Cape Wrath Ultra

Race Details

2016 saw the inaugural edition of the Cape Wrath Ultra. The race starts in Fort William and follows the Cape Wrath Trail north, 400km to the lighthouse in Cape Wrath, over the course of eight days.

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The breakdown of each race stage is as follows:

  • Day 1 – Fort William to Glenfinnan. 37km (23 miles) with 500m elevation
  • Day 2 – Glenfinnan to Kinlock Hourn. 57km (35 miles) with 1,800m elevation.
  • Day 3 – Kinlock Hourn to Achnashellach. 68km (42 miles) with 2,400m elevation.
  • Day 4 – Achnashellach to Kinlockewe. 35km (22 miles) with 1,400m elevation.
  • Day 5 – Kinlockewe to Inverlael. 44km (27 miles) with 1,400m elevation.
  • Day 6 – Inverlael to Inchnadamph. 72km (44 miles) with 1,400m elevation.
  • Day 7 – Inchnadamph to Kinlockbervie. 61km (38 miles) with 1,600m elevation.
  • Day 8 – Kinlockbervie to Cape Wrath. 26km (16 miles) with 700m elevation.

Totals: 400km (248 miles) with 11,200m elevation.

The terrain type was broken down for us as:

  • 20% Trackless
  • 38% Single Track
  • 30% Double Track
  • 12% Tarmac Road

The multi-day format was as follows: run from the start with all your race food and water following the route supplied by the organisers until you reached the end of the stage. The organisers provided food and tents at each campsite where you could rest and recover before setting off the next day. Repeat until you arrive at Cape Wrath!

Navigation

The organisers provided us with a custom made Harveys map of the route, on a single sheet of waterproof paper. They had worked with Harveys to add the trail for us to follow and extra bits of valuable information regarding the route. The 1:40,000 map was a fine piece of work!

In addition to the map the organisers provided us with a .GPX file of each stage. I loaded this onto my Garmin Fenix 3 HR which I intended to use for GPS navigation throughout the race.

The idea of the race was that we followed the route provided, rather than decide we knew a better route. We all carried trackers that would be sending our location to the race organisers every few seconds so they if we deviated and had the ability via the tracker to tell us we had gone off course.

There were usually 1 or 2 checkpoints along the way which may or may not be manned. We “dibbed” in at the start, each checkpoint and the finish. There was a mass start on Day 1. Thereafter each day’s start was between 7am and 9am at the discretion of each runner; although we were given a recommended start time each day based on how quickly we had completed the previous day’s stage.

In addition to checkpoints which we dibbed into, there were also “Passage Points”, e.g. PP1 which we could not dib into, but which had a “recommended time” before which we had to be past them. The idea being if the checkpoints were far apart, which they were, then you could get an idea of whether you would make the next cutoff by where you were in time when you reached the PP, compared to its recommended time.

Equipment

There was a kit list supplied to us by the organisers with both mandatory and recommended items. This split into sections: race kit that we would carry with us whilst running and camp kit that we would use in camp and would be transported by the organisers from one camp to the next whilst we were running.

There were no drop bags, so we had to take all food for the day with us, and forage for water in the streams as we went.

Here is my spreadsheet plan for the race:

  • Tab 1 summarises the stage details
  • Tab 2 is my equipment both for running and for camp
  • Tab 3 is my hill food broken down each day

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Day Zero – Saturday 21st May, 2016

The first task was to get to Fort William which, from South Wales, took most of the day. I drove to Cardiff airpot and took a flight to Edinburgh. From there it was quite a long bus ride to Fort William.

Registration at the Ben Nevis Centre was quite thorough as we went through a kit check and received our map of the route, race number, tracker and a small bottle of whiskey! Did the organisers know something we didn’t? Then, we all had the “before” photo.

After that I checked into the hotel in Fort William before returning for the race briefing and the evening meal.

The briefing got us all excited about the race, but got a bit bogged down on the subject of ticks, with lots of questions and chatter about them.

Anyway, we were all set for tomorrow and the start of the adventure!

Day 1: Fort William to Glenfinnan

It was an early start on Sunday 22nd May. I had arranged to leave the suitcase I had flown up with, at the hotel for the duration of the race. At breakfast I met Marcus, another runner, and we chatted about the race. After breakfast we headed down to the Ben Nevis Centre where we handed in our camp bags and had a final briefing.

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The start was on the other side of Loch Linnie so we walked from the Centre to the edge of the Loch and caught a boat across, where a piper was waiting to greet us.

After the boat ride we gathered at the start line and had a few more photos.

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The sun was out and it was warming up. Then we were off!

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Day 1 was one of the shorter days and as we were all pumped up we set off too fast… as usual. We started south along the edge of Loch Linnie on a quiet road. It was a relatively easy start.

The one and only checkpoint of the day was after about 6 miles as we turned west, away from the loch and moved off road onto trail. This was to be a feature of checkpoint placement; they were placed in positions of access, typically roads, rather than at prescribed distances. We were going into the wilds!

There was a steady climb upto the high point of the day, with some stunning views along the way. It was near the top that I came across Darren who I knew from previous races so we had a good chat. He isn’t so good on the hills living in East Anglia, but he soon sped off when we reached a downhill !

As I was reaching the high point the weather took a turn for the worse and we had some rain. It had been raining hard the previous day so the ground was quite wet and a bit muddy. As it turned out, this was the muddiest part of the whole course, as after today we had spectacular weather for the rest of the race!

The descent was a little tricky in places but I managed to negotiate it quite well. We headed north now, to the finish which was in a field next to the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (famous for the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter).

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Day 1 was done!

Stats: 21.8 miles, 1,834ft elevation, 3:34:32 for 19th place out of 95 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 2:46:08. I was 32% over the winning time.

I collected my bag and headed off to find my tent and say hello to my tent mates. I knew a few from other events and a few were new faces. Overall it was a good tent with positive, like-minded people. I took my shoes off, had a recovery shake and went to get some food in the food tent.

Day 2: Glenfinnan to Kinlock Hourn

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Day 2 was going to be a lot more challenging than Day 1. We woke early and I planned to set off fairly promptly. The first thing was to get some breakfast at the food tent and then to pack up and hand in our camp bag. We were then ready to set off at our leisure. I started at about 7:15am.

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From Glenfinnan we headed north through Glen Finnan along a river. Today was going to be our first voyage into very remote Scotland, through Knoydart. There would be three climbs today.

At the end of the glen we swung slightly to the east and the path became less distinct as we climbed. We reached the peak at about 5 miles and then descended along a river valley to CP 1 at about 8 miles. It had taken about 2 hours.

It also became clear that this was going to be a wet-feet race. We were forever crossing streams and small rivers.

From here we swung west and started a more gradual climb which peaked at about 15 miles. Then we continued east along a river which passed a couple of inland lochs before we eventually came the edge of a sea loch. The map said we could use the beach “if tide permits” which it did. I swung round to the north before entering a piece of trackless ground. The aim was to cross a water plain to CP2 at Carnock.

I was about halfway across when the tussock I stepped on gave way and I found myself over my waist in water. After managing to scramble out by lying flat on the moving tussock-fest, I checked I had not lost anything and continued on to the checkpoint at about 20 miles.

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From here we continued north, to the final climb of the day. The last couple of miles of it were quite steep, so it was good to get to the top of it at 25 miles. From here we descended again, making our way to the next sea loch.

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From here we continued along the edge of the loch to Kinlock Hourn and the finish.

Day 2 had been truly spectacular. It was also clear just how remote this part of Scotland really is. Not only did we rarely see any houses, we also rarely saw any farms or farm animals. The land is sometimes fenced off for deer but in general it is wild and as natural as the day nature made it.

The campsites were in great locations as well.

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Stats: 35.3 miles, 6,188ft elevation, 9:34:44 for 24th place / 94 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotty in 6:22:49. I was 50% over the winning time.

Day 3: Kinlock Hourn to Achnashellach

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Day 3 was badged as the most difficult, but not the longest day. Starting in Knoydart we were to traverse Kintail before finishing in Wester Ross. It was over 40 miles with the high point of the day, the first climb out of camp. So we were off to a slow start. I started just after 7am.

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We got to the first peak at about 6 miles and from there descended back down to another sea loch and CP1 at the Kintail Lodge Hotel at about 11 miles. After CP1 we started to climb to the second peak of the day. As we started to descend we swung around from north east to north west past the Falls of Glomach.

We followed a fairly tricky path along the gorge north west and crossed over to the western edge of Loch na Leitreach. Following along the edge of the loch we came to CP2 on a bridge at about 22 miles, or slightly over halfway. This was going to be a long day!

We continued north east along a river for a couple of miles before heading due north and starting the third climb of the day.

Eventually we reached Loch Cruoshie.

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There was then a longish section of uphill, trackless, tussocky ground. I was beginning to realise what the event website meant by “this is not a trail race”!

Eventually we reached Loch Calavia and swung round to the west, tracking along the northern edge of the loch. There was a path there which made things a bit easier. Past the loch we continued west for a couple of miles before heading north once more.

We passed another loch and continued north as the path turned east. Back onto trackless, tussocky ground as we began the final climb of the day. I was pretty tired by now.

I reached the peak at about 37 miles. There was a three mile descent down into the valley and the finish at Achnashellach.

It had been another stunning day! But I was pretty tired and glad to get to the finish.

Stats: 40.9 miles, 8,842ft elevation, 12:34:48 for 33rd place / 73 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 7:49:09. I was 61% over the winning time.

Fatigue was taking its toll now and I think everyone in camp was feeling it. With multi-stage races you start the race with a full tank and finish near to empty, but overnight you replenish reserves and start the next day with more energy; but not a full tank. This process repeats so you start each day with less in the tank than when you started the previous day. So it gets harder and harder.

Day 4: Achnashellach to Kinlockewe

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Day 4 was a shorter day; it fitted into 1 section of the map. It was a horseshoe shape going south to north, around to the west. We were in the Torridon area. There were two climbs today.

As usual, the first climb came right at the start and we kept ascending for the first 5 miles. From there we descended down into a valley and crossed the road to Torridon where today’s only checkpoint was located.

From the CP we climbed again, between high peaks, looping around to the high Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair. We ascended on a good path. The wind began to pick up and it got quite cold.

At the corrie we left the path for a long section of trackless ground. I think its fair to say most of us had some difficulty here; I certainly did. The ground was very rough, tussocky and covered with boulders. Marcus, the race leader, came gliding past me here and was moving fast considering the terrain. He was soon out of sight!

This was one of the toughest sections of the race. Eventually we picked up a path as we began descending off the hill. The finish was in the valley in Kinlockewe.

Another tough day, but shorter.

Stats: 21.2 miles, 5,098ft elevation, 6:20:29 for 20th place / 69 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 7:03:26. I was 55% over the winning time.

When I got back to camp I learned that there had been some epic navigational errors made today. Even though the weather had been very clear, it is still possible to get it wrong and shows you need to concentrate all the time.

Apart from being tired, I noticed I was getting some pain in the front of my right shin. It was not too bad but something was not right so I went to see the doctor. He told me it was a ligament overuse injury due to the nature of the race with the tussocky ground. There was not anything to be done; only rest would cure it. He said it would probably get worse.

As it turned out, this was one of the more popular injuries participants in the Cape Wrath Ultra were having to endure.

Day 5: Kinlockewe to Inverlael

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The morning routine was by now quite familiar. We got up early and had breakfast. Our bags were getting lighter as we ate through the hill food day by day. Also, our tent was getting roomier as the days went on; the race was taking its toll and people were pulling out. Some decided to continue on if they did not make the cut-off on a particular day, whilst others decided to call it a day and go home.

I set off just after 7am as usual. There was a gentle rise for a couple of miles before the ground kicked up to the first proper climb of the day. Today was going to be another remote day, this time through Fisherfield, with no villages or settlements until we reached the campsite at the end of the day. The only checkpoint of the day was where the route crossed a road at about the 20 mile mark.

I reached the first peak of the day just after 8 miles after which there was a few miles of descent.

I continued up to the second peak of the day and the morning clouds eventually dispersed and the sun was out making it quite warm.

From the peak of the second climb of the day at 17 miles, it was a 3 mile descent into the next valley which crossed a road where the day’s only checkpoint was located. As I got near to the road I seemed to loose the path and ended up going parallel to the road for a bit before crossing onto the road. I had to go back a couple of hundred metres to find the checkpoint which was in a small lay-by.

Both my shins were starting to hurt a little now, but not enough to inconvenience me at this point. After the checkpoint, the route turned east and I started the last climb of the day. After 3 miles or so, I reached the peak and then had just over 2 miles of descent to the finish.

The descent was fun and we were greeted with more stunning views and blue skies. The weather really was being very kind to us!

My shins were getting painful by now. It was only a couple of miles to the finish so I pushed on and did not really loose any time, but I was getting worried about the remaining three days. Days 6 and 7 were back-to-back long days and I was concerned about not finishing; so this was something to think about when I reached camp.

After descending off the hill we had a short run in to the finish on a road. The campsite at Inverlael was bathed in sunlight. As today was a relatively short day I had the afternoon to relax and enjoy some lunch!

As usual the campsite was located near a river, which was our washing facility. I sat in the cold water to soak my aching shins.

Stats: 26.3 miles, 4,531ft elevation, 6:38:06 for 25th place / 80 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 4:08:45. I was 60% over the winning time.

Day 6: Inverlael to Inchnadamph

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Camp was looking decidedly haggard by now and plenty of people, myself included, were suffering. At breakfast everyone had quite puffy faces, especially around the eyes. It was as though the Cape Wrath Ultra had sneaked into each tent overnight and pummelled us all in the face.

We had done five days, and although, the last day was comparatively easy, today was going to be the longest day with tomorrow (Day 7) only slightly shorter. So surviving Days 6 and 7 became the priority.

My shins had not improved overnight and were hot to the touch. They felt a little creaky, and were painful to walk on. The right was worse but the left was not far behind. As predicted a couple of days earlier by the doctor they were getting worse. I made the decision that I would walk the remaining three days (walking was less painful than running) in an effort to maximise my chances of finishing.

For me, the Cape Wrath Ultra had become a race of two halves; Days 1 to 5 were the enjoyable, run when you can, do you best, half of the race whilst Days 6 to 8 were all about survival.

So, I was up early and set off just after 7am (as usual). It was going to be a long day! There were two climbs today; the first at the start, and the second at the end.

It was another stunning day with plenty of sunshine; Scotland was doing us proud!

After the first hill the initial descent was quite steep, then some undulating, but quite runnable ground to the only checkpoint of the day just over halfway, where we crossed over the River Oykel.

My shins were holding up at this point, the right had not got any worse but the left had caught it up.

The second half of the day, was a little like the first half in reverse. The undulating ground although rising would have been quite runnable for those, unlike me, still able to run. As we climbed into Assynt, my shins got more and more painful.

I finally made it to the top of the second peak at about 38 miles, from where we had a 4 mile descent to the finish. We picked up the River Traligill and followed it all the way down to Inchnadamph on the shore of Loch Assynt.

It had been a long walk and my shins were not in good condition but I was pleased to have completed Stage 6.

Stats: 42.4 miles, 5,459ft elevation, 14:09:38 for 64th place / 68 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 7:08:34. I was 98% over the winning time.

Day 7: Inchnadamph to Kinlockbervie

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So it was the same morning routine again, up early, breakfast and pack up kit before setting off shortly after 7am. My shins had not improved overnight so even walking to and from breakfast was painful.

So I set off into the first climb of the day out of Inchnadamph. We were leaving Assynt today and the sea lochs were back.

After the first climb I descended to Loch Glencoul. We should have passed the Was a Chual Aluinn Waterfall which is supposed to be the highest in the UK but I was not paying attention and do not remember it at all! We passed a bothy at Glencoul and then had a shorter climb over a spur of land to Loch Glendhu and another bothy. We followed Loch Glendhu round to the west until we reached the Maldie Burn and then turned north upto Loch an Leathaid Bhuain.

There was some good runnable terrain here, for those that still could. At about 15 miles I started the climb for the second peak of the day, Ben Dreavie. At the top we the path ran out and we had trackless terrain for a few miles as we descended. I eventually picked up a path as I descended to the A838 on the shore of Loch Stack at the first checkpoint at mile 25.

Both shins were now screaming after the trackless, tussocky ground. After the checkpoint, I headed north east for a few miles, before swinging north west. The terrain was a mixture of some path and some trackless sections. I was not relishing the tussocks in the trackless sections.

Eventually, I came to the edge of the long thin Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mor which I followed until it turned into the River Rhiconich. At 33 miles this came out to the A838 on the shore of Loch Inchard and the second and final checkpoint of the day. The section had been extremely difficult partly due to exhaustion but mainly due to shin pain. I definitely  needed stronger drugs at this stage, but I didn’t have any!

I had been walking with a few people during the last section, Jenny, Luke and Hazel and occasionally Ian which had helped to pass the time. After CP2 it was 3 miles on the road along Loch Inchard to the finish. The others got a second wind and disappeared. Dusk was beginning to fall and it was starting to rain.

The last 3 miles were miserable; each step burningly painful. The CP staff passed me on the road in their 4×4 heading back to the campsite at the finish. I think I was the last person on the course. If there had been another CP to stop at I think I might have done that, but since there wasn’t, the only thing to do was to plod on to the finish.

I remember climbing a small hill and seeing in the gloom the outline of the camp with the blue tents in the distance to the right.

I was very relieved to finish Stage 7! I am sure it was another stunning day, but in truth I don’t remember much about it.

Stats: 36.3 miles, 6,660ft elevation, 14:31:57 for 61st place / 64 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 7:08:34. I was 117% over the winning time.

