Dragons Back – First race report – It’s a long one

I decided last week that with my struggling memory I would start a race blog, primarily for my benefit but also in the hope that someone somewhere may learn something from my mistakes and experiences.  I am not a writer so please forgive my ramblings.  Any feedback gratefully received.

I had decided to enter the Dragons back last year after a friend had mentioned it.  I pre registered and then got a call up to complete the registration and pay.  Now I had second thoughts due to the cost which I think was about £600.  A bargain compared to something like the MDS but still a fair investment worth hiding from the Mrs.  My good friend Paul Burrows, also Welsh and also living in Jersey had signed up and I knew that I would have race envy for the entire week if I didn’t enter so at the very last minute before registration closed I shut my eyes and paid the money.  Done.  Sorted.  Forgotten about for a few months.  Then Paul and I managed to talk our other mate and Ultra Runner Pete into putting a late entry in.  He did.  Fantastic.  The three amigo’s running the length of my home country for a week in the middle of summer.  All was good but unfortunately Paul had to pull out which left Pete and I.

After not a lot of training following a DNF at Transylvania 100 in May and a very stressful and busy couple of months in work (I run a hotel), Pete and I boarded the ferry from Jersey.  Now I was excited.  I was so up for this mentally and really needed a week off work and just couldn’t wait.  This was a huge relief as I’d been struggling a bit following the death of my parents in November and December last year.  Pressures from work had caused near breakdowns and an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions.  I needed this.

Onwards to Llandeilo, via a quick visit to my sisters house for a few minutes and then onto the coach that would take us on the winding four hour journey to Conwy, the starting point of my next adventure.  I had the usual nerves on the coach, looking around and noticing that everyone looked fitter, better equipped, more experienced, bushier Ultra beards (which are very last year now folks) but I was happy to see Guy Mawson, a chap I met a month previously in Romania so we had a quick catch up and then I decided to try and get some sleep on the journey.

We arrived in Conwy and checked into the YHA.  The whole set up was very efficient.  We did the kit checking, got given our T shirts and race numbers etc and then headed down into Conwy village/town for some fish and chips to stock up on calories.  It was all a bit weird down there and lots of people were dressed as pirates.  I’m not sure if something was going on or if this was normal.  Still, there was a nice holiday atmosphere.  After the walk back we had a very throrough briefing from Shane and nice motivational talk from previous winner and two time finisher Helene Whittaker in which she told us only half would finish the race.  Looking around I could see that at least 98% of the other runners looked fitter, stronger and more experienced than I.  Never mind, I had four main goals for the race

  1.  Finish it
  2. Have fun
  3. Lose weight
  4. Get a tan

After the briefing, dinner and a good few beers with Pete we made our way to our bunk beds and had a bit of a nervous chatter with the other two chaps in our room – Nigel and Matt.  I think we all agreed to get up at about 05:00.  Far earlier than I would have liked.

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Conwy Castle – our starting point

The start line in Conwy Castle
The start line in Conwy Castle

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Day 1 – On paper 49km and 3,823m ascent.  In reality 58km and 4,065m

Woke up far too early, did final kit checks, lubed up, taped feet and joined the other nervous competitors for breakfast.  Looking out of the window over the Conwy estuary (if that’s what it’s called) the weather seemed quite mixed but there was a nice sunrise.

Ready to go, we dumped our drop bags in the back of a van and started the walk down to the start line in the heart of Conwy castle.  The weather was raining on and off so the waterproof stayed on to prevent me getting cold whilst I tried to take in the map, the awesome atmosphere and enjoy the Welsh male voice choir.  I wish I could have this at the start of every race; they were absolutely incredible and made me feel very proud to be Welsh.  After a speech from the local Mayor that I couldn’t hear we were off.  Directed through the castle at a very conservative pace due to the greasy slabs and wooden planks, we headed up onto the castle walls towards the exit.  The clock didn’t actually start for the race until we left the walls or close to that anyway.

We headed straight into hills from the off which was fine for me, many excuses to walk.  The field thinned out surprisingly quickly.  I enjoyed the views from Conwy mountain and the surrounding wildlife (a few horses) and was loving being off work.  Navigation started fairly promptly for us after a few hours but there was a fair bit of follow the leader.  The route headed up and across fields with paths until we got to more rocky terrain.  The weather wasn’t great, especially considering this was the middle of summer.

