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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Stevens

Dragonfire

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Dragon's Back Race, 4-9 September 2023


“Dragons are fire made flesh.”

“Not all men were meant to dance with dragons.”


George R. R. Martin



Race Highlights



Before the Race


Back at the beginning of the year, when discussing 2023 priorities with my coach, Marcus Scotney, we had landed on January’s Winter Spine, the Ultra Trail Snowdonia (UTS) 100 mile race in May and the Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) as being my ‘big 3’ A races for the year. There’s been a fair amount of discussion over time in online forums regarding which are the toughest ultramarathons in the UK, and while any ranking is always going to be individual and subject to argument, from what I can see there seems to be a general consensus among those who have attempted them that the Winter Spine is the hardest non-stop multi-day race, UTS is the hardest 100 mile race and DBR is the hardest stage race in the UK. At the time I hadn’t attempted any of them, so was certainly not qualified to have an opinion on the matter, but I set the objective of completing all 3 as my own personal “Ultra Triple Crown” goal for the year. Even if I didn’t manage to achieve it, it might at least mean that I would be more qualified to have an opinion on the matter!


As it happens, I fell at the first hurdle, DNFing on the Winter Spine at Malham Tarn after 85 miles, but after successfully completing TransGranCanaria, UTS 100M, Istria 100 and Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Dolomites (the latter with what felt like my best ever performance), I took a couple of months to get my training in shape to peak for the Dragon’s Back Race in early September.


Crib Goch at the end of a Welsh 3000s


Training had gone well. After UTS, I’d worked a lot on my quad and calf strength to improve my resilience on long, steep, technical courses such as the DBR, the Achilles issues that had been plaguing me in June and July had started to abate and with 2021’s brutally hot DBR in mind, I had put in a couple of weeks of heat acclimation work, both in the sauna and in a sauna suit. With a recce week in early August, during which I’d managed to do my first full Welsh 3000s round and covered around half the overall course with my race pack, focusing particularly on the hardest days of the race (Days 1-3 and Day 5), I was feeling optimistic as I caught the train northbound from Euston on the Sunday morning before the race.


As we changed trains at Crewe it was clear that there were a large number of Dragons all on the same train from Crewe to Conwy. I bumped into Andy and Sarah Norman, whom I’d met on Northern Traverse and Cape Wrath Ultra last year, as they were sitting a few seats further down the carriage from me. With both of them being veterans of the Hardmoors races (they’re both Hardmoors 2000-mile award recipients) it was very interesting to get their take on DBR, as well as to hear about their adventures and future race plans. I also struck up conversation with Sally Minchella, who had run a great race at UTS 50k in May and who had also been a fellow Brit at Lavaredo a month later, so had plenty of experience running on technical terrain in the heat. As we made our way along the North Wales coastline, the extensive wind farms came into view foreshadowing the mid-Wales land-based wind farm that we would be running through on Day 4 of the race.


Gwynt y Môr wind farm


After arriving at Conwy, I quickly checked into my B&B, Gwynfriw, and then took my bags down to Conwy Castle to register and go through kit check. It all went remarkably smoothly, the one exception being that I realised I’d left my buffs in the seat pocket of the train, so quickly had to pop out and buy some from one of the outdoor shops in town (which luckily were still open). And then it was back to the registration tent for the briefing by Race Director Shane Ohly, after which a group of us who were all coached by Marcus and Jen Scotney – Peter O’Kane, Jean Brown, Graham Walton, Josh Castlo-Hall, Alex Payne – had agreed to meet for dinner and a quick photo. It was getting cold as we each headed back and after filling all my drinks bottles, pre-packing my bags and laying out all my kit on the floor ready for tomorrow, I went to bed and hoped for a good night’s sleep.


Conwy Castle the day before the race



Team Scotney



Day 1: Everyone has a plan … till they’re hit in the mouth

Conwy to Gwastadannas (49km, 3800m)


At 4am my alarm went off, and I quickly set to work on getting ready for the race. Water bottles in the race vest. K-tape applied to toes. Suncream and anti-chafing ointments applied. Contact lenses inserted. Double check of items in 15kg camp bag vs 2.5kg drop bag. Race kit donned. All the while chugging waffles, canned coffee and electrolytes. Teeth cleaned and rinsed with mouthwash. All set.


I scanned round the room to make I’d not missed anything, and mentally said farewell to the last bed I would see for another 6 days. The biggest source of pre-race trepidation I find is typically not about the race itself but more about whether I’ve forgotten to bring a crucial piece of kit. Anyway, at 5am on the dot I crept past Gwynfriw’s reception and down the quiet streets of Conwy towards the castle and the start. A small number of other competitors were also making their way there too, and when I arrived a few minutes later at the castle there was a throng of people queuing to have their bags weighed and dropped off. They had a pair of scales where you could pre-weigh your bags before going to the official weighing-in, so I took mine over and plopped them on the scales. Fuck. 15.7kg and 2.6kg. I was perplexed as to where the extra weight had come from, before realising that at least some of it had come from having not packed all my Day 1 gels in my race kit. I took several gels out the bags and put them in my race vest and belt. Some additional powder sachets too. That should help. I eventually managed to get both bags down to the 15kg and 2.5kg limits and marched them over to the official weigh-in, where this time they passed first time. 10 minutes of stress, but luckily still 40 minutes to go before the start.


After knocking back the last of my canned coffees and the ActiveRoot ginger gel that I’d made up the night before, I wandered through the gift shop and up the ramps into the centre of the castle itself. A lot of previous participants have talked about the ‘magical’ start of the DBR, and it was only now that I truly appreciated what they meant. The inside of the castle was festooned with flags, spectators were crowded on the various battlements, an eery glow pervaded the inside of the keep and above the walls the orb of the moon hung watchfully in the sky. I could feel a knot of emotion in my stomach as I took in the atmosphere. The Welsh male voice choir started singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and my stomach knot tightened a notch more. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. When they got on to “Land of My Father” I was pretty much in full weeping mode.


You'll Never Walk Alone


As the gantry clock above the start line turned 6:00 we were off. A shuffle over the start line, followed by a stop-start conga line procession around the walls and battlements of the castle, going up and down various stairwells, until eventually we emerged out of the one of the stairwells onto the streets of Conwy, passed an orange Silva timing chip, and the race proper had begun. Even though we were on the streets now, it was still quite congested and the pace was more of a jog / hike than a run. As we left the town and turned onto the country paths leading up Conwy’s local hill of Mynedd y Dref, the narrow single tracks punctuated by gates and stiles led to occasional traffic jams and it was only after half an hour and passing the summit that the path broadened and the congestion eased.



There were beautiful views of the sea and the Menai Straits to the right hand side, to the left a faint misty haze still hung over the hills. The route from here to the next hill, Tal y Fan, is quite meandering with several sharp scrambly drops followed by grassy climbs and while it looks straightforward on paper, if this was any other ultra it would be considered somewhat of a ‘gnarly’ section. By Dragon’s Back standards though we were still on the nursery slopes. I caught up with Andy and Sarah Norman and was moving slowly and steadily through the field. Soon after I found myself running behind Mike Burke. Everyone was running strongly, and it was impossible to imagine that by the end of the day, half the field would have retired or been timed out.