Day 8: Kinlockbervie to Cape Wrath

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We were all very weary when we got up for Stage 8. This was the shortest stage of the race and probably the easiest. I had decided to walk it with Graham from my tent which made for a good day. Graham had flown in from Australia for the event, but had timed out on one of the earlier stages but was soldering on to the end anyway.

Stage 8 winds along the north west coast towards Cape Wrath. First up was to walk around Loch Innis na Ba Buidhe and rejoin a small road upto the day’s only checkpoint at Blairmore. This was relatively fast going.

From there we turned north along a reasonable path that came out on Sandwood Bay and the North Atlantic Ocean at about 8 miles, the halfway point of the day.

The second half of the route was more to less trackless across a military firing range (not active today, we were told!). This was quite undulating and in our depleted state took us quite a while. Eventually, we reached the high point of the day at 12 miles.

From there we had another 2 miles of tussocky, trackless terrain to cross before joining onto a small road which we followed round a small hill and then we could see down to the northern coast and the Cape Wrath Lighthouse.

It was a short walk down to the lighthouse and the finish!

Time for the “after” photo:

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Stats: 15.4 miles, 2,789ft elevation, 6:08:46 for 70th place / 78 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 2:37:28. I was 134% over the winning time.

The final campsite was a little way away from Cape Wrath and it required a bus followed by boat and then another bus to get there. I had just missed a bus of people so had a reasonably long wait for the next one. There was a little shop in the lighthouse that we ransacked (in a nice way). The shopkeeper was doing more business today than for the rest of the year, but he didn’t seem very happy about it !

Once the logistics had worked out I got back to camp which was a proper campsite this time with showers and another shop. The first thing to do was get changed and get my calf guards over my swollen shins! Hanging around in wet shoes had started a bit of trench foot as well, but that would soon fix itself.

We had a finishers and organisers group photo. The organisers had also laid on an evening presentation and meal for us so everyone was happy about that. The winners got presented with their awards; those that finished the race got their medal and we all had a slap-up meal!

One last night in the tents before we had a long bus ride, south to Fort William. When we arrived I went back to the hotel I had stayed in before the race to collect my suitcase, before heading back to the bus station to get a bus to Glasgow. I had arranged to stay at the airport overnight before flying back to Wales in the morning.

When I awoke the following morning I noticed that I was still sweating profusely overnight; and yes it was sweat! I had noticed it started a few days into the race, in the tents, where I seemed to have an elevated core temperature that whole time. It wore off after a few days at home.

Overall Race Analysis

Stage Distance (M) Elevation (ft) Time Position % Time Above Winner
           1               21.8              1,834 03:38:32 19 32%
           2               35.3              6,188 09:34:44 24 50%
           3               40.9              8,842 12:34:48 33 61%
           4               21.2              5,098 06:20:29 20 55%
           5               26.3              4,531 06:38:06 25 60%
           6               42.4              5,459 14:09:38 64 98%
           7               36.3              6,660 14:31:57 61 117%
           8               15.4              2,789 06:08:46 70 134%
Overall             239.6            41,401 73:37:00 34 77%

It was very much a race of two halves for me as I have already remarked. The first 5 days were great fun and a real challenge. The last 3 days were just survival. Overall, it was a great experience and a fantastic adventure!

Looking at the route on a single map shows just what an epic race the Cape Wrath Ultra is!

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How did the Kit Perform?

Here is my spreadsheet plan for the race. Tab 2 summarises the kit and Tab 3 the hill food.

  1. Navigation. The organiser supplied map was excellent and having the route on my Garmin Fenix 3 HR worked fine. We had great weather all week so navigation was relatively OK I thought, although a few people did manage to make big errors.
  2. Shoe choice of Scott Kinabalus was good. You need strong mountain shoes for this race. Ideally they need to drain well as your feet will be continually wet from river crossings even if it does not rain!
  3. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times.
  4. Hat. I had a standard baseball style hat with peak. Worth having in case its very sunny. I also had a warmer, bad weather hat and gloves that I did not use.
  5. Waterproofs. I used my Montane Minimus jacket which was fine. I did not use my overtrousers.
  6. UD race pack. 2 x 500ml bottles at the front and 1,500ml bladder in the back and snacks in the side pockets. All worked fine. There is plenty of water about in the hills with many streams and few farm animals so water really was not a problem.
  7. Camp kit. T-shirt, shorts, puffer jacket and waterproof trousers. Bear in mind it gets cool in the evenings.
  8. Sleeping bag / mat. I have quite a warm sleeping bag and an inflatable mat. It was fine but I did get hot overnight. Still its easy to throw it off and cool down.
  9. Tent. Supplied by the organisers – very good.
  10. Trail food. See the spreadsheet plan for more details. All worked well.
  11. Blister treatment pack. I bought the event organisers pack and it seemed pretty comprehensive to me.
  12. Midge net. The 2016 race escaped the worst of the midges but a couple of the camps had a few about so I did wear my head net.
  13. Tick key – still waiting to use it!

What Training would I Recommend?

Here are a few points:

  1. 8 days seemed considerably harder than the typical 5 to 6 days for a multi-stage race. Quite a few people, including myself, were picking up injuries.
  2. Tussocks. I had underestimated the impact of moving across significant sections of trackless, very rough, ground and did not do significant training on this type of terrain. This was a mistake and was, I believe, responsible for my shin problem.
  3. Navigation. You need to be able to navigate. The usual combo is GPS and map. We had great weather for the race so navigation was relatively straightforward as we were generally staying on lower ground. However, you do need to be used to navigating and used to continually paying attention otherwise you will get lost.
  4. The route has a lot of climbing so practice climbs and descents. Nothing too steep though and most of the route is runnable.
  5. Wet ground and river crossings. You will have wet feet for long period. We had good weather in 2016 but if its wet, you will have wet feet all day every day so that is worth practising.
  6. Self-sufficiency. The ethos of this race is that you are on your own on the hill. The checkpoints are just to dib-in to record the time you were there. They provide no food or drink. This is one of the remotest parts of the UK so you could well not see anyone other than fellow competitors whilst you are out on the course so get used to being on your own and fixing anything that needs fixing yourself.

Why do The Cape Wrath Ultra?

The race is well organised. The team are very experienced and know how to put these types of event on. The logistics ran smoothly and camp is well organised, plenty of food, etc.

Great opportunity to spend a week in the company of like minded people from around the world. Many have different skills and backgrounds so there is always plenty to learn.

The Cape Wrath Trail is a truly stunning route through one of the most remote parts of Scotland. To do this trail on your own you would need to carry several days’ food, a tent, sleeping bag, etc. so would have too much equipment with you to run it. I think this race is the only way to run the Cape Wrath Trail and do it in less than 3 weeks.

The Cape Wrath Ultra is an epic adventure and a life event you will not forget!

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Dragon’s Back Race – Race Report

Race Details

The Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) is quite well know in the ultra running world. It is a tough 5 day stage race that covers more or less the length of Wales, starting in Conwy on the north coast and finishing near Llandeilo in the south. It takes in the majority of the higher peaks in Wales along the way.

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The breakdown of the 5 days is as follows:

  • Day 1: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon Massif
  • Day 2: Moelwynion and Rhinogydd
  • Day 3: Cadair Idris, Tarrens and Pumlumons
  • Day 4: Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr
  • Day 5: Brecon Beacons and The Black Mountain

The history of the race adds to the mystique. First run in 1992, it disappeared for 20 years before coming back in 2012, then a 3 year gap to 2015. From here the idea is to run the race every two years. The basic idea is the same but the route has changed a bit over the years.

1992  2012  2015 2017
DAY 1 44.8km / 3,184m 57.39km / 4,802m 49.3km / 3,823m 52km / 3,800m
DAY 2 53.0km / 3,091m 52.79km / 3,700m 53.9km / 3,544m 58km / 3,600m
DAY 3 59.5km / 3,084m 66.80km / 3,894m 68.3km / 3,712m 71km / 3,500m
DAY 4 65.1km / 1,783m 68.15km / 2,417m 64.0km / 2,273m 71km / 2,400m
DAY 5 67.4km / 2,004m 55.61km / 2,273m 56.5km / 2,313m 63km / 2,200m
TOTAL 289.8km / 13,146m 300.7km / 17,086m 292.0km / 15,665m 315km / 15,500m

The format of the race is to carry everything necessary for mountain survival with you each day including all food and water. In the evenings the organisers provide tents and move your camp bag from campsite to campsite for you. One drop bag is allowed each day, which you can fill with whatever you like, and its transported by the organisers to the “support point”, roughly halfway through the stage where you get access to it. In the evening you get your drop bag back at the campsite so you can reload it for the next day.

The race has a navigation element. A map is provided with the “suggested” route and checkpoints marked. A .gpx file is also provided and GPS devices are allowed. There are a number of checkpoints along the way where you electronically tag your arrival with a “dibber” provided by the organisers. Most checkpoints are unmanned, so the dibber is your proof of visiting all checkpoints on the route. This is checked at the finish each day by the organisers.

There are relatively few places along the route where food and drink can be purchased so it is necessary to carry food with you. Water is provided at the campsites and support point. Other than that runners have to carry what they need and forage in streams where necessary.

Preparation for the Race

I detailed my preparation for the race in a separate post here: Dragon’s Back Race – Preparations. It covers my training and recce’s done ahead of the race itself.

Logistics for the Race

I detailed the logistics for the race in a separate post here: Dragon’s Back Race – Logistics.

Day Zero

The day before the race started I drove to the finish in Llandeilo which is about an hour from where I live. There was a bus laid on by the organisers to the start in Conwy which seemed to take most of the day. When the bus arrived, I collected my bags and made my way to race registration along with everyone else.

Registration did take quite a while as it was quite thorough. We got our map of the route, tracking device so the organisers could keep an eye on us, race numbers, and had our photo taken.

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The map was custom made for the race with the route and checkpoints printed on. There were two types of route:

  • Recommended. This was the race recommended route from checkpoint to checkpoint. During the race we were free to follow the recommended route or take a different route if we thought we knew better.
  • Mandatory. A small number of sections of route were marked as mandatory to force all runners along a single course.

The GPX file I had loaded on my watch did not distinguish between recommended and mandatory sections. I had only identified a couple of sections where I thought I had a better route than the recommended one. Other people seemed to have a lot more. My intention was to follow the recommended route, unless on the day I thought conditions were good enough to go for the alternative, e.g. clear visibility.

After registration I checked into the B&B I was staying in, and went back for the race briefing and dinner. After that it was back to the B&B for an early night.

Day 1: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon Massif

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It was an early start, but light when I left the B&B and headed a few hundred yards to the start in Conwy castle with all bags to drop off with the organisers; the support point bag to be taken to the support point and the camp bag to the Day 1 campsite.

We gathered inside the castle for the official ceremony including a Welsh Male Voice choir. They sung a few songs like “Myfanwy” but I don’t remember “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” which would have been more appropriate I think.

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Eventually we set off and passed through the castle… into the gift shop! Never done that before in a race. Out of the gift shop and up onto the castle ramparts. Along the wall and down onto the road and out of town. I had not recce’d the first few miles so that gave a bit of a novelty as we climbed the first hill. We were all in good spirits and obviously moving well at this point.

My plan for the day was to take it relatively easy; there’s a long way to go! The first half of the race is over the Carneddau which is the most runnable part of the day. Then onto the Glyderau which is rough terrain with steep climbs which are slow moving. Finally, around the Snowdon Massif, survive Crib Goch and Snowdon itself. There were 22 checkpoints (including the finish) to visit today, far more than on any other day, even though the day’s distance made it the shortest day in the DBR. By putting so many checkpoints along the route, the organisers were forcing up along a single path today with no real opportunity for navigational variation. Stay on the path today!

The weather was overcast but visibility was good as we slowly climbed up the Carneddau, easily finding each checkpoint on the rolling peaks. We got to the last peak, Pen Yr Ole Wen, and could look down into the Ogwen Valley on the descent. Once off the hill, we rounded Llyn Ogwen and headed along the road for a bit to the car park and the support point at mile 18. The support point was busy with people but the crew quickly found me my bag and I reloaded food and water, drunk my can of coke and ate my cheese roll.

I set off fairly quickly on the climb up Tryfan. In terms of distance I was about halfway though Day 1 but only completed one of three mountain ranges on today’s route. The climb up Tryfan was hard but exhilarating with a rocky scramble at the top. The visibility was good and the views were excellent at the top.

Tryfan

I knew the route off Tryfan to Glyder Fach from the recce, but went off to the right a bit too much on the descent to the saddle between the two mountains. It was another slow climb up Glyder Fach. Once at the top its a couple of miles along the ridge to Glyder Fawr and then the descent to the Pen Y Pass Youth Hostel. Its only 5 miles or so across Tryfan and the Glyders but it took me about 2hrs 40mins.

The shop in the Youth Hostel was open and people were buying varying goodies. As I was leaving Pen Y Pass I met up with Alex who was in the same tent as me and we went along together.

Pen Y Pass marks the start of the third and final mountain range of Day 1, the Snowdon Massif. The route follows the horseshoe over Crib Goch to Snowdon and Y Lliwedd before descending to the campsite at Nantgynant.

From Pen Y Pass we initially followed the Pyg Track, popular with walkers. For the first time we were in amongst other people not competing in the DBR. After a mile or so there is a reasonably well hidden right turning off the Pyg Track for Crib Goch. There is a little sign that we were on the right path a little way along the track.

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This was my first traverse of Crib Goch (red ridge in english), having missed it out on the recce due to high winds. I am not the best with heights so was glad to be with Alex as we climbed up the ever steeper path, before starting to scramble. The visibility was getting poorer and poorer the higher we went. I’m not sure if this was a good, or bad, thing. On the one hand  we could not see the lakes and valleys far below, but on the other, the clag gave an eerie quality to the climb.

We climbed for a while until we reached the arête (a ridge between two valleys usually caused by glaciation). The clag was quite thick so we could not see very far. We were moving quite slowly but still making progress. I suspect Alex would have gone a bit quicker without me but he very graciously stayed with me. There were a few people about on the ridge and we came upto someone who had sat down right on the ridge. His friend was trying to coax him into action but he was having none of it.

I was determined not to do that as getting going again would be very difficult. Getting past was also difficult as it meant climbing down off the ridge a bit to get round him. The scramble is rated as the easiest grade of scramble, and if there had been a one metre drop either side I would have danced over it with the best of them, but its all about the drop on Crib Goch!

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After getting past the seated guy, we continued along and round a couple of rocky pillars. I was unsure when we actually finished Crib Goch but we found the next checkpoint at Garnedd Ugain and dibbed in. YouTube has quite a few videos of people crossing Grib Goch; here is an example of Crib Goch on a clear day.

From there we curved to the left along the path, passing the intersection with the Pyg Track and continued round to Yr Wydffa (Snowdon), the highest point on the DBR. It was not all downhill from here, but psychologically a high point!

I stopped at the cafe, whilst Alex carried on. I bought a few things to eat and drink and sat in the cafe for about 15minutes. The temperature had dropped quite a bit and my hands were cold from the scrambling, so it was good to warm up in the cafe.

When I came out of the cafe it was still very claggy so there were no views. I thought I knew how to get onto the Watkin Path from the recce, but somehow seemed to miss it. I think I came off Snowdon too early and was above the path. This was confirmed by GPS, although I was with a couple of other people and we all had different views on where to go. Eventually, we descended and found the path. People are always reluctant to descend on steep ground if they are not 100% sure where they are, as regaining height takes effort and time.

We continued down on the Watkin Path until it makes a sharp right hand turn at a stile, In the recce I had followed this path down which is a good, fast path. However, today we had another hill to go, Y Llewedd. So I went straight over the stile and up the hill. I had got ahead of the folks I was with so continued the scramble upwards on my own. I think it was a combination of being a bit annoyed about wasting time in the fog finding the start of the Watkin Path, and not paying attention in the fog but I forgot that the race briefing had mentioned moving this checkpoint slightly. Anyway, I overshot the checkpoint and had to go back. With these type of races you have to visit all checkpoints, so if you miss one you have to go back and find it.

Turns out I overshot by quite a way and on the way back other runners confirmed the checkpoint was back the way I was now going. I found it eventually; 29 miles done.

It was a 3 mile descent to the finish but the terrain was quite rough for most of it. As we dropped out of the clag, it warmed up and we had a bit of a view into the valley. We crossed a large stream and rejoined the Watkin Path with less than a mile to go. Then came off the Watkin Path again to cross into the campsite at Nantgwynant and the finish.

DBR Day 1 done! I was very pleased.

Stats: 33.2 miles, 13,757ft elevation, 12:02:59 for 114th position out of 222 starters / 209 finishers.

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The winner was Jim Mann in 7:27:46 (+15 min penalty). I was 61% over the winning time.

So I collected my bags and headed off to find my tent and say hello to my tent mates. Shoes off, find a vacant position in the tent, do some basic unpacking and have a recovery drink. Then it was off to the food tent for something to eat and a chat with fellow runners.

Day 1 Debrief

  1. I think recce’ing Tryfan and the Glyders was useful. The Day 1 route is generally easy to follow so the advantage of recce’ing it comes in knowing what to expect. Also, Day 1 is spectacular so if you have the chance of a day out in the mountains then why not?
  2. I took 2 litres of water which was enough in the Carneddau. From there I refilled at the service point in the Ogwen Valley and again at Pen Y Pass. This worked well.
  3. Stopping at the cafe at the top of Snowdon probably cost 15 mins.
  4. Not taking the correct line off Snowdon onto the Watkin path was annoying. Probably lost 15 mins here.
  5. Not paying attention to the race brief about the Y Lliwedd checkpoint move cost me about 20 mins.

