Category Archives: Race Report

Snowdonia Trail Ultra

Introduction

The Snowdonia Trail Marathon has four distances; 10k, half-marathon, marathon and ultra. I entered the ultra.

I knew some of the route and it seemed like a good race so I was pleased to be doing it. It starts and finishes in Llanberis in Snowdonia and loops south, anti-clockwise, going to Rhyd Ddu, Beddgelert Forest and Beddgelert, then north east to Nant Gwynant, before continuing north up the valley and round to the west to Pen Y Pass. From there, up Snowdon via the Pig Track and down the Llanberis Path to Llanberis.

I stayed overnight in the Llanberis YHA which was about half a mile outside the town.

Race Start

It was an early start but the YHA was only a 10 minute walk from the start so that was convenient. I got there just after 6am and the race brief was at 6:15am.

As I stood at the start line, I noticed that one of my water bottles had sprung a small leak. This was annoying but the leak was only minor so I resolved to drink from that one first and just see how things went.

The race started at 6:30am and we set off through Llanberis, then past the YHA and up onto the hill.

It was a cool day with some lowish cloud but the visibility was OK, perfect running conditions as it was not particularly hot and there was not much wind.

The path was very good and the first couple of miles quickly passed. The first water stop was at about 2 miles which I didn’t bother stopping at.

We came out to a railway line at Rhyd Ddu.

We were quickly onto the next checkpoint where I topped up with water. They gave me some cling film to wrap up my leaking bottle. I wasn’t very convinced that this would be much use but I gave it a go. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t having any effect; so I would just have to put up with a leaking bottle.

From here we went round a lake headed for Beddgelert Forest.

There were a few miles in the forest and some quite boggy sections along with some less used paths.

We had quit a long climb across some rough ground.

When we got to the top, there was a steep descent that started on rocky, narrow trail, before turning to fire trail. As we descended down into the valley we found the railway line again.

Somewhere around here the ultra and marathon routes merged and there was suddenly a lot more people about.

Beddgelert to Pen Y Pass

We went through Beddgelert and another checkpoint and from there continued along the valley towards Nant Gwynant. I knew this area quite well.

There was another checkpoint at the far end of Nant Gwynant. It marked the start of the climb upto Pen Y Pass.

I had started to feel quite bad somewhere between Beddgelert and Nant Gwynant. My stomach was not feeling good so I slowed the pace down and waited for it to pass.

It was walking upto Pen Y Pass. It seemed to take a while to get there but I eventually did. I topped up with water at the checkpoint there and started out on the Pyg Track. As it was a Sunday there were plenty of people going up as well as coming down.

Pen Y Pass to Llanberis

I was feeling a bit better but still not great so I just took it steadily here and reached the top.

The actual summit of Snowdon was in cloud but the top of the Pyg Track was clear so we had great views. We picked up the Llanberis Path which follows the Snowdon Mountain Railway and started jogging down.

Initially my legs weren’t intereted in jogging but they eventually began to play. There was one more checkpoint part way down the path. After a quick stop I continued on, past the stone cafe and down towards Llanberis.

As we came off the hill, onto road, I could hear the sound system at the finish in the town. We levelled out and at a junction turned right, away from town. We had a small loop past Dolbadarn Castle before looping around and back to the finish.

Summary

The race was 37miles and took me 8 hours 54 minutes. I was 82nd of 155 starters / 147 finishers.

There was a nice medal and tee-shirt at the end.

Granfondo Stelvio Santini

The Granfondo Stelio Santini takes place in the Italian Dolomites around the town of Bormio. In 2019 it was held on the 2nd June. The profile of the race is as follows:

There are three major climbs in the race: the Teglio (400m+ over 6km) which is the least well known as well as being the shortest and easiest; the Mortirolo (1,200m over 12km) which has the reputation of being one of the most difficult climbs in road cycling and the Stelvio (1,530m over 21km) which is the biggest and most famous (but not as steep as the Mortirolo).

In the run upto the race the Giro d’Italia had been in the area a couple of weeks earlier, and although the Stelvio was not on this year’s race, one of the nearby high passes, the Gavia was on the route. Unfortunately, there was still plenty of snow around 3,000m and the Giro did not go up the Gavia but did do the slightly lower Mortirolo. So the question was, would the Stelvio Pass be open in time for the race?

Preparations

I flew to Milan (Malpensa) from Cardiff via Amsterdam. I would have preferred not to change planes when travelling with my bike to minimise the chances of “things happening” but in this case, given the dates, I had no choice.

I was disappointed but not entirely surprised when my bike did not appear in Milan. So, after a while I found the baggage information for KLM and started the process of trying to track it down. It was still in Amsterdam. I decided to wait at the airport for it, although the baggage staff could neither confirm not deny whether it would be on the next plane!

So I went to sort my car hire out. As it turned out my bike was not on the next flight from Amsterdam but may be on the one after that. So I waited around. Eventually (after waiting 5 hours) my bike arrived.

So i packed everything into the hire car and drove to Bormio where I was planning to stay for the race.

Registration

After breakfast on the Saturday I walked across town to register for Sunday’s race. I got there early and the process was very quick (about 5 mins). So I walked back to the hotel with the intention of assembling my bike and going for a ride.

The organisers had been warming us upto to the idea that the Stelvio Pass may not be open for the race and that another climb may be substituted for it. Then they made the call that we would not be doing the Stelvio and the Cancano climb would be substituted for it. So I thought I would ride up here to check it out and see what the temperature was like at the top.

Shake-Out Ride

So, back at the hotel I started assembling my bike only to find that the fixing that attaches the rear derailleur to the bike frame had been broken in transit.

So I asked in the hotel for a bike shop and they gave me directions. Obviously the shop was extremely busy with people getting their bikes fixed up for tomorrow’s race. As it happened they did not have an exact match for the broken component but recommended another shop out of town.

This shop did have the part and fitted it for me. I drove back to the hotel with my repaired bike.

So I headed out for the shake-out ride.

The Cancano climb was a steady one and with the sun out it was hot. The climb had a fairly consistent gradient and consisted of a series of switchbacks up the side of a mountain to a plane at the top where the road ran out and there was a couple of lakes.

After descending back towards Bormio I decided to have a look at the base of the Stelvio Pass as it was nearby.

As it was pretty warm at the top of the Cancano I decided to just wear the organisers shirt for the race and not to carry other layers (the forecast for race day was the same as today… hot!).

Race Day

I wondered down to the start with my bike and found the correct coloured entrance. I hung around towards the back of the pack as I wasn’t particularly bothered about timings.

The Start to Teglio

Most people were wearing a couple of layers or arm warmers as it was an early start and the sun was not yet shining in the valley. The first 45km were more or less downhill as we descended the valley from Bormio.

I have to say, it was pretty cold on the way down, but we eventually got to the bottom of the Teglio climb.

It started off reasonably gradually and averaged about 9% I think. There were some steep sections that went upto 18%. We made to the town where there was a checkpoint to get some water and something to eat.

It was good to get the first climb done and after a short stop, I was on my way again, rolling down the other side of the hill. It was quite a fast descent and we ended up braking hard at the bottom to cross a busy road.

Then there were about 20km of rolling terrain to the next checkpoint at the base of the Mortirolo.

It was a chance to fill up both water bottles and prepare for what was next.

The Mortirolo

Setting off again from the checkpoint we soon reached the base of the Mortirolo, indicated by a right turn and a very small sign.

The riders in front soon disappeared into the forest and it was clear that this climb would mostly be hidden. Under the trees it was relatively cool, which was a good thing.

The climb is just under 7 miles at an average gradient of 11%. But there are some sections that are much steeper than this; more on this later.

I settled into the climb and planned to take it steadily. From watching the Giro, I knew that the steepest section was in the middle of the climb and that towards the end the gradient slackened off a bit.

The road was quite narrow, wide enough for a car, or about 3 riders in parallel. The climb was relentless after the first kilometre or so with no flatter parts to take a breather. There were kilometre markers to the top and they ticked away slowly.

The expected ramp up in the middle did not really happen. The road was steep, but not noticeably steeper than before. When we reacher the 6km to go marker I was pleased that things should start to flatten off shortly.

5km to go came and went and on we climbed; then 4km to go. At 3km to go the road flattened off and there was some downhill. I didn’t remember this from the Giro but now there was only 2km to go. I rounded a corner and was back into a steep climb.

I realised afterwards that the Giro had ascended the Mortirolo from a slightly different direction so my knowledge of the profile was completely wrong! Doh!

The way we were going up, they had saved the steepest part till the end.

It says on the above graphic that the max gradient was 22% and over a kilometre or so that is probably accurate but within that there was steeper ramps.

As we hit a very steep ramp, most of the people in front were unclipping and I saw a couple of people fall off.

I knew I didn’t have far to go, but each peddle stroke was a struggle. I managed to keep going and we went through a small group of huts. We were out of the forest so must be near the top.

I rolled over some mud, just at the top of a pedal stroke and as the rear wheel spun on the mud I came to a standstill. Fortunately, I just managed to get moving again before toppling over and shortly after that we were back in the trees. Up ahead I could see a group of stationary riders – the top!

From the summit, it was a long fast descent. The road on the descent was bigger, wider. I think this is the one the Giro normally uses, which makes sense from a support vehicle perspective.

The views were better on the descent as we went through less woodland. At the bottom was another checkpoint which was good as I was getting low on water and it was getting hot now that we were out of the forest.

Back to Bormio and the Cancano Climb

After the checkpoint the next section was undulating as we made our way back up the valley towards Bormio. It was very hot now, with little breeze, and this was probably the least interesting section of the course.

We arrived back at the town of Bormio and another checkpoint. This was the last one. After this, we set off for the Cancano climb (the replacement for the Stelvio).

I had done this route the previous day so it was familiar. It’s a nice climb, but it was a shame to miss out on the iconic Stelvio. The Cancano is just over 5 miles at an average 7%. So gradient wise it’s quite similar to the Stelvio, but much shorter.

There is a pair of towers at the top of the climb and a small tunnel. From here the sealed road ended and we had a couple of kilometres to travel on a dirt road to the finish.

So it was good to get to the finish.

I had a small break at the top before rolling back to Bormio.

Conclusions

  1. The race was well organised. It isn’t too big and whilst I rode with others most of the time there weren’t so many people that it felt crowded.
  2. Bormio itself is a nice town and well suited to cycling and running (from what I could see). The people were very friendly and helpful, and used to outdoor sports.
  3. The Mortirolo is very challenging. Its the most challenging hill I’ve ridden by a long way. I used a 34 and probably would not have made it without this.
  4. Shame about the Stelvio being absent from this year’s race but that’s how it goes. Maybe I will return to get the full experience!

Exodus

About the Race

The Exodus Race is a 100 mile single-stage race in the Brecon Beacons. It starts on the west of the Beacons in Llangadog and travels east along the Beacons Way to Abergavenny.

The timetable for the event was as below:

I drove to the finish at Abergavenny and left my car in the car park there and took a coach, laid on by the race organisers, to the start in Llangadog.

The race allows each competitor to leave a drop-bag at each checkpoint. The important point to remember is that after the drop-bag have been accessed at the checkpoint it is 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.

Beacons Way

The route was along the Beacons Way, west to east, except for the checkpoints that were in buildings like Youth Hostels, just off the route.

I know the Brecon Beacons quite well but have not been on all the route. I probably know the central section the best, then the western side and have not spent much time on the eastern side.

The Plan

My plan was to take this race fairly steadily and not to push things too hard. I knew that the weather was forecast to be bad; very wet and windy, so I was prepared for this. I assembled all the kit and food according to the plan I had produced.

My checkpoint strategy was to try to minimise time in the checkpoints. I would just get something to eat, change batteries in my electronics, change socks (and possibly shoes), reload food and water for the next leg and set off.

Check-In

Check-in was a simple process in Llangadog. I deposited my various bags with the race organisers and got my race number, GPS tracker, map and a hi-viz jacket! Then there was a race briefing before we walked outside to the start of the race.

Leg 1 – Llangadog to Llanddeusant, 22 miles

The start was at 7pm on Friday evening. Given it was December it was dark and the forecast was for wet and windy weather. As we walked to the start I fired up my GPS unit and my watch.

For some reason my GPS was playing up and would not load the route. As I fiddled with it, the race started and everyone ran off.

So I was jogging along fiddling with my GPS whilst watching the line of head torches disappear up the hill in front. I then realised that my watch’s GPS did not appear to be working either. This was not good!

So I decided to reboot all electronics.

