The build up months to this had been so exciting. I had been racing in the mountains, practicing my my nav and obtaining the necessary kit for the event. The event its self had cost a few quid so I was determined to save a bit on equipment. Below is the list of mandatory kit and what I used.
Mandatory hill kit
Waterproof jacket = Hagloffs LIM and Berghaus Vapour light smock
Waterproof trousers = Berghaus pack light and Inov-8 Race ultra pant
Survival bag = Poundland
Compass = Silva expedition 4
Headtorch = Silva trail runner 2
Whistle = On pack
Sufficient hill food = Each day spread across the running day I ate, 1 bag jelly babies, 3 Gu gels, 2 packs Tailwind, 1 small pack kids cooked rice or a pack of beef jerky and a bag of nuts and raisins.
Warm top = Cheap long sleeve top
Hat and gloves = Same hat and gloves I've had for ten years, All the climbing on day one wore holes in the fingers. Need new ones grrr.
Bottles = 2 x 500ml soft flasks
Pack = Inov8 race ultra 10
Shoes = Salomon fell raisers
I also had my phone, an etrex10 gps, waterproof marker pen and £50 incase of emergency.
There was also mandatory camp kit of all the usual stuff, sleeping bag, mattress, clothes, washing stuff, plate etc etc. All of your weeks camp kit had to go in a 59 ltr bag and you also had a 22 ltr resupply bag to keep your food in to resupply each day at the half way point. Most of my stuff was from decathlon or poundland and I saved a fortune on this.
I arrived in Conwy on Saturday to give me chance to relax for a bit prerace, the town was buzzing because of a local pirate festival taking place. The sun was out and it was gorgeous I sat by the estuary for a few hours in the heat of the day and watched the world pass by. After it cooled down a bit I went for a run on what I thought was the start route. Within a couple of streets I was heading out of town and up Conwy mountain, I passed a local who said "You won't be running in a minute, its bloody steep up there". I nodded and thought to myself, If only you knew. I ran up Conwy mountain and over to Sychnant pass where I turned and came back. Only a few miles but just a little confidence boost to make sure I started right.
On Sunday I got up and had a full English then I drove to Sycnant pass and hiked for a few miles just another little heads up on the race start. At 12.30 it was check in time at the Youth hostel, I grabbed my kit and headed there. It was fairly quiet and I soon was soon ushered to desk 1 to start the process. "Right, Photo id please". It was only by sheer miracle that I had my id, I had completely forgot I needed it!! Desk 2 was to get your number. Desk 3 was manned by my good buddy Andy Nuttall who was attaching trackers to packs. Well the tracker was more of a lunchbox and it had to go on our shoulder. We taped it to my pack and I tried it, it was digging in but what could I say? I had looked enough of a nob doing kit runs around Maidstone if I had been practicing having a lunch box on my shoulder I think I would have felt like a complete tosser! Desk 4 was manned by Stuart Smith who was part of the Nav4 team that helped train some of us. Cracking bloke who's incredibly friendly, he was attaching dibbers. I then signed my life away on the waiver and it was done. Checked in. I disappeared back to the harbour for a few hours before the race brief. The race brief was rammed and Shane the RD soon got to work explaining the rules and pointers. The race is fairly strict and rules need to be stuck too. Any discrepancies and you will be disqualified. One of the main parts that stood out was being able to differentiate between farmers land and open fell, which I was unaware of. Basically if you cut across a farmers field you would be disqualified. I had been a bit naïve about this and had assumed you could go anywhere. This added another dimension to the nav. The rest was pretty obvious stuff and we soon had to vacate the room to make way for dinner. I need a certain amount of peace and quiet prerace to take stock of the impending race so I decided to head in to town for a quiet meal and an early night.
