This blog is late in the making partly because I did not want to write it in the heat of the moment but to allow the dust to settle. I also did not want to detract from the feelings of euphoria that many participants feel in finishing such an epic event. I also realise that my own experience of the 2017 Dragons Back will not chime with many. High on the dopamine of achievement and shared experience, which makes finishing, seem like such a positive experience those who were permitted to carry on and finish the job are not likely to have shared my experience! Congrats to all those who finished by the way.
Still an explanation is in order, to the people who supported me along the way, the people who sponsored me to raise money for MIND. They deserve to hear it. So this is the UNEDITED version of an article I wrote for Mens Running Magazine (this month’s issue).
If you are not a good boy scout, don’t even think about entering the five day Dragons Back Race. In fact if you aren’t a seasoned ultra runner with multi day experience, competent navigation skills, ever suffer from blisters or don’t possess the ability to run through a zombie dawn, just don’t. Why would you?
This is part of the allure of the 315k race with 15,500meters of ascent. The legend of the event belongs to Ian Waddell, a Para and fell runner, who conceived of the race twenty five years ago, partly as a logistics training exercise for mates in the regiment. Back then, only 15 pairs and six solo runners crossed the finish line at Carreg Cennen Castle after five days of adventuring through the mountains.
In 2012 marketing consultant Shane Ohly and his multi franchise outfit Ourea Events, revived the race and it has since become one of the cult monoliths of endurance running. Perhaps that’s why the organisers can justify a price tag of £800 to enter. The reputation for toughness and beautiful landscapes at least, is warranted and the marshals who number more than 100, would do any Olympics proud. Support points are firmly waymarked in advance and downloadable GPX files added on the website thanks to Ourea’s navigation supremo Gareth Tompsett-a huge advantage for participants compared to 1992. The client base has changed considerably as well, with bucketlisters (of which I include myself), mixing it with sponsored athletes and first time multi-day eventers.
You’ll need your Overnight Camp Skills badge for this one and you gotta have the gear, even if it is bespoke Dragons Back blister packs, complete with five sterilised scalpels.
Runners come from all corners South Africa, Spain, France, Italy and the US and we all milled around the castle walls, some taking in the history, as the Welsh Male Voice choir sung us out with Myvanwy. There were even a couple of runners from Japan, who were on their honeymoon, to complete the heady romance of the occasion.
The cut off points have become a controversial feature. Complicated by the fact that faster runners are encouraged to take a later starting block, so that they are effectively chasing the same cut off times as slower runners, who start as much as 2.5 hours before them. There is a legacy going back to 2012, when Shane Ohly eliminated several runners from the main competition before they had reached Crib Gogh on Day One, even before the cut off times, when he realised he had set them too late in the day. Back then he vetted the runners, which would have required a superhuman understanding of each runner’s capabilities! In 2017, almost anyone was able to enter but the rules are written very much with the elite runners in mind, hence the barely 50 per cent completion rate. The cut offs were made harder and if you are an elite runner, you are not expected to miss a cut off. Mid pack runners need to read the rules carefully, right up to the wire, as they are liable to change at any moment, such as the out of bounds area on Days Two and Four, which was inserted at the eleventh hour and caught out race leader Jim Mann, who was given a minor slap on the wrist and time penalty.
Day One saw us all start together, walking the castle walls until we reached the official start point. 2015 winner Jim Mann was immediately to the fore, preferring to forego a GPS in favour of an old fashioned map and compass, reinforcing the respect I have for him.
We exchanged positions and chatted, Jez Bragg sharing his imminent fatherhood as we descended to the supply point at Llyn Ogwen. It is always good to have company when you are traversing the Glyders above Ogwen or a knife edge arête such as Crib Gogh, with the clag descending. If there’s one place you don’t want to be struck with inertia it’s the top of Wales’ most famous arête. But my calves started palpitating, just as my hip flexors and hamstrings followed in synch, seized by cramp. Still I was in the top five or six and knew I’d be able to put things right at the end camp.
No such problems for Jim Mann though, as he sprang impala like over unforgiving gradients, even taking a ‘short cut’ up Crib Gogh, only to have been deceived by the organiser’s miss mapping of the checkpoint. The organisers later claimed responsibility but still docked him a 15 minute penalty! He also incurred a ‘time fine’ at the end of the week, for straying off the mandatory route, his final strike warning.
We were treated to the welcoming site Nant Gwynant on a balmy summer’s evening, as we came in to camp; myself (4th) with Ken Sutor (6th) and just behind Jez Bragg (5th) who had started just before me, after almost 8.5 hours of running. Twelve minutes behind Marcus Scotney and a long way behind Jim Mann. Within three hours, this resembled a medieval garrison on the eve of battle, albeit one supplied with generators and GPS tracker rechargers. All around us, people were tending their war wounds, taping hot spots, blisters and abrasions and pouring over Harvey maps, while runners continued to stream in until the 11pm cut off. The first aid staff and volunteers handed out dragon mail, fetched drinks and offered advice.
