As soon as we left the camp site I was asleep – poor Laura had to navigate her way around a maze of single car width roads and stay awake to get us back to her Mum and Dad’s house in Abergavenny. When woken I had already started to stiffen up, so it was off to the bath for me trying to make little noise and not fall asleep in the bath in the small hours of the morning.
My body had decided that enough was enough and now it was time to repair. I had a terrible night of sleep due to leg pain and general discomfort. When I woke in the morning needing the toilet I had to crawl to the en-suite and had to be helped back to bed.
I headed off to A&E the next day to see if they would x-ray my legs and to check what I should do with my blisters (I never get them so I didn’t really know how to treat them post event). It was a comedy few hours. My answer to the question; “How have you done this?” was met with, “My god, you know we’ve got buses in Wales!” I left in a wheelchair with both feet mummified and two crutches.
My largest blister had become infected and the other two were drained. The largest blister was fully cut, drained and it felt a whole lot better after that. It took me a few days to be able to move with any sort of consistency and I needed my feet up as much as possible. It was gutting not to be able to take part in the week of fun we had planned with the family.
[Click on the pictures for larger images]
I had 8 sessions of physio which didn’t seem to speed up the recovery which was a good 2 months before I ran again, but despite all this within two days of the finish I found myself craving the next day in the mountains. I really couldn’t have had a better week of running and I just wanted to get out there again. Asked if I would do it again my immediate response of “in a heart beat” was often met with disbelief.
I don’t think it is something that people can really get their heads around. I find it difficult myself and I’ve done it! I’ve had a lot of very kind words said and some great ribbing from the running club. A couple of people out side of running have made comments about my placing – what did they think I was going to do??? Win it? “Never mind, 27th is still good”… are you kidding me? Most of the people didn’t come close to finishing. Finishing was what it was all about for me and if I never do it again then I will still be very happy.
There is the temptation to go back and do it again in 2015 as I know so much more now. I’m certain I can finish as I want to finish; i.e., running the whole way and going on to do the 6th day to the South coast; but “unfinished business” is probably too strong a phrase for how I feel. “it’s be nice to” is closer to the mark.
So what did I learn?
1) If I really want it, then I can complete anything
I’ve been pretty exhausted since the event, just burned out I guess, but I did find myself at the start line of a 46 mile race just 1.5 weeks after coming back from a 2 month lay off. I wasn’t remotely concerned about the finish – my belief that I can finish and endure is made of iron now. I know I can just put one foot in front of the other and make it.
2) Never give up the competition in an ultra
Cast iron belief is worth a lot in ultras, if somebody was 20 miles ahead of me in a race then you’d think you have no chance, but if that race is 100 miles and they still have 40 to go, anything can happen. People fade, leads get chipped away at. I lost several hours on day 3, yet climbed the leader-board. Joe Faulkner steadily chipped away and ended up in 15th despite being 35th on day 1.
3) I need to develop a better mental approach to deal with it when the head goes down
I can take too long to come out of a funk, I’m not the worst, but I’ve had days where I have beaten myself up, told myself I was having a terrible day, but looking back on it I was actually still in touch at that point. Part of this is down to food I think, as I don’t feel I’ve really cracked that yet.
I also think I need to stop apologising for needing my own head space in a race. A responsibility can form in a race when you’ve partnered up, it can be difficult to break that up. Some people love it, others like me need to get away and into our own heads regularly. If I was doing the race again I would start everyday on my own, unless it is somebody I have entered specifically to run with. This is no offence to anybody I ran with, I may very well end up joining up with them later, but I should have started fresh each day for my own sanity (and theirs too no doubt!)
4) I’ll benefit from improving my navigation on the move
It’s just a practice issue which is easily addressed. I also think I could say this for the rest of my life as even the best make mistakes. I need to slow down to go faster and I need to be able to trust my first reading, not keep going back for additional confirmation two seconds later.
5) Training Specificity
a) I’m under no illusion that my shins went because I didn’t do enough long days in the mountains before hand. It’s difficult with a family to get the time out there and Laura was incredibly supportive for me going off to play. I needed to be getting out regularly into proper mountains for 8+ hour days either running or walking.
b) Never stop fell racing – this comes under training as it’s the best speed work you can possibly do. It reminds you that you can run up the hills too, it builds strength in the right muscle groups and if you never run fast… well, you’ll never run fast.
Speed work for me is incredibly difficult as I just can’t do it on my own. Finding a way to get in regular speedwork is vital as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment of running. Finding a speedwork partner(s) is vital. Seeing the sunsets was incredible, but getting in earlier would have been too
6) Support is vital and social media is epic.
The messages I received whilst out there on the hill were amazing. Several people followed me and posted on my behalf which I really appreciated. I had a lot of messages on the final day when I was really struggling which gave me a boost at every read.
Most of all I would never have made it to the start line without Laura’s support; she is incredible and I am nothing without her.
7) Wales is one of the most beautiful places on this planet.
I had a restless night. I kept waking up with pain in my shins, just unable to get comfy. I had decided last night that I couldn’t drop in camp – not the done thing, plus you never know what you’ll feel like in the morning… I felt the same. Mentally it was all about just taking the next step. Walking around the camp to get food, etc. was very painful and my mood was dark.
Many people assured me I’d be ok – the usual motivational slaps on the back everybody thinks you want, but my replies were along the line of; “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll even start”. Faces changed as they realised I was serious and then just left me to it. They could all put themselves in my position and really understood how much pain I must be in to even contemplate it at this late stage.
I finally got my act together to leave with Rob. His blisters had been popped and strapped so once he got going he was fine. I was grateful for his company en route to check point one. First things first through, I needed to get off this camp site with my dignity intact!
So much for the mass start Shane had planned. He had no chance of organising that; even up front it sounded ambitious and impractical to try to get more than the top 10 together for a mass start. It was a romatic ideal, but took no consideration of the majority of the runners for which the achievement is just finishing.
Many people had been very vocal the night before stating they were going to head off when they wanted to. So I guess he either realised it was impractical or feared a mutiny, either way, once the first people had gone it was a bit of a free for all. I was still getting my breakfast in when they went and since we hadn’t been told that the mass start wasn’t going to happen it was a small surprise to see some people leave. Once that happened the floodgates opened and all remaining competitors left to applause and cheers from those still on camp – a nice touch!
My goals had more tiers than ever on day 5; first was to make it to the start, second was to take the first step, third was to just make the 100 yards to get off the campsite, then it was checkpoint after checkpoint. We set off and I was trying to get to grips with using sticks. It wasn’t really happening, but I was prepared to try anything. We managed our way up through the wood and broken tracks to finally find CP1. Once in the bag Rob ran off ahead; part of me wanted the company, a lot of me didn’t. I had an emotional day ahead and was in serious agony.
Before I had left camp I had visited the doctor to discuss painkillers. I never pop pills for running as I don’t believe it is worth going that far… except for this. I had no real idea of what was safe and what was the maximum. I’m also permanently medicated with pain modifiers anyway to deal with the daily pain post head injury. I’d started taking Ibuprofen and Co-Codamol in an effort to manage the pain. I only had enough for half the day, but also didn’t want to overdose on the things and didn’t know how well they would all play together.
There was a beautiful moment where the doctor looked in his supply kit and pulled out a painkiller. I could see him going through a mental “Do I?/ Don’t I?” debate. Eventually he said, “I was keeping these in case somebody broke a leg or something like that… oh, take it, just go and finish it!” with that, he pressed it into my hand and turned his head; I felt I was running the race for him at that very moment. I hope I’ll never forget that moment. There was a total understanding of what everything meant and how much I needed to finish. This was what made him such a superb doctor on camp – not because he gave me one strong painkiller for the final day, but the advice and guidance he gave over the course of the event was from a real understanding of what the runners were going through. A top man & a wonderful moment.
I saved the pain killer trying not to take them as soon as I was allowed the next dose. I didn’t know how long I’d be out there so I rationed as much as I could. In truth when I did eventually take it, it didn’t really do much, neither did the co-codamol. The pain was there to stay and I needed to switch off the screaming in my brain if I was going to finish.
Back to the descent post first check point. I was struggling to hold it together. I was struggling to stay on my feet as my legs buckled with every step. Various groups passed me. My lip quivered. A group of three lads that I’d run with on the first day passed me and one said; “Alright?”, I shook my head, managed a squeak of a “No” before bursting into tears. I felt terrible for the other chap as he just didn’t know what to do. The floodgates had finally opened and I could not stop the emotional release. I tried desperately to say, “I’ll be alright, I’m just having a moment”, but in the end I had to just wave him on and give him a thumbs up. I felt guilty all day about laying that on him.
Everybody passed. I fixed on my Navigation and tried to manage the misery. A wrong turn here could mean curtains to my mental state. Putting a brave face on was pointless and I had moments where tears of frustration would come and others where tears of pain would come; but most frequently it was a combination. I was not going to quit but the thought that I might have to was just too much to bear.
It’s been a very difficult few years since the accident. From thinking I was going mad to being told what was going on and then learning to live with the brain injury has been an ultra in itself. My running and the widely perceived lunacy of the type of events I have been doing has been driven in part by me needing to achieve something extraordinary in my life. My career has been stopped at 30 which is more than hard to accept and this has threatened to rob me of my identity (in part it already has taken a big chunk). Psychologically it’s very difficult to cope with and move on.
