Once I had the courage or, as my Clemtech colleagues and clients like to remind me, the stupidity to enter I just thought that if I trained hard and kept my fitness up the rest would be okay. How wrong was I!
Through the last 10 years of ultra-racing, I have made many friends who I respect and a few had completed the DBR. So, as I started questioning them about the DBR I realised very quickly how much I had underestimated the challenges that this race brings. I suppose the reality of the challenge hit home as I spoke to Sean O’Connor who completed the DBR in 2015 and the Spine Race this January. As he reflected on the challenges of the Spine race he then blurted out that the DBR was so much harder. How could 5 days in the Welsh hills be harder than a non-stop race along 268 miles of the Pennine Way in winter? My head went into melt down and mild panic ensued.
Sean explained that the cut-offs each day were tight, the days were long, your personal admin had to be efficient and there was little time to recover from each days battering. The accumulated affect meant this will be the hardest thing you will ever do! Cheers buddy and I put the phone down.
I knew my fitness was good and I had worked hard over the autumn and winter in the gym on my strength and conditioning, but I now understood that that was not enough.
Over the next few months I buddied up with some other wannabee Dragon Slayers and spent time in the Welsh mountains recceing much of the route. For me it was to understand the terrain, the navigational challenges as well as just getting some very long days on my feet in this brutal environment. I signed up for a couple of navigation courses with Joe Faulkner and his Nav4 Team to tune me into the Harvey maps that we would be using as well as to sharpen my rusty navigation skills. I did not want to be adding on extra distance through poor navigational judgement. It was also great to pick Joe’s brains as he has legendary status when it comes to the DBR. Joe is the only man to have completed all four races (1992, 2012, 2015 and now 2017).
The week before the DBR, the participants Facebook page went into a frenzy with everyone asking questions. It just showed how apprehensive everyone was.
Before I knew it, a year had gone by since I entered and I was sitting listening to Shane, the Race Director, giving his briefing. The room of 232 runners highly experienced ultra-runners from 24 countries sat quietly hanging off every word. The rules were laid down and we left under no uncertain terms that we had a responsibility to everyone who came into contact with us. We were each now ambassadors for this race, protecting the environment, responsible for each other and if we broke the rules we would be dealt with appropriately. Every move we made was being track by GPS and the eyes of the ultra-running world were on us!
Monday 22nd May at 0615hrs I dropped my two regulation dry bags and walked into Conwy Castle with my wife Sally. A welsh male voice choir sang as we congregated and reflected on everything we had sacrificed to stand here. For me it was emotional and exciting, I just wanted to go. As we were counted down to set off on this epic adventure it was going to challenge everyone, including those elite demi-gods at the front who were actually going to try and race this, not just survive.
Day 1 is a mere 52km and just under 4000m of vert. We start with a gentle climb up Conway mountain which soon vanishes and by the time you are descending Pen yr Wen at just over 20km it gets more and more technical. As I looked at the climb up Tryfan I realised that I had to slow down and just manage each day as this was going to be a long technical race. Funny why I only worked this out now. I thought I had gone into this race with my eyes wide open and realised I had underestimated it massively. As I climbed the Glyders the wind was increasing and the hill mist descended. Runners were literally being blown off their feet. All I could think was would I be blown off the iconic Crib Goch in these 40mph plus winds. Luckily with the reassurance of 4 guys from the mountain rescue that were stationed along the ridge we all survived . As I approached Snowden a group of us were now sticking together which was a good call as we struggled to find the assigned route off the summit in the thick mist. Finally we made camp and headed for our assigned tent.
As I walked in to tent 7, one of my fellow tent buddies Gary handed me my Dragonmail and congratulated me on the amount. Each day this was my reward, reading messages of support from family and friends. Each day I became more emotional reading the Dragonmail. By day 3 and 4 you could see a few roughty toughty men with a tear in their eyes whilst they read their messages.
Camp admin is an art that I am still learning but in simple terms its: dry kit on, food & hydrate, sort your feet, more food and drink, sort your bags out for the next day, get to bed and sleep! Sounds easy but I struggled. Trying to organise your bags in a full 8 man tent does give its own challenges. Everyone’s kit explosions did not help as they tried to get organised but it was always a good talking point.
