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Ian Beaton

The Dragon’s Back Race 2019…

Thank you all to those of you who showed interest and support for my latest adventure. You know who you are!  Much appreciated. The good news is I managed to complete the Race. What a relief! 315km along the mountains of Wales and 15.5km of up. A lot of rock, bog and fells.  So for those who asked, here is the 5 day trip report…

For those who didn’t, skip it. It’s all about mountains, bogs and blisters.

Also, more details and video on


The report:

Day 1. 52km of running. 3800m of vertical climb. Actually I think it was nearer 50km and 4000m according to a guy with a GPS watch. The start was iconic in Conwy castle. Edward I built it subjugating the Welsh in the 1280s. Little was to know I would feel equally ruined shortly. The start was 7am and we were sung off by a traditional male welsh voice choir.  Andy Stephenson, a fellow villager, had been my Sherpa on Sunday at check in and driven me to Wales. Kate, my missus, had snuck up Sunday and we met up early Monday morning before the start to watch me eat porridge at 6am! Bang. We were off and running up Conwy mountain, with great views across the sea below, before heading away from the coast along good track, and chatting with other runners.  I met a bunch of French men. No twinning link, but did practise my rusty language skills. It was a long shlep up to the Carneddau mountains but great to be running the tops. The weather was good and the views of Tryfan and the Glyders ahead from Pen Yr Ole Wen (hill of the white slope) were spectacular. The run down to the drop bag support point was steep and rocky. But I had a bag of real food waiting for me down there! Tuna and a pouch of lentils. I reloaded bars and gels into my running rucksack and then left.  It was a very steep bang up Tryfan, a rocky ridge of a mountain, and a beautiful scramble over the top. Loved it. Then down to a pass and back up over the Glyders and down to Pen y Pas youth hostel via a pathless run across the high fells and rocks at the back of the Glyders. Recharged with water taken from the youth hostel, I burst up Crib Goch, the ‘red ridge’, and what a exposed knife edge ridge it was, stunning in the sun. On and over Snowdon, now in the cloud, down and back up Y Lliwedd, the remainder of the Snowdon horsehoe, and then a surprisingly long run out to the end of the ridge at Gallt y Wenallt, before dropping down to camp. Legend.

Day 2. 58km running. 3600m of vertical. Woke up a bit stiff, but considering yesterday, pretty good. Probably a bit fast on day 1. I had in mind 12h for day 1, then 13h, 14h, 13h, 12h subsequent days. Day 2 is very rough under foot, with a disappointing lack of path for much of it. Lots of rock, lots of heather. Up at 5am. Away around 90mins later. Breakfast. Pack the hill bag. Make sure you have all the mandatory hill kit and food, etc. A group from my tent (we slept in shared tents of 8) set off together. Up Cnicht, the ‘Welsh Matterhorn’ to start and call the family on the school run, when I got some phone reception. No path for a lot of this day. I had recce’d this with a couple of friends and we had found great sheep trod (sheep paths winding their way through the rough makes it way easier) up through the Moelwynion peaks. This is remote. Found a brilliant line down a rock cleft off the top of Moelwyn Bach and down via a river gully to a narrow gauge railway line. Shaved 1km of distance from the path that others seemed to be taking.  A slow run down into Maentwrog (always hated downhill) for a pint of coke in a pub in the valley, courtesy of one of my tent mates In exchange for my route finding. I repaid him rudely in bad wind for the next 5h. It seemed WWIII was going down in my guts, with a fight between the all veggie food they serve at camp and my bars and gels. A bit like the landing scene from Saving Private Ryan. But this one was Saving Beaton’s Privates. Up the hills into the Rhinogs. A rough grass run and through some twisting paths to a col and down to the support point. Food. Tin of tuna and a pouch of lentil and salmon. Mix it up. Slightly spicy. Delicious. 15 mins. Reload the bars and water and move. Up the Roman Steps, a path through a canyon and onto the first Rhinog mountain. I had a great line from the top here, down through a scree gully straight to the start of the next climb. The knees were feeling it by now and I’d passed my first dark spot, between 1030-1230. A couple of hours in a bad place mentally. It passes. Like the weather. The sun was out and so was I. Second Rhinog mountain was nailed. Felt good on the uphills, and like an old man on the downhill. Ooh, the knees. It was then a long, undulating ridge to Y Llethyr and Diffwys. Bag the dipper (remember those orienteering days, anyone?), then 1km back along the way you came but the other side of a stone wall and then down through a boulder field and old manganese mine workings to a forest trail. Run it in on a road across a toll bridge and to our campsite. Felt like a big day. About 13hrs, so timing was okay. Tired. Get some food. Sort out my feet, which are beginning to suffer. Shower  - the only night in a campsite! Normally it is a bracing dip in the river when I get down to camp. Pack hill bag for the next day. Chit chat in tent. Lights out 2230.

