The good thing about plunging into an ice-cold bog all the way up to your… well, your groin area, is that it’s useful for gauging if you have any chafing in that delicate yet susceptible region.
The bad thing about plunging into an ice-cold bog up to your groin area, is that you now know you have got some respectable levels of chafing in said region. And you’ve just plunged into an ice-cold bog. Plus you now also have to try and get out of it.
I love the Paddy Buckley Round. The Welsh equivalent of the Lake District’s Bob Graham Round may be a less famous relative, but it’s tougher – and quirkier. Well over 2,000 runners have completed a Bob. When I set out from Llanberis at 3am on Wednesday 29 January, only 199 completions of the approximate 61-mile Snowdonia circuit of 47 summits with 28,000ft ascent (1,000ft less than Mt Everest) had been recorded. Unlike the Bob and Scotland’s Charlie Ramsay Round, too, there’s no official start point, no website, no 24-hour limit, and, thrillingly, two peaks have the same name.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with the Paddy. I’d done it twice inside the previous 12 months. Once only semi-successfully in 26+ hours when the weather played a trick on my friend Charlie Sproson and I. And again in the summer, after several trips to support friends’ attempts, recording a new fastest known time of 17:31 – just 11 minutes inside the previous, 10-year-old, record. It was just an experiment really. That turned out okay. But now it was winter and I fancied a winter adventure.
There’s a separate winter record, of 21 hours and 37 minutes, set by my good friend Jim Mann. To qualify as a winter round, a Paddy must happen between 1 December and the end of February. Winter’s different. There’s a lot less daylight (I didn’t need a torch in summer). And the bogs, as I was happily able to clarify, are often deeper and colder.
I had, a little recklessly, also decided to go solo and unsupported. It’d felt a little bit heroic when I decided this. I was a lone wolf, like Boba Fett or something. But when the forecast included a -8˚C severe windchill I was more like an anxious C3PO, fussing over kit in my hotel room, swapping in warmer socks and midlayers at the last minute.
The 3am start in Llanberis felt exciting, a frisson of the unknown and a delicious sense of possibility hung in the cold air. Or was that my banana-infused burps? Either way, the first leg, Llanberis to Ogwen, was really special. That white crunchy-swooshy ground. The cold air in my lungs. The sinister wind jabbing at me.
I’d lost a little of that naive wonder when I found myself desperately hugging a big rock like a koala, on Glyder Fach, a collapsed Jenga pile of car-sized boulders. A little unsettled, that was followed by a Winnie-the-Pooh moment when I spied fresh Mudclaw prints and thought, ‘Oh wow, there’s another fool like me up here at 4.30am!?’ Then realised they were, er, my footprints. And I was going the wrong way.
Snow hid precious trods and slowed progress. A bum-sledging descent from Glyder Fach to Tryfan however was quicker and more fun than normal. It was a relief to get Tryfan out of the way, another bouldery, scrambly peak. Dawn broke on the long, hands-on-thighs climb up Pen yr Ole Wen. Now I could see all that glorious rocky whiteness. The wind seemed grumpy with me though and soon made off with my map and my schedule.
I felt bad about littering, but I wasn’t too worried. I knew the route well and could remember rough timings, I think? I loved crossing the icy rocks of the Carnedds, everything so white and new, but with the wind my constant companion I needed two pairs of gloves on and an inov-8 wrag across my face to stop my nose looking like a famous reindeer’s. It felt a bit edgy. I felt alive.
By Capel Curig, I was about 30 minutes behind my always-optimistic 19-hour schedule. But I had loads of time, right? The climb up Moel Siabod was a slog as ever and at the snow-covered rocky summit the feisty wind tried to hoover me off.
The next leg is Bog Country par excellence. The snow petered out to be replaced by sodden squelchy ground everywhere. This is the section notorious for demoralising people and even though I knew that, it still got me down in the dumps. It’s just so slow, the summits fiddly and a little unsatisfying. My ears echoed with squelching for hours. Just as I thought out loud how the bogs weren’t as bad as anticipated, in I slid.
Still, the cold water shock woke me up a bit. Soon afterwards it happened again. I was wet and cold and not quite half way. I had sort of forgotten about the schedule and the record. I figured I could probably still finish before 11pm (20 hours). But everything was slower than summer: navigation (when there was snow), terrain underfoot (snow or that relentless squelchiness), that unfriendly wind and my vegan brownie-filled pack too.
