Enter The Dragon
When we were kids, our annual family holidays involved a 400km car pilgrimage to South Wales from North East England. Visiting our grandparents in Pembrokeshire, stopping on route to visit Aunty Glad in Swansea and her tray of Welsh cakes, was the high point of the trip, as we listened to the same Dire Straights cassette over and over. Staring out of the window my ten-year-old self would wonder what it would be like to run across those lush valleys, to the place dad seemed hell bent on sharing with us.
Fast forward 35 years, to a blustery weekend in March. Four arms are yanking me from a bog, which is up to my waist. We are about a mile from the end of our Day 4 recce of the notorious Dragons Back. Bog is just one of the many obstacles we will encounter.
The DB was first held in 1992, when Martin Stone and Helen Diamantedes were the first to complete the 300k traverse with 16,000m of ascent from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. Only 15 pairs and six solo runners followed them across the line at the end of the five days. The race was revived in 2012 and in 2015 only 65 people finished the race. There were no weekend warriors left at the end of the week. This one is for serious endurance athletes. It is a ruthlessly exposing event, which challenges your self sufficiency and navigation skills to the max, quite apart from the physical endeavour. No assistance is allowed along the route or at the evening base camp and you can even be disqualified for sneaking a roll in to your bag from the catering van!
We have just run 20 bog riven and tussocky miles. Yesterday we covered 26 miles and already my legs feel like they belong to a front row forward who has just sprinted the length of a rugby pitch. The ‘path’ is rather optimistically signed for cyclists but any mountain biker who tried to go this way would be in urgent need of a lobotomy. It is impassable for two wheels and almost impassable for two legs, as I vividly demonstrate.
I should put my cards on the table and declare that I am a runner. Running comes naturally to me and has done since I ran my first half marathon as an 11-year-old. But years hunched over computer screens and laptop takes its toll. Running 300k across some of the more gnarly, rock cleaved humps of valley and-lets face it-mountains, is not a natural pursuit.
I am lucky to share the company of Gar Davies, a former prop forward turned adventure racer, whose navigation skills make us all look like cub scouts. There’s Euan, an exuberant Scotsman, whose cheery disposition seems at odds with some of the grim challenges he has knocked off, like the Lakeland 100. Lisa has an ultra CV which is just as impressive but worries that she may not make the cut off points and she is not alone. The night before I had eked some information from the group, at The Triangle, a well hidden pub in Rhayader. Like most ultra runners, they caught the bug by degrees. But it’s still too early to reveal our weaknesses. Better to play to our strengths. They don’t yet know how I like a good faff, when I’m packing. Although by the end of the weekend, this secret will be out.
We start our day near the end of the Day 3, at the eastern edge of Nant y Moch Reservoir, amid the Plynlimons- one of a handful of mountain ranges in Wales. Within minutes, we are heading up to Pumlumon fawr (pronounced with a v not like phworrr). It is Welsh for ‘great’, which is an unfortunate reminder of Donald Trump. We soon cross the A44, the end of Day 3 but continue on to Day 4, where we lose one of our members to back pain. Haydn slept on an orthopaedic bed at our Elan Village base camp, which didn’t serve him well. He is phlegmatic about pulling out, which I take as a sign of the cohesion that has already emerged in our small team. He later turns up as a mobile feeding station, with donuts and flapjacks. I am hoping that this group’s togetherness will be a factor in the DB proper. It is certainly harder to run 300km on your own. I wonder if people have gone mad on the DB, or whether they were merely already slightly mad from the off. Or maybe they will have an encounter with the Ourea, the Greek named deities and mountain spirits, which are thought to dwell in such places? I wonder what these children of Gaia would make of our GPs watches and lightweight skin vests. Ourea is also the name of the organisers and thankfully I already know that they wholeheartedly endorse such contemporary props.
Day 4, which is not considered to be one of the tougher days, is still 42 miles with 7,000ft of ascent, a difficult challenge of itself, to most. The route takes you from Diffryn Castell to Gallt y Bere, on the southern edge of the Brianne Reservoir. As it is less mountainous than what had preceded, (Day one alone accounts for several of the Welsh 3000s, including Tryfan, Crib Goch and Snowdon), the horizons stretch out in front of you as vast tussocky planes, making the several checkpoints on the stage, quite possible to miss. Overshoot one and you have to retrace your steps or get disqualified. No mercy will be shown by the race organisers.
Eventually, after five and a bit hours of running, some walking and not much munching, we arrive at our cars above the reservoir. We have run for about 13 hours over the two days, which represents a tiny bit more than one of the individual stages. I decide I need another form of motivation. So make the decision to raise money for MIND. My partner Emily is a special education needs co ordinator, so have plenty of examples of how society can malfunction. I feel privileged to have an opportunity to share such a life enhancing journey, with super motivated and determined characters. Whether we make it or not, collectively and as individuals, we are a tiny bit closer to becoming dragons.
I am raising money for MIND at https://www.justgiving.com/account/your-pages/Ceri-Rees-WildRunner. Please feel free to make a donation.