IMG_0268  Straight into some fairly tough climbs

I had started with Pete but bumped into Phil Sturgeon, a friend from last years Spine race and had a good catch up.  I was feeling good and so sped up for a while on a rocky decent and enjoyed a bit of time on my own but unfortunately missed the dibber at checkpoint 6.  Visibility was very bad and I was nearly at checkpoint 7 when I bumped into a welsh lad who I spoke to for a moment before realising I had missed the last checkpoint.  It must have only been a few feet to the side of me.  Furious with myself I turned and started the run back following my back bearing.  I passed Pete and Phil who said they would wait for me which I wasn’t too happy about as it was my fault and the weather wasn’t very nice.  I found the dibber and checked in but when I turned to follow my bearing back to check point 7, the terrain seemed very different and I became a little disorientated.  Thankfully after not too long walking around in circles, a mysterious figure emerged from the mist.  It was my mate from Transylvania 100, Guy Mawson.  After clarifying to Guy that we weren’t at Carnedd Llewellyn (cp8) yet but just leaving Carnedd Gwenllian we made good progress to CP 7 to find Phil and Pete sat shivering at the Trig point.  Bless them.  I felt very grateful and a little guilty that they had waited.  We made swift small talk, I introduced Guy to everyone and we headed off in search of the next CP with about 10 metres of vis.

Navigation wasn’t that easy and the terrain became very rocky and trackless.  We then bumped into Andy Cole who I liked thoroughly.  He was very knowledgeable of this area and mountains in general and I felt happy to be in his company.  He didn’t run but his progress was very steady and consistent.  Impressive to watch really.

We descended as a small group and ran along the edge of Llyn Ogwen to the support point which was about half way.  It was fantastic to get there and be greeted by Stuart and our drop bags with extra food.  I stuffed my face for a while as I knew the tough bit was to come and headed off after re-stocking my pack with snacks and topping up my water.

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Now onto Crib Goch.  The climb was incredible and just my cup of tea but if I hadn’t of seen people ahead of me I probably wouldn’t have kept going the way I was.  This certainly wasn’t the type of trail running I was used to, this was rock climbing, and I was loving it.  Bring it on.  I caught up with Andy again and met another couple of lads, one being Alan Roynan who is an ex soldier who lives in my home town so we had lots to chat about.  With Andy close by again I was reassured that these highly dangerous and sketchy routes really were part of the race and we were going the right way.  I was loving the views and the technical nature of the terrain, something I have not experienced before but wish to again.

A few images of the technical terrain from Tryfan to Snowdon – My favourite part

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Snowdon and the other mountains passed fairly quickly but from Snowdon to the finish seemed to take an eternity, especially from check point 19.  Progress seemed slow, light was starting to fade and spirits were low but eventually Phil and I crossed the finish line of day 1.  We finished in 90th position out of 129 starters after 14 hours and 9 minutes.  Pete came in just over an hour later and said he was packing it in and it would be his first dnf.  I was gutted for him but was understanding of his situation as I knew his head wasn’t in it.  After a quick bite to eat, two cigarettes and a bit of kit sorting ready for the next day I was off to tent with the loudest snorer I’ve every heard.  His name will remain a secret.

Day 2 – On paper 54km and 3,544m ascent.  In reality 61km and 3,257m

Woke up after a shit nights sleep to a lovely warm and sunny day being attacked by midges.  I had a quick breakfast after a fairly lengthy queue, packed up, taped my feet and set off with Phil.  Having someone to run with certainly makes like easier.  After a couple of miles on the road we started to ascend our first hill to Cnicht where we kept bumping into Helene Whittaker and a few photographers.  We had a fair bit of banter and a bit of Q&A from Helene which I’m sure won’t make it to the next Dragons Back film.  Towards the top, Phil and I stopped so I could re-tape my feet as I’d done a pretty shite job earlier on.  We admired the view, ate some food and got annoyed at all the faster competitors overtaking us.  Onwards and upwards we continued.  We bagged a couple of summits and enjoyed watching some faster runners showing how it’s done properly around Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Bach.  I was very impressed by how Joe Faulkner was moving.            After these mountains, the field had thinned out and I think we now found ourselves at the back of the pack and met up with Ivan Sabo and a couple of others at the reservoir – checkpoint 4.  The field in front of us had scattered and disappeared.  Mots seemed to head to the east and Jezz Bragg seemed to disappear to the West.  Most people had now disappeared so following anyone was impossible.  We had been warned that the next section was a mine field and a navigation nightmare with forest, bogs, rivers, swamps, trains, all sorts.  It was about 14km in a straight line but it seemed a straight line was not an option.  We tried to get off the hill in the best manner possible but it wasn’t easy and was very rough and steep underfoot.  We stopped to fill our water bottles from a beautiful stream and I reluctantly removed my orthotic insoles as they kept slipping forward in my shoe and were squashing the ends of my shoes.  I now had no padding or support for my flat feet at all.  We continued down the hill, passed a load of train spotters (strange hobby but I’m sure they thought the same), headed into some lovely woods and came to a river, but it was before a road and according to me, the road should have come first.  Using soemone’s GPS we took a grid reference and were all baffled and pissed off to find out that we were virtually off the map and several miles away from where we thought we were and where we should have been.  Anyway, we put our heads together and decided on a route that would help us get back on track but involved about 10km along a very busy highway.  On a positive note, this would also help us avoid the bogs and marshes and possibly could have been a very good route choice.  We plodded along the long and straight roads, avoiding any HGV’s and trying to run as often as possible.  Progress slowing from 7 minutes running, 1 minute walking to about 3 minutes running and 1 walking.  We passed a couple of huge industrial buildings that we’d seen for most of the day and then ran alongside the edge of a lake which confirmed we were where we thought we were and also got overtaken by Pavel Paloncy.  This was great news as we thought we were the only dick heads to end up this far off track.  It was so reassuring to discover that someone of Pavel’s calibre had chosen to follow us on this route.  We must really know what we’re doing!!! We entered a lovely little village that was deserted apart from a chap on a motorised wheelchair who confirmed we were in the right place but refused to give me a lift.  We raided the little Welshy shop and demolished the shelves of drinks, spoke to the shop assistants for a while, practiced my really poor Welsh and had a bit of a chat.  We left there with high spirits and headed for a really cool footbridge across the southern end of the lake before a couple of km on roads and back onto wet fields.  We were dawdling now and unaware of the time until Ivan brought us back down to earth and reminded us that we only had about 10 minutes to get to the half way check point, get food and drink from our drop bags and get moving again.  This certainly sped me up and I think I ran a 10km pace for the last 10 minutes down into the checkpoint.  I wish I had left a lot earlier in the morning.

