Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Dragon's Back Race - 2012

The Dragon Bites Back

Anyone who reads this blog regularly may be aware that I do not like to write anything unless I have something constructive to say.  Or I'm sure of what I think. It may sound pretentious but I have to be in the correct frame of mind in order to write my blog.

I'm also aware that several people have contacted me to ask why I have not written about my Dragon's Back Race experience, as I am one of only three 'Double Dragon's' - people who completed both the 1992 and 2012 races. The legendary Helene Whittaker and Wendy Dodds are my fellow Double Dragon's, with Steve 'Dubie' having done most of this year's event as well.

The past few months have also been a very weird period for me; maybe I'm still not right. In the past few weeks I have run The Longmynd Hike, FRA relays and have just completed The OMM Mountain Marathon in the A-Class with Wilko.  This last event was glorious; brilliant views of the Howgills, Lakes, Pennines and even Morecombe Bay on Saturday, followed by good thick claggy conditions on Sunday requiring very good  navigational skills. Hence, we particularly enjoyed Sunday and made up ten places to finish strongly.

So, back to The Dragon's Back

It was a wonderfully satisfying experience. It was tough. 1992 was tough and I was in the company of legends then and the awe inspiring significant event of 2012 was Helene's amazing four place overall. And perhaps she should have been third.  In 1992, at the age of thirty, I was coming into my prime, so for me to finish this event again when I was fifty is very satisfying indeed. My only sadness is that 'Dubie' didn't quite make it, along with several others.

This photo on facebook of me standing next to Martin Stone during the Sunday evening briefing, and just prior to Martin's excellent presentation on Helene's and his own victory in 1992.  It's only a simple snap photo but I like it as at the time I had two very clear thoughts; Firstly, 'this race is going to beast people, it's scary!' ... secondly, 'I'm very tired from Terrex, mentally, more than physically.'

My feet were puffy, I was carrying a small blister, and my ankle's were a bit scabby from the Cairngorm grit and generally wear and tear of Terrex.  As the week went on it also became apparent that only the four of us, (Helene, Wendy, Steve and myself)  plus Martin Stone and Rob Howard, who knew what 1992 had been like as no one else was there. No blogs.... very few reports, just a few write ups, including that iconic photo by Rob.  And since then there has been a great explosion of Trail Running....

This was no Trail Race. It wasn't even a Mountain Trail Run and as Shane announced that we were to tackle all of the Welsh 3000's I felt sorry for so many in the room who were blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Much has been written on forums as to whether the route should have been different, or included extra tops or what construes the Dragon's Back Race. Suffice to say, now was the time to dig deep and do what any good ultra runner or adventure racers does; just one step at a time.

I don't intend to write a step by step account of all five days; that would be self indulgent and quite boring. But Day One started early, with a quietly emotionally departure from Conway Castle courtesy of the Male Voice Choir, etc.   The weather was due to be warm and so a long dry day unfolded at a very steady pace. In was 'running' early on with Steve, my original partner from 1992 and Mark Rawlinson who is always good company and a steady pace setter. I was in no rush and it was imperative to set a very conservative pace and run at our own pace.  Each time I've done The Welsh 3000's I have been surprised at how time consuming they are, as have all of the friends who done it with me.  I was prepared for a very long day, and planning to finish over Crib Goch before darkness. And so it was.

I always said, 'Day Two is Going to be the Toughest'

I'd be saying this to anyone who would listen for months and this was doubly true now.  A good covering of thick cloud added spice to the first section over the Moelwyns and gave the navigators respite from pure speed and the peleton.  It was on this section that Chi Trinh first impressed me by having the confidence to run his own lines rather than just follow us, and I was pleased to share his company many times during week. He even managed to point out a slight nav error that I'd made, but only because he'd lost his map and was perfecting good map memory, and so he joined up with Dubie and myself for the rest of the day.  Around Trawsfynydd, a section of tarmac lead to the roughness of the Rhinogs and another long afternoon and evening but with stunning views of the Cader Idris range and Mawddach estuary.  We finished Tuesday strong and steady and had a lot more time than on Monday evening to rest and administer some TLC.  By now it was clearly apparent that many had seriously under-estimated the nature of the event, especially the foreign runners who aren't used to such rough terrain.

