• Paul

Battered by the Dragon Dragons Back Race 21

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Sep 6th 2021 0700 Conwy Castle, North Wales

I'm finally here after a year of training, 2400 miles of running since September 2020 and ready for the off.

Fast forward... Sep 8th 0715 Dolgellau camp Taxi for 8 and a early return home, Dreams of Cardiff shattered.

So what happened?

I'm pretty new to Ultra running having moved up from 1/2 marathons to trail marathons and finally Ultra's in 2020. I mainly run trail.

Dragons Back is a Mountain race - It declares itself as the Worlds Toughest Mountain race.

There in lay the seeds of destruction. 2 words. Mountain Race. More about this later.

Back to September 6th 0700.

The atmosphere in the castle was electric, Fran my other 1/2 who has supported me fantastically, was up in the battlements waiting for the off. 350 odd others all waiting to go.

Shane the race director was saying some encouraging words, no idea what to be honest then all of a sudden we started moving. Cheers , Hoots, waving to Fran and away along the battlements and off to CP 1 a mere 245 m above Conwy Town. A literal shuffle away with a lot of queuing followed by a hill climb in a massive conga line. Face in some ones backside running up to CP1, 20 mins - not bad!

So the pattern for the first half of day 1 was set, Conga line, hills, lots of people, quite a lot of running , mist, cloud and shock as the CP's rolled by and the climb kept on going. Tal y Fan 610m, Carnedd Gwenillian 926m, Carnedd Dafydd 1044m. You get the idea!

Spirits amongst the competitors where high in the morning, a lot of chat and general thrill at finally being here. As the morning wore on cloud and mist was very much the order of the day, occasionally breaking through the cloud to be rewarded with some stunning scenes.

CP 6 Pen yr Ole Wen at 978m was the last one before the descent into the support point - food, water, and a change of shoes. The support point was at Lake Ogwen , just a descent and a bit of road running . Here comes Mistake#1!

A simple descent , no problem ... or take your eye off the ball veer off the path and waste 20 minutes. My fancy Fenix 6 was telling me I'd arrive at approx 12:45. In reality I lost the track down , fell, bounced and tripped my way across some horrific broken ground and rejoined the route. I arrived at 13:05.

CP7 was the day 1 support point. Cut off 14:30, guidance time 1330.

A support bag is waiting with food or whatever you deem necessary up to 2.5kg. I had food,(can of beans and sausage!) shoes, socks, main torch (petzl RL swift).

Its busy , surprisingly for the first time I notice its also quite hot (more on this shortly).

So 13:05- 13:20 Replen water , start eating, sit down - remove my atrocious shoe choice (minor mistake never to be made again). Strip socks, apply anti chafe cream- feet are good. Lace new shoes - Saucony peregrine 11 ( thank goodness I packed these). Force food in - hard its really hot, its hard to eat. Drink a lot of water.

13:20 (ish) Pack support bag, Unknowingly put main torch back in bag <------BIG MISTAKE #2!!!! This will cost me dearly later.

13:22 Set off for Tryfan. As mentioned it's hot- I really hadn't noticed. In fact Wales is having a mini heat wave, The path up Tryfan to the base of the scramble is in the full blast of the sun. There's no shade. I start overtaking people, they don't look well at all.

"Are you ok mate?"

"Yes just resting.."

Again and again I ask this.

I'm suffering shirt, shorts all soaked with sweat- its running down my legs. I stop once, I've drank too much and keep puking it up and have to swallow it. I think I stopped at least 5 times on the ascent. Tryfan should take 45 to 60 mins to ascend. It takes me 1hr 23mins to reach the CP at the summit.

Luckily I've hooked up with a top bloke Steve Hutton who distracts me over the scramble and leads me off Tryfan and away to Glyder Fach.

The descent is no easier, but with company its ok , we make Glyder Fawr CP 9 in 1hr 22. (pretty much in line with the time the map say it should take) The sun never relents and continues to take its toll on competitors all around who are moving at a snails pace. Glyder Fawr is at 1001m , CP10 at Pen y pass is approx 700m below and visible as we crest over the top.

Its about 4:20 pm - we passed CP9 race time 9:00:53 ( add another 10 mins as the race doesn't start at the start line but after the castle walls). I planned all my timings off the 2019 map, 17:30 cutoff - easy! I mention this to a fellow competitor-

"No mate its 5pm" - "

"Sorry? Pardon? are you sure?"

OMG , slight panic! Its 2 miles to the cut off. Normally easy right? I mean I can run a parkrun in 19 minutes ... Remember earlier? Its a Mountain race.. mountain.

I'd discovered something over the previous 9 hours, well several things but primarily I'm not very good on descent on rough terrain. I don't have the skill set drilled by being in the mountains, my foot placement is substandard and I don't have the confidence to run at speed.

Somewhere on Glyder Fach.. looking happy!

So 2 miles 700 m descent , a fellow competitor I've been with for a bit - Antonia sets off at speed, within minutes she is a dot. I'm starting to resign myself to timing out. I cant do it , cant move fast enough.. but I came here to race , to do Crib Goch to finish and there are people watching me as a dot on a map.

Pack poles. Secure kit. **** this! its make it or break a leg trying time.

I set off at speed (for me, on this terrain) follow Antonia's line, follow other competitors , trip, fall, rinse repeat, maybe 20 falls.

I pass an older couple coming up-

"How long to the Youth hostel?- I've got 20 mins" ( very panicked now!) .

"No chance unless you have a hand glider "comes the reply!!!!

