  I kept looking back and felt that my lead over the others was holding, if anything extending a bit further - maybe 40 seconds.

The steep section, the wind here was appalling and it was hard to do much other than power walk my way up.

Step after step, more wind to face and I was now just looking for the mile markers.  With about 3 miles to go I was now pretty knackered and it was just a case of trying to hold on.  To be honest though I think everyone else was in exactly the same position as me - the wind just sucked all the energy out.  Eventually I got back onto the farm tracks and I had another look back and I think I was now a good 50 seconds or so ahead, so much so that I knew my position was safe.  Even back on the road for the final 14th mile, the wind was still appalling and had it been a much closer race with those behind me I might have been in trouble.  As it was I could afford to ease off the gas and running through the village out of the wind now was quite pleasant, loads of cheering people and I even managed to wave to quite a few of them knowing I was going to be second!

Not feeling so good now.  Just under 3 miles to go but now a clear 2nd.

About half way home - a lot of the pics look like the terrain was flat, let me assure you it was anything but and even the sections that were flat often involved running in ankle deep mud.

I eventually crossed the line at a jog, about 1 minute behind the winner and a minute ahead of 3rd.  It was a case of what might have been, but with the wind as it was I think I would have struggled to win the race.

A couple of miles to the finish.  Looking tired after running for several miles into the gale force headwind.

Overall I'm amazed with the result, a 1,000 strong field and I came 2nd!!!  Quite a prestigious race too so probably ranks as my best performance to date.  It was interesting that the times were about 7 minutes slower (30 seconds a mile) than previous years, such were the poor conditions underfoot and the gale force wind.  I suspect that is part of the reason why I did so well - I'm a good up and down gritty runner who can cope with these sort of conditions better than most.  If it had been 25 degrees in blazing sunshine I suspect I probably would have wilted.  I was also interested to note that a chat with one of the other runners a couple of minutes behind me revealed he was a 2.28 marathoner.  He asked whether I was a fell runner as he said every time there was an incline I just pulled away from the rest of them - a good indicator that the conditions were well suited to my ability as no way could I run a marathon in that kind of time!

Being second resulted in a £100 cash prize and is significantly better than anything I've ever won before, again an indicator that this event is a step up from other events I've done in the past.  Unfortunately I didn't stay for prize giving as having finished the race at 3.35pm, with the prize giving at 8pm I decided that it was too long to wait what with a 3 hour drive back home.  None the less a cheque sent to me a few days later was a very nice surprise!

Overall a brilliantly organised race with just about every single type of terrain covered, racing a train, what more could I have wished for?!

Postscript - My ankle is clearly sore but I do not think I've done any lasting damage and will take a couple of days off.  I have a 5 mile race planned in a couple of weeks so hopefully I will be back to full fitness by then.


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