The dragon well and truly chewed me up and spat me out.
Dragon’s Back Race is a 315km (200mile) multi-day ultramarathon involving 15,500metres of ascent (twice Everest) over 5 days. It starts at Conwy Castle in North Wales and finishes in Llandeilo in the South, traversing all the mountains en route. It is self-navigated and so skills with a map and compass are important though GPS routes are available to load onto electronic devices too. The route is mostly ‘recommended’ so you can actually choose your own route, providing you visit every checkpoint. But some areas are mandatory, particularly through lowlying areas to keep the landowners happy. Participants have to dib in at checkpoints, many of which are unmanned at mountain summits to force people up there and stop too much contouring or just walking along the road at the base of a mountain and avoid technical sections. Some of the checkpoints are quite hidden so you need to be on the ball not to run past one. It’s serious fell/mountain running and way out of my comfort zone. It includes actual hands on climbing up and over mountains such as Crib Goch (one of Google’s top autosuggestions when searching is ‘Crib goch deaths’, second only to ‘Crib goch route’), Tryfan, and Rhinog Fawr. So while it may sound like *just* a marathon and a half a day on average, where I could do that on road in maybe 6 hours, I was expecting this to take twice that or more.
The format is a multi-day stage race, with camping each night in tents of 8 provided by the race organisers and put up by volunteers. Overnight bags are transferred from camp to camp. Breakfast and dinner is catered (vegan), but competitors are self sufficient during the day. As well as navigating, they must carry all their hill food and water. There is also the option of a drop bag being accessible at the midway support point each day for extra food or change of shoes/socks etc. and water is available here, but any more needed would have to come from streams or puddles – up to you if you filter!
It was originally run in 1992, before it was decided to be too difficult and stupid and not put on again until it was resurrected by Shane Ohly in 2012, and then repeated in 2015 from which point it’s been held on alternate years with the Scottish equivalent – the Cape Wrath Ultra in between.
It was to be my A race for the year, and I had serious work to do. I planned to start training properly in January after a short break to recover post-New York marathon, and build to 60/70 mile weeks by end of March/beginning of April, with as much hill work as possible. But I got ill Christmas week, then again end of January, taking out two weeks of training and my one planned warm up ultramarathon for the season.
But I did work hard. 7 weekends dedicated to route recces – one in December which was a daunting complete failure, two unofficial of day 3 and 4; three officials of days 1, 2 and 5; and the Easter bank holiday weekend to cover some of the more technical bits I’d previously missed on the official recces due to safety issues with going over high ridges in blizzards. I also ran a hot and hilly 33 miles on my own while on holiday in Portugal including a cliff scrambling section, forest trails, and overgrown coast path.
On day 5 recce, second weekend in January, I rolled my left ankle on a really gentle grassy downhill. It was probably due to post marathon jelly legs and my quads/knees just giving way as I’d run Manchester marathon the week before. I managed to bandage it up, pop some painkillers and keep going, but that night it was huge and bruised black and blue. Sunday I set out but was taking it easy, no need to be at the front of the group and just keep moving steadily. Then I went flying and sprained my right ankle. This is probably the 10th time for this ankle, but this felt much worse than the first roll of the left the previous day, and I had to bail out, hobbling off the mountain and getting picked up early. The sprains were bad and my feet were swollen to the extent they wobbled like jelly on each step, with recurrent bruising across the top of my foot just behind my toes. I knew that these needed time to recover, so I pretty much stopped running at this point, considering it was probably too late for any extra training benefit anyway. However, I was going back up to Snowdonia for one more training weekend the next week and worried about missing it as I still hadn’t done Crib Goch or Tryfan and didn’t want to turn up on race day having never done them, so I went along but didn’t go with the group and instead did short hikes with my ankles tightly strapped just to cover those technical bits.
After the Easter weekend, my training thereafter and in the month until the race just consisted of a few really easy yoga/meditation classes; a pilates class; a spin class; a circuits session; three parkruns; a short easy jog around Center Parcs when I went for a spa day; a gentle 9 mile run around Porthcawl accompanying my friend on a section of her ultramarathon; and I paced a 10km in 50 minutes at the Oxford Town vs Gown race. I didn’t run the London marathon or the Dragon 100km I’d signed up to, choosing instead to rest my ankles, a difficult but very sensible decision for me. I also had 3 sports massages, 2 thai foot massages, and a pedicure – anything to be race ready.
