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Dragon’s Back Race 2021

This is the Dragon’s Back Race –  touted as ‘the world’s toughest mountain race’. Running through the scorching midday sun, not a cloud in the sky, nor a breath of wind, the temperature is pushing 30°C. I’ve been at this for seven hours, the air is thick and stifling.
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The Rhinogydd

Precious, Sweet Memories

I’m alone and working hard, climbing to the summit of Diffwys. High in the Rhinogydd mountains, I don’t expect to find any water for at least another hour, but I come across a single, small, crystal clear pool. A smooth mirror amongst the rough and hostile rocks. I dip my cap into the water without breaking my stride, I place the cap back onto my head. The soaked material provides a short release from the unyielding heat, before drying up within minutes. But, somehow, due perhaps to the incline I’m climbing, or an imperceptible breeze, drips of water are consistently blowing off the rim of my cap and directly onto my face. I keep running, keep pumping my legs, but these little drips of coolness that fall and die on the furnace of my forehead, I feel them so keenly, and am so grateful to the entire universe for them, that I genuinely wonder if anything in the world has ever felt more precious and sweet.

A single memory picked out from so many, whilst moving through the vast and inspiring landscapes, completely immersed within them. The privilege to have everything else taken care of, all life’s worries lifted off my shoulders, for six glorious days, so that all I need to do, the single thing, is run.

Six Days with One Goal

Only six days, but they are so packed full, it’s hard to unravel it all. A play with six acts.

Day one is ‘smoove’. I am moving in silence with Simon and Kim and finding it easy. I am fit and strong, my legs know these hills so well. At one point I have pulled ahead without even trying. I reign it back in. I’ve never done a multi-day race before, the only tactic I have for this day is not to pull away. Plenty of time for that.

We are jamming down the tricky Pen Yr Ole Wen, each with our own signature moves. We lose Kim as we head up Tryfan. I take Simon through the jagged rocks of the Glyderau like a knife through butter. I don’t make a single mistake. He follows me in unison, we work well together. I ask if he wants to hold back now we are so far in front. He answers by kicking away from me. So that is how it is going to be, I smile to myself. I catch him back up along the razorback ridge of Crib Goch. We finish our water bottles around Snowdon, it slows us down, but we are home soon enough.

Day One, Done

Camp 1 is idyllic. They are all idyllic. I meet the event staff for the first time, all brilliant. Most of them are here for free, in exchange for an entry to the 2022 edition, so they are keen to hear about me and my experience. Standing in a stream, under dappled shade, talking to a captive audience all about myself, after a glorious day in the mountains. Does life get any better?

I’m waiting for the rest of the field to come in. I want to revel in all the fun and frolics that were going on yesterday, pre-race. The high-fives, laughing and group photos. Only a few runners are arriving, and they don’t look very frolicky. After a big, delicious meal I go to bed early.

The Night of the Living Dead

I wake up at 10 pm gasping as if I’ve been swallowing sand. Crawling out of my sleeping bag I go to get some water. A tent-mate is just standing there, looking a bit lost. I ask him how his day has gone. Tough, he says. But I am tougher. You don’t know me. I’ve been through tougher than this. His eyes are bloodshot, there is fear in them. I excuse myself while he carries on with how tough he is. The next day he disappears.

I stumble out of my tent straight into a scene from Night Of The Living Dead. People throwing up, moaning, groaning, limping, suffering. The air is of dejection and failure. I get my water quickly and hurry back to bed, scared to get eaten by one of the zombies.

Day Two – Overheating

Day 2. Tuesday. I start way too leisurely over the Moelwynion. No one here knows these hills better than I do. I am overtaking so many runners it feels like I’m doing enough. I’m not. The heat of the Rhinogydd starts to set in. I’m carrying 1.5 litres. It is just about sufficient. There is only so much you can drink. The best way to cool down is to slow down. I am making too many mistakes in the now unfamiliar terrain. Missing trods and bushbashing for miles. Wasting energy. Overheating. I take off my rucksack and dive straight into a lake. This is only Day 2 of the Dragon’s Back Race, plenty of time to push later when this heat subsides. But, I find out in camp, Simon Roberts has taken 55min out of me. I did not pay him enough respect. That is a lot of time to gain back.

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Crib Goch

Day Three – Alone Again

Day 3, I refuse to change my tactic. Always back yourself. Go out early, but this time, go out hard. I do it. I love doing it. Just me, the mountains and the sunrise. I overtake a squirrel. Hunter-like I gallop across the wilderness. I could have caught that squirrel with my bare hands. It is a more gentle day with a breeze, clouds and a rolling landscape. My body is bouncing off the firm grass. A Red Kite hovers, motionless, right in front of my eyes. The first living thing I have seen for hours. It doesn’t flinch as I pass by. The mountains and the Red Kite, where the wild things are.

