Home / Reports / Dragon’s Back Race 2017 – 22-27 May

Dragon’s Back Race 2017 – 22-27 May

2017
May

 Position (127)CategoryDay 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Total
Phil Humphries105M5012:00:56 (108)14:00:33 (116)15:07:45 (117)14:36:20 (121)13:20:14 (110) 69:05:48

The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race
(315Km 248 Miles, 5 Days)
Monday 22 May – Friday 27 May 2017
By
Phil Humphries


What is the Dragon’s Back Race?

From the race website (http://www.berghausdragonsbackrace.com):

“The legendary Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ follows the mountainous spine of Wales from north to south. This incredible 5-day journey is 315 kilometres long with 15,500 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain. It is the toughest 5-day mountain race in the world.”

The race was first run in 1992 and over the years became legendary, partly because it was an extremely tough one off event and not to be repeated, but also because it was won by a female, Helene Diamantides partnered by Martin Stone (this original race was run in pairs).

Then in 2012 Shane Ohly of Ourea Events resurrected the race for its 20th anniversary, which was a huge success even though only 32 out of 82 starters (39%) actually finished the race. The race was won by Steve Birkinshaw with Helene Whitaker (formally Diamantides) 1st woman and 4th overall.

The race was put on again in 2015 and saw 65 finishers out of 142 (45%) The race was won by Jim Mann with Edinburgh-based Jasmine Paris 1st woman and 2nd overall. The race is now run in May every other year by Ourea Events (alternating with the Cape Wrath Ultra).

Why did I enter?

I first read about the legendary 1992 Dragon’s Back race in Steve Asquith’s book about fell-running “Feet in the Clouds”. Then in 2012 I read in Runners World magazine that the race was being resurrected for its 20th anniversary. By then I had successfully completed numerous ultra-marathons, but I had always considered something like the Dragon’s Back to be well beyond my ability and gave it no further thought.

Then in 2016 I successfully completed the inaugural Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU), an 8-day race over 248 miles through the wild terrain of North-west Scotland. After the race Ouera Events announced they would provide a place in the 2017 edition of The Dragon’s Back Race (which had already sold out) to any participant who had completed the CWU. I had enjoyed the Cape Wrath race so much and was on such a high in the immediate weeks after, that I could not resist the opportunity of another multi-day ultra race, and so like many others from Cape Wrath I committed myself to the 2017 Dragon’s Back. Looking at the race stats I knew that each day would on average be longer and involve significantly more ascent/descent than Cape Wrath, but I thought if I trained better and used my experience from Cape Wrath wisely then I would be fine.

Registration

On Sunday 21st May 2017 I changed trains at Crewe and caught sight of other people, who like me were each conspicuously lugging a large and small dry-bag. Amongst them I immediately recognized Louise Staples and Ian Prentice from the previous year’s Cape Wrath Ultra. It was great to catch-up with them both again and talk enthusiastically about our next adventure.

On arriving in Conwy on a warm sunny afternoon it was a short stroll to registration held in a local school. Registration was thorough and well organised as is typical of Ourea Events. I recognized several of the volunteer race crew from Cape Wrath, some of whom had been participants in that race, so I knew we would be well looked-after over the coming days. During registration we received our race maps, which identified all the checkpoints that we needed to visit – some of which had a time-of-day printed against them by which we must have left the checkpoint otherwise we would be pulled out of the race and record a dreaded DNF (we were told at the race briefing this rule would be strictly enforced). The map also showed a recommended route to follow between checkpoints. A few sections of this route were mandatory which we had to follow precisely or risk disqualification. We also received our SI cards which we would use to “dib in” at each checkpoint which means placing the SI card strapped to our wrist into a hole in a small box of electronics secured to a mountain summit, gate or fence line etc. A small electronic tracker was also taped to the shoulder strap of each participant’s rucksack. These would allow the race director to track our progress between checkpoints and ensure we adhered to mandatory sections. The information transmitted by the trackers would also be displayed on the race website for family and friends to see how we were doing. There was also an emergency button on the tracker that we could press in the event of a serious accident in order to summon help.

Immediately after registration I handed over my large dry-bag which contained my overnight sleeping gear, spare clothes and hill-food etc. This bag would be transported by the race crew to each overnight campsite. The maximum size allowed was 59 litres, which required some clever packing to be able to fit in everything that I would need for the next 5 days. I also handed over my smaller 22 litre dry-bag which would be transported by the race crew to the mid-way support point on each race day. I filled mine with a spare pair of running shoes, extra food and clothing and a few other bits and pieces I might need during a race day. There was a strict weight restriction of 5Kg on the support bag, so again there was only room for essentials.

After all the runners were registered there was a briefing session by Shane Ohly that was at the same time both serious and entertaining, and we were all left with no uncertainty of the enormousness of the challenge that lay ahead. During a buffet meal there was plenty of time to talk to fellow participants and catch up with some of the friends I had made at the Cape Wrath Ultra who like me keen to have a crack at another multi-day ultra race. This included Richard Dreijer from the Netherlands with whom I had shared a tent and ran much of Cape Wrath.

DAY 1 – Dragon’s Breath
Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon
52km / 3800m ascent

Race day began at 6.40 am with 223 would be Dragon Slayer’s assembled inside the ruined walls of Conwy Castle all raring to go. There were group photos, announcements and a welsh male voice choir to send us on our way.