I think I must have loaded the wrong segment on my watch (I had loaded each segment as a separate track on my watch) as this time all seemed good. I have no idea what was wrong with my GPS unit, but the reboot seemed to fix things and it was working normally now.

The first section was muddy footpaths through farmland. We were climbing as well. Llangadog is in a valley, and we were climbing up into the Beacons towards the Black Mountain.

There was some road and paths before we got into the Beacons park proper. The weather was still OK and there were a few people around. We went past the village of Bethlehem and continued south towards Trap. As I got near to Carreg Cennen Castle I past a farmer walking with his three sheep dogs. I got a nip from one of the dogs which was not good.

From here it was climbing up onto the Black Mountain. There is not much path here and it was eyes down onto the GPS for much of this section. The rain had started by now and as we got higher so the wind picked up.

After a while we came off the hills onto road and started descending. It was a few miles of undulating tarmac to the first checkpoint at Llandeusant. As is always the case the first checkpoint was quite busy but I found a seat, got something to eat and changed the batteries in my head torch and GPS.

I went to change my socks only to discover a packing failure. I was wearing toe socks where left and right is very important as you simply cannot wear a right sock on the left foot and vice versa. I pulled out the pair of socks from the drop bag to find two right socks. So, all I could do was change the right sock.

I was not finding the poles I was carrying very useful so I left them in my drop bag.

Leg 2 – Llanddeusant to Brecon Beacons YHA (near Storey Arms), 25 miles

I did not stay long at Llandeusant and was soon out of the door onto the second leg. I was with a younger guy who was not very confident with navigation so we were moving together.

We had a small amount of tarmac at first, out of Llanddeusant, before some muddy paths over farmland before we were back into the Beacons proper. The route was staying low around the northern side of Llyn Y Fan Fach and Llyn Y Fan Fawr, avoiding the higher ground of Banau Sir Gaer and Fan Brycheiniog.

We could just about see the water in Llyn Y Fan Fach as we crossed the northern shore and headed over to Llyn Y Fan Fawr, skirting the northern shore before following the water’s edge south, along the eastern side.

Then it was south off the hill into the Swansea Valley and across the A4067 just north of Pen Y Cae and the caves at Dan Yr Ogof. I made a slight navigation error here and missed the turn off through the graveyard, but soon corrected the mistake.

There were some reasonable paths here as we first traversed some lowland areas along the Swansea Valley, before starting to climb again. Eventually we joined the old Roman Road, Sarn Helen, that took us northeast.

It was starting to get light now and along the Sarn Helen we passed the Maen Madoc burial stone.

We had caught up with Iain who I knew from other races like Cape Wrath and Dragon’s Back. So we talked about these races a bit, as well as races we had coming up in the future.

We dropped down to cross a small road and then climbed back up to Fan Llia. It had been raining hard all morning and my waterproof gortex gloves were now waterlogged. The wind was strong causing my fingers to go numb with the windchill, so I took the gloves off which did improve things.

I was on my own again as I circled around towards the A470. I know this area quite well but had never seen the underpass beneath the road near the Storey Arms. But it was there!

Checkpoint 2 was off the Beacons Way in a youth hostel back towards Libanus. Initially the path was good but there were some seriously muddy fields to cross to get the CP!

I did the usual at the CP; got something to eat and drink, replaced batteries and loaded up my rucksack with food and water for the next stage.

As I pulled a pair of socks from my drop bag I found, unsurprisingly, two left socks. So I changed my left sock. At least at the next checkpoint the socks in the drop bag should be a left and a right.

Leg 3 – Brecon Beacons YHA to Crickhowell, 26 miles

I left the checkpoint fairly promptly and slithered back the way I had come across the muddy fields until I was back on the path. Feet were soaked again so changing sock was a bit of a waste of time.

From here we climbed up to near the summit of Corn Du, before breaking away and going up Pen Y Fan. It was very windy now, so when I got to the summit, I quickly got across to Jacob’s Ladder on the far side to start descending.

There where two routes advertised. A normal route summiting Fan Y Big and a bad weather route keeping to the Roman Road along the Neuadd Reservoirs. We were advised at the last Checkpoint to follow the bad weather route.

From the Roman Road I headed round to the eastern side of the Talybont Reservoir before heading east towards Llangynidr. From here Crickhowell is not too far away to the east, but the route we were following took us on a big detour to the north before swinging around south and back to Crickhowell.

It had got dark again long before I got to the Checkpoint. I did the usual checkpoint admin process and then closed my eyes and put my head on a table for a few minutes cat-nap. This didn’t work, so I found some camp beds behind a screen so I laid down for a few minutes. I did not sleep for very long, just a few minutes I think, but I was dawdling at the checkpoint.

My feet were starting to show a few signs of becoming waterlogged, which was not too surprising at they had been constantly wet since the start. My shoes were starting to hurt as well. I did think of changing from the Scotts to Hokas. I knew the Hokas would offer a little more cushioning but would not be as grippy as the Scotts on the mud. So I stayed with the Scotts.

After that, I got ready, changed both socks, and set off into the darkness again.

Leg 4 – Crickhowell to Abergavenny, 27 miles

This section was a big loop, firstly north, then east and then south back to Abergavenny. I was not very familiar with the majority of this section although I did know the final hill.

There was a sharp climb out of the checkpoint through farmland, before I dropped down to cross a couple of small roads. Then a repeat as we continued to travel north. We dropped off the hill into the village of Llanthony. Somewhere around here was an unmanned checkpoint. We were advised we did not have to dib into it, as it had some sort of proximity device to record us passing.

It was getting light and the weather was improving.

The next climb was up to Hatterrall Hill. I was now moving south towards the finish. I dropped off the hill and there was a bit of a lowland road section to traverse.

I was somewhat familiar with this area. The last hill was Skirrid, which I knew. In the past, I had taken a wrong turn off the road onto the hill and for some reason (tiredness probably) I did the same again. This was annoying and it took me some time to retrace my steps to sort it out.

Skirrid is quite steep so it took a while to get to the top. There was the second unmanned checkpoint somewhere at the top. I did not see it. I came off the hill through a wood and was now on the outskirts of Abergavenny.

There was a couple of miles still to go. This was a combination of roads and a golf course. And then I was at the finish!

I made it 107 miles in 41 hours 17 minutes. I did make a couple of navigation errors that may have added an extra mile or two.

Statistics for the race were: 55 signed up; 43 showed up at the start; 19 finished. I came 10th.

Things I Learned

  1. Its Wales in December so its going to be wet and muddy. We had pretty bad weather with a lot of rain and high winds.
  2. Take as much kit as you can, its good to change into fresh kit at the checkpoints (all my waterproof gear leaked to some degree).
  3. The Beacons Way is sign-posted but in places not that well. Most of the route has a reasonable path to follow but there are some less used section like the Black Mountain where there is not much of a path on the ground.
  4. Terrain is undulating and generally not technically difficult. It is mainly hilly rather than mountainous.
  5. There are not many places outside Checkpoints to buy things so you have to support yourself between CPs.
  6. Pair up toe-socks carefully to ensure a pair really is a pair!

How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Scott Kinabalu was good at these perform well on mud. Feet were quite painful at the end though.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times.
  3. UD Fastpack 15L backpack worked well and was plenty big enough.
  4. Waterproofs. Montane Ajax jacket and Montane Trailblazer trousers. Wore the jacket for the whole race and the trousers for the second half. Both leaked to some extent but given the amount of heavy rain I was happy with both.
  5. Sealskinz hat. Worked fine.
  6. Trekmates gortex gloves. Became waterlogged and useless. Changed to Sealskinz gloves and the same thing happened. Simply need multiple pairs.
  7. Garmin eTrex 30x. Worked fine after the initial problems at the start.
  8. Garmin Fenix 3 HR watch. Worked well.
  9. Organiser map. I had a couple of looks at the map inside at the checkpoint to get an overview of what was coming up but did not look at the map on the course. Navigating by map and compass would have been very difficult given the weather and the fact that a lot of this race occurs at night.
  10. Headtorch Ledlenser H14.2. Heavy so need to get used to it but worked well in the conditions. The light beam is big and bright and the batteries last all night.

The Spine

What is The Spine?

The Spine is a point to point traverse of the Penine Way, starting in Edale in Derbyshire and travelling north to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, 268 miles away.

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There are 5 checkpoints along the way at: Hebden, Hawes, Middleton, Alston and Bellingham. There are three x.5 checkpoints which are not really checkpoints but timing points where you can stay 30minutes and get water. No food nor access to your drop bag is allowed. In addition, there are several other small villages and points of interest that the route passes through.

Race Format

Its a single stage race with five checkpoints where competitors have access to a 20kg drop bag as well food, water, sleeping and medical facilities.

There is a 168 hour time limit (7 days) with corresponding cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. You can sleep at the checkpoints and along the route. The race starts 8am Sunday so you have until 8am the following Sunday to get to Kirk Yetholm.

The route is not marked by the race (except near checkpoints which are off the Pennine Way). The Pennine way itself is a national trail and is marked although not well enough to navigate by these marking alone.

Preparation

Preparation for the race had not been ideal. I did a 100 mile race in November with the aim of taking it steadily and using it to test out some new kit. Shortly after the race, however, I developed very painful sciatica which significantly impacted my running. So I did very little training in November and December.

I pulled together all the info I thought I’d need in a spreadsheet. The mandatory kit was the most extensive of any race I’d done before. Not only were the kit items listed but extensive guidance on each item of kit was provided, e.g. sleeping bag ratings, mat sizes. I had not put much effort into reducing kit size of weight and consequently my pack was about 9kg without water so I was due to spend the week carrying between 10 and 11kg along the Pennines.

The organisers had supplied several GPX files of the route. I loaded them as sections between checkpoints and added a few waypoints for interesting items along the way. The race is a little unique in that competitors need to be self sufficient between checkpoints but can use shops, cafes, pubs, etc. along the way. It is quite difficult for newcomers to get a complete list of these unofficial aid points; folks who have done the race before seem to  build their own list. Anyway, I added waypoints for aid points that I managed to scavenge from discussion on the facebook forum.

One thing was clear though, distances between CPs is very large so I would need to carry a lot of stuff. My strategy was to try and sleep only at the CPs and eat the food provided at the CPs and just eat snacks in between. I decided to minimise sleep as much as possible.

Registration

I arrived in Edale on Saturday morning and checked in, picking up race number 140. I had the privilege of a “full kit check” because of my race number, whatever that meant.

I chatted with a few other competitors that I knew and then decided to have a look around Buxton in the afternoon.

In the evening I checked into the Edale YHA and arranged to have dinner with Gwynn and Marcus. Back in the YHA it turned out that I was rooming with Steve who I knew from other races such as the Rebellion.

Section 1, Edale to Hebden. 45.9miles 2,442m.

We got up at 6am and had breakfast at the YHA. I gave Steve a lift down to the start in Edale and we got our trackers fitted and waited around until just before 8am when we walked down to the start in a field next to the car park.

At 8am we setoff. It was windy and had started to rain.

We climbed out of Edale and soon hit Jacob’s Ladder on the way up onto Kinder Scout. There were plenty of people around and I settled into a pace set by those in front. It was very windy up on top and quite cold. Past Kinder Downfall and eventually onto Bleaklow Moor. In the main the navigation here was quite straightforward as I was just following people.

I saw someone in front of me slip over and sit on one of his poles; which of course broke.

We started to descend to Torside and the water station next to the reservoir.

I noticed that I was feeling lethargic. I put this down to the 100 miler I had done a few weeks before. The felling persisted for the first 48 hours of the race then I did not notice it after that.

This was also the first race I have ever done in glasses; I usually wear contact lenses. Going into the strong headwind with heavy rain it was really difficult to see where I was going. With all the water on the lenses of my glasses I could just about make out where to put my feet but following the path was difficult and navigation very difficult. I fell into just following the person in front. This is not the best idea but did work until the rain lessened.

After that we rounded the reservoir and tracked along the far side for a bit before starting to climb back onto the moors, coming out onto Wassenden Moor. There was a good path of flagstones here so progress was good.

We crossed the A62 where I was expecting at least some water but it got confusing with an aid station for another race that had setup at the road junction. The marshals were not keen to give us any water with “nothing for you here, move along”. I was not particularly bothered as I had enough water.

Next up was another moor section ahead of the M62 crossing. Here I was expecting a burger van. Unfortunately I think I was too late and there was no burger van. There were some folks offering water so I took some.

So, on we went across the very windy footbridge across the M62 and across another moor. There is a pub called the White House Pub which was closed but some folks had setup a small tent with some supplies, tea, coffee, water and snacks. It was nice to stand out of the wind for 5 minutes and resupply.