Next thing I know we are off and heading out through the castle and along the castle wall. We dropped down on to the road headed towards Conwy mountain, I was just running everything was going so fast, my plan to start walking and navigate from the off was out the window I was swept along in the fast pace. Cp1 was soon passed and we headed out to Sycnant pass and dibbed Cp2. We then took a different route to what I had anticipated and was running across open fell. The weather was grotty and the cloud was low just what I hadn't wanted but I stuck with the line of runners which soon thinned and we reached our first main peak, Tal y Fan. Around this point I was joined by Michelle Bowen, she was trying to nav using her Ambit and getting frustrated with the time it was taking. The route to Drum was ok visibility was poor but I felt more confident, although still not using the map properly, Me and Michelle ran along the path that connect the summits, this is no way to navigate, just assuming that a path would take you where you want to go. We hit Foel Fras before heading into the Carnedds, visability had got worse and was down to about 20mtrs. We fumbled our maps and ran in the gloom trying to keep with other faster runners, Michelle fell and I lost us on the map. This is not how it was supposed to be! That moment in the Carnedds I remembered a comment I'd heard about not just following the crowd like sheep. I stopped and said to Michelle, lets stop get a grid reference pinpoint ourselves on the map and navigate properly. This became my mantra for the week "Don't be sheep", If ever I started following someone I would stop and navigate myself. Primarily because they might not have a clue and secondly that is why I'm here to be able to nav across open fell. The navigation was tough as was the running but we got to Pen yr Ole Wen, high above the Ogwen valley. At this early stage I was surprised to see runners going in all sorts of directions not navigating just winging it hoping to stumble on the checkpoint or to tag on the back of someone else. Coming off of Pen yr Ole Wen you can either go the safe way to the left which is longer or the knarly rocky way to the right of course I went right. We descended for about 45mins before hitting the support point in the valley floor, about 6 or 7 hours had passed.
|I am so scared of heights|
My alarm had been set for 5am but I didn't need it, Another of my roomies Hisayuki would be up at 4.30 to wake us all with his clattering of kit. I was up and out the tent by 5 to get breakfast but the queue was massive for eggs. As I queued I had my porridge made which I ate in the queue before grabbing my egg sarnie and tea which I wolfed down. There really was no hanging about in the morning because the midges were out in force and I am talking millions of them! If you stood still for more than a few seconds they covered you, each one giving you a friendly nip. I spoke briefly to Michelle to see if she wanted to team up for the day, she agreed and we packed up kit, dumped our bags in before collecting the map for the day.
|Just another massive ascent|
The section between CP4 and 5 is massive and very hard to pick a route, we broke it down into smaller navigational pieces of say 3 miles before making a new plan. Soon down the track we bumped into Richard Leahy, a good friend and someone who'd actually done some recceing. We chatted and ran with his group, but we ran past our turning, Richard had another way. As we continued down the track we stopped, looked at each other and realized we were doing it again, Being sheep! We turned round and ran back up the hill to our intended route. I said to Michelle that I might title my blog "Don't be sheep" she replied "The Dragon eats sheep!"
We reached a road section and discussed our route options, there were a few but we agreed a route and ran on. Part of this involved passing through a massive forest on a minor footway. Bad move! We ran and circled and ended up going the wrong way, Michelle got the hump with this and said we should have gone straight across a large section of hilly, boggy, heathery crap. Totally not our plan but I rolled with it. My god it was awful, about 4 miles of all of the above. We were scratched, bumped, bitten and covered in shit. Also it was a nightmare to nav because everything looked the same. We were criss crossing with Charlie Sharp, Ed Catmur and a few others all running round like headless chickens. Ed streaked ahead but we soon caught him, he was laying down? It transpired he had put his foot right between some boulders and tore his shin open. The gash was big and to the bone. Luckily out of the 5 of us there 1 was some sort of medic and quickly patched him up. Mind you Ed was going nowhere, he could barely shuffle let alone run on the toughest terrain ever. Eds race was over, one of us managed to get a mobile signal and called for help. The emergency team were on their way. As the weather was fine so we felt ok to leave and press on.
Just a quick explanation about the conditions under foot, we experienced just about everything from Tarmac to rock climbing during the event. We had long grass, short grass, tussocks, bog, rock, boulder fields, heather, thistles, scree, high exposed ridges and river crossings just about everything! Unless you knew the best route pretty much the whole time was spent cross country, either going up, down or across a slope. You fall over a lot and Michelle and I had our fair share of tumbles. Also much to Michelle's annoyance my style of navigation is to go the shortest route, across or through anything. If I could see a summit, we would be heading straight for it! Sod the long trail all the way round. This just added to the cuts, grazes and falls.