Welsh male voice choir in Conwy Castle
Running the castle walls

At 7am we started. The route initially took us at a slow pace out of the castle and along the old town walls, before we escaped on a good path up a gentle hill to our first checkpoint. There would be 21 checkpoints today (the most of any day) that we would all need to visit to complete today’s route. Running over the Carneddau mountain range on good paths was probably the easiest section of the whole race and like everyone else I made good time. The views over the coast to the north and Snowdonia to the south were magnificent. Amongst a large group of runners I soon reached checkpoint 8 on Carnedd Llywelyn (at 1064m the second highest mountain in Wales). Two more checkpoints came in quick succession and I was soon on the descent into the Ogwen valley from the last peak in the Carneddau range, Pen Yr Ole Wen. The descent was a steep mixture of heather and rocks with only a vague path to follow. I started to get some pain in my left knee, which is a recurring problem I have on steep descents. With so much running still to go in this race I took it steady and was passed by lots of runners. However I caught up a few places on the short road section to checkpoint 11 at Llyn Ogwen car park (303m) that also served as the mid-way support point for the day. Although it was only 11:53am I knew the second half of the day would involve much harder terrain, so there would be many more hours to go before I would be safely in camp for the night. I re-filled each of my 500ml soft-flasks (I carried 4 throughout the race, so I had up-to 2 litres of fluid with me at any one time) and grabbed some extra food from my support bag, then I was on my way again.

Easy running across the Carnedau
Looking across the Ogwyn Valley to the shapely summit of Tryfan and the Glyders behind.

I followed the line of runners walking up the steep path on the western slope of Tryfan, using my light-weight walking poles to give me an additional boost. Higher up, the path gave way to rocks and we were using hands and feet to scramble up to the Tryfans sharp summit, which at 917m was the location of checkpoint 12. I have climbed Tryfan several times before and enjoy the rocky scramble, but in my enthusiasm I almost went straight past the checkpoint. The descent off Tryfan and onto the ridge that connects it to the Glyder range is mix of slabs and jumbled rocks of all sizes and requires care and concentration no matter what speed you are moving at. I was joined here by Vassos, the sports reporter on BBC Radio 2, who was also in the race. He is an accomplished ultramarathon runner, but not so used to this kind of rough technical ground. We shared a few laughs as we tried to run down the boulder-strewn ridge and not go tumbling over in the process.

The ascent of Tryfan

We then joined a long line of runners ascending a steep path of scree that took us up through thick mist and on to the summit of Glyder Fach (994m) and checkpoint 13. Visibility was poor, so I used my compass with the map to navigate across the connecting ridge to the summit of Glyder Fawr (1001m). I spotted Louise (whom I met on the train the day before) and we moved together across the ridge. This was yet more slab and boulder-strewn terrain that made for slow progress especially with the need to constantly re-check map and compass. The wind had been strengthening throughout the day and it was getting quite chilly as we reached checkpoint 14, which took a bit of finding on the enormous summit cairn of Glyder Fawr. Some runners stopped to don an extra layer, but instead Louise and I just turned and ran-on down the southern slopes of Glyder Fawr. Louise attempted the race back in 2015, but unfortunately had been timed out on day 3 and was back in 2017 determined to complete that race this time around. She knew the route off the Glyders well, so I was glad of her company. As we reached the youth hostel at Pen-y-pass (checkpoint 15) we passed a runner sitting down on the grass with a race marshal in attendance – he was clutching his leg and looked like he was in severe pain. We re-filled out water bottles from the toilets at Pen-y-pass and headed off. It was about 3pm and we were 2 hours ahead of the cut-off time for leaving checkpoint 15. There was an easy mile or so on well-made paths that took us up to the start of the steep scramble onto Crib Goch. In anticipation of a chilly wind and a potential bottle-neck of runners on the ridge I donned a windproof top. I was accompanied on the scramble by Ed, an army P.T. instructor and former Royal Marine. We progressed swiftly up to checkpoint 16 positioned on the summit cairn of Crib Goch. For safety there was a marshal strategically positioned just below the summit to help guide runners up a safe line onto the ridge. Beyond the summit the ridge is very narrow and ‘airy’ and no more than a couple of feet wide in places, with a steep drop to one side and a sheer drop to the other side. This rocky crest goes on for over a mile with lots of short ups and downs, but the rock is solid with pretty good grip even when wet. I have traversed it several times in my youth with no bad memories, so I was enjoying carefully picking my way across the ridge which was enshrouded in thick mist that added to the ‘atmosphere’ of the occasion. I took a few photos then about half-way along from no-where this runner comes other way moving very quickly and at the same time asking where checkpoint 16 is? He had got all the way to checkpoint 17 at the far end of the ridge and realised he had missed checkpoint 16 and so was going back to find it. He would end up effectively traversing the ridge a total 3 times!

Traversing Crib Goch

The ridge eventually widened where I encountered a couple of girls in their late teens carrying heavy backpacks who were looking for the summit of Snowdon, but were instead heading straight for Crib Goch, so I suggested they turn around and follow the direction the runners were heading for. The ridge led us up to checkpoint 18 located on the summit of Snowdon, which at 1085m is the highest peak in Wales. There are many routes up and down Snowdon in several different directions, and finding the correct descent route off the summit is easy in good weather, but tricky in the mist. Some precise navigation was required to find the mandatory section we needed to follow to take us on to the Watkins path and the Snowdon horseshoe. However for me it was made easier by joining group of eight or so runners and collectively we navigated our way to checkpoint 19 on the subsidiary summit of Y Lilwedd (898m) where we met a group of runners heading towards us from the opposite direction. I recognized Ian from the train journey yesterday; he said they were back-tracking from the lower second top of Y Lilwedd having run straight past the checkpoint in the mist. There were now only about 7km to go to the finish of day 1, but first there was a sinuous 3km of pathless rock, grass and bog before we reached the checkpoint at the end of the ridge (649m). We were now below the mist and views opened up all around us. But no-time to hang around as it was now all-downhill on a decent path that took us to the final checkpoint on a bridge and then down to our campsite.

