“Mountain Abandoned” in Snowdonia, Wales, for top ultra-trail athlete Griffioen

by Stephen Granger

Leading South African ultra-distance athlete, Nicolette Griffioen, was a star-performer in the Ultra-trail Snowdonia, which took place in the highlands of north Wales earlier this month, although the forced cancellation of the 100-mile race (UTS 165) through adverse weather conditions deprived her of a likely winners’ medal.

Nicolette Griffioen running strongly in the Number 1 bib in the early stages of the UTS165. Photo – Jan Nyka

And in a halcyon few weeks for African ultra-trail competition following Zimbabwean Emily Hawgood’s fifth place at the Western States 100miler, South African Matt Healy raced to a top ten finish at Mozart 100 in Austria and Guernsey-based South African Tiaan Erwee shattered the record for the epic 268-mile Montane Summer Spine Race in the Pennine Mountains in northern England.

Nicolette Griffioen in the race lead in the UTS165 before the race was halted due to bad weather. Photo – Ian Corless

One of South Africa’s leading marathon and ultra-distance trail athletes in recent years, Griffioen has often excelled where conditions and terrain are at their most challenging and conditions at the UTS165 in Wales were about as challenging as they get in the sport.

Griffioen, a trail running ambassador for Inov8, winner of countless trail races in South Africa, including a record-breaking win at the Skyrun 100km, the Whale of Trail, Hout Bay Trail Challenge, Ultra-trail Drakensberg and national ultra-distance trail titles. Qualified in veterinary science, she now works as a certified running coach and mountain guide, having co-founded the company ‘Mountain Abandon’ with her partner-in-mountains, Pierre Jordaan, partly to encourage future generations to appreciate and preserve the amazing natural heritage and biodiversity of South Africa.

Nicolette Griffioen on her way to a record-breaking win at the 2017 Whale of Trail. Photo – Stephen Granger

A last-minute visa approval saw Griffioen fulfilling a dream, arriving in Wales in time to line up at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis at the start of the UTMB® World Series race, which started with a 900m ascent of Snowdon Peak (at 1085m just one metre lower than the highest point on Table Mountain).

“I took it easy, allowing my body time to warm up and hoping to just maintain that pace for as long as possible,” Griffioen recalled. “For the first 50km everything went smoothly. The weather was cool and overcast, which made nutrition and hydration a dream – the best I’ve had in ages!  In between each of the aid stations there would be a few flat runnable sections, at least one significant climb which we (Griffioen ran together with Jordaan) mostly power hiked, and a long descent to test the quads. We took it all in our stride.”

A bedraggled participant struggles through the testing conditions in the UTS165. Photo – Jan Nyka

But the good times were destined not to last as the notoriously fickle Welsh weather joined the party. “Around 50km we dropped down to the Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir and here we hit the first bad weather,” Griffioen continued. “A strong headwind slowed our pace and drove first mist, then drizzle and finally full-on rain, directly into our faces.

“By the time we reached the 4th check point we were pretty cold and opted for full thermals and waterproofs. We headed back into the rain from a gazebo that was busy blowing away.

Four runners make their way down a ridge-line in stormy weather. Photo – Jan Nyka

“With 55km in the legs we began a series of tough climbs that would keep us at high altitude for the next 10km. What would probably have been the most beautiful section of trail became a test of survival. Add to this, non-stop icy rain, visibility of about 10m and temperature below 10 degrees and it explains why several of the athletes behind us opted to rather return to Aid Station 4 than push on as we had.

“Nonetheless, we arrived at the 5th check point in high spirits. The weather was better in the valley and we still felt strong. Conditions were rough up top, but not that different from everything we’ve experienced in the Drakensberg over the past few years. We knew that a cup of hot soup and bread would see us through to our drop bags back in Llanberis just past halfway, where we could change into a new set of dry thermals and waterproofs. We were prepared for this, we’d come far and we wanted to finish.”

River crossings were made more challenging by the stormy weather. Photo – Evan Davies

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. As we arrived at Glan Dena the marshals shook their heads and informed us of the race being cancelled. All athletes were being removed from the course at their current aid station. We were devastated.”

While testing weather and trail running go hand in hand, race organisers are ever-vigilant of the potential dangers and hazards and race director Michael Jones and his team were following protocol in calling a halt to the race for which athletes around the world had trained long and hard to compete. A message on the  race open tracking website read: “Unfortunately the UTS165 is cancelled due to dangerous weather conditions. All runners are being repatriated and offered the chance to start the 100 & 50.” 

Swedish athlete Linn Davies Sahlstrom running in third position behind leader Nicolette Griffioen during the UTS 165. Photo – Evan Davies

At the time of cancellation, South Africa’s Nicolette Griffioen was comfortably the leading women’s race. As conditions had worsened, the South African had flourished and was pulling well clear of her closest pursuers, British athlete Amy Fulford and Sweden’s Linn Davies Sahlstrom. France’s Augustin Segard, New Zealand’s Lous Schindler and England’s Mark Darbyshire were contesting the overall lead, less than thirty minutes ahead of the South African pair.

“Of course, as experienced ultra-runners and mountain guides, we recognised that the organisers’ decision was the best for athlete safety, but this didn’t ease our disappointment,” said Griffioen.

After 10 hours of mountain running in cold and wet conditions, many declined the offer to run the 50km or 100km the next day, but Griffioen and Jordaan were determined to make the most of their opportunity and ‘see more of the Welsh countryside and mountains’, lining up next morning at the start of the 50km race after a few hours of sleep at their campsite.

Nicolette Griffoen pictured during the 50km race with her Mountain Abandon partner Pierre Jordaan. Photo – Nicolette Griffioen

Not surprisingly, after having run 67km of tough mountain trails with 4300m of ascent the previous day, Griffioen was mentally and physically drained and struggled to get going. Remarkably, she regained her strength after half-way, moving through the field with Jordaan to finish fifth in 7 hours 36 min, adding another 50km of mountain trail with 3200m of ascent to her work for the weekend.

Griffioen remains grateful for her opportunity to race in Snowdonia and will likely be back to test herself again on one of the toughest ultra-trail 100 milers on the circuit. “A really big thank you to the UTMB World Series and race organiser Michael Jones for providing me with the opportunity to race Ultra-Trail Snowdonia. The mountains certainly did not disappoint and had the weather held up, it would have been everything I wanted for my first 100 miler. The trip was well worth the effort despite the unexpected outcome!”

Ultra-trail Snowdonia 100 miler (UTS 165) women’s leader-board when the race was cancelled 10 hrs 30 min into the race. Griffioen had reached the fifth check-point 67km into the race, with her closest rivals Amy Fulford and Linn Davies halted at the 4th check-point.