Day 2: Moelwynion and Rhinogydd

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In my mind, Day 2 was always going to be the hardest day. The Moelwynion and Rhinogydd are the roughest mountains in the DBR and you are always just one step from a DNF with a twisted ankle or knee.

At the end of each stage, based on your finish time you get a recommended start time for the next day. My approach though was to ignore this and start as early as possible. The reasons for this are: once the earliest runners start getting up in camp, I find it impossible to sleep, so may as well get up; and secondly, one never knows what is going to happen out on the hills so why not have some contingency for the unexpected? The time limits are based on clock time so the earlier you start the more time you have.

So I was up early and had breakfast. Back to the tent to pack up kit bags and get ready for Day 2. Drop the bags off, and go to the start. I set off at 6:10 am.

The strategy for today was again to take it steadily. It was going to be a long day on unforgiving terrain so I was keen to minimise any navigational issues and put my course recce knowledge to good use. Since the Day 2 recce had been in truly terrible weather I was hoping to actually enjoy some of the views, for the first time, today. There were 11 checkpoints (incl. the finish) to visit. This was half the number of Day 1 which of course meant longer distances between checkpoints and more opportunity to navigate away from the recommended route.

The first 2.5 miles were on road as we headed south. I turned off the road to the left to start the climb upto Cnicht and the first checkpoint. Its quite a long slog that turns into a bit of a scramble towards the top. At the top its a left turn along the ridge for a while. Then its a big semi-circle to the northeast to get to Moelwyn Mawr. The ground is rough and the going was slow. We tried to give up as little altitude as possible and skirt the edges of Llyn Cym-y-Foel and Llynnau Diffwys before starting to climb again.

I reached the summit of Moelwyn Mawr at about 7 miles, but it had taken more than 2.5 hours. From there its south along a ridge to Moelwyn Bach. From here I came back off the summit the way I had ascended and looped around past Llyn Stwian to the east before descending east down to Llyn Tanygrisiau. This is the recommended route but it is much further than going south off the Moelwyn Back summit. The recommended route descends on paths built for the Moelwyn Slate Works which are runnable whereas there is no path south off Moelwyn Bach but if I ever recce this again, I would look at this option.

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Once down off the hill, the path turns south, parallel to the edge of the reservoir and along the Ffestiniog Railway. The path today was much better than when I had recce’d it earlier in the year when it was very boggy. Today it was mostly runnable to the next checkpoint at the level crossing over the railway. From here the path is good and continues parallel to the railway which goes into a tunnel.

We joined the railway line itself when it emerged from the tunnel and ran along the track past Dduallt Railway Station. We continued along the railway line for a bit before coming off to the left on a path that eventually lead to a road that zigzagged downhill into the valley. There was a bit of road running then along the river valley until I joined the A487 for a short distance to Maentwrog. I had now completed 13 miles.

From here I climbed out of the village on small roads for a couple of miles until I reached the edge of the Llyn Trawsfynydd. The next 6 miles are undulating, very rough ground with very little paths to follow. This ground was very boggy when I had recce’d it but was much easier to traverse today which was good. There was a slow climb over a saddle and a descent into the next valley by the Llyn Cwm Bychan. I remembered the terrain well from the recce. The ground is very rough and the descents quite treacherous. But the visibility today was better than when I had done the recce, and I managed to stay on a bit of a path this time which certainly helped.

The support point was in the valley and it was a welcome sight at about 22 miles. As usual, I refuelled quickly and set off as soon as I could, eating a roll.

From the valley, I started climbing into the Rhinogs. First up was the Roman Steps pathway that I remembered well from the recce. It was much drier today with no sign of the torrent of water I had encountered the last time I was here. The path climbs up a valley between two mountains to a saddle with a great view down into the valley below. I took the path round to the right heading up towards Rhinog Fawr. Past Llyn Du and onto the summit at 25 miles. From there its off the summit to the south and down before ascending to the left up Rhinog Fach, which is one summit I had missed out in the recce.

From here, I stayed on the higher ground away from Llyn Hywel and headed along the ridgeline towards Y Llethyr where the terrain starts to improve and becomes more grassy. I dibbed in at the Y Llethyr checkpoint at around 28 miles.

From here, its a couple of miles south along the ridge to Diffwys. I had missed out Diffwys in the recce and the conditions in the recce here had been really bad. Today, with much better visibility I was able to stay on the path and enjoy the views. Its a rolling hill along to the Trig Point at Diffwys at 30 miles.

From the checkpoint I retraced my steps for about half a mile to come off the hill to the east and begin the descent to the finish. With the clear visibility I realised there was quite a reasonable path down to the forest, something I had completely missed on the recce. From the forest there is a good path that becomes bigger and bigger until it turns into a road as it descends into the Mawddach River valley and the finish just north of Dolgellau.

Before reaching the A496 which run parallel to the River Mawddach, I turned off along a path. In the recce I had just gone to the road and continued to the end along the road, but in the race we had some more hills and forest to do. I was quite surprised at how tiring these last few miles actually were. We eventually descended for the final time to the campsite in Cymer Abbey and the finish.

That was DBR Day 2!

Stats: 37 miles, 11,099ft elevation, 12:48:56 for 85th position / 208 starters, 197 finishers.

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The winner was Jim Mann in 7:52:39. I was 63% over the winning time.

Day 2 Debrief

  1. I am pleased I recce’d Day 2 as it gave me a good insight into what to expect from the race, especially the off-trail aspects. The paths are not clear in places so familiarity can really help. Practice on this type of terrain is invaluable.
  2. There is quite a bit of water available on Day 2 so no real worries there.
  3. I think there would be opportunity to look into different routes from the recommended route in some places.
  4. No major navigational errors today nor any significant time lost.

Day 3: Cadair Idris, Tarrens and Pumlumons

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Day 3 was the longest day, at just over 44 miles. We set off from the campsite at Cymer Abbey and headed south to Dolgellau. The first couple of miles were flat as we went through the town and continued south, initially on a small road that eventually gave way to a footpath over farmland. We were heading up Cadair Idris.

When I had recce’d this, I had done the initial part of the climb in darkness and now saw that I had gone too far to the right and that the path was actually to the left which was easier to follow. We got up onto a ridge and then followed it, continuing to climb along the ridge for about three miles to reach the summit of Cadair Idris at 7 miles.

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As we had been climbing, so the clag had been getting thicker, so there were no views from the top. We descended along the Pony Path which is a good, clear path, but runs out after a while. The next checkpoint was about 4 miles after Cadair Idris on a long arching ridge. On the recce I had tried to cut the corner off and save some distance but the ground became very rough and slow, so I decided to follow the ridge line on the longer, recommended route. There was still plenty of clag about, so visibility was poor.

After the next checkpoint, we started to descend off the hill down to the B4405. This is a long (about 5 miles) descent. At the top there is not a path and the ground is rough. It was around here that the race leader made some navigational errors in the fog and took the wrong line off the mountain going into the wrong valley. He lost over an hour here. Its easy to do in the fog, where a small bearing change can result in you going down a parallel valley that looks more or less the same as the one you are supposed to be in. GPS helps here as you can clearly see yourself diverging from where you should be.

I eventually picked up the path and descended into farmland and then through the farm onto a small road. I followed this down into the valley and across the B4405. From there we started to climb again, and crossed the Talyllyn Railway line at mile 17. This is now a steam based tourist line.

I was now heading up into the Tarrens. The climb initially is on a good path but this eventually runs out after a couple of miles, leaving about 1/2 mile of off-trail slog upto the summit of Tarrenhendre. From here, there is a bit of a path along a ridge heading east.

There is a bit of woodland along the ridge that I remembered well from the recce. Its to be avoided even though the path entices you in. I kept to the right of the woodland this time and made better progress. At this point I was running low on water and was on the lookout but there were no streams. We had one more peak to go before we started to descend to Machynlleth and the service point. This was to Tarren Y Gesail, which I had avoided on the recce.

I was hoping there would be some water there but there was not. The route was an out and back from the base of the climb. I paced myself on the way up as I was out of water now and it was quite hot in the sun. It was about 2/3 mile to the summit and after reaching it, it was back the same way down and then a 3 to 4 mile descent off the hill. I knew from the recce that once we were in the forest near the top I would be able to find some water.

Eventually we could see the town of Machynlleth below us, and a bit later we came out onto the A493 and crossed the River Dovey on the road bridge. Continuing into Mach, I stopped at the garage on the edge of town and bought some food and drink.

The support point for Day 3 is on the other side of town after mile 28. It was still pretty hot so I made sure to completely fill up with water (2,5 litres) before leaving. I was about 2/3 of the way through Day 3 now in terms of both distance and climbing with Cadair Idris and the Tarrens done and “just” the Pumlumons to go.

I climbed out of Mach, and soon picked up the Glyndŵr Way footpath which I continued on for a while. The path here is good and its more rolling hills than mountains. The path was familiar from the recce I had done, but I also knew that the terrain would get worse as we ascended the Pumlumons.

We got to the river crossing after mile 38 that I remembered was the end of the path. I turned left and started ascending, off trail, parallel to the river. This is very rough terrain with tussocks above the knee so the going was slow as fatigue had already set in. After half a mile or so, I picked up a path that I had missed on the recce (it had been dark on the recce by the time I had got to this point). The path made things much easier.

The path curved to the left to a lake but I had to break off from it, and head to the right to start climbing Pumlumon Fach. This again was very rough ground and quite steep in places. From Pumlumon Fach, I picked up a path and headed over to Pumlumon Fawr.

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The views were great and I could see for miles in all directions!

Again, it was much easier to stay on the path here than it had been on the recce. The summit of Pumlumon Fawr was the last checkpoint of the day at 41 miles. From here I continued south, descending off the hill to the A44. I was able to follow the path much better today in daylight than in the recce when I was descending in darkness. Turns out that the path, although faint, is quite reasonable. During the recce, on this descent, I had attempted a short cut through a forest that turned into a very bad idea. Going past the same pine forest, I wondered whatever had possessed me to try this, as it very obviously was a ridiculous idea!

The finish had been slightly moved so I had to turn left and follow a path parallel to the road for a little way before turning right to the finish.

Stats: 44.2 miles, 11,457ft elevation, 12:58:33 for 57th position / 179 starters, 169 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 7:54:33. I was 64% over the winning time. Jim Mann had led until Cadair Idris where his navigational error had cost him dearly and he was now in second place overall.

Fatigue was taking its toll now and I think everyone in camp was feeling it. With multi-stage races you start the race with a full tank and finish near to empty, but overnight you replenish reserves and start the next day with more energy; but not a full tank. This process repeats so you start each day with less in the tank than when you started the previous day. So it gets harder and harder.

The good news from the organisers, was that for those of us making it this far, statistically we were likely to finish the whole race. That was good news indeed!

Day 3 Debrief

  1. I ran out of water on the Tarrens. This was not a problem on the recce as it was quite wet then and I had missed out Tarren Y Gesail. In hindsight, there is some water at the start of the climb after crossing the railway line. I can’t remember if I filled up there properly or was put off by the sheep.
  2. Day 3 is a long day with quite a bit of runnable terrain. Comparing days 2 and 3, both have about the same elevation gain, but Day 3 is 7 miles longer yet I only took 10 minutes more to do Day 3 than Day 2.
  3. No major navigational errors today nor any significant time lost.

Day 4: Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr

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Day 4 is in the southern half of Wales, and although another long distance (42 miles) has less climbing than the previous three days. Its more rolling hills than mountains from here.

As usual, I started just after 6am. I had also switched from my Scott Kinabalus to Hokas which are better on the road sections, of which there were a few today.

We had been told of a diversion at the start of today’s route. The first couple of miles climb southeastwards, up out of the valley we had camped in. The organisers had been asked to divert around the original path to avoid some unspecified wildlife. I remembered the area in question, and could see we had been diverted away from the higher ground down a path to the right and then back up to the left to rejoin where we would have gone. At the time, I thought this might even be better than staying on the higher ground which is what I had done in my Day 4 recce. The higher ground here was very tussocky and rough, and at the time, boggy.

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So I started off aiming for the diversion which involved cutting across some tussocky ground to the edge of a forest and then descending through the forest to find a path. I followed the path for a short distance before coming off it to the left to cut through some very rough, tussocky ground to join up with another path. This was a real slog and very, very slow. Eventually I got to a bit of a path but it was constantly blocked by fallen trees and was not any quicker. This path brought us to a slightly better one heading south. I was quite tired already and I had only done 3 miles!

I was into the wind turbines now, but from a slightly different angle than on the Day 4 recce so it was a bit confusing, and I don’t think I took the best line.

From here the terrain was undulating as I continued southeast. There was a tricky section following a stream between a good footpath and a small road that I remember well from the recce. I had noticed that the final route had deviated to the left of the river up over a hill, and this route whilst hillier and slightly longer to reach the road was much faster than the stream valley.

From here there was a couple of miles of road before we came off the road to the left to climb a hill and loop round for a few miles before rejoining the road after mile 14. We did another couple of miles back on the road which was heading to Rhayder, before coming off to the right onto a path heading south.

There was another hill to climb before a 3 mile descent to Elan Village at mile 20. Today’s service point was here so it was a good opportunity to load up with some more food and water before continuing.

The initial climb out of Elan Village was on the road again. We swung southwest now and  after 3 miles joined the edge of Caban Coch Reservoir. The water level was quite low and much lower than when I had recce’d the route. After a couple more miles of flattish terrain, we started the long climb upto Drygarn Fawr, the high point of today’s route at mile 28.

The next couple of miles over fairly trackless terrain got me to the start of the descent proper. I remembered this from the Day 4 recce I had done. There are a few ways off this hill to the village of Abergwesyn. With more time it might be possible to find a better route than the recommended one. There had been a lot of logging going on in this area and, in the daylight it was possible to see down into the valley and road below.

I could see the horrible line I had taken in the recce (in darkness) and could see a much better route off to the left of where I had gone before, joining up with a big path probably made by the loggers. This brought me down to the road much, much quicker than I was expecting.

It was 3 miles down the road to Abergwesyn and the checkpoint at mile 34. My recce had ended shortly after this for logistical reasons, so the next few miles were new which was a welcome change. The next 3 mile section followed a path between Abergwesyn and the road around Llyn Brianne, which is a popular cyclist route.

I was getting pretty tired now and my shins were hurting. I have had this before and its a kind of tendonitis from all the ankle twisting of the off trail terrain we had been over in the last 4 days.

It was 4.5 miles on the road now to the finish. I was glad of the cushioning support of the Hokas but a road section at this stage of the race is always going to be painful!

Although most of the road section is downhill, it still seemed to take a long time to get to the finish and I was pretty exhausted by the end. At last, there was a sign pointing off the road to the right, to the finish and the campsite.

That was DBR Day 4 done!

Stats: 42.6 miles, 7,375ft elevation, 11:24:36 for 42th position / 155 finishers.

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The winner was Jim Mann in 7:03:26. I was 62% over the winning time. Jim had made about 18 minutes back on Marcus so the race was all to play for on the last day.

I went off to “ice” my shins in the nearby River Towy. I knew from experience that the shin pain, once it starts, only gets worse the further you go. But there was only one day left and probably the easiest of the five; although the organisers had extended the route by a few miles to finish in Llandeilo because they could not get agreement with the owners to finish in Carreg Cennen Castle.

Day 4 Debrief

  1. There are navigation opportunities on Day 4, but they would need recce’ing.
  2. Hokas were a good choice of shoes today, given all the road sections.
  3. No major navigational errors today but I think I did not take the best line through the windmills at the start of the day and lost maybe 10 minutes.

Day 5: Brecon Beacons and The Black Mountain

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I followed my usual morning routine and set off just after 6am. The first part was on the road before coming off to the left through what looked like a slate mine. Continuing up hill we followed good paths for a while before rejoining a small road that took us to the base of a hill at mile 5.

We climbed up the hill which the race organisers told us was known locally as “The Mountain”, which was a mandatory route section, due to concerns from the locals. When I got to the top of the ridge I recognised this from the Day 5 recce, where I had started a few miles into the route.

From here I could look down onto the town of Llandovery in the distance. I was familiar with the route down and we joined a road and descended to the town at mile 10. I remember finding a small shop that was open so bought some food and a drink and continued through town.

From Llandovery I followed a small road southeast into the Brecon Beacons National Park. We were on road, then fire tracks for a few miles before small paths and a few trackless sections heading towards the Usk Reservoir. We went along the edge of the reservoir before crossing the dam to the service point at mile 16.

And a surprise, the organisers had ice creams for us!

It was getting pretty hot and I was concerned about water out on the beacons, so I made sure I drunk a lot at the service point and filled up with 2.5 litres before setting off on the next long section.

I travelled south with Fan Brycheiniog, the highest point on today’s route in the distance, about 5 miles away. The ground was grassy and undulating here; my shin was starting to hurt and it was a slow plod. I was walking this section, even though for most of the time the gradient was fairly shallow. Eventually we started the climb proper which was very hot.

It was a relief to reach the summit checkpoint and dib in. It was a glorious day with great views over the Beacons and down to Llyn y Fan Fawr below. The best day I’ve seen in this part of the Beacons! But it was very hot!

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From here I turned west, onto a ridge line for about 3 miles, before following it round to the south once again. We were off trail by now on rough, tussocky ground which my shin was not particularly happy with. The going was slow across this undulating, classically Beacons style terrain.

It was around mile 27 when I finally ran out of water; I had been husbanding it for a while. There was, as I had expected, no decent water sources here. I came across a puddle; the sort of source nobody would normally drink from. I filled up one bottle and thought if I don’t find anymore water soon I will have to drink this. I doubled up on the water purification tablets which take 30 minutes to work.

