Dragon’s Back Race

 

Registration and Race Briefing

Shane Ohly, the race director for the 2015 Dragon’s Back Race stands in front of us at around 18:00 on Sunday evening at the YHA in Conwy. Around 140 of us listen as he welcomes everyone to the event, explains the rules which are laid down in black-and-white and non-negotiable. After about an hour we disperse, Sean, Little Dave and myself heading to a nearby hotel to make some final preparations and to attempt to get some sleep before tomorrow.

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

It takes about an hour to pack my bags and lay out my kit for the early morning start which takes me to around 20:30, it’s too early to try and get some sleep so I head down to the bar and meet Ben, a fellow runner. We’re easily identifiable by the Dragon’s Back wristbands with our control point dibbers attached, though I think that even without we’d still have recognised each other as comrades about to take on this epic race.

A couple of beers calm the nerves and we have a good chat about stuff until it’s time to go to bed, I sleep well and awake just before the alarm at 04:45. The next hour races by and it’s time to meet up with the lads and make our way to the start at Castle Conwy.

Day 1: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon

Conwy Castle Start

Castle Conwy Start

If feels surreal as we stand under the start line at Castle Conwy with the male choir singing, it’s like being in the opening scene from the 2012 documentary. Friends old and new arrive to wish us luck and witness the start of our adventure, I’m strangely calm as everyone counts down the final 10 seconds to 07:00 and then with a cheer we pass under the start line and out over the castle walls, through the outskirts of Conwy and into the mountains of North Wales.

The first section takes us slowly into the Carneddau mountain range in Snowdonia, it’s cloudy and damp and as the terrain gets higher the clouds finally close-in and visibility gets worse. Soon enough I’m running on my own until I bump into Steve looking for

Tryfan

Tryfan

a control point, the last time I saw Steve we were also lost on top of a mountain in Transylvania. We stick together for the rest of the Carneddau and as we break through the cloud on the descent to the support point at Ogwen the distinctive Tryfan comes into view. Someone says “Jesus Christ – do we have  to go up that?” – yes, we do.

As I run into the support point I see my DDMT comrades Sarah and Sandy waiting for me so I put on a bit of a sprint and there’s hugs and smiles all round. There’s no place I’d rather be right now – after refilling water and inhaling a can of rice pudding it’s time to leave and head into the Glyderau, starting with Tryfan.

Adam and Eve on Tryfan

Adam and Eve on Tryfan

Tryfan is, (and looks like) a monster and even though I go up the easy path it’s a tough climb, the final push involves scrambling over the huge rocks and boulders, I haven’t got a clue which line to take so go straight up climbing vertically at times and trying not to look down. Eventually I pop-out at the summit just as the sun comes out and find the control point under the twin monoliths “Adam and Eve” where a bemused couple are sitting and enjoying some sandwiches.

The rest of the Glyderau involves scrambling up scree slopes and across shattered boulder fields. This really is not my sort of terrain and I’m like Bambi on these ankle-twisting, leg-breaking rocks but eventually it’s over and despite a bad route choice I make it down to the control point at the Pen y Pass YHA.

Sarah and Sandy pop up again and wish me luck – I’m going to need it, after 10 hours it’s time to tackle the Snowdon horseshoe section, starting with Crib Goch. This ridge has been front-and centre of my thoughts about Dragon’s Back for months – I’ve done it once before in the opposite direction on the Vegan Welsh 3000’s where you drop off the ridge down a scree slope. This time we’re going in the opposite direction and need to climb up from Pen y Pass, I’ve no idea if the line I took was a good one – generally I tried to follow other people with my reasoning being that there must be a viable route if others were going that way. I scared myself stupid on that ascent and I certainly wasn’t alone, lots of people were having serious issues with some of the vertical sections. Getting to the top and the start of the famous knife-edged arête was almost a relief.

Crib Goch

Crib Goch

After Tryfan and the ascent of Crib Goch, the traverse of the Crib Goch ridge was actually pretty easy and I quite enjoyed it, though lost a lot of time following some extremely nervous people in front. Following a little more peril, scrambling and exposure over the pinnacles the Snowdon control point arrived and there were 2 more peaks to go. I took a wrong turn off Snowdon in the cloud and headed along the wrong ridge taking a few lads with me but they noticed my mistake and shouted me back – thanks boys.

We were running out of time and the 23:00 cut-off was getting closer, the next 2 control points seemed to take forever and somewhere around 21:30 the final peak was done and it was downhill all the way to camp. An hour later at 22:30 I dibbed-in to the finish with a few other people. Once again Sandy and Sarah were there to cheer us in along with the ever-enthusiastic marshals.

