One man has a vision to overturn his lifelong fear in one fell swoop. He just needs to run the world’s toughest mountain race, and slay the Welsh Dragon. Can he fulfil his vision and emerge victorious? Or will his demons take hold…
Dragon’s Back. The self-styled “world’s toughest mountain race”. Seriously? It’s a stage race, for goodness sake. There’s only 60km or so to run each day. You can sleep every single night. That’s after tucking into a hot meal consisting of three courses, replete with an extensive range of teas and coffees. The “world’s toughest” – why, is the caviar rationed? Come on, give me a break.
But then Peter Bedwell attempted it. I dot-watched as he traversed Tryfan, Crib Goch and Cnicht. Despite best efforts, he timed out late on day two, with 30°C conditions and precious little water proving the undoing of more than half of the competitors that day. This 60km wasn’t looking so trivial after all.
In fact, the more I thought about it – the logistics of racing over 6 days, the 17km of climb, the extremely technical terrain, the meagre ration of just two water points per day – the crazier the whole thing sounded.
The world’s toughest mountain race? Stacking up against the likes of TOR, PTL and the likes, I still wasn’t sure about that; but I was beginning to understand that the Dragon’s Back would be a serious challenge. Irrespective of how many cups of Darjeeling and platters of cucumber sandwiches they served at breakfast.
The conception of running Dragon’s Back came at the right time. You see, I loved trail running in the mountains. Chamonix valley was my happy place: a playground of curated trails linking the awe-inspiring Mont Blanc massif with the lively towns below. To train for the vert, whenever I could make the time, I headed to the Peaks, Lakes or Snowdonia, and of course my local hills in the Chilterns. The draw of these raw undulations, the challenges they posed, and the views they offered just kept me coming back for more. They made me feel alive and full of love and respect for the natural world. They reminded me of my humanity. And my mortality.
You see, I wasn’t a fan of grave exposure, where one mistake could be deadly. Knife-edge ridges: not my forte. I’d rather have pickled my eyeballs than cross Crib Goch. In fact, a few steps up a ladder was one step too far for me.
Whilst some sought out scrambles and ridges, I tried to avoid them. When things got a little scrambly, my brain followed suit. Did I have the backbone to even attempt the day 1 route, over Tryfan and the Snowdon Horseshoe? Frankly, I wasn’t sure. The very idea was terrifying.
But this was also the point. The more I ran in the mountains, the more scrambling I encountered. I couldn’t keep running from that my whole life. I could see only two choices:
- Abandon my love of mountains and flee back to the flatlands
- Face my fear of heights; do battle, and slay the beast
Of course, I decided to fight, and I chose the Dragon to be my beast. I had one year to prepare. I figured this journey probably wasn’t going to be fun, but I hoped it’d be worth it.
Well, for the first six months, I didn’t prepare. I had a packed schedule anyway. I PB’d at London, won a story-based adventure by Cockbain and Weremiuk, escaped from Meriden in an orange boiler suit, avoided attrition at Arc, and set a course record on a local 7-in-7 (marathons, and days, don’t you know). All great fun in their own way, but not remotely helpful in preparing for the horrors of Crib Goch.
So I arranged one helpful thing: I attended an official Dragon’s Back training weekend in the Lakes. One day of talks from previous winners, and one day of fun on the fells with other trainee Dragons. My main takeaway from the talks was that I really ought to recce the first couple of days, especially Crib; and my main takeaway from the run with Simon Roberts (last year’s winner) was that I needed lots more practice on rocky terrain if I wanted to be even vaguely competitive.
Too bad: I had a packed race calendar right up until Dragon’s Back, with only one of those races being vaguely mountainous. And there was no way in hell I was recceing Crib. After all, the entire point of the race was to get me over Crib, come hell or high winds, or quite possibly both.
What I did still have though was one spare day in the Lakes, so I puffed out my cheeks and drove to Glenridding, to run the Striding Edge – Hellvelyn – Swirral’s Edge loop. Striding Edge is another classic knife-edge ridge, often recommended as a stepping stone toward Crib Goch. Photos I’d seen of it looked pretty exposed; but with supposedly half the difficulty of Crib, I figured I ought to be able to manage it.
So when I started out on the climb, I was psyched to be getting this little confidence-booster under my belt, but I stalled when I reached the foot of the ridge arcing out into the distance. The path ended, and ahead there was just… well, there was just certain death. They call that a scramble? Suicide is what it was.
I fried my brain trying to invent an excuse to turn back. Maybe I’d left the car unlocked? Perhaps there was an urgent call for me back at that cafe I’d seen in the village? Shit, would you look at that, I’d only forgotten to shave – no self respecting gent in the 21st century would be seen dead crossing a ridge unshaven!
It didn’t help that there were some relatively elderly couples confidently striding past me out over this rocky tightrope, completely unperturbed, laughing and chit-chatting, as though this was nothing but their daily stroll along the pavement. Had they taken leave of their senses, or was I just a wimp? A wimp, quite possibly about to become a dead wimp. I puffed out my cheeks once again, splayed myself out over as much surface area of rock surface as I could, and inched my way over the deathtrap, enjoying my day out as much as a fly trying to cross a spider’s web.
I made it across without fatal incident, and then over the “bad step” (or in plain English – the “fully exposed free solo climb 1km in the air that will kill you instantly if you make one wrong move” step) to reach Hellvelyn. With my feet safely on the summit’s flat plateau, I was a nervous wreck, wishing I could teleport myself back down to terra firma without having to perform any more death-defying stunt work. That wasn’t to be: the descent via Swirral’s Edge was similarly terrifying.
Having extricated myself from the worst of the downhill scramble, I saw a runner approaching at pace, about to begin his ascent. Keen to see how he would approach this challenge, I paused to observe.
It all happened so quickly I wasn’t quite sure what happened. One minute he was at the base, the next he was 10 metres above me, 50 metres in the distance, and dipping out of sight behind some rocks. He’d sprinted up without even breaking his stride. I had to pick my jaw up off the ground.
I made it safely back to Glenridding, and sat myself safely down with a cup of tea to help calm my nerves. My Strava checkin showed my crossing of Striding Edge had been one of the slowest ever recorded: 3,259th out of 3,448. It hadn’t been the confidence booster I had hoped for. If Crib Goch was indeed twice as hard as Striding Edge, then this might be a good moment to wave the white flag of surrender.
I focused my attention back onto my ‘A’ races for the summer season. Dragon’s Back – I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. Or if I came to it.
The remainder of race season went fairly well. I’d enjoyed a couple of beautiful trail races in France, and with nothing else left on my calendar in the month before Dragon’s Back, the spectre of Crib Goch re-emerged to weigh on my mind once again. Following Val d’Aran, I had a guaranteed UTMB place I could take up if I so wished, and I was sorely tempted. At this point, I was seriously considering telling the Dragon to get stuffed.
But I didn’t.
It was now just two weeks before DB-day. I figured by leaving all my kit preparation this late I was risking my very ability to start the race should I even want to, so I reluctantly pulled up the mandatory kit list and gave it a perfunctory once-over. The most obvious gaps I saw were the Ortlieb camp and drop bags, and the bafflingly specific requirements for a blister kit, not something I’d ever bothered with before. I placed an order for all three items, and figured that was enough preparation for now.
It was Sunday afternoon, just one week before the race, when I finally sat down to read the mandatory kit list properly, and began to realise just how much I’d overlooked the previous week. In fact, this wasn’t like any kit list I’d seen before. I hunkered down to work through it in detail.
By 2am, I’d consumed my own body weight in green tea, and was tracking over 100 different kit items. I figured I only had about half of them. Next day delivery orders were going in left, right and centre. And then there were the mandatory Ortlieb bags and fancy blister kit I’d ordered: would they be delivered in time?
Just to add extra jeopardy, I was swamped at work this week. I was downing tools anywhere between 9pm and midnight, cooking dinner, working some more, and only then switching back to my Dragon’s Back kit preparation in the early hours of the morning. Operating on at most 4 hours sleep, I was stressed and utterly exhausted.
My kit spreadsheet had grown into the most complex running related sheet I’d ever produced, packed to the rafters with formulae to help track all the kit I owned, had on order, or still needed to buy; to optimise for weight, to account for different weather conditions, to group into dry bags, and so on. I imagined it was a comparable level of complexity to an aspiring Arctic explorer’s kit preparations.
My Ortlieb bags finally arrived on Thursday, three days before I was to depart for Conwy. I tried to pack them on Friday evening, wherein I discovered an entirely new problem: volume limitations. The long, thin Ortlieb 59 litre dry bag with roll top simply couldn’t fit all my kit. In fact, it couldn’t fit even just the mandatory component of all my kit. So, on Saturday, I dashed out to my local Countryside Ski & Climb store, and replaced some of my bulkier items with smaller alternatives.
It was 10pm when I finally succeeded in closing my dry bags. On the final weigh in, my camp bag clocked in at 14.7kg, and my drop bag at 2.4kg, bringing me 400g shy of the weight limit. I would be able to face the Dragon… and Crib Goch… after all. I felt relief and despair in equal measure.
After all this, I still hadn’t settled on the running gear I would set out in; but with 8 hours before departure, I’d run out of time, so I just made some on-the-spot calls. Primary shoes: X-Talon 260s, which I’d run in maybe twice before, and never on rocky terrain. Race pack: Gecko VP12+, which I’d never used with poles, and so gambled on an untested pole stowage strategy using the two rear drawcords.
Despite some justified concerns regarding my level of preparation, I still enjoyed the best night’s sleep I’d had all week.
The Dragon’s Lair
Arriving in Wales, I first took care of race registration and kit check in Conwy, before heading for a little jog along the promenade in neighbouring Llandudno. It wasn’t good – I could feel some familiar muscular niggles. With all the goings on over the past week, I’d had no time to work on the gait-impacting muscular inhibitions I’d picked up lately. The very things liable to result in an unpleasant bout of shin splints, given a long enough run… like a 380km run the length of Wales, perhaps? It was too late to do anything about them now.
Back at the registration venue in Conwy, I met up with my friend Sophie Bennett, who was returning for her second attempt at Dragon’s Back, after timing out on day 2 the previous year. She beamed at me with a massive smile, exuding both confidence and genuine excitement at this chance to finally win her Dragon. I was super excited for her, and told her as much. I was also really hoping she wouldn’t ask me how I was feeling.
“How are you feeling?”
“Well, I’m a little concerned about Crib Goch – ”
“You’ll love it!”
I was saved by the start of the race briefing. After the formalities, a light dinner was provided by the Dragon’s Back catering team. I sat down opposite a runner I’d met earlier in the year at Arc, Ammon Piepgrass. A far more experienced ultrarunner than I, he was as calm as a cucumber, and seemed more interested in discussing even bigger races ahead, than the precarious ridges we were about to undertake in Snowdonia. Among all these self-assured mountaineers, I quietly wondered what on earth I was doing here.
I rose at 03:45 in my hotel room in Llandudno, aiming for a 04:55 departure. On the drive to the Castle, I stopped off at Llandudno Junction to give a lift to a few fellow runners, one of whom was a gent by the name of Richard Ward. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was an important introduction, as my calm compatriot would go on to play a key role in my Dragon’s Back experience. But here I am, jumping ahead of the story; back to the start, for the start of the Dragon’s Back is surely the best race start in the land.
By the light of our headtorches, we congregated in the car park outside Conwy Castle, where I finished my third and final banana of the morning. To gain entry to the castle we passed through the gift shop, and ascended the steps winding around the castle’s stone façade.
As soon as I set foot inside the medieval castle walls, a cold air hit, chilling me to the bone. The inner castle was dark and creepy. Above were the castle ramparts, where shadowy figures gazed down over us, beneath the dramatic dark blue night sky. Did they have bows & arrows? In the background, a male choir sang what I presumed to be traditional Welsh national songs, whose earnest tones resonated eerily around the cool stone walls, only adding to the medieval melodrama. Ahead stood an illuminated Montane Dragon’s Back arch, whose red and black clock ticked down the seconds to the 6am start. A few hundred runners clustered around it, hushed and uneasy. I shuffled over to join them. The atmosphere was indescribable, and transported me not just to another place, but to another era.
The last song concluded, and without further fanfare, the race began. We filed out of the castle and queued to climb up onto the city walls. Our uneasy silence persisted, whilst we run-walked along the stone walls for almost a kilometre, ascending and descending their rickety wooden steps, before emerging onto Upper Gate Street where our very first checkpoint awaited. A quirk of the Dragon’s Back is that your race doesn’t actually begin until you dib into this checkpoint outside the town walls; everything until this point was mere ceremony. I dibbed in, and I started to run. My Dragon’s Back adventure had begun.
Before long, we broke away from the town onto good trails heading up Conwy Mountain (Mynydd y Dref), and onto the long stretch of undulating grassy terrain that would take us over Tal y Fan, Foel Fras, and the Carneddau mountain range, right into the heart of Snowdonia.
The first 8k or so approaching Carnedd Gwenllian flew by like a dream; our medieval sendoff melding seamlessly into the hilly trails, overlooking coastlines, rivers, and misty valleys of sleepy conurbations, where smoke rose from quaint chimney stacks. I passed my friend Sophie, accompanied by her running buddy Steve, and we all beamed at each other with looks of genuine contentment. On this crisp morning beneath the clear blue sky, trotting over these rolling hills without a care in the world, we were all truly living the dream.
As we pushed on into the Carneddau, wild horses galloped across our path, weaving back and forth, and then ran alongside us, as if to share in our freedom. “It feels like a fairy tale”, whispered a fellow runner beside me, in a moment that felt like it was written for the big screen. With everything this perfect, things could only get worse.
