Race the Train (20-08-22)

Review by Ben Currington.

Race The Train ‘Rotary Challenge’ at the Talyllyn Railway, in Wales, is a 14 mile race which should not be underestimated. The course includes some steep climbs and challenging terrain that will in places reduce all but the strongest and most experienced trail runners to walking pace, however the pain is worth it to run in this beautiful setting with the railway alongside you and the local support creating a really wonderful atmosphere.

Owing to its industrial heritage, Wales has a surprising concentration of narrow gauge railways. I love the compactness of narrow gauge and there is something particularly charming about seeing a steam train high in the hills, weaving its way through the stunning natural beauty of the Welsh landscape. We owe a great debt to early preservationists who rescued these lines when their usefulness for industry had ended and the pioneers of this movement were the volunteers who saved the Talyllyn.

The Talyllyn railway was built to transport slate but now attracts tourists and enthusiasts who can ride as passengers along it’s seven and a quarter miles of track from Tywyn to Abergynolwyn or even volunteer to help run the railway. It was on a visit with my children in 2013 that I first heard of the Race the Train event and I was immediately struck by the exclusivity of being able to see the line from places I wouldn’t normally have access to. However, it meant running 14 miles and as far as I knew I would never be able to do that.

In 2020 that changed. I had started running the year before when my son wanted me to take him to parkrun and when lockdown happened I found myself burning off a lot of pent up energy in the evenings running increasingly longer distances. I was in good enough shape to enter some races but sadly Race the Train was cancelled that year and again in 2021, so it wasn’t until this year that I finally had the chance to do it. My brother, Pete, decided he’d come along too. 

Running 14 miles on this course was never going to be as simple as running 14 miles on the road. Pete was a bit worried that I’d underestimated the challenge. There was certainly a point where I naively thought I might be in with a chance of beating the train, but by the time we were standing at the start line I was acutely aware that this would not be the same as a road race and I was not in the same shape I was in 2020. My strategy would be to take it steady, walk the hills and enjoy the scenery. Beating the train looked doable for Pete who is a much more accomplish runner than me but it would be tight and he had only just recovered from a bad cold. 

The start line was situated on the bridge which crosses the railway at Tywyn Wharf station with the double headed train we’d be racing waiting on the tracks below (a second train would leave 25 minutes later). It gave a whistle to start the race and we ran the first mile or so on tarmac through the middle of Tywyn where the streets were lined with people cheering us on. With all the encouragement I got swept along a bit and when I glanced at my watch I was running at 5:18 /km pace when I was aiming for more like 6. I backed off immediately.

Once we were outside Tywyn the course turned off the main road into a narrower tarmac lane, which soon became a rough farm track and our first bit of uphill, probably about 10 metres of elevation. With fresh legs it wouldn’t have been that challenging to run, but I stuck to the plan and dropped to a walk until the ground levelled out. A lot of the people around me were following the same strategy and further into the course when my legs were tired I was definitely able to walk the hills quicker than I could have run them so I think conserving the energy from the start was a good move. 

In the first half of the race we mostly ran through fields with plenty of hilly bits, sometimes with the rails just over the fence alongside us, other times at the foot of the hills as the line wove it’s way through the hillside above us. There was a challenging steep descent at the end of one field which slowed me right down to a nervous shuffle and I watched amazed as more experienced trail runners scampered down it like it was nothing. I soon learned in conversation with Pete that this, and the ability to tackle it, is ‘technical’.

Spectators were dotted all over the course, giving words of encouragement, making noise, ringing cowbells, there was even a young lad playing the drums outside his house. It was wonderful when the trains passed, filled with spectators shouting and cheering. I don’t like energy gels so I carried with me a banana, a small bag of jelly sweets and a porridge bar. I also carried a half litre soft flask of SiS hydro which wasn’t nearly enough, so I was very glad of the regular water stations and drank heartily at every one. Unfortunately the stretchy pockets in my shorts were not quite sufficient to hold it all. My banana kept flopping out so I had to hold it in my hand and as the train passed above me I held it aloft. I hoped that my kids, partner and sister in law might see my banana gesture and applaud it proudly, but this was most likely the second train and they were on the first one. They did tell me afterwards that they saw me at another part of the course and were able to identify me at the other side of the field because of my luminous football socks. I think that’s probably a good tip if you want to be recognised from a distance on a bright green backdrop, wear something distinctive and bright! I’m not sure where the first train passed me, I think it was probably in that first mile running through Tywyn when we couldn’t see the railway line.

