Somewhere in the dark depths of January, in the full grip of a Snowdonian winter I was hunkered down by the fire enjoying a glass of wine when my phone pinged. It was my good friend, who had just drunk a bottle of wine, suggesting that the two of us should do the Dragon Duathlon. In an utterly uncharacteristic move I went straight to the Dragon website and entered. £150 lighter, I then messaged him to tell him that I had my entry and received back from him a stream of shocked expletives.
The Dragon Duathlon involves cycling and running from Swansea to Beaumaris on Anglesey in a day, which is approximately 300km – or like cycling the length of a country the size of Wales. For extra masochism the three running stages involve climbing three of Wales’ largest mountains: Pen y Fan, Cadair Idris and Snowdon – and the cycling isn’t flat either.
What followed now appears to me like the recollection of a confusing dream. I went and bought some fell running shoes (lovely Walshes) and some weather proof winter cycling boots and off I went. There were 15 mile runs up mountains through knee deep bogs in freezing rain, bike rides that hollowed me out and left me asleep on the kitchen floor because I was too tired to walk upstairs. In a word – beasting. There was one immensely long ride where my 80kgs were bodily lifted off the road by the wind and dumped on the verge. Right up on top of the highest parts of mid-Wales there followed about ten miles of the most frightening cycling I have ever done.
Lots and lots of very hard effort gradually, gradually started to bring rewards. Hills didn’t seem quite as steep or as long as I remembered them being, I had an extra gear or two left at the top of steep climbs and I could run and ride a bit further without too much effort. I still had no idea whether I could keep moving for as long as I would need to to do the Dragon.
It’s about ten years since I last rode the 296km Tour of Flanders sportive – the only similarly long ride I have ever done regularly. I really had nothing to which to compare this undertaking. So, I devised a series of the most testing riding and running that sought to simulate the Dragon. I’d set off on my bike, meet my support vehicle (thank you Karen), run over a mountain, collect the bike the other side, ride to another mountain, meet my support, run over the mountain etc etc. Even then, my confidence only began to grow very slowly.
I’m not someone who would describe myself as an athlete and I am not generally confident in my ‘athletic’ abilities. I consider myself to be very lucky to have a good and robust physiology, despite the neglect I have heaped on it over the years. And yet, when I found myself standing on the Dragon start line at 5am on Saturday 1st July 2017, on the Swansea waterfront, I knew that I would do this thing. And so I did.
I wouldn’t say any of it was easy, and there were definitely times between the riding and running legs when I didn’t want to leave the car. After a wet ride to the foot of Snowdon I sat in a warm car and looked up at the cloud surrounding the summit. It was getting dark and cloud was getting lower. Leaving that warm car was probably the hardest part of the whole thing, but I did get out and I got over that mountain. It was grim and dark and lonely, but I got to Llanberis – then a quick 15 miles to Beaumaris. And then what? Well, I suppose there was a sense of relief – and then a massive sense of disappointment to find that all the pubs were closed.
On a slightly odd note, completing this event marks a return to my full enjoyment of road cycling and through that a return to fitness. It was eleven years ago this weekend (a week after finishing the Dragon) that the rider immediately in front of me on the Dunwich Dynamo was killed outright by a freak head on collision with a van. For many years I didn’t really want to cycle again, especially in SE England where there is so much aggression on the roads. It’s taken a long time, but I feel like I’m back and I’m enjoying it again.
When I mentioned to Karen that I thought I might do it the next time it runs in 2019 she told me I would have to find a different supporter – anyone?