Multi-day running is about getting up day after day and put just enough effort in that you can get up and doing it again, and again.  I was looking forward to Days Three, Four and especially Five. I now felt I was in the groove and set to run better each day.


Sadly, Steve had not applied enough TLC on Tuesday evening, simply crashing out asleep after some food and without tending to foot care and stretching.  Within minutes off setting off with him and Chi, it was apparent he wasn't fit to run as his hamstring was too tight to allow him to run downhill and so we sent him back to see Dr Mike  It was a sad and sorry sight to lose him but the right thing for him to do.  All I could do was knock off the miles over Cader Idris and enjoy the majesty of this part of Wales.

Again, it was a hot day and we were now in a bit regular routine as people settled into groups with friendly rivalry and the faster runners would come past us as the day wore on.  The summit of Cader surprised a few people as did the subsequent ridge but Chi and I pushed on into the mid-day heat. Steve Jones caught us up on one of the minor climbs, (when I felt were going very well, perhaps too well) and we enjoyed a few miles over Tarren Hendre and 'Nameless Mountain'. The long descent into Machynlleth was tedious and gave a few more navigational glitches for many, including us, in the forest.

Chi was becoming a bit of a star!  He'd taken a few minutes out of me in the run into 'Mach', mainly as I stopped to put a shirt on, but appear out of the first filling station shop clutching crisps, coke and other goodies.  We drank these before a second shop stop in the middle of town, waiting patiently behind an elderly lady buying her weekly lottery ticket and being told about a big race that was coming through today! Hmmn ... er, that's us?

Dubie was at the Half-way Drop Bag checkpoint and I was relieve to see him upright and wearing crocs. He was smiling just as he always does and resigned to having a day off.  It also meant he wasn't intending to come with us for the remainder of the afternoon.  The other highlight was my sandwich box of 'frozen' pizza and the reaction of others when they said, 'Where did you get that from?' ... 'Out of my freezer on Sunday, Why?'  I've never seen three day old pizza disappear so quickly.

Steve, Chi and myself had a strong afternoon as we steadily climbed towards Pumlumon Fawr and an early evening finish; great companions, thanks Steve and Chi.

Wednesday Night - 'Game On'

This was the night we all  'camped' in the barn, with the tents creatively erected by the wonderful support team including the tireless Jean Sinclair and the angel that is Mel Wright.  What the event support team achieved during the week was much appreciated.

The barn further united us into a tight knit group of survivors and we help each other with foot care, etc. Mel treated my small deep blister. I felt a bit of a fraud seeking help but it was on the outside of my heel but I couldn't easily get two hands to it due to a lack of old-age flexibility. Mel was a bit concerned that it might be infected so, drained and dressed it, including a long deep squeezing massage, which was very strangely satisfying!

Dubie was back on top form, tirelessly fetching and carrying for people and offering support to all. Lot's of good food was required and more good sleep.  The barn floor was hard and stony, so I doubled up my sleeping mat into a comfy bed and then I created a big pillow to raise my legs out of all my spare gear. I slept very well knowing I was in good shape, in my big roomy thirty-four year old down sleeping bag. (The only sleeping bag to do two DBRaces?)   In the morning I was annoyed to find Chi had not slept well as he had been cold. I only wish I'd known as I could have helped with gear, etc.

Thursday - Let's Race .... er No!

Up until this point I had not looked at any results or Leader board, indeed I learnt at an early stage in my running career that this is usually counter-productive.

From the general vibe around camp I was aware that I was moving up the leader board and with two days to go now was the time to raise the pace just a touch, but also preserve mind and body, and especially my annoying little blister.  The blister felt much better and pain free on the flat and any relatively smooth terrain, even climbing an descending was Ok but twisting on tussocks was a painfully process. I also have quite a bad back problem so any fall or tumble can lead to horrendous pain, sickness and screaming as one or two of my regular running partners have witnessed.

