The Dragon's Back Race 2012 Experience

By Rob Baker -

There was a hushed silence over the field as we were given our last short briefing before the maps were to be handed out. The male voice choir were poised to sing. And the race was about to begin. Nervous energy was palpable. Whilst there had been cheers the night before when Shane Ohly, the race organiser, had announced that the first day would take in all 15 of the Welsh 3,000 peaks, the enormity of the task was now starting to sink in.

This challenge would obviously not stop after day 1. The Berghaus sponsored Dragon's Back Race™ was held over five stages, snaking it's way along the key mountain passes in Wales. Eighty-two vetted and experienced competitors started at Conwy Castle and all were hoping to finish in Carreg Cennen Castle having run over 210 miles and scaled over 45,000 ft. The route was based on the first Dragon's Back race which took place in 1992 with adjustments being made daily taking account of conditions and the race circumstances. There were 4 competitors returning from the original race, Helene Whitaker (nee Diamantides), Wendy Dodds (the oldest and the most experienced competitor in the race), Joe Faulkner and Steve Dubieniec (who had made the trip over from New Zealand to take part).

Competitors, Marshals and the Maelgwn Male Voice Choir gather at Conwy Castle immediatley before the start of the 2012 Dragon's Back Race. Photo: Jon Brooke


The physical start to the Dragon's Back was a leisurely affair as we were formally not allowed to "race" along the historic castle and town walls. The competition proper commenced with a punching start at the wall end but the easy pace remained which made for a comfortable procession for the first few kilometres. Whilst the start was relaxed there was not much chatting or discussion amongst the runners, with everyone quietly focusing on the race ahead and looking round to size each other up. The pace quickened significantly with the arrival of Steve Birkinshaw after about 20 minutes. Taking a well timed portaloo stop before the physical punching start meant that he had given most of the field a couple of minutes head start. This tactical assurance and awareness was evident throughout the race, however as it came to pass the minutes he gained on the field were not to be significant in the final standings.

Personally, my primary aim and objective was to have a genuine adventure, to push myself over an ultra distance race and to visit parts of Wales that I had never ventured out to. I had enjoyed my first proper season on the fells and felt race fit over mid to long distance races, however, in terms of extreme endurance running I was a complete novice. Whilst I felt comfortable and able with Elite distance races in the likes of the OMM I had never run over 30 miles in one go before, let alone 40 miles for 5 days on the trot. Based on the OMM's I had previously completed a friend helpfully worked out that the race would be about 10 times harder than anything I had done before.

The tight peloton of runners became more spread out as the field made its way to the second check point on then onto the ridge up to Tal y Fan. By the ascent of Drum, Steve, Mark Palmer and I had broken clear. The three of us were to remain together for the best part of the next 5 hours. This time was almost entirely enjoyable. We broke into some friendly chat, I found out that I did actually like pork scratchings (a secret fuel source that an ultra runner at work had told me about) and we soaked in some fantastic views afforded by the clear blue skys. The pace was a good tempo and I later found out that Steve had deliberately planned to keep the pace on the "harder" side of comfortable, setting his stall out for the rest of the week.

The three of us made it into the resupply point at the bottom of Tryfan at the same time but Steve was quicker to restock and refuel and I lost sight of him out of the carpark. This was the first time that I had the opportunity to properly interact with the support team of marshals who offered tremendous encouragement. Whilst I had heard about a new path to the summit this was not marked so Mark and I ended up on the scrambly pig track on the map. This poor route choice combined with the heat and an energy blip meant that at the top of the climb we were ten minutes behind Steve.

The warm weather and scarcity of water was having repercussions amongst the rest of the field; dehydration and blisters being the main culprits. The navigation demands and rough terrain were also causing issues for some, who subsequently admitted that they were not fully prepared for the roughness of the terrain nor the map reading challenges that they would have to face. A combination of all these factors meant that a number of the competitors were understandably struggling from quite early on into the race, and with cut-off times looming meant that they were in for a long and tough day on the hills.

An inquisitive mountain goat looks as Rob Baker traverses the flanks of Crib Goch. Photo: Jon Brooke

Steve stayed at the front for the rest of the day (and the race). Mark and I ran together for the next few checkpoints but split on the ascent of Elidir Fawr. I made some inroads into Steve's lead on my route choice to the top of Crib Goch - I stayed longer on the road on whilst Steve cut up earlier. Tired and running on my own made the last third section of the day a struggle. On the positive side I was eating and drinking well and my feet were holding up, but I was starting to suffer from a deep tirdness that would become familiar during the remainder of the week. It was a relief to reach Snowdon, which was suitably the last checkpoint of the day, but it was a slow, painful, quad quivering descent to the overnight campsite, to finish 2nd for the day but 25 minutes behind Steve (who had taken 10 minutes out of me on the descent off Snowdon).

