North Norfolk ultra runner on how he took on a Dragon... and came out the other side
North Norfolk ultra runner Carmine De Grandis recounts his experience of taking on the Berghaus Dragon's Back Race, arguably the toughest mountain race in the world
It all started in 2012.
I'd found out about a famous race that had been held only once in 1992. Little did I know that OUREA Events were going to bring it back.
I never dreamed that I would actually be able to take part.
Fast forward to 2017 and the third edition of the race was taking part. By now I had lots of friends in the ultra/mountain running world yet I still couldn't see myself taking part due to some injuries picked up by doing too many ultra races.
However, if you know me... I am not one for giving up on a dream!
I started discussing the remote possibility of entering the race with my family and a few close friends.
By 2018 my running form started to improve and the injuries had mended so I discussed entering this race as my "ultimate goal" with my coach Kim Collison. He believes in dreams too... so I entered and started training in the most mountainous region in England... Norfolk!
I had not realised that I had put all my eggs in one basket and this could be risky. I only had this race as my main focus for the next two years. What if things went wrong? What if my training was "just ok", but not enough to complete the race?
Five days, five ultras, 200 miles, 15000m ascent, technical terrain, remote wilderness, tough cut-offs and the real possibility of "Welsh weather".
On May 19 I travelled to Llandeilo in South Wales to be transported to the start of the race in Conwy (North Wales).
I checked in with more than 400 other people all of whom had to have a 60L main bag, a 22L/5kg resupply bag, a Hill back with lots of compulsory kit, food, clothes, running shoes, more running shoes, even more running shoes, creams, K-tape, gels and treats for the evening. Kit check done.
A rousing rendition from a Welsh choir of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' set it all up nicely.
The first day was a journey into the unknown. Thirty-two miles and about 4000m elevation were very demanding... but I was among friends and the weather was looking up!
I shared the morning with Andrea Bazzo, Alessio Volani and Simon Franklin. I loved it and Simon's previous experience in this race filled me with confidence. I then spent the afternoon in the best places ever -Tryfan, the Glyders, Crib Goch and the Snowdonia summit are my favourite mountains.
Conditions were perfect and I had gone through the cut-offs with time to spare. Maybe Kim Collison was right when he predicted I would take about 12/13 hours to complete each day.
I completed day one and arrived at camp. This was both amazing and overwhelming. I had to test my ability to look after myself - eat, prepare for the next day and sleep in such a way that I could be ready to start again by 6am the next morning.
I met my tent mates for the first time. A truly international tent: three Germans, one Italian, and four British people. Over the five days I learnt to appreciate my tent mates, their skills, experiences and advice lots.
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Day two took me over some very challenging terrain...most notably Rhinog Fawr - the third highest summit of Rhinogydd. I absolutely loved the gulley as a way down and I can't wait for the next opportunity to go down that steep and challenging section.
But the day turned out to be very tough. The legs and feet started to be achy, a true sign of ageing! I really started to worry and one of the organisers said that statistically most people who don't finish, pull out on day three - the longest day.
It started at Cader Idris, a place I promised myself I would go back to one day, but the ligaments in my right foot were starting to play up.
I arrived back at the camp in pain but the medical tent managed to patch me up with Kinesio tape - now I was a proper runner!
Day four was spent in Mid Wales traversing the Elan Valley wilderness and I had to dig really deep. My mind was playing tricks on me and the worry about the tendinitis was slowing me down. I cried a bit too as I had not realised that this journey would not only be physical, but also quite emotional.
I wasn't crossing Wales on my own though... I was with my "friend in heaven" Nyall Brown. He had come to Wales and had been very happy so I had decided to come on the journey with him in my mind and in my heart. I carried all the way one of his buff neck warmers which he loved. The reason for doing this was because of my belief that a true healer and help for people experiencing mental health issues are nature and being outdoors.
Disappointed and tired for having spent too long on the course I arrived at camp. I got my head back in the race when my German tent mate Gabriele said: "If you are in pain, it means you are alive!"
It changed my mindset and we even got the chance to go to the pub that night!
By the time day five arrived I felt a new sense of confidence. After reaching the first support point the group I was in knew that the Black Mountain was just around the corner - truly the sting in the tail of the dragon.
After some beautiful grassy running, there were rocks everywhere, making the terrain more technical and demanding. At this point I decided I was ready to finish and I was not going to save energy so I told myself to finish as quickly as possible.
I was almost there and with the help of my Norfolk Trail Running friend Matthew Harris I dressed up like Super Mario and played the accordion as I crossed the finish line to celebrate the end of this incredible journey.
Washed, shaved and dressed the I only had to wait for the celebration meal and presentations so that I could receive the most beautiful trophy... the DRAGON! The atmosphere at the celebration dinner was amazing and I just kept glowing with pride and a sense of achievement.
The Dragon's Back Race was more a spiritual experience than a running race for me. It was about the journey... which had been a physically, mentally and emotionally challenging one, feeling proud to be with so many people from so many different countries - this race is truly international.
The race was made even better by the fact I shared it with Stuart Mugridge also from Norfolk and Giles Thurston from Suffolk.
I must say a huge thank you to my family (without them I could not follow my passion), my coach Kim Collison, the Norfolk Trail Runners, my new club, The Northern Fells Running Club, the Ourea Events team, Castelberg Outdoors and Sportlink (Neil Featherby) for their support and advice.
I must also reserve some words of praise for my two physios Heather Morton in Aylsham and Stuart Wardle from Recover Physio in Norwich.