I’m sure most ultra runners have some kind of demon chasing them or at least something that drives them to cover the distances we do. There are moments out there (though strangely not on the Dragon for me) where I question why on earth I am doing this; that this is the last one, that I just need to return to fell racing and forget all the crazy distance challenges. I question what I am trying to prove, to whom, and why? I look at things I have achieved in life and reflect on why it seemingly isn’t enough and why I have to keep pushing out the boundaries. I still don’t have answers to this, but these feelings meant I could never give up on the DBR. My greatest fear was hitting halfway and the doctor pulling me out or a van coming to pick me up and DNF me. The tears were for that, they were for all the miles I’d trod, for all the training, for the fact I’d been flying and I felt really fresh everywhere except my shins*, for the fact I wasn’t finishing the way I wanted to, that I wasn’t getting to run my beautiful country, for being so close to my limits.
* ok and parts of my feet, but nothing that couldn’t be managed or that would stop me running – blisters are popped, drained, taped and off you go.
The lonely steps gave me so much time to reflect. I decided to call Laura for a bit of morale support. Just as it was connecting I felt myself welling up, and then Joe Faulkner appeared out of nowhere. Looking superb and happy. Shirt off, backpack, shorts, socks and shoes only. My face was probably contorted and he cracked on seeing I was making a call. I was so glad he hadn’t been one minute slower as he’d have passed a blubbering mess and it was something I had to deal with on my own.
It was a difficult conversation; Laura concerned for my well-being, me concerned about finishing. Laura told me I had nothing to prove and that it was incredible that I’d got this far. She said she was coming out to see me and I snapped at her not to give me an easy way out, no option to quit. Her support was so important at that moment. I know I had worried her and I felt terrible for that, but they are only legs, they will heal; a spirit is far harder to heal and that was my focus; my spirit had to stay intact… and it was getting stronger as the miles passed step by step.
I popped into a village shop for some water. The chap behind the counter told me of an incredible race that was coming through. I chuckled inwardly that despite my totally dishevelled state he hadn’t realised I was in it until I turned to leave and he saw the number on my backpack.
I saw nobody down those lonely roads. I just saw all the easy miles I could have put in, the distance I could have covered so easily and yet here I was staggering along. But the miles passed and passed and the Usk Reservoir (today’s drop bag point) was almost upon me.
Walking across the dam wall and seeing Laura walk out to meet me was such an emotional moment. I struggled to hold it together until we hugged, then I sobbed like a baby for 30 seconds that felt like a lifetime. When we finally released each other I felt totally renewed. Everything melted away. Right at that moment I knew I would finish.
I got to the aid station and to my utter surprise there were some others there and I wasn’t last in. I was then offered a choc-ice! I thought this was all some cruel ruse, it couldn’t be true could it? It was! The dropbag crew were just awesome all week. Slick, a very welcome sight, engaged, and the best visible part of the entire event. I don’t just say this because they went and bought choc-ices!
I really put some food in and had a bit of time off my feet. I expect the others to come in but nobody did. I set off 10 minutes or so after the next chap and caught him by the time we reached the mountains. Wooter had been in the checkpoint but left about 20 minutes before me and I wasn’t going to catch him – he was moving slowly by his own standards, but just that bit quicker than me. Seeing him working his way up the mountain was great encouragement though and the competitor in me showed his face again.
I was in excellent spirits now, the pain was there but I felt that little bit invincible. Overtaking the a chap on the way up to Fan Brycheiniog pushed my spirits up further. I realise all the way through the blog I have used the word stunning, and it’s difficult to say which was the most stunning as they are all stunning for different reasons, but the ridge along the Black mountain from Fan Brycheiniog to Carreg Yr Ogof (try saying that when you’re drunk…. or actually, just try saying it!) is spectacular. Looking back down on Llyn y Fan Fach… just pure magic. Perfect running territory, perfect weather, less than perfect legs; a very bitter sweet moment.
The trek to Garreg Lwyd proved more tricky than I hoped. I think I overtook another person around here, but I took a terrible line which left me climbing over rocks. Arriving at the top I was greeted by Laura and none other than Mr. Robert Parry! decked out in shorts, a shirt and a Panama hat Bob ensured spirits remained high. It was just so good to see them both as they accompanied me down to the road. Despite my condition they struggled to keep up and I think that said a lot about my spirit right there. I knew I had it in the bag and my mental game was finally focused.
Pork pie. Fruit platter. Am I dreaming again? No, Charmian had taken it upon herself to add in an extra drop bag stop. Sat in a deck chair with Laura and Bob cracking jokes all the time… did I mention the pork pie!!! Nothing picks me up better than pigs lips and hooves wrapped in pastry.
Carn Pen-y-clogau was taken and I could see the end. I started to run. Roughly 10 Km to the finish and it was rough! Cutting across to the final check point at Tair Carn Isaf gave me sight of the finish. The end just wasn’t getting any closer, but I took in the last check point in a hobble and headed down a cruel descent towards the final track to the castle.
The final track went on forever and it went down… a lot, then up… a lot. It’s a really tough finish after all that had gone before it. Seeing Rob and Laura on the ramparts was very welcome and I came in to the finish in what I thought at the time was a run. I’ve since seen the video and had that illusion shattered! Felt strange not to see the race director there, but Joe Faulker and Steve Dubbie were there and cheered me in – very touching, but a muted end to the race.
Chilling down I had to get away from the finish line as my body began to shut down. Walking down from the castle to the “banquet” hall was very tough, but I got to cheer in one of the guys. I didn’t know what to feel it was all so muted, painful, massive, special…. the agonising hobble down was all I could focus on.
Walking into the hall I was just thinking about the banquet/ feast we’d been promised. The warmth hit me first then there was literally a roar. The muted ending to the race was all forgiven as the reception I had when I came in through that door was simply incredible. It seemed like it would never stop. To have it come from the other people that had tamed the dragon or at least part of it and really knew what it took to get there was something I hope I will never forget. A feeling I can’t describe. I was beaming from ear to ear.
Data downloaded, pint put in my hand I sat there and just took it all in. I was so glad when the lad that I burst into tears in front of came over to congratulate me and see how I was. I was able to apologise and have a laugh about it with him. Now for the Banquet! Ahem… maybe not. It was a dreadful cold buffet with almost no food by the time I got there… anyway, let’s move on.
I had my blister drained by Mel; she managed a full 2ml out of it as I sipped some champagne that Rob had kindly bought for me (complete with plastic flutes!) Trophies were given out and yet another huge moment of cheers and whoops from the assembled. I’m sure all in that room appreciated the respect from their peers that day. There were some speeches and the Spanish contingent continued to “smile rather than cry” by partying away.
Prize giving over, Joe stated that he was off up to see Wendy finish and most people went up with him. If I thought I could have gone up and down I would have done it, but my legs were good for nothing. I would have so loved to have clapped Wendy in – an incredible achievement to be one of just three “double Dragons”; yes a pensioner, yes an incredible athlete! I am looking forward to seeing her again soon on a start line!
I have a huge respect for all of those that took part and especially for all of those that completed the Dragon. I’ve also got a massive respect for those that for one reason or another failed a day, but got back out there and took on everything else thrown at them to complete as much as they could. Steve Birkinshaw was nothing short of invincible out there. to see him run was really something else. The lines he picked, the efficiency of everything he did; impressive to say the least! Helene was awe-inspiring though. To come forth overall was just incredible.
Certainly some bitter sweet memories for me. What could have been if only my legs hadn’t given in. If only I’d trained slightly differently so that my legs would have been strong enough, if I could have just ran that ridge from Fan Brycheiniog, but these are all inconsequential at the end of the day, especially when offset by the other days, especially day 1 which was easily the best day out in the mountains I have ever had. Either way, it’s done, it’s slain.
Time to set my own pace again. Leaving camp feeling fresh after double breakfast and leisurely organisation, I’d decided to put some solo miles in. I kept my wits about me to start with as it would have been quite easy to go wrong early doors, losing any hard earned time and, of course, looking foolish!
Once out of the farm and over the initial hump, I was on forest tracks and fire roads for several miles. I’d opted to shut myself off for this section and run well whilst I was fully fuelled and feeling good. To shut off I’d opted for some nostalgia in the form of some club classic circa 1995 and my first year at Uni.
Memories flooded in, people came into my sights and were quickly hunted down. I was flying. Despite losing an hour or two through various decisions the day before I’d managed to climb the field slightly and it looked like I as set for a very good day in the office.
To say I was loving it would be the master of the understatement. It felt free, easy and familiar despite the new surroundings. It wasn’t long before people that had left a good 20 minutes before me were in my wake – me grinning like a loon, checking nobody was in sight before getting my hands in the air reminiscing nights in the Student Union and clubs of Newcastle.
It felt like my morning run physically, aided by the sensory uplift of a new trail and the complexity of hitting the right path in the labyrinth of fire roads. Passing Joe and Chi around 2 hours in I was still going well, averaging between 10.5 and 12.5 kph. I said something about making the most of it whilst I could then immediately turned the corner and went wrong. Brilliant.