I arrived through the Day 1 Finishing Arch just after 7pm in a time of 12:00:56 and 105th place out of 223 starters. I had set myself a target time of 12hrs for day 1 and although it had been a long tough day I had not pushed myself too hard and still had energy left, so I was pretty happy. However with over 100 runners finishing ahead of me I realised there were a lot of good runners in this race and it was going to be hard to get anywhere near the top 50 (which was my original goal). On arrival I was shown to tent no. 26 in which I would be sleeping on each night of the race. There were seven names displayed on the post outside, but so far only two other runners (Joe and Paul) had arrived inside the tent. After a quick introduction, I got on with the process of recovering from one day and preparing myself for the next – this process is known as ‘admin’. How efficient you are with your ‘admin’ can make a huge difference to success or failure in a multi-day race. There is little time for a lying around chatting with your tent-mates, instead you need to get on with all the essentials (including stretching, changing out of your sweaty kit, cleaning and inspecting your feet, sorting out your sleeping bag and inflatable mattress, eating/drinking, checking the notice-board (the ‘Daily Slayer’), and preparing yourself for the next day).

The later you finish running, the less time there is to get your ‘admin’ done and still get to sleep at a reasonable time, before getting up early in the morning and preparing yourself to run again. By the time I was ready to settle into my sleeping bag for the night it was after 10pm and the 4th member of our tent (Andy) arrived in the dark. I drifted off to sleep expecting to be woken up later by the arrival of more tent-mates, however when I arose the next day there were still only 4 of us, so I can only assume the other 3 never actually started the race. However that was no worry to us as their absence gave us each the unexpected bonus of extra space in a tent that would normally sleep 8 people. At the front end of the race, 2015 winner Jim Mann had finished first in 7:12 with Neil Talbot 7:54 in second place. But Jim was given a 15 minute time penalty and a strike for missing the Crib Goch checkpoint (3 strikes and you are disqualified). His excuse was the checkpoint was not exactly where described on the map, which was accepted, so his penalty was no as tough as it could have been. Sabrina Verjee was first woman home in 9:27, followed by Carol Morgan in 9:46.

DAY 2 – Roughest of the Rough
Moelwyns and Rhinogs
58 km / 3,600m ascent

I had a reasonable sleep and got up after 5am, later than planned but thought it would be good to avoid the 6am rush (the earliest anyone was allowed to start). I handed over my kit bags and got through kit-check and over the day 2 start line at 640am. First there was a short road section which led to a farm and then a slightly confusing set of paths and gates. After that the route then led us up steep pathless terrain into thick mist. Somewhere up above was the summit of the Cnicht, which is a shapely peak, sometimes known as the “Welsh Matterhorn”. It was a hard pull up to the summit, but the checkpoint on top proved easy to find and I was soon descending steeply off the opposite side of the ridge. The sharp slate rocks were very slippy and it was good to get on to some grass, but the next 6km were to prove no less tough.

Descending the Cnight

The next series of checkpoints were on the summits of the Molewyn Mountains – steep compact and largely pathless with lots of tussocks, rocks and boggy ground. Prior knowledge would definitely have been useful here to find the best line and bypass the many false summits. I ran for while with Mick Cooper who seemed to be picking a better line that many others. I knew Mick from the Cape Wrath race last year and we managed to have a brief chat about the different races and adventures we’d had since last year. Then I stopped to tighten a shoelace and I lost him somewhere in the mist. He was on good form and is generally quicker than me over rough ground, so I knew I’d probably not see him again today. Descending from checkpoint 3 I slipped on wet rock and landed on my bum, but fortunately landed on grass, so no harm done other than a minor hyper-extension of the left knee, which initially gave me cause for concern, but as I carried on running the feeling of pain faded. After the Molewyns the mist lifted, which made navigation easier and we got some superb views. The route descended to the bottom of the Vale of Ffestiniog on easy runnable paths. I found myself running with Rob who had been in the group I ran with the day before on the Snowdon Horseshoe. Like me he was shunning modern technology and navigating the whole way with map and compass rather than GPS. We then picked up a narrow road for a few miles and on to another good path. It was good to get some relatively easy miles done before the half-way support point, but then the path abruptly ended and the route swung southwards and upwards over a long pathless section of undulating tussocks and bog. Again there were definitely better routes than others and runners were fanning out in all directions. Like most of the time I tried to follow the recommended line on the map, but I definitely lost time getting caught up in long grass and hidden holes full of bog water. There was a steep descent to checkpoint 6 and the halfway support point which was a welcome sight. By now the sun was high in the sky and there was little cloud or wind, so it was getting rather hot. There were a lot of tired looking runners at the support point and many looked like they would struggle to get going again. Once you stop it is hard not to lie down and it is a real effort to get things done quickly and get off again without losing too much time. I was happy to leave the checkpoint well-ahead of the cut-off time, but knew there was plenty more hard work to come in order to finish within a reasonable time. It was uphill again, initially on a good path (called the Roman Steps), but then we were soon onto the rough ground of the Rhinog Mountains, and arguably the toughest section of the whole race. There are very few paths or even recognisable routes on the Rhinogs and certainly not north to south in the direction we were going. On the first hill (Rhinog Fawr) I managed to follow Joe (my tent-mate) all the way up to the summit checkpoint. Joe Faulkner is a bit of Dragons Back legend being the only competitor to have finished all four editions of the race, so with all his experience I was certain he would pick the best possible line and save lots of time and effort. At one point we crossed a boulder field to pick up the faintest of paths that I would never have realized was there until we were on it, but it led directly to the summit. Seeing that I had latched on to Joe’s tail Ed and Rob were now following me and joined me on the summit at checkpoint 7 (720m). There followed a steep pathless 400m descent on loose boulders and down a wet slippery gulley. We tried to keep up with Joe on the descent, but he moved too quickly for us and got away.

