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!
Stats: Despite the below GPS summary, day 1 stats (from the same GPS data) are as follows:
Distance: 58.1km (39.1 miles)
Ascent: 4597m (15081 ft)
Descent: 4547m (14918 ft)
Time taken: 14 hours 26 minutes.
Reckon there is an error in the code that allows me to post this GPS track.
* I found out at the end of the week that he was taken to hospital by ambulance at the end of the first day. At the time I was so tired I think I raised an eyebrow and went to bed.