The Dragon’s Back race runs down the length of Wales and scares even hardened fell runners. Hisayo was brave enough to take it on.
The Dragon’s Back Race is a five-day mountain race, which involves running 315km in distance with the overall 15.5km of elevation covering the entire Welsh mountain range. It is billed as the “toughest” foot race in the world. Apart from a few mandatory sections, competitors have the free choice of routes. As to food and water, competitors must carry everything throughout each day and no external support is allowed.
I was one of the 223 starters of the 2017 race.
A lot of people asked me why I decided to take part in the race.
I suppose I was sold by the promotional material of the Dragon’s Back Race YouTube video. Those spectacular mountain views and people running along the ridges. I wished that I was one of them.
I was not particularly speedy in running or skilled in mountain navigation. The chance of my becoming “good enough” for the Dragon’s Back Race in the next 10 years was, realistically, dim. I was turning 50. I will be fighting to maintain the same level of fitness in the next 10 years, rather than expecting a steep improvement.
I read the race details carefully. There was nothing to prevent the “not-so-good” runners from entering. That was enough for me to conclude that “I am in”. Whatever happens, I would rather try and fail than never try and regret not having tried. What have I got to lose anyway?
Day 1 – Carneddau, Glyderau, Snowdon: 52km (distance), 3.8km (elevation)
At the Conwy Castle, 7:00am, 20th May 2017 start, it was cold and windy.
The ridges of Carneddau range were very busy with 223 runners, climbing one summit after another. The underfoot was made of big rocks, medium rocks and small rocks and there were continuous ups and downs. The winds were strong and cold, and it felt like they were trying to blow us away from the ridges.
I tucked away my map under my shirt, close to my stomach. The multi-tasking of running, checking the direction, eating and hydrating whilst making sure that I don’t fall down, was not easy. The spectacular views at the summit of Carneddau were largely and sadly passing through the sides of my vision. My eyes were glued to the underfoot.
The navigation was one of the biggest challenges in this race. And my nightmare became reality at the dreaded Glyderau.
I knew the Glyderau range was tricky. The terrain is very steep, carpeted with shattered rocks and screes. I was on hands and knees and scrambling up through massive boulders and rocks. It was difficult to look upwards to see the climbing line as the summit above was covered in the cloud. I gave up on my GPS as the arrow was pointing left and right and left and right and everywhere. Instead, I trusted my inner voice that I was heading to the right direction.
I finally reached what I thought to be the top of the mountain. The only problem was that it was just the top of a massively large rock which did not seem to be connected to anywhere on ground level. The cloud was too thick to see even 1 metre ahead. I looked around for the escape route but I couldn’t even remember how I got there. The panic set in to my head. It was getting cold and I felt a chill in my body.
I had only one hour left to meet the cut-off for the next checkpoint, but, probably more importantly, I had to get myself down to safety. I slowly slid down from these rocks and loose screes. It was too steep to stand up. I slid down on my bum and shoulder as my body rolled. Small pieces of shattered screes and stones got into my pockets, shoes, mouth and everywhere. I didn’t care where I would be dropping down to, and in fact, I was on the other side of the mountain from where I should be going. I just had to get down to safety, uninjured. I did just that.
That was how my Day 1 ended, rather abruptly. I can only blame my own incompetence.
Day 2 – Nant Gwynant to Dolgellau: 58km (distance), 3.6km (elevation)
I set my alarm for 4:45am for a quick breakfast and to allow plenty of time to pack up the dry bag and make the 6:00am start. Never mind the Day 1 fiasco, Day 2 is a different day.
It was another very cold and wet day. The climb up the wet underfoot of loose screes was not easy, and my feet kept sliding down at each attempt. The mist was thick and I was unable to see much.
At the top, there seemed to be summits everywhere in all directions. Once I thought I was going the same direction with someone else, when that person disappeared and another person appeared from the opposite direction. Someone shouted at someone else that they were in the wrong place. And they disappeared again.
Rather miraculously, I managed to find all the checkpoints in the mountain section and descended down to a village, and the route continued to the moorland.
Navigating in the moorland is different from navigation in the mountains. It is just different, not less difficult. But the good news was that the weather was warm and sunny. I teamed up with two other runners and, together, we went left and right and back and forth, and sinking down in the bogs and crossing the streams. One guy held the map, the other guy had the compass, and I had a GPS watch. A few hours later, our team of three finally arrived at the half way point.
We were too late for the cut-off – timed out. We tried our best, and that was that. I put my feet up in the sun and enjoyed the company with my new friends.
The number of the disqualified runners had doubled on Day 2.
