Dragon’s Back Race – 1st edition!

IMG_4846What’s the Dragon’s Back?

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-wales-48395364/dragon-s-back-race-is-this-the-toughest-mountain-challenge

For a 50 min S4C subtitled view of the event Ar Gefn y Ddraig is an award winning programme.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06cm3cs

The intro to @marathondoctor1 on twitter’s blog is good and I don’t want to repeat the obvious. It also offers a different view when things don’t go so well.  I hope it offers balance.

https://drgpersonaltraining.wordpress.com/2019/05/25/dragons-back-race/?__twitter_impression=true

2019 Stats:

402 people entered.  251 finished.

31 countries

132 volunteers (company size)

68 yo oldest participant

Doubled in size each year

315km long

50-60% expected to finish

30% of all failures on day 1

30% of all failures on day 2

30% of all failures on day 3

TRAVEL

Train to Conwy via Birmingham int. spot bags appearing on train.

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Registration.  Have your bags packed and ready as they would be. Try to hand the heavy 60L bag in.  You’ll need enough room/weight in 22L/5kg bag to survive until the next AM. This makes life less stressful and check in the next day simple.

100% mandatory hill kit check.

You get issued with map, numbers, bag stickers and a race tee.

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Day 1.

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What a great Welsh (British) mountain day. The AM through the foothills and Carneddaeu was in classic Welsh mist. As I got to Pen yr Ole Wen the clag lifted. I had run with a 1.5L bladder full of water and pretty much drunk it all by the time I got to the check point. I filled up the bladder and 500ml soft flask.  I’d been running hard and set off up Tryfan. By now we had clear skies.  The climb was tough in the heat and steep.  I messed up my line on the descent but it probably didn’t cost me much time. Crossing the Glyders in great visibility was amazing and about the first time I realised where path goes.  I was quite slow on the descent to PyP but maintained good time ahead of cut offs. I refilled water (which I’d emptied) using the YHA water point inside the door and bought a Solero. I set off up the Pyg Track towards Crib Goch before turning back to recover my forgotten map!

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I climbed confidently up Crib Goch being forced onto the ridge by the cameras. Hopefully there will be some great photos.  After that check point I stayed high missing my line down to the path and the quick route. It was nice to quickly tick Garnedd Ugain and Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon).  I replenished water and had got a bottle of fizzy pop from the cafe (top tip from a fellow dragon about pop).  I started descending and started to feel tired. Luckily in this race (and many races) there’s always someone coming along to pick you up. Tim Laney an original from class of 1992 who completed days 1 & 2 came bounding past. I kept up down the Watkin path completed the horseshoe. I pushed on for the last few Km arriving in camp bang on 1800.  Martin Stone (of Si Entries and the joint winner of 1992 DBR)  downloaded my time (10:3X 63rd) and I was shown to my tent.  The stream was very cold but refreshing on the legs after the Watkins pounding.

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Learn from my experience:

Day 1.  It’s an early start 0530-0600 support point bags drop off. 0600-0630 in castle. 0630-0700 choir, speeches, race starts (dramatic). The dramatic start in the castle happens at 0700 but race time doesn’t actually start until you dib at the end of the castle walls.  The biggest issue with the field size it the bottle necks at the start. Wouter recommended that I wait and then you get a clear run.  I left at 0725 behind Wouter and Sabrina but ahead of Jim Mann.  It was still busy on the path. Don’t get angry or lose patience. They recommend slower runners start at the from at cut offs are based on actual time rather than event time.

I got the fastest time from CP1-2. I could have improved my time to CP1. How? Using parallel paths on the other side of Conwy mountain. It’s not impolite as you are out of view most of the way.  There were a few bottle necks. I’d like to see a wave start with this many runners.

I think the 19ish miles to the support point is tight to just walk in the 6:30 (0730-1400). You had until 1500 to get to the support point but if you leave at that time and you will not make it over the Glyders to Pen y Pass by 1700.  The best running in this section is in the first 10km to Drum. There’s 1600m of climbing in this section and the Pen yr Ole Wen descent is tricky even if you’ve practiced it.

I was lucky to have a friend of my sister at the support point. It gave me a friendly face and support. Very much needed. They are long days.

The next section is a real tough one, the Tryfan, Glyders double climb and takes a long time. The descent is good to nail too especially if you’re against the clock.

On Crib Goch the cameras almost force you onto the ridge. A little slower (not much) but more atmospheric.

The Watkin path smashes your feet on descent. The descent is almost worse than ascent. Get in the river once back at camp.

Lots of climb on Day 1. Easy route finding but practise getting confidence on mountain terrain. This can be walking/hiking.

Be efficient in camp. Drink straight away. I took shoes off and triaged feet, then prepped bed (creates space in bag), prep next day run/support bag (basically just throw away rubbish, add food), then I would have food and eat, check dragon mail (open tracking message system) maybe chat a little but tried to get laid down ASAP. I had a cough to begin the week and my feet needed rest later.\

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Day 2.

