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Beating the Dragon's Back Race

On the 4th of September 2023 I embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. The goal was to run 380 kilometers with 17,400 meters of elevation through Wales over 6 days. Specifically Run from Conwy Castle (in the North) to Cardiff Castle (in the South). Below you can read more over how this started and how it went.

Why does somebody want to do this?

Already, many years ago I have learned about this race and was intrigued by it. Running through rugged/technical terrain and navigating from checkpoint to checkpoint across an entire country seemed like a crazy challenge. One that I would really like to try but was not fit and experienced enough to start. Then 2020 came by and signed up for this adventure in 2021. Unfortunately, travelling to the UK was not possible and the entry was deferred to 2022. Due to circumstances I was not feeling mentally and physically ready yet and postponed it another year to 2023. Finally feeling ready, dedicated training started again, including a 3 week holiday in Scotland to get used to the type of terrain that we would be running on. Especially the technical terrain was not to be underestimated. So all in all, after several years the journey started to participate in one of the hardest multi-day mountain races.

Preparing and getting to the start line

Before signing up I knew that as much as this race will be physical, it is also a challenge in "admin" as they call it. What is special is that this race is not just 6 days of running.

Gear and nutrition for Dragon's Back Race 2023

No, the race starts at 6:00 on Monday and ends on Saturday at the finish. This means that you need to get your food, feet, washing and sleep sorted each night. So the less your admin is organised the less time there is for sleep. Thinking about the logistics of it all has been quite a job. Making sure that all the mandatory gear is there, analyse the nutritional needs and think of systems to quickly get things done in camp (even made a checklist). Here you can find a list of all the gear and their weight that went with me:

Having the stress of packing out of the way and the training done, it was time to drive to Wales. A long journey via the channel ferry and the subsequent drive to Cardiff took about 13 hours with the delays and traffic jams. Having arrived at the AirBnB I sorted out the last gear that would be left in the car and on the day before the race it was still a matter of getting to Conwy. A coach from Cardiff to Conwy was arranged by the organiser. This was another solid 6 hours of travel. I felt quite exhausted that evening from all the travelling. Luckily, I booked a hotel room close to the startline, which was not cheap. However, in the past I skimped on these things but this time I wanted to be fresh on the start line and give me the best chance of finishing. The check-in process went rather quickly. Went to buy my reserved emergency bivvy bag and blister kit (both mandatory) and went through the process of the check-in. Mandatory gear was verified, trackers attached to my vest and bib numbers distributed. A photo was taken for the tracking page and I guess for me as well a memento of how I looked before the next upcoming days. Once checked in the nerves were picking up. It was nearly time to run out of Conwy castle on what would be one of my hardest times out in the mountains.

Day 1 - Conwy castle to Nant Gwynant (49km & 3800D+)

Dropping of the bag for the week was the final stressor since its max weight is 15kg. Once this was done and we could head into the castle it was just enjoyment. With these events I typically start in the back, it is about finishing and those minutes in the back don't matter. As per tradition a choir sang throughout the start with supporters on the castle walls which was a beautiful experience. The initial section you run on the castle walls out of the city onto Conwy mountain. I chatted with others and just slowly got going as I was starting to realise what I had gotten into. I did not know yet how hot this week actually was going to be.

The rolling hills with the sunrise was absolutely stunning and the kilometers were slowly adding up. Dropping into the valley of the support point the heat started to pick up and the wind started to dissipate. I didn't mess around to long in the support point. In an efficient manner socks were changed, water filled, nutrition topped up and two peanut butter jelly sandwiches were taken with me to eat on the climb up to Tryfan.

Goat on Tryfan

As we were all climbing the temperature continued to rise and with the bare rock around I tried to find each little spot of shade to have a little rest. For those that don't know, I am not the best in the heat. Getting to the top of Tryfan a local cheered us on (see photo). That was the first of a chain of climbs, next up was getting over Glyder Fach with a steep climb over some scree sections and up to Glyder Fawr before dropping down to Pen-y-Pass where the next water point was. Already I was very happy to have had a 2.5l water capacity with me and a filter flask for stream top ups. Trying to cool down, there was the advantage of ice cream at the water point. In hindsight I should have bought 2 instead of 1 Twister. Having cooled down a little, I was excited for the next section up Grib Goch. This was made out to be a scary section, but to be honest I absolutely loved it. Scrambling by the slower people and having a blast. I felt very confident on the technical terrain. Snowdon (the highest mountain of Wales) was next on the menu. The checkpoint was below the summit, but I tagged the peak to get all the brownie points. After this there was still some climbing to go to get to camp and I must admit as the days got on more and more of it becomes quite a blur. The sun was starting to set and the final descent to camp was wet, slippery and grassy which is not ideal when you are tired. Mistakes are easily made so tried to go slowly. Day 1 done and dusted and got the sleeping area set up and got food. Then I already realised that many people already fell victim to the Dragon.

