The Dragon's Back 2021 - so near and yet so far...

 It’s five hours into day five and I have arrived at the Usk Reservoir support point with just 15 minutes before the cut-off time. The welcoming team of volunteers hustle me towards a chair, give me my re-supply bag and refill my water bottles. They allow Jane to join me in the tent in the hope that she can motivate me to keep going. I have a big decision to make…

Back at Conwy Castle early on Day One 640 entrants had been whittled down to 367 starters. Clearly getting to the start line was itself an achievement with presumably Covid, international travel restrictions and injury all contributing to the large number who dropped out before the race.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Registration mugshot: ©Dragon’s Back The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Registration mugshot: ©Dragon’s Back
Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Waiting for the start: ©Jane Harle The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Waiting for the start: ©Jane Harle

We had stayed with Steve in Llandudno Junction the night before, just a short walk from the start. It was a grand setting with friends and family lining the castle walls as the countdown begun. Jane, Steve, Mad, Ibby, Charlie, Gavin and Sue were all there to wave me off. I was a little nervous but felt confident and ready to get going.

Judging by the pace that many were setting leaving Conwy, it was obvious that others had a different race strategy to me. Mine were written in stone:

  • ‘run’ at my own pace – don’t get drawn into anything faster by allowing competitive urges to take over.
  • fast walk most of the time – only run if ideal terrain and gradient, and NEVER uphill.
  • keep going – in a 12-hour period I would expect to stop for perhaps two 10-minute rests.
  • start each morning as early as possible (i.e. 0600) to give myself the maximum time (16 hours) to complete each day. The cut-off time each night was 2200.
Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Rising into the Carneddau: ©Gavin Roberts The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Rising into the Carneddau: ©Gavin Roberts

Rising into the Carneddau range of mountains we popped out of the mist into blue skies and a sea of cloud below – stunning scenery and soaring temperatures. No navigational issues in this weather, just a series of 3,000’ summits to negotiate before the Ogwen valley support point where Jane was waiting to cheer me in. Ahead was the continuously steep ascent to the summit of Tryfan. This was to be the undoing of many on the first day and I too almost became a casualty. Fortunately, I quickly learned my lesson because I nearly fainted halfway up. I sat down in a shaded spot, downed some water, and gave myself a stern talking to – SLOW DOWN! From then onwards I managed my pace very carefully and made it to the Pen y Pass water point in good time.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | On Glyder Fach with Tryfan in the background: photo ©James Kirby The Dragon’s Back 2021 | On Glyder Fach with Tryfan in the background: photo ©James Kirby

The highlight of the Snowdon Horseshoe was undoubtedly Crib Goch. On my two recces of this vertiginous knife-edged ridge the weather was wild and the rocks were slippery. On this occasion conditions were perfect but at this stage of the day weary jelly legs meant full concentration was needed. Beyond Snowdon and Lliwedd the steep grassy descent through bracken and hidden rocks resulted in several ungainly tumbles and a stream of self-directed oaths to take more care.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Enjoying the exposure on Crib Goch: photo ©James Kirby The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Enjoying the exposure on Crib Goch: photo ©James Kirby
Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Elevation profile Day 1 Elevation profile Day 1 including twelve 3000' summits

I was satisfied with a strong first day and the awaiting campsite was a welcome haven of caring volunteers and support crew. Food, drink, sorting gear, checking feet, and getting some sleep, were the priorities.

Every night the organizers provided a print-out of Dragon Mail messages sent by friends and family. They were overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging and I knew that many were watching my ‘dot’ online as my GPS unit tracked my progress. Not wanting to let people down is of course a ridiculous notion but is nevertheless a powerful motivator in the low moments of hurt and self-doubt. Interspersed in the narrative I have included just a few of those messages.

"Great first day, Kristof, still looking good. See you tomorrow."

"Good to see the Harle body bravely proceeding."

"You're going great guns. Rooting for you!’"

Day Two: the alarm went off at 0430 and I was away sharply at 0600. With another hot day forecast I ignored my advisory start time (0700 based on yesterday’s performance) so that I could at least ascend the first mountain, Cnicht, in the cool of the morning. The Moelwynion are bleak hills above the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog, but previous recces meant that I intimately knew the best race line to the summits of Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Fach. I had stupidly forgot to pack the sun cream and the uncovered parts of my legs were suffering. A fellow competitor came to my aid (thank you Fred Newton) and I was glad to repay the favour by leading him down the tricky descent through head high bracken and indistinct paths. Railway tracks and lanes led easily to Maentwrog and Trawsfynydd Reservoir, where in increasingly hot conditions a critical water point was available.