Both errors were minor and lost me a minute or two max before breaking out of the forest. The peloton appeared and I stepped aside to let them pass. Whilst I expected them to disappear I found myself at the back getting frustrated at breaks in my rhythm as I stopped myself clipping the heals – I knew it wouldn’t last though and in wanting to maintain my own pace I stopped to get water before the road.
The road threw up two surprises, firstly I’d caught up with Nicky Spinks and Tim, although I had no idea when they had set off (and as soon as we hit the rough stuff they disappeared ahead – so impressive to watch!); secondly I’d caught Rob who had set off 45 minutes before me. To catch up such a large amount of time in less than 2.5 hours really surprised me, but confirmed what I already knew… I was having a great day!
Heading up onto the moors of the Elan Valley I switched on. The terrain was characterised by deep heather (shin to knee in many places) and thin easily missed trods. I was going my own way, but had my sights on an efficient looking pair up ahead. Too far ahead not to concentrate on finding the right trod for myself, but it provided confidence not to be triple checking the map – trying to hold a map still (as far as your eyes are concerned) whilst running over deep heather is not something I have mastered!
I never caught the pair, they were moving efficiently as what appeared to be a well oiled Mountain Marathon style partnership. I am certain one of the two was Simon Ellis from Tattenhall – a nicer bloke you will not meet! Whoever they were, they slowly started to widen the gap as I concentrated on putting some fuel in the tank.
I hit no-man’s land again, nobody in hunting sight ahead; checking behind me I saw Rob had upped his pace and was chasing my down. This went on for roughly 6+ miles across the desolate ground. My shins were playing up again and the pain was really cutting through every so often, forcing me to buckle my legs. In fell running it’s a reasonably common sight when another runner places their foot badly.
At this point there is one of two outcomes; a bad twist or a very relieved runner – even if they take a face plant in the dirt to avoid the twist. The thought of weeks away from your passion means that the ankle is more precious than the face! The only way to get away with a roll rather than a twist is to remove all weight from the ankle immediately, throw your body weight to the opposing side and try to get a quick step in. If you’re lucky it’s just a minor roll and you run it off.
I hit a short road section before the climb to CP4. A random van came past and stopped up ahead, slid the doors open to reveal jelly babies! I stopped for a few moments to fill up; feeling the effects of my early pace and the steepness of the road. It was perfect timing for me as I was starting to bonk a little, although the wonderful gentlemen didn’t get many words out of me in return for their sweet bounty. Steve came past and politely refused the jelly babies, light heartedly suggesting it would count as outside help & disqualification.
I was struggling to get going. My shins were increasingly painful and the pain was not going away. I noticed the shift and it was significant. The road peaked and I winced with every few steps, not only from the shin pain and impact of the descending asphalt, but also for the loss of heigh, knowing I’d have to gain it all back again.
Rob joined me between the road and the top of Esgair Penygarreg. Chi also appeared from a slightly different approach and we hit CP4 within 30 seconds of each other. Chi must have been having a great patch as he was out of sight before Rob and I were comfortable of where we were going. Burnt heather and interlacing tracks darted everywhere making what looked simple on the map into a maze.
Together Rob and I had a ‘mare over this section with wrong choice after wrong choice. We lost a huge amount of time and I was now in very real pain at every step. I’m not sure how much we lost, but I’d not be surprised if it was over 45 minutes. I was frustrated by that, but (a) I did it to myself & (b) I was now in enough pain that I was more concerned about that than the hard work that I’d put in to gain so much time in the morning.
Finally we arrived at the bag drop. Despite everything it felt it had appeared earlier and easier than previous days; I’m not sure if that was me getting used to the distances, or that today had just been easier climb and distance wise. At that moment I didn’t care, I just needed to get off those legs.
The heat was still insane for the time of year and I was craving some soup. Looking back I was behaving like I had bonked, rather than facing up to the shin pain – assuming it would go away and that I was just low on energy. There was no soup but the resourceful pit crew came up with a soup-perb (sorry) alternative… soy sauce and hot water – never thought about it before; it’s genius!
We spent too long at the drop bag point. I was hoping for a miracle shin wise and surely sitting down for five more minutes would bring that miracle? Wendy came in and today’s comedy accusation was that I had left Rob (to die) in the Pumlumon the day before. It appeared that without her group coming along to the rescue it would have been curtains for the ex-para who was equipped with a map, warm emergency clothing and food, was a couple of miles from several farms and even had a GPS distress tracker beacon! At first I was mildly mortified, but quickly slipped into a bit of banter that really helped lighten the mood. Thanks to Wendy I was ready to go, chuckling as I left.
Setting off we took the faster road. Wendy decided road was hell (she has a point) and went through the hills. Rob was really suffering with blisters so we made a comedy paring. I managed to get a bit of signal and a few messages out as we headed across the Caban-Coch reservoir; another lift to the spirit to see the support out there for me.
Much of the remaining miles were relatively desolate. Large expanses of moorland, few people in sight either way. Charlie Spronson passed us in fine spirits, but the laughs soon faded and the pain returned. Rob was getting a lot worse as his blisters grew and I was struggling.
Crossing betweek Abergwesyn and the final road section near Esgair Garn was soul destroying yet strangly energising. The deep mud/ bog just sapped out energy, whilst the surrounding valley lifted spirits.
The apparent ‘Pavlov’s dog’ like conditioning I have when I know the end is in sight kicked in across this section. I wanted to move faster and felt I could, but I wasn’t leaving Rob. I pushed on during the final road section, we moved in silence, me looking for phone signal to call Laura.
I was desperate to get moving and just get to camp but Rob’s feet made that impossible. I had effectively accepted the pain by this stage, but just a few miles later the show was probably on the other foot as the pain intensified and brown down my mental defences.
The camp couldn’t come soon enough. It was dark and once again I just longed for something to take all the effort away. A nice bath, somebody to dry my feet, not having to balance my clothes or kneel in cramp inducing positions so as to ensure I have dry clothes for the final day. No queue at the food van…. somebody to feed me…. I felt pitiful.
For the first time I thought about dropping. It had become a war of attrition and for a while I was mentally on the causality list. I was at camp, I couldn’t give up now. I hobbled and generally felt sorry for myself around camp. I was barely able to mutter a word of thanks when Claire Maxted from trail running magazine insisted I jumped past her in the food queue.
I sat spooning in food, or at least trying to as the food that evening was impossible to eat with a spork! I can’t even tell you what it was; my eyes dead as I shovelled in 3 portions. I started to revive, those surrounding me in similar states. Wouter Hamelinck and I had a thoroughly deep and meaningful exchange without either of us uttering a word. The dragon had extracted something on that day.
Thoughts that I couldn’t continue still waged a war in my head; they were winning. I went to the medical tent where Mel sent me to stand in the ice cold river for 10 minutes. I returned to see my place in the queue for the terrific Bowen treatment had been taken. Mel took one look at my trench foot and emptied the talc’ to the protests of the doctor; “that’s got to last for everyone!”, “Yes, but I’ve never seen tench foot this bad before!”. Summed it all up really.
I crawled into bed with a firm belief it was all over. The only chink of light was that I was in camp and maybe it’d be slightly better after a night of sleep. 5-6 hours before I was up again. Time for the body to repair? No. Time for the mind to repair? Let’s hope so!
Day 3 started, well, early. Stuck in a tepee style tent, my premature waking was frustrating. Unable to go back to sleep despite only 4 hours sleep (9 in the two days) I resigned myself to a silent lie in my sleeping back; if only I could have spent the time sorting my kit or getting ready slowly I’d have been much happier. As it were I turned to social media and my facebook page.
I was surprised at how many people were following what was going on, posting bits of the jigsaw from the various sites reporting on the race onto my timeline. It was fantastic to connect and quickly see what the outside world thought of what was going on. I saw pro photos and articles where I’d been quoted from the previous day; incredible how connected we’ve become.
Our tent had a split in capability. We started getting up, not realising that some were trying to get as much sleep as possible since they were in the top 10. I recognised one of the other chaps as Ian Symington whom I had run with for a bit on the Hardmoor 55 race earlier in the year, before I, ahem, got, ahem, lost. He came second that day and had clearly put it all in as he was in bits at the end. This time around he’d fallen ill on day 2 so he was out of the game; a real shame as he’s a great runner and could have done very well indeed. The split in tent made it awkward to get read without disturbing others. The perils of a ‘grab-a-tent’ approach to camp.
I had a blister forming on my left foot, little toe. It wasn’t something I was worried about as it wasn’t bothering me at all despite being quite big. I also had a small one on the sole of my foot just below the junction of my big toe and the one next to it, again, it wasn’t bothering me, but I thought I’d pop to the doctor and get his advice. The camp doctor was great and as a runner he really understood what we were trying to do and was pragmatic enough to ensure we were back on our feet unless there was a serious risk to our health… with the greatest of respect though he was missing his nurse – a review and quick treatment took over half and hour which left me half ready whilst Denvy and Rob were chomping at the bit.
Denvy was in pain. I knew she was struggling a little, primarily because she had mentioned it in the morning, but I hadn’t realised how much. I told Rob and Denvy to head off and I’d catch them up.