I reached Cnicht after a savagely steep, hands-pulling-on-grass climb and ran off it hard, knowing little daylight was left. It’s one of the few sections of the round where you can run for 30 minutes uninterrupted. A stranger had very kindly left me a Tunnock’s bar enticingly placed on a wall. But as I was unsupported, I had to leave it. It was one of my hardest moments.
After Nantmor I sat by a stream for a minute or two, drank from it, scoffed down more brownies, adjusted kit and got my breath back. It would be dark soon. I figured the next leg would take me about three hours, the final leg, four – as long as I didn’t get too lost of break a leg or anything. Which was lucky because I was exactly seven hours under the record.
All was going okay. Till it got dark again, on the summit of Bryn Banog. A trod I’d been on many times before meanly kept playing hide and seek. Time hemorrhaged. The wind picked up. Motivation to push dwindled. I wasn’t sure which summit I was on. Up and down, in and out of bog, over rocks, down, up. More bogs. More rocks. The thought that most intelligent people, including my family a very long way away in Wiltshire, would be tucking into lovely warm dinners in their lovely warm and well-lit houses before lovely warm baths and lovely warm beds, was hard to shake.
A couple of wind-battered hours later and finally I was on the rocky ridge linking the leg’s last three summits, which needed care to traverse. Then down, down, down the boggy grass, into the woods on a hard trail with no excuse but to run hard. And hope. Across the road and the start of the final leg, a long climb up Snowdon, initially through boggy fields and long grass, no path of note. I calculated again. It’d be nice to finish by… midnight (21 hours – quite close to the record, hmmm).
After Craig Wen (peak 40 of 47) there should be a decent trail to follow. But again, in the dark, it kept hiding from me. I knew this bit so well, yet it felt so alien. The climb went on forever. Slow progress was frustrating and I forgot to keep a trickle of calories coming in. The higher I got, the windier and more blizzardy it got. The fun had gone. My precious mitten blew away. The record was very much in the balance. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t take another step forward.
I bonked. Hard. I had no power at all. I just. Could not. Move forward.
I rummaged in a side pouch for brownies and forced a handful into my reluctant gob. I ate snow, too, to try and stay alert. Lying down in the foetal position felt appealing. This wasn’t safe, was it? The thought of just getting down off the mountain came to my mind. I was nearly done – in both senses of the word. Strava would later tell me I recorded a 37-min/mile here.
The best escape route was probably Llanberis, however, and that required me to continue on, up over Snowdon (peak 42 of 47). I motivated myself with the promise of an extra layer at the closed cafe. I knocked back more brownies, too, and hard a word with myself: this was the special British winter adventure I’d been wanting to do for a while. Stop being a wuss.
I still felt indifferent about completing the round, but thankfully after Snowdon it was downhill for a while. Faster running warmed me up.
I’d forgotten about the record. But on Crib Y Ddysgl (43 of 47) I checked my Suunto. I had about 1hr 40mins for the final four summits. It was still just about possible, dammit. I sort of wished I’d blown it. Then I could just go easy, skip the last few. But no, I had to work hard.
The final four summits are mostly grassy, some of the best running on the round. As I moved with all the pace I could muster, I was constantly checking my Suunto and recalculating. I wanted to be lazy. But while there was still a chance, annoyingly, I couldn’t quite justify it to myself.
In the dark I couldn’t see how big the final peaks were. Which helped. Until I thought I’d reached the final one. Only to find it was a false summit. There was going to be minutes in it.
Finally I was thundering off the final top, thumping into the boggy, grassy, ground. I had about 20 minutes left.
When I finally hit tarmac, after a steep, rocky dash, there was a choice. A more direct route that includes fiddly fields and styles. Or a slightly longer route that’s all tarmac with few interruptions. I went with the latter – it had worked in the summer.
And it worked in winter too. I arrived, breathless, at the red sign for the Llanberis Lake Railway where I’d started, exactly 21 hours and 30 minutes ago. Just seven minutes inside Jim Mann’s time.
It was exactly the British winter adventure I’d hoped for. Ice-cold bogs notwithstanding.
On Instagram he’s @ultra_damo.