The Dragon’s Back Race doesn’t really need an introduction… have a look here. It’s a five day stage footrace down the backbone of Wales. The Welsh 3000s is just day 1. Fellow Tod Harrier Dazz has written a brilliant race report that will leave you on the edge of your seat – grab a cuppa and some biscuits, and read on…
By Darren Graham.
It’s Friday morning and I wake up feeling nauseous after yet another restless night’s sleep. I’m awoken by someone in the tent getting his gear ready. I check my watch. It reads 4.54am. 4.54am! Oh gawd, I think, I’m so tired and I feel so sick!
It’s the final morning of the Dragon’s Back Race and I’m starting to fall apart! The last four days have taken their toll on me now. Also, the weather hasn’t helped, with hot sunny weather every afternoon since Monday and today is meant to be even hotter!
I crawl out of my sleeping bag, put on some clothes, grab my cup and bowl and head out of the tent. I eventually find myself staring into a bowl of beans, veggy sausage and egg, clutching a cup of coffee. I stare, and stare at the contents in the bowl. I need to eat it but I don’t want to. I just feel sick. There is nobody at the side of me telling me to eat, either! I look up and glance around the marquee at other ‘runners’ who look just how I feel! I’m not on my own here, I think. I finish my coffee and start to eat. I have to eat! Today will be tough and I need fuel. Approximately 39 miles with over 7000ft of ascent…….in the heat…….after 4 previous days……..and I’m falling apart! I laugh to myself “Daz!” I say, “This is what you signed up for! This is what you’ve been expecting for the last 5 years! Did you really expect to coast around it? This, by far, is not a fun run!”
But what brought me here? Why, I ask, did I want to do a race billed as one of the toughest races in the world? I’m no superhuman! I’m not a race winner…..by far! But the challenge, pushing yourself and being as far away from your comfort zone as possible! That’s what can drive anyone’s desire to complete anything in life………and the Dragon’s Back Race was the challenge I wanted to complete!
Ultra Distance Running……I’ve always loved to do it. Even before I was running, I walked long distances. Days in the 80’s & 90’s were spent bagging as many summits as possible or long days on the Pennine moors! I loved it! I remember doing the Welsh 3000’s way back in the early 90’s . That was a long, long day! Setting off at 4 in the morning to climb Crib Coch, feeling that I could never climb Pen-y-ole-wen and finally finishing at the chippy in Bethesda to find out my home team, Oldham, had beaten Liverpool to stay in the Premier League (yes, it was that long ago!). Such a great day.
Back in 2012, the Dragon’s Back Race was resurrected after it was last run in 1992. I had never heard of it until then. The route looked really tough. 5 days of mountainous territory and enough climbing to scale Everest….twice! 1 day would be enough for me, never mind 5 continuous days! But that was it, I never gave the race too much thought for a while after that. I was at the time concentrating on my Bob Graham round in 2013. Trips to the Lakes outweighed trips to Wales.
It wasn’t until 2013 when Joolz bought me the 2012 DVD for the DB race that I started to think more about it. Come 2014 and entries opened for the 2015 event, the 3rd ever running. I had just completed my Bob Graham and felt pretty invincible. I decided to put my name forward and enter. Back then, the entrants were vetted to ensure all runners had the required experience. Fingers crossed, I hoped I had. However, soon after my BG, I started to get knee trouble which stopped me running and I ended up having surgery.
So the training stopped and when the DB organisers rang me to ask questions, I had to be honest and told them that I hadn’t trained for the last 6 months. So that was it. I was out! Fair enough, I couldn’t do an event like the DB with knee issues. And so, the 2015 DB went on without me.
It was 2016 and I was running, by my standards, pretty well. My speed was picking up and I actually won a park run in Halifax! As for Ultra distances, well, I wasn’t at my best. In fact, I was enjoying the short races so much I just didn’t get out for long runs. So I decided to book the Great Lakes 3 day event in April as a tester to myself before entries for the DB 2017 opened in May. If I could manage 3 long days in the Lakes, then I would enter the DB!
So, at the end of April, I set off to do the GL3D ‘A’ class route. The weekend started in bright sunshine, added with a recent snow fall on the tops and I ran well. It was a perfect day! The second day, however, was not so perfect. Low cloud resulting in little visibility, constant wind and rain, added with snow melt made it a very hard 10 hour day! At the end, I found out I was only 1 of only 5 people who managed to complete day 2 in the A class! Day 3 started with the RO issuing out the Bad Weather route due to gale force winds (which managed to blow over a portaloo overnight…messy!). Typically, we all finished the day in bright sunshine and calm winds. I finished third in my category but more importantly, confident about entering the 2017 DB!
The following Monday morning, at work, I had the SI Entries website on at 9am, ready to enter the race. I filled in all my details and texted Joolz. “This is it, Babe,” I typed, “I just need to press enter…..and I’m in!”. I waited nervously for a reply off her. This year’s race was not vetted so anyone could enter. Only 200 entries available, it said on the website, and I didn’t want to lose my place to some mudrunner. Joolz texted back “Do it, Babe! It will be an amazing adventure!”. I read it over again, turned to my monitor……and pressed enter. Moments later, the website confirmed…….I was in. I was in the 2017 Dragons Back Race! Oh God, I thought, what had I just done!