I didn’t have long to wait. The sun tucked itself behind the clouds that were rapidly overtaking the sky, and a chill wind picked up, buffeting my ears and drowning out any other sound. The grassy hillsides that had dominated the first stretch of the route had given way to more rugged, rocky terrain. And I was having a hard time staying upright.
The problem was with the shoes I’d hastily selected some 36 hours ago. These shoes, the X-Talon 260s, had aggressive 8mm lugs; and whilst they had given me great purchase on the grass earlier, they were proving worse than useless on these rocks. As I slipped, slid, and plain fell over, any confidence I might have had for the fast approaching Snowdonian mountains ebbed away. There was so little friction beneath my feet that I may as well have been wearing tapdancing shoes.
I passed many other runners sporting the same distinctive black and orange 260s, and over the howling wind, I made a point of enquiring how they were getting on. I received the same feedback over and over: on these rocks, the tapdancing shoes were treacherous.
My navigation gear needed some reconsideration as well. So far I’d navigated solely using my GPS watch, and hadn’t needed to reference the mandatory DB route map that I’d wedged down the front of my race vest for easy access. That map was forever falling to the ground, riding up to dig into my chin, or flap right in front of my face, as if desperate to distract me in every way it possibly could. “You should be using me, rookie!”, the insolent map protested, slapping my nose at a constant rate of 3Hz. My Silva Expedition compass was just as impudent – I’d attached it to my race pack with a cord to save losing it, but I kept catching my hand in the cord. I’d just done that again, and it’d whipped the sharp-edged compass out of my pocket and smacked it straight between my eyes. “Check your bearing, doofus!”, the haughty compass insisted. Enough was enough: I pulled over, and stashed both compass and map right in the back of my pack. Good riddance. At least my watch wasn’t going to take my eye out.
Every day at Dragon’s Back has one water point and one support point. Both points provide water, but the support point also gives you access to your drop bag, where you’d be wise to have stashed a resupply of food. Today, the first stop was the support point, sited alongside Ogwen lake (Llyn Ogwen). As I retrieved my food supplies, I briefly got sucked into watching runners descending from the majestic summit of Pen yr Ole Wen. Observing the freedom of human movement across this epic terrain provided an inspiring perspective of the race ahead, the full traversal of the backbone of Wales, literally the back of the Dragon. But alas, for me, it was now time to face my lesser nemesis: Tryfan.
I haven’t really mentioned Tryfan yet, but this mountain had been a concern right from the outset. Some years ago, I’d semi-scrambled up to the col between Y-Garn and Glyder Fawr, ran over the rocky summits to Bwlch Tryfan, and attempted to pick my own route up the southern face. I’d bottled it some distance short of the summit, and took a while carefully unpicking my way back down, castigating myself for being so arrogant as to ignore all the visible paths. I then managed to become ‘temporarily mislocated’ by mistaking Llyn Bochlwyd for Llyn Idwal (don’t ask…), and wound up clambering back to ground via a stream, emerging back at Ogwen Cottage pretty embarrassed with myself. Somewhat rattled by the experience, I had never returned to Tryfan since.
In keeping with my total lack of preparation for this race, I had just assumed that the official route would ascend Tryfan’s notorious North Ridge, whose reputation as a technical scramble I was certainly familiar with. As I set off from the support point, that was the way I thought I was going; it was only some weeks afterwards when I reviewed my GPS trace that I realised the route actually ascends West Gully. For any Dragons-in-training: I would genuinely advise at least looking at the route before race day!
The climb started off on very well laid paths, with fantastic views over the lake to the north. I happily powered up this section, stopping only to take in the jaw-dropping spectacle of the black fighter jets ripping through the valley, surely only 50 metres above the ground, weaving between the mountains at such pace one could hardly imagine the concentration required by their pilots to avoid a collision. The self-evident mortal risk involved in their manoeuvres put a simple ascent of Tryfan into perspective.
As I climbed higher, the distinct path I’d enjoyed bled into the rocky scramble I had been expecting. Those who I’d just overtaken shot back past me, coming into their element on this more technical terrain, whilst I slowed to a crawl. I picked my way up, cautiously following in their footsteps, trying to keep someone in sight at all times to reassure me that the route I was on was indeed traversable.
Runner after runner passed me, moving effortlessly over these rock faces, all seemingly relishing the experience. After a while, I started to notice those passing me were looking less confident than those who had come before. I made small talk with one, who explained he had also been too scared to recce this section of the route, and was finding it quite terrifying; yet, even he passed me. I kept on climbing steadily, at my frustratingly glacial pace. I was, however, beginning to realise that it wasn’t so much the scramble that scared me, as the lack of knowledge of what was coming next.
Summiting Tryfan was a relief, but I knew the descent would also be tricky, especially wearing my tapdancing shoes, which were doing me absolutely no favours over these smooth and slippery rocks. I gradually picked my way down the southern side of the mountain before passing what looked like a familiar style from my Glyderau run years prior. I’ve already run Fawr and Fach from here, I told myself – this bit is easy.
That feeling didn’t last long. The climb up Glyder Fach was steep scree, and nothing like I recalled – we were obviously taking a more direct & difficult route. I was glad to reach the top in one piece. The summits themselves, though, were much as I had recalled: rugged, rocky outcrops that looked quite otherworldly. As I trotted along, a vista emerged to my left of Snowdonia, in all its glory. A runner beside me pointed out our overnight camp down below. Whilst tantalisingly close, our route was far from direct: we had to traverse the entire Snowdon Horseshoe, featuring my nemesis, Crib Goch. I could see it clearly at my 11 o’clock. The ridge looked majestic; even enticing, perhaps. They always do from afar.
The descent from Glyder Fawr took us to the day’s water point at Pen-y-Pass. I already had an untouched bottle of Tailwind ready for hands-free fuelling along the ridge, and I donned my long-sleeve top, with my t-shirt over the top, for added warmth. There was nothing else for it – this was what I was here for. Tally-ho.
I’ve been up the Pyg Track before, and I enjoyed the initial climb, until I rounded a corner and the wind slammed into me, darn near knocking me over. Out of the protection of the mountainside, it was blowing a bloody gale up here. And there, right there, was the sign I’d been dreading: Crib Goch. A shiver ran all the way down my spine. After a year of trepidation, with my only preparation having been to scare the absolute shit out of myself on Striding Edge, here I was, in high wind, with rocks still wet from the earlier rains, wearing a pair of tapdancing shoes, about to try to run over this razor ridge of death against the clock. Sensible, mate. Very sensible. The Pyg track’s just there – take the blue pill, ascend Pyg and live another day.
I pulled over to the side to make some last-minute preparations. I put on my waterproof jacket to act as a windstopper, ate an energy bar, and swallowed an electrolyte pill. The red pill, in essence. Before another gust of wind blew me straight off the mountain, I opened the gate to Crib Goch.
I was shortly confronted by a pretty sheer rockface, with no obvious path. So I let a few runners pass ahead of me, so I could follow their lead. Step by step, movement by movement, handhold by handhold, I gradually pulled myself up. Three points of contact. Focus. This was nothing like I’d expected for the ascent to the ridge: this was much more precarious.
Was it exhilarating, or was I about to plummet to an untimely death? The free-climbs kept coming, and I was very glad to have people to follow. Attempting this by myself, without knowledge of the lines, would have been a much riskier prospect. Especially in these conditions, with the wind gusting as it was.
Finally, I could see the ground levelling ahead of me – I had reached the end of the so-called ‘bad step’. In front of me, I could see the long ridge of Crib Goch extending into the distance, beneath an ominous looking sky. The wind was still howling. Please don’t f*cking rain too, I pleaded with mother nature. My tapdancing shoes weren’t up to that.
Recalling that terrifying moment when I stood in front of the Striding Edge ridge, I just took a second to process what was in front of me now. I couldn’t see very much of the ridge, but what I could see didn’t look as intimidating as Striding. And having just scrambled up that sheer rockface, and knowing what I’d already achieved on Tryfan, I didn’t feel as bad as I’d expected. But I wasn’t hanging around for photos and drinks either.
I started off walking upright, determined to instil in myself a sense of self-confidence I could carry through the whole ridge. But that wind was strong, and the top of the ridge was narrowing, so I crouched down and straddled the ridge, creeping forward at a slow but steady pace.
Other runners cruised past me to my left, and advised me to drop down to the side and follow suit. I felt more secure up top, with purchase on both sides, so I ignored them at first. But, with my muscles starting to cramp in this highly unnaturally contorted position, and acknowledging I was making very slow progress, I followed their advice and lowered myself down to the side.
I’d heard that it’s advised to use the head of the ridge as a “handrail”, which I was naturally doing anyway, but this “handrail” isn’t exactly secure. Many of these rocks are cracked, and would probably shear off given a horizontal force of any magnitude, such as trying to catch yourself in the event of a foot slipping. Which was a likely occurrence, given the footholds are worn smooth: the perfect complement to my tapdancing shoes, I quipped. Meanwhile, the wind kept gusting. It was, at least, blowing me into the side of the mountain, rather than off of it.
Other runners were picking their way past me with consummate ease, and most shouted words of encouragement and advice in my direction, obviously recognising that I wasn’t at home up here, clinging on for dear life.
Over the sound of the wind, I thought I heard Sophie’s voice. Out of my right ear, I could hear her congratulating me; and then out of my left ear, she was encouraging me to keep going. Either she’d found a way to project her voice in surround sound, or she’d manoeuvred around me without my even realising. As I was discovering, most of my compatriots on Dragon’s Back were mountain goats, whereas I was more the horse, or donkey.
As I passed over what I presumed to be the summit of the ridge, I took a moment to perch atop and gaze out ahead of me. The view from this vantage point was spectacular, and I mean really spectacular. The rocky gullies to each side were a feast for the imagination, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether one could forge a path down either one. My sense of adventure was triggered, and I reached for my phone to take a photo, but immediately lost my nerve. 3 points of contact; and with my derrière perched on a rock, that meant both hands. The ridge was proving to be a juggling act of fear, concentration, and some occasional moments of wholehearted rapture.
I assumed that the prominent rocky outcrop ahead of me was the first Pinnacle. I’d read about these last night, during a few moments of last-minute research on my phone. There is an easy route to the left bypassing the first two, before it cuts over to the right to tackle the third. I was just plotting my line to the left, when a volunteer stationed ahead on the third Pinnacle called out my name. (I found out later that Sophie had told her I was coming – presumably describing me as something like “the short guy who’s shit scared!”) The volunteer waved, smiling, and pointed me toward the easiest route, which was a little way beneath my planned line.
The Pinnacle bypass turned out to be a dead easy section, and afforded me a lovely breather after that long, exposed ridge scramble. Cutting across to and down the third Pinnacle was fine as well, and before I knew it, all three were behind me. And now, I dropped down onto a wide expanse of solid ground. The main ridge was done.
I knew there was a long scramble still to come up to Garnedd Ugain. I mainly tackled this on the northern side, whose rock hadn’t seen the sun and was still wet from earlier rains. Sections of this ascent reminded me of Swirral Edge, where its ground sloped toward sheer drops, with precious few handholds for security.
Having just clambered over a rocky pinnacle, I was snapped out of my tunnel vision by a loud cry that came from somewhere behind me.
“Aargh, my ankle!”
I paused, whilst crouched in an awkward position on an exposed piece of rock, with the wind howling over me, threatening to blow me right off. Shit. Someone needed help.
The last thing I needed was to have to set up shop atop my nemesis Crib Goch, in high winds, on wet rock, in my tapdancing shoes, and try to teach myself how to render first aid to a poor soul in distress – but what choice did I have? I’d turned around and was surveying possible routes that would take me toward the anonymous voice, when I heard the dulcet tones of someone far less agitated than me.
“Are you alright? Do you want me to go and get help?”
“No, I’m fine, it’s not broken”, the injured party responded. “I think it’s just a strain. I need a minute, but I’ll be alright. You go on, honestly”. I was elated; both for him, but also for me.
Emerging from the final scramble up to the summit, for the first time in what seemed like forever, I found both my feet were on stable, solid ground, with more of the same ahead. I’d cracked Crib.
One year in the making, and I’d done it. I’d imagined this moment: the beast vanquished, and me, emerging triumphant and victorious. Hallelujah! But I didn’t feel triumphant, or victorious.
It was the same feeling I had after crossing Striding Edge. I was split between relief, or disbelief, that I’d actually made it across alive; and an abject, profound and utter disappointment in myself that I’d been so slow. It felt like the entire race field had overtaken me across this ridge. And now, goodness knows what time it was.
I should have been more confident. I should have gone faster.
I’d have to unpick all this later. One fact was undeniable: it was getting quite late. And the sky was ominous, and the wind was blowing, and it was cold, and I was tired, and mentally exhausted, and I hadn’t eaten or drunk since the Pyg Track. I needed to get to this overnight camp as soon as possible.
On familiar ground now, I ran to the intersection of the Llanberis path & the railway line, tracking it up to the checkpoint at the summit of Snowdon, and then back down to the Watkin path. After a short scoot down the scree, I reentered uncharted terrain as my route broke left to track the ridgeline around the rest of the Snowdon Horseshoe.
Temperatures were dropping now, with intermittent rain and persistent wind continuing irritants. I had thought that the summit of Garnedd Ugain marked the end of the scrambles for the day, but no. We were back on trackless rocky scrambles up to the remaining summits, and my tapdancing shoes were once again sending me skating over the wet rocks like I was on a bloody ice rink. Meanwhile, I and the others around me were losing quite some time fiddling around, trying to ascertain which summits needed climbing, and which tracks went anywhere useful. With light starting to fade, as I led a group of tired and hungry souls up a faint path to Gallt y Wenallt, a voice behind me summed up our collective feeling: “I’ve had just about enough of this”.
