Firstly, thank you to all of you who wished me well for this race in the long build-up and, sent messages whilst it was happening, it really helped me pull through. Fair warning in advance, this is a relatively long post…but it was a relatively long race, so I hope you’ll forgive me.
It’s 2.30 am, on the morning of the fifth day of ‘the world’s toughest mountain race’, and I’m lying on the floor of a Portaloo, the world still spinning, having been violently sick for the second time, knowing I only have a couple of hours before I need to be readying myself for the hardest day of the week. After some deep long breaths, I reach for the Portaloo handle and haul myself up. “F**k this, you’ve come too far and given too much to this bloody race to have it end on the floor of a toilet.”
Billed as the world’s toughest mountain race, the Dragonsback Race (DBR) is a six-day, multi-stage race across the mountainous spine of Wales. It starts at Conwy Castle in the north and finishes at Cardiff Castle in the capital. You can read about the inaugural race and how it’s grown to what it is today here.
Headline numbers (route detail here)
Distance: 380km / 236miles
Elevation: 17,400m / 57,000 ft
I talked a little about this in my recap of volunteering back in 2021. Jess often asked me what my ‘”why” was in the build-up, and I’m not sure I ever managed to convince her with my answer. To be honest, I think it’s a multitude of reasons: to test myself against a truly tough challenge that I could never be sure of completing, and the chance to discover Wales and its epic mountains were probably my two big driving reasons.
There is an excellent documentary on Prime about Huw Brassington’s experience of the race back in 2017. He says:
“to prepare for this race, it’s more important to run slower for longer, rather than running hard for three hours on a mountain. It’s the time on your feet that pays off. It’s about building slowly, putting the miles in, and building a deeper strength in your muscles.”
The whippersnappers average around eight or nine hours to complete each day. For me, this was all about survival, getting through each day, and prepping my body to give myself a chance.
For me, preparation needed to comprise a lot of time on feet, so as many recces of the course as I could fit in, and multi-day preparation (both in terms of physicality and admin preparation). I signed up for two other races in the year which I thought would help me prepare for the DBR: the Great Lakeland 3 Day (GL3D) in April and the Helvellyn Sky Ultra in July. GL3D proved to be a double-edged sword. It gave me invaluable insight into long back-to-back days out, and the nutrition required to fuel them, but left me with tendonitis around my right knee, to which I lost around eight weeks of training, and meant I was unable to run the Helvellyn race.
I also decided to enlist a coach to help me prepare for the year. I’d been sceptical about using a coach before this, as I thought the main benefit of coaching was for people lacking motivation, and that wasn’t an issue with me. However, having picked up an(other) injury in January, I reached out to Jack Scott to help me manage the training load with specificity for the race. I’d now wholeheartedly recommend a running coach, and certainly Jack: the planning, variety of training, communication, and advice throughout help take a significant weight off your shoulders.
Kit & Support
The DBR isn’t a self-supported race. There is a well-oiled machine run by Ourea Events that transports each day’s camp along the route, providing you with an eight-person tent to sleep in (two per pod), catering for breakfast and dinner, as well as two support points along the day’s route. They will also transport your main bag (60L dry bag which can weigh no more than 15kg) and a day bag (7L weighing no more than 2.5kg). The support points will provide you with water and you will have access to your day bag at one of them, but you are expected to be self-sufficient whilst you’re out on the hills.
The rules are also very clear that you aren’t allowed any external support on the course – bar cheering – so you couldn’t, for instance, have friends or family stationed with water or food out on the mountains. I’m very lucky to have had my long-suffering partner Jess, and her mum Lucy, out on the course all week cheering on as well as other friends en route.
Day One | Conwy Castle to Nant Gwynant, 49km (30.5 miles) | 3800m (12,467ft))
It’s an early start, the 4 a.m. alarm goes off and it’s time to head over to the castle for the 6 a.m. start. It’s dark but not cold. The weather for the day, and the week, looks very hot. I’m pretty good at handling the heat, but admittedly would have preferred it to be around the 15 degrees mark. Instead today is forecasted to top out around 27 degrees. The castle start is fantastic with a Welsh male-voice choir send-off and a stunning sunrise as we top the first peak.
