As for so many others, this last year has been exceptionally challenging. To say things have not gone to plan would be an understatement. The one thing that keeps me on the brighter side is my running. Even a 20 minute bolt up and back along the busy main road sets me right. What I really love and have grown to need is a weekly escape to my favourite place. To the hills, especially the beautiful Lakeland fells. I tend to go alone, to choose the paths few people will visit. It does me the world of good and through lockdown it was the thing I missed and needed the most. If I have trouble sleeping I choose a route in the Lakes and try to visualise everything on it. It doesn’t take me long to fall asleep. They’re my grounding, the places I visit to escape the madness, whether that’s in my head or in my being, it’s where I go to feel truly alive and to be at peace.
So when the opportunity to race again opened up I knew I had to enter something good, something challenging, something huge! Something to make up for all that I’d missed. And so I entered the Dragon’s Back Race. Between entering and racing I was supposed to race the Winter Spine. It was all consuming, with a good few delays in the start dates until finally they hung up their hats and cancelled the 2021 event. So for me all my eggs now hung in the dragon basket.
I love running, I also love numbers and planning. I spent a good while reviewing previous training patterns and settling on a new training plan that would take me through to September. It consisted of a few training blocks, building up to a few months of pretty hard and long endurance days on the fells, the DBR specificity blocks. I racked up the biggest training weeks I’d ever done, perfectly mimicking the dragons back mile:elevation gain ratio. This meant long days going up and down Lakeland fells to get maximum elevation so I didn’t have to go crackers on the diminutive hills of Durham or on my incline treadmill.
As usual I know it’s coming, I happily train, ticking off the challenges. I collect my gear and start to make an ever increasing pile. I make lists and notes and try to think of all eventualities and try to overcome the problems I may encounter before I do. I like to be organised, I thrive on it.
I did all this to keep my mind busy. Honestly, life has thrown some of the most horrendous curve balls at me. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but perhaps it made me stronger and even more desperate to succeed. However, because of all that had happened, I never believed I would get to the start line, never mind the finish.
As September reared its head I became increasingly anxious, particularly of Crib Goch. I’d hoped to go down with Fiona to recce that and a few other sections I’d read were trickier. However life got in the way and we couldn’t. At the last minute I booked into a RAW guided tour. I spent the Saturday on the Carneddau and the Sunday on the Snowdon horseshoe for their guided recce. A major confidence boost as this was the hardest, rockiest terrain and the section that I’d been terrified of.
I also managed to convince my family of a last minute trip to Wales. With mammoth amounts of running kit packed and maps the length of Wales, I’d intended to recce the tricky sections. In reality the kit was barely touched. The house was within a few miles of the Carneddau and instead of spending days driving…most of the route is quite inaccessible with little for my teenage kids to do, I resolved to get the hills in my legs whilst still having a family holiday. It would mean that all of the terrain after day 1 would be a surprise. Not ideal, but life never is.
A few weeks before I raced at the Lakeland 100, I was 15th overall, 2nd female and bagged a PB of 5 hours. I knew I could easily get a PB but planned to keep the pace comfortable as it wasn’t my ‘A race’ and I didn’t want anything scuppering the DBR. I was over the moon with the result and this gave me a massive boost and confidence in the training I’d been doing. Afterwards I’d got one tiny blister and apart from that recovery was a dream. Tapering was welcome for a change after the heavy weeks, it gave me plenty of time to sort and resort and resort my bags….
Allowed camp bag:15kg, 59l
Daily drop bag: 2.5kg, 10l
Anyone who knows me, knows I pack, even for days on the fells, probably twice as much as everyone else, so to have these limits on my weekly supply was awful. It was almost the hardest part of the challenge for me. I weighed everything meticulously, thought I’d managed it then realised I hadn’t taken into account the actual drop bag weight. Anyway you get the gist!
Eventually everything was sorted into neat mesh bags, camp kit separated into sleeping, clothing, eating, washing, first aid. Daily kit bags packed…new clothes, fuel for each day separated into use from the start and to go in the drop bag, all of this allowing me very minimal effort whilst out and knackered.