So, the training commenced. I took a different approach to training from the Bob Graham. The BG requires speed as well as lots of climbing. I’m not the fastest runner in the world and I knew I certainly wouldn’t win the DB. I also didn’t know how my body would react to more than 3 days of running hard. So I went for the ‘steady away’ approach. My fitness level would only be about 80% of my BG fitness. Just climb and climb steady, for a long time. Then do it again tomorrow!
So the 2 day runs at the weekend grew steadily over the next 12 months. Winter time, especially February, hampered training a little, but not as much as injuries!
Is it me , but do I suffer more than any other runner with injuries? I know every runner says the same thing about themselves, but it does sometimes feels like I do! Yes, I’ve had a knee operation, suffer with a weak right ankle and I can’t see in the rain with my glasses on, but I’d never suffered with Plantar Fasciitis until February!
It started with a niggle one weekend whilst out with Robin. We did 2 days in Wales when the weekend was freezing. It was so cold and icy that I don’t think we actually got to the top of any mountains! Anyway, the following pack run, I did a fast tarmac run and that finished me off. To this day, I blame the trainers I bought which were a great deal on the internet……but slightly too big for me. Lesson to be learned there, I think! So after February, the foot had good days and bad days, affecting my training intermittantly before it came to a head at the beginning of April after a long weekend’s training. This time it felt painful and that forced me to start tapering, 7 weeks before the event!
So the final few weeks were spent pampering my foot. The pain never went away and I started to worry about my fitness. Come the big day, had I got it in me to get around? Would my foot handle more than 1 day of running? More importantly, I couldn’t get a refund! No matter how bad I was, I would be there at the start!
The days before the start, I had started to get all my gear together. There were weight and bag size restrictions so I had to plan carefully. For my general camp gear I had a 59ltr bag, consisting of 5 days of hill food, clothes, sleeping bag and mat, general first aid gear and other bits and bats I could get in the bag. Also, I had a smaller 29ltr bag. This bag would be transported each day to the midway support point. It would have in it food to eat for the day, spare clothing and trainers and extra first aid kit. Lastly was my rucksack which was packed for a day in the hills. As they were long days, I made sure that the midway bag had plenty of food to replenish the supplies in my rucksack. I made sure I had plenty of food packed for the week, knowing that shops would be pretty scarce en route, though to be honest, I’m still eating the left overs 2 months on!
The actual day before the start arrived. Joolz and myself drove down to Conwy. Elise Milnes and Clare Harris also joined us to see me off the next day. We drove straight to the event centre to register. It now started to seem very real. As I entered the event centre, I was greeted by great big posters of the past winners. The Dragon Slayer’s, Steve Birkinshaw and Helene Whitaker from 2012 along with Jim Mann and Jasmin Paris from 2015 all looking down on me. The nerves were starting! I moved over to registration and knew I was involved in another league of races here. Registration here wasn’t a couple of blokes handing out your number with a box of pins at the front! This was a slick operation involving 11 different sections!
- Kit check – No “Just sign the declaration form” here. My rucksack was emptied and everything was checked to the mandatory equipment list.
- ID check – Photo ID had to be shown in case I had Andrew Worster running for me.
- T-Shirt hand out – Individual Tech tops which had your race number and nationality flag on it, making each one unique!
- Map hand out – A specially designed Harveys map was produced for the entire route. It was given out free but was mandatory kit (£40 to replace if lost).
- Electronic Dibber – Attached to my wrist for the rest of the week.
- Race numbers – Three number sheets were given out. Two for my vest (including a spare), and one for the front of your rucksack.
- Medical – A quick chat with the medics……..I kept quiet!
- Tracker – Attached to the shoulder strap of my rucksack. At this point, it was pointed out to me that my rucksack strap was coming loose at the seam. Good job for safety pins!
- Profile Photo – This picture was taken with my number in front of the Dragon’s Back board and was used when people looked me up on the tracking software on the website.
- Professional Photo – Ian Corless was the official photographer for the event. He took a black and white photo of each runner. Quite good, actually, even for a non photogenic person like me!
- Kit Bag Drop Off – 2 vans, outside of course. 1 for the camp bag and 1 for the midway point bag. I dropped both my bags off and then thought, this is it!
It was a slick, professional registration with helpful volunteers. I was very impressed by it all………but they still had people handing out numbers and pins!
Later in the evening, there was a briefing for everyone followed by a meal. Shane, the RO, discussed the route, rules etc. He stresed about short cutting through out of bounds areas as they would be watching via everyone’s tracker. It was a good brief, explaining a lot about the next 5 days and the food was just as good!
So when it was all over, I went and found the girls who were enjoying a pint on the sea front. We headed back to the Premier Inn and settled in for the night, nervously awaiting the following morning.