When I finally got started I raced off again; my legs felt great! No muscle soreness (DOMS) and raring to go. It was nice to stretch the legs on the run to Cader Idris. I passed Joe and Steve (two of the originals) and had a few chats along the way.
Alarmingly I caught Denvy and Rob just as the road ended. The ascent to Gau Graig (CP1) was just beginning. Denvy was struggling a little, but keeping pretty good pace – we’d pull each other through. Bad patches come with the territory, but in general one doesn’t expect them until later, thus this was more of a physical issue rather than just running out of steam.
Running out of steam comes in a variety of forms and tends to sneak up on you. In general it’s about fuel, although distance, going out too fast, lack of specific training, etc. can also be factors. The problem with running out of fuel is that the last thing you want to do is eat so it gets worse. Stopping and thinking doesn’t come naturally at this point either so it’s best dealt with by somebody who knows you well telling you straight and forcing you to have a gel or mint cake, etc. to pick up enough to eat properly so you don’t crash again. Once you have been there enough times to recognise this is happening and deal with it yourself, you have also been out enough to not reach that point in the first place – experience in action!
Joe Faulkner caught up without Steve. Sadly he’d had to pull out so Joe approach with Chi, a lecturer of bio-medical science. We ran across the tops of Cader Idris which translates as the ‘Chair of Idris’ – Idris translating as ‘fiery, impetuous lord’ (Idris is the middle name of my youngest son James, albeit probably more applicable for my eldest son Rhys!) CP2 was at Penygadair and then along the ‘Pony path’ past Craig Las to CP3 at Craig-y-llyn. Although I’m not familiar with the original route, I believe there were extra Cader Idris tops in our Dragon.
Denvy asked us to look out for her. By this point I was no longer interested in my position or time, just finishing and enjoying the ride – somebody is quoted as saying, “it’s no longer about where we come, it’s just us Vs Shane” (the event organiser) quite right! We agreed a plan to just stick ahead of the cut offs. We’d hit the first check point with 2 hours and 10 minutes before closure, and the second with 1 hour and 55 minutes in hand; the plan was to stay over an hour ahead.
The trot to Craig-y-llyn suddenly turned into a procession as several groups came through at similar enough pace – including ‘The peloton’. Helene was one of the elite peloton runners and they always moved effortlessly across the terrain. Whilst I was never to become aware of the etiquette of the peloton, the Navigation appeared to be shared by at least three of the people involved and they looked like a very well oiled machine, consistent in a solid pace that was just that bit quicker than everybody else bar Steve Birkinshaw and Rob Baker.
We broadly remained as a group of five until CP3 and split during the descent to the farm at Nant Cawr. I finally realised just how much Denvy was struggling here. We stopped for water and were slow getting going – we crossed to head up the path to the east of Craig yr Aderyn and Denvy started to really struggle. We were very much against the clock as the time between checkpoints was slipping quickly away from us. At CP3 our lead against the cut off had slipped to just 1 hour and 10 minutes. By the time we hit CP4 we only had 1 hour in hand and Denvy was a good 10 minutes behind us. The rate at which we had lost time against the CP closure times was alarming. Rob and I needed to make a decision.
It was a decision neither of us wanted to make, but also one that we both knew what the decision was. Once I had heard how many painkillers Denvy had taken to get this far today it had been clear to me that unless we could keep ahead of the cut offs and have enough in hand for a Nav error, then all three of us faced the possibility of being timed out. That was the last thing Denvy would have wanted.
Rob and I cracked on. We hadn’t discussed it but once we were down to just 1 hour ahead of closures we didn’t take long to voice what had been on my mind for the past 30 minutes since hearing of the painkillers – maybe I made too much of the painkillers, some people that do ultras regularly take them, but my view is that if the pain is so great you have to take painkillers then it’s probably time to quite. I don’t carry them with me when I race. We’d been shipping so much time against each CP it was alarming and we couldn’t keep going on losing so much time.
I felt terrible: I’d left someone behind from the team and no matter how many times I told myself it was a solo event, Denvy would want us to, if the shoe was on the other foot I’d want them to go on, etc. I still felt rotten. Denvy had supported me when I had struggled on the way up Crib Goch yet here I was, jogging away… what a sham.
I thought about what I would do if the shoe was on the other foot; I’d feel relief. We all knew we were against the clock with the boxes closing at set times. Others had fallen foul of this the day before; setting off too late resulting in a time out. In this game one can be over an hour quicker than another competitor, but setting off much later a control may be already closed. Martin and I had almost been caught out by this at the SLMM this year for exactly this reason – just squeaking in to the day 1 camp on time.
Knowing that we were in real danger on the boxes meant I’d have been happier being left behind. The heartbreak of not finishing is something I can dust myself off from, analyse and come back again having learned as many lessons as possible from. Knowing I was in part or in whole the reason for other people’s shattered dreams is not something I would be able to suffer. Perversely this was what made it so hard to leave. What if by really pushing her on, encouraging her, etc. she’d make it? If it weren’t that she was being powered by painkillers I think I’d have tried a lot harder. It was day 3, not day 5. Even if Denvy had got through the day (~50 km to go at this point) she’d have faced the best part of 130km on days 4 & 5. It was the end of the line.
As we dropped to the road a sniper (camera man) was waiting. Rob and I tried to look like we were going well and I hoped Denvy would stop with the camera man and get a lift. The next cut off beckoned as we headed south to the Tarrens.
Chris Hare had joined me earlier in the day on the road, then again as we’d crossed the tops at Cader Idris. He’d done some rabbit hunting and had caught Rob and me up again. As we baked in the incredibly hot sun on the exposed bridle path he pointed out the narrow gauge railway at Talyllyn – the location for ‘Race the train’. I’ve always fancied the race where people literally race the train down the hill – if I ever get there it’ll certainly evoke some memories!
The sun was relentless on the path to Tarrenhendre. We stopped to fill up in every stream and dunk sunhats, but sadly only really managed a fast march, slowly rounding Tan-y-coed to get to the base of the final ascent. Surprisingly (to me at least) we were really catching the people ahead and by the base of the climb we were within a minute or two.
The climb was steep! Tarrenhendre was a bit like a jelly mould shape and the sides were a silent affair; hands pushing down on thighs, just above the knee in an attempt to reduce the total effort and to get every last drop for each step. I was rabbit hunting the team ahead, drifting into my own little world and had caught them by the top.
Rob got to the top and we moved to the CP. A time check showed we had 1 hour 30 on the cut off! Clearly the boxes had been heavily weighted to push people over the first section.
I didn’t remember having too many issues physically before later in the race, but watching my video diaries I complain of shin pain at this point. This was where Rob and Chris both started to have a tough time too. Back to the path and a review of the map dealt us a further psychological blow.
Crystal clear visibility is high on my list of factors that can drastically improve a run in the mountains. There are times though where you just don’t want to know. Cresting the hill we could see for miles. Coupled with this we could see Tarren y Gesail, out next CP. We could also see this was reached by several miles of very run-able ground then a big climb in the wrong direction on an out and back route. It was too much information, the out and back felt pointless and hearts sank.
My shins continues to hurt down the hill from the top of Tarrenhendra and Rob told me he was struggling from the last climb. I grabbed snacks and reminded Rob to eat and drink. We walked and jogged, but mostly walked whilst Chris disappeared from view. Rob stopped to do his shoes and, conscious of the need to push through the low point I asked if it was ok for me to walk on and he could catch me up in a minute, something we’d been doing for the past few days.
Motivation is a very personal thing. I find having a target in front of me is very beneficial – I certainly don’t like the target to get away, but I also try to set marks against which I will catch them or recalculate. Unless of course they are clearly significantly quicker, in which case I hope they are out of my sights as quick as possible (I’ll get them later :)).
Rob didn’t catch up. His head had been down since the last CP and I began to realise just how much the last climb had taken out. I was determined to keep moving and provide him with a target to at least keep sight of and I decided I would not run again until he caught up. We exchanged a few shouts of “alright?”
Steve and Rob passed us on the downhill from the last CP. Steve said he was just hanging in there, but within moments they were gone and out of sight despite the huge vision we had. I started to see people taking incredibly direct routes and checked the contours again… somebody was going terribly wrong!
My stomach growled which was a very bad sign. I was bordering on being sick of cake, but that was the filler… then I remembered I had crisps. I had two packets of crisps. Yes that’s right, a taste sensation times two! Twin bags of perfection! I was so happy I made a video so I wouldn’t lose the moment – ridiculous as it was I was utterly delighted!
Rob still wasn’t catching, but he wasn’t really losing too much either so I kept moving. After 2.5 days I figured he might just want some time to himself and I’d see him on the out and back anyway. I was itching to run, had been for about a km, but we were a team.
Just as I was starting up the hill, the people I’d caught on Tarrenhendre were flying down – I never would have stuck with them as I struggled on the downhill with my shins, but by the time I hit the same spot they had put 35 minutes on me in just 1 hour and 20 minutes. As I hit the ridge another sniper appeared. I made straight for the CP, itching to run the ridge. Instead I drank in the scenery and put more food in. Home run to the drop bag now, no need to ration.