The pace is slow and comfortable, largely dictated by the single track that doesn’t allow for much overtaking until you hit the Carneddau. Once there, the sun is out and the heat is very much noticeable. I try to move through the gears, but realise my heart rate is spiking each time I do. I decided to accept today is going to have to be slower than I’d thought, but I’m confident I’ll be well within the cut-offs and only have the potential to do myself damage otherwise.
As we approach Pen Yr Ole Wen and the first support point at Llyn Ogwen, I take satisfaction in seeing most runners needlessly following the recommended route over Carnedd Daffyd and shout to my friend Trelawny to follow me and contour around it. It saves us time and elevation and gives us a boost as we claim a fair few places.
I consider the descent of Pen Yr Ole Wen, followed by its road section and subsequent climb up Tryfan and Glyder Fawr, to be the hardest quick combination of the entire race. It’s so easy to get carried away on the descent and leave nothing in your legs without realising it until you hit the big climb. I’d recce’d it several times and each time come away with thinking “that’s really going to hurt”. And hurt it did. The sun was unrelenting as we made our way up the west face of Tryfan. I’d decided to ignore the arbitrary time I had in my head for how long it should take and instead make sure to sit down and drink any time I felt my heart rate go too high. In hindsight, though the climb took me 20 minutes longer than I would have liked, given the number of runners I caught in the latter third as well as the number of dropouts that occurred between there and the next support point, this was the best decision I made all race. I make the top of Tryfan wondering if this is finally the time I get the line right coming off it (it isn’t) and after a convoluted scramble down, I’m greeted by the lovely sight of Jess and Lucy who climbed up earlier knowing this would be the crux of the day for me.
Buoyed from seeing them, I top out Glyder Fawr and try to get the legs moving again. It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve been up here, and it shows as I find myself debating the right lines. It’s a long steep descent down to Pen Y Pass and the water point and I arrive to see runners lined up against a wall on the side of the road trying to cool down in the shade. It’s boiling by this point, the heat radiating back off the tarmac, and you can see people are starting to wobble. I decide to pop into the café and grab a drink and ice lolly to bring my temperature down, chuckling at the runner in front of me in the queue, who’s growing ever more exasperated at the lack of urgency from the staff on the till. He must have been keen to get back out there and work on his tan.
I start the approach to Crib Goch feeling good, the fizzy drink has worked wonders and I’m feeling strong. Plus, this is the part of the route I’ve looked forward to most, and as we top out and start running along the knife-edge ridge, I can’t help but feel a slight sense of sadness that it’s about to end.
The infamous Crib Goch ridge en route to Yr Wydffa
Coming off Crib Goch I see Kelly, who’s been at a similar pace all day, debating whether it’s possible to contour around Carnedd Ugain. The summit checkpoint from previous races has been moved to where the Pyg Track tops out before Yr Wydffa allowing for a nifty line around. I know it’s doable, having done it before out of curiosity, and shout to ask the marshal overseeing those scrambling up whether many have done it. He replies only 10 so far, which brings a smile to my face, and I nod ahead to Kelly that I’m happy to lead on. We contour round and join the Pyg Track having saved at least 15 minutes and begin the short ascent to the highest point of Wales. By now the heat is finally starting to relent, which I’m very grateful for, but fatigue is setting in. Looking at a map from this stage, you’d think it’s a fairly easy finish from here, but I know from recces this last part of the horseshoe is technical and slow.
I arrive at camp a little after 8 pm, and I’m shown to my tent to meet my fellow tent-mates for the first time. The first two I meet have already DNF’d having been timed out at Pen Y Pass and Ogwen. They aren’t in the best of moods, and I consequently keep the conversation short to avoid dampening my mood. There are a lot of forlorn looks around the camp that evening and on entering the mess tent, I don’t instantly recognise anyone, so decide to plop myself on a bean bag and look at the screen showing the live tracking and results for the day. The results show a significant chunk of the field hasn’t made it through the heat and brutality of the first day. It’s similar weather and dropout rate to when I volunteered, so this doesn’t come as a huge shock, and if anything, I use it as fuel for encouragement that I’m still in the game. I head back to my tent to meet more of my tent-mates who’ve also DNF’d, and climb into my pod where I see my bunkmate for the week – Greg – has now arrived, but is passed out cold.