After a while the lights of Hebden Bridge came into view. The first checkpoint was a little past the town and slightly off the Pennine way.

The detour off the Pennine way is quite narrow and with all the traffic, very muddy and slippery. But we eventually arrived at CP1.

I got my drop bag given to me, handed in my running shoes and poles and sorted out some kit. The CP was very busy and there was not much space to spread anything out and my top opening rucksack and drop bag were not the best in this confined situation.

I ordered and ate some food and prepared to get some sleep. I went into the sleep area with a sleeping bag from my drop bag (which is lighter and more suitable to sleeping indoors that the one i carried in my rucksack). The sleeping area was very hot so I lay on the sleeping bag.

I set my phone to alarm in 2 hours and charged both my watch and phone.

I didn’t sleep much and remember being awake. I estimate I only slept 30-45 minutes of the 2 hours.

When my alarm sounded I got up and ordered some breakfast. I changed the batteries in my GPS and head torch, packed up my kit, reclaimed my shoes and poles and set off on section 2.

Section 2, Hebden to Hawes, 61 miles 3,195m

This is a tough section. Its long and hilly, but there are some unofficial aid stations along the way. Also, there is the official CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn. The x.5 CPs are not really checkpoints. You have a max stay of 30 minutes before you are asked to move along and whilst water is available there is no food, you have to eat your own.

So we setoff from Hebden and retraced our way back up the narrow, muddy path. I was travelling with Colin who was reasonably familiar with the area which helped. I can’t quite remember when but Will joined us and we moved as a three.

We kept climbing and Colin kept mentioning Top Withens. On Wadsworth Moor we came across a deserted farmhouse, Top Withens, which is said to have been the inspiration for the location of the Earnshaw family house in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

We went inside and sat down for a 5 minute catnap.

We descended off the moor and saw a sign for a cafe just off the Pennine Way, so we decided to see if it was open. The night had passed and it was now morning so we were hopeful. And yes, it was open! So we had breakfast.

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After breakfast, we went back to the Pennine Way and continued onto Ickornshaw Moor.

The sun came out periodically and the rain had stopped. The wind has lessened a bit as well so this section was quite pleasant.

From here we dropped down to Cowling but there was not much there for us so we continued onto Lothersdale. The pub in Lothersdale was closed but a local triathlon club has setup an aid station so we sat there for a while and ate and drank their fayre – which was very nice of them.

After Lothersdale we joined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal for a bit. This is an interesting bridge. Looks like they built the bridge then needed to raise the road and build another bridge on top of the first.

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it was a few miles cross-country to the village of Gargrave which had a Co-op. We bought a supply of ready to eat food and drink and sat outside eating it. It was getting dark and with it, getting quite cold. I was pleased to get moving again.

Next up was Airton, then Malham, but we did not stop. We were aiming for the CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn, north of Malham. This was a checkpoint that was not a checkpoint.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Malham Tarn. Will and Colin were unsure whether to try and sleep at Malham Tarn or continue. I was keen to continue. We thought we’d see how long we could stay at the CP, but they were onto us and after half an hour someone came round to point out we had to move on.

Colin and I decided to carry on. Will needed some sleep so he decided to bivvy down outside the CP on a verandah.

As soon as we left the checkpoint that was not a checkpoint, at Malham Tarn, it was obvious that the weather had changed. The wind had strengthened and it started raining. We started climbing towards Pen Y Ghent.

Pen Y Ghent is a well known hill in the area. Most people seem to translate it as Hill of the Wind or something similar. In modern welsh this would be Pen Y Gwynt. Apparently it could also mean Hill of the Border or refer to a particular tribe.

As we climbed so the wind and rain increased and so our group of 2 grew bigger and bigger numbering about a dozen. People  were becoming concerned about traversing Pen Y Ghent in these conditions. I did not have much of a view not having been up before. In the end Colin decided to try and call race HQ and see what they thought, but neither he nor anyone could get a phone signal.

So there was a lot of indecision. Colin went off to try and get a phone signal, the rest of the group continued on thinking the decision was to avoid and the summit and skirt around the lower ground.

I waited for Colin for a bit then went off to try and find him. The visibility was very low and I did not find him. So I set off on the route again. After a short while I came across the rest of the group sheltering in a farm building.

The group decision was to avoid the summit so I thought I would stick with the group. After a while, however, it became clear that folks doing the navigation were not clear on the route to avoid the summit so we passed up and down the same path a few times. Eventually, we found the path to descend the other side of Pen Y Ghent and after a while came out in Horton in Ribblesdale.

There is a cafe here (the Pen Y Ghent or PYG Cafe) that stays open 24hrs during the Spine race so we took the opportunity to order some food and drink and rest a while. I had only been in the PYG Cafe 5 minutes when Colin walked in. So he had eventually got through to Race HQ who said Pen Y Ghent was fine so he had gone over it. I picked up a 1 hour penalty for missing the summit.

After the PYG Cafe, we set off again. The weather was improving as we moved along Cam Fell. Eventually we started to drop down to Hawes. It was a long and muddy descent into the town and CP2.

We were all very tired when we arrived at the CP.

I handed in my shoes and poles and had some food and drink. Then I sorted some kit out and prepared for a sleep. There were bunk beds here so no need for a sleeping bag.

I planned for a 2 hour sleep here and found an empty bunk. As I was drifting off, it became apparent that one of my fellow Spiners had the loudest snore that I have ever heard. In both the human and animal kingdom. This snore was not just loud; it was deafeningly laud. I have no idea how this guy was not waking himself up with each breath; but unfortunately he was not.

After a couple of minutes it became apparent that I was not going to be able to ignore this noise. I was just about to get up and go find another room to sleep in when someone else had the same idea and noisily got up, moved about and left the room, slamming the door behind him. This seemed to wake snory guy up as the snoring stopped. I fell asleep.

My alarm went off after 2 hours. My estimation is that I had slept for about 1.5 hours.

I got up and had some breakfast. I also thought I would get a medic to have a look at my feet as I was having trouble with blisters on the little toes of both feet. I was wearing toe socks which I am normally OK with but the very wet underfoot conditions I think were causing more wear and tear than normal. I think if I were to do the race again, waterproof socks would be the way to go.

The medics did a good job of dealing with the blisters and taping up my feet a bit.

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I sorted out some more kit, packed it all up and prepared to set off. I had arranged with Colin to set off at 3pm and had got up at 2:25 but had not seem him. I asked a couple of folks but nobody had seen him. So either he could not sleep and had already left, or was still sleeping. I decided to set off on my own to make use of the hour or so of daylight.

Section 3, Hawes to Middleton, 33.7 miles 1,871m

The first section was a big anti-clockwise loop over Thwaite Common to the village of Thwaite. There is a cafe here, but it was dark when I arrived and the cafe was closed. So I continued on with a steep climb before starting to contour along a river valley. Somewhere along here I missed the path and found myself too high and had to shimmy down and a steep bank. Back on the path I went up onto Stonesdale Moor. It was raining hard again now.

I was moving well on this section which was slabbed in the main. The moor was quite bleak but eventually the lights of the Tan Hill Pub came into view (the highest pub in England).

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The kitchen was closed but they did me tomato soup, cake and 1 pint of coke.

My feet were beginning to swell and getting going after the Tan Hill Pub was a little difficult. Not helped by getting a few hundred meters out of the pub before discovering I had left my poles there!

I don’t remember much about the next section except that the flag stones ran out and the ground was very boggy and therefore progress was slower. Eventually, I arrived at Middleton and CP3.

It was the usual checkpoint process but I decided to go for 3 hours sleep rather than 2.

On waking up, I had breakfast, did the necessary admin and prepared to setoff again. I then saw Colin just arriving at the CP. He said he had overslept at Hawes. I also saw Will who said we had slept at Malham Tarn for an hour or two and felt fine so had continued and was obviously doing very well.

Section 4, Middleton to Alston, 38.5 miles 2,002m

Setting off from Middleton, the Pennine Way heads west towards Dufton. The first part of the route is quite straightforward along the River Tees and some rapids.

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The weather had improved again and the sun was out, so all was well. As I followed the River Tees so the terrain became more and more remote. Some quite long scrambling sections followed that were slow going. The light was fading so I was keen to get as far as I could before night settled in.

After quite a while I came to Cauldron Snout which is scramble next to a cataract upto the Cow Green Reservoir. At this point I got out my head torch and prepared for nighttime.

The next section was fairly easy to travel and then we arrived at High Cup which, by daylight is supposed to be a spectacular view. Visibility was low when I got there and staying on the path at the top not easy. The path got easier further down, though, and was easy to follow to Dufton. I met up with Carlos and Ken and we started travelling together.

Checkpoint 3.5 was in Dufton. It was another of the x.5 checkpoints, that are not really checkpoints. Just before the CP, was a cafe that was open. We jumped in for a meal which was great.

They were just closing up so one more Spiner got in before the cafe closed.

After the cafe we moved along to the checkpoint. We only stopped there a few minutes.

After Dufton the path is very muddy as it heads north and starts to climb. The is the climb to Cross Fell the highest point on the Pennine Way, at 893m. The weather was getting worse and we were told in Dufton to expect high winds, snow and -18C at the top. It did not disappoint. I was struggling to get moving after the stop at the cafe and Carlos and Ken pulled away from me.

At the top I saw a head torch and headed over thinking I was near Gregg’s Hut. It turned out to be a guy called Javed who was camping out there for some reason. He gave me a biscuit and a piece of cheese which was very nice, and pointed me in the direction of Gregg’s Hut.

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Gregg’s Hut is not a checkpoint but a welcome aid station on the Spine. There is an entrance porch that leads to an outer room which itself leads to an inner room. In the inner room, John Bamber cooked us chilli noodles and hot chocolate. Perfect!

Carlos and Ken were in the hut so we determined to set off again together.

It was good to get over Cross Fell and as we descended so the wind eased. It was very cold though and we hurried along to stay warm. The descent is quite easy to navigate and we soon picked up a road that took us down to the village of Garrigill.

I thought we were close to the checkpoint here and refused the offer of some refreshment that a Filipino lady was making. Probably a mistake as it took forever to travel the last few miles. The navigation across fields was awkward and slow. Ken had disappeared by this point and Carlos and I trudged on slowly.

Eventually we arrived at CP4!

Usual checkpoint procedure with a 3 hour sleep. Again, as usual, on awakening I sorted out and packed up kit, ate breakfast and set off.

Section 5, Alston to Bellingham, 40 miles 1,674m

Andy suggested we travel together and this sounded good so we set off from the Checkpoint.

The section after the CP at Alston is low lying farmland which is muddy and moreland and quite boggy. Blenkinsopp Common eventually leads to the village of Greenhead. There is a pub and cafe in Greenhead off route but we were not confident they would be open when we got there so we passed on by.

Instead, there is a museum as the Pennine Way leaves Greenhead. And associated with the museum are some public toilets which are unlocked at night. So in we piled. There were already some other Spiners there and inside the building was much warmer than it was outside.

So this was time to use my stove (with a urinal providing a water feature in the background) and try a freeze dried meal.

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After our meal some people wanted to bivvy down for an hour or two but I decided to push on. Andy came with me.

The next section was quite hard as it followed the undulating ground of Hadrian’s Wall. Navigation is, of course, quite easy as we just followed the Wall but the terrain is quite hilly so progress was slow. The weather had improved and the moon was out which was quite spectacular. I attempted to take some photographs but for some inexplicable reason failed to take any!

Andy was getting tired by now and kept sitting down for a catnap. I would head on and then he would catch me up. This happened a few times then I think I pulled away.

I eventually headed north through the wall. I went through some wooded areas and some moorland. It was very cold.

I had used up the water in my soft flask and then realised that my bladder had frozen up. Initially I thought it would just be the outflow pipe that had frozen but after removing it from my backpack I realised that the screw cap fill had also frozen.

Although there was some ice in the bladder most of it was liquid. I just could not get at it. It would have been easy to make a hole in the bladder and decant the water to my soft flask but that would have been a bit destructive. I tried warming the bladder on me but that did not seem to work.

So i decided to pee on the frozen inflow cap. That worked and thawed the ice sufficiently for me to be able to remove the cap and decant water to the soft flask.

I started noticing hallucinations at about this point. They seemed to follow the following format:

  • In the distance I would see African animals (elephants, rhinos, lions) or cartoon characters or zombies.
  • If I looked away and back again the original hallucination would be replaced by a European type animal; horse, dog, etc.
  • When I got nearer the secondary hallucination would disappear and I would see a bush.