Day 3. 71km running 3500m vertical. Up and the feet were not good.  Macerated feet is when they are waterlogged and not drying out. Running on folds on rumpled skin underneath makes it feel like nasty blisters but it is different. So, up at 5am, and the usual routine of breakfast, and get out of camp. Started once more with James and Chris from my tent. Good to go out with some company. This day started through the small but pretty town of Dolgellau and then heads to the last big peak of Snowdonia, Cadair Idris. There is a road to a pathless section leading onto the  eastern summit. You then traverse the whole of the ‘Giant’s Seat’. Legend has it if you fall asleep on the mountain you will awake either a poet or a madman.  I could only see the latter today. But it was hot and sunny. Views were great and I found a lovely line from the top that avoided the stony normal path and made the running less uncomfortable. Grass is our friend. Unless it is Day 4 grass (later). The main summit was in cloud. And the western summit is a sharp and steep monster. What goes up, must come down, and sure enough there was pain on the descent.  Picked up another runner who was in a dark spot and probably deepened it by talking to her for half an hour as we jogged along. 2 miserable big grassy mounds without any merit called the Tarrens then ensue,  followed by a long road and track to Machynlleth, another town in the valley, and the support point. Shuffled into town. Kate was there!!! Amazing woman. Ram raided the supermarket alongside other hungry fell runners and ate and walked and drank (milk) to the other side of town. Couldn’t eat my drop bag food but sat and stirred it and chatted to the missus for the best part of 30mins. Got to keep moving. An emotional departure. For me. Up and along. The scenery was now changing from wild mountain to more open, long ridges and peaks. The last peak of the day is Plynlimon but seems to be spelled Pumlumon as well. Source of the rivers Wye and Severn. A gorgeous view from the top. Blasted up it.  Felt I had to as the long jog to camp was all downhill. What an awful expression. Anyone who has done more than 100 miles of running knows that the expression “It’s all downhill from now” actually means in reality it is all pain from here on in! Knees and blisters. Something was not right in the feet.  Got to camp. What a long day. Jumped into a big water trough to wash and then saw the medics for some foot advice. The front pads are macerated and got cracks and the heel pads at the back are each two big, grown up blisters. Won’t bore you with the toes. But not getting prizes in a beauty contest. The bits that get the full 85kg impact is what mattered. The rest can get taped and strapped.  Feet gradually disappearing each day under another coating of tape and bandage. A tough day of 14h+.

Day 4. The talk of ‘breaking the dragon’s back’ after Day 3 was premature. 71km again of running for Day 4, but only 2400m of up. The feet were better, as the blisters had had a night of rest. Only painful now. Parts of the day before had been bleak. We started out as 3 of us. Again. Up a hill to a big bog. Wade your way through some shocking, watershed terrain. All this was on a mandatory route, whereas the vast bulk of the race is a series of checkpoints whereby you navigate and can choose your route between points. Newts were the reason. Rare newts in a miserable bog. Down a steep narrow trail in the woods I went. Knees on fire and hating newts. The newt hater. They probably hated me. I hated them more. I drew strength from that. Down lots and then steep up to regain what we had lost. There was a long trail road through forestry plantation and wind farms. Rolling hills opened out before us. ‘Twas the Elan Valley. Famed for grassy tussocks or ‘baby heads’ grass. Tough running or indeed limping terrain. The next few hours I felt very low in parts. The feet were on fire. I did stop once and took my shoes off.  I contemplated taking my socks off to look at my feet. I could not face them. I had been stared down by my feet. Good job my knees also hurt so I could try and focus on one, then another, area of pain. The last climb before the support point drop bag was Drygarn Fawr. Again the views did not disappoint. Down and one of my brothers, Dave, was there!  Brilliant. Great for the support. Really morale boosting. Spent 20 or so mins chatting and eating.  It was hot. I was glad but I had to keep on. The next section was road, woods and forest track. Dave popped up again! A long road section at the end and some pretty pooped competitors limped in to camp. A real grind that day. Glad it was over. I limped into the river to wash. Shattered. I was wondering about the next day...

Day 5. Another day dawns.  Set  off as usual at 630am. Amazing what 5h of poor sleep can do to repair mind and body. I felt better than the day before. The blisters smouldered after the usual first 30min of pain and the knees were forced back into their pain box. I told my myself ‘there is no tomorrow’. I really felt lifted and quite emotional. I ran. Until I hit a hill. This day was 63km long and 2200m up. So after 2 days of 71km/44 miles a day, it was the final day and a mere marathon and a half. Albeit over some pretty rough terrain again. If I had to, I was going to crawl it. Lots of country lane and rolling hills, and the landscape was much more gentle. A decent jog into Llandovery and what a breakfast!  I stopped at a café in the town and had a fry up. Felt like a dirty cheat. But I was king of the cafe and ate like one.  Some fellow competitors passed me.  They eyed me in a way that a cannibal eyes his victim I felt. Either way, it was me with the bacon and eggs. Following this, it was a jog along a country lane and some hilly paths to the Usk reservoir for drop bag time. I was lifted. The last day. Halfway. Almost. The Black Mountain is the last big set of peaks. Fan Brycheiniog was summited and I took in some wonderful views. Good chat with someone about life on the way up. Did some poetry. Was medic on the top to a suffering athlete and then an old man knees section down and across to Carreg yr Ogof on the Beacon’s Trail. The section turns south, the path is very stony and easy to stumble on. I did. I was on a roller coaster. Felt strong and then weak and then reminded my body of the deal. Hang in there, there is no tomorrow.  It worked. I got to a road and scanned a couple of hundred WhatsApp messages from friends and family. I ran home. Singing. Downhill. Into the arms of (some of) my loved ones.  Some of them had (school exam) pain of their own.

It was an epic journey.  I had given myself a 50:50 chance of completion at the start (that being the historic chances of finishing), and so I was chuffed to bits to get through it. A lot of support along the way, my wife and children had put up with a lot of absence to go ‘recce Wales’, and friends and family for their supportive barrage of abuse. 

Now, a few weeks later, I can run again and my feet and knees are beginning to feel normal. They still look awful. Life is returning to normal…