Dragon's Back Race
September 3rd to 7th 2012
5th December 2012 - Below is what I wrote the week after the race. In hindsight maybe I should have waited but on the other hand I do feel that dumbed down reports do not give the reader an honest feel of how I was affected by an event.
However I am now taking the positives out of it and remembering the good times, the funny episodes and the great people I met. And because I always say "you shouldn't just moan and not do anything about it" - I along with Charmian Heaton are organising the Dragons Belly in July 2013 !!
Sunday 2nd - after registration there was the brief at 8pm where we were told a few points about the maps, routes and overnight camps. Then there was a good talk by Martin Stone about the previous Dragon's Back race back in 1992. Shane then disclosed that on the first day we would be running to the Carnedds then doing the Welsh 3000s route to Snowdon before running down to Nant Gwnant. This was quite daunting for me as I had once looked at doing the route in winter but had been defeated by snow very early on. I had also checked out my notes just in case we were doing it on the first day.
Monday 3rd - after the pre race amble of photos and speeches we set off at 7am along the castle walls. We were only allowed to jog as but this was fine as the Start dibber was actually on the road after the walls. Mine and Tim's plan was to take it easy really today but we still set off at quite a pace. Knowing there wasn't any water on the Carnedds I made sure we had filled our bottles up before we got to Drum on route. The pace still seemed very fast and I asked Tim to slow it down a bit. The day was turning out to be very hot. Running across though the views were great and we were both eating well. The water soon ran out but there was nothing we could do but carry on and hope we would pick some up. Our initial plan was to head left after Pen yr Ole Wen but on looking at the map I changed my mind and using the very little knowledge I have of the direct route ( I have been up it once) we went off that way. I was lucky staying left of the ridge and found some very good trods so that we only had to do the last bit in loose rock. Taking one short cut too many on the plateau we missed the camera lady and bashed through heather instead. It was not very hot and so we both dived in the river at the bottom. Collecting water we ran long to the CP on the road.
I made up my mousse and ate some food before setting off up Tryfan. I had good knowledge of this but felt so very hot and now sick. I wandered all over the place and kept stopping for a rest. I knew I was dehydrated and all I could do was keep going. I started getting cramp in my quads and tried massaging them to ease it. By the top I had drunk 2 litres of fluid and got the mousse down. It made it easier knowing the route in my head and so we found the way down and round Brizzly Ridge easily. There was a little clag now which was brilliantly cool and I was starting to feel better although still getting cramp in my quads and calves. Thinking ahead it was easy to plan my route across to Elidir Fawr and onto Snowdon although I had never been up Crib Goch I had read the account and had an idea of the route. We passed a few people on Elidir Fawr coming towards us taking a different descent but I was confident there was a path off the ridge so stuck to my lines. It was good and nice to know we only had one section to go.
Running up the road was hot again but there was shade under Crib Goch. We had been in sight of Helene all day and halfway up saw her in front again. Martin Stone had suggested we went left at the tarn so we tried but I think we were too late. Topping out we could see the line way over to our left but now the col seemed a better option. We went up just behind Helene and then turned left to traverse Crib Goch. Having read about contour paths I stayed to the right and found some. It was still slightly scary but I didn't look down and it was fine. We overtook quite a few people and then headed to Crib y Ddysgyl. I knew the summit was quite near Snowdon so we stayed low until late then headed up. This was a good line and I was very pleased with it. Running over to Snowdon I was glad of the clag and knowing that we were nearly finished for the day.
It seemed a long way down the ridge but I knew it was the right way. Dropping to the paths and then the road it was good to be finishing but I was very surprised we were 6th and 7th. We quickly had something to eat and then washed in the river. We had been out 11.30 hours and I knew it was going to be a very long day for some. I had a Bowen massage from Gareth as although I was sceptical I thought anything might help my legs recover from all the cramp I had been getting. News of lots of retirements were trickling in but by midnight everyone was accounted for.