Passing Rob I suggested I waited at the corner before the descent; he said to go on. He was slipping further behind. Caught in a dilemma I reluctantly cracked on and wondered if this was the end. Denvy had been the glue, almost ordering us into the tent on day 1 when we were too tired to argue even if we wanted to – I didn’t.
Hitting the bottom I noticed the camera man sending 3 others what I thought was the wrong way. I questioned it and he insisted. Told us he’d been there all day and it was definitely that way and pointed at the map. My brain should have protested more, but instead it turned a deaf ear to the alarm bells with the help of my fatigue. I should have taken a grid reference, I had it right there with me and there was a clear handrail from a forest line… but forest lines get moved all the time, he’d been there all day… why would he send us the wrong way… I obeyed blindly too tired to make a better decision. 5 minutes later I’m crashing down the side of a very steep hill, furious with the sod that had sent me the wrong way… or was I furious with myself and didn’t want to admit it?
I broke through dense forest to find all the people I’d overtaken steaming through in a peloton…. including Rob! They were motoring, I was delighted. Next thing I now we’re walking, the rest had gone on.
Rob said he was having a bad day so that was it for the day, just got to march it out. This reminded me of the Fellsman. Exactly the same mental cloud had descended upon me and I was unable to shake it for miles. I didn’t want to be with anybody (although Martin and Roger had stuck with me throughout) I just wanted to wallow in my own self pity. I told him I was sure he’s just bonking and that he needed to eat again, passing him shotbloks and other quick fuel. We fell back into a walk as I waited for him to pick up. I needed to see that fight in him, the desire to pick it up even if he physically couldn’t.
We hit the road and I started a jog to give him a target again. He walked, we split, I felt terrible. The fight seemed to have gone and it hadn’t returned in the past 14km. I needed to see that desire to get moving again and hadn’t agonising as it was I felt I had to push on.
So what is the best time to pass through a market town? Well, not only when it’s market day, but also when school has just finished. As I shuffled through the town I had to sound as chirpy as possible with my “’scuse me” to get past haggles of girls spanning the entire pavement. As I passed my dignity was lost as they laughed. “Ha ha! The joke is on you ladies! Don’t you know what I am doing?” I thought… err actually Chris, I doubt they would think anything other than; “what an idiot!” of “why would you want to do that, just take the bus!” I’ll leave it there.
Arriving at the drop bag I was delighted to see Denvy – in good spirits as always despite having to retire. It was like I had a second pit stop crew! Denvy really picked my spirits up as I was feeling pretty low and guilty about leaving Rob. Steve Dubieniec was also there and as sage as ever. Better still he gave me a pack of Space Raiders!
I set off with Brad, funnily enough he had a smile on his face! It was great to get going again and to catch up on things. Just before we entered the forest we were passed by an old man in a ranger rover featuring the most incongruent trucker style silhouetted naked woman on the back – the local Peter Stringfellow?
We hit the track and followed, but didn’t check the contours. We were looking for a left turn but all too late did we realise we’d not actually go onto the path yet. I could feel we were wrong but had path fever.
At the second point that made no sense I took a grid reference and cursed. I quickly devised a new route rather than going back and with a South African now in tow we cracked on. He’d not complete the days until now, didn’t appear to be able to map read and was looking to two people that had just gone wrong as navigation leaders – poor fella!
Whilst I knew where we were and we were making good time to get back on course, it was here that I could have made a mistake that would have seen me DNF. Luckily I picked up on a comment from Brad that we’d just have to go back for about a km. I had no idea what he was talking about until he pointed out the location of the CP! I was all set to head south on Glyndwr’s Way as soon as we hit it, but CP 8 just hadn’t registered with me mentally, so I’d have missed it and failed to finish. I have no illusions about the fact that I owe my DBR finish to Brad – my hero!
By missing a single path I estimate we put an additional 3km and 180m of climb onto an already long day. Running in the opposite direction to other runners is great though as it confuses the hell out of them
Out of all those I passed I was most pleased to see Rob. He’d partnered up with Chris again who had previous recce’d the area. Brad and the South African chap told me to head on so I picked up my pace to make the best of this good spell and good paths. Seeing Rob really moving again was brilliant and I wanted to catch up. Put the band back together!
It took a long time to catch Rob and Chris. I’d only had 2km to make up, so this was good news that it had taken a long time. I also got a phone single to manage a bizarre conversation with Laura.
“ I’ve been having problems with my shin”
“ You’ve got a problem with your Chin!?”
“No Laura, my shin, sh, sh, sh, shin! I’m moving on my legs not my face!”
“ooohhhhh!” <insert hysterical laughter>
It was at this moment I tipped my spirits over the edge by reaching for the space raiders. Not only was I in possession of another packet of crisps, but they were pickled onion flavour. I almost exploded.
It wasn’t too long before we’d started to split again. Chris and I realised Rob was falling off the pace. Eventually it was just Chris and me, but I knew Wendy Dodds and the other people with her would mop up Rob sooner or later. There were several groups, so we carried on to make the most of the light.
The Plynlimon is really fantastic and turned into one of those areas that just keeps on giving. A perfect place for wild camping where isolation and tranquillity are in the description.
The going was tough across the deep tussock covered ground, my feet sinking beyond view every step taken. Frustratingly we missed the trod at the start of the climb to Llyn Lygad Rheidol, although on reflection this meant we had nothing to lose by trying to find the access road leading to the Llyn. This was a winner. We could see below us that Rob had tagged on with three others whilst a larger group had formed around Wendy.
The final climb from the Llyn was perfect. Challenging without being ridiculous and the view was magnificent. The sun was going down and there were neat bumps as far as the eye could see. We reached the summit to a visual feast of a sunset and nobody else in sight.
Despite only being a short distance from camp we took the opportunity to get out our head torches… okay, so this was really a time wasting exercise so as to enjoy the view a bit more. I was also curious as to where the others were. Given our last seen positions they should have been half way up the final climb by now. Still no sign of anybody we descended towards the old mine to the South.
A snake of torches came into view just as we turned up the final track to camp putting roughly 3 km between us. I couldn’t believe quite how much distance we’d put on the groups behind. My attention wasn’t on that thought for long as I was really just hoping that Denvy had grabbed a good tent!
The set up was much better than the night before. Tents were pitched in a huge cattle shed (thankfully without the usual occupants!) and large ground sheets were out so kit sorting was simple – not having to balance things so not to get them wet. All our kit bags were dry bags – in my case a 109 ltr bag which at a push I could probably have got into. Sorting kit was like trying to find a particular tangerine amongst half a dozen in a Christmas stocking. Add soaking grass from dew and a desire to keep kit dry for the week makes a dry ground sheet heaven! Better still Denvy had done us proud – not having to think when I got to camp had made a huge difference. Thank you Denvy!
Whilst I suspect tiredness and calorie deficiency played a significant part, I seemed to have an epic every time I got to camp. The night before the karabiner attached to my dry bag for identification had jammed. A marshal, Mark Palmer and I had tried to loosen the screw gate to no avail. In the end we had to find some pliers to free it open. It did mean I had the opportunity to have a natter with Mark – one of the race favourites – although I was sad to head he’d turned an ankle on day 1 which he tweaked again on day 2 to take him out of the game. A real blow to the competition I think having run against him in the Brecon Ultra. Tonight my epic was finding my drop bag which had all my foot care in it. Not easy in a dimly lit cattle shed with more shadows than, well, a shadowy thing!
By my standards I’d not really been eating well at camp. I’d been managing 1 large mess tin which probably equated to a good standard sized meal, but I’d been struggling through it. In the morning I’d just about been managing a double sausage and egg roll – those of you that have seen me at a hotel breakfast buffet will testify that this is a tiny amount!
My lack of food intake was not because I didn’t like the food; I think I was just too knackered to eat. Not tonight. Three mess tins of a delicious and well spiced curry coupled with rice and naan. I felt a lot better, slowly coming back to life and able to have a bit of banter with the other competitors. Pointing out to the elite runners that their approach was all wrong, since they were clearly missing out on the beautiful sunsets managed to raise a laugh. The irony of finishing in the dark had not been lost. I realised that we were missing out on the camaraderie on camp though as the competitors still in the game had dwindled to just 29 now. Those no longer in the game had a choice as one of the Spanish competitors would explain in his speech at the finish – they can either smile or cry. Increasingly people were choosing to smile.
3 days complete, just shy of 28 hours out on the mountains, 120 Miles covered and 11,260m of ascent and 10,787m of descent and 9 hours sleep, I’ve got growing trench-foot and tomorrow is the wet day! Still feeling good.
I woke to the sound of strapping – nothing untoward going on, just Rob taping his feet in preparation for the day. In my state, somewhere between awake and asleep, I did some diagnostics expecting the worse. I rotated my ankles, bent my knees, lifted my legs… I did it all again not believing the results – the same came back, I felt like new! In general, spending just shy of 14.5 hours out running up, down and across mountains I tend to know about it the next day, but I was raring to go! Result!
Original expectations had been that I would get in each night, snack, wash, dry/ sort my feet, eat, sort my kit for the next day and hit the sack. Arriving in darkness had meant that this didn’t happen. In fact one of my gripes about the set up had come straight to the fore as when we got in we not only had to drag out dry bags in the dark to find a tent, but we then had to go fishing in our bags for our plate/ bowl. Why a large bowl couldn’t have been provided I’ll never know. It certainly made for grouchy people on camp. For non-elite runners (and I suspect many of the elite) being able to pick up a bowl and get food immediately after completion would have been very welcome and would have fed the recovery process immediately.