The hot weather and incredibly tough course had a dramatic effect on the field. Of the 82 starters only about 35 finished the first day. The Dragon's first breaths had therefore taken a number of casualties; a combination of retirals and time outs. Nicky Spinks had a strong first day, with Helene Whittaker 12 minutes behind in the women's competition. The true long tail of the first day was to be felt for the rest of the week with competitors struggling to fully recover in time for the second equally hot day, making progress in the race that much tougher. Marshalls and helpers were up late into the night, waiting for competitors and then helping then find some food and a tent and attend to injuries and medical issues.

" was a slow, painful, quad quivering descent to the overnight campsite" at the end of Day One. Photo: Rob Howard / SleepMonsters

I woke up to darkness and drizzle on Day 2. Despite an early alarm call of 0600, by the time I had made my way to the fantastic vegetarian catering van most of the competitors had set off to make their way on the 53k journey to Vanner Farm. Each racer was free to decide when they wanted to set off and the majority had opted for an early start. This had given a large number limited time to recover from the race day before having finished late into the night. I was certainly feeling stiff legged and groggy on the start line as I set off for Cnicht which was the first ascent of the day.

Day two start and Steve Birkinshaw (left) and Rob Baker (right) set off together. Photo: Jon Brooke

Steve and I made the decision to start the day together. As we made our way through the misty peaks of the Moelwyn's it was clear that many had also decided to start in groups - and Shane later confirmed that this was by far the most popular approach. As the previous joint winner Martin Stone had told us at the pre-event briefing it is much easier to run with company. I certainly benefitted from running with Steve particularly in respect of gaining an insight into his pacing, nutrition and hydration strategies. We discussed routes, but were both keenly map reading. It was all too easy to let time slowly drip away through ill disciplined route choice (as I was to find out to my cost later on in the race).

By mid morning the weather had cleared up and I felt that I was progressing well. There was a long route choice from Moleyn Mawr to the resupply point at Cwm Bycham Campsite, which presented a number of options. I had considered a similar leg, a week earlier when trying to familiarise myself a little with the potential route and fancied a longer road route through Trawsfynydd, Steve wanted to avoid the tarmac and decided to pick a direct but much tougher line to the checkpoint. My split for the leg was 2.54.23 and as I descended into the checkpoint I could see Steve sorting through his bag. His split was 2.51.55 so there was not much in it. Having previously promised myself that I would not compromise on refueling or hydrating I deliberately slowed myself at resupply and took the opportunity to take a couple of drinks and force down a precooked and sealed meal that I had been looking forward to. Today's was beef caserole.

As I made my way up the roman steps towards Rhinog Fawr Steve was out of sight ahead and again I had a familiar post - if you can call it that - lunch blip in energy as my stomach started to churn through some of the calories that I had forced down. Tiredness and fatigue was also becoming evident through my occasional deviation from the marked path. I continually failed to sight the best lines through the terrain having been concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. This cost me a couple of minutes on the way but was more costly on the way down as I lost the walking path and became crag bound during the descent. I simply had no answer to the local walker when I passed him who had evidentially watched my painfully slow progress when he asked "why didn't you stick to the path?"  

Despite this slight setback, things picked up as I made my way across and up to Diffwys. I was pleased to catch sight of Helene Whitaker and a group of runners as they flew downhill off the final checkpoint and made a mental note of the line which seemed to offer, judging by her speed, fast footing. Progress to the finish at the campsite in Vanner Farm was painful as my quads again struggled on the faster descent and road section. Vainly I managed to pick up the pace a little when the camera crew who were filming the race followed me and this proved a welcome distraction. I got to the finish 20 minutes down on Steve, 15 minutes of which I had lost when coming down Rhinog Fawr. My frustrations at my route choice mishap were quickly forgotten when I remembered that warm showers were on offer as we were staying on a commercial campsite.

Updates about the race were snatched over dinner and showers and it was evident that Helene had a storming day, overturning her deficit to Nicky Spinks and moving into 3rd place overall. Steve was now establishing a clear lead. It left me in second and I was desperately hoping that I had not overcooked it during the first 2 days. I learnt that Mark Palmer had no choice but to retire because of a leg injury. Most runners were now running in pairs or groups. It was evident that some of these groups tended to have natural navigational leaders (I think Helene fell into this camp), whilst others made their contribution through pace setting and motivational support.

Day 3 was another hot day from Vanner Farm to Eisteddfa Gurrig Farm taking in Cader Idris, Machynlleth, Glyndr's Way and Plynlimon. Once again I started with Steve and once again we were the last to leave. This was not a specific tactic but rather a reflection of how long it took us both to get ourselves sorted and packed.