After dibbing into the final checkpoint at the summit, my GPS pointed me toward a steep trail cutting its way down the grassy mountainside. Exercising extreme caution on this most slippery of descents, and making heavy use of my poles, I somehow managed to remain upright all the way to the bottom. Later, over dinner, I would learn that this tentative approach was very much in the minority; most people threw themselves down it, treating it as a constant series of semi-controlled slides and falls.
Relieved as I was to make it back to ground without injury, the skies decided to welcome me by turning on the taps and unleashing the heaviest rains of the day. Through the downpour, I sprinted the road section to our first overnight camp, and hurled myself under the cover of the race control tent. Back in safety at last.
What happened at Crib Goch?
My mind was fried. The day had started off so perfectly, but that was but a distant memory: for half a day, I’d been subjected to one scare after another, including none other than Crib Goch itself. It was late, and I was tired, hungry, cold, soaking wet, and covered in mud. Now I was at a campsite in the middle of nowhere, in both the dark and the pouring rain, with precious little idea what awaited me.
“How was it?” enquired the enthusiastic race official, as what looked like a supermarket receipt printer spat out a long strip of paper. Without waiting for my answer, she tore it off and glanced over it, much like a shopper would check their bill.
“Oh dear, what happened at Crib Goch?”
What happened? Against my better judgement, in high winds and tapdancing shoes, I had managed to manoeuvre my body across that deathtrap, and somehow survived to tell the tale.
She rotated the receipt for me to see the letters “DNF” printed in large script across the top. Beneath that was a report of each checkpoint I’d passed through, and the time I’d dibbed into each one. Beside the words “CP11 Crib Goch”, there was just a blank space.
She explained to me that another official would review my GPS track to see whether I’d passed directly over the Crib Goch checkpoint; and if I had, I might be allowed to continue the race.
“Don’t worry”, she reassured me, seeing my bewildered expression. “It will probably be fine. Go and get some food now, and come back later when we’ve had a chance to review it”.
Another volunteer handed me my drop bag and guided me through the campsite. Clearly realising I was slightly shellshocked, he did his best to put me at ease, explaining where everything was and suggesting what I might like to do next. Nonetheless, given what had just transpired, I wasn’t really processing what he was saying. He led me past rows of large blue tents, to the one that was my assigned quarters.
“Leave your shoes outside”, came a voice from within. Brushing the rain off of my eyebrows, I kicked off my tapdancing shoes, revealing socks that were sodden and black with mud. That was as good as it was going to get. I pushed aside the tent flap and stepped in.
The tents at Dragon’s Back sleep eight. There’s a communal living space in the centre, and four sleeping pods, two on each side. Each pod sleeps two people, and there’s just enough room inside each pod for two regular sleeping mats. With everyone’s camp bags, drop bags and gear in the communal space, the space is rather cramped – especially if you’re the last one to arrive.
Whilst I dripped water into a puddle in the middle of the tent, a chap called Tim gave me a brief run-down of the other occupants, none of whom were there. My friend Sophie and her running partner Steve I already knew, but there were also two other Steves, and Jane. Some were eating, and some were washing in the river, Tim explained. I could see everyone had already set up their sleeping quarters for the evening.
My brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders, so I just made a mental note to call every bloke in here Steve (the odds were I’d get it right most of the time), Sophie I already knew, and… what other names had that bloke mentioned? I shrugged. Bent double, I unrolled the top of my long cylindrical Ortlieb camp bag, and stared at the bright coloured compressed dry bags poking out of the top. Half of my mind was still clinging to the side of Crib Goch, and the other half was trying to grapple with the fact that I was about to be disqualified. What was I being disqualified for, exactly? I’d survived; wasn’t that the main thing?
I could see these dry bags, but I couldn’t decide what on earth to do with them. I was distressed, demoralised, and needed food. My brain had ground to a halt.
In the end, I aimlessly emptied the contents of a few bags onto the groundsheet, and this kickstarted the firing of my neurons once again. I followed the lead of my tentmates and set up my sleeping quarters. Then I tried to scrub off the outer layer of mud as best I could, changed into my camp clothes, politely declined the opportunity to bathe in a river, in the rain, by headtorch; and instead headed out into the rain in search of some dinner.
I located the canteen tent, and upon stepping inside, it felt like I’d entered a completely different dimension: it was light, warm, cosy, and welcoming. The volunteers behind the serving bays were positively beaming at the opportunity to lend a hand. They were serving tomato soup, pasta with lentil bolognese, garlic bread, and a simple lettuce salad. There were cakes for dessert too. It all looked good, but I expect they were saving the cucumber sandwiches and caviar for breakfast.
With a full cup and plate, I walked past the little tea & coffee tent to find the large communal tent, containing the info desk, a chillout area, and a large dining area with long tables and chairs. It felt a little empty, and it was obvious I was fairly late to the party. I sat down beside someone and started on my soup, whilst he regaled me with the story of his day. He had been returned to camp after missing the cutoff at Pen y Pass. Whilst he had the option to continue running half days non-competitively, he’d already mentally checked out, and was ready to return home tomorrow to continue his home refurbishment. He’d had enough of this race, he explained – the wet rocks on Tryfan and the Glyders had been treacherous, and he wanted nothing more to do with it. This was worrying close to how I felt too.
Approaching peak demotivation, I headed over to the info desk to enquire about the status of my race. Had the officials reached a determination on my missed dib point at Crib Goch? She’d find out and let me know, I was told. So I went to get some pudding.
She found me shortly afterwards tucking into some cakes, and explained they could see from my GPS trace that I had indeed passed right over the checkpoint, and had obviously just forgotten to dib in. I’d been awarded a 15 minute time penalty, and one ‘strike’. Three strikes and you’re out – but it was nothing to worry about, she assured me.
As an afterthought, she asked me, “how did you miss the checkpoint?”
The Crib Goch checkpoint – presumably this was sited on the summit overlooking the ridge, just after the ‘bad step’ up from Pyg. “My whole race was about traversing Crib”, I explained. “You could have set up a flashing neon sign there and I doubt I’d have seen it”.
I didn’t care about a 15 minute time penalty, but a ‘strike’? I’d risked my life crossing Crib, and instead of a pat on the back, I’d been reprimanded for something insignificant. I brushed my teeth and despondently trudged back through the wet grass to my tent, where I found all my tentmates already returned, and tucked up in their beds, lights off. My pyjamas were buried somewhere in my mountain of dry bags, which were buried somewhere in my big dry bag; and goodness knows where my inflatable pillow was. I clambered into my sleeping bag in my camp clothes, as quietly as I could, and rested my head on my coat. Just like the gent I’d spoken to over dinner, I too was in the process of mentally checking out. I’d had enough of this f*cking race.
I didn’t bother setting an alarm. If I missed the start window tomorrow, so be it, I would gladly head home instead. I had some home refurbishments to be getting on with too.
It was still dark, and a headtorch was casting shadows over the sides of the tent. One of the Steves was packing away his sleeping mat. My watch said it was 04:20.
I sighed, and rolled over onto my back. Was I going to start today? There was this ‘strike’ hanging over my head. And whilst I’d ticked off Crib and Tryfan, I was still very concerned about the terrain today. People had warned me there were a couple of really steep descents, and one of the speakers at the training weekend had even mentioned crampons. More generally, given the technicality of some of the terrain we’d already faced, I figured the rest of the route was bound to be pretty sketchy as well.
And what was the point of putting myself at risk? My only goals going into this race – completing Crib Goch, and to a lesser extent Tryfan – were already complete. I had no other stated objectives. And if I continued regardless, I could quite easily break a leg, or worse. I lay there for a while, weighing the merits of proceeding, versus the merits of rolling over and going back to sleep.
After a while, I followed Steve’s lead by packing up my sleeping gear and heading for breakfast. The genial and enthusiastic catering staff had once again put on an excellent spread, and I had a couple of servings.
I spotted Simon, last year’s race winner, staring into his food, looking rather dejected. I didn’t know why, but this was a light bulb moment: he looked how I felt! And seeing a physical manifestation of that, I realised as clear as day that I needed to change something immediately.
I spotted a group of upbeat runners, plonked myself down amongst them, and injected myself into their conversation, feeding off of their energy. Then I headed over to the big TV screens displaying mountain weather information, and began to formulate a plan of attack. I was going to switch out my tapdancing shoes for my RocLite 290s, which should give me at least some confidence on the rocky terrain. I’d start in a long sleeve baselayer to handle the variable conditions I’d face on the exposed peaks, before rain set in later in the afternoon. And I’d start with my battery pack, since I somehow ended the day with a watch at 10% and a phone at 2%.
I was on a fantastic adventure traversing the length of Wales, I reminded myself. I’d already survived Crib Goch. I may have taken several eons to complete the scrambles, but I was doing OK for a scared-of-heights flatlander. Chin up, pal! Atta boy, into the valley of Death, and all that.
By the time I got back to the tent, everyone else had already left. I still had to prepare my race pack, pack all my camp gear, and drop my bags. By the time I crossed the starting line, I was three quarters of an hour behind the rest of my tentmates. But at least I had started…
There was a road section to start, which gave me a bit of a reboot; an opportunity to start afresh, before the route turned to the left and headed up the steep, slippery scree ascent of Cnicht. It was a case of fighting for friction at times, but I felt considerably more secure in my RocLites, and remained positive about it. The climb finished with a few comparatively simple bits of scrambling, before reaching the summit of Cnicht with impressive views over Snowdonia.
Some of the runners around me, who’d been slightly spooked by the technicality and exposure of the ascent, joked about the “cult of ultrarunning”. If the route told us to jump off the side of a mountain, some of us would, they postulated.
Funnily enough, after a short run along the ridge atop Cnicht, that’s moreorless exactly what I was faced with. The GPS route pointed straight down an extremely steep grassy slope that didn’t look remotely traversable to me. I gazed out over it, shaking my head with a wry smile. What exactly were we supposed to do here?
I heard sounds of a group of chattering runners approaching from behind. Having realised by this stage that almost everyone had recce’d the first couple of days, I figured I’d wait for them, and observe how they tackled this route section. I expected they’d know of a safe route down.
Where I had seen a sheer impassable cliff, these runners saw a helter skelter. They whooped with excitement and leapt off the side of the mountain, sliding down the slope on their backsides. One lost their poles halfway down, but their friend who was hurtling down right behind them yelled out, through guffaws of laughter, “don’t worry, I’ve got them”, before extending their reach and grabbing them as they slid uncontrollably past. No sooner had the group arrived, they were a hundred metres below me, scurrying away over the brow of the next hill. Even if I were encased in a Zorb ball, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what they’d just done.
Nonetheless, very cautiously, I tried to follow their general lead and descend this cliff-slope… but rather than taking 30 seconds, the exact same descent took me a good five minutes. And it tore a massive hole in the backside of my shorts! With my pants on full display, I shook my head and bounded off, straight into a long stretch of trailless boggy moorland.
The second checkpoint was atop the summit of Moelwyn Mawr, whose ascent featured the strongest winds of the week thus far. At the top, I felt the need to crouch to lower my centre of gravity, to avoid being blown over, or even off the mountain entirely. Given an umbrella, I could have done a Mary Poppins. From here it was a slow, rocky descent along the minor Craigysgafn ridge, before a frustrating out-and-back scree ascent up to Moelwyn Bach to dib into checkpoint 3. From here, the descent past Stwlan lake was again steep and ill-defined.
For the third time today, I bumped into Sam, a charismatic chap with an impressive beard, who had as little clue about the route as I did! We kept picking different lines; neither of them any good, and eventually regrouped after we’d carved paths back to the right route. On this occasion, Sam had followed me: I’d successfully led the way down to Stwlan, but then delivered us to a sheer cliff edge. As we tried to find a way to cut back across to the correct route, he shared his concern that, with all our zig-zagging, he thought we were behind the cutoffs. Now, I hadn’t really paid much attention to how these worked, so he explained: there were cutoff times at both the water point and support point, and there were advisory times for each of the checkpoints. Then he gave me an advisory time on a checkpoint we’d passed, to substantiate his concern that we might be running up against the clock.
I wasn’t so sure about these so-called advisory times. Yes, I’d started late, and we’d certainly taken some roundabout routes to get here, and I knew I’d again been relatively slow traversing the more technical slopes – but up against the cutoffs, already? That said, I began to realise I had no real idea – I hadn’t even looked at the cutoff times. It could only be my ego convincing myself I was well ahead of them. Either way, I decided to stop dilly-dallying and get a move on. If and when I left this race, I wanted it to be on my terms, not because I’d wasted time pottering around some bogland and just missed a cutoff. So I left Sam behind and opened up the taps, charging down through the bracken, and eventually emerging onto the Cumbrian Way. A simple, flat, and trivial to navigate path. This was more my sort of terrain, where I was able to make much better progress. My checkpoint-to-checkpoint placing dropped from 183rd for CP4 down to 30th for CP5.
Nonetheless, the race leaders passed me on this section. I held a gate for Simon Roberts, and was quite amused to see Chris Cope shoot past with a gaping hole in his shorts. Just like me, it seemed he had been a victim of the Cnicht’s crazy descent-by-derrière.