Back to the morning, we were meant to leave between 6 & 6:30, but didn’t get going until just after 7. Primarily as we were sorting bags and reloading drop bags, etc. faffing basically – unsurprisingly it was me that was last to be ready. I’d managed a double sausage and fried egg bap and chucked in a rehydration powder to my first water bottle. We collected a map each and away we went.
My final day out in the mountains prior to the event had not been a day out in the Rhinogs as hoped because the logistics were a pain, instead I’d headed out on leg 1 of the Paddy Buckley round as it takes in the Moelwyns; albeit in the wrong direction. In the interests of time on the day I had taken a different route down from Cnicht and hitched a lift from the road… this just happened to be the very road I was stood on, so the day started with a degree of familiarity despite the mizzle.
We were moving reasonably well, but as the track became increasingly unfamiliar we took a grid reference from my GPS to confirm location. We’d gone up too far and needed to head directly East. We did and hit the base of the climb perfectly. The top appeared in no time. As we got close enough to see the box a large group appeared including (amongst others) the Spaniards and Mike from the States. Mike had seen and signed up for the race before persuading his friend Brad to sign up. Brad was from Bristol, but had lived out in the States where he’d met Mike. In the competition for man with a permanent smile Brad won hands down – not sure I ever saw him without a smile on his face. A legend and a real gent too. Brad and Dan had started off together but by the drop bag it had become apparent that Dan had underestimated the difficulty of the race (as had so many others) and had taken an injury too. I guess “toughest” is over used in the relatively new world of Ultra running (as Joe Faulkner once said to me; “It was called long distance walking when I started”).
Once again I found myself leading the group on a descent I didn’t know. I’d done it in reverse before and got it quite wrong. The top of Cnicht has a path which I was running and it felt like everybody was tearing after me. I got a bit of path fever which is common when you haven’t had a clear one for a while and over shot the drop point.
Waiting for Denvy and Rob (whom I had thought were right behind me) we had a quick map conference and dropped straight down. Denvy sighed exclaiming; “Is this another one of your crazy descents Chris?” Whilst Rob took to sliding as much as possible on his backside. We dropped so quickly we lost the large group much to my relief – if we’d have come out on a bog I’d have felt even more guilt than if I’d just taken myself there. I felt no guilt in leaving them, they were whooping and hollering all the way down the mountain – we couldn’t see them through the mizzle, but we were in no doubt they were loving the experience!
As it was we found two people who had taken a slightly closer line to the optimum – one speedy chap who had passed us a while back at significant speed (so the line wasn’t so bad afterall!) and the other person turned out to be Wendy Dodds.
For those that don’t know, Wendy is a fell running legend and I don’t use that word lightly. At 61 she was the oldest competitor and was one of the returning four. She won the ladies race along with her running partner Sue Walsh, although Wendy modestly pointed out that they were the only female pair in it. Wendy was incognito as she was wearing a man’s waterproof and told us a bit later she was trying not to get spotted. She was there to race and race hard.
We were cracking on with our own Nav’ I was looking for the small Llyns that would provide a handrail for us and we fell in step with Wendy until we hit the disused Cwmorthin slate quarry. At this point we split again for the ascent to Moelwyn Mawr. Up until that point Wendy went from “trying to hide” to permanent commentary in a flash. I thought I could talk! Even on the way up Moelwyn Mawr I was looking around for the other groups approaching as I could hear talking – I’m now convinced it was Wendy talking out aloud to herself 30 yards ahead of us!
We hit the summit and the remaining speedsters came past; Nicki Spinks, who had arrived as first lady for day 1, Mark Palmer and some of the others. As we departed Moelwyn Mawr I was surprised to see them all take a a very different route in what felt to me like totally the wrong direction. I figured they knew something I didn’t, but we weren’t quick enough to keep up so we could try to follow and miss the line so we stuck to our chosen route. Much to my surprise, many people were going over Craig Ysgafn as well given that we weren’t doing Moelwyn Bach this seemed like extra climb when we could just descend directly to Llyn Stwlan (Cronfa Reservoir) . We took the direct route down which didn’t look to bad from the top.
“Another one of your crazy descents Chris?” (not sure there was a question mark at the end this time). This one turned out to be just that. It wasn’t that bad, but having relooked at the maps I think the best route was to just cover off the other bump. At one point of the descent I lost my footing, fell forward down the slope (on rocks) bounced and rolled 360 degrees sideways as if I had laid down to roll down the hill. Thankfully I stopped after one rotation and got to stand up to finish the descent. The thought did flash through that it might be curtains for me, but luckily not so it was on with the show!
To my delight several groups followed, or rather, they chose to come down the same way as they wouldn’t have seen us until committed to the descent – so I wasn’t totally barking… well, I just wasn’t the only one at least! We also caught up with people that were 5+ minutes ahead or kept pace with the faster people so I was pleased with the route despite everything.
Wendy appeared again only this time she had lost her map. We offered her Denvy’s map which was unlikely to see the light of day and she offered to show us the rather tricky to find path down as a thank you. At this point Steve Birkinshaw came flying past which was really something to behold. He looked totally fresh again – the night before he had specifically come to find me and have a chat after we had arrived in which took me a little by surprise, not least because we’d only just found a tent. He’d mentioned how tough he’d found the first day and was interested to see how we’d faired. How many sports do you get that in? Sums up mountain running in the UK for me, the best in the sport appear to have no ego and are genuinely interested in the other taking part. No big “I am”, just another bloke out there loving the fact he gets to share the mountains with other likeminded souls.
Finding the path down would have been difficult and I was very happy to have Wendy at the helm as she had recced it before. We’d decided to take the road rather than the rough ground and after checking out a disused railway only to find it overgrown and unsuitable, we took the long stretch of A470 to Trawsfynydd – what the drivers must have thought I can only hazard a guess!
We were all moving about the same speed and cracked on as a six. Denvy, Rob and I could have pushed on as a three, but although we never discussed it we reigned ourselves in a few times to stay together and enjoy the day as a team. In hindsight we probably lost and gained – lost as we could have moved quicker; gained as in places we would have spent more time if we didn’t hit the line right.
That said, we took a bad line whilst attempting to pass by Bwlch Gwylim on the way to Llyn Cwm Bychan. We went well wide despite Rob spotting the path (probably) and took in a lot of rough, boggy tussocks as a result – if only Yannis had been there
The descent to Llyn Cwm Bychan was magnificent. The Llyn slowly reveals itself and then boom, It’s all there. Given the rate perfect weather we were having (the Mizzle only lasted until we got off the Moelwyns) I was totally blown away. My only regret is not capturing it on video.
The drop bag crew were fantastic again. I grabbed some soup and refilled my cake stash. We really spent too long there, but time was not at the forefront of our minds.
The group started out and I waited for Rob. Despite a 10 minute head start we caught up quickly on the Roman steps and headed up to Rhinog Fawr.
If you skip to 6:22 on my video diary there is a 360 from the top of Rhinog Fawr; what a stunning area – no wonder it’s Yannis’ favourite part of Wales!
I’m not going to lie, I feared the Rhinogs. I’d heard many tales about how dreadful it is underfoot and missing the path leads to hours of slow movement and despair. I didn’t find it like that at all. I felt we had good paths which were easy to find throughout, but I spent the whole time anticipating the bad news – it was just around the corner wasn’t it?
I’m sure the crystal clear visibility and A1 perfect weather helped (it was blooming hot mind). I know people that have visited the mountains of Snowdonia for over 20 years and haven’t had such good weather – the foreign competitors may be lulled into a false sense of security and return to take on the dragon again only to find disorientating zero visibility, freezing conditions and feel like they would have stayed dryer sitting in the bath; but right then there was nowhere I’d rather be.
Such a spectacular range of mountains, views, terrain and relative desolation cannot be beaten. Fair play to British Columbia, the Argentinean lake district and the Himalayas – they have all blown my mind but in a different way. Their beauty is individual, not to be compared, just enjoyed in that moment.
Up until the race I’d not explored Southern Snowdonia as it’s awkward to manage the logistics. Being out there I felt very privileged to have been shown the secret. I’ll spend the rest of my life returning to the area now; any logistical difficulties are well worth it!
From the top of the Rhinogs the mountains just don’t seem to stop until the sea. Sure there are settlements that can be seen, but I found them to almost disappear like a mirage as my visual cortex filtered them out.
Back to business and the descent from Rhinog Fawr. It seemed a shame not to be taking in Rhinog Fach; tantalisingly close and as we descended the tight gully to the South of Rhinog Fawr’s summit I couldn’t help but be touched by a little disappointment. Day 2 was described as the Moelwyns and the Rhinogs, yet we only did a Moelwyn and a Rhinog. Did it save us a lot? Not in distance really and I guess about an hour in total effort max, although I may be underestimating Guess I’ll just have to go back and have a go another day!