The two race favourites take time for a bit stop whilst passing through Machynlleth. Photo: Jon Brooke

The resupply point was quite a long way into the course, just past the village of Machynlleth which was enjoying its market day. Steve and I were not alone in making use of the town's facilities and I enjoyed a chicken fajita wrap and an ice-cold coke from a local garage (although time seemed to stop still as we had to wait in line to be served). Being met by my father in law Charlie Leventon at the checkpoint, who had come over to spectate and give me some encouragement, further buoyed me. Following Charlie's pep talk I was determined to try and make a bit of a push on the last 3rd of the route and slowly eeked out a small lead from Steve. This was however to be short lived. The path network in the forest through Glyndwr's Way was outdated on the map, which lead me to take a wrong turn. On doubling back I met Steve coming towards me having been similarly confused.

We stayed together for the rest of the course. Despite openly talking about the fact that we could slow down and that we were going well, the pace never really abated. I was pleased to be running relatively strongly despite moaning quads and deep tiredness. We took the time to soak in the views at the top of Pumlumon Fawr before making the mercifully short descent to the overnight camp. The campsite was in a large sheep shed. Shane obviously could not have found any space in the Inn.

Whilst it was again difficult to get a full picture of the results and how others were faring it was clear that Helene was extending her lead and that Ian Symington had solo'd to the best time of the day. Ian, having suffered on day 1 was unable to start day 2 but had bounced back and recovered quickly. He would demonstrate during the rest of the week that given different circumstances he would have been a force to be reckoned with. Wendy Dodd's steely determination and toughness were already being spoken about in revered tones and I learnt about the "half dragon" being adopted by a number of the competitors including a large, vocal and fun Spanish contingent. These competitors were being bussed to the resupply point and running the last half. Patrick Devine Wright, a relative newcomer to endurance races was now in third with Mark Ford and Jim Mann very close behind. Helene was first woman (and fourth overall) with Liz Barker in second and Nicky Spinks in third.

Getting going on day 4 was a struggle. My head and body were weary but my legs were still ok and most importantly my feet and stomach were both holding up well. I was asked by a couple of competitors and marshals whether I was still planning on racing Steve and I didn't really have an answer. I didn't come to the event looking to race; my focus was rather on having an adventure. I knew Steve was suffering and tired too so I decided to run my own race that day and start individually. This suited Steve too as he was keen to get off early in the morning.  He declared that he was knackered but seemed to be running strongly when he set off.

I felt strong during the first 2 -3 hours of the run and enjoyed catching up and exchanging pleasantries with other competitors. As the day wore on I became more aware of tentacles of tiredness, which started to spread and suffocate. My stride became less fluid and certain. Basic map reading decisions were becoming more of a challenge. A suboptimal route to the resupply point at Elan Village cost me 5 minutes and I was cursing myself as I picked up my food and a litre bladder of water. I was told Steve was about 30 minutes ahead and I thought this was roughly the time he had set off before me. Due to changes in the route (the summits of Gorllwyn and Drygarn Fawr were taken out) the next leg was a long one to a phone box at Abergwesyn. This involved a long road route. Having done a few marathons this should have been my strength but I really struggled to get myself moving and was forced to adopt a "run/walk racing strategy". My quads and calfs were sore and I found the tarmac unrelenting as I made my way along the beautiful Cabon-Coch reservoir.

Feeling the effort of past three days, Rob Baker tussles with the infamous tussocks of the Elan Valley. Photo: Rob Howard / SleepMonsters

As the miles ticked by the idea of a race with Steve disappeared with the sweat and perspiration of the day. To coin a technical phrase I was "knackered", not bonking due to a lack of glycogen stores but more a total depletion of energy and life force. I just focused on moving forward, and reverted to a tried and tested strategy of counting 100 paces over and over. The climb up to and the traverse of Elan Valley was not pretty. I continued to keep running for the most part but I was unsteady and clumsy over the terrain. I slowly turned a corner as I approached the marked cycle path across to the base of the Llyn Brianne reservoirs. I took it as a good sign that I managed a chuckle to myself as I ended up in a bog up to my waist trying to imagine a way of cycling across - maybe Rob Jebb could have made it!

Once I made it to the reservoir base I knew I only had about 6 miles left, all on road, but taking in some spectacular views and scenery. I felt steady when climbing but in agony on the long 3 mile leg destroying descent to the camp and the finish. Every step led to a jarring pain and I started, unconsciously, to yell out swear words in frustration. I found this release of aggression helpful and my pain management strategy became focused on constructing the foulest swear words and phrases that I could concoct. During the next twenty minutes I became quite inventive.