Day 3 – Dolgellau to Ceredigion: 71km (distance), 3.5km (elevation)
The pre-race gossip was that, if you could survive the end of Day 3, you will have completed the Dragon’s Back Race. Day 3 is the longest and the most difficult.
My alarm went off again at 4:45am and I packed my bag swiftly for the 6:00am start. Judging by the previous two days, I had very little confidence that I would ever finish the day or even manage the first half. I hated being so negative, but my confidence, together with my sense of humour, was falling away.
On the Day 3 route, I knew that there were a few miles where there was no defined path. And it was near the top of the mountain. I did not have a plan as to how I would manage that section.
When I reached the dreaded spot, the runners around me dispersed into three different directions, all following the different fence lines. I stood there, confused. Where was I supposed to go?
The mist was coming down, blinding the views ahead. I decided to traverse the grassy area to take the direct line, which seemed like a brilliant idea. Except that there were some hidden bogs and streams that were not showing up on the map, and that was probably why people were avoiding going through that area. I was drenched wet from the hip down, but, at least, I was going in the right direction. I felt like a winner when I finally reached the defined footpath again.
I continued, up and down the mountains and through the valleys, just one step at a time, and left and right and left and right. My confidence grew.
Sadly however, as I was reaching the village of Machynlleth, I realised that I had only 20 minutes to cover the remaining 4 km to the half-way point cut-off. That was impossible. My throat was burning from the heat and my legs were shattered. My heart sank.
At the end of Day 3, I was informed that it was no longer acceptable to start in the morning and get timed out at the half way point as there weren’t enough vehicles to arrange transport for the disqualified competitors. There were just too many of us getting timed out at the half way point.
Day 4 – Through the Elan Valley: 71km (distance); 2.4km (elevation)
I was wide awake throughout the night. I hated myself for being so slow and dumb. I got timed out three days in a row. Now, I was not even allowed to start. I peeked through the small window in the communal tent to see the runners departing for Day 4. I wished that I was one of them.
However, in the late morning, it turned out that there were only around 10 disqualified runners who still wanted to run. The vans were arranged to take us to the half-way point so that we could all run the latter half of the route to arrive at the next campsite by foot.
I was feeling like a loser. I tried to shake off the negativity when I started to run through the valley.
It was a glorious day with the hot and bright sunshine. There were some seriously deep bogs through the marsh land, but everything was getting easier each day. I was learning something new every day.
I crossed the “finish” line at the end of Day 4. Although I didn’t run the whole distance, I did “finish” the day. It was a good feeling.
The number of competitors at the campsite was visibly reduced.
Day 5 – Into Carmarthenshire: 63km (distance); 2.2km (elevation)
Since the “success” feeling on Day 4, I decided to rely on the staff van to start my day from the half-way point. There was no point attempting the whole distance as the first half was mainly on road. It was the last day of the race, and I felt justified for having an easy day at last.
We were dropped off at the Usk Reservoir car park around noon to complete the latter half of the race. It was a very hot, sunny day.
A couple of kilometres after the start, the green mountains with the sharp ridge lines appeared ahead of me – the Black Mountain. It is the tip of the tail of the Dragon in the Dragon’s Back Race. I could not stop smiling to myself. The mountain looked like a green bump on the ground and it was waiting to be climbed. I was so happy and wished I could run. But my legs were too heavy; all I could do was just carry on walking. So I did. I kept going one step at a time.
I climbed to the top of the mountain and climbed down the side, and as I climbed to the top of the next mountain, I ran through the ridge in the cloud. I couldn’t stop giggling to myself as I felt a strong power building up inside me. I just could not believe that I was running the Day 5 route of the Dragon’s Back Race.
I no longer had pain in the legs. I ran through the final finish line of the Dragon’s Back Race.
The Garmin data shows that I covered 200km in distance with 10km of elevation in the accumulated time of 37 hours. The winner of the race covered the whole distance (315km in distance with 15km of elevation) in the accumulated time of 37 hours in 58 minutes. I skipped 115km of the route, which probably would take two extra days to complete. I hope that I can cover the part of the route that I skipped in some other way. There is always another time and opportunity.
I met and shared my journey with some fantastic people during the race. My tent mate Sabrina finished the race as the second lady. I was absolutely awed by her strength. She is a true athlete, who is also very modest and humble.
Of 223 starters on the Monday morning, only 127 runners completed the race on the Friday evening.
I DNF’d every day for the whole week. But I was the only disqualified runner who eagerly turned up every morning to run whatsoever possible every day. At least I did not throw in the towel.
I have no regret in having tried. I shall treasure my experience, it was fantastic.
Hisayo Kawahara is an ultra trail runner who only started running at the age of 40. She has been a member of the club since 2012.
Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).