When a course is printed on a map it feels a shame not to do it, but the game is to get up each morning, get your brief and race the controls that are open. I’ve recently read a series of forum posts by people not involved in the race; throwing stones from their armchairs about how the event is devalued by cutting it short – the fact is that the event was longer in distance and clearly harder judging by the winning times. It smacked of jealousy more than anything else and on reflection I just felt sorry for them – the type of person that complains about the content of a radio or TV show that they don’t listen to/ watch and have no intention of ever listening to/ watching. Sad really.
We came up to Y Llethr (which looked a tad easier to get to from Rhinog Fach but I may be wrong) and the stunning environment just kept on giving. The views from each control were just amazing and kept coming. Seeing the last control (Diffwys) from Y Llethr was particularly spectacular; not just for the 360, but I suspect also because it was the last control. It allowed the sense of achievement to sink in and I could reflect on another magnificent day. I was striding ahead now on the climbs, but those are my finishing legs. I always subconsciously save something back for that point where I know the end is in sight. I had no intentions of splitting from our trio, I was trying to pull things on though by setting a target for everyone else to chase. As a team we all did this across the course of the day – whether that was conscious or not – in this environment it’s too easy to drift off and forget the imperative to keep moving quickly – watching the video back it’s clear the ball is dropped a few times. There is no time to stop and stare!
Finishing in the dark adds a lot of extra time. We were very keen to avoid the dark tonight and get to those hot showers! The end of the day consisted of a mean descent, a forest track to the road, a trail to remove as much main road as possible and then a couple of Km’s on the road to the campsite. We got to the forest track with Wendy and Chris still with us and we started to jog the path. Next thing I remember is somebody saying that Wendy and Chris were no longer with us. We cracked on and since the others were no longer with us we picked up our pace as we raced the daylight.
We just about managed the trail without head torches and didn’t need them on the road. We arrived exhausted but elated again. Again the tent situation was poor. Arriving in the dark and looking at each tent, as you’re tired and hungry, for a small piece of tape whilst dragging two try bags around was bonkers, frustrating and led to more than one sense of humour failure around camp.
Whilst the camp had hot showers it was also a terrible lay out. We had to walk quite a distance to everything and food was in a totally different field. It just didn’t work… but damn that shower was good!
Tent found, feet dried and talc’ed, Wendy and Chris arrived. Denvy asked for her map back… oh dear. Wendy was not happy and felt that we’d just used/ followed her on all the “good lines” and then sprinted off to leave her at the end. This really wasn’t the case or intention and I was really sorry she felt that way. Whilst we certainly benefitted coming down from the Cronfa reservoir and were grateful not to have to find that “path”, we’d just been going at roughly the same pace and it was comforting to have a bigger group that seemed to agree on the navigation. It had been nice to spend the day with others too. I guess we could have covered the road section a lot quicker and we may well have crossed between Trawsfynydd and Bwlch Gwylim quicker through hitting the path earlier, but there was no guarantee that what Rob saw was a path. The rest of the Nav was simple and between Rob, me and the clear visibility we would have been quick and accurate enough. So whilst I’m sorry this feeling existed, I didn’t feel guilty about it (despite being accused of it for the rest of the week :), but that’s a different story) and I’m certain Wendy would have done the same if she could have.
The real story was 2 days down, just shy of 28 hours out on the mountains, 75 Miles covered and 7595m of ascent and 7609m of descent and 5 hours before I was up to take on a “long day”. I couldn’t wait.
I think I managed 6 hours of broken sleep in the end. Steve Birkinshaw (the race favorite) had been kind enough to give me a lift back the night before and was set to pick me up at 6am. 1.5 pots of oats-so-simple later I was out of the door having made my first mistake… I left a litre of pre-race drink behind in the flat. Brilliant.
Steve drove me over to the start and confessed he’d hardly slept either – so he was human after all! I’d only spent two short journeys with Steve and it was very apparent how down to earth and humble he was. A fantastically nice bloke who just loves running long in mountains, he matches the ‘type’ that are so successful in the sport and clearly found the challenge just as daunting as the rest of us. He just happens to be fast, an incredible navigator, quick decision maker and has an uncanny ability to pick fast efficient lines.
The walk up to the start line in the castle was accompanied by both a local male voice choir and the best sunrise Conwy had to offer. Group photos taken and choir in full voice we were given the maps to a fever of movement – the competitors finally having a channel for all their nervous energy.
Shane had revealed the night before that day 1 would include all of the Welsh 3000 footers so I had a quick scan to confirm it meant where I expected and looked for where it finished. As this was the most well trodden part of the route I was surprised as to how much activity was going on. Doing the 3000 footers doesn’t leave a huge amount of route choice so it made me nervous to hear the torrent of four letter words coming from Wendy Dodds as she reviewed the map with Helene.
My plan was to ratchet back from pace by about 30% and to walk the ups as if I were doing a Bob Graham round. As we set off we were single file over the ramparts of Conwy castle, the stirring sounds of the choir a distant memory already. As I reached the end of the road, Steve flew past me – we exchanged best wishes for the day and the race was on!
It wasn’t long before I realised just how big a mistake I had made. I knew there was no chance of water on the Carneddau, but I had still set off with just my two chest bottles (1 litre in total). Fair play, so had pretty much ever competitor, but I had known better so as the sweat poured off me I briefly cursed myself – the extra weight would have been worth it. I was taking down checkpoints (CPs) though and the main speedsters were in front of me so pace wise I felt right and more importantly, very comfortable.
One of the Spanish guys (Emilio Comunero) was in front of; sticks, compression socks, shorts, top, the works. He ran very well and was clearly enjoying it. I wondered how much he and the other international competitors would be faring if we had more typical weather and visibility. Chatting with him, he had a very impressive ultra CV and appeared the strongest of the Spanish contingent by a distance. He’d completed the Marathon de Sables and another 5 day desert multistage event, UTMB, Western States 100, the list went on. By the time we got to the first 3000 footer, Foel Fras, we were three with Rob Thomson joining.
Rob turned out to be an ex-Para captain now teaching in a colledge in Pembrokshire. We were both moving well and as we headed out to Yr Elen I figured we’d be together for a while. We looped back to Llewelyn and picked up Denvy Lo, a lovely girl from Hong Kong. Little did I know right then that this would be the team I wanted to finish with.
As I led the unofficial team across the remaining Carneddau the lack of water was becoming more and more acute. I pondered the ways of Pen Yr Ole Wen and knew that water was back towards the east side of the Llyn but wasn’t sure of the way down without going all the way back to Dafydd. Then again, the only time I’d gone the other way down I’d ended up miles out and in screes I didn’t want to be anywhere near, so we kinda went straight… we hit nasty screes.
This is the reason why I’m not keen on being the main navigator. One wrong line can be a diaster and this descent was turning into one. I knew it was wrong, but by that time I was already committed to the line – just had to make the best of it. Nobody was impressed but fair play to them as nobody said anything either.
On the way down we were treated to a stunning fast jet display through the Ogwen valley. Both jets skimmed the valley floor threading their way between the Glyders and the Carneddau – the way things had gone up until then, one would have been forgiven for thinking Shane had organised it!
We splintered a bit from here, I guess I was feeling guilty about the line and didn’t want to be responsible for any more cock ups affecting more than just me. Getting into the drop bag stop I slapped on some sun cream and gathered my sun hat – both of which I should have had on from the start. Heading up Trefan a way I hadn’t been had me concerned, but it looked straightforward from the Carneddau so how hard could it be?
News Flash!!!! I’ve finally found the hassle free route up Trefan! The path up the North West ridge is simplicity itself. This was a blessed relief given the pain it was causing. First to cramp was my foot – the middle two toes were going into spasm but were not too troublesome until my hip flexors and calves joined the party – a combination impossible to stretch out without triggering each other!
Trefan and the rest of the Glyders was like passing through a cramp minefield; one wrong step and boom! there is was again. Electrolytes were low and Denvy took to asking everyone we passed if they had any salt tablets – not exactly something your average North Wales hill walker carriers with thm!
The Descent from Trefan had fractured the team for good. Emilio was no longer with us and we’d picked up Oliver – a lovely chap from the Netherlands who had recently clocked the second fastest 100km time for a Dutchman. Ascending the screes from Trefan to Glyder Fach the film crew appeared like snipers in the rocks ready to record our most intense cramp fueled scowls of effort.
The paparazzi appeared again as we hit the summit of Glyder Fach. The moonscape/ Mordor surroundings making for a dramatic backdrop. Some cloud had come in too, as if the dragon wanted to remind us the weather can quickly change and cause issues. The combination of photographers and cloud caused Oliver a problem that saw him disappear from out party; he failed to dib at the check point (13) and went back to get it. We were less than a minute away from the box and moved slowly for him to catch up but we never saw him again… all week!*
The original Dragon’s back route missed five of the peaks we had to cover. All five were significant. The descent from Pen Yr Ole Wen is tougher than from Dafydd (I would argue) but I’d leave that in anyway. The real big difference comes after Glyder Fawr (CP 14) where the original route to competitors down the red spot path to Pen y Pass. This time all the 3000 footers had been included which added a lot of distance. Rather than head to an easy path up Snowdon we went North West to Y Garn (CP15), Elidir Fawr (CP16) and then up to Crib Goch (CP17) the famous knife edge ridge that leads to Garnedd Ugain (CP18) and Snowdon itself (CP19).
