My Dragon's Back Experience - Hugh Chatfield 2023 Champion

Get all the inside knowledge from 2023 Dragon's back winner Hugh Chatfield.

Hugh Chatfield
By Hugh Chatfield

27/06/24

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A write up of my experience running the 2023 Dragon’s Back. Gear list at the bottom.  Long race, long report.


380km. 17km up and down. 6 back to back ultras in an unrelenting heatwave. Conwy to Cardiff. Castle to Castle.  Trail, track, road, rock, tussock, stream, gulley, valley, heather, bog and grass. New friends. Unforgettable memories. High highs and low lows.  Wales in a week.  

 

The Dragon's Back was first run in 1992 when a former parachute regiment soldier, Ian Waddell, in a moment of what most would call madness, thought the Cambrian Way with add-ons could be much more than just a tough long distance walking trail. It could be a foot race across an entire country.  Since its first running it’s now secured a place up there amongst the world's toughest mountain races. 

 

A beautiful and laugh-out-loud (if fell-running 'in jokes' are your kind of thing) write up of the inaugural event can be found here

 

Despite 1992 being widely regarded a success, the sheer logistical complexity of safely organising an event where runners relentlessly cross vast distances of inhospitable, low-phone-coverage terrain meant it took a long hiatus until 2012 when Shane Otley re-launched it.  The race, which has (now) been run only 8 times, has a short history.  However what it lacks in history it makes up for in infamy.  Past winners have included some greats of UK fell and mountain running (Steve Birkinshaw, Marcus Scotney, Jim Mann, …). The race has several documentaries about it (see here).  


Not only does the race cross an entire country, but it does so in a deliberately difficult manner, ticking off all the highest points and covering all the toughest and wildest terrain paying no attention to how a crow might fly.  Mention you're running the race to someone who knows about mountain running and you're generally met with a serious expression or a "Really? …That's a serious race that" (direct quote).  Indeed there are few other races with a finish rate below a third.


As I first ascended Cnicht (the first peak on Day 2) in April on my first race recce, the challenge had seemed vague, daunting, insurmountable, incomprehensible, and a very long way. 

 

Photo credit: No Limits Photography


However, little by little as the months moved on and September drew nearer my confidence grew and grew.  I learnt the main lines of the major days and even some sneaky shortcuts. I took wise counsel from previous 'Dragon slayers’' Simon Barnett and Will Kernick on glorious and memorable recce days.  I got colder and wetter than I'd ever been alone in the hills traversing the Rhinogs in a hailstorm (I wouldn't do that again. Don't do this. It’s not fun).  I held my tent up with my bare hands in the middle of the night in storm Betty in 70mph winds and got up and ran the Cadair Idris climb almost from bottom to top the next morning on two hours sleep.  I trained hard with my coach, and previous race winner, Marcus Scotney gradually upping my volume [ignoring taper this was ~13-14hours per week, but with significant variation], telling me to run slower, tirelessly listening to me worry about minor niggles.  


I raced hard in the months leading to the race, achieving a previously dream result 4th at UTS 100k (with a podium having been a real possibility until a big bonk!) and a win at the Helvellyn Sky Ultra (‘rain and lightning’ adjusted short course). I used the score course of the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon to squeeze every ounce of knowledge/wisdom I could from my partner, previous race winner, Steve Birkinshaw distracting him as he tried to navigate on rough ground.  I bought more and more race specific gear and weighed, re-weighed and re-weighed it.  I studied maps and watch-crashingly-large gpx files. I looked at previous races and decided the majority of the winning times were 'doable', changing my goal from top 20, to top 10, to top 3.  I ran. I ran. And I ran.

 

Hundreds of runners toed the line in Conwy castle before sunrise on the morning of the 4th of September listening to the Conwy male voice choir and encouragement from the Conwy mayor.  It was a moment with a special atmosphere, dark and cool.   As runners nervously stepped from toe to toe, supporters chattered and waved flags from the ramparts.  The only way out was back the way we had come through the imposing castle gates (and the gift shop!).   


I was side by side with some 'very serious' runners with extensive long-distance running CVs and top results in famous races - all cunningly positioned towards the front to avoid bottlenecks on the narrow castle walls.  I heard my parents cheer from the ramparts above. I sipped my water, checked my watch, stretched, noticed a niggle in my hip that had bugged me for three weeks was magically gone.  I was ready and in the right place.  I was nervous, but for the right reasons, I was here to race hard and that was, in some hard to explain way, important and it mattered.