Day Two | Nant Gwynant to Dolgellau 59km (36.5 miles) | 3400m (11,155ft)
I’m not a great sleeper at the best of times and my 4 a.m. alarm goes off in what feels like the blink of an eye. My watch makes me go through the routine of telling me how poorly I’ve slept and how I shouldn’t train for 60 hours, particularly since I’ve only had about three hours of sleep.
No doubt running on adrenaline, I’m surprised to feel no hint of tiredness. I’m alert, focused, and my legs don’t feel too bad. I’ve recce’d this day recently and feel like I know it well. I also know the cut-offs are as honest as they come for the week, and I plan to attack the front half to make sure I comfortably make the second cut-off at Cwm Bychan. I pack away and ready my kit for the day and take in as much breakfast as I can before handing over my bags and completing the kit check.
The day starts with a road section, largely downhill, which I use to get the legs into a rhythm. Just before we depart the tarmac I’m greeted by the unexpected sight of Jess and Lucy cheering in their dry robes. The nice surprise lifts my spirits, but I keep the greeting short and sweet as I’m in a rhythm and know I need to get moving. Beginning the long approach to Cnicht, I’m climbing well, and catching runners, trying to make hay before the sun shines.
Despite what feels like good progress, I still only split Cnicht three minutes ahead of the guide time to make cut-offs. Iain, a top lad who’s previously completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, notes this out loud. I don’t panic as I knew from recces that this was likely to be the case and that it would be the same for the next couple of tops, but I also knew that that time could be made back on the descent into Maentwrog. The two climbs (Moelwyn Mawr and Bach) are hard work, the wind is so strong it’s harder to move forwards rather than sideways, but I keep myself from complaining as it’s the only thing keeping my body temperature cool.
I descend into Maentwrog with Iain, noting the temperature spiking as we hit the afternoon and become shrouded in ferns that stifle any breeze. Noting how well Iain is moving, I make a point of latching on to him for as long as I can. We pass Russell Bentley who is out cheering just before the support point which is another welcome surprise.
Making a point of not taking too long at the support point, I quickly fill up my water and get a waffle down me before setting off with Iain. We make good headway along the next section and arrive at the midway cut-off with plenty of time to spare. The organisers have allowed 30 minutes grace at this cut-off to allow competitors to cool down (with the day’s final cut-off subsequently extended to 10.30 pm). I’m not too hot and moving well but force myself to take 20 minutes before making the climb up Rhinog Fawr. I know Jess and Lucy are waiting at the top – Jess and I got engaged there in April and despite it being remote and tricky to get to she’s keen to show her mum – and the thought keeps me honest while ascending in the heat. I pause at the top for a quick natter and drink then crack on with the remainder of the Rhinogydd.
A quick natter with Jess on top of Rhinog Fawr
I thoroughly recommend the Rhynogydd for those who like the path less travelled. They’re remote, and wild, with stunning vistas on a clear day. I force myself to take 10 minutes to sort my stomach out on the climb up Rhinog Fach, which means saying farewell to Iain for the day as he motors onwards. I make the time back taking a line off the recommended route before the final top though. A runner smirks as I re-join the path asking if I’ve made a nav error. I bite my tongue to keep from saying how his definition of a nav error and mine clearly differ, but can’t resist a little poke back.
“No, I just didn’t see the sense in adding in that pointless climb.”
The smile quickly left his face. “Well, good if you know it I guess.”
“Indeed,” I reply, making no effort to hide the smirk now on mine.
The steep descent off Diffwys is harsh on the quads, and the long road/cycle path section to camp compounds the damage, but I make it back in relatively good time, still smiling that I’m in the race.
Day Three| Dolgellau to Ceredigion, 70km (43.5 miles) | 3400m (11,155ft)
Day three is the longest and is viewed by many as the crux. Statistically, those who finish day three are more likely than not to finish the entire race. I meet Iain on the climb and stick with him as we climb up Cadair Idris to be presented with a stunning vista.
The early climb up Cadair Idris before the heat kicked in.