I was recommended to start between 0800-0830 based on my finish on day 1.  I would have made cut offs by over an hour at half way and 2 hours at the end. As an earlier riser (especially in May when it is light early) I’d prefer to just get going and rest in the evening. I tried to avoid wasting time queuing for food and did other things until the queue went down.

I started relaxed at around 0715 having lain in until 0600 which was pretty nice. The Berghaus Air tents are excellent with blackout sleeping areas and good sized communal areas (there are 8 of you so they do fill up).

Day 2 starts by going up and over the Moelwyns after a 5km road section. The route is obvious with steep and rocky parts. It was possible to get stuck behind slower, less confident runners but there’s plenty of passing points.

I enjoyed the section from Cnicht over the Moelwyn. From there the race changed for me. A running race in the hills became something to endure.

Seeing a runner below taking the gully off the hills rather than heading via the reservoir I decided to follow. It was quite quick. Quicker? I’m not sure. It was wild and off road.  I bounced and lept downhill to rejoin the route.  Within spitting distance of the recommended route disaster struck; I landed funny my ankle rolled my foot underneath me and my momentum carried my over. I felt the joining fibres of my ankle, ligaments, tendons and muscles strain beyond their natural limits. I rolled into the fall and sat on the hillside holding my talocrural joint. My first thought was to press my SOS button knowing it meant, DQ, a lengthy wait for mountain rescue, a £900 DNF, shame and my year long dream ‘A’ race over. Olympic dreams over, Herculean failure. So while my metaphoric left hand was reaching for the Openreach Tracking SOS towel my right was telling me to wait. I cradled my leg and waited, nay hoped, nay prayed that the pain would subside. As an orienteer I’m no stranger to the world of glass ankles, the pain which seems so intense and life ending one moment can seem like a distant memory but a moment later.  I sat in the sun watching runners pass beneath me on the path; I hoped my mishap had gone unnoticed.  As the pain subsided I gingerly rose and got my poles out. I was able to walk but there was no miracle. It was a proper sprain. I was just ahead of guidance cut off times after my lie in and knew I had to move.

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I set off with a limp and reached the railway crossing.  My limp was noticed by the team, I was determined to reach the support point. There was no running. I powered through and down to Maentrog. The temperature was rising so I joined the queue for a quick coke and  to refill my soft flask.  Then it was back on the march along the road and across fields to the CP at the dam. Boggy fells were all that separated us from the support point. I maintained my plod remembering how slow and cold my recce with Mike was back in December.  I reached the support point about 2:30 ahead of cut off. I asked for a medic and Ian strapped my ankle with KT tape. I reloaded food and water and set off with a 2hr margin up the Roman steps. My pace up was good but despite my recce I messed up my descent and spent a long time descending. The cut offs never got much closer but the whole section over the Rhinogs in the heat was tough. The normally runnable descent was slow and I had to walk nearly all of it. I had a pick me up orange and lemonade from the George pub in Penmaenpool.

I completed the day at 2000, tired and sore. I also didn’t know what it meant.  The queue for the shower was huge so I used a festival towel sized wet wipe! They were excellent. I ate and then saw the medics. The care was excellent designed to keep you in the race. I had a compression horseshoe applied sent to bed told I could take paracetamol. I had a lemsip and went to bed. Lights off at 2240 meaning I’d get 6hrs rest. More than most.

Learn from my experience:

LATFM. It’s like read the question in an exam. Look at the map! Don’t blindly follow a GPS, there are some short cuts to make over some sections IMO.

Don’t bimble or dawdle. Walk with purpose, march or hike. This isn’t a shopping trip. My normal pace was 10 min/km walking sometimes I could manage 9 min/km. Uphill and cross country it may have slowed but I was able to easily make a dent in the cut offs by maintaining a solid rhythm.

Water, salt and ibuprofen. I’m not an expert except on pee colour. Stay hydrated. I had some SiS hydro tabs but hadn’t trained with them. I put them in as instructed 1 per 500ml. Did I need 3 in a 1.5L bladder I don’t know! My pee was always healthy which made taking NSAIDs easier. There is an active no ‘brufen approach with horror stories at the pre-race brief. I took 400mg on Wed and Thu before sleep and on Fri PM when my quad was causing issues. I noticed the pain in my quad die away pretty quickly so it does work but you need to know what’s safe.

KT Tape. If a map and compass were on the list you’d know how to use them. I recommend learning some basic KT straps or having a guide. It’ll save you time. I think it does help a bit but it’s not a magic wand.

Recces. They do help a lot but if, like me, you are not used to ultra running there is a big difference to doing these days over a weekend to doing back to backs. Also consider the conditions. Assuming you’re a novice like me it’s pointless doing Crib Goch in winter – you’re training to move fast on rocky uneven terrain. You’d be better doing the lower days 4/5 earlier then the higher days as Spring breaks. This year was a harsh winter too cancelling many plans.  We’re talking about proprioception – you’d be better off running over trails, Dartmoor or orienteering.

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Day 3.