In the race briefing, on a beautiful summer evening in Conwy the night before, Shane, the race director had encouraged every competitor to be clear on their "why".  He, with a knowing smile, told us we'd all have moments where we questioned what we were doing, or didn't think we could keep going. At that point we'd need to draw on the reason we were there.  What was mine?  Did I have one? Was to race hard and be 'competitive' a 'real' reason?

 

It was glorious to run the first half of day one at a relatively controlled pace with Jon Shields into the Ogwen valley.    Jon mentioned we were pushing the pace and he was “obliging”. However, I don’t think we were going that hard and by my estimations (which proved to be accurate) we were a few minutes behind first leg winning splits from previous years. This was the right place to be - many have gone out too hard and paid the price later.  I led the race into the first support point at the Ogwen valley, welling up for not the only time in the race, as my parents cheered me on from the road side. It felt significant to lead the race, whatever would happen next, into the heart of Eryri.   


I then pushed hard up Tryfan (it turns out at a similar pace to training) losing sight of Jon.  I knew I was moving hard, but it felt less hard than training and I was in the last shade of the day.  I was also eager to make it difficult for a mystery third placed runner Jon and I had seen gain rapidly on us over the Carneddae.  I had to walk the tightrope of fast, but not so fast that I’d burn a match I'd want or need later.  Tightrope walked, I then climbed the first Glyder alone in a windless, scree furnace.  Avoiding a poor line Simon Barnett and I had mistakenly followed a few weeks before (head left!).  Here I held the effort back, ensuring I couldn’t hear my heartbeat in my ears.  There was still a long way to go that day, let alone in the race.   Where I would normally put my hands on knees and push, I stood up.  Where I would normally run when topping out, I 'trotted' somewhere in a quasi run/walk.   Messing up my line on the descent to the Pen-Y-Pass, falsely believing I knew better than my GPS, I slipped and tripped through some steep, gnarly heather.  I dipped my hat/buff combo in the first of what would be many very questionable, sheep-poo ridden bogs, and tried to stay relaxed. 

 

Next came Crib Goch - a mountain and ridge not for the scared of heights.  I moved slowly up the climb (or what I thought was slowly, but looking back seems to have been a strong pace).  I increasingly noticed the heat and fatigue setting in but, efficiently moved over the sharp bit of the ridge skirting round some bemused tourists.  I remembered my first time on the ridge when Simon B scampered along beside me hands free as I clung nervously with two hands to every hold.  It's amazing the difference that practice makes.  Eventually descending Snowdon and beginning the last climbs of the famous horseshoe I felt serious fatigue set in and climbed deliberately very slowly, resigning that if someone passed now they truly deserved the day.  No one did and I arrived in camp ahead.  



Photo credit: No Limits Photography

I lay in the stream by camp thoughtless, alone, staring at the mountains, decompressing, cooling.  Jakub - they mystery runner from earlier - arrived 40 minutes later.  We passed each other as he went towards the stream, agreed it was a hot day and went our separate ways.


Here. In the race. In the lead.

 

Day two saw even more heat, and the introduction of race risk protocols including an up to 30 minute, neutralised cool off in the middle support point.  *Insert joke here about dragon's breath / fire*.  This was a wise move from the race team.  Day one had seen many struggle with the heat including several stories of fainting.  Helicopters were called multiple times in the days to come and without these breaks there was a serious risk to competitors.   


Such heat required a different racing approach and strategy.  The higher temperatures, forecasts suggest hitting 30 with very little breeze in places and on some climbs on day five in feeling very extreme, boost your heart rate and reduce the rate you can climb in control.  Pace management becomes and became vital.  Previously 'runnable' climbs (some might disagree!) were downgraded to walks/strolls.  Where streams were and how much water to take on each leg the next day became fundamental to each night's planning.  Getting wet at every opportunity was paramount.  I adopted a rule to ensure my hat and buff were always as wet as possible, dipping them in every stream and puddle, however questionably brown.


Day two is also my favourite of the race. The first section Cnicht and the Moelwyns had been the setting of a bank holiday spent with my partner Millie and her parents and these hills are for me 'Goldilocks' hills. Hard, but not too hard. Steep, but not too steep. Technical, but not too technical. Just right.  Setting off last, I passed major competitors Jon and Robyn in the first few hours moving efficiently and ahead of rough pace predictions. However, coming through the picturesque village of Maentwrog was my first low of the race.  With a few ultras under my belt, I now know the warning signs and I know how to fight them. Slow down. Eat more. Eat more. Eat more. Eat again.  Repeat to yourself a second wind will come. Control the pace. Eat again.  I did this and in an hour or so I was moving well again down into the glorious and unforgettable glacial Bychan valley for the support point.   I was making good time, but where was Jakub? He'd set off 30 mins up and, although we had a 30 minute free break at the support point and I'd moved reasonably well, I hadn't seen him.  The staggered starts created an extra level of uncertainty compared to other races.