The route swung west again, but the terrain was unchanged. I saw someone coming towards me, out for a walk, and asked him for some water which he very kindly gave me. I bit further on, we started to descend to the A4069.

When I reached the car park by the side of the road at mile 30 there was an impromptu water stop at the checkpoint that the organisers had setup. Unfortunately they were rationing the water they were giving out to one bottle, which was not going to be enough.

Fortunately there was an ice cream van parked in the car park so I bought some more water and another ice cream, and some more food. I got rid of the puddle water, grateful I had not had to drink any.

Setting off again west, I knew it was not too far to Carreg Cennen Castle. The tussocky ground was becoming more and more painful for my ankle by now which was becoming more of a problem. I think I was walking with a pronounced limp, trying not to bend my ankle.

At about mile 35 I could see the Castle perched up on the spit of land. I could really have done with that being the finish but the organisers had not been able to agree with the owners to finish the race here as had happened in previous years. This was a shame, as it would have been a fitting finish for such an epic race.

I looped around to the northeast and started the climb to the castle, which is steep but quite short. It was an anticlimax at the top as I just continued on the footpath to the side, past the castle. This was 36 miles done; just a few to go now, mainly downhill, to Llandeilo.

I stopped in a small cafe/shop by the castle and bought a can of coke.

My shin was very painful now and each step was quite miserable. The last 3 miles were a mixture of paths and some road sections with a few steep downhills that had become the most painful. Although I had not recce’d these last miles, I knew the area roughly and where the finish would be.

Eventually we got to the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of Llandeilo. From there we swung right into the school, went around a few buildings and arrived at the finish!

I had finished the Dragon’s Back Race!

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Stats: 39 miles, 7,503ft elevation, 10:43:09 for 57th position / 157 finishers.

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The winner was Marcus Scotney in 6:12:09. I was 73% over the winning time.

Day 5 Debrief

  1. There are plenty of runnable sections in Day 5, if, by the time you get there, you are in any condition to run!
  2. Water was definitely an issue in the heat across the Beacons. On a cooler day it would probably be just about OK. Either plan on carrying a lot or do some research on where there might be some.
  3. There are some rough sections on Day 5 with quite tussocky ground. Its worth practising on this sort of terrain.
  4. Hokas were a good choice for Day 5 given the road sections. Given the sole height though they do put your ankles through it on tussocks.
  5. Given my ankle issue I think I probably lost an hour or so compared to what I would have done without the issue.

Overall Race Analysis

Stage Distance (M) Elevation (ft) Time Position % time above winner
1 33.2 13757 12:02:59 114 61%
2 37 11,099 12:48:56 85 63%
3 44.2 11,457 12:58:33 57 64%
4 42.6 7,375 11:24:36 42 62%
5 39 7,503 10:43:09 57 73%
Overall 196 51,191 59:58:13 57 58%

I was pretty happy with my overall performance in the race and to have completed it. I think my relative poor performance on Day 5 was a combination of being forced to hobble along towards the end with a painful shin injury, and a very fast time (about 1.5 hrs ahead of 2nd place) by Marcus Scotney making my time appear worse.

In the evening of Day 5 we had a celebratory dinner where the champions were crowned and we got our little dragon mementos from the race director.

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We all congratulated ourselves and each other on getting to the finish of such as epic race! And looking at the route on a single map shows just what a race it was!

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How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Scott Kinabalus for the first 3 days and Hokas for the last 2 was good. You need strong mountain shoes at the start that you know will be good for a long day. The last 2 days are flatter with more road.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times.
  3. T-shirts were OK, I swapped them each day.
  4. Hat. I had a standard baseball style hat with peak. Worth having in case its very sunny.
  5. Waterproofs I didn’t use.
  6. UD race pack. 2 x 500ml bottles at the front and 1,500ml bladder in the back and snacks in the side pockets. All worked fine, but did run out of water twice.
  7. Camp kit. T-shirt, shorts, puffer jacket and waterproof trousers. Bear in mind it gets cool in the evenings.
  8. Sleeping bag / mat. I have a quite a warm sleeping bag and an inflatable mat. It was fine but I did get hot overnight. Still its easy to throw it off and cool down.
  9. Tent. Supplied by the organisers – very good.
  10. Trail food. I took a few energy bars, packs of Shot Bloxx and nuts with me each day. At the service points I had a can of coke and a roll and bagel each day. These are left in the sun so be careful what you choose for fillings!

What Training would I Recommend?

Here are a few points:

  1. Its 5 days of, on average, 40 miles with 10,000ft of climbing and descending per day. So you need fitness to be able to cope with this.
  2. Navigation. You need to be able to navigate. The usual combo is GPS and map. Often people clump together and if visibility is good you can often see other runners throughout the day so you can tag along. But, if its foggy, you may see nobody so you have to be self-sufficient on navigation.
  3. The route has a lot of climbing so practice climbs and descents.
  4. There are 2 sections of scrambling; Tryfan and Crib Goch. Its worth practising these if you can. If you are unsure about exposed ridges get some help from someone who knows what they are doing.
  5. There are lots of off-trail sections across tussocky ground. Its worth practising crossing this sort of terrain to get your feet and ankles used to it. I struggle with this.
  6. Wet ground and river crossings. You will have wet feet for long period. We had good weather in 2017 but if its wet, you will have wet feet all day every day so that is worth practising.
  7. Self-sufficiency. The ethos of this race is that you are on your own in the race. There is only one service point per day and other checkpoints are just to dib-in to record the time you were there. There is no mollycoddling along the way, or at checkpoints, with words of encouragement; you’re on your own so crack on! Get used to being on your own and fixing anything that needs fixing yourself.

Why do The Dragon’s Back Race (DBR)?

The race is well organised. The team are very experienced and know how to put these types of event on. The logistics ran smoothly and camp is well organised, plenty of food, etc.

Great opportunity to spend a week in the company of like minded people from around the world. Many have different skills and backgrounds so there is always plenty to learn.

The DBR really showcases Wales and the spectacular scenery throughout the country.

The DBR is an epic adventure!

Pob lwc yn lladd y ddraig!

Dragon’s Back Race – Logistics

Overview

The logistics for a multi-day stage race are always a little complex but more so than normal for the Dragon’s Back Race (DBR).

I’ve detailed the longer term preparation and training here: Dragon’s Back Race – Preparations in a separate post, and the logistics for the race itself are worth summarising, which I have done here.

The Bags

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There are three bags required (from bottom to top in the above photo);

  1. Running ruck-sack ( Ultimate Direction AK) to carry mandatory equipment, food and water.
  2. Support point bag (22L Ortlieb Drybag). Each day, roughly halfway along the route is that day’s Support Point where each runner has access to their support bag to reload food and change any kit as necessary. For example, I left a spare pair of running shoes here.
  3. Camp bag (59L Ortlieb Drybag). This is where all camp kit and spare running kit is stored.

Kit

I went with Scott Kinabalus as my main shoe for the first 3 stages. These would work well in any weather on the more mountainous stages. I planned to use Hokas for the last two stages which have more road sections and are hilly rather than mountainous.

I was using my Ultimate Direction AK rucksack which I had done all my recces with and which is just about big enough to hold all the required kit.

My waterproofs were the ones I had used in the recces and I was very comfortable with them.

Full details of all the kit I took, its weight and which bag it lived in, is here in “DB Kit” tab of the Dragons Back Spreadsheet,

Food

The race provided food while in camp; breakfast, snacks and dinner so I only needed food for the duration of the race itself. The basic plan was as follows:

  • Morning. Shot Bloks, energy bars and nuts.
  • Support point. Can of coke, Roll & bagel
  • Afternoon. Shot Bloks, energy bars and nuts
  • At end of stage: Recovery drink

Full details of all the food I took is here in “DB Food” tab of the Dragons Back Spreadsheet,

GPS Watch Setup

I have a Garmin Fenix3 HR (F3HR) which is quite good as a trail running watch. It does pretty much everything you might expect of a running watch including navigating to a pre-loaded GPX file.

As with all technology it has some features / issues that can be annoying but in general its pretty good. The organisers distributed an early version of the route as 5 separate GPX files, one for each day, several months ahead of the race. Nearer race day they made some small tweaks and re-issued a “final” version of the GPX.

I compared the original and final versions of the route on the freeware utility www.gpsies.com. There are other utilities, but this one allows you to load up multiple GPX files simultaneously and have the traces displayed in different colours so you can easily see any differences.

The organisers also supplied a separate file of checkpoints for each day’s route. By fiddling with the supplied GPX files I was able to load the checkpoint information into the route files so it was displayed on screen.

The thing about GPX files is that they support the concept of routes and tracks. A route is a series of points that get you from A to B without going through every single step along the way. A track is what you would record if you actually went from A to B taking each and every step along the way. So when race organisers send out GPX files they tend to send them as routes, which is reasonable. They also tend to reduce the number of data points as different GPS units have different limits on the number they will accept. So the idea is to reduce the number of points whilst minimising the reduction in accuracy.

The F3HR does not load the elevation profile for GPX route files which is a bit silly. So I converted the route to a track with GPSIES and manually added the checkpoints as waypoints. For the waypoint name I included useful information like “SummTrig” for a summit trig point, or the elevation for a checkpoint not at a summit, and cutoff time for the checkpoint if appropriate.

Dragon’s Back Race – Preparations

Race Details

The Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) is quite well know in the ultra running world. It is a tough 5 day stage race that covers more or less the length of Wales, starting in Conwy on the north coast and finishing near Llandeilo in the south. It takes in the majority of the higher peaks in Wales along the way.

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The breakdown of the 5 days is as follows:

  • Day 1: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon Massif
  • Day 2: Moelwynion and Rhinogydd
  • Day 3: Cadair Idris and Pumlumons
  • Day 4: Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr
  • Day 5: Brecon Beacons and The Black Mountain

Preparation for the Race

I had entered the race over a year ahead and looked through information on the Dragon’s Back Race website and more generally on the internet. It was clear that this race race going to need some serious preparation and attention! Even though it was “just” 5 days, it was obvious that each was a big day and that, unlike some multi-stage races, there would be no easy days.

I broke the preparation into the following:

  1. Training and fitness
  2. Hill training
  3. Navigation
  4. Route Recce and kit

Training and Fitness

I built up mileage slowly to averaging about 60 miles per week for weeks “race -12 weeks” to “race -2 weeks”. Then tapered down to 35 miles per week then 20 miles per week in the last two weeks before the race. In terms of elevation I was averaging between 10,000 – 15,000 feet per week.

Hill Training

The majority of my training is trail running with some cycling and gym sessions. I am quite used to climbing hills on my regular sessions but I included regular sessions in the Brecon Beacons to build more climbing strength. This is important as the race is a mountain race.

Navigation

I had done various races in the past that require some level of navigation capability and I am very familiar with my GPS watch. I would rate myself as OK with map but used the recce runs to improve my map reading skills. I also entered the Great Lakeland Three Day (GL3D) race about a month before the DBR in order to practice my map reading skills in a race scenario (and this race is all about the map as no GPX file is provided, and the route is only revealed at registration).

The GL3D is an orienteering style event where the location of a set of dibber boxes are marked on a map. There is no route as such, runners just have to go from one box to the next by any route they choose, dibbing into each box in order.

The usual procedure is to look for the next checkpoint on the map and then to look for possible routes from your location to the checkpoint. The aim is to minimise the time taken. The things to consider are:

  1. Minimize distance. Obviously you could go in a straight line but there are other things to consider.
  2. Minimize elevation changes. Travelling on flat ground is usually quicker than climbing up and down a hill. So, for example, taking a curved route along a ridge although a longer distance, may be quicker than dropping down into a valley and climbing up the other side.
  3. Choose fastest terrain. Travelling on paths is usually quicker than travelling off trails. For example, detouring around the edge of an area of boggy ground that involves a climb and descent on a path may be quicker than traversing the boggy ground.
  4. Watch out for out-of-bounds. Races follow laws of the country, so it is not possible to cut through private property unless on a public road or footpath. Races may also mark areas they have been requested to avoid as out-of-bounds.
  5. Look at the features on the map. For example, if there is a wide river and no bridge on your route then that probably isn’t the best way. Equally, pay attention to the contours, is there a cliff or open cast mine you need to avoid?
  6. Think about the weather and how it may effect the terrain, e.g. if its been raining recently then river valleys may be much harder to traverse than staying on higher ground.

So the game is to use the information in the map to work out the fastest route. Of course, the map cannot tell you everything so use your eyes and any local knowledge you may have.

I should also point out that more sophisticated map readers / orienteerers will have loads more points than the ones above and navigating in different conditions like, for example, poor visibility requires additional skills. There are navigation skills courses and books that can teach these.

Route Recce and Kit

Since I live in Wales I planned to do each of the 5 days of the DBR as individual recce days. This turned out to be quite logistically challenging for two reasons; firstly I did each recce on my own which, as they are point-to-point, means you either drive to the start and then find a way to get back there when you reach the end, or leave a car at the end and get public transport to the start. Secondly, some of the campsites are quite remote and not easy to reach by public transport so I had to modify the route slightly to accommodate this.

My plan was to start in reverse order with the Day 5 and work back towards Day 1. My reason for doing this was that I suspected the first couple of days to be the “hardest” and the last couple the “easiest” so as I would start with the “easier” days and as I got fitter I would tackle the more difficult days. I think this worked out well.

Recce of Day 5 – 1st November 2016

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Day 5 is in the western Brecon Beacons. It is a tricky one to recce as the start is not near to any significant place. The end of the race at this time was to be Carreg Cennen Castle, a few miles from Llandeilo. So my plan was to drive to Llandeilo and park at Ffairfach station just outside the town. From the station I then caught a train to Cynghorgy station, on the Heart of Wales line. From Cynghordy, I planned to cut across to the Day 5 route, missing out the first few miles which were on small roads, and run back along the route to Carreg Cennen Castle. From there I would run back to my car at Ffairfach station.

It was a cool, overcast day at the beginning of November 2016 when I set off. I got off the train at Cynghordy which is a request-stop, unusual for a train. You tell the guard, who tells the driver to stop. A little bit of welsh pronunciation is helpful; Cynghordy is pronounced “king-ordy”.

I set off from Cynghordy just before 8am. The plan was to head west for a couple of miles and pick up the Day 5 route. I was carrying 2.5 litres of water, enough food for the day and a printed OS map of the route. I had printed the map on waterproof paper. I also had  a GPX file of the route loaded onto my Fenix 3 watch.

The first problem was locating the start of the route and I ended up overshooting the Day 5 course and turned south too late. The route I should have been on climbed up onto a ridge and ran along the ridge for quite a way but I was on a road parallel to it. When I realised this I cut up from the road to the ridge. I followed the ridge for a mile and a half and I could see the town of Llandovery in the distance and I could also see that when I dropped off the ridge it would be onto the road I had been on earlier by mistake. Umm, navigation!

After Llandovery I headed southeast into the Brecon Beacons National Park. I passed the remains of a roman fort.

After a few miles we came to the Usk Reservoir.

From there its a few miles south to the mountains in the distance. Its a steep climb up to the high point at Fan Brycheiniog. It was too misty at the top to see much, also windy and pretty cold.

From there I moved west down into a valley and up the other side. From there I followed the ridge line west along the Beacons Way. Occasionally the mist would clear for a glimpse of one of the Llyns (lakes) below.

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I continued west towards Carreg yr Ogof. The terrain starts to get more difficult with typical beacons tussocks and rocks. This is the lesser known part of the Brecon Beacons known as the Black Mountain; I saw very few people about.

At Carreg yr Ogof, I headed south, back on the Beacons Way for a mile or two before heading west again over Garreg Lwyd.

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From here I crossed over the A4069 which loops around the Black Mountain and is one of my favourite cycle rides. The paths here are very faint and infrequently travelled so the terrain is tussocky and boggy in places.

I had done about 30 miles by now and was getting quite tired. This terrain is very energy sapping and slow. There was one more peak at Tair Carn Isaf to go before I would start to come off the Beacons and onto farm land.

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I was back on more regular footpaths now and passed a couple of farms. After a couple of miles I could see Carreg Cennen Castle across a valley. Its in a spectacular location and looked both impressive and foreboding in the failing light.

It was getting pretty dark when I looped around to the castle. It was a hard climb upto it and when I got there it was closed. I hopped over the gate and had a look around the castle. It dates from the twelfth century with today’s remains dating mostly from the thirteenth century.

From here it was just under 4 miles back to Ffairfach railway station where I’d parked my car. I was out of water so was happy to have finished Day 5. As it turned out, the organisers changed the finish of the actual race to a school in Ffairfach as they could not get agreement with Carreg Cennen Castle to finish the race there, so the extra miles turned out to be useful although I took a different route on the recce.

Day 5 Lessons Learned

  1. There are significant sections of Day 5 which to all intents and purposes are trackless and very uneven with tussocks. This is completely unlike trail running, is energy sapping, and a killer on the ankles (each step landing at different and unpredictable angles). Well worth practising this terrain.
  2. The only town on the Day 5 course is Llandovery; from there until near the end, the route is through the Brecon Beacons and there is very little running water.
  3. The OS map I’d made on waterproof paper worked well.
  4. The Scott Kinabalu shoes worked well on the terrain.
  5. The UD pack was just about big enough for the gear I carried with 2.5 litres of water.

Stats for the day: 42.2 miles, 12,400 ft of elevation.

Recce of Day 4 – 21st December 2016

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The Day 4 finish suffers the same recce issues as the Day 5 finish; since its the same place. Its in the middle of nowhere and therefore pretty inaccessible from public transport. Also, Day 5 is the only recce I could achieve in a single day so from here on each recce would require two days. I suppose, technically, I could have spent more time at night and done other recce days in one 24 hour period but I did not see much point in doing a recce at night when there would not be much to see.