So the day finally came. I was quite sad, I’ve never left my family for more than a couple of days and even then have had regular phone calls with them. Most of the camps wouldn’t have reception and so there would be no chance to speak.
After a long drive I arrived at Conwy. Imposter syndrome reared its head. There were lots of burly, loud men talking about previous big challenges. I felt completely out of my depth. I had to lug my bags to registration (17.5kg of camp kit plus my daily running bag kit), I’m quite small and not very strong so this made me feel even worse as men dawdled past barely struggling to lift their bags.
I’d arranged to share my tent compartment with my friend Juhana. We’d met through Scott, a great guy I’d run a few of the L100 recces with. They’d then come up to help on Mark’s BG and I’d navigated on Juhana’s a few months ago. He stopped to chat but at that point I was in such a panic I wasn’t really thinking straight. After dropping off my bags (and having to remove 200g of recovery fuel…they were strict!) I decided to hide and try to calm myself down. Much to my surprise Anna Troup came across. If you’ve ever crossed paths with her, even when she’s knackered, you’ll know she is one of the happiest, most positive people. She really settled my nerves. The briefing went on until quite late and I didn’t arrive at my hotel until 8. I had my last shower for a few days, gobbled up some pot pasta meals and tried my best to sleep. Sleep was fretful, I tried my Lakeland routes but kept jumping to Wales and panicking that I didn’t know any of them! Each hour I’d jump up thinking I’d missed my alarm.
And so it begins…
It was a beautiful morning with clear skies. The forecast was for good visibility, no rain, little wind and HOT. I didn’t mind so much as this meant the rocks on Tryfan and Crib Goch would be dry…the two bits I was most eager to put behind me!
I went through the castle gates, had one last toilet visit to a normal toilet! (portaloos or outside pees would be the order for the next week) then lined up near to the start line. A familiar voice welcomed me and I turned to see Juhana. He exudes a calmness which is just what I needed. Kim Collison chatted too (another fell legend and Juhana’s coach who I’d met on Juhana’s BG).
My nerves increased until finally we were off along the city walls and then I immediately felt more relaxed. Too late to turn back! We weren’t timed until outside these to avoid a mad rush and accidents on the steps. Chris Brookman, who I’d run half of the Spine Challenger with and had finished joint 3rd, caught me up. We chatted excitedly about the week ahead. Juhana had said he was taking the first two days easy, I wondered if I’d manage his easy but it wasn’t long…despite him stopping for photos, for him to disappear ahead.
I’d recced the whole of day 1 except the Glyders. I had a really good run into Ogwen car park.
Fiona was there cheering me in (she was volunteering at the event) The incredible heat going up the long slog to Tryfan slowed my progress. It is however a great route up, involving clambering and scrambling up rocks which is a nice contrast to the morning’s running. We formed a little group on the way down, the previous time I’d gone it was misty and I’d ended up hitting some sheer drops and had to go back over my steps to find the better way. Initially there are huge boulders to jump between. Then you hit a path to contour round and eventually hit the scree towards the Glyders.
I know from previous experience not to bolt down hills and trash my quads so my descents were particularly slow (I had another 5 days of huge climbs) my uphills are always pretty fast, I really enjoy them and a few of the men cursed me as again I passed on the scree ascent to Glyder Fawr.
There was no checkpoint here and I fell in with Darren who I was to spend a good few miles with over the coming week. He knew the way and we expertly arrived at Glyder Fach. I left him on the grassy descent to catch another runner who was suffering badly with cramp. I tried unsuccessfully to find my salt tablets and he was keen to run with me, well to be chivvied along, being local he vowed he knew the best line. I did slow to help him but I was eager not to overcook the first day and to enjoy the experience. This was all unknown territory and I had no clue how my body would react after one day of running let alone 6.
At Pen y Pass I stopped to buy a Coke which was absolute heaven and I sipped this until I reached the ascent to Crib Goch. It’s not my favourite place but on reflection I think I really enjoyed it. It’s a huge scramble all the way to the top. At the top I lay down to catch my breath and calm my nerves, again the traverse isn’t my favourite but actually I managed reasonably well until I reached the final pinnacle. On my guided recce we’d descended a gully and scampered round some rock. There were no steep drops and I’d been relieved to avoid the pinnacle. However the mountain rescue man wouldn’t let me do that as he thought it was more dangerous, so with a lot of encouragement I found myself scrambling up the pinnacle.
