Dragon’s Back is a five-day running race from the North Wales coast to South Wales, going the mountainous way. The route averages one-and-a-half marathons per day in distance, and in elevation is just a couple of thousand metres shy of being twice up Everest. It was first held in 1992, then not again until 2012 and 2015. On average less than 50% of the field complete the course – due to injury, fatigue, or being too slow – all of which makes it sound pretty hardcore.
I entered this year with the sole aim of finishing. I didn’t want to be competitive, I didn’t even mind if I came last. I entered because I love the mountains of North Wales, and this seemed like a good way to get a couple of long days out (ha!), see a bit more of God’s own country, and because I wanted a challenge. With the latter in mind, I had no idea whether I could actually make it through all five days or not. When I registered the chances were slim. By the time race day came I was sure it was a distinct possibility, but it certainly wasn’t guaranteed.
Firstly, an apology that I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing this race. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d make it the full length of the course, and my way of dealing with the pressure was to minimise it by keeping quiet! I didn’t need to actually lie at any point, because no-one directly asked if I was doing it, but I did omit it from the list when asked “What races have you got coming up?“. I’m singling out Ben L and Scowley here particularly, because I desperately wanted to tell you both but was too much of a coward!
Apologies also to Bowline Climbing Club for joining just over a year ago and then doing very little on weekends other than saying “I’m going for a run“. You’ve all been incredibly welcoming and patient, and indeed encouraging via Dragon Mail™ during the race. The final apology is to everyone else I usually run or climb with, for being absent from the majority of fun weekends over the last year while secretly training. Specific apologies in this instance go to Gary M, Stuart R and my brother.
Lots of people to thank:
- Primarily Becs for putting up with 12 months of me chattering away about gear and routes and recces, and with endless gear deliveries, and with me being away lots of weekends.
- Coming in a close second is Tim Budd at Global Therapies, who has been training me for a year and clearly did a fine job (more of that in a separate post).
- The recce crew are the best bunch of weirdos I could ever have hoped to hook up with – thank you all for your help, guidance, laughs, insults, chocolate, and demonstrating the international hand signal for Spanish sausage.
- Thank you to everyone who I ran with over the course of the race, whether for ten minutes or ten hours. I really hadn’t appreciated how important company would be, nor how much camaraderie would build over the week. My defining memories of this race are not necessarily of the route or the running per se, but of the people I was with and the fun / interminable tussocks we experienced.
- A big “thanks!” to the race team who kept us fed and watered, carried our bags, pitched our tents and generally did everything in their power to help each and every one of us stand as much chance as possible of finishing.
Time: 5 days
Overall Distance: 315 km / 195.75 miles
Overall Ascent: 15,500 m / 50,850 ft
Average Daily Distance: 63 km / 39 miles
Average Daily Ascent: 3,100 m / 10,150 ft
Registration didn’t start well – I failed the kit check. Armed with a survival bag (not blanket!) and water bottles, I passed second-time around. Everyone else started arriving in dribs and drabs, and after a race briefing we headed to the pub. Everything started nice and jolly but then soon descended into pensive silence as we all gradually realised that race day was less than twelve hours away.
DAY 1 – CARNEDDAU, GLYDERAU AND SNOWDON HORSESHOE
Distance: 52 km / 32 miles
Ascent: 3,800 m / 12,450 ft
Tigers: Some (on Glyder Fawr)
Time I spent running: 12h 21m
Lining up in Conwy castle at 07:00 on Monday morning, my main feeling was one of relief that it was all finally getting under way. There wasn’t much in the way of nerves, just trying to find everyone else to wish them good luck.
We left the castle (I’ve never run a race through a gift shop before!) and headed to the edge of town on the castle walls, where the timing dibber for the day was situated.
From there it was out across Conwy Mountain, and up onto the Carneddau. I knew from the start that pacing would be important, and I held back as some people clearly got carried away in the first couple of miles.
The weather held, although the wind was a bit chilly. With decent visibility there were no navigation incidents, and I soon found myself descending Pen yr Ole Wen towards the support point next to Llyn Ogwen at the foot of Tryfan. A quick stop (14 minutes) and I was heading up one of my favourite hills. A decent line off the top saw me making good time on to the cloudy Glyders, and then I got to use my now well-established favourite line down to Pen y Pass. I started feeling rough heading up the Pyg Track, and struggled up onto the ridge line of Crib Goch. Someone pulled out a bottle of Coke halfway up, and with a serious case of Coke-envy I nearly pushed them off. Once I gained the ridge, though, everything felt better.
At the summit of Snowdon I snuck into the cafe just before they closed, and bought my very own Coke. It was like heaven in a bottle, and set me up nicely for the descent of the Watkin Path to Bwlch Ciliau. I was joined in both Coke-drinking and mountain-running by James, who was just as pleased as I was to purchase a bottle of sugary goodness so late in the day. We picked up a number of followers in the mist as we headed to the Bwlch, then over Y Lliwedd and eventually down via the summit of Gallt y Wenallt (I did feel a little like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and was relieved I didn’t lead everyone down any duff lines).
