Do the Locomotive
Here your competitor is not like any other—a 14-ton steam train with a red hot boiler, driving wheels, and darting cylinders. It chases over 2,000 runners on a 23km (14-mile) circuit through pine forests, crop fields, and deep ravines, and very few people manage to beat it. The Talyllyn Railway steam engine does have certain advantages over mere mortals. It does not need to stop every few miles for a drink of water, for example; nor does it have to negotiate uneven ground and nettle pastures. Yet it must be said that none of the athletes who race against it have to haul four wooden carriages behind with jeering spectators.
Only 5% of runners manage to beat the Victorian coal sprinter that does the rounds of the beautiful countryside and coast near the town of Tywyn in northern Wales. Originally the railway was built to carry slate from a quarry farther up in the hills that border beautiful Snowdonia National Park (www.eryri-npa.gov.uk). Now it takes tourists around this picturesque corner of Wales with the sweeping Cardigan Bay looking out over the Irish sea.
The race first began in 1983 as a small charity event that has now mushroomed into one of the U.K.’s most distinctive and idiosyncratic countryside runs. It attracts serious athletes who must complete the course in less that 1 hour and 20 minutes if they have any chance of beating the train. It also attracts its fair share of Sunday runners out for some fun. The cool thing is all the family can tag along for the entire circuit as the train chugs beside each runner with spectators in its carriages. For serious runners intent on beating the machine, it is key they get out way ahead in the beginning as the course becomes more difficult on two feet and the train easily catches up.
The seaside town has a carnival atmosphere with lots of stalls and games and throngs of Welsh speaking locals in what is very much a local event. The race begins at the old bridge next to the railway line and takes a 1.6km (1-mile) run through the town before becoming a cross-country scramble. Stewards stand at field gates to guide the runners and hand out water in the sometimes blistering August heat. The train needs little guidance as it follows the 150-year-old narrow gauge tracks around gorgeous countryside that includes a set of beautiful falls known as Dolgoch falls. The route sweeps beneath the hills and turns toward the town with the runners crossing the finish line in the town’s school yard and the train resting its pistons in the railway yard. —CO’M
When to go: Aug.
$$$ Bae Abermaw, Panorama Rd., Barmouth, Snowdonia National Park GW42 1DQ, Wales ( 44/1341/28-0550; www.baeabermaw.com). $$ Ty’r Graig Castle, Llanaber Rd., Barmouth, Snow-donia National Park LL42 1YN, Wales (44/1341/28-0470; www.tyrgraigcastle.co.uk).