Day 2 - Nant Gwynant to Dolgellau (59km & 3400D+)

The second day was a bit of a blur and the morning started of nice and cool. Trying to make as much ground as possible before it would heat up again. Reaching the top of Cnicht was straightforward and on the descent I was first introduced to bum sliding down grassy hills. Which seemed quite tricky to me and potentially painful when you would hit rocks. Nevertheless the rest of the morning was lovely and was making solid pace. The second part of the day is an absolute blur, I can remember a lot of pathless and boggy terrain and that I started having several nose bleeds. Ran most of the second part with Nick who I met along the way. Was good to be talking to people as it is nice to meet them and it kills the time a bit when it gets rough. I tried to finish early by pushing it in the last section as to have a more sleep and plenty of time to wind down and get food. However, with the nosebleeds I went to check with the medics. I arrived at about 20h45 and I spent about a solid 1h30 at the medic tent waiting for the all clear since the nosebleed kept going. Had some chips and bit of food but not as I would have liked. The crew was absolutely lovely and the other runners coming in with issues (mostly blisters) kept me entertained (sorry guys!). I was too tired afterwards to wash so just went straight into my sleeping bag at 22h45. Hoping that not getting the early sleep would bite me in the butt.

Day 3 - Dolgellau to Ceredigion (70km & 3400D+)

The longest day of the week started of nice and fresh. I was slightly tired, but that weariness disappeared quite quickly with some initial running on tarmac before heading up to Cadair Idris. There was a bit of route choosing to be done here. Recce'ing the course is a big help to be honest, but it takes away of the experience of viewing the scenery for the first time. However, if you are there to set a solid time I think recce'ing might even be a must. Coming down the first summit, there was a nice route choice through some pathless section to reach a nice path. It was actually this route finding that made this race so special. I loved having to check the map to see if it was easier to follow the recommended route or take a small detour on easier terrain or a shorter section but pathless. It made the running more engaging.

Climbing on Dragon's Back Race Day 3

Given it was another scorcher of a day, the race organisation gave some extra time at the support point. I left by the time I had to actually be there. Witnessing somebody make the cut-off by 2 seconds. Too close for comfort to be honest... So I left as to avoid to see people not making the cut-off. Getting out of the support point rather quickly I slowly started making my way through the hills again. The paths were relatively easy, but it was going to be a late finish. I caught up with Emily who I would spend a lot of time on the trails with in the upcoming days. She dragged me through a lot of the sections on the last part of day 3. Each time when it started to cool down I would find my pace again and I could speed up. So I trucked along until my watch died. Luckily I could use the map and still see some people in the distance, however I went the wrong way so I had a slight panic that there was not enough time. After having calmed down I made my way through the heather to a sheep path and started climbing up the last hill. Where I caught up with some other runners. It was dark by now and there was still a rolling hill section to go. We hiked along and at one point I let them know that it is time for me to get going. The last sections I always got the urge to get it over with and run through the pain and tiredness. Day 3 done and dusted whilst being on the course for nearly 16 hours. Went through the checklist, recovery shake, wash, eat and straight to bed ready for the next day. Halfway... It would be a shame to quit now.

Day 4 - Through the Elan Valley (69km & 2400D+)

Another long day, but less elevation and a lot of runnable sections. The morning admin was dialled down now. I think I needed about 45-60 minutes on each day. Which meant I could get up at 5h15 if others did not wake me first. There were people still getting up at 04h00.

Nevertheless, there was no respite and the climbing immediately started. Even better, because that meant easier running later on. It was hot, but less sun and mostly cloudy which was a nice change. The previous three days gave me heat exhaustion which meant hot and cold shivers at night. The morning went smooth with some rolling hills, tarmac running and quite a quick progression to the support point at which point the sun started coming out and the heat picked up again. I started to get some left knee pain and asked a medic some potential solutions. She suggested painkillers to which I replied: "No thank you, I am here for the full experience" and/or taping. The latter was done but due to my hairy legs and the sweat it lasted only a couple of kilometers accept the one strip (see photo below). Getting that sorted, it was just getting to the next waterpoint. In between I do not remember much.

Tarmac Dragon's Back Race Day 4

After the waterpoint a long tarmac section awaited which meant time could be gained. On the tarmac I got the urge to finish early and have some more time to catch up on admin, wash and relax a bit longer before bed. So I started trucking and caught a lot of people. The section was still quite long and on the downhills my quads were burning. However, braking hurt more so it was just about keeping pace and enduring before finishing day 4.