Sometimes the cartoon characters would laugh and point at me. The zombies would try and chase me. The African animals never took any notice of me.

Next up after a few miles was a farm called Horneystead which acts as an impromptu aid station.

The farmer seems to like walkers and has kitted out one of his outbuildings into a little den with food and drink. Perfectly possible to sleep there and top up on supplies. He even has some spare kit. I make a coffee and had a couple of snacks. I put some money in the honesty box and was on my way.

My feet were very painful by this point and each step hurt. A lot. They were very swollen and being crushed by my shoes. This seemed to be the major source of pain. I was thinking about cutting open my shoes to relieve the pressure but was concerned that on the boggy terrain this would lead to other problems.

In the end I left the shoes as they were.

It was not too far to Bellingham and CP5, but a miserable few miles just the same. I was very tired when I arrived just as the daylight began to fade.

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I thought I would maintain the same checkpoint routine, eat, sort kit out, sleep 3 hours, get up, sort more kit out, pack up kit, get feet sorted and re-taped, eat breakfast and leave.

Section 6, Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm, 41.9 miles 2,146m

I got up and started on the painkillers straight away. The recommendation from the medics was for paracetamol and to avoid ibuprofen. I thought I’d start with paracetamol and keep the ibuprofen in reserve. My feet were not quite as swollen as before I went to sleep so that was a good thing.

I took my flask out of the drop bag for the first time at this checkpoint and it filled with sweet, milky coffee.

Setting off out of Bellingham, I was soon onto moorland. The next milestone was another x.5 checkpoint, CP 5.5 at Bryness so I was motivated to get there.

After the moorland there was a long section of road and then forrest fire track. Progress was quite reasonable. A couple of miles before Bryness I met two Mountain Rescue folks marching straight towards me. They asked me how I was before marching off the way I had come.

I continued on towards the x.5 checkpoint (that is not a checkpoint).

I got there and Chris, Carlos and Ken were already there. They make us a drink and I got my flask refilled with coffee. Then there was talk of the “casualty” which did not sound very good.

A few minutes later the two Mountain Rescue folks burst into the CP matching a competitor who was shivering badly. They went straight into a small room next to where we were, that evidently had been warmed considerably to reheat the guy suffering from hypothermia. Apparently he was bivvying outside and had become hypothermic and pressed his emergency beacon.

Then we got the nod that our half hour at the CP was up and we had to move on. Chris, Carlos, Ken and I decided to move on together to the Cheviots.

We were told it was going to be very cold and very windy.

Next up was a steep climb through a forest up Byrness Hill. There was no wind and we were all overdressed and sweating. As we came out onto the moor the breeze picked up and the temperature dropped. It was now cold!

The next section was, for me, the worst of the race. The sleep monster was calling to each of us and our pace was very slow. Not only that, we were lurching along in a zig zag pattern rather than staying on the path. We would each fall half asleep then trip on a rock or tussock which brought us back into the world of the conscious only to slowly drift off again.

And on we trudged. We were all quiet; even the normally talkative Carlos.

I was cold because we were moving so slowly. My feet were getting painful again, making progress more difficult.

Had there been anywhere to rest, we would have done. I was certainly concerned to stop after witnessing what we had back at Bryness, and I think the others would have felt the same. I am not sure how we kept going through the night but we did.

As it started getting light so the sleep monster’s grip on us started to wane and the others picked up the pace. I was struggling at the back with my very painful feet. Eventually the others pulled clear.

The hallucinations were back. I remember seeing a field of sheep with an elephant and 2 lions. I wondered way the sheep were not bothered by the lions. Then the lions and the sheep turned into bushes.

Around Lamb Hill we came across Hut 1. Not much had been made of this by the organisers so we were not sure what would be there for us but as I arrived I saw a few sets of poles outside so it was obvious there was something going on.

Inside a couple of folks were making hot drinks and food. Chris, Carlos and Ken were there as well as a couple of folks just leaving. I got a hot drink and made up a freeze dried meal.

Chris, Carlos and Ken were keen to move on so left. By the time I packed everything up they were out of sight.

The next section along the Cheviots was relatively easy to navigate. The Pennine Way follows a fence marking the boundary between England and Scotland and the path is reasonable. Everything was frozen so it was nice not to have negotiate bog.

As usual getting going after a stop was very painful and slow.

I trudged on alone for several hours before the ground starting rising sharply. After a while there was a sharp left handed bend and we started descending towards Hut 2, the last timing point on the course before the finish.

I caught up with Carlos.

It had been foggy for some some time and as we descended so the fog came and went. Then the sun appeared on the left and over to my right I saw an apparition. It was not an average hallucination! I knew what it was, as I had seen photos but have never seen one in real life before; a Glorie or Brocken Spectre. I got my phone out to take a picture but it disappeared!

I walked on a bit and suddenly it reappeared. Wow!

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So the figure is my shadow (the sun is behind me) distorted by perspective and the halo of light is the sun reflected by the mist. The “white” light of the sun is broken into constituent colours like a rainbow. But there are some interesting things here:

  • Blue light is nearest the centre, red furthest away. This is opposite to a rainbow where red is nearer the ground, blue furthest away.
  • There is a fainter set of rings outside the primary blue to red set of rings.

If you are interested I did a bit more research on Glories here.

A little bit further along we came to Hut 2 and had a chat with the folks there.

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It was mid afternoon and I thought it would be good to see if we could finish before dark. Carlos was not too keen so we separated.

It is mainly downhill from Hut 2, but there are a couple of hills before the descent proper starts. They told us it was about 7 miles down to the finish.

I hobbled on as fast as I could; which was not very fast.

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It was dusk when I saw Kirk Yetholm in the distance after climbing the last hill. A short jog later I was at the Border Hotel, touching the wall to finish my Spine race.

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Colin, Carlos, Ken and Andy all finished. Hypothermia guy was at the Border Hotel as well looking pretty chipper!

Race Statistics

The race distance is 268 miles long with 36,000ft of elevation.

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There were 123 starters and 70 finishers. I came 46th. I took 153 hours to complete the course. I tried to sleep for 13 hours, and probably did sleep for 11 hours 15 minutes during the race.

Lessons Learned

  1. My backpack weight just under 9kg without water so would have been between 10 and 11kg during the race. If I really tried I could probably cut this in half.
  2. My strategy of sleeping only in the CPs worked but was inefficient. It would be more efficient to sleep along the route as you can sleep when you want and without disturbance. I would practice this before doing it though.
  3. My backpack (UDFP35) was big enough but only openable from the top so not possible to take the bottom items out without taking everything out.
  4. I think cat-napping for 10 minutes when really tired, for example, at Bryness would have helped.
  5. Shoe / sock combination did not work very well. I think waterproof socks would have really helped in the first 3 days when it was very wet. My feet got waterlogged which I think contributed to my blister problems. Feet also swelled up significantly which I think was due to lack of training in the run up to the race due to injury. A bigger size of shoe in the drop bag would have been good.
  6. Hokas were OK (not so much grip on the muddy sections) but gentler on the feet.
  7. I carried poles but did not feel I really needed them. They are useful on very steep ground (not much on the Pennine Way) or when very slippery. The rest of the time I did not find them very useful.
  8. My primary headlamp (LedLenser H14R2) stopped working, due I think to water ingress. Good to carry 2 headlamps.
  9. Navigation is generally quite easy with a GPS on the Pennine Way. I used my watch and a Garmin Etrex 30x. This combo worked well. I did hear of people’s GPS units freezing in the cold weather so it is worth having a backup unit. Going to map in high winds, low visibility is not very practical unless you are a hardcore map user.
  10. Good waterproofs are vital. Use many clothing layers to allow for large temperature variations.
  11. The goggles on the mandatory kit list got quite a bit of use. The winds were for the most part side winds with the occasional head wind. Some people did have eye issues from the winds.
  12. Some folks took a front pack for easier access to things like food. This is worth considering.
  13. Waterproof gloves. I’ve never owned a pair despite trying a few pairs that have claimed to be waterproof. I wore a thin pair of liner gloves and a thicker pair of “waterproof” gloves over the top. This was OK except on the wettest sections when my gloves became waterlogged. I saw a few folks with toughened rubber over gloves that would be genuinely waterproof. I would get myself a pair of these if I was to do the race again.

Tor des Géants

What is the Tor des Géants?

The Tor des Géants, TOR or TDG is an anti-clockwise loop around the Aosta Valley in Italy starting and finishing in Cormayeur in the west, and extending to Gressoney Saint-Jean in the west.Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 10.15.06

The route divides into two unequal halves; the first goes south from Courmayeur to Gressoney Saint Jean along the Alta Via 2 for around 200km. From Gressoney it returns north to Courmayeur along the Alta Via 1 for about 130km.

In the local dialect spoken in the Aosta Valley, Tor des Géants means Tour of Giants or Giant’s Trail and refers to the 4 four-thousand plus metre mountains surrounding the valley; Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Monte Cervino (Matterhorn).

Race Format

Its a single stage race with around 50 checkpoints with food and water, 7 of which are called Life Bases which really means they are big checkpoints with more facilities. You have a drop bag that you can access at a Life Base for new kit, snacks, etc. which gets transported to the next Life Base for you when you hand it in.

There is a 150 hour time limit with corresponding cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. You can sleep at the Life Bases and at some checkpoint, space permitting. The race starts midday Sunday so you have until 6pm the following Saturday to get round the loop and back to Courmayeur.

The route is marked with little yellow flags marked TOR, TDG or Tor des Géants. There are literally thousands of them. In addition, green spray paint is used on roads and some stones to point the way. The route is easy to follow.

This is an interesting graphic that the organisers produced with all the hills, checkpoints, Life Bases, cut-offs, etc. Essential reading for all runners.

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Preparation

Preparation for the race had gone particularly badly. Firstly, I’d had a achilles problem at the end of February that prevented me from running until June and then when I started training again I got a knee problem at the beginning of August that set me back.

I hadn’t run for several weeks before the start of the TOR so I had made my mind up to walk it. Its so far that this won’t have been much of a disadvantage for me but did mean that I would have to go on minimal sleep rations.

Anyway I wasn’t hopeful about getting up and down the hills with my knee problem but I  thought I’d give it a go and see how it went.

I pulled together all the info I thought I’d need in a spreadsheet. The mandatory kit was fairly standard except for the crampons (we’d be going over high mountain passes above 3,000m so snow and ice is possible in September).

The organisers had supplied several GPX files of the route. Because of the size of the files, I had to load them as seven files, one for each Life Base to Life Base section. I also loaded the waypoints supplied by the organisers that gave the Life Bases, most of the checkpoints and some of the higher mountain passes.

Registration

I arrived in Courmayeur on Saturday morning and checked into the hotel I was staying in, just outside the centre in an area called La Saxe.

Unfortunately, somehow my watch strap had broken on the trip to Italy so I went back into town to see if I could buy a new one. Now, buying a new Rolex would have been fine, but no chance to get a new watch strap.

So I gave up on the watch strap and decided to swing past registration as it was just about to open. I had not seen anything saying that registration would include a kit check although I suspected it would, and as I arrived at the Mountain Sports Hall I could see everyone had their kit with them, so I went back to the hotel to collect mine. By the time I got back to the Mountain Sports Hall with my kit, the line had grown a bit so I took my place.

It was a very slow moving line.

After about 3 hours I got to the front, passed the kit check, registered, got my race numbers, drop bad and GPS tracker.

So I went back to the hotel to sort out kit, drop bag, etc.

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Section 1, Sunday

The instructions were to drop our drop-bag off and be at the start before 11:30am otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to start.

So I got to the start just after 11am and waited near the back. Since I was intending to walk this I was quite happy being at the back. There was a party mood on.

At midday we got underway with a run around town. There was quite a crowd out to cheer us on.

After a mile or so we came to the start of the trail which is single-track so we all stopped for about 10 minutes to get onto the trail. Once on, it was slow going up through the forest as we kept coming to a standstill.

Eventually we were through the forest and onto open pasture, heading up our first climb to Col d’Arp at 2,571m (a climb of 1,350m). It was sunny and quite hot on the climb so no bad thing that the pace was slow.KRKGp9IpQiOBG3RehPVkvg

I was pleased to make it to the top and immediately start the descent down the other side. I had been worried about my knee which had been fine, I would soon find out how it would be on the descent!

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The first checkpoint was half-way down the first descent at Baite Youlaz.

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I didn’t really stop here as I knew we’d soon be at the bottom of the valley in La Thuile. I knew the way down to La Thuile and was soon in the town. A marquee was coming up which I assumed was the checkpoint as I could see people inside eating and drinking. Surprisingly, we were marshalled around and away from the marquee and up the road. Eventually, we came to the checkpoint and I got some Coke to drink, bread and cheese and biscuits. This was to be our rations for the week supplemented by pasta and soup.