500 signed up for the race and 402 turned up to registration. Training (and life) claims a lot of people before they even get to the start line.
Day 0: Registration; kit check; issuing of maps, race numbers and GPS trackers; race briefing; and pre-race buffet dinner.
Day 1: 49km/3992m ascent
Conwy Castle, The Carneddau, Tryfan, The Glyderau, Crib Goch, Snowdon, Nant Gwynant.
360 finished day 1, 42 were cut off or didnt finish.
Day 2: 56km/3416m ascent
Nant Gwynant, Cnicht, The Moelwyns, Maentwrog, The Rhinogs, Difwys, Dolgellau, Cymer Abbey.
316 finished day 2, 44 dropped.
Day 3: 70km/3659m ascent
Cymer Abbey, Cadair Idris, Machynlleth, The Plumlumons, Dyffryn Castle.
268 finished day 3, 48 dropped.
Day 4: 68km/2457m ascent
Dyffryn Castle, Elan Valley hills, Cambrian mountains, Towy Bridge.
256 were still in the race at the end of day 4. One of those who dropped was a girl who had come second lady on day 1 and 2, and 3rd on day 3.
Day 5: 63km/2272m ascent
Towy Bridge, Fforest, Llandovery, Usk Resevoir, Black Mountain, Llandeilo.
237 finished the day and therefore the race overall.
Completion rate: 237/402=59%
Not counting the 98 who signed up but didn’t make it to the start line.
I stood inside the walls of Conwy Castle, a bag of nerves, but also absolutely ready to get going. I’d checked in my overnight and drop bags, and now unencumbered, I wanted to get the show on the road. I had a pack of welshcakes I was trying to give away which I’d bought for my breakfast and didn’t want any more of. The Male voice choir sang a few numbers including Calon Lan, but there was no anthem which I was holding out for and fully expecting to get choked up with tears.
When the race started, it was a slow start as we all set off along the castle walls, through the visitors centre/gift shop (and I nipped down the stairs to use the toilets), then up a spiral stair case, along the walls, back down another spiral staircase and finally out. Our timing would start from the first dibber at this point so we were told not to worry about the bottlenecks. But nevertheless it cost me about 20 minutes and time cut offs are based on time of day not your own elapsed time. Up the hill in Conwy, and then we got to a kissing gate and another 5 minutes wait, across the fields, through another kissing gate, over a little wooden bridge and we were on our way up Conwy mountain.
The next dibber was at a road crossing and then up up up onto the Carneddau. Dibber 3 was on the other side of a drystone wall from the race route so there was a queue to cross a stile and back again. It’s against the rules to climb over maintained walls and fences so an unavoidable further 10 minute delay here.
At about 4.5 miles I passed my fellow teammates Carolyn and Sally and some beautiful wild horses. I didnt remember much of this part of the route as when I did it, it had been covered in snow. I certainly don’t remember this section being so long, but I did recall and was rather dreading the technical descent from Pen y Ogwen down to Llyn Ogwen and the day 1 support point at 18 miles.
I had a plan though. With the ankles in the state they were in, I wanted to put in effort and power up the hills and climbs, take my time on the descents, and save as much in my legs as possible for any road sections which would be my forte as I’m a fast road runner even if I’m not a proficient fell runner. I also reminded myself that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t going fast as long as I made the cut off, and that it was better to take it steadily and save something in the tank to give myself the best chance of finishing the whole race.
I got chatting to a man who told me about a variety of fascinating race series and grand slams he’s done. Food for thought… Actual food though was perhaps a bit lacking. I had a Mr Kipling dragon cake slice, an Ella’s kitchen fruit pouch, and some dried apricots; which was about 1/3 of what I was carrying to eat on this section. I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed to eat regularly and not wait until I was hungry and tired and it was too late.
Carolyn caught me up on the descent and passed me. I almost caught up again by the support point as I blasted along the short road section into Llyn Ogwen carpark. She went straight through, eating on the go, while I sat down for 10 minutes, reapplied suncream, changed my shoes to some with better grip for the technical rocky sections ahead, ate a mozzarella ball and drank a can of coke. Sally came into the support point not far behind me.
