It was exactly one year after I stood on the start line of the Cape Wrath Ultra and here I was again under the start banner, but this time it was for the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, a race I always thought was too hard for me.
Looking back to the Cape Wrath Ultra I remember 8 glorious days of running through the Scottish Highlands, I remember feeling elated, uplifted and competitive. I remember a fun week, everything going well, enjoying running at it’s best.
This is lies!
Not entirely false, but missing enough of the detail to a be a completely misleading picture of the week. It misses 200 km of strained ankle ligaments and tendonitis. It misses the hour of agonising hobbling for 4 mornings before my ankles capitulated and started working without (too much) pain, and it forgets the longest 8km of my life, shuffling along the road in 30 degree heat to Kinlochbervie. (read my race report here)
Exhausted but happy, reaching Cape Wrath Lighthouse
Our minds and our memory have this amazing ability to filter the truth, capturing only the best bits, the highs and not the lows. The achievement and satisfaction erasing all others. This gives us much nicer memories, but it is also the trick that allows us to sign up for the next big adventure.
The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race is a 5 day stage race running over the mountainous spine of Wales, taking in all the major mountains along the way. Starting in Conwy on the north coast down to Llandeillo in the South West. It covers 315km and 15,500 meters of ascent.
It is a race with a place in the history of British mountain running; first completed in 1992 it was won by the pair of Martin Stone and Helene Diamantides. The event was so extreme and audacious that it was filmed for the BBC. I remember hearing about this amazing event, I was 9 years old!
Despite the success of that first race it was 20 years until the second running, resurrected by Shane Ohly of Ourea Events. Remarkably the female winner of the event was again Helene Diamantides (now Whitaker).
2019 was the 5th running of the event and although the number of competitors have increased and the format has changed subtly, to allow GPS and the provision of a drop-bag support point each day, the route and the hills are essentially unchanged.
I have looked at the Dragon’s Back Race a few times over the years and for the first time 2 years ago seriously thought about entering, but then I looked again at the detail of the challenge and knew that it was way beyond me.
Completing the Cape Wrath Ultra changed that. That had been a huge step up for me, this would be another big step but at least now it seemed half possible!
My training build up for the previous 6 months had gone broadly to plan and I was feeling good until about a month before the race. A combination of too much work and travel had meant not enough recovery time and not enough hill days. I had been feeling tired, with tight legs and a few disappointing runs, including pulling out of the Highland Fling at half way before a niggle became an injury.
This meant that I was coming into the Dragon’s Back Race without the sharpness I had felt earlier in the year and with my form a little uncertain after a few weeks of enforced rest.
The race starts in the magnificent setting of the 13th century Conwy Castle. Watching the films of previous years events, the stirring voices of the Welsh male voice choir echoing over the nervous competitors had made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Stood there myself on race day I felt strangely disconnected and unemotional.
The feeling of anti-climax continued once the gun went for us to start, 400 runners filing though the castle gates and along the town walls takes a while, and I was at the back of the queue. With your time not starting until you left the walls and started running I was keen to let the traffic clear. 20 minutes of delay and hesitation was a strange start to a big race.
Once we were clear of the town I followed the stream of runners upwards over Conwy mountain and out onto the open hillside leading to the Carneddau hills. My main focus was on the fine balancing act to maintain the correct pace, keen to push on and make some progress but careful not to get carried away with the excitement of the event. Today was a big day; 50km and over 3500m of ascent, I was expecting a 10 hour day, but more importantly there were 4 more big days to come. I had learned my lesson on the Cape Wrath Ultra, trust my pace, stay steady and let everyone else run their own races.
By the time I crossed the Glyders I was feeling tired, I hadn’t really drunk enough water and was feeling slow on the climbs, this just felt like hard work!
The interest of crossing Crib Goch broke up the hard work and my mood lifted. This exposed ridge has short sections of hands-on scrambling, some airy walking and a few runnable paths if you have the head for heights! More comfortable than some others on this ground, I enjoyed the advantage and forgot I was racing for a while. 55 minutes of fun in a 9 hour 43 minute day of grind.
Crossing Crib Goch on day 1
Arriving at camp I fell into a familiar routine from last year, grab some quick food, head to the river for some cold water on the legs and a bit of a wash, more food, sort out your bed and kit for the next day, get a quick stretch, eat some more food and try to get some sleep.
The next 3 days followed a similar pattern, I was moving steadily along, I didn’t feel quick but for the most part not particularly slow. My lowest point was on day 3 on the long climb up to Tarrenhendre. Already over 5 hours into the day and feeling tired I crested the ridge and saw on the far, far horizon the Pumlumon hills. They were over 20km away in a straight line, how could it be possible that we were going to cross those today?!
Physically I felt ok but mentally I was still not quite sure what to think. At my level of performance running distances like this is an exercise in patience; There is no point in getting worked up and stressed about it, you can’t get over-excited or too enthusiastic. You have to just work away at a sustainable pace, stay calm, mentally strong and trust that the distance will pass.
Focussing on the next checkpoint, landmark or even the next step kept me going, but was I having fun? Was I enjoying myself? Was I even glad I was here? I really could’t be sure.
Steady away on day 3
My only real goal for the week was to stay injury free and to still be running well on Friday. Measuring myself against this goal I was doing well. Towards the end of each day I was still jogging along at around 10 km/hour on the tracks and keeping to 10-12 m/min on the climbs. I didn’t have any injury worries or blisters.