There’s another 30 minutes grace today because of the heat which is forecasted to be worse than yesterday with next to no wind. I can certainly feel it as we hit the first support point and take the time to fill up all my water reserves and get as much down me as I can. The climb to the next checkpoint is long and I’m shocked to realise I’ve lost nearly 80 minutes of the buffer I’d built up. I had to move slowly in the heat, but I certainly couldn’t have pushed any harder. I get some food down and give the next section some oomph, still trying to reconcile in my head where the time had gone.
The last checkpoint before the support point at Machynlleth is a steep out and back. Before the sight of it can dampen my spirits, my mate Dave emerges from behind a wall for a brief chat to wish me well. He’d let me know the points he’d be stationed at in the week, based on what he thought would be low morale points, and he couldn’t have placed himself any better. The quick chat gives me enough boost to chip away and get the out and back done before the long-track descent to Machynlleth. The road into the town drags on with the heat baking down, as I turn a corner and spot Jess and Lucy I realise, with my buff wrapped around my hat and neck and my body glistening with sweat, that I must look more akin to a Marathon Des Sables runner than one racing in Wales.
I nip into Greggs and in my calorie-deficit state, ambitiously decide to buy three sausage rolls. I wolf two down at the support point, along with a couple of bottles of fizzy drink, and spend a little time giving my feet some TLC. I start the climb out of the support point and immediately feel sluggish. This was generally the case after leaving support points as I would fill all my water reserves, top up on food, and inevitably leave with my pack 3-4kg or so heavier than when I’d arrived. This, combined with the heat of the day, lack of wind, and my overindulgence in food and water means I hit a wall fast and hard.
The sun’s still baking down, and I have to stop at the top of the penultimate climb to recoup. I chew a Rennie down hoping it’ll help with the feeling of nausea, but it doesn’t do the trick, and my subsequent progress is slow. As I approach Pumlumon Fawr, I see a group of four runners ahead and try, and fail, to close the gap. We’re tussock-bashing at this point and it’s hard work. I spy one of the runners drop down into the valley towards to the river and assume she’s gone to fill up or cool down. However, a few minutes later, I see she’s crested the other side of the valley and evidently found a much more runnable path. I’m in a grump at this point and stubbornly decide to keep up with my tussock bashing, assuming it can’t go on much longer. It does, and watching the runner motor away on the other side only serves to fuel my negative mindset.
There’s a support rescue van stationed at the bottom of the Pumlumon Fawr, and I see the runner ahead, who’s not been moving well, approach it. His body language isn’t right and after chatting with the marshal, he bursts into tears and slumps down, before proceeding into the van. Admittedly I’m shocked, wondering how bad a state he must be in to call it a day at the final climb before the end of day three with just over three miles to go. With that in mind, I put my head down and get to work. The climb is relatively kind, but my mood is still low, partly also due to knowing this will be the first day I finish after sunset, which means less time for camp admin.
Before I’d started on Monday, a friend from work had texted “When you enter the pain cave, grab a shovel and enjoy”. It’s this that comes to mind now, and I mutter the phrase “keep digging” over and over to the rhythm of my poles. Just before I reach the top, I realise there’s a stunning sunset behind me and immediately my mood is lifted. I get the legs moving again and catch the two runners in front. It’s dusk now and they both get their head torches out. I’m still moving well and stubbornly neglect stopping to do the same, daft I know, but the light means it’s manageable and it’s relatively easy underfoot so I make do with the torch on my watch for the last kilometre. I hit the road just before the finish to see the welcome sight of Jess and Lucy still smiling and full of encouragement.
“Is that the hardest bit done?’”we all start to wonder.
Day Four | Through the Elan Valley, 69km (43 miles) | 2300m (7,546ft)
I’ve seen day four referred to as a “rest day” in relative terms. That is, relative to the days before it and the day ahead of it. After speaking to Ellie, who I volunteered with back in 2021 and who is back volunteering again this year having completed the race last year, I decided to take her advice and switch to some comfier trail shoes for the day, particularly given the stretches of road. I catch up with Kelly, who I ran much of day one with, and admit it’s good to see her carrying on as she’d nearly decided to pack it in at dinner last night.