IMG_03501  Phil with his zimmer frame stolen from the little Welshy shop.  He put it back

We made the checkpoint(just) and were greeted by my good mate Stuart.  Had a quick drink, topped up food and drink and dashed off to the Rhinogs with Ivan and Phil.  Ivan had reccied this part of the course with his wife so we were in safe hands.  Lovely climb to the summit of the first mountain but getting off that and down to the next was a bit of a challenge.  Ivan couldn’t remember the way so I went to the right, Phil went left, Ivan went down the middle and after a while one of them called to say they had found the way.  I had gone past the point of no return and really couldn’t be arsed back tracking so shouted “I’ll race you” and so started an absolutely stupid run/walk/scramble/stumble down a massive bloody boulder field that seemed to get more treacherous with each jump.  My heart was racing and I was convinced I had made the wrong choice and would come across some skeletons of other cocky idiots that thought this was a good route.  I didn’t and made it to the bottom ahead of the others who by now had bumped into my good friend Guy Mawson.  He was a bit negative and had his map in his hand and was looking at the cut off times.  I had made the decision not to hang with Guy but to try and drag him round the other mountains.  He wasn’t up for it so I headed straight up a tough climb to the summit of Rhinog Fach which was a tough and steep scramble that I enjoyed thoroughly.  I was feeling OK at this stage and was running with Ivan.  I’m not sure what happened to Phil at this stage.  After a while I saw Guy in the distance and knew he’d either teleported or dropped out and decided to miss a mountain.  Unfortunately it was the latter but he was in good spirits.  By this point (between cp8 and cp9) we were all very thirsty and had been looking for water for a couple of hours.  We came across a stagnant black pond that could well have been there for decades.  It was disgusting and was full of all sorts or insects.  We had no option but to get a couple of bottles and put some puritabs in them and wait for half an hour.  I’m not sure what the bad taste was, the water or the tablets but desperate times called for desperate measures.  We cracked on and by this point it was Ivan and me.

IMG_0355Typical Welsh!

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Rhinog’s – I think

From CP9 we started descending towards a forest but we had had several differences of opinion on the route as people in front of us seemed to be going in all directions.  I was adamant about my route choice and convinced him of my certainty.  We made great time and it was great to be running again.  We stopped at a small stream, filled up water bottles as I knew there would be about 8km of fast running and put on my head torch even though we were about an hour ahead of darkness.  I knew it was going to be darker in the woods and I didn’t want to break momentum on the downhill run.  We headed into the woods and met up with a few other runners stumbling out of some rough country (Jonathan Zeffert who I had met on the Spine) and we all made out way to the finish.  On route there had been more doubting of my navigation and one chap wanted to check his GPS.  I knew we didn’t have time for this and I knew everyone else would have to slow or stop to put their head torches on.  I was happy on my own so I ran off into thicker woods along a mandatory route which seemed to go on forever.  It was a very tricky part of the course, especially as it was now dark but at least it was partially marked.  I met up with Andy Cole about five minutes before the end and finished with him.  For the 10 minutes I had been running past some gorgeous little lakes/ponds that on any other day I would have been in like a shot.  I was gutted that I didn’t have time.  Luckily there were showers at this check point so I had a meal and a shower, saw the medics about my deteriorating feet and headed off for sleep.

