A couple of years ago I read an article in Trail Running magazine entitled "The best DNF you'll ever get". It was about the Tor des Geants, and the author had got about half way before having to pull up, but felt that he'd had a great experience anyway. My Dragon's Back Race went something like that.
The Dragon's Back is a 5-day stage event run through the mountains of Wales from North to South. Each day has a start, a finish and number of checkpoints that have to be visited in the correct order. In a few places a mandatory line has to be taken, but for the vast majority of the way you are left to figure out your own best route, the rule being that above the fell wall you can go anywhere you wish but below it you have to stick to public rights of way - this year all competitors carried trackers so that transgressors could be spotted (and disqualified if warranted). Up to and including this year, the course has changed slightly each time the race has been run and your map is only issued a few minutes before you start each day, so although you can guess where most of the route might go, detailed route planning can only be done ''on the run''. There is a half way point each day to where you can send a drop bag, and there are cut-off times at this point and at the day's finish. Overnight stops are at a tented base which is usually in a fairly remote location, and moved along each day by the organisation.
What we officially knew about this year's course before the start was as follows:-
Day Area Miles Ft of Ascent Climb rate
1 Carneddau, Glyderau, Snowdon 30,8 12,539 407
2 Moelwyns and Rhinogs 33,7 11,624 345
3 Cadair Idris, Tarrens, Plynlimon 42,7 12,175 285
4 Elan Valley 40,0 7,455 186
5 Black Mountains 35,3 7,586 214
The distances and height gains shown are assuming you find the optimum course and most people will do more. I've put the climb rates in (in average feet of climb per mile) to give an idea of the steepness - for comparison, the Bob Graham Round has a climb rate of 409 and the Lakeland 100 a rate of 214. What you can't quantify is the nature of the ground underfoot, which varies over the whole range from easy jeep tracks to territory where hands are needed frequently and progression at one mile per hour is an achievement.
Preparation and Strategy
I had done a lot of miles and a lot of feet of ascent in the six months before the race. Most were walked or jogged because I was still fearful that running at any speed would bring back the calf injury that had plagued me for 18 months (any attempts to run uphill soon brought on some discomfort); but my strategy was to jog the downhills and walk almost everything else so I hoped this preparation would be good enough. I had reccied what I guessed would be the course for the first three days, reasoning that if I got that far, my navigation and decision making would be good enough to get me through the ''easier'' final two. I was determined to go slowly enough to eat plenty as I went along and finish each day feeeling good - well, good enough to have a good meal and an effective rest, so that I could begin the next day with confidence. ''Plan to finish, nothing more''. I assumed that I would be out on the course for around 15 hours a day.
The Race - Day 1
The race began on Monday morning the 22nd June at Conwy Castle, amid a welcome from the Mayor of Conwy and a male voice choir. We were given our Day 1 maps ten minutes before the start; true to his promise, Race Director Shane Ohly had made it easier than on the last running when all the Welsh 3000'ers were included, this time we would omit the outliers of Yr Elen, Y Garn and Elidir Fawr. But a little ''aperitif'' had been added in that the first checkpoint was now at the top of Conwy Mountain rather than straight up the track to the Sychnant Pass, and there was also a bit of a sting in the tail. At 7am around 130 hopeful competitors jogged along the top of the castle walls and out of the town.
The weather forecast for the day was rain at first giving way to fine weather later. As we made our way through the tracks and paths leading up to the top of Conwy Mountain it was typical Snowdonia - grey, windy, and spitting with rain but Checkpoint 1 soon arrived. All the checkpoints were the normal SI ''dibber boxes'', manned only at the halfway and end points each day, all the others were identified by a standard red and white orienteering kite, easy to spot from 50 or a hundred yards away - if you were looking in the right place. I jogged down to Sychnant then began the first steady pull up to Tal-y-Fan. By now, the field was starting to string out and take different lines across the hillside. The top of Tal-y-Fan was in mist, and by the time I reached the dibber there there was no evidence at all of anyone else on the hills. I passed a couple of competitors on the col before Drum which was just out of the mist, climbed up to the checkpoint on Drum, then dipped down for the climb to the first 3000ft hill, Foel Fras. From Drum to the final descent into the Ogwen Valley, visibility over the Carneddau was pretty poor, but I know the area so made good progress over the ground which even for me was runnable in the main. Checkpoints came and went - Foel Fras, the ''pile of stones'' top whose name I can never remember, Foel Grach. Other competitors appeared from the gloom from time to time, then disappeared back into it. I have every respect for runners seeing this featureless ground for the first time and navigating it in these conditions. I was quite pleased myself when the dibber on the top of Carnedd Llewellyn turned up as there are quite a few summit-like cairns in this vicinity.