Camp admin is a major factor in deciding your fate, as you head from the Moelwyns towards the Rhinogs and the Plynlimons of Mid Wales. Food has to be carefully rationed, as do socks and water supplies, taking in to account the weather and landscape.
The heat meant we had to gauge carefully how much water we would need before reaching our supply bags, somewhere around the midpoint each day. Day One alone included 3,800m of ascent but after Day Two, the most technical parts have passed and the distances increase from 52k to 68k.
On Day Two, the early runners streamed from the campsite from 6am onwards, each with their respective goal, mostly to reach the supply point cut off by 3pm, somewhere around 38k.
I made the big mistake of leaving it right to the last minute (8.40am) to dib out, having decided to get my calves strapped and to bath them in the river. Feeling almost relaxed until I reached the foot of Cnicht, I heard footsteps behind me. They could only have belonged to race leader Jim Mann. “What’s your secret?” I shouted, as he disappeared in to the haze. “Lots of heel raises and hard work” was his reply. Simple really! Picking a line down a mountain such as Cnicht in low cloud, involves an element of luck, unless you know it intimately. Sliding on my cheeks down a scree slope, I heard voices down below, they were shouting at each other, I was sure-in Japanese and it sounded as though they hadn’t moved for a considerable time. I wondered if it was the honeymoon lovebirds.
Slowly but slowly, I started to find my stride on Day 2, heading up towards Moelwyn Fach, I started to enjoy the solitude and the luxury of following the occasional trail. I thought about how lucky I was to be all alone and have the Moelwyns to myself. This temporary glow was soon interrupted however. Upon reaching the railway line on the far side of Tanygrisiau Reservoir, I had to double back on myself as I wasn’t sure whether I was straying in to the newly establish out of bounds. It was just at this moment my GPS watch began to tell me it was running out of battery as the screen froze! As my water was running low, I decided to stop in the Purple Grape in Maentwrog and buy a pint of coke. Three runners who seemed to be enjoying a pint and weren’t in the least bit fazed about rejoining the Dragons Back, told me ‘you’d better get going if you’re going to make the cut off’.
‘I’ll make it’ I might have said nonchalantly, as I started worrying for the first time all day, that I was really going to have to get a move on! I lost more valuable time retracing my steps as I skirted another out of bounds section close to somewhere around Nant Ddu I think. These additional lapses would later cost me dear but I was running hard now, almost at full tilt. Plan B was a Viewranger Phone App, then a reliable old map and compass but the extra navigation meant I had to continually stop and assess my location. Although I couldn’t see anyone up ahead, a bad sign I realised, at least I could follow some well trodden tracks until they reached long grass or harder ground.
Hurling myself down a gnarly descent to the car park at Cwm Bychan, as I approached the fence, a female marshal was shouting something at me. I shouted back in mild panic ‘what time is it?’ I thought she said ‘3pm.’ ‘Oh shit’ I replied, still thinking that I had just made it inside the cut off. I remembered just in time that vaulting the fence would result in a penalty, something I later discovered had happened to at least two other participants. Still I decided not to chance it and so skirted around it to a gate.
It transpired that I’d arrived somewhere between 1 and 4 minutes after the cut off- two minutes by my phone, which was outside the mandatory cut off. Failing to hide my frustration, I recovered my composure but the officials were still adamant that the rules were black and white. The marshals were adamant I could not go on. High on the adrenaline of the final dash, I paced round in circles trying to take in the situation, never having missed a cut off before. A man with an exaggeratedly calm voice, sat next to me and may as well have said ‘namaste’, something which I’ll admit, annoyed the living daylights out of me! I cut loose with a few chosen expletives to vent my frustration, as I paced around like a caged tiger. To an outsider it must have all looked fairly comical. At least some of my John McEnroe angst must have been self directed.
Still short of breath and with a background tiredness which most ultra runners, shift workers and drunks will probably recognise, I tried to explain that I was raising money for MIND and was writing a magazine article about the experience and that gear sponsors were depending on kit reviews etc… Not to mention the sacrifices my partner has made with the endless weekends away and reccies. I offered this in a peak of not-so-quiet desperation!
All the training runs, the early mornings getting up before my 13 month old baby, the weekends away which I could ill afford, the gear, the promises to sponsors. It all seemed to come to a head. Yep I was feeling properly sorry for myself until I spoke to another chap Anthony, who had actually got in before the cut off point but had taken too long taking things out of his bag and so had been ‘retired’. Anthony gamely carried on the following day and has my complete respect for finishing the DB as a non comp. I would love to have joined him! But still the race rules were completely inflexible.
Searching for some logic to the end of my journey (I did not yet know that I might be allowed to carry on as a non competitor), I paced round in circles.
“I am not a Joe jogger. I finished fourth yesterday,” I found myself saying, which taken out of context, must have sounded quite arrogant. But I think in this context looking back, could perhaps be excused. What I had meant was that I was not likely to miss the next cut off, or indeed the final cut off, which was intended as the rule for slower runners. But ‘rules is rules’ I was told. This puzzled me but I decided to accept my fate as the adrenaline subsided and we were dropped gratefully at a pub!