So the plan for the Day 4 recce was to drive to Cynghordy railway station, leave my car there, take public transport to Aberystwyth and stay overnight. In the morning, take a bus to Ponterwyd to pick up the start of the Day 4 trail, do as much of Day 4 as possible and then get to Cynghordy to where I’d left my car.

Its at this point that I must mention https://www.traveline.cymru. I found this to be the best public transport website for Wales covering trains and buses and making a fair attempt to join both modes of transport together. The site is not perfect and you need a map in front of you to try several nearby places to get the best option.

Getting from Cynghordy to Aberystwyth involved getting a train from Cynghordy to Llandrindod Wells; a bus north on the A473 from Llandrindod Wells to Llangurig and another bus west on the A44 to Aberystwyth. This took me a little over 4 hours (there was some delay due to roadworks on the A44).

It was pretty clear from the travel to Aberystwyth just how remote a lot of the terrain is in mid-Wales. I stayed overnight in Aberystwyth and caught the first bus the following morning back along the A44, eastwards to Ponterwyd. The start of Day 4 is just east of Ponterwyd at a place called Dyffryn Castell. I was expecting to get off in Ponterwyd but managed to persuade the driver to drop me at Dyffryn Castell. Neither of us was sure about this; I’d never been there before and she’d never stopped there before. And it was dark.

I got off the bus and fired up my GPS watch and thankfully I was pretty close to the Day 4 start.

It was a few days before Christmas and was cold so I got started quickly. The first thing was to get across a river; cold, wet feet within 2 minutes of starting. All good training! There was a steep climb right from the get go which helped warm me up. The path went through a farm so I was sure to be quiet with gates as I went.

The dawn was slow to arrive as it was another overcast day and I had completed 5 miles before I put my head torch away.

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Next up were the wind turbines and forest trails. Lots of turbines, making an eerie sound as I cut across some rough, trackless ground towards them. Once amongst the turbines there was a good gravel path to follow (built for the maintainers of the turbines). After this section we came off the path and followed a river which then joined a road. Although there were footpath signs there was no path and the terrain was very, very difficult. (In the actual race, we did not follow the river but cut over a hill to the road which although taking a bit more elevation was much easier terrain).

Eventually, I got to the road which I stayed on for a bit before coming off the road to climb a hill to the left. Initially, there was a reasonable path but eventually it became boggy and tussocky.

I came out onto the road again for a couple of miles heading towards Rhayder before taking a path to the right and up into the hills again.

It was showery and there was a nice rainbow to view. I climbed upto Esgair Penygarreg before dropping down towards Elan Village at about 20 miles.

I then climbed out of Elan Village and headed south with Caban Coch Reservoir on the right. At the end of the reservoir, I headed into a very tough section as dusk was setting in.

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It was very tussocky and boggy as I climbed to the highest point on Day 4, at Drygarn Fawr at about 30 miles. From here it was downhill off the mountain. There are a couple of river valleys one could take, that end up in the village of Abergwesyn. The suggested route was to take the westerly one and come out onto a road and follow that southeast to Abergwesyn. A more easterly valley was the subject of debate in the actual DBR as to whether it was quicker.

It was pretty much pitch dark (overcast) when I started the descent. It was obvious that there had been substantial logging on the hillside and the path marked on the map was no longer there on the ground. I suspect, that in daylight, navigation through this section would have been quite straight-forward, but in the dark it was pretty difficult. New forest tracks, not on the map, were leading in all directions and heading in the desired direction was very difficult due to either cut down trees or uncut, very dense, pine forest.

It took, what seemed like forever, to get down off the hill onto the road. I had to fight through thick forest and scramble down the hillside and was happy to finally reach the road. This road is very quiet, only one vehicle had passed whilst I was descending. Where I came out I was probably less than a mile from the Devil’s Staircase, one of the most iconic Welsh cycling climbs.

Once on the road, I followed it for a few miles to Abergwesyn, at about 36 miles. The road follows the River Irfon which meets the River Gwesyn at Abergwesyn and continues as the Irfon from there. Aber means “mouth of” in Welsh; hence the village’s name.

Now, I had a choice:

  1. I could follow the Day 4 route, south and slightly to the west, off road, over several small hills and from the end of Day 4 continue a few miles, bending back southeast to Cynghordy. Or,
  2. I could stay on the road to Llanwrtyd Wells where I hoped I would be able to get some food and water and then follow the A483 to Cynghordy.

Option 2 was a couple of miles longer and not on the Day 4 route but seemed the better option so that is what I did.

Navigation now was easy as I just stayed on the road to Llanwrtyd Wells which claims to the smallest town in Britain. It also hosts the World Bog Snorkelling Championships and the Man vs Horse race.

I bought some food and drink in the supermarket and set off on the A483.

I was tired at this point and actually quite grateful to be following the road rather than navigating. As a train went past on the track parallel to the road, I realised that I could have caught the train from Llanwrytd Wells to Cynghordy and saved myself 7 miles on the road!

I was very happy to finally arrive at Cynghordy and find my car.

Stats for the day: 48.4 miles, 7,300 ft of elevation.

Day 4 Lessons Learned

  1. My gear worked well.
  2. More water available in streams on the Day 4 route.
  3. Always have an alternative plan for food and water that can be activated. Going off route to Llanwrtyd Wells was the right thing to do.
  4. Where conditions on the ground don’t match the map, e.g. when a forest has been felled, navigation can become quite difficult.

Recce of Day 3 – 25th January 2017

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Day 3 was to be my first venture into some of the better known mountains in Wales; Cadair Idris, the Tarrens and Pumlumons. I drove to Dyffryn Castell and parked my car just off the A44 where I had been dropped by the bus driver to start the Day 4 recce. I didn’t trust the bus to stop there to pick me up so I walked a couple of miles to Ponterwyd, and caught the bus to Aberystwyth. I changed at Aberystwyth and caught another bus to Dolgellau.

Dolgellau (roughly pronounced Doll-geth-lie) is an interesting town just off the river Mawddach. The start of Day 3 is just north of Dolgellau near Cymer Abbey, founded in 1158-9. It is also the site of a meeting of chiefs under Owain Glyndŵr in 1404.

I stayed in Dolgellau overnight and started before sunrise the following day, missing the first couple of miles from Cymer Abbey to the town. I headed south out of the town and soon started to climb, first onto farm land and then into the hills. First up was Cadair Idris.

Cadair Idris is what Snowdonia National Park call the mountain. An alternative is Cader Idris and there are plenty of signs in the local area using this spelling. Idris was a mythological giant and Cadair/Cader is a seat or stronghold. Legend has it that if you spend a night on the mountain you will either return a poet or madman. I was hoping to be off the hill before then!

I went off the path on the climb and ended up scrambling up some steep rock before regaining the path. As I got higher, dawn was starting to break through but there was still a lot of mist on the mountain. The terrain was wet and boggy in places. It was very windy.

 

I got to the top in the fog and began descending along the Pony Path, and as I did, the fog began to clear and the sun came out. After the Pony Path, the terrain deteriorated to more tussocky ground at around 10 miles. It seemed better to stick to the higher ground.

The path off Cadair Idris is not very clear and there are several ways to go. Ultimately the goal is to cross the B4405 which I did at about 16 miles.

After that is a long climb upto Tarrenhendre. Initially there is a good path, but eventually it runs out and the last part is a steep climb up a very tussocky hillside.

From Tarrenhendre I followed the ridge line northeast for a couple of miles. I could see Tarren y Gesail on the left as I entered a thick pine forest as indicated on the map. This was a bit of a mistake and with hind-sight I should have stayed along the edge of the forest as progress through the forest without much of a path was very slow.

The route had an ascent of Tarren y Gesail to the cairn at the top but I decided to skip that and save a bit of time. I was at 21 miles now, and still had a long way to go. From here there was a 3 mile descent through woodland to the Dovey River Valley and the town of Machynlleth. This marked the end of the Snowdonia National Park.

Pronunciation of Machynlleth should not be attempted without some knowledge of Welsh; even the locals call it “Mach”.

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I followed the main road to the bridge over the river and into the town. There is a garage on the approach to the town and I stopped there to refuel with food and water. I was now at 25 miles.

Owain Glyndŵr was crowned in Machynlleth and had his parliament there in 1404. It is a small town today of a few thousand people.

The climb out of Machynlleth was quite steep but with good views back towards the town and of the surrounding hills.

It was late afternoon by now but the sun was still out. I picked up the Glyndŵr Way footpath, one of the three national trails in Wales and continued over rolling hills for the next few miles.

The sun was beginning to set as I got to 35 miles. The path was starting to get worse again and was quite muddy. I crossed a small river at 36 miles and from there I was off trail again. It was pretty dusky now and the terrain was very difficult. I was climbing upto the Pumlumons, the last hills of the day. The terrain got more and more difficult as I was following a small river valley; going close to the river involved lots of scrambling over rocks, going further away the ground was very boggy, regularly going in knee deep.

There is a track here to go some of the way but I did not manage to find it in the gloom so struggled on cross-country. I could just about make out the summit of Pumlumon Fach so headed for that. With hindsight I could have avoided a bit of climbing by not going for the summit.

After Pumlumon Fach, I headed for Pumlumon Fawr but in the darkness was a bit off to the right and missed the trig point. Consequently I missed the track down off the hill and continued to trudge off trail through the tussocks.

The descent off the Pumlumons is not too difficult in daylight. Basically head south and arch around a forest on the right, continuing down towards the A44. Eventually, you enter farmland and footpath signs. However, having been trudging off-trail through very thick tussocks I was exhausted, so when I saw the forest arching to the right I thought I could cut through it and shave a bit of distance off. Although it looked with my headlight like there was a path, there was no path on the map.

I went into the wood and followed the path. After a while it ran out, so I followed a slight path to one side which then ran out. I repeated this a few times until it became obvious there were no paths. The thing about pine forests is that the trees grow branches from their trunks all the way to the ground and they grow close enough together that the branches form an almost impenetrable boundary. Also, because the branches are so close you can see almost nothing with a headtorch. I was soon disoriented and lost. My GPS was not very helpful so I had to rely on my compass to find the way out of the wood; which involved lots of scraping through pine branches.

Eventually I made it out of the forest. I had now done 40 miles.

I stayed on the path now and did 2 more miles downhill to the A44 which was visible every time a car went along below me. I clambered over the style onto the road a little way from Dyffryn Castell and my car.

Stats for the day: 42.2 miles, 12,400 ft of elevation.

Day 3 Lessons Learned

  1. Again all my gear worked well.
  2. I had used a more detailed scale on my printed maps. Although more detailed I was finding I lacked “overview” at this level. Its important to get the balance between detail and overview.
  3. Don’t try and fight your way through a pine forest!
  4. At night you can be quite close to a path and not see it; worth taking a bit of time to try and find paths that should be there as travelling off trail is so much slower and very energy sapping.

Recce of Day 2 – 22nd February 2017

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I was expecting Day 2 to be hard, very hard. The Moelwyns and Rhinogs are very rugged mountains and although not the longest day nor the one with most climbing, the combination of climbing and terrain makes Day 2 very difficult.

The logistics worked out as follows. I drove to Cymer Abbey just north of Dolgellau and walked into town. From there I caught a bus to Tremadog (near Porthmadog) and from there I took another bus to Beddgelert.

Beddgelert is a small, touristy, village in Snowdonia. The name translates as Gelert’s Grave and refers to the story of Llywelyn’s dog Gelert. Wikipedia has the story here.

I stayed the night just outside Beddgelert which is a few miles down river from the start of Day 2. I was in two minds about the recce. A named storm was approaching and had reached Scotland so I has a close eye on the weather forecast. As usual I planned to carry everything on the recce and was planning to wear full weatherproofs.

I got up early, as usual, and was surprised that although it was raining, it didn’t seem to be too windy. So I decided to set off.

The first 3 miles were flat, along the Glaslyn River and Llyn Dinas parallel to the A498 to pick up the Day 2 route where it crossed the A498 on a small road south.

After a couple of miles I turned left, off the road onto a path up Cnicht. By now it was clear that where I was staying had been pretty sheltered and, now up on the hills, it was very windy with clag on the hills. It was raining hard.

The first part of the climb is up a river on a reasonable path. About half way up, the path disappears and its an off trail climb from there. The ground was very boggy and I could not see the tops. The ground turns to rock near the top and its a bit of a scramble to get to the summit at just over 6 miles.

From here, I went north eastwards along a ridge and then started curving around east then southeast towards the Moelwyns. The terrain is very rough and progress was slow. First up is Moelwyn Mawr. From there I headed south towards his little brother, Moelwyn Bach but curved around Llyn Stwlan before summiting. From here its a big descent towards the Tan-y-Grisiau Reservoir. There are some old disused mining tracks off the Moelwyns which are runnable but this whole area is ripe for alternate routes in the DBR.

Parallel to the reservoir is a railway line and I went parallel to this. Again the terrain was very difficult and although there is a bit of a path, it was very boggy. Eventually, I crossed over the railway line onto a much better path that ran parallel to the railway line. The railway went into tunnel and when it re-emerged the footpath joined it.

I ran along the railway line for a while before the footpath was signed off to the left. I then started to descend off the hill into the Dwyryd River Valley. Again, there are several options for the descent here, either zig-zagging on a road or straight down. I opted to go straight down but did not think it was faster than the road. Eventually, at the bottom, I picked up the road.

Coming off the road there is a path through the pasture in the river valley that eventually leads to the A487 and then to the village of Maentwrog at about 14 miles.

That was a pretty tough 14 miles. It had been raining continuously with more or less zero visibility on the tops and pretty high winds. I had a decision to make here. Either abort the run here or continue, as originally planned, to Dolgellau. Once into the Rhinogs there are no real places to stop without getting to Dolgellau (or returning to Maentwrog).

The weather had improved slightly in Maentwrog and I was fine for food (and with all the rain, water was no problem) so I decided to push on. After all, after the Moelwyns how bad could the Rhinogs be?

Its 3 miles to the Trawsfynydd Reservoir through farmland and woodland. From there its back into the mountains. This is an area that offers some navigational opportunity in the race.

The next few miles upto 20 miles saw a steady climb. The terrain was very rough and boggy. The rain got harder and visibility was very low. I passed a small lake, Llyn Eiddew Back and moved onto its bigger brother, Llyn Eiddew Mawr. The ground was very wet here and progress slow. Crossing one of the rivers leading to the lake was difficult with all the rain. I tried several places before settling on a spot to cross. It was waist deep and running fast, but only a couple of meters wide so went for it.

From there, there is a shallow climb away from the lake to a ridge and then a descent into the next valley. There is a bit of a path for the descent but I pretty soon lost it. The descent was tricky. Deep heather covering lots of loose rock, where you never know if there is ground just below the heather or if you will sink upto your waist into the heather. There was a few slips and tumbles on the descent and once into valley it was very boggy.

Off to the right is another lake, Llyn Cwm Bychan and the rivers to cross where in full flood, right upto the top of the bridges. Bypassing the lake, I climbed up through a small forest and picked up a better path, known as the Roman Steps. Today though, there was a wall of water pouring down them.

Nothing grips properly on wet rock, even the Inov-8s I was trialling, and I took another tumble. I was pretty tired by now and although the path was better than the heather, it was a slow plod up the hill. Higher mountains, the Rhinogs, were ahead and to the right now but generally visibility was very poor.

The path bears round to the right and starts climbing once again. I went past the edge of another lake, Llyn Du, and turned slightly left to ascend Rhinog Fawr. The visibility was so poor it was impossible to pick any sort of line and I ended up slogging up through rock and heather. No view of anything at the top, I descended off the other side of the hill. Again, a tricky, rocky descent involving a lot of slipping and sliding.

I passed a small lake, Llyn Cwm-Hosan and followed the valley south. The route turned left to climb Rhinog Fach to the cairn before descending south along a ridge to the next mountain, Y Llethr. I decided to give the summit a miss and worked my way to the lake, Llyn Hywel, and from there I climbed up Y Llethr, the highest point of the day. It was starting to get dark now.

From Y Llethr, the route heads south along a ridge to the next summit, Diffwys. The terrain becomes a bit more grassy and easier. From the summit cairn on Diffwys, the route doubles back half a mile or so before descending off the hill to the south west.

It was dark now and getting very cold with the constant rain and strong wind. Visibility was next to nothing and I’d done a very hard 30 miles so I decided to give Diffwys a miss and come off the hill when I reached the point for the descent. Again, there is a bit of a path here but it was difficult to stay on it in the conditions and I was again making things more difficult for myself. I had been moving into a massive headwind through the Rhinogs and with horizontal rain and zero visibility it was a real struggle.

I reached the point on the ridge to turn left and start descending. I couldn’t find the path and ended up scrambling down off-trail with a couple more falls. Eventually, I came to a forest and soon picked up a path, which joined a bigger path and then a forest trail. The forest trail ran into a fire track and then a proper road. Once in the forest, the wind immediately dropped and it was a relief to be out of it and I started to warm up.

The descent off the hill is about 4 miles to the A496. The DBR doesn’t quite go the A496 but stays parallel to it on footpaths, but I decided to go to the main road and follow it towards Dolgellau before turning off for Cymer Abbey and my car.

Wow, what a hard day that was; certainly one of the toughest I’ve ever had in the mountains. I took no photos; too wet and visibility too poor.

Stats for the day: 37.4 miles, 11,000 ft of elevation.

