Scafell Pike Trail Marathon (09-Jul-2017)
Still not exactly sure why I entered this earlier this year. Probably the realisation that its now or never regarding taking part in the more challenging events. Excalibur was the first back in May but this was a step up in difficulty!
Its a proper road trip to Keswick; I picked up two running buddies from Brighton and set off around 8am. Being a Saturday, the Journey up was uneventful with the M23/40/42/6toll and 6 all very light traffic-wise. Keswick though was heaving; the weather on Saturday in the Lakes was perfect cloudless blue skies with clear mountain views and it had brought the tourists/walkers/climbers out in droves. I dropped the other two off at their B&B on the outskirts of the town before finding mine, which was chosen on the basis it overlooked the park where the race registration and finish were to take place. Less than 500m from the finish line to my bed 🙂
Arriving around 4pm there was time to do a recce of the registration area and also walk the last couple of race Ks around the shore of Derwent Water. I do like to have a visualisation of a race route in my mind’s eye – rough route, turns, elevation, land marks etc. To that end I’d spent hours studying the OS map of Scafell and surrounding peaks. My biggest fear was bad weather and poor visibility on the mountain. One FB thread mentioned experienced runners going round and round after passing the trig point on the top and taking the wrong route down; they had to retrace their steps back up again the find the right route off the mountain (there were two “dip” checkpoints en-route on the way down). Fearing the worst, I’d blown up OS map extracts of the whole mountain section, marked the route, added the grid line references and worked out the compass bearings at the tricky sections and turns… and laminated them! I’d also downloaded the gpx route to my watch. Oh and also downloaded a phone app called OS Locate which gives you your exact grid reference location. My other biggest fear was the cut-offs – 3hours at 11 miles, 6 hours at 17 miles and 9 hours to finish. All exceedingly generous even for a hilly marathon, but this was no ordinary hill with every possibility of getting disorientated in the mist.
After the long drive up I slept well. Drawing the curtains the following morning revealed leaden skies and all the mountains, even the lower peaks, shrouded in cloud. Sigh… how different from yesterday. Breakfast done, I went to register and pick up my timing dibber. I’d expected to have to show the mandatory kit which was listed as: waterproof top (must have taped seams), waterproof over-trousers (must have taped seams), first aid kit including sterile dressing, compass, whistle, mobile phone, foil blanket/survival bag, food and at least 500ml fluids. I weighed my Camelbak at home with this lot – 3.5kg… though I did have 1.5l of Tailwind and a bottle of flat coke! The galling thing is it wasn’t checked at the beginning, end or any point along the route. I’ve run so many races with similar mandatory kit requirements yet you see runners in just vest, shorts and a gel belt…. If its mandatory, make it so, [steps off soap box].
Registration done I return to my room for a last mug of tea then set off on the 30min walk to the start which was on the other side of the lake. Here runners were gathering by a cafe and I did my usual scan of the assembled masses to assess the strength of the field; omg… hugely intimidated by the fit, strong bunch before me and my ‘what am I doing here’ thoughts return.
Soon its time and the RD gives an update on the weather before we start. Cloud base is 2000ft and lifting, but still could be murky at the top… great… He mentioned that the route was well marked with route signage up to the base of Scafell Pike, but after that you had to mostly self navigate. ‘Mostly’ as after last year’s experiences in the clouds, a few marker canes had been placed on the descent route.
So we’re off and I’m in the last dozen out of maybe 170 runners straight away. After a few K’s of running on the flat next to the lake I’m next to last and I can’t see anyone in front. I really am rubbish at running on the flat…
Soon though I spot three ahead of me and catch them up. However its only because one of them has taken a really bad tumble on the rocky path and deeply cut her head. The expression ‘blood everywhere’ was never truer. The two guys with her had stemmed the bleeding and covered with a crepe bandage. They had already phoned the RD and he arrived just as I left them; she was going to be taken to hospital to get stitched up. Blimey… and we hadn’t got anywhere near Scafell yet.
The first hill, climbing from the river valley to a mere 800ft, soon appeared and I caught up with a couple of runners. They were old hands at Scafell having done it twice before, but as they were walking most of the uphill I powered past (not really). Disappointingly that 800ft did not count towards the 3200ft of Scafell as the route ran down to the river again at Seatoller. After a few Ks of road I arrived at the Seathwaite feed station at roughly 8 miles in a time of 1:45. From here the mountain section proper started and I had 1:15 to make the first CP cut off at Sty Head Pass at just under 11 miles. The next mile was easy enough, but after Stockley Bridge there was a very steep calf burning climb on angular rock slabs before the contours eased next to Styhead Gill. All the while the weather had been improving and I by now I got my first glimpses of the peaks around Scafell still with the very tops shrouded in mist… gulp.
I made CP1 with 20 minutes to spare; 2:40 to do 11 miles and with Sty Head at 1500ft, roughly half way up. I dibbed in and gave myself a virtual pat on the back for not dawdling too much in those early miles. I now had 3:20 to scale the summit and return to the Seathwaite feed station, now at roughly 17 miles. Six miles in over three hours, how hard can it be!
Erm, quite hard. From Sty Head Pass, the way to the top follows the ‘corridor route’. Not so much a path, more worn areas of rock some of which needed hand scrambling to get up and down. The downs were worst to be honest; one well documented one which was easy enough with plenty of hand and foot holds, but there followed another much narrower climb down with a distractingly sheer drop off the right. Safely negotiated it was all up from now on. After several rock scrambles and with the cloud completely lifted, the dome of Scafell’s summit came into view and I could see a line of runners and walkers like ants on the skyline. The last few hundred feet were very steep and I had to take several breather stops, mainly to let the legs recover a bit. After maybe 30 minutes of slow climb the ascent eases, but now I am entering the boulder field I heard all about; its walking now to the summit cairn.
There’s a dibber point at the summit and having ‘dibbed in’ and take a few photos and leaving the hordes of walkers to eat their lunches! Its taken me an hour to do roughly 2 miles! At least now its down…. only it wasn’t. There was a really tough short descent off the summit through massive angular boulders and no distinguishable path followed by an equally tough ascent up to a coll between Broad Crag and Ill Crag. It was here that runners got disorientated last year and I could see why. There was no path and no discernible features; in the cloud it would have been really tough and dangerous to be honest. As it was, I wandered off too far to the right amongst the boulders and was only saved by my GPS tracker.
One plus point of large boulders was I rediscovered my childhood skill of ‘rock hopping’. Living next to the sea from the age of six I spend a lot of time on the rocky beach and perfected the skill of hopping from rock to rock. It was like being a kid again – hard to explain unless it was something you did when you were young. As the terrain became a little easier dibbed in at CP3 and skipped and hopped my way back down to Sty Head. I must have passed a dozen or more runners here who clearly did not grow up on a beach.
I dibbed in at Sty Head in 4:35. The circuit up to the summit and back, roughly 5 miles, had taken 1:50. I now had 90 minutes to clear the 2 miles to the second cut off at Seathwaite (17 miles). Rock hopping rules. I ran those 2 miles, still over rough rocky terrain, but now downhill, in 35 minutes passing quite a few more tentative runners.
The mountain section was now done and the way home from here was via a different route. There were a few miles of gentle undulating slopes next to the valley floor, through a village with cheering but bemused spectators before the sting in the tail… the bonus hill called Grange Fell at mile 21. By now it was warm and the enclosed path surrounded by tall bracken seemed airless. This was as hard as Scafell darn it. It was a slow ‘hands on knees’ plod up the technical path to the top at 1100ft. The descent down was equally challenging, but finally it flattened out to run through old woodland next to a brook for about a mile and a half. It was like being on a different run compared to earlier. Green, flat, quiet shaded woods and not a soul in sight. The final dibbing CP was at Watendlath Beck at just over 23 miles. I refilled my Camelbak, grabbed a chocolate brownie and made up a few more places over a gaggle of runners over-indulging at the aid station.
Soon there was a lovely downhill section on a rural road. It nearly did for me though… a Vauxhall Mervia (I think) came up from behind and despite me running right on the extreme left hand edge of the road, literally missed me by inches. The guy behind whom I had just passed couldn’t believe it; looked like the driver just didn’t see me. After that and despite the downhill running I was glad to get off the road onto a narrow enclosed footpath.
The footpath was tricky going though; very narrow and rocky and on tired legs was another slow section; still passing runners however as by now my flat coke had well and truly kicked in. At just over 25 miles the route crossed into the park. Passing more runners I reached the start of my recce from the previous afternoon… a mile to go. Through some gates up on to the lakeside promenade, through the tourist traffic and then the turn to the finish!
An epic and exhilarating trail run and I finished feeling good and not too battered. 27 miles in 7:37 and 6400ft of climb; well inside the 9 hour cut off to finish, but I was wise to be concerned with that first cut off at CP1, making it with just 20 minutes to spare. It was not a day for bumbling, especially in the early miles…
Post run note: A women I chatted to briefly at the start of the mountain section who was struggling a bit, finished in 9:01 and she was dnf’d; one of 10 not making the final cut off.
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Lavaredo 120K Ultra Trail World Series Event (23-Jun-2017)
Things did not start well. Delays to flights throughout Europe due to thunder storms meant a later than anticipated arrival in Cortina. The acclimatisation walk would have to be forgotten and pasta needed to be found.
The walk back to the hotel took 45mins instead of the planned 10mins as a massive lightning and hail storm swept down through the valley. Water streaming down the road making my own and Paula’s trainers rather wet.
The day of the race soon was upon us and Paula and I spent the day apart. Paula had a lovely day walking with a friend and her dog and I tried and failed to get any sleep post registration. We had dinner together then waited until the late 11pm start. I got into the line with about 30mins to go and in true British style queued patiently. Only later did I find out a rugby scrum would ensue with a minute to go.
The race was off to the sound of the theme tune for “The good, the bad and the Ugly”. It was a balmy, humid but clear evening and I was delighted to finally get going. The first few kms were on the road out to the north of Cortina and I felt not too bad. The first climb quickly came and we were all tightly packed into a narrow path. This I do not like and was keen to get into more “open” running. As the path ascended to 1750m it opened up and made running more easy. The first downhill was a technically difficult single track with rocks and tree roots. Nice and steady from me, fast and furious from the Italians!
A little uphill took us into the first check point at Ospitale and I felt that the first 18km went OK for me by walking the hills and running the “runnable sections”. Maybe this was not going to be as hard as the UTMB after all.
The next checkpoint was 17km away and over the Forc Son Forca at 2200m then down to Federavechia. This is when I started to first feel nausea during the climbing above 2000m. I have never really felt this before and in addition to the nausea I was struggling for breath. This would be repeated throughout the rest of the race.
I got through to Federavechia in around the time I was expecting. Coming out of the aid station we started the steep ascent to the highest point on the course and the most famous land mark the Forc Lavaredo or better known as “Tre Che”. Half way up you get a break at Lago Misurina with some flat before the rest of the climb. This should have been a good running point but stomach issues called for “longer than normal” comfort break. From the lago it is a steep hike to the Rif Auronzo aid station and some noodle soup with Parmesean. This climb had been a real physical and mental battle for me as one by one people went passed me looking fitter and stronger. I did at last speak to someone on the way up after a long night of silence. By this time dawn had broken and the first sights of the simply stunning landscape came upon us. Massive peaks, beaming red against the morning sky from the rising sun was truly inspiring.
Some noodle soup and off to climb up and round Tre Che, then a super 10K downhill to meet Paula and the bottom of the mountain. Photos will never do justice to how stunning the area truly is and I only which I could have spent more time sitting and admiring it. A renewed sense of purpose and this section went well with me holding my position to those around me. The heat was rising by now and my proposed timings got a little out of sync to when I should be meeting Paula. After a few texts we finally met where I moaned to Paula about not having a good time, never doing it again, etc etc. A short hop up the track to the next aid station and half way to meet Paula (only found out after Paula had massive road rage after being blocked in).
Paula helped me organise myself for the next half of the race and off I went into the morning heat. From looking at the profile I did not expect the next climb to be so long and hard but it was. Nausea still impacting on my uphills. On reaching the top the down into Malga Rau Stua was lovely and run able and I got into a good rhythm all the way down. I met Paula again for which I am forever thankful. She was a great help and support and never let on to me how worried/anxious she was for me.
The next aid station was through the Travenazes at 20km away with >1000m of climbing. I had read about this section as potentially being the most difficult both physically and mentally. It did not disappoint. Very steep climbs and exposed river bed sections that included several river crossings made this section the longest and mentally toughest points for me.
From the top it was all down hill to meet Paula again for the last time at Rif Gallina. The downhill was wide easy running and I felt strong and happy. Twist was we had another climb before Gallina that I did not think was there. An oh bugger moment. Down at Gallina I met Paula, her friend Sally and her dog. Paula commented that everyone was looking rather “white”. “Why do you all do it” she asked.
Another stomach issue break, some refuelling and off onto another very steep climb. This climb was relentless up to Rif Averau. Another rifuge could be seen way off in the distance that I thought was Averau and really had a moan to myself at this point. But to my relief Averau popped into sight earlier than thought. The joy! A hot tea and off I went with a roar of thunder and flashes of lighting streaking across the sky.
The next sections were “undulating” to the last aid station. With some runable downhill parts but short steep climbs. Rain jacket was on by this point but with the heat and humidity I soon felt like Uncle Bens boil in the bag rice. The rain never really came so the jacket came off as soon as I could.
On reaching the last aid station it is all single track downhill for 9km to Cortina. I was buoyed by the thought of finishing and seeing Paula and friends and went off at a pace. Some confusion of the distance left shouted from marshalls dropped my spirits slightly but ran as much as I could.
I finally reached the main street of Cortina and Paula ran out from the pizza restaurant, grabbed my hand and proceeded to sprint me to the finish. A finish time of 21:39mins and no end of race collapse, so very happy to receive my finishers gillet with a smile on my face.
The Dragons Back 2017 (22nd-26th May-2017)
Five days, 200 miles, 15,000 meters of ascent, self navigating, climbing Snowdon, Crib Goch and the Welsh 1000s on day one, and typically less than half those who start finish…no wonder three days before the race started I was having a panic attack about what lay in store.
Come the Sunday before race day I’d managed to get all the mandatory kit plus hill food together (pork pies and sausages) and headed up to Conway on the train. A change at Birmingham and more “Dragons “ got on board and then at Crewe even more. The atmosphere was very pre-exam, everyone comparing notes on how much mountain running and route rec-ying they’d done in the build up to the race . My own experience consisted of many hours on the South Downs (not exactly mountainous!) and zero hours spent rec-ying the Welsh hills.
At Conway I was reunited with two of my tent-mates from the 2016 Marathon Des Sables ,Ricky and Matt (It was Matt’s suggestion we should sign up for the Dragon’s Back). It was also good to see Danny from Sussex Trail Events, Graham from work and my cousin Michael. So it felt reassuring to know some people and potentially have some company on the course.
The registration process consisted of checking everyone had all the mandatory kit, collection of trackers/sos system, electronic dibber for the checkpoints and a photo portrait from Ian Corless. The race briefing was surprisingly reassuring; most of the ascent is in the first three days so it was good to know that if we could make it past that it would start to get “easier”. We spent the night in a hostel in Conwy and I slept with the map under my pillow just to help any last minute navigational hints to seep in overnight.
Day 1 Conwy castle to Nant Gant (52 km, 3,800m ascent)
We were up at 5am for breakfast in the hostel before heading down to Conwy Castle for the 7am start. We were treated to a Welsh male voice choir prior to the race start. The first of many lifetime memories from this race was hearing their rendition of the Welsh national anthem and “you’ll never walk alone”, resonating around the ruined keep of the castle.
And then we were off! The first few checkpoints came along quite quickly, the first half of the day was really fun, the sun was shining and we were fairly well bunched together. We followed a long ridge way taking in Taly-fan and the Carnedd’s. Descending down to the halfway support point, my second lifetime memory took place, as we dropped the 1000m down into the valley, a RAF Typhoon came booming through the valley pretty much at our level which was amazing.
I got my hill bag at halfway and realised I’d made a massive error with my savoury choice of grub. As the hill bag was a dry bag it got nice and hot each day so sweaty pork pies weren’t the most appetising! I grabbed some baby bells and headed off with Danny from STE to head up Tryfan. Climbing Tryfan, I think is the hardest workout I’ve ever done in my life! We went up almost 1000m in roughly 1km. The final few hundred meters we had to scrabble over the rocks so it’s pretty much a full body work out and I could feel my heart thundering away. At the top of Tryfan there are two rocks called Adam and Eve and if you can jump from one to the other then you get the “freedom of Tryfan”, which I’d planned to do. However once I’d got to the top, the combination of a stiff wind and my rather elevated heart rate put paid to that. On the top of Tryfan we also had our first encounter with “the Clag “ which is a great description I’d never heard of before. From tryfan we went along a ridge way for the next 3-5km which took in the Two Glyders both at 1000m. By this stage visibility was down to 10-20m and I was lucky enough to run with a gent who’d been up here in a snowstorm so knew the route really well otherwise think I’d have been lost and timed out on Day 1. From Glyder Fawr we descended down to the youth hostel at Pen-y-pas where I had an amazing cup of coffee and could also refill my water bottles. There was a cut off at 5pm to reach the hostel so it was good to know we had a few hours in the bank.
Onwards from the hostel, Crib Goch lay in our way. Now, I’d made the mistake of watching YouTube videos with names such as “ stuck on Crib Goch” in the week prior to the race (did I mention I was really scared about this race?) so I was fairly apprehensive about taking on the knife edge Ridgeway. As it turned out it was one of the best outdoors experiences of my life! Due to the clag you could only see a couple of meters of rock under your feet, the rest was surrounded in cloud so it did feel like you were climbing an actual stone dragons back in the cloud, and I loved every second of it. At the end of the ridge way Danny and I teamed up with another couple of guys to try to make our way to the next checkpoint. We got a bit lost at this stage and my energy levels we’re starting to run low, but a few jellybeans later and having found the checkpoint I felt reenergised. From here we followed a path to the top of Snowdon. I’d never been up here before so was really excited and sprinted the steps to the top of the summit, it felt great to know we’d survived the climbing for day 1. Visibility was quite bad and we actually missed the next checkpoint but rather kindly another runner let us know and we retraced our steps to check in. The next few hours we descended along a ridge way in the clag before getting to the penultimate checkpoint. A few kilometres later we were now low enough for the mist to have dropped off and coming round a corner we had our first view of the campsite for day 1. Every day that week the sight of those big blue tents was always an amazing feeling to know you’d survived another day in the mountains. We came in just under 12 hours which was brilliant.
A really nice touch is when you finish one of the volunteers walks you back to your tent carrying your 60L tent dry bag so was really nice to compare notes on our respective days. It was really important to be disciplined when you got back to the tent, after half a day in the hills it’s very tempting to just laze around, but this race is all about how resilient you can be to attrition. So my routine every day was to get back, take of my shoes and socks with great trepidation as my feet would look like they’d been in a bath for a million hours all swollen up and nasty. But amazingly every day after a few hours of “airing” I’d risk another glance at them and they’d returned to their normal selves. Then it was off to the canteen to nail a few rounds of the evening meal and to catch up with other runners and share our experiences of the day. In the dinning marquee they had big maps of each day along the wall. Each day it was a really nice feeling to be able to start looking at the next day’s map. Unfortunately Ricky and Matt didn’t make it though day 1 and I was gutted for them but does show how hard this race is. The combination of the terrain and cut-offs make it considerably harder than the MDS.
Day 2 Nant Gwyant to Dolgellau (58 km, 3,600m ascent)
Danny and I had agreed to run together today and we left the camp at 6:30am. The first few miles was on road and after all the scrambling the day before it felt good to move quickly through the terrain. This didn’t last long as we then started ascending through the mountains. The clag was really thick but there were enough runners around that we could find our way together. The ground was marshy underfoot so our trainers were soaking.
Working in Water resources it was interesting to run past so many reservoirs and some amazing structures built in these hills (speaking of which if anyone knows who built cairns and why then please let me know!). After about 20km or so we’d descended down into the lord of the rings sounding Vale of Ffestiniog with some lovely running along a railway and even a River Arun or Adur style levee’ along a meander. I did not think my Darkstar marathon experience would have been useful in the Dragon’s back! After the valley we then had another 15km to 20km back in the mountains, before we reached halfway. Danny had dropped behind and just as I was leaving the checkpoint he came in and said he was dropping out due to his knee. It was a shame as it’d had been nice running together but with the Rhinogs coming up was probably the wise decision. The rest of the day was spent in blazing sunshine (which was to remain for the rest of the week).
I’d been apprehensive about navigating through the Rhinogs but this turned out to be ok. It was more difficult due to the rapid ascending and descending of the two mountains in such close succession. Ascending up Rhinog Fawr I was running low on water, but we could hear bubbling water flowing down the hill, unfortunately these turned out to be under large boulders and inaccessible. A few hundred meters higher however, just before we turned left for the final steep climb, we saw the stream at the surface. This was the best water I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking in my life. One of my favourite things to do throughout the week was drink from these freshwater streams, something I’ve never done before but was a brilliant experience. The last 5km of the day was a mandatory route which sounded good as we couldn’t (in theory) get lost. But in practice was hell as we were so close to home but felt like we were wandering, randomly through the woods. However, these eventually ended and before long we ran into the campsite to the glorious site of those blue tents again to the end of another day.
Day 3 Dolgellau to Ceredigion (71 km 3,500m)
My A goal for this race was finish Day 1, my B goal was to finish Day 3. Statistically most people who finish day three go on to finish the whole thing. As I went to Aberystwyth University, Ceredigion, is a place close to my heart so I felt really motivated on this day. I left camp at 6am and I worryingly discovered that I couldn’t run! So I ambled the first few km before my legs could warm up and I could do some semblance of a trot. Once we’d left the valley the mist came in once again. I was really nervous about navigation so tried to stick closely with other runners. Generally, although visibility was down to 20m, the path followed a fence line which gave me a bit of confidence. Check point 2 was Cadair Idris which I’d heard a lot about during my uni days so it was great to finally climb it albeit with no views as a reward. A few km later I teamed up with a tent mate Darren and we teamed up together. From Cadiar we followed more mandatory trail through farmland for 10km before ascending again to climb Taren Hendre (not named after the snooker player).
By now the sun was out again and it was scorching, this was compounded by a nagging pain in my left ankle which was getting worse by the hour. Checkpoint five was an annoying out and back, directly up a hill and back, by the time we’d got back my ankle was in agony. The next 10km saw us descend through woods to the support point at Machynlleth. At this stage I was in my lowest mood of the week and pretty much ready to quit as my ankle hurt so much! Coming into Machynlleth I managed to jog a little when coming round a corner towards a bridge I heard some people calling my name! My amazing dad, youngest sister Libby and Aunty Elizabeth had travelled all the way out the deepest Wales to cheer me on. I can’t describe how amazing this felt! Immediately upon seeing them all the pain disappeared, as well as the depression and I had a renewed determination to finish this race. The support point was the other side of the town which meant we could hit whatever food shops were available . Desperate to eat something other than sweaty porkpies I picked up some pasta and the best tasting bottle of DR Pepper I’ve ever had. My family met me at the checkpoint so it was great to catch up with them briefly. There seemed to be a lot of casualties at this checkpoint and I was desperate not to join them and despite the heat crack back on to the trail. Saying good bye to my family, Darren and I carried on up into the hills 24km away from finishing day 3!
A few hours a later I’d reached the top of Pen Pumlumon Fawr (which sounds amazing in a proper welsh accent) this was our final mountain of the day. Shattered, I leant against the trig point looking out over a big reservoir, mountains and the sun beginning to set knowing it was all downhill from here and that day 3 was done, quite a special feeling. I had a new lease of energy and ran most of the way back to the camp at day 3.
Day 4: Through the Elan Valley (71km 2,400 m)
I left early at 6am and ran with Lou who I’d met at the Jurassic challenge in 2016 and was doing really well. The mist was in again and after we’d got a bit lost in the woods we ascend through the hills past a wind farm. There was something sinister about the noise the blades made especially with the mist being so thick. We had done some good running that morning as most of the route was relatively flat (especially compared to day 1!) so we got a few quick miles under our belts.
Once the mist cleared we had some beautiful views with another large reservoir on our right hand side. I got to the halfway checkpoint nice and early but majorly sunburnt. I borrowed some sun cream and headed back out into the heat. Despite being long, empty and boiling the second half of day four had some of my favourite running. By this stage after four days of running you had run with quite a lot of people. Being such long days you’d find that we all had different rhythms of being fast and slow so you might spend an hour so with someone before one of you would speed off. I spent a good few km’s running with some guys from Switzerland. The last 20km was along a road which, on paper, looked quite runnable but by this stage your feet were rather sore so the tarmac felt quite unforgiving. The thought of the river next to the final camp site was motivation enough to keep me going through. Although I clearly wasn’t going fast enough as, towards the end, one of the Swiss guys overtook me saying “Come on Jonny is this a hike or a race!”.
Day four was defiantly my best day, coming in around 11 -12 hours it felt good to have taken on the course a little bit, rather than just surviving. Next to the camp site was a pub but I had promised myself I would have a pint on finishing the race and not before, so I resisted temptation. Instead in the canteen tent I could finally look at the day five map to see what lay in store for us.
Day 5 : Into Carmarthenshire (63km 2,200m)
Day 5 the last day of the Dragons Back, I could finally finish this thing! I was so focused waking up that morning, determined to leave bang on 6am to have as much time as possible today. This didn’t go entirely to plan as my hill bag had gone missing. However, thanks to the amazing volunteers and my amazing tent mates they put together a new hill bag for me so I could have some food at halfway. A few km’s after the start we walked through an abandoned lead mine which looked pretty eerie l in the morning mist. After about 15km we came to the town/village of Llandovey. I would love to know what the locals thought as 200 odd of us descended on the town centre, buying up all the food and coca cola they had!
Leaving Llandovey I found I finally had signal on my mobile so whilst trotting along a road for about 10km I gave my dad and girlfriend Katie a bell it was great to hear their voices and a good way to start the day. The support point was relatively early on day 5, just on the other side of the dam at Usk reservoir. Here they had a supply of choc ices for us as well as our hill bags, which tasted amazing in the heat! We’d been told the Black mountains of the Brecon Beacons were the “sting in the dragon’s tail”. This coupled with stories about army lads dying in the Brecons from heat meant I was a bit apprehensive about taking on these mountains in the second half of the day. One good thing about the mountains was that it was so windy up there you didn’t feel the effects of the baking heat quite so much.
At checkpoint five I met Ricky and Matt who’d been doing half days for the rest of the week. A few miles later I was in a bad place! The ground was all broken rocks (maybe schist?) which were hard to run on, plus my knee and ankle hurt. Then I heard “ Jonny are you ok?” and Ricky had caught me up. He put his arm around my shoulder and again I had another experience of all the pain going and feeling ready to go (whatever hormone is responsible for this would make a great drug!). I’m so grateful to Ricky for that perfectly timed support. Despite the terrain continuing for another km or so I picked up the pace and carried on. Leaving the final hill I started becoming emotional about the week. Finding what looked on the map to be the last mountain stream and pretty sure I was now going to actually finish the race I decided to have a mini baptism in the stream to name myself a dragon slayer (luckily no-one was around to witness this strange behaviour).
As soon as we left the mountains and the wind died it became apparent just how hot it was, the back of my hands in particular felt on fire! The last km was along the road and again I felt really emotional that this race was going to end. Coming round the final corner I heard a cry of “Come on Jonny” and it turned out that Katie had decided to come and surprise me at the end. Smiling, I sprinted in with her, coming to the finish I closed my eyes, held my arms out, and promptly tripped over on the grass. What a way to finish this amazing race. In the end I finished 75th with a total time of 65 hours. 56 % of those who started finished the whole race.
That evening we had the prize giving ceremony where all those who finished came up one by one to collect their dragons. My cousin Michael had also finished having put in an amazing shift with many late finishes so it was great to share the experience with him.
Without a doubt this was the hardest and best thing I have ever done. Looking back it seems like a week in Technicolor, the combination of such emotional highs and lows every day. To cross the start line every day with no guarantee that you would cross the finish line some 12+hours later to then actually find yourself crossing that finish line, to continually surprise yourself every day by what you are accomplishing was a privilege . It’s not often, or at all, that we get a chance to properly find out what an amazing machine this human body and mind that we have is. We’re all capable of so much more than we realise and races like the dragons back allow you to prove it to yourself. It’s going to be tough finding a race to top it .
Past race ‘experiences’ are on the on the race archive page