Crêtes de Spa and Snowdonia

I was planning on writing this post on my recent trip to Snowdonia, but didn't know where to start. I think it's because this trip is part of a larger adventure in my life that combines running and hiking. I used to go running to be in proper shape to go hiking. But recently, the two have become so intertwined I can't really write about hiking and exclude the running. So, here it goes, the combination of Crêtes de Spa and Snowdonia.

A year ago, I joined my first trail run at Spa. I didn't just enjoy the muddy 21k in the Ardennes, but something just fell into place. Trekking, hiking and trail-running have so much in common I found out I could take a mini-trip of one day on the trails, in which I experience much of the highs and lows I normally only feel during a multi-day trek. Prepare physically and mentally, check the route, make sure you can rely on your gear. Get tired, crash, pick yourself up and continue. "Are you having fun yet?" The feeling your body is stronger than ever before. Be in nature and in the Great Outdoors and be thankful for this.

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Also, this (I hope it's ok by Mr. Oatmeal I copy this):

 

Needless to say, I continued running after that first experience on the trails. And I felt that the longer the trail, the richer the experience. So in between eating Christmas dinners and celebrating new-year, I started planning properly.

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In January, I joined the Polar Bear Trail 25k in preparation of Crêtes de Spa, hoping the route would be snowy. Alas, plenty of mud and no snow, but a good opportunity to test my Injinji socks and Inov-8 Trailroc shoes. Both are awesome.

The next week, I joined Meerdaalwoudtrail 25k to experiment with the whole food-thing. The rice-balls with sweet potato are not something I would eat at home, but they are pretty tasty and very welcome when running, especially after several energy bars or gels. Again, a muddy route with some classic scenes of people helping each other out of the mud, or walking around on their socks looking for their shoes that got stuck.

After some race experience on Polar Bear Trail and Meerdaalwoud, it was time for some proper reconnaissance, a weekend in Spa with my girlfriend. Running in the morning, soaking the mud of my legs in the thermes in the afternoon. There are worse ways of spending a weekend. Again, no opportunity to practice my snow-running skills, but, almost needless to say, plenty of mud.

 

At the start of 2016, this all seemed like plenty of preparation for my main goal. But I have to admit, with the date of Crêtes de Spa approaching, I got pretty nervous. I mean, 57k and 2096m elevation in snow and mud... It still did sound like a good experience though (I'm in doubt to call it "fun"). Of course, the days before the main event, fresh snow fell on Spa. As I never ran on snow before, I was a bit worried, and because I couldn't sleep anyway, I didn't have any trouble to leave home at 5:30 to get to the registration in time. And there we were. Finally, off on a beautiful day, going up snowy ski-slopes, descending through the forest, munching away at the checkpoints... I realised only later I ran the last 2k with someone, cheering each-other on, but didn't try to pass him by. I think this is the main difference between road races and trail running. On the road I would have been focused on time (not that I'm by any means a fast runner), whereas on trails I'm just happy to be out there and get to the finish line in one piece.

 

After surviving CdS, I went to Wales again. It seems to be becoming a tradition, taking the train to Conwy, sleeping somewhere halfway on the route to the Carneddau, crossing the Glyders and Snowdon, finding my way across the wild Rhinogs and descending to Barmouth. There I take the train to Llandovery to visit my sister and family (and take a bath to soak the mud of). Just like last year, I had ridiculously fine weather. Ok, so that first morning was pretty frosty, waking up in a frozen tent with frozen shoes after a night in which I even put my gloves on in an attempt to keep warm (one of those moments where I ask myself why on earth I put myself in this position).

On the north slope of Drum, between Conwy and the Carneddau, you can see - I think - the Lake District, Anglesey and the Isle of Mann. That also means it is pretty exposed to everything that comes from the north, like cold winds. But around noon the fog lifted, the wind calmed down and the hills became welcoming and all was alright.

Every once in a while, I make some changes in the gear I take with me. Until last year, I have been mainly focused on lowering the weight, which created room for luxuries like a french press. But oh boy, fresh coffee does taste good in a place like this, tingly feet and all.

While I was enjoying my - probably the best in the world - cup of coffee, I saw two runners coming my way. Yes, trail- and ultra-running seems to be quite the thing these days. I had a very brief chat with them, just enough to learn they were on a run along the Welsh 3000s, which includes 15 peaks over 30 miles. If only I had my running gear with me, the idea sounds awesome. And the scenery, well, who wouldn't want to run in this? Free as a bird, high as a kite? Turns out I would later be running this race myself a year later!

After crossing the Carneddau plateau from Conwy, I camped at the cwm beneath Pen yr Ole Wen, where I always feel very welcome. The next morning I woke up with the sun on my tent. I can't imagine a better reason for a sun salutation (which in my case is more like some stretch exercises). I would find it hard to believe the ancient druids didn't know this place.

 

Next up was Snowdon. I went up along the Pyg track again (one day I might do Crib Goch) in pretty wintery conditions. Wind, snow, fog and the highest summit of Wales make for a nice combination.

Once you get south of Snowdon, the whole world seems to change. Less paths, less people, less mountainous and more remote. As long as I don't read The Hound of the Baskervilles here, I should be just fine. It was a bit chilly outside, so I spent the afternoon and evening reading, drinking coffee and enjoying the sunset from my tent.

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Moelwyn Mawr must be one of my favourite hills by now. The ascent might be called boring, a grassy, pathless slope that seems to go on and on. But once you reach the summit, you can see  (weather permitting) Snowdon, the Glyders, the Carneddau, the Irish Sea, the Rhinogs, Cnight, Y Llethr... in short, the whole of Snowdonia. Even better is the descent to Moelwyn Fach, a rocky crest, before you descend into the valley of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town that seems grey even in sunshine.

 

 

And then came the hill-fog. You can't see much further than 50m, and the fog seems to quiet the surroundings as well, so you're world is limited to that small bubble around you. There's no wind, no path, no people. It feels a bit like diving in the great blue, where you can't see the bottom or can't make out any direction just by looking. I'm still in doubt if this feels eerie, or like a comforting blanket.

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The last section I follow a dry-stone wall, and start imagining how much work this must cost. Sure, there are plenty of rocks for grabs, but still...

During the final section, just before the final descent to Barmouth, I got a text about the terrorist attacks in Brussels. It's hard to imagine people blowing themselves up because of their believes when I'm so close to nature.

 

I spend the last days of this trip, which in my experience started in January, with my sister and her family, showing my nephew how to climb trees and making my niece laugh.