According to Shane, one of the marshals was upset with my behaviour and had apparently translated it as being directed at her. I had made a point of apologising to the marshals for my outburst within five minutes, which I stress was not directed at any of the marshals. This appeared to have been accepted but not by Shane, who seemed hell bent on disqualifying me. I wondered if my questioning of his decision to give Jim Mann a 15 minute time penalty, despite admitting an error on the part of the marshal, had anything to do with it. A friend later pointed out that Mann’s tracker appeared to take him to Beddelgert, three miles beyond the finish of Day One. But the media didn’t seem to need an explanation.
Later on, after speaking to the Race Director I was told I could carry on as a Non Comp and was offered a 50 per cent reduction on subsequent entries to Ourea Events. Although after speaking to Shane I wasn’t sure I f I wanted to carry on, he said he’d let me sleep on it. I’d seen previous year’s results which were relegated to the bottom as an afterthought. Not a true reflection of people’s efforts I had thought at the time. Overnight I decided I wanted to carry on.
It transpired that my brief outburst of emotion at the cut-off point was deemed unjustifiable! Shane Ohly said he had viewed ‘the video’ and decided to disqualify me on the start line. I asked to see the video footage, which was denied, as it had been ‘packed away’. He promised that he would send it to me instead. Four weeks later, after a further request to see the footage, he did a U turn, refusing to send it and rescinding his offer of a discount at future events. To say I found all this disappointing would be quite an understatement! A one man judge and jury and no right of appeal. Sounds almost medieval.
As an event organiser myself, I know better than to blame marshals, who are often there for peanuts and with strict instructions from the race director. As a competitor (I stress this over participant which is an all together more relaxing affair), if you are denied all recourse to speak to the organisers at the cut off point, I ask what choice is there but to protest and vent your frustration? If you are denied the chance to review your behaviour or even to offer an explanation, it strikes me as being somewhat dictatorial to say the least.
My outburst may have been that of a fairly passionate Geordie mixed with a bit of Welshman and I’ll admit, quite forceful. But since when were displays of raw frustration not part of this sporting world?
In the black and white world of sport, race directors have the final say and so they should. But when the customer/client/stakeholder (what are we exactly?) has invested so much time and money in merely finishing an event, to not be allowed to finish and then treated as a pariah, is I’m afraid, an unacceptable state of affairs. I couldn’t even stay on to support my fellow runners! My own punishment (there really is no other term for it), was based on my ‘upsetting a marshal at the cut off point’.
Having had time to reflect, I take ownership of my behaviour and have learnt two things. Firstly, I would like to have curtailed a few expletives. But the purpose of this blog is NOT a mea culpa. I refuse to be over generous to hindsight. Secondly my overnight camp skills could do with a dusting. I could have taken an earlier starting slot, in which case I would have made the cut off.
My problem is with the ambiguity of the race director’s words. After receiving the killer punch on the start line and without a having made preparations for an early departure, I was put in a taxi and sent back to Conwy with a couple of other unfortunate retirees. It was only on arrival I realised that I could not get an overnight connection back to the finish and my car in Llandeilo, which was in any case, at my own expense. There was little option but to spend the night on a park bench in Shrewsbury before resuming my journey. I wonder what I would have done, had I been a woman? Certainly I’d not have been a happy bunny! But there were only about 30 female runners in the event, a surprisingly small number from a start list of 220.
If the organisers would care to receive any advice, I would suggest it would be much fairer to have time penalties for missing one cut off point, rather than such a heavy penalty for someone who just fails to make it. That way there can be no complaint if a runner misses two cut off points in succession. I would also argue that for the faster runners who start later, there should be some flex time, say 10 to 30 minutes after the cut off, to allow for a slow start, minor navigation errors etc.
My advice to would-be DB entrants: The website guidelines are ambiguous regarding the reasons for the cut offs, so if you choose to take on the Dragons Back, read the Terms and Conditions carefully before committing. And remember there is a 1 in 2 chance that you will finish, having spent a lot of money on an event which may well see the rules changed late in the day, so keep your beady eye on them.
So my experience of the Dragons Back is unfortunate. Not everyone will agree, but this is one customer who has been left feeling very short changed.
Double Bob Graham record holder Nicky Spinks, had a similar experience in 2012, when she clashed with the intransigent Race Director. I hope that Ourea Events can be humble enough to learn from this experience, as indeed I will. Otherwise I fear it’s only a matter of time before the Dragon becomes a myth once again.
Nicky Spinks’ diary entry from the 2012 Dragons Back can be found here http://www.runbg.co.uk/Dragon’s%20Back.htm
Race Stats 2017:
Number of starters: 223
Number of finishers: 127
Time of winner: 37 hrs 58 Marcus Scotney
First Woman: Carol Morgan 48 hrs 43
Repeat finisher: Joe Faulkner (4th time)
Oldest finisher: 54 years old.
Number of starters with artificial hip: 1
Number of vegan sausages consumed: unquantifiable.