As I neared the end of the first half of the course I could see a line of runners stretching out ahead up into the hills. They didn’t look far away but it took several minutes to get to where they were. We ascended a little and ran along the hillside below the railway line for about half a kilometre before passing under a railway bridge and going further uphill, rapidly climbing 10-15 metres on a steep slope which put us on what I can only describe as a sheep track on the hillside. It was narrow, maybe 15 centimetres wide and the ground sloped steeply down to the right. As someone with a fear of heights this felt quite disconcerting. Most people near me decided to walk, which definitely felt safer, but I managed to run a fair bit of it albeit very cautiously. There was a voice in my head saying, “it’s not worth hurting yourself over”. I’m not sure how long this section was, maybe a couple of miles, it slowed Pete down too. It was here that wearing trail shoes was absolutely crucial for grip, even in dry conditions. A colleague who happened also to be there told me afterwards that he’d seen one of the front runners drop back in this section, flailing around in road shoes, even though they’d been really strong up until that point.

I can’t remember exactly what order the next few sections came in, there were a few decent bits of path, some of it quite stony, not scree exactly but rocky and loose. I enjoyed the opportunity to run on a wide level path so it was welcome all the same! We were diverted at one point into a bog, with the marshalls warning not to step onto the suspiciously dry looking ground outside of the roped off areas, it felt like a bit of a forced attempt to incorporate some mud into an otherwise dry course but I suspect in wet weather there wouldn’t be much difference between that and other sections. I enjoyed the stunning scenery throughout the race, views from the valley looking up at the mountains, views from the hillside looking down towards the railway track, and towards the end of the race, views out to sea. The descent down to Dolgoch falls was a treat although unfortunately I hadn’t anticipated the climb back up the other side. 

The last few miles were the start of the course in reverse. I was struggling to keep moving by this point and did a lot of stop-start, run-walk, with other participants urging me to keep going as they overtook me. I heard quite a few people saying how this course wasn’t what they expected and they’d never do it again! For me this was exactly the challenge I hoped it would be, it was tough, but also exhilarating. Pete finished well before me. He was waiting to see me as I entered Tywyn, by now back on the road and ran with me to the finish. It was clear he was feeling pretty stiff as he dragged his legs along at my now diminished pace. When I crossed the finish line I was handed some water, a bright yellow technical t shirt and a very tasteful Race the Train medal. 

My gun time was 02:35:15, Pete’s was 02:01:32, neither of us beat the train which finishes in around an hour and forty seven minutes. There’s apparently a rule of thumb that suggests on this course you should be able to run your half marathon time plus 30 minutes. For both of us it was more like 35-40 minutes. Considering I hadn’t run half marathon distance since the previous November I felt I did a reasonable job and although Pete was initially very disappointed with his time he realised on reflection that his recent illness and the unfamiliarity of the terrain were bound to slow him down a bit.

The one terrain Pete and I both struggled with the most was ground that sloped steeply to one side. I could just about walk on it but if I tried to run it was agony and put too much strain on my ankles. I saw some people running on it and couldn’t understand how. I felt like I needed one leg shorter than the other! I’ve been giving some thought to how I might tackle this if I did it again and looked on the internet for advice for how to run on side slopes. Most of it just said don’t run on side slopes! 

Overall this was an amazing experience which has inspired me to run off road more often. I’m also thinking of entering a fell race to gain more experience and I’d like to be stronger by next year to see if I can knock a few minutes off my time. Pete now has a vendetta against the train and would very much like another chance to beat it. The family enjoyed the atmosphere of the event, spectating on such a lovely train ride and my eldest son seems quite keen on entering one of the shorter five mile or 3.3 mile races so I think there’s a good chance we’ll be back in 2023 to do it all over again.