Day 2 was no easier, funny that with a mere 58km and 3600m of vert across the Moelwyns and leg breaking Rhinogs. The variety of terrain was vast but every step was genuinely a challenge.
During this torturous day the weather was beautiful if not a bit hot. I started the day with a Kiwi called Guy. I ran all the way to Day 5’s finish line with him. He was strong, steady and good company. It was from day 2 that you pretty much saw the same people around you as well as those faster runners that would overtake who started later. Watching Marcus Scotney (1st male), Jim Mann (2nd Male), Carol Morgan (1st Female) and Sabrine Verjee (2nd Female) scream past you was just a joy to see. Watching such talent in harsh conditions and seeing how they tackled the very bit you were struggling on was a privilege. It was like having front row tickets for a Men’s Olympic 100m Final. Each day I was mesmerised by their grace as they floated past and disappeared into the distance.
Through day 2 our merry band of 2 increased to 4 with Oliver from Manchester and Ben from the USA tagging along.
Day 3 at 71km and over 3,500m of vert was sold to us as the make or break day by Race Director Shane. Previous race stats show that by getting to the end of Day 3 the chances of you failing reduce significantly and your chances of succeeding increase significantly. So, for the mere mortals in the race this had been our big target. To get to the end of day 3 and the ability to start day 4. Each day amazing runners had missed the cut-off and were out. The stats are staggering and failure was real. Check out the http://www.berghausdragonsbackrace.com/latest-news/2017/05/31/Race_Directors_Report__2017_Berghaus_Dragons_Back_Race/ for the details.
It was Day 3 that changed the sharp end of the race with Jim Mann making a massive navigation error descending off Cadir Idris. His lead had gone and he was very much playing catch up on Marcus Scotney for the rest of the race.
Day 4 is another 71km but only 2,400m of vert, however the four of us were all starting to feel the effects of the first 3 days. We agreed on a 6:15am start. We had learnt the previous day that Oliver was a bit of a faffer so he was told to be ready for 6am. He was still late!
Day 4 goes through the beautiful Elan Valley; there were moments at the start of the day where the navigation was challenging as we waded through waist high foliage and forged routes though woodland. As the day progressed the scenery was just as spectacular as every km we had trodden before. As our merry band, and those that joined us for hours on end, discussed the race and the effort to get here there were two common denominators: everyone was a bit of a rock star and they (and their family) had sacrificed a lot to get here! We had hundreds of long distance adventures under our belts, we had covered most of the world iconic races between us and none of us had experienced anything so brutal, physically, mentally or emotionally before.
It’s the last day, Day 5! Guy, Ollie, Ben and I leave together on time and as planned. Ollie pipes up that he got up just after 4am so he was not late for our agreed 6:15am start. Now that’s dedication and how to get your faffing sorted! As we set off on the last 63km and 2,200m of vert towards the Brecon Beacons we all knew we were going to be Dragon Slayers. We knew we still had to keep a sensible pace but we believed in our wee team. We were all suffering in our own little way but moral and brotherly love was strong.
Small things make memories and being given an ice cream at the midway point by the support team is how you do it. As we sorted our bags out Jim came in on the hunt for Marcus. Up until then Jim was in and out of the support points in a minute or so. Today, his hands were on his knees, he was shaking his head, he had given everything to make up for that one mistake on Cadir Idris, but it was not to be. Today Marcus was on fire, he had the bit between his teeth and with 30km left had over a 40min lead.
As we climbed onto the Brecons and traversed East to the finish we thought we were nearly done but those last 25km where so hard. As we went through the last manned checkpoint, and were handed our second ice cream of the day, Guy took charge and kept the pace up and would not let us slow down. We finished together as we planned. Together we became not only finishers of this epic adventure but worthy Dragon Slayers.
I would like to personally thank those that have supported me through this adventure from my family to my three new best mates, to my tent buddies, fellow racers, marshals and the race team. Lastly massive thanks to the continued support of Alton Sports and the brands that support me; Hoka One One, Superfeet, Runderwear, Picky Bars, Tailwind UK, Silva Global; you all rock!
Images: Euan McGrath & nolimitsphotography.co.uk