The sun nudged higher, the misty haze vanished, an hour passed and we were on top of Tal y Fan. I had programmed some benchmark splits for each CP into my watch and it was showing that I was running 15 mins behind target pace. Not a disaster after 90 mins, and I figured largely explained by the congestion after the start, but still enough to keep me on my toes and encourage me to run as much of the runnable sections as possible, especially the downhills and flats. Another half hour passed and we joined the track leading up to Drum, part of the standard Welsh 3000s route that I’d been on only a month ago so very familiar territory.


The temperature was starting to tick slowly up – nothing too alarming so far, but it was now becoming a warm rather than cool morning. Between Drum and Foel Fras there are normally a few slightly boggy sections, but not today – they had all evaporated away and the climb to Foel Fras and the first of the 11 Welsh 3000ers we would be scaling today was dry and stony. Foel Fras came and went, and I felt I was going at a decent pace – running the flats and hiking the boulder fields and climbs – but when I arrived at the rocky flat top of Carnedd Gwenllian and the next orange checkpoint I checked my watch and saw that I was now 30 minutes behind my plan. Was I really that slow? I resolved to push myself a little harder, while consuming another gel and increasing my drinks intake to ensure that I maximised my energy intake between here and the first support point at Ogwen Valley, another 10km away.


Boulder fields on the Carneddau


The undulating ridge of the Carneddau affords some fantastic views of Tryfan and the Glyderau in fine weather and today was no exception. Although it was getting progressively warmer, the sight of runners in front of me gave me ample incentive to keep the pace up and the boulder-strewn slopes of Carnedd Llewellyn and then Carnedd Dafydd came and went. 40 minutes behind target. This was definitely weird. The only consolation was that when I arrived at the final peak of the Carneddau after puffing up the slopes of Pen yr Ole Wen, I had arrested the decline, was still only 40 minutes behind plan, and now had a long downhill to the support point at Ogwen Valley where I could refuel and regroup.


The descent starts off quite steep and technical but as you lose height it flattens below the tarn of Hynnon Lloer and becomes grassy as it runs alongside the Afon Lloer stream. As we dropped into the valley, the temperature soared. It was a good job we were running downhill, and I found myself behind the extravagantly red Dragon-mohicanned Will Terry – with whom I’d find myself running much of the subsequent 5 days – and another couple of runners. We stopped to douse ourselves in the stream and before long had hit the A5 and were trotting along the side of the road towards the support point. My plan was to spend as little time in the support points as possible – just enough to refill my drinks bottles, have an extra drink if I was thirsty and take on board additional gels and powders for the second half of the day. So I was in and out in about 10 minutes, which in retrospect was a big mistake.


The climb up Tryfan was gruesome. Almost as soon as I’d started the ascent my breathing became laboured and a faint dizziness descended. I slowed down, going at the kind of “mountain guide’s pace” that I’d normally reserve for climbs at altitude. The first part of the climb is non-technical, but still quite steep, and I found myself being caught and overtaken on a regular basis. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it can’t help but dishearten you when you know that you cannot go any faster but you are still being easily passed by others. I tried to keep going without any breaks but found myself having to stop briefly a couple of times simply to let my head clear. Somehow I managed to get to 700m and the start of the steep rocky scramble to the summit. Despite the tougher terrain, I found it easier as we were now in shadow and the all-fours and concentrated nature of scrambling means that you are somewhat distracted from the effort of climbing. The twin pillars of Adam and Eve appeared, I touched the orange checkpoint beacon to make sure that it registered my passing and glanced fearfully at my watch to see how I was progressing, not particularly wanting to see the answer as I knew that it would have worsened since Ogwen. I was now over an hour behind plan, and I was also now stuck in a queue of about twenty athletes who were slowly negotiating the large boulders that led down to the saddle point before the steep ascent to Glyder Fach. A trail running race this was not!


If the Tryfan ascent was gruesome, the one up Glyder Fach was X-rated. We were fully exposed to the sun again, and the loose scree made it even harder going than the rocky scramble of Tryfan. Again I had to pause frequently to prevent breathing difficulties and dizziness from overwhelming me. I tried to mentally switch my brain off and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I also found myself suffering from occasional cramp in my hamstrings and calves. I forced another gel down and gulped my way through half my drinks, suspecting that salt imbalance might have something to do with it. Eventually I reached the final few rocky steps before the summit plateau of the Glyderau and the climb to Glyder Fach and its famous cantilever stone. 90 minutes behind plan.


Behind Chris Illman on Glyder Fach


This was getting ridiculous. At least I now had a reasonably flat section to Glyder Fawr followed by a long descent to Pen-y-Pass. On the flatter ground, I found I could move a good deal quicker and much closer to my usual pace than on the last two pitiful uphill crawls. Glyder Fawr came and went and I was able to pick up good speed on the descent, reeling in several runners in front of me who already seemed to be suffering from painful quads and / or knees. While my heat training appeared to have been largely for naught, at least all of the strength, plyo and downhill training had paid dividends and my legs felt so much stronger than they had done during some of my races earlier in the year – notably TransGranCanaria and UTS. I arrived in Pen-y-Pass at 2:40pm, getting on for 2 hours later than I was originally hoping to get there, and in a state of real confusion about my true fitness levels and achievable pace. Little did I realise that this would just be the start of my Day 1 problems.


Beautiful runnable descent of Glyder Fawr with Yr Wyddfa backdrop


When I arrived, Fumiaki Imamura was there. We’d run a few of the same races – Sunrise Ultra, UTS – and he’d picked my brains about Northern Traverse earlier in the year so we knew we’d both be doing Dragon’s Back together. He’s a strong runner and I was somewhat reassured by his presence that it was not just me whose pace was off in this heat. Cooling down was the number priority for the moment, so I popped into the café to get some “proper” drinks and a couple of Calippo ice lollies, managed to give myself brain-freeze by eating them too quickly, and then topped up all my water bottles again (shifting this time to mainly water) before heading off up the Pyg Track and the crux of today’s stage, the Snowdon Horseshoe and in particular the climb and traverse of Crib Goch.


My body temperature having cooled somewhat, the first part of the climb up the Pyg Track was relatively painless. It wasn’t too long before the path split and we reached the sign pointing upwards towards Crib Goch’s dark red rocky pyramid. The rock is steep, but good quality and personally I find it a much easier ascent than its reputation would suggest. The main problem I had was that the muscle cramping that had started on Glyder Fach returned with a vengeance and almost every large move that I made resulted in my hamstring and calf muscles cramping up. I had to pause every few moves for the cramping to relax. Fumiaki caught and passed me. I laboured on, and eventually reached the top at 4pm, probably slightly quicker than I expected given the difficulties I was having. The traverse of the knife-edge arete is never an easy section, but the experience of a few weeks earlier had taught me that it’s best to stay right on the top of the ridge where if you have a head for heights, it's possible to walk upright for some parts and where the footholds are generally plentiful for those parts where you have to scramble. I managed to get to Carnedd Ugain 20 minutes quicker than when I’d done my Welsh 3000ers – still slow in comparison to most fell runners, but a minor personal achievement in the context of a day that had unravelled pretty badly.




Carefully traversing Crib Goch!