In Machynlleth, I hustle my way through crowds. They are ignoring me as they cheer the passing peloton of the Tour of Britain. The cyclists are chatting merrily away to each other, lapping up the adulation, while I am shoved aside and ignored in my suffering. I don’t mind. Let them have the cheers. I have the silent satisfaction of knowing that, right now, no one is working harder than me.

Camp Life

The day passes, afternoon sets in. Camp life is the only life I remember. I have started to avoid sitting with other runners, most have already been knocked out of the race, sullen and depressed. Seeing Simon, I stand taller. How are you? Yeah? I’m feeling good too! I read my Dragon’s Mail while I force feed myself. Messages from my friends make me laugh and messages from my kids make me cry. I study my map, go to bed at 8 pm, tired and confused. Simon has taken another half an hour out of me today. How has he done it? I put it all out there today. I am frustrated, then, I remember what I need to do. It is so simple; go out there again tomorrow, try your best, execute, and that’s all you have to do.

Sleep and Rain

Another full night’s sleep (I am good at sleeping), another full English (vegetarian) breakfast, eating again until I feel sick. Apparently, I am not allowed to leave camp early this morning. I have been arriving at the checkpoints too soon and affecting the logistics. So I return to my sleeping bag. This is the hardest thing of the whole event. Lying there, for an hour, listening to the rain. Too much time to think. Now and then a head pops in; Anyone in here? Yes, I am still in here. They are collapsing the tents around me. When I finally emerge, the field looks very sad. All the tents are lying flat, except for those of the top three runners.

The rain is a pleasure. I hammer the roads with all the power I can muster. It is not as easy as it should be. I’m in fell running shoes. I’m carrying a heavy backpack and 100+ miles of mountains in my legs. I notice a lot more people walking. The race is taking its toll. I am doing better today with my navigation, with slightly fewer wrong turns. I reach the camp, having stolen back a small number of minutes from Simon.

Keep the Pressure On

After 3 hot, sweaty days, chafing is pretty raw. It is expertly managed by Nikki in the medical tent.
Sitting on the balcony of a pub near camp, as the rain clouds drift off and let a few sun rays in, I drink my pint of cold Coke and call Nina. A runner comes to sit next to me. I am trepidatious. Another story of failure would be too much right now. I need to protect my sanity. I have my problems to ruminate on.

It is too late, we lock eyes, but I see, immediately, this guy isn’t here to share tales of woe. He slams down two pulled pork burgers onto the table, buys me another pint, and we swap stories. The toughest don’t tell you how tough they are. It’s all right there in their eyes. That someone like this wants to talk to me, hear about my battles, and is impressed by what I’m doing out there every day, is a massive compliment.

I let myself open up for the first time this week. I tell him I don’t know how to win. What more I can do? How do I pull all that time back? He tells me to keep the pressure on. Anything can happen to anyone. He speaks with a quiet authority, the voice of someone who has endured real situations, compared to this game. I regain my perspective. I might not win the Dragon’s Back Race, but I can still go out and fight for it with whatever I have left.

Day Five – Chasing Simon

I try to steal a lead on Day 5. Simon sets off 2min after me. I get lost almost immediately in the woods, fog and rain. I scream “f***” to the world and Simon catches me up. We run together for a bit, but we’re not taking it easy out here as the rain lashes down. I sense weakness on the roads. I test it and make a break.

I’m away, and pretty soon I am out of sight. I have 15 miles of road to make it count. An experienced road runner should be able to create a decent separation here, but things are not so simple. I get slightly lost through the town, I have to slow to take my waterproof jacket off, a few more wrong turns in some farmer’s field and it all adds up. As I change shoes at the checkpoint, Simon has already arrived.

Simon and The Dragon’s Back

The rest of the day is severely difficult navigation through featureless hills, rain and clag. I decide to hang with Simon. I have gained a lot of respect for him. We work well together, but I cannot display any weakness. If I lose contact with him now, he will disappear into the grey and I will have to slow drastically to find my way through.

I see how intricately he knows these hills, he takes clean lines, hits traverses, everything bang on. Never misses a trick. We are ticking off the hills so fast, making incredible time. I am out of gels, only a soggy flapjack that I don’t fancy. I see a burger van and want to stop for a Coke, Simon tells me to wait till the next one. There is no next one. He gives me two gels instead. As we reach the Brecon Beacons I think we have both accepted to work through the rest of the day together, there is no let-up in pace, the odd sentence here and there, but miles of honest, hard work in between.