Next we traversed the Rhinogs, a mountain range I've had the pleasure of crossing four or five times now.  It's easily one of the wildest places you can go in Britain.  If you'd like a challenging day, far from help, on often trackless terrain, threatening and consistently windy conditions, and exorbitant route choice, look no further.  I've crossed the mountains in all conditions now including hail and low visibility (do not recommend!) and now, as in the race, full on furnace.  


I moved well, took the now infamous "wall line" shortcut (providing one of the more exciting moments of dot watching to a live-streaming friend) and passed a familiar set of mid and upper order runners all on their personal journeys and challenges.  Coming up the final climbs of the section I gambled a little and took a line I'd never tried but always believed was quicker cutting wide right beneath Diffwys through some tussocky grass on some very faint trods (so faint they should perhaps be demoted to just narrow areas of grass leaning a different direction rather than trods).  On the final climb I spied Jakub something like 5-10 mins up and I relaxed.  He sped-up and re-gained a couple of minutes in the last 10k road run into Dolgellau, but I had increased the gap overall on the day.


Still here. Still in the race. Still in the lead.

 


  Photo credit: No Limits Photography


Day three is the longest of the race, but definitely easier than the previous two days. Cadair Idris, the Tarrens, Machynnleth Co-Op (not a peak but a significant milestone as the first en route shop beyond the Snowdon cafe), and Pumlumon Fawr.  


Although I had a good lead of towards an hour at this point, there was (and generally is at any point in the Dragon's Back) a long way to go. 


With some tactically timed trips to the info tent and loo, I let Jakub get a 5 minute or so headstart up the road and then began to chase.  I pushed the first climb using Jakub in my sights to pace myself so as not to go too hard. But when I topped Cadair Idris, exactly at the point of catching Jakub, in something like 1 hour 30 I knew we had gone off fast.  Jakub however wasn't hanging about and we ran off the top at a similar rate to short trail race pace.  I was hit with two immediate feelings. One, this is awesome - clear skies, awesome views, great trail, flowing running.  Two, this is terrifying - has Jakub been saving his matches?


We ran together for the rest of the morning chatting about races he's done back in Poland. I enjoyed some company. And Jakub enjoyed not having to concentrate on the route and just follow.  Impressively, Jakub had never been to Wales and was running everything for the first time following a little arrow on his wrist.


Heading up the first Tarren, I decided to start racing a little again and pushed a bit in another furnace of a climb.  Noting the heat I made sure to really measure the effort, but by the second Tarren I had a few minutes in hand.  The flowing long descent into Macchynleth (the most runnable part of the whole course - often at that perfect just slightly downhill gradient that is every runner’s dream) passed quickly and gave me the confidence to stop in the Coop for a now semi-famous multipack of Walkers ready salted.

 

The last section of the day, although in my opinion one of the easier in the race, was this year made one of the harder by unavoidable, shadeless, beating heat with no streams for cooling until about 1.5 hours in (minus one very brown puddle).  The terrain here rolls, limiting your view of the trail in front and behind.   As a result I had no idea if I was gaining on Tris, moving away from Jakub, or anything really. All I knew is that I was very hot, but still moving well enough. I nailed the line up Pumlumon (*go right early, embrace your inner OMM runner, bash some heather in quest of track*), passed the always beaming and encouraging Carmine (who carried an entire accordion around the Hatchling ‘short’ course!), topped out, and ran fluidly back to camp. 

 

Still here. Still in the race. Still in the lead.

 

Unpack bag and lay out sleeping gear. Protein bar. Stream to wash self and clothes. Debrief with Jakub.  Charging rack to charge watch. Clothes up to dry. Chips and soup portion 1. Chips and Soup Portion 2.  Foot deep clean with wipe. Dinner portion 1. Dinner portion 2.  Chips portion 3 (if allowed).  Check Dragon Mail. Plan next day with Jakub. Wash dishes. Bed before 9. This was the routine and pretty dialled in by now.