Starting from the high col of the A44, one km of trail quickly gave way to tussocks and frustration. Chi was with me and I think we both looked forward to a good day. A section of forest road gave respite from pain and frustration with the added interest that Chris Baynham-Hughes went past us with a cheery 'Got to make time while the going is good' .... or words to that effect. Chris is a good runner, talented and rapidly finding his feet in the world of ultra and mountain running (no pun intended)

Despite Chris's speedy passing manoeuvre and that of the top ranking 'peleton' I felt strong, and Chi gracefully acknowledge this as we hit the next climb. He shook me by the hand and waved me on, 'Your stronger than me...'  Instantly I got a crap line through the tussocks and then spent a good hour or so struggling to maintain any sort of pace. I couldn't find any of the small trods or lines that others were taking and was having a frustrating bad patch.  Bad patches come and go and my mood was lifted slightly when I saw Steve Birkinshaw catching me up. Steve was the race leader and had set off behind me. We exchanged a few good words and I was cheered to see even he was looking sore, and tired. Naturally, I didn't try to stay with him, but tailing his line through some undulations was a positive as was catching up with Steve Wathall and Max Howard.  The were both going well, as was Andy Holohan who I passed on the next short road section prior to more rough ground and the descent to the day's halfway point at Elan Village.

It was hot in the valley.  Rob Howard and Charmian were helping here and I mumbled about my poor morning but concluded that they should both give me a good slap and send me on my way.  Chi was also ready to go so we set off together but my first priority was the toilets at the Visitor Centre.  I'll spare you the details, but I enjoy more-or-less a full strip wash, which must have horrified the tourists, washed my four day old shirt and put it back on wet and a little cleaner.   Then I was off out on to the trail to catch up with Chi.

'Sometimes you can race but you can not fight the route...'

After this simple act of ablution I felt lot calmer and the early Autumn colours around the reservoir helped me recoup a productive and positive state of mind. I was looking forward to the next stage on good rolling paths and open countryside and even the infamous '10km' road run at the end of the day. Road running is not my forte but this stretch is about as picturesque as you can get as it carves a route around the lakes and through the forests.

I ran all the tarmac except the steep climbs and finished strongly into the evening's campsite. It was an idyllic place, nestled by the river which was very tempting in the early sun. Sadly, with the sun rapidly sinking behind the hills it was a just a touch too cold for a swim but a good wash helped sooth me. I was amazed at how much time I had taken out of some people during the afternoon and a little upset when Chi came in after me as I thought he'd gone ahead of me after our Elan Valley pit-stop. Several people finished late into the evening, each to heartfelt applause from us all.

Each day I had been gaining time on many in the field but also finishing earlier each evening, and this one proved to be the most relaxing yet. Mel re-dressed my blister; again I felt a bit of a fraud queueing for her attention but all seemed good.  There was a growing sense of success creeping into camp and I felt very confident, happy and content. There was time to talk and relax.

Friday.  Just Another Day?

Friday morning departure process was all a bit different than usual.  I felt very relaxed and aware that Chi and Steve were both fired up for today. In fact they were chomping at the bit as I wanted another mug or of tea or two so I suggested that went without me. Perhaps I was being a bit selfish but I was enjoying the camp atmosphere and didn't feel like racing nor set off early.  Steve Birkinshaw set off as I was in conversation with the start team but still in faffed about savouring the moment, I guess.

Shane was there, as was Mark Rawlinson. There was talk about me becoming the one of only three people to complete two Dragon's Back Races. Little did they know that I'd spent much of the previous day thinking about running 'Day Six' but also what it would be like to be the first person to do three Dragon Back Races, so when Shane said, 'Just think, you'll be the first man to run two DBR;s'  I could help but share my thoughts. I think people may have been a bit surprised at my arrogance.

Off down the road and onto the first climb. Shane had done a great job of finding and excellent off-road route instead of the long road section to Llandovery. With another warm day on the cards, it was shirt off time before 8.30am and a great morning trundling along.  Well aware that I was the last to set off, I hoped to avoid the cameras and looked forward to reeling in a few people.  The legendary athlete Wendy Dodds was the first I passed. I slowed to exchange encouragement, with Wendy self-diagonising  acute shin or ankle problems, but she was moving at a good marching pace with trekking poles flying speedily.