I wasn’t looking forward to day 3. The section to the support point is about 28 miles. It’s up and over Cadair Idris and don’t underestimate the Terrans, small vicious and hard to make up time. I took a long time on my recce to complete this section.  With that in mind I was up at 0440 with the rest of tent 53. At 0500 my feet were being strapped and at 0600 I was out the door to give myself the best chance of finishing. I walked quickly through Dolgellau but running was off the table still. I climbed well and was soon leading the race… well there was no one ahead of me until Ian sped past. Power walking and scampering along the Cadair Idris ridge I made in-roads into the cut offs. I was able to run a little through the mandatory section in the valley trying to stay hydrated and fuelled. The cloud on Cadair had lifted and the temperature was rising – the forecasts had been very pessimistic. I didn’t struggle too much on the Terrans but the descent was painful and slow. I’ve done it in 40 min before, today was just faster than cut off – enough! I’d built a good lead heading into the support point at Machynlleth.  I stocked up on savouries and calories even featuring on the DBR twitter page.

After the support point there’s still 16 miles to go.  While there are some hills it is mainly on tracks until near the end when the steep climb up Pen Pumlumon Fawr is trackless across tussocks.  A fast good descent  completes the day and I was glad to be in before 1900.  This gave me plenty of time to sort myself out.  I was in bed early ready to be away the next day at 0600 again.

Learn from my experience:

Food selection.  I had planned to have a good mix of sweet and savoury on the hill but I’m sure things got stolen in the YHA before the race by the student/school group – no proof but I have my suspicions.  I struggled to keep eating sweet food but Kendal mint cake worked well.  Practice and work out what you like.

Camp food.  Wed to Fri was really good.  Veggie cottage pie, lasagne and chilli.  Top food.  Mon and Tue were satisfactory at best.  The cauliflower and potato stew with a side of potatoes was a little disappointing and drew complaints.  I had no issues with the vegan/veggie menu but the start of the week wasn’t the best.  The staff were excellent though – really helpful, helping you get what you need to succeed on the hill.  The chips on arrival with curry sauce and cheese was inspired – just what is needed after a hard day in the hills.   

Day 4.  This would have been awful in the wet.  The Elan valley.  The Welsh Dartmoor.  Tiussocks, trods and tarmac.  After a long mandatory section including a Barkley Marathon-esque wood you get onto some some 500m fells and walk/run along the ridges and roads connecting them.  Pleasant but getting very warm.  Elan were waiting with bacon rolls and ice cream.  I tried to make it a quick stop so I could maximise my day.

I had always planned to wear Hokas for the second half of day 4 but with my ankle I wore them on Day 3.  With swollen feet I got blisters and causing a lot of pain.  I decided to stay with the Inov8s all day.  I don’t think I got anymore blisters but it was so painful.  There is a long road section at the end of the 71Km day which really is tough and I think Hokas may have helped.

Learn from my experience:

Respect the route.  I didn’t recce days 4 & 5 partially due to time and also due to a little over-confidence.  If you reach day 4 90% of failures have dropped already.  Remember there’s 10% to go and it could be you.  I’m not saying you need to recce as they are not navigationally tough but day 4 is 71Km after day 3’s 71 Km!  Day 5 is 63 Km.  I had done 2 ultras prior to the Dragon’s Back!  There are no easy days.  You have to remain focused until the end – unwavering.

LATFM: Again, people were head down looking at GPX and missed a control.  I summited, checked map and realised ‘oh it’s on this one’ and we spotted it about 50 yds to the left.

Foot wear, care and tear.  It’s so hard to train this.  They give excellent advice but I’d never had an issue with blisters with my shoes so what to I do? I used Vaseline with a hilly mono skin sock.  They recommend talc.  You need to work it out yourself oh and remember you’ve probably not done a 315km before so there will be some experimentation required.

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Day 5.  Easy, done it’s over.  Nope.  After some fields and countryside there’s a long road section near the start through Llandovery to the Usk reservoir and an early support point.  I ran a fair way along this easy ground.  What follows seems like hell.  I enjoyed the climb up The Black Mountain but I couldn’t descend.  One of the things that struck me was even as I hobbled the pointy end would give us support.  Jim Mann, Galen, Rob, Sabrina, Lisa, Kerstin and other had time to give you the courage to continue.  Really appreciated.  In fact, all runners had a real bond to overcome this challenge.  They say an ultra is 90% mental and the other 10%’s mental too.

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The distance then dragged on over limestone pavements, through rocky, chossy ground before a 9Km road and field section to the finish.

The finish was emotional.  I was so pleased to see people do well and also to have overcome the challenge.  I will do a follow on post to describe the journey at a later date but wanted to get a few words out before a busy 2 weeks at work.  The support from everyone was really appreciated – again I’ve got the dragon mails somewhere and will respond but please rest assured, even if we’ve never met, I read it and felt grateful for the support.

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Thank you to my family for looking after and supporting me.  I notice that the baby dragon trophy has gone into a child’s room…

There’s probably lots of errors in this but hopefully you’ll enjoy it.     

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