The Rhinogs

There were 3 more summits and 3 checkpoints to visit on the Rhinogs so we endured more big climbs and sharp descents, but at least the terrain got easier on each successive peak with less rock and more grass. The views were stunning especially as the day wore on and the sun was getting lower in the sky, but it was still hot and it would have required a long detour off route to find a stream for topping up water supplies. From the last summit Diffwys (checkpoint 10), it was still about 11km to the day 2 finish and there was still more than one sting in the tail. There was initially a steep awkward descent, Ed slipped and banged his hip on a rock which was obviously very painful, but he got up and simply carried on regardless. We got onto a good path though a forest and then on to a road, which was a welcome change and we were able to run properly without having to concentrate on every single foot placement. The road got steeper as we descended to almost sea-level on tired legs. I passed Paul one of my tent-mates, before catching up again with Joe. The last 5km was on a mandatory route (to avoid the busy A496) and took us on a vague path through forest with many ups and down. At least there were some markers to follow that had been put out to make navigation easier for the slower runners arriving in the dark. Although much later in the day than I had hoped for, it was fortunately still light and we did not have to run this last section in the dark under pressure of being timed out of the race.

Looking across the Diffwys
On Diffwys summit

Eventually I arrived with Joe through the Day 2 Finishing Arch at about 8.40pm in a time of 14:00:33 and 116th place overall. This was significantly later than I had hoped for, but at least I was un-injured with no blisters or other ailments apart from some annoying chaffing on my lower back. Joe said day 2 is always the hardest and most people who get through the next day normally finish the race, so I was still optimistic about completing the race and earning my dragon, but all thoughts about finishing around the top 50 were extinguished. From now on for me it was all about completing the race and not picking up any injuries. Each day my goal would be to finish in daylight with enough time to recover and do the same the next day and the next. Hopefully I would also be able to keep enjoying the journey, the good company of my fellow runners and the wonderful scenery. On reaching my tent there was Dragon Mail to read (email messages of support from family and friends sent via the race website). However it had been printed too small for me and without my reading glasses in the fading light I could barely read any of it! (Joe had the same problem too). Tonight we were camped on a proper campsite, not just a farmer’s field like other nights, so there was a choice of a proper shower or the river for washing in. We passed a long queue for the showers on the way in and access to river was not straightforward, so like every night I opted for the convenience of wet wipes to get myself clean (or sort of). The feet were always the highest priority for cleaning and although a bit sore, upon inspection I was relieved to see there was no real damage – my choice of running shoes (La Sportiva Mutants), socks (Drymax) and the application of tape on any potential blister spots was working well. Both the extra fatigue from a longer day and the distance between our sleeping tents and rest of the facilities meant my ‘admin’ time took longer than usual and I was not resting in my sleeping bag as early as I would have liked. Sometime late that night Andy appeared having reached the finish after the cutoff time, so was now timed out of the race. At the end of day 2 it was starting to get interesting at the top with Jim Mann again first to finish in 7:52 with Marcus Scotney (2016 Cape Wrath Ultra winner) second in 8:15, jumping past Neil Talbot into 2nd place after 2 days. Caroline McIlroy was first lady in 10.14 leaping ahead of Carol Morgan by just 35 seconds, but Sabrina Verjee still had an overall lead of 26 minutes.

DAY 3 – Fog and Furnace
Cadair Idris, Tarrens and Plynlimon
71km / 3,500m ascent

I had a pretty awful night – my hips and knees were really sore and I just could not find a comfortable position to sleep in and kept waking up in pain. Finally about 4am I got an undisturbed period of quality sleep, but I although I needed to I could not let myself sleep beyond 5:15am. Depending on what time you finish each day there is a recommended breakfast and start time. More than 12 hours and you are supposed to go to breakfast at 5am and start between 6am and 6:30am. Since I woke up well after 5am I was never going to be ready to start at 6am and did not make off it off the start line until 6:45am, but I felt it was close enough.

Day 3 – Race Control

The day started easy enough with about 4 miles of mandatory road into the town of Dolgellau and out the other side. Then it was a steep climb up onto the eastern end of Cadair Idris which is a 10Km long multi-topped ridge rising to almost 900m at its highest point. To begin with there was no path and the mist was down so yet again some precise map and compass work was required to get onto the ridge at the right place and locate checkpoint 1. I ran with Darren who was having trouble getting a GPS signal and admitted to me he was no good at navigating without his GPS. The ridge was broad and grassy with a reasonable path all the way to a rocky summit and checkpoint 2. It was still very misty, and there is a long line of steep cliffs on the northern side of the mountain and several paths going in different directions, but I found it fairly easy to locate the ‘pony path’ that headed to the western end of the range and the last summit where checkpoint 3 was located (not so for Jim Mann, the race leader and previous winner – he ran too fast down the wrong ridge and had a long traverse to get back on route thus losing a lead of more than one hour to 2nd placed Marcus Scotney). After the checkpoint there was a sharp grassy descent off the end of the ridge and on to farmland. By now Darren’s GPS had sprung into life and I had left him behind. The next 6km was a mandatory route through an intricate web of fields and farm tracks that required good concentration. I was very surprised to see Paul my tent-mate come running in the opposite direction, he said he had dropped his map and was asking runners if they had picked one up. To lose your map is every runners nightmare (unless you have GPS backup), but Paul was in luck as a runner just behind me stopped and graciously offered Paul his map. He claimed it was of no use to him, because he was navigating solely by GPS and couldn’t read a map anyway. The low cloud had burned off the hills and we were in for another hot day. We descended to almost sea-level and ran for about 1 km along a main road before we climbed up the other side of the valley on a good path. Paul collected another map off a runner who was about to retire from the race and get a lift to the nearest pub. Paul had pain in his shins so was not running too well today, so I left him behind and pressed on with a guy called Colin who was running at a similar pace to me. The climb got steeper and steeper until we reached checkpoint 4 on the grassy summit of Tarren Hendre (634m). We were rewarded with a good run-able descent, but then we overshot a fork in the path and had to back-track for about 400m. Checkpoint 5 was on another steep grassy summit (Tarren y Gesnail 667m), which was an out-and-back, so we got to meet runners coming down and then going up again. I was overtaken by Jez Bragg (who was lying 4th overall in the race), but then kept up with him almost to the summit before he turned around and left me for dust on the descent. At this point I was virtually out of water, but from the map it looked like an easy 6km descent on forest tracks to Machynlleth and the half-way support point on the other side of the town. I found myself running with Ed and Rob again and after a couple of km there was a junction and they went right, but I was not so sure that it was the correct way. I followed, but then stopped and walked as it just did not feel right and looking at the map I could not figure out exactly where I was figure it. My thirst and tiredness did not help and I got more and more confused. Also I saw from watch it was 15:15 and I need to pass through the half-way support point no later than 16:30 or I would be automatically retired from the race, so I could not afford any mistakes and the pressure started to mount. Then out of the blue another runner appeared behind me carrying a GPS and he was certain it was the right way, so I ran with him until we hit a junction of five different paths all leading in different directions! We started running down the path we thought was probably correct at which point someone ran past us at a tremendous pace shouting “it’s this way and you have a dragon to collect!” – It was Jim Mann the current race leader. We charge after him, but cannot keep up for long. On arriving in Machynlleth I darted into a convenience store behind a petrol station and bought a bottle of coke and a pork pie. I got to the support point with enough time, but by 16:15 when I headed off again, there were still many runners there who didn’t look like they were in a hurry to leave.

Climb to Tarren y Gesnail
Feeling the heat

Beyond the support point the route headed through hilly farmland on decent paths requiring good navigation to reach another two checkpoints. Then there was a steep climb up onto a remote undulating plateau. I had Ed and Rob for company plus a couple of other runners. It was very hot afternoon and we took every opportunity to take water from streams to cool us down. We descended from the plateau and ran through a valley, with very little sign of habitation for some time the whole area felt very remote. After a river crossing we climbed steadily up to a small reservoir where there was more opportunity to pour water over our heads to cool down. We now made the final steep ascent of the day up to the 752m high plateau of Pen Pumlumon Fawr (source of the river Severn and river Wye). We were at checkpoint 9 and the views over the surrounding land were stunning in the low light of the evening. It was 8:15pm but it there was only about 7km to go until the Day 3 finish. Initially we were on an easy angled grass path and made good time, but then found ourselves on the wrong side of a fence and had to back-track 100m uphill. The final sting in the tail was a steep grassy descent on aching knees to a mandatory section through farmland and to our campsite.

Evening light on Pen Pumlumon Fawr

I arrived through the Day 3 Finishing Arch just after 9.30pm in a time of 15:07:45 and 117th place. This was not good, a later finish and less time to recover than the previous day. It was getting dark, so I had to get a move on with my admin straightaway. I got a good feed before the catering tent closed up for the night and while finishing my meal, Lillian one of the medics came over. She was chatting to runners and secretly trying to gauge if they were hiding any aliments and needed help (they had run out of victims to treat in the medic tent). The chaffing on my back had got worse and despite re-packing my running pack at the start of the day it had obviously still been rubbing. Ten minutes later I was in the medic tent having Sudacreme rubbed into a ‘crusty’ patch on my back and was told to report back before breakfast to have a dressing and tape applied.

Today there was drama at the top with Marcus Scotney coming home first in 7:54 and Jim Mann’s navigational error resulting in a 9.30.43 finish. Jim had set off with a lead of 70 minutes, but ended up 26 minutes behind Marcus. In the women’s race Sabrina Verjee was first to finish in 11:01 with Caroline McIlroy 11:06 and Carol Morgan 11:07 – just 89 seconds apart.

DAY 4 – Reservoir Dogs
Elan Valley
71km / 2,400m

I had another rough night. The pain in my hips and knees stopping me getting comfortable and sleeping properly. Again my best period of sleep was in the hour before I needed to get up, so I was not up as early as I’d like. In the medic tent while waiting to get seen to I sat next to Vassos, he had suffered an ankle injury and was now unfortunately out of the race, but was still talking enthusiastically about the whole experience and I’m sure he will be back in two years time and earn a dragon. A small dressing and lots of tape was applied to my lower back and I also re-organised my running pack and this time made absolutely sure there was nothing going to rub my back. As always I re-taped my feet covering any hot spots and areas that might be susceptible to blisters. I had been lucky so far, not a single blister despite having already covered over 200km of unforgiving terrain. I handed over my kit bags went through the mandatory kit check (they wanted to see my warm layer, compass and hill food today) then started running. It was about 6.50am again, so no 6am start that I would have liked. The early morning mist was already clearing and it was going to be another dry scorching hot day.