I had hoped to be reach the summit of Yr Wyddfa while the café was still open, and maybe treat myself to another ice cream, but it had already closed when I rather forlornly touched the orange beacon and started down the Watkin Path to complete the Horseshoe. I hadn’t gone very far – perhaps 500m – when I suddenly found myself getting dizzy again. It’s quite a steep descent down the Watkin Path, and not a place where you want to risk taking a tumble. I slowed my pace and hoped the dizziness would pass, but it was with growing alarm that the dizziness just got worse. I was really finding it hard to stay upright, and I could also start to hear a ‘whooshing’ sound in my ears that was getting progressively louder. I stopped by a flat rock and sat down to let it clear. Quite a few people went passed, asking if I was OK. A hiker stopped by me and looked at me with evident concern. With the loud whooshing sound in my ears, it sounded like there was a helicopter overhead, or maybe a waterfall at hand. I asked him if there was a helicopter nearby and he looked at me as if I had landed from Mars. I guess I was the only one hearing the helicopter noises then. I think must have stopped there for about 20 minutes before I felt strong and safe enough to continue. I slowly followed the path to the bottom of the col, where the climb up to Y Lliwedd began.


More dizziness. More short stops to clear my head. More people passing me. At least no more cramping. Summit of Y Lliwedd ticked off. Downhill all the way now, surely this must be easier, but no, super-steep grassy descent. Yet more dizziness. Can’t go on like this. Lay down on the side of the trail, curling up on my side to see if that helps. As soon as I get up again the dizziness comes back. Stagger a few more hundred yards. Gradually losing altitude. More dizziness. Lie down on my side again. Seriously thinking of pressing the SOS button but I still have 3 hours to get to camp and it’s less than 4km away. Sally Minchella comes past and asks if I’m OK. I answer “not really, but I’ll figure something out” and lie down again. 10 minutes later I get up and stagger some more. The ground flattens out somewhat as we go over the minor peak of Gallt y Wenallt. More steep descent and I’m not feeling quite so bad any more. Ousmane Diop catches and passes me – he looks very tired, but he’s still moving faster than me so I can only guess at how exhausted I must look. A final steep descent, we’re on the valley floor and I’m now in a group with Philadelphia Holmes and a couple of other runners. It’s farm track and road now and with the light just beginning to fade we jog slowly into camp, crossing the line at 8:15pm. 14h15m for a stage that I was hoping to finish in less than 11 hours. 3 hours to descend Snowdon, which would normally only take 1h40m. Little surprise that as I tried (somewhat in vain) to persuade my stomach to accept pie and chips in the mess tent, my mind was racked with misgivings about whether I’d be able to get through another 5 days of this.


One consolation was the Dragon mail that I’d received during the day – support from people outside the bubble of my own mind was unbelievably helpful at this point, and certainly helped me counteract the unhelpful narrative that was circulating in my mind. It was also clear that I wasn’t the only one who had struggled hugely in the heat. I bumped into Mike Burke – a 3-time finisher and one of the very few people to have completed DBR, UTS100M and a Winter Spine – outside the mess tent, and he had timed out at Ogwen, throwing up with heat exhaustion. Andy and Sarah Norman had also both dropped out between Ogwen and Pen-y-Pass. Looking at the screens in the tent, roughly 50% of the field had dropped out on Day 1, with most of them dropping down to the Hatchling course. It had been a savage day.



Day 2: The Fightback Begins

Gwastadannas to Dolgellau (59km, 3200m)

I didn’t feel great when I woke up. But then again I didn’t feel godawful either. Small mercies and all that. I’d had a fitful sleep, with heart rate elevated and punctuated by lots of negative thoughts about DNFing. But then again, the fact that I didn’t feel terrible when I woke up gave me a bit of confidence that today would be better. Before heading to the mess tent I took a couple of caffeine tablets to wake me up properly, and then tried to force down some more carbs, carbs, carbs. Double helping of hash browns, porridge, waffles. Avoided the sausages, egg and baked beans, having learned my lesson from Cape Wrath where I left a pungent scent trail in my wake.


At 6am a long queue had formed of runners handing back their supply bags, but it took me another 40 minutes to sort my feet, food and kit and it wasn’t until 6:40 that I was depositing my bag and getting ready to leave. Just before going through the start gate we were briefed that at the day’s supply point at Cwm Bychan, we would be given a 30 minute “time out” to cool-down and rehydrate, and the course closure time would be extended by an additional 30 minutes. After yesterday’s carnage, this was an eminently sensible decision by Shane and the team and I certainly intended to make full use of it! It still meant that I would have to reach Cwm Bychan by 2:45pm, so couldn’t afford to take it easy by any means over the first section of the day – Cnicht and the Moelwynion.



Ascending Cnicht in the shade


The first few kms are a mixture of roads and easy farm / forest paths, all very runnable, and it wasn’t long before I reached the boggy ground that lies below the sharp ascent up Cnicht’s west face. It was still pretty cool and the kick from my morning carbs and caffeine seemed to turbocharge my climbing as I sped up the scree, keeping to the right hand side where the ground and footholds were firmer. A fresh breeze was blowing when I hit the summit ridge and I stowed my poles for the final scramble, glancing at my watch as I tapped the orange beacon. 1hr40m and bang on target. I was flying!


Negotiating the final few metres of Cnicht


When recceing a few weeks earlier, I had tried to follow a faint trod that cut off the upper half of the super-steep descent of Cnicht’s east face. Far from being a short cut, I’d found it narrow, awkward and hard to follow, so this time round I stayed on the summit ridge before turning right and taking the whole face in one go. Bum down, sit back and sliiiiide … it is remarkable how efficient the bumslide can be when the slope is steep and grassy and I shot down the slope, overtaking several others on the way. The next couple of kms to Moelwyn Mawr are boggy and trackless, but with plenty of people still in front of me it was easy just to follow them. With both Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Bach having there-and-back sections, there was a stream of runners on both going on opposite directions, and I was pretty happy when checking my watch on the top of Moelwyn Bach as with only 3 hours gone, everything was going according to plan so far, a huge contrast from yesterday. Even the weather still felt much more pleasant than the previous morning.


After negotiating another dam, the descent to Maentwrog is a narrow stony path winding through dense ferns and on the recce I had found it quite tricky with plenty of ankle-breaker potholes, but the ferns had begun to die back, and the progress of previous runners had further cleared the path, so it was much easier this time round. The rail tracks of the Ffestiniog railway came and went, and before long a group of us were jogging down the roads towards Maentwrog. Dropping into the valley, it grew noticeably warmer and the air stiller, and I had broken into a sweat as I pulled into the Water Point. No time-out here, so it was a quick refill of the water bottles, this time just with water to avoid any recurrence of the nausea I’d had on previous races with the combination of sweet stuff and hot weather, and a dunk of all my buffs in the water bucket.


Moelwynion action


The climb out of Maentwrog is easy enough being on roads, followed by some forest track and then a long flat section alongside a drainage ditch. All very runnable again. A few small rolling hills, and as the temperature continued to climb, every stream and every puddle provided an opportunity to re-dunk my buffs and squeeze the water over my head, top and shorts to provide some temporary relief from the heat and hopefully prevent my core temperature from excessively building up. A final climb followed by sharp descent through ferns and sheep pens towards Cwm Buchan, the Support Point and a much-needed chance for respite from the heat. 1:20pm, 7 hours had passed and while I’d slowed up a little I was still pretty much on track for a 12h30m day – maybe Day 1 really was a complete aberration and the rest of the race would be much closer to business-as-usual.