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Unfortunately, being a back of the pack runner, my tent was already full of people who were sleeping so I had to be very quiet.  There were 8 people sleeping in the tents, four on the left, four on the right and the central porch where everyone’s kit was dumped.  Unfortunately the zip up doors to all the bedrooms were closed and everyone was sleeping so I had no option but to sleep in the porch.  The other downside to the porches was that due to the race being sponsored by Ortlieb, the main recommendation of compulsory dry bags was for Ortlieb.  This meant everyone had the same bags in either black or red.  They’re also not great bags in that if you want something from the bottom you have to empty the entire thing.  Now think of 8 peoples dry bags emptied into a little porch.  That’s what I was sleeping in.  Anyway, enough rambling.  I was stoked to finish another day and was slowly ticking them off.  My feet were a mess as usual and my legs knackered but nothing more than I was expecting.  I finished day two in 79th position out of the 98 remaining competitors in a time of 15 hours and 50 minutes.  The cut offs were getting tougher and tougher to hit which put on a lot of extra pressure.  I had to leave earlier in the mornings.

Tent  Usual kit explosion – This is me doing a bit of foot maintenance

 

Day 3 – On paper 68km and 3,712m ascent.  In reality 74km and 3,477m

If you’ve read this much I congratulate you and take great pleasure in advising that the next few days are a lot shorter as I can’t remember what happened.

I woke up later than planned, I took longer to tape my feet than I wanted to due to having more blisters than I had realised, queued for breakfast which was becoming increasingly annoying.  The way the race was set up was that the slower racers left early and the faster racers departed the camp later.  Unfortunately though, these timings were not enforced with all other facilities like breakfast and medics so on most occasions I found myself at 05:00 queuing for breakfast with people who were planning on starting at 09:00 when I was hoping to get out of there at 06:00.  The same thing with the medics, they were often busy with people that were starting later.  Not to take anything away from any of the race staff, they were all fantastic I just think that if you have staggered start times, you should have staggered breakfast times too.  The race favours the fast guys!  Unfortunately I am far from that.

new8  Tough times!

I don’t remember much of the first half of day three.  I know I met up with Jonathan Zeffert fairly early on as we climbed the first couple of mountains.  The weather went crap, visibility was down and map reading was required.  Lots of hills, wet feet, a group of girl guides, following a fence line, competing with others for the best lines and routes and then nothing.  Checkpoint 3 to check point 5 is a complete blank but I met up with a few other runners.  Sorry I can’t remember who.  Again, check point cut off times were getting worryingly close.  I sped off again on my own up the 667m ascent to Tarren Y Gesail and then continued at speed ahead of the group that I had been with (including Andy, Jonathan, Ivan and a couple of others) back down the same mountain and entered the forest for about 4km of tricky path choosing and tough descent before coming out at the main road that would lead me to check point 7, the support point and the next cut off.  I had to run pretty flat out to make it there in time and passed several people in the process.  I had assumed that due to my awesome navigation through the woods and my sheer speed through the tracks and along the road that the group I had been running with would never make the cut off.  I was very disappointed for them and knew their races would be over.  On entering Machynlleth I was gutted to realise that I would not have time for the food stop that I had been longing for for the past two and a half days.  I managed to sneak about 30 seconds to run into a shop and get some coke and sweets but I really wanted a nice hot meal.  Eventually I made it to the check point after trying and failing to steal a teenagers skateboard and was absolutely dumbstruck to find the whole group of people I had ran off and left already there and sitting comfortably!  How the hell did that happen.  My lines through the woods were pretty good weren’t they?  I had come out on the road where I should have hadn’t I?  I had been running flat out for ages now.  How could they be there.  Never mind, I was really happy that they were there, just confused. I had 5 minutes to restock my bag, have some banter with Stuart and then head off, all together.

Check point 7 to 8 was nothing exciting, a few navigation errors, mainly due to forests being on maps and in reality they’ve been removed/cut down.  There were a few differences of opinion with nav but we made it to CP8 which was only about 3km away as the crow flies.

IMG_03701 Me overtaking Pavel Paloncy – Yeah right!

If I remember correctly, CP 9 to 10 was a long old slog with lots of chatting and walking and very little running.  I think I may have joined up with Alan again and met Louise Staples and Simon Franklin (if I hadn’t done that a few hours before).  I was gutted to learn that Andy had probably dropped out.  He was with us when we left the support point but had quietly turned and returned to the support point and pulled out of the race.  He always seemed so strong and confident so it was a bit of a shock and a huge disappointment.