Tuesday 4th - there weren't any results or times put up so we didn't know anything really when we set off. Looking at the map Shane said the route had been shortened. I was disappointed as what was taken out were the tops of Moelwyn Bach and Rhinog Fach; both iconic tops and in the original route. The changes also made little difference to the distance we had to do. The clag was down and it was drizzling when we first set off. We set off well however I made a small navigational error in the mist which needed correcting and then we were soon up Cnict. Crossing over the quarries to Molwyn Mawr the clag lifted and we could see views all around us. Mark Palmer had joined us which made for pleasant company. We made the decision to go round to the right of the out of bounds in to the Rhinogs. It was a good choice but I don't think the fastest on reflection. We then climbed high onto the ridge and that was a pleasant line. Without other people around though it was hard to actually race. We came into the bag drop in good spirits. Mark had already decided to drop because his knees were hurting but we carried on up the Roman Steps eating as we went. On the way to Rhinog Fawr we met other people however taking different lines down we split again only to meet again on the top of Diffwys.
Running down into the finish camp I knew we had dropped quite a few places but my legs were feeling a lot better than they had on Monday so I was happy. After 11.30 hours it was nice that the campsite was a proper one with hot showers and electric in the toilets. The marshal's sorted us a tent and we settled in for the night. I had another massage with the ever cheerful Gareth.
Wednesday 5th - we set off about 7.45am at a good pace hopeful that we could make up time on the climb to Cadair Idris. We were both feeling good and it seemed easy. I was letting Tim navigate as he had been on the hills before. Coming off Cadair Idris we stayed left. I was a little confused as to the bearing looking at the race map but expected we would drift right soon. We dropped then climbed a little and I started to try and check it all questioning Tim when I could catch him. He was confident and so I relaxed a bit. But the niggle wouldn't go away and eventually I think the penny dropped. We had gone off the wrong ridge. Shouting Tim we checked the map and yes we were following the fence towards Mynydd Pencoed - now on the right bearing but on the wrong bloody ridge. Back we went and contoured round. I was calculating how far and how much we had lost and was very disappointed. Tim was angry with himself and we just marched in silence. Eventually I came round to thinking "well its not the end of the world, I'm here, Steve's harvesting, I'm not in hospital, the weather is nice, now I can relax and enjoy the views without having to race". So we talked again and planned the next few hills out. The day was turning out to be a very long one. Running down and through the town of Machynlleth Tim dived into a butcher's shop and bought a huge steak pie. "That was the best steak pie I have ever tasted and I'm a beef farmer" I told everyone at the Support point when we reached there. It was now 5pm - very late to be getting your support bag and even later to be a long way from home. Someone said that the cut off was 5.30pm and that surprised us.
Running off up the valley I could feel a blister appearing but ignored it until we were dropping to Hyddgen when I told Tim I was going to sort it out. It felt a lot better after that and we soon caught the two guys we had been chasing for hours! They were John and John from the US and were discussing the route up Pumlumon. We still had daylight and I thought there should be a path on the crest going directly and so thats where me and Tim headed. We soon heard voices behind and the Johns asked if they could join us. It was quite pleasant climbing up chatting away to new people and sharing our (my) crisps round! There was indeed a nice path up and we made good progress. Now it was dark Tim and I soon realised that our small torches were rather insignificant up against our friends and so we asked if we could now follow them down! We stuck to the fence to be sure of our way and it dropped so slowly down out of the cold wind. It was good progress though even with John who was obviously in pain with a shin splint or tintiitus. We arrived at 10ish having been out just over 14 hours.
This camp was in a barn - maybe it would have been an improvement if it had been raining but as it was we had hard rubble to lie on instead of grass. The volunteers were excellent though; putting up another tent for us, getting us tea and then food. Just absolute stars. Talking to Wendy Dodds she very kindly lent us her collapsible bucket so we could wash in warm water. We were jiggered and only managed to pack for the morning and have one lot of food before the kitchen closed and we had to go to bed.
We got up and off early as we didn't want another late night. Being told at registration by Ohly that we were missing two checkpoints; the hills Gorllwyn (not in original DB) but also Drygarn Fawr (an iconic mountain in S. Wales) I was not pleased. Voicing my displeasure Ohly suggested I could visit them as the dibbers were there already and I considered this as the day went on only to scrap the idea.