DAY 1 – Carneddau, Glyderau and the Snowdon Massif – 52k/3800m
I woke up at 4.30am. The start was at 7am so I had to be up early (good practice for the following 4 mornings). I stuck the Premier Inn kettle on, showered, dressed, taped my feet, packed, repacked and repacked my rucksack again, just in time for the kettle to come to the boil! Anyone who’s stayed in a Premier Inn must know about the age it takes for the kettles to boil! I was surprised that I wasn’t nervous. To be honest, the last week or so I had just wanted to start and get on with it. This event had had such a big build up with training etc. I was just looking forward to finishing! Before I knew it, I was at Conwy Castle, the iconic start of the race. I had seen this scene many times before on the 2012 DVD and here I was! I don’t like to use the word ‘amazing’ preferring to keep that word for biblical events, but to be honest, the atmosphere within the castle grounds was amazing……..just! Everyone was there, including the local male voice choir! At the start of the 2012 DVD, the male voice choir set up the beginning of the race and now, hearing it in real life, the hairs on the back of my neck (and back…..but sadly not on my head) were standing up! It was quite emotional standing there waiting to start. 5 minutes to go and Shane the RO gave a final briefing, mainly telling everyone to really enjoy the journey. I gave Joolz one last kiss and hug and moved to the other side of the starting gantry, ready for the off.
Suddenly, there were 10 seconds to the start! The seconds counted down on the big display….10…9…8…7…6…5! Suddenly I’m thinking ‘Did I pack my compass?’…4…’Hmm. Foot still feels tender’…3…’Should have eaten more breakfast’…2…’I need the toilet!’…1…OFF!
And that was it. I was off. I was running the iconic Dragons Back Race……for real! The start of the race is like a procession, similar to bike races. In our case, all the runners jogged along the castle walls whilst spectators clapped and cheered. The time actually started once we left the castle and dibbed at the side of the road. Steve Birkinshaw, winner of 2012, actually went to the toilet once the race had started so when he caught up with the leading runners, he was actually 5 mins in front!
Soon, we found ourselves climbing steadily up Conwy Hill towards the first checkpoint. I walked most of this as there was no point rushing at this stage. Drones flew above us, filming the line of runners up the first hill. We’ll see many of them this week, I thought. In fact, I never saw another one all week! I dibbed at the top of Conwy Hill, looked back at the castle one last time, then turned onwards towards the Carneddau Range and the whole of Wales!
The weather was kind and the day had started calm and clear. Visibility higher up wouldn’t be a problem. I had reccied this section only 2 weeks earlier and then the weather was horrendous. The route here is simple and the climbing is kind. You could easily get carried away with running too much and too hard along the Carneddau. And I was! I had pulled away from a few friends so slowed it down, especially around Pen yr Ole Wen. The descent from Pen yr Ole Wen was slow for me and I was glad to arrive at the midway support point at Llyn Ogwen.
For the race leaders, the midway point is just a quick stop to replenish food, have a quick drink and off! All streamlined to a few minutes. For me and many more, it took more than a few minutes before I even unpacked my bag. The midway bags are all lined up on the floor in numerical order. A member of the crew would have your bag ready for you when you arrived. I found a place to sit down and enjoyed the food I had packed. During the running, I had mainly survived on sweets, flapjacks etc. but at the midway point, I had packed a cold food pouch containing potatoes and beans and a tin of rice pudding for each day. I ate the lot! Once done, all rubbish had to be placed back in your kitbag and I was off again…….straight up Tryfan!
I know I said in the last paragraph that the potatoes, beans and rice pudding was great, but within half an hour, I was regretting my choice of food. Tryfan was straight up and my food nearly went the same way! It’s a tough climb to the top after the midway point. Maybe I should have done as the race leaders did and not hang around. However, the sickness passed and the top was reached. Luckily, the race does not make you leap the two standing stones at the top, Adam and Eve! Good job as the wind was quite strong at this point! I then headed down towards the col before Bristly Ridge, leaping, scrambling and wandering slightly too far to the right, down Tryfan.
I met Joolz, Clare and Elise halfway down Tryfan as they were supporting the event for the day. I stopped and chatted for a bit. They were going to meet me once more at Pen y Pass and would say their goodbyes then. So off I went again, eventually climbing over the Glyders. On the climb along side Bristly Ridge, the weather closed in. The wind had gradually picked up and now the cloud had dropped so the traverse of the Glyderau was spent in cloud, battling against gales! It was quite grim up there, but you soon drop off the top, heading towards Pen y Pass. John Minta and Mick Cooper caught up with me on the descent. These were my tent buddies for the week, along with 5 others and we ran much of the rest of the day together.
We arrived at Pen y pass and met the girls. Also, it was a chance to pop in the café to buy something if you wished. The race rules on support are simple. No one can give a runner support but if it’s available to all runners, then its ok. So, Joolz couldn’t give me food, but I could buy it from the café. Simple and fair. I opted for a bottle of coke, said my farewells to the girls, as they were going home from here, and headed up Crib Goch!
The weather now was nasty, but not wet. This section would test the mudrunners, I thought. On the ridge, Mick had managed to get in front of a small group but John and I couldn’t get past them. We never saw Mick again until back at camp! On the ridge, the cloud shrouded us and the drops on either side of the ridge looked even more dramatic and scarier! The wind also made it slow going but John and I eventually got to the other side. Snowdon was quickly done. No hanging around up here. Two weeks ago, Snowdon was very, very busy as it was a glorious day. Today? Other than the marshal at the check point, I never saw another sole!