Thanks to that easy section, I reached the water point earlier than I expected. I spotted a poster which advertised its cutoff time. I was 62 minutes ahead of it. That meant Sam would easily make it too. However, one hour in the bank wasn’t very much, especially when I’d heard there was even trickier terrain to come in the Rhinogs. Also, after all the unusual crouching I’d done whilst inching my way along the side of Crib Goch yesterday, the musculature around my right knee was agitated. In the event of that worsening, I would need a decent time buffer. Sam had a point: I really had to get a move on.
Good trails allowed me to make excellent progress through a reserve, where I made up lots of places; that is, until the GPS route veered off to the left – where there was absolutely no sign of a path. There was just an incline through practically impassable foliage up to an unassailable stone wall. Other runners were stopping and trying to figure it out, too. I backtracked, to no avail, and then made various attempts to forge a path through. By now, the other runners had all shrugged their shoulders and continued straight on, bashing through bracken, and were little more than specks in the distance. But I was determined to find the right route.
It took me a good while, but eventually I found a way up to this tentative escarpment path. It was an awkward route, and I made slow progress scrambling my way along it, but I was bang on the GPS line. It shortly dropped me back into bracken, and so proceeded another 10 minutes of bracken bashing, until I joined a better travelled trail, which led straight back into a mishmash of boglands and trail. I’d just ‘run’ a 22 minute kilometre, for goodness sake. Babies can crawl faster than this…
The sun had come out and, whilst trying to make up some time on this little stretch of good trail, my foot plunged straight into a hidden stream, and before I knew what was going on, I was flying through the air. Fortunately, my fall was broken by a large bush of thistles. I picked myself up to find I had a few aches and pains, but nothing serious. I began pulling a few of the thistles out of my skin, but shortly gave up – I was absolutely covered in the things, like a hedgehog wearing a rucksack. So I just set back off, grinning at my own carelessness. This race was just a bit nuts.
Arriving into the support point at Cwm Bychan, I did a double-take when I saw the poster displaying its cutoff time. I wolfed down a packet of crisps, thrust my nutrition into my race vest, and departed as quickly as I could, just 26 minutes to the good.
I couldn’t believe how close I’d just come to being timed out. This was the first time I had ever had to think about cutoffs in a race, and by golly by gum, if I wasn’t now up against it. At least, as I understood it, there were no more cutoffs until the 10pm course closure time at the overnight camp. It was just me against the Rhinogs now. Surely I could get over them by 10pm. What was going on…?
It took just a few minutes for me to make my first mistake ascending Rhinog Fawr. It looked like the route tracked across a boulder field, and being quite happy hopping over large boulders, I gravitated straight for it. All was good until halfway across, where I got a bit stuck trying to cut a line toward the mountain ascent path. I tried going low, then going high, and finally going even higher; but try as I might, I couldn’t find a way through, and the clock was ticking. I could see all the other runners following an easy trail far beneath me, avoiding the boulder field entirely. Some were even pointing at me and commenting – I imagined it was something along the lines of “isn’t that the same idiot who was struggling on Crib yesterday?” Despite the fact I was really enjoying my little boulder field puzzle here, I figured I’d better turn back.
It was the right move, their route to the ascent path was much simpler. But as I joined a group of runners starting the climb proper, the heavens opened, and the atmosphere changed on a dime. Under epic rain and hail like this, our waterproofs didn’t stand a chance. 20,000 hydrostatic heads – yeah, good luck with that! Drenched, cold, and miserable, it was a real slog up these steep slopes.
There was no respite on the descent either, which crossed an expansive field of boulders and scree. After my last routing error, I decided against taking what I perceived to be the direct route, and instead followed the lead of a group of runners ahead of me. In less than a minute I was regretting my decision. They’d picked a meandering route across this awkward oversize scree field that seemed just as bad, if not actually worse than the direct route. One of them then broke a pole in half, and were quite fortunate to catch themselves in time. This descent really was no place for poles. The rest of the sketchy scree descent was a thoroughly forlorn affair.
By the time we cleared the scree, the rains finally relented a little, and I could take in the lay of the land up here. In better weather, this would be a charming location, where picture-postcard lakes and grasslands were cosseted by dramatic mountains on all sides. In the current weather, honestly, it was just a series of obstacles.
The climb up Rhinog Fach was short and sweet, but it was very steep. It was hard to find good traction, and required both hands to pull oneself up. The rain was back, and again it was a case of getting one’s head down and cracking on with it.
The next ascent was even worse. Traction on the steep mud and scree was very limited, and there was precious little to grab onto to help stabilise oneself. When you talk to people about Dragon’s Back, I guarantee nobody will mention these little climbs. They get lost amidst the bigger picture of what we’re doing, the big name climbs and ridges. But for me and my poor head for heights, they were really quite scary in their own way. I was grabbing onto little tufts of grass and sprinting up the worst sections.
As I passed over Crib y Rhiw with some others in tow, I stopped in my tracks as I watched someone up ahead teeter… and then fall to the side, out of sight. Silently, I turned to the runner behind me, who I could see was also staring straight ahead, wide-eyed. “He’s gone”, he observed, matter-of-factly.
We both hurried to the location, as some other runners to our side stood looking on, motionless; their faces white and jaws slightly ajar. As I approached the scene, I got a shock as the chap reemerged from behind some rocks, pack askew, looking like he’d just seen a ghost.
“I thought you were a goner!”, I exclaimed. From his expression, I think he did, too.
Approaching the ascent to Diffwys, I noticed my watch was on 14% charge. Another day where I’d almost burnt through the entire charge of a Forerunner 945. I stopped to retrieve my charger from a dry bag, only to find it wouldn’t charge. I could see the Garmin charging cable’s connector was clogged. All this incredible technology, foiled by a bit of muck. Just spiffing, I thought, ramming the useless device back into my pack. I’d better get a move on then.
The climb up Diffwys was delightfully simple in contrast to the rest of the Rhinogs, and the weather had cleared too. Sophie was returning from the summit out-and-back, and was delighted to see I hadn’t packed the whole thing in after my experience on day 1. And after what I’d just witnessed on the Rhinogs, I was just reassured to see her in one piece. On terrain like this, one can take nothing for granted.
The descent from Diffwys transitioned from a lovely grassy trail into a slippery rocky stream. Was there any length of trail in this race where one could build up a running rhythm? I was back to tentatively picking my way down, at a snail’s pace.
Back at ground level, I was delighted to find a stretch of road. Time for some real running! Not only that, I was to be treated to 8km of this easy road running back to camp. I made the most of this rare opportunity, and flew back, happily ticking off the k’s. On the way back, I passed Sophie and Steve, and was quietly pleased by this: an opportunity to get back to my tent ‘not last’, giving me some room to practice setting up my sleeping quarters properly, and perhaps prepare my kit for tomorrow.
Someone Call Mountain Rescue
More good news awaited me back at camp: I hadn’t missed any dibbers today, and there were hot showers available, albeit half a kilometre away through the mud. Fantastic! Success, of sorts! Yet, as I got back to my tent and scanned the contents for my camp bag, I gradually began to realise my camp bag was not there. After a few minutes of reading the same numbers over and over, not wanting to accept the blindingly obvious, I had no other option but to trudge over to the info point and ask for some help.
The volunteers at the info point triggered a camp-wide search, and kindly went off to get me some food in the interim. But I’d gone from delighted to despondent in just 10 minutes. I had been desperate to get back in time to prepare for tomorrow before darkness fell and the tent filled up. I’d been looking forward to using the showers, the only opportunity we’d get until the end of the race. Now, here I was, killing time, unable to do anything.
Part of me hoped they’d properly lost my bag: perhaps it had fallen off the back of a truck, and was right now wedged in a hedgerow somewhere in the vicinity of “mid-Wales”. I could return home early, with my Crib Goch mission successfully completed, and no broken bones to nurse. It sounded great.
I finished my food and made small talk with the other runners. Richard Ward appeared, and kindly listened to my missing bag rant, offering his usual calm, level-headed response. Then Sophie emerged, enquiring why I was sitting there in full pack, before offering her sympathy and heading off to get food herself.
Then I saw a mountain rescue team member enter the tent, carrying my bag. Well; if I was going to be assisted by mountain rescue during the course of this race, I was glad it was under these circumstances.
It was raining heavily now, as I kicked my way through the wet grass, dragging my bag back to my tent. It had been dry when I arrived. Now it was too late to make the 1km round trip to the showers, and it was dark, and… I pulled back the tent flap… the tent was full again, with little room to manoeuvre. I was glad everyone was safely back, but… sigh.
If they’d only lost my bag properly, I could be on my merry way home.
For the second morning in a row, I was in a right grump. I’d let that minor incident with my bag turn a tough day that had ended pretty well right on its head, and again I was questioning what the point of continuing was. Crib was done. My goal was complete. Stop faffing around aimlessly out here; go home, and do some dusting.
The first half of the day would summit Cader Idris and clear the last vestiges of Snowdonia, after which we’d enter the less mountainous, but decidedly boggier terrain of mid-Wales. The worst of the difficult terrain was supposedly behind us now, but I was still really apprehensive. It wasn’t the fact that today’s route was longer & still ram-packed with ascent. Rather, this race had taught me to expect the worst from the terrain. The second you think it’s getting easier, that’s when you’ll turn a corner and – wham – you’re faced with a ridiculous descent, or a sketchy scramble, or a kilometre of pure bog. That, and the forecast was predicting heavy rain from 2pm.
See, I’m more of a continental weather runner. I’d quietly been hoping for a rerun of the heatwave from last year – not a bloody ‘week of torrential rain’ as forecast this time around!
There was a minor panic at kit check when I realised I’d left my headtorch dangling in my tent; but that aside, I’d managed to dramatically improve on my morning camp admin, despite last night’s unexpected challenges, and managed a considerably better 06:20 departure.
I’d even taken the opportunity to change into my spare pair of shorts, to save those behind me from having to stare at my behind. But that was it – I didn’t have any more spare pairs – so I prohibited myself from any more bumsliding descents from now on.
The first few kilometres revealed I had a few minor niggles developing, in the form of a shin, a knee, and a big toe. I decided to slow myself down to manage them sensibly. Assuming I made it through today & didn’t decide enough was enough by the end, I’d still have another 3 days of this to go.
So, one way or another, as I ascended Cader, I was not in the best of moods. And with that I stopped bothering to eat, which just made things worse. I knew it would, of course; but when you’re in a bit of a grump, it can be hard to care.
The incline after Cader was long, gradual, and tedious. Considerably underfuelled by this point, I didn’t have much in the tank, so it was a long old slog, culminating in another steep and slippery incline. I perked up as I passed Sophie and Steve on a descent; they were grinning as usual, bedecked in bright clothing and suncaps to boot. You couldn’t knock their optimism.
Despite a good few showers over the course of the morning, in the end, there was nothing torrential. In fact, every now and again, the clouds partially cleared and a few rays of sun poked through, bedecking the undulating fells with a warm orange sheen. My niggles weren’t amounting to all that much, so I played around with the pace as I saw fit.
The out-and-back checkpoint at Tarren y Gesail was reached by another of those steep & slippery little ascents. On the way down, I passed Sophie and Steve on their way up. “I just had my low point of the day” remarked Sophie, still grinning. I grinned back, trying to convey positive vibes: I felt like I’d had a lot of those low points today.
The route led me down a long descent on forestry tracks, peppered with puddles and flooded stretches, which at least kept things interesting. My niggles had mostly cleared up, and I’d started fuelling consistently again. All this, coupled with the runnable track and my making fairly good progress once more, had really improved my mood. Things were finally looking up again.
Through the gaps in the trees, I caught sight of sun-dabbled rolling hills, a sprinkling of wind turbines at good rotation, and – a rare sight – a town, just coming into view. I wagered it was Machynlleth, the location of the support point, and – I’d been advised – a Co-Op shop, where we could restock with supplies. I didn’t really need anything, but the prospect of a shop was quite exciting, nonetheless.
Running through Machynlleth was a bizarre experience. This was the first time I’d set foot in a town for days, and I’d been really looking forward to it. When it actually came, it was a bit of an assault on the senses! The traffic. The roadworks. The exhaust fumes. The horns tooting. The dog walkers. The smokers. The hustle and bustle of the high street. It was a bit much to take in, and within a few minutes I felt like I was developing a headache.
“Sorry”, I blurted out, as I ran past a waiter who’d emerged out of the blue from a restaurant. The food looked scrumptious: fresh veggies, salads, puy lentils, quinoa. Did I have time? I checked my watch, but then thought better of it. This race might not have been going very well for me, and I was so far outside of being competitive that an hour’s delay really wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but – no – stopping for a 3-course meal would have been taking the piss!
I passed a convenient Spar store, right on route, but carried on in search of this Co-Op I’d heard about. I found it just past the turning to the support point. The Co-Op in Machynlleth is quite a large supermarket, and if you don’t intend to get a trolley and do a whole weekly shop here I’d probably recommend saving some time by popping into the Spar instead. I grabbed a few things, used the self checkout, and trotted up the road toward the support point, passing quite a few other runners en-route laden with shopping bags full of goodies. My handful of four items looked rather paltry in comparison.
As I wolfed down my mango and melon slices, I sized up the sandwiches, pies, pasties, malt loaves, bunches of bananas and charcuterie that my fellow runners had purchased. Shrugging, I shoved my spare packet of crisps into my drop bag, and set back off.
The weather kept chopping and changing, as it had done all day. One minute it was sunny and surprisingly warm, and the next it was rainy and windy. Despite this eminently runnable undulating terrain, I was similarly up-and-down, oscillating between lethargy with disappointing pace, and laying down some reasonable k’s. That was, until the route veered off the well made path onto something rather less pleasant.