Eventually the tents came into view, and I paused for a while by the river to collect my thoughts.
From there, I soon reached camp and settled into a routine which would quickly become familiar (if not quite second-nature): sort feet; sit in river; get changed; eat food; set up bed; sort out tomorrow’s bags; go to sleep. All of that happened after I dealt with a scone I’d bought while over-excited in the Snowdon summit cafe though…
DAY 2 – MOELWYNION AND RHINOGYDD
Distance: 58 km / 36 miles
Ascent: 3,600 m / 11,800 ft
Places I’ve previously broken bones: 1
Places I broke a bone this time: 0 (yay!)
Time I spent running: 14h 09m
The second day was another one I knew fairly well. On our last recce of Cnicht I felt awful and lay down for half an hour on the ascent, but fortunately it passed without incident this time (albeit in thick clag) and I traversed the Moelwyns in a similarly fuss-free manner. At the top of Moelwyn Bach I ran into Chris from our tent, and we stayed together for a bit down the line taken by the Ras y Moelwyn race. After that I let him run on ahead, and I continued on my own towards Maentwrog.
Darren caught me up on the road out of the village and after a brief chat I watched him forge onwards up the hill. By now the sun was burning off the clag and things were getting distinctly hot.
The next section posed no problems, having been well-recced. I was pleased to meet up with Mark R for a while, spending some time with him over the boggy bit down into the support point at Cwm Bychan. I stayed longer than he did, resting my feet and eating a savoury meal (something I never normally do while running!). Heading up the Roman Steps I got chatting to James (from Day 1) and Claire. I took a shorter line than standard up onto Rhinog Fawr; James took a gamble and followed, but Claire wasn’t convinced! Our line was definitely quicker, but she was rocketing up the hill and soon caught us up again near the summit anyway.
At the top Claire and I left James to take photos, and dropped rapidly down the descent gully (what a great line!) before taking on Rhinog Fach.
After that it was up onto Y Llethr and along the ridge in glorious sunshine all the way to Diffwys.
We ran the road section down to the mandatory route at the end of the day, and picked our way through the forest to camp. Another long day, and my feet were feeling the pounding from the rough ground, but otherwise no major problems.
DAY 3 – CADAIR IDRIS AND PLYNLIMON
Distance: 71 km / 44 miles
Ascent: 3,500 m / 11,500 ft
Led Zeppelin song-writing cottages passed: Just 1
Time I spent running: 15h 46m
This was the one which was worrying me. The furthest I’ve run before is around 40-45 km I think, so a 70 km day after two hard mountain days sounded like a tough ask. I wasn’t entirely sure I could make it through that far, so my tactic was to aim for the support point at Machynlleth and worry about the second half from there. It was a harsh start to the day on a steep tarmac climb, but a lovely couple at the very end of the road were already setting out glasses of cold water for us before 7am! From there we hit the hillside and climbed up onto the ridge East of Cadair Idris.
Darren and I stuck together from Dolgellau all the way over Cadair and Birds’ Rock, then up and onto the Tarrens. Heat was the main issue, along with the general pounding my legs (particularly knees) were taking. The descent from the out-and-back checkpoint at the summit of Tarren y Gesail down to Machynlleth was pretty awful, and I think the low-point of the race for me. I couldn’t face any more running once we hit the road, so I shooed Darren onwards and took my time.
After the support point things looked a bit better, and I made reasonable progress – if a little slow – onwards towards Plynlimon. I got a second wind at the bottom of the hill and sped up to the summit, which gave me some time to take in the view.
Since Machynlleth I’d been running with / around quite a few guys from the recces, which was really nice, so I hung around for a bit to see them all hit the summit. This was an important point, since the race organisers had said that 90% of people who reach Plynlimon will go on to complete the race. It was great to see Tony and Dave smiling as they reached the high point. Unfortunately Mark Z was clearly in pain; with macerated feet diagnosed by the medics this was the beginning of the end for him (although he’s already talking about 2019!).
After chatting to the photographer I began the descent to the tents, eventually catching Tony and so we arrived in camp together just on the cusp of darkness. This relatively late finish meant we had lots of tent admin to do, and every wasted minute meant less sleep. I averaged between four and five hours each night over the course of the week (not helped by a serial snorer in our tent!), and that was one of the main difficulties I found – it became increasingly difficult to do all of the tent admin effectively when you were either dog-tired at the end of a long day, or bleary-eyed from a 04:15 alarm.