Day 2 Lessons Learned

  1. My kit all worked well. Although I was wet through even if I had had more waterproof clothing I would still have been wet through (with sweat).
  2. Inov-8 terra claws were OK, but I felt not as good as my Scott Kinabalus, so decision made for the race.
  3. Waterproof map just about held up through the day.
  4. Day 2 was the hardest day of the recce process. Completing it in atrocious weather conditions gave me a lot of confidence for the race.

Recce of Day 1 – 11th April 2017

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Day 1 of the DBR is probably the most iconic with the best known mountains involved. Logistically, for me, its the most difficult as its the day that is furthest from where I live. I followed my, by now, normal protocol of driving to near the end of the stage, Beddgelert, and leaving my car there. From there, I caught a bus to Caernarfon, changed to one for Bangor and from there took another one to Conwy, on the North Wales coast.

I stayed overnight a couple of miles south of Conwy town just off the DBR route. I figured this would give me a good chance to make a quick start in the morning.

I was up before dawn and set off up the road to join the DBR route where it crosses Synchnant Road, missing the first few miles of the course.

As dawn was breaking, I was into the first climb with a great view down to the coast.

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The route heads south, south west taking in the summits of the Carneddau. Tal y Fan was first, then Foel Lwyd followed by a descent across a valley and a Roman road and under some enormous power pylons.

The weather was foggy and the wind picked up with the dawn. It was quite cold. Up the other side of the valley to Drosgl. Not much of a path here but the ground was quite grassy and solid. Onto a path and up to Drum.

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From there stay on the path, keep going south to Foel Fras and Carnedd Gwenllian, then to Foel Grach and stay on the ridge to Carnedd Llewelyn. A lot of these “peaks” are difficult to discern on the ground as the whole area is a series of rolling hills.

From there I stayed on the ridge to Carnedd Dafydd.

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Along the ridge and bending to the left to Pen Yr Ole Wen, with views down to the lake to the left sometimes peaking through gaps in the fog.

The Ogwen Valley is south, marking the end of the Carneddau. There are a couple of routes down to Llyn Ogwen, The DBR suggests the easterly one. It was a long descent but the path is well worn and easy to follow.

On the descent, Tryfan was clearly visible on the other side of the lake, looking ominous in the clouds.

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Tryfan is one of the iconic Snowdonia mountains, said to be the final resting-place of Sir Bedivere (Bedwyr) of Arthurian legend. I was about 16 miles into the route and distance wise about halfway. Its fair to Day 1 is a Day of two halves; and the first half is by far the easiest.

Tryfan marks the start of the next mountain range, the Glyderau. The path up Tryfan is well maintained and easy to follow. About two thirds of the way up it becomes a rock scramble, moving from rock to rock up a gully. At the top its a right turn with a view across a narrow valley to the Glyders ahead.

I was a bit unclear about the route here. It was clear that it was necessary to descend off Tryfan and climb up to Glyder Fach but I was not too keen on the climb from watching someone halfway up. I could see there may be a slightly easier route to the left which looked to loop round behind the peak. This was the one I decided to go with; and it turned out to be the right way.

It was slow going here with a scramble off Tryfan, and a slow climb up the loose scree of Glyder Fach.

The clag was down on the top, and it was quite difficult to navigate from Glyder Fach to Glyder Fawr, although it did lift just long enough to get a photo down one of the valleys.

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When I reached Glyder Fawr it was 20 miles done. The next stage was the descent off the Glyders to the A4086 Llanberis Pass. I could see the Pen y Pass Youth Hostel and the A4086 once I started the descent and dropped under the cloud cover. Again, the descent is well marked and easy to follow.

I reached the Youth Hostel at 22 miles and topped up on food and water. Two mountain ranges, the Carnaddau and Glyderau were done and just the Snowdon Horseshoe was left.

There were quite a few people about as I set off up the Pyg Track. Visibility had improved and there were some glorious views.

When I reached the junction of the Pyg Track with the path to Crib Goch I had another decision to make; either go for Crib Goch or continue up the Pyg Track to the summit of Snowdon. Although the visibility had improved from earlier in the day there was a strong wind blowing so I decided to stay on the Pyg Track (Crib Goch would have to wait for the race itself).

As I continued up the Pyg Track I was feeling a bit disappointed, but I think it was the right decision.

At the top of the Pyg Track I looped around to the left to Snowdon, the high point of the day, and took a few photos.

I was disappointed to find that the cafe at the top of Snowdon was closed, but it was mainly downhill from here.

There is a path off Snowdon to Y Lliwedd called the Watkin Path, which is a little tricky to find, but I managed to get on it. The DBR route comes off the Watkin Path to summit Y Lliwedd before descending off the mountain and rejoining the Watkin Path. I decided to miss out Y Lliwedd and stay on the Watkin Path.

Its a well worn path down off Snowdon, about 4 miles to Nant y Gwynant on the A498 which is the end of the Day 1 route. I still had 2.5 miles to go parallel to the A498 to Beddgelert to pick up my car. These last couple of miles were flat and also were familiar as I had come the other day on the same path to start the Day 2 recce.

As usual it was good to get back to the car. It had been a spectacular day in the hills!

Stats for the day: 32.5 miles, 12,000 ft of elevation.

Day 1 Lessons Learned

  1. My kit all worked well.
  2. It was good to recce Tryfan and the Glyderau. Knowing these sections in particular would help in the race if visibility was poor.
  3. Day 1 is mainly well trodden paths, with few off trail sections.
  4. Tryfan and Crib Goch (not that I did it) are the most technical sections of the whole race.
  5. Take water wherever you can. I deliberately did not take much at Pen y Pass Youth Hostel because I was expecting the Snowdon cafe to be open, and then had to wait till I’d descended far enough off Snowdon to find a stream.
  6. In general there is not much water on the Carneddau so take enough at the start of the race to get to the Ogwen Valley. There is not a lot of water on the Glyderau, so fill up in the Ogwen Valley and then again at Pen y Pass before the Snowdon horseshoe.

The Rebellion Ultra, Mid-Wales, 2nd November 2017

About the Race

The Rebellion Ultra is a 135 mile single-stage race in Mid-Wales. According to the website… “The route is along the full length of Glyndŵr’s Way National Trail with a total ascent of just over 25,000ft (7,700m). The route takes you through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of Mid Wales. Starting in Knighton looping through Machynlleth and then finishing in Welshpool – the route is one of the most picturesque and challenging in the UK.”

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The timetable for the event was as below:

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Logistics are challenging in Mid-Wales. I decided to drive to the start with my wife and she would then drive back home. I would do the race and take public transport back home.

The race allows each competitor to leave a drop-bag at each checkpoint. The important point to remember is that after the drop-bags have been accessed at the checkpoint they are then moved to the finish, not to the next checkpoint like in some races. So, this means you potentially need more drop-bags and maybe more kit.

My checkpoint strategy was as follows:

  • CP 1: Eat & drink. Reload backpack with snacks and water.
  • CP 2: Eat & drink. Change kit incl socks and shoes. Recharge GPS watch and phone. Reload backpack with snacks and water.
  • CP 3: Eat & drink. Sleep. Eat & drink. Change kit incl socks and shoes. Recharge GPS watch and phone. Reload backpack with snacks and water.
  • CP 4: Eat & drink. Maybe sleep. Eat & drink. Change kit incl socks and shoes. Recharge GPS watch and phone. Reload backpack with snacks and water.

Glyndŵr’s Way

There are three National Trails in Wales: Offa’s Dyke Path, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and Glyndŵr’s Way.

Glyndŵr’s Way came into being in 2000 to mark the beginning of the Millennium and the 600th anniversary of the rebellion in 1400 by Owain Glyndŵr against the English. So that explains the name of the race. Wikipedia has more information about Owain Glyndŵr here.

Glyndŵr’s banner during the 16 year Rebellion known as “Y Ddraig Aur” or “The Golden Dragon” has two legs as opposed to the current Welsh Red Dragon which has four. The footpath signs have a version of this dragon on them.

Check-In

Check-in was a simple process in Knighton. We deposited our various bags with the race organisers and got our race numbers. Then there was a race briefing before we walked across town to the start of the race.

Leg 1 – 23 miles. Knighton to Llanbadarn Fynydd

The start was at 7pm next to the stone pillars marking the start of Glyndŵr’s Way.

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As we waited to start, the pedant in me noticed the missing apostrophe on the sign. I don’t think Glyndŵr would be happy loosing his way!

29 of us set off from Knighton into the darkness on the inaugural Rebellion Ultra. It was dry, but cloudy and the forecast was for rain. The first leg to checkpoint 1 was predominantly westward.

We climbed out of Knighton on small roads and footpaths and were soon out on farmland on paths. The footpath was well marked and easy to follow. The terrain was mainly footpaths, quite wet and muddy in places.

Due to the overcast conditions visibility was not particularly great, but we were all making good progress. There were some showers starting.

We were all in good spirits when we arrived at the checkpoint at Llanbadarn Fynydd. It was in the village hall which was a theme for the race. I followed the pre-race plan and did not stop for long, just refilling food and water and getting a few things to eat at the checkpoint.

Leg 2 – 24 miles. Llanbadarn Fynydd to Llanidloes

I think it was just after midnight that we left the village hall and set off on leg 2. Again, generally moving west, but initially going south before looping round to the north as we neared Llanidloes.

The weather was getting worse with constant rain now. There was also some fog. The terrain was similar to Leg 1; mainly rolling countryside and farmland with the occasional bit of road. Navigation was getting harder as it was difficult to see the markers in the fog. It was also apparent that several folks were struggling with navigating at night in general. I would catch them up when they were stationary staring at a map and we would run along a bit, then they would disappear, then I would catch them up again. Folks with proper GPS devices were doing the best in these conditions. My watch was OK and I was using the map as an overview. I did go off course a few times as the Harveys map I had was not quite detailed enough for the terrain and the GPX track I was using did not always agree with the terrain.

I was running with Paul and Sharon at this point and as we were moving up a hill in open fields and I could see the full moon ahead and slightly to the left through a gap in the clouds. Unusual as it had been overcast for a while now and was raining. We noticed that Sharon had stopped and was looking for something in her pack. We decided to go back as it looked like she was trying to change the batteries in her head torch which is always awkward if you are on your own. I then noticed a faint almost vertical line of light that initially looked like a weak laser. Looking at it more closely it became obvious that the vertical line was actually slightly curved before it disappeared into the clouds, so could not be a laser (which was unlikely anyway given the remoteness of where we were).

What we were actually looking at was a Moonbow. I had not even heard of this, let alone seen one before, but it turns out that a Moonbow is actually a thing. I could not distinguish any colours in the Moonbow presumably because it was too faint but the mechanism by which it is produced is the same as for a normal rainbow except the light comes from the moon (although this is reflected sunlight) rather than the sun.

So next time you are out at night and its raining, kept a lookout for moonbows!

If you want to know more about Rainbows and Moonbows click here.

The excitement about the moonbow sighting kept us going for a while. We came to a small village which at this time was deserted. As we were going past a building I could see there was a light on inside. On closer inspection it turned out to be The Glyndwr’s Way Cafe in Bwlch Y Sarnau. A sign welcomed participants in The Rebellion Race to come inside. The village had left it open for us with the heating on and mechanisms to make tee and coffee, etc. and they had left snacks out for us, all with an honesty box. Thank you Glyndwr’s Way Cafe!

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We had a coffee and a short rest before continuing on our way.

The temperature had dropped and it was now quite cold, which was a sure sign that the dawn was not too far away. It is always uplifting to see dawn after a long night. I think its a combination of being able to see further and further and distinguish more and more detail as the light levels increase, coupled with a significant rise in temperature.

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It was a welcome sight to reach the small town of Llanidloes. The checkpoint was in a community hall. Time for some food and a kit change.

The race team manning all the checkpoints were very helpful, always doing everything we asked and getting us whatever we wanted. The checkpoints were well stocked with both hot and cold food so nobody went hungry.

I did dawdle at this checkpoint and spent about an hour there.

Leg 3 – 28 miles. Llanidloes to Machynlleth

From Llanidloes the route goes north west to Machynlleth. It was mixed weather with sunny spells and showers and we ended up seeing quite a few rainbows along the way.

After a few miles we came to a large reservoir, Llyn Clywedog, traversing around the southerly side. This is a man made reservoir built by constructing a dam in 1965-7 to control the flow of water into the River Severn helping to prevent flooding further downstream.

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From here we continued north west with the Pumlumons to our west. The route, although continuously undulating, tends to stick to the lower ground and avoids the higher mountains in Wales.

I was beginning to develop some shin pain that I’ve had before in longer races. Also, tiredness had begun to set in so speed had generally decreased and I was walking most of the time now. As dusk began to fall, we were near to Machynlleth.

It took another hour or so to get to the checkpoint. I ate some food and changed kit. I had determined to sleep here. There was a blacked out room for people sleeping so I made my way there. I think I slept there for about 8 hours. It was not the best sleep with people coming in and leaving.

On getting up I had some breakfast and sorted my kit out. It was light when I left. I think in total I was in the checkpoint for nearly 10 hours. Sharon had already left the checkpoint and Paul was saying he was going to retire. He needed to be back at work and did not think he had a chance of finishing and getting to work on time.

So I was on my own again.

Leg 4 – 32 miles. Machynlleth to Llanwddyn (Lake Vyrnwy)

From the checkpoint I hurried back onto Glyndŵr’s Way. Only to discover after a couple of miles that I was heading the wrong way, back the way I had already come! How did that happen? Not paying attention obviously! Also, I had stopped my watch’s GPS tracking at the checkpoint and restarted it on leaving so I had no visual cue as to which direction I had come from. Anyway, after half an hour or so, I was back at the checkpoint!

I had changed into more cushioned Hoka shoes at this point, from the Scott Kinabalus I had been using. Always a trade off between grip with the Scotts on muddy paths and more cushioning with the Hokas.

It had been raining hard overnight but had stopped now. Everywhere was pretty wet and muddy though.

My shin was not feeling too good by this point and I was pretty much walking the whole time now. Also, the Hokas were proving difficult in the slippery conditions, particularly on downhills, which resulted in a few tumbles.

My Fenix 3 HR watch had been going for about 40 hours (with a couple of charges) when I noticed some strange behaviour. The navigation screen would lock up for 10 or 15 seconds (for example turning around would not change the display). None of the buttons would work during this time. After fiddling with it for a bit, I decided to reboot it. This seemed to fix things. This has been the first time I have seen this behaviour with this watch.

Having fixed this, I continued along as normal. I then found a treat wrapped up with a roll my wife had made for me. Small things make a bit difference when you are tired!

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A little bit further along, I started getting some heel pain. It felt like something was digging into my heel. Looking at my shoe I could not see or feel anything. With hindsight I should have taken the shoe off and examined it, but I didn’t.

The pain would drift away and then with a particular step would come back with a vengeance! Anyway, I found a way of walking whereby the pain was minimised. It was only after the race when I had got home and was sorting out my kit, that I noticed a piece of hard wood had pierced the sole of my shoe. The Hokas I was wearing have a hard plastic sole which has a gap (for weight reasons) in it. The piece of wood had gone through one of these gaps and pierced the inner cushioning.

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It took pretty much all day to get to the last checkpoint and was dark before I arrived. I caught up with Sharon in the few miles before we got there and we plodded in together.

Sharon was going to take a short rest and head out again fairly quickly. I thought I may as well have a longer sleep and crack on in the morning as I was well inside the time limit.

So after arriving at the checkpoint, I got something to eat and went into the darkened room for another sleep. I was carrying a lighter sleeping bag with me but no mat. I put a thicker bag and mat in the bag for the previous checkpoint so this time was a bit more uncomfortable. The lady running the checkpoint lent me her yoga mat to sleep on which was very kind.

 Leg 5 – 27 miles. Llanwddyn (Lake Vyrnwy) to Welshpool

I spent about eight and a half hours in the checkpoint so I guess I would have slept for about six and a half. Sharon had moved on so I was on my own again when I set off at dawn in my last set of clean running kit.

It had again been raining overnight but had improved slightly by the morning.

Again the terrain was farmland and undulating hillsides, following the valley of the River Vyrnwy heading east. We went through some small villages; Pontllogel, Dolanaog, Pontrobert and Meifod. From there we climbed up and looped around a small lake.

From there we headed south, and it was somewhere here that I met up with Paul. This was quite a surprise as I thought he had retired at Checkpoint 3. Turns out, he had sorted out his work commitments and decided to carry on. He had arrived after me into Checkpoint 4 and left before me, which is why we did not see each other.

Anyway, we decided to walk in together to the finish.

There seemed to be one last hill by a golf course (good news as we must be getting near to a larger population centre). When we got to the top we could see Welshpool in the distance to the east.

It took a while to plod down into town but we eventually made it. The organisers said that the finish was not at the “official” end of Glyndŵr’s Way but just a few hundred metres from it. Paul and I decided to go visit the official end first, but we were disappointed not to find any official markers there on the bridge.

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So we walked back into town and went to the finish.

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So out of the 29 starters, 11 finished and Paul and I were joint 9th. According to my watch I had done 146 miles, 11 more than the official distance. I think 4 or 5 of the extra miles were my own fault for coming off the path and the rest were small diversions to the path and inaccuracies in the GPX file due to both rounding and modifications to the trail on the ground not reflected in the GPX (and sometimes not reflected on the map).