“This is just f*cking bog”, I shouted into the ether, thoroughly exasperated. “Bloody ridiculous!”
Technically, it was a boggy trod; but it certainly was horrendous, with long dense grass up to my waist that blocked all sight of what I’d be stepping on. The invisible terrain underfoot varied randomly and unpredictably in height; perfect for twisting ankles and inflicting other notable injuries. Then there was of course the occasional waist-deep bog hole to fall into, just to keep things interesting. I scanned the horizon, trying to spot an end to this horrific ordeal, but all I could see was this same sodding bog. It was a 30 minute endurance test, finally ending at the river crossing at Llyn Llygad Rheidol, where a few spectators kitted out in full waterproofs waved us on cheerfully.
“How would you rate that footpath out of 10?”, I asked another runner I passed. His response was simply: “shit”. I didn’t feel the need to add anything more.
Hoping for some good trails to make up time, I was to be disappointed again, this time by another steep and slippery climb that saw me clinging onto tufts of grass for my dear life. “I’m so done with this”, I lamented. But, equally, I reflected on how lucky I’d been. The weather forecast for the afternoon had been for torrential downpours. Had they materialised during the last two sections of route, instead of it just being horrendous, it really could have been dire beyond comparison. Fortune had been on my side.
Finally, a track. A simple, runnable track. It was even downhill. Awesome! I turned up the speed dial, delighted to be able to give the legs a proper airing. But suddenly a pain on my right big toe brought me to a screeching stop. That was sore. It was one of the niggles I’d been managing on-and-off all day, but now it actually hurt. Yes; I could have run through it, and had it been toward the end of the race on day 6, or had I been well placed, I’m sure I would have. But neither of those were true, and without knowing the cause it felt imprudent to push on regardless. So, with a tangible sense of frustration, I fast-walked the down, trying to avoid agitating it further. I managed a cautious trot on the flats and ups.
This day was going from bad to worse, I reflected, as my lovely track changed back to a boggy trail, and my feet started swimming in my shoes once again. As darkness fell, I thought how similar this boggy hillside was to Arc’s Pendeen-Zennor stretch. After this experience, I was certain Zennor wouldn’t seem half as bad next time around.
“Make this day end!”, I exclaimed, as the overnight camp came into view below. On that last descent, all I could think was that my toe was buggered, tomorrow featured a full day of bog-slogging, and the forecast was rain. For the umpteenth time in this race, I announced to the surrounding bogland: “I’ve had enough of this!”
The Sting in the Dragon’s Tail
Pulling into camp, I had one thing on my mind: getting to the river to wash my toe and see what was going on, before darkness fully set in. I dibbed in, and stepped into the race official’s tent, where the receipt printer spat out the piece of paper with my checkpoint times.
“Oh dear, it looks like you missed a dibber”, the race official said, pouring over my checkpoint receipt. “Never mind; so long as the GPS shows you passed right over it, it should just be a time penalty and a strike”.
I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow, disbelievingly, before slowly raising my gaze to meet the official. “I already have a strike”, I responded, matter-of-factly.
“Oh”, their voice tapered off. “Well… that’s alright, you should still be able to continue. You’ll just have to be very careful not to miss another one”. I remained silent, so they continued “If you come back later, we should have reviewed your track…”
Julian was in the tent and overhead this last piece, and quickly pulled me over to the side. “Let’s check your GPS track”, he said, trying to sound reassuring. He pulled it up on his laptop, and honed in on the checkpoint in question. “I can see you went right over it”, he said, pointing at the trace. “Did you just forget to dib?”
I’d been paranoid about dibbing all the checkpoints all day, and had been checking them off constantly. I was sure I’d got them all. I just shrugged. “It’ll just be a 15 minute time penalty”, he said, trying to cheer me up. “And a strike”.
“I already have one for missing a dibber”, I repeated.
“Oh”, he said, tailing off. “Well, you can’t miss any more checkpoints then…”
I trudged off to deposit my things in my tent, then headed to the river. The water was so cold that I couldn’t stand any more than a cursory washing of my feet – I’m no Wim Hof, for sure. To my surprise, there wasn’t anything to see on my right big toe. Other than all the ingrained dirt that would no doubt persist for weeks, both my feet looked perfectly normal. It was both reassuring on the one hand, and slightly frustrating on the other – there was no obvious remedial action to take. I just shrugged, and headed back to my tent. What did it matter, I was going to be disqualified before this race was out anyway.
Dinner was vegan shepherd’s pie with carrots & peas, followed by oat flapjacks and other assorted cakes. I was, however, in a right mood, and I wasn’t the only one. During my first course, I sat opposite a chap in a grey top who immediately pronounced “I’m retiring. I’m never entering a competitive race again” – and for all the world, he meant it.
Over my second helping of shepherd’s pie, I explained to Sophie that I was probably going to pull out tomorrow. She seemed genuinely perplexed: “You’ve done the hardest bits!” Two strikes in three days; I was almost certainly going to be DQ’d before the week was out. I’d had enough sketchy ascents to last a year. I was fed up with the bogs. I didn’t fancy a day of solid rain tomorrow. I had a few niggles, including that pesky toe. I was absolutely nowhere in terms of race positions, and I was getting circles run around me by all those who’d recce’d the route, which seemed to be everyone. And the bottom line was that my only real objective here had been to get myself over Crib Goch, which I’d already done. If I wasn’t going to run Dragon’s Back semi-competitively, then I didn’t want to run it just to finish – I’d never done that in a race before. There was nothing more for me here, other than an injury.
Well; Sophie went straight to work on me, determined to convince me that I did actually want to finish this race. A pro at motivating sportspeople, she employed a variety of tactics, and then called on Jason to try to persuade me that tomorrow’s route would be a piece of piss. Having made a strong case, they left to prepare their kit, and I left for dessert.
Back with some cakes, I sat across from a chap who looked preoccupied. “Penny for your thoughts?” It turns out he was here on his third attempt, and now he was out – he’d missed the Machynlleth cutoff by mere minutes. It wasn’t just finishing, but finishing this year that had been important to him. He tailed off, but then changed his mind, and started to explain why. Only a couple of words in, emotions overtook him. Unable to continue, he stood up and walked away, mid-sentence. I was left, cake in hand, staring at the tent wall, just imagining what reason he might have been about to convey.
And here I was, still perfectly well in it at the end of day 3, considering walking away from the race, voluntarily. I hadn’t even caught his name. How could I quit in good conscience, when it meant so much to so many?
I got a printout of my Dragon Mail before heading for bed. The warm words of congratulations and encouragement felt a world away from the harsh reality on the ground. They swirled in my mind as I fell asleep, simultaneously directionless and halfway to Cardiff.
“I don’t give a shit about this f*cking race”, I chanted under my breath, as I trudged across yet another boggy hillside. My third consecutive day of starting in a huff, and this was by far and away my biggest huff yet. I was continuing, for now; but I’d lost almost all my intrinsic motivation, and was only interested in slogging and grumbling. “I don’t give a shit about this f*cking race”.
I hadn’t checked a single thing about the day’s route, the weather forecast – anything. I had donned my waterproof jacket, pulled up my hood, and even put on my waterproof gloves. I wasn’t bothering with my poles. “I don’t give a shit about this f*cking race”.
I faffed around the hills in the rain, head down, half-heartedly trying to locate the route, as everyone else shot straight past on a beeline. “I don’t give a shit about this f*cking race”.
But then came the muddy forest. This was something new, and it jolted me out of my self-absorbed stupor.
The mud was slick, and the decline was steep. Aside from a few trees dotted around here and there, there was nothing to use for support. And to make matters worse, there was a sheer drop lower down – one slip, and you might have a bloody long way to fall.
As I clung to a tree for dear life, a runner hurtled down past me, calling out “it’s a bit f*cking treacherous for this time in the morning, isn’t it?”
“It’s a bit f*cking treacherous for any f*cking time, mate”, I shouted back, both perplexed and petrified in equal measure.
It was a genuine relief to make it through the mud forest. I caught up with an American chap at the base of the hill, and decided to hang with him for a while. I was encouraged to learn he’d found the mud forest descent as sketchy as I had – “sketchy as f*ck”, in fact – and was surprised to have to explain the acronym SNAFU to him. Wasn’t that of US origin? Anyway, the company raised both of our spirits as we climbed up to the wind farm. In a much improved mood as we neared the summit, I decided to break away and power on.
The wind farm section is a pretty surreal part of the course, cutting a trail through a mix of maintenance tracks and bogland beneath these colossal wind turbines. Visibility was quite poor, and so these white giants would suddenly emerge from nowhere out of the swirling mist. The eerie sound of their turbines just added to the strange sense of isolation up on this remote hilltop. Despite the usual frustrations of tricky bogland in subpar weather, I had to admit, I was really enjoying this ethereal section.
Approaching the first checkpoint, I was determined not to miss a single one. There were no second chances for me from now on; but even if there were, I still couldn’t have tolerated another “Oh, you missed a dibber” remark. So I held my dibber in for 10 beeps at this checkpoint, which attracted a quizzical look from the runner who waited to dib after me. I didn’t care, though – right then and there, I decided I was going to finish this f*cking race. If not for me, then for the timed-out chap whose name I never caught with the undisclosed reason for wanting to finish this year. Or for Sophie. Or Steve. Or those who’d sent me Dragon Mail. Or just for the bloody sake of it. That was Scott Jurek’s mantra – “sometimes you just do things”.
And this really marked my turning my whole mood around.
I started talking to everyone I passed. I had a long chat with Lauren Murray, who I’d already spoken to earlier on day 1. We laughed at how everybody claimed they knew the water point cutoff time, but yet everyone quoted different times; so I played the jester somewhat, fully unfolding my paper map in the howling wind, trying to locate the real time. It gave us a good laugh. Trying to fold it away was no less amusing.
Sometime after CP4, I caught up with Sophie, Steve and Jane, and hung with them for a little while. Not for the first time in the race, Sophie was relieved to see I hadn’t dropped out, and they all made absolutely certain I dibbed into CP5. They joked that they thought I had deliberately missed checkpoints in order to give myself an excuse to quit. At least, I thought they were joking…
I bid my friends adieu and cracked on, until I was stopped further down the road by a local farmer on a quad bike, who was enquiring where everyone was from. “In my opinion, you’re running too far to enjoy it”, he said. Did he have a point? Between type 1 and type 2 fun, it wasn’t a simple question to answer, and could probably make for the subject of a fascinating university thesis.
As I got back to it, I noticed my right shoe was tighter than my left, which it hadn’t been earlier. I’d noticed this yesterday too. And so developed the theory that my right foot was slightly swelling up and pushing my big toe against the end of the shoe, which had caused the discomfort in that toe the other day. If so, there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it here and now, but it was reassuring to have a theory nonetheless.
And so the kilometres ticked away, with my running well, slowing to talk to a runner, breaking away, and rinsing and repeating the process. My upbeat mood was making so much lighter work of the rain and bogland than I’d predicted, and I could hand on heart say I was really enjoying today. Nothing seemed able to break my spirit.
On the pine forest descent to the water point, I stopped to rearrange my pack which had started digging into my back. My strategic pack jiggling hadn’t quite done the trick, so I stopped at the water point to repack properly. I set back off onto a road that wrapped its way quite majestically around the side of these hills.
Then I thought – did I dib into the checkpoint as I left the water point? Yes, yes I did. I distinctly remember dibbing. Being on two strikes, I had to be very careful – failing to dib was simply not an option.
But I had definitely dibbed, right? Yes, yes I had. Definitely. As I say, I remember dibbing. I was 99% sure I’d dibbed.
I kept running the road as it snaked around the hills, the forested valley a sight for sore eyes. Not just grassy hills, and not even just plantations, but what looked like proper forest. It was delightful.
And I was 98% sure I’d dibbed. Almost certain. I’d stop at the brow of that incline, where there would be some phone reception, and I’d double-check on the tracking website.
There was no phone reception on the brow of the hill. But no matter, because I was 95% sure I’d dibbed. No problem at all. And I could see up ahead the road wrapped around to a different side of the hill. There would be some phone reception there.
As I approached, I pulled out my phone – no, there was still no reception. But it didn’t matter, because I was 90% sure I dibbed. Or 80%. I definitely thought I’d dibbed. I had dibbed, hadn’t I?
Shit. I couldn’t risk it.
“You’re going the wrong way…”, a runner tailed off, confused, as I shot past them. “Just double-checking I dibbed”, I shouted back, grinning maniacally.
“Are you ok?”, asked the next runner. “Great”, I responded, giving them a double thumbs-up. “Just making sure I dibbed!” And so it went for 15 minutes as I retraced my steps along the road back to the water point.
My beaming was genuine; I found the whole situation with these two strikes perfectly ridiculous. Furthermore, I was hammering the return to try not to lose too much time, and it felt good – really good – really, really good – to be running properly again.
There was Sophie, Steve and Jane. “What on earth are you doing?” Sophie demanded, eyebrow askew. I could see her mind working, trying to figure out what sort of scheme I’d concocted to quit the race early. “You’re making life difficult for yourself”, Sophie called back after I’d explained, in a tone that I could well picture her using with her students.
I passed Richard, and he looked more puzzled than everyone else combined; so I paused for a moment to explain the situation. “Can’t you check online?”, he asked logically. When I explained the lack of signal, he recommended the brow of the hill – “tried that already”, I said. Our brains seemed to work the same way.