“You need to start at 06:00 tomorrow” Shane told us

“OK” was the only possible reply

The marshals were amazing, they grabbed our bags and took us to our tent, first priority was food so straight to the kitchen and stuff-down as many calories as possible. I then grabbed a quick shower and after a quiet “hello” to my still-awake tent-buddies jumped into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep. It was just after midnight.

Day 2: Moelwyns and Rhinogs

I didn’t sleep well and was up at 04:30 trying to get my kit sorted for the day ahead – we call this “Admin” and there’ll be more on it later. The kitchen opened for breakfast at 05:00 and I was one of the first in the line for a cup of tea and huge bowl of cereal – the hot options weren’t ready yet so after stuffing my face I headed back to the tent to finish packing all my stuff back into my hill, support and night bags. I’d intended to return to the kitchen to get some more food but there was a massive queue at 05:50 so made-do with some of my supplies, grabbed the map for the day and was one of the first to head out again just after 06:00.

It was a beautiful, clear morning and obvious it was going to get warm later – the first climb of the day was up Cnicht – aka the “Matterhorn of Wales”, coming to the base of the mountain my tent mate Braddan caught up with me and asked if I’d thought about my line up – he was going straight up the steep bit. But I’d spotted what looked like an easier ascent round to the right so headed off that way – my first mistake of the day. I should have followed Braddan which is what everyone else seemed to do, and by the time I got to the final ascent the route was swarming with people who’d started much later than me.

Coming off Cnicht you could see the next control point on Moelwyn Mawr across the valley and there were 2 choices, a longer traverse around the valley or straight down and back up. Everyone seemed to be going round but I never learn and was stood looking down the steep descent when another competitor joined me…

“What do you think?” I asked

“Yeah” he said and headed off straight down the mountain

And for once, it was a good move and saved me some time although most of the people I’d leapfrogged passed me on the next climb up Moelwyn Mawr and then, typically I took a bad line off the peak and lost a bit more time before the ascent to Moelwyn Bach – D’Oh. A large group of us formed at the following control point which heralded a long section to the support point where there were several route choices, direct and cross-country with lots of navigation or along the road which was longer but potentially faster.

Day 2 Route Choices

Day 2 Route Choices

A group of us set off in the general direction of the support point and soon found ourselves heading towards the road so the decision was made to suck-up the long, boring road for a while. Jez Bragg powered past us up a hill which was re-assuring. The day was getting hot and progress was slow and steady, I lost the rest of the group after stopping to refill water but managed to navigate my way to the support point 30 minutes before the cutoff at 16:00.

Sandy and Sarah popped-up again at the support point cheering us on, and shortly after so did Sean who’d taken a different route. Time was ticking-by rapidly so after a quick pit-stop Sean and I headed off to tackle the notorious Rhinog section.

The initial climb was nice and steady, through woodland and up the Roman Steps – we became a group of 4 and at some point decided to deviate right from the path and head vertically up a rock face to a plateau. This wasn’t my intended route, but for some reason I decided to follow – probably thinking that if I was to get lost it was better to be in company than alone. I was at the back of the group and due to my rubbish climbing skills and fell behind quite quickly – by the time I arrived at the plateau the other 3 lads were out of sight. The next 90 minutes was spent clambering over rocks and through rough bracken to finally reach the summit of Rhinog Fawr.

The next problem was how to get to the next summit of Rhinog Fach which I could see, but every conceivable way seemed to involve a really sketchy descent through scree and boulder fields. Eventually I found a gully which looked like the least suicidal option and had the distinctive stud mark tracks left by recent Dragon slayers heading down it. After dropping down a dirt track, yet more scrambling over boulders and hacking through bracken a few familiar faces from Day 1 including Steve caught me up and we headed off to start the ascent to a lake at the bottom of Rhinog Fach.

Time was rapidly running out now, I’d expended so much energy getting over Rhinog Fawr that by the time I got up to the lake at the start of the more technical section up to Rhinog Fach it was obvious I’d miss the final cutoff at 23:00 if I attempted the ascent. I was also in no state physically to attempt what looked like quite a technical scramble up to the summit and back. I sat down at the bottom of the lake and had a long, hard conversation with myself. If I missed the checkpoint or got back after 23:00 then I’d be ineligible for one of the coveted trophies. Getting back after 23:00 also meant you weren’t allowed to do the full course on the following day – you could skip the day or start at the support point and do a “half day”. Finally I decided to carry-on and complete the rest of the Day 2 hopefully still getting me back to base before cut-off and allow me to complete the remaining full days.