We were soon descending, picking up the odd sole runner, who looked a bit lost. Eventually we were a posse of 6 as we ran into camp. It was on the final descent that I noticed my left leg IT band felt tight. Knowing that I hadn’t had an issue with my IT bands for years, I thought it would be fine by the following morning. I dibbed at the camp and the 1st days running was over. Just 4 more days like that to go!
Now, camp life deserves a bit of time to describe. Basically, when you had finished, dibbed and got your result sheet; a crew member greets you, grabs your camp bag and midway support bag and takes you to your tent. You stay in the same tent with the same people all week. A few weeks before the event, you could email the organisers requesting to camp with people you know hence why I was with John and Mick. In the tent, there are 8 of you. Don’t be put off, the tents are big with plenty of room in the centre for everyone’s gear. So once you are at the tent, the non running section of the race starts. Basically here is what I did each day for 4 days (Day 5 was spent drinking!)…….
- Discuss with your fellow tent dwellers the route and where you went wrong/could have done better/should have avoided!
- Empty the contents of your campbag everywhere, much to the annoyance of John Minta. Dig out camp clothes, sleeping bag and mat. Inflate mat.
- Collect bowl and cup, go to the mess tent and get loads of chips, cake and sweet tea. Pour loads of salt and ketchup on your chips.
- Go back to the tent. Empty more of your gear inside and outside of the tent (whilst John isn’t there!) . Find cleaning stuff and go and get cleaned. Normally, getting clean meant getting into a nearby river. Only on Day 2 and the last night were there any showers available. The 1st day was a wet wipe day as the river was half a mile away and I seriously could not be bothered! Day 2, 3 and 4 were in a river, leaving the last day for a shower.
- Once cleaned and dressed in fresh clothes, go and get more chips, cake and tea.
- Back to the tent to get the next day’s gear ready. Back home, I had individually packed for each day in a separate bag. Each bag had fresh clothes, food for the rucksack and food for the midway bag. It made life so much easier in the tent.
- Go and get your main meal and socialise in the marquee. The food all week was vegetarian. Great for me as I’m a vegetarian anyway. Breakfast was always beans, veggy sausages and boiled eggs along with bread and cereals if you wanted. The main meals always had a theme. Usually curry, stew, etc. There was always plenty and you could have as much as you wanted…..even with the cake! I couldn’t fault the food during the event.
- Retrieve to the tent. Once settled in, I would then start to look after my feet. Over the week, I didn’t suffer too much with blisters, although I did get a large blister where my new insoles rubbed. I looked after it and it didn’t really bother me much. I would tape up my feet with zinc oxide tape, talc them and put on some thin socks to wear overnight.
- Sleep! Not as easy as you might think! During the week I never got a good night’s sleep. Not because of other people but because of my legs! I was so restless and fidgety all night as they thought they were still running. Poor Mick who opted to sleep at the side of me. He must have wanted to throw me out of the tent! On one night, I thought it would be a great idea to rub my legs with muscle rub just before I went to bed. OMG! Within 10 minutes, my legs were burning! I just couldn’t stop moving around!! So good luck with the sleep! At least the ear plugs drowned out Minta’s snoring!
- Get up early. Eat breakfast. Pack up and go. Most mornings this was an easy plan. The queue for food tended to get big so I was always early and got up at 5am when it would be less busy. Doing this I was ready to go for around 6.30am. Still, in John Minta’s world, I still managed to spend 30 minutes too long faffing!
Day 1 result: Time = 11.12.27 Position on the day = 69th/209
DAY 2 – Moelwyion and Rhinogydd – 58k/3600m
I had set my alarm for 5am but was already awake by then. Once somebody was up and about in the tent, everyone is soon awake, even with ear plugs in. The weather had not improved much, with low cloud still shrouding all the hills. The first half of the route would be new to me as I had tried to reccie this in February but the weather had been extremely cold and frozen. I had opted to do it another day instead of battling and wasting time, but it had never happened.
So I managed to set off around 6.15am and followed the steady line of runners up and over Cnicht, the Matterhorn of Snowdonia as it is nicknamed. Although today, it was just another mountain in the mist with no views. Once over Cnicht, the land is quite featureless as you head over towards Moelwyn Mawr. I had started to run with a group who had a GPX file of the route on someone’s Garmin. I would normally frown about this, but today, I was more than happy to be guided. It seemed to take forever to get to the summit and the out and partially back route to Moelwyn Back was a delight! As I headed down to the checkpoint at Tanygrisiay Res, the clouds were starting to break. I had hoped this would happen as the second half of today’s route goes over the Rhinogs and I really didn’t fancy doing them in the mist.
When I reached the check point, it was here that I felt a blister forming for the first time. I stopped to address it and found that the insoles I had used due to my plantar issues were rubbing my left foot instep. Typical! I padded it and taped it up and was off again.
Looking after your feet is so important on a big race, especially a multi day race. I always use zinc oxide tape where I am prone to blisters, along with talc, which I applied before setting off, midway and at night. Overall, my feet were fine over the week, apart from the instep blister which I wasn’t prepared for. I had a fewsmall blisters on my toes but they didn’t cause me any grief.