The water point volunteers looked worried as I approached, obviously expecting news of a terrible injury up ahead. They looked baffled as I stopped just short of them and held my dibber in for 10 beeps. “Just making sure”, I shouted, giving them the thumbs-up, before turning around and hotfooting it back along the road. Possibly the most confusion I saw was from the photographer, who positioned himself to take my photo again, and then did a double-take, as though he’d just seen a ghost. “You’ve already done me”, I reassured him, whilst waving my dibber in his direction.
I finally passed the point where I had originally turned around. As I began to realise that both of my shins were now quite sore, the novelty of my extra 5km road loop began to wear off. I slowed to a trot, to allow myself to take stock of the situation. The shins didn’t feel good. I couldn’t at this point be sure if it was genuine tibial stress, or just some superficial discomfort from where my shoes had scuffed my calves, but the odds were the former. 5km of careless road running at far too fast a pace, for no good reason, and I might have broken myself. Shit. My mood plummeted faster than Boris’ smile after realising that the country had actually voted in favour of his Vote Leave campaign. I gingerly hobbled my way along the remainder of this road section, until the road turned back to trail, and then the inevitable bog.
This wasn’t just a regular bog section, though; this was another one of those proper bog sections. Up to my waist multiple times, until I actually struggled to extract one of my legs from what I could only term “quickbog”. Being repeatedly dunked into cold mud was severely exacerbating the pain in my shins, and I had to face facts – this was indeed MTSS – the dreaded shin splints. My mental state hit a new low in this race. “I have so had it with this”, I lamented. “And by the time I get back after that extra 5k, and now this bog, I bet it’ll be f*cking dark again”.
It might sound like a minor complaint, but getting back to camp early enough to be able to sort yourself out properly, and prepare for the next day, in the light, is such an important factor in this race. Trying to do everything by headtorch is plain awkward, and if there are others in the tent who are trying to get to sleep, out of courtesy, you may not even want to try.
When I finally emerged from the atrocious bogland back onto a road, I would ordinarily have celebrated the sight of a runnable section – but with my shins in the parlous state they were, I didn’t dare risk anything too high impact. I had to tentatively trot it in, whilst darkness did indeed set on day 4.
A few kilometres shy of camp, I caught up with Sophie, Steve, Jane and Dan, who had all overtaken me during my 5km loopback. Sophie was beaming as ever, but now she was struggling with one of her shins too, and it was perfectly apparent she was in considerably more pain than me. Seeing her battling through that, whilst maintaining such a positive attitude, was really quite inspiring. Was everyone in that much pain, and just cracking on with it? Then there’s me, nursing every little niggle…
Meanwhile, Jane was out in front, dragging this motley crew of injured souls back to camp with the efficiency of a Drill Sergeant. We may all have been arriving later than we wanted, and we may all have been injured in some way or another; but in that moment, we were a band of brothers and sisters, returning triumphantly from a mission successfully completed – and it felt painfully good.
Pulling Up The Drawbridge
Back at camp, I hobbled over to the river in my camp shoes. My shins had become extremely painful all of a sudden, and just inching down the bank to the water’s edge was proving tricky. Actually sticking my feet into the freezing water was borderline excruciating for the shins, and they couldn’t tolerate very much of that. Wondering what this meant for the two remaining days, I awkwardly hobbled back to the tent, where I was informed the Queen had died, and the rest of the race might be cancelled.
I am not a royalist. “What connection does the Queen’s death have with Dragon’s Back?”, I asked, perplexed.
“They can’t use Cardiff castle, and they might not be able to find another finish venue at such short notice”.
I vacillated between frustration (after all this anguish, a left-field force majeure event – seriously?) and relief (my poor shins would be spared more damage). On balance, I decided I was somewhat ambivalent about what happened next, and headed to dinner.
Tucking into pasties, vegetables and chocolate torte with my tentmates, it became clear that the majority opinion was not one of ambivalence, nor one of being satisfied with finishing here at Rhandirmwyn Bridge. They’d come to complete all 6 days and finish at Cardiff Castle. A good number of runners were returnees, some international, who’d previously finished the five day course and had come back specifically to run the six day version. And, on greater reflection, me and my shins were reaching the same conclusion – I also wanted the full course.
After dinner, I got a bit carried away chatting with Guy, one of the key figures behind the scenes at Dragon’s Back. After describing the absolutely biblical rains that had plagued Ourea’s other main event, Cape Wrath, earlier this year, he tried to rope me into running it in 2023. I said I’d think about it, with all the sincerity of an armed robber apologising for any inconvenience caused.
Back in my tent, I realised that this was the very first time in camp that I could fall asleep with a clear picture in my mind of I wanted to achieve the next day. Day 5 was a big day in terms of distance and elevation gain; and for me, it was going to be all about a cautious completion within the cutoff, with the aim of lining myself up nicely for the final day, without worsening any of my conditions, especially my shins. I had no aspirations for speed; it was purely a question of race management. Assuming, of course, that the race could actually go ahead.
I rose 25 minutes later than intended at 04:25, and hurried to breakfast to find out whether the race was continuing. As I entered the canteen tent, Shane handed me a note, which explained that the race couldn’t finish in Cardiff castle itself as this was the designated “national centre of mourning”, but instead they’d secured use of Bute Park, which is just alongside the castle. Thus the race would continue as planned, and it was just the arrangements at the finish and thereafter that would be disrupted.
For those of us returning to Conwy, there would be limited facilities at the finish, so we’d be shuttled back to the day 5 camp for the night, before catching the coach back up to Conwy the following morning. A sixth night without showers wasn’t what any of us wanted to hear; but the race was at least going ahead, so we couldn’t complain. I felt for the race organisers and the volunteers – it was hardly as if the logistics weren’t complex enough already!
I had another chat with Richard over breakfast, who seemed in stellar spirits. In one of my earlier conversations with him, I’d gotten the somewhat misleading impression that his original Dragon’s Back entry had come about through an arbitrary challenge issued during the consumption of a hearty half-bottle of wine; but this morning, I was building a rather more rounded understanding of his sporting accomplishments and aspirations. It had taken a while for me to learn this rule of thumb: don’t underestimate anyone running the Dragon’s Back. Whether runner or volunteer; whether outspoken or shy; whether running strong or injured; whether still competitive or DQ’d, everyone here had a phenomenal sporting CV, and some pretty crazy future adventures lined up. It was a truly extraordinary collection of highly driven dreamers and achievers, who I felt really rather humbled to be associated with.
I had my camp admin dialled in pretty well today, managing to pack my bags in record time, and I deposited them with 3 minutes to spare before the start line opened at 6am. I was keen to actually start on the bell today so that I could start running with Sophie and Steve, who would be tracking the advisory times. Perfect for me today, where I only sought to complete the day with minimal exacerbation of my shin splints. I just needed to fill my water bottle, and I could join them.
Unscrewing my bottle cap, I hit the button over the water trough, and stood there like a spare as absolutely nothing happened. There was no water…? And so proceeded an 8 minute wait in a queue whilst a volunteer ran back and forth to a separate water supply, filling our bottles one by one. Suffice to say, I missed the start with Sophie and Steve. I was pretty dejected. And to make matters worse, as I took a drag on my bottle of Tailwind the volunteer had filled for me, all I got was water. My Tailwind powder must have been tipped into the grass as my bottle was being conveyed to the water source. At least the ants would be buzzing today!
I started slowly, making maximum use of my poles to take the weight off of my shins whilst I gauged how they were faring this morning. There was a short hill climb, which – unusually – was marked with some red flags, then the route broke back out onto road. My left shin wasn’t great, and I was managing it with a mix of fast walking and gentle running.
Soon, I could see Sophie and her cohort up ahead. “Wahay!”, I exclaimed, a little crazily, as I rejoined the motley crew of Sophie, Steve and Jane. And I meant it – after the misery of plodding along with a dodgy shin, it felt lovely to be back with my tentmates.
I observed Steve in action here, using the route cards he’d prepared in advance, complete with target paces designed to hit the advisory times on each CP. Steve was obviously the Corporal of the troop, dutifully feeding timing and location data to the others so they could make minute-by-minute pacing decisions. Jane was the Drill Sergeant, leading the way with a can-do attitude and a stiff upper lip. Sophie was strictly non-GI; a corporate motivational speaker, who had been parachuted in to boost morale among the troops. Sporting a permanent grin and an endless repertoire of material, failure was not an option if you fell within her sphere of influence. Taken together, this trio had situational awareness, discipline and motivation: it was little wonder they’d been making such solid progress, and exuded the quiet confidence and optimism they did. The contrast to my approach to the race couldn’t have been starker.
Despite his stellar work with the pacing, Steve was getting a right ribbing for his little GI (not an army reference this time) problem overnight. It sounded like everyone else in the tent had been acutely tuned into his situation as it had progressed. Whilst I’d been oblivious at the time, it might well have explained the unusually poor quality of my night’s sleep.
Day 5 treats runners to an early stopover in the town of Llandovery, where the route passes a nice village bakery. Whilst it hadn’t been all that long since breakfast, we all popped in and picked up some goodies. I opted for their only vegan option, a vegetable pasty. It would be my third vegetable pasty in 16 hours, but it was just as welcome as the first.
The forecast rains began to materialise as we headed past Usk Reservoir, where a clutch of supporters were waiting to cheer us runners along. As the rain worsened, my tentmates stopped and quite sensibly donned their raincoats. I, meanwhile, took a calculated risk that the shower would blow over, and decided to brave the rain instead. It was the wrong call. Conditions swiftly deteriorated, and within minutes I was regretting my decision.
My tentmates could see I was biting at the bit to speed up to regain some warmth, so Drill Sergeant Jane gave me her copy of Steve’s daily route card, with its advisory & cutoff times, and sent me on my way. Whilst I’d like to have stayed with them a little longer, both for the company and the shin-safe pacing, I needed to generate some body heat.
I pushed on fairly happily in the downpour along the remainder of the road section, which veered off through Glasfynydd Forest, then onto undulating moorland. I paused in a little depression between undulations, which offered some temporary protection from the wind, to finally don my raincoat. I may have been fully saturated already, but I needed the wind protection.
The long ascent up the first of the Brecon Beacons ensued. This was Fan Brycheiniog, and I expect that, on a nice day, it’d have been a spectacular climb. But this wasn’t a nice day. Conditions were awful.
The rain was heavy and unrelenting. The wind was constant and chilling. And with the mountain covered in thick clag, visibility was in the low metres. Had I donned my raincoat earlier and remained largely dry, things mightn’t have been as miserable; but I hadn’t, and they were. The climb seemed to last forever, and I resorted to screaming positive mantras into the wind like a crazed lunatic to help keep myself focused and moving forward. When I finally reached the summit, nothing but a bleak landscape awaited me. Then Simon shot past me, making a beeline for the summit marker. I followed, though at probably half his pace.
The descent was slippery and rocky, some of the rocks being a distinctive brick-red, presumably from iron oxide deposits. The route eventually levelled out onto flatter moorland, criss-crossed with small streams. I was desperate to make good progress here, but alas, my shins were still firing warning signs. Another of the frontrunners passed me, and in reference to the dire conditions on the ascent, called out “I went to a dark place there”. You and I both, pal.
The next runner who passed, instead of commenting on the weather, enquired why I’d been running the wrong way yesterday on the road section. It seems I’d found minor fame twice already at Dragon’s Back: first for being shit scared on Crib Goch, and then for running day 4’s mountain road section a couple of times too many. I hoped I could fly beneath the radar for the rest of the race…
I could make out 7 main climbs on my watch’s elevation profile through the Brecon Beacons. The first, Fan Brycheiniog, was ticked off, and I just had another minor summit at Cefn Cul before the support point. Thankfully, the weather was clearing, making this a much more enjoyable climb than the first. I got talking to a French runner who seemed to have run everything – TOR, Swiss Peaks 360, you name it. He really sold me on the idea of Swiss Peaks, assuring me it didn’t have any Crib Goch style ridges to navigate – an instant tick in my book!
Down at the support point, the volunteers warned us the weather was going to deteriorate significantly in a couple of hours. More dark places to come… As I was readying to set off, my tentmates appeared, having caught me back up. Jane caught sight of Chris Cope, and set off with him on the climb, keen to learn more about the relatively unknown runner who’d dominated the leaderboard for the first few days. I followed, steadily poling this steep, grassy ascent up Fan Gyhirych, listening to Chris explaining some of his background as a type 1 diabetic, which just made his achievement all the more remarkable.
Halfway up, I passed Jane again, and had a bit of fun navigating the barren summit, with its rolling descent to the base of Fan Nedd. Then the up-and-over, dropping down to a road where a couple of supporters were parked up. Now the rain had stopped, and with only intermittent wind remaining, these hills were becoming quite fun in their own way. If only my shins weren’t limiting my pace so…
The climb to the fifth summit, Fan Llia, started out with a stream crossing, and then some thwacking through bracken. I briefly made a trio with the French chap, and a half-dayer in bright coloured leggings. Together, we discussed our future race plans as we climbed, somewhat forgetting we were still engaged in a fairly substantial one.
Navigating the mossy bogland and streams feeding the Ystradfellte Reservoir, I had the presence of mind to check Steve’s route card for the cutoff time at the approaching water point, and upon seeing the time, I did a double-take. I had just 1 hour and 40 minutes to make the water point, or it was game over – and there were still two checkpoints to go beforehand.
Still mindful of my shins, I ascended Fan Fawr as aggressively as I dared, where to my delight Jane reappeared. We lost a little time routefinding on the summit to ensure we picked the correct line from here, but on that descent to the underpass, we sighted the water point, and realised we were going to arrive in comfortable time. However, Jane had no news of Sophie and Steve. We hoped they weren’t too far behind; they still had some time, but they’d have to hustle.