To reach the finish was a great relief. It was no surprise to hear that I had lost a lot of time (50 minutes on Steve) and was a few minutes behind Helene's able peloton. Frankly, I didn't care. All that mattered to me was that I had finished and that I knew I didn't have to run again for another 12 hours.  A cool dip in the river next to the camp and another great meal from the catering van (soup, chips, the night's fresh cooked meal, cake and custard had become a nightly ritual) quickly revived me. More stories were shared over dinner. Helene had consolidated her position, as first lady and the top five in the overall race seemed to be pretty stable. Wendy Dodds was still going strong and the number of competitors in the main race had stabilised at 32. Whilst mercifully I had not needed to visit the medical tent, I knew that the race medics were being kept busy dealing with dehydration and foot repair. Despite this, the mood around the camp was positive, with Carreg Cennan Castle almost in our grasp.

Steve Birkinshaw and Rob Baker grind out the last major climb of the five day race with an ascent of Fan Brycheiniog. Photo: Jon Brooke

The final day in the last Dragon’s Back had been the longest, but this year, with the front-loading of day one, we had been promised a gentler course. With the results board pretty clear, Steve and I decided to run together and we vowed to take it easy on each other. Road running was mercifully minimised on the first section of the last day as Shane had gained permission to run over a ridge of agricultural land north of Llandovery. We arrived at the Usk Resorvoir dam changeover point at the same time as Helene and received a great reception from the marshals and those who were tackling the half dragon. An extra treat was choc ices and cold coke which both tasted like nectar. It was easy to think that the race was over but we still had 20 miles to go over the Black Mountains.

We popped out of a forest to simply magical views of Allt Fach. Despite being tired I couldn't help but run to the summit. The last section was probably the most memorable for me. With every step there was mounting satisfaction with the realisation that I was going to finish the race in one piece. A small group of us had formed for the last 10 miles or so and it was a purposeful but amiable run in to the finish. Steve deservedly surged away as we entered the castle grounds to receive a fantastic reception from supporters, marshalls and the TV crew.

Phew! The finish at last. Rob Baker crosses the line at Carreg Cennen Castle. Photo: Rob Howard / SleepMonsters

Steve was a worthy winner of the race and it was a real experience to run with him. His mountain craft was first class and his approach to racing was ruthlessly efficient. Every opportunity to save time and energy were always taken. Height was never gained needlessly and stops for water and food were always fast and fleeting. He packed light and by his own admission was happy to take some risks with his nutrition favouring lightness rather than being weighted down with potential surplus food. It goes without saying that his navigation was also superb. Having talked with those who ran with Helene it was clear that she also shared similar steely "Dragon slaying" qualities.

The evening banquet took place at the castle grounds. Every competitor who finished was given a great reception, but the roof was raised and a standing ovation was given to the last finisher of the race. Wendy Dodds' fitness, stamina and dogged determination was a wonder to everyone. Wendy modestly seemed bemused by all the fuss. The finish reception was the first chance for all the competitors and marshals to speak to each other without the distraction of recovering, eating and tending to ailments. One favourite story I heard involved a competitor asking for directions in a village shop only to be sold a map that he needed to follow to get him back on the race map and route. Another involved one of the top female athletes who when talking to the race doctor about a minor issue was told not to worry and that it was simply the early signs of trauma!

It's all smiles now. Rob Baker at the Carreg Cennen Castle finish. Photo: Jon Brooke.

Personally, I certainly got the adventure I was looking for. I am sometimes guilty of not pushing myself out of my comfort zone and this race certainly did that. It was totally different from anything that I had tackled before and the combination of the majesty of the Welsh mountains, the camaraderie of fellow competitors and the inexhaustible positive support from the support crew made it a very special race indeed. I understand the Dragon is sleeping for a few years now but I am sure 2015 will provide another memorable event and will be the highlight of anyone's year.

I would encourage anyone who wants a more detailed analysis of the race and the route to visit the race's website for more detailed written reports and video updates about the race. Thanks to Inov8 for help with my shoes and kit, Shane for organising, Berghaus for their sponsorship of the race, the many magical marshals that made it happen and my fellow competitors who embraced the race in such a positive spirit that made it so memorable.

Top Three Men
Steve Birkinshaw - 43.25.30
Rob Baker - 45.22.27
Patrick Devine Wright - 49.02.04

Top Three Women
Helene Whitaker - 49.10.05 (4th overall)
Liz Barker - 51.05.45
Nicky Spinks - 62.21.14

Post script
After the race, I thought I was pretty invincible and gave scant regard to recovery or recuperation. It quickly became evident at a race a couple of week's later that my body was flat and I developed heart palpitations that I have subsequently learnt can be caused by fatigue and stress caused by endurance races. Frustratingly this ruled me out for most of the Autumn's races. Writing this article over 4 months after the race I still don't feel fully recovered and I have learnt the hard way that I need to treat extreme races of this nature with respect and plan a period of rest and recovery accordingly. Learning how I need to recover from ultra races is just as important as learning how to tackle the races themselves.