I eventually reached the midway support point at Cwm Bychan and by now it was a glorious day. I lounge around the support point eating my beans and potatoes followed by my tin of rice pudding. Yesterdays sickly feeling after the midway point was now a distant memory! Whilst sunbathing, I watch Jim Mann come in. He was defending his title after winning the DB in 2015. Again, it’s a streamlined affair, like you see at motor races. He’s off within a few minutes. I shrug and carry on eating.
So I eventually set off, up the Roman Steps towards Rhinog Fawr. It’s an horrendously rocky area and I didn’t do much running around here. The descent off Fawr was dreadful. Steep, rocky and overgrown made it slow going. The terrain got better, however, after Rinoch Fach. It’s a beautiful, stunning area with fewre visitors and the view at the day’s final summit of Diffwys across to Cadair Idris is absolutely stunning.
Once off Diffwys, the route is quite simple, following forest tracks and road sections towards Dolgellau. However, with just a few miles left to go, the route goes through one last forest, just north of Llanelltyd. Back in April, I had reccied this section and completely gone wrong in the forest. I’d emerged on to the road, legs shredded from brambles with cuts all over the place. I simply lost the path, made it up, knew it was wrong, saw the road below, headed straight to the road. Not great tactics at all! On that day, I called it a day after that, knowing Joolz would be passing by in the car. Back to today and the nerves were starting as I did not want to go wrong again. So what a relief it was to find route signs through the dreaded forest and to the finish. I hate forest!
The day’s finish was at Cymer Abbey. A nice campsite with showers but I went for the refreshing feel of the river. By far the better option…..and closer to the tents!
Day 2 result: Time = 12.43.15; Position on the day = 78th/197
DAY 3 – Cadair Idris and Pumlumon Fawr – 71k/3500m
So day 3 started similarly to the previous day regarding the weather……mist! But with clear weather promised later, it shouldn’t be a problem for long! The first few miles were mainly along tarmac but with a lot of height gain. Before I knew it, I was on the ridge heading towards Mynydd Moel. The clouds were trying their best to break, but it was slow coming. I was soon on the top of Cadair Idris and headed off the top along the pony path towards Carnedd Lwyd. At this stage it was still quite misty and the top of Cadair is quite featureless. Unfortunately, Jim Mann, defending his title, headed off the top in the wrong direction and had to make a severe detour which would contribute to time loss and his title in the end. See! It goes to show it can happen to anyone………..without a garmin!
Eventually, I was back down in the valley and out of the clouds. Running along a simple farm track, I fell over and gashed my knee. No major injury apart from that nauseous feeling you get. This slowed me down for the next couple of miles but I had a great war wound with dried blood down my leg. Gurrr!!
The next section saw two hard climbs in Tarrenhendre (Joolz loves this name…….fills me with fear now that I’ve climbed it!) and the out and back summit of Tarren y Gesail. These two summits really made you work! Its on this section that you really notice the change in the landscape. From the rocky summits of Snowdonia, we were now entering mid Wales with its less rocky, but still as steep mountains! The sun had saved itself for these summits so the sweat was pouring out now. Half way up Tarrenhendre, a group of school kids were cheering us all on as we suffered up the climb. It was really encouraging and the jelly babies went down well!
After Tarren y Gesail, it was easy going to the town of Machynlleth. I had caught up with John and Mick had soon caught up with the two of us. In the town, there is a chance to stock up on food if you wish, which we did! We left the coop with shopping bags in one hand and maps in the other. I had to remind myself we were actually in a race! However, the midway point is just out of the town and I was able to get my extra food stashed away in my support bag.
The checkpoint was just off the road on grass and with the sun shining, drinking a nice cold bottle of coke, I could have easily stayed there for a lot longer. Joolz’s Auntie Jean and Uncle Brian had turned up here to support me for the remainder of the race. They live nearby so could easily travel around in the car, intersecting me at road points. Joolz was on her way back down now and would be staying with them as they all supported me during Thursday and Friday and I would see her at the end of today’s run!
John, Mick and I all left together from the midway point. I felt good here and pressed on with Mick. John hadn’t been feeling the love today, so dropped back, never too far away, though. We followed the Glynwr’s Way and it almost felt like an LDWA event now. The route passed a summit with a great name, Pen y Darren! The summit was not quite on the route but I had said weeks before the race that I would go to the summit anyway……….I didn’t bother! Still, it was great skirting around the shoulder of it!
The approach towards Pumlumon Fawr is quite remote and wild. Nothing for miles but rolling hills. We stopped a couple of times near streams to freshen up and take in more water. It was around here that I felt my IT band really starting to hurt. I struggled a bit getting up to the last summit of Pumlumon and at the top I knew I couldn’t run. I tried but I just couldn’t bend my knee enough. Mick lent me his poles as mine were in my support bag (I don’t actually own any walking poles so I had borrowed a pair off Elise, a good foot smaller than me so they weren’t actually the right size for me. No worries, I said at the time, I probably won’t use them anyway! Err, ok!).
The last section of this long, long day was described as an enjoyable run in to camp from the summit. No it wasn’t! Not for me anyway. I struggled along here and Mick stayed with me. I told him to go but he insisted. John soon caught us up and we all stayed together for a bit. We eventually hit the last road at Dyffryn Castell (don’t be fooled by the pub sign on the map…..it shut down years ago!) and Joolz’s, with her Auntie and Uncle, were waiting for me. I had last seen Joolz back on Monday afternoon and although it was only 2 days ago, it felt a lot longer! They couldn’t go into the camp area so it was a brief meeting and catch up before Mick and I followed the farm track into camp.