 


Photo credit: No Limits Photography


Marcus, my coach, in what is now a hilarious message to read back, urged me to treat day 4 as a "rest day".  Arguably the second easiest and I had a good gap. If a day were to be a rest day, then this would be it.  However, Jakub had proved himself an opponent of serious quality.  A gap of just over an hour was not enough with day 5 in a heatwave still on the cards.  And the concept of resting as you run more than 60k across Wales including several mountains, is a little hard to put into practice.   


I left a short gap for Jakub, ran c.90% of the first climb (which I had planned to walk) out of the camp and caught him on the first descent.  As we moved up to the set of awesome wind turbines that line the route into the Elan valley I allowed the pace to rise a little. I still felt comfortable.  I was perhaps going a little quick, but nothing stupid. And I was eating so much!  I'd planned 80-90g of carbs an hour in packing, but was now eating way more than 100g. I think I may have been up around 150-200g that morning (that's about c.8 normal SIS gels an hour or about 50 individual wine gums if you’re counting!).   


I moved through the tussocks consistently enjoying the journey of passing now familiar people on the trail.  However, when dropping towards Elan Village I ate myself out of my morning's food with 20/30 mins to the support point.  Jakub later told me that when he arrived in the support point, I had looked more tired than I had done at any other point in the race. I felt it too. There was no buzz anymore. I told my parents, who were leaning on the support point fence, “the race was hard”. They laughed.  I ate more.  

 

Feeling the real potential for a blow-up I was super careful on the next section to Drygarn, the last big top of the day.  Although within my comfort zone pace wise, I was outside my comfort zone feeling wise.  I was low today and no amount of SIS gel, gummy or cliff bar was shifting the fatigue.  I took no risks, kept eating and drinking and kept a comfortable, but not race winning pace.  


This felt like the right plan, until topping out I saw Jakub a couple of metres back saying he'd felt like a tortoise chasing another tortoise having seen me in the distance a few k back. That was a significant margin he had crawled back.  Had I gone too hard early on? Had he spent no time in the support point? Had he saved all his energy for now? Or had he gone too hard pushing the ascent and gapping me by what must have been about 5 mins or more on the climb? 


Pretending I wasn't thinking any of this, as fatigue and the difficulty of the race became increasingly apparent, we chatted as we ran along the top and began a long descent.  The descent was relatively straightforward, but included some more tussocks where I pulled away from Jakub. To his credit, I think there's less of this, at times, frustrating terrain in Poland. I thanked my choice of gear (see below).  


From here it was broadly two 10k ish road runs separated by a final short mountain pass to go.  With the exception of a surprise nose bleed on the final climb this all passed without hitch until about 6k to go.  Continuing to eat double my planned food I again ran out.   As I checked my watch I wasn't worried, but over the space of about a k I went geographically uphill and physically downhill until on a short hill I completely and utterly bonked.  If you've bonked yourself, you'll know the feeling, nothing left. Nothing.  Top 10 runner Owen, who I'd passed a few k back, came back past me and very kindly subbed me an extra gel.  This gave me enough of a boost that I could get running again.  I saw my parents with a couple of k to go, welled up for the second time and found previously hidden final energy for the last push to camp.  My mum later said I had  "looked emotional and done in today" as I passed them. 


In camp that night I was very nervous.  


Still there. Still in the race. Still in the lead. But, done-in. Tired. Permanently hungry. Eating myself out of food.  Day 5 - the 'sting in the dragon's tail' - to come.  


I read and re-read dragon mail and support messages from friends and family and got some extra food from the ‘donations’ box from pulled out runners. However, as much as I tried, I couldn't shake a feeling of significant apprehension for tomorrow.  The nerves and butterflies peaked at the daily 6am force feeding session which was breakfast the next day. This was a new feeling.

 

Day 5 is a monster on any day, let alone after 4 back to back ultras. 70k, 3-4k of ascent and descent.  All three acts of the 'Fan dance' from the Black Mountain in the West to the corries of the Pen-Y-Fan and its sister beacons in the East.  Again I set off as usual a few minutes or so after Jakub.  But this time things felt very serious.  This was the day when, as Shane had informed me in great depth and with great concern the previous evening with very limited if any celebration of the 4th day's running, many frontrunners’ wheels had come off in previous years.   


I caught Jakub on the first climb, just as well as I hadn’t reccied it and my watch had its only malfunction of the week just here.  We then ran together for the first couple of hours enjoying the cloud inversion in the valleys and chatting about how far we'd come. At one point he told me a story about an adventure race where he had swum with a bike for 6k in a river.  I kept eating.  And this time with no risk of running out.   Determined to avoid Day 4's run-out and conscious we would not be stopping in the Llandovery bakery, with today being Jakub's last real chance for a big move, I was carrying literally kilos of food more than I had ever carried in my pack for any event / leg ever.  The trade-off a heavier pack and a resulting pack rash, for extra calories, was I think a wise one.