A boggy moorland trudge took me to Cwm Bychan, the day’s supply point, where we could re-provision and rest for a while before tackling the Rhinogs. Once again it was good to see Jane who had just been for a swim in the nearby lake.

We were down to 236 starters this morning and it proved to be another tough day particularly as the Rhinogs are renowned for their gnarly terrain. At every puddle, lake or stream I found Dragon’s Back racers wallowing in or drinking water, however dirty.

I plodded on steadily and was surprised and amazed to see friends Mad, Ibby and their dog Charlie. A brilliant tonic but goodness knows how long they had been waiting and I had little time to stop and chat. By the time I reached Penmaenpool toll bridge it was dark. Although only 4km along a flat cycle track to the campsite near Dolgellau it went on forever… I arrived at 2120 and was only just disciplined enough to go through the necessary eat, drink, sort equipment routine before going to bed.

"Woof!! Not bad going for a human!" Charlie

"Amazing effort, keep going. Am so proud." Mum

"Bonzer effort bruv - 248 racers have stopped trying to keep up with you."

 Day Three: Only 119 were now left. The graph below shows the high attrition rate from the original entries through to the 91 who started the final day.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Drop out rate The Dragon’s Back 2021 | High attrition rate

The chart below shows the speed that I maintained during the race. On the face of it not very impressive – less than 2½ m.p.h. on days One and Two. However, I challenge anyone to maintain this average even for a couple of hours when walking in the Snowdonia mountains.

Day Distance (km) Ascent (m) Time (hrs:mins.sec) average speed km/hr (m.p.h.) Daily Position (competitive runners only)
Mon 6th 49 3800 12:33.00 3.90 (2.44) 104th /367
Tue 7th 59 3400 15:19.06 3.85 (2.41) 105th /236
Wed 8th 70 3400 15:22.06 4.55 (2.85) 101st /119
Thu 9th 69 2300 14:26.55 4.77 (2.98) 100th /103
Fri 10th [26] [840] [5:08.22] 5.06 (3.16) Did Not Finish
Sat 11th - - - - -
TOTAL 273km 13,740m 62:49.29 4.35 (2.70)  
(170 miles) (45,000’)

As an example of mountain walking speed consider the following:

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Tryfan summit speed/distance The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Tryfan summit speed/distance

From Llyn Ogwen car park to Tryfan summit, about 1.2 km, it takes approximately 50-60 minutes to walk briskly up 586m to the top without stopping. At best 1.5km/hr. Try it…

Day Three begins with a relentless ascent of Cadair Idris (893m). It was on the descent that I first started getting a slight twinge in my right knee. This was an unknown injury so I naively assumed that the irritation would soon pass. The next section proved the value of my recces. The recommended route took an undulating ridge line ahead on rough footpaths, but I had discovered a grassy track that took a longer but much easier line. This saved time and was crucial later in the day when I was racing to beat a cut-off time.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | ‘Dibbing’ the Cadair Idris summit checkpoint: ©James Kirby The Dragon’s Back 2021 | ‘Dibbing’ the Cadair Idris summit checkpoint: ©James Kirby

The ascent of the innocuous looking Tarrenhendre became a tiresome slog up the final summit slopes but ahead the dreaded Tarren y Gesail waited. Some call it a pointless there and back but when tiredness has kicked in, it is certainly a test of commitment and willpower. Once again, the presence of Mad, Ibby and the energetic Charlie spurred me on.

I knew from my preparations that getting to the Machynlleth support point was the Day Three crux as the cut-off time was challengingly tight. I ignored my right knee which was beginning to continually ache and ran the downhill stretch through the forest to the main road and into town. No time for treats from the shops and straight to the support point to re-stock on water, energy bars and gels. I made the cut-off time by about 15 minutes and Jane was there to give me a much-needed boost. Emotions were close to the surface most of the day but seeing Jane took an effort not to blubber too much and get on with the job in hand.

Undulating trails towards the distant final mountain of the day were relatively straightforward. By maintaining a fast walk powered by trekking poles, rapid progress was made. Nearing Pumlumon Fawr (752m), the highest summit in mid-Wales, I had every intention of crossing a short tussocky section and river to access a decent track which leads quickly to the final slopes. However, I allowed myself to be seduced by the line of runners ahead who were following the recommended route. Big mistake. It was an awful indistinct path of unrelenting knee twisting tussocks that I could have done without. By the time I reached the summit it was getting dark, but I knew the descent well and down in the valley the huge well-lit camp beckoned.