Finally I reached the col before Carnedd Ugain, hurrah I’d done it! Here, there is even more scrambling which I really enjoyed. I reached Snowdon (with no queue!) hot and happy knowing I was on the home straight of day 1.
Onto Y Lliwedd where I’d thought there was a checkpoint. A group of teenagers were huddled on the summit and I was convinced they were hiding the checkpoint. I proceeded to move their bags then to check my map only to realise they weren’t having me on at all!
As I descended towards the last peak of the day I passed a group huddled by some rocks. Soon after a mountain rescue helicopter started hovering over and someone was airlifted off the mountain. In my eagerness to get to the end I hadn’t realised anyone was injured in the group, and I certainly didn’t know it was Steve. He’d suffered a heart arrhythmia. Thankfully he’s home safe. It’s always a chilling sight to see and reminds you to take each step with care.
On to Gallt y Wenallt, the last summit of the day, a lovely grassy traverse then a steep drop to finally catch sight of the day 1 camp, then an unnerving steep descent through head high bracken to reach the finish.
I loved day 1, I’d overcome a few personal challenges. Visibility was glorious, I was 2nd female and ready for food! On arrival we were taken with our drop bags to the tent, no 51! I was relieved to see Juhana hadn’t changed his mind and was still happy to share. Unfortunately Kim had to pull out with an injury. We were all gutted, it would have been wonderful to see him race and to share tent stories with a legend like him.
I set out my camp things then went to bathe in the cold river. On arrival I unfortunately disturbed a naked man! I would learn to give clear warning of my arrival in future.
Food for me was chips and soup with cake and ice cream. All of the meals were beautiful but with cauliflower and beans…ordinarily I’d wolf them down but didn’t want to risk the consequences of copious amounts of beans! So one of my targets for the day was to arrive before the chips and soup were taken off the menu! I drank lots of tea then went to sort my kit for the next day. Time seemed to fly by.
By 9 I was tucked up ready for sleep. With 8 people sharing a tent not much sleep was had. The others would arrive at close to 10, and it would be very late before all was quiet…apart from the intermittent banging of portaloo doors. They’d then rise just before 4:30 to be first in the breakfast queue and to start their days at the earliest opportunity, 6am.
On our timing sheets we’d been advised of when to leave according to the time of that day’s run. I decided I could give myself until 7, a lot earlier than the sheet suggested (8).
367 started day 1
A day of surviving the 30 degree heat
I left the camp just after 7, hoping to avoid some of the day’s expected heat. It was a lovely start through little lanes and tracks then on up to Cnicht. Much fun was had bum sledging down the side of Cnicht on a lovely mossy slope. A bit of a weave through boggy jocks’ heads to climb onto the Moelwyns. These are lovely mountains but as I passed a group who were devastated that by their calculations they wouldn’t hit the checkpoint before cut-off, I pressed ahead in a mad rush. Could I possibly have messed up on the second day??? I didn’t much enjoy the day until I’d finally reached the support point well within the final cut off for the day’s running. Then there was a climb up onto the Rhinogs which I’d been looking forward to, however the heat was incredible and every step was a huge effort.
On the way up the Roman Steps I remember slipping and having that awful second where I thought I’d smash my head then thinking, ‘Oh good, if I’m unconscious that’s a fairly good excuse not to run any further!’
I’d spent the day soaking my head and body in streams, bog water, anything really to bring my core temperature down. I really started to suffer up the Rhinogs. Thankfully I started running with Darren again and we both encouraged each other on to the end of a very tiring day.
The scenery was spectacular, amongst the best of the days but marred by the sun bearing down on us and draining all of our energy. By the time we reached the last peak of the day, Diffwys, the sun was setting and it started to cool, only then could I pick up my pace back to camp.
On the road I caught up with Juhana. I was quite confused as I hadn’t been aware of him passing me. Later he was to tell me about our conversation on Diffwys…I was clearly so knackered and demoralised I wasn’t really with it
The saving grace for this day, which I would rank as the hardest fell day I’ve ever had was the hot shower in the campsite. ‘Hot shower, hot showers!!!’ I repeated excitedly on the way! These sorted me out, along with soupy, cheesy chips and sticky toffee pudding with ice cream.