Day 3 result: Time = 13.25.59; Position on the day = 70th/169
DAY 4 – Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr – 71k/2400m
Thursday morning rolled in in much the same way as the previous two mornings…..misty! It had been announced at the beginning of the week that some of the area we would visit at the start of today had been made out of bounds so we had to deviate from the original route. That was fine, except it meant going through another forest……in mist! I hate forests and this morning I felt sorry for myself as I knew my ITB wasn’t right. Before I set off, I visited the medics for that miracle cure and ‘everything would be alright’ pill. They didn’t have it. Instead, I was treated to some ‘It looks like it’s doing something……but it’s not’ tape, all down my leg and they sent me on my way. This tape, I thought to myself, is seriously going to mess up my tan!
I set off up the simple to follow track onto the tops around Draws Drum. Once in the mist, I beelined towards a tarn and then to the top of a ravine where the forest started. I soon found the path which led through the woods, down into the valley. By this time, a small amount of runners had appeared in all directions through the woods and we all climbed back out of the valley on the otherside towards the first checkpoint of the day. There’s a lot of windfarms around here and we were following a big track for a few miles. This stage should have been simple running but I could not run! I tried, boy did I try to run along these tracks but my ITB had had it! I just couldn’t bend my knee enough to run. I could walk ok but I couldn’t even shuffle. So, it was at this point I decided to quit the running, put on my walking head and enjoy the day without trying to run!
So that was it! My quest for a good result in the race was over. It was now a matter of making sure I finished. Any result now will be good enough. I still felt strong at this stage in the race and would have liked to run, but you can never foresee an injury. Now, I had to walk, walk fast and strong! For another 33 miles! Then another 37 tomorrow!!
So as I walked along the windfarm track, runners slowly passed me by. But I noticed there was little difference in speed and I wasn’t that much slower, runners were slowing down as well. I couldn’t keep up with the runners on the downhills but I sure made up for it on the uphills……..and there were a few hills to come.
By now, the sun had reappeared which also helped with the Nav. I hadn’t managed to recce this first half of the day so fine views really helped. It felt like I was in a different race around here. The geography had changed so much since day one. I was now amongst green hills and lush valleys. Big, empty plains for miles around, with the odd quiet road cutting through. The motivation gang were at the usual road crossings and today saw a lot more road running as well, so Joolz would walk with me for a while and then get picked up along the road by her uncle’s car.
I soon reached the midway point at Elan Village. The route from here I knew as I had reccied it with Mick earlier in the year. I was still feeling strong and keeping up and overtaking slower runners. I particularly loved the route up to Drygarn Fawr. On a wetter, mistier day, this section would have been a nightmare but today, I passed so many struggling with the tussocks and bog. After the summit, it’s a few miles down to the first of two long road sections to finish the day off….and finish me off! The first could have been avoided and to be honest, I would advise it. From the summit of Drygarn Fawr, I headed south west towards the road. Mainly due to ease of terrain and for speed. In retrospect I should have headed directly south , hitting a valley which would eventually brought me to the checkpoint at Abergwesyn. It would have saved nearly 3 miles on tarmac which, after all, punished me mentally and physically!
After the checkpoint at Abergwesyn, there are a couple of miles of off road before we once again join the road for six miles to the finish of day four. Just before I reached the road, I stopped to freshen up in a stream. It had been scorching hot all day so each chance of cool water being thrown all over me was taken. Joolz once again popped up again here and we walked along the road together for a couple of miles. The scenery was stunning, overlooking the Llyn Brianne reservoir. I made a promise to myself to visit again soon with my bike as the roads are amazing around here. But not on foot! By now, I had had enough of tarmac and was slowing down. I had been excited that there was a pub next to tonight’s campsite, but the plan had now changed as I didn’t arrive at camp until around 8pm. So I freshened up in the river, watching over on the other side of the river, everyone in the beer garden……watching me in the river, surrounded by the welsh population of bloody midges!
I was glad I had decided to walk this morning. Trying to force myself to run with an injury would have made the day an awful experience. It could have even resulted in retirement so I was glad I chose to walk. The day felt wonderful, I savoured being with Joolz and took in the whole day so much better. Thursday was to be my slowest, but best day of the week!
Day 4 result: Time = 13.42.59; Position on the day = 98th/155
DAY 5 – Day of pain!!!! (Carmarthenshire and the Black Mountain) – 63k/2200m
And here we are, back at the beginning of the story on Friday morning. I’d gone to bed last night feeling ok. Tired, yes. It had been a tough day yesterday. Even tougher for some others! About an hour after we had all gone to bed, the last of our tent buddies, Mike (not Mick, very confusing, I know), had come into the tent. It may have been around midnight. He had had a bad day and was totally knackered. He had been out for around 17 hours and when he arrived at camp, he just burst into tears. Staff and medics rushed to sort him out in the first aid tent. He was kept warm and was fed. Once he was able to move again and he felt a bit more normal, he was led into our tent, staff sorted out his gear and got him into his sleeping bag. The poor guy had been suffering with his feet for a couple of days now and the tarmac section at the end of day four had finished him off.