We eventually dropped into CP5 after a 4 hour section it was about 8 hours in total to the half way point of day 2. We continued into the Rhinogs and quickly disposed of the first one, on the approach to the second we reached a lake and the summit was high up to our left. The easy but long way was to take a steady climb straight ahead then double back but I was having none of that. There was a near vertical rock fall to our left, direct to the summit. We climbed that way, it was one of the high lights of the day for me. We climbed two more summits and as we descended off of Diffwys we were tired, extremely tired! We had a measure of the map and worked out we had a 5 mile undulating run back to the camp, it was murder and after the previous day I felt I had nothing left, I was running on empty but we made it after about 14 hours and 35 miles on the go. My god that was a hard, hard day.
A lot of people had dropped including half our tent. I had thought that guts and determination could get you through this but you also can't be a slouch. I can happily run a LDWA 30 miler in under 5hrs but we were averaging 7,8 or 9 hours over the marathon distance during this event. People were getting timed out and injuries were becoming more common place. Shane had said half the field wouldn't finish, I was beginning to understand. My roomie Fabrice had dropped too with shredded feet, Fabrice has finished just about every mountain race Europe has to offer including Tour de Geants and he told me this was harder than any of them.
Today was a subdued start, Michelle and I headed out at our now to be usual 6.30 and very little was said, we were tired from the previous two days. I had really sore feet from the previous days and Michelle's knee resembled an elephants head. The climb from camp was long and we spoke with everyone briefly on the route up. Visibility on the top was poor and I hadn't really followed the map too good. The first 5 miles of each day were the worst for me so I would rely a bit on Michelle to get us on the right route. As we reached what I thought was the summit Michelle ran off, no map talk just run. I was a tad disorientated so I followed her as quick as I could force myself until we reached the summit. I re-orientated myself and suddenly had a burst of energy, there was a large group of us and I led the running like It was day 1. We cruised along the ridge and any pain I had dissipated, I was having a moment, the sublime moment when running is the easiest thing in the world. Me, Michelle and an American guy, Travis pulled away from the pack and I navigated us on the move to Craig-y-llyn. Such was our pace I had already naved the next section too, we crested summit in the cloud and hit the summit square on. "Right lets not piss about, we are going this way" I stated. We descended the fence line flat out. Half way down we were buzzed by the camera drone, You knew your on the right route if you either see the drone or Ian the photographer pops up and starts snapping. We picked up another American guy, Kevin after the next Cp. Kevin was the guy pictured in the Times during race week. Kevin's reply to anything that you try to tell him is "I know", he made for tough conversation but the four of us were to spend the rest of day 3 together.
|I love a scramble|
We were still in thick clag and navigating along a tree line, one thing I know about navigating is that it is a nightmare naving through large forests, paths disappear, you become disorientated, everything looks the same and before you know it you are lost! So we did our best to stay out the forests. There was soon a break in the trees, I took a bearing and before they knew it we had hooked a left and we were hammering down an over grown hillside, after a few hundred metres descent we were straight back up the other side through thick heather. Not the easiest route but very direct. It was about a 5 mile run into Machynlleth from here and I had a major wobble. The high I had been feeling had passed and because I hadn't eaten properly, I hit a wall. The others were running good into town and I was about 50mtrs back plodding it out, preying for the Support point.
After refuelling we had a long and uneventful run to a couple more checkpoints, everyone was feeling it after the stop so I was happy with the run walk strategy. We had a last large climb and again we plumped for the direct route, my it was rubbish, the grass was 2 foot high and where I was lifting my legs so high to walk I felt a ripple of pain from my thigh. Shit, I'd defo torn something, I just preyed it wasn't bad. We left the final cp and ran down the ridge through the cloud. " Stop", Travis yelled. "I didn't dib" he said. After much deliberation it was decided he had to run back to make double sure. It was too cold to hang on we had to move forward, Trav would have to go back then catch us up, Gutted! I kept looking back but couldn't see him, fair play to him though, he went back, dibbed and caught us just before the finish. As we entered the finishing funnel and dibbed for the final time we checked Travs splits for the day and he had indeed hit the last Cp twice, 10 minutes apart. Oh how he laughed ;-) It was a good day otherwise, a runners day, we had covered about 44 miles, naved well and got back in about 13 hrs. That was more like it. I had really sore legs after today and felt the best thing would be to spend most of the evening stretching, I ate some food and retired to the midge proof tent where I stretched for about an hour, possibly the longest I'd ever done it. My thigh was niggling but I was optimistic I would stretch it out.