Day 5 - Brecon Beacons National Park (70km & 3200D+)

I heard rumours of day 5 being a very hard day so I was quite scared to be timed out on it. Nevertheless, we got going. The initial section was mostly on roads through undulating terrain. Heading through Llandovery felt easy and a lot of cheers were given on the way, before climbing slowly and steadily over the first hill to drop down to the Usk Reservoir. The heat and sun were already present in the morning and I knew this day was just all about keep moving. Unfortunately around Usk reservoir I started getting pains in the left shin which made running not so easy. I also ran out of water around that point (one soft flask broke this morning), knowing that I still had at least 2-3 hours until the support point. I saw on the map several streams, but they all dried out. Luckily just before the big climb to the summit of Fan Brycheiniog, there was a stream with a bit of shade were I filled up. Having cooled down a bit, it was time to keep going again. The descents started to be painful with my left shin, but it was all about just keep moving. I misjudged the support point and there was another climb before it. Bummer, but at least another climb down. Getting to the support point was tough and felt the worst so far throughout the week. We made the cut-off but it was all tight, so just focused on getting going again and tried to keep moving at all times. The section between the support and water point was tough with steep grassy climbs and descents. It was also getting tight and was together with many others. Emily and I kept trucking on and the cut-off was going to be tight. We made quick work of the final climb and in the panic of not wanting to be timed out started hammering the downhill, including some bum sliding (R.I.P. favourite short).

Sunset Pen y Fan Dragon's Back Race Day 5

The final section was actually beautiful with an amazing sunset. There were still several climbs to be done with an initial big one up to Pen y Fan. My shin started to hurt more and more and spent most of the time on the climb with others. At one point I found my urge to finish quickly again and bombed the downhill catching a lot of people again. I really found the confidence again on the downhills during this race, which I am very happy about. Had several hard crashes during downhills in the past years. Nevertheless it started to cool down and just really wanted to finish after another nearly 16 hour day. Once I got there, had my recovery shake and food and went straight to bed. Tomorrow there would be more time to get everything sorted. I knew though that nothing was going to stop me now from finishing this race in Cardiff castle.

Day 6 - To Cardiff Castle (63km & 1300D+)

Getting up felt horrible in the morning and I knew that the running that was going to happen was going to be a hobble. Nevertheless, it was time to get cracking. After the initial climb the majority of the day would be on tarmac. Which meant that even walking would mean good progression. On the running sections I would struggle along and just keep grinding. Actually the climbing was going well, regardless of the heat. Was actually getting used to it by now. On the third day I had received dragon mail that there would be a surprise from my girlfriend and mom. At the support point they were there. Which made me tear up.

Dragon's Back Race Day 6 Cycling Path

It had been a tough race until now, and having them there for the finish felt great and made me even more determined to finish. By now my shin started to hurt more and more. After the support point there were some shops where I bought some crisps and Gatorade. Emily caught up to me again and we did a section together again. Another runner also gifted us a nice ice cream. On a long climb I had to lie down for a bit and ate some crisps in the shade. This was actually the first moment that I took some relaxation time. It felt nice. The rest of the week was mostly spent pushing on to make sure I would make the cut-offs. After some rest I started moving again and at the top of the climb caught up with Emily again on which we ran towards the last water point of the week. Another runner had donated loads of ice lollies. This cheered me right up. Took quite some time there to relax, before heading out again towards Cardiff. Nearly there! Having found the strength again to keep moving it seemed to take forever to reach the castle. The last stretch through the parc I felt quite awkward with me limping along. The last kilometer I kept checking the map for how far it still was, and eventually the castle neared. I knew I was going to be emotional.

Dragon's Back Race Finish Play for Dead Pose

Throughout the week I teared up slightly but told myself that I could only cry once I had made it. It was such an elation to cross that finish line and I could still not comprehend what had happened the past week. It felt like a blur, but there was the enormous feeling of having made it and endured this gruelling event. I was going to get my baby dragon.

Below are some images of the before and after.

Final verdict

This race was absolutely brutal and due to heat I felt most of the time I had to chase cut-offs. There have been moment of enjoyment and lovely chats with fellow runners, but I also spent a lot of time worrying about cut-offs. So was perhaps not physically fit enough to make this an enjoyable race. However, the scenery is stunning and loved the fact that you had the find the best lines on the route and could actually make a difference with it. I kept saying I will never do this again throughout the race, reflecting back, if I was in better shape maybe I would go back. The crew and fellow runners are lovely. The organisation is superb, but I would not expect much less for the, let's be honest, hefty price tag.

My shin is in poor shape and will most likely take weeks to heal, which is a bummer, but worth it. My feet were swollen like crazy, but they returned to normal size after several days. Going forward I will take a solid break from running to recover fully and also have a bit of a mental rest. It is not to be underestimated the toll this takes on the body. Not just the event itself, but also the preparation beforehand.

Things I will take with me going forward is that fitness is the most important when it comes to endurance events. However, you can be the fittest person in the world, but if your admin is bad you will not reach the finish line in multi day events. Take care of your feet and ensure your nutrition is on point. You can fall down a hole rather quickly. All of this requires experience and a lot of research. So I am happy that a lot of time was spent on sorting out the logistics of this race as well.

The dragon has been slain! Thank you for reading.

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