Day 4 was another long one covering the same distance as previous day, but with about 1000m less climbing. There was also more distance on road than previous days, but we would also be passing through some remote areas across a high plateau dissected by steep valleys. The route started with a short steep 300m climb to a tussocky moorland plateau. We were not allowed to head directly across the plateau to checkpoint 1, but instead had to follow mandatory v-shaped loop in order not to disturb an ecologically sensitive area. The loop involved a steep 200m descent into a wooded valley, along a stream and then back up the other side of the valley. I was with a group of about 10 other runners and navigating our way through long grass we all managed to miss the start of the path down the valley side. Instead we ended up sliding down a muddy slope into the valley below. As we descended we had to pick our way through densely packed trees trying not to get speared by low branches. After crossing the stream we easily found a good path that took us up the other side and back onto the plateau and checkpoint 1.

Through the long grass and into dense forest
Moorland plateau

Navigating was made easier by the presence of wind turbines scattered across the plateau that acted as a useful reference point. Alongside the turbines there was also a good track to run on that took us through a forest and then descended steeply to a road-head were a manned checkpoint 2 awaited us. Soon were back up on the plateau again. To reach the midway support point the route zigzagged between checkpoints across undulating moorland plateau on a mixture of road, paths, and trackless sections. The ground was quite dry with not much bog to negotiate. Not far from checkpoint 3 I found myself running with Joe and we came upon Ed who was sitting in the grass talking to a race photographer. Ed was worried he may have a broken tibia as he couldn’t flex his ankle. His race was over and all he could realistically do now was phone the race director to summon help and medical attention, but at least he was no more than 1 km away from a road. It was sad to see him out of the race and I hope he has since had a speedy recovery. I arrived at the support point in Elan Village alongside Joe at about 12:45 with plenty of time to spare before the 14:30 cutoff. It was a very picturesque spot and it was hard not to just stop and go to sleep somewhere in the shade, but there was no chance of that if I was going to finish the race. There was only time for a few minutes rest. I was sprayed with water by the support crew, who also helped fill my water bottles. Then after picking up some food from my dry-bag and applying sun cream I was ready to set off again.

Elan Valley Support Point
Cabben-coch Reservoir

The next section of the route took us on road and then good paths around the Elan Valley reservoirs (valleys that were flooded over a century ago to provide water to the English Midlands). I felt pretty good after the short break and ran for a few miles with Stevie Clare (another runner from last year’s Cape Wrath Ultra) and two guys from France. Stevie was running well today, but she was already out of the race having been timed out on the first day. After reaching the end of the reservoirs I pushed on ahead as the route turned south and climbed up a valley and back onto open moorland. It was on this ascent that I managed to cut my thumb while closing a stiff gate. It was not very deep but would not stop bleeding and the last thing I need was to get my map covered in blood, so I had to stop and get a dressing and some tape on it. Amazingly this would be only time I would draw blood during the race and it was not a leg scrape. The path disappeared and it was a hard slog across a boggy featureless plateau to the summit of Drygarn Fawr (641m). On the summit there was a huge beehive-shaped cairn, but fortunately the checkpoint was at the base so we did not have to climb over it. This was our highest point of the day, but there was still a long way to go. After about 5km across the plateau I descended into a forest which had been largely felled, but the ground was covered in trees stumps and broken branches. Fortunately it did not take long to reach a forest road that provided a runnable surface. Descending in to the steep-side valley was like running into an oven. The sun was still blazing overhead, the air was still and there was no shade, but at least there was a stream to cool down in. It was wonderfully secluded and scenic valley, but there were several undulating miles of hard tarmac to reach checkpoint 9. This was the final checkpoint of the day and was manned, but it was about 18:15 so I was well ahead of then 21:00 cut-off. What followed was a long climb that seemed to take forever on a rough path up to about 400m. I had been running on my own since the checkpoint and began to wonder if I had gone completely off route as I had not seen anyone else ahead or behind for some time now. Then descending over a pass into another valley the route joined a road and there was a car with Stuart and another member of support crew checking up on runners as they passed through. Stuart’s cheerful piece of advice to me was “you look like you need a wash – get in the river at the campsite and have a good swim!” The last 10km was mostly on road and despite being early evening the heat of the day did not give way, but outside one of the few houses we passed there were jugs of water and cups for runners. It was here that I caught up with the couple from Japan who were doing the Dragon’s Back as part of their honeymoon. Although they had not completed all sections each day, they seemed so happy just running along together and they told me how beautiful they thought the scenery was. It really cheered me up to see them and it reminded me it is not just about a race.

One of the remote valleys we ran through

I arrived through the Day 4 Finishing Arch at about 8.30pm in a time of 14:36:20 and 121st place. The campsite was near a pub and river, but there was no time for a beer or a cold swim – I needed to get my ‘admin’ done one last time, so I could run again tomorrow with the best possible chance of finishing the race. As I cleaned my feet as best I could, I saw there was damage. Fortunately no blisters, but there were lots of red patches where the top layer of skin had worn through. Joe was in the tent sorting his feet out while being interviewed by camera and microphone by a couple of journalists from a running magazine. They were asking him lots of daft questions like “why do you keep coming back and doing the race?” I whispered in the background “because he’s mad!”. That evening I ate as much I could which ended up being quite a lot and gave my feet a good airing to try and cool them down and give them a chance to heal a bit. The taping on my back had worked wonders as did the re-packing of my running pack, so that was one less thing to worry about.