The new route had more road / track in it and so we plodded off. The good weather had returned and we made sure we drank a lot and were eating well everyday now. It was good being early as we got to see all the competitors racing passed now that we were taking it a little easier! My feet had swollen up a little but the blisters and sore spots hadn't got any worse. The route did have a lot of road and track in it but we enjoyed the descent into Elan village from CP4 with Steve Birkenshaw passing us on the descent. Changing my shoes I was worried about my feet. Everyday now they heated up at lunchtime and so I had Ian Fitz and the doc check them out but there was nothing to see really. We left and took the more scenic route round the tracks to the left of the reservoir. Climbing on a path up on the hills a friend of Tim's caught us and it was pleasant running. Then Joe Faulkner came passed too. We ran with him a while before stopping in the village to get water and he ran on. We then tried to take a shortcut on a path that didn't exist (normal in Wales) and weren't impressed. Finding our way across the fields we did find the path / cycleway up the valley but this also hadn't been used in 40 years. At this time of day this is not what you need. It was knee deep tussocks and bogs all the way up. We had to laugh at the cycle signs though and expected to see deceased bike parts sticking out the bogs. It was very slow going and made worse by the fact we knew were heading to 5km of compulsory road. My feet were on fire now and I also had shin pain on descending. The road went on and on. We had hoped to be able to bath in the river but the sun was rapidly dissapearing and it was getting cold. Eventually reaching the campsite we had been out 12 hours and 20 minutes. Although it was a campsite there was no electric or hot water in the toilets so I went rummaging in the rubbish looking for something to use as a bucket. I found the perfect thing; an old mineral bucket (which would have been for sheep). Putting it next to the tap we both had a good wash and I was pleased to see other people using it too. I soaked my huge feet in it while having tea.
After my massage I got advice from the medics about my feet. The blisters and sore spots weren't getting worse but I was getting trench foot and they were swollen. Gareth massaged my shin and said that many people were complaining of that. It was the road running said Wendy Dodds who was also suffering of the same condition. I was worried about them though. In the middle of the night I woke and they were very painful and swollen. I didn't think I could get them in my shoes but wondered if I could borrow some men's shoes. Although it didn't seem a good idea to do another 30 miles on them I really wanted to finish now. By morning (4.30am) though they had gone down enough and the very wonderful doctor and Melanie patched them up with this magic pink tape. I explained to Tim that I would probably be walking and he was lovely about that.
Friday 7th Once again the route was cut down - this time even before the day started; Shane had already decided that we wouldn't be visiting Cribbarth and Carreg Goch (in the original route) but also on the day he took out CP5 down the knoll at the end of Fan Brycheiniog. Setting off we were joined by Chris and the two Johns which were very good company. Small John was suffering with his shin still and along with me made up the rear. Runners passed us all morning until a guy called Steve stopped and offered John some codine as he could see he was in pain. I muscled in too and we were given enough to see us through the day which was so nice of him. The pills helped and we were soon catching people back up a little. It was a great social day - I was determined to enjoy it and didn't push myself at all. Everyone was so happy to be walking the last day in beautiful weather sharing food round and chatting.
About 15 people ran into the Support point where we were offered a CHOC ICE !!!!!! by Charmain which no one refused. Setting off from there Big John asked if he could go ahead with some faster runners. That was fine by me, Tim, Chris and Small John. My feet had started to itch and the small lumps rub and bleed so I had put some tape on them. We were soon joined by Chi and climbed up onto the ridge in good spirits. It was lovely. Me and John were strong on the climbs but couldn't run downhill very well but overall everyone was happy. I was using poles and we took drugs when we needed. Coming down to the road we spotted the van again - Charmain and Mrs H had driven round to give us a surprise CP with a water sprinkler, orange, cake and biscuits. It was very welcome. Charmain explained the circumstances around her and Mrs H's husband's (Steve and Max) being timed out on Tuesday which was heartbreaking. I know how much time and effort I had put into preparing for the race but it was minimal compared to these people. When we left I was quite upset but also angry and it took me a few hours to calm down. The hills were now untrodden and back to very horrid heather and rocks which were agony for me and John with our shins and feet. We cried out for trods but none were to be found. The last CP eventually came at about 5.30pm and we all took a few minutes to sit and look across at the castle reflecting on the week and the sunset. We knew Wendy Dodds was battling it out behind us and hoped she would make most of it before it got dark.
