Two of the most prestigious and sought after mountain running records in the UK have tumbled in a matter of days in Snowdonia this month, as visiting Scot Finlay Wild claimed first the Snowdon Horseshoe FKT, and then followed that up by breaking the fabled 30 year old record for the Welsh 3000ers, set by Colin Donnelly in 1988.
Finlay (34) is a GP by trade, and no stranger to record breaking runs. Amongst many other titles and records he's a multiple Ben Nevis race champion, and the Black Cuillin Ridge record holder, being the first person to go sub-3 across Skye's incredible knife-edge Munros.
The Snowdon Horseshoe
Held since 2009 by Es Tresidder (who describes it as "a perfect timed run" - but admits that he "felt grim and queasy" and was probably a bit hungover, but "managed to pull it out of the bag"), the Horseshoe seems to have become a popular goal recently. Local whippet Gareth Wyn-Hughes broke Es's long-standing 1:25:08 last year, with a heroic run knocking it down to 1:23:48, but after years of stubbornly repelling potential suitors, the record has now changed hands for a 3rd time in a matter of months when Wild clocked a preposterous 1:20:16 back at Pen y Pass car park.
He admits to doing some recces, both on the hill with a casual inspection of fast lines on the more complex ridge of Crib y Ddysgl - but also on the web, using Strava to check the Split times of the fastest runners. But he mainly used his own route finding skills on the ground, honed over years spent in the mountains. Afterwards he was able to compare his route against their own preferred line traces on Strava - for example by cutting a corner from Snowdon summit to the Watkin Path - that undoubtedly save a few crucial seconds here and there.
Setting off from Pen y Pass at 7.24am to avoid hikers and any potential congestion, he describes a magical, ethereal experience: "the freedom of the flowing hill runner is a beautiful but selfish transience that does not deal well with external constraint: to queue would kill it mid stride". Indeed, aside from the throngs, the topography of the Snowdon Horseshoe is truly majestic scenery in which to run, a landscape and purity of line that has held all those runners in thrawl.
"I hit the scramble up to Crib Goch hard and got a more direct line than the previous day. Skipping along that airy ridge in the early morning light surrounded by space and further off impressive rocky peaks which I would soon be atop focussed me on the pinpoint of the present."
Now that it's come back into vogue, expect more attempts on this perfect mountain loop...
The Welsh 3000ers
The bigger, juicier plum for Finlay though (dare I call him the flying Doctor?), was Donnelly's famous time of 4:19 for the Welsh 3000ers, the record that for three decades had repelled all suitors.
...And he did it. Finlay's record of 4:10:48 sets a new benchmark for the route over all 14 Welsh 3000-foot peaks, which covers over 35km and more than 2700m ascent.
The route starts on Snowdon's summit, then traverses all the 3000' mountains in the National Park in a broadly northerly direction, 'reversing' Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch, before going around the Glyderau, then up and over the Carneddau. A legendary run that's stood as a record for nearly 31 years, most nerdy mountain runners will have seen the sepia-toned video on YouTube of Colin Donnelly - with a dubbed 80's soundtrack - recreating his blistering run. He is jaw droppingly nimble and fast on Crib Goch, and powers impressively up the mega-slog of Elidir Fawr, before coasting to the finish on Foel Fras.
Undaunted, Wild questioned why the time had stood unbeaten for so long: "Was it the terrain? Route finding? Why had the best runners of the intervening generations not beaten it? It had become almost mythical".
It might have looked like a low-key family trip to Wales, almost casually cherry-picking two of the finest mountain running records in the UK in passing, but Finlay was honest enough to say that the 3000ers in particular was one of the main goals for his entire season, and something he'd been motivated by throughout the winter.
"It holds so much variety in it, three distinctly different ranges, pointy peaks and jagged aretes, bouldery plateau and scree gullies, and undulating whaleback hills. It suits me in its length and complexity, and my background in Alpinism aids my line choices I think, and then added to that, the legend around Colin's time - standing proud for so long - really made me want it very badly."
And he ran it in a suitably pure style: Mum and Dad to hand out a gel or swig of fluid at road crossings, no photographers or drones, and no pacers.
"People were kind enough to offer help and support. I did wonder if I maybe needed a pacer to maintain the speed, but I had the feeling that if things went right, I could carry only a windshirt and a little fluid in a half filled soft flask - I knew I could replenish that if needed, either coming off Y Garn or on the out-and-back to Yr Elen. Dad snapped a couple of pictures at the road crossings, and I was lucky to see someone on the last top to take my photo there. But that was it."
"I knew I was up on Colin's splits at Tryfan, and I'd resolved to take the South ridge of Pen Yr Ole Wen rather than the East ridge that Colin took, because I'd read that he felt he might have been slower than he should have been on the ascent. I knew if I attacked really hard there I'd be in with a good chance."
He admits he didn't expect to get both records so quickly, and admits to slightly sore legs: "They'll be worse tomorrow". He now plans to have a few days well-earned recuperation with his family, but is already looking forward to racing at Zegama in Spain, part of the Golden Trail World Series
- Read Finlay's account of the Horseshoe run on his blog
- Or follow his Instagram @finlaywild