IMG_03781  Me overtaking Charlie Sharpe – The annoying thing about the fast guys starting last, you get overtaken a lot

We were all getting tired at this stage and again were worried about cut offs.  We still had a rather large hill to climb and the weather wasn’t great.  As my feet had been causing me a lot of grief I had been going out of my way to keep them dry all day.  Now, about 12 hours in, Simon led us to a river crossing.  I was more than a bit pissed off but was having a laugh too and the cold water was actually good for my feet.  It was only five minutes after exciting the river that he pointed the bridge out to me, a few hundred metres up stream!  Anyway, onto the last hill, Pumlumon Fawr and then the boggy descent into darkness following the fence line around a small wooded area.  From there it was a 300 metre descent over about 1.5km.  By this point more people had teamed up with us and were all galloping down the hill towards the finish line and then sprinting along the road for a few hundred metres to the finish line which was pretty much dark and deserted.

IMG_0374  After spending many hours trying to keep my feet dry I am faced with this

I finished day three in 16 hours and 14 minutes, 70th out of 77 remaining competitors.  As with the Spine race in 2014, the drop our rate was slowing down after the first couple of days.

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I added some water to a couple of my expedition meals.  I couldn’t decide between Macaroni Cheese and Chicken Tikka Masala so had both.  It was better than the event food.  With meals in hand and spork in my pocket I headed off to see Claire and Darrel the lovely medics.  My feet and legs were shot, an absolute mess.  I always suffer badly.  Whilst there, eating my food, having my feet seeing to I had to witness other people being told that they wouldn’t be allowed to continue.  This was not nice to hear and made me decide to stop spending time in the medics tent.  A random person handed me a discreet glass of wine (which was meant for a medic but they didn’t want it) so there I am, chicken tikka, glass of red, scalpel in my feet.  Heaven!  All of a sudden, one of the more professional athletes (whose name rhymed with sag) came into the tent saying that he’d been sick so immediately all four medics jumped onto him and I plummeted to bottom of the priority list.  Sad times.  So off I went to the midge filled portaloo at the end of a long field for my evening poo and a couple of cigarettes.  Not a bad night really.  I later heard that the “proper” athlete had to pull out.  My mate called to tell me of this event claiming it as Karma.

Bed time.

IMG_03801  Random sheep skull

 

Day 4 – On paper 64km and 2,273m ascent.  In reality 76km and 2,169m

Day four started as usual, a queue for breakfast, re pack, tape feet, take pain killers, meet up with someone to run with and start the very painful limp.  Today was the worst for pain in my feet.  I had many blisters and has lost nails.  I know from previous experience that it can take up to three hours for the pain killers to kick in and my mind to become used to the pain.  Once it becomes normal it’s fine but today was tricky.  I left with Louise, Simon and Jonathan and we made a good team.  We started well, navigating through some boggy moorland where every tussock of grass or bad foot placement caused excruciating pain and near stumbles.  It was very annoying and Louise was quite concerned on occasions.  I was not looking like an ultra runner in the slightest and was barely able to walk.  I knew that after the first couple of hours I’d be OK, so I let the others do the navigation and limped behind for a while.  We joined an access road that meandered through a wind farm, regularly passing by or under these impressive turbines.  I had never seen one up close and they were rather eerie, partially hidden in the mist.  After a bit of road running/walking and bumping into Charlie Sharpe we had quite bit of distance to cover before CP 6, the support point and next cut off.  As usual we were very close to missing it and being timed out and very worried.  One small nav error was all it would have taken to time all four of us out.  After a fair stint of fairly fast running, we eventually made it to Elan village which we didn’t even have time to enjoy.  Crossing the river we were all exstatic and relieved to arrive at the support point.

IMG_0377 The appropriately names “Team cutoff dodgers”

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“Team work makes the dream work”