The day starts with a couple of decent climbs and descents through woodland and dirt track before we hit the first stretch of road. Everyone relishes the chance to get their legs moving properly, particularly along the stretches of downhill. After that, it’s four miles of hard tussock work before we hit the road again. I’m buoyed by the sight of Dave, who says I look in good nick, and put in a burst to close the gap on the group who’d carried on whilst I’d stopped to chat. Feeling like I’m moving well, reinforced by said gap closing, I’m slightly irritated to hear the footfall of another runner behind me who overtakes with ease. Seeing the familiar red pack and green top, the feeling of irritation instantly disappears, as I realise it’s Hugh Chatfield (the race leader) and give him a shout of encouragement which he returns in kind. The speed and work ethic each of the podium runners put in in the heat all week was mind-blowing.
Happy that the legs are still moving and to be rid of tussocks.
After bagging the next couple of peaks, there’s a long downhill stretch into the support point in Elan Village. I arrive shortly after Kelly and take a pew next to her. This is the first day I’ve noticed my feet starting to ache, and given we’re only 20 miles or so in, I make a point of giving them some TLC with the massage ball from my support bag. My mouth has also been giving me grief all morning, with the sensation of feeling burnt and dry, which I assume is a result of excessive sugar intake over the last three days. Much to Kelly’s amusement, I crack out a toothbrush and try seeing if I can brush away the sensation but to no avail.
As is the theme of the week, the big climb out of the support point is hard in the heat. The burnt sensation in my mouth is putting me in a bad mood and I try brushing my teeth again in hope more than expectation. The sensation leaves me not wanting anything sweet, including my Tailwind which is most of the liquid I’ve got on me. Thankfully I’m well hydrated, but also conscious that there aren’t any water sources until the next support point. I’m growing more and more frustrated as I chug away at the long climb, then realise Jess and Lucy have planned to be at the top.
Seeing them is a welcome boost, and I offload some of my grumblings to Jess, who as usual tries her best to spin things positively. Sometimes though, all you need is a whine and a moan, and having done so and waved goodbye, I descend well and end up catching both Kelly and shortly after Pete, whom I’d met on day one and had a good natter with the night before. We all express a reluctance to push on the remaining section, which is mostly road, given we’re not pressed for time and the daunting prospect of day five looming large, and proceed to quick march back to camp. I dig out the last Greggs sausage roll from the day before, which I’d forgotten I’d stashed at the bottom of my pack, and after a moment’s hesitation decide to wolf it down to get me through the last few miles.
Back at camp Kelly and Pete kindly share their painkillers (the high-strength stuff) and talc powder respectively. My feet are hurting a lot, and both are much appreciated. At dinner I make the point of taking in as much lasagne and garlic bread as the kind lady at catering can offer. I overeat if anything and feel a little uncomfortable, but given the distance completed and what lies ahead, that can be no bad thing…right?
Day Five | Into the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park, 70km (43.5 miles) | 3200m (10,499ft)
I wake up sharply and instantly know something isn’t right. I’ve had night sweats most nights, but this feels worse. I put aside my sleeping bag and flip 180 degrees so I’m nearer the cool air of the tent door, which helps a little, but have a nagging feeling of what’s about to happen (I can’t shake the memory of that day-old sausage roll). My stomach churns and I take a big breath, make peace with what’s about to come, and stumble outside towards the toilets. Despite this being the first time our tent has been positioned at the front of the row all week, and consequently nearest the toilet, I don’t make it in time before I keel over and expel a few helpings of lasagne. Following what I can only describe as a minor exorcism in a Portaloo, I make my way back to the tent, drag my sleeping mat and bag into the communal area, and pitch up, waiting for the inevitable second wave of nausea to hit. I glance at my watch and note it’s 1 a.m., still a few more hours until I’m meant to be up.
I’ve forgotten to fish my jacket out of the tent pod and am reluctant to disturb my tent mate a second time, so make do with my day pack as a headrest. I feel every groove and edge of the shoes stored inside, and that combined with condensation in the tent that proceeds to drip on my head each time I threaten to nod off, means I achieve next to no sleep before I need to stumble back to the Portaloos again to be sick.