There are more features from here to Carnedd Dafydd so navigation is easier if you're familiar with the terrritory, and a good choice of line can save you some time. A group of 3 or 4 runners spotted me walking on the grass a little to the side of a rocky ridge at one point and asked if I was confident of the way. Hope so, was my reply so they judged that good enough to tag along as far as Ogwen. I would run into Steve, Phil and Jonathan quite a bit over the next couple of days. We found Carnedd Dafydd easily enough then were quickly along to Pen yr Oleu Wen, the last top before Ogwen. I had taken the direct descent off here a few weeks previously so decided to take the extra half mile and save my knees by going down the gentler way to the South of the lake. When we reached the few hundred yards of road leading to the halfway checkpoint at the foot of Tryfan, the others ran off but I decided to stick with my ''no walking unless it's downhill'' strategy and let them go, with the result that by the time I reached the checkpoint they were just setting off again. I got to Ogwen about six and a half hours after leaving Conwy; 18 miles done but all the tough ground still to come.
The mist was at last clearing, leaving a fine day but with a persistent fairly strong cold breeze. The steep climb up Tryfan (2000ft in less than a mile) gave notice of the pleasures to come, and I stopped for a two minute breather and a Mars Bar at the summit checkpoint. It was further hard going to Glyder Fach, first down Tryfan's bouldery ''need your hands every few yards'' South Ridge then up the threadbare scree slope to the left of Bristly Ridge, with the final test of finding the best way up the massive piled boulders that form Glyder Fach's summit. Once off here it was easier though still bouldery terrain along the next mile to Glyder Fawr. There were traces of path at times from here down to Pen-y-Pass over 2000ft lower down, but many line choices possible and you were never quite sure you had the best one. Still two mountain groups down and one to go for the day, at least that was some progress.
From Pen-y-Pass the next item on the agenda was the complete Snowdon Horseshoe, a trip thought by many to be one of the best walks in Wales. Crib Goch looked big as it was now late afternoon, but the 2000ft climb went well enough in under the hour, and again I stopped for a quick breather and something to eat on the summit. I had my only moment of incompetence of the day here. I set off along the ridge and after a couple of hundred yards I suddenly realised I hadn't dibbed the checkpoint at the summit. Annoyed at my lack of concentration I retraced my steps back to the summit only to find there was no dibber box there. A couple of runners appearing from below referred me to the map - the checkpoint was not at the point that is normally thought to be the summit, at the end of the ridge, but at the true high point (a meter or so higher) about two hundred yards further on. I had already been within about twenty yards of it and had not spotted it because I didn't expect it there. Moral - read the map!
The maps we were issued with each day were superb Harvey 1:40,000 ones with all the checkpoints and other key onformation marked on. The only problem was that they were waterproofed with a fairly stiff plastic lamination which made the origami necessary to manage them a bit tricky, so for long periods when I thought I knew where I was going next I would stuff mine in my rucksack - not a good plan overall.
On the pinnacles I caught up with a couple more runners, one of whom was Mark who I had met a few weeks earlier out running in Borrowdale. He said he hadn't really been looking forward to the ridge. I told him that now the exposed knife edge was done, once over the pinnacles it would get much less unnerving. I pressed on up the long technical ridge to Carnedd Ugain, then the easy track to Snowdon Summit. There were actually two marshals on the summit in what was by now a very cold wind - it was 7pm and they thought they might still have a couple of hours still to go.
Down the steep start of the Watkin path and up the scrambly slopes to Lliwedd was tiring, but as I reached the top I was happy that it was the last major climb of the day. After Lliwedd, the next checkpoint was at Galt y Wennalt at the end of a long undulating ridge. I had never been there before but even near the end of a long day it was a fine place to be and the going was at last starting to get a bit more grassy. Another long leg back across the hillside to the penultimate checkpoint back on the Watkin path about a half a mile up from the valley, then it was just an easy jog down to Nant Gwynant and the overnight stop at the farm campsite. I dibbed the final checkpoint of the day 14 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Conwy. I was tired but in good shape, it had been a good day.
Accommodation was in tents holding 8 people each, with plenty of space for sorting gear and so on, the food was plentiful and excellent and medical attention was available if required. The overnight stops were superbly well organised.