DAY 4 – ELAN VALLEY AND DRYGARN FAWR
Distance: 71 km / 44 miles
Ascent: 2,400 m / 7875 ft
Time I spent running: 15h 20m
I’d ignored the distance and ascent for day 4 up to this point, having focussed on day 3 as my main nemesis. I’d been pleased to get through day 3 still in one piece, so was a bit gutted to find that day 4 was exactly the same length! Yes, there was 1,100 m less ascent, but it was still a pretty hefty day.
I soon settled into a power-walking rhythm, seeing Darren fairly early in the day and being blissfully unaware that he was having his major race ‘low point’. I traversed the wind farms in the company of Ash and Matt, talking pop-punk and clocking up the kilometres. We split on the road approaching Elan, and soon after Darren caught me up – he’d talked himself out of his low and was moving at a decent pace again. We stayed together for the rest of the day, making a good team of navigation skills (me) and pace-setting (him). At the mid-way support point I felt OK, and by the upper slopes of Drygarn Fawr we were belting out 2Unlimited at the top of our lungs (don’t ask, but you’ll find the lyrics to “No Limits” remarkably appropriate for the task in hand).
The worst was yet to come though. We had 1h 15m in hand at the final cut-off control of the day, and pushed swiftly onwards towards Llyn Brianne reservoir. This was the start of a 10 km tarmac section before camp, and I was not looking forward to it. Running had ceased by this point, and I was suffering from tired/battered legs. We hit the reservoir to be met by the ever-cheerful event crew who provided moral support, and Tony and Dave caught us too which gave another lift to morale. Everyone gritted their teeth and got on with it at their own pace, but clearly none of us were enjoying it!
I like mountains. I don’t like tarmac. Everyone else got away from me here, but I knew there was no point running. I got my head down and carried on at a decent pace, safe in the knowledge that eventually I’d get there.
After that video, there was quite a lot of “where the bloody hell are the tents?” going on in my head! But I did, as expected, find them eventually and was treated to chips with lashings of tomato sauce while sat in the river at 10:15PM!
DAY 5 – CARMARTHENSHIRE AND THE BLACK MOUNTAIN
Distance: 63 km / 39 miles
Ascent: 2,200 m / 7,200 ft
Ice creams eaten: 2
Shoulder massages received: 1
Time I spent running: 13h 41m
The final day. Push through this and the dragon trophy is mine. I can’t really describe the feeling at the start of day 5; failing to finish simply didn’t seem like an option. Just keep moving until Llandovery, then up the horrible tarmac climb (so boring I drove it on our recce holiday earlier in the year) to the Usk reservoir. That’s the support point, then onto some proper hills again and I’m sure everything will be fine because I like hills.
I set off at a steady pace, and put the plan into action…
A stop at Llandovery provided Lucozade and Coke. The tarmac climb wasn’t too bad. Great to see Euan for a bit; he’s way faster than me so must be taking it steady (and set off later!). On reaching the support point I’m immediately thrown a choc ice, and then Phil gives me the best shoulder massage anyone has ever had anywhere. He and Lisa had been timed-out earlier in the race, and it’s difficult to find people among the bustle of mid-camp sometimes, so it was great to see them both again, helping everyone out and enjoying the sunshine.
From there it was the climb up Fan Brycheiniog, and I was happy I was on the homeward stretch (albeit a 27 km homeward stretch).
Coming off Carreg yr Ogof I met Rob, who I’d not run with since the descent of Snowdon on Day 1, and we stuck together for the rest of the day. He was having trouble with an injury to his leg and I was in no rush (remember, I just wanted to finish), so we had a pretty chilled-out afternoon. The ice lollies at the final cut-off point helped, although we were both clearly tired and aching as the final descent to Carreg Cennen castle and onwards to Llandeilo saw the conversation turn faintly ridiculous. We battled through the zillions of stiles placed specifically to cause maximum discomfort to throbbing joints, and eventually just sat down in the grass for a while, watching the world go by (along with other runners, who we plied with jelly babies).
Eventually we figured we should probably just get the thing finished, and so we set off on the last mile or so to the finish.
We dibbed the finish line together, and seconds later Dave came around the corner with most of South Wales cheering him on.
So that’s it done – the “toughest five-day mountain race in the world”. It’s hard to describe how I feel about it. I had prepared myself for tears and tantrums, and bits where I just wanted to give up; to take the easy option and call it a day. There were none of those. It was very long, it was very hard work, and the ground was relentlessly tough throughout. There were bits where I just wanted to sit down for ten minutes to take the load off my legs. The lack of sleep, if you’re at the back of the pack, is really debilitating. Was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done though? I don’t think it was. You could argue that’s because it was a dry year with good visibility making the running easier, but I’d like to think that obsessive preparation (including eighteen recce runs), targeted training, and a well-executed strategy of “slow and steady” were the deciding factors.
Where do you go after Dragon’s Back? Well, there are a couple of things already lining up on the horizon…