Returning to the tent, I send a quick text to Jess and Dave to let them know the night isn’t going well and promise to update them at 6 a.m. As my usual wake-up time draws nearer, I pull out the map to evaluate the day ahead and try to figure out how I can get it done. My main concern is I’ve lost all the calories I’d tried to get in last night, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep anything down. I groan inside as I see the first support point of the day isn’t until 39km.
My attention turns to Llandovery, eight or so miles in, and the option of the bakery stop that offers, and tell myself to focus on getting there. I go through the motions of readying my kit and packing for the day, before heading to the medic tent in the hope of getting some anti-sickness tablets. The queue to see a medic is long, with many runners requesting help with taping their feet. I’m conscious of time, as I need to be out by 6 am to have a chance at today, and by some miracle, I notice my appetite start to perk up. Deciding to do away with speaking to a medic, I head to the catering tent and after some kind words of advice from Nicola, who completed the race last year, take her advice in opting for some cereal and a bread roll.
These go down well, and before I know it, I’m standing at the start line with Kelly and Pete. We’re told there will be two 30-minute grace periods today with the temperatures topping out at 30 degrees with little wind. I send Jess and Dave a quick text to say “I’m out the door” and we’re off. Kelly’s not feeling great, and Pete and I inadvertently pull away as we push and attack the first section. I seem to be one of the few who’ve recce’d this, and I’m glad I have, given how the morning’s gone. Knowing when to push and ease off, Pete and I arrive at Llandovery in good time, and I pop into the bakery for a fizzy drink, crisps, and a bread roll. Food in hand we begin the long road section and I’m lifted at the sight of Lucy and Jess. The amazement on Jess’s face that I’m moving, and eating, shows, and the look of belief and “you’ve got this”from Lucy nearly has me in tears.
Pete and I make good headway along the road, Pete sharing one of his mantras from the army – stay on the log – with me, which we repeat back to each other to stay honest. We hit Usk reservoir, half an hour up on the guide time, where a few spectators including Jess and Lucy have parked up to cheer runners on. The next section to Fan Brycheiniog is hard. The heat has really kicked in, my breathing is heavy, and my pace has slowed right down. We manage to stay up on the guide time and descend to what I think is the support point. I’ve run out of water at this point and visibly slump on realising there’s another climb and descent before the support point. Pete gives me a pat on the back and we carry on, meeting Jess and Lucy on the climb which helps lift my spirits. I realise at this point they’re on a mission to see me as much as they can today to help push me through.
Usk Reservoir – working hard with Pete to get the early work done.
We take our time at the support point to make sure we cool down. I also ask for a medic to look at the big toe on my right foot. The toenail is hurting a lot and he makes an incision just below the base of the nail which releases some blood and pressure – I cannot put into words how good this felt – before taping it up. Pete’s ankle isn’t in great shape, and I lend him my spare poles which helps to get him moving with purpose.
The next section to the final cut-off at Storey Arms has some tough climbs and tougher descents and I’m going through a bad patch. Kelly catches up, clearly having rallied well from the morning, and brings with her energy to help keep us going. Cresting Fan Fawr, I jealously watch Pete and Kelly bum-slide down, but my attempt to do the same only serves to cut up my legs and divert sheep poo into unwanted areas, so I resign myself to battering my quads further.
On the descent, we meet a few runners who are unsure of what the new cut-off time is, given the two 30-minute graces, and seem doubtful that we are indeed half an hour up. Despite feeling confident that we’re safe, we push on to the water point to give ourselves more time for a bite and fill up. Dave is waiting at Storey Arms to offer a quick chat and words of encouragement again.
From there we work our way up to Pen Y Fan, generally cheerful in spirits after some coke and Welshcake. The sun is winding its way down and leaving the sky a lovely colour. I’m dreading this next section, there are still some tough descents and climbs plus a long run across the plateau before a steep final descent into the wood. My mood hits a real low on the plateau as night falls and we flick on our torches. There’s no wind in the air and immediately swarms of insects descend on us.