As usual, a quick top up of water, snack, bit of banter and off we went.  This was all very tough going.  The stress of missing cut offs was horrible.  CP 6 to 7 was short and uneventful, Just over 1km of road running but from 7-8 was a very long slog following country lanes, bridlepaths, footpaths etc.  It was all very scenic and along  the edge of a pretty reservoir.  Navigation was fairly straightforward although there were several opinions on how we would attack CP8.  We all stayed pretty much together and our group grew a bit.  I can’t remember if we caught people up or the other way around but we came back into contact with Ivan.  CP 8 to the finish was going to be a long, hard battle and would probably me the worst part of my race.  In a straight line it was 15km to the finish but a straight line wasn’t possible.  We had left Ivan and reverted back to our original group of Louise, Simon, Jonathan and myself.  After descending down through some freshly logged forests we got to a road and turned right which felt wrong.  I felt we should turn left but didn’t really make myself heard as much as I wished I had.  Turning right was always going to be easier in terms of navigation and terrain.  It was all on road, right to the finish and we wouldn’t need a map but it was long, about 20+ KM and it was monotonous.  Progress seemed horrendously slow despite the nice views alongside the river and then Llyn Brianne Reservoir but it just took forever and we all had that familiar feeling that we were going to get timed out.  Unfortunately Simon was blamed a bit for the navigation choice, I wrongly blamed him as it was a group choice and we didn’t have to follow his advice and unfortunately he blamed himself.  Again, he shouldn’t have and I don’t think the other possible routes would have been any quicker and would have been trickier nav.  As it turns out, Ivan who was only a couple of minute’s behind us when we started descending through the forest after choosing to head the long way around the road decided to head through the forest and was picked up by mountain rescue at 05:00 the following morning and didn’t get to finish the race so maybe we made the right choice.  I’d be keen to know who else went the way we did?

new3  Approaching Elan village check point and yet another cut off

Louise, Jonathan and I sped up so as not to miss the check point and Simon dropped back a bit.  Louise and Jonathan then dropped me.  Phil Sturgeon who had dropped out at some point came driving along the road to offer words of encouragement and advice on distances etc.  Phil had Simon’s partner Claire with him so they kept driving along the road encouraging us all which I thought was lovely.  After a bit more boring road running I eventually made it to the finish line and immediately went to get my drop bag and get some food on the go.  I was a mess and really disappointed with myself.

I finished day 4 in 69th position out of 72 finishers.  It took me 16 hours and 7 minutes.  I was angry with myself and annoyed.  I was tired and very stressed.  I had been running non stop for quite a while, desperately trying to avoid being timed out.  I finished with Jonathon and Lousie just ahead of me.  Simon finished about 20 minutes behind and just missed the cut off.

I had a big decision to make now.  Do I see the medics about my feet or the masseuse about my aching and knotted legs.  I chose the massage for a change as I figured popping blisters and removing toe nails took less effort.  I spoke to the massage guy and asked for a massage.  He told me to join the queue of two people, which I did whilst I ate my expedition meals.  I was now next in line for a massage, the first of the week and was looking forward to it but needed a poo.  I told him I had to dash off but would be back in a few minutes (probably five after I had hobbled across a field).  I returned to find someone else getting a massage and asked the masseuse if I could get a rub down.  He told me that this guy was the last and he wasn’t going to give anyone else a massage.  Very annoyed as I’d already spoken to him I kicked off a bit (and I don’t apologise for it) and hobbled across to the medics tent for my second choice of attention – blister popping, only to be faced with a big sign saying medic tent closed.  Re-opening tomorrow after 06:00 or something similar.  Now I was in a really bad mood so went to bed determined to get up the next day and smash the shit out of this race…slowly!  Sleepy time.

IMG_0392  Llyn Brianne reservoir – very scenic (and long)

Day 5 – On paper 57km and 2,313m ascent.  In reality I have no idea as my watch stopped and I was a mess for most of the day anyway

new 2  The start of day 5 – lots of pain

So here it was, the final day.  I had made it this far and as long as I didn’t get timed out, nothing was going to stop me.  Like everyone, I wanted to leave early so I could finish early and I really couldn’t face being timed out on the last day but as usual, I underestimated how long it would take to sort all my kit out, tape my feet, hobble to breakfast etc.  I don’t remember what time I left by I was alone and that suited me just fine.  Sometimes on these long events I just crave a bit of me time and today was my day (for now).  I enjoyed making progress through some grotty weather, I was happy with my navigation and made a few calls to friends and family.  I’m usually chatting on the blower through these things.  Either the kids, my girlfriend or my mates are calling regularly.

The first part of the day went quite quickly.  I had the usual pains for the first couple of hours but found my stride and my mind learnt to deal with the pain until it was just the norm.  I caught up with a few people and had brief chats.  I met up with Matt, my room buddy from Conwy who had been doing very well but was now struggling with an injury.

I stopped and had a chat with Helene and the videographer for a few minutes and put my waterproofs away.  I was really enjoying being on my own and making good progress.  A lot of the first half followed mandatory routes that were sign posted or marshalls were directing us and the marshalls at the start had drawn on my map the most optimal route which was very nice of them.  It included a bit of road running that took me into a quaint little village I can’t remember the name of but they had an awesome bakery.  My eyes were bigger than my belly and I hobbled out of that shop with welsh cakes, sandwiches, pastries, energy drinks, coke and an ice cream!  After eating the lot within about 15 minutes I felt very ill.  Tit!

