Chasing the Dragon
There’s tough, and there’s tough. You might have heard an Olympian – after say a 3 minute effort this summer – say “that was tough”, but when you hear the record holder of the women’s Bob Graham Round say it, you know that what you are talking about is seriously tough…
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I decided that the only way to experience what some were calling the UK’s toughest race was to head over to see for myself; talk to people on the ground, the runners, the organisers.
When Shane Ohly announced that he was going to resurrect the Dragon’s Back Race back in July 2011, endurance runners who like a challenge must have been licking their lips. 50,000ft of climbing over 5 days, 200+miles, that’s all.
“I just dont think some realise how difficult a challenge this event is”, said Ohly when I spoke to him, and I believed him, I spoke to the likes of hardened fell runner Rob Baker after he crossed the line on day 2. He was pale, tired and talked of getting ‘crag bound’ on the Rhinogydd hills near to the finish in Dollgellau.
1992 winner Helene Whitaker (Diamantides as was) said that the last stretch across the very same hills seemed to go on and on, as she hobbled around the finish area and after yesterday’s baking hot day over Cader Idris to Pumlumon Fawr ended the day stating, “I’ve never been so happy to see a tent set up in sheep shit before!”.
Though perhaps my favourite ‘analogy’ from the time spent on the event was that drawn by newly-crowned female Bob Graham Round record holder Nicky Spinks. After devouring a steak pie in Machynlleth at the aid station point yesterday, she said:
“The days are long and hard. I reckon a couple of these days equate to a BGR (Bob Graham Round). It isnt just the length, hours out there, but the terrain, and today has been hot too”.
So, to close this analogy off, the Dragon’s Back Race is a bit like two and a half Bob Graham Rounds, in one week! And, yes, before we get any statistical complaints, we know that this is anecdotal and a BGR is all in once go. But you get the picture…
For these reasons, I had to experience the event, and wasn’t surprised that the more I spoke to people, the more there was a sense of ‘we are in this together’. Sure, it’s blinking hard, but from the support staff, to the marshals, to the tent erectors, the course setters, the timekeepers and doctors, you realise this is a journey for all involved. You also realise that the runners are having fun, enjoying themselves even, and the stories seemed to get more and more fantastical as they crossed the line on day 2 and midway through day 3.
Wendy Dodds, super vet, a competitor in the first event in 1992, was having quite a good day of it yesterday. “My best day yet” she said, “Tuesday wasn’t good, my head went a little, I had a very bad day, but today is fine, I’m feeling okay”. The 61-year old Clayton le Moors runner is no ordinary women, we might add, and as she picked herself up off her chair after enjoying a mug of soup in Machynlleth, she stomped off up the road, looking better than some half her age.
The runners have been out there for hours too. Steve Jones of Eryri Harriers is a hardened and seasoned mountain runner and days of almost 14 and 15 hours on day one and two left him quite low, but having gone over the halfway point yesterday Jones still mustered a smile as he checked in a CP6 on Tarren y Gesail.
As I write this the remaining competitors (just 29 started the day) are making their way to the day 4 overnight stop in Llandovery, and just when you thought the race couldn’t much harder we are told that today’s tussocky and boggy day is one of the hardest, this from Helene Whitaker.
You would think that all of this would leave those watching from afar with a sense of trepidation and fear. Not a bit of it. The buzz on social media and forums is that runners would be queuing up to sign-up for the next fell running extravaganza. Jez Bragg for one, he tweeted “Good luck to all the competitors running the @dragonsbackrace this week. What an adventure awaits. Would love to run it one day”.
But, there will be a wait. Shane Ohly has ruled out a 2013 event, seeing that the race could be a bi-annual event. “It definitely wont be on next year”, he told me, “Maybe the year after, probably!”.
Either way, competitors on the Dragon’s Back Race 2012 will never forget their experience, and somehow, neither will I.