Things I Learned

  1. The cut-offs are quite generous so its possible to finish this with a couple of sleeps, providing you keep moving when out of the checkpoints.
  2. Its Wales in November so its going to be wet and muddy. I knew this already!
  3. Take as much kit as you can, its good to change into fresh kit at the checkpoints.
  4. Although Glyndŵr’s Way is well sign-posted, Navigation at night in the fog can be tricky. Note, the arrows on the signs point, quite accurately, in the direction you need to go, which helps when you can’t see the next sign. A good GPS system accompanied by good map-reading skills are optimal.
  5. Terrain is undulating and not technically difficult. Glyndŵr’s Way is a strange sort of National Trail. Clearly there have been footpaths here for a long time but stitching them together into Glyndŵr’s Way seems somewhat artificial in the sense that the path doesn’t follow geographical routes like the Pembrokeshire Coast Path or follow political lines, like Offa’s Dyke. Anyway, it is a nice, if somewhat lonely, way to see mid-Wales.
  6. There are only a few places en-route that have shops where you can buy things. Worth taking some money but don’t rely on this as a means for getting food or drink.

How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Scott Kinabalu at the start and Hokas at the end was OK, but probably not ideal. Scotts would have been better for the whole race.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times.
  3. Waterproofs. Montane Minimus jacket and Montane Trailblazer trousers. Wore the jacket for the whole race and the trousers just once. Both were fine.
  4. Sealskinz hat and gloves. Worked fine.
  5. Harveys Glyndŵr’s Way map. Generally fine and gives a good overview. Not quite detailed enough in places to navigate by solely though.
  6. Garmin Fenix 3 HR watch. I have used this many times and am quite familiar with it. It generally worked well, with one exception. After it had been running for about 40 hrs I noticed the screen started locking up for 10 to 15 seconds (none of the buttons would work). I stopped and saved the activity and restarted the watch and all was fine after that.
  7. Headtorch Petzl Tikka XP. OK but not as bright as some head torches that were more effective at illuminating the Glyndŵr’s Way signs (which are non-reflective).
  8. WAA MdS pack. 2 x 750ml bottles were fine. Temperatures and exercise intensities are low so sweat levels are also low so this was enough water. This pack is plenty big enough.
  9. Unless you’re planning on sleeping outside you will be sleeping indoors so simple sleeping bags and mats are fine. The floors are wood or stone so choose a mat that works for you in this environment.
  10. Trail food. I took Shot Bloxx, a few energy bars and peanuts. Also, I took a roll and bagel out of each checkpoint with the intention of eating a roll 1/3 of the way to the next checkpoint and the bagel at 2/3 distance.

The Coastal Challenge, Costa Rica, February 2018

About the Race

The Coastal Challenge (TCC) is a 6 stage, trail running race in Costa Rica, starting near Quepos and finishing in Drake’s Bay.

The course is set along Costa Rica’s tropical Pacific coastline but weaves at times into the Talamancas, a coastal mountain range in the Southwest corner of the country.

According to The Coastal Challenge website… “the terrain encompasses jungle and rainforest trails, mountain trail and single track across ridge lines, highlands and coastal ranges; beaches, rocky outcroppings and reefs, river and estuary crossings, and ends in Corcovado National Park, one of the premier rainforest experiences in the world as well as a Unesco World Heritage site. Much, much more. It really defies description!”

The race follows the usual multi-stage format: start Day 1 and run to the end where you’ll find a campsite. Find your bag, find your tent, get some food and recover, go to sleep, wake-up and get some breakfast, pack-up your tent and things and give them to the organisers then set off on Day 2. And repeat until the race is over. There are plenty of checkpoints (called Aid Stations) along the way so all the runners need to carry is water and a bit of food to eat between checkpoints. The trail is marked so no map or navigational device is required.

There are 2 classes of event: Adventure and Expedition. Expedition is the longer version; Adventure covers the same route on the shorter days and does the final part of the Expedition route on the longer days.

I did the Expedition category, which looked like this:

Stage 1 34.6km 1,018m of vert and 886m of descent:


Stage 2 39.1km 1,898m of vert and 1,984m of descent:


Stage 3 47.4km 1,781m of vert and 1,736m of descent:


Stage 4 37.1km 2,466m of vert and 2,424m of descent:


Stage 5 49.8km 1,767m of vert and 1,770m of descent:


Stage 6 22.5km 613m of vert and 613m of descent:


Total 230.5km, Vertical 9,543m, Descent 9,413m

The Particular Challenges of TCC

230km over 6 days in not particularly long by ultra running standards but 6 days of continual running is not to be underestimated. The 9,500m of vertical stands out as challenging and the terrain is quite lumpy and technical in places. The hills can be steep and the jungle paths strewn with fallen trees, rocks, boulders and jungle foliage.

Costa Rica is a tropical country with the area of the race situated about 9 degrees North. February is in the “Dry Season” and apart from a brief shower at one of the campsites we managed to avoid rain all week. Temperatures for the week along the coast are typically low to mid thirties with around 75% humidity.

Sweating and Cooling

Sweating is something you do a lot of in Costa Rica. Under normal circumstances, the human body is typically maintained within a relatively tight temperature range 36.5 – 37.5C. In hot weather, when the skin hits 37C it starts sweating. The more you sweat the greater the cooling effect. The body adjusts the sweat rate to maintain the temperature of the core within the desirable range, upto a maximum rate. If the body is sweating at its maximum rate and the cooling effect is insufficient to dissipate the body’s heat then the core temperature will start to rise and the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke increases. A core temperature of 40C to 41C is considered life threatening.

So how does sweating help the human body cool down? Producing sweat (mainly water) on the skin in itself doesn’t do anything to cool the body but when the sweat evaporates there is a state change from liquid water to water vapour. To undergo the state change energy is required to pull apart the water molecules overcoming the hydrogen bonds holding the molecules together as a liquid. The energy required to do this is called the Enthalpy of Vaporisation, ΔHvap. ΔHvap for water is quite a large number 2,430kj/kg (at 30C). So what this means is that the energy required to evaporate 1kg of water is 2,430 kilo-joules. There are roughly 4 joules per calorie, so the energy required to evaporate 1kg of water is about 600 Kcal. This energy is taken from the skin resulting in the skin being cooled. Blood passing near the skin is also cooled and recirculated through the body, cooling the core. I’m sure it would be more complex if you are wearing clothes; sweat will evaporate from your skin and condense on the inside of the clothing (as well as moving from your skin to the clothing when the two touch), wick to the outside of the material and evaporate again from there. But basically if you assume you and your clothing are in thermal equilibium the cooling effect will be passed to your body even if the final evaporation is from your clothing.

I know from previous tests in a heat chamber than my maximum sweat rate is around 2 litres/hour (2kg/hour). So this implies my maximum sweating cooling rate would be about 1,200 kcal/hour.

The next important point is that sweating rate and evaporation rate are two different things. We’ve all been in the gym on the treadmill when sweat is, literally, dripping off us. Remember, this contributes nothing towards cooling. So, how much sweat actually evaporates?

A proper answer would require some experiments as there are so many factors involved but for fun less take a very simplied view. Water evaporates from an open container according to this equation:

Mvap = \theta.A.(Xs - X)

where:  Mvap = rate of water evaporating in kg/s
\theta = (25 + 19v) where v is the windspeed in m/s
A = surface area
Xs = humidity ratio of saturated air
X = humidity ratio of air

So notice something about \theta. The evaporation rate is very dependent on wind speed. Just a 3mile/hour wind will double the evaporation rate compared to a competely still day. So stand in the breeze for a significant cooling benefit, even on relatively calm days!

So lets assume I behave like an open container without clothes and hair, etc getting in the way of evaporation. And lets assume a calm day with no wind (worst case from a cooling perspective). So, \theta = 25; A = 2 (my surface area is approx 2m^2); at 30C Xs = 0.025 (you can look these numbers up on a Mollier diagram for air if you’re interested). And now, this is where humidity comes in…

Notice the equation for evaporation above includes the term (Xs – X). So, for zero humidity X is zero and the evaporation rate is maximised:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0) = 1.25 kg/hr

This would correspond to running in a very dry area, e.g. a dessert. In these conditions sweat may be evaporating as fast as your body is producing it so you may not even be aware you’re sweating.

Now, look at the other extreme; 100% humidity. In this state, by definition X = Xs so (Xs – X) is zero which means:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0.025) = 0

No evaporation and therefore no cooling! A scenario close to this would be a sauna. There’s plenty of sweating, but its all sat on the skin or dripping on the floor. Your body is trying to cool you down by sweating but the external environment isn’t being helpful.

So lets put in a typical TCC humidity of 75%. At this level X = 0.02, so:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0.02) = 0.25 kg/hr

This is interesting and highlights the challenge of the TCC. In still conditions, although my body may be able to produce 2 kg/hour of sweat, in typical TCC humidity only 0.25 kg/hr will actually evaporate which only contributed 150 kcal/hr of cooling.

Now, of course, there are other ways to cool down, for example, submerging in a cool river, standing in a cool breeze, etc. And, of course, the environment will likely be below body temperature (37C) so you’ll be radiating energy away from the body anyway. But the point is, high humidity significantly nullifies the body’s ability to cool down by sweating.

Day Zero

Checkin for the race was on Saturday at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. I’d arrived in San Jose a few days before this and gone down to the Pacific coast for a bit of acclimatisation. San Jose is at 1,000m of elevation and is significantly cooler than the coast (where the TCC is run).

Heat Adaptation

I stayed in Jaco and did a couple of hikes in the hills, trying to acclimatise without tiring myself out too much. In retrospect, this was OK but probably not sufficient, and here’s why.

There’s plenty of research into heat adaptation some of which is readily available. Below is a time based graph showing how various types of adaptations change over a two week period. These are, of course, generic timeframes. Individuals will vary. The stimulus for adaptation seems to be an elevated core temperature induced by training at a higher temperature. It seems reasonable that the body’s response would vary based on the level of stress, so for example, sitting in the sauna provides a smaller stimulus than light training in the heat which in turn provides a smaller stimulus than more intense training in the heat.

Heat Acclimation

Generally what is quoted is that the majority of benefits of heat acclimatisation occur within 5-7 days with the vast majority occuring with 2 weeks. Decay of the benefits seems equally fast when training in the heat is stopped.

Before arriving in Costa Rica, I went to either hot yoga (1 hour) or the sauna (15 to 20mins) most days for the period 3 weeks out, to 1 week out, from TCC. In the last week I travelled to Costa Rica and spent 3 nights in Jaco (air conditioning turned off) and did a couple of hikes in the hills. So, on the above graph my guess is that I hit the start line around day 2 or 3 on the heat acclimatization graph. Each day of the TCC obviously provided considerable stimulus for heat adaptation (probably 1 TCC day > 1 day on the graph) so I would guess I ended the race around days 10 to 12 (i.e. considerably heat adapted).

Electrolytes

Sodium is critical for the functionaling of cells in the human body. In fact, a very precise concentration is required to faciliate electrical conductivity across cell membranes. The human body has a complex mechanism to maintain this concentration based on the amount of water and sodium it has available. Western diets are rich in salt and the body excretes excess sodium through urine and sweat once reserves are topped up.

One of the adaptations to heat coupled to an increase in sweat rate is a decrease in salt concentration of sweat. The sweat glands re-absorb salt based on how much the body has plus the amount of the hormone aldosterone which is produced in the heat adaptation process.

So, left to its own devices, the body adapts sweat rate and saltiness of urine and sweat to the environment and amount of salt being consumed. So, once adapted, it would seem unnecessary to consume extra salt, provided the body is used to the amount of exercise being performed. However, when one is not fully adapted the body has not adjusted the sodium concentration of urine and particularly sweat to the environment and it likely to be excreting higher amounts of salt which, if not replenished, can result in the body running low with the consequent impact to cell function.

So my strategy was to reduce salt intake for a couple of months ahead of the race and to take 2 S-Caps per hour which is about 3/4g of salt per hour. This seemed to work for me during the race.

Water Intake

This is quite a tricky subject with all the publicity surrounding hyponatremia. Also, at TCC there is a significant risk of dehydration due to the constant large amount of sweating. So, its important to get this right.

Generally I follow drinking to thirst. This works well in conditions I’m acclimatised for. Logically, this makes sense. However, when one races in an environment that one is not acclimatised for the thirst mechanism needs to recalibrate. One of the improvements of heat acclimation is a better matching of thirst to body water needs. So again, once acclimatised, drinking to thirst probably works fine.

My strategy at TCC was to drink 3 mouthfuls every 5 to 10 mins. Its tricky in races to know exactly how much you are drinking as bottles and bladders get topped up at aid stations, sometimes completely, sometimes not. Bladders sometimes get kinked and aren’t full, despite appearing so, etc, etc.

I aimed to start each day fully hydrated and on completion to drink until I started peeing.

Day 1, I started at the 3 mouthfuls every 10mins end of the spectrum and finished the day quite dehydrated (no peeing during the race or for several hours afterwards) so for the rest of the race I went to 3 mouthfuls every 5mins. I varied the size of the mouthfuls slightly based on perceived temperature, i.e. when in the sun, or climbing, I went for larger mouthfuls, when descending in the jungle, for smaller mouthfuls. I think this would have averaged 1 to 2 litres / hour which I was hoping to match my sweat rate. Again, its tricky to know sweat rate, but not peeing at all during a stage is a good indication of not drinking enough.

Registration

Registration was at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose. I signed the disclaimer and got a T-shirt, buff, race number and road book. All good.

I stayed in the hotel overnight as the race organisers had arranged buses for us from the hotel to the start the following morning.

Day 1

Stage 1 34.6km 1,018m of vert and 886m of descent.


Day 1 started at 3am! I got up and checked out of the hotel at 3:30am. I had left my suitcase of things not to take on the race at the hotel the night before as I knew reception would be deluged with people trying to check-out and leave bags in the morning.

We gave our “camp bag” to the organisers who loaded them all onto a lorry which was destined for the campsite at the end of the stage, and got ourselves on the coach heading for the start.

I’d been wondering what had become of the packed breakfast the hotel had promised us. But then someone started shouting out a series of number that sounded like hotel room numbers. When a number was called someone would stick up their hand and make their way to the front of the bus and get a brown package. When I got mine inside was breakfast.

Its a long coach ride to the start of the race. We travelled the same road I’m been on previously to and from Jaco, and carried on to near Quepos. It took about 3 1/2 hours with a couple of stops. The last stop was just a few miles from the start where we waited for what seemed like ages. We were all aware of how hot it was, even just standing in the sun was uncomfortable. Eventually, we got going again and after a few minutes, turned off the highway onto a dirt track heading for the sea. We eventually got as far as the bus could carry us; the bus stopped and we all got off. We has a couple of miles to walk to the start.

The start line was on a deserted beach on the pacific. Beautiful, but very, very hot.

So it was a good time to put some sun screen on, get topped up with water and wait for the start. All the warnings had been issued about the Day 1 start. The first 10 to 12km are pretty flat, on dirt track and runnable. Everyone goes too quickly and there is a significant worry about blowing up.


I decided to run the day conservatively. Firstly, I knew that I was not well adapted to the conditions and secondly I had strained the ligaments in my left ankle 3 weeks earlier and was concerned with protecting the ankle to maximise my chances of a finish.

Having said that, it was HOT, HOT, HOT! It seemed to take forever to get to the first checkpoint (AS1). After that we got introduced to some hills and some Costa Rican jungle. Following the pink ribbons that marked the course was pretty simple. The markings were clear providing you paid attention. The climbs were steep and we were all reduced to a slow shuffle.

I was conscious of protecting my ankle on the descents as much as possible. After the high point of the day we descended to AS2. From there is wasn’t far to the finish. There was another climb in the way though and on summiting we could look down across a river to the Day 1 campsite. It didn’t look far but the descent was quite steep. We came out of the jungle onto a river with the campsite on the other side and slightly down stream.

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On river crossings I get a bit nervous when the water is above mid-thigh level. The deeper the water the larger the surface area you’re offering to the river and the smaller your effective weight is on the river bed due to your legs being buoyant. It all contributes to being swept away. Anyway, this river was deep (chest deep in places) and flowing reasonably quickly. I managed to pick my way through a shallower route and crossed over to the finish line.

And that was Stage 1!

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In camp, we found our camp bag and our tent and set about sorting some things out. I changed to camp clothes, had a recovery shake and some snacks from the food tent and chatted to some of the other competitors. Then I went back to the river and had a wash (I’d missed the showers in camp) and sat with my ankle in the cool water for 10mins. Then I sorted out my kit and reloaded food for the next day.

At 6pm dinner started. Food was always good, plenty of it and easy for runners to eat. The team of cooks did a great job during the week. They were up before the runners, still there when the runners were going to sleep and always had plenty of food and drink available for us.

At 7pm, Rodrigo the race director gave us a briefing on the next day in both English and Spanish. He was always pretty relaxed about things as was in keeping with the whole race. Over the week everything ran well. All the folks on the team had their jobs, seemed to know what they were doing and got on with things. Rodrigo was about as relaxed a race director as I’ve seen! But to put a race like TCC on in latin america takes some organising, so hats off to him and his team.

Day 2

Stage 2 39.1km 1,898m of vert and 1,984m of descent.


From here on in we moved with the sun. We were up between 4am and 4:30am, no need to set an alarm; when the first movers in a tightly packed campsite get up, everyone is awake!

I did not sleep particularly well. It was very hot overnight, certainly no need for a sleeping bag or much clothing. It was also very noisy. The camp was in the jungle and the background noise from cicadas was just astounding!

We had breakfast and packed up our camp bags. I was in a race-organised-tent which the race took down and reassembled for me. For folks with their own tents there was an extra task of disassembly and reassembly to be performed each day. Having your own tent though does give you the advantage of pitching where you want, e.g. away from rocks, in the shade, away from noisy people, etc.

The aim was to start with the dawn, around 5:30. My race started from the campsite; the Adventure category got driven in a bus after we had started to checkpoint AS2 where there waited for the leader of the Expedition category to arrive, at which time they were released and we all ran to the finish of Day 2.

