Almost a month has passed since a group of us from Northern Ireland headed across to Wales to take part in Trail Marathon Wales 2022. After many months of training it all still feels a bit surreal that we’ve been and completed the most stunning trail run in the most idyllic location. A lot of training and preparation went into getting ourselves into gear for the big day and I can honestly say that the entire process was one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to date.

Team Animate Fitness – Emma, Tina, Skye-Blue and Oscar

The training plan that our group followed was created by the awesome duo, Emma and Tina, of Animate Fitness who designed sessions to prepare those of us heading across for the full marathon as well as those taking part in the half marathon. Without their dedication, enthusiasm, expertise and unwavering patience, I know I definitely would not have reached the level of fitness I needed to get myself around the outstandingly beautiful and equally brutal course in Coed y Brenin forest at Snowdonia National Park. Week after week Emma and Tina showed up, as did we, a group of people who for the most part hadn’t really done all that much running before other than Park Runs, 10Ks and the odd Half Marathon. We did have a couple in the group who were frequent runners over long distances so combined with ‘Team Animate’ we had four extremely experienced and knowledgeable folks to learn from each time we met up for a training session.

I’m not going to lie, preparing for marathon is massive commitment, even more so than I imagined. It is quite all-consuming in many ways. There’s the time needed, the physical energy required, the mental capacity and so much more. It pretty much takes over your life for a season if truth be told and it didn’t take us long to realise once we commenced training in March 2022 that for the months ahead we would more or less eat, sleep, breath (repeat) marathon training!

Running at Divis and Black Mountain in Belfast
Hill Session at Helen’s Tower

We were incredibly fortunate with the weather over the weeks of our training, with very few wet sessions. I think we were all slightly worried we were being a bit spoilt with the mild weather and that on the day we would be soaked to the skin, slipping and sliding our way around the trails and mucked to the eyeballs. But alas, a heatwave arrived in England and Wales in the days leading up to the event and suddenly we were fearful of sunburn and heat-stroke instead, extreme heat was something we really were not prepared for either! Thankfully, overnight the temperature dropped and conditions on the day were ideal, not too hot, not too cold, not too sunny, not too dull. Cue sighs of relief all round!

The Team

We departed our beautiful farmhouse in the gorgeous Welsh Countryside, a mixture of nerves and excitement evident as we anticipated what lay ahead of us. By 9.00am the four of us who were doing the full marathon were lined up, instructions had been received, laces checked for the umpteenth time, watches set to track our run and before we knew it the whistle had sounded and we were off. We were doing it! Two of the girls, Jill and Kathryn had ran marathons before and are experienced runners, but this was their first time at Trail Marathon Wales, and, for myself and another of the girls, Hannah it was our first ever marathon. We started off together, wished each other a brilliant run and then popped in our headphones to get into the ‘zone’ – each of us was here to run our own race, nothing to prove, no-one to compete with, just doing our own pace and taking in all the glorious scenery as we went. It felt good to be there.

For myself and my training friend who had never before ran a marathon, this was the beginning of fulfilling a long-held ambition. We had both ran half marathons before and ended up with injuries and we really just longed to get around the course injury-free and having enjoyed the experience as much as possible. We had worked hard and I knew we would both do our best to have a great run.

The rest of our friends who were doing the half marathon waved us off and then got themselves into gear for their own run due to commence at 10.00am – I cannot express adequately just how amazing it felt to be part of such a supportive and encouraging bunch of people. We had watched one another grow so much over the months of training – we had struggled and developed together, facing both physical and mental battles along the way. Each of us had had weeks when we wanted to quit or when we doubted ourselves, but somehow having each other kept us pressing on, reaching for our own goals. We had come to really care for one another and we knew that in the bubble of that weekend in Wales we were part of something very special indeed.

Long run on the Causeway Coastal Route

The first half of the marathon was really enjoyable. Hard? Yes, without a doubt. There wasn’t much ‘flat’ on this terrain, just a lot of hills and a lot of very rough ground. That’s why we love trails – they are interesting and exciting!