Anyway, after a bit more road running and meeting up with a few people we went off road for a while, through some woods and descended to Usk reservoir where the mid way support point was.  Quite an easy and pleasant day really.  No major issues, time on my own, nice scenery, loads of food, a close encounter with a bull and that’s about it.  I didn’t need to rush too much at the support point and had a few laughs with Stuart, topped up water, ate more food etc and left there as a small group in good spirits.  Jonathan, me and a chap called Richard Leahy that I had first met at the breakfast table at the YHA on day 1 but hadn’t seen since.  We started the gradual climb from the reservoir to the 802 metre summit of Fan Brycheiniog (the name of my tent too) but the weather was getting a lot worse along with visibility and terrain.  This was not too pleasant and we had all picked slightly different lines as we couldn’t see a decent path.  Being stubborn I was convinced I had the right line but it was tough going and the other two were going quicker than me so I just ended up putting more effort in to keep up.  Stupid really!

A rather camp idea stolen from Charlie Sharpe.  It’s actually surprisingly cooling and I’ve adopted it on recent races to great effect

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Once we had reached the summit we were all very cold and wet.  In my opinion, dangerously wet so we all got cover at the Cairn and put on extra layers.  I put on everything I had and still felt very cold.  When I was running for the next while I was putting everything other than my eyes inside my jacket so my breath would warm up my body.  It’s a very clear reminder about safety in the mountains, even little 800 metre ones In the middle of Summer.  Anything can happen.

From checkpoint 5 to checkpoint 6 there was no footpath or direct route and no visibility.  There were very few people around but we did become four and joined forces with Hisayuki whose name I couldn’t pronounce so he gave us his nick name which I can’t remember.  As the situation was rather serious in that we didn’t have a route, couldn’t see anything, it was cold and it was pissing down I took control and had thankfully been informed of a sheep track at 600 metres so I knew approximately where it was.  I re calibrated my altimeter on my watch and asked Richard to do the same.  I would head up the group, he would be tail end Charlie and we would walk/run on a specific bearing for a specific amount of time until we reached 600 metres and we should be near the sheep track that would lead us around the side of the mountain and onto the next check point in about 5.5km which took an eternity on this terrain.  Fortunately the weather was improving and we could see where we were going and even started catching other racers.  When I got to CP6 I was in a bit of a mess.  I was exhausted and just collapsed to the ground and started to drift off to sleep within seconds.  I’m not sure if it was just the exertion or the cold temperatures we’d just been through, the food I’d been stuffing myself with at the last village or the stress of taking the responsibility of getting everyone off the hill safely but I was in pieces.  Not for long though as Jonathan dragged me to my feet and gave me the kick up the arse I needed.  Onwards to CP 7 which was fairly hilly with at least two brutal ascents.  We could have gone the longer way but by this stage I wanted to keep all distances to a minimum.  CP7  was a rocky, ankle twisting scramble  but was one more check point ticked off.  From here we ran at quite a speed down to the main road where we met the fantastic medics Claire and Dax.  It was great to see some familiar faces and even better that they were handing out Dextrose energy sweets.  CP8 came and went, along with Check point 9 where I met up with my very talkative tent buddy Tim.  This was the first time I had seen him out on the course.  I was so happy to get this last checkpoint done

 IMG_0397  Emotional times nearing the finish

 

As with most days, when I knew I was nearing the end or in danger of being timed out I sped up and towards the finish I switched up a gear when I caught a glimpse of the castle that we were finishing at.  I bounded down the hill through chest high bracken and thought I was only a stones throw away.  I phoned my girlfriend and sister, cried a bit as I knew I had it in the bag and cracked on.  I got lost and ended up going through a farm and ending up at the bottom of a cliff with the castle on top.  There was no way up so I had to take a bit of a detour and then start the slog up the hill which was incredible, all as the sun was setting and a beautiful fox ran in front of me.  I’ve never seen such an awe inspiring finish for a race and I couldn’t control my emotions.  As I entered the castle I was extremely choked up and delighted to cross the finish line.  I saw Richards’s wife and informed her that Richard was only an hour behind.  Crossing the finish line was an anti-climax despite the dramatic surroundings of the castle walls.  There were only about three people around, none that I was very familiar with, no food, no photographer, no foil blanket and no trophy.  All a bit disappointing really but wow, what a day and what a race.  I finished this day in 14 hours and 14 minutes in 71st position out of 77 runners.  This put me into 64th position out of 65 runners but comfortably in the half that finished the race.  As I’ve said before, I am a “back of the pack completer”.   I was still extremely happy that I was able to finish which is always my main aim despite the huge pressure of dodging cut offs for four days.   Main lesson learnt – speed up!