 


As we neared Usk reservoir, things clicked and I pulled away again, not through a specific kick but just through a comfortable pace that was a few seconds a km quicker.   By the top of the Black Mountain which I climbed chatting with fifth placed man Iain Best, friend of a friend, eating and drinking, in a furnace (the third hottest climb of the race), I couldn’t see Jakub behind and I felt comfortable.  I took a reccied shortcut, managed to get myself even briefly 'cold' on the next climb with repetitive stream dunking and arrived in the support point feeling like I was flying.  Through the middle Fans I kept things very controlled and restrained, with a good lead in the race, conscious of the now serious unrelenting heat and very eager not to do anything silly. Indeed a little internal mantra at this point was “don’t do anything stupid” on repeat.   


Reaching the end of the leg, I ran with Robyn for a bit and we moaned, celebrated, and shared some memories from the week together.  The women’s field was particularly impressive.   Robyn herself podiumed the overall race with 4 women in the overall top 10.  This would have been 5, if not for an unfortunate drop-out for Victoria in the middle of day 5.  


Moving away from Robyn on the Pen Y Fan range, I moved relatively easily and enjoyed the views over the final big hills of the race.  Although the quads began to ache in a big way on the long final descent, I found the energy for what felt like full gas along the final few kms of river valley and road to camp 5. 


Still here. Still in the race. Still in the lead. Repeat camp routine.

 

I was happy, but very conscious that I still had another ultra to go and a blow-up, injury, and/or heat exhaustion on day 6 could/would mean disaster.  You can take nothing for granted when there’s a long way to go. And, as I said above, in the Dragon there’s always a long way to go.  


Jakub, Robyn, Alyssa and I pushed out at a pre-negotiated joint start time of 7:10.   We ran the first climbs together and as we began the first long descent of the 'slides' of day 6 (‘relatively steep climbs then long flowing descents’) I pulled away. I kept the pace consistent, kept eating (again way more than I had planned), and really tried to enjoy the views. Just before the first support point I saw Millie, my girlfriend, for the first time in a week and egged on by this and a high five with my Mum leaving the support point the next c.30k passed in a blur with a brief moment of lucidity when I saw some close friends on top of one of the final bumps. 

 

I neared Cardiff on the Taff trail and found the experience of passing hundreds of people out enjoying a fine day, completely unaware of what I was doing or why I had a big tracker strapped to a large running pack, bemusing and confusing.  Having no one to specifically race or chase I didn't push the pace, but just got it done. “Don’t do anything stupid” I whispered to myself multiple times.  Although you can't see the castle until the very last moment, I wasn't worried - a casual walk with some friends in the park months before had serendipitously doubled up as a cheeky last mile recce and avoided any last minute navigational hiccups.  As I hit the castle, legs that previously felt tired were suddenly full of running and I felt like I could run forever on the cobbled home straight. 

 

Cameras and photos.  A humbling round of applause that lasted forever.  Sweaty hugs. Welling up again.   Matt and his microphone asking me all kinds of questions I had no idea how to answer.  A huge smile and overwhelming pride.  I've had few more profound moments than crossing that line in Cardiff.

 




I will never forget the preparation, the week itself, or the people that made the experience what it was.  I will be forever grateful to Millie for dealing with the unsociable running/training schedule, support every step of the way and my growing addiction to spending weekends in the hills; my parents for following the whole race so I saw them for a mini boost every day; the other sharp end runners Victoria, Robyn, Jon, Tris and in particular Jakub for making the race a true and serious competition at a high level; Marcus for the coaching; Will K for down-to-earth wisdom, recce company, and buckets of encouragement; Simon Barnett for inspiring me to do the thing in the first place; The whole TRC crew for hilarious whatsapping and committed dot watching; the race crew and volunteers who with unending energy and good humour moved a small country of tents and gear from one obscure campsite to another; the medics who's taped a couple of my toes; and everyone who cheered on the race at any point on any day!


However, here's also to the real heroes of the race.  Those who started earlier every day and got in a bit later. Those who had less time to rest, recover, wash and eat - life's literal essentials - and still got up the next day (often hours before me) and gave it their all. Their resilience I found truly awesome and inspiring and I will take with me as long as any other memory from this race.

 

Photo credit: No Limits Photography

 

Over and out.

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