Dragons Back race report [DNF]27 May 2019 | running ultra
Since last year I had been looking forward to the epic Berghaus Dragons Back Race. It traverses over all the main Welsh mountain ranges starting in Conwy in the north of Wales to Llandeilo in the south. The course covers 315km, with 15500 metres of elevation gain over 5 days - and requires runners to navigate through to mostly unmanned checkpoints throughout the day. Billed as the toughest multi day mountain ultra marathon event - the approximate 50% attrition rate attests that it is a beast to be reckoned with.
The event was first held in the early 90’s and run in pairs. Very few finished and it was deemed too tough a course to hold the event again. The event was restarted in 2012, run again in 2015 and is now held every other year.
I went into the event realistic about my chances of success. I had met a great group of runners through an informal day 4 recce and an organised day 1 recce. Both weekendns had built my confidence, but also confirmed that navigation would be my weak point especially if visibility was low, and that each day would be a tough day out on the hills. I had GPX routes to fall back on, but the “recommended” route was not always the best line, and I wanted to be looking at the trails and mountains and not staring at my watch or phone every 5 minutes.
Leading up to the event I had been keeping a steady training load. Unfortunately not undertaking as many long mountain days as I would have prefered, with time limitations and logistics of travel in Peru often causing compromised efforts. Nevertheless, I had a few solid mountain runs at altitude and had no injuries as we headed into Conwy the day before the event.
Registration was hectic, but a fairly smooth process. The event logistics meant that the organisers would establish camp with 8-person shared tents and a kitchen too feed the mass of hungry runners each day. Each competitor would need their mandatory gear for the hills, a 5kg/20L support bag for the midway (and only) support point each day, and a 60L overnight bag with clothes, sleeping bag, thermarest, hill food and anything else you’d need to see you safetly through 5 days of Welsh mountain running. It took quite a knack to organise and fit everything in for the 5 days. During registration I started bumping into old acqaintances and made new ones. The anticipation for everyone was palpable.
Early on Monday morning I headed down the hill inside Conwy castle to start the adventure. Denise and Ron had come down to see me off and were up on castle ramparts looking down. The day started with a Welsh male choir before 400 runners set off slowly at 7am along the castle walls. Timing commenced as soon as we left the castle walls. The day had a number of dibbers that had to be found and tagged, mostly at the summits of moutains. There were also 3 main cut-off points: at the support point (2pm), at the YHA and Pen-Y-Pass (3pm) and then at the finish line at 11pm.
I took a measured pace for the first few hours, the cloud cover was low and the weather cool. Perfect running weather and visibility not too impaired for navigating. I was eager to not burn up the nervous energy at the expense of later hours and days running. I had a soft target of 12 hours on day 1 and expected around 5 hours to the support point followed by 7hours for the back half of the day. Somewhere up on the first hills a few hours into the run I started feeling a twinge in my right knee. An hour or so later my left knee did similar. I continued reasonably comfortably until around 10:30 or 11 in the morning when I started to be concerned about the increasing pain so early in the race. By this time the cloud had burnt off and we had our first views across the Snowdonia peaks we were traversing and down into the Ogwen valley and the mighty Tryfan.
I bagged the last checkpoint before the support point and was starting the steep descent to the Ogwen valley - by now was unable to run the downhills and was being overtaken by a number of other runners. I pressed on and ran the short section to the support point at around the 29k mark. Here I took about 10 or 15 minutes to eat some food, drink my coke and restock my hill food. I had my GPS tracker swapped out as it had conked out on the hill apparantly. I wanted to press on quickly and tagged myself at the dibber, handed my support bag in, and started the steep slog uphill to summit Tryfan.
The walk up was hot and hard. There came a point where the steps became a scramble, finding a route up and over boulders, and up to the summit. This was a peak that the winter conditions had denied me during the recce weekend. Fortunately with so many others, you could always observe those in front to find a good line. Coming down was much harder as my knees were more sore on the downhill, and the route down wasn’t clear, with some precipitous drops to avoid. No sooner were we down than we were climbing up a steep loose scree slope of the Glyders. This peak was in some ways harder than Tryfan as there were no steps and a decent incline. Once on this range there was a technical traverse, where at one point I made a daft nav error that cost me 5-10 minutes by following like a sheep someone else hunting for a summit checpoint up the wrong lump of rocks. Eventually I hit the right checkpoint and began the descent into the YHA. The day was now quite hot in the sun, and my knees - especially on the downhill quite painful. I again walked and ambled the downhill as fast as I could to the YHA. Here I bought a Tang soft drink which was delightul, and refilled my water bottle, and after 5 minutes set off to deal with the beast that overlooked the YHA that is Crib Goch.
As I set off I was alongside Mark Z a lovely guy who had organised many recce weekends and both physically and virtually brought together a large group of legends all undertaking the Dragons Back. He had failed to complete the race in 2017 due to foot issues, but was tracking well, and had experience going over Crib Goch, so I stuck with him as we began the scramble up the rocks. There was also occassionaly theodd event staff, with mountain experience, at points to give runners guidance on the appropriate route up or off Crib Goch. Partway up, another racer started giving me tips on the better routes as Mark pressed on ahead. Soon enough I was up onto the knife-edge. The views were tremendous and the difficult part, that I quite enjoyed, was over. I was careful along the knife-edge and soon enough was limiping down to the saddle that joins Crig Goch with the Snowdon summit.