A short run alongside the A470 took us into the water point in the Pen y Fan car park. On the way, we passed one burger van, where a couple of runners were stocking up on cans of Coke; and at the water point, yet another burger van awaited. Whilst I could have used some solid fuel, I had more of a fancy for carrot sticks than fried meats – so off I went, to start the climb up Pen y Fan. On the elevation profile on my watch, it looked like this was the last major climb remaining – but this race bowls more curveballs than Graeme Swann, and deep down I knew it wouldn’t be that simple.
The climb up Pen y Fan was pleasant, if a little tedious along the rather run-of-the-mill Beacons Way tourist path. We’d gotten extremely lucky with the weather, I reflected. The deteriorating conditions we’d been warned about several hours ago back at the support point hadn’t materialised in the slightest.
At the Pen y Fan summit, our route broke to the right, passing a photographer bravely battling the wind, and descending down into a col, before making the abrupt ascent up Cribyn. There, I hadn’t spotted this climb on the elevation profile.
On summiting, the wind died down and the clouds parted, revealing some stunning views overlooking the Brecon Beacons. Two German runners were also enjoying the vista, and so we trotted along the gentle descent together, soaking in this amazing location… whilst simultaneously eyeing the ridge ahead of us with suspicion. Did we have to climb up there too?
For the third time today, Jane caught up with me, and we surveyed the scene together: yes, we did have to climb Fan y Big, and then, presumably, track the ridge around (little did we realise at the time, this would amount to a 7k long ridge run). This itself wasn’t a concern, but the time was: the latest you could arrive at camp was 10pm, which left us just 3 hours to tackle whatever Shane had planned for us out here. More like 2 hours 30, given that I wanted to arrive in good time before the canteen closed. And where was Sophie? Hopefully she was close behind…
After tracking Fan y Big’s ridge for a while, Jane sped up and dropped me. With my shins in some discomfort again, I didn’t want to risk matching her pace. Darkness began to fall on the ridge, and I donned my headtorch.
Nighttime running is always special, and this was no exception. Past CP16, the path now tracked the very edge of the ridge, and one had to keep one’s wits about oneself. My shins had thankfully calmed down again, and so I could simply enjoy the energising, life-affirming experience that it was, with my two German friends now back in tow. Our train of 3 headtorches gently skirted around the side of this mountain; nothing to hear other than our footfall and the periodic howl of the wind, and little to see other than the ground illuminated in front of our feet, with the mountainside sharply dropping away to our left. It was meditation at its finest.
Little did I know that things were going to get even better, as we entered the 1 mile “forest descent”. Someone had warned me earlier that this was a risky section, but no – this was the highlight of my day. Gnarly trails, riddled with roots, undulations and route choices. This was my idea of fun, and it was all the better, all the more atmospheric, to run it in darkness.
A 1km road section completed the day, and I arrived into camp some 35 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Too close for comfort, for sure – but I’d been nursing my shins for most of the day, and to complete it while avoiding any deterioration in my condition was a decent success in my book.
How Are You?
Given the time, I just threw my drop bag into my tent, extracted my plate and cutlery, and made a beeline for the canteen. I was determined to get at least a couple of servings of the vegan chilli before the canteen closed. Wolfing down my first plate, my gaze flitted back and forth between the tent flap and my watch. There was just 15 minutes until the cutoff. Come on, Sophie and Steve… don’t blow it now.
It was Jane who spotted them first, swooping into the communal tent with the same beaming smiles they’d worn the entire week. I leapt up in delight – we could all celebrate the successful completion of day 5! It was starting to look like our whole motley crew was going to finish after all.
With that weight lifted off my mind, I was free to soak in the strange atmosphere in the communal tent this evening. With so many runners finishing late on this long and arduous fifth day, it was both packed & buzzing. I think all those who were still competitive now expected to finish the race. However, the atmosphere was tempered with a sense of melancholic weariness that I hadn’t seen on this scale before. Everyone was drained, both physically and mentally.
All the conversations I overheard were short, and identical. “How are you?”, one would ask another. The question was basically rhetorical, because everyone was doing the same. Everyone was craving fresh vegetables, a proper bed, a shower, and never having to open a dry bag again. Everyone was exhausted. Everyone had shin splints (following the road section on day 4). Everyone had issues with their feet or toes of varying severity. Everyone had widespread pain. Everyone was somewhat discombobulated. And everyone answered the question the same way: “Oh, I’m fine.” Followed by “How are you?”
We all arrived back at our tent late this evening, and before settling down the others reached an agreement to have a little lie-in tomorrow morning, and set off later, around 7am; such was everyone’s confidence of finishing in comfortable time on the flatter, simpler day’s course. I said nothing: fully expecting a day of obstacles and complications as had been delivered throughout this race, I silently committed to set off at my normal time. I was not taking anything for granted.
I woke at 04:10, but not wanting to disturb my tentmates, I remained in my sleeping bag until the rest of them arose. Over breakfast, I chatted with Steve, explaining that this hadn’t really been a ‘race’ for me; merely a challenge to complete, which isn’t a situation I’ve ever found myself in before in a running race. Steve agreed: if you’re not hanging with the frontrunners, he said, it was more of an exercise of ‘pure’ endurance.
I recognised his description: I’d seen it etched on the faces of many of those in the communal tent every day during dinner and breakfast. But, for me, a race should involve competition. Between my fear of heights, my near total lack of preparation, my disillusionment with the race, and then my injury management strategy, I hadn’t been able to be competitive in this race, not even for a single day. I had felt goalless at times. I was sure I could make a much better go of it a second time around, I pondered.
I set off sometime around 6:30. This was the first time I’d left before my tentmates, who had until now maintained a clockwork schedule of 6am departures. It felt weird.
I set off at walking pace up the inclined track. Lots of people were overtaking me, and usually I’d have been there with them, running up this hill with vim and vigour, enjoying the challenge of planning foot placement for optimal speed over this stony surface. But for the moment, I was comfortable just taking it easy. I was judging the state of my shins, and so far, they seemed alright.
I had donned my UTMB CompressSport midlayer, and even pulled its hood up to encase me in a lovely cosy cocoon. It was slightly crisp out, but the sky was clear, and the forecast for the whole day was great. Birds were chirping in the forest canopy. For the first time since the first half of the first day, I felt completely at ease, at one with my environment. If my shins were going to allow me to run uninterrupted, this could be a really good day.
It wasn’t too long before I trusted my shins enough to load them with some casual running. And before I knew it, I was making excellent time, picking off those who’d overtaken me earlier. I passed Richard, with whom I exchanged some cheery words of encouragement, and then thoroughly enjoyed the gradual descent of this grassy hill to CP1. Down beneath, I could see the town of Pontsticill, one of only a handful of habitations we’d seen all week. It was exciting; a foreshadowing of the many towns to come, as we approached our ultimate destination, Cardiff.
My shins really did seem OK today. The only notable issue seemed to be my little toenail on my right foot, which was viciously carving into its neighbouring toe. I became aware of it yesterday, and had intended to sort it out back at camp; but with my late arrival, there hadn’t been time. Never mind, it was just an irritation, and it wasn’t going to slow my progress.
I shot past one runner who was, quite curiously, poling his way down whilst walking backwards. “My forward muscles won’t work, it’s only the backwards ones”, he explained, whilst grinning from ear to ear. I smiled back politely and gave him a double thumbs-up, whilst wondering how on earth he’d make it another 60km in time before the cutoff. Nonetheless, I didn’t doubt that he would find a way. A determined mind can be an unstoppable force.
As the ground flattened out, I commented as much to two runners I passed who were themselves moving quite gingerly. To my surprise, they divulged to me they’d poled down some of the hill backwards, too. It seemed day 6 really was the march of the walking wounded.
100 metres ahead, another runner was standing still, holding open a gate for me. Confused why he’d sacrifice so much time, I slowed and paused on the other side, so that he could join me if he liked. Indeed, he did.
A Welshman local to Snowdonia, he explained he’d rolled his ankle the other day, and was therefore taking things slowly. He gave me some tips on his local trails around the North Wales Coastal Path, and it wasn’t long before we realised we’d both attended Love Trails Festival earlier in the year, so commenced some enthusiastic sharing of stories. Growing conscious of time, I bid him farewell, keen to make time along this straight, flat, and very runnable path tracking the Taf Fechan river.
The kilometres were ticking off nicely and predictably, at a rate I hadn’t seen for what felt like an age. My only concern here was that I was still on two strikes, so missing a single dib wasn’t an option – I had to stay alert. It had been quite a long time since CP1, and frustratingly, my watch was just showing “Caution: road crossing” as the next waypoint. I faffed around with it, zooming out and panning around the map, trying to establish whether I’d missed CP2, or whether it was still ahead.
Entering the major town of Merthyr Tydfil felt like returning to a location in one’s dim and distant past. Riverside walks, industrial areas, major A-roads, bridges, commercial districts, offices, parks, overpasses… it was all a million miles from the remote boglands and scarified hills that had become our home for what felt like an eternity. How should we interact with this strange environment? It had clearly been designed to serve vehicles first and long distance endurance runners second.
Seeing the first Parkrun volunteer, kitted out in his bright orange reflective jacket, brought a wide smile to my face. Our route along the River Taff tracked a decent stretch of the Merthyr Parkrun course, and before long I was cheering on the runners as they made their way north, up the gradual incline on the tarmac path. Some of them were cheering me on too, whilst others looked a tad confused. It was such a surreal break from the solitude we’d had to date.
On cloud nine from the interaction with these fellow running folk, all of whom looked like they’d showered and shaved far more recently than the previous Sunday, I had briefly forgotten about the parallel Dragon’s Back universe I was in. I felt like I was absolutely flying through this section; but looking back on my splits, I didn’t even break through 6 minute kilometres, or heart rate zone 1 (active recovery). Such is the nature of long distance races, laden with a full pack of kit, hundreds of kilometres in the legs, managing injuries, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, malnutrition and dehydration.
Leaving the Parkrunners behind, I completed my traversal through Merthyr, where the route broke off up a hill toward CP2. After a bit of bracken-whacking, I doggedly followed the windy, inefficient GPS track up to the summit, whereas everyone else chose the much shorter, direct ascent. If I ever run this race again (what a funny idea), I assure you, my GPS trace would look very different to the one I ran this time around.
A couple of folks greeted me at the CP2 summit and, gesturing to the south, told me that I could see Cardiff in the far distance. All I could see was a wide vista of squat hills and valleys, which – in contrast to the valleys we’d seen all week since Conwy – were filled with villages, towns, and perhaps even cities. Was one of them Cardiff? I hadn’t brought my binoculars.
Most of the elevation of the day was already ticked off, as was almost half of the distance. I was moving really well, and Cardiff was most definitely on the cards now. I just wanted to hammer through to the support point, which had the only cutoff that could possibly trouble me today. After that, barring a truly catastrophic injury such as a broken limb, there really would be nothing that could stop me.
As it turned out, there was just easy running over grassy trails, tracks and roads down to the support point. Supporters were out in force, cheering me in; and at the support point itself, the volunteers pounced on me like a formula one pit stop. I hardly knew what was going on before my drop bag was in my hands, my water bottles were out, and I was being told that nobody quits at this CP: “last year, someone had a broken foot at this point, and still made it to the finish”. I was unsure whether I should be motivated or alarmed, but I chose the former. The volunteers replaced my bottles with a speed that I doubt many crews would be able to match, and I was off. 2 hours and 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff – that was a lot more like it! I was finally starting to feel like a runner again.
After Trelewis, we entered the town of Nelson, and passed by a rare corner shop. I didn’t need anything; but you have to understand, shops are such a rare sight on Dragon’s Back, that I felt compelled to enter it. I scoured the fresh fruit section, searching for a banana. The shop did sell bananas, but they only had large bunches in plastic packets. I didn’t want to make a monkey of myself.
We’d been warned during the route briefing that we had a route diversion to navigate just after the support point, and sure enough, as I was leaving Nelson, there were signs and marshals directing me straight on up the hill. “Just keep following the road”, I was told.
No problem… well, actually, two problems had manifested all of a sudden. First, my right calf was seizing up; and second, the ball of my left foot was becoming quite painful. I eased off to walking pace while I assessed the situation. I popped some electrolytes just in case, but there didn’t seem to be much else I could do. Spotting a runner ahead, I forced myself to speed up a bit to catch up with them, in the hope that a chat would distract me from my newfound woes. The runner turned out to be Musa Adamu, who happened to be sporting race number 001.
“Were you so keen that you entered the very second registrations opened?” I enquired, pointing toward his race number.
“No”, he laughed. “The numbers are allocated in alphabetical order”. Musa had been growing tired of this road hill too, and so we plodded up together, moaning as one about the diversion. A problem shared is a problem halved, so they say. As the road cleared Nelson and emerged into open terrain, it broke right to skirt the side of a hill, and mercifully levelled out.
“Shall we run?”, asked Musa. I broke into a trot for a while, but quickly let him pull away. My seized calf was forcing me back to walking pace. I was so frustrated, but what could I do? I walked the level road until the diversion rejoined the official route, where I managed some run-walking along the trail until the next mini summit. To add to my frustration, shortcuts abound here, with my peers trimming off corners and avoiding the more awkward terrain, whilst I hobbled my way around the longer GPS route.
Conscious I’d been moving slowly for some time, I knew I’d eaten into some of my 2h40m time buffer since the support point, and was desperate to get moving properly again. I kept up a run-walk strategy over the next couple of undulations, with my calf fractionally loosening over time, until I approached the last little hill before the water point. Beside a gate at the base of the hill stood two gents; and upon seeing one of them, I did a double-take.