The Race - Day 2
You are given a recommended start time for each day based on your previous day's time; the leader always starts last at around 9am, and as I had taken over 12 hours I was in the 6.00 - 6.30am slot. Actually, how quickly you get away depends on a number of factors such as how big a queue there is for breakfast then how big is the queue to start, because just before the start you are given your map for the day followed by a short briefing on any points to beware of on the course, a process that happens in groups of three or four people at a time. I was away at just about 6.30am.
The day started with (of course) a climb, this time up to Cnicht. A mile of road, followed by a short stretch of traceable path led into an open cwm where everyone that I could see seemed to be taking a different line. I had caught up with Mark as we walked slowly along the road at the start studying our maps, and we were to remain together for most of the day; I chose a slightly higher line than most around us and it seemed to take us with relatively dry feet through the cwm then up right to the South Ridge, where we joined a steep rocky path going directly to the summit. Poles were a big help up the grassy cwm, but were stowed in favour of the occasional handhold on the last bit. It was a cloudless morning and already hot, and it was going to get hotter.
One feature of Day 2 is that there is a lot of scope for taking different routes, some of them miles apart, with no single one the obvious best way. Mark had done the race in 2012 but had not completed every day, I was a newcomer but knew the area better, so we tended to go with whoever seemed to have the better scheme at the time. From Cnicht we could either go along the "walkers" path northwards to pick up the track to Moelwyn Mawr near Llyn yr Adar, or save a mile by dropping directly down some steep grass to the little dam at the head of the Croesor valley and taking on a bit of extra height gain to cut the corner. We chose the latter; it was quicker as faster moving runners who had passed us on the ascent of Cnicht re-passed us on the final slopes to Moelwyn Mawr, but whether it required extra effort I'm not sure. We pulled up the final steep grassy path onto Moelwyn Mawr and into a welcome bit of breeze. Moelwyn Bach came and went but had to be treated as an out-and-back because the checkpoint following the summit was back at the big dam just below the main Moelwyn col. From there it was straight down to the path alongside the Ffestiniog railway at Tanygrisiau.
After an easy mile or so along here the major decision of the day had to be made, whether to pick up the tortuous ground of the Rhinog ridge near its Northern end or to make a detour to the East of the Trawsfynydd lake and go down the road. The latter was maybe 3 miles longer, but because the ground on the northern Moelwyns is so bad and there are no continuous tracks, we still went for it. We weren't alone, a number of other runners came our way including Jez Bragg who loped past while we were on the road section. We had to go up a wet valley and over a col to rejoin the direct route just before the day's halfway support point at the head of Lake Cwm Bychan; we reached it at about 2.45pm, just over an hour before the cutoff time.
The next couple of hours or so over the Rhinogs is possibly the roughest section of the whole Dragon's Back course, so we ate well and set off. The first part up the Roman Steps went easily, then we turned off steeply upwards alongside a wall. The track was narrow and just about traceable but we lost it for a time at half height, then regained it, and worked up to the summit of Rhinog Fawr. On reflection, I made a bad judgement at this point. I had reccied a descent from here, down a scrambly gulley ending up to the West of the col between the two Rhinogs, then taken a spiral route back up Rhinog Fach; I had reasoned that this would give me the option of passing Rhinog Fach to the West if it was not on the route - it had been omitted on the last running of the race. But this year Rhinog Fach was back on the menu. I knew there was a more direct route down to the col and straight up the front of Rhinog Fach; I had never been that way but we chose it anyway. It started well enough but on the second level down from Rhinog Fawr we lost the track and ended up in a hard and frustrating battle with deep heather and boulders down to the col. The track directly back up the other side was easier, but very steep and slow going, so in the end the mile and a half from Rhinog Fawr to Rhinog Fach had taken us nearly two hours. I would for sure have been quicker and used less energy going the way I had reccied. On the plus side, we had now covered the last really technical ground on the whole trip, so it was a bit of a relief to set off down a more "normal" rocky ridge to the next col, and the steep but grassy climb to Y Llethr. Mark and I were with two or three other runners at this point, and I said I was going to take it easier for a while to recover some ''go'' after the Rhinogs and Y Llethr now we were on easier ground, so he pulled ahead with the others.