Sean had been up-and-down Rhinog Fach and was still just ahead of me as I climbed up towards the control point at Y Llethr. He tried to convince me I had time to get there and back but I was already 30 minutes outside the latest guideline time and it was an hour return journey from that point. Steve also caught up with me on his way back looking strong and was soon out of sight.

So I got the final two control points and then took a disastrous line off the ridge towards a  forest section which took me through trackless bracken and heather which ripped my legs to pieces. After an eternity I bushwhacked towards the forest and found the entrance to the trail towards home. By now it was getting dark so I stopped to get my headtorch out and waited as a runner came down the hill, (on the correct route off the ridge) – as he got closer it turned out to be my tent buddy Simon A. It was now about 22:30 and he’d been to all the checkpoints and had 30 minutes to get home on what looked like a fast, easy run into the finish so I wished him well and let him go.

Escaping from the midges I jogged through the forest and onto the road, catching up with another runner whose name I forget. At 22:52 Simon came past again after taking a wrong-turn on the road, still convinced he could get in before 23:00.

It took me over an hour from there to get to the finish, what looked like a nice, easy section home was actually a seemingly never-ending, twisty, hilly section through woodland in the dark. It was about 00:10 when I finished, Shane didn’t even need to tell us that starting the full day tomorrow was not going to happen, the decision was out of my hands and so was that trophy.

The marshals and medical team were understandably concerned considering the length of time I’d been out there and the state of my legs which had been cut to shreds on bracken. But actually, I was fine and accepted a chair in the medical tent and wolfed down a couple of portions of hot food and cups of tea before heading towards the shower and then back to the tent.

Simon A hadn’t made it either, getting in at 23:30 and was unpacking so we quietly acknowledged each other, unpacked the essentials and passed out.

Day 3: Cadair Idris and Plynlimon

The awesome marshals

The awesome marshals

Dragon’s Back days start at 04:30 – 05:00 so, regardless of the time you get in – your day starts early. There’s little time for post-mortems or lengthy discussions, the focus is getting dressed, eating and packing everything up ready to be transported to the next camp.

Simon A and I watched quietly as our tent mates rustled and sorted bags of food, deflated camping mats and packed sleeping bags into 59-litre dry bags. One-by-one they strapped on their backpacks, collected their support and night drybags, picked-up the map for the day and ran out of the campsite to continue their adventure.

But what was I going to do? As I saw it there were 3 choices.

1). Go home with my tail between my legs: Not a viable option – I’d done this at Tahoe 200 and regretted  not being part of the rest of the race. Plus, marshals Caz and Anna wouldn’t have let me entertain the idea and would probably have physically restrained me from leaving.

2). Take a day off and re-assess tomorrow: The problem with this was that I felt OK – or as OK as anyone who has spent 34 of the previous 48 hours scrambling around the mountains of Snowdonia. Which left only one option:

3). Start the day from the “support point”: Begin at around 11:30 and run the final section of the course to the next camp

As the camp was expertly packed-up by the marshals 5-or-6 of us gathered ready to be taken to the support point, Simon A was not going to run at all and was going to help out the marshals at the support point. We arrived at Machynlleth just before 11:30 and with very little ceremony headed south on Glyndŵr’s Way to continue the journey.

I let the others head off in front, stopping to put on another layer as the weather started to turn again. After starting again I caught-up with Christopher, an ex-pat living in Hong Kong and we spent a while walking and talking before I decided to get a bit of a jog-on and went on ahead. We’d definitely left the rocky, technical terrain of Snowdonia behind and were now into much more rolling, runnable territory. After a few miles I caught up with the next group of 3 and we plotted a course through a forest to the base of the final mountain of the day Plynlimon.

We chose badly – the path which was on the map went through forestry and disappeared into bog and marsh after a mile or-so, there followed a long, cross-country hike through bogs, tussocks, bracken and heather to reach a road. I took a slightly different line to the rest of the group and arrived ahead of them so carried on to the base on Plynlimon.

The last time I’d gone up this mountain was on Boxing Day on an “Across Wales Walk” adventure with my DDMT buddy Haydn in white-out conditions and deep snow. It’s a pretty featureless, trackless trek up to the top but I remembered something Shane the Race Director had said in a preview video

“Think like a sheep”

First place!

First place!

The idea being that if you can find a sheep trod then you move so much quicker – so I became an expert in finding these little paths and got a good line up to the trig and final control point. It was now a fast, easy descent down to the camp and no-one had passed me from the main race which surprised me. So I put in a bit of effort and had a great descent down to camp, laughing to myself as a few photographers and supporters cheered me on thinking they must be wondering how on earth I was going to be first back to camp! My printout of timings for the day showed I was 1st on Day 3 – so that’s one to keep for posterity.