But, as challenging as it was it was also so unbelievably beautiful and the atmosphere was electric as runners spurred one another on. I tried to drink it all in, to store the views in my mind. I loved it and was buzzing that I was there, finally doing it. I was struggling with horrible nausea though that just would not settle and made it difficult for me to eat and drink as I went. I had been awake most of the previous night, my tummy unsettled, probably due to the nerves so I was anxious that I wouldn’t make it any further than half-way through the marathon. By the time I did reach the half-way point I was really struggling, the sick feeling refusing to leave, but thankfully some of our crew, Tina and Sonia, were at the aid station, and just seeing them gave me the motivation I needed to keep going. I said goodbye to them and embarked on the second half.

‘The Sting in the Tail’ – near the end of the first half – BRUTAL!

It was so hard! It felt like the ground climbed upwards forever, and now that the runners were more spread out, it was lonely. For around 6 miles I was in a really negative headspace and was convinced I could go no further. Eventually, mile 19 came round and I managed to break through that somehow. I’m not sure what changed, but I’d come through that dark place and could now visualise myself getting across the finish line. Slowly, but steadily I pressed on, listing in my mind all the places we had trained back home, reminding myself that we had prepared well for this, that we’d put the hours in and deserved to be there.

At mile 20, a gift arrived. I met my training friend, Hannah. She had paused to tie her laces and we were so delighted to see one another and agreed to finish the last 6 miles together. It was exactly what we both needed in that moment. And, as if to consolidate the serendipity of it, a beautiful doe ran out from the trees, trotted gracefully along the trail ahead of us then around the bend and out of sight. It was as if she was showing us the way. Hannah and I looked at one another, awe-struck, humbled, inspired. We kept running…and scrambling, over tree roots and boulders…brutal at this stage in the game, but kind of perfect too for keeping our minds engaged as our bodies started to complain.

The last two miles seemed to drag on forever! But, eventually we could see the finish line and all our fellow team-mates waving and cheering us on as we joined hands and crossed the line together – such a feeling!

What a feeling!

We heard how half marathoners had all completed their runs in incredible times as had the other two, amazing marathon runners – what a team! I’m not sure how to explain how it felt to stand there in that instant knowing that I personally had just completed a gruelling marathon with 1554 metres of elevation alongside my friends and my husband, who had just completed their runs so exceptionally well, other than to say I felt so fully alive. Tired and sore, absolutely, but alive and connected, happy and free. We, as a team had achieved something incredible. Something most of us had considered a pipedream. We had done it! We were all so proud of ourselves and each other; beaming from ear to ear through the tears and the hugs, and in desperate need of a shower and some good grub.

Back at the house that evening, over a well-deserved meal and some beers, the good cheer and camaraderie continued as we shared stories of our runs, sang songs while one of our team, the super-talented Kathryn, played ukulele and we laughed so hard as Emma and Tina handed out ‘personalised’ gifts to each of us. It was the perfect ending to the best day. All our hard work had paid off and already people were starting to talk about ‘next year’ at Trail Marathon Wales which was such a brilliantly organised event in every respect. Every attention had been paid to the details of making sure this event ran smoothly. They’d thought of everything – the parking, plenty of toilets, t-shirts in the colours of the Ukraine flag to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, beautifully carved coasters for each runner, well-stocked aid stations, amazing staff and volunteers cheering everyone on, the sense of community, the perfect location and a well-marked route – it was all top quality and done with expertise and consideration.

And a final word must of course go to Emma and Tina of Animate Fitness, for without them, our little team from Northern Ireland would not have been brought together for this wonderful experience. It was their vision to bring a group across to Trail Marathon Wales, an event they’d both competed in before and loved, that made it all happen. Yes, there was a training planning, and boy did they test us and push us, but in doing so, they supported us in fulfilling our dreams. The friendships that flourished as the weeks unfolded could not have been predicted; a group of random strangers with different abilities had come to genuinely care for and respect one another. That’s something truly special and from where I stand a massive achievement for Emma and Tina. It is testimony to their endurance, skill and methods (albeit crazy at times) that each of us crossed the finish line in Wales with smiles on our faces (and tears on our cheeks). They enabled each of us to run our best possible race this year in Wales – that’s no mean feat and I know we will all be forever grateful to them.

Dream Team Emma and Tina
Snowdonia National Park

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