In general we were going alright, we were still strong, people were dropping like flies but we were holding it together and speeding up slightly with each day. The Dragons back is definitely one not to be rushed. It really is a hare and tortoise type of race.
Todays map was massive! I'm talking the size of a table top! These bloody maps take some folding, todays was an OS map as opposed to the Harvey we had gotten used too over the past three days.
Cloud was low this morning and it was pretty dreary we were full on naving right off the bat, 10 mtr visibility, no features, take a bearing and make sure you hit your target. We nailed the first section and was soon passing the 6am starters many of whom were circling in the mist. We hit the corner of the forest bang on target but our worst nightmare, no path! We decided to cut through the steep forest on a bearing and pick up the main track. We found the path, changed direction and was bang on track. We reached a break in the path and a group had started to follow us. The features we could see looked right and just as we moved on up the track one of the following group yelled "this is all wrong" "we haven't covered the distance you think we have. With that the group turned on its heels and went the other way. Again Michelle and I assumed we were wrong and followed the group. Doh! The upshot was that we wasted about 20 minutes doing a massive circle to rejoin the original path further up. How annoying!! Don't be Sheep!!!
We eventually found the top and the checkpoint, we were in the middle of a massive wind farm. The tracks were clear on the map, the route was to cut across country and pick up the tracks as we went. Travis who incidentally joined us again for the day agreed but Michelle totally disagreed, she was having none of it. She insisted we should follow the tracks which was clearly further on the map? Hmm we were having a moment here. We discussed it for a minute and we weren't budging we were about to go our own way, At that moment there was clarity, Did it matter? No. Did I have to get my way? No. It was pretty irrelevant, in the grand scheme of things harmony and getting this thing done was important so we headed off down the track and after a couple of miles of silence I cracked open some jelly babies and normal service resumed.
The rest of the morning went quite smooth, some good running was to be had and our nav was good only having a minor mishap just before halfway. Travis had been quiet all morning and had rarely looked at the map, normal during a race when you have a bad patch you just suck it up and plod it out following the markers. During the Dragons Back if you have a bad patch you still have to nav or things are going to get a whole lot worse so if you can hitch on the back of someone elses navigation, that's a good thing, as long as you trust the leaders skills. He apologised for not getting involved before explaining he had the worst shin splints ever and judging by the red swelling he wasn't exaggerating. He asked me what I thought, well I knew he was in agony just by looking at his contorted face, all I could say was for him to forget the navigation and stick with us, get the day done, plod it out. At the half way point we sorted our stuff and filled bottles, Travis was hanging back and said he was going to stop with the medic and get strapped up. No your not I told him if you don't crack on now your days going to get worse now suck it up and lets move. He rubbed some ibruprofen gel on his wounds and we moved.
Oh happy days, the last leg, surely this thing is done, its in the bag! Travis was going to walk it in so it was just Michelle and I today.
Today must have been set as an easy route, there was nothing that could stop us finishing now.
The climb to Cp5 was long and steady, there was little in the way of paths or trods so we took a direct line towards the ridge that would lead to the summit, the wind was picking up and the tops were shrouded in cloud, the temperature was dropping and there was a few spots of rain in the air. What I have learnt is to try and make a call on the weather at the top before you get there, if you don't it is very difficult to get your kit out while it is blowing a hoolie. I could feel the weather was turning and stopped on our ascent to get my coat out, the first time all week I've had to do so.
|The first view of our destination|
|The last few steps|
In the carpark we had ice cream and diet coke it was heaven, the sun was beaming and the crap weather was long since gone. We were ferried to the rugby club for hot showers, clean clothes and more coke. As we sat in the bar I noticed some movement on my legs, I had ticks feeding on me! Then from her bag Michelle's mum pulled out a tick remover, Who the hell has a tick remover on their person? Michelle's mum that's who. The presentation came and went and we headed to our hotel, no more camping for me this week. I was done.
|The A team|
|Ooo ice cream|
|That's what its all about.|
It has been a week since the race and I have started running again if only a few miles but I have picked something up from the water and have had terrible stomach issues. I'm awaiting results from the doc who reckons its probably a parasite and should shift in about 10 days.
This is the point where I usually get negative about my performance but not this time, I feel I did good and I absolutely loved the event. Sometimes everything clicks into place and you find a gem of a race, well the Dragons back is that race. Will I come back in 2017, too right I will I can't wait.