I had a great day, getting back at a reasonable time, (around 5pm) which allowed me plenty of time to eat, unpack my overnight gear, re-pack for the following day and get everything else lined-up and ready to go. We called this “Admin” and it’s one of the critical differences between the people who get in early, and those who get in late.

The slower people like myself not only spend longer out on the course, we have less time to eat, rest, recover and prepare for the next day. If you’re getting in at 10-11pm then it’s a mad rush to do your “Admin” before trying to get some rest. The faster people have an additional 5-6 hours to get all this sorted and it makes a huge difference.

It had been a long day for my tent buddies and they started arriving in various states of disarray with Simon F coming-in just before the 23:00 cut-off.

Day 4: Elan Valley

Camp Dragon's Back

Camp Dragon’s Back

I’d had such a good day on Day 3 that I decided to run the second half again on Day 4, the route was heading into my home territory now and becoming more familiar with every mile. It was the same deal as previously – a lift to the support point and a slightly earlier start at 11:00.

I ran from the front of the little group of half-dayers from the start and headed off in front down the first hill to be joined by Michel from Vancouver shortly afterwards. We seemed to have similar paces and strategies so ran together for the whole day. It was another great day despite a couple of long road sections which were quite painful but it was good to have some fresh conversation.

The atmosphere at camp on Day 4 was very different from previous evenings, everyone who had made it this far knew there was only one more day to go. I was back on home turf, into the Brecon Beacons and so I did my Admin and packed ready for a full and final day.

Day 5: Brecon Beacons

Tent Buddies

Team Tent Castle Conwy

Everyone was up and out as close to 06:00 as possible on the final day. On the way out we all had our photo taken by Ian Corless who captured perfectly what everyone had been through during the previous 4 days. There were seven of us in our tent, (Castle Conwy) at the start, and seven of us started that final day – not all of us would receive that trophy, but I wonder if any other tent could say that everyone who ran Day 1 also ran Day 5? The photo strip on the left shows those images from Ian Corless of the tent members, Little Dave, Braddan, Me, Sean, Simon A, Carol and Simon F, (top to bottom)

The first half of the course was a bit lumpy to start with, heading over some hills and ridges before going through Llandovery where many people seemed to stop at various shops to pick up pasties, pies, coke, red bull and whatever other luxury foods they had been craving over the previous few days.

I made good time through to the support point, getting there just before 11:00 to find Sarah had come along to support which was a great surprise. Little Dave and Braddan were also at the support point as I arrived and Sean came in just after me. The weather was sunny and warm, I was moving well and feeling great – it was going to be an awesome finish to the Dragon’s Back, what could possibly go wrong now?

The final few miles headed into the Brecon Beacons up Fan Brechiniog and then across a few peaks to the finish at Carreg Cenen Castle. A lot of this was familiar territory and while hilly, it’s familiar and quite runnable.

Then the weather closed-in, halfway up Fan Brechiniog the clouds came down and the wind picked-up. By now a little, informal group had formed including Sean and everyone stopped one-by-one to put on waterproof jackets. By the time we reached the trig point the weather had really turned nasty, driving rain and limited visibility. After dibbing-in at the control point we dived into the little shelter near the trig point, put on waterproof trousers, gloves, hats and whatever other warm stuff we had and plotted a route to the next control point. I suggested that we should stick together through the next section considering the conditions and everyone seemed to agree it was a good idea.

Slowly we picked our way across the Brecon Beacons, navigating via map and compass with occasion checks against GPS grid references. It seemed like a long trek but looking at my GPS track the navigation looked to be spot-on. Eventually the weather started to clear and we started the descent down to the finish at Carreg Cenen Castle.

Finished!

Finished!

And so, after a cruel long climb up to the castle we arrived at the finish line to be greeted by friends, family, marshals and a nice, cold can of cider. Typically for these epic events, when you finish there’s little immediate celebration as it doesn’t sink in for a while. We watched a few other people finish including Little Dave, Braddan, Simon F and Carol and then headed back to the rugby club at Llandelio for a final night of celebrations and presentations.

Everybody who completed the full 5 days was awarded a trophy which was presented individually by Shane. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit jealous and wished I had one of those little dragons sitting on my bookshelf right now. The truth is though, I hadn’t earned it – I knew the rules and messed-up Day 2 which put that memento out of reach.

Days 6+: Aftermath

I awoke early on Saturday, packed the car up tip-toeing around people who appeared to be sleeping where they fell outside the rugby club on the previous night. The now familiar zombie-shuffle was just starting as I left to give Steve a ride back to Cardiff Airport where he was catching a flight to Jersey to get back to work in the evening.