I set off from the support point at 2pm, an hour ahead of the 3pm cutoff and headed up Tryfan. I overtook Carolyn and several others, and saw some lovely fluffy mountain goats. Then as the terrain changed from a steep hike to an actual scramble, I stowed my poles and set to climbing. I was having a blast, by myself, climbing a mountain, and thought to myself “aren’t you an effing awesome strong independent woman?!”.
I reached the summit and the checkpoint, then confidently led someone down who hadn’t been there before. But half way down I realised how tight it would be to get to the next cut off. I had known that the guidetime for that section was going to be tricky but leaving the support point with an hour to spare I thought I’d be ok. Supposedly the guide times are based on the split times of the slowest 12 finishers of the race but 2 hours from Llyn Ogwen to Pen Y Pass over Tryfan, Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach is insanely fast. None of my 4 tent mates who finished in around 12-13 hours (the cut off for the full day being 16), did it in 2 hours – more like 2.5-3 so realistically none but the uber-elite are doing that. There were people going through the previous checkpoint up to an hour after me and no-one overtook me so that’s a lot of time outs and a really unrealistic guide time surely. I clambered down Tryfan, over a stile, then up the steep scree slope of Glyder Fawr to the scramble at the top. The checkpoint was tricky to find on Glyder Fach and by this point I was despondent about meeting the next cut off. It was running through my mind whether I should just skip the checkpoint and whether that would count as a strike or a disqualification to give myself a better chance of making the cut off. Then another runner shouted that they’d found it, so I dutifully traipsed back and up to it, before setting out to get down the uneven grassy ground into Pen Y Pass. The closer I got, the less likely I was going to make it in time, and I wasnt willing to just fly down like I would uninjured and inevitably fall, potentially seriously hurting myself, so instead I just slowed down more and let it go. I came in with two other guys and we were in reasonable spirits. I bought an icecream in the cafe and sat down to wait for a lift back, looking up at Crib Goch looming above us; gutted I wasn’t going up today and that my race was over, but also relieved I wasn’t going up that best today and that I wouldn’t be navigating down from Snowdon summit in the dark.
Of my tent of 8, Sally and Carolyn were behind me, and I later found out that Carolyn had turned back down Tryfan with knee issues and realising she wasn’t going to make the next cut off. 8 became 5.
I got a lift to the campsite, had a wet wipe wash, got changed and had some dinner with Avril who got back soon after me. Speedster! That night in the tent was really uncomfortable. I’ve never liked sleeping in tents – always in pain, never the right temperature, always wake up stuffy like I’ve got a cold. But I thought with my body and mind tired from racing I’d be out like a light. Not so.
I had decided that since I wasn’t (any more) injured and in good spirits and shape, I would keep going the next day non-competitively. There is the option to start the full day or get a lift to the support point and just do the second half. I wanted to do the full day because I hadn’t done the Moelwyn mountains and Cnicht properly before and they’re in the first half, knowing there would be the option to bail out half way anyway. But feeling so uncomfortable overnight, I changed my mind. Annoyingly, as soon as I actually got out of my sleeping bag it was fine, but too late to start. I also had the dilemma of do I do it all as it’s good training for next time vs. what if I end up doing the entire race except for that little bit at the end of day 1 and don’t get my finisher dragon vs. am I going to do this again so I should do as much as I can vs. let your bloody ankles recover vs. if I start the whole day it’s a nice continuous journey rather than broken sections.
Anyway, I set off at midday from the support point with a group of others who had missed cut offs on day 1 over the Rhinogs. We stayed a bit far right after the Roman steps, adding an extra unnecessary scramble. I loved the climb up Rhinog Fawr but hated the descent. I’ve done 4 different descents off that mountain now and none of them are good. The third one was the best but I followed like a sheep in the race and went down a nasty, steep, brackeny, horrible way. Then we headed up Rhinog Fach but Sally and I skipped the summit itself as we weren’t in the race and had no need to dib in at the checkpoint and instead headed for the shoulder between there and the next peak, just enjoying our day. It was fun seeing the faster runners catch up and run past, and skipping a little bit meant we got to see a lot of them twice as they came past us a second time. The descent off the mountains into the forest, fuelled by a stop for a bag of Haribo Tangfastics, was tough on my knees. Immobilising my ankles, meant there was extra strain going through my knees.