Onward through the heather, tussocks and bogs we ploughed to reach the road. Along the road and then round by the footpaths to lead us to the castle. It was getting chilly now so coats went on. Walking up the final steps there was only a few people there to clap us in. Photos were taken and congratulations given. Down to the barn we staggered. There was a lot of noise and merryment and we enjoyed the clapping as we entered.
Overall I had a feeling of sadness. I had come to do the Dragon's Back and didn't really feel like I had done it. So many tops had been added in initially that the route was now 35% longer than the original but then even more were taken out in crisis management so in the end we did the distance and certainly the effort but not the route. I felt even sadder for the 22 people who on Day 1 reached the col before Crib Goch at 7pm but were told that they were not allowed up it even though the cut off was 9pm. A lot of these competitors continued doing each day not knowing where they stood in the results. I feel especially for Steve and Max (who were in this group) who started Day 2 but reached the Support point after the cut off which was 4pm and were told that they were being pulled. The finish camp cut off for everyday was midnight. I took 6.30 hours to reach that Support Point and finished 5 hours later. Some cut offs were totally wrong. Another one on that same day was Cnict at 10.30am then Moelwyn Mawr at 11.15am. Anyone who knows the Paddy Buckley will recognise that split. It takes contenders at least 50 minutes to do that leg having reccied it and with support.
On a positive note the support from the volunteers was immense. The overnight camps were basic to say the least. It was very hard keep going when you arrived at 10pm and had to get changed, sort night stuff, tender to feet/blisters and then sort everything out for the next day. But when we arrived an army of support people came round; Ian Fitz, Charmain, Mrs H, Doc Mike, Melanie and lots of others I didn't catch their names (sorry). They would find our tent, bags, get us drinks and food and then tend to our feet and injuries. Gareth the Bowerman massage guy would be doing massages well into the night with a cheerful banter going.
The caterers were so tired as they didn't know that so many people would be coming in at 10pm and then wanting food till midnight. They were absolute angels though staying open as long as possible and giving out paper cups / bowls (which was against the "rules") when you'd forgotten to get yours from deep inside your drop bag. They also provided hot water for washing my feet. They were up at 4.30am but could hardly keep up with the demand then as the later the competitors finished the earlier they wanted to start to try and get on top of the job!
All this support was what kept me going. I think the original route was physically hard; I had expected this and trained for it. Day 1 of this race was made 35% longer by Shane Ohly for a reason I can't comprehend and then made shorter everyday by Shane telling us with a car salesman smile and no apology. I had signed up for the Dragons' Back race and didn't get it.
I would like to thank Amanda and Andrew of www.Racekit.co.uk for their kit and advice. I asked them for some tips as they are well experienced in multi day events. The following six were the most useful and made life a lot easier:
1) A Nalgene bottle. At first I thought very large and solid and thought it wouldn't have many uses. But I was wrong. We used it for tea and coffee, to collect water for washing, as a hot water bottle and then to store stuff in that is breakable. It can also be used as a pee bottle but thankfully I didn't have to.
2) A full length sleeping mat - a must for a good night's sleep
3) Poles - I have them but hadn't packed them. I'm glad I did as I was in a lot of pain downhill on Friday and they really helped.
4) Lots of dry bags, labelled up, with night clothes / running clothes / dirty clothes etc so that even if water gets in your main sack (with wet shoes for eg) you still keep everything else dry.
5) Micro pore tape - I used this to keep the blister plasters on and also to cover sore spots on my heels.
6) a piece of plastic sheet used as a tarp - this was useful even though the ground was relatively dry. At this time of year there is a lot of dew and in the morning it was good to put all the stuff on the tarp to pack it up.
Left foot a few days after the race - still very swollen Right foot