I met them again at the out and back to Diffwys, the last checkpoint on the ridge, and wished them well. From Diffwys, the route goes down into a forest and follows tracks through it all the way to the Mawddach estuary near Dolgellau. I had been here before and knew that there was a track leading to the right entry point into the forest that needed to be found, because it was the only one around and took you through some otherwise nasty territory, thigh-deep, heather covered boulders. The only problem was that the path didn't start from the ridge, you had to pick it up lower down. I went slowly and carefully at first, located the track and started to follow it down. A few hundred feet down I caught up with Mark and the others who were just reaching the path having missed the top of it. They were now keen to push on down quickly but I was happy to cruise, reasoning that the climbing for the day was now done and I still had more than enough time to get to the overnight stop just North of Dolgellau in daylight, and I might as well conserve energy for tomorrow.
Down through the forest I jogged the downhills and walked the rest. The track turned into a forest road, then to a narrow tarmac lane, and so on down to the valley floor.
And that should have been that. On my reccie, I had gone straight down to the main road, turned left, and jogged easily along to where the campsite would be in about twenty minutes. But from just above where we would have met the main road, a section of "mandatory course" led off to the left. I had glanced at it earlier and assumed that it would be a section of path parallel to the road, to avoid tired competitors running along the road late in the day. It looked a bit further, maybe 50% more than the road direct, but no problem.
The mandatory section was marked with flags. It went along and up, along and up, along and up, always in trees so you couldn't really see where you were in relation to the valley. It was reminiscent of marked events in the Alps where from time to time you ask yourself "well, where on earth are we going now". After several hundred feet of height gain we eventually started to wend downwards, out onto a road, through a bit of village, then onto a last section of lane that I recognised, over a river bridge and on into the campsite. The detour had taken nearly an hour. I had just about got away without having to pull out the torch, but two hundred yards before the finish a headlight caught me up. It was Steve, who had been fighting the cutoffs all day and was glad to be finishing. We jogged into the finishing tunnel together, welcomed by the cheers from runners and marshals which was always a feature of the day's end.
Sixteen and a quarter hours for me since the day's start at Nant Gwynant; quite a tough day at the office.
The Race - Day 3
Day 3 was always going to be the crux for me. It had the longest distance (42,7 miles) and at 12,175ft optimum, only around 350ft less height gain than the biggest of those too. At least three quarters of the height gain was concentrated into the first "half" of the day (actually around 27 miles) which put the rate of climb in this section up to nearly 350ft per mile, and to meet the half way cutoff this section would need to be covered at almost three miles an hour. On the plus side, the ground underfoot was getting much easier, mainly grassy paths and easy jeep tracks with just the occasional stoney section. We would just have to see.
To give myself the best chance I set out as early as I could, about ten past six. It was a sunny morning and looked like it might turn into another fine day. The route led first through some tracks then into and through Dolgellau. After the town a steep and narrow tarmac road enabled height to be gained rapidly before we turned onto the open hillside towards the first checkpoint on Gau Craig, about 2,200ft above the campsite. I thought I was walking steadily but it still took an hour and 50 minutes to reach the top, not really good enough. But from here we followed the Cadair Idris ridge Westward for about seven miles, a great section of the course. There were some climbs of course, including that up to Cadair summit at over 2,900ft, but at easy angles and on good ground. The only downside was that shortly after Gau Craig we went up into cloud and didn't escape it until on the final descent at the end of the ridge. I stayed on the ridge line after Cadair but noticed that the majority of runners took a path down to the south followed by a re-ascent to the col before the final peak Craig y Llyn. I met another runner here, Simon, to whom I said I must have made a bad route choice. He cheered me up by saying that he had reccied both and there wasn't much in it.
At the checkpoint on Craig y Llyn we caught up with a small group of runners sitting in the mist including Steve, Jonathan and Ivan; we had a quick discussion on the best descent then took off down. The largely trackless descent went pretty well, then we ended up in a mile or two of flat farmland, followed by a short climb to a checkpoint, then a descent in a mandatory direction to a main road crossing by the Tal-y-Llyn railway line. This mandatory line was a bit of a disappointment for me as I had scoped and reccied a much shorter line that also lost quite a bit less height before the next climb, but the rules are the rules as they say. As we followed the short section of road before turning up the next hill, Jez jogged past again.
It was clear from here that the support point cutoff was going to be tight. We had around three and a half hours to despatch the Tarrens; a three mile 2000ft climb with a very steep last 600ft, up to Tarrenhendre, three miles or so of undulating ridge then another hands-on-knees 600ft or so up to Tarren y Gesail, a long descent through a forest known for precipitating navigational glitches and a final road section into, through and out the other side of Machynlleth. We set off strongly up the jeep track. The track was fine, but on the last steep bit I had to travel out of my comfort zone for the first time during the event, it felt hard. I came back again and led our little team quite a lot of the way along the next ridge, but by the steep finale to Tarren y Gesail I was struggling again.