The man who sorted the tea and coffee asked me daily from now on, ‘still competitive?’ I thought he’d meant still top 3 until I realised just how many people were being timed out. This became his daily chatter, that and laughing about my soupy, cheesy chips concoction.
There was just time to sort myself out for the next day in the darkness. Whilst washing my bowl and filling my bottles I watched as one man just made the cut off for the day (22:00 at camp), the next was 20 seconds over and was timed out. It was very emotional. We’d all suffered that day and to have seconds between finishing was heartbreaking.
My best day!
Realising my timing mistake of the previous day, I resolved to leave camp at 6:30 each day. I’d get up at 5, sneak out of our compartment as Juhana would stay in for another half hour. I’d arrive back to change and tape my feet before I’d wait for just enough daylight to not need my head torch. Then I’d hand in my overnight bag, have my drop bag weighed and daily kit check and off I’d go. Map checked, checkpoints remembered.
I loved the mixture of terrain, it was absolutely stunning. I also had lots of good company along the route, again I saw a lot of Chris.
By day 3 it seemed I’d set off and catch people at certain points along the trail. There was a man, Keith #298, who I’d always catch 3 miles from the end. It was a good game!
Unfortunately for me I think I was Juhana’s target, I’d always try to run as fast as I could but he’d catch me earlier and earlier as the week progressed.
From now on our nights would become increasingly disturbed by snore monsters…sleep became a fabled thing and lying in bed to rest was just as important!
A day of soggy bog feet with the lure of a pub at the finish
There was much chatter in the camp the previous night of thunderstorms threatening to reduce the course. Luckily this didn’t happen.
It was a lovely start through forest, initially with boggy baby’s’ heads, then a wonderful steep muddy descent to reach wide forest tracks.
Climbing up to Drygarn Fawr with its two beautifully huge cairns, I got really excited when I spotted the biggest rainbow I’d ever seen. Suffice to say I really enjoyed this boggy running that reminded me of my home turf along the Pennine Way.
My favourite memory of the whole race was nearing the end of day 4. I dropped into a valley by myself, horses were grazing, there was a huge eagle that kept swooping above my head. The clouds broke and sunbeams shone down onto where the camp was. It was absolutely glorious and a wonderful sight at the end of the day.
Even better was my much earlier finish of 5pm and a pub within spitting distance. We all raided it and sat as if in heaven with pints of Coke and pulled pork sandwiches. It was quite an amusing sight, a bunch of smelly runners sitting in the pub with a bunch of nearly naked runners washing in the river by the pub garden. Juhana thought it would be a good calendar photo, I’m not sure who for!
People could choose to leave or to stay on and do/attempt a full day or a short course even though they were no longer competitive in the event. This did become slightly confusing and at times soul destroying as fresh faces caught and passed us on the trails. I think a big DNF sticker would have been nice to see for us still battling full days!
This was a new day 5 for the now extended 6 day Dragon’s Back race. Initially I was excited to be running through the Brecon Beacons. However, this was the day I really felt like I was in an SAS survival camp.
A beautiful mizzly start heading up through forest. I got quite stressed in the forest worried I’d miss a turning. I was so relieved to find the first checkpoint hidden in the mist. I spent the morning running with Nick which was fun.
Passing through Llandovery there was a long queue at the patisserie for those doing the short course. I did wonder to myself whether I was missing a treat continuing in the madness! Heading up some tracks, I foolishly took someone’s advice against my own better judgement and ended up off track, not for long and never to happen again!
I loved the climbs across the Fans. They are very like the Northern Lakes fell terrain, good steep long grassy climbs, grassy descents.
I felt great and enjoyed lots of good company along the way. I stopped for a delicious bacon roll and coke at the burger van near the Storey Arms, then it all seemed to unravel.
On my way up Pen Y Fan my shin started hurting. This then had a domino effect and I started catastrophizing and wondering if I’d ever make it to Cardiff Castle. There was an evil little traverse across to the final Cairn. The man in front dropped to his knees in dismay when he realised we almost went back on ourselves.