Thankfully it’s an easy run around, plus we found an excellent track down to the road from Elidir Fawr and Denvy finally found some table salt to add to her water. Crib Goch was not so forgiving. It had been suggested to me that the best plan was to head for the saddle after Crib Goch and then do a quick out and back along the ridge. As we ascended we had no visual references from other competitors and I was struggling.
I was falling off the pace, but denvy and Rob pulled me on. I repeatedly told them to drop me, but was very glad and grateful that they didn’t. The route up that Northern slope is far from clear and we ended up well West of our intended final attack point, but, quicker than expected, found our way back on track and hit the saddle.
It had been poor advice. The checkpoint was right out on the Eastern point of the ridge and so we did the ridge twice. The combination of weary limbs, a growing wind and a knife edge ridge become apparent and made for a high risk feel to the route. It also gave a fantastic sense of adventure and achievement. The photo of the three of us at the top shows the elation felt.
Ugain fell easily and as the sun set it was time for coats.
The cloud had been swirling, which comes up really well on the video, and the sunset was just about forming. We trudged on desperate to take Snowdon down and get to camp. We arrived to find these were only twenty five people ahead of us. I sparred a thought for the remaining 60 + people behind us but was soon blinded by beauty; the sunset was unforgettable!
The sunset just put the icing on an incredible day out – there is a look of euphoria in my eyes on the video – it was a mixture of so many things: the route, the hardship, the sunset, the team and camaraderie, the dedication of the marshals, the small number of people ahead, the adventure to come, the thought of camp… yes, we still had a long way to go, but it was all downhill. We cracked on, finished with head torches on, but getting to camp all the same.
It was a level of exhaustion I have rarely felt. I think it topped the exhaustion of the BG and the Fellsman, but part of that was knowing I had 4 more days and I was camping. We found a tent, dried our feet, found our plates and went for tea. I was so exhausted I just stared at my meal and the dead-eyed people around me and struggled to finished even one tin of food.
Joe Faulkner appeared and was having a major sense of humor failure. Joe taught me navigation skills earlier in the year and with his partner Steve Dubieniec (who had traveled from New Zealand for the event) they were looking to make it two out of two completions for the Dragon’s Back.
Joe sat cowled at the table with a face full of thunder. I asked him if he was alright as he stabbed at his food the response matched the look. The key sentence that hit home for me was; “That was the dragon’s back plus thirty-five percent!” Wow. I was proud of what I’d achieved that day as it was, but to do an extra 1/3 on top of the original and in such heat may have had me swelling with pride if I wasn’t so exhausted and knew that we had to do it all again tomorrow. I was wondering what that extra effort would do to my chances of completion, but it wasn’t swells of pride I needed to worry about at that moment, I was swelling elsewhere so it was off to the river to sit in and get some cold treatment on my legs and feet before they ballooned!
I had a quick session with “Jim” Bowen (a chap called Gareth that was giving out free Bowen therapy to competitors, but as I can’t remember names he was Jim for the week for obvious reasons) and hit the sack. 5 hours to wake up… I didn’t need rocking!
After weeks of faffing I finally decided I needed a list. My list was enormous, although many of the items I hope I won’t need – especially the pharmacy I am taking with me! The limits for the event were 13KG in weight in the original spec of a 109L dry bag or no weight limit in a 59L dry bag, this is on top of a 22L drop bag and my mountain pack. Sounds pretty straight forward, but the weight of food alone is not insignificant and thus it’s going to have to get battered around in my dropbag for the week.
Much of the weight is related to the significant “what if?” factors involved in a 5 day challenge. The weather is the most obvious one; i.e., if we have the biblical style rain that we’ve been having then it doesn’t matter what I am wearing, after 8-14 hours on the mountain each day I will be soaked to the skin. This is fine for that day, but a warm top isn’t really so warm when it’s wet, thus I need plenty of warm dry tops for the week if I am to drastically reduce the risk of hypotherma. As the days go by I expect to be moving slower, thus generating less heat – there are some grim statistics out there and I don’t want to be anywhere near what I witnessed at the Fellsman earlier in the year.
I’m not going to lie, I’m also taking a few luxuries, but they are pretty calculated; e.g., I’m taking the same sleeping bag I took to Everest and I’m also taking 2 inflatable camping mattresses. In reality I only need my superb Klymit X-Frame but I figured the extra comfort may be welcomed; likewise I could get away with a lower rated sleeping bag, but do I want to have sleep interrupted by the cold or wrapped up in loads of clothing? No thanks.
I’ve got access to all my food though now and a few things may need to go in order to hit the weight limit as I don’t think the 22ltr drop bag is big enough to fit all my food in. I’m going to be powered by a number of different foods. I’ve got some “techno-food” in the form of Cliff Shot blocks – these are tried and tested for me and I find them far better than gels. I’ve got a couple of jells and a couple of bars of Kendal mint cake in case I bonk, but the plan is to keep eating. I’ve mostly home made cakes – Energy bars, Bara Brith, a Fruity cherry loaf and a date and walnut loaf. I’ve brioches, a banana and a packet of crisps for each day along with cheese sandwiches for the first two days and some salt and vinegar crisps. Food is a major weakness for me in terms of knowledge. I’d rather have more than I need than less, but I’m sure I’m well over what I actually will be able to consume. The idea of not having enough though is enough to finish you off so it’s a tricky balance.
So how am I feeling before the race? Well, I’m not sure I’ve took it all in yet really. I suspect this is a self defence mechanism; the race is just too big to contemplate and whilst I don’t feel I’ve done enough long days in the mountains to be truly prepared, it was always going to be incredibly difficult to get my legs and joints moving again the next day anyway, so in some respects the lack of prior knowledge is a bonus. Day one will be largely recognisable so I just want to get that under my belt and feel comfortable. Many of the anxieties I have should quickly drift away and then I’ll be into the mindset.
I’ll be defensive for the first three days anyway and will try to enjoy as much of the mountains as possible. I don’t think for a minute that being sore or tired will stop me completing this; I’m too stubborn for that. A serious injury will need to occur or the possibility of long term damage to get me off the mountain – neither of which I am planning so fingers crossed! Almost all of the journey will be new to me so it should be a wonderful, but painful adventure… but that’ll be the same for everybody else so if they can do it so can I. I’ll also be driven on by the incredible support I’ve been given and sponsorship that I’ve had. Making a difference is a strong driver for me.
The best news I have had all week though is from MWIS. I find they are very accurate and the best mountain weather forecasts. Considering the biblical rain that we’ve had recently I was worried my bag would be overweight due to the Ark I was planning on taking!
Planning Outlook for all mountain areas from Monday, 3rd September, 2012
Areas of high pressure, generally centred over southern Britain will dominate the weather through the coming week. As a result there will be very little rain, and winds will often be light. However, an intense Atlantic low passing north of Scotland on Monday night/Tuesday will bring severe upland gales across the Scottish Highlands. Generally banks of cloud will come and go, often shrouding higher western mountains in Scotland, but elsewhere, hills often cloud free.
I did chuckle as I was one of ninety-three entrants described as the world’s toughest athletes – I can assure you I hardly feel like one, but it does give a a flavour of just how tough the race is going to be.
The article itself is written by the author of ‘Feet in the clouds’ which documents his obsession with the Bob Graham Round and his attempts to joining the Bob Graham 24 hour club. It was his description of the original Dragon’s Back Race in this very book that captured my imagination. When the race was put on again I didn’t feel I could miss the opportunity.
One week from now I will hopefully have finished day one. I’ll be updating my Facebook page if I have any signal and I’ll also be trying to speak to Laura. Once I’ve finished I will start to blog about my experiences here and hopefully have some decent video from each day.
If you wish to follow the race more closely then do check the website as there will be a 90 second film from each day posted up. I’m not sure where but will post the link once I have it. Worst case scenario it should have it or link to it from here: http://www.dragonsbackrace.com/
Following on from my last video diary of my day in the mountains I decided this was the most efficient way of recording my exploits. Despite trying to improve my commentary I find that I start every one with “Okay, so..” but these things are a work in progress
I’d hoped to get out for the first time into the Rhinogs, but alas my potential running partner has been suffering with knee and hip issues which look like they will be keeping him out of action for a while longer, and probably mean he’ll need to pull out of the dragon’s back itself. I’m totally gutted for Neil, he’s one of the strongest mountain men I’ve met so far, so it’s never nice to see someone forced away from doing what they love for so long.
For ease of logistics I decided to head to Llyn Ogwen again but this time with a different plan. I decided I’d run the bottom two thirds of the Welsh 3000s and then head back down the PYG track and over the miners track back to the car. It meant an additional valley floor and some mountains I’ve not been up before – Elidir Fawr and Crib Goch; the latter being a notorious knife edge of a peak.
It was a stunning day and as it’s the school holidays there were actually a handful of people around. I was told I was clearly insane to be running up on the Glyders. I met rounds of applause for scree descents and just for looking knackered I think! Anyway, rather than rabbiting on, I’ll let the video do that for me!
I’ve decided to just stick them all together into one long video rather than a series of separate ones. Not sure if that is better or worse – if you’re bothered, let me know!