We had tacitly agreed by here that things were getting close, and that everyone would try their best to make the cutoff without waiting. The others left me going up the hill, but as it was an out-and-back they didn't seem to be too far ahead at the summit. I dibbed the checkpoint, relieved that there was no more uphill for quite a while and set off down. I concentrated on making the speed that I could rather than remaining comfortable. After a while in the forest I caught up Simon, Jonathan and Ivan, probably by better (or maybe luckier) navigation; Steve had apparently powered on ahead. We continued down together, running until tiredness forced us to walk a few steps. There were a few frustrating uphill sections but eventually we were out onto the road and over the river bridge towards Machynlleth. We had all talked of stopping in town to buy more food, but there wasn't time now we had to press on. Jonathan, Ivan and I eventually made it to the checkpoint seven or eight minutes before it closed. Simon turned up a couple of minutes later, having taken the risk of going into the Co-op on the way, then just before the cutoff a breathless Steve arrived, having taken a different route through the forest.
We had to be out of the checkpoint before closure, so it was a quick restock of food from the drop bag, top up with some clean water (most of your water on this event has to be taken from streams along the way), and off. The final stint of the day would be no problem if you were fresh. A climb up onto a ridge, then a long easy track for nearly ten miles along the Gwyndwr's Way and its continuation, undulating but gently to the foot of Plynlimon, a steep but not too lengthy climb then down the other side to the campsite. The trouble was, I needed to get going better again after the effort of making the last cutoff. I set off up the hill with the others but had no go left. I said I would take it easy for a few minutes then speed up so they left me to it. A half hour's steady plodding seemed to make no difference so I sat down for a rest and to eat and drink something, then carried on, not much faster. After a while I looked at my watch; an hour and a half from the last stop I had covered less than two miles. I had barely five left to cover another fourteen, including the climb near the end. It just wasn't going to happen, my race was run. I turned around, wandered slowly back to Machynlleth and got a cab to the finish.
The team I had been with made the cutoff at the end of the day with only 15 minutes to spare. I would have been nowhere near that so was happy with my decision as they say "not to trouble the scorer".
I haven't had many DNF's, and have usually been a bit annoyed with myself afterwards - things I should have done differently, mistakes made and so on. Not this time. I had a plan that fitted my fitness and carried it out pretty well. It's just that it wasn't enough to see me through to the end. This is not like a non-stop ultra where you can grit your teeth and push on, at least not until the last day. You need to be in a good enough state to get up the next day and do it all over again. I think there must always be some cumulative tiredness effect, but the quicker you can complete each day, the longer you have to recover. If you're out a long time each day, you have to take it easily, and if that speed isn't fast enough to get you round the course then the outcome is inevitable.
Having experienced the event now, I would say that for a comfortable trip you need to be capable of getting each day done in around 12-14 hours, which would leave a bit in hand for things not quite going to plan. Each of the first 3 days needs an effort equivalent to about half a Bob Graham Round, survive those and it gets easier - but not a lot!
A pleasing result is that up to the point I called it a day, my joints and muscles had held up remarkably well, I had had almost no discomfort from them since the start. Having stopped I wanted to keep it that way so I didn't take up the option of starting again on Day 4 as a "non-competitive" participant, which a number of eliminated runners had been doing ever since Day 1.
Would I go again? Well, I always said no, I would be too old next time around, but a couple of things have changed.
Firstly, the race is going to be held every two years from now on so the next one is not quite so far away. Could I get the required level of fitness? I don't know, but judging by my performance this year in runs that I have done regularly, such as the Hardmoors 55 and the Highland Fling, I know that I am about an hour off the pace over a twelve hour day compared with the years before I was injured, and that extra fitness might just have made the difference. As I said, I'm not going to dwell on what-ifs but it helps to put the thing into perspective for me.
Secondly, Shane said that he is now happy with the course and it won't be changed again unless modifications in the valleys are dictated by landowner changes or pressure. Next time the course will be known in advance, and this makes it an easier project to plan for.
So while I still think it extremely unlikely that I will be in better shape in two years time than I am now, I'll keep an open mind and not close the door completely. It's a fantastic, superbly well-organised event, following a compelling journey through beautiful territory. That's what we do this for, isn't it?