The sun breaks through the rain briefly and I get precious glimpses of the stunning slopes. We finish at camp together after 8 hours. It is a relief. All the gambits, volleys and gamesmanship, the constant clashing has forged a camaraderie. Fist bump. Friends.

Day Six – The Decider

Day 6 is a weird one. It is the easiest day of the Dragon’s Back Race on paper, but since when is 40 miles of running with some hills thrown in going to be easy? Simon has a lead of almost an hour and a half. The only way I can realistically win is if something drastically wrong happens to him. To be honest, it would be a shitty way for it to end, Simon to get lost or injured. But still, I have to make it honest, try my best.

I leave at 8 am on the dot. Unexpectedly, I see my parents in one of the towns, that’s a great surprise. I absent-mindedly follow some runners straight to the doors of a coffee shop, they go in, I realise I have been drawn off course. I scream “F***!” to the world again and retrace my steps. Simon catches me up with 10 miles of pretty flat running still to go. We are clipping along at 7min miling. We overtake a jogger, he is springing around in his salmon coloured Alphaflys. He tries to hang onto us. We have to speed up to get rid of him, in our stiff fell running shoes. It’s slightly ridiculous. Upon reaching the castle Simon, fittingly, leads us in, he is the winner.

We enter inside the walls, and before we know it, it’s all over.

It’s Over  – Let Go

The race has opened my eyes anew to just how lucky I am. My wife, kids, parents and one of my best friends are all there to hug and celebrate with. It’s too much. I cry a little on camera. There is a queue for the bar, but they let my dad go in front to buy me a pint of Coke (this is a big deal in the UK, pushing to the front of a queue, it’s not something we do). I have a hot shower for 20min. It dawns on me that I can finally let myself go. No more running tomorrow. 236 miles. It is over. And so the pain sets in. I can hardly walk now. Everything hurts. Everything is difficult. I don’t mind the pain.

The Aftermath

It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Grinding every day for six days. No easy days. Camp life is not a picnic either. The week after the Dragon’s Back Race it felt like my body was in a vice. I was hungry but couldn’t eat, tired but couldn’t sleep. Feet swollen, brain fuzzy. Could find no comfort in anything.

It is also the most brilliant adventure I’ve ever had. Somewhere in the middle of that week, in that hazy, tired fog, I woke up, looked around, and realised my ego had completely dissolved. The hologram of myself, of who I think people want me to be, had flickered out. For that short week, all that was left was me. If it sounds spiritual, it’s because it was fucking spiritual, so sue me. If you come through the Dragon’s Back and don’t get spiritual at some point, then you’ve missed it. I have never felt so alive as that week. The colours were richer, the sounds amplified, every feeling was more precious. Nothing else mattered. Maybe I’m a changed man now. I am zen. Ooh, I fancy a McDonald’s chocolate milkshake. What do you mean they don’t serve them anymore? Eugh, Brexit.

To Those Who Raced and Those Who Want to Race:

Well done to everyone who finished and everyone who tried to finish the Dragon’s Back Race. There is an excellent blog here by a guy who was cut off on Day 1 but reframed his expectations and still came away with a fantastic story.

Only 24% of runners finished. This is what the world needs. A race that is truly hard to finish. Not some Marathon Des Sables bollocks.

I would not recommend this race to anyone. Because it is too tough. But I would point you to the winner, Simon Roberts, who finished 23rd in 2019, and two years later came back to win. Maybe he will tell you himself the training he undertook to get there. But really, you already know. No one told him how to do it. He just did it. Two years of dedicated and specific loading is what is necessary to have a chance. I’m not talking about winning, but thriving in the Dragon’s Back Race. And if you can do that, you will be rewarded with a once in a lifetime experience.

Thankyous

Thanks and congratulations to Simon. I am happier coming second in a close race, than winning without really having been tested.

Thank you so much to the Dragon’s Back Race team, I can’t remember everyone’s name but; Matt, Lowri, Nia, Nikki, Will, Phil, Kirk, Trish and all of you, you made the experience for me. Thanks to my friends and family and everyone who got sucked into my tiny blue dot moving around a screen for a week. The level of support was overwhelming. Special thanks to Jeni Richards for booking me some appointments with Cerys at Bodywyrcs Physio, so kind!

Thanks go lastly, and mostly, to Shane Ohly; kind face and smile, but takes no prisoners. Nearly kicked me out of the race the day before it began. It takes vision and focus to bring this adventure to life. You have created something monumental, you are doing it Carbon Neutral too, and I hope it grows from strength to strength.

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Photo courtesy of Dean McMinn and Oli Smith
Thanks to Sports Pictures Cymru, No Limits Photography, My Bib Number and Summit Fever for the brilliant media throughout!

Read Russell’s tips on how to become a better runner here

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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