Still, he was first up this morning! Sluggish but with shear grit, determination and the usual stubbornness, he was determined to finish the race. He was the first to leave the camp at 6am precisely.
Like I said, I felt sick this morning. It could have been the sun yesterday or that the last four days was starting to catch up with me, I don’t know. What I did know was that I wasn’t feeling great today. My ITB was bad, I felt sick and to top it off, my bottom lip was extremely sunburnt, sore and swollen! I was starting to look like Bubba, the Soldier with a passion for shrimp, from Forest Gump! The weather was clear and sunny and today was predicted to be really hot! Today, I thought, was going to be both mentally and physically hard!
So I set off without eating too much, hoping I would soon feel hungry in an hour or two. What I didn’t predict was the pain in my left shin! That wasn’t there yesterday! It was sore….really sore! I could hardly walk on it. This wasn’t good at all. 37 miles to do today and I was in agony on mile one! So, all I could do was take some pain killers and rub some muscle relief cream on my shin. The cream didn’t work, as all it did was heat up the area and it felt like the sun was burning on it! Still, all this would be over in about 10 hours so I just needed to keep going!
The sun shone, it was hot, really hot! The first hill was through forest again. No mishap again. I passed another Pen y Darren near the route that again, I had said I would climb……no chance! The hills of Dyffryn Tywi offered the first view of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. They looked far away, too far away.
The route eventually found its way into Llandovery and I visited the bakers that I knew was there. By now, I was feeling hungry and needed something more substantial than a mars bar. One veggy pasty, one egg custard and two cans of coke were soon being consumed on a pub table across the road from the bakers. Whilst sitting there, eating and drinking away, the eventual race winner, Marcus Scotney, came running past. I watched him as he ran into the distance, thinking that yesterday I had seen him all but crippled, unable to walk and being held up by two people to get him across the campsite! He had looked finished yesterday and now here he was, running again, onwards to victory whilst I was sat at a pub table eating piles of junk food in the same race! That, I thought, was the difference between race winners and me, here just to make up numbers! Still, the pasty was excellent and I would highly recommend a visit to the bakers in Llandovery. Maybe not during a race, though.
The weather was hotting up even more. I was quite low down at the moment and was looking forward to getting higher where there may be a breeze to cool things down, but in the meantime, I had to now face over 3 miles of tarmac with little shade. My shin wasn’t happy going along here. The muscle rub I had put on did nothing but intensify the heat around the area especially when the sun was on it. I couldn’t run as my IT band and shin were working together now to slow me down and my bottom lip felt that it was swelling quicker than Pinocchio’s nose! But on a positive note…..it wasn’t raining!
I eventually arrived at the mid way point at Usk Reservoir. Joolz, Brian and Jean were there to meet me for the first time today. Also, the event support group were prepared for this hot day and were spraying down the runners with water and giving out choc ices (I was in heaven with the choc ice, but still felt like hell). I sat in the shade and ate my choc ice which felt good on my lip. I tried to eat my beans and potatoes but I soon threw them in the bin, along with the rice pudding! I was at that stage where I could only nibble things at best and wished I had someone, like on a Bob Graham, alongside me to force feed me, knowing I had another 20 miles to go.
Leaving Usk, the route heads up towards the summit of Fan Brycheiniog, the highest point since leaving Snowdonia. On route to that, a vast moor of nothingness for miles (well, 2 miles…ish….at a push). I passed other runners/walkers sitting in streams just to cool down. I had packed an extra water bottle at the support point as the next section was very dry with little or no water without deviating away from the route. Though, whenever an opportunity did arrive, I filled my bottles, soaked my buff and put in on my head. The wet buff felt great but only lasted a few mins before the heat dried it up.
I had managed to overtake around 6 or 7 other people on this section and when I eventually got to the top, I found Mike from the tent sat near the trig point. I sat with him for a while. He was struggling and was feeling really tired. I agreed to walk with him for a bit and gave him sweets to get some sugar in him (surprisingly, he had no sugary food with him, just savoury). We walked and talked together as we went over the stunning tops of the Black Mountain, overlooking Llyn y Fan Fach. I had forgotten how bad I felt and more importantly, Mike was feeling rejuvenated from the company and sweets. We drifted apart on the section towards Carreg Yr Ogaf where a gust of wind suddenly whipped my map out of my hands! I immediately ran after it, forgetting about my injuries but remembering more importantly the value of the map, and thankfully, caught it before it ended up somewhere near Swansea! I sat there for a moment thinking that my leg would now just pack its bag and go home! But I managed to keep going, hobbling just a little more now but also knowing that the end was virtually in sight!
The route takes you over Foel Fraith, a summit with no checkpoint but you end up going over it because it has a good path so no brain is required. Next is the dominant Moel Gornach before the descent to the A4069 Black Mountain Pass. Here, the Dazz Graham support gang now included Elise and Graham Milnes. They had travelled down that day from home to come and support me but found me not very chatty or in the mood to socialise. The event support crew where at the road with water and choc ices again and I gladly accepted!