"End of a gruelling day I guess. You are still there and halfway. Great effort. Come on! Keep going. You can do it!"

"Go bruv go - we're with you all the way, in mind if not body (thank goodness)"

"Hi Uncle Chris. Sending you my support from Sydney, what you’re doing is pretty hardcore and huge respect."

Day Four started with a sweaty ascent of a steep gravel track, a boggy path and a slippery descent through trees to a forest track. Back up the hill opposite was a large wind farm and a welcome section of track where I would have liked to run, but my knee was having none of it. At this point a passing runner referred to my obvious limp and offered to loan me a neoprene support bandage. It was gratefully accepted and served me well throughout the day (many thanks to Martin Threakall for your kindness).

Remote moorlands and long sections of road eventually took me to Elan village green and the day’s support point. My own personal support crew were again in attendance. Just in case you were wondering, outside assistance in any form (food, water, equipment, etc) is strictly forbidden but what value can you put on smiling faces, hugs, and good wishes, particularly as I was not feeling my best when I arrived.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Elan village support point The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Elan village support point and a rejuvenated competitor: photo Jane Harle

It was still a long way to the overnight campsite and for most of the way it was a head down, one foot in front of the other, approach. Keep in the moment, focus on ways to mitigate the pain in my knee, remain positive…The last few miles to camp were made much more tolerable by the company of a fellow runner who was having a similar knee issue. Thank you Thia Malan for helping me through a low moment and giving me the energy to complete the day with a spring in my step.

In camp it was clear that I needed some advice from the physiotherapist. Even at this late hour (10.30pm) the medical team were friendly and keen to help. Morag patiently checked out my knee, applied some kinesiology tape and ice, and basically told me that it was an overuse injury caused by the constant pounding on uneven and downhill terrain. Yes, I could carry on, but it would obviously not improve or be any less painful. (NB the use of anti-inflammatory ibuprofen is categorically prohibited by the organizers. Medical evidence has demonstrated that the use of ibuprofen during endurance events is dangerous to your health).

By the time I had crept into bed at 11.25pm I had given myself permission not to start in the morning. I could enjoy a leisurely breakfast, pack up, phone Jane … zzz

"You are smashing it! Stay strong today Chris"

"You’ve done brilliantly so far mate. I know you’re hurting and exhausted but keep it up if you can."

"Amazing work so far Chris. Keep grinding it out!"

Day Five: Next to me my tent companion Steve was getting ready. It was 0430 and I felt relaxed about not starting today. Then Steve asked, “What time are you starting today, Chris?”. Before I really knew what I was saying I suggested that I would be off as soon after 0600 as possible. As so it was that at 0617 I was back on the road.

It was 15km to Llandovery and then a never-ending lane leading towards the dramatic escarpment of Carmarthen Fan. It was on this lane that both Russell Bentley and Simon Roberts passed me. These leading competitors powered past me at an unbelievable rate, running with a metronomic machine-like gait, and that long-distance focussed gaze of people on a mission.

By the time I reached the support point at Usk Reservoir it was abundantly clear that my knee would not cope with the steep descents on the rollercoaster of the Brecon Beacons. It was also clear that I could not make the Storey Arms checkpoint without being timed-out. I would have had to go faster than when I did a recce of this section when I was injury-free and going well.

Outside staff blog | The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Come in 401 your time is up! The Dragon’s Back 2021 | Come in 401 your time is up!

It was a strangely unemotional decision. I had gone as far as I possibly could and was totally reconciled to the decision despite the encouragement of the support team to continue. Of course, I was disappointed not to be able to finish at Cardiff Castle but enough is enough.

Jane was already there to both congratulate and commiserate, before driving me to the overnight campsite near Talybont Reservoir to complete the process of leaving the race.

Compensation for not completing was an overnight stay at the Premier Inn in Cardiff and a visit to the Castle the following afternoon to watch the first runners come home. I was also able to catch up with Race Director Shane Ohly to thank him and his team for their monumental effort in the organization of this event.

And so, a year of my life comes to a full stop. No regrets, no what ifs, no excuses, just a privilege to take part, a full-on adventure from start to finish and memories for a lifetime. Will I attempt the Dragon’s Back again? No, this was a one-off commitment.

Will I find other challenges? Of course.

If you are tempted to have a go at the Dragon’s Back, you are welcome to get in touch with any training, equipment, and route enquiries.

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