I loved the final descent though, there was a beautiful little trail alongside that night’s shower facilities!
However, I was broken by the end of the day. It was long with significant climbs over some of the most awkward terrain. I needed a cuddle, I realised just how much I need hugs! Coming into camp I couldn’t hold back my tears and thankfully was scooped up by Fiona!
The end is in sight, everything hurts.
There was an excitement in camp, a feeling that we could get to the finish if only we were sensible. I went from breakfast to the medics’ tent to get my shin taped up. I’d been fretting that this now minor injury may impede my progress enough to stop me reaching the finish. The medic was lovely and reassured me that although it was likely to be painful I could make it.
I’d not looked forward to this day’s running, I like to see lots of contours and on the map there was a severe lack of contours and a considerable amount of grey blocky areas (towns). In reality the route is quite beautiful although obviously lower level. All the volunteers claim it’s downhill, I’d beg to differ!
I was really emotional by today. When the end is in sight the pressure is on and you’re aware of every niggle or twinge that might stop you in your tracks and force you to return to try all over again. It turns out one of the men I had been sharing a lot of the trails with had matching shin tape, although the medic had told him it was possible stress fracture. He increasingly adopted a funny gait through the morning and was loaded up to the eye balls with pain killers. He battled through and finished. Of those few remaining, we weren’t going to let anything get in the way of us reaching Cardiff, we’d been through so much to come away empty handed and then have to return.
At Merthyr Tydfil we joined the parkrun which was quite amusing, seeing people belt round 5k when we’d been running the length of Wales with Cardiff now in our sights but still 24 miles away. It was here too that I spotted the first road sign to Cardiff with 24 miles written on it; the whoops could probably be heard from the castle walls!
Unfortunately my joy and excitement faded as the day progressed and the pain in my shin increased. At Nelson I stopped for a Mars Bar drink to perk me up.
At one of the summit trigs I burst into tears when Cardiff came into sight for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever been such an emotional bombshell as I was this week.
It was quite a moment when eventually we saw the castle and entered the finishing tunnel, banners flapping in my face. It was incredible, I remember saying I can’t believe I did it, I really did it. The noise was unbelievable, so many people. I had one focus and that was the ‘finish’ dibber. Only then could I stop. The feeling of dibbing for the final time was amazing. I was slightly overwhelmed with the wall of photographers at the finish, eager to escape and process what I’d managed to do.
Shane Ohley, race director, saw me sneak past and came to congratulate me on second place. He then started to walk me round to the camp and bar! Thankfully Juhana had come to watch me come in and gave me the biggest hug, a surge of relief through my body. It had been one hell of an experience, one hell of a journey to reach the Castle.
We sat in the sunshine and drank the best shandy and tucked into chips. Quietly letting the realisation of what we’d done sink in. Having freshened up finally in a lovely warm shower we spent the evening watching the daily videos, trying to spot ourselves in photos. Trying desperately to process what we’d achieved, where we’d been, everything was such a blur. We tucked into our final camp meal from our bowls and raided the bar. Then we were presented with our baby dragons, 90 of the 367 that started. It was a brilliant end to a remarkable journey.
Elaine Bisson #394
21st / 90 full course finishers. Baby dragon winners!
2nd female out of only 7 female finishers (37 started)
I was sad to leave the following morning. To sit on the bus cradling my dragon as we drove past the many hills and valleys we’d traversed that week. Arriving back at Conwy felt like the start was a lifetime ago.
My highlights amongst the incredible landscape were the people I shared much of my journey with, it was lovely to see Chris again and meet so many others. I’m so glad that Fiona was there. I never realised how much I need hugs until that week!
Juhana’s being there made my experience a million times better. I loved and looked forward to his company…not so when he flew past on the hills but certainly at the end of each day. I’m ever grateful that he put up with me in the confines of the tent.
Anna Troup and her daughter also appeared on route 2-3 times each day. They were there to support her husband but their encouragement was second to none, it was a welcome sight indeed. Thanks Anna!
The Dragon Mail we opened during dinner was absolutely wonderful. A few tears were shed, particularly on those hard days.