So, the next section would be the last stretch on the tops before the route meanders along the valley to the finish at Llandeilo. I left everyone at the roadside checkpoint feeling a little better. After 20 mins, the feeling of tiredness, aching, pain and desperation for it to stop returned. I stopped at the next checkpoint summit to redress my feet as they were giving me issues today. By now, there were a few other runners and walkers around and although we didn’t talk much or follow the same route, we generally headed in the same direction to the last summit of Tair Carn Isaf! The last summit! It’s all downhill now! I can see the castle! Carreg Cennan Castle had been the finish at the last two events but unfortunately, this year, access was not granted so the finish was moved to the school in Llandeilo, just a further couple of miles beyond the castle. It can’t be that bad considering what I’ve done this week….can it? Hmm………
I looked at the map on the summit of Tair Carn Isaf and decided to head towards the road via the shortest route, ie, straight line it. Big mistake! I totally underestimated the terrain. Heat was coming from above AND below! There was no path and my body had now decided to say enough was enough! I struggled to bend my knee and the terrain was difficult like tussocks. I reached the road even more knackered! For a change, I savoured the tarmac and walked, slowly, alone.
However, there was still so much more to come. The road lasted no more than 100 yards and I was on a track, heading through farmland which then turned into a path which descended through a stream which then turned uphill towards the castle. Uphill! I thought I had left all that behind half an hour ago! Still, I had to do it and do it I did….slowly!
By now, I knew the end would actually come and that I would finish the Dragons Back; I just had to cross the line. But I was struggling now. The shin really hurt, the IT band wouldn’t let me bend my knee and I was starting to think of meals involving shrimp, as my limp was so bad!
After the castle, I came down another road and the Daz Graham Support Gang (now grown by another 2, Phil and Jackie Scarf) was waiting to cheer me on again! The last section of path soon followed and I emerged on the very last road section that led to the finish….downhill. I struggled here. I really wanted to run but couldn’t. It was hard watching the odd runner go past me onwards to the finish. They better save me some chips, I thought! It took ages to get down that road. I was struggling more and more. Even the thought of finishing didn’t spur me on any quicker. It was just one foot in front of the other. I’ll get there, eventually.
And eventually, I did! The school appeared. Jack (Mick’s wife) was there to show me round to the finish funnel and everyone I knew was there cheering me through the funnel. I tried to run this bit, but just couldn’t. I dibbed and Joolz came and hugged me. I thought I would start to cry with the overwhelming feeling of finishing, but all I could think was that the pain I had gone through was now over (and being a man o’north! Grrr!), that I didn’t, thank God, have to do it again tomorrow…..or ever!
I was soon sitting on a chair with a pint. No more sorting out kit, I just left it to Joolz. I showered and boy it felt good having warm water. I went to the medics to tidy up my feet and watched the presentation. Everyone hobbled up to the front and had their picture took. The winners, Marcus Scotney and Carol Morgan, received their trophies, but the biggest cheer, and the biggest trophy went to the runner who finished last. That was a great moment! It showed that the time it took wasn’t the aim. The aim was to complete the challenge. To enjoy it so much that you want to get up each morning for a week to do it. To test yourself, and go outside of your comfort zone. To make new friends and meet like minded people. But I think the main thing I got out of it was the memories. The flash points which will stick in my mind forever. I have loads of them. Too many to write down here. These are jewels! Jewels which can only be collected with the eye and in my mind, are worth every torturous moment collecting them.
Day 5 result: Time = 13.40.02; Position on the day = 119th/157
Overall Race result: Time = 64.44.42; Position = 86th/127 finishers
That night, after the awards presentation, we were the last out of the hall, drinking and generally enjoying ourselves. It had been a long, long day! Joolz had set our tent up and I stayed in there with her. During the night, we had an amazing thunder and lightning storm. It felt almost fitting for the finish of the race. The Dragon was upset! Maybe too many people finished the race. 127 in fact out of the 225 starters. I wonder, if the weather had been wetter, would the same 127 people finished. Still, the heat caused enough problems anyway but I’ll be forever grateful that it wasn’t wet!
The following morning, I could not weight bear on my left leg. I had to be helped everywhere. I worried that I had a stress fracture on my left shin. However, I noticed a lot of other people were doing the same. The school grounds looked like a hospital! My feet had now swollen and looked like elephant feet. Would they ever recover? Today though, I could wear my Dragons Back event top with pride as I told myself that I wouldn’t wear it unless I finished.
Joolz drove us home from Wales, by far the safer option, and I slept most of the way. Arriving home, Clare and Nick Harris had decorated our front door with balloons and banners. At this point, I still felt I didn’t deserve this as I had spent the last two days of the race hobbling, just trying to finish. It wasn’t the end I had hoped for before the event. I had wanted to run it, and finish as high in the results as possible. But as time has gone by, my reflection on the race has changed. Yes, it would have been nice to finish higher, but to finish the race, to collect your Dragon trophy, that was the ultimate achievement. The night in the Old Gate pub when Toddies threw a surprise party was awesome and I’ll be forever grateful for everyone who came out that night. It’s not often a guy finishing 86th in a race gets all this glory. But I’ll take it! It may never happen again!
Or will it…..?