Heading down to Day 2 Support Point at Cwm Buchan


I saw a few familiar faces in the aid station – Fumiaki was already there, so I sat next to him and we ruminated on how difficult the previous day had been, and how much better today was. I took the opportunity to take my socks off and give them an airing in the sun, while I worked my way through the contents of my drop bag – Haribos, more gels, ActiveRoot ginger electrolytes – and indulged myself with an all-body water spray to try and cool down further. It was clearly working, as twenty minutes later I was beginning to shiver as all that cold water wicked away all my body heat. I’d definitely learnt my lesson from yesterday and the importance of not just focusing on hydration, but also on preventing the core temperature from getting out of hand. I probably faffed around a bit getting ready again, as 40 minutes had elapsed before I set off, and I mused on the 10 minutes of wasted race time as I headed towards the Roman Steps that led up to Rhinog Fawr. Almost immediately the temperature increased again and it was not long before the pleasant coolness I had felt in the Support Point was replaced with first clammy humidity of the woods at the beginning of the climb, and then increasingly intense sunshine as the path led towards the narrow defile below Rhinog Fawr. Luckily there was a small stream so I was able to continue dousing my head as I made my way upwards. There is a shorter, but steeper, route to the summit to be had by turning right halfway up the gorge and following a wall, first up a steep scramble and then along a faint trod across broken ground west of the Llyn Du tarn, climbing towards the summit from the west. I couldn’t see anyone above me and guessed that everyone else was following the ‘official’ recommended GPX tracks. I stowed my poles again as the climb required quite a bit of handwork but was soon over the steepest part of the climb and the poles came out again as I headed towards the hump of the summit. It was only when I was within 50 or so meters of the summit that I saw another couple of runners above me who no doubt had taken the recommended route – I had no idea whether the ‘shortcut’ had actually saved me any time or not, but in any case when I checked my watch I saw that it had taken me 75 mins to make the climb from Cwm Buchan, around 10 mins longer than I had planned, so my pace had started to drop again.



Fern forests! A lot happier than the day before


This year the recommended course for the descent of Rhinog Fawr has changed to a quite runnable route on the eastern flank, a huge improvement on the previous ‘direct’ southern route, a really gnarly, ankle- and knee-busting rocky scramble. A mild breeze was now providing some respite to the heat, and I was a lot quicker on this descent and the subsequent climb up to Rhinog Fawr and got there pretty much on schedule, finding myself behind Will Terry’s red dragon again as we started on the long, undulating ridge traverse towards first Y Llethr and then the long, steady climb up Diffwys and the final peak of the day. I think the faster pace I’d been going at earlier in the day had expended more energy than I thought, as while I was trying to stay on top of my carb intake with hourly gels, I felt oddly flat on the there-and-back section, and it was only after touching the beacon on Diffwys’s summit and starting the long descent towards Dolgellau that I felt the energy return to my legs. Although I was still finding uphills hard, my legs felt strong in themselves and had no difficulty breaking into a fast jog on the grassy slopes that led towards the forest tracks and was regularly passing other runners whose quads were suffering from the 7000m of downhill they had been subjected to. Shane had very kindly set up on impromptu extra watering station here with water and – yes – coke for all the runners coming off the Rhinogs and I greedily knocked back 500ml of coke. Not such a good idea it turned out, as I spent the next quarter hour loudly belching to get rid of the gassy bloating. Forest track turned to road, then came the Penmaenpool Bridge and a small crowd of cheering supporters to lift the spirits. I managed to keep up a solid jogging pace just behind Will and it was just after 8pm, still light and with diametrically opposite emotions from the end of Day 1 that I pulled into the campsite at Cummer Abbey and the end of Day 2.


Good things tend to come in bundles, and just as the running today had been productive, so I found it easy to eat in the mess tent that evening and was able (I think) to pretty much replenish all my carbs while catching up Dragon Mail and strapping compression bands on my thighs, calves and ankles. Still no blisters, but a little bit of redness developing on the soft mid-section of the soles of my feet. It’s always a tricky place to protect as if you tape it up then the skin tends to macerate in hot weather almost guaranteeing that a blister will subsequently form, so I smeared some more Gehwol cream on it before I went to bed and hoped that would toughen up the skin somewhat.



Day 3: Heat 2, Anthony 1

Dolgellau to Ceredigion (70km, 3400m)


I was feeling a lot more optimistic as I woke on Wednesday morning. Although I’d not slept extremely well, with some tightness in my hips making it hard to sleep on my side, I’d managed 4 or 5 hours and yesterday’s turnaround in fortunes had given me a much-needed confidence boost. 2 out of 6 days completed. One more tough day before the relatively ‘easy’ Day 4. And it was a day with a lot more runnable terrain once the initial big climb of Cadair Idris was out of the way. The forecast was for yet more heat today, and less of a breeze than the day before, so we were once again briefed that there would be a 30 minute heat time-out at the Support Point, which today was just after Machynlleth, 45km into the day’s 70km and where I’d finished my recce a month earlier. After that would be unknown territory for me, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it and keep my focus on getting to Machynlleth in good time before the cut-off of 4:15pm. I left the starting gate at 6:50am, again slightly later than the 6:30am start I was aiming for, but I hoped that 9hr25m would leave me with plenty of time to get to “Mach” given that it had taken me 8hrs to cover the distance on my recce.



Reaching the top of Cadair Idris with Jack Blanchard


Even at just after 7am, it was noticeably hotter than the day before and the climb up through forest, road and then farmland to Gau Graig was hard work. Despite taking every opportunity to re-douse my buffs, head and torso, I was feeling strong enough to make quick progress and was able to break into a run once hitting the gentle slopes that led from Gau Graig’s rocky knob towards Cadair Idris’s summit, although not fast enough to keep up with Robyn Cassidy who came flying past me. Still, I reached the Penygadair’s summit shelter and the orange beacon at 9am, pretty much right on my plan again, together with Jack Blanchard who had also done UTS 100 earlier in the year, after some really strong performances in Arc of Attrition and Jurassic Coast 100. It was with growing optimism that I started bounding down the long, downward-sloping trail that hugged the top of the cliffs on Cadair Idris’s northern and western flanks. It’s one of my favourite descents of the whole DBR route, as it’s rocky enough to be fun while flat enough to be fast. My knees, legs and ankles all felt fantastic. Even the bottoms of my feet felt OK, despite two days of rocky pounding, and even though there was no breeze, the difference between downhill and uphill meant that the heat felt a lot less intense.


Just after the farm tracks had turned to asphalt, a few Dragons stopped to refill their bottles from a tap on the side of the road and I joined them, more to cool myself down than to rehydrate. It was a huge relief and spirit-lifter after the bone-dry conditions of the last few hours, and there was a further bonus as the next few kms along farm tracks were lined with plenty of ripe blackberries that made a welcome change from the monotony of gels. I reached the Water Point bang on 11am, 20 minutes later than I was hoping for and I was a little perplexed as to how I’d managed to “lose” 20 minutes on a downhill section that I felt I’d been running pretty strongly on. Still, I was 75 mins ahead of the cutoffs, in my own mind a buffer that meant no need to worry too much about the remaining cutoffs for the day.