I was beginning to get very cold and very quickly so I put on all of my layers and a few of us who finished quite closely together descended to the mini bus.  Unfortunately the young lady bus driver who I offended by asking if she was old enough to drive wanted to wait until the bus was full before driving to the Rugby club.  I was in quite a bad way and couldn’t stop shaking and shivering.  Tim Miller who was one of my tent buddies but who I hadn’t seen out on the course all week knew that I wasn’t in a good way and went for a chat with the bus driver and a few other volunteers.  Soon after we were en route to Llandeilo rugby club where there was already a big of a party happening.  Unfortunately I had missed the prize giving and I was told there weren’t enough trophies so I had to go without for now.  Everyone let out a big cheer for the few of us that entered the room and I had a few big hugs and hand shakes from Joe, Stuart, Mark etc.  I think Joe put a beer in my hand instantly as he had done at the Spine finish 18 months earlier (he’s good like that) and I made my way to interrupt the partying medics as I wasn’t feeling great.  I was sweating but freezing cold and I just couldn’t control my temperature.  I was put on a fold up bed in a sleeping bag and given hot chips to eat.  I had my temperature taken, blood taken (I think) and was observed for a while.  Stuart the muppet tried to get into my sleeping bag for a cuddle and ended up collapsing/breaking the bed so that ended my recuperation.  Onwards to the hot showers where I stayed for about an hour desperately trying to warm up then upstairs for a few drinks.  Always after long Ultra’s I just want to drink everything and as the bar staff had just called last orders and I didn’t want to miss out I ended up with a coke, a welsh version of J20, 2 pints of Becks, a bottle of Peroni and a glass of wine!  I drank most of them but for the first time in my life I left some lager or gave it to Guy.  I limped off to bed having organised a lift from Guy early the following morning back to Cardiff airport.  All I wanted was a lie in but I had to be back in work for mid day and had to fly back to Jersey.  Waking the day after race day was hilarious.  I felt like shit, couldn’t warm up, couldn’t open my eyes due to really bad hayfever, lack of sleep etc but when I exited the ten on the rugby field it was like a scene from shaun of the dead.  People asleep everywhere, on the floor in the stand, in the toilets.  Anybody else who was awake was walking around like zombies.  All very comical.

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We left Llandeilo after saying a few goodbyes and headed back to the airport with very fond memories of an incredible race but feeling like shit with my eyes barely open.  Recovery of my legs/feet/mind was very good but unfortunately I cam back with a terrible stomach bug, probably from the pond I had drank from on day two.  Not one to go to the doctors, after a couple of days of sitting in my 30 degreee office in my suit with a duffle coat on, shivering and sweating uncontrollably I headed in to see what was wrong.  By this point I hadn’t been able to hold anything down for four days.  I had lost 5kg’s during the race and was still losing about 1kg per day and lots of people were commenting on my gaunt appearance.  After many tests and every sample imaginable I was discharged with a carrier bag full of drugs which all sorted me out quite quickly.  Back to normal now and all weight back on

I know there’s a lot of people out there probably wondering which is harder, Dragons Back or the Spine.  Well, in my opinion, they’re both excellent races and challenging in their own ways.  The Spine is cold, dark, boring and not that hilly really.  There’s a lot of long, slow plodding through knee deep mud and following well marked footpaths and/or GPS.  I had a great time doing it though.  I would say that for a slower, back of the pack racer, it is easier and you could comfortably walk it within the 7 day time limit.  The Dragons Back however was a quicker race and the cut offs for someone of my calibre were tough.  This was my first stage race and I really enjoyed it.  If I could only choose one to do again I would choose DB due to the amazing scenery and me being Welsh.  The trophy is pretty cool too.

If you want to know what kit I used, Have a look at the pictures.  I was happy with everything.  I wore the same NB leadvilles for the week which were pretty wrecked by the end of the week but have since done a couple of 50 milers and the Ultra trail of Snowdonia so they weren’t that bad.  My pack was great – Inov8 Race vest 10.  For the first time I chose to wear a cycling shirt which was fantastic due to it being emblazoned in welshness and dragons, having a nice long zip at the front and three massive pockets at the back which were just a bit beneath my race vest and handy for everything from maps to used gel packets – which the race organisor insisted we take to the finish point of each day.  A nice idea but I fail to see the issue with putting your gel wrappers in a bin at a car park near Pen-y-pass for example.  Surely there is more chance of you littering accidentally if your pack and pockets are filled with rubbish.

In summary, a fantastic race, very well organised and professional.  Great scenery, lovely course.  A bargain compared to a lot of similar events held overseas.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.  A fantastic experience.

20150706_094631_resized_1 A great trophy and guardian of my desk

Thank you to my supportive sponsors; Dolan Hotels, Mercury Distribution, Expedition foods

 

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5 thoughts on “Dragons Back – First race report – It’s a long one

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