The watch is counting down - I'm on time now, no GPS, no pace nonsense, pure time of day , still tripping , still falling. I pass another competitor and say

"I think we are out mate".

"Nah we'll make it" he replies.

Still flapping and proper running now I crash down into the CP with 4 mins to the cutoff.

Chaos ensues. You have to Dib out by the cutoff. 4 mins someone calls

Water bottles out, water bladder out- fill water quick , drink, faff around .. 90 Seconds!

People shouting at those still trying to make the cutoff Come on ! 60 seconds! Kit away - Dib out , cross the road. Relief . For me the rest of the course is now unlocked.

Here I meet Kevin Munt of Dragons Back Aid Station fame. " Hey Kevin!" very pleased to see him, We shake hands/bump fists in a right muddle. Have a quick chat and turn to face the trek to Crib Goch.

I'm quite tired by now but generally ok, puzzled as to the time loss and very annoyed with myself. Of course it was mainly on the ascent to Tryfan with a little lost across the Glyders.. but I'm still in by the skin of my teeth.

Its worth noting at this point that - I've never scrambled in my life, never (remember its a mountain race right?!?)

A bit later I'm on the ascent to Crib, weathers good, clear, still warm. I'm learning to scramble. I dip in to Crib Goch CP11 after 1hr 15mins (guide time 1hr5). Cross Crib Goch - it turns out i have a head for heights, excellent!

Scramble the towers on the West side and joke to the support staff about learning to scramble- he thinks I'm joking-really I'm not.

Onwards, time is tight now, competitors in front are few but I can see Snowdon in the distance, I've just got to navigate Carnedd Ugain.

Now there might be a path to the summit but I didn't find it so I scrambled round the back side to the CP at 1065m taking 1 hr 8 mins and legged it to Snowdon in another 17 mins.

Off the back of Snowdon and down the Watkins path. A steep descent - my quads are starting to hurt now- its nearly sunset but I'm ok there's enough time (just). Sunset occurs just as I start the ascent to Y Lilwedd. I go to get my main 900 lumen super duper reactive torch...

Its not there... oh dear. I've left it behind in my support bag. Oh dear.. At this point I have a little tantrum (still moving forward), consider calling race control, think about if I'm brave enough to go on in the dark. I do have my emergency E lite with its 40 lumen beam and my phone...

I can see torches ahead so make a mental note and set off. My pace falls to a snails pace. it gets very dark (but the night sky is amazing). I use my head torch and Fenix map to stay away from the ridge. It looms up a couple of times as I get a bit disorientated. I have to stop for a bit as I cant find a way down. A group of 3 catches me with decent light so I tag on and we find CP14 after 2hrs 20mins. Race over its just past the 10 pm cutoff.

No matter I'm going to complete the course so we bungle along until the descent near the finish, the guys I'm with leave me and I get a little lost.. in fact very lost . I can see the finish but just cannot find the bridge/ gate/ road to get to it.

A combination of the dark, tiredness and stupidity results in it taking another 1 hr 40 to cross the line at approximately 00:15

Eat- not nearly enough, find tent , put out kit and sleep until 0415 when all my tent mates wake up.

Day 2

I elect to do a 1/2 day. I'm thinking if this goes ok I'll go back to full days tomorrow.

I'm dropped off at the 1/2 way support point just before the Roman steps and the Rhinogs with a group who either Timed out the full day 1 or at one of the two cut offs.

We sit in the shade and have a right laugh putting the world to rights setting off at 1pm.

I'm going to quickly sum up this day:

The heat never stopped.

I set off with 3L of water - it wasn't enough.

The Rhinogs are a hard slog- the views are amazing. Recce them if you come to this race!

I didn't take my water purifier Big Mistake!

My quads were destroyed from day 1 - I couldn't go downhill fast, my leg strength wasn't good enough.

I met some great people- Rob Arnold- congrats on finishing!

Self doubt is horrendous - I called my better half after about two hours and said I was going back to the drop off. Continued anyway but still it was unpleasant!

I nearly finished.. but didn't- stopped on the road approaching the camp- livid because it was good going and I could actually run!

So I made the decision to retire on the third day. My quads ruined and it turns out weak, fatigued from day 1. I'd have been a liability on day 3 which is unfair in my opinion to the race team.

The Rhinogs

The Roman Steps

Lessons Learnt

Dragons back is a mountain race, day 1 and 2 are hard. You need to be able to descend at speed. You need to be able to move quickly across poor terrain. You need to be able to scramble confidently.

Never leave a vital bit of kit behind to save weight! picking it up as planned may go horribly wrong.

Don't rely on timings from the previous event!

Concentrate on route, a small nav error can cost serious time.

Get to know your fellow competitors , they have their name on their bib , talk and gang up- it helps massively when it gets hard.

Eat, eat and eat some more. Find what you can stomach and stick with it.

Footwear, get something with great grip and a rock guard- my peregrines served me well unlike the Hoka I started in.

Make sure your camp admin is good. I packed my kit and practiced to make sure I could get it all out. It meant I did get some sleep even though I was late in every night.

Eat when you get in even if you don't want to. Strava/Garmin told me day one was 6500 calories burnt .. day 2 the same- you have to eat!

Do more than running to prep. I've changed my plans , leg strength, gym work, less running.

Recce everything you can , you cant afford to waste time off route or making poor decisions. The Rhinogs are especially hard if you haven't been there before.

Its a mountain race, think on that at all times during your prep.

If any of the team read this- massive thanks, event was great, great support, volunteers amazing when I came in exhausted. To any of the runners on course nice to have met you all, 118 out!

Read Part 2 The recovery here:

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