Once bagging the Snowdon summit I picked up another soft drink at the shop and set off on the Watkins path to traverse to the end of the Snowdon horse-shoe.
This section was a hard slow slog. I was regretting by now not using a more cushioned shoe. I pulled out my poles and immediately wished I had done so sooner as they were a great help with managing the knees. While there was another big kicker of a hill to scramble up the worse part was that the downhill sections were now very painful and I was “walking with purpose” to get the day done. I felt wrecked, but I suspect that was more from the continual pain and care I had to take with every step than the impact of the time on feet and climbing of the day. I was able to run-jog the more gentle gradients, especially when we hit the grass section at the end of the Snowdon horse-shoe. Eventually I descended for the final section down to the day 1 camp.
I crossed the line in 12hr and 1 minute (from leaving the castle wall) with 55k with 3600m elevation gain. Bang on target.
After I finished I organised my gear, fed myself and set off for a cold stream to clean myself and see if a good soak would help my knees recover for day 2. During the evening of walking around camp my knees felt mostly OK, with just mild discomfort. I remained optimistic it would be “one of those things” and heal with a good nights rest.
After a great nights rest - I woke up at 5am, hoping to set off by 6:30 for what would be a 14 hour day with 70km distance. Due to my finish time the previous day the organisers had a guidance start time of 7am.
Unfortantely I quickly recognised my knees were more stiff and sore than the previous evening. I pulled on the nicely cushioned La Sportiva Arkasha shoes for the day. I mentally re-set my expectation to that of a long slow day - aiming to just complete inside the cutoff.
I set off on the flat road section - I tried to jog and warm up the legs but each step was very painful and I found myself alternating between walking and jogging from the start. Soon enough we were off the roads and heading for the first summit of the day, Cnicht. The knees were less sore on the climbs so I pushed on the uphill, shuffled on the flat and gingerly walked on the downhill. I had started with my poles out today and they continued to help.
The sun was out from the early morning and the day continued to heat up. Each checkpoint I reached I was within the guidance time that indicated the pace for the slowest competitor to finish the day inside the 11pm cut-off. But only just. As I frustratingly moved slowly across the Welsh hills I recognised I might either miss the support point cut-off or if I made it decide it not wise to continue.
I descended the final steep hill into the support point. It was 2:20pm and I had painfully ticked off 32km through the morning. The cut-off was 3pm to leave the support point. I quickly sorted myself out as if I was going to leave - but had a different voice on each shoulder telling me I should push on regardless until I got timed out or whether I should be sensible, minimise the injury and live to fight another day. I knew the next section would be hard both in technicality, distance, and give me no options to bail out. The next section involved a long slog up and over the Rhinogs, but did have a final 10k easy road section to the Day 2 camp.
So the choice was a difficult one. I was ready to leave at 2:40pm. 20 minutes within the cut-off. I had some people at the support point advise against pushing on, others advise to crack on. I almost left, but with my better judgement decided to pull the pin. There was always the option to do a half day tomorrow. Even if I did finish by 11pm, I knew I would be in no fit state to backup with another 70k on Wednesday. My dragon was not to be.
I then sat at the support point as we watched runners come in just before, or just after the cut-off. Once back at camp, I ate up well, then decided to go and get some advice from the phsyio in the medical tent. The physio diagnosed an inflamed ITB, strapped me up, and suggested the issue wouldn’t heal overnight and would need R&R but that I could walk the back half of the course if I was OK with going slow and griting out the pain. I was hopeful I could continue tomorrow, non-competitively and enjoy the Welsh landscapes.
Unfortunately the next morning the knees were just as painful. I toyed with another long slow afternoon of walking 35k. But I decided I’d prefer to let my knees heal rather than risk a prolonged injury that may take many months to heal. Another difficult decision, but now made called Denise to come grab me from her AirBnB in Dollgelau and left the camp and the group of legends that were on this adventure. I was quite dissapointed and sad - but felt I’d made the right call. Cadair Idris, the impressive mountain that was the start of day 3, taunted me as I was driven away. I wanted to be in those mountains. A part of me thought I should have been more stubborn and grit it out regardless.
So that was it. Despite only running for a day and a half I had a significant amount of fatigue and DOMS to recover from. The next few days I remained fairly despondent, but found my knees so painful just walking down stairs that I continued to feel I’d made the right call in not pushing through the pain and chewing up more miles.
On the Friday afternoon we arrived in Llandeilo where the race finished. I had continued watching the dots of Avril, Mark, Fiona, Alwyn, Megan, Simon, Craig and others as they continued their march to the end. Watching those guys and others arrive at the finish was bitter sweet, but I was glad I did.
So here I am a week later and my knees are still too sore to run on. The dragons back race had truly chewed me up and spat me out - but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a brilliantly organised race, in amazing mountains and landscapes of Wales, with a great group of runners. I’d love to return and complete it - but 2021 will be a really bad time. Perhaps 2023.