Arriving at the Water Point


Heat is insidious. You think you’re ahead of the curve in managing it, until suddenly you realise you aren’t. You aren’t just behind the curve, but the curve is curling up and hitting you over the head to punish you for your complacency. As soon as I left the Water Station, and I’d pretty much doused myself thoroughly a couple of times and drunk a litre of fluids while refilling all my bottles, it felt like stepping into a sauna. I could feel the water I’d only minutes earlier dunked over my head and clothing steaming off and minutes later I was bone dry again. It had been pretty hot when I’d recced this section – the twin summits of Tarren Hendre and Tarren y Gesail – and I had found the climbs hard work, but this was several notches hotter.


After another road section the route turned off to the left and started the long, slow climb up towards Tarren Hendre, double track for most of the way, but hardly any water except for the crossing over Nant Dol-goch, which I took full advantage of to cool down in. Another long slog from there up to the saddle point between Taren Fach and Tarren Hendre and a thin line of runners, all wilting in the intense sunshine. After the saddle point it’s a steep climb up grassy steps to the summit. Just as on Day 1, I was finding that while the legs were willing the head was not and I had to slow my pace to avoid getting dizzy with the heat. One or two people went past me at this point, but it was somewhat reassuring that my pace wasn’t that much slower than everyone else’s. After tapping the beacon up top, there’s a long and slightly messy ridge with occasional woods that leads to the bottom of Tarren y Gesail. Easy running if you’re fresh, but not so easy in the heat on racing legs that are 2½ days old. No water at all. I resorted to using one of my drinks bottles to spray my head and back – inefficient use of water but I figured that the bigger risk for me right now was overheating rather than dehydrating. In the woods just before the climb up the last of the Tarrens there were a few muddy hollows with dirty water that had not yet evaporated. More dousing of buffs and wringing out of dirty water over head and clothing. And then the there-and-back steep climb up towards Tarren y Gesail, with a steady stream of runners passing by on the descent, looking a lot fresher than me and the others heading up. I glanced at my watch – 2pm already, and I reckoned it would be another 25-30 minutes before I’d reach the top of the climb – I still had a buffer ahead of the 4:15pm cutoff at Machynlleth, but I was bleeding time by the minute and was now an hour behind plan.


I was pathetically slow, having to pause every few steps to clear my head and keep my breathing steady. Although getting to the beacon and heading back down the hill was a relief, I’m not sure any of us looked much happier. But then again, as we passed the stream of oncoming runners still climbing up – Ousmane Diop among them – it all felt relative. When I finally reached the woods and the start of the tracks down to Machynlleth, my spirits were hugely lifted by seeing Michael Burke there. He was now on the Hatchling course, had seen me coming down and decided to wait in order to run with me to the Support Point, given that he’d done the Tarren y Gesail there-and-back 3 times already on his previous successful DBRs and didn’t feel the need for another! It’s amazing how chatting with a friend makes the pain disappear and the miles fly by, and we made quick work of the 7k or so of forest tracks before stopping at Machynlleth’s Co-Op to get some much-needed ice cream and drinks. The Support Point was conveniently located 100 metres further on, and it was with huge relief that I passed under the arch, grabbed a seat in the shade and contemplated another day that was proving to much harder than expected. 3:50pm and it had taken me 9 hours to do a section that I was expecting to do in less than 8.


As I cooled down, the clock ticked closer to 4:15pm and cut-off time. Any Dragons arriving afterwards would have to drop down to the Hatchling course. Ousmane arrived – hooray! Will arrived – hooray again! And then with only 2 seconds left, Ieuan Belshaw arrived. Huge cheers! One of the fabulous things about the Dragon’s Back Race is that with the Hatchlings also doing the same route but being under less time pressure, each Water Point and Support Point typically has a whole brood of Hatchlings cheering on the remaining Dragons as they arrive and depart, a camaraderie borne of shared experience stronger than almost any other race I know of.



Ieuan Belshaw reaches Machynlleth by the barest of margins


After cooling off and scoffing my way through yet more Haribos and gels, it was time to leave for the first part of the course that was completely unfamiliar territory to me. It’s difficult to recall much of the next few hours – just endless rolling hills that receded into the distance with the hulking presence of Pumlumon Fawr, source of the River Severn and the highest mountain in mid-Wales, looming on the horizon and edging slowly closer. I struck up conversation with Megan Andrews from Australia, who’d dropped down to the Hatchling course after a brutal Day 1 but was going strongly today and on track to complete the full Day 3 course.

The endless Cambrian mountains


The trail was generally pretty good, but the heat made it hard (for me at any rate) to keep up a decent pace and by the time I reached the base of Pumlumon, the light was beginning to fade and it was not until 8:30pm that I reached the top of the tussocky climb that led to the summit, and I put my headtorch on for the first time outside camp. There were 3 or 4 of us summiting at the same time and we formed a peloton of sorts as we started on the long, gentle, southwards descent. Despite the darkness, the temperature had finally dropped, my running legs had returned and after pulling ahead of the group I spied a faint light ahead of me. Another runner had misplaced his headtorch and was running by the light of his mobile phone, which of course significantly slowed down his progress. As it happens, rather than carrying spare batteries, I had a spare headtorch in my pack so lent him this and we were able to run the rest of the descent together, finally pulling into camp at 9:45pm for a Day 3 time of 14h30m, more than 2 hours longer than I was targeting and with precious little time to eat and get ready for sleep.


Descending Pumlumon Fawr in darkness at the end of a long day


I just about managed to get some food and drink down me before the mess tent closed, but with no time to go to the river for a proper wash, I resorted to using a flannel and the washing up taps to wipe myself down and observe at least some level of basic hygiene. There were more positive Dragon mail messages, but in truth I was feeling pretty beaten up, my hips were aching even more, some of the hotspots on my feet had started to become proto-blisters, and by the time I got to bed at 11pm, not even the fact of being over the halfway mark improved my mood. Perhaps more to the point, I was puzzled and confused by how slowly I was going, and how my pace was dropping precipitously during the day even on the more runnable sections and even with all the care I was now taking to keep my core temperature down.



Day 4: I’m still standing

Ceredigion to Towy Bridge (69km, 2300m)

I woke at 5am, but in truth I must have woken up 2 or 3 times during the night, my dreams dominated by thoughts of pulling out, of taking it much easier today and of the various excuses and explanations I would be making to justify my decision. Now that I was fully awake, the realisation hit me that I had done more than half the climbing and at least 2 of the remaining 3 days were relatively “easy” ones. Nonetheless, it still took a good 20 minutes of self-talk between the left and right sides of my brain before I managed to persuade myself to pack everything up, get breakfast and hit the trails with enough time to make the first support point before the cutoff at 2:30pm. I hadn’t recced Day 4 at all, but both the map and what I’d heard from previous competitors was that there was plenty of runnable terrain and no major climbs, so I figured that I would just give it a crack and see how I got on. If I missed the cutoffs then so be it.