I was running steadily. Chris B-H was next in my sights but as I slowed right down to talk with him he reached for his ear piece and started making a phone call. I assumed from his tone it was a call to his wife, and he wasn't feeling too good, so I gave him a big 'thumbs up' and pushed on.

Another good road section, then a long steady climb lead to the day's Half-way point on the lower slopes of The Black Mountains.  I'd passed a few more people and gained the hour or so on Dubie and Chi. They set off just ahead of me, as I had a quick re-fuelling stop, including the first of the days Choc Ices from the wonderfully accommodating Charmian and Linda.  The Spanish Dragon and other half-day runners had started here so I was now among the thick of it.  My most memorable image was several of the Spanish wearing their Berghaus Goretex Jackets despite the warm sunshine, and warm enough for me to be shirtless.

I was still on a mission, even running slight uphills on tarmac and forest road. I caught Chi and Steve and we passed many people who were resigned to their daily trudge. I tried to raise a few spirits but when minds are resolutely set in survival mode it's a difficult task.

It's along climb onto Fan Fawr. Chi had dropped back but 'Dubie' had pushed on with me and was intent on pacing me to the finish whilst I was still now wanting to race to the end. It remained clear and sunny, but a little breeze and with the mid-day sun potential burning me I put my shirt back on so as to not scare too many people. I only wish I'd put it on earlier!

The roller coaster ridge heading West gave absorbing running, amazing views as well as some thought provoking navigation.  One or two people, Dubie included, made a few assumptions and poor micro route choices so I was gaining a few seconds with each mile, and was still pushing the pace. For one brief moment I glimpsed the finish point, Castle Crennan, away in the distance perched on it's loft escarpent in the valley a few miles distant but quickly looked away.

Dubie and I had Steve Wathall and Max Howard in our sights at the last road crossing; an impromptu drinks station manned by the respective spouses.  The extra support point was welcome due to the heat and dry limestone terrain and so after another Choc Ice and plenty of water wet set off to catch Steve and Max.

For another hour or so we continued to push the pace in the company of Steve and Max and into the late afternoon sun. No-one was giving an inch and at some point my mood went from racing into a mellow state of cruising to the finish in the great company of some fine athletes.

I'd waited twenty years for this moment; twenty years ago Dubie and I had finished here but only after Dubie had hopped and hobbled the last few hours to the end after putting his leg down a rabbit hole and severely damaging knee ligaments. This was a moment to be savoured.

Is This The End?

The DBR finish is in a very stunning location, very dramatic and it was a beautiful early evening.  Finishing the race was a huge mixture of relief and satisfaction but also sadness that it was all over.  But, in many ways, it wasn't all over. There were several more runners still out there and yet to finish, and you don't get to enter there without to one hell of a week's effort.

A little while after I'd finished, I descended to our overnight camp below the ramparts of the Castle, had a quick change, tea, soup and more tea.  I was keen to spend as much time as possible back at the finish inside the Castle's walls so re-climbed the hill back to the Castle, passing the small visitor centre where the race download and admin was taking place and also where the Race Banquet was due to be served. The centre was busy with people talking excitedly about their week and the Spanish contingent were well into the partying for which they are famed....

I didn't feel like 'partying' and certainly not feel like drinking beer until we'd all finished safely.  There was one person yet to finish as Wendy Dodds was still out there.  As darkness really took hold, Wendy's head torch came into sight as she resolutely marched her away up the hill and into the Castle and a very warm and respectful welcome.

Now it was time to Party ... if we had the energy.


There is no doubt it was a very tough week, a race way off the scale in many ways, and Shane should be applauded for having the audacity to stage it.  I think every one learnt at least a little and some a lot.

The work, support, time and effort that the event staff contributed was enormous and I'm only sorry I din't have time to get to know many more of them.  I had two good friends working alongside Shane and having spoken to them since I am well aware of extra and unseen graft that people got through.

Will it happen again?  Will I be there in 2015? I hope so....


The coach trip north ....