From La Thuile it was another climb of just over a 1,000m to Refugio Deffeyes, and some more food and Coke.QCRDCifmTpGvIYvvKSQsxQ

A bit more climbing brought us to Col Haut Pas (2,857m). From there we dropped down to the checkpoint at Promoud at around 2,000m. It was getting dark now so headlamps on and our first excursion onto the TOR at night.

Navigation was pretty easy. Each yellow flag had a reflective tag on it so they showed up very clearly in our headlamps.

The last climb of this section was Col Crosaties (2,829m).

From there I started the descent to Planaval. Somewhere on the way I came across the sobering memorial to a Chinese runner who had died in a previous edition of the TOR. He had fallen and hit his head. RIP Yang Yuan.Aaa+hrdiSqeZMZymFQALDg

From Planaval it was a few kilometres to Valgrisenche, the first Life Base, which was at about 50km. I had been moving for about 15 hours.

I drank some Coke and ate some snacks. I also had two portions of pasta with tomato sauce. I reloaded trail snacks from my drop-bag and topped up with water. I didn’t sleep here.

Section 2, Monday

So after the Life Base, was climb of 550m to the checkpoint at Chalet Epee. For some reason I was not feeling well. I had only gone a couple of miles from the Life Base when I was sick. Without any food in my stomach I quickly lost all energy. All I could do was move 100m and sit down for 5 minutes to rest and repeat. After an hour or so of this I started to feel better and my pulse began to come down so I carried on on the climb. With hindsight, I would have been better having a couple of hours of sleep in the Life Base before setting off!

Some folks had elected to sleep at Chalet Epee (there were various rumours of some Refugios being quieter, and therefore better for sleeping, than the Life Bases).

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From here, we continued climbing to Col Fenetre, 2,840m.

I arrived there at daybreak, which was great for the views. From here it was a big 1,100m descent to Rhemes-Notre-Dame and another checkpoint. After that we had our first three thousand metre col, the Col Entrelor at 3,002m.

From here it was a 1,300m descent to the next checkpoint at Eaux Rousse. This was exhausting! But my knee was holding up. I was still nervous on the steeper descents but so far so good.

The last climb of this section was to Col Loson at 3,299m the highest point on the course. It was a real moonscape of boulders and scree and we were all moving slowly due to the altitude, but eventually we got to the top and had some wonderful views down either side.

There was a checkpoint at Rifugio Sella on the way down, and then on to Cogne and the second Life Base (1,531m). I had been going for just over 30 hours so I was planning to get some sleep here.

Firstly I got my drop-bag and got some food. Then I had a shower. Then I found the sleep marshall and said I wanted to be woken up in 3 hours.

This was a disastrous sleep. I don’t really remember sleeping at all (although its possible I  dozed for a few minutes). Anyway, I got up after just over 2 hours as it seemed pointless to lie there, with my eyes closed, not sleeping.

After getting up I had some more food to eat and prepared to set off again. I handed my drop bag in, set my watch up on the third segment of the TOR and departed.

Section3, Tuesday

On paper, the next section looked fairly benign. One climb and a long descent to the next Life Base at Donnas at the lowest part of the course. Obviously there would be a gotcha!

We climbed out of Life Base to checkpoints at Goilles and Refugio Sogno, before continuing the climb to Col Fenetre de Champorcher (2,827m).

The terrain here was rougher than earlier with lots of boulder hopping. Good fun, but slow going.

I found a cow on the way to accompany me!

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Eventually, the boulders came to an end and as we got lower there were some nice waterfalls and landscapes to see.

We came out into a picturesque town which I initially thought was Donnas.

Turned out that Donnas was a fair bit further on, but we eventually found the famous Roman arch; the gateway to the city.

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After passing through the arch it was a few more kilometres to the Life Base. It was afternoon by now and very hot. My feet were hurting and I was very glad when the Life Base finally appeared.

I collected my drop bag and got some food and drink. After that I had a shower and planned to have another sleep. I think I went for 3 hours. This time I did sleep although I still remember waking up a few times.

After the sleep I got some more food and drink, reloaded my rucksack and loaded up the next stage on my watch and was ready to go again.

Section 4, Wednesday

It was getting dusky as I was setting off from Donnas, so there was just time for a few photos before it got dark.

I switched into night mode as we continued the climb out of Donnas. It was good to be travelling in the cool, but my feet were vert stiff and it took a few miles to loosen them up.

I was wearing my relatively heavy, but very robust Scott’s. These are a good trail shoe and cope with most things. I knew if it was wet they would do well and that they would cope well with rock. The only downside is that they don’t offer as much cushioning as, say, Hokas, and my feet were starting to feel this. The lack of training, combined with the rocky terrain were giving my feet a real battering.

Leaving Donnas, the lowest point on the course at 330m, there was only one way to go… up! There were checkpoints at Sassa (1,398m) and Rifugio Coda (2,224m) which meant almost 1,900m of climbing; the longest climb on the course. It was pretty exhausting!

After that there was a descent then another climb. Half way up was the checkpoint at Rifugio Balma where I got some food and drink before continuing up to Col Marmontana (2,350m) at daybreak.

Down the other side and the next checkpoint at Lago Chiaro where some barbecuing was going on, in addition to the traditional fare on offer.

After the short break I set off again, as ever following the little yellow flags.

Next up was the summit at Crena du Ley.

From here we traversed along to the Col della Vecchia before starting the descent down in Niel, and the next checkpoint. I don’t remember this checkpoint at all, but I probably got some food and drink and passed on through!

There was one more climb to get over before the next Life Base at Gressoney at the 205km mark. This point would mark the end of the first “half” of the TOR and from here we would start heading west on the return to Courmayeur. We would also change paths; the Alta Via 2 would end and we would be on the Alta Via 1.

So one more climb upto Col Lasoney, 2,385m.

Then down to the checkpoint at Loo before moving on a few more miles to the Life Base at Gressoney.

I got some food and drink and had a shower and decided to go for a longer sleep here. The facilities at Gressoney seemed pretty good, a large sports hall with a separate sleeping area. Showers were above average. I think this all contributed to extra faffing about. Anyway, I arranged a wake-up with the Sleep Marshall for 3 1/2 hours and went to sleep. Sleeping was quite good here.

On being woken I got sone more food, reloaded my backpack and prepared to head out.

Section 5, Thursday

The Totdret (baby TOR) starts in Gressoney and travels 130km to Courmayeur along the second half of the TOR route so we would have extra companions on the trail from here. They had already started so were by now, long gone.

Out of the Life Base, we climbed upto the first checkpoint at Rifugio Alpenzu. I passed quickly through here and continued the climb upto Col Pinter, 2,776m. On the way we passed some slightly lower cols.

Then it was downhill to the next checkpoint at Champolac and another at Saint-Jacques. After that I began climbing again, this time to Rifugio Grand Tournalin, 2,535m and then onto Col di Nana, 2,770m. From there it was a short hop to Col des Fontaines, 2,695m.

The sun was out and the views were fantastic. There was a photographer who pointed out Mont Blanc, Monte Cervino (Matterhorn) and Gran Paradiso.The Matterhorn was covered in cloud but then it conveniently cleared for a photograph!

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Then it was a long descent to the next Life Base at Valtourneche. We came off the hill into the valley and then had a few miles on the road to cover to reach the checkpoint. When I got there they had rolled out the red carpet for the runners!

So it was the usual Life Base sequence of actions: get some food and drink and then have a shower. After that off to sleep on the camp beds, this time for 2 hours.

On awakening, I had some more food and drink, reloaded my backpack and launched the next section of trail on my watch, handed in my drop bag and set off.

Section 6, Friday

First off was a climb upto Rifugio Barmasse, 2,175m. There were some interesting sights on the way. Disused farms and villages, not accessible by road and therefore not attractive for modern living.

I continued climbing past Rifugio Barmasse, to Fenetre d’Ersaz, 2,293m.

From here we descended to the checkpoint at Torgnon before entering a section of undulating terrain for the next few miles. There was another Col Fenetre, 2,162m before the light starting failing. I was hoping to make the next checkpoint before it got completely dark, but in the end gave up and got ready for night, only for the checkpoint to be round the next corner. Rifugio Magia.

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I was very tired by now and plenty of people were asleep in the checkpoint.

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I decided to push on.

I think it was after here that I tripped up on something and found myself face down on the ground. Not sure what had tripped me up, but fatigue meant that whatever it was, I was unable to arrest my fall. Anyway, that woke me up!

Next stop was Rifugio Cuney. I rested my head on a table and closed my eyes for a few minutes. When I left the warm checkpoint the cold air was quite refreshing and I felt better.

From here we went over Col Chaleby, 2,693m. It was raining slightly and the wind had got up. I had my waterproof coat on over my tee-shirt which was plenty warm enough. Most people had plenty more layers on, including hats and gloves.

After a while I could see a strange green glow and then a green light. This turned out to be Bivacco Clermont, 2,705m, one of the checkpoints.

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Again, there were plenty of people asleep here, but I thought it best to push on. It was a short climb to Col Vessonaz, 2794m.

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This col marked the end of the undulating terrain, and there was a long downhill to Oyace. Once I got off the upper slopes the wind dropped and the temperature picked up.

I don’t really remember the checkpoint at Oyace, but I knew there was one more climb and descent from there to the next Life Base at Ollomont.

After Oyace, the climb upto Col de Brison, 2,508m had a checkpoint about halfway up. By the time I got to the top, daybreak had started.

There was a temporary checkpoint just after the col with water and some biscuits. The organisers helicopter these temporary structures into position for the race. I didn’t stop for long.

Then it was downhill. There was a checkpoint at Berio Damon and then it was onto the Life Base at Ollomont.

Section 7, Friday and Saturday

Ollomont was the most disappointing Life Base. It had the smallest footprint of the Life Bases, and was the most crowded. There was very little space to sit down anywhere. I got some food and drink and managed to find a bit of space in the sun to sit down and eat it. I had a shower (worst facilities) and went for a sleep. There was no sleep marshal so I had to set an alarm on my phone. The sleep tent was next to the finish line so there was constant cheering and cow bells so sleeping was terrible. I got up after about 1 1/2 hours and decided to move on.

First up was a 1,300m climb upto Col de Champillon, which was broken 2/3 of the way up by a stop at Rifugio Champion. Then it was onto the col.

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It was good to get this one out of the way at there were only 2 big climbs on the section so getting one done meant that there was only one left in the whole race.

After the col, we tracked around some mountains for a while before reaching the Rifugio at Ponteille Desot. From here we were on fire track that was reasonably flat; a good runnable section for anyone still running!

The checkpoints came along; Saint-Rhemy, Bosses and Merdeux as the light faded.

6jcx6caXSaKM7TLWHv7LCgIt was dark as we set off on the final climb upto Col Malatra. I’d been travelling with Phil for a while; sometimes he would push on and get ahead; then I’d catch him up.

Phil had done the race several times before so knew the route pretty well. He pointed out the next checkpoint at Rifugio Frassati. We could see the orange lights high up above us. It looked a way away but not too far. Of course, its impossible to tell distances at night.

Getting to Frassati, however, took an age. The lights would disappear as we contoured around the valley to the right; then reappear as we contoured to the left, then disappear again. Every time we saw the lights of the Rifugio, it looked no nearer.

Phil was getting very tired.

We chatted about past races and other things, and the lights of the Rifugio disappeared once again. I got the feeling we were on the final push now. And eventually the Rifugio itself came into view.

Phil decided to sleep here; a good decision. I thought I would push on. We were only a few hundred metres below Col Malatra, the last climb on the TOR.

I got some food and drink and rested my head on a table for a few minutes before moving on.

Outside in the cold air again, I moved on quickly to get warm. It was slow progress but I could see headlamps ahead of me higher up. The col gets steep near the top and is slow going. There were some lights and I could hear voices.

As I got fairly near to the lights a voice shouted: “Hello”. So I replied: “Hello”. There was then some Italian, so I assumed some other conversation was happening. Then some more Italian which I ignored. Then some more agitated Italian. So I asked the faceless voice if he, because it was a male voice, spoke English. To which the reply came to use the rope on the left.

So looking to the left I saw some rope so grabbed onto that and followed it for a while. Then the smallest bit of Via Ferrata. Then some more rope and then I was in a gap at the top of Col Malatra, 2,925m face to face with the voice. He congratulated me on surviving and I was off again down the other side.