The longer tarmac sections in the second half of the race were taking some toll, my footwear choice was more suited to the hills, so the repeated impact was causing some pain, but doubling up on innersoles was helping a bit.
After placing 35th on day 1 I was disappointed to be slowly dropping down through the standings. However consistency is key in these races, and despite a slow day 3 of 64th place which included a split time of 148th place over Tarrenhendre, I started day 5 in 48th position. I was doing ok in the hills, but I could tell I was losing big chunks of time on the tarmac sections to faster runners.
As I started day 5 I was mostly just looking forward to the whole thing being over, I was ready for another day of calm patience, steady away until the finish and the relief of crossing the line.
As expected this is how my day started, being steadily passed by a couple of faster runners on the first climb through the forest and out into the farmland beyond. One of the pairs who had passed me made a simple route-finding error crossing the fields, so I caught them up. Now descending I stayed with them for a while, upping my pace slightly to match theirs. Another small mistake from them on the next hills put me ahead of them and in my mind the race was on. Knowing that these guys were ahead of me in the overall standings my target for the day became to beat them to the finish.
Just stretching my pace slightly I left them behind on the descent and hit the tarmac for the long road section through LLandovery. Unlike previous days the tarmac wasn’t hurting my feet and I was able to run normally, not pushing the pace but running comfortably. This continued as the road climbed up towards the support point at Usk reservoir (after a very quick detour via the Llandovery bakery for a bottle of orange juice and an amazing cheese salad wrap!).
All week I had been passing slower runners, but also being passed by the faster ones. On this climb the only person who came past me was Konrad, 4th overall and obviously going well today. This gave me more confidence, as did passing a couple of runners who I knew had beaten me on previous days.
Starting out on day 5
Feeling increasingly buoyed by the support of friends at the support point and the finish getting closer, I set off towards the Black Mountain feeling for the first time in the week that I was able to really race. On the long climb to the summit I was having fun, enjoying being able to push on for the first time all week. Passed by Jim Mann about half way up the hill I kept him in sight all the way then set off across the moorland with a spring in my step.
Without many big trails and with route choice options over or around the summits here, this was more my kind of terrain, the mental challenge of picking the line adding to the fun. And so I pushed on, over 4 small summits and along the final rough ridge line, always searching for the best line through the rough heather and broken ground.
From the final summit it is pretty much downhill for about 11km to the finish, with a couple of short steep climbs towards the end. This descent starts down a perfect trail of soft peat, set at the optimal angle for a fast descent. I thought I was going well and not holding back, with the finish in my mind, flying downhill. But then I was passed by Rob Barnes.
I had raced against Rob at Cape Wrath the previous year, and although he was in another league overall I had passed him on a couple of technical descents through the week, so I knew I should be able to match him down this trail. So I did. I didn’t have to change much, I didn’t start running beyond my limit, I didn’t get out of breath, I just ran faster and it was fine.
Once we hit the tarmac I expected Rob to disappear, but just for the fun of it I thought I would try to keep up for a bit. And again I did, and it was ok.
I knew I was running at a pace that I couldn’t sustain long term, but for the final 11km of the race I really made an effort for the first time all week. Eventually Rob left me behind, but when feeling like slowing I just told myself to try harder, and it worked.
Crossing the finish line I was totally spent, and only a couple of kilometres away from crashing completely I think. But I was happy. Pleased that it was all over, but more pleased because I had actually enjoyed myself for the first time and experienced what really racing at an event like this feels like.
Like the emotional anticlimax of the start of the race, I was strangely numb at the finish. Missing the glow of satisfaction I had felt last year.
This was the successful completion of a massive goal that for years I thought was beyond me. I should be elated. The fast last day had brought me up to 40th overall, nicely within the top 10% of the field. A result to be proud of. But still something was just not quite right.
On the final split, from the summit to the finish I was 3rd, beating even Konrad, the stage winner. Overall on the final day I was 21st. The whole day I had run well, tried hard and felt positive. How was this possible with four exhausting days in the legs? The answer can only be psychological.
I am a absolutely convinced that we are all capable of more than we allow ourselves to believe, and that this is our biggest limiter in what we do. I enjoy the process and the challenge of breaking these self-imposed limits by signing up for or setting out on adventures that I don’t know if I can complete. Most of the time I am successful, although not always. These failures are all part of finding out what my limits really are.
I thought therefore that I had become immune to this psychological handicap, but the evidence shows otherwise. 5 days into the event and my legs felt fresh, my feet stopped hurting and I could run faster than I had all week. Was the feeling of exhaustion on day 3 just my mind telling me to stop, limited by the perception of my limits?
It has taken me 4 weeks to mentally process my thoughts and reflections of this event and to make some sense of them. I am very proud to have completed this massive challenge and pleased to have been able to run strongly, and injury free to the end. This shows the impact of the conditioning effort I have put in this year.
My feelings of disappointment around my overall place, and the psychological element have become more objective and I now see this event as another step in the ladder to finding out where my limits lie. It was a huge step for me to run this event well, perhaps the next step is obvious; to run it fast?!
The pain and mental torment are steadily fading in my memory, already if someone asks “how was the Dragon’s Back?” I find myself answering “amazing, I loved it”!
My own baby dragon!
A huge thanks for the support I had through the event from: