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The 2019 Berghaus Dragons Back Race

Ever since the Internet has provided the opportunity to suspend all productive activity and watch dots instead, that's been my guilty pleasure. Days are lost every year to the Spine and I remember watching Jez Bragg's dot glide across the Dragon's Back route map in 2015. There's something about the combination of knowing someone else is doing something heroic and outrageous with the potential for disaster while you just get to watch. The race seemed the most ridiculous thing ever contemplated.

Four years later and I'm on the start line myself; whatever is driving the bus in my head having decided we were going to run it without any major debate a year before.

The idea of an epic journey under my own power has me absolutely hooked.

It's still the most ridiculous thing - a string of 5 back-to-back mountain ultras, in total covering 315km of substantially trackless Wales with 10 miles of vertical gain. Besides a lot of fell- and mountain-running skills I don't really have, it also requires a whole bunch of auxilliary skills I don't have either. Map reading and camp craft being the most important. There was also a vast amount of kit I didn't have and I spent so much time in Windsor's Cotswold Outdoor, the staff started asking after the family when I turned up yet again.

The elevation profile of the whole race and key summits

The event provides 8-person tents, breakfast and evening meal, plus water and your own drop bag at a single point each day. Apart from that you are on your own. No constant buffet of your traditional ultra and you must carry enough water to get through or source it from the land.

You can head out on the day's course at any time you like between 6am and 9am but there is a strict time cut-off at the drop-bag point and another to be back at camp by 23:00hrs. The event team move the tents, but you must pack all your own gear into overnight and drop bag, get fed, 'washed', through kit check etc. before you can leave. I soon found this takes an astonishing amount of time.

But as we all piled in to Conwy castle on Monday in time to drop our bags off by 6:30am, this was all to come. Your overnight bag is limited to 60 litres capacity and having been forced to run for the train from Euston with the bloody thing, I was glad to have been able to dispose of that at registration the day before. The drop bag is limited to 22 litres but, crucially, also 5kg max and they were being weighed before being accepted. Mine was just over and I had to regretfully jettison a t-shirt and, less regretfully, a couple of pairs of undercrackers to make weight. Others were less fortunate, having well over a kilo to shed and I can imagine that caused some difficult decisions.

The castle provided an impressive and imposing setting with spectators and national flags (32 nations were represented here) lined up on the ramparts as the courtyard filled with pensive runners, hopping from foot-to-foot in the chill morning air. A Welsh male voice choir filed in and treated us to a couple of stirring numbers as the last few minutes ticked down. Reminiscent of Shosholoza at Comrades, the solemnity of the singing focussed the mind on the journey ahead. Inspiring.

A countdown of 10 sets the masses off around the castle ramparts that encircle the town; times not being recorded until a point outside the castle before we started climbing out of Conwy. Not that that mattered - the cut-offs were the same after all!

Day 1 - Conwy to Nantgwynant : 52km / 3,800m

Day 1 is a full frontal assault. 'Only' 50km but 3,800 metres of ascent. Luckily you're fresh, but your freshness lasts as long as a typical avocado's. It starts off pretty gently with runnable, rolling summits as the overall altitude climbs. A long drag up to Drum (770m) followed by the Carnedds (+/- 1000m) and a technical descent from Pen Yr Ole Wen. It's tiring but I was pleased that, compared to the recce in ice, wind and clag in November, it felt much more comfortable.

The lunch stop is just before Tryfan and I was there in plenty of time and spent some of that on taking in some real food before the business end of the day.

I hadn't recced Tryfan, nor Crib Goch and I was soon to spot a pattern. If I'd missed it out on the recces, it would turn out to be a complete and utter pig.

The climb up to Tryfan's summit starts with a very steep, rough staircase upon which I had to take a few breathers before a scramble up a random pile of enormous boulders that is the business end of the mountain. There's no route as such, you just haul yourself up. It went on forever. I'd met Kirsty from Run247 at the lunch stop and we chatted on the way up - she dealt with the monster far better than me and my replies became ever more punctuated by gulps and consisted of fewer and fewer syllables. I could hear her introducing me to someone up above, a significant gap having now opened up and I desultorily waved a pole in acknowledgement - about the only motion I could spare.

The descent is if anything even more sketchy, down to the South Summit and onto and over the Glyders. It was a beating before reaching the YHA and Pen-y-Pass and raiding their bar for a cup of tea and a Tango (they'd run out of everything else!).

If anything Crib Goch was even worse than Tryfan, probably because even more energy had drained away by then but as the route turned off the Pyg Track and headed skywards I was faced with another long and extremely steep scramble to reach the start of the ridge.

Dragons Back Race 2019 - Crib Goch
Traversing Crib Goch

I'm not bad with heights and the ridge itself didn't bother me too much though if you do get vertigo then this place is not for you, with a sheer half-mile drop to your right and not much better prospects a metre to your left. At one point on the scramble up, though, I'd moved around to the right onto an inviting flat shelf 6 inches wide and started to haul myself up from there. I then noticed I was suspended above nothing. Hardly Free Solo territory but I'm no Alex Honnold and for a brief moment there was a flicker of panic.

I picked my way across the ridge. I've watched a lot of videos about this crossing and I'd convinced myself it was almost flat (it isn't) and you could walk across it, but with jelly legs from the day's efforts I took a long time to inch along instead. What views though!

The day was vanishing fast and (another unwanted pattern) it was taking a lot longer to cover the ground than expected. I reached Snowdon, peered over the edge briefly and pressed on to Y LLiwedd and Gallt Y Wenallt - really broken trails with lots of exhausting scramble - pretty much solo by now.

Thirteen and a half hours after leaving Conwy, I finally reached the camp site at Nantgwynant. It was starting to get dark and cold as I was cheered in, reunited with my bags, and walked to my tent by the amazingly upbeat volunteers (over 130 of them here).

The full extent of washing facilities was the dark and cold stream. I wasn't keen on that anyway but the prospect of walking back up the trail to reach it put the lid on that.

Intros among my new tentmates preceded dinner with my plastic cup, plate and cutlery in tow like it was Scout camp, and I think I must have hit the sack about 11pm.

Baptism of fire. Alarm set for 5am.

Day 2 - Nant Gwynant to Dolgellau : 58km / 3,600m

Loud conversations between a large amount of sheep plus a couple of riots amongst a pack of dogs during the night had reduced my sleep to minutes and the cold, damp morning air coupled with stiff legs made getting going difficult.

Ahead lay what is generally accepted to be the hardest day of the 5.

I reluctantly deflated the Thermarest still sat in the sleeping bag wondering what state the legs would be in when I stood up. I'd bagged every day's kit and food separately - trying to be organised in order to get going as fast as possible but somehow the best I could do was 7:30am. There is so much to pack up, you have to eat etc. and I'd already lost 90 minutes.

On the credit side despite a rocky first few paces, the legs eased up quickly and I was able to run and recover some time on the way up to Cnicht - first big climb of the day. At 25% gradient, Cnicht was something of a Cnunt but it's followed by the Moelwyns - the second of which, Moelwyn Bach is an out and back summit which reduced me to a painful trudge. I was behind the suggested time schedule and starting to get concerned as I millimetrically picked my way up the slope, returning runners flying past the other way.

Dragons Back Race 2019 - view from Moelwyn Bach
Moelwyn Bach

The views from the summit were sublime and there was total silence save for the muffled thuds of running shoes. Really beautiful, but there wasn't time to sit and take in the scenery for long.

Each day tended to have at least some good running surface where good progress was possible. The route dropped down towards Ffestiniog, hopping to and fro across the railway as it went and I was able to put in some faster kms and get ahead of the clock over some lovely, runnable trails. The steam loco made a cameo appearance to the delight of some American runners and I now wish I'd got the camera out.

One of the race rules is that you can use any shops or similar along the way - anything that is available to any competitor is fair game. There are precious few signs of habitation let alone retail outlets but there is a hotel in Maentwrog. I wouldn't have noticed it but Sabrina Vergee (race leader) passed me just before it (she had started far later in the morning than me of course) and dived in. Not to be outdone, I dived in too. A queue had formed and the Coke tap was getting plenty of action. The old dear behind the bar was clearly used to serving no more than 3 people a day and the drinks were coming out at glacial speed. 'Two pints of Coke' says the fella at the front of the queue and they are fulfilled at the rate of a dripping tap. She takes his money and moves on to the next in line only for exhibit A to pipe up 'Oh, and could I have a couple of slices of lemon?'. SLICE OF LEMON? WE'RE IN A BLOODY RACE, MATE!
'I'll just go and see if we have any lemons in the back,' she says and shuffles off, returning the day after with the produce. It was turning into Julie Walters's Two Soups sketch before my eyes. I eventually got mine, sank half and poured the rest into a hard bottle and pressed on.

I'd recced the rest of this day's course and navigation was easy but there was plenty of swampy ground and the shoes and socks were soon waterlogged. I managed to slip on the only piece of grating for 20 miles and went over into the bog to the gratifying consternation of my nearby colleagues, adding another coat to the thick layer of tilth that now encased me.

I'd noticed that since washing became so yesterday, we'd all basically become feral. Belch and fart etiquette had gone through the three stages of holding it in, apologising for it and letting them off like cannon fire with complete abandon. The women too. How quickly it happens, At least we all had food, I thought, otherwise we'd be forming rival tribes and eating each other by Thursday.

The aid stop on day 2 and my can of chunks, coveted by everybody (photo credit Dragon's Back)

The lunch stop was in an idyllic spot by a lake just before the Roman Steps and I had plenty of time in the bank. But the afternoon, I knew, was going to be extremely hard with the beasts that are the Rhinogs to come. The sun partially dried out my shoes and macerated feet before I Tin Man-staggered to the exit as the hinges creaked in protest.

I don't know if the Romans actually had anything to do with the Roman Steps but if they did it must have been in their pre-straight line period. I'd been tempted to go off piste halfway up and try a potential short cut to the summit of Rhinog Fawr but I didn't see anyone else going for it and thought better of it. In any case it's the descent of Rhinog Fawr that's terrible and I think I ended up on the worst possible route down. It's a long way on extremely loose and dangerous scree - in the event it took nearly 40 minutes to drop just 300 metres elevation. Very unpleasant with injury just a slip away with cascades of sharp, loose shale. Then you must regain all that altitude again to reach the summit of Rhinog Fach - another grinding climb up a very steep slope.

I'd noticed someone had found a better (on paper), direct route between these two on Strava, pinched it and stored it in my watch. Without knowing what the terrain was going to be like, as with the Steps, I chickened out and took the race recommended line instead, only to follow someone who went the wrong way and added an unwanted kilometre and 20 minutes to the clock. Typical that the only place with a nav error is the one small part of the course I don't have on the watch! We compounded the waste I think by backtracking when we could have continued to the correct line and done an out and back to the peak. Hindsight.

There's another punishing, painfully slow drop and climb over rough stuff to Y Llethr and then a looong drag up to another out and back summit on Diffwys through thick grasses and heather. I'd recced all of this part of today (except the out and back) and had forgotten just how bloody awful it was; whole stretches had been erased from my memory.

Someone was wild camping atop Y Llethr and with its astounding views over the sea it looked liked paradise.

The dibber on Diffwys marked the beginning of the end and from there it's a descent to the camp over improving trail to forest track to road.

Final descent to the camp

I was pretty done in by the time I reached camp. The sun was almost done in too and I'd been out on the hill just shy of 14 hours. I forced myself to go and eat and then to get a warm shower (the only chance in the whole race before the finish). The shower was amazing despite it eating into sleeping time - I didn't get to bed until midnight - and I enjoyed a chat with John Kynaston in the queue whose recce videos I'd been watching over and over before getting out here.

Day 3 - Dolgellau to Ceredigion : 71km / 3,500m

So this is the day. They say if you get through day 3 you're looking good for a finish. Apparently of all the DNFs, 30% go on day 1, 30% on day 2 and another 30% on day 3.

By now my entire world was this race. There had been no mobile signal since the start and the outside world was completely forgotten. I think this helped. The race takes 100% of your attention and consumes every waking moment.

I'd already told myself getting a couple of days done was some kind of achievement and I'd recced the first 2/3rds of today so felt fairly confident, but it's a long one at 71km and over 3,500 metres of vertical to come.

Once again it's hard to get out early and I make it out the door just before 7.30. Far too late. I'd had an amount of sleep measured in a handful of minutes.

To my surprise and delight I could run almost from the gate and there's a fair bit of road through Dolgellau and the lower slopes of Cadair. In the higher reaches the clag came in, the temperature dropped below freezing and it was a serious battle of will. I thought I'd blown it and randoms were telling me without invitation that they had blown it and were going to quit, like zombies rising out of the mud and grabbing at your legs to pull you down with them.

I'd enjoyed the climb in the recce but this was different with the weather and the nagging time pressure. A real pig of a thing but I knew there was a lot of runnable track to come and if I could still run, time could be made up.

Dragons Back Race 2019 - Cadair Idris Ridge
The Cadair ridge (this is from my recce - it was nothing like this during the race!)

There are a couple of soul-destroying climbs before the descent to the lunch stop in Machynlleth (and its enticing array of shops). Tarrenhendre climbs 600 metres over 4km and kicks up towards the summit. I found Julie who had a very slow climbing pace but it was rock solid and she didn't stop so I tagged in behind. An utter grind. I allowed myself a count of 50 paces before I would look up to see how far was left, and try for more than 50 if possible. Normally I'd have gone faster, but would have to stop and take breathers so this was definitely the way to go.

Julie would end up earning the massive dragon trophy for spending the most time out on the hill! 80 hours! Respect!

After a descent to a ridge comes Tarren y Gesail which was even worse. It was another one of those out and back checkpoints and it was pretty obvious there was no other reason to visit this particular lump. I really struggled to get up this hill. It's only a couple of hundred metres total but they were desperate. I was in no immediate danger of the lunch cut-off and I knew the trail down into town was a good one so I reassured myself of that as I gasped my way up the thing, stopping every few metres to get the heart rate down.

I slid back down mostly on my backside, only to discover later I'd holed my shorts beneath the waterline.

A raid on the garage in Machynlleth yielded an ice cream and a can of Coke, consumed while walking through the town to the aid station. A decent refuel and rest there left 15 minutes to spare. My closest call though that was under control.

The main goal of each day was to reach the lunch cut-off; any later ones and the end of day cut-off being more generous. Just another 20-odd miles to go which passed without any incident or great landmark until the approach to Pumlumon Fawr - yet another tough climb. One of those mountains consisting of false summit after false summit with 400 metres of gain in around 2km. Very tough after a long day out on the hill. The light was starting to go and I just wanted to get home but the last few km dragged.

Another 14 hour day. But that felt like the worst was over.

Day 4 - The Elan Valley : 71km / 2,400m
Another 71km to cover but this time the altitude was only 2,400m gain but in its place - tussocks!

Finally I managed to get myself out there a bit earlier - just before 7am and soon fell in with Pip who, despite suffering with a problem shin, was the kind of dependable companion you want when there are long km to bash out.

I'd ditched my shoes and ran in a spare pair, the others being by now waterlogged and filthy. They were aggravating a growing blister problem on both feet so I felt no great attachment to them. Blisters were my only real issue the entire race - very lucky. Hardly any muscular ache or pain at all.

We chatted through the windfarms and the long sections of hard standing and road that made up the first decent chunk of the day before I lost him over the tussocks, over which he was much more efficient than me. I was still able to run pretty well on good surfaces and if you can do that, you stand a good chance of getting through this thing.

I absolutely hated the tussocks. There were kms of them. Rough, lumpy grass nubs that you land half-on and they twist your shoe and your foot in your shoe and your tendons in your foot, rubbing every blister you've got. Worse ones overbalance you and you might shove a pole into the ground for stabilisation only to find it sinks up to half its length and has to be yanked out.

The landscape is full of almost nothing. Big skies, grass, that's about it. There's a kind of empty beauty to it but I found a further section of road a welcome relief and then there was little to go before the day's aid station. Fortunately a hotel had seen the race coming and had set up a bacon bap stand outside!! The pace of life round here seems directly proportional to the cost of everything. This bap, proper bread and full of locally-sourced bacon, was £2. I had a shandy in the bar for good measure. I can't remember the last time I had a shandy. Maybe 30 years ago but for some reason I craved one. The drink queue was processed at the same speed as in Maentwrog.

Elan Village is an absolutely idyllic setting by the river and it would have been easy to stay there all day on the warmest afternoon of the week, but an afternoon of getting the job done followed.

More vast open tracts of land followed in the great value company of Jono and Dave who'd met at Cape Wrath and obviously been inseparable ever since.

Dragons Back Race - panorama
360 degree panorama of the plain

A top-up of the bottles with some ice-cold stream water and then an almost magical trail through a bluebell wood, the like of which I've never seen followed before we hit another road section and I pressed on to get ahead of time.

Dragons Back Race - bluebell wood

A pretty drab valley with yet more tussocks and swamp sapped the energy as did one last road section to the camp which I decided to walk to save the legs for the final day!

Another near-14 hour day out there. Consistent if nothing else! 54+ hours of running done and just 40 more miles to go. There was a pub right next to the camp site and I briefly considered frequenting it as I could have murdered a pint but of course that would have turned into 3 and jeopardised my interest in the last day of the race so I passed the chance up and hit the sack.

Day 5 - Brecon Beacons : 63km / 2,200m
The bags were packed for the last time. I can only imagine how badly I smelt after 3 days without soap although there were plenty of clues wafting out from the contents of my used clobber bag that now filled the bottom of my overnight bag like an open sewer.

Two cut-offs to hit today before bringing it home before 11pm and the Dragon would be mine. For the first time I woke up feeling that all was not so well in the Kingdom of Denmark - there were a lot more aches. It should be a walkover from here but I was not going to take anything for granted. Just to reinforce that, I managed to set out by 7am again only to get 500m down the road before realising I hadn't dibbed out so had no choice but to go back! Not catastrophic but it boosted my stress levels. As I set out for a second time I passed someone else returning having done the same thing!

Good news for me - the midway point was about 18 miles away at Usk Reservoir with a 1pm deadline and there was a great deal of road in the way and I could still run! I fell in with Kirsty and Pip again by chance and that could not have worked out better because Kirsty pushed on at every runnable opportunity and we made great time through the pleasant countryside.

We were to pass through Landovery on the way and there was continual talk of pasties and coffees there.  The place had taken on an almost mythical, Camelot-like incarnation in my mind. The way, I imagine, evacuee kids dreamt of chocolate during the war.  The miles passed pretty easily and it seemed like no time before we'd reached the place, found a bakery and denuded the display of sausage rolls. Another bargain at £2.10 for a huge, home-made sausage roll and can of shandy (I know, what's with the shandy thing?!)

We didn't hang about with another 5 miles of road ahead during which Lisa Watson - now leading the Women's race powered past us looking extremely strong though still happy to chat!

We reached Usk about 2 hours ahead of cut-off and the day felt all but won but this is a day of two halves and there were a string of hefty climbs to come starting with the 800m summit of Fan Brycheiniog.

On the climb to that summit, out of the blue, someone who turned out to be Sarah Wilde said 'are you Andrew Cooney?' and we embraced like old friends despite never having actually met before! She has been so supportive and given me a lot of great advice in the run-up - not least what to eat for lunch! It was wonderful to meet!

That summit and the second were impressive peaks - great anvils of sandstone - but after that I really wanted to get off the hill. This seemed to be a long run in and the surface was back to tussocks and random rocks and after 5 days on the hill, my feet no longer wanted any further battering.

We dropped down to a car park and the final cut-off, far in advance of the deadline - by 3 hours I think - as the weather started to close in. 10 miles to go.

I must have really slowed down by now - I was extremely tired and it was a disappointment to leave the car park back up into the hills rather than, as I had expected - join a road down to Llandeilo. The last checkpoint was a further 3 miles of the same scratchy surface that I'd had enough of - no choice but to plod on and get it done.

I took a minute or two at the last cairn before heading off the hill for the last time and the enormity of the whole week really hit me as I saw the road below and I suddenly became very emotional and nearly lost it! There was 10km to go and this happened several further times as the finish line closed in. Everybody out there was almost at the point of hugging each other. I think it had hit home for everyone.

Past the Castle - the finish of the first incarnation of this race - and I wished it still was but there was only about 5k to go. It's interesting that as you realise it's almost over, the adrenaline seems to be withdrawn and you suddenly realise how tired you are and your coordination suffers as well as your speed over the ground. I almost fell over a couple of stiles.

Faint cheers from the finish floated up the valley and gradually increased in volume. One more near emotional collapse before I saw the final corner ahead, turned it and saw the actual finish line!

It was overwhelming to have finished. I could not believe what had happened. Monday in Conwy felt like months ago. I still can't believe it as I write this.

I waved away the offer of help getting my bag to my tent (I was staying another night) and instead headed straight for the presentation hall with dinner and, more importantly, beer.

Pip was there and we toasted our immense journeys. I caught up with Andy Nuttall from Ultra Magazine as we had done throughout the week - he'd sadly been timed out on day 3 but had finished strongly and has resolved to return in 2021! I am sure he will get his Dragon next time.

The finish - looking pretty much all in, barely holding back some deep emotions

Dragons Back Race - presentationPresentation - everyone awarded in 4s, a nice touch

I liked that everyone had their time in the sun at the awards ceremony. All finishers were called up in groups of 4 and given their dragons. I made sure I stood up 15 minutes in advance because I'd completely seized up and the 1 foot climb onto and off of the stage was something of a challenge.

One or two pints were put away as Pip and me relived the highlights of the journey. Despite incredible tiredness and stiffness I felt amazing.

I can't say I will want to do this again, but it has been the most incredible, life-affirming experience and one that I will never forget.

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Felt like I'd done it myself! Fabulous writing for a pretty amazing achievement. Thank you Andy.