Getting ready to leave, after a stern self-admonishment


All the self-talk, followed by a bit more time sorting out my feet than I anticipated, meant that I finally left camp at 7:20am, not great considering that most of the remaining Dragons were leaving as close to 6am as possible to maximise the amount of time they were running in the morning cool and maximise the buffer they had ahead of cutoffs. I certainly wasn’t making life any easier for myself. It was already quite warm and humid as I left camp and started up a steep climb to some nameless hill or plateau. There was not a soul in front of me. And not a soul behind. In some ways, this was quite a familiar feeling – you get it all the time in the latter stages of non-stop races like the Spine, but in a stage race like DBR it is pretty unusual, and just reinforced how late I was in getting away this morning. There was lots of forestry activity in this area, and I lost the path occasionally amid the felled trees, but was soon over the top of the slope and found myself following a threadlike trod through steep woodland, with plenty of tree roots, low branches and soft peaty drop-offs to negotiate as the path wound down to the bottom of the valley. Tricky but fun. Climbing up the other side again was not so much fun, but it had its reward as I emerged under the first of a whole group of wind turbines that were scattered across the plateau, and with cooler air, a slight breeze and a flat fire track to run on, for the first time today I got the sense of rapid progress.


Somewhere in mid-Wales


My spirits were further lifted when I started to catch up with a few Hatchlings and by the time I hit the first of two road sections I could see the kms counting down ever more swiftly on my Garmin. By the time I reached Elan Village it was 1:15pm, 6 hours had passed and while that was still 45 mins slower than my increasingly laughably implausible race plan, it was 75 mins ahead of the cut-off and I felt thoroughly relieved that I’d managed to persuade myself out of my sleeping bag this morning. I’m not quite sure how, but by the time I left Elan Village, an hour had passed and as well as the 30 mins grace period we’d been given, I’d burned an extra 30 minutes of race time. I still had plenty of buffer ahead of the cut-offs, but I spent a good hour mentally beating myself up for being so lax around checkpoint discipline. Hard to believe that I’d spent the same time – 1 hour – in one checkpoint as I’d spent in checkpoints throughout the entire 120km Lavaredo race back in June.


On the road near Llyn Brianne


The rest of the day went by without too much incident – the route alternated between road, double-track and occasional grassy sections, but even the grassy sections were bone-dry and, if not runnable, then at least pretty easy hikes. I reached the Water Point at 5:15pm, 90 minutes ahead of the cut-off and having enjoyed both some beautiful views along the Elan Valley as well as a section where I wasn’t feeling under any particular time pressure and was able to spend some time chatting to other runners, having bumped into both Will and Ousmane again. Although I was still taking every opportunity to cool off in whatever water sources we passed, no matter how meagre, the heat was beginning to subside and had turned to a pleasant evening warmth by the time I reached the final road section, and the light was just fading when we finally pulled into Towy Bridge at 8:15pm, my first sub-12:30h day and what felt like a relatively successful day – at least it hadn’t been a complete disaster, and I hadn’t managed to talk myself into DNFing.



Day 5: Don’t let the sun go down on me

Towy Bridge to Talybont-on-Usk (70km, 3200m)


Day 5. The longest day. The Bannau Brycheiniog. Where the SAS train.


It all started with the best of intentions. Wake at 4.30am. Hit the mess tent at 5am for an early breakfast. Stretch. Sort out feet and kit. And head out the door by 6:30am at the latest. Not for the first time, the plan and the reality divorced each other quicker than a Vegas marriage. I found myself at the exit gate at 7.10am – where on earth did the last 40 minutes go? I still can’t quite get my head around how it had happened, but I’m pretty sure that the accumulated tiredness contributed to my complete inability to execute even the simplest of camp routines with anything remotely approaching efficiency. I’d taken a couple of caffeine tablets to wake me up and I could slowly feel the brain fog lift as we were briefed that with the weather forecast to be even hotter and stiller today, another 30 minute time-out would be granted at the Water Point, and the course closure time would be extended to 11pm. Even with a 7:10am departure, I wasn’t expecting to be on the course that late, but then again, I’d made life much harder for myself.


The first 25km is relatively straightforward, with plenty of road, farm tracks and no major climbs. Having wasted almost 2 hours of cool morning air, I decided to push as fast as I could on this easy section, knowing that all of the big climbs were still to come and would have to be tackled during the hottest part of the day. A still haze hung in the air, transforming the hills that gradually rose towards the distant Brecon Beacons into an almost mystical, mythical landscape. I made rapid progress, running pretty much everything I could. Llandovery arrived after 1h45m, bang on plan, and I took 5 mins to treat myself to an ice cream and drink at the corner bakery. Usk reservoir was reached after 3h50m, a little bit slower but still a solid pace. 25k down, 45k to go.



The long, dry trudge up Fan Brycheiniog


It was hot already, but as I approached the long climb up to the first peak of the day, Fan Brycheiniog (the Black Mountain), the temperature seemed to find an extra few notches. On a scale of 1-10, it was a Spinal Tap-like 11. All the puddles and bogs that usually dot the northern and western approaches were completely dry. There was nothing, nada, nichts with which to cool my head, my back, my shorts. Although the climb starts off gentle, it is long and gradually steepens and by the time I reached the final slopes to the summit it felt like steam was coming out my ears. Again the dizziness descended every time I tried to lift my pace. Again I had to take frequent stops to moderate my breathing. A few people passed me on the way up, but as the ground flattened out, I was able to jog a little, and after touching the beacon on the summit cairn started down the red sandstone switchbacks of the descent. 5h35m, and surprisingly still within 30 minutes of plan despite the slowdown in progress. Even after 4 days and over 12000m of vertical, my legs were still in great shape and I re-overtook a few of the people who had passed me on the ascent. But the soles of my feet were getting increasingly sore and every time I trod on the point of a sharp stone, or felt my foot sliding sideways down the slope, the tenderness made me wince in pain, not a good omen when there was still over 100km of running left in the race.


I reached the small lake of Llyn y Fan Fawr at the foot of the descent and immediately cast myself into its cold waters, fully submerging my head, shoulders and chest. Straight away I felt my head begin to clear, so I submerged myself once again for good measure, anything to cool my core temperature after the last few kms of sauna-like conditions. I wasn’t sure what the onlooking hikers made of it, but I imagine that I wasn’t the first Dragon they’d seen that day going for the Born Again baptism approach to cooling down. As I set off again down the first of many long grassy descents it was with some relief that I saw that there was a lot more water on this eastern side of the mountain, and while it remained intensely hot, I was able to keep my temperature down by using every small rivulet to re-douse myself. Another short grassy climb, followed by another tussocky descent and as I hit the bottom of the valley leading to the Cray Reservoir, I jogged into a layby on the A4067 and the Support Point for Day 5. It was 2:05pm, which on the one hand represented pretty good progress in tough conditions given that I’d started at 7:50am, but on the hand was only 40 minutes ahead of the cut-off, and even with the benefit of a 30 minute time-out, I would have less than 4 hours to complete the next 4 climbs and reach the Storey Arms in time for its 6:30pm cut-off time.


Alun Gruffudd and Marco Castelo cooling off at the Water Point


More rehydrating, more refuelling with Haribos, more spraying with water. And of course more chatting with the other runners who were there – mainly hatchlings but a couple of Dragons including Marco Castelo with whom I’d find myself running throughout much of the rest of the day. This time I did manage to leave bang on the 30 minute mark, and almost immediately was faced with the steep climb up Fan Gyhirych. It’s not long, just 350m of vertical, but there’s basically no path at all and you’re just scrambling up steep tussocky grass for much of the way. The descent on the other side is easier, even if the race route annoyingly can’t seem to make its mind up whether to follow a path or cut across trackless ground. Fan Nedd and another clumpy grassy descent. Yet more soreness in my feet as they land awkwardly on the wrong side of a tussock – do tussocks ever have a ‘right’ side? Another sharp climb, this time up Fan Llia, this time followed by a long, flat descent and finally some decent track as we head towards the long slow climb up to Fan Fawr. It was closing in on 5:45pm and getting perilously close to the 6:30pm cut-off time. There were maybe 5 or 6 of us in sight of each other on the hill, and we were all seeming to up our pace to get to the Storey Arms on time. I spied Will Terry just ahead of me once again and after passing over Fan Fawr managed to catch up with him just as we hit the A470 underpass. It was with huge relief that I pulled into the Storey Arms Water Point at 6:10pm and with only 20 minutes left before the cutoff.


Megan and Marco were there again, although Megan was calling it a day at this point having completed two thirds of the day’s full course so was a lot more relaxed than Marco and myself. I hadn’t covered the final section of the day on my recce, but on paper it looked straightforward enough, the long climb up to Pen y Fan was on motorway-like track, and after that it looked pretty flat with a few small up and downs before finishing with a long descent towards the campsite. What could possibly go wrong?


Sunset from the summit of Pen y Fan


It was pretty clear that while Marco’s uphills were still really strong, pain in his knees and quads were making the descents brutally tough, so while he had powered ahead of me on the climb up Pen y Fan, after taking in a glorious sunset I caught up with him on the descent to Cribyn and offered him some painkillers as we informally teamed up for the rest of the day’s running. According to my Garmin there wasn’t much ascent left, but it stubbornly stayed on 100m ascent remaining as we must have climbed at least 300m as we first went over Cribyn and then up Fan y Big. Headtorches were now on and as we reached the top of Fan y Big there was about 5 minutes of confusion as we struggled in the darkness to find the orange Silva beacon denoting CP14. An SMS to race HQ ensued followed almost immediately afterwards by a cry of ‘found it’ as we saw the fluorescent reflection of the beacon behind us in the stone shelter. I was certainly getting very worried about the 11pm course closure time at this point, as we were struggling to maintain any kind of pace, and then just when we thought that all the hard work is done, we then had to follow a 6km traverse on a narrow stony path along the edge of the escarpment, a step drop on the left – fine during the daylight but requiring some concentration in the darkness – followed by a steep technical descent into the valley and another 2km of horrible rocky scrambling alongside the Caerfanell river. Goodness knows how we managed to scrape into camp at 10:45pm, with only 15 minutes to spare before the final cutoff of the day.


An amazingly welcome sight after the longest day of the race


We were so late that the kitchen had already closed, but the support team had kindly saved us some boxed curry from dinner, and as I sat in the mess tent with the other shell-shocked late finishers, it looked more like a funeral supper than the last night before what would hopefully be a celebratory, processional final section to Cardiff the following day. My feet were really hurting now, and all the proto-blisters had now become fully-fledged blisters, across the back and side of both heels. The soft part of my soles not only had round blisters on the inside of each foot, but also a large red diagonal mark across the whole foot that was extremely tender to the touch. Still, I had survived the first 5 days, and surely now, with only the easiest day left, I would make it to the finish line and earn my baby Dragon?


Day 6: A triumph of sorts

Talybont-on-Usk to Cardiff Castle (63km, 1300m)


I woke early. And started late. Again. Where did those 3 hours go? Probably 30 minutes to tape my blisters and toes. And then another 30 minutes going to the medical tent to get them done again. Yes, I wanted a pedicure and the closest thing I could find was getting my blisters professionally treated in the med tent. But I’m still at a loss to explain how I managed to wake at 4:45am and finally leave at 7:45am. Even accounting for breakfast, washing and getting ready, there is a missing hour somewhere in that timeframe.


Mist-shrouded valley at the start of Day 6


As I left camp, the valley was shrouded in mist. The air was cool, even damp. I was expecting much of the route today to be runnable and quite a bit on asphalt, but after only 1km turned off onto a stony uphill track. Soon I was above the mist, enveloped in increasingly hot, stifling air that was hemmed in by the surrounding trees. Trees gave way to grassy rolling upland and while the trail was what I would normally consider to be pretty good, my feet were threatening to mutiny every time they landed on a stone or even a patch of uneven ground as the blisters and sore patches were prodded and pressed. The blister on the inside of my right heel was particularly painful and I eventually sat down and took my shoe and sock off to take a look at it. A small patch of skin was peeping out between two sections of tape and seemed to be taking the brunt of any friction. As luck would have it, one of the 2022 Dragons who had come back this year at Shane’s invitation to run the whole of Day 6 (after last year’s finish at Cardiff Castle had been diverted on account of the death of the Queen) passed by right at that moment and kindly gave me some surgical tape to cover the painful spot, and I was able to carry on in marginally less pain.


Passing over the Merthyr Tydfil viaduct


Eventually, after passing by a sheep that was in even worse condition than me (it was dead), I dropped down to the road by Pontsticill and a much more runnable section along the asphalt of the Taff Way. Normally I dislike running on asphalt, but it’s flat and regular surface was today my feet’s very best friend and I was able to blank any residual pain out and make rapid progress into and then through Merthyr Tydfil. I was mentally calculating how many kms were left to the Support Point, and what speed I would have to run to get there by the 2pm cutoff. Just after Merthyr was the final big climb of the day, and it was just as brutal as those Day 5 climbs in the Beacons had been. Dense ferns and nettles, steep switchbacks up an escarpment and steadily intensifying heat and sun made it painfully slow. But eventually the ferns gave way to grass, the slope flattened and a couple of support crew who were manning the orange beacon came into view. They warned me that I was slightly over the ‘guidance time’ needed to make the next cutoff, but having started almost 2 hours after 6am, that meant that my pace was actually well on track and after some gentle grassy slopes and roads, I arrived at the Trelewis support point only an hour later, and more than 40 minutes before the cutoff. I had been the last Dragon on the course, but was starting to catch up now with some of the other Dragons and my self-belief was beginning to return.


After yet more spraying and dousing to cool down, I passed out of Trelewis and through the village of Nelson, where I stopped at a convenience store to get a slurpee and a couple of ice lollies – partly to treat myself and partly to postpone the inevitable reheating of my core now that I was exposed again to the afternoon sunshine. Another climb, this time much gentler and shorter. Then across the tops of some rolling hills, until suddenly the City of Cardiff comes into view. I get a bit emotional as the realisation hits me that we are almost at the end of the journey, but pull myself together as I tag behind a group of other runners as we drop down through farmland to the final Water Point at a pub in Groes Wen. It was a celebratory atmosphere – ice lollies being handed out, drinks being bought in the pub – with Dave and Dan having been our constant companions at every Water Point for the past 6 days. I bought a pint of squash with plenty of ice and was refreshed so soon that I felt able to leave before my 30 minute time out had even been fully used up.


The outskirts of Cardiff appear ... and finally the self-belief returns


My feet are still hurting, but somehow I’m able to blank out the pain most of the time as we pass through some woods and then a final climb and descent to the River Taff. Now we’re mingling with couples, families and day trippers as we follow the river under the M4 and through the outskirts of Cardiff, some recognising us as Dragons and cheering us on, some completely oblivious. I start to think of Young Sil, and whether she’s at the Castle yet, waiting for me. We’re into Hailey Park, running through what seems like an almost continuous cloud of cannabis smoke. Any remaining pain in my limbs disappears. We’re now into Blackweir Fields and Bute Park and I start to run faster. It’s still light. I stow my poles away in my belt. Much cooler to finish looking like a proper runner. The Castle appears. Through the gate and towards the Montane arches and the gantry clock. I can’t see Young Sil, but before it fully registers I’m over the line and talking to the lady who is there to greet all the finishers (and remove their trackers). Then Young Sil appears – I make my way round, give her the biggest hug and kiss I can summon up, and then collapse on my knees on the ground, and have a little cry to myself. It was a long way from being my best performance, hell it wasn’t even a performance I would have considered good 6 days earlier, but I had survived; and that was far more than I could possibly have hoped for when I was curled up in a ball of self-pity on the side of Yr Wyddfa 5 days earlier.


What the Dragon's Back is all about - I get emotional while Will Terry comes to check I'm OK


It was a memorable evening, and Shane and the team have done a superb job in making the atmosphere at the finish of the Dragon’s Back Race an appropriate climax to the whole week and indeed what for most participants (and their families) has been a year-long (or longer) journey. It was lovely to see everyone have their moment on the stage and of course absolutely inspiring to marvel at the superhuman performances of the leading men and women as they received their awards. It is an enormous privilege to be able to take part in events like these and I do feel incredibly fortunate at the opportunities that I have been given.



Happy? Relieved? Exhausted? All of the above


After the presentation, Young Sil and I hung around for about half an hour and I briefly caught up with some of the familiar faces I had seen across the week – Will, Ousmane, Michael, Megan, Fumiaki, Andy and Sarah Norman and many others. Eventually it was time to head off to the Premier Inn and back to what feels like the humdrum reality of normal life again. At least until the next race!


Receiving a hard-earned baby Dragon


Aftermath


After Ultra Trail Snowdonia, I mentioned that it had been one of the challenging races that I had ever done. Having now completed the Dragon’s Back Race, I would say that the DBR is even tougher than the UTS 100 miler, at least in the respective conditions that I ran both races. I certainly found DBR harder than Ourea Events’ other two multi-day races, Cape Wrath Ultra and Northern Traverse. Even though the conditions in the 2022 Cape Wrath Ultra were the worst on record (albeit cold and wet), the DNF rate stayed below that of the 2023 DBR, and from a purely personal perspective, while during the 8 days of the Cape Wrath Ultra I never felt at any significant personal risk, and never felt inclined to withdraw from the race, there were several occasions during this year’s DBR when I either felt I was at serious risk of missing cut-offs, considered retiring from the race, or felt at personal risk of health issues. The general toll on my feet was also far worse on DBR than either CWU or NT.


It's hard to compare DBR directly with UTS because while terrain-wise they are very similar, and the heat conditions in both races this year were similar (although DBR was worse), a 6-day stage race run largely during daylight (but unsupported during the day) and a non-stop race (but with well-stocked CPs) run over up to 48 hours with night sections are just different categories of race and pose different challenges. I think that if run in similar weather conditions they would probably be on a par with each other in terms of overall difficulty, although different types of ultra athlete might be better suited to one or the other.


How does the DBR compare to the full Winter Spine? I honestly don’t know as I haven’t completed one yet! But having done a full Winter Challenger North, and got as far as Malham on the southern section in Winter, and dealt with the sleep issues the Spine poses through two Summer Spine finishes, I would say it’s much harder than the Summer Spine and at a similar level to the Winter Spine in terms of overall level of challenge, although the nature of the challenge is quite different – for the Winter Spine the bigger issues are dealing with frozen and waterlogged ground, darkness, wind / snow / rain / cold, lack of sleep and a large pack, whereas the challenges posed by the DBR are more regarding technical terrain, heat, amount of vertical (climbing / descending) and the relentless hardness of the ground (interspersed with boggy sections). While it’s possible to build up a time buffer in the Winter Spine that takes cut-offs out of the equation, that’s far less possible in the DBR, with it simply not being an option for example to power-hike the whole of Day 5 if you feel tired. The DBR keeps you under constant pressure.


So, at least based on my own limited experience, I would have to agree with those who place the Winter Spine, UTS 100M and DBR as being among the very toughest challenges that the ultrarunning world offers in the UK. While I wasn’t able to complete all 3 of them this year, finishing UTS 100M and now completing the DBR represent a 2 out of 3 return and pushed me to the very edges of what I thought was capable of, mentally and physically, perhaps because everything did not go according to plan. I feel at the same time humbled by the course, and proud of having dragged myself to the finishing line to earn my first Baby Dragon. Hopefully, the Winter Spine waiting list will now start to move and I will find myself toeing the line in January in Edale to see if I can finish the Triple Crown!



Thanks and Acknowledgements


I am always struck by the unwavering positive spirit and generosity provided by the support teams on all ultras, but as with Cape Wrath, on the Dragon’s Back Race this was elevated to an extraordinarily high level. The days are long, hard and tiring not just for the runners, but also for all the support crew, and I am extremely grateful for all the material and emotional support they provided across the whole week. It really lifts your spirits to be cheered into a support point, or into camp at the end of the day, and the combination of professionalism and friendliness (and the fact that so many of the support crew are also runners and hikers themselves) that you are surrounded with at all points both makes it easier to concentrate on running your own race and at the same time gives you the feeling that you are also running the race for the support team as well – you kind of don’t want to let them down by not giving it your all.


It is Shane Ohly’s vision that has (re-)created the Dragon’s Back Race, and his tremendous organisation and logistical skills that have enabled it to be so successful – it really sets the 5-star benchmark for how a challenging stage race should be organised and we are so fortunate to have it on our doorstep.


Much of the atmosphere of this race also comes from the fellow competitors, both tentmates and people that you run with on the trails and chat with in camp and in the support points. I was lucky enough to know quite a few people already coming into the race, but it was lovely meeting new people, hearing their stories and seeing them also push themselves to their limits just as I was trying to do the same. The camaraderie of a multi-day ultra is hard to beat, borne as it is out of that understanding that only comes from the shared experience of seeing ourselves in situations of vulnerability.


Lastly, I am eternally grateful for the support provided by my family and friends. The regular stream of supportive messages on Dragon mail, Facebook and WhatsApp over the week was instrumental in keeping my spirits up and giving me the mental fortitude to reach the finish line. While endurance racing is a social sport at one level, the amount of training involved also requires a certain amount of selfishness on the one hand and forbearance on the part of one’s loved ones. I would never have even reached the start line without my wife’s understanding, and it has been one of the loveliest things this year to be able to share so many of my races with her.


Strava




Kit


Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Salomon Pulse waist belt

Shoes: Inov8 Roclite Ultra G320

Waterproofs: Inov8 Ultrashell (Top), Montane Minimus (Bottom)

Socks: 1000 mile compression socks, DexShell Kneelength Compression Socks, DryMax liner socks

Gaiters: Montane VIA gaiters

Shorts: 2XU compression shorts

Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Protium (back-up)

Underwear: JustWears boxer shorts

Gloves: Montane VIA Trail Gloves

Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, 3 buffs

GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945

Headtorch: 2 x Black Diamond

Poles: Black Diamond Carbon Z




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