At the end of day 2, I decided it wasn’t worth ruining my body any more, if I wasn’t going to complete the race anyway, and it was better to rest and refocus on my next bit races – Berlin & Chicago marathons in the Autumn. My friend rescued me from Vanner campsite and I went to stay with her that night until my parents could collect me the next day. We then went to spend the afternoon in Machynlleth, cheering all the runners through the town. I imagine they must have found it quite a shock to the system to be going through such a populated place, especially with all its marker stalls and busy streets which I hadn’t been expecting after 2.5 days of remote running with nobody around and only intermittent phone signal. People went wild in the Coop, stocking up on cold drinks and snacks, and many stopped at the chipshop for lunch as the support point for day 3 is just after the town. It was so good to see so many of my friends doing so well.
Thursday I left the Dragon’s Back bubble and had a day at home. I even went and did normal person things like sorting out my raggy hair I’d been neglecting in favour of trips to the mountains for the last few months, a bit of rather unlike me retail therapy, and eating plenty of icecream.
Friday I was back into the bubble and went to Llandeilo for the finish, cheering everyone in and watching the awards presentation.
There was a man who ran the finish stretch playing an accordion and flying an Italian flag, who gave us a rendition of La Bamba after finishing; and another man who as he approached the finish I realised had one arm in a sling. He stumbled to the ground and the crowd gasped dramatically. He awkwardly got up and finished to increased applause. Such inspiring people.
I was a mixed bag of emotions – beaming at my friends receiving the reward of their hard work ( a dragon trophy); and crying a mix of happy tears for them and sad for myself.
So do I go back? I could have deferred when I hurt my ankles in the first place, but knew it would be a huge amount of work and I wouldn’t be able to rely on the recces I had already done remaining in my memory, so I went for it, deciding to strap up my ankles and just see what I could do.
While I was out there, I was thinking I wouldn’t go back. I’d anticipated 12 hour days and started to see that was overestimating myself. I thought that even with my ankles being on form, I would still be pushing the cut offs, and being out for 16 hour days in the dark with little sleep is a very different situation to 12 hour days, 8 hours sleep, only being out in daylight. I also mused on the likelihood of having such a good week of weather again for the next running of the race. And finally, with plans to get a puppy in a couple of months, he probably wouldn’t be old enough to train with for 2021 (but maybe for 2023).
But once home, I started scrolling through my Strava and seeing fairly easy runs, the thought of them filling me with fear – a grassy parkrun, a short cross country. I realised at the finish in Llandeilo I was scared just walking around on the uneven grass. The ankle injury had clearly had a major impact. Going into the race, you need to be 100% and I was far from it. 4 of my 8 tentmates finished, and several other training buddies didn’t make it either so I would have friends to recce with again, and the training weekends were a lot of fun. Plus the mountain hikes and climbing would probably be doable with a dog in a year’s time, rather than a structured run.
I am truly gutted at not finishing, having invested so much time, money, and myself into this race. But my rewards were new friends, a focus for the last 5 months, the joy of being in the outdoors, and a new love of the mountains and climbing. I used to hate going to an indoor climbing centre – so much sitting/standing around and faffing with ropes. I’m a go go go kind of person and used to see exercise as an activity to burn calories when I first started out and that wasn’t giving me much bang for my buck. I went into this race scared about Crib Goch, but actually the scranbling hands and feet bits turned out to be my favourites and I can see myself doing a lot more of that for fun.
I never for a moment thought I would get timed out on day 1. I had strategies to keep going when I would inevitably find it tough and was determined to never ever give up. I was expecting to have a broken leg and have fashioned a splint out of a walking pole, hobbling along before I quit. But the thought of being timed out? That hadn’t been on my radar.
Ian (68) told me on Tuesday that he is thinking of retiring next year so that he can train properly for 2021. He still completed all of days 3 and 5 and half of days 1, 2 and 4 after being timed out on day 1. Friday at the finish he looked great, coming in 3 hours before the cut off, and told me training for 2021 starts Sunday!
Whether I go back or not, I’m pretty determined to get back to trails and cross country at least, and the idea of that with my ankles at the moment is scary, but so is the idea of not being able to.
There is unfinished business.
Ankle rehab starts now.
NB: Many pics from recces – I didn’t miss the cut offs due to photography!