There’s nothing I like more than being outside in the wilderness. Pushing myself. Getting back to basics. To remove all the worries of life and focus only on moving from one camp to another.
It’s odd when you come home. You’ve been on this adventure and you’ve somehow changed, you’ve grown to appreciate the world in a different way. A warm shower might be the best invention ever but I can happily do without the rest of life’s pressures, and I now find I miss the cold streams! The bed you longed for is now under the thin sheets separating you from the stars. With the sound of the wind rustling the layers, an owl hooting, a babbling brook…not so much the snores of a tired dragon tamer but heyho! The days that you hope for are to battle the elements, the childhood spirit of splashing in puddles, charging down hills, skidding on your bum down what you hope is a grassy slope with no hidden rocks. Nature is the best playground, however old you may be!
Arriving back in camp to share stories, the highs, the lows. To watch the sunset, to gaze up at the stars and wonder what tomorrow will bring. To wake knackered and look around at the emptying breakfast tables to beaten drawn faces, proud that you’re one of the few still there fighting. The tired, blackened eyes wondering if they’ll make another day but still determined to try. I’ve loved it, every single bit.
It has been the most wonderful and challenging adventure. I’ve shared the trails with so many extraordinary characters, their positivity and strength inspirational. Friendships forged out on the fells are among my strongest. I have made memories that I will treasure forever. I really hope that I can find an experience that will rival this but I fear it will be hard to beat.
|Pos.||Name||Cat.||Cat. Pos.||Overall||Daily Results|
|1st||Simon Roberts||M||1st||45:42:11||1: 07:25:14 (1st)
2: 08:52:11 (1st)
3: 08:41:43 (1st)
4: 07:17:00 (2nd)
5: 07:52:30 (1st)
6: 05:33:33 (1st)
|7th||Katie Mills||F||1st||61:12:54||1: 09:58:06 (15th)
2: 11:19:20 (10th)
3: 11:13:30 (10th)
4: 09:14:36 (7th)
5: 11:25:43 (10th)
6: 08:01:39 (11th)
|9th||Alastair Hubbard||MV||1st||61:35:47||1: 09:17:40 (6th)
2: 11:17:53 (8th)
3: 10:56:27 (8th)
4: 09:51:33 (13th)
5: 12:05:57 (16th)
6: 08:06:17 (12th)
|21st||Elaine Bisson||F||2nd||66:53:28||1: 10:49:12 (31st)
2: 12:27:18 (26th)
3: 11:48:14 (17th)
4: 10:29:17 (22nd)
5: 12:26:13 (21st)
6: 08:53:14 (30th)
|69th||Patrizia Strandman||FV||1st||81:53:10||1: 12:07:24 (76th=)
2: 14:08:49 (74th)
3: 14:27:17 (79th)
4: 13:24:40 (109th)
5: 15:38:29 (98th)
6: 12:06:31 (117th)
A total of 90 competitors finished the race, out of 367 starters.
Historical Race Stats
Starters 82, 32 finishers
Finishing Rate 39%
Starters 142, 65 finishers
Finishing Rate 45%
Starters 223, 127 finishers
Finishing Rate 56%
Starters 406, 251 finishers
Finishing Rate 62%
Starters 367, 90 finishers
Finishing Rate 24%
‘Wake’ as tent mates make an early start.
Get up, sneak out, have breakfast, chat to some other bleary eyed racers as I proclaim I need more coffee.
Sneak back in the tent. Pack up sleeping kit, get changed, half an hour taping feet, wait until enough sunlight to not need a headtorch.
Lug bags, hand in camp bag, get drop bag weighed, get kit check.
Be on my way.
18:00 – 19:00
Sometime around this time, arrive back at camp. Dib finish, wait expectantly to make sure no checkpoints were missed. Escorted to the tent, explained what amazing facilities await me. Where the freezing hot tub is tonight. Lie on the tent floor and sometimes cry!
Wash in the river, change into warm camp clothes, set out bed.
Get food, get more food, get lots of drinks. Watch the screen and the moving dots. Eat some more. Read dragon mail.
Sort kit and bag for morning, brush teeth.
Get into bed. Try my best to block out the sound of snoring until it all happens again!