“Simon?”, I cried. Second place at the start of day 5, and favourite to win – what was he doing here? “When on earth did you finish?”, I asked, but immediately realised the question didn’t make sense – he couldn’t have finished already, let alone made his way back here to boot.
The news that he’d had to DNF with a stress fracture near the end of day 5 hadn’t made it to me, and I was genuinely shocked to hear it from him; especially out here, in the middle of the course. I’d run with the guy up in the Lakes during the Dragon’s Back training weekend. I’d seen him pass me each day throughout the week, demonstrating some seriously impressive running in the process. I really was gutted for him. But he brushed it off and congratulated me, before pointing me toward a direct ascent of the hill, avoiding the extra unnecessary distance on the official GPS route (which I naturally would have followed).
Thanking him, I set off on my shortened route, buoyed by the interaction. There had been no need for Simon to come out today – he could easily have gone home (or to the pub), to nurse both his shin and his dream of being the first Dragon to retain the title. Instead, he’d brushed himself off, put on a smile, and come out to support us on course. What exemplary leadership and comradeship from the champ, I reflected. I hoped I’d be big enough to do the same, if the shoe was on the other foot. Legend.
My calf had finally relented and loosened up, allowing me to take full advantage of the grassy descent down to the water point. Situated in a pub car park, this CP is, unsurprisingly, a hit with many runners. I settled for a water top-up.
For the second time in a few kilometres, another injured Dragon, Sam Harvey, who I’d shared sections of the course with earlier in the week, emerged from the pub – pint in hand. A knee injury had ended his race back on day 3; but here he was, back out on the course, cheering me on. Another legend! I commended him for his choice of pint, which actually turned out to be lemonade. At least, that was what he claimed… and with that, a volunteer shoved my water bottle back into my pack, and I was off. It was a bit early for a pint, anyway.
There were only 16km left now, with one small hill of 100m v+, and there were 8 whole hours remaining until the 10pm cutoff. I ran it through my knackered brain a few times (this far into ultras, even the simplest of primary school arithmetic can go awry). 8 divided by 16… I could afford an average pace of 30 minutes/km. Given a slow walking pace is 15 minutes/km, I could literally crawl to Cardiff and arrive before the cutoff. In which case; yes, the volunteers at the water point were quite right – even a broken foot needn’t stop me. The 16 kilometres amounted to a victory lap, nothing more. I’d done it. Well, so long as I remembered to dib into CP7…
The route continued to follow the Taff Trail, which was becoming flatter, wider and better travelled the closer we got to Cardiff. We were passing through villages now – Nantgarw, Taff’s Well, Tongwynlais – passing daytrippers, locals, and families. Without any fanfare, we’d left the wilderness behind, and entered the suburbs of Cardiff. But not just that: we’d left behind a different age – a medieval age, of self-sufficiency, exposure to the elements, danger, survivalism, and isolation; and entered the modern age – an age of public transport, mobile phones, emergency services, delivery couriers, fast food and pollution.
The last little ascent was an easy climb along well-made woodland trails in Fforest Fawr, home to some lovely walking routes servicing many visitors that day. On this ascent, I was passed by Ammon, who was coasting along quite efficiently with a small entourage.
From Fforest Fawr, our route descended the service roads down to Castell Coch, the famous Red Castle, which represented the completion of all the ascent of the route. Just a flat 10k remained – I gradually began to ramp up my pace.
I was mightily relieved to dib into the final checkpoint at CP7 – I was certain I’d dibbed into them all today, so no disqualification for me, just 8k to the finish. I was running around 6 minute k’s, and resolved to keep raising the pace until the end, which is just what I did. The closer we got, the faster I ran; the faster I ran, the more natural my gait felt, and the happier I became. I shot back past Ammon, saying I’d see him at the finish. 5 minute k’s now – I’d reached an easy running pace, and it felt great!
The Taff Trail was taking us into the heart of Cardiff. There were playing fields, rowers, a cathedral, manicured trees, and – here we go – a very well maintained park. It was Bute Park. Some of the public, innocently enjoying a day out, looked thoroughly confused by the sight of this fully kitted out runner, race number on the front, poles fastened on the rear, sprinting (well; marathon pace, but it felt like a sprint at the time) along the park’s main trail, weaving around the prams and people glued to their phones. Others, aware of what was going on, stood to the side, politely clapping, and offering words of encouragement for these final few hundred metres.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the finish line to my left, positioned on the grass under the shadow of Cardiff Castle. The finishing funnel was lined with supporters, cheering as I approached, now at my maximal pace. I’m a firm believer in the old proverb “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”, so as usual, I powered over the line, skidded to a stop, pointedly rammed the dibber home, and held it there, letting the little box beep away until I grew tired of the sound.
One horrific day traversing Crib Goch, one ludicrous day ripping my clothes to shreds on Cnicht, three days of hills and bogs, two of which were spent battling shin splints, and then today; what a lovely day today had been…
I looked around, finally taking in and appreciating the crowd. The sun was out, the sky was blue. I wasn’t waist deep in a bog. What a glorious day to be alive!
Or was it? I was ushered into the race control tent, and asked to present my dibber for the checkpoint verification procedure. My smile quickly faded. “Go on then; tell me, which checkpoint didn’t I dib at this time?”, I exclaimed, with an air of inevitability. I was going to be disqualified, right here, on the finish line. Whichever checkpoint I’d missed, I’d probably physically tripped over the bloody thing. I got myself over Crib Goch, and everywhere else I was asked of too. I know what I did… and if that doesn’t merit a statue, so be it.
The evil receipt printer spewed out my checkpoint receipt for the sixth and final time, and the official handed it to me.
Scouring the little piece of paper, I couldn’t see “DNF” written anywhere. Instead, the receipt ended with the phrase “Well done, you made it!”
“You’re all good”, she said, smiling.
I nodded, and turned away. I knew I’d dibbed all the checkpoints.
Shane cornered me and ushered me in the direction of the cameraman for the presentation of my Dragon statue.
Inside the finisher’s tent, I grabbed a few snacks from the table, took off my pack, plonked myself onto a Montane branded director’s chair, kicked off my shoes, and stared into nothingness. I opened a packet of crisps and nibbled. It would appear the race was over, and I’d finished. I looked down at the odd statue I’d been given, featuring a curled-up dragon presenting its back, the spikes on which resembled the mountains of Wales. The Dragon’s face was staring at me with a quizzical expression. Not just you pal, I thought. I’m confused about this whole thing too.
After a while, in came Tim Miller, who plopped himself down looking a little spent. He’d run an awful lot faster than me over the first 5 days. A little food, and he quickly perked up, back to his usual animated self. Then Jane Gould, who I ran with for quite a time yesterday, emerged into the tent. She looked energised and good to go again; I wondered whether she had perhaps stopped for a pint at the pub. We congratulated each other, relieved we’d both made it. But what about Sophie and Steve? I checked the OpenTracking live map, and found them reassuringly close by, within the Cardiff suburban area. They would easily make it too.
Richard Ward arrived looking absolutely exhausted. I pointed him to the chair beside me, which he collapsed into, and spent a few minutes just recuperating. It felt a bit surreal. We’d met for the first time on Monday morning, when we sat next to each other travelling to the start line at Conwy Castle. We knew nothing about each other besides our names. Over a series of conversations during the week, I felt as though I’d grown to know him; we were more alike than I’d have guessed at the outset, and while most others dropped out (62% of the field, to be precise), we both kept plodding on, venting at each other to remain sane. Neither of us had been terribly fast over this terrain, but we both had a similar stubborn nature. As we sat with our weird dragon statues, we didn’t say very much, but we didn’t need to. We’d bookended this thing the same way we started it.
According to OpenTracking, Sophie and Steve were approaching Bute Park, so I popped back to the finish to see them over the line. Steve had his tongue hanging out in glee, and Sophie wore the exact same beaming smile she’d sported for the entire race. After the disappointment of missing a cutoff by minutes last year, they both looked elated to finish. Elated – but not surprised. They both knew they’d finish today. They’d have bet their mortgages on that.
Getting a little chilly now, I bought a cosy Dragon’s Back hoodie from the volunteers, collapsed back into my director’s chair, kicked up my feet and stuffed some cake into my mouth. Nothing else to do, really. I leaned back and looked over my shoulder at the food table. Someone had to help them get through all this cake. Lucky I was here, really.
Eventually, I was shuttled back to the day 5 campsite, where I and around 20 other runners would spend the night before being returned to Conwy on Sunday. Riding upfront in the MPV, I got to see just how awkward it was for the drivers to locate these camps. Without any signal, and on these long, nondescript, unsignposted rural roads, there was little to help with directions; and as night fell, it became no easier.
Back in the communal tent at camp 5, celebrations were in full swing: it was packed with volunteers, staff and runners, all sharing their stories. I packed a plate full of food, and had barely sat down before a volunteer brought me a beer. It was a great way to end the week.
I think I was the last to rise the following morning. After I emerged from the 8-man tent I’d had all to myself, it took only a few minutes for the volunteers to tear it down. It turns out, after a week of moving this camp every day, they were pretty well practised at it by now.
On the coach, I sat beside Robert Henderson, who had quite an interesting story to tell. He was officially the last finisher of the race, but yet, he’d actually finished in the top 30 every single day.
Like me, Robert had missed some dibbers – he’d just missed a couple more than me. He had been allowed to complete the race, but only as the last finisher. This is why, if you look at his official times, his day 4 time is recorded as almost 35 hours (despite the cutoff being 16 hours) – this was the time adjustment required to take his overall time just beneath that of the slowest finisher.
It was somewhat reassuring to see that I mightn’t have been outright DQ’d had I forgotten another dibber; but, equally, it seemed like a very strong punishment for what was a minor infringement, given the officials confirmed he’d passed directly over all the checkpoints, and he’d obviously also received 15 minute time penalties for each offence. Those are the rules, no disagreement there – but perhaps there might be room in future to revise them, to avoid unnecessary cases like this? I hope so, anyway.
Back in Conwy, I made a spur of the moment decision to overnight again in Llandudno, to save a very tired drive back to the English flatlands. Frankly, I just wanted a bloody shower!
The Dragon’s Legacy
A month has passed since Dragon’s Back. Since then, I’ve grown a lot of veggies, and had some time to reflect on what happened.
Going into this race, I had a strong story behind my wanting to complete day 1 featuring Crib Goch, but nothing whatsoever for the days after that. This really formed the crux of my mental battle from there on. Dragon’s Back is a risky race, and injuries are not unlikely. Without a pre-canned reason to proceed in the face of mortal danger, you’re left fighting the logical urge for self-preservation without any effective defence. Having no reason to run…. it was a rookie’s mistake, and I ought to have known better.
But what this reveals more than anything is how big a success day 1 really was for me. I set out to conquer my dragon, and gain more self-confidence on exposed terrain. I accomplished that. Whereas before I could hardly even rationalise attempting Crib Goch, that’s now been put to bed. I’d quite like to return to Tryfan now, and I’m sure I’ll do Crib Goch again one day.
We humans are very fortunate to have the superpower of antifragility, where traumas – both physical and mental – can heal to form an even stronger state than the original. When we inflict microtears on our muscles, they grow back stronger. When we expose ourselves to our fears, we can overcome them.
Would I return to Dragon’s Back in future? Ha, I’d have laughed you out of the room if you’d asked me that during the race. But not now. Things have changed.
Now I know that I can run the route, despite it being pretty bloody sketchy. Now I know what’s needed to prepare for a proper attempt, in terms of kit, camp admin, and recces to pick racing lines (psst – this is the key to the whole race). Now I’ve gotten the Crib Goch bit out of the way, going forward, Dragon’s Back has nothing to do with any single ridge, and everything to do with the challenge of an epic fell race between Conwy and Cardiff, with some 70-odd checkpoints along the summits in between. Which is pretty cool, insofar as endurance challenges go.
And as for the race itself, I really liked how it was run. The volunteers were probably the best bunch of volunteers I’ve ever seen, the community spirit was fantastic, the food was great; and the RD, Shane Ohly, I believe might be one of the best leaders of people I’ve ever met. He’s obviously the reason this entire thing works.
I can see myself returning to Dragon’s Back at some point in the future. If I do, it’ll be with a dramatically different level of preparation, and with a very different goal; but for now, I’m happy with what I achieved this time around. I set out to face my fear, and slay my dragon. I did.
I got a little statue of him too. Neat.
Thanks to all the volunteers (too many to name individually), whose energy, enthusiasm and personal approach to interacting with us, informed by the understanding of what we were all going through, made such a difference to our experience. That is absolutely what makes this race work. Thanks to Sophie for your positive mental attitude, and persuasive approach to convincing me to continue (or, if you were just trying to kill me off, ha – I survived, sucker!) I’ll add in Steve and Jane, and say thanks for the jokes, miles shared, and exemplary army discipline. Hooah! I hope to run with you all again. Thanks to Richard for providing an ear for my rants throughout the race, it really helped. I owe you a beer, or possibly a half-bottle of wine! Thanks to Sam for those many zig-zag miles, and being there at The Pub on Day 6. I enjoyed our little chats. Thanks to the many other runners who played a part in my race, who I’ve decided not to start naming here, since I can’t possibly cover you all. You’re all awesome, and the only reason you didn’t feature in this blog post is because it’s already some 50 pages long! Thanks to all those who sent me Dragon Mail, which I read in bed by torchlight, and which worked its way into my grey matter overnight. And finally, thanks to Peter Bedwell and Sarah Cameron, without whom I wouldn’t have thought to enter this ridiculous race in the first place.