I knew the route to Courmayeur from Col Malatra as I have done it before. In my mind this was almost the end of the race as I knew it was basically 10 miles, mostly downhill, to the finish from here.

I was very tired now but happy to be descending. From talking to others I was aware that the race route had been changed a couple of years back due to some politics. The easiest and most logical way is to follow the valley to Rifugio Bonetti and then follow the well used path to Rifugio Bertone and then down to Courmayeur. However, to avoid Rifugio Bonetti, the race diverts people up a short climb away from Bonetti through Pas Entre deus Sauts, down another valley onto the path between Bonetti and Bertone and then down to Courmayeur.

There was a temporary checkpoint at Pas Entre deus Sauts, so I stopped for a couple of minutes. The folks inside seemed quite agitated about something, so I quickly moved on.

Up the small climb to 2,500m and then down the other side. This path seemed to go on and on, never coming to an end. I was wondering where it would come out. I imagined it would be nearer to Bertone than Bonetti. My left hamstring started hurting and I was forced into a strange walk to minimise the pain.

Eventually it did join the path, but to my dismay it seemed to be near Bonetti so I still had  a few miles on this path. There is a rocky river section on this path where I managed to slip and fallover.

Eventually Rifugio Bertone came into view. I only briefly stopped as I knew it was a just a long descent from here to Courmayeur, the lights of which I could see below me. I really just wanted to finish at this point.

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It was just starting to get light.

As I descended through the forest and the daylight grew stronger, so I started to meet folks hiking and running up to Bertone and beyond. The TOR is very well known in the Aosta Valley and generally the locals are very respectful of folks doing it. Most would step to the side of the trail to let you pass (even though most were travelling faster) and offers words of encouragement like: “Complimenti” (congratulations).

I made it down to Courmayeur and followed the signs through the park to main road which lead to the town centre along Via Roma. There was hardly anybody about as, although it was light, it was still a bit too early.

I followed Via Roma and then there was a yellow carpet and gantry signalling the end. At first I though there was nobody there as I took a photo of the finish.

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But then I saw a few folks at the end to welcome me.

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Race Statistics

The race merchandise gives a distance of 330km with 24,000m of elevation. This seems to be widely known as understating the course; as if they produced the merchandise incorrectly and can’t be bothered to fix it. On the tracking website they were using 339km and 30,000m of elevation which would be 210 miles and 100,000ft of elevation.

My Strava trace got a bit confused towards the end and incorrectly added some extra miles but around 210 miles sounds about right. I had 95,000ft of elevation.

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There were 894 starters and 534 finishers. I came 320th. which given my injuries on the start line, I was very pleased with. I took just under 140 hours to complete the course and had about 12 hours sleep during the race.

There was a presentation on the Sunday; no medal but a blue fleece to add to the tee-shirt and bag we had already been given. Plus, a “Finishers of 2018” photo.

Lessons Learned

  1. You can only finish, if you start! The “sensible” option given my start-line injuries would have been not to start this race, but I’m glad I gave it go. You never know. There is a fine line between being giving something a go and being foolhardy and knowing when to stop is a great skill to have, but sometimes you have to give something a go and see what happens!
  2. Its completely possible to walk the TOR.
  3. I can keep going on a couple of hours sleep in a 24 hour period. Not sure how long I could maintain this beyond a week though. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 2, 3 and 4 hours sleep in terms of refreshing the mind and body.
  4. Cat-napping for 5 or 10 minutes when really tired provides noticeable refreshment.
  5. All my kit was fine. I would however, consider shoes that are gentler on the feet, like Hokas.
  6. Having an assistant, as permitted in the rules, to aid the runner at the aid stations would save quite a bit of time. I would estimate half my time faffing about at the Life Bases could have been saved by an assistant. This would have amounted to 6-10 hours over the course of the race. The thing to bear in mind with this though, is that faffing time is also recovery time when you are not out on the course, so its not completely wasted.
  7. People were travelling in groups which towards the end of the race is sensible and helps pull people through the low points. This is probably a good race to do as part of a group.
  8. We had pretty good weather in 2018, but some of the higher mountain passes are very exposed, so if the weather is bad, it could get very bad. So make sure kit choices would work in bad weather.
  9. I am a bit of a pole sceptic but they really help in the race. There are very steep up and downhill sections.

Gower Ultra 50

The first edition of the Gower Ultra 50 was on Saturday 4th October 2014, starting at 7:30 from the St. Madog Centre just outside Llanmadog, on the Gower peninsula.

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I’d registered the evening before which was fast and efficient and we arrived a few minutes before 7:00am on the Saturday, parked, and gathered in a hall for the briefing with the other runners. I counted around 50 runners in the hall, although 57 actually started the race.

There was a mandatory kit list for the race. In addition to what I was wearing, I had my 2ltr CamelBak, waterproof trousers, compass, silver-foil blanket, hat, gloves, Nuun hydration tablets, peanuts and several breakfast bars.

The RunWalkCrawl organisers gave us a map of the course and some instructions that covered both the route for the competitors as well as spectating points and how to get there.

The briefing took a few minutes and went over the obvious stuff: follows the Wales Coastal Path, keep the sea on your right, etc. After that we went outside and lined up to start.

My strategy was to go at a comfortable pace for as long as I could. I didn’t know anyone else doing the race and didn’t recognize any competitors so was planning to run alone. With around 50 competitors for a 50 mile race, and with several walkers, I thought the field would string out pretty quickly. For food, I was planning to eat a cereal bar every 45mins until I didn’t fancy them anymore, have a few peanuts a few hours into the race and see what was available at the 7 checkpoints along the way. For hydration, I had my CamelBak filled with about 1 pint of water that I planned to refill at each checkpoint, trying to carry as little extra fluid as necessary. Once in a while, I intended to add a Nuun tablet to the CamelBak.

The weather had been wet and windy overnight (we’d been kept awake a little by the weather). However, as dawn broke the rain had stopped and we’d been greeted  by a windy and overcast morning.

RunWalkCrawl has erected and inflatable arch which we ran through on the off. We went out onto the headland towards the sea and turned left. I was overtaken by a few keen folks and was in the top third as we descended from the headland, through a few dunes onto Braughton beach. Low tide was at 9:00am so there was plenty of beach to run across.

At the briefing, they had said that we were not allowed to go through Llangenith Caravan Path up onto the headland, but had to go across the beach and up the cliff. As we went across the beach, a figure became visible up on the far cliff to point out the way up… which was quite useful.

Once up on the cliff we followed the path round and descended down onto Rhossilli beach and started the 3 mile run across the windswept sand with the Worm’s Head in the distance.

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The runners started to string out as we went across the beach; a small group stayed high up the beach whilst the majority went nearer to the water line to run the tangent along the curved beach. We passed the lone cottage and headed for the path up to the village at the end of the beach.

There was a photographer halfway up the path to snap a few photos. Most people were walking.

At the top we turned right and went to the first checkpoint in the carpark. We gave our number in and headed off, not stopping for anything else. We headed down the path towards the Lifeboat station on the cliff edge but followed the path round to the left before we got there.

The second stretch took us along the coast to Port Eynon. This is one of the more remote stretches of coastline as we went along the cliffs past Fall Bay, Mewslade and onto Overton. We went past an ancient burial cairn and climbed back up the cliffs to Port Eynon point, before descending down onto the beach.

We ran along the beach and up past the Coastguard station before looping back a bit for Checkpoint 2 in Port Eynon carpark. We stood around for a couple of minutes and had some snacks before setting off again along the coast past Horton and onto Oxwich.

The path deviates inland at Slade due to coastal erosion but then runs along the edge of the cliffs before arriving at Oxwich Point. From there we climbed through Oxwich Wood before descending the steps and coming out by the St Illiad’s Church and running down the lane towards The Oxwich Hotel. I’d caught up a couple of folks by the time we came out onto the beach and headed towards Three Cliffs Bay.

Oxwich Bay is about 2 ½ miles long and was fairly deserted as we ran over the sand. The weather was improving and blue sky had started to show through. I ran out of water on the beach. It was a silly mistake to forget to top up at the Port Eynon checkpoint. Fortunately, it wasn’t very hot and I knew that the next checkpoint was not too far away at Southgate so I just pushed on.

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I could see that the tide was on its way in and was wondering where I would come off the beach and climb the cliffs. The shortest route would be to get round from Tor Bay to Three Cliffs Bay and onto Pobbles Beach. The tide was in though and that would have involved a bit of wading, so I decided to come off the beach at Tor Bay. The path up the cliffs at Tor Bay is one of the easier ones and once at the top I continued around to the edge of Three Cliffs where I descended down towards the beach and ran along towards the stepping stones.

There were a few folks a bit confused by the route here and I’d caught up a small group of people. Across the stepping stones I headed over the shingle and up the cliff. Tough ascent here as its quite steep and all sand. A few folks started to follow.

At the top was a glorious view of Three Cliffs Bay in the sunlight.

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I followed the path down towards Pobbles and up onto Westcliff for the run towards Southgate.

Checkpoint 3 was located in the carpark at Southgate. I filled up with water and added a Nuun tablet to the bladder and had some snacks. As I was doing this a few other folks started to come into the checkpoint.

F was there and gave me my sunglasses. Should really have taken them along myself but it didn’t seem very likely at the start that they would be needed today.

Set off again fairly quickly and headed off towards Pwlldu. No other runners in sight at this point.

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The path around here is quite rocky and has a steep climb upto the gate and through a field before rejoining the road and dropping down to the beach. Round the back of the beech and up out onto the cliffs again as we headed over to Caswell Bay.

Rounded Smugglers Cove and came into Caswell. Dropped down onto the beach as the tide was still a fair way out and ran over the beach to the far side of the bay.

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I rejoined the coastal path and headed up hill again out onto the cliffs. Round to Langland Bay and kept a look out at the Langland Brasserie but did not recognize anybody so kept going.

There was a group of supporters along the promenade who gave me a cheer which is always good. Took a quick snap of Langland Bay and carried on. This was about the half way point.

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From Langland Bay its not too far round to Limeslade where there was a lookout from St John’s Ambulance to point out Checkpoint 4 in the car park at Bracelet Bay.

Got a good cheer there when I arrived. Stopped for a little while to fill up with water and have a slice of Angel Cake and a few other snacks before heading on. Another runner came in as I was there so after a few minutes I headed off. He carried on as well and came out of the car park ahead of me.

We headed along the road to Verdi’s and Mumbles and joined the Promenade. The other runner stopped a little way along here to chat with some friends so I carried on, saying “hello” as I passed.

Past someone I knew on a bike going the opposite way and met up with Paul and Geraint who had run down to meet, and run with me for a bit. By now the weather had warmed up a little bit.

As we ran along, we were caught by Natasha who was going a bit quicker at this point. She went past and Paul decided to run along with her for a bit whilst Geraint kept going with me.

We reached The Junction Café and crossed Mumbles Road to head up the cycle path to Gowerton. Surprising how the slight gradient up here made quite a bit of difference. Just over half way along the cycle path we came to Checkpoint 5 at Dunvant. The checkpoint was set back a bit off the path, in the car park.

Had a chat with the guys on the checkpoint who said I was in third position. Filled up with water and added another Nuun tablet. Didn’t have much to eat here and set off again fairly quickly.

From the checkpoint we continued up the cycle path to Gowerton. Geraint had some things to do in the afternoon so took a turn off the path and we said “goodbye”.

At Gowerton, I continued out on the North Gower Road towards Penclawdd, joining the North Gower path when I could. We went through Penclawdd and I was beginning to wonder where the checkpoint was when it became visible in a lay-by out towards Crofty.

Checkpoint 6 was very jovial. They topped up my CamelBak and told me I was looking good. I has a few jelly sweets; didn’t feel like eating anything else and set off again. Nobody else was in sight at this point. They said the chap in front was only a few minutes ahead but I wasn’t really sure about that comment.

I walked for a few minutes out of the checkpoint before setting off again. Negotiated my way through Crofty and joined the Marsh Road off to Llanrhydian. Going had slowed down a bit more by now. There isn’t a great deal to see along Marsh Road, except Llanrhydian marshes and the view over to Llanelli. I could see the Whiteford Sands Lighthouse in the distance and knew we wouldn’t be looped around there today as the course had been changed to avoid this loop.

The ground rises into Llanrhydian and I started walking at this point. Things were beginning to get quite tough. The next checkpoint was in Landimore. I wasn’t completely sure where it would be.

After Llanrhydian the path goes across fields. I wasn’t sure exactly where to go around Weobley Castle as the coast path goes up onto the cliff at one point. I’d done these fields in the reverse direction a few months ago, so decided to stay low, in the fields. Its quite tricky here to spot the field exits and ended up wasting a bit of time here.