I give Jess a ring just to vent my frustration and see if she can turn my mood around. Finally, we clear the woods to the welcome sight of Lucy and Jess. I give them both a hug and big thanks, acknowledging the effort they’ve put in today to help me get round. As we cross the finish line into camp, Pete lets out a roar in celebration. There’s a realisation that the hard work has been done and, figuratively speaking at least, it’s a downhill procession to Cardiff from here.
Day Six | To Cardiff Castle, 63km (39 miles) | 1300m (4,265ft)
I wake up having possibly had my best night’s sleep all week, albeit still only managing three hours. It had gone well past midnight by the time I’d finished kneading out my calf, which had started complaining towards the end of the day, but being the legend he is, my bunkmate Greg had already laid out my sleeping mat and bag knowing I’d be in late.
I go through the usual ritual of readying my race kit, stuffing food into my day bag, and taping my feet. Since the burnt mouth sensation on day four, I’d grown sick of most of the food I’d packed for the race, with Veloforte chews and mini jammie dodgers the only remaining items that still appealed to me. Thankfully the map showed a few potential shops en route today.
Standing up was near agony which didn’t fill me with encouragement. Most days my feet would start sore, but by the time I’d walked over to the canteen tent, the pain would dissipate enough to make the day ahead seem possible. However, the cumulative damage, which had started building from the backend of day four, had taken its toll, and I hobbled around the camp like the Tinman in The Wizard of Oz.
I’d agreed to meet Pete and Kelly at the start, and we gingerly set off together along the stretch of road out of camp. Jess and Lucy were around the corner to wave us off, and Jess trotted alongside for a few hundred metres dispensing words of enthusiasm and encouragement.
We trudged up the first climb slowly, relying on the kind cut-offs for the day, and with no inclination to run until we reached the top. The views were picturesque, and we were presented with a kind grassy descent to the bike path towards Merthyr Tydfil. We stopped here for a McDonald’s breakfast (three hash browns, one crumpet, a smoothie, and a fruit shoot) and to allow Pete the chance to tend to his feet and ankle. Renewed from the pit stop, we pushed on in the heat to the day’s support point. We took fifteen minutes here to cool down and I decided to take advantage of a quick toilet stop (made quicker by the fact the baking sun had turned the Portaloo into a sauna).
Another refreshment stop in the small town of Nelson (two ice pops, a large pack of giant Skittles, and some crisps) and we were on to the final third of the day. As we crested the climb out of Nelson, Kelly decided she was going to try and push on, looking strong as she made up ground on those in front. I was quite happy hiking the rolling hills as I chatted with Pete. It was obvious he was struggling with his ankle and a little while later, after voicing his desire for me to push on ahead a second time, I decided to heed his advice. The sugar and codeine had kicked in, and the pain in my feet dulled, and so, knowing I would only have two or three hours of this pain-free “bliss”, I kicked the legs into gear.
Making good headway over the next section, I reached the water point and was delighted to see my friend Matt appear out of nowhere. A quick chat over some crips and coke followed by a hug and “see you in Cardiff” and I was back running with renewed vigour. It was now just a matter of ten miles along the river path to the castle.
Despite the pain beginning to return, I made sure to savour and take in these remaining miles. I was very conscious that I could find myself with a niggle or injury post-race, and consequently, these could be the last miles I run for some time. Plus, it was the end of an adventure. One that had started four years ago, with the age-old question “I wonder if I could…”finally building to a crescendo with these final few miles.
Admittedly, these did drag on, and the surrounding park encasing the last few miles towards the castle, though lovely and green, was filled with adolescents smoking and shouting, which made for an odd atmosphere. The effect of the codeine had faded, and my agonising feet had forced me into a walk/run (or fartlek as I liked to think of it) for the last couple of miles. Pulling my phone out, I spied some heartfelt messages of congratulations from friends. Holding back tears, I stowed my poles away for the final time, stuffed my mouth full of Skittles, and broke into one last run.
The finish as you turn into the castle walls has to be one of the best there is. The noise of cheers and the emotion that hits me as cross the finish line is a memory that will last me a lifetime. I sink my head into my hands in disbelief and nearly topple backward on tired legs. Straightening up, I spy Jess, Lucy, Matt, and Dave ahead and jog over to them for hugs and to thank them each in turn.