After day 4 the race to be crowned 2017 ‘dragon slayer’ was getting very close with only a few minutes separating the leaders in both the men’s and women’s races. In the women’s race Sabrina Verjee was still leading, but was beaten by both Carol Morgan and Caroline McIlroy today and her lead was down to just 6 minutes 53 seconds.  With the race so close there was to be a chasing start in the morning.  The meant Sabrina Verjee would start at 08.00, Carol Morgan 6 minutes 53 seconds later and Caroline McIlroy 8 minutes and 18 seconds later, the exact time intervals which separate them meaning the first of the 3 across the line tomorrow would be the winner. The men’s race was getting equally close, with defending champion Jim Mann quickest home in 07.03.26 and Marcus Scotney second in 07.21.26. Marcus still held a lead of just over 8 minutes. There would be a chasing start in the men’s race at 08.00 tomorrow between the two front runners (Neil Talbot was in 3rd place over 2 hours behind the leaders, so not part of the chasing start). Jim Mann was once again the subject of a rules enquiry today and as a result received a second ‘strike’ for not strictly following a section of mandatory route.

DAY 5 – Sting in the Tail
Brecon Beacons
63km / 2,200m

I had another uncomfortable night and again the only uninterrupted sleep I got was from the final hour or two before I needed to be up again to get ready to run. This final morning on top of all the usual stuff I had extra work to do on my feet to ensure any raw patches of skin were dressed and taped. Again I did not manage to get through the start until about 6:50 am. It was quiet at the kit–check as most of the other runners had already departed to give themselves as much time as possible to make it to the finish and win their dragon. As I left I could see Joe had been collared for another celebrity interview before he could start running, but he would still end up ahead of me.

This was the final leg of the race and according to the numbers it was 8km shorter with 200m less climbing than the previous day, but 37% of the route was described as ‘trackless’ – the highest percentage on any day of the race.  So it was not be underestimated, but my legs felt ok and I was confident that I would finish within the cut-off time and collect my dragon. The sky was cloudless and it did not take long to warm up. The first section was on road and then ascended on a good forest track. I could see a runner about 100m ahead of me and another came up alongside me and we started to chat , and that’s when I lost concentration. I stopped looking at the map and missed a turning off to the right. Before we both realised something was wrong we had gone about 1km in the wrong direction. We shouted to the runner in front who quickly turned around and came hurtling back down the hill to join us and we back-tracked together cursing our mistake. We arrived at checkpoint 1 at 8am (1 hour after the guidance time), but over the last 3 days I was often well behind the guide times for the early checkpoints, so it did not worry me too much as I knew I could catch up before the halfway support point. We ran down the other side of the hill and negotiated a series of interlinking muddy tracks and farm gates over several miles to arrive at the foot of the “mountain”. This was the name the locals had given to a 5km long steep-sided grassy ridge that pokes out of the surrounding farm land – at only 341m above sea-level it was more like a mini-mountain. The land was privately owned, so we had to follow a mandatory route that ran the full length of the ridge-line. But it was worth it for the stunning views of the surrounding landscape and the distant Mynyndd Du (Black Mountain) that would form the biggest challenge of the day.

“The Mountain”

After descending the mountain there was about 10km of road, which took us through the town of Llandovery where I took the opportunity to buy a cold drink. After the town the road started a long undulating climb which soon became rather tedious. Here I was passed a few minutes apart by the leading women (Sabrina Verjee then Carol Morgan). They were both obviously very focused, but still happy to exchange a few words of encouragement with slower runners (like me) as they passed through. We left the road and climbed on a good path up an over a 400m high hill with a broad summit. Here I caught up with my tent-mate Paul, who had started the day early, but his shins were giving him a lot of trouble and he was running slowly and relying heavily on his poles. We chatted for a short while as we went, but I was keen to get to the half-way support point as soon as possible and soon I pushed on ahead. I arrived at the support point by the dam at Usk Reservoir at 11:30am (the cut-off was 13:00), so I was in plenty of time and in good spirits. I even tried to take a photo of a Red Kite flying overhead with its distinctively shaped tail silhouetted against the sun over head. Upon arrival I was handed an ice-cream by a member of the support crew and sprayed with water by someone dressed in a furry dragon costume. It was a suntrap, but the crew had kindly placed some chairs in the shade. The GPS tracker attached to my race pack was running low on battery power, so the crew replaced it. There were quite a few runners resting or getting foot repairs from the medics, but I did not linger too long and once I had refueled and rested for a few minutes I was off again.

After the checkpoint it was easy running on a short section of road then a good track through forest. I ran for a short while with Neil Talbot, a very strong hill runner who was currently 3rd overall in the race. He said he was looking forward to the Black Mountain, because he knew he would be able to pull away from the guys in 4th & 5th place who were faster than him on the flat trails, but not so good on the mountains. As the path got steeper and rougher it did not take long for him to push well ahead and leave me trailing behind. But I was still running well as I managed to reel-in a couple of slower runners on the long ascent to summit of the Black Mountain escarpment. I also passed Joe, who had overtaken me earlier in the day by doing his usual quick in and out at the support point. As I reached the summit trig-point at 802m and dibbed-in at checkpoint 4, I felt a warm breeze coming from the south and although it did not cool the body much it was a welcome change from the hot stillness. The Black Mountain is not a single summit, but a vast sandstone escarpment on which we had to visit five more checkpoints on multiple summits spread across 20km of largely pathless terrain that would just get rougher the further we went – this was the sting in the dragon’s tail! The route across the Black Mountain was not too bad to start with and I caught up with Richard Beard who was another Cape Wrath finisher from the year before. Two years ago in the previous Dragon’s Back race he had the misfortune to pick up an injury on the last day that forced him to retire at the very last checkpoint just a few miles from the finish. But luck was with him this time around and he looked very strong belying his 64 years of age.