Getting back to Cardiff I did the immediate essential admin, getting the composting clothes into the washing machine and then collapsed in the sun. The rest of the weekend was spent in a narcoleptic state, randomly passing-out and waking up disorientated, wondering where I was and where the next mountain was. Four days later there’s still a deep level of exhaustion the likes of which I’ve never known.

The most common question I’ve been asked is “would you do it again?” especially as I failed to completed all 5 days. My current position on that is as follows:

  • I need to go back and do the full Days 3 and 4, and also redo the Rhinogs which caused my downfall this year. This I can do at my leisure and there’s no rush – it’s just terrain that needs to be covered properly for my peace of mind
  • While I’d love to give the race another go it’s just such a huge commitment that it would have to be my focus race for another year. The trouble with that is there’s just so much other stuff I want to do. There’s jungles, deserts, mountains, volcanoes and wilderness to explore. Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Italy and the Americas for starters. With one big epic per year I’ve enough stuff to last me into my 70’s and beyond – and that’s only 25 years away
  • Maybe if I get tired of travelling, or can’t afford to get to these locations then I’ll return my gaze to Wales and the Dragon’s Back in future editions but for now, completing those missing sections will be enough satisfaction for me
  • I’d love to marshal a future event and – time permitting will be putting my name down to marshal in 2017

Nuggets for Future Dragon’s Back Competitors

The 2015 Dragon’s Back was the 3rd time the race had been run, my research into the previous events in 2012 and 1992 yielded very little information with the DVD being one of the greatest sources of information. This time around, with the rise of Strava, blogs and social media I suspect that this report will be one of many that people find and read when preparing for future editions. I’d like to wrap-up with a few nuggets of advice for future entrants!

  • Know what you’re getting yourself into! Watch the DVD, read the blogs and race reports, look at the photos and watch the videos. The 2015 edition will provide a mountain, (pun intended) of data and information about the 2015 race. Digest as much information as you can and believe what you read. Many races claim to be the “toughest” but few have the stats to back that up – believe the hype!
  • If you can, get up into Snowdonia and into some of the terrain. Go up Tryfan and across the Glyderau, climb and traverse Crib Goch. Get into the Rhinogs and Moelwyns. I did the Vegan Welsh 3000’s in 2014 so Day 1 was no surprise but I wish I’d recced the Rhinogs as that may have saved my Day 2
  • Learn how to navigate, especially in cloud and bad  visibility. Several times we had to travel blindly on a bearing trusting the compass, with no tracks or reference points
  • Days 1 and 2 will involve climbing, scrambling and exposure with big drops. I move very slowly over this type of terrain and it’s a skill I’d love to improve as it makes a huge difference. Tryfan, Crib Goch and the Rhinogs require skills that most runners just don’t have
  • Admin, Admin, Admin… The less you have to sort out at the end of each day the more rest you can get and the better you’ll perform on the next day. Pre-pack a bag for each day to make things easy

My lasting impression is that it’s a huge race, easily the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Any one day would be enough for most people and comparable to some of the toughest ultras in the UK. It was an incredible adventure that I had the pleasure to share with friends old and new, and something that we’ll be talking about for many years to come.

Epilogue: Thoughts on Future Editions of Dragon’s Back

Instead of editing my previous comments on the race, in light of what has been revealed about future editions of Dragon’s Back I’m going to share my thoughts on these changes below:

The route is fixed, checkpoints will be known and released in advance. gpx tracks will be available: This is massive and makes it a different race in my eyes, still a huge challenge but if you can recce it and/or follow a gpx line it strips a layer of difficulty from the race. It’s unclear if the route is mandatory or “recommended” but if you compare it with an event like Fellsman then a recognised / optimal route will soon become standard. Half the fun of the 2015 event was the uncertainty and random route choices made by everyone – some of which were inspired, and some of which were disastrous!

Open Entry: First-come, first-served! If you’re daft enough to enter you can rock-up to the start line… We’re not doing anything that Joe Public can’t do on any given day – the mountains are unforgiving, Crib Goch and Tryfan take lives every year, I was wrapped-up in more layers on a summer day in Wales than I wore in sub-zero conditions at 10,000′ in Utah on Bear 100. The mountains take no prisoners!

Generally though – there are only so many ways from North to South Wales, (Offa’s Dyke and the Wales Coast Path aside) and I see that it has to become a recognised route – like Bob Graham or Paddy Buckley. The logistics of a recognised route and regular event make sense, i have a little pang of regret that that I’ll never be able to recreate 2015.

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