Eventually I regained the road and down a hill Checkpoint 7 came into view. The chap took my number. I declined any water as there was only 3 miles to go at this point. I managed to take a chocolate biscuit and set off. Mainly walking at this point.

The path to Llanmadog is quite simple and goes round the marshland in a horseshoe. As I followed the path round one of the style’s was closed. I imagine that some of the path across the marshes further out was damaged, hence the changed route. Anyway, the diversion was through the woods into Cwm Ivy, which is a path I’ve not used before. Was keeping the walk / run going.

In Cwm Ivy I went through a gate onto National Trust land, that someone was trying to unpadlock to get his car out. Down a short path with the sea starting to become visible. I know that the finish was going to be on top of a hill to the left, and when I came round a corner to a crossroads in the paths, I could see people waving from the top of the hill.

The last hill was a nice steep, sandy one. Took a while to walk up. From the top it was a small distance to the finish which was on a short downhill stretch to encourage a running finish.

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So, clocked in at the end, where I was informed I came third, which was pretty good! Not many people about, but the winner had stayed around which was nice, although second place had disappeared.

The Winner took 8:55. Second place was 9:25 and I took 9:45. Joint 4 took 10:10.

Wandered back to the race HQ, and bought a coke. We weren’t staying for the evening meal so decided to go home at this point.

When I got back I realized I had lost 6lbs on the day.

Overall, it was an excellent race, so well don’t to RunWalkCrawl for organizing it.

Lessons Learned

  1. Peanuts seemed to work well. Will have these again.
  2. Think I should have had more electrolytes. Only used 2 Nuun tablets (plus some salt on the peanuts). Bit fiddly with water and tablets, etc. Winner used S-Caps, so might be worth giving those a try.
  3. Excellent result considering fitness levels (not many 20+ miles). The relatively modest pace worked well. Got to 42m with continual running, then was forced into Walk / Run. Eating a bit more may have helped a bit.

Dragon Ride, 2018

The Dragon Ride is a cycling sportive in South Wales. There are 4 distances to choose from:

  • Macmillan 100, 100km
  • Medio Fondo, 153km
  • Gran Fondo, 223km
  • Dragon Devil, 300km

I was doing the Dragon Devil which cannot seem to make up its mind if its 300km or 305km long. I’m going for 305km (189 miles) with 15,843ft of climbing.

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The race starts in Margam Park, just outside Port Talbot and loops around the Brecon Beacons before returning to Margam Park. The road book advertises the following:

Climbing: The route features 6 x Category 5 climbs and close to 5,000m of total climbing.

Timed Climbs: There are two timed climbs (Devil’s Elbow @ 90km & Devil’s Staircase @ 190km).

Feed Stations: 6 stops at 59km, 96km, 122km, 154km, 219km & 256km. There will be a water station at 185km.

Travel

I got up at 5am and had some breakfast (porridge) before driving to Margam Park which is about 40mins from where I live. I had a start time of 6:45 to 6:55 as the Devil distance sets off first. This was a good thing as it meant there was not too much traffic getting into the car park and I was able to park 3 rows back from the start.

Unfortunately my watch had decided to stop charging itself when I turned my back on it so it was on 8% battery when I woke up. I had it charging from a powerbank on the way to the start but it only got to about 50% so I knew it would not survive the whole race.

I put my bike together and got dressed and headed over to the start area.

The Race Start

I got into the 3rd of 4 pens and waited about 15mins before my pen was called forward to the start. The race briefing was quite short and consisted of basic instructions about following road signs and the highway code (no road closures), avoiding sheep and avoiding a piece of metal in the road 50m from the start.

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Start to Feed Station 1, Penderyn Primary School, 59km

The first section is relatively long to the first feed station at 59km.

After exiting Margam Park we headed out towards Port Talbot. Past the steel works and into the town, under the M4 and then we started to head up the Afan valley. There were a few sections of traffic-lighted road works so it was a bit stop start along here.

It was good to get in a group here as its flat and it was easy to draft along.

At Pontrhydyfen, the birthplace of Richard Burton, we swung under the aqueduct and then there is a short, sharp pull for 30 or 40 metres, which always seems to catch people out.

From here the road follows the River Afan up the valley to Cymer, an old mining village that had a massive mining tragedy in 1856, killing 114 people. Nobody was prosecuted for it, and no compensation was paid to families.

As we swung through a right handed corner in the village there a police motorcyclist standing in the road shouting “watch out for drawing pins”! Easy to say but not so easy to do.

I was lucky. For the next mile or more I was constantly passing upturned bikes in various stages of puncture repair. I stopped counting at 30.

From here we started the first climb of the day, the Bwlch. The Strava segment has this at 4.2 miles @ 5%. So this is a steady climb.

The sun was out and there was little wind so it was shaping to be be a cracking day!

From the top of the Bwlch there was a great view down to Treorchy in the Rhondda valley below. Its quite a fast descent and you have to mindful of sheep.

From Treorchy we rode through the town to Treherbert where the next climb, the Rhigos, started. Its a similar climb to the Bwlch in terms of length and gradient.

From the top, it was another long descent, this time ending at a roadabout near Hirwaun. We crossed over the A465 and continued heading north to Penderyn on the A4059. Past the Perderyn Whiskey Distillery and just a little further along was the first feed station.

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Always good to the get to the first checkpoint. It was busy but not overcrowded. I topped up on water and ate a few salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes.

Penderyn to Feed Station 2, Ystradfellte Car Park, 96km

So after a quick stop at feed Station 1, I headed out on the second leg to Ystradfellte, 37km away.

Its a steady climb on the A4059 into the Beacons. This area can be very windswept, but today was relatively calm and the sunny weather continued. There is a short descent to merge with the A470 towards Brecon before we climbed again to the foot of Pen Y Fan, before descending again towards Libanus.

Just before Libanus, we turned left onto the A4215 towards Defynnog. I have driven this road many times and it does not seem particularly hilly, but on a bike it always feels more hilly than expected. About halfway along we turned left again, now heading south. The roads here are very small, single track and quite windy.

After a few minutes we could see the Devil’s Elbow climb ahead snaking up the mountain. Its just over a mile long averaging 10% with 2 switchbacks in the middle. The steeper part is about 0.5 mile @ 12% going to 15% in places. My strategy was to go in, in my second lowest gear and take it fairly steadily as we were still in the first third of the race.

It can be awkward meeting traffic coming the other way on these type of climbs but fortunately the road was clear today. Didi the Devil, mascot of the Tour de France, was there to cheer us on although he was out of oomph when I passed him, managing only a feeble “Allez, Allez”.

From the top of the climb its mainly descending to Ystradfellte, which is a small village. There is a sharp right hand bend in the village and the car park was just there on the right hand side.

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As usual I filled up with water and ate some more salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes and prepared to set off.

I was quite amused when I went to collect my bike, to find it sandwiched between two Pinarello Dogmas. It was quite tempting to take the wrong bike, but I managed to resist. Needless to say, given they were at the feed station at the same time as me, these were not TeamSky riders.

Ystradfellte to Feed Station 3, Crai, 122km

There are a couple of short sharp pulls out of Ystradfellte, but generally its descending down off the Beacons to Pontneddfechan with a sweeping right hander and the bottom of a hill, and then along to Glynneath.

I would normally be heading home down the Neath Valley, but not today! So we climbed out of the Neath Valley and over to the Swansea Valley at Abercraf. We turned north onto the A4067 and climbed up to the Crai reservoir. There seemed to be a bit of a headwind here so I caught up some guys in front and drafted along for a bit. I took a turn on the front, and of course, nobody was interested in coming past so I towed the group upto the village of Crai where we turned off the “A” road towards Trecastle.

The third feed station was just off to the left here. For some reason its not marked on the event map.

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It was around here that my watch ran out of power.

Crai to Feed Station 4, Llandovery College, 154km

Setting off again there is one quite steep climb shortly after the feed station, but its not very long. Then some undulating terrain for a few miles until the route for the Devil splits from the route for the Gran Fondo distance, just before Trecastle.

After the split there was noticeably fewer cyclists on the route, as expected.

I was riding on an unknown road for the first time now, on the section from Trecastle to Llandovery, along the A40. Its generally downhill all the way so this was a fast section of the route.

We passed through the village of Halfway, and although close, it was not at halfway!

From there it is a short ride to Llandovery and the next feed station, in a tent inside the grounds of Llandovery College.

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Llandovery College to Feed Station 5, Llandovery College, 219km

So the next section was a northerly loop upto the Devil’s Staircase and back via Llyn Brianne, probably the most scenic section of the race.

We headed off north on the A483. Its quite undulating here and we went past the village of Cynghordy, before climbing up and around Sugar Loaf Mountain. From here its a descent down to the town of Llanwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the smallest town in Britain and the home of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, as well as the Man vs Horse Marathon which I should do one day!

From here we turned left onto a small road towards Abergwesyn. I had caught up another rider, the first I had seen since Llandovery. I was expecting a water stop around here as there was one advertised at 185km, just before the Devil’s Staircase, but did not spot anything.

At Abergwesyn, we turned left along a small road that heads along the River Irfon. Its very scenic along here as we climbed along the river valley toward the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. The road is very narrow here and I was almost forced off it by a van driver thinking its fine to pass a cyclist at 40mph along these sort of roads.

At the end of the valley the road drops down from the hillside and crosses the river before starting the climb up and around the mountain, Cefn Coch. This is the Devil’s Staircase, the most difficult climb on the ride. There is a helpful sign at the bottom about staying in a low gear!

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I was at about 120 miles at this point, but at my level of ability, there is not much strategy involved, its just about survival. Here is the VeloViewer profile for the climb:

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Cross the cattle grid and pass the trees on the right, hiding the climb. The road turns slightly right here and then you can see the climb, very steep at the start. Down to lowest gear and out of the saddle. No chance of carrying any speed into the climb as there is a poorly maintained cattle grid and a slow preamble before the climb proper starts.

The Strava segment says it hits 40% here; I’m not sure that is right but it is very steep at the bottom of the climb. Over the ramp and its around 15% to the first hairpin. Best to take the long way round here; its a left-hander so if there is a car coming down it could be game over on that hairpin! No cars today.

Round the hairpin at 20% and you can see upto the next hairpin. The gradient eases off to about 12% at the start of this section, so sit down and have a rest. By halfway to the next hairpin it ramps up to 20%. Wide berth on the hairpin at 25%.

Gradient then eases back to 15% for a little while so sit down and relax for a few seconds before the next sharp ramp which Strava says gets above 30% (umm, not sure). Then it eases again for a few seconds before ramping again to 25%. Pure survival now; one peddle stroke then the next. Tack across the road. Sight for traffic every 5 to 10 peddle strokes. Car coming down. Car stops. Reach car, thank driver. Pass car and continue tacking. Road turns slightly left and the gradient drops to 15%. Pass a walker; just about going faster. Another ramp to 25% then the gradient drops off again.

This is about halfway to the top, but the second half averages about 10% with some short sections at 15%.

From a race time perspective cycling up the Devil’s Staircase probably results in a slower time for the race, versus unclipping and walking up and putting in more power for the rest of the route… but who wants to do that!

I was very pleased to have got to the top.

Its a steep descent down the other side (25%) so hard on the brakes and do not miss the left handed turn off halfway down!

From here we started to head south and after a few miles we came to the shores of Llyn Brianne, which is a massive man-made lake supplying water to a large area of South Wales, including where I live.

Its very picturesque around Llyn Brianne, but I had just about run out of water as we left the lake and headed along the Towy River valley towards Llandovery. Its undulating but not too difficult from here to the town.

We stopped at the same feed station as last time, in Llandovery College.

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This feed station had some cooking capability so we had cheese on toast and pasta. There was no sauce for the pasta. Now I know this was a cycling, not a gastronomy, event, but in my opinion this should not be allowed. On the positive side, all the feed stations were well stocked, so pasta aside, all good.

It was good to know we were heading back towards the finish!

Llandovery College to Feed Station 6,

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr, 256km

After filling up with water and food I set off again. We were heading south, firstly to Llangadog on the A4069 which runs parallel to the much busier A40. At Llangadog we turned left and started the climb up the Black Mountain.

This is a regular climb for me so I know it well; the official Strava segment is 4.5miles @ 5%. It only get over 10% in a few places. The climb starts in forrest, then into farmland before crossing a cattle grid out onto wild hillside. It can get windy and usually its a headwind, but today was calm and therefore relatively easy. The Gran Fondo route rejoined our route at the base of the climb so there were more people about again.