High on the Black Mountain

Then we began the descent off the Black Mountain which was rocky and ok at first, but then the direct line I took caused me to end up surrounded by tall grass and very boggy ground under foot. After sinking knee deep into several boggy holes I eventually made it to the road where checkpoint 10 was located beside a cattle grid. The Black Mountain was finally over and I was looking forward to 8km or so of easy paths and road to the race finish. As I left the checkpoint I noticed another runner was kneeling by the side of the road with his head bent over touching the ground and mumbling incoherently. I asked him if he was ok, but he said he was feeling totally done-in and his water tasted strange. So I gave him some of my water, which he decided was ok and after a few minutes he got to his feet. He still seemed to be a rough state, so I thought I’d better stay with him for a while to be sure he was ok. The route took us off the road and onto a rough path across farmland. We walked for about half a mile, then suddenly he perked up and introduced himself as Anthony from Pontypridd in South Wales. We started running together and soon reached checkpoint 12 at a stream crossing after which we had a steep climb up to t ruined Carreg Cennan Castle that was the finish line for each of the previous editions of the Dragon’s Back Race.

Carreg Cennan Castle

However the Castle is quite small and on private land, so race the has now outgrown it and we had an extra 5km to the new finish at a sports center just outside the small town of Llandeilo. It was no easy run into to the finish – there were numerous fields, gates and styles to cross and none of it was particularly flat. The last few miles seemed to be taking forever, but it was good to have some company over the final stretch. Eventually we reached a small road and with a couple of miles to go we managed to find some energy and picked up the pace and ran all the way to the finish. As we turned the final corner into the grounds of the sports centre I saw Eleanor amongst the people cheering at the finishing arch. It was about 8.00pm and I finished day 5 in a time of 13:20:14 and 110th place. The first thing I said to Eleanor was “never again” and I meant it. I was so glad just to have completed the race never mind what my overall position was.

At the finish with Anthony

In the main hall I caught up with Joe and other friends who had already finished including Louise, Ian, Mick and Rob. I had a good chat with Richard Dreijer who unfortunately had only managed to complete the first two days within the time limits. After a chip-buttie and a hot shower, then more food and beer it was time for the race presentations. All the race finishers (including me) came up one by one to receive their miniature Dragon trophy from Shane Ohly (Race Director). During the presentation there were still participants arriving over the finish line who were quickly ushered inside and awarded their Dragon there and then. My tent-mate Paul was one of these and he hobbled along to the stage clutching a bottle of beer. At the end the male and female overall race winners and 2017 Dragon Slayers Marcus Scotney and Carol Morgan received there much larger Dragon trophies. Marcus earlier having completed day 5 in an outstanding time of 6:12, over an hour and a half ahead of Jim Mann (7:43). Carol Morgan (7:57) had finished nearly an hour ahead of Sabrina Verjee (8:52). After the presentations there was a wait for the last finisher to arrive (Tom Withers) who in a rather bewildered state was quickly ushered out of the darkness outside and into the hall. He received the biggest cheer of the evening and received an equally substantially-sized Dragon trophy. He exclaimed “this is the best wooden spoon I had ever received”.

Eleanor and I stayed the night in a local pub/hotel and despite the comfort of a proper bed and clean sheets I struggled to sleep properly and I kept getting woken up by throbbing pains in my legs and knees in particular. Then in the early hours of the morning there was a tremendous thunderstorm with flashes of lightening that seemed to be just outside the window – it sounded like the Dragon was having its final roar.

Epilogue

This was by far the toughest race I have ever done, and I now really understand why it has such fearsome reputation. Each day by itself is the equivalent of a hard ultra hill race (there is no short or easy day). But then when you add in the accumulative fatigue and short recovery time between 5 long back-to-back days, plus the relentless concentration required for accurate navigation and safe/efficient foot placement – it all takes its toll. However success in the race is possible and a lot of that is down to the amazing efforts of the race organizers and support team who grafted hard to ensure every competitor had the best possible chance of completing the race within the time limits.

I am so glad to have completed it at the first attempt, so I do not have to go back again to finish the job. The only reason I can think of for doing it again would be to try to enjoy it more. But that would entail moving a lot faster and doing each day in much a shorter time (11 hours or under) to allow for better recovery between each day. However to do that would involve a huge investment of time and effort in training and route familiarization, just for one race and even if I manage to raise my abilities to that kind of level I could easily become unlucky with injury or weather and not finish next time around, so for me there will not be a second time, one is enough.

Phil’s Dragon

Race Statistics 2017

  • Average Daily Distance:  63km (39.5 miles)
  • Average Daily Height Gain:  3,100m 
  • 270 or more originally signed up for the race, 223 started and 127 finished (Finishing rate: 56%)
  • The deepest cut was day 2 with over 40 participants failing to finish
  • Overall winner: Marcus Scotney in a total time of 37:58 hours
  • 1st Female (and 9th overall): Carol Morgan in a total time of 48:41 hours
  • 105th place: Phil Humphries in a total time of 69:05 hours
  • 127th (last finisher): Tom Withers in a total time of 80:17 hours
  • 154 UK starters, 89 finished (58%)
  • 69 non-UK starters, 38 finished (55%)
  • Top 5 finishers all from UK

 

The Dragon’s Back race has always attracted top runners from overseas, but in 2017 the top 5 places still went to UK athletes. The highest placed non-UK competitor in 6th place (46:25) was Nick Hollon from the USA who as a finisher of the Barkley Marathons (there has only ever been a handful of them) is one of the best endurance runners out there. When asked how the two races compared he was quoted as saying

“This is up there with the Barkley for sure. If I had to list a top 3 toughest it would be Barkley, Dragons Back and Tor des Geants.  For me the Dragon’s Back Race has lived up to its reputation”.

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