Dave kindly fetches me some chips and a drink, whilst the others kindly fawn over carrying my various bags and kit over to a spot to sit down. There are further congratulatory hugs and well wishes as I spy fellow finishers I’ve gotten to know over the week. Jess’s brother and his girlfriend have also made the trip across from Bristol to see me though much to their dismay they’d missed me crossing the line. Evidently, the drugs had given me a greater tailwind than anticipated.
Not long after, Jess announces Pete is about to arrive and so we all make our way over to welcome him in. I muster one last jog to cheer him to the line, the emotion evident on his face. Kelly is there too and the three of us embrace one last time.
Kelly and Pete. Two people I count myself lucky to have met.
Finally, it’s time for trophies and “baby dragons”. It all feels surreal shaking Shane’s hand and receiving my baby dragon. Despite what I said to Jess on day five, about not caring about this little figure anymore, it is nice to have this token to take away and look at with fondness and a smile, because it is the embodiment of a dream fulfilled.
The Dragonsback Race is a brilliant race and a wonderful adventure. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone but also caution that it should not be taken lightly. This may sound obvious, but year-on-year people fall foul of underestimating it. Regardless of whether you’re front or back of the pack, it requires you to invest a lot in every sense: time, effort, and money. It has required sacrifice from myself (well duh), but more notably in my mind from Jess. It’s that support system through training, and in her case during race week, that gives you a chance at pushing through.
I would love to see other North Leeds Fell Runners take on this race. I know there are plenty capable and would be happy to answer any questions if you find yourself asking that same “I wonder if I could…” that I did.
You don’t have to recce the course to be successful or finish, though I think you should, but you do have to get in the hours and elevation. The course is brilliant, and discovering new parts of Wales and growing familiar with it has been so fulfilling. It’s not just the brilliance of the course, the volunteers, or the setup that makes the race so rewarding, but the journey you invest in to get you there.
Day 1 – 52:44km, 3,857m climbed, 67,974 steps, 5,284 calories, 3hr 3mins sleep recorded, HRV 57ms (overnight avg)
Day 2 – 62.1km, 3,550m climbed, 74,167 steps, 4,892 calories, 4hr 30mins sleep recorded, HRV 19ms (overnight avg)
Day 3 – 72.01km, 3,535m climbed, 95,312 steps, 5,207 calories, no sleep recorded, HRV 39ms (overnight avg)
Day 4 – 69.43km, 2,200m climbed, 88,762 steps, 4,556 calories, no sleep recorded, no nightly HRV recorded
Day 5 – 73.36km, 3,329m climbed, 98,521 steps, 5,139 calories, 3hr 19mins sleep recorded, no nightly HRV recorded
Day 6 – 66.10km, 1,331m climbed, 79,671 steps, 4,093 calories, 2hr 55mins sleep recorded, HRV 40ms (overnight avg)
The week following the race:
Average sleep duration: 5hr 41mins / 7hr 19mins pre-race
Resting HR: 49bpm / 41bpm pre-race
HRV: 49ms overnight avg / 68ms pre-race
Orblite 7L Dry Bag (Day bag)
Orblite 79L Dry Bag (Overnight Bag)
Ultimate Direction XXL Pack
Running kit (change of clothes for every day) + camp kit
Running watch (Garmin Fenix 7)
Map and compass
Running poles (Lexi Cross Trail FX Superlite – great as you can adjust the height)
Bladder (1.5L), 750ml bottle, 490ml filter flask
Full body waterproof cover (Montane Minimus Lite & Decathalon Waterproof Running Trousers)
Heavier warm jacket weighing 300g+ (Rab VapourRise)
2x running shoes (La Sportiva Akasha 2 & Nike Vapourfly Trail 3 – first pair for the more technical terrain and the latter for when my feet needed comfort)
Sleeping mat (Alpkit Airo 120)
Sleeping bag (Alpkit Pipedream 400)
Massage stick and massage ball
First aid kit
Emergency survival bag
Trek protein bars
Veloforte soft chews
Tailwind powder (coca cola flavour – would recommend)
Mini jammy dodgers
Supplements (multivitamin, Calcium magnesium zinc, and vit D, glucosamine and turmeric, omega, and beetroot)
Salt tablets and electrolytes