The reason for the early start is that its quite a bit cooler before the sun really starts to heat things up. There is 3 to 4 hours of cooler running to be had at the beginning of the day so the race organisers like to make good use of it.

Day 2 started with a climb out of camp followed by a descent to the first checkpoint. This was more or less repeated for the second climb and descent to the second checkpoint. From there we crossed a main road and headed for the ocean.

We came out in a large bay where a river was running into the ocean. We had to wade across the mouth of the river to get across to the beach. It was only a few miles to the finish from here. The first part was along a sandy path just inland from the beach covered by palm trees. When this path ran out we moved onto the beach. The beach had quite a slope towards the sea here which did not agree with my left ankle very much. Also, it was pretty hot in the sun despite a bit of sea breeze. This last section along the beach was pretty tough and I walking a bit, jogging a bit, etc.

There were a couple more rivers to cross before we arrived at the finish in a campsite just off the beach.

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The campsite was in a small town on the beach. There were a couple of bars and restaurants there.


Camp admin and preparation for the next day was as per the previous day. We were told we’d follow the 4×4 at the start of Day 3 to get us through the small town and across the main road. From then on we would be on our own.

Day 3

Stage 3 47.4km 1781m of vert and 1736m of descent.

Is was still pretty dark when we lined up behind the race director’s 4×4 to start Day 3. The first couple of miles on road got us through town and across a main road and into a river valley. It was fairly flat until the first checkpoint and given that it was relatively cool, we made good progress. The next checkpoint was probably as far as any of the checkpoint gaps for the whole race. There was also a significant climb involved and we were advised to fully fill up with water before leaving AS1. I took 2.5 litres out of the checkpoint.

We were soon into a mixture of dirt tracks and jungle and climbing up and up in the hills. There were some iconic waterfalls to cross today and the scenery was spectacular. Before I completely ran out of water I filled up one half litre flask in a river. I needed that as I arrived into AS2 on empty.
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There was really only one climb today, albeit a large one. After summiting, there were some steep downhills as we returned to the coast. This time there was a longer piece of beach running past something called the Whale’s Tail. It was hard to appreciate this at the time; it looks more impressive from above (see photo). Anyway, as the pink ribbons lead us onto the beach, what looked like the end of the beach was in the distance. Then the pink ribbons stopped which was confusing as this had not happened before (and did not happen again in the race). However, there was no other obvious way to go as inland was just jungle.

As I got nearer to what looked like the end of the beach, it became apparent that this was not the end of the beach. There was another loop of beach extending about as far again as we had just travelled. And still no pink ribbons. I had just reached the point of the beach marking the Whale’s Tail.


A bit further along the beach I could see some flags that looked like the ones the race was using for checkpoints and the finish. This was promising.

At the end of the beach there was a steep climb through the jungle to a main road. From here there were just a few miles of road running remaining, before we turned off onto a dirt track and the campsite finish.
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I managed to keep a shuffle going most of the time today and was clearly getting used to moving in the environment.

The campsite today was just off, yet another, stunning beach. Unfortunately, it was pretty stony. There were monkeys in the trees to keep us amused though.

I discovered a small blister on one of my little toes. Normally I sort these things out myself but decided to go see what the race doctor, Duggie, thought of it. In the queue to see the doctor there were murmurings of discontent. Generally, the advice on blisters is to pop them, extract the fluid, inject some antiseptic and leave them to dry. Duggie had different ideas though. His approach was not to cut the skin but to tape things up. This was what was causing the discontent.

Thinking about it, we were in the tropics and causing wounds that probably would not dry due to the conditions has a number of possible issues associated with it. Duggie had obviously decided that prevention of infection was the primary objective. So he taped up my unpopped blister and sent me on my way.

This was probably my worst night’s sleep. It had been threatening to rain all evening and shortly after going to bed it did start raining. So we put the waterproof cover over the tent. It stopped raining pretty soon but with a double cover on the tent it was blisteringly hot all night and the condensation kept dripping on us.

Day 4

Stage 4 37.1km 2,466m of vert and 2,424m of descent.


Day 4 started with a bus ride in the dark to the start. It was a slightly shorter stage today but the profile was a big climb into the hills, followed by some undulating terrain and a big descent at the end.

What we could not tell from the road book was any details about the terrain. After a couple of miles of dirt track we went into a river valley until AS1. This was great fun, running up against the current and clambering over boulders. Progress was slow but certainly a change from the previous terrain.

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After AS1 there was more climbing to the highpoint of the day through a mixture of jungle paths and more open dirt tracks and paths.

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It was another spectacular day of river running, jungle and rain forest that culminated in a long, steep descent along a narrow jungle path. I started catching up with a few of the folks on the Adventure race which made a nice change from being alone. It was impossible to tell how much of the decent we had left until we broke out of the jungle onto a road and AS4. It was good to have negotiated this descent without significant ankle issues.

From here we had only a few miles to go. Dirt tracks lead to a small town and main road. We crossed a large river on the side of a main road bridge before turning off for a short road run to the finish.
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I felt I finished this stage feeling strong and was coping better with the heat and humidity than on any of the previous days. My ankle was not getting any worse and was not really holding me back except, maybe slightly, on the descents.

I was starting to appreciate how the race team put together the race. Shorter days followed longer, harder days. Early starts mean you get a few hours running in the bag, before the hottest part of the day. The route needs to go from A to B, but also needs to be near roads so the checkpoints can be stocked. Open sections in the sun, are interspersed with jungle sections which are mainly in the shade and therefore cooler. Prolonged open sections are on the beach where there should usually be some sea breeze and always the sea to cool down in.

The finish was not at the campsite so we had a short minibus ride when enough runners had finished to fill the bus. The campsite was next to a river and was probably the most spacious campsite we stayed at. There was a bar/restaurant and a couple of other buildings. On one side was a large river; the minibus driver told us not to swim in it because it had crocodiles. I personally did not spot any here but other runners did.

Day 5

Stage 5 49.8km 1,767m of vert and 1,770m of descent.


Day 5 started with a bus ride before sunrise. We went inland to the village of Sierpe. The bus stopped by a river and we had a ferry across the river to the start on the other side. It took a while as race 4x4s went across first in a couple of trips, before the runners.

We started Stage 5 as the sun was rising. This was a relatively long stage but slightly less overall climbing than yesterday.

As usual, there was a mixture of terrain; dirt roads and paths; single track paths and jungle / rainforest paths. We were told we would be in primary rainforest today with original trees as opposed to secondary rainforest which has been cut down and regrown.

Again the scenery was breathtaking as we traversed the first half of the day through jungle before meeting the coast for the second half. We were told that there would be an estuary crossing by boat and depending on the tide we may need help to cross one other river. The boat crossing on the estuary was mandatory; no swimming allowed here due to crocodiles.

We were told that the boat would take 2 or 3 people and if there were more we would just have to be patient. As I arrived on the beach I could see someone up ahead who was walk/running. I decided to try and catch him up so we could get the boat together so I steadily closed the gap, then he ran a bit more and could have gone on his own in the boat but very graciously waited for me.

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The boat ride was a good rest and the final checkpoint of the day was on the other bank. It was a few miles from here to the final campsite, just off the beach, at Drake’s Bay.

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I really liked this stage and the campsite at Drake’s Bay is billed as a highlight. It’s on the Coronado peninsula and quite close to Panama. Until recently there were no roads into the National Park and it could be reached only by boat or plane. There is a small town there with a few bars and restaurants. The campsite itself is on the school playing field and the race director said the race had good ties with the local community here.

I was running a bit more today and the conditions continued to feel more better as I acclimatised.

Day 6

Stage 6 22.5km 613m of vert and 613m of descent.

Stage 6 was billed as the “Victory Lap”. A much shorter stage than any of the others but covering all the terrain types encountered over the previous five days. “It’s a mini TCC in one stage” said Rodrigo in his briefing.

We set off early, but not as early as the other days. We started on the beach and the local school children lined up to see up off. We went up through the town and were soon running in a river bed. From there to dirt tracks and roads and jungle trails. About halfway through the stage we came out onto the coast and there was the single checkpoint of the day, offering us fresh coconut as well as the usual pineapple, papaya and watermelon.

From there it was back to the start along the beach, running alternately on the beach and just inland as we went from cove to cove.

Towards the end we crossed a river on a bouncy rope bridge. Trying to run across it involved timing steps to the bouncing frequency of the bridge. Eventually I dropped onto the sand for the last time and could see the finish line and the campsite in the distance.

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Although it was a shorter day it was still a fantastic run, finished off with a swim in the sea and clapping in other finishers.

We had plenty of time on the last day to relax as the stage was relatively short. I sorted a few things out and had a look around town. There was a presentation for the winners in the evening after the evening meal and some music into the evening. My tent mate had had enough of me so stayed the final night in a hotel in town, so I had the tent to myself!

The Trip Back to San Jose

After our last night under (metaphorical) canvass we packed up our camp bags for the last time and began our trip to San Jose. It started with a speed boat ride up the coast to the nearest large town.

From there after a delay due to traffic issues we caught a coach back to San Jose, where we were reunited with our bags at the Best Western hotel. The hotel has washing machines and dryers which came in very useful for a sack full of smelly running kit.

Race Analysis

Stage Distance (m) Time Position Pace % time above stage winner
1 20.6 04:58:50 37 14:30 88%
2 24.8 06:41:30 31 16:11 81%
3 29.6 08:29:47 26 17:13 73%
4 22.3 06:40:31 21 17:58 69%
5 28.9 07:01:46 16 14:36 55%
6 14 02:54:42 18 12:29 46%
Overall 140.2 36:47:08 21 15:45 69%

I was pretty happy with my overall performance in the race and the fact that my ankle held up for the six days!

I feel that the six days break up into three groups based on both how I felt and backed-up by stage position and how far off the winner I was each day (last column in the above table);

  • Days 1 and 2 when I was, relatively, struggling with the heat and humidity.
  • Days 3 and 4 when I was getting more used to the conditions
  • Days 5 and 6 when I was feeling much better in the heat and humidity and feel I had more or less adapted

You could say that most of the field would also be acclimatising during the race so maybe the improvement as the race went on is due to other things. I feel this is partly true in that I did start conservatively (due to ankle issues) and inevitably some folks pulled out due to various issues which helped my position and may have made the overall race less competitive. However, I still believe heat acclimatisation played a big part.

Things I Learned

  1. Heat acclimatisation is important for this race.
  2. You need sufficient water. I had an ability to hold 2.5 litres. I drank river water on one occasion needing 3 litres between checkpoints. My salt strategy of 0.75g / hour worked well.
  3. Kit is continually wet from un-evaporated sweat and frequent river crossings. Pick kit that holds minimal water.
  4. This is a well organised race; food is good and plentiful. Logistics all worked out. The race team are very friendly and helpful.
  5. Terrain is quite tough with steep up and downhills.
  6. I was wondering, before the race, whether to download a previous year’s GPX files to my watch but in the end did not do this. If I did the race again I probably would. The pink ribbons are easy to follow but mistakes do get made when you are tired, distracted and not paying attention. There is no primary need for a map or GPS and most people were fine following the ribbons but as a backup having a GPX track to follow would alert very quickly if you missed a turn (assuming the race director does not change the route, of course).

How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Hoka Speed Instinct was good. Light shoes with good drainage suitable for all terrain are a good choice. Scott Kinabalus were probably overkill. If it rained and got muddy they would have worked better.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times. An optimisation would have been a lighter, ankle-length version which would have held less water.
  3. T-shirts were OK – but hold a lot of water. Vests would be better.
  4. Hat. I had a standard baseball style hat with peak. This was fine but an optimisation would have been one without a hole for hair at the back that would have been more effective at scooping up water to pour over my head.
  5. Sunglasses. I took them every day but only wore them on longer, exposed sections like beaches. Could have done without them.
  6. UD race pack. 2 x 500ml bottles at the front and 1,500ml bladder in the back and snacks in the side pockets. All worked fine.
  7. Camp kit. T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops. All fine, bear in mind some campsites are on stony ground.
  8. Sleeping mat. I have an inflatable racing mat. It was fine and I put a very light sleeping bag on top of it for extra cushioning. Since runners do not carry camp kit more luxurious sleeping mats could be taken. I certainly had mat envy on a few occasions!
  9. Tent. I used one from the race team that they assembled / disassembled each day. It was fine. There is an advantage to taking your own tent in terms of where its pitched (shade, away from others, etc.) but you have to do it yourself or find some faster friends to do it for you. If you bring your own then a mesh inner would be best if its not going to rain so there is airflow in and condensation has a way out. If it rains put on the waterproof outer layer.
  10. Trail food. I took a few energy bars and packs of Shot Bloxx with me each day. The checkpoints have fruit (pineapple and watermelon), nuts, biscuits (incl. Jammy Dodgers which turned out to be a particular favourite!). They also have water and an energy drink. You can work out from previous results how long each day will be and match the volume of trail food to that.

What Training would I recommend?

There are plenty of plans available for multi-stage races of 5 or 6 days covering roughly TCC distance so I will not go into anything specific for this here, but just a few points:

  1. The route has a lot of climbing so practice climbs. They are steep. The “flat” sections on the map tend to be undulating in real life.
  2. Descents are steep so practice these. A number of the descents are in jungle with foliage obscuring the ground which is rock and tree root covered. Worth practising for two reasons: firstly you can get quicker by practising however fit you are; secondly, its hard on the feet and legs in ways running on the flat isn’t, so getting them used to this is a good idea.
  3. River crossings. Worth doing a few to get the hang of it and practice spending hours with wet feet. If you have a river with boulders you can scramble along great, but not easy to find.
  4. You need to do some acclimatisation for the heat and humidity if you want to perform optimally. Training for me was in the UK winter so not ideal by any means. I did sauna and hot yoga sessions and arrived in Costa Rica a few days before the race. Ideally, I think getting to Costa Rica three weeks before the race and training hard for the first week and then tapering would be a good setup for me. If you do this the coast is significantly hotter than the Central Valley (San Jose) so base yourself there.

Why do TCC?

The race is well organised. Once you’ve checked-in pretty much everything is done for you. There are no heavy packs to carry as all you need on the trail is water and a few snacks. The climate and terrain is challenging.

All the race communications are in Spanish and English and most Costa Ricans I met spoke at least some English so there aren’t any big language issues.

The vibe around the camp is relaxed and everyone was pretty happy to chat about things from the pro level front runners to folks at the back walking.

It makes for a good holiday; after the race my wife came out to Costa Rica and we travelled around for about a week. There is plenty to see and do, and the country is quite well setup for tourists (obviously in the more remote places things can be basic). We found the people very warm and friendly, and at least at the moment Costa Rica does not have the issues that afflict some other latin american countries that make travel difficult and more dangerous.

Pura Vida!

Dubai Marathon – Friday 23rd January 2015

I decided to run the Dubai Marathon in order to get a qualifying time for Comrades Marathon on 31st May in South Africa. This was one of a relatively small number of marathons at this time of year.

I have run this race a few years ago but since then the route has been altered to keep it out of the centre of the city. It now starts near the Mall of the Emirates and goes along Jumairah Beach Road, doubles back past the start / finish, continues along the seafront until The Palm before looping back to the start / finish. All very flat and only 4 bends to negotiate!

I stayed at the Holiday Inn, next to the Mall of the Emirates and did the 30min walk to the 7am start. There was a few thousand people doing the race but its not as popular as a western city marathon. In general, few Emiratis participate and most folks appeared to be ex-pats living in, or around, Dubai or foreigners like myself. Dubai puts up a  lot of prize money so the elite field is as good as it gets, especially with Ethiopians who sent a plane load of their best athletes.

I was a bit nervous about the cold / flu I was just getting over as well as a problem I had with my stomach / adductors muscles. The cold / flu was getting better and I didn’t have any fever, but I did still have quite a bit of phlegm. The muscle problems had come on over the preceding week and whilst I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the issue had started it was painful enough for me to curtail running during the week before.

Note to organisers at the start (and during the race): not enough porta-loos!

At 7am we got started. I was mid pack.

It became apparent in the first couple of miles that the cold / flu wasn’t going to be a big problem but my stomach / groin was quite painful. I had decided to try and maintain a steady heart rate around 150bpm for the first half and see how I felt after that. This equated to 8min/miles for the first half.

I was disappointed with the pace but didn’t want to push anymore at this point so continued with it. As the road doubled back, we got a good view of the leaders coming past. Looked very much like an Ethiopian training run as a huge group zoomed past. I later learnt that the Kenenisa Bekele pulled out at about 30km with hamstring problems.

My nutrition strategy was a Cliff Shot Blok or date every 15min and a gel every 45 mins. Water stations were every 5km and I just had water at these. Overall the nutrition strategy worked pretty well and I would use it again. I did carry a Cliff Bar but did not eat it.

After halfway, I was getting more bothered by my groin problems. My heart rate dropped a little to 145bpm and my pace to 9min/miles and then to 10min/miles from mile 22 – 25. Whilst my heart rate indicates I could have gone faster, on the day I don’t think I could have. It was a clear day and the temperature was rising into the 20s which I think also would have been a factor in the last hour.

My finishing time was 3 hours 49 mins 50 seconds for 430th man.

IMG_3227After the race, I had a chat with an Eritrean who had come 13th. He seemed pretty pleased with himself (2:10 so he should have been). After that I walked back across Sheikh Zayed Road to the hotel.

Overall, this is quite a good race to do. Its flat and not too crowded. It does get hot after 9 to 10am so for folks finishing then be aware that it will be warm. The race is reasonably well organised but there isn’t much support from the locals (who don’t have a history of running).