It was a case of plugging away to get to the top. Its a good descent on the other side though, down to Brynamman, although again you have to watch out for sheep.

We took a sharp left at Brynamman onto the A4068 which heads south-east over to the Swansea Valley at Ystalfera. It quite undulating here, but no big hills. Somewhere along the road was the last feed station; this time in a local school carpark, Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr.

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I did the usual topping up on food and drink and prepared to head out on the last section of the race to the finish, back in Margam Park.

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr to Margam Park, 305km

After the feed station I continued along the A4068, until it joined the A4067 which runs up the Swansea Valley. We headed north until Caerbont where we turned right and started to climb out of the Swansea Valley over to the Dulais Valley. From there we headed south down the valley to Aberdulais where we joined the Neath Valley and the A465, down towards Neath,

From Neath, there was one last sting in the tail as we climbed Cimla hill. There are easier ways to get to Port Talbot from Neath, but this race is a challenge so fair enough. Climbing out of Neath we were heading over to the Afan Valley again at Pontrhydyfen. Again, it was a slow and steady climb.

At Pontrhydyfen, we turned south down the Afan Valley to Port Talbot. It was about here that I joined up with a few riders going quite quickly on the flatter ground and was able to draft along with them. The group slowly picked up more riders as we went and by Port Talbot we were about a dozen.

It made the flat miles from Port Talbot to Margam Park go by a little quicker, but eventually our little group broke up and I did the last couple of miles back to the park more or less on my own.

It was good to finish in 12hrs 39mins 5secs and collect my medal!

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Since my watch ran out of power during the event I only have a relive for the first part of the race, but here it is anyway:

Lessons Learned

  1. My experience was that the event is well organised, and although there are a lot of people the roads and feed stations are not too busy.
  2. Food: I carried 6 cereal bars and 9 packs of Shot Bloxs. I ate 5 cereal bars and 2 packs of Shot Bloxs. There is plenty of food on the course and the feed stations are well stocked (apart from pasta source)! In reality after the first feed station, you could just eat at each station and not carry much with you. Bear in mind that there are not that many shops about to buy things.
  3. Water: I did not see the water station before the Devil’s Staircase and ran out of water before getting back to Llandovery. It was very hot there and this is a difficult section so pay attention to water here.
  4. I am very familiar with the route, but the signage looked pretty good to me all the way around so no navigating required.
  5. Riding with a group of friends would help with drafting on the flatter sections. Also, you could take it in turns to stop at feed stations, fill up for the group and catch them up again, rather than all stopping. Obviously only relevant if you care about improving your time.
  6. Travel to and from Margam Park is easy for me as I live in South Wales. It seems to be a good location for an event like this though as its near the M4 and is a big open space with ample parking and areas to congregate.

L’Etape du Tour, 2017

The L’Etape du Tour is a mountain stage of the Tour de France open to the public and ridden a few days ahead of the Tour’s pro riders hitting the same stage. It was my first cycling sportive outside of the UK.

It was advertised as 178km with 3,529m of climbing, centred on two climbs; the Col de Vars and Col d’Izoard.

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The start was in the Alpine town of Briançon in the south east of France and the route was a big loop finishing at the top of the Col d’Izoard, above Briançon.

Travel

I hired a bike box and disassembled my bike:20046728_10213423312726816_3908967585656538741_n

My wife and I flew from Heathrow to Geneva with BA. When we arrived our suitcase was there but not the bike box! Boohoo! We were told it had not been loaded on in Heathrow but would be on a later flight. The folks in lost luggage said they would deliver it to our hotel so we collected our hire car and set off.

Somewhat predictably it did not arrive at the hotel that evening and all the numbers I tried to call went to voicemail so I gave up for the night and thought I would resume the following morning.

In the morning I got through to someone who said the bike box was still in London but would be sent out that day. Since I had booked the hotel through Sports Tours International (only way to get a hotel room near the event) I went off to find them and see what they could do. They were very helpful and said they could hire me out a bike but I would have to buy some shoes and a helmet (mine were in the bike box). So I said I would let them know later that afternoon if my bike did not turn up.

I went to register and have a look around the expo, where I collected my race number and a free pair of polkadot socks!

 

When I got back to the hotel there was no sign of my bike and nobody was answering their phone. I was starting to think about hiring the SportsTour bike when the hotel called my room to say something had arrived for me.

I went down to reception and the receptionist led me downstairs to the ski room (which had turned into a bike room) where my bike box was waiting. No sign of the delivery guy; I guess he had done a “dump and run”.

So I assembled my bike and took it for a ride into Briançon. All seemed well.

I got my bike ready for the race by sticking on the various stickers, including a little guide to the race which attached to the top tube; a very nice touch!

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The Race Start

It was an earlyish start and I had decided to cycle down to the start, about 9 miles away from the hotel. I was in the penultimate pen which suited me fine as I really had no idea how long I would take to complete the race.

It was very busy with cyclists but the organisation at the start was pretty good. You went into your pen, the higher the number the further from the start you were. The pens funnelled into each other and lead to the start line. When your pen was a few minutes from starting you were released down towards the start and you rode through the, now departed, earlier pens. Then another wait for a few minutes and then we were released out onto the course.

 

The only thing I was not very keen on was putting your race number on the back of your jersey with safety pins. As everyone was fiddling with items in the back pocket of their jerseys, safety pins were popping off all over the place. The ground was literally covered in popped open safety pins!

The First Third of the Race

The first third of the race was flat on the profile but undulating in reality, with some small climbs but certainly nothing big. It was a gloriously sunny day and the views were fantastic as we rode along on closed roads. The roads were in great condition, almost no pot-holes and the surface was new and very smooth. Quite unlike the road surfaces I am used to.

The first feed station was in Embrun at 42km, and it was jam packed. The picture below does not do it justice.

IMG_7346It became clear travelling alone had a distinct disadvantage from those riding in groups. Each area where there was something to be had, food, drink, etc. had a long queue of people and all the bike racks were taken. Those in groups would dispatch one person for each type of food and one for drinks where they would queue to fill their 10 water bottles, and leave one person to mind their bikes. Then they would all reassemble and divide up their spoils and get on their way. I was forced to queue for each item in turn. Not that it made much difference, but was annoying. It was like that situation in the coffee shop where you join the back of the queue and eventually make it to the “one person to go” place only for the guy in front to pull out a massive list of drinks to order for his whole office. Only in this case, the guy in front would pull out bottle after bottle to refill.

I have a cheap bike; I expect one of the cheapest in the race so I was not particularly bothered about leaving it… but you never know!

After the first feed station, we rode along the edge of a lake with stunning views. There was then a Cat 3 climb, the Cote des Demoiselles Coiffees, before we turned east (we had been heading more or less due south up until this point).

The Mountain Classification

The Tour de France rates all the longer climbs in each stage. Strava has a clear formula where you multiple the length of the climb in metres by the average percentage gradient and based on the answer being above 8,000 its a categorised climb as follows:

  • Cat 4 > 8,000
  • Cat 3 > 16,000
  • Cat 2 > 32,000
  • Cat 1 > 48,000
  • HC (Hors Categorie) > 64,000

So, for example, a 5km climb with average gradient of 5% would score 25,000 and be a Cat 3 climb. This works well for Strava as it means any segment can be a classified climb based on clear data about the climb. Obviously, however, there could be a significant difference between two 5km, average 5% climbs. One could be just a continuous gradient  for the 5km; whilst another could have much steeper sections interspersed with flatter or downhill sections.

For the TdF, they have a slightly different objective which is to create an exciting race where points are awarded for being the first to the top of a categorised climb; more points for bigger climbs. Where the climb occurs within the race, where within the stage and how famous the climb is, are taken into account when the TdF gives each one a category, and an associated number of climbing points.

The Second Third of the Race

After the Cat 3 climb, it was again. relatively flat as we made our way to the second feed station at Barcelonette. This time the station was in the town square so space was more limited and it was even busier than the first one. For some reason, the running water fountain in the square had been fenced off to the competitors and the “official” water supply was crowded so I ended up leaving the aid station without topping up water.

From Barcelonette, it was a gradual incline towards the base of the Cat 1, Col de Vars. There was a water station before we started the climb proper so I filled up with water there.

It was getting very hot by now. When we were rolling along at a reasonable pace it was not really noticeable, but when we slowed on the climb there was no wind and the temperature started to become oppressive.Col_de_Vars-south

The Col de Vars is 14.6km long, climbing 796m at an average 5.5% gradient, although as shown in the profile, the last section is much steeper between 7% and 12%. It reaches 2,109m.

This was my first proper alpine hill climb and its fair to say that nothing in the UK really compares. Its not that this is steeper, its just much longer than any of the hills I had cycled up before. I was on a 32 and I noticed that those around me where mainly 34 or 36. This seemed to create 2 problems:

  1. On the steeper sections when I was in my lowest gear I was having to push more watts than suited my ability. It was OK for a while but towards the top was becoming a real struggle.
  2. I was going faster than 95% of those around me. The road was fairly narrow and solid with riders so often there was no space to overtake so I was forced into a lower cadence to maintain the same speed. There is a minimum cadence below which it becomes hard to ride.

It was great to reach the top, from which it was a 1,000m descent to the village of Guillestre.

The Last Third of the Race

At Guillestre was the third and final feed station. After this we started climbing, gently at first but we had a few hundred metres of elevation to climb before we got to the start of the the last climb proper. This was the HC category Col d’Izoard, one of the iconic Tour de France climbs.

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Again, its not the steepest but the 14km feels relentless, climbing about 1,000m to 2,360 at the summit.

People were struggling at the side of the road. A few had been struggling on Col de Vars, but many more were really struggling here. By the time I was on the climb it was afternoon and there was no wind at all to give respite from the sun.

Just at the start of the climb I punctured. I suspect it was a safety pin but I could not find anything in the tyre so I guess I’ll never know. It was very quiet as people rode past, hardly anyone speaking, each person in their own struggle with the mountain. It was blisteringly hot just mending the puncture by the side of the road as there was no shade around.

After fixing the puncture I got going again. I wish I had a 34 gear as I know I was overheating in the 32 but had no choice but to push on. The kilometres went past very slowly. I was very hot by now and concerned about overheating and I remember stopping under some shade for a while. Everyone on the road where there was pockets of shade there were clumps of riders, unclipped, trying to cool down.

I remember walking for a bit, then thought I had better man-up and get on with it.

Eventually we came out though a forest where the road levels out and there is a slight downhill before it kicks up again to the summit. This is the lunar style landscape that this climb is famous for. Picking up some speed helped cool me down a bit before the final 2km to the top.

It was quite a relief to finally get to the top and cross the finish line!

 

I had a rest at the top and some food and drink. This was the end of the official stage but I still had to get back to Briançon to collect the medal. So this was another 1,000m, 12 mile descent where it was important to pay attention. It got to the point where I was starting to get cramp in my hand from all the braking, but I don’t think I was wishing for an uphill section to relieve the pain.

Back in Briançon, I collected my medal and then set off back to the hotel. It was 9 miles and slightly uphill but it was a lot cooler now so I took it easy as I rode back.IMG_7354

My official time was 9:12:42 for 6,973rd position.

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Conclusion

I really enjoyed the day out cycling so would recommend it. It is a really busy event as you would expect. I think about 15,000 people started.

It certainly makes you realise how difficult it would be for a pro rider to complete a grand tour, let alone contend for a position. Obviously these guys are professional athletes, have better equipment and are much better supported, but they still have to get up the climbs themselves, each day for three weeks.

The Col d’Izoard has been a very popular climb over the years but 2017 was the first time the stage had finished at the top of the climb. Some of the greats of cycling like Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx have summited the Izoard first. Warren Barguil won in 2017.

So Chapeau! to all of them.

Lessons Learned

  1. I half went with a tour group (hotel booked through the tour but event entry and travel arrangements made myself). Going with a tour group is certainly good when things don’t go right as there is a group of people who can help. It is an expensive way of doing things though so you would have to decide if you thought it worth the cost.
  2. It was very hot on the day so some heat acclimatisation would be worthwhile. I am more familiar with running in the heat than cycling, where its easier to reduce your effort to match the conditions, but with cycling the biggest effort comes on the steepest climbs where you are moving slowest and have the least benefit from wind cooling. This is intertwined with the next point.
  3. Think about the gearing on your bike and how long you will be riding the climbs. Ideally I think I would have had a gear to ride the hardest climbs in and then 1 lower gear where I could have a break.